Synopsis

Ember Kasich never wanted to answer that question. She didn’t ask to be the daughter of the most famous scientist in the world—the man who invented the procedure that gave humans everlasting life. And she didn’t want to be part of the cult that grew up around him either. For Ember, it was never about whether or not she could live forever, but if she could live with herself. That’s why she had to run away.

Now, a decade later, Andre Kasich has killed himself. His followers—the Church of the Everlasting—are mourning his death across the globe, and Ember is finally coming home…if only for the funeral. Her sister, Evelynn, has taken up their father’s mantle. She wants Ember to stay and help, but, if she does, Ember doesn’t know what she’d be helping with. The longer she stays, the more she learns about an event that the Church is hurtling towards, something they’ve been planning for years. As the clock runs down, Ember has to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late to stop it.

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First 4 Chapters

 

1

 

 

Time.

There had never been enough. That’s what had driven Dr. Andre Kasich his entire life. A life that until today he’d imagined might go on forever.

The terror that filled him now was from knowing that his time was up.

The Doctor tore around the corner in his laboratory. He’d taken the hallway a hundred times, but never this quickly, never with someone chasing him.

He crashed into a trashcan, felt something in his ankle snap, and let out a scream as he stumbled forward past the thick door and slammed it shut behind him.

The door silenced the echo of footsteps in the hall, but closing it had amplified something else: the screeching of the animals trapped in the room with him.

The room was hot, the air stale and fetid with odors of urine and antibacterial soap. The space was crowded but organized, the animals filed away in their cages.

Kasich turned to them, the three-by-three cells, each one outfitted with thick bars on the sides and a dedicated optics unit mounted on the top looking down, each animal under constant surveillance.

The monkeys bounced around their cages and grabbed the bars, baring their teeth, the shrieks echoing and combining to create a soundscape that bore into the doctor’s eardrums. The sound was almost too much… it almost made him lose focus.

He was trapped. Only one door into this room, and on the other side of it was the man who’d come to kill him.

He turned the deadbolt and just in time, because the door slammed against its hinges as the man on the other side threw himself against it.

There was a pause. Andre stared at the door, taking a limping half step back.

“Andre, it’s time,” he heard the voice from the other side of the door, calm, amplified only to make sure the message got past the monkeys’ screams. “This’ll go better for you if you don’t resist.”

Andre Kasich looked around the facility. No weapons. No way out. Just the most important experiment of his life, that’s all. But not a single sharp edge or gun or…

He remembered the injection gun now. A needle-tipped handheld injector that could be loaded with cartridges of this or that serum. They used it for testing on the monkeys.

He rushed over to the counter where the tool was stored, but as he picked up the injection gun, he realized it was a fool’s errand. The device worked only at close range. Point blank. To think he could somehow inject a trained killer half his age without getting shot in the process… well… that just didn’t compute.

“I can pick the lock, you know,” the voice on the other side of the door said, adding, “but you know, Dr. Kasich, I bet the keys are still in your desk drawer, aren’t they?”

He couldn’t think, much less breathe with the pain shooting up his leg. The screeches of all the test animals filled the space with a hellish cacophony as the animals sensed Kasich’s worry.

They could smell it on him, the fear.

Because the keys were in his office. Not in the desk drawer, though, in his jacket pocket, hanging on the coat rack.

How long would it take the man to find them? Only minutes… but how many? Three? Four?

Two things were very clear to Andre Kasich now. First, that he was going to die today. In this room. One way or another.

Second, that these were his last minutes to live. The last minutes he would ever have to stop what was coming, and so he’d better use them wisely.

Quick as lightening a plan took shape in his mind. Not a plan, really, because this was the sort of desperate last-ditch measure he’d been forced to by the dozens of plans that had already failed.

He pulled his phone out, knowing full well that anyone he contacted now would be hunted down and killed. So, he didn’t contact anyone. Instead, he tapped at the screen furiously, leaving a breadcrumb somewhere his killer wouldn’t know to check.

Without pause, he finished with the phone and threw it down against the floor with as much force as he could muster, sending the monkeys into a new magnitude of shrieking. The phone was destroyed, which, he thought, ought to be smokescreen enough for that little ruse.

Next, he slumped over onto the stainless-steel counter that lined the perimeter of the lab. He grabbed wildly at a pen and the nearest sheet of paper. It was covered in chemical formulas and hexagonal maps of molecules. Scientific shorthand for the drugs they were testing. He looked around for a clean sheet but this would have to do… how to hide the note though?

After a moment, he knew just how.

His brain worked too fast, outpacing him so that the drawing he added was jagged and messy. Images he’d traced thousands of times before—chemical maps and formulas—flowed from his fingertips, the message encoded in a new arrival to the sheet. To a casual onlooker, he hoped, the new drawing would look like nothing more than another busy molecular map.

Hopefully it was hidden well enough that the man with the gun wouldn’t recognize it for what it was, but that the doctor’s people still could.

Or, not his people, he thought, but hers.

His daughter, Evelynn. She’d send them here, sure as God’s vengeance, and with any luck they’d find the signs.

Turning from the drawing, looking around the room, he again spotted the injection gun. The tool that would let him leave his third and final clue.

Scooping it up off the counter and opening a drawer, he saw that, yes, the black medical-grade storage case was there.

Knowing that this was the only way, he wrenched the suitcase out, threatening to topple as the busted ankle gave way under him, but catching himself on the counter.

With a heave, he dragged the case up onto the counter and jammed his thumb up against the fingerprint sensor. There was a moment of panic as he waited for the device to confirm, but then the LED went green.

Inside, neatly packed in rows, were vials with red-and-yellow stickers, each bearing a malevolent skull and crossbones. His own army of grim reapers.

Kasich scooped up a handful of the vials of poison and loaded one into the injection gun. He turned to the nearest cage, his ankle sending pain up so fierce that he thought he might pass out. But he had to hold on… this was too important.

He thrust his free hand into the cage, ignoring a half-dozen safety precautions, reaching for the animal. Deftly, he seized the monkey’s foot, pulling it out from under the creature so that it fell. But before the beast knew what was happening, Andre had already injected the poison.

The monkey tried to spin on him, screeching with feral rage, but Kasich had already pulled his hand back out, moving to the next cage to repeat the procedure. And then the next, pausing for a split second to scan the clipboard hanging by each animal, checking for a crucial note. He knew the animals by heart of course, but whoever found his clue might not. He needed to make sure the needle was in fact in the haystack.

Every third cage he ejected a spent vial and put in another before moving on. And when he got to the last cage, in the corner of the room, he checked the clipboard and looked at the wispy-haired capuchin staring up at him.

He looked down at the wrinkled face, the black eyes that searched the room and then ended on Andre. Unlike the others, this monkey didn’t bare teeth or give way to screeching. It seemed to understand, in its own way, what was happening. But this one was special.

This one would live.

Kasich double-checked the clipboard at the cage before turning and hobbling back toward the counter.

The room was beginning to grow quiet as the poison worked on the animals. They’d slumped to the bottom of the cages, breathing slower and slower until not at all, and as Andre heard footsteps in the hall he scooped up a handful of the empty vials and began leaving the final clue.

The man on the other side of the door jammed a key in, turning the handle with one hand while aiming his gun with the other. He opened the door a crack, scanning first one side and carefully sweeping the room as he opened it farther. Partway through the practiced maneuver, though, he stopped and slowly let the gun fall to his side.

The man had been trained for these sorts of situations. He’d seen many things in the world of espionage and counterintelligence. But even he forgot the job for a moment as he processed the surreal scene in front of him.

In the cages placed around the room, there were dead monkeys slumped against the bars. Some of them dangled limbs through the cages, a few breathing slowly. Tiny black-haired chests rising and falling in a way much too human for comfort.

The cages were arranged in a grid pattern, cramped in the room save for a corridor down the center, and the man had a sense of foreboding as he looked down this centerline of the space. At both sides, the dead and near-dead animals in the cages seemed to be straining toward the back of the room. Reaching for something. Protecting, maybe—acting as sentries for what was at the other end…the crumpled body of Andre Kasich, slumped against the cabinets.

But he eyed Andre Kasich carefully. The limp body, head lolled forward and a hand open at his side with something that looked like a gun spilling out of it.

“Drop it,” the man in the doorway said, but even from here he could tell that the hand wasn’t grasping the weapon. That Kasich had either used the gun on himself or was doing an impressive bit of acting right now. Corson Graves had seen dead bodies many times before, and he wasn’t surprised when Kasich didn’t respond because, to him, the crumpled figure had all the hallmarks of the recently dead.

Slowly, he holstered his weapon.

He took a few cautious steps into the room and down the aisle of primate guardians, all in various states of death.

Halfway in he paused to look around the room.

Jesus,” he said, scanning the cages.

One of them made a noise now, the one in the corner. Of them all, it was the only one on two feet, upright, and looking at him. When Corson made eye contact, the animal shied back, crouching low and furling its tail up close.

“Don’t look so surprised there, furball,” Corson said in the animal’s direction. “Your pops was going to get it one way or the other.” He looked back at Andre’s body, folded over on the tile floor. “Looks like he found a way to go out on his own terms though.”

He toed the weapon near Andre’s hand and saw that, although it had looked like a gun from the doorway, it was in fact some kind of medical device.

Corson reached down slowly, reaching with a black-gloved hand to turn the doctor’s head slightly to the side so that he could see Andre’s neck. He watched the throat for a pulse, and after a moment, satisfied, he stood up and sighed. Seeing the empty poison vials scattered on the floor next to him, the man smirked and shook his head.

“I’ll be damned.”

He got his phone out, looking around the scene, thinking he’d had a real stroke of luck. This greatly simplified the cleanup.

Taking a few steps to the side of the body, he picked up Kasich’s phone and inspected the busted screen.

“It’s me,” he said into his own phone. “He’s gone. The research too.” He slid Andre’s busted phone into his pocket. “Yes, sir, you’ll see it on the news soon.”

“Yeah, I was able to make it look like a suicide… No, I’ve got to take care of something first but I’ll see you there afterward.” He listened for another moment. “I’ll give the place a onceover, make sure he didn’t have anything else stashed around here.”

Then the call was over.

He checked his watch, planning. Maybe an hour to go over the place. To make sure there was nothing left behind that might complicate things.

And then, an anonymous tip to the police that the most famous scientist who ever lived had just killed himself in his own lab.

 

 

2

 

 

Ember Kasich wasn’t sure if it hadn’t hit her yet, or if just didn’t care anymore.

Flying west across the Atlantic in first class, the stewardess had just offered her a bottle of water again. Peanuts? Something from the bar, perhaps? All the while, that look of pity in her eyes, because she knew. They all knew.

24 Hours. That’s how long it’d been since news went out across the net. Andre Kasich, dead by his own hand. To all these other people it was real, but it wasn’t real to Ember. Not yet.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the man in the seat next to her had said after looking at her oddly, then tapping at his screen for a moment until he was sure that, yes, this was Ember Kasich sitting next to him.

This was only the latest in a long line of strangers and passersby who’d recognized her and tried to share the loss of Andre Kasich. But just because they knew him didn’t mean they knew her.

It was just this sort of thing she’d left to avoid. The Church of the Everlasting, as Andre had called it, as had all the crazies he’d been able to scoop up into it.

She didn’t want anything to do with it now, and she didn’t want anything to do with it then either, when she’d left at the age of 16. That had been eight years ago.

And slowly, over that time, the Andre Kasich worship machine had reached out and followed her.

It was little things at first: hearing about a local chapter that was opening up; an email inviting her to meet with the regional director. She’d been able to wave all that off, but now that she was on the plane and in international airports, back in the States, she understood how quickly her father’s organization had spread.

The “worship machine,” as she’d thought of it, had graduated to full-blown worship-industrial-complex. That had brought with it all the trappings you might expect: lawsuits, protests, political action groups, et cetera, et cetera.

But Ember had shielded herself from it as best she could. She’d ignored all the news, tried to hide who she was. Tried to live her life and go to school and do all the things that normal people did. And just when she was getting into the swing of it, Andre had killed himself and, somehow, dragged her back in.

She’d been only 14 when her father had made the announcement that millions of people were replaying today in mourning. The clip shown ’round the world of the then-US president introducing a relatively unknown biochemist from something called the “Calico Project.” A man, he’d said then, who was about to change the world.

And now, he’d killed himself. And as all the news blogs and talking heads had pointed out, it was only a week shy of the 10-year anniversary of that broadcast.

10 years.

That part felt especially unreal to Ember.

10 years since Andre clumsily explained to the world that he’d developed a way to prevent cancer permanently. With that and a few other longevity procedures, humans could now live forever.

“You know,” Ember’s seatmate started to say, “we appreciate what your father’s done so much.”

She looked at him, not saying anything.

“My parents are both WILTed,” he said, and she tried her hardest to not respond in a polite way. The procedure—the WILT, sometimes referred to as Wilting—was her father’s magnum opus. The revolutionary feat of bioengineering that prevented cancer through a mechanism as obscure as it was microscopic. They called it whole-body interdiction of the lengthening of telomeres, or WILT for short.

She’d known what those letters stood for since she was a little girl, and it was her refusal to go through with the WILT that eventually made her leave. The pressure from Andre and her sister Evelynn that ended with her taking the “temporary” vacation that now stretched eight years behind her.

Now, her father dead and these strangers talking to her about things that she’d tried so hard not to deal with… the dam broke inside her. She fumbled at the seatbelt, jumping up and pushing past the stewardess and crashing into the bathroom door that folded open for her.

She spun around, scratching at the lock until she was sure she was finally alone and tucked away from it all. Then she turned to the sink, bracing herself on it with both hands.

She clenched her jaw, trying not to cry, biting down so hard that her molars felt like they might pop.

She looked up at the mirror, saw her eyes full of water, and promised herself again that she wasn’t going to cry for him.

She’d cry for herself maybe, cry for her own loss, but not for him. Not out of sadness or empathy for Andre Kasich.

A few tears leaked out now, and as she tilted her head to wipe them away, she tossed her ginger braid over the opposite shoulder. A sharp breath in as she contained the emotions. Bottled them.

She’d gone halfway around the world to escape that freak-show religion they’d spun up on the heels of Andre’s medical breakthrough, and now she was headed back to it. She didn’t want to come; in fact she’d almost refused. But then Evelynn had called.

The conversation was short. Icy. It was understood without verbal confirmation that Ember would come for the funeral.

Evelynn. Her sister, although Ember felt she’d long ago become someone else under Andre’s tutelage. It was the two of them who’d built the Church of the Everlasting into what it was today, not just Andre.

All of these memories hit her at once, and she sat in the airplane bathroom dabbing at her eyes with the thin toilet paper.

She cried for the unfairness of it all. The memory of her 14-year-old self trying to understand what her father was telling her, that if she let them inject her like they had her sister, she could live forever too. But she’d refused, because something about it was all so very wrong.

And eventually, after she had cried about all the things she thought were the real problem, she sat alone in the plane’s small bathroom and cried for her father.

She felt guilty and cruel. Shame washed over her at the realization that she’d never talk to him again. That she hadn’t really talked to him in years, and when she last had, it had ended badly.

The anger was still there, but it was supposed to be a phase. A stopping point along the route of their relationship, not the destination.

But she hadn’t done anything about it, because, after all, he’d given them all so much time. That was the whole point—he had promised them so much time. And now he’d taken it away.

And all Ember could do was ask herself, “Why?”

 

 

3

 

 

After she left the bathroom, Ember felt more herself. Her emotions had spilled over and then settled for the first time in this ordeal, but certainly not the last.

People did this, right? They experienced the loss of loved ones. They experienced the jarring shove into the next phase of life, and they came through it. She could come through it.

Ember took a deep breath, dropping into the first-class seat. The stewardess came by, and Ember got her attention, signaling for a black coffee.

Laptop open, earbuds in, and back to real life. She paused on the browser, thinking. Information, that’s what she needed now. Something to fight off the insecurity, the sense of control slipping through her fingers.

Into the search bar, she typed “Eve Kasich,” and the autofill translated it to “Evelynn Kasich” as the search results rolled in.

There was a series of pictures of her sister, who was 29 now but looked 19. Ember knew—thought—that she didn’t just look that way. Her age was real—she’d been on this earth for 29 years, but the Life-Extension tech, the WILT, and every other trick Andre had up his sleeve had been deployed to stop her body aging.

Because of this, Evelynn Kasich looked 19 in the pictures not out of some youth-preserving photo trickery, but because physically she still was.

Taken from every angle, the pictures captured her frozen mid-sentence in interviews, behind pulpits, mid-interviews.

Here she was from the waist up, arms crossed, face unsmiling on the cover of a book the Church had put out.

Another picture, this one from before it all. Evelynn and Ember, ages 14 and 19, flanking their father. She remembered that picture, taken by someone from a magazine doing one of the many bio pieces on Andre after he made the announcement.

In all of them, Evelynn looked the same, though the pictures had been taken here and there across the last decade.

She’d had the WILT done on her 18th birthday and taken the rest of the Life-Extension—or Lex-tech—steps over the following year and a half.

Despite the fact that Evelynn’s body was frozen in time, there were small signs that Ember could decipher as to her sister’s change over time. Ember saw that she smiled less as she aged and started to hold herself more confidently. She dressed more in a way that suggested she knew her body was permanently stuck in its prime and was very comfortable with that.

In Ember’s mind, first there was Eve Kasich, long-lost sister from whom Ember had grown apart after a decade of surrogate mothering.

But then there was Evelynn Kasich, heir to half of the Kasich fortune and the new shepherd of the Church of the Everlasting, which was now at over a hundred million strong across the globe.

She looked at the pictures, seeing the sister and the stranger in one. After Ember had left, she’d grown up enough to realize what sort of childhood Eve had endured. The relentless tutoring that Andre had insisted on and the responsibility of tending to Ember when Andre was gone for days at the lab and the latest nanny had been forgotten, fired, or both.

Her mother was an heiress, though Ember didn’t remember her. She’d died when the girls’ ages were both still single digits. The mansion had come from her side of the family, and Ember remembered a childhood of dimly-lit rooms and whispers as Evelynn and she played in the place, treating it as their private larger-than-life dollhouse.

More than anything, that’s what it had felt like after Andre started the Church and before Ember left, like a giant dollhouse that Andre and Evelynn were outfitting to play church in.

The mansion started to grow after Andre made his announcement and started the Church, and after those first couple years Ember could tell it wasn’t just a phase or some passing hobby. Andre was building the Church of the Everlasting as his legacy. He wanted so badly for both his daughters to dive in feet first with him, but where Evelynn excelled at it, Ember found herself repulsed.

There was something wrong about it all. Something she could feel in her bones but not understand. That’s why she’d left—not to get away from her family but to escape the tentacles of the Church she’d watched so quickly take over her father’s and sister’s lives.

Now that organization had slung-shot right past cult and become a global force. The most influential and grimly feared religion to ever self-propagate across the planet.

Muscle memory took her to the social net and her unrestrained fingers typed out a name that she wasn’t sure she wanted to think about, really. Someone else she’d left behind.

Caden Williams’s profile was so barren it didn’t look like a profile at all. No posts, only a few token pictures and some links to other social media sites. A profile of utility, existing only so that anyone who wanted to find him could do so on the communication network de rigueur.

She hit the message button, watched the cursor blinking for a moment, then closed it.

She’d grown up with Caden. They’d been best friends since as far back as Ember could remember. But at 16 she’d left and not looked back until now, until Andre was dead.

What kept her from messaging Caden now? She wasn’t sure if she wanted to see him. No, she did want to see him; what she didn’t want to do was explain herself. Why she’d left. Why she’d waited so long to reach out.

But then, he could have too.

What had they once had? Nothing romantic, that was certain. They were more like brother and sister than high-school sweethearts. But you didn’t have to sleep with someone to develop a layer of trust so deep that years of silence could gouge it into scar tissue.

She finished the coffee and signaled for another, navigating off Caden’s profile page and to several news websites.

Even in first class the coffee was burned and had a taste like something crisp, like it had been sitting on that heater, preserved, for years. But she drank it anyway as she scrolled through page after page, soaking it all in.

Everywhere, the news was front and center. Andre Kasich, dead by his own hand. Evelynn set to take over at the helm of the Church of the Everlasting. And the amazement that this bombshell came just a few days before the 10-year anniversary of the announcement of the WILT procedure and the “changing of the world.”

Most of the sites were replaying it, linking to a shared feed of the “Kasich broadcast,” as it was called, which was at this point burdened with hundreds of millions of online comments. She clicked play, making it full screen to get rid of the hysterical internet chattering, and she realized that she’d never actually watched the scene play out as an adult.

So now, she sipped her coffee and sat back.

Almost 10 years ago to the day, the reporter had looked away from her camera, over her shoulder and past the crowd of people that had flocked to the White House.

“I see him!” the reporter had gasped, turning back and speaking quickly. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining my stream for this historic night! Many of you are wondering what the president will announce…”

She kept talking as the camera shot changed, up and over to track slowly on the president as he walked the red-carpeted hall. Huge wooden doors closed behind him.

“… The occasions for an impromptu announcement from the president have been few and far between over the years,” the reporter continued, “and typically they’re cued by either our greatest tragedies or the most exciting of discoveries.”

The president worked his way past the busts of former leaders. Lincoln, Jackson, Jefferson, and Washington watched silently as he passed. He ignored the crowd, slowing as he eyed each statue. President Jarvis had a history of going off his prepared speech, and already he had that look in his eye like he was ready to ditch the cue cards and wax heavily poetic.

“But,” said the reporter as the president mounted the dais, “based on the president’s tweet, we’re expecting the latter.”

She didn’t have to read it out. The whole world had memorized it as they pored over the message again and again in the short hours since the surprise press conference was announced.

@POTUS: Drop what youre doing; this is more important: There will be an announcement at 8PM EST concerning the most important human achievement to date.

That was the president for you. He wasn’t a man to exaggerate, and so in the two hours leading up to the announcement the message had been torn apart by analysts, scientists, and laymen alike.

What was it? Cold fusion? Aliens?

He cleared his throat and the room went crypt-quiet.

“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has completed a project that history will look back on as one of the crowning achievements of mankind.”

He paused. And the world held its breath.

“As I have walked these halls,” he said, turning back toward the statues of former presidents, his voice softening, “I have constantly been reminded of the men who served this great country before me. I’ve often wondered, ‘What would Washington or Lincoln have done in my position? What would Eisenhower or Reagan have to say about current policy issues?’”

People all over the planet furrowed their brows. Where was he going with this?

“Wouldn’t it be great if we could ask them?”

Low murmurs.

“Death,” he said gravely, “has taken these men from us, as it has taken the lives of billions.” He stared out at the crowd, giving everyone a moment to process the intrigue. “As some of you may know, America has contributed hundreds of billions of dollars over the last few years to Calico and the SENS alliance.”

A small, collective gasp, but only from the few who knew what those terms meant. For the rest, he explained:

“We have been working quietly but diligently in the field concerned with strategies for engineered negligible senescence.”

He smiled at the faces looking up at him dumbfounded and added, “We have been working to completely halt the aging process.”

People tapped at their screens furiously. Had they heard right? What was he talking about? Calico? SENS?

Lightning quick, they were all searching for the same thing. What was Calico? What did SENS stand for?

Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence.

Translation:

How to science our way out of getting old.

The president looked over the crowd. A few flashes went off, capturing the moment of bewildered expectation in the crowd.

He wasn’t surprised by the open mouths, the quiet thoughtfulness of the crowd. They were doing exactly what he had a few days earlier, when Dr. Andre Kasich was ushered into his office, rambling on about his discovery. When the old man had explained to him what he’d done—what his tests had proven—he had been very quiet too.

Ember knew this because Andre had told her about it when he’d returned from the White House.

The crowd kept standing there, quiet, waiting. The president had said they’d been trying to stop aging, and by extension, that meant they’d been trying to stop death.

They’d known it was going to be an important announcement, but this… it was like going on a hike and then suddenly coming upon the Grand Canyon. Breathtaking and terrifying all at once. In the face of something so momentous, clapping and cheering seemed almost too pedestrian.

“We have been quietly working,” the president finally went on, “for the past three decades on systematically countering the processes of aging, disparate and unique as they are.

“The so-called Lex-tech, or Life-Extension technology industry has grown tenfold in the last year. Many of you are now purchasing and regularly using pills and creams that prevent cell loss through advanced tissue engineering, or receiving stem cell injections of inoculated, death-resistant cells. For a modest—indeed, affordable—price, the clear majority of Americans now have access to glucose unbinding creams that can reduce wrinkles and preserve youthful features at a molecular level.

“You’ve heard about all the breakthroughs as they’ve happened, although perhaps it was without noticing the final goal. But everything that has come before has been a preface to the final link in the chain. The last problem we had to solve.

“No matter how much heart disease you prevent and how much plaque you remove from brain cells to stave off Alzheimer’s, still, cancer has loomed as the inevitable equalizer.

“But just a few days ago, I was informed that we found the final piece to the puzzle. We are ready to roll out a procedure that will stop cancer once and for all.”

A renewed murmur surfaced from the crowd.

“Most of the research is over my head as well as yours, and so I’d like to invite Dr. Andre Kasich up to explain it.”

The president took a step back, and a gaunt, bespectacled man stepped up in front of the podium. He looked at least 60, his hair and goatee more salt than pepper, and his mannerisms slow. He tapped the microphone, sending a dry thump thump over the speakers. Ember’s heart was in her throat as she watched the digital ghost of her father.

Then he began to speak, but he was too far away from the mic. They couldn’t make out what he was saying, and an aid leaned in and told him to move closer, to speak up.

“Better?” he asked, looking over to the aid, who nodded.

The crowd watched, still in silent shock, as this strange man leaned forward to casually explain perhaps the greatest discovery of humankind.

In true Andre Kasich fashion, he simply opened his mouth and changed the world.

“Yes, the, uh, final piece. It was merely a matter of removing the telomeres entirely, a rather radical technique that my contemporaries have long said was far too ridiculous to actually try. But a new procedure, which has been confirmed on mice and then rats and then of course larger mammals and ultimately primates has shown us that an organism-wide pogrom on the telomere was successful in washing all of a body’s biology of the mechanism by which cancer propagates… and forms in the first place, by the way.”

He looked around, to the aid and then the president, seeming to think he was done. As if to ask, “Is that all you wanted, sir?”

They stared, confused, and the president leaned in to whisper something in Kasich’s ear.

“Hmm? Oh yes, yes. The procedure is called Whole-body Interdiction of the Lengthening of Telomeres. WILT. In this way, the WILTed organism can no longer form cancer at a fundamental level. They can no longer form stem cells either, a drawback which can be balanced by a refreshing by synthetic stem cells every nine to 12 years depending on size, weight, gender—”

The president edged in now, taking over the microphone as politely as possible, with a hand on Kasich’s shoulder as he summarized.

“The procedure,” he explained, “will prevent cancer forever. And after you get it, you will have to go back to the doctor about once a decade to get an infusion of fresh stem cells.

“Over a lifetime, this will save the US trillions in healthcare costs, although we haven’t adjusted for a new effective average lifetime that takes into account this radical step forward in life extension.”

The crowd had been warming as the men explained. Their eyes had gone wide, and several were crying now, texting their friends and family, no longer concerned with whatever news agency they were there supporting. Cancer had touched all of their lives in some way, as it had touched everyone’s.

But not anymore.

Kasich came back up to the microphone. “As the president explained, we’ve already made significant progress in all other areas of the fight against aging. The last step in the Calico-Millennium SENS project is cancer.” And as the world watched, he mumbled a correction: “Or rather, cancer was the last step.”

That was the simple, nearly mythological beauty of it: They could speak about cancer in the past tense at all.

Cancer was

 

 

4

 

 

The plane landed, and about 20 minutes later they were filing into the Jetway.

“Thanks for flying with us,” the stewardess told the first few passengers off the plane.

But as Ember Kasich stepped through, the stewardess’s smile fell. Instead of her generic send-off, the stewardess said something part code phrase and part life-mantra, a saying that the Church of the Everlasting used to signal themselves to one another.

Long for this world.

Then she nodded at Ember, holding intense eye contact.

She kept moving, refusing to nod back or echo the phrase as was customary in the Church. She wasn’t one of them.

The chill air of the terminal made Ember shiver. She walked over to the seating area, put her bag on a chair, and got out a jacket.

Before today she hadn’t been in an airport this big for some time, and as she pulled her jacket on, she took the place in.

Cold in more ways than temperature, it had all the unremarkable commonness of every airport or DMV or other bureaucratic facility she’d seen before.

People rushed by, and the announcements droned on overhead, foghorn-loud warnings that were at once vague and ominous.

“Do not leave luggage unattended. Tampering with boarding passes is a federal offense punishable by up to…”

She zipped her jacket up, eyes scanning over the collection of people waiting to load into the plane she’d just gotten off of.

A child wearing some sort of virtual reality headset reached up into the air next to a mother who couldn’t be bothered to look away from her magazine. The smell of fast food and body odor wafted over as Ember pulled her pack on and moved into the stream of humans near the middle of the terminal.

It was crowded. She quickly found her earbuds, popping them in to shield herself from the audio detritus. Passing a newsstand, she slowed as she saw Andre’s face staring out from magazine after magazine, the mourning periodicals mixing with the NYT bestselling paperbacks. They must have rushed special issues, Ember thought.

One magazine made her peel away from the stream of people. It was a National Enquirer clone, on the cover a grainy photo of Andre crosscut with a picture of Evelynn Kasich in dark sunglasses walking down a crowded street.

She snatched it up, holding it in both hands, brow furrowed at the question printed in big letters across the magazine’s cover:

MURDER?

“No way she did it.”

Ember looked up to see a man in his 30s putting a copy of the same magazine back on the shelf. He wore a black V-neck and was tapping at his watch with one hand. Then he transitioned carefully into side-eying her, not really expecting a response. She saw that he was wearing rimless glasses, normal save for the digital readout that scrolled up the side of the lens.

The man reached for one of the bestsellers, plucking it off the shelf and flipping through it before turning to the back cover.

“No,” Ember said, looking down at the magazine and then slowly putting it back on the shelf.

She’d only just learned about Andre’s death a day ago, if that. She hadn’t had time to think about whether…

“Holy shit.” The man turned to her now. “I don’t want to be weird or anything… but are you Ember Kasich?

She looked at him, stunned, and took a half step back.

“Jeez, I know this is a little creepy, but this is, like—” He was patting himself down now, trying to find something in a pocket. “Could you, like, give me your autograph or something?”

She didn’t know what to do. He was already reaching his hands forward, a sharpie in one and the bestseller he’d grabbed off the rack in the other.

She looked down, seeing the white cover of the book—a black pistol shooting a rainbow bullet.

How could this man know who she was? More than that, why would he care who she was enough to be so desperate for an autograph?

“I don’t think you—” she started to say, but he interrupted.

“Look, this is just too weird! I’ve got to get your signature or… oh, here! This is better!”

He looked at the newsstand and tossed the paperback down, reaching instead for the National Enquirer clone and thrusting it toward her.

“I don’t think—” she repeated, but then something changed.

It was the stranger’s turn to take a step back now, and Ember saw him looking past her. There was something on his face, a confused look. And something else, confusion seasoned with a pinch of fear.

Ember turned to see three men forming a loose phalanx of gray suits headed her way. They were all dressed alike, but it was a uniform that set them starkly apart from the other people in the terminal. With their gray hats and dark ties, they gave off a sort of mob enforcer, wise-guy feel. But that cut against something else: the minimalist style of their dress and movement also lent a certain sophistication.

One stepped in front of Ember and she recoiled. But he hadn’t been going for her. Instead, he took the magazine out of the man’s hand and put it back on the shelf.

The stranger in the V-neck and glasses was stunned, his hand still out in the air, empty palm upturned from where the magazine had been.

And now the man in the gray suit took the hand and shook it. With his other, he brushed imaginary dust off the stranger’s shoulder, the movement piercing his bubble of personal space just enough to be an implicit threat.

“As you were, sir,” the man said down to him, and then he let the hand fall and gave a curt nod. “Long for this world.”

A beat later the man backed up and scurried off, and the gray-suit turned to Ember. He reached one arm out toward the middle of the terminal, palm up, gesturing for Ember to step out.

Ember took a few steps out and, without a word, the three suits all turned to leave the store with her, expertly sweeping Ember up with them and forming a triangle of two in front and one behind.

“Ms. Kasich,” one of them in front said, looking back for a second as they walked, “we’ve been sent by your sister.”

“Eve’s not here?”

“No, ma’am,” one of the others said.

They moved through the crowds with a confidence that Ember hadn’t ever realized she didn’t have. People got out of the way instinctively. They looked, but they were careful not to stare. It made Ember feel like everyone else knew something she didn’t, and then she realized what it was: These were Everlaster agents, the three-piece wool suits being the apparent uniform.

As they moved toward the exit doors of the airport, Ember could see a crowd out front pushing in around three cars that were illegally parked.

Ember saw the flash of black uniforms and thought maybe the cops would be moving in to ticket the cars, but instead, the rent-a-cop airport police were forming a loose barricade around them, keeping the reporters and protestors away.

As she got closer, the scene became more surreal as Ember noticed that the cars were all of extreme vintage. They looked as old as they were expensive, with the soft curves and rounded noses of vehicles from the ’50s and ’60s. Standing around them were a few other gray-suited agents. This was her ride, then.

As they stepped out of the airport, Ember was hit by the sound. People shouted questions, and some of them shouted angry things she couldn’t make out.

A few reporter drones buzzed overhead, their cyclopean eyes trained on Ember Kasich and broadcasting to the world, their remote pilots careful not to get close enough that one of the cops would shoot them down.

The protesters with signs caught her eye, all of them with angry phrases about playing God and false idols. One said simply, “Jesus hates you.”

She was amazed. This was all for her. Or rather, for the Everlasters. Her sister. Andre. What had they done while she was gone that it had gotten this bad?

Before she got to the car, she paused to look back. It was just long enough to see one of the protestors lifting his arm over his head, readying to throw whatever was clenched in his hand. He screamed something she couldn’t make out, and just before the object took flight in her direction, she saw it was a pocket-sized Gideon’s Bible.

She ducked, impossibly sure that the projectile holy book would hit her, but the impact never came. Instead, she felt—or rather sensed—a force cover her. She looked up slowly to see the hand that had caught the Bible in midair. Now, the man tossed it aside and looked down to her.

He wore a gray trilby hat to match his suit, and it cast a slight shadow over his face. Through the shade, though, she could see that his right eye was a marble-white orb that swiveled in its socket. There was a scar there too. Something that hinted at violence. And with the eye that was left, he seemed to stare right through her. He seemed older, more powerful than the rest. Their leader.

“In the car please, Ember.”

She tried to respond but instead felt herself backing down into the car as if compelled. The specter of the man loomed over her, and she was unable to take her eyes off him as she withdrew into the vehicle.

After she was in, the man with the eye turned, heading to the lead car while one of the younger agents slid into the one with Ember.

As was customary in autonomous vehicles, the four seats inside the car all pointed toward the center, and the Everlaster agent took one across from Ember. He unbuttoned his suit coat as he settled into the seat, and for some reason, Ember felt relief that the one with the false eye had gone to the other car.

The one who got in with Ember didn’t touch any control panels, but after a moment the three cars pulled away in unison, leaving the beehive of activity thankfully behind. Out from under the overhang now, the silence in the car gave way to the soft sound of rain on the roof.

As the agent across from her gazed out the window, she inspected him. He had a casual, effortless sense of old-school style. The gray wool suit was a smart choice, Ember realized. There was something natural about it, the way she could see the wool threads form their lattice from across the car, unlike with silkier stock.

It was a three-piece suit, and as the man laid his arm across the back of the neighboring seat, the jacket slid to the side far enough for Ember to see the black steel of a gun. It was held in a sturdy-looking shoulder holster.

She took it all in, feeling at once both claustrophobic and strikingly not, in the small space. The internals of the car had been laid out such that it felt more like a mobile sitting room than something recognizable as the inside of an old internal combustion car.

After looking around, her eyes landed again on the man across from her, and the back of his weapon under the edge of his jacket.

The gun seemed off in a way too. Even from this angle she could see it was too big. Most guns, she understood, were additive-manufactured. Made from a single piece of metal, printed, not assembled. And so, the classic-looking weapon in the man’s holster seemed out of place.

All of it came together and she understood the pattern. Authenticity. Some waylaid tendency that Andre had instilled in the organization. His preferences rendered writ.

There was another theme going on too, though. It all seemed sturdy. Durable. Each item chosen to throw up the credibility of an older age.

The car was authentic too, re-jigged as it was with an autonomous super-computer unit somewhere and gliding along silently on an aftermarket retro-fit frame. All of that was behind the scenes, though, and the inside was tasteful. All the trim, leather stitching, and wood paneling looked like it cost a fortune, like it might have been manufactured pre-millennium.

But it had to be custom; they hadn’t built cars like miniature sitting rooms back then.

“How was your flight?” the man asked.

She looked up, wondering if he’d caught her checking out the gun.

“Fine,” she said. “Long.

The city slid by outside the window. It was the same as she remembered in ways. Different somehow, although she couldn’t place what it was just yet.

“So, you work for my sister?”

“I work for the Church, yes.”

“Listen, why all this old stuff?”

He smiled, shifting position in his seat.

“You mean all this?” He waved his hand around the car, and she nodded. “Well, the contract specifies that all our worldly possessions will be provided as necessary.” He shrugged. “These are the clothes and the vehicles that the Symbol Committee saw fit to set as standard.”

“The Symbol Committee?”

The man smiled again.

“You’ve been gone quite a while, Ms. Kasich. A lot within the organization has changed.”

He could say that again. As they drove through the city, Ember saw that a lot without the organization had changed as well. Now that they were deeper in the city she understood why it felt strange. There were screens everywhere—a loud visual array—but there seemed to be fewer people on the streets. What people there were stared. The roads weren’t crowded, not with cars like this anyhow, and Ember wondered if the people they passed knew this was an Everlaster vehicle just by rumor and sidewalk-myth.

This was part of it, she knew. One of the symptoms of the world-rending crash that had only just been recovering when Andre made his announcement, before Ember was really old enough to follow along with the news, or care.

After the big crash, the economy had ripped and roiled across the globe as it always had before, but with any good sea change there are systemic shifts. Grand opportunities. That’s how, when the time was right, the lion’s share of New York—Manhattan to be precise—was literally sold to the highest bidders.

Afterward, all the billionaires and tech-gods who’d bought up the city like it was a toy, they all got together and decided they wanted some new rules. They set down their own rules and regulations, forced out the people they didn’t want and let their friends and cronies stay.

The result, the better half of a decade on, was a clean and manicured version of the city that, while just as loud and lively, was made up only of those employed in the vast industries of remote-work that could be done form an apartment in the city, where programmers for this or that organization might work for years at a stretch before changing to a different firm; an eventuality that, in practice, was accomplished by crossing the street to the new firm’s building.

All of it protected not by the NYPD, which had been phased down to a sort of honorary organization that existed for purposes of paperwork and mock officialdom, but by a cadre of security professionals—mercenaries—which the Owners of New York pooled resources to vet and employ.

But for as much as things had changed, the city was just as organic (if in different ways) as it had always been.

Here, now, on a corner toward the edge of town, several body-armored guards watched from the street corner opposite a gathering of people standing and kneeling before an image on the side of a building. One of them, Ember saw, laid down a bundle of flowers at the foot of the wall, joining the heap of cards and lit candles that paid homage to the man whose figure was projected onto the wall, the late Andre Kasich.

As Ember studied this, the Everlaster agent in the car with her noticed.

“He was a great man. Too bad…” He shook his head slightly.

The rain fell harder and then softer as they drove. They passed another impromptu memorial service in the city, rows of candles battling the drizzle.

Then the city gave way to country, and Ember started to recognize things.

She looked past the Everlaster agent, in the direction of the Kasich estate, which should be coming into view after the next turn, but as the car pulled around the corner Ember’s jaw dropped.

She shifted forward, crossing the small space of the car to peer through the windshield at the mansion ahead and the layers of activity that were taking place outside.

Drones buzzed over crowds of people that frothed like bubbles in a boiling pot, with more protest signs popping up above the crowd here and there.

From this angle, she could see only their backs, but as they neared, some people started to turn toward the small convoy of Everlaster cars.

It was more of the same, Ember saw. Some of the signs had thoughtful words, covered in Bible verses. She could see in one sweep that various other signs were threatening to bring the wrath of God, Allah, and Shiva down on them, their own differences presumably set aside for the task.

One said directly, “You’re going to Hell,” and then there was the oldie-but-goodie: “The end is nigh.”

As they neared the crowd and Ember started to hear the dull roar of shouting, the Everlaster agent raised his hand to his face and said something under his breath, speaking into his sleeve like a Secret Service agent. Ember squinted at him, the whole situation getting weirder by the minute as the agent reached over to some hidden control and made the windows of the car go opaque.

“Just a precaution,” he said. “You may be a target for some.”

A target? she wondered, slumping back into her seat.

After a moment he let the windows go clear again and Ember saw there were just as many people, but these weren’t protestors. Past the main gate—an area of the campus staffed by a few gray-suited men who controlled entry and exit—the scene gave way to so many tents and RVs and parked vehicles that it looked more like they were rolling into a music festival than a house.

“Why are all these people here? What are they doing?”

“Helping,” her companion said. “Mourning, some of them. Many came to pay respects.”

“And you’re just letting them stay here?”

The man looked at her like the question was distasteful.

“Don’t worry, Ms. Kasich. There’s plenty of room.”

“I’ll say,” she was lowering her head now, just enough to see the edges of the mansion stretching up into the sky as they neared. “How much did they add? Do you know?”

“Oh yes,” the man turned toward the house. “The shipping area, extension of the north, south, and east wings, room for the classes and medical facilities of course.”

“Medical facilities?” she echoed.

He smiled back.

“Don’t worry, it’s still the same home you grew up in. It’s just that the family is a little bigger now.”

He grinned and she gave a half-smile back. She had a feeling that she wasn’t going to recognize most of the place.

Along with the tents and ramshackle tarp-structures put up here and there were more old cars parked everywhere. She saw more men in gray suits moving around, handing things off to one another, mixing with people dressed more casually, and all of them swiveling their heads to look at the small line of cars moving up the long driveway.

There was an organic feel to it all, how haphazardly everything was crowded in along the grounds. Impromptu structures dotted the scene, and somewhere in the middle distance a blue tarp waved in the wind.

And behind it all, the Kasich mansion rose, a reddish backdrop that took over the sky as the cars rolled up to the circle drive.

“Your sister will be so happy to have you back,” the Everlaster agent said as their car pulled to a stop.

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