The Grey Cliff chapters of Garden of Eden were where things kicked off in all directions, where I tried to capture the excitement of meeting people, of finding new things, of everything that could happen.
For the characters it isn’t necessarily a new experience, but I wanted it to feel like even so, there were surprises.
The Grey Cliff Race Centre, as it was called, was already filling up; fields of caravans, the immense hospitality tents and markets selling food, and clothes, and parts. As contestants, Zeno’s team had been given a fairly luxurious mobile home to stay in close to the hangar complex, and there was plenty to unpack. There was something quite relaxing about shifting the boxes of stuff that had been Zeno’s companions in the back of the van, filling the fridge and cupboards, hanging and folding clothes, and ultimately making the whole affair more homely. It was just around lunchtime; they had made good time on the journey.
Harp had wandered off, seemingly to avoid the unpacking; he miraculously appeared as if on cue with a barbeque that he had probably bartered for or stolen from someone. As he fought to light the arcane equipment, Zeno was doing a little online research. He was hoping to find Joz’s email address.
Wozekian Photography had a site; on it contact details. Zeno made a tentative phone call.
“Who’s this then? One of Joz’s friends I don’t know?”
“It’s Zeno. From the diner.”
“Oh, you! Yes, I remember! The pilot!”
“Yeah. Obviously, I’m here to practice up to the race but we should meet some time, if you like – you and Joz. I saw your shoot in Skyway and read what Joz was saying about wanting to go more into VF.”
“Oh, he’s been saying that for years. Never done anything about it. Wish he would, really, he can talk the talk but he never does what he says he’s going to. You free tonight? Joz was planning to go and catch a band, there’s a new one who sound a bit like Afterschool Rei or so I’m told.”
“You big into music?” The question sounded a stupid one.
“Oh, sure I am! Joz is as well.”
“Well, a bunch of my friends are doing a talent show at the Bluefin Salon, over in Guall Harbour, next week. If things go well for me at Grey Cliff, it could be a double celebration – and I’m sure they’d love the support.”
“Would be a good chance for Joz dear to actually try his hand at photographing something other than me. Let’s meet for drinks and the band tonight.”
“It’s eight o’clock at the Caramann Tent. Now, Joz is coming back now so I’ll tell him you called!”
Slightly stunned at his luck, Zeno put the mobile down and headed outside to where Harp and Xan were cooking. “Going out tonight, guys.”
“That photographer I was talking about, him and his girlfriend have invited me to see a band they recommend. They’ve said they might do the band a favour come that talent show at Bluefin.”
“You know, Zeno, for all you’re a reckless screwup, you can certainly have all the luck sometimes.” Harp smiled at him. “I make it we’ve still got time to take the Messiah out for a bit though. Eh, Xan?”
“Yeah. Good going, Zeno. A photogapher for Skyway is a useful friend. Now, let’s eat.”
They sat in the early afternoon sun and ate, half-loaves of bread filled with salad and sausages, with a bowl of rice with fruit dotted into it and a plate of cheeses alongside. Harp had now taken control of the music, and had chosen another of the bands from his youth. Surprisingly for him, it was a purely electronic sound; heavy, resonant synths with a simple snare and cymbal rhythm over which a lead sound cycled through simple one-bar melodies with an ever-increasing speed.
“Where do you find this stuff, Harp?” Zeno was entranced by the music.
“Here and there. You must remember this one, Xan?”
“Cyber Cowboy isn’t it?”
“That’s the one.”
“Used to dance to songs like this when we were freeloading off girls in the bars in Guall.” Xan stopped there. The more he talked about his misspent youth the more glamorous it sounded – and the more he hated that it hadn’t been. There had been the good days, the evenings of illicit drinks and stolen kisses and pounding synth lines, but then had come the bad ones. Not having a family. Being a nobody.
Zeno’s phone chimed. A text message. Still on for tonight? J&K
He replied. Yes.
A music file suddenly sprung up on screen; a single from the artist he was off to see that evening.
“Up for trying something new?”
“After this track. What is it?”
“The band I’m off to see tonight.”
“Could be good.” Xan filled a paper bowl with a mountain of fruit-and-rice salad. “Stick it on. Got a name?”
“Aki Bara, apparently.”
Xan pulled his own phone from a pocket and tapped at the screen to find out more as Zeno plugged his into the sound system. The sound was unexpected. At first it was almost indistinguishable from Cyber Cowboy, driving synth rhythms building to an always-delayed climax, but after a much shorter buildup than anyone expected came the same short melody repeated on heavy guitars, layering over the synths before breaking into a tense silence split by static-y noise. When the vocals came in, they were heavily echoed – at first simple nonsense syllables and then an almost operatic melodic line that would frequently come to a heart-wrenching halt before launching into the next verse with a crash of siren-like noises.
“This is… good.” Harp was nodding his head in time to the rhythm, having effortlessly found it beneath the wall of sound. “It’s like if Afterschool Rei did punk.”
“Mm?” Xan began listening more carefully. “These lyrics-”
“Make you start, don’t they? Think you’ll enjoy tonight, Zeno. Wish I was going.”
“What’ll you guys do?”
“You know, it’s been too long since I’ve been to a casino.” Harp had a wistful smile.
Think we could do it, Xan? Break the bank at Grey Cliff? I know there’s going to be a gaming tent here.”
“I’ll come and watch you lose your money, Harp. Got any more tracks by those girls, Zeno?”
“Key sent over an EP. I’ll put it on.”
“We’ll listen to it while Harp makes coffee and gets the cake out. Then we’re practicing.”
The first track began in a different style again, saccharine, crystalline piano with a digital edge trilling out an intro that was carefully timed to sound like a break from the middle of a longer song. The percussion was still there, and still sounded like an intense pounding behind the breathy, earnest vocals, but on a closer listen it was nothing but a staccato roll on a hi-hat run through a strange filter that Zeno was sure Lin would have known. The real driving force wasn’t even the rushed, elided singing; it was the pseudo-string section’s chords, and the way they dived to silence with a warping sound before a much lighter, purer sound took that harmony and slurred it through the line. Zeno fired off an email to Lin and the rest of the band with the track attached. He was sure they would like it.
Eventually, though, the fun was over and the work began. Xan was happy to do the clearing-up while Harp and Zeno got the Messiah ready. The hangars for the contestants were not the most opulent at Grey Cliff, and indeed were more communal than any racer would really want, but they sufficed. Each contestant got a fenced-off patch marked by a low yellow chain fence, with surgical-style screens surrounding their computer banks and automatic tools. It almost looked like a military installation, with the ranks of tarpaulin-covered aircraft with their wings folded up and brightly-coloured covers over engine intakes.
Hardly anyone was in the hangar; it was probably the wrong time. The most dedicated would have practiced in the morning, the less concerned may not have even arrived yet. Only a few technicians were dotted about, working on their pets in time to trite idol pop on the radio.
“She made it OK, then.” Zeno placed a hand on the cool metal of the Messiah’s hull. “Have you booked us a slot on the test track?”
“I’ll phone it through to the tower now.” Harp tapped on the extension, and went through the appropriate formalities just like he would have back at the workshop. “We’re cleared for half an hour as soon as we’re done preparing, Zeno. Let’s get going.”
“Only half an hour? At a race meet?”
“For the minute. Anyway, it’s all we’ll need at first. Half-hour’s stress testing and then we’ll do the calibrations.”
To the strains of an artificial flute playing a fairytale melody over shrill tremolo strings that would inevitably introduce a high-pitched singer, Zeno and Harp unpacked the Messiah; first came removing the engine covers, then adjusting the wings. Simply letting them sit in position was not enough, for no matter how careful the couriers, the adjustments were never right.
To the strains of a singing-dancing-laughing stream, we played Cinderella-and-the-Prince, and I felt the trembling-daring-dancing love in my girlish, girlish heart.
Even after the computers had given the wings a clean bill of health, Harp went back over them with a laser level. It was his personal obsession, checking everything the way he had had to do it when he raced. “We’re clear, Zeno. Power check?”
A magical-mystical symphony, a sparkling-shining dream, oh it’s trembling-daring-dancing love in my girlish, girlish heart.
The song came to an end and was followed by another from the same singer, an inept attempt to copy Afterschool Rei. From the cockpit, Zeno began the instrument and power checks. First checking the OS using external power, letting it run diagnostics on the aircraft’s own power systems before he switched it on. That had been introduced as a vital step in preflights after a few incidences of poorly-maintained power systems causing fuel explosions. Once all the dots around the screen turned green from in-progress yellow, he signalled for Harp to disconnect the generator, and watched as the lights dimmed for a second as the switchover happened.
“Power is green, Harp. Ready for takeoff.”
“Ground effect engines on. We’ll tow her out. Carefully.” With the hover system engaged, the Messiah was effectively weightless. Zeno flicked the switches along one side of the control panel and felt the strange sensation that never got any less uncanny. Simply floating on the ground effect was like being on a small boat; everything was fine until anything moved.
With Harp towing the craft with a runway loader, Zeno’s job was to keep it steady. The task always seemed far more tense than it actually was, for little could actually go wrong if the guyropes were tied correctly.
Knowing Harp, they were tied correctly.
“Racer Two Seven, Messiah, you are cleared for test flight.”
Zeno switched on the main engine. The guy ropes and chocks were gone.
The Messiah darted down the runway leaving his stomach behind. Harp watched carefully at the takeoff, and once Zeno was no longer in sight watched it again and again on the camera he had been holding.
“You hear me in there, Zeno?”
“Try slowing down and then speeding up again, I think the ground effect is flickering.” That wasn’t a serious problem, Harp mused. It hadn’t dropped more than an inch or so. “Check your altimeter carefully.” But a dip of even an inch had an adverse effect on your launch speed because the main drive had to take up the slack.
“Thought it did. Probably the vertical gyro.” Harp wrote that down in his notebook. “Eyes on the instruments, remember, Zeno. I know the black box is recording it all to far more detail but I can assure you you should know if it’s dipping, or pulling. How is it after the knock it had?” No more accusations or chiding. Simply the professionalism of a mechanic.
“Doing fine. I’ve been testing that rudder and there’s no problem there. Steering is a dream.” As if to illustrate this, Zeno sent the craft first into a long turn, and then slowly angled it in. A standard maneuver to check the steering of a VF craft. “I’ll do a few laps of the test track to make sure, if you think it will be safe.”
Some pilots would have aborted the test after the first sign of issues. However, with time at a premium – and the only problem so far such a slight and probably easily-fixed one – neither Zeno nor Harp felt any need to waste a half-hour booking. If anything else went wrong, they could call it off then.
The official test track was a dull, empirical affair; a simple figure-eight with low hills and ramps to test altitude control. Even so, Zeno was careful not to get cocky and take it too fast, for every so often a pilot would wreck their machine during the practice period and write themselves out of the race. Speed testing could be done elsewhere, on the long flats to the side of the course bounded by oil drums and tyres. It seemed absurd in an age of flying cars and light aircraft racing to still use such old-fashioned objects to mark out the course, but there had been no reason to change; ground-effect craft by their nature stayed close to the ground, and a solid stack of tyres was as good a buffer as ever. The slight dip caused by the faulty gyro aside, he was finding the craft better than ever. He kept reminding himself little had actually changed, that it was just an adrenaline rush from finally being on the test track at Grey Cliff, but he could have sworn he was a more confident pilot.
All too soon his allotted time expired, and he went from the rush of speed that hit like a punch in the stomach to a more sedate cruise back to the hangar. The results from the black box were beginning to run up on the screen, all clear except for – as he and Harp had already spotted – a slight flaw in the altitude controller. The engineer had been right. You knew, if you were a good pilot, if anything was wrong. Zeno wasn’t quite prepared to put all his faith in hunches over diagnostics, but it was certainly a good start.
To his surprise, the hangar was starting to fill up as he returned. More of the teams had come in for last-minute checks and test laps before the test track closed out of courtesy to the locals. Nearer the race it would stay open late into the night, lit by almost-blue spotlights, as mechanics tuned their charges over and again. But with the main event so far away, there was no need for the disturbance. The sugary idol pop had been replaced – probably by Harp, Zeno figured – by the pounding electronic rhythms of some band like Cyber Cowboy. The other engineers either didn’t mind, or hadn’t been listening to the radio properly and just appreciated some noise in the background. He knew the feeling. Too long spent in silence was dangerous sometimes, you shut yourself off and didn’t concentrate properly. With something going on around you, you kept in touch with reality.
Even Red, with his fine scale models, agreed to an extent. There were times when silence was golden but they weren’t as common as anyone would think.
Checking the altitude controller was as simple as opening up the maintenance panel and taking a set of testing probes to the power conduits. That the Messiah hadn’t fallen out of the sky immediately was a sign the thing worked in some form. The issue was instead that something was causing it to lose power. The black box diagnostic claimed the irregularity was in the timing-box, a small thing between the main distributor and the controller itself, and it was there that Zeno began his checks. Harp hovered safely in the background, making sure he wasn’t doing anything stupid but letting him take responsibility for his own vehicle.
Sure enough, the power running through the box was unsteady. Some engineers would have replaced it there and then, claiming that with modern parts any quick fix was guaranteed to fail again. Harp, being old-fashioned, kept a cornucopia of components on hand and believed that repairing was always superior because it saved the time it would take to properly calibrate and break in a new, factory-fresh part.
With the removal of four screws and a sharp tap from the back of a screwdriver’s handle, the cover of the timing-box fell off into Zeno’s waiting hand. Thankfully, the problem was easily spotted. Two of the connections had worked loose and weren’t giving a good circuit. Fixing it was just a matter of rehousing them in their sockets.
This was the point where it would have been nice to have another test run, but someone else was on the course. It could wait until tomorrow.