OGDEN, UTAH—The word “cancer” lingered on the air like a ticking bomb. At ninety-two, Lilith Davidson had lost more friends and family to that disease than any other. And now cancer had come for her. It felt personal.
Seth wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and their daughter Gemini held her hand. Bad news loomed above them. Stomach pain, nausea, loss of appetite, and shedding thirty pounds without trying had to be caused by something, and the benign answers had already been ruled out.
“This is an aggressive disease,” the oncologist continued, “but with a combination of radiation and the new immunotherapy drugs, we should be able to slow it down and relieve some of the symptoms.”
“What about surgery?” Seth asked.
“It has already spread to the liver.” The doctor took off his glasses and rested his elbows on the desk. “And at her age … well, it’s just too late for surgery.” He looked at Lilith. “I’m sorry.”
Lilith heard the words, but focused on Gemini’s reaction instead of letting the meaning sink in. The appointment had been for her benefit, to help Gemini come to grips with what they faced. Her daughter fought back the tears. Having both her parents given a death sentence in the same year had to be tough to handle.
Seth’s right kidney and adrenal gland were surgically removed five months ago. His follow-up scan scheduled for next month would’ve let them know if the targeted therapy had kept the cancer from spreading to his lymph nodes. But he wouldn’t be keeping that appointment.
Lilith squeezed Gemini’s hand and stood. “I think I need a little air.”
“I understand.” The doctor stood. “But don’t delay starting treatment. I’ll have my office call you tomorrow.”
“Thank you, but I plan to get a second opinion,” she said.
Gemini stared at her, mouth open.
“Of course.” The doctor frowned slightly.
Lilith took Seth’s hand as they walked out. When they got to the car, she said, “Looks like it’s time to try the serum.”
Gemini slid into the back seat. “Mom, you can’t mean that.” Her face taut with stress, Gemini’s voice drifted an octave higher. “Dad, talk some sense into her.” When he remained quiet, she persisted. “It’s an experimental treatment you’ve never tried on humans.”
Lilith turned to look at her as Seth pulled out of the parking lot. “People don’t survive Stage Four pancreatic cancer,” she said calmly. “You know that. I don’t see that I have a choice.”
“Your mother’s right,” Seth added. “It may be experimental, but we’ve been working on the treatment for more than a decade.”
Gemini sighed. “I’m sure a dozen people who know nothing about biology or medicine have found the cure to cancer.”
Lilith huffed. “As I’ve told you before, many times, it’s not about cancer—it’s about longevity.”
“That means more than curing diseases,” Seth said, “although that’s a critical part of the process.”
“I know you’ve never been interested in what our group does, Gem, but you’ve seen some of the results,” Lilith said. “It paid for our home and for your kids’ college education, yet you still doubt it works?”
“Mom, please don’t do this,” Gemini pleaded. “It’s one thing to do woo-woo stuff to raise money, and entirely different when your life is on the line. You could go to M.D. Anderson. The Mayo Clinic. Anywhere in the world. Get a second opinion, like you told the doctor.”
Lilith shook her head. “I tried the Mayo Clinic. I’m sorry you don’t understand, Gemini, but this is my life, and my decision.”
The silence stretched on for several minutes. They pulled into the circle drive in front of a modern two-story building made of glass and flat, tan stone. In the middle of the circle, a bronze sculpture of the Renu Tree of Life rose from a pool of water. Its trunk and branches were entwined DNA ladders.
Located down a private road off the Ogden River Scenic Byway, Renu's research center lay nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Range east of Ogden. Though isolated enough to discourage curiosity seekers, it was not so far away from the city to appear secretive.
Seth parked, popped the trunk, and handed Gemini the keys. “We won’t be needing the car for a while.”
“Dad, you’re not thinking of being a guinea pig, too?” Gemini said, her face drawn.
He hugged her. “I love you, girl. Maybe I wouldn’t try it if I were still in my sixties like you. But we have thirty years more experience, and it makes a difference in how we view our risks.”
He and Lilith each retrieved two suitcases from the trunk.
“You were already planning this,” Gemini said.
Lilith nodded. “I didn’t know how bad the diagnosis would be, but I didn’t think it would be good. Besides, this just makes it easier to take the next step with our study…and it’s going to be amazing. You’ll see.” Lilith hugged Gemini. “Don’t worry.”
“Right. What’s to worry about?” Gemini snipped. She got in the car and rolled down the window.
“I love you,” Lilith said.
Gemini locked eyes with each of them, then the fight went out of her. She opened the door and rushed back to Lilith, hugging her fiercely. “I love you, too, Mom.” Tears streamed down Gemini’s face as she turned and wrapped her arms around Seth, laying her head against his chest. “Please be okay!” Reluctantly, she returned to the car. Her voice broke as she said “I love you” once more, then drove away.
Lilith turned to Seth, “I wish I felt as confident as I sounded.”
“That makes two of us,” Seth said.
As he signed in at the security desk, Lilith messaged the group to confirm the human trials would proceed as planned. Hers was the final diagnosis they’d been waiting for.
RENU CENTER, OGDEN RIVER SCENIC BYWAY—The next morning, Lilith waited in the conference room, smiling at a hologram they’d just taken outside the research center. She remembered when they'd dubbed themselves the Methuselah Pioneers more than a decade ago after their group of twelve decided to focus its efforts on longevity research. Within the past year, all of them had signed up for the first human trials.
As others entered, Lilith smoothed the creases from her T-shirt, which bore Renu's Tree of Life insignia. Marketing had rebranded their company after focus groups showed few people remembered anything about Methuselah—the Bible's oldest reported human—but the founders maintained their identity.
With the aches and pains she had at ninety-two, living to nine hundred sixty-nine like Methuselah sounded more like a curse than a blessing. Unless the Pioneers could access the secrets locked within their genes—the legacy of the ancients.
Her friend, Ralen Alexander, sat beside Lilith. "Are you nervous?"
She nodded. Who wouldn't be? "But optimistic," Lilith said. And that was true. They'd taken every precaution, but this was uncharted territory.
Seth handed Lilith a glass of water as he sat on her other side.
“Hey, Seth,” Ralen said.
“Hi, buddy.” Seth gave Ralen’s shoulder a light knuckle-bump. "Guess this is the moment of truth.”
"Looks like it." Ralen brushed back his white hair and grinned. "Besides, it's not like any of us has a good alternative."
"So true," Seth said.
At their age—ranging from Seth’s ninety to Ralen’s ninety-three—actuarial tables insurance companies relied upon showed it was no riskier to take the experimental treatment than not to do so.
The Pioneers all turned to greet Kate Flowers, the marketing director, as she entered the room.
“Glad to see you brought a videographer,” Lilith said.
“We’re making history here,” Kate said, “so we want to get everything on record.”
They’d banned the media because of their lawyer’s concern about the treatment’s experimental nature. “No sense in flaunting human trials until you have the science behind you to prove its merits,” he had advised.
The videographer lifted a palm-sized digital camera, and the red indicator light popped on.
“Give us a little background about how you got selected,” Kate said, playing the role of reporter.
“Where to start?” Lilith glanced at Seth. “You could say it began thirty years ago when we formed an online group to study remote viewing.”
“That’s a scientific protocol developed by the military during the Twentieth Century’s Cold War,” Seth explained.
“Yes,” Lilith said. “It involves gathering information using intuition rather than the intellect or the usual five senses.”
“At first, we started using our sessions to predict the outcome of sporting events or to forecast stock market changes,” he said. “We were part of a bigger, global group, but over time, a core group of twelve stayed together.”
“We kept trying new ways to use the protocol,” Lilith said. “Our results were far from being one-hundred percent accurate, but we came to understand how powerful even a slight edge over chance was.”
“Explain what you mean by that,” Kate said.
“Say you have a binary choice—yes or no, up or down,” Lilith said. “Just based on random selection, each choice will occur fifty percent of the time. With remote viewing, more than sixty percent of our predictions were correct.”
“That’s not much of a difference,” Kate said.
“To put it in perspective,” Ralen said, “casinos can make money winning only fifty-three percent of the time.”
“When we added the Kelly Wagering method—where the percentage of your stake that’s bet each time is based on a mathematical formula—we saw even greater financial gains,” Seth said.
“How successful were you?” Kate asked.
“Within five years, we were able to pay cash for stunning homes in Park City, if that gives you some idea,” Ralen said.
“But we wanted to use the money to make a difference in the world,” Lilith said. “And we weren’t getting any younger.”
The others laughed. “That’s a bit of an understatement, don’t you think?” Ralen said.
“As more of us faced life-threatening illnesses, we started looking at projects that could cure diseases or improve our quality of life,” Seth said.
“About fifteen years ago, we decided to focus on longevity,” Ralen added. “Lilith came up with the name—Methuselah Pioneers. It just stuck.”
“What do you mean—longevity? Seems like curing disease would have that result,” Kate said.
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg issue,” Seth conceded. “But telomeres are key—if you keep them from shortening or get them to elongate, you avoid the ravages of old age, including disease.”
“Plus, it’s a quality of life issue,” Lilith said. “Just being disease-free doesn’t help if you’re too feeble to enjoy life.”
“We wanted to find a way to help people stay at their peak for as long as possible—to be modern-day Methuselahs,” Kameitha added.
“How did you get the scientific knowledge to make decisions about medical issues?” Kate asked.
“None of us had medical training, but that worked in our favor,” Lilith said.
Kate scrunched her eyebrows together, really getting into the part of a skeptical reporter. “Did I hear you right?”
Lilith laughed. “No, it’s true. Remote viewing techniques often work best when viewers have no knowledge or are "blind" to the target.”
“So, you guided research without knowing anything about it?” Kate said.
“Exactly,” Seth said. “We set up sessions so we could view for simple outcomes. For instance, should we hire geneticist A or B?”
“Using double-blind protocols—where both the researcher and viewer didn't know the precise target—we guided the research, too,” Ralen said.
“I’m having trouble envisioning how that worked,” Kate said.
The videographer shifted positions for a different angle when Lilith opened her tablet and drew three boxes on the screen, labeled A, B and C.
“Say person A knows what the target is, but only gives person B a number that is linked to the target,” she said. “Person B assigns person C to remote view the target associated with the number.”
“Since neither B nor C knows what the target is, it’s a double-blind study,” Seth said.
“As we came to decision points, we used remote viewing to give the researchers direction,” Lilith said.
“Again, it wasn’t foolproof—we followed some wrong leads,” Ralen said.
“But it didn’t take long for our group to make breakthroughs in areas that still baffled other researchers,” Seth said.
“And one breakthrough led to another—a kind of synchronicity,” Lilith said.
“Even so, it’s taken us more than a dozen years to get to this point,” Ralen said.
“Aren’t human trials a big step?” Kate asked.
Ralen shrugged. “As Lilith said, none of us are getting younger.”
“And it’s not like we have a lot of other choices,” Seth said. “During the past year, all of us have been told our time is running out.”
“Yesterday I learned I have pancreatic cancer,” Lilith said. “Even with the latest treatments, my doctor said I probably have only a few months to live.”
“It’s the same for the rest of us.” Ralen motioned to the others, who were taking seats around the conference table. “We have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.”
“Time to see who’s going to make history today as the very first person to take the treatment,” Kate said.
The twelve Pioneers each checked the slips of paper they’d drawn from a box when they entered the room.
Hector waved his paper and held up one finger. The doctor walked over to him, followed closely by the videographer and Kate.
Kate gestured to Hector. “Our attorney, Hector Juarez, has the winning number! Congratulations on being the first to receive this historic treatment.”
He nodded and faced the camera. “This treatment holds out hope for more than simply living longer—it’s about improving the quality of life. It opens the possibility of living full lives for many more decades. Imagine if Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or Albert Einstein had been productive for twice as long, and you’ll see the impact this could have on humankind.”
Kate’s head bobbed. “That’s so true, Hector.”
In the background, the other Pioneers gave him a “thumbs-up” salute.
Despite his glowing words, Lilith thought Hector’s smile looked forced as the silver air gun hissed and the serum entered his bloodstream. The doctor lingered for several minutes before moving to the next person, his distant expression making Lilith wonder if he, too, had second thoughts about going forward with the treatment.
Or maybe it was just her imagination. Lilith’s pulse raced as the doctor stepped in front of her. She braced her arm to hold it steady and willed her body to relax. According to the geneticists, epigenetic prion regulation of telomeres was at the heart of the treatment. The word "prion" made her mouth go dry. It still brought to mind the outbreaks of Mad Cow Disease in her youth, and the jerky gaits and blank-eyed stares of its victims. She shivered and tried to think about something else.
Lilith waited until Seth had his injection, then gave him a parting hug. "See you on the other side," she said.
He leaned over and kissed her. "I'll check with you later online."
Lilith nodded and walked down the hall to the efficiency apartment she'd been assigned. She knew they needed to avoid outside contamination because of their suppressed immune systems, but Lilith didn’t understand why the researchers also wanted to keep the twelve of them apart.
“The changes in your bodies will be massive,” one of the doctors had explained. “We don’t want you to have any other pressures.”
What “other pressures,” she wondered. Sex? Arguments? Snoring? In the end, it hadn’t seemed worth making a fuss over, so she and Seth—the only married couple—had gone along with their plan.
Lilith’s room had a queen-size bed, a closet with built-in drawers, and a tiny galley kitchen that opened to a breakfast bar with two cane-bottom wooden stools. The adjoining living room had a three-cushion sofa upholstered in blue microfiber fabric, one blue-and-green striped chair, and a green ottoman that served double-duty as a cocktail table and footrest.
In addition to a pantry she’d stocked with her favorite comfort foods, a gourmet chef was available to fill their orders around the clock. A dumb waiter provided automated delivery from the kitchen to her apartment.
Lilith settled in with an audiobook—the first in a mystery series she’d been saving as a special treat—and a crossword puzzle. She wanted to focus on anything except what was going on in her body.
After a few minutes, her skin felt flushed. She went to the bathroom and got a cool compress for her head. She barely sat back down before a chill set in. Lilith searched through the linen closet for the warmest blanket and wrapped herself in it. The nausea started a few hours later, then the vomiting. She didn’t notice Seth hadn’t called until the next morning when her laptop chimed. Lilith accepted the call, and the holo projected into the room.
“Sorry I didn’t call,” he began. “Holy shit, Lilith, you look worse than I feel!”
Lilith grimaced, cataloguing her latest visible symptoms—flaking skin, itchy rashes on the backs of her hands and tops of her feet. But Seth’s gray hair was disheveled and dark circles ringed his slate-blue eyes. Behind him, the sheets were twisted on his unmade bed.
“You don’t look so great yourself,” she said.
“Yeah, until I saw you, I thought I had a hard night.” He pulled a blanket tighter around him. “My body’s burning hot one minute, then I’m freezing the next.”
“No nausea?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Well, don’t be surprised.” Lilith grabbed a glass of cold water and took a big gulp. She couldn’t satisfy her thirst. She blinked her eyes, trying to focus. The holo blurred, drifting in and out of clarity. “Guess it’s all normal—the side effects the doctors warned us about.”
Seth pressed his lips together. “I know they’re monitoring us around the clock, but I want you to promise to call for assistance if it gets any worse … I wish I was there with you.”
Lilith wanted to respond, but instead clenched her jaws as another wave of nausea flooded her mouth with saliva. She covered her mouth with one hand and waved with the other, then disconnected. She made it to the toilet just in time.
The next few days passed in a blur. Lilith ran a low fever and felt achy and sluggish, like she had a mild case of the flu. Each day, a medical assistant in a hazmat suit came in to take photographs and log the results of blood and urine tests.
By day six, Lilith had so many symptoms, she couldn’t list them. She didn’t have the energy to get out of bed.
"Where does it hurt?" one of the staff doctors asked, his voice muffled by his mask.
She tried to focus on his eyes, but plastic protective glasses hid them.
"Everywhere," she said. "I had no idea how much skin I have—and it all hurts!"
When he examined her breasts with rubber-gloved hands, she cringed.
"Tender?" he asked.
"It's to be expected." He pressed on her ovaries. "Your hormones are working harder than they ever have."
"What hormones!" she scoffed.
"Oh, you definitely have them, now.” He sounded awed. “It’s amazing, really. Your bloodwork could be that of a healthy thirty-year-old."
"My prime!" Lilith quipped, then grew quiet. She was afraid to ask if the changes were merely superficial. "What of the ..."
"...the cancer?" He patted her hand and replied with enthusiasm. "The treatment has performed every bit as well as we hoped, Lilith. Your pancreas is healthy, with no sign of cancer."
No cancer? Relief rose within, releasing tightness in her chest she hadn’t even realized was there. Her eyes brimmed with tears. "It's really gone?"
"Some would say it's a miracle, but really it's just the result of restoring the body's natural ability to heal itself.” Even through the plastic, she could see his eyes sparkled. “This is new territory—a rapid remission unlike anything seen before.” Excited, he spoke rapidly. “When we publish the findings, it will revolutionize treatment for terminal illnesses. And I think it's just the beginning."
Suddenly energized, Lilith could hardly wait to tell Seth. But he'd been sleeping more than she had, and she didn't want to disrupt his healing. When he finally called hours later, Lilith noted his sunken eyes and grayish skin. He looked worse than the day before, which worried her.
"Hey, baby.” She forced cheer into her voice. “How are you feeling?
"Not good, but the doctor says I'm better," he said.
"I have some good news,” she said.
“My cancer is gone!” Just saying the words thrilled Lilith all over again.
Seth straightened and smiled. "That's the best news I've had—ever! It really worked."
"Did he say anything about yours?" Lilith asked.
"No, my testing was delayed a day or two," he said.
"I see," Lilith said, but she really didn't. She couldn’t keep the fear from rising. Why wasn't he better? She resolved to get some answers from the doctor at her next check-up.