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Winner: The Wind Knows a Song for the Ages


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The Wind Knows a Song for the Ages

Hot sand stung her face, and she pressed onward. Prohibitive gusts blowing in from the east set the whole group staggering, digging heels into loose sand, waving arms for balance, squinting desperately against searing, ancient, wind-tossed grit. The hoversleds rocked and tipped dangerously. Roupo, her timid lab assistant, looked around nervously, hoping Dr. Atell would call for them to turn back. Unless she made that call, no one else would dare. Dr. Atell pressed onward.

The eastern desert plateau on Qor’na’Krinn stored the secrets of a long-dead civilization, of that Mina Atell was certain. It was the ion storms that had, for decades, prevented a closer look. Ions meant no beam-ins from orbit, and for anyone trying to get close to the planet’s secrets, no beam-ins meant a long walk across treacherous desert landscape in impossible conditions. To add trouble to trouble, the journey had to be made in a window of time when the storm broke and lifted partially from the atmosphere. Netrebkov had tried once and failed. So had Syrek years ago, and he had that heat-ready Vulcan constitution to draw on, beside the vast resources of Daystrom at his command.

Dr. Mina Atell had none of that, but she had a passion, a deep, heart-breaking desire to see what was in that desert, and decades of research that bore what she thought was a new approach. She might have been nothing more than a fool, if her colleagues were to be believed, or Gregg, who had said it to her too, and whom she always believed, when she wasn’t tuning him out.

It began a career ago, before those war years with their requisite sacrifice and complication, back when she wanted nothing but a rough shelter and a good dig under the twin umbrellas of Daystrom and the Archaeological Council. Mina was a graduate researcher then, working on i’Ttwan proto samples for Syrek. It was that famed Vulcan’s other project that interested her. She fought him to get on the Krinn study, but he refused her. She’d had to find her way back to it on her own, years later, after her career was made. After she’d left Daystrom for a research position on Trill, and said goodbye to Gregg one time too many, and finally did the work she wanted.

She had found the gap in the storm, the way through. She could predict it, measure it, determine the longest interval and take a team in and out before it closed. She’d already gone further than Syrek ever had. Her team of eight was following her dutifully across a brutal landscape, pressing ever on into the unknown. This time, Qor’na’Krinn’s secrets would be revealed.

“They want to go back.” Roupo appeared next to her, his big eyes bulging, even through the goggles.

A glance behind her confirmed that the team had stopped. Mina continued to walk, Roupo at her heels.

“No. Tell them to move.”

“I’ve tried! Atmospheric conditions are worse than our models predicted. They’ve gone as far as they’ll go.”

She stopped and turned on them. Half a dozen students and research assistants, the best and the brightest. Cowards all. It was a little more wind than expected, a negligible deterrant. From the distance, she stared into Hul Peregrist’s deep brown eyes. Hul, who had begged her to let him come along, as she had once begged Syrek. Hul had given up a lucrative position on Alpha Centauri when she said yes. Now he was quitting. All of them were. They’d crawl out of this desert into academic obscurity, their failure widely known.

Mina tapped Roupo on the shoulder.

“You pull one hoversled, I’ll pull the other. Let the rest go.”

They weren’t worth the withering look or the words she might waste on them. Let them all go. Roupo did as he was told, and the pair, burdened with sleds, pressed onward.

Qor’na’Krinn’s surface was mostly desert now. It had once been something else, a living, breathing ecosystem of infinite variety. No living person on any modern world could attest to that fact, other than the researchers whose job it was to know the life cycles of planets. It had once been a candidate for Genesis testing. It had long been written off as useless, far from any well-worn spacelanes, out past 53 Verentis and hang a left at Alandor. Chuck the map and put the top down.

Mina Atell knew every inch of the planet, outside the ion storm. The majority of it had been scanned and sensored, charted and categorized. She’d spent years poring over every micron of data. There had been life here once. Sentience was likely. And only here, in this desert, under the shadow of the storm that hadn’t lifted in recorded history, was there a chance to find some remnant of the Krinn people, or whatever they called themselves in that distant, crumbled-away time.

She walked a stretch of desert that may once have been a field, a highrise, a bathroom for all she knew. What forgotten individual had paced this same ground, shared this space with her on a distant temporal plane? She wanted to know.

Roupo stopped, and for a moment Mina thought she was going to have to go on alone. He pointed to his tricorder, barely functional under the storm.

“A chamber,” he said, under his breath, under his shock, too low for her to hear. The howl of the rising desert wind was all that met her ears, but she knew in her gut what Roupo said. The Krinn chamber, that theoretical stronghold of forgotten culture, was before them, buried in the wind-whipped sand. She had found it. It was real. It was hers to uncover.

========

“Confirmed. A sealed chamber, 20 meters below the surface.”

They had found shelter from the wind under one of the rocky outcroppings that punctuated the landscape. Roupo carefully unpacked the hoversleds, preparing to enact Atell’s plan even without the rest of the team. He pulled out the long-distance sensor rig, and the portable transporter pattern enhancers. He left the phaser cannon where it was.

“My hunch was right. It’s sealed.” Mina set her tricorder on a ledge and took charge of the pattern enhancers.

Roupo fumbled a bit with an amplifier, attaching it to the sensor rig. “We have less than two hours to get our readings, Doctor. We have to depart before the gap in the storm closes.”

“I’m aware. The tricorder’s not reading any other chambers in the vicinity. Get that scanner up. We’re central enough now to scan the entire storm region.” She slapped the side of the large rig. “Get going. I want those scans.”

“It’s scanning.”

Mina wondered at the stone shelters, the only feature of the ancient landscape to survive the engulfing desert. How had they looked then? Was this the last of someone’s favorite oceanside view? Was it the heart of a mountain?

“No pockets showing on sensors,” Roupo reported. “As far as I can see, this is the only chamber to retain its seal.”

“That’s bittersweet.”

She’d made it in. She’d found the way. She’d located the only source of pure archaeological data on the planet. At this age, unless they were sealed, any remnants of sentient life were gone, destroyed when exposed to the elements. One sealed chamber was a prize. More than one would have sealed her reputation for generations to come.

This something was better than the nothing Gregg had insisted she’d find. His voice was on the wind. It said “Don’t go, Mina…” It commanded her to be reasonable. It pleaded with her to come home. Why she still thought of him, she couldn’t say. Except when she could.

She looked Roupo up and down, the last remnant of her team. The dregs. With only the two of them, there was still enough time to get what they’d come for. She pulled open one of the transporter enhancers and planted it in the sand.

“You’re going in, Roupo.”

He blinked. She pulled open the second enhancer.

“It was supposed to be Hul.”

She tried not to balk at his protest. Had it not occurred to Roupo that he would be the replacement? Did he imagine it would be her, transporting blind through 20 meters of rock into who knows what? She didn’t have much time to convince him.

“Hul turned back. You made it here. You’re the brave one, the one who didn’t quit. Roupo, you’ll be the first to see inside one of the most magnificent finds of the century. You’ll be as famous as the discovery itself. Generations will remember you, and envy you this moment.”

He didn’t buy a word of it, but did what he was told. Roupo took the third and final pattern enhancer, opened it, and planted it in formation with the other two. Glancing at the storm readouts on the scanner, he moved to the center of the triangle.

“Okay. I’m ready.”

“Scan everything. Don’t touch anything. Don’t touch anything, Roupo.”

“I know.” He was terrified. This wasn’t the high-level technology billions of people trusted their atoms to every day. This was a frontier gum-and-tape job, transporting him with little advantage into the somewhat unknown. There was a reason Mina wasn’t going herself. Roupo swallowed hard. “Ready to transport.”

Mina’s last view of her assistant Roupo was mostly eye. They’d opened so wide the whites showed all the way around. He was terrified, excited, regretful of coming with her. His gaze darted to the enhancers in the last moment, wondering if they would do the job. Knowing somehow they would not.

He winked out of sight, blue glow leaving behind only darkness. Mina’s jaw tensed. Roupo was experiencing the moment she’d dreamed about for years. She gave it to him. She was here, making the discovery, but she’d handed the real moment of truth to her flake of an assistant, a shy little thing, more nerves than gumption. She’d barely bothered to learn anything about him, other than if he knew how to write grants and analyze data.

A clattering sound caught her attention. Looking down, she cursed.

One of the pattern enhancers was blown over and clattered sideways against solid rock. That foolish Roupo. It was the enhancer he’d planted, and he’d endangered his own life in getting it wrong. If it had fallen a moment before, while he transported, it would have gone badly for him.

Her hand moved to the comm on her wrist. “Roupo?”

No answer came. She grabbed the enhancer and planted it upright again, then turned to the scanner. Useless readouts. No lifesign, but nothing else either. Her calculation couldn’t have been wrong. Comm malfunction through the chamber walls? That was possible. Or too much dust blown in on the journey, or manufacturer defect.

“Roupo, come in.”

Mina fussed with the comm, trying to raise him. Nothing, nothing, only time slipping away. This was obnoxious, but there was protocol. No comms meant she pulled him out. If he was fine, he could go in again. That was the protocol. Otherwise, the surface team, now only her, would sit there risking life to the desert, while he was dead inside a wall. She brought up the transporter controls. There was his signature, alive, but in what condition she didn’t know.

She fixed a lock and engaged the beam. For the first time, a pit dropped out in her stomach. For the first time, she thought Gregg might have been right. The transporter wouldn’t function. The pattern enhancer that had blown over crackled and fizzed out, dead as any Krinn that ever lived. She spoke into her wrist comm one more time, knowing it was useless.

“Hold tight, Roupo. The amplifiers are down. I’ll try to fix them. Hang on.”

She had no hope of his survival.

========

Mina had spent nearly two hours trying to fix the amplifier, all the while eyeing the weather readouts. Roupo had to be out of the chamber soon. The ion storm’s jagged edge was coming for them. If they left soon, they’d make it out alive, though without the data she’d come for. She could press the time, and they could travel faster by leaving the equipment behind. If they missed the window, they’d be stuck, and Roupo, if he did make it out of the chamber without suffocating, would die of exposure alongside his mentor in the unforgiving desert. She had to get him out.

She hoped he wasn’t touching anything in there.

The pattern enhancer clattered to the ground again. It was hopeless. She’d begun to think it was one of the two she’d planted, but surely not. She wouldn’t have endangered him that way. She could hear Syvek’s voice telling her she was untrustworthy in the field. Careless he’d called her. Overeager. She could hear Gregg telling her to be safe, as if he knew what it took to be daring. She could hear the Krinn singing the history of their race on the wind, and her failure was the final note.

There was another way to save Roupo’s life. The phaser cannon was their alternative to transporters. Twenty meters was a long way to go, but she could blast through that distance fast enough, so long as the weapon’s power cell held out. They’d be down to the last second ion-wise, but they could make it out alive, together.

Only, the chamber would be opened, and all would be lost to the elements, no time to study it or gather comprehensive readings before the window closed. Those dead Krinn or whoever they were would be erased from history, the last few traces of their long-ago culture gone from the record.

She began to unload the phaser from the hoversled. It was too heavy for her to lift alone. It was as heavy as genocide.

The comm broke to life on her wrist.

=/\= Please, Doc--- ---ll, don’t ----- -- here. Please, don’t leav- -- zzzt. =/\=

She called into it. “Roupo? Roupo, come in!”

Nothing more. That was all. The panic in his voice was as wide as his eyes had been. He knew he was trapped, abandoned, dying. Mina couldn’t think of Roupo’s first name. It hadn’t been important so long as he turned in data analysis on time. Was he from Malaysia? Or was it Indonesia? Who was going to mourn Roupo if he died? She had no idea who she’d call. Gregg might mourn her, when it came to that. She would mourn the Krinn.

The phaser cannon clanked and groaned as she rolled it off the hoversled and into position. It activated easily, though Roupo was the one who’d studied the manual. The sensor rig was tied to it, and would automatically adjust as it dug down, down through the dead earth, tunneling through solid rock, burrowing into the chamber. Destroying her work forever.

This was her moment to prove Gregg wrong, put someone else first, choose living flesh over cold, dead bones. This was her moment to snuff out the last Krinn voice, ending their age-old song for all ages to come. She thought of them, of their long-ago deaths, of their lives, of their right to be remembered for who or what they were.

She couldn’t do it. It was wrong. She shut down the machine before the phaser blast got anywhere near the chamber below.

“I’m sorry, Roupo.”

She didn’t bother saying it into the wrist comm. The words bounced dully off ancient stone and echoed through hot, stale air poor Roupo would never breathe again.

Mina collected her tricorder and downloaded what scans she could from the rig. She took a canteen and little else. A static sound came through the comm for a moment, but she ignored it. It was a long walk back, and time was already short, even without dragging the equipment behind her. Next one to find their way in through the ion storm would win a free phaser cannon and sensor rig. To the victor the spoils.

Gregg had told her it wasn’t worth risking her life for people who had been dead too long to thank her. He was wrong. Whoever they had been, whether noble or honest or petty or cruel, scientists like her, or murderers, or failures, or sacrificers on the altar of history, they were worth remembering.

When the authorities came for her, or Hul Peregrist turned her in, founding his career on her broken back, she would tell them it wasn’t easy to leave Roupo there. It wasn’t easy to lay awake nights dreaming of suffocation, of Roupo’s little hands scrabbling on stone, his distant, silent voice whispering horrors in her ear. They would vilify and crucify her. If she wasn’t imprisoned, she’d be a pariah to the end of her days. The killer archaeologist, the murderess, splash page in every paper in two quadrants.

One day, when another archaeologist traced her path to the stronghold of Qor’na’Krinn, when the ion storm lifted just long enough for some other poor fool to attempt a claim on the chamber again, they would see how she had preserved it, left its secrets safely frozen in time, undisturbed but for Roupo’s sad, dead presence. They would thank her. She had sacrificed one man. She had saved the Krinn people from oblivion.

Dr. Atell made her way out of the desert. The wind was at her back now, howling with Syvek’s condescension, Gregg’s disapproval, and most of all, Roupo’s mournful, unheard pleas for life. Someone else could decide if she had done what was right. The Krinn still sang, quietly, in the distance. Mina held her head high against the desert before her, the open labyrinth, the barren gauntlet, the terrain of former glories, and she pressed onward.

========

LtJG Rendal Rennyn

Helm Officer

USS Atlantis

NCC-74682

Edited by Ren Rennyn
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