“Now, Corgan, how did you get that broken skin on your hand?”
“Dammit, Mendor, I told you I don’t know.”
Mendor’s gasp was like a gale blowing through the Box.
“Where did you learn that word, Corgan?”
“What word?” But he knew exactly the word Mendor meant.
“That swear word. Never in your entire life has that word been spoken in your presence. Where did you hear it?”
“From you. You said it–you just don’t remember. Your internal programming must have some kind of a memory glitch…” Corgan felt the sweat break out in his hands as the lies came out of his mouth.
“My programming is never faulty,” Mendor hissed. “This time you really have gone too far, Corgan. You’re lying! I have no choice but to send you to Reprimand.”
Reprimand! Corgan’s LiteSuit turned dark from apprehension. He had never been put into Reprimand–he’d never before had to be punished for wrongdoing. He couldn’t even imagine what Reprimand would be like, except that it had to be something awful.
His ears filled with a static-y whirring that swelled and ebbed from loud to soft and back so rapidly that his head started to spin. Then he felt his whole body rotate, spiraling, whirling, pivoting, head up, head down, sideways…
And there he was. In Reprimand. But it wasn’t a place; it was simply total emptiness and almost total darkness and gloom. A feeling of despair swept through him, filling his heart, his whole body, and even his skin, down to each separate pore. He wanted to run, but couldn’t move. He hung suspended, motionless, not sure whether he’d landed vertically, horizontally, or at any other angle up or down.
“Corgan! Corgan!” It might have been Mendor’s voice he heard or the voices of the Supreme Council; it seemed he recognized all of them in the words. “We have given you everything. Isn’t that true?”
He nodded, glad he was able to move his head, at least.
“From the time you were a tiny boy, we’ve done all we could think of to make you happy. Haven’t we, Corgan?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“We gave you toys. Dinosaurs decorating your walls. And do you remember the koala bear, Corgan? You wanted a koala with blue eyes and soft fur, one that would chase a ball like a puppy. You named it–what did you name it, Corgan?”
“Named the bear Roland,” he answered, the words like ribbons unwinding from his throat.
“Ah yes,” the voices continued. “We had to create a special program to make Roland do all the things you wanted him to. We set our cleverest engineers to work on the project, and we told them, ‘Don’t worry about how much time it will take you to perfect it. Don’t worry about expense. This toy is for Corgan.’ They worked night and day to build Roland for you.”
“I loved Roland.” Tears stung Corgan’s eyes as he remembered.
“For a little while,” the voices murmured. “For only a little while you loved him. Then you stopped playing with him.”
Now a whole additional chorus joined in to sigh, “We asked why you no longer played with Roland. And you said…you said…that Roland had bitten you. Do you remember that, Corgan? You told a lie.”
Lie! Lie! Lie! The word echoed as if from a deep cavern.
Incredible, Corgan thought. They had to go all the way back to when I was six to find the last lie that I told.
“We didn’t mind that you’d stopped playing with Roland,” the voices lamented. “Even though we had put so much time and effort and scarce resources into that special koala that you wanted, and you only played with it for a few days–we were glad it made you happy. Even if just for a little while. We’ve always tried to make you happy, Corgan.”
“Yes,” he gasped. His throat felt like it was closing from the inside.
“But when you lied, Corgan…” Now the face of Mendor the Mother Figure wrapped around him, gray and furrowed, the surface sliding downward in despair. “You broke Mother’s heart.”
“And you wounded Father’s pride.” Slowly Mendor the Father Figure appeared, somber and dark.
“I’ve been bad,” Corgan whimpered, sounding like a six-year-old. He hadn’t meant to say that–where had it come from? He cleared his throat, wondering why his voice had suddenly turned thin and high-pitched. Then he saw himself in the wraparound image: He was a six-year-old, with straight black hair falling in bangs over his forehead, with his mouth drawn down and his soft lips trembling.
“No…you’re not a bad boy, Corgan,” Mendor the Mother Figure said once again, as she’d said so many years before. “You’re a very good boy. But you mustn’t tell lies.”
“I’m sorry! I won’t tell lies ever again.”
“We’ve always done everything we could to make you happy. We gave you everything you asked for. We gave you our trust. You must always tell us the truth, Corgan.”
He said, “Yes,” through trembling lips, not sure whether he was Corgan the six-year-old or Corgan the long-legged, strong-armed virtual champion. Discovering he could move his arms, he reached up to knead his throat, trying to get his real voice back.
“We trust you to do what is right.”
There was nothing Corgan could safely reply. A faint chord of music, deep and dolorous, rumbled across the dark emptiness.
“Your happiness matters to us, Corgan, more than anything.” The words matched the tempo of the barely heard music, which built slow, heavy, minor chords into a song of infinite sadness. “Your happiness will always matter. Our love for you will never diminish. Even when you betray us.” Betray! Betray! Betray! It hung in the air, vibrating.
“Honor, Corgan. Truth. These matter most. The trust between parents and son.”
He didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer, because it was guilt, now, that rose into his throat. They were right. He’d told a lie. Lying was wrong.
“After all we’ve done for you, Corgan, can you give us just one thing in return?” The music throbbed softly, like a slow heartbeat.
“What’s that?” he whispered. “What can I give you?” He knew what They were going to ask for.
“The truth, Corgan. All we want is that you tell us the truth.”
“A very small matter. So small! Just tell us–where did you hear that word you used this morning?”
“I can’t remember.”
The music grew louder, anguished. The space around Corgan seemed crowded with creatures, all of them weeping, pressing against him, smothering him, drowning him in their tears.
“Please, Corgan, try to remember. We don’t blame you. You’re the innocent one. Others have led you into error. We want desperately to believe in you again. We love you. Tell the truth, and all will be forgiven. All will be forgotten. Nothing will be held against you.”
Shadows filled the darkness, moving shapes bent over in sorrow. The shapes hovered around him. Phantom hands reached up to touch him in supplication.
“Where did we fail, Corgan? What more can we give you? We gave you so much, but it wasn’t enough!” The music grew louder; the weeping rose to a new level of anguish.
Corgan’s tears rolled slowly down his cheeks. It was true; They’d always been good to him, and now he’d caused Them pain. Would it really matter if he admitted everything? He’d insist on taking full responsibility. They said he’d be forgiven.
“Once more, Corgan. Who spoke that word to you?”
“Sharla,” he whispered.
“Last night. I don’t know!”
“In the corridor. Don’t punish her!”
Light blinded him. He was back in his Box, with Mendor beside him.
“We will not speak of this again,” Mendor the Father Figure thundered. “Ever! How many days remain before the War, Corgan?”
“A full morning or practice has been lost because of this lie you told.”
“It’s only been a few minutes!”
“The matter must be pursued further. Be cautious from now on, Corgan. That is all I have to say to you.”