The frenzied convoy that plunged back into the basilica to retrieve the camerlegno was not one Langdon had ever imagined he would be part of... much less leading. But he had been closest to the door and had acted on instinct.
He'll die in here, Langdon thought, sprinting over the threshold into the darkened void. "Camerlegno! Stop!"
The wall of blackness that hit Langdon was absolute. His pupils were contracted from the glare outside, and his field of vision now extended no farther than a few feet before his face. He skidded to a stop. Somewhere in the blackness ahead, he heard the camerlegno's cassock rustle as the priest ran blindly into the abyss.
Vittoria and the guards arrived immediately. Flashlights came on, but the lights were almost dead now and did not even begin to probe the depths of the basilica before them. The beams swept back and forth, revealing only columns and bare floor. The camerlegno was nowhere to be seen.
"Camerlegno!" Chartrand yelled, fear in his voice. "Wait! Signore!"
A commotion in the doorway behind them caused everyone to turn. Chinita Macri's large frame lurched through the entry. Her camera was shouldered, and the glowing red light on top revealed that it was still transmitting. Glick was running behind her, microphone in hand, yelling for her to slow down.
Langdon could not believe these two. This is not the time!
"Out!" Chartrand snapped. "This is not for your eyes!"
But Macri and Glick kept coming.
"Chinita!" Glick sounded fearful now. "This is suicide! I'm not coming!"
Macri ignored him. She threw a switch on her camera. The spotlight on top glared to life, blinding everyone.
Langdon shielded his face and turned away in pain. Damn it! When he looked up, though, the church around them was illuminated for thirty yards.
At that moment the camerlegno's voice echoed somewhere in the distance. "Upon this rock I will build my church!"
Macri wheeled her camera toward the sound. Far off, in the grayness at the end of the spotlight's reach, black fabric billowed, revealing a familiar form running down the main aisle of the basilica.
There was a fleeting instant of hesitation as everyone's eyes took in the bizarre image. Then the dam broke. Chartrand pushed past Langdon and sprinted after the camerlegno. Langdon took off next. Then the guards and Vittoria.
Macri brought up the rear, lighting everyone's way and transmitting the sepulchral chase to the world. An unwilling Glick cursed aloud as he tagged along, fumbling through a terrified blow-by-blow commentary.
The main aisle of St. Peter's Basilica, Lieutenant Chartrand had once figured out, was longer than an Olympic soccer field. Tonight, however, it felt like twice that. As the guard sprinted after the camerlegno, he wondered where the man was headed. The camerlegno was clearly in shock, delirious no doubt from his physical trauma and bearing witness to the horrific massacre in the Pope's office.
Somewhere up ahead, beyond the reach of the BBC spotlight, the camerlegno's voice rang out joyously. "Upon this rock I will build my church!"
Chartrand knew the man was shouting Scripture - Matthew 16:18, if Chartrand recalled correctly. Upon this rock I will build my church. It was an almost cruelly inapt inspiration - the church was about to be destroyed. Surely the camerlegno had gone mad.
Or had he?
For a fleeting instant, Chartrand's soul fluttered. Holy visions and divine messages had always seemed like wishful delusions to him - the product of overzealous minds hearing what they wanted to hear - God did not interact directly!
A moment later, though, as if the Holy Spirit Himself had descended to persuade Chartrand of His power, Chartrand had a vision.
Fifty yards ahead, in the center of the church, a ghost appeared... a diaphanous, glowing outline. The pale shape was that of the half-naked camerlegno. The specter seemed transparent, radiating light. Chartrand staggered to a stop, feeling a knot tighten in his chest. The camerlegno is glowing! The body seemed to shine brighter now. Then, it began to sink... deeper and deeper, until it disappeared as if by magic into the blackness of the floor.
Langdon had seen the phantom also. For a moment, he too thought he had witnessed a magical vision. But as he passed the stunned Chartrand and ran toward the spot where the camerlegno had disappeared, he realized what had just happened. The camerlegno had arrived at the Niche of the Palliums - the sunken chamber lit by ninety-nine oil lamps. The lamps in the niche shone up from beneath, illuminating him like a ghost. Then, as the camerlegno descended the stairs into the light, he had seemed to disappear beneath the floor.
Langdon arrived breathless at the rim overlooking the sunken room. He peered down the stairs. At the bottom, lit by the golden glow of oil lamps, the camerlegno dashed across the marble chamber toward the set of glass doors that led to the room holding the famous golden box.
What is he doing? Langdon wondered. Certainly he can't think the golden box -
The camerlegno yanked open the doors and ran inside. Oddly though, he totally ignored the golden box, rushing right past it. Five feet beyond the box, he dropped to his knees and began struggling to lift an iron grate embedded in the floor.
Langdon watched in horror, now realizing where the camerlegno was headed. Good God, no! He dashed down the stairs after him. "Father! Don't!"
As Langdon opened the glass doors and ran toward the camerlegno, he saw the camerlegno heave on the grate. The hinged, iron bulkhead fell open with a deafening crash, revealing a narrow shaft and a steep stairway that dropped into nothingness. As the camerlegno moved toward the hole, Langdon grabbed his bare shoulders and pulled him back. The man's skin was slippery with sweat, but Langdon held on.
The camerlegno wheeled, obviously startled. "What are you doing!"
Langdon was surprised when their eyes met. The camerlegno no longer had the glazed look of a man in a trance. His eyes were keen, glistening with a lucid determination. The brand on his chest looked excruciating.
"Father," Langdon urged, as calmly as possible, "you can't go down there. We need to evacuate."
"My son," the camerlegno said, his voice eerily sane. "I have just had a message. I know - "
"Camerlegno!" It was Chartrand and the others. They came dashing down the stairs into the room, lit by Macri's camera.
When Chartrand saw the open grate in the floor, his eyes filled with dread. He crossed himself and shot Langdon a thankful look for having stopped the camerlegno. Langdon understood; had read enough about Vatican architecture to know what lay beneath that grate. It was the most sacred place in all of Christendom. Terra Santa. Holy Ground. Some called it the Necropolis. Some called it the Catacombs. According to accounts from the select few clergy who had descended over the years, the Necropolis was a dark maze of subterranean crypts that could swallow a visitor whole if he lost his way. It was not the kind of place through which they wanted to be chasing the camerlegno.
"Signore," Chartrand pleaded. "You're in shock. We need to leave this place. You cannot go down there. It's suicide."
The camerlegno seemed suddenly stoic. He reached out and put a quiet hand on Chartrand's shoulder. "Thank you for your concern and service. I cannot tell you how. I cannot tell you I understand. But I have had a revelation. I know where the antimatter is."
The camerlegno turned to the group. "Upon this rock I will build my church. That was the message. The meaning is clear."
Langdon was still unable to comprehend the camerlegno's conviction that he had spoken to God, much less that he had deciphered the message. Upon this rock I will build my church? They were the words spoken by Jesus when he chose Peter as his first apostle. What did they have to do with anything?
Macri moved in for a closer shot. Glick was mute, as if shell-shocked.
The camerlegno spoke quickly now. "The Illuminati have placed their tool of destruction on the very cornerstone of this church. At the foundation." He motioned down the stairs. "On the very rock upon which this church was built. And I know where that rock is."
Langdon was certain the time had come to overpower the camerlegno and carry him off. As lucid as he seemed, the priest was talking nonsense. A rock? The cornerstone in the foundation? The stairway before them didn't lead to the foundation, it led to the necropolis! "The quote is a metaphor, Father! There is no actual rock!"
The camerlegno looked strangely sad. "There is a rock, my son." He pointed into the hole. "Pietro e la pietra."
Langdon froze. In an instant it all came clear.
The austere simplicity of it gave him chills. As Langdon stood there with the others, staring down the long staircase, he realized that there was indeed a rock buried in the darkness beneath this church.
Pietro e la pietra. Peter is the rock.
Peter's faith in God was so steadfast that Jesus called Peter "the rock" - the unwavering disciple on whose shoulders Jesus would build his church. On this very location, Langdon realized - Vatican Hill - Peter had been crucified and buried. The early Christians built a small shrine over his tomb. As Christianity spread, the shrine got bigger, layer upon layer, culminating in this colossal basilica. The entire Catholic faith had been built, quite literally, upon St. Peter. The rock.
"The antimatter is on St. Peter's tomb," the camerlegno said, his voice crystalline.
Despite the seemingly supernatural origin of the information, Langdon sensed a stark logic in it. Placing the antimatter on St. Peter's tomb seemed painfully obvious now. The Illuminati, in an act of symbolic defiance, had located the antimatter at the core of Christendom, both literally and figuratively. The ultimate infiltration.
"And if you all need worldly proof," the camerlegno said, sounding impatient now, "I just found that grate unlocked." He pointed to the open bulkhead in the floor. "It is never unlocked. Someone has been down there... recently."
Everyone stared into the hole.
An instant later, with deceptive agility, the camerlegno spun, grabbed an oil lamp, and headed for the opening.
The stone steps declined steeply into the earth.
I'm going to die down here, Vittoria thought, gripping the heavy rope banister as she bounded down the cramped passageway behind the others. Although Langdon had made a move to stop the camerlegno from entering the shaft, Chartrand had intervened, grabbing Langdon and holding on. Apparently, the young guard was now convinced the camerlegno knew what he was doing.
After a brief scuffle, Langdon had freed himself and pursued the camerlegno with Chartrand close on his heels. Instinctively, Vittoria had dashed after them.
Now she was racing headlong down a precipitous grade where any misplaced step could mean a deadly fall. Far below, she could see the golden glow of the camerlegno's oil lamp. Behind her, Vittoria could hear the BBC reporters hurrying to keep up. The camera spotlight threw gnarled shadows beyond her down the shaft, illuminating Chartrand and Langdon. Vittoria could scarcely believe the world was bearing witness to this insanity. Turn off the damn camera! Then again, she knew the light was the only reason any of them could see where they were going.
As the bizarre chase continued, Vittoria's thoughts whipped like a tempest. What could the camerlegno possibly do down here? Even if he found the antimatter? There was no time!
Vittoria was surprised to find her intuition now telling her the camerlegno was probably right. Placing the antimatter three stories beneath the earth seemed an almost noble and merciful choice. Deep underground - much as in Z-lab - an antimatter annihilation would be partially contained. There would be no heat blast, no flying shrapnel to injure onlookers, just a biblical opening of the earth and a towering basilica crumbling into a crater.
Was this Kohler's one act of decency? Sparing lives? Vittoria still could not fathom the director's involvement. She could accept his hatred of religion... but this awesome conspiracy seemed beyond him. Was Kohler's loathing really this profound? Destruction of the Vatican? Hiring an assassin? The murders of her father, the Pope, and four cardinals? It seemed unthinkable. And how had Kohler managed all this treachery within the Vatican walls? Rocher was Kohler's inside man, Vittoria told herself. Rocher was an Illuminatus. No doubt Captain Rocher had keys to everything - the Pope's chambers, Il Passetto, the Necropolis, St. Peter's tomb, all of it. He could have placed the antimatter on St. Peter's tomb - a highly restricted locale - and then commanded his guards not to waste time searching the Vatican's restricted areas. Rocher knew nobody would ever find the canister.
But Rocher never counted on the camerlegno's message from above.
The message. This was the leap of faith Vittoria was still struggling to accept. Had God actually communicated with the camerlegno? Vittoria's gut said no, and yet hers was the science of entanglement physics - the study of interconnectedness. She witnessed miraculous communications every day - twin sea-turtle eggs separated and placed in labs thousands of miles apart hatching at the same instant... acres of jellyfish pulsating in perfect rhythm as if of a single mind. There are invisible lines of communication everywhere, she thought.
But between God and man?
Vittoria wished her father were there to give her faith. He had once explained divine communication to her in scientific terms, and he had made her believe. She still remembered the day she had seen him praying and asked him, "Father, why do you bother to pray? God cannot answer you."
Leonardo Vetra had looked up from his meditations with a paternal smile. "My daughter the skeptic. So you don't believe God speaks to man? Let me put it in your language." He took a model of the human brain down from a shelf and set it in front of her. "As you probably know, Vittoria, human beings normally use a very small percentage of their brain power. However, if you put them in emotionally charged situations - like physical trauma, extreme joy or fear, deep meditation - all of a sudden their neurons start firing like crazy, resulting in massively enhanced mental clarity."
"So what?" Vittoria said. "Just because you think clearly doesn't mean you talk to God."
"Aha!" Vetra exclaimed. "And yet remarkable solutions to seemingly impossible problems often occur in these moments of clarity. It's what gurus call higher consciousness. Biologists call it altered states. Psychologists call it super-sentience." He paused. "And Christians call it answered prayer." Smiling broadly, he added, "Sometimes, divine revelation simply means adjusting your brain to hear what your heart already knows."
Now, as she dashed down, headlong into the dark, Vittoria sensed perhaps her father was right. Was it so hard to believe that the camerlegno's trauma had put his mind in a state where he had simply "realized" the antimatter's location?
Each of us is a God, Buddha had said. Each of us knows all. We need only open our minds to hear our own wisdom.
It was in that moment of clarity, as Vittoria plunged deeper into the earth, that she felt her own mind open... her own wisdom surface. She sensed now without a doubt what the camerlegno's intentions were. Her awareness brought with it a fear like nothing she had ever known.
"Camerlegno, no!" she shouted down the passage. "You don't understand!" Vittoria pictured the multitudes of people surrounding Vatican City, and her blood ran cold. "If you bring the antimatter up... everyone will die!"
Langdon was leaping three steps at a time now, gaining ground. The passage was cramped, but he felt no claustrophobia. His once debilitating fear was overshadowed by a far deeper dread.
"Camerlegno!" Langdon felt himself closing the gap on the lantern's glow. "You must leave the antimatter where it is! There's no other choice!"
Even as Langdon spoke the words, he could not believe them. Not only had he accepted the camerlegno's divine revelation of the antimatter's location, but he was lobbying for the destruction of St. Peter's Basilica - one of the greatest architectural feats on earth... as well as all of the art inside.
But the people outside... it's the only way.
It seemed a cruel irony that the only way to save the people now was to destroy the church. Langdon figured the Illuminati were amused by the symbolism.
The air coming up from the bottom of the tunnel was cool and dank. Somewhere down here was the sacred necropolis... burial place of St. Peter and countless other early Christians. Langdon felt a chill, hoping this was not a suicide mission.
Suddenly, the camerlegno's lantern seemed to halt. Langdon closed on him fast.
The end of the stairs loomed abruptly from out of the shadows. A wrought-iron gate with three embossed skulls blocked the bottom of the stairs. The camerlegno was there, pulling the gate open. Langdon leapt, pushing the gate shut, blocking the camerlegno's way. The others came thundering down the stairs, everyone ghostly white in the BBC spotlight... especially Glick, who was looking more pasty with every step.
Chartrand grabbed Langdon. "Let the camerlegno pass!"
"No!" Vittoria said from above, breathless. "We must evacuate right now! You cannot take the antimatter out of here! If you bring it up, everyone outside will die!"
The camerlegno's voice was remarkably calm. "All of you... we must trust. We have little time."
"You don't understand," Vittoria said. "An explosion at ground level will be much worse than one down here!"
The camerlegno looked at her, his green eyes resplendently sane. "Who said anything about an explosion at ground level?"
Vittoria stared. "You're leaving it down here?"
The camerlegno's certitude was hypnotic. "There will be no more death tonight."
"Father, but - "
"Please... some faith." The camerlegno's voice plunged to a compelling hush. "I am not asking anyone to join me. You are all free to go. All I am asking is that you not interfere with His bidding. Let me do what I have been called to do." The camerlegno's stare intensified. "I am to save this church. And I can. I swear on my life."
The silence that followed might as well have been thunder.
Necropolis literally means City of the Dead.
Nothing Robert Langdon had ever read about this place prepared him for the sight of it. The colossal subterranean hollow was filled with crumbling mausoleums, like small houses on the floor of a cave. The air smelled lifeless. An awkward grid of narrow walkways wound between the decaying memorials, most of which were fractured brick with marble platings. Like columns of dust, countless pillars of unexcavated earth rose up, supporting a dirt sky, which hung low over the penumbral hamlet.
City of the dead, Langdon thought, feeling trapped between academic wonder and raw fear. He and the others dashed deeper down the winding passages. Did I make the wrong choice?
Chartrand had been the first to fall under the camerlegno's spell, yanking open the gate and declaring his faith in the camerlegno. Glick and Macri, at the camerlegno's suggestion, had nobly agreed to provide light to the quest, although considering what accolades awaited them if they got out of here alive, their motivations were certainly suspect. Vittoria had been the least eager of all, and Langdon had seen in her eyes a wariness that looked, unsettlingly, a lot like female intuition.
It's too late now, he thought, he and Vittoria dashing after the others. We're committed.
Vittoria was silent, but Langdon knew they were thinking the same thing. Nine minutes is not enough time to get the hell out of Vatican City if the camerlegno is wrong.
As they ran on through the mausoleums, Langdon felt his legs tiring, noting to his surprise that the group was ascending a steady incline. The explanation, when it dawned on him, sent shivers to his core. The topography beneath his feet was that of Christ's time. He was running up the original Vatican Hill! Langdon had heard Vatican scholars claim that St. Peter's tomb was near the top of Vatican Hill, and he had always wondered how they knew. Now he understood. The damn hill is still here!
Langdon felt like he was running through the pages of history. Somewhere ahead was St. Peter's tomb - the Christian relic. It was hard to imagine that the original grave had been marked only with a modest shrine. Not any more. As Peter's eminence spread, new shrines were built on top of the old, and now, the homage stretched 440 feet overhead to the top of Michelangelo's dome, the apex positioned directly over the original tomb within a fraction of an inch.
They continued ascending the sinuous passages. Langdon checked his watch. Eight minutes. He was beginning to wonder if he and Vittoria would be joining the deceased here permanently.
"Look out!" Glick yelled from behind them. "Snake holes!"
Langdon saw it in time. A series of small holes riddled the path before them. He leapt, just clearing them.
Vittoria jumped too, barely avoiding the narrow hollows. She looked uneasy as they ran on. "Snake holes?"
"Snack holes, actually," Langdon corrected. "Trust me, you don't want to know." The holes, he had just realized, were libation tubes. The early Christians had believed in the resurrection of the flesh, and they'd used the holes to literally "feed the dead" by pouring milk and honey into crypts beneath the floor.
The camerlegno felt weak.
He dashed onward, his legs finding strength in his duty to God and man. Almost there. He was in incredible pain. The mind can bring so much more pain than the body. Still he felt tired. He knew he had precious little time.
"I will save your church, Father. I swear it."
Despite the BBC lights behind him, for which he was grateful, the camerlegno carried his oil lamp high. I am a beacon in the darkness. I am the light. The lamp sloshed as he ran, and for an instant he feared the flammable oil might spill and burn him. He had experienced enough burned flesh for one evening.
As he approached the top of the hill, he was drenched in sweat, barely able to breathe. But when he emerged over the crest, he felt reborn. He staggered onto the flat piece of earth where he had stood many times. Here the path ended. The necropolis came to an abrupt halt at a wall of earth. A tiny marker read: Mausoleum S.
La tomba di San Pietro.
Before him, at waist level, was an opening in the wall. There was no gilded plaque here. No fanfare. Just a simple hole in the wall, beyond which lay a small grotto and a meager, crumbling sarcophagus. The camerlegno gazed into the hole and smiled in exhaustion. He could hear the others coming up the hill behind him. He set down his oil lamp and knelt to pray.
Thank you, God. It is almost over.
Outside in the square, surrounded by astounded cardinals, Cardinal Mortati stared up at the media screen and watched the drama unfold in the crypt below. He no longer knew what to believe. Had the entire world just witnessed what he had seen? Had God truly spoken to the camerlegno? Was the antimatter really going to appear on St. Peter's -
"Look!" A gasp went up from the throngs.
"There!" Everyone was suddenly pointing at the screen. "It's a miracle!"
Mortati looked up. The camera angle was unsteady, but it was clear enough. The image was unforgettable.
Filmed from behind, the camerlegno was kneeling in prayer on the earthen floor. In front of him was a rough-hewn hole in the wall. Inside the hollow, among the rubble of ancient stone, was a terra cotta casket. Although Mortati had seen the coffin only once in his life, he knew beyond a doubt what it contained.
Mortati was not naive enough to think that the shouts of joy and amazement now thundering through the crowd were exaltations from bearing witness to one of Christianity's most sacred relics. St. Peter's tomb was not what had people falling to their knees in spontaneous prayer and thanksgiving. It was the object on top of his tomb.
The antimatter canister. It was there... where it had been all day... hiding in the darkness of the Necropolis. Sleek. Relentless. Deadly. The camerlegno's revelation was correct.
Mortati stared in wonder at the transparent cylinder. The globule of liquid still hovered at its core. The grotto around the canister blinked red as the LED counted down into its final five minutes of life.
Also sitting on the tomb, inches away from the canister, was the wireless Swiss Guard security camera that had been pointed at the canister and transmitting all along.
Mortati crossed himself, certain this was the most frightful image he had seen in his entire life. He realized, a moment later, however, that it was about to get worse.
The camerlegno stood suddenly. He grabbed the antimatter in his hands and wheeled toward the others. His face showing total focus. He pushed past the others and began descending the Necropolis the way he had come, running down the hill.
The camera caught Vittoria Vetra, frozen in terror. "Where are you going! Camerlegno! I thought you said - "
"Have faith!" he exclaimed as he ran off.
Vittoria spun toward Langdon. "What do we do?"
Robert Langdon tried to stop the camerlegno, but Chartrand was running interference now, apparently trusting the camerlegno's conviction.
The picture coming from the BBC camera was like a roller coaster ride now, winding, twisting. Fleeting freeze-frames of confusion and terror as the chaotic cortege stumbled through the shadows back toward the Necropolis entrance.
Out in the square, Mortati let out a fearful gasp. "Is he bringing that up here?"
On televisions all over the world, larger than life, the camerlegno raced upward out of the Necropolis with the antimatter before him. "There will be no more death tonight!"
But the camerlegno was wrong.