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Silently, he reached into his pocket and removed the rosary beads.

Timing will be critical.

Inching his hands along the string of beads, he found the heavy metal crucifix, amused that the guards manning the metal detectors downstairs had let this object slip past them without a second glance.

Using a razor blade hidden in the stem of the crucifix, Admiral Avila cut a six-inch vertical slit in the fabric wall. Gently, he parted the opening and peered through into another world–a wooded field where hundreds of guests were reclining on blankets and staring up at the stars.

They cannot imagine what is coming.

Avila was pleased to see that the two Guardia Real agents had taken up positions on the opposite side of the field, near the right front corner of the auditorium. They stood at rigid attention, nestled discreetly in the shadows of some trees. In the dim light, they would be unable to see Avila until it was too late.

Near the guards, the only other person standing was museum director Ambra Vidal, who seemed to be shifting uncomfortably as she watched Kirsch’s presentation.

Contented with his position, Avila closed the slit and refocused his attention on his crucifix. Like most crosses, it had two short arms that made up the transverse bar. On this cross, however, the arms were magnetically attached to the vertical stem and could be removed.

Avila grabbed one of the cruciform’s arms and forcefully bent it. The piece came off in his hand, and a small object fell out. Avila did the same on the other side, leaving the crucifix armless–now just a rectangle of metal on a heavy chain.

He slid the beaded chain back into his pocket for safekeeping. I’ll need this shortly. He now focused on the two small objects that had been hidden inside the arms of the cross.

Two short-range bullets.

Avila reached behind him, fishing under his belt, pulling from the small of his back the object he had smuggled in beneath his suit jacket.

Several years had passed since an American kid named Cody Wilson had designed “The Liberator”–the first 3-D-printed polymer gun–and the technology had improved exponentially. The new ceramic and polymer firearms still did not have much power, but what they lacked in range, they more than made up for by being invisible to metal detectors.

All I need to do is get close.

If all went as planned, his current location would be perfect.

The Regent had somehow gained inside information about the precise layout and sequence of events this evening … and he had made it very clear how Avila’s mission should be carried out. The results would be brutal, but having now witnessed Edmond Kirsch’s Godless preamble, Avila felt confident that his sins here tonight would be forgiven.

Our enemies are waging war, the Regent had told him. We must either kill or be killed.

Standing against the far wall in the right front corner of the auditorium, Ambra Vidal hoped she did not look as uncomfortable as she felt.

Edmond told me this was a scientific program.

The American futurist had never been shy about his distaste for religion, but Ambra had never imagined tonight’s presentation would display such hostility.

Edmond refused to let me preview it.

There would certainly be fallout with the museum board members, but Ambra’s concerns right now were far more personal.

A couple of weeks ago, Ambra had confided in a very influential man about her involvement in tonight’s event. The man had strongly urged her not to participate. He had warned of the dangers of blindly hosting a presentation without any knowledge of its content–especially when it was produced by the well-known iconoclast Edmond Kirsch.

He practically ordered me to cancel, she remembered. But his self-righteous tone made me too incensed to listen.

Now, as Ambra stood alone beneath the star-filled sky, she wondered if that man was sitting somewhere watching this live stream, his head in his hands.

Of course he is watching, she thought. The real question is: Will he lash out?

Inside Almudena Cathedral, Bishop Valdespino was sitting rigidly at his desk, eyes glued to his laptop. He had no doubt that everyone in the nearby Royal Palace was also watching this program, especially Prince Julian–the next in line for the throne of Spain.

The prince must be ready to explode.

Tonight, one of Spain’s most respected museums was collaborating with a prominent American atheist to broadcast what religious pundits were already calling a “blasphemous, anti-Christian publicity stunt.” Further fanning the flames of controversy, the museum director hosting tonight’s event was one of Spain’s newest and most visible celebrities–the spectacularly beautiful Ambra Vidal–a woman who for the past two months had dominated Spanish headlines and enjoyed the overnight adoration of an entire country. Incredibly, Ms. Vidal had chosen to put everything at risk by hosting tonight’s full-scale attack on God.

Prince Julian will have no choice but to comment.

His impending role as Spain’s sovereign Catholic figurehead would be only a small part of the challenge he would face in dealing with tonight’s event. Of substantially greater concern was that just last month, Prince Julian had made a joyous declaration that launched Ambra Vidal into the national spotlight.

He had announced their engagement to be married.

CHAPTER 20

ROBERT LANGDON WAS feeling uneasy about the direction of this evening’s event.

Edmond’s presentation was skating dangerously close to becoming a public denunciation of faith in general. Langdon wondered if Edmond had somehow forgotten that he was speaking not only to the group of agnostic scientists in this room, but also to the millions of people around the globe who were watching online.

Clearly, his presentation was devised to ignite controversy.

Langdon was troubled by his own appearance in the program, and although Edmond certainly meant the video as a tribute, Langdon had been an involuntary flash point for religious controversy in the past … and he preferred not to repeat the experience.

Kirsch, however, had mounted a premeditated audiovisual assault on religion, and Langdon was now starting to rethink his nonchalant dismissal of the voice mail Edmond had received from Bishop Valdespino.

Edmond’s voice again filled the room, the visuals dissolving overhead into a collage of religious symbols from around the world. “I must admit,” Edmond’s voice declared, “I have had reservations about tonight’s announcement, and particularly about how it might affect people of faith.” He paused. “And so, three days ago, I did something a bit out of character for me. In an effort to show respect to religious viewpoints, and to gauge how my discovery might be received by people of various faiths, I quietly consulted with three prominent religious leaders–scholars of Islam, Christanity, and Judaism–and I shared with them my discovery.”

Hushed murmurs echoed throughout the room.

“As I expected, all three men reacted with profound surprise, concern, and, yes, even anger, at what I revealed to them. And while their reactions were negative, I want to thank them for graciously meeting with me. I will do them the courtesy of not revealing their names, but I do want to address them directly tonight and thank them for not attempting to interfere with this presentation.”

He paused. “God knows, they could have.”

Langdon listened, amazed at how deftly Edmond was walking a thin line and covering his bases. Edmond’s decision to meet with religious leaders suggested an open-mindedness, trust, and impartiality for which the futurist was not generally known. The meeting at Montserrat, Langdon now suspected, had been part research mission and part public relations maneuver.

A clever get-out-of-jail-free card, he thought.

“Historically,” Edmond continued, “religious fervor has always suppressed scientific progress, and so tonight I implore religious leaders around the world to react with restraint and understanding to what I am about to say. Please, let us not repeat the bloody violence of history. Let us not make the mistakes of our past.”

The images on the ceiling dissolved into a drawing of an ancient walled city–a perfectly circular metropolis located on the banks of a river that flowed through a desert.

Langdon recognized it at once as ancient Baghdad, its unusual circular construction fortified by three concentric walls topped by merlons and embrasures.

“In the eighth century,” Edmond said, “the city of Baghdad rose to prominence as the greatest center of learning on earth, welcoming all religions, philosophies, and sciences to its universities and libraries. For five hundred years, the outpouring of scientific innovation that flowed from the city was like nothing the world had ever seen, and its influence is still felt today in modern culture.”

Overhead, the sky of stars reappeared, this time many of the stars bearing names beside them: Vega, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Algebar, Deneb, Acrab, Kitalpha.

“Their names are all derived from Arabic,” Edmond said. “To this day, more than two-thirds of the stars in the sky have names from that language because they were discovered by astronomers in the Arab world.”

The sky rapidly filled with so many stars with Arabic names that the heavens were nearly blotted out. The names dissolved again, leaving only the expanse of the heavens.

“And, of course, if we want to count the stars …”

Roman numerals began appearing one by one beside the brightest stars.

I, II, III, IV, V …

The numbers stopped abruptly and disappeared.

“We don’t use Roman numerals,” Edmond said. “We use Arabic numerals.”

The numbering now began again using the Arabic numbering system. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …

“You may also recognize these Islamic inventions,” Edmond said. “And we all still use their Arabic names.”

The word ALGEBRA floated across the sky, surrounded by a series of multivariable equations. Next came the word ALGORITHM with a diverse array of formulas. Then AZIMUTH with a diagram depicting angles on the earth’s horizon. The flow accelerated … NADIR, ZENITH, ALCHEMY, CHEMISTRY, CIPHER, ELIXIR, ALCOHOL, ALKALINE, ZERO …

As the familiar Arabic words streamed by, Langdon thought how tragic it was that so many Americans pictured Baghdad simply as one of those many dusty, war-torn Middle Eastern cities in the news, never knowing it was once the very heart of human scientific progress.

“By the end of the eleventh century,” Edmond said, “the greatest intellectual exploration and discovery on earth was taking place in and around Baghdad. Then, almost overnight, that changed. A brilliant scholar named Hamid al-Ghazali–now considered one of the most influential Muslims in history–wrote a series of persuasive texts questioning the logic of Plato and Aristotle and declaring mathematics to be ‘the philosophy of the devil.’ This began a confluence of events that undermined scientific thinking. The study of theology was made compulsory, and eventually the entire Islamic scientific movement collapsed.”

The scientific words overhead evaporated, and were replaced by images of Islamic religious texts.

“Revelation replaced investigation. And to this day, the Islamic scientific world is still trying to recover.” Edmond paused. “Of course, the Christian scientific world did not fare any better.”

Paintings of the astronomers Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno appeared on the ceiling.

“The Church’s systematic murder, imprisonment, and denunciation of some of history’s most brilliant scientific minds delayed human progress by at least a century. Fortunately, today, with our better understanding of the benefits of science, the Church has tempered its attacks …” Edmond sighed. “Or has it?”

A globe logo with a crucifix and serpent appeared with the text:

Madrid Declaration on Science & Life

“Right here in Spain, the World Federation of the Catholic Medical Associations recently declared war on genetic engineering, proclaiming that ‘science lacks soul’ and therefore should be restrained by the Church.”

The globe logo now transformed into a different circle–a schematic blueprint for a massive particle accelerator.

“And this was Texas’s Superconducting Super Collider–slated to be the largest particle collider in the world–with the potential for exploring the very moment of Creation. This machine was, ironically, positioned in the heart of America’s Bible Belt.”

The image dissolved into a massive ring-shaped cement structure stretching out across the Texas desert. The facility was only half built, covered with dust and dirt, apparently abandoned midway through its construction.

“America’s super collider could have enormously advanced humankind’s understanding of the universe, but the project was canceled due to cost overruns and political pressure from some startling sources.”

A news clip showed a young televangelist waving the bestselling book The God Particle and angrily shouting, “We should be looking for God inside our hearts! Not inside of atoms! Spending billions on this absurd experiment is an embarrassment to the state of Texas and an affront to God!”

Edmond’s voice returned. “These conflicts I’ve described–those in which religious superstition has trumped reason–are merely skirmishes in an ongoing war.”

The ceiling blazed suddenly with a collage of violent images from modern society–picket lines outside genetic research labs, a priest setting himself on fire outside a Transhumanism conference, evangelicals shaking their fists and holding up the book of Genesis, a Jesus fish eating a Darwin fish, angry religious billboards condemning stem-cell research, gay rights, and abortion, along with equally angry billboards in response.

As Langdon lay in the darkness, he could feel his heart pounding. For a moment, he thought the grass beneath him was trembling, as if a subway were approaching. Then, as the vibrations grew stronger, he realized the earth was indeed shaking. Deep, rolling vibrations shuddered up through the grass beneath his back, and the entire dome trembled with a roar.

The roar, Langdon now recognized, was the sound of thundering river rapids, being broadcast through subwoofers beneath the turf. He felt a cold, damp mist swirling across his face and body, as if he were lying in the middle of a raging river.

“Do you hear that sound?” Edmond called over the booming rapids. “That is the inexorable swelling of the River of Scientific Knowledge!”

The water roared even louder now, and the mist felt wet on Langdon’s cheeks.

“Since man first discovered fire,” Edmond shouted, “this river has been gaining power. Every discovery became a tool with which we made new discoveries, each time adding a drop to this river. Today, we ride the crest of a tsunami, a deluge that rages forward with unstoppable force!”

The room trembled more violently still.

“Where do we come from!” Edmond yelled. “Where are we going! We have always been destined to find the answers! Our methods of inquiry have been evolving exponentially for millennia!”

The mist and wind whipped through the room now, and the thundering of the river reached an almost deafening pitch.

“Consider this!” Edmond declared. “It took early humans over a million years to progress from discovering fire to inventing the wheel. Then it took only a few thousand years to invent the printing press. Then it took only a couple hundred years to build a telescope. In the centuries that followed, in ever-shortening spans, we bounded from the steam engine, to gas-powered automobiles, to the Space Shuttle! And then, it took only two decades for us to start modifying our own DNA!

“We now measure scientific progress in months,” Kirsch shouted, “advancing at a mind-boggling pace. It will not take long before today’s fastest supercomputer will look like an abacus; today’s most advanced surgical methods will seem barbaric; and today’s energy sources will seem as quaint to us as using a candle to light a room!”

Edmond’s voice and the roar of pounding water continued in the thundering darkness.

“The early Greeks had to look back centuries to study ancient culture, but we need look back only a single generation to find those who lived without the technologies we take for granted today. The timeline of human development is compressing; the space that separates ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ is shrinking to nothing at all. And for this reason, I give you my word that the next few years in human development will be shocking, disruptive, and wholly unimaginable!”

Without warning, the thundering of the river stopped.

The sky of stars returned. So did the warm breeze and the crickets.

The guests in the room seemed to exhale in unison.

In the abrupt silence, Edmond’s voice returned at a whisper.

“My friends,” he said softly. “I know you are here because I promised you a discovery, and I thank you for indulging me in a bit of preamble. Now let us throw off the shackles of our past thinking. It is time for us to share in the thrill of discovery.”

With those words, a low creeping fog rolled in from all sides, and the sky overhead began to glow with a predawn light, faintly illuminating the audience below.

Suddenly a spotlight blazed to life and swung dramatically to the back of the hall. Within moments, nearly all the guests were sitting up, craning backward through the fog in anticipation of seeing their host appear in the flesh. After a few seconds, however, the spotlight swung back to the front of the room.

The audience turned with it.

There, at the front of the room, smiling in the blaze of the spotlight, stood Edmond Kirsch. His hands were resting confidently on the sides of a podium that seconds ago had not been there. “Good evening, friends,” the great showman said amiably as the fog began to lift.

Within seconds, people were on their feet, giving their host a wild standing ovation. Langdon joined them, unable to hold back his smile.

Leave it to Edmond to appear in a puff of smoke.

So far, tonight’s presentation, despite being antagonistic toward religious faith, had been a tour de force–bold and unflinching–like the man himself. Langdon now understood why the world’s growing population of freethinkers so idolized Edmond.

If nothing else, he speaks his mind in a way few others would dare. When Edmond’s face appeared on the screen overhead, Langdon noticed he looked far less pale than before, clearly having been professionally made up. Even so, Langdon could tell his friend was exhausted.

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