“May we come in?”
The woman smiled warmly, her eyes never leaving Jacob’s. Her colleague – a man in his early thirties, Jacob surmised, dressed in similarly neutral smart-casual attire, with expensive spectacles and a briefcase held firmly by his side – tried a smile, but it didn’t quite come off.
“Sorry,” said Jacob, “you said you’re from…?”
“Pepsi,” said the man.
“Pepsi?” said Jacob.
“That’s correct,” said the woman, her smile widening, bright teeth revealed. Her face was dewy, fresh.
“Have I won something?”
The woman sort of yelped, still smiling. Her colleague inched forward.
“What she means,” he said, though she hadn’t said anything, just yelp-laughed, “is that while you are a valued Pepsi customer –”
“Hugely valued,” the woman offered.
“– hugely valued, our visit today is not a promotional one.”
“Not exactly,” said the woman.
“Not exactly, no,” the man continued. “But it is an important one.”
The woman beamed. “Hugely important.”
Jacob pulled the cord of his dressing gown a little tighter. “I need to get to work –”
“It won’t take a minute,” said the woman. Her smile wobbled. Her colleague almost imperceptibly placed his hand on her arm.
Jacob shrugged. “Well, you know, I do like Pepsi. So…” He gestured for them to enter the apartment.
“We know you do!” the woman almost shouted as she entered and gazed around a little too intently. Jacob saw her take in the recliner, the empty bottle of scotch on the coffee table, the first generation games console. Mild panic pinched at the corners of her eyes.
“You’ve been a registered Pepsi drinker since 2017,” said the man.
The three of them settled at the dining table, once Jacob had cleared away the shirt he was halfway through ironing on it.
“Really?” said Jacob.
“You logged your first Pepsi purchase via Alexa in February of that year,” said the woman, who had now placed both her hands on the table, as if preparing for a seance. “A twelve-pack.”
“Right,” said Jacob, remembering. “Super Bowl, I guess. Ordered a keg too right?” He grinned.
“Yes,” countered the woman. Her face briefly darkened. “And tequila.”
“A perfect Pepsi moment,” said the man, evenly. “Get your crew round, watch the game, share a Pepsi.”
“You have a lot of friends?” said the woman in a higher pitch than she’d used thus far.
The man glanced at her. The woman took her hands off the table and placed them on her lap, staring at Jacob all the while.
“Sure,” said Jacob, frowning. “I mean… yeah. I have a few good friends. You know.”
“That’s great,” the man said with a tone like a pallbearer. “That’s good to know. That’s important.”
Neither offered any response immediately. The woman looked at the man. The man took off his spectacles, cleaned them with his lapel, then placed them back on his nose.
“Jacob,” he said at last. “Pepsi is a big corporation. You know that. But while big, we’re not – how shall I put it? Uncaring. Our commitment to our customers doesn’t end when a transaction is made. We aim to extend the relationship beyond the purchase window and maintain long-term engagement, if we can, with every passionate Pepsi advocate.”
Jacob absorbed this. “The fuck does that mean?” he said.
“The data we collect –” the man began.
“We understand you, Jacob,” the woman interjected. “We understand you because we work hard to understand you, so that we can better serve your needs. Remember in July, a week before your birthday, Alexa suggested you might order in some Pepsi? You remember that?”
Jacob wasn’t sure he did. “Yeah,” he said, nonetheless.
“Well, that was us! We knew your birthday was coming up, so we prompted Alexa to make that suggestion. And you enjoyed some delicious Pepsi on your birthday, right?”
“Right!” The woman looked triumphant, but also on the verge of tears.
The man coughed, once, then again, like a code. “As I was saying. Our data is extensive. We look at your social media interactions, purchase history, browser behaviour, the contextual signals you send out via your smartphone – all sorts of hugely revealing metrics.” He was getting excited now, a slight sheen of sweat glowing on his forehead.
“To help us serve you better!” the woman squeaked.
“Sure,” said the man. His tongue darted out briefly, wetting his bottom lip. “But of course, when we feed this data to our algorithms, the computer can tell us other things too. Beyond just whether it’s your birthday coming up and we should send you some Pepsi.”
“What… sort of things?” Jacob asked. He glanced at his watch. “Y’know, I’m going to be late for work, so –”
Just then the woman reached out her hand and placed it on Jacob’s. Her smile turned to a concerned pout. “You don’t have a job.”
Her colleague shook his head. “No no,” he said, turning to her. “Nothing declarative at this stage. We need to first establish trust in the process.”
The woman retracted her hand. “I’m sorry.” She cocked her head at Jacob. “It’s my first assignment. I mean – you’re my first assignment. I’m new to the department.”
The woman froze.
Her colleague sighed and deftly wiped the sweat from his forehead. “We’re from the Pepsi Pre-Suicide Outreach Department,” he said, with some portent. “The data we’ve collected on you over the past five years has – well, our algorithms have flagged you up – that is to say, according to our current modelling –”
“You’re likely to kill yourself in the next three days,” said the woman. Her mouth remained slightly agape.
The man lowered his head and muttered some kind of short mantra. Jacob sat back, taking this in. He gazed from the man to the woman then to the man again. Finally, he snorted.
“Is this a joke?”
“No,” said the man.
Jacob snorted again. “Well then I think your algorithm’s defective.”
“I wish that were the case,” said the man, reaching beneath him for his briefcase. Placing it on the table, he popped the locks and retrieved a file. “But your projected sequence is extremely worrying.”
“My sequence?” Jacob stood up. “Sorry – this is bullshit. Thanks for the chat but now I really gotta get to work.” He pushed his chair under the table, defiantly.
“Rachel’s leaving you,” said the woman.
Her colleague sighed. “Again, before you get to the projections you need to –”
“Shut up!” The woman was on her feet now too. She glared at the man. “How can you just sit there talking about projections and metrics and algorithms? What’s the matter with you?”
She went over to Jacob, put her hand on his shoulder. “Rachel is… she’s been unfaithful. She’s been ordering a lot of Pepsi via Siri, early in the morning, at an address a few blocks from here. The address is registered to a man named Nathan –”
“Spinks?” said Jacob. He made a fist with his right hand.
“Nathan Spinks, yes. Her line manager. Also a valued Pepsi customer. They’ve been enjoying a three am Pepsi for a couple of months. Since your birthday in fact.”
Jacob rocked back on his heels. “What?”
The woman pulled Jacob towards her. “You had an argument didn’t you? Because of your drinking? And she left, around twelve thirty.”
“How do you know?”
“She has the Pepsi Fitness app on her phone. We can track her movements via the pedometer. Plus she posted on Facebook twelve minutes later that she was ‘done with boozehounds’.”
Jacob crumpled into the woman’s arms.
“Jacob… I’m so sorry.”
Breathing in the woman’s perfume – figs, and notes of jasmine – Jacob moaned against her neck: “But why does that –?”
“Your tweets,” the woman whispered. “The Pepsi algorithm parsed your tweet sentiment and matched it to models of people at risk of suicide. You scored an 89.” The woman cradled Jacob as he began to quietly sob. “We had to come. It’s our duty as a brand. We can’t stand by and watch a loyal customer fall apart.”
The man placed the file back in his briefcase and stood up. “So now you understand,” he said. “The good news is –”
He glanced at them, standing there together on the cusp of an unknown future.
“Well,” the man said. “You tell him.”
The woman put her hand under Jacob’s chin, tipped his head up so their eyes met.
She smiled radiantly. “A lifetime’s supply of Pepsi – how does that sound?”
This story is included in the sci-fi anthology The Singularity, available to buy on Amazon.