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“They slept on the abyss without a surge–
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.”

—from “Darkness” by Lord Byron

THEY WAITED in tense silence as the Marines fanned out into the bay beneath them. They listened on the open comm channel to brief bursts of crackling conversation that struck York as being akin to a foreign language. But even when she couldn't understand their military slang, the men's voices were cool and professional, with none of the excitement that comes with combat. More importantly, no explosions or weapons fire punctuated their communications.

“Contact!” one Marine shouted. Hull stopped his pacing and whirled about towards the port, as if his eyes could somehow bore a hole to wherever the meeting was taking place. “Captain, I have three, repeat, three friendlies in sight. No weapons, no suits.”

“Roger that, Bravo Two.” Pedrattus sounded as if he was out for an afternoon stroll. “I have your visual feed and your location. Keep them there and I'll be with you in two decasecs.

York looked expectantly at Hull, but the captain held up his hand. For a long, uncomfortable moment, there was nothing from the Marines, as presumably they were speaking with the Rigel crewmen. Finally, Pedrattus came back online.

“Captain Hull, I believe it is safe for you and the, uh, consultant to join us. I've been speaking with Quartermaster Chief Albert Barngate, Lee Chun, maintenance first, and Jarrett Shumway, maintenance second.”

“Roger, Captain,” Hull responded. “How many survivors? Who is senior?”

The Marine captain response was delayed as he relayed Hull's questions. “The quartermaster is the senior petty officer surviving. Nine, repeat, nine survivors.”

York shook her head. Benbow put his hands to his head. Hull's helmet dropped nearly to his chest. It was a disaster almost beyond imagining. All three of them very well knew Rigel's crew complement. A Shiva-class cruiser carried 33 officers, 27 Chief Petty Officers, and 345 enlisted men. And it now appeared that 396 of them had not survived the incident, whatever it had been.

York stepped down from the launch's ramp behind Captain Hull, her helmet down since the bay's atmosphere had been restored while they waited. The air inside the ship was warm and breathable, but still to the point of seeming lifeless. In the unearthly silence, it was like standing in a giant steel tomb.

Doctor Benbow followed, carrying his medical satchel. Next came Wexby, followed by Osborn, the latter remaining unobtrusively in the rear. The rest of the Navy personnel remained on the launch with Lieutenant Tregaski, their weapons ready. Captain Hull was taking no chances.

For a moment the men were all quiet and somber. They knew they were entering what had already served as a death trap for hundreds of men.

“No signs of damage or weapons discharge inside or out.” Wexby broke the silence.

“I'd noticed,” Hull commented noncommittally.

York was beginning to reach the same conclusion. There was no damage to be seen and the Marines had reported none. That indicated that her original suspicion, one that she'd harbored from the time she'd boarded the Draco, was likely correct. The attack, assuming that it had been intentional, had been on the ship's atmosphere.

But the conclusion raised as many questions as it answered. In space, a ship's atmosphere was a known point of vulnerability. There were multiple levels of containment and defense. How was it possible to overrride all of them without triggering any alarms or anyone noticing?

They walked slowly down the corridors, seeing no signs of life, or for that matter, death. Benbow was peering at his device; clearly the same thought had struck him and she suspected he was analyzing the atmosphere for any suspicious trace elements.

They turned a corner and saw four armored Marines looming over three men wearing blue Navy coveralls that were stained and worn. The survivors were varying degrees of unshaven and all three of them looked haggard.

Glancing at Hull, York noted that his square face was totally devoid of expression, as if he had erased every emotion within him. Only his jaw muscles gave him away; they were corded and set. As the gap between them and the Rigel crewmen narrowed, the man speaking with the Marine captain drew his body up straighter. York saw that he was somewhat taller than the others, slender, and he moved with the easy grace of a veteran spaceman accustomed to varying gravities. The man, presumably Quartermaster Chief Barngate, barked something under his breath, and his two companions straightened, attempting some semblance of military bearing. Coming closer, she saw that the rearmost man appeared to be Dai Zhani.

What were the odds, she commented wryly to herself.

The Marines parted before Hull's approach. The taller man stood at attention and saluted briskly. “Quartermaster Chief Albert Barngate reporting, Captain.”

Hull returned the salute. “I'm told you are the senior officer surviving?” he asked bleakly.

“I'm sorry to say so, Captain.” He did a double-take upon noticing York before motioning toward his companions. “This is Lee Chun and Jarrett Shumway. The others are in their bunks, sleeping.”

“Where are the others, the dead?”

“We spaced them three days after… after the accident.”

A MIND PROGRAMMED runs every Saturday and Sunday on Arktoons.

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A Mind Programmed

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Vox Day
The Greater Terran Ascendancy finds itself facing a historic crisis when the Shiva-class cruiser ATSV Rigel goes missing during a routine patrol through the Kantillon sector. Fortunately, the Ascendancy Intelligence Directorate's top operative, Daniela York, is on the scene.
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