Another corridor stretched out before the two, twisting, yawning, punctured on all sides by the metal of dead cities molded to unrecognizable forms. The navigable path below was narrow and rough-graded, carved out many years past by a charitable soul with more time than sense. Alita took cautious steps along that unsteady ground, bending beams and blunting edges as she went, keeping the pain of their bite concealed from her companion.
Koyomi’s steps were more cautious still, moving close behind, eager not to stray; she was nervous, dreadfully so, having never ventured so deep into the Underworld; rumors of the place haunted the dreams of every Iron City child, while the facts haunted everyone else.
“I’ll be fine, I swear!” Koyomi stammered, words ringing unconvincing even to herself. “You can’t tell me that doesn’t hurt!”
“I’m telling you—it doesn’t. Cuts and abrasions aren’t a problem for me.” Alita paused for a moment to let the wounds close, then raised her hands with a smile. “See?”
Koyomi moved closer, took Alita’s hands into her own, and studied them with suspicion—or, at least, something like it.
“Not a scratch? After half an hour of wrestling sheared old steel?” Koyomi said, tilting her head in confusion. “Huh. Guess I ought to know better than to doubt URM tech. Still, I don’t want you to think you have to do all the work—this is my operation and I should stop acting like it isn’t.”
“What you should stop doing is thinking you’re burdening me. I’m here because I want to help, okay?” Alita gave Koyomi’s hand a squeeze and resumed her work.
The words were reassuring, but Koyomi couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for enlisting her friend in personal affairs, even if she knew Alita was as willing as could be. With Tanji and Hugo gone, the street crew had fallen apart, leaving Koyomi scrambling to find work. And whenever anyone went scrambling for work in Iron City, they usually ended up finding it in scrap salvage—Zalem was always keeping business afloat.
A faint rumble from far above signaled another delivery from the sky city, loosing flecks of metal from the broken ceiling; they glittered in descent, rare brilliance among the refuse, before a stale draft sent them scattering. Inaudible were the machines of the scrapdogs, but Koyomi knew they would soon set about their work; competition on the Scrapheap was stiff, doubly so for a rookie loner. So the rookie loner thought to try her luck in the Underworld.
She touched the pendant at her chest, not knowing why.
Alita was pointing at a recessed section in the wall further ahead, tucked behind a crude helix of steel. Koyomi snapped from her thoughts and bounded forward in excitement to catch a better angle—it had been a fruitless expedition thus far and she was eager to collect her first spoil of the day.
Within the recession lay a door half-crooked; the oval silhouette was of a nautical nature and quite out of place, even among the miasma where nothing could be otherwise.
“That’s a strange place for a door. What do you think it is?” Alita asked.
“I think it’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Koyomi replied, clenching a fist in celebration. “A heavy door like that down here in the depths just screams ‘treasure inside’, doesn’t it? C’mon, let’s take a look!”
Sensing Koyomi’s excitement, Alita swung her pointing arm aside in a halting motion—clearing the debris had been no small task and it wouldn’t do for Koyomi to fillet herself now. Alita stepped over to the helix, grasped it firm by the width, and set it aside as a weightless thing, tenderly, careful not to tempt the corridor with disturbance. Death in the Underworld came in many bitter forms—collapse was the only one Alita could not guard against.
The door was pressed to an outward bend under the weight of the metal above, hinges popped and rusted, bracing bars mangled, utterly immobile—crestfallen, even, if a door could be. Alita was relieved by the sight, knowing the space beyond would be free of living occupants; she saw clear the line between scavenging and thievery and would not abide its crossing, even for a friend in her desperate hour.
Koyomi craned over Alita’s shoulder, taking the door in full view. “As broken as everything else down here. You don’t think you could—”
The words trailed as Alita dug her fingers into the scant space beneath the door, set her feet secure. With a tremendous pull, she peeled the thick iron up from the bottom, creating a crawlspace large enough for the both of them to traverse. Koyomi permitted herself a moment of envy, even a flitter of jealousy; if only she had a body of such resilience, a heart of such strength, a great many other things Alita possessed and she did not—perhaps then she could live a life without reliance, a life she had never known.
Beyond the door was a small room, roughly rectangular in shape and tall enough to accommodate a man of average height. The floor and walls had been covered by thin wooden sheets, colored a deep caramel, while rusted lengths of scrap from above were blunted, hooked, and used to hang baubles and corded ornaments. A single long bookcase lay opposite the doorway, half-empty of purpose, dead space occupied by strange trinkets and blade weapons sat in presentation.
Koyomi dusted her knees and rose into the hovel, hitting her head against a suspended jade sphere. She rubbed the sore and tried to tug the slack from her jaw. “Oh, just look at all this stuff, Alita!” She reached out for the first object to catch her eye: a thin maple pipe, with angular gold etchings embracing the bowl. “Don’t know if any of it will fetch a credit, but I love little curios like this.” Bringing the pipe under her nose, she inhaled, catching only the scent of wood.
“I’m sure you can find a buyer somewhere in Iron City,” Alita said, still taking in the sight of the room. “Curios aren’t as in demand as parts, but—” She stopped herself abruptly, cursed silently—the parts trade wasn’t a pleasant subject for either of them.
The mention shifted Koyomi’s mood, ever susceptible to such things. She returned the pipe to its place, judging it to be valueless. “I doubt the whole of this room would be worth one good weapon arm up there, to be honest.” Bitterness crept into her voice, and she welcomed it. “Up there...it’s all up there to me now. Zalem, Iron City, the Factory, all of it. Whoever lived in this hole had the right idea, far as I’m concerned.”
Alita gave her a pitying look, thought to offer an encouraging word, could summon none. She wondered, in a very deep and private corner of the mind, whether Koyomi felt resentful towards her, pinning blame on the one who catalyzed such misery. It was an unworthy thought and she knew it, pushing it aside with distractions on ample offer. What difference would it make?
A game board nestled against the bookcase caught Alita’s eye, sat low on three squat legs as if to be played from the floor. She brought herself down to her knees to get a better look at the pieces in play.
Koyomi called out, head buried in a storage crate. “Nothing here but a bunch of bloodied old uniforms and photos marked out in cracked red ink. Find anything interesting?”
“Very,” Alita replied.
Koyomi nearly hit her head against a bauble for the second time as she rushed to Alita’s side. “And here I was starting to think this little dump wouldn’t bear fruit. What do you have there?” She brought her eyes to a squint, excitement quickly dimming. “A game of strategy? There’s no value in that, Alita.”
“I recognize these pieces,” Alita said, voice low and breathy, threaded with amazement. She plucked a pair from the board, crudely wrought with scrap metal. “This one’s an URM corvette, this one an Earther battleship. And look at the carvings on the surface; it’s a tactical grid arrayed for low-orbit combat near the Moon.”
Koyomi picked up one of the corvettes, noted a shine where the metal had been worn with use. “I’m guessing that all takes quite a bit of know-how. Must have been some kind of enthusiast—or a reclusive headcase, considering the surroundings.”
“No...no, that’s not it,” Alita whispered, half to herself. “This layout, these numbers...I remember this.” She looked up at Koyomi, wide-eyed. “I remember this! This was a real battle!”
“But no records of that conflict exist. The only way anyone could have that kind of knowledge is if—” A realization struck Koyomi, words slowed by puzzlement, “—they were there.”
Alita crossed to the storage crate, retrieved one of the uniforms, pointed to the breast. “Koyomi, look. This is a military insignia—Earth military. And these photos form a roster, all bearing the same insignia. Whoever lived here must have been a soldier, a veteran of that conflict.” She paused, parsing the new information. A question quickly formed. “But how is this all still here after hundreds of years?”
“Tanji told me once that the labyrinth is shifting constantly at depth; it could be that our little stash here was closed off until recently. That’s why scavenging in the Underworld is still lucrative: old caches are opening up all the time, new ones being sealed off for future discovery.” Her mind settled on their present failure. “Well, he said it’s still lucrative. Maybe he was more of a hand at it than me.”
Koyomi turned her attention to the weapons set in the spare sections of bookcase and was bitterly disappointed to discover that they were merely ceremonial; a genuine pre-Fall armament or two would have made the trip more than worthwhile, but luck didn’t seem to be on her side—it hadn’t been for quite some time. She tore one of the blades from its stand and whipped it against the far wall in frustration, filling the room with a sharp metallic ring that drew the Künstler into a reflexive combat stance.
Alita eased, spoke a chiding tone. “You’re stronger than this, Koyomi.”
“I know I am!” Koyomi snapped. “I know it, and that’s what annoys me.” That Alita saw straight through the outburst annoyed Koyomi as well, but she knew it to be a more petulant anger and set it aside. “Every day it seems, I’m being reminded of how much I relied on those two. And now look at me! Wrangling an URM supersoldier into gutter rat’s work just to keep me solvent. It’s pathetic, and the worst thing is, I can’t even say it’s beneath me.” She felt the welling of tears and turned her back to Alita, speaking quietly. “There’s nothing of value here, anyhow. I pulled you into my problems and don’t have a thing to show for it.”
Alita again came to rest by the game board, letting a measure of silence pass before speaking. “You said you loved curios.”
“I already told you—this stuff is worthless topside. How I feel about it doesn’t matter.”
“You should value the things you love, even if you’re the only one who does.”
“I did. And then someone killed them.”
Koyomi regretted the words immediately, knowing how deep they would cut Alita. “I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize to me—I’m not the one you’re hurting.” She brought one of the battleship pieces up to eye level and studied it. “Wounds and discoloring on the metal, scratches and gouges on the field...do you know why this game of strategy is the only thing here to show its age?”
It was a curious question, Koyomi thought. She wiped her eyes and turned to face the board, hoping Alita had something encouraging to say, one way or another. “The dope who lived here probably didn’t have anything better to do with their time. Games exist to be played.”
“This one’s been played all right, time after time, year after year, all in simulation of a single battle with a certain outcome. It was an URM victory that day, and a decisive one, too; our soldier wanted to find out how, why—what could have been done to change fortunes, save the lives crossed red on the casualty roster. Another detachment here, a passed move there, tactical withdrawal after the open, staggered lines in retreat, anything, anything at all. They may never have found their answer.” Alita rose to her feet, grasping the battleship firm. “Actually, I’m sure of it: they never lived another day in their life.”
There was motive to the words that Koyomi interpreted clearly. She once again cast a gaze over the long-dead hovel, finding new meaning in the bloodied uniforms and baubles of remembrance. Without thinking, she again touched the pendant at her chest, a memento of Tanji hanging heavy since that black day.
Alita patted Koyomi’s shoulder as she passed, trusting her friend absolutely, and took a position near the up-peeled door. “It’ll be near dark by the time we return topside. We should get going.”
“Right. Thanks, Alita. I needed that.”
Koyomi moved to follow, though not before retrieving the maple pipe that had first caught her eye. It was something for herself, something wonderfully new.