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building in Venice was slowly sinking and leaking. Langdon pictured the basilica and tried to imagine where inside one might kneel to listen for trickling water. And once we hear it … what do we do?
Langdon returned to the poem and finished reading aloud.
Follow deep into the sunken palace …
for here, in the darkness, the chthonic monster waits ,
submerged in the bloodred waters …
of the lagoon that reflects no stars .
“Okay,” Langdon said, disturbed by the image, “apparently, we follow the sounds of trickling water … to some kind of sunken palace.”
Ferris scratched at his face, looking unnerved. “What’s a chthonic monster?”
“Subterranean,” Sienna offered, her fingers still working the phone. “ ‘Chthonic’ means ‘beneath the earth.’ ”
“Partly, yes,” Langdon said. “Although the word has a further historic implication—one commonly associated with myths and monsters. Chthonics are an entire category of mythical gods and monsters—Erinyes, Hecate, and Medusa, for example. They’re called chthonics because they reside in the underworld and are associated with hell.” Langdon paused. “Historically, they emerge from the earth and come aboveground to wreak havoc in the human world.”
There was a long silence, and Langdon sensed they were all thinking the same thing. This chthonic monster … could only be Zobrist’s plague.
for here, in the darkness, the chthonic monster waits ,
submerged in the bloodred waters …
of the lagoon that reflects no stars .
“Anyway,” Langdon said, trying to stay on track, “we’re obviously looking for an underground location, which at least explains the last line of the poem referencing ‘the lagoon that reflects no stars.’ ”
“Good point,” Sienna said, glancing up now from Ferris’s phone. “If a lagoon is subterranean, it couldn’t reflect the sky. But does Venice have subterranean lagoons?”
“None that I know of,” Langdon replied. “But in a city built on water, there are probably endless possibilities.”
“What if the lagoon is indoors?” Sienna asked suddenly, eyeing them both. “The poem refers to ‘the darkness’ of ‘the sunken palace.’ You mentioned earlier that the Doge’s Palace is connected to the basilica, right? That means those structures have a lot of what the poem mentions—a mouseion of holy wisdom, a palace, relevance to doges—and it’s all located right there on Venice’s main lagoon, at sea level.”
Langdon considered this. “You think the poem’s ‘sunken palace’ is the Doge’s Palace?”
“Why not? The poem tells us first to kneel at St. Mark’s Basilica, then to follow the sounds of trickling water. Maybe the sounds of water lead next door to the Doge’s Palace. It could have a submerged foundation or something.”
Langdon had visited the Doge’s Palace many times and knew that it was absolutely massive. A sprawling complex of buildings, the palace housed a grand-scale museum, a veritable labyrinth of institutional chambers, apartments, and courtyards, and a prison network so vast that it was housed in multiple buildings.
“You may be right,” Langdon said, “but a blind search of that palace would take days. I suggest we do exactly as the poem tells us. First, we go to St. Mark’s Basilica and find the tomb or statue of this treacherous doge, and then we kneel down.”
“And then?” Sienna asked.
“And then,” Langdon said with a sigh, “we pray like hell that we hear trickling water … and it leads us somewhere.”
In the silence that followed, Langdon pictured the anxious face of Elizabeth Sinskey as he had seen it in his hallucinations, calling to him across the water. Time is short. Seek and find! He wondered where Sinskey was now … and if she was all right. The soldiers in black had no doubt realized by now that Langdon and Sienna had escaped. How long until they come after us?
As Langdon returned his eyes to the poem, he fought off a wave of exhaustion. He eyed the final line of verse, and another thought occurred to him. He wondered if it was even worth mentioning. The lagoon that reflects no stars. It was probably irrelevant to their search, but he decided to share it nonetheless. “There’s another point I should mention.”
Sienna glanced up from the cell phone.
“The three sections of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Langdon said. “Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. They all end with the exact same word.”
Sienna looked surprised.
“What word is that?” Ferris asked.
Langdon pointed to the bottom of the text he had transcribed. “The same word that ends this poem—‘stars.’ ” He picked up Dante’s death mask and pointed to the very center of the spiral text.
The lagoon that reflects no stars.
“What’s more,” Langdon continued, “in the finale of the Inferno, we find Dante listening to the sound of trickling water inside a chasm and following it through an opening … which leads him out of hell.”
Ferris blanched slightly. “Jesus.”
Just then, a deafening rush of air filled the cabin as the Frecciargento plunged into a mountain tunnel.
In the darkness, Langdon closed his eyes and tried to allow his mind to relax. Zobrist may have been a lunatic, he thought, but he certainly had a sophisticated grasp of Dante.
Laurence Knowlton felt a wave of relief wash over him.
The provost changed his mind about watching Zobrist’s video.
Knowlton practically dove for the crimson memory stick and inserted it into his computer so he could share it with his boss. The weight of Zobrist’s bizarre nine-minute message had been haunting the facilitator, and he was eager to have another set of eyes watch it.
This will no longer be on me.
Knowlton held his breath as he began the playback.
The screen darkened, and the sounds of gently lapping water filled the cubicle. The camera moved through the reddish haze of the underground cavern, and although the provost showed no visible reaction, Knowlton sensed that the man was as alarmed as he was bewildered.
The camera paused its forward motion and tipped downward at the surface of the lagoon, where it plunged beneath the water, diving several feet to reveal the polished titanium plaque bolted to the floor.
IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE, THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
The provost flinched ever so slightly. “Tomorrow,” he whispered, eyeing the date. “And do we know where ‘this place’ might be?”
Knowlton shook his head.
The camera panned left now, revealing the submerged plastic sack of gelatinous, yellow-brown fluid.
“What in God’s name?!” The provost pulled up a chair and settled in, staring at the undulating bubble, suspended like a tethered balloon beneath the water.
An uncomfortable silence settled over the room as the video progressed. Soon the screen went dark, and then a strange, beak-nosed shadow appeared on the cavern wall and began talking in its arcane language.
I am the Shade …
Driven underground, I must speak to the world from deep within the earth, exiled to this gloomy cavern where the bloodred waters collect in the lagoon that reflects no stars.
But this is my paradise … the perfect womb for my fragile child.
The provost glanced up. “Inferno?”
Knowlton shrugged. “As I said, it’s disturbing.”
The provost returned his eyes to the screen, watching intently.
The beak-nosed shadow continued speaking for several minutes, talking of plagues, of the population’s need for purging, of his own glorious role in the future, of his battle against the ignorant souls who had been trying to stop him, and of the faithful few who realized that drastic action was the only way to save the planet.
Whatever this war was about, Knowlton had been wondering all morning if the Consortium might be fighting on the wrong side.
The voice continued.
I have forged a masterpiece of salvation, and yet my efforts have been rewarded not with trumpets and laurels … but with threats of death.
I do not fear death … for death transforms visionaries into martyrs … converts noble ideas into powerful movements.
Jesus. Socrates. Martin Luther King.
One day soon I will join them.
The masterpiece I have created is the work of God Himself … a gift from the One who imbued me with the intellect, tools, and courage required to forge such a creation.
Now the day grows near.
Inferno sleeps beneath me, preparing to spring from its watery womb … under the watchful eye of the chthonic monster and all her Furies.
Despite the virtue of my deeds, like you, I am no stranger to Sin. Even I am guilty of the darkest of the seven—that lone temptation from which so few find sanctuary.
By recording this very message I have succumbed to Pride’s goading pull … eager to ensure that the world would know my work.
And why not?
Mankind should know the source of his own salvation … the name of he who sealed the yawning gates of hell forever!
With each passing hour, the outcome grows more certain. Mathematics—as relentless as the law of gravity—is nonnegotiable. The same exponential blossoming of life that has nearly killed Mankind shall also be his deliverance. The beauty of a living organism—be it good or evil—is that it will follow the law of God with singular vision.
Be fruitful and multiply.
And so I fight fire … with fire.
“That’s enough,” the provost interrupted so quietly that Knowlton barely heard him.
“Stop the video.”
Knowlton paused the playback. “Sir, the end is actually the most frightening part.”
“I’ve seen enough.” The provost looked ill. He paced the cubicle for several moments and then turned suddenly. “We need to make contact with FS-2080.”
Knowlton considered the move.
FS-2080 was the code name of one of the provost’s trusted contacts—the same contact who had referred Zobrist to the Consortium as a client. The provost was no doubt at this very moment chiding himself for trusting FS-2080’s judgment; the recommendation of Bertrand Zobrist as a client had brought chaos into the Consortium’s delicately structured world.
FS-2080 is the reason for this crisis.
The growing chain of calamities surrounding Zobrist only seemed to be getting worse, not merely for the Consortium, but quite possibly … for the world.
“We need to discover Zobrist’s true intentions,” the provost declared. “I want to know exactly what he created, and if this threat is real.”
Knowlton knew that if anyone had the answers to these questions, it would be FS-2080. Nobody knew Bertrand Zobrist better. It was time for the Consortium to break protocol and assess what kind of insanity the organization might have unwittingly supported over the past year.
Knowlton considered the possible ramifications of confronting FS-2080 directly. The mere act of initiating contact carried certain risks.
“Obviously, sir,” Knowlton said, “if you reach out to FS-2080, you’ll need to do so very delicately.”
The provost’s eyes flashed with anger as he pulled out his cell phone. “We’re well past delicate.”
Seated with his two traveling partners in the Frecciargento’s private cabin, the man with the paisley necktie and Plume Paris glasses did his best not to scratch at his still-worsening rash. The pain in his chest seemed to have increased as well.
As the train finally emerged from the tunnel, the man gazed over at Langdon, who opened his eyes slowly, apparently returning from far-off thoughts. Beside him, Sienna began eyeing the man’s cell phone, which she had set down as the train sped through the tunnel, while there was no signal.
Sienna appeared eager to continue her Internet search, but before she could reach for the phone, it suddenly began vibrating, emitting a series of staccato pings.
Knowing the ring well, the man with the rash immediately grabbed the phone and eyed the illuminated screen, doing his best to hide his surprise.
“Sorry,” he said, standing up. “Ailing mother. I’ve got to take this.”
Sienna and Langdon gave him understanding nods as the man excused himself and exited the cabin, moving quickly down the passageway into a nearby restroom.
The man with the rash locked the restroom door as he took the call. “Hello?”
The voice on the line was grave. “It’s the provost.”
The Frecciargento’s restroom was no larger than the restroom on a commercial airliner, with barely enough room to turn around. The man with the skin rash finished his phone call with the provost and pocketed his phone.
The ground has shifted, he realized. The entire landscape was suddenly upside down, and he needed a moment to get his bearings.
My friends are now my enemies.
The man loosened his paisley tie and stared at his pustuled face in the mirror. He looked worse than he thought. His face was of little concern, though, compared to the pain in his chest.
Hesitantly, he unfastened several buttons and pulled open his shirt.
He forced his eyes to the mirror … and studied his bare chest.
The black area was growing.
The skin on the center of his chest was a deep hue of bluish black. The area had begun last night as the size of a golf ball, but now it was the size of an orange. He gently touched the tender flesh and winced.
Hurriedly, he rebuttoned his shirt, hoping he would have the strength to carry out what he needed to do.
The next hour will be critical, he thought. A delicate series of maneuvers.
He closed his eyes and gathered himself, working through what needed to happen. My friends have become my enemies, he thought again.
He took several deep, painful breaths, hoping it might calm his nerves. He knew he needed to stay serene if he was going to keep his intentions hidden.
Inner calm is critical to persuasive acting.
The man was no stranger to deception, and yet his heart was pounding wildly now. He took another deep, throbbing breath. You’ve been deceiving people for years, he reminded himself. It’s what you do.
Steeling himself, he prepared to return to Langdon and Sienna.
My final performance, he thought.
As a final precaution before exiting the restroom, he removed the battery from his cell phone, making sure the device was now inoperative.
He looks pale, Sienna thought as the man with the rash reentered the cabin and settled into his seat with a pained sigh.
“Is everything okay?” Sienna asked, genuinely concerned.
He nodded. “Thanks, yes. Everything’s fine.”
Apparently having received all the information the man intended to share, Sienna changed tacks. “I need your phone again,” she said. “If you don’t mind, I want to keep searching for more on the doge. Maybe we can get some answers before we visit St. Mark’s.”
“No problem,” he said, taking his phone from his pocket and checking the display. “Oh, damn. My battery was dying during that call. Looks like it’s dead now.” He glanced at his watch. “We’ll be in Venice soon. We’ll just have to wait.”
Five miles off the coast of Italy, aboard The Mendacium, facilitator Knowlton watched in silence as the provost stalked around the perimeter of the cubicle like a caged animal. Following the phone call, the provost’s wheels were clearly turning, and Knowlton knew better than to utter a sound while the provost was thinking.
Finally, the deeply tanned man spoke, his voice as tight as Knowlton could remember. “We have no choice. We need to share this video with Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey.”
Knowlton sat stock-still, not wanting to show his surprise. The silver-haired devil? The one we’ve helped Zobrist evade all year? “Okay, sir. Should I find a way to e-mail the video to her?”
“God, no! And risk leaking the video to the public? It would be mass hysteria. I want Dr. Sinskey aboard this ship as soon as you can get her here.”
Knowlton stared in disbelief. He wants to bring the director of the WHO on board The Mendacium? “Sir, this breach of our secrecy protocol obviously risks—”
“Just do it, Knowlton! NOW!”
FS-2080 gazed out the window of the speeding Frecciargento, watching Robert Langdon’s reflection in the glass. The professor was still brainstorming possible solutions to the death-mask riddle that Bertrand Zobrist had composed.
Bertrand, thought FS-2080. God, I miss him.
The pangs of loss felt fresh. The night the two had met still felt like a magical dream.
Chicago. The blizzard.
January, six years ago … but it still feels like yesterday. I am trudging through snowbanks along the windswept Magnificent Mile, collar upturned against the blinding whiteout. Despite the cold, I tell myself that nothing will keep me from my destination. Tonight is my chance to hear the great Bertrand Zobrist speak … in person.
I have read everything the man has ever written, and I know I am lucky to have one of the five hundred tickets that were printed for the event.
When I arrive at the hall, half numb from the wind, I feel a surge of panic to discover the room nearly empty. Has the speech been canceled?! The city is in near shutdown due to the weather … has it kept Zobrist from coming tonight?!
Then he is there.
A towering, elegant form takes the stage.
He is tall … so very tall … with vibrant green eyes that seem to hold all the mysteries of the world in their depths. He looks out over the empty hall—only a dozen or so stalwart fans—and I feel ashamed that the hall is nearly empty.
This is Bertrand Zobrist!
There is a terrible moment of silence as he stares at us, his face stern.
Then, without warning, he bursts out laughing, his green eyes glimmering. “To hell with this empty auditorium,” he declares. “My hotel is next door. Let’s go to the bar!”
A cheer goes up, and a small group migrates next door to a hotel bar, where we crowd into a big booth and order drinks. Zobrist regales us with tales of his research, his rise to celebrity, and his thoughts about the future of genetic