“Meet me tomorrow?” she said.
“Under the eaves.” He looked from side to side, too quickly. She took a step back. “Tomorrow night.” They were whispering. She gathered courage like cloth. Stepped up to him. Put her hand on his chest. His heart was beating fast, she could feel it through the metal. His smell was of machine oil and sweat.
“Go,” he said. “You must—” the words died, unsaid. His heart was like a chick in her hand, so scared and helpless. She was suddenly aware of power. It excited her. To have power over someone else, like this.
His finger on her cheek, trailing. It was hot, metallic. She shivered. What if someone saw?
“I have to go,” he said.
His hand left her. He pulled away and it rent her. “Tomorrow,” she whispered. He said, “Under the eaves,” and left, with quick steps, out of the shadow of the warehouse, in the direction of the sea.
She watched him go and then she, too, slipped away, into the night.
• • • •
In early morning, the solitary shrine to St. Cohen of the Others, on the corner of Levinsky, sat solitary and abandoned beside the green. Road cleaners crawled along the roads, sucking up dirt, spraying water and scrubbing, a low hum of gratitude filling the air as they gloried in this greatest of tasks, the momentary holding back of entropy.
By the shrine a solitary figure knelt. Miriam Jones, Mama Jones of Mama Jones’ shebeen around the corner, lighting a candle, laying down an offering, a broken electronics circuit as of an ancient television remote control, obsolete and useless.
“Guard us from the Blight and from the Worm, and from the attention of Others,” Mama Jones whispered, “and give us the courage to make our own path in the world, St. Cohen.”
The shrine did not reply. But then, Mama Jones did not expect it to, either.
She straightened up, slowly. It was becoming more difficult, with the knees. She still had her own kneecaps. She still had most of her original parts. It wasn’t anything to be proud of, but it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, either. She stood there, taking in the morning air, the joyous hum of the road cleaning machines, the imagined whistle of aircraft high above, RLVs coming down from orbit, gliding down like parachuting spiders to land on the roof of Central Station.
It was a cool fresh morning. The heat of summer did not yet lie heavy on the ground, choking the very air. She walked away from the shrine and stepped on the green, and it felt good to feel grass under her feet. She remembered the green when she was young, with the others like her, Somali and Sudanese refugees who found themselves in this strange country, having crossed desert and borders, seeking a semblance of peace, only to find themselves unwanted and isolated here, in this enclave of the Jews. She remembered her father waking every morning, and walking to the green and sitting there, with the others, the air of quiet desperation making them immobile. Waiting. Waiting for a man to come in a pickup truck and offer them a labourer’s job, waiting for the UN agency bus—or, helplessly, for the Israeli police’s special Oz Agency to come and check their papers, with a view towards arrest or deportation . . .
Oz meant “strength” in Hebrew.
But the real strength wasn’t in intimidating helpless people, who had nowhere else to turn. It was in surviving, the way her parents had, the way she had—learning Hebrew, working, making a small, quiet life as past turned to present and present to future, until one day there was only her, still living here, in Central Station.
Now the green was quiet, only a lone robotnik sitting with his back to a tree, asleep or awake she couldn’t tell. She turned, and saw Isobel passing by on her bicycle, heading towards the Salameh Road. Already traffic was growing on the roads, the sweepers, with little murmurs of disappointment, moving on. Small cars moved along the road, their solar panels spread like wings. There were solar panels everywhere, on rooftops and the sides of buildings, everyone trying to snatch away some free power in this sunniest of places. Tel Aviv. She knew there were sun farms beyond the city, vast tracts of land where panels stretched across the horizon, sucking in hungrily the sun’s rays, converting them into energy that was then fed into central charging stations across the city. She liked the sight of them, and fashion-wise it was all the rage, Mama Jones’ own outfit had tiny solar panels sewn into it, and her wide-brimmed hat caught the sun, wasting nothing—it looked very stylish.
Where was Isobel going? She had known the girl since she’d been born, the daughter of Mama Jones’ friend and neighbour, Irina Chow, herself the product of a Russian Jewish immigrant who had fallen in love with a Chinese-Filipina woman, one of the many who came seeking work, years before, and stayed. Irina herself was Mama Jones’ age, which is to say, she was too old. But the girl was young. Irina had frozen her eggs a long time ago, waiting for security, and when she had Isobel it was the local womb labs that housed her during the nine long months of hatching. Irina was a pastry chef of some renown but had also her wild side: she sometimes hosted Others. It made Mama Jones uncomfortable, she was old fashioned, the idea of body-surfing, like Joining, repelled her. But Irina was her friend.
Where was Isobel going? Perhaps she should mention it to the girl’s mother, she thought. Then she remembered being young herself, and shook her head, and smiled. When had the young ever listened to the old?
She left the green and crossed the road. It was time to open the shebeen, prepare the sheesha pipes, mix the drinks. There will be customers soon. There always were, in Central Station.
• • • •
Isobel cycled along the Salameh Road, her bicycle like a butterfly, wings open, sucking up sun, murmuring to her in a happy sleepy voice, nodal connection mixed in with the broadcast of a hundred thousand other voices, channels, music, languages, the high-bandwidth indecipherable toktok of Others, weather reports, confessionals, off-world broadcasts time-lagged from Lunar Port and Tong Yun and the Belt, Isobel randomly tuning in and out of that deep and endless stream of what they called the Conversation.
The sounds and sights washed over her: deep space images from a lone spider crashing into a frozen rock in the Oort Cloud, burrowing in to begin converting the asteroid into copies of itself; a re-run episode of the Martian soap Chains of Assembly; a Congolese station broadcasting Nuevo Kwasa-Kwasa music; from North Tel Aviv, a talk show on Torah studies, heated; from the side of the street, sudden and alarming, a repeated ping—Please help. Please donate. Will work for spare parts.
She slowed down. By the side of the road, on the Arab side, stood a robotnik. It was in bad shape—large patches of rust, a missing eye, one leg dangling uselessly—the robotnik’s still-human single eye looked at her, but whether in mute appeal, or indifference, she couldn’t tell. It was broadcasting on a wide band, mechanically, helplessly—on a blanket on the ground by its side there was a small pile of spare parts, a near-empty gasoline can—solar didn’t do much for robotniks.
No, she couldn’t stop. She mustn’t. It made her apprehensive. She cycled away but kept looking back, passers-by ignoring the robotnik like it wasn’t there, the sun rising fast, it was going to be another hot day. She pinged him back, a small donation, more for her own ease than for him. Robotniks, the lost soldiers of the lost wars of the Jews—mechanized and sent to fight and then, later, when the wars ended, abandoned as they were, left to fend for themselves on the streets, begging for the parts that kept them alive . . .
She knew many of them had emigrated off-world, gone to Tong Yun, on Mars. Others were based in Jerusalem, the Russian Compound made theirs by long occupation. Beggars. You never paid much attention to them.
And they were old. Some of them have fought in wars that didn’t even have names, any more.
She cycled away, down Salameh, approaching Jaffa proper—
Security protocols handshaking, negotiating, her ident tag scanned and confirmed as she made the transition from Central Station to Jaffa City—
And approved, and she passed through and cycled to the clock tower, ancient and refurbished, built in honour of the Ottoman Sultan back when the Turks were running things.
The sea before her, the Old City on the left, on top of Jaffa Hill rising above the harbour, a fortress of stone and metal. Around the clock tower coffee shops, the smell of cherry tobacco rising from sheesha pipes, the smell of roasting shawarma, lamb and cumin, and coffee ground with roasted cardamoms. She loved the smell of Jaffa.
To the north, Tel Aviv. East was the Central Station, the huge towering space port where once a megalithic bus station had been. To the south Jaffa, the returning Arabs after the wars had made it their own again, now it rose into the skies, towers of metal and glass amidst which the narrow alleyways still ran. Cycling along the sea wall she saw fishermen standing mutely, as they always had, their lines running into the sea. She cycled past old weathered stone, a Coptic church, past arches set into the stone and into the harbour, where small craft, then as now, bobbed on the water and the air smelled of brine and tar. She parked the bike against a wall and it folded onto itself with a little murmur of content, folding its wings. She climbed the stone steps into the old city, searching for the door amidst the narrow twisting alleyways. In the sky to the south-east modern Jaffa towered, casting its shadow, and the air felt cooler here. She found the door, hesitated, pinged.
The voice spoke directly into her node. The door opened for her. She went inside.
• • • •
“You seek comfort?”
Cool and dark. A stone room. Candles burning, the smell of wax.
“I want to know.”
She laughed at her. An old woman with a golden thumb.
An Other, Joined to human flesh.
St. Cohen of the Others, save us from digital entities and their alien ways . . .
That laugh again. “Do not be afraid.”
The old woman opened her mouth. Old, in this age of unage. The voice that came out was different. Isobel shivered. The Other, speaking.
“You want to know,” it said, “about machines.”
She whispered, “Yes.”
“You know all that you need to know. What you seek is . . . reassurance.”
She looked at the golden thumb. It was a rare Other who chose to Join with flesh . . . “Can you feel?” she said.
‘Feel?’ the Other moved behind the woman’s eyes. “With a body I feel. Hormones and nerves are feelings. You feel.”
The body of the old woman laughed, and it was a human laugh, the Other faded. “You ask if he is capable of feeling? If he is capable of—”
“Love,” Isobel whispered.
The room was Conversation-silent, the only traffic running at extreme loads she couldn’t follow. Toktok. Toktok blong Narawan.
The old woman said, “Love.” Flatly.
“Yes,” Isobel said, gathering courage.
“Is it not enough,” the woman said, “that you do?”
Isobel was silent. The woman smiled, not unkindly. Silence settled on the room in a thick layer, like dust. Time had been locked up in that room.
“I don’t know,” Isobel said, at last.
The old woman nodded, and when next she spoke it was the Other speaking through her, making Isobel flinch. “Child,” it said. “Life, like a binary tree, is full of hard choices.”
“What does that mean? What does that even mean?”
“It means,” said the old woman, with finality, and the door, at her silent command, opened, letting beams of light into the room, illuminating grains of dust, “that only you can make that choice. There are no certainties.”
• • • •
Isobel cycled back, along the sea wall. Jaffa into Tel Aviv, Arabic changing to Hebrew—beyond, on the sea, solar kites flew, humans with fragile wings racing each other, Ikarus-like, above the waves. She did not know another country.
Tonight, she thought. Under the eaves.
It was only when she turned, away from sun and sea, and began to cycle east, towards the towering edifice of Central Station, that it occurred to her—she had already made her decision. Even before she went to seek the old oracle’s help, she had made the choice.
Tonight, she thought, and her heart like a solar kite fluttered in anticipation, waiting to be set free.
• • • •
Central station rose out of the maze of old streets, winding roads, shops and apartment blocks and parking lots once abundant with cars powered by internal combustion engines. It was a marvel of engineering, a disaster of design, Futurist and Modernist, Gothic and Moorish, Martian and Baroque.
Others had designed it, but humans had embellished it, each competing to put their own contrasting signatures on the giant space port. It rose into the sky. High above, Reusable Launch Vehicles, old and new, came to land or took off to orbiting stations, and stratospheric planes came and went to Krung Thep and New York and Ulaan-Bataar, Sydney II and Mexico City, passengers coming and going, up and down the giant elevators, past levels full of shops and restaurants, an entire city in and of itself, before departing at ground level, some to Jaffa, some to Tel Aviv, the two cities always warily watching each other . . .
Mama Jones watched it, watched the passengers streaming out, she watched it wondering what it would be like to leave everything behind, to go into the station, to rise high, so high that one passed through clouds—what it would be like to simply leave, to somewhere, anywhere else.
But it passed. It always did. She watched the eaves of the station, those edges where the human architects went all out, even though they had a practical purpose, too, they provided shelter from the rain and caught the water, which were recycled inside the building—rain was precious, and not to be wasted.
Nothing should be wasted, she thought, looking up. The shop was being looked after, she had taken a few moments to take the short walk, to stretch her legs. She noticed the girl, Isobel, cycling past. Back from wherever she went. Pinged her a greeting, but the girl didn’t stop. Youth. Nothing should be wasted, Mama Jones thought, before turning away. Not even love. Most of all, love.
• • • •
“How is your father?”
Boris Chong looked up at her. He was sitting at a table by the bar, sipping a Martian Sunset. It was a new drink to Miriam. Boris had taught it to her . . .
It was still strange to her that he was back.
“He’s . . . “ Boris struggled to find the words. “Coping,” he said at last. She nodded.
She could almost not remember a time she had been Miriam. For so long she had been Mama Jones. But Boris brought it back to her, the name, a part of her youth. Tall and gangly, a mixture of Russian Jews and Chinese labourers, a child of Central Station just as she was. But he had left, had gone up the elevators and into space, to Tong Yun on Mars, and even beyond . . .
Only he was back, now, and she still found it strange. Their bodies had become strangers to each other. And he had an aug, an alien thing bred out of long-dead microscopic Martian life-forms, a thing that was now a part of him, a parasite growth on Boris’ neck, inflating and deflating with the beats of Boris’ heart . . .
She touched it, tentatively, and Boris smiled. She made herself do it, it was a part of him now, she needed to get used to it. It felt warm, the surface rough, not like Boris’ own skin. She knew her touch translated as pleasure in both the aug and Boris’ mind.
“What?” she said.
“I missed you today.”
She couldn’t help it. She smiled. Banality, she thought. We are made so happy by banalities.
We are made happy by not being alone, and by having someone who cares for us.
She went around the counter. Surveyed her small domain. Chairs and tables, the tentacle-junkie in the corner in his tub, smoking a sheesha pipe, looking sleepy and relaxed. The ancient bead curtain instead of a door. A couple of workers from the station sipping arak, mixing it with water, the drink in the glass turning opaque, the colour of milk.
Mama Jones’ Shebeen.
She felt a surge of contentment, and it made the room’s edges seem softer.
• • • •
Over the course of the day the sun rose behind the space port and traced an arc across it until it landed at last in the sea. Isobel worked inside Central Station and didn’t see the sun at all.
The Level Three concourse offered a mixture of food courts, drone battle-zones, game-worlds, Louis Wu emporiums, nakamals, smokes bars, truflesh and virtual prostitution establishments, and a faith bazaar.
Isobel had heard the greatest faith bazaar was in Tong Yun City, on Mars. The one they had on Level Three here was a low key affair—a Church of Robot mission house, a Gorean temple, an Elronite Centre For The Advancement of Humankind, a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic church, an Armenian church, an Ogko shrine, a Theravada Buddhist temple, and a Baha’i temple.
On her way to work Isobel went to church. She had been raised Catholic, her mother’s family, themselves Chinese immigrants to the Philippines, having adopted that religion in another era, another time. Yet she could find no comfort in the hushed quietude of the spacious church, the smell of the candles, the dim light and the painted glass and the sorrowful look of the crucified Jesus.
The church forbids it, she thought, suddenly horrified. The quiet of the church seemed oppressive, the air too still. It was as if every item in the room was looking at her, was aware of her. She turned on her heels.
Outside, not looking, she almost bumped into Brother Patch-It.
“Girl, you’re shaking,’ R. Patch-It said, compassion in his voice. Like most followers of the Church of Robot, once he’d taken on the robe—so to speak—he had shed his former ident tag and taken on a new one. Usually they were synonyms of “fix.” She knew R. Patch-It slightly; he had been a fixture of Central Station (both space port and neighbourhood) her entire life, and the part time moyel for the Jewish residents in the event of the birth of a baby boy.
“I’m fine, really,” Isobel said. The robot looked at her from his expressionless face. “Robot” was male in Hebrew, a gendered language. And most robots had been fashioned without genitalia or breasts, making them appear vaguely male. They had been a mistake, of sort. No one had produced robots for a very long time. They were a missing link, an awkward evolutionary step between human and Other.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” the robot said. “Perhaps cake? Sugar helps human distress, I am told.” Somehow R. Patch-It managed to look abashed.
“I’m fine, really,” Isobel said again. Then, on an impulse: “Do you believe that . . . can robots . . . I mean to say—”
She faltered. The robot regarded her with his old, expressionless face. A rust scar ran down one cheek, from his left eye to the corner of his mouth. “You can ask me anything,” the robot said, gently. Isobel wondered what dead human’s voice had been used to synthesise the robot’s own.
“Do robots feel love?” she said.
The robot’s mouth moved. Perhaps it was meant as a smile. “We feel nothing but love,” the robot said.
“How can that be? How can you . . . how can you feel?” She was almost shouting. But this was Third Level, no one paid any attention.
“We’re anthropomorphised,” R. Patch-It said, gently. “We were fashioned human, given physicality, senses. It is the tin man’s burden.” His voice was sad. “Do you know that poem?”
“No,” Isobel said. Then, “What about . . . what about Others?”
The robot shook his head. “Who can tell,” he said. “For us, it is unimaginable, to exist as a pure digital entity, to not know physicality. And yet, at the same time, we seek to escape our physical existence, to achieve heaven, knowing it does not exist, that it must be built, the world fixed and patched . . . but what is it really that you ask me, Isobel daughter of Irina?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered, and she realised her face was wet. “The church—” her head inching, slightly, at the Catholic church behind them. The robot nodded, as if it understood.
“Youth feels so strongly,” the robot said. His voice was gentle. “Don’t be afraid, Isobel. Allow yourself to love.”
“I don’t know,” Isobel said. “I don’t know.”
But she had turned away from Brother Patch-It. Blinking back the tears—she didn’t know where they came from—she walked away, she was late for work.
Tonight, she thought. Tonight, under the eaves. She wiped away the tears.
• • • •
With dusk a welcome coolness settled over Central Station. In Mama Jones’ shebeen candles were lit and, across the road, the No-Name Nakamal was preparing the evening’s kava, and the strong, earthy smell of it—the roots peeled and chopped, the flesh minced and mixed with water, squeezed repeatedly to release its very essence, the kavalactones in the plant—the smell filled the paved street that was the very heart of the neighbourhood.
On the green, robotniks huddled together around a makeshift fire in an upturned drum. Flames reflected in their faces, metal and human mixed artlessly, the still-living debris of long-gone wars. They spoke amidst themselves in that curious Battle Yiddish that had been imprinted on them by some well-meaning army developer—a hushed and secret language no one spoke any more, ensuring their communications would be secure, like the Navajo Code Talkers in the second world war.
On top of Central Station graceful RLVs landed or took off, and on the roofs of the neighbourhood solar panels like flowers began to fold, and residents took to the roofs, those day-time sun-traps, to drink beer or kava or arak, to watch the world below, to smoke a sheesha pipe and take stock of the day, to watch the sun set in the sea or tend their rooftop gardens.
Inside Central Station the passengers dined and drank and played and worked and waited—Lunar traders, Martian Chinese on an Earth holiday package tour, Jews from the asteroid-kibbutzim in the Belt, the hurly burly of a humanity for whom Earth was no longer enough and yet was the centre of the universe, around which all planets and moons and habitats rotated, an Aristotelian model of the world superseding its one-time victor, Copernicus. On Level Three Isobel was embedded inside her work pod, existing simultaneously, like a Schrödinger’s Cat, in physical space and the equally real virtuality of the Guilds of Ashkelon universe, where—
She was the Isobel Chow, Captain of the Nine Tailed Cat, a starship thousands of years old, upgraded and refashioned with each universal cycle, a salvage operation she, Isobel, was captain and commander of, hunting for precious games-world artefacts to sell on the Exchange—
Orbiting Black Betty, a Guilds of Ahskelon universal singularity, where a dead alien race had left behind enigmatic ruins, floating in space in broken rocks, airless asteroids of a once-great galactic empire—
Success there translating to food and water and rent here—
But what is here, what is there—
Isobel Schrödingering, in the real and the virtual—or in the GoA and in what they call Universe-1—and she was working.
• • • •
Night fell over Central Station. Lights came alive around the neighbourhood then, floating spheres casting a festive glow. Night was when Central Station came alive . . .
Florists packing for the day in the wide sprawling market, and the boy Kranki playing by himself, stems on the ground and wilting dark Lunar roses, hydroponics grown, and none came too close to him, the boy was strange, he had nakaimas.
Asteroid pidgin around him as he played, making stems rise and dance before him, black rose heads opening and closing in a silent, graceless dance before the boy. The boy had nakaimas, he had the black magic, he had the quantum curse. Conversation flowing around him, traders closing for the day or opening for the night, the market changing faces, never shutting, people sleeping under their stands or having dinner, and from the food stalls the smells of frying fish, and chili in vinegar, of soy and garlic frying, of cumin and turmeric and the fine purple powder of sumac, so called because it looks like a blush. The boy played, as boys would. The flowers danced, mutely.
• • • •
— Yu stap go wea? Where are you going?
— Mi stap go bak long haos. I am going home.
— Yu no save stap smoltaem, dring smolsmol bia? Won’t you stop for a small beer?
Laughter. Then — Si, mi save stap smoltaem.
Yes, I could stop for a little while.
Music playing, on numerous feeds and live, too—a young kathoey on an old acoustic guitar, singing, while down the road a tentacle junkie was beating time on multiple drums, adding distortions in real-time and broadcasting, a small voice weaving itself into the complex unending pattern of the Conversation.
— Mi lafem yu!
— Awo, yu drong!
Laughter, I love you—You’re drunk!—a kiss, the two men walk away together, holding hands –
— Wan dei bae mi go long spes, bae mi go lukluk olbaot long ol star.
— Yu kranki we!
One day I will go to space, I will go look around all the planets—
Laughter, and someone dropping in from virtuality, blinking sleepy eyes, readjusting, someone turns a fish over on the grill, someone yawns, someone smiles, a fight breaks out, lovers meet, the moon on the horizon rises, the shadows of the moving spiders flicker on the surface of the moon.
• • • •
Under the eaves. Under the eaves. Where it’s always dry where it’s always dark, under the eaves.
There, under the eaves of Central Station, around the great edifice, was a buffer zone, a separator between space port and neighbourhood. You could buy anything at Central Station and what you couldn’t buy you could get there, in the shadows.
Isobel had finished work, she had come back to Universe-1, had left behind captainhood and ship and crew, climbed out of the pod, and on her feet, the sound of her blood in her ears, and when she touched her wrist she felt the blood pulsing there, too, the heart wants what the heart wants, reminding us that we are human, and frail, and weak.
Through a service tunnel she went, between floors, and came out on the north-east corner of the port, facing the Kibbutz Galuyot road and the old interchange.
It was quiet there, and dark, few shops, a Kingdom of Pork and a book binder and warehouses left from days gone by, now turned into sound-proofed clubs and gene clinics and synth emporiums. She waited in the shadow of the port, hugging the walls, they felt warm, the station always felt alive, on heat, the station like a heart, beating. She waited, her node scanning for intruders, for digital signatures and heat, for motion—Isobel was a Central Station girl, she could take care of herself, she had a heat knife, she was cautious but not afraid of the shadows.
She waited, waited for him to come.
• • • •
She pressed against him. He was warm, she didn’t know where the metal of him finished and the organic of him began.
He said, “You came,” and there was wonder in the words.
“I had to. I had to see you again.”
“I was afraid.” His voice was not above a whisper. His hand on her cheek, she turned her head, kissed it, tasting rust like blood.
“We are beggars,” he said. “My kind. We are broken machines.”
She looked at him, this old abandoned soldier. She knew he had died, that he had been remade, a human mind cyborged onto an alien body, sent out to fight, and to die, again and again. That now he lived on scraps, depending on the charity of others . . .
Robotnik. That old word, meaning worker. But said like a curse.
She looked into his eyes. His eyes were almost human.
“I don’t remember,” he said. “I don’t remember who I was, before.”
“But you are . . . you are still . . . you are!” she said, as though finding truth, suddenly, and she laughed, she was giddy with laughter and happiness and he leaned and he kissed her, gently at first and then harder, their shared need melding them, Joining them almost like a human is bonded to an Other.
In his strange obsolete Battle Yiddish he said, “Ich lieba dich.”
In asteroid pidgin she replied.
— Mi lafem yu.
His finger on her cheek, hot, metallic, his smell of machine oil and gasoline and human sweat. She held him close, there against the wall of Central Station, in the shadows, as a plane high overhead, adorned in light, came in to land from some other and faraway place.