Previous Chapter: A Few Drinks
Chapter 3 of this story is less laid back, and introduces a bit more about the sort-of familial life the characters lead. Something I wanted to get across was that in this idyllic future world the nature of a family might have changed a little, but people still remain human – and that utopias can still have conflicts on a personal level.
Chapter Three: Thinking
Leaving Harp to his pipe, they walked back to the van. Zeno took his seat among the scattered items, now surrounded by bags of shopping, and as they headed back he began flicking through the magazine he’d bought once again. The articles were a fascinating look back into what his sport had been like years ago. The courses had been shorter, for one – but more laps were raced, and the turns tighter and more dangerous in order to add excitement despite the aircraft being slower. Harp’s maneuver had been daring then, but for racers more used to insane speed over straights for whom Grey Cliff was an awkward test of technical skill, it was unthinkable.
The feature about Grey Cliff was particularly interesting. The course, already the hardest in the season, had once been raced through far tighter tunnels – inside the caves beneath the cliffs rather than the valley run that now defined the course. The bridge drop had once been the start point, rather than the mid-way and it was that, to read Harp’s interview, that had made his line possible. The combination of a slower, more robust plane with the fact it was still accelerating had meant it was just possible to make the turn – for a modern craft like the Messiah, travelling at speed after a longer run down the valley, as the doctor had said, it wasn’t possible.
An idea suddenly came to mind. How long did it take to do the full loop around the basin? Would slowing down to the point where you could take Harp’s line give any advantage? Racers always took the drop slower, so would slowing down more cause him to lose too much time? He still wasn’t even sure how he’d cope with Grey Cliff. The thought of the sheer drop towards a checkpoint flag that gave barely any time to maneuver at the best of times, combined with trying to take a frankly stupid line cutting the corner, was terrifying even to someone who’d done it before.
The studio was nestled in a cluster of buildings, a long converted warehouse with a high glass roof. Painted along the plain metal wall was the same floral design as on Harp’s hangar, arching down over the double doors at one end. The van pulled into a parking bay tucked along the side of the building and Red opened the back doors, rousing Zeno with a shout. They grabbed the bags of groceries, and headed towards the studio door. Show was hanging back behind them, looking somewhat unsteady on his feet.
“You drunk, Show?”
“No- fine- I-” He tripped over an uneven paving stone and grabbed on to the wall to steady himself. “Go on, I’ll catch up.”
“How much did he drink?”
“He was matching me.” Red turned away from Show as he fell to his hands and knees in a flowerbed. “So I think too much for him.”
The inside of the studio was dominated by a large communal living space, formed from a large U-shape of sofas around a cluster of small circular tables. Large flat screens had been attached to one of the short walls, with a knotof games consoles and media servers around their base, while the other end of the room was an open kitchen. A spiral staircase in brushed metal looped upwards at one end of the kitchen section, to the top floor.
At the sound of the door opening, an older man wearing a black sweater and grey jeans stood up from where he had been sat at the top of the stairs, and stepped down them two at a time.
“Yes.” Red began unpacking the bags of food. “Good day?”
“Would have been better with you.” The man didn’t move to help, and simply sat down in front of a large plate of sandwiches. “Where’s Show?”
“Not sure. I think he’s feeling a bit fragile.”
“Well tell him to come in and help. The others have been looking for him, you know.” There was a slight uncertain edge to his voice, the commanding tone hesitant and almost childish. The you know sounded like a question rather than a statement.
“There’s a race in a week, Red. I don’t really mind if Zeno goes off and does whatever the hell he needs to to prepare for it. But what have you guys been doing? Getting a few bits from the supermarket doesn’t take all day and you all smell of beer and smoke, and I know you’ve been at the hangar so- Show?” The young man, still looking decidedly ill, had appeared at the door. “Sort yourself out. Drinking in the afternoon is one thing. Getting drunk is another. Now help Red.”
“What- what are you doing?” Show dizzily looked at him. “Xan?”
“I’m doing nothing, like you. Might have a drink. I mean, I’ve been working this morning.”
“Where are the others?”
“The band? They’re practicing. Doubt you’ll be joining them though. I’ve been in your shoes and when I was I got no sympathy, so-”
Zeno turned around, having unpacked his share of the bags, and began on another pile as Show collapsed onto a sofa. “Almost done here, Xan.”
“I was leaving you out of this for the moment. You’re not the one who’s just been sick in my flowerbed. But if you just end up drinking every day before the race you’re not going to win. Did anything come of it or did you just get Show off his face?” Xan’s tone still had the sarcastic, chastening edge it had had as he spoke to Show, but it was tempered with a paternal, caring tone.
“We got the Messiah fixed up, and, well, Harp told us a bit about his past.” Zeno carried on stacking tins in the cupboard. “Could have been more productive but really I need to learn a bit more about servicing the plane, not just flying it. The others didn’t really do much.”
“Should have come home. Red, I told you to look out for Show. But, it’s done now. So, you can tidy the studio, starting with getting that lump off my sofa before he’s sick again.” The two thoughts hung together awkwardly, as if Xan had suddenly had a change of heart.
“I was planning to hit the simulations, Harp gave me some ideas and I’d like to test them.” Zeno grabbed his tablet from where it was clipped to his belt. “Look-” Xan listened as he explained what he’d learned about Grey Cliff, and from the old magazine.
“You don’t win races by slowing down.” Xan smiled as he looked over the pictures and articles. “It all probably seems like a great idea, and the Doc probably talked it up, but I-” He suddenly faltered. “Stop being an idiot. It’s a dangerous sport. Don’t risk your neck more than you have to.” His face was pale and what confidence he’d had was completely gone. Zeno knew better than to press the issue, or try and reassure him. “I want to see you win.” Xan closed his eyes tightly before re-opening them and reaching into the fridge with dull, mechanical movements before closing its door again almost immediately.
Xan Zevaan was the strangest sort of backer a team could have. He barely watched the races, or took an interest in the sport, but simply funded Zeno and Harp’s projects. While remaining distant from VF, he had thrown himself with what many saw as inexplicable enthusiasm into a small, no-name band that his adopted son Show had set up almost on a whim. He was not easy to like, but as a landlord and father figure, he had to constantly remind himself that he wasn’t supposed to be.
As Zeno disappeared into the back-room upstairs to work on the VF simulator, and Red carried Show up to his room, Xan picked up the discarded magazine reader and looked again at the articles without really comprehending them. He envied Zeno, for whom waking early to walk in the turbine park and laze on the pillar was just a choice, rather than the result of nightmares. Tiredness was sitting heavily on him, a kind of gnawing sickness that sent him once again to the fridge, where the plates of uneaten food from breakfast sat.
To all the world, he simply looked bored. Like a man with too much leisure time. But it was at times when there was nothing to do that he couldn’t help but dwell on his own past, and that hurt. A stuffed toy lay discarded on one of the couches, and he straightened it up just to keep his hands occupied.
In time, the feeling passed, and he found himself thinking again about Show. It was actually quite funny. What young boy – he really was just a boy, after all, wouldn’t get drunk if Harp offered them a fridge full of beer? As if summoned by his thoughts, Show limped down the stairs theatrically, and headed towards the kitchen to begin filling a plate with food.
“Eating helps.” Xan looked up. “You know, it’s not the drinking I object to. It’s the fact you didn’t know when to stop.” He couldn’t be seen to go back on what he’d said, but there were ways to backtrack without making it obvious.
“I don’t know how Red does it.”
“I’d say practice, but I don’t want you to start.” He enjoyed the conversation, the simple act of interaction made him feel comforted. “Shall we?” He’d picked up a controller for one of the games consoles, and with a free hand was paging through its library of software with simple gestures. If the others were happy to think he was just bored and a strict, if inconsistent, parent, then he was happy to fulfil their expectations.
“Gardening. She loves it down on the allotment and the weather’s so good I’ve left her to it.” Xan selected a game and without waiting to see if Show wanted to join him began a match.
“When she comes in, ask if she still wants to hear us play. We’ve written a new song. This time it will-” Show had moved too quickly, and clasped a hand to his head. “We’ve got a hit.”
“That beer hit you pretty damn hard. Go back to sleep if you like, you’re not going to be any use to the band like that. Do you know what it is? You started too early.” He set down the game controller momentarily as a short scene of a goal celebration played. “Don’t drink before lunch.” The advice sounded trite, but he gave it with a convincing authority. “And check what it is you’re drinking. Harp buys pretty strong stuff. You’ll learn, though. Everyone knocks themselves flat once or twice, only an alcoholic does it more often.”
He hoped, as Show dully watched him play the video game in a hungover haze, that he had not sounded as awkward as the leaden sentences had seemed to to him. He couldn’t help but see in the youth a lot of how he could have ended up; constantly distracted by the concerns teenagers had without the support that parents could offer, finding his feet in the world, and most of all in need of a guiding hand. Helping somene else out who had lost family was the least he could do. Adopting a child later in life, when the child was already a teenager who had got used to the thrust-upon him independence of hostels, had seemed like a good idea at first. Two lost souls who’d had to manage without parents, living as housemates.