Snow dust rushed down from the mountain, scraping the undulating, frozen landscape clean and eroding any boulders too big to move. The only light was otherworldly yellows, greens, and purples of a massive aurora. The bright streaks snaked and danced in the sky, casting shadows in the shapes of creatures both kind and cruel. Massive mountains topped by rocky spires towered on one side in the bleak night. They loomed overhead like an unimpressed council of elders, bearded with snow, deciding the fate of the trespassers in the wide valley below.
Exactly why Maria was out here, along with an Andorian Lieutenant named Laris, wasn’t the clearest when the briefing officer laid out the risks. Exposed skin would be frostbit in seconds. Cravasses could swallow you whole. Most of all, there was wind. Wind that would throw you off a ridge. Wind that would send you skidding vast distances across open ice. Wind that would suck the air out of your lungs if one of the unpredictable storms kicked up.
For now, the wind gods of Telstrus 3 had been kind. The skies were clear, other than the occasional microscopic razors of ice being flung in their faces.
“How’s that door coming?” Maria asked over the rush of the wind. Standing in front of the habitat-turned-lab, she idly stabbed the crampons on her feet into the slick, wind-polished ice. Little more than a metal shed, the engineers had the bright idea to bury it in ice and snow to insulate and reinforce the meagre structure. At least that’s what the brief said.
“Not good,” Laris replied. He’d tried all sorts of electronic trickery to get the door open, all to no avail.
“Here, let me try.” Maria signalled for the Andorian to stand aside. She took the ice pick clipped to her side, and swung. Wedged between the doors, it made for an effective crowbar. Maria pried the doors apart, and motioned for Laris to enter as if she were the butler at a fancy gala.
“Elegant to the last, aren’t we?” He couldn’t help a wry smile. He switched on a light and proceeded in.
“Just don’t be expecting a warm reception.”
Laris groaned. “Very clever.” He closed the main hatch behind Maria. “Let’s get inside. This is cold even for me.” The inner door opened far more easily.
“What, not interested in running the first annual Telstrus 3 polar plunge?” Maria cracked open a flare, and threw it into the room.
“I’d rather not freeze my antennae off…”
A plume of flickering red light filled the small lab and habitat, reflecting off iridescent particles of ice hanging in the air and casting shadows behind benches, chairs, and laboratory equipment. A handful of little icicles clung to the ceiling. Even inside, the whistling wind wove a melody as it beat against the structure’s skin, testing the foundations with strong gusts. The cots at the back were empty.
“Looks like no one’s home,” Maria commented bleakly.
“There’s residual heat from the generator,” Laris replied, not looking up from his tricorder, “At least we can get a little more comfortable.” He pulled off his hood, mask and gloves.
Maria followed suit. The moisture from her breath filled the frozen, dry room with a plume, swirling upwards before disappearing. “Still, too bad these folks had to follow starfleet tradition. Just once it would be nice to show up to a check-in and see smiling faces and hot lasagna...”
Laris shot a disapproving glare before changing the subject. “I’ll see what I can do about power, you take a look at the logs.”
“Sure thing, boss.” She wandered across to the most likely terminal and dusted the frost from it. Without power, she used the tricorder to get a downlink. Miraculously, it worked on the first try. She crooned her success.
“What do you have?” Laris was already kneeled over an open panel with instruments arrayed on the floor.
“Just transcripts, right now. Let’s see…” She trailed off as she plucked out a log to start reading. She adjusted the flashlight to get a better look at the words on the small screen.
“Personal log, Toma Unther, stardate yadda-yadda…” She skimmed for a moment. “Here…
She started reading, “Two days after the wind blew our transmitter away, the storm let up. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen. Hiquala left to look for our transmitter with better weather. Reeta, Ben, and I are putting the pieces back together at the base. We had to divert all our power just to keep warm, even with the engineer’s idea of insulation. We still have many chores and much cleaning to do...
“Thirty hours have passed since we’ve seen Hiquala. The rover has a temporary shelter packed, so maybe she decided to stay out. Reeta and Ben have gone looking for tracks anyway. I begged them not to. If another storm comes, well… we all saw the briefs.”
Maria stopped reading. Her face was scrawled with prescient anxiety. “This goes nowhere good, L-T....”
“I’ve almost got power. We need to know what happened. Keep reading,” Laris instructed.
Maria sighed heavily. “Alright…
“This wind is maddening. It’s been thirty-six hours since Hiquala left. Now I’m alone, the wind’s whispers are the only voice keeping me company. It’s like a beast clawing at the habitat, threatening to blow our house down. Maybe it's all in my head, but I can’t seem to replicate enough tea to stay warm right now.
“The nomads tell a story about this valley. They say a girl walks the winds, beckoning to the lost. She lures them away, then steals their soul and takes them off to dance in the sky with her. Poetic, but I can see where it comes from. The wind seems to sing outside this habitat. They say she weaves a soft song with sinister lyrics.
Backup power flicked on, and bright lights with it. Laris crowed his success, “Ha!”
Maria spooked. “Dammit, Laris!” She playfully chucked a dusting of frost at him. “Gotta warn me before you turn the lights on.”
“What, you’re not scared of a local ghost story are you?” He dusted off his coat with a grin as the panels blinked back to life.
“No!” She accused him with a glare that gave away a different truth.
“Sure,” the Andorian snorted, unbelieving. “Just play the rest of the logs while I download the data for us to take back to the ship.”
“Aye aye.” Maria switched on the screen, finally getting an image of the man whose logs she was reading. He was stocky: the kind of hardy, bearded pioneer she pictured. She couldn’t quite match the fractal facial ridges or purple blotches with a species through the noisy static and poor lighting in the video. She pressed play.
“Forty-eight hours, and no sign of Hiquala, Reeta, or Ben returning. Sensors on the far side of the mountains show a heavy cold mass developing. A storm is coming.
“Another storm passed - shorter, but more intense. A large rock carried by the wind struck the habitat, and now main power is dying. Still no sign of the rest of my team. I’m forced to assume the worst. There should be a nomad ship setting down in the neighboring valley in a couple days. With dwindling power, I have little choice but to hike the pass in the mountains and look for them.”
Maria sighed. “That’s the last log. We can reach out to the nomads and see if they…” She was cut off.
A console on the far side of the room flashed red, and beeped urgently.
“What is it?” Laris asked.
Maria moved to the panel, and read through the readout. “I think it’s a remote weather station on the other side of the mountains. Some kind of equipment failure?”
Laris joined her, hovering just behind her shoulder. He pointed. “Those aren’t air pressure readings, are they?”
Maria stared for a second. “That can’t be right, wind speed readings are…” She cycled the instrument link buffers, then the gear itself. It came back the same. “I’m no meteorologist, but that looks like a great-grandaddy of a storm. If the last one took out power…” She trailed off.
“Time to go,” the engineer instantly moved into action. He clearly understood what was at stake: they wouldn’t likely survive sticking around. He packed his gear and grabbed the data stick. Maybe something good could still come of this ill-fated expedition. He pressed his combadge. “Laris to Transporter room, two to beam up!”
Maria could feel her stomach spin in the silence. “There’s dead zones all over this valley.”
Laris nodded. “Let’s head back out, and make for the beam-in site. We won’t have much time though…” He hastily donned his gear again. A length of rope and clipped to him on one side, and the other to Maria. It would be the only lifeline if one of them lost footing in the wind and slick ice.
Back outside, a strong gust immediately threatened to take Maria away. Laris’ strong arms stopped her from tipping until she gained balance and braced against the onslaught. She nodded gratefully, and they set out back up towards higher ground.
A dark mass crowned the spindly pinnacles now. The heavy mass of super-cold air pressed against the ridge, searching for a way forward into the valley below. It would stampede towards them at any moment. The once-friendly streaks of colorful aurora now hung low; sickly wisps snaking just out of reach, taunting the officers with their freedom in the sky.
Even in the storm’s prelude, the wind was almost deafening, turning progress to the beam-out site into a crawl on all fours with picks and ropes. The air turned cryogenic as the terrain became more exposed. Even in the layers-on-layers of thermal gear, Maria could feel fingers and toes losing feeling. At least they were close.
A crack, then a deep moan sounded overhead. Maria looked up to witness a finger-like mass of dark snow and air hurtling down the steep slope towards her. She had mere moments to embed her pick and crampons into the ice before it was upon her.
The winds ripped at her body, searching for a way to lift her up and take her away. Her grip strained on the handle, she braced with her head tucked away. She couldn’t see anything. There was a hard jolt on the rope at her waist, the force pulling her with it until the pick stopped the slide. The new weight pulled and pulled until the rush finally slowed.
She picked herself up, surprised she was uninjured. She looked up again. The main force of the peaktop menace was still building, swirling in place. Behind her, Laris wasn’t moving.
She tried her combadge, “Alvarez to transporter room, come in!”
She squatted beside the lieutenant - at least he was still breathing. Just as she was checking his vitals, there was a giggle in the wind.
Maria stood and whirled about. She could have sworn she heard something. The lights in the sky twisted around even closer, like they were teasing her. She moved back to the lieutenant, tossing any extra gear. She tied the rope around his waist, and started pulling him across the ice like a sled.
Each step was a labor, pushing against the wind and gravity both. Every blast of wind trying to knock her over was a reminder of how little time was left. She trudged and trudged, until she could finally make out the shape of a rocky high spot where they beamed in.
Her triumph was cut short by a gust that threw her to the ground.
“Maria?” a sing-song voice called her out of the black.
Maria groaned, a strange feeling of warm hugging her. She opened her eyes. Snow and wind and colorful lights were all around her. Thoughts of the scientist’s ghost story crowded in her mind. “Who’s there?”
Another giggle - Maria was certain this time. It drifted overhead with a strand of yellow aurora she swore looked like a girl’s pigtails. “Come with us, Maria!”
Thoughts of the nomads’ story gripped her with fear colder than the wind. Maria’s legs strained to push herself back upright, the throbbing in her head threatening to put her back on the ground. “Who’s there?!” She shouted into nothing.
“Come dance, Maria!” A different girl’s voice whispered with the wind.
A sick feeling of adrenaline pulsed through Maria’s chest into her stomach. She struggled along, pulling her crewmate along with her. Only a little further.
“Won’t you dance with us, Maria?” Another high, crystalline voice asked.
“I don’t know the steps,” she answered for some reason.
“Sure you do, Maria!” The voice giggled again. A beam of aurora came down and swam through the ice. It looked almost like prismatic fireworks in the glossy, translucent white.
Maria smiled at its beauty despite everything. For a moment, she forgot all about the wind. It looked so peaceful. She did know the steps, didn’t she? More iridescent lights joined, and she was enveloped by an otherworldly display, scintillating and lustrous. She reached out, dropping the rope to the oh-so-heavy Andorian.
That was better, wasn’t it? So much lighter. So much freer. Like the lights. She stumbled forward, transfixed by the lights and the lyrics.
“Come dance with us, Maria!” The girl’s voice repeated her refrain.
“Yes, come dance!” Another high voice echoed. Voices clamoured over each other, beckoning to her.
Maria could hear their music. The sound of the gales became a symphony and choir, weaving miraculous tones together. The gusts were friends showing her how to move her feet, how to array her arms and curve her fingers. She could feel the simple freedom of a snowflake twirling about, untethered, embodying the will of the wind. Wind that held her in a close embrace. Euphoria washed over her as the lights taught her the dance, steadily closing in on her.
“Yes, Maria! Come dance…” The voice manifested into a radiant girl in front of her, swaying to the music.
Maria felt the lights’ buoyant ecstasy of movement. The wind supported her limbs aloft, forgetting the weight of the gear tethering her to the ground. She closed her eyes, the feeling of synchronicity, flow, and melody washing away her troubles. No more worries about logs or power. No more worries about wind. No more worries about the ship or crew - just dance. She laughed as it all floated away.
“Come dance with us, Maria. Dance with us…” The chorus crescendoed.
“Dance with us…” The multitude pitched deeper.
“Dance with us forever…”
Dark laughter of a thousand voices boomed across the valley as the lights retreated to the sky. Maria’s eyes opened. The storm broke over the mountains, and a calamitous din was upon her. Drums heralded the coming whirlwind in the symphony of wind. She stood alone against the storm, watching as fate rolled down.
It was upon her when a familiar blue-gold light took hold, and she felt herself collapse with the embrace of the wind gone.
Maria woke with a start, dread filling her body at what nearly happened.
“Easy, Maria!” The kind voice of the doctor welcomed her back to ship and sickbay.
She relaxed back onto the bed, then groaned realizing how bad her head hurt. Then, she looked around wildly in realization. “Laris?” She asked.
“He’s fine,” the doctor answered. “You on the other hand… You had us worried.”
“Yeah,” Maria muttered, still lost in her thoughts. Had she imagined it? “Well, I’m safe now.”