Breathing easily, taking long deep breaths, Svetlana Beliveau blinked sweat out of her eyes, unable to brush away a few fine strands of blonde hair under the visor, and waited for the puck to drop. With total clarity she saw that the team hairdresser had missed three or four vital strands and left them long on her right temple. They tickled and annoyed her, falling into her right eye.
She spat and wished for a hydration bottle, glaring at Borge Sninka, looming in his white jersey. All these Finns and Swedes in the game. Coming over here and taking our jobs.
“Grrr.” She growled into his eyes as he stared back calmly, jaws working back and forth.
The hovering android waited until all the players were in position. The face-off was to the left of Howling Monkees goaltender Dave Bletchie and the score was one-nothing in favour of the Witches Brew in the red jerseys, which were her favourite.
With its characteristic twang the hatch popped open, the puck came down and her opponent Mark Sninka’s stick swept through the bulls-eye as she reacted with lightning speed, holding his stick back and knocking the puck to her own winger, number eleven Marcia Feeney. Sninka had anticipated the drop and it was whistled dead on the play. So now she would have to do it again.
Her heart always warmed to Sninka after a few shifts, he really was a nice guy, a proper gentleman. How they hell they achieved that was a mystery known only to his trainer. She refocused.
She skated out of the circle and arced around back in again. She put her stick on the ice in impatience as Sninka did his own circuit, mouth going, ordering last minute instructions to his winger and defensemen. She hunched. She banged her stick, so did he, and then they froze.
The puck dropped.
This time Sninka was caught on the wrong foot, and she managed to backhand it out of his reach then pass it to centre ice. Paula LeBlanc took a blinding slap-shot that gave up a dangerous rebound. Her forwards raced in and the defense waited for a pass back. She was right there at the right-hand hash-marks, pushing and shoving with Solomon. The Witches were playing their offensive zone well tonight, a good sign. There was a brief scrum in front of the net before Howlers goalie Dave Bletchie dropped and smothered it.
Androids hovered as horns and whistles blew, and players shoved and pushed and mouthed foul words at each other in the goal crease.
The game had a lot riding on it. The Witches were leading the series but the Howlers were only two places out and there was a mathematical chance of taking the number one spot before the first round of the playoffs.
This would pay off big in the overall TV money apportioning at season’s end.
With two minutes left in the first period and thirty-seven seconds left in the Witches’ power play, they lined up for another faceoff and waited for the puck to drop again.
Svetlana was ready but Sninka was antsy and couldn’t get a grip on his emotions. He kept going too soon.
Visibly upset, he was waved out of the circle by the robot’s signal arm and his place was taken by Howler right-winger Dale Skaggs.
Skaggs was blindingly fast lately, and he pulled the puck aside before she could even react, and his left defenseman Ed Smithers smacked it the length of the ice. Nine players raced after it, with the Howlers defense holding back and letting Sninka and Skaggs fore-check deep in the zone.
Witches goalie Red Lincoln came out and dropped on the puck and the play was whistled dead. The arcs and edges of strong players on sharp blades knifed up a flurry of snowy rooster-tails.
A Howler got a little too close and there were precautionary whistles as Solomon and the Witches’ number nine May Belmont pushed and shoved.
With a one-goal lead to protect and another two full periods to play, it was vital to take advantage of the player advantage, but the Witches just couldn’t make anything out of it.
Play went back and forth with Howler Randy Booth coming out of the penalty box at full burst. With both sides equal and another set of face-offs in each end, the seconds ran down and then the horn blew.
Players filed off and down to the dressing rooms, Coach Linda Borzekowski’s mouth going non-stop all the way and the assistant coaches filling in the blanks with individual players.
Sports pundits and colour commentators ratcheted up for a twenty-minute stint as the stands began to clear a bit for bathroom breaks and to fetch more plastic cups foaming with the icy beverage of the Gods.
The dressing room was bedlam, with players streaming in, dropping into their trainer’s chairs, people rushing to and fro and everyone talking and shouting at once. The air was blue with ozone and condensation. It smelled like a dentist’s cabinet in there, she thought, or a recently-washed and waxed hospital hallway, or maybe an apothecary’s dumpster just before inventory-time.
Svetlana sat down and swung her legs up into the troughs and laid her arms in the prescribed positions, carefully blanking her mind of such extraneous thoughts. She was just vibrating. She hacked at sticky phlegm in the esophagus, wishing she could get it out. The taste in her mouth was the worst, it never left you. They kept poo-poohing it and never did anything about it.
Bennie and Amerigo dropped down on each side and began taking her skates off as legendary Doctor Cornelius Amiri put the view-mask on and plugged into her head. Women could take more pain and physical abuse over a longer term than their male counterparts, and he was privileged to work with one of the league’s premier stars. With their lower centre of gravity and the strong, wide-spaced hips to build on, they had a competitive advantage over the taller, narrow-hipped males.
Their pit routine well rehearsed, tugs and pushing at her ankles and wrists kept her aware of the outside world as they plugged in the transfusion and ion-swapping array tubes.
“Okay, Svetlana, how do you feel?”
Her emotions were ruled by the chemical performance enhancements and her feedback was crucial in monitoring the levels of gonane, phytosterols and brassinoids in her bloodstream. She must be objective. On the plus side, they were a goal up and Crabbe had thrown a massive check on Solomon early in the period that had set the whole tone from there.
She felt better already as the rejuvenating oxygenated blood flowed into her, banked in the early part of summer, after they had dropped out of the second round of the playoffs, and she had been allowed to binge on junk carbs for a three-week period to combat the resulting anemia.
“I want to kill him.”
Amiri didn’t ask who. It didn’t matter, actually. What mattered was just the right combination, each chemical component had to be at their proper levels.
“It’s just that I feel kind of slow in the legs and hips today. I feel fat, if you want to really know.”
“Ah.” He had suspected as much, as her performance in the first period, the slow take-offs, the hesitation on her one and only scoring chance bore out.
One flick of the wrist and it should have gone in.
“Good girl. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that right up…”
Amerigo tugged at his sleeve.
“We got a problem.”
“Pump failure or software glitch. Groin pump.”
“Shit.” He thought furiously, faster than any other sports doctor alive today as far as he knew.
His own brain’s performance enhancements, all chemical, were among his most dearly guarded secrets. A clicking at his pelvic area, near the right hip bone, confirmed it had just gone into overdrive.
“Okay, grab the other pump. And we’ll analyze the program for you, honey, before you go out.” He jacked into the laptop and selected a battery of bug sweeps. It might be hackers, one never knew these days.
Her wave-forms were all over the place, and the lactic acid suppression took time. The pump had to be changed immediately for it to have any chance at all in the next sixteen minutes. The reaction was exothermic, and you could only turn up the heat-exchange so much. It was optimal to go for core cooling of the body between the second and third period, but he had hoped to get some in now as well. More than anything, they had to find the problem. He gave her hand one last squeeze of reassurance and began to unbuckle the miniature unit from her pelvis, now exposed by Bennie in preparation for the pump-change. Amerigo was unwrapping the plastic from their new unit.
“How much more plasma do we have?”
“I don’t know, ten or eleven litres.”
Doctor Amiri did a very quick assessment. They only had so much in the bank.
“Okay, grab another litre and that’s it.”
His assistant stepped up and over and pulled open the fridge door with smooth alacrity. It was a polished routine. There was only so much time between periods and the coach wanted to talk to them as well. Benny poked the needle in. The blood doping bag hung inverted. He gave it a squeeze to get it started, looking down at the exit point on her ankle to verify the flow.
So Svetlana was doing good then, it was just that their own metering was off on the minute quantities of HGH-type steroids and pain inhibitors necessary for today’s professional athletes to get the best out of the musculature and skeletal framing they had been born with. There was the long history of repetitious injuries to consider as well. His mind raced, her spreadsheet and flow charts, graphs and wave-forms always in the forefront of his mind.
Over the working life of the athlete, optimal performance and high statistical averages in terms of games played, points earned, awards and championships, and the totals in the win-loss-tie columns had to be maximized for their full remuneration potential to be realized. Their initial physical conditioning could only take them as far as humanly possible. Men and women like him did the rest. As for some of the trainers and business agents around him, especially on the Howlers dressing-room floor, he didn’t exactly have the highest opinion.
Svetlana was the best because he was the best. She knew she wouldn’t be around forever, and they must make hay while the sun shone.