…twenty pounds of pressure to the rhomboid major through the loosening trapezius, a lateral shift to the anterior deltoid, then up the scapular muscle chains with a decked out flurry of ten-pound contacts and try to give the impression of at least brushing the semispinalis family during the dismount.

Ellen swallowed a ladle of water, dosed to the legal limit with med-recombinant. She was aware of parts of her brain (those parts not shivering under a steady panic like white noise) trying to think critically about her routine. It was hardly the most innovative she'd done, or the hardest she was capable of - but you play to the table. And tonight the tables were not worth thinking about. Get in, get out clean, big smiles at the induction ceremony. Five more years.

Another ladle and another sting of RNA resto and she was almost ready to step back out into the rigid smoulder of the cam lights. Last heats by seeded masseurs were always ripe for scrutiny - young fans boring each other with elaborate hypotheticals, contenders assessing the field, Net analysts relating every move to their past glories. Every duffer who'd ever cracked a back had a self-penned saga of the Eld, when men were women, the children were glad of it and no-one scored contact with the obliques. Typically one of the left-click zettes would send some sad flesh with a little style column on Modern Excess. Why must everything be such a vicious competition children are watching sob sob sob. As if anyone cared.

As if anyone wanted to watch an Eld massage, with unrestricted massage oil policies and crooning sotto voce aud and do-overs - do-overs, re-touch, slow and sens'ive and stupid dull. Ellen felt along her forelimb, felt the coils of cartilage graft tauten into ridged strata of armored push. As if any serious Massage Plus walker or Top Chi blood would need to touch anyone twice to get them where they were going. As if any of them had time to screw around on the tables. Especially – and here panic started kissing up her throat again – with this year's tablemen having decided to screw around themselves like no history.

The tops had been trying to up the public on the braininess of all involved. Supposedly Joe weren't getting a sense of the study it took to memorize the tendons attached to each vertebrae. Apparently they found it hard to elicit appropriate adoring coos about the difficulty of then memorizing each vertebrae by feel, Shiatsuing around blind with a beaming face on the crowd, rubbing the ridges like some giant mahjong tile, never looking down. In their view it took truly ridiculous tablemen mods to get the idea across.

This year then, there'd been backs bisected by bands of shifting coloured flesh like great planarians under the skin. Memorizing their patterns avoided the electrical shock that came with content. Backs where the muscle groups yanked about under some kind of inner pressure, where muscles needed to be trapped before massage. Backs pumped full of animal recombinant where footlong hair tangled your stride and plates of bone left tiny avenues of access to the major groups. One of the girls joked that hitting that tableman's latissimus dorsi meant wearing spike heels. Another didn't seem to be joking when she suggested crampons. As it went on into the later heats, the line up changed - backs covered with tiny lamprey mouths. A little colonial girl drew that table and came back almost in tears, her feet definitively in tatters.

Watching her jaggedly step down from the waiting room, Ellen felt crappier than she'd expected. She figured most of it was a purely sentimental sympathy with small vulnerable things getting hurt but the net effect remained. It occurred to her that 'excellence in one's chosen field' was a very nebulous concept on which to assess the appropriate quantity of one's oxygen allotment twice a decade. That she was breathing for two now and that she was really past a little bit of bohemian hypoxia on the weekends. That she had a middling-to-fair technical acumen and a lucky shot at a place in the upper 10, 700 litres a year (enough to trade assuming baby's pre-test spec evened out to 250 or 300­) and no chance in hell of nailing it assuming the difficulty of the tablemen kept increasing at this rate. Hell. It was what she was best at. At least she wasn't one of those weeping enders trying to gain allotment by excellence in fry cooking or English literature. She had a shot if only by attrition. Stay on the tables.

Then there was a hailstorm of spilt water and insincere flattery and stretching and now-for-our-corporate-anthem and then she was out. Wall of black lit with cams. Masseur on stretcher with broken legs, out by some medical tent, going nuts about barbed spines blocking competition-required pressure points. Sore loser unhappy that her plan of massage needed to cross pangenetic badlands of torso. No flexibility. You play to the table. But you don't get a look at the table beforehand. For the sake of fair play, and adaptability.

But really, deep and down, for the look on your face when you glance the tableman and realize you're plain eaten before you mount. The bannisters bulged around the 'medical tent' that was lying across her table. Rounded dewlaps of belly arced down from around the table edge. Long waves of breath rippled along the torso in a desperate gasping pulse. A great hillock of a back, some parody of the regulation shorts carving a cliff face out of the meat drowning his lumbar and sacrum. This was the next step up. No faffing about with hair like wet grass or armadillo plating – two questions.

Question the First. Could she identify the anatomy that she knew as a beauty's sweep of triangular torso under families' worth of fattened waste. Probably. Hopefully. A professional estimate would say she was dealing with three feet of man neck to shorts, six wide except where wedged around the pillars of her supports, and no more then two and a half off the table thanks to the 1.2g they maintained on the tables to make the acrobatics harder for the Havilland School girls who liked to describe themselves as artists. Feel out the coccyx on the way up the flattened strain where the shorts met their gross contents. Extrapolate from there.

This brought her, however, to Question the Second. Could she get the PSI to actually massage this clown? No fooling tablemen – as part of whatever sick goddamn package deal they got for their temporary 'reconfiguration', they got priority cranial Net connect with the accompanying constant MRI effect on which she was judged. 'He feel happy? Good. He feel nothing? Bad.' The various complexities of 'artistic merit criteria' and the gossipy politics of judges' post-racial aesthetics could ultimately go screw - 'good' or 'bad', pleasure signals translated, with the rarest exceptions, into more or less O2.

She was young still, and the baby was well off so she could put body weight into it, overhead flip into an axe-kick heel to start up the spinous process...corp above, maybe she'd bounce and get to khao loi the lower trapezius on the way down. She shucked off her sandals as her cheerful bio (on which her name was Samantha Blackcross) began to mislead the cheerful audience about how cheerful her chances were. She powdered up her hands and feet, two layers after glancing the sweat slicking against the table with each shift of thigh. Best start, she figured, or whatever jacked-up mound of DNA they spliced to big him up'll stop his heart. No one likes a DQ on account of dead tableman. She threw up her arms like a switch that hushed the room. The crowd watched her advance and tried to think of metaphors of scale. A baby next to a wrestler. A sparrow next to a cuckoo. A flea next to a dog.

They quieted. She stepped, she smiled beatifically, she jackknifed her pregnant torso forward and she mounted.

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