The second half of Garden of Eden is ostensibly about a race. It’s more about how just the right things at the right time can lead to new friendships and a new life.
They had stopped for an evening meal at a small town with the predictable motel on its outskirts. It was too early for such places to be really packed with race fans but nevertheless there were enough for Zeno and Harp to eavesdrop and see what the others were thinking about the upcoming event.
The talk was mostly about the undefeated champion of the league, the woman who was Zeno’s idol and rival. He’d pretty much come to terms with the fact he wasn’t going to beat her. Strangely, the talk was not exactly positive; people hated that there was such a sure favourite. That said, it was hard to deny she could race – to watch her was to see the most beautifully-taken risks, the finest, lightest hand that could be applied to a machine.
Yet it was a soulless beauty, one man said. All technical skill, no passion. The risks she took, the deadly lines, they weren’t the heart-in-mouth gambles that you watched a VF race for, it was like she was going for a practice lap.
That was the appeal, his girlfriend replied.
It was like a computer game played by a top player, someone else said, their voice weary. Probably rewarding and tense as hell if you were at the controls, but boring to watch.
“Doesn’t it take all sorts, though, to make a race?” Harp was effortlessly pretending to have nothing to do with the scene, his glory days so long over that few people recognised him. “I mean, I’ve watched VF for ages and it’s that variety that I watch it for. People finding ways, adapting to beat the best. Sure she’s good, but someone better will come along.”
“Not denying a word of it, old man.”
“See the problem is the vehicles are too fast now.” Harp was in full flow. “Back in the past, Grey Cliff as it is now wouldn’t have been the hardest track by a long shot, the route used to be far more intense. But because the audiences want speed now you get tracks like Open Sands – boring tracks.” Open Sands had been the place of Zeno’s last defeat – a dash across salt flats and scrubby desert with the odd challenging crevasse to dodge and weave through but mostly just a pure endurance race.
“Tell me about it. There’s no point betting on Open Sands nowadays, it’s just whichever team’s got the best machine.”
“You know what they should do?” Zeno asked. “Start two leagues. A high-speed league with tracks like Open Sands, and a lower-calibre one with more races like Grey Cliff.”
“I’d watch it.” Zeno deep-down wanted to now reveal he was a driver, but knew it would take all the fun out of stringing these people along.
“They should re-open Hawk Gulch, that was one hell of a track. I remember the last ever race they did there, was a sight to see.” One of the waiters set down a half-cleaned coffee cup and pointed at a photo above the counter. “You must remember it, old man.”
“Less of the old, gents.” Harp smiled. “And glad someone remembers one of the last races I was in.”
There was a breathless silence.
“Yep. In the flesh. Wasn’t exactly going to leave the circuit completely, so I watch now. Hawk Gulch was fun, for sure. Good times.” There wasn’t much more of a buzz. So many former VF stars, unable to give up the sport, lined the stands at every race. It took a very special kind of fan – like the old man in the supermarket what seemed like an age ago – to really care.
The circular conversation about the favourite at Grey Cliff rumbled on, and Harp ordered another beer.
Xan, however, was lost in thought. The past week’s events had shaken him in a way he couldn’t quite properly understand. It was clear why he’d been shaken – but something this time seemed different. Trying to simply ignore it was no longer working. “Harp?”
The old engineer set down the glass of beer he had half-drained, and spun round in his seat. There had been something about Xan’s tone there that had not sat right with him. “You’ve been out-of-sorts for a few days, Xan.”
“I know. It was hearing that you’d mentioned the past. Told Zeno.”
“It’s doing you more damage stewing on it.”
“Everyone copes their own way, Harp. You know what I lost.”
“Don’t mock me, Harp.”
“Missing isn’t dead. You were there. You know what it was like back then, nobody knew what to do, nobody was keeping good records. It probably won’t help but surely-”
“It’s been years, Harp. What good is a bit of hope after all this time? Perhaps if someone like you had been there back then to give me that, things would be different. As it is, I’ve had to deal with it in a different way.”
“I know it’s too late. But the way you’ve been, you clearly haven’t dealt with it. You’re doing a good thing, Xan, but-”
“Can we have this conversation some other time, Harp?”
“Whenever you want to have it, Xan. Let’s hope in a week’s time we’ve got something to celebrate, too.”
The conversation had been difficult, but Xan grudgingly had to admit he’d been deliberately denying himself hope as he’d laboured to forget his own past. Years back, when he had been a child, there had been the accident; a routine landing turned into an emergency landing which in turn turned into the following day’s headlines and a growing body count. From the wreckage of the airport terminal, the survivors – those without known families – had been rehabilitated and the children found new families.
One of the children that had been there had been Xan. Another had been his sister, and the last he had seen of her had been just before the accident. He had remained unconscious, apparently, for a very long time. Long enough for the identification of the dead to begin, and the rehoming to begin. And so when the time came for his own fate, his sister – years his junior, probably too young even to properly understand what had happened – had not been there. It had been logical to assume she had died. Many of the dead were never identified.
For years he had accepted that, mourned for her alongside his parents. He had, as a young teenager, demanded over and again that her name be added to the family grave. But every time, someone had calmed him down. Said that it would be doing her a disservice to call her dead when nobody knew. He’d accepted that, in a fashion.
On the lowest of days, he told himself the only reason he suffered anyone in the studio was some form of penance. Giving other people the chances he’d wasted.
“Shall we call it a day?” He didn’t feel much in the mood for driving any more. “Zeno? You OK with getting there mid-tomorrow?”
“Sounds good to me, Xan.” Zeno wasn’t sure if it was the drink or just the length of the day, but he was incredibly tired. “Hot bath, or at least a shower, and a good night’s sleep and then we can make good time tomorrow. Right, Harp?”
“Definitely.” They finished and paid, and left the diner to walk across the floodlit car park back to the motel itself. Zeno let Xan do all the talking, instead reclining on one of the deflated, lumpy couches in the lobby. Once they had reached the small, run-down rooms allocated to them, Zeno didn’t even bother undressing before collapsing onto the bed and falling into a dull sleep, his mind filled with thoughts about the race to come. Any plans for a shower had gone out of the window in his need to rest.
He woke up the following morning half-blinded by light streaming through the flimsy curtains, and checked the clock to see it was far later than normal. Washing and dressing hurriedly, he ran outside to see Xan and Harp holding paper cups of coffee bought from the diner.
“We let you rest. You seemed knocked out.”
“I think it was that week of stuff you had me doing finally catching up, Xan.”
“Did you good. A proper night’s rest like that – well, you must have needed it.”
“Good news, Zeno. Had a call from the couriers just now, the Messiah’s safely in its hangar. Everything’s set, so we need you on top form. Get a good breakfast and we’ll set off.”
“Good to hear.”
The inside of the diner had been converted into a breakfast buffet and takeaway, for those travellers leaving to go on to Grey Cliff. It was already packed with people buying great mountains of packaged stuff to take with them, for Grey Cliff was still a good morning’s drive away. Zeno joined the queue, and began filling a bag with food for the trip as he passed each serving area. Cereal in small pouches, cartons of milk and fruit juice to stick in the van’s fridge, stacks of packets of sandwiches and bottles of soft drinks. Probably far more than they’d ever need but if, as Harp suggested, they were going to practise once they arrived then it would be hungry work.
“You’re a racer, aren’t you?” One of the young men from the diner last night was behind him. “Should have said yesterday, I’d have liked to have asked a few questions.”
“What do you want to know?” Zeno was happy to talk about racing to anyone who wanted to.
“What you think of the reigning champion.”
“Realistically, I know I shouldn’t get my hopes up. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to win. A good friend of mine said I shouldn’t accept defeat just like that.” What Sara had said had stung, for sure, and probably in some way driven him to the fit of stupidity that had led to him fixing the studio for a week, but it had also gone some distance towards convincing him he might just possibly win.
“Interesting? Is she as boring to race against as she is to watch?”
“I’m not that good to be honest, it’s not often we cross paths. Look for me around the middle of the pack.” A return to realistic cynicism. “But there’s a lot to learn from her. She knows all the lines, all we can really do is follow them. Somone like that’s useful to have leading the pack, they should just stop them taking the trophies.”
The two young men laughed. “I’m Joz, by the way, and if she weren’t off somewhere I’d introduce you to my lovely partner Key. Who should we be looking out for come the race, by the way?”
“Zeno. Name’s Zeno, I’ll be racing in the Messiah.”
“We’ll be cheering for you. Ah, Key! Key!” Key was a mousy woman with a tattoo of a flower on her forehead and contact lenses that made her irises look like stars. She had an unkempt mass of black hair that flowed down her back, and wore a loose-fitting blue tank top and matching shorts. Joz was wearing an unbuttoned shirt printed with palm trees along its hem over a bright orange t-shirt, and three-quarter length shorts in white with a single red stripe.
As they left the diner, Key laden down with bags of stuff and Joz struggling with suitcases, Zeno watched them climb into an old touring car and stumble off towards the main road in a cloud of exhaust fumes. The meeting had been sudden and strange, but they seemed good people.
By the time he had reached the front of the queue, and finished up everything that needed doing before they could set off, it was getting towards mid-morning.
“Was pretty damn busy there, wasn’t it. Still, I reckon we’ll still have time for some sprint training once we arrive. The initial rush on the engineers and all that will have passed. Stick some music on, Xan.”
Xan obliged, selecting an old album by Afterschool Rei. Zeno had almost forgotten he had once been a massive fan, and grabbed the case from where it had been set down. Rei Minawa had been only 14 when she had got her first hit with Hurrying Home, and her career had skyrocketed from there until her status as the teen idol that every schoolgirl wanted to be had ended with her finally becoming too old to keep up the facade. From there had come a short-lived career singing melancholy ballads which hadn’t had the same appeal as her work under the schoolgirl idol image. Now she was living quite happily off the proceeds of a successful career.
And her music remained as infectious as ever. This album was one of her later ones, from once her image was a little more defined.
To me to you, love a table-tennis ball, my heart pounding with a tick-tick-tick, I see you slip, match point of love!
It seemed a strange choice for Xan.
“This always was a better grade of idol pop than most of the stuff you used to listen to.” Unbidden, he provided the explanation. “Takes a special kind of person to do well as an idol – drive and talent. You get lots of passable ones that cycle through the big-name groups but someone like Minawa shows them how it’s done.”
“Deep.” Harp flicked one of his cigarettes out of the window.
“Do you mind not smoking in my van, Harp?”
“You didn’t complain yesterday.”
“I wasn’t paying attention.” Harp’s insistence on smoking his bizarre cigarettes was a constant bone of contention between him and Xan. “I wonder if the band have managed to wreck the studio yet or if Red’s keeping them in line.”
“I trust Red. Got a strange feeling Sara won’t take any nonsense either. The girl’s a clever one.” Harp had met her a few times, and clearly thought enough of her to keep her in his memory. His thought processes remained a mystery to almost everyone – he was a mine of information about the strangest things at times, and as to be expected had encyclopedic knowledge of VF racing, but almost as if he felt he had to live up to the eccentric old man stereotype almost actively avoided remembering other things.
In the back of the van, Zeno was idly tapping at the screen of his tablet. A new issue of Skyway was out and while he wasn’t going to read its piece on the new course at Forge Star, there was still a lot to be read in it. His attention, though, had been distracted by some familiar faces in the fashion section. Photographer: Joz Wozekian. Model: Key Aidoru.
“Well how about that, Harp?”
“That couple we were talking to last night? Joz and Key?”
“They’re in Skyway.”
“Oh, cool.” Key looked pretty good in the outfit she was modelling, Zeno thought. When she sorted her hair out she was even better looking than he’d realised from meeting her, and doubly so when wearing a waistcoat, t-shirt and short skirt (all from the same label, a popular one among extreme sports fans). Joz had found an old hangar for the shoot, and hired what looked like a VF training plane for Key to pose around. There was an accompanying interview, which Zeno read intently.
Joz was angling, it seemed, to work more in VF – becoming a race photographer – while Key was planning to move more into design than modelling. A very unsurprising ambition really but from looking at his photos, Zeno could see it. Even when just photographing a woman sat on a plane’s wing, there was the impression of speed and altitude that the best VF photographers tried to get – it wasn’t perfect, and he still had a way to go between clever perspective shots with all the time in the world to set them up and getting the same sorts of effects in the flash of an actual race – but it certainly wasn’t impossible. There weren’t any pictures of Key’s designs, but the way she spoke about them – clear, concise and easy to picture – seemed like she had potential. An idea began to form in his head.
“Xan, I’ve been reading up on that guy we met at the diner – his name’s Joz Wozekian and he’s a photographer trying to get into VF reporting.”
“Yes? I heard you telling Harp.”
“Was thinking he might be a useful guy to know.”
“He could be.”
“Reckon a few good photos of the Messiah would make us stand out a bit.”
“Perhaps. Still, there’s a ways to go.”
“For sure.” Zeno put the magazine down and stretched out as much as he could. As the sun filtered through the shuttered windows of the van, he began to doze off.