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“Miguel, please come downstairs. There are some people I’d like you to meet.” Miguel could tell from his mother’s voice that she certainly did not want him to meet the visitors. That was strange; Father’s diplomatic job often brought strangers to their house, but they were never unwelcome. He walked softly to the stairway landing, where he could peer around the corner and hear the soft voices in the receiving room. Mother was a born hostess and moved around the room with great ease, but he could detect an uncharacteristic stiffness in her voice. Then he was in the room, and Mother was introducing him to the guests, two men and a woman.
“Miguel, this is Captain Borovichov, Captain Graff, and Captain Lomi. They are visiting from the IF base in Merida.” The one called Borovichov stood and offered Mother his arm.
“But,” said Mother, “can I not even observe…” The Captain muttered something about a chat, and all over in a minute, and standard protocol.
The fat, pinkish one called Graff, who was obviously in charge, though they all bore the same rank, stood up. “Signor Miguel de Espartero Olperados, we are here to give you the official test of the International Fleet. Please, take a seat.”
The test was easy, so easy that Miguel wondered if the bulk of the test was psychological. Surely not all of it. From Graff’s expression, Miguel could tell that he was doing well. He wondered why Graff was there, as he seemed to be merely observing, and the entire test was no doubt recorded. The woman turned to Graff and shrugged, then spoke in Common. “Hyrum, is he what I think he is?” Graff leaned back in his chair, nodding slowly.
“Monique, we have to act quickly. Remember, the father does not approve.” Miguel wondered why they were speaking in Common, since they had conducted the test in Portuguese. Did they really think that he had no knowledge of the language? They must know that any son of the important diplomat Juan Jesus de Espartero Olperados would know Common.
“Sir,” said Miguel in his crisp, clear Common, “are you implying that you would remove me from my home without the consent of my parents?” Graff blinked, and then turned to Lomi with a sarcastic smirk on his face.
Suddenly Miguel sensed a movement behind him. He spun around, but too late. His spin only served to show Graff the feathered dart sticking from his neck. “Captain Borovichov,” said Graff in an astonished voice, “I gave you no order to tranquilize the brat. In the future, leave the important decisions to me.”
“The woman’s already out. Apparently someone warned her. I thought it best to put him under before he understood the implications and tried to get to her,” said Borovichov smugly.
“Right,” said Graff, “Then our business here is finished. One more visit to Brazil and back to Battle School it is, at least for me and Sleeping Beauty here.”
Miguel made the flight to Battle School in silence. Even when the kid next to him emptied his stomach in the null gravity, Miguel couldn’t have cared less. It was different once he was in the actual school, though. Even if it lessened his chance of getting home, Miguel partook of lessons as he would communion, reverently, and not like a sinner who knows he is trying to fool himself and others by his actions. He soon realized that the other kids in the school were just as smart as he, some smarter. At home, he could teach his tutors the lessons; here he had to work to keep up. So he kept up because he knew he had no choice. He was stuck in this Battle School world, for no letters came from the outside, and recent news, sometimes all news, was off limits.
Anderson slapped the latest earthside news onto Graff’s desk. Printing anything out was rare. You had to have a good reason. Graff glanced at the headline and muttered a string of unintelligible curses. “Who leaked?! I thought the parents were well paid, and as a bonus they know they’ll get him back in a few years!” The headlines read in bold, black print:
SON OF WELL-KNOWN DIPLOMAT KIDNAPPED BY IF!!!!
Boy Used as Pawn in Funding Negotiations!!!!
“Problem, Hyrum?” said Anderson, “You know they can’t touch us legally.”
“Yes, of course I know, but he might be sent home to quiet them down. I will not have this little… demonstration show that whenever someone wants to go home they can. We all want to go home!”
“He’ll be twelve in a month.”
“You can’t be suggesting we give him his leave! We have two dozen twelve-year-olds up here. We can’t lose them all!” protested Graff.
“Lose two dozen for a month, or you may lose your rank, Colonel.”
“I’ll think about it.”
No, thought Anderson as the door slid shut, you’ve already decided. You always look out for yourself.
“Mother, Father!” Now that he was earthside, now that he could touch them, he remembered why he had missed them those first few weeks. He felt safe again, and he knew that they would not let him go back; they would not be fooled again. It was one person against three and on earth Graff seemed less ominous, less in control of everything than he was in space.
“My son, you have returned to us, if only for a little while.” Miguel thought back. Had his father really been so short? And Mother, so flighty and nervous? All of a sudden, he felt a pang of longing. Could he really be missing Battle School, with its long, upward-sloping corridors and sparsely furnished rooms? But it would not last long. He was back. He was home. He was safe. For now.
My dearest sir,
I hope that you realize the foolhardiness of your plan. You cannot hope to get him back, at least, not completely. He has scored too highly on his tests to be passed over. Like the Greek god, Hades, I will drag him back to my domain eventually. So, considering your prestige, and mine, I might add, he will get a leave before Tactical, and then one before Command. This is overwhelmingly generous. Do not think that you have tied my hands - you have not. I have full legal backing. I will withdraw this offer and take him, by force if necessary, if he is not handed over on the approved date. Hades got his Persephone, and I shall get Miguel.
Director of Battle School Operations
Miguel, sitting in his comfortable chair with a book of poems, heard his father’s sharp intake of breath from across the room. His mother, who was reclining on the couch beside the computer console, a cool cloth on her forehead, sat up. “Juan, what is the matter?” she asked, craning her neck to see the screen.
Juan glanced over at his son, his only child. “Miguel?” Miguel obediently stood up and walked to the stairs.
“Dear, we’ll call you when we want you,” said his mother. Miguel knew that he was not to listen in on official business. He went upstairs. His mother finished reading the email. “What can they mean? They cannot take him by force. It’s a crime!”
“Ah, Helena, I’m afraid the document they made us sign was legal and binding. We cannot disobey without severe repercussions.”
“But, all this, for one boy?”
“Helena, could you make the sacrifice if he were the one boy wise enough to save humanity? For that is what is at stake. And we have no legal grounds for keeping him here.”
“We’re his parents!”
“The IF is his parent now.”
Miguel knew he would not miss them so much now. Now that he had seen them with new eyes - Battle School eyes - he could detect the cowardice that lurked in every movement. When they had brought him downstairs. Had him sit down, one on either side. Told him about the “plan,” the “deal,” the “bargain”. Cowards. He had stood and left the room. For the next five days he had spoken barely a word. His mother’s eyes were always red, and his father shrank behind his newspaper. Now, on the shuttle, he saw motives for letting him go that he had not considered. Had Graff made some terrible threat? Some awful promise of revenge? That must be it. Graff would pay for the tears of Miguel’s mother.
Graff called Miguel to his office as soon as the shuttle was hooked up. If Graff’s plan had worked, there were two possible people that Miguel could be blaming now. Miguel would blame Graff, of course, for foiling his little plan to remain on Earth. Or his father for letting him go so easily. Anyway, it was now Graff’s official job to make it perfectly clear whose fault it was. And here came the little man now, fire in his eyes. No doubt he blamed Graff. Well, down to business.
“Sir.” A blunt, curt phrase. No courtesy at all, thought Graff. Now what a shame.
Graff spun his chair to face the glowering boy. “Let’s have no pretences. I know that you hate me, Miguel. You have no reason to, because it is not my fault you are in a giant revolving wheel in space and not Mexico. It’s yours. We have had boys up here who were uprooted from their homes in just the way you were, and they immediately failed all of their tests. We sent them home when they didn’t improve. But not you. You aced your tests. You made friends. You thrived. You did better without your parents than you could ever have hoped to -”
“It’s a lie!” shouted Miguel. “You’re a liar!” He lunged for Graff.
“Dismissed,” said Graff. IF soldiers assisted Miguel out of the room.
Graff sat back in his chair and pressed a button on his desk. A door slid open and Anderson entered.
“That went well. And by the way, do you ever write Christmas letters to all the little boys who you’ve sent home for sulking?”
“Don’t mock me Anderson, you’ve supplied your share of half truths and little white lies. Not to mention the big black ones. You, who know nothing but the Battle Room, do not know how well it went. He’s right where we want him.”
“Really. Now he hates you, not to mention his parents and himself.”
“Correct. And you get the chance to channel that hate into nice, productive Battle Room talent. Give him an army.”
Anderson smirked, spun on his heel, spun back, saluted, and left the room.