Ambassador Hughes sends Sheska and Maria Ross to investigate the strange note.
Sheska put the folded note onto Hughes's desk. He opened it, and Sheska read the content that she had just glanced at on her walk over:
Dear Ambassador, it said. I’m sorry I couldn’t go through more official channels. But, given the current circumstances, that would be too slow. I have information that you need to know --information about a threat that will harm both Earth and Mars. If you are willing to meet with me, I’ll be at Berth Six at the Cydonia Spaceport until tonight.
The ambassador leaned over the note. "You say a pick-pocket gave you this," he said.
"Something like that, sir," Sheska answered. "It wasn't in my pocket this morning before I left here, and I noticed it after I ran into that woman in the alley." She hadn't felt the note fall into her pocket, but a pick-pocket would surely be as good at taking something out as putting something in.
"Huh," Hughes blew on his coffee, another thing imported from Earth, despite several crater-greenhouses in Chryse attempting to grow Earth luxury crops.
"The Martian's pretty good, sir," Sheska said. "I'd say that's a native speaker."
"Which doesn't rule out many people on Mars," Hughes replied. "Have you seen the handwriting before?"
Sheska shook her head. She had a near-perfect memory for text, and had been training it to do other things. "It is handwritten, though, not a print out or copy."
"Right," Hughes said. "Whatever it is, it looks like an incident of opportunity. Did anyone know you were out walking?"
"No," Sheska said. "Someone at the Palace might have seen me, but they wouldn't have known I was going into the older town instead of straight back."
"And you weren't followed?"
"No sir." Sheska paused. "Not that I know, at least."
Hughes rubbed his chin. "This is troublesome, don't you think?Normally, I'd say this was just a crank message. But someone took some effort for this. Sheska, would you mind checking this out?"
"Well, I'd like to go, but I'm expecting a call myself," Hughes said. "It's from Luna, so it'll probably take all sol just to have aconversation, even if the conjunction with the Sun doesn't completely scramble the radio transmission. Plus, someone needs to be here to let in the workmen -- we're finally fixing that hole in the fence that my Elysia found."
Sheska nodded. She paused, for a moment, wondering if she should ask about the call from Luna. But the ambassador had always been good about being honest about what he could and couldn’t take about, and was seemingly impossible to offend. "Sir? What's really going on?"
The ambassador frowned, looking away. Outside, past the green leaves, Sheska saw Elysia running in the garden, several Martian children with her, playing some complicated variant of Tag. Hughes took a while to turn back to Sheska. "More of the usual, I'm afraid," he said. "Isolationists on Mars, isolationists and imperialists on Earth. With President Bradley's election, we're not sure what will be going on back home."
"Do you think that you'll keep your post?" Sheska asked. Hughes had been appointed by President Santiago, Bradley’s predecessor, some four years ago. He had come here with Gracia, newly married. Elysia had been born on Mars, and named for the town where Gracia had unexpectedly gone into labor. It was hard to imagine a Mars without Maes Hughes chatting up the Technocrat.
"I don't know, Sheska. It depends -- not many folks learn as much Martian as you and I know." Hughes smiled. "Who knows -- with the right contacts, you could get my job, and I might end up calling you sir. Or ma'am."
Sheska took a step back. "I don't think I'm ready to do your job, sir."
Hughes nodded. "Thanks for the loyalty," he said. "I hope it doesn't bite you later.” He took a sip from his coffee. “Be sure to take someone with you if you go to the spaceport to investigate. It's Denny's sol off, so you might want to ask Maria."
Before heading to the Cydonia Spaceport, Sheska made a phone call to their office, in an attempt to get information on the ship in Berth Six. The receptionist was cagey, only telling her that it was a private yacht and how to leave a message for the owner-captain. Sheska tried to think of a story that would get her more information, but nothing that she thought the receptionist would believe. Sneaking into the office to pull the records herself was right out. In the end, she just asked Maria Ross, one of the Embassy's two guards, to accompany her.
Theoretically, the Martian Embassy should rate more than Ross and Denny Brosh, but Earth had cut back their funding again. It wasn't like Maria and Denny did much besides sit at the front desk during working hours, and occasionally accompany Ambassador Hughes to functions. The Martian government was friendly enough that even Maria and Denny felt safe leaving the ambassador in the hands of the Technocrat's guards. Sheska had heard that the Venusian Embassy had a whole squad of soldiers, with talk of more, but Venus wasn’t nearly as stable as Mars was.
Sheska had filled in Maria as the two of them walked to the mag-train station. The tracks ran along the canal from the polar cap that turned the Cyndonia area from a cold desert to merely dry. As they boarded the train, Maria had to show the pass that let her walk armed in the peaceful Martian cities.
Once they sat down and the train started its whisper-quiet and wind-fast trip, Sheska glanced out the window. The croplands were ablue-black blur mixed with the reds and golds of the dunes and rocky outcrops, and the deep white-capped red-brown of the canal water. "Do you think there's going to be trouble?" Sheska asked.
"Hard to say," Maria said neutrally. "The spaceport town is a bit rough."
"Well, we'll stay in the public ways," Sheska replied. "I don't think I'll need to go darting into alleys here." Darting into alleys in the rough spaceport town would be exciting, for sure, but if they ran into trouble, Maria and her pistol wouldn't be that much good against agroup. Sheska herself didn't have any training with fighting, besides abasic self-defense course. She trusted herself to not shoot her own foot, but she didn't trust herself to not hit a wall, or Maria for that matter, if she was given a gun.
Maria nodded, relaxing a bit. Sheska suspected this was due to the Purse Incident when she first arrived, which she was finally starting to live down.
The spaceport town had a name other than 'Cydonia Spaceport', but Sheska never heard it used. It was little more than the train station, the spaceport proper, warehouses that held goods between train and ship, and the bars, low-price hotels and houses of ill repute that catered to the rough crowds of spacers on liberty. Sheska had been told that most spacers never set foot outside of the town that mostly existed for their comforts, and most Martians and tourists did what she and Maria were doing now -- walked straight down the main drag from the train station to the spaceport, taking advantage of the fact that the locals tried to keep that one thoroughfare marginally respectable. Sheska could still see far more police officers than she ever noticed elsewhere on Mars, and some were even armed with something other than stunsticks. They glanced uneasily at Maria's pistol, despite the Earth Armed Forces uniform she wore.
Their identification cards got them into the spaceport, and Sheska let Maria lead. A shuttle from Deimos Station had just arrived, as well as a suborbital from Hellas, and there were crowds of visitors and porters hauling trunks until they turned several corners away from the passenger parts of the spaceport and into the more utilitarian parts used to offload cargo, which also held the cheapest docks for private ships.
Maria wasn't speaking, but her eyes darted around as they walked, taking in every stack of cargo crates and worker with a clipboard. Not that there were many people here -- all Martians, most in either spaceport uniforms or sporting ship's patches on their coveralls. Sheska in her civilian Amestrian-Earthling fashions and Maria in her military uniform, and both with bare, antennae-less heads, stood out. Even Sheska could have tailed a pair like they made. A professional could do it in their sleep.
"Here's Berth Six," Sheska said, as they stopped in front of one of the doors. The Martian glyph for ‘6’ was clearly marked, and asignplate by the door identified the ship as the /Rockbell’s Wrench/. The owner wasn't listed separately, which was peculiar. Sheska was no expert on names, but Rockbell was the surname of the Technocrat’s Minister of Health. She wasn’t sure if this ship belonged to a relative or one of the Minister’s staff, or was just a person who happened to have the same name.
On the other side of the door frame was an intercom with a button. "I'll see if our contact's in," Sheska said.
Maria nodded, but took a step towards the opposite wall. Sheska paused, realizing that Maria had just moved so that she had as clear aview as she could while being mostly covered from the passageway behind the door. She also saw Maria position her hands so that she could draw her pistol quickly.
Sheska tried to ignore this, taking a couple of deep breaths before pressing the button. "Hello? This is Sheska Squires, Ambassador Hughes's assistant. I’m here about the note."
The intercom hummed to life. "The ambassador didn't come himself?"The voice was female, and young, and could have been the same person as the pick-pocket.
Sheska shook her head. "No, he couldn't make it so he sent me and a guard. What was it you needed to talk about?"
"Not out here!" the voice said. "I'm going to let you in, all right?Don't make any sudden movements -- just come in. Quickly."
Sheska exchanged a look with Maria. "One moment." She silenced the intercom. "What do you think? She sounds really frightened."
"It sounds peculiar to me," Maria replied. "Don't be hasty."
"I'm not going to be hasty. But we came all the way out here, knowing it was a bit suspicious. I don't think this is any more so than before."
"I don't like this. We should find a phone and call for the ambassador."
Sheska shook her head. "We can't leave now. The person will probably get paranoid and refuse to let us in when we get back."
"That's not a statement for her trustworthiness and safety."
Sheska shook her head again. "I'm going to go in. Cover me?"
Maria sighed. "Very well." Clearly she thought Sheka was doing something stupid again, but wasn’t going to argue with her.
Sheska pressed the intercom button. "All right -- you can let us in."
The door slid back. The gangway out to the ship was nondescript, having only the heavy fittings to mate with a spaceship's airlock at the other end. Unlike the part of the spaceport where Sheska had arrived, the floor was metal mesh, and she could see pipes and cables beneath the floor as she and Maria walked across, shoes clicking.
The airlock at the other end was decorated with the calligraphic brushstrokes of Martian script, giving the ship's name. Sheska could hear the mechanism of the heavy airlock door as it slid aside, and afigure came out.
It wasn't the woman she had seen earlier, who had slipped her the message, though both had been dressed in utilitarian coveralls, and both were about the age of Sheska herself. That woman had been dark, from what little Sheska saw, and this one was fair, with blonde hair peeking out from the bandanna keeping it out of her face. The Martian woman wasn't obviously armed, outside of a heavy wrench in her hand. Sheska still noticed out of the corner of her eye that Maria took astep back, giving her a clear firing range.
The Martian woman looked them both over. "Well, you look like you're from Earth, at least. Tell your guard to leave her firearm outside -- I don't want it in my ship. It might put a hole through the hull or something."
Sheska looked back towards Maria. "I think we might be at an impasse then."
The Martian woman sighed. "Well, I guess she can keep it. But only because this is that important. And she better not draw it. Follow me."
She backed up, keeping her head turned towards Sheska and Maria, back into her ship. Sheska followed.
Inside the ship, it was cramped. She could see the pilot and copilot's couches and the flight instruments to her left as she entered, and there was a small empty space in front of her, with several pairs of fold-down seats that were stowed against the bulkhead. To her right was another hatch, perhaps one that would lead to cargo or living space. Sheska had seen ships the size of this one, owned by small-time traders, the sort that carried low-mass things like gemstones and art between worlds.
Still, it was neat, with everything secure, and the steel and brass accents practically gleaming. The Martian woman undid one of the seats from its fasteners, folding it down, and then sat down. She gestured for them to do the same, which Sheska did. She noted Maria remaining by the airlock, still standing.
"So what did you want to speak to the ambassador about, Miss...?"
"Rockbell," the woman replied.
The same name as the ship. Presumably it meant it was hers, or her family’s. "I'm Sheska Squires," she replied, despite already having given her name not five minutes before. Miss Rockbell nodded.
"I'm delivering a message on behalf of His Royal Highness Prince Edward Elric," Miss Rockbell continued. She pulled out a ring from her pocket, the sign of the Flamel visible in the steel, not raised or indented, but in the pattern of crystals in the metal. Sheska held out her hand, and Miss Rockbell gingerly set it down.
It certainly looked legitimate as she held it to the light, turning it this way and that to check for flaws. Sheska knew of little besides Martian Alchemy that could pattern the metal in such exact work. Earthling smiths had, in a long-forgotten technique, created swirls within their steel blades; decorative without sacrificing function. Some modern craftsmen could duplicate the patterns on the surface, but a lab would show the difference -- the edge on an Alchemical design was far more precise than even the most carefully-worked Earthling piece.
Sheska didn't have a lab, unfortunately. She held up the ring for Maria to see, then handed it back to Miss Rockbell. "Why the secrecy?If you had a message from His Highness, then you could just come to the Embassy. Or he could have come himself. The ambassador would have been delighted to speak to him."
"We needed a more secure means of communication. I had to ask afriend to deliver the message to you," Miss Rockbell explained. "Ed doesn't trust the palace."
Sheska paused. "What?" She nearly stood up. This was beginning to sound more and more like paranoid conspiracy mongering. "But it's his father's palace. Surely the Technocrat-"
Miss Rockbell shook her head sharply. "Not Uncle Hohenheim." Sheska raised an eyebrow at the familial way she was addressing the ruler of the planet. "We don't know how to reach him, though. And Auntie Trisha is acting weird."
"Weird?" Sheska asked. "What do you mean weird?"
Miss Rockbell shook her head. "I'm repeating what Ed and Al told me, but I noticed it too."
"Hang on," Maria said. "What are you to the Technocrat and his family?"
Miss Rockbell paused. "Right. I'm Pinako Rockbell's granddaughter. She’s an old friend of the Technocrat as well as his Minister of Health. I grew up with the princes in the palace, and the Technocrat and Lady Trisha were like a second set of parents to me. Busy parents, but parents."
Sheska nodded. She remembered one of the newspaper articles Ambassador Hughes had given to her when she arrived. It had been about the Minister of Health's son and daughter-in-law, who had been assassinated on a humanitarian mission to Venus. There had been apicture of the family in the article -- Minister Rockbell, her son and daughter-in-law and her young granddaughter. It was about a decade old, but there was a resemblance between the child in the photo and the young woman now. "Winry, then?"
Sheska saw Miss Rockbell -- Winry -- turn to face her. "Yes. How did you-?"
"Photographic memory," Sheska replied. "If it's printed and I've seen it, I remember it. What did you notice?"
Winry shook her head. "Nothing we could put our fingers on. She was just distant. She's not normally like that at all. Granny's got business in Argyle, and Uncle Hohenheim is off somewhere, so we couldn't check with either of them. Then I get a message from Ed telling me to get out of sight, don't tell Auntie Trisha or anyone where I was headed, and find Ambassador Hughes and bring him to ameeting spot, and I haven't been able to reach him or Al since."
"She seemed normal this morning," Sheska said. "But you would know better than me, I suppose."
"This morning?" Winry frowned.
"She was the only one of the Royal Family in the Palace this sol, so I left a courier packet from the ambassador with her."
Winry practically squeaked. "What did it say?"
Sheska shook her head. "I don't know -- it was sealed. You'll have to ask the ambassador." She nodded at Maria. "I think it’s safe, Maria. I recognize her as Pinako Rockbell’s granddaughter.”
“You do?” Maria asked.
“Yep. I never forget things I’ve read, remember?” She turned back to Winry. “I can bring the ambassador to you if you want, Miss Rockbell. He said he'd be in the embassy all sol. If we take the train back, we should be able to catch the first train tomorrow."
Winry shook her head. "No time." She grinned. "How about ashortcut?" She stood up, folding her seat away, then turned towards the fore of the ship. "If I remember correctly, there's a nice, flat plain outside the city."
Sheska nearly fell out of her chair. "You’re right, but everyone will notice if you land a rocket there! It's not a quiet entrance at all."
Maria cleared her throat. "I hate to be paranoid, but if there were spotters in the spaceport or at the train station, we were already noticed as soon as we arrived and met with Miss Rockbell."
"So a short suborbital hop will catch them by surprise, if they think we'll take the train back," Winry finished.
It was very dramatic, but probably not in the way that would let her keep her job. "At least let me call the ambassador first!" Sheska said.“I don’t think he wants to be surprised like this at all, and we’ll still have to head through the city to get to him.”
"Don’t call him from the ship," Winry replied, "unless you have a diplomatic code or something."
Sheska nodded. "I memorized the codebook."
Winry sighed. "Fine." She gestured to the cockpit. "Sit in the co-pilot's chair. The umbilical should give us phone service."
Winry walked Sheska through the process of dialing off-ship, but instead of the sound of the Embassy's telephone ringing, Sheska heard aloud alert. "This is Cyndonia Spaceport to Civilian Ship /Rockbell's Wrench/. Please prepare to be boarded for search for fugitives. You are asuspect in the kidnapping of Their Royal Highnesses, Crown Prince Edward and Prince Alphonse Elric"
"Fugitives?" Sheska said. "Kidnapping?" But the message was pre-recorded, and the voice merely repeated it until she hung up the phone.
"Miss Guard, close the airlock and strap in," Winry said. "We're taking off now. I think calling the ambassador will have to wait."