Chapter 10 – Unto the Cauldron of the Heart’s Desire

<– Chapter 9

Koyomi’s eyelids fluttered and she opened them. It took her eyes a few moments to focus on the world around her, and in that time she tried to remember going to sleep. But she couldn’t bring it to mind. The last thing she remembered was walking across the Western Rail Yards with someone – who…

“Oh, you’re awake,” a familiar, fatherly, voice said. Koyomi’s brain was refusing to draw conclusions for her, and it took her eyes slowly focusing on the face that momentarily leaned over her to inform her that the speaker was, in fact, Doctor Dyson Ido. “How are you feeling, Koyomi?”

“Um, well,” Koyomi began through a dry mouth. She coughed, and as she slid up into a sitting position, surprisingly pain-free but with much stiffness, a feminine hand reached over with water in a finely-crafted, blue drinking glass. Not a common sight in Iron City. Koyomi took a grateful drink, and then turned to hand the glass back. Her brain did a backflip, recognising the young woman – Shumira? – who was smiling sweetly at her. And suddenly all the events of the night she spent fighting for her life, and then gambling for the soup kitchen’s food, came rushing back to her. “I’m feeling a bit woozy,” Koyomi said, after swallowing hard to keep her stomach contents in check and taking a few deep breaths to calm her swirling head.

“I’m not at all surprised,” Doc Ido said, collecting up various medical items and putting them into a ubiquitous doctor’s satchel, which he closed with a snap. “You have several nasty contusions on your scalp, and a moderate concussion.”

“A… concussion?” Koyomi asked, and slid back down onto the pillows again.

“Yes,” Ido asserted. “Shumira gave me the high points of your train adventure, and I have to say, you are lucky that’s the worst of your injuries. No broken bones, but a bit of deep bruising, cuts, burns, scrapes, and strained tendons.” He gave Koyomi a significant look. “If I didn’t know better, I would have said you were out bagging heads as a Hunter-Warrior!”

“Pfft,” Koyomi asserted, her cheeks reddening, “I’m no Hunter-Warrior.”

“Well no,” Ido said, gathering up his bag, “but you did do something pretty amazing last night. You should be proud of that.” Ido leaned in closer, his face becoming sterner. “And do your best to avoid ever having to do it again.”

“Oh, you can bet on that,” Koyomi said, vowing to be way more careful in the future. “I don’t want to need that much luck again for a long time to come.” 


“Good,” the Doc said, leaning back and sitting on a chair next to the bed, “Now, tell me, before I go, what do you remember of today?”

“Um, well,” Koyomi closed her eyes to help her memories form, but they were really patchy. “I remember getting off the blasted train, walking across the Good Yard, and then…” She hesitated for a few moments, her frown deepening. “Nothing.”

“Ah,” Ido said, “that would be the concussion. Nothing serious. A bit of short term memory loss is to be expected. Shumira here can fill you in on the missing details. It might come back to you as the slow release meds I gave you do their work – anti-inflammatories, neural stabilizers, synaptic regenerators. You are lucky Shumira called me. You’d take weeks to months to get over this without the meds, as they had to several hundred years ago. Now, with proper treatment, only a few days.”

“Oh, well thank you, both of you,” Koyomi looked to the Doc, and then to Shumira. “What do I owe you, Doc?” 

“Nothing,” Ido said, getting to his feet. “Shumira covered it, plus a generous callout fee. Thanks again, Shumira.” Koyomi looked pointedly at the diminutive blonde.

“Oh that’s OK, Doctor Ido,” Shumira said, smiling pleasantly. “Shumira knows Ido has other patients who can’t pay upfront, so Shumira is happy to help the clinic’s funding. And Shumira knows Doctor Ido has another engagement tonight, so Shumira paid extra to drag Ido away from that.”

“Oh, that’s fine, Shumira,” Doc Ido said, putting the chair back against the wall. “I was just about to leave when you called. I just threw a few things in my bag based on your description of the problem, and headed over. I’ll go to the Motorball track now, and catch up with Girhad.” He looked to Koyomi. “And you look after yourself, young lady.” Koyomi nodded, and Ido leaned in close to speak in a conspiratorial tone. “Do you want me to tell Alita you’re back in town?”

“Um, no,” Koyomi said in an equally quiet voice, after a few moment’s consideration. “But if I could have her number? I never got it back before, you know… everything went crazy and I skipped town.” Doc Ido smiled, and pointed to a piece of paper on the nightstand. Koyomi smiled at the man’s thoughtfulness.

“Just don’t go sharing that around,” Ido said, a serious tone coloring his subdued voice. “There are a lot of people who would love to have that number, and Alita would be very unimpressed if we were responsible for that happening.”

“OK, I won’t,” Koyomi promised as Ido straightened, smiling, but not quite understanding Ido’s meaning with her still-swirling senses. 

“Farewell, Ladies,” Ido spoke up to address both the women. “Koyomi should be fine with a few days rest, now. Call me if anything changes.”

“Shumira will!” Shumira promised him, as she got off the far side of the king-sized bed and walked around to show the Doctor out, leaving Koyomi alone for a few minutes.

Koyomi & Shumira (art by @KranberriJam)

Once the room was quiet, Koyomi picked up a high pitched note in her hearing that wasn’t noticeable when the room was noisy. ’I guess the ringing in my ears will be a gift from the Barjack for a while yet,’ she considered. She took a few deep breaths to steady herself and then pulled herself up to sit back up against the multitudinous pile of pillows. She could feel the stiffness in her arms and legs, but it didn’t hurt. Koyomi expected it was something the Doc had given her, and when it wore off, she might not feel so comfortable.

Koyomi looked around the room, guessing that this was a bedroom in Shumira’s apartment. The bed was bigger than some rooms Koyomi had rented in the past, and the sheets were some really soft, slidey fabric that felt sumptuous against her skin. She realized she was in her underwear, and wondered who had done that. At least her modesty was still intact, and her body was partially cleaned – she’d need a real bath or shower to do that properly – and her cuts were dressed. Her head still felt a bit swimmy, and sore to the touch in a few places, but if she left that alone it’d be OK.

She spied a light, lacy bed-shirt over the far arm of the chair near the side of the bed. It was not her style, but would do in a pinch. Reaching for it was tricky, but she got hold of it and had it over her patched-up torso without too much difficulty. Feeling more comfortable, she took in the room, marvelling in the rich, purple color of the drapes, the fine, tropical grain of the wood the furniture was made out of – all matching – the artfully placed nicknacks, a big picture frame on the wall near the door, with downlights reflecting from the glass so Koyomi couldn’t make out what was hung in there from her position on the bed, and the big, dark shape of the flat screen on the far wall.

“Well, she wasn’t kidding,” Koyomi said to herself. “This place is lush!”

“Shumira is glad Koyomi likes it,” the petite blonde said as she shouldered the door open, carrying a bed tray laid out with a wonderful spread of toast with ginger marmalade on the side – something Koyomi had only discovered out at Farm 23 – fruit that Koyomi didn’t recognise but looked good enough to go to Zalem, a pot of tea and some really amazing looking china, and a small, crystal vase with a flower in it. The same type of flower that Shumira had tucked in her bandanna.

Shumira put down the tray over Koyomi’s legs and the smell of the food hit her. Koyomi’s stomach threatened rebellion, but she swallowed that down and looked at the repast eagerly. Shumira put marmalade on the toast, and poured the tea and added milk and sugar to Koyomi’s taste, while Koyomi approached some nagging questions.

“Shumira,” Koyomi began, “thank you so much for looking after me. I really appreciate it. And for getting Doc Ido. It seems I needed professional help after all.”

“Koyomi is very welcome,” Shumira said, her smile blooming across her face. “Shumira was so worried when Koyomi started acting strange and then collapsed. But Koyomi had been saying Doc Ido’s name, so Shumira figured that is who Koyomi needed, so Shumira got Doc Ido to come.”

“Well, thank you again,” Koymoi said, taking a deep breath before continuing, “but I was wondering, did I do anything between us walking towards the Soup Kitchen, and me waking up here?”

“A few things,” Shumira said, considering for a moment. “Koyomi spent quite a bit of time at the bounty kiosk near the soup kitchen, but seemed satisfied when Koyomi left there. So Koyomi must have found what Koyomi was looking for, yes?”

“Actually, probably not,” Koyomi said, “but that’s alright.” She didn’t want to blurt out to her host that Koyomi was making sure there were no active bounties on her. That seemed unpolitic. “Anything else?”

“Koyomi tried to call someone named Hugo,” Shumira said, and Koyomi took a sharp intake of breath. “But the number was disconnected,” Shumira went on. “Koyomi seemed rather sad about that.” Koyomi’s heart started to hurt, and tears threatened to well in her eyes. She feared the worst, and now wished she’d asked Doc Ido about Hugo while he was in attendance. ‘Oh well, I’ll have to ask Alita, tomorrow,’ Koyomi promised herself.

Shumira went around the far side of the bed and climbed on as Koyomi tucked into the food, coming to rest a comfortable distance from her guest. “Would Koyomi like to watch some flat screen?” Shumira asked absently, as she opened a pack of popcorn that smelt almost as good as Koyomi’s own food when the smell reached her. “There is a Pro League Motorball match on tonight.”

“I guess so,” Koyomi said around a bite of toast. She hadn’t seen a game in over two months, and it wasn’t even the same season anymore. She had no idea who would be playing, and what events had transpired on the track in her absence.

The flat screen flashed to life, and scenes from the Motorball track came up. The announcer was doing his usual pre-game warmup, but it was the content of the monologue that stopped Koyomi’s hand with a piece of toast an inch from her wide-open mouth.

“…and after that amazing finish to the last Pro League match, fans have packed themselves into the stands, in hopes of seeing number 00, Jashugan, and the record-breaking newcomer, number 99, Alita, slug it out again on the Motorball track.”

Images of Jashugan, a Paladin Koyomi easily recognised, fighting toe to toe with a shining, purple and silver Alita, looking all the world to be a match for the Paladin that was considered the best prospect for the next Final Champion, flashed up on the screen. Koyomi dropped the half-eaten piece of toast into her cup of tea.

“Alita had some trouble early in the match with Ajakutty and another new addition to Pro League, Bargerald, but after some glitches in her spares were sorted out, she cleared the track and fought Jashugan to a draw. I’ve never seen anything like it, and fans are hoping there’s more carnage like that to come in a mere quarter-hour from now, when the match gets underway after the team selections.”

“Koyomi,” Shumira said, and glancing at her, Koyomi could see her eyes were tearing up, “Shumira is worried about Big Brother.” Koyomi, mouth still open, looked at the screen, and then back at Shumira. This was getting too much for her concussed, drugged mind to deal with.

“And it has just been announced by his Tuner that Jashugan will not be playing tonight.” The sounds of upset rippled through the crowd at the stadium, and some booing was evident. “So there will be no rematch of that epic tussle tonight. Crimson Wind, as the next highest scoring Paladin from the last match, will captain the team in opposition to Alita’s selections.”

“So… ah, what’s up with your brother?” Koyomi queried, visibly struggling to follow these disparate sources of information simultaneously. 

“Big Brother is missing!” Shumira blubbered, dropping her bag of popcorn and burying her face in Koyomi’s shoulder. Koyomi comforted the slighter blonde, her head swimming. After a moment, Shumira rallied. “Shumira called Mario, Big Brother’s tuner, and Mario said Big Brother hasn’t been seen since the night of the last race.”

“The last… race?” Koyomi asked, then added “Tuner?” Shumira lifted her head, cheeks wet with tracks of tears, and nodded rapidly. Koyomi’s brain was trying to put it all together, but she was struggling. Like the last piece of a puzzle, but she was trying to place it upside down.

“So, your brother is… a Motorball player?” Koyomi asked. 

“Yes,” Shumira said.

“A Pro League player?” Koyomi verified.

“Yes.” 

“What’s… his name?” Koyomi tried not to predict the answer, and when Shumira went to open her mouth, Koyomi added. “Not what you call him, his real name.”

“Oh,” Shumira said, and thought a little. “Jashugan. Big Brother’s name is Jashugan.” She pointed to the framed poster on the wall, and Koyomi leaned over to stop the room lights reflecting off the glass. There, in large print, was a picture of Jashugan, the Pro Motorball Paladin, in all his cyber-mechanical glory, with a banner over his head stating ‘Next Final Champion.’

Koyomi’s jaw dropped. It stayed that way while the announcer rattled off all the Paladins that would be playing that evening, and which team leader was expected to pick them up. Shumira watched the flat screen for a bit, then turned back to Koyomi with a quizzical look. On seeing her looking, Koyomi shut her mouth with a clack.

“Say, isn’t that friend Koyomi was going to introduce Shumira to called Alita?” Shumira asked. Koyomi could only nod. “And is that the same Alita who is playing Pro League Motorball tonight?”

“I’m pretty sure it is,” Koyomi said in a distracted monotone.

“OK, good,” Shumira said, brightening and nodding her head. “Maybe this Alita knows where Big Brother is?”

“Maybe,” Koyomi said, falling back amongst the pillows. “This is all so serendipitous that just maybe she does.”

“Good,” Shumira said, picking her popcorn back up and eating it again with gusto. “Koyomi really needs to introduce Shumira to Alita, then.”

“I guess Koyomi… er I mean I, do,” Koyomi said, and closed her eyes.

***

The mingled roar of the excited Motorball crowd made Alita think of a storm surge lashing rocky cliffs at the seashore. Yet she didn’t know how her troubled mind was drawing this comparison. Probably from memories sequestered behind the iron veil that divided her old-self memories from the new, for in the time since she was first rebuilt by Ido, she had never left Iron City headed for the coast. She would, one day, but there were more pressing matters at hand – like selecting, and then captaining a Pro Motorball team for the first time.

Alita had played team races in Second League, but the team lists were always chosen by the race officials, as were the captains, and Alita had been grateful at the time that she’d never been picked as captain. Now, however, Alita was almost wishing she had, to have had some experience at it before hitting the big time. This prospect had been nagging at her over the past two days, becoming increasingly more distracting during practice, and making restful sleep a hard-won commodity. But it wouldn’t make any difference, in the end. Alita knew she would throw herself into this challenge like she did all the rest, learn ‘on the job,’ and rise or fall on her own ability. Except she had team members this time, ones she was supposed to lead to victory. Alita involuntarily swallowed. 

“I work better alone,” Alita mumbled to herself, glad the crowd noise would hide her admission. She was in one of the player entrance tunnels, a half-pipe construction of raw cement, with piping and trunking running visibly along its length. Leaning, back against the wall, one wheel foot up against the crumbling side, knee forward, looking as nonchalant as she could manage while she waited for Ajakutty to come by. But her mind was racing, and probably wouldn’t stop until the amber start indicator turned to green, and she was absorbed in battle on the track.

Alita saw a dark shape that matched ‘Kutty’s proportions entering the entrance tunnel when the announcer got wound up again.

“Not long to wait now, you Motorball maniacs! The second match of the ‘Late Wet’ Motortball Season will soon be underway, and after that amazing finish to the last Pro League match, fans have packed themselves into the stands, in hopes of seeing number 00, Jashugan, and the record-breaking newcomer, number 99, Alita, slug it out again on the Motorball track.”

‘Yes, Jashugan,’ Alita thought to herself, her mind honing in on her target thanks to training that took place some 300 years before. ‘I have to fight you again, and this time beat you.’

“Ah, Alita,” Ajakutty said in his pleasant, around-the-kitchen-table-at-Ido’s tone. “I was hoping to catch you before the selections.” He stood a little awkwardly, his viciously toothed and sports-car shiny track body at odds with his demeanor.
“That would be why I’m waiting here for you in the acoustic pocket of the entrance tunnel,” Alita responded, putting more sarcasm into her tone than she intended. Ajakutty turned his head back and forth, realising with a smile that the point at which they stood the volume of the noises coming from the track was at its lowest. “We can talk somewhat privately, here,” Alita went on, more congenial this time, “and we won’t be heard unless someone walks right by us.”

Alita Challenging Zalem

“Ah, well that’s good, you see, because I have picked up some intel you need to hear, and if it’s true, you are not going to like,” Ajakutty stated, as the announcer started in again about the rollercoaster of issues Alita had to fight through in the last match, one of them being ‘Kutty himself, before she could even face Jashugan. She gritted her teeth as she was reminded that the cyborg in front of her was her sworn enemy in the last match, and now she was going to have to rely on him in a team game. 

“But first, how did things go with Crimson Wind?” Alita asked before ‘Kutty could continue. “Does she want to join the ‘speed team?’” She looked at Ajakutty sternly, and he almost froze, unable to stop his mind from going back to their last encounter on the track.

“Well, I did go to see her…” Ajakutty began, then floundered.

“Yes?” Alita prompted.

“And I spent a lot of time being very apologetic and explaining the plan…”

“Yes?”

“But Sista, you know how these Paladins are,” Ajakutty’s tone turned contrite, “all ego and competition.” Alita curled her lip.

“And?” Adjakutty looked down.

“She hasn’t really competed against you yet, and wants to test ‘your metal’ before agreeing to team with us,” Ajakutty finally admitted. When Alita was quiet for a few moments, he looked back up at her.

“I can respect her decision,” Alita said, a glint of competitive zeal in her eyes. “I’ll just have to show her, quite literally, who’s boss.”

“Does this mean we won’t be teaming, Sista?” Ajakutty asked, only just managing to resist wringing his hands.

Ajakutty in civies

“Oh, on the contrary,” Alita stated, “I’m going to need someone like you who has fought and won against her on the track to give me some pointers. We’ll have to clean her up before I take on Jashugan again, but mark my words, she’s going to be ready to join us before the end of the match.” Ajakutty smiled, and Alita went to wack him playfully on the shoulder, but she found he’d moved out of the way before her hand connected. Alita drew her head back and raised an eyebrow, in a good imitation of Doc Ido’s questioning look, and was about to ask when the announcer spoke again.

“And it has just been announced by his Tuner that Jashugan will not be playing tonight.” The sounds of upset rippled down the entrance tunnel, and some booing was evident. “So there will be no rematch of that epic tussle tonight. Crimson Wind, as the next highest scoring Paladin from the last match, will captain the team in opposition to Alita’s selections.”

Alita and Ajakutty looked at each other.

“Did you know anything about this?” Alita asked.

“Well yes,” Ajakutty responded, rubbing his chin with his bladed fingers, “but it was only rumored that Jashugan hadn’t been seen training the past two days. I thought nothing of it at the time, but now…” Alita’s mind switched gears. Her true opponent wasn’t in attendance, so she would have to satisfy her urge for combat on the new captain of the opposition. She pushed the wave of disappointment away, resisting the urge to punch the tunnel wall in frustration – she knew what a mistake that was, now – and her focus became knife-edge on defeating her current opposite: Crimson Wind.

Ajakutty stopped talking when Alita’s eyes glazed over. He’d seen this response in Ido’s kitchen, and decided to let the little Motorball firebrand do her thinking. While waiting, he took the lucky chain tooth he kept in a small compartment at his hip, and began flipping it across the knuckles of his right hand, avoiding the smaller teeth on his finger saws. It was an exercise he’d been given to do, but he didn’t realize he was doing it so fast the tooth was a blur until Alita caught his hand, and the chain tooth fell towards the ground. Alita went to catch it, but Ajakutty’s hand was there first.

“OK,” Alita said in a tone sharp enough to cut steel, “exactly what is going on here. Ido’s meds aren’t that much better. Why are you so fast all of a sudden?”

“Yes, well,” ‘Kutty began, putting the lucky tooth away absently, “that was the other thing I had to tell you, that I knew you wouldn’t like…”

“Just spit it out, ‘Kutty,” Alita said, releasing his wrist and leaning back against the wall. “It’s not like I have never had a setback before.”

“Not like this, you haven’t,” Ajakutty said, his tone somber, “at least, not while playing Motorball.” He took a deep breath, and sighed. “Look, it’s like this. Some very fancily-dressed business people have visited ALL the other Pro teams since the last race. All of them!” ‘Kutty emphasised. “They were offering speed enhancement chips, and the techs to install them, at almost ‘giveaway’ prices.”

“And you took one.” It was a statement, not a question, and was delivered with disdain.

“Of course I did!” Ajakutty whispered intently, leaning in, trying not to be heard at a distance. “I’m not stupid. You were faster than everyone but Jashugan on the track last race. They all knew that.” Ajakutty flung his arm out and back, as if the other Paladins were lined up on the starting line behind him. “They all had to accept the offer to have a chance against you. And I had to accept it to have a chance against them. It’s an arms race, Sista. You either race, or you die.”

It was Alita’s turn to take a deep breath and sigh. She tilted her head, weighing up the next thing she would say, then breathed in deeply to speak. “You do know the only source for something like that is Zalem, right?” Ajakutty nodded, his lip pressed tight. “And you know that any chip supplied by Zalem will likely have telepresence circuitry in it, yes?” ‘Kutty’s brows furrowed.

“That’s like sense recording capabilities, so someone else can experience your reality, right?” Ajakutty asked.

“It’s more than that, you dope,” Alita admonished the larger Paladin leaning away from the wall to get in his face, “It’s hardware that allows the Chairman of Zalem himself, Nova, to take you over and do whatever the hell he wants with you. At, Any, Time!” Ajakutty went white. Alita hadn’t known a TR cyborg could do that.

“Take me over, totally, at any time,” Ajakutty repeated, his eyes glassy. Alita nodded, her lips a thin line under her scowl. 

“You have to get that chip out of there,” Alita said, “right now.” As if on cue, the announcer’s voice rose over the hubbub of crowd noise.

“Will all Paladins report to the starting line for team selection. Alita Ido and Crimson Wind, you are required immediately to start your selections.”

“I don’t have time…” Ajakutty trailed off, his eyes wide and begging as he stared at Alita.

“You’ll just have to run with it,” Alita said, kicking off the wall and almost pushing the bigger Paladin towards the stadium. “If everyone has one Nova can’t be taking control of you all at once, but be sure he’s having everything we say recorded. Keep that in mind.”

“But why would the ruler of Zalem care what I have to…” Ajakutty’s final statement was drowned out by the roar of the crowd as the two Paladins came out of the entry tunnel, the powerful stadium lighting highlighting the shine and detail work on their bespoke armor, as they moved to join the rest of the competitors at the starting grid.

‘Because Nova will manipulate anyone and everyone to get to me,’ Alita thought to herself. The tables had flipped again. She’d gone from queen of the track to the target of the pack, without any idea it was coming. She’d just have to beat Nova at his own game, but she lacked the time to develop a strategy. She’d have to rely on her instincts and training – the ones she couldn’t rightly remember… ‘What is your game, Nova?’ Alita wondered at last, before she was waved up to the podium for the team selection.

***

“Give me an update on Karmatron Dynamics experiment 99a,” Nova demanded absently as he looked over the balcony rail at the far off – to most normal people – Motorball stadium, that was only curved bleachers, loops of track, and flashing lights to the likes of Bigott Eisenberg. The PA stood a respectful two steps back from the ruler of Zalem, on his left side, near the balcony rail. Bigott expected that Nova would know everything he would tell the despotic leader, and he was sure this was some sort of test. One he could not afford to fail. Bigott tapped his wrist and his subdermal comp activated. He tapped and flicked through the holographic displays until he reached the requisite data.

Chairman Nova watches on from Zalem as his KD Experiment 99a progresses.

“As you anticipated,” Bigott began, his monotone carefully modulated, “Ajakutty told Alita about the chips after she saw his reflex increase, and he told her about the other Paladins gaining the same tech.” Bigott glanced up at Nova, and the ruler of Zalem was nodding ever so slightly, his optical array still glued to the Motorball track. The tiny smile Bigott saw etched on his features seemed ever so cruel, to the fearful PA. “She now knows of the surprise you’ve arranged for her, but not of how you might intend to use it.”

“Obviously,” Nova said, his tone caustic, and licked his lips. Bigott waited a few seconds, not daring to talk over the Chairman. Finally, Nova continued. “I can almost see the gears in her head spinning to destruction. She knows the Sword of Damocles hangs above her head, but she doesn’t know when, and in what fashion, it will fall.” He stopped again, for a few more seconds, his body testing in response to something he was viewing, and then he relaxed again. “Delightful,” was his final verbal queue.

Licking his own lips, Bigott continued after a few moments of silence.

“Professor Nova is…” was all Bigott managed in his next line of reporting before Nova growled loudly, smashing his fist down on the railing, which bent alarmingly from the blow. Bigott’s words died in his throat as there was a loud cracking sound of fracturing bone and a sharp intake of breath from Nova as the Chairman’s wrist shifted, to hang at an unnatural angle. Blood seeped from a tear in the bottom of the shattered hand, dripping, shining crimson, to the floor. 

“I told you not to call it that,” Nova said, in way of explanation through clenched teeth. “It is to be referred to as NGEU1.” Bigott watched, his eyes agog, as the hand seemed to writhe and shift. There was a clicking and tearing sound, and the blood flow stopped, the wrist reset itself to the correct orientation, and the rapidly bruising skin recovered its usual, healthy glow.

“Yes, Sir,” Bigott responded in a quiet voice, as Nova flexed the fingers on the newly reformed appendage, before the PA cleared his throat and started again. “The Nova Ground Effect Unit One is continuing the surgery on patient Jashugan. The operation is 82% complete. Once you take back over to finish the procedure, estimates settle at about 94% likelihood of a recovery with brain stability measured in weeks.”

“Yes, yes,” Nova said, the whir of his adjusting optics telegraphing their removal, and Nova turned to stare unblinking, at his PA. “He should last just long enough to defeat Alita, and win the Final Champion crown for this cycle. You think that isn’t my plan?” Bigott had to fight his base instincts not to flinch or look away. He wanted to be anywhere else at that moment. Even dirtside would be better. His mind snapped back to his situation as Nova tutted. “Make sure preparations are in place to back up his synaptic activity. I don’t want to lose any valuable test data.”

“Yes, Chairman,” Bigott said, turning to go, his most fervent wish to be as far away from this room as possible.

“And Bigott?” Nova said as the PA reached the doorway. His tone was so light and friendly that Bigott knew his life was in more danger than ever.

“Yes. Sir?”

“I want full eavesdropping on all the Paladins, especially everyone who is in earshot of Alita Ido.” Nova licked his lips again. “I want to relish every moment of her struggle before her demise.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Bigott’s breathing was heavy and ragged as he leaned back against the wall in the next corridor over from Nova’s office. The PA knew this was a blind spot between cameras, so Nova would not have ‘eyes’ on him while he fought off this panic attack. So the rumors were true! Nova was immortal. Probably some combination of nanotechnology and methusilisation. This changed things a great deal, and Bigott now knew he’d need help, and lots of it, to be successful at taking Nova down. 

“Knowledge is power,” Bigott recited his personal mantra as he rose to standing height, regaining his usual composure. He needed more knowledge, and there was only one place to get that…

…and more help. The right sort of help. He needed to get that in hand, too.

“Nothing worth doing is easy,” Bigott reminded himself as he moved off down the corridor, and this would be the hardest thing he’d probably ever have to do. But it had to be done, and the first step was to get the second most brilliant mind in the world on his side. He needed to contact Professor Nova.

***

It was such a relief to have control of his body back again. Eighteen hours of nano-surgery took a toll on his concentration and his blood sugar, but it was a thousand times worse when his progenitor was controlling him. Imprisoned in his own body, he could watch what was going on easily enough, and engage the idle portion of his mind in the inevitable escape attempt he knew his progenitor knew was coming. His plans were formed now, and Professor Nova wasn’t going to spend the six hours he had of relative freedom sleeping. The restorer nanites could detox his brain and transfer his short term memories to long term storage while he ate flan to get the blood sugar up, and programmed his own brand of nanites for the invisible war that was soon to come.
Professor Nova leaned back and stretched, mainly because he could. That bastard, the Chairman, kept his body hunched over for hours at a time, knowing full well he wouldn’t be personally feeling the effects. Just another in a long list of things to hate him for. It had taken centuries, but his karma would be catching up with him soon, and Professor Nova would be there to enjoy it.

Professor Nova thinks better with a fresh flan to hand.

The machine in front of him pinged, and Nova looked down at the ejection chute. A light came on as a small vile dropped from the device’s guts, and Nova scooped it up, a wry smile crossing his patrician features.

‘Finally, some advancement,’ Nova thought to himself as he put the half-eaten plate of flan on the side table and spun around. “Eelai,” he called, “oh lover! Present yourself to me, so as I might free you from the shackles of our Overlord!”

“Really?” Eelai asked, poking her head around the door jam, an edge of disbelief evident in her tone. Nova nodded enthusiastically, and Eelai smiled, then swanned into the laboratory, her long-legged, sensual gait eating up the distance between them. She strode confidently into his embrace, her sheer, skimpy negligee and pantsuit serving Nova a feast to the eyes, and ample opportunities for his hands. But today wasn’t a day for lovemaking on his laboratory desk. Today was the first step to breaking the invisible bonds that gave his progenitor total control over them at any time.

Eelai uses ALL the tools at her disposal

“So who must I sleep with to get my life back?” Eelai asked, her arms draped over Nova’s shoulders at his neckline, resting up against the folded collar of his pristine lab coat. Nova wrapped his arms around his lover in response, the all-important vial still in his hand.

“Well me, of course,” Nova said, a lewd smirk creeping onto his features despite his best efforts, “but you are already doing that. So let’s just get on with it.” With that, he flipped the cap off the vile with his thumb and touched the open end to Eelai’s neck.

“Oh, it tingles,” she said, squirming and grinding against his loins, eliciting a physical response from Nova despite his best efforts. 

“It does far more than that, Eelai, my dear,” Nova said, and gently pushed her away. “But I have engineered these nanites to your specific set of ‘problems,’ and so I need to keep away from you while they do their work. I wouldn’t want to infest myself with them and mess up all my careful planning.” Eelai looked a little disappointed, but nodded.

“So how long will it take?” she asked, leaning up against the desk, crossing her legs and examining her nails. She noticed tiny sparks of light playing across them. “And, uh, what is this?” She indicated the flashes.

“Ah, yes,” Nova said, sliding on a heat resistant glove used for large ovens and gently taking her wrist, “you are now a human battleground. The nanites I introduced are now at war with my progenitor’s crop that he infected you with before you came to work for me.”

“They’re… fighting?” Eelai said, standing quickly and backing up a few steps, still looking at her hand. “Am I in danger?”

“I do not believe so,” Nova said, stepping forward to follow her. “With anything like this, there is always a risk… but I have done everything within my power and intellect to make sure it is as safe for you as it can be. After all, if it doesn’t work for you, I’m back to step one…” Eelai frowned at his turn of phrase, but then grabbed at the back of her neck.

“Ah, my neck, it’s itching real bad, and…” she stopped as several sparks shot out between her fingers, and a small curl of smoke followed.

“There, that’s got it,” Nova said, his grin dangerous. “The telepresence circuitry is being degraded by my nanites.” He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Within the hour, the tiny bots should have it broken down and…” Nova trailed off as he saw Eelai deftly pushing on the skin of the back of her neck, and with no hesitation whatsoever, pushed her long nails into the flesh of her neck, to grasp and pull at the foreign object implanted there. Nova watched, enthralled, as his lover yanked and pulled on the telepresence chip, and the minute cables linking it to her brain stem, allowing the Chairman to hack her body and senses. The beautiful woman before him winced, her right eyebrow spasming, her legs going weak as she leaned back against a cabinet of lab glassware. Nova thought she might cause herself a stroke with such a violent extraction of the technology forced upon her, but she would not be eswaged. She had to do it her way.

Finally, the sparking chip, trailing minuscule wiring, came free in a splatter of blood and scraps of flesh. Weak but triumphant, Eelai threw the violating tech onto the tiled floor, which buzzed and sparked, the trailing cables squirming like tentacles seeking their prey. Her face screwed up with disgust, Eelai planted the heel of her left stiletto right into its centre. With a final shower of sparks and puff of smoke, the device went silent, and the wires surrounding it went still. Breathing heavily, she looked over at Nova.

“Well,” he began, “that was far more exciting than I was expecting. If you’d just waited an hour or two, my microscopic bots would have disassembled it and made more of themselves from its components.”

“I hate tech in my body,” Eelai said, her tone chilly. “Always have.”

“Well you’d best put up with my nanites,” Nova said, taking off his large, padded gloves and rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “They will repair that gaping wound at the back of your neck and rebuild the musculature over the exposed vertebrae.” Eelai reached back and felt the wetness of a gaping wound, and her face paled. “You’ll be fine,” Nova assured her, still careful not to show her any physical support.

“Ah, what about the Chairman’s monitoring of us?” Eelai asked, a few minutes later, after Nova had brought a glass of water to her as she rested on the overstuffed sofa in the corner. 

“Oh, that?” Nova said, flipping his wrist nonchalantly so his hand was offered in way of explanation. “All he’s seeing right now, if he cared to look, is several second snippets of the last 18 hrs, shuffled and melded by a deep fake system to produce what the AI’s would see as new footage.” He smiled cheekily. “So he’d have no idea what’s going on right now.”

“My neck is feeling better,” Eelai said, resisting the urge to poke at the closing wound again. She took a deep breath. “So what is the next step, my lover?”

“Well, that’s going to be a little tricker,” Nova began. “You see…” 

Eelai didn’t switch off to Nova’s long-winded explanation, it was just that she was tired after her fight with the invasive technology. She’d have to spend some time in the regen tank, to really feel herself again. She looked up and saw the flat screen remote on the arm of the sofa. Absently snatching it up, she turned on the screen. Of course, it was showing Motorball, and she recognised the image of their charge’s ultimate challenge – Alita. She was picking Paladins to team with her, against a team chosen by the fast one, Crimson Wind. It would be quite interesting – if you like that sort of thing – but Eelai didn’t because they were all bits of meat that were once people, held in artificial constructs that either replaced or enhanced the human form. Eelai didn’t find any of them at all interesting. She liked meat people, with nerves you could excite, and inflict glorious pain upon. She had no use for these ‘brains in boxes.’ 

She sighed, leaving the screen on at a low level for background noise, and refocused on Nova’s diatribe about how he would free himself and, eventually, defeat Karma itself. She’d heard it before, but it was part of the package, so she reclined dutifully through the retelling.

Meanwhile, in the operating tank in the corner, that had been the focus of activity in the lab for several days, several bubbles rose to the surface through the viscous cell maintenance fluid. A pair of disembodied eyes, mounted in artificial orbits, stringy nerves trailing back to a mass of brain tissue, swivelled toward the flickering screen lights…

***

Memories were hazy, but he knew he hadn’t felt embodied in days. He was like an untethered consciousness, floating through the universe, but he knew he was a disembodied brain stem floating in a nutrient bath. But why those that were reshaping his brain had left his eyes attached was puzzling. It was like they wanted him to know what was happening to him.

Jashugan, just chillin’ between bouts of surgery.

But then he figured he was just an experiment. That’s all he was to these people. And he sensed, rather than saw, that they themselves were experimental subjects of yet another. Maybe no-one had freedom here. They were all pawns in someone else’s game. Pawns all the way down. He’d had a lot of these thoughts, cut off from the physical world as he was. But not cut off from pain.

His brain and nerves were aflame as the tiny robots did their work, modifying his remaining flesh, the core of himself, to be something… more. He could already feel it. As if the world was moving slower than it should. 

In reality, he was sensing it far faster, and apparently, from the readouts around the operating tank, they expected his mind would get faster yet. Possibly even fast enough to win Final Champion, and be granted entry into Zalem. Not that reaching Zalem was his goal. He certainly wanted to be the undefeated champion, and set his sister up for life, before he succumbed to his final karma.

A flickering of light caught his attention, and, with some effort, he managed to swivel the eyeballs attached to his brain up towards the flat screen that had just blinked to life. He recognised the motorball track almost immediately, having become intimately familiar with it over the past eight years. And there, in the centre of shot, was the last impediment for him to reach his goal of Final Champion. 

Alita. The Battle Angel of the Motorball arena. 

The sight of her sharpened his mind, and he went through some mental exercises to gather his chi to him. They were so foolishly easy for him now, and he felt the power grow within his mind. Suitably enriched, he could see what was going to happen slightly before it occurred, and his mind analysed everything he saw faster than he could consciously think to do it.

When they were finished with this surgery, and he was back in his track body, he would be a GOD! And not a single Paladin, including the vaunted Alita Ido, would be able to stop him…

He would have sighed if he’d had lungs to do so.

…he might even have to destroy her utterly. When these people made a champion, with what was obviously Zalemite technology, they didn’t do it by halves. And he would destroy Alita, too, if it came to that. It would make him sad, destroying such a marvellous warrior, but he had to succeed. He also disliked the idea of upsetting Dyson Ido, as well. The man had given so much to the cyborgs of Iron City, and to him as well, and suffered so much.

But he had to win. Whatever the cost. And he would, it was a certainty in his mind…

…just as long as he had enough time…

***

Dr Dyson Ido hurried across the bleachers to take his seat next to Gerhad. The nurse smoothly grabbed the items she’d been keeping on the two seats next to her away and Ido hurried up and plopped down, putting his doctor’s bag on the seat to his right, and panting slightly after his exertion.

“Have I missed anything?” he mouthed to Gerhad, and she smiled back at him.

“Just about finished selecting teams. Jashugan is a no-show,” Gerhad spoke into Ido’s right ear, her hand cupped in front of her mouth to try to cut some of the raucous volume of the excited crowd. Ido smiled and nodded, and Gerhad drew back, but instead of returning her hand to her lap, she put it over Ido’s right, which he had resting on his leg. He looked up at her in response, but her interest was totally engaged on the rapidly forming teams below. Ido smiled wistfully, and turned his attention to look for Alita. There she was, looking powerful and in control. She called her team into a huddle to explain her plan for their victory. Even from this distance, Ido could see her display of confidence was intense. He smiled again, but it was short-lived.

Watching Alita compete in Motorball can be a stressful experience for those who care about her.

For in times of inactivity, like watching motorball, for example, Ido’s brilliant, restless mind swung to darker thoughts. He was usually successful in fighting the melancholy off, but today it gripped him. Maybe it was because of the visit with Koyomi and Shumira before the match. Maybe it was anxiety over the dangerous sport his foster daughter was engaged in. Or maybe it was the ever-approaching time when Alita would either succeed and go to Zalem, or fail. That was a time point that crushed Ido’s karma like the centre of a black hole. That would be the time, one way or another, he’d lose a daughter, again…

…and he felt powerless to stop it.

He couldn’t contain Alita, control her, for his own satisfaction. He’d foolishly tried that, and he was lucky she still called him father after that. But he knew, with ever-increasing certainty, that he would lose this new daughter anyway, just like he’d lost his biological daughter, and the marriage that had birthed her. It was also why he dreaded the closeness he was feeling with Gerhad, a woman who was indeed wonderful and talented, who has stated she’d never have a romantic attachment with the boss, but the heart wants what the heart wants. It was just…

…Ido’s heart knew that if he pursued this possibility for happiness, he’d end up losing that, too. A creeping dread had settled over him. He’d only sensed it a few days previously, but it was growing, and he knew it had to do with the culmination of Alita’s mission, and the resolution of a great many other people’s karma. Something was coming, and it wasn’t good… for any of them.

But there Ido sat, powerless to stop what he felt was bearing down on them, and also powerless to even articulate what it was, and how he knew. But there was one thing of which he was certain. He loved his adopted daughter, and he would support her unto death.

And the dread was telling him that that was exactly what his karma had in store for him…

…and just like the black hole that was crushing his karma, it was impossible to escape.

To be continued…

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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