FIRE AND ICE

"This is the way the world ends-not with a bang but a whimper. In the cold silence that has fallen over the world once inhabited by Man, the explorers have come. What they find here could offer salvation to humanity-if they reach it in time."

The scan showed an image of the city, covered in ice. "Readings confirmed," a computer's voice said. "Preparing for descent." There was a slight decrease in speed as the saucer-shaped craft hovered over the targeted landing zone. "On final approach. Landing gear deployed."

"Understood," a humanoid figure answered. He looked at his companion. They both looked human, except for their unusually dark eyes. "Well, this is it. The first world we've encountered with life forms like our own." He looked at the image of the frozen city. "It's just too bad they're most likely all dead down there."

"Their last video transmissions indicated their world was headed away from their Sun," the companion added. "That's all it took, it seems-a few degrees off its orbit, and this world became uninhabitable."

"Well, it's orbit has stabilized now." A third individual, the ship's astrophysicist, pointed at a course that had been plotted on a nearby screen. "If my calculations are correct, this world will stay in its current orbital path for the next several hundred years and then return to its previous orbit. Life could return then."

"Any idea what caused it?"

"Their civilization had reached the stage where they were testing primitive atomic weapons. It's possible these detonations could have disrupted the planet's orbit."

The ship's commander shook his head. "Amazing to think that we did the same thing ourselves, once. All right-prepare for landing. Tell the doctor to get his sampling kit ready; I'm sure he'll find more than enough of what he needs."

The ship landed in what had once been a park. Several figures descended from a ramp, all of them wearing protective suits. "I'm getting trace signals of DNA from several of the surrounding buildings," the ship's doctor said, waving a scanning instrument in the air. "The cold has kept the bodies of those who remained remarkably well preserved."

"Are they viable?" the Commander asked.

"I can't tell at this range. But the closest ones are in that structure-two females."

"All right, we'll start there. The rest of you, get what samples of indigenous life forms you can. Then report back to the ship."

The Commander and his two companions-the first officer and the doctor-made their way up the stairs of the apartment building. All of the other rooms except the one they were headed for were empty.

"Flimsy architecture," the first officer commented.

"They were probably built with cheap materials, to hold large numbers of temporary occupants," the Commander replied. They stopped at the last apartment and went in.

The bodies of two human females were inside. One of them was on a bed, covered with blankets in what had obviously been a futile attempt to keep her warm. The other sat next to her, eyes closed.

"Amazing," the doctor said.

"What is it?" the Commander asked.

"Well, if my readings are accurate, these people…could still be alive."

"Alive?" the first officer said in disbelief. "In this climate? With little to no oxygen?"

"They appear to have fallen into a form of cryogenic stasis-similar to what we once used for long-term space travel, before the light barrier was broken. I'm detecting faint activity from their internal organs." The doctor looked at the Commander. "Sir, I think we can revive them, if we can get them back to the ship in time. I don't think we should simply leave them here, sir."

"Why?" the first officer asked. "They're not going anywhere. Besides, the ship's astrophysicist says this planet will return to its normal orbit in a few centuries anyway, right? They could revive then."

"It's not that simple. Their cells could be damaged if they revive naturally."

The Commander looked at the figures. "They do look a lot like us," he said. "All right, we'll take them back to the ship." The Commander activated his suit's communicator. "This is the Commander. We're returning to the ship. And…we have two guests with us. Have the emergency medical team standing by."

"What about these?" the first officer asked, gesturing at several paintings that were stacked against a wall.

"We'll take them, as well. If one of these women was an eyewitness to her planet's final days, they could be very valuable in understanding how her species reacted."

A whine filled the air as the ship lifted off, leaving the frozen city behind. In the now-empty apartment, only a cracked thermometer and a clock frozen at 12:00 p.m. remained. The figures of the two women were now in stasis chambers, waiting to be revived…waiting to be taken to a new world not unlike their own, but far more advanced in many ways.

"This has been the story of the day after doomsday. Norma Smith and her landlady, Mrs. Bronson, will soon discover that there is more beyond the now-frozen Earth than simply empty space. There are the stars, and those who live on them. And out of those stars has come their salvation…from the Twilight Zone."