One Sunny Night
©2016 Charon Dunn
CHAPTER ONE - March 20, 3748
It was a bright and sunny day. Leroy stood in the slowest concession line in the world, drenched in sweat, fierce solar rays assaulting his hatless head, bouncing impatiently on his toes in an attempt to see past the shoulders of guys bioengineered for excessive size.
They all had arms thicker than his legs, except for the guy in front of him, who had a prosthetic arm that was so creepy Leroy couldn’t stop sneaking glances at it; slender and black, with a few extra joints and a vise grip for a hand, protruding from a stump covered with scar tissue and regenerated skin dappled in contrasting shades of sunscorched brown. A veteran.
The stadium was full of veterans, celebrating the seventh anniversary of Vanram’s victory in the War, as depicted in many films, such as Fists of Fire, which had a musical number where waves of robot spiders had attacked this very stadium. Leroy had watched it just last week in his comfortable living room, with his best friends Lenny and Dan, who were currently sitting in the very top row, while Leroy stood in line to get his little sister Marilyn some more fried peppers.
He was missing the best part of the clashball championship. The first half had been painfully boring and full of time-outs. Then there had been a long halftime show with a band playing unamplified horns and drums, sweating heavily into red and gold uniforms while rearranging themselves into intricate patterns. Shortly after that, Leroy’s hat had accidentally wound up in Marilyn’s fried peppers, ruining both.
If this had been the stadium back home, there would have been coolers blowing chilled air on the crowd, and cleanbeams whisking away their sweaty odors. Everyone would be looking at their delds, or at big video screens explaining what was happening on the field. None of that stuff worked in Vanram. Leroy had learned this the hard way by forgetting to stow his deld in the locker on board the Principessa Larisse. He found it in his suitcase when they got to the Hotel Argalia, all dry and crackly, with the screen peeling away in flakes. Marilyn had made fun of him for forgetting about the instructional cartoon that they’d seen in the orientation, about circuitry-eating microorganisms left over from the War.
The crowd let out a deafening cheer and began to chant “Rufe Rules!” until Leroy felt like he was surrounded by barking dogs. Rufus Marshall had finally scored, and he’d missed it. He fidgeted and bounced and exhaled noisily through his nose, and counted the number of people ahead of him over and over. He was dripping with perspiration and impatience. He had never been this uncomfortable in his whole life.
He was here mostly by accident. During a junior varsity clashball game last fall, he had unintentionally blocked a kick with his face. Someone filming the game had caught the kick, along with Leroy’s stunned reaction, a stripe of mud slashing from his eyebrow to his cheekbone that was remarkably similar to the stripe of reconstructed skin across Rufus Marshall’s reconstructed left eye.
The video clip had made its way to the Nothing But Sports Network, where the announcers had joked about Rufe’s scar having the power to win games by itself. NBS had licensed the clip, playing it whenever Rufe scored a goal, and Rufe had gone on to score a record number of goals. Enough to vault the Rams into the championship, even though their country had barely recovered enough to sponsor a team or host a game.
His parents had a long discussion when Leroy had been invited to the game, and he had overheard part of it. Especially the part where Mom had said, “this could be our only chance to applaud for our son in public.”
It still stung. Of his two best friends, Lenny Reyes was a visual artist who specialized in fantastic creatures and regularly won applause at art shows. Dan Kral was a musician who got his fill of applause every time he played live. Mom was a union gaffer who worked with lighting rigs for live action motion pictures, and she got applause whenever the credits rolled. Dad had just been applauded while receiving a Teachy award from the Institute of Academic Popularity just last month, for his lecture series on film history. Even Marilyn got applause at her dance recitals.
Leroy, in contrast, rarely did anything worth celebrating. His grades were always average and his performance never peaked. He had a typical, forgettable face, distinguished only by a pair of sleepy-looking eyes, which were a non-descript brown, just like his skin and hair. He wasn’t even distinguished as a fan, as he gravitated toward movies nobody else liked, and unpopular bands, and fringe sports like clashball.
He considered himself to be a person without talent. It didn’t really bother him, but he could tell his parents worried about it, going out of their way to reassure him they loved him no matter what. It made him popular in a disconnected sense -- he was on everyone’s mailing list as someone who would show up to watch them show off, and applaud when they were done, without ever asking them to reciprocate.
Truthfully, Leroy hadn’t been interested in going to Vanram at all, but his family had been so enthusiastically supportive of his one shot at applause that he didn’t want to let them down. This was a prestige event, according to the media, and tickets were expensive. The single camera covering the game was big and bulky, heavily shielded, and connected to a roaring generator. Mom had laughed her horsey laugh when she saw it, explaining that the output would look as jerky and muted as an old silent movie. That was part of the reason the stadium was packed. This wasn’t a game you could watch from your cool and comfortable couch. You had to be here.
Leroy’s fingertips gently probed his scalp, which was frying in the oil from his sweaty hair. He longed for a cleanbeam. The hotel only had water showers, with water that always seemed to be a few degrees hotter than the ambient air, so that you worked up a fresh layer of sweat while rinsing the last one off.
They did have cars and motorcycles, with noisy combustion engines that spewed dark smoke. They had unreliable phones that were connected to the walls, and slowly turning ceiling fans. And they had plenty of guns. The hotel security guards had rifles strapped to their backs, backed up with pistols at their sides. Leroy had heard one explain to a nervous guest that while most everyone who fought in the war had no difficulty whatsoever adjusting to peacetime, it took a lot of firepower to stop the few that did.
Leroy’s brief, two-block exploration of Argalia had confirmed this. Everybody was packing. Especially the cops. Leroy counted seventeen separate weapons on the first cop he saw. The cops had been too much for Lenny to handle, and he had argued eloquently for returning to the hotel before they all got shot for breaking some law they didn’t know existed.
Leroy’s parents had refused to leave the hotel at all, camping out at the semi-comfortable swimming pool with Marilyn, but they had given the teenagers permission to explore. Leroy, Lenny and Dan had started at the War Memorial across the street, full of stern statues carved out of local reddish stone and decorated for the anniversary with fresh flowers and ribbons. Then they cruised through a marketplace full of aggressive vendors approaching them with red and gold Rams merchandise and cinnamon jalapeno slushies.
They checked out the local teenagers from a careful distance, since most of them were packing too, with throwing stars and brass knuckles doing double duty as jewelry and compact, teen-sized guns holstered on their thighs and breasts and bellies. Both girls and boys had intricate hairstyles involving lots of precision shaving and tight braids. They had thick slabs of muscle, and sometimes fat, spilling out of the ripped-up distressed fatigues that were fashionable here, and even the smallest of the girls looked capable of throwing Leroy several meters, and seemed mean enough to do it.
Dan dragged them into a club, interested in the local version of live music. Here, that mostly consisted of a guy bellowing a rhythmic speech while other people laid down a counterpoint rhythm track by banging whatever they had in their hands against whatever was near. A fistfight had broken out within minutes of their arrival, followed by a squad of riot police that were decked out with even more weapons than the regular police. That had been Lenny’s breaking point, and they had retreated to the hotel to lie around the heavily fortified pool.
Everyone had been up for the adventure at first. On the ship they’d all called Leroy things like “Your Grandiosity” and “Exalted One” while pointing out all the luxuries they were enjoying on his account. By the morning of the game it was starting to sound sarcastic. Everyone was ragged from trying to sleep through the heat, and the nearby noise from their fellow hotel guests, and the slightly farther away noise from the locals, including occasional bursts of gunfire.
Marilyn, who was only nine, had dropped the charade entirely and had moved on to sulking and complaining. Leroy was starting to wonder if all the rest shared her opinions, and he felt responsible for bringing them on such a miserable trip, for such a stupid reason, that he hadn’t really wanted to take, because his parents thought he needed applause.
A commotion arose up ahead and the stench of fresh vomit drifted back. Leroy gagged and clapped his hand over his nose. The crowd reorganized around him, clearing a space for the vomit and in the process he found himself in the outside row, squashed against the railing, gasping with the influx of slightly fresher air as the metal flaked under the pressure from his ribs, drawing dark reddish stripes across his shirt.
Somebody slipped and cursed, somebody else laughed, and Leroy heard the sound of flesh smacking into flesh. The crowd undulated around him as people retreated from the fight while others surged in to join it. Leroy’s hands tightened on the crumbling rail as he looked down. The game was paused for some reason, and the players were clustered around in the end zone. He could barely make out the numbers on their shirts.
He was up high, in the nosebleed section. Probably even higher than the top of the first drop on the Raging Dragon roller coaster at the Royal Beach Boardwalk. He felt a wave of dizziness and he raised his head, looking off in the distance. To the south, towards his right, were reddish mountains and very few trees. He couldn’t see the hotel as it was behind him, but he could see the east side of Argalia, full of warehouses and foundries. And smoke. It looked like something was on fire at that end of town.
The sea was on his left, coming right up to the edge of the stadium. He could see a flock of iridescent domes floating on top of the waves, like massive jellyfish, and he wondered about them, until he noticed the Principessa Larisse heading slowly out of her slip. That was odd. She wasn’t supposed to leave until later tonight, after the gala celebratory dinner, and Leroy was looking forward to being aboard. He stood on his toes, straining to see, and as he was doing that, the railing cracked and collapsed.
He was falling. Someone grabbed a handful of his shirt but it ripped free as his arms pinwheeled, grabbing for anything they could find. He turned a somersault in midair and slammed sideways against one of the banners hanging there to remind everyone that seven years ago, Vanram had won a War.
He caught hold of the banner, three of his desperate fingernails peeling back painfully as he clawed at it. His feet were hanging free and he kicked them as he clung to the banner, gathering the rough fabric in his hands. Just as he got a good grip the banner came loose and he was falling again.
He landed with a crash on something that splintered and collapsed. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t breathe. A vision appeared, of a snarling animal with impossibly wide jaws, ready to devour him. A slender white hand reached out and grabbed his shoulder just as his nerve fibers all announced simultaneously to his brain that extreme pain was happening, right now. Everything went dark.