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Phoenix Feathers- Pt. 2, Ch. 12
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Things come to a head at the Dyton City Arena, where the crowd gets more of a show than they bargained for. Unexpected people do unexpected things at several unexpected times, and it is epic. There will be poems and songs, friends. RE-POST, but the finale is coming soon, I promise.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1144    RATING: 0    SERIES: FIREFLY

Phoenix Feathers, Part II Chapter 12

Disclaimer: Joss is Boss, and…and…and all these ideas floating around in my head are mostly his doing. So it’s really just a lesser version of something that he could do much better. And I personally wouldn’t have any complaints if he did…

***

Koyi led the way to their designated section while Nebula and Cody gawked at the ringside vendors peddling wares, which were even more varied and unusual than the diversions found in the Bazaar; Jugglers, fire-eaters, snake charmers, magicians, acting troupes- even a fasting artist and his manager, whose shouts were lost in the roar of the crowd- all of the wild arts of the frontier were represented in the gently spiraling passages of the Dyton City Arena.

They climbed the ramp that led to their section and stopped, gazing out into the vastness of the Arena for the first time.

“Ai ya!” exclaimed Nebula. “you could fit twenty Stallions in here!”

It was true- on either side of where they stood, the stands stretched out in rows upon rows of seats that were quickly filling up with thousands of people. It was a far more impressive sight than any of them had thought- the Arena was much larger than its towering exterior had suggested.

Cody shaded his eyes from the sunlight that once again beat down on their heads, and frowned. “Where’re we sitting, doc?”

“Pretty far away,” answered Koyi. Over the youthful mechanic’s groan, she pointed down the massive artificial slope of the grand stands towards the huge field.

“That way. Row Five.”

Cody whooped and set off ahead of the others, Nebula and Phoenix in tow, followed by Koyi. The four crewmembers made their way sideways through their crowded row, found their seats, and waited for the spectacles to begin.

***

At the top of the stairs, a cloaked figure detached itself from the shadows around it and moved off a short distance down the corridor. At once, six other figures moved to cluster around it. Each man carried himself with deadly assurance, and each wore their weapons were they could not be missed. Crowded though the corridor was, passerby gave the group a wide berth, wary of the not-so-subtle display of power that started with the blood red armor.

The cloaked man, the Talon’s leader, did not have to raise his voice to be heard over the crowd, for he had the entire attention of his men. Only a few of them had ever worked with him before, but all of their gang had heard of him. They knew that he had the favor of the Patriarch of their tong, and so they at once admired his talent and feared incurring his anger.

They waited patiently as their leader absently stared off into the crowd for a moment, as if he was already bored with their operation.

He blinked, then nodded to himself.

“All ears? Good. Here’s how this goes…”

The men listened intently, and in doing so they heard success itself, for their leader was the zhi ming de she, the Deadly Snake, and he had never once failed in his mission.

***

Clarke rejoined his crewmates just as a fanfare sounded from dozens of loudspeakers around the perimeter of the Arena. The crowd cheered as a gilded door opened in the side of the field before them and a figure ran out, dressed in an eye-hurting swirl of colors.

The clown sprinted directly towards them, but no sooner had he made it a third of the way across the huge rink than another roar from the onlookers greeted the entrance of the beast. The massive creature tore up the turf as it thundered across the stadium, bearing down on the man running desperately from it.

“Ah, a Berserker! I was wonderin’ when they’d get around to bringing one in ‘ere.”

Nebula spared a glance at the speaker, then did a double-take. Sitting next to her was the red-headed scalper. He winked at her.

“‘Allo, lass. Saved the best seat for meself, so I did.”

The girl blushed, then turned back to the chase. “Why’s it called that?”

“Berserker. Frenzied, deranged, violent. Bos Tauri.” Phoenix nodded emphatically.

The Irishman frowned. “That they are.” He turned back to Nebula. “You see, miss, the bulls we brought along on the Exodus didn’t exactly take a liking to their cells and got a little tweaked. They got tired of their confinement, broke out, and killed some of their handlers, had to be put down. Apparently their offspring inherited the self-same traits as their ancestors. That’s why they’re called Berserkers.

Clarke grunted. “They’re really rare. Usually you only see them in the core. Berserkers are too valuable to be thrown away, so there won’t be any blood spilt today, unless the bull has its way with that clown.”

The clown, seemingly exhausted from his sprint across the Arena, plodded to a stop in the center of the ring, and waited for the bull to charge him down. The roar of the crowd died to a whisper as the Berserker barreled towards the small, ludicrously-clothed man. A split second before being gored on the bull's horns, the clown spun away and the Berserker rushed by.

The crowd went wild, and the clown waved jauntily to the grand stands, while behind him the animal slewed around in a tight circle and came for him again. The audience shouted for the clown to watch out, but again, at the last second, the man did a spectacular backwards somersault and landed once more without a scratch.

While the action in the center of the ring continued to intensify, with the whole audience absorbed by the performance, the Irishman seemed to be the only one not engaged in the show. He kept glancing up at the stairs behind them, as though waiting for someone to join them. Clarke noticed when the man suddenly grew pale and abruptly scrambled up the stairs towards the exit. The old tracker looked round to see a dark-robed figure leading four men dressed in all-too-familiar blood red jumpsuits towards them.

He recognized the suited men as belonging to the group that guarded Vitelli’s place of business, and his eyes narrowed. Vitelli didn’t have need to muscle Monty and his shipmates around- they were in too deep already. He tensed, but could think of no reason why the men should be looking for the crew of the Stallion. It was probably just coincidence.

The others were enthralled by the daring display of acrobatics that was unfolding in the Arena, and only noticed the newcomers when they stood on either side of their row and started making their way inwards.

Koyi looked around and swore viciously. "Talons. What in Buddha's name are they doing here?"

“You know these guys? How?” asked Clarke. Koyi mutely shook her head.

“Good God.” Clarke knew that they were trapped.

The four Talons kept their hands close to their pistols, alert for any moves that the Stallion's crew might make. Terrified men and women in their path got up and left without a word, the bullfight forgotten. The cloaked man, who appeared to be their leader, stopped when he reached Clarke. He smirked at the trapped crewmembers.

"Let's have no incidents, now. Move to the exit, and keep it quiet."

Clarke could do nothing. His pistol was the only weapon available to him, and it was unloaded. Koyi looked at him, a plea in her eyes, and he slowly turned his head to look for a way out. He glimpsed a squad of armed Alliance troopers at the top of the steps above them, but they were too far away to be any help. The next instant Clarke found he was staring down the barrel of a pistol, clutched in the unwavering fist of an armored thug.

"Don't even think about it, tough guy." The Talon snarled.

In a heartbeat, the Talons drew their guns and covered the crew. The cloaked man merely raised an eyebrow. "Let's go. Now."

The crew of the Stallion was herded across their section towards the stairs leading to the next exit over from where the Alliance troopers. The dark-robed man kept glancing across at the feds, but they didn’t pay the ungainly group any attention.

Clarke cursed himself for emptying the rounds from his pistol earlier. He hadn’t expected his newfound resolve to do no harm to others to be challenged so soon and so seriously. They were moments from leaving the stadium, where they would undoubtedly be led off to waiting vehicles to answer for who knew what.

Just then, a high-pitched whine split the air. Thousands of people looked up in shock as an Alliance patrol boat jetted into the Arena and hovered, its guns trained on the group strung out on the steps. A hatch opened in its belly and a pair of Alliance troopers in full riot gear began to descend on a gurney as a voice boomed over the loudspeakers in the huge amphitheater.

STOP! THIS IS ALLIED ENFORCEMENT. SUSPECTS ARE ORDERED TO LAY DOWN THEIR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER. THERE IS NO ESCAPE.

It was true, for with the sudden appearance of the patrol boat, a potent symbol of Alliance authority, many in the crowded stadium panicked. People began making for the exits, their entertainment forgotten as they tried to avoid the Feds. The Talons merely stood dumbfounded at the leveled weapons of the police hovercraft.

Since the Unification War, the Alliance police force had replaced firearms with sonic weapons, as they strove to keep the peace without leaving destruction in their wake. On Dyton Colony, however, the situation was different. The small and overexerted Alliance police forces on the planet were hardened veterans up against rogue warlords who thought they could wrest control of the planet from the Alliance. Criminal organizations bought high-grade weapons, armor, and explosives, using them to expand their underground empires, so the Federals retaliated. This escalation meant that sonic weapons were no longer viable- Dyton Feds shot to kill.

The patrol boat was studded with hard points that mounted laser chain guns, grenade launchers, and missiles. It was a floating arsenal designed for raids deep in hostile territory, and all of its weapons were pointing squarely at the Talons and their prisoners.

The Fed squad rushed across the landing to cut off the nearest exit and ran from there down the steps towards the Talons, shouldering their way through the stream of people who were trying to make a quick exit. They reached the group with rifles at the ready, and Clarke had never been more grateful for the heavy-handed ways of the Union of Allied Planets. The troopers disarmed the Talons in short order, then turned to the tong's prisoners.

"You guys got here just in the nick of time," said Cody.

"Obliged to you," added Koyi stiffly.

The troopers ignored them. Instead they trained their firearms as one to cover Phoenix.

Both the Stallion’s crew and the Talons were dumbfounded. Then everyone started talking at once. Phoenix just stared blankly at the feds.

“Whoa,” said Nebula. “What’s-”

“Fugitive, stand down! We are authorized to-”

“You can’t be serious. He hasn’t done anyth-”

“On the ground! Hands on your head!” Phoenix complied slowly, lying down between the benches.

The squad leader approached the boy tentatively with handcuffs, and sealed them on tightly behind his back. He stepped back and nodded to his squad. The men enclosed Phoenix in a tight cordon and began to move towards the center of the arena and the waiting patrol boat. Two troopers covered the Talons and the Stallion’s crew, slowly retreating down the steps after their squad mates.

The Talon leader saw in this moment his own impending defeat and found it unbearable. He had never failed. He could not fail. It was impossible! He was the zhi ming de she!

In a flash, he drew the pistol which he had concealed inside his long cloak and fired. One of the Alliance troopers jerked backwards, blood flowing down his purple armor while the other looked on, horrified. The other Talons drew their katanas, which had been ignored by the troopers who had disarmed them, and leapt down the steps towards those that would have robbed them of their prey. In a flash, they killed the remaining fed and some paused to collect the dead troopers’ dropped guns. The rest of them raced headlong down the steps after the remaining troopers, screaming a challenge. Then chaos erupted.

A missile sliced through the air to explode under the leading Talons’ feet. The steps were blown apart and two of the tong members were snatched backwards, their armor no protection against the firepower of the Alliance skiff. Those who lived were thrown in all directions from the concussion or deafened by the noise of the explosion.

Throughout the Arena, people panicked. Rational thought gave way in a heartbeat to raw terror. Everywhere, citizens tried to reach the exits and escape the perceived danger, but the stairs were too narrow and the doors too far apart. Dozens were trampled by the mad rush, and dozens more were pushed further into the stadium by those who were stronger than they. The unfortunate souls nearest the field could only crawl under their benches for the paltry cover they provided, and pray for salvation.

At the far end of the field, the massive bull was rushed unceremoniously back towards its holding pen to await more appreciative audiences.

***

When the missile hit, Nebula froze. She watched as a shard of stone sliced into Cody’s arm, and watched as he fell backwards in agony, but she could not hear anything. She felt something wet trickle down the sides of her face, but did nothing to see what it was. She just stared at the carnage at her feet.

A hand grabbed her shoulder and shook her until she looked up. It was Koyi. The doctor’s other hand was pressed onto her forehead, staunching the flow of blood from a gash at her hairline. She asked Nebula something, but the pilot’s ears didn’t seem to be working right, so she just nodded.

The doctor spared a glance down the stairs at the Federals, then pulled at Nebula’s arm, trying to get the younger woman moving up the crowded stairway. Nebula offered some resistance, and Koyi looked back, suddenly understanding. The doctor moved past Nebula to where Cody was laying. Her lips pursed when she saw his arm, but she reached down and bodily hauled him to his feet. She pushed him after Nebula, and the two adolescents needed no further prompting.

They started to run up the steps towards the exit, but it was obvious that the way had been made impassable by the crush of bodies trying to escape the Arena. They could now hear the screams of people being trapped and trampled underfoot by those behind them. The three of them stopped running, as they could no longer climb into the mass of people, and looked back, dreading pursuit.

The Talons seemed to have fled, blending in with the crowd around them to escape the Federals. Some of the tong members were alarmingly close, and getting closer as they laid about themselves with the flat of their swords. Some of the tong recognized them and started heading for them, but though they were mere feet away, it would take them a while to get through the panicked crowd.

Nebula jumped as she felt a strong hand on her shoulder. She turned and was suddenly face to face with the red-haired scalper.

“Come on, lass! Quickly, now!” he shouted, and ducked into the crowd.

Nebula grabbed at the others and pulled them headlong into the sea of people. She recoiled as countless legs threatened to trample them, but the Irishman was there and the people ahead and to either side of them started falling back, grasping at their injuries. Koyi caught on, and laid about with her fists, a look of fierce delight on her face as their progress sped up.

Finally they were past the bottleneck, through the gate, and into the corridor. Koyi and her crewmates whooped and looked around for the Irishman to thank him for rescuing them. He was nowhere to be seen. Instead, they found themselves staring into the leveled guns of two new Talons, one of whom Koyi knew all too well.

“‘Allo, girlie. Did you miss me?” asked the larger of the two.

“Lao-tyen, boo.” Koyi remembered the disgusting man from her first run-in with the tong in the Bazaar.

“I thought you might have.” He smiled and licked his lips as he was joined by the cloaked man who had led the other Talons to their seats. The man nodded to the pair and turned to regard their prisoners. He seemed to stare through them for a moment before he spoke.

“Let’s take a walk.”

A moment ago defeat had seemed inevitable, and he had felt the first stirrings of fear in his heart. But this fortunate meeting could not be put down to chance. He knew now that he truly was blessed- for he was the zhi ming de she, the Deadly Snake, and he had never failed in his mission. ***

Douglas Clarke didn’t stand back up after the concussion of the missile blast sent him flying through the air. He landed and rolled, all but dissipating the shock of the hard landing. That is, until his leg smacked into a bench. Then he felt it, all right.

Clarke pulled himself into the small shelter offered by the bench and tried to assess the situation, doing his best to ignore the ringing in his ears. He felt a boot glance off his back and glanced up the steps to where the better part of thirty thousand people tried to get through several small exits all at the same time. He could see mouths wide open in screams of terror, but he could hear nothing except the ringing.

Clarke looked back down towards the field to where the fighting had been. He could see the remaining feds dragging the boy towards the waiting gurney, could see the distinctive red body armor of the Talons fleeing through the crowd, using innocent citizens as human shields, but he had lost track of his crewmates.

In desperation, Clarke scrambled up to stand on the bench and looked over the heads of the sea of people behind him, but for all his innate abilities, he could not pick out a familiar face. He had lost them.

It was then that Clarke noticed that he had drawn his pistol. He shook his head in disgust as he realized that he might have made a difference. He decided that he had been wrong for the right reasons; that it was not the weapon that must be controlled, but the man wielding it.

Clarke laughed bitterly as he realized that he had seen the threat presented by the Talons before anyone, and had done nothing out of fear. Was he a coward? Had the years of derision from either society that he had entered, Core or Rim, robbed him of his will?

Clarke looked back to the field, where he saw one of the Alliance troopers clinging for dear life to the gurney with one arm as he hung below it, suspended twenty feet off the ground. The squad leader lay face down on the field beneath the gurney, his limbs arrayed at odd angles about his body. The remaining three troopers chased after Phoenix, whose feet were kicking up turf as he sprinted for the relative safety of the Arena’s far wall. The man in the air yelled as the skiff whirled about to pursue the fugitive.

Buddha alone knew how the boy had managed that one.

As Clarke watched, a second patrol boat swooped into the stadium to hover directly in front of Phoenix, blocking his path. Its turbines flared, kicking up a cloud of grass and dust beneath it. Troopers tumbled out of the egress hatch in the rear and fanned out ahead of the skiff. The three men had nearly caught up with Phoenix, who had stopped in his tracks. He was surrounded.

A distant bellow of rage came from the far end of the stadium. Clarke’s head snapped around to look as the juggernaut Berserker shook off its wary handlers and turned to face the skiffs. Clarke’s heart skipped a beat as he realized what was about to happen.

The Alliance patrol boats, as intimidating as they were, did not scare the Berserker. It seemed to take issue with another behemoth trying to invade what the beast saw as its own territory, and it was not inclined to tolerate this profanation for a second.

It snorted violently and started to paw the ground.

The huge animal threw itself at the tight circle in the center of the field. Building up momentum, it bore down upon the mass of high technology and elite manpower, and lowered its horns.

The Alliance troopers scattered and the skiffs lifted off the ground to evade a collision with the crazed bull.

Phoenix ran straight for it.

“Jesus,” muttered Clarke, but there was nothing he could do. The Berserker would run over the boy without breaking stride. He sat down on the bench and wanted to turn away, but he forced himself to watch to the bitter end. The Alliance troopers had regained their order, if not their cohesion, and stared after the boy, aghast.

Clarke saw Phoenix make a small motion with his hands, and suddenly a glint of sunlight off metal showed that his handcuffs were now dangling freely by one wrist. Two seconds later, the two charging forms met. The bull slashed its head viciously downwards, Phoenix reached up, and he went sailing through the air in a wide arc, landing safely on his feet and running full tilt away from the Feds.

“YES!” Clarke screamed and pumped his fist into the air. He was on his feet as the bull continued on towards the Alliance troopers, who were standing frozen in place. It occurred to Clarke that a few of the Feds in the path of the fearsome creature were probably glad of their dark purple uniforms at this particular juncture.

One of the pilots brought up his skiff’s weapons systems and maneuvered to face the oncoming Berserker. The twin chain guns mounted just forward of the cockpit spun to life and make a sound somewhat akin to a pig grunting as they spat heavy slugs into the bull at point blank range.

The animal literally came apart under the barrage, and its tattered remains stopped well short of the Alliance troopers’ broken line. Several troopers still were staring at it, but a few were sprinting after Phoenix, who had an impressive head start. They got their fellows moving, but even so, they warily avoided the shuddering carcass before them.

The skiffs spread out, and the one that had fired on the Berserker opened up again on Phoenix, each round kicking up a spray of dirt and exposing the sand underneath. The line of bullets stopped before the pilot walked it up the boy’s back, however, and Clarke could picture the man being screamed at by his superior not to do any harm to the suspect. Instead, the skiffs swooped over the boy, buffeting him with the downdraft from their turbines, but failing to knock him down.

Clarke holstered his sidearm and hopped off the bench. He thought he could see a way out of the Arena. Arrayed around the field was a series of small access doors, mounted on the inside of the barrier that separated the field from the bleachers surrounding it. These had to lead into the bowels of the Arena, and from there, outside. Clarke saw the distant figure of Phoenix dive through one of the doors, the feds close behind, and he knew that they couldn’t be locked, so he quickly made his way back down the steps to the barrier.

As he went, the old tracker was relieved to see that his crewmates did not lie amongst the mangled bodies on the stairway. He might not call them his friends, for he wasn’t sure that he knew what that meant, but they were as close to a real family as he had ever had, and right now, he needed to know that they were safe.

***

The cloaked man nodded his head fractionally. “Yes, that’s him. Well?”

The street urchin looked back to his target and fingered the shiny coin that he had been given. He grinned and the money vanished into his clothes as he took the parchment from the man. A second later and the boy had disappeared into the crowd.

The Talon leader watched as Clarke rejoined the crowd at the outer gates to the Arena. He saw the boy sidle up to the tracker and plant the note, giving him a bump strong enough to wake the dead, just so it would register with the senile old man that something had happened.

He saw the tracker read the note and look around him in the crowd, but the cloak swished and the shadowy observer was gone in the crowd before the searching eyes found him.

He allowed himself a small smile. All was well. The hostages were safely on their way to Talon headquarters and, despite the initial hitch in his plans, he knew that the man would rise to this new bait, and he would not be denied the boy a second time, for he was the zhi ming de she, the Deadly Snake, and he had never failed in his mission.

***

Clarke crumpled the ultimatum in his fist and spun around, trying to catch someone observing him. Seeing no one in the crowded thoroughfare, he started walking back in the direction of the ship. As he came up to the first alleyway, however, he crouched down and spun into the shadows afforded by the alley’s high walls. He waited there for a while to throw off his pursuers.

A few minutes passed without incident, and Clarke thought he might have lost whoever it was. He swore softly to himself. If he had been faster- but it was no use blaming himself, for that would get him nowhere. The others were in the tong’s hands now, and the Captain and Priscilla were on the other side of town. Clarke had no idea where Phoenix was, or what the boy had done to attract the attention of two of the most powerful and dangerous organizations on the planet.

Clarke unfolded the parchment and reread the unsteady message. It started with a standard “If you want to see your friends again” line, which wasn’t very inventive, but it got their point across. It was direct and businesslike, with no false goodwill. Clarke reflected that a direct enemy was often the most dangerous kind. The reach of the Talons was such that they did not seem to have much use for subtlety.

The message ended with a time and a place. Checking his digital notebook, which now featured a hairline crack that ran the length of its screen, Clarke found that the meeting would be taking place at a café on the far side of town in just a half an hour. There would be no time to get back to the ship, and the Feds would have their hands full in the aftermath of the Arena raid. He would be on his own, deep in hostile territory.

Clarke knew that the fate of his crewmates rested in his hands alone.

He pocketed the notebook and wiped the sweat away from his eyes, his jaw tight. Then he drew his pistol, the one weapon he had not parted with. He had intended to keep it as a reminder of his shameful past, of the things that could never be undone. It seemed he still required a little more use out of it before he could put his inner demons to rest.

Clarke slipped a round from his gunbelt and rolled it around in the palm of his hand, then slid it home in the gun. He loaded the other seven rounds into their cylinders, then snapped the weapon closed.

“Well, here we go.”

Clarke chambered a round, holstered the pistol, and settled his hat onto his head, tugging the brim down to shade his eyes better. He moved back into the street, head up, shoulders back, and a grim smile in his eyes.

***

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