There were still alte-zachen men in Jaffa in those days. There had always been, junk-gypsies, part Jew, part Arab, part something else again. It was the time of the Messiah Murder, of which you must have heard, of which the historian Elezra (himself progenitor of Miriam Elezra, who with the Golda Meir automaton journeyed to Ancient-Mars-That-Never-Was, and changed the course of a planet) has written, “It was a time of fervour and uncertainty, a time of hate and peace, in which the messiah’s appearance and subsequent execution were almost incidental.”
There were still alte-zachen men in Jaffa and Central Station in those days, as there always were and always will be, and chief amongst them was Ibrahim, he who was sometimes called The Lord of Discarded Things.
You must have seen him approach a thousand times. He appears in the background, always in the background, of tourist-taken images, of numerous feeds. The cart, first: a flat top carried on the four wheels of a liberated, ancient car. In Jaffa’s junkyards, dead combustion-engine cars proliferated, towers of them making a city of junk in which hid the city’s unfortunates. The cart pulled by one or two horses, city-bred and born: mismatched grey and white, these Palestinian horses, an intermingling of breeds, distant cousins to the noble Arabian strains. Small, strong, and patient, they carried the cart overloaded with broken-down things, without complaint, on the weekends putting on bells and colourful garb and carrying small children along the promenade, for a price.
The alte-zachen, like the ancient port’s porters in their days, had a lijana, a secret board of rulers—a legion, self-elected by age and experience—of which most prominent was Ibrahim.
Who was Ibrahim and how had he come to the city of Jaffa, by the blue sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea?
The truth was, no one knew. He had always been there. Will always be. The once and future king of the discarded. Rumour had it he was Other-cousin to the Oracle on the hill, for Ibrahim, too, was Joined, his thumb a golden prosthetic, an Other bonded into his node, human and digital minds commingled. No one knew the name of the Other. Perhaps both were called Ibrahim.
His route seldom varied. Down the narrow passageways of ancient Ajami, the stone houses overlooking the sea and the harbour, away from the new high-rises of the returnees; down the hill to the ancient clock tower built by the Ottomans, right along Salame Road, calling out as he went: “Alte-zachen! Alte-zachen!”
Junk accumulating on the cart. The discarded waste of centuries. People knew to wait for Ibrahim. Torn, stained mattresses, tables with broken legs, ancient Chinese mass-produced grandfather clocks of a sort popular in some nameless gone-by decade. Discarded automatons, Vietnamese battle-dolls used in some long-ago war. Paintings. Print books, moulding. Engines for giant fish-refrigeration units. Faded Turkish rugs. Once, a baby.
He had found the little thing on his rounds. It was early, the sun had barely risen yet. Ibrahim had travelled up Salame and turned to Central Station.
Adaptoplant neighbourhoods high above moved in the breeze. Discarded metal and plastic on the road, he couldn’t tell what it had once been: cars and water bottles turned into abandoned sculpture, perhaps. Art sprouted like weeds in Central Station.
It lay nearby. It was a small package, he had not noticed it until it moved. Ibrahim went to it warily, things sometimes went loose in Central Station. Sometimes amidst the junk there had been snakes, still-living battle-dolls, adaptoplant furniture with hostile programming, old guns and ammunition, user-created religious artefacts of uncertain powers—
Ibrahim approached the package and it made a sound. The sound made him freeze. It was that kind of sound. Once there had been a wolf pup, smuggled in from Mongolia. It died in captivity. It had made this kind of sound.
Ibrahim came closer nevertheless. Looked.
A baby looked up at him. An ordinary baby such as one saw every day, everywhere: Jaffa and Central Station were filled with children. This one, however, was inside a shoe box.
Ibrahim knelt next to the baby. The shoe box was for a cheap brand. The baby had clear sparkling green eyes, his skin was Mediterranean-dark, his head was hairless. Ibrahim stared at the baby. There was no one around. The baby burped.
Ibrahim reached for the boy—it was a boy—carefully, still wary. One never knew, in Central Station. The boy’s hand rose to meet his. Older than his years. As if he were shaking hands. Their fingers touched. A current, like high-bandwidth data, hit Ibrahim. Images crowded his mind. Views from the rings of Saturn. A battle of four-armed red-skinned Martian Re-Born in their virtual empire. A rabbi on a spaceship travelling to the belt, praying in the field of asteroids, in a small dank room inside an ancient mining craft. In the touch of the boy was the toktok blong narawan, the impossibly-dense communication of the Others.
Ibrahim’s Other woke up. Said, What the—
Ibrahim’s mind couldn’t face the onslaught. The data-storm raged, diverting to the Other, which shut up as it tried to cope—
One word hovering clear out of the maelstrom, making him cringe—
Pull your hand away!
The light touch of the child imprisoned him. He fought—
The baby burped and laughed. The contact broke.
Ibrahim: Did you get all that?
Nothing from his Other.
His Other, at last: !
Ibrahim stared at the baby, and his Other, through his eyes, did likewise.
One thought in both of their minds:
Not another messiah.
That had been a few years before. Ibrahim could have put out a distress call. Alarm broadcast from his node, bouncing across the endless networks that crisscrossed this city, its planet, the human-habited space around it, planets and moons and rings and Exodus ships. Peacekeeping machines would have materialised, spiderlike, mecha-CSIs double-coded, for this was the buffer zone, Central Station separating Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. A high-encryption digital dispute over territory, analysis of the boy’s DNA—though with just the eye colour (Bose trademark, hacked, several decades old but still fiercely protected by copyright lawyers, who periodically tried to shut down the local clinics), Ibrahim knew. The boy was vat-grown, it was a Central Station specialty.
Messiah breeding programme? the Other inquired, recovering.
“I don’t know.”
He spoke aloud, but softly. The boy gurgled.
Is this wise?
“Do you have another idea?”
I don’t like this.
Communication speeding up, speech giving way to image codes, clouds of meanings. Ibrahim, cutting it off mid-flow, picked up the baby.
“The boy,” he said, to no one in particular, memories of the Jerusalem killing still fresh in the mind, “deserves a different fate.”
That had been years before. They named the boy Ismail. They brought him up as best they could.
Ibrahim lived in the vast junkyard that straddled the border of Jaffa and what used to be the Jewish suburb of Bat Yam.
The Palace of Discarded Things.
It seemed appropriate for the boy.
Robotniks lived in the junkyard with them. Discarded soldiers, cyborged into being out of dying men carted off the battlefields of the Middle East, they had once been lethal killing machines. Now they begged for spare parts, hustled for Crucifixation, wandered the streets without aim. More of the lost. The boy, then, grew up speaking the Arabic of Ajami and the Battle Yiddish of the robotniks. He spoke Asteroid Pidgin, which was the lingua franca of the solar system at that time. Toktok blong Spes. He spoke the neighbouring city’s Hebrew. When he grew older he sometimes helped Ibrahim on his rounds.
Through Ajami down to the clock tower, down Salame to Central Station. . . . Ibrahim picked up wounded things, his robotniks had been discarded on the streets of Central Station, he had picked them up and fixed them and they gave him their loyalty, it was the only thing they had left to give. There were synth-flesh dolls, patched up, with mismatched organs, child-sized, their faces crudely drawn, some were refugees from the flesh pits, some were miniature soldiers in urban wars, all had been mass-imported from Asia and discarded when their usefulness ran out.
Modified animals, Frankensteined by home-lab enthusiast kids with a gene kit and an incubator. Ismail’s pet dragon, a sad creature adapted from a Canary Islands Lagarto Gigante de la Gomera and part-meched with a fire-breathing apparatus. The poor thing, coughing fire, had been nicknamed Chamudi by the boy, despite all evidence to the contrary, for there was nothing cute about it.
The whole tribe of them living in the vast junkyard, centuries of buried layers, an archaeological site in which everything could be found, the remnants of the ages.
The boy had . . . some disturbing habits.
He could predict localised weather. Not so much predict, Ibrahim sometimes thought with unease, as make it happen.
When he slept, his dreams materialised sometimes, above his head, cowboys and Indians chasing each other in a hazy gray bubble of dreamstuff forming out of condensation in the air, evaporating as REM sleep gave way to the deeper states of enrem.
He had an affinity with machines . . . he had been, like all children, noded at birth. He was not Other Joined, not bonded, and yet, sometimes, Ibrahim and his Other had the distinct sense the boy could hear them speak.
You know what it is, of course, the Other said.
They had been standing in the yard. The sun beat down, and beyond the stone houses of Ajami the sea lay flat as a mirror, solar surfers diving and rising on the winds above it.
There are others, the Other said. Children born in the vat-labs of Central Station.
“We should speak to the Oracle—”
Ibrahim knew her of old. Knew, even, her real name. No one was born an oracle . . . and they were blood-related, as well as Other-kin. He said, “No.”
Ibrahim . . .
We are making a mistake.
“The children will make their own way. In time.”
“Baba!” The boy came running up to Ibrahim. “Can I come with you on the cart today?”
“Not today,” Ibrahim said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
The boy’s face crumpled in disappointment. “You always say tomorrow,” he accused.
It’s safe here, the Other said, silently. Here he is protected.
“But he needs to be with children his own age.”
“What’s that, Baba?”
“Nothing, Ismail,” Ibrahim said. “It’s nothing.”
But it was not nothing.
Chamudi, the dragon, died a few months later. There had been a funeral, the grandest ever held at the Palace of Discarded Things. The dragon had an honour guard of patched-up battle dolls and robotniks, and people from the neighbourhood had turned out in solemn clothes despite the heat. Junk men dug a hole in the ground, dislodging buried treasures, a rusting bicycle and a box of hand-carved chess pieces made of dark wood, and a metal skull. Noah the blind beggar, Ibrahim’s friend, stood beside him as the small coffin was lowered. A priest, a Martian Re-Born, follower of the Way, officiated, red skin glistening with sweat in the sun, four arms moving in complex forms as she wove words of bereavement and comfort, speaking of the Emperor of Time and his acceptance of this gift. Ismail stood to one side, his eyes dry now from tears.
Noah the blind beggar, whose eyes were precious stones, watched the ceremony unfold through multiple nodal transmissions. Pym, the famous Memcordist, was there, the funeral joined like a strand into his lifelong Narrative. It was going out to Pym’s subscribers, their numbers fluctuating in the millions across the solar system. All in all it was a moving and dignified occasion.
“Who is the boy beside Ismail?” Noah asked. Ibrahim looked and said, “What boy?”
“The small quiet one,” Noah said. Ibrahim frowned. His Other whispered in his mind. Ibrahim shifted, eyes could be deceiving. He looked at the scene the way Noah did, through his node.
He could see the boy now, but fragmented. In some of the feeds he was missing entirely, in some he was just a shade. It was only Noah’s multifaceted view that gave, at last, the entire picture. The boy and Ismail didn’t speak and yet he got the sense that they were communicating rapidly.
The boy had deep blue eyes. Armani trademark, those ones. Ibrahim wondered if he’d seen him before. One of the Central Station kids. The boy raised his eyes, seeming to somehow, impossibly, sense their attention. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Earth covered the miniature dragon. The Re-Born priest intoned the final words of farewell. The guests sighed. Robotniks saluted, lethargically. It was a hot day.
“Who is your friend?” Ibrahim said, later, when they were drinking cool lemonade in the shade of piled cars. The two boys smiled, mischievously, and the boy said, “Nem blong mi Kranki.”
My name is Kranki.
Which meant crazy, or odd, in the pidgin of the asteroids. . . .
It was hard to see the boy. He kept shifting through visual feeds, a ghost in the crisscrossed networks. There was a name for what he did, an ugly word: nakaimas.
“Mama Jones is calling me,” the boy said, suddenly. “I better go.”
He faded away, and Ibrahim was troubled.
“The messianic impulse is strongest when concentrated,” Noah said, philosophically. The funeral was over and Ismail was nowhere in sight. Ibrahim knew the boy had gone to the beach with some of the other kids. Corporeal, this time. “This land of ours has always been a lodestone for seekers of faith.”
A lot remained unsaid between them. Ibrahim, speaking carefully, said, “I wanted for the boy a normal life.”
Noah shrugged, and the precious stones that were his eyes glinted in the faint light. “What is normal?” he said. “You and I are relics of a distant past. Fossilised shells buried in the sands of time.”
Ibrahim was forced to laugh. “You sound like a Re-Born,” he said. Noah grinned, then shrugged. “The Re-Born believe in a past that never was,” he said. “They dig for virtual fossils.”
Ibrahim had lost his smile. “Whereas?” he said, prompting.
“Whereas what the children represent is a future,” Noah said. “Not, perhaps, the future, but a future. The present fragments. We can both feel it. Futures branch out like the growths from a tree.”
“How many?” Ibrahim said, uneasily. Noah shrugged. “Children?”
Ibrahim nodded. Noah said, “Ask the man in the birthing clinics,” he said, and stood up, stiffly. “I better go,” he said. “Ophelia will be waiting for me.”
Ibrahim remained alone in the junkyard. It felt as though the city was preparing for a crusade. He still remembered the messiah, a genuine descendant of King David, genetically-certified, arriving in Jerusalem on a white donkey, all the portents there and present. Not the End of Days, but an End of Days. Then someone took him out with a sniper shot.
One messiah down.
This part of the world had always needed a messiah. So did others. There had been rumours . . . the Singularity Jesus project in Southeast Asia. The Black Monks. On Mars, they said, on New Israel, they were preparing a vast virtuality in which the Holocaust had never taken place. Six million ghosts multiplying. They said the Zion asteroid was heading out of the solar system altogether, following a beamed dream of an alien god. Ibrahim was old. He had been there when there were still oranges. Steamers once docked at Jaffa and camels brought the shamouti oranges to the harbour and small boats carried them to the waiting ships. It had always been a hub in a global network. The oranges went to England, to the ports of Manchester and Southampton and Plymouth, people there still remembered the Jaffa orange. Once Central Station was a giant white monstrosity erected in the midst of a poor neighbourhood, where buses came and went, belching smoke, across the divided land. Now Jaffa was Arab again, Tel Aviv stood to one side, and Central Station was a megalomaniac spaceport rising high into the air, where suborbital flights came to land. Its neighbourhood was still poor, populated by the descendants of workers brought by the Jews from overseas, Filipinos and Romanians and Thai, and Sudanese refugees from some long-ago war.
There had been so many long-ago wars. It was hard to keep them all in one’s head.
Central Station, he thought. It was a new hub on a new network. Somewhere in that microcosm of alienation new religions were born, messiahs hatched. He wanted normality for the boy. But normality had never been a given, it was a consensus illusion and the boy with the trademarked eyes could see clear through it.
The children had been birthed. Someone had planned their emergence. One day the boy would change, but what he would grow up to be Ibrahim did not yet know.
That night, after the funeral, as he was sitting in the Palace of Discarded Things, Ismail came back from the beach. His small wiry body still glistened from the salt water, and his eyes were bright, and he was laughing. Ibrahim, who’d never had children of his own, hugged the boy. “Baba!” the boy said, “look what I found!”
Love was anxiety and pride, intermingled. Ibrahim watched as the boy went out of the yard and came back with a puppy, a small black dog with a white nose who licked the back of his hand. “I’m going to call him Solomon,” he said.
Ibrahim laughed. “You’ll have to feed him,” he warned. “I know,” the boy said, “I’ll look after him. You’ll see.”
Ismail ran across the junkyard and the dog ran behind him, tongue lolling. Ibrahim watched them both go.