The security technician held his breath as his commander leaned over his shoulder, studying the bank of security monitors before them. A minute passed.
The commander's silence was to be expected, the technician told himself. The commander was a man of rigid protocol. He had not risen to command one of the world's most elite security forces by talking first and thinking second.
But what is he thinking?
The object they were pondering on the monitor was a canister of some sort - a canister with transparent sides. That much was easy. It was the rest that was difficult.
Inside the container, as if by some special effect, a small droplet of metallic liquid seemed to be floating in midair. The droplet appeared and disappeared in the robotic red blinking of a digital LED descending resolutely, making the technician's skin crawl.
"Can you lighten the contrast?" the commander asked, startling the technician.
The technician heeded the instruction, and the image lightened somewhat. The commander leaned forward, squinting closer at something that had just come visible on the base of the container.
The technician followed his commander's gaze. Ever so faintly, printed next to the LED was an acronym. Four capital letters gleaming in the intermittent spurts of light.
"Stay here," the commander said. "Say nothing. I'll handle this."
Haz-Mat. Fifty meters below ground.
Vittoria Vetra stumbled forward, almost falling into the retina scan. She sensed the American rushing to help her, holding her, supporting her weight. On the floor at her feet, her father's eyeball stared up. She felt the air crushed from her lungs. They cut out his eye! Her world twisted. Kohler pressed close behind, speaking. Langdon guided her. As if in a dream, she found herself gazing into the retina scan. The mechanism beeped.
The door slid open.
Even with the terror of her father's eye boring into her soul, Vittoria sensed an additional horror awaited inside. When she leveled her blurry gaze into the room, she confirmed the next chapter of the nightmare. Before her, the solitary recharging podium was empty.
The canister was gone. They had cut out her father's eye to steal it. The implications came too fast for her to fully comprehend. Everything had backfired. The specimen that was supposed to prove antimatter was a safe and viable energy source had been stolen. But nobody knew this specimen even existed! The truth, however, was undeniable. Someone had found out. Vittoria could not imagine who. Even Kohler, whom they said knew everything at CERN, clearly had no idea about the project.
Her father was dead. Murdered for his genius.
As the grief strafed her heart, a new emotion surged into Vittoria's conscious. This one was far worse. Crushing. Stabbing at her. The emotion was guilt. Uncontrollable, relentless guilt. Vittoria knew it had been she who convinced her father to create the specimen. Against his better judgment. And he had been killed for it.
A quarter of a gram...
Like any technology - fire, gunpowder, the combustion engine - in the wrong hands, antimatter could be deadly. Very deadly. Antimatter was a lethal weapon. Potent, and unstoppable. Once removed from its recharging platform at CERN, the canister would count down inexorably. A runaway train.
And when time ran out...
A blinding light. The roar of thunder. Spontaneous incineration. Just the flash... and an empty crater. A big empty crater.
The image of her father's quiet genius being used as a tool of destruction was like poison in her blood. Antimatter was the ultimate terrorist weapon. It had no metallic parts to trip metal detectors, no chemical signature for dogs to trace, no fuse to deactivate if the authorities located the canister. The countdown had begun...
Langdon didn't know what else to do. He took his handkerchief and lay it on the floor over Leonardo Vetra's eyeball. Vittoria was standing now in the doorway of the empty Haz-Mat chamber, her expression wrought with grief and panic. Langdon moved toward her again, instinctively, but Kohler intervened.
"Mr. Langdon?" Kohler's face was expressionless. He motioned Langdon out of earshot. Langdon reluctantly followed, leaving Vittoria to fend for herself. "You're the specialist," Kohler said, his whisper intense. "I want to know what these Illuminati bastards intend to do with this antimatter."
Langdon tried to focus. Despite the madness around him, his first reaction was logical. Academic rejection. Kohler was still making assumptions. Impossible assumptions. "The Illuminati are defunct, Mr. Kohler. I stand by that. This crime could be anything - maybe even another CERN employee who found out about Mr. Vetra's breakthrough and thought the project was too dangerous to continue."
Kohler looked stunned. "You think this is a crime of conscience, Mr. Langdon? Absurd. Whoever killed Leonardo wanted one thing - the antimatter specimen. And no doubt they have plans for it."
"You mean terrorism."
"But the Illuminati were not terrorists."
"Tell that to Leonardo Vetra."
Langdon felt a pang of truth in the statement. Leonardo Vetra had indeed been branded with the Illuminati symbol. Where had it come from? The sacred brand seemed too difficult a hoax for someone trying to cover his tracks by casting suspicion elsewhere. There had to be another explanation.
Again, Langdon forced himself to consider the implausible. If the Illuminati were still active, and if they stole the antimatter, what would be their intention? What would be their target? The answer furnished by his brain was instantaneous. Langdon dismissed it just as fast. True, the Illuminati had an obvious enemy, but a wide-scale terrorist attack against that enemy was inconceivable. It was entirely out of character. Yes, the Illuminati had killed people, but individuals, carefully conscripted targets. Mass destruction was somehow heavy-handed. Langdon paused. Then again, he thought, there would be a rather majestic eloquence to it - antimatter, the ultimate scientific achievement, being used to vaporize -
He refused to accept the preposterous thought. "There is," he said suddenly, "a logical explanation other than terrorism."
Kohler stared, obviously waiting.
Langdon tried to sort out the thought. The Illuminati had always wielded tremendous power through financial means. They controlled banks. They owned gold bullion. They were even rumored to possess the single most valuable gem on earth - the Illuminati Diamond, a flawless diamond of enormous proportions. "Money," Langdon said. "The antimatter could have been stolen for financial gain."
Kohler looked incredulous. "Financial gain? Where does one sell a droplet of antimatter?"
"Not the specimen," Langdon countered. "The technology. Antimatter technology must be worth a mint. Maybe someone stole the specimen to do analysis and R and D."
"Industrial espionage? But that canister has twenty-four hours before the batteries die. The researchers would blow themselves up before they learned anything at all."
"They could recharge it before it explodes. They could build a compatible recharging podium like the ones here at CERN."
"In twenty-four hours?" Kohler challenged. "Even if they stole the schematics, a recharger like that would take months to engineer, not hours!"
"He's right." Vittoria's voice was frail.
Both men turned. Vittoria was moving toward them, her gait as tremulous as her words.
"He's right. Nobody could reverse engineer a recharger in time. The interface alone would take weeks. Flux filters, servo-coils, power conditioning alloys, all calibrated to the specific energy grade of the locale."
Langdon frowned. The point was taken. An antimatter trap was not something one could simply plug into a wall socket. Once removed from CERN, the canister was on a one-way, twenty-four-hour trip to oblivion.
Which left only one, very disturbing, conclusion.
"We need to call Interpol," Vittoria said. Even to herself, her voice sounded distant. "We need to call the proper authorities. Immediately."
Kohler shook his head. "Absolutely not."
The words stunned her. "No? What do you mean?"
"You and your father have put me in a very difficult position here."
"Director, we need help. We need to find that trap and get it back here before someone gets hurt. We have a responsibility!"
"We have a responsibility to think," Kohler said, his tone hardening. "This situation could have very, very serious repercussions for CERN."
"You're worried about CERN's reputation? Do you know what that canister could do to an urban area? It has a blast radius of a half mile! Nine city blocks!"
"Perhaps you and your father should have considered that before you created the specimen."
Vittoria felt like she'd been stabbed. "But... we took every precaution."
"Apparently, it was not enough."
"But nobody knew about the antimatter." She realized, of course, it was an absurd argument. Of course somebody knew. Someone had found out.
Vittoria had told no one. That left only two explanations. Either her father had taken someone into his confidence without telling her, which made no sense because it was her father who had sworn them both to secrecy, or she and her father had been monitored. The cell phone maybe? She knew they had spoken a few times while Vittoria was traveling. Had they said too much? It was possible. There was also their E-mail. But they had been discreet, hadn't they? CERN's security system? Had they been monitored somehow without their knowledge? She knew none of that mattered anymore. What was done, was done. My father is dead.
The thought spurred her to action. She pulled her cell phone from her shorts pocket.
Kohler accelerated toward her, coughing violently, eyes flashing anger. "Who... are you calling?"
"CERN's switchboard. They can connect us to Interpol."
"Think!" Kohler choked, screeching to a halt in front of her. "Are you really so naive? That canister could be anywhere in the world by now. No intelligence agency on earth could possibly mobilize to find it in time."
"So we do nothing?" Vittoria felt compunction challenging a man in such frail health, but the director was so far out of line she didn't even know him anymore.
"We do what is smart," Kohler said. "We don't risk CERN's reputation by involving authorities who cannot help anyway. Not yet. Not without thinking."
Vittoria knew there was logic somewhere in Kohler's argument, but she also knew that logic, by definition, was bereft of moral responsibility. Her father had lived for moral responsibility - careful science, accountability, faith in man's inherent goodness. Vittoria believed in those things too, but she saw them in terms of karma. Turning away from Kohler, she snapped open her phone.
"You can't do that," he said.
"Just try and stop me."
Kohler did not move.
An instant later, Vittoria realized why. This far underground, her cell phone had no dial tone.
Fuming, she headed for the elevator.
The Hassassin stood at the end of the stone tunnel. His torch still burned bright, the smoke mixing with the smell of moss and stale air. Silence surrounded him. The iron door blocking his way looked as old as the tunnel itself, rusted but still holding strong. He waited in the darkness, trusting.
It was almost time.
Janus had promised someone on the inside would open the door. The Hassassin marveled at the betrayal. He would have waited all night at that door to carry out his task, but he sensed it would not be necessary. He was working for determined men.
Minutes later, exactly at the appointed hour, there was a loud clank of heavy keys on the other side of the door. Metal scraped on metal as multiple locks disengaged. One by one, three huge deadbolts ground open. The locks creaked as if they had not been used in centuries. Finally all three were open.
Then there was silence.
The Hassassin waited patiently, five minutes, exactly as he had been told. Then, with electricity in his blood, he pushed. The great door swung open.
"Vittoria, I will not allow it!" Kohler's breath was labored and getting worse as the Haz-Mat elevator ascended.
Vittoria blocked him out. She craved sanctuary, something familiar in this place that no longer felt like home. She knew it was not to be. Right now, she had to swallow the pain and act. Get to a phone.
Robert Langdon was beside her, silent as usual. Vittoria had given up wondering who the man was. A specialist? Could Kohler be any less specific? Mr. Langdon can help us find your father's killer. Langdon was being no help at all. His warmth and kindness seemed genuine, but he was clearly hiding something. They both were.
Kohler was at her again. "As director of CERN, I have a responsibility to the future of science. If you amplify this into an international incident and CERN suffers - "
"Future of science?" Vittoria turned on him. "Do you really plan to escape accountability by never admitting this antimatter came from CERN? Do you plan to ignore the people's lives we've put in danger?"
"Not we," Kohler countered. "You. You and your father."
Vittoria looked away.
"And as far as endangering lives," Kohler said, "life is exactly what this is about. You know antimatter technology has enormous implications for life on this planet. If CERN goes bankrupt, destroyed by scandal, everybody loses. Man's future is in the hands of places like CERN, scientists like you and your father, working to solve tomorrow's problems."
Vittoria had heard Kohler's Science-as-God lecture before, and she never bought it. Science itself caused half the problems it was trying to solve. "Progress" was Mother Earth's ultimate malignancy.
"Scientific advancement carries risk," Kohler argued. "It always has. Space programs, genetic research, medicine - they all make mistakes. Science needs to survive its own blunders, at any cost. For everyone's sake."
Vittoria was amazed at Kohler's ability to weigh moral issues with scientific detachment. His intellect seemed to be the product of an icy divorce from his inner spirit. "You think CERN is so critical to the earth's future that we should be immune from moral responsibility?"
"Do not argue morals with me. You crossed a line when you made that specimen, and you have put this entire facility at risk. I'm trying to protect not only the jobs of the three thousand scientists who work here, but also your father's reputation. Think about him. A man like your father does not deserve to be remembered as the creator of a weapon of mass destruction."
Vittoria felt his spear hit home. I am the one who convinced my father to create that specimen. This is my fault!
When the door opened, Kohler was still talking. Vittoria stepped out of the elevator, pulled out her phone, and tried again.
Still no dial tone. Damn! She headed for the door.
"Vittoria, stop." The director sounded asthmatic now, as he accelerated after her. "Slow down. We need to talk."
"Basta di parlare!"
"Think of your father," Kohler urged. "What would he do?"
She kept going.
"Vittoria, I haven't been totally honest with you."
Vittoria felt her legs slow.
"I don't know what I was thinking," Kohler said. "I was just trying to protect you. Just tell me what you want. We need to work together here."
Vittoria came to a full stop halfway across the lab, but she did not turn. "I want to find the antimatter. And I want to know who killed my father." She waited.
Kohler sighed. "Vittoria, we already know who killed your father. I'm sorry."
Now Vittoria turned. "You what?"
"I didn't know how to tell you. It's a difficult - "
"You know who killed my father?"
"We have a very good idea, yes. The killer left somewhat of a calling card. That's the reason I called Mr. Langdon. The group claiming responsibility is his specialty."
"The group? A terrorist group?"
"Vittoria, they stole a quarter gram of antimatter."
Vittoria looked at Robert Langdon standing there across the room. Everything began falling into place. That explains some of the secrecy. She was amazed it hadn't occurred to her earlier. Kohler had called the authorities after all. The authorities. Now it seemed obvious. Robert Langdon was American, clean-cut, conservative, obviously very sharp. Who else could it be? Vittoria should have guessed from the start. She felt a newfound hope as she turned to him.
"Mr. Langdon, I want to know who killed my father. And I want to know if your agency can find the antimatter."
Langdon looked flustered. "My agency?"
"You're with U.S. Intelligence, I assume."
Kohler intervened. "Mr. Langdon is a professor of art history at Harvard University."
Vittoria felt like she had been doused with ice water. "An art teacher?"
"He is a specialist in cult symbology." Kohler sighed. "Vittoria, we believe your father was killed by a satanic cult."
Vittoria heard the words in her mind, but she was unable to process them. A satanic cult.
"The group claiming responsibility calls themselves the Illuminati."
Vittoria looked at Kohler and then at Langdon, wondering if this was some kind of perverse joke. "The Illuminati?" she demanded. "As in the Bavarian Illuminati?"
Kohler looked stunned. "You've heard of them?"
Vittoria felt the tears of frustration welling right below the surface. "Bavarian Illuminati: New World Order. Steve Jackson computer games. Half the techies here play it on the Internet." Her voice cracked. "But I don't understand..."
Kohler shot Langdon a confused look.
Langdon nodded. "Popular game. Ancient brotherhood takes over the world. Semihistorical. I didn't know it was in Europe too."
Vittoria was bewildered. "What are you talking about? The Illuminati? It's a computer game!"
"Vittoria," Kohler said, "the Illuminati is the group claiming responsibility for your father's death."
Vittoria mustered every bit of courage she could find to fight the tears. She forced herself to hold on and assess the situation logically. But the harder she focused, the less she understood. Her father had been murdered. CERN had suffered a major breach of security. There was a bomb counting down somewhere that she was responsible for. And the director had nominated an art teacher to help them find a mythical fraternity of Satanists.
Vittoria felt suddenly all alone. She turned to go, but Kohler cut her off. He reached for something in his pocket. He produced a crumpled piece of fax paper and handed it to her.
Vittoria swayed in horror as her eyes hit the image.
"They branded him," Kohler said. "They branded his goddamn chest."