The experience of live music is dreamlike, intense and memorable. This is a chapter that tries to communicate that, while also offering a little calmer activity beforehand.
Harp had gone to make coffee, leaving Zeno alone in the hangar with the driving music and his thoughts.
“Saw you on the test track.” The speaker was a pilot Zeno didn’t recognise, in a black-and-yellow uniform.
“I’m afraid I can’t say the same, I was a little busy.”
“It’s cool. That’s a pretty nice craft you’ve got.” He stayed a respectable distance from the plane, looking as closely as possible at the cockpit. “Looks a bit on the older side but-”
“It works. Name’s Zeno, by the way. Yours?”
“VR.” Said as two separate letters.
“That stand for anything?”
“It need to?” He laughed. “Everyone’s been calling me VR for as long as I can remember so it stuck, I suppose.”
“Which one’s yours?” Zeno waved an arm over the mass of activity in the hangar.
“Let me show you.” He led Zeno over to a bay in the middle of several others, where a double-hulled aircraft in the same yellow and black stripe pattern as his jacket sat raised on a hoist. “Currently we’ve got the engine opened up to check the fuel system but you get the idea.”
“Haven’t seen a twin-hull for a while. Thought they were out of favour nowadays, but hell it was the sight of the old twin-hull Vector Sol that was what convinced me I wanted to be a racer.” Zeno looked again at the craft. “You must have been a fan, that looks a lot like it.”
“My engineer was. I wanted a different design, more like the Vector Luna. But as you’ll know, the Luna never won anything so we went with the winning design.” The Vector team had been minor celebrities on the lower-level racing circuits – the rough-and-ready, chaotic affairs that Zeno had grown up watching. Every so often they would end up in a higher league for a bit, to the excitement of their fans, but they had always been the underdogs. If anything, that had been what had drawn so many fans to them – they raced with spirit, a desire to win that was infectious. “Does your black box keep track of lap times?”
“What did you get on the test track?”
“Best was forty-one.”
“Not bad. My Starbird can do it in forty-one one if I gun it.”
“I bet it can.” The bay seemed strangely empty. “Your engineer on a coffee break?”
“Yeah.” On the other side of the hangar, where the doors and hatch through to the attached kitchen were, Zeno could see Harp returning with a tray of mugs. “Still, I’d better go. Back to work, as they say.”
“Same. When they’re letting us do full test laps we should have a little one-on-one.”
“I’d love to.”
Back at the bay where the Messiah was sat, Harp set down a tray of mugs and biscuits.
“Who was he?”
“Name’s VR, craft is Starbird. Ring any bells?”
“None at all. Didn’t give him any of our secrets did you?”
“No chance. He had a look at the hull and showed me his own craft, all opened up. It’s the twin-hull over there, the yellow one. Apparently he’s point one faster on the test track.”
“If he’s only point one faster and you were running with the altitude controller not working at full capacity he’s not a threat.”
“He challenged me to a one-on-one once they open the test laps.”
“Go for it. If he’s dumb enough to do that, and to show you his craft’s innards just like that, he could probably do with being knocked down a peg. Still, coffee’s getting cold. What time’s your date?”
“It’s no date, Harp. Key’s with Joz.”
“Going to a gig, especially an idol gig, is going to end up being a date if you’ve got half a brain, Zeno.” The older man gently blew steam off the coffee, and began sketching something on a well-folded piece of paper. “I was wondering if it was time to start thinking about reworking this girl.”
“Nothing major, but, well, let’s assume you take a top 5 place this week. That will get us at least a few hundred into the team fund. A few hundred is enough to get us credit for a refit of the internals. Any more is most of the costs covered. I mean, we could even think about a new look. You’ve read the latest Skyway right?”
“What did you think of the triple-tail model they were showing off?”
“Looked interesting. What’s the benefit?”
“I crunched some numbers on it while you were doing the test run, just on a bit of paper mind so I don’t think it’s definitive but it sure looks like that configuration has its benefits for sharp turns. Then I got to thinking about my old Grey Cliff line, the one you wanted to try, and realised how you could do it. But it’s not going to happen without reworking the whole craft.”
The thought seemed quite exciting. While Zeno was quite attached to the old Messiah, it was impossible to deny that in order to stand any chance at higher levels it would need upgrading, and it was understandable that Harp would have been thinking about how.
For what remained of the afternoon – before the trip back to the caravans for dinner and getting ready for the evening – the pair did the usual minutiae of maintenance. Dull stuff, the usual checking of internal parts, going over again and again every line of the diagnostics and investigating those irregularities that could be tested without taking the craft up, and again polishing the paint to a mirror-shine.
It sounded stupid to an outsider, the obsession that racers had with how their craft looked – and indeed, there was a lot of superstition around it – but the fact remained simply that keeping the paint well-maintained kept rust off the aircraft. Rust which would quite easily cause structural weakness and ultimately accidents. It was not vanity, merely pragmatism.
Back at the caravan, Xan had been busy transforming it from simply a mess of unpacked things to somewhere properly livable. At some point he had found the time to begin reheating a roasted joint for their evening meal, and the smell of cooking meat reached far out as the pair returned from the hangar.
“Did it go well?” The mobile home’s small kitchen opened out over the outdoor seating area with a wide window, the shutters propped up to form a serving-hatch and a length of board being used to hold the plates and waiting bowls of vegetables and bread.
“Great actually. Found out one of our competitors is… not all that. Fixed a small problem with the Messiah. Had a good cup of coffee. Spent our winnings.”
“You haven’t won yet.”
“You sound like Sara.” Zeno smiled. “I’m going to do my best to Top 5 and that will be that.”
“Remember, no stupid risks. We need a plane to upgrade with your winnings. Now, Xan my boy, is this food for us?”
“It sure is.” Zeno checked his watch. A while yet, until the concert. Time to eat, to shower and to change. But for the moment, a relaxed meal with good company. “Tell me, Harp, because I’m sure this was your idea, what will these upgrades involve?”
“Depends on what we win. Could be anything from just a few tweaks, small things to make it run that little bit better, up to new engines or hull remodeling. It’s unfortunately getting to the point though where the Messiah just isn’t quite as good as it was.”
“Thanks for the honesty. When the time comes, let me know.”
“You don’t have to do anything, Xan.”
“I feel I should do something to help you, and there’s no way I’m flying.”
Soon enough the afternoon had drifted into a mild evening and it was time for the concert. It was being held in one of the larger entertainment tents, and by the time Joz and Zeno reached it it was already beginning to fill. Key had gone to the bar to get drinks as they looked for a table, eventually settling on one on a raised area that ran along one edge of the tent. A gentle, cool breeze blew in between two panels of the fabric wall, and from their seats the three had a good view of the support acts filling time.
“Key told me your friends have a band, Zeno.” Joz leaned back as he spoke. “Tell me about them.”
“They’ve been trying to make it big for ages and it’s finally happened. Well, something’s finally happened. There’s a talent show at this fairly nice club, the Bluefin, and they’re playing it.”
“Key said something about that. Thought I might what to photograph it. Well, I’m interested, Zeno. Very interested. It’s something new, and I like that.”
“Great!” Key draped her arms around his neck and kissed him. “I knew you’d help a friend.”
Seeing them so intimate made Zeno painfully aware of how single he was, but he knew deep down with a race so close it was hardly the time for love. And besides, women weren’t likely to be impressed with promises of a victory, but a few notes taken from a winner’s fund would certainly provide him with a good chance.
Either way, it never hurt to look about, as Harp’s words reverberated in his memory. The crowd at the concert was surprisingly older than he had expected; his friends were hardly the youngest, but it seemed that the audience for Aki Bara was older than for most idols. That went a long way to explaining why the support act currently playing evoked the electronic dance that Harp had been listening to – only with a rock edge that Zeno was sure Show would be interested in.
“Joz, you know who these guys are?”
The photographer fiddled with his phone, catching a snatch of the music on its microphone and waiting for a response. “Says here it’s Starblazers, they’re making it big on the retro circuit. You know, riding the wave of people who can’t give up their childhoods, or those clever types that listen to their uncle’s record collection and decide it’s better than what’s on the radio now.”
“You know what was a good song that I think people underrated at the time?” Key set her glass down as authoritatively as she could. “Sing My Star. Remember it? Great video, the one with the girl at the mall and-”
“Yeah, I know it. People only don’t like it because it was used for every bloody talent show opening theme.”
“Went to school with the girl in the video.”
“Think she’s a model now. Like me.” The anecdote hung unsatisfyingly in the air. “Was a great song though. Did you hear the duet version they did later on?”
“Yeah. Much better. That was for charity, right?”
“Sure was. You know, Joz, we should do a shoot themed on that video. Take it back from syrupy personal journey crap and go back to what it was – the dream every girl has of being not just any old idol, but the idol. The one who can stop people in their tracks.”
“I’m liking this. Zeno, pal, if your mates’ band is any good could we get them in on this?”
Zeno was about to reply when Key leaned in close to him. “He’s like this a lot. He’s got notepads filled with ideas he’s hashed out on the spur of the moment and then forgotten about.”
“I heard that, Key. It’s just a time thing. Some point I’m going to chuck in the smaller contracts, stick with Skyway and start my own ‘zine, just you and I and whoever else I think fits the image.”
“Follow your dream.” Key observed her boyfriend through the lens of a shot glass.
Starblazers weren’t the best electro band Zeno had heard, not compared to some of the stuff Harp had introduced him to in the past, but their light show was pretty damned good. He was being careful not to get too drunk, at least not this early in the evening, but the beer seemed cheap and good. There was no way, though, he was going to take his chances on spirits like Joz and Key. Recipe for a horrific hangover, if his last exploits at a nightclub had been anything to go by. Still, at least unlike Show, he didn’t get comically drunk on a couple of beers.
The last support act finished their set, and the tent was plunged into darkness for the main event as the spotlights went down to cover a change of stage.
When they came back, Aki Bara stood in the centre, and a harsh digital slide down an unusual scale signalled the start of the song. The first track was almost conventional; were it not for the dramatic instrumentation and the pulsating, aggressive dance, it could have been any pop song. It was that tension – between familiar rhythms and melodies and a strange, futuristic sound – that enthralled the audience, who threw glowsticks and any source of light they had to hand up towards the roof.
The singing, urgent and breathily seductive, stopped momentarily, replaced by a break to almost complete silence on a fading, detuned piano. Then, with a building wash of pad synths, and an almost tender vocal sound, the song built back up to full tempo with the three band members all singing – at times single verses each, then as the song built changing to alternating lines and then right at the climax all the voices simultaneously, each singing different words to a different tune before suddenly, with a last repeating guitar riff, silence.
“Thank you all! We hope you enjoy this! Now, boys, girls, listen to our song!”
With barely a pause for breath, the second number. Another unfamiliar one, beginning with a resonant, ethereal keyboard motif which was echoed in stranger, alien sounds. Then the ballad-esque singing. No percussion at first, but then, rather than the sudden guitar crash of that perhaps might have been expected, a steady tap-tap-tap taptaptap tap-tap rhythm on a snare drum, getting louder and more insistent and sounding so very military.
Then heavy strings drowning out the peaceful melody, and long, piercing guitar chords as the drums mutated from a simple marching rhythm to a more oppressive sound – taikos, war drums, a heavy, bassy boom pounding forward. In just a minute or so, the song had gone from an intruiging and relaxed aural picture to a positively unsettling one, the lights finally settling on the singers long enough to reveal they were wearing military-style uniforms. Peaked caps, piped blazers, high glossy boots.
And then, in an instant, with the same sudden, alien, change of mood, the drums dropped away. One of the singers stepped forward, threw her arm out and from where it had been neatly fastened to the back of the sleeve a cape, or flag, or some mass of fabric fell to the ground. Then the same for the other arm. The same alien sounds came back in, overpowering the martial guitars and strings, and the lead singer now began to do a pensive, melancholy dance. The music was telling a story in its very tone; the lyrics, a mixture of simple vocalisations and snatches of foreign languages, just contributed to the picture.
It ended with a gong sound fading into a dying cymbal crash, and a final repetition of the initial motif.
The stage went dark again. Costume change, Zeno figured. Whereas at some concerts, these lulls would have been a moment for hushed conversations, or trips to the bar, here there was rapt silence.
It was slightly more. The stage had been laid out differently, three tilted daises, one for each member of the band. The leader – or the one who was leading at that point, was stood with one foot on the dais and the other on the stage.
“Well, it’s been three songs. Are you enjoying yourselves?”
“YES!” The crowd were speaking as one.
“Do you like what you see?” Zeno did. The singer was wearing a pair of trousers with one leg ripped off high above the knee, cut from a similar shiny material as the uniforms they had been wearing before. The two others were wrapped in flag-like cloaks, hiding whatever was underneath. “I’m Aki, but I’ve been talking too long now so let’s go!”
Sirens sounded out and the stagelights flashed red, and the other two singers flicked the flags away to reveal short skirts and tunics vaguely reminiscent of a nurse’s outfit. This number was a solo for Aki, while the others danced mechanically with the flags, concealed cameras projecting images onto them of yet more dancers until the whole effect was like a vast crowd, with the real dancers somewhere in the centre. Aki’s dais rose as she leapt onto it, smoke billowing around and catching the projections so that the flag-dancers were just silhouettes in the mist.
The synthesisers were tinny and intentionally warped, and Aki’s singing was as seductive as it could be, and the entire effect was enticing and mysterious and yet somehow dangerous.
Then, with a sudden crash of sound, the smoke cleared and all three began singing out a chorus that felt like it was from a different song entirely, united in the mechanical, puppet-like dance from before. As it spiralled to a conclusion of repeated single lines of nonsense, and the final chords hit like gunshots, Aki threw herself into a sprawled, deathlike pose for just a few moments before the next number began.
The concert carried on, the band cycling through eye-watering outfits and ever-more-daring dances, working through the EP Zeno had been listening to that day until, after what could have been an hour or a week, the stage was plunged into darkness pierced only by a single spotlight, angled carefully to show only a foreboding, long shadow.
“It’s been fun. It’s been a lot of fun. But now, this is the last one. The last number. You’ve been great, we’ve had fun, so for one last time, listen to our song!”
Darkness again. Low, threatening string chords building upwards. Careful lighting picking out the three figures in silhouette, and then a loud, unexpected burst of static from which heavily vocoded lyrics began to form before a loud, jarring, stalling sound like a computer crashing returned everything to silence.
After the false start, the strings again, higher-pitched but the same unnerving chord progression of half- and quarter-tones. The radio-like vocals back in, buzzing with static and chanting repeated sequences of numbers, and then it launched into a dance rhythm and the silhouettes began to move with sharp, sudden motions.
They began singing in unison, a strange sound halfway between choral and operatic, while a high-pitched lead punctuated each sentence, and then after one verse the lights flickered into full capacity. The band looked naked at first until it was revealed they were wearing one-piece outfits in blinding white which reflected the lasers that played over the stage. Each wore a long, flowing wig was lifted by hidden fans and then again the smoke came back until all that could be seen were ethereal figures dancing in and out of its depths. The lyrics had given way to an almost screamlike sustained syllable which rose and rose in pitch before abruptly stopping and being reduced to an echo, sampled into the background melody.
The previous dance routines and light shows had been stunning, the outfits beautifully alluring and revealing. But it was this number, where the band were almost invisible, just figures in the smoke of waving hair and sharply moving limbs, that was the most impressive.
Even long after the final resonant chord had echoed into nothingness, and the band had said their farewells, the image was still in Zeno’s mind. For a while, the three of them had sat slightly stupefied, until Key had brought more drinks, a DJ had begun playing more songs, and they carried on their evening’s fun.