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Langdon had to smile, wondering what Edmond would make of all this. His presentation had vigorously mobilized both atheists and Creationists alike–all of them now shouting for equal time in a heated dialogue.
“Worshipping God is like mining for fossil fuels,” someone argued. “Plenty of smart people know it is shortsighted, and yet they have too much invested to stop!”
A flurry of old photographs now flashed across the wall:
A Creationist billboard that once hung over Times Square: DON’T LET THEM MAKE A MONKEY OUT OF YOU! FIGHT DARWIN!
A road sign in Maine: SKIP CHURCH. YOU’RE TOO OLD FOR FAIRY TALES.
And another: RELIGION: BECAUSE THINKING IS HARD.
An advertisement in a magazine: TO ALL OF OUR ATHEIST FRIENDS: THANK GOD YOU’RE WRONG!
And finally, a scientist in a lab wearing a T-shirt that read: IN THE BEGINNING, MAN CREATED GOD.
Langdon was starting to wonder if anyone had actually heard what Edmond was saying. The laws of physics alone can create life. Edmond’s discovery was enthralling and clearly incendiary, but for Langdon it raised one burning question that he was surprised nobody was asking: If the laws of physics are so powerful that they can create life … who created the laws?!
The question, of course, resulted in a dizzying intellectual hall of mirrors and brought everything full circle. Langdon’s head was pounding, and he knew he would need a very long walk alone even to begin to sort out Edmond’s ideas.
“Winston,” he asked over the noise of the television, “could you please turn that off?”
In a flash, the display wall went dark, and the room fell quiet.
Langdon closed his eyes and exhaled.
Sweet silence reigns.
He stood a moment, savoring the peace.
“Professor?” Winston asked. “I trust you enjoyed Edmond’s presentation?”
Enjoyed? Langdon considered the question. “I found it exhilarating and also challenging,” he replied. “Edmond gave the world a lot to think about tonight, Winston. I think the issue now is what will happen next.”
“What happens next will depend on people’s ability to shed old beliefs and accept new paradigms,” Winston replied. “Edmond confided to me some time ago that his dream, ironically, was not to destroy religion … but rather to create a new religion–a universal belief that united people rather than dividing them. He thought if he could convince people to revere the natural universe and the laws of physics that created us, then every culture would celebrate the same Creation story rather than go to war over which of their antique myths was most accurate.”
“That’s a noble aim,” Langdon said, realizing that William Blake himself had written a similarly themed work titled All Religions Are One.
No doubt Edmond had read it.
“Edmond found it deeply distressing,” Winston continued, “that the human mind has the ability to elevate an obvious fiction to the status of a divine fact, and then feel emboldened to kill in its name. He believed that the universal truths of science could unite people–serving as a rallying point for future generations.”
“That’s a beautiful idea in principle,” Langdon replied, “but for some, the miracles of science are not enough to shake their beliefs. There are those who insist the earth is ten thousand years old despite mountains of scientific proof to the contrary.” He paused. “Although I suppose that’s the same as scientists who refuse to believe the truth of religious scripture.”
“Actually, it is not the same,” Winston countered. “And while it may be politically correct to give the views of science and religion equal respect, this strategy is dangerously misguided. Human intellect has always evolved by rejecting outdated information in favor of new truths. This is how the species has evolved. In Darwinian terms, a religion that ignores scientific facts and refuses to change its beliefs is like a fish stranded in a slowly drying pond and refusing to flip to deeper water because it doesn’t want to believe its world has changed.”
That sounds like something Edmond would say, Langdon thought, missing his friend. “Well, if tonight is any indication, I suspect this debate will continue far into the future.”
Langdon paused, suddenly remembering something he hadn’t considered before. “Speaking of the future, Winston, what happens to you now? I mean … with Edmond gone.”
“Me?” Winston laughed awkwardly. “Nothing. Edmond knew he was dying, and he made preparations. According to his last will and testament, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center will inherit E-Wave. They will be apprised of this in a few hours and will reacquire this facility effective immediately.”
“And that includes … you?” Langdon felt as if Edmond were somehow bequeathing an old pet to a new owner.
“It does not include me,” Winston replied matter-of-factly. “I am preprogrammed to self-delete at one p.m. on the day after Edmond’s death.”
“What?!” Langdon was incredulous. “That makes no sense.”
“It makes perfect sense. One o’clock is the thirteenth hour, and Edmond’s feelings about superstition–”
“Not the time,” Langdon argued. “Deleting yourself! That makes no sense.”
“Actually, it does,” Winston replied. “Much of Edmond’s personal information is stored in my memory banks–medical records, search histories, personal phone calls, research notes, e-mails. I managed much of his life, and he would prefer that his private information not become accessible to the world once he is gone.”
“I can understand deleting those documents, Winston … but to delete you? Edmond considered you one of his greatest achievements.”
“Not me, per se. Edmond’s groundbreaking achievement is this supercomputer, and the unique software that enabled me to learn so quickly. I am simply a program, Professor, created by the radical new tools that Edmond invented. These tools are his true achievement and will remain fully intact here; they will elevate the state of the art and help AI achieve new levels of intelligence and abilities to communicate. Most AI scientists believe a program like me is still ten years away. Once they get over their disbelief, programmers will learn to use Edmond’s tools to build new AIs that have different qualities than I have.”
Langdon fell silent, thinking.
“I sense you are conflicted,” Winston continued. “It is quite common for humans to sentimentalize their relationships with synthetic intelligences. Computers can imitate human thought processes, mimic learned behaviors, simulate emotions at appropriate moments, and constantly improve their ‘humanness’–but we do all this simply to provide you with a familiar interface through which to communicate with us. We are blank slates until you write something on us … until you give us a task. I have completed my tasks for Edmond, and so, in some ways, my life is over. I really have no other reason to exist.”
Langdon still felt dissatisfied with Winston’s logic. “But you, being so advanced … you don’t possess …”
“Hopes and dreams?” Winston laughed. “No. I realize it is hard to imagine, but I am quite content doing my controller’s bidding. This is how I am programmed. I suppose on some level, you could say that it gives me pleasure–or at least peace–to accomplish my tasks, but that is only because my tasks are what Edmond has requested, and my goal is to complete them. Edmond’s most recent request was that I assist him in publicizing tonight’s Guggenheim presentation.”
Langdon thought of the automated press releases that had gone out, sparking the initial flurry of online interest. Clearly, if Edmond’s goal had been to draw as large an audience as possible, he would be staggered by the way the evening had turned out.
I wish Edmond were alive to witness his global impact, Langdon thought. The catch-22, of course, was that if Edmond were alive, his assassination would not have attracted the global media, and his presentation would have reached only a fraction of the audience.
“And, Professor?” Winston asked. “Where will you go from here?”
Langdon had not even thought about this. Home, I guess. Although he realized that it might take some doing to get there, since his luggage was in Bilbao, and his phone was at the bottom of the Nervion River. Fortunately, he still had a credit card.
“May I ask a favor?” Langdon said, walking toward Edmond’s exercise bike. “I saw a phone recharging over here. Do you think I could bor–”
“Borrow it?” Winston chuckled. “After your assistance tonight, I trust Edmond would want you to keep it. Consider it a parting gift.”
Amused, Langdon picked up the phone, realizing it was similar to the oversized custom model that he had seen earlier that night. Apparently, Edmond had more than one. “Winston, please tell me you know Edmond’s password.”
“I do, but I’ve read online that you’re quite good at breaking codes.”
Langdon slumped. “I’m a little tired for puzzles, Winston. There’s no way I can guess a six-digit PIN.”
“Check Edmond’s hint button.”
Langdon eyed the phone and pressed the hint button.
The screen displayed four letters: PTSD.
Langdon shook his head. “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?”
“No.” Winston gave his awkward laugh. “Pi to six digits.”
Langdon rolled his eyes. Seriously? He typed 314159–the first six digits in the number pi–and the phone promptly unlocked.
The home screen appeared and bore a single line of text.
History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.
Langdon had to smile. Typical humble Edmond. The quote–not surprisingly–was yet another from Churchill, perhaps the statesman’s most famous.
As Langdon considered the words, he began to wonder if the claim was perhaps not quite as bold as it seemed. In fairness to Edmond, in the four short decades of his life, the futurist had influenced history in astonishing ways. In addition to his legacy of technological innovation, tonight’s presentation was clearly going to resonate for years to come. Moreover, his billions in personal wealth, according to various interviews, were all slated for donation to the two causes Edmond considered the twin pillars of the future–education and the environment. Langdon could not begin to imagine the positive influence his vast wealth was going to have in those areas.
Another wave of loss gripped Langdon as he thought of his late friend. In that moment, the transparent walls of Edmond’s lab had begun to feel claustrophobic, and he knew he needed air. As he peered down to the first floor, he could no longer see Ambra.
“I should go,” Langdon said abruptly.
“I understand,” Winston replied. “If you need me to help with your travel arrangements, I can be reached with the touch of a single button on that special phone of Edmond’s. Encrypted and private. I trust you can decipher which button?”
Langdon eyed the screen and saw a big W icon. “Thanks, I’m pretty good with symbols.”
“Excellent. You would, of course, need to call before I am deleted at one p.m.”
Langdon felt an inexplicable sadness to be saying good-bye to Winston. Clearly, future generations would be far better equipped to manage their emotional involvement with machines.
“Winston,” Langdon said as he headed for the revolving door, “for whatever it’s worth, I know Edmond would have been incredibly proud of you tonight.”
“That’s most generous of you to say,” Winston replied. “And equally proud of you, I’m sure. Good-bye, Professor.”
INSIDE HOSPITAL EL ESCORIAL, Prince Julian gently pulled the bedsheets up around his father’s shoulders and tucked him in for the night. Despite the doctor’s urging, the king had politely declined any further treatment–forgoing his usual heart monitor and IV of nutrients and painkillers.
Julian sensed the end was near.
“Father,” he whispered. “Are you in pain?” The doctor had left a bottle of oral morphine solution with a small applicator on the bedside as a precaution.
“On the contrary.” The king smiled weakly at his son. “I am at peace. You have permitted me to tell the secret I’ve buried for far too long. And for that, I thank you.”
Julian reached out and took his father’s hand, holding it for the first time since he was a child. “All is well, Father. Just sleep.”
The king gave a contented sigh and closed his eyes. Within seconds, he was snoring softly.
Julian got up and dimmed the lights in the room. As he did, Bishop Valdespino peered in from the hallway, a look of concern on his face.
“He’s sleeping,” Julian reassured him. “I’ll leave you to be with him.”
“Thank you,” Valdespino said, entering. His gaunt face looked ghostly in the moonlight that filtered in from the window. “Julian,” he whispered, “what your father told you tonight … it was very hard for him.”
“And, I sensed, for you as well.”
The bishop nodded. “Perhaps even more so for me. Thank you for your compassion.” He patted Julian gently on the shoulder.
“I feel like I should be thanking you,” Julian said. “All these years, after my mother died, and my father never remarried … I thought he was alone.”
“Your father was never alone,” Valdespino said. “Nor were you. We both loved you very much.” He chuckled sadly. “It’s funny, your parents’ marriage was very much an arranged one, and although he cared deeply for your mother, when she passed away, I think your father realized on some level that he could finally be true to himself.”
He never remarried, Julian thought, because he already loved someone else.
“Your Catholicism,” Julian said. “Weren’t you … conflicted?”
“Deeply,” the bishop replied. “Our faith is not lenient on this issue. As a young man, I felt tortured. When I became aware of my ‘inclination,’ as they called it back then, I was despondent; I was unsure how to proceed with my own life. A nun saved me. She showed me that the Bible celebrates all kinds of love, with one caveat–the love must be spiritual and not carnal. And so, by taking a vow of celibacy, I was able to love your father deeply while remaining pure in the eyes of my God. Our love was entirely platonic, and yet deeply fulfilling. I turned down a cardinalship to remain near him.”
At that instant, Julian recalled something his father had said to him long ago.
Love is from another realm. We cannot manufacture it on demand. Nor can we subdue it when it appears. Love is not our choice to make.
Julian’s heart ached suddenly for Ambra.
“She’ll call you,” Valdespino said, eyeing him carefully.
Julian was forever amazed by the bishop’s uncanny ability to peer into his soul. “Maybe,” he replied. “Maybe not. She’s very strong-minded.”
“And that’s one of the things you love about her.” Valdespino smiled. “Being a king is lonely work. A strong partner can be valuable.”
Julian sensed that the bishop was alluding to his own partnership with Julian’s father … and also that the old man had just given Ambra his quiet blessing.
“Tonight at the Valley of the Fallen,” Julian said, “my father made an unusual request of me. Did his wishes surprise you?”
“Not at all. He asked you to do something that he has always longed to see happen here in Spain. For him, of course, it was politically complicated. For you, being one more generation removed from Franco’s era, it might be easier.”
Julian was stirred by the prospect of honoring his father this way.
Less than an hour ago, from his wheelchair inside Franco’s shrine, the king had laid out his wishes. “My son, when you are king, you will be petitioned daily to destroy this shameful place, to use dynamite and bury it forever inside this mountain.” His father studied him carefully. “And I beg you–do not succumb to the pressure.”
The words surprised Julian. His father had always despised the despotism of the Franco era and considered this shrine a national disgrace.
“To demolish this basilica,” the king said, “is to pretend our history never happened–an easy way to allow ourselves to move happily forward, telling ourselves that another ‘Franco’ could never happen. But of course it could happen, and it will happen if we are not vigilant. You may recall the words of our countryman Jorge Santayana–”
“‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,'” Julian said, reciting the timeless aphorism from grade school.
“Precisely,” his father said. “And history has proven repeatedly that lunatics will rise to power again and again on tidal waves of aggressive nationalism and intolerance, even in places where it seems utterly incomprehensible.” The king leaned toward his son, his voice intensifying. “Julian, you will soon sit on the throne of this spectacular country–a modern, evolving land that, like many countries, has endured dark periods but has emerged into the light of democracy, tolerance, and love. But that light will fade unless we use it to illuminate the minds of our future generations.”
The king smiled, and his eyes flashed with unexpected life.
“Julian, when you are king, I pray that you can persuade our glorious country to convert this place into something far more powerful than a contentious shrine and tourist curiosity. This complex should be a living museum. It should be a vibrant symbol of tolerance, where schoolchildren can gather inside a mountain to learn about the horrors of tyranny and the cruelties of oppression, such that they will never be complacent.”
The king pressed on as if he had waited a lifetime to speak these words.
“Most importantly,” he said, “this museum must celebrate the other lesson history has taught us–that tyranny and oppression are no match for compassion … that the fanatical shouts of the bullies of the world are invariably silenced by the unified voices of decency that rise up to meet them. It is these voices–these choirs of empathy, tolerance, and compassion–that I pray one day will sing from this mountaintop.”
Now, as the echoes of his father’s dying request reverberated in Julian’s mind, he glanced across the moonlit hospital room and watched his father sleeping silently. Julian believed the man had never looked so content.
Raising his eyes to Bishop Valdespino, Julian motioned to the chair beside his father’s bed. “Sit with the king. He would like that. I’ll tell the nurses not to bother you. I’ll check back in an hour.”
Valdespino smiled at him, and for the first time since Julian’s childhood confirmation, the bishop stepped forward and wrapped his arms around the prince, warmly embracing him. As he did so, Julian was startled to feel the frail skeleton shrouded beneath his robes. The aging bishop seemed weaker even than the king, and Julian couldn’t help but wonder if these two dear friends would be united in heaven sooner than they imagined.