THE FRIEND MACHINE
or, what happens in a when a computer program chooses your friends for you.
(c) 2010, Daniel Jack Stern
info@danielstern.ca

It was Bob's day to visit the Friend Machine.
"Oh goody," he said to himself as he tied his shoes in his small, dirty flat. "Today I'm going to make a new friend."
He walked out the door. People passed by, laying their eyes wearily on the ground. Bob grabbed a free Metro from the newstand and leafed through it. Baby mutilated by maniac. Whiten your teeth with Sparkle Plus! Serial rapist at large. Treat yourself to burger at Burgershack!
Bob hummed and looked out the bus window. Billboards: two glistening teens in sexual embrace outside a Burgershack. The slogan: I'm eatin' it! A beautiful woman eternally locked in a desirous look, Stilnacht Vodka. Bob made a mental note to visit Burgershack and also to buy some vodka.
He smiled and thought to himself how exciting it would be to have a new friend. Everyone had to visit the Friend Machine once a month. It was forbidden to meet friends any other way - why would you, when the friend machine could choose perfect friends for you?
Bob chuckled as he admired the sheer brilliance of it all. There was a time, apparently, when there was no Friend Machine - you had to risk rejection by approaching a stranger at a social event. Now all gatherings were coordinated by the Social Astrolabe application of the Friend Machine - it decided what events you went to, and for how long you would stay.
At Dundas Avenue, a pretty woman boarded the bus. Though Bob knew he ought not to look - this woman wasn't approved by the Lovematcher application - he couldn't help but sneak himself a little peek. She was wearing a sheer red dress. She sat near him, and he felt a weird sensation - he wanted to talk to her. He wanted to reach out and touch her. He wanted her to tie him up and spank him.
He smiled to himself, I bet she's going to the Friend Machine too. Maybe she'll be my new friend. I can't wait to be her boyfriend and hold hands.
Last month, Bob's new friend had been James Crouch, a steel worker. They had never interacted, but they were friends, at least as far as the Friend Machine was concerned. The month before that it had been Eliza Strummond, a dowdy school teacher from Barrie. They had met face-to-face, once, at a bowling Event. Bob had bounded right up to her and offered his hand. She shook it, and then turned away, proceeding to say nothing to him all night.
Gee, he thought. I hope my new friend isn't as quiet as Eliza was.
An announcement over the intercom: Drink Choca-Cola! It's great!
Sure, I'd love one, Bob thought. He hailed the serve-bot and handed it a crisp five dollar bill. It beeped and gave him a Choca-Cola in return. It tasted too sugary.
"Thank you!" Bob said cheerily. The serve-bot paid him no attention, turned around and rolled away.
"Mmm," Bob announced. "This Cola sure is great!" He looked at the sexy woman's bust.
I sure hope my new friend looks like her, Bob thought. He had never been with a woman, except sort of in ninth grade when someone dared an older girl to take Bob upstairs to her room. This was before the Great Upgrade. It hadn't been long since the American government - they were in charge of policies for the whole world now - had introduced the better way to make friends. Since then, Bob's life had been great!
This would be Bob's twentieth friend. He never imagined he'd be so socially rich - there was Barta, the barmaid, who scared Bob a little with her mole and missing tooth. There was Big Tommy, the cyberathlete who lived with his mom. Then there was Charlie.
Charlie sure was a character! He didn't need a job because he was on workman's comp, so he got to watch TV all day! Charlie wasn't actually disabled or hurt, but he pretended his back was broken and wouldn't heal so the government (bless them!) would keep sending him cheques. Boy howdy, was Bob ever jealous!
"Arriving at Union. Union station," said the intercom. Bob traded the serve-bot five more dollars for another Choco-Cola, (golly, what a sugar rush,) hopped out of his seat and pranced out the door, singing 'new friend, new friend, new friend.' He nearly ventured a wink at the pretty girl, but he knew better. Since the friend machine had been invented, people weren't allowed to socialize in public. It was just too random, nothing like the cool and calculating way the friend machine chose your friends for you. If you were caught socializing with someone who wasn't your "friend," the proxies could come and take you away to the Friendship Centre, where they correct your misanthropic social inclinations.
Bob arrived at the Friendship Office, a grey and black building on the edge of town surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. After being searched, he stepped into the long line that wound through the lobby. Bob stood behind a fat man in a grey overcoat and hat. "It's our lucky day, eh?" Bob asked the man, who replied by hacking and spitting on the ground. "New friends for us - gee, we're in for a treat."
After a long while, Bob arrived at the front of the line. He smiled warmly at the clerk and said: "Hello!"
"I.D," she replied curtly. He handed the card to her and she scanned with her machine.
Beep.
She pointed at a large, heavy-looking white door. It was labeled FRIEND MACHINE.
"Thank you!" He chirped and skipped through the door. It was a big, dark, drafty room. There was the faint sound of a computer humming in the background. Wires hung freely overhead, and, suspended from the cieling by huge cables, was a broad, flat monitor. Bob sat in the small plastic chair facing the colossal LCD display that was the Friend Machine and clasped his hands together nervously. It produced two royal blue eyes that glared at Bob.
"Hello, Robert Smith," said the Friend Machine in a calculating, aquamarine voice.
"Hello, Friend Machine! How are you doing?"
"I am fine, Mr. Smith. I understand you have not been spending the required fifteen minutes per week with your approved friends. That is fifty demerit points, Mr. Smith."
"I'm sorry," he gushed, "I've been so busy - the season finale of American idol was last night."
"I saw it too, Mr Smith, but you don't see me deviating from my responsibilities, now do you?"
"... no."
"Correct. Would you like a Choca-Cola?"
"Sure."
"That will be five dollars."
He inserted a crisp bill into a slot located right on the machine marked Enjoy a Refreshing Choca-Cola Today! "Enjoy. You are now at two-hundred, thirty-seven demerit points Mr. Smith. Is it your wish to be sent to the Friendship Centre?"
"Boy howdy, no, Friend Machine!" He looked at the screen pleadingly. "Please don't send me there."
"I am not programmed for mercy, Mr. Smith. If you accumulate thirteen more demerit points, you will be sent to the Friendship Centre for correction. Good day."
A folded paper popped out of the machine.
Bob opened the small note. Printed in neat black letters were the words:
"HENRY SUTTON. 42 YEARS OLD. UNMARRIED. BRICKLAYER FROM SUDBURY. CONTACT #332-593-1025. CONTACT FOR FRIENDSHIP WITHIN: 36 HOURS."
Oh goody, he thought, exiting the Friendship Office. Bob bought himself a burger and cola, and some vodka. Then, instead of getting on the bus, he stepped in front of it.

The End (of Bob.)