Star Quality

Originally published in the anthology Selling Venus (Circlet Press, Boston, 1995)

I remember. . .

David stirred in the damp sheets, moaning. He was dreaming again.

It initially fooled him by starting out with Lara Roget, in a scene from their latest movie. Smooth, blond Lara with her lazy smile and sensual eyes, and was it really surprising when the script went past an R rating into censored territory? His fingers slipping underneath the velvet strap of her monogown, exploring the feel of silky skin, the subtle texture of a nipple. And then—

. . .blue skies. . .

The abrupt shift in scene. An image of textbooks on a battered desk. Grassy lawn, with blue sky above it. It had the taste of old iron, dread and anticipation sliding him out of sleep into polished fear.

. . .and the pain. . .

David jerked awake, gasping. The dream clung to him, dragged into consciousness by his unwilling mind, then slowly subsided. The doctors called it sensory bleedover — uncontrolled feedback from the subconscious. A side effect of his profession, they explained with bland smiles. Lara called them “morning’s little horrors.”

It wasn’t morning, though. And the dreams were starting to get worse.

He lay back down, staring at the ceiling. The clockface above his bed blinked the time — 7:30 PM. He’d almost overslept. It was time to get up, get ready for the party.

The tiredness reared up. Oh, fuck it. I don’t want to go.

That earned him a bitter smile. He got up. He could hear Maximillian’s voice now — it won’t do to keep the head of a major Hollywood studio waiting, David. As one of the acting elite of the 20’s, he was under formal contract with Maximillian Hiller, the agent of the decade. And a favorite subject of Maximillian’s (never Max — he hated diminutives) was how members of the Hiller Group worked with the studios, not against them.

Everyone wanted to belong to the Hiller Group. It was the new law of survival in Hollywood, brought about by the growing threat of VAs — virtual actors, the realistic simulacra created by graphics computers that were encroaching on the industry like hi-tech mold. Real actors, human actors, banded together under one agent, someone who could stay ahead of every trend that blew through the profession at hurricane speed. Your agent was the one who could keep you armed with the latest face, the latest tech, whatever you needed to stay in the game.

And yes, it was slavery, but a glorious, glittering slavery, human show animals at their finest. The masses that streamed into Hollywood would be sifted regularly, fine psychological mesh screening the influx for talent, and only the best, the hungriest, would be admitted to the fold. That was one of Maximillian’s proudest claims — all of his clients were standouts in one way or another. 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.

And part of that craft was to project an image, David thought absently. Moving on autopilot, he kicked off the thin bikini pants and headed in for a shower. After that, it would be time for the transformation that turned him from Joe Average into David Masterson, Superstar.

Get ready, boy. It’s showtime.


David 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 his routine: nod here, kiss a cheek there, get into the groove of things. Project. He saw Maximillian with Lara and waved before the pair were sucked into conversation with a mogul’s leather-skinned wife. When a director intercepted him with the inevitable film offer, however, David managed to catch the agent’s eye.

Maximillian nodded and headed their way. He 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, an oddly flat shade of blue. “David, my boy, good to see you,” the agent said, cutting into the conversation. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Of course,” David replied pleasantly. “Jorge and I were discussing his next picture.”

“Which David would be perfect for,” Jorge added. “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 now, a polite aural ice. “All business deals are done through me, as I’m sure you know.”

Jorge blinked under the sudden attention. “I’m aware of that,” he said, backtracking. “I simply wanted to run the idea past David—”

“Which you’ve done. My boy, why don’t you escort Lara around, while Jorge and I discuss his idea.” Maximillian handed the actress to David before guiding the captive director father into the crowd.

Lara 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 sweetly. “I’m starting to wonder if I should ask for a cut.”

David laughed. “I don’t think you’ll get it. Maximillian doesn’t appreciate it when people try to move in on his territory.”

“I know. 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, he thought, it was elegantly sweet; champagne and strawberries. “By the way, he has some work for us afterwards.”

David 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. . . He twitched.

“What’s the matter?” Lara asked. She looked up into his face, smile turning down at the corners. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“It’s nothing.” He shrugged the dream off, back into his subconscious. “You want that drink?”

“If you insist. Then we’ll entertain the peons.” And she laughed.


Two hours later, David was pleasantly tipsy when he took a break from the mingling. Drift from one group to another, be witty, amusing — it looked simple, but it got tiring after a while. Lara was still downstairs chatting with people in the vast ballroom, and he 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 through the smog. And remembered:


I remember. . .

Another time, another place. Farther east, where people only watched the stars on TV, never thinking to become one of them. Maximillian had come to the campus right after graduation, where he’d met Ed McCarthy for the first time. David 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.

Ed insisted that he was a biotech major, not an actor—he’d only done the play as a favor for his girlfriend. Maximillian demurred. Acting talent wasn’t necessary, he’d said, not with the technological options at his command.


“You look lonely.”

“I’m fine.” Not moving, David tried on a small grin that didn’t seem to fit. “Really.”

He glanced sideways. Lara’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. Nothing seemed right.

They stood there in companionable silence, the cool night breeze ruffling through their hair, before he worked up the nerve to say, “Do you ever remember what it was like? Before?”

Lara 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. It’s like I’m being invaded by memories.”

She shook her head, moving away from him. She didn’t want to talk about it, he knew. Lara 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. Lara 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, David 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 Ed would have the skills of the greatest thespians at his fingertips, Maximillian had said. The silicarbon circuits would interface directly with his brain, a biocompatible network riding the limbic ring. All he would have to do is memorize the lines, and the network would generate controlled emotional states to flesh out the character. For as long as he wanted, Ed would become the character.

It’s an artificial persona, Ed replied. He’d heard about the procedure around campus, horrified at first, then fascinated. It wouldn’t be me, just some software riding around in my head. Making me do things.

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 frightened child. Nothing of the sort, he said. You would have control over your every thought, your every mood. Your implant would simply remove inhibitions, allowing 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,” Lara continued. “Maximillian’s waiting for us upstairs.”

“All right.” David turned, willing the vagueness to be gone. He took control again, the smooth persona clicking into reality.


He 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. They’d been fucking for the better part of an hour, now, beginning with an almost Victorian scene of punishment and domination. No canes or belts this time. She only used words, but words were enough with her. Across the hall, he thought hazily, Lara was probably doing the same thing with the studio head, unless the man got into something truly kinky. Not impossible, but Lara knew how to handle that.

He pumped again, and again, until she clawed his back and came noisily. Naturally, he made sure the woman came first — he could even hold back until she had two orgasms, sometimes 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 apre-sex comedown that women needed, he told himself. If you were going to do a job, do it right.

Her breathing quieted, finally slowing to sleep’s pace. In the still room, he could feel other thoughts sliding up to him, demanding notice. Maximillian had said this would happen, even gave tips on how to avoid the bleedover. But tonight, David was too tired to fight. He let the memories come, shivering under their weight:


Why me, Ed 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.

Ed flushed. Scholarships for biotech students were difficult to get, 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, Ed 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.

Lara 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.” David went through his clothes, hanging them on a towel rack. “She liked using her nails. Yours?”

Lara shrugged. “About the same. He likes to be on bottom.”

David grunted understanding, stepped into the shower to wash off the woman’s sweat. After a minute, Lara 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 Lara. Maximilian had suggested that a romance between them wouldn’t be in their best interest. He reached down to turn off the water, when a shadow appeared through the steam, watching them.

“Lovely,” the studio head whispered above the water’s hiss. “Lovely, children.”

David felt Lara freeze, next to him. Waiting for the next suggestion, he thought disjointedly. Sure, we do requests.

“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, David straightened up. His indifference melted, changed to desire. His cock rose up between her thighs, hard 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.

The implants carried him through.


It had been the money that finally convinced him. A guaranteed million the first year; after that, the sky was the limit. Ten million and up wasn’t impossible, they 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. The girlfriend was left behind — he doubted he even remembered her name, now. After the surgery, renamed David Masterson, he had co-starred in a fluff sitcom. Not surprisingly, the public loved him. After that, it was a string of steadily bigger movies, until he was signed as the star for his current movie, 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 Ed 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. David 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. The producer’s warm mouth closing over his cock, sucking it into hard life, and the taste of come later. Maybe that was when the dreams began to bleed over into his conscious mind; the ghost of Ed McCarthy screaming, he thought morbidly.

He had asked Maximillian about the sex once. These people were important in the Business, the agent had explained, 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, David poured himself a glass of orange juice. Standard morning ritual—orange juice, vitamin, a light breakfast. 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 Lara afterwards, but she had gone straight home. Instead, Maximillian had been waiting downstairs for him.

Lara told me you’ve been having some problems, he said, slipping into the father confessor role. Like to talk about it?

And for the first time since David 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 simply reacting to the implant. We’ll have Dr. Berringer look at it tomorrow.

I don’t want him to, David replied.

But Maximillian insisted. It’ll only confuse you if you allow this to continue, David, he said.

My name is Ed.

Maximillian was silent for a moment. In this place and time, your name is David. In two years, when your contract is up, you may decide to go back to that name. The agent smiled, and David 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, that chain had changed, forced into a new shape that was called David Masterson. Did that make him real? And what did that make Ed McCarthy? Unreal?

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

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

Dully, he nodded. Make the appointment.


The implants were such a little thing, they had said after the operation. Just to carry you along. And they’d led him into a new life, something that Ed 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, David carried the orange juice out to the terrace, the 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.

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