Authors: Dean Wesley Smith,Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Science Fiction, #Media Tie-In, #Kirk; James T. (Fictitious character), #Interplanetary voyages, #American fiction
Chapter One THE GAS GIANT THESAU, the ninth planet out from the star Tautee, expanded, then contracted, as if it were cookie dough in the hands of a huge, unseen child.
The large planet went through wild contortions as it fought to somehow retain its shape.
And for a moment it seemed to have won the fight, settling into the round, swirling clouded shape it had had for millions of years.
Then the unseen child started pulling on it again and the gas giant expanded at its poles, then flattened almost as fast.
Every video screen throughout the entire system 1 Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch was focused on those images. Millions of Tauteean people watched, awestruck at the incredible forces at work.
Half a kilometer below the surface of the second moon of the fifth planet, the entire staff of the Kanst Energy Center[*thorngg'thousands of researchers and scientists[*thorngg'watched their screens in growing dismay. Some people turned away.
Others sat on regulation chairs, no longer able to stand. The remaining few stared at the screens as if the sight betrayed them.
In the center of the fifty-thousand-kilometer building, Subcommander Prescott stood in the middle of the war room, watching the screens. Her assistant Folle stood beside her. The rest of the room was empty. No one else cared to see destruction in three dimensions.
The war room was a round amphitheater, and she stood at the focal point, in the bottom, below all the workbenches, the computers, and the seats. The circular screens showed her the Tautee system as if she were on a ship in space. The system surrounded her and covered the ceiling above her. Only the shiny steel floor, which reflected the images in a blurry, colorful fashion, showed that she was in the middle of her creation.
The Kanst Energy Experiment.
She had hoped to provide unlimited power for all her people. The studies had taken most of her life. The research built on research that built on research, some of it generations old. She had hired ten thousand of the best minds in the system to 2 THE RINGS OF TAUTEE work on the project. Their analysis, the computer charts, and the projections all showed success.
How could it have gone this wrong?
"It's going to break up," Folle said. "Just like Hancee did."
Hancee, the moon where the energy experiment had taken place. Where she had lost three hundred of the best minds in the system.
Prescott shook her head, the movement making her head ache. Pain shot through her jaw.
She was grinding her teeth again. She had shattered a tooth when Hancee broke up, but her pain had seemed minor then compared with the loss of a moon and her people. Her friends.
Her pain felt even more minor now.
The amphitheater was strangely silent. She couldn't even hear the hum of the computers. The air was cold[*thorngg'the center fought a constant battle to keep the temperature steady within such a large space[*thorngg'and she wore only her thin lab uniform. Somewhere she had lost the extra sweater she kept for the cold days, the days when the cold ate through her thin skin, all the way to her bones.
That didn't matter either. She had a feeling she would lose more than a sweater before the week was out.
The gas giant's shape changes took place in that silence. She almost expected to hear rips and tears as the planet changed shape. The sounds of an earthquake, maybe, the grinding of shifting rock under the unseen forces.
The silence was eerie.
Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch But the silence was better than the cries of dismay she had heard two days ago, when this room had been full of her staff, when all the scientists had gathered to watch their success on Hancee.
A success that had quickly turned into a disaster of untold proportions.
Hancee had been the largest moon orbiting the gas giant. Two days after they started the experiment inside Hancee, something had gone wrong. Nobody knew exactly what had happened. The project was generating the expected power, and the transmission beam was being put on line to bring the power into the population.
Suddenly the three hundred men and women on Hancee no longer communicated with the Kanst Cente r[*thorngg'or with anywhere else in the Tautee system. They were just gone, along with the power beam and the laboratories there.
Orbital photos showed nothing. The base was obscured by clouds of debris or gas.
At least, her scientists thought it was debris or gas. It could have been anything, or something new created by the experiment. She had no way of knowing for sure.
She still didn't.
Two frantic days later, the rescue mission based out of the seventh planet finally received clearance to head for Hancee. It would have taken almost a week to get there, but the ships were still on the launchpad when the entire moon broke apart, scattering itself in small pieces in an expanding ring around the gas giant.
Now, less than a week later, the gas giant
THE RINGS OF TAUTEE shattering, torn apart by forces she couldn't even imagine.
Prescott glanced over at Folle's strained and tired face. Somewhere in the last two days, he had stopped touching her, even casually, a squeeze of the shoulder, a brush on the wrist, all those soft unconscious signs of support. The others refused to meet her eyes, but the loss of Folle's trust hurt even more. He was her right hand, her best friend, her second-in-command, and her sometime lover.
And he blamed her for all of this.
Underneath it all, so did she.
Not only was she legally responsible[*thorngg'she set up the center, the team, and the research, and convinced the government the project would work[*thorn] but she was morally responsible. She had believed in the project with all her might.
But no one could blame her for silencing the doomsayers. There had been none. Everyone thought the project would work.
Prescott, her thin, tiny frame showing the wear of the last week, sank down into a chair and closed her eyes.
She had to think.
She so much wanted to believe that something else besides the project had caused this destruction, that some cosmic coincidence had led to this.
She might be able to make herself believe that the small forces they had been working with could destroy a moon. That remote possibility was the very reason the experiment had been placed so far out, away from the populated center of the system. 5 Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch But the energy project couldn't have come close to generating even one-millionth of the force needed to tear apart a gas giant almost as big as their sun.
She hadn't caused this. She repeated the sentence over and over again. She hadn't caused this.
She hadn't caused this. It just wasn't possible.
But something was tearing apart the biggest planet in their solar system. And the destruction of the moon was damning evidence that her project had triggered something.
What, she had no idea.
"You'd better watch this," Folle said.
She opened her eyes.
Folle was looking forward, at Thesau. The orange-and-yellow clouded planet filled the front screen. It seemed to have a large bubble forming on one side. As she watched, the bubble moved away from the center of the planet, pulling more and more of Thesau with it.
She stood. "This just can't be happening," she said to herself.
Folle placed his hand over hers.
She glanced at him in surprise. His anger seemed to be gone, replaced by resignation. He knew, as well as she did, what the bubble meant.
Strangely, it was his touch, his acceptance of the crisis, that nearly cracked her resolve. It was easier for her to watch when he blamed her. She could close it off, observe as a scientist instead of as a person.
Then he slipped his arm around her, strengthening her. She put her arm around him, hoping to give him strength in return. They would need it.
THE RINGS OF TAUTEE Because this was just the beginning. She knew that now. For the next hour they watched as the largest planet in their solar system spread out like jam on bread, forming the beginning of a huge ring that would someday, years and years in the future, fill the entire orbit around the sun. The birth of the first Ring of Tautee. There were fourteen more planets. There would be fourteen more rings.
Chapter Two Captain's log, Stardate 3871.6 The Enterprise has been ordered to the Tautee system to investigate waves of subspace interference coming from the area. Long-range scans have shown that some, if not all, of the planets of the Tautee system have broken apart. Admiral Hoffman believes that the Klingons might be involved in the system's destruction, although she doesn't rule out other causes. The Tautee system fails under the area covered by the Organian Peace Treaty, and the Klingons are looking for almost any reason to move into the disputed area. We have also heard rumors of the Klingons developing a new superweapon. My personal hope is that these rumors are false.
We have one other concern. A team surveyed the 8 THE RINGS OF TAUTEE Tautee system ten years ago, and found a spacetraveling pre-warp culture insufficiently developed to have contact with the Federation. We are to arrive as quickly as we can, not just to stop any problems with the Klingons but also to see if the Tautee peoples were able to save themselves.
Admiral Hoffman reminded me that the Prime Directive is in effect in all matters regarding the Tauteean people.
The U.s.s. Farragut, captained by Kelly Bogle, has been ordered to the Tautee system to give us backup if needed. Since I served with Kelly Bogle on the Farragut, this should prove to be an interesting reunion.
Captain Kirk tapped his captain's log off and surveyed the bridge. Sometimes, in the middle of long deep-space missions, the bridge seemed small and crowded. The padding in his captain's chair, usually comfortable, had grown thin. At Starbase 11, they would have fixed that, as well as done minor[*thorngg'albeit unnec[*thorngg'tune-ups to justify the Enterprise's stay.
But Admiral Hoffman had canceled their routine maintenance. She knew that Scotty kept the ship in tip-top condition, and she also knew that the Enterprise hadn't been out as long as usual.
Only the last mission had been hard, on Kirk as well as the crew, but had left the ship in good physical condition. He had looked forward to a stay on a starbase where he could eat food from someone else's kitchen, and have the days to read the antique real-paper copy of One Hundred Years of 9 Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch Solitude that he had been saving for a special occasion.
Now it was beginning to look like he wouldn't even get one day of solitude. He had a hunch this mission would take as long as the last. Maybe even longer.
His mood seemed to be catching. The rest of the crew appeared to be just as disgruntled. Uhura leaned against the orange console, one booted leg extended, her elbow resting near the controls. Her long slender hand held her earpiece in place as she monitored the subspace communications, just as Kirk had requested.
Ensign Chekov looked as if he hadn't slept at all in the last week. His hair was tousled, and deep shadows had formed under his dark eyes. His fingers, tapping on the edge of the helm controls, provided the only real noise in the room.
Sulu was monitoring the navigation controls with a bit more interest than was necessary. Just before the orders came in for this mission, he had asked for time off to practice his swordplay. He had been planning to participate in a tournament scheduled on Starbase ll during their stay. He hadn't shown obvious disappointment about the change in plans, but he did ask that his time off be canceled.
Only Spock seemed unaffected. He sat at his post in front of the science console, the blue light of the computer screen making his greenish-tinted skin an odd sort of gray.
Kirk couldn't stand the silence. He stood and walked to the science console, placing a hand on 10 THE RINGS OF TAUTEE the back of Spock's chair. "Do we have any more information?"
"Very little, Captain," Spock said. He pushed a button and then swiveled his chair so that he faced Kirk. "Our long-range scans show that every planet in the system has been destroyed."
"Every planet?" Kirk asked. He couldn't make himself believe that much destruction had oc-curred in one system without the sun going nova.
"Fifteen major planets," Spock said, folding his hands together. "We will not know how many minor ones were destroyed until we are closer."
"How? How could fifteen planets disappear so quickly?" Kirk asked.
"They did not "disappear,"" Spock said.
"Sensors show large debris fields in the areas of each planet, slowly expanding to form rings.
Intense waves of subspace interference are surging out of the system. The closer we get, the more intense the disturbance."
"Could this interference destroy planets, Mister Spock?"
"I do not know if the interference is the result of the destruction or the cause," Spock said. "tilde When we arrive at the system I may be able to get more accurate readings."
"Spock?" he said softly, not really sure he wanted to know the answer to this question. "How many humanoids inhabited this system?"