Half an hour later, Ellie left Todd to get ready. She gave him strict orders not to select Chatwayan formal dress; she didn’t think she could see him in jodhpurs without laughing. “You’re from Europa. Wear something Europan.” Then she left to go “stand on her head,” as Enigo had put it. It was more complex than that, but the Logic physical and mental exercises did center her and give her more energy. She couldn’t bear the thought of all the lacquer in her hair again, so she simply changed uniforms and freshened her look. After all, she was HuFleet, not Chatwayan.

She arrived to find most of the guests already mingling but was not so late that she called attention to herself. Her parents were, or course, already there and chatting amicably with the Viventium ambassador. Todd had arrived, too, and was talking with Leslie along the far wall. He wore a coped jacket, the cape’s design mimicking the stripes of Jupiter. He was having fun with her, she knew, but she also couldn’t help noticing that his slacks fit in all the right places. She couldn’t wait to marry that man!

Leslie, meanwhile, was in ceremonial rather than formal dress uniform, with a phaser holstered at her hip and a knife in a sheathe on her leg. The latter was special to the Impulsive because of their Hoodian Chief of Security. Much as he hated bladed weapons, he made sure his people were ready to use them if needed. Even though Leslie was conversing with Todd, her eyes scanned the room. She was there on duty, then, and had either seen Todd looking lost or Todd had approached her.

Ellie went to go relieve her of her charge.

Todd smiled as she approached. “Hey, you look good. Feel better?”

“Mmm-hmm. Nice suit.”

He fluffed the cope. “I don’t know if it’s all the rage or just tacky, but I like it. So, Leslie was giving me a crash course on non-Terran races.”

Leslie laughed. “Mostly just reassuring him that he’d done all right with the Gavite ambassador. They come on strong, but what we think is aggression is really passion and loyalty. You admitted the problem but stood up for your company and the Impulsive. I’m sure it made an impression. Speaking of impression: I think your parents have spoken to just about everyone, and I’m betting, in some kind of ranking.”

“They do know how to work a room.” Despite herself, Ellie smiled.

“Think they’ll give me some pointers?” Todd asked. “I stink at networking. Besides, if I’m going to be married to a captain, I’d better know how to mingle, right? My instinct is to go to the food.”

Did he know how cute he was when he talked about their future together? “They may have to teach us both. I was hopeless at it. But, we can at least start by going to greet them.”

On the way, however, they were stopped not only by a couple of crewmates (coming from the snack table, in fact) but also by the Pelottan pmbassador, who happened to be friends with Wilson from Union DipCorps. As one of the Pelottan’s three faces spoke to Ellie about the situation on KeepOut, an arm took Todd by the shoulder and guided him to the right so that a second face could engage him in more ordinary conversation. The third face kept an eye on the room, finally interrupting the two to point out a group they needed to speak to.

“That was amazing and disconcerting,” Todd murmured into her ear. He sounded like a kid with a weird new toy.

“You’ll get used to it,” Ellie reassured.

In the meantime, her parents had also moved on, and by the time she and Todd got to them, they were chuckling at some story Enigo was sharing. Ellie felt a shiver of dread as they approached, which was justified when she heard Enigo say, “So then Barbie is yelling, ‘Do it, Ellie! Believe in yourself.’ And Ellie yells back, ‘I don’t think this is the me I want to believe in.’”

Ellie cleared her throat, even though Enigo had seen her before he delivered his punch line. He nodded to her, unrepentant.

Her mother seemed equally remorseless. She patted Ellie’s arm and pulled her a little closer to their circle. Todd trailed along. “Ellie, darling, there you are. Lieutenant LaFuentes was telling us the most amusing story of meeting your childhood hero. It doesn’t sound like it was what you expected.”

“Nothing about Rest Stop was what we expected,” Ellie retorted. “I wish I’d gone shopping with Misha instead…” She let her statement trail to a stop. She had been about to say, “wading through zombie guts and blood on some Hoodian revenge quest,” but she didn’t know just how much Enigo had shared.

The chief of security shrugged, “Ah, you held your own. You raised a tough chica, Ambassadors. Smart, too. If you’ll excuse me?” With a bow, he left. Ellie noticed he, too, was in ceremonial dress and armed. For a moment, she fantasized about grabbing his phaser and stunning him. Surely, Barbie 57 would have approved of her daring.

Her father interrupted her thoughts. “So, explain to me how exactly a childhood character turned into a….”

“Warlord’s moll?” Ellie concluded.

“Ellie, language!” her mother scolded. Her eyes scanned the room, as if checking to make sure no one noticed.

“It’s technically accurate, Mother. It was a very weird planet, designed to fulfill the wishes and daydreams of the visitors. It wasn’t ready for the conflicting thoughts of humans and bent itself into pretzels trying to make things work for everyone. My stray thought manifested the Barbie persona, but Enigo’s will and imagination coopted her. So instead of an astrophysicist-archaeologist-philosopher, we got—”

“Hold that thought, dear.” Her mother tapped her with her fan. “It looks like we left Gregar too long on his own.”