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Remember of This Unstable World

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What he remembers most strongly about his childhood is that when Reigner One was with them, there were sweets.

There was a kind of sour chocolate they were given, an export of Arcturus IV. He knows that because he can list imports and exports of the fifty major planets; Arcturus IV exports sour chocolate and robot slaves. He remembers one of them lifting up their face and proffering their tongue like a thirsty puppy; Reigner One had laughed and dropped a pellet of chocolate into their mouth. Their face blurs in his mind's eye, like watching a recording of a crime for entertainment, their faces are pixellated out of existence. They have no faces. It is only with great difficulty that he recalls their names, like a mantra: Bellie, Sassal, Corto, Cation. Kessalta.

When Reigner One was not there, they suffered; they were beaten, they cried, they were made to kneel on tiled floor for hours, repeating lessons by rote. (What are the major exports of Arcturus IV? Sour chocolate, robot slaves, pigs and medical equipment.) When Reigner One was there, they were safe for an hour or even two, until he grew bored or, worse, disappointed. They grew to love Reigner One in the way that one does a kindly captor; seeking protection, they strove to please him in whatever small way they could.

Mordion tries very hard to remember incidents from his childhood, but he only remembers the fear tightening in his stomach like a fist. His memory is faulty, a hard drive with parts wiped clean; they were infected, they had to be deleted.

"I hate this," he tells the Bannus.

"The memory may return," the Bannus intones. "It will take time."

"I know that," Mordion says, annoyed. It occurs to him then that he sounds like a sulky brat and he stops, appalled at himself. "I was never a child," he says, apropos of nothing.

"Yes, you were," the Bannus informs him.

One night Mordion dreamt of Vierran sitting down next him and saying, "We should think about children." In the dream, he was happy. He would probably make a terrible father, he said, but he didn't really mean it; he knew what he had done with Hume and the others. He would not be Orm Pender. And then he went to sleep within the dream and the Bannus showed him what could happen, what would happen; empty cribs, bloodstained stass-chambers and he was Orm Pender after all. He woke screaming, and then he woke again crying, tears drying on his face. Vierran was next to him when he woke, both times; she has never discussed children with him.

"I told you before," says Mordion. "I must have done something in those early years to deserve it. Well, now I know."

"And I told you," says the Bannus in its high, cold voice, "that you did nothing. I tell you again, that you did nothing. Orm Pender was responsible for his own actions."

There are so many things which Mordion has to explain to the Bannus which seem small and pathetic when spoken in short grunting sounds and syllables which only mean what they mean in one corner of the galaxy. They're barely worth the effort to tell.

One time, when he was older – he's certain he was older, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, for he'd killed people by then, not just Kessalta, but strangers, people he'd never known. He gets caught up in this tangle of dates and names, but the Bannus never snaps, never tells him to get on with it. So Mordion reasons it out thus: he doesn't know precisely how old he was when he killed Kessalta, but he remembers that he was exactly sixteen when he killed Yassin Guaranty. On the other hand, he only knows that he was sixteen because Reigner One told him it was his birthday, and Mordion hardly trusts Reigner One's testimony. He seems to have had too many birthdays, counting back, for him to be twenty-nine now.

"Why would he say it was your birthday," asks the Bannus, "when it was not?"

Mordion is too tired to answer, and says so after a minute. The Bannus knows, anyway. He doesn't know why it insists on asking silly questions.

"Tell me," the Bannus demands.

Mordion says, haltingly, "I – when it was my birthday, I – there would be a treat."

This hole in his memory has ragged edges; if he pulls it tight he can almost see what it was, why it is that he doesn't remember, but he doesn't do it.

"Very well," says the Bannus, abandoning that line of attack. "What happened when you were older?"

"Oh," says Mordion. It seems stupid, to go back to the tangent he was on before, and this time the Bannus will certainly recognise it for what it is. Mordion is uncomfortably sure that it already has. He isn't very good at stalling tactics; they only work on the young or weak-minded. Everyone else, like Vierran, only gets angry with him. Eventually, he says:

"Reigner Three called me to her chambers."

Nothing had actually happened. Mordion is as sure as he can be about that. He remembers it being cold – very cold – and he immediately offered to speak to the temperature regulatory staff, as he should have done, as he had been taught to do. Reigner Three, reclining in white furs, laughed. Then she ordered Mordion to strip his clothes off.

Mordion had, of course, done so. He stood there, trembling, and she looked him over with a disquieting smirk on her mouth. He can still recall being acutely aware of his goosebumps, his bony knees, his retreating penis. He must have looked like terrified chicken, plucked of his feathers. It occurred to him dimly that she had turned off the heating deliberately and called for her furs to be put on her this morning.

"Mm," she said, and her smirk turned into a sneer. "What a bore. If one has a servant bound to do as one wishes, you'd think he'd at least have made you handsome."

She flicked a dismissal and Mordion scooped up his clothes. "Oh, no," she said. "Leave them." And he ran down the corridor naked until he found an aide's room and stole his clothes. He remembers the slap of his bare feet on the tiles, the burning humiliation of the cold. He remembers trying to tell the Girl Child what had happened and kept stopping, kept trying to explain why he loved his mistress and why she was wonderful. But the Girl Child had hugged him in his head, or he felt her wanting to anyway, which amounted to the same thing. I'll hate her for you, she promised, her voice faint like an audio device turned down to just above mute.

"An interesting simile," says the Bannus. It doesn't care about that, if the Bannus cares about anything apart from killing Orm Pender.

"It was really a very minor incident," Mordion protests.

"I did not insist that you tell it."

"You asked," says Mordion, sounding petulant. It's stupid, he knows that, but he never wanted to speak about any of this in the first place.

"You offer me your lesser shames," the Bannus says. "Tell me the greater."

Mordion has no idea what happens if he says no. Perhaps the Bannus would merely go away. He doesn't say it.

"I don't," he begins. "I don't remember properly."

"Tell me," says the Bannus, though it already knows and why does Mordion have to say it? He stares at the spike of memory in his mind's eye. "Tell me," says the Bannus.

"The treats," he says. "I didn't like the treats."

"What were they?"

"I don't remember."

The Bannus shivers; Mordion flinches. "You do."

"I – they – it was something he asked of me." Mordion remembers not looking anyone in the eye for days afterwards. Kessalta had worried over him, watching him with her eyebrows drawn together. He thinks of Reigner One's hand closing over the nape of his neck. "I don't know."

"Mordion," says the Bannus, and Mordion can taste memory on his tongue, bitter and choking. His knees had hurt, he thinks ridiculously, that had been the worst of it; no, the worst of it had been Reigner One afterwards, paternal and chuckling.

"He patted me on the shoulder," Mordion says, the words spilling out of his mouth. He shuts it immediately.

"I know," says the Bannus, and Mordion wants to snap at him, why did you ask? but the Bannus has its reasons of which Mordion may not know.

"It was wrong," he says, because he knows that much. He is not always good at telling the difference, but Vierran is and she would tell him so.

"Yes," says the Bannus, "and it was not your fault."

This is not true. Mordion thinks there is something behind him, but he dares not look in case what he finds is worse than never knowing at all.

"Mordion Agenos," the Bannus says, remote as a judge. "Tell me the truth."

Mordion is compelled to look round and what he sees is himself, far too scrawny, and Kessalta, her hair wild, frightened – frightened of him, Mordion realises.

One day, Mordion came to the main room to find that Bellie was gone. He asked, Where is she? and someone answered, Gone with Reigner One and then stared, amazed, when Mordion began to shout, and shake, and eventually the robots caught him and took him for punishment alone.

"I failed them all," he says. He thinks of Reigner One, frowning into his moustache and telling Mordion and the others that if Mordion was going to be jealous, then it would have to be trained out of them all.

"You failed only yourself," the Bannus says. "No one ever expected you to save them."

"Not even them," Mordion says, and the crack in his voice makes him sound hysterical. His self-contempt is complete. "They didn't believe in me, and whose fault is that?"

"Orm Pender's," says the Bannus, implacable, and it occurs to Mordion that the Bannus believes that Orm Pender is the root of all evil. Which is true, almost, but only almost, and so the Bannus is hardly an impartial judge.

"No," he says. "It was mine. It was always mine. Let me have that at least." He tries to think of what Vierran would say, but Vierran, too, is biased.

He leaves the Bannus alone after that and walks to the observatory. Martellian isn't there; often he charts the progress of the stars, not because they don't have astronomers who can do the job for them, but because he can. It's a change, he says, after the unending darkness of stass.

Mordion lies on his back and stares up at eternity, and wonders how long it will take before he can be the man he thinks he must once have wanted to be.