Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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A Winning Combination

by Roderick D. Turner





"The next race will be the finals of the four hundred meter mixed Individual Medley," the Marshall announced. "Competitors to the starting area please."

Howard Vasquez slid forward in his seat to get a better view of the field. He had arrived late for the Meet, and had missed two of the races he'd come to see. He hadn't had time to check the results, and there was nobody to ask: apart from himself, the VIP booth was empty. Still, the rumors out of Alberta were clear enough, and all it would take was one viewing. He would know the truth in a matter of minutes.

Vasquez watched as the swimmers slowly sorted themselves into lanes, and stood nervously fidgeting behind the starting blocks. Five men and three women: well, boys and girls, really, in their mid teens. Unofficial Olympic trials featuring the top juniors in Western Canada. This was only the third year that the event had been run in mixed mode, ostensibly to give women a chance at outpacing the men. Usually it was still like two races in one, with the women being distinctly slower.

Vasquez had never seen Angela Dysart, but he'd always considered himself an expert at picking winners out of the crowd. His knack had served him well at the racetrack, and usually he was equally infallible with athletes. 'Which one are you, Angela?' he muttered to himself.

All three looked equally well built, with the round-shouldered musculature and full chest of the competitive swimmer, the tight, well-toned abdomen, and the slender streamlined legs. The shortest of the three looked, he thought, slightly less confident than the others. That could not be Angela, he mused. The dark defiance in the expression of the girl in lane two decided him. Angela was the blonde in lane five. Calmly self-assured, eyes set on the lane in front of her, total focus on the event. That would be her.

"In lane one, Donald Armstrong," the announcer began. "Lane two, Diane Gunderson." Vasquez nodded knowingly, waited for the lane five name, "... in lane five, Angela Dysart." There was a roar from the crowd as she stepped up onto the block. She acknowledged the support with a tiny wave and a ghost of a smile, her gaze never wavering, and her concentration total.

"I knew it," Vasquez said softly, his steel gray eyes glittering with excitement. "She won her other races, and the crowd along with them."

The competitors were in position now, adjusting their goggles for the dive, shaking their arms, rolling their shoulders in anticipation of the effort to come. Vasquez gripped the edge of his seat, licked dry lips, hunched forward across the railing.

"Swimmers take your marks," came the ominous words. They assumed the crouch, arms swept back like wings, muscles quivering as the adrenaline coursed through their bodies. Blam!

He knew from the moment of entry. The blonde girl in lane five pulled her body clear of the water, he swore, all the way to the knees as she surged forward dolphin-like, a fluid butterfly that gobbled up the distance. In her smooth wake, the other swimmers were soon out of the competition. By the time she switched to backstroke Donald Armstrong, her closest rival, was four body lengths behind. There was a fierce battle for second as the other swimmers swapped favorite strokes, but Angela's lead continued to expand. At the wall, she had a full three quarters of a length on them, posting her first official time for the 400 IM. Four minutes and twenty-five seconds. Vasquez could not take his eyes from the clock. It was impossible. No woman in the history of the Olympics had even come close to that time. He sank back in the chair, his eyes suddenly glassy and distant. "My God," he said at last, an awed whisper that sighed softly from his lips. Then a broad smile spread across his face, and he nodded. "It's about time I met my new star athlete."

Angela Dysart had officially broken three world records that day, and was the top all round pick for the upcoming Olympics. The international media got wind of the results within hours, and Vasquez was hard-pressed to get much direct contact with the girl. His credentials allowed him access to the secure areas of the complex, and he managed to track her down just outside the locker room as she headed towards the lobby.

"Angela, hold up a moment," he said, hurrying to catch her. He held up his identification badge, watching for a suitable reaction. All he got was a puzzled frown.

"What does an Olympic coach want with me?" she inquired.

"Are you--Angela, do you realize what you just did out there?" Vasquez asked. "Have you any idea what's going to happen when you walk out those doors?"

"I won a few races. The crowd here really loved me." She gave him a playful look. "Are you telling me you want me on the Olympic team?"

For a moment, Vasquez was taken aback. Could anyone with this much talent really be so nave? Then he saw the innocence in her gaze, and knew there could be no doubt.

"Listen to me, Angela," he said. "You didn't just win a few races. You set new world records. From now on, your whole life is going to be under scrutiny. Every move you make will be examined, studied, and questioned." He pointed in the direction of the lobby. "You walk out that door as Angela Dysart, world-class swimmer. Are you ready for that?"

The playful expression was gone. "I knew something like this might happen if I swam here, but my teachers at school said I should enter, just to see how I would do." She looked distressed now, confused. "I just want to be able to hang out with my friends, go on the way things were. I never set out to be this big star swimmer. The only reason I swim at all is because I love it. It's like, in my blood, you know?"

"You can't avoid being mobbed and asked questions after what happened today," Vasquez said gently. "But if you join the Olympic team, as you've earned the right to do, I'll keep them off your back. Where do you go to school?"

"Brooks. I won a few races in school swim meets this year. That's why the school chipped in to get me to this competition." She shrugged. "Hey, I'd never been to Vancouver before. Sounded like fun."

"Angela, who brought you to the competition?"

"Nobody did. Took a plane from Calgary. I'm staying at the YW."

"I can provide you with a place to stay, and an escort back to the airpo--"

"I'm going home tonight. If you want to find me after that, just drop by the Brooks pool on any weeknight. I'll be there."

She strolled away and stepped through the double doors at the end of the hall to the cheers of a small crowd. He saw her glance back and give him a tired grin before the doors swung shut behind her.


* * *

Vasquez was at the Brooks pool on the Wednesday night of the following week, during lane swimming time. There were about twenty swimmers divided into four lanes, according to pace. Several reporters sat in the bleacher seats at poolside, their digital video cameras winking alertly as they broadcast Angela to the world.

Angela swam in a lane by herself, the one marked 'super fast.' Vasquez was again struck by the ease and grace of her strokes. If a fish had taken human form, he was sure this is how it would look when it swam. He took off his shoes and padded across the deck to stand beside the lifeguard chair. The male lifeguard glanced sidelong at him.

"Something on your mind?" he asked, his eyes still on the pool.

"She's quite the swimmer, isn't she?" It was a statement, not a question.

"I'm getting tired of that line," the teenager replied. "I wish you guys would just get Angie out of here to the big leagues, and be done with it."

"I guess you could say that's just what I'm here to do," Vasquez said. "How well do you know her?"

"She's in my class at school," the guard answered. "Has been since we were about seven." He risked a quick glance at Vasquez, then returned his gaze to the pool. "I've been taking swimming lessons since before I met her. She starts swimming two years ago, and--well, you can see for yourself."

Vasquez stared up at the lifeguard in shock. "Are you telling me she didn't swim at all until two years ago?"

"She's some kind of natural, I guess. Always been athletic, but never took up swimming because the rest of us complained about how much work it was while we were learning. Once we got past that, a few years ago, she started to show up at the pool and watch." He shot an angry glance at Vasquez. "Two years ago last month she showed up in a swim suit, got in, and started swimming. Not fast at first, just smooth. Like she'd been doing it for years."

"What strokes?" Vasquez asked.

"Everything. Free, back, breast, fly. Smoothest strokes any of us ever saw. She came every night after that. Still does. Two or three hours a night, non-stop. She got her own lane after the first few months. Kept getting in everyone's way."

"How old are you--?" He let the question hang, giving the boy a chance to fill in his name.

"Matt. I'm sixteen. I think she's a bit older, maybe seventeen. I turn seventeen in December."

"Thanks for the help, Matt. I think you can rest assured I will be taking her off to the big leagues, as you say, very soon."

Vasquez noted the look of distress in the lifeguard's face as he left him and walked over to the bleachers. He sat on the bare wooden benches for another hour watching the girl swim before she finally slowed to a gentle pace, cruised a few lengths, and hopped out. While the reporters surrounded her and plied her with questions, he calmly strolled over to the change room entrance and waited. Eventually she noticed him and approached.

"Still want me on the team, Mr. Vasquez?"

"More than ever, Angela. I'm prepared to speak to your teachers tomorrow, and arrange things with your parents so that you can leave with me tomorrow night."

"The parents thing is a bit tricky. I've had three foster families over the years, and I'm not on the best terms with the one I'm with right now. Still, we can try. What about school?"

"You will attend the best high school in Vancouver. I'm sure you will meet a lot of new friends." He nodded in Matt's direction. "Maybe ones who appreciate you more."

Angela laughed. "Matt's just sour because he likes me. It's hard for a guy when a girl you like is better at something than you are, especially if it's sports."

"Does this mean you'll come with me?"

"The reporters are driving me crazy," she said. "I can't spend any time with my friends anyway. Just as long as I get to come home every once in a while, and catch up on the news."

"You can do that over the Net, you know. Do you know how to use Facebook?"

"My foster parents don't believe in computers. I've seen it, but it's a mystery."

"We'll fix that." Vasquez clapped her on the shoulder. His expression turned quizzical. "Angela, there's just one question I need to ask before we sign you officially for the team." He hesitated.

"I don't have a boyfriend to leave behind, if that's what you're worried about," Angela said.

"That's not it," he replied. "Angela, have you ever taken drugs?"

"What, you mean like that stuff they take at the dances?"

Vasquez smiled. "Not exactly. I mean, drugs that enhance your muscle tone, or increase oxygen exchange with your cells. Performance enhancers."

Angela's eyes were wide. "The Olympic drug tests. That's what you're worried about, isn't it? Like Ben Johnson."

"Something like that. Have you ever taken anything to boost your swimming effectiveness?"

"Mr. Vasquez, I don't even take Tylenol. I hate medications, anything that doesn't belong in my body." She smiled. "Anyway, I wouldn't even know where to go if I wanted that kind of stuff, or even what to ask for."

Vasquez nodded. "That's about what I thought you'd say. Still, I had to ask." He held her gaze. "Looks like you're on the team, Angela. Get your stuff together tonight. I'll see you at the school tomorrow."


* * *

Vasquez allowed Angela two weeks to settle into her new situation in Vancouver before he tackled the questions he'd been postponing. All the drug tests came back negative, as he had expected they would. This girl was as clean as they came, and about as complicated, but there was something else about her...

It was a Wednesday, and they were sitting in her school cafeteria. Two of her new friends had, upon request, reluctantly withdrawn to another table.

"I wanted to ask you a couple of things, Angela," Vasquez began. "Your power and stamina are amazing, and I can find no fault with any of your strokes. Can you tell me how you learned to be such an incredible swimmer without any coaching or formal training?"

Angela looked at him as if he had told a joke. "It's no secret. I watched the kids at the pool until my body knew what to do. Then I got in there myself and practiced."

"That's more or less what Matt told me," Vasquez replied, "but I have a hard time believing that you just got in the water and swam, just the way you do now, after having done nothing but watch. In all my days in aquatics, I've never heard of anything like that."

"Well, now you have," she said. "Is that all you wanted?"

Vasquez shook his head. "There's another thing that's been bothering me. You've lived in foster homes as long as you can remember, right?"

"Since I was three, I think. I remember my first foster father being drunk on my third birthday. He knocked over the cake and we had to go out and buy another one. I didn't eat any, I was so upset."

"I can imagine," Vasquez said. He looked her in the eyes. "Angela, do you know anything about your real parents? Did any of your foster parents ever talk about them, or show you pictures? Have you any idea where you were born?"

Angela sat for a moment in thought, then nodded slowly. "Now that you mention it, my first foster family gave me a picture of the hospital I was born in. They said my parents were like, killed in a crash or something. I've still got that picture somewhere."

"I would be most interested in taking a look at it, if you could find it."

"Sure, I'll dig it out for you tonight. Anything else?"

Vasquez got to his feet, smiling. "You can call your friends back over. I'll see you tonight at practice."

The next evening Angela gave Vasquez a somewhat dog-eared color picture of an imposing drab brick structure that could have been anything from a factory to an old high school. She wasn't sure where it was, but it wasn't in Brooks. Vasquez thanked her and took the picture to a colleague at the University.

Three days later, his colleague summoned him back to the campus. On the telephone, he sounded most unsettled. Vasquez dropped everything and hurried over to see him.

"Well?" Vasquez could not keep the excitement from his voice. His colleague, Doctor Michael Anderson from the University's Genetics department, frowned across the room at him.

"Far be it from me to inquire into what this is all about, Howard," he said, "but this is one strange business. I thought you'd gone a bit weird on me when you asked me to look this place up, see if I could recognize where it was." He grinned. "But hey, you've humored me a few times, so I figured I had to return the favor. I drew a blank until I contacted my buddy at GENE, the genetic engineering company in south Van. Scanned him a copy of the image and he asked me where I got it. He acted very suspicious."

"Did you tell him about me?"

"You told me to inquire discreetly, so that's what I did. I told him I came across it in a genetics article, but he sounded skeptical. Anyway, with a bit of prodding, and a lot of drawing on our old friendship, I got it out of him."

"So? Where is it?"

Anderson held the picture out. "You are looking at the former Wymark Mental Institution, about thirty miles north-east of the city. I say former, because my friend at GENE would never have recognized it if it hadn't later been turned into something else. Howard, for the past twenty-five years, this place has been doing human genetics research. Very clandestine, mostly illegal. As far as my friend knows, this is the only place in the world actually performing human genetic engineering." He dropped the picture in Vasquez's lap. "Do you realize what this means? Customized human breeding. Maybe even species cross-splicing. All the things we swore we'd never do, for fear of the effects on the natural order. God knows what they've come up with."

"Angela," Vasquez whispered.


THE END


2016 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: In the author's own words, "I like writing stories, and get really fired up when I enjoy what I have written. That's the best part of writing - you are, after all, most often your only audience. What's really inspiring is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters and events surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Synchronicity in July 2015. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com."

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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