By Frank Reynolds
In an alternate universe, people’s lives are dominated by popularity even more than they are here on earth in 2017. They are shaped by it, molded by it, transformed by it. Their status in the world is the very definition of who they are. There’s a system in place – a system that ranks each and every person’s popularity, allure, and worth in the world.
Some aren’t meant to be admired, while others are revered from the very day they are born. For everyone else, there’s the hope of being selected as a candidate for The Retargeting Group.
I woke to the sound of my mother. Her screams shook the house with such force that I was all but certain we were in the midst of another earthquake.
Nope. It was just her. Screaming bloody murder like I’d killed someone.
The rap at my door was what brought me to life, and I ushered her in. I looked at the clock and saw that school wouldn’t start for another two hours, so what in the world was she doing? Only a few more weeks until graduation, I thought bitterly. Just a few more weeks until the real world kicked in, when sleep wouldn’t come so easily – not with my popularity levels so low, at least.
She pushed her overly-excited self into my room and held out a letter. I saw that she’d already opened it; her going through my mail always irritated me, but after I’d read what she’d read my sour mood was vanquished. Before I’d fully comprehended what was happening, what was going to happen, we were jumping on my bed, absolutely elated.
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, OH MY GOSH!” I was crying I was so excited, and who could blame me? My life was going to change. I’d been selected as part of The Retargeting Group’s next batch of recruits for that quarter’s program. They wanted me. Me. They saw something in me, despite my lower popularity levels.
“You are to report to The Retargeting Group at 8 a.m. for orientation, effective immediately,” the letter read. I was out the door in less five minutes.
The Retargeting Group was unlike anything I’d ever seen. “Flawless” would be an unjust way to describe it. In short, acquiring a job through them would be a dream come true for anyone in my position – literally – and, if everything went according to plan, it was a real possibility for me. Their being the Gods of the world was important, but changing the lives of those who didn’t quite fit society’s definition of perfect meant everything. It was what people like me lived for.
After check in, I sat in the auditorium with all of the other recruits and waited. It was quiet, but that was to be expected, for these people weren’t particularly outgoing. I wasn’t either. After all, we were there because we hadn’t gotten popular on our own. And yet they’re still interested in what we have to offer.
The CEO made her way out on stage shortly after and greeted us with a fondness I hadn’t felt from anyone in quite some time. She got right to the point: we’d been summoned there as part of the company’s next project. Every quarter a new group of prospects was selected with one goal in mind – to bring those with unseen talent out into the world to make it a better place.
“People like likable people,” she said frankly, “so that makes our popularity scale essential in the delegation of jobs upon graduation. With that being said, likable people aren’t always the most qualified to run multi-million dollar businesses, or to teach our children, or even to work for us here at The Retargeting Group.
“Now, you all have scores lower than a five on your Status Scale.” I assumed she wasn’t wrong – I’d racked up a paltry 4.2/10 after 17 long years of existence. It wasn’t like I received a lot of bad grades from my peers, I just didn’t receive many good ones. I wasn’t the most social person out there; more of an introvert than anything.
She continued: “Obviously, these scores wouldn’t make for lavish jobs if you were all just ordinary people. Fortunately for you, you’re not ordinary.” She drew a folder from a bag sitting beside her. “As you all know, we here at The Retargeting Group keep tabs on you from the moment you’re brought into this world. Our records are reviewed every quarter of every year for all your lives to see if we find you suitable for the program. You may not be the most popular, but you indeed have the potential to be assets in this world.”
The woman smiled and went on to explain how the program worked. The average candidate was sent out 15-20 times a month to various locations – locations carefully picked by The Retargeting Group in an effort to concentrate exposure. They found that 15-20 times every four weeks or so was enough to draw attention without being seen as too suffocating.
“Think of yourselves as little bits of code. ‘Pixels,’ if you will, that are being dropped into other people’s lives with hopes of intriguing them.”
The goal sounded simple enough – learn your trade and get people to like you. “This is the chance of a lifetime,” she said, “an opportunity other people don’t get. You’re getting a chance to do something you love regardless of your prior scores, to boost those numbers while surrounded by people just like you.” She went on to say that, to our collective relief, our scores were being wiped clean. “A fresh start” is what she called it. Bonding with people who liked the same things we did should have been much easier to do than continuing to fail at what was considered the norm for others.
It was all very exciting. Too exciting to be true, in all honesty, and, as if on cue, she told us all the catch: the company was investing a lot of resources in us, so if we were unsuccessful in our endeavors, there would be consequences. She didn’t elaborate on what those consequences were; instead, she concluded by reassuring them that their program had a success rate of nearly 90 percent, so there was hardly anything to worry about.
We were sent home shortly after the presentation ended and told to get a good night’s sleep, seeing how we were to be sent out into the field the following morning after a brief meeting at The Retargeting Group. I was nervous – excited, but nervous – and when I told my parents, they didn’t seem too worried about the alleged consequences of failure.
“You’re going to be great,” Mom said. “I’m so proud of you.”
The next morning, my fellow recruits came with plenty of questions that extended our “brief” meeting to over an hour. I only had one: the CEO had mentioned that our locations were selected “carefully,” but what did that mean?
The person in charge of that morning’s seminar, a tall, kindly man, smiled. “Good question, Cookie,” he started. “You’ve all been reminded of how we’ve been keeping track of you for a long, long time now, but just to be diligent we’re going to have you all take a series of tests before heading out this morning. That way we ensure you’re given the best possible chance to connect and succeed.” He told us that the program worked best when recruits were matched with others who were actively looking to spend time with people like us.
After the tests, which were more detailed than I’d anticipated (though I suppose that was for the best) we were gathered and given one last bit of advice: Seventy-four percent of people find The Retargeting Group’s “programs” to be creepy, and 65 percent find that being forced to spend time with recruits from the program is an invasion of their privacy.
“You’re looking to strike gold with the other 26 and 35 percent,” their instructor said. “Remember, each program is different. You’ll all be part of different ‘campaigns’ for different amounts of time, targeting a different number of people.”
We were given one more parting gift upon departure: as an added bonus, no negative scores would count against us for the duration of our programs. “You’ll not only be starting with a clean slate, but any score you receive at less than a 5 will be discredited, seeing how you are part of a program and these decisions are not entirely being made on your behalf. So again, your goal is to get the highest score possible. A lot of people will be annoyed with you, this much is true, so don’t pay any mind to them. Try to find a few real connections and run with them.” I was given my “campaign” – a two-week program with six locations.
Two weeks. Six chances. It was shorter than I would have liked, but it would have to do.
My first assigned location was at a theater class. It looked a bit rundown, having been built over 100 years ago. Some may have found this to be a bit off-putting, given the pristine appearance of The Retargeting Group. I, however, found it somewhat endearing. History interested me, especially when it pertained to the theater. Being an actress would mean the world to me, which is why it was so hard to cope with my score on the Status Scale. Actresses had to be respected and well-liked. They were polarizing figures. I clearly wasn’t. It was just… when I got on stage, everything was different. I felt free. I felt like no one was judging despite my understanding that they were. Everyone was judging when watching actresses act, but the difference was that there was nothing they could do about it. I was going to be heard, regardless of what they thought.
My fine arts instructor in school had told me to “pretend life is a movie or play. Pretend you’re acting all of the time.” That way I wouldn’t be such a recluse. I could see what he meant, but when I tried I was seen as standoff-ish, and that lowered my score even more. I was hoping that being sent to a location with more people like me would ease my ability to express myself to a more receptive audience.
The results were… mixed.
For starters, the group knew I was part of the program from the moment I opened the door, and so a great number of them were turned off before I even had the chance to speak. Those who were willing to talk only gave me a few seconds of facetime before I felt clouds of judgment sweep over me like a dense fog. More often than not, the clouds were too dark for comfort.
The few who gave me a chance were nice, I guess. They listened to me ramble about my love for the theater and the movie industry alike. They answered my questions regarding their own aspirations and dreams. Still, I never felt a true connection. I never felt like someone really wanted to be there with me. When I told my parents about my first day, my dad reminded me that it was only the first of six chances, and he promised that things would get better. “No one ever lands a 10 on their first day,” he said, claiming to have spoken with someone who’d been chosen by The Retargeting Group some 20 years ago. He never said whether or not that person passed.
The next three locations resulted in more of the same – an overwhelming disregard for my presence. There was a decent amount of overlap; so much so, in fact, that I was pretty amazed. How was The Retargeting Group able to predict where these people would be and when they would be there? They weren’t kidding when they said this was creepy. Nevertheless, I went on doing as the managers of my program suggested. They told me to focus on those who seemed like they could be interested in getting to know me rather than forcing a connection that wasn’t there.
Regardless of who I tried to reach, it wasn’t working. It just wasn’t… well, for the most part. There was this one guy. He’d come up to me at my second location and listened to me ramble, but that hadn’t turned him away. Instead, he kept coming back. Little by little, inch by inch, he sank deeper and deeper into the pool that was our budding relationship. I didn’t feel like he was totally in, but progress was certainly being made.
The problem was that I only had two sessions left to get a score of some kind. Any score. After four locations, I was sporting a solid 0/10, and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like: no one had given me a score up until that point (or not a score above a five, at least).
The managers told me that this was relatively common. A lot of people saved their scores for after they’d made a final decision on the person. Sometimes this happened immediately, but it usually took more than four sessions. In all honesty, it usually takes more than six. I was disappointed, sure, but determined. I didn’t want to blow this, my chance of being an actress. I didn’t want to find out what the “consequence” for failure was, either.
My fifth day was the best of the bunch because my guy came up to me for a change. He’s interested – It was all I could think to think. We talked, had a pleasant conversation, and left it at that. He didn’t know when the program would end – no one outside of the recruits and The Retargeting Group were made aware of that – but he ended our conversation in a way that suggested he knew we’d meet again.
The thought gave me butterflies. I hadn’t had many real friends before, and never a boyfriend, but there was a spark in his mannerisms when he was around me. I smiled, knowing that I had a chance to close a passable score on my last day.
Before receiving my sixth and final location of the program, my manager told me that the CEO wanted to see me in her office. I gulped at this, and I felt a bead of sweat trickle down from the fringe of my forehead and into the brow above my right eye.
“Sorry?” I asked, breath catching in my throat.
“Boss’ orders. Follow the hall to its end – you’ll know where to go.”
I did as I was bid, but not without a noticeable hesitation in my step. What did the CEO want with me? Did it have to do with my numbers – or lack thereof – or was it something else? This couldn’t have been common; she was the CEO of the largest and most important corporation in the world.
My manager had been right; her office was as obvious as anything I’d ever seen. It was a heavily guarded room the size of a small house. When she waved me in, I sat in a chair that was more comfortable than my bed but couldn’t bring myself to relax. The anxiety I felt was suffocating.
After some short formalities, the CEO got down to the point. “You’re a talented young woman, Cookie. You know this as well as I.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. Did I know that? I’d been told I was a good actress in school, yes, but there was a difference between hearing something your teacher said and actually believing in it.
“We want you to succeed,” she continued, “which is why you have to close someone. Anyone. Today. You must record a number, preferably above an eight, to set a popularity score worthy of becoming an actress.”
“I met a boy.” The words came out in such a quiet rush that I was surprised the CEO heard me.
“That’s good, Cookie, that’s good.” She smiled faintly. “You’ve a talent we haven’t seen in a young actress in some time, but you know how actresses are. They’re in the spotlight 24/7, and we can’t rely on someone with a 4.2 to take the movie industry to the next level. You understand that, right?” I nodded. “So, that makes this boy all the more important to you. Remember – most people are too scared to talk outright to strangers. Roughly two percent have the courage to say something to someone they don’t know. The other 98 percent are what we call ‘window shoppers.’ Are you catching my drift?”
I wasn’t, but I bowed my head all the same. My reaction must not have been convincing enough, seeing how she went on. “Our goal here at The Retargeting Group is very simple – we want to convert those window shoppers into actual buyers. This boy? He’s a window shopper. You reached out to him, remember, but now it seems like he’s still interested and browsing. Go on and close him.” With a pat on the back she sent me off, and I was standing at location six before I knew it. Sure enough, he was there, and sure enough, he browsed his way over to me.
I felt myself shaking. This was it. This was my last chance to prove my worth to The Retargeting Group. It was all or nothing now.
“Hi,” he said, too calm for how big the moment was.
There was a brief and somewhat awkward pause that followed, but as time went on and more words were said, I found that he was the one who was engaging me. My reserved and tense behavior didn’t seem to deter him. He’d gotten to know me over those last few days, and he was legitimately interested. The more he talked, the easier it was to talk back. So easy, in fact, that he even gave me his number before I left. It was the most meaningful thing anyone had ever done in my life, though he didn’t know that. It was a gesture that filled me with so much joy my heart could have burst. A number was as good as a solid rating – a great one, even.
It wasn’t long before I was called back into the CEO’s office, this time under entirely different circumstances, and she issued me heart-felt congratulations for ringing in a perfect 10/10.
“How did you do it?” She asked me, genuinely curious.
“I just… I just did.” I didn’t really know how it happened, I couldn’t explain it. The only thing I knew was that the program worked. I’d been targeted and then retargeted, deployed and then accepted. I wasn’t a hopeless case after all.
“Well, whatever you did, you came through, and that’s what counts. You remember we told you recruits that all programs are different, right?”
I said yes, and she stood, holding a manila folder in one hand and her glasses in the other. “Your program was designed specifically for you as a sort of test. A trial. Actresses need to be able to work under stress. Both the theater and the movie industry work on tight deadlines, and so we needed to make sure you’d be able to meet those kinds of demands, hence the short-lived nature of your trial.” She grinned and handed me the folder. “Congratulations on passing, but we have bigger plans for you. What if I were to tell you that the folder you hold contains our plans for your future as an actress?”
I almost jumped out of my seat and hugged her so aggressively she almost fell. I half expected her to call for her guards, but instead, I heard her laughing. “I’m assuming that’s a yes?”
“Thank you. Thank you so much.” I wiped the tears forming in the corners of my eyes. Because of The Retargeting Group, my dreams were now no longer dreams. They were my new reality.
The CEO told me that they would be in touch after graduation and that I should try to enjoy my last few days as a kid. As I stepped from her office, I turned on my phone and saw that I had a text message from the boy who’d made it all possible.
His name was Roi.