Chapter 5 of 2054: A Journey from Tokyo with Love

By Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

2054: A Novel

Part I: Death of a President

“They had, quite swiftly, begun an algorithmic scrub of any narrative of the president suffering a health emergency, burying those stories.”

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.”

Part III: The Singularity

“You’d have an incomprehensible level of computational, predictive, analytic, and psychic skill. You’d have the mind of God.”

Part IV: A Nation Divided

“The people are in the streets. We can’t ignore them any longer. Really, we have little choice. Either we heal together, or we tear ourselves apart.”

Part V: From Tokyo With Love

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Chowdhury checked into his hotel, an anodyne Grand Hyatt booked by the staff at Neutronics due to its proximity to their clinic. As the receptionist scanned his retina, she informed Chowdhury that “the other guest in your party has already arrived and is checked into your suite.” He had no idea who this other guest might be and didn’t ask. He trundled his single roller bag through the cavernous marble-floored foyer, toward a bank of elevators, and found his way up to the 18th floor. At the door to his room, he paused and took a breath before holding his face to the scanner lock.

His suite, situated in a corner of the hotel, boasted a panoramic view of the Rio Pinheiros, which threaded its murky way through the vibrant downtown, past the favelas on the city’s impoverished outskirts, until it merged again with the Tietê. He set his bag near the door and flopped down on a sectional sofa that faced the floor-to-ceiling windows. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned his jacket. In the late afternoon sun, the water shimmered like a ribbon of steel.

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Then he heard his daughter’s unmistakable voice in an adjacent bedroom. She hadn’t seemed to notice Chowdhury’s arrival. He listened in, wondering why his daughter had traveled all this way without telling him. “And you’re certain that’s the last time anyone saw Kurzweil,” she said. Pause. “Spell it for me,” she added. Another pause. “So it’s M-A-N-A-U-S … Manaus. OK, if you find out anything else, get in touch right away. My father arrives this afternoon.” The call finished.

Ashni stepped into the sitting room. Chowdhury stood. “What are you doing here?”

“You’re early,” she said, as if this answered his question. “I’d planned to meet you in the lobby.” He remained standing. “Sit down, Bapu. Won’t you?”

Reluctantly, Chowdhury sat. Ashni perched beside him, knees together, her perfectly manicured fingers worrying the hem of her skirt. Chowdhury struggled to pinpoint the source of his irritation, which was bordering on anger.

“You asked me to look into Neutronics and Dr. Kurzweil,” Ashni began.

Chowdhury interrupted her: “Yes, but I didn’t ask you to fly down here. Whatever you found, you could’ve spoken to me about on the phone or sent in an email. Ashni, if you’re going to successfully run Tandava, you have to learn to delegate … you have to learn to—”

She cut him off: “Bapu, just listen, for once!” Ashni hardly ever raised her voice at her father. Startled, he stopped and tilted his head slightly.

She continued, “Ray Kurzweil doesn’t work for Neutronics, not anymore. Our intelligence people did some digging and found a lawsuit filed by him against the company in a Brazilian court. Three years ago Kurzweil and Neutronics arrived at an impasse with regards to the direction the company’s research should take. Neutronics wanted Kurzweil to apply his discoveries in nanorobotics and gene editing to the development of treatments for everything from heart disease to a wide variety of cancers. Kurzweil felt differently. He believed working on specific medical treatments was a waste of time and energy. Kurzweil was adamant that when the Singularity was achieved and the power of quantum computing merged with human consciousness, it would seamlessly allow us to discover cures for cancer, heart disease—or anything else, for that matter—in the time it takes a child to solve a math problem. To Kurzweil, the only breakthrough that mattered was the Singularity itself. But Neutronics is a business. The advances Kurzweil had made meant they were sitting on a gold mine. They didn’t want to waste any more time or risk that another company or country would make similar discoveries before they could cash in and turn a profit. So they chose to pay Kurzweil off, and he and Neutronics went their separate ways. Kurzweil would be free to continue his research, and Neutronics—after paying him a fortune—could develop and market treatments based on the work he’d already done. Like the treatment you’re about to receive, for your heart.”

Matt Kamen

David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

“So where is Kurzweil now?” Chowdhury asked.

“No one knows.” Ashni glanced down at the piece of paper she’d written on. “The last record of him is from a little more than two years ago, a hotel registry in Manaus. With what Neutronics paid him, he wouldn’t need to come up for air anytime soon—if ever. He could take his work and simply vanish. Which is what it appears he’s done.”

“You didn’t need to come all this way to tell me that,” said Chowdhury.

“No,” said Ashni. “I didn’t.” As she looked at her father, her lower lip trembled. She turned away from Chowdhury, as if this might help her avoid the onset of some unwelcome emotion. As he watched his daughter, Chowdhury could so clearly see her as she once was; before his divorce, when they’d all lived in the studio apartment in Adams Morgan; before he’d taken the job in the White House; before Galveston, too, that name forever associated with disaster and loss, in which Ashni had lost her mother. The two of them sat quietly, glancing out at the shimmering waters below. A cloud passed over the sun and the shimmer vanished. Ashni turned toward her father. “I came all this way because I don’t want you to have to undergo these treatments on your own … and I’m afraid. Can’t you understand that?”

Now Chowdhury felt as though he were the child, and a selfish one at that, having in all this time hardly considered his daughter’s feelings about his health. “Of course,” he said in a near-whisper.

“There’s another reason I came,” confessed Ashni.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t want you to track down Ray Kurzweil.”

B.T. was in love. Her name was Michiko Takagi. She called herself Michi, playfully signing her notes to him with a heart over each i. Their relationship developed quickly, maybe too quickly, B.T. wondered. A few weeks ago, after an email from Michi, B.T. visited her at Cape Maeda. Her fascination with the multicolored butterflies was apparent. Provoked by the superb display, she wished to return the favor and invited B.T. for an afternoon dive, just them two.

He found himself back in his lab later that night, but the desire for work had diminished. Instead, he decided to rest in his bed, closed his eyes, whereupon the day’s memories of her slowly nudged him into a calming deep sleep.

On their consecutive fourth day together, Michi led B.T. out to the 35-meter trench on Cape Maeda. They stationed their boat near the Blue Cave. As Michi scrutinized B.T.’s diving gear—securing a chest strap, confirming the correct weight on his belt—she explained their dive outline. Once they plunged to 100 feet he would gain open-water-certified status, enabling him to independently dive any part of the world.

While holding his diving mask with his left hand and his regulator with the right, he turned and fell backward over the boat. Michi followed suit soon. Both swam towards a marker buoy which trailed down to the darker depths below. As the wind danced on the water’s surface, Michi signaled with a thumbs downward gesture. Past 10 feet, tranquility took over. The only audible sounds were of B.T.’s rhythmic breathing. His rental face mask, not a very recent model and a bit uncomfortable began to condense. Michi had demonstrated to B.T. the process of mask clearing- breaching the seal by tilting back the head to allow water to enter and then ejecting the water with a strong nose exhale. However, the thought of water on his face whilst deep under stirred B.T.’s anxiety. So, he proactively chose to encounter the foggy mask and its slight discomfort. Down there his thoughts achieved heightened clarity. He equated this personal experience to his global casino adventures: Both demanded complete mind presence. Major worries like leaked code sequences, James Mohammad’s wrath, and Lily Bao’s U.S. predicaments appeared to vaporize in the depth, rising to the surface resembling exhaled air bubbles.

Matt Kamen

David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

Michi, similar to B.T., had a solid grounding in science, specifically evolutionary biology focused on maritime species. This ultimately led her to become a dive instructor, an occupation she used to augment her research grants. As they relaxed on the boat deck between their ocean exploration trips, she shared her specific passion for marine species, explaining that they outweighed terrestrial species by a ratio of six-to-one. Furthermore, the evolutionary process was slower in deep-sea environments, allowing biologists to observe ancient evolutionary patterns. During these early days, B.T. found himself entranced by her, despite being engrossed in her insightful discussions.

On the fourth day, they started their descent along the trench wall. B.T. felt guided by Michi from behind, instructed to stop once his depth gauge indicated 100 feet. However, his fogging mask made it challenging to focus on the gauge. Michi stopped him by grabbing his dive vest shoulder strap, signaling that he had exceeded the depth limit. They floated along the trench, surrounded by colorful fish. She then took out her regulator, prompting B.T. to do the same. The thought of being devoid of oxygen terrified him. Despite his reluctance, he obliged Michi and removed his regulator.

She then pulled the hesitant B.T. towards her and kissed him ushering a wave of tranquility that assuaged his anxieties. Their bodies clung to each other as they hung from the trench wall against the backdrop of an unending abyss. The prolonged kiss started to make his lungs yearn for air, reminding him of the asthma he had as a child. Yet, he was more than willing to extend this intimate moment at any cost. His previous apprehensions seemed to have melted away, replaced by the desire to stay with her in the deep forever.

Post their intimate encounter, Michi gently let go of B.T. giving him a moment to recalibrate to the weightlessness of the deep. They reinserted their respective regulators and glanced at one another. B.T.’s fogged mask made it impossible for her to decipher his reaction to their shared moment. Reading her curiosity, B.T. reversed the seal on his mask.The cool water hit his face and as he nosed out the air, he could see Michi clearer. Their hands reached out for one another, their fingers interlocked. It was a moment of bliss that was soon interrupted by the snapping of B.T.’s mask strap.

Matt Kamen

David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

They both lunged after the mask, their fingers clutching as it tumbled through the space between them. It vanished down the trench.

A rush to the surface from such a depth could prove fatal. In the moment, gripped by fear, B.T. had forgotten.

B.T. jerked to his left and right. He opened his eyes but could only see the vague impression of shadow, light, and hints of color. His eyes began to burn from the salt water. He felt a powerful instinct to kick to the surface, to safety. And when he followed this instinct, he felt Michi’s grip on his wrist. He thrashed against her. She held him in a bear hug, yanked the regulator out of his mouth, and kissed him again. Like a shot of adrenaline stabbed into the chest of an overdosing addict, it brought him out of his frenzy.

A rush to the surface from such a depth could prove fatal. In the moment, gripped by fear, B.T. had forgotten. Slowly, they would have to ascend the buoy line, making decompression stops along the way. B.T. would have to do this in the blind, tethered to Michi, his trust placed entirely in her.

The minutes of their ascent passed slowly. B.T. could feel Michi’s grip on his vest while with her other hand she clasped the buoy line. His only sense of their progress was when he occasionally opened his eyes to measure the increase in light. They broke the surface with a rush of sound. “Are you OK?” said Michi, as she pulled the regulator from B.T.’s mouth. Once more, she pressed her lips to his.

They swam back to the boat. The sun was warm on their skin, and they didn’t bother to towel off before heading belowdecks.

His uncle called him from Lagos to the capital for dinner. But James Mohammad and his uncle didn’t exactly have dinners. Rather, they held meetings with food on the table. That night, Mohammad already knew the agenda. He’d been expecting this call ever since he returned from Macau. His uncle’s goal was set on Lily Bao. The failure to recruit her and seal that deal must have been a considerable letdown for him, a situation Mohammad would have to account for, despite being his favorite nephew.

James Mohammad and his uncle shared a name. His father (the second Benjamin in their family) had broken from tradition by naming his son after his older brother, who’d raised him after a military coup had taken the lives of their parents. Around his uncle, James Mohammad was known as Jimmy, a nickname which he had grown to resent in adulthood. Throughout his life, he had accepted his uncle’s help when it came, from Eton until now. So, if the elder James Mohammad wished to call the younger “Jimmy,” he had earned that right. He also had the right to summon his nephew to the capital, the dusty, landlocked metropolis in the geographic center of the country that held no appeal for him.

His uncle had selected a neighborhood place for the meal, a traditional restaurant with plastic tables and chairs under bare bulbs on the outside and the low hum of air conditioners and overhead fans on the inside. Despite his relative wealth, the elder James Mohammad enjoyed holding court in these types of restaurants, which served the starchy Yoruba dishes of his youth, as opposed to the Euro-chic restaurants in Lagos that his nephew frequented.

Mohammad found his uncle at a table surrounded by a handful of men his age who were laughing a little too hard at some joke he had told, their heads thrown back with their mouths wide open as if inviting all the world to count their gold fillings. His uncle waved Mohammad over, but not before grandly announcing, “Jimmy, so good of you to come,” as if the younger had had a choice in the matter.

By Matt Kamen

and David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

He took a seat next to his uncle. The other men excused themselves, wandering out onto the porch to finish their bottles of lager. The restaurant was mostly empty now. The staff began to deliver dishes of food, and within a few minutes the table was set for a feast. The heaping plates overflowed, spilling rice and meat onto the vinyl tablecloth. Mohammad had traveled all day to meet his uncle and was famished. He reached for a spoon to serve himself. “Just a moment,” his uncle said. “Another guest will soon be joining us.”

The announcement of Shriver as the vice presidential nominee was set for after Castro’s funeral. Smith had insisted on this point to Wisecarver. He didn’t want anything to distract from the day. Burials at Arlington had become an increasingly rare occurrence. For decades, military policy entitled retired service members and those killed in action to a place in that hallowed ground. However, 20 years ago, when a freight of tens of thousands of dead began returning from the island chains and blue waters in and around the South China Sea, that policy had shifted, with burial at Arlington restricted only to those who had died in combat while earning one of the nation’s three highest awards for valor—the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross (or its equivalent Navy and Air Force Crosses), or the Medal of Honor. That measure, which at the time other Gold Star families viewed as draconian, had largely become accepted, so that burial at Arlington, always a great honor, was now even more of one.

It was a distinction of which President Castro’s critics didn’t regard him deserving. In the lead up to the funeral, as specifics leaked, these objectors—many of whom were military veterans—grew increasingly angry. Only two US presidents, William H. Taft and John F. Kennedy, had received Arlington as their final resting places. Taft had been the secretary of war and Kennedy a decorated Navy officer in World War II. Karen Slake had addressed an antagonistic press regarding this issue in the White House press room just days before Castro’s interment. Given the precedents set by Taft and Kennedy and considering Castro never served, was it correct for President Smith to sanction his forebear’s interment at Arlington?

Taking Kennedy as a reference, Slake took a different approach, suggesting that Kennedy’s entitlement to Arlington was not necessarily his military service, but his assassination. As the commander-in-chief, he could be seen as a casualty of war. Julia Hunt was present at the back of the press room when Slake unveiled this logic, fuelling conspiracy theories about a Castro assassination. The outcome was stunned silence, like the clamour of follow-up questions from every journalist caused each to seize up, analogous to a computer struggling to download an oversized file. Then, suddenly, a multitude of hands shot up.

Will the administration finally admit to foul play in Castro’s demise?

If so, what evidence is there supporting this conclusion and why has it taken this much time to declare this publicly?

Matt Kamen

David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

Do any suspects—individuals or nations—exist?

Will the administration commit to a national commission to examine the circumstances of Castro’s death?

Slake deflected, contorting facts and language to allow her to answer without providing any answer at all. Dexterous as she was at playing defense, she had slipped up and never should have created a situation in which the press could pivot so aggressively to offense. She couldn’t sustain this level of interrogation; ultimately, she had no good answers to these questions. When a journalist asked, “Does the administration’s position remain that they have no evidence of foul play in Castro’s death?” Slake froze, and in her desperation asserted, “Yes, that remains the position of this administration. We have no evidence of any foul play in the death of President Castro.”

She hurried off the stage, chased out of the room by a further eruption of questions.

B.T. had grown to cherish the serenity of being on the water with Michi, the days blurring into weeks. Inevitably, his lab began to collect dust as he avoided the stream of impassioned emails from James Mohammad. Nearly three weeks into their budding relationship, he opened up about his predicaments one afternoon while they were out on the boat.

Being a scientist herself, Michi was able to grasp the crux of B.T.’s work with minimal effort: the strength of mRNA-based vaccines, the promising future of distant gene editing, the increasingly blurry distinction between molecular and nano-technological enhancements, and the prospect of these innovations propelling us towards the Singularity. B.T. now revealed to her that a crucial piece of code he’d created had fallen into the hands of the public via the internet, leading to, in his words, “a major political incident.”

“Are you referring to the assassination of the American president?”

They’d just come ashore a few moments before. Michi was sitting across from him in her bikini, her wet suit rolled down to her waist.

And now, he told her, a key sequence of code he’d developed had leaked onto the internet and was responsible for, as B.T. put it, “a significant political event.”

“Well … yes,” B.T. said with some hesitation.

“So you’re saying that you killed Castro?”

“No, not me personally,” answered B.T. “But my work did.”

“Because a sequence of your code wound up on this website Common Sense?”

B.T. nodded tentatively, as if he could already sense Michi beginning to dismantle certain of his assumptions.

“Maybe what you’re missing is right in front of your face.” Michi unwrapped the towel from around her waist and began drying the loose black hair that ran down her back. “Maybe you’re not asking the right questions.” She bundled the towel in a turban atop her head.

“What are the right questions?” he asked.

“You didn’t detect any breach of your data, no hack into your servers or anything like that, right?”

B.T. shook his head, no.

“And this James Mohammad, the one who paid you for your research, you say he’s upset. Yet he’s still interested in funding you?”

B.T. nodded.

“OK …” stated Michi. “Have you ever considered the possibility that the leaked code sequence might not solely belong to you?”

B.T. chuckled derisively. Such an idea seemed highly implausible to him. His work pushed the boundaries of what was possible, culminating from countless years of his thought processes, a revelation of the grandest scale and—though left unsaid—a testament to his unique intellect. B.T. was convinced that he was the only individual capable of such a find. He shared his belief with Michi, emphasizing, “Thus, there’s no way the leaked code could have originated anywhere other than my lab.”


“Very well, nothing is absolutely impossible. But, it’s extremely unlikely.”

Matt Kamen

David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

“What if I told you the reason we met was because that sequence of code didn’t come from your lab … ?”

B.T. had a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“What if I told you that someone else, working independently of you, had arrived at the exact same conclusion … ?”

B.T. crossed his arms over his chest and drew into himself, staring at Michi from the corner of his eye like an injured child. “What are you talking about?” he said in a whisper.

“If I asked you to come with me back to Tokyo, to meet with a colleague of mine who could explain more, would you trust me and come?”

“A colleague?”

“Yes, a colleague of mine who works for our government.”

Had this all been contrived? James Mohammad, Lily Bao, and now Michi. Had his life become a game in which everyone knew the rules but him?

B.T. stared blankly out at the horizon.

“So, you and me,” he eventually said. “Your government colleague knows about us? And he’s a ‘colleague,’ so you work for the government, too?”

What she felt for him was real, Michi said. Her discovery of those feelings had proven an unexpected complication. B.T. kept his eyes fixed to the horizon. Michi stood, as if uncertain whether to grant B.T. his space and leave him alone or to sit beside him and explain more. Then a large dive boat motored into sight from behind a rocky outcropping. The powerful wake from the boat’s stern formed into a frothy V. Chattering tourists lounged topside. When the wake struck their smaller boat, it lifted Michi up and, unceremoniously, toppled her to the deck.

The restaurant door opened, and a diminutive man in a boxy gray suit entered. He glanced down at a grimy scrap of paper, then looked up. His eyes settled on the table in the back corner. As he approached, the elder James Mohammad rose to his feet. His nephew followed suit.

The man introduced himself as Zhao Jin. He had arrived that morning from Beijing. This meeting, it turned out, was not being held at the request of James Mohammad’s uncle, but at the request of this unassuming man, who only pecked at the dishes in front of him. “I’ve had your uncle make the appropriate protocol arrangements with the ministries here,” Zhao Jin began. “This allows us to speak candidly about sensitive matters. In Beijing, your work has already risen to the attention of our most senior-level decisionmakers in the Politburo Standing Committee, specifically your recent encounter with Lily Bao. We believe that—”

The elder James Mohammad interrupted. “I’ve told my nephew that he should have acted more decisively. You cannot offer the carrot and then hesitate to apply the stick.”

“Understood … understood …” said Zhao Jin, holding up his hand.

“But I’m not entirely convinced that your nephew made a mistake. To win the game we’re playing will require patience. Blood and soil, that’s what people return to in the end. They may indulge in fanciful dreams, but they’re always forced to return to the truth of their existence. If Lily Bao reaches this conclusion for herself, it will only enhance her usefulness to us. So let her return to the senator. Let her make a few more deals and fill her bank account. Let her believe in her dream a little longer. Let her think she has a choice. Eventually, the dream loses out. The truth holds. And we return to our home, to our blood and soil.”

Matt Kamen

David Gilbert

Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

Zhao Jin cast an appraising glance at Mohammad, who moved his food around on his plate and said, “He won’t be a senator for much longer.”

“No,” Zhao Jin answered. “He won’t.”

“He’ll be in the White House soon.”

“It would seem so.”

“He won’t take Lily Bao with him,” added Mohammad.

“Would Kennedy have become president if instead of Jackie he’d married a German? The daughter of Rommel or Guderian? The wounds of America’s last war remain open, and Shriver is too much of a coward to risk his political career for her. Also, there’s something else.”

“What’s that?” the elder James Mohammad asked impatiently.

Zhao Jin volleyed his gaze between them, as if he were weighing whether to share this last bit of information. “The sequence of code on Common Sense. In your reports, you mention concerns that it was stolen from an Okinawa-based researcher you’ve funded, a Dr. Yamamoto.”

“Yes,” said Mohammad. “That’s my concern.”

“Before Lily Bao set off on her own, she worked for the Tandava Group. I assume you’re familiar with them.”

Again, Mohammad nodded.

“Although they’ve divested themselves of the asset, they once had a significant investment in Neutronics, a biotech company. Lily Bao managed that account for the Tandava Group’s founder, Dr. Sandeep Chowdhury. At that time, Neutronics was doing cutting-edge work in nanorobotics, quantum computing, and bioengineering, including early-phase research of remote gene editing under the guidance of Dr. Ray Kurzweil. You’ve heard of him, of course.”

Both nephew and uncle nodded.

“He vanished some years ago after leaving Neutronics,” added Zhao Jin. “It seems the company wanted to turn a profit off his research, while he wanted to go further with it.”

“What does this have to do with my nephew and Lily Bao?” grumbled the elder James Mohammad.

“Truthers in America are agitating for a commission to investigate President Castro’s death,” said Zhao Jin. “Belief is spreading that there was foul play—an assassination. The sequence of code that allegedly killed Castro, the one released on Common Sense, what if that sequence of code wasn’t stolen from Dr. Yamamoto’s lab? What if it came from Neutronics?”

“Can you prove that?” asked Mohammad.

“Do I need to? If Shriver climbs a little higher, to the vice presidency or even higher still, his ties to Lily Bao and Neutronics are leverage we’ll have over him, a way to exercise control. That will give us an invaluable edge over the Americans.”

“Your successful handling of Lily Bao would certainly help me make the case that you are worthy of being considered a trusted partner.”

“So you want to blackmail Shriver?” asked Mohammad.

Zhao Jin scoffed. “That’s such an ugly term, and it won’t be necessary.” He asked if he might share a parable from his country. “Once there was a boy who was trying to figure out how to earn the money for a special toy that he wanted but couldn’t afford. On hearing his predicament, a friend of his at school explained that most adults had at least one deep, dark secret and that this made it very easy to get what you wanted from them by simply stating, ‘I know the whole truth,’ even if you don’t know anything. The boy thought this sounded like it might be a way to get the money he needed out of his parents. That day, when he came home from school, he decided to try out his scheme. He found his mother as she was preparing dinner in the kitchen and gave her a grave look, saying, ‘I know the whole truth!’ His mother quickly reached into her apron and handed him a 1,000-yuan note, saying, ‘Don’t tell your father.’ Pleased that his scheme seemed to work, he waited for his father to get home that evening. Greeting him at the door, the boy said, ‘I know the whole truth!’ His father, glancing from side to side, took out his wallet and pressed 2,000 yuan into the boy’s hand, saying, ‘Not a word to your mother!’ Even more pleased and closer to affording his new toy, the boy thought he would try this trick on a stranger. The next morning, on his way to school, he saw the mailman walking up his front path. He looked the mailman squarely in the eye and said, ‘I know the whole truth!’ The mailman quickly dropped his mailbag, fell to his knees, opened his arms, and exclaimed, ‘Son! Finally! Come give your daddy a hug!’”

Written by: Matt Kamen

Contributors: David Gilbert, Steven Levy

Angela Watercutter

James Mohammad’s uncle laughed out loud. With his napkin he wiped the corners of his eyes. “Very good,” he said to Zhao Jin, who returned a smile. The joke elicited only a tepid response from the younger Mohammad. His uncle chided him, “Come, Jimmy, no need to be so serious.”

Mohammad looked down to find that he had been tearing at the corners of his paper napkin. A small pile of shreds lay in front of him. “Very amusing,” he said, looking down at his hands. “But who will be saying, ‘I know the whole truth!’? … It won’t be either of you; it will be me.” Then he turned to his uncle. “This issue has already taken up too much of my time. I also have a business to run and my own investments to manage. As well as—”

His uncle cut him off. “A business that only exists because of a partnership with the government that I have facilitated for you. Now we are asking something more. No is not an option.” His index finger was pointed at his nephew’s chest.

Zhao Jin placed his hand on the elder James Mohammad’s arm to calm him before turning to his nephew. “I understand what it’s like to have a powerful uncle,” he said. “The story I told you, about the boy, it was a favorite of my own uncle’s. I assure you that if you help us with this, we’ll ensure it’s worth your while. There are investment opportunities in our country that are only made available to our most trusted partners. Your successful handling of Lily Bao would certainly help me make the case that you are worthy of being considered a trusted partner.” Zhao Jin placed a special emphasis on these last words, allowing them to dangle like bait on a line.

James Mohammad glanced at his uncle, who seemed to be considering Zhao Jin’s offer with a measure of skepticism that mirrored his own. “Take some time to think about it,” added Zhao Jin. He flagged down one of the waiters and asked if they might order him a cab. “I don’t want to impinge any more on your time together,” he said. “I was very close with my uncle, and now that he’s gone, I often wish I had him around to enjoy a meal with.”

Zhao Jin left, and it was only the two of them. They picked at their food, neither speaking, until, eventually, Mohammad asked who Zhao Jin’s uncle had been.

“I thought you might have figured it out. His uncle was Zhao Leji.” His nephew gave him a blank stare.

“Twenty years ago, during their war with the Americans, Zhao Leji administered all internal security for the CCP. He was Secretary for the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.”

James Mohammad shrugged.

Clearly irritated by his nephew’s lack of respect, he added pointedly, “Zhao Jin’s uncle was also the one who gave the order to execute Lily Bao’s father.”

2054, Part VI: Standoff at Arlington
“This eruption of violence had been brewing for years, through successive economic collapses, pandemics, and the utter dysfunction that had become American life.”

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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