Previous Chapter: “Fly Up in the Air”
This chapter is where, really, the conflicts begin; they are not dramatic ones in any sense except people are disappointed, and scared, and made aware that they have gone wrong. People will make mistakes, even in utopia.
Polishing out the tiny abrasions the gravel impacts had peppered the Messiah’s wings with was set to take Zeno most of the afternoon. Each needed to be carefully smoothed out, and then the surface prepared for repainting. Smoothing out a scuff to Harp’s expected standard in turn involved what felt like hours of carefully taking various cloths and sponges to it, making sure there was no imperfection in the metal that could, at high speed, lead to fractures.
Harp was sat on the roof terrace, leaving Zeno to work. There was no need to supervise the punishment; with Grey Cliff in only a few days, if the Messiah was not ready it would not race, and Zeno would forfeit the points. The craft had to pass a safety check at the start of the race which included all panels being as close to flawless as was humanly possible, not pockmarked with chips and dents.
Zeno was so engrossed in the work he barely registered the phone ringing. As soon as he did, he picked it up instinctively and made to take it up the steps to Harp before realising it was Xan at the other end.
“Damned long test flight.”
“Had a bit of an accident, the Messiah needs some minor repairs.” He tried to sound full of bravado. “Just some damage to the wings, I’m getting on fine.” That was something of a lie. His elbow was already aching and he was just putting the finishing touches to perhaps a third of one wing.
“You’re- all- right?” Xan’s voice was suddenly hesitant. “You were trying- trying that- Harp’s a bad influence on you. Come home soon. Finish the work tomorrow. Show can help, he’s been getting under my feet every time the band take a break.” When he put the phone down, Zeno turned to see Harp calmly polishing a section of the other wing.
“Didn’t seem right to have you working on it alone for real. Figured you’d stewed on what you did for long enough.”
“I did it though.” The pride was beginning to come back. “It can be done.”
“You did nothing.” Harp switched to a fine-grain cloth and went back over the section he was working on. “When I took that shortcut it was in a race and I didn’t screw up the plane. You just took a jump badly and crashed. Do that at Grey Cliff and best outcome is you lose, worst is you take the plane right into the side of the mountain and die.”
Zeno was awkwardly silent at that.
“It’s true, Zeno. Better you learn this now than come to regret it later. And believe me, you’d kill Xan if he heard you talking like that.”
“What do you mean?” Harp’s words made a sort of sense but he didn’t want to believe them. There was something unusual in that way Xan reacted to his talk of racing, something that almost made it seem like he wasn’t happy about it. It was a kind of fear that went beyond simple concern.
“Xan… Xan’s afraid of flying. I don’t know what drove him to give me a load of money and foist you on me, so you could take a shot at the VF tournaments, but he did. Perhaps- no, I won’t make any guesses. If he didn’t want to tell me, I don’t want to know. But talking all blasé, like you are, about nearly writing off your plane – that would cut him up bad. I think he wants to live with the illusion it’s all nice and safe. Now if I overheard your conversation right he wants you back at the studio so run along and take these with you.”
Putting down the sandpaper, he took an envelope from the workbench. “It’s some old photos I was given by the guy in that shop, magazine stuff from about the time of the Erica ones. That sort of look that your friends liked. I’m too old for that sort of thing now so they’re welcome to them.” Zeno looked at the crisp old photographs, printed on heavy paper that shone in the light. A procession of now-nameless girls, posing around planes that looked comically out of date, but the whole affair had a rough charm to it.
“Thanks. I appreciate this. Everything- everything you’ve done. And I-” To see Harp opening up like this made Zeno suddenly realise what he’d done – and was the explanation he’d been looking for all along. Everything seemed clearer now, and he didn’t like it – didn’t like himself. He’d kicked out against the punishment, but it had taken this to make him see where he’d gone wrong.
“Don’t get teary. You screwed up, took your knocks and that’s that, right? Go back, tell Xan I gave you hell for denting my beauty and you were fixing what you did. He’ll like that. It comes I think from-, from-, I won’t bore you. But Xan’s had a tough life. Don’t be unnecessarily cruel to him. He’s just doing what he hopes is best.”
Zeno left the hangar thinking about that. The walk back up Solar Hill seemed all the longer for it, the excited anticipation gone now and replaced with guilty emptiness.
The studio was much as he’d left it; the band had split up, with Show playing video games on the couch with Red, who had returned from the allotment. Sara and Miki were still hashing out lyrics and chords at the kitchen table, and Mio was on the roof drawing. Xan had gone out, it seemed.
“How did it go? Ready for the race?” Red didn’t look up from the game as he spoke.
“More so, yes. I’ve got an idea of what it will be like.” Taking Harp’s advice to heart, Zeno kept quiet about the mishap. “It’s going to be tough.” Tough felt like an understatement, but he wasn’t prepared to completely give in to humility after the way Sara had laughed at his attempted modesty the night before. A bit of bravado directed at the right people couldn’t hurt.
“Good to hear. You haven’t missed lunch yet, Xan’s just gone out to get some fresh fish and Mio’s going to have a go at grilling them.”
“Sounds great.” The morning had passed in a strange way; the flying, as ever, had passed in an instant while the time spent polishing the wings of the Messiah had seemed like most of the day. To hear it was only just lunchtime was reassuring.
“I’ve got work this afternoon. I hope you can all amuse yourselves.” Red worked in an unrewarding but astoundingly well-paid part-time position at a local office complex, handling small-scale complaints with local infrastructure for the regional council. It gave him a constant source of mildly amusing anecdotes about the people he met, but there was rarely any malice to it. It was just something that needed doing; things went wrong, even in paradise.
“We’ll manage.” Zeno opened the fridge and looked about for drinks. “Anyone thirsty?” As if she’d heard him, Sara emerged at the top of the stairs, headphones around her neck and the cable hooked in the belt-loops of her jeans.
“You’re back? Heard Xan call you, he sounded pretty shaken. You didn’t crash the stupid thing did you?”
“Yes. Screwed up a jump, wasn’t concentrating.” If Harp said he wasn’t to boast about what he didn’t do, the least he could do was try and brush the crash off in front of Sara. Surely, he felt, the old engineer would understand the need to look cool around pretty girls. “Was off doing repairs when he phoned.”
“Good to hear you came out of it all right.” Zeno noticed she was still studiously not looking at Show, trying to keep a haughty look that was, he found himself thinking, absolutely enchanting. Having lived with Sara as simply a flatmate for as long as he could remember, and not being in the grip of some kind of despair at being single manifesting as lust as Show was, he had never really realised that she was quite such an attractive woman. Even so, there were no implications in his behaviour; he’d read somewhere in an enthusiastically-written magazine editorial that “love should always be sought outside your walls.” Dating your room-mates or neighbours was just an invitation for awkwardness – as the constant feud between the allegedly “pining” Show and the brusque Sara showed every time it played out in an afternoon of awkward silences.
“What’s Show done now? Surely this isn’t still about last night?” He decided to play ignorant.
“And what if it is?” At that, Show leapt up from the sofa. “Sit down. You’ve got a lot to learn about the right way to go about getting a girlfriend and practicing on me won’t help.”
“Open your eyes, Show. It’s a big world out there and I’m not the only woman.”
“That was harsh, Sara.” Red looked at her.
“I’m sorry. But at the moment, I just- look, if you cooled off a bit I’d probably like you a lot more, Show. Last night – I didn’t like what you did.”
“I’m the one that should be sorry.”
“Is this the part where you kiss and make up?” Red tried to make light of the situation. “Let’s get some bread going for when Xan gets back with the fish. A good meal and all will be well, then I’m off to work.”
Xan arrived in due time, and they ate. It really felt that following the exchange of apologies, the air had cleared in the studio. Sara talked excitedly about the new song that Miki and Lin had helped her work out, a ballad that was more upbeat than Goodbye Fire but not falling into the ridiculous excesses of some of their other songs. It even, she said, had a vocal part for Show. At that she fell into singing out the tune with frequent interruptions to describe how the different parts came in.
“It got a title?” Xan sounded interested.
“Not yet. I quite like Pure Voice but really I’m not even sure I like the lyrics yet.”
“On the subject of your band, I got this at the shops.” He placed a flyer on the table, for a talent show at a local bar. It was dated for a few days after Grey Cliff.
“We’re doing it.” Sudden decisiveness from Sara, the childish excitement and joy gone and replaced with determined enthusiasm. “We’re going to win it. To us!”
Glasses were raised in a toast to the band. If it had a fixed name, nobody knew it as anything other than the band.