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EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold

By Ian Creasey
Read by Josh Roseman
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First appeared in Asimov’s
All stories by Ian Creasey
All stories read by Josh Roseman

The Prize Beyond Gold
by Ian Creasey

Three days before the race, when Delroy had finished warming down from a
training run, his coach summoned him for a talk. Delroy could tell it was
something big. Michito’s job — assisted by his Enhanced empathy — was to
become exquisitely sensitive to his athlete’s mood, so as to help get the
best out of him. The attunement sometimes became mutual, and Delroy now
discerned a rare eagerness in Michito’s almost-natural face.

“The weather forecast for race day has reached certainty,” said Michito.
“Temperature: perfect. Humidity: perfect. Wind speed: just below the
permissible maximum. Wind direction –”

“Perfect?” said Delroy.

“Behind you all the way.” Michito grinned in delight. “It’s the final star
in the constellation. You’re in great shape, the weather will be ideal,
we’re two thousand metres above sea level” — Michito made a sweeping
gesture, encompassing the many other factors affecting performance — “and
it all adds up to one thing.”

“I’m going to win?” Delroy didn’t understand Michito’s glee: the weather
would be the same for all the runners.

“Yes, but never mind that. Forget winning — you have a chance at the
record!”

Michito paused to let it sink in. Records were something that athletes and
coaches normally never discussed, because they’d stood so long that they
were effectively unbeatable. The record for the men’s 100 metres had
remained at 8.341 seconds for the past seventy years.

A pulse of exhilaration surged through Delroy. His posture stiffened, as if
already preparing for the starting gun. “Really? The world record?”

“Yes, the one and only. The prize beyond gold.”

Michito’s excitement spilled out, infecting Delroy, whose own excitement
blazed in return and stoked a feedback loop. They were practically getting
high on it. Indeed, this giddy rush was as close to getting high as Delroy
had ever experienced. In his entire life he’d never once taken any kind of
drug. The rules were strict on that, as on so many other things.

Abruptly, Michito reverted to his habitual seriousness. “A chance, I said.
A real chance. But only if everything’s as smooth as an angel’s feather.
We need absolute perfection. There can be no deviations, no distractions.”

This was standard rhetoric for any important race. Yet Michito’s demeanour
indicated something beyond the usual rigorous regime.

“I think it would be best if you stayed here at the training ground,”
Michito went on, “instead of going back to the villa tonight. This is a
more controlled environment, with much less risk –”

“What could possibly happen to me?”

“I want to keep you away from other people, and it’s easier to do that here.
You’ll be in purdah, seeing no-one except your coaching team. I know it’ll
be frustrating, but it’s only three days.”

Delroy grimaced, though he didn’t argue. Michito knew what was best. Aside
from the usual health and attractiveness tweaks, Michito’s main Enhancement
was an uncanny empathy that let him predict Delroy’s responses, and thus
determine the optimum conditions for success. If he felt purdah was
necessary, then it must be necessary. It was only another line in the
script Delroy had been following all his life.

The script had two phases, as familiar as his two legs. Sometimes, when he
rehearsed stride patterns out on the track, the script echoed in his head
with every step: left, right; left, right — race, train; race, train….

Michito said, “This is bigger than any medal. The Olympics are like a moon
that’s always in the sky, waxing every four years; but the record is a comet
that blazes just once across the heavens, before disappearing forever. This
could be the only time in your career when all the right circumstances
combine: the chance might never come again.

“Yet if we can predict this opportunity, then so can other people. Now that
the weather’s finalised, everyone knows you have a shot at the record.
Journalists will be swarming like hornets. It’s the biggest sports story of
the decade — and it goes beyond sports….”

Michito’s voice trailed off, but Delroy knew what he implied. Athletics
records could only be set by standard, unenhanced humans — the so-called
Ancestral Model. Since in most respects the Standards had long been
surpassed by their Enhanced progeny, any new achievement by a Standard human
was a major event, embraced by the Natural Life movement as evidence that
the old model wasn’t entirely obsolete.

“And there’s one more thing we need to watch out for,” Michito said, pausing
to emphasise his next word. “Sabotage. Not everyone will want you to break
that record. We can’t take the risk of anyone getting to you. I’ve already
arranged extra security here.”

Sabotage? It sounded unlikely. Was that a real danger, or just a phantom
invoked to persuade Delroy to accept the purdah?

That was the problem with having a coach solely focused on making you
perform. You never knew whether anything he said was true, or simply the
lie with the maximum calculated motivational value.

Still, the truth didn’t matter. Only the record mattered.

#

The next day, Delroy had his head shaved. It was a routine pre-race
procedure. His hair only generated the tiniest fraction of air-resistance
drag, but every fraction counted.

It felt like being in prison. No, worse than that. In prison, you were
locked up, but you didn’t have every hour of your day micro-managed. You
could make small choices: eat cabbage or cauliflower; go to the exercise
yard or the library. Delroy had no such freedom. The exercises were
prescribed, specifying exactly how long to spend on every gym machine and
track sprint. His diet was calculated down to each individual calorie.

He needed to be in impeccable condition to have any hope of surpassing the
record. Over the centuries that athletics records had been measured, the
times had got lower and lower. The lower the records became, the harder
they were to beat, and the less often it happened. The intervals between
new records stretched from years to decades to centuries. And the times
themselves decreased on an asymptotic curve.

If he’d been allowed to talk to journalists, Delroy would have enjoyed using
the word “asymptotic”, just to violate people’s expectations. People always
thought Standards were dumb, because they didn’t have augmented
intelligence; and people always thought athletes were dumb, because… well,
Delroy didn’t know why athletes were stereotypically stupid, but for some
reason no-one ever expected them to use a polysyllabic word like
“asymptote”.

As to what it meant, Delroy couldn’t cite a mathematical definition, but he
knew its practical effect. The record kept decreasing by smaller amounts,
over longer periods, approaching the limit of human attainment: the absolute
fastest that anyone could ever run — unaided, of course, by genetic
engineering, post-natal resculpting, performance-enhancing substances, or
any of the very long list of other techniques that had been banned to
maintain the purity of the record books.

If Delroy set a new mark, it might almost be the asymptote itself — or
within a thousandth of a second, the precision of the official records. The
previous record had stood for seventy years, so Delroy’s record should last
even longer, a fame persisting his entire lifetime… unless he had his body
resculpted into one of the post-natal Enhancements that included longevity
extensions.

Fame for life, perhaps for eternity.

Contemplating this vision helped reconcile Delroy to the indignities of the
training regime. Every aspect, no matter how arduous or annoying,
contributed to shaving 0.008 seconds from his personal best: the improvement
required to beat the record.

Everything was calculated, down to the last molecule of piss in his bladder.
He mustn’t carry excess fluid on the day.

After saying goodbye to his hair, Delroy walked into the training-suite
annex that housed Dop, his virtual copy. One wall of the room housed a
screen projecting an image of Dop, now equally hairless. Since Dop was an
atomic-scale emulation, and the screen was smoother than mirrorglass, the
onscreen image was even more accurate than looking into a mirror. It showed
Delroy at full height, 2.003 metres, and it displayed him naked. The
effects of wearing different clothes could be simulated, but the optimum
costume and footwear had been refined long ago, so there was usually little
point in adding them. His body appeared in its full splendour, with taut
muscles under black skin. Delroy knew that his skin colour would once have
made him subject to prejudice. Nowadays, differences between the Standards
were negligible compared to the gulf dividing them from the various Enhanced
clades. All colours of Standard suffered equal prejudice from those who
derided the defects of the ancestral human form. Still, as the Natural Life
movement said, if the Enhanced were really so superior, why were there so
many different varieties? They couldn’t all be equally wonderful.

Sometimes, in the moments when he wanted something that he couldn’t have,
Delroy might say to the emulator, “I’d love an ice-cream sundae with fudge
topping.” Then the wallscreen would split into two panels, showing
alternate versions of Dop: one who followed the recommended regime, and one
who lapsed into indulgence. These simulations were projected forward to
race day, and compared. Without fail, the virtuous Dop would be in better
shape — perhaps only by an infinitesimal fraction, but it all counted.

This didn’t stop Delroy enquiring. After all, you didn’t know unless you
asked. He dreamed that one day he might say, “How about growing my hair
into an enormous afro?” and the emulator would reply, “We hadn’t thought of
that, yet we’ve run the calculations and it turns out that having a giant
afro really will help you break the record!”

But after several negative responses, sometimes Delroy would simply stare at
the screen and wonder how it felt to be a simulated person inside a
computer. As an atom-by-atom emulation, in principle Dop could think and
dream equally well as Delroy himself.

In practice, that didn’t happen, but only because the law forbade creating a
sentient emulation and keeping it prisoner to calculate projections of diets
and exercises. Dop’s higher brain functions had been suppressed: he didn’t
think at all.

Delroy found this disturbing. His whole training regime was based on Dop’s
simulations. That was how it had worked for years: it had won him gold at
the last Olympics, and now it would — God willing — give him the world
record. Yet the fact that Dop didn’t think, that his mental capacities were
erased, showed how little the intellect mattered.

Delroy was just a machine following a script, one that needed no thought
whatsoever to obey. He only had to train, eat, drink, and run. No brain
required.

Maybe athletes really were stupid.

He hated to think that he lived like a programmed automaton. It had almost
destroyed his love for racing. In his youth, he’d wanted nothing more than
to run, run, run. After he started winning races, he’d trained under a
succession of coaches with ever more elaborate and restrictive regimes. As
Delroy grew faster, and approached his own personal asymptote, further
improvements grew more difficult and required more precise instruction,
until finally he became the slave of a brainless emulation.

He’d gone along with it because it worked. You can’t argue with results.
Yet after Olympic gold and — possibly — a world record, what on earth
could come next?

“What next?” he asked Dop, on the big screen.

But the simulations always stopped at the end of the race.

#

On the day before the big race, Delroy rehearsed his sprints and starts
while loudspeakers blared a carefully tailored simulation of cheering
spectators, enabling Delroy to accustom himself to the exact pitch of the
crowd’s roar. Everything proceeded with metronomic precision. It made
Delroy feel like a clockwork toy, being wound tighter and tighter….

Michito sensed Delroy’s tension, but — unusually — didn’t defuse it.
Perhaps the tension was necessary: its explosive release would help propel
Delroy faster than ever before. After the training session, Michito and his
aides hurried back inside to calibrate Delroy’s performance against the
projections from Dop, and calculate any final tweaks to the diet and sleep
regime for the few remaining hours.

Delroy stayed outside to linger in the warm afternoon air and enjoy the
view. This would be the last time he saw it. Tomorrow he’d be far too
focused on the race to even notice the environment, and afterward he’d go
home to Los Angeles — returning as either a record-breaker, or merely an
Olympic champion still.

Around him lay the magnificent mountains overlooking Mexico City. A thin
layer of cloud took the edge off the sun’s glare; specks outlined against
the clouds might be birds, or might be Enhanced humans soaring across the
sky. Wings were one of the most popular enhancements, despite the radical
degree of surgery necessary for a post-natal conversion.

As he looked, one of the specks grew bigger. A figure descended, gliding
toward the running track. Delroy frowned. Michito’s security team would
deal with the intruder, so there was no sense in Delroy getting involved.
He walked toward the changing rooms, his muscles tense as he anticipated a
confrontation somewhere behind him. He almost broke into a jog, but
restrained himself. His exercises had been parameterised to the last stride
and drop of sweat; if he ran fifty metres back to the huts, he might
infinitesimally overtax himself.

On his bare scalp he felt a draught of air from the beating of wings. The
figure was following him. Unless Delroy sprinted, a flyer could easily
outpace him anywhere, so he stopped and sat down on one of the lane-marker
blocks, waiting for the intruder to land.

The interloper settled neatly onto the asphalt in front of him, and folded
her wings. She wore a red woollen tunic; her feet were bare, with
brown-skinned human toes rather than the birdlike claws that some of the
aerial clades found convenient. Delroy had seen winged humans before, but
it always shocked him how small they were. She resembled a six-year-old
child with hydrocephaly: the body had to be small, so that wings could
support it; but the brain couldn’t shrink without losing capacities, so the
disproportionate head sat on top of the slender body like a pumpkin on top
of a carrot.

Delroy glanced to his right, then his left, wondering what had happened to
the promised security patrol. Not that the flyer looked like a threat: she
was tiny and appeared to be carrying no weapon. Still, she’d violated the
pre-race purdah that Michito deemed essential.

“Your guardians have been detained for a little while,” the woman said, in a
high-pitched, childlike voice. “Not very long. I only need a few minutes
of your time.”

“And I only need to prepare without interference,” Delroy said forcefully.
“If you wanted to talk to me, why didn’t you wait until after the race?”

“Because I wanted to be the first. After you break the record, you’ll be
deluged with offers. It would be difficult for me to reach you, and if I
did, I’d just be one voice among many. You’d have no reason to listen to
me. But now, I can ask you to give me a chance. If I promise to leave
after — say — ten minutes, will you hear me out?”

“I’m not sure I should,” said Delroy. “Michito told me to avoid all
contact. I haven’t even spoken to my family.” An image from an old film
arose vividly in his mind: sailors blocking up their ears against the siren
voices of doom. There was no-one here to tie him to the mast. Where had
everyone gone?

“Michito is very protective, I know. He’s been detained with the others.
But he needn’t worry. I have no intention of doing anything that’ll harm
your chances. I want you to break that record, and I’m sure you will.”

“All right, all right,” said Delroy, not quite reassured, but grateful that
she hadn’t already shot a bullet into his knee, which she could easily have
done if she wished him ill. Her audacity deserved acknowledgement. A
rebellious part of him welcomed the deviation from the script, the unplanned
encounter that might lead anywhere.

“Thanks,” she said. “I do appreciate the opportunity. First, let me
introduce myself. I’m Yarah Rodriguez” — she paused briefly — “and I see
you don’t recognise the name, though I was once in a situation very similar
to yours. Forty-five years ago, I was part of the team that broke the world
record for the women’s 400-metre relay. I believe the record still stands.”
She smiled nostalgically. “We achieved moderate recognition, though not
nearly as much as you’ll receive. For whatever reason, the men’s 100 metres
is the iconic track event.”

Delroy began to speak, but his visitor overrode him. “I’m not here to
complain about some historic quirk that says one distance is more
significant, or solo races are more newsworthy than the relay. It doesn’t
matter why your event is the most prestigious — it just is. That’s why
your decision is so important.”

“My decision?”

“About what you’ll do afterward. Perhaps you’ll still keep running” — her
tone dismissed this as unlikely — “which would be one decision. But if you
retire, then what next? The world will be watching you, waiting to see what
you choose.”

“And I take it you wish to make me an offer.” Delroy sighed, disappointed
at such crass mundanity. “Look, my agent handles all my endorsements. I’m
not interested in talking about anything commercial. That’s why I have an
agent, to deal with all that crap.”

“I’m not asking you to advertise gold jewellery,” Yarah said waspishly.
Delroy stifled a giggle; it felt incongruous to be chided by someone the
size of a little girl.

She pointed at Delroy’s body, which even when seated still towered over her.
“This is a lot more fundamental. Are you going to keep the body you were
born with?”

“Ah… I see your angle.” Delroy paused. It wasn’t a subject he’d
considered deeply, because it had never seemed urgent. “I guess I’ll keep
it for a while. I mean, what’s the rush? There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t
done in this body, before I start to think about upgrading it.”

Drugs, for instance. There were thousands of recreational chemicals, and
he’d never sampled any of them. The restrictions were a legacy of the old
prohibition laws from the early days of athletics, along with a
precautionary paranoia that any exotic substance might be
performance-enhancing in some obscure way.

Not that he wanted to turn himself into a quivering blob of orgasmium. What
lured him wasn’t so much the desire for any specific drug, but the prospect
of choice: the luxury of having myriad options to explore.

“You’d consider changing your body in future?” asked Yarah.

“Sure, I’d consider it,” said Delroy. “Maybe I’ll remodel, maybe I won’t.
But I’m not one of those Natural Life freaks who says that no-one should
ever be Enhanced.”

Yarah smiled. “They’ll be disappointed to hear that. After tomorrow,
you’ll be a hero to them. You know what they’ll say: if you can run faster
than anyone who ever lived, that proves there’s still plenty of potential
left in the Ancestral Model. There’s no need for intelligence
enhancements — there might yet be a Standard who’ll surpass Newton and
Einstein.”

“Yeah….” Delroy didn’t like the intelligence enhancements. Their
possessors all seemed to be smug, supercilious snobs. “I guess I can live
with being a figurehead for a while. Like I said, I’m in no rush to
change.”

“Neither was I. But the longer you live in your old body, the harder it
becomes to adapt to a new one.” Yarah’s gaze dropped. “It makes a
difference, it really does. I wish I hadn’t left it so long.”

“And so I presume you’d advise me to change straight away,” Delroy said, his
own voice becoming waspish as he realised what the woman wanted. “You said
this wasn’t about endorsements. But it is, isn’t it? You want me to become
Enhanced. And by doing so, I’d endorse the whole concept of enhancement.
I’d look like I was rejecting the Ancestral Model. It’d be a kick in the
teeth for the Natural Life movement, if their figurehead went straight from
breaking a record to taking a new body.”

“You said you weren’t one of the Natural –”

Ignoring her protests, Delroy went on, “I don’t agree with everything they
say, but that doesn’t mean I want to publicly slap them in the face. I’m
not getting caught up in some political squabble between the Standards and
the Enhanced –”

He broke off, gripped by a dark suspicion. Michito was Enhanced. The
security team would all have various enhancements. Rather than being
overpowered, had they deliberately let this woman arrive, in the hope that
she would persuade him to their cause?

Rage overtook him. Those damned Enhanced — they were all in league
together; they thought they were so superior….

The anger dissipated as Delroy struggled to control himself. His years of
regimented living meant that he saw his coach’s hand in everything. Yet
rationally, he knew it was preposterous to accuse Michito. Why would
Michito set up the purdah, then have it interrupted by a stranger? It
didn’t make sense. After the success of their long athlete-coach
relationship, Delroy would trust Michito himself far more than any stranger.

And Michito’s mental enhancements were completely different to Yarah’s
physical ones. The Natural Life movement talked of the Enhanced as a
collective mass, scheming together with sinister intent. Yet in reality the
Enhanced were a vast array of divergent body-types and mind-types, with
little reason to co-operate.

“This isn’t about the Standards against the Enhanced,” said Yarah. “If it
were, we’d want to prevent you breaking the record. But it isn’t, it really
isn’t.”

“Then what is it about?” demanded Delroy. As soon as he spoke, he regretted
the harshness in his voice.

“It’s just that if you do decide you want a new body, you’ll have to choose
which particular set of enhancements –”

“Oh, I see,” Delroy said, in a calmer, more cynical tone. “And naturally,
you have a recommendation –”

“Yes. On behalf of my clade, I’m authorised to make you an offer. If you
join us, we’ll pay for the resculpting procedures, and assign you a mentor,
and show you all the joys of flying….”

“Getting wings is expensive, isn’t it?” It wasn’t only the cost of the
wings themselves; the rest of the body had to be adapted and pared down.
Delroy stared at the pixie-like woman, who was surely less than a quarter of
his own weight.

“Yes, but having a mentor is the most important thing. Flying isn’t easy;
people have no instinct for it.”

“And am I correct in assuming…?”

“I could be your mentor, if you wish,” Yarah said, again looking down at the
asphalt rather than meeting Delroy’s gaze. “Obviously I was chosen to
approach you because my background is similar to yours. I know what it’s
like, because I went through it myself. It’s hard. Don’t let anyone tell
you it isn’t. It’s especially hard for athletes, because we’re so attuned
to our bodies. When we run or jump or hurdle, we’re accustomed to precise
control and high achievement…. Then you wake up in a different body, and
you find you’ve lost that harmony, that mastery. It’s like being
crippled –”

“You’re really selling it to me,” Delroy commented with a smile, yet
admiring Yarah’s honesty.

“– and you struggle for a long, long time. But eventually it clicks, and
then you’re in a whole new realm. Flying is so perfect, so magical….”
Yarah’s expression had a fervent joy. “We have races, you know. London to
Paris is the classic, but there’s lots of others. And racing in the air is
much more challenging than on land. Let’s face it, running requires only a
limited amount of thought. Flying is far more subtle: there are more things
to weigh up — winds and thermals and weather-fronts — and more choices to
make. Once you’ve raced across the sky, you’ll be hooked.”

It sounded seductive. As a sales pitch, it was intended to be seductive.
But Delroy knew the drawbacks that Yarah hadn’t mentioned. He knew them
very well, because they were precisely the factors that made Standard
athletics such a popular spectacle, the Olympics such a major event, and
breaking a world record so difficult and prestigious.

Restrictions — all the constraints that Delroy found so irritating — were
what made the whole thing work. A race was only meaningful between fairly
matched competitors. Thus the rules of all Standard sports forbade the use
of body resculpting, exotic substances, and the like.

Once you allowed enhancement, an equal contest became impossible. The
enhancement process itself was constantly being refined; the latest
generations of flyers were far more graceful in the air than the earliest
crude efforts. And no two individuals were the same, particularly when
remodelling wasn’t a once-only makeover, but a lifelong process of continual
tinkering. The various Enhanced clades were social communities as much as
physical templates, based on broad distinctions among a vast spectrum of
constantly shifting body-types.

Delroy had seen pictures of the last London to Paris winner. She was a tiny
scrap of a thing, unrecognisable as human: just a sliver of brain in an
airborne arrow. The human form wasn’t meant to fly, and consequently the
further you optimised for flight, the further you moved from the Ancestral
Model. Yarah, as disconcertingly small and grotesque as she looked, had —
so far — taken only a few steps down a long, long road….

Sure, you could define broad categories of shape and size, just as Standard
boxers were divided into weight classes. But with such a huge range of
variation to classify, either a few categories all contained significant
divergence, or a large number of categories had only a tiny population in
each.

Neither outcome was satisfactory. Consequently, Enhanced sports lacked a
mass audience. All famous sportsmen — not just athletes, but the stars of
football, tennis, golf and so on — were Standards.

Delroy didn’t bother saying any of this to Yarah. There was no point in
reiterating what they both understood. Instead he said, “It’s a generous
offer. And you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to come here and make it. Why?
What’s in it for you?”

“We need your prestige,” said Yarah. “When you break the record tomorrow,
you’ll be famous. If you subsequently choose Enhancement, you’ll join a
clade, and they’ll become famous too. You talked about endorsements — I
don’t like the word, but that’s effectively what it is. If you join our
clade, then you’re endorsing us.

“You know how the Enhanced are divided: lots of body-types, lots of
turnover. It’s unsustainable. This is an experimental phase — every
permutation of body and mind is out there somewhere. But it can’t last.
People will find that some variations are better than others, and they’ll
want to live in communities of the like-minded and like-bodied. Over time,
the top few clades will expand their population… and a lot of unpopular
clades will find their members drifting away to join the successful ones.
We want to be among the winners, not the losers.” Behind Yarah’s composed
expression and polished words, Delroy thought he glimpsed a hint of urgency,
perhaps even anxiety.

“And so we have a recruitment plan,” Yarah continued, “based on persuading
the right kind of people to join us: leaders, achievers, role models.
You’re one of them.”

“You mean I will be, if I break the record tomorrow,” said Delroy.

Yarah smiled. “Don’t worry about that. I was a record-breaker myself,
remember. I can see when the conditions are right, when everything is
coming together. It’ll happen, for sure.”

“I appreciate your confidence,” Delroy said, trying not to sound sardonic.
He assumed that predicting success was Yarah’s polite way of signalling that
her clade only wanted him if he broke the record. Failure wouldn’t make a
good figurehead.

Did he want to graft wings onto his back and soar through the air? It
sounded pleasant enough, although many other things might be just as
desirable. If he succeeded tomorrow, he’d receive plenty of offers. The
prospect intoxicated him. It was flattering to be courted, but even more
delicious to contemplate an endless vista of choice.

Yet the accomplishment of winning a race — and setting a record — depended
upon the extensive rules defining a true contest, and the arduous training
that achieved results. Without such structure, would he merely waver
between a thousand kinds of empty hedonism and trivial goals? In a search
for meaningful accomplishment, would he end up seeking a Michito-like flight
coach to teach him aerial racing, and find himself reverting to a rigidly
scripted life?

That would be one choice. Surely there were others.

Delroy stood up, sending a signal of his own: that the conversation was
over. “I’ll consider your proposal later. I’m sure you understand that
right now I’m focused on the race.”

“Yes, of course,” said Yarah. “I hope you do decide to join us. And here’s
a quick sample lesson: take-off is a lot harder than landing. You need to
work up some speed.” She looked at the starting blocks in front of the lane
markers. “Guess I’ll use these, for old times’ sake.”

She knelt and assumed the ‘set’ position, her tiny feet looking incongruous
in the Standard-size blocks. Delroy raised his hand, miming a gun. He
shouted, “Bang!”

Yarah burst out of the blocks and started running down the straight. Her
wings unfolded. They began to beat in a slow rhythm, one flap to every four
strides.

As she crossed the finishing line, Yarah left the ground and ascended into
the sky.

#

On the morning of the race, Delroy realised that he had never previously
known what freedom meant. He’d resented his tightly controlled training
sessions, his rigorously specified diet, his calibration against a
brain-dead electronic emulation. But he’d never appreciated just how much
leeway he had on a minute-by-minute basis. Now, even that tiny degree of
freedom vanished. The schedule became all-encompassing, turning him into a
giant marionette without the slightest volition.

Dop had become a hologram, following him around. It was the most efficient
way to convey instructions even more meticulously detailed than last year’s
drill before the Olympic final. Delroy scrutinised Dop’s image and copied
every single action: every bite of food, every warm-up exercise, every
little arrangement and adjustment.

Michito, normally so sensitive to his athlete’s mood, seemed not to notice
Delroy’s discontent. Perhaps the coach was simply too busy trying to
control the real world with the atomic level of precision achieved in the
simulator. More likely, he expected Delroy’s reaction and allowed for it.
Only the record mattered, not whether the athlete enjoyed the pre-race
preparation.

With his bodily movements enslaved to the script, Delroy’s only freedom lay
inside his head, where rebellion brewed. As he walked into the stadium and
heard the familiar expectant buzz from the crowd, he found himself wondering
whether to hold back, to refrain from the uttermost paroxysms of effort
required to beat the record.

It would be a splendid gesture to deliberately throw away everything he’d
striven toward during his career. It would assert his freedom, his
individuality, and show that he couldn’t be reduced to a mindless
marionette.

Delroy lined up with the other runners, and shook their hands without
looking into anyone’s eyes. He wasn’t racing against his peers; he was
racing against the mark set seventy years ago. As predicted, the weather
was perfect: wind, temperature, humidity. All conditions were propitious.
Delroy crossed himself, and said a short prayer.

On command, everyone ‘set’ themselves in the starting blocks. The race
official pointed his starting pistol at the sky. As always — it formed a
key part of his preparatory routine — Delroy remembered the words of a
long-dead sprinter: “You start on the B of the bang.” The phrase acted like
a mantra, priming him to react to the very first decibel of the gun’s noise.

But should he make the effort, or should he hold back?

Delroy yearned to escape the strictures that had bound him for so long. And
he would have the maximum scope, the widest variety of tempting choices, if
he became a world-record holder.

That was the end of his conscious thoughts. As soon as the starting pistol
fired, he became the automated puppet for the last time, obeying the final
few words of the script as he raced toward the freedom of the finishing
line.

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