Winry and Sheska go to rescue the rescuers.
This wasn't going to be a quick rescue. Not at all. But it would be a surprise, to descend through the pumping equipment from above. The suits, designed for conditions far harsher than a pipe full of meltwater, would let them breathe until they could get to a spot where they could cut themselves out of the pipes and into the corridors of the station. Winry had shown Sheska a blueprint, and she could see the route in her mind's eye. They both carried tools from the ship -- no weapons, though. On the other hand, Winry, at least, looked far more comfortable with this gear than the photon pistol she had tried to use earlier.
The suits also had the benefit of being warmer and cleaner than the clothing Sheska had put on the morning before. Still, their breath frosted in the air, and it felt like shards of ice cut into her lungs when she inhaled. Her face was already going numb, and her eyes were watering. Even Winry would occasionally touch her face, as if to reassure herself that nose and ears were still there. They had left helmets unattached to keep their peripheral vision intact, and make the unpressurized suits easier to move in as they scrambled to the top, but Sheska thought the frostbite might not be worth all that.
Sheska pulled herself up to the top and, after checking her footing, offered Winry a hand up. There were small robots on the top of the ice, mining it and scooping it into the hopper at the side of the pumping station. They paid no attention to the two people walking, besides to occasionally detour around them. "They can't see us, can they?" Sheska asked, looking at their camera-eyes mounted on masts above their wheeled bodies and the sample bins.
"They're stupid," Winry said. "They only see whether things are ice or not, and if they can roll over them. I don't think they even radio to base about what they see, unless they get stuck." She considered. "But Lady Dante might have changed them to send pictures back normally. Let's pick up the pace." Sheska nodded.
The top of the pumping station had a door next to the ice hopper, and Winry was able to wedge it open with a screwdriver. Sheska winced. "They definitely know we're here now."
"If there was an alarm," Winry said, her head cocked to one side. "No one comes up to the pole if they can avoid it."
"Which is probably why Lady Dante did," Sheska said.
The upper room was a utilitarian space, with dials showing water flow and the power from the weak sunlight and geothermal heat brought from the mantle. But the main occupants of the room were pipes of all sizes, from ones narrower to Sheska's wrist to those big enough to fit a person easily. She could hear the sound of rushing water and feel the heat from below used to turn ice into something that could flow thousands of miles to civilization.
Winry walked over to the dials like she knew what she was doing. "All right, I'll turn off the water flow around the heat source. We can then climb in, and the remaining flow should take us down. You have the map of the plumbing memorized, right, Sheska?" Sheska nodded. "Good. Then just stand back and let me work." Winry checked the dials, then walked over to a set of heavy valves. She grabbed one and started turning.
"Do you need an extra hand?" Sheska asked, after Winry had set things down and got out oil and wrench from her toolkit.
Winry shook her head. "No, I have it now." She gave the valve a final twist, and pulled a hatch open. Water trickled out. "The water level's falling, but the rest of the pipeline will be mostly full. Let's go." She picked up her toolkit and clipped it to her belt, then pulled herself up into the pipe, offering Sheska her hand. "Give me your helmet, then hand me mine. I'll help you up once I make sure it won't float away."
Sheska did so, then watched as Winry sealed hers before returning her hand to help Sheska up. She took it, but, even so, it was quite a scramble to get herself up, and she ended up in ice-cold water on her hands and knees. She could feel the cold through her suit, meaning the trip through the pipes to where Lady Dante was would be even less pleasant than she had thought it would be. "We should have used a stool," Sheska replied. Winry shook her head and tapped her helmet. "Right, right." Sheska realized that the airtight suit wouldn't transmit sound very well. She put her own helmet on, checked the seals on the heads-up display, then hit the buttons on the suit's chest panel to seal it.
She heard the slight hiss as air started to flow, a bit stale-smelling and lacking the dry cold of the wind flowing off the cap that made her face feel like leather. "Winry?" Sheska said, hearing her voice echo within her helmet.
"Here. Let's go." Winry's voice was different over the radio, and there was a bit of static, but her words were clear. They switched on head lamps, and started moving.
There was a drop five feet from their entrance, but a ladder was bolted to the side, in case repairs by a human crew were needed. Sheska called up the plans in her mind as she descended. "Thirty feet down." There was water trickling over the ladder, and she was afraid she'd lose her grip through the suit gauntlets. Already she could feel her fingers tingling, and soon they'd go numb.
"The water's still fifteen feet from the bottom," Winry replied. "Get the magnets in your boots ready." Sheska nodded. As they entered the water, she could feel the current pulling her down and to the side, and she had to use her safety line to clamp herself down to turn the magnets on. Even with the suit air, the feeling of being sucked into the dark water made Sheska struggle to keep breathing evenly. She could hear her heartbeat racing inside her head. Winry's breathing seemed even, if fast, over the radio, which made Sheska envious -- Winry was braver than she was.
They hit a horizontal intersection then, and Sheska was tempted to let the flow of the water do the work. She was freezing, and felt like she should be wet all over, but it was just sweat. She could see Winry ahead of her, moving in a way that wasn't quite swimming or walking, but almost like she was back in microgravity.
Sheska counted the drops, where they let gravity pull them down through the water. After the last long drop that made her think they were headed all the way to the core, and where they had to keep slowing their fall to avoid the hard landing at the bottom, she motioned to Winry to follow her as she counted body-lengths in the dark pipe. "Okay, cut here," she said.
Winry took out a laser cutter and the steam caused Sheska to step back, suddenly feeling the heat all over. She used the boot magnets to cling to the top of the pipe, feeling the mix of eddies of hot water pushing away and the flow of water out of the hole Winry was making.
"Now!" Sheska felt the clang of metal through her boots with Winry's call over the radio, and something gave way. She released the magnets and was pulled out and down with the rushing water, and slid a bit across the wet floor before she got her bearings.
Winry was already on her feet and pulling off the suit. "We'll need to move quickly," she whispered. Sheska nodded, even though taking off the cumbersome suits would slow them down at first. Silently, the two crept in stockinged feet out of the room, and down the hall. Winry had kept her laser cutter, and had given Sheska the wrench she had used on the valves above. We just can't seem to go anywhere without sneaking around, Sheska thought. It's better than a firefight, though.
"Going somewhere?" The two turned around to see that the impostor Trisha Elric was behind them. At least, Sheska guessed it was the impostor, as she doubted the real Lady Trisha would be free to wander.
Winry scrambled away, bringing the laser cutter up, but the not-Trisha's hand darted out, grabbing her wrist. Sheska swung the wrench Winry had given her, but it was blocked effortlessly. "Run, Sheska!" Winry yelled, and Sheska nearly did, but hesitated, hating to leave Winry behind. This was enough time for not-Trisha to get a hold of her too.
"Now, dears, it's rude to come in uninvited without knocking first. You should really apologize to your host." Before either could get in a snappy retort, she started walking, forcing both women to run to keep up, lest their arms be tugged off.
Lady Dante had turned the lower control room that they had been heading for into a veritable mad scientist's laboratory – it was a wonder that the water had been flowing until Winry had turned it down for their entrance. Cables and half-open pieces of equipment covered three of the walls, and, in the center, like a spider in her web, stood Dante. Behind her, was an examining table with a large cobbled-together something-or-other hovering over it. On the table was Alphonse, apparently unconscious or… no, he still was breathing, though he had a nasty-looking bruise developing over his right temple. Sheska spotted Edward and the real Trisha Elric in the corner, being guarded by Envy. While Lady Trisha was only restrained by a set of manacles and a gag, Edward could barely move but for restraints. However, he was free to speak, and Sheska was surprised to see him silent, given the state of his mother and brother.
"What do we have here, Sloth?" Dante asked not-Trisha in a tone that Sheska thought was straight from a movie.
Not-Trisha -- Sloth, and Sheska was beginning to sense a theme in Dante's names -- tugged them over to the other prisoners. "I caught them trying to sneak in," she said as she restrained Winry and Sheska with handcuffs similar to Lady Trisha's. "I figured that you would like to know."
"Indeed I would. Now, Your Highness," Dante said as she turned back to Edward, and Sloth took Envy's guard position, "as you can see, I have four prisoners. How many people am I going to have to have Envy kill before you tell me the location of the Kepler Gate?"
Edward didn't look at all like the confident young prince he had been when Sheska last saw him. He kept glancing from his brother to his mother and then back to Dante. "How do I know you won't just kill us all anyway so we won't stop you?"
Dante considered that. "Hope. I'm told it's a virtue. Besides, I have no desire to rule this planet, merely make sure there aren't any more unfortunate... mistakes made by the Royal Family."
"In other words, you want to be the puppet master behind the throne."
Dante nodded. "I have my own research interests. I'd rather not be bogged down as Hohenheim is with the minutiae of governance. Though no longer having to kowtow to Earth to keep our people alive will improve the time he -- and you, of course -- can spend on domestic concerns."
"Research interests. The androids, right?" Edward asked.
"Among other things," Dante answered. "But that is of no concern right now." She waved a hand, and Envy took a step towards the unconscious Alphonse. Sheska saw the gleam of a knife in his hand, and a smile which chilled her to the bone. "Have you thought about it?" Dante asked, not even looking towards the impending violence behind her.
Sheska watched all of them. Winry's eyes were wide and she looked about ready to cry. Lady Trisha had her head bent and eyes closed. As for Sheska herself, the whole thing just didn't seem real.
Edward turned his head, looking at each person in turn. He was frowning, and his head was bent. He cast his eyes to the floor, and Sheska noticed how the expression mirrored his mother's, despite his strong physical resemblance to his father. "It's on a cave near Arisa Mons. Latitude six degrees south, longitude one-twenty degrees west. You can check the satellite photos if you want a more precise location."
"There's caves all over there," Envy said, holding the knife to Al's throat.
Edward gave a sharp hiss of breath. "I know that. Do you think I have the exact coordinates memorized or something? That will get you close enough, dammit!"
Dante raised a hand. "Envy, enough. Sloth, prepare our ship. We'll finish the preparations here."
"Yes, milady." Sloth straightened up, and headed for the door.
"We should just kill them anyway," Envy replied. "Not like you couldn't make a copy like Sloth if you didn't want someone else moving in on the throne. Just leave out most of the loyalty programs that make her too dumb to take care of herself without your orders."
"What?" Edward tried to pull away from his bindings.
Dante waved Envy off. "You forget then I'd have to build more androids when our Technocrat needed a heir. Easier to keep nobility around, even if Hohenheim diluted the blood with his choice of spouse."
"Don't you talk about my mother like that!"
Sheska saw that Winry was trying to pull something from her back pocket. She shifted position, hoping that would block Dante and Envy's vision. They seemed more interested in taunting Edward than in the rest of their prisoners. Lady Trisha wasn't even responding to the obvious insult -- Sheska wondered if she was hurt or something. She was still breathing slow and even, and she looked conscious, but she was sitting stiller than Sheska herself was.
Dante walked over to the table where Alphonse was spread on it like an etherized patient. "You do have one point, though, Envy. I have no way of knowing how truthful Edward is being. His mentor is still at large, and she might well be setting a trap for us. A shame that Alchemists are immune to truth drugs."
Envy leaned against the wall. "You going to give me some instructions, Mother dearest, or are you just going to monolog to your captive audience?"
‘Mother?' Winry mouthed. Sheska shrugged. If Dante was the creator of these robots, than perhaps that was kind of like a parent. Sloth had addressed Dante as milady, but then, she probably had been created just to serve as Lady Trisha's double. Who knew what Envy's purpose was, besides as Dante's thug?
Dante's eyes narrowed. "Do not call me ‘mother' -- I may be your creator, but you are no child of mine."
"Yes, Creator Dearest." Envy rolled his eyes. "So what are your orders, O Giver of My Life?"
"Upload the younger brother's mind to the spare android body. We'll ask it, then kill the original."
"As you command." Sarcasm dripped from Envy's voice, but he was moving out of view, presumably to get the android.
The scream of rage Prince Edward let out drowned out all other sounds. He started shouting invective in three languages, mostly threatening horrible retribution against Dante, Envy, Sloth and anyone else who would dare touch his little brother. He thrashed in his bindings trying to free himself by sheer force of his anger. Sheska saw Lady Trisha had tears in her eyes, trying to hold her elder son with tied hands -- whether to make sure he was still alive and well, or to calm him down, she couldn't tell. Winry looked frozen in shock, just staring at the metallic humanoid Envy was rolling out on a gurney, still as a corpse, or a puppet whose strings were cut.
I'm the only one who doesn't know Prince Alphonse well. I need to help everyone get focused to escape. Somehow. Sheska didn't have much time. Her own breath was catching in her throat from watching Edward, and she closed her eyes and tried to drown out the screams. This isn't happening. I have to do something to stop this!
She nudged Winry hard. "Psst!" Winry just looked at her, face scrunched up and crying. "I know," Sheska said, wanting to hug the other young woman. She dropped her voice, hoping that Edward screaming himself hoarse would cover the sound. "Were you cutting the bonds?" Winry nodded. "Get us free, and maybe we can stop them." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw all manner of tubes and wires being brought out to connect Prince Alphonse to the robot like some kind of twisted conjoined twin. Alphonse stirred a bit, not yet conscious. Sheska hoped that, whatever happened, he wouldn't be in pain.
"I... only Ed can overcome Lady Dante and Envy," Winry said, her voice choked with sobs. "I can't free him without them noticing. There's too much."
"Maybe you can cut the power, or something?" Sheska said. "If you can get the rest of us free, Lady Trisha and I will do what we can." Which would probably involve dying horribly. Neither of them were armed, and Envy moved faster than even a soldier like Maria could handle. And Dante looked harmless, but many Martian nobles were also Alchemists, so she would be capable of far more than throwing punches. "We have to try."
Winry nodded, closing her eyes. Sheska saw her starting to move her hands again, and thought she heard the snap of something being cut. Edward's voice was giving out, and he was starting to slump against his mother, exhausted. This is about when Master Izumi or the Technocrat should be charging in to rescue us, Sheska thought. They were all trying so hard, but she was afraid they'd all die here, except for Prince Edward, who would be bound up by Lady Dante as her puppet on the throne. Sheska regretted every adventure book she read and idle daydream she had, and anything that would make her seek out danger instead of staying at home. Because it wasn't supposed to end like this.
The hum of the generators, which had been building as Dante and Envy worked, built to a crescendo. Dante had moved to the head of the robot, and was adjusting something, while Envy had stepped out of the way. "Now, Envy."
The lights flickered. Sheska thought there should be sparks, or a roll of thunder, or something. Or at least Dante's mad laughter, but she was speaking merely loud enough to be heard over the equipment.
Alphonse gave a sharp, rasping breath from the table, making his mother wince, and Edward give a final sob. Dante didn't seem to notice. "Everything should be transferred. Now, Android, tell me where the Kepler Gate is?"
"Latitude six degrees thirty-two minutes south, longitude one hundred nineteen degrees fifty-seven minutes west." The robot's voice was bereft of anything recognizable as Alphonse, or anything distinguishing as human. It didn't even sound male or female, and the voice still had a synthetic buzz to it. "The cave is an old lava tube, and it is part of a chain of depressions running in a northeast to southwest direction." There was no inflection to the tone. He might as well have been reading out numbers from the phone directory.
"Excellent," Dante said. "That confirms what Prince Edward said."
"So leave my fucking brother alone!" Edward yelled, surprising Sheska. She thought his stream of invective meant he wasn't paying attention to Dante and Envy.
"We taking the new guy with us?" Envy asked. "I don't want to lug him around until he figures out how to work his damn legs. Plus, it's creepy. Like seeing someone without their skin."
"Check his coordinates on the atlas, then, and see if you see the cave." Dante snapped back. "If you can figure out which one it is, then by all means, leave him behind."
Envy went to look at something -- the atlas, presumably. Sheska glanced at Winry. ‘Ready', she mouthed, tilting her head to the side. Winry didn't say a thing, or even nod her head, but Sheska felt something rasp against her handcuffs.
"Yeah, I got it. Let's get the hell out of here and finish making the tin can presentable later," Envy called. "I'm so damn sick of this entire thing. It's boring."
"Quiet, you," Dante said. "If I find out that you are overestimating your own abilities..."
"I said I had it," Envy said. "What more do you want from me? Like I care if we have to haul the tin can around as a guide. We can make Sloth do it, in case the crazy hermit woman is guarding this Gate thing."
Dante waved him off. "Just be mindful that if we do have to come back here before we have secured the Kepler Gate, you will be the one punished for it. Is that understood?"
Envy rolled his eyes. "Yes, ma'am. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go make sure Sloth hasn't fallen into the fuel tank." He crouched by the bare android, turning it off, then sauntered off.
"Damn robot. Always remembers his previous orders when I have a task for him. I should put in the loyalty codes one of these sols. Now," she said, "I believe there was one more thing I had to do." Sheska saw her draw a wicked-looking knife
Sheska felt her manacles snap, and she and Winry rushed to their feet. But it was too late -- Dante had already sealed the door behind her, and Alphonse was quickly bleeding out.