This is where Garden of Eden steps up a gear. I wanted this to be a story about people learning to do something with their lives, getting that buzz of energy and enthusiasm I feel when I commit myself to a project. Having something to work towards.
From this point on, the characters have something to aim for.
For Zeno, the week of punishment from Xan passed rapidly; intensive training with Harp in the mornings which had revealed a side of the old man he’d never seen before, and the afternoons spent helping Xan refurbish the studio, which in the height of summer had been gruelling work. He was coming to the end of another day, this time spent cleaning the patios that encircled the garden with a high-pressure hose, when he saw the band running down the drive. Some other time, he’d have thought of giving them a dousing to see the look on Sara’s face, but with Xan still in a bad mood it would just lead to more problems. They seemed in an oddly good mood, too.
Switching the hose off, he set the pipe he had been holding down and wandered out to meet them. Show was waving a flyer about in a way that made it impossible to read, and had to be calmed down by Miki before he could say anything coherent.
“I think we’re going to make it big!” He waved the piece of paper again so that nobody could read it. “Look!”
“What he means is there’s a talent show coming up, not long after Grey Cliff, and we’ve passed the first audition, although I think all that really was was a test to see if you’re literate.” Sara was surprisingly cheerful. “Unlike you, we’re going in with a will to win and not settle for second place.” That stung. The fact she still wouldn’t let go of what he’d hoped was cool modesty as a knife to twist every so often made it far less funny that she clearly thought it was.
“Leave it, Sara.” Lin had noted Zeno’s reaction. “Let’s not spoil this. Where’s Xan?”
“I’m here.” Xan was on the roof with Mio, and the two of them were busy hanging out sheets. “I heard what you said. We’ll all be there supporting you.”
“Sara?” Show, who had been interrupted into silence, found his voice again. “I was talking to Harp the other day and he said we didn’t have an image.”
“An image?” She turned to face him, a hand on her hip. “That’s really the last thing on our minds.”
“It shouldn’t be.” Xan looked mildly ridiculous, shouting down from the roof. “Come inside, let’s grab a drink or two and we can discuss it properly. Zeno? You can carry on.”
“What?” Zeno had finally come around to accepting the purpose of his punishment, but this was too far.
“I’m joking, you idiot. Come on, get the hose packed away and join us.”
Mio had taken the idea of finding an image quite literally, bringing notepads and paper. Xan smiled at this gesture of enthusiasm as he cleared a space on the table for a tray of drinks and snacks. He’d filled a bowl with twists of pastry dusted with spices, a cheap and pleasant convenience food bought as part of the last haul from the supermarket. Zeno grabbed a handful hungrily, ravenous from the day spent outside, and slouched back on the couch eating loudly as Xan took a seat.
“When I said you guys needed an image I was serious. As it stands nobody in this studio can remember your name. You’re a bunch of non-entities. You can play your instruments, but there’s gonna be a lot of kids who can play at this thing. So if you’re going to stand out, you’ll need a good set, a good look and a stage presence. That means no bickering, no silly rivalries, just – well, looking like a band. From the sound of it Harp said something similar.” Selfishly, Zeno was glad that Xan’s determination had been shifted in focus. With Grey Cliff so soon, it was the last thing he needed.
“Right, so what do we do?” Sara sounded amazingly relaxed and had angled herself to make the most of almost an entire couch. “I mean we’ve practiced the music side of it, but-”
“Sara, you’re not going to like this. Stop needling Show. Stop trying to make yourself seem cleverer than you are. Don’t overreact every time anything goes wrong. I’ve listened in on your practices and you’re too harsh on the others.”
That was met with silence, save for the background noise of Zeno eating and the dull padding of Melba exploring the kitchen.
“I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.” The response didn’t quite have the same deadpan rudeness to it that Sara usually employed – there was something approaching genuine, self-depreciating humour there. “I’m sorry, guys. I’ve been out of order recently. You should have said something sooner.” To hear that sort of contrition said so readily almost seemed unreal to Zeno and Show, and from the look on Xan’s face he was thinking the same thing. “I really am a screwup, aren’t I?”
“No, not all the time. You’re a good musician, for one.” Something had had to be said to break the tension. “Just… difficult. Difficult to like at times.”
“You know, difficult can work. Think about Yui.” Yui was one of the more notoriously attention-seeking figures in the music world, a singer far too media-savvy and staid to be properly punk but nevertheless always seen sporting ripped jeans and a scowl.
“She turned “difficult” into “marketable.” Is that really me?” Sara had an impressively sour expression. “I’d rather be sincere. Or just difficult. I do like her style though.” She’d picked up some paper and had been sketching stick figures vaguely dressed like a band. “Think I’d look good in this?”
It was hard not to laugh at Sara’s drawing; it barely looked like a woman, let alone her. In the end, that proved the real icebreaker.
“Can’t you see it? I was thinking a black jacket over a white t-shirt, black jeans and-”
“Sara, you always wear that.”
“I know. It works. It suits me. Why do we need to change?”
“I’ve said. Nobody will remember you if you don’t.” Xan smiled. “I’m not saying you need-”
“I designed something.” Mio held up a piece of paper. On it was drawn a surprisingly accurate picture of the band, all wearing outlandish costumes. “All your songs are really fast-paced and that made me think of space, so I thought-” Good-natured laughter. Nobody meant to mock her, but the outfits were entirely impractical and the sort of thing that could only possibly exist in science-fiction. About the most doable part was Sara’s outfit, a garish leotard and a short cape with exaggerated pauldron-like adornments, and precarious-looking boots.
“It would stand out, wouldn’t it?” Red took the piece of paper and began sketching. “If we made it look slightly less like a workout video instructor and slightly more like a rock star, like so-” He had added an asymmetrical skirt to the outfit and lengthened the cape into two long trailing ribbon-like strands, and reduced the heel on the boots by quite a lot. “Not sure what we’d do with the others, oh and of course change the colour. Bright pink and white is… not exactly Sara.”
“I think the more punk look could work.” That came apropos of nothing from Xan. “I know I said you needed an image, but that image could just be… well… Sara’s. As long as you’re all in on it.” He swivelled off the sofa and loped upstairs with the uneven two-at-a-time motion that he always fell into when in a hurry. Moments later, a bundle of dark clothes fell to the floor with a heavy slap. “Old flying jackets. Don’t they look different from normal leathers? I bet Harp’s got them in a bunch of sizes if you need more.”
“Sounds brilliant.” Show picked one of the jackets up and turned it over in his hands, looking at how the material was scuffed and weathered with an almost marble-like pattern of miniscule cracks and threadbare patches, the sleeves covered in badges and stripes to show allegiance. He could feel its age and history in the dry, scratchy leather and yet when he tentatively put it on the thick, warm lining felt like it had last been worn only a few minutes ago.
“You like it?” Miki looked Show up and down. “I’ve often thought of getting a good coat like that for the winter. They make them to last.”
“I think this should be our look, if nobody objects too much. It’s… really it’s what everyone wants. It’s futuristic like Mio said, it’s, let’s be honest, not too different to most of Sara’s current wardrobe, and we can get it easily. Sara?”
“Mm?” She had been doodling again, any pretence of attempting self-portrait gone as lazy spirals and floral patterns danced around the page. While her talents for drawing actual things were non-existent, she had enjoyed a little success once doing board designs for a local skateboarding company.
“What do you think?”
“Was just wondering what I’d look like in a catsuit.” There was a sort of stunned silence at that. “If Show’s doing himself up like a pilot why shouldn’t I?”
Show had a very good idea of what Sara would look like, but had no way of expressing it in words at that point in time.
“We’ll… There’s an old racing merchandise place not far from here, let’s go there tomorrow. And we’ll see what women wear on the track nowadays.” Zeno’s mind was wandering back to Erika, and the faded poster in Harp’s workshop. The pictures were there online, for sure. But seeing them – seeing that there was everything to see – took all the fun out of it. Must be the same for Show. However he imagines him and Sara is going to be far better than whatever comes from this new respect.
That was the hard part sorted, it seemed. The band almost immediately relaxed and began hotly debating their songlist, whether or not there was time to write a new song and practice it in the few days they’d have, and whether or not they could afford new decorative guitar faceplates.
Xan took that moment to sit next to Zeno and talk about Grey Cliff.
“How long is it now?”
“You know, Xan.”
“I want you to tell me.”
“Two days now. The pre-race stuff starts in two days, Xan.”
“We’ll be setting off tomorrow afternoon then. Get there in good time. I phoned Harp while you were working, he’s arranged to have the Messiah shipped like normal so we don’t have to worry. Confident?”
“As I can be. There’s a lot can go wrong as you know.”
“Then make sure you’re doing your bit, and let what happens happen.” That had been easy to say. After seeing the determination with which Zeno had accepted his punishment – accepted what he’d done wrong – Xan was resting easier at the thought of him racing.
A race meeting was a week-long affair – first a period of a couple of days where the racers would arrive and get their machines prepared, then the testing lap and the time trials to determine the grid order and finally, after five days of preparation, parties and late-night engineering work, the race itself. The moment that made the whole affair worthwhile, and then the waiting period before the next one – two weeks off, then the preparation week and the cycle completed again. After Grey Cliff came Forge Star, probably Zeno’s favourite course in the season. Rather than being a technically demanding and draining nightmare of cliffs and sheer drops, it was all about speed; long, banked corners, jumps for racers who knew all the tricks, and almost-endless straights where skill at weaving between vehicles ruled the day.
There was a lot to look forward to in those six days building up to the race itself – parts-sellers offering things that you could easily buy on credit set against your inevitable victory if you used them, entertainments of all sorts from bands playing to a captive audience to great PR stands from computer game companies eager to catch the younger generation, and the almost-inexplicable thrill of living out of a caravan park and cooking over a barbeque every night. Most of the others wouldn’t go for the whole week – it would probably be him, Xan, Harp, and maybe Show if he could get the time off work. The rest would drift in over the days, until everything was prepared.
They ate that evening fully relaxed and studiously avoiding talking about the race out of courtesy. Instead, Sara once again tied herself in knots trying to describe in words the sound that the band was aiming for.
“It’s like – well, you’ve heard our music, right?”
“Well how does it make you feel?”
“Like you need to practice more, sometimes.” Xan meant no offence by that. “You’re too ambitious. How many songs do you need for this talent show?”
“Two.” Miki was speaking for the band now. “We’re doing Goodbye Fire and one other. It should be Children of the Cosmos but to be fair it does sound very, very different to the rest of our stuff.”
“Sara wants to do Pure Voice, you’ve heard her talking about it. I think it’s a bit difficult to really get good enough at in the time we’ve got left but if that’s the style we’re going for then it limits our options as to what to play. My vote’s for Stardance, it’s a good track. But Show doesn’t like it.”
“I do! I just think we’ve got better ones. Pure Voice is better.”
“Here’s an idea.” Xan put his cup down. “Why don’t you play us both of the songs and we’ll decide. Stardance and Pure Voice.”
“Good idea.” Show perked up at that. “We need to practice playing for an audience anyway.”
“I heard you talking about finding a name earlier – did you fix on one?” Zeno noticed Sara was getting pushed to the edge of the discussion. “I mean, we joked about it but without a name you can’t even enter.”
“Good point actually.” Red’s voice had a puzzled tone. “How did you enter if you don’t have a name?”
“They didn’t ask for a band name at this stage. Just registered our interest and gave us a number and some tickets for you guys. It’s at a pretty neat little club over by the city.” The city. It had a name, but who needed it? It was the only place that warranted being called that for a good distance.
“What’s its name?” Xan asked. “Used to go to a place like that in my younger, unwiser days.”
“The Bluefin Salon. That’s where the actual event is. Signups were being done at that music shop Show works at.”
“I know that, I think. Isn’t it down by the waterfront, not far from the flash part with the marina?”
“Yeah, the one looks like someone crashed a liner into the seafront.”
“I know it, yes. Not where I used to drink, I was thinking of the Fishery, it was cheaper. We always used to look into the Bluefin and imagine it some kind of real swanky place but I’m sure it’s just a club like any other. Most of the places this end of town are, they just dress up smart to try and catch tourists.”
“Right. By the way, Zeno, we’ve got a name now. It’s-”
“We don’t! We weren’t going for that, Sara.” Lin was stifling laughter. “It was a joke, Zeno. Unless you really think people would go and see a band called Cross Dimensional.”
“It stands out.”
“I like it.” Mio spoke up. “It sounds futuristic.”
“It sounds like a kids cartoon. Possibly with a tie-in game or something.”
The following morning was spent packing. Nothing really useful had come out of the band’s practice after dinner, they had come across as far more competent and unified than usual and it was hard to tell which of their songs they had practiced least.
While Zeno and Xan packed, Harp and Show were clearing out the van and repacking it with the stuff that would be needed for their week away. It was hardly the important task it initially seemed, because the area around Grey Cliff would be packed with places to buy supplies – all of which would be doing extra shifts to handle the number of racers and spectators that would descend upon them. There was no real way to describe the amazing, sprawling chaos of the temporary town that would appear around the race site; or rather, around the town that was closest. At first, when VF hadn’t been the blockbuster thing it was now, race meets had been smaller affairs easily covered by the local hotels and supermarkets, but as crowds had grown a whole peripheral business had grown around it – while on the raceday itself the audience would be fine with on-site catering, as more and more came for the whole week, demand for fresh ingredients had become ever-greater.
Either way, as Harp pointed out, if you have the stuff and the space to take it, why not?
As a result, when they finally set off after lunch as the band settled down to practice and Red went off to work, Zeno was surrounded by boxes. Boxes of spare parts, tools, food and drink, toiletries and then on top of that cases with a week’s clothes in plus all the gear that he needed for piloting. And so, with the van loaded, the Messiah well on its way to its reserved hangar, Zeno could fairly say that the Grey Cliff race had begun for him.