Month 4, Day 2
The lift doors opened, and 3 blue shirts got off, leaving Jane and Lt Abdulla alone in the small enclosure. As soon as the door closed, Jane instructed, “Halt lift.”
“Captain?” the lieutenant asked uncertainly.
“I have a question,” Jane explained. “At Lt MacDowell’s latest exam, did Purvis units come up?”
“Yes,” Abdulla stated. “They frequently do.”
“I imagine so, there’s so many of them. What I should have asked is if engineering Purvis units came up.” Abdulla’s mouth stiffened, and she hesitated for a long moment. “It must seem a strange question, since MacDowell is communications, like you. But when Lt Cmdr Smythe came to the bridge yesterday morning, he said the topic of Purvis unit differences had come up, and he had neglected to explain it before her test ended.”
The brown woman’s dark eyes flashed. “Did he-“ She stopped short. “Never mind.”
She seems... protective of the girl. From Smitty? That’s odd. “He was so surprised to find her trying to figure out the difference herself.”
Abdullah sighed. “That sounds like Mac. She can get so distracted by something like that. And once a question gets in her mind, she’s just got to find the answer.”
Which can be either good or bad, depending on the circumstances. “Well, he explained the differences in that succinct, no-nonsense manner he has when he thinks you should already know what he’s explaining, which I found surprising. Still, when he asked if she understood, she promptly said yes. Which brings us to my next question, lieutenant. Do you understand the difference between the two types of Purvis units?”
Abdulla blushed. “I’m afraid not. Mr Smythe encourages us to cross-train, but I’ve been so busy lately, I’ve fallen behind.”
I knew he expected his engineers to know the entire ship, but I didn’t realize he expected it of the specialists as well. “I see. Thank you, lieutenant. Lift continue.”
“If I might ask a question, captain?” the younger woman asked.
“By all means.”
“Since Mac - MacDowell has been aboard for 3 months, I assume Mr Smythe has made a preliminary report on her prospects of staying. Is there any chance you might share that report with me?”
Jane smiled. “I won’t bore you with the details, but in the end, he stated he didn’t know, at this point. You’ve been working more closely with her than he has, so what’s your opinion?”
The underling blinked in surprise. “Mac has a mind like a sponge, but her confidence is shaky. Nonexistent, around Mr Smythe. The more he talks, tries to give options he would accept, the more she hears disapproval. I can see it in her eyes, her face. Every time she fails, she pushes herself harder, but I think she could answer the questions in her sleep. If she bothered to sleep, and if Mr Smythe wasn’t the one asking.” The lift door opened to the bridge. “But that’s just my opinion.”
“And Mr Smythe thinks highly of your opinion, Ms Abdulla.” They stepped forward, onto the bridge, the dusky woman looking gratified. “That’s why I asked for it. Please have Ms MacDowell wait for a moment. I have a question for her, as well.”
“Yes, captain.” Abdulla stepped away.
Jane considered the man at the engineering console, but it took her a moment to remember anything about him. Xylander. How could I forget a name like that? Because he hasn’t caused any problems that required my attention in all the time he’s been here. And he’s midnight bridge, so we’re only in the same room for about 2 minutes on any given day. She walked over to him. “Mr Xylander.”
“Good morning, Captain.”
She lowered her voice, hoping he took the hint that she wanted this conversation to be as private as possible. “Mr Xylander, since I know Mr Smythe’s requirements of engineering personnel assigned to the bridge, I assume you know the various types of Purvis units?”
He matched her tone. “Yes, sir.”
There’s a question mark at the end of that answer. He wonders what’s going on. “Would you please join us in my office this morning? There’s something I’m curious about.”
“As soon as I’m relieved, captain.”
“Thank you.” She turned, smiled as Lt Zaire approached. MacDowell stood to the side of the lift, waiting. I keep hearing people mention her sleeping habits, and she does look tired. I’ll have Duck figure that out. Looks like Smitty’s gone to his own office this morning. Good. No need to make him wonder what’s going on. She walked over, and the redhead made an effort to stand up straight. “May I ask you a question, Lieutenant?”
“Sure. I mean, yes, sir.”
“Come with me,” Jane instructed, and led her to her office. “Please have a seat,” she told the younger woman, and sat behind her desk. “Lt Xylander will be joining us shortly. Would you like some refreshment? My yeoman generally keeps coffee, tea and water available.”
MacDowell’s blink revealed her uncertainty at this unaccounted friendliness from the ship’s captain. “I never developed a taste for coffee, but water would be nice.”
“Coffee for me, Alyce,” Jane told Yeoman Blossom, who sat at her own tiny desk in the corner. “You know how I like it.”
“Of course,” the young lady stated as she stood. “Mac, would you like your water iced or room temperature?”
“Iced.” Blossom disappeared into the tiny closet where such things were kept.
“When you came aboard, MacDowell, I told you life on the Fireball would be different than life on a tug. You’ve been here 3 months. Have you found it to be different?”
“Oh, yes. The types of stress are much more diverse.”
“I spoke with Lt Abdulla. She has a glowing opinion of you.”
The redhead covered a yawn she could not stifle. “Unfortunately, the only opinion that counts is that of Mr Smythe,” she stated calmly.
No, she is definitely not stupid. The door to the bridge opened and Lt Xylander hesitantly stepped inside. “Thank you for joining us. Please have a seat. I won’t keep either of you long; I probably only have a single question for each of you, and then I’ll let you get on with your day.” She paused as Blossom silently set a mug of coffee in its usual place on her desk. “Thank you, Alyce. Please serve Mr Xylander and then leave for about 10 minutes.”
“Yes, captain. Here’s your water, Mac. You drink your coffee black, don’t you, Xylander?”
“No cream, 2 sugars.”
“Coming right up.”
“How long have you been with us, Mr Xylander?” Jane asked.
“A little over 6 years, captain.”
“MacDowell and I were just discussing the differences between being on the Fireball and an assignment to a different class of ship. Even different ships of the same class have a different... feel to them. Would you care to comment?”
Alyce handed him a mug, and they exchanged fleeting smiles before she headed for the doorway. “I can’t, captain. I was assigned here directly from the Academy.”
Jane felt a piece of ice in her craw. I should have picked my assistant more carefully. I certainly did not want to add to the girl’s feeling of inadequacy. She sipped her coffee as she watched her yeoman leave, then put her mug down. “Okay, let’s get to business. MacDowell, explain to Xylander the difference between a communications and an engineering Purvis unit.”
The redhead’s eyes grew round and she turned to the engineer. “Don’t you know?”
“Of course I do.”
“Is an idiot,” Xylander broke in, and blushed. “Sorry, captain. I shouldn’t have-“
“Quite all right. I’ve known a few idiots during my career.” Every ship has at least one. “MacDowell, humor me and explain the difference to him.”
“Yes, captain.” MacDowell took a swallow of water and began.
She’s not just parroting what Smitty said yesterday. That wouldn’t be a good sign. Abdulla said she had a mind like a sponge; soaks everything in and keeps it. But she only needed one hurried explanation to understand it? That’s hard to believe.
“But it seems to me,” the girl summed up, “that with that internal configuration, the engineering Purvis unit would need more power than a communications Purvis.”
“Twice as much,” Xylander confirmed.
“Oh. So you’d definitely have to turn off the power before you tried to work on an engineering Purvis.”
Xylander blinked in surprise. “You should turn off the power before you work on a communications Purvis.”
MacDowell’s voice lowered. “Well, of course, those are the guidelines, but I haven’t always been afforded that... luxury.”
Jane tried not to reveal the sudden tension in her back. Is she implying that- Can’t do anything about it, if it’s true. Have to deal with the here and now. She turned her gaze to the engineer. “Did she get it right?”
He nodded. “Better than some engineers I could name. Even figured out it takes more power. But Mac, I don’t understand why you’re studying engineering Purvis units when you can’t pass your communications probational.”
The girl’s face turned so red, it almost matched her hair, and thus her uniform. Her voice was very small. “Oh, it accidentally came up, and it was different from what I’ve been studying. It just, kind of, caught my attention.”
Jane sipped her coffee and leaned forward, clasping her hands together. “MacDowell, Lt Abdulla told me you know your field inside out. Yet you haven’t passed your probational, as Lt Xylander just mentioned. Is there a problem that needs to be addressed?”
“I... don’t know what’s wrong, captain. I always think I’m ready, but as soon as the test starts... I can’t think.”
Not a word about Smitty. Could she be intimidated by him and not realize it? They usually recognize fear. And she said as much, as soon as she arrived. Well, these 2 have answered the question I had. “Thank you, lieutenants, for your assistance - and patience. Dismissed.”
“Thank you, captain.” Xylander stood up. “My boy friend will be wondering where I am.”
“Boy friend?” Mac muttered. “Guess that explains why you’ve never asked me for a date.”
“It does,” he confirmed as they headed for the door.
“Oh, Alyce,” Mac greeted as the door opened. “Can you help me study this evening?”
“Sure. 2000, deck 7?”
The door closed, and Alyce started picking up after the visitors. “Alyce, I didn’t realize you knew communications,” Jane stated.
“I don’t. But the way Abdulla has the files set up, it’s a matter of reading randomly-generated questions. I don’t even have to listen to the answer, because the computer grades it.”
That’s exactly like she was taking the probational, except it isn’t Smitty asking the questions. “Does she have a lot of difficulty answering the questions?”
“Not usually. I’ve helped her 3 times, and twice, she had perfect scores.”
“And the other time?”
“Oh.” Her mouth twitched in confusion. “Last time, she fell asleep half-way through, so she didn’t do well.”
I expect not. So, sleeping does seem to be a problem for her. How does she stay awake for her shift? She realized her yeoman had said something. “I’m sorry, Alyce, I was wool-gathering. What did you say?”
“I just said I hope Mac gets to stay. She’s a lot of fun.”
“You don’t... resent the attention she gets from the men?”
“She doesn’t want their attention. I think some of them are starting to get the idea, now that she gave Tall Bear a black eye.” She suddenly stiffened and looked up. “Oh, I wasn’t going to mention that. It wasn’t-“
“Relax, Alyce. I’ve already heard about it. And if Tall Bear wanted it in the record, he certainly knows how to fill out the paperwork.”
“Yes, captain. I’ll... get back to my paperwork.”
So, the redhead is fitting in somewhat better than Smitty indicated. I’ll talk to Duck about her sleeping. Or lack of it. Don’t have enough information to figure out if she has any other problems, but I do know this; that girl has got a brain.