Prose Header

Santayana Station

by Paul Carlson

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Twenty-two hours later, it was Vanja Bogdany’s turn in the station’s speakers module.

The Bosnian Catholic girl bounced from wall to wall, as close to nervous pacing as she could manage in weightlessness. “I don’t know, Anna. Should I?”

“Wear the rosary beads,” urged her friend. “I know they’re awkward in zero-gee, and some would say an antagonistic symbol, but it would be much comfort to the older folks.”

“Very well.”

Bosnia wheeled toward them, with Sarajevo nestled in its ancient valley, and dawn not far behind. Then Vanja spoke, while Anna operated the telescope and antenna.

Her talk went well, and hundreds of young men decided to forsake their radical factions.

As the station passed above the historic city, dozens of gatherings gave Anna special hope. Still, her telescopic gaze drifted south toward Skopje. The station, in its high orbit, was also visible there. Only a thousand people had gathered there, for an unofficial follow-up.

A sudden flash made her blink, then an ominous plume of black smoke rose above Skopje. Shock and despair tore at her nerves, but Anna refused to panic. Instead, she flicked on the station intercom. “What just happened? Something went boom, down in Skopje.”

From the central module, Trich replied. “Anna, Vanja, you girls hang in there. I’ll check.”

Vanja reactivated her microphone. “Be calm, my friends on Earth,” she appended. “In Sarajevo and in Skopje. Break the cycle of violence now, while anyone remains alive to care. I truly believe we can.”

Moments later, Trich had an answer. With the skill of long experience in space, she floated into the telescope module and gave the news to Anna in person. “Fifteen minutes ago, when most of the participants in Skopje were assembled, a radical faction attempted to truck-bomb the gathering. Someone found out, and took direct action.”

“What action?” Anna couldn’t imagine.

“American techies call it a flash mob. Hundreds of people surrounded the radical’s lair, a small warehouse, and they brought rocks and poles and all sorts of junk. Piled it so high and so fast the radicals couldn’t get out. Tried to use their truck as a battering ram and blew themselves up instead. Only two people outside were killed, and the gathering continued.”

Only two?” Three thousand years of historical anguish filled Anna’s voice. “Dear father Abraham, how can you look upon us?”

Trich said, “Would’ve been dozens killed without that brave action. You should be proud.”

A minute later, when the ceremonies on the ground in Sarajevo were completed, Trich and Anna joined Vanja in the speaker’s module.

“I bet Martin Luther King would’ve made good use of all this technology,” said Trich. “Hate to say it, but it’s got a bad side, too.” She gave Anna a printed sheet. “From a blogger in Kosovo. The guy posted it a few minutes ago. This is not a good time, but it’s better if I tell you than a stranger.”

“Eh?” Anna read the ominous words. “Zoran’s father served with Arkan?” Her arms tensed, as though to strike out, clear across the gulf of space. “Is it true?” Arkan was the most notorious war criminal to haunt the Balkans in the latter half of the twentieth century.

“Ask him yourself.” Trich brought Anna into the command module, used a console to open a connection with Zoran, then with a respectful nod she withdrew.

Zoran looked crestfallen. “Anna, I’m sorry. My father never spoke of Arkan before he died. I found out from an uncle, only last year. I was afraid to tell anyone.” He began to tremble. “I must be an awful hypocrite, daring to get involved with this project. With special women like you.”

“Afraid?” said Anna. “Like those people who just got blown up, stopping those terrorists, were afraid?”

“I heard the blast.” Zoran pointed his handcomp’s camera at the horizon, where black smoke hovered like a ravenous vulture. “I think they were planning to destroy the project offices. I would’ve helped stop them, but it’s way across...”

“Too far away!” Anna seethed. “For a stumbling desk jockey like you. Berta and I love to hike up the Vodno mountain, but you, you’re always too busy. Maybe trying to cover up for your war criminal of a father, eh?”

“I will not hear of this!” Zoran broke the connection.

Anna drew back, weeping. Her tears, unable to fall, gathered until she could no longer see. She sniffled, bobbing her head, and a tear floated away.

* * *

On the ground, Zoran blinked hard, shedding tears of his own.

At his side, Berta refused to weep. “You should have trusted us. Trusted Anna with the truth. Evasion is no way to build a bridge between people! Can’t do that in the here and now, and you’ll never put history where is belongs. Lessons of the past indeed. Now you see how strongly the past can reach out and grab you!”

* * *

Wrenched from her emotional moorings, Anna watched her ragged breath impart motion to the floating teardrop. At that moment a small window came into sunlight, and the glittering droplet became the focus of a tiny rainbow.

It grew in her mind’s eye to become a whole world of diamond-pure hope. Anna clapped her hands with relief. She would not be dragged down! She went back to the speaker’s module, composing her thoughts along the way. She would not cower, but share this experience with the world.

She thought of Costas, her fiancé in Athens, who had dared so much to reach beyond his own proud ethnic heritage.

Most especially, Anna thought of three young ladies she’d been chatting with: a orphan in Rwanda, a Palestinian housewife, and a student in Sri Lanka. The African woman had suffered ten times the losses of the Balkan peoples, and even so, she hoped to participate in a future station crew.

How, Anna asked herself, could I give up now?

* * *

“What is the opposite of killing all the grandparents?” Zoran stood at a lectern in the Mustapha Pasha Mosque. “To bring them together, across every barrier, with something held in common: many thousands of beloved grandchildren.”

Sitting cross-legged in the front row, Anna and Costas watched. In an envelope-pushing move they’d taken a center spot, with Anna on the women’s side of the floor, if by centimeters only.

Joining Zoran in front of the gathering, Berta stood by her intended. “Consider a typical Balkan landscape,” she said. “Two ancient houses face each other across a valley. The inhabitants are of different clans, different religions, different languages. They have feuded for centuries, trading blood for blood.

“And then, because of our project, and the help of everyone here, two young women arrive. Wife to a son of those houses, each is full of love and in a purposeful way not often seen before. They make friends across that valley, and soon their children are playing together.

“The grandparents, those reservoirs of bitter memory, are drawn closer by the children’s love. When that new generation grows to adulthood, every poisoned well of hatred and revenge will fade into the mists of time.”

Zoran and Berta stood proudly before the diverse gathering. Fads, trends, and new paradigms intersected in that place, bearing the fragile seeds of a new world.

“Zoran and I will do our part,” said Berta, “and bridge one gap between our peoples. Each of you may find a partner, or ask the assembled elders to choose a worthy soulmate. In one month’s time, all of us will gather back here, and in a thousand other venues, to pledge ourselves in marriage. Peace marriages.”

Zoran added, “Last week, with two sunrises, we beheld a miracle. A wonder of technology, but more so, of freedom and cooperation. Let’s bring this miracle into our personal lives, and with a greater purpose in mind.”

To thunderous applause the couple found their way past hundreds of well-wishers. Outside the massive doors, as they stopped to put on their shoes, old Envar stepped forward.

Masha’Allah.” Stone-faced, the man uttered the formal Arabic blessing. Then, with a tentative smile he added, “God has willed it.”

Zoran and Berta’s hands formed their own symbol of unity as they walked down the hill.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Carlson

to Challenge 369...

Home Page