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The Observatory

by Ken Sanes

The young mother is standing in the observatory on the top floor of a sixty-story high-rise. As she looks out the large windows at the surrounding metropolis, she can see more than thirty other high-rises that make up the downtown, including reflective office towers and older buildings covered with intricate designs. Beyond them, she sees the pattern of development of the metropolis that is spread out over the entire plain, clear up to the mountains, interspersed with parks and farms.

Then, just for a moment, the young mother is distracted by the sight of two large passenger airliners flying over the water to the east. She looks at them with pride because they are a testament to the growing wealth and importance of the metropolis, which is now a hub for air traffic.

But turning her attention back to the land, she focuses in on a small area to the north that holds the fenced-in ruins of the ancient town, which are now surrounded by a shopping mall, garden apartments and an industrial park. The bits and pieces of the past contained in those ruins are a testament to an inheritance everyone in the metropolis shares. Unfortunately, previous generations held the past in sacred awe, and it kept them from excavating the town and learning more about their ancestors. But the times have changed. They are now living in the modern age, and archeologists have been coming out with announcements almost every week, revealing new discoveries about what life was like when the ancient town was the only settlement in a hundred miles.

Like a lot of people, the young mother idealizes life in the ancient town. She is proud of the accomplishments of the metropolis, but revolted by the war of all-against-all that now characterizes her own time. She rejects the smog and blaring car horns; the endless machinations of the people in the office where she works; and the candidates trying to flatter voters with the same words they used in the last election and the one before.

And the television commercials! Who isn’t sick of watching high priests on the small screen trying to sell passes to heaven? Do they really think the smoke and mirrors on those TV stage sets adds to the mystery? Besides, she’s only 25 and she’s just starting life as a parent. There will plenty of time to worry about a pass to heaven later.

But despite the hard edge life is developing, she also knows that life is good in the metropolis, especially compared to many places in the world. They live in relative peace. In her lifetime there had only been one conflict, which was with the militarized state down the coast, ostensibly over fishing rights. The militarized state controlled the land to the south, and it apparently considered the burgeoning metropolis and its surrounding territories a threat. So it sank three metropolis fishing boats that were in international waters. The metropolis responded by attacking armed installations on the militarized state’s nearest border, and won a decisive victory. It even took some of the militarized state’s territory, which it agreed to return after a decade without further incidents. That was almost five years ago and things had been calm ever since.

As the young mother is thinking about these things, she gazes out the continuous windows that enclose the observatory and again looks at one of the airliners in the distance. Then she glances over at her baby daughter, snugly wrapped in her carriage, and thinks about her future. Now that the law guarantees her daughter the same rights as men when it comes to education and jobs, the mother hopes her daughter will use it to take control of her destiny the way the mother never could.

But gazing out the window, the young mother is surprised to see that it almost looks like one of the airliners is coming toward the building. It’s a little unnerving.

She is quickly distracted, however, as she sees her baby daughter smiling and wiggling her toes. She smiles back and playfully grabs her daughter’s foot like she’s catching a small animal with her hand.

Then someone screams: “It’s going to hit us --”

The young mother turns back to the window and realizes the plane is flying toward the building, getting closer by the second. She lifts her daughter out of the carriage and runs for the elevator, as other people are running passed her, screaming. Then someone pushes her aside. She begins to fall but manages to protect her daughter from hitting the floor. Her daughter is now crying but unhurt. As the mother stands, tightly holding her daughter to protect her, she tries to push her way through the mob of people who are also trying to get to the elevator.

She is working on instinct. The monologue that usually goes on in her head is gone. But she already knows it is too late to escape. This is the place she is going to die. And her daughter, who isn’t even aware of life yet, will die with her.

She looks down at her daughter, who has suddenly started smiling. The mother then begins to turn back to look at the observatory window. In her mind’s eye she can see the plane, ahead of where it really is, crashing head-on into the window as large fragments of glass and concrete are coming toward her. Then, as she imagines it, there is a thin moment of searing pain followed by nothing.

As the mother continues turning, all the wonderful things in her life that will cease to exist flash through her mind -- her marriage, her daughter, her sculpture, their plans for the future .… But now she completes the turn to look at the actual window -- and sees the plane veer off and head away from the building.

She experiences a tremendous sense of release. They are going to live!

She looks at her daughter, who is still smiling. Her daughter has a wonderful smile. Maybe I better buy one of those passes to heaven after all, she thinks to herself.

Then there’s a scream: “It’s going to hit the building -- ”

She can’t believe it. She looks out the windows on two sides of the observatory but doesn’t see an airplane.

People are running to the opposite side of the observatory. The young mother runs with them, holding her daughter against her body. As she reaches the other side, she looks out the window and sees the metallic airplane crash head-on into a gleaming office building in the middle distance, as everything at the point of impact bursts into flames. Then she sees someone jump from one of the upper floors of the burning building in an attempt to escape the flames. Another jumps, trying to save herself. A man on fire leaps or falls from a balcony.

As the young mother looks out the observatory window, her face is set in an expression of horror. She is standing there looking at the building as parts of it are engulfed in flames, and people are falling through the air. She doesn’t want to look down to where they are landing. But it seems like she can hear their screams even though she knows that isn’t possible from inside the sealed observatory.

Now everything has a feeling of unreality. It seems like they are plummeting to their deaths inside her. She can hear the collective screams of a hundred generations of victims echoing inside the hollow space of herself. They are in free fall --

“Airplanes!” someone shouts.

That brings her attention back to the observatory window. She looks out across the skyline. There are two airplanes in the distance. They are probably on routine flights, although there isn’t any way to be sure.

Then,  just as she is about to turn and head for the elevator, the high-rise that was hit by the airplane begins to collapse. The massive building is dissolving -- crumbling to the ground like it is made of sand -- as she stands there looking at it in disbelief . For a moment, she can feel it dissolving around her, under her, and over her, and she is a thousand victims in a moment of horror, trapped inside as everything gives way, falling....

She turns, and this time she successfully makes her way to the observatory elevator, pushing her way in, with her daughter in her arms. She is too numb to think about whether she knew anyone in the building. Her one goal is to get to safe ground with her daughter and as far away from the downtown as she can.

The metropolis, which was her world, now seems like a trap. She knows that what she just witnessed can't be an accident. But she doesn’t know how to keep her family safe from a threat that comes without warning from the air. What kind of a world will her daughter grow up in now? As she exits onto the first floor, she runs through the lobby of the building and out the glass doors, holding her child close to her, and wondering if she will be alive in ten years to reflect on the answer.


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