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“And I’m guessing they cost more than my entire ensemble.”

Edmond walked over and examined the label of Langdon’s classic jacket. “Actually,” he said, smiling warmly, “those are pretty nice tails. It’s close.”

“I’ve got to tell you, Edmond, your synthetic friend Winston … very unsettling.”

Kirsch beamed. “Incredible, right? You can’t believe what I’ve accomplished in artificial intelligence this year–quantum leaps. I’ve developed a few new proprietary technologies that are enabling machines to problem-solve and self-regulate in entirely new ways. Winston is a work in progress, but he improves daily.”

Langdon noticed that deep creases had appeared around Edmond’s boyish eyes over the past year. The man looked weary. “Edmond, would you care to tell me why you brought me here?”

“To Bilbao? Or into a Richard Serra spiral?”

“Let’s start with the spiral,” Langdon said. “You know I’m claustrophobic.”

“Precisely. Tonight is all about pushing people outside their comfort zones,” he said with a smirk.

“Always your specialty.”

“Moreover,” Kirsch added, “I needed to speak to you, and I didn’t want to be seen before the show.”

“Because rock stars never mingle with guests before a concert?”

“Correct!” Kirsch replied jokingly. “Rock stars appear magically onstage in a puff of smoke.”

Overhead, the lights suddenly faded off and on. Kirsch pulled back his sleeve and checked his watch. Then he glanced to Langdon, his expression turning suddenly serious.

“Robert, we don’t have much time. Tonight is a tremendous occasion for me. In fact, it will be an important occasion for all of humankind.”

Langdon felt a flush of anticipation.

“Recently, I made a scientific discovery,” Edmond said. “It’s a breakthrough that will have far-reaching implications. Almost nobody on earth knows about it, and tonight–very shortly–I will be addressing the world live and announcing what I’ve found.”

“I’m not sure what to say,” Langdon replied. “This all sounds amazing.”

Edmond lowered his voice, and his tone grew uncharacteristically tense. “Before I go public with this information, Robert, I need your advice.” He paused. “I fear my life may depend on it.”

CHAPTER 9

SILENCE HAD FALLEN between the two men inside the spiral.

I need your advice … I fear my life may depend on it.

Edmond’s words hung heavily in the air and Langdon saw disquiet in his friend’s eyes. “Edmond? What’s going on? Are you okay?”

The overhead lights faded off and on again, but Edmond ignored them.

“It has been a remarkable year for me,” he began, his voice a whisper. “I’ve been working alone on a major project, one that led to a ground-breaking discovery.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

Kirsch nodded. “It is indeed, and words can’t describe how excited I am to share it with the world tonight. It will usher in a major paradigm shift. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that my discovery will have repercussions on the scale of the Copernican revolution.”

For a moment, Langdon thought his host was joking, but Edmond’s expression remained dead serious.

Copernicus? Humility had never been one of Edmond’s strong suits, but this claim sounded borderline preposterous. Nicolaus Copernicus was the father of the heliocentric model–the belief that the planets revolve around the sun–which ignited a scientific revolution in the 1500s that entirely obliterated the Church’s long-held teaching that mankind occupied the center of God’s universe. His discovery was condemned by the Church for three centuries, but the damage had been done, and the world had never been the same.

“I can see you’re skeptical,” Edmond said. “Would it be better if I said Darwin?”

Langdon smiled. “Same issue.”

“Okay, then let me ask you this: What are the two fundamental questions that have been asked by the human race throughout our entire history?”

Langdon considered it. “Well, the questions would have to be: ‘How did it all begin? Where do we come from?'”

“Precisely. And the second question is simply the ancillary to that. Not ‘where do we come from’ … but …”

“‘Where are we going?'”

“Yes! These two mysteries lie at the heart of the human experience. Where do we come from? Where are we going? Human creation and human destiny. They are the universal mysteries.” Edmond’s gaze sharpened and he peered at Langdon expectantly. “Robert, the discovery I’ve made … it very clearly answers both of these questions.”

Langdon grappled with Edmond’s words and their heady ramifications. “I’m … not sure what to say.”

“No need to say anything. I’m hoping you and I can find time to discuss it in depth following tonight’s presentation, but at the moment, I need to talk to you about the darker side of all this–the potential fallout from the discovery.”

“You think there will be repercussions?”

“Without a doubt. By answering these questions, I have placed myself in direct conflict with centuries of established spiritual teachings. Issues of human creation and human destiny are traditionally the domain of religion. I’m an interloper, and the religions of the world are not going to like what I’m about to announce.”

“Interesting,” Langdon replied. “And is this why you spent two hours grilling me about religion over lunch in Boston last year?”

“It is. You may remember my personal guarantee to you–that in our lifetime, the myths of religion would be all but demolished by scientific breakthroughs.”

Langdon nodded. Hard to forget. The boldness of Kirsch’s declaration had emblazoned itself word for word in Langdon’s eidetic memory. “I do. And I countered that religion had survived advances in science for millennia, and that it served an important purpose in society, and while religion might evolve, it would never die.”

“Exactly. I also told you that I had found the purpose of my life–to employ the truth of science to eradicate the myth of religion.”

“Yes, strong words.”

“And you challenged me on them, Robert. You argued that whenever I came across a ‘scientific truth’ that conflicted with or undermined the tenets of religion, I should discuss it with a religious scholar in hopes I might realize that science and religion are often attempting to tell the same story in two different languages.”

“I do remember. Scientists and spiritualists often use different vocabularies to describe the exact same mysteries of the universe. The conflicts are frequently over semantics, not substance.”

“Well, I followed your advice,” Kirsch said. “And I consulted with spiritual leaders about my latest discovery.”

“Oh?”

“Are you familiar with the Parliament of the World’s Religions?”

“Of course.” Langdon was a great admirer of the group’s efforts to promote interfaith discourse.

“By chance,” Kirsch said, “the parliament held their meeting outside Barcelona this year, about an hour from my home, at the Abbey of Montserrat.”

Spectacular spot, Langdon thought, having visited the mountaintop sanctuary many years ago.

“When I heard it was taking place during the same week I had planned to make this major scientific announcement, I don’t know, I …”

“Wondered if it might be a sign from God?”

Kirsch laughed. “Something like that. So I called them.”

Langdon was impressed. “You addressed the entire parliament?”

“No! Too dangerous. I didn’t want this information leaking out before I could announce it myself, so I scheduled a meeting with only three of them–one representative each from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The four of us met in private in the library.”

“I’m amazed they let you in the library,” Langdon said with surprise. “I hear that’s hallowed ground.”

“I told them I needed a secure meeting place, no phones, no cameras, no intruders. They took me to that library. Before I told them anything, I asked them to agree to a vow of silence. They complied. To date, they are the only people on earth who know anything about my discovery.”

“Fascinating. And how did they react when you told them?”

Kirsch looked sheepish. “I may not have handled it perfectly. You know me, Robert, when my passions flare, diplomacy is not my metier.”

“Yes, I’ve read that you could use some sensitivity training,” Langdon said with a laugh. Just like Steve Jobs and so many genius visionaries.

“So in keeping with my outspoken nature, I began our talk by simply telling them the truth–that I had always considered religion a form of mass delusion, and that as a scientist, I found it difficult to accept the fact that billions of intelligent people rely on their respective faiths to comfort and guide them. When they asked why I was consulting with people for whom I apparently had little respect, I told them I was there to gauge their reactions to my discovery so I could get some sense of how it would be received by the world’s faithful once I made it public.”

“Always the diplomat,” Langdon said, wincing. “You do know that sometimes honesty is not the best policy?”

Kirsch waved his hand dismissively. “My thoughts on religion are widely publicized. I thought they would appreciate the transparency. Nonetheless, after that, I presented my work to them, explaining in detail what I had discovered and how it changed everything. I even took out my phone and showed them some video that I admit is quite startling. They were speechless.”

“They must have said something,” Langdon prompted, feeling even more curious to know what Kirsch possibly could have discovered.

“I was hoping for a conversation, but the Christian cleric silenced the other two before they could say a word. He urged me to reconsider making the information public. I told him I would think about it for the next month.”

“But you’re going public tonight.”

“I know. I told them my announcement was still several weeks away so they wouldn’t panic or try to interfere.”

“And when they find out about tonight’s presentation?” Langdon asked.

“They will not be amused. One of them in particular.” Kirsch locked eyes with Langdon. “The cleric who convened our meeting was Bishop Antonio Valdespino. Do you know of him?”

Langdon tensed. “From Madrid?”

Kirsch nodded. “One and the same.”

Probably not the ideal audience for Edmond’s radical atheism, Langdon thought. Valdespino was a powerful figure in the Spanish Catholic Church, known for his deeply conservative views and strong influence over the king of Spain.

“He was host of the parliament this year,” Kirsch said, “and therefore the one I spoke to about arranging a meeting. He offered to come personally, and I asked him to bring representatives from Islam and Judaism.”

The lights overhead faded again.

Kirsch sighed heavily, lowering his voice further. “Robert, the reason I wanted to speak to you before my presentation is that I need your advice. I need to know if you believe that Bishop Valdespino is dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” Langdon said. “In what way?”

“What I showed him threatens his world, and I want to know if you think I’m in any physical danger from him.”

Langdon immediately shook his head. “No, impossible. I’m not sure what you said to him, but Valdespino is a pillar of Spanish Catholicism, and his ties to the Spanish royal family make him extremely influential … but he’s a priest, not a hit man. He wields political power. He may preach a sermon against you, but I would find it very hard to believe that you are in any physical danger from him.”

Kirsch looked unconvinced. “You should have seen the way he looked at me as I left Montserrat.”

“You sat in that monastery’s sacrosanct library and told a bishop that his entire belief system is delusional!” Langdon exclaimed. “Did you expect him to serve you tea and cake?”

“No,” Edmond admitted, “but I also didn’t expect him to leave me a threatening voice mail after our meeting.”

“Bishop Valdespino called you?”

Kirsch reached into his leather jacket and pulled out an unusually large smartphone. It had a bright turquoise case adorned with a repeating hexagonal pattern, which Langdon recognized as a famous tiled pattern designed by the modernist Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

“Have a listen,” Kirsch said, pressing a few buttons and holding up the phone. An elderly man’s voice crackled tersely out of the speaker, his tone severe and dead serious:

Mr. Kirsch, this is Bishop Antonio Valdespino. As you know, I found our meeting this morning profoundly disturbing–as did my two colleagues. I urge you to call me immediately so we can discuss this further, and I can again warn you of the dangers of going public with this information. If you do not call, be advised that my colleagues and I will consider a preemptive announcement to share your discoveries, reframe them, discredit them, and attempt to reverse the untold damage you are about to cause the world … damage that you clearly do not foresee. I await your call, and I strongly suggest you not test my resolve.

The message ended.

Langdon had to admit he was startled by Valdespino’s aggressive tone, and yet the voice mail did not so much frighten him as it deepened his curiosity about Edmond’s impending announcement. “So, how did you respond?”

“I didn’t,” Edmond said, slipping the phone back into his pocket. “I saw it as an idle threat. I was certain they wanted to bury this information, not announce it themselves. Moreover, I knew the sudden timing of tonight’s presentation was going to take them by surprise, so I wasn’t overly concerned about their taking preemptive action.” He paused, eyeing Langdon. “Now … I don’t know, something about his tone of voice … it’s just been on my mind.”

“Are you worried you’re in danger here? Tonight?”

“No, no, the guest list has been tightly controlled, and this building has excellent security. I’m more worried about what happens once I go public.” Edmond seemed suddenly sorry he’d mentioned it. “It’s silly. Preshow jitters. I just wanted to get your gut instinct.”

Langdon studied his friend with mounting concern. Edmond looked unusually pale and troubled. “My gut tells me Valdespino would never place you in danger, no matter how angry you made him.”

The lights dimmed again, insistently now.

“Okay, thank you.” Kirsch checked his watch. “I need to go, but can you and I meet later? There are some aspects of this discovery I’d like to discuss further with you.”

“Of course.”

“Perfect. Things are going to be chaotic after the presentation, so you and I will need someplace private to escape the mayhem and talk.” Edmond took out a business card and started writing on the back. “After the presentation, hail a cab and give this card to the driver. Any local driver will understand where to bring you.” He handed Langdon the business card.

Langdon expected to see the address of a local hotel or restaurant on the back. Instead he saw what looked more like a cipher.

BIO-EC346

“I’m sorry, give this to a taxi driver?”

“Yes, he’ll know where to go. I’ll tell security there to expect you, and I’ll be along as quickly as possible.”

Security? Langdon frowned, wondering if BIO-EC346 were the code name for some secret science club.

“It’s a painfully simple code, my friend.” He winked. “You of all people should be able to crack it. And, by the way, just so you’re not taken off guard, you’ll be playing a role in my announcement tonight.”

Langdon was surprised. “What kind of role?”

“Don’t worry. You won’t have to do a thing.”

With that, Edmond Kirsch headed across the floor toward the spiral’s exit. “I’ve got to dash backstage–but Winston will guide you up.” He paused in the doorway and turned. “I’ll see you after the event. And let’s hope you’re right about Valdespino.”

“Edmond, relax. Focus on your presentation. You’re not in any danger from religious clerics,” Langdon assured him.

Kirsch didn’t look convinced. “You may feel differently, Robert, when you hear what I’m about to say.”

CHAPTER 10

THE HOLY SEAT of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madrid–Catedral de la Almudena–is a robust neoclassical cathedral situated adjacent to Madrid’s Royal Palace. Built on the site of an ancient mosque, Almudena Cathedral derives its name from the Arabic al-mudayna, meaning “citadel.”

According to legend, when Alfonso VI seized Madrid back from the Muslims in 1083, he became fixated on relocating a precious lost icon of the Virgin Mary that had been entombed in the walls of the citadel for safekeeping. Unable to locate the hidden Virgin, Alfonso prayed intently until a section of the citadel’s wall exploded, falling away, and revealed the icon inside, still lit by the burning candles with which she had been entombed centuries ago.

Today, the Virgin of Almudena is the patron saint of Madrid, and pilgrims and tourists alike flock to mass at Almudena Cathedral for the privilege of praying before her likeness. The church’s dramatic location–sharing the Royal Palace’s main plaza–provides an added attraction to churchgoers: the possibility of glimpsing royalty coming or going from the palace.

Tonight, deep inside the cathedral, a young acolyte was rushing through the hallway in a panic.

Where is Bishop Valdespino?!

Services are about to begin!

For decades, Bishop Antonio Valdespino had been head priest and overseer of this cathedral. A longtime friend and spiritual counselor to the king, Valdespino was an outspoken and devout traditionalist with almost no tolerance for modernization. Incredibly, the eighty-three-year-old bishop still donned ankle shackles during Holy Week and joined the faithful carrying icons through the city streets.

Valdespino, of all people, is never late for mass.

The acolyte had been with the bishop twenty minutes ago in the vestry, assisting him with his robes as usual. Just as they finished, the bishop had received a text and, without a word, had hurried out.

Where did he go?

Having searched the sanctuary, the vestry, and even the bishop’s private restroom, the acolyte was now running at a sprint down the hallway to the administrative section of the cathedral to check the bishop’s office.

He heard a pipe organ thunder to life in the distance.

The processional hymn is starting!

The acolyte skidded to a stop outside the bishop’s private office, startled to see a shaft of light beneath his closed door. He’s here?!

The acolyte knocked quietly. “?Excelencia Reverendisima?”

No answer.

Knocking louder, he called out, “!?Su Excelencia?!”

Still nothing.

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