The rocket struck them with a bang. Anton saw it coming and managed to run away but Sigurd was trapped by the inferno. The New Year missile exploded around him in a burst of fire and sparks that suffocated the innocent victim in grey smoke, bright multi-colored flashes of light and powdery flames.
The boy screamed.
A flock of women in minidresses and men in tuxes fled in all directions. Just like Anton and Sigurd, they had descended to the street corner a little after midnight to watch the spectacular fireworks in the illuminated night sky. Of course, none had imagined they would be so unlucky as to be hit by a stray New Year’s rocket.
Though Sigurd was screaming for his life, almost no one could hear him. The racket from the crowd and the exploding fireworks in the sky coldly drowned out the cries of the 11-year-old boy who, filled with curiosity, had naively ventured outdoors that star-filled New Year’s Eve. Now, all had taken to their heels and the boy’s only company were the sparks that turned him into a living firework fountain.
To Anton’s eyes it almost looked like oxyacetylene torches emerging from the ground and slicing through the asphalt around Sigurd. Soon his friend would be sucked down and swallowed in the bowels of the Earth.
“Sigurd!” Anton, who could no longer see him, shouted. “Are you okay?”
“Help me!” he howled and screamed from inside the cauldron of smoke and fire, its colors swiftly changing like a pyrotechnic display. “My eyes! I can’t see anything!”
The voice cracked and the poor wretch was once again drowned out by booms in the sky. The rockets thundered like machine guns from above.
Anton would do anything to rescue his friend but he didn’t dare approach the smoke-filled space. Instead, he ran to the person closest:
“Can you help?” he pleaded with an unfamiliar man and tugged at his sleeve. “Sigurd’s been hit by a rocket!”
But the man just got irritated:
“Scram, kid,” he snarled and stumbled on with a beer bottle in his hand.
“Isn’t there anyone who can help?” Anton shouted despairingly and tried to reach some of the other adults. But no one paid any attention; behind him Sigurd had now disappeared entirely in the pall of smoke. Not even the sound of wails and torment could be heard any longer.
“I’ll get help, Sigurd,” he promised and immediately ran off.
“Mother! Father! Something terrible’s happened!” he yelled as soon as he got in the door of the apartment, running to the living room.
In the living room, his parents sat chatting with guests. Sigurd’s mother and father, Mette and Mikkel, were visiting to celebrate the New Year. Since it wasn’t every year they had the chance to jump into the second half of the 21st century, it had to be done in style. The coffee table was filed with everything needed to properly celebrate New Year – champagne, towering cakes, streamers, beer and soda, platters of finger food, bowls overflowing with chips and other snacks.
“Sigurd’s been hit by a rocket!”
“Oh, dear,” Sigurd’s father laughed and rolled his eyes.
Anton’s father, Lars, also received the news with equanimity and reached out for the bowl of chips.
“Pretty hot out there, huh?” he asked Anton, who stood expectantly, waiting for everyone to spring from their seats and run to the street.
Only Sigurd’s mother seemed to take the situation seriously and stared reproachfully at her husband.
“Don’t talk like that, Mikkel,” she said reprovingly. “Go out and help your son.”
Without the slightest sign of haste, Sigurd’s father took a swig of his beer.
“Easy now. A burnt child dreads the fire. Best we let him figure life out for himself, instead of wrapping him up in cotton wool.”
This observation made the two mothers bristle and they raised their eyebrows demonstratively.
“My god, a typical man!” Anne exclaimed indignantly.
Mette’s eyes flashed too.
“You never take responsibility,” she scolded her husband. “You’re happy to let the boy watch the fireworks but when he needs help you won’t lift a finger. He’s out on the street crying. Alone.”
“Well, that won’t kill him,” Mikkel defended himself obstinately and crossed his arms. “You can go out there yourselves.”
“Not a chance!” Mette refused, adding that it wasn’t her who had given the boy permission to go out and, in any case, she was wearing stilettoes and they were hell to walk in as it was.
This exchange was a source of immense frustration for Anton. He was the only one who knew how much Sigurd was suffering. That he still hadn’t managed to help his best friend gave him a searing pain in his gut. He tried again.
“Dad, come on! You have to help!”
“Of course, Anton,” his father answered indulgently and stroked his hair. “We’ll come in ten minutes, okay? We just have to drink up, then we’ll come. Go out and play again.”
When even his own father wouldn’t help, there was only one hope left.
“Granddad!” he shouted and ran to the imposing armchair in the living room where the elderly guest of honor received him with outstretched arms:
“Anton, my boy!”
But Anton had no time for hugs:
“You’ve got to help me, Granddad. Sigurd’s in trouble. He’s been hit by a rocket and there were flames and sparks coming out of him and people running away. Won’t you help? Please, Granddad!”
“Oh my, such a to-do, sounds like my own young days,” Granddad chuckled amiably though his arm was being yanked repeatedly. Luckily, Anton’s grey-haired grandfather took pity on him and began the laborious process of mobilizing his aged body. First he had to take a couple of dry runs at escaping from his armchair. With some difficulty, he leaned back and flung his whole body forward. He finally managed to get to his feet.
Anton didn’t think things were moving quickly enough, but it was the only help on offer so he had to accept it with gracious patience.
“Come on,” Anton hurried the old man and tried to drag him out of the living room.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” the old man gasped. It was nice someone still needed an oldster like him.
“Be careful, Dad,” his daughter, Anne, said with raised forefinger.
“Yes, yes. I’ve seen worse New Year’s Eves than any of you lot,” he laughed and took his cane and started hobbling after Anton, who had already opened the front door and was exiting.
“On my way ...”
Outside, the street was still filled with revelers. The night was chilly and people stood in knots gazing up at the night sky. Anton’s grandfather, who couldn’t see or hear any of it, had to make do with the sight of his condensing breath. But it didn’t matter. He’d seen plenty of fireworks in his younger days. Rather than bemoan his fate, he zipped up his jacket around his throat and set off with slow steps into the night.
“What a pigsty,” he sighed and zigzagged around some obstacles strewn across the pavement. “These darn kids are no better than we were in the old days.”
The mess he referred to included a mixed haul of various decorations, discarded party hats and countless shards of glass from shattered bottles. He also walked past some lost earplugs that looked as though they’d been trodden on. He had long refused to use these new-fangled earplugs even though, in addition to providing interactive audio on the go, they would have helped his hearing.
“Well, where’s the rascal?” he asked Anton, who stood beside some parked driverless cars around where the rocket had struck. Anton’s grandfather was mystified. Sigurd was nowhere to be seen.
“Sigurd!” Anton yelled into the night, hoping to make contact with his friend.
“Did he run away?” Anton’s grandfather asked, peering uneasily around, but there was no sign of Sigurd.
“Was it here that it happened, Anton?”
“Yes, right here, it blew up right here,” the boy spoke rapidly. “There were flames and sparks and ... It was crazy! I’ve never seen anything so crazy, Granddad!”
“Well, ain’t much sign of it now,” the old man laughed and looked around in confusion.
Then he suddenly raised his walking stick.
“Tell me, Anton, is it that kid sitting over there in the bike shed?”
Even though he was 86, his eyes weren’t that bad yet.
“Sigurd!” Anton exclaimed and immediately ran to him.
His grandfather trudged reluctantly along behind. It was irritating to always be last.
Anton found Sigurd in the open-sided bike shed’s furthest corner. He sat on the ground with his back to the wall. His head was bowed and his arms were wrapped tightly about his knees that were drawn up to his chest. His whole body trembled. It was hard to tell if it was from cold or fright.
“Are you okay, Sigurd?” he asked with worry in his voice.
Sigurd didn’t answer, just shook his head. His earplugs lay on the ground in front of him. He had succeeded in removing them, which surprised Anton. Partly because the earplugs were pretty expensive and you had to take good care of them. And partly because, thanks to a semi-permanent skin adhesive, they were usually wedged tight inside the ear. The skin adhesive ensured they always remained in place. But Anton could see that Sigurd was very upset so he said nothing. Then his grandfather arrived.
“What happened, kid?” the old man asked kindly. “Anton says you got a fright from some bangers. Such a hullabaloo.”
Sigurd raised his head. His eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed. It was clear he had cried a lot.
“I couldn’t see anything at all,” Sigurd whimpered with down-turning mouth. “I closed my eyes but it just kept exploding. My ears were ringing like crazy ... until I took those dumb earplugs out.”
“Was the volume too loud?” Anton asked, picking up the earplugs and examining them.
“Way too loud and they were stuck really tightly ... I almost couldn’t get them out. But it was worse in my eyes. I couldn’t see anything at all.”
The old man poked the boy gently with his cane and told him to stand up.
“Listen, let me take a look at them,” he said and drew Sigurd over under the light of a lamp.
As Sigurd opened his eyes wide, Anton’s grandfather looked closely at each one in turn. Apart from being bloodshot, there was fortunately nothing to see – the only thing the old man noticed was the tiny edge of an almost invisible contact lens, one of those everyone wore nowadays. The lenses added an extra layer to the wearer’s vision so that almost anything could be seen – from the most recent traffic or weather reports or, in this case, a stray New Year’s rocket. What the wearer saw was as vivid as though it was happening in reality.
“Tell me. Shouldn’t we take those thingummies out of your eyes, eh?”
“No, Granddad!” Anton exclaimed. “Dad says we mustn’t. Interactive lenses are totally expensive and they have to be kept in a special fluid when they’re not being worn.”
The old man, who had no time for this modern nonsense, wrinkled his brow.
“Nonsense. The kid’s clearly in shock from wearing them. They must be broken.”
“I don’t think so Granddad. Sigurd just couldn’t avoid the fireworks. He was trapped inside the interactive experience.”
But Granddad wasn’t buying that explanation.
“Horse manure! They can’t be designed for something like that to happen. There must be a defect in the mechanism.”
“It’s just to give people a thrill on New Year, Granddad. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to see the fireworks at all. They’re pretty smart really. And you can use them for loads of other stuff. Watch TV, movies, play games ...”
As though presenting living proof that he was right, Anton’s grandfather pointed at Sigurd.
“That may well be, Anton, but anyone with eyes to see with can see Sigurd didn’t have much fun tonight. You didn’t, did you, Sigurd?”
The terrified boy shook his head in agreement.
“See, Anton,” he said and then looked back at Sigurd. “Don’t you think we should remove them?
“Yeah,” Sigurd answered, clearly anxious to be spared any more interactive New Year’s experiences.
The old man looked at the boy uncertainly.
“Can you do it or should I help?”
“My mother usually does it, but you can try,” Sigurd said. “I don’t really know how to.”
“Come here, kid,” the old man said, his confident voice easily cajoling the child into entrusting the whole matter to him.
“Just tilt your head back a little,” he instructed, allowing Sigurd’s head to rest in his hand. “But don’t blink, okay? Just stare straight ahead. Then I’ll carefully nudge the lenses to the side and get them out. It won’t hurt, I promise you. Just stay perfectly calm and still.”
The latter wasn’t quite true. But, relatively quickly, he succeeded in removing both the high-tech lenses. Anton was awarded the honor of holding them, though they would likely go to pieces if they weren’t instantly submerged in the special fluid that came with them.
“How’s your sight?” the old grandfather asked.
“Much better,” Sigurd answered and already seemed happier.
“Great, my boy!” the old man smiled and ruffled his hair.
Without the interactive lenses and earplugs, Sigurd could experience New Year’s Eve as it really was. The heavens were quiet and a deep, dark blue, the stars twinkled and the moon’s yellowish hue cast itself softly on the town and all he could hear was the sound of music and happy revelers.
“Well, little buddies! Let’s be getting back home, eh?” the old man asked and waved the boys ahead of him. The two took off running.
Of course, Anton could still see and hear the fireworks but for Sigurd there wasn’t anything at all, just stillness and a pleasantly chill night air. The digital fireworks were gone, just as the physical New Year’s fireworks were long gone – many years before they had been banned due to climate concerns.
Granddad did miss the old-fashioned fireworks, but he reminded himself that he too had voted to outlaw the traditional fireworks. And it had been the right thing to do. Gone was the yearly shower of cadmium, lead, mercury, and all sorts of other heavy metals. Gone too was the invisible particle contamination that caused health injuries and environmental damage and no doubt countless other ills.
And there were also other benefits, he recollected. No more eye injuries. No maimed hands and fingers. No fireworks burning down properties or other catastrophes. No parents worried when they sent their kids out into the street to see the festive fireworks.
The only problem was that interactive experiences could sometimes be too much for the little ones. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. But surely someone would solve that too.
And of course all the trash on the street afterwards. He stepped on a party hat, flattened it, and walked on. But these were problems Anton and Sigurd would have to figure out when they were grown-ups.
Translated into English by Andrew Culligan