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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter 31
Storm Clouds Gather

     Citan hung in darkness, the cool stately blackness of the throne room surrounding his self protectively.  Before him the throne loomed, the huddled form of the Emperor squatting passively at its center like an old patient spider.  Around them the orbiting mirrors swung and reeled giddily, darts of light tossed from one to the other across the heavy space of blackness between.  
     "Majesty."   His voice was a rasp, and he felt the exhaustion threaten to swamp him, the body he had left so far behind calling his projected spirit home to rest.  But he had to know, with events rocketing onwards at such a speed - he had to know.  
     "Your image is week - so we have no time to waste on pleasantries."   The emperor leaned forward, his emaciated skull of a face expressionless as a statue of marble.  "Tell me - has he awoken."  
     "Yes, twice - no three times I believe."   Citan's voice was quick and urgent; his floating disembodied self holding its arms out to the emperor in a gesture of supplication.  "Luckily the last time wasn't too serious."  
     "Indeed."   The word was flat and cool, spilling almost accidentally into the mirror haunted darkness from the pale aged lips.  
     "My lord Cain, I fail to understand why he has been moved here - I suspect the elders."  
     "Nay, your present situation is no doing of there's.  It is true they have a great fear of him - after all we already know how disruptive the purposeless ones are."  
     An aura of worry flashed across Citan's disembodied face, making the mental facsimile of his eyes narrow shrewdly.  "But I believe it is possible to discover his purpose - and if your majesty wills then I will - "
     "Wait."   Cain lifted a skeletal hand from the massive metal arm of his throne, folds of rough brown cloth sliding away from the pale emaciated claw.  "A judgement has been received."  
     Abruptly Citan grip began to slide, he felt his body in all its warm biological selfhood, hot running blood and pulsing muscles.  Frantically he tried to retain the contact, expending all the force of his failing will on the image of himself floating cold and naked before the throne like a soul in judgement before the almighty.  "Yes?" The word was almost a gasp, fuzzed and full of static like a badly tuned radio.  
     And as Citan's grip failed completely, and he felt the elastic tug of awareness, snapping him cruelly back into his physical self, Cain's reply followed him heavily down in a last swirl of black muddy light.  "To purge"

*  *  *  *  *  

     If Elly had been asked to some up the briefing room in one word "Utilitarian" would have suited admirably.  Like all the lower levels of the citadel Gebler had appropriated, the walls floor and ceiling were sheathed in flat featureless metal, the same dull grey as well worn paper.  
     You might have thought that the dozen or so soldiers seated around the pale pine conference table might have relived the sea of monochrome, but a dull military whiteness seemed to descend on the room like colourless dust.  The white Solarian uniforms were saturated with it, and the dun closed faces of the soldiers seemed nothing more than pallid mechanical masks.  
     Even her own unit seemed swamped by colourlessness, Elly thought, for though Renk's skin and beard were still a hearty red, and Helmholz's purple hair still glowed exuberantly, the shear faceless authority of the room snuffed out all scraps of brightness like candles in a wind.  
     "My orders are to brief you on the details of your next offensive mission."   The voice matched the room completely, curt and impersonal, and the man who stood at the table's head seemed so mechanical as to be undistinguishable from the other soldiers - save that his white jacket bore the red shoulder stars and blue strips that delineated him as an officer, and across his chest the heavy gold and red sash of a major swung gaudy, warning and obvious.  "The number one gate generator is situated approximately 200 kelts southwest of Nortune and 4000 sharls underground.  The interference wave patterns make the use of guided weapons impractical, so a manned strike will be carried out by the Hecht."  
     Elly's thoughts blurred and swam like a shoal of frightened fish, directionless and confused.   The Hecht! Briefly she visualized the massive gunship, powerful enough to destroy whole cities.  What was going on here?
     The Officer failed to see the change in the Lieutenant's cool violet gaze, but this wasn't unusual as like most Solarians in authority he never looked directly at his inferiors, as if impurities could be transmitted eye to eye like malign viral lasers.  "You will escort the vessel to the target, and upon penetrating the enemy defensive zone will quit stealth mode and initiate convoy escort formation.  You will create a defensive perimeter around the Hecht.  After the mission is complete you will escort the Hecht back across the boarder and rejoin the fourth battalion at desert-base camp 13 approximately 50 miles West of Nisan, there you will report to Captain Lowe, who will inform you of your future deployment."   Dark eyes scanned briefly across the troops, with the air of a flight engineer giving his machine one last unnecessary pre-flight check.  "Any questions?" The officer turned derisively towards the door, making it tacitly clear that questions were an unnecessary luxury.  
     Elly scrambled quickly to her feet, her violet eyes fixed enquiringly on the retreating Major's back.  "Sir?"
     The officer half turned, a brief expression of annoyance flitting across his impassive face.  "Yes Lieutenant?"
     Elly took a deep breath, her delicate face set.  "I understand the escort orders and the rendezvous, but what is our main mission objective?"
     "That information is classified."   The officer turned away again, obviously thinking his answer was explanation enough.  
     Elly set her jaw.  "Sir?" While keeping both voice and face impassive, she allowed a slight edge of contempt to suffuse the respectful flow of Solarian words, - not enough to be insulting but enough.  "If we do not know the mission objective, we cannot provide adequate support.  If landing a strike force is necessary we could give ground cover or - "
     "Lieutenant."   The Major turned to face her now, his tone more than slightly insulting.  
     Elly locked her cool violet gaze on his uncertain grey eyes, tension seemed to ripple between them like sparks flung up by clashing sword blades.  
     "As I have said, the target is classified - information will be relayed to the Hecht's pilots before you reach the target area.  But your only concern Lieutenant - " He invested her inferior rank with a nasty little bite.  "- is to protect the Hecht from the enemy's anti aircraft defences - do you have any problems with this Lieutenant?"
     Elly tightened slim fingers on her wide belt, fists unconsciously forming beside the leather loops that usually held her rods.  "No Sir."   She said sighing and sitting down, her body relaxing in defeat.  
     "Good.  You will depart at 1700 hours four days from now, until then you will remain in your units.  I will remind all of you that this mission is a purge, therefore civilian or military casualties are not a cause for concern - we do have natural authority over the Lambs anyway - dismissed."   The Major turned and swept from the room, his heavy boots smacking with precise and controlled impatience on the cold metal floor.  
     Elly stared morosely down at the smooth wooden surface of the table, her thoughts still with the major.  "Natural authority over the Lambs."   What did that mean? At the sound of the soldier's leaving she stood and walked mechanically to the door trouble veiling her eyes like clouds at evening.  
     "Oh man!" Stratski predictably was complaining - his voice a high irritating whine, drilled around the straight metal corridor like the buzz of a fly.  "What does that guy mean - Mission objective classified, how the hell are we supposed to blast our way into enemy territory if we don't even know what we're going in for?"
     "Be quiet Stratski - I'm trying to think."   Elly's tone cut through the soldier's wining with painful abruptness, the words coming out with more force than she had intended.  But why? There could only be two reasons to use a ship the size of the Hecht possibly to land a large force and establish a fortified stronghold, but why? 200 Kelts southwest of Nortune --- she calculated quickly, no! That was too far to distant from the boarder for the creation of any kind of foothold in Kislev territory.  
     "Why you snapping at me?" Stratski's tone was injured, his angular blue eyes wide and innocent in his plane young face.  
     Elly wasn't listening, she walked automatically, her thoughts wrapped abut her like an invisible cloak.  If not to establish a foothold, then the Hecht must be carrying out some kind of raid --- but what kind of raid would need that much?
     "I hate hysterical women."   A voice muttered from behind her.  
     Elly whirled, her eyes blazing furiously, her pale face loosing all it's delicacy and becoming hard and hunting beneath her lustrous foxy hair.  "Would you like to take the consequences for that remark, Private?"
     Vance looked both confused and worried, his watery blue eyes wide and fearful, hand playing nervously with his white uniform trousers.  Elly turned away from him and pushed open the heavy double doors at the end of the corridor, following Stratski and the others through.  
     "What's bugging you?" Renk fell silently into step beside her, his great bushy red beard thrust out in front of his round leonine face as he altered his pace to Elly's slower thoughtful walk.  
     "I don't know."  
     Renk reached one thick red-skinned hand out to push open a door to one side of the corridor and Elly nodded her thanks, her eyes still clouded with trouble like shadowed waters.  
     The room beyond was small, and while still backgrounded with grey had a far friendlier atmosphere than the briefing room.  The walls were lined with small wooden benches, nuts sticking up from their polished surfaces like fat cylindrical beetles.  At intervals on the wall heavy metal lockers protruded like strange fungal growths, the names and ranks of their owner's stensaled neatly beside the locks.  
     "Sorry I'm so edgy."  
     Stratski turned to stare at her quizzically.  "Never mind.  Want some coffee? It's proper Aveh freshly ground, not that instant rubbish from the factory back home."  
     "Please."   Elly sat down on one bench, fingers straightening her shock of autumnal hair.  Stratski moved to the end of the room where a brimming glass cafeteria pumped the harsh warm sent of roasting beans into the air.  "We 'ain't got any milk but would you like some sugar?"
     Elly nodded, still deep in thought.  "The Hecht carries Kief class bombs doesn't it?"
     "Yeah."   Growled Renk, his raw reddish face frowning as his gruff voice mutilated the liquid sound of Solarian.  "My cousin works in maintenance, he says that the Hecht has eight self-detonating Kief class bombs onboard."  
     "Thanks."   Elly stood and accepted the chipped mug Stratski held out, sitting down again to inhale the rich pungent scent of the scolding dark liquid.  "Why so much firepower? Surely one S.D.  bomb would be enough - eight just seems like overkill."  
     Helmholz shrugged, sipping quickly at his own mug, his large glasses making his eyes into hard bright circles of reflected light in his thin pale face.  "The man said purge - that must mean the Lambs?"
     Elly's unease rose like a cool salt wave in her mind, she sipped at the coffee, as if the hot sweet taste could somehow quiet her thoughts.  She imagined the bombs exploding, the flames washing, primal and hungry through Kislevian streets, the cries of children filling the night air with a discordant hateful music.  A sudden pang - swift and clear struck her with overwhelming force - like a dissonant cord on a stringed instrument.  Her eyes blazed with a calm compassionate fire, her slim body in its white emblazoned jacket and heavy brown trousers suddenly stiffened as if shot through with electricity.  "I can't accept that as a reason Helmholz.  The Lambs are human, as human as we are - " Elly paused and took a deep breath, feeling an empty cavity open in her stomach - as if she were about to jump from a high cliff.  "I can't obey just because it's an order - not without a reason."   Elly leaned back, feeling tension ebb away from her, there! She'd taken the plunge! It was said, and whatever happened now, she knew her own mind.  
     "Hm."   Renk growled softly from where he was leaning against one wall, hands thrust deep into his pockets.
     "What?" Elly asked quickly.  
     "Mm.  Nothing."   The big man seemed to shake himself, the powerful shoulders shrugging, the eyes beneath their bushy lashes rising to rest on Elly's face.  "Well - I'd understand if some of us started to have second thoughts - have myself on occasion.  But after all we're only one step up from Lambs ourselves."  
     Stratski nodded, slurping noisily from his own coffee mug.  "Yeah.  We might be Solarian but we're still just Worker Bees."  
     Renk took up the argument again, his big head thrusting forward, like gun training on a target.  "Like Stratski said, we're third class citizens, but you, you're a pure first class through and through - from a leading family what's more."  
     "And your dad's got a lot of clout with the military."   Helmholz put in from his precarious seat on the edge of the trestle table, leaning so far forward his slender body was in danger of sliding off onto the hard metal floor.  
     "What has all that got to do with Lambs?" Elly asked levelly, sipping her coffee and noting abstractedly that it was in fact rather good.  
     "It's just strange for a first class citizen to think like that."   Renk spread his wide hands in a gesture of disbelief.  "You've got everything to gain from the system afterall."  
     Elly shook her head decisively sending chestnut hair rippling.  "No.  It's natural to think that way."  
     "What will you do?" Helmholz sprang off the table, holding his empty mug triumphantly.  With his light blue hair gleaming he looked like some strange alien in an odd pose of triumph.  
     "Look Lieutenant - " Stratski's tone was quick and desperate, he leaned forward, hands on his white uniform covered knees, angular blue eyes shimmering with almost fanatic intensity.  "If anything goes wrong we'll be demoted back down to Worker Bees and - "
     "Don't worry, I'll do my duty."   Elly cut in, standing now, her voice calming the soldiers excitement like a soothing ointment.  "I'll escort the Hecht as we've been ordered but if I have to do anything else - " Her voice trailed off and her pale face became troubled.  
     "But what if something goes wrong? Lieutenant! You're just backing yourself into a corner - what're you going to do?" Helmholz reached up to straighten his glasses.
     "I'll obey orders."   Elly said positively.  
     Renk reached up with a finger and thumb to pull at one side of his moustache.  "Well that's fine for us then.  As long as we keep doing what we're told - " The squad nodded, gratefully, but inside Elly still felt a hard little gem of unease.  

*  *  *  *  *  

     The sun was setting, a soft flood of slanting red light shafted over the Castle wall and filled the courtyard with a maze of blood and shadow.  Stray light glanced off Ramsus' body in hard reflections, changing it from a statue of bronze to a sculpture of ruby.  The commander was exercising, dressed only in a pair of black shorts, his feet pointed skywards, his hands splayed on the sun warmed flags, he slowly straightened and bent his arms, muscles rippling beneath his smooth even tan, coils of bronze hair sweeping the ground every time he bent.  
     "Your excellency, Ramsus."   For all its use of title, the greasy pampered voice sounded outraged, like a spoiled child Ramsus thought sourly as he watched a well-polished pair of soft shoes - the only thing he could see of his visitor - waddle across the courtyard towards him.  
     Sighing with annoyance, Ramsus pushed down hard with both hands, flipping forwards to land on his bare feet facing Aveh's dictator, metallic hair falling untidily down around his naked shoulders.  "What do you want?!" Ramsus growled acidly, his well muscled chest pumping in and out as his breathing and heart rate returned to normal after the exercises.  
     "I demand to know what all these preparations are for, these mobilizing gears and that huge ship.  I have authorized none! Of this!!" Shakhan's rotund face swelled with fury, the light of the setting sun obscuring the fact that it was flushed pink.  "You know that any military decisions must be laid before me during meetings of the war cabinet."  
     "Shut up!" Ramsus scowled furiously, the general hatred that lurked in the hawk-like eyes blazing sullenly like smouldering coals.  
     Shakhan took a step backwards, fairly spluttering with rage, blubbery hands trembling beside the protuberant paunch.  "How! Dare! You!! Address! Me - "
     "Don't dare me fat man - I might just take you up on it."   Ramsus scanned the prime minister nastily, noting the food spotted and crumpled yellow silk shirt the man was wearing - the expensive material clinging unpleasantly to the flabby chest.  
     "I am the ruler! Of Aveh!!"
     "No you're not.  Gebler is, and since I command Gebler - " An amused expression cracked across Ramsus' face.  "Maybe I am a prince after all."  
     Shakhan fell silent, small piggy eyes rolling in pointless rage.  
     "Go away and play at ruler Shakhan - that's all we need you to do - and you're so good at it - leave the reel ruling to us."   Ramsus grinned unpleasantly, but his tawny eyes never altered, they were flat and hateful as the eyes of an idle.  
     Shakhan's hairless pate bobbed futilely, as he mouthed wordlessly, twisting a thick golden ring between his sausage-like fingers.  Then with out another word, he turned and scurried rapidly away.  Ramsus resisted the urge to plant a kick in that broad behind and send the dictator sprawling.  
     "Hardly subtle Kahr, and possibly unwise, we might need him later."   A cold voice spoke behind him, the Solarian precise as crystal.  Ramsus spun, eyes raking the courtyard walls.  Miang was sitting demurely on a bench half hidden in shadow.  Instead of her familiar blue uniform she war a midnight coloured velvet gown in the style of Aveh high society, the hem sweeping the ground but both shoulders left uncovered.  The setting sun turned the sequins on the bodice to gems of fire in a dark sky.  
     Ramsus strode smoothly over to her, his movements catlike, muscles rippling beneath his golden skin.  "What's with the dress?"
     "A whim nothing more - " Miang gently smoothed the skirt with long ivory fingers.  "I am - to some extent, human after all."  
     Ramsus snorted and lowered himself to a seat beside her, folding his arms across his flat stomach.  "You're becoming contaminated Miang."  
     "No."   It was simply a statement, correct and precise.  
     "No?" Ramsus laughed, a soft bitter laugh, running his eyes slowly over her straight body and bare white arms.  "Anyway what would we need him for? We have already taken over most government positions in Aveh - and the military is totally under our control."  
     Miang shifted restlessly, crossing her legs beneath the covering of deep blue velvet.  "To give the people an illusion to believe in - these Lambs are so emotional."  
     "You fear rebellion?" Ramsus' tone was scornful.  "All that ended when the Fatima boy's ship sank."   Ramsus gave another snorting laugh.  "He did us a favour there."  
     "You can not be sure the threat of the Fatima prince is ended, sinking in sand is somewhat less final than in water."   Miang fixed him with one of her glacial stares.  "The prince also had a well organized underground all over Aveh - with outposts hidden in the deep desert."  
     "We're making progress there."   Ramsus leaned his broad shoulders back against the castle wall.  "You know that several of the boy's gears were captured about half an hour after his ship sank - just walked into our hands."   Ramsus smiled, clenching one hand into an unforgiving fist of bone and muscle.  "I've been overseeing the pirate's interrogation personally."  
     "As I told you before, I do not hope for successful results via Shakhan's unscientific methods - we don't have the facilities."  
     "You were wrong.  A combination of unscientific methods and truth drugs was most affective.  Their leader, Maitreya proved a veritable mine of information.  That boy - " Ramsus' face darkened, mirroring his fist in its unreasoning clench.  "The one with the long dark hair who was with the prince in the tower - he was commanding the force that defeated that fool Vanderkaum.  When the Prince's distress message came in they rushed off to reinforce him while the boy stayed behind to keep Vanderkaum busy."  
     Miang leaned forward, resting her chin on one pale hand.  "Interesting but of no practical significance."  
     "But he's also giving names - it seems all the prince's people have gone underground in Nisan, so I've given the names to Captain Lowe and he's got the fourth battalion searching the place."  
     Miang ran one pale hand across the glittering sheet of indigo hair.  "We must recapture the Princess Marguerite."  
     "She's on the list - but why is she important?" Her face didn't change, but somehow through her icy beauty she conveyed the air of an amused smile.  "It is a common trait for men to underestimate physically attractive young women.  There is still it is true, much of a child in the Princess, but when that child grows up, she could be as great a threat as her cousin was."  
     But Ramsus wasn't listening, he was running wide tawny eyes over Miang, the last of the sunset draining onto his face.  In the murky light the hardness and violent granite hatred seemed to leave Ramsus, and the face that was revealed was young, so young, with a child's desperate longing for affection written in the wide vulnerable eyes.  But the voice was the same deep abrupt and strong.  "Do I underestimate you?"
     Miang's features didn't change.  "The criterion is not applicable, as you know I am neither young, nor - in certain senses, a woman."  
     Ramsus reached forward, and kissed her.   

*  *  *  *  *  

     Marguerite stood at the open window, sunlight and wind and cool scented air splashing exuberantly over her face.  Here, high up in the plain room with its narrow bed brownish carpet and sloping roof she could almost imagine that she was away from it all.  It wasn't surprising that churches always had high steeples she thought distractedly, when you were high up, the violence and grief of the surface world seemed far away, spread below you, as if you were a bird able to soar with outspread wing over all the pain and suffering, and surely further from pain and grief was closer to God.  
     Reaching out to the bedside table he picked up the book she'd been reading - one of her favourites, Rex Mallery's "Knights of king Rony."   True Citan would have found it a highly sensational and - obviously inaccurate account of the first king of Aveh's reign, filled as it was with noble knights in armour, duelling with evil giants and cruel dragons, rescuing a seemingly endless flock of young girls, most of those for some reason of royal blood.  But Margie had always loved the book, loved the romance heroism and shear fantasy of it - of course, no one better than her knew how fantastic it was to believe some knight on a white horse would come and save the forces of the side of right - but it was still a beautiful dream.  
     As she started rifling through the well-thumbed pages, a voice slammed up at her from the street below.  "I never --- please!!! I'm just a shop keeper!!!" Margie sighed, a few days ago she would have run to the window, to watch in helpless anguished sympathy, but now -
     There was a mumble, too soft to float up to her sanctum, and then the voice again.  "Please!!! No!!!!" Then a slam - the shutting of a door, followed by the inevitable roar of an engine.  No beatings, no threats, no fuss.  "You are required for questioning - please come with us."   Cold stony eyes that didn't meet yours, then the grip - never tight enough to hurt but firm enough for security, and the slam of a closing door.  
     "Margie."  
     "Come in."   Margie called, reaching over to lay the book carefully on the plain brown blanket of the bed, the pages rustling like withered autumn leaves.  The door opened and a nun in the traditional blue and white habit entered, a tray in her hands with two pretty white china tea cups brimming full of savoury liquid, and a heap of something brown sweet and sticky on a plate.  
     "How are you?" The nun set the tray down on the small bedside table and then sat down on the bed, sunlight catching the strands of long blonde hair that escaped from below her white wimple as she carefully adjusted her plain skirt to avoid creasing it.  
     "I'm fine."   Margie replied, her voice quiet.  There was another one taken, wasn't there?"
     The nun nodded, her rather plain face set in a grim expression, her eyes - set slightly too far apart to be attractive despite their vivid lush green, flat and dead as the desert sands.  It was an expression Fei would have recognized - an expression worn by the prisoners in D-block, the expression of one who lives with fear.  
     "Was it one of our people?" Margie's voice was casual, as if enquiring about the idle doings of a friend, but her sky blue eyes glistened like the sun on bitter salt water.  
     "No.  It was the man who owned the grocer's shop in Queen's alley."   Margie nodded slowly, accepting.  It had only been the evening of the day after the Yggdrasl had departed for Bledavik that they had come, landing a heavy squad of gears outside the city, crushing flowers beneath hard metal feet.  Then they had filed through the streets, Aveh soldiers, uncomfortable in their heavy olive uniforms, and the marching automata of Gebler in their clear precise white.  They had come stalking through the grey streets like viruses infecting the arteries of a living being, appearing out of the deepening blue gloom of evening with the shocking suddenness of pain.  
     They were soundless, except for the cold unmusical clink of armament and the steady monotony of their beating feet.  The searches had begun that night, like a set of highly specific and nasty acts of a bitter exacting god, and in the morning, the people of Nissan woke to find some of their number had disappeared.  
     Margie shuddered as she thought how lucky she had been, how lucky that one terrified man had some how escaped the raid on his house, and managed to warn the order before making off in a different direction to draw the pursuit away - like drawing a chilly black poison away from an open wound.  Then had been the rush, the frantic preparations, all in semi darkness for fear that a light would attract attention.  
     First she had dyed her hair a dull mat black rather than the soft lustrous brown.  Then the nuns had used a skin taint on her face neck and hands, so that she appeared deeply tanned - like the daughter of a farmer from way out in the Aveh desert.  
     The final touch, a nuns habit, subtly padded with heavy masking cloth, making her appear several months pregnant.  The fake pregnancy served the duel purpose of disguising her figure and giving the nuns a good excuse to keep her out of sight.  But still it had been too close.  
     The knock had come in the cold steel grey light of dawn, in that quiet chilly moment when the sun had not yet risen, and the safe blanket of night had been cruelly wrenched away, the world open to the site of unfriendly eyes.  Margie shuddered again as she remembered waiting, uncomfortable in the padded clothing, but not daring to risk disturbing the mass of material covering her belly.  She had held a book in her hands, a warm little lamp casting a dim nimbus of light against the encroaching leagions of grey dawn chill, her eyes watching numbly as dark fingers turned the crackling pages with slow studied movements, desperate to maintain the illusion of reading.  Any moment she expected to hear the brutal crash of hammers against the door and the red primal yelling of soldiers.  But it hadn't come, just the knock, two dull woody sounds that echoed hollowly through the building, like the beat of a base drum playing a funeral march.  
     It wasn't until later that she realized why they didn't waste time breaking down doors.  The building was already surrounded, a tight white tourniquet of soldiers, guns held ready.  If the door was opened for them it might even save them the trouble of searching.  
     The search had been a surprise too - an unpleasant one.  
     Margie thought the Solarians would be like Commander Ramsus, quick and hard and vital, creatures of burning hate and violent rage.  Ramsus had been like an embodied force, terrifying, but more for his strength and self-assuredness than for his command of Gebler.  But nothing she had experienced in the citadel had prepared her for the search, the two men in the white uniforms moving slowly methodically into her room, blank eyed, expressionless and silent.  She had expected them to tear down the shelves, smash her bottles of perfume and rip her clothes apart to leave them scattered like sad confetti on the cold floor.  But what they did was worse.  With careful slowness they paced the room, sliding big cold fingers into cracks and feeling under the bed and behind the chairs with swift controlled sweeps of their hands.  
     Then they had opened her cupboards and even drawers - she would never forget the silent fingers pushing her bottles of cosmetics neatly to one side, then - and this made her want to throw up - replacing them in their places with a chilly inhuman courtesy.  They had sorted her clothes one by one, eyes and fingers running down and across every stitch, checking, she supposed, for hidden pockets.  They had done the same with all her bedding, remaking the bed afterwards with a sickening false house-proud neatness.  Her fear had risen, what if they searched her? She imagined those big pale hands touching the wad of cloth at her belly, the sudden grip on both arms - But after they had cased the room they left - silent as they had come - swift and efficient as death.  
     "Why do they do this?" Margie asked, her voice full of a sudden acid note as she remembered that terrible precise search - the scientific destruction of privacy.  
     "Sister Agnes used to say that there's no knowing why some people give into evil - all we can do is try not to hate them - what ever they do."   The nun held out a teacup and Margie took it gratefully, wrapping both hands around it and sipping like a child, a few drops slipping free onto her dyed skin.  
     "But I do hate them."   Her voice was quiet, and now there were no tears, had she known it despite the padding she still wore and the skin and hair dye, she was almost a mirror image of Miang.  "And I hope Bart kills them - all of them."   Then tears did come, spilling in shimmering diamond droplets from her eyes and rolling with inevitable slowness down her dyed cheeks.  "He will come back - he will! He will! He will!"  

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