“Ellie,” her father said for the third time, “this is not a criticism of your lifestyle.”
“It certainly feels like it!” she retorted.
“Nor is it of Todd,” her mother asserted. “It’s just that once the infatuation cools…”
“This isn’t just infatuation!” Ellie yelled, then let out a howl of frustration when her comms beeped.
Everyone went quiet, as if whoever was contacting Ellie had physically stepped into the room. Ellie took a deep breath—or, as deep as possible in the lung-compressing corset—and reined in her temper. She said with forced calm. “Doall here.”
Gel’s voice replied. “Good morning, Lieutenant. By any chance are you with your parents?”
She knew sensors could have answered that. She stepped away and lowered her voice. “Yes, we’re together in my quarters. Is something wrong?”
There was a pause. “We’ve got a little situation, so we’re tracking down the location of all our guests.”
“Todd’s here, too. Do you need me on the bridge?”
His voice was light. “We’ve got it. It’s just a precaution to make sure everyone stays safe. Can you ask them to stay in your quarters? Todd, too, if that’s all right. LeRoy should be along in a few minutes.”
Ellie kept her voice neutral, but alarms were going off in her head. What wasn’t Gel saying? “Not a problem. Keep me informed. Doall out.”
“What was that all about?” Todd asked.
Her mother answered with some asperity, “Obviously, something serious enough that we need to have a guard, and which could panic some of the ambassadors, or he would not have been so circumspect.”
She hated it when her mother was right. “Yet not so serious that I had to be called to the bridge. Can we get back to the matter at hand?”
“But this is the perfect example of what concerns us,” her mother countered. “There’s something wrong on this ship. We guests—and you, Todd, the civilian—are being confined to quarters for our own safety, but Ellie’s first question was not if we are in specific danger, but if she was needed elsewhere.”
“That was her second question,” Todd pointed out.
Her mother narrowed her eyes at him. “Her first question after establishing something was wrong.”
“I trust my crewmates to do their jobs,” Ellie said. “If there’s a danger to this ship, the best way I can keep you safe is by doing my job.”
“Being a wife and mother is a job as well,” her mother countered. “What will you do when those roles conflict? When you have to choose?”
It seemed to Todd a reasonable, normal question, but from the way the blood drained from Ellie’s face, she read something else in it. Her hands started to clench the fabric of her skirt. He thought he could hear the crinoline petticoat cry in protest.
“That’s what this is about—Loreli and Doc Guy? How did you even find out?”
“El, honey…” he started, though he had no idea what he was going to say.
“You were awarded the Union Jade, one of the highest honors, civilian or military,” her father said almost overtop him. “Did you think the details wouldn’t get to us? You never said a word.”
“What was I going to say? That I told the captain to let my friends die?”
Her mother spoke placatingly, but she stood as tense as her daughter. “Honey, we wouldn’t have judged you. I’m sure it was the logical choice…”
Ellie barked an ugly laugh. “And that isn’t judging? It wasn’t the logical choice. I didn’t make it because my ‘Logic-corrupted brain’ told me it was the best decision. It was the only decision. I wanted to find another way. I wanted to save their lives. If I could have, I’d have sacrificed myself to save them. There was no option. If we hadn’t let them go, we would have all died.”
“It was the captain’s decision,” Todd protested quietly.
“Based on my recommendation—and that’s the point, isn’t it, Mother? Loreli was my best friend, and everyone liked Doc Guy, but I was able to sacrifice them for the greater good. It broke my heart, but in the same situation, I’d make the same recommendation again. And when I’m Captain, I will make the decision if I have to.
“And that’s what you want to know, isn’t it, Mother? Well, Todd? Can you love someone who can choose to let people she loves die?”
She stood there, so angry in that ridiculous dress he’d made her wear, glaring daggers at him because it was the only way to hold back her tears. He wanted to embrace her, but if he touched her now, she’d cry, and he knew she’d hate herself for it.
Then, her mother turned to him with a small shrug. She did expect an answer.
His mind went blank. He licked dry lips. “But…the chances that your ship would be in that situation…”
Her mother rolled her eyes. “My dear, your naivete is endearing but unenduring.”
“Yes, dear.” Ellie’s voice was a nasty imitation of her mother’s. “Don’t be naive. Answer the question.”
“Errr… Ellie, I love you…”
It was the wrong answer. Ellie gathered her skirts and stormed to the door.
“Where are you going?” her father demanded.
“To get out of this dress! I’m done playing.”
The door slid open, and she almost ran face-first into LeRoy.
“Stand aside, Minion!”
LeRoy’s eyes went wide in surprise and a little fear, and he turned aside with military smartness and stood at full attention. “Yes, Lieutenant!”
She brushed past him and stormed down the hall, moving remarkably fast for someone stomping in dainty heels.
Her father tried to follow, but LeRoy blocked his path, and this time, he did not budge. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t let you out of quarters. It’s for your own safety.”
“She’ll change and come back,” Todd offered. “Give her a chance to calm down.”
He may as well have not spoken. Hiro glared at LeRoy. “I’m going after my daughter—to calm her down. Come with me if you like,” her father said. Her father took an aggressive step forward, past the threshold of the doorway. LeRoy’s eyes narrowed, and he braced his feet. Apparently, he was not afraid to take on an ambassador.
Todd suppressed a groan. Could this get any worse? “Uh, LeRoy? Ellie really is upset. Why don’t you go with the Ambassador? Mrs. Ambassador and I can stay and lock the door.”
Then, they heard Ellie scream, “LeRoy!”
“Sorry, sir!” LeRoy said and pushed the Ambassador hard. He fell back into the room with a thump. Ellie’s mom ran to him, but Todd rushed the door. In the time it took for those few short steps, the door had closed. They were locked in.
Ellie brushed past the kowtowed security minion, registering the shocked look on his face. He’d never seen her angry, she realized. Then again, she hadn’t been this angry in a long time. Still, good. Maybe he’d remember how scary she was and not how ridiculous she looked. At least with the intruder alert, no one was in the corridor at the moment. She could get back to Misha’s room and get out of this dress if she needed to replicate a knife and cut her way out.
She should have known better. She put herself on her parents’ turf. Of course, they were going to play it to their advantage. Just because they were HiLows—high visibility, low responsibility—didn’t mean they’d forgotten how to play the game. They knew all about that stupid Union Jade and why she’d gotten it. Did they call her when they first found out? Offer sympathy or even an acknowledgment? No! They held it until they could use it.
And Todd! He knew. She’d already told him the whole horrible story. He’d held her when she cried. He’d talked to her when she woke up from a nightmare and called him because she couldn’t bear to unload on anyone on the ship. He knew! And when push came to shove, all he had to say to her parents—to her!—was a weak, “Errr… I love you”?
For this, I spent 30 minutes getting into the stupid corset and this stupid wig and this stupid collar…
Just then something bounced off her stupid collar and lodged into her stupid wig with enough force to let her know that it was no spitball.
Instinct fueled by adrenaline and hours of sparring with Leslie took over and Ellie spun swinging high as she shouted for LeRoy. She didn’t think to compensate for the added height of her shoes, and her fist missed the side of the Kitack’s head and smacked his antenna instead.
It snapped off with an artificial crack.
The two blinked at each other: he, in surprise, and she, with a flash of insight.
“Doall to Bridge! The intruder’s a—”
Her report ended in a gasp as the assassin shoved a blade into her side.
“Lieutenant? What’s going on?”
Ellie heard the voice of the Captain distantly. Her world had suddenly focused on the knife. It was long, curved, and barbed. If it had gone all the way in, it would have shredded her lungs. Instead, halfway in, the barbs had caught on one of her corset’s metal stays.
The assassin, too, had his attention on it. He tried to shove, then pull, each motion should have made Ellie scream in pain, but she felt oddly outside it all. She only registered the movement and his confusion and fury.
She couldn’t help it. She laughed. Then she tried to hit him. Her arm was sluggish, and she managed little more than a love tap. In response, he twisted the hilt. Her scream sounded more like a wheeze.
“Lieutenant!” the captain shouted, followed by LeRoy shouting, “Hey! You!”
Then the world flared white and went dark.