Prose Header

Santayana Station

by Paul Carlson

part 1 of 2

Earthlight danced in Anna Dragovic’s eyes. Icy white, ocean blue, forest green, even the glow of the aurora borealis. Near enough to touch? Far enough to forsake?

As the station swept along its orbit, Anna watched night fall. Cities sparkled, each light a marker in someone’s life. Was she close enough to reach their hearts?

Vanja Bogdany appeared beside her at the window, relaxed in zero-gee. “Your turn comes soon. I will not speak to Sarajevo and Bosnia until tomorrow. Are you prepared?”

“I can see Italy.” Absorbed in the view, Anna scarcely drew breath. “Now there is the Illyrian Sea, and the Balkans shrouded in night.”

“Can you bring them light?” Vanja’s soft voice blended query and confidence. “Dawn and another dawn?”

“I will do my best.” Beholding such majesty, the Macedonian girl’s own worries seemed petty.

Project Leader Trich Barzon’s voice echoed through the orbital hotel’s refitted modules. “We’ll be over the selected area in twenty minutes. I’m lighting the rings now.”

On either side of the station, energy flowed into two superconducting wires, forming rings many kilometers across. They began to glow, white then bluish, held circular by electromagnetic forces. The rings began to move in a regular pattern, slowly cycling back and forth.

* * *

Soon the sky would lighten, and the muezzin’s call would summon the faithful to dawn prayers at Mustapha Pasha’s Mosque. Zoran Dushan knew the sound well; though an Orthodox Christian, he’d been hearing it all his life. Now, in a quirk of thought, he wondered how many worshippers could remember when the Imam personally called out from the ancient mosque’s hillside minaret, rather than a recording over loudspeakers.

Tens of thousands of people filled the narrow lanes of Old Town Skopje, and covered the hill behind the ancient Kalé fortress. Some felt the space station would fail, if not in a physical way, then in its ambitious plans. Those who’d registered — the serious participants — clustered around the venerable Ottoman mosque.

Murmurs and raised arms heralded the station’s arrival. Three hundred and fifty miles above Macedonia, two glowing rings appeared in the northwestern sky. They seemed to link, join as one, then separate on the other side. Between them rode a brilliant spark. These comprised a dynamic symbol of unity; a joining of the sundered. A symbol chosen with the input of a billion people worldwide.

Zoran felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. Berta Kavaja stood beside him in the darkness, gazing skyward. “Your idea worked,” said the Albanian Muslim girl. “It’s beautiful.”

Berta’s tone was respectful, so much so that Zoran gave his lighthearted friend a second look. “I had plenty of help,” he responded. “Half the people at Cyril and Methodius must’ve pitched in. I just coordinated the physics aspect.”

She gave him a soft punch on the arm. “Modest, too.”

Zoran and Berta were students at Saints Cyril and Methodius University, nearby along the Vardar River. Its faculty and students had spearheaded the controversial peace project, beginning three years earlier.

As the celestial display rose higher, the throng oohed and ahhed as though it were a fireworks show. Most of the younger people carried some type of computer, and in the multitasking ways of their generation, seemed to be watching those and the sky at the same time.

Zoran checked his own palmtop computer. “Great reviews, from Slav and Albanian alike. The usual soreheads are complaining, but nothing drastic. Let’s see what people think of Anna.”

* * *

Anna prayed she would not flub her presentation. All too soon, Trich Barzon signaled her to begin.

“Friends below,” the young Macedonian Slav said, “this is your effort, your hopes, shown to the world. Serb, Macedonian, Turk, Albanian, Rom, Greek, Bulgar, all of you, heed my words. George Santayana was a great philosopher, and today he is best known for a single line, ‘Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.’

“In the Balkans, people have Santayana backwards. We do not forget, and we seldom forgive. Family feuds carry on for generations, and nationalist anger burns for centuries. As you well know, in this modern century, those with a grudge have terrible weapons at their disposal. Most of you have lost friends and family members to them.

“Friends, the answer is more simple than you may have imagined. Will it be love or death? I vote for love, for philia and agape. What say you?”

Ironically, the module in which Anna hovered weightless still held the ornate trappings of a honeymoon suite. The station had once been an orbital hotel, catering to wealthy space tourists. An economic downturn had enabled the student’s project to lease it for a pittance.

Trich Barzon loved classic rock and roll, and owned a huge collection of concert videos and documentaries. She wasn’t addressed as Captain, and everyone regarded her as ‘not in charge’, yet her idea had caught on just the same.

Down below, tens of thousands of people held up matches, or lighters, or flashlights. A soft radiance suffused Old Town Skopje and, all across the Balkans, many similar gatherings.

In another station module, Vanja Bogdany adjusted a wide-angle telescope and pointed it downward. Her larger purpose was clear, yet like the space tourists who’d come before her, the Catholic Bosnian girl much enjoyed gazing at the panoply below.

Under Vanja’s skillful guidance, its camera broadcast a live image to countless screens, both home and portable. Skopje was alight, and not with the sort of fire that conquerors and earthquakes had thrown against it too many times before.

Then Vanja brought a sensitive antenna to bear. Anna called for a poll, and those on the ground responded electronically. Trich overlaid the responses on a map of the Balkans. Green for full support of the peace project and its goals, amber for a desire for peace, if by different means, and red for sincere opposition.

Most of the red ‘negative’ responses were anonymous, and no one was surprised at where they clustered.

* * *

The Earth turned, the station swept onward, and the moment passed. Its rings met the rosy glow of dawn, while in Old Town Skopje the muezzin’s call rang out.

Berta sighed, and reached for Zoran’s hand. “Wonderful. Anna spoke well.”

Struck from behind, Berta fell to her hands and knees. Her palmtop computer skittered across the cobblestones. With a cry of alarm she reached for it, but a booted foot gave it a vicious kick.

“Hey!” Zoran found himself surrounded by four young toughs. “I know you guys. Get packing or I’ll report you.”

“Try it and see what happens,” said one of the punks. “Forget your fancy peace marriages. We’ll show this deluded girl what real husbands are like.”

Then all four punks disappeared into the milling crowd.

Berta got up, shocked if not surprised by the assault. “Ow, my hands.” Both were skinned, and bleeding a little.

A helpful passerby retrieved her palmtop, then scurried off before Berta could thank him. Centuries of oppression, by whatever name, had ingrained the Balkan’s population with a wary mindset.

A murmur of disapproval drew the two friend’s attention. An old man, his white qeleshe cap distinct in the dawn’s light, stood glaring at them. Zoran recognized his downstairs neighbor Envar, a Kosovar Albanian who lived on the 25th floor of their apartment building. Their paths seldom crossed, but it was Envar’s grandson and his cohorts who’d just shoved Berta.

“Merdita, neighbor,” Zoran told him. “Good morning to you.”

Envar’s eyes opened wide, so surprised was he that a Slav would know an Albanian greeting, much less deign to use it. Even so, his expression did not soften.

“You consort with these people,” Envar accused Berta. “You dishonor our traditions.” He hawked a glob of spittle at their feet. “How dare you mix our blessed Shqiperise blood.”

The angry old man turned and shuffled away, toward the mosque and his morning prayers.

Zoran held his girlfriend tightly. “Berta, I’m so sorry. I’ll bet he can’t stand it, that his own Imam supports our project. You remember what that American lecturer told us last year? In History 202?”

“I do. ‘To unshackle the Balkans from its tragic past, you’d have to kill all the grandparents.’ He meant bitter men like Envar.” Despite the glorious sunrise she shivered. “Mixed blood? I haven’t even mixed anything — yet. The station is a catalyst, and peace marriages are what’s really going to count. Guess the idea is drawing out the worst in some people.”

Zoran held up his palmtop, with the latest news and blogs and polls streaming across its display. “We have a lot left to do.”

Betra washed the blood off her hands at a public water fountain. “Envar’s heart wasn’t in it. I’ve been accosted by people ten times that angry. I know! Let’s call the orbiter Santayana Station.”

“It already has a name, but... “ Zoran used his palmtop to email Trich Barzon, who posted the suggestion on the station’s web site.

Within fifteen minutes, as the two friends sipped Turkish coffee at an outdoor café, Berta saw that 70% of the respondents thought it would make a great nickname.

Around them earnest discussions bubbled, like an intellectual stewpot. Zoran knew their concerns well. ‘Is our project too simplistic?’ ‘Will the Imams allow such assertive girls to marry into local households? Much less, allow any girl to marry outside of their faith?’

Berta recognized a conversation that was raging with muted passion at the next table over. She’d held many like it, at college dorms, on past the midnight hour. In cool psychological terms: ‘Can the Balkan peoples recategorize themselves?’ In plain speech: ‘Can a bunch of two-legged jackasses see beyond their own clan’s accepted domain and truly identify with the larger world?’

Berta’s answer was always ‘yes,’ and she could point to dozens of brave girls who’d already pioneered the way, in Kosovo and elsewhere. There had been two horrible deaths, ‘honor killings’ at the hands of enraged men, but many more heartfelt reconciliations.

The Imam of the Mustapha Pasha Mosque traveled with bodyguards now, and all he’d done was allow the project to utilize his prestigious gathering place. Berta knew his support ran deeper, but until public opinion swung around, he dared not voice his thoughts.

And it will swing around, Berta prayed.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Carlson

Home Page