Zonn stiffened in his seat as the spotlight swept past him to the other side of the auditorium. It stopped on a woman who at first didn’t seem to notice she’d been selected.
The crowd laughed and pointed at the video screens, upon which the woman’s eyes darted to and fro like those of a frightened animal.
The people seated beside her scooted out of view, and the woman looked up. Her jaw dropped, and her lower lip quivered as she mouthed the word “no” and shook her head.
“Speak the words! Speak the words! Speak the words! Speak the words!”
The crowd’s chanting intensified as the terrified woman remained frozen in her seat.
“SPEAK THE WORDS! SPEAK THE WORDS! SPEAK THE WORDS! SPEAK THE WORDS!”
The chime sounded, and the crowd fell silent. “You will speak the words of virtue,” the announcer’s voice boomed overhead.
She spoke the words incorrectly, and the crowd roared its displeasure.
Zonn grimaced as the man sitting beside him hammered away at the glowing white button on his armrest. Others began following suit, and soon the clacking of buttons echoed throughout the auditorium.
The chime sounded, and the clacking ceased. “You have failed to recite the words in the accepted manner,” said the announcer’s voice. “Now processing peer judgement.”
The crowd held its collective breath.
On the screens, a single word appeared.
The woman screamed, and the crowd cheered. The people surrounding her held her in place as security made their way to her seat.
The big, burly men who came to take her away were undeterred by her ineffectual attempts at kicking and squirming her way to freedom. Her pleas for leniency fell on deaf ears and were soon drowned out by the roar of the outraged assemblage of people.
Zonn knew the woman would never be seen again. Just where they took dissenters, and what they did with them, he had no idea. No one did.
Sure, people had theories. Grisly fantasies, even. Zonn had always found the latter even more disturbing than the process itself, and refused to take part in these whimsical, bloodthirsty musings. After all, cancellation could happen to anyone, at any time, and without warning. The words of virtue were amended daily, and no one could be reasonably expected to keep up with all of the changes.
An elbow jabbed him in the ribs. He looked to the man beside him, who was giving him a suspicious scowl. The man then leaned over, cupped his hand and shouted in Zonn’s ear.
“You don’t seem too excited about seeing justice served! That is just as bad as the offense! Perhaps you should face trial!”
Zonn shoved him away.
The man pointed at him, opened his mouth, and shouted “Here! Here’s one! Get him!”
The spotlight flashed across the crowd and landed squarely on Zonn, and his lifelong, recurring nightmare of cancellation came to life on the screens for all to see.
“You will speak the words of virtue.”
Zonn looked at the angry faces of the people surrounding him. For a moment, he considered speaking the words, but he knew that he couldn’t. He’d always known.
He stared directly into the light. “I will not.”
Gasps, screams and irate chatter rippled throughout the crowd, and the buttons clacked louder than Zonn had ever heard them clack, even in the worst of his sheet-soaking nightmares.
The chime sounded, and the crowd fell silent.
“Processing peer judgment.”