“Why are you doing that?” Natalia demanded. She was staring at Ellie’s hand.

For a horrifying moment, Ellie thought her cover was blown. She decided to bluff. “This? It’s just a trick a friend taught me. It helps you keep track of complex variables.”

“I know what it does!” Natalia snapped. “I know what it means!”

“Nat, dear,” Hiro reproved, then explained. “Our daughter Ellie was taught the same trick, at a very young age.”

“That’s great.”

“No, it’s not!” Natalia—her mother—replied. “It’s heinous and abnormal.”

Ellie bit her tongue lest she respond like her 15-year-old self. She took a subtle calming breath. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. It’s a simple calculation and memory aid, nothing more.”

Hiro answered. “Perhaps in your case. For Ellie, it’s part of a much larger issue.”

“Issue?” She hoped the edge she felt didn’t come out in her voice.

The Ambassadors—her parents—glanced at each other, as if silently discussing how much to share with this near-total stranger. There was no way she could press the issue, was there? What effect would it have on the timeline if she did?

She was about to excuse herself and return to Jorseen’s home and apply the skills she’d been taught in Common Mission Complications, when Hiro spoke.

“We were assigned to the Logic homeworld early in our career. It was an important step up for us, and we threw ourselves into the work. We wanted our children to experience the Logic culture, so we hired a Logic nanny. Aspira, eight at the time, was in the embassy school, so B’posh only saw her for a couple of hours a day, when she directed her in homework and encouraged her artistic growth. But Ellie was only three…”

“She was a sweet child,” her mother said, her voice thick with regret. “Sunny and empathic, eager to please. And smart. She was early in everything. So when she started showing us these tricks B’Posh had taught her, we thought it was cute.”

Ellie nodded. Some of her earliest memories were sitting on the back porch where the warm breeze ruffled her hair, playing games with a Logic woman. She’d been encouraging and patient and dealt with Ellie’s frustrations with gentleness. She missed her when she left.

“But Ellie started to change. She started talking differently. Acting… We thought she was just imitating her nanny, a passing phase. Then, the night terrors started.”

“Night terrors?” Ellie did not remember those.

Her father nodded. “And the headaches. Usually on the weekends, when B’Posh was not there. We thought she was just bored or overstimulated from the week. But they got worse, and as her vocabulary grew, which it did at a phenomenal rate, she started telling us her head was too full and she couldn’t make it stop. We took her to an embassy doctor, who called in a Logic colleague. That’s when we discovered what B’posh was doing.”

“She experimented on our baby!” Her mother’s eyes were red and swam with tears she tried to hold back. “She called it ‘unlocking the potential of the human mind.’ She unlocked something, all right. She opened a Pandora’s Box of synaptic activity in my little baby.”

“So you fired her.”

“Of course we fired her! She was experimenting on our child without our knowledge much less our consent. You know she had the nerve to tell us we were being illogical. She actually thought we should let her continue her work. We had to put neural blocks on our baby so she could function.”

“Madria,” Ellie swore in Hoodian. Pieces of her life she’d never quite understood started coming together. The way her mother had been so restrictive and protective of her as opposed to her sister. How angry she’d get when Ellie calculated on her fingers or got lost in thought.

Her mother added, “Thanks to the blocks and the experimentation, she lost that empathic spark, She used to have such an instinct for how people were feeling. Now, she has no idea.”

“Or too many,” Ellie murmured. What was it Fedina, her bunkmate on the Mary Sue, had said? You come up with 15 scenarios for why someone is acting the way they are, then you ignore them all because you can’t decide.

“Even with the blocks, if we don’t keep her intellectually stimulated, she’ll have terrible nightmares. Ellie cannot be allowed to be bored like other children.”

The lessons, the extra tutors. They thought it was a salve, but her mind was pulling it all in, using that early training to process it, thereby making those habits stronger.

Then, shortly after they came to Chatway, the girls accusing her of looking at them weirdly. Teachers demanding she pay attention only to find she was two steps ahead. The crazy dreams she instinctively hid from her parents. 

The blocks were breaking down.

“That’s why I’m so insistent on school, even if it really is below her level. She needs discipline of a schedule.”

HuFleet had provided that, keeping her mentally and physically engaged to the point of exhaustion. Then she’d been assigned to the Mary Sue and without the strict 24-hour schedule and high-pressure demands, she’d started to fall apart. She would have washed out, but in her second year there, they took on a Logic First Officer. 

For a moment, she was back there, in the Captain’s ready room, standing at strict attention and trying not to fidget as he squinted at her for a full five minutes. She hadn’t even known what she’d done wrong, and her mind tripped over itself coming up with scenarios.

Then, he’d said, “Ensign, your brain does not know how to breathe. You will report to me at 0600 to begin your training.”

Her mother concluded, “So you see, this is so much more complex than a discontented teenager.”

“I didn’t… I mean, does she know?”

Her father answered, “Of course not. And she never will. Her self-esteem is fragile enough without learning her mind was damaged as a child.”

Alternate Ellie never got that training. She stayed here, married Creepy Jirek, and the blocks fell apart with no one to teach her how to handle her own thoughts. Not just thoughts. Her emotions, her reactions. They were stronger, too. Learning to deal with her emotions rather than suppress them or let them take over had been the hardest part of her training with Commander Flenek.

She needed training. And because Alternate Ellie never got it, the whole Union was in danger.

“Wow,” Ellie breathed. She felt like crying for her alternate self.

Her mother nodded and took a sip of juice. When she spoke, her voice was steadier. “I’m sorry. We should have not laid our family’s pain at your feet. I hope you won’t think less of her now that you know about her impairment.”

“Impairment!” Something snapped in Ellie. “Is that how you see her? Impaired?”

Her mother looked shocked, and her father said, “It’s not the best word.”

“And ‘damaged’ is? Her brain isn’t broken. It’s rewired for Warp. With the right training, she’ll be a force to reckon with.”

“In HuFleet, I suppose?” her mother said with an angry snarl that got under Ellie’s skin like it always did.

Ellie responded as herself rather than Shree. “Why not? You said it yourself: She needs discipline. She needs challenges.”

“And danger? Where even just studying a subspace anomaly can end up sending you across the galaxy and into the path of a moving vehicle?”

“Maybe! But where she’ll find people who think she’s wikadas smart and will depend on her making use of that weirdly wired brain of hers to get the mission done.”

Her mother stood, leaning toward her across the table. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You want to recruit her.”

“What? No! In my time, no one even knows this about Ellie.”

“And no one ever will. She’s my daughter, and I’ll do anything to protect her.”

Now Ellie stood to meet her eye-to-eye. “Except let her be who she’s meant to be!”

Her mother’s eyes grew wide. Silence stretched, broken only by Ellie’s angry breathing. 

Then, her mother’s face went placid, and Ambassador Natalia Doall picked up the small servant’s bell and rang it.

When Goynee entered, she said, “Please return Ensign Crane to the good doctor’s home, and let the guards know she is no longer welcome on castle grounds.”

“What?!” Ellie yelled.

“I trust we can avoid calling the guards? It would be hard to keep a small temporal footprint if you got into any official trouble. And Ensign? You are not to speak to my daughter again.”