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She nodded.

“There are many people who are hoping for that as well, Dr. Bennett,” the anchor said. “And can you shed any light on what you think the content of Edmond Kirsch’s discovery might be?”

“As a space scientist,” Dr. Bennett continued, “I feel I should preface my words tonight with a blanket statement … one that I believe Edmond Kirsch would appreciate.” The man turned and looked directly into the camera. “When it comes to the notion of extraterrestrial life,” he began, “there exists a blinding array of bad science, conspiracy theory, and outright fantasy. For the record, let me say this: Crop circles are a hoax. Alien autopsy videos are trick photography. No cow has ever been mutilated by an alien. The Roswell saucer was a government weather balloon called Project Mogul. The Great Pyramids were built by Egyptians without alien technology. And most importantly, every extraterrestrial abduction story ever reported is a flat-out lie.”

“How can you be sure, Doctor?” the anchor asked.

“Simple logic,” the scientist said, looking annoyed as he turned back to the anchor. “Any life-form advanced enough to travel light-years through interstellar space would have nothing to learn by probing the rectums of farmers in Kansas. Nor would these life-forms need to morph into reptiles and infiltrate governments in order to take over earth. Any life-form with the technology to travel to earth would require no subterfuge or subtlety to dominate us instantaneously.”

“Well, that’s alarming!” the anchor commented with an awkward laugh. “And how does this relate to your thoughts on Mr. Kirsch’s discovery?”

The man sighed heavily. “It is my strong opinion that Edmond Kirsch was going to announce that he had found definitive proof that life on earth originated in space.”

Langdon was immediately skeptical, knowing how Kirsch felt about the topic of extraterrestrial life on earth.

“Fascinating, what makes you say that?” the anchor pressed.

“Life from space is the only rational answer. We already have incontrovertible proof that matter can be exchanged between planets. We have fragments of Mars and Venus along with hundreds of samples from unidentified sources, which would support the idea that life arrived via space rocks in the form of microbes, and eventually evolved into life on earth.”

The host nodded intently. “But hasn’t this theory–microbes arriving from space–been around for decades, with no proof? How do you think a tech genius like Edmond Kirsch could prove a theory like this, which seems more in the realm of astrobiology than computer science.”

“Well, there’s solid logic to it,” Dr. Bennett replied. “Top astronomers have warned for decades that humankind’s only hope for long-term survival will be to leave this planet. The earth is already halfway through its life cycle, and eventually the sun will expand into a red giant and consume us. That is, if we survive the more imminent threats of a giant asteroid collision or a massive gamma-ray burst. For these reasons, we are already designing outposts on Mars so we can eventually move into deep space in search of a new host planet. Needless to say, this is a massive undertaking, and if we could find a simpler way to ensure our survival, we would implement it immediately.”

Dr. Bennett paused. “And perhaps there is a simpler way. What if we could somehow package the human genome in tiny capsules and send millions of them into space in hopes one might take root, seeding human life on a distant planet? This technology does not yet exist, but we are discussing it as a viable option for human survival. And if we are considering ‘seeding life,’ then it follows that a more advanced life-form might have considered it as well.”

Langdon now suspected where Dr. Bennett was going with his theory.

“With this in mind,” he continued, “I believe Edmond Kirsch may have discovered some kind of alien signature–be it physical, chemical, digital, I don’t know–proving that life on earth was seeded from space. I should mention that Edmond and I had quite a debate about this several years ago. He never liked the space-microbe theory because he believed, as many do, that genetic material could never survive the deadly radiation and temperatures that would be encountered in the long journey to earth. Personally, I believe that it would be perfectly feasible to seal these ‘seeds of life’ in radiation-proof, protective pods and shoot them into space with the intent of populating the cosmos in a kind of technology-assisted panspermia.”

“Okay,” the host said, looking unsettled, “but if someone discovered proof that humans came from a seedpod sent from space, then that means we’re not alone in the universe.” She paused. “But also, far more incredibly …”

“Yes?” Dr. Bennett smiled for the first time.

“It means whoever sent the pods would have to be … like us … human!”

“Yes, my first conclusion as well.” The scientist paused. “Then Edmond set me straight. He pointed out the fallacy in that thinking.”

This caught the host off guard. “So Edmond’s belief was that whoever sent these ‘seeds’ was not human? How could that be, if the seeds were, so to speak, ‘recipes’ for human propagation?”

“Humans are half-baked,” the scientist replied, “to use Edmond’s exact words.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Edmond said that if this seedpod theory were true, then the recipe that was sent to earth is probably only half-baked at the moment–not yet finished–meaning humans are not the ‘final product’ but instead just a transitional species evolving toward something else … something alien.”

The CNN anchor looked bewildered.

“Any advanced life-form, Edmond argued, would not send a recipe for humans any more than they would send a recipe for chimpanzees.” The scientist chuckled. “In fact, Edmond accused me of being a closet Christian–joking that only a religious mind could believe that mankind is the center of the universe. Or that aliens would airmail fully formed ‘Adam and Eve’ DNA into the cosmos.”

“Well, Doctor,” the host said, clearly uncomfortable with the direction the interview was taking. “It’s certainly been enlightening speaking with you. Thank you for your time.”

The segment ended, and Ambra immediately turned to Langdon. “Robert, if Edmond discovered proof that humans are a half-evolved alien species, then it raises an even bigger issue–what exactly are we evolving into?”

“Yes,” Langdon said. “And I believe Edmond phrased that issue in a slightly different way–as a question: Where are we going?”

Ambra looked startled to have come full circle. “Edmond’s second question from tonight’s presentation.”

“Precisely. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Apparently, the NASA scientist we’ve just watched thinks Edmond looked to the heavens and found answers to both questions.”

“What do you think, Robert? Is this what Edmond discovered?”

Langdon could feel his brow furrow with doubt as he weighed the possibilities. The scientist’s theory, while exciting, seemed far too general and otherworldly for the acute thinking of Edmond Kirsch. Edmond liked things simple, clean, and technical. He was a computer scientist. More importantly, Langdon could not imagine how Edmond would prove such a theory. Unearth an ancient seedpod? Detect an alien transmission? Both discoveries would have been instantaneous breakthroughs, but Edmond’s discovery had taken time.

Edmond said he had been working on it for months.

“Obviously, I don’t know,” Langdon told Ambra, “but my gut tells me Edmond’s discovery has nothing to do with extraterrestrial life. I really believe he discovered something else entirely.”

Ambra looked surprised, and then intrigued. “I guess there’s only one way to find out.” She motioned out the window.

In front of them shone the glimmering spires of Sagrada Familia.

CHAPTER 64

BISHOP VALDESPINO STOLE another quick glance at Julian, who was still staring blankly out the window of the Opel sedan as it sped along Highway M-505.

What is he thinking? Valdespino wondered.

The prince had been silent for nearly thirty minutes, barely moving except for the occasional reflexive reach into his pocket for his phone, only to realize that he had locked it in his wall safe.

I need to keep him in the dark, Valdespino thought, just a bit longer.

In the front seat, the acolyte from the cathedral was still driving in the direction of Casita del Principe, although Valdespino soon would need to inform him that the prince’s retreat was not their destination at all.

Julian turned suddenly from the window, tapping the acolyte on the shoulder. “Please turn on the radio,” he said. “I’d like to hear the news.”

Before the young man could comply, Valdespino leaned forward and placed a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s just sit quietly, shall we?”

Julian turned to the bishop, clearly displeased at having been overridden.

“I’m sorry,” Valdespino said at once, sensing a growing distrust in the prince’s eyes. “It’s late. All that chatter. I prefer silent reflection.”

“I’ve been doing some reflecting,” Julian said, his voice sharp, “and I’d like to know what’s going on in my country. We’ve entirely isolated ourselves tonight, and I’m starting to wonder if it was a good idea.”

“It is a good idea,” Valdespino assured him, “and I appreciate the trust you’ve shown me.” He removed his hand from the acolyte’s shoulder and motioned to the radio. “Please turn on the news. Perhaps Radio Maria Espana?” Valdespino hoped the worldwide Catholic station would be gentler and more tactful than most media outlets had been about tonight’s troubling developments.

When the newscaster’s voice came over the cheap car speakers, he was discussing Edmond Kirsch’s presentation and assassination. Every station in the world is talking about this tonight. Valdespino just hoped his own name would not come up as part of the broadcast.

Fortunately, the topic at the moment appeared to be the dangers of the antireligious message preached by Kirsch, especially the threat posed by his influence on the youth of Spain. As an example, the station began rebroadcasting a lecture Kirsch had delivered recently at the University of Barcelona.

“Many of us are afraid to call ourselves atheists,” Kirsch said calmly to the assembled students. “And yet atheism is not a philosophy, nor is atheism a view of the world. Atheism is simply an admission of the obvious.”

Several students clapped in agreement.

“The term ‘atheist,'” Kirsch continued, “should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

A growing number of students clapped their approval.

“That definition is not mine, by the way,” Kirsch told them. “Those words belong to neuroscientist Sam Harris. And if you have not already done so, you must read his book Letter to a Christian Nation.”

Valdespino frowned, recalling the stir caused by Harris’s book, Carta a una Nacion Cristiana, which, while written for Americans, had reverberated across Spain.

“By a show of hands,” Kirsch continued, “how many of you believe in any of the following ancient gods: Apollo? Zeus? Vulcan?” He paused, and then laughed. “Not a single one of you? Okay, so it appears we are all atheists with respect to those gods.” He paused. “I simply choose to go one god further.”

The crowd clapped louder still.

“My friends, I am not saying I know for a fact that there is no God. All I am saying is that if there is a divine force behind the universe, it is laughing hysterically at the religions we’ve created in an attempt to define it.”

Everyone laughed.

Valdespino was now pleased that the prince had asked to listen to the radio. Julian needs to hear this. Kirsch’s devilishly seductive charm was proof that the enemies of Christ were no longer sitting idly by, but rather were actively trying to pull souls away from God.

“I’m an American,” Kirsch continued, “and I feel profoundly fortunate to have been born in one of the most technologically advanced and intellectually progressive countries on earth. And so I found it deeply disturbing when a recent poll revealed that one half of my countrymen believe quite literally that Adam and Eve existed–that an all-powerful God created two fully formed human beings who single-handedly populated the entire planet, generating all the diverse races, with none of the inherent problems of inbreeding.”

More laughter.

“In Kentucky,” he continued, “church pastor Peter LaRuffa publicly declared: ‘If somewhere within the Bible, I found a passage that said ‘two plus two is five,’ I would believe it and accept it as true.'”

Still more laughter.

“I agree, it’s easy to laugh, but I assure you, these beliefs are far more terrifying than they are funny. Many of the people who espouse them are bright, educated professionals–doctors, lawyers, teachers, and in some cases, people who aspire to the highest offices in the land. I once heard U.S. congressman Paul Broun say, ‘Evolution and the Big Bang are lies straight from the pit of hell. I believe the earth is about nine thousand years old, and it was created in six days as we know them.'” Kirsch paused. “Even more troubling, Congressman Broun sits on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and when questioned about the existence of a fossil record spanning millions of years, his response was ‘Fossils were placed there by God to test our faith.'”

Kirsch’s voice grew suddenly quiet and somber. “To permit ignorance is to empower it. To do nothing as our leaders proclaim absurdities is a crime of complacency. As is letting our schools and churches teach outright untruths to our children. The time for action has come. Not until we purge our species of superstitious thinking can we embrace all that our minds have to offer.” He paused and a hush fell over the crowd. “I love humankind. I believe our minds and our species have limitless potential. I believe we are on the brink of an enlightened new era, a world where religion finally departs … and science reigns.”

The crowd erupted with wild applause.

“For heaven’s sake,” Valdespino snapped, shaking his head in disgust. “Turn it off.”

The acolyte obeyed, and the three men drove on in silence.

Thirty miles away, Monica Martin was standing opposite a breathless Suresh Bhalla, who had just dashed in and handed her a cell phone.

“Long story,” Suresh gasped, “but you need to read this text that Bishop Valdespino received.”

“Hold on.” Martin almost dropped the device. “This is the bishop’s phone?! How the hell did you–”

“Don’t ask. Just read.”

Alarmed, Martin directed her eyes to the phone and began reading the text on its screen. Within seconds, she felt herself blanch. “My God, Bishop Valdespino is …”

“Dangerous,” Suresh said.

“But … this is impossible! Who is this person who texted the bishop?!”

“Shielded number,” Suresh said. “I’m working on identifying it.”

“And why wouldn’t Valdespino delete this message?”

“No idea,” Suresh said flatly. “Careless? Arrogant? I’ll try to undelete any other texts, and also see if I can identify who Valdespino is texting with, but I wanted to give you this news on Valdespino right away; you’ll have to make a statement on it.”

“No, I won’t!” Martin said, still reeling. “The palace is not going public with this information!”

“No, but someone else will very soon.” Suresh quickly explained that the motive for searching Valdespino’s phone had been a direct e-mail tip from monte@iglesia.org–the informant who was feeding news to ConspiracyNet–and if this person acted true to form, the bishop’s text would not remain private for long.

Martin closed her eyes, trying to picture the world’s reaction to incontrovertible proof that a Catholic bishop with very close ties to the king of Spain was directly involved in tonight’s treachery and murder.

“Suresh,” Martin whispered, slowly opening her eyes. “I need you to figure out who this ‘Monte’ informant is. Can you do that for me?”

“I can try.” He did not sound hopeful.

“Thanks.” Martin handed the bishop’s phone back to him and hurried to the door. “And send me a screenshot of that text!”

“Where are you going?” Suresh called.

Monica Martin did not answer.

CHAPTER 65

LA SAGRADA FAMILIA–the Basilica of the Holy Family–occupies an entire city block in central Barcelona. Despite its massive footprint, the church seems to hover almost weightlessly above the earth, a delicate cluster of airy spires that ascend effortlessly into the Spanish sky.

Intricate and porous, the towers have varying heights, giving the shrine the air of a whimsical sand castle erected by mischievous giants. Once completed, the tallest of the eighteen pinnacles will climb a dizzying and unprecedented 560 feet–higher than the Washington Monument–making Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world, eclipsing the Vatican’s own St. Peter’s Basilica by more than a hundred feet.

The body of the church is sheltered by three massive facades. To the east, the colorful Nativity facade climbs like a hanging garden, sprouting polychrome plants, animals, fruits, and people. In stark contrast, the Passion facade to the west is an austere skeleton of harsh stone, hewn to resemble sinews and bone. To the south, the Glory facade twists upward in a chaotic clutter of demons, idols, sins, and vices, eventually giving way to loftier symbols of ascension, virtue, and paradise.

Completing the perimeter are countless smaller facades, buttresses, and towers, most of them sheathed in a mud-like material, giving the effect that the lower half of the building is either melting or has been extruded from the earth. According to one prominent critic, Sagrada Familia’s lower half resembles “a rotting tree trunk from which had sprouted a family of intricate mushroom spires.”

In addition to adorning his church with traditional religious iconography, Gaudi included countless startling features that reflected his reverence for nature–turtles supporting columns, trees sprouting from facades, and even giant stone snails and frogs scaling the outside of the building.

Despite its outlandish exterior, the true surprise of Sagrada Familia is glimpsed only after stepping through its doorways. Once inside the main sanctuary, visitors invariably stand slack-jawed as their eyes climb the slanting and twisting tree-trunk columns up two hundred feet to a series of hovering vaults, where psychedelic collages of geometric shapes hover like a crystalline canopy in the tree branches. The creation of a “columned forest,” Gaudi claimed, was to encourage the mind to return to thoughts of the earliest spiritual seekers, for whom the forest had served as God’s cathedral.

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