Chapter 7 – Forlorn Hope

<– Chapter 6

In the deep dark of the early AM, Alita Ido, the Battle Angel of the Iron City Motorball Circuit, up-and-coming Paladin and Pro Motorball Champion, slayer of enormous homicidal cyborg Grewiska and his factory boss Vector, ex-Hunter-Warrior and considered all-around badass, stood wide-eyed in an alleyway across the quiet street from an unremarkable apartment building in northern Barrio Viejo. Clutching the corner of the wall and staring around it like a worried child reminded her far too much of her first foray into the night streets of Iron City – following Ido when he’d gone out to hunt bounties, while Alita herself had thought he was the killer! But there was no one she was following tonight. There was no one to confront with misplaced concerns about the harming of innocents. No, this night it was the past that Alita had concerns about, and in her own inimitable style, she had to confront them head o…

Alita nearly jumped out of her motorball body when her internal phone rang. She staggered back from the corner into the darker confines of the alleyway, the sound of her wheelfeet clacking on the cobblestones echoing between the buildings. After glancing around to make sure no one was coming to investigate the sounds – a really bad idea in the middle of the night in an alley of Iron City – she picked up the call.

“Alpha-665713-Gamma-33425-Bravo-Bravo-15-Deta-Signify,” a gruff, poor-quality, computerized voice stated. Alita knew what this meant, and mentally entered the code into a cipher chip that Ido had added to her internal coms processor.

“Signify,” she subvocalized when the adjustment kicked in. Alita listened closely; there would be no pleasantries framing this call, and the background of digital static that was a spillover from the decoding process meant she had to concentrate on every word. There would be no repeating missed information from this caller.

“Plan Z preparations 45% complete. Due to time frame required, cost overruns inevitable. 250K chips required to complete this unit’s part of materials, construction and procurement. Payment required within 72 hrs. Signify.”

Alita sighed. Well, that decided it. She had to face the demons of her past and get the money for both her primary and backup plans. In war, you never went into a campaign with only one path to victory. The question that still plagued her was, which plan was the primary, and which was the secondary with what she suspected? Alita decided it didn’t matter. They both had a part to play.

“Acknowledged,” Alita sub-vocalized. “Payment in 72 hours at Lambda 6 dropoff. Signify.”

“Signify. Unit D.I. additions to construction required in 9 days. Location N45. Items will be ready on schedule? Signify.” The mechanical voice’s first tonal shift was to create a question.

“They will be ready. He will come through for us. Dropoff to Location N45. Signify.” Alita subvocalized, but she was working on faith in her father on that one.

“Signify,” came the response, and the carrier wave went dead.

Alita shook her head to try to clear it, then glanced around. The alleyway was as dark and as deserted as it had been when she’d got there. She really hoped the triple encryption was enough. When Zalem listened to that call, and they would, they’d hear grocery lists and pleasantries on the standard, digital band. But that was just a carrier for the encrypted message. Yet even if they picked up the subtext and got to the real message, they didn’t have any context for the details of the conversation, so she felt that Plan Z was still secure. If it wasn’t, the sound of all the Centurions in Iron City closing on her position would be a dead giveaway!

Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Alita sat down on an old wooden crate up against the wall of the alley and dropped the duffle next to her. Opening it, she pulled out a pair of standard feet that matched the style and color scheme of her track body, and put them down next to her legs. Unzipping her pants at the ankles, Alita shimmied them up to expose the fronts of her calves, then reached down and flipped up the latching t-bars with both her thumbs simultaneously to release her wheelfeet. She picked them up and deposited them in the duffle, having no trouble seeing what she was doing in the weak, ambient light seeping into the alley thanks to her URM biosynthetic eyes.

Alita placed her bare ankles over the seating pins on the standard feet, then flicked up the locking panels and thumped the latching t-bars into place. Finally, she took a pair of dark, leather boots with large collars and slipped them over her standard feet, wiggling her toes to test the sync as she did so.

She was just pulling down and rezipping her pants legs when a flash of light lit the sky.  She glanced up in time to see it reflect off the tiny sliver of Zalem’s disc that was visible in the alley.  A few moments later, as was zipping up the duffle, she heard the far-off, coruscating, rumble of thunder, and after a quick mental calculation, she knew a thunderstorm would be hitting Iron City in less than an hour.

As ready as she’d ever be, Alita shouldered the duffle and stood up to approach the corner again, resolve sitting almost as heavily in her chest as the heartache that had been increasing in intensity ever since she’d decided to visit that haunted apartment. At the corner, she looked over at the building, and then up at the windowsill she’d squatted on so many times. The window was closed – not surprising due to the dwelling’s vacancy. She remembered that he had liked to leave it open to get the cross-breeze through the small, corner apartment. The thought caused the pain in her chest to intensify, and she closed her eyes for a moment, biting her lip to get control of her emotions. She had to do this. There was literally no other way.

Alita checked that the street was clear, then strode purposefully across until she was on the opposite sidewalk, under that window. She adjusted the positioning of the duffle in preparation to jump, and then had to wait while a chorus of flashes lit the sky. To fill the time, Alita squatted and flexed her legs in the pants, gauging the acceleration and lift she could generate without tearing the fabric. While the track body that Ido and Umba had built for her was strong, it wasn’t nearly as vertically mobile as the Berserker body. She missed its fluid grace and coiled strength, but that body was just tied up in her head with so much emotional baggage. Maybe one day she’d be able to wear it again, but not now. It would remain, locked in Ido’s basement storage facility, until that time.

When the sky off to the west produced no more flashes, she waited until the rumbling from the delayed thunder was at its loudest and then sprang into the air. Even at a run, Alita would have had trouble reaching the windowsill in one leap, but she had, many months ago, worked out a three-step method to reach the fifth-floor ledge without straining herself. The first spring took her up two stories, where she deflected off a masonry support that hung out of the building corner using her feet. This changed her trajectory to about thirty degrees, and she flew past several windows like a silent bat, before catching a drainage pipe and swinging around it, reversing her trajectory and sending her back towards that window while doing a backward somersault with a twist. Altia had to make a mid-air adjustment to her flight due to the difference in power to weight ratio of the track body, and the weight of the duffle she still held on her shoulder.

Alita would normally have caught the edges of the second, open window from the right – the first one had an extraction fan mounted in it – at the top of her arc, reducing noise and damage to the window surrounds, and pull her legs up and in to squat on the sill. But this time her usual window was closed, so she had to catch the sill with the fingers of her free hand, as the other was occupied with her burden. The noise of her arrival was covered by the last of the rolling thunder, and she steadied herself, legs spread thirty degrees and toes caught on the edges of the bricks that were showing through the crumbling stucco. Secure, she gripped the handles of the duffle with her teeth, and with her now free left hand, reached into the back pocket of her pants, withdrawing a slim, six-inch-long, metal ruler. Alita poked it in between the locked windows and slid it up. She knew the window was only held closed by a simple latch, and she smirked in satisfaction when she heard the latch disengage, and the freed windows swung outwards. Alita flicked her right-hand grip down to a protruding brick to clear the windows’ path, and then, just as quickly changed it again to a full handhold on the windowsill. Secure again, she pocketed the ruler and lifted the duffle through the opening, and then hauled herself as silently as possible through the now open window. Not wanting to alert anyone to her presence, she quickly turned around and pulled the windows in again, relatching them.

Alita took a deep breath and turned to surveil the room. That was when her heart caught in her throat.

It still smelled like him.

Despite the – mostly – dark of night, it still looked the way it had the last time she’d been there. The flashes of lightning outside the wrap-around windows showed a fine layer of dust over his workbench and belongings, but it was still the way she remembered it. The way it was burnt into her brain. Except there was a Hogo-sized hole in the present of this place that matched the same one in her heart.

Alita heard a young woman sob, and realized a few moments later that it was herself. She felt the tracks of tears flowing down her cheeks from her suddenly tired and aching eyes, and the pain boiling in her chest, threatening to erupt into… what? She had no idea.

Despite two months of grieving. Two months of working her butt off at the Motorball track. Two months of trying to move on with her mission, her heart was stuck here. Always here. Where Hogo had been. When Hugo had been… part of her life.

The view of the room shifted, and she realized through her blurry eyes that she had fallen to her knees. “I shouldn’t have come here,” she blubbered to no one. “I’m not ready for this…” She fell forward, her face in her cold, metallic hands and wept.

Wept like she had never done before. Like she never knew she could. It was like a river of pain, the tears squeezed from her eyes, flowing through her fingers. Not the fingers that had failed to save Hugo – those fingers were on the body she couldn’t stand to wear anymore. But still, these were her fingers. And they couldn’t have saved him, either. She couldn’t save him. She’d failed…

The crying lasted for a long time.

When Alita thought she might just cry herself to death, the tears suddenly dried up, as if she had no more to spare. She sat up on her haunches, gulping deep breaths, and listened to the rumbles of thunder outside. The storm front was getting closer. She found some tissues and cleaned herself up, not allowing herself to think about the context she was walking around in, lest the loss swallow her again.

Hugo had told her he’d paid for the apartment two years in advance, because that was the length of time he’d calculated it would take him to get the chips together for Zalem, and advanced payment gave a good discount. It still had six months to go. That was why it was undisturbed, and why she expected – hoped – that the chips Hugo had amassed to buy his way to Zalem were still here.

When he’d only had a few hundred K chips, Hugo has kept them – rather foolishly – in a tin at the back of the wardrobe near the door.  When he’d got close to the million chips, he’d wised up, and devised a better, safer storage system for such a large sum.

Alita pushed the bed up against the low cupboard on the west wall, pulled back the rug with a three-foot-wide wet patch from tears on it, and got down on her hands and knees. She tapped the floor with her right index finger in different spots until the sound changed. It went from a solid ‘clunk’ to a hollow ‘clock.’ She crawled over to that spot, sniffling a bit from all the tears, and then blew carefully across the floor. The powder that Hugo had sprinkled on the joins and the lifting latch to hide them blew away, exposing the edges of a sub-floor storage area two-feet square. Alita rose back up onto her haunches, blowing the rogue lock of hair out of her – very red – right eye, and wiggled her right index finger under the lifting latch.

“Well,” she said quietly to herself, “if it’s not here, I may well fail again.” She lifted the latch.

Lightning flashed outside, illuminating a space filled to overflowing with stacks of chips of all commonly-issued values. It looked to be all there. The middle stacks were obscured, however, and Alita reached down to lift out the small sheet of paper that was blocking it.  As she lifted it up to eye height, the ambient light from outside enabled her to see that it was a photograph, of Hugo and herself, after a rather successful training session on the leadup to her tryout. Alita remembered it was taken by Koyomi, on her phone camera, and Hugo must have had it printed out – an unusual thing in Iron City. Then she saw the marker pen circling her image, and the words Final Champion written with an arrow point to the circle. Alita smiled, and her eyes teared up again. She’d loved him so much, and he’d believed in her – absolutely.

She couldn’t let him down. She couldn’t let her feelings of loss stop the plan they had worked on. She was going to Zalem, one way or another, and this money that Hugo had saved to go up, and hand never used, would actually fulfill the purpose for which it was collected.

She spent several minutes filling the duffle to overflowing with chips – and the photo – then closed the lid and sprinkled the dust back. She stood up and absent-mindedly patted her hands together to remove excess dust, looking around the room as she did so. Her eyes came to rest on a tin on the shelves behind the door. She went over to it, opened it, and took out the spare key to the apartment. She put it in her pocket, just in case. Finally, she returned the rug to its original position, sure it would dry in the morning, pulled the bed back into place, and picked up the duffle off the bed…

… and that was when she saw it. The envelope on the ruffled blanket. She feared it would be addressed to her, but it wasn’t. It just said ‘Hugo’ on the front, in flowery handwriting that Alita suspected was a woman’s. Someone in Hugo’s old crew must have got into the apartment and left the envelope.

Alita’s first instinct was to leave it alone, but with Hugo ‘gone,’ no one would open it. What if it was important? Alita swallowed hard and picked up the envelope, turning it and flipping up the fold. Not seeing any paper, Alita turned the envelope upside down over her palm, and a tiny storage chip, smaller than her fingernail, fell into her purple and silver, metallic palm. She looked at it for a few moments, while mentally setting up firewalls for possible malicious code, and then plugged it into the port in her arm. Its contents made Alita’s heart ache all the more.

There was a single file on the chip. It was audio-only. Alita activated playback. She heard a voice she instantly recognized. Someone she considered a friend, if not a close one. Someone she’d definitely not considered in all the mess of two months before. 

“Hugo,” Koyomi’s voice came into Alita’s head. It was chocked full of emotion. Fear, concern, confusion, and an undercurrent of anger. “You know who this is, so I’m not going to use my name.” Pause. “I… I hope you’re alright. Please be alright.”

There was another pause, and Alita could hear sobbing in the background. It might have been Diff, another of the old crew. She couldn’t be sure.

“Diff went back to where you confronted Tanji about quitting the ‘night work’ a few hours later and saw the Factory Prefects bagging up the two halves of his body. I know you don’t carry anything that could have done that to Tanj, so it had to be that prick Zapan. Diff also said Zapan was after you! Oh gods, I hope you are alright. That you’re not…”

There was a ‘click’ and the background sounds changed. The muffled conversations and kitchen sounds pegged the location as the Cafe Café, probably late at night. Corner booth, if the acoustics could be trusted. Koyomi took a deep breath before speaking. It was obvious to Alita she was very emotional.

“So, I bumped into Gerhad last night, and she told me Zapan got to you, but Alita saved your head and they put it… you… onto a TR body. I can’t imagine how much that must have distressed you because I know about your history – you told me about it after you were beat up by that Southtown gang who stole your mother’s bracelet.

Anyway, when you’ve recovered we should have a memorial for Tanj. I miss him so much. I’ve been crying since I got word… Please, stay safe. I can’t lose you too.”

There was another click and the acoustics of the recording changed again. Koyomi was in a back alley now, by the echos off hard surfaces.

“I saw the bounty marker on you tonight. Diff told me it’s been there for 2 nights. I must have been too worried to look. Oh gods, I hope they don’t catch you. Why now, when you’ve quit, does this happen? It’s not fair!” Alita caught the sound of Koyomi sobbing before the recording cut again.

The audio on the last section Alita immediately recognized as from the one-room apartment in which she stood. As she listened, she nodded, her fists clenched. She felt the tide of anger rising, and was powerless to stop it.

“I heard there was some attack on the Factory. I don’t know if that had anything to do with you, but things are really weird around here at the moment. I’m going to get out of Iron City for a while. I’m feeling really paranoid – I feel like the Factory will put a bounty on me next. I have relatives at one of the farms. I won’t say which one, in case some keen Hunter-Warrior finds this recording. I’m going there for a few months, to let this blow over. I’ll check that there are no markers on me before I come back. Gods, I hope you are alright. But you should be, you have one of the strongest cyborgs in Iron City as your girlfriend, if what I’m told happened at the motorball tryouts is to be believed.”

Alita mirthlessly guffed at that, and a single tear ran down her cheek.

“I hope Alita can protect you. I don’t want to lose you too. I don’t know what I’d do if you… you know. I can’t say it.

Good luck, and keep dreaming. I’ll always be your friend.”

There as a pause for a few moments, as if Koyomi was trying to find something else to say to properly end the recording. But it didn’t come, and the audio ended with an unceremonious click.

The door at the bottom of the stairwell flew open and smashed against the wall, almost coming off its hinges from the force of Alita’s uncontrolled kick. She stepped through, bulging duffle over one shoulder, her other hand balled in a fist. Her face was awash with tears again, but this time her teeth were gritted, and her eyes darted around, as if daring someone to attack her from out of the night, like that bastard Zapan. 

Alita had thought she’d come to terms with what he’d done. After all, he hadn’t actually killed Hugo. That was Nova’s doing. But he’d been the shifting stone that started the avalanche, and… She stopped stalking across the storage area towards the exit doors to glare at an alcove between a support pillar and a drain pipe. She saw a chain running around the pipe, and it reminded her that this was where Hugo used to chain his gyro up when he was at home.

She walked over, a little of the anger being replaced by curiosity, and pulling back cardboard boxes and wooden crates, uncovered Hugo’s gyro, dutifully chained to the pipe where it belonged. The red highlights of the single, black wheel, the breaking mechanism down low at the front, the footrests she had used a passenger so many times halfway up the back of the wheel, and the main body of the gyro crouching over the wheel, motivator under the fuel tank, with its black and brass fairings, pop out handlebars and double seat at the back. Alita stood there, looking at it for several seconds, blinking, in case it would vanish and be some sort of mirage created by her distraught mind. But it insisted on existing, so she walked over to it, pulling the apartment key out as she did so. The upstairs key fit the lock on the heavy chain that wound around the pipe and though the single wheel of the gyro several times. Alita unlocked it, and locked the chain back up so no one got the idea it was available. She strapped the duffle down to the back seat – where she used to sit – and wheeled the gyro out the back service doors to the alleyway behind the apartment block.

It turned out riding a gyro was no more difficult for Alita than picking up motorball. She knew the code to start it, having watched Hugo put it in dozens of times. It was fully fueled – again probably thanks to Diff – and it wasn’t long before she had the throttle open on the northern ring road. This was a major thoroughfare that linked the factories. It was usually teeming with transports of all kinds, and rarely empty, even in the early hours of the morning. But the storm was breaking, and transport drivers avoided the roads during downpours, as the chance of accidents was high.

But Alita didn’t care. She needed to feel the wind on her face, and the rain wiping the angry tears from her skin and metallic eyeblack with stinging impacts. The lightning flashed, and the thunder roared, and they combined to help Alita’s mind go white with the pain and anger.

Sometime later, Alita parked the gyro on a hillock overlooking the train yards on the western side of Iron City.  She’d found the spot by accident, as her mind slowly cleared. There were many freight cars lined up on sidings, being unloaded mostly, having been brought in from the more distant farms by the nuclear-powered locomotives. There were also a lot of people coming off what were ostensibly freight trains. Alita didn’t know if this was unusual or not, but there were many new mouths to feed if they were from the farms. Looking up past the hydrowall, she could see the storm heading south, sheets of rain visible under glowering clouds, and light in the east heralding the imminent sunrise. 

The downpour had made the spot moist and cool, but the tropical sun would make it all steamy and unpleasant in a few short hours. But just on sunrise it was quite beautiful, with the disc of Zalem catching the rays of the morning sun before the light hit Iron City. Zalem, always getting the best of everything. Alita felt it spoiled the otherwise majestic vista, the play of darkness and light with the industriousness of mankind beneath. Alita turned away, and climbed back on the gyro – her gyro, she guessed. She couldn’t see why Hugo wouldn’t want her to have it. Thinking of him brought her mood down again, and introspection took over as she rode back home.

How could I be so stupid, she berated herself. I’ve been so caught up with how much Hugo’s death has affected me, I never stopped to think how their deaths must have affected the rest of his crew – his friends – and Tanji’s family. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Alita vowed she wouldn’t be so self-absorbed again. She’d make sure any of Hugo’s money that she could spare would go to Tanji’s family and Koyomi. She’d speak to them personally and pass on her condolences, and then, when she could find the time, and her contractual obligations allowed, she’d hunt down that scumbag Zapan and put an end to his pathetic existence, like she should have done the first time.

Pain. It all started with pain. His face was on fire, and something plopped down into his hands, but he couldn’t focus on it. Trying to do so hurt even more. His mind just didn’t want to know, and so he didn’t know. His past was a blur – one that haunted his dreams. Like this dream. Like a roaring tunnel of pain and anguish, and the need for reveng…

“Zapan!” a woman’s musical voice called to him. “You’ve slept in again. Time to get up.” There was no admonishment in it – just pleasant understanding that the situation was what the situation was, and to make the best of it from this moment forward. Zapan could help but smile when Sara woke him. She was the most pleasant person he’d ever known, and he had no clue what he’d done to be so lucky to end up with her.

Sara had found him wandering the back alleys of Westside, of which there were many. She felt sorry for him, being so gravely injured, and took him to the best cyberdoc she knew.  But the damage was too great, and they did what they could, but… it was something else his mind didn’t want to know about, so it was a blur. The only thing that was clear was Sara’s face, her beautiful smile, and her musical voice telling him everything would be all right, and that she wouldn’t leave him in need – and she hadn’t. They’d been together since that night.

Zapan lifted his head and opened his eyes. As he expected, Sara had her head thought the tent flap, and he marveled at her beautiful face, like an image out of a dream. She had raven hair, wild and shoulder-length, held back out of her face by a blue headband. Her eyes were a matching blue to her headband, or was it the other way around? They were kind eyes, and that was the one word everyone who knew Sara used to describe her. Kind. She had thin, dark brows that he’d never seen come together in anger or consternation, a dainty, slightly pointy nose, a ready smile surrounded by thin, softly pink lips, and a petite chin. She was a full meatgirl and almost defenseless by modern standards, but no one would ever think to cause her any harm. She just had that way about her, putting everyone around her at ease. Even him.

“Please hurry, I need your help,” Sara continued, in a pleasant tone that didn’t match the request. “There were another three trains of refugees that came into the yards overnight. They are all tired, scared and hungry. We can, at the very least, solve one of those problems for them.”  Zapan nodded and went to get up as Sara’s face disappeared from the tent flap. From the light that was filtering into the tent, Zapan could tell the sun had been up long enough to shine over the hydrowall, and so the day was well underway.

He pulled on an old pair of jeans – quite the comedown from the genuine leather pants he used to wear. But that doesn’t matter, he reminded himself, for you have Sara. Then he grabbed his worn leather jacket. He pulled it on over the scarred and damaged decorations of his cyberbody, the markings of his former life that he presumed he’d tried to wipe out in a fit of rage. But that didn’t matter either, for he had Sara. He’d been on a spiral down to hell, and she’d picked him up, got him fixed up, and gave his life meaning again. He owed her so much, more than he thought he could ever repay.

Stepping out of the tent, Zapan looked around the dilapidated out-buildings where the soup kitchen was located. It was off to the side of the rail yards, along the path where new arrivals by rail were sent for processing. The tent was located in an old, two-story, cement slab storehouse, now disused, probably because one, long-side wall had fallen down, leaving ragged ends of rebar protruding from the exposed floors. But it made good cover from the storms that battered Iron City at this time of year, as their tent would be no match for the torrential rain and howling winds. It looked like he’d slept through a big storm, too. There were a lot of puddles, churned up mud from many feet, and many pairs of feet still milling around, wondering if they would ever be able to settle in ‘the city.’ That’s what the soup kitchen was here for – to help them as they arrived. Sara had devised it, organized its running and procurement, and motivated the volunteers that manned it. They all got free food for their efforts – everyone was welcome to that.

Yet these crowds seemed flighty – more stressed and disorganized than usual. Zapan was muscle to help move the big cauldrons of soup from the cooking area to the servery, and to get the hungry to line up, all orderly like. Then, and only then, would they be fed. But some just wouldn’t listen. 

He checked and there was already a large pot of soup on the table, but the crowd of new arrivals was milling around in front of the servery, so it was Zapan’s job to motivate them into some semblance of order.

“There’s plenty of soup, so get in line!” Zapan announced, waving his arm back and forth, indicating where the line should run. He knew Sara was watching him, and she liked it when he took charge. He just had to keep a lid on it, was all. That seemed to always be his problem. 

The ragged humanity in front of him pulled back from the table and formed something akin to a line. There were men and women, old, middle-aged and young. A few had cybernetic replacements, but Zapan saw very few Total Replacement Cyborgs come through. He presumed they were of more used to the Factory, so they were separated from this flotsam before they arrived at the soup kitchen. That was just fine as far as Zapan was concerned. It made him the strongest one there, and to keep the piece, you had to be the strongest.

Zapan had to deal with those that were too out of it, shell shocked, or high on drugs to take instruction. Like the distracted-looking meatboy with no shoes, no brains, and almost no hair on his head. He was wandering around, groaning, looking like he was going to cut in the line that had formed, rather than move to the back. The old, ragged, and tired farmers – because Zapan was fairly sure that was what they were – who were in the front of the line would probably let him too, and that just wouldn’t do.

As he started towards the young man, he glanced over at the front of the line. An old man, in a ragged coat and slouch hat, his face drawn and stained with tears, was being served a good portion of soup in a bamboo pulp cup and a chunk of crusty bread by Sara. As the man took the proffered meal, he looked up at Sara, and she gave him one of her trademark warm smiles.

“Now cheer up,” she gently instructed him, “tomorrow’s bound to bring something good.” With those words, the man straightened, as if a weight was lifted from his shoulders. He sniffled, looked down at the food, licked his lips, then looked back up at Sara. 

“Thank you,” he said in a raspy voice. Sara smiled at him again, and motioned for him to move to the eating area so she could give out the next portion.

Zapan reached the meatboy. He was definitely out of it, Zapan decided, and was wandering around, getting in the way, and nearly tripped Celaena and Varanus who were bringing out the next cauldron of soup. Zapan growled, and grabbed the boy by the collar, spinning him around.

“You want food, you GET IN LINE!” Zapan growled, shouting the last part loud enough that everyone in the line starred. Zapan was feeling really heated, almost to the point of wanting to hit someone, and this meatboy looked like he couldn’t put up much of a fight. Zapan drew back his fist…

“Zapan!” Sara stated quietly, having come up behind him. Zapan dropped his fist and rolled his eyes to the sky. He’d let his anger out again. He felt sorry already. “Please, don’t be violent.” Her words were like whiplashes to him. They were such inconsequential words, but when they came from her… Zapan ran a hand through his unruly crop of blonde hair.

“I’m sorry, Sara,” he began, admonishment evident in his tone, “when I get angry, I just…” She reached up and touched his face with her delicate hand. Her beautiful, delicate hand. The feeling was electric, like she had some inner dynamo that energized everything she touched.

“Just remember to be tolerant. My father is wrong about you. You really are a kind person.”

“I’ll try, Sara,” was all Zapan could say as she took her hand away. Zapan didn’t remember what Sara’s father looked like, but an image of a pack of cybernetic dogs came unbidden into his mind. He shruged, and turned to walk back to his position, noting the meatboy was now correctly located in the line that was moving forward quickly now, with Celaena and Varanus, the brother and sister pair that were a big help around the kitchen, serving at the table. He knew Sara would be smiling after him, and he reached up to touch the spot where she’d touched his face with his cold, steel hand. The spot still tingled. He really was so lucky. 

“Zapan,” Celaena called, reaching down deep into the oversized pot for more soup, “this is almost empty. Could you bring the next one out to us, please?”

“OK,” Zapan said, waving, and headed toward the kitchen. He walked through the opening that would have been a double door if it had still had doors, and into the only properly functional area of the disused storehouse. This area even had electricity and water. Walking past the old, rebuilt stoves rescued from a burnt down restaurant, Zapan went to the last row of burners holding a bubbling cauldron of soup, ready for the masses outside. He lifted the large pot with ease, mentally switching off the heat sensors in his hands so he wouldn’t feel the heat from the handles, and carried out back outside to the line that was thankfully dwindling.

Zapan put the vat of soup down, receiving a thankful smile from Celaena, whisps of her platinum blonde fringe already sticking to her forehead and cheek with the heat of the soup and the warming morning, and glanced around. Those that were already fed were spreading out, looking for somewhere not muddy to eat. A few had wandered away down the main thoroughfare towards the inner city gates. It was down that way that the only functioning, non-vandalized, large city viewscreen in the western region was located. Zapan had never seen it activated, and hadn’t seen any news or Factory sanctioned broadcasts for months. But as several refugees sat down below it and began eating, it registered their presence and switched on. Zapan saw that it was showing some report on Motorball. It was a sport more fanatically-followed in the east of Iron City, where people weren’t all trying to find somewhere to sleep and wondering where the next meal might come from. Zapan didn’t have much of an interest in it, but the insistent tone of the announcer drew his attention. He took a few steps away from the table to listen.

“And it had to be the most exciting opening game of a season since the retirement of Grewiska!” the announcer proclaimed, the champ, Jashugan, fighting to a standstill with the young up-and-comer, Alita, the Battle Angel!  What a tussle. Nether Paladin gave quarter, even after the finish line!”

Zapan was staring at the screen… his mind glued to the images it showed. He saw the champion Jashugan disappear into a cloud of wheelsmoke, and when he emerged, he was holding onto the motorball, with a DEVIL on the other side of it. It was her! The DEVIL in his dreams! The one that had destroyed his life, stolen his blade, his Damascus Blade, he remembered now, and… he swallowed hard. Sweat poured from him.

“Gyaaaaaahhhhh!!!” he screamed, his mouth open impossibly wide. Varanus was walking past him, back towards the kitchen as he fell to the ground, clutching his face. He cried out again.

“H-hey?” Varanus began, leaning over Zapan, concern writ large on his face. “What’s wrong?” Zapan looked through his fingers at the supersized screen. It had a close up of the woman in the motorball body. THAT WOMAN. The one responsible for…

“I – IT’S HER!!!” Zapan moaned, trying to scrabble back, away from the image he couldn’t look away from. His eyes were streaming tears, and he was hyperventilating.

“Relax,” Varanus said, leaning in closer. “Who are you talking about?” Zapan stared at the screen. The DEVIL was turning around to look into the camera. No, she was turning to look at him. Glare at him. Attack him! Cut his…

He saw her face on that night, the mask of anger and retribution. Felt the Damascus Blade ripped from his hands. Saw the sudden movement of her accelerated, combat body. Felt the pain… THE PAIN!

Sara turned to see what the commotion was about. She looked at the screen and then down at Zapan, writhing on the ground. Her face took on a worried look – something she almost never did. And she moved off towards her love.

Varanus was leaning over Zapan, trying to help him, but Varanus was only a meatboy, and not a very fit one at that. Zapan suddenly leaped up, pushing Varnaus roughly and absent-mindedly away. There was a sharp snap and Varanus’s head was facing almost directly backwards from his body, the skin of his neck unnaturally twisted. He collapsed to the ground and one of his eyeballs popped out and his head bounced on the cobbles, trailing a bloody optic nerve.

Zapan staggered away a few feet, his eyes bulging. He was streaming tears, sweat and drool. He grimaced as his hands slowly reached up to his face. “This…” he began, his voice failed him, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “This isn’t MY FACE!!!” he was shouting by the end.

Zapan’s strong, metallic fingers dug into the flesh at his hairline, breaking synthskin and capillaries, blue cyberblood streaming. He pulled down, tearing and ripping all the work that had been done to give him a new face. Not his face, not his beautiful, extremely expensive face that had made him the best looking Hunter-Warrior in Iron City.  Before that DEVIL came along. That Devil, Alita… He continued pulling down.

“What are you doing?” Sara’s voice came to him, but it wasn’t her usual, gentle, musical tone. It was sickened, horrified. And that seemed right, somehow. “Stop it, ZAPAN!” Sara shouted, a volume Zapan had never heard from her before. She reached for his shoulder, and he looked back at her, his face in tatters, far worse than the night she’d found him. At least that had been a clean cut, but this… the skin was ragged and weeping blue cyberblood, framing his metallic, exposed skull. His eyes were streaming, and he laughed, a small chuckle, like he’d found something he’d been missing, or was now missing something he’d found: sanity.

Zapan lunged away, flinging his arm up to knock Sara’s hand from his shoulder.  But it was a wild, uncontrolled swing, powered by madness. The same fingers that had torn Zapan’s own face off now bit into the soft, meatgirl neck of his savior, and her head detached from her body with ridiculous ease. The blood that pumped from that stump was cherry red. Sara’s head tumbled through the air, going three yards to land in the last pot of soup. The last pot she would ever serve.

Zapan staggered a few feet, then stopped, huffing. Realizing that everything had gone very quiet, he looked around, and saw Sara’s corpse lying on the ground behind him, the neck still pumping blood across the muddy ground. He looked from the body, to the trail of blood splatters leading to the servery.  He walked over, muttering “What have I done, what have I done,” and the staff and refugees alike gave him a wide berth.

He reached into the pot, lifting the severed head almost reverently out of the spoiled soup, muttering “Sara, Sara,” and staggered off toward the ruined areas to the south, muttering and gasping, like a suffocating man hunting for a last breath, carrying the head with him.

The onlookers stood there stunned for several minutes, until the Factory Prefects arrived. They took down the details, and before the day was out, on bounty bulletin screens all across Iron City, a bounty read:

Reward 50K chips.
Zapan.
Ex-Hunter Warrior.
Murderer.
Notable marks: damage to face.
Extremely dangerous.

Chapter 8 – Reconciliation –>

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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