Chapter 38:

The Vandelay I - "Paint the Town"

Destiny Marine

Standing behind an apartment complex about a block away from the International Colors Studio cinema in downtown Narragansett, Isaac just watched with an amused grin.

Mackenzie crossed her arms and shook her head. “You gotta be kidding me.”

“What?” Reed asked, completely oblivious. “I’ve always wanted to try this.”

“Is this why you invited us?” Mackenzie replied with a wave of her hand. “Cast a wide net in hopes one of us would be willing to do this with you?”

Reed just sighed. “Can’t a girl just go see a movie with her friends? And can’t a girl just try to sneak into a theater on the shoulders of another girl while wearing a big trench coat so the two of them can get in for only three dollars in total?”

“I like deals!” Lynn replied from below Reed inside the trench coat.

“But you’re both on the wrong side of twenty,” Isaac pointed out. “Kids only do this to get into R-rated films. You’d be able to see it just fine without being two kids in a trenchcoat.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Reed asked. Isaac went to answer, but had no response. Maybe she had a point.

Mackenzie gestured at the bottom half of the coat. “What about poor Lynn?”

“Reed can sit on me for as long as she likes,” came the muffled, dreamy-sounding reply from below the trenchcoat.

The top half of the trenchcoat gestured toward the theater. “Let’s go.”

After two steps in the wrong direction, Demetrius and Dan ended up helping their two friends walk toward the theater. Having never been downtown before, the sheer opulence and wealth nearly overwhelmed Isaac. He had always seen skyscrapers from a distance; now, from up close, the tall constructs of refined metal and glass stretched all the way into the heavens. Cars continually rolled by on the wide avenues with trees running down the middle, and the sidewalks were packed with people dressed in their finest clothes, off to lunch, off to a friend’s, off to the Army College football game. Commercial blimps flew overhead, plodding along slowly as warplanes zipped past them. Oksana stared at the constant maze of overhead power lines, and even Mackenzie and Kieran had smiles on their faces. Isaac heard the pre-Unleashing cities dwarfed the cities of today, but he wondered if the people back then still had that same feeling of wonder. Modernity gives and modernity takes, but in a clean downtown area, it seemed to only give, at least on the surface and in its bright lights.

After heading underneath an elevated rail, the intrepid group arrived in front of the cinema. The man - kid, rather - in the ticket booth looked bored, and collected the three dollars from Reed without even glancing at the bottom half of the trenchcoat. Everybody paid their share and followed behind Reed, who almost looked disappointed at how easy it went.

Compared to the tiny Patuxet theater, the only way to describe the International Colors Studio cinema was “glorious”. Majestic, as a word, was better. But the cinema just radiated glory. It contained multiple auditoriums - compared to Patuxet’s one - and Isaac could imagine the red comfy seats inside instead of mere wooden chairs. A red carpet covered the entrance and lobby, and hundreds of people milled about, waiting in line, discussing the latest film they just saw (Isaac slightly maneuvered away to avoid hearing spoilers). All the opulence was also probably why movies here cost over a dollar, compared to a mere twenty five cents in Patuxet. But Isaac supposed he was paying for the downtown experience, too.

The girls went to the bathroom to help Reed and Lynn free themselves. Isaac never understood why girls seemed to always go to the restroom in a pack. While they were gone, he looked at the concession stand, then immediately frowned at the prices. Isaac never had popcorn before, but he knew it shouldn’t cost more than the ticket. Nor should soda or candy.

“I got you covered,” Reed said as she returned, still wearing the oversized trenchcoat but without Lynn this time. She opened one side of the jacket in a manner that reminded Isaac of the cultivation pill dealers in the anti-drug newsreels; rather than pills, bags and bags of candy - and, for some reason, a can of baked beans - lined her jacket.

This definitely wasn’t Reed’s first rodeo. She led the way confidently, finding their auditorium in no time at all. Trailers for upcoming movies were already playing, so they still had some time to kill. The group of nine fortunately found a row that would fit them all - when Reed sat down, Lynn hustled past Isaac to sit next to her. He ended up sitting next to Kieran, a disappointed Oksana sitting next to him on the other side.

Feelings mutual. Isaac liked Oksana, but he didn’t want to have his immersion broken by snakes falling on him.

Bags of candy originating from Reed came down the row. Isaac ended up with a thing of dark chocolate originating from Sigismund, who made up for their lack of humor with their chocolate-making skills. That’s what Isaac assumed, at least - he only heard rumors, and had never met someone hailing from that brooding country. He could also hear Reed kicking her feet as the lights dimmed. The darkness magnified the lights of the giant screen, which transitioned from its final trailer to…a newsreel, rather than Lava Beam. This time, Isaac heard a loud groan from Reed.

The usual triumphant trumpets blasted as ARCADIAN MINISTRY OF CULTURE flashed across the screen. Despite the promised color, the newsreels were still in black-and-white. The image shifted to warplanes flying high over a city, followed by thousands of soldiers marching past a waving dictator.

“Swarms of Rusalkan flyers continue their relentless assault on northeastern Atalanta,” the broadcaster proclaimed in his neutral tone. “The war which began at the start of spring over the ‘breadbasket’ of Atalanta continues into its seventh month with no end in sight.”

Artillery fired from hilltops; buildings burned in black-and-white fire. A Rusalkan cultivator with a big beard approached a row of buildings in an Atalantan city; one gigantic fireball from his hands reduced them to twisted metal and dark skeleton frameworks. Rusalkan foot soldiers marched over and through these ruins as fighters and bombers flew overhead.

“The Atalantans are putting up a spirited resistance, but right as harvest season is due to begin, the majority of the fields have fallen into Rusalkan hands.” A nest of Atalantan machine gunners fired upon an unseen enemy, while a trio of Atalantan cultivators used their earth powers to lift rubble off of civilians. Children cried; women cried; bombers continued to rain fire on the earth below them; whole cities were left in ruins.

“This is…this is war?” Lynn asked quietly. “But I thought war was just good guys shooting at bad guys.”

“This is the new kind of war,” Reed answered in between stuffing bits of chocolate in her mouth.

“Sigismund has supplied Atalanta with the latest in weaponry, but has refused to send in any cultivators to avoid escalating the conflict,” the broadcaster continued. “Zhanghai has announced its support for Rusalka, while our own heroic Arcadia has calmly reminded all belligerents the importance of that grain to the world’s supply of food.”

“That’s just because we don’t grow enough food on our own,” Reed complained, wiping the ring of chocolate around her mouth with the back of her hand. “And we can’t say nothing ‘cuz Zhanghai likes Rusalka and Zhanghai owns half of our country.”

Reed then quieted down, apparently remembering they came here to watch some kick-ass kung fu movies rather than talk politics. Right on cue, the triumphant trumpets returned and the screen went black again as the newsreel ended. Reed, continuing to make her presence known, audibly gasped when ZHANGHAI INDUSTRIAL CORPORATION PRODUCTIONS flashed across the screen.

The screen then displayed a muscular man fishing in the jungle. A young woman burst through the foliage, followed by three ninjas. As the woman cried out for help, the man continued fishing. The ninjas caught the woman and held her arms behind her back; the man’s gasp as he caught a bite provided a sharp juxtaposition with the woman’s cries of terror. As the woman kicked her legs and tried to free herself, she smacked a ninja’s hand into the man’s back. The sudden impact knocked the rod out of his hands; when he scooped it back up, the fish was gone.

The three ninjas prepared to haul the woman back with them. But then the man appeared behind one of them, utterly dwarfing him in size. Before the ninjas could react, the man gave the closest ninja a judo chop to the neck; fake blood sprayed as the ninja collapsed to the ground.

“Who the hell are you?” the lead ninja asked, his Common-language voice not matching his lips.

The man looked at the screen and flashed his trademark smile. Suave trumpets played an iconic note, and Isaac couldn’t help but grin as LUCKY SUGA flashed on the bottom of the screen.

To make a long story short - Lucky Suga’s character (The Samurai With No Name) saved the girl, got entangled in a dynastic war between the dueling clans of Fantasy Zhanghai, took a lot of names and kicked a lot of ass, then defeated the evil provincial governor with his patented Lava Beam Forbidden Technique that boils a man’s face clean off. And, of course, he ended the movie by riding off into the sunset with the girl.

It was genuinely good stuff.

Lava Beam 2, to make an even longer story short - Lucky Suga saved a new girl now (there was no mention of the girl from the previous movie), and fought his most dangerous opponent yet - a nearly-immortal sect leader who was impervious to damage outside of his nutsack, which he developed a forbidden technique to retract inside his body. Suga trained a counter-technique involving lava to draw said nutsack out into the open, then delivered a Beam that destroyed the nigh-immortal for good. He then rode off into the sunset with the new girl.

Also pretty good stuff.

And that ended the afternoon matinee. The group of nine gathered in the hallway; the plan was to sneak into another auditorium until the evening marathon began. Except that left an hour and a half to kill, and not everybody was keen on spending all that time in the cinema.

“Let’s grab a beer!” Babs proposed. “There has to be a couple of bars around here.”

“But then you have to leave, and that means you have to pay for re-entry,” Reed pointed out, looking through the doors of another auditorium to find a good movie to watch in the meantime.

Kieran tugged on his collar, trying to stave off the desire for a quick nap. “I’ll get a beer. It’s stuffy in here.”

Oksana raised a hand to signify she would go too.

Isaac himself yawned and raised his hand as well. He loved movies as much as the next guy, but to be perfectly honest, he did want to see more of the downtown area and all its modern glories.

A pair of disappointed hands went inside the trenchcoat pockets. “Traitors, the lot of you. I’m gonna go watch another kung fu movie.”

Both Lynn and Mackenize followed Reed inside.

“What?” Mackenzie asked halfway through the door as everyone watched her. “I just…need more evidence to see if cinema is truly better than opera. A-Anyway, Dan and Demetrius, what are you guys going to do?”

Demetrius peered through the door to another auditorium. “I will be watching the romantic comedy in this one.”

Dan patted him on the back. “Let’s get it, buddy.”

With that, the three groups departed toward their separate destinations. When Isaac stepped outside, night had already descended. Bright lights flooded the downtown area, whether it be from weekend workers in the skyscrapers, the searchlights probing for enemy planes, or the sea of streetlamps that lined the streets and the occasional antiquated gaslamp that lit up sidestreets and back alleyways. The group of four stepped past stumbling revelers down one of the alleys, arriving at an out-of-the-way pub not too far from the cinema.

A surprised finger tapped a coat of arms displayed on the pub’s window. “Watch out, guys,” Babs warned. “This here must be an Army pub.”

“That’s right,” Kieran realized. “The Army does have a cultivation barracks nearby. But we live in civilized times. Hopefully there'll be no trouble.”

Civilization does not necessarily exist inside a pub. Or rather, all the trappings of civilization - a warm roof over your head, human interaction, exchanging money for goods - exist inside a pub, but it’s all wrapped up in the warm, heady glow of liquor. Well, Babs got liquor(s) - gin mixed with tonic, and quite a few of them - while the rest got good old-fashioned beer. Due to the chilliness, they all had worn their greatcoats with the Navy anchor and spiral galaxy emblem on the side. This earned them a few odd stares around the pub, especially from a pair of young men in Army greatcoats at a nearby table, but Isaac supposed his group wouldn’t be there for that long anyway.

Except they were. In the span of an hour and a half, and thanks to recently getting paid, the bartender continued to slide the group drinks across the counter machine-gun style. Babs put it on her tab, but then Oksana had to carry her outside so she could throw up on the cobblestone alleyway in peace. That just left Isaac and Kieran at the bar, both of their faces slightly red.

But before they could talk, the duo of Army cultivators were now standing behind them.