The lady's uniform was blue, with three perfect, bright circles attached along her collar. One was slightly misaligned. The child fixed her dark eyed gaze on this single wayward pip, and worried.
Three pips. Focus on three. It's safer. Multiply three by nine, get twenty seven. Add two to seven, get nine. Divide nine by three, get three. Multiply, add, divide. As long as you start out with multiples of three, they'll all end up the same.
Three times two is six. Six was the number of millimetres between each shiny metal pin. She wished they would line up properly.
The woman knelt in front of her, gazing upwards from slightly below the level of her eyes. Her hair was messy, a tangle of loose blonde strands.
She said two words. Hello, Sarina.
Then she said more. It's nice to meet you. I'm Annette. I'm here to take you on a big adventure. Do you like adventures, Sarina?
Three was the story of the little pigs who built their houses from straw and wood and bricks. But the third house was too strong for the wolf to get in. That was how Sarina would build her house - of strong, unshakable brick.
Annette lifted her to her feet - tiny childish hand almost smothered beneath the woman's slender fingers. As they walked away from the house, Sarina glimpsed her parents and two gold-clad Security officers standing by a transport. She made her thoughts into words. Are they coming with us? But her thoughts never reached Annette at all.
The woman in blue was leading her the wrong way. The child resisted, and her mother's familiar dark eyes glanced helplessly towards her. She tugged at Annette's hand, struggling to pull her in the right direction, to where Mother and Father were already disappearing into the vehicle.
More words. No, Sarina. You'll see them again, don't worry. But we have to go this way now.
The woman hoisted her up to sit against her hip. Her parents were getting further away and for the first time that day, Sarina knew this was not an adventure that she would enjoy.
Lights made crescent halos all around her, dancing to the tune of the scanners. Their music tasted of honeysuckle.
She wanted to catch the lights, but the people around her had told her to lie still. Five minutes, fifty seven seconds. That was how much time had passed. Annette had led her down the gleaming hallway to where a pair of doctors waited in smart blue coats, lifted her on to a hard, sloping bed, and told her not to worry. Her voice was a rich oaken brown.
Sarina thought about that other time, except that now the lights were brighter. And back then, the walls had not had such a sterile gleam.
The doctors and Annette went into the next room to talk, where they cast strangely worried glances at her through a transparent aluminium window. But Sarina couldn't hear their voices. She was alone.
The scanner curved at its surface like the head of a mechanical beast. Metallic reflections peered back at her, the child's own dark eyes rendered freakishly large by the smooth curvature of the mirror. Accidental pocks on the metal had clustered randomly into a shape just like the Pleiades.
Standing on the bed so that the head of the scanner was level with her eyes, she ran an index finger across its surface. It left a smudge.
They took me out to dinner last night. Mother wore a purple dress, and Father wore his best brown suit. In the old days, people used to crush shellfish for purple dye. It was valuable, and beautiful. Mother was beautiful too, last night.
They're taking me to the beach for my birthday. We're going to play in the sand, and chase the waves, and pick up seashells from the shore.
She resisted again when they showed her the new room, imagining that her feet were roots clinging fast to the hard vinyl floor. She leaned back against the pull of stronger hands than her own, and tensed both slender arms.
The room was clean and bare, except for a thin, rectangular bed set parallel to the left hand wall, a picture at the other end, and a narrow shelf just underneath. Sarina's eyes felt slightly warm.
Voices came from all around. It's all right, Sarina. No need to be afraid. Please, it's late. You have to go to bed now.
Annette was at her side. She lifted the child and carried her to a nearby chair. Sarina was in her lap, and Annette had both arms around her, with one hand holding the girl's head close against her chest. She smelt of faraway places. Not at all like Mother, who smelt of cake and spice and sweetened milk.
Comforting noises reached her like the whisper of ocean waves.
There'll be cake and soda, and I'll wear my best pink dress. They're taking me to the beach next week.
Sensing that the girl's taut muscles were finally starting to relax a little, Annette lifted her up and carried her to the little room. Laying her out upon the bed, she stroked the child's smooth, flaxen hair. Sarina was not looking at her, but her eyes were wide with fear and bright with tears, and somehow Annette was sure that she was pleading.
How could anyone do this to someone so small? Annette asked herself, feeling her own tears rise ominously to the surface. Her mother should be the one to comfort her. Not me. She promised herself that she would spend extra time with her own children the moment she had a chance.
Dismissing both orderlies with a wave of her hand, she stayed by the bedside until Sarina had cried every tear she could cry, and the silent young girl drifted finally - thankfully - to sleep.