Alita watched, very nearly in awe, as the pit monitor showed Jashugan exit Pit Lane by vaulting the dividing fence. She saw the skill in the move: a supple, fluid motion that maintained all of his ground speed while adding more from his extraordinary arm and shoulder actuators. From the angle of the camera, Alita’s accelerated reactions picked out the harsh, overhead tracklights reflecting off the gold ribbing of Jashugan’s armor and across the swept-back faceplate of the rapidly approaching Ajakutty. The glare likely blinding him to what was coming next.
Right leg cocked back, the other extended, Jashugan hit ‘Kutty in the side torso with a resounding clash of metal and polymers. Those in the crowd that weren’t blinking at that moment erupted with an astonished ‘Ohhhh!’ The merciless blow slid both Paladins across the track, but ‘Kutty’s greater speed and momentum won out, and they both continued on down the main straight. As ‘Kutty began to twist and fall, Jashugan gripped the opposing Paladin’s throat, steering him down to meet the track as it approached them at nearly 120 mph. Ajakutty had spun almost 180° by the time the track reached up to claim them, but that didn’t stop the blurring tarmac from sparking ferociously as it wrenched the green and black arm from the right side of ‘Kutty’s track body. Impossibly, Ajakutty’s left hand still clung hard onto the motorball, which probably stopped it from careening wildly away as the pair hit the surface of the track. Jashugan must have known about the ball bearings across ‘Kutty’s back, Alita mused, as she saw that was the surface of his opponent Jashugan had steered onto the track. Alita winced at the sound of the landing, and the way ‘Kutty’s head met the track surface, the rear-facing point of his helmet shearing off in a cascade of sparks. There’d be some concussion in that one for sure, not to mention a good number of the ball bearings that were previously in ‘Kutty’s back were smashed out of their brackets by the uncontrolled landing, and went shooting out, away from the pair of tangled Paladins like slugs from a wildly-rotating gun.
The back wheel of Jashugan’s extended left wheelfoot was running on the track over ‘Kutty’s right shoulder, and as the prone Paladin looked up at him, Jashugan plucked the motorball out of ‘Kutty’s remaining green and black hand, tipped his helmeted head to his downed opponent, and then explosively uncoiled his folded leg that was against ‘Kutty’s chest. The force of the leap shot Jashugan back onto his wheels, and he sped off down the track to cheers from the astonished onlookers. Ajakutty, who had been winning the race until that moment, wobbled and wiped out, though without most of the speed he’d built up coming down the main straight.
“Ohhh, and there it is, folks!” the announcer rhapsodized, sounding far more animated than he had for the past few minutes. “Jashugan is over his mechanical issues and is back with his trademark style, having extracted the motorball from Ajakutty with an amazing tackle and takedown, and is off down the track like last night’s vindaloo!” The crowd cheered, equal parts happy to see Jashugan taking up the motorball and the game not ending in a boring, home run by someone as conceited as Ajakutty. “Jashugan has a lot of points to make up, but he still has the remaining hoops left in the match to do it. I hope you punters haven’t thrown away your Jashugan betting slips just yet!”
Alita’s acute hearing picked up the sounds of arguing and scuffles breaking out in the nearby stands, probably over Jashugan betting slips that had indeed been hastily discarded too soon into the race.
‘Fools,’ Alita thought, blowing the loose strand of hair away from her eyes with a quick puff, ‘they still won’t win with those slips. I’m not out of this race yet!’
Jashugan had just completed his first lap, and closed three points on the leaders as Ajakutty was hauled back past Alita’s pit and into his own service area. He was venting smoke from burnt wiring, and leaking hydraulic fluid and blue cyberblood, his head lolling to one side. Alita watched the downed Paladin with mild satisfaction, but knew they’d be quick-swapping limbs and replaceable components as fast as only a well funded, finely-tuned pit crew could, and pumping Ajakutty with racing stims and neuro-stabilizers. He’d be back out on the track soon enough. That realization cooled her satisfaction slightly. She was feeling antsy – she needed to be up and back out on the track. Alita promised herself she would never be slack about pre-prep again.
“Um,” Alita started, her tone sweet and gentle, not really wanting to disrupt her two hard-working tuners, but still needing to know, “how’s it going?” Both Umba and Ido were head down, focusing on getting her back out on the track, but Umba spoke first.
“There! I’ve managed to restore several mainline connections in your damaged leg, Alita,” he said with tired exhilaration. “The end of the transfer should go much quicker, now. A little over three minutes remaining.”
Alita thought for a moment. “That’s cutting it fine.” Both Umba and Ido shrugged.
“Pre-sync your replacements next time?” Umba suggested, shrugging.
“Yeah, yeah,” Alita responded, a little testily. Ido had been running a scanner over Alita’s track body while he was waiting for the transfer to finish, as there was little he could do to speed up the process any further. He flipped the screen of the scanner closed, put it down and looked up at his daughter.
“Alita, there is significant microfracturing in the alloy of your left hand.” Ido’s look over his glasses was very paternal. “When did that happen? You didn’t wipe out when ‘Kutty took your leg…”
“Ah,” Alita tried not to hide behind her hair, “oh, you know, just general wear and tear. Motorball is a heavy contact sport, after all…” She really didn’t want to have to tell her father she punched out a column while boiling with anger.
“Well, whatever happened, there is no time to replace it,” Ido said, and Alita could sense his feeling of inadequacy as he spoke. “We’d have the same syncing issue as your leg there.” Alita reached up and put the aforementioned hand on Ido’s arm. She could just make out some minor crazing across the ridges in the back of the palm.
“It’s OK, Father,” she assured him. “I’ll be fine. I just need to get back out on that track, ASAP!”
Ido responded with a noncommittal “Hrrmm,” and then went to speak to a support crew member quietly at the back of the bay.
While she waited, to stop herself breaking something important in frustration, Alita watched the pit monitor, showing Jashugan hurtling through the far side of the circuit. Her greatest rival was being closely followed by three Paladins; Claymore, Zariki, and Skaramasakus. They were closing on Jashugan as a pack, but only inching closer at 120 mph, as he was a superior skater, with a highly-tuned power plant and lightning reflexes. But it was the weight of the motorball that gave his pursuers the opportunity to close.
Alita gazed at the screen, the highly-trained, combat analysis side of her brain working overtime. She picked up every little nuance of the confrontation, and stored the details away for later use in strategy and improvisation. It was almost like she was there, on the track, following along with the combat, and it eased her jangled nerves to be in the moment again, even if by proxy.
Claymore reached his quarry first, taking corners so hard to catch Jashugan first that the caterpillar tracks that powered his wheelfeet left rubber marks on the tarmac. Exuding confidence, Claymore powered in and closed the last few yards, but then the hunter became the hunted.
Jashugan cut left around a spike in the slalom tube as Claymore moved to attack him, then snapped quickly back across the track and spun 180 degrees as Clay drew back to strike. The rotors on Jash’s right arm shot sparks as they chewed through the haft of Claymore’s weapon, and took the hand for good measure. The shredded components, long, shiny, metallic fingers, and the spiked head of the now-defunct melee weapon went clattering and clanging off the tube surface behind the embattled pair, scattering the other trailing Paladins. Claymore, suddenly bereft of a weapon, hesitated for mere moments, which was more than long enough for Jashugan to follow up by swinging the motorball into Claymore’s midriff. The contact produced a resounding clang in the confined space. Claymore was lifted off his wheels by the blow, his shiny armor buckling and bowing, and then Claymore tumbled away behind Jashugan as he accelerated away again. As expected in a cutthroat match, Zariki and Skara went up the sides of the tube to avoid their downed opponent, and then surged on to take their turn at the burgeoning champ.
Goes for weak points: hands, weapons hafts, and probably knees as well, Alita thought, committing the moves to memory. She expected to be facing these tactics in a very short time.
Both Zariki and Skaramasakus attacked Jashugan as they exited the slalom and had more room to maneuver. With a roar of his powerful engines, Zariki spun, swinging both his scythes, the leading one reversed, at Jashugan from his rear left, while Skaramasakus came up on Jashugan’s other side, his power plant also redlining, shields out in front, ready to hit and lift what was left. The two attacking Paladins moved together quickly, but Jashugan was no longer there, having braked hard as his enemies committed. The two large cyborgs came together, their combined masses and kinetic energy being more than enough to create an impressive Paladin mashup. With a buckling of armor plates, popping of rivets, and the screaming of tortured metal, Zariki’s two scythes ended up embedded deep within Skaramasakus’s shields. Bleeding trackspeed sharply, the careening pile-up was easy for Jashugan to avoid as he sped up again, zipping past the obstruction and on to the next scoring hoop. He made it look all too easy.
“And with Jashugan expertly countering attacks from Claymore, Zariki, and Skaramasakus, and suffering only a slight drop in lap time, Jash is concentrating on points, not fights. Jashugan is a real pro, and he knows he needs to catch up to the leaders before the points to do so are gone,” the Announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker, echoed a quarter second later from the pit monitor. Alita was just looking away from the monitor, not wanting to watch Jashugan equal her points score, when Esdoc came barrelling into the pit area.
Her manager looked stressed, almost haunted. The unusually bleached, practically Caucasian skin around his eyes and between his nose and lips – which was the result of removal of cybernetic enhancements he’d had when he was an up-and-coming Motorball star – was beaded with a fine layer of perspiration and looked even more at odds with the rest of his swarthy complexion. Esdoc’s eyes were sunken, and his cyberbody moved even more spasmodically than usual. He probably hadn’t noticed yet, but Esdoc wasn’t far away from a Terminal Frost attack – a degenerative neurological condition caused by the terrible accident that ended his Motorball career, and required regular doses of the medicine Termease to keep in check.
“WHAT’S THE HOLDUP?” Esdoc demanded, the headset he used in the manager’s box bouncing around on his neck with the force of his assertion. He glared first at Umba, who was used to it, and then at Ido, with a look on his face that suggested he didn’t like to see someone who claimed to be an ex-tuner working in the pit of his star – and only – Paladin. “Alita needs to be out there scoring!”
“We know!” Alita, Ido, and Umba responded in unison, with varying tones of frustration, apology, and embarrassment. Esdoc was taken aback by the unified response, and then his left hand began to shake uncontrollably.
“Uggh, Terminal Frost,” Esdoc growled through gritted teeth that were holding the cap of the injector he plunged into a purpose-built port in the jittering wrist. Within a few moments of the medicine’s application, the shaking began to subside. “I heard on the way down that ‘Kutty is nearly wheel-ready,” Esdoc continued after a moment, breathing deeply to calm himself. “How long until the new leg can be attached?”
“95 seconds, at the current transfer speed,” Umba replied. “The transfer has to be completed first to connect safely, but we need to get her out there before ‘Kutty gets too far ahead and takes the 99.”
Alita’s eyes widened and she huffed a breath out through her nose. She flicked her head, clearing the hair from around her face, and glared at the three men around her, eyes smoldering. Her voice was low and dangerous.
“Get. Me. Out. There… Now! Attach the leg.”
“And Jashugan is slowing, looks like the rear driving wheel of his right wheelfoot suffered some damage from debris in that last tangle. He’s going to have to pit to have that sorted, but in coming around to the pits, he’s going to pick up his ninth point, which puts him first place for the race. He’ll only be pitting for a short time, and given that there are still six hoops left before the end of this match, the win could still go to any of the top point scorers,” the Announcer proclaimed. “But you’ve got to be in it to win it, and with Jash pitting, none of them will be….”
“This is dangerous, Alita,” Ido said, concern writ large across his fatherly features. “The feedback could scramble the sync with your other limbs, not to mention the intense agony it will cause…” Alita looked up into her father’s eyes, her own large, brown orbs pleading.
“With the three lead scorers off the track,” the Announcer continued, “Alita’s fans, who call themselves the Alita Army, are getting vocal!” The chant of ‘Ah-leee-ta! Ah-leee-ta!’ was getting louder around Pit Straight. “They have faith that their Battle Angel will rejoin the fight in time, and defend her number, the vaunted 99! But can she do it, before the scoring hoops tick away?”
“Father, please. I conquered physical pain a long time ago,” Alita didn’t know how she knew that she just did, “and I can’t let my fans down. I won’t go down sitting here doing nothing!” Alita’s hands were gripping the arms of the pitting cradle as if she was about to lever herself up and go without the leg. Ido nonchalantly put a hand on her shoulder to stop her doing just that.
“If we don’t, Alita might not be able to catch ‘Kutty, let alone Jashugan,” Umba said, hoisting the still transferring leg into position and enabling the power ratchets on his repair frame arms two and four with a pair of click-clacks. “And if we attach the leg early and it doesn’t work, well it has the same effect as option one, doesn’t it?” Ido rubbed his chin with his free hand, considering, his brow furrowed in concern, while Esdoc looked on over Ido’s shoulder, nodding slowly at Umba.
Further discourse was cut short by the roaring of a misfiring engine as Ajakutty zoomed past Alita’s pit and back out onto the track. They all turned to watch this worsening of Alita’s fortunes.
Alita looked closely at her immediate rival, the man that wanted the 99, her number. While his limbs looked sharp, shiny, and ready for action, his torso was a patchwork of filler, tracktape, and newly swapped in parts next to rattling port covers and cracked fairings. Ajakutty looked somewhat suboptimal, but at least he was back out on the track.
“Do it,” Ido said a moment later, as the clock on the transfer hit 40 seconds. “She needs every moment she can get.”
The sound of Umba’s power ratchets screwing in the bolts to attach the top of the replacement leg to her hip was high-pitched and piercing, but it was nothing compared to the pain that flooded Alita’s brain as the neural connections linked. It mingled with the pain of her loss, becoming an almost living thing, as her mouth flung open in a silent scream. But she wasn’t there anymore…
She was on a plain of red sand, stretching off to the horizon. Mars…
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!