Star Quality
Melanie Miller

I remember...

Benjamin Grayson opened his eyes, struggling out of the dream. He had been with Alicia Wilcox, his co-star, in a scene from their latest movie -- smooth, blond Alicia, and the dreamscene had moved beyond an acceptable rating into censored territory. His fingers slipping underneath the velvet strap of her monogown, exploring the feel of silky skin. And then, that thought --

I remember...

An image, textbooks on an old wood desk. Grassy lawn, with blue sky above it. It had a flavor to it, a texture of dread and anticipation, pushing him away from Alicia, out of sleep. An old, treasured fear.

Of what?

Slowly, he focused on the bedside clock. 7:30 p.m. projected in ruby holograms, hanging in the darkness. Time to get up, get ready for the party. It wouldn't do to keep the head of a major Hollywood studio waiting.

And he would never do something as rude as that, although he could if he felt like it. Benjamin Grayson was one of the elite of the '20s. Stars. And he was under contract with Maximillian Hiller, the agent of the decade. Everyone wanted to belong to the Hiller Group, and only the best, the hungriest, would be admitted. Maximillian (never Max -- he hated diminutives) didn't handle anything else.

All of Maximillian's clients were stand-outs in some way. Professional, other agents said with envy. Maximillian never had to cover up embarrassing pasts, arrange special hospital stays, pay off local law enforcement. The Hiller Group were actors first and foremost, dedicated to their craft. Not to providing filler for the tabloids.

And part of their craft was to project an image. As Maximillian suggested, Grayson arrived at the party just late enough to make an entrance. The eyes of the crowd -- all people involved with the Business -- crawled over his skin agreeably, feather-light massage on the ego. Something clicked inside his head and he went into automatic pilot: Benjamin Grayson, The Actor. Watch him walk and talk, folks, like a real human being. Gossip about him, wonder who he's sleeping with this week, what his next 3-D will be. And, in a softer tone, how long can he last?

To hell with it. I'm a star.

Grayson kept the grin up, easing into the crowd. Nod here, kiss a cheek there, get into the groove of things. Project.. He saw Maximillian with Alicia, and waved. And when a director intercepted him, launching into a not-so-subtle film offer, Grayson managed to catch Maximillian's eye.

"Benjamin, my boy, good to see you," the agent said, cutting into the conversation. Maximillian looked like the ideal parent -- six feet tall, a strong, kindly face, dark hair edged with gray at the temples. The only thing that spoiled the image was his eyes, a curious shade of light, oddly flat blue. "Enjoying yourself?"

"Naturally," Benjamin replied, giving the agent an wide smile. He glanced at Alicia (I remember) and faltered. "Jorge and I were discussing his next picture," he said, as if to explain the break.

"Which Benjamin would be perfect for," Jorge added, delighted to have Maximillian's attention. "The part was practically written for him, but he keeps dodging me -- "

"Which he is supposed to do," Maximillian said smoothly. There was a new undertone to his words, an ice that casting agents and directors had come to recognize as a warning shot over the bow. Keep Off, Private Property. "All business deals are done through me, as I'm sure you know."

Jorge immediately became apologetic. "I'm aware of that," he said quickly. "I simply wanted to run the idea past Benjamin --"

"Which you've done. Benjamin, why don't you escort Alicia around, while Jorge and I discuss his idea." Maximillian handed the actress to Grayson, then guided the director off to a corner.

Alicia glanced after them, the demure expression melting into a smile. "This is the third time he's handed me off while he sets up a deal," she said, half-laughing. "I'm starting to wonder if I should ask for a cut."

"I don't think you'll get it," Grayson said, grinning. "He's the top hustler in town."

"I like it that way. It makes me feel more secure." She had a voice that had been described variously as soft, lilting, honeyed. Tonight, Grayson thought, it was elegantly sweet; champagne and strawberries. "By the way, he has some work for us afterwards."

Grayson nodded, understanding. The host, and probably the hostess. It was part of the job when you worked with the Hiller Group. The dream floated into consciousness again, overlaying the party. I remember...

"What's the matter?" Alicia asked. She looked up into his face, smile turning down at the corners. "You faded out for a minute."

"Nothing." He shrugged the dream off, back into his subconscious. "You want that drink?"

"Of course. Then we'll entertain the peons."

Two hours later, he took a break from the mingling. Drift from one group to another, be witty, amusing -- even if you were used to it, it could get tiring after a while. Alicia was still downstairs chatting with people in the vast ballroom, and Benjamin wanted a chance to be alone with the night sky, polluted as it was. He leaned out on a second-floor balcony, tracking faint traces of starlight that made it through the smog. Memories started bleeding through again, subconscious fragments:

I remember...

Another time, another place. Further east, where people only watched the stars on holovision, never thinking to become one of them. Maximillian had come to the campus right after graduation, where he met Tim McCarthy for the first time. Benjamin felt like a ghost, watching Maximillian and the boy walking on the campus's quadrangle. The sky had been blue, very clear, and the sun had been warm on their shoulders as Maximillian explained how the boy could make a great deal of money in the entertainment industry.

Tim insisted that he wasn't an actor -- the commercial had been his girlfriend's idea. He wanted to be an agricultural researcher. Maximillian demurred -- acting talent wasn't necessary, not with the technological options at his command.

"You look lonely."

Not moving, Benjamin tried on a small grin that didn't seem to fit. "Not really."

He glanced sideways. Alicia's profile was framed, outlined by the lights of downtown L.A. Classically beautiful. He tried to come up with the right answer, something that would describe the dreams he'd been having lately, but nothing seemed right set against a background of the city's light. Especially I'm afraid of my memories.

They stood there in companionable silence, the cool night breeze ruffling through their hair, before he said, "Do you ever remember what it was like? Before?"

Alicia sighed. "I don't think about it," she said. "You shouldn't, either. It only confuses you."

"I know. But sometimes I can't help it," Benjamin said, the words moving sluggishly now. "It's like I'm being invaded by memories. I don't know what to do."

Alicia shook her head, moving away from him. She didn't want to talk about it, he knew. Alicia was the ideal actress -- calm, competent, perfectly adjusted to the change in her life. She had a magic that critics kept comparing to the screen greats -- Gish, Hepburn, Streep. Great implants. Alicia was never confused. "Maybe you should go see Dr. Berringer," she suggested, brusque. "Have him take a look at you. You might need an adjustment."

Unconsciously, Benjamin reached up and touched the skin underneath his right ear, massaging it with two fingers. That was where they'd gone in, with the surgical probes. "Maybe," he agreed.

A small surgical procedure, the newest form of wetware, and Tim would have the skills of the greatest thespians at his fingertips, Maximillian said. The silicarbon circuits would interface directly with his brain, a biocompatible network riding the limbic ring. All he would have to do is think about the network, and it would generate controlled emotional states in response to incoming stimuli.

You mean it's an artificial persona, Tim said, quiet. He'd heard about the procedure from friends, horrified at first, then fascinated. It wouldn't be me, just some software riding around in my head.

You make it sound so nefarious, Maximillian answered, smiling. Like it's a form of mind control.

Well, isn't it?

And this time, Maximillian did laugh, the father figure amused by a fearful child. Of course not, he said. You would have control over your every thought, your every mood. Your implant would simply allow you access to a greater range of emotions, the skills you would need to be a great actor. Think of it as a built-in acting coach.

"Anyway, I came out here to find you," she continued, her voice growing warm again. "Maximillian's waiting for us upstairs."

"All right." Benjamin turned, willing the vagueness to be gone. He took control again, the smooth persona clicking into reality. Turn up the charm, boy. It's showtime.

Grayson dug his toes into the satin, thrusting harder. The woman beneath him moaned, winding slippery legs around his hips, whispering obscenities under her breath to urge him on. Across the hall, he thought, Alicia was probably doing the same thing with the studio head, unless the man got into something kinky. Not impossible, but Alicia knew how to handle that.

He jerked again, and again, until it was finished. Naturally, he made sure the woman came first -- sometimes, he could even hold back until she had two orgasms, once even three. After love (because with him, it was love of a sort -- wasn't that programmed into the implants?), he slid off to the side, holding her. The after-sex comedown that women needed, he told himself. If you were going to do a job, do it right.

In the quiet of the room, he felt the other memories sliding up to him, demanding notice. He tried to ignore it, to be the perfect actor. Maximillian had said this would happen. Sensory bleedover, he called it -- sometimes the implants didn't filter correctly. But tonight, Benjamin was too tired to fight. He let them come, shivering under their weight:

Why me, Tim asked.

Because you're the American ideal, Maximillian had said. They want your type, your voice -- they'll love you. Maximillian smiled, the cool charm turned up a notch. And because it would make us both a great deal of money, he added gently. Tim flushed, he mention of money tying a hard knot in his gut. There weren't many scholarships for aggie scientists anymore, and he had been living on loans and side jobs. And with graduation, the loans would start coming due.

Five years with the Hiller Group and you would have the money for your bills, for a graduate degree, whatever you want, Maximillian said. Five years with us, and you will have financial freedom for the rest of your life.

In exchange for five years of slavery, Tim said, horribly surprised at a sudden, tiny desire to believe Maximillian. An artificial persona was interesting when you were sitting around with friends in a safe dorm room, your mind still your own. The thought of actually carrying something like that in your head --

I wouldn't call it slavery, Maximillian replied. It's simply acting, taken to the ultimate degree.

The woman eased into sleep. Only then did he slip out of bed, gathering his clothes and looking for a bathroom where he could shower. Luckily, the bedrooms were connected with a palatial bath. Soundproof door, he noted, closing it behind him. Good.

Alicia was already there, washing herself at the bidet. She turned, looking over her shoulder, and gave him a cheerful smile. "How was it?"

"Not bad." Grayson went through his clothes, hanging them on a towel rack. "Better than last time. At least she was in pretty good shape. Yours?"

Alicia shrugged. "About the same. He likes to be on bottom."

Grayson grunted understanding, stepped into the shower to wash off the woman's sweat. After a minute, Alicia slipped in. "You mind?"

"No." He handed her the soap, and received a sudsy washcloth as a prize. Like cats on good terms, they washed each other. Asexual, friendly.

He was incapable of feeling any real attraction for Alicia, wet and slick as she was. He was sure she felt the same way -- Maximillian had suggested that a romance between them wouldn't be in their best interest. He reached down to turn off the water, when a showed appeared through the steam, watching them.

"Lovely," the studio head whispered above the water's hiss. "Lovely, children."

Grayson felt Alicia freeze, next to him. Waiting for the next suggestion, he thought disjointedly. Sure, we do requests, an insane voice sang in his mind.

"I'd like to see a love scene." The man leaned up against the sink, his eyes slipping over them through the moisture. "Now."

Compliantly, Grayson straightened up. His indifference melted, changed to desire. His need was reflected in her eyes, blue and eager, as she rubbed up against him, the water from the shower no longer her only wet. He grabbed her roughly, the way the studio head wanted him to hold her, the water beading on their skin.

It had been the money that finally convinced him. A guaranteed $100,000 the first year; after that, the sky was the limit. Whatever his talent could pull in -- a million and up wasn't impossible, they had said.

What if nobody wanted to hire me, he had asked. The administrative section of the Hiller Group just laughed. Maximillian hasn't picked a loser yet, they told him. Don't worry. You'll be fine.

And he had. After the surgery, renamed Benjamin Grayson, he had co-starred in a fluff sitcom. Neilsens went through the roof -- the public loved him. After that, it was a string of steadily bigger movies, until he was signed as the star for his current 3-D, American Players. Women walked up to him everywhere, offering him their bodies, anything he desired. Men wanted to be like him. He was successful, a star, just as Maximillian planned.

And his memories of life as Tim McCarthy were dimming.

The sun was a faint shimmer over the Hills when he finally got home. Good party, he thought, throwing his jacket over the couch. Another one for the record books.

The events of the night, after the party -- well, they didn't involve him, not directly. The sex had started after his first movie, with the producer and his wife. Grayson remembered it in a clinical way -- the quiet summons from Maximillian, being delivered to the hotel by limo. Wrapped up like a birthday present, he thought. It had been his first experience with a threesome, the feel of male skin next to his own. Maybe that was when the dreams began to bleed over into his conscious mind; the ghost of Tim McCarthy screaming in agony, he thought morbidly.

He had asked Maximillian about the sex once, and the agent had explained it. These people were important in the Business, and wanted intercourse with the godhead of entertainment. Contact with beautiful bodies, nothing more. And it was part of their job to supply that contact to the right people, he'd added. Every member of the Hiller Group did it. Nothing new -- actors and actresses had been doing it for years. The implants was an improvement on the situation, a way to protect themselves emotionally. Let the implants carry you through, Maximillian had suggested before taking him up to that first hotel room. They'll know what to do.

Still musing, he poured himself a glass of orange juice. Standard morning ritual -- orange juice, vitamin. More suggestions from Maximillian. Thank God we're not shooting until noon, he thought, shrugging off the rest of his clothes, standing in his briefs in the middle of the living room. At least I can get some sleep.

He had wanted to talk to Alicia afterwards, but she had gone straight home. Instead, Maximillian had been waiting downstairs for him. Alicia told me you've been having some problems, he'd said, slipping into the father confessor role. Like to talk about it?

And for the first time since Benjamin had started acting, he didn't. He didn't want to talk to Maximillian Hiller, father surrogate, chaperone, super agent. He wanted to work the memories out on his own. But Maximillian wouldn't hear of it.

I told you that might happen, he'd said easily, on the way home. Your body's immunological system is reacting to the implant. We'll have Dr. Berringer look at it tomorrow.

I don't want him to, Benjamin had said. But Maximillian insisted. It'll only confuse you if you allow this to continue, Benjamin, he said.

My name is Tim, he said irrationally.

Maximillian was silent for a moment. He finally said, in this place and time, your name is Benjamin. In two years, when your contract is up, you may decide to go back to that name. The agent smiled, and Benjamin felt chilled by that smile. Or you may prefer the one you have now.

No, I don't think so. But the words brought a strange, deep confusion. His life seemed to be a series of facets, beads strung on a chain. Somewhere, those facets had changed, become something new that was called Benjamin Grayson. Did that make him real? And what did that make Tim McCarthy? Unreal?

He could imagine the resurrection. The chain would snap, oh yes.

I can make the appointment for you this afternoon, Maximillian said. Just a suggestion, of course.

Dully, he nodded. Make the appointment.

The implants were such a little thing, they had said, right after the operation. Just to carry you along. And they'd led him into a new life, something that Tim McCarthy had never imagined.

And the strangers? Midnight blending of flesh. It was another part of the life. Nothing personal, he could hear Maximillian say -- it was only the body.

Changing his mind, Grayson carried his orange juice out to the terrace, cool morning air marbling his skin. He looked over the sleeping city and imagined them out there -- the audience that wanted him to be what he was now, not the repository of someone they didn't know.

And didn't care about.

Suddenly, he felt lonely, wishing for the memory of blue sky again. Wanting a past he knew was his own. Knowing that it would never be there.

Oh, I remember...

Melanie Miller ( was raised by wolves on the south side of Chicago (you'd be surprised how well canines adapt to urban life), and currently performs double duty as an English major at Purdue University-Calumet and an administrative assistant at the University of Chicago. She is now editing her first novel, Deus Ex. (Bio last updated in 1992.)

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Melanie Miller.