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There was no more terror. No pain. Not even the sound of the racing wind. There was only the soft sound of lapping water, as though he were comfortably asleep on a beach.
In a paradox of self-awareness, Langdon sensed this was death. He felt glad for it. He allowed the drifting numbness to possess him entirely. He let it carry him wherever it was he would go. His pain and fear had been anesthetized, and he did not wish it back at any price. His final memory had been one that could only have been conjured in hell.
Take me. Please…
But the lapping that lulled in him a far-off sense of peace was also pulling him back. It was trying to awaken him from a dream. No! Let me be! He did not want to awaken. He sensed demons gathering on the perimeter of his bliss, pounding to shatter his rapture. Fuzzy images swirled. Voices yelled. Wind churned. No, please! The more he fought, the more the fury filtered through.
Then, harshly, he was living it all again…
The helicopter was in a dizzying dead climb. He was trapped inside. Beyond the open door, the lights of Rome looked farther away with every passing second. His survival instinct told him to jettison the canister right now. Langdon knew it would take less than twenty seconds for the canister to fall half a mile. But it would be falling toward a city of people.
Langdon wondered how high they were now. Small prop planes, he knew, flew at altitudes of about four miles. This helicopter had to be at a good fraction of that by now. Two miles up? Three? There was still a chance. If they timed the drop perfectly, the canister would fall only partway toward earth, exploding a safe distance over the ground and away from the chopper. Langdon looked out at the city sprawling below them.
“And if you calculate incorrectly?” the camerlegno said.
Langdon turned, startled. The camerlegno was not even looking at him, apparently having read Langdon’s thoughts from the ghostly reflection in the windshield. Oddly, the camerlegno was no longer engrossed in his controls. His hands were not even on the throttle. The chopper, it seemed, was now in some sort of autopilot mode, locked in a climb. The camerlegno reached above his head, to the ceiling of the cockpit, fishing behind a cable-housing, where he removed a key, taped there out of view.
Langdon watched in bewilderment as the camerlegno quickly unlocked the metal cargo box bolted between the seats. He removed some sort of large, black, nylon pack. He lay it on the seat next to him. Langdon’s thoughts churned. The camerlegno’s movements seemed composed, as if he had a solution.
“Give me the canister,” the camerlegno said, his tone serene.
Langdon did not know what to think anymore. He thrust the canister to the camerlegno. “Ninety seconds!”
What the camerlegno did with the antimatter took Langdon totally by surprise. Holding the canister carefully in his hands, the camerlegno placed it inside the cargo box. Then he closed the heavy lid and used the key to lock it tight.
“What are you doing!” Langdon demanded.
“Leading us from temptation.” The camerlegno threw the key out the open window.
As the key tumbled into the night, Langdon felt his soul falling with it.
The camerlegno then took the nylon pack and slipped his arms through the straps. He fastened a waist clamp around his stomach and cinched it all down like a backpack. He turned to a dumbstruck Robert Langdon.
“I’m sorry,” the camerlegno said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.” Then he opened his door and hurled himself into the night.
The image burned in Langdon’s unconscious mind, and with it came the pain. Real pain. Physical pain. Aching. Searing. He begged to be taken, to let it end, but as the water lapped louder in his ears, new images began to flash. His hell had only just begun. He saw bits and pieces. Scattered frames of sheer panic. He lay halfway between death and nightmare, begging for deliverance, but the pictures grew brighter in his mind.
The antimatter canister was locked out of reach. It counted relentlessly downward as the chopper shot upward. Fifty seconds. Higher. Higher. Langdon spun wildly in the cabin, trying to make sense of what he had just seen. Forty-five seconds. He dug under seats searching for another parachute. Forty seconds. There was none! There had to be an option! Thirty-five seconds. He raced to the open doorway of the chopper and stood in the raging wind, gazing down at the lights of Rome below. Thirty-two seconds.
And then he made the choice.
The unbelievable choice…
With no parachute, Robert Langdon had jumped out the door. As the night swallowed his tumbling body, the helicopter seemed to rocket off above him, the sound of its rotors evaporating in the deafening rush of his own free fall.
As he plummeted toward earth, Robert Langdon felt something he had not experienced since his years on the high dive—the inexorable pull of gravity during a dead drop. The faster he fell, the harder the earth seemed to pull, sucking him down. This time, however, the drop was not fifty feet into a pool. The drop was thousands of feet into a city—an endless expanse of pavement and concrete.
Somewhere in the torrent of wind and desperation, Kohler’s voice echoed from the grave… words he had spoken earlier this morning standing at CERN’s free-fall tube. One square yard of drag will slow a falling body almost twenty percent. Twenty percent, Langdon now realized, was not even close to what one would need to survive a fall like this. Nonetheless, more out of paralysis than hope, he clenched in his hands the sole object he had grabbed from the chopper on his way out the door. It was an odd memento, but it was one that for a fleeting instant had given him hope.
The windshield tarp had been lying in the back of the helicopter. It was a concave rectangle—about four yards by two—like a huge fitted sheet… the crudest approximation of a parachute imaginable. It had no harness, only bungie loops at either end for fastening it to the curvature of the windshield. Langdon had grabbed it, slid his hands through the loops, held on, and leapt out into the void.
His last great act of youthful defiance.
No illusions of life beyond this moment.
Langdon fell like a rock. Feet first. Arms raised. His hands gripping the loops. The tarp billowed like a mushroom overhead. The wind tore past him violently.
As he plummeted toward earth, there was a deep explosion somewhere above him. It seemed farther off than he had expected. Almost instantly, the shock wave hit. He felt the breath crushed from his lungs. There was a sudden warmth in the air all around him. He fought to hold on. A wall of heat raced down from above. The top of the tarp began to smolder… but held.
Langdon rocketed downward, on the edge of a billowing shroud of light, feeling like a surfer trying to outrun a thousand-foot tidal wave. Then suddenly, the heat receded.
He was falling again through the dark coolness.
For an instant, Langdon felt hope. A moment later, though, that hope faded like the withdrawing heat above. Despite his straining arms assuring him that the tarp was slowing his fall, the wind still tore past his body with deafening velocity. Langdon had no doubt he was still moving too fast to survive the fall. He would be crushed when he hit the ground.
Mathematical figures tumbled through his brain, but he was too numb to make sense of them… one square yard of drag… 20 percent reduction of speed. All Langdon could figure was that the tarp over his head was big enough to slow him more than 20 percent. Unfortunately, though, he could tell from the wind whipping past him that whatever good the tarp was doing was not enough. He was still falling fast… there would be no surviving the impact on the waiting sea of concrete.
Beneath him, the lights of Rome spread out in all directions. The city looked like an enormous starlit sky that Langdon was falling into. The perfect expanse of stars was marred only by a dark strip that split the city in two—a wide, unlit ribbon that wound through the dots of light like a fat snake. Langdon stared down at the meandering swatch of black.
Suddenly, like the surging crest of an unexpected wave, hope filled him again.
With almost maniacal vigor, Langdon yanked down hard with his right hand on the canopy. The tarp suddenly flapped louder, billowing, cutting right to find the path of least resistance. Langdon felt himself drifting sideways. He pulled again, harder, ignoring the pain in his palm. The tarp flared, and Langdon sensed his body sliding laterally. Not much. But some! He looked beneath him again, to the sinuous serpent of black. It was off to the right, but he was still pretty high. Had he waited too long? He pulled with all his might and accepted somehow that it was now in the hands of God. He focused hard on the widest part of the serpent and… for the first time in his life, prayed for a miracle.
The rest was a blur.
The darkness rushing up beneath him… the diving instincts coming back… the reflexive locking of his spine and pointing of the toes… the inflating of his lungs to protect his vital organs… the flexing of his legs into a battering ram… and finally… the thankfulness that the winding Tiber River was raging… making its waters frothy and air-filled… and three times softer than standing water.
Then there was impact… and blackness.
It had been the thundering sound of the flapping canopy that drew the group’s eyes away from the fireball in the sky. The sky above Rome had been filled with sights tonight… a skyrocketing helicopter, an enormous explosion, and now this strange object that had plummeted into the churning waters of the Tiber River, directly off the shore of the river’s tiny island, Isola Tiberina.
Ever since the island had been used to quarantine the sick during the Roman plague of A.D. 1656, it had been thought to have mystic healing properties. For this reason, the island had later become the site for Rome’s Hospital Tiberina.
The body was battered when they pulled it onto shore. The man still had a faint pulse, which was amazing, they thought. They wondered if it was Isola Tiberina’s mythical reputation for healing that had somehow kept his heart pumping. Minutes later, when the man began coughing and slowly regained consciousness, the group decided the island must indeed be magical.
Cardinal Mortati knew there were no words in any language that could have added to the mystery of this moment. The silence of the vision over St. Peter’s Square sang louder than any chorus of angels.
As he stared up at Camerlegno Ventresca, Mortati felt the paralyzing collision of his heart and mind. The vision seemed real, tangible. And yet… how could it be? Everyone had seen the camerlegno get in the helicopter. They had all witnessed the ball of light in the sky. And now, somehow, the camerlegno stood high above them on the rooftop terrace. Transported by angels? Reincarnated by the hand of God?
This is impossible…
Mortati’s heart wanted nothing more than to believe, but his mind cried out for reason. And yet all around him, the cardinals stared up, obviously seeing what he was seeing, paralyzed with wonder.
It was the camerlegno. There was no doubt. But he looked different somehow. Divine. As if he had been purified. A spirit? A man? His white flesh shone in the spotlights with an incorporeal weightlessness.
In the square there was crying, cheering, spontaneous applause. A group of nuns fell to their knees and wailed saetas. A pulsing grew from in the crowd. Suddenly, the entire square was chanting the camerlegno’s name. The cardinals, some with tears rolling down their faces, joined in. Mortati looked around him and tried to comprehend. Is this really happening?
Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca stood on the rooftop terrace of St. Peter’s Basilica and looked down over the multitudes of people staring up at him. Was he awake or dreaming? He felt transformed, otherworldly. He wondered if it was his body or just his spirit that had floated down from heaven toward the soft, darkened expanse of the Vatican City Gardens… alighting like a silent angel on the deserted lawns, his black parachute shrouded from the madness by the towering shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica. He wondered if it was his body or his spirit that had possessed the strength to climb the ancient Stairway of Medallions to the rooftop terrace where he now stood.
He felt as light as a ghost.
Although the people below were chanting his name, he knew it was not him they were cheering. They were cheering from impulsive joy, the same kind of joy he felt every day of his life as he pondered the Almighty. They were experiencing what each of them had always longed for… an assurance of the beyond… a substantiation of the power of the Creator.
Camerlegno Ventresca had prayed all his life for this moment, and still, even he could not fathom that God had found a way to make it manifest. He wanted to cry out to them. Your God is a living God! Behold the miracles all around you!
He stood there a while, numb and yet feeling more than he had ever felt. When, at last, the spirit moved him, he bowed his head and stepped back from the edge.
Alone now, he knelt on the roof, and prayed.
The images around him blurred, drifting in and out. Langdon’s eyes slowly began to focus. His legs ached, and his body felt like it had been run over by a truck. He was lying on his side on the ground. Something stunk, like bile. He could still hear the incessant sound of lapping water. It no longer sounded peaceful to him. There were other sounds too—talking close around him. He saw blurry white forms. Were they all wearing white? Langdon decided he was either in an asylum or heaven. From the burning in his throat, Langdon decided it could not be heaven.
“He’s finished vomiting,” one man said in Italian. “Turn him.” The voice was firm and professional.
Langdon felt hands slowly rolling him onto his back. His head swam. He tried to sit up, but the hands gently forced him back down. His body submitted. Then Langdon felt someone going through his pockets, removing items.
Then he passed out cold.
Dr. Jacobus was not a religious man; the science of medicine had bred that from him long ago. And yet, the events in Vatican City tonight had put his systematic logic to the test. Now bodies are falling from the sky?
Dr. Jacobus felt the pulse of the bedraggled man they had just pulled from the Tiber River. The doctor decided that God himself had hand-delivered this one to safety. The concussion of hitting the water had knocked the victim unconscious, and if it had not been for Jacobus and his crew standing out on the shore watching the spectacle in the sky, this falling soul would surely have gone unnoticed and drowned.
“É Americano,” a nurse said, going through the man’s wallet after they pulled him to dry land.
American? Romans often joked that Americans had gotten so abundant in Rome that hamburgers should become the official Italian food. But Americans falling from the sky? Jacobus flicked a penlight in the man’s eyes, testing his dilation. “Sir? Can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”
The man was unconscious again. Jacobus was not surprised. The man had vomited a lot of water after Jacobus had performed CPR.
“Si chiama Robert Langdon,” the nurse said, reading the man’s driver’s license.
The group assembled on the dock all stopped short.
“Impossibile!” Jacobus declared. Robert Langdon was the man from the television—the American professor who had been helping the Vatican. Jacobus had seen Mr. Langdon, only minutes ago, getting into a helicopter in St. Peter’s Square and flying miles up into the air. Jacobus and the others had run out to the dock to witness the antimatter explosion—a tremendous sphere of light like nothing any of them had ever seen. How could this be the same man!
“It’s him!” the nurse exclaimed, brushing his soaked hair back. “And I recognize his tweed coat!”
Suddenly someone was yelling from the hospital entryway. It was one of the patients. She was screaming, going mad, holding her portable radio to the sky and praising God. Apparently Camerlegno Ventresca had just miraculously appeared on the roof of the Vatican.
Dr. Jacobus decided, when his shift got off at 8 A.M., he was going straight to church.
The lights over Langdon’s head were brighter now, sterile. He was on some kind of examination table. He smelled astringents, strange chemicals. Someone had just given him an injection, and they had removed his clothes.
Definitely not gypsies, he decided in his semiconscious delirium. Aliens, perhaps? Yes, he had heard about things like this. Fortunately these beings would not harm him. All they wanted were his—
“Not on your life!” Langdon sat bolt upright, eyes flying open.
“Attento!” one of the creatures yelled, steadying him. His badge read Dr. Jacobus. He looked remarkably human.
Langdon stammered, “I… thought…”
“Easy, Mr. Langdon. You’re in a hospital.”
The fog began to lift. Langdon felt a wave of relief. He hated hospitals, but they certainly beat aliens harvesting his testicles.
“My name is Dr. Jacobus,” the man said. He explained what had just happened. “You are very lucky to be alive.”
Langdon did not feel lucky. He could barely make sense of his own memories… the helicopter… the camerlegno. His body ached everywhere. They gave him some water, and he rinsed out his mouth. They placed a new gauze on his palm.