by Gerald Reich
Ytharls Bimalik concentrated on her preparations. It was just another meet, just another competition, but she was at the top of her game because she never treated it as 'just another' meet. Each time her focus was on this one as the only competition that ever mattered. The television still blared in the other room but she shut it out as simply more noise.
"… today presented another petition to the government for the cessation of progress on building a new generation of transporters in the desert south of Ganzwa. The citizens group gathered to vocally protest" mob sounds could be heard "and blocked the roadway as the equipment approached from the factories at Juarigo. Dethre Supulango, spokesperson for the Transcorp Group had this to say:"
Another voice came on. "Government studies have repeatedly shown the lack of evidence linking the persistent melanomas with the pulsing magnetic fields of our transporters. These people are engaged in a witch-hunt. There is not one shred of evidence to support their claims for this petition."
"Government sources," continued the reporter, "have refused to comment on this affair noting that their position has not changed since the last protest some six years ago. The learned doctor, Hritora Manistor of Western Saavasaad University, says extensive studies in the new transporters brought the same results as the earlier series. There is no public danger.
"In other news, archeologists of the…"
"Man, that is so bullshit!"
Rolio turned off the set in disgust and stomped from the room, almost colliding with Ytharls as he did so.
"Ooops! Sorry, sis, I didn't see you."
"I don't think you were in the mood to be noticing much of anything." She laughed as he stomped his way to the kitchen. She returned to her stretching, and regaining her focus.
She had foregone college to follow her sport of choice and this had sent a message to her brother that college was unnecessary. So he sat around watching television while their parents – and herself – supplied him the creature comforts he had come to love.
All their warnings notwithstanding, he had made no move in that direction yet, even though she had publicly announced her retirement form the professional circuit with plans to start college again in the fall.
He truly thought he was doing an important public service through his complaints about the establishment; his website was abuzz about the daily doings of those in power. And about her schedule of performances and her insights. If not for the latter, she doubted anyone would have ever bothered to notice all his rants.
These thoughts took only a matter of moments to process through her mind before the focus again became foremost. Family crises would wait. Her public would not.
"Forty-thousand are on hand today, Greth. Not bad for a series 'B' event, wouldn't you say?"
"That's right, Mellak, and all forty-thousand are here to watch Ytharls Bimalik in her last run for the trophy. She has said she was going to push the limits of the sport all the harder in this final run and the competitors have risen to the challenge. As relentless as they have pursued her she still keeps winning."
"Yes, Greth, you're right there. Her streak of wins this season has broken her previous record set back in '05. Three more wins and she will have finished a perfect season."
"Fujara Oopsonorval may have something to say about that. This young man has been most impressive this season. Twice now he has coming close to besting her and once missed tying her by only one point."
A chuckle. "And it is easy to see who will be catapulted into the championship circle next season. He's been her only serious competition for several years now. Others may win an individual meet, but he and Ytharls have finished one and two every year."
"That's so true, Mellak, so true. And all the more reason to watch these last three tournaments. Fujara cannot win the championship himself now but he can still upset her dream of the perfect season. If this young man is as determined to stop her from attaining that as she is to achieve it, we are in for one heck of a ride toady."
Yes, Greth, and for the next two meets as well, which we will cover for the Southwest Broadcasting Network in our exclusive coverage of this exciting sport."
"Thanks for the reminder. It looks like the referees are getting the players into position, so before the action begins we'll take a break for this short word from our sponsors." He joined his co-anchor in smiling at the camera.
The producer mouthed "three, two, one" then said, "And we're off. Good work fellows. We got about five before we cut back to the action."
Mellak looked over as Greth picked up a clipboard off the table behind which they sat. "So what's on the agenda for today, anything special?"
"Let's see," he flipped through the pages, "Kinerets has been scrubbed. Ankle injury – not recovered yet from that meet in Dalrimpul."
"Too bad, she was good. And flamboyant." He shrugged. "Of course that's how she got hurt…"
"Yeah…" Greth continued to scan the pages. "Nothing much more. The break between runs will include a special report on the renewed controversy about the source of the web."
"I wish these people would just can it! Every couple of years they drag it out again and stew for awhile. Can't they even remember last time? It's disproved every time – they never present any new evidence." He shook his head sourly. "Such a waste of time."
"Maybe so," Greth returned the board to the desk and straightened his tie. "But it is news and we always report it." He inclined his head. "It may be the same old story but it is in the news so we have to talk about it. If we didn't people will wonder why we don't."
"And we definitely do not want that. I'm gonna run to the can. Be right back."
"Hi, Ythy!" Fujara used that nickname for her, which she hated. But as he was the only real challenger she had, she let him get away with it. Four years her junior, he stormed onto the web back in '97 and rose quickly to be one of the best in the world. And one of only a handful who had ever bested her at a meet.
"Hey, Jaroo," and she in return used a nickname she knew he hated. "How's everything been going?"
"Pretty fair, better'n lame. I hear that you've been planning some amazing stunt to wow the crowds and get the trophy this year. I sure hope that's not just chatter."
"No, I've got something special in the works. That is unless one of you copycats happen to do it first."
"Copycats! Hey, we innovate as much as you, y'know. So don't try and trash the field. I mean, just 'cause the cameras on you most the time don't mean we haven't done some of those strokes you do first."
"Yes, I'll admit I take some of the moves I see that work – everyone does – otherwise none of us would have a program, period. But don't think you're going to get even a hint of what it is by your intimidation tactics."
He grinned, found out. "Come on, Ythy, just a hint? Be a pal, hey?"
"You vultures would take the hint and steal my thunder, I know you too well. So, no hints and that's final. You can just be as surprised as the rest of the world."
"Well, just so happens that I got something special planned too, y'know." He laughed. "One word from you to that reporter about it and the rest of us have been busting our humps trying to develop something unique to use against you in the final. Not that we wouldn't love to see you retire with a perfect season… At least the 'retire' part of the statement."
She laughed and waved him off. "Nice try, kiddo. Tell your groupies you got nothing from me."
"On the contrary." He bowed his head. "Thank you."
Bravado, she thought, the kid has it by the bucketful. Still, she reviewed everything that she had just said to make sure she did not inadvertently drop a hint.
What she planned was so audacious she was certain no one else would even think of such a thing. The sport had always been about maintaining yourself and control of the board, not anything to do with where you went with it. She hoped no one would think beyond that narrow focus. The trick she planned was not strictly within the rules of the sport but it was definitely not excluded from the rules. Since the rules made no mention of the possibility of the idea, she assumed – hoped!, more than anything – that no one else would venture upon the notion.
Still, she had done all her practicing well beyond the view of players and media alike, and everyone else for that matter. If her parents knew…
When she had first started in the sport, she was only eight years old and competing with kids on the block. Her agility turned some heads including those of her parents. There had been races to the hospital – stunts back then were just as dangerous and the broken bones and bruises just as ugly – and more than once her parents had admonished her to stop the foolishness.
She had no idea it would become a professional sport and bring her such a hero's lifestyle, it was simply something that challenged her, dared her to gain control of her body as well as push her mentally to handle that control.
Local notoriety turned into national fame when promoters for the manufacturer of the balance boards put together a competition. Local winners gathered regionally, regional winners gathered nationally, and she had beaten them all.
After three such winnings, and the publicity garnered by the promoters, it had blossomed into the ranks of professional sports with her as the predominant competitor. Unintentionally, she had become an international name.
After years of defending her title, challenged now by others more than by her self, she had decided to call it quits. One more run at the title and she would leave this behind to go chase other goals in other venues.
Some of the sportscasters claimed she was quitting because she was getting too old for the sport. At first she had resented the remark but realized it was probably true. Perhaps she had simply outgrown the sport, seeing every year as the same old stuff, reworked or twisted, enhanced or revised, but far too repetitious. But it was a younger person's sport, requiring an innovation that comes from the freshness of it – something she had become too jaded to sense anymore.
It was time to hang up her board. Even coming up with the few relatively new moves for this final season had been a strain and the last one, the showstopper, had only been derived when she began studying a completely different field.
Enough time for reflection, however, as the event was starting. She slipped her goggles on to better see the web lines – those strange lines of energy that had given birth to her sport.
The young man had decided to forego the various mounting platforms and enter the web from the ground. This was far more difficult than most people could understand but its importance would not be lost on the judges and other competitors; he was announcing: I am not to be trifled with.
With the board over his head, he hooked a line and rode it upward at an angle. Swinging his body sideways, he released one hand and swung the board down to another line, positioning it so that his feet would land on it.
Nicely done, Ytharls thought, and the crowd applauded the completion of the difficult mount while the judges scribbled on their scorecards. The remainder of the performance was fairly standard stuff, jumping from line to line, riding one up and another back, punctuated here and there with turns, flips, and those stunning stops in mid air when momentum surrendered to gravity, the player holding the board under his feet which had become the signature poster child of the sport.
She clapped with the others when he had finished. It had not been an amazing performance, but one more suited to a beginner in the sport, the mount notwithstanding. In a matter of moments the scores were tabulated and displayed for all to see. A couple of tens, a few nines, and one eight. The seven judges were being very lenient, she thought.
"A ten for that?" One contestant scowled near her. "Then my double flip had better get a perfect twelve or my sponsor's going to complain."
She turned to the complainer. "And does your routine start from the ground?"
"Well, no," he was embarrassed to be speaking to the living legend, "I start from an intermediate platform."
"Have you ever started from the ground?"
The other blushed and shook his head. "Well, n-no, I can't get the momentum…"
"Then you must understand the difficulty." She turned back as the next performer climbed the stairs. "I think you should consider that before you decide to start complaining about the judges." She heard no response to her comment and was soon lost in following the action to care.
The next contestant had run off the platform and leaped, holding her board beneath her, to land on a descending line. After a moment she bounced to another, ascending, line. She went back and forth a few times, increasing her speed, adding a twist or turn at the high point of each passage so that she faced the next run. This continued a few times until she rose in the signature move, clutching her board and using the weightless moment to do perform a double flip and a turn before coming back to the line.
It was not a very clean landing and she bounced over to a slightly lower line – accompanied by a gasp from the crowd – and then bounced to one even lower where she continued her routine smoothly.
Ytharls smiled. Branette had stumbled very convincingly. Being one of the few females at this level of competition in what was a male dominated sport, they were drawn together and she had watched Branette perfect that stumble and fall move. The girl was worried that the judges would misinterpret it as an error.
"Let's just go talk to them," Ytharls had told her during the previous meet in Dalrimpul. "Let them know in advance."
"You mean," Branette was horrified, "go talk to them?"
She had laughed. "Girl, they are not the enemy, you know. They are usually our biggest fans."
The judges were delighted in the move and noted it on their cards as the 'Wurvey Stutter' – her own name for it – but reminded her the name was unofficial until it was approved by the competition committee.
Now that she had finished, the scores were displayed with the announcement about the Wurvey Stutter.
The crowd went crazy; never minding how they had been taken in by the maneuver, thinking the poor girl had slipped. Branette was surrounded immediately by a flock of reporters anxious to hear all about the new move.
Ytharls turned back to the next competitor but her attention remained with the reporters around the young girl. So very much like when she had begun, so long ago.
She shook her head to release the memories clamoring around her, claiming her attention for their viewing again in the sun. Hanging up her board was certainly bringing out the maudlin sentiments. Daily she was bombarded by small moments and assaulted by wave after wave of forceful feelings, invading her concentration and usurping her grasp on the present. What must a person with a longer history in their sport go through, she wondered, when they decided on retirement? Her twelve years were enough.
Now, with departure impending, every instant brought a flood of memory. As though each new compared itself to other similar in her past, vying for some bizarre form of precedence in her memory.
She breathed deeply and let the fluttering pictures scream past her, fading, fading, until all that was left was the web. Her against the web, just as it had started. But they were not now nor had they ever really been enemies. They challenged one another, definitely, but never to defeat but rather to strengthen. And so the web had grown and so had she.
A lot of people claimed the web was a by-product of the transporters, but as it was first recorded sixty years before the first successful transport, it shot that conspiracy theory in the foot no matter what her brother purported. First discovered by a teacher over a century before, the web had grown and grown although its source had remained a secret.
Many scientists thought it related to the magnetic flux fields of the planet itself, a strange but natural occurrence that had never been noticed before. But it grew and grew over the years, accelerating as time passed.
Frightening as the phenomenon might appear to some in the scientific community, since they could not be seen and did not interfere with their lives most people simply ignored them. The one thing they did interfere with was the transporter devices. Another reason, she mused, against the theory of them being the cause.
It was only in '74 that Urlthor Gromets had attached the gyro-magnets to a piece of wood and balanced himself in a webline to create the sport they now enjoyed. Though he had laid the foundations for the sport, Urlthor never participated. He had been trying to find a way to utilize the natural forces in the creation of a new system of intercontinental transportation.
It was only after several years in the competitive circuit before she had given much thought to how the sport came about. To the young and enthusiastic girl she had once been, such a notion sounded too much like 'study' to command any of her attention.
Memories, memories. She chuckled and returned her attention to the here and now rather than review the history again. There would be enough of that mode of thought when she returned to college. And that, soon enough.
Just a few more performers and it would be her turn. There had been no serious problems so far, although one young man had almost lost hold of his board while spiraling through a series of turns. At this level, only a few of those competing ever had such problems; hours and hours of daily practice took them beyond any clumsiness.
One could sense the flow of the meet and the intensity quickened. She knew it had a lot to do with the better performers – and hers being the last, of course – and their ever more increasingly difficult moves as the meet progressed. And the second half would bring the tension even higher as all the stops were let out in the freeform competition. That's when the real artists shone.
Thoughts of the other performances, the techniques, the history of the sport, the news media, the conspiracy theorists and her brother faded from her conscience as her turn approached. She had hardly noticed Fujara's performance as she 'got in the zone'.
Climbing the intermediate platform, she closed the crowd and the cameras from her mind. The only thing on their minds was her and her performance, and her mind aligned with that accord. Together they fell from the platform and snagged line. A quick bounce up to another line, riding down, swaying one way and then another, she let the momentum carry her up, turn, change lines, shunting quickly to another. To a ground observer it would appear that she rode a giant curve in the air rather than the straight angles of the intersecting lines – an image she wanted to create with that series of moves. Up and down, jumping up a line, cascading down, speeding up and slowing down, and finishing with the weightless pose used as a triple flip and dismount.
The crowd roaring their approval faded into her senses as her muscles and focus slowly relaxed. She smiled and waved, fully conscious now of the people, the cameras, the scowl on Fujara's face knowing he was still only number two.
Don't worry, she thought, wait'll you see the second half.
Most people in the viewing stands wore the special lenses to view the web. To those without, it seemed the competitors were floating in the air, bouncing off unseen objects, and cruising the winds. In this location, there were a lot of lines but not too many to interfere with the viewing. When she had competed in Faltharshan last year, the location had so many lines that the televisions had to mute half the lines or they could not watch the competitors.
She preferred a location like this where the lines were fewer in number. It required a higher degree of skill and allowed more freedom of movement. In Faltharshan, she felt too constrained, imprisoned by the vast number of lines. And one fellow had actually fallen but never hit the ground because there were so many lines.
If the web continued to grow as it had over the past decade – and that growth rate was increasing, no question – the sport would also evolve to encompass the greater number of lines. So it was probably a good time for her to retire. The lines of the web had always implied a freedom to her that walking in wide open spaces could not. But too many lines… She might as well be in a crowded mall.
Of the fifteen trying for the prize today, there were only four females, and they were very close because of their small number. Some thought of the sport as a battle of the sexes – ludicrous, really, since though the boys outnumbered the girls six-to-one in professional competition but only about three-to-one at this level – but a female had usually been the winner: her.
How silly that Fujara set his sights so firmly on besting her before her retirement when he should be watching out for Branette and her ilk. With overall better balance and detailed control, the females may always dominate the sport even if they cannot muster the strength of the boys. This never was a contest of muscle, but of finesse.
Her thoughts were scattering, fleeing to the recesses of her mind even before she noticed it was almost her turn. Years of training had taken over and her mind automatically dumped everything from the hopper except the focus. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, attaining the focus almost at once.
She waited her turn then went to the higher platform, which caused a hush. Collective breaths were held, people trying to remember when the last time was that she took the higher position – it had been a long time. Quite a view from the higher platform but she did not concern herself with the vista, the focus was upon her and this mounting of the web was one of her more challenging moves, developed for this one meet.
Approaching the edge would have been the normal starting position but she held back to the rear of the platform, controlling her excitement. This move was showy but a bit dangerous as well. If the board should not catch the line just right… Well, it would be a long fall. But that's what the hours of practice were all about, getting it right.
She ran toward the edge of the platform and threw her board ahead of her, ahead and upward, never hearing the gasp from the stands. Flat and level, the board sailed past her, downward, as she reached the edge and jumped after it. Pleased to see it falling on course, directly centered over two parallel lines, her feet contacted the board a split second after it hit the lines, and she was off and running.
Weaving and rolling, she went through the moves, barely noticing. Her muscles had been through the routine so many times now that they moved on their own. She was paying more attention to the position she had to reach for the finale. Branette was likely to be pleased, as well as the crowd.
It was almost time and the area of the properly spaced lines was reached. She rose into a double turn, holding her board with one hand, and came down at a slight angle. It looked like she had faltered and caught herself on a lower line but precariously. Again the falter and drop and again. After the fifth such move she landed cleanly on a line and back-flipped to the ground.
The crowd went nuts. She waved her acknowledgment and turned to see Branette beaming. The Wurvey Stutter had been introduced less than a half hour ago and had already been used by the champion: a quadruple Stutter no less!
She paid no attention to the scoring, knowing it was already won, and spent her time weaving through the other competitors, accepting their congratulations – yes, even Fujara – and reaching her 'coach'. Melton had stopped being a coach or trainer years ago, but his eye for the choreography of the program was still very helpful. And it felt good to have him around. He was a second father to her, especially since her parents could rarely make it to the meets.
"You nailed it, Thari!" He gave her a bear hug, crushing her to his barrel chest. "Only one win to go before the big one. Sure you're not going to miss it?"
"I'm going to miss you, for sure." She laughed and punched him playfully in his lately increasing midsection. "But this other stuff? Nah! Let the kids have fun with it. Time for me to grow up."
"You'll get along okay, I know, but do you think the kids can carry on without you?" He put an arm across her shoulders and turned her toward the winner's circle.
"Melly! I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am probably a bad influence on the sport. I think the creativity has been stifled with everyone trying to copy me all the time. There's so very little new stuff being done anymore. People just keep improving or adapting what's already been done."
"But that move of Branette…"
"Yeah, the first really innovative thing I've seen in years."
"Hey, that mount you did at the end wasn't any slouch either, girl."
She shrugged under his arm. "Yeah, but that's just a variation on the mount I did in Huercava a couple of years ago and then I adapted it from something I saw Ganjira do in Upskalan the year before. Maybe after I'm gone, somebody with a little more creativity will come along."
"Well, maybe so, kid," he gave her shoulders a hug as they arrived before the judges, "but you have certainly guided the sport well enough these past few years. Remember our first meets?"
Her retirement had everyone in a nostalgic mood it seemed. She nodded.
"Forty, maybe fifty people, tops! And television? Not even a reporter!" He laughed. "Ten years later, we are now an internationally acclaimed professional sport. And a lot of it is thanks to you, young lady – now don't try and deny it – but your personality and professionalism, your dedication to the kids trying everywhere to become something better than they are, your status in the community, the nation…"
Poor Melly, she thought, his mind tended to wander more and more lately. He lost his train of thought while talking to her once or twice a day. It had started with phone conversations but escalated to one-on-one chats. Maybe he would retire when she did, but he had not made the decision yet.
Soon the lights came up and she stepped forward to accept another medal for her collection. And what was she to do with all these things, anyway? Hold onto them to show the grandkids? She hoped NOT. Somewhere out there was her life – her new life – and she was going to have to start looking soon.
Maybe she could donate them so some charity could raise some money?