Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Month 2, Day 30
1139 Hours

I should be at work, not hanging about. Smitty drank the last of his coffee and silently set his cup down. If she realizes I hang around while she’s studying- If the captain realizes I’ve spent so much time here, instead of working-!
He glanced at the clock. Almost time for someone to send her to bed. Wonder who it’ll be today. Bugalu, MacGreg, Yellow Dog, Abdulla? Someone will come. She’ll protest, but she’ll go. And for all that Bugalu and MacGreg tell her to get 8 hours of sleep, she’ll be in the gym by 1800. That’s only 6 hours, at most. Can’t keep that up.
Maybe she’ll pass tonight. Then she could stop all this studying and get on with her life, have dates, get a decent night’s sleep.
And what about me? If she passes, what does that mean for me? She wouldn’t be here every morning to study, so I’d have no reason to be here. Not that I really have any reason now. I could get some work done. And once she starts dating, I could- what? Date her? Not a chance! Date others? I can now, but when Anna pointed out what I was doing... It’s not fair to any woman. And not safe, if I use her name when I’m with someone else. No, I’m doomed to remain in inferno the rest of my life. Until she leaves the Fireball.
Black space, that’s a depressing thought. Years and years of having her so close, and yet... untouchable. Or else not having her here. Don’t know which is worse.
The door opened, and he looked at the clock again. They’re a little early. She won’t like that.
“Lt MacDowell, I assume,” said a greasy voice, and Smitty stiffened. Scooting his chair backwards, he scowled at what he saw on the other side of the well through a small hole devoid of foliage.
Colleen had stood up. She shut down the reader and gathered her files. “Lt Cmdr Winthrop,” she named the newcomer.
“What I’ve heard doesn’t do your beauty justice,” Winthrop stated, stepping forward.
“Um, I’ve heard about you, too,” Colleen stated, keeping the table between them.
“We should... discuss that.” The security chief shoved the table aside.
The redhead thwarted him a second time by pulling a chair between them, a hand on its back keeping it at some small distance before her. “Sorry, I’m busy. It... it’s past my bedtime.” Wrong thing to say to him, darling!
True to form, Winthrop leered. “That’s an intriguing thought.” He tried to move the chair, but she had a firm grip on the back of it, and it didn’t move. “We could explore that option together,” he suggested, again trying to move the chair.
“No,” she answered shortly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me-“
“Not just yet,” he told her.
Oh, blast, he’s not going to let her leave. In ten minutes, someone will come for her, but that’ll be too late. I’ll deck him if he lays one hand on her.
“Sir!” Colleen protested as Winthrop jerked at the chair.
Smitty jumped to his feet and started around the well. “MacDowell!” he barked as soon as she was in sight. Both heads turned as he hurried up to them.
“What are you doing here?” Winthrop growled.
Smitty gave the other man a cold stare. “Looking for my lieutenant.”
“For me?” Colleen squeaked.
“You say that like you own her,” Winthrop snarled. “We were in the middle of-“
“Tough,” Smitty told him. “She hasn’t passed her probational; it’s time for a quiz.”
Colleen’s face went white. “Now? Here?”
“Not here,” he returned, realizing she believed every word he had said. “Abdulla will score your results.” He took her arm and pulled her toward the door. She followed woodenly, but without protest. I can feel Winthrop’s stare boring a hole into my back. He won’t forget. Like I care. I never did like him.
They were in the lift before he realized he still held Colleen’s arm, his thumb gently rubbing her sleeve. Can’t blame Winthrop for desiring her, she’s woman enough to- He quickly let go of her as the doors closed. “Where would you like to go?” he asked through a constricted throat.
Colleen looked at him in utter confusion. “Well, where’s Abdulla?”
“On duty, I imagine. Or possibly she’s gone to lunch. Why?”
“You said she was... The quiz...”
“Oh.” He reddened, couldn’t look at her. “I just said that to cut off Winthrop’s arguments. There is no quiz.” He realized the lift had not yet moved, and sent it toward her quarters. “I thought you needed help getting away from him, and I-“ He let it die, uncertain what to say.
“You... rescued me,” she breathed, as if she couldn’t believe he would ever do such a thing, especially for her.
How do I tell Jane about this without revealing I’ve been spending mornings in the rec room instead of working? Winthrop is a slimy hedgehog who has no business around women, though to hear him talk, his methods... Oh, space, Colleen wasn’t playing hard to get, was she? Smitty cleared his throat, attempting to dislodge the lump so he could speak. “You could go back, if you wish. I imagine-“
She violently backed into the lift wall, her face even whiter. “Absolutely not!”
He nodded in relief. “Good.” No way that can be taken the wrong way, is there? Still- “I mean, he expects sex from every woman, as if it’s owed to him, or something. I’m surprised nobody’s warned you.”
She frowned, staring at the floor. “They have. Anyway, I’ve... dealt with his type before.” She rolled her shoulders, as if loosening her muscles for some heavy endeavor.
“What’s next, R&R in your bed?” Why not a quiz in my bed? I’m sure she could pass that! Space, I’m as bad as him! The lift door opened. Her quarters - her bed - is only a few steps away. Blast! “I hope you go to bed now.”
She raised her head, muttered, “Yes,” as her green eyes relentlessly stared at him. “I’ll see you?”
That was an invitation. No, it wasn’t. Get a hold of yourself, Smythe! “Tonight,” he stated breathlessly. “It’s test night. You’d best get some sleep.”
She nodded. “If I can.”
That sounds familiar. I’m sure she didn’t mean it the same way, though. As she stepped for the open door, he mumbled, “Good night, Darling.” The last word slipped out before he even knew it was there.
“Good night, Dear,” she answered absently, and left him alone in the lift.

The door closed, and he sent the lift toward engineering. She called me an inappropriate term of endearment again. Of course, I started it, but I’m not sure she heard mine. Anyway, she probably calls everybody that. Sure could wish it was meant for me alone. Lt Cmdr Smythe, you have to stop that kind of thinking!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Personal Request / Dedication / Dream of Success?

Personal Request
Month 2, Day 10
2345 Hours

Smitty looked up from his cup of coffee to see Lt Adams and Ensign Jones facing him across the table. “Did you want something?”
“We want you to pass MacDowell on her probational,” Adams replied.
“What’s that got to do with you?”
“She won’t date us,” Jones answered.
“Don’t change the subject.”
“He’s not,” Adams said. “She’s too worried about her test to have time for dates.”
“Except for Bugalu,” Jones added. “She always has time for him. And MacGregor isn’t far behind.”
Adams gave the ensign a quick scowl. “But she’s never got time for us, and we don’t think that’s fair. So, we want you to get her past probation.”
“Right,” Jones agreed. “Then we could all have a ride.” Smitty’s mouth contracted, and Adams stomped on the other man’s foot. “Ow! I mean, get a date. That’s what I meant.”
“The way it’s done is, she gives the right answers to the questions,” Smitty pointed out.
“Well, maybe you aren’t asking the right questions,” Adams suggested.
“Definitely not asking the questions I would ask,” Jones offered.
“Why not try different questions?” Adams asked.
Smitty scowled at his cup of coffee and took another swallow. “And what do you suggest-“ He looked up, saw Colleen sitting across the candle-lit table. Her hair was swept up into an intricate mass of curls, and her red gown plunged to reveal a fascinating cleavage. The wine in his glass matched her hair and smelled almost as sweet as she did. “-I should ask?” His mind tried vainly to make sense of these sudden changes.
“You can ask me anything, Dear,” she purred. “I’d do anything to stay on the Fireball.” She stood up, started around the table. Smitty scooted back, ready to stand, but before he could, she was in his lap. “Absolutely anything.”
Smitty sat up, stared around the dark bedroom. I wish I could stop having these dreams. It would be so much easier to get through my days - even with her here - if I didn’t have such dreams every night.

Month 2, Day 20
1154 Hours

Smitty raised his cup for a drink - a candlelit table, red hair arranged in intricate curls, and a plunging neckline revealing - get out of my head! - but his cup was empty. He gazed at the dispenser, all the way across the deck 11 rec room. I’m too comfortable to get up just now. With a slight smile, he closed his eyes and leaned on his arm, sinking once more into enjoying the smell of green plants. Something was blooming in the arboretum, sending a familiar aroma upwards, into the rec room. What is that? Roses? No. Whatever it is, I like it. This morning, even the drone of voices from the other side of the well, muffled by the crown of the willow, was pleasant. I could fall asleep here.
“I thought so.”
Smitty frowned. Is that Adams again? He opened his eyes to glare at the midnight shift engineer, but it was Bugalu who crossed the room to disappear behind the willow.
“Having morning coffee already, Bugalu?” one of the women asked.
“Try lunch,” the helmsman returned.
“Lunch!” Abdullah repeated in surprise.
“Yeah, you’ve been here all morning. Come on, Mac, it’s time for bed.”
He’s interrupting her studies for a lunchtime quickie?
“I’m wide awake,” the redhead protested.
“Doc’s right about how tired you look, and I’m tired of hearing about it. Come on, you’re going to bed.”
Smitty heard her sigh of resignation. “Okay. I’ll see you for supper.”
“I’m not waiting that long for supper,” Bugalu told her. “I’m not waking you until 2000. That’s 8 hours for you to sleep.”
“But that will put my whole schedule out of whack!”
“Should have thought of that before you stayed up so late,” he returned as he pulled her to the door. “Thanks for helping her, Abdulla, but she’s got to sleep sometime.”
“Sorry, Bugalu. I only intended a 2-hour study session.” The door closed behind them, and Smitty heard Abdulla sigh. “Well, that put a bigger dent in my day off than I intended. And she’s left her study files. I’ll give them to Bugalu at supper, and he can return them when he wakes her up.”
Smitty saw the dusky woman emerge from the willow’s screening foliage, headed for the exit. “Abdulla?”
Her head swiveled, and she changed direction to approach his table. “How long have you been here?”
“A while,” he admitted, and showed her his empty cup. “How’s she doing?”
She cocked her head slightly. “If you’ve been here that long, then you know.”
He shook his head, waved at the tree crown that hid the table where the two women had been. “Everything was muffled. I was lucky to make out a word here and there.” He waited, but Abdulla just stared at him. “I’m sure you have things you’d rather do on your day off. I appreciate your efforts to assist Lt MacDowell. And now I would appreciate an assessment of how she is doing.”
“She’s doing fine,” Abdulla stated. “She knows the material backwards and forwards.” She turned, then added over her shoulder, “She knew it a month ago. Problem is, now she doesn’t have any confidence.”
Smitty watched her leave, then sighed. She’s still upset. I hope the girl does better on her next test. Well, she’s bound to. Couldn’t do any worse! He considered another cup of coffee, but a glance at the clock convinced him he’d better have it in the messhall, along with lunch. As he placed his cup in the dirty dish chute, it occurred to him that this was Abdulla’s day off. And that means Colleen worked last night. And will again tonight. Hate to admit it, but it’s a good thing Lt Bugalu is trying to make her get some sleep. Don’t know any other woman aboard he’d do that for.

Dream of Success?
Month 2, Day 20
2352 Hours

“She’s going to ace the test, Mr Smythe,” Abdulla told him as she entered the meeting room. “I’ve taught her everything I know.”
“Good,” he replied. Abdulla started around the table, allowing him his first view of the redhead. Her curls were massed atop her head, and her slinky red evening gown revealed every curve she had. “Lt MacDowell!” he exclaimed in shock.
“I’ve got your answers,” she purred, and sat on his lap.

Smitty’s eyes popped open, but saw little in the darkness of his bedroom. Maybe, if or when she finally does pass her test, I’ll stop having these dreams. He rolled over to his side and punched his pillow into a new shape. Sure I will. An idiot, that’s what I am.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Comfort Food
Month 2, Day 10
1018 Hours

Once the morning rush was over, Anna retreated to her office, confident her second could oversee the kitchen while she did paperwork. She left her doors open, just in case she might be needed. It let her keep an ear on things so that she could return at any moment, even if her crew became so busy, they forgot to ask for help.
“Ferg?” came a timid query through the messhall door. Anna paused. That voice sounds familiar. Who is it?
“Hey, Mac. You’re up late, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” the woman agreed, and cleared her throat. “I need a favor.”
“I need a date.”
“No.” The voice had become ice. “Forget it.”
“Wait,” Ferguson told her quickly. “Tell me the favor, and forget I asked for a date.” Anna was startled by an oven door slamming in the kitchen, and almost didn’t hear him add, “Again.”
“A pizza,” the woman stated. “Just a little one. A snack.”
“We have good food on the menu without making anything special.”
“I really want a pizza. Ham and pineapple. Extra pineapple. Please!”
We’ve had more requests for pizza in the past month than in the entire year before that. What’s the sudden interest in pizza? Anna stood and headed for the doorway.
“Mac, we aren’t set up-“ Ferguson was saying.
“Why ham and pineapple?” Anna asked, and stopped at sight of the redhead. That’s Drake’s girl. The one who failed her test.
“It’s my favorite kind,” the girl stated.
“We’ve had a request for ham and pineapple pizza every week for the past month,” Anna stated. “Have you been ordering them?”
The girl’s face suddenly matched her hair. “Either Mac or Bugs have ordered them, to please me. Every 8 days.”
Mac and Bugs? Well, she shortens Ferguson to Ferg. I’ll figure out who she means later. “Why?”
“It makes me feel good. Brings back memories of happier times.”
It’s her comfort food. “Is it the ham, the pineapple or what?”
The redhead went from surprised to thoughtful. “We have ham on Gaelund. We have tomato sauce, cheese and bread. But we don’t have pineapple.”
Gaelunder. Colonist. There’s always something that doesn’t grow well or can’t be made well. Usually the cheese tastes strange, or something won’t grow. Pineapple is a hot-climate fruit. “Do you like bananas?”
“Yes,” the redhead responded enthusiastically. “But not banana chips, and that’s all a ship ever has.”
“Yes, bananas spoil quickly if they aren’t dried. “Come into my office, and let’s discuss your options when this urge hits. Ferguson, bring in one of my specials.”
“One, sir? Or two?”
I do love- No, better not. Anyway, if she doesn’t like it, I can finish hers. “One,” she decided, and led the redhead into her office. “Have a seat,” she invited. Anna typed a query into her computer and set it to work. “I have to admit, I can’t think of many recipes that use pineapple. That’s why we don’t have a lot of it in storage. So, let’s try to find other foods to serve the purpose, before we run out of the one we know works for you.”
The redhead gave her a confused look. “What purpose?”
She doesn’t even realize- “To pick up your spirits. We all need it from time to time. Now, there’s plenty of pineapple sauce, which people usually put on ice cream.”
“Ice cream gives me a headache. Unless I have it with hot fudge, which I also love. But I can’t have that too often, or my uniforms won’t fit.”
Anna smiled. “I have the same problem. I’m not as active as I should be.”
“I try,” the younger woman stated. “But the ship is set at 1G, and that just doesn’t challenge this body.” She adjusted the lay of her off-duty shirt, and Ferguson took a shuddering breath as he put down a piece of pie on Anna’s desk.
Can’t blame him. She’s got a figure to boil a man’s blood. I’ve heard heavy-worlders are muscle-bound, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at this one. Why won’t she date Ferguson? Not my business. “Enjoy,” Anna told the redhead, pushing the pie with chocolate sauce to the other side of the desk. As the redhead stared at the pie for a moment before reaching for the fork, Anna went on. “Pineapple sauce doesn’t have to be over ice cream. We usually have white cake available; you could have the sauce over that.”
Anna consulted her computer screen while the younger woman swallowed her first bite. “That sounds good. I like cake, too. This pie is great. How did you get real bananas? We’ve been in space over a month.”
“It took me a long time to figure out how to properly rehydrate banana chips. Now that I have, I’m writing up the procedure for the Fleet’s Chef’s newsletter.”
“Will it become a regular desert item? I’ll be sure to get a piece.”
“It might. If you want the chocolate sauce on it, ask for Anna’s Special. All my people know what that is. And if you want some pineapple sauce on white cake, why not ask for Colleen’s Cake? I’ll explain to my people what it is.”
Colleen swallowed her latest bite and then grinned. “Nobody calls me Colleen.”
Wrong. One person does. Surely there’s not two Colleen’s on board. “Then nobody else will ask for it, and there’ll be plenty for you. She watched the girl finish the pie and lick the last smear of chocolate from the fork. “How are the studies coming?”
All pleasure disappeared from her face. “Every minute,” she answered. “My days off, all my evenings- I’ve even cut back Bugsy’s hugs to just one viewing of the movie.” She straightened in sudden concern and stared in panic at the wall clock. “Bugsy! He’s going to wake me in 5 hours! I’ve got to get some sleep!”
“I thought this was your day off.”
“I’m midnights,” the girl answered. “So, yeah, it is, but... I sleep days. I... lost track of time when I was studying.”
“Then you’d better go get some sleep,” Anna agreed. “You don’t want to fall asleep during your date.”
“Oh, it’s not a date,” Colleen stated. “Just supper and study. Could be just supper, if he has a date.”
“I see,” Anna said, although she didn’t, not really. After the girl left, Anna got up and closed the door to the kitchen, went to the doorway to the messhall. “Ferguson, you got a minute?”
He turned from wiping down the counter glass, winced as another oven door slammed in the kitchen. “Sure thing, Chef.” He stepped into her office, and she closed the door behind him. “Doesn’t the new guy, what’s his name, Gales, wash the service area?”
“Chef, Gales is hardly a new guy. He’s been aboard almost two years. I told him to try his hand at baking bread today, so I’m wiping things down.” They both winced as another oven door slammed. “Doesn’t sound like he’s doing too good.”
“Could be nerves, if I’ve ignored rotation for that long. I do hope nobody’s trying to make souffl├ęs today. Why don’t you look in on him, try to convince him not to break the ovens?”
“Sure thing,” he agreed, and started to step for the kitchen door, but her hand on his arm stopped him. “Something else?”
“That redhead who just left...”
She did warn me nobody uses her first name.”While we were talking, she referred to somebody, but I didn’t recognize the name.”
“Yeah, if she’s willing to like you, she shortens your name. What name did she use?”
“Bugs. Or Bugsy. Something like that.”
He nodded. “Lt Bugalu, day shift helm. The only man she will date. So far.” His face went pink. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have added that bit of gossip. Anything else?”
“After you check on Gales, and as soon as you get a chance, come talk to me about all these things I’ve been letting slide the last couple years. And thank you for holding the kitchen together while I... fell apart.”

He nodded and headed for the kitchen. Anna opened the door to the messhall and returned to her desk. Lt Colleen MacDowell is the only Colleen aboard. So, unless Smythe is pining for someone who isn’t even on board, it’s her he wants. And she only dates a man considerably younger than him. This does not bode well.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interrupted Studies

Interrupted Studies
Month 2, Day 10
0945 Hours

Smitty scowled at the floor as he walked down the corridor. It wasn’t often his mind was completely preoccupied, and the thoughts were not of engineering. He found the experience... unsettling. It is not my fault! Everybody flunks the first probationary! Almost everybody. I told her to study, when she first came aboard! He sighed, glanced around to get his bearings, since he hadn’t been paying any attention to his surroundings, and changed his direction. Abdulla hardly talks to me. Wilson’s been cold. That might be because of the blasted rumors I unthinkingly got started about us. I’m not sure. Jane keeps saying Coleen looks tired, and that I should check with MacGreg whether she needs that extra day off! He’d like that, I’m sure. Time it so he has the day alone with her, without Bugalu being around. Making out with her in a rec room! Thought he had more discretion than that! And Jane never disciplined him for it! How does he get away with these things?
He stopped once again to check his surroundings and turned into the deck 11 rec room. It was the same size as any other rec room, but felt small, with half the floor space taken by wells opening to the arboretum below, allowing several trees to display their upper branches. It also felt more private, with branches and leaves doing what they could to hide each table from the others. He was always surprised to find it usually empty, but those who wanted a taste of greenery frequently opted to visit the arboretum itself. Not likely I’ll be found here. He got a cup of coffee from the dispenser and sat down heavily at a corner table beside a well. I need a moment of peace and quiet, just to settle my nerves. This place is empty, and this morning’s night cycle in the arboretum should be peaceful, I would think. He took a deep breath to enjoy the earthy smell rising from below. There seemed to be a faint sweetness to the air, as if flowers were blooming heavily in the ground located so far below. His deep breath ended with a huge yawn. Hope I can keep from falling asleep. The dreams haven’t let up a bit. Don’t think I’ve slept in a month.
Smitty gazed at the closest treetop and let his eyes unfocus. He tried to imagine happily chirping birds and busily buzzing insects as the overhead lights began to dim. I swear I can almost feel a breeze stirring.
“Blast!” Smitty’s eyes jerked open wide when he heard the tree’s profanity, followed by a string of syllables in a language he was glad he didn’t understand. Leaning forward, he managed to see past the leaves, saw vivid red curls bounce as the girl jumped to her feet. Still swearing in her native tongue, she glared at the dimming lights, then angrily removed a disk from the reader and shut it down. Gathering a handful of disks - trying not to drop any - she turned for the doorway, then stopped short to stare at the clock. “It can’t be that late!”
The hallway door opened, and Lt Adams, his midnight engineering supervisor, entered. “Here you are!” Adams declared when he saw the redhead, and leered. “It’s past our bedtime, Mac. If you don’t like sleeping alone-” He started toward her.
“Stuff yourself,” she muttered, added a few choice words in her own language, and headed for the door. Adams reached out to stop her.
Adams!” Smitty barked without thinking.
Both of them jumped and turned to stare, aware of his presence for the first time. Colleen went absolutely white, as if she’d been caught doing something wrong. “I am studying!” she declared defensively, then whirled and ran out.
I never said a word to her! I certainly never accused her of- While Smitty’s mind had spun with incomprehension, Adams had turned to follow her, which made the spinning stop. “Stand still,” Smitty told his underling.
Adams turned back, looking thoughtful. “Mr Smythe, you don’t date your subordinates, but surely you don’t object to my dating my peers.”
“No, I don’t,” Smitty agreed. “Unless-“ he added as the younger man started to turn again, “-they aren’t interested. And that one isn’t.”
“Let me be the judge of that,” Adams suggested.
Idiot knows his engineering, but not people. “Fair warning. If you’re wrong, and she lodges a complaint, I’ll remember this conversation.”
“She won’t complain. They never complain.” Adams grinned in utter confidence in himself, and left.
Smitty frowned at his cup, suddenly uncertain when Adams had been so confident. Maybe she won’t. I told her to walk away from such problems, and she seems to have been doing that. I would have heard if she’d been put in the brig, or brought up on assault charges. She was so shocked to see me here, apparently thought I’d been watching to make sure she’s been studying. Does that mean that I should be watching, or- Well, I won’t. I don’t get involved when others have needed to refresh their memories, and it would be... favoritism to treat her any differently. Still- He stared through the leaves at the reader she’d been using. -She wasn’t on duty last night, was shocked by the time on the clock. She seems to be taking everything I’ve told her to heart, if she’s been studying all night.

Still frowning, he sat back, tried desperately to regain a sense of peace in the dimness. But his mind kept reviewing the encounter with his two subordinates, kept wondering how he could have reassured Colleen, or if he even should have, and how he might have more firmly warned Adams away from her, if he should have tried. Or would that have started more rumors? That would be all she would need. No, it’s no good. Might as well get back to work.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Shoulder For Lending

Shoulder For Lending
Month 1, Day 30
Dr Drake MacGregor
2211 Hours

MacGreg smiled at his opponent over the old-fashioned game table. "I said I used to be pretty good at this, Anna. 'Fraid I've gotten rusty over the years."

“There isn’t any ping pong table in the kitchen,” she returned. “So come on. Let’s see which of us is rustier.”
“I’ll play the winner,” offered Lt Cmdr Padilla, tossing her long dark hair behind her as she refreshed her drink.
Drake grinned at the two women. “In that case, the only way I can lose is by...” he paused to think about it, “...well, by losing.”
Lt Cmdr Moor laughed. “If you lose, MacGregor, I’ll buy you a drink.
“As long as it’s not fermented camel milk,” MacGregor grinned. “I’ve never developed the taste.” For a few minutes, he concentrated on the game. Rusty they both certainly were, but as the game progressed, they each warmed up, muscles remembered how it was done, and their paddles began to connect with the ball. Anna was one point ahead when he got ready to serve again.
“Mac?” came tremulous query.
He turned to the redhead. “Hey, Mac! Where-“ Her face is pale, and her eyes are red. “What happened?”
She swallowed, watched him uncertainly. “I flunked.”
“Oh, space,” he swore. She’ll still be studying every night, then.
“I- I-“ She stopped, on the verge of breaking down completely.
He tossed the paddle and ball to the table. “Sorry, Anna. Duty calls.” He turned to face his niece, only to find her turn away. “Mac!”
When she looked back, tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t mean to be a duty, Mac. I don’t mean to mess up dates. I just- I need-“
“And I’m here for you,” he answered, stepping forward. “It was just a friendly game, not a date. And I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant you were more important than a game of ping pong. I’d hoped we’d be celebrating tonight, but-“
“Her first test with Smythe?” Moor asked. “Failing is automatic, isn’t it?”
“It’s not supposed to be,” Drake commented, and remembered he had a test scheduled with Nurse Monroe in the morning.
“I should have passed!” The redhead sniffed. “I studied and studied and I knew it! Better even than at the Academy, but then it was gone! It was just... gone!”
Test jitters. She stepped forward, looking like misery personified. With a nod, he wrapped his arms around her as she threw herself at his chest and let the tears flow.
“You lucky stiff,” Moor muttered.
“Shut up, Moor,” Padilla told him.
“Mac, let’s sit over here,” Drake suggested, indicating a short conversation couch in the corner. Once they were settled, he let her cry, keeping one arm wrapped around her shoulders while the other sometimes smoothed her hair. Eventually, it seemed she might be starting to calm down. “It’s okay, Mac,” he whispered. “You were just nervous, that’s all. You’ve still got plenty of time.
“I’m sorry.” Her shaky voice was barely audible. “I thought I had it under control, and suddenly, I needed a hug. Bugs was busy, and I didn’t know if you were ready, but... Then you called me a duty, and... She stopped talking, took a deep breath and relaxed against his chest. “You’re so good to me.”
“Someone needs to be,” he returned quietly.
A shiver went through him as the icy voice traveled down his spine. “Uh, oh.”
“You will explain yourself immediately!”
“Yes, Captain,” he responded, starting to disengage from Mac. I’m in for it now.
Mac jumped to her feet, stood stiffly at attention. “This is my fault, sir!” Drake stared at her, uncertain she knew exactly what she was trying to get to land on her head.
You were seducing him?” Burke growled.
“Seduc-!” Mac began before her voice gave out. Her face turned beet red.
“Captain, she failed her test,” MacGregor explained. “I was letting her cry it out.”
“Part of your ‘being so good to her.’ Lieutenant, you don’t have to lie for, make excuses for, or otherwise do favors for a man just because he has more rank. We’ll speak tomorrow about what charges to file. Doctor, you’ll-“
“No!” Mac cried out.
Doesn’t the girl know when to let an officer calm down? “Mac-“
“Shut up,” the redhead told him, and stepped forward. “This is wrong! Captain, rank doesn’t impress me. One look at my file should tell you that! And while you’re looking at my file, you’ll see that I did fail my test tonight. Surprisingly, that upset me, and I needed a hu- shoulder to cry on. So I came to Mac-Gregor, because I didn’t want hands all over me! And that’s what I got! Er, didn’t get.” She paused in sudden uncertainty. “Umm, I kind of got lost on that last bit.”
“Feisty, isn’t she?” Burke asked coldly. “You’ve got her completely brainwashed, Drake.”
He didn’t brainwash me!” Mac declared.
“Can you prove what she says?” Burke demanded of him.
Of course not. But Jane just used my first name, so she’s not quite as mad as she’s acting. Why?
“Would a witness help?” They all turned to see Anna seated at a near-by table with a glass of tea. “It’s just as they said, Captain. Drake and I were playing table tennis when she came in, very upset. She obviously needed a shoulder, and he offered before I could. They sat down in plain sight, and he’s been a perfect gentleman. Almost a father figure, you could say.”
Mac recoiled from the suggestion. “Oh, space no! Not my father!”
“Uncle,” Drake corrected. “She thinks of me as an uncle. Padilla and Moor-“ He looked around, but the four of them were alone in the rec room. “Never mind.”
“Lieutenant, do you have duty tonight?” Burked asked.
“Yes, I-“ Mac glanced at the clock. “Thank you, sir. May I be excused?”
Burke jerked her head toward the door. With the redhead gone, Drake and Jane regarded each other for a time. Finally, “Does she really think of you as an uncle? The idea seems-“
“She does,” he confirmed. “Her psychology is a little skewed, but not enough to turn her over to Ludwig. She needs people she can trust, and as far as men are concerned, that means a relative. So she ‘adopted’ me.”
Jane shook her head in wonder. “Still, Drake, right here in the rec room?”
“Would you prefer I took her to my quarters? First, I’m not sure she would have gone with me, and the suggestion would have put our ‘adoption’ in jeopardy. I also thought someone might see us.”
“Unlike staying right here.”
“Well...” He shrugged, having explained as best he could.
Jane sighed. “Just... keep a witness on hand, if this happens again.” She turned to leave. “Good night, Anna. It’s good to see you out and about. Feel free to join us for a meal sometime.”
“Thank you, Captain. Good night.”
Drake was alone in the rec room with the Head Chef. He started for her table. “Thank you, Anna. If you’d left when the others did-“
“I couldn’t,” she answered, standing up to face him. “I couldn’t leave that girl in the clutches of a Michael, if that’s what you were.” She cleared her throat. “Thankfully, you aren’t. You did that girl a huge favor, and you did it without expecting any reward. You even would have faced the captain’s wrath without dragging the girl into it.”
“Mac’s a friend. According to her father’s dictates, she isn’t allowed to have male friends, so she adopts them as relatives. I hope I never do anything to make her feel... unsafe... around me.”

“A true gentleman, a true friend. Tell me, do you have plans for the rest of the night?” She waited while an uncertain smile spread across his face, then leaned forward to ask, “Your place or mine?” There was no mistaking that age-old question!