Face Full of Nations

A Nationscape sits and grows on Hilga’s face. Residents crowd at the bags under her eyes, alien skyscrapers rise and fall at her lash line. There’s unexpected wonder as her chin billows with industrial smoke. Except the weight causes her eyelids to droop, traffic on her lips makes it difficult to smile, and transportation tracks dig into the creases of her forehead. If the price of beauty is pain, the industrial Nationscape from cluster AG­37 doesn’t make her look beautiful anymore.

Hilga applies foundation to even the stumps of clearcut peach fuzz.

“Please, take it off!” they beg, suffocating under beige color 671 and crushed in the curving pad of her eyelash curler.

Hilga shudders. The other modifications never communicated, not in any understandable way. She’s still washing off the makeup when there’s a knock at the door.

It’s Bea’s face in the peephole, the way Hilga had never seen it before. Gone were the pastoral field-blushed cheeks and Renaissance-arched cheekbones. Just a barefaced Bea, somehow still beautiful the way Hilga never could be.

Despite the haggard state of her own face, Hilga unlatches the door. Better her friend laughs than strangers.

Alien structures dangle from the tip of Hilga’s nose. Scratching will compromise their integrity, so Hilga resists the urge.

 “You’re still wearing that? Nationscapes are so last season,” Bea says.

“Since when?” Hilga saved for years rather than settling for a knock-off, and she’d only worn it a week before the tightness and pinching. A week of being more than the ugly friend, even though Bea never called her that.

“No big deal, just go to my facialist and get it fixed.”

Hilga’s eyelids twitch and her stomach churns. “What would that mean for them?”

 “Since when does that matter?”

Since they talked! Hilga can’t just leave them in a biohazard bag to rot. If Nationscapes can communicate, they should demand a responsibility regular cosmetics don’t.

* * *

The facialist takes them to the backroom for a courtesy trade-in. Desperate pleas escape from the boxes in storage. Hilga never thought to question how the cosmos had been made small enough for wear, it was easier not to ask; easier to pay—take loans—if it meant finally being attractive.

The facialist kicks at a column to quiet them. “Sorry about that.”

Many display boxes still bear the original packaging with the developmental age and locations from across the universe.

“They’re not returned to their place of origin?” Hilga asks, knowing the answer.

“Who has money for that?” The facialist blows dust off a catalog. “The AI age has wires and servers that complement natural bone structure and there’s no chance they’ll migrate elsewhere to the body. They’re lab made, if you’re feeling sentimental.”

But AI isn’t in. As a child, Hilga underwent her first modification. Even though procedures were simpler then, she still can’t remember her natural appearance.  Bea had the face to brave going bare, Hilga may not.

There’s an urgent tug at the tragus of her ear. A whisper from tiny pleading voices. “We never meant to hurt you,” they say, “please.”

Everyone all over has that in common, not wanting to and causing pain.

“I’m sorry,” she says. She doesn’t dare ask forgiveness.

From her forehead to chin, the lights flicker and die.

The facialist operates among the unwanted and aging stock, using specialized tweezers and a magnifier for the removal. Hilga winces as the inhabitants scramble to escape, fail, and disappear onto a 4×4 square of cowhide. With the lid propped open, Hilga can’t ignore the screams. She tells herself she hadn’t been the one to harvest them from outer space. Powerful people made planets into decoration subject to the whims of economy and fashion. Not her. One person doesn’t make a hero.

“Am I doing the right thing?” Hilga says.

Bea’s flipping through magazines. “The AI didn’t look half-bad.”

It’s not what she meant.

Though still puffy from the detachment, the lines of Hilga’s forehead soften. Her cheeks reveal a natural, if dull, blush. So that’s me. She thinks about the faces she’s worn, the face she could have had all along.

“See, problem solved!” Bea says.

Hilga wonders how long until this trend passes and they’re both back in the chair for a different implant. She can’t keep doing this. Hilga holds in the tears, moisture will make reattachment harder. “I’ve changed my mind. How much for your entire stock?”

Even with depreciating value, it costs a fortune. Lives always do and Hilga doesn’t have the finances or face-estate to save them all.

“I’ll take back my industrial and….” She points to the loudest box.

“You’re sure?” the facialist says. “It won’t look pretty.”

She’s sure, remembering their horror under the magnifier.

Bea refuses to join and go against fashion trends but she still holds Hilga’s hand through the pain. Anesthetics dull the ache of implantation; they don’t erase it.

The migrants crowd and stomp. Technology can only shrink them to ten micrometers for even coverage before Hilga’s face is full and her account empty. There’s so many more who can’t fit, whose cries remain muted in plastic.

“Can’t you squeeze in a few more?”

“Too many already. All those different nations together, you’ll have wars before they settle,” the facialist warns.

“But they’ll settle?” She only has her one face to give.

“You’ll have pockmarks.”

She’ll have rashes, aches, burns; chronic pain. She stands no chance at beauty now. Hilga runs a light hand over the bumpy melting pot of her face.

 “Thank you,” some cry.

All Hilga hears are the muffled chants of “pick me” from the Nationscapes left behind in the backroom. It won’t ever be enough, but she hopes no face is too small to make a difference.