Part I of ‘2054’: Exploring the Death of a President

By Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

He knew the land beneath him carried scars, but when observed from such a height those scars appeared to vanish. The geometric partitions of farmland, the crowns of pure snow on distant mountains, the rebuilt cities studding the vague horizon, all of it evidence of how the nation had seemed to heal itself. It was as if the events of 20 years past had never occurred. Those events—that war—had driven him from this place, but he’d decided to return, to the nation of his birth, to his true home. That morning, once on board his Gulfstream, he’d asked the pilot about their planned route north into JFK. From the flight console a holographic scene sprang into view. Their route had them passing over Florida. He’d asked if they might divert west a bit, over Galveston. “Whatever you say, Dr. Chowdhury,” the pilot had answered. “It’s your plane.”

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The closing stretch of a farewell tour that had its beginnings nearly a month earlier in New Delhi brought us to São Paulo. The journey meant hopping between the headquarters of his many portfolio companies, all part of Chowdhury’s touring party. He had vacated his long-standing post as chairman of the Tandava Group to commence a self-determined retirement, yearning for tranquility and solitude. His desired point of reentry into the United States was Galveston, driven by a desire to witness firsthand a people’s capacity for reconstruction. The sight of freighters queuing to access the port struck him as Morse code sentences, hovering over the Gulf of Mexico as they flew. Breaking waves fringed the coastline in wistful white. As they soared over the beach, having American soil beneath him felt assuring. He was a seafarer who had discovered his coast.

The remainder of the flight from Galveston to New York saw Sandy Chowdhury solidly in his seat, his visage framed by the aircraft’s small window, contemplating the country spreading out beneath him. There was a certain innocence about the United States, he thought, which continuously asserted itself despite its history – despite warfare, illness, and even the offenses committed against its own population. In America, one could escape memory, and this offered an opportunity for reclaimed innocence: this was the promise of America, and why Chowdhury had decided to return. As the plane lost altitude in preparation for its arrival into JFK, he experienced slight upheaval in his stomach coupled with some chest tightening.

There was more to Chowdhury’s return to America than mere nostalgia. Prior to his departure, he had appointed his daughter, Ashni, as his successor at the Tandava Group. She now stood at the helm of the vast private equity empire he had built, managing hundreds of billions of dollars. His attention now needed to turn towards practical matters. Chowdhury battled with a fragile heart and faced his own mortality.

The final opportunity, that’s what the White House chief of staff had communicated to Marine Major Julia Hunt. Standing erect, heels joined together, straight as a flagpole, six feet directly in front of his desk. Hunt’s superior, the retired Admiral John “Bunt” Hendrickson, rubbed his palm against his bald forehead as if to ward off an impending headache. Hunt had interfered yet again where she wasn’t supposed to. She had completed a request for an intelligence assessment that should otherwise have been left incomplete. The assessment, titled “Advances in Remote Gene Editing Among State and Non-State Actors,” should have never left Langley, let alone landed at the White House.

“I don’t care that he’s the vice chair of the committee,” said Hendrickson, speaking to Hunt as if she were an obstinate child, a tone that felt familiar to them both. In addition to being Hunt’s boss, Hendrickson was also her godfather, and had been a steady—if not always steadying—presence throughout Julia’s life. “I need to know this won’t happen again, that you understand what you did wrong.”

“It won’t happen again, sir,” she said.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

“But do you understand what you did wrong?”

She struggled to look him directly in the eye. Her gaze instead fell over his shoulder, where the news was streaming live on his computer screen. Hendrickson was familiar with this posture of avoidance. Since Julia’s adoption at 9 by his old friend Sarah Hunt, Hendrickson had been a mainstay, the person Sarah called when Julia broke curfew, mouthed off to a teacher, or, on one occasion, accused her adoptive mother of being the one responsible for her parents’ deaths two decades before, in San Diego, where they—along with thousands of other migrant workers—had vanished in a flash of nuclear light, leaving no trace.

Hendrickson posed his question once more. He was seeking to ensure that Julia was aware of her alleged misstep. Yet, Julia was positive she had done nothing of the sort. Senator Nat Shriver held the position of vice chair for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, colloquially known as SSCI or “sissy” within Washington. It was entirely within his rights to read the report.

Sitting on the edge of the mattress, Lily Bao was buttoning up her white silk blouse. One by one, she collected the pillows strewn about the floor, making the bed with practiced efficiency. She tucked the chaotic sheets into sharp hospital corners, smoothing down the duvet. These skills were honed during her childhood in Newport, assisting her mother who served as a maid in nondescript hotels following their immigration to the US. Despite climbing the economic ladder over the years, Lily made a point to arrange her bed single-handedly.

The man had just departed—he was hardly ever referred to by name, existing in her life as a simple pronoun. Their fleeting encounters often lasted less than an hour, packaged into the facade of a “working lunch” as described in his previous night’s text. These “lunches” were fairly frequent, covertly taking place in a room she always booked. She bore no resentment, fully comprehending his limitations despite his bachelor status. Like a seafarer tethered to the vast ocean, his devotion lay with his professional life—politics. Just as a mariner harbors both affection and apprehension towards the sea, he harbored similar sentiments towards his constituents, thus choosing to keep his love life hidden. There stood the perpetual fear of his adversaries exploiting her to his detriment.

Senator Nat Shriver was no stranger to hostility. The knowledge of his numerous detractors predated her understanding of him. A distant relative of Maria Shriver, his genes were a rich blend of Shriver, Schwarzenegger, and Kennedy, with his roots entrenched in both California and Massachusetts soils. He was a man of many roles—a dear friend, a bitter adversary. The only role he was incapable of donning was that of a bland, passive observer. Regardless of who you were, it was impossible to remain indifferent to Nat Shriver. This senatorai had given hope to a rising number of Americans, who saw in him the potential to overthrow the oppressive one-party rule.

He was also, to Lily Bao’s great surprise, her lover.

As Chowdhury gazed vacantly out the window, the flight attendant, a middle-aged, heavily lipsticked brunette who appeared to be from another era of air travel, placed her hand on his arm, startling him, so that he felt a slight tremor in his chest. “My apologies,” she said. “Is there anything I can get you before we land?” He asked for some water. Beads of sweat had begun to gather on his forehead, and before he could calm himself with a sip, he felt a minor and not entirely unpleasant vibration in his left wrist, the work of a cardiologist in New Delhi who had installed a serotonin dispenser near his radial artery. Chowdhury took a couple of deep breaths, sipped his water, and turned on the news.

The US president, Ángel Castro, appeared onscreen before a crowd. Square-jawed, with a pompadour of thick black hair, which had hardly grayed in his 10 years in office, Castro stood at a dais with a flotilla of gray-hulled warships behind him at anchor. The chyron read: Twentieth Anniversary of Wén Rui Incident Commemorated in San Diego. It was no coincidence that Chowdhury had chosen today to return to the United States. What surprised him was that the president had decided to mark the anniversary as well. Castro had never before, in the three terms of his administration, wrapped himself in the events of that disastrous war.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

Today’s speech was a striking departure. “Reinvention is the soul of our nation,” Castro began. “Only the American people could elect a president named Hussein and then two generations later elect another named Castro …” This was a familiar laugh line. He delivered some well-worn tropes about the country rising out of the ashes of war to overcome social unrest and economic dysfunction, before coming to the crux of his remarks: “We’ve gathered here today to commemorate a dark hour. For too long, those events have resided in a shroud of silence when they should instead stand as a source of national pride, akin to a Pearl Harbor, a September 11, a moment of tragedy that births an eventual triumph.”

Castro held tightly onto the sides of the podium, the front boldly showing the president of the United States seal. He gave a passionate speech about those individuals whose “sacrifices are woven into the very fabric of our nation”. He mentioned notable names that were familiar to Chowdhury, including Rear Admiral Sarah Hunt, Commander Jane Morris and Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell. For any other president, praising the sacrifices made during past wars would have been expected. However in Castro’s case, it was not, as he had built his political career on criticizing the instigators of the war that began on this same date. This sudden change in direction left Chowdhury puzzled about Castro’s motives, assuming he may be angling for a fourth term and thus needing to strengthen his alliance, especially with the war veterans, a group he had previously overlooked.

Castro’s determination to remain in power had started to chip away at his popularity. His American Dream Party devotees, commonly called ‘Dreamers’, argued that he had been the most transformative president since George Washington, but his rivals from the Democratic-Republican Party retaliated with the catchy phrase, “Because he can’t leave Washington, he will never be Washington.” Faced with criticism, Castro and his supporters often responded by pointing out the country’s still shaky recovery, justifying the need for “stable leadership”. During the speech, Castro was on the verge of using this excuse yet again. “Although we have climbed down the mountain of disaster,” he exclaimed, lifting his hand as if he was holding a bible during a sermon, “we are still journeying through the foothills of decline…”

Foothills of decline… Chowdhury thought to himself, what uninspired rhetoric. As he chuckled, he noticed the flight attendant standing behind him. She had frozen in her tracks with a solemn expression on her face, her attention fixated on the president. “Do you think he’ll run for a fourth term?” Chowdhury casually asked her.

“Who knows?” the flight attendant responded. Her jaw was noticeably tense.

Castro leaned deeply over the dais, his elbows nearly resting on its surface. “We honor the veterans of this war and their families,” he said. “The bitter devastation of that conflict …”—his voice trailed off; he coughed and then reached for a glass of water in mid-sentence, as if he’d caught a frog in his throat—“has forced them to live in the shadows of our society for too long …”

Castro paused. Chowdhury could see sweat beading against the president’s forehead.

The Gulfstream was descending sharply now. The flight attendant still stood in the aisle. Chowdhury asked her opinion of the speech.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

“My opinion?” she asked, a hint of indignation in her voice. She folded her arms across her chest. She spoke to the screen. “My big brother was killed with the Seventh Fleet at Mischief Reef … 20 years ago …” she said, as if she herself could not believe the passage of time. Then she stopped and lifted her hand slightly, as if the memories had come so thick and fast she might have to brush them away from her face. “He was 19.”

Castro continued with his remarks, but his voice had become weaker, his face noticeably redder. He was struggling to finish. “Which is why today … I wish to announce … that …”

“My brother’s body never came back,” the flight attendant said, her voice sounding distant and dreamlike, as though she were somewhere else. Castro reached for his glass of water and descended into another coughing fit. “My opinion?” she asked again. “I hope our president chokes up there.”

Julia Hunt couldn’t bring herself to concede to her godfather that she’d done anything wrong. Even though he was a Democratic-Republican, Shriver had the authority and clearances to read the intelligence assessment.

Julia was muscular and petite, with a sweep of black hair cut short as a boy’s. In Quantico they’d called her Napoleon, a nickname that had followed her throughout the Corps in her career as an intelligence officer, which had been promising but for one unfortunate incident. When a colonel named Dozer, her superior at the barracks at 8th and I Streets, had observed her at-times chilly demeanor, he’d lecherously remarked that she might “do better” if she lightened up and got herself a boyfriend. They’d been drinking in the officers’ club and Hunt had responded by breaking his jaw with a beer mug swept off the bar top. Hendrickson had managed to get that incident swept under the rug, and he’d brought Julia onto his personal staff, where he could keep an eye on her. Brilliant though she was, it was a decision he was increasingly beginning to regret.

“It isn’t that simple,” Hendrickson said to his goddaughter. “You’re assuming that Shriver will abide by the rules—”

“Sir, it’s just—”

“I’m not finished,” Hendrickson shot back.

As he continued to enumerate the many problems Julia had caused him, she shifted her gaze ever so slightly to the screen behind him. The president was giving a speech in San Diego, but he was bent over at an odd angle, coughing, and struggling to finish his sentences. His face appeared red, as if he’d quickly blown up a bunch of balloons. Then he toppled forward from the dais, clutching his chest.

Julia gestured toward the news playing behind Hendrickson. “Sir—” she said.

Hendrickson would not be interrupted. “… The intel on remote gene editing in that briefing is highly sensitive and remains single-source, but do you think Shriver will mention that when he leaks it to the—”

“Sir …” she said again. Now the president wasn’t moving. The Secret Service had rushed the stage, forming a dark-suited canopy over his body.

“Goddammit, Julia, will you just listen to me! I don’t care that Shriver has the clearances. You don’t show up to a basketball game wearing your football pads. You have to play by the rules of the game you’re in—”

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

“Uncle Bunt!”

This got his attention. Hendrickson swiveled around in his chair, just in time to see the Secret Service agents hoisting the president from the stage and out of view of the cameras.

Just before Shriver rushed out the door, he told Lily that he loved her. He was struggling with his tie when he’d said it, the knot not quite coming together in his hands. She always liked to watch him dress. He’d seemed nervous throughout their hour together, something she’d at first attributed to an intelligence assessment he’d mentioned, one he had convinced a junior staffer at the White House to share with him. “When you were at the Tandava Group,” he’d said, “did you ever come across anyone doing work on remote gene editing?”

They weren’t even in bed yet when he’d asked, so she’d been brief with her answer. Lily had, in only the past two years, broken out on her own into private equity, but before that she’d risen through the ranks at the Tandava Group managing a merry-go-round of its portfolio companies, several of which had, in one way or another, been developing remote gene editing. This holy grail of biotech promised that, with the ease of a software update, entire populations could be made resistant to any number of the ubiquitous plagues that had tyrannized this globally integrated 21st century, to say nothing of its other potential applications. Although she knew the scientific terrain and a few of the players who had come close, to her knowledge no one had yet achieved such a breakthrough. She’d told him as much as they slipped beneath the sheets.

This holy grail of biotech promised that, with the ease of a software update, entire populations could be made resistant to any number of the plagues that had tyrannized this globally integrated 21st century.

But an hour later, when he said that he loved her as he stood half-dressed in front of the mirror, his eyes had lightened as a smile raised a stubborn line on his mouth. It was as if by making this confession a burden had been lifted. She had stepped naked in front of him, grasping the two ends of his red tie in her hands. He reached his hand tentatively for her hip, but Lily pushed it away. He was a politician, and a successful one, so by definition a skilled manipulator. Perhaps she did love him, but he had the capacity to deceive her. She couldn’t admit similar feelings to him, whether she had them or not. At least not yet. She simply said, “I know.”

“You know?”

“Yeah,” she answered, pulling the running end of his tie through its loop and cinching it into a perfect half Windsor. “I know.”

He kissed her on the mouth, and she kissed him back. Then he left. As she dressed, she replayed the scene in her mind. I know … I know … I know …

The words kept rattling around.

The only thing she really knew was that she didn’t know anything. She sat on the edge of the perfectly made bed and turned on the news.

The pilot stepped into the back of the plane while it auto-taxied toward the arrivals terminal. Chowdhury skimmed the news on his headsUp, which emanated from a bracelet he wore. When the cardiologist in New Delhi had implanted the serotonin dispenser in his wrist, he’d told Chowdhury that he could also install a microchip that would project a headsUp on his retina, if he wanted—that way Chowdhury could avoid wearing the bracelet. Chowdhury had a hard time reconciling himself to the idea of implanting any more technology into his body. When he mentioned his reluctance to Ashni, she’d told her father that many of her friends were getting the chip in their wrist. “Who wants to wear that ugly bracelet all the time,” she’d said, “and you have to have a headsUp. You can’t function without one. It’s practically an extension of your body anyway, so why not pop that microchip in your wrist? Microchips, molecules, it’s all the same.”

Maybe so, thought Chowdhury.

By Andrew Williams

By Matt Burgess

By Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

Aside from the social media accounts of several notorious Truthers, who insisted the president had suffered a major health crisis, the general media consensus was that Castro was fine and resting comfortably at his hotel after suffering what the hastily assembled experts agreed was “exhaustion,” the result of an overaggressive travel schedule. “He pushes himself too hard in the job …” said one expert. Another observed, “His hands-on leadership style, while benefiting the American people, could impinge on his health …” That soft sycophancy was everywhere these days, a far cry from Chowdhury’s time in the White House, when the media was quick to inflate even the most benign misstep into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

The pilot stepped back into the cabin. He offered the typical pleasantries, confirming that Chowdhury’s car and driver awaited him outside the terminal. The pilot did apologize for one inconvenience: The private arrivals terminal for VIPs, with its separate customs and immigration services, was currently closed. “They just announced it, sir. I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to taxi into the commercial terminal.”

Chowdhury didn’t mind. It was equally fast. Unlike the old days, with the endless immigration lines and platoons of Homeland Security agents stamping passports, the commercial terminal now required you to simply step onto an auto-walk, which trundled you through a concourse the length of a couple football fields. Signs lined the concourse, gentle but insistent reminders to watch the screens, which imaged your face. Advances in quantum computing and facial recognition had made passports obsolete. A one-way mirror ran the entire length of the auto-walk. Armed Homeland Security agents lingered behind it, out of view.

Today, the agents were plainly visible. On high alert, they prowled the length of the auto-walk, clad in body armor and clutching assault rifles with gloved hands. Chowdhury couldn’t remember a time when security at immigration was this intense. It was as if they were looking for someone.

Chowdhury accidentally locked eyes with one of the burly agents, his stare masked by sleek sunglasses. He moved towards Chowdhury, hand resting on his assault rifle. “Sir,” he ordered, “keep your eyes on the screen.”

The piercing ring of the outdated telephone echoed in Hendrickson’s office. Even with multiple secure communication systems, he chose to tackle the most sensitive matters over his ‘red line,’ a technology that hasn’t seen significant change since the 20th century. Julia Hunt kept her eyes glued to the news, while Karen Slake, the press secretary and the only cabinet official with an office in the West Wing, quickly entered Hendrickson’s office and huddled beside his desk. Towering at nearly 6 feet, she leaned over to eavesdrop as Hendrickson received an update from the White House physician in San Diego.

“Uh-huh … uh-huh …” Hendrickson paused. “So he’s stable.”

The White House physician responded at some length. Hendrickson gave a thumbs-up to Slake. She told him to ask how long it would be until they could get the president on camera so people could see he was OK. Hendrickson muffled his palm over the receiver. “Do you really need to know that right now?” he asked. The man had just suffered a near-catastrophic heart attack, according to his physician.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

“Yes,” said Slake, pressing down on the word. “I do.”

So Hendrickson asked. From the volume of the expletive-laden response that spilled out of the receiver, Slake didn’t need to be told what the White House physician’s medical opinion was on holding a press event.

After Hendrickson hung up, Slake explained her contingency plan. Her team at the federal government’s recently established Department of Press had already pulled footage, which they were in the process of selectively editing, digitally altering, and feeding to social networks and legacy news media. They had, quite swiftly, begun an algorithmic scrub of any narrative of the president suffering a health emergency, burying those stories. Slake said she could do one better: within a few hours—with the aid of a few loyal evening news anchors—they could overwhelm any conflicting narratives and reduce today’s incident to little more than the president stumbling at the lectern after delivering a rousing speech on the anniversary of the Wén Rui Incident. Slake had already called Homeland Security, asking them to push her any interesting information about detentions at the border, anyone suspicious that they might have pulled from the immigration lines, so that Slake could amplify those stories as a way to deflect from the current crisis—terrorism and immigrant criminality being reliable distractions.

Hendrickson listened patiently. “But what if he dies?”

“If who dies?” answered Slake.

“Castro … the president … what if the White House physician is wrong … what if people find out you’re just feeding them a story … ?”

Slake stared back at him vacantly, tilting her head to the side as though she’d been asked to solve for x and now had to solve for y. “Well …” she began, in a bit of a false start. She found her footing. “If that happens, we simply tell them another story.”

A phone rang, this time the old-style encrypted smartphone that Julia Hunt carried for work. When she glanced down at the caller ID, the color went out of her face.

“You going to take that?” her godfather asked.

Hunt held up her phone so Hendrickson and Slake could see who was calling: Senator Nat Shriver.

“Sir,” snapped a woman’s voice from behind him, “we’re going to have to ask you to step off here.”

Chowdhury turned around. He’d nearly traversed the auto-walk. He could see the daylight of the arrivals terminal ahead, the twin automatic doors opening and closing as travelers passed through immigration. He had kept his eyes fixed on the screens above as they played the news and scanned his face. Why was he being asked to step off the auto-walk? He felt harassed, and at this point in his life he felt like someone who shouldn’t have to suffer such harassment.

“Is there a problem, Officer?” he asked.

A compact immigration officer, built solid as a gymnast, with small, cruel eyes, held open an exit gate. “No problem, sir,” she said. The auto-walk had come to a halt. “But you need to come with me.”

“I have several appointments in the city,” Chowdhury said. Which wasn’t untrue. He was hoping to meet with his cardiologist that evening, a house call at his suite in the Carlyle, where he’d be staying until his apartment on an upper floor was finished; however, as he said this, he realized his tone was haughty and clearly did him no favors. One of her colleagues, a powerlifter to her gymnast, approached them, asking if there was a problem.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

“No,” said Chowdhury. “No problem, I just need to get into the city.” Behind him, other passengers on the auto-walk crossed their arms and shifted their feet, sighing impatiently.

“Exit here, sir,” commanded a woman more forcefully. Her hand rested on her belt, equipped with handcuffs and pepper spray. Chowdhury was guided around a two-way mirror and into an interrogation room. As the door shut behind him, the droning news from the screens above the auto-walk reached his ears: an anchor discussed reports of increased security incidents at the border.

Julia Hunt took Shriver’s call whilst Hendrickson and Slake loomed over her shoulder. Shriver requested Hunt to meet him at his office in the Capitol. Although her godfather was skeptical about her going alone, he couldn’t leave his desk amidst a crisis. Therefore, he sent Hunt to meet Shriver.

As Hunt exited, she caught a glimpse of the vice president who had appeared on a video call with Slake and her godfather. This vice president, Smith, was a nondescript man, a former elementary school math teacher turned politician. His image was so forgettable that during Castro’s last campaign, an internal memo circulated stating that the administration would be known as the Castro administration—not the Castro-Smith administration. Hunt was relieved to avoid the call.

Once outside, she hailed an automated taxi just past the ultimate checkpoint of White House protection and communicated her destination to its autonomous navigation system. She had heard stories from her mother about a time when vehicles could commute right past the White House, all along Independence and Constitution Avenues, until the Capitol itself, without encountering a single control point. However, navigation throughout the city had become challenging due to the implementation of several road closures and complex security measures that disrupted the initial city plan envisioned by Pierre Charles L’Enfant more than 250 years ago.

The city’s traffic paralysis struck Hunt as an appropriate symbol. Following his triumph in 2044, Castro’s power consolidation resulted in a decade of one-party governance, solidified through comprehensive electoral reforms at both federal and state levels. Alongside, he welcomed three new states – DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico – into the Union.

Following a steady decline in membership, the Democratic and Republican Parties, proved to be a frail opposition. The remaining factions of these two traditional populist parties, now reduced to a minority, determined to merge for their own survival. In tribute to Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, they re-established themselves as the Democratic-Republican Party. Nonetheless, they were soon referred to as “Truthers”, owing to their dogged determination to challenge anyone who dared contradict their version of the “truth.”

Mimicking the past uneasy cohabitation between Southern segregationists and Northern liberals within the Democratic Party, the far right and far left of American politics now found themselves coexisting within the Truther party. This alliance, built on a shared brand of populism and the aspiration for self-governance, made unlikely comrades of Texan separatists and urban activists from coastal megacities, who demanded city-state autonomy from Castro’s government. Their primary consensus was their belief that Castro’s political power consolidation had evolved into a pressing peril to democracy. They claimed it needed vigilant surveillance and action, primarily through legislative obstruction, although resorting to violence was not dismissed.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

The most obstinate among these obstructionists was none other than the House speaker, Trent Wisecarver. Unfortunately for Hunt, she was greeted by Wisecarver upon arriving in Shriver’s office, as the senator was delayed. Wisecarver showed her a place on a plush leather sofa to sit down, as he stood surveying the oaken surroundings of the office, hands locked at his back. Shriver’s chamber was filled with family memorabilia. “He’s got the spirit of a predator, you know …” the old man’s voice echoed through the room. “I’ve always observed, he’s destined for a firing squad … However, it’s ambiguous which side.”

Wisecarver was comfortably past 80 years yet, there was no sign of him softening with age or his mental vigor being any less. His political career, which ramped up following the catastrophic events two decades ago, retained a persistent twinkle. As national security advisor amid the conflict with China, Wisecarver had found himself among unfortunate happenings like the twin disasters in San Diego and Galveston. Post these events, he left Washington filled with regret to return to his family dwelling in a military-adjacent town near Fort Tubman. When the war veterans came back home to a disjointed nation questioning their purpose and war contributions, Wisecarver utilized their dissatisfaction and went on to have a flourishing political career, starting from Congress.

As he stood by Shriver’s collection of books, he picked one and asked Hunt whether she had read it. He handed over to her a book named The Nightingale’s Song, the cover depicted an image of the memorial for Vietnam Veterans. Notably, the cover image wasn’t the black granite wall with a multitude of martyred names — but a sculpture of three soldiers paying their homage by the wall. Wisecarver shared that the book was about a scandal that jeopardized the presidency of Ronald Reagan, known as the Iran-Contra Affair, which dated back over six decades. Hunt had heard of the incident, but was unable to link the book title to the mentioned subject. Wisecarver connected the dots for her. He explained that following the Vietnam War, the veterans were greeted with disdain and their contribution was looked upon as reprehensible for their country. President Reagan was the pioneer in changing this narrative and warmly acknowledged their valor, causing a ripple effect where the veterans reiterated their pride. However, this reconciliation had its own burdens too such as retaliation from veterans like McFarlane and North against abandoning the allies in Central America, initiating transactions for illegal arms and funds. Other veterans like McCain and Webb had the onus of making their peers accountable.

As Hunt flipped open the book, the cracking sound betrayed its unread status. The vintage photographs that the book held — McCain beside his aircraft, Webb in the forest, North posing in his naval uniform — confronted Hunt with their presence from the past. They seemed to be different characters but playing the same roles. Wisecarver’s offer to lend the book seemed strange as it wasn’t his to lend, but nothing seemed out of bounds in the Capitol for Wisecarver to claim as his own. The controversy surrounding Castro lent him support from the dissatisfied voters, propelling him from an inconspicuous district to the role of the speaker.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

The senator arrived, and Hunt tucked the book into her briefcase.

“So sorry to keep you both waiting,” Shriver said as he perched next to Julia on the sofa. “I was tied up at a lunch that ran late.” In front of him, on the coffee table, was a dish of peanuts. He dug into them like a starving man.

Hours had passed and Chowdhury’s patience was wearing thin. No one had yet explained why the Homeland Security officers had placed him in secondary detention. According to the pair watching him, he and nearly a dozen other detained travelers were “awaiting questioning.” They had confiscated his headsUp bracelet, so he had no way of communicating with the outside world, and he couldn’t help but think of the advantages of having a piece of technology embedded in his body, the unpredictable ways it might free you, as it would have now. Instead, his only connection to the outside world was the television overhead, switched to a cable news channel sympathetic to the Castro administration, with one of its evening anchors droning on about the threat posed by the Truthers and their obstructionist agenda, particularly now that they held a majority in the House.

One of the immigration officers meandered past. “Ma’am,” said Chowdhury with all the politeness he could muster, “could I please place a call?”

“What did the other officer tell you?”

The other officer had told Chowdhury that he could place a call as soon as he’d been processed; however, Chowdhury wasn’t certain what that processing would entail, or if it would occur anytime soon. This didn’t garner any sympathy from the passing officer, who returned to her desk while Chowdhury was forced to return to watching the news. The anchor announced that after the break Vice President Smith would join for a live interview. It struck Chowdhury as odd that the vice president would appear alone on an evening news show, particularly on a day when the president had delivered a major speech.

He couldn’t help but think of the advantages of having a piece of technology embedded in his body, the unpredictable ways it might free you, as it would have now.

The show returned from break and Vice President Smith was beside the anchor at the news desk. The anchor asked if the vice president would like to address the malicious rumors that the president had suffered some sort of health crisis. The channel went split-screen, with footage of Castro stumbling at the dais but now quickly recovering, next to the live feed of Smith. “Clearly, this was a minor incident,” he said. “What’s unfortunate is the way the president’s political enemies are trying to take advantage of it.” Smith continued, explaining that these allegations exposed how desperate the Truthers had become, further insinuating that other media clips—in which the president topples to the ground—were heavily doctored and likely the result of a foreign disinformation campaign. “Disinformation by which countries?” the anchor asked, to which Smith responded, “Due to classification, I’m not at liberty to say.”

Smith made a compelling argument. His piercing blue eyes stared directly into the camera. Just as Chowdhury found himself beginning to trust him, something unusual occurred: A fly made an appearance. Initially, Chowdhury rose to his feet, thinking the insect was on his own monitor. As he made an effort to wave it away, he realized that this large, black fly was actually in the studio, casually traversing the VP’s dense, grey toupee.

The news anchor, with his focus on the VP, appeared to ignore the insect’s presence.

Unflinchingly, Smith allowed the fly to land on his forehead. He could have easily acknowledged what all watchers could plainly see, by simply swatting the fly away. No viewer would have thought any less of him; after all, such incidents occur, even to the most esteemed individuals. But, he chose to disregard it. He maintained his discourse, disregarding the obvious distraction. His speech highlighted his concern for the nation, his disdain for his adversaries, and in the most vehement manner, he uttered with a furrowed brow, “Our president is resilient. Any insinuated accusations of weakness are mere spurious gossip, unworthy of rebuttal.”

Shriver and Wisecarver wasted no time in discussing their point. As little as a few days prior, a distinctive sequence of code had emerged on a website named Common Sense. The code appeared unfinished, containing a pattern of programmatic phrases that encased an incomplete map of nucleic acids, chains of amino acids, and proteins. But, this pattern showed similarities to parts of the code in “Advances in Remote Gene Editing Among State and Non-State Actors,” the top-secret intelligence report that Hunt had distributed to Shriver.

Where had the leak occurred? How did that code get onto an obscure website?

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

Hunt didn’t know, and she said as much.

This answer far from satisfied Wisecarver, who kept asking different versions of the same question: “What is the administration doing to shore up this leak?” Hunt didn’t have an answer, mainly because she didn’t—and couldn’t—speak for the administration.

While Wisecarver grilled Hunt, Shriver kept one eye on the television in the corner of his office, where the vice president was finishing an evening blitz of interviews. “Aww, c’mon,” groaned Shriver as the vice president made some earnest point. He turned toward Julia, speaking directly to her: “You can fool the fans. You can fool the referees. But you can’t fool the players. He is lying through his goddamn teeth.”

Wisecarver placed his hand lightly on Julia’s arm. “We know the president has suffered a major medical emergency. Denying it is counterproductive, both for his administration and the country. We also have concerns about …” Wisecarver paused, his eyes turned upward, as if searching for the correct word to pluck from the air, “contributing factors.”

“Contributing factors?”

Wisecarver leaned deeper into the sofa, crossing his arms. “Major Hunt,” he began, “your mother was Rear Admiral Sarah Hunt, correct?”

“Adoptive mother,” Julia replied.

“Apologies,” said Wisecarver. “Adoptive mother. The last time a foreign adversary attacked this nation, she played a central role in our defense. What I’d ask you to consider is that our nation is again under attack.”

“By whom?” asked Hunt.

Shriver interjected, “We thought you might know, or be willing to share what the administration knows, given you’ve already shown a willingness to be transparent with us.”

“You think this has something to do with the intel assessment I shared?”

A beat or two passed in silence. Wisecarver asked, “Is that the opinion of the administration?”

“Is what the opinion of the administration?” Hunt retorted.

The conversation hit a dead end. Hunt refrained from making assumptions on behalf of the administration, and both Shriver and Wisecarver remained reluctant to articulate their worries. Hunt demurely gave her excuses to leave, citing a non-existent meeting at the White House that she was running late for. As she prepared to depart, Wisecarver stood up and said, “Your mother is one of this nation’s outstanding heroes. Some may have forgotten the responsibilities she steered, but I never did. It’s a privilege to meet you at last.”

Hunt sat obliviously in the auto-taxi. She knew of the president’s health fallout, which wasn’t unique. Several presidents like Roosevelt passed away during their term and Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack. Modern presidents remained healthier, but it was imminent for a health crisis to crop up. Did the House Speaker and the Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee genuinely consider this to be the machinations of a foreign adversary? If so, how did they presume it to be? Via gene editing from afar, through coding sequences highlighted in an intel assessment that she should not have shared even if she was duty-bound to? Hunt was wary of the prospect of expounding this meeting to her godfather, who would surely grow further aggravated once he discovered her misjudgment sprouted a powerful conspiracy theory amongst senior opposing lawmakers.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

Hunt badged into her office and proceeded through security. When she arrived at her godfather’s door, it was open a crack. She knocked and stepped inside, to find Hendrickson, Slake, and two other staffers gathered around his desk. Like in a baroque painting, each was frozen in an expression of ecclesiastical grief, faces contorted, while the receiver to the red line lay in Hendrickson’s limp, upturned palm. Muted on the television behind them, the vice president was finishing another interview.

“He’s dead,” said Hendrickson, blinking several times.

“Who’s dead?” asked Hunt. She already knew the answer.

Slake began to shake her head. “We’re so fucked … we’re so fucked …”

“Karen …” said Hendrickson.

Hunt sat down in a free chair.

“… we’re so fucked … we’re so fucked …”

“Karen …” Hendrickson said again, more sharply. Still, she kept on. Then Hendrickson slammed down the receiver in its cradle. Slake’s eyes snapped toward him, as did Hunt’s. “I just have to think,” said Hendrickson, his hand still gripping the phone. “Let’s take this one step at a time.”

Then the phone rang. It was the vice president calling in from the studio. His voice was upbeat, energized by the spotlight. He had a single question: “How’d I do?”

The president’s body lay on a steel table in the bowels of the hospital, in a small and windowless gallery with raised seating that held a dozen people. Hendrickson was included in that dozen, as was Julia Hunt, whom he’d asked to accompany him. On the floor of the operating room, the chief internist, who would preside over the autopsy, was flanked by a squad of accompanying physicians, which included Walter Reed’s chief medical examiner, an Army colonel who wore her hair in a tight bun, as well as the senior nurse on staff, a warrant officer whose hands never stopped moving as he checked the instruments spread across several steel trays. The commander of the hospital, a brigadier general, hovered two paces behind the body.

Two screens hung suspended above the examining table. One displayed the results of the president’s most recent physical and the other a close-up of a dark, cloudy image that, to Julia, appeared like an exposure from the Hubble Space Telescope. Hendrickson seemed to sense his goddaughter’s confusion. He leaned close and explained that the image was a CT scan of the president’s heart. Hendrickson had himself undergone this exam in a recent checkup: the physicians had administered an intravenous dye before passing his body through an ultrafast scanner. The purpose was to detect plaque in the heart, of which Hendrickson had a distressing amount. When Castro heard about Hendrickson’s poor result, he’d mentioned that he’d recently had the same test and made a competition of it, declaring that his test had shown no plaque at all.

The nurse removed the thin sheet that covered Castro’s body and unceremoniously tossed it into a medical disposal container under the table. Castro was a fit man, slim, with good muscle tone, in his late fifties. The internist spoke for the recorder: “Beginning standard autopsy on Ángel Cordoba Miguel Castro, zero-five-seventeen, March 13th, 2054. Subject has been deceased for roughly 14 hours, body arrived at Walter Reed from San Diego six hours ago and presents normally for a recent death …” He went on for several minutes, logging a description of the body’s parts and their general condition. “We’ll now proceed to the vital thoracic organs.” Grasping a number-10-blade scalpel, he leaned over the body and began a Y incision. The blade sliced cleanly, the first stroke starting behind the left ear, flowing down the side of the neck, before curving around the collarbone, and terminating at the sternum. The internist repeated the same incision on the right side, joining the two at the center of the chest. This was followed by a single vertical incision from the sternum toward the pelvis. Everyone in the room seemed to lean toward the table at once.

Andrew Williams

Matt Burgess

Scharon Harding, Ars Technica

Medea Giordano

The internist detailed his findings: “No external punctures to the corpse … stroke seems improbable … A pulmonary embolism can’t be disregarded … or the consumption of a harmful substance …” He raked his gaze over the CT scan displayed above, scrutinizing the portrayal of Castro’s heart one last time. “The probability of Cardiac failure even less plausible—”

A nurse interjected. “Could a fatal dysrhythmia be a possibility?”

“The physical examination does not reveal any risk factors that could have precipitated such an occurrence, but an internal inspection is warranted.” The internist turned his back to Julia, his flexing and strenuous shoulder muscles catching her attention as he embarked on the process to open the chest cavity. After making an effort for a few moments, he finally swung around after some proficient scalpel work, and in his gloved hand, he cradled a wet, shining organ.

The nurse nonchalantly proffered a steel pan alike passing a platter across a dinner table. As the internist was about to lay the heart on the pan for weighing, his body jerked as if bitten by a bug. He showed a peculiar expression, mimicking a jeweler investigating a dubious gemstone as he lifted the president’s heart parallel to his eyes. As his hands were occupied, he requested the nurse to adjust his close-view spectacles for him. While his right hand carried the heart, his left hand roamed its underbelly. The more his fingers delved, the more alarmed he became. His gaze darted from the heart he cradled, to the CT scan and back onto the heart in utter disbelief.

“This can’t be right …” The internist turned to the other physicians behind him. “This can’t be the same heart.”

2054, Part II: Next Big Thing
“If molecules really were the new microchips, the promise of remote gene editing was that the body could be manipulated to upgrade itself.”

From 2054: A Novel, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis, USN, to be published on March 12th, 2024, by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis.

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This excerpt appears in the March 2024 issue of WIRED. Subscribe now.

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