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Between the Ice and the Stars



This is the beginning of a short story.


Ice particles lifted in the tenuous atmosphere as his boot stepped onto the frozen ground. The particles eddied up towards his ankle, undecided on their next move. A reminder that gravity was weak.

He placed his other foot on the ground, drawing in heavy breaths, not because of his old age, but to hold back his emotions as memories washed through him like ripples through his soul. He never thought he'd be back on Callisto, a large icy moon orbiting Jupiter. Not after what he'd gone through. Not after all these years. How long had it been now? More than fifteen. Yet, the memories of that fateful day came rushing in with vivid detail: the city's collapsing dome, screams through the intercom, bodies everywhere.

He clenched both fists through his thick gloves. Can I really do this?

A blue speck of light appeared on the horizon. Rising above the rover that had brought him to the site, Earth was millions of miles away, for humanity had overcome formidable challenges and was now scattered across all four corners of the Solar System like seeds drifting in the wind, or, as he thought, a calamity befallen onto pristine worlds.

He increased his oxygen intake and felt a fresh breeze gushing through. The smell of crisp, cold air had a way of comforting him and he took in deep, slow breaths.

'Major General Jackson,' a woman's voice crackled on the common band. 'Welcome to Callisto.'

Just keep calm.

He turned to face the spacesuit hopping towards him, ice particles drifting in its wake. A young woman's face appeared through the visor as it neared. She came close enough for him to see his own ghost-like reflection in her visor and recognised a chiselled face, etched by space travel and warfare.

'I'm Dr Varaki. Call me Lorri," she said with a smile as she held out a hand.

The Major General didn't reciprocate. 'My generation still thinks shaking hands in a full-body suit is… ill-suited,' he replied.

Lorri lowered her hand. ‘Well. Thank you for accepting my invitation. Did you have a good trip?'

The man’s eyes hardened. Spare me the small talk.

‘Young lady, I’m not sure you truly understand what you've set in motion here.'

'I know this isn't easy for you, Major General.’

'No! You don't understand. This place…this site. They…' He grimaced, seemingly unable to articulate his thoughts.'People died here!' he screeched, waving at the surrounding landscape. 'On this site! In this city! Men! Women! Entire families! Innocent people! They were all killed! Murdered! Lost!’ His voice crackled on the last word and the common band went silent.

The scenery he had pointed at was one of the darkened ruins scattered across a bleak, frozen landscape. In the sky, Jupiter, laced with bands of yellows and red, overlooked the ruins between the ice and the stars. His right eye itched as a tear had taken hold of an eyelash.

After a moment, Lorri cleared her throat. 'In our correspondence, you mentioned your desire to go to the site upon arriving here.'

The Major General grunted. If only she knew. 'Lead the way.’

Lorri nodded and took the main path towards the centre of the ruins. It was windy and slightly inclined in some areas; all around them, collapsed buildings, rubble and metallic structures lay amidst icy boulders.

'Are you trying to kill me?' he said breathing loudly before she excused herself and slowed down.

After ten minutes of walking, they were surrounded by tall, mangled structures so oblique and crooked, they looked like they might fall at any moment.

Lorri stopped under a metallic framework forming a large arc, 'We're at the city's southern gate, or what's left of it.'

As the Major General looked up, dormant memories flushed in; he was a boy, holding his father's hand. He passed under the towering gate for the first time, eyes gleaming. Vivid orange and yellow tiles decorated the archway. It had impressed him greatly. The engravings as well.

Nowadays, a skeleton of distorted metals and charred blocks was all that was left.

‘Best-preserved gate out of the four,’ Lorri said.

His jaws tightened and he turned to the ground, trying to focus on something else. He noticed a chunk of dark metal lying near his feet and kneeled to grab it. Looking at the piece through his visor, he wondered if it had been part of the city's dome armature. Valhalla’s dome had been a wonder in itself; one of the engineering marvels of the outer solar system. Yet, a piece of it now lay in his hand.

'The site’s pretty much unchanged thanks to Callisto's Heritage Society.’

He dropped the chunk of metal to the ground. A small cloud of greyish particles rose from the impact. Observing the cloud more closely, he realised that it had a similar diffuse shape as the one that had engulfed the city once the dome had collapsed. A lump grew in his throat.

‘Our research group has been studying war crimes committed during the Solar System War. And what took place here is still poorly understood. Testimonies are rare so our conversations in the coming days will be extremely valuable.'

He snorted. There was an assurance in her voice that irritated him. ‘The University of Free Mars doesn't know what to do with its funding,’ he said.

'I'm actually from the Free University of Mars, based in Tempe Terra,' she half-smiled.

'Bah! Another university with too much money.'

‘Not really. The University of Free Mars got into financial difficulties a while back. It's now called the Mars University of Science and Technology. Less poetic, I'll admit.'

'Typical Martian, that is. Can't hold something still for more than a decade.'

Lorri stared at him for a moment with a pinched mouth, then looked at her notes and continued, ‘If you recall from our synopsis, we aim to determine the initial conditions that led to the crime committed on this site in order to implement conflict resolution policies and improve transnational justice.’

Ha! Fools. All of them! As if such policies could stop the demons from within.

‘Should've studied biology, young lady. Then, you'll know why we always kill each other.’

‘Biological determinism is only half the story, Major General. Environmental inputs also play a role.’

He shrugged.

‘Anyways, there are no biologists in this multidisciplinary study, but we do have scholars from fields as diverse as interplanetary law to off-world anthropology.'

'Academics and their studies.’

She frowned. 'What about?’

'Some things are better left alone.'

'If you truly believed that, you wouldn't be here talking to me today.'

Such insolence.

She continued. ‘Luckily for us, the Heritage Society has offered us a place to sit. This way, please.'

She led him to a set of foldable chairs placed beside one of the charred metallic pillars. He didn't mention it, but he was grateful to sit down.

'Let's begin. The recording will start now.’

His body tensed. Just keep calm.

'Right. I am Dr Lorri Varaki, principal investigator of FUM's War Crimes Research, grant project number 382. I am in the presence of Major General Jackson, now retired from the Jovian Space Force. At his request, we are having our conversation amongst the ruins of Callisto's old capital, Valhalla City. This is the first of four planned conversations over the next three days to better understand the events that led to the city's destruction and the death of over five hundred civilians.'

She turned to him.

'Now. Major General. You held the rank of major within the Jovian armed forces at the time of the events. Is that correct?'

'Yes.’

'Would you mind telling us how the events unfolded on that fateful day of the fifteenth of August, twenty-one fifty-six?'

He shuffled on his chair. 'I'm not the talkative type.'

'I see. Would you prefer specific questions instead?'

He grunted.

'Alright. Let's start with this then. The Jovian armed forces based on Callisto were later found to be permeated by the Callistoan separatist movement. Did you have any knowledge of this at the time?'

'No.'

'Did you have any suspicions about it?'

'No.'

'Has anyone ever approached you about this at the time?'

'No.'

She remained quiet for a while as she looked through her notes.

'Last year, a dig led by my colleague Dr Friedman in the northern part of the city uncovered classified documents related to the Callistoan separatist movement.'

Heat flushed through his body. When the news of the find had reached him at the time, he had stayed awake all night, unable to calm his troubled mind.

She continued. 'If one is led to believe this information, your superior, Major General Zeria, is suspected of having been part of the separatist movement.'

He felt a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead.

'Drivel!'

'Could you elaborate?'

'Zeria distinguished herself on the battlefield. I won’t tarnish her reputation by discussing your suppositions.'

'I am not the one making them.'

'You're all the same to me.'

Lorri shifted in her chair. ‘Actually, some military historians have also raised doubts about Major General Zeria’s strategy while she was defending the capital city against the separatists. A prominent historian even noted, and I quote, "If one wanted to give the illusion that the city was being defended, while at the same time allowing the separatists the upper hand, one wouldn't have gone about it differently."

More suppositions. He shook his head.

'So you disagree.'

‘Mistakes were made, I’ll admit, but the pressure was immense. Especially for Zeria.’

‘I can imagine. You were defending the capital, after all.’

‘EW also crippled our situational awareness.'

'EW?'

'Electronic warfare.'

‘I see. So, you never had any doubts about the strategy taken at the time?’

‘No.'

'Hum. Let’s change the subject. To this day, it’s still unclear why the capital's dome fell. Both sides blame each other. Could you provide any thoughts on this?'

His mind froze. He hadn’t expected to discuss this topic so early in the conversation.

'More nonsense,’ he said.

'Why?'

‘Why would anyone blow up the dome?’

'Scorched-Earth policy?'

He jolted. Why does she keep on digging like this? Does she know something I don’t? Does she suspect me?

He gestured his disapproval with a wave of a hand.

'Radicals were known to exist on both sides,' Lorri carried on. ‘All you need is one.'

‘It was an accident of war,’ he croaked.

'Not according to a recent study published by Dr Freidman. Based on new models, it seems that the way the dome went down can only be explained if its destruction was premeditated. In other words, this was no lost rocket.'

No! She’s gone too far. This had to stop.

'I'm tired now. I’m returning to my rover,' he said.

'Already?'

'I'll talk more tomorrow,’ he replied and got up.

Lorri folded both chairs under her arms and accompanied him back.

*** Contact me if you want to read the next part.



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