Pain. There was always pain. Not the pain of injury or damage, although she did feel that when she got distracted and let one of the other Paladins get the better of her. No this pain existed like a black hole in her chest. Ido called it heartache, an emotional reaction to loss, but how could a cyberheart, pumping cyberblood and heartsblood, feel an emotional dislocation like she felt every waking moment, and which also haunted her through her dreams? How could a URM, anti-matter microreactor feel like it was being torn apart, and simultaneously crumpled into the core of a singularity? Ido told her, while he cradled her in his arms and wiped away tear after tear, that the mind had a homunculus of the body imprinted within it, and it was the heart in that body that was breaking, over and over again, not her cybercore.
But it sure felt like her URM cyberheart was failing. She even had to take it out and check it every once and a while to be sure she wasn’t about to shut down. Every single time, as it sat in her hand, jiggling back and forth, the red and blue coloured tubes that ran from it to her vitals awash with life and function-giving fluids, it reminded her of the day she offered it to Hugo, to sell on the black market to enable both of them to buy their way into Zalum. How Hugo, whom she later discovered was a cyborg jacker – he and his crew attacked cyborgs and took their non-critical parts for sale on the black market – had refused to take it, and warned her not to just do things for people. How he had shown her how much he loved her by refusing the very thing that would have enabled him to reach his goal, and how, in the end, that goal had turned out to be nothing but a lie in itself.
So much love, so much loss… so much pain. Her heartache redoubled, and the ghost of a sardonic smile tugged at the right side of her mouth for but a moment, and then was gone.
She let the pain wash over her, infuse her. Renew her purpose.
She knew who her enemy was. She had her sights firmly on that goal. She knew the only reliable way to get to her enemy was through a motorball racetrack full of the best and most badass Paladins Iron City had ever seen. The promise of combat did not phase her. She had been told enough times she was drawn to it, by her training. She would not flinch. She would not shy away. She would not stand by in the presence of evil. And evil was everywhere… watching.
With her path reaffirmed she stood, her motorball body, resplendent in purple and silver, with the number 99 emblazoned on shoulders and hips, answered her every command at near the speed of thought. Ido had dug his failed speed boost chip design out of retirement and dialed it back some, making this track body almost as sublime as her berserker one… almost. She loved him for that, and all the hundreds – or was it thousands – of other things he did, and continued to do for her. But she couldn’t really love him back, like the father she was more and more convinced she had never had, with her mind swirling in pain. She felt bad about that – just one more thing to add to the list. A list that ended with one man. Nova.
Rolling purposefully over to the mirror, she checked her look. The Damascus blade glistened in the changeroom’s lights, attached to her left forearm, it’s URM design almost foreign compared to the very terrestrial, motorball-body design. The reinforced servo and partially bulked-out myofilament musculature of her arms gave them a subtly powerful appearance. So much power. So much skill. So much veiled talent. So much hidden potential that it almost seeped out of her joints, and it wasn’t enough to save him. Her love. Hugo.
Looking up to her own visage, she saw her gameface – the mask of utter control – slip momentarily as a tear rolled down her cheek. She wasn’t sure if it was anger, shame or a feeling of powerlessness in the moment of his fall that sullied the pure pain that animated her, but it was enough to instigate a flash of movement. As the tear left her cheek, falling down past her body, her left arm shot around, and the tip of the Damascus blade neatly bisected the tear. Moments later, the two droplets hit the hard floor a short distance apart. Forever separated. Like Alita and her love.
The sound of the announcer, and the crowd roaring in response, drew her back to her present, her current mission, and the next step along the road to her ultimate target. She would succeed, one step at a time, one race at a time. She was the irresistible force. And once she met the immovable object – Nova – he would regret his long, long life, and the poor choices he’d made that brought him to the moment of her retribution. For Iron City, for Mars, for her namesake, and most of all, for Hugo.
She turned and rolled smoothly out the new-to-first-league Paladin’s change room, and onto the dais, as the announcer finished revving up the crowd.
“And give it up for our Battle Angel herself, number 99, Ahhhh-leeee-taaaaa!!!!” The crowd went mad. Her crowd, Alita realized somewhere in the back of her mind. But her laser-like focus was bent on the imminent game, and her target. He was never far from her mind, because he was nearly always watching her. He was sure to be watching her now, probably from a fancy viewing deck on the east side of Zalum, overlooking the Motorball stadium.
The anger flared, fueled by pain. But none of it showed on her ice-cool demeanor. Something she could have almost learned from Chiren. Alita’s face a mask of determination.
While the crowd cheered her name, Alita detached the Damascus blade from her left arm, and held it out, pointed squarely at Zalum, and that bastard up there. She activated the arc plasma generator Ido had reverse engineered and installed in the motorball bodies right arm… her right arm. The blade infused with blue fire, which ran up the impossibly sharp weapon against the laws of gravity.
And that is what she would do. Go against the laws of this land. One step at a time. One race at a time. She would defeat all contenders and become Final Champion, and earn a ticket to Zalum. Then Nova would pay. Oh how he’d pay.
She felt sorry for the motorballers she’d have to destroy to finish her mission, and those that she cared for, still in Iron City, who she’d have to distance herself from in order to succeed. But it had to be done, like this race, right now.
She let the blade go dark, reattached to her arm, and rolled smoothly down the access ramp toward the starting line, as other motorball favourites were announced.
“You know you love him,” the announcer crooned, “the only real contender for Final Champion in the past year, the cool, the Zen, the Chi-master, Jaaassshhhh-uuuuuu-guuuunnnn!!!”
This cheering was not for her. That wasn’t a problem, however…
…but he was.