One last race:
When the time came for the 400 IM, Gordon wasn't ready, and he knew it. He'd blown his taper, having expended all of that carefully stockpiled power somewhere out in the Chukchi Sea.
Standing at the block that sunny Thursday morning, waiting for the start of his event, he felt dull, fuzzy and tired. The few cautious practice laps he'd swum had actually hurt, despite a solid forty minutes of stretching. Ordinarily, he'd have been bouncing on his toes, swinging his arms or doing pushups..., anything to work off a bit of nervous energy. This time, he just looked around, taking in the packed stands andthe soaring concrete arches with their cameras and fluttering national flags.
He felt like a condemned man. The biggest race of his life, probably, and he wasn't up to it.
The pool stretched out before him, blue and clear and mirror smooth, with the broad black line that ran his life pointing inexorably forward.
Alan was in the stands, with TinTin, and his mother. John would certainly be watching from Thunderbird 5, and the rest of the family from the Island. His teammates and coach were at their pool side seats, trying to look casual.
Four hundred long, crushing meters, one hundred each stroke; first the fly, then back, breast and freestyle. He'd be racing Reggie Clerk again, and the Americans' fastest, most aggressive swimmer, Ty Dolan.
Win? Right then, Gordon wasn't positive he could even finish. Refused to back down, though. Not with so many people expecting so much. As his father always said: a Tracy never quits. Whatever the outcome, he'd see this through.
At the official's word, Gordon mounted the block, then got into the down position, silently praying that strength appear from somewhere.
Up in the stands, Gennine Rivers brought a hand to her mouth, slowly shaking her head. Accustomed to a much more vibrant, active Gordon, the pale, still figure at block 5 frankly worried her.
"He's so tired...!" Gennine whispered softly.
"Huh?" Alan turned to regard his mother, frowning darkly. "Don't jinx him, Mom! I told you, Gordon's got this one sewed up."
"Of course, Baby," she answered automatically, patting her son's arm. Then TinTin dug another handful of popcorn out of Alan's bag, distracting him again.
In the next section over, close enough to see, though not to speak to without screaming, Scott sat with his arm around a dark-haired beauty who looked very familiar. Gennine couldn't place the face, though she was positive she'd seen the young lady before, more than once. Taking a chance, she made eye contact, and gave the couple a little wave. Scott smiled, waved back, and directed his date's attention over to Gennine and the kids, pointing them out one at a time and saying something inaudible, but apparently reassuring. His date lost her slightly dazed, 'relatives? I'm meeting relatives!' look, and flashed the sort of major-watt smile usually reserved for movie screens and camera crews. And right away, Gennine recognized her. 'Oh, my...,' she thought to herself. 'That's a little dangerous, isn't it?'
Then the buzzer sounded the start of the race, and Gennine had no more time to concern herself with her former stepson, and his high-profile friend. 'Just do your best, Sweetie,' She urged silently, biting her painted lower lip, 'that's all anyone expects.'
Blocking out everything else..., the crowd, his family, his emotions, even..., Gordon focused himself tightly on one goal; get to the wall. After that, he'd set another, but just now, all that mattered was crossing the pool.
At the buzzer he sprang for the water, cutting in clean and hard. His momentum gained him a swift fifteen meters of easy, underwater swimming, and then it was back to the surface and into the butterfly, using a combination of hip-thrusts and powerful arm strokes that propelled him through the water like a dolphin. The fly was Gordon's event. At that point and time there was no one better in all the world, and it showed in the first hundred meters of the race. Achingly tired as he was, he still led the pack, though not as commandingly as usual. He was ahead, but only just.
At the wall he touched and turned without looking to the right or left. Didn't want to see, really, how close the others were. One more butterfly lap, the weirdly punctuated crowd-roar nearly drowned out by his own loud, gasping breaths. Everything hurt. The whole universe, at that point, was pain, but he powered through it, and reached the wall again, still slightly ahead of Clerk and Dolan. Now he touched, flipped over and switched to the backstroke, not his best event. Here, if anywhere, the others would make their challenge.
The emphasis now shifted to flutter kicks and great, wheeling, hyper-extended arm strokes, watching the sky and recovering his wind. Unlike a lot of other swimmers, Gordon didn't have to worry much about the angle of his strokes. He and the water seemed to have an understanding; whatever he did, was right. He was losing ground, though, his slight lead being eaten away by Clerk and Dolan. Strong, well-rested, and scenting blood, they increased their speed, trying to bury him with a rapid backstroke lap. But Gordon refused to give up. Pushed well beyond its limits, his body responded, wringing a bit more go out of muscles nearly frayed from exhaustion. Though Clerk drew even, and Dolan pushed a bit ahead, Gordon stayed with them through the second lap of the backstroke, then switched to the breaststroke at the wall. This one was tougher. Not only speed, but precisely synchronized kicks and pulls were called for. Stray out of alignment but a little, and he'd face disqualification. Concentrating on form, he began to lose ground. Not just Reggie Clerk and Ty Dolan, but the Japanese swimmer, Takashi Yamato, shot ahead of him, 'outside smoke'. Fighting a sudden wave of panic, Gordon forced himself to stay in synch, stay streamlined. He breathed on every third lift, trying to put more energy into going forward than rising for air, but in doing so, he worsened an already serious oxygen debt. Eyes downward, glide underwater, scull to catch as much water as possible while decreasing resistance, and kick out explosively. Technique, technique, technique.
At the turn he was in danger of losing fourth place, even. Then, mercifully, it was time for the freestyle leg. This was the moment for whatever energy he'd conserved in the first 300 meters to be flung on the fire, powering him into an unbeatable lead. Except that he literally had nothing left but determination.
He drove himself anyway, flogged muscles burning with lactic acid to move faster, harder. He wasn't thinking anymore, just moving; only dimly aware of someone sliding past on his left. His strokes shortened, increasing in frequency. Touched, turned, made the long underwater glide, then broke surface for the last lap. Toward the end he stopped breathing entirely, one more pain in an ocean of fire. Then, with a last, desperate lunge, he touched the wall, crashed into it, and sank.
There was an oxygen mask, like a gift from heaven. For awhile, nothing else mattered. Then, gradually, Gordon became aware that he was slumped on the warm, gritty pool deck, supported between Royce and Coach McMahon. The older man was saying something, fighting to keep a scowl in place.
"...So y'd damn well better get up an' go get it yourself, Tracy. Fellows and Croft 're up next, an' I haven't time f'r any more o' this coddlin'."
Gordon blinked around at a circle of shaved, hard-muscled legs. Then up, and over at Royce. Was it over? Had he finished?
"Get what?" he asked, briefly removing his close friend, the oxygen mask.
Royce grinned at him. "Y'r bronze medal. The judges' 've stopped arguin' an' decided that both y'r hands touched before y'r big, block 'ead. You came in third, mate, ...An' y'r family's about to come bang through that gate, unless I'm much mistook, so y'd better get up."
After the closing ceremonies, Gordon slipped off and went to the shore, needing a bit of time alone. He didn't get it. As he approached the water across the pebbly strand, some deflection of the wind, some slight sound, alerted him to the presence of another. Even through the darkness, over the boom and hiss of surf on jagged rock, Gordon felt the man's approach.
"Hey, Murph," he said quietly, hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets.
"Wrong again," the Seal corrected sourly. "Now you're getting too comfortable. Could've been anybody; Marine Recon, Army Special Forces, CIA..., hell, there's a whole slew of wet-work boys I haven't even begun to list! Portland ain't as quiet as it looks."
"Sorry," Gordon replied, turning to face his stealthy friend. "I'll work on it." He'd had a very full fortnight, what with relays, medal ceremonies, and boisterous family dinners. No time to really think, though. To his surprise, Murphy smiled.
"Nice job on the 400 meter," the Seal told him. "Took a lot of guts to come back, like that. Davy and me watched from the hospital room. Reception kind of sucked, but we got the gist of it."
"Dav... not David Alvarez?" Gordon asked, hopefully.
"Yup. My brother-in-law. He and Louis are gonna be okay. Most of them are, thanks to you guys. Which reminds me, I've got something for you, from Captain Craig. Just a second, got it here somewhere...," Murphy fumbled about a bit in his pockets, coming up at last with a square of folded cloth. "It's not a medal, or anything..., but some would say it's just as good. Here."
Curious, Gordon took the cloth, unfolding it carefully. By the light of a waxing moon he beheld a pair of golden dolphins, their snouts meeting over a stylized submarine. It was a pin, the mark of an American submariner. Gordon looked up at Murphy, whose smile had broadened a little.
"Craig says you've more than earned them, and I agree. Don't put 'em on yet, though. There's a ceremony that goes with it. They can't be pinned on a dry shirt, for one thing, and, ah... well..., You come to the 'Horse and Cow' down in San Francisco, next Tuesday night, and you'll find out about the rest."
"The 'Horse and Cow'?" Gordon repeated, perplexed.
"Yeah..., sort of a traveling, on-shore sub-service party. A moveable bar, I guess you'd say. Davy brings me along, whenever he's in town. Kind of fun, if hanging around with a lot of drunk, bragging, wild-eyed subbers doesn't bother you. Here's the current address, but any cabby who knows the Navy and San Francisco, 'll be able to take you there, even if you forget the way."
Gordon accepted a slip of paper with directions scrawled across it in slanting, dark print.
Murphy laughed. "Let's just say..., it's an experience. I got your back, though."
Gordon re-folded the cloth, and the paper, and tucked them both away in an inner pocket.
"You're on," he said.