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Footsteps echoed behind him.
With no other option in sight, Langdon pressed himself to the floor and slithered toward the casket. Grabbing the two marble supports, one with each hand, he pulled like a breaststroker, dragging his torso into the opening beneath the tomb. The gun went off.
Accompanying the roar of the gun, Langdon felt a sensation he had never felt in his life… a bullet sailing past his flesh. There was a hiss of wind, like the backlash of a whip, as the bullet just missed him and exploded in the marble with a puff of dust. Blood surging, Langdon heaved his body the rest of the way beneath the casket. Scrambling across the marble floor, he pulled himself out from beneath the casket and to the other side.
Langdon was now face to face with the rear wall of the niche. He had no doubt that this tiny space behind the tomb would become his grave. And soon, he realized, as he saw the barrel of the gun appear in the opening beneath the sarcophagus. The Hassassin held the weapon parallel with the floor, pointing directly at Langdon’s midsection.
Impossible to miss.
Langdon felt a trace of self-preservation grip his unconscious mind. He twisted his body onto his stomach, parallel with the casket. Facedown, he planted his hands flat on the floor, the glass cut from the archives pinching open with a stab. Ignoring the pain, he pushed. Driving his body upward in an awkward push-up, Langdon arched his stomach off the floor just as the gun went off. He could feel the shock wave of the bullets as they sailed beneath him and pulverized the porous travertine behind. Closing his eyes and straining against exhaustion, Langdon prayed for the thunder to stop.
And then it did.
The roar of gunfire was replaced with the cold click of an empty chamber.
Langdon opened his eyes slowly, almost fearful his eyelids would make a sound. Fighting the trembling pain, he held his position, arched like a cat. He didn’t even dare breathe. His eardrums numbed by gunfire, Langdon listened for any hint of the killer’s departure. Silence. He thought of Vittoria and ached to help her.
The sound that followed was deafening. Barely human. A guttural bellow of exertion.
The sarcophagus over Langdon’s head suddenly seemed to rise on its side. Langdon collapsed on the floor as hundreds of pounds teetered toward him. Gravity overcame friction, and the lid was the first to go, sliding off the tomb and crashing to the floor beside him. The casket came next, rolling off its supports and toppling upside down toward Langdon.
As the box rolled, Langdon knew he would either be entombed in the hollow beneath it or crushed by one of the edges. Pulling in his legs and head, Langdon compacted his body and yanked his arms to his sides. Then he closed his eyes and awaited the sickening crush.
When it came, the entire floor shook beneath him. The upper rim landed only millimeters from the top of his head, rattling his teeth in their sockets. His right arm, which Langdon had been certain would be crushed, miraculously still felt intact. He opened his eyes to see a shaft of light. The right rim of the casket had not fallen all the way to the floor and was still propped partially on its supports. Directly overhead, though, Langdon found himself staring quite literally into the face of death.
The original occupant of the tomb was suspended above him, having adhered, as decaying bodies often did, to the bottom of the casket. The skeleton hovered a moment, like a tentative lover, and then with a sticky crackling, it succumbed to gravity and peeled away. The carcass rushed down to embrace him, raining putrid bones and dust into Langdon’s eyes and mouth.
Before Langdon could react, a blind arm was slithering through the opening beneath the casket, sifting through the carcass like a hungry python. It groped until it found Langdon’s neck and clamped down. Langdon tried to fight back against the iron fist now crushing his larynx, but he found his left sleeve pinched beneath the edge of the coffin. He had only one arm free, and the fight was a losing battle.
Langdon’s legs bent in the only open space he had, his feet searching for the casket floor above him. He found it. Coiling, he planted his feet. Then, as the hand around his neck squeezed tighter, Langdon closed his eyes and extended his legs like a ram. The casket shifted, ever so slightly, but enough.
With a raw grinding, the sarcophagus slid off the supports and landed on the floor. The casket rim crashed onto the killer’s arm, and there was a muffled scream of pain. The hand released Langdon’s neck, twisting and jerking away into the dark. When the killer finally pulled his arm free, the casket fell with a conclusive thud against the flat marble floor.
Complete darkness. Again.
There was no frustrated pounding outside the overturned sarcophagus. No prying to get in. Nothing. As Langdon lay in the dark amidst a pile of bones, he fought the closing darkness and turned his thoughts to her.
Vittoria. Are you alive?
If Langdon had known the truth—the horror to which Vittoria would soon awake—he would have wished for her sake that she were dead.
Sitting in the Sistine Chapel among his stunned colleagues, Cardinal Mortati tried to comprehend the words he was hearing. Before him, lit only by the candlelight, the camerlegno had just told a tale of such hatred and treachery that Mortati found himself trembling. The camerlegno spoke of kidnapped cardinals, branded cardinals, murdered cardinals. He spoke of the ancient Illuminati—a name that dredged up forgotten fears—and of their resurgence and vow of revenge against the church. With pain in his voice, the camerlegno spoke of his late Pope… the victim of an Illuminati poisoning. And finally, his words almost a whisper, he spoke of a deadly new technology, antimatter, which in less than two hours threatened to destroy all of Vatican City.
When he was through, it was as if Satan himself had sucked the air from the room. Nobody could move. The camerlegno’s words hung in the darkness.
The only sound Mortati could now hear was the anomalous hum of a television camera in back—an electronic presence no conclave in history had ever endured—but a presence demanded by the camerlegno. To the utter astonishment of the cardinals, the camerlegno had entered the Sistine Chapel with two BBC reporters—a man and a woman—and announced that they would be transmitting his solemn statement, live to the world.
Now, speaking directly to the camera, the camerlegno stepped forward. “To the Illuminati,” he said, his voice deepening, “and to those of science, let me say this.” He paused. “You have won the war.”
The silence spread now to the deepest corners of the chapel. Mortati could hear the desperate thumping of his own heart.
“The wheels have been in motion for a long time,” the camerlegno said. “Your victory has been inevitable. Never before has it been as obvious as it is at this moment. Science is the new God.”
What is he saying? Mortati thought. Has he gone mad? The entire world is hearing this!
“Medicine, electronic communications, space travel, genetic manipulation… these are the miracles about which we now tell our children. These are the miracles we herald as proof that science will bring us the answers. The ancient stories of immaculate conceptions, burning bushes, and parting seas are no longer relevant. God has become obsolete. Science has won the battle. We concede.”
A rustle of confusion and bewilderment swept through the chapel.
“But science’s victory,” the camerlegno added, his voice intensifying, “has cost every one of us. And it has cost us deeply.”
“Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease and drudgery and provided an array of gadgetry for our entertainment and convenience, but it has left us in a world without wonder. Our sunsets have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies. The complexities of the universe have been shredded into mathematical equations. Even our self-worth as human beings has been destroyed. Science proclaims that Planet Earth and its inhabitants are a meaningless speck in the grand scheme. A cosmic accident.” He paused. “Even the technology that promises to unite us, divides us. Each of us is now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone. We are bombarded with violence, division, fracture, and betrayal. Skepticism has become a virtue. Cynicism and demand for proof has become enlightened thought. Is it any wonder that humans now feel more depressed and defeated than they have at any point in human history? Does science hold anything sacred? Science looks for answers by probing our unborn fetuses. Science even presumes to rearrange our own DNA. It shatters God’s world into smaller and smaller pieces in quest of meaning… and all it finds is more questions.”
Mortati watched in awe. The camerlegno was almost hypnotic now. He had a physical strength in his movements and voice that Mortati had never witnessed on a Vatican altar. The man’s voice was wrought with conviction and sadness.
“The ancient war between science and religion is over,” the camerlegno said. “You have won. But you have not won fairly. You have not won by providing answers. You have won by so radically reorienting our society that the truths we once saw as signposts now seem inapplicable. Religion cannot keep up. Scientific growth is exponential. It feeds on itself like a virus. Every new breakthrough opens doors for new breakthroughs. Mankind took thousands of years to progress from the wheel to the car. Yet only decades from the car into space. Now we measure scientific progress in weeks. We are spinning out of control. The rift between us grows deeper and deeper, and as religion is left behind, people find themselves in a spiritual void. We cry out for meaning. And believe me, we do cry out. We see UFOs, engage in channeling, spirit contact, out-of-body experiences, mindquests—all these eccentric ideas have a scientific veneer, but they are unashamedly irrational. They are the desperate cry of the modern soul, lonely and tormented, crippled by its own enlightenment and its inability to accept meaning in anything removed from technology.”
Mortati could feel himself leaning forward in his seat. He and the other cardinals and people around the world were hanging on this priest’s every utterance. The camerlegno spoke with no rhetoric or vitriol. No references to scripture or Jesus Christ. He spoke in modern terms, unadorned and pure. Somehow, as though the words were flowing from God himself, he spoke the modern language… delivering the ancient message. In that moment, Mortati saw one of the reasons the late Pope held this young man so dear. In a world of apathy, cynicism, and technological deification, men like the camerlegno, realists who could speak to our souls like this man just had, were the church’s only hope.
The camerlegno was talking more forcefully now. “Science, you say, will save us. Science, I say, has destroyed us. Since the days of Galileo, the church has tried to slow the relentless march of science, sometimes with misguided means, but always with benevolent intention. Even so, the temptations are too great for man to resist. I warn you, look around yourselves. The promises of science have not been kept. Promises of efficiency and simplicity have bred nothing but pollution and chaos. We are a fractured and frantic species… moving down a path of destruction.”
The camerlegno paused a long moment and then sharpened his eyes on the camera.
“Who is this God science? Who is the God who offers his people power but no moral framework to tell you how to use that power? What kind of God gives a child fire but does not warn the child of its dangers? The language of science comes with no signposts about good and bad. Science textbooks tell us how to create a nuclear reaction, and yet they contain no chapter asking us if it is a good or a bad idea.
“To science, I say this. The church is tired. We are exhausted from trying to be your signposts. Our resources are drying up from our campaign to be the voice of balance as you plow blindly on in your quest for smaller chips and larger profits. We ask not why you will not govern yourselves, but how can you? Your world moves so fast that if you stop even for an instant to consider the implications of your actions, someone more efficient will whip past you in a blur. So you move on. You proliferate weapons of mass destruction, but it is the Pope who travels the world beseeching leaders to use restraint. You clone living creatures, but it is the church reminding us to consider the moral implications of our actions. You encourage people to interact on phones, video screens, and computers, but it is the church who opens its doors and reminds us to commune in person as we were meant to do. You even murder unborn babies in the name of research that will save lives. Again, it is the church who points out the fallacy of this reasoning.
“And all the while, you proclaim the church is ignorant. But who is more ignorant? The man who cannot define lightning, or the man who does not respect its awesome power? This church is reaching out to you. Reaching out to everyone. And yet the more we reach, the more you push us away. Show me proof there is a God, you say. I say use your telescopes to look to the heavens, and tell me how there could not be a God!” The camerlegno had tears in his eyes now. “You ask what does God look like. I say, where did that question come from? The answers are one and the same. Do you not see God in your science? How can you miss Him! You proclaim that even the slightest change in the force of gravity or the weight of an atom would have rendered our universe a lifeless mist rather than our magnificent sea of heavenly bodies, and yet you fail to see God’s hand in this? Is it really so much easier to believe that we simply chose the right card from a deck of billions? Have we become so spiritually bankrupt that we would rather believe in mathematical impossibility than in a power greater than us?
“Whether or not you believe in God,” the camerlegno said, his voice deepening with deliberation, “you must believe this. When we as a species abandon our trust in the power greater than us, we abandon our sense of accountability. Faith… all faiths… are admonitions that there is something we cannot understand, something to which we are accountable… With faith we are accountable to each other, to ourselves, and to a higher truth. Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed. If the outside world could see this church as I do… looking beyond the ritual of these walls… they would see a modern miracle… a brotherhood of imperfect, simple souls wanting only to be a voice of compassion in a world spinning out of control.”
The camerlegno motioned out over the College of Cardinals, and the BBC camerawoman instinctively followed, panning the crowd.
“Are we obsolete?” the camerlegno asked. “Are these men dino-saurs? Am I? Does the world really need a voice for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the unborn child? Do we really need souls like these who, though imperfect, spend their lives imploring each of us to read the signposts of morality and not lose our way?”
Mortati now realized that the camerlegno, whether consciously or not, was making a brilliant move. By showing the cardinals, he was personalizing the church. Vatican City was no longer a building, it was people–people like the camerlegno who had spent their lives in the service of goodness.
“Tonight we are perched on a precipice,” the camerlegno said. “None of us can afford to be apathetic. Whether you see this evil as Satan, corruption, or immorality… the dark force is alive and growing every day. Do not ignore it.” The camerlegno lowered his voice to a whisper, and the camera moved in. “The force, though mighty, is not invincible. Goodness can prevail. Listen to your hearts. Listen to God. Together we can step back from this abyss.”
Now Mortati understood. This was the reason. Conclave had been violated, but this was the only way. It was a dramatic and desperate plea for help. The camerlegno was speaking to both his enemy and his friends now. He was entreating anyone, friend or foe, to see the light and stop this madness. Certainly someone listening would realize the insanity of this plot and come forward.
The camerlegno knelt at the altar. “Pray with me.”
The College of Cardinals dropped to their knees to join him in prayer. Outside in St. Peter’s Square and around the globe… a stunned world knelt with them.
The Hassassin lay his unconscious trophy in the rear of the van and took a moment to admire her sprawled body. She was not as beautiful as the women he bought, and yet she had an animal strength that excited him. Her body was radiant, dewy with perspiration. She smelled of musk.
As the Hassasin stood there savoring his prize, he ignored the throb in his arm. The bruise from the falling sarcophagus, although painful, was insignificant… well worth the compensation that lay before him. He took consolation in knowing the American who had done this to him was probably dead by now.
Gazing down at his incapacitated prisoner, the Hassassin visualized what lay ahead. He ran a palm up beneath her shirt. Her breasts felt perfect beneath her bra. Yes, he smiled. You are more than worthy. Fighting the urge to take her right there, he closed the door and drove off into the night.
There was no need to alert the press about this killing… the flames would do that for him.
At CERN, Sylvie sat stunned by the camerlegno’s address. Never before had she felt so proud to be a Catholic and so ashamed to work at CERN. As she left the recreational wing, the mood in every single viewing room was dazed and somber. When she got back to Kohler’s office, all seven phone lines were ringing. Media inquiries were never routed to Kohler’s office, so the incoming calls could only be one thing.