- Four years ago.
Len Sabino woke up on a mattress, the room cold, and chill. Water leaked from the wood ceiling, rain hitting the window. Thunder echoed in the distance, the storm getting closer. In spite of the noise, Ryan was soundly asleep next to her, snoring almost as loud as the lightning.
“Hey, Riri, you’re sleeping?” she whispered, but the boy didn’t offer any response. Ryan was kind of cute when he slept, and completely in denial about the snoring.
Len remembered the day she and her dad had found him, amidst the rubble of a village destroyed by marauders. He had hidden in the basement, while his whole community had perished, their livestock taken. If she hadn’t scavenged his house looking for supplies, Len may never have met Ryan.
They stuck together for years afterward, never far from the other. They survived the Wars, Dad’s rampages, marauders, and Genomes. Always together, even sharing the same bed. They were siblings in all but name… though she wished they could become more, even if she was too shy to say it out loud. She never had a boyfriend, didn’t understand how these things worked.
If only he would make the first move.
Len glanced around the room. It used to be some kind of hunting lodge near the Alps, a silent house of wood on a steep hillside. The locals must have abandoned it a few years ago, either chased away by marauders or moving towards the rebuilding cities for protection. Everybody spoke about New Rome, whenever she managed to talk to someone outside her family without Dad interfering.
When Ryan wouldn’t wake up, Len left the bed in her pajamas and searched the room. Her companion had left his pants on a chair, and while it wasn’t nice, the girl looked into his pockets.
The Blue Elixir seemed to shine, as lightning fell right outside the bedroom.
It had been weeks since they left Venice, and so far Dad hadn’t noticed the potions. He had left the kids alone three days ago, to salvage stuff nearby. She hoped he wouldn’t kill anyone this time.
Len knew her father would come back. Ryan wished he didn’t. He feared Dad, hated him.
Len understood. Dad was… difficult. He was already drinking a bit too much after Mom left them for her other family, but he always did his best to raise Len and her brother. When Cesare died during the bombing, something broke inside Dad and never came back. The Elixirs had just been the last straw that broke the camel’s back, making him take out his pain on others.
But in spite of everything, he was still her father.
Len observed the potion with a mix of fear and hope. She knew how Dad might react once she drank it, but… Blue Elixirs made people smarter. Geniuses. Mechron drank one, and he invented killer robots and orbital lasers.
If it gave her a smart power, maybe she could create a cure for Dad. Make him normal again. Turn their group into a real family, instead of… of whatever they were right now.
Len hesitated, briefly glanced at Ryan, then moved into another room of the lodge. The garage at the back.
The place was complete chaos, a storage area where the previous inhabitants put everything they got their hands on. Books, car parts, tools, lamps… even an old fridge and washing machine long out of use.
It had a workshop, however, perhaps used to skin hunted animals. Since electricity didn’t work, Len had to light up a candle to see and provide some warmth. She sat behind the workbench and examined the Elixir. The receptacle provided no notice, no information besides its helix symbol. It would be a leap into the unknown. A direct injection scared her, so she decided to ingest the substance directly. She had seen Dad do it before, so it should work.
Breathing long and deep, Len removed the syringe and drank the potion whole.
The substance tasted unlike anything she had ever felt. It mixed the texture of saltwater with alien flavors, neither sweet nor salty, neither acid nor bitter. The liquid had no natural component at all.
More strangely, the substance fused with her flesh. As she drank it, the Elixir vanished before it could move into her stomach; it went straight into her bloodstream through the tongue and mouth, bypassing the normal digestion process. In the span of seconds, Len had swallowed it whole.
For a few seconds, nothing happened. Len put the empty syringe on the workbench, wondering if something had gone wrong. Had age caused the Elixir to lose its potency?
And then her mind caught fire.
A manic surge of divine inspiration possessed Len, ideas flowing into her head. Raw, pure information filled her brain like a torrent of water breaking through a dam, expanding her neurons, changing her whole understanding of the universe. She couldn’t move, her consciousness freezing as it struggled to compute an enormous mass of new content.
Her body went numb, a surge of blue energy phasing through her nerves, her bones, her organs. It was brief but intense, her entire self altered on a fundamental level.
As the mutation continued, Len entered some kind of fugue state. The urge to create possessed her; her power demanded to be used, like a baby wishing to be born into the world. As the blue light left her body, Len’s hands grabbed the remains of the fridge, the tools, the washing machine, and everything within reach.
She didn’t know how long she remained in that manic state. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. During that period, nothing else mattered; not Dad, not Ryan, not the world. She only needed to create something, anything.
When the surge lessened and Len regained control of herself, she had transformed the fridge and random stuff into some kind of bulky bathysphere. She had somehow painted it red, and even incorporated a hammer and broken sickle into the final design; even in that fugue state, her personality had bled through.
She understood her power’s nature, almost intuitively. It boiled down to one word.
Her power was all about water. How it worked. How to understand marine life, and how to adapt land animals to survive below the waves. How to alter the ocean on a worldwide scale, how to make technology that resisted deep sea pressure, how to create devices capable of causing tsunamis. She knew what creatures lived in the darkest abysses of the planet, and how she could communicate with them. Her power provided her with all the information she needed, allowing her own creativity to fill in the blanks.
For Len, who had always loved the sea and Jules Verne’s stories, it was almost a dream come true. It made her wonder if the Elixir granted powers based on the drinker’s personality, providing an ability that they would like based on the selected color.
But for all its wonders, her power wouldn’t help Dad.
It wouldn’t help Dad! She couldn’t imagine any way to cure him, even with her expanded intellect! She didn’t even understand how his unique biology worked, let alone how to deal with his insanity! She could make submarines, tsunami machines, water-control devices, but nothing that could help her understand Elixirs, let alone the madness they caused! And he—
Len turned towards the door, Ryan stepping inside the garage while still in his pajamas. He glanced at the mini-sub, then at the empty bottle; his mouth said nothing, but his eyes widened.
“I had to,” Len said, her voice breaking. “I had to.”
There was no condemnation in his gaze, only worry. “Was it worth it?”
Len shook her head in defeat, crumbling on the bench. The creative surge had left her exhausted as if she had run for hours.
She felt his hand on her shoulder. She raised her head at Ryan, who offered her a warm smile. “Hey,” he said, pointing at the bathysphere. “It’s still beautiful. Now you can send fish to Siberia if they misbehave.”
The lame joke came out of nowhere but made Len laugh. “You’re horrible,” she replied, the tension evaporating. “I should send you to a gulag.”
“We both know that will only be a temporary solution.”
“Seriously though,” Len smirked, “We could travel. I can make a Nautilus from scrap parts—”
They heard the lodge’s door open from the outside, the lock removed.
“Len? Cesare?” Bloodstream’s voice echoed through the lodge alongside the lightning, Ryan’s hand tensing on Len’s shoulder. “Where are you? We have to go!”
“Hide,” Ryan said, panic overtaking his voice. “You have to hide.”
“Where?” Len replied sadly. “There’s nowhere to go.”
“We have to leave, the homeless are revolting again! They killed my clone in…”
When Bloodstream entered the garage, leaving bloody footprints behind, Ryan had moved in front of Len. The Psycho observed his daughter without a word, the blood making up his body shifting like a raging ocean.
“Len.” Dad’s behavior had suddenly changed from warm to tense. “What am I sensing?”
“What am I sensing in your blood?”
Ryan shielded Len, like a knight in shining armor protecting her from a furious dragon. But for all his bravery, he had no sword.
“You have…. you have lied to me…” Bloodstream rasped angrily, his fingers turning into claws. “You lied to your own father!”
Len froze. She suddenly felt so small, the world so cold and unwelcoming.
“The power isn’t for you!” Dad snarled angrily. “It was for me! It was always meant for me! Don’t you understand, you stupid daughter? I took it for you! I took it to protect you! Protect you from this sick world!”
“I know…” the Genius apologized, lowering her eyes. “I know.”
It was her fault. If she had been strong… if she had been strong, Dad wouldn’t have had to take those potions and transform into a monster.
“Ever since your mother abandoned us, it was my responsibility! Mine!” Dad calmed himself, but the menace in his voice only grew. “You have to be punished.”
“Don’t touch her!” Ryan tried to stop the Psycho, but Bloodstream simply slapped him out of the way with a furious backhand, sending the boy to the floor. Her father moved towards Len, hands raised to strangle her.
His daughter closed her eyes and didn’t resist. She just waited for the inevitable.
But it never came.
She opened her eyes again, facing her father’s featureless visage. His claws within an inch of his daughter’s neck, Bloodstream trembled, as if suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
“No…” Dad suddenly held his head with both hands, fighting a headache. “No… not her… not Len… I can’t… I can control it… I can...”
Bloodstream walked away from the garage, his last embers of humanity struggling against the Elixir addiction. Dad vanished inside the lodge, Len hearing him bang his head against a wall in a room nearby.
Ryan had recovered from the slap, Len extending a hand to help get back on his feet. “You’re okay?” she asked with concern. He had blood falling from his nose; not Bloodstream’s, but his own.
“Yeah,” he said, although clearly shaken. “Yeah.”
“You were very brave,” she tried to cheer him up, blushing a bit. “It was very heroic.”
Instead of answering with words, he kissed her.
Len gasped, as he pulled her towards him without warning, his lips against her. It was a kiss born of hunger, of a primal desire for comfort and human contact.
It felt good.
After all the fear and tension, it just felt good.
They quickly broke the embrace as they heard Dad crawl back into the room, putting space between each other. Whether it was out of fear of discovery or embarrassment, Len couldn’t tell.
“I am… I am well… I see clearly…” Bloodstream seemed calmer, but he didn’t mention the incident. He didn’t even acknowledge Ryan or his injury. “I see it clearly now. You are smart, Len. You’re smarter now. You can make anything.”
“Y-yes, no I mean,” Len cleared her throat anxiously. “I can’t make anything, but I can build stuff.”
“We will leave,” Bloodstream declared suddenly. “People are after me. After us. They destroy my clones and close in. You will make a sub, and we will leave. It was getting harder and harder to find good places to crash in anyway.”
“Leave where?” Ryan asked, very careful.
“How about America?” Bloodstream replied, joining his hands. “The land of opportunity, Hollywood! We will be stars there, stars! Like the Kardashians!”
“I…” That was insane, Len thought. They barely knew how things were in France, let alone across the Atlantic! “I will see, Dad…”
“It’s all going to be fine.” Both Len and Ryan tensed, as Dad put a hand on their heads, almost paternally. “We’ll always be together.”
- Present Day
Silence and darkness.
The bottom of the ocean was the most peaceful place on Earth. You could always hear sounds of some kind on the surface. The singing of birds. The wind on the grass. The horns of cars. The moans of Rust Town’s whores and addicts.
Here, in the deepest abyss of the Mediterranean Sea, Len was alone with her thoughts.
She liked it this way.
Carrying a plasma torch adapted for the underwater environment and clad in her diving armor suit, the Genius worked on repairing the base’s outer shell. Some of the steel parts hadn’t handled the stress of deep sea pressure, weakening a part of the modular habitat. While she had designed the place to be highly modular, with each ‘house’ independent from the others, any leak could cause a disaster down the line.
If it was to house life one day, it had to be perfectly safe. Safe from the horrors and darkness outside.
The antidepressants dulled Len’s mind, made her numb after the initial manic rush, but her power allowed her to focus anyway. If anything, she only really felt happy while working. Using her power filled Len with euphoria, provided her with a sense of purpose and direction she lacked in her life.
It must be night above the surface, the Genius thought. I wonder...
Unable to suppress her curiosity, Len briefly activated her radio, listening to a conversation above the surface while working.
“Existence is subjective.”
“Mm?” Even now, hearing Ryan’s voice startled Len and almost made her drop her tool.
“Your question, about whether I exist if you can roll back time.” Len didn’t recognize that voice. A new one. “We can never know we exist, so there is no objective truth to existence.”
“You’re still thinking it over?”
“Yes. It’s disturbing.”
“Eh, you get used to the uncertainty.”
No, you didn’t.
Len eavesdropped through Ryan’s Chronoradio for a while, then muted it. She had watched him from afar the day after he reached New Rome, while he was close to the shores. The Genius could have sworn he knew she was nearby, and it made her retreat beneath the waves.
Ryan was looking for her. He had been for years.
And she didn’t know what to tell him.