'But this thing you are planning... there's no dignity in it. You will be little more than a whore.'

'And do you call the Armor goddess a whore?'

'It's their religion. They are born to it. You are an athlete. The finest that I could--'

'You could what?' Raycuda interrupted.

'Let's exile together. There was a time when athletes performed on the strength of their own physical ability. Competition was about mental preparation and training, not substances and selective breeding. We don't need UNINC.'

Raycuda had heard Min's lament a hundred times before.

'Keep your dignity with your old stories, Min. They are dreams. What would my life be like in exile? Without nutrient supplements and the magic of solipto I would weaken, age, my scales would darken-' her voice wavered.

'There are worse things, you know,' said Min.

Raycuda gentled her grip, but her expression stayed resolute. 'Not to me.'

Min had been Raycuda's allotted trainer since her arrival at Universal Sports Incorporated's - UNINC's - nursery on the planet Glebe.

Prised away from her species school on the water planet, Kelor, Raycuda had been raised on Glebe - the magic of solipto and genetic corrections building her into the optimum blend of fish and human. According to Pan-Perseus rules, all athletes were required to retain forty-six percent of their human molecular heritage. Nurseries like Sports Inc. operated in the shady areas of those rules.

Min had acted as her parents, grandparents and night blanket, turning a blind eye, when, against UNINC's strict policies for their athletes, Raycuda indulged her voracious sexuality.

Yet Raycuda knew she couldn't allow Min's time-warped romancing to change her mind. Pietr Lomas was her only hope. She would do what she had to. Lars would understand that.

Or would he?

Lars' Track team had excelled at the recent Pan-Perseus games. Twenty gold's and numerous lesser medals, with Lars himself pivotal to the sprint events.

His winning run home in the 200 meters relay had been primed bodywork perfection, the muscles of his four running legs moving under his skin like a snake under silk. No. The only danger Lars faced was from becoming very, very rich.

Not that he wasn't already. Raised under UNINC's sport programme, like Raycuda, he'd had the best life could offer: supplemented nutrition, metered doses of the wonder drug Solipto, alterations to any of the birth defects that escaped the genetics planners - optics was the usual one, to be the best you had to see the best - muscle sculpting, intensive training. And then there was the unrelenting psychological instruction, programming each athlete to focus exclusively on their chosen sport. To support their team at all cost.

They cannot think of anything else. That's why they will die and I will live!

Raycuda brushed a line of perspiration from above her lip. She only had hours to convince Pietr Lomas that she was so eminently desirable, as talented as the Armor goddess, that she should be exempt from the reconstitution process.

Reconstitution! Pietr Lomas' cure for under-performers. Harsh and irreversible.

No matter what the information sessions told her - how it was a painless procedure of which she would have no memory - Raycuda always had the same crude vision; a vat, oozing congealed fat; body parts bobbing then disappearing, matted hair, chunks of flesh. A broth of unimaginable smells. It came to her now, the imagined, rancid smell. She swallowed back bile that climbed her throat.

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