You wake up at the crack of ten and check the bed to see who else might be in it. A black-haired head rests on the cream pillow beside yours, surrounded by smears of lipstick and mascara. You remember buying drinks for the office's new P.A. yesterday. You look down at her face, hoping she's of legal age to do the sort of things you two did last night. And hoping the sex was worth the cleaning bill on your five-hundred-dollar sheets.
You take a quick shower, letting the water pound against your back and the steam open your sinuses. The Santa Anas have been blowing. Every last drop of moisture has been sucked from your body overnight, leaving you with a bristling headache and the taste of sand in your mouth.
Not a day goes by that you don't remind yourself that you did this on purpose. You left the world of deep blue skies, soft winter snows, and running water to live in a desert wracked with earthquakes and cauterizing winds.
You dry off with an expensive, burnt-cinnamon towel of Egyptian cotton. Five years ago, you would have called the towel red, or maybe dark red. Now you call it burnt-cinnamon and fuss if you can only find something in rust.
Everything in your closet is expensive. Today is a montage of Abercrombie and Banana Republic. A casual look that costs you more than the suits you used to wear to the bank back in D.C.
By the time you're done getting ready, the bed is empty and the P.A. is gone. She probably realized what time it was, or scrambled outside to throw up last night's sushi, or both. You grab a protein bar and head out the door. You desperately want to stop at Starbucks for a half-caf non-fat no-whip mocha and a muffin, but you're off carbs until at least Saturday. The boss hasn't asked you to wear a tight tee shirt in awhile, and you think it might be the slight gut growing around your waist.
It's almost eleven now, and the office is five miles away. At this hour, you should make it in less than thirty minutes.
Not a chance.
The 101 is backed up from the on-ramp, and you're stuck blasting KROQ and readjusting your hair for a cool forty-five minutes under the monotone glare of the pollution-faded sun.
You get in to work just before noon and order lunch. Meatball sub, hold the bread, and a protein drink. You should have hit the gym before coming in this morning -- the boss isn't even here yet. Emilio struts by wearing a tight white shirt and a shit-eating grin. His pecs practically stand up and salute as he goes by. To make it worse, Emilio is actually gay. The boss isn't usually picky about his eye-candy, but you see it as a definite disadvantage come raise-time.
A few hours of checking email, chatting with friends online, and flirting with another P.A., and it's time for the big meeting. The Ast-tlakians have ported in from whatever the hell planet they're from, and you need to be in full song-and-dance mode. You grab your eight-hundred-dollar shades and head for the boss's office. Ast-tlakians, at least the women, glow brighter than the sun up close. Two production assistants went blind before you figured out the shade thing. Ah, well. Can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
You need some younger Ast-tlakians for a new fantasy feature the company is doing. It's Lord of the Rings meets Kindergarten Cop. Vin Diesel to star, Woo to direct. So you need a bunch of realistic fantasy creatures, and Stan Winston figured out long ago that it was easier to hire off-world than build all these bizarre creatures from scratch. It's a big industry secret, and you need to keep it that way. You have a tendency to brag and name-drop when you're drunk, so you're only mostly sure that you haven't told anyone.
The Ast-tlakians are already waiting in the office when you arrive. They never have been able to get the conversion rate of L.A. time to theirs, and vice versa. The boss is probably still smoking a joint in the bathroom, so you shove your sunglasses farther up on your nose and offer the Ast-tlakian bigwigs some gummi bears and sunflower oil, their favorites. One pulls a huge fang from her mouth and skewers a whole heap of defenseless gummi creatures from the bowl.
"Cheers," she says, and downs the lot.
"Mazel tov," says the other, and does a shot of oil.
The boss arrives soon after and grabs two handfuls of malted milk balls, his favorite, before easing into his three-thousand-dollar high-backed faux-leopard-print office chair. You start the meeting.
The meeting consists of one hour of small talk and ten minutes of hard dealing about the contracts. Your boss shows you how it's done by hitting on both the male and female Ast-tlakians in turn. Somehow, the old bastard's managed to learn the names of their muscle groups and has finessed the means of best complimenting them. It's a beautiful thing to watch.
You try to remember what meetings at the bank were like back on the east coast. You remember dark blue and gray suits, an array of briefcases, a ten-page agenda. These memories have a dreamlike quality for you. With each month that passes, you become less and less certain that these meetings actually ever happened. Or even could happen. Who has a meeting without all-you-can-eat snacks, comfy chairs in hip colors, and penis jokes?
The Ast-tlakians want out of their contract due to some personal troubles on their home planet, but in the end, you convince them to honor it. Of course, they also think your company controls the entire world's gummi-food trade, which certainly doesn't hurt your bargaining chips.
There's also the matter of the movies and television shows themselves. The Ast-tlakians have only a rudimentary understanding of Earth's culture. They assume that everything Earth broadcasts is of religious significance to you and your fellow Earthlings -- important sermons and parables that help bring understanding and salvation to your unwashed masses.
Actually, you sort of agree with them. You get along much better with your brother after seeing that very special episode of Everybody Loves Raymond last year.
The meeting has gone well. You're happy, the boss is happy, and the Ast-tlakians have turned slightly pink around their sixteen eyes, a sure sign of happiness. Or indigestion. Or sexual frustration. Or something else entirely. You offer to take the one with the removable fang out for drinks. She declines, which is probably for the best, since not a lot of bars offer sunflower oil. At least, not yet. If the Ast-tlakians ever go public, you're betting Oil Cafes will spring up faster than new Starbucks.
Well, maybe not that fast.
The meeting is just about to break up when the door slams open, and there, in the doorway, is the P.A. you slept with last night.
At least you're pretty sure it's her.
Oh, and she has some gun in her hands that looks like a prop reject from Galactic Girls Gone Wild, one of your favorite "indy" films from last year.
"Ah-ha!" the P.A. says. Briefly, you think she should fire her writer. An entrance like that really demands a better opening line. Or maybe even a witty pun à la the early Schwarzenegger films. . . . Your mind is a flurry of motion, trying to come up with the perfect quip.
"Alan Alda!" says one of the Ast-tlakians. You're pretty sure he was trying to swear, given the sudden purplish cast to his tentacles.
"Courteney Cox!" says the other one.
"Yes, you should be afraid," says the P.A. She brandishes her gun or laser or whatever at the Ast-tlakians, then turns to you. Probably to let you go. Sex has a way of making women weak.
"What an idiot," she says to you. "I started working here yesterday, and I thought it would take me months to gain someone's confidence. But no. It took only two cosmopolitans and an apple martini before you spilled every detail of my enemies' presence. Even before I asked."
"But you stuck around for the sex anyway?" you say, flattered. "Nice."
"We didn't have sex," the P.A. says. "You read me your unfinished screenplay and passed out on the bed."
Your eye twitches, but you wisely keep your mouth closed. For a change.
"You're fired," the boss says to you. You shrug. He fires almost everyone every week. If he still remembers that you're fired tomorrow, then you'll start to worry.
The P.A. points the gun back at the Ast-tlakians. "Finally, after twenty-three dekons, I can finish my mission."
"Mission?" you say.
"She'll kill us!" the female Ast-tlakian says. "Our people are at war with her kind, the shapeshifters. We are close to extinction. "
"Howie Mandel!" says the other one.
You look at the boss.
The boss looks at you.
"Shapeshifters?" you mouth to him. His eyes glint beneath his Ray-Bans.
"Janet," you say. "It was Janet, right?"
The P.A. frowns. "It's Eh-land-drin-dral. But I told you it was Melissa."
"Right, Melissa," you say.
"Malted milk ball?" the boss says, offering her the bowl.
She looks confused. The Ast-tlakians just sit there and jitter, which is fine. They just need to stay out of the way and let you and the boss go to work. No one, in any part of the universe, can resist the charm of a Hollywood producer.
"You have talent," the boss says.
"Loads of it," you add.
"You can be big, really big, in this town."
The gun-phaser-electric-toothbrush droops in the P.A.'s -- Melissa's -- hands.
"Humongous," you say. "Julia Roberts big."
"Big as J. Lo's ass," the boss croons, and he holds out the bowl of malted milk balls even further.
"But I do not know how to act," Melissa says.
"Sure you do," you say. "Fooled me, didn't you? We'll have you in a three-picture deal by the end of the day."
"Full right of refusal on all scripts--"
"You'll play opposite Clooney, Ford, Pitt, or even Depp, if you like the bizarre little bastard."
"You'll be the belle of the ball--"
"The toast of the town--"
"Pimply-faced boys will masturbate watching your movies--"
"Couples will conceive children--"
"The face of the Earth will be forever changed."
And that, finally, brings a smile to your little Melissa's face. She drops her phaser-laser-flashlight thing to her side, and she reaches out for a malted milk ball.
Under his breath, the boss whispers, "Fire the Wookiee-look-alike for tomorrow's shoot. We got us an army of Talent right here."
"Eat your heart out, Gollum," you say, grinning, knowing full well that you will not only retain your job, but that Emilio's pecs will be doing their perky little salute in front of your new corner office by the end of the week. A shapeshifter! There's nothing you can't do now.
Ah, Hollywood. God, you love this town.
"The Dream Factory," by Jenn Reese, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Jenn Reese has published stories in various anthologies, and cool places like Flytrap. Jenn survived Clarion in 1999 and now lives in Los Angeles, where she practices martial arts, plays strategy games, and tries to suffer for her art. You can follow her adventures at her website. To contact her, send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her previous appearance in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.