It was the last competition for both of them, and they knew it. They were both 22. Laurie wanted them to be friends. Laurie always thought hatchets could be buried and fences could be mended. Oksana was of a different breed. If the world had to burn for her to win, sheÕd light the match herself.
It didnÕt help that the press built up the ŅrivalryÓ between the two. (What rivalry? Laurie couldnÕt resent anybody, and Oksana acknowledged no peers.) Oksana thrived on any opportunity to strut and boast. Laurie was such a people pleaser that if you gave her too many people at once she felt overloaded.
I had a pretty clear bias, though no one talked to me. I was just the brother in the wheelchair, good for a picture if there was space to fill. Story of my life. Dad died early, Mom was a retired gymnast herself. Her daughter, she could focus on and live through. Me? A guy and a gimp. She liked me as much as she could but she just had a hard time accepting me.
It helped that I found my own stereotype to live through, the techno geek. Need digitized video or diets optimized for nutrition? Right away. And the thanks I got? A smile and a Ņhey, kid, looks like feeding you was a good investment.Ó Mom did not do touchy-feely, which was maybe why Laurie overcompensated. I wanted Laurie to win what might be her last gymnastics meet because I wanted Laurie to be happy, period.
Oksana was just outright mean. I donÕt know if it was because I was identified as being in the enemy camp, because she had some neuroses about the disabled, or if she was just seizing on any opportunity to be nasty. But every time she came up, she made a show of having to maneuver around my wheelchair, which she claimed was blocking traffic. Every time she talked to me, she spoke slowly and loudly and with an exaggerated smile as if she was talking to someone mentally disabled. Laurie looked embarrassed but didnÕt know how to counter-attack. Mom, present as LaurieÕs coach, either didnÕt notice or didnÕt care. One time when Oksana and I passed each other in the hallway alone, she whispered ŅdonÕt you wish you could do something about this, cripple?Ó – ŌthisÕ being what she shimmied her body as she made a show of getting out of my way. I wasnÕt sure what I wanted more – Laurie to win, or Oksana to lose. At the time, I thought Laurie beating Oksana in competition would be the best I could get.
Oksana was good, though. Superhumanly good. She scored damn near perfect during the qualifiers. Laurie was rattled but IÕm an old hand at calming her down. Mom was quiet and let me talk; she must have been scared. Laurie qualified too, but she was nowhere near her best.
While Mom and Laurie hit the gym to train like crazy, I decided to review what video I could find of Oksana. I thought if I could find something – like a poker playerÕs tell – I could win the day for Laurie. But every floor exercise, every vault, was perfect, faultless. Then I had a really crazy idea. I digitized the video and compared the same routines done at different times and places. Perfectly identical – down to the last gesture. The sanest explanation was that she had one hell of a detailed training program. The craziest explanation almost had me slavering.
I re-reviewed the videos. Besides OksanaÕs routines, something else was invariant: Someone in the front row was filming her with a camcorder. Whoever it was changed. But the camcorder was always the same, and they were not filming anyone else.
One great advantage of being a cripple in a wheelchair is no one expects you to be sneaky. I paid a polite visit to OksanaÕs section before the next round of qualifiers. No one noticed me drop a little gadget into someoneÕs coat pocket. I didnÕt think it would be found before OksanaÕs routine. I sure as hell wanted it to be found afterwards.
ŅItÓ was a cell phone jammer, modified so I could turn it on from across the hall. I was devious about using. I waited until Oksana had almost finished her routine before turning it on. She stumbled badly, and lost points though still qualified. I then turned the gadget off and looked across to her section, where her coach was staring daggers in our direction. I waggled my fingers against my ear in the Ņcall meÓ gesture. I then turned to look to Mom and Laurie, who were beaming with what looked like returned confidence. Oksana was human.
I didnÕt take her crew long before I got the call. I arranged to meet for lunch in a nice, public and handicapped-accessible area. He was affable, well dressed, and presumably wired. I held most of the cards: ŅFirst things first, gents, I want you to succeed. Your technology, when perfected, will make this chair IÕm sitting in obsolete. Right now, youÕre on the brink of an embarrassing scandal. IÕm a rank amateur and I found you out. Best you can do right now is replay repetitive movements. Right? But thatÕs not where the money is. IÕm betting youÕre looking ahead to professional sports, where the real action is. An optimized, coordinated basketball team? Money in the bank. This was only proof of concept. You know it works, and you have to make it better. I want to help you succeed. If you did basic background checks, you know IÕd work for free on it, but IÕm still going to demand a salary anyway. ThatÕs one of my two terms. Ņ I waited for him to ask the other, then I continued.
ŅIs Oksana listening to this little chat? No; she probably just told you to fix it. Eye on the prize and all that. She thinks sheÕs the boss, not the prototype. SheÕs outlived her usefulness. You canÕt risk letting her compete now. How much would it cost you to buy her off, along with the sponsors? And wouldnÕt it just be cheaper to buy me off? Oh, by the way, if youÕre thinking of other solutions, IÕve posted affidavits in case IÕm involved in some unfortunate accident.Ó
Well, Laurie won her last meet. That was one of the happy ending parts of it. Another is that I got a nice offer from a well-known high-tech firm that would cover my college expenses and provide a nice salary, in return for which IÕd work for them full-time after graduation. Mom was so overjoyed from Laurie that she said she was proud of me just because she was bubbling over.
There was a tragic aspect to this tale, however. Not long afterward, poor Oksana was found keeled over by the pool one chilly morning. She was ice cold, not breathing and there was no heartbeat. No signs of foul play or substance abuse. A perfunctory autopsy report was generated and then her ashes were scattered at sea at a private service.
Yeah; I hear you snickering, but everyone fell for it. OksanaÕs exquisite body had been completely wired. Not only could they operate her like a puppet, they could even control her vitals – body temperature, heartbeat, breathing. Easy enough to let innocent people find her and report her dead.
Soon after, I went home to my nice new apartment arranged for by my nice new employers. It came with maid service. Oksana had not made any friends when she was competing, and no one really mourned her loss. However, her old backers saw me as a good investment, and leaving her with me was a way to ensure my loyalty. And reprogramming her was a great way for me to learn the system.
The upgraded control system in Oksana was complete, and now perfected. After all, it would look suspicious if her flawless demonstration of gymnastic skill was accompanied by anything other than a grinning, confident expression. She still wore that expression. She also now wore string bikinis, which were the easiest thing for me to put on and take off her. They also meant that she doesnÕt need much in the way of space for clothes.
SheÕs also quite the contortionist; easy enough to stretch when the bodyÕs not responding to pain signals. One of my favorite programs has her chin resting on her hands, feet on either side of the head as her spine is bent backwards. I let her talk freely then. I have her take the pose on the coffee table and tickle her. The control system is only for voluntary movements; it doesnÕt affect any sensations. However, each of her panties is now fitted with one of those little remote-control eggs, so I can give her all the sensation I want at the same control panel where I tell her what to do.
CanÕt figure out yet how to make her cook, but it is useful having someone who can cut onions no matter how her eyes are tearing. Cleaning the floor on her hands and knees with a sponge is another nice easy program. So is scrubbing out the toilets.
ThereÕs a little six-by-six square in the corner of the apartment, in front of a guest bathroom. I have the control system interfaced with a proximity sensor. ItÕs fun to let Oksana have her freedom in that confined space. She can scream when I allow it (the place is soundproofed) and fume and I can just laugh at her. If she sticks any part of her body out, itÕs zombie time again. Also, it means she can go to the bathroom without explicit orders from me.
I just earned a nice little bonus after I demonstrated to my new employers that I can make her do a series of intricate yoga balance postures. I can then hang weights from her arms or legs (whateverÕs sticking out) and she now adjusts to maintain her balance. Under the old system, she would just tip over helplessly – which was fun to watch, but the automatic corrections are a crucial step towards controlling a real live boxer, basketball player, or what have you.
The bonus wasnÕt just cash. It turned out that Oksana not the only prototype. Another branch of the firm was in the music business. Lip-synching was now old hat. They could wire a singer up so that their performance on stage was flawless. No need for rehearsals when choreography, lyrics, and pitch could all be programmed in. A much more secure setup than Oksana had, because more powerful transmitting systems, with redundancies, could be hidden among all the electronics and props on stage. The setup still wasnÕt perfect because thereÕs a difference between a synthesizer and a natural instrument. But while I was tweaking her programming, I got to enjoy Britney as a loaner.
I let Oksana play with her too, but I donÕt think she had as much fun as I did.