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His partner gave a reluctant nod. “Do it.”
Langdon felt powerful fingertips expertly probing the arteries and veins on his neck. Then, having located a precise spot on the carotid, the fingers began applying a firm, focused pressure. Within seconds, Langdon’s vision began to blur, and he felt himself slipping away, his brain being starved of oxygen.
They’re killing me, Langdon thought. Right here beside the tomb of St. Mark.
The blackness came, but it seemed incomplete … more of a wash of grays punctuated by muted shapes and sounds.
Langdon had little sense of how much time had passed, but the world was now starting to come back into focus for him. From all he could tell, he was in an onboard infirmary of some sort. His sterile surroundings and the scent of isopropyl alcohol created a strange sense of déjà vu—as if Langdon had come full circle, awakening as he had the previous night, in a strange hospital bed with only muted memories.
His thoughts turned instantly to Sienna and her safety. He could still see her soft brown eyes gazing down at him, filled with remorse and fear. Langdon prayed that she had escaped and would find her way safely out of Venice.
We’re in the wrong country, Langdon had told her, having realized to his shock the actual location of Enrico Dandolo’s tomb. The poem’s mysterious mouseion of holy wisdom was not in Venice after all … but a world away. Precisely as Dante’s text had warned, the cryptic poem’s meaning had been hidden “beneath the veil of verses so obscure.”
Langdon had intended to explain everything to Sienna as soon as they’d escaped the crypt, but he’d never had the chance.
She ran off knowing only that I failed.
Langdon felt a knot tighten in his stomach.
The plague is still out there … a world away.
From outside the infirmary, he heard loud boot steps in the hall, and Langdon turned to see a man in black entering his berth. It was the same muscular soldier who had pinned him to the crypt floor. His eyes were ice cold. Langdon’s instinct was to recoil as the man approached, but there was nowhere to run. Whatever these people want to do to me, they can do.
“Where am I?” Langdon demanded, putting as much defiance into his voice as he could muster.
“On a yacht anchored off Venice.”
Langdon eyed the green medallion on the man’s uniform—a globe of the world, encircled by the letters ECDC. Langdon had never seen the symbol or the acronym.
“We need information from you,” the soldier said, “and we don’t have much time.”
“Why would I tell you anything?” Langdon asked. “You almost killed me.”
“Not even close. We used a judo demobilization technique called shime waza. We had no intention of harming you.”
“You shot at me this morning!” Langdon declared, clearly recalling the clang of the bullet on the fender of Sienna’s speeding Trike. “Your bullet barely missed the base of my spine!”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “If I had wanted to hit the base of your spine, I would have hit it. I took a single shot trying to puncture your moped’s rear tire so I could stop you from running away. I was under orders to establish contact with you and figure out why the hell you were acting so erratically.”
Before Langdon could fully process his words, two more soldiers came through the door, moving toward his bed.
Walking between them was a woman.
Ethereal and otherworldly.
Langdon immediately recognized her as the vision from his hallucinations. The woman before him was beautiful, with long silver hair and a blue lapis lazuli amulet. Because she had previously appeared against a horrifying landscape of dying bodies, Langdon needed a moment to believe she was truly standing before him in the flesh.
“Professor Langdon,” the woman said, smiling wearily as she arrived at his bedside. “I’m relieved that you’re okay.” She sat down and took his pulse. “I’ve been advised that you have amnesia. Do you remember me?”
Langdon studied the woman for a moment. “I’ve had … visions of you, although I don’t remember meeting.”
The woman leaned toward him, her expression empathetic. “My name is Elizabeth Sinskey. I’m director of the World Health Organization, and I recruited you to help me find—”
“A plague,” Langdon managed. “Created by Bertrand Zobrist.”
Sinskey nodded, looking encouraged. “You remember?”
“No, I woke up in a hospital with a strange little projector and visions of you telling me to seek and find. That’s what I was trying to do when these men tried to kill me.” Langdon motioned to the soldiers.
The muscular one bristled, clearly ready to respond, but Elizabeth Sinskey silenced him with a wave.
“Professor,” she said softly, “I have no doubt you are very confused. As the person who pulled you into all this, I’m horrified by what has transpired, and I’m thankful you’re safe.”
“Safe?” Langdon replied. “I’m captive on a ship!” And so are you!
The silver-haired woman gave an understanding nod. “I’m afraid that due to your amnesia, many aspects of what I am about to tell you will be disorienting. Nonetheless, our time is short, and a lot of people need your help.”
Sinskey hesitated, as if uncertain how to continue. “First off,” she began, “I need you to understand that Agent Brüder and his team never tried to harm you. They were under direct orders to reestablish contact with you by whatever means were necessary.”
“Reestablish? I don’t—”
“Please, Professor, just listen. Everything will be made clear. I promise.”
Langdon settled back into the infirmary bed, his thoughts spinning as Dr. Sinskey continued.
“Agent Brüder and his men are an SRS team—Surveillance and Response Support. They work under the auspices of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.”
Langdon glanced over at the ECDC medallions on their uniforms. Disease Prevention and Control?
“His group,” she continued, “specializes in detecting and containing communicable-disease threats. Essentially, they are a SWAT team for the mitigation of acute, large-scale health risks. You were my main hope of locating the contagion Zobrist has created, and so when you vanished, I tasked the SRS team with locating you … I summoned them to Florence to support me.”
Langdon was stunned. “Those soldiers work for you?”
She nodded. “On loan from the ECDC. Last night, when you disappeared and stopped calling in, we thought something had happened to you. It was not until early this morning, when our tech support team saw that you had checked your Harvard e-mail account, that we knew you were alive. At that point our only explanation for your strange behavior was that you had switched sides … possibly having been offered large sums of money to locate the contagion for someone else.”
Langdon shook his head. “That’s preposterous!”
“Yes, it seemed an unlikely scenario, but it was the only logical explanation—and with the stakes being so high, we couldn’t take any chances. Of course, we never imagined you were suffering from amnesia. When our tech support saw your Harvard e-mail account suddenly activate, we tracked the computer IP address to the apartment in Florence and moved in. But you fled on a moped, with the woman, which increased our suspicions that you were now working for someone else.”
“We drove right past you!” Langdon choked. “I saw you in the back of a black van, surrounded by soldiers. I thought you were a captive. You seemed delirious, like they had drugged you.”
“You saw us?” Dr. Sinskey looked surprised. “Strangely, you’re right … they had medicated me.” She paused. “But only because I ordered them to.”
Langdon was now wholly confused. She told them to drug her?
“You may not remember this,” Sinskey said, “but as our C-130 landed in Florence, the pressure changed, and I suffered an episode of what is known as paroxysmal positional vertigo—a severely debilitating inner-ear condition that I’ve experienced in the past. It’s temporary and not serious, but it causes victims to become so dizzy and nauseated they can barely hold their heads up. Normally I’d go to bed and endure intense nausea, but we were facing the Zobrist crisis, and so I prescribed myself hourly injections of metoclopramide to keep me from vomiting. The drug has the serious side effect of causing intense drowsiness, but it enabled me at least to run operations by phone from the back of the van. The SRS team wanted to take me to a hospital, but I ordered them not to do so until we had completed our mission of reacquiring you. Fortunately, the vertigo finally passed during the flight up to Venice.”
Langdon slumped into the bed, unnerved. I’ve been running all day from the World Health Organization—the very people who recruited me in the first place.
“Now we have to focus, Professor,” Sinskey declared, her tone urgent. “Zobrist’s plague … do you have any idea where it is?” She gazed down at him with an expression of intense expectation. “We have very little time.”
It’s far away, Langdon wanted to say, but something stopped him. He glanced up at Brüder, a man who had fired a gun at him this morning and nearly strangled him a little while earlier. For Langdon, the ground had been shifting so quickly beneath him that he had no idea whom to believe anymore.
Sinskey leaned in, her expression still more intense. “We are under the impression that the contagion is here in Venice. Is that correct? Tell us where, and I’ll send a team ashore.”
“Sir!” Brüder barked impatiently. “You obviously know something … tell us where it is! Don’t you understand what’s about to happen?”
“Agent Brüder!” Sinskey spun angrily on the man. “That’s enough,” she commanded, then turned back to Langdon and spoke quietly. “Considering what you’ve been through, it’s entirely understandable that you’re disoriented, and uncertain whom to trust.” She paused, staring deep into his eyes. “But our time is short, and I’m asking you to trust me.”
“Can Langdon stand?” a new voice asked.
A small, well-tended man with a deep tan appeared in the doorway. He studied Langdon with a practiced calm, but Langdon saw danger in his eyes.
Sinskey motioned for Langdon to stand up. “Professor, this is a man with whom I’d prefer not to collaborate, but the situation is serious enough that we have no choice.”
Uncertain, Langdon swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood erect, taking a moment to get his balance back.
“Follow me,” the man said, moving toward the door. “There’s something you need to see.”
Langdon held his ground. “Who are you?”
The man paused and steepled his fingers. “Names are not important. You can call me the provost. I run an organization … which, I’m sorry to say, made the mistake of helping Bertrand Zobrist achieve his goals. Now I am trying to fix that mistake before it’s too late.”
“What is it you want to show me?” Langdon asked.
The man fixed Langdon with an unyielding stare. “Something that will leave no doubt in your mind that we’re all on the same side.”
Langdon followed the tanned man through a maze of claustrophobic corridors belowdecks with Dr. Sinskey and the ECDC soldiers trailing behind in a single file. As the group neared a staircase, Langdon hoped they were about to ascend toward daylight, but instead they descended deeper into the ship.
Deep in the bowels of the vessel now, their guide led them through a cubicle farm of sealed glass chambers—some with transparent walls and some with opaque ones. Inside each soundproofed room, various employees were hard at work typing on computers or speaking on telephones. Those who glanced up and noticed the group passing through looked seriously alarmed to see strangers in this part of the ship. The tanned man gave them a nod of reassurance and pressed on.
What is this place? Langdon wondered as they continued through another series of tightly configured work areas.
Finally, their host arrived at a large conference room, and they all filed in. As the group sat down, the man pressed a button, and the glass walls suddenly hissed and turned opaque, sealing them inside. Langdon startled, having never seen anything like it.
“Where are we?” Langdon finally demanded.
“This is my ship—The Mendacium.”
“Mendacium?” Langdon asked. “As in … the Latin word for Pseudologos—the Greek god of deception?”
The man looked impressed. “Not many people know that.”
Hardly a noble appellation, Langdon thought. Mendacium was the shadowy deity who reigned over all the pseudologoi—the daimones specializing in falsehoods, lies, and fabrications.
The man produced a tiny red flash drive and inserted it into a rack of electronic gear at the back of the room. A huge flat-panel LCD flickered to life, and the overhead lights dimmed.
In the expectant silence, Langdon heard soft lapping sounds of water. At first, he thought they were coming from outside the ship, but then he realized the sound was coming through the speakers on the LCD screen. Slowly, a picture materialized—a dripping cavern wall, illuminated by wavering reddish light.
“Bertrand Zobrist created this video,” their host said. “And he asked me to release it to the world tomorrow.”
In mute disbelief, Langdon watched the bizarre home movie … a cavernous space with a rippling lagoon … into which the camera plunged … diving beneath the surface to a silt-covered tile floor on which was bolted a plaque that read IN THIS PLACE, ON THIS DATE, THE WORLD WAS CHANGED FOREVER.
The plaque was signed: BERTRAND ZOBRIST.
The date was tomorrow.
My God! Langdon turned to Sinskey in the darkness, but she was just staring blankly at the floor, apparently having seen the film already, and clearly unable to watch it again.
The camera panned left now, and Langdon was baffled to see, hovering beneath the water, an undulating bubble of transparent plastic containing a gelatinous, yellow-brown liquid. The delicate sphere appeared to be tethered to the floor so it could not rise to the surface.
What the hell? Langdon studied the distended bag. The viscous contents seemed to be slowly swirling … smoldering almost.
When it hit him, Langdon stopped breathing. Zobrist’s plague.
“Stop the playback,” Sinskey said in the darkness.
The image froze—a tethered plastic sac hovering beneath the water—a sealed cloud of liquid suspended in space.
“I think you can guess what that is,” Sinskey said. “The question is, how long will it remain contained?” She walked up to the LCD and pointed to a tiny marking on the transparent bag. “Unfortunately, this tells us what the bag is made of. Can you read that?”
Pulse racing, Langdon squinted at the text, which appeared to be a manufacturer’s trademark notice: Solublon®.
“World’s largest manufacturer of water-soluble plastics,” Sinskey said.
Langdon felt his stomach knot. “You’re saying this bag is … dissolving?!”
Sinskey gave him a grim nod. “We’ve been in touch with the manufacturer, from whom we learned, unfortunately, that they make dozens of different grades of this plastic, dissolving in anywhere from ten minutes to ten weeks, depending on the application. Decay rates vary slightly based on water type and temperature, but we have no doubt that Zobrist took those factors into careful account.” She paused. “This bag, we believe, will dissolve by—”
“Tomorrow,” the provost interrupted. “Tomorrow is the date Zobrist circled in my calendar. And also the date on the plaque.”
Langdon sat speechless in the dark.
“Show him the rest,” Sinskey said.
On the LCD screen, the video image refreshed, the camera now panning along the glowing waters and cavernous darkness. Langdon had no doubt that this was the location referenced in the poem. The lagoon that reflects no stars.
The scene conjured images of Dante’s visions of hell … the river Cocytus flowing through the caverns of the underworld.
Wherever this lagoon was located, its waters were contained by steep, mossy walls, which, Langdon sensed, had to be man-made. He also sensed that the camera was revealing only a small corner of the massive interior space, and this notion was supported by the presence of very faint vertical shadows on the wall. The shadows were broad, columnar, and evenly spaced.
Pillars, Langdon realized.
The ceiling of this cavern is supported by pillars.
This lagoon was not in a cavern, it was in a massive room.
Follow deep into the sunken palace …
Before he could say a word, his attention shifted to the arrival of a new shadow on the wall … a humanoid shape with a long, beaked nose.
Oh, dear God …
The shadow began speaking now, its words muffled, whispering across the water with an eerily poetic rhythm.
“I am your salvation. I am the Shade.”
For the next several minutes, Langdon watched the most terrifying film he had ever witnessed. Clearly the ravings of a lunatic genius, the soliloquy of Bertrand Zobrist—delivered in the guise of the plague doctor—was laden with references to Dante’s Inferno and carried a very clear message: human population growth was out of control, and the very survival of mankind was hanging in the balance.
Onscreen, the voice intoned:
“To do nothing is to welcome Dante’s hell … cramped and starving, weltering in Sin. And so boldly I have taken action. Some will recoil in horror, but all salvation comes at a price. One day the world will grasp the beauty of my sacrifice.”
Langdon recoiled as Zobrist himself abruptly appeared, dressed as the plague doctor, and then tore off his mask. Langdon stared at the gaunt face and wild green eyes, realizing that he was finally seeing the face of the man who was at the center of this crisis. Zobrist began professing his love to someone he called his inspiration.
“I have left the future in your gentle hands. My work below is done. And now the hour has come for me to climb again to the world above … and rebehold the stars.”
As the video ended, Langdon recognized Zobrist’s final words as a near duplicate of Dante’s final words in the Inferno.
In the darkness of the conference room, Langdon realized that all the moments of fear he had experienced today had just crystallized into a single, terrifying reality.
Bertrand Zobrist now had a face … and a voice.
The conference room lights came up, and Langdon saw all eyes trained expectantly on him.
Elizabeth Sinskey’s expression seemed frozen as she stood up and nervously stroked her amulet. “Professor, obviously our time is very short. The only good news so far is that we’ve had no cases of pathogen detection, or reported illness, so we’re assuming the suspended Solublon bag is still intact. But we don’t know where to look. Our goal is to neutralize this threat by containing the bag before it ruptures. The only way we can do that, of course, is to find its location immediately.”
Agent Brüder stood up now, staring intently at Langdon. “We’re assuming you came to Venice because you learned that this is where Zobrist hid his plague.”
Langdon gazed out at the assembly before him, faces taut with fear, everyone hoping for a miracle, and he wished he had better news to offer them.
“We’re in the wrong country,” Langdon announced. “What you’re looking for is nearly a thousand miles from here.”
Langdon’s insides reverberated with the deep thrum of The Mendacium’s engines as the ship powered through its wide turn, banking back toward the Venice Airport. On board, all hell had broken loose. The provost had dashed off, shouting orders to his crew. Elizabeth Sinskey had grabbed her phone and called the pilots of the WHO’s C-130 transport plane, demanding they be prepped as soon as possible to fly out of the Venice Airport. And Agent Brüder had jumped on a laptop to see if he could coordinate some kind of international advance team at their final destination.
A world away.
The provost now returned to the conference room and urgently addressed Brüder. “Any further word from the Venetian authorities?”
Brüder shook his head. “No trace. They’re looking, but Sienna Brooks has vanished.”
Langdon did a double take. They’re looking for Sienna?
Sinskey finished her phone call and also joined the conversation. “No luck finding her?”
The provost shook his head. “If you’re agreeable, I think the WHO should authorize the use of force if necessary to bring her in.”