[15] Sage

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The physical therapy room is freezing. That's the very first thing I notice - I'm almost surprised that my breath doesn't leave my body in an icy cloud.

Beyond that, though, the space is quite nice. A pool lines the back wall, the water rippling ever so slightly due to the spaceship moving in microscopic ways that I can't quite perceive. Closer to the Albino and me are various weight-lifting machines, treadmills with strange, web-like contraptions suspended above them, as well as various yoga mats, exercise balls, and other workout equipment.

The woman strides to one of the treadmills, with me still hanging limply off of her arm. She helps me awkwardly slide into the tangle of straps and buckles above the machine, which I realize is a full-body harness. It's kind of like sitting on a swing with my feet touching the treadmill. My arms are free to dangle, and the straps somehow don't cut uncomfortably into anywhere on my body. It is as if the harness was built specifically for me. A small part of me wonders if it was.

The treadmill's front is blank except for a large green button in the middle. The Albino presses this before bending down and pulling open a panel in the floor, removing a pair of slipper-like shoes and fitting them onto my feet.

"How am I supposed to know how well I've done?" I ask, gesturing to the nearly blank control panel. There is no visible way for me to know my statistics.

"Who are you comparing yourself to?" the woman points out, pulling a floppy out of her back pocket and shaking the transportable computer to straighten it. I watch as she taps away at indecipherable shapes - her language, maybe?

"I don't know...maybe I can compare scores with myself as I get stronger?" I suggest in response to her question.

"No. There's no need. We'll be receiving your information. As you perform better, I will increase the speed."

"That doesn't sound too bad," I decide.

Ten minutes later is a different story.

I am completely limp in the harness at this point, desperately trying to get my legs to move. They dangle helplessly below me, the toes of my slippers buzzing against the moving track. I was able to go strong for about two minutes (with small breaks, of course) before I began to really tire. Then it was just a matter of willpower.

Which I apparently don't have much of.

For the last five minutes, I have been trying and failing to make my legs move. They are like jelly, unwilling to even twitch. At least the terrible, searing pain in them and my chest means they're still alive. Otherwise, I wouldn't be so sure.

When I was thirteen, thirty minutes of walking would have been easy. Hell, my dad helped me train for half-marathons - thirty minutes of running would have been a piece of cake. But not now. Not after having my legs bound together, useless, for nearly three consecutive years.

"Good," the Albino woman tells me approvingly, obviously gathering that our work here is done. The treadmill begins to slow to a complete stop. "The results show that you were attempting the activity, which means we can continue with the therapy."

"What would have happened if the results said I wasn't trying?" I inquire curiously.

"You would begin the Trials just as you are."

I suppress a shiver. Even though I don't know exactly what the Trials are - maybe because I don't know - they are still concerning me. Surely they will require quite a bit of physical movement. I would die within seconds without this physical therapy.

"How long will it take me to get to performance level?" I ask next, wondering how long the aliens will put off the Trials for me, how much time I will have to improve.

"You will be training for a week, and will also take one steroid pill," the woman says, shaking the floppy and putting the now-limp sheet back in her back dress pocket.

I immediately think of Jake. He would be furious at the mere idea of me relying on drugs for anything. "Please don't make me do that," I reply - politely, to keep the Voice from overreacting.

"Oh, don't worry. We've modified it. You foolish humans, you put addiction in the center of everything. Not here, however - you can't get addicted to this pill. In fact, it is rather revolting."

I frowned. "I would almost rather be addicted to it."

"If that were the case, you'd lose your only friend in years, and I'm fairly certain that you wouldn't want that," the woman responds casually, beginning to unclip me from the harness. "Then again, maybe you don't care." Her voice has changed and I feel as if the words are no longer directed at me. The Voice is highly amused for some reason. I attempt to muster up fury and find that I cannot. The Voice has turned off the emotion completely.

The Albino succeeds in unhitching me and lowers me to the floor, where I slither into a pathetic heap.

"What should I call you?" I ask her, pulling off the slippers and realizing that I prefer being able to feel the cool metal of the ship beneath my feet. "Does Miss Albino work?"

The woman smiles endearingly. "You couldn't pronounce my name. Your vocal cords don't work in the same way as ours. What was your mother's name?"

I try and fail to remember. The Voice...deleted most of the personal information about my friends and family to gain my submission faster, so I'm not surprised or concerned at this particular lapse in memory. "I don't know."

"I'm...what's the phrase? Messing with you, Sage. I know both of your parents' names as well as your brother's name. Your mother was Margaret. She was called Maggie by her friends and close family members, although you were not allowed to call her anything but Mom, and your father called her Marvelous Maggie because he was in awe of her courage and emotional fortitude. In a nutshell." The woman is reciting this information as if she has it memorized straight out of a holobook. She might have. I'm sure everyone in my group has files written on them.

"So you want me to think of you as my mother? As...Maggie?" I'm not sure how I feel about that. The Voice is seriously screwing with my emotions right now - there must be some turmoil behind that thick mental wall of mine.

"Not as your mother. As...a guardian. A helper."

"A friend?"

"That's pushing it." The woman smiles again, this time with slight tension. "Just call me Maggie. I prefer it to 'Miss Albino.'" She pulls me to my feet and carries me out of the room. I am too weak to support myself whatsoever.

*

The others are still in the cafeteria. They all have plates of food in front of them. Jake's is gone and he's gently scratching his forearm, an absent minded look on his face - a habit, I can tell. Deirdre is nibbling at her pizza like a mouse would a crumb. Nicole is dutifully ignoring her spaghetti (jokes about the red sauce instantly rise to mind), and Xavier is merely toying with his fries.

"Jake, go to your room," Maggie orders without any sort of preamble. Jake nods hesitantly and stands up, looking slightly ill all of a sudden. He leaves, carefully avoiding looking at any of us.

"We are still giving him the drugs necessary to his survival," Maggie says in response to our inquisitive stares. "We skipped last night's rounds so as to make the information extraction easier for us, and he's not taking the deprivation very well. Sage, go get some food. I have your pill." She pulls a large purple pill out of another mysterious pocket in her dress.

"I can't swallow that!" I exclaim in shock. "I've barely eaten like a normal human in three years." When everyone looks at me in confusion, I take a moment to explain, "Most of the time they didn't feel like risking getting that close to my teeth. I'm currently struggling with solid food as it is."

"This pill's a container. There's powder inside," Maggie assures me. "Go get your food, please."

I order macaroni and sit down next to Deirdre. The Albino breaks the pill open and pours the powder all over the previous appetizing meal. It settles in until there is no trace of the dust-like substance the noodles have a purplish sheen. I grimace.

"Eat up," Maggie commands before fairly gliding from the cafeteria, leaving me to explain everything to the others.

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