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The woman closed her eyes a moment, as if to gather herself, and then she opened them again, a portrait of poise.
The cameraman held up five fingers.
Four, three, two …
The room fell completely silent as the woman raised her eyes to the camera. The LCD display dissolved into a live image of her face. She fixed the audience with spirited dark eyes as she casually brushed a strand of hair from her olive-toned cheek.
“Good evening, everyone,” she began, her voice cultured and gracious, with a light Spanish accent. “My name is Ambra Vidal.”
An unusually loud burst of applause erupted in the room, making it apparent that a good number of people knew who she was.
“!Felicidades!” someone shouted. Congratulations!
The woman blushed, and Langdon sensed there was some piece of information he was missing.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, quickly pressing on, “for the past five years, I have been the director of this Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and I am here tonight to welcome you to an incredibly special evening presented by a truly remarkable man.”
The crowd applauded enthusiastically, and Langdon joined them.
“Edmond Kirsch is not only a generous patron of this museum, but he has become a trusted friend. It has been a privilege and a personal honor for me to have been able to work so closely with him over the past few months to plan the events of this evening. I’ve just checked, and social media is buzzing around the world! As many of you have no doubt heard by now, Edmond Kirsch is planning to make a major scientific announcement tonight–a discovery that he believes will be forever remembered as his greatest contribution to the world.”
A murmur of excitement shot through the room.
The dark-haired woman smiled playfully. “Of course, I begged Edmond to tell me what he had discovered, but he refused to give even a hint.”
A round of laughter was followed by more applause.
“Tonight’s special event,” she continued, “will be presented in English–Mr. Kirsch’s native language–although for those of you attending virtually, we are offering real-time translation in more than twenty languages.”
The LCD screen refreshed, and Ambra added, “And if anyone ever doubted Edmond’s self-confidence, here is the automated press release that went out fifteen minutes ago to social media around the globe.”
Langdon eyed the LCD screen.
Tonight: Live. 20:00 hours CEST
Futurist Edmond Kirsch to announce discovery that will change the face of science forever.
So that’s how you get three million viewers in a matter of minutes, Langdon mused.
As he returned his attention to the podium, Langdon spotted two people he had not noticed earlier–a pair of stone-faced security guards standing at full attention against the sidewall, scanning the crowd. Langdon was surprised to see the monogrammed initials on their matching blue blazers.
The Guardia Real?! What is the king’s Royal Guard doing here tonight?
It seemed unlikely that any member of the royal family would be in attendance; as staunch Catholics, the royals would almost certainly eschew public association with an atheist like Edmond Kirsch.
The king of Spain, as a parliamentary monarch, held very limited official power, and yet he retained enormous influence over the hearts and minds of his people. For millions of Spaniards, the crown still stood as a symbol of the rich Catholic tradition of los reyes catolicos and Spain’s Golden Age. The Royal Palace of Madrid still shone as a spiritual compass and monument to a long history of stalwart religious conviction.
Langdon had heard it said in Spain: “Parliament rules, but the king reigns.” For centuries, the kings who had presided over Spain’s diplomatic affairs had all been deeply devout, conservative Catholics. And the current king is no exception, Langdon thought, having read of the man’s deep religious convictions and conservative values.
In recent months, the aging monarch was reported to be bedridden and dying, with his country now preparing for the eventual transition of power to his only son, Julian. According to the press, Prince Julian was something of an unknown quantity, having lived quietly in the long shadow of his father, and now the country was wondering what kind of ruler he would turn out to be.
Did Prince Julian send Guardia agents to scout Edmond’s event? Langdon flashed again on Edmond’s threatening voice mail from Bishop Valdespino. Despite Langdon’s concerns, he sensed the atmosphere in the room was amiable, enthusiastic, and safe. He recalled Edmond telling him that tonight’s security was incredibly tight–so perhaps Spain’s Guardia Real was an additional layer of protection to ensure that the evening went smoothly.
“For those of you who are familiar with Edmond Kirsch’s passion for the dramatic,” Ambra Vidal continued, “you know he would never plan to have us stand in this sterile room for long.”
She motioned to a set of closed double doors on the far side of the room.
“Through those doors, Edmond Kirsch has constructed an ‘experiential space’ in which to present his dynamic multimedia presentation tonight. It is fully automated by computers and will be streamed live around the entire world.” She paused to check her gold watch. “Tonight’s event is carefully timed, and Edmond has asked that I get you all inside so we can begin precisely at eight fifteen, which is only minutes away.” She pointed to the double doors. “So if you would, ladies and gentlemen, please move inside, and we will see what the amazing Edmond Kirsch has in store for us.”
On cue, the double doors swung open.
Langdon peered beyond them, expecting to see another gallery. Instead, he found himself startled by what lay beyond. Through the doors, there appeared to be a deep dark tunnel.
Admiral Avila hung back as throngs of guests began jostling excitedly toward the dimly lit passageway. As he peered into the tunnel, he was pleased to see that the space beyond was dark.
Darkness would make his task a great deal easier.
Touching the rosary beads in his pocket, he gathered his thoughts, going over the details he had just been given regarding his mission.
Timing will be critical.
FASHIONED OF BLACK fabric that was stretched across supportive arches, the tunnel was about twenty feet wide and sloped gently upward to the left. The tunnel floor was covered with plush black carpet, and two strands of strip lighting along the base of the walls provided the only illumination.
“Shoes, please,” a docent whispered to the new arrivals. “Everyone please remove your shoes, and carry them with you.”
Langdon stepped out of his patent-leather dress shoes, and his stocking feet sank deep into the remarkably soft carpet. He felt his body relax instinctively. All around him, he heard appreciative sighs.
As he padded farther down the passage, Langdon finally saw the end–a black curtain barrier where guests were being greeted by docents who handed each of them what appeared to be a thick beach towel before ushering them through the curtain.
Inside the tunnel, the earlier buzz of anticipation had now dissolved into uncertain silence. As Langdon arrived at the curtain, a docent handed him a folded piece of fabric, which he realized was not a beach towel but rather a small plush blanket with a pillow sewn into one end. Langdon thanked the docent and stepped through the curtain into the space beyond.
For the second time tonight, he was forced to stop in his tracks. Although Langdon could not say what he had imagined he would see beyond the curtain, it most certainly was nothing close to the scene now before him.
Are we … outdoors?
Langdon was standing on the edge of an expansive field. Above him stretched a dazzling sky of stars, and in the distance, a slender crescent moon was just rising behind a lone maple tree. Crickets chirped and a warm breeze caressed his face, the wafting air thick with the earthy scent of freshly cut grass beneath his stocking feet.
“Sir?” a docent whispered, taking his arm and guiding him into the field. “Please find a space here on the grass. Lay out your blanket, and enjoy.”
Langdon padded out into the field along with the other equally flabbergasted guests, most of whom were now choosing spots on the vast lawn to spread out their blankets. The manicured grassy area was about the size of a hockey rink and bounded all around by trees, fescue, and cattails, which rustled in the breeze.
It had taken Langdon several moments to realize this was all an illusion–a tremendous work of art.
I’m inside an elaborate planetarium, he thought, marveling at the impeccable attention to detail.
The star-filled sky above was a projection, complete with a moon, scudding clouds, and distant rolling hills. The rustling trees and grasses were truly there–either superb fakes or a small forest of living plants in concealed pots. This nebulous perimeter of vegetation cleverly disguised the enormous room’s hard edges, giving the impression of a natural environment.
Langdon crouched down and felt the grass, which was soft and lifelike, but entirely dry. He’d read about the new synthetic turfs that were fooling even professional athletes, and yet Kirsch had gone a step further and created slightly uneven ground, with small swales and mounds as in a real meadow.
Langdon recalled the first time he had been fooled by his senses. He was a child in a small boat drifting through a moonlit harbor where a pirate ship was engaged in a deafening cannon battle. Langdon’s young mind had been incapable of accepting that he was not in a harbor at all, but in fact he was in a cavernous underground theater that had been flooded with water to create this illusion for the classic Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean.
Tonight, the effect was staggeringly realistic, and as the guests around him took it in, Langdon could see that their wonder and delight mirrored his own. He had to give Edmond credit–not so much for creating this amazing illusion, but for persuading hundreds of adults to kick off their fancy shoes, lie down on the lawn, and gaze up at the heavens.
We used to do this as kids, but somewhere along the way, we stopped.
Langdon reclined and placed his head on the pillow, letting his body melt into the soft grass.
Overhead, the stars twinkled, and for an instant, Langdon was a teenager again, lying on the lush fairways of the Bald Peak golf course at midnight with his best friend, pondering the mysteries of life. With a little luck, Langdon mused, Edmond Kirsch might solve some of those mysteries for us tonight.
At the rear of the theater, Admiral Luis Avila took one final survey of the room and moved silently backward, slipping out unseen through the same curtain through which he had just entered. Alone in the entry tunnel, he ran a hand along the fabric walls until he located a seam. As quietly as possible, he pulled apart the Velcro closure, stepped through the wall, and resealed the cloth behind him.
All illusions evaporated.
Avila was no longer standing in a meadow.
He was in an enormous rectangular space that was dominated by a sprawling oval-shaped bubble. A room built within a room. The construction before him–a domed theater of sorts–was surrounded by a towering exoskeleton of scaffolding that supported a tangle of cables, lights, and audio speakers. Pointing inward, a shimmering array of video projectors glowed in unison, casting wide beams of light downward onto the translucent surface of the dome, and creating the illusion within of a starlit sky and rolling hills.
Avila admired Kirsch’s knack for drama, although the futurist could never have imagined just how dramatic his night would soon turn out to be.
Remember what is at stake. You are a soldier in a noble war. Part of a greater whole.
Avila had rehearsed this mission in his mind numerous times. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the oversized rosary beads. At that moment, from an overhead bank of speakers inside the dome, a man’s voice thundered down like the voice of God.
“Good evening, friends. My name is Edmond Kirsch.”
IN BUDAPEST, RABBI Koves paced nervously in the dim light of his haziko study. Clutching his TV remote, he flipped anxiously through the channels as he awaited further news from Bishop Valdespino.
On television, several news channels had interrupted their regular programming during the past ten minutes to carry the live feed coming out of the Guggenheim. Commentators were discussing Kirsch’s accomplishments and speculating about his mysterious upcoming announcement. Koves cringed at the snowballing level of interest.
I have seen this announcement already.
Three days ago, on the mountain of Montserrat, Edmond Kirsch had previewed an alleged “rough-cut” version for Koves, al-Fadl, and Valdespino. Now, Koves suspected, the world was about to see the same exact program.
Tonight everything will change, he thought sadly.
The phone rang and jolted Koves from his contemplation. He seized the handset.
Valdespino began without preamble. “Yehuda, I’m afraid I have some more bad news.” In a somber voice, he conveyed a bizarre report that was now coming out of the United Arab Emirates.
Koves covered his mouth in horror. “Allamah al-Fadl … committed suicide?”
“That is what the authorities are speculating. He was found a short time ago, deep in the desert … as if he had simply walked out there to die.” Valdespino paused. “All I can guess is that the strain of the last few days was too much for him.”
Koves considered the possibility, feeling a wave of heartbreak and confusion. He too had been struggling with the implications of Kirsch’s discovery, and yet the idea that Allamah al-Fadl would kill himself in despair seemed wholly unlikely.
“Something is wrong here,” Koves declared. “I don’t believe he would do such a thing.”
Valdespino fell silent for a long time. “I’m glad you said that,” he finally agreed. “I have to admit, I too find it quite difficult to accept that this was a suicide.”
“Then … who could be responsible?”
“Anyone who wanted Edmond Kirsch’s discovery to remain a secret,” the bishop replied quickly. “Someone who believed, as we did, that his announcement was still weeks away.”
“But Kirsch said nobody else knew about the discovery!” Koves argued. “Only you, Allamah al-Fadl, and myself.”
“Maybe Kirsch lied about that too. But even if the three of us are the only ones he told, don’t forget how desperately our friend Syed al-Fadl wanted to go public. It’s possible that the allamah shared information about Kirsch’s discovery with a colleague in the Emirates. And maybe that colleague believed, as I do, that Kirsch’s discovery would have dangerous repercussions.”
“Implying what?” the rabbi demanded angrily. “That an associate of al-Fadl killed him in order to keep this quiet? That’s ridiculous!”
“Rabbi,” the bishop replied calmly, “I certainly don’t know what happened. I’m only trying to imagine answers, as you are.”
Koves exhaled. “I’m sorry. I’m still trying to absorb the news of Syed’s death.”
“As am I. And if Syed was murdered for what he knew, then we need to be careful ourselves. It is possible that you and I are also targeted.”
Koves considered this. “Once the news goes public, we are irrelevant.”
“True, but it is not yet public.”
“Your Grace, the announcement is only minutes away. Every station is carrying it.”
“Yes …” Valdespino let out a tired sigh. “It seems I’ll have to accept that my prayers have gone unanswered.”
Koves wondered if the bishop had literally prayed for God to intervene and change Kirsch’s mind.
“Even when this goes public,” Valdespino said, “we are not safe. I suspect Kirsch will take great pleasure in telling the world that he consulted with religious leaders three days ago. I’m now wondering if an appearance of ethical transparency was his true motive for calling the meeting. And if he mentions us by name, well, you and I will become the focus of intense scrutiny and perhaps even criticism from our own flocks, who might believe we should have taken action. I’m sorry, I’m just …” The bishop hesitated as if he had something more he wanted to say.
“What is it?” Koves pressed.
“We can discuss it later. I’ll phone you again after we witness how Kirsch handles his presentation. Until then, please stay inside. Lock your doors. Speak to nobody. And be safe.”
“You’re worrying me, Antonio.”
“I don’t mean to,” Valdespino replied. “All we can do is wait and see how the world reacts. This is in God’s hands now.”
THE BREEZY MEADOW inside the Guggenheim Museum had grown quiet after Edmond Kirsch’s voice boomed down from the heavens. Hundreds of guests were reclined on blankets, gazing up into a dazzling sky of stars. Robert Langdon lay near the center of the field, caught up in the growing anticipation.
“Tonight, let us be children again,” Kirsch’s voice continued. “Let us lie out beneath the stars, with our minds wide open to all possibilities.”
Langdon could feel the excitement rippling through the crowd.
“Tonight, let us be like the early explorers,” Kirsch declared, “those who left everything behind and set out across vast oceans … those who first glimpsed a land that had never before been seen … those who fell to their knees in awestruck realization that the world was far greater than their philosophies had dared imagine. Their long-held beliefs about their world disintegrated in the face of new discovery. This will be our mind-set tonight.”
Impressive, Langdon mused, curious if Edmond’s narration was pre-recorded or whether Kirsch himself was backstage somewhere reading from a script.
“My friends”–Edmond’s voice resounded above them–“we have all gathered tonight to hear news of an important discovery. I ask your indulgence in allowing me to set the stage. Tonight, as with all shifts in human philosophy, it is critical we understand the historical context into which a moment like this is born.”
Thunder rolled in the distance, right on cue. Langdon could feel the deep bass from the audio speakers rumbling in his gut.
“To help us get acclimated tonight,” Edmond continued, “we are very fortunate to have with us a celebrated scholar–a legend in the world of symbols, codes, history, religion, and art. He is also a dear friend. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Harvard University professor Robert Langdon.”