There is Alba. And there is everything else.
In a future threatened by the spread of "kipple" (garbage & trash), Peter Payne is part of a fringe society that scavenges junk to survive. His days are spent in the refuse of humanity and running with a teenage gang called The Dead Bones lead by his brother Charlie. But when Peter finds beauty in the world in the shape of Alba, an advanced model female nexhuman, he finds purpose ... and love. When Charlie and The Dead Bones destroy Peter's dreams for the future, Peter embarks on a quest to rebuild the object of his obsession.
Italian author Francesco Verso is one of the hardest working humans today in his tireless promotion of World SF through his own publishing house, Future Fiction. But he's also an award-winning novelist with a focus on near future hard SF, and the following novel is a perfect example of his unique vision. – Lavie Tidhar
"A thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human and an exciting peek into a world that is just around the corner."– James Patrick Kelly (Nebula, Locus and Hugo Award winner)
"Nexhuman is a masterpiece by a talented Italian writer, and I look forward to whatever he writes next."– Strange Horizons review
Kathal Hill is one of the places where I spend my days rummaging through the piles of rubbish. It makes my fingertips so tired I can no longer feel them and I often have to stop and rest. Today I settle into the pilot seat, extract my military binoculars from my overalls, set the zoom to 10x, and watch her.
Alba works behind the window of the travel agency, Boreal Skies, two hundred metres away. She is completely unaware of me watching as she selects sky cruises for indecisive customers or romantic voyages for couples determined to save their relationships.
I increase the zoom to 13x: Her ivory lacquered fingernails flick through brochures so gracefully, it seems impossible that this same paper, suffused with her perfume, could one day end up here, in my muck-covered hands.
I am ashamed to go into Boreal Skies with my crumpled catalogue and show her the trip I would like to go on. With her.
The perfume that she leaves on the paper is not erased so quickly by the kipple.
Someone calls me from below.
'Peter! Get your arse moving or I'm taking you off today's shift.'
At the bottom of the hill, the team leader is calling me back. I ignore him—her vivid red hair is tied in a ponytail, adding to the friendly appearance with which she can convince anyone to take a holiday, rather than staying at home in the company of their regrets.
'I told you to move it! If I have to call you again, you can say goodbye to your pay.'
I ignore the shout and watch her just a moment longer. One day's pay, one paltry K, isn't much to lose when weighed against the opportunity of seeing Alba in her agency outfit with her silver name tag.
Anyway, I am satisfied with today's yield. In my bag, I have a half-full blister pack of unexpired Mentax pills and some Ecorette tobacco I can sell to the hawkers in Junkland. I can make more money there than in this heap.
Stuffing the binoculars into my bag, I get out of the chair and limp along a muddy path lined with piles of televisions and the shells of computers with smashed monitors and blackened circuit boards. The path leads into a cloud of smoke and ash, lit only by green and amber lights.
The smoke is not the product of a single bonfire. It rises from a fiery belt in the distance, where dozens of hazy figures move and gesticulate in the acrid cloud. We are the Kathal Hill trashformers. Some are raking through the materials with their bare hands, some are sifting through the rubbish, others are stoking and feeding the flames with anything they can't sell. Usually, Rasha looks after our fires, though sometimes Norbert takes his place. The other kids in my team gather up and carry away tangled armfuls of multicoloured wires.
The air bears the stench of the chemicals that will later rain down—if not on us, maybe to the north, on the people in Cali Nova. If the Tuwim decides to blow that way …
I use my t-shirt to cover my face and walk over to Rasha. He is a kid like me, though slightly less skinny, and he likes the fires. He wears a different turban every day, which he partially unwraps to cover his nose and mouth.
Rasha set our school on fire; we all know he did it. He says it was a mistake; he is adamant about this and I believe him. Rasha produces enough electricity to throw anyone who touches him to the ground. That's why he wears gloves. When he comes to your house to fix something, he doesn't have to turn the electricity off. The touch of a live wire makes him laugh. Anyone else would be electrocuted on the spot, but he only feels a tickle. Once, just for the fun of it, the lads and I decided to measure the voltage his fingertips discharged. We got a reading of eighty thousand volts.
Intent on his fires, hypnotised by the tongues of flame, he stirs the two flaming piles he is tending, then bends and disappears in the whirl of sooty smoke. When I can see him again, he is pulling a roll of copper wire out of a burning tyre. He dips it into a puddle to cool. At the end of his shift, Rasha will take the scrap metal over to the team leader, who will take it to the recycling station. If he is lucky, it will earn him a K. I rest my good hand on his shoulder and he does the same. In our business, it's best not to open your mouth to say hello.
I don't even try to get my pay; instead, I head over to the steep slope towards the exit by the Akeren River. Maybe my brother, Charlie, will have a job for me later. He used to do this job. He said that for a long time, the people of the megalopolis kept their rubbish 'out of sight and out of mind'—but it wasn't like that anymore. Today everyone has the kipple they deserve.
When the council made it illegal to send or sell rubbish elsewhere, everyone had to do the best they could to recycle and minimise—or live in the middle of it. The monstrous automated bins, the UCUs—short for Urban Cleaning Units—were created to help promote the idea of reconsumerism.
The UCUs move any product that appears to be resaleable in some way to the storage sites. Their noisy alarms are our curfew; their fearful jaws are our competitors. As soon as they move in, we've got to clear the area immediately or face consequences. Over the years, each generation of UCU becomes faster and more efficient.
The price of second, third, fourth-hand-or-more goods is in competition with the residual value of the waste that has been left to rot. In the end, free shopping from the dump is worth a whole day of underpaid work.
Every morning, as I walk along Lucite Street, the road that links my house to Kathal Hill, I stop in front of Boreal Skies. I do my best to get Alba's attention, but in the evenings, filthy from ten hours of digging around in reeking rubbish, I make an equally valiant effort not to be noticed and take a different route to avoid her shop. By the end of the day, the stench of the dump has penetrated my clothes and skin so deeply that I may as well be a junkyard fox.
Perhaps Alba would notice me if it weren't for the fact that I reach no higher than her shoulder.
I haven't said anything about this to the lads in my brother's gang, the Dead Bones, in case they take the piss. I haven't told Charlie either; he would only tease me about it. They don't know that when Boreal Skies is empty and I stand, staring at the offers in the window, dreaming of dream destinations, Alba comes outside to say hello to me.
Alba displays a Moore Temple hologram in the window, alongside the all-inclusive package holidays and special discounts. The shop sign radiates a bright message:
Biology is not an end; it is a tendency.
Chips are our real destination.
There is only ever Alba inside. She works alone from daybreak to nightfall, never stopping. She owns Boreal Skies and she does as she likes.
When she is less than a metre from me, Alba bends over and gives me a noisy kiss on the cheek. Then she strokes my head and I don't know whether to smile at her or cry; I can't tell whether this ritual makes me happy or hurts me deep down inside. She makes me feel like a child.
I look up at her. Anyone in my shoes would pray that she doesn't judge by appearances and I am sure she doesn't.
Even when I make anonymous video-calls to her, covering my face with a hood and using a voice modulator, Alba doesn't get angry and she doesn't call my bluff, even though I'm sure she knows it's me.
She is so lovely, I forget who I am.
She is so magnetic, I forget where I am.
It is easier to spend the day rummaging through the dump after a start like this.
I am only fifteen, and she is twenty-three. Of all the cruel tricks fate has played on me, this is the worst. My age leaves me vulnerable to Charlie's pranks. One day, after having seen me lurking around Boreal Skies, he decided to find out why. He wasn't out to hassle me about wasting time, he wasn't looking to amuse himself by crushing my hopes; his only goal was to belittle me in front of Alba.
On that grey morning with clouds heavy on the horizon, while Alba was stroking my head as usual, and I was, as usual, torn between delight and agony, Charlie materialised from behind the shop and took my hand as if I were a child.
'Peter! How many times do I have to tell you not to bother people at work?'
Alba had no doubt that Charlie was showing real consideration; she was too far removed from Charlie's brand of artifice to suspect anything else.
'Don't worry. This young man says hello to me every morning. It's a pleasure to chat with him. There are never any customers around at this time of day …' Alba's soft voice perfectly matches her graceful appearance.
Charlie turns a smile on for her, as false as his earlier words. 'You're kind, Miss, but I have to go to work, and he has to be at school soon.'
I don't know what my brother is plotting at this point, but he is really trying to show me up. The school has been closed for a year and swallowed by kipple after the—accidental?—fire set by Rasha. The school gates have had 'Evacuated Area' seared into them with a blowtorch. Behind the gratings, the abandoned schoolyard is haunted by an overpowering sensation of death.
Alba leaves us with a splendid smile, smoothing her uniform—Tuesday's rainbow tailleur that always puts me in a good mood—with her usual care. 'I won't keep you then. See you tomorrow, Peter.'
I gather up all my courage to reply. I don't think she has noticed that I am daydreaming about her. 'Bye, Alba. See you tomorrow.'
Charlie grabs my arm and yanks me away, and I nearly twist my head off so I can watch Alba slide back in behind her desk and cross her legs. She lifts her hand to wave.
He pushes me until we have turned the corner. Then he puts his hands on my shoulders and shoves me backwards until I am pinned against the wall.
'Forget about her. She's …' He sneers, his face close to mine. 'Just forget her, all right?'
I don't understand.