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The camerlegno glanced toward the door.
“Rocher is outside,” Kohler challenged. “He too is prepared to kill you.”
“Rocher is a sworn protector of th—”
“Rocher let me in here. Armed. He is sickened by your lies. You have a single option. Confess to me. I have to hear it from your very lips.”
The camerlegno hesitated.
Kohler cocked his gun. “Do you really doubt I will kill you?”
“No matter what I tell you,” the camerlegno said, “a man like you will never understand.”
The camerlegno stood still for a moment, a dominant silhouette in the dim light of the fire. When he spoke, his words echoed with a dignity more suited to the glorious recounting of altruism than that of a confession.
“Since the beginning of time,” the camerlegno said, “this church has fought the enemies of God. Sometimes with words. Sometimes with swords. And we have always survived.”
The camerlegno radiated conviction.
“But the demons of the past,” he continued, “were demons of fire and abomination… they were enemies we could fight—enemies who inspired fear. Yet Satan is shrewd. As time passed, he cast off his diabolical countenance for a new face… the face of pure reason. Transparent and insidious, but soulless all the same.” The camerlegno’s voice flashed sudden anger—an almost maniacal transition. “Tell me, Mr. Kohler! How can the church condemn that which makes logical sense to our minds! How can we decry that which is now the very foundation of our society! Each time the church raises its voice in warning, you shout back, calling us ignorant. Paranoid. Controlling! And so your evil grows. Shrouded in a veil of self-righteous intellectualism. It spreads like a cancer. Sanctified by the miracles of its own technology. Deifying itself! Until we no longer suspect you are anything but pure goodness. Science has come to save us from our sickness, hunger, and pain! Behold science—the new God of endless miracles, omnipotent and benevolent! Ignore the weapons and the chaos. Forget the fractured loneliness and endless peril. Science is here!” The camerlegno stepped toward the gun. “But I have seen Satan’s face lurking… I have seen the peril…”
“What are you talking about! Vetra’s science practically proved the existence of your God! He was your ally!”
“Ally? Science and religion are not in this together! We do not seek the same God, you and I! Who is your God? One of protons, masses, and particle charges? How does your God inspire? How does your God reach into the hearts of man and remind him he is accountable to a greater power! Remind him that he is accountable to his fellow man! Vetra was misguided. His work was not religious, it was sacrilegious! Man cannot put God’s Creation in a test tube and wave it around for the world to see! This does not glorify God, it demeans God!” The camerlegno was clawing at his body now, his voice manic.
“And so you had Leonardo Vetra killed!”
“For the church! For all mankind! The madness of it! Man is not ready to hold the power of Creation in his hands. God in a test tube? A droplet of liquid that can vaporize an entire city? He had to be stopped!” The camerlegno fell abruptly silent. He looked away, back toward the fire. He seemed to be contemplating his options.
Kohler’s hands leveled the gun. “You have confessed. You have no escape.”
The camerlegno laughed sadly. “Don’t you see. Confessing your sins is the escape.” He looked toward the door. “When God is on your side, you have options a man like you could never comprehend.” With his words still hanging in the air, the camerlegno grabbed the neck of his cassock and violently tore it open, revealing his bare chest.
Kohler jolted, obviously startled. “What are you doing!”
The camerlegno did not reply. He stepped backward, toward the fireplace, and removed an object from the glowing embers.
“Stop!” Kohler demanded, his gun still leveled. “What are you doing!”
When the camerlegno turned, he was holding a red-hot brand. The Illuminati Diamond. The man’s eyes looked wild suddenly. “I had intended to do this all alone.” His voice seethed with a feral intensity. “But now… I see God meant for you to be here. You are my salvation.”
Before Kohler could react, the camerlegno closed his eyes, arched his back, and rammed the red hot brand into the center of his own chest. His flesh hissed. “Mother Mary! Blessed Mother… Behold your son!” He screamed out in agony.
Kohler lurched into the frame now… standing awkwardly on his feet, gun wavering wildly before him.
The camerlegno screamed louder, teetering in shock. He threw the brand at Kohler’s feet. Then the priest collapsed on the floor, writhing in agony.
What happened next was a blur.
There was a great flurry onscreen as the Swiss Guard burst into the room. The soundtrack exploded with gunfire. Kohler clutched his chest, blown backward, bleeding, falling into his wheelchair.
“No!” Rocher called, trying to stop his guards from firing on Kohler.
The camerlegno, still writhing on the floor, rolled and pointed frantically at Rocher. “Illuminatus!”
“You bastard,” Rocher yelled, running at him. “You sanctimonious bas—”
Chartrand cut him down with three bullets. Rocher slid dead across the floor.
Then the guards ran to the wounded camerlegno, gathering around him. As they huddled, the video caught the face of a dazed Robert Langdon, kneeling beside the wheelchair, looking at the brand. Then, the entire frame began lurching wildly. Kohler had regained consciousness and was detaching the tiny camcorder from its holder under the arm of the wheelchair. Then he tried to hand the camcorder to Langdon.
“G-give…” Kohler gasped. “G-give this to the m-media.”
Then the screen went blank.
The camerlegno began to feel the fog of wonder and adrenaline dissipating. As the Swiss Guard helped him down the Royal Staircase toward the Sistine Chapel, the camerlegno heard singing in St. Peter’s Square and he knew that mountains had been moved.
He had prayed for strength, and God had given it to him. At moments when he had doubted, God had spoken. Yours is a Holy mission, God had said. I will give you strength. Even with God’s strength, the camerlegno had felt fear, questioning the righteousness of his path.
If not you, God had challenged, then Who?
If not now, then When?
If not this way, then How?
Jesus, God reminded him, had saved them all… saved them from their own apathy. With two deeds, Jesus had opened their eyes. Horror and Hope. The crucifixion and the resurrection. He had changed the world.
But that was millennia ago. Time had eroded the miracle. People had forgotten. They had turned to false idols—techno-deities and miracles of the mind. What about miracles of the heart!
The camerlegno had often prayed to God to show him how to make the people believe again. But God had been silent. It was not until the camerlegno’s moment of deepest darkness that God had come to him. Oh, the horror of that night!
The camerlegno could still remember lying on the floor in tattered nightclothes, clawing at his own flesh, trying to purge his soul of the pain brought on by a vile truth he had just learned. It cannot be! he had screamed. And yet he knew it was. The deception tore at him like the fires of hell. The bishop who had taken him in, the man who had been like a father to him, the clergyman whom the camerlegno had stood beside while he rose to the papacy… was a fraud. A common sinner. Lying to the world about a deed so traitorous at its core that the camerlegno doubted even God could forgive it. “Your vow!” the camerlegno had screamed at the Pope. “You broke your vow to God! You, of all men!”
The Pope had tried to explain himself, but the camerlegno could not listen. He had run out, staggering blindly through the hallways, vomiting, tearing at his own skin, until he found himself bloody and alone, lying on the cold earthen floor before St. Peter’s tomb. Mother Mary, what do I do? It was in that moment of pain and betrayal, as the camerlegno lay devastated in the Necropolis, praying for God to take him from this faithless world, that God had come.
The voice in his head resounded like peals of thunder. “Did you vow to serve your God?”
“Yes!” the camerlegno cried out.
“Would you die for your God?”
“Yes! Take me now!”
“Would you die for your church?”
“Yes! Please deliver me!”
“But would you die for… mankind?”
It was in the silence that followed that the camerlegno felt himself falling into the abyss. He tumbled farther, faster, out of control. And yet he knew the answer. He had always known.
“Yes!” he shouted into the madness. “I would die for man! Like your son, I would die for them!”
Hours later, the camerlegno still lay shivering on his floor. He saw his mother’s face. God has plans for you, she was saying. The camerlegno plunged deeper into madness. It was then God had spoken again. This time with silence. But the camerlegno understood. Restore their faith.
If not me… then who?
If not now… then when?
As the guards unbolted the door of the Sistine Chapel, Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca felt the power moving in his veins… exactly as it had when he was a boy. God had chosen him. Long ago.
His will be done.
The camerlegno felt reborn. The Swiss Guard had bandaged his chest, bathed him, and dressed him in a fresh white linen robe. They had also given him an injection of morphine for the burn. The camerlegno wished they had not given him painkillers. Jesus endured his pain for three days on the cross! He could already feel the drug uprooting his senses… a dizzying undertow.
As he walked into the chapel, he was not at all surprised to see the cardinals staring at him in wonder. They are in awe of God, he reminded himself. Not of me, but how God works THROUGH me. As he moved up the center aisle, he saw bewilderment in every face. And yet, with each new face he passed, he sensed something else in their eyes. What was it? The camerlegno had tried to imagine how they would receive him tonight. Joyfully? Reverently? He tried to read their eyes and saw neither emotion.
It was then the camerlegno looked at the altar and saw Robert Langdon.
Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca stood in the aisle of the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals were all standing near the front of the church, turned, staring at him. Robert Langdon was on the altar beside a television that was on endless loop, playing a scene the camerlegno recognized but could not imagine how it had come to be. Vittoria Vetra stood beside him, her face drawn.
The camerlegno closed his eyes for a moment, hoping the morphine was making him hallucinate and that when he opened them the scene might be different. But it was not.
Oddly, he felt no fear. Show me the way, Father. Give me the words that I can make them see Your vision.
But the camerlegno heard no reply.
Father, We have come too far together to fail now.
They do not understand what We have done.
The camerlegno did not know whose voice he heard in his own mind, but the message was stark.
And the truth shall set you free…
And so it was that Camerlegno Carlo Ventresca held his head high as he walked toward the front of the Sistine Chapel. As he moved toward the cardinals, not even the diffused light of the candles could soften the eyes boring into him. Explain yourself, the faces said. Make sense of this madness. Tell us our fears are wrong!
Truth, the camerlegno told himself. Only truth. There were too many secrets in these walls… one so dark it had driven him to madness. But from the madness had come the light.
“If you could give your own soul to save millions,” the camerlegno said, as he moved down the aisle, “would you?”
The faces in the chapel simply stared. No one moved. No one spoke. Beyond the walls, the joyous strains of song could be heard in the square.
The camerlegno walked toward them. “Which is the greater sin? Killing one’s enemy? Or standing idle while your true love is strangled?” They are singing in St. Peter’s Square! The camerlegno stopped for a moment and gazed up at the ceiling of the Sistine. Michelangelo’s God was staring down from the darkened vault… and He seemed pleased.
“I could no longer stand by,” the camerlegno said. Still, as he drew nearer, he saw no flicker of understanding in anyone’s eyes. Didn’t they see the radiant simplicity of his deeds? Didn’t they see the utter necessity!
It had been so pure.
The Illuminati. Science and Satan as one.
Resurrect the ancient fear. Then crush it.
Horror and Hope. Make them believe again.
Tonight, the power of the Illuminati had been unleashed anew… and with glorious consequence. The apathy had evaporated. The fear had shot out across the world like a bolt of lightning, uniting the people. And then God’s majesty had vanquished the darkness.
I could not stand idly by!
The inspiration had been God’s own—appearing like a beacon in the camerlegno’s night of agony. Oh, this faithless world! Someone must deliver them. You. If not you, who? You have been saved for a reason. Show them the old demons. Remind them of their fear. Apathy is death. Without darkness, there is no light. Without evil, there is no good. Make them choose. Dark or light. Where is the fear? Where are the heroes? If not now, when?
The camerlegno walked up the center aisle directly toward the crowd of standing cardinals. He felt like Moses as the sea of red sashes and caps parted before him, allowing him to pass. On the altar, Robert Langdon switched off the television, took Vittoria’s hand, and relinquished the altar. The fact that Robert Langdon had survived, the camerlegno knew, could only have been God’s will. God had saved Robert Langdon. The camerlegno wondered why.
The voice that broke the silence was the voice of the only woman in the Sistine Chapel. “You killed my father?” she said, stepping forward.
When the camerlegno turned to Vittoria Vetra, the look on her face was one he could not quite understand—pain yes, but anger? Certainly she must understand. Her father’s genius was deadly. He had to be stopped. For the good of Mankind.
“He was doing God’s work,” Vittoria said.
“God’s work is not done in a lab. It is done in the heart.”
“My father’s heart was pure! And his research proved—”
“His research proved yet again that man’s mind is progressing faster than his soul!” The camerlegno’s voice was sharper than he had expected. He lowered his voice. “If a man as spiritual as your father could create a weapon like the one we saw tonight, imagine what an ordinary man will do with his technology.”
“A man like you?”
The camerlegno took a deep breath. Did she not see? Man’s morality was not advancing as fast as man’s science. Mankind was not spiritually evolved enough for the powers he possessed. We have never created a weapon we have not used! And yet he knew that antimatter was nothing—another weapon in man’s already burgeoning arsenal. Man could already destroy. Man learned to kill long ago. And his mother’s blood rained down. Leonardo Vetra’s genius was dangerous for another reason.
“For centuries,” the camerlegno said, “the church has stood by while science picked away at religion bit by bit. Debunking miracles. Training the mind to overcome the heart. Condemning religion as the opiate of the masses. They denounce God as a hallucination—a delusional crutch for those too weak to accept that life is meaningless. I could not stand by while science presumed to harness the power of God himself! Proof, you say? Yes, proof of science’s ignorance! What is wrong with the admission that something exists beyond our understanding? The day science substantiates God in a lab is the day people stop needing faith!”
“You mean the day they stop needing the church,” Vittoria challenged, moving toward him. “Doubt is your last shred of control. It is doubt that brings souls to you. Our need to know that life has meaning. Man’s insecurity and need for an enlightened soul assuring him everything is part of a master plan. But the church is not the only enlightened soul on the planet! We all seek God in different ways. What are you afraid of? That God will show himself somewhere other than inside these walls? That people will find him in their own lives and leave your antiquated rituals behind? Religions evolve! The mind finds answers, the heart grapples with new truths. My father was on your quest! A parallel path! Why couldn’t you see that? God is not some omnipotent authority looking down from above, threatening to throw us into a pit of fire if we disobey. God is the energy that flows through the synapses of our nervous system and the chambers of our hearts! God is in all things!”
“Except science,” the camerlegno fired back, his eyes showing only pity. “Science, by definition, is soulless. Divorced from the heart. Intellectual miracles like antimatter arrive in this world with no ethical instructions attached. This in itself is perilous! But when science heralds its Godless pursuits as the enlightened path? Promising answers to questions whose beauty is that they have no answers?” He shook his head. “No.”