Everything continues to build towards the big race, yet the most interesting thing I found when writing this was how it let me throw down in words, in safe, science-fiction form, snapshots of my own introspection.
While this is, throughout, a work of colourful fantasy, I think it is from these chapters onwards where I let a little more of my own doubts and memories cloud the characters.
It was best to consider this a warmup for the main event, Harp had said (in private) to Zeno just before they had taken the Messiah out. Take it seriously, try to win, but don’t wreck anything or get stupid.
Perhaps for more dramatic effect it should have been at first light, when the ground was just beginning to warm and the sunrise threw a wobbly orange glow over everything, and the spectators would have been standing, shivering from the morning coolness.
Some of the main races ran that early; Bay Town was one, because the tides dictated the times the course could be used. But for this grudge match (for VR was still calling it that, and had been even at the bar they had ended up at last night to the amusement of all involved), breakfast could come first.
“Hi!” A voice from the sidelines turned out to be Key once Zeno was able to find an angle where the sun wasn’t in his eyes.
“How did you find out about this?”
“A friend heard you talking in a bar.”
“Fair enough. Come to watch?”
“Of course! Going to get some photos, aren’t you Joz?”
“Mhm.” He was struggling under the weight of bags of photographic equipment.
The race was going to be done properly, with a briefing beforehand for the pilots, and so they duly stood, geared up and waiting, in front of the computer with the course map on.
“There will be two marshals; myself and Harp. Your craft are programmed with the course, although navigational assists will be disabled. As we discussed yesterday the race will comprise three rounds of three laps, beginning with three solo laps each to set times, and then two rounds of three head-to-head laps. Any questions?”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Zeno was perhaps a little too cautious on the solo laps, posting unremarkable times as he played it safe on the tighter turns. Harp didn’t say anything when he was done, but as they both watched VR take a far closer racing line, and the times came up a good two or three seconds faster, the older man turned to the younger.
“I said take it easy but not that easy. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do on the head-to-head. I know the Messiah can do it, though.”
Between the rounds came the usual short rest, a quick drink and a refreshing dip under the showerhead outside the smaller hangar, usually reserved for emergency repairs or if someone had made an extended booking on the course.
Head-to-head. For the first time in quite a while. Secretly, Zeno was quite pleased to have the chance to practice a racing start; a standard thirty-second roll-in on the long access straight, speed limited until the planes passed the start line and then it began. No cold starts in a race; too much potential for a horrific crash if someone’s machine failed. It was a tense and isolated experience with only two competitors. VR’s canopy was tinted to the point where one couldn’t see in, a grey-black strip in the midst of a black streak down the centre of the craft. No chance of looking his opponent in the eye, of seeing if he was afraid.
The vehicles came off the access lane and the moment they hit the start line sped up; the acceleration felt different though. You had to compensate for it differently. On a full grid, with everyone trying to catch up and fight for the lead you wouldn’t be able to hit it that hard every time, sometimes you’d be blocked.
Having an opponent on the course was good motivation for Zeno. He was properly racing now, not just piloting. What might have just been cute but suboptimal lines in the past were now ways past an opponent determined to win. Everything mattered now.
With an opponent to beat, VR’s style had changed. During the test laps he had thrown caution to the wind and pushed an aggressive line but that bravado seemed to have died away – suggesting why he never troubled the scoreboards. Zeno quickly found that if he came in close, raced hard to stay on his tail, VR would move predictably and falter somewhat. At first this didn’t seem useful to Zeno; slowing down when under pressure was a helpful way for a leading racer to force a pursuer back, because the natural caution that accompanied such a maneuver would block all those behind him. But then, on one of the wide, banked turns, it clicked.
VR, as usual, slowed down. Zeno anticipated it and accelerated, spooking his opponent into slowing still further and taking the corner wide; and suddenly he had the lead. Now it was Zeno in the lead VR’s caution worked against him; unwilling to take the harsher lines he would have done unchallenged, each tighter turn and narrowing of the course let Zeno pull ahead still further.
At the sidelines, Sunny’s head was in her hands.
“He always does this. Can’t get it together. He’ll fall behind, and then fall further behind still because he loses confidence.”
“Don’t let it eat you, Sunny. This is the sort of practice he needs.” Harp was looking at the stopwatch, with Xan leaning over his shoulder. “Zeno’s caught up the lost time from the solo laps. He’s racing well.”
In the end, that was all that was needed. Zeno’s overall time was significantly faster after the three rounds and so the bet was resolved. That evening, Sunny and VR would cook for Harp, Zeno and Xan.
The race had also proved good practice for both drivers, a chance not just to press their craft to the limits but also to see how they fared under pressure. It was this inevitable post-mortem that had led to a temporary separation between the two groups; while friendships were undoubtedly emerging, some things had to be done in private. Such as discussing race performance.
Harp had the right idea, Zeno felt. A trip to a small cafe, a hot and greasy and sizzling breakfast of fried eggs, cured meat and thick bread dripping with melting butter, and an endless, pockmarked coffee-pot brought by a freckled waitress in a plasticky, coffee-stained apron.
“Tell me, Zeno, what went wrong with that solo lap?”
“Was trying to be cautious, like you guys said.”
“True enough. You were cautious. Won’t win races. Now I’m not saying you should be hammering it, or taking risks’ll get you killed, but remember the racing-line. You know, the basics of it. They slip your mind sometimes. You can see it.”
“Perhaps they do.” It was hard to sound adequately thoughtful through a mouth full of bread.
“I’ll say something though. If you can keep up that quality of overtaking come the race itself you’ll place well. In that second head-to-head, you were pulling some nice moves.”
“VR found his feet too there. Didn’t think I’d see him try some of the lines he did.”
“Yeah. Should’ve heard Sunny going on at him in the second interval. Poor kid.”
“He does take it a bit easy sometimes.”
“Yeah. Where’s Xan?”
“Wasn’t hungry. Or not hungry for this. Last I saw he was back on the hill. Think we should go see him?”
Xan was sunbathing. He’d had an email from the band saying they had finally set off and would probably be arriving tomorrow afternoon so realistically Zeno and Harp had about a day of practice left before the distractions began.
But he was feeling calm. Zeno seemed to have lost the nasty arrogance he’d been picking up of late, replacing it with an enviable easygoingness. Everyone seemed less spiky of late. That was what was troubling. Not troubling, really, but unusual. For once, his parenting – his clumsy, inept attempts at imposing some order on a studio full of teenagers and young adults – was paying off.
Should he be proud? Should someone be proud of achieving what most parents managed effortlessly? Was it really an achievement on his part that other people had finally sorted their lives out?
The sight of Harp and Zeno bumbling up the hillside raised a smile.
“Done dissecting that performance?”
“Not much to have a go about really. Told Zeno he won’t win races by going slowly and that was about it.”
“Fair. You did seem a bit too steady in those first laps. Tired?”
“No. Just… more aware than usual of what I was doing. You ever have that, Xan? Days when you really realise where you have got to?”
“More often than you’d think, given I’m not the one who gets in a plane and throws it off cliffs for a living. You bring me a bacon roll?”
“You said you weren’t hungry.”
“I am now. Think there’s a good film on if you’re interested.” There might have only been a day left of undisturbed practice time but Xan wasn’t sure that would be really needed. That was something to be proud of. That Zeno was doing his part well. “Any idea what we’re getting for dinner?”
“Not at all.” Zeno had been thinking about that himself. He had a feeling it was going to be good, but what it could be was a total mystery.
The open-air cinema was a rough amphitheatre of banked earth around a massive projection screen, the gentle hillside filling up with an audience. The Messiah’s team found a clearing between two other clumps of spectators and threw down cushions, ready for the film to start.
“For all the movie nights we’ve had at the studio, none of them can beat this.” Xan had made himself at home on a picnic blanket, back propped on a low bank of earth jutting out the side of the hill. “And this one’s one of my favourites.”
The screen had dimmed for a moment and then flickered back to life to begin the film, a shining logo filling it. No lights went dark, no doors shut, but the buzz of conversation dipped to a courteous level and heads turned to watch.
One of Xan’s favourites could have been one of any number of films; he was a cinema obsessive. This one, though, would have been called by Mio one of Red’s films. A science-fiction story, beginning with a tense and silent space battle. The utter lack of noise – not even any music – save for the sounds of breathing and the instruments in the fighters created an oppressive atmosphere. Shots were silent darts across a deep black backdrop. It was one of the most intense scenes Zeno had seen in an action film.
Even the background noise of the race centre, that incessant drone of hundreds of distant conversations, music and engine noise, seemed to be fading away. The film drew you into its claustrophobic world, and defied you to escape. To Zeno, it was an entirely relatable closeness. The closeness of racing. He’d heard stories in the past about how the designs for VF craft came from old starfighters but it was watching this film – seeing the fictionalised fighter craft that danced around the skies – that made him realise how similar it really was. How those early VF racers, before it became a sport anyone old enough to manage a simple ground-effect vehicle could try, had been ex-fighter aces. The point-of-view shots from the cockpit made it all so clear.
That just made the film more engrossing.
Harp was clearly enjoying it too. His relaxed post-lunch cigarette had dwindled to a trail of ash and he had not bothered to light another. Behaviour Zeno had seen other times when he had been so engrossed in something that he became absentminded.
If, as he was coming to believe, you could get a good measure of how life was treating you by how relaxed you were, today had to be a good day.
In time the film finished, but the buzz of adrenaline from the final dogfight sequence stayed even as reality filtered back.
“You felt it too, didn’t you Zeno?” Harp was surrounded by cigarette butts. “That film got being in the cockpit right, didn’t it?”
“Didn’t it just. What do you like about it, Xan?”
“Mm?” He snapped out of his excited, enthralled reverie. “What I like about it? It’s one of the most human films of its kind. Red’s into it for the action, for the machines. I like that stuff but it needs to be grounded. Hit that balance – give you a reason to watch. And it does that, doesn’t it?”
“I think the action being so good makes it more relatable. Thought of it that way?” Zeno’s mind was wandering. “If the action wasn’t that sort of intense, claustrophobic point-of-view stuff it would waste how much effort it put into the other stuff.”
“You know what that makes me think of?” Xan nodded at Zeno’s meandering idea. “That film we watched on one of our film nights a while back, can’t remember the title but it was the one about the space miners. It was such a silent film. So slow.”
“Show hated it.”
“Didn’t he? What did you think though?”
“I didn’t like watching it. It was… difficult. Really, really – well, almost heartbreaking. But once it was over, it took a long time to leave my mind.”
“That’s the thing. It didn’t have the same point-of-view stuff but there it was the distance stuff that hit you. The way it showed them just as specks on the field of rock and stars. Film can do that, can’t it?”
“Fiction can do that.” Harp interrupted their musings. “It should, anyway. It’s a waste of good words or film if it doesn’t just hit you in the gut in some way. Fiction should make you look at life, look at something you’ve not considered. Even if it’s not about something you know a lot about, it should have some kind of grounding, some point where it touches your own life, and that’s what counts. Seeing something you know in a new way. I talk to much, don’t I? But it seemed like what you were saying. I know the film you mean. Infinite Void. Human, chilling stuff. I’ve got a bit more respect for your taste in film now Xan.”
“I wasn’t aware that respect needed to be earned, Harp. You’ve enjoyed our film nights in the past.”
“You’re pretty terrible at spotting a joke. Come on, the other day I read about this interesting new computer game they’re demoing here and I think it’s finally one I can beat you youngsters at.” Harp had a growing collection of game consoles gathering dust in his workshop. He enjoyed the games but was at times too easily distracted – either switching from one to another without ever really finishing any of them any time soon, or engrossing himself so deeply in one game the others he had begun had been forgotten by the time he finished it.
“What made it stand out?” While Harp wasn’t the most dedicated game player, or indeed the most focused, he had a good eye for game design. It was unlike him to be so interested in a game as to seek out a trial of it; usually he would just buy semi-randomly things that caught his eye, practiced as it was.
“It’s a complex sort of affair, a real brain teaser as well as a reaction test. You can play it two ways, you see.” He continued in his explanation of the game as they walked, his tone the same matter-of-fact ramble that he would use to talk about anything from the Messiah’s repairs to music or fashion models from his youth.
As he spoke, Xan was reflecting on the day so far a little more. Something was becoming clear that he was unsure how to interpret – no, not interpret. Understand. Stop being a coward and admit you don’t know what to do. Previously he had thought that all it took to cope with loss was to be busy. That if you never took the time to stop and look back you’d never get mired down in recriminations and remorse. You could grieve properly in what time you could spare.
That, to an extent, seemed to be holding true for him. He was at his most remorseful, most low when he was not busy. But now that seemed naïve. It seemed stupid that being at Grey Cliff had led to this inane, self-evident realisation, for it was hardly like Grey Cliff was any different to any other race centre. Yet nevertheless, he was increasingly realising something he couldn’t help but feel he’d known all along. Being busy was one thing. Doing something useful – being alive – was another. Living wasn’t just filling the days. Sometimes it felt like that was all you were doing, but that was nonsense.
The more he thought along those lines the less his work in the studio felt like punishment. It was beginning, he was realising, to be more like the only logical path he could have taken.
Had it taken a proper argument, that moment of utter rage when Zeno had shattered everything in petulant, arrogant anger, to make him realise that?