Previous Chapter: “Well Met”
If reading this can make it feel like you’re right there, you’re going too fast, daring to try stupid things, I feel it has probably succeeded. Writing a story about racing meant I needed to teach myself how to write speed.
They had spent the evening watching bad films and working through the snacks Zeno had bought earlier in the day, Mio laughing her pure, crisp laugh as Show and Xan had wisecracked through a low-budget action film. Even Sara had lightened up, right up until Show had awkwardly tried to put an arm around her shoulder at which point he had been catapulted off the sofa and she had returned to her usual sardonic self. This had been, if anything, even more entertaining for Red, Xan and Zeno.
The atmosphere in the studio was tense and sleep-deprived. Even a new bass pedal, as promised, had failed to completely mollify Sara.
Zeno had gone out alone that day, setting off early in the morning, to test the Messiah without distractions. The band were bickering and attempting to practice upstairs, and Red was helping Mio and Xan weed the allotment and plant some more seeds. He was walking to Harp’s place, a trip which only took about half an hour on a good day thanks to a generally deserted footpath that cut off much of the journey. It felt good to be alone; while living in the studio with the others was fun at times, seeing Sara lead Show on and play every trick in the book on him, helping Red with his projects, sitting on the roof with Mio and Melba, listening to her talk about all manner of bizarre things, there was very little privacy; he had his room, if he wanted to be alone, or sometimes the roof. When he was flying, though, that was beautiful solitude. At first, as a kid reading Skyway, he had thought it a tired cliché when a racer said they felt alive when at the controls. Then he’d tried it. The first time he had sat in the trainer craft, and sped from one end of the airstrip to the other in what now seemed like a painfully slow minute and a half, the feeling had been incomparable. Some people hated it. They claimed you had no control, feared for your life.
But Zeno knew that you always had control. It was feeling like you were flying free but knowing that that feeling was entirely your doing – your skill at the controls – that he loved. He stopped to catch his breath at the top of a long, curved incline over a gentle wooded ridge, where the treeline ended and all he could see was the grassy hillside loping downwards towards the airstrip, a grey smudge at the bottom of the hill. On the horizon, as he looked from left to right, he could just see the pillar as a gleaming star in the daylight. If the turbine park was regimented, ordered attempts to insert technology into nature, this hill was its haphazard mirror. As it arced round in a kind of basin, a solar farm turned one edge into a gleaming artificial field, which abruptly ended with a scruffy hedgerow and a battered fence with signs from the power company on it. He had memories, vague ones, of being a child and living around here; racing bikes down the slope. His parents had hated it, fearing one day he’d lose control and end up broken at the bottom of the hill, but it had never stopped him.
To this day seeing the land reclining out from the hilltop filled him with the desire to fly that had made him want to become a racer. Standing at the top of a hill made you feel powerful, like anything was possible. The fact he still saw himself as a pioneer as he made his way through the overgrown footpath, blazing a trail to some Shangri-La at the other end of the cypress and pine trees, reassured him. He was still young.
He ran. Down the slope, abandoning the footpath. It cut time off the journey. The wind rushed in his face – the one thing that racing, being in a cockpit, under a helmet, couldn’t give. You saw the speed when your raced, but you felt it when you ran down Solar Hill. He didn’t know if it was properly called that. He’d called it that since he’d found it, wide-eyed with his friends.
The hill ran out all too fast, and he vaulted the gap in the fence he remembered sneaking around to as a child when he’d wanted to watch the planes. They’d never fixed it – either that or every time they did someone else broke it. Then again, it was an easily-climbed chain link affair anyway, hardly capable of keeping someone determined out. The runway complex was vast when you looked at it from this angle. The knot of warehouses where Harp’s workshop was looked tiny, and in the other direction there was just flat tarmac up to the cliff edge. Some ancient earthquake had opened what had seemed to a wide-eyed child to be a vast, mysterious chasm, but really was only a sheer-sided valley that looped round until the end of the landslip, where it tapered off. It had been used as a quarry long ago, but now was a test track for VF craft, the hills of gravel and waste rock natural turning-posts. Zeno knew every inch of that expanse of rough rock as if it were his own back garden, and he knew the best run ended with a sprint over the old quarry pool. Taking a VF jet over water was tremendous – the ground effect threw up walls of spray and you were flying pretty much by instruments, only a tiny v-shaped gap in the water plumes enough to navigate by. Much of Grey Cliff was like this – and when that was combined with the technical skill required for the turns, it was small wonder racers feared it.
Harp was on the roof of the warehouse, from the sound of the swung harmonica solo that boomed out, so loud it was distorted. Zeno let himself in, and climbed up to join the old engineer. He had an old gearbox on the floor in front of him, on one side a toolbox and on the other an ice-box filled with energy drinks and iced coffee. It was like seeing Red’s work-station writ large, the fine scale models replaced by something that at some point would make a vehicle move.
“Zeno! Thought you’d be around. We didn’t get that flight yesterday, did we?” Harp didn’t look up as he spoke, prodding instead at a finely machined gear and watching as it rotated freely. “Want to take her up?”
“It’s why I’m here.”
“Brilliant. I’ll call the tower, let them know. You can help get her stowed on my truck.” The Messiah was transported on a modified pickup truck Harp had spent some weeks working on, widening the flat back section until the aircraft could sit on it with folded wings like a reversed swan. The craft was so light when unfuelled that one person could push it easily, or – since there was no way Zeno would take the risk of losing control of it and damaging it in a collision – using a pulley system to get it up the loading ramp.
“I’ll drive her round. What bay?”
“Four. Wait a moment and I’ll be there.” Harp climbed into the truck’s passenger seat and with a jab at a remote control the warehouse’s bay doors opened. “Looking forward to the race?”
“As much as you can. It’s going to be difficult.”
“But that’s why you’re excited, isn’t it.” That wasn’t a question. Harp knew Zeno too well – that for all his feigned modesty and actual nerves, at his heart he loved the thrill of racing and the added challenges of Grey Cliff were a goal to aim for.
The runway was open, empty, a glistening black streak marked out in plain colours. Harp parked the van at its end, in a wide bay from which they wheeled the Messiah to its position. Zeno grabbed his helmet from the hook on the back of the truck, and climbed into the waiting cockpit. It was a cramped fit, but a reassuring feeling. As the canopy slid back into place, he felt the heavy silence that always came just before a race; the short moments between everything closing up and the preflight checks beginning. Just the echo of his breath.
“Can you hear me?” Harp was motioning wildly from outside, speaking into a roughly modified field radio from somewhere that they used to communicate with the Messiah. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes. Don’t worry.”
“Good. We’ve got half an hour on the test track booked, any more and I’d have to start paying.” To keep things safer, aircraft were only allowed un-coordinated and unsupervised time in the quarry network in short, strictly regulated blocks to prevent collisions. In a race, anything went, but on the test track only one craft ever flew at a time. Half an hour was plenty, though, if all that needed doing were speed checks and cornering tests; it was not as if they needed to do the sort of intensive stress tests or full diagnostics that some teams needed. Harp was too good an engineer to make those anything other than a routine and the Messiah was modified so infrequently there was no need for Zeno to re-familiarise himself with it.
Zeno pushed the throttle forward and with the G-force hitting him like a punch in the stomach, the hollow lurch like going over the top of a rollercoaster or falling off a bike, the Messiah shot forward. His world was now only the eighteen inch wide strip immediately in front of him, and what little peripheral vision he could spare with the slightest look left or right. The craft’s speed was going up, the acceleration slowing little by little until it was at its limit.
The ground dropped away as the runway ran out and the chasm began. The ground effect engine on the Messiah immediately scrabbled to find the surface and it dropped, Zeno twisting the steering controls and the craft spinning in mid-air in a tightly controlled arc before punching forward as it still dropped. That drop had felt the same as takeoff – the lead weight of gravity pulling your insides down faster than the rest of your body could chase after them – and it was that feeling that was the closest anything could get to feeling speed. The bottom of the chasm was like a dried-up stream, and Zeno was taking it far faster than many pilots would. The Messiah’s autopilot didn’t control the craft (for that was against the rules of Variable Formula racing) but it told him what the best line was and how long he had before he needed to steer again. Turns flashed past as minor course corrections mere seconds apart, and then the cliffs opened up into the familiar mounds and crags of the quarry.
It was time to show off. He launched the craft at the nearest mound of gravel and as it hit the top pulled at a slider on the side of one of the control sticks. The ground effect cut out momentarily and the craft flew higher than usual, arcing freely through the sky like some sea creature cresting the ocean’s surface. It was flying now purely on its engines, and each slight twist of the verniers sent it gyrating through the air. Stunts like this were common in the easier courses, like the usually soporific runs though endless sand dunes that made the desert races the low points of the calendar for many fans. Knowing that the loss of ground effect would slow the craft on landing, racers had to find a compromise between wild stunts and maintaining a racing line.
The Messiah “landed” again, skimming at its usual altitude around a slalom of low hills, Zeno knowing exactly what line he should take. While the way the craft flew meant he was unlikely to crash, flying too carelessly and leaving the craft at a tilt would kill his speed as the engines tried to level it out. The way it hugged the ground was both a blessing and a curse when the course was uneven, which made the quarry a perfect place to practice. There was a high, sheer slope at the end of the route he had taken and as he launched himself off it he felt the same almost nauseous pull of gravity as when he had leapt into the chasm, only this time it was far briefer; there was no time for stunts, just a sudden twist of the engines to keep the craft’s heading right – getting the maneuvers right would mean he wouldn’t lose speed on hitting the ground, but if he miscalculated the Messiah would end up trashed.
He got it right. Practicing on short drops like that with no margin for error made even the frantic waterfall jump in Grey Cliff seem easy. The thought of that made him wonder again about the shortcut, and he swung the Messiah back round the slalom again. If he was going to try Harp’s line, he’d need to come off a drop about the size of that slope at an angle that would send him off at ninety degrees to his line of travel, using what momentum he had to travel far enough forward not to smash into the cliff face. He had eyed up the lie of the land and marked the gully he needed to head down in order to mimic the shortcut on the Messiah’s HUD. It would give him the timing he needed, and help him judge if it was possible.
This time, on the approach, he began to vector the engines in a way that slowed the Messiah, a maneuver called “wasting thrust.” It would mean he slowed down without having to brake or reduce thrust, allowing him to speed off by simply re-aligning the engines.
He hit the drop again, this time immediately swinging the craft in an ungainly twist, and this time the ground effect could not cope. It dipped low, the slight tilt of the steering maneuver causing the wingtip to scrape along the ground, the dipped engines throwing up clouds of dust and gravel.
Zeno knew Harp was going to lay into him for wrecking the paintwork of the Messiah, but this quickly faded into elation as he realised that, a shabby (horrifically, dangerously shabby) recovery excepted, he had re-created Harp’s legendary run at Grey Cliff. The remainder of the staid laps he did seemed hollow after that.