A/N: I am restarting this book again after a hiatus. I do plan on completing it. Any discrepancies will be fixed in the final editing.
Four stern-faced humans sat at one end of the long table in a Cape Canaveral boardroom. When Dai, Ana, Uhalé, and Ishi shuffled in and took their places at the opposite end, the former Fleetrunner had a distinct feeling of hostility toward them. Quite possibly this stemmed from the fact that one of them was now-Admiral Moriarty, whose actions above the arena planet had proved Dai's suspicion that Moriarty, for whatever reason, did not want to end the war. He did not recognize the other three, but their similarity–each was male, gray-haired, and uniformed–unsettled him as compared to his current allies, the arenas he knew so well, or even the normal military demographic. He doubted that some of the men facing him had seen combat. War would be statistics to them–and people like that were dangerous to peace.
He found himself wondering how best to take out the four guards stationed at the door behind him, and could not resist a grimace as he thought of the treachery he was considering. He would not risk a court martial. Not even if...
"We have reviewed the intelligence you sent us, Fleetrunner Raileigh, and determined that the newly developed weapon may indeed be critical in brokering peace with the Dla," said Moriarty, his voice sounding more oily-sweet than before–or maybe Dai was just imagining that affectation because he had a bad feeling that he knew what was going to happen next. "However, both a substantial team of xenobiologists and weaponologists are needed in order to test and prove your and Ms. Darling's hypothesis. If we had a willing Dla subject to study..."
"Have you not done enough studying already?" Uhalé interrupted. One clawed hand rubbed a bandaged patch on her forearm. "You have taken samples from me, treating me all the time like a pet at a veterinarian instead of a person in a scientific study." Dai translated ruefully, glancing at Ana as he did so. She showed no visible reaction. Uhalé had helped her learn the basics of the Dla's arena language during their long voyage to Earth, and it was what the foursome typically spoke when together. It was really a clever linguistic construct, designed to be able to be spoken by any creature which passed air through internal passages to make sounds. As far as Dai had seen, only goop-steppers, who typically spoke via patches of changing colors on their skins or by shaking their crests, could not speak the arena language by using their lungs and mouths, and so Ishi was fitted with a translator which could also be set to turn his words into English. It seemed that the translator was originally a human invention.
"We would apologize," said Moriarty, "but this is wartime, and you are, even while cooperating, one of the enemy."
Dai prepared to restrain Uhalé, even as he had to restrain himself from storming out of the room. However, the only response the Dla gave was to twitch her spiky backridge so that it arced over the back of her head. Whatever this meant to her, Moriarty did not take it as insubordination, so it was fine.
Dai half-hoped that the alien gesture was obscene.
"But I digress," Admiral Moriarty continued. "With cooperation, we could begin to do these necessary tests in a week or so, after the UN and United States have approved them. After the exact effects of the test have been confirmed, we can begin to form a plan of action."
Which will take months to finalize and implement, Dai thought ruefully.
"I am not a fitting subject for these tests," Uhalé spoke up. "The effects of the gun your people created has already been proved; I am cured of the shaking disease. But for that very reason testing me would not help you."
"Then we must capture another Dla. Perhaps you could help us with this."
"And subject them to even more curt treatment than I have been subject to?" Uhalé muttered. Dai was unsure whether he should bring those words to Moriarty's attention.
"But we already have a plan," Ana asserted. "If we travel to the Dla's homeworld--Uhalé trusts us with it as much as we trust her with the coordinates for Earth, which she does not know, but we can travel there–and speak to their government, they could distribute the lasgun technology to their people and the need for slavery would cease. The need for war would cease."
Dai said, "It would take just as long for us to travel there as for you and the bureaucrats of the UN to finalize a plan to achieve the same end."
"However, sending a mixed band of civilians and aliens to meet with our mortal enemy is not the way the space navy works," said Moriarty. "Procedure must be followed."
"So we just have to sit here until you're finished?" Dai said.
"Not here," Moriarty said, as if to a foolish child. "You may return to your homes. Except for Uhalé, of course. She will help us capture another Dla."
"Capture," Uhalé repeated derisively. "Despite the fact that you're talking about passive actions and ours are active, you sound much more violent and forceful than we do."
"I will not tolerate such insolence," Moriarty began. The man sitting beside him, gray-bearded and blue-eyed, interrupted.
He had a soft voice, and seemed to stare directly at Dai with implications in his eyes. "Earth's expansion into other solar systems has never been more successful than now, when the space navy is needed most, as is the technology that fuels it. Our economy is booming, even the poorest countries being developed successfully and producing environmentally friendly resources that we need in wartime. Everyone is winning right now. There would be no harm in keeping Earth's economy stable for another year or so while this plan for peace is developed."
"Now wait," Admiral Moriarty raised a hand. "There is no need to imply that anyone in the United States, or indeed on Earth, would want the war extended one day if peace could be achieved at the cost of our financial situation."
"No one?" said the man beside him.
A realization sunk into the pit of Dai's stomach. The blue-eyed man was telling him as subtly as he could that Moriarty's motive was not simply to follow procedure. The war had given him the rank and salary of an admiral. It had given him the power that let him sit at this table. Maybe he had grown to like it.
"I believe that is a discussion for another time, Admiral Hetzel," said Moriarty. "A decision has been reached. The data that Fleetrunner Raileigh and the others have received will be discussed in a committee as soon as is feasible. This meeting is adjourned."
Suited men rose, clicked off handheld devices and slotted styluses. Moriarty's shoulders squared beneath his black suit. Dai reluctantly stood as well. Along with the other three beings on his side of the table, he looked around, unsure of how best to phrase his protest one more time or of where to go next.
To his relief, a moment later the blue-eyed Admiral Hetzel appeared at his elbow. "Right this way, Fleetrunner," he said, his eyes averted from Dai's as if he were nervous about some truth being read there. He walked with Dai the few paces to the door, where armed guards in the uniforms of the United States army waited. Hetzel's voice whispered, raspy next to Dai's ear. "The next door on the right, one left, through to the second hanger. Run."
Out of the corner of the eye Dai saw Hetzel slap Ishi on the flank just as he felt himself pushed forward by a hand on his back. He broke into a sprint, Ana and Ishi to either side of him. He heard the guards at the door snap to readiness and then pause as Admiral Hetzel told them to stand down, stay where you are! as Moriarty's voice rose above the chaos that was suddenly filling the boardroom with voices. Dai slammed into the opening bar of the next door on the right of the pristine, white-walled hallway. He heard puffing like the breathing of a soft man and then the clattering of feet–the soldiers having decided to follow Moriarty's orders instead of Hetzel's, and Uhalé's furred bulk just passing through the open door. The door slammed.
The room Dai found himself in now looked like a research center, filled with corrugated, silver materials and laptops set on shelves, yellow-caution-taped ladders and silver-blue buttressed ceiling. The one left was a small door marked Employees Only, but secured with nothing more than a knob. Dai glanced back to be sure that Ana, Ishi, and Uhalé were all following him and flung that door open, revealing a testing hanger as large as a football field but currently empty of a ship. He espied a door in the far wall with "Hanger B" stenciled above it and ran for it. He heard a cracking sound and turned to see Ana ducking away from the door to the lab. A bulge in the center of it marked a gunshot. The knob rattled–Ana had locked the door.
Dai let the others move ahead of him, so that it was Ishi, followed Dai's pointing finger, who opened the next door with his clawed hands and ushered them in to another gigantic hanger, its bay doors opened to the blue-white Florida sky, this one containing Uhalé's dwarfed-looking, blunt-nosed starship.
With some difficulty–Dai was surprised that she could not move very quickly, until he remembered that Uhalé was not a trained Dla guard but rather an apparently out-of-shape civilian--Uhalé lumbered up to the ship's door and toggled it open with a combination of hand movements that Dai could not quite catch. The ramp cracked its seals and settled to the floor.
"Make sure we can take off," Dai said, and stood by the ramp while the others entered, waiting for the soldiers to break through the door nearby him any moment. Would they be able to get through these doors designed to be rocket-explosion-proof? Surely they would have keys. Moriarty would. What would become of Hetzel, their unexpected ally?--
Ana stopped her rush into the ship and spoke sharply to him. "What do you think you're doing?"
"If the soldiers get in, I'll stay out and distract them while you take off. I'm not as important as–"
"Ah, you might need this. Unless you really wanna go barehanded against them."
She pressed the lasgun against him and disappeared into the ship.
The locked hanger doors, it seemed, were for now impregnable. Dai stood in the entrance to Uhalé's ship only for a few indrawn breaths, feeling rather foolish, before Ana's voice resounded from inside– "We're good to launch!"
For another moment Dai felt foolish as he realized he did not know how to fold the ramp into a door, but apparently it worked automatically when the ship started, because as the engine hum rose beneath his feet the ramp folded up, blocking his view of the hanger. He jogged into the cockpit and joined Ana in backing into the niches which protected passengers from the launch velocities not dampened by the ship's artificial gravity. Uhalé worked in the recessed pilot's couch, while Ishi hunkered down in the adhesive from his own feet.
Uhalé's commands flung the ship out of the hanger and up into the sky. Cloud layers flashed past "What kind of firepower," Uhalé asked, voice muffled, "will Earth bring against us?"
"Cape Canaveral has guard planes at thirty-five thousand feet," he said, converting the measurements in his head as best he could from human feet to the Dla equivalent, "and they'll send something from the ISS if we don't get to hyperspace quick enough."
"Where are we headed?" Ana asked.
"The asteroids," Ishi replied immediately. "My people will take us in."
Dai shouted the appropriate coordinates to Uhalé. He had looked them up and memorized them while home, mostly out of curiosity's sake, but also in case of something like this.
Something like fleeing his own military to hide in the reaches of space and try to end a war by themselves...
Long-term troubles gave way to short term ones; blips on the radar that made Uhalé's backridge stand up. But the starship was beyond the jets in a matter of seconds, burning through the atmosphere. Dai realized in a flash that he had never asked Uhalé what fuel her ship used or whether it needed refueling. He needed to ask as soon as possible, but not now– blue turned white turned black and Earth curved to become a sphere below the ship. The International Space Station, a lionfish swimming through the sea of space with solar panels as its striped fins, was visible in the distance to starboard. Other ships, mundane Earthling traffic, occupied local space too, but Uhalé quickly turned her ship toward an empty region, ignoring what had once been labeled 'up' and 'down' by planetbound senses.
She never turned the comm on, or else the humans could not find the frequency that hers was set to; no hails came. There were more blips on the radar now, hostiles with powered weapons. Dai recognized them with a small shock as Fleetrunner single-person craft like the ones he had once felt so comfortable in. They were only now shaking off the wisps of Earth's atmosphere even as Uhalé prepared to jump to hyperspace. The Dla had been traveling across the fabric of space far longer than humans had, so their ships were faster and more efficient despite all of humanity's wartime developments, and for once Dai was glad of it.
Uhalé made a yipping sound which Dai could have translated into English as either "Go!" or "Geronimo!", and space turned pitch-black and then kaleidoscopic as the ship plunged into hyperspace.