The Montrose advertised itself as the Lake’s finest dining experience: smoke-free, fat-free, carb-free, noise-free, gluten-free, sodium-free, and mostly flavor-free, though there were a few minerals in the water.
But everybody said its appetizers were to die for.
Andy held up a sample—a hand-crafted, adobe-crock boiled cheese curd.
“Jeez, Andy. Don’t put that stuff in your mouth,” said Jorinda-12.
“I’m with her,” said Mark-137. “It’s your funeral.”
Andy, with both elbows on the linen cloth covered table, in defiance of his third grade teacher (now forty years dead) showed a middle finger to the microscopic Whitebird recorder drone hovering invisibly over his right shoulder.
The drone’s miniscule rotors whirred, compensating for the perfumed breeze of a woman walking briskly past toward the restrooms.
“Hairy old bag,” said Andy, just for fun.
“It’s really hard being your friend,” said Jorinda-12 through the wireless construct just under the skin at his right earlobe.
“I’m not your friend,” Andy told the assembled 1,456 spectators whose collective attention currently monitored his every action and thought through the Conscience, Inc. drone.
“That old bag, as you called her, is somebody’s mother,” said Henry-43.
“Actually,” chimed in Jenny-69, “she’s my mother. You’ll be hearing from our lawyer within the hour.”
“Screw you,” said Andy. Jenny’d been trolling him for the past couple years, rising to the surface of the interface every week or two.
Like pond scum, he thought.
“Just for that, I’m buzzing you,” said Jenny-69.
Andy took a bite of the cheese
“Tastes like shit, doesn’t it?” said Rondo-10.
“Language parameter, asshole,” said Xerxes-4.
Andy smiled, ready to lob off the perfect bon mot when the interface pinged and the melodious voice of Conscience, Inc. announced, “Rondo-10 and Xerxes-4 have been segregated for language.”
“Ah, hell,” said Andy.
He had the perfect reply for those two idiots, but now the monitor had blocked them.
“Do you have to censor everything all the time?” he said.
“Language leads to coercion. Coercion is force. Force is–”
“Not to be tolerated,” said Andy, repeating the drone’s familiar mantra.
“Told you not to eat the cheese,” said Mark-137.
“It’s not as bad as your underwear,” said Andy.
Andy just smiled, and signaled his waiter.
As if he was subject to any parameters.
He didn’t think anybody at Conscience, Inc. knew it yet, but as of that morning, only his Spectators had rules.
He was no longer one of them.
He’d been pushing the language parameters all morning, just sorta checking things out.
So far, so good.
After spending his entire life’s savings, and breaking more laws than he even knew were in existence, Andy was free of the angel on his shoulder.
He celebrated with lunch out at the Montrose.
When he signaled the waitress a second time, she made a quick U-turn, nearly upsetting the thistle salad she carried on a round glass tray.
Her plastic shoes clicked quickly across the tile floor.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “I didn’t see you there. It’s my first week. I’m doing my best.”
There was just the faintest evidence of a breeze through the hair at her right shoulder—her own Conscience, Inc. drone.
“I hope you’re not angry with me.” She continued to bow for the benefit of her invisibly tethered audience of thousands.
“I’ll have the manicotti,” said Andy. “Extra cheese sauce.”
“Not healthy,” said Edward-799.
“Buzz me,” said Andy.
“I just might.”
Andy smiled. I wouldn’t even feel it, he thought.
“I’ll be right out with that,” said the waitress.
“Isn’t that my order?” said the hairy woman on her way back to her table.
Caught off-guard, the waitress’ eyes momentarily glazed.
Somebody, somewhere on the interface was jumping at the chance to chastise her.
For her ears only, Andy thought, wishing he could cut into her channel.
But Andy wasn’t a spectator anymore.
He’d opted out, nullifying the germ-sized conscience implant under his ear.
It had taken many months, and a lot of money.
It wasn’t as easy.
“Shiela-45 is right, dear,” the indignant woman told the waiter. “You might be new to the job, but that’s no excuse not to deliver my order before taking the next one.”
So said the collective ethics of the spectators.
“I’m so sorry,” said the girl, “It’s just that I’m unsure…”
“Listen to Larry-56,” said the woman. “You can hear Larry-56 can’t you? Or does your conscience need maintenance? There’s no excuse for an improperly maintained conscience.”
“I can’t…that is…I…”
The girl deliberately dropped the tray with a resounding crash and ran toward the kitchen.
“Here, now! You can’t get away with that,” said the woman.
“Leave her alone,” said Andy,
The old woman glazed over for a second, then recoiled with an expression of horror.
“Such impertinence,” she said. “I must have an apology.”
“Andy, you’re cold,” said Jorinda-12. “On the verge of illegal. In fact…hey, didn’t I buzz you earlier?”
Multiple buzzings lead to censure. Censure leads to segregation. Segregation leads to death.
The memorized lesson ran through his thoughts.
The woman stood waiting with a sneer on her face and hands on her hips. “I’m demanding an apology,” she demanded.
The spectators could buzz him all day long and it wouldn’t be recorded by the Conscience, Inc. Whitebird at his right shoulder.
Not with his new, obscenely expensive, equally microscopic Advocate Blackbird drone at his left shoulder, blocking communications.
“GoToHell-899” he said, pronouncing the correct password to activate the Blackbird’s maximum block.
“Whatever has become of your conscience?” said the woman. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
And for the first time in his life, the Whitebird voices in his head were silent, replaced by one, deep, echoing directive from the opposite drone.
Do what thou wilt.
Andy grabbed his fork in a clenched fist, looked gleefully at the hairy bag, and said.
“From now on, I’ve got plenty to say.”