“Triple twist, one and a half twists, double pike, somersault, handstand to splits, into half jump and arabesque….”

In the executive box reserved for the Adano Ambado Ambassador and guests Chrístõ listened to the description of Julia’s floor routine performed in front of a crowd of nearly thirty thousand in the Olympic arena. For as long as he had known her he had referred to her gymnastics as ‘fancy cartwheels’. He had never thought of that as ‘double pikes’ or ‘handstands to splits’. He knew that an arabesque was the deep lean forward with one leg fully extended out because she used that one in ballet, too. It was part of the dance component of the floor discipline. The music from Stravinsky’s Firebird, her favourite ballet, played to accompany it – or at least one and a half minutes of it. Remarkably that was how very short the routine was.

One and a half minutes fitting together incredibly complex tumbles and rolls, mid-air somersaults, and whatever else they were called, linked with pretty dance movements that made the whole thing flow beautifully stood between Julia and her ambition of a lifetime – a gold medal. One and a half minutes in which he had forgotten to even breathe. He was mesmerised by her body in a red and silver leotard moving around the floor.

Then there was a ripple of applause and a huge cheer from one section of the spectators in the arena. That was the Beta Deltan contingent, of course. Julia took her bow and ran off the floor to sit with the rest of the team. Chrístõ lost sight of her but the screen high above the arena focussed on her face as she waited for her scores.

Then the audience erupted into tumultuous applause.

“What’s happening?” he asked.

“Your fiancée has moved into the gold medal position,” the Ambassador answered. “Hers was the best performance so far. There are still five more girls to go, of course. She may not remain in that position. But for now she stands to win the medal.”

“Oh, I hope so,” Chrístõ answered. He sat up and looked at the electronic scoreboard. Until now he hadn’t taken much notice of it. The whole thing slightly bewildered him. Points were awarded for difficulty, for execution and artistic presentation, the maximum for each element being nine point five. But the performances were so finely marked there were at least three decimal places in each score and the smallest part of that fraction could mean being in with the chance of a medal or devastating disappointment.

Knowing what was at stake for Julia, Chrístõ paid close attention to the girl representing planet Earth itself as she stepped onto the floor. She was a tall Russian with blonde hair tied in a neat bun and long, graceful legs. She posed with arms extended as the first beat of her music began and then launched into a breathtaking routine. Chrístõ found himself watching her very closely, looking for wobbles on the landing from her handstand, for lack of flow in the linking moves, for anything that might mark her down from the top score.

“Twenty-eight-point seven-five-nine,” he whispered to himself. That was Julia’s mark. That was the Gold standard for the individual floor medal. As long as the next five girls got less than that, then Julia was the winner.

The Russian girl got Twenty-eight-point-seven-five-five. She was marked down to silver position, so the commentator said, for lack of variety in her tumbling. Chrístõ realised he had learnt something about floor gymnastics. Those ‘fancy cartwheels’ had to be varied as well as perfectly executed.

The fourth last competitor was from Alpha Proxima. She was pale skinned. All Alpha Proximan women were. They avoided the relentless sun of that planet. She was one of the eldest competitors, he learnt from the commentary. At twenty-eight she was competing in her fourth and last Olympiad.

And as far as Chrístõ could tell practice made perfect for her. She looked amazing. She was graceful and energetic in equal measure. She gained great height when she launched herself into the air for her double pike into somersault.

But the judges seemed to think that her linking movements didn’t flow well enough. She was in the mid-twenty-sevens and outside the medal hopes. Chrístõ saw her face on the big screen as the points were announced and felt immediate sympathy. This was her fourth time trying, her last chance, and it was gone. All of her best efforts were for nothing.

Julia only had one shot at it. She didn’t intend to compete in another Olympiad. He didn’t want to see that disappointment on her face. He didn’t want to watch her struggle to bite back the tears because a single third place decimal point knocked her out of the running.

Two more girls competed. The first managed to beat the Alpha Proximian girl’s mark and pushed her out of fourth place. The other looked amazing until one tiny mistake on the last of a sequence of tumbles made her step out of the thirteen metre length of the performance square. She recovered her poise and finished her routine, but it was obvious that her mark would be lowered by a half point penalty for that mistake.

Julia was still in gold position. There was one more competitor to go. Chrístõ was ready to hope for the best. He looked up at the screen and saw his fiancée sitting with the Beta Deltan coach, a tracksuit top over her leotard now that she had cooled down from the routine. She looked happy.

The final competitor stepped onto the floor. Chrístõ was puzzled. She was listed as an Independent Olympic Athlete. No national flag was displayed beside her name on the screen, only the traditional five rings of the Olympic banner.

He turned from wondering about that to watching the girl as she began to perform. She was grace personified. She had obviously learnt ballet as well as gymnastics just as Julia had. When she landed from her tumbles she immediately stood en pointe. That was one of a few technical terms Chrístõ understood. To anyone else it was ‘tiptoes’. It meant that her long legs looked even longer and when she went into an arabesque and then splits it was utterly divine. Chrístõ joined in the applause as she turned into straddle splits and from that into a handstand, somersault and a final double pike before turning and performing three quick ballet leaps into the middle of the floor and a graceful final position as her music came to an end.

The applause wasn’t quite as loud as it had been for Julia since there wasn’t a contingent from her planetary system cheering for her, but Alice Keenan was thoroughly appreciated by the spectators. She smiled as she walked back to her place not very far from where Julia was sitting. He noticed that the Beta Deltan coach passed her the little bag with a bottle of water, towel and tracksuit that were so necessary in the aftermath. Nobody was with her. Nobody spoke to her apart from the coach and Julia who leaned over and quietly congratulated her.

Chrístõ wondered about the lonely girl with no flag of her own. He felt a wave of empathy for her. But at the same time a stab of jealousy pierced his hearts. As little as he knew about the technical difficulties of this discipline, he knew in his soul that this was the winning routine. He held onto the hope for a few moments more, but the scoreboard smashed it to pieces.

Twenty-eight-point-seven-six-zero. One single third place percentage point pushed Julia out of the gold medal place and into silver. The Russian girl representing Earth now took bronze and there was bitter disappointment for the Gamma Hydran competitor who now lost out on a medal at all.

Chrístõ looked at the screen. Julia and Alice were hugging, tears of happiness rolling down their faces. The Beta Deltan coach congratulated them both.

There was a strange hiatus after that with background music and the audience chatting amongst themselves while the podium was placed in the middle of the floor. Then the nine girls who hadn’t won anything paraded around the four thirteen metre sides of the performance area and were warmly and genuinely applauded.

After that it was the turn of the three medal winners. They stepped out individually, the bronze winner first, then Julia and Alice. They were each applauded loudly before they came to the podium. The applause and cheers as each received their medal was even louder.

After that there was something of an anti-climax. The arena emptied quickly. Chrístõ waited in the foyer until Julia was showered and dressed and came to meet him. He was taking her to dinner at the Adano Ambradan Ambassador’s Residence.

He was surprised to see her hug the girl who had beaten her to the gold medal and promise to see her tomorrow.

“Aren’t you supposed to be deadly rivals?” he asked as he led her to the limousine that was at his disposal.

“No,” Julia answered. “What made you think that?”

“Any sports competitions I’ve ever been in,” Chrístõ mused. “The inter-academy lacrosse championships, the Prydonian Sun Ko Du team… it was all absolutely cutthroat. The lacrosse teams were mortal foes. Maliki Dúccesci never forgave me for scoring the winning goal in the senior inter-Academy final. As for Sun Ko Du… I was up against Eps in the final. He was such a dirty fighter you wouldn’t believe we were in the same Academy.”

“I always thought of lacrosse as a genteel and ladylike game,” Julia commented. “As for Eps… I would hardly expect HIM to abide by the ethos of the Olympics. But you ought to get it – fostering interplanetary friendship and understanding.”

“Yes, I know that’s what it says,” Chrístõ pointed out. “But I didn’t think it worked in reality. Not when you’re all so ambitious for those gold medals. Don’t you feel bitter about that girl who beat you at the last minute?”

“No,” Julia insisted. “The gold would have been nice, but Alice deserved it. Her routine was better than mine. Her ‘fancy cartwheels’ were executed that much more accurately.”

Chrístõ knew he was being teased. He changed the subject. But he found himself thinking about it all the way through dinner. Afterwards, when he took in a little fresh air in the Residence garden he found a way of bringing it up again.

“Alice… why is she on her own?” he asked. “What exactly is an Independent Olympic Athlete?”

“She doesn’t have residence on any planet,” Julia answered. “She’s a displaced person, waiting to hear if she will be allowed to settle on any Earth Federation planet.”

“How come?”

“She was born in hyperspace, on a freighter,” Julia explained. “Her mother owned the freighter and her father was the captain. It was registered in the Exurian system or somewhere like that, not an Earth Federation planet, so technically she wasn’t even born under the Federation flag. She literally doesn’t belong anywhere. She was at school on Gamma Hydra II, at a sports college a bit like mine, when her parents died – their freighter hit an asteroid or something. So now she’s eighteen, an adult by law, but she doesn’t BELONG anywhere. She’s going to have to leave the college unless she can get a sponsor to pay her fees, and then she’ll be homeless. No planet in the Federation accepts responsibility for her.”

“Wow,” Chrístõ commented. “I didn’t think it was possible to be so alone.”

He had travelled the galaxies alone in his TARDIS, but that was out of choice, and if he chose to stop he had a choice of places to call home – Gallifrey was one of them, of course, but Earth also offered a refuge for him. So did Beta Delta and Adano Ambrado.

He couldn’t imagine being so completely homeless and dispossessed as Alice was.

When he said so, Julia berated him for being so insensitive.

“I could have been just like her,” she pointed out. “If Aunt Marianna and Uncle Herrick hadn’t been prepared to be my guardians. My parents had relinquished their citizenship of Earth before we left, and I was too young to be granted right of abode on Beta Delta in my own right. And since you AREN’T technically from either there’s nothing you could have done to help. I’m lucky to have a place to call home, too. THAT’s why I’ve done my best to be friends with Alice, completely aside from the medals and who is the best gymnast. She’s a nice girl and she’s worked so hard to get here despite all of her problems. She DESERVES the gold much more than I do.”

“Julia, you’re a very sweet, generous girl,” Chrístõ told her. “That’s why I love you so much.”

“I should hope so. As for the gold medal, I have two more chances, don’t forget. Tomorrow it’s the all round Artistic Gymnastics group final. I’m competing as part of the Beta Deltan team AND for individual medals for the top three. Alice isn’t competing in that event because she’s not in a team. And on Friday I’m in the Rhythmic gymnastics. I’ve been doing THAT since I was three and did somersaults on the front lawn with my hair ribbons tied together for apparatus. So just you wait and see. I’ll get a gold medal, yet.”