At the end of the day, Garden of Eden is a novel about chance encounters and the new friends waiting to be made in groups you thought familiar. It’s about the excitement of being somewhere, being part of something.
Zeno didn’t feel that ill come the morning after. Not ill enough to refuse breakfast, or to not take a hurried, cold shower and be waiting in the hangar as soon as Harp was off the phone to the control tower.
But it had been a heavy night. At some point karaoke had been suggested and they had gone on a hunt for one of the other entertainment tents, and the worst part was Zeno couldn’t quite remember if they’d found it.
There was an hour to kill before their slot on the now vastly inadequate and overbooked test track, and so Zeno was sat in the canteen in the hangar talking. Cagily, mind – Harp’s words about not giving too much away fresh in his memory.
“Hey there!” A shockingly garish jacket appeared at the door, signalling VR’s arrival.
Heard good news! The longer track is going to be opened this afternoon. So how about that one-on-one?”
“So you’re the cocky one that challenged us are you?” When he put his mind to it, Harp could seem quite venerable and wise. “What makes you think you’ve got the chops?”
“Spent a lot of yesterday tuning my plane, I want to test it.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry to race, lad.”
“Is that a no then?”
“Hell no it isn’t.” Harp smiled broadly. “Was messing with you. When I was a kid I used to challenge everyone and anyone I thought I could beat, paid for my drinks that evening most of the time. Your engineer about?”
“She’s making breakfast. We’ve been here since it opened.”
“If your plane’s ready to race it shouldn’t need that much tuning. Zeno and I would probably still be asleep if we weren’t needing to get on the track in forty minutes or so to test some changes we made late yesterday.”
“It’s a silly thing and all but we had a bit of a brainstorm last night and had some ideas for small mods to make to the cockpit, wanted to try them out and still get an early slot on the track.”
“I’ve been there.”
“You’re – you’re Dominic Harp aren’t you?”
“You’re not the first person to notice. Yes.”
“I’m Sunny. Engineer to little VR here.”
“Less of the little, please.” To Sunny, though, VR was tiny. She was a well-built woman with dark skin and a spiky shock of hair, wearing dull, faded blue overalls covered in pockets that had been carefully sewn on to be easily reached.
“So tell me about it. Racing’s changed, hasn’t it.”
“If you want some kind of soundbite about how it was better in my day you aren’t getting it. Do you want that?” Harp had noticed Sunny had pushed a plate of toast towards VR, who had shown little inclination to eat it.
“Take it.” VR smiled. “There’ll be lots more.” Zeno took a slice from the plate. “So is this the part where you cagily avoid telling each other what you’re working on?”
“You’ve already said. Cockpit mods. The hell kind of cockpit mods do you need?”
“Nothing much.” From the way Sunny said that, it was hard to tell if she was lying or not.
We had a few lights blow on the instruments so needed to get them fixed and to be honest I can’t solder when it’s too noisy so we wanted to beat the rush. Boring, but unavoidable. I hear you challenged this kid to a race, VR?”
“Yeah. A one-on-one.”
“Best of luck. If he’s got Harp working on his craft he’ll be a stiff challenge. Not, of course, that an engineer is everything. It’s the pilot as much as the plane, I think it was you that might have said that, Dom. Can I call you Dom?”
“People do. I’m not the sort of guy to get possessive of my name. Life’s too short. Thanks for the toast, by the way. You buy good bread.”
“Sunny feeds me too well.” VR smiled.
“You know, that gives me an idea…” Sunny and Harp spoke almost at once. “Loser’s team cooks dinner in our little grudge match?”
It was agreed and shaken on. The race would be tomorrow morning. In order that Sunny and VR could come to know their enemy, so to speak, Harp suggested they met Xan for lunch at one of the myriad diners spotted throughout the race centre. Purely on friendly terms, that is to say.
But first, they had a date with the test track again. This time, when Zeno hit the accelerator on the long, heat-haze-gleaming runway, there was not the slight dipping sensation but a sudden burst of speed that, once the initial gut-punch sensation had faded, was a smooth ride.
“Harp, I think we’ve fixed it.”
“Think so too. We gave it a good run-over yesterday so just hammer that engine, give it a stress test.”
Zeno knew he’d be doing it all over again on the longer test track that afternoon, the field of dreams so to speak where his duel with VR would be taking place, but he would never pass up an opportunity to take the Messiah as fast as it could go.
The corners the racers were starting to name in their irreverent way flew by; Halfbrick, Switchback, Overlook. The Messiah was taking them all in its stride, flitting down the straights between with the smoothness of a weekend drive on a country road. Perhaps the craft wasn’t the most advanced, or the fastest it could possibly be, but it didn’t need to be. The fact that Zeno was able to take the test track at top speed, throttle as open as it could be thrust, with barely a need to fan the airbrakes save on the tightest turns, was enough. There weren’t many corners on the course itself that would need much more deceleration to take safely. Skyway had said once it would be the technical drivers, the ones who remembered what the magazine called love – that care and diligence and desire to put on a good and skilful race – whose day was due to come. And Zeno had learned from one of the old guard.
After five laps he began trying other maneuvers, launching the craft off low ramps to see how it handled that. Everything was going well.
There was little need for more maintenance that morning save for the usual checking the paintwork and body for any flaws. It was not impossible – the dry sunlight had made the ground dusty this far from the rocky ridges that would form the track, and ground-effects could easily kick up small stones.
But that done, he had some free time. Harp was happy reading one of the many thick books he carried about, covers faded to illegibility, and Xan had gone for one of his walks, so Zeno headed towards the entertainment tents.
Xan was enjoying the noise and crowds. It stopped him getting too introspective. He’d barely given any more thought to that conversation in the diner, and was quite pleased about this because while it had been on his mind, it had become increasingly irritating. As he sat on the edge of an outdoor cinema, half-watching a familiar film about a top VF racer who overcame a career of crime to win the big prize, he was in fact studiously avoiding thinking about it. It wasn’t very difficult to. Simply looking at the photograph of the entire gang – and most specifically Mio, sat front and centre with her winsome, innocent smile beaming at him – that he kept in his battered, brown leather wallet, it was impossible to dwell on past tragedies. Surely being a parent – doing his best, as he did with the studio – was better than being a big brother? If anyone up there was keeping a tally, he was doing more than anyone could ever be expected to do. His life was these kids, that was for certain.
He didn’t consider this kind of self-assurance, this active forcing of unbidden, unwanted thoughts from his mind, as introspection. Introspection was when he let them get to him, rather than forcing them out.
The film was quite good, actually, and he found himself watching it somewhat more intently than he’d expected. Indeed, the only thing that managed to distract him from it was Harp’s insistent text message asking him to find the diner that did the best breaded beef. Breaded beef was one of Harp’s strange affections, a rough-and-ready country meal from distant parts of the continent that many fast food joints tried to do but few ever succeeded at. According to Harp, his family had come from those parts and given him a legendary secret recipe he’d lost in his filing system of weather-worn papers in identical unlabelled manila envelopes.
And so, as the credits rolled over a still of the pompadoured hero kissing his wife and teammate in her half-unzipped pilot suit, he wandered off towards the avenue where the majority of the food vendors were.
He’d been told time and again by Harp what to look for in a restaurant claiming to offer authentic food; good ingredients, an open kitchen and most importantly a long queue. Well, it was in that odd time when few people wanted to eat, so finding a long queue was unlikely, and open kitchens were the norm here. All that he could do was stand at a polite distance and watch the cooks at work.
He settled on a place in the end, and called the others while claiming a section of the long bench where customers sat. The smell all down the avenue had been a heady fog of cooking meat and baking bread, an indistinguishable mass of enticing flavours separated only by the shouts of the sellers. He ordered a dish of short, spiced breadsticks and a can of cold lager while he waited, but before long he saw a knot of people with a singular purpose waving frantically.
“Who are the guests?”
“I’m Sunny and that’s VR. VR’s taken a shine to your- son?”
“Fair enough. But yeah, the kids have been getting on royally and I’d never pass up the chance for lunch with Dom Harp. Guy’s a legend.”
“Well I’m Xan. Could call me the team manager but really all I do is go to the races and stump up the entry fees.”
“Good to meet you, Mr. Xan.” VR sat down. “So, do you know what this Padonsu is?”
“Padonsu? Has Harp been spinning you tales of his youth again? You’ll know it as breaded beef if you’ve ever had that.”
“Oh. Haven’t had it actually.”
“You’re missing out then.” Zeno sounded genuinely excited. “It’s really good.”
With the practice not for a while yet, it was decided by all present that one (or maybe two) beers wouldn’t do any harm. Not with food. With the weather good and everyone in high spirits, and the race still days off, it was time for a break.
“So what do you do between races?” VR had set down his waiting fork and turned to Zeno. “I’m taking college courses – extra ones. Art, mostly. Want to draw.”
“This and that. Help around the studio. Work on my plane.”
“You know, Zeno, you should start thinking more about that.” Xan had clearly been listening in. “You’re a smart kid, and I know we all work together and all that, but soon enough it’ll be time for you to join Red in the world of proper work. There’s places that take part-timers that’ll be good for you as a racer. Hell, if you like machines you could work in an auto garage or something.”
“That would be cool, actually.” VR sounded surprisingly excited. “Might almost be easy. Do you help Harp much with his work?”
“Damn straight the boy does.” It wasn’t a private conversation at all, then. “I might have built the thing, but all I do most of the time is supervise. Can’t race without knowing your stuff.”
“True, but does he need that stress?” Sunny twirled a pen around her fingers. “I’m happy to keep VR’s craft up and running if he puts in the practicing hours.”
“While he’s not doing any useful work he can help with the maintenance. If you were to get a part-time job, Zeno, I’d probably reconsider.” Zeno couldn’t see anything fairer than that. While they had been chatting, the waitress at the open-air cafe had passed them a few times, but now it was time to eat.
“Can I help?”
“For sure. I’m having Padonsu. Lots of it. Double portion, in fact, with root fries and a big salad.”
“All for you, sir?”
“Make it another Padonsu.”
“Yeah, three more.”
“Oh what the hell. Haven’t had it for a while.” Sunny smiled at the waitress. “That’s Padonsu around the board, I think. Lots of sides. Root fries, salad, doughsticks, mushroom grill.”
“And onion cakes.”
“You’ve all got good appetites.”
“For sure. I’ve been flying all morning.”
“And I’ve been elbow-deep in a plane.”
“You’re racers? Oh, well, I’ll let the girl at the till know and she’ll sort something out. Another round of drinks?”
It was a great day.
Being able to watch the food being prepared – seeing the chef mixing the herbed crust for the thin strips of meat, and shredding the onions with practiced moves, and the flames roaring high as the oil from the wok splashed into them, drew all attention. Padonsu wasn’t that difficult to make; it had, after all, traditionally been street food that diners had picked up on and gentrified with the addition of sides and a plate. Strips of meat, marinaded in soy and sometimes wine, dipped in egg and dried herbs and crisp breadcrumbs and fried off in hot chilli-infused oil to dark golden chunks. Nothing more than that at the core of it; eaten sometimes with just a flatbread wrapped around a cluster of sticks, and a mixture of fiery chilli-and-vinegar sauce and lighter, minted yoghurt. But the Padonsu was just one part of many of the feast that they had ordered. There were root fries, deep-fried chips of vegetables gleaming orange and gold and deep purple, and cakes of onion and potato, and bowls of green-leafed, glistening salad. Piece by piece the order was made, and then brought sizzling and steaming and almost glowing with heat to the waiting group on trays.
“I thought I’d set you a difficult challenge, Xan. Turns out you came up trumps.”
“This is good Padonsu. Really good.” Harp’s plate was already half-empty, it seemed at first, but it turned out he had, after all, ordered two. “And I know what good Padonsu is. Hey!” He was shouting at the chef, who looked up from where he was busy filling someone else’s order.
“What is it, mate?”
“This is the best Padonsu I’ve eaten since I was a kid. Probably. Up there if it isn’t. Good work.”
“Thanks!” A proper street food chef. Genial.
“So, Sunny, you say Zeno’s made a friend of your lad. Where’s this all going, because Harp wouldn’t have invited us all out to lunch without some kind of reason for us to meet.”
“Well now, VR’s got it in his head he’s a better pilot than Zeno. So we thought we’d have a little race. Formal one like, me and probably Dom here keeping time and all that.”
“And to spice things up a bit, ha, the loser’s team cooks dinner for everyone.”
“Now we’re talking.” Xan’s eyes set. “You know, this is a competition I wouldn’t complain if we lost because it’s been too long since I’ve had a chance to show off in the kitchen.”
“Well now,” Sunny saw VR’s eyes light up. “I don’t think that’s going to affect what our racers do. Now, we’ve booked the long test track for a while tomorrow morning so that’s when the race is going to be. Three rounds of three laps, best overall time. First round racing separately to set the pace and learn the line, then the others together.”
“This is going to be good.” It was one of those rare occasions where Xan actually seemed to be taking an interest. “It’ll be interesting to see how you’re doing, Zeno. You’ve been practicing a lot but you’re still being quite cautious.”
“Thanks. It pays to be a bit modest, don’t you think VR?”
“I’ve never held much for it. Say what you mean and try to back it up, and if you can’t then practice and learn not to say it again.” He was busily eating, talking between mouthfuls. “Got me into college. I said I could draw well enough, realised I couldn’t and applied myself until I could. Family helped, of course, but almost all my own doing.”
“He ain’t a bad artist.” Sunny reached into the pockets of her overalls and pulled out her wallet. “Drew me a picture to go in here.” Where the space for photographs was was a small abstract landscape, floating shapes in a psychedelic starscape and a neon planet below.
“I like it.” Harp adjusted his glasses. “Reminds me of the old sort of album covers from the electro and dream bands.”
In time, the food was gone, and then desserts were ordered and eaten. Multicoloured ice creams, garish cakes and pies and cups of strong coffee and green tea. And then the post-meal immobility, sunbathing on a broad strip of land that in time would be a viewing-point for a big screen to watch the race.
“Had much of a journey to get here?” Zeno was seeing the world through a fog of drowsiness brought on by what had been several more drinks than the one he had initially planned.
“Not huge. I mean we’re not from right around here but not that far. Yourself?”
“Fair distance. Took about a day, but it’s fun. Journey’s part of the whole experience really.”
On that sunny afternoon, they never did get any more work done. Nobody was in the mood to. They just laid there, talking the nonsense young boys talked and letting the adults rest.
The race would be the following morning – the one that mattered right now. Grey Cliff itself still felt a long way off.