Chapter Twenty-Three: Saige
Hands folded in her lap, Saige listened to them enter the gymnasium. They stopped in front of her. The glistening of their shoes shined in her eyes, and she lowered her gaze to her thighs.
“Good morning,” the unknown man said. “My name is Carter Hale.”
She didn’t answer, didn’t look up.
“I’m going to ask you to look at me when we’re interacting. Whether I’m talking to you, or you’re talking to me, you need to look me in the eye.”
Her eyes remained pointed down. He reached town to touch her chin and tilt it up. Only after they’d locked gazes did he release her.
“That’s your only warning. The next time you deliberately disobey an order, you’ll be punished. Understood?”
She glanced at Glen. During their short exchange, he hadn’t moved from his position beside Carter. He was decked out in his uniform and looked impressive, to say the least. But he wouldn’t even look at her.
“As you know, Glen is your S.O on paper. But as Commander, he has more important duties to take care of. That being said, he will be responsible for training you as concerns the Namai half of your abilities, as well as for official tests and events. Obstacle courses, secular exams, and other things that will directly affect him if you score poorly.
“I will be his assistant, and your non-primary S.O. What this means is that you will report to me about most things. I will train you physically and mentally. We will have a teacher to handle your secular education. You will not initiate contact with Commander Mykel. He will find you for your sessions, and you will not be notified ahead of time.
“They had a lot of rules they wanted me to recite for you, but I have neither the time nor the desire to do so. They can be summed up as such: respect me, and I will respect you. I am not your friend and I am not your enemy. My goal is to train you well, and offer you some stability in this compound. You won’t get much from anyone else. If you ever need help, you can come to me, and I’ll do my best to assist. Do you have anything to add?”
This last question was aimed at Glen, who gave a brief shake of his head. Carter then looked back to her.
“Do you have any questions? You’re free to ask anything you wish, as long as it’s done respectfully.”
She opened and closed her mouth before shaking her head. He quirked an eyebrow.
“You don’t look sure. Go ahead and ask.”
Her heart was beating too loudly. Could they hear it, or was it her imagination playing tricks on her? She rubbed sweaty palms on her pants. It was difficult to look him in the eye. Glen was always in her peripheral, and far too often she ended up looking to him instead. But Carter didn’t seem upset, as long as her eyes came back to him.
“I made a mistake,” she said, “joining you. I thought I could make a difference, but how can I make a difference when I’m dead? There’s no way the people here will stand for me being a part of you. There’s no way the soldiers here will accept me as one of them. My own S.O doesn’t want anything to do with me. And can you blame him? I took over his body and got his best friend killed...”
As she spoke, Glen went stiff. He still didn’t look at her, but she could see the struggle in his face. He was disappointed in her. Not angry, not violent, but disappointed. Somehow knowing that hurt far more than his anger ever could.
“I can’t even help myself. How am I supposed to help others like me? I think... I think I need to resign and take whatever fate has in store for me.”
She wasn’t sure what she expected. She wasn’t speaking to gain pity, or reassurance. In her heart, her words felt right. She was telling the truth. She’d been attacked more times in her short lifetime than she cared to count. She’d survived all up to that point, but sooner or later her luck would run out. Now, surrounded by the enemy, her death seemed imminent. Joining her enemy would not make them like her, or respect her. Joining her enemy made her a more accessible target. That was all.
“Stand up,” Carter said.
She stood. The top of her head barely lined up with the bottom of his chest. He bent down to look at her face to face.
“I’m about to tell you something that no one wants me to tell you. They want you to feel isolated and desperate, but it’s my job to keep your mental health stable, and that won’t do it. There are soldiers here who hate you and would kill you without hesitation if given the opportunity. But there are also those who think you’re just what we need here. And somewhere in between the two there are those who pretend to hate you but secretly have your back and even admire. You won’t know those by sight, but by action. And one of them told me to my face to treat you well. And even though they didn’t say it, I know they meant they’d treat you well too. And there are more people like that here than you think.
“So how can you make a difference despite all of that? Earn the respect of all those doubting you and prove to your supporters—even your undercover ones—that their support is well-founded. Work hard, become more powerful than all of them, and demand their respect.”
He smiled at her, eyebrow raised.
“This is the only time I’m going to coddle you and tell you what you want to hear. This is going to be hard, and that won’t help you. But you need to understand now that I actually believe you could be an incredible asset to the world. I believe in you. Understood?”
He straightened, and his smile faded. “Good. You,” he said to Glen, “out. Go find something to do. And you,” he said to her, “are coming with me for breakfast, and then we’re getting started on your physical training.”
“Where are you going?”
Saige stopped walking toward the giant tree in the courtyard and turned to face Carter.
“I’m going to sit down.”
He stood next to one of the tables. The very packed tables full of soldiers who were all glaring holes in her.
“Come here and sit down,” he said.
She didn’t move toward him, but she maintained eye contact.
“Can I please go sit at the tree?”
“No. Come here and sit down,” he repeated, slowly.
So she went there and sat down. Her tray hit the table with a bang, and her arms went around her waist without her permission. Carter sat beside her and under the table he gripped her wrist, pulling it away from her body. At that moment, she wanted to disobey orders, punishment or no, and go to sit at her tree. Just to see what he’d do. But she resisted the idea.
“So we have to eat with it too?”
“I know right? How am I supposed to enjoy my breakfast?”
“Screw this. I’m out.”
She kept her head down as people left the table. It started with a couple, then a few more, and then half of them had gone back inside the compound. Carter nudged her arm and spoke so softly that she could barely hear him.
“Eat your breakfast.”
Though she’d lost her appetite, she forced down her food. It didn’t even leave a taste in her mouth. Her hand shook as she lifted each bite to her lips. Every single one of her senses was trained on the people around her. Every set of eyes appeared to be on her, every word sounded like it was criticizing her. The scent of aggravation and anger filled her nose. It wasn’t until she bit down on the metal of her fork that she realized she’d finished eating somewhere along the way.
“I’m finished,” she mumbled, staring down at her plate.
She could feel Carter’s eyes on her. He didn’t question her, but got up and gestured for her to follow him. She gladly did so.
Back in the main gymnasium, he let her twitch and fidget for a few moments before he held his arms out at his sides and turned in a slow circle.
“This is going to be your heaven and hell for the foreseeable future, unless you quit. You passed your first test. People will hate you here, leave you, treat you like a pariah. Hold your ground and eventually all will fall into place. Now take a few laps and look at all of the stuff we have. You won’t be using it today, but soon. Today I’ll give you a tour of the grounds and we’ll get you set up with everything you need.”
Everything she needed. No, it wouldn’t be that. It might be close, but she’d never have everything she needed. Just the things they thought she’d need.
She maintained eye contact with him like he expected her to.