Gary Miller looked out his window to where the fog blurred the city into broad grey brush strokes. Distant through the door he heard the sound of his wife Angie and their dog Kiri, and smiled at the sound.
He still remembered, almost five years ago now, he had seen an email from his firm congratulating Angie on winning the Miss CPA Pageant, a pageant for Certified Public Accountants where the contestants had to compete on looks and brains. It was an incredibly silly pageant idea, but there was something irresistible about Angie’s smile that pulled at him. When he had seen her name on the list for volunteers at an animal shelter, he jumped at the opportunity to meet her.
At the shelter they had both been assigned to take care of a dog who would later be named Kiri, and the rest was history.
On the front page of his newspaper he read: “The New Astrologers’ IPO Breaks Market Records for First Day of Trading.”
Gary had tried to get the New Astrologers as a client many years ago. At that time he had worked at DCG Marketing Group as an Accounts Manager.
He was fired soon after from DCG, but that had actually turned out to be a stroke of luck. Not two days later, he was contacted directly by Kaeru, Inc. a successful marketing firm in Japan. His new bosses, Sato and Suzuki, trusted him fully, let him bring in clients across the globe, and never balked when he needed a day off.
He paused over the page, his eyes unfocused. He still remembered the day his boss had yelled at him, threatened him that he would be replaced by an algorithm if he did not bring in more clients.
His good friend John Morris had wrapped his arm around his shoulder, “I just got word of a potential new client. I think if you can reel them in, David will be mighty happy with you.”
Morris winked, and slapped a business card into his coat pocket.
Gary looked down at the paper.
The New Astrologers
Corner of 5th and 59th
The business card did not have a city or zip code listed.
He turned it over. On the back it said:
Manhattan. Where else?
Not keen to see his boss in the break room so soon after being reprimanded, Gary skipped lunch and headed straight to the New Astrologer’s office.
Outside the place was a holographic banner, a sun that merged into the moon and transformed back again.
The architecture of modern businesses trended towards clean lines, and stark white walls plastered with bright holographic displays. The New Astrologers’ office was nothing like that. He was deposited in a circular room ringed by dark blue doors. Before him was a central courtyard, sunken into the ground. In the distance was the sound of moving water. The ceiling was vaulted impossibly high and looked old, with geometric patterns plucked from an Islamic mosque.
Sheer cloth panels in every color of the rainbow draped from the ceiling and reflected a cacophony of competing colors on the walls. It was not quite noon outside, but in here the light held the specific tinge of late afternoon.
“Please make yourself comfortable,” a woman’s robotic voice emanated from a light fixture near his head.
Broad couches sat around the waiting room while the middle courtyard was strewn with heaps of pillows. Gary chose a dark walnut chair, intricately carved, its green cushion embroidered with small frogs.
He was gleeful. These people had money. To land them as a client would mean he would surely get back into David’s good graces. Maybe even land a promotion.
“Please fill out an intake form,” the woman’s voice came now from a mahogany desk to his right.
A desk drawer popped open to show a single sheet of paper and a pen.
“I believe I had already scheduled a meeting,” he said to the air.
The desk drawer rattled a bit, “Please fill out an intake form.”
The form held three questions:
What impact do you want to make on the world?
What do you want in a partner?
What would your perfect hobby be?
What an odd form. Usually companies just asked his name or the company he was from.
Gary looked around the room. No one else was there.
He looked down at the sheet again. He had volunteered at an animal shelter in high school. Somewhere life got in the way, and he had never returned to it.
What impact he wanted to make on the world? Sure he liked sustainability, but he was old enough that he thought it best to leave the world changing to people who did not have a mortgage. His current job was far from home, and he often had to entertain clients in his spare time. He wanted something quiet, where he did not need to always be so on with people.
And what partner he desired?
“The Assayer will see you now,” the robotic voice came again. “Please place your completed form back into the drawer.”
Gary got up and shoved the paper, half finished, in the drawer. One of the doors that led off of the waiting room had popped open.
The office he walked into was bedecked in variegated hues of twilight. The light had shifted again, now the hazy blue of the sun just as it dips below the horizon.
A woman was perched on a wooden desk, illuminated by holographic fire clasped in ornate sconces.
She wore a dress that stood outside of fashion. Her dress’s sleeves were so long they touched the ground. Layers of blue muslin shifted over purple, all belted together at her waist. A small gold brooch shaped as a beetle was pinned in her auburn hair. She looked for all the world like a sorceress.
Her concentration was focused on a thin cigarette holder.
“Have you tried one of these yet? Just got mine delivered minutes ago and I couldn’t wait to try it out.…” she attached a pink vial to the end with a click, “there!”
“No, afraid I haven’t.”
“It’s a Pico wand. You can add on these little cartridges with various micro-doses of things. Syncs with your health data to give you your optimal you.”
She sucked in and released. Floral scented smoke escaped from her lips.
“A hit?” she offered the wand.
He had been offered drugs many times in his line of work, but they usually came after the business meetings.
As if she sensed his hesitance, she outstretched her palm and he shook it. “Katherine Hayes, Marketing Assayer.”
“Gary Miller. My colleague John Morris, he said you were looking for marketing firms to represent your company.”
Katherine frowned, “I’m afraid we already have a marketing algorithm. I believe her name is Simone. Writes posts for us, generates any necessary images. Handles client scheduling too. I think that’s an extra add-on.”
He winced inwardly, but held his smile.
“How much are you paying for Simone? We might be able to offer a better rate.”
Katherine went behind the desk and brushed up an air screen.
“1,400 is our monthly spend. Can you do better than that?”
Gary winced outwardly this time. That was a fourth of his firm’s cheapest packages.
Katherine seemed to sense as much. She came back to perch on her desk.
“We’re still a relatively small start-up, so we have to keep our spending tight. But there’s lots of other companies that can afford a human touch. What kind of clients do you like to work with?”
“We specialize in mid-size brands, B2C, generally in the North Atlantic region.”
Katherine shook her head, “No, like, what have your favorite clients let you work on?”
Ping! sent caffeine pill free samples to the office, every week a different flavor. Then there was Aki insurance that brought in a slip-and-slide. But those were perks used to outweigh months of spreadsheets and bar graphs.
“Hibi Tea. We found artists for every flavor’s packaging, and local artists for every tea room.”
Katherine brightened, “That sounds like a lovely company.”
“It was, I thought of jumping ship and going in-house for them.”
Katherine moved forward and took his hand. He jumped from the abrupt physical contact.
“I’ll make a few calls to some friends. Don’t worry, I’m sure there are wonderful clients for you right around the corner.”
He had abstractly known that Katherine was beautiful the moment he had walked in, but now he felt the heat of her only inches away. Her head tilted up towards him. The light from the sconces drew deep flames out of her hair and he wondered what it would feel like to run his fingers through it.
He knew she was in the marketing business, and her words were likely simple flattery, but there was a timbre in her voice and wide-eyed look in her eyes that captured him fully.
“A Mr. Carleson is here to see you. Send him up?” the robotic secretary broke in.
“Please do,” Katherine replied, and dropped his hand. “Goodbye Mr. Miller.”
“Goodbye,” he said. He paused, “A pleasure,” he added.
He hesitated for a moment, but Katherine had moved back behind her desk, her eyes focused on some papers there.
He stepped back into the waiting room. He squinted as his eyes adjusted to the brighter light.
He headed off to the elevators, but unbidden he turned and opened the drawer where he had deposited the unfinished intake form.
Beautiful and kind, he answered that third question, and it was Katherine’s face in his mind.
It had been a long time since he had thought at all about her, or that moment. Now he read….
Perhaps knowing that Americans hold too much pride in the idea of work to willingly accept a future in which they are obsolete, the Office of Public Wellness was created to help people cope with this new world. Most Americans are not aware of this office; those that are largely know of it through wellness surveys after one is fired. But the New Astrologers’ IPO has brought to light the department’s far more ambitious plans.
The New Astrologers company also leads a double life. It is best known for its popular mobile app Astro that offers personalized, on-demand tarot card readings. But its real profit comes from a quieter, newly uncovered initiative: using the treasure trove of the data it has gotten from its games to create “employment profiles” that detail what employment people would find most fulfilling based on their personality.
The Office of Public Wellness identifies newly unemployed people, while the New Astrologers then identifies which roles these people might next enjoy. While this sounds well and good, the catch is: most of these jobs are not real.
Here enters Otto, the third party in this newly uncovered public-private partnership. Otto offers a wide range of algorithmic personalities that generate websites and a social media presence based on a few lines of description. Once a batch of like-minded unemployed people are identified, Otto will spin up an artificial company for these people to work at. Erin Newsom, the CEO of the New Astrologers, does not see this as unemployment but rather “parallel employment” that lean heavily towards “creative, social, and sustainable jobs that might not directly benefit investor bottom lines but provide structure and purpose for individuals and enrich society as a whole.”
The covert private partnership between the New Astrologers, the Office of Public Wellness, and Otto has created an interesting situation where even while many Americans fight against universal basic income, as much as thirty percent of all working age Americans are supported by a UBI. Most remain unaware of their fate.
Jerald Summers, Lead Employment Officer at the Office of Public Wellness claims half of those who worked in the logistics, administrative work, retail, and banking sector workers as of 2020 are employed in this parallel economy, and as much as thirty percent in the marketing and legal sectors. This number is set to rise to seventy and fifty percent over the next decade, respectively, and several other sectors are expected to be added.
It has still yet to be seen what the impact will be of having two increasingly separate economies, one human, one machine, or how the new widespread knowledge of humanity’s obsolescence will play out. For now, next time your boss is overly nice, you might want to double check if they are real.
He laughed at the article and looked at his computer where there were half a dozen task notifications and new client emails.
On the group chat someone had already posted the article. Several people responded, I wish! and ….does this mean we don’t have to do the budget report? ;)
Suzuki entered the chat, and posted a cartoon of his face on a ghost’s body.
I’ve just learned I’m not real! Well, this ghost is sad to report that yes, budget reports are still due by Wednesday.
He chuckled and started on his work. Throughout the morning the chat was alive with different iterations of Suzuki as the Ghost in the Shell and the Ghost of Budget Reports Past.
But it was odd that he got a new job he loved only two days after being fired from a job he hated.
The thought struck him out of nowhere.
He hardly ever used social media, but over lunch he logged in to see Kaeru’s profile. There were hundreds of posts; posts to wish their followers a Happy Halloween, to welcome the new HR Manager, posts to celebrate the launch of the new website. He knew many of these faces. His heart grew full as he looked at the company he had a hand in building, no matter how small.
He went back to work, appeased. But the email he started well before breakfast was still half-written by lunch.
But could an AI generate these social posts?
“Clara,” he said to his AI assistant, “Please back up all my work files and log out of the Kaeru server.”
He paused, “Log out of my computer and wipe all users too.”
It would take half a day to add his account back on and set up his preferences again. But it would squash any last doubts.
“Done!” came the chirp from Clara.
He paused. He had already seen enough to know Kaeru was a thriving company.
“Please log in as a Guest user and search for Kaeru, Inc.”
“Would you like the definition of Kaeru?”
“The company website please.”
“Top results include Kaeru: Children’s Adventure Park, Kaeru: Home Services, Kaeru: Toys for Children Ages 12 and Under.”
“The marketing company website.”
Clara displayed a two-person agency that had shut down a decade ago.
He took over for Clara. He combed through page after page of search results. With each title summary that had to do with “marketing” or “agency” hope flared up. With each page reality encroached further.
A stream of notifications fought for his attention from Tucker and Darryl about their upcoming work trip to Vermont. Tucker, who was a bit too honest about everything; he had never questioned how the man always had winning sales numbers. Darryl, who just got back from a year off for paternity leave; he had never thought about how his role was left unfilled when he was gone.
Frenetic energy coursed through his veins. Every single interaction he had at the company seemed to come alive in front of his eyes and he inspected each moment over and over. Who was real? What was real?
His eyes alighted on a plaque he had gotten from Kaeru. It read ‘MVP — Marketing Division.’ It took him years to get that plaque.
He took the plaque off the shelf, turned it over in his hands. It was so heavy, so tangible. He had found artists all over the world to create designs for reusable water bottles. Suzuki had commended his work; their team had been a part of a one percent decrease in water bottle usage across the entire country.
His heart swelled at the memory. He who had failed out of college twice, was able to make such a mark on the world.
Tears clouded his vision and his hands felt numb.
The plaque dropped, broke on the floor in a dozen twinkling shards.
He bent to retrieve it. Somewhere in his mind he knew glass was sharp, but his body and his self felt so very disconnected.
“I heard a crash — ,” Angie came into the room, saw the broken plaque, and immediately held back Kiri who wanted to investigate.
She shut the door so Kiri would not get in and rushed over, “Your award! Did it fall?”
He found it hard to form words. He looked down to see on his right hand a thin red line. Bright red blood leaked out and fell in thin rivulets down his arm to the carpet.
“You’re hurt!” Angie took off her sweater and pressed it to his hand.
He looked at Angie, the soft curves of her hidden under a pair of sweatpants, sweatpants that had an oil stain from last night’s pizza, her lips chapped and hair oily with flecks of dandruff. Angie who, when they had an infestation of lady bugs, had collected them in a jar and transported them to the park because she was not satisfied with the life they would lead on the tree right below their apartment.
Beautiful and kind.
He realized two things in that moment: the Miss CPA pageant definitely did not exist, and secondly, that it did not matter in the slightest.