TUNDRA

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The squall appeared without warning. One minute clear and breezy, the next complete whiteout. Denis's visibility had been diminished to only a few feet. What's more, his locator had gone static, leaving he and Silv to navigate an unknown planet virtually blind. No connection to the orbiter or to each other.

Silv.

Denis spun around to where Silv had last been but couldn't see her. "Silv! You there?!"

No response.

She had been right behind Denis. He wiped away the snow clinging to his helmet. "Silv!"

Nothing. He wasn't even sure he'd hear her with the wind howling.

"Shit."

At least he still had use of the GPR mounted to the left sleeve of his suit. He used the radar to retrace his steps, following the same deep fissure designated on the screen as a guide. The knee-deep snow covered any indication of the crevices but if the GPR didn't fail, he could use the subsurface layout as a map back to the lander.

"Silv!" he called again with no luck.

CRACK!

Denis froze as somewhere ice gave way. It had come from his right, maybe ten feet away. Hard to tell with his senses compromised; the swirling snow and grayness were disorienting.

"Silv! You there?"

There was nothing, Then, another failure of the ice, this one duller and farther away. He imagined his partner walking off in the wrong direction. Maybe her GPR had gone static in addition to her locator. Without it, she was in danger of slipping into one of the crevices. She'd be gone. Forever.

Denis checked his locator again and discovered that it had come back online. However, the name SILV was still grayed out. ORBITOR was still displayed in bright orange letters, but next to it was the input, SEARCHING...

Denis consulted the GPR once more, studying the crevice layout. From his location, they spread out in all directions like a subterranean spiderweb. To leave his current position to go after Silv was going to be slow-going, not to mention against protocol, thereby upping the danger quotient to WCS.

Deciding this was "Worst Case Scenario," Denis punched in a code on the locator, activating the droid inside the lander. The robot, WCS – named WEX, for its pronunciation, appeared on the locator in bright green letters.

Within a few minutes, a silhouette materialized from the gloom. It approached in measured crunches in the snow. WEX was a six-foot humanoid. For this landscape, however, the two legs had divided into four to provide better footing. WEX had its own embedded GPR, allowing it to move swifter and more accurately than Denis. He approached in a spider-like gait and halted three feet away.

"Sir, you are in need of assistance?" WEX asked, in a very normal-sounding male voice. No robotic cadence.

"Yeah, WEX. I can't find Silv."

"I noticed her readout is missing. So far, I do not detect her signature, although the storm may be causing interference. Should I search for her?"

"Please."

"I'll bring her back to this location."

"Thanks."

WEX departed, activating his shoulder-mounted floodlights. Their beams though were snuffed out a few feet in front of the robot. Hopefully Silv would be able to spot them.

Denis again attempted to contact the Orbiter, hovering somewhere above the stratosphere. After failing, he tried to boost the signal, drawing power from the nearby Lander, but it was still insufficient.

In the shifting walls of murk, something moved. At first Denis thought he imagined it, but then saw it again. He could easily have dismissed it as wind-driven snow bolstered by his mind's tendency to suspect the worst. But instinct had served him well over his career of exploration and he had no plans to abandon it. He retreated from where he'd witnessed the motion.

There was a deep crunch of shifting ice and Denis froze. To his right again, off in the direction WEX had gone. Even if he had fallen through a weak spot in the ice sheet, he was designed with the capability to free himself.

Again, came a thundering CRUNCH!

Much closer than before. Following the readout on his GPR, Denis maneuvered around the unseen fissures as quickly as the terrain would allow. With his head down studying the screen, he was unaware that he was nearing a figure. He stumbled over something sturdy protruding from the deep snow and landed face-first.

He rolled onto his back and grabbed his sidearm in one motion and pointed it at the looming humanoid before him. Scrambling backward, Denis nearly squeezed off a round before realizing that the figure was Silv. She was without her helmet.

"Silv!" he hollered into his helmet's mike. "Where's your helmet?!"

She did not respond.

"Silv!" Could she not hear him?

Denis rose. An intense hunch told him to keep the sidearm trained on his partner. "Silv! You okay?"

Nothing.

He moved closer, his sidearm trembling. When he was within a few feet, Denis discovered a perfect double of Silv carved out of ice. Immobilized by a perverse awe, he moved closer, inspecting every inch of the crystalized face...all in perfect order, even her slight underbite.

"What is this?" he mumbled. He couldn't comprehend what he was seeing.

"WEX!"

The robot did not respond, or at least Denis couldn't hear him. His floodlights were no longer visible.

A digital voice spoke. "Organic lifeform detected."

Denis eyed the readout on his locator. Silv's name was now highlighted. He referred to the radar and on its screen were two blinking dots, side-by-side. His and Silv's. He raised his head and met eyes with the icy figure. With a gloved hand, he caressed her bare cheek.

Behind Denis, the ice cracked.


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