Starlight for Cannibals
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In a world without death, acting takes on a new meaning. In one sense, everyone nowadays is acting. The endless movement of brains into new and unfamiliar bodies changes one's experience of life so many times that you have to remember how to be, move, act. And all this as you pass through new genders, races, new ways your hands and feet are set. It's been compared to a dance; knowing how to change your step at a moment's notice at precisely the right moment.

Nadia has thought many thoughts like this before, but right now, she doesn't have the time. She's staring into the mirror, fixing her hair and makeup to be more precise than everyone else. Lightbulbs frame her image, stretching into a row of glass that bends around the places her friends and colleagues sit. Each has the same look of intense concentration. They have to be perfect.

"What will you do? If you get the part, I mean," says the woman next to her. A small thing, with mousy brown hair and glasses. Not the kind of look that would ordinarily fit the part, but Nadia can just about picture it, if she stretches her mind a bit.

She smiles blandly down at her. "I don't know." It is kindly meant, but so short an answer seems to deter the mousy girl, who returns to her makeup with a sullen look. Nadia inwardly sighs, and stares at her reflection. Weary. A slightly lined face, high shoulders, long neck. They will all have to go, of course. It was not the fashion to allow the neck to be seen. A long, pointed chin, descending past the shoulders; that was what was in right now. Tiny eyes the size of beads. "Victorian Dollhouse", they were calling it, a new look for the mid-century. She stares into her whites, willing them away.

Bodies are, for a certain class of person, cheap. So why not experiment? When it came to aspects such as gender, size or shape- sure, fine, these things were quite normal to want to alter at the best of times, let alone an outstretched eternity. But some people decided to go further. In a land of such opportunity, why stop with convention, with typical signifiers of humanity? Why not push fashion further?

French designers in perfect suits, their hair tied back in perfect styles, began to gather their cameras, their ideas. Prometheus and their Chinese knockoffs began to recieve more and more requests, petitions, offers of money for very specific bodies, or for a particular fetish to indulge, a kind of poise deemed proper by men with pinched smiles. It took a little while for the "Fashion Body" to really get going, but once it did, the craving for novelty just wouldn't stop.

The first fashions were small, simple changes: a body with lengthened ears. Look like an elf! Or perhaps your eyes could become two gems of pure purple, letting you live your true imperial self in the kind of style you'd only ever dreamt of. Catwalks became inundanted with models sporting green skin, claws for hands, fur covering their bodies.

But it could never be enough.

The stage is lit darkly, with the light shining up in a way that accentuates her distance, her alienness. They blare at her like some grand interrogation, boring into her as she moves. She can't see who is in the audience, but she can see the old wooden stage, the red vaudeville curtains, the minimalist set. She smiles, the whole of her body contorting as she begins her lines.

She throws the whole of herself into it. The tortured, haggard mother. The dunce opposite her keeps on stammering when he should be domineering, but she knows how to dance rings around a man such as him. She uses his inadequacy to her advantage; her character won't be diminished through this man's dominance but by a lust, a need for something more than herself. A picture of Rodrigo, the gallant lover in the later scenes, is thundering through her mind. That is what she wants. Not this. Not a body like this.

She pirouettes, she preens, she cackles. She feels alive. She sees, in a glimmer, the future that lies ahead of her. The pointed chin of the doll-body. Maybe they'll let her have several, have spares; the Russian fur coat blending seemlessly into flesh, into bone, for those cold winter months beneath a face made of porcelain. Or ears with bones bent into her skull, forcing echoes of the most sublime forms of pain. What she could be. What she could do.

In the end, the knife slides into her without any resistance. She holds the pose for a moment, to accentuate the flourish, and the scene is over.

A voice rings from the audience. "Thank you. Next." Nothing else. No comment, no sign. Her partner smirks. His face is calm, confident; was his acting bad? Or just subtle compared to her overacting? He takes out a cigarette. She looks at the seats but can see nothing; the silence is starting to thicken. She turns away, and the set manager shoves past her as she staggers, bleeding, to the damp dressing room, its greying floorboards, its masked nurses.

There is always a demand for talent. There is always a need for more.

People didn't feel as much after so many centuries. There's only so long you can go before every emotion, artform, statement on the nature of humanity becomes rote and tired. The avant-garde had to shake things up a little; to make something new, something more shocking, something you'd never seen before.

The theatre companies are vast. The sensation of a screen was numbing; but to actually be there as frail bodies were ripped, cut, shredded live on stage was an incomparable sensation. To see murder! Ethics were no concern to a hungry audience; after all, the actresses chose to do it, and it's not like they actually died or anything. Bodies were being grown these days! Great clone farms! And surely they wouldn't really be feeling pain; they could do something about that, now, they heard, some new genetic whatchamacallit. Modification.

Whole lives, all dedicated to being able to tell St. Peter that no, they just didn't know, why would they think to ask?

Of course, the actresses and actors did feel pain. It was necessary for an authentic performance, and it would have cost an awful lot to implant that kind of modification into a mere actress. They suffered, and glowed for it. They would bleed out in real time twice a day, before being stitched up with a new body; cheap, frail, built for the sake of appearances, Victorian Dolls or Tantalines or whatever else was fashionable and fragile.

The actors told themselves a lot of things. That it was noble art they were performing, that they loved it for the craft of it. That it was giving them such adoration, such opportunities. There was no way to persuade someone whose entire identity was wrapped up in their own suffering that there was something more going on.

Try telling them that all theatre these days was just a cheap, pornographic thriller, with the same rote scripts rewritten night after night but with a shade more extremity. Tell them that all they did was indulge the emotional fetishes of hundreds of rich, old men, wiping greasy hands on wooden seats. Tell them any of that and they'd deny it. Their eyes were full of stars, of silhouettes, of the ballet shadows of shambling monsters. They had more than you. They were more. You couldn't even feel without them.

Nadia's flat is a one-room affair, a grimy hole with two mattresses and a broken sink. Her paint is peeling, her cooker is always one step away from explosion. The view is of a charnal-house.

Her grandmother lives with her. Nadia spends most of her time ignoring her and her occasional, rambling, half-lucid lectures. Most of the time she slowly, methodically, performs the same chores she's been grinding away at for centuries.

Shirin Bokhari was born in 1929, and had been in her 90s when it all happened. Nadia used to love her grandmother. She always had such stories of life under the Raj, of the migrations, of other fractured memories. She made lovely soup, once. Her husband, Nadia's grandfather, died a year before it happened; it's something that Shirin has always bitterly regretted, as the years with her granddaughter drag on and on.

Nadia was a successful enough woman in the early 21st century to keep them in healthy bodies for a good few centuries, but the money was running out. Nadia spent the last of it on her current form, but even that is getting on in years; it was a cheap knockoff from one of the Kowloons that's now in its late 30s.

Shirin, meanwhile, is inhabiting a hundred-and-seven year old sack of dust and bone. It revolts Nadia. As she enters through the door, she barely glances at the meal simmering in the pot. Shirin is always cooking. Nadia never eats any of it herself, despite the bowls her grandmother patiently puts in front of her; she always orders takeaways or grabs cheap street food.

She doesn't know why she lets Shirin live here. The constant, low mumble; the sound of clothes scraping one another; it sickens her. She hates the old crone with her aches and pains, her vacant mind, her sudden attacks of fear. She is destined for the sky, for the stars, for forever. A face, faces, a hundred ballet socks all dancing in light. Too many bones are already crawling on the ground.

The French designer Claude d'Aubree (1939-) once said, following the Catgirl phase of the 2290s, that "Fashion should not be about the image. It should be about something deeper, some inner craving." It was a brighter spark than he who first took this statement literally, of course, by selling bodies with a lust for raw meat. "A small alteration in glands", the adverts ran, "a little alteration in brain chemistry. Carné. For men. The new body by Greene Industries."

The bodies sold like wildfire. A whole new avenue had been opened up. The law laid down strictures against some of the excesses, but they were never enforced or paid attention to. And so fashion's boundaries were permanently altered. It was not enough to simply look like a cat, an angel, a Russian doll; you had to feel it, too. More and more, anything familiar was loathed and anything new embraced.

A body that felt a searing, burning pain in its heart at all times; quite harmless, but with so much more reality to it. Another that had its innards splayed across its front, blood coursing out for everyone to see, a permanent retching and heaving; all protected, of course, through complex procedures of oils and unseen skin constructs. We wouldn't want any of our products to suffer lasting damage, after all. There's a robust system of insurance and protection for such valued clients. The "Oedipus" was a popular look at one point in the 2600s. The eyes would be gouged out, a precise cocktail of hormones into the brain from new glands in gouged-out eyes, providing shame and regret which never ceased.

People spent huge sums, bankrupted themselves, for a chance at these new styles. Their eyes were full of greed in imagination of the envy, the style, the power they could project. Gone were platinum wristwatches, manicured nails, precise haircuts and grey suits. Now pure sensation, something they had less and less of each year, was a marker of taste, class, value and worth.

It would be easy to be dismissive. It would be easy to see these people as cranks, lunatics. It would be easy to critique along lines of gender, class, taste. But the truth was that all they wanted was to feel something, anything, as long as it was different. They would rock back and forward in front of TV screens, numbing themselves, forgetting their body payments, forgetting the younger and prettier people on TV talking about how they loved their new lives, new opportunities. They needed something, anything, to stay in a game where failure was permanent.

Because they'd seen what it was to be poor and forgotten, and if they tricked themselves long enough, they could pretend it wasn't there.

The phone rang at midday. Nadia, stumbling, jumps across the room. Scattered clothes, magazines, moth-eaten books litter the floor, but she doesn't care. She cradles the reciever to her ear, holding it close, barely breathing as she whispers, "Yes?"

"Nadia? Nadia Bukhari? Yah, hi hon, was just fab having you last week, just fab. Listen, doll, honey, we wanna give you the part, kay? 2 on Thursday. Your first body's a new Tantaline we just got in, yellow eyes and the red spines, ya know the one?"

She can barely breathe. "Yes. Yes, I- thank you, thank you so-"

"Yah, yah, great. See you Thursday."

Nadia sinks to the floor. Images danced in her eyes of dark lights and crowded theatres, of adoration and domination, of smiling images on a screen. Her grandmother, slowly, deliberately, moves laundry into a basket, but Nadia can't see any more. A reel is stringing its way across her eyelids. She stares upwards, silently crying, not seeing the mould as it spreads across the ceiling except as a silhouette of light and shade, mixing, transforming, oozing, paralysing her in ecstasy until the time came to change again, consume what she had been and regurgitating what she could be.

The cannibal laughs and grins, its chains crawling upward with no master, no puppeteer.

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