The Star Ship Fireball, captained by Jane Burke, welcomed 3 new crew members, all female, each with her own beauty and her own idiosyncrasies. The blond nurse was a flirt. The American Indian spoke less than Jane thought possible for a crew member. And the redhead communications lieutenant... couldn’t take her eyes off the ship’s chief engineer, Mr Smythe. Jane wondered which newcomer would be the biggest headache.
Lt Bugaloo, day shift helmsman, was surprised to see the redhead. An old girl friend, no doubt. Mr Smythe tried to hint - without actually saying it - that flirting with an on-duty crew member was not acceptable. His no-nonsense announcement that she would be working with him for the next 3 days, checking the wiring on the auxiliary bridge, brought a brilliant smile to her face and some phrases that... Surely the girl wasn’t flirting with him, now!
Dr Drake MacGregor, ship’s chief medical officer, always examined newcomers himself, with the assistance of his head nurse. The redhead - Colleen MacDowell - insisted he call her Mac, and tried to shorten his name to the same. She seemed friendly, and sometimes he thought she might be flirting. But it became obvious she wasn’t aware what she had said. All in all, he liked her, and within a few days, he ended up ‘adopting’ her... as a niece. Apparently, Bugaloo had been her real brother’s roommate at the Academy, and had adopted her to help keep her out of trouble.
Lt Abdulla, senior communications officer, Bugaloo, Capt Burke, Dr MacGregor and his head nurse, Beth Temple, each looked at Mac’s record, which looked fine... for a trouble-maker, which was not the type that usually got assigned to the Fireball. A deep study revealed inconsistent and contradictory entries. Mac had spent 4 years on 3 tugs, and for the most part, had been confined to her ship to do inconsequential duties, while everybody else had shore leave. Whoever had been trying to pressure her into sex - not necessarily the tugs’ captains, but Bugaloo suspected it was - didn’t care how badly they portrayed her as incompetent and rowdy. Well, rowdy, Bugaloo agreed. Back home, she’d had a father and 8 older brothers to protect her virtue. At the Academy, her heavy-world strength and 18 years of rough-housing with her brothers made her capable of protecting her own virtue.
Mr Smythe’s reason for working with a new communications officer was to assess her competency, but he found it strangely difficult to nonchalantly ask questions, and when he finally did - just before lunch - she blankly stated she didn’t know. He sent her off to find the answer, and she brought it to him as he ate lunch with the captain. Surprised, Smythe asked her to recite the question and hid his shock when he heard it. He dismissed her, then confessed to the captain that he hadn’t remembered what he had asked, but his first question certainly shouldn’t have been that one!
Smythe was surprised when Dr McGregor expressed concern over the redhead’s mental health, due to missing shore leaves since the Academy. Tugs have regular shore leaves. But the captain agreed, and had Doc spell out what symptoms Smythe should watch for, since he’s the one working with her. The more Smythe pondered these symptoms, the more they appeared, making him feel guilty for having asked such a difficult question.
As usual with new subordinates who haven’t yet proved themselves, Mac had an oral quiz after her first 30 days. She thought it would be administered by Sr Lt Abdulla, who's been friendly. And Mac had been refreshing her knowledge, so she didn’t anticipate difficulties. However, after the first question or two, Mr Smythe arrived to administer the test himself, and suddenly, Mac couldn't answer. He suggested she ‘study up’, which sent Mac into depression, and made Abdulla do a slow boil. Mac had been studying; Abdulla’s been helping her, and the girl had not missed one of her questions. Hadn’t missed a single question since she had panicked over his opening salvo, her first full day aboard!
Was this Mac’s problem with commanding officers? After scrutinizing Mac’s record, Abdulla hadn’t figured out who had taken a dislike to the girl, but somebody had been treating her unfairly. She didn’t know why Mr Smythe had taken a dislike to the new girl, because even if he wasn’t sure about a new subordinate, he usually gave them every chance he could.
So began a repeating cycle that lasted nearly the entire 6 month probation period. At the end of each month, Mac was unable to pass Smythe’s quiz, and vowed to study harder. Smythe saw her studying, so he couldn’t fault her for not trying. And as time passed, he started finding her sleeping, too; on the elevator, in the rec room, even sitting at her desk in her quarters. Her beauty became strained, and apparently, the stress wasn’t allowing her to sleep well. It seemed she wouldn’t be on board more than 6 months. Maybe then, he could get a good night’s sleep.
A virulent flu rampaged through the crew, and Dr MacGregor quarantined the ship. As more of the crew became sick, double- and even triple-shifts became ‘normal’ for those who had not yet succumbed. The less-than-skeleton crew had nothing to do but wonder when they would develop the yellow spots that would take them off-duty. To occupy their minds, Capt Burke instructed her crew to move into orbit around a near-by planet. A quarantined ship could not interact with others, but there was no rule against observing and making notes. In the middle of this, however, the communications console exploded, knocking out Lt Abdulla, who had returned to duty only minutes before.
So after working 3 shifts and part of a fourth, Lt MacDowell drug herself back to the bridge to start repairs. Her only help were 2 engineering technicians, but she gave them coherent instructions and then crawled into a front access panel. The next thing Burke knew, a loud blare came from communications, which Takor slapped off while MacDowell just stood, looking confused and even grayer than before. Something crackled between the Scissan and the Gaelunder, and both crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
Upon regaining consciousness, Abdulla returned to tackle the repair job herself, but it seemed everything in the console held an electrical charge that she couldn’t get rid of. When Mac regained consciousness, she started hiding, wouldn’t talk to anybody, didn’t even seem to hear them when they talked to her. Eventually, someone made the outlandish proposal that perhaps she had been ‘invaded’ by a native of the planet they orbited.
It turned out she had been.