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Central Station
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Central Station

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Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications, 2016
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Robots/Androids
Space Opera
Virtual Reality
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Synopsis

A worldwide diaspora has left a quarter of a million people at the foot of a space station. Cultures collide in real life and virtual reality. The city is a weed, its growth left unchecked. Life is cheap and data is cheaper.

When Boris Chong returns to Tel Aviv from Mars, much has changed. Boris's ex-lover Miriam is raising a strangely familiar child who can tap into the data stream of a mind with the touch of a finger. His cousin Isobel is infatuated with a robotnik--a cyborg ex-Israeli soldier who might well be begging for parts. Even his old flame Carmel--a hunted data-vampire--has followed him back to a planet where she is forbidden to return.

Rising above all is Central Station, the interplanetary hub between all things: the constantly shifting Tel Aviv; a powerful virtual arena, and the space colonies where humanity has gone to escape the ravages of poverty and war. Everything is connected by the Others, powerful entities who, through the Conversation--a shifting, flowing stream of consciousness--are just the beginning of irrevocable change.


Excerpt

Prologue

I came first to Central Station on a day in winter. African refugees sat on the green, expressionless. They were waiting, but for what, I didn't know. Outside a butchery, two Filipino children played at being airplanes: arms spread wide they zoomed and circled, firing from imaginary under-wing machine guns. Behind the butcher's counter, a Filipino man was hitting a ribcage with his cleaver, separating meat and bones into individual chops. A little farther from it stood the Rosh Ha'ir shawarma stand, twice blown up by suicide bombers in the past but open for business as usual. The smell of lamb fat and cumin wafted across the noisy street and made me hungry.

Traffic lights blinked green, yellow, and red. Across the road a furniture store sprawled out onto the pavement in a profusion of garish sofas and chairs. A small gaggle of junkies sat on the burnt foundations of what had been the old bus station, chatting. I wore dark shades. The sun was high in the sky and though it was cold it was a Mediterranean winter, bright and at that moment dry.

I walked down the Neve Sha'anan pedestrian street. I found shelter in a small shebeen, a few wooden tables and chairs, a small counter serving Maccabee Beer and little else. A Nigerian man behind the counter regarded me without expression. I asked for a beer. I sat down and brought out my notebook and a pen and stared at the page.

Central Station, Tel Aviv. The present. Or a present. Another attack on Gaza, elections coming up, down south in the Arava desert they were building a massive separation wall to stop the refugees from coming in. The refugees were in Tel Aviv now, centred around the old bus station neighbourhood in the south of the city, some quarter million of them and the economic migrants here on sufferance, the Thai and Filipinos and Chinese. I sipped my beer. It was bad. I stared at the page. Rain fell.

I began to write:

Once, the world was young. The Exodus ships had only begun to leave the solar system then; the world of Heven had not been discovered; Dr. Novum had not yet come back from the stars. People still lived as they had always lived: in sun and rain, in and out of love, under a blue sky and in the Conversation, which is all about us, always.

This was in old Central Station, that vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. It happened amidst the arches and the cobblestones, a stone-throw from the sea: you could still smell the salt and the tar in the air, and watch, at sunrise, the swoop and turn of solar kites and their winged surfers in the air.

This was a time of curious births, yes: you will read about that. You were no doubt wondering about the children of Central Station. Wondering, too, how a Strigoi was allowed to come to Earth. This is the womb from which humanity crawled, tooth by bloody nail, towards the stars.

But it is an ancestral home, too, to the Others, those children of the digitality. In a way, this is as much their story.

There is death in here as well, of course: there always is. The Oracle is here, and Ibrahim, the alte-zachen man, and many others whose names may be familiar to you--

But you know all this already. You must have seen The Rise of Others. It's all in there, though they made everyone look so handsome.

This all happened long ago, but we still remember; and we whisper to each other the old tales across the aeons, here in our sojourn among the stars.

It begins with a little boy, waiting for an absent father.

One day, the old stories say, a man fell down to Earth from the stars....

Chapter One
The Indignity of Rain

The smell of rain caught them unprepared. It was spring, there was that smell of jasmine and it mixed with the hum of electric buses, and there were solar gliders in the sky, like flocks of birds. Ameliah Ko was doing a Kwasa-Kwasa remix of a Susan Wong cover of "Do You Wanna Dance." It had begun to rain in silver sheets, almost silently; the rain swallowed the sound of gunshots and it drenched the burning buggy down the street, and the old homeless man taking a shit by the dumpster, with his grey pants around his ankles, got caught in it, his one roll of toilet paper in his hand, and he cursed, but quietly. He was used to the indignity of rain.

The city had been called Tel Aviv. Central Station rose high into the atmosphere in the south of the city, bordered in by the webwork of silenced old highways. The station's roof rose too high to see, serving the stratospheric vehicles that rose from and landed onto its machine-smooth surface. Elevators like bullets shot up and down the station and, down below, in the fierce Mediterranean sun, around the space port a bustling market heaved with commerce, visitors and residents, and the usual assortment of pickpockets and identity thieves.

From orbit down to Central Station, from Central Station down to street level, and out from within the air-conditioned liminal space into the poverty of the neighbourhood around the port, where Mama Jones and the boy Kranki stood hand in hand, waiting.

The rain caught them by surprise. The space port, this great white whale, like a living mountain rising out of the urban bedrock, drew onto itself the formation of clouds, its very own miniature weather system. Like islands in the ocean, space ports saw localised rains, cloudy skies, and a growth industry of mini-farms growing like lichen on the side of their vast edifices.

The rain was warm and the drops fat and the boy reached out his hand and cupped a raindrop between his fingers.

Mama Jones, who had been born in this land, in this city that had been called many names, to a Nigerian father and a Filipina mother, in this very same neighbourhood, when the roads still thrummed to the sound of the internal combustion engine and the central station had served buses, not suborbitals, and could remember wars, and poverty, and being unwanted here, in this land fought over by Arab and Jew, looked at the boy with fierce protective pride. A thin, glittering membrane, like a soap bubble, appeared between his fingers, the boy secreting power and manipulating atoms to form this thing, this protective snow globe, capturing within it the single drop of rain. It hovered between his fingers, perfect and timeless.

Mama Jones waited, if a little impatiently. She ran a shebeen here, on the old Neve Sha'anan road, a pedestrianised zone from the old days, that ran right up to the side of the space port, and she needed to be back there.

"Let it go," she said, a little sadly. The boy turned deep blue eyes on her, a perfect blue that had been patented some decades earlier before finding its way to the gene clinics here, where it had been ripped, hacked and resold to the poor for a fraction of the cost.

They said south Tel Aviv had better clinics even than Chiba or Yunnan, though Mama Jones rather doubted it.

Cheaper, though, perhaps.

"Is he coming?" the boy said.

"I don't know," Mama Jones said. "Maybe. Maybe today he is coming."

The boy turned his head to her, and smiled. He looked very young when he smiled. He released the strange bubble in his hand and it floated upwards, through the rain, the single suspended raindrop inside rising towards the clouds that birthed it.

Mama Jones sighed, and she cast a worried glance at the boy. Kranki was not a name, as such. It was a word from Asteroid Pidgin, itself a product of Earth's old South Pacific contact languages, carried into space by the miners and engineers sent there as cheap labour by the Malay and Chinese companies. Kranki, from the old English cranky, it meant variously grumpy or crazy or...

Or a little odd.

Someone who did things that other people didn't.

What they called, in Asteroid Pidgin, nakaimas.

Black magic.

She was worried about Kranki.

"Is he coming? Is that him?"

There was a man coming towards them, a tall man with an aug behind his ear, and skin that showed the sort of tan one got from machines, and the uneasy steps of someone not used to this gravity. The boy pulled on her hand. "Is that him?"

"Maybe," she said, feeling the hopelessness of the situation as she did each time they repeated this little ritual, every Friday before the Shabbat entered, when the last load of disembarking passengers arrived at Tel Aviv from Lunar Port, or Tong Yun on Mars, or from the Belt, or from one of the other Earth cities like Newer Delhi or Amsterdam or São Paulo. Each week, because the boy's mother had told him, before she died, that his father would one day return, that his father was rich and was working far away, in space, and that one day he would return, return on a Friday so as not to be late for the Shabbat, and he would look after them.

Then she went and overdosed on Crucifixation, ascending to heaven on a blaze of white light, seeing God while they tried to pump her stomach but it was too late, and Mama Jones, somewhat reluctantly, had to look after the boy--because there was no one else.

In North Tel Aviv the Jews lived in their skyrises, and in Jaffa to the South the Arabs had reclaimed their old land by the sea. Here, in between, there were still those people of the land they had called variously Palestine or Israel and whose ancestors had come there as labourers from around the world, from the islands of the Philippines, and from the Sudan, from Nigeria, and from Thailand or China, whose children were born there, and their children's children, speaking Hebrew and Arabic and Asteroid Pidgin, that near-universal language of space. Mama Jones looked after the boy because there was no one else and the rule across this country was the same in whichever enclave of it you were. We look after our own.

Because there is no one else.

"It's him!" The boy pulled at her hand. The man was coming towards them, something familiar about his walk, his face, suddenly confusing Mama Jones. Could the boy really be right? But it was impossible, the boy wasn't even b--

"Kranki, stop!" The boy, pulling her by the hand, was running towards the man, who stopped, startled, seeing this boy and this woman bearing down on him. Kranki stopped before the man, breathing heavily. "Are you my dad?" he said.

"Kranki!" said Mama Jones.

The man went very still. He squatted down, to be level with the boy, and looked at him with a serious, intent expression.

"It's possible," he said. "I know that blue. It was popular for a while, I remember. We hacked an open source version out of the trademarked Armani code..." He looked at the boy, then tapped the aug behind his ear--a Martian aug, Mama Jones noticed with alarm.

There had been life on Mars, not the ancient civilizations dreamed of in the past, but a dead, microscopic life. Then someone found a way to reverse engineer the genetic code, and made augmented units out of it....

Alien symbionts no one understood, and few wanted to.

The boy froze, then smiled, and his smile was beatific. He beamed. "Stop it!" Mama Jones said. She shook the man until he almost lost his balance. "Stop it! What are you doing to him?"

"I'm..." The man shook his head. He tapped the aug and the boy unfroze, and looked around him, bewildered, as though he was suddenly lost. "You had no parents," the man told him. "You were labbed, right here, hacked together out of public property genomes and bits of black market nodes." He breathed. "Nakaimas," he said, and took a step back.

"Stop it!" Mama Jones said again, feeling helpless. "He is not--"

"I know." The man had found his calm again. "I am sorry. He can speak to my aug. Without an interface. I must have done a better job than I thought, back then."

Something about the face, the voice, and suddenly she felt a tension in her chest, an old feeling, strange and unsettling now. "Boris?" she said. "Boris Chong?"

"What?" he raised his face, looking at her properly for the first time. She could see him so clearly now, the harsh Slavic features and the dark Chinese eyes, the whole assemblage of him, older now, changed by space and circumstances, but still him....

"Miriam?"

She had been Miriam Jones, then. Miriam after her grandmother. She tried to smile, couldn't. "It's me," she said.

"But you--"

"I never left," she said. "You did."

The boy looked between them. Realisation, followed by disappointment, made his face crumble. Above his head the rain gathered, pulled out of the air, forming into a wavering sheet of water through which the sun broke into tiny rainbows.

"I have to go," Miriam said. It'd been a long time since she'd been Miriam to anybody.

"Where? Wait--" Boris Chong looked, for once, confused.

"Why did you come back?" Miriam said.

He shrugged. Behind his ear the Martian aug pulsed, a parasitic, living thing feeding off its host. "I..."

"I have to go," Mama Jones, Miriam, she had been a Miriam and that part of her, long buried, was awakening inside her, and it made her feel strange, and uncomfortable, and she tugged on the boy's hand and the shimmering sheet of water above his head burst, falling down on either side of him, forming a perfect, wet circle on the pavement.

Every week she had acquiesced to the boy's mute desire, had taken him to the space port, to this gleaming monstrosity in the heart of the city, to watch and to wait. The boy knew he had been labbed, knew no woman's womb had ever held him, that he had been birthed within the cheap labs where the paint peeled off the walls and the artificial wombs often malfunctioned--but there had been a market for disused foetuses too, there was a market for anything.

But like all children, he never believed. In his mind his mother really had gone up to heaven, Crucifixation her key to the gates, and in his mind his father would come back, just the way she'd told him, descend from the heavens of Central Station and come down, to this neighbourhood, stuck uncomfortably between North and South, Jew and Arab, and find him, and offer him love.

She pulled on Kranki's hand again and he came with her, and the wind like a scarf wound itself around him, and she knew what he was thinking.

Next week, perhaps, he would come.

"Miriam, wait!"

Boris Chong, who had once been beautiful, when she was beautiful, in the soft nights of spring long ago as they lay on top of the old building filled with domestic workers for the rich of the North, they had made themselves a nest there, between the solar panels and the wind traps, a little haven made of old discarded sofas and an awning of colourful calico from India with political slogans on it in a language neither of them spoke. They had lain there, and gloried in their naked bodies up on the roof, in spring, when the air was warm and scented with the lilacs and the bushes of jasmine down below, late-blooming jasmine, that released its smell at night, under the stars and the lights of the space port.

She kept moving, it was only a short walk to her shebeen, the boy came with her, and this man, a stranger now, who had once been young and beautiful, whispering to her in Hebrew his love, only to leave her, long ago, it was so long ago--

This man was following her, this man she no longer knew, and her heart beat fast inside her, her old, flesh heart, which had never been replaced. Still she marched on, passing fruit and vegetable stalls, the gene clinics, upload centres selling second-hand dreams, shoe shops (for people will always need shoes on their feet), the free clinic, a Sudanese restaurant, the rubbish bins, and finally she arrived at Mama Jones' Shebeen, a hole-in-the-wall nestled between an upholsterer's and a Church of Robot node, for people always need old sofas and armchairs reupholstered, and they always need faith, of whatever sort.

And drink, Miriam Jones thought as she entered the establishment, where the light was suitably dim, the tables made of wood, with cloth over each, and where the nearest node would have broadcast a selection of programming feeds had it not been stuck, some time back, on a South Sudanese channel showing a mixture of holy sermons, weather reports that never changed, and dubbed reruns of the long-running Martian soap Chains of Assembly, and nothing else.

A raised bar, offering Palestinian Taiba beer and Israeli Maccabee on tap, locally made Russian vodka, a selection of soft drinks and bottled lager, sheesha pipes for the customers and backgammon boards for use of same--it was a decent little place, it did not make much but it covered rent and food and looking after the boy, and she was proud of it. It was hers.

There were only a handful of regulars sitting inside, a couple of dockyard workers off-shift from the space port sharing a sheesha and drinking beer, chatting amiably, and a tentacle-junkie flopping in a bucket of water, drinking arak, and Isobel Chow, her friend Irena Chow's daughter, sitting there with a mint tea, looking deep in thought. Miriam touched her lightly on the shoulder as she came in but the girl did not even stir. She was deep in the virtuality, that is to say, in the Conversation.

Miriam went behind the bar. All around her the endless traffic of the Conversation surged and hummed and called, but she tuned the vast majority of it out of her consciousness.

"Kranki," Mama Jones said, "I think you should go up to the flat and do your school work."

"Finished," the boy said. He turned his attention to the sheesha pipe nearby and cupped blue smoke in his hand, turning it into a smooth round ball. He became intensely absorbed. Mama Jones, now standing behind her counter and feeling a lot more at ease, here, queen of her domain, heard the footsteps and saw the shadow pass and then the tall, thin frame of the man she last knew as Boris Chong came in, bending under the too-low doorframe.

"Miriam, can we talk?"

"What would you have?"

She gestured at the shelves behind her. Boris Chong's pupils dilated, and it made a shiver pass down Mama Jones' spine. He was communicating, silently, with his Martian aug.

"Well?" Her tone was sharper than she intended. Boris's eyes opened wider. He looked startled. "An arak," he said, and suddenly smiled, the smile transforming his face, making him younger, making him--

More human, she decided.

She nodded and pulled a bottle from the shelf and poured him a glass of arak, that anise drink so beloved in that land, and added ice, and brought it to him to a table, with chilled water to go beside it--when you poured the water in, the drink changed colour, the clear liquid becoming murky and pale like milk.

"Sit with me."

She stood with her arms crossed, then relented. She sat down and he, after a moment's hesitation, sat down also.

"Well?" she said.

"How have you been?" he said.

"Well."

"You know I had to leave. There was no work here anymore, no future--"

"I was here."

"Yes."

Her eyes softened. She knew what he meant, of course. Nor could she blame him. She had encouraged him to go and, once he was gone, there was nothing to it but for both of them to move on with life, and she, on the whole, did not regret the life she'd led.

"You own this place?"

"It pays the rent, the bills. I look after the boy."

"He is..."

She shrugged. "From the labs," she said. "It could be he was one of yours, like you said."

"There were so many..." he said. "Hacked together of whatever non-proprietary genetic code we could get our hands on. Are they all like him?"

Miriam shook her head. "I don't know... it's hard to keep track of all the kids. They don't stay kids, either. Not forever." She called out to the boy. "Kranki, could you bring me a coffee, please?"

The boy turned, his serious eyes trained on them both, the ball of smoke still in his hand. He tossed it in the air and it assumed its regular properties and dispersed. "Aww..." he said.

"Now, Kranki," Miriam said. "Thank you." The boy went to the bar and Miriam turned back to Boris.

"Where have you been all this time?" she said.

He shrugged. "Spent some time on Ceres, in the Belt, working for one of the Malay companies." He smiled. "No more babies. Just... fixing people. Then I did three years at Tong Yun, picked up this--" He gestured at the pulsating mass of biomatter behind his ear.

Miriam said, curious, "Did it hurt?"

"It grows with you," Boris said. "The... the seed of the thing is injected, it sits under the skin, then it starts to grow. It... can be uncomfortable. Not the physicality of it but when you start to communicate, to lay down a network."

It made Miriam feel strange, seeing it. "Can I touch it?" she said, surprising herself. Boris looked very self-conscious; he always did, she thought, and a fierce ray of pride, of affection, went through her, startling her.

"Sure," he said. "Go ahead."

She reached out, touched it, gingerly, with the tip of one finger. It felt like skin, she thought, surprised. Slightly warmer, perhaps. She pressed, it was like touching a boil. She removed her hand.

The boy, Kranki, came with her drink--a long-handled pot with black coffee inside it, brewed with cardamom seeds and cinnamon. She poured, into a small china cup, and held it between her fingers. Kranki said, "I can hear it."

"Hear what?"

"It," the boy said, insistent, pointing at the aug.

"Well, what does it say?" Miriam said, taking a sip of her coffee. She saw Boris was watching the boy intently.

"It's confused," Kranki said.

"How so?"

"It feels something strange from its host. A very strong emotion, or a mix of emotions. Love and lust and regret and hope, all tangled together... it's never experienced that before."

"Kranki!"

Miriam hid a shocked laugh as Boris reared back, turning red.

"That's quite enough for today," Miriam said. "Go play outside."

The boy brightened considerably. "Really? Can I?"

"Don't get too far. Stay where I can see you."

"I can always see you," the boy said, and ran out without a look back. She could see the faint echo of his passing through the digital sea of the Conversation, then he disappeared into the noise outside.

Miriam sighed. "Kids," she said.

"It's all right." Boris smiled, looking younger, reminding her of other days, another time. "I thought about you, often," he said.

"Boris, why are you here?"

He shrugged again. "After Tong Yun I got a job in the Galilean Republics. On Callisto. They're strange out there, in the Outer System. It's the view of Jupiter in the sky, or... they have strange technologies out there, and I did not understand their religions. Too close to Jettisoned, and Dragon's World... too far away from the sun."

"That's why you came back?" she said, a surprised laugh. "You missed the sun?"

"I missed home," he said. "I got a job in Lunar Port, it was incredible to be back, so close, to see Earthrise in the sky... the Inner System felt like home. Finally I took a holiday, and here I am." He spread his arms. She sensed unspoken words, a secret sorrow; but it wasn't in her to pry. Boris said, "I missed the sort of rain that falls from clouds."

"Your dad's still around," Miriam said. "I see him from time to time."

Boris smiled, though the web of lines at the corners of his eyes--they weren't there before, Miriam thought, suddenly touched--revealed old pain. "Yes, he's retired now," he said.

She remembered him, a big Sino-Russian man, wearing an exoskeleton with a crew of other builders, climbing like metallic spiders over the uncompleted walls of the space port. There had been something magnificent about seeing them like that, they were the size of insects high up there, the sun glinting off the metal, their pincers working, tearing down stone, erecting walls to hold up, it seemed, the world.

She saw him now, from time to time, sitting at the cafés, playing backgammon, drinking the bitter black coffee, endless cups of delicate china, throwing the dice again and again in repeating permutations, in the shadow of the edifice he had helped to build, and which had at last made him redundant.

"Are you going to see him?" she said.

Boris shrugged. "Maybe. Yes. Later--" He took a sip of his drink and grimaced and then smiled. "Arak," he said. "I forgot the taste."

Miriam smiled too. They smiled without reason or regret and, for now, it was enough.

It was quiet in the shebeen, the tentacle-junkie lay in his tub with his bulbous eyes closed, the two cargo workers were chatting in low voices, sitting back. Isobel sat motionless, still lost in the virtuality. Then Kranki was beside them. She hadn't seen him come in but he had the knack, all the children of the station had it, a way to both appear and disappear. He saw them smiling, and started smiling too.

Miriam took his hand. It was warm.

"We couldn't play," the boy complained. There was a halo above his head, rainbows breaking through the wet globules of water in his short, spiky hair. "It started to rain again." He looked at them with boyish suspicion. "Why are you smiling?"

Miriam looked at this man, Boris, this stranger who had been someone that the someone that she had been once loved.

"It must just be the rain," she said.

Copyright © 2016 by Lavie Tidhar


Reviews

Central Station

- Panra
  (2/20/2016)
Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

- valashain
  (4/24/2016)
Literature! Ohran Pamuk!

- bleebs
  (12/12/2016)
Central Station

- illegible_scribble
  (1/19/2017)

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