The sky over France this midsummer day was clear except for a high thin layer of cloud. Sasha Canaro was above that layer in a needle-nosed supersonic passenger jet, so she had a clear view of Europe in the vision screen she had pulled from a well below her first-class seat. It showed land faded blue by distance, mottled grey mountains and dark bodies of water dimly seen far ahead of the jet.
There were no views out the sides of the craft. The perilous regime of a high-flying supersonic vehicle did not allow the luxury of windows. The vision screen before her was a good one so Sasha had no complaint.
She reached forward and tapped the menu above the screen twice. A belly view replaced the forward view she had been idly watching. It showed Paris from above. Another tap on the menu superimposed labels over the image. A tap on each label zoomed the view of whatever was beneath it.
Sasha viewed for the dozenth time the site of the summer Olympics on the outskirts of Paris. It was old but had been completely renovated and added to. She cycled quickly through each of the venues where she would be competing in a few days, reviewing any last-minute changes to the facilities and the transportation options from her hotel to them.
There were no surprises. She settled back and dozed for a half hour. Then the announcement came of their impending arrival and the plane tilted slightly and turned into its landing spiral. Sasha heard it and sank back into a doze.
As Sasha filed out of the airliner tunnel she saw a sign pointing the way to the Olympic participants’ lounge. She followed it with her carry-on bag trailing behind her. All of her other luggage had been shipped ahead either to her hotel or to the Olympic facilities.
Inside the lounge she saw several Olympic competitors and staff she had met in years past. She approached one large round table built into a wall corner and was greeted with hugs and handshakes and waves from those sitting around the table. Someone fetched an additional chair and Sasha squeezed into the group.
A table-center ordering carousel let her order a fruit drink and she began to catch up on news of the people she knew. It was strange, she reflected, how it seemed as if no time had passed since the last competition she had attended. It was as if they were all on an eternal ocean liner traveling forever into the future. She felt a warmth inside her for all these companions on their strange journey.
“Hey, Sasha,” said a large chunk of a man happily wedged between two thin female athletes across the table from her. “How’s it feel to be labeled ‘Most likely to win all golds’?”
She rolled her eyes and spoke up over the hubbub. “Terrified. As if I needed more pressure!”
There were chuckles from a few of those around the table before they turned back to more intimate speech.
About thirty minutes later (28 minutes 33 seconds by Sasha’s inner clock) an announcement came over the lounge’s speaker system. It was time to board the courtesy bus for the incoming Olympic athletes and staff.
Almost everyone swiped their credit card in the slot of the ordering carousel. A few dropped money in several currencies onto the table.
Like everyone else Sasha craned her neck to look out the bus windows as it drove by the Village Olympique from a half mile away. Six years ago it had been a down-at-heels warehouse area nestled inside a loop of the Seine River on the northwest side of Paris. Now it was a modern sports facility, and would become an entertainment district after the Olympics.
Several structures could be seen through and around the trees and low buildings between the facility and the four-lane highway the bus was on. Visible were an oval domed stadium, very white in the late afternoon sun, several boxy smaller buildings, and the two tall towers of a hotel of white stone.
The top several stories of one tower of the hotel were unfinished but were enclosed, safe from the weather. The other tower was completed and Olympic staff and officials would be housed there during the events, and they had occupied it for several months before as the final touches were made to the enormous organizing effort to schedule and control the competitions of more than 10,000 athletes and 300-plus events.
Ten miles west beyond the Village was Sasha’s hotel. It was in a small town built on the Seine. Nestled within trees and bordered on the off-river side by a line of middle-class suburbs, the hotel was one of several hundred in the Paris metro area used by athletes, coaches, officials, staff, and visitors here for the Olympics. It was an old ten-story building of red brick. Each room had a small balcony, only the lowest balcony visible from street level through the canopy of old-growth leaves.
Sasha’s modest room was clean but slightly musty. The first thing she did when she entered was to cross to the floor-to-ceiling glass-paned double doors onto her balcony and open them. Fresh summer air wafted into her room. On the balcony were two plastic lounge chairs only slightly dusty. She could look west and south out over the river, which was perhaps a hundred yards wide at this point.
A sense of peace settled in place inside her. She had made it to the Olympics. It had taken her 13 years of nearly unrelenting effort to do it, and it felt as if all that effort had been worth it.
Sasha quickly emptied her carry-on luggage into the closet and dresser and bathroom. It took longer to unpack the two large trunks she had shipped to arrive a day earlier. Only a few clothing items were wrinkled; most of her stuff was wrinkle-free fabric.
Done settling in, she freshened up and changed to lighter clothing suited to the summer day, now mostly gone and cooling but still warm enough to wear a t-shirt and light slacks. Not that severe heat would have bothered her. She would be equally at home naked in arctic or tropical conditions, but she had to maintain the appearance of being an ordinary human.
Outside she idled along the wide tree-lined street on which the hotel faced, looking in the shop windows. Auto traffic was light; it was not quite quitting time for most people. The area was old but well-kept, a prosperous little city or large town.
Several blocks along Sasha crossed the street to a restaurant and was seated in the open-air area. She ordered a chilled white wine, then leisurely contemplated the large four-leafed menu while sipping from her lightly frosted glass. She took her time over the large meal, savoring its subtleties and watching the foot and vehicle traffic as the afternoon merged with evening. It was true that food in France was cooked with great care, at least at this restaurant.
In all she stayed almost two hours as the day waned. She left when the dinner crowd began to pick up, took her time returning to her room. There she contacted her two coaches and set a time to confer with them the next morning. Then she watched French TV for a couple of hours to improve her French comprehension and retired early. The several days before the Olympics opened Friday would be quite busy.
She ate a buffet breakfast in her hotel, accompanied by the burly man who was her Judo coach and the whip-thin woman who was her shooting coach. They had arrived two days before Sasha and had her Olympic credentials and schedules with her.
There were only three scheduling conflicts. Sasha selected the events she would miss and thus concede. She selected two shooting competitions and one Judo competition. Neither coach was happy but neither protested too much. They had both been with her for nearly three years and had early learned that Sasha rarely backed down from her decisions.
Then the three shared a taxi to the Olympic Village. There Sasha was soon involved in briefings for the opening day ceremonies. The French Olympic officials had elaborate and spectacular plans for the three-plus hour event.
The day of the opening Sasha, along with more than 10,000 other athletes, assembled outside the huge domed stadium.
They arranged themselves in two spirals, each several dozen people wide. Each athlete had a diagram showing where they were supposed to be in the spirals. All were in national costumes. It was six in the afternoon, two hours before the beginning of the ceremonies.
Many of the athletes sat on the concrete surface surrounding the stadium. It was clean enough, if rough. It had been swept by an army of workers earlier in anticipation of this seating. Periodically some coach or official approached groups of sitters and ordered them to stand. Most athletes obeyed, then sat as soon as they were left alone. Many, from less authoritarian countries, ignored orders, if there were any directed at them.
People chatted, listened to a motley collection of music, and sometimes danced. The afternoon was warm, the sun at a slant, the angle increasing as the time passed.
Near eight o’clock people sitting began to stand. Some collected in small shielding groups and peed into bottles, sometimes amid much laughter. Someone in the massively organized Olympic organization had forgotten that even Olympic athletes had bladders.
Sasha had no need for a bathroom. Her extraordinary body produced small amounts of perfectly clear urine, and often got rid of it by evaporation through her skin.
A cool wind began to blow. It was very weak, but very definite. Somewhere to the north and west a cool front was sweeping off England and the North sea.
Sasha hugged a few people close to her, nodded or waved to others further away, and faced toward the line of march. A great sense of exhilaration swept over her as the many thousands of her companions began to move.
Inside the huge shell of the stadium thousands of seats rose from the floor. Positioned above the seats all around the stadium were huge vision screens. As Sasha marched in parade across the floor she could see images of the marchers from several vantage points on the screens. Amplified music played. Some of the athletes smiled at the cameras and waved.
About 15 minutes after 8:00, after the parade had been well started, the music stopped. An Olympic official on a far elevated podium formally opened the Olympiad and greeted the world. Well over a billion people, Sasha had read, were watching all around the globe. Many more would watch delayed telecasts in the hours and days to come.
The parade continued. Music began to play again. Then another official mounted the podium. The new speaker, also brief, was the head of France or her representative.
After the parade there were events. Some of them were on the floor of the stadium. Some were on platforms kept dark till the time came for performers to perform which returned to the dark as another event was lit and begun. Some were on wires high above the floor, wires colored so they were invisible and the aerialists seemed to fly unsupported.
Finally there was the relay which brought the Olympic torch into the stadium. As the runners trotted through the ranks assembled on the floor the massive clam shell of the oval dome split and rolled majestically back to reveal a starlit sky.
Fireworks above the stadium bloomed and sparked and swirled, high enough to be seen by much of Paris. And from space. Four of the wall screens showed from orbit the fairy lights of Paris at night, with the colored extravaganza in the center.
The last relay runner received the torch and bounded up a spiral staircase. She plunged the torch into the waiting beacon and it came alight. At the same moment all other lights went out.
A great roar and clapping like thunder greeted the moment. The latest Olympiad had begun.
Continued in Chapter Fourteen.