Dunk Force Returns (Part 12)

 Ray nodded. “He had a condition… It was why his body had grown so tall so fast. He was such a huge presence on the court, tough to guard, and defensively… when he was on his game, no one got past him.”

 “Hold on,” said Carl, turning in his seat to face Ray. He flipped the pages in the file, scanning them. “So… his condition, his immunity… that’s why you had him in the team?”

 “No,” grunted Ray. “Every player in that team was picked on talent and character. We had no idea Pete’s condition would…” Ray poured the rest of the bourbon down his throat, took a deep breath and sighed. “We didn’t know.” He looked out the window and shook his head. “It was supposed to save lives. After decades of the Cold War, people had had enough, you know? On both sides. Hostages, kidnappings, agents killed, citizens car bombed. Every other week there was some arms-smuggling situation, or a diplomat murdered, or a damn civil war about to erupt somewhere in Eastern Europe. And that was what people could see. Then there were the whispers, the secrets, the threats. For a while back in the sixties, nuclear war had been an imminent terror—that was one thing. Well, by the eighties, the terror may have passed but the nukes were still there, and tension remained. The rope was stretching too tight. If someone didn’t find a way to loosen it, it was going to snap.” Ray took the bourbon bottle from the small bar fridge near his seat and refilled his glass. “So, Ronald Reagan had an idea. A way to take the strain off. He proposed settling some conflicts on the basketball court. Of course, to the public, they would be just exhibition games, but behind the scenes a lot would be riding on them. The games would spare the cost of military efforts or covert operations. They would end drawn-out sabotage and counter-sabotage missions and save a lot of lives. Whatever happened on the court, that would decide it. Whoever was ahead on the scoreboard, they were the victors. And it worked. Basketball gave humanity enough slack to survive. It was the right answer at the right time. Everybody was in on it—the French, the Greeks, the Brits—and they had a terrible team—East and West Germany, the Croatians and Egyptians and Syrians. Even the Soviets. Especially the Soviets. Man, they could play. I had been with the Agency a few years, straight out of college. I ran surveillance on a couple of East German jobs, and one in Minsk. I knew what was happening over there. That was one reason I was picked for Dunk Force. The other, of course, was that I played point guard in college—I was good, too—until a knee injury put me out for a year. Anyway, I picked most of the other players, young guys, recruited them from colleges. We needed good players, but tough, you know. Strong minds. And they had to be willing to die for their country…” Ray’s voice trailed off. He paused and raised his glass to his lips with a shaking hand. He drank, then cleared his throat. “Those were good days. They were good men. We won every game we played that first year. We freed hostages, rescued double agents. With our win in the Munich game, we were able to rig the voting in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Things would have really flared up in the Middle East if Israel had won the contest. And then, around the end of ’85, we started losing games. Lithuania was the first. And then we went down three games to one in a best of five series against the USSR. That’s when we realised. They were on steroids. We never knew if they were able to mask it, or if they just bribed the right people, but they were officially clean in every blood test. Those losses cost America vital secret intelligence, three captured Russian agents and a multi-billion-dollar mining operation. We couldn’t afford to lose anymore, so… we developed a new steroid. High performance. Undetectable. Progonoxyol 251. All the initial testing was successful, so we rushed it through. By that stage I had just taken over as coach, so it was my decision.” Ray took a long, slow drink, then spoke in a whisper, “I told every one of those young men to take it. I told them it was how they could best serve their country. And they all took it. They trusted me…” He wiped a tear from his eye and inhaled deeply. “We never lost another game. Ten more years we played. Ten years of injections. No other team had speed or strength or endurance like Dunk Force. Those players were supermen. But around 1993 we stated to see what the steroid was doing. Little by little the side-effects became evident. By then it was too late. In ’96 Clinton shut it down. The world was different anyway, the Cold War was over. People didn’t want Dunk Force anymore—they were watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Our players were no longer needed.” Ray stared down into his empty glass. After a silent minute, he sighed. “Then it happened so fast. The players’ bodies deteriorated. They withered and shut down. Most of them were dead within five years. Jerry Billman held out until 2007. It was hell on him and his family… He wrote me a letter about it.” Ray leaned forward in his seat. “Only Zdunowski escaped unharmed. Nothing but luck. That genetic condition of his dodged the bullet that killed the rest of the team.” Ray hung his head and covered his face with his hand. “Every day I regret what I convinced those men to do… It was my fault.”

 “Ha-ha!” laughed Carl, still reading Zdunowski’s file. Ray shot a threatening glare, which Carl either ignored or failed to comprehend. “His nickname was “Honky Pete”. The only white guy on the team. That’s hilarious.” Carl chuckled to himself a moment, and then his eyes lit up at something at the bottom of the page. “Now that’s interesting.”

 Ray peered at him, then sat upright. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you,” said Ray, “that the information in that file is top secret.”

 “Huh?” said Carl. “Oh, yes, of course… Top secret…” he stroked his chin as he studied the page.

 Ray grunted, leaned back in his seat and watched the clouds beyond the window.

© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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