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The screen displayed a rapid-fire slide show–images of people clutching cell phones, wearing virtual-reality goggles, adjusting Bluetooth devices in their ears; runners with music players strapped to their arms; a family dinner table with a “smart speaker” centerpiece; a child in a crib playing with a computer tablet.
“These are just the primitive beginnings of this symbiosis,” Edmond said. “We are now starting to embed computer chips directly into our brains, inject our blood with tiny cholesterol-eating nanobots that live in us forever, build synthetic limbs that are controlled by our minds, use genetic editing tools like CRISPR to modify our genome, and, quite literally, engineer an enhanced version of ourselves.”
Edmond’s expression seemed almost joyful now, radiating passion and excitement.
“Human beings are evolving into something different,” he declared. “We are becoming a hybrid species–a fusion of biology and technology. The same tools that today live outside our bodies–smartphones, hearing aids, reading glasses, most pharmaceuticals–in fifty years will be incorporated into our bodies to such an extent that we will no longer be able to consider ourselves Homo sapiens.”
A familiar image reappeared behind Edmond–the single-file progression from chimpanzee to modern man.
“In the blink of an eye,” Edmond said, “we will become the next page in the flip-book of evolution. And when we do, we will look back on today’s Homo sapiens the same way we now look back at Neanderthal man. New technologies like cybernetics, synthetic intelligence, cryonics, molecular engineering, and virtual reality will forever change what it means to be human. And I realize there are those of you who believe you, as Homo sapiens, are God’s chosen species. I can understand that this news may feel like the end of the world to you. But I beg you, please believe me … the future is actually much brighter than you imagine.”
With a sudden outpouring of hope and optimism, the great futurist launched into a dazzling description of tomorrow, a vision of a future unlike any Langdon had ever dared imagine.
Edmond persuasively described a future where technology had become so inexpensive and ubiquitous that it erased the gap between the haves and the have-nots. A future where environmental technologies provided billions of people with drinking water, nutritious food, and access to clean energy. A future where diseases like Edmond’s cancer were eradicated, thanks to genomic medicine. A future where the awesome power of the Internet was finally harnessed for education, even in the most remote corners of the world. A future where assembly-line robotics would free workers from mind-numbing jobs so they could pursue more rewarding fields that would open up in areas not yet imagined. And, above all, a future in which breakthrough technologies began creating such an abundance of humankind’s critical resources that warring over them would no longer be necessary.
As he listened to Edmond’s vision for tomorrow, Langdon felt an emotion he had not experienced in years. It was a sensation that he knew millions of other viewers were feeling at this very instant as well–an unexpected upwelling of optimism about the future.
“I have but one regret about this coming age of miracles.” Edmond’s voice cracked with sudden emotion. “I regret that I will not be here to witness it. Unbeknownst even to my close friends, I have been quite ill for some time now … it seems I will not live forever, as I had planned.” He managed a poignant smile. “By the time you see this, it is likely I will have only weeks to live … maybe only days. Please know, my friends, that addressing you tonight has been the greatest honor and pleasure of my life. I thank you for listening.”
Ambra was standing now, close to Langdon’s side, both of them watching with admiration and sadness as their friend addressed the world.
“We are now perched on a strange cusp of history,” Edmond continued, “a time when the world feels like it’s been turned upside down, and nothing is quite as we imagined. But uncertainty is always a precursor to sweeping change; transformation is always preceded by upheaval and fear. I urge you to place your faith in the human capacity for creativity and love, because these two forces, when combined, possess the power to illuminate any darkness.”
Langdon glanced at Ambra and noticed the tears streaming down her face. He gently reached over and put an arm around her, watching as his dying friend spoke his final words to the world.
“As we move into an undefined tomorrow,” Edmond said, “we will transform ourselves into something greater than we can yet imagine, with powers beyond our wildest dreams. And as we do, may we never forget the wisdom of Churchill, who warned us: ‘The price of greatness … is responsibility.'”
The words resonated for Langdon, who often feared the human race would not be responsible enough to wield the intoxicating tools it was now inventing.
“Although I am an atheist,” Edmond said, “before I leave you, I ask your indulgence in allowing me to read you a prayer I recently wrote.”
Edmond wrote a prayer?
“I call it ‘Prayer for the Future.'” Edmond closed his eyes and spoke slowly, with startling assurance. “May our philosophies keep pace with our technologies. May our compassion keep pace with our powers. And may love, not fear, be the engine of change.”
With that, Edmond Kirsch opened his eyes. “Good-bye, my friends, and thank you,” he said. “And dare I say … Godspeed.”
Edmond looked into the camera for a moment, and then his face disappeared into a churning sea of white noise. Langdon stared into the static-filled display and felt an overwhelming surge of pride in his friend.
Standing beside Ambra, Langdon pictured the millions of people all over the world who had just witnessed Edmond’s stirring tour de force. Strangely, he found himself wondering if perhaps Edmond’s final night on earth had unfolded in the best of all possible ways.
COMMANDER DIEGO GARZA stood against the back wall of Monica Martin’s basement office and stared blankly at the television screen. His hands were still bound in handcuffs, and two Guardia agents flanked him closely, having acquiesced to Monica Martin’s appeal to let him leave the armory so he could watch Kirsch’s announcement.
Garza had witnessed the futurist’s spectacle along with Monica, Suresh, a half-dozen Guardia agents, and an unlikely group of palace night staff who had all dropped their duties and dashed downstairs to watch.
Now, on the TV before Garza, the raw static that had concluded Kirsch’s presentation had been replaced by a mosaic grid of news feeds from around the world–newscasters and pundits breathlessly recapping the futurist’s claims and launching into their own inevitable analyses–all of them talking at once, creating an unintelligible cacophony.
Across the room, one of Garza’s senior agents entered, scanned the crowd, located the commander, and strode briskly over to him. Without explanation, the guard removed Garza’s handcuffs and held out a cell phone. “A call for you, sir–Bishop Valdespino.”
Garza stared down at the device. Considering the bishop’s clandestine exit from the palace and the incriminating text found on his phone, Valdespino was the last person Garza had expected to call him tonight.
“This is Diego,” he answered.
“Thank you for answering,” the bishop said, sounding weary. “I realize you’ve had an unpleasant night.”
“Where are you?” Garza demanded.
“In the mountains. Outside the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen. I just met with Prince Julian and His Majesty the king.”
Garza could not imagine what the king was doing at the Valley of the Fallen at this hour, particularly given his condition. “I assume you know the king had me arrested?”
“Yes. It was a regrettable error, which we have remedied.”
Garza looked down at his unmanacled wrists.
“His Majesty asked me to call and extend his apologies. I will be watching over him here at the Hospital El Escorial. I’m afraid his time is drawing to a close.”
As is yours, Garza thought. “You should be advised that Suresh found a text on your phone–quite an incriminatory one. I believe the ConspiracyNet.com website plans to release it soon. I suspect the authorities will come to arrest you.”
Valdespino sighed deeply. “Yes, the text. I should have sought you out the instant it arrived this morning. Please trust me when I tell you that I had nothing to do with Edmond Kirsch’s murder, nor with the deaths of my two colleagues.”
“But the text clearly implicates you–”
“I’m being framed, Diego,” the bishop interrupted. “Someone has gone to great lengths to make me look complicit.”
Although Garza had never imagined Valdespino capable of murder, the notion of someone framing him made little sense. “Who would try to frame you?”
“That I don’t know,” the bishop said, sounding suddenly very old and bewildered. “I’m not sure it matters anymore. My reputation has been destroyed; my dearest friend, the king, is close to death; and there is not much more this night can take from me.” There was an eerie finality to Valdespino’s tone.
“Antonio … are you okay?”
Valdespino sighed. “Not really, Commander. I am tired. I doubt I will survive the coming investigation. And even if I do, the world seems to have outgrown its need for me.”
Garza could hear the heartbreak in the old bishop’s voice.
“A tiny favor, if I may,” Valdespino added. “At the moment, I am trying to serve two kings–one leaving his throne, the other ascending to it. Prince Julian has been attempting all night to connect with his fiancee. If you could find a way to reach Ambra Vidal, our future king would be forever in your debt.”
On the sprawling plaza outside the mountain church, Bishop Valdespino gazed down over the darkened Valley of the Fallen. A predawn mist was already creeping up the pine-studded ravines, and somewhere in the distance the shrill call of a bird of prey pierced the night.
Monk vulture, Valdespino thought, oddly amused by the sound. The bird’s plaintive wail seemed eerily appropriate at the moment, and the bishop wondered if perhaps the world was trying to tell him something.
Nearby, Guardia agents were wheeling the wearied king to his vehicle for transport back to the Hospital El Escorial.
I will come watch over you, my friend, the bishop thought. That is, if they permit me.
The Guardia agents glanced up repeatedly from the glow of their cell phones, their eyes continually returning to Valdespino, as if they suspected they would soon be called upon to make his arrest.
And yet I am innocent, the bishop thought, secretly suspecting he had been set up by one of Kirsch’s godless tech-savvy followers. The growing community of atheists enjoys nothing more than casting the Church in the role of the villain.
Deepening the bishop’s suspicion was news he had just heard about Kirsch’s presentation tonight. Unlike the video Kirsch had played for Valdespino in the Montserrat library, it seemed tonight’s version had ended on a hopeful note.
Kirsch tricked us.
A week ago, the presentation Valdespino and his colleagues had watched had been stopped prematurely … ending with a terrifying graphic that predicted the extermination of all humans.
A cataclysmic annihilation.
The long-prophesied apocalypse.
Even though Valdespino believed the prediction to be a lie, he knew that countless people would accept it as proof of impending doom.
Throughout history, fearful believers had fallen prey to apocalyptic prophecies; doomsday cults committed mass suicide to avoid the coming horrors, and devout fundamentalists ran up credit card debt believing the end was near.
There is nothing more damaging for children than the loss of hope, Valdespino thought, recalling how the combination of God’s love and the promise of heaven had been the most uplifting force in his own childhood. I was created by God, he had learned as a child, and one day I will live forever in God’s kingdom.
Kirsch had proclaimed the opposite: I am a cosmic accident, and soon I will be dead.
Valdespino had been deeply concerned about the damage Kirsch’s message would do to the poor souls who did not enjoy the futurist’s wealth and privilege–those who struggled daily just to eat or to provide for their children, those who required a glimmer of divine hope just to get out of bed every day and face their difficult lives.
Why Kirsch would show the clerics an apocalyptic ending remained a mystery to Valdespino. Perhaps Kirsch was merely trying to protect his big surprise, he thought. Or else he simply wanted to torture us a bit.
Either way, the damage had been done.
Valdespino gazed across the plaza and watched Prince Julian lovingly assist his father into the van. The young prince had handled the king’s confession remarkably well.
His Majesty’s decades-old secret.
Bishop Valdespino, of course, had known the king’s dangerous truth for years and had scrupulously protected it. Tonight, the king had decided to bare his soul to his only son. By choosing to do it here–within this mountaintop shrine to intolerance–the king had performed an act of symbolic defiance.
Now, as Valdespino gazed down into the deep ravine below, he felt deathly alone … as if he could simply step off the edge and fall forever into the welcoming darkness. He knew if he did, however, Kirsch’s band of atheists would gleefully declare that Valdespino had lost his faith in the wake of tonight’s scientific announcement.
My faith will never die, Mr. Kirsch.
It dwells beyond your realm of science.
Besides, if Kirsch’s prophecy about technology’s takeover were true, humanity was about to enter a period of almost unimaginable ethical ambiguity.
We will need faith and moral guidance now more than ever.
As Valdespino walked back across the plaza to join the king and Prince Julian, an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion settled deep within his bones.
At that moment, for the first time in his life, Bishop Valdespino wanted simply to lie down, close his eyes, and fall asleep forever.
INSIDE THE BARCELONA Supercomputing Center, a stream of commentary flowed across Edmond’s display wall faster than Robert Langdon could process it. Moments ago, the screen of static had given way to a chaotic mosaic of talking heads and newscasters–a rapid-fire assault of clips from around the world–each one blossoming out of the matrix to take center stage, and then just as quickly dissolving back into the white noise.
Langdon stood beside Ambra as a photo of physicist Stephen Hawking materialized on the wall, his unmistakable computerized voice proclaiming, “It is not necessary to invoke God to set the universe going. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing.”
Hawking was replaced just as quickly by a female priest, apparently broadcasting from her home via computer. “We must remember that these simulations prove nothing about God. They prove only that Edmond Kirsch will stop at nothing to destroy the moral compass of our species. Since the beginning of time, world religions have been humanity’s most important organizing principle, a road map for civilized society, and our original source of ethics and morality. By undermining religion, Kirsch is undermining human goodness!”
Seconds later, a viewer’s response text crawled across the bottom of the screen: RELIGION CANNOT CLAIM MORALITY AS ITS OWN … I AM A GOOD PERSON BECAUSE I AM A GOOD PERSON! GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT!
That image was replaced by one of a USC geology professor. “Once upon a time,” the man was saying, “humans believed that the earth was flat and ships venturing across the seas risked sailing off the edge. However, when we proved that the earth was round, the flat-earth advocates were eventually silenced. Creationists are today’s flat-earth advocates, and I would be shocked if anyone still believes in Creationism a hundred years from now.”
A young man interviewed on the street declared to the camera: “I am a Creationist, and I believe that tonight’s discovery proves that a benevolent Creator designed the universe specifically to support life.”
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson–appearing in an old clip from the Cosmos television show–declared good-naturedly, “If a Creator designed our universe to support life, he did a terrible job. In the vast, vast majority of the cosmos, life would die instantly from lack of atmosphere, gamma-ray bursts, deadly pulsars, and crushing gravitational fields. Believe me, the universe is no Garden of Eden.”
Listening to the onslaught, Langdon felt as if the world outside were suddenly spinning off its axis.
“Professor Langdon?” A familiar British voice spoke from the speaker overhead. “Ms. Vidal?”
Langdon had almost forgotten about Winston, who had fallen silent during the presentation.
“Please don’t be alarmed,” Winston continued. “But I’ve let the police into the building.”
Langdon looked through the glass wall and saw a stream of local authorities entering the sanctuary, all of them stopping short and staring up at the massive computer in disbelief.
“Why?!” Ambra demanded.
“The Royal Palace has just issued a statement saying that you were not kidnapped after all. The authorities now have orders to protect you both, Ms. Vidal. Two Guardia agents have just arrived as well. They would like to help you make contact with Prince Julian. They have a number where you can reach him.”
On the ground floor, Langdon saw two Guardia agents now entering.
Ambra closed her eyes, clearly wanting to disappear.
“Ambra,” Langdon whispered. “You need to talk to the prince. He’s your fiance. He’s worried about you.”
“I know.” She opened her eyes. “I just don’t know if I trust him anymore.”
“You said your gut feeling was that he’s innocent,” Langdon said. “At least hear him out. I’ll find you when you’re done.”
Ambra gave a nod and headed toward the revolving door. Langdon watched her disappear down the stairs, and then he turned back to the display wall, which continued to blare.
“Evolution favors religion,” a minister was saying. “Religious communities cooperate better than nonreligious communities and therefore flourish more readily. This is a scientific fact!”
The minister was correct, Langdon knew. Anthropological data clearly showed that cultures practicing religions historically had outlived nonreligious cultures. Fear of being judged by an omniscient deity always helps inspire benevolent behavior.
“Be that as it may,” a scientist countered, “even if we assume for a moment that religious cultures are better behaved and more likely to thrive, that does not prove their imaginary gods are real!”