Tucker stepped inside. “Sir, I’d like to join you on this mission.”

“I appreciate that, captain, but we hired you to find Amanda. Your obligation to us has been fulfilled.”

“Understood, sir.” Tucker’s countenance remained hard, rocky. “But not my obligation to Amanda. I left her baby back in Dubai, and I want a chance to correct that mistake.”

“We can certainly use the additional manpower … not to mention your dog’s nose. But we’ll be parachuting onto the Gant estate.”

Airspace above the presidential estate was restricted. The no-fly zone had been established before James Gant was president, going back decades, a courtesy of the state of South Carolina for the largesse of the clan.

Painter’s plan was to sweep in close, parachute out, and glide low onto the grounds. And those grounds were huge, over 300,000 acres, almost 500 square miles of misty mountains, towering waterfalls, dark forests, and grassy meadows. The estate had ill-defined borders, as the family bought neighboring farms, ranches, and orchards, extending their property in fits and starts.

That remote, rough terrain would serve to hide them, allowing them to hoof it overland from their drop point.

Tucker seemed to have no problem with parachuting onto the estate. “Kane and I have had plenty of jump time,” the man assured him. “I have my dog’s harness system with me.”

“Then welcome aboard.”

Kowalski stood, stretched, and headed out the door with the others. “This place is really going to the dogs.”

Painter set off down the hall. He had been expecting another teammate to arrive by now, but the latecomer would have to meet them at the airstrip. Time was ticking down. Jason Carter would take command at the communications nest in his absence and coordinate efforts from here. It was a lot to place on his young shoulders, but Painter knew he could handle it. Jason had already gathered his own intelligence team in preparation, ruling the nest of older agents with an enthusiasm reserved for the young.

Painter reached the elevators as the doors opened.

Inside the cage stood the last member of their strike team. Kat’s husband adjusted his new prosthetic hand, securing the cuff with a twist and wiggling his fingers. Monk must have already stopped by R&D to get the upgrade Painter had ordered for him, a prosthetic specifically designed for this mission, to help with the infiltration of the Lodge.

“About time,” Painter said.

Monk glanced up, meeting his gaze, his face fierce. “You try to find a babysitter on the Fourth of July … now let’s go get our women.”

1:25 P.M.

Blue Ridge Mountains

“And you’re claiming this child can live forever?” Lisa asked. “That he’s immortal?”

Edward continued to sit in his cubicle in the medical ward. “Barring accidents or disease, yes, he could live a very long time. I imagine it will take further tinkering to achieve true immortality. But in the end, like I said, he’s not the first immortal born to this world.”

“What do you mean?”

“Since we have time until Petra finishes her evaluation of the boy’s genetics, I’ll do my best to explain. It’s the least I can offer you for saving the child.”

Lisa was prepared to listen.

“Many scientists, across a scope of professions, believe immortality will be achieved in our lifetime. The dates bandied about all seem to center around the middle of this century, 2045 or so. That means children born today will live to see those accomplishments come to fruition. They will take advantage of them during their lifetimes, becoming immortal. So in that regard, they are immortal already. Or at least something quite close to it. Their lifetimes could be easily doubled or tripled.”

She imagined what he envisioned, how some children born today will live forever. They were the immortals walking among us already.

Still, such a claim seemed impossible. She voiced it aloud. “You truly expect we can attain immortality in such a short time frame?”

“Or something very close to it. And it’s not just me making that claim. It comes from hundreds of scientists, researchers, and visionaries across a gamut of professions—from medicine, genomics, and gerontology to pharmaceuticals, nanotech, and robotics. What we’re doing in our labs here, financed by our benefactor, is taking the first tentative steps into eternity.”

Lisa pictured the man orchestrating this work.

Our benefactor …

Robert Gant.

It was beyond comprehension. All this horror perpetrated in an attempt to live forever. Still, Lisa sensed something more was going on, another agenda still being kept secret—but what?

She knew any true answers lay in keeping Edward talking.

He obliged, waxing proudly on where the world was heading. “There are two general schools of thought in regards to expanding man’s lifetimes. The first is moving machines into man. The other is moving man into machines.”

She shook her head, not appreciating the distinction.

“A thousand years ago the average life expectancy of mankind was only twenty-five years. It took another nine hundred years to extend that to thirty-seven. Today the average is seventy-eight. So, in the past hundred years, we more than doubled life expectancy. That amazing spurt of growth happened because of science and technology. And it will only grow faster from here. Estimates say we will soon be adding a year to our lives with every passing year. Just think about that. For every year you grow older, life expectancy will extend a year in front of you.”

“But what will drive that growth?”

“What has always driven it: the furnace of technology. In that forge, machine and man will melt together into one.”

He must have read her skepticism and smiled, ready to deflect it.

“Already people have artificial pancreases inside them,” he continued. “Currently thirty thousand Parkinson patients have neural implants. And as technology grows smaller, it will invade us even more. Advancements in nanotechnology—which is manufacturing at the atomic level—hold the promise of replacing vital organs in fifteen years, our blood cells in twenty years, and in twenty-five years, nanotechnology will reprogram our biological software to reverse aging.”

Lisa understood. “Moving machines into man … into our bodies.”

“That’s one path to immortality. But the reverse holds even greater promise. As computing power explodes exponentially, a term was coined—singularity—marking that moment when artificial intelligence will surpass mankind. Various futurists expect this to occur somewhere in the middle of this century.”

“So soon?” Lisa asked.

Edward nodded with a small smile of satisfaction. “By 2030, estimates say computing power will be a million times what it is today. Anything is possible with that much power. In the meantime, scientists from around the globe are searching for methods to merge that growing computing power to our own. In Switzerland, researchers are reverse-engineering the human brain, creating a neuron-by-neuron simulation, with the intent to have a complete virtual brain in ten years. Here in the States, a group of MIT researchers are building a map of all the brain’s synapses, those trillions of connections between neurons, all in a search for the seat of human consciousness.”

Lisa sighed. “And I assume that the ultimate goal is to fill that empty seat, to scan our consciousness into computers.”

“Exactly. Moving man into machines. The second path to immortality.” Edward glanced over to the incubator. “But I’m searching for a third path.”

“Which is what?”

“A new science. Cybergenetics. The merging of technology into our genetic code.”

“The PNA strand,” Lisa said, understanding, growing both awed and horrified, picturing that piece of engineered protein snaking into human DNA and regulating it.

“DNA is really just a set of information processes for building our bodies. But that software is old, millions of years old. PNA holds the potential for overhauling that system. Rebooting mankind forever.”

Lisa tried to draw him down from the lofty heights of theory to the reality of his lab. “But back to your own research. What does your PNA do, the one inside the boy?”

“It basically addresses the deleterious effects that come with growing old. The field of gerontology—the study of aging—has discovered that there are only seven basic ways a body damages itself as it ages. Reverse those seven deadly ways and immortality is within reach.”

Edward looked significantly toward her, lifting an eyebrow.

“You did it,” she said in a hushed voice. “Your PNA manipulates and regulates the DNA to offset those damages.”

“It does, but not perfectly. We concentrated most of our efforts on one of them. The death of cells. Are you familiar with the Hayflick Limit?”

She shook her head, finding it harder and harder to speak.

“Back in 1961, Dr. Leonard Hayflick estimated that the maximum natural age for a human being is about 120 years. He based that on the number of times a cell will divide before it stops. The number of these divisions is determined by the length of some repeated DNA at the end of each cell’s chromosomes. These repeated sequences are called telomeres. They basically act like the aglets at the end of shoelaces, keeping the laces from fraying. But after a certain number of divisions, the telomeres wear off, and the chromosome frays itself to death.”

“What does this have to do with your PNA?”

“We engineered the PNA to function as permanent telomeres, in order to create undying cells, and thus allow us to shatter through the Hayflick Limit.”

“Creating a path to immortality.”

He nodded. “We are at the very threshold to eternity.”

“But why do this? There are so many negative effects if man could live forever. Overpopulation, starvation, stagnation. There’s a reason we are meant to die, to step aside for the next generation.”

“True, but those dangers only exist if the technology is available to all. In the hands of an elite—a chosen people—there would be no such risks.”