I watched Amanda eat. Some celebrity chef had launched a high-end restaurant by her office, so she and some ad agency colleagues had gone to check out the opening.
Her food was amazing. She had this tic where she clenched the muscles up where her jaw met her ears. She only did that when she was eating something really good, like she was fighting to keep the flavor in her mouth.
I clicked my trackball, pausing the footage and freezing Amanda with a perfectly-balanced forkful of something green and frondy halfway to her mouth, already composing the caption in my head. People came to this job thinking they’d get a deeper appreciation of life, vicariously experiencing what they’d never have. They learned fast.
I strobed through Amanda’s afternoon. She had a campaign photoshoot, her first time at the helm of a major project. I swiped off stills and marked out clips of Amanda directing the models. She kept tucking her hair behind her ears — she did that when hiding nerves — but she looked authoritative, a natural. People would eat this up. Behind-the-scenes posts from Amanda’s job always got strong Attention Capture, especially when models were involved.
I grabbed my picks and assembled a photo collage, a few video montages for the weekly “Look Back”, and some hashtagged text-under-photo posts, then dropped them into the queue for publishing. Some clients insisted on approving everything we posted to their social feeds, but Amanda trusted us.
I was closing up when a fresh dataload hit my inbox. Every dataload was a melange of the unstructured digital detritus we crap out every day. Social posts, location data, streaming tracks, cat videos; everything we cram into our faces to make our existence a little more bearable. The YouPlus app on Amanda’s phone slurped up all of that for us. Like most YouPlus clients, she also wore a LifeCam, which grabbed stills and video at irregular intervals based on situationally-aware algorithms. A couple of times a day, I received a voyeur’s wet dream, a barely-filtered glimpse into the lives of half a dozen in-crowd clients.
At first, it was thrilling; deep access to the lives of people so far beyond me in the social pecking order –people who could afford to pay YouPlus more than my annual salary each month to optimize their online self-image.
The thrill faded fast. Seeing how the other half lived threw my life into sharper relief, and their obsession with sculpting the perfect online persona — not professionally, but to their friends — made me despair. The only thing that kept me here was Amanda.
The dataload was marked “high priority”. I was officially off the clock, but Amanda paid premium, and Zed would give me another chewing out if I sat on this until morning. I flicked through the material. It looked routine, not worth fast-tracking, until— There. Harvey, down on one knee, holding up a glittering rock big enough to brain a four-year-old. Video from Amanda’s POV, plus a side view from Harvey’s phone, carefully placed to capture the moment from a flattering angle.
I grinned. This had been a long time coming. I’d watched Harvey through Amanda’s lens long enough to have spotted the signs weeks ago, and I’d been looking forward to watching her kick the asshole to the curb. The worst of their fights, his gaslighting and psych-out manipulation never made the feeds, but, even in the narrative, their relationship had been up and down all year; it just needed a catalyst to get her to drop the bastard. I skipped over his speech, looking for the moneyshot.
She said yes.
I sat there, mouth open. Why would she say yes? She finally had the chance to be shot of him, a perfect trigger to kick out the man who made her so unhappy, and she said yes?
Amanda was the only one who still gave me hope. She was real, even through the repackaged self of the social media lens; there was a vulnerability at her heart that let me feel, deep down, that we weren’t that different. She wasn’t like the others, the Fauxialites who’d do anything for their dopamine hit of attention. They might as well have been another species. Homo Narcissus. That was why Amanda’s narrative worked so well — it had a real person at its heart. The Amanda I knew would never have said yes.
I hovered my hand over the trackball, flexing my fingers, thinking; waiting. I had more than enough material stored up. Ball and screen blurred as I pulled up half a dozen old dataloads, searching for the right pieces.
I could fix this.
My brain was still fogged with morning when Zed called me into his office. I stumbled through the door from the musty editors’ workspace into Zed’s plush, artfully-lit office. You could tell he entertained clients in here; the contrast made my eyes ache. He even had a plant.
“Dala, Amanda called me last night.”
I rubbed my eye with the back of one hand. “Yeah?”
Zed steepled his fingers, leaning forward over his desk and appraising me before gesturing at a chair, into which I slumped. Zed was the boss, which meant he was the only one who actually made money around here. He ran the studio, won clients and kept them happy, while we did all the real work.
He consulted his computer. “She sent through a special order last night, high priority. Did you get it?”
He knew damned well I’d got it. He could check on the system to see exactly when I’d opened it.
He nodded. “Amanda said… Well, Harvey proposed, and she said ‘yes.’”
He cocked an eyebrow. “’Will you marry me?’ ‘Yes.’” He half-turned as he spoke, an exchange between an imagined couple. “Not a lot of room for misinterpretation.”
I shook my head.
“So why did you post that she turned him down?” His voice cracked with rage. I recoiled.
Zed read from the screen. “’I decided that it was time for a change and that Harvey can’t make me happy.’ You wrote that?”
I shrugged; his eyes narrowed.
“We operate on trust, Dala. Clients give us access to their entire lives, and some, like Amanda, trust us to speak with their voice. Going off script destroys that trust. If this got out, I’d lose a lot of clients.”
“She doesn”t love Harvey,” I said.
“So what?” He sighed. “This leaves me in a very awkward position.”
Here it came. It’d been mild so far by Zed standards, but I’d finally got him furious enough to fire me. I didn’t want to lose my job, but this manufactured life projection had worn me out some time ago; Amanda was the one good thing that balanced it out. Perfect Amanda. The work I did for her made me feel like my own existence had some essential purpose. She was the reason, at the end of each day, I could say “I”ve had a positive impact on someone’s life”. There certainly wasn’t anyone else. But if Amanda wasn’t who I thought, if she was willing to deny herself happiness, to marry the wrong person for… For what? Superior Attention Capture? If that was where this was going, I was done.
I held up my hands. “I get it. I violated her trust. But I’d do it again. Harvey made Amanda unhappy; she shouldn’t even have been dating him, let alone marrying him. You might not think it matters, but she’s better than that, and eventually, people will see through it, Attention Capture will fall off a cliff, and you’ll be down a client regardless.”
I braced for the backlash, but he took it quietly. He turned the screen so I could see the graph, two colored lines performing a zig-zag tandem dance until one leapfrogged the other and shot skywards.
“This,” he said, suddenly energized, pointing at a spot on the lesser line, “Was projected Attention Capture for Amanda’s engagement. And this,” the other line’s vertical ascent, “Is what we got with your… editorializing. It was divisive, but most people came down in favor of “Amanda’s” decision to dump Harvey. What you did broke trust, but the results…” He considered the screen again, momentarily lost in thought. “This is a new area for us, potentially a lucrative one. Once I talked Amanda down, she suggested she could get on board.”
“Has she told Harvey?”
Zed pursed his lips. “She’s willing to trial this more hands-on approach, and yes, part of that will involve rectifying the disjunct between narrative and reality. She’s assured me she’ll attend to that.” He tapped his chin, eyeing me, then nodded. “I want you to spearhead the pilot program. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve half a mind to cut you loose, save myself the risk, but you clearly know the limits of Amanda’s narrative; let’s see what you can do. If it works out, we can extend it to more clients. Kind of a “life production” service.”
“Does it come with a raise?”
“I shouldn’t have even let you in the building this morning. Chalk your continued employment up to an act of God and proceed accordingly.”
I must have visibly bridled, because he held up a hand. “Prove it’s not a fluke, show me what you’re worth, then we’ll talk.” He waved me out. “Start small. Nothing this drastic without consulting Amanda first. We’re on thin ice, and I can’t afford for you to trash what trust capital we have left, am I clear?”
I’d had more than enough material to craft the jilting post. There had been a moment, right as Amanda walked into the room and saw Harvey down on one knee, where she couldn’t hide her despair, the recognition that her life was on rails and she couldn’t stop it. It was no more than a few frames, but it was like she was screaming for help.
I’d thrown in a few specific callbacks to old fights, talking up how it was a difficult decision, but ultimately the right one. It had been an act of desperation, trying to exercise control where I had none, a last bid to show Amanda what I saw. I hadn’t expected it to work. Reality was not generally this accommodating of the narrative, but I had reached out, exerted my will, and reality had blinked.
The next dataload was the best I’d ever received. I got to watch Amanda kicking Harvey to the curb. She’d cut the audio, but it was worth it for the look on his face, the hurt, confused rage.
She’d taken a selfie while leaving Harvey’s house, her smiling a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time, a powerful joy over her whole face. She looked like a woman walking out of prison, trying not to burst with the sense of freedom and possibility welling up inside her.
My Amanda was back.
[YouPlus_Dala 10-May 10:32] Hi
[AmandaJ 10-May 11:27] Hi!! Can’t believe I finally get to talk to the person who’s been making all this happen! Zed keeps you guys locked away.
[YouPlus_Dala 10-May 11:29] We’re clear of the breakup halo and we need a new interest hook. We should get you dating.
[AmandaJ 10-May 11:33] Feels like it’s too soon.
[YouPlus_Dala 10-May 11:34] The time is right. I’ve already lined up two for next week. You need this.
Our conversations were always awkward. It felt weird communicating with her; it was like a character from a book I’d been reading had popped up for a fourth-wall-breaking chat. There was an undercurrent of fear, too. They say you shouldn’t meet your idols, and I was worried Amanda would turn out to not be who I thought she was, like she almost had that night with Harvey. But she listened to me, let me steer her where she needed to go. She needed my help, and I was happy to provide it.
“I’m going to make it an official offering,” said Zed. “A premium-tier, bespoke subscription service where we don’t just sculpt our clients’ images, we shape the entire trajectory of their lives.”
The thought of doing this for any of YouPlus’ other clients made me grind my teeth. There was something substantive to Amanda’s life that we could actually shape. They were all veneer. They’d fall over themselves to do whatever we said if they thought it would boost AC.
Zed took my silence for awe, like he’d done something more than slap some expensive adjectives on the concept I’d created and made it sound like his idea.
“If you keep getting AC like this with Amanda, we stand to make a lot of money,” he said.
“So, I’ll get that raise?”
He waved a hand. “It’s still early-stage, I don’t think it’s appropriate—”
“You just said we stand to make a lot of money.”
He jabbed a finger. “I haven’t forgotten what you did. You could have done this agency a lot of damage. I can always find someone else to run this pilot, remember that.”
My hands tightened on the armrests, leaving nail imprints in the wood, but I said nothing.
I played matchmaker for a while. People enjoyed the intimate view into Amanda’s dating, so I cast the net wide for eligible and interesting candidates. I kept notes on potentials from her wider social circle and ran a couple of parallel dating-app profiles optimized for different audiences. I wasn’t just hunting for good potential partners, but people who would generate interesting post-date anecdotes, which took a lot of the sting out of the horror show of online dating.
We kept it varied, some decent-looking guys from Amanda’s social tier, photogenic enough to play well on the feeds, mixed in with the occasional bore or weirdo off whose back we could share rants or awkward stories the next day — it was important to show life’s honest challenges alongside its great successes and pleasures. Most were people who wouldn’t look twice at me in real life, and with whom I’d never be able to hold a conversation. Wearing Amanda’s internet face, channeling her, I set my worthless self aside for little stretches of time. It felt good, being her.
I spent longer and longer in the office, trawling through everything. It had always been my job to know Amanda better than she did, but this went further. I inhaled Amanda, drank in every digital trace of her I could reach.
She got quite into the dating. At this point, I was basically her virtual love broker, filtering the crazies, asking people out on her behalf, and organizing dates. She loved the thrill of showing up somewhere with no idea of whom she was about to meet or what she was about to do, but with the assurance that I was behind it, so it was safe. I kept trying to find new ways to delight her in our own little courtship-by-proxy.
[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 13:31] We need to take it up a notch. People like this, but it’s surface detail, going stale. We need an inflection point.
[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 13:32] Ask Chuck out again tonight. Take him home.
[AmandaJ 28-May 13:43] This is weird.
[AmandaJ 28-May 13:44] He was nice, but I wasn’t that into him.
[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 13:46] You don’t have to be into him; nothing needs to happen, but it lets us imply something happened. People will fill in the gaps. They love that kind of gossip.
[AmandaJ 28-May 14:02] I’m uncomfortable with this. I can’t even ask him now, it’s too weird.
[YouPlus_Dala 28-May 14:05] I just did it for you. A car will pick you up at 8.
I felt bad for pushing, but a story needs its little peaks. She still took him home. I didn’t make her do that — if she hadn’t wanted to, she would have just called it a night or cancelled, but she knew I was right. The results confirmed it. I was always right.
I had to wrap the dating arc when we started going steady with Aiden. He was good for Amanda; not the strongest of her dates, AC-wise, but I saw it on her face from the start: he made her happy. It was time to shake things up, anyway.
I looked for new avenues to keep the narrative fresh. Amanda’s campaign had launched strong, and other agencies were grooming her with mumblings of more senior positions, bigger projects, more creative control. She could ride the success of this campaign to something bigger and better. Amanda disagreed. She fought me over it, wanting to stick it out where she was to show loyalty. She was wrong — blind loyalty wasn’t worth anything. They didn’t value her like they should.
She was pulling away; most of our conversations ended in silence. It took a while, AC wavering all the time, but I wore her down. She took a meeting. She started a senior campaign manager job at a prestigious firm two weeks later. A big step up this early in her career, complete with a bigger paycheck. That was Amanda. I couldn’t even get the raise that Zed and I both knew I deserved. I was nothing next to her.
I put together a #micdrop walkout post for her old job. I could practically hear Zed salivating. A pay bump meant he could wring even more money out of her. Hell, it meant he could tout this “editorial life coaching” service more effusively. Double your salary and make sure all your friends see you looking great while you do it.
After that, we needed another shot in the arm. Things with Aiden were going strong, but idealized love stories are for movies. People get contemptuous of watching that one perfect couple having the time of their lives.
I went through everything, over and over, savoring each new dataload like a gourmet meal, or the fresh hit of a drug. Some nights I couldn’t tear myself away, so I grabbed snatches of sleep in the hollow under my desk, headphone cable snaking down so I could listen to her voice while I dozed.
Amanda spent most of her time with Aiden now, took longer and longer to respond to my messages, throwing up more walls against me when she did. It didn’t make sense. I’d shown her time and time again that we were better together, that her life improved when she didn’t say “no” to me. Without her cooperation, it was getting harder to maintain the results. Couldn’t she see how much she needed me? I had to use my initiative.
I sowed seeds that hinted at something wrong under the surface of the relationship. Nothing overt; signs so subtle they were almost subliminal. Posts that, when read carefully, silhouetted fights that never happened; I chose photos of them together where her smile looked just a little strained — when that becomes a pattern, you start to suspect someone’s posing under duress. I edited Aiden into a few photos of Amanda out with friends, lurking in the background, watching. Once, I posted and deleted a message which, while not directly referencing Aiden, showed that Amanda was scared for her safety.
I was careful. I kept them infrequent, as far out of sight as possible. They’d subtly nudge people’s perceptions, implanting a nagging, subconscious discomfort that set me up for my masterstroke. Amanda noticed nothing. She barely looked at her feed anymore.
I found our next twist. Amanda had an estranged sister, Ella. They hadn’t spoken in nearly ten years. When their mom got sick, Ella disengaged, leaving Amanda to take her to hospital appointments, stay with her during treatment, that sort of thing. This was before Amanda started with YouPlus, but by this point I was combing way back in her feed and message history to find whatever new scraps of Amanda I could. When her mom passed, Amanda cut Ella out of her life. Said she was “toxic”. Even tried to stop her coming to the funeral.
It would be a great story. Ella was the only family Amanda had left, and it would be a chance for her to show she was strong enough to reach across the divide, that family was more important than past mistakes. I thought of my family and shuddered. I could never be as strong as she was.
It would be good for her, too. I saw the pain whenever someone brought up family, a subtle play across her face, tightness in the skin around the ears, body language shifting to aversion. Amanda was fearless; deep-seated pain like that had no place in her life. This would be a chance for her to exorcise it.
She’d be resistant. These days, she fought me as often as not, and AC was steadily tanking as a result. We couldn’t afford that here. I reached out to Ella directly through Amanda’s chat account. It was tricky to strike the right tone — not full-on conciliatory, but not so hostile that it would scare her off. I pinned her down for lunch and blocked the time off in Amanda’s diary. It would be just like when we were dating. Amanda would arrive first, Ella would show up shortly after, and Amanda would have no choice but to reconnect with her sister.
I didn’t expect miracles, but it was important for Amanda, and would rescue her AC for a week or so. And it would show her that my voice still mattered — that she still needed me.
Zed pointed at the chart on his screen, a sharp dip a few more bad days away from bottoming out.
“I know,” I said. “I had it all set with the sister, but Amanda just walked out. Wouldn’t talk to her.”
“That’s because you didn’t clear it with her first,” said Zed. “You’re not her puppet master, you can’t manipulate her into doing stuff she doesn’t want to. You’re supposed to be working with her. Christ, how would you feel if someone set you up on a blind date with a toxic shit you thought you never had to see again?”
I blinked at him. “Amanda’s not afraid of her past, she’s stronger than that. This was her chance to show it.”
“Well, she’s this close to pulling the plug.” He pinched the air. “She doesn’t like the way you’re handling things, and the results aren’t exactly…” He shook his head. “Maybe it was a mistake, putting you on this, maybe—”
My rage bubbled over. “How am I supposed to get results if she keeps fighting me?”
He recomposed himself quickly, but I saw Zed’s ripple of shock. He watched me warily. “Maybe we’ve reached our limit with Amanda. Having someone direct your life must be stressful — I think we’ve found the saturation point. We’ve got five other clients signed up for the pilot. I’ll send you the briefs and you can start with them in the morning. I’ll get Amanda in for a meeting to thank her, and tell her that we’ve run our course.”
I dug my fingernails into my legs to keep from shouting. If I came on too strong, it was all over. I wasn’t just going to let him take her from me.
“Can I talk to her?” Don’t say you’re nothing without her don’t say it. “If our time together is… over, I’d like to meet the person whose life I’ve been directing for the past eight months.”
“I don’t like clients meeting editors. They get,” he looked me up and down, “Weirded out.”
Nothing without her nothing without her noth—
“But she’s not going to be a client anymore,” I said, fighting to keep my voice even. “And this was hardly a normal project. It’ll be good closure. We don’t want to leave things sour. She has plenty of friends she can refer.”
Zed winced. “Take a shower and make sure you put on some clean clothes tomorrow. We still have an image to maintain.”
Nothing without her.
“Excuse me, are you Dala?”
Amanda was standing by my desk. I’d expected this, known that today I’d finally meet her, and yet I was not prepared. To turn round and find her there, in the flesh, knocked the breath out of me. I’d watched her for hundreds of hours through a screen, but this was different. The Amanda I knew was assembled from fragments. She had never been a whole to me until now.
“Yes,” I croaked. “Yes.”
There was a moment where we both just looked, we who had been so deeply enmeshed in each other for so long. Two people crammed uncomfortably into one life. Studying her, I was painfully aware of how I must look: this pale, ugly thing hiding in the dark. She hid her discomfort well, but the movements of her face told me everything. “Weak,” they said. “Nothing.”
But there was something else, something wrong in the way she held herself, the little flickers of her eyes.
“It’s good to finally meet you,” she lied. “You wanted to talk to me?”
I said nothing, still studying her.
“I was starting to think there was nobody behind the curtain, that Zed’s secret sauce was just an algorithm with better conversation skills.” The weak joke and subsequent chuckle tried to cover her awkwardness. Her body language was different, painfully self-conscious, not just aversion to me, but discomfort, fear. All this time, I’d been looking at the sun through a peephole, and now that the door was open, I saw it was just a lightbulb.
This was not Amanda.
“Who are you?” I said.
She laughed, like this time it was me making a joke. When I didn’t reciprocate, she frowned.
“I’m Amanda. You don’t recognize me? You’ve spent so long—”
“You’re not her. You’re different.”
I slid my chair back. “She wouldn’t stand that way.” I straightened her posture, slipping my hand onto the small of her back. She was so surprised, she didn’t resist, but when I reached to lift her chin, she recoiled.
“Don’t touch me!”
“It’s okay, I can teach you how to be her. Let me show you what I’ve been working on.”
She took a step back. “No, it’s okay. I should go.” She turned and started for Zed’s office.
“You can’t go!”
She didn’t stop. I grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her backwards. This impostor wasn’t Amanda, but she was the closest thing out there in the world. I wasn’t going to let her just walk out.
She fought, twisting in my grip. I dragged her back.
We tumbled; I fell down, pulling her onto me. There was a dull thump as her head collided with the edge of the desk. I got out from underneath, rolled her onto her back. Blood pooled underneath her head. Her eyes were open, but unfocused.
“Let me show you,” I said.
I pulled up the material I’d been seeding — the hints of the danger Aiden represented. Him, in the background, watching Amanda on nights she was alone or out with friends. The half-finished messages, never sent, telling people how he was treating her. The buried throughline of fear and control.
“I had it all planned,” I said. She was murmuring something from the floor. “You break up with Aiden, put up this post, telling your friends everything. How you were scared for your life, scared to leave, scared of him. Some people will believe you, some will take his side, but then, all this stuff I’ve been setting up would come out, piece by piece. People would see that it was there all along, that you were right. You’d be vindicated, you’d have AC like we’ve never seen, and the narrative will continue.”
Zed’s office door opened.
“Amanda, everything al— Oh my God.”
He looked between me and the body on the floor. “You…”
“It’s not Amanda,” I said. “She was never Amanda.”
“Jesus, what did you do?”
“I can fix this.”
“You’re insane. You’ve fucking killed her!”
I looked at the woman on the floor. Her eyes were closed. I thought over how much unused material I had stored. Enough to make it work. I just needed a different ending. I could keep Amanda — the real Amanda — alive for a little longer.
I published the post and sent a message to one of her friends, saying she needed help and asking for a place to stay for a few days. Poor Amanda. She’d never make it there. If she had one flaw, it was that she’d always see the good in people. Maybe that’s why, despite all the warning signs, she stayed with Aiden. Poor woman. Look where it got her.
Zed’s door clicked shut. There was one loose end, a disjunct between narrative and reality that needed resolving.
I grabbed my trackball out of its cradle, hefting it, feeling its weight in my hand. It would do. I stepped over the empty body on the floor and headed for Zed’s office.
George spends his days running public relations for a global tech giant, and his nights writing. He produces a weekly newsletter providing commentary on the intersection of artificial intelligence and automation with labor, and has published non-fiction pieces online, including with Litro Magazine. He is a contributing writer for an upcoming narrative-driven videogame about the power of stories, and how they distort as they come in contact with the world around us.