The crew was busy with the diplomats—in fact, Commander Smythe had just come in with a small group of them in tow. He imagined Ellie leading such a group someday as captain of their ship. Maybe she’d have one like the Immaculata ferrying important passengers around the Union. Where would it fly out of? He needed more and varied job experience than janbot programming if he was going to keep up with her, but that hadn’t proved easy. He’d been applying for jobs all over the Union, but as soon as someone made the connection between him and the mind-napping janbots, he got dropped like a hot stone.
“Why is that one out of uniform?”
Todd jumped as the half-yelled question broke him from his daydream. He turned to explain, but Commander Smythe was already replying to the Gavite ambassador who had asked the question.
“Mister Ahndmor is a civilian contractor with CleanSpace, here to oversee the installation of our shipment of new janitorial bots,” the first officer replied smoothly, then invited the delegates to follow him to warp core control. The rest followed, but the Gavite delegation remained along with a human-looking group in courtly dress. Security Minion LeRoy Jenkins stayed, too.
The Gavite stepped toward Todd and glared at him. “Those are the bots that took over some crewman’s brain? How do I know that isn’t going to happen on Gavite ships?”
Todd found himself leaning away from the angry, aggressive being, but he’d been coached enough that he replied automatically.
The ambassador flipped his hand as if Todd’s words were annoying gnats. “Bah! Updates! Patches. Why didn’t you have these safeguards in place already? Do you always wait for the crisis?”
The human woman stepped forward and smacked the ambassador lightly with her fan. “Now, Gregar. You know as well as anyone that we can’t always predict a Cyber attack. Look at the replicators.”
“That’s true,” Todd added. “The entire replicator network across the Union was compromised before anyone could stop it. CleanSpace—and the Impulsive—were able to contain the janbot problem to just one ship.”
“Bah!” Ambassador Gregar scoffed. “One ship, too many.”
“I agree,” Todd said, “which is why we’ve—”
The ambassador made what would have been a prissy sniff of disdain, except that the large, round nose that gave the species the nickname “pigsnout” did not allow for such daintiness. Then he headed to join the rest of the tour group, his compatriots in tow. The humans remained, and LeRoy with them. Todd smiled at them nervously. What could be so dangerous or important about these diplomats that the security minion chose to stay with them over the Gavites?
The woman said, “So, you’re the one who programmed the robots that took over my daughter’s brain?”
“Mrs. Doall?” Todd gasped, caught between the urge to run and the desire to make a good impression. He chose the latter, “Wow. Uh, it’s such an honor to meet you at last…”
“It’s ‘Ambassador Doall,’” Ellie’s father corrected.
Todd’s fluster got worse. “Right. Of course. Ellie told me. I mean, Ellie’s told me so much about you. But, let me answer your question: You were right that it really was the Cyber virus. As we dug into the coding, we discovered residual integrational imperatives throughout the subroutines. Ellie has a special relationship with the janbot that cleaned her room, causing those imperatives to focus in a unique way on her.”
Her father glowered. “Are you saying our daughter made herself a target?”
Todd felt a lurch in his stomach. Did it come out that way? “Oh, no sir! Not intentionally. Janbots were programmed to learn and to respond to appreciation. Ellie’s natural sweetness and generosity provided the perfect focus. Otherwise, it might have followed a more general imperative and thus started a more general integration.”
“Hold on,” LeRoy interrupted. “Are you saying we could have all gotten Cyberfied otherwise?”
Todd shrugged with an apologetic grimace. “It might already have been starting with other janbots, except that you destroyed them before it got critical. But yeah, its targeting Ellie gave you the time you needed to react.”
LeRoy snorted, bemused. “The LT saved the ship again.”
Todd grinned. “She’s good at that.”
Her parents, however, didn’t seem as pleased. Her mother did manage a prissy huff. “Well, thank the stars for that.”
LeRoy blushed, but Todd was, as his mother would say, too twitterpated at that moment to register her sarcasm. “I do thank the stars. I thank God, Madam Ambassador, for the gift of your daughter. Every day. She is the most intelligent, brave, caring person I’ve ever met. Her optimism and enthusiasm are infectious. I don’t know how everyone doesn’t just automatically love her, so, as much as I hate, hate, hate what happened to her, I can totally understand why my janbot—or all of Cyberdom—would fall for her. She’s just that amazing.”
LeRoy feigned interest in the moving tour group as he fought back snickers, but Ellie’s father’s expression softened into a smile. Her mother held her scowl a few beats longer, but then, she too relaxed.
“All right, then. That’s a good answer.”
“It’s a heartfelt one, Madam Ambassador. I mean every word.”
Now, she graced him with a smile and a playful tap of her fan. For a moment, he saw Ellie reflected in her.
Her husband gave Todd an approving nod, then held out his elbow to his wife. She opened her fan with a flourish and slipped her other arm through his. They headed to rejoin the group. LeRoy gave him a grin and a thumbs-up.
Todd waited until they were out of sight before taking a huge breath to release his tension. One hurdle met and conquered, anyway.