Chapter 1 – What’s in a Number?

<- Prologue

Motorball was the spectacle for the masses – both the working class of Iron City and their betters in the flying city of Zalem that hung high above, dumping its garbage out of a ragged chute in the bottom of the disk on which Zalem perched. Bread and circuses, it had once been said, were needed to keep the masses from rising up. The ‘bread’ varied widely in quality between Iron City and Zalem, the sky city residents getting far more of all that was good, produced by Iron City and the farms surrounding it. Conversely, Iron City residents tended to get only what wasn’t considered good enough for the transit tubes up to Zalem. The circuses, however, were one and the same. Iron City residents flocked to the arena for the Motorball games, or caught the highlights at home or on the large, flat screens located around Iron City. Zalemites, likewise, couldn’t get enough of the spectacle of cybernetic combat on motorized roller blades at 100+ miles per hour. They also got together in their homes in the sky city, or went out to public viewings. It was often lamented that the only reason any Zalemite would want to set foot on the ground was to go to one of the games – but it was widely known that they wouldn’t enjoy the experience of rubbing shoulders with the dirtsiders.

Alita knew all this, and didn’t much care. She knew there were at least some good people in Zalem. Her own adopted father, Dyson Ido, had admitted to her that he was from Zalem, as was his ex-wife, Chiren. Ido was in the good camp, even if he could never forgive himself for his birth daughter’s death. That was why Ido had given her the name Alita, when he had found her in the scrapyard underneath Zalem and had rebuilt her, the first of several times. Until she could dredge up her real name from her dark and patchy memory, that would be the one she would use. Although, with the celebrity she was gaining from Motorball, it was unlikely she could ever change it. Alita was fine, really. A good, strong name. She did like it.

Chiren had been more of a mixed bag. She’d been a motorball tuner for the then master of Motorball and the Factory, Vector. Chiren had ‘broken’ when her daughter had been killed by a drug addict ex-motorballer, had left Ido, and then fallen in with Vector, on promises of getting back to Zalem. Chiren had built motorball champions, and a champion of another sort – Grewishka. He had been Nova’s champion. Chiren had worked with Vector to bring Alita down, on the orders of Nova, the ruler of Zalem. Alita had thought Chiren thoroughly evil, up until she had helped Alita save her love, Hugo, in the ruined cathedral that fateful night, when Zapan, an amoral Hunter-Warrior, had set about killing Hugo, on a false claim of murder, to get back at Alita. It had been a huge mess, ending with the deaths of Grewishka and Vector by her own hand, and, the way Alita’s heart told it, Hugo’s death was on her hands, too. Chiren had been vivisected by Vector’s cronies, to be sent in pieces to Zalem for Nova’s strange experiments. Alita had felt bad that she hadn’t tried to save Chiren’s brain, to get it back to Ido to be put into a Total Replacement (TR) cyborg body.  Although, if Hugo’s reaction to being TR’d was any indication, Chiren would probably have gone mad and tried to kill herself. In dark, silent moments, Alita still wondered what had happened to her remains.

It had taken Alita a few months to process all that had happened, all through the lens of pain she’d lived with since Hugo’s death. She’d spent that time decimating the competition in Motorball Second League, and breaking into Pro League. She now understood that ‘the watcher behind the eyes,’ Nova, was the root cause of all the death and destruction she’d experienced since her ‘rebirth.’ He pitted the residents of Iron City against each other for sport. He’d told her as much that fateful day in Vector’s office, while possessing Vector himself. Nova, the ruler of Zalem. Immortal, amoral, a beast… and Alita’s target from the Great War. The Fall. 300 years ago. The convergence was a little too perfect. She needed to destroy him, avenge the fallen, save Iron City, and probably Zalem as well, and ‘finish the mission’ for the United Republics of Mars (URM) that had brought her to Earth some 300 years earlier. Simples…

And how would she do it?  Why, by becoming Final Champion in the Motorball Pro League, of course. And that was why she was at the starting line of the Motorball Pro League – first match of the new season. It was widely known that the only way to get to Zalem from the ground was to become Final Champion. She doubted Nova would allow it, but she had to try. Regardless, she loved the battles, the speed, and the excitement – it even helped her forget the pain for short snapshots of time. Moreover, when she fought in a deadly situation, she’d sometimes got flashbacks to her old life, and anything she could glean from her previous training would likely serve her well in the fights to come.

Loosening up on the starting line reminded her of her first night on the track, and the band of murderers Vector had sent after her with the promise of easy money. How wrong they had been. She’d been nervous, almost ditzy on the line that night, right up until Ido’s call. He told her all the practice team were ring-ins, with only one goal – to destroy the girl called Alita. That was when she’d switched from teenage wannabe to motorball badass.

On that thought, she quickly scanned the crowd for Ido. There he was, with Gerhad talking excitedly on his left, and an empty seat on his right. He always kept that seat vacant, she had realized some nights previously. He said it was for his hat and coat, but it was warm out most nights – he didn’t really need them. No, he kept that seat vacant for the fallen; Chiren, his birth daughter, whose name Alita shared, and Hugo… and with that thought, the pain that was always in her chest redoubled. She hid it away, knowing she needed to focus. This was the big league.

But her mind went back to that tryout. When she was there to play motorball, and the rest were there to play murderball. She still couldn’t understand what Vector had thought they’d achieve.  In the doll body – a young teenage body with no combat capabilities, built by Ido for his birth daughter but never used – Alita had kicked Grewishka’s ass, and killed his cronies to boot, using the lost Martian cyborg martial art of Panzer Kunst, that her cybercore remembered, even if her mind did not. And Vector had thought a rabble of failed Motorballers and low-rent Hunter-Warriors could best her? They had cheep, junkyard bodies. She was sporting a URM Berserker body at that time – the pinnacle of martian combat engineering. They should have gone off and got 20 of their friends – each – and then hidden behind them! But it would only have delayed the inevitable. If she hadn’t been called away – more twinges of pain – she would have dismantled the lot of them right there on the track, in front of the baying crowd. Just like she’d done with anyone that stood in her way in Second League. The Second Leaguers soon worked out the best way to avoid a costly repair bill, or worse, was to do just that – make way for the Battle Angel.  Not so these Paladins, as the first league players were called. She guessed she was a Paladin now. She preferred the moniker Battle Angel better.

Alita dropped into a full split, her legs near horizontal and an inch off the ground, her right wheel foot on the front wheel, and her left on the rear wheel. She looked resplendent in the high shine, purple-and-chrome track body, sporting the number 99 that meant so much in the flashes of her former life, expertly designed by Ido and tuned to a razor edge by Umba. She bounced a little, testing the hip couplings and the give in her knee joints – all working as intended – and then with just a little burst of power to the wheels still touching the ground – in opposing directions to each other – she shot back up to a standing crouch, to the ohhs and cheers of the closest of her fans near the grid. As she settled into the loose combat position, she turned her head slightly to look down the starting line and saw that Jashugan had finished with his accolades, and had joined her on the grid, his tall, hawk-nosed helmet under his right arm. He was appraising her with the usual haughty, knowing look that she’d seen on his face in all the Pro League races she’d been studying between her own Second League outings last season. He looked majestic in his gold and silver armor, with the big shoulders sporting the ‘00’ number, with the bulked out arms covered in surface grinders – not spinning as yet – hanging from them. Then he surprised her by speaking, not something he usually did on the starting line.

“Well, you certainly do look the part, Alita,” Jashugan said with a slight nod of approval, moving closer to converse over the booming voice of the announcer and the cheering of the crowds, “but you really should wear a helmet. Brains are irreplaceable.” Jashugan tapped his temple, and Alita almost rolled her eyes at him in response. “I can see Dyson’s expertise and flair in every curve and gear of that exquisitely fashioned body,” Jashugan went on. “You are very fortunate. Many a Paladin would give much to have Ido as their tuner. It was a great loss to the game when he left it. I’m glad you could bring him back.”

Alita was caught off guard. She’d acted like a star-struck fan when she’d last spoken to Jashugan, just before her Murderball tryout. She’d thought he had walked up to talk to her, but it was Ido, at her side, that he’d fallen into easy conversation with. Ido had introduced Alita to Jashugan, and Alita had gushed, actually gushed at him. She felt so stupid about that, now.  She hadn’t tried to avoid Jashugan during her practice times and her Second League matches, it had just happened that they hadn’t shared the same space again, until now. Back then, she’d been a young girl in a new, dangerous body, ready to take on anyone, and been so naive about it all. Now, with the pain that was always with her, some days she felt every year of the 300 that she’d been in stasis.

Alita glanced up, realizing that Jashugan was looking at her quizzically. “No, Ido is not my tuner,” she replied in a flat voice. “He built this body, with the help of Umba, my tuner. Ed from Esdoc Motors is my manager.”

“Ah, I see,” Jashugan said. “Esdoc was a great opponent back in the day. It is a shame that the bad crash we shared in his last match left him unable to race.” Jashugan looked honestly downcast for a moment. “He knows the game better than most.  He will be an excellent manager. As for Ido, I expect he doesn’t want to be a fatherly distraction down in the pits.” Alita frowned a little at this, and her right eyebrow raised slightly. Jashugan must have taken that as a query, for he continued talking.

“I’ve watched you climb through Second League, or more accurately, scare the piss out of all the other Second Leaguers so badly they wouldn’t dare challenge you for the Motorball,” Jashugan said, his tone suggesting he was at least mildly impressed. “But don’t think that Paladins will be so easily cowed. You told me once you tread the path of the warrior. That path requires skill, dedication, and the willingness to risk everything to gain victory.” He paused, and Alita found herself hanging on his every word. “Are you fully prepared for that eventuality, Alita?”

Alita felt her heart grow cold and sink in her chest. Her excitement about her first race in the Pro League a warmth that had been ripped from her. Anger took its place.

“Prepared?” she spat. “Prepared? I have lost everything in the pursuit of my goals more than once. I survived that. I can do it again.”

“Everything?” Jashugan queried, and glanced to the stands. Alita followed his gaze and saw Ido and Gerhad sitting there, almost bouncing in their seats. When they saw her looking, they waved. “There is still more to lose,” he continued, looking back to Alita. “We of the Path of the Warrior must always be ready for the price of victory.”

What is he doing? Alita asked herself.  Is he trying to mess with my head? Distract me from the race? Or is he on to me…

“In any event, welcome to Pro League, and good fortune to you, Battle Angel,” Jashugan finished in a lighter tone, and rolled away, just as Ajakutty rolled up to the line, his introduction to the crowd, somewhat shorter than her’s and Jashugan’s, completed. Alita noted that Jashugan used the term Battle Angel rather than Paladin. That made her even more curious.

“Hey you, purple girl,” Ajakutty sneered, waggling a long, green, tooth-edged finger at Alita. “I was going to take that number, 99, for this season, up 10 from last season like I usually do, but because you arrived in the ‘big time,’ I can’t.” Alita took the measure of this brash Paladin, encased in lime green and black, the edges of his long arms toothed, like a chainsaw, as well as his fingers and calves. His helmet had a clear faceplate, and swept-back, probably to improve aerodynamics. “Sign the number over to me at the end of this race, and I’ll let you live,” he finished, the motorized teeth on his limbs spinning up to an impressive blur and a smooth, metallic whine, and then stopping abruptly.

“Heh,” Alita said in an amused tone, a crooked grin sliding onto her face. Jashugan shook his head in disappointment behind them at the exchange, and put his helmet on. “That’s just not going to happen.” Alita waggled the index finger of her left hand back at Ajakutty, letting stadium lights reflect off the Damascus blade attached to that arm and shine in the brash Paladin’s eyes. “So whatcha gonna do about it?”

“This,” Ajakutty stated, waving a trackside camera crew over. The announcer, having just finished introducing Claymore, a Paladin dressed more like a medieval knight that a cyborg track warrior, picked up on the commotion at the starting line.

“Ohhh and what’s this, fans and fanatics?” the voice piped over the speakers expounded. “Ajakutty has something to say.  Let’s go trackside before we introduce our next Pro League Paladin. “Carl?”

“This is Carl Mercer,” the reporter took over, standing next to a very smug-looking Ajakutty, with Alita looking bemused in the background, “on the start line of the first race of the Iron City Motorball Pro League Autumn Season.  Ajakutty, one of the Pro League regulars, wants to announce a challenge. ‘Kutty?” Ajakutty grabbed the mic, slicing divots into the metal with his bladed grasp.

“That’s right,” he stated, slightly startled with his voice being amplified back to him. Regardless, he pressed on. “Everyone knows that each season, I cycle through the double digits. Last season I was 88, so I would naturally progress on to 99 for this season. But we have an upstart from the lesser forms of the game joining us this season, and she claims the double 9.” There were some boos and a lot of cheers from the crowd. Alita felt a little less put-upon that her fans were backing her, until Ajakutty turned around and pointed an accusing finger at her. “This one, this ‘Alita,’ has broken my number streak, and I cannot let this stand. I challenge you, Alita of the Second League, for the number you wear, that I should rightly hold. If I score higher than you in this match, or you are wiped out and cannot continue while I finish the match, I take that number back, and you have no further claim on it!  Agreed?”

Alita was shocked. She hadn’t even had one race in the Pro League and she was already singled out. But she had to think quick. She only had a few seconds to compose herself before the reporter handed her the mic. She took a deep breath, never having spoken in front of such a crowd before – that she knew of. Even Zalem would be watching this…

“I accept this, and any challenge to my martial prowess,” Alita stated matter-of-factually into the mic, casting a dread gaze across the assembled Paladins, the nearby crowd, and settling again to look unflinchingly at the glass eye of the camera. “Ajakutty will find, at the end of this race, he is the one face down and in pieces, and I will be the victor.” She paused. “So it shall be, with all my enemies.” As Alita handed the mic back, the crowd went wild. So loud was their response, that no one heard the report return the feed to the announcer’s box. Alita glanced up, seeing the now worried looks on Ido’s and Gerhad’s faces. She gave them what she hoped was a reassuring wave, and continued to ready herself. At least there should only be one Pro Motorballer trying to murder her, this time. The others might even play some Motorball. Alita cast her mind back to all the games she’d studied where Ajakutty had played. He liked to slide, and spin, and chop bits of other motorballers with those chainsaws in his limbs. He did tend to give Jashugan a fairly wide berth, however. Something good to remember.

The other motorballers continued coming down off the podium after their introductions. Hard faces, game faces, experienced faces. This was their lives. Their big shot, their only shot. But it was just a stepping stone to Alita. Zariki, number 23, arrived next, a large cyborg in blue, white and steel, with 4 legs for balance at high speed, and 2 additional scything arms. Alita would be watching out for those. Following Zariki was Skaramasakus, number 24, another bulky racing cyborg with an unhealthy, death-like appearance, and big shields on his arms, that, when brought together in front of him created a death’s head, and large, driving wheels to give him the power to bulldoze anyone or anything out of his way. Next was 07, Crimson Wind, a much more lithe, female Paladin decked out in red and chrome, and one that had impressed Alita with the speed and reaction time she could attain. Also known as Takie, Crimson Wind used no weapons, rather relying on her speed, reaction time, and incredible racing moves to win. And win she had, more than a few times last season. Alita gave her a sisterly nod of appreciation and was pleased to have it returned, along with a serious look.

The final pair of Paladins for tonight’s race were number 14, Juggernaut and number 33, Bargerald.  The latter had made it to Pro League late in the last season, just before Alita joined Second League. Juggernaut, like the name suggested, was huge, with 4 fighting arms, arrayed with grinders, clamps, and drills attached to the wrists, which he used to great effect to dismantle opponents. His white, red and steel livery sat atop a large wheel, with ‘legs’ on either side sporting stabilizing casters. Bargerald, while still sizable, had a double piston on his right arm, and was known as ‘Piledriver’ around the Paladin friendly bars in Eastside. He rolled up next to Ajakutty and had a quiet conversation with him, Alita noted. Those two were probably track-mates. She’d have to watch both of them during the coming challenge.

With the Paladin’s finally assembled on the starting line, the announcer bid the crowd to hush, as the time had come for the opening game address to be given by the somewhat new head of The Factory. This would be her first open address, and the people of Iron City were interested to hear what she had to say.

Out onto the dais each of the Paladins had occupied in turn, a fit, tanned-skinned woman, probably in her late 30’s, with refined, well-cared-for features and sharp eyes, confidently strode.  The clothing she wore, which was probably a dress of some description – Alita wasn’t very good with more feminine fashions – was made of a complicated collection of swatches of dark fabric of varying types, all flowing down her body, presenting an ever-shifting cavalcade of graceful movement as she walked. The effect was pleasant, even somewhat mesmerizing, and it reminded Alita of something… but it wouldn’t come to her. The woman scanned the crowd, glints in her long, dark, flowing hair suggesting she had something woven into her locks. The effect oozed elegance, grace, and above all, power.

“My fellow denizens of Iron City,” she began, in an amplified voice that was strong, firm and pleasant, “welcome to the Autumn season of Motorball Pro League!” She raised both her hands quickly, fists clenched, and the crowd responded with an almighty cheer. Alita noted that her arms, while feminine and graceful, were subtly muscled. She was definitely not a weak person. She dropped her arms after about 10 seconds, and most of the crowd dutifully quieted down again. 

“I realize some of you do not know me, so let me fix that first. My name is Dutchess, and I run both the Factory and Motorball after the untimely demise of the last incumbent, Vector.” Dutchess almost spat the name. She was no Vector fan. Neither was most of the crowd by the booing and catcalling. Dutchess also looked squarely at Alita as she said it. Alita tried not to look surprised, and mostly succeeded. There was a statement in that stare. Don’t you try that with me, girl. Alita looked unabashedly back with her own message. Don’t give me a reason to come after you too, then! After a few seconds that seemed to drag, the Dutchess subtly nodded once, looked away and continued on.

“Factory production was shaky during the changeover, but we are now back to meeting quotas, and I am pleased,” she finished and smiled. She had quite a pleasant smile, and despite herself, Alita found herself warming to this new woman-in-charge. The crowd, however, didn’t quite know what to make of it, as Vector had never, ever said he was happy with the work being done in the factory, because he believed that if you ever said you were pleased about something, workers would start to slack off. “So I dedicate this season of Pro Motorball to you, the workers.  You keep this city moving, and Zalem mostly happy, and that’s what we’re here to achieve. You’ll all find a little extra in your pay dispersions this cycle. Enjoy it!” Dutchess threw her fist in the air again.

The crowd erupted in a cheer that would have been heard all the way to Zalem. Vector had never done a single thing for the people of Iron City that he wasn’t forced to do. This was unheard of, breaking new ground. Alita thought with new masters, came new methods, but this was almost too good to be true for the people who toiled each day making goods for their so-called betters in Zalem.

While the crowd continued to cheer, Alita’s head com buzzed.  She answered it, and it was Ed, her manager. “Sounds great, don’t it,” he intoned in his deadpan voice. “But what you don’t know is Dutchess controls all the drug dealing in Iron City and half of the farms. A lot of that extra cash will go to buying drugs, and make its way back to her hands anyway.” Alita scowled. She knew there had to be a punchline somewhere, and there it was, right in the guts of the workers. Dabbling in drugs would get a lot of them hooked, and it’d be a downhill slide after that.

“What’s this with a challenge, Alita?” Umba cut in on the call, his excited voice at odds with Ed’s monotone. “Are you going to kick ‘Kutty’s ass up under his chin for him?” Alita suppressed a giggle as Ed cut in.

“No Alita, don’t take personal challenges! We have to consider your sponsor, Mr. Thompson, and how it will affect your rating.  Why, when I was on the track…”

“When you were on the track,” Umba took back over, “you’d jump the pit wall to pursue a personal slight!” Umba gauffed. “And anyway, I’ve checked with Tommy, and he’s fine with it. Any publicity is good publicity. Smart man.”

“And so,” Dutchess was finishing up as the crowd calmed again, “I declare Motorball Pro League Autumn Season OPEN!  Enjoy!” She spun and walked off the dais, as the Motorballers all around Alita answered Dutchess with hard revving engines, and weapons clashing on thighs.

“You heard the lady, Paladins,” the announcer crooned, “20 seconds to brakes off. As this is the first game of the season, it is a free-for-all.  10 laps, and no teams!”

The Paladins all started getting serious. Helmets went on, visors went down, last checks on weapons were made. But Ed wasn’t finished on the call. “Alita, if you are going to go up against ‘Kutty like that, you should be wearing your helmet!” It was the most emotion Alita had ever heard in Ed’s voice, which still wasn’t much.

“But it just gets in the way,” Alita protested, “and it’s too late to go back for it now.” She wasn’t wrong, as the lights on the race plotter started dipping through the red levels towards orange.

“How about the neck and skull augments I built into your track body, then?” Umba suggested, “at least if you take a blow to the neck or head, your brain will be less likely to take serious damage.”

“OK, I give in,” Alita sighed, acquiescing, and mentally activated the new augments. As the lights continued to track down towards the starting greens, she felt high-tension alloy composite bands snaking up her neck from her track body’s back and in through her hair, adding extra armor to her cranium. They were slightly spaced and remained pliable until struck, so they would at least slow a slashing blow to the back of her head, if not a stabbing thrust.  More metallic bands slid up the sides of her neck, again protecting that area, and then folded up around her jaw, laying out across her cheeks and under her eyes. Alita caught the reflection of her face in the sheen of her left arm, and couldn’t help but smile broadly at the layout of the face augments.

“Umba, you crafty devil,” she crooned. “You remembered how I described the Kunstler augments to you!” The race was moments from starting.

“That was Ido’s addition to the system,” Umba said, “he’s such a thoughtful, clever man.  But enough admiration, you have a race to win.”

“On it,” Alita replied, cutting the connection and dropping into a high acceleration crouch as the motor noise on the starting line reached a crescendo. This was going to be fun!

The lights hit green, and the Paladin’s exploded off the line… it was on!

Chapter 2 ->

Author’s Note: I do not make any claim on the IP of Alita: Battle Angel, the characters used here as a homage to the original (movie, novels, OVA or Manga), nor intend to make any money from this fanfic.  Consider it free advertising, and getting the fandom interested in a sequel. Which we all want. So much so I’m writing one myself!

And to Cameron’s Lawyers – please don’t shut me down!

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