Chapter Twenty-Seven: Saige
She tried her best not to show her fear when the girl sat beside her, but every muscle in her body locked into attack mode. The courtyard was full, but that was no comfort. The surrounding Namai would probably join in on the action. As she finished chewing her food, her eyes roamed the entire courtyard and watched for a single suspicious person. Only a few looked her way, but only with mild curiosity. There was no hostility in their eyes, for once.
“I come in peace. No one is going to try anything,” the girl said.
How she wanted to believe those words. But she knew better. She stood and grabbed her tray, preparing to leave.
“Hey, wait. I’m serious, no one is going to try anything. I just came to-”
“I’m not interested,” she said.
She walked as fast as possible through the courtyard, the girl following after her. She didn’t hear any other footsteps, but that didn’t mean they weren’t following behind.
“Will you please just wait a minute and give me a chance?”
A hand touched her shoulder, and she spun around. Her first instinct was to grab and twist, and the shriek that resulted satisfied her.
Arms went around her waist and jerked her into the air and away from the girl.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
She kicked in Carter’s grip, but he hefted her over his shoulder and carried her out of the courtyard.
“Put me down! They’re all after me, and I was protecting myself. I’m going back to my room-”
He dropped her on her feet in the hallway with a sigh.
“I should’ve known that sending someone you’re unfamiliar with wouldn’t end well. I just thought you would react a little better. That was stupid. Of course you’re on constant red alert.”
“You sent her?”
“I did. I thought it would be good for you to receive an invitation from someone other than myself for once. You must be lonely.”
“I’m used to it. It doesn’t bother me.”
His head only tilted, and she squared her jaw.
“It doesn’t. I’ve been doing well. I’m stronger and everything is going fine. I don’t need friends. I never have.”
“Everyone needs friends. Or,” he continued when she tried to argue, “to at the very least not feel like they’re going to be killed at any moment. Can’t you at least agree with me on that?”
It did sound nice. She’d never felt safe before. But that was her life and she had to live with it.
“No matter how many people you send to act like my friends, it won’t change anything. Everyone hates me, and I understand why. Eavan has been teaching me about why all this came about. I’m not like the others, but they don’t know that. You don’t know that.”
“I do know that, actually.”
She looked up and down the hallway, thinking back to the girl she’d nearly done serious damage to. She covered her face with her hands.
“Can I go back to my room now?”
“No. That girl was trying to invite you to something, but I guess I’ll have to do it.”
“I told her I’m not interested-”
“I don’t care. You’re coming.”
Her mouth thinned, and he sighed again.
“I really didn’t want it to go this way. You were supposed to be willing. I don’t want to force you.”
“You don’t even know what I’m inviting you to.”
“Will other people be there?”
“Then you know it’s not a good idea for me to go.”
“No, but what I do know is that the more everyone sees you around doing normal things and acting just like them, the more they’ll accept you. You’ve already made progress. You know you have. They used to leave when you’d come into the room, but now they barely notice you. You might even be able to make some friends if you keep this up.”
“I don’t know how many times I need to tell you that I don’t need any friends, but-”
“So what are you gonna do,” he yelled. “Just sit in your room until your training is over? It doesn’t matter how good you get, you still need backup. You need to know that when you’re sent on a mission, your platoon has your back. If you don’t get out there and try your best to associate with them as much as possible, I can promise you that they’d sooner let you die than save you on a mission. Is that what you want?”
“I’ll make sure I-”
“That your perfect? Your S.O is considered the best assassin ever trained here. Even he needed a partner. His partner saved his skin more times than I can count. Even the best of the best need help.”
She knew she was being unreasonable. She knew that Carter was absolutely right. But she wouldn’t admit it to him. He just stared at her.
“Every month everyone on base we all get together for a community... event. It draws us closer and keeps us on the same page. It’s a bonding night.”
“So, a party?”
“Not exactly the kind you might be thinking of.”
“Then what kind?”
“It’s a community bath. Wait, before you think the worst-”
“Is this a military base, or a brothel?”
He laughed, but the sound was uncomfortable.
“It isn’t sexual. It’s... look, go find Eavan and-”
“No, you tell me. What is it?”
He too looked around. “Not here. Come on.”
She followed him through the compound, to a small, bare room. It looked like hers, with absolutely nothing inside. She waited for Carter’s permission before sitting on the floor in front of the couch. He frowned at her, but shook his head and sat across from her.
“Is this your room?”
“How long have you lived here?”
“There’s nothing in here.”
“I don’t need much. Less to clean this way.”
His words reminded her of... herself. He sounded just like her.
“So, this orgy you were talking about?”
He actually winced at the word.
“On earth... did you have parental figures at any point?”
She didn’t expect the question, so her answer came immediately.
“Surely you bathed with them at one time.”
“Well...” He waved his hands around, “wasn’t that a calming time? A time for bonding?”
“Yes, but that stopped when I was very young. As soon as I had the ability to bathe myself, I did. And I never bathed with them again.”
“What did you do growing up? What is this crazy custom?”
“It’s-It’s cultural. No, it’s biological. Namai learn by example. Physical and visual examples we can see. We connect with the world first through sight, and the rest of our senses follow. I’ve bathed with family and friends since I was born. You have not. So it makes sense that you’d see something like this as odd.”
“That’s one word for it.”
“Because it’s second nature, when we look at each other we don’t see sexual beings. We just see each other. A body is an extension of a personality. Sexual feelings are assigned only when a romantic relationship has been established. And by the time that happens the two people aren’t bathing together anyway, because of other customs.”
She’d tried her hardest not to look appalled, but she must not have nailed it. He chuckled.
“If you don’t want to bathe, that’s fine. But at least make an appearance. People are beginning to think you feel contempt for them. It doesn’t matter what you truly feel. They will think what they wish unless you prove them wrong.”
“Then I’ll prove them wrong.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll...” She sighed. “I’ll go.”
The bath room was abuzz with when they entered, but everyone hushed when they caught sight of her. Carter nudged her ahead of him, further into the room. She looked around and saw many faces, very few familiar.
“Saige! Over here!”
She frowned and searched for the source of the voice. Carter turned her toward the voice, and she was shocked to find the source was the girl from the courtyard. The one she’d needlessly attacked. No, she wouldn’t be going over there. The girl would try to drown her or something.
“Go on,” Carter urged.
“No, I’m not going over there.”
“She saved you a spot.”
“Where are you going?”
Carter’s eyes softened. She hated his pity.
“There’s an area for the instructors, commanders and things. That’s where I’m going.”
“Saige... Come on. I’ll take you over, and wait until you get settled.”
He placed a hand in the small of her back, pushing her along. She planted her feet in resistance.
“I don’t want to be here anymore.”
There was a splash, and then the girl was running up to her. But she stopped a few feet away.
“Are you coming?”
“No, thank you.” She turned to leave, but paused. “And I’m sorry for earlier.”
“It’s fine, I understand. Come on, everyone wants to meet you.”
This caught her attention.
“Who is this everyone?”
The girl smiled and gestured behind her. “My friends. Please don’t be afraid. We’ll protect you.”
She didn’t know what to do. No one had every said anything like that to her, save Glen and Robert. She unfroze when Carter pushed her toward the girl.
“Go. I’m sorry,” he said to the girl. “She’s twitchy. Trust issues.”
“That’s to be expected... We’ll take care of her.”
The girl reached out, watching closely for a negative reaction. When she didn’t see one, she grasped Saige’s wrist and gently pulled her along after her.
All she wanted to do was run the opposite way. Every eye in the room was on her, the talking was at a minimum. Sweat beaded on her face in pure anxiety. But then they were at the edge of the enormous pool-like hot tub and the girl was waiting for her to remove her robe...
Time slowed and the silence was painful. But she just wanted it over with. So she opened the closure of her robe and slid the clothing off her shoulders. As a last minute decision, she didn’t move as fast as she could’ve into the water, but straightened her back and looked directly out at all of the soldiers looking her up and down.
Now they could see that she wasn’t hiding three more arms or legs, she didn’t have a tail or antennae... She was just like them. They murmured amongst themselves. She gave them a few moments, then followed the girl into the hot tub. The water was hot, and while the Namai were all sweating profusely, she felt right at home.
All too soon after she was submerged, the buzz resumed and people forgot about her. Those around her gave her wary glances every so often, but they mostly ignored her. Except for the moderate group that surrounded her and stared at her in fascination.
“Okay, we need to set her at ease a little bit, guys. Stop staring at her. Why don’t we actually try to introduce ourselves?”
Everyone chuckled. There were so many of them, their sound nearly drowned out the surrounding buzz.
“I’m Elle,” the girl who’d invited her over said. “And this is the rest of our unit. We’re the newbies here. We joined a couple of years ago. Most of us are the same age. Six hundred and eighty.”
Saige waited for more information, but they all waited with wide eyes and curious expressions for her own info. So it must’ve been her turn.
“My name is Saige Noa Glade and I’m two hundred and-no.” She sighed in frustration. “I don’t know how old I am in your years. I’m from earth, so I’ve been counting in earth years-”
The collective gasp from those around her shut her mouth instantly. Ella frowned at her.
Maybe she shouldn’t have mentioned that little tidbit. She remained silent.
“No, we just don’t understand. What do you mean?”
Carter hadn’t told her what to say and what not to say. Had she said something wrong?
“Yeah, I’m from earth. I lived most of my life there.”
One of the boys now spoke up.
“But you’re not human. We can’t live on earth. The gravity alone puts unnecessary pressure on our heart, and eventually we die.”
“Well I’m not like you. And I don’t know how it worked, but I was there as a toddler, so my body might have adjusted. But yes, I am truly from earth and of earth.”
There was silence all around. Then the questions came, all at once. Too many. But she raised a hand to hush them, and they listened to her unspoken request.
“One at a time. I can’t answer you all at once. I may have two tongues, but two ears can only hear one voice at a time.”
Their laughter warmed her.
Another girl raised her hand. “What was it like? Earth. Is it very different?”
“It’s not half as cold, even in the coldest portions. There are different temperatures between day and night, weeks and seasons.”
“What about humans? Are they as destructive as we hear?”
She nodded to herself.
“Yes and no. Many of them mean well. I would even go out of my way to say that most of them mean well. But no matter what they do, those who want to harm things seem to outnumber them. Always. Many times when they want to understand something they turn to destructive behaviors. To understand animals, they kill and dissect them. To understand people, they lock them up in mental institutions and torture them. I had to live in hiding because if they’d ever figured out what I was, there was no telling the lengths they’d go to, to learn about me. And then that would have eventually led them here, and so forth.”
The group murmured again, and then more asked questions. Saige found herself answering them for hours, almost the entire length of the gathering. When at last people began to filter out, she was surprised at the genuine requests they made before leaving.
“Come sit with us during lunch hour. You’re always by yourself.”
“We train in groups every day. You should join us.”
“And once a month we go out and have some fun. We’ll try to convince the Chief to let you come with us.”
Soon, the last of them had left, and she looked around the bathing area. Very few soldiers were left. She didn’t know any of them. Except for Glen, who had stared holes in her the entire time. She’d ignored him for the most part, but now with less than ten people in the pool, she couldn’t. For the first time that night, she locked eyes with him, glaring right back. His eyes narrowed, and she rolled her own. Leaning back, she let herself relax in the hot water. He wouldn’t ruin the giant stepping stone she’d overcome that day.
It was unclear how long she’d reclined on her own when his voice sounded from directly above her.
She kept her eyes shut.
“I’m fine here. Go without me.”
“It would be irresponsible of me to leave you here by yourself. It isn’t safe.”
“I can take care of myself. This planet is so cold. It feels good to be somewhere hot for once.”
There was a stretch of silence, then his hand clamped onto her throat and forced her under the water. She grabbed his wrist and clawed at it in a panic, her air expelled in shock. But he wasn’t letting go. She flailed and tried screaming, but water rushed in. She was drowning. His hand wasn’t loosening no matter how many times she scratched and tried to get him to release her. Her mind clouded over, and she began to go limp.
He pulled her out of the water by her throat, dumping her on the concrete-like edge of the pool. She tried to inhale, but instead a rush of water exploded from her lungs, along with all of her food from the day. He didn’t help her, and didn’t touch her again as she vomited.
“You can take care of yourself, huh? Just like that, you could’ve been killed had I left you here. If you can’t fight me off, you can’t fight anyone else off. And there are more than enough stupid and hateful enough to try. But do you still want me to leave you alone in here? I don’t care if you’re cold! Being a soldier isn’t about comfort, and if you can’t take the ice you should just quit now-”
“And that’s just what you want isn’t it?”
Her voice came out raspy and water-logged from the tears her vomiting had produced.
“Everything will be okay if I just quit and give up. Governments all around the galaxy will stop their witch-hunts and I’ll be set free to live a life as I wish, all by myself without a care in the world. If only I would stop being so stupid as to think I can train myself until I can fight off people like you. So I can stop being manipulated and scared and abused by people like you who see me as nothing more than a freak of nature and a monster.”
Her body, still high on adrenaline, made no protest when she leapt to her feet to stand her ground.
“If I can’t trust anyone in the entire galaxy, then yes, I will do my best to work up to the point where I could kill even you if you ever try something like that again. You’re just another enemy. I thought-”
No, she wouldn’t let him see her doubt. Her grief. She would not grieve their friendship in his presence.
“If you’re waiting for me to quit, you’ll be dead and gone without any satisfaction. I knew I would do this with or without you. If it has to be without you, than that’s for the best. As far as I’m concerned, I never knew you. I don’t know you. We’re total strangers. Good.”
She retrieved her robe and walked past him, refusing to put extra space between them as she passed. He grabbed her arm, and her heart nearly burst from her chest in fear and hope. Maybe he would apologize. Maybe she’d been wrong about him and he was under a lot of stress-
“Tomorrow morning I will be testing you under the watch of the Chief and some members of the counsel. I will not hold anything back. Fight like your life depends on it, or I will harm you. I might even kill you.”
Her hope deflated, to be replaced by a blind rage she wasn’t prepared for. She slipped her arm from his grip, gently, then spun and crashed her foot into his side. His surprised grunt was satisfaction enough. When he fell into the pool, her rage dulled. Just a bit.
“I’m looking forward to it. Commander.”