Her mother had, in fact, materialized with her fan splayed just above the line of her corset, poised to greet their rescuers. When she saw her daughter was one of her rescuers, she dropped the fan in shock. “Ellie?”
Her father, too, gaped at his offspring. There was an awkward silence, broken only by their servant Shavala excusing himself to pick up the discarded fan.
Commander Smythe stepped forward as if nothing were wrong. “Ambassadors Doall, welcome aboard the HMB Impulsive.”
His words broke the spell. Ellie’s Father, Ambassador Hiro Doall, stepped off the dais to shake Smythe’s hand. “Thank you, Commander, and forgive our rudeness. We were not told the name of the ship that would be taking us the rest of the way to Belon.”
“Yes,” Ambassador Natalie added, having recovered her composure and her fan. She flapped it below her chin with agitated strokes. “Curse that Captain Rospin and his obsession with secrecy. Ellie, darling. I hope this isn’t too difficult a surprise.”
Ellie hid her annoyance with a proper Chatwayan courtesy. “Of course not, Mother, Father. I welcome you to ship that is my humble abode.” She spoke the proper Chatwayan welcome for a military officer as she bobbed a quick curtsey.
According to custom, they responded with nods to the commanding officer. “We are indeed welcomed and grateful for your rescue,” her mother added, now holding her fan coquettishly to the side of her cheek. The art of the fan had just started trending when Ellie had left Chatway at 15 and still ran strong in the upper circles.
Commander Smythe said, “I’m afraid our abode is humbler than that of the Immaculata. We seldom carry distinguished guests in such numbers. I would like to offer you the comfort of my own quarters—”
“Begging the commander’s pardon,” Ellie interrupted, just knowing she’d regret this, but forging ahead because family was family, “but the ambassadors are welcome to stay in my quarters.”
“But, darling,” her father started.
“Mine are not much smaller than Commander Smythe’s, and I can bunk with Leslie or Misha for the trip,” she concluded.
“You wouldn’t want to stay with us?” her mother asked.
“There’s not enough room for the three of us and Shavala. It’s not a problem. I’ll be on duty most of the time, anyway.”
“Well, if you have a friend who wouldn’t mind,” her mother said. “It’s most gracious of both of you to offer, but we are glad to accept Ellie’s quarters.”
“Excellent,” Smythe said, feigning obliviousness to the undercurrent of tension between mother and daughter. “Minion Martinez will ensure your luggage is sent there right away. We’re asking everyone to remain in their assigned quarters and settle in while we finish with the Immaculata, and then we’ll arrange some tours of the ship. Of course, if you’d like, Ellie can give you a personal tour.”
Her father shook his head. “Please do not give us special treatment, Commander. It’s important that we do as the group does.”
“Of course.” He turned to Ellie. “Lieutenant, please escort the ambassadors to your quarters and get them settled in. I’ll let Lieutenant Smirnov know to expect you in half an hour, before we start underway.”
“Yes, sir.” Ellie said with professional aplomb. The First Officer knew about her rocky relationship with her parents; 30 minutes gave her enough time to get them settled in and touch base without getting on each other’s nerves. Too much.
As she led her parents out with Shavala tagging behind, her mouth moved on automatic as she explained where the other ambassadorial teams were being quartered. Meanwhile, her mind buzzed with concerns.
Chatway should not be participating in Union politics, and even if they were, her parents were representatives to Chatway, not from it. What game was King Jirek playing?
Why did her dad insist on sticking with the group? Was it an excuse to avoid her? Did he think she’d take the opportunity to confront them in a public setting about her engagement?
Todd! Should she tell them he was on the ship now? No, better warn him first…
They entered her quarters, and she blinked in surprise. The room was immaculate, with everything in its place, surfaces polished, carpet meticulously vacuumed… A short round vase full of dandelions sat in the middle of the table. Todd, that sneak! He’d teased her that he was going to pull boyfriend privilege and have her room put on the top of the list. Now, she was glad he’d ignored her objections.
“Well, this is quite lovely!” her mother enthused. She went immediately to the small dining table and ran her hand over it, whether to check for dust or simply test the smoothness of the material, Ellie could not tell. Either way must have satisfied her because she turned toward her husband. “It reminds me of our first apartment on Starbase 83-Zed. Remember?”
Then she frowned at the flowers. “Ellie, dear. What are these doing here?”
“They’re dandelions, Mother.”
“Yes, I grew up on Earth. I remember what dandelions are,” she snapped. “I mean, why are they on your table? They’re common weeds. Not to mention that horrible machine used to leave them around your quarters.”
Ellie clenched her teeth while a part of her mind noted they’d been together nine minutes and 23 seconds. She forced her tone to stay light and airy while she went to the replicator and ordered herself a triple-shot Hoodacino. “Janbot didn’t ‘leave them lying around.’ He picked them especially for me. We just got our new janbots—yesterday, in fact—and apparently, Todd decided it’d be sweet to keep up the tradition. Would anyone else like something to drink? Shavala, the replicator does a really good kava juice. That was your favorite, right?”
Soon everyone had a glass or cup in their hands, but the interruption had not distracted her mother. She sipped her coffee and complimented Ellie on its making, but said, “I do not understand how anyone could think it’s sweet to repeat the actions of those horrible robots. How can you?”
The hot, bitter, hyper-caffeinated beverage felt good flowing down Ellie’s throat, bracing her for the battle to come. “First of all, Janbot was bringing me flowers for almost a year before the Cyber virus turned it into a creepy brain kidnapper. Second, I happen to like dandelions. Third, Todd is fantastic at his job. The new janbots have incredibly tight security protocols now.”
“I’m sure he thought that the first time,” her father muttered.
“Daddy! Considering a Cyber virus destroyed nearly all the replicator programs in the entire Union, you might want to cut the janbots a little slack.”
“You’re right, Ellie,” her mother soothed. “We can’t really know the full story. After all, it only took over your mind. For all we know, it could have been something unique about how…”
Not the ‘broken brain’ argument again. Thirteen minutes, 47 seconds. “Mother, Father, if you’ll excuse me, I should change for my shift. After that, you and Shavala can make yourselves at home. The bathroom is small, but the shower runs sonic or water. Pulsie?” Ellie spoke to the AI that ran the ship. “I’d like to introduce you to my parents, Ambassadors Natalie and Hiro Doall, and Shavala.”
“Pleased to meet you,” the voice of the Impulsive drawled in an accent that was a mix of Midwest and Southern USA-an.
Ellie continued, “If you have any questions, just ask Pulsie. You can also use the computer to read or pull up some video files, but you’ll only have access to the public libraries. My shift ends at six.” She did not promise to drop by for lunch. That date was reserved for the man who loved her and didn’t think there was anything flawed about her mind.
She headed to the bedroom. Commander Smythe had given her 30 minutes, and if she arrived too early, he’d know something had happened. So, five minutes to change and get her hair out of the uncomfortable style, then five more minutes of conversation. If necessary, she could cut that short and find Todd to give him a heads-up.
But as soon as she exited her room, her mother enveloped her in a hug. “I’m sorry, my darling,” she said. “Here we have been given a gift of time together, and we’re rehashing the same tired arguments. Can we start again?”
Without waiting for an answer, she pulled back and caressed Ellie’s hair. “It was a wonderful effort you put into remembering the correct greeting and mimicking a proper Chatwayan hairstyle. I remember how we used to fight with those styles when you were young. Human hair is just not meant to hold that kind of complexity easily, and you hated the lacquer.”
“I still do.” Her mother had removed the wig she wore, and Ellie was struck with how much gray mixed in her mother’s short locks. Her heart softened, and she joined her mother on the couch while her father pulled up a chair from the table and Shavala busied herself with unpacking their clothes in the other room.