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Vittoria pressed the button.
Instantly, Langdon was blinded. A brilliant point of light shone in the canister and then exploded outward in a shock wave of light that radiated in all directions, erupting against the window before him with thunderous force. He stumbled back as the detonation rocked the vault. The light burned bright for a moment, searing, and then, after an instant, it rushed back inward, absorbing in on itself, and collapsing into a tiny speck that disappeared to nothing. Langdon blinked in pain, slowly recovering his eyesight. He squinted into the smoldering chamber. The canister on the floor had entirely disappeared. Vaporized. Not a trace.
He stared in wonder. “G… God.”
Vittoria nodded sadly. “That’s precisely what my father said.”
Kohler was staring into the annihilation chamber with a look of utter amazement at the spectacle he had just seen. Robert Langdon was beside him, looking even more dazed.
“I want to see my father,” Vittoria demanded. “I showed you the lab. Now I want to see my father.”
Kohler turned slowly, apparently not hearing her. “Why did you wait so long, Vittoria? You and your father should have told me about this discovery immediately.”
Vittoria stared at him. How many reasons do you want? “Director, we can argue about this later. Right now, I want to see my father.”
“Do you know what this technology implies?”
“Sure,” Vittoria shot back. “Revenue for CERN. A lot of it. Now I want—”
“Is that why you kept it secret?” Kohler demanded, clearly baiting her. “Because you feared the board and I would vote to license it out?”
“It should be licensed,” Vittoria fired back, feeling herself dragged into the argument. “Antimatter is important technology. But it’s also dangerous. My father and I wanted time to refine the procedures and make it safe.”
“In other words, you didn’t trust the board of directors to place prudent science before financial greed.”
Vittoria was surprised with the indifference in Kohler’s tone. “There were other issues as well,” she said. “My father wanted time to present antimatter in the appropriate light.”
What do you think I mean? “Matter from energy? Something from nothing? It’s practically proof that Genesis is a scientific possibility.”
“So he didn’t want the religious implications of his discovery lost in an onslaught of commercialism?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Vittoria’s concerns, ironically, were somewhat the opposite. Commercialism was critical for the success of any new energy source. Although antimatter technology had staggering potential as an efficient and nonpolluting energy source—if unveiled prematurely, antimatter ran the risk of being vilified by the politics and PR fiascoes that had killed nuclear and solar power. Nuclear had proliferated before it was safe, and there were accidents. Solar had proliferated before it was efficient, and people lost money. Both technologies got bad reputations and withered on the vine.
“My interests,” Vittoria said, “were a bit less lofty than uniting science and religion.”
“The environment,” Kohler ventured assuredly.
“Limitless energy. No strip mining. No pollution. No radiation. Antimatter technology could save the planet.”
“Or destroy it,” Kohler quipped. “Depending on who uses it for what.” Vittoria felt a chill emanating from Kohler’s crippled form. “Who else knew about this?” he asked.
“No one,” Vittoria said. “I told you that.”
“Then why do you think your father was killed?”
Vittoria’s muscles tightened. “I have no idea. He had enemies here at CERN, you know that, but it couldn’t have had anything to do with antimatter. We swore to each other to keep it between us for another few months, until we were ready.”
“And you’re certain your father kept his vow of silence?”
Now Vittoria was getting mad. “My father has kept tougher vows than that!”
“And you told no one?”
“Of course not!”
Kohler exhaled. He paused, as though choosing his next words carefully. “Suppose someone did find out. And suppose someone gained access to this lab. What do you imagine they would be after? Did your father have notes down here? Documentation of his processes?”
“Director, I’ve been patient. I need some answers now. You keep talking about a break-in, but you saw the retina scan. My father has been vigilant about secrecy and security.”
“Humor me,” Kohler snapped, startling her. “What would be missing?”
“I have no idea.” Vittoria angrily scanned the lab. All the antimatter specimens were accounted for. Her father’s work area looked in order. “Nobody came in here,” she declared. “Everything up here looks fine.”
Kohler looked surprised. “Up here?”
Vittoria had said it instinctively. “Yes, here in the upper lab.”
“You’re using the lower lab too?”
Kohler rolled toward her, coughing again. “You’re using the Haz-Mat chamber for storage? Storage of what?”
Hazardous material, what else! Vittoria was losing her patience. “Antimatter.”
Kohler lifted himself on the arms of his chair. “There are other specimens? Why the hell didn’t you tell me!”
“I just did,” Vittoria fired back. “And you’ve barely given me a chance!”
“We need to check those specimens,” Kohler said. “Now.”
“Specimen,” Vittoria corrected. “Singular. And it’s fine. Nobody could ever—”
“Only one?” Kohler hesitated. “Why isn’t it up here?”
“My father wanted it below the bedrock as a precaution. It’s larger than the others.”
The look of alarm that shot between Kohler and Langdon was not lost on Vittoria. Kohler rolled toward her again. “You created a specimen larger than five hundred nanograms?”
“A necessity,” Vittoria defended. “We had to prove the input/yield threshold could be safely crossed.” The question with new fuel sources, she knew, was always one of input vs. yield—how much money one had to expend to harvest the fuel. Building an oil rig to yield a single barrel of oil was a losing endeavor. However, if that same rig, with minimal added expense, could deliver millions of barrels, then you were in business. Antimatter was the same way. Firing up sixteen miles of electromagnets to create a tiny specimen of antimatter expended more energy than the resulting antimatter contained. In order to prove antimatter efficient and viable, one had to create specimens of a larger magnitude.
Although Vittoria’s father had been hesitant to create a large specimen, Vittoria had pushed him hard. She argued that in order for antimatter to be taken seriously, she and her father had to prove two things. First, that cost-effective amounts could be produced. And second, that the specimens could be safely stored. In the end she had won, and her father had acquiesced against his better judgment. Not, however, without some firm guidelines regarding secrecy and access. The antimatter, her father had insisted, would be stored in Haz-Mat—a small granite hollow, an additional seventy-five feet below ground. The specimen would be their secret. And only the two of them would have access.
“Vittoria?” Kohler insisted, his voice tense. “How large a specimen did you and your father create?”
Vittoria felt a wry pleasure inside. She knew the amount would stun even the great Maximilian Kohler. She pictured the antimatter below. An incredible sight. Suspended inside the trap, perfectly visible to the naked eye, danced a tiny sphere of antimatter. This was no microscopic speck. This was a droplet the size of a BB.
Vittoria took a deep breath. “A full quarter of a gram.”
The blood drained from Kohler’s face. “What!” He broke into a fit of coughing. “A quarter of a gram? That converts to… almost five kilotons!”
Kilotons. Vittoria hated the word. It was one she and her father never used. A kiloton was equal to 1,000 metric tons of TNT. Kilotons were for weaponry. Payload. Destructive power. She and her father spoke in electron volts and joules—constructive energy output.
“That much antimatter could literally liquidate everything in a half-mile radius!” Kohler exclaimed.
“Yes, if annihilated all at once,” Vittoria shot back, “which nobody would ever do!”
“Except someone who didn’t know better. Or if your power source failed!” Kohler was already heading for the elevator.
“Which is why my father kept it in Haz-Mat under a fail-safe power and a redundant security system.”
Kohler turned, looking hopeful. “You have additional security on Haz-Mat?”
“Yes. A second retina-scan.”
Kohler spoke only two words. “Downstairs. Now.”
The freight elevator dropped like a rock.
Another seventy-five feet into the earth.
Vittoria was certain she sensed fear in both men as the elevator fell deeper. Kohler’s usually emotionless face was taut. I know, Vittoria thought, the sample is enormous, but the precautions we’ve taken are–
They reached the bottom.
The elevator opened, and Vittoria led the way down the dimly lit corridor. Up ahead the corridor dead-ended at a huge steel door. HAZ-MAT. The retina scan device beside the door was identical to the one upstairs. She approached. Carefully, she aligned her eye with the lens.
She pulled back. Something was wrong. The usually spotless lens was spattered… smeared with something that looked like… blood? Confused she turned to the two men, but her gaze met waxen faces. Both Kohler and Langdon were white, their eyes fixed on the floor at her feet.
Vittoria followed their line of sight… down.
“No!” Langdon yelled, reaching for her. But it was too late.
Vittoria’s vision locked on the object on the floor. It was both utterly foreign and intimately familiar to her.
It took only an instant.
Then, with a reeling horror, she knew. Staring up at her from the floor, discarded like a piece of trash, was an eyeball. She would have recognized that shade of hazel anywhere.
The security technician held his breath as his commander leaned over his shoulder, studying the bank of security monitors before them. A minute passed.
The commander’s silence was to be expected, the technician told himself. The commander was a man of rigid protocol. He had not risen to command one of the world’s most elite security forces by talking first and thinking second.
But what is he thinking?
The object they were pondering on the monitor was a canister of some sort—a canister with transparent sides. That much was easy. It was the rest that was difficult.
Inside the container, as if by some special effect, a small droplet of metallic liquid seemed to be floating in midair. The droplet appeared and disappeared in the robotic red blinking of a digital LED descending resolutely, making the technician’s skin crawl.
“Can you lighten the contrast?” the commander asked, startling the technician.
The technician heeded the instruction, and the image lightened somewhat. The commander leaned forward, squinting closer at something that had just come visible on the base of the container.
The technician followed his commander’s gaze. Ever so faintly, printed next to the LED was an acronym. Four capital letters gleaming in the intermittent spurts of light.
“Stay here,” the commander said. “Say nothing. I’ll handle this.”
Haz-Mat. Fifty meters below ground.
Vittoria Vetra stumbled forward, almost falling into the retina scan. She sensed the American rushing to help her, holding her, supporting her weight. On the floor at her feet, her father’s eyeball stared up. She felt the air crushed from her lungs. They cut out his eye! Her world twisted. Kohler pressed close behind, speaking. Langdon guided her. As if in a dream, she found herself gazing into the retina scan. The mechanism beeped.
The door slid open.
Even with the terror of her father’s eye boring into her soul, Vittoria sensed an additional horror awaited inside. When she leveled her blurry gaze into the room, she confirmed the next chapter of the nightmare. Before her, the solitary recharging podium was empty.
The canister was gone. They had cut out her father’s eye to steal it. The implications came too fast for her to fully comprehend. Everything had backfired. The specimen that was supposed to prove antimatter was a safe and viable energy source had been stolen. But nobody knew this specimen even existed! The truth, however, was undeniable. Someone had found out. Vittoria could not imagine who. Even Kohler, whom they said knew everything at CERN, clearly had no idea about the project.
Her father was dead. Murdered for his genius.
As the grief strafed her heart, a new emotion surged into Vittoria’s conscious. This one was far worse. Crushing. Stabbing at her. The emotion was guilt. Uncontrollable, relentless guilt. Vittoria knew it had been she who convinced her father to create the specimen. Against his better judgment. And he had been killed for it.
A quarter of a gram…
Like any technology—fire, gunpowder, the combustion engine—in the wrong hands, antimatter could be deadly. Very deadly. Antimatter was a lethal weapon. Potent, and unstoppable. Once removed from its recharging platform at CERN, the canister would count down inexorably. A runaway train.
And when time ran out…
A blinding light. The roar of thunder. Spontaneous incineration. Just the flash… and an empty crater. A big empty crater.
The image of her father’s quiet genius being used as a tool of destruction was like poison in her blood. Antimatter was the ultimate terrorist weapon. It had no metallic parts to trip metal detectors, no chemical signature for dogs to trace, no fuse to deactivate if the authorities located the canister. The countdown had begun…
Langdon didn’t know what else to do. He took his handkerchief and lay it on the floor over Leonardo Vetra’s eyeball. Vittoria was standing now in the doorway of the empty Haz-Mat chamber, her expression wrought with grief and panic. Langdon moved toward her again, instinctively, but Kohler intervened.
“Mr. Langdon?” Kohler’s face was expressionless. He motioned Langdon out of earshot. Langdon reluctantly followed, leaving Vittoria to fend for herself. “You’re the specialist,” Kohler said, his whisper intense. “I want to know what these Illuminati bastards intend to do with this antimatter.”
Langdon tried to focus. Despite the madness around him, his first reaction was logical. Academic rejection. Kohler was still making assumptions. Impossible assumptions. “The Illuminati are defunct, Mr. Kohler. I stand by that. This crime could be anything—maybe even another CERN employee who found out about Mr. Vetra’s breakthrough and thought the project was too dangerous to continue.”
Kohler looked stunned. “You think this is a crime of conscience, Mr. Langdon? Absurd. Whoever killed Leonardo wanted one thing—the antimatter specimen. And no doubt they have plans for it.”
“You mean terrorism.”
“But the Illuminati were not terrorists.”
“Tell that to Leonardo Vetra.”
Langdon felt a pang of truth in the statement. Leonardo Vetra had indeed been branded with the Illuminati symbol. Where had it come from? The sacred brand seemed too difficult a hoax for someone trying to cover his tracks by casting suspicion elsewhere. There had to be another explanation.
Again, Langdon forced himself to consider the implausible. If the Illuminati were still active, and if they stole the antimatter, what would be their intention? What would be their target? The answer furnished by his brain was instantaneous. Langdon dismissed it just as fast. True, the Illuminati had an obvious enemy, but a wide-scale terrorist attack against that enemy was inconceivable. It was entirely out of character. Yes, the Illuminati had killed people, but individuals, carefully conscripted targets. Mass destruction was somehow heavy-handed. Langdon paused. Then again, he thought, there would be a rather majestic eloquence to it—antimatter, the ultimate scientific achievement, being used to vaporize—
He refused to accept the preposterous thought. “There is,” he said suddenly, “a logical explanation other than terrorism.”
Kohler stared, obviously waiting.
Langdon tried to sort out the thought. The Illuminati had always wielded tremendous power through financial means. They controlled banks. They owned gold bullion. They were even rumored to possess the single most valuable gem on earth—the Illuminati Diamond, a flawless diamond of enormous proportions. “Money,” Langdon said. “The antimatter could have been stolen for financial gain.”