- Region of Campania, Italy, December 2008
Julie Costa tended to her garden, hastening the growth of its wheat.
As a green aura flowed through the plant, it bore purple yields, full of nutrients. She had spent weeks tuning the exact ratio of protein, improving its resistance to cold, and increasing the plant’s ability to remove pollutants from soil.
Julie’s Green power activated whenever she touched a living being, allowing her to intuitively understand how their body functioned, down to the genetic level. She could make minor edits to the DNA, breed new species from a single parent.
This special plant was only one of many experimental crops growing inside the farm. Wheat capable of thriving in a polluted area, maize absorbing ambient radioactivity… Her personal plot of land was a strange, colorful assembly of unique floral constructs.
Although the sun had already set, light shone upon her, making the thirty-year-old biologist stop in her tracks.
“Julie,” a man’s voice echoed above her, sounding like embers consuming wood. “Still working at this hour?”
“Hello, Leonard,” Julie raised her head at the man flying four meters above her, a human-shaped figure of flames and blinding light. “I could say the same for you.”
Even when he toned down the light his body produced, it was difficult to look at Leo Hargraves. His Red Elixir had given him the ability to turn into a living sun, transforming his human flesh into solar flames and giving him control over his own gravity. Leonard had once told her that he always suppressed most of his power, lest he incinerate entire cities with his mere presence.
Unlike many Genomes, the Carnival’s leader always used his real name, believing it made him accountable and more trustworthy. It hadn’t stopped people from giving him a nickname though, one worthy of his overwhelming power.
Leo the Living Sun.
Unfortunately, the poor man burnt his clothes whenever he transformed. Unlimited power came with downsides.
“Is your husband here?” Leonard asked her. “I have news.”
“He’s putting Giulia to bed,” she replied. “You’re finally moving on?”
The fiery man nodded with a hint of regret, his presence attracting a few gazes. At this hour, most of the community was still awake; farmers patrolled the walls, tended to the fields, or just played dice outside.
The Costa family’s farm included a large house, shacks, a barn, farmlands, and several pens for animals. Two dozen people lived on the property, mostly refugees which Julie and her husband had taken in after the Genome Wars started. Over time, the community had built wooden walls and fortifications around the property, to deter attacks from bandits and marauders.
In fact, one such attack was how Julie met Leonard in the first place. His Carnival had slain a Genome bandit leader terrorizing the region, then stuck around to make sure the local communities could sustain themselves.
Her husband Bruno, a muscled, handsome man with black hair and blue eyes, emerged from the barn, smiling upon seeing Leonard. He had many knives around his belt, for his power allowed him to turn any blade so sharp that it could cut through anything. Wood, steel, diamond… nothing could resist him.
When they heard about his power, most people believed Bruno was some kind of badass killer, but they couldn’t be farther from the truth. Julie’s husband was the sweetest, most wholesome person on earth, and the only living beings he had used his gift on were cattle.
It was that kindness that made her fall in love with him in the first place. Julie had moved to Campania in 2002 to investigate the high number of cancers in the region for her Ph.D. thesis. She had interviewed Bruno as part of her research, and what had started as an academic project had transformed into a happy marriage.
And then Last Easter happened.
That Wonderbox… Julie still didn’t understand why her family had been selected to receive one. Why did a couple in the middle of nowhere receive Elixirs? Why did that Alchemist maniac even distribute something so dangerous?
Before she knew it, Julie’s world had been turned upside down. A madman had devastated Salerno in a power-fueled rampage, a totalitarian Genome dictator called Mechron had taken over central Europe, and all of Italy had been carpet-bombed back to the stone age.
Since the family farm was located away from population centers, it had been spared from the destruction. Bruno had decided to hole up there, waiting until the dust settled.
It never did.
“Bruno, Julie, it’s been a pleasure,” Leonard said, “but unfortunately, the day has come for the Carnival to relocate.”
“So it’s finally time, uh?” Bruno said, clearly saddened. “It has only been two months, but to me, you’re part of the landscape now.”
“Ah! Maybe one day, once peace returns, I will build myself a house nearby.” Although she couldn’t see his face through the flames, Julie was convinced Leonard was grinning ear to ear. “Campania is such a beautiful region.”
It was. Even the rampant chaos couldn’t change that. “So this is goodbye, not farewell,” Julie said with optimism.
“You’re always welcome among us,” Bruno said. “Giulia will be the saddest. She calls you Uncle Leo now, you know?”
“‘When will Uncle Leo come?’” Julie mimicked her daughter with a chuckle. “‘Uncle Leo is best Uncle!’”
Leonard laughed in response. “Ah, stop, you’re making me want to stay so much,” he said, before sighing. “I promise I will return for her birthday.”
“I will hold you on to that,” Julie replied.
“Your daughter… your daughter is the future, in more ways than one,” Leo said. “We must fight, so that our children may grow up happy. No matter the burdens they will bear.”
Yes. The burden of powers.
Bruno and Julie had conceived their daughter soon after they each took their Elixir. Their little girl hadn’t manifested powers yet, but she already showed signs of secondary Genome mutations. Resistance to sickness and toxins, hardened organs, accelerated healing...
A second-generation Genome.
Julie suspected it had been the Alchemist’s goal all along. To foster a new race of superhumans capable of breeding; a species that would soon replace the homo sapiens, until the old humanity vanished like the neanderthals.
“There is a new organization making waves in Calabria,” Leo said. “I thought you should know.”
“Doesn’t the ‘Ndrangheta control the area?” Bruno asked. The Calabrian mafia had taken over the region after some of their members received Elixirs, overpowering the local authorities.
“They did,” Leo replied. “They have been wiped out.”
“Wiped out?” Bruno frowned. “As in—”
“Wiped out. Men, women, and children.” Leo crossed his blazing arms. “The responsible party is apparently an offshoot of the Camorra, but ten times deadlier. It wants to unite the mafia families under one banner, and if met with resistance, its Genomes leave no survivors. It has made it very difficult to track their members, and the communities they subvert won’t even speak to outsiders.”
“Will you fight these people?” Julie asked him, worried. Calabria wasn’t very far from Campania.
The mighty Red Genome shook his head. “Pythia wants us to move north and fight Mechron. She has seen him develop orbital weapons in a few years, with catastrophic consequences down the line. And a new Psycho in France, Manic Plague, is a living pandemic whose danger grows exponentially the longer she remains active.”
As Julie feared, there were simply so many dangerous Genomes around. Some of them were existential threats to mankind as a whole, and Leo’s Carnival couldn’t be everywhere.
Even now, Mechron, Genome warlords, and the remnants of the pre-bombing military fought for control over the wasteland they had created. The Genome Wars, people called it. The fighting was way worse north of Italy, but it didn’t mean the south was safe.
With the collapse of civilization, mankind had embraced both its worst and better instincts. Marauders, Psychos, and bandits roamed the countryside; but Bruno had welcomed many refugees inside the farm, and they had formed a stable community.
One that, hopefully, would help the world heal.
“We’ll be careful,” Bruno promised, putting a hand around Julie’s waist.
“Please do,” Leo said, giving them a final nod. “Kiss Giulia for me.”
And so, Leonard Hargraves flew away, moving across the night sky at a fighter jet’s speed.
“He never was one for long speeches.” Bruno held his wife in his arms. “I’ll miss him.”
“Me too,” Julie said. The region felt safe with the Carnival nearby. Even while their community and neighborhoods could defend themselves, nobody dared pick a fight with a freaking sun. “But so many people need his help, far more than we do.”
Her husband nodded, glancing at the crops. “They’re ready?”
“Yes,” she said. “Once I would have said introducing new species into the ecosystem is a terrible idea, but…”
“I would rather have purple maize than glowing corn,” Bruno chuckled, Julie shaking her head at his lame joke. He kissed her on the lips. “I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Times may be hard… but they would beat them.
They spent a few minutes making out until someone dared interrupt them. It was Benny, one of the guards. The only farmer taller than Bruno, who never went anywhere without his trusty shotgun. “Sorry, chief,” he apologized. “But I gotta stop you before you move past second base.”
Bruno laughed, breaking the embrace with his wife. “What is it?”
“We have a visitor. A lone traveler, who asks for hospitality.”
“At this hour?” Julie frowned. It often happened, but few people dared travel at night nowadays.
“What kind of traveler?” Bruno asked.
“Clearly a Genome, all shiny and chrome,” Benny replied. It had to be, to travel alone at night through unsafe roads. “He says he comes bearing gifts, and he brings a horse full of supplies. Fuel, weapons, food.”
It wasn’t the first time another community sent a trader to the Costa farm. More often than not, they exchanged food for scavenged tools.
Unfortunately, some traders were marauders in disguise, scouting a community for a future attack. Once, the farm let everyone in, but after an incident cost them three people, the group had grown far more careful.
“We can’t let him in,” Julie told Bruno. “I’m sorry, but…”
“We can offer him food and water, but no roof,” Bruno told Benny.
“That’s the thing, he says he will just give gifts and then leave,” Benny replied. “But he wants to talk with you personally, Bruno.”
“Yeah, he has heard of your power and is curious to see it in action. Apparently, he researches superpowers, and he’s curious to see if you can really cut anything.”
That was odd. Julie exchanged a worried glance with her husband, who was clearly suspicious. “How many people are awake?” Bruno asked Benny.
“Piero, Donna, Alice, and Luca keep their weapons aimed at his pretty head,” the man replied, putting his shotgun’s barrel on his shoulder. “I told the others to ready their guns, just in case.”
“Okay, I will meet him. Hopefully, it’s just paranoia talking.” Bruno put a hand on Benny’s shoulder. “I entrust my wife to you, my friend.”
“Y-yes, sure!” Benny instantly tensed, taking this seriously.
“Don’t joke about this,” Julie lightly scolded her husband, but he waved her hand before moving towards the camp’s main gates.
She looked at Benny, who fidgeted awkwardly. “Sorry, ‘mam. I’m not good at casual conversation.”
“Benny, stop calling me that,” Julie said, exasperated. “You’ve been there for three years. I believe we could talk on a first-name basis.”
“And I will still call you ‘mam until Giulia is old enough to take over.”
The biochemist shook her head, before returning to her garden.
With nukes and plagues having devastated the western coast, Julie hoped to introduce these new species to fight against environmental pollution. According to her projections, it would take only five years to purify Italy’s air and soil back to their pre-apocalypse level… and ten to undo the degradations caused by humanity’s industrial activities.
In time, all of Earth would become a garden.
“I’ll never get used to it,” Benny said, as he watched her use her power on the wheat. “I’m not religious, but… it makes me wonder if a God does exist.”
“That wasn’t an Act of God,” Julie replied. She heard booming thunder, briefly wondering if a storm approached. But the skies were clear, cloudless. Odd. “Just an experiment from a brilliant, but twisted mind.”
She couldn’t explain it any other way. God wouldn’t be so cruel as to create monsters like Mechron and unleash them on the world.
And suddenly, lightning hit the farm.
A crimson flash of light filled Julie’s vision, as if thunder had struck the earth right in front of her. She heard a powerful boom, coming straight from the entrance, while the farm trembled.
She turned around, and when her vision returned to normal, there was a burning hole where the farm’s mains gates once stood.
“Bruno!” Julie immediately panicked, rushing towards the entrance before Benny could stop her. The farm’s alarm system activated, signaling an attack while smoke spread in all directions.
When Julie moved close enough, she was welcomed with a scene of horror.
A powerful force had blasted people through the farm’s fortifications, with enough force to shatter them. Corpses were dispersed on the ground, utterly savaged. Julie could barely recognize Donna among them, most of her body having been incinerated. Piero had lost his head, Julie only identifying him thanks to his trademark blue shirt, now painted red.
And Bruno… Bruno was among them.
Both parts of him.
A bolt had thrown her husband through the gates, tearing him in half below the waist.
Julie let out a wail of horror, as the farm descended into utter chaos. Guards rushed towards the breach with weapons, while non-combatants fled into the house. Crimson lightning surged from the smoke, dividing and bending around corners. The bolts slaughtered everyone in their path, incinerating hearts or detonating skulls, before spreading from one person to the next.
Julie watched eight people she had known for years die in an instant.
Another, mightier bolt hit the farm’s main house, shattering walls and setting the whole place on fire. “We have to evacuate, ‘mam!” Benny shouted, grabbing her by the arm.
“Giulia,” Julie panicked. “Giulia is in the barn!”
An ivory statue emerged from the darkness and the smoke, confidently striding into the property. Its eyes radiated a crimson glow, its gaze blasting anyone it saw with lightning bolts.
For a second, Julie thought it was Zeus himself, having descended from the heavens. For this man, this Genome held a striking resemblance to the ancient deity. It was a tall, muscled figure pushing near two meters in height, with a long beard and a golden laurel crown atop his combed hair. He seemed in his middle-age, combining the confidence of old age with the strength of a mature man.
The intruder’s entire body was an ivory statue. His hair, his flesh, even his eyes were an unnatural shade of white. Only his ancient toga, sandals, and laurel crown were made of normal materials.
Perhaps his body had been transformed into an alien alloy; perhaps it was a stasis effect, freezing his body in space and time. Whatever the case, he kept his hands folded behind his back, like a conqueror overseeing his new territory.
And then, he noticed Julie.
Benny immediately moved in front of her, shielding her with his body while he raised his gun. “Behind me, ‘mam!”
The ivory man appraised the two with an amused look. It reminded Julie of a vulture glancing upon a dying camel; of a killer toying with his victim, before delivering the coup de grace.
“Ms. Costa?” he asked, upon noticing Julie. His voice was deep and radiated authority.
“Who the hell are you?” Benny snarled angrily.
“Jupiter Augustus,” the man answered.
“You dare call yourself after a god?” Benny shouted, charging at the Genome with his shotgun, and opening fire at point-blank range. A volley from his firearm would have torn a normal man apart.
Instead, the bullets hit the chest and flattened out on impact.
“No. Of course not.”
The ivory man backhanded Benny with his left hand. The fingers went through Benny’s body like an iron sword through paper, his flesh and bones turning as brittle as dirt upon impact. The backhand tore off the skull from the body and sent both flying to the side, killing the farmer in one blow.
“I am one.”
Julie froze in horror at the bloody scene.
The biochemist had grown somewhat used to the sight of blood and violence, but she had never seen such casual brutality. That man had murdered her friend with the same care as one swatting a fly.
And now, that psychopath stared at her.
Lightning manipulation, and some form of super-strength. Two powers at once.
No. Not a Psycho. In spite of his egotistic boasting, Julie saw no hint of madness in that vicious man’s eyes. No craving for the blood of other Genomes. She only saw sneering arrogance and a cold-blooded disregard for human life.
“Kneel,” he ordered.
Instead, possessed by vengeful anger, Julie rushed at this vile man and slammed her left hand against his cheek. He made no move to stop her, allowing her to activate her power.
Although she had never used her power offensively, she would make an exception for this monster. She would cause his DNA to break down, destroy his organs. Make him pay.
That… that thing ignored her power. It didn’t even register him as alive.
“That was no request,” the man said, raising his hand in a karate chop, aiming for her left shoulder.
Before Julie knew what hit her, his hand cut through her body like butter, the blow severing her arm and tossing her to her knees. A pain more terrible than anything she had ever experienced raced through her nerves, as a shower of blood flowed out of her veins. She let out a wail of agony, her body growing numb and cold.
“Saddening,” the monster said, although there was no regret in his voice. “If you had known proper etiquette, I might have let you live. I take no pleasure in killing one of the chosen ones. Especially a young widow.”
“Why…” Julie asked, struggling against the pain and shock. “Did you want to… take the crops for yourself?”
“The crops?” Augustus glanced at her garden, an eyebrow raised. “What about them?”
He… he didn’t know? Then why?
“Answer me,” the murderer ordered Julie, without bothering to look at her. In his eyes, she was already dead.
“They…” Julie’s thoughts suddenly turned to Giulia, sleeping. If she distracted that monster, perhaps… perhaps she could get away. “They can survive in… toxic and radioactive environments… they can… feed everyone… help us save… save everyone… you have...”
“Crops that can feed everyone?” He gazed at the garden with sudden interest. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
If… if the crops could endure, then...
“You have been lied to,” Augustus taunted her with a soft voice, his eyes shining with electricity, “the meek will not inherit anything.”
He blasted the garden with a crimson lightning bolt, setting it ablaze.
The wheat, the maize, all the genetically enhanced crops Julie had spent years cultivating… all that work turned to ashes in an instant.
After the horror of watching her husband burnt alive, Julie thought she wouldn’t scream again. But she did. She shrieked in despair, as the very seed of hope went down in flames.
“The future came to me in these Elixirs,” the ivory man said, lost in his thoughts. “Where the unchosen could not stand the power, I alone wielded it to its fullest potential. Such was the proof of the high esteem that Fate had for my family; that we were destined to rule the Earth and the new humanity, once this trial had weeded out the unworthy.”
He finally deigned to look down on Julie, his towering body casting her in his dreadful shadow.
“If you ask me,” Augustus said with a soft, serene tone, “this planet hasn’t been nuked enough.”
“Why?” Julie asked, pleaded for an answer, struggling against the blood loss and utter despair. “What… what have we... done to you?”
The ivory man smiled to himself, finding something funny in the question. Yet he answered her request. “There was once a fox that could never be caught, so a king sent after him a dog destined to always catch its prey. Jupiter, seeing the paradox, removed both animals from the world and turned them into constellations.”
“What are you—”
“That is the why,” Augustus replied, glancing at her dead husband with satisfaction. “That was me, removing a paradox from the world. An unstoppable force cannot coexist with an immovable object.”
An invulnerable man couldn’t stand a blade capable of cutting anything.
This brutal, cruel monster had murdered her husband, a kind man who had never harmed another human because he might one day become a threat?
“You fear…” Julie glared at him. “You fear death so much?”
Augustus’ eyes flared with prideful anger, and he raised both his hands above Julie’s head, clenching them into fists. His face was no longer one of false divine serenity, but hellish, demonic fury.
He brought his fists down like a hammer on Julie’s skull, and all went dark.
Augustus spent the next minutes scouring the farm in search of survivors. The Costa woman’s blood dripped from his hands, tainting his ivory skin red.
Anyone he found, he slew with lightning bolts. Men and women alike. He had learned this lesson from his days among the Camorra. Leave nobody alive to pursue a vendetta against your own blood.
No man, no problems.
Besides, he spent enough resources developing a good reputation. No need to let anyone complicate the narrative with troubling tales.
The Genome didn’t particularly take pleasure in this. He was simply protecting his family from future retaliations. Augustus might be invulnerable as far as he knew, but his kin weren’t; even if they had each taken an Elixir, they could die. As the Augusti clan’s patriarch, the future emperor of Italy saw no point in taking risks.
But he didn’t regret that massacre either. The very idea of this community filled him with revulsion.
Genomes existed to rule over old humanity, not serve it. The apocalypse was a trial for all of mankind, a great cleansing meant to remove the corruption, the laxity, and self-entitlement that had poisoned Europe for so long. To feed everyone would be to coddle humans, to prevent them from rising to the challenge.
Genomes had been chosen to rule the new world, like the gods once guided humanity from Mount Olympus. Among the mundanes, only those who proved themselves worthy through skill and service would be elevated. Only the best would receive an Elixir and be Made. The rest would live to serve and offer tribute.
Life should be earned, not given.
A pity that woman couldn’t see that simple truth.
Once he had cleaned the surface of life, Augustus moved to the barns, ignoring the cows and the sheep. The place must have stunk, but the Genome hadn’t smelled anything since he consumed his two Elixirs. Neither did he need to breathe, eat, or drink. He felt no taste or tactile sensations, to the point his beloved wife’s embrace gave him no pleasure anymore.
Even his hair and beard hadn’t moved since that day.
Such was the burden of invulnerability. It protected the Genome even from other Elixirs, preventing him from consuming a third. But Augustus could live with it. The heavens had smiled on him enough, and they abhorred greed.
Once, the people of Italy had built the greatest, most prosperous empire the Earth had ever known; and it was Augustus’ destiny, to raise them back to glory.
Guided by his power, the Genome found a hidden trapdoor at the back, tearing it off with his bare hands. As he did so, he noticed a tiny speck of the Costa woman’s brain matter stuck to his impermeable skin. Augustus wiped it away dismissively, though it would take a dedicated cleaning to remove the blood.
He stepped down a wooden stair, entering an underground basement below the barn. Most of the floor seemed to be bedrooms, to host the vulnerable members of the community away from sight. A smart choice in these troubled times. Augustus ignored the empty rooms, stopping in front of the only occupied one.
The place where the last survivor hid.
Slowly, the warlord opened the door and entered a small children’s bedroom. Since there was no light, Augustus activated a light bulb with a jolt of lightning, casting light upon the room; its walls were painted blue, and a tiny shape cowered beneath the bed sheet.
“I see you, child. I know you aren’t sleeping.”
Augustus could sense electricity in all its forms. Though he could not manipulate weak currents, he could easily detect the presence of living beings. The energy flowing through their nerves gave their presence away.
The child, a little girl no older than three, peeked over her sheet, terrified by this strange man moving inside her bedroom. Her eyes were oceanic blue, her hair brown.
Augustus appraised the child, recognizing the facial features from his previous victims. Mercury had warned him that the Costa couple had a daughter, though the warlord hadn’t expected her to be so young.
“Shush…” Augustus said, sitting on the bed. “Did your parents have powers, when they conceived you?”
The girl said nothing, too intimidated to make a sound. But as Augustus examined the odd currents flowing through her body, so different from a normal human, he identified her as a Genome. A second-generation chosen.
“If there is even a small chance that you inherited your father’s power,” Augustus said, kindly stroking her hair, “then I cannot let you live.”
The girl began to cry, as the Genome put his hand around her mouth to silence her. It would be quick. He would simply fry her alive with lightning, or snap her neck. An instant, merciful death. If she survived, she would surely try to do her duty and avenge her parents.
Better to kill her now, before she became a problem.
And yet, as he looked into these blue eyes, the mobster couldn’t help but feel a hint of shame. Such an alien feeling had no place within him, yet he couldn’t expunge it.
“You remind me of my daughter,” Augustus admitted, as tears rained down the child’s cheeks. “She has the same eyes as yours.”
Augustus had no scruples murdering a child, just not his own. And when that girl looked at him, it felt as if he was about to strangle his own blood. Even covering her eyes with his hand didn’t ease his mind.
Come to think of it… his lieutenant and good friend Mars had told him about a certain problem recently. An issue this child could solve easily enough. Perhaps this was a sign from the heavens.
Gods were cruel, but they could also show mercy.
“I won’t kill you.”
Augustus gently carried the crying welp up the stairs, his hands still red with her mother’s blood.
“Something better comes to mind.”