Venice, Italy, 2126.
Most of this historic city is now underwater. What salvaged "districts" exist consist of little more than linked boardwalks over the canals, where the majority of residents left within the city now live. Those privileged enough to have higher social standings make their homes in La Serenissima, the floating city, elevated into the sky after a great plague ravaged the city some years earlier.
You live in lower Venice. The old city is submerged in hidden history. Here in the lower quarters, there's only one rule for survival: never let yourself be the one drowning. As for anyone else, here's hoping they've learned how to swim.
[[Understood.->Bedroom 1]]The light of the submerged ballrooms glows from outside your window, diffusing from below the surface of the ocean to softly illuminate your entire boardwalk. It might be pretty, you think, if not for what it represents - floaters deigning to have the night of their lives in the place they're all too happy to leave for dead every other time of year.
Shoved up here on the fourth floor, you and your siblings always get a great view of the revelry. It's Carnival, after all. Everyone in Venice is looking for something tonight. Downstairs, it's business as usual, and better. But you're not listening to your mother tonight. You have plans out on the streets - and maybe even above them.
[[No time to waste, let's go!->Bedroom 3]]
[[I should make sure everyone is really asleep.->Bedroom 2]]You close your eyes, letting the sounds of your siblings' soft breathing calm your nerves. Tansy on her side of your shared bed, Luka and Elena in theirs. You promise to yourself that you'll be back before any of them even wake and realize you left.
[[Aren't you a good older sister?->Bedroom 3]]Wait, one more thing. You can't go out during Carnival without one, and you have some collection to choose from!
[[The red mask, "borrowed" from one of the girls downstairs.->Crossroads 1]]
[[The gold-lacquer mask, bought with a month's worth of your savings.->Crossroads 1]]
[[The green mask, a gift from your mother in a happier time.->Crossroads 1]]
[[The black mask, a more fashionable style left behind by a customer.->Crossroads 1]]Who's that mysterious girl in the mirror? You hitch up the skirt of your disguise - as far as Carnival costumes go, it's pretty damn sad, but you'll stand out more without one. Still, you wish your plan could have accomodated not changing into it until after you were on the streets.
The bedroom window, open in the hopes of tempting a night breeze, is now your escape into the city. Your part of the city, at least. You've done this much before. Easing yourself down the slope of the roof, you use the chaos of the festivities to your advantage. Nobody notices one small girl drop the last meter to the street below in the red-hued shadows.
[[Wait, which way, again?->Lost 1]]
[[That's right, head north.->Gates 1]]Damn, who would have thought the red light district would be even more confusing at night during Carnival? Bodies of revelers press around you on every side. Some say the last great plague wouldn't have spread so catastrophically if its emergence hadn't coincided with Carnival. By the time the city doctors realized what was happening, the damage had been done. That's old history now, though - just something used as an excuse to keep things the same.
The occassional drunken scream rises above the medley of music blasting from every possible establishment. Every night of the festival, at least one someone always takes a tumble into the canals after leaning on a unsteady guardrail. There hasn't been a drowning this year. Yet.
[[Wait, was it this way?->Gates 1]]
[[What's that shouting over there?->Fight 1]]Even you, who knows the streets of lower Venice the way a cat knows how to fall, don't recognize some of your oldest haunts for the crowds clustered about them. Floaters have a certain air about them, though - not that many of them try to hide their status. This is a walk on the wild side for them, one night's or week's inversion they can right at any point. Was it that way for <em>him</em>, you wonder?
It's not hard to figure out the traffic pattern of the floaters. At a certain point, they're all coming or going from the same direction. You look up the nearest hill, and there it is - the La Serenissima checkpoint. The last obstacle between you, and <em>him</em>.
[[Who are you kidding? The guards will root you out in an instant.->Alley 1]]
[[Act like you belong, and the world is your oyster!->Gates 2]]You push your way through the crowd towards the sound of shouting. A fight has broken out, an ugly one right at the edge of the canal. A black-masked man in a white suit that's freshly stained with the former contents of someone's wineglass, is going to town on a smaller figure in green held down by another man,
[[Oh no, I'm staying far away from that.->Gates 1]]
[[Oh no, I have to do something!->Celeste 1]]The green-clad figure's mask has been knocked off. They look up, and their eyes find yours in that split second between blows.
Oh, fuck - it's Celeste! Trust your best friend to not be able to keep themself out of trouble during the greatest time of year for troublemakers.
[["Hey, get off of them!"->Canal 1]]
[[Help them up and run!->Celeste 2]]"Beat it, bitch! This isn't your concern!" The man holding Celeste down shoves you back, into a boardwalk support railing that probably hasn't been replaced since the 70s. Your body crashes right through it, and you go plummeting into the cold water of the canal.
The bodice of your costume is tight around your torso, choking what little breath you had time to take right from your lungs. Through the murky water, a hand reaches in, and you reach for it instinctively - but the second you break the surface, the same asshole who pushed you in shoves you down even further!
[[No way. Marcela Barone is not dying like this!->Canal 2]]
[[Hold your breath and go with the current.->Canal 3]]Using the distraction to their advantage, Celeste pushes up against the man holding them down, crashing their fist into his nose. Without needing any more encouragement, they grab onto your hand, and you start running for both your lives.
Luckily, your feet will always know the way, even if the senses betray tonight. By the time you two stop, you've run several blocks, and are now outside an old local favorite bar with customers overflowing from its entrance. The sounds of your pursuers have faded. You'll blend in just fine here.
[[Celeste is safe now. They're not the person you came out for.->Gates 1]]
[["What the hell were you doing, Cel?"->Celeste 3]]You duck into a nearby alleyway, trying to school your features into someone that could pass for a better-than-you floater. Look at yourself, though. Who would ever believe that you had a place up there?
Then you see her. She's passed out against the side of the wall, everything about her outfit screaming that of a floater who partied too hard. An outfit, you can't help but notice, that looks like it would fit you. And her purse surely contains official documentation of La Serenissima citizenship, better than the papers you forged this morning.
[[No, I can't do this.->Gates 2]]
[[Sorry, random floater bitch, but we're doing this.->Gates 3]]You fall into the line cueing for entry through the checkpoint, but almost immediately, one of the guards on crowd control advances in your direction. She looks you up and down, clearly not buying that any of what she's looking at came from the fortunes of the city in the sky. "Miss, I'm going to have to ask you on what exact layer of the city you reside."
[["EXCUSE me? Do I REALLY look like I belong down HERE?"->Gates 3]]
[[Found out already - you should just split now.->Gates 5]]Your costume and high-class air have worked like a charm up until this point. But the closer you get to front of the line, you realize with a chill why so few swimmers have been making it up to La Serenissima's parties this year. The checkpoint isn't running any kind of paperwork through a citizen database - it's taking samples of blood from everyone who passes through.
The man currently under its scrutiny is playing it cool. Then the checkpoint lights flash a harsh red, and two guards immediately rush over to drag him away as he struggles against them. This must be a new system, probably implemented for Carnival. There's no time to improvise a new plan, though. The line keeps moving like nothing happened, and within a minute, you're facing the scanner.
[[Present your hand.->Gates 4]]
[[This was never going to work. Time to split.->Gates 5]]You hold your breath as the machine takes your blood, barely even feeling its prick. It whirs for several seconds, longer than you feel like it should be taking, and you're positive that you're about to be dragged off too when - the machine blips in confirmation. "Welcome back, Miss Carlevaro." The checkpoint gates slide open, and a guard pushes you towards the awaiting shuttle.
Of course, you realize. What's the whole reason you bothered with this scheme, to begin with? If the DNA in your blood is a match to that of someone living in La Serenissima, there can only be one possibility.
You don't even realize the shuttle has started moving until you look out the window and see the lights of your Venice shrinking in size. La Serenissima isn't terribly high up, but nobody would survive a fall from its boundaries. Shuddering at that thought, you turn and look at the costumed woman next to you.
[["So, what party are you headed to?"->Serenissima 1]]
[[Ignore her. You don't trust any floater. Besides, all these people are drunk beyond coherence.->Serenissima 2]]The guard shouts as you break out of the line and start running, but you haven't lived 20 years in lower Venice with nothing to show for it. You outpace them in no time, although you have little else to show for it. They certainly won't be letting you near the checkpoint again.
[[Well, maybe next year.->Introduction]]
[[No, the night is still young!->Fight 1]]Your foot finds the bottom of the canal. That's right, it's low tide. The water only ends a few feet above your head right now. Maybe it's the adrenaline kicking in, but for every bubble of air escaping from your mouth and nose, your other senses are working overtime. The marbled lights of the boardwalk over the water, the shouts of partiers as they realize this fight is more than a drunken brawl, a loud exclamation of pain from one of the men.
Just as you make to try and push yourself back to the surface one more time, another hand plunges into the water, clearly searching for yours.
[[Grab their hand!->Celeste 2]]
[[Fool me twice, shame on me.->Canal 3]]Once you stop fighting it, the current of the canal pulls you right along, under the boardwalk and scraping your body along the older stone walls. It's a good thing you've learned how to hold your breath - but even this is pushing it. The pressure in your chest tightens, like your heart and lungs and ribs are about to burst out through your skin, and you have to hope you're far enough away.
You grab onto the next surface your fingers touch, climbing your way to the surface of the water with a heave of a breath. Shadows are swimming in front of your eyes, but you make out enough to realize you've washed up in some side alley before you black out.
When morning comes, you're woken by a street child prodding you in the side. They're probably trying to rob you, except you don't have much left. You bolt upright, scaring them off. There's not much but for you to walk home in defeat and face your mother's terrified fury at the sight of you.
[[Well, maybe next year.->Introduction]]"What, with Enzo? He was just pissed that I cheated him out of a couple hands of cards. Last year. I mean, damn, let it go." Celeste pushes their dark hair back from their face, acting like they don't have a bruise the size of an apple marring their cheek.
"You're still gambling, then?"
Celeste has the decency to look guilty. "Listen, Marce, I'm sorry about that back there. I should thank you for helping me out when it wasn't your business." They look up at the neon awning dying the street in scarlet light. "Can I buy you a drink, and we'll call it even?"
[[Well, if they're paying...->DeRosso 1]]The bar, <em>DeRosso's</em>, is doing nice business this time of night. The two of you somehow manage to snag a table in the corner, where the soft red candlelight manages to wash out Celeste's injuries. A server comes over and takes their order, a <em>negroni classici</em>, before turning to you. "What'll it be, miss?"
[["I'll have a <em>Uomo Morto</em>." (bourbon and black tea)->Celeste 4]]
[[I'll have a <em>Speciale di Carnevale</em>." (champagne, orange juice, and gin)->Celeste 4]]
[["I'll have a <em>Cafe Irlandese</em>." (coffee and Irish whiskey)->Celeste 4]]
[["I'll have a <em>vin brule</em>." (warm mulled wine)->Celeste 4]]The drink hits harder than you feel like it should. Whatever the case, Celeste is feeling it too. Maybe it's just Carnival.
One hour becomes two, and you still can't run out of things to talk about. You make fun of other customers in their costumes when you know they're out of earshot. You reminisce on Carnivals past the two of you spent together at home, how great it is to finally be out in the city. You find out why exactly Celeste is still willing to risk their life cheating against people like Enzo.
"No, I'm actually not in debt anymore. But the last year, I've been looking around, wondering what's actually here for me that I couldn't have elsewhere." They look back to you, and their face falls. "I know you love Venice, Marce, floods and all. It's just..." Their eyes don't stray from your face, but it's clear they don't know if the words on their mind are wise.
[["Let's get out of here."->Celeste 5]]
[["What is it?"->Celeste 6]]Celeste shrugs it off, reaching into their jacket for some money. "Yeah. Might as well enjoy the night with a lady as lovely as yourself by my side." They wink, and it's so ridiculous that you both burst out laughing.
You know every inch of this neighborhood, have all your life. You know that Celeste does too. But walking it together, among the nights and music of Carnival, feels different. Crowds of floaters shriek in exicted fera every time to boardwalk dips with the canal below their feet. Food vendors and gambling barkers vie for the attention of whoever is in between parties. You and Celeste walk, and dance, and sing, and have the greatest time that two best friends can have.
It's a sad feeling when the night ends, knowing you couldn't accomplish what you set out to do. But that doesn't mean you didn't find something else.
[[Same time next year?->Introduction]]A piano in some corner of the bar starts playing a jazz riff as Celeste breathes in. "Fuck it." They reach across the table and take your hand. It surprises you - but you don't mind.
"I like you, Marce. I <em>really</em> like you. And if there's anything that could keep me here after this week... it would be you. Unless, of course, you wanted to strike out with me."
Maybe the drinks have gone to both your heads. Or maybe Celeste makes that idea sound so appealing, you can imagine it working. You cover their hand with yours. "You and me, against the world? Bring it on."
[[It is as they say - everyone finds something during Carnival.->Introduction]]She looks you over, though not as appraisingly as she probably would sober. "My dear, I love your mask! So vintage." It sounds surprisingly genuine. Her body puffs up - an impressive feat, considering that her costume looks like someone killed an enormous yellow bird and sewed its corpse into an evening gown - as she goes on, "And I'll have you know, I'm on my way to the Carlevaro party!"
[[Well, that's fortunate. Tell her you're heading there, too!->Serenissima 3]]
[[No way, you don't trust like this. She heard your name at the gate and just thinks you'll be her ticket in!->Serenissima 2]]She shrugs off your dismissal of her, but if you've really hurt her feelings, the shuttle ride is too short for her to make a show of it. The doors whir open to a gust of wind - <em>clean</em> wind, sweet wind. You're actually here. La Serenissima.
Just the gateway terminal is so... bright. Colorful. The architecture is meant to channel historic Venice, and yet at the same time it feels <em>pacified</em>. Like this was all drawn up by someone who's never actually visited the city you know. There's even a fucking canal down the main street, albeit with water far too blue and bright to be natural.
Maybe you should have stuck with that woman, you think after wandering down several equally-dazzling streets. You even take off your mask, just in the hopes that it will somehow help you process this. Plenty of palazzos are hosting parties, light spilling down stairs and guests leaning out windows, but you didn't realize how overwhelming this would all feel, like all it will take for these people to know you don't belong is you opening your mouth.
But wait - there's a girl walking down the street towards you. In servant's clothes. "Hey!" you call to her, and her head snaps up on instinct, although her eyes stay averted. "Um, do you know where the Carlevaro palazzo is?" you ask.
She gasps in recognition as she looks up at you, then her eyes widen even further. "Yes, I - I work there. But what are... what are you doing out?"
[["Why do you care?"->Serenissima 4]]
[["Can you show me the way?"->Manor 1]]She shows you the way in a matter of minutes. It's disconcerting, you being the one who's lost in the city for once. But now you know you never would have found the Carlevaro palazzo on your own, identical to all its neighbors as it is. There's nobody even checking for invitations - surely anyone partying here on Carnival already knows whether they've earned their way in.
The entry hall alone in the size of one entire floor of your house. A massive crystal chandelier hangs between two grand staircases, and the open double doors beyond the entry hall lead into the ballroom, where the party is in full swing. A man's baritone laugh sails out over the sounds of conversation and music. It take you right back to the last time you heard it.
[[Head straight for the ballroom.->Manor 2]]
[[Do some sneaking around first.->Manor 3]]"You - I thought you were..." She trails off, looking at you closer, closing the gap between your faces to an uncomfortable extent. Then she gasps, looking as though she's figured something out. She swears under her breath - it sounds like Spanish - before turning back to you.
"What's your name?"
"Okay, then. Yes, follow me. I think there's someone there that you need to meet."
[[No way, this is how people wind up dead. "Thanks, but no thanks."->Introduction]]
[["Okay, lead the way."->Manor 1]]When you arrive at the Carlevaro palazzo, the maid doesn't lead you through the main entrance, but takes you around to a servants' door. "If anyone asks what you're doing here, my name is Aracely," she tells you. "I just don't think it would be... smart to take you through a crowd." She nods to your mask, still held in your hand.
"It might do you good to put that back on. I''ll be right back."
[["Okay, I'll wait here."->Manor 5]]
[[Forget that, you're not letting anything else hold you up!->Manor 2]]You push through the small crowd gathered right at the entry to the ballroom. It's a party in the way that a starving man's first meal in days is food. Every surface is draped in red velvet, more crystals reflect light off the ceiling in prismatic rainbows, the band kicks into a fast-paced dance number that sends partygoers clamoring to the middle of the floor. Above it all is a raised stage, where the host of this evening's affair reclines with a glass of wine.
This sight of him, you weren't prepared for. There's a dim reminder in the back of your mind that you are angry with him - you hate him! But that doesn't make your memories of that face go away. What unexpected emotion bubbles up within you isn't quite love, not anymore, but a still-sick desire to be seen by him.
[[This is what you came for - walk right up and give him a piece of your mind!->Manor 4]]Nobody stops you from slipping into the small hallway on the ground floor, halfway shadowed by one of the massive staircases. On a whim, you try the first door you reach. Locked. Which is an invitation if you've ever seen one.
Testing your theory again, you press your finger to the thumbpad, wincing when another needles jabs you. Damn, everything up here really does run on blood. But the door swings open soundlessly, and the room beyond it illuminates. Jackpot - you're in his study.
You head straight for his desk, wondering just how much dirty laundry an upper Venice politician might leave flung out when he thinks nobody else will ever see it. The first thing that catches your eye is a flashdrive marked 'CONFIDENTIAL' still plugged into his computer. But then your sight strays down to an opened drawer of his desk, and the familiar photograph inside it.
Crap - someone else is coming, and you left the door wide open! You'll only have time to grab one of these if you want to make a quick exit.
[[Take the flashdrive.->Study 1]]
[[Take the photograph.->Study 2]]You make your way around the edges of the room, until you're standing at the side of the stage with several other partygoers - guests of honor, judging by the way they all fall over themselves to talk to your father. You can wait. You've waited for all ten years since the day he vanished from you and your mothers' lives, waited until the moment you found out he had a perfect life and family in La Serenissima all along.
He shakes hands, raises toasts, smiles for the newscams that are present. Nobody even stops you from walking onstage, walking up <em>right next</em> to him! He turns to you, still smiling, thinking you some diplomat or city official, and you know the microphone will pick up everything as you take off your mask.
[[His face freezes.->End 2]]You wait outside by the servants entrance, long enough to wonder if this was someone's crual joke after all. But then you hear Aracely's voice coming from behind the door. She pushes it open, accompanied by another young woman. Aracely carefully avoids looking at either of you as the woman sees your presence.
"What..." she begins. She reaches a hand towards you, and you step back on instinct. Then she takes off her mask.
It's... you. Or, at least, the better-cared for mirror image of you. "Marcela?" the other woman asks. "I'm Topaz Carlevaro. I know you came here for my father tonight. But... I think you're my sister."
[[The manor holds other secrets. Will you do some more investigating?->Serenissima 3]]
[[That's enough family surprises for one night. You and this girl have some catching up to do.->End]]Before unplugging the drive from the computer, you can't help but read over the file opened on the screen. It's about... the plague. Why would your father care this much about a plague from five years ago?
Then you see the dates at the bottom of the file. This isn't about the plague responsible for La Serenissima - this is a plague that hasn't happened yet. One being engineered, and is "ready for testing".
You think you can imagine who that will be on.
[[Shoving the flashdrive into your pocket, you flee the palazzo with this dangerous information.->End 3]]You reach into the drawer and retrieve the photograph. It's familiar - half of it still rests on your mantelpiece at home. From left to right stands a 10-year-old you, your mother, and your father, all holding hands.
Except there's another girl, who looks exactly like you, holding your father's.
[[This is all the proof you came for. You can leave knowing you were right all along - and you're far from done with your father.->End 4]]You force your way through the shock to get out - "What the hell kind of name is Topaz?"
She laughs through the tears in her eyes. "I don't know." She explains what she does know, though. The photograph she found one day, of your father with a woman who was not Topaz's mother, holding a second identical daughter. "I became obsessed with the idea that you were out there. But I never imagined you were down below this whole time."
Well, she's not the one to hold that against. And if she wants to make up for lost time, you already have three sisters. Really, what's one more?
[[End->Introduction]]The newsfeeds the following day are something else - "LA SERENISSIMA POLITICIAN'S ILLEGITIMATE DAUGHTER!" "CARNIVAL PARTY BECOMES FAMILY REUNION!" "TALKS TO INCREASE LA SERENISSIMA SECURITY"
Your father tried to play it off, of course. What really did the trick was his other daughter - your twin sister, raised all her life in La Serenissima while you were down here - coming up to the stage. You haven't had your picture taken many times before, certainly not by as many cameras at once. Nobody could even arrest you, either. If blood isn't good enough for a lawful entry into the floating city, they would have to admit that nothing is.
Your mother has always been a hardened woman, especially after he left, but she nearly started crying when she saw what you had done. "Now everyone knows," she whispered. "What he did to us. What kind of man he really is."
She never told you about your sister. She must have agreed to let her live up above, which would make her complacent in some of this. But right now, you've done all could have done. You didn't have a plan for after this part - the truth. But it's enough that it's out.
[[End->Introduction]] At first, you don't know what to do with something like this. You're not about to trust anyone in La Serenissima with it, not when they're the ones planning to clear out the riff-raff of lower Venice with another plague. No, it's up to you. You need to protect your home.
You're long since back on the ground by the time your father realizes what's missing. There might be some downsides to living above a brothel, but one thing is guaranteed - your mother and her girls know <em>a lot</em> of people.
You read once that the church used to hate Carnival, because it was thought of as a festival of sinners. Well, one thing is for certain. That checkpoint before La Serenissima looks a lot more fragile against the wrath of a whole city, and there's about to be hell to pay.
[[End->Introduction]] You hold the photograph close to you all the way home, through the glittering streets of La Serenissima and the dark-hued neon of your Venice. You aren't sure what to say as you show it to your mother. She just nods. "I'm sorry," she says, "for never telling you."
Even more surprising is the message that arrives for you next week, after Carnival is finished and the streets of the lower levels are only full of the people who belong on them. You have an e-comm, but so does everyone. That doesn't mean people ever send you anything.
<em>"Hello, Marcela. You may not know me, but my name is Topaz Carlevaro. Until very recently, I don't think either of us knew about the other. But I am your sister."</em>
Attached to the message is a photograph of a girl in a yellow dress, an older version of the one from the photo you stole. An older version of you.
Will you respond?