Sample text for Thin air / Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.

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Chapter One

The clear canister sitting on the Enterprise science lab bench held no more than a few handfuls of brown soil, taken directly from a field just outside of Belle Terre's main colony on the island side of the planet. It was farm soil, nothing more. Recently tilled, the soil smelled of rich possibilities, seasons full of fresh, crisp vegetables, and the very future of Belle Terre.

Only there was something very wrong with this soil. And Spock was trying to figure out exactly what that was.

On the counter beside the canister were almost two dozen other canisters, all containing soil from different areas of Belle Terre. The soil from the explosion-blasted side of the planet seemed darker, almost black with the radiation damage from what the colonists were calling "the Burn." Two canisters seemed almost to be full of light sand.

But, from what Spock had been told, areas of soil around the planet were "going bad," as the colonists put it. Plants were dying, and in places the soil even smelled foul and rotten. Lilian Coates had asked Captain Kirk to look into it, and the captain had assigned Spock to help the colonist scientists discover what was wrong.

All the soil canisters in the lab were carefully labeled and sorted by region and continent. It had taken three Enterprise crew members most of a day to collect all of them for Spock. And he had spent the last two hours analyzing the data from scans of each sample. His findings had not been what he had expected. The soil contained polymers that just didn't belong logically on Belle Terre, let alone in every sample from every region of the planet.

Spock held his tricorder over the sample of rich soil from the largest island on the undamaged side of Belle Terre, then inserted a small silver probe into the soil. He again checked the readings of the soil, then stepped back and flipped a switch on a nearby panel, sending a slight jolt of electricity into the soil through the probe. What he had expected from his readings was a small puff of smoke as the electrical jolt broke down unknown gel molecules he had discovered in the soil.

That wasn't want he got.

The soil sample exploded with the force of a large bomb.

The impact smashed Spock back against the wall, knocking the wind from him. The room swirled with smoke and Spock's ears rang. He could feel a dozen cuts and gashes on his body from flying glass and debris.

He ignored the wounds, the shortness of breath, and his damaged ears and forced his attention completely on the explosion. He had not expected it, and did not know why it had happened. Simple farming soil did not normally explode when touched with electricity. Clearly the soil problem developing on Belle Terre was far worse than he had first thought.

Alarm bells were sounding throughout the ship as he slowly stood.

"Spock! Spock! Come in." Captain Kirk's voice carried over the alarms.

Spock stumbled a few steps through the glass and debris, and tapped the comm link on the wall. "Spock here, Captain." His own voice sounded hollow and distant in his ears, and he had to lean against the wall for support.

The captain's voice came back instantly. "Spock, what happened? Are you all right?"

Spock looked through the smoke at the completely destroyed science lab, then said, "I fared better than the science lab. And I made a discovery."

"What?" Kirk demanded as two emergency personnel shoved the jammed door aside and rushed into the lab. They stopped, clearly stunned at the destruction; then one moved toward him as the other moved to stop the small fire in a panel.

Spock understood the men's reaction. He was surprised as well by the force of the explosion. He had grossly miscalculated and it had cost them a lot of important scientific equipment. It was equipment that would not be easily replaced this far from Federation space. It was also lucky that he had been the only person in the lab at the time. A human would have had little chance of surviving such an explosion.

At that moment Dr. McCoy shoved in through the half-open door and glanced around. "For the love of -- " He instantly moved toward Spock, his medical tricorder in his hand. "What in green-blooded blazes have you done?"

"Spock?" Kirk demanded over the comm as McCoy scanned him. "What discovery?"

"Belle Terre is in trouble, Captain," Spock said.

"Explain," Kirk said.

"Jim," McCoy said to the comm unit on the wall before Spock could say a word, "if you want to talk to your first officer, it's going to have to be in sickbay."

McCoy waved over the two emergency crewmen to help him with Spock.

"I can walk, Doctor," Spock said, pushing himself away from the wall.

"I doubt that," McCoy said, his voice not hiding his disgust. "But you are more than welcome to try."

Three stumbling, painful steps later Spock realized the logical choice was to have help getting to sickbay. In fact, it was the only choice.

Spock was thankful that McCoy had the good sense not to say "I told you so."

Lilian Coates awoke with a start, gasping for air, sweat dripping from her forehead, her hair stuck to her cheeks. What an awful nightmare.

She looked around her bedroom, trying to get something familiar back while forcing herself to take a few deep breaths. That was the worst dream she had had since right after the Burn. For the weeks after that she had dreamed she was back in the cave with the children, trying to save them, but always failing. Luckily, in real life, she had been successful. She, her son, Reynold, and five other children had ridden through the explosion of the planet's olivium-filled moon inside a cave. After a month or so the nightmares of Reynold dying, just as her husband had done, ended. But the memory of them always seemed just below the surface of every minute of every day.

She took another long, deep breath and blew outward, letting the fresh air clear her mind. Then she swung out of bed and in the faint light she padded to Reynold's room, glancing in at him. Their cat, Nova, a gift from Dr. McCoy, lay curled around Reynold's feet. Both seemed to be sleeping fine, so she moved on into the kitchen area, trying not to think about the nightmare until she calmed down some.

A large glass of cold water helped and she sat at the kitchen table still cluttered with a few dishes left from last night's dinner with Reynold and Captain Kirk. Jim had returned to his ship shortly after dinner and she just hadn't felt like cleaning up. Right now she wished he were here. Someone to talk to, someone to tell her that staying on Belle Terre, not going back to Earth, was the right thing to do for her and Reynold.

Slowly she let the nightmare back into her thoughts.

She is outside, standing in her garden, under clear, sunny skies. Around her all her plants are dead and wilted. Suddenly her feet become rooted to the soil, as if she is a plant as well.

She can't move.

Then she feels pressure around her face, as if someone is putting a hand over her nose and mouth, choking off her air. But there is no one there.

She can't run.

She can't breathe.

She is dying, just as her garden is dying.

Reynold is beside her, also planted, also unable to breathe.

She can't save him either.

She knew they were about to suffocate when she awoke.

Awful nightmare.

Another long drink of water pushed the images back again. It seemed she was more worried about her garden, and other plants around the area, than she had even told Jim. No doubt the plants dying had something to do with the Burn and the extreme changes in climate and weather. She knew there was a logical explanation for it.

But it seemed her subconscious didn't.

She glanced at the time. Two hours until she and Reynold had to be up. There wasn't going to be any getting back to sleep now. Not after that nightmare. She stood and picked up the last of the dishes from last night's dinner and moved to the sink, where she could wash them.

She was the school administrator for the colony and librarian. She had more than enough work to keep her busy.

Two hours later, as she fixed her and Reynold's breakfast, the nightmare still haunted her, like a shadow she didn't want.

And looking at the slowly wilting plants in her garden as she and Reynold headed off to school, she knew that part of the nightmare was truth. The question that worried her was, Which part?

Governor Pardonnet smiled at Tegan Welch as if she were a child, giving her his best false smile. She desperately wanted to smash it into his face. It was that smile that had at first convinced her to trust the man, to follow him for light-years to this planet. And it was that smile that was condemning her son, Charles, to death.

She was a short woman, at best five feet one inch tall, but she knew how to fight and defend herself and her son. She stepped right up close to him, staring up into his face, forcing him to step backward in the tight space of the medical lab. "Take a look in that room again, Governor." She pointed to a closed door. "My son and four others are going to die unless you get us back to Federation space."

"I understand that, Ms. Welch," Pardonnet said, trying to ease sideways from where she had him pinned against a medical stand. The small medical supply room was no bigger than a closet. It was where she had asked for a word privately with him the minute they learned the cause of the illness her son and the others were suffering from.

"So what ship are you planning to send and when?"

"We're going to get them to the hospital ship first," Pardonnet said, "now that we know the cause of their illness."

She shook her head. "Not enough and you know it."

All the doctors, including Dr. McCoy from the Enterprise, had been clear that the only way to save these people was to get them a long distance away from olivium and the subspace radiation it was emitting. After the explosion of the Quake Moon, olivium had pelted the planet and spread like a wave through the system. Her son and the four others were allergic to the standard radiation treatments -- and all the others McCoy had been able to whip up. Deathly allergic.

Her son would die unless he was away from the olivium and she was going to make sure he got away from it, one way or another.

"We don't know that getting them to the medical ship won't be enough," Pardonnet said, anger in his voice as he pushed passed her, trying to get to the door. She moved to block his way.

Pardonnet stopped and stared at her. "Ms. Welch, getting your son out of the atmosphere might stop the spread of the reaction. On the medical ship we can get him and the others into a sterile, protected ward."

"And what exactly did Dr. McCoy say about that idea?" she asked.

Pardonnet stared and said nothing.

"It seems I remember him saying along the lines of 'That would work when pigs fly.' Am I correct?"

"Dr. McCoy can be wrong," Pardonnet said. "We're going to try it first, then face the next step."

"My son and the others' lives are not worth a ship to you, are they?"

Pardonnet actually looked stunned at the accusation; then his eyes hardened and he said, "I have sixty thousand lives to worry about every minute of every day. Now excuse me." He shoved past her and out into the ward.

She had been right. Five lives were not worth a ship to the governor.

She stood staring at the medical supplies for a moment. Somehow there had to be a way to get her son out of the deadly poison from the olivium and, ideally, back to Federation space. But just away from the olivium first.

And if there was a way, she was going to find it. The first step was getting Charles off the planet and to the hospital ship. From there she'd figure out what to do. If it meant stealing a ship and flying it herself, she'd do it. She just hoped it wouldn't come to that.

But if it did, she wouldn't hesitate.

Copyright © 2000 by Paramount Pictures

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Kirk, James T. (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.
Life on other planets -- Fiction.