The sky glowed red and orange. The warm colors belied the bitterly cold wind that whipped through the canyons, muttering like the voices of restless spirits. There was no vegetation on the planet's surface, only a clinging gray lichen edging the cracks and caves, the same color as the dull seeps of snow and ice. The first sun - small, weak, a dying red dwarf the color of blood - had already set, and the second would soon follow. There were three small moons encircling the planet in its complex binary orbit, little more than misshapen chunks of dense rock skittering outside the atmosphere, but there was no sign of them in the evening sky.
From his vantage on the edge of a tall cliff, Chekov could see the ruined city in the distance. Its walls and towers had long since fallen, crumbled away by cataclysms long lost to time, but a hint of the city's former magnificence remained. The ruins stood in a broad valley surrounded by a landscape of jagged, formidable black rock. The builders of the city had chosen its location wisely: in the valley the magnetic nature of the black bedrock was weaker and less disruptive, an oasis of stability on a planet otherwise unforgiving toward electromagnetic technology.
"It's wreaking havoc with their instruments," the Captain had explained as he saw Chekov off in the transporter room. "See if you and Spock can make something of it."
Chekov had nodded and shouldered his pack and did not complain about being shuffled away on an archaeological mission. The full extent of his knowledge in archaeology was what he had learned during a school trip to the Great Pyramids over a decade ago, but a surface mission was better than running diagnostics for Scotty while the ship remained in orbit.
"Ten thousand years empty," Dr. Derry had said when he asked, innocently, why this site so intrigued her. They encountered dead civilizations across the galaxy; the Enterprise was forever following in the footsteps of ghosts. Derry's eyes had been wide and her voice low with reverence. She had the numbers to back it up, careful calibrations and calculations recorded and filed; she was, Chekov knew, very good at her job. "This city lived and breathed for thousands of years, and it's been empty for ten thousand, and now we're here." She couldn't hide the giddy excitement in her voice.
She had been loading samples into a box carried by Ensign Halloway in the moments before the creatures attacked. Chekov had been watching and laughing as Halloway groaned with mock annoyance every time she chose another rock and declared it to be "incredibly important, Eric, you have no idea what this could mean, it could change everything we know about this part of the galaxy."
The veins of magnetite in the black cliffs surrounding the city rendered their tricorders' ordinary sensors all but useless. They had no warning before the creatures were upon them.
Chekov turned away from the cliff and strode back to where Spock and Dr. McCoy were waiting. The shelter provided by the shallow cave was minimal, but it was free of ice and blocked the worst of the wind. They were huddled together, shivering and grim, and they both looked up in alarm at the sound of Chekov's footsteps.
"Report, Ensign?" Spock asked. His face was gray and he was slumped against the wall of the cave in uncharacteristic exhaustion. The creatures apparently had no taste for copper-tinged blood, but they hadn't discovered that until after taking a bite out of his leg.
"I have not yet established contact with the Enterprise, Commander," Chekov said. He tried to stand at attention and resisted the urge to fiddle with his tricorder and check his readings a fourth time. "But the electromagnetic disturbance is both spatially and temporally variable, and in some places it is very unstable."
Spock understood immediately. "Will you be able to determine a location where the field strength is weak enough to allow for communication and transport?"
"Outside of the city," McCoy put in, leveling a stern glare at Chekov. "You're not going back to the ruins."
Derry's samples and Halloway's box were in the city still, left behind with their bodies in the empty camp. So too was the equipment Chekov and Spock had been using to decipher the planet's erratic, shifting magnetic field, the supplies the archaeological team had been using for shelter against the harsh weather, and all of the extra weapons.
And the creatures. The creatures were in the city as well.
The attack had been sudden and fierce: a deafening shriek and splash of crimson as one of the slinking black creatures lashed its claws across Derry's face, its shape blending into the stone like a shadow at midnight.
Derry was dead, and Halloway too. Their blood stained the bottoms of Chekov's boots and trousers.
"Yes, Commander," Chekov said. "I believe I--" He paused. Already his mind was turning over the data he'd already gathered, organizing it into a map of contours and readings with far too many uncertainties and blank spaces. "I will be able to locate a field minimum. I can do that. But it will take some time."
Some time, some patience, a few hours of traipsing about the rocky landscape with a malfunctioning tricorder and useless phaser, and a whole lot of luck.
"And some adjustments," he added after a moment. "I need to..."
He trailed off and considered his options. The tricorder with its wildly fluctuating readings was not going to give him the information he needed. He crouched just inside the entrance of the cave, out of the wind, and toyed with the problematic machine for a few moments. The tricorder was collecting data as it always did, but it could make no sense of it in the rapidly changing magnetic field.
Chekov glanced up. It was getting dark. The sky was milky gray, still lit in the higher atmosphere by the mismatched suns, but that sickly light was fading quickly. Chekov didn't know if the creatures ventured out of the city, if they had followed the track of Spock's blood. He didn't know if anybody else had survived: he'd lost track of them immediately after the attack, when he and Spock and McCoy first fled into the black canyons. Five hours had passed since then, but Ensign Liu and Lieutenant Qvok might be out there somewhere. Qvok's ankle was injured already; McCoy had beamed down to check on it a few hours before the first low growls echoed through the ruins.
But they were smart and strong, both of them. They might have escaped to the black cliffs too.
When Chekov faced the others again, Spock was watching him. "How do you intend to measure the field strength with malfunctioning instruments, Ensign?"
Chekov tried not to think about how weak Spock must be, how much blood he must have lost and how cold he must feel despite McCoy's protective presence, to be asking him for an answer rather than offering suggestions him.
Chekov reached into his pocket for the few tools he carried. A small knife, a retractable screwdriver, twists of wire and broken circuit from the communicator he had been repairing before lunch, before the attack. It would have to be enough.
("Sometimes simple is better," his grandfather used to say as they worked together on machines in the barn while winter storms raged outside. "Sometimes all of this--" The old man's careless wave encompassed the tools for weather prediction and soil analysis, water testing and crop hybridization, all the instruments used in modern farming. "Sometimes all of this is more trouble than it's worth.")
Chekov took apart the tricorder first, then the phaser. He didn't need readings from dozens of sensors in minute precision; all of the extra information was only making his task more difficult. He sorted out the parts he needed and began to piece them back together: the solenoid from the tricorder connected to narrow-band laser housing from the phaser via one of the tricorder's regulators, all the wires spliced and twisted together clumsily by his numb fingers.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" McCoy asked. "You'll be helpless without the phaser."
Chekov didn't answer. He stood up and took five paces out of the cave. The phaser light glowed immediately, bright and red, and faded when he stopped.
"A simple induction circuit," Spock said, one eyebrow rising with interest. He nodded with approval. "That is a an elegant solution, Ensign."
"Da." Chekov took a few more steps. It would be difficult to accurately map the magnetic field over the rough terrain, but it was a better plan than wandering about aimlessly and hoping for the communicator to pick up a signal. "I am ready."
"Proceed," Spock said. He closed his eyes and exhaled quietly. "Report back hourly."
"And be careful," McCoy added. The words were as much a command as Spock's. "It's getting dark, and this planet is really fucking cold at night."
Chekov gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "This? This is nothing. This is St. Petersburg in the springtime."
This planet, nameless but for its Federation designation of meaningless letters and numbers, was colder than any Russian winter, colder than the darkest, longest nights of his childhood, but he left the cave before they could argue. He had work to do.