“That makes sense.” He even sounded like he meant it.
“And I don’t feel things. Not the same way. I’m a One-seventy-eight. It’s true I don’t really have any emotions.”
“That’s a lie,” he said, amusement in his voice.
“No, it’s not.”
Callum leaned in closer, until I could smell the fresh scent of his skin. He smelled clean and alive and like a Twenty-two, and I wanted to wrap myself in something to hide my death stench. “Yes, it is. You beat the guts out of me the other day. That was anger. And that look in your eyes, when you talked about your human life, that’s sadness.” I could sense the heat of his breath against my face as he tilted his head closer to mine. A smile crossed his lips as I sucked in a tiny gasp of air in surprise. “You feel plenty.”
“One-seventy-eight! Twenty-two! Back to work!” I snapped my head up to see a guard glaring at us. I quickly stood, holding my hand out to Callum. He took it and hopped to his feet.
“Forgive me?” he asked as he put his fists in position. His eyes were big and round, like a puppy begging for a treat.
“Yes,” I said with a laugh.
“Do it again,” he said, bouncing up and down in happiness.
“Make you a deal. If you’re able to punch me, I’ll laugh.”
“You’re so weird.”
I released Callum for dinner after the gym started to empty that evening. I was just starting to follow him to the gym doors when I saw Ever walk in and march across to the knife-practice area. She picked up one of the dull blades and took several steps back, her body stilling as she prepared to throw.
She tossed the knife. It bounced off the wall and hit the floor.
Callum looked at me expectantly as he held the gym door open, and I waved him away.
“Go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute.” I strode over and stopped next to Ever.
She glanced up at me as she reached for the knife with shaky fingers. “Hey. You doing all right?”
“I came to ask you the same thing.”
She stepped back and threw the knife. It hit the wall a good six inches from the target. “Just fabulous.”
I watched as she took several more tries, missing every shot. Most of them didn’t even stick. She was pale and unsteady and whatever they had given her last night didn’t seem like it had lasted long.
“Gee, I wonder why I’m no good today.” Ever’s voice dripped with sarcasm as she bent down to pick up the knife after another unsuccessful throw. “Isn’t that strange?”
I crossed my arms over my chest as I tried my best to give her a sympathetic look. I wasn’t sure how it came out. I wanted to say something, anything, but I couldn’t think of words that wouldn’t sound suspicious to a HARC officer listening in.
“I would think”—she grunted as she threw the knife again—“that this is the exact opposite of what they want.” The knife lodged in the paper man’s belly. She cocked her head. “Huh. Well I guess that’ll slow him down.”
“One-seventy-eight!” I turned at the sound of the officer’s voice. “Officer Mayer would like to see you in his office.”
I nodded, keeping a straight face as my stomach twisted into knots. That didn’t sound good.
I shot an apologetic look at Ever before walking out of the gym and up the stairwell. The cold, white hallway on the ninth floor was freezing, and I pulled my sleeves down my arm as I stopped in front of Officer Mayer’s door.
The door slid open and the commanding officer peered up at me from his massive glass desk. His fat fingers flicked across the screen, and he jerked his head toward a chair. “Sit.”
I did, my back rigid. Did he know about my conversation with Ever? Or worse, did he know I’d lied about Leb and Milo?
“Interesting choice of newbie,” he said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands over his thighs.
I tried not to visibly sigh with relief.
“Care to explain?” he asked.
“I wanted to see if I could make a lower number better.”
He nodded, swinging back and forth in his chair. “Not going well?”
“We’ve just started.”
“He doesn’t take orders well. He talked back to the officers in the shuttle yesterday.”
“He ignores you.” Officer Mayer squished up his red face. “Or jokes around like you’re entertainment. I’ve seen you two in the gym.”
I focused my eyes on his desk, nervously rubbing my palms together. I’d never been chastised for my newbie training.
“The lower numbers are often . . . difficult, but he’s a whopper. I’m surprised you only pummeled him the once.” He leaned forward, banging the chair on the floor. “And I hear you were trouble in the shuttle yesterday, too.”
I cleared my throat. “I—”
“It’s fine.” He waved his hand. “I don’t agree with you disobeying orders, but I have told the officers not to make the girls remove their undershirts. We’re not animals, for Tex’s sake.”
I nodded. “Thank you,” I said softly. I even meant it, a little.
“I told them you were probably just frustrated with your newbie, which I understand. You should be frustrated. I’m frustrated.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and met his eyes. Frustrated was not a good word in Mayer language.
“We’re not eliminating him yet. I already had to eliminate Forty-three for trying to kill an officer. Thank you for that, by the way. Leb was very complimentary.”
I nodded again, twisting my fingers together. Not eliminating him yet.
“But he needs to shape up. You get him following orders or I’ll have no choice. You feel free to tell him I said so.”
My chest had tightened to the point where the edges of my vision were beginning to darken from lack of oxygen. They couldn’t eliminate him. I couldn’t let that happen. I had to make him better.
Officer Mayer focused his attention on his desk again, pressing his fingers to the glass. “That’s all. You can go.”
I stood up, ready to escape, but I paused when he said my number.
“I’m serious about the elimination. I don’t like to see you wasting your time. Immediate improvement or he’s out.”
I NEED YOU TO BE BETTER.