Exploring the Future: The Next Big Thing in 2054, Part II

By Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

Middle of the night, alone in his lab, was just how he liked to work. News of Castro’s death was everywhere, and he’d come here to escape it. Stylishly dressed in a cashmere Cucinelli hoodie, he was blasting his music. Tonight it was Dean Martin, and he was mouthing the words to “That’s Amore,” muttering to himself about the moon hitting his eye like a big pizza pie while he reviewed the genetic code of dozens of monarch butterflies, the subject of that evening’s work. Without too much trouble, he’d teased apart their nucleotide bases and found a sequence of mRNA that would switch the color in their wings from reddish brown to green, to blue, to yellow, to nearly anything he wanted, really. He had, a week before, met a girl, a diving instructor from Tokyo newly arrived on the island, and he’d wanted to impress her. She had a tattoo of colored butterflies on her wrist.

Since he was a kid, most people called him Big Texas. His actual name was Dr. Christopher Yamamoto. The girl with the butterfly tattoo had teased him when she’d heard the nickname. Most people did. Raised by a single father, a chief petty officer in the US Navy, he’d moved around a lot. Small for his age and asthmatic, he earned the nickname at a Northern Virginia high school known for its football team. Each day he arrived at school with little more than a handful of change for lunch, which he usually bought from the vending machine in the form of an enormous chocolate chip cookie called the Big Texas. He had a special way of eating the cookie. He sat in the cafeteria, typically alone, and removed all the chocolate chips—counting out every last one, usually over a hundred, while tabulating a daily average in his head. He placed the chocolate chips in a pile. He ate the cookie, then the chocolate chips, one at a time. Other kids noticed, and Yamamoto became Big Texas. Even his father began to call him that, or B.T. for short.

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Encased in a large goldfish bowl, the butterflies batted their wings in near-perfect cadence with the music. He watched as their color changed in real time. “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” began playing, and B.T. began shuffling triumphantly around his lab as he imagined rolling up to the dive shop behind the beach on Cape Maeda, that dive instructor in her bikini, him with his multicolor butterflies in the bowl, her so impressed that she fell into his arms. My head keeps spinning … I go to sleep and keep grinning … If this is just the beginning … My life is going to be be-au-ti-ful … He loved the big band stuff from a hundred years ago—Martin, Sinatra, Bennett. Their music had provided the soundtrack to some of the happiest moments of his life, walking across the floor of the Bellagio or the Venetian, his sunglasses from the poker table still shielding his eyes, the pockets of his bespoke suit bulging with that night’s winnings as he headed to the bar, where he half expected to meet Sammy Davis or Joey Bishop for a highball. He’d graduated from MIT radically in debt and had stayed in Vegas long after paying off that debt, making the first of his several small fortunes there and then running the tables from Monte Carlo to Macau. He liked high stakes. On good nights his lab felt like a casino. He had his theories. He got dealt his hand. He placed his bets.

He opened a window to let some fresh air in. He could hear the ocean above the music. Tomorrow morning he’d head down to the beach. Butterflies eat fruit, and B.T. needed to clean a few decaying scraps from their habitat before he delivered his gift. He was elbow-deep in the bowl, reaching for an apple core, when an incoming call rang on his work computer. He startled, nearly knocking his experiment to the ground. He’d turned off all his alerts. He let the call ring itself out. Whoever it was didn’t leave a message. They called again. B.T. let it ring. What could be so urgent? He was reaching for a last rind of fruit. The call kept ringing. He should really pick up … It could be an emergency … People knew not to call him in the lab … Goddammit.

He lunged toward his workstation, catching the incoming call on its last ring. A three-dimensional rendering appeared of James Mohammad, one of his financial backers, at his desk on the 42nd floor of his Lagos office. Behind him, sky-filled windows framed the harbor speckled with a mix of freighters and luxury yachts. “B.T., what are you doing?” Mohammad said in vowelly English.

“Working. What is it?”

Joel Khalili

Alistair Charlton

Jaina Grey

Julian Chokkattu

“We need to discuss the files you turned over.”

“I’m busy.”

“We’ve given you a lot of money.”

Late last year, B.T. had closed a deal with James Mohammad and his partners based on promising early results from his research on remote modifications to cells altered by mRNA-based vaccines. B.T. estimated he was still at best three years away from the breakthrough in remote gene editing that Mohammad and his partners had gambled on, if he ever got there.

“OK,” said B.T. “What about the files?”

Mohammad’s expression changed to genuine curiosity. “What is that you have going on behind you?”


“Behind you … Those colors … are those … are all of those … butterflies …?”

B.T. jerked around.

In his rush to answer the call, he hadn’t properly sealed the lid on the butterflies’ bowl. Now they were fluttering around his lab. Cursing, he grabbed a loose towel and scrambled after them. The few that B.T. managed to corral he inadvertently killed, while the rest flew out the window, into the night. The next morning green, yellow, blue monarchs could be found calmly batting their wings in the trees and on the grass around Cape Maeda.

Her godfather had seemed to age years in a week. His closely trimmed hair had never been much more than a coating of gray stubble, so most of the change Julia observed was in his face, the way it sagged, the rims of his eyes having become red and sad like an old basset hound’s, with pallid semicircles beneath. Thus far, Hendrickson had managed to keep the details of Castro’s autopsy under wraps—how the internist had discovered an inexplicable mass of cells lodged in Castro’s aorta. None of the physicians could explain how the marble-sized obstruction had grown so large in so little time. Hendrickson had left strict orders with the brigadier general in command of the hospital: Only the White House would receive a record of the autopsy report, all other copies would be destroyed.

In the hours that followed, priority was to get Smith sworn in as Castro’s successor. Discretion had been at a premium. Castro’s death wasn’t yet public. Hendrickson hadn’t even divulged it to the Supreme Court justice he’d corralled into the White House to administer the oath of office. The justice had entered the Roosevelt Room at a little before 7 in the morning, the Secret Service having taken her from her breakfast table. She cursed about “this personal intrusion” until she saw Smith and understood. Hendrickson scrounged up a Bible and the new president swore on it.

At noon that day, the newly sworn-in President Smith announced Castro’s death in a televised address to the nation. But it was too little, too late. The Democratic-Republicans and their activist base, the Truthers, had seized on the administration’s lack of transparency and blitzed the media with calls for resignations. Truther agitators accused the Dreamers of being “the party of lies,” while the Dreamers struggled to absorb the sudden loss of their leader. Conspiracy theories gained traction among a disoriented public, with #TRUTHNOTDREAMS trending across social networks. News outlets that for so long had been pliant to Castro could not ignore the outcry.

Written by: Joel Khalili

Additional Reporting by: Alistair Charlton

Jaina Grey

Julian Chokkattu

A bloody Sunday followed. In Tucson, a Border Patrol officer fired a rubber bullet that struck a Truther protester in the eye, killing her. When the news broke, the Homeland Security secretary resigned. But a single resignation wasn’t enough. Truther activists, organized into self-styled Truther brigades, ransacked a half-dozen federal buildings from Los Angeles to Boston in one frenzied afternoon. By Monday evening a crop of resignations, from the secretary of defense to the director of Health and Human Services, had arrived on Hendrickson’s desk.

As chief of staff, Hendrickson had quietly requested these resignations. He delivered them to the new president. By the end of that week, it seemed the Truthers had achieved their goal of mass resignations within the administration and their protests subsided, but a sense of crisis remained. “Sir,” Hendrickson told the newly appointed president, “we’ve stopped the bleeding, but the patient is still on the table with a weak set of vitals.”

This investment could explode in his face. James Mohammad engaged three different security companies to infiltrate Yamamoto’s personal servers, and all reached the same conclusion: His servers were untouched, showing no signs that the confidential research on remote gene editing, for which Mohammad had purchased exclusive rights at a high price, had been shared. Some code from that research had emerged on Common Sense just a few days prior. Although the code was incomplete and insensible in isolation, its source was clear.

Mohammad’s search algorithms, designed to identify even a piece of the code anywhere, spotted it immediately. But B.T.’s servers were untouched… So, if he wasn’t the informant, who was? At the end of the day, this breach was due to human negligence, not technology. While B.T.’s skills could not be questioned, neither could his flaws. A perpetual gambler, B.T.’s impulses often hampered his brilliance. Mohammad should’ve anticipated not to depend on him.

James Mohammad was also a gambler, though in a different sense. If questioned, he would label himself as a private investor. His investment vehicles constantly changed—Dark Stone Enterprises, Clear Wood Equity, Broad Water Capital—their monikers, similar to many other firms, following a common pattern: an element and an adjective aiming at permanence. Like B.T., Mohammad had a transient youth, moving around every few years with his father, Benjamin Mohammad, a Nigerian diplomat of great promise. Mohammad’s father, like many elites from previously Commonwealth countries, enrolled him at Eton at age 13. Shortly afterward, in 2036, his parents fell victim to the pandemic forever linked with that terrible year. The Etonians, unreceptive of foreigners, allowed Mohammad to complete the term following his personal tragedy, but were undersupplied to support his further education. Then, an uncle intervened unexpectedly.

Much later, following a string of unsuccessful investments that brought the mature James Mohammad to the verge of bankruptcy, his uncle once again stepped in, offering to cover his losses and future investments provided he occasionally imparted the Nigerian government with confidential, nonpublic information related to those investments. It wasn’t until an American tech investor, 10 years his junior, confessed to working in intelligence and narrated a similar connection with his own government while sharing a drink, that Mohammad began to understand the benefits of his arrangement. The young investor had a precise term for it: He was operating as a NOC, non-official cover.

Already, so much of geopolitics had begun to revolve not so much around military alliances, or even trade alliances, but tech alliances.

Whatever his title, Mohammad knew that researchers like B.T. were on the cusp of implementing remote gene editing, a profound scientific breakthrough. If molecules really were the new microchips, the promise of remote gene editing was that the body could be manipulated to upgrade itself. Few could comprehend the implications: Governments would no longer need to roll out logistically complex and onerous vaccination campaigns to combat ever-quickening pandemic cycles and viral variants; advanced genetic therapies could be administered remotely, with far greater ease, by triggering the gene-altering properties of mRNA through wireless communication, the equivalent of sending a molecular-level software upgrade; and this was to say nothing of potential enhancements in human physiology and intelligence. The seamless integration of technology and biology was hardly a new idea. Decades before, in the opening years of the century, visionaries like the technologist Ray Kurzweil had predicted the coming of the so-called Singularity. Now, with the prospect of remote gene editing, Mohammad believed that moment had finally arrived.

It was clear to Mohammad that a new Great Game was afoot. Whatever global order currently existed could only be characterized as no order at all. China and the United States had forfeited their dominance with a near-world-ending conflict; Russia’s decline had continued post-Putin, and the eastern part of Siberia was in effect a Chinese colony; and his native Nigeria had developed with intent and impact internationally, often cooperating with Brazil. And, of course, Japan—long written off, given its declining demographics—had leveraged artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing to compensate for a diminished workforce, often trading with India, which offered a vast market for its technologies.

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Alistair Charlton

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The objective of the “game,” as Mohammad thought of it, was to arrive at the Singularity first and, with a head start, outpace rivals who would never be able to catch up once biology and technology finally merged; this head start was key, as theorists believed the Singularity would enable what they’d termed an “intelligence explosion,” the equivalent of thousands of years of biological evolution crammed into months or even weeks when machine and human learning integrated into a single consciousness. After this, a regular human intelligence in this game would become as anachronistic as the skills possessed by the chess and Go grandmasters that AI had surpassed decades ago. Already, so much of geopolitics had begun to revolve not so much around military alliances, or even trade alliances, but tech alliances. Instead of fighting in third-country proxy states, as the US and Soviet Union had done a century before, the battlefields of today’s “proxy wars” were in the biotech and quantum labs around the world.

Yes, thought Mohammad, it would seem the Singularity was close … and a key sequence of its code was sitting on Common Sense, a website that trafficked in conspiracy theories and agitated against the Castro administration. Without drawing too much attention, Mohammad needed to figure a way to get that piece of code taken down … before someone recognized its implications.

B.T. would be of little help with this task; and, frankly, Mohammad didn’t want to entangle himself further there. As he sat behind his desk, with the low sun hitting the Atlantic, he recalled how they had first met, through that fierce woman at the Tandava Group, the one who’d been in B.T.’s class at MIT, the one who’d also lost a father who had served as a sort of diplomat … Maybe she could lend a hand … What was her name? James Mohammad scoured his inbox, until finally an email popped up: lily.bao@tandava.com.

President Smith spent his first chaotic week in office immersed in planning the state funeral for his predecessor. He’d asked Hendrickson for a block-by-block dissection of the route the presidential motorcade would take from the White House to Arlington National Cemetery. Castro had never served in the military, and under normal circumstances this would’ve made him ineligible for burial at Arlington, but while he was alive he’d strong-armed the Pentagon brass into approving an exception for him. For Smith, everything had become the funeral. Whether he had no instinct for self-preservation or simply didn’t have an interest in the political machinations swirling around him, Hendrickson couldn’t say. At times it seemed as though the funeral the new president was planning were actually his own. Hendrickson had begun to feel like the de facto president; he’d even taken to sleeping at the office and so, in a way, was also a resident of the White House.

Julia had taken to sleeping at the White House too. Each night, after the last meeting, she’d roll out her sleeping bag on Hendrickson’s floor while he flopped down beneath a throw blanket on a red and gold silk-upholstered sofa. After a week, Julia asked if he would consider spending a night at home. Though he never spoke of it, she knew Hendrickson and his wife were essentially estranged. He kept up the facade for the sake of his career, but Julia knew the old admiral had nothing pulling him home. “I can’t leave yet,” said Hendrickson. He tugged the blanket up over his shoulders, revealing a stockinged foot with a dime-sized hole in the big toe. “There’s too much to get done. Maybe after the funeral.”

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Alistair Charlton

Jaina Grey

Julian Chokkattu

“That’s not until next month.” Julia propped herself up on her elbow, facing Hendrickson. From the well-lit South Lawn, a low iridescence crept into the curtained room. “Have you taken a look at yourself lately?”

Hendrickson grunted, adjusted his body, and didn’t answer. “You’re scarcely eating,” she added. “You’re not exercising. You’re barely sleeping.”

“That’s hardly my fault.” Hendrickson sat up on the sofa and, with knees wide, planted his elbows on his legs. He ran through the list of everything that needed to happen to ensure the stable transfer of power between Castro and Smith, from the replacement of the resigned cabinet secretaries to the appointment of a new vice president, all of which he would have to jam through an increasingly intransigent Congress led by Wisecarver. “Until we get a VP confirmed,” said Hendrickson, “Wisecarver remains one heartbeat away from the White House. Knowing that, could you sleep?”

“Have you seen the conspiracy theories about Castro’s death?” Julia asked. They had existed as a sort of background noise for several days now, appearing across messaging platforms and on social media. These theories all arrived at the same conclusion: Castro had been assassinated. They differed on the method, with elaborate speculation on everything from Russian poisoning plots to Chinese hit squads. Most prominent of these platforms was the increasingly popular website Common Sense, which didn’t expound on method but in terse boilerplate statements asserted that Castro’s death had been no accident, and repeated the catchphrase, Wake up, America, and dream.

“I’ve heard the same crackpot stuff,” said Hendrickson. He didn’t mention the mass discovered in Castro’s heart.

“I’ve also heard the Truthers are demanding a national commission to investigate Castro’s death, like the Warren Commission did with Kennedy, and that we pick a Truther for VP, so a unity government.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that about the VP pick too.” Hendrickson lay back down on the sofa. “As for the investigation, well, they’d like nothing more than an investigation, a big juicy one they can hold over us for years and years.” This was why Hendrickson had withheld the results of the autopsy—he wouldn’t hand his enemies this weapon to use against the nation. Irregular as the report was, it would only empower Truther conspiracy theorists.

Julia recognized the bitter tone in his voice, the burden it carried; it was how her mother had often sounded. A wife and family had once provided Hendrickson his emotional ballast, but with his marriage soured and his children living on the other side of the country, it was primarily work that steadied him.

“Will you please go home tomorrow?” Julia pleaded. “Just for a night.”

Hendrickson rolled over and looked at her through the dim light.

“You don’t have to worry,” he said. “I’m not going to end up like her.”

“Why?” she asked. “Because you’re stronger than she was?”

A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic—was it Stalin who’d said that?

“No,” said Hendrickson. They were speaking in whispers. Then a silence formed, into which Hendrickson dropped his next words. “Because I learned my limits from her. No one should have to carry the burden she did. If I’m ever asked to do too much, I’ll simply walk away.” Julia stared at Hendrickson and considered his words. If he spoke obliquely, it was because the number of people Julia’s mother had killed during the last war, when uttered aloud, became incomprehensible. A single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic—was it Stalin who’d said that? This, she knew, was the emotional logic of why her mother had eventually swallowed a medicine cabinet’s worth of pills and ended her life. It was as if by taking her own, single life she could imbue her death with the tragic element those other deaths had lacked. Ultimately, her mother couldn’t shake the idea that she deserved tragedy.

A darkness had blanketed her mother in those last years, particularly after Julia had decided, over her objections, to follow her into the military. Sarah had pleaded with Julia to refuse her appointment to the Naval Academy. Too often she’d repeated what became a threadbare refrain: Whoever saves a single life saves all the world. The implication was that it was she, Sarah, who had done the saving by adopting Julia. Before deciding to accept her appointment to the Naval Academy, Julia had, in a heated moment, after her mother trotted out the phrase one time too many, snapped back. “I never asked you to save me! And my job isn’t to save you!” Soon thereafter Julia left for Annapolis. In four years, Sarah Hunt never once visited.

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Alistair Charlton

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Hendrickson asked Julia to run over tomorrow’s schedule. “Meeting with Slake at zero-eight; after that, we’re reviewing the short list of possible VP picks with you in here at eight-thirty; the president’s daily intel briefing is scheduled for nine-fifteen—”

“Is he going to attend this one?” Hendrickson interrupted. “No, sir. He’s got a conflict.”

Hendrickson rolled over and tugged on his blanket, which again left his feet bare. He cursed. There wasn’t enough goddamn blanket. “What’s his conflict this time?” he grumbled.

“It seems he has a meeting with the director of the Marine Band to discuss the musical accompaniment for President Castro’s funeral, followed by a meeting with the White House chief of protocol and chief floral designer to approve graveside flower arrangements” A long silence followed, punctuated by a few deep breaths as Hendrickson tried to calm down enough to sleep. Julia filled that silence by walking him through the next few days, which included a meeting with his old friend Dr. Sandeep Chowdhury, whom the week before they’d bailed out of secondary detention at JFK after an overenthusiastic Homeland Security dragnet had swept him up.

“What’s the agenda for that meeting?”

“No agenda,” Julia said. “Dr. Chowdhury’s exec explained that he wanted to thank you for the help at JFK and hoped the two of you could catch up a bit. I thought you’d want me to put it on your schedule.”

“That’s appreciated.” Hendrickson’s eyelids began to droop. “It’ll be good to see Sandy again.” He yawned.

Julia was continuing to review the schedule when a crash in the hallway interrupted her; it sounded as though something had fallen over. She and Hendrickson hurried outside to find the president in his pajamas and bathrobe. At his feet was a vase filled with white and yellow flowers that had toppled to the floor. He was trying to clean up the mess. He startled when he saw them. “So sorry about that …” he said sheepishly. “I wanted to get a better look at these flowers. I thought I might suggest them for the funeral … It’s important we get this right for the president.” He bent over and continued to pick them up one at a time off the carpeted floor.

“Sir,” Hendrickson said. “With due respect, you are the president. Someone else can handle the flowers. What are you doing awake?”

The president stood straight, the flowers dangling limp in one hand. With the other he scratched the back of his head. “Can’t sleep for the life of me,” he confessed. “You?”

Lily Bao’s exec looked up when she returned to her desk after lunch. “A Mr. Mohammad phoned. He asked you to call him about someone named B.T. Here’s the message.” He handed her an old-fashioned Post-it note with a number scrawled across it.

Her exec was nearly 30 years her senior, a medically retired former Marine gunnery sergeant named Joseph William Sherman III, whom she simply called Sherman. With a compact frame, narrow-set blue eyes, a thin scraggly beard, and a shock of thin red hair, he bore a striking resemblance to his namesake, the famous Civil War general. Though Lily had never heard the story from him, out of curiosity she’d read the citation for Sherman’s Navy Cross, the incident in which he’d lost both his legs leading a company of Marine Raiders in the Spratly Islands 20 years before, where he had successfully charged two machine gun nests before unsuccessfully charging a third. He had survived the war. His wife and three girls at Camp Pendleton had not.

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“How was lunch?” He followed her to her office in his wheelchair, which he generally preferred to wearing his prosthetics. “Fine,” she said, sitting behind her desk. “Traffic’s still a mess. I thought the Truther protests would ease up after Smith fired his cabinet.”

“His problems are bigger than his cabinet. There’s the commission, too, and demands for a unity government.” Sherman paused. “So …” he added playfully. “What’d you order at lunch?”

She stopped and gave him a scathing look. “None of your goddamned business.”

Sherman tucked his chin to his chest and laughed. Lily could never be too severe with him, even when he skirted up to the line of impropriety. This job was all he had; or, put another way, she was all he had, their friendship. His loyalty was unquestionable, irrational even. Lily couldn’t quite explain it, except to assume that she reminded him of one of his daughters, or at least of what one of his daughter’s might have become; and, for his part (though she rarely allowed herself to think it), he reminded her of her own father.

“Why don’t you like him?” Lily asked.

“Why don’t I like who?”


“Oh,” said Sherman, joking again. “Is that who you were at lunch with?” He could see that he’d taken it a bit too far, so backed off. “What makes you think I don’t like him? I like him and the Truthers quite a bit.” Unable to restrain himself, Sherman launched into an aria on the dangers of one-party rule, the importance of the Truther brigades in securing First Amendment rights to protest, and the threat Castro’s fourth term in office had represented to the republic. He caught himself and apologized. “Would you like me to get Mr. Mohammad on the line for you?”

A few moments later she was on with James Mohammad. “Ms. Bao, many thanks for returning my call.” After exchanging pleasantries, she asked what she could do for him. “Well,” Mohammad said, “I’m a bit worried about your friend B.T.” The two of them had done some business together, he explained, but recently B.T. had become unpredictable, even erratic, and Mohammad was struggling to understand his change in behavior. Had Lily been in contact with B.T.?

Lily lied, saying she hadn’t spoken to B.T. for several months, but assured Mohammad that if she heard anything, she would make certain to let him know.

She hung up the phone and then called out to Sherman. “Get me Dr. Christopher Yamamoto on the line.” When no one picked up at his laboratory and it went to voicemail, Lily knew not to leave a message.

It was good to be back in the United States, even under the circumstances. When the immigration agents finally granted Chowdhury his one phone call, he had strategically placed it to his old friend Bunt Hendrickson and had, miraculously, gotten through to the White House on the first try. “Wait, you’re where?” Hendrickson had asked Chowdhury. “And they’re holding you because of what?” It hadn’t taken long—another two phone calls by Hendrickson—and just like old times, when they’d been White House staffers together, he’d sprung Chowdhury out of a jam.

A nagging concern had occupied Chowdhury in the week since he’d taken up residence in the Carlyle. He was worried about Hendrickson. Each day his concierge doctor cycled specialists in and out of his penthouse suite as they ran a series of diagnostics on his ailing heart. In the evenings, after the appointments had finished, Chowdhury would wander up and down Madison Avenue. Since Castro’s death, the proprietors of nearly every pricey boutique had boarded up their plate-glass windows. Chowdhury still had access to the Tandava Group’s daily corporate intelligence briefings, and these reports, compiled by a network he’d meticulously cultivated over two decades, assessed that the transition from the Castro administration to the Smith administration possessed a greater than one-in-five chance of descending into civil war, a loaded if not inaccurate term, thought Chowdhury. The specific intelligence in the reports didn’t go so far as to suggest that foul play had a role in Castro’s death, but Chowdhury didn’t need his own corporate intelligence service to tell him it was a possibility.

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Toward the end of that first week of tests and probes, Chowdhury had a meeting scheduled with an immunologist. A quick background check revealed that she had studied nanorobotics. She was a graduate of Cal Poly and had worked in the tech industry before making a shift to medicine. Upon her arrival at the Carlyle, her dark hair was fashioned in a pageboy style and she had thick glasses with heavy black frames. In a bungled attempt at small talk, Chowdhury commented that she greatly resembled Harry Potter, to which she responded with a vacant gaze. She didn’t understand the reference. She requested that he seat himself on a velvet-upholstered club chair in the corner of the lounge, and began a series of diagnostic tests, all of which his general physician had already undertaken. Upon Chowdhury stating this, she rather formally conveyed that her organization needed her to personally conduct these tests again due to liability worries.

“What company is that?” Chowdhury inquired.

“Neutronics,” she responded, while using a handheld 3D imager to scan his carotid artery.

“Based in São Paulo?”

“Yes, and Lagos too. With offices here.” Her eyes dipped into her imaging device. Then she looked back up at Chowdhury. “So you’ve heard of us?”

“I’m a private investor,” he said. “Neutronics was one of my early portfolio companies.” Chowdhury had made a small fortune through his position in Neutronics. During the twin pandemics of the late 2030s, Neutronics had been first to market with a new generation of smart vaccines, the first to incorporate molecule-sized nanorobots that could adapt to mutations in the virus.

“I knew Ray Kurzweil when I was investing in the company. Is he still involved?” asked Chowdhury.

“Maybe on the margins,” she said while placing a magnetically charged bracelet around Chowdhury’s wrist. “I haven’t seen him in years.”

Dr. Kurzweil, brilliant and solitary, had always been a figure of elusiveness, especially during the times Chowdhury had known him. The man’s persistent survival at 106 years old was something remarkable; it was akin to Leonardo da Vinci refusing to die before seeing the Wright brothers emerge. The demarcating line between a seer and a mere speculator rests in the future and its reality. Kurzweil’s prophetic Singularity hadn’t appeared yet. He would be waiting when biological and technological evolution merge, expediting human intelligence and functionality by compressing 1,000 years of Darwinian growth into months or a few weeks through bio-integrated quantum computing. Chowdhury found this completely plausible.

His contemplation was shattered as the young immunologist undid the band from his wrist, uttering, “Good news.”

Surprised, Chowdhury finished buttoning his shirt cuff, and asked, “What’s that?”

She adjusted herself on the arm of Chowdhury’s chair, holding a tablet that projected a holographic image of his beating heart. She spun the hologram with her finger, zooming into his aorta, alternating the focus between his left and right atrium, all while explaining the heart’s deteriorated condition – eroded muscles, plaque build-up, stress-induced weak synaptic responses. A list of grim realities that Chowdhury had been well aware of. As he observed his failing heart, he found it difficult to perceive the good news she mentioned.

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“The good news,” shared the immunologist, “is that you’re the perfect participant for a new clinical trial.” She cast a look at the hologram. Chowdhury’s heartbeat started fluttering sporadically. Sweat formed a line over his forehead. “Are you feeling okay?”

His breath, a weary strand of air, slipped past his lips and he closed his eyes. A sensation in his wrist signaled that the serotonin dispenser was functioning. He could sense the tightening in his chest becoming less tense. “Apologies,” he stated. “It occurs occasionally.”

“I get it,” the immunologist replied. She switched off the hologram and began clearing away her tools. She said she would send some documents via email for him to fill out the next day, a disclaimer agreement and also confidentiality contracts, considering the confidential nature of the trial. In addition, she mentioned that he’d have to travel to Neutronics’ main clinic in São Paulo for the treatment.

“When is it?” inquired Chowdhury.

“How soon can you be ready?”

Chowdhury said he’d get back to her with a date.

Alone in his suite, Chowdhury placed two phone calls. The first was to the White House operator, who put him in touch with the Marine major on Hendrickson’s personal staff. The second call was to his daughter, Ashni. She picked up the phone on the first ring. Her voice sounded nervous as she said hello to her father, like a teenager who’s thrown a party while her parents are away and doesn’t expect them to call. Without prompting, she began to update her father on the state of their various portfolio companies. “I’m sure that’s all going fine,” Chowdhury interrupted. “Listen, I need you to do something for me.”

“What is it, Bapu?”

“Do you think our fellows in corporate intelligence could track someone down?”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Who?”

“Be discreet about this, but I need them to find Ray Kurzweil.”

B.T. was hardly sleeping. It had started a week ago as a sinking feeling after James Mohammad called him in his lab, asking about the sequence of code that had leaked onto Common Sense. That sinking feeling had transformed into wakeful nights, and those had become enough to convince B.T. that he needed a bit of R & R, a chance to unwind. He’d booked a flight and reserved himself a suite at the Venetian.

If he were gambling on it, he would have placed his money on someone having murdered Castro.

President Castro’s death was all over the news, as were the protests demanding a commission and unity government. Every instinct B.T. possessed told him there was something more going on here. All week, as he cycled between baccarat, poker, fan-tan, and craps, with his conscious mind working through the patterns and probabilities of those games, his subconscious mind was grappling with the patterns and probabilities of Castro’s death. The president’s medical history was well known. He’d disclosed those records as part of his reelection campaign; they could be pulled up on any search engine and didn’t contain a single indicator of heart disease. Yes, people died unexpectedly in late middle age, even with a clean bill of health like Castro’s.

But presidents were also assassinated.

When B.T. ran the probabilities between the two, the odds seemed to favor the latter explanation. If he were gambling on it, he would have placed his money on someone having murdered Castro.

Joel Khalili

Alistair Charlton

Jaina Grey

Julian Chokkattu

This conclusion—unconnected to any true interest in politics or anything outside his lab—relentlessly kept B.T. awake. He spent numerous nights in his city suite, lying supine as the urban lights casted arbitrary patterns on his face. He slowly realized that his work potentially contributed to the existing predicament.

His almost one-week stay in the casino left him increasingly jittery. Despite sitting on a heap of winnings ample enough to restart his life anywhere, the decision on the ‘where’ left him blank. An infinity of options often results in paralysis—a state B.T was experiencing as he fiddled with a casino chip at a roulette table, with a successive winning streak. A growing crowd, placing bets beside his, surrounded him. He yawned, sipped his drink, placed another bet; seemingly, he was invincible.

Yet, he deeply desired to lose. He yearned to be left with nothing, forcing him back to his work and that lethal sequence of code which slipped past his lab. Despite this, he perpetually broke winning records. The little ball kept moving around the wheel, landing as if maneuvered by his singular intuition. As he continued winning, more people gathered, celebratory and oblivious to his emotional confinement by the increasing pile of winnings. Despite the escalating cheers and shoulder pats, no one anticipated his luck changing. He, however, knew it eventually would. The house invariably triumphed—such was the law of probabilities.

Consequently, he gambled all his winnings on black.

The assembling around the table reflected the same. The operator turned the round object and let go of the ball, which was set in motion to create a visual spectacle. B.T. took another gulp of his liquid solace and, noticing that a fellow gambler had placed a bet against his, favoring red, his face contorted as though sensing a taste contrast in his beverage.

At that moment, the ball made its landing.

“Victory to red,” declared the game handler. A collective displeasure echoed among the assemblage.

While the agent was busy collecting the earnings for the establishment, deftly managing the numerous game tokens, a few of the other participants who had lost their bets—despite not as much as B.T.—offered a comforting touch on his shoulder, seemingly expressing their gratitude for the thrilling bet. One after the other, they disappeared into the shimmering interior of the gambling house. B.T. acknowledged with a nod, though he was unfazed by the monetary setback. He was now penniless. This offered him a sense of clear-headedness. The next morning, he was set to board a flight back to Okinawa. The thought of James Mohammad’s probable search for him ensued.

The crowd had mostly dispersed, and the dealer, having counted out the winnings, placed a stack of chips in front of the only player who’d bet with the house. She sat at the far end of the roulette table, her eyes fixed on him. It was Lily Bao.

2054, Part III: The Singularity
“You’d have an incomprehensible level of computational, predictive, analytic, and psychic skill. You’d have the mind of God.”

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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