Chapter 6 – After the Crowds Depart

<– Chapter 5

Jashugan leaned his back against the wall of the raw cement corridor and sighed, exhaling deeply to slow his heart rate. He was glad to finally be alone. His security was on the other side of the door he had just closed, holding back the horde of fans and reporters who just couldn’t get enough of their ‘hero.’ While he reveled in the excitement and the competition on the track, the news carnival that surrounded it left Jashugan cold. However, he was ever the Pro Motorballer, so he put on a happy, confident smile, and spent the hours answering questions – as far as he was willing – shaking hands, posing for photographs, and generally kept his fans happy until he could engineer an opportunity to slip away. Still, it took a toll on him, and left him far more drained since his return after ‘the accident.’

He remembered seeing Alita make her excuses and leave early, explaining to the disappointed masses that she had suffered damage that needed to be repaired. Beyond the missing left hand, she didn’t seem particularly limited by whatever damage her right arm took in the landing after the last jump, and the tussle over the motorball at the finish line, so Jashugan figured it was more the overwhelming press of people after the match ended. She had probably never faced that sort of attention in Second League. Pro League was its own beast, as Alita was only just beginning to discover.

Jash pushed himself off the wall and turned to roll down the long, quiet corridor, deep under the stadium seating. The tunnel led down to his own, private tuning and body-switching bay, warm up gym and detailing area. Most of the long-time Paladins had similar areas, but he’d done a deal on Grewishka’s old digs when the massive cyborg went rogue and was banned from the track. The area had needed hosing out, disinfecting and repainting, but it was quite big, and almost luxurious in comparison to some of the others. It also had a large back entrance/exit so he could come and go from the stadium unmolested. He felt that was the private area’s biggest drawcard.

“If I try using the main exit tonight, I won’t get home until tomorrow night!” Jashugan chuckled to himself, a wry smile playing around his lips. He was just rolling up to the tunnel mouth that led into his personal area when the world tilted sideways. Jashugan grabbed the door frame for support in an attempt to keep his wheels under him. His fingers dug into the concrete, chipping and grinding it to powder, while the door frame itself buckled slightly under his grip. He knew what this feeling was a prelude to – he was heading for another Flatline Attack.

Jashugan wobbled into his private dressing room like a raw kid new to skates. He worked his way toward the diagnostics and body-switching brace, knocking a wheeled trolley of equipment across the floor with a loud series of clatters and clangs as he went. He staggered into the frame, swinging clumsily around to orientate himself correctly with the mounting. Reacting to the pressure of his track body, the locks engaged and he was hoisted off the ground, while his head lolled to the right. His sight blurred and doubled, laced with static lines, and then slowly returned to more normal vision, but blurred around the edges, which faded in and out with his consciousness. He tried to call out, but his voice wouldn’t respond to his efforts.

Normally his private area would have at least a few team members working in it, readying his street body for the swap after the race, maintaining his track body spares, or the team’s other equipment. Jashugan flopped his head around, trying to look for someone, anyone to come to his aid. But he couldn’t get his eyes focus on anything to tell if there was someone there or not.

“Damn peculiar,” he muttered, and was relieved to hear his own voice echo back to him from the hard walls. He was just about to call out when he heard the sound of a gently closing door, and the tik-tak-tik-tak of what sounded like high heels on concrete. Jashugan must have faded out, because when he recognized he could see again, he was looking straight ahead at a beautiful woman, standing bold as brass, right in front of his body brace. She was tall and voluptuous, and full-flesh, but what was most apparent, and told Jashugan he had no recollection of ever seeing this woman before, was the large, red arrow, pointing down from her raven hairline to cross her forehead and end between the brows of her Asiatic eyes. 

“Well,” she purred, perching her left fist on her hip, her voice deep and sensual, like honey flowing over naked flesh, “I’ve seen you looking better. And that’s not even a reflection on you being what amounts to a brain in a wheeled box.” She lifted her right arm to point at him, and waggled her index finger. “You’re not long for this world, if these Flatline Attacks get even a tiny bit worse.”

Is she mocking me? Was all Jashugan’s shorting neurons would give him. He licked his lips and worked to find his voice.

“How did you get in here?” Jashugan wheezed, and the effort made his head spin. “This area is supposed to be secure…” The woman sneered.

“Is that all you’ve got?” she asked, and the look on her face said she didn’t expect an answer. “For a man – and I use that term loosely – on death’s door, you certainly don’t stick to the topic at hand. Well, I was told to be extra polite and extra accommodating…” She stopped and rubbed her delicate chin, her full, sensuous lips pouting. “I have access to this bunker from back when it belonged to another Pro Motorball Champion,” she spat the term out like it was sour grapes, “and it’s lucky for you I do. Seems your support team are all off celebrating a bonus you paid them for ‘a job well done’ and aren’t around to help you…” she stepped up and leaned in close to Jashugan’s ear. Her perfume was heady, alluring and held the promise of pleasures he was no longer able to partake, “…or overhear our… negotiations.”

The word ‘negotiations’ was like a bucket of cold water on Jashugan’s brain cells. His pupils constricted back to a more normal diameter, and his eyes focused as this woman stepped back to a more comfortable distance. Jashugan understood he was at a significant disadvantage in the current situation, and he also knew it was never a good position to be negotiating at a disadvantage.

“I don’t negotiate with unknown parties,” Jashugan said, his voice taking on more of its usual power. “Who are you, and who do you represent?”

“Oh,” the woman said, and seemed actually taken-aback. “How rude of me. I’m sorry. My name is Eelai, and I am here representing someone who has the power to help you last long enough, and play well enough, to become Final Champion.” Eelai tossed her long, raven hair back from her face and stood a little less provocatively, while Jashugan was so surprised by the statement, he forgot to ask who this ‘someone’ was.

“How… how do you know a Final Champion challenge is going to be called?” Jashugan asked, intrigued, despite his condition.

“Oh, let’s just say I have insider information,” Eelai said, examining her nails and looking smug.

“And what do you want in return for this ‘boon?’” Jashugan asked after he recovered from his surprise. Eelai smiled, and Jashugan almost regretted that he’d given up his flesh for motorball… almost.

“Well it’s all laid out here in the contract,” Eelai said, producing a sheaf of papers from the back of her skirt somewhere. Jashugan shook his head.

“Sell me on the high points,” he directed her, and Eelai obliged, a knowing smile pulling on the left side of her full lips.

“You get some experimental and highly-dangerous brain augmentation, which might kill you, but also has the possibility of extending and augmenting your brain function long enough to play to, and become Final Champion.”

“Sounds… dicey,” Jashugan said after a moment. “And what do ‘you’ get in return?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Eelai responded, smiling coyly while expertly maneuvering herself to show off her ‘assets,’ barely constrained by her tight top and short skirt, with upper thigh and garter on display. The distraction almost worked, except Jashugan was too close to death and too far from the meatboy he once was to be fully aroused. “Just full telemetry from your games and other pivotal interactions after the augmentation operation, a – rather hefty – percentage of your winnings this season, and the obligatory telepresence chip installation in your new, improved cranium.” She swanned over to her captive audience until her face was inches from his own. Her eyes were mesmerizing in their perfection, her breath smelled of mint and some other coying scent Jashugan couldn’t place, and the closeness of her voluptuous form was even being picked up by the minimal sensors in his track body.

“You up for it, big boy?” Eelai asked, her tone hushed, nearly brushing her lips across his. Jashugan felt the world tilting, but slowly this time. His brain was delinking again, the first stage in the Flatline Attack that was stalking him like a deep jungle predator. He was out of options… and out of time.

“Ye… yes,” Jashugan managed, and Eelai sprung back, picking up the contract from where she’d deposited it on a side table, and produced a pen, seemingly from nowhere. Thus armed, Eelai waltzed back to the immobile form of Jashugan, and supporting the final page of the document, oversaw Jashugan’s limp effort to sign his mind away.

“And, there, that’s done,” Eelai said, all businesslike, as she stuffed the rolled contract back into the back of her skirt. Jashugan’s head was lolling to the side again, and his pupils were dilating.  He could feel his mind slipping away, into an abyss he would not be escaping from this time…

There was a sound of pressurized gas escaping, and Jashugan felt a shifting in his synthetic cranium he associated with open brain access.  Is she opening my head?? His jumbled thoughts coalesced to inform him of that worrying prospect. There was a stab of cold and pain, and then it was gone.

An indeterminate time later, Jashugan realized he was blinking. He concentrated, and managed to take in his surroundings. He was still in his private chamber, but he was standing now, and Eelai was there too, and several burly men dressed all in black were dismantling his track body bracing equipment and carrying the pieces toward the street tunnel.

“What did you do?” Jashugan asked, surprised that his words were not at all slurred. Eelai turned to look up at him, a neutral, yet vaguely unimpressed look on her fine features. She was a tall woman, Jashugan realized, but nowhere near as tall as his cybered bulk.

“Ah yes, consider that a downpayment,” Eelai said matter-of-factually. In fact, her voice seemed drained of sensuality. “Neural stabilizer injection. Should keep you going for a few more days without interface loss. But, that’s not our goal here. I just needed you on your feet to walk out to our waiting van to go to m…” she paused, which made Jashugan look at her closely.  He hadn’t noticed before, but she had the brightest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen. 

Must be contacts, Jashugan considered, because this was the sort of person that would never cyber anything

“… the Professor’s lab,” Eelai continued. “Wouldn’t do for someone to see you leaving, being carried out under guard. Think of the headlines.” She smiled, but there was no warmth in it. “No, this needs to be kept under wraps until you are ready. In two weeks to eighteen days, you will return to the track, triumphant!”

“OK,” Jashugan replied, noncommittal, sensing something had changed here, but with his brain still recovering from the last Flatline Attack, he couldn’t focus enough to work out exactly what. 

It will be a shame to miss two to three weeks of matches, however, Jashugan considered.  He hated being off the track for any reason, but not being dead was a really good one, he decided. Alita would probably wipe the track with the other Paladins. He was already disappointed to miss it.

Eelai stiffly waved him after the retreating removalists, and as he went to follow them, he didn’t see her slump against the wall of the tunnel behind him. Then, a few moments later, shake her head as her eyes returned to their more natural brown coloration. She picked herself up and staggered slightly as she followed after Jashugan, with a deeply unimpressed scowl gathered around the downfacing point of the arrow on her forehead.

Jashugan walked out onto the loading dock at the end of the tunnel. It was just past 1 a.m, according to his internal chronometer, the air had a bite to it, and the dock lamps did their best to hold back the deep dark of late night. His track body service brace was already packed into the back of a large, crimson-colored van, the skinny variety that was so common on Iron City streets. Jashugan stepped to the side, looking down the side of the cargo space.  He saw a nondescript logo made of stylized fish and loaves, but strangely with no writing denoting the company name. Eelai stepped past him, blocking his view down the side of the van and gestured for him to enter. Jashugan stepped into the back of the van and found a large, track cyborg sized seat up near the front of the cargo space, facing forward. He took the seat and strapped on the seatbelt, as Eelai swanned past him, her hips working it, to spin around and land gracefully on a seat facing him. She sat there, staring at him, and he noted her eyes were brown… 

Did I imagine the vivid blue? Surely not? She reached up and rapped a knuckle on the metal wall behind her as the back doors of the van closed with a somewhat ominous thud.

As the van began to move away, splashing through the potholes filled with water from the downpour that afternoon, a slot on the wall dividing the cargo space from the cab slid open. Jashugan could just make out a shock of white hair, a forehead with an odd, purple gem embedded in it, and a pair of peculiar, metallic optics over the viewer’s eyes. Those optics whined as they zoomed in on Jashugan, taking in every detail.

“Kyee Hee Hee!” the viewer laughed, almost manically. Jashugan swallowed involuntarily as the sound of it died away, echoing around the back of the van. When he spoke, his voice was like a deranged serial killer reading bedtime stories. “Tell me, Paladin Jashugan. Do you like flan?”

Alita sighed, exhaling deeply to try to clear the buzz in her head from the night’s excitement, but it just didn’t want to budge. She sat on the chipped and grimy concrete stairs, back up against a statue base in the semi-darkness. It was after 1 am, there was a chill seeping into her chassis and armor despite the pants and ‘Esdoc Motors’ jacket she was wearing, and the one street lamp, far off round the curve of the arena, did little to illuminate her position. Above her towered a seven-foot-tall statue of a human heart, veins and arteries ending abruptly, looking foreboding in the half-light on the landing of a set of emergency exit stairs. It was something that would have been rarely seen in its position in the back alley that provided service access to the rear of the stadium. This emergency exit must have been more important at some time in the past, but now it was a forgotten relic of another time. Much like Alita had been, until Ido had found her.

Thinking of Ido reminded her of their conversation earlier that evening, after she’d escaped the chaotic pressure of the post-race press crowd. It had been crazy, and she’d quickly grown tired of answering their banal and often ludicrous questions. But it had been the one about Hugo that had ended the conference abruptly.

Alita had been confused enough by the obsessive crowd of reporters and fans that had mobbed her and Jashugan as they left the podium. He seemed to revel in it, handling the mob with deft hand gestures and cutting retorts, but it was something Alita had not experienced before, and so was woefully unprepared. Bright camera lights, all pointed at her, and the flashes from still cameras making her eyes reflexively blink and her irises contract. The questions shouted one over another. It reminded her of something. Some other time, bright flashes, impacts, dirt flying, concussive shocks. Something like… fighting through a bombardment! Alita gritted her teeth.

“Now, Alita, don’t let them get to you,” Ed’s voice came over her internal comlink; tiny support in the face of these demands for answers. “They’re just sheep in wolves clothing. Give them something to chew on, and they’ll leave you alone. Just answer their questions succinctly, and be careful not to give away any private information.”

“Mmm, hmmm,” Alita subvocalized in return, as the next question was flung her way.

“Alita, we saw a new move from you, tonight,” a fresh-faced and brash young man stated, “Does it have a name?”

“Yes,” Alita responded, a little happier to be getting questions she could warm to. “It’s called Schatten Forgen, or Shadow Tracking, and it’s used to size up an opponent. I used it in a slightly different way, to gain an opening on that opponent.”

“Alita,” called a tall, dark-skinned woman with a rich, deep voice, one row back, “what do you think are the chances of a Final Champion bout being called before the end of the season?”

Alita graced the crowd of reporters with a predatory grin. “Oh, highly likely. The question is when…” …will Nova throw in that little wildcard, Alita finished to herself. She was excited about the prospect of fighting for the right to go to Zalem, and so was blindsided when that one reporter, with the fedora, long blue hair, and high cheekbones, sporting a camera lens replacing his left eye had picked his moment to throw the question.

“So Alita,” he smooshed, all self-confidence and a leering smile, “word on the street has it your last boyfriend took a rather long tumble. Anyone new on the horizon, or are you ‘available’?”

The buzz of questions and conversations around Alita suddenly ceased, replaced by a collective intake of breath. Anyone who knew Alita at all knew that this was a taboo subject. She was playing motorball to try to forget her loss, as far as they all knew. Alita had stood there as the now-silent crowd awaited her response, a deer in the headlights, like a soldier pinned to a wall by a footman’s pike. At least that’s how her heart felt, thanks to the unwelcome reminder.

But then Alita’s mouth compressed into a thin line, and her brows knitted into one of her almighty frowns, from under which she glared holes in Mr Camera-Lens-Eye. “You see this stump of an arm?” she growled, intensity dripping off every syllable as she lifted her left arm, the truncated end at eye height. The blue-haired reporter began visibly shrinking.

“Alita, dooonn’ttt!” came Ed’s plaintive cry in her head comlink. But there was no stopping her at that point. Her fire was stoked, and so, someone had to burn. 

“This is combat damage, incurred on THAT track,” Alita violently pointed in the direction of the track with her good arm. “For YOUR entertainment!” She was seething now, breathing so deeply her whole upper body rose and fell. She stalked, not skated, towards the offending reporter. “MOTORBALL is what I play here, to entertain YOU! You can ask me anything you like about the game, the players, my martial arts, or what I think of Zalem, but if you DARE ask me about my private life again…” Alita was standing three feet from the dumbstruck reporter by this time, the individuals around him having miraculously melted away.

“Alita, please,” Ed said in a small voice. It fell on a deaf mind.

Alita’s arm flashed up, her left wrist at her left ear, and the point of the Damascus Blade an eighth of an inch from the man’s whirring optic as it tried and failed to focus on something so close. “I will cut that lens eye out of your head faster than you can blink the other malformed orb in that blue-framed cranium of yours.”

A collective ‘woh’ escaped the slack-jawed mouths of the other reporters. There was some subdued cheering from fans in the back, who wanted to see more carnage! Even though Alita’s shorter stature required her left elbow to angle up so the point of the blade was at the man’s cyber-eye, everyone there saw Alita as a towering figure. 

Ed’s quiet sobs echoed over Alita’s comlink.

“I.. yes… um… oh,” the chastised reporter managed before soiling himself. He glanced down, his face turning bright red, and then turned and ran. Those behind him parted to let him flee.

Alita humphed as she watched him go, and subconsciously blew the dangling lock of hair out of her right eye. “And that goes for the rest of you, too,” she added in a voice close to a whisper. The reporters were silent. The fans were silent. Yet there was much nodding.

“I… have some combat damage I need to have repaired,” Alita said absently, after shaking herself a little. She turned and began skating away. “Thank you for your interest in the result of this match,” Alita called over her shoulder, a satisfied smirk the exclamation point to her otherwise scowling features, “and I’ll see you all at the next Pro round in four days’ time.”

Realizing she was leaving, the crowd had pushed forward again, many voices clamoring to get a final question in. Alita ignored them all, slipping easily through the line of security thanks to her delicate proportions – receiving a wink from Mel as she did so –  and retreated into the ‘player only’ area. It wasn’t long before she was in the Esdoc Motors’ Trailer, being seen too by Umba. She tried to forget the barb the question had left in her chest, but it was properly lodged, just like the buzz in her head. They combined to ruin her mood.

“So that was a great first Pro League race, Alita,” Umba began, as he decoupled Alita’s arms and legs, leaving her core dangling in the servicing brace. He moved around rapidly on his tracked base, scanning first the end of the left arm, with wires and servo connectors dangling, and then the right arm. When Alita stayed quiet, dangling in the harness, Umba stopped and looked up at her face. It was mostly hidden by her hair, which had flopped over as she was looking down. Umba thought Alita might be crying and was hiding it from view. But he corrected that assessment when a primal growl, starting low and gain strength and volume, erupted from his Paladin charge.

“ggggggrrrrrrrrRRRRRHHHHHHAAAAAA!!!!” Alita breathed heavily for a few seconds.  Her exertion set her to swinging slightly in the hanging brace.

“A-are you OK, Alita?” Umba asked, rolling back a little on his tracked unit, despite himself.

“I was supposed to beat him!” she stated, ignoring the question.

“Who? Jashugan?” Alita looked up and glared at Umba.

“Yes, of course, Jashugan,” she said, in a more normal tone, but the hardness in her eyes hadn’t diminished. “Did you see anyone else out there giving me any trouble, after I got my head out of the Second League and started taking the race seriously?” Umba had a momentary urge to mention Ajakutty and Bargerald, but wisely chose to remain silent. “Jashugan is the best the Pro League has thrown at me so far, but I should be able to beat him. I know I can.  He’s not that special, unless he’s holding something back…”

“Well, I don’t know,” Umba said, checking the joints in Alita’s detached arm. “He’s been independently rated by three sources as the Paladin most likely to win Final Champion, until you came along, that is. They are all probably recalculating like mad, right now!”

“Yes, yes, I know that,” Alita replied, her breathing slowing slightly and her eyes wandering in thought. “But I should have been able to win that race…”

“Well there was the problem with the limb syncing, and your left hand,” Umba said, holding up the damaged limb as if Alita needed to see it yet again. She gave him a look and he quickly unclipped the cables connecting it to her body, and placed it on a gurney.

“Well I’ll sync every spare we have, well before the next round,” Alita stated, “and I’ll be extra aware of unnecessary damage.” Her gaze was hard as it settled on the Damascus Blade, where she’d hung it on the webbing near the back door of the trailer. “Those setbacks will not happen again.”

“Good to know,” Umba said absently, “but they have caused ongoing problems. It’s going to take me days to get this arm track-worthy again, and while I’m really glad it performed so well, even damaged, we don’t have any other spare right arms. I’ll have to speak to Ido about fab’ing another one, but then that’s going to really stretch the budget, even with the half-winnings you got from tonight.”

“So, what?” Alita asked, as Umba took a fresh, undamaged left arm from the trolley and began the process of attaching it. “We’re broke?”

“Uh, that’s Ed’s side of the business,” Umba said, finalizing the connections as he dodged the question. “I’ll let him explain it.”

“Uh!” Alita felt a tingle and the limb synced, then gave Umba a quizzical look.

“Oh this is an arm you damaged slightly in training and I’ve since rebuilt – it already holds sync information,” he said by way of explanation, “but the new right arm is going to need sync time, so we’d best hook it up next.” Umba rolled round to Alita’s right side to begin.

“Can’t you just copy over the sync data from the damaged arm like we did with the leg?” Alita asked, her impatience obvious.

“Sorry, Alita, this right arm has joint and musculature damage all the way from shoulder to fingers,” Umba explained, “it will have modified its parameters to keep functioning as best it could with the damage. If I risk copying over that erroneous data, it could cause similar damage to the new arm when you use it under load.” Alita nodded. “So this one will have to be done properly. Should take about 20 minutes, and it will take me at least that long to check and tune the rest of your body after the beating you gave it out there.”

Alita grimaced. “I was just doing my job! And it’s a rough sport. You have to expect wear and tear!”

“Wear and tear,” Umba mimicked her in a squeaky voice, and was glad she didn’t have a right arm attached when she rolled those big brown eyes in his direction. Then she brightened.

“Ah yes,” Alita said, some sweetness finally flavoring her voice, “but that’s why I have you, the best Tuner in the game!”

“At the moment,” Umba responded, his tone business-like and eyes on his work. “Ido is still the best, when he puts his mind to it and will enter the pits, since Chiren is…”

“Yes,” Alita said, looking down so her hair fell across her face again. “Don’t remind me about that, either.”

Umba worked quietly and left Alita to her thoughts until Ed, Ido and Gerhad came into the trailer a quarter-hour later. Ed looked morose, while Ido and Gerhad were smiling and laughing. Alita looked quizzically at the trio. Are Ido and Gerhad joking together? Have they been out… celebrating??

“Ah, there she is!” Ido said, louder and with a more exaggerated tone than his normal voice. The smile on his aging face was warm and genuine, and Alita couldn’t help but give him a small smile in return. “Our very own Pro Motorball Champion!”  Ido strode over to Alita, who was still in the brace but was only lacking the right arm connection, and leaned down to give her a big hug. Alita leaned into it, and the warm sensation of the hug from the man who had come to represent a father to her made her pain diminish for a time. “Congratulations, Alita. I’m so proud.”

“But I didn’t win the race,” Alita began to protest in a quiet voice as Ido pulled out of the hug and went on to congratulate Umba for his fantastic work. Gerhad leaned in next, to distribute her own congratulatory hug.

“Congratulations, Alita,” Gerhad said into Alita’s ear. “Really well done. We knew you could do it.”

“But I didn’t win,” Alita said again, but then switched tracks when a particular smell from Gerhad’s breath reached her nostrils. “Have you two been drinking?”

“A little,” Gerhad said, and giggled slightly. “Ido had a bottle of champagne with him to celebrate if… no, when you won, and you did the next best thing, so we opened it.  We were… planning to share it with all of you, but we finished it waiting for the press gathering to end!” 

Alita was looking at her adopted father and his work associate with her head tilted to the side, as if that would help her understand what she was witnessing. Gerhad was usually a woman of few words, but it seemed that booze got her talking.

“Oh, and we got you a present!” Gerhad exclaimed, reaching into her shoulder bag and fishing out a box with a bowstring on the top. She handed it to Alita, who put it in her lap, and dying to find out what it might be, pulled on the string. The string removed, the top of the box popped open, but before Alita could peer inside, a strange creature rose out of the box.

It was a sphere-shaped beast, about two inches across, fuzzy, purple in color, and an inch long tail that ended in what looked for all the world to be a cotton ball. One large eye blinked slowly at Alita as it rose out of the box on some sort of fuzzy-eared rotor system that enabled it to fly, at least for short distances. It rose up, swung around, and landed on Alita’s shoulder facing forwards, touching down on two, geko-like feet that appeared out of the fuzz. Once it’s rotor ears stopped spinning, Alita could see they were also fuzzy. It leaned into Alita’s cheek and rubbed against her metallic eyeblack where it ran down the side of her head.

“It’s so cute!” Alita exclaimed, some of her youthful exuberance reappearing for the first time in months. “I love it!  Does it have a name?”

“The seller said it answers to Kimji, but it would learn another name if you used it for several months,” Gerhad explained.

“Oh no, Kimji is fine. Thank you so much!” Alita gushed, leaning up to give Gerhad another one-armed hug, who was more than happy to oblige. Kimji took off again, only going a short distance to land on Alita’s head. She giggled as she leaned back in the brace, looking through her hairline at Kimji as it stared down at her.

“There’s a feeding, care and training pamphlet for it, too,” Gerhad said, fishing that out of her shoulder bag and leaving it on the tool tray to the side of the trailer. “It says to be careful not to let the little creature fly too high, or around Centurions or Factory Officials, for obvious reasons.”

Alita, nodded, and Kimji fell off her head, landing in her left hand.  She lifted it up to eye height and smiled at the little creature. It blinked at her and rubbed against her armored thumb. The creature walked to the edge of her hand and scrambled back onto her shoulder, and Alita let her hand fall to her lap and looked up at Gerhad, her look turning serious.

“But I don’t deserve celebrations or presents,” Alita said, “because I DIDN’T WIN!” She was sure everyone heard her that time.

“Oh, you didn’t have to win,” Ido cut in, after patting Umba on the shoulder rather roughly, and turning back to the other conversation in the confines of the trailer. “You played at the highest level, overcame difficulties, fought the top-rated Paladin to a standstill, and wrecked all the others. As far as I know, no one else has ever done so well in their first game in Pro League in the history of the game!”

“Well, it could have been better,” Ed cut in, and the merriment in the trailer came to a sudden halt. They all turned to look at him, and Ed became a little self-conscious. Still, he had something to say, and needed to say it. “Alita does need to win,” Ed continued after a moment, rubbing his chin with his hand and sighing. “Look, we got 250K chips from Tommo, who is currently our only sponsor, and it’s been spent on parts, upgrade gear, and extra limbs, many of which you see in pieces around the trailer.” Ido and Gerhad looked around in a somewhat exaggerated manner, oohing and aahing at the broken silver and purple limbs spread about the crowded space.

“Well it’s a violent sport…” Alita protested half-heartedly.

“Regardless,” Ed went on, his face dower, “if you keep going through the parts like this, you’ll be off the track in one race, two at best, even with the moderate sum you brought in tonight.”

After a moment’s pause, everybody tried to talk at once. Ed held his hands up for silence, and was eventually granted it.

“Now I am working on more sponsorships,” Ed continued, dropping his hands, “and with the fight with Jashugan being so close, we should be able to get someone, but the problem is all the big sponsors are already backing other Paladins. It’ll take some time to bring them across – contracts expiring and the like.” Ed looked at each of them, care and grim concern etched into his features. “I just don’t know if we’re going to stay solvent long enough for it to happen.”

“Well I could take on some more bounties…” Ido began,  waving his arms in a haphazard manner that belied his alcohol-affected state.

“No!” Alita stated emphatically, gripping his arm hard enough to make him wince. “You need that money for the clinic. You’ve put far too much of your own time and resources into my track career already. I’m sure the patients you aren’t seeing because you’ve been helping me have been suffering because of it.” Despite her best efforts, Alita’s large, brown eyes were tearing up a bit. “And anyway, you’re not getting any younger, Dad!” Ido winced, either from the vernacular or the statement of fact, Alita couldn’t be sure. “You can’t be risking your life even more than you already are.”

Ido went to protest, but Gerhad put her cyberhand on his shoulder. He looked back into her eyes, and she shook her head. Ido’s lip curled slightly, and then he slowly nodded.

“So it’s settled,” Alita concluded, “Ed will look for more sponsorship, and I’ll take on some bounties.” If Alita had two arms connected, she probably would have been rubbing her hands together at the prospect.

“Um, Alita,” Umba said, his tone neutral as he worked on connecting the right arm to her torso which had finished syncing, “you do remember that part of the Paladin contract you signed to race in the Pro League had a clause forbidding you to work as a Hunter-Warrior while playing Pro League Motorball?” Alita’s head snapped around to stare, open-mouthed at Umba.

“Yep, it does,” Ed agreed, “to stop any hot-headed Paladins getting themselves greased in a back alley and ‘screwing up the odds’ by being absent on race night. There are severe penalties for breaking that clause, all of which we can’t afford right now.”

“Hrm,” Alita said, then she winced as the arm was attached. Umba went to say ‘sorry,’ but she waved him away. “Well, I do have one other option. I really don’t like it, but to reach your goals, you have to…” she paused for a moment, “push through.”

“Alita,” Ido said, in the ‘dad voice’ that all daughters either hate or roll their eyes at. “You’re not planning on doing anything unsavory for quick chips, are you?”

“Ido!” Alita retorted, her tone admonishing. “I would never…  No.” She turned to Ed. “I need to make sure I can get them, but if I’m right, would 400K chips be enough to go on with?”

“Uh, yeah,” Ed said, scratching his head, as Umba disconnected Alita from the monitoring cables and released the clamps on the servicing brace. Alita stood, with Ido and Gerhad’s gazes following her wide-eyed as they stepped back to give her more room to work her right shoulder. Alita checked her internal diagnostic indicators, which were all in the green. 

“OK then. I’ve cost you all so much to get me this far, now I’ll make the effort to keep us going,” Alita said, taking her Damascus Blade from the webbing at the back of the van and sliding it into a fancy, spider silk sheath. “It’s the least I can do.” She added it to a duffle bag along with her waking feet – that matched her track body – and boots. Then she looked up at the small, one-eyed creature on her shoulder, and it snuggled her cheek. Alita ‘tiched’ and shook her head, picking Kimji from her shoulder and handing the little creature to Ido, who took it carefully, not knowing quite what to do with it.

“How do I…” Ido began, and Alita put the care instruction booklet Gerhad had left on the side bench into his other hand.

“Keep it safe. I’ll look after it when I get home,” Alita said. 

“Alita, you might want to cover up. Even late at night, now you are a Pro Motorball Paladin, people will recognize you, and might hassle you,” Umba said, and Ido nodded.  Alita checked her duffle, and found a pair of zippier-ankled pants she’d stowed there earlier. Nodding, she took her ‘Esdoc Motors’ monogrammed jacket of a hook on the back of the door, and slung it over her duffle. Then putting on a strong, determined look, Alita threw the duffle over her shoulder, and went to the back of the trailer, turning the door handle.

“Are you going to be alright?” Gerhad asked, a woman’s intuition telling her that Alita was leaving to undertake a trial of some sort.

“Oh, I’ll live through it,” Alita replied over her shoulder, somewhat cryptically, “but my immunity to this sort of pain is still a work in progress.”

With that, she rolled out the back door of the trailer and into the night.

“And may you never truly be immune to the pain of caring,” Ido murmured as the door swung back closed with the sound of metal on metal, and a solid click of the latch engaging.

Alita was jerked from her reverie by the sound of a large van splashing through the puddles along the back alley of the Motorball Arena. The sound was coming closer.

“Enough delaying,” Alita murmured to herself, and sighed as she pulled herself to her feet. She quickly flipped up the hood of her jacket and hefted the duffle to a comfortable position on her shoulder.

Ready to skate, she looked around the bulbous form of the giant heart statue, and saw that the van was closing fast, bouncing through the puddles and potholes of the poorly maintained access lane. As it passed the light that she couldn’t quite see around the curve of the stadium, she saw a series of stylized fish and loaves decorating the side of the otherwise red cargo space.

That’s odd, Alita thought to herself. It’s too big to be a catering truck, and a bulk food delivery service would have some text advertising themselves on their vans, surely? But it was going in the right direction, and she’d put off this distasteful chore long enough.

As the van sped past her hiding spot, Alita zipped down the last few stairs, zoomed up to the back of the van, grabbed hold of the large, footplate bumper and squatted, allowing the van to pull her along. She lent low into the corner as the van turned away from the stadium, keeping easy balance and also remaining hidden from the large mirrors on each side of the cab. The van was heading west towards the northern reaches of Barrio Viejo, and she would stick with it until it changed direction, or they reached her less-than-comfortable destination.

To move forward, she had to go back. Back to her short, heartbreaking and hunted past.

Chapter 7 – Forlorn Hope –>

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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