2016, Venezia, Italy.
They once called it the city of canals. They said it was the most beautiful city in the world, with tourists coming all the way from China to visit it.
That was before the Wars.
More than a decade after, Venezia had become an open grave, a poisonous marsh whose canals overflowed with toxic plants and dark mud. Some islands had sunk, their supports destroyed by Mechron's drone bombardments. Most houses had fallen into disrepair, invaded by worms and insects, their rooms full of old human bones; meanwhile, the city's outskirts had been taken over by raiders, who used boats to attack coastal communities.
At least, they did until yesterday. Until Ryan’s group arrived.
It wasn’t the teen’s choice though. Len’s dad basically dragged them there from the city of Rubano, when he heard the local raiders had Genomes among their number. That maniac could never resist the lure of easy targets, leaving the rest of them to salvage stuff while he went hunting.
The wiser bandits had fled without looking back; the others had perished, their exsanguinated corpses tossed into the waters. Genomes and normies both. Nobody could defeat Len’s dad. Nobody. Except maybe Augustus or Leo Hargraves, but so far they hadn’t met.
His face covered by a scarf to protect him from the foul air, Ryan chased away these dark thoughts and glanced at the stone house in front of him. Dusty, half-rotten books were piled up in its courtyard, forming a strange staircase to climb above the walls nearby.
“Riri!” Len called him from within. “Come! I’ve found a treasure!”
Curious, the sixteen-year old teenager stepped inside the house while whistling. As expected, it was some kind of library, albeit one unlike anything Ryan had ever seen. Piled up books formed a true labyrinth of walls and twisting turns, to the point they could probably crush him dead if they ever collapsed. Unlike other areas of the city, vegetation hadn’t taken over, and marauders had clearly ignored the building; nobody respected culture nowadays.
He found Len on a boat. Literally. The owners had moved a gondola inside the library before filling it with books. His best friend laid on her back atop a pile, reading something.
“Heya, Shortie.” A tomboyish girl his age, Len was a tiny bit smaller than Ryan and disliked being called out on it; so of course, he teased her mercilessly. “You’re reading Gulliver's Travels?”
“I’m not short, I’m growing!” Len complained, interrupting her lecture to glare at him with her beautiful blue eyes. Ryan often thought he could see the sea she loved so much in them. Her skin was pale, her raven hair reaching her shoulders. Truly a modern Snow White, although she dressed in brown travel clothes rather than noble gowns. “Now come over here before I throw a dictionary at your face.”
Ryan laid next to his best friend, their shoulders touching, and peeked at the cover. While ancient and yellowed by age, the book seemed relatively well-preserved. “Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers, écrit par Jules Verne.”
“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, written by Jules Verne, French edition,” Len translated, her eyes all but shining. She already had two copies of that book, but none in the original language. “You can’t imagine how long I’ve been looking for it. The translations are terrible.”
“I thought you couldn’t read French, mais non?” Ryan mocked her, Len pinching his arm in response. “Ouch.”
“You deserve it, Riri,” she replied. “Et j’apprend la français, merci bien beaucoup.”
“Le français,” Ryan corrected her. “And you can remove the bien.”
She sighed. “Just take a book and shut up. I think they have ‘How to win friends and influence people’, which you really need to read.”
“I like reading, but not as much as eating,” Ryan said. Len had filled her supply bag to the brim with books, and nothing else. “Unless you want to make me eat your Communist Manifesto?”
“If you do that, I will eat you, Riri. With a fork.” She waved a hand at the library. “This place wouldn’t have become a toxic dump, had the communist revolution happened.”
“Maybe it would have been a gulag instead,” Ryan replied, delighting at teasing her beliefs.
“People messed it up, but the concept is right,” Len protested, closing her book and putting it on her chest. “Is it wrong to think everyone should be equal?”
“No, just naive.”
“It could still happen,” Len insisted with cheerful optimism. “Everything has been rebooted back to zero. The world has changed.”
“Yes, but not human nature.”
“You’re too cynical for your own good, Riri.” She closed her book and put it in her travel bag, behind the gondola. “When do you think Dad will come back?”
Once he ran out of victims. “I don't know.”
She looked at him in silence, their eyes locking. They rarely had moments of privacy, where they could breathe without her father looking. Ryan looked at eyes, then at her lips…
Do it, do it, do it.
But he chickened out.
Her face unreadable, Len let out a sigh. Ryan wasn’t sure if it was out of relief or disappointment. “Can you help me remove the books from that boat?” she asked. “We could make it a bed.”
“You want to sleep there?” Ryan balked at it. The wood was so damaged, it could crumble anytime.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. I always wanted to have my own ship. Do you know more than eighty percent of the ocean is unmapped?”
“You want to sleep in the gondola or put it to use?”
“We could find one,” she said, daydreaming. “A real ship. Or make one. Sail away like the explorers of old.”
“With or without your dad?” Ryan asked the hard question.
Len didn’t respond, which was an answer in itself. Without a word, she rose back on her feet and started removing the books with Ryan’s help. Once they were done, Len examined the boat’s bottom, her eyebrows narrowing. “Uh,” she said, thoughtful. “Could it be?”
“That type of gondola,” Len said, “Do you know what it is?”
“Sorry, I’m not a ship geek like you.”
Instead of answering, Len knocked at a spot at the gondola’s back end. “You heard that?”
“Exactly,” Len said triumphantly. “This type of boat often has a hidden compartment. They carried messages, money, or even drugs.”
“You would think marauders already found it,” Ryan pointed out.
“It’s not common knowledge, and you must know where to look to find it. All ship geeks know that!” She could be so smug sometimes. “Also, it’s a library.”
Yeah, Ryan doubted many locals had visited the library, and considering the dust raised when they removed the book, nobody had touched the gondola in years. Pillagers must have examined the checkout and other obvious spots without looking too much into it.
“Remove that wooden plank,” Len pointed at a spot. “It’s old, it shouldn’t be hard.”
“Hey, why me?” Ryan complained.
“It’s called work division,” she replied with a bright smile. “I think, you work!”
“If it’s work, that means I’m getting paid.”
“I will let you sleep in the gondola,” Len winked at him.
The things he did for her...
In the end, as Len said, the wood was so damaged by time and termites, Ryan had no problem removing the planks with his bare hands. And as she thought, the boat did have a compartment… with one hell of a treasure within.
A hexagonal, metal box, with a helix-shaped lock. The two teens could only hold their breath at this finding.
“No way…” Len’s eyes widened in shock. “Is that what I think it is?”
“I believe so.” One of the mythical Wonderboxes, sent by the Alchemist to the first Genomes. The devices which started the Last Easter tragedy and the Genome Wars that followed. Ryan had no problem removing the lock, having spent years breaking into deserted homes to find supplies.
The metal box opened, revealing a well-preserved letter and three syringes full of swirling liquid. One blue, one violet, and one red. Each bore a swirling, multicolored helix symbol.
Ryan opened the letter, Len peeking at the content over his shoulder. The paper was handwritten.
“Congratulations, Mr. Rossi.
You have been selected to participate in a grand socio-genetic experiment of my design. You do not know me, but I know you, Mr. Rossi. I believe that you are a fine specimen of the Homo Sapiens species, possessing the necessary skills, intelligence, and genes to lead humanity into the next phase of its biological evolution.
I grant you a miracle.
This box contains three Elixirs, selected at random among a selection of over ten million distributed around the globe. You must have heard about them on the news. Yes, these serums grant a host of health benefits, including a unique power based on the color composition:
You are free to do as you wish with these Elixirs; they are ready for immediate use and testing in the field. I would advise not to drink more than one, but the data gathered should be interesting nonetheless.
Now, I must inform you that you are far from the only person to have received this gift. When you open your eyes next morning, the world you lived in will have ended; instead, you will wake up in a world where mankind’s potential is no longer constrained by the petty rules of reality. A world where everything is possible.
I have no idea how this divine experiment will turn out… but I can’t wait to see the results.
Thank you for advancing the cause of science.
Best of luck,
“He never opened the box,” Len said with sorrow.
“Maybe he died before he could,” Ryan replied. “He probably hid the box before the bioweapons hit.”
“You think the Blue one can make you a Genius?”
“Maybe,” Ryan replied. Geniuses were a slang for Genomes, usually Blue ones, with the ability to create advanced technology way ahead of their time.
Mechron, the man who came closest to taking over the world, had been the most famous one. His self-replicating robot army had swept Eurasia until some countries pushed their big red button before they could fall next. Nobody remembered who had fired the first shot, but Mechron responded to the A-bombs with drone bombardments and bioweapons. Central Eurasia had become a nuclear wasteland; southern Europe, a mass grave.
At least this city wasn’t irradiated, unlike Turin.
“Which one do you want to take?” Ryan asked his friend.
Len paled. “We can’t drink this,” she hissed. “Dad will know. He can sense it in the blood.”
“Yeah, perhaps, but that may be our only chance to get away from him.”
“I’m not abandoning Dad,” Len replied with a glare. “He’s going to get better, I know that.”
“Fuck no, he isn’t.” If anything, he was steadily getting worse. Now that Dynamis and Augustus had put a bounty on his head, he had to fend off hunters semi-regularly. “Before he was just crazy and violent, but now he’s violent and paranoid. He’s never going to heal, and I think deep down, you know I’m right.”
Len bit her lower lip, as she always did when stressed and sad. “He’s still my dad,” she said, with a hint of resignation in the voice. “He will want them all.”
“He doesn’t have to know,” Ryan argued. “Your father will get us all kill—”
“Len!” a shrilling voice echoed from outside. “Len! Where are you?”
Speaking of the devil. Quickly, without thinking, Ryan grabbed an Elixir in each hand and hid them in his back pockets alongside the letter. Realizing his intent, Len almost seized the last potion, but hesitated for too long.
Ryan had the time to hide the Blue and the Violet Elixirs, when Len’s dad crawled into the room.
Len’s dad was no longer a man. Not since he drank one Elixir too many and underwent a mutation. His flesh, organs, and skin were all gone, leaving only a shapeless mass of blood covering the bones. He had become a faceless, crimson puppet, his body constantly fluctuating; he even moved like a string-less doll, his arms flailing like whips. He left nothing behind, no bloody footprint.
Both teens tensed, unconsciously moving closer to the other.
“Ah, Cesare,” the Psycho said upon ‘seeing’ Ryan. “Good to see you’re taking care of your sister.”
His name wasn’t Cesare, and they weren’t related.
But Ryan knew better than to say that out loud. Len’s dad was sick. Very, very sick. Especially in the head. Sometimes, he was Len’s dad, kind, friendly Freddie, who liked to play board games and watch old movies.
But sometimes, he was just Bloodstream.
And when the Psycho noticed the Wonderbox and the Red Elixir, his body instantly solidified, his fingers turning into sharp claws. His lingering humanity vanished, overcome by an addiction stronger than anything else.
Like a feral beast pouncing on a mouse, Bloodstream rushed at the box, brutally pushing Len out of the way. Her back hit a book wall, some of them falling behind.
“Len!” Ryan screamed, immediately rushing to her side. Bloodstream ignored him, grabbing the Red Elixir and smashing the syringe. He didn’t bother to inject anything, his body absorbing the content with greedy hunger; his blood fluctuated like a raging sea, before stabilizing.
Thankfully, Len was more stunned than harmed. However, her father frantically searched the box for any other Elixir, before glancing at the teens. “Where’s the rest?!” Bloodstream hissed at the two, now outright screaming. “Where’s the rest?!”
“There’s nothing else!” Ryan protested.
“Liar!” Bloodstream’s hand turned into an axe. “A son shouldn’t lie to his father!”
“Dad, stop!” Len screamed.
As if shaken out of his drug-fueled episode, Bloodstream immediately calmed himself. His hands returned to their normal shape, and he shook his head in confusion. The Elixir would help stabilize his mutations, at least for a while.
“Len… I’m sorry. I’m…” Bloodstream put his hands around his skull as if struggling with a brain freeze. “Sorry…”
“It’s… it’s okay Dad,” Len said, looking away with her arms crossed. “It’s okay.”
Bloodstream looked at his daughter with concern, his hands moving towards her; however, he backed down when Len flinched at his approach. The Psycho remained eerily silent, before glancing at Ryan. “Cesare?”
“Yes, Dad?” Ryan asked, loathing every word.
“Len feels sad,” Bloodstream said. “Smile for her.”
Ryan forced himself, although his lips couldn’t reach his eyes. Thankfully, Len’s dad couldn’t distinguish a false smile from a real one. He put his bloody hand on the teen’s hair, less like a son, and more like a pet.
“You’re a good boy, Cesare,” Bloodstream said, no blood meshing with Ryan’s hair. “You’re a good boy.”
Len’s brother Cesare was long dead. Bloodstream just refused to accept it.
Neither teen pointed it out though. The last time Len’s dad had broken out of his delusion, the Psycho had almost strangled Ryan. He would have killed him too, had Len not calmed her father. Bloodstream only really listened to his daughter nowadays.
Sometimes, not even then.
It was always the same pattern: their group would settle down for a while, Len’s dad would have a violent episode, and either he wiped out the locals or they chased him off. The trio would have to move on, because when people realized that they couldn’t kill Bloodstream, they went after Len and Ryan. Rinse and repeat.
Ryan had lost count of how many places they had crashed over the last few years. One city at a time, they had eventually wandered all the way from Campania to Venezia. Bloodstream had them constantly on the move, chasing after isolated Genomes whose Elixir he could drain to satisfy his addiction.
“Pack your things, kids,” Bloodstream said. “This place is driving me crazy. We’re going to Aqualand. You will like it, Len? You always liked water.”
“I… yes, Dad. I do.”
“I hope they have ice creams,” Bloodstream said cheerfully, before leaving the room.
Len looked at Ryan, who didn’t think twice. They hugged tightly, and for a second Ryan wondered if he should let her go at all.
He still had the Elixirs in his pocket.
They had to leave.