I’m going to be late to practice.
That would be on account of the bank being robbed… again.
Just as I turn away from the teller, stuffing my dollars into my purse, two bank robbers barge through the gaudy front doors, cackling loudly. Little robots, clearly modified, trundle in behind them, stun laser ports rotating. At least I hope they’re stun lasers. A robo shoots, and I get a nice whiff of ozone. The security guard goes down.
Poor Gus. I can’t help but ponder whether taking so many stuns over the years is a mite unhealthy for him.
“Kiss the floor!” the male robber yells while his female partner rushes up to the teller stand. “This here’s a redistribution of wealth!” He wears a blue body suit, modified with shielding and a mess of low-grade tech. Looks like he scavenged half those chips from the Nevada tech dumps. I wonder if he glows in the dark. A heavy tool kit filled with blinking gizmos hangs from his waist.
Even as I crouch to the floor, I’m trying to remember which villain he is. Lysee, my roommate, would know. She watches all the hero and vil shows that come out of Big Little City.
These two robbing the bank — “redistributing the wealth” — are some kind of mechanic couple. Ratchet and Socket or something. They both sport big, black splotches on their costumes. At first, I don’t know what it’s supposed to be.
Then I get it: grease.
It’s a stupid touch. Engines haven’t been a thing for at least three decades.
“I said get down!” the male robber hollers again.
I’m already following his instructions like a good girl, but some of my fellow bank patrons are going slow about it. It’s the tourists, of course. They’re giddy, trying to record the robbery on their Bands as they pretend to look terrified.
They probably think it’s shining luck getting caught in a bank heist, but it won’t be so awesome if they get a stun zap to the ass. Torys have to sign the waivers when they come to town just like us townies.
Hello, old friend, I think glumly as I lay my palms and cheek against the polished stone floor. At least the bank’s got good cleaning robos. I’m pissed about being late for my mixed martial arts class, but I shift my expression into my patented worried-but-hopeful look for the camera drones hovering above us. Unlike Lysee, I haven’t put hours into practicing my fear, hope, and elated-at-being-rescued expressions in front of the selfie screen.
I’ve never gotten complaints from the City Council, though.
Speaking of my roomie, Lysee trembles and weeps like a champ from her teller stall. These regular bank heists aren’t just a perk of the job for her; they’re the entire reason she clocks in each day. I don’t doubt she’s getting a secret fame-gasm right now, especially when Socket or Ratchet jumps up on the counter and points a stunner gun right in her face.
“Fill ’er up!” the lady growls as she tosses a brown cloth bag at Lysee. The only thing missing from the bag is a huge dollar sign printed on the front.
“You won’t get away with this!” Lysee croaks as she takes the bag. Her fierce expression is undercut by the sizable polka dot bow on the front of her blouse.
“Clamp it, or I’ll make’a example outta you!” Ratchet or Screwdriver yells, possibly not realizing that there’s nothing more in life that Lysee desires. This is actually a real problem in Biggie LC. When everyone is desperate to get noticed, and the best way to do that is to sneak into some vil or cape’s episode time, they all become grandstanders.
Well… almost everyone.
I’m millimetering toward the doors on my stomach, trying to stay out of the frame of the overhead cam drones. Some of the cams will catch me — there are over a dozen slurping up the action right now — but as long as I’m not in any of the primary action shots, I’ll never make it in the ep.
The purse on my hip is filled with green dollar bills from the paycheck I just cashed. It’d be so much easier if I got paid in crypto Loons like practically everyone else in the world. But in Biggie LC, the stores only take dollars, and all paychecks have to get cashed at BLC Bank. We’re practically living in the 1900s here, but there’s a reason: Vils can’t steal crypto currency in brown bags. No cash. No grand heists. Nothing to put in next week’s episode.
I can’t afford to lose my money if Lug Nut and Wrench start robbing us civvies as well. At that point, even a hero won’t make things any better. Four months ago, Evil Santa hit this same bank and made me drop all my dollars into his huge red velvet bag. The Elementals caught him after a sled chase down Valor Ave, but Flame turned that red velvet bag to ashes.
The City Council doesn’t refund you for stuff like that. My entire paycheck was gone, dead as steering wheels. My savings account still hasn’t fully recovered.
I’ve just about squirmed my way to the front door now, having shimmied past two Asian tourists whispering delightedly in Mandarin, when the side door of the bank swings wide. A figure steps forward.
Right on time. The hero is here, and now he or she or ze will boldly announce that Clink and Clank’s reign of terror is about to end. The cape and vils will hit each other with their specialized weapons. The producers for each show will add epic music to the fight, throw in all the usual editing tricks, and the world will get a brand new villain episode and a new hero ep from Big Little City. Most importantly, the vils will go down and my dollars will stay with me.
Except this time, something is off.
I hear barely stifled groans from the townies. The tourists are confused. When I get an eyeful of the cape, I groan too. He wears an ill-fitting black suit patterned with white diamonds. The outfit is obviously 3D printed from self-coded schematics. I can actually see the print lines and plastic flakes on the edges of his low-grade black mask. This is enough for me to know the deal, but for those slow on the download, the real sign of trouble is the actual cape unfurling from his shoulders.
The cape is wearing a cape! No self-respecting hero has worn a cape in the past ten years; not since Angel Glow caught his on a metal pipe during a dramatic rooftop jump and nearly snapped his own neck.
What we have here is a freeter, a wannabe hero without sponsorship or a show.
“Buddha’s scrotum,” I hiss. He’s going mess it all up. Freeters always do.
This freeter is all nerves. It’s the way he shuffles into the bank and pauses before speaking. Crank and Cronk don’t see him yet. They’re busy making drama with the tellers. Lysee receives a swift slap across the face.
Good for her. She’s sure to get ep time.
“Stop,” the freeter says, but his voice is too soft. He repeats it, louder. “STOP!”
Heads swivel toward him. Disappointment ripples across Lysee’s face before she covers it up by turning her mouth into a perfect O of surprise. This rescue is clearly too low-grade for a top cape like Beacon and her sidekick, Shine, but Lysee was probably at least hoping for the Elementals or even those new Dragon Rider guys who’ve been rumbling over town on their screaming sky skimmers.
The vils are clearly caught off guard by the freeter, too. The woman looks pissed. Facing a freeter is a sure ego slap, but what can she do about it? The cams are rolling. She’s got to make the best of it. RTS — Ride the Storm.
“Socket, we’ve got a little nobody who thinks he’s a hero,” she sings to her partner.
“B-O-R-I-N-G,” Socket says and lets out a big yawn. He jumps off the teller stand and twists his face into a big grin. “Let the kiddos deal with him.”
“Darlings,” the female vil purrs. “Attack!”
All the little robos that have been wheeling around keeping us hapless civvies in line now turn toward the man in the cape. The freeter pulls his only weap from his belt, a plain nightstick. He swings it awkwardly in front of him.
What possible character angle is he going for? The only thing I can think is humor. Maybe he wants to get his ass kicked and go for sympathy and laughs. That actually worked for a minor hero named Hillmond the Magnificent a few years back. He was 300 pounds poured into bright yellow spandex, and his iconic move was to show up about five mins late to the big battles. Just as the real heroes were mopping up the fight, he’d shove the defeated vils into the police van, like he was responsible for their capture. This was funny enough to get him a sponsorship, but soon audiences wanted something new, like an adorable teen singing pop songs in a panda outfit. Hillmond the Magnificent only lasted a single season, and everyone knows you don’t start making money until you get re-upped. The Fame Game is brutal that way.
The little robos surround the freeter now. He swings his baton and almost brains a frail tourist behind him who hasn’t been able to lay down. The joints of an exo-skeleton are visible under her track suit. Those things, especially the cheap ones the government gives to the elderly, aren’t made for kissing the floor.
This, right here, is the problem with freeters. No training. No kayfabe practice. No “understanding” between producers for the vils and capes about how things will go down. When freeters try to make their name by crimping into the episodes of sponsored vils and capes, the only thing that’s sure to happen is civvies getting hurt.
One of the robos, a little square guy with flashing antenna, spews grease on the floor. The freeter flails at another robo that’s extending whizzing drill bits attached to swinging cables. The freeter steps into the grease, slides, and falls hard. I hear the breath punch out of him.
As for me, I’m almost to the door. Almost, almost. Come on, Alice. A few more scooches and…
A robo detects my movement and speeds toward me on four wheels, its pinchers lighting up with arcs of electricity.
Buddha’s gut bacteria!
Can I get away with kicking the robo and making a dash for the door? I usually wouldn’t risk it, but the freeter is giving me nerves. The rules about residents fighting back against vils are complicated in Biggie LC. We have the right to protect ourselves — even the corporations haven’t been able to convince the gov to vote those away yet. But PAGS, the syndicate that appoints the City Council and mayor and owns media rights to Sector 8, doesn’t like it when townies get uppity.
Last year, a guy from my bio class named Rochello got trussed up by the Dark League while he was working at the bakery. The League had some mad scheme to dump hallucinogens into the bread dough. Of course, only the tourists ever buy those hyper-priced cals. Anyway, I guess someone wasn’t so good at tying knots. Rochello tossed his bonds and decided to grab a little fame by pummeling one of the Dark League vils. He ruptured Lizard Soul’s spleen, and the next day the City Council told him to pack his bags. Point is, you fight back too hard and you can get swiped right out of town.
The robo squawks at me, and I press my hands back onto the floor in surrender. Really, though, I’m still pondering the kick.
I never get to decide, because the glass window above me explodes into a thousand pieces. I throw my hands over my head as glass shards rain down, stinging as they cut my bare arms.
Buddha’s liver enzymes!
When I open my eyes, I see a pair of fiery orange boots outlined in pulsating LED lights standing just millimeters from my face. I gaze up.
This, at least, is what a sponsored hero who delivers solid ratings looks like. The orange boots connect to a shining yellow suit, fashioned like glowing metal scales and ribbed with tech. It outlines a chiseled male frame with wide, muscular shoulders. His glowing orange gloves are layered with wires and the glint of a coating that probably lets him stick onto walls or something. Finally, my gaze lands on the utility belt, securely holding two implements that even I recognize — the Blazing Lantern and the Torch Whip.
“Have no fear, citizen,” Shine says, his cocksure synthesized voice projecting from his glowing orange helmet. “The light of justice has arrived.”