Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Dreaded Test

The Dreaded Test
Month 1, Day 30
1959 Hours

Abdulla stopped in the briefing room doorway to consider the redhead, who was unconcernedly working with yarn and a crochet hook. If anybody was going to be early, I would have expected him, not her. Well, he never said he'd be here, he just said she'd be tested. Maybe he meant for me to do it. If so, I wish he'd told me. She stepped inside and headed for the computer terminal at the opposite end of the table as the door closed. "It's been a long time since I've seen anybody crochet. What are you making, Mac?"
The redhead glanced up. "A baby gown. A sister-in-law is in the family way."
Abdulla turned on the computer and sat down. "How long will that take? You can't send it by radio, so can it even get there in time? Wouldn't it make more sense-"
"Oh, this is a family tradition," Mac broke in with a wry smile. "Logic and sense have no say in it."
"A tradition?"
"Goes back to my very first sister-in-law. Every time a MacDowell woman makes that announcement, every other MacDowell woman gives her a baby gown. I've been making these since I was 5, and Pa has let me know, in no uncertain terms, that my being hundreds of light years away makes no difference."
"But if it's late-"
Mac nodded. "I get into trouble. I avoid that by having sent 2 extra gowns to my Ma, which she keeps hidden. But when she gives the mother-to-be the gown she's made, she also gives them one of mine. That way, I'm not late, as long as I keep Ma supplied. Of course, Pa wouldn't approve, if he knew I was cheating like this, so we don't tell him."
"He doesn't seem to approve of much you do," Abdulla muttered.
"No, he doesn't," Mac agreed. She paused to rub the middle of her forehead and glanced around the room. "Where's Mr Smythe?"
He didn't even tell her he wouldn't be here. Thought he would have learned, after that first duty shift fiasco. Abdullah slipped the test disk into the computer. "He's busy. But it's not necessary for him to be here. I can administer the test. So whenever you're ready, we can start."
Mac took another swipe at her forehead, her face showing a strange mixture of frowning and relief. "Okay." She set her crocheting on the chair next to her and turned her full attention to the darker woman. "I'm ready."
Abdullah asked the first question on the screen, and Mac answered it. Abdullah had prepared Mac's review tapes, and she liked Mac, but that didn't mean she would be easy on the redhead. The computer does all the scoring, based on what it hears Mac say, so it would take a lot of work to help her with her answers now. Which would bring me a lot of trouble I don't need. And she doesn't need me to be easy on her. I expected she'd be able to pass this test, but all her answers are thoughtful and complete. Not like somebody who struggled her first day aboard. I'm impressed. She smiled, thinking what an eye opener the results of this test would be for Mr Smythe, who - for some reason - had taken a dislike to the redhead.
Even Mac could tell she was doing well, without seeing the score the computer gave her. As she gained confidence, she relaxed. Slouching in her chair, she propped a knee in the neighboring chair and rocked back and forth. Even taking a test, she can't sit still. Where does she get her energy?
"Sorry I'm late."
Abdulla's gaze flashed to the doorway. What in- A crash pulled her attention back to the redhead, who was on the floor between two tipped-over chairs. "Mac!"
Before Abdulla could do more than stand, Mr Smythe was beside the youngest officer, pulling her to her feet. "Are you alright?" he asked sharply, his hands still gripping her upper arms.
"Ouch. Sir, you're-" Mac stopped and stared up at his face. He stared down at her, apparently having forgotten everything else. Mac raised a hand, as if to touch the red smudge near his mouth. He let go of her quickly and turned away, walked around the table to stand near Abdulla. That is a lipstick smudge! And his hair is mussed. He's been with someone. Must be someone special, to make him late! This is so unlike him!
"You seem to have a natural penchant for self injury," Smythe said in a low voice. "As this ship needs crew members capable of doing their assigned tasks, I would appreciate it if you would refrain from... hurting yourself."
"Yes, sir," came a quiet, meek reply from the normally-irrepressible Mac.
Smythe sat down and took a furtive swipe at the smudge, which only smeared it more.
Mac pulled the chairs upright, sat in one, and folded trembling hands together on the tabletop.
"How far have you gotten?" Smythe asked. Abdulla turned the screen so he could see it. His eyes traveled in that direction, but didn't focus. "Not bad, I guess." How insulting! "I'll start with something simple. What's the hailing frequency of Podidas?"
"But I've already-" Smythe shot the redhead an angry look, and she closed her mouth.
Why is he so hard on her? She's already answered that question, which he'd see, if he'd bother to look at this screen! He's got her so frightened, she's a nervous wreck! The sooner we get this done, the better! She kept her voice calm and friendly. "Go on, Mac."
"What?" Mac asked, startled. Green eyes darted to Abdulla, scurried back to the engineer. "I'm sorry, I..."
After a pause, Smythe cleared his throat, a frown puckering his brow. "The hailing frequency of Podidas?"
"Podidas?" she repeated. "I think it's sexy. I mean, sexty- sixty!"
"What?" As Smythe glared at her, Abdulla firmly closed her mouth. This is wrong. She did so well before he arrived! He startled her, then chastised her for being startled, as if it's her fault! From the sounds of it, that's what her father would do - blame her. She's beyond the age of having to follow her father's dictates, but she still is. Mr Smythe hasn't troubled to hide his disapproval, so she's just as meek around him. And he arrives with obvious signs of recent sex, which her father so thoroughly disapproves of - no wonder she's confused. This is going to be brutal.
'Brutal', it turned out, was too gentle a word. After Mac's stumbled answer to Mr Smythe's first question, the girl seemed unable to put more than 2 words together. After 10 questions, Smythe sighed and halted the proceedings. "I told you when you arrived, you only had 6 months to prove yourself capable."
"Yes, sir," Mac agreed.
"Now you have only 5 months," he stated. "I suggest you start studying in earnest."
"Yes, sir."
"Dismissed." Mac left the room, and he turned to Abdulla. "Have you helped her any, since that first week?"
"As much as she needed."
"I prepared review files. I prepared Q&A files so others could help her. I've answered a few questions."
"Is that all?"
"She hasn't needed anything else. She knows the material."
"I didn't see that," he pointed out.
Abdulla turned the computer display to face him. "This is when I was testing her, before your arrival," she stated, pointing to the left side. "We didn't get far, but you can see from her scores that she was doing well." She moved her finger to the right side. "After your arrival, I don't think she could remember her name."
He studied the screen thoughtfully. "I startled her when I-"
"She's scared to death of you," Abdulla stated. "And I can't blame her. You don't approve of anything she says or does. Just like her father."
"Father!" he exclaimed.
"I doubt if she see much difference!" she declared daringly. "She's never been able to please him, and apparently, she can't please you, either."
"I've never-"
"Said a good thing to her?" Abdulla asked, retrieving the test file from the computer. "If you have, I haven't heard it. I have heard you chastise her - always carefully worded - but what it amounts to is disapproval, and I'm certain that's all she hears. Your cold, formal behavior whenever she's around comes across to her as disapproval. I know that's how I would have interpreted it, if you'd acted that way when I came aboard. I tell you, Mr Smythe, she has potential. But you'll never know if you don't give her a chance."
"She's got the same chance as every other new crew member."

Abdulla sighed and turned off the computer. "If you believe that - truly believe it - then she hasn't got a chance. And that makes me sad and angry at the same time." She stood up and headed for the door. "Good night, Mr Smythe."

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