Who Prays for god?

(c) 2003


"The melodies that I invoke can wrest the hiss from the snake, the rage from the bull, and," he said, slyly winking to the male judges, "the chill from the woman. I am the muse in music!"

So boasted Marsyas to the assembled crowd, gathered to hear who could prompt the sweeter sounds from his instrument: the mortal from his Athena-cursed double flute, or the immortal Apollo from his storied lyre. Marsyas, not an unhandsome man of wiry medium build, had been born deaf to music. He had grown to be an untalented braggart who, while fishing in a Phrygian stream, had by the fates discovered the stag-bone flute cast out of Olympus. The melodies that the burst forth when he first pressed it to his lips astounded him, but soon he convinced himself that a great talent had merely been latent in him.

Marsyas traveled the ancient world, performing first for his meals, then for gold, finally for position, which brought him to the court of the Rivergod Tmolus. If Marsyas was to be known civilization's greatest musician, he needed a credential that no other could possess: he needed to best a god in a contest of musical prowess. He would then own the right to call himself master of all musical arts. Vanity and greed caused him to choose Apollo as the foil for his fame, and Marsyas compounded his foolishness by stipulating that another god should judge the test, accompanied by a mortal of kingly bearing. That way his appointment to a court as royal musician would never be questioned.

So it was in the great amphibious amphitheatre of Tmolus that the flautist and the lyrist met for the challenge, the Rivergod and King Midas of Phrygia presiding as jury for the competition. Marsyas played as brilliantly as his goddess-made flute would allow, its melodies echoing off the beautifully sculpted black-marble stands. The audience gathered to watch the musical battle was enchanted by the dips and swirls of the tunes, the uncanny ability of the duophonic woodwind to play tetrachords, and the ease with which the instrumentalist produced such supernatural tones. They went wild when Marsyas finished his performance, and the judges had to agree that his music was the best they had ever heard, from a mortal.

But then Apollo stood, tall, perfectly proportioned, and dressed in a robe gilded in gold. His divine physical beauty silenced the humming crowd, and he began to caress his lyre, first gently like a lover, then violently, as if whipping a wild animal. The music that filled the amphibious amphitheatre was breathtaking beyond belief, sinking to basso profundo the soaring to altissimo. At times the lyre whimpered, then screamed. It sang, it sobbed, it moaned, it cried in anger and in joy. Even the host of Olympus, watching the contest with interest from on high, could be heard to swoon at the sounds radiating from his instrument. Without question the music of Apollo was truly godly, coming down from the age of the Titans and extending to the cosmological future.

And when the god-musician was done, three days had passed like three minutes. The audience sat in stunned silence for a heartbeat, then as one leapt to their feet with a roar of praise that could be heard in Athens, hundreds of stadia away. Tmolus smiled, for he knew beforehand the inevitable outcome of the ill-conceived contest, and declared Apollo the winner. It would have stopped there, with Marsyas leaving in disgrace, the god content, had not King Midas inexplicably disagreed with the declaration of the winner. "Marsyas' beautiful execution of quaver and semiquaver moved me more," the fatally foolish Phrygian ruler said. "I declare him the winner of this contest."

The crowd gasped as one at this suicidal pronouncement by the king. Tmolus turned to his fellow judge with a look of incredulity, then to the flautist who now beamed with pride. Marsyas then sealed his fate by denigrating the music of Apollo, hypocritically calling it fraud and trickery. "A cheat!" he cried, "The gods collaborate to deny the truth! A man has bested an immortal in a fair contest, and the divine cannot admit it!"

Apollo turned a crimson hue, his rage a tangible thing in the air of the amphitheatre. He grew in size to ten times the span of a man (a trick achieved via holographic projection) and roared at Marsyas. "How dare you! How dare you call me a fraud and Tmolus a liar. That cursed mouth of your shall be your end, and that cursed flute, the instrument of your hubris, shall be the instrument of your death." With that the god gestured and the enchanted flute became a projectile, ramming itself down the throat of the flautist, vertically impaling him into the stage. The thunder that rang with the punishment shook the amphitheatre and so disturbed the hot humid Florida night that moths and palmetto bugs filled the air in distress.

Then the immortal turned his mortal judge. "And you! You listen with the ears of an ass, and so you shall have them," the actor portraying Apollo shouted, his voice embellished by hidden signal processing. King Midas, played by Didacus Rameros, started and removed his royal turban to reveal to an expectant yet ever-astonished theatre audience long, furred, equine ears.

Geraldo Rameros had been portraying Midas in this play for nearly a decade. He had taken the name Didacus, meaning 'learned one', after his transformation, unaware of the irony that the character he choose to devote himself to was a distinctly unlearned one. He, like many erstwhile thespians, had decided to undergo DNA alteration to quickly enter the theatre, rather than really developing his craft through training and experience.

In another time, wolf-boys and monkey-girls had been relegated to carnival sideshows and tabloid rags, and a mule-eared actor could have managed at least an occasional shock-TV appearance. But early in the 23rd century, nanobot technology had produced a virus-like mechanism, one that could 'infect' the DNA of a host and make cosmetic alterations. Invented to correct deformities, the DNA virus was adopted and adapted by other disciplines, one of which was the more sensational Theatre Arts.

No, there wasn't a shortage of theatrical makeup or prosthetics at that time. A school of intensive, some said obsessive (or bogus), method-acting had grown up as a result of this new technology. Actors and actresses, usually those of mediocre talent, were encouraged to find a character that they could grow into and live with for some time. Then they would submit to a specially designed virus to alter their features to fit the role they'd chosen. Some changes were minor, where the actor's face would grow to become that of, say, an historical figure. Others metamorphoses, like that of Didacus Rameros, were drastic.

There were limitations to the process; one could not cross genders, not completely at least, and there were constraints on changes in body mass. Ears could be managed, for cartilage was easily enhanced by the nanobots, but extending the spine to grow a respectable tail would be very difficult. The transformation took time, up to several months for the most major alterations, but it was reversible with few side effects. Most of the 'altered-actors' who took the virus however, grew accustomed to their new features and the notoriety (read: income) they generated, and they kept the changes for years.

The process was also very expensive, requiring intensive medical observation during the change, and periodic maintenance checks. Human DNA constantly tried to revert to its original code, and the nanobots needed to be reprogrammed quarterly to adjust against any reversion. So expensive was the procedure that the cost was often underwritten by a sponsor; these sponsors were usually backers for the play itself, and required a credible return on their substantial investment. However, since performances with altered-actors were more spectacle than art, they consistently drew large audiences, and as long as the cash-cow could be milked the play continued. Many backers grew rich, or richer.

Geraldo Rameros was contracted to wear ass's ears for many years, but it wasn't all bad. The money was steady, and the fame stroked his ego handsomely. There was even a cadre of women who found his animal features strangely alluring. Restaurants and nightclubs welcomed him, for his uniqueness brought in customers, and 'Didacus' was a regular on sensational interview shows. All this more than compensated for his freakish looks, and his lack of real dramatic talent wasn't a factor in his success.

Oh, there were inevitably theatre critics who disparaged the whole DNA-inspired revival of mythological and historical plays, rightfully pointing out that the acting abilities of the transformed weren't suitable for even summer stock. Tellingly, few top-drawer players chose to host the nanobot virus. But as a great promoter once said, no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public, so scathing reviews were rarely a negative influence on the box-office. Money talks, and it whispered in the ears of altered-actors and actresses "you're really good!" Serious students of the theatrical arts whispered other things.

So for most of his professional life Didacus played Midas, a character who wouldn't hear the truth even when the truth was painfully self-evident, and the irony of his choice was lost to him.

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