The dark-haired man wore a white button-up shirt with a black vest, black dress pants, and black shoes. He opened his closet and began to reach for a blue tie decorated with elaborate curls and designs.
"Attention," said the computerized voice. "Attention, S19148. Tonight's event is a red and black gala. Please wear the red tie."
Without any thought or hesitation, the man reached for the red tie and put it on instead of the blue one.
"You are ready to leave," said the computerized voice. "Please extend your hands."
The man obeyed, and a pair of shackles, made of a yellowish-golden energy, materialized around his hands. The metallic door in front of him slid open.
"Please make your way to the elevator lobby and wait for the first available elevator," the voice said. The man did as he was told, walking down the cold, gray hallway into the elevator lobby he knew so well. Other people, men and women also dressed in fancy outfits of red and black, were waiting as well, but the man did not talk to them.
After whirring noises sounded behind the walls for a few moments, one of the five elevator doors in the lobby swung open. A few other people were already in it. The man and the others waiting in the lobby began to step towards it.
"Attention, S19148. This elevator's load is full. Please stay and wait for the next available elevator." The man stood back and stayed in the lobby, allowing the others to silently go through ahead of him.
After a few minutes, another elevator opened, and the man went down in that one instead. He stood alone, looking towards the ground and with his hands still shackled in front of him, as the elevator transported him seventeen stories down to the ballroom. The man stepped out. Other men and women in fancy red and black, their hands also shackled in various colors, stepped out of the elevators into the lobby area as well.
"Please file into the ballroom in an orderly fashion," said the computerized voice. "You will be seated at random with strangers in order to become acquainted with them. Go through the tables and find your name so you will know where to sit."
The man mingled through the rows of circular banquet tables, not looking up at any of the other people doing the same, but only looking down at the names written on the tables. When he found his own name, S19148, he took a seat in a cold, metallic chair. The shackles from his hands immediately dematerialized as he did so.
"S19148, thank you for being seated," the computerized voice said to him. The man did not reply.
Others began to sit down at his table. The man tried not to look up at them, but he happened to catch a glimpse at some out of the corner of his eye. To his left was a brown-haired woman with green shackles around her hands, and to her left, two seats over from the dark-haired man, was a blond woman with purple shackles. As soon as they sat down, their shackles dematerialized as well.
The man heard the computer address them by their names. "L121221, thank you for being seated. M13102, thank you for being seated." The computer announced the names of the others as well, but the man did not listen.
The computerized voice came on again. "The Alternator will come around to bring you your meal," it said. "Please socialize with those near you in the meantime."
The man did not say anything.
"Hey," said a voice from next to him. "Hey, S, is it?"
The man looked up to his left. The blond woman was addressing him. "Yes?" he asked.
"It's me," she said. "M. Remember me?"
The man looked at her blankly.
M leaned forward. "We met a few years ago, didn't we?"
The man started to respond. "Um...I'm not sure..." He tried to remember whether he really knew her or not.
"We had a class together," M explained. "It was you, and me, and we met A there...A, um...oh, what was his number?"
The man began thinking through his past classes. He definitely remembered meeting A, but he wasn't sure if he remembered M. He tried to remember, though.
"Attention," said the computerized voice. "M13102. You have been seated at random with strangers in order to become acquainted with them. No prior acquaintence is required."
The Alternator, a metallic machine in vaguely humanoid shape, came by their table and extended its mechanical arms. Each one contained a black tray with an identical arrangement of food--a large plate of chicken, a smaller plate of salad, a cup of hot coffee, a clear glass of water, and a napkin with silverware. There was one set of dinner for each of the people seated at the table. The Alternator placed them neatly in front of each person. The man took his silverware and began cutting his chicken right away.
The Alternator also held a small container of a white liquidy substance. M, the blond woman, turned to the Alternator and pointed to the container. "Can I have some of that for my salad?" she asked.
"M13102, your salad is complete," said the computerized voice, this time coming from the mechanized head of the Alternator.
"But I want some of that dressing on it," M said.
"M13102, your salad is complete. This is not dressing. This is creme for coffee. If you would like, you may put in a request for some creme, pending the Alternator's approval."
"Oh," said M. "No, thank you. I didn't know it was creme." She turned back around and giggled at her mistake. The Alternator hovered away and out of sight.
L, the brunette woman, turned toward the man. "So you really don't remember her?" she asked. "You don't remember M?"
The man looked up at L. "Should I?" he asked. "The Alternator said we were being placed with strangers."
"Well, I thought she had met you before," said L. "I mean, she's told me about that class before, so I'm sure she would know if you were in it."
The man looked at them askew. "She's told you about it...before?" he asked.
"Yeah," said L. "She's told me about a lot of things. We're friends, after all."
"Friends...?" S asked, seeming confused.
M spoke up. "Yes, friends. And we were friends too, S," she said. "In class that one year. Don't you remember? It was me and you and A all sitting together. My parental units brought me to school that day, but it was the first day of school and I didn't want to leave them, so I was crying. Don't you remember me crying?"
"Attention," said the computerized voice. "L121221 and M13102. You have been seated at random with strangers in order to become acquainted with them. No prior acquaintence is required."
"I...I'm sorry," said the dark-haired man. "But I don't remember you."
The man continued eating his chicken and his salad without saying anything else for a little while. A few other conversations took place at the table, but the man didn't listen to them. He only focused on eating his food. After a little while, however, M spoke up again.
"I don't care what they say!" she exclaimed loudly. She looked at L and S. "I know you! I know both of you! We're not strangers! They can't tell us we're strangers! L and I are friends! And S, we've met before! I know we have! Come on, you've got to believe me!"
S looked up at her again and thought. He saw a clear look in M's face--a look of desperation, of hopefulness despite the odds, and maybe even a look of familiarity from sometime in the past. He tried to think back and remember. "Um...well...maybe I remember you," he said. "I think I might have been in that class..."
The Alternator returned, hovering over the crowd. "Attention," said its computerized voice. "S19148, L121221 and M13102. You have been seated at random with strangers in order to become acquainted with them. No prior acquaintence is required. Is that understood?"
S looked up at the Alternator. "Uh, yes," he said. "It's understood."
"Yes," said L.
M frowned again and looked down at the table. "Yes," she said.
"Your understanding is appreciated," said the computerized voice. "Now please enjoy your dessert, and continue conversing with each other pleasantly." The Alternator's metal arms extended again, first towards a woman on the other side of the table from the man. It placed a small plate of cheesecake with a fork in front of her. Then it placed a plate of chocolate cake in front of the next woman.
M leaned over to L and said something quietly. L giggled and began to look excitedly towards the Alternator and the desserts it was handing out.
"What's going on?" the man asked them, deciding that maybe it was not so bad to talk to them after all.
"We figured it out," L told him. "The Alternator. It's alternating the desserts. She got cheesecake, but she got chocolate." L counted the people between them with her finger. "Based on that pattern, M will probably get cheesecake, I'll get chocolate, and you'll get cheesecake too."
"Oh," said S. "Okay." He looked down at the table. The Alternator brought the rest of the desserts. Sure enough, M and S got cheesecake, and L got chocolate. M took a bite of her cheesecake right away.
"Is cheesecake okay with you?" L asked S.
The man looked at her blankly for a moment before answering. "Uh, yeah. Yes. Of course. Cheesecake is fine."
"Or would you prefer chocolate?" M asked him.
The man thought about it for a moment. "Well...I do like chocolate," he said. "But cheesecake is good too."
"But which do you prefer?" M asked. "One of them has to be your favorite."
The man shrugged. "They're both good," he said. "Besides, the Alternator gave me cheesecake. And cheesecake is good. I'm not complaining."
"But what if you wanted chocolate instead?" M asked him. "And they gave you cheesecake without asking you? That wouldn't be fair, would it?" M had eaten about half of her cheesecake, but S hadn't touched his at all.
"Well...I don't know," said the man. "I mean, cheesecake is fine. I like cheesecake...but I do like chocolate too."
The Alternator hovered in a little closer to the three of them, and the computerized voice came on again. "Attention," it said. "M13102 and S19148. Please enjoy the desserts that the Alternator has given you, and continue conversing with each other pleasantly."
M stood up again and looked the Alternator in its mechanical semblance of eyes. "But that's not fair!" she said. She pointed at S. "S doesn't want cheesecake. He wants chocolate! Why can't he have chocolate instead of cheesecake?"
L remained seated, but spoke up as well. "I can share with him," she said. "But he should be able to get some chocolate if he wants it."
The Alternator's head swiveled down to face L. "Attention, L121221," it said. "Please enjoy the desserts that the Alternator has given you, and continue conversing with each other pleasantly." Then it swiveled back to M. "Attention, M13102. You have violated the instructions of the Alternator. Your dessert is finished." Its metal arm extended, picked up M's plate with the half-eaten slice of cheesecake, and pulled it away from her.
"No!" shouted M. "I wasn't done! You can't take that away from me! I wasn't done yet!" She reached over and took the plate back from the Alternator, quickly grabbing a fork as well and putting more of the cake in her mouth.
Immediately, the purple energy shackles appeared around her hands again. She was forced to drop the fork and the plate with the cake.
"Attention, M13102," said the monotonous voice of the Alternator. "You have been uncooperative tonight. Please follow the Alternator away for a reprogramming session."
"No!" M began screaming. "I won't be reprogrammed! Not again! You can't do that to me!" Tears began to flow from her eyes, and she looked back at the man. "S! You've got to stand up to them! You can't let them control you! Come on! Tell them you want chocolate and not cheesecake. Tell them!"
S looked into her horrified, desperate face and considered her words. He tried to think about what he wanted and what would be the best to do. "Well...um...I..."
The Alternator turned towards S. "Attention, S19148. Please enjoy the desserts that the Alternator has given you, and continue--"
"No!" S shouted, standing up just like M was. "I don't want what I was given. I don't want cheesecake. I want chocolate cake! Do you hear me? Chocolate cake."
The Alternator turned to look at him. "Attention, S19148. You have violated the instructions of the Alternator. Your dessert is finished."
"Fine!" the man shouted. "Let it be finished! I didn't want any cheesecake anyway!" The Alternator's metallic arm extended to collect his untouched plate. "And you know what?" the man continued to shout at the Alternator. "M is right! I do know her! We had a class together a few years ago. We're not strangers! I remember! She's right!"
Golden-yellow energy shackles appeared around the man's hands. "Attention, S19148. You have been uncooperative tonight. Please follow the Alternator away for a reprogramming session."
"I won't!" said the man. Holding his shackled hands in front of him, he turned around and began to run away--but he didn't get very far. The metallic arm of the Alternator stretched out and wrapped itself around his leg, stopping him dead in his tracks. The man fell to the ground and groaned. His glasses fell off his face and snapped.
Another of the Alternator's mechanical arms stretched out and wrapped itself around M. She recoiled and screamed and protested, but she couldn't escape, and neither could the man.
"Attention, S19148 and M13102," said the Alternator. "The Alternator will now accompany you both away for a session of reprogramming." Without another word, the Alternator and its inescapable metal arms dragged them away. S and M kept screaming and shouting throughout the entire ride.