Epilogue -- with obvious sequel baiting. This is a serial, after all.
"I know my identification is somewhere in here." Sheska dug through her belt pouch, pulling out enough credit chips, pens and various items she had been holding to drown a small country.
"Hurry it up," the palace guard muttered. "We're not supposed to let unauthorized people stand around looking for their identification. Do this before you approach the gate."
"Sheska!" Sheska looked up to see Winry and Prince Alphonse waving at her. Winry ran over. "Oh, good. You got my call."
The guard looked at Alphonse. "Your Highness knows this Earthling?"
"Yes. Miss Sheska Squires is a loyal friend." Alphonse answered. Despite the fact he still wore the robot body that she had last seen him in, his voice was now something like the one he had in his old body. She must have looked startled, because Alphonse nodded at her. "Brother fixed things for me so I sound like I used to. He would have tried to make be look more like I used to too, but I thought that might be misleading to people."
"Well, if the Prince vouches for you," the guard said, "I suppose I can let you through this once. Don't do this again."
"I won't, sir," Sheska said, feeling rather embarrassed that Winry and Alphonse had had to rescue her from something as silly as a missing identification card.
"I can't stay," Alphonse said as the three of them walked. "Since we got back, Brother, Mom and I are busy trying to find Dad and run things while he's gone."
"The Technocrat's still missing?" Sheska asked. "Dante didn't leave notes where he was?"
Alphonse nodded. "Not that we know of, yet. We're not sure where he got to, but we'll find him. Mom and I made a start going through Dante's files while you two and Brother were out. Here." He presented her a thick brown envelope.
"Some of the stuff we found had to do with Earth. We wanted you and Ambassador Hughes to have it. As thanks for helping us."
Sheska eyed the file. "Nothing you'll get in trouble for sharing with me?"
Alphonse shook his head. "Nope. I didn't decipher all of it yet, but some of it looks pretty serious, though. Dante had some high connections on Earth."
"But she was an isolationist," Winry said. "I thought she wanted to drop Earth into a hole and ignore it."
"She would still need to keep Earth out of her business," Sheska replied, "at least until she found out the Kepler Gate wasn't a myth. Thank you, Your Highness."
"Call me Al," Alphonse replied. "Um... the Ambassador is all right, right?"
Sheska nodded. "He's recovering nicely. The low gravity is doing him good. Denny and I have been trying to cover for him until he's well enough to get back to work."
"Oh, that's a relief." Alphonse said. "Then I'll see you later, then?"
Sheska nodded, and he waved at her, and took off towards another wing of the palace.
"Sheska," Winry said once Al was gone. "Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," Sheska repled.
"Ed and Al let me use one of the Royal spaceships. Officially, it's for looking for clues to the Technocrat's location, but..." Winry shrugged. "I also want to track down Envy and get my ship back. The boys know about that, but they haven't said anything. And, I was thinking, I know we've only known each other for a short time, but would you like to help? I could use a good co-pilot."
Sheska frowned. Soaring off into the wide black yonder looking for adventure -- well, a missing monarch, a renegade robot and a stolen spaceship -- would be exciting. But, she couldn't leave the Ambassador behind, hurt as he was. "I'm sorry, Winry. I'd love to come, but I have a job to do here."
Winry nodded. "Oh. Well, the offer will stay open as long as I have a ship, all right? I guess this is goodbye."
"For now -- where are you going first?" Sheska asked.
"Some of the Mars Trojan mining bases, then in to Venus," Winry replied. "Earth's still on the wrong side of the Sun, but I'll check there next."
"You'll radio back here, right?" Sheska said.
Sheska opened her arms and hugged the Martian woman. "Take care of yourself out there," she told her. "Don't... don't get involved in anything dangerous."
Winry hugged her back. "You too. And look out for Ed and Al for me. Auntie Trisha, Granny, Master Izumi and her husband will be too, but-"
Sheska pictured the stern Alchemist she had met, and attempted to picture her as something other than the ascetic warrior-scholar that had taught the Princes of Mars. "She's married?"
"Yeah. Her husband runs a butcher shop in the town she grew up in. She lives there when Ed and Al don't have her out helping things." Winry didn't seem to have any problem with Izumi as the wife of a butcher. Martians were truly strange people. "So, I better finishing making preparations. My launch window starts tomorrow." Winry replied. "I... the next time we're on the same planet, we have to catch up. Promise me?"
"I promise," Sheska said, hoping she would see Winry again soon.
That was an interesting story, but maybe you should try changing the names to people we don't know.
-- Love, Winry
P. S. Do you really think I'm from Mars?
Sorry. I told you I'm really bad at names. I've kind of gotten attached to these, but I'll change them in my final typed copy.
-- Love, Sheska
P. S. No, but wouldn't it be cool if you /were/?
When I got into SF fandom in high school, I read the classics since no one told me not to. The usual -- Wells, Asimov, Niven, Heinlein, and Clarke. At the same time, I was returning to astronomy, something I loved as a child and now do as a career. So, I had these two visions of space -- the pre-Mariner vision of three habitable worlds in our Solar System already fading by the time Heinlein set pen to paper, and the modern pictures of Mars the frozen desert with spectacular geology and Venus the lava-covered oven shrouded in sulfuric acid clouds. There was beauty in the truth -- seriously, go check out the photos coming from the Mars rovers or the orbiters -- but there was also beauty in fantasy worlds that, despite the familiar names, were as fictional as Narnia or Arda.
So, the story draws on both the fictional Mars created by Burroughs and Wells and a group of telescope observers who got suckered by optical illusions into seeing /canali/, and the real Mars. The place names are real. There really are caves near Tharsis and dune seas covering the pole, and I put the capital in the Cyndonian tablelands, about where some wistful thinkers saw mesas that looked like cities and human faces. There are no Martians, though, unless you count the cute little robots we send and the scientists who make a living physically on Earth but mentally on Mars. At least there are no Martians on our Mars, though who knows about the alternate Mars on the other side of the Gate. Sheska can hope.
The story itself might be a bit anachronistic -- there probably is a Mars and Venus in Amestris's world, but the place-names and geography might not be the same. Amestris is set in an alternate Earth, but the names and geographies don't correspond to Europe, after all. I'm also trying to keep the tech a bit like something that might have been imagined pre-computer era. If you read some of the earlier Heinlein novels, you can get this idea -- the combination of faster-than-light travel with a computer that could only handle binary input and output in Starman Jones for example. (I could link to TVTropes, but I'd make no friends.)
One of the perks of being an astronomer is that you get to interact with a load of interesting people. In my case, that includes some Martians -- scientists who study Mars. I even gave Sheska the surname of one -- Squires was not only chosen because of alliteration (Clark Kent, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, Edward Elric -- all the cool heros have alliterative names) and for the meaning, but also after the head of the Mars Exploration Rovers project. As it happens, Winry's last name sounds like the other Martian geologist I know, who is also the president of the Planetary Society. I'd also like to put a shout-out to the grad students of them both, who are all cool people and doing awesome work on Mars. (Psst -- if any one of them are reading this... hi!)
Also, thank you to my friend, Zanne, who reminded me I had this fic when scrounging around for an idea for Sci-fi Big Bang, and prompted me to look for the first draft. Thank you to my artist, Crysty Twilight, and also to CaityCat, my beta.