Sheska used the handrails to guide herself to the seats near the airlock, where Gracia had buckled Elysia in. Gravity made it easier to walk, but the atmospheric turbulence hindered her. She wanted to ask Winry if they were nearly there, or if she could at least find a clear patch of sky to fly through. Elysia looked up when Sheska entered. "Is Daddy going to be okay?" she asked.
"Of course he is." She smiled at the small child. "Master Izumi, Mister Broshe, and your mommy over there are working to make him feel better."
"Okay." Elysia still looked worried.
A book -- from the text, it looked to be one of the dual language ones that were being printed now -- lay next to Elysia, forgotten. "How about I read you a story, Elysia?" Sheska asked.
"Mommy said I could only bring one book, and I read it already. And all the books here are /boring/."
"Well, then I'll have to see if I can remember one and tell it to you," Sheska sat down next to her, buckling herself in, and setting the book below her feet. "Have you ever heard the /Tale of the Alchemist Brothers/?" Elysia shook her head. "Well, a long time ago, two brothers lived with their mother on a farm in the country. Their father had left some time ago on business, but had left his collection of Alchemy books behind. The two boys read the books cover to cover, and did many tricks to entertain their mother. One day, the boys' mother took ill with a fever…"
As she was finishing the story, and Elysia was half asleep, her head pillowed against Sheska's arm and the blanket tucked around her, but still giving her looks when Sheska paused in the story, she felt the ship land. Winry unlocked the hatch to the cockpit, and stuck her head out. "All right. Sheska, could you come with me?."
Sheska nodded. "Right. Elysia, why don't you go see if your mom can put you to bed."
"Don't want to go to bed," Elysia mumbled, half-heartedly, but she unclipped her seatbelt and slid off the seat. "Can I have a drink of water, first?"
"Ask your mom."
Elysia nodded as she staggered aft, still clutching the blanket. She passed Master Izumi, who gracefully stepped out of the way.
"How's the ambassador?" Sheska asked.
Master Izumi looked back as Elysia met her mother, who was already making room for a third cushion. "He and Miss Ross are stable."
Winry nodded. "There will be stretchers outside."
"Where are we, anyway?" Sheska said. "Couldn't Master Izumi make some stretchers by Alchemy or something?"
Master Izumi shook her head. "No need, when there are some here."
Winry opened the inner hatch of the airlock and motioned the other two women inside. "You'll see, Sheska."
They weren't answering her questions at all. "What about Denny?" Sheska asked.
Denny must have heard her, at least. "I'm gonna stay with the ambassador and Maria," he called forward. "You go ahead and get those stretchers."
The three of them crowded into the tiny airlock, and Winry turned the outer hatch, pushing it open. Sheska felt the slight puff of air that meant they had changed pressures, but they were still at a reasonably low altitude. If they had flown all the way up to the summit of Olympus, even Master Izumi would need a vacuum suit to go outside.
Sheska blinked, letting her eyes adapt. They were inside a cave. And, as she looked around, there were crystals everywhere/. They glittered a bit in the /Wrench/'s running lights. "Winry did a good job flying us in here," she said to herself. She turned to look past the bulk of the /Wrench and caught the slightly less than black color of the sky -- a moon must be up outside, either speedy Phobos or larger Deimos. The ground the ship itself had landed on was the normal Martian red basalt, but the crystals covered the way ahead, into the cave itself. Sheska had never heard of a crystal cave on Mars, though she remembered stories of places on rare corners of Earth.
The flickering of the walls signaled someone with a light was approaching. Sheska saw two figures, one carrying a lantern. She shielded her eyes as the cave lit up like a hall of mirrors. "Who's there?" she called.
"It's Ed and Al," Winry said. "Over here!"
Ed and Al? Sheska opened her eyes, looking over the two young men, one carrying a lantern, and one the folded-up frame of a stretcher. Though both were obviously of Martian blood, there was something of Earth in their faces. Though they were wearing similar clothing to Master Izumi, and not clothing suitable for court, Sheska would have recognized the two half-blooded Princes of Mars anywhere.
"Wow, you must have been in some trouble, Winry, if you aren't going to tell me off for asking Master to help you out." Crown Prince Edward smiled at Winry. "We're going to need to talk – I want to know what happened in there."
"Apprentices!" Izumi barked. Both boys turned to face her, with a respect that almost looked like fear, and Sheska had to wonder at what kind of woman could command even the heir to the throne of a planet. "The ambassador was injured. See to him first."
"Yes, Master." Sheska saw Edward exchange a look with Alphonse, and he set his lantern down. The two went inside the Wrench/, Winry following them. She paused at the hatch, however, and looked at Sheska. "I'm going to help move the ambassador onto the stretcher. We can find somewhere better than the /Wrench to set it down."
"Should we move him at all?" Sheska asked.
"I'm afraid we need to consult with the ambassador urgently. The boys will explain, but it seems likely he'll agree." Master Izumi had turned towards the cave opening, her head upturned to face the sky, looking for something.
Winry took a step back towards Sheska and put a hand on her shoulder. "We won't move him unless I'm sure he won't be hurt by it. I know more than a bit about medicine."
Sheska nodded. "If he gives permission, that will have to do."
Ambassador Hughes was awake when they walked back into the cabin where they had left him and Maria to recover. Gracia had already put Elysia to bed in a corner, and she sat on the floor near her husband, while the two princes conversed with him in low tones. The stretcher was unfolded, and Sheska saw that someone had added wheels to it. She didn't remember seeing those when it was folded up, and wondered if one of the princes had transmuted it. Hughes struggled to sit up when she came in.
"Maes," Gracia said, the one world sounding a lot like the warning tone she used with Elysia.
"I'll rest later," Hughes said as they were finishing up. "I need to talk, first."
"Maes." Gracia took her husband's hand in her own. "Don't even think of over-extending yourself. We're in the middle of nowhere, with only Master Izumi and Miss Winry with any sort of medical training, and you're wanted by an entire government unless the princes speak up for you. Don't make it worse by straining yourself." Sheska's eyes widened. She hadn't known about the latter, but someone important would have had to approve the invasion of the Embassy. With the princes obviously out of communication, it wasn't them, but someone important enough that no one would balk at order invading foreign soil.
"A half hour, I promise," Hughes said. "Sheska, could you help me out? Denny can stay here and make sure nothing happens to everyone else."
"You don't trust us, Ambassador?" Crown Prince Edward asked.
"I don't trust the people who have been chasing us," Ambassador Hughes replied. "Certainly not to leave my wife and daughter out of this if they tracked the ship leaving the capital. And if Denny and Gracia have to close the airlock to keep them out, that way we have someone who can let us back in when we get back."
Edward nodded. "Yeah, that makes sense."
Prince Alphonse moved to the edge of the stretcher, and nodded to his brother, who did the same. "The wheels we added should keep it stable, and the path is level enough, but can you guide the stretcher once we get Ambassador Hughes in it, Miss Sheska?"
Sheska nodded. "I think so."
Carefully, but quickly, the brothers lifted the ambassador into the stretcher-turned-gurney. Hughes winced as they set him down. "I'm okay, but I could really use a nap after this," he said.
"More like a full night's sleep," Gracia replied, "in a real hospital."
Sheska nodded. "I'll try to be quick."
"You sure about bringing her?" Edward asked the ambassador.
"Sheska's my assistant. She probably knows more of the details that pass my desk than me, unless it was classified too high for her to read."
"I don't mean to pry..." Sheska stammered.
"Why do you think I hired you?" Hughes replied, smiling. "Being able to keep all the pieces in your head is an asset. And you aren't reading anything you shouldn't, unless you've been getting into the classified data."
Sheska shook her head, feeling a bit embarrassed. She heard the sound of a throat clearing, and saw that Master Izumi had entered the /Wrench/, and was standing, her arms folded.
"Better get this over with and get everyone to bed," Edward said. "Help me get this out."
They maneuvered the supine ambassador through the narrow spaces of the Wrench and out into the cave. Alphonse retrieved the lantern, and led the way, while Edward and Sheska guided the gurney with the ambassador. Winry walked beside when she could, and fell behind when the cave narrowed, and Master Izumi seemed to go where she was needed, sometimes in front to check with Alphonse about the way, sometimes behind and looking back.
To Sheska's surprise, the cave floor was as smooth as Edward had said. Pushing the Alchemy-made wheels on the gurney was as effortless as pushing a shopping cart through a store. The walls continued to be covered in crystals, scattering Alphonse's light into rainbows of refraction. Sheska didn't know what kind of crystals they were -- quartz was rare on Mars, and gypsum mostly present at the poles. She thought she could see the occasional metallic glint of fool's gold -- or maybe even real gold, or copper, or something else.
"So… I've been getting word from Earth that there's something up," Hughes began speaking, his voice echoing in the cave. It was the first sound she had heard besides their five sets of footsteps. Sheska jumped, nearly dropping her hold. "I've got some friends back in Central, who know how to encrypt a message, and friends on Luna who keep me informed. There's some worry by my friends that the current administration has ties to the isolationist movement on Mars."
"The isolationist movement?" Edward frowned. "Why would they do that?"
"I'm just telling you what I was told." Hughes tried to shrug, but winced instead. "A friend of mine in the government asked me to look into things on this end, and to be careful – people have started to disappear on Earth. Ever hear of a man called Doctor Shou Tucker?"
"He's a brilliant bio-systems engineer. He disappeared last month -- he was going on a research trip to Sedna. We know he boarded the shuttle at the Cape, but no one on the shuttle saw him get on. We wouldn't have known for another two months if his young daughter hadn't gotten worried, and her aunt tried to contact the shuttle en route."
"She's being taken care of, right?" Alphonse spoke up.
"Wha… oh, his daughter. Yes, she's staying with her aunt and uncle for the moment," Hughes said absently. "I tried to contact the Royal Family. Sheska, that was the message you delivered... last morning. Yestersol, now -- it's past midnight."
"The one that went to the Lady Trisha?" Sheska asked. "I couldn't find anyone else to give it to." She tried not to meet the eyes of the princes.
"We weren't there, anyway. We had to get away." Edward paused, and Sheska nearly tripped trying to keep the gurney level. She caught a flicker of something cross his face, before it hardened into a determined stare. He started walking again.
"Ambassador Hughes, we think that the person in the palace isn't Mom," Alphonse said. "It's… well, you would know if someone you were close to was suddenly acting off. Nothing you can put your finger on, but it just feels… wrong."
"Yeah, Your Highness," Hughes nodded, only a brief bob of his head. "If something like that was up with Gracia or Elysia…"
"Good. We couldn't find Father anywhere," and Sheska caught a mutter from Edward as Alphonse said this, "so we went to find Master Izumi. She and Winry and her grandma are the only other people we know well enough to trust. I'm sorry we've caused you so much trouble."
"It's not a pro- hey, we've stopped."
Master Izumi, who had been silent as they walked, turned to face them, standing in front of a series of ornately carved closed doors, made out of the crystal that surrounded them. "We've arrived. What I am about to show you all is for your eyes only. Ambassador, again, do you insist on bringing your assistant into this?"
"Is it dangerous?" Hughes asked.
"What you are about to see has the power to destroy whole worlds," Master Izumi said, in a matter of fact tone, like she was describing the color of the door.
"Oh, my," Sheska took a step back. She looked at the faces of the Martians with her, trying to figure out if they were pulling her leg. All of them looked serious in the lantern light. "If... if Ambassador Hughes needs me to act as Earth's representative, then I'm going with him."
"And I'm going," Hughes said. "If someone gives me a lift."
In a show of drama, Master Izumi motioned Edward forward to join his brother, and, in unison, the two Martian princes gestured. Sheska caught flashes of blue Alchemical fire flying between their fingertips. She looked to Winry, who was watching with some degree of interest.
Then Izumi tapped the door with her staff. The sound seemed to echo in the suddenly quiet cavern. The doors opened inward, with no sound whatsoever, like they were gliding on air. Winry slipped to the spot Edward had vacated. "Come on," she said, softly. With a nervous swallow, Sheska took a step forward, then some more steps, bringing herself and the ambassador through the door.
"The Kepler Gate."
Sheska stared out into infinity curled into the rock. The cave had to be as big as Olympus -- or maybe not, but the sheer scale dwarfed any real comparison she could make. She wasn't even sure how far away anything was in the clear, cold air. They stood on a balcony attached to the wall, overlooking the structure. Alchemical sparks danced from the glass spires and crystalline spheres and clockwork gears of some metal she couldn't identify meted out time in a rhythm Sheska couldn't catch. It was damp, and slick, and iridescent, and she swore she could hear the sound of water rushing below.
Winry looked on the site with awe -- clearly she hadn't seen it before, as Master Izumi and the princes had. "What… what does it /do/?" she asked.
"It's built over an old magma chamber," Edward replied, taking his eyes away from the massive machine. "The outer part of the cave looks like a lava tube, but the crystal parts are artificial -- it's hard to tell, but the floor was leveled with Alchemy, and the side passages are too regular. The core," he motioned to the machine, "was built to teleport comets from the Kuiper Belt. Run them through the atmosphere a couple times to evaporate all the water, and in a couple years your water table would rise a bit. Do it often enough and you have a wet planet." He sighed. "Reading ancient Martian is tiring -- you think they would have left a User's Manual with pictures."
"I'll bet I could figure it out,"
Edward's hand grabbed Winry's arm before she was even halfway to the causeway that lead towards the center of the chamber. "Don't, Winry. We have to be careful with this thing -- we don't even know what powers it, but, whatever it is, it's strong."
"I'm always careful!" But she was moving back towards the doorway as she said that.
"I imagine this is what the Isolationists want," Hughes commented. "Bringing comets in from billions of miles away is probably more difficult than knocking spacecraft out of orbit, but it's the same principle."
"Got it in one, Ambassador." Edward grinned, then turned back to look over the massive edifice. "Plus, the extra water wouldn't hurt -- we're still dependent on trade with Earth for food. Would be nice not to sell our souls to get a bite to eat."
"He really doesn't mean to be offensive," Alphonse added quickly.
"No, I get your point," Hughes said. "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat for the rest of his life."
"How did you find this, anyway?" Sheska asked. "I've heard a few old rumors, but nothing definite. It'd be like looking for the Philosopher's Stone back on Earth."
"Father was interested in looking for it, but after he took the throne, he never could find the time," Alphonse said. "He left most of the notes to Brother and me. We've been working on this for four years, under the eyes of Master Izumi."
"I told them not to bother." Master Izumi sighed. "It would only bring trouble."
Alphonse looked down. "Sorry, Master."
"We finally had a breakthrough, and we sent a message to the old man – in code, of course," Edward continued. "By the time we got back, he's nowhere to be found, and some… some thing is pretending to be our mother and trying to get us to tell her where we've been. We left pretty quickly, and called Master Izumi."
"I see," Hughes nodded. "I'm going to need to think about how to proceed." He winced a bit "And I better get some rest, before this opens up again."
"I can show you and your family to a room," Master Izumi said. "Al, could you help me?"
"Right." The two moved Hughes outside. Sheska heard the gurney go down the hall.
"What happened to him and the woman, anyway?" Edward asked. Sheksa saw Winry look away.
"We ran into one of the palace guards on the way out. He attacked Maria and the ambassador tried to cover our escape. The guard… whatever he was, it wasn't normal. The ambassador threw his knives into him, and he didn't even blink."
"I… I was going to shoot him, but I couldn't pull the trigger," Winry said softly. "If Master Izumi hadn't shown up…"
"Not everyone can," Edward said, taking her hands. "The universe would probably be a better place if no one could. Anyway, why do you need a weapon?" He turned to face her, grinning. "You have enough intelligence for two people, know more first aid than Al and me combined, and you can be downright nasty with a toolbox."
"You're very lucky that you're surrounded by priceless machinery," Winry said. "Otherwise we might have to test that."
"I think you were very brave, too," Sheska said softly. "If you hadn't distracted Envy, he might have killed the ambassador before help came."
"And what about you?" Winry smiled at her. "You were right behind me, and ran out into the open unarmed so you could get Missus Hughes and Elysia away."
"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time," Sheska said. "I hadn't really thought about it much."
"Well, I hope you two are happy. I'm done feeling sorry for myself now." She beamed at them. "The old Winry Rockbell is back. Look out Mars!"
Alphonse came skidding into the room then. "Brother! Winry! Miss Sheska! You better come quickly! We're getting a radio message. It's... it's about Mom!"