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Langdon jumped to his feet. “Why?! Sienna Brooks is not involved in any of this!”
The provost’s dark eyes cut to Langdon. “Professor, there are some things I have to tell you about Ms. Brooks.”
Pushing past the crush of tourists on the Rialto Bridge, Sienna Brooks began running again, sprinting west along the canal-front walkway of the Fondamenta Vin Castello.
They’ve got Robert.
She could still see his desperate eyes gazing up at her as the soldiers dragged him back down the light well into the crypt. She had little doubt that his captors would quickly persuade him, one way or another, to reveal everything he had figured out.
We’re in the wrong country.
Far more tragic, though, was her knowledge that his captors would waste no time revealing to Langdon the true nature of the situation.
I’m so sorry, Robert.
Please know I had no choice.
Strangely, Sienna missed him already. Here, amid the masses of Venice, she felt a familiar loneliness settling in.
The feeling was nothing new.
Since childhood, Sienna Brooks had felt alone.
Growing up with an exceptional intellect, Sienna had spent her youth feeling like a stranger in a strange land … an alien trapped on a lonely world. She tried to make friends, but her peers immersed themselves in frivolities that held no interest to her. She tried to respect her elders, but most adults seemed like nothing more than aging children, lacking even the most basic understanding of the world around them, and, most troubling, lacking any curiosity or concern about it.
I felt I was a part of nothing.
And so Sienna Brooks learned how to be a ghost. Invisible. She learned how to be a chameleon, a performer, playing just another face in the crowd. Her childhood passion for stage acting, she had no doubt, stemmed from what would become her lifelong dream of becoming someone else.
Her performance in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream helped her feel a part of something, and the adult actors were supportive without being condescending. Her joy, however, was short-lived, evaporating the moment she left the stage on opening night and faced throngs of wide-eyed media people while her costars quietly skulked out the back door unnoticed.
Now they hate me, too.
By the age of seven, Sienna had read enough to diagnose herself with deep depression. When she told her parents, they seemed dumbfounded, as they usually were by the strangeness of their own daughter. Nonetheless, they sent her to a psychiatrist. The doctor asked her a lot of questions, which Sienna had already asked herself, and then he prescribed a combination of amitriptyline and chlordiazepoxide.
Furious, Sienna jumped off his couch. “Amitriptyline?!” she challenged. “I want to be happier—not a zombie!”
The psychiatrist, to his great credit, remained very calm in the face of her outburst and offered a second suggestion. “Sienna, if you prefer not to take pharmaceuticals, we can try a more holistic approach.” He paused. “It sounds as if you are trapped in a cycle of thinking about yourself and how you don’t belong in the world.”
“That’s true,” Sienna replied. “I try to stop, but I can’t!”
He smiled calmly. “Of course you can’t stop. It is physically impossible for the human mind to think of nothing. The soul craves emotion, and it will continue to seek fuel for that emotion—good or bad. Your problem is that you’re giving it the wrong fuel.”
Sienna had never heard anyone talk about the mind in such mechanical terms, and she was instantly intrigued. “How do I give it a different fuel?”
“You need to shift your intellectual focus,” he said. “Currently, you think mainly about yourself. You wonder why you don’t fit … and what is wrong with you.”
“That’s true,” Sienna said again, “but I’m trying to solve the problem. I’m trying to fit in. I can’t solve the problem if I don’t think about it.”
He chuckled. “I believe that thinking about the problem … is your problem.” The doctor suggested that she try to shift her focus away from herself and her own problems … turning her attention instead to the world around her … and its problems.
That’s when everything changed.
She began pouring all of her energy not into feeling sorry for herself … but into feeling sorry for other people. She began a philanthropic initiative, ladled soup at homeless shelters, and read books to the blind. Incredibly, none of the people Sienna helped even seemed to notice that she was different. They were just grateful that somebody cared.
Sienna worked harder every week, barely able to sleep because of the realization that so many people needed her help.
“Sienna, slow down!” people would urge her. “You can’t save the world!”
What a terrible thing to say.
Through her acts of public service, Sienna came in contact with several members of a local humanitarian group. When they invited her to join them on a monthlong trip to the Philippines, she jumped at the chance.
Sienna imagined they were going to feed poor fishermen or farmers in the countryside, which she had read was a wonderland of geological beauty, with vibrant seabeds and dazzling plains. And so when the group settled in among the throngs in the city of Manila—the most densely populated city on earth—Sienna could only gape in horror. She had never seen poverty on this scale.
How can one person possibly make a difference?
For every one person Sienna fed, there were hundreds more who gazed at her with desolate eyes. Manila had six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade, whose workers consisted primarily of young children, many of whom had been sold to pimps by parents who took solace in knowing that at least their children would be fed.
Amid this chaos of child prostitution, panhandlers, pickpockets, and worse, Sienna found herself suddenly paralyzed. All around her, she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation … human beings become animals.
For Sienna, all the dark depression came flooding back. She had suddenly understood mankind for what it was—a species on the brink.
I was wrong, she thought. I can’t save the world.
Overwhelmed by a rush of frantic mania, Sienna broke into a sprint through the city streets, thrusting her way through the masses of people, knocking them over, pressing on, searching for open space.
I’m being suffocated by human flesh!
As she ran, she could feel the eyes upon her again. She no longer blended in. She was tall and fair-skinned with a blond ponytail waving behind her. Men stared at her as if she were naked.
When her legs finally gave out, she had no idea how far she had run or where she had gone. She cleared the tears and grime from her eyes and saw that she was standing in a kind of shantytown—a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together. All around her the wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement hung in the air.
I’ve run through the gates of hell.
“Turista,” a deep voice sneered behind her. “Magkano?” How much?
Sienna spun to see three young men approaching, salivating like wolves. She instantly knew she was in danger and she tried to back away, but they corralled her, like predators hunting in a pack.
Sienna shouted for help, but nobody paid attention to her cries. Only fifteen feet away, she saw an old woman sitting on a tire, carving the rot off an old onion with a rusty knife. The woman did not even glance up when Sienna shouted.
When the men seized her and dragged her inside a little shack, Sienna had no illusions about what was going to happen, and the terror was all-consuming. She fought with everything she had, but they were strong, quickly pinning her down on an old, soiled mattress.
They tore open her shirt, clawing at her soft skin. When she screamed, they stuffed her torn shirt so deep into her mouth that she thought she would choke. Then they flipped her onto her stomach, forcing her face into the putrid bed.
Sienna Brooks had always felt pity for the ignorant souls who could believe in God amid a world of such suffering, and yet now she herself was praying … praying with all her heart.
Please, God, deliver me from evil.
Even as she prayed, she could hear the men laughing, taunting her as their filthy hands hauled her jeans down over her flailing legs. One of them climbed onto her back, sweaty and heavy, his perspiration dripping onto her skin.
I’m a virgin, Sienna thought. This is how it is going to happen for me.
Suddenly the man on her back leaped off her, and the taunting jeers turned to shouts of anger and fear. The warm sweat rolling onto Sienna’s back from above suddenly began gushing … spilling onto the mattress in splatters of red.
When Sienna rolled over to see what was happening, she saw the old woman with the half-peeled onion and the rusty knife standing over her attacker, who was now bleeding profusely from his back.
The old woman glared threateningly at the others, whipping her bloody knife through the air until the three men scampered off.
Without a word, the old woman helped Sienna gather her clothes and get dressed.
“Salamat,” Sienna whispered tearfully. “Thank you.”
The old woman tapped her ear, indicating she was deaf.
Sienna placed her palms together, closed her eyes, and bowed her head in a gesture of respect. When she opened her eyes, the woman was gone.
Sienna left the Philippines at once, without even saying good-bye to the other members of the group. She never once spoke of what had happened to her. She hoped that ignoring the incident would make it fade away, but it seemed only to make it worse. Months later, she was still haunted by night terrors, and she no longer felt safe anywhere. She took up martial arts, and despite quickly mastering the deadly skill of dim mak, she still felt at risk everywhere she went.
Her depression returned, surging tenfold, and eventually she stopped sleeping altogether. Every time she combed her hair, she noticed that huge clumps were falling out, more hair every day. To her horror, within weeks, she was half bald, having developed symptoms that she self-diagnosed as telegenic effluvium—a stress-related alopecia with no cure other than curing one’s stress. Every time she looked in the mirror, though, she saw her balding head and felt her heart race.
I look like an old woman!
Finally, she had no choice but to shave her head. At least she no longer looked old. She simply looked ill. Not wanting to look like a cancer victim, she purchased a wig, which she wore in a blond ponytail, and at least looked like herself again.
Inside, however, Sienna Brooks was changed.
I am damaged goods.
In a desperate attempt to leave her life behind, she traveled to America and attended medical school. She had always had an affinity for medicine, and she hoped that being a doctor would make her feel like she was being of service … as if she were doing something at least to ease the pain of this troubled world.
Despite the long hours, school had been easy for her, and while her classmates were studying, Sienna took a part-time acting job to earn some extra money. The gig definitely wasn’t Shakespeare, but her skills with language and memorization meant that instead of feeling like work, acting felt like a sanctuary where Sienna could forget who she was … and be someone else.
Sienna had been trying to escape her identity since she could first speak. As a child, she had shunned her given name, Felicity, in favor of her middle name, Sienna. Felicity meant “fortunate,” and she knew she was anything but.
Remove the focus on your own problems, she reminded herself. Focus on the problems of the world.
Her panic attack in the crowded streets of Manila had sparked in Sienna a deep concern about overcrowding and world population. It was then that she discovered the writings of Bertrand Zobrist, a genetic engineer who had proposed some very progressive theories about world population.
He’s a genius, she realized, reading his work. Sienna had never felt that way about another human being, and the more of Zobrist she read, the more she felt like she was looking into the heart of a soul mate. His article “You Can’t Save the World” reminded Sienna of what everyone used to tell her as a child … and yet Zobrist believed the exact opposite.
You CAN save the world, Zobrist wrote. If not you, then who? If not now, when?
Sienna studied Zobrist’s mathematical equations carefully, educating herself on his predictions of a Malthusian catastrophe and the impending collapse of the species. Her intellect loved the high-level speculations, but she felt her stress level climbing as she saw the entire future before her … mathematically guaranteed … so obvious … inevitable.
Why doesn’t anyone else see this coming?
Though she was frightened by his ideas, Sienna became obsessed with Zobrist, watching videos of his presentations, reading everything he had ever written. When Sienna heard that he had a speaking engagement in the United States, she knew she had to go see him. And that was the night her entire world had changed.
A smile lit up her face, a rare moment of happiness, as she again pictured that magical evening … an evening she had vividly recalled only hours earlier while sitting on the train with Langdon and Ferris.
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.
The hall is nearly deserted when Bertrand takes the stage, and he is tall … so very tall … with vibrant green eyes that seem to hold all the mysteries of the world.
“To hell with this empty auditorium,” he declares. “Let’s go to the bar!”
And then we are there, a handful of us, in a quiet booth, as he speaks of genetics, of population, and of his newest passion … Transhumanism.
As the drinks flow, I feel as if I’m having a private audience with a rock star. Every time Zobrist glances over at me, his green eyes ignite a wholly unexpected feeling inside me … the deep pull of sexual attraction.
It is a wholly new sensation for me.
And then we are alone.
“Thank you for tonight,” I say to him, feeling a little tipsy. “You’re an amazing teacher.”
“Flattery?” Zobrist smiles and leans closer, our legs touching now. “It will get you everywhere.”
The flirtation is clearly inappropriate, but it is a snowy night in a deserted Chicago hotel, and it feels as if the entire world has stopped.
“So what do you think?” Zobrist says. “Nightcap in my room?”
I freeze, knowing I must look like a deer in the headlights. I don’t know how to do this!
Zobrist’s eyes twinkle warmly. “Let me guess,” he whispers. “You’ve never been with a famous man.”
I feel myself flush, fighting to hide a surge of emotions—embarrassment, excitement, fear. “Actually, to be honest,” I say to him, “I’ve never been with any man.”
Zobrist smiles and inches closer. “I’m not sure what you’ve been waiting for, but please let me be your first.”
In that moment all the awkward sexual fears and frustrations of my childhood disappear … evaporating into the snowy night.
Then, I am naked in his arms.
“Relax, Sienna,” he whispers, and then, with patient hands, he coaxes from my inexperienced body a torrent of sensations that I have never imagined existed.
Basking in the cocoon of Zobrist’s embrace, I feel as if everything is finally right in the world, and I know my life has purpose.
I have found Love.
And I will follow it anywhere.
Abovedecks on The Mendacium, Langdon gripped the polished teak railing, steadied his wavering legs, and tried to catch his breath. The sea air had grown colder, and the roar of low-flying commercial jets told him they were nearing the Venice Airport.
There are some things I have to tell you about Ms. Brooks.
Beside him at the railing, the provost and Dr. Sinskey remained silent but attentive, giving him a moment to get his bearings. What they had told Langdon downstairs had left him so disoriented and upset that Sinskey had brought him outside for some air.
The sea air was bracing, and yet Langdon felt no clearer in his head. All he could do was stare vacantly down at the churning wake of the ship, trying to find a shred of logic to what he had just heard.
According to the provost, Sienna Brooks and Bertrand Zobrist had been longtime lovers. They were active together in some kind of underground Transhumanist movement. Her full name was Felicity Sienna Brooks, but she also went by the code name FS-2080 … which had something to do with her initials, and the year of her one-hundredth birthday.
None of it makes any sense!
“I knew Sienna Brooks through a different source,” the provost had told Langdon, “and I trusted her. So, when she came to me last year and asked me to meet a wealthy potential client, I agreed. That prospect turned out to be Bertrand Zobrist. He hired me to provide him a safe haven where he could work undetected on his ‘masterpiece.’ I assumed he was developing a new technology that he didn’t want pirated … or maybe he was performing some cutting-edge genetic research that was in conflict with the WHO’s ethics regulations … I didn’t ask questions, but believe me, I never imagined he was creating … a plague.”
Langdon had only been able to nod vacantly … bewildered.
“Zobrist was a Dante fanatic,” the provost continued, “and he therefore chose Florence as the city in which he wanted to hide. So my organization set him up with everything he needed—a discreet lab facility with living quarters, various aliases and secure communication avenues, and a personal attaché who oversaw everything from his security to buying food and supplies. Zobrist never used his own credit cards or appeared in public, so he was impossible to track. We even provided him disguises, aliases, and alternate documentation for traveling unnoticed.” He paused. “Which he apparently did when he placed the Solublon bag.”
Sinskey exhaled, making little effort to hide her frustration. “The WHO has been trying to keep tabs on him since last year, but he seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth.”
“Even hiding from Sienna,” the provost said.
“I’m sorry?” Langdon glanced up, clearing the knot in his throat. “I thought you said they were lovers?”
“They were, but he cut her off suddenly when he went into hiding. Even though Sienna was the one who sent him to us, my agreement was with Zobrist himself, and part of our deal was that when he disappeared, he would disappear from the whole world, including Sienna. Apparently after he went into hiding, he sent her a farewell letter revealing that he was very ill, would be dead in a year or so, and didn’t want her to see him deteriorate.”
Zobrist abandoned Sienna?
“Sienna tried to contact me for information,” the provost said, “but I refused to take her calls. I had to respect my client’s wishes.”
“Two weeks ago,” Sinskey continued, “Zobrist walked into a bank in Florence and anonymously rented a safe-deposit box. After he left, our watch list got word that the bank’s new facial-recognition software had identified the disguised man as Bertrand Zobrist. My team flew to Florence and it took a week to locate his safe house, which was empty, but inside we found evidence that he had created some kind of highly contagious pathogen and hidden it somewhere else.”
Sinskey paused. “We were desperate to find him. The following morning, before sunrise, we spotted him walking along the Arno, and we immediately gave chase. That’s when he fled up the Badia tower and jumped to his death.”
“He may have been planning to do that anyway,” the provost added. “He was convinced he did not have long to live.”
“As it turned out,” Sinskey said, “Sienna had been searching for him as well. Somehow, she found out that we had mobilized to Florence, and she tailed our movements, thinking we might have located him. Unfortunately, she was there in time to see Zobrist jump.” Sinskey sighed. “I suspect it was very traumatic for her to watch her lover and mentor fall to his death.”
Langdon felt ill, barely able to comprehend what they were telling him. The only person in this entire scenario whom he trusted was Sienna, and these people were telling him that she was not who she claimed to be? No matter what they said, he could not believe Sienna would condone Zobrist’s desire to create a plague.