Slow Fade to Black

by Paul Tomlinson

 

I saw the news reports about her funeral later on the news. I didn’t attend the service myself: I was out burning a car.

“Millions of fans mourned, stunned by the news of Selina Crane’s sudden death. These were the people who had shared her emotions in the Oscar-nominated Shahrazad and had joined her in playing the gun-toting rebel in Hickson’s Dead to Rights, and her now legendary baby-doll delivery of the line: ‘I’ve been really bad today.’

“Selina shunned the glamorous lifestyle of her fellow actors, leaving the tabloid press machines and her public hungry for news: her rare public appearances were on the grand scale of state visits.

“These crowd scenes were filmed in the streets around the cemetery where the actress was laid to rest earlier today: similar scenes were recorded all over the world. Here are the tear-stained faces of the women who told surgeons and make-over artists that they also wanted to share her elfin, girl-next-door beauty. Where were you, the night Selina killed herself? They asked each other.”

I heard the rumours Sunday night. Selina Crane was dead. I thought it was a publicity stunt. That kind of rumour often is. But something made me call her. Selina Crane is not accepting calls at the moment, an answering machine at the mansion told me. Even when I punched in my security code I got the recording. She was still my wife, we never divorced, and the mansion was still technically my home too.

I called her agent then. Saul was an old friend from the pre-Interface days. He was unavailable at this time, according to his machine.

The studio press office was letting the ‘phone ring unanswered.

The two goons at the mansion gates wouldn’t even let me drive up to the house.

“Miss Crane doesn’t want to see anyone today.”

He was an augmented Japanese.

“At least let me talk to her, let her tell me that herself,” I couldn’t keep the pleading out of my voice. “I’m her husband, dammit!”

“Ex-husband,” the Japanese corrected me.

I took a step towards him, and he shifted position just enough to let me see the muscles flex beneath his mesh t-shirt.

The two of them stared impassively, and I knew what they were seeing: a broken down once-was. I wanted to run at them, force them to hurt me, but I was too much of a coward.

The car door opened as I stalked back towards it. The engine rumbled to life.

“Get me home.”

The car rose slowly and scooted across the blacktop towards the highway. I couldn’t even scream off at high speed to make myself feel better.

It was a sleek black suppository of a vehicle, and I hated every inch of its perpetually gleaming body. A gift from my wife, Selina. Ex-wife. Automatically controlled and driven by an on-board computer that cost more than my apartment. A further reminder of my fall from grace, it also showed that I no longer had the nerve. Literally. Burnt out.

Accidental overload. It was black market software, I knew the risk. We all did. But we always wanted something more. To go beyond what they said was possible. To heighten the experience. I was in a coma for three days; the convulsions began as soon as I came out of it.

Suppressant drugs now keep my nerves from randomly misfiring, but the ‘Face is now forever masked to me. No longer can I plug into that icy neon link between Man and his creations. Outcast.

The automobile is the perfect cocktail of man, machine and reality. Interface technology jacks the driver straight into the vehicle: its systems are like functions of your own body. The sensation of speed. The invulnerability of the metal shell which encloses you. Freedom of the road. You don’t realise how much you miss driving, until you have to sit through a computer-guided journey. Minutes of tedium. Deprived of input, you can only watch the scenery slip by, like an old flatscreen movie with the sound off.

Without the Interface, life loses a dimension. Experience is dulled. A sense is stolen from you: the sense of omni-awareness. The sense of belonging. Cut off. Exiled.

Ironic. The ‘Face had been my life. I was one of the first to ‘act’ via the Interface. A stand-in for the stars, but a star in my own right. I was a stuntman and occasional body-double originally, in the pre-Interface days. When the ‘Face was only used by the data-freighters and the boffins. Before the leisure industry took hold of the technology and shook it, adapted it for its own needs. The ‘Face was soon open to everyone, the whole simulated world of it.

Interfacing was originally only available to those with surgically implanted receptors, and the surgical procedure wasn’t widely taken up. It was fashionable for a while among the self-styled cyberpunks who had been hanging around a couple of decades waiting for it to happen. Skin-jacks soon replaced the implants: sophisticated dermatrodes which hijacked surface nerves and forced a highway into the brain. Mass-produced, they cost around $3.00 and, even retailing at $200, they sold fast.

When the novelty wore off and people were bored with flying around the data lines and storage constructs of Gibsonian cyberspace, Hollywood had something waiting in the wings, ready to beat off another attack on its entertainment empire.

People had been trying to simulate emotions for years, of course. Mood discs had been a passing fad at the end of the nineties, crude software which sought to alter people’s emotional state via ‘recordings’ of other experiences. The hardware became more sophisticated, and the recordings more detailed, more realistic: black market porno discs offered both sides of any act you could think of; paedophilia, torture, gender reversal and (supposedly) the ultimate orgasm — death — were all popular. Hollywood came up with the idea of adding an emotional ‘soundtrack’ to theatrical movies and making it available to the whole audience via the Interface.

That’s how I got into the softcore side of the legitimate porno business. For years I’d been falling off buildings and leaping from moving vehicles to make the stars look good. And when one of the highly paid faces was too shy — or too small or too fat — to go naked on screen, I was the stand-in who stood.

I was making good money even then, before I met Selina. Some of the cash I spent on a Sense Recorder and, like most people, I ended up using it to tape my liaisons with a succession of girls who went for the hairy masculine type with scars.

Someone lifted a couple of my tapes during a party at my place, and they ended up with a producer. I got a call from him a couple of days later, out of the blue.

“I’ve played the tape you made with Candy.”

“And?”

I was pissed off because a complete stranger was playing the voyeur with one of my intimate moments. Had Candy been the redhead?

The deal he was offering turned out to be legit, and not just some kinky come-on. One of the major studios had made a movie and it had bombed at its second test screening, despite extensive (and expensive) re-shoots.

It was generally thought that the movie’s star — who will remain nameless, ‘cos he’s still not dead and could sue — was well past the heart-throb stage, and should have been well into his ‘character role’ phase; except that with his looks fading, he had very little to offer in the acting department. Apparently he also had very little to offer in the trouser snake department.

So, in one final desperate attempt to recoup their investment, the studio decided to come up with a sense-track. They wanted stand-ins to reproduce the emotions of the actors on screen so that they could be recorded. It would be too expensive — they said — to bring the actual actors back, and besides, the star couldn’t act for shit so he certainly couldn’t come up with suitable emotions for recording. There was also a rumour that he (literally) wasn’t up to the sex scenes, but I wouldn’t want to speculate on the matter.

They had some down-on-his-luck English Shakespearean actor faking emotions for all he was worth for the best part of the movie, and then they brought me in to do the rutting.

The movie was pretty well received, for its novelty value if nothing else.

I did about a dozen movies, in a variety of… er… styles. My cock was grafted onto the movie sense-images of several top actors, and set something of a standard. I had it fucking good then, I can tell you. Literally. I even got some films where I played more than a dick.

I sometimes get to wondering how many women have felt my simulated organ inside them, you know? Or how many guys have measured their manhood or their experiences against mine. Weird thought.

Of course there were other blokes — younger, better endowed, more versatile — who came later (no pun intended… ha! ha!), whose performances outshone mine, but I was the first Hollywood Prick-for-Hire.

It all went to hell later, when I couldn’t handle the money. Or my wife’s fame.

I watched a documentary on her life, and I saw footage of the people we used to be: two poor actors looking to make it big. That’s when things were okay. For a while.

The programme showed how we succumbed to the glamour of the parties and the sensation seeking.

There was footage of Selina’s first big role: the whore with the heart of gold. The film itself was pretty forgettable, but it did show that she was the first of a new breed of actors: she could do her own emotions, live and direct, as the film was shot. Her feelings were shared by millions, and it was the first time we felt the sadness and loneliness which was to lie at the heart of all her great performances. The guy on the documentary said that, but I thought I’d steal it.

After the ‘big break’, the change became more marked: Selina was turned into a marketable product. Make-up, hair, clothes. A little surgery to straighten out a nose that was already near-perfect.

That’s when I thought they’d replaced her eyes with Nikons, but the eyes were her own. They’d just taken away what was behind them.

My part in her life ended with a studio-engineered scandal, when my own self-destructive exploits became too much of an embarrassment. An obstacle. They’d tried to pay me off, to stop me from being seen with her. Eventually they decided to separate us permanently. They’d had a private detective follow me around for a while, and when I didn’t do anything they could use, they faked something. The tabloid news services had a field day when it was revealed that Hollywood’s ‘Hottest Cock’ was banging an underage Hispanic waiter. The studio told Selina that even if the story proved untrue, the publicity was so damaging that she could no longer be seen with me. She was their puppet through three more films, but she was only going through the motions. For my own part I, like her fans, I could only watch from a distance.

By the time of her much-publicized suicide, the studio had probably been planning her death for months. I’d learned of their power myself. The studio was only a small part of a vast multinational corporation, and the corporation had more power than the President. Accountants and analysts would have been studying her decline. They’d have seen that she was fading, becoming increasingly isolated and depressed. Maybe they even helped her along the road a little. If they’d wanted to fake her death at any point, have her disappear forever, they could have done. If she had killed herself unexpectedly, they could have kept her death a secret until they had completed her latest movie using stand-ins and computer animation.

Even now, I’m not sure how much of the whole thing was controlled by the studio. Certainly more than they admit.

Recordings of Selina’s death began circulating on the Monday via underground data sources: Experience the final moments of your favourite star. The studio had to make a statement then, had to admit that she was dead.

Selina Crane is dead. She took her own life in the early hours of Saturday morning: she left no note, but she was taping her last moments using a sense-recorder when she took the fatal overdose.

Her fans will be able to see Selina in her final film performance, playing Loretta in Michael Sangster’s Obsession, which was completed only days before her death. On Friday, we shall begin a retrospective season of her films at major theatres across the country, and the season will end with a screening of a specially commissioned bio-movie.

My guess is that the studio was expecting Selina to die sometime soon, and had her recorded around the clock: they wouldn’t risk losing their star’s last moments. They probably leaked the tapes to the black market too: even they must have realised that it would seem pretty tasteless to profit directly from them. Indirectly cashing in on the attendant publicity based on their black market release was another matter.

Studio plans would have been made months in advance. They knew that the most profitable film stars do not grow old gracefully, they die in a blaze of publicity. That way, shocked fans would mourn for years, and the merchandise machines could roll perpetually.

That’s show business.

Millions of fans across the world would have experienced the final moments of the film star Selina Crane. But though she and I shared much together, I can never share what she felt as her life slowly slipped away. I can never play her suicide tape. My nerves are shot to hell.

Someone described it to me. The jumble of emotions she felt. Loneliness. Exhaustion. The pointlessness of her life. And in the last seconds, a flash of regret for someone she’d lost.

Could it have been me? If I could play the recording for myself, maybe I’d know. But I can’t ever know for sure.

At first I didn’t know why I couldn’t mourn. Then it came to me that she’d been dead along time: they could have replaced her years ago with a computer simulation or an android, and know one would have known.

Part of the anger came from the guilt. I felt I’d been too wrapped up in my own problems, my own self-pity: if I’d been there I might have been able to stop her. But if I’d been there I’d probably have joined her in the lethal pill cocktail.

Mostly the anger came from the frustration. The waste. The futility. The fact that I couldn’t jack into the Interface and experience the recording she left. I was deprived of that one man-made sense which could have brought me close enough to her in her final moments so that I might have been able to grieve.

I stand at the water’s edge, thick black smoke rising into the sky behind me. I can smell seaweed. Taste on my lips the salt which the breeze carries in off the sea.

I remember her. Clean. Unperfumed. The taste of her kiss, her tongue barely touching, teasing. Lying together, just holding each other. Not needing to talk.

In my mind’s eye is an image of her wearing a headscarf and dark glasses. Disguising herself as Marilyn Monroe in disguise. It was from a time when people had just begun recognising her in the street, and I was still filled with pride at her success.

Selina biting her lip, her eyes brimming with tears. Insecure.

“I’m not sure I can do this. I don’t know if I want this.”

“Of course you do.”

Was that the point of no return? The point at which I betrayed her?

Over the sound of the waves I can hear her singing. An old Simon and Garfunkle tune, alternating between a pouty Marilyn baby voice and a deeper Sarah Vaughan.

Memories have startled my senses. I weep then. For Selina. For myself and the world she leaves behind.

I know what she was trying to tell me in her farewell performance, her death scene. The Interface isn’t drawing people closer, isn’t helping them share feelings and truly understand each other. It’s another barrier. Another excuse for people to remain at arm’s length. It’s a crutch for our emotions, and one which we’re becoming dependent upon.

I remember that it was Selina who gave me the illegal software which zapped my nervous system. Did she know what it would do? Had she planned to save me from the fate she knew awaited her?

I have a new car now, a classic Sixties Jaguar E-Type. The engine has been converted to burn alcohol, but it’ll still do 120, and there’s not a computer in sight. With the soft top down and the wind in your face, there’s all the sensation of speed you need.

It has been a long hibernation.

I am beginning to feel again.

____________
© Paul Tomlinson 1995

(Length: 2,900 words)