Secretary Sylvie Baudeloque was now in a panic. She paced outside the director's empty office. Where the hell is he? What do I do?
It had been a bizarre day. Of course, any day working for Maximilian Kohler had the potential to be strange, but Kohler had been in rare form today.
"Find me Leonardo Vetra!" he had demanded when Sylvie arrived this morning.
Dutifully, Sylvie paged, phoned, and E-mailed Leonardo Vetra.
So Kohler had left in a huff, apparently to go find Vetra himself. When he rolled back in a few hours later, Kohler looked decidedly not well... not that he ever actually looked well, but he looked worse than usual. He locked himself in his office, and she could hear him on his modem, his phone, faxing, talking. Then Kohler rolled out again. He hadn't been back since.
Sylvie had decided to ignore the antics as yet another Kohlerian melodrama, but she began to get concerned when Kohler failed to return at the proper time for his daily injections; the director's physical condition required regular treatment, and when he decided to push his luck, the results were never pretty - respiratory shock, coughing fits, and a mad dash by the infirmary personnel. Sometimes Sylvie thought Maximilian Kohler had a death wish.
She considered paging him to remind him, but she'd learned charity was something Kohlers's pride despised. Last week, he had become so enraged with a visiting scientist who had shown him undue pity that Kohler clambered to his feet and threw a clipboard at the man's head. King Kohler could be surprisingly agile when he was pisse.
At the moment, however, Sylvie's concern for the director's health was taking a back burner... replaced by a much more pressing dilemma. The CERN switchboard had phoned five minutes ago in a frenzy to say they had an urgent call for the director.
"He's not available," Sylvie had said.
Then the CERN operator told her who was calling.
Sylvie half laughed aloud. "You're kidding, right?" She listened, and her face clouded with disbelief. "And your caller ID confirms - " Sylvie was frowning. "I see. Okay. Can you ask what the - " She sighed. "No. That's fine. Tell him to hold. I'll locate the director right away. Yes, I understand. I'll hurry."
But Sylvie had not been able to find the director. She had called his cell line three times and each time gotten the same message: "The mobile customer you are trying to reach is out of range." Out of range? How far could he go? So Sylvie had dialed Kohler's beeper. Twice. No response. Most unlike him. She'd even E-mailed his mobile computer. Nothing. It was like the man had disappeared off the face of the earth.
So what do I do? she now wondered.
Short of searching CERN's entire complex herself, Sylvie knew there was only one other way to get the director's attention. He would not be pleased, but the man on the phone was not someone the director should keep waiting. Nor did it sound like the caller was in any mood to be told the director was unavailable.
Startled with her own boldness, Sylvie made her decision. She walked into Kohler's office and went to the metal box on his wall behind his desk. She opened the cover, stared at the controls, and found the correct button.
Then she took a deep breath and grabbed the microphone.
Vittoria did not remember how they had gotten to the main elevator, but they were there. Ascending. Kohler was behind her, his breathing labored now. Langdon's concerned gaze passed through her like a ghost. He had taken the fax from her hand and slipped it in his jacket pocket away from her sight, but the image was still burned into her memory.
As the elevator climbed, Vittoria's world swirled into darkness. Papa! In her mind she reached for him. For just a moment, in the oasis of her memory, Vittoria was with him. She was nine years old, rolling down hills of edelweiss flowers, the Swiss sky spinning overhead.
Leonardo Vetra was laughing beside her, beaming. "What is it, angel?"
"Papa!" she giggled, nuzzling close to him. "Ask me what's the matter!"
"But you look happy, sweetie. Why would I ask you what's the matter?"
"Just ask me."
He shrugged. "What's the matter?"
She immediately started laughing. "What's the matter? Everything is the matter! Rocks! Trees! Atoms! Even anteaters! Everything is the matter!"
He laughed. "Did you make that up?"
"Pretty smart, huh?"
"My little Einstein."
She frowned. "He has stupid hair. I saw his picture."
"He's got a smart head, though. I told you what he proved, right?"
Her eyes widened with dread. "Dad! No! You promised!"
"E=MC2!" He tickled her playfully. "E=MC2!"
"No math! I told you! I hate it!"
"I'm glad you hate it. Because girls aren't even allowed to do math."
Vittoria stopped short. "They aren't?"
"Of course not. Everyone knows that. Girls play with dollies. Boys do math. No math for girls. I'm not even permitted to talk to little girls about math."
"What! But that's not fair!"
"Rules are rules. Absolutely no math for little girls."
Vittoria looked horrified. "But dolls are boring!"
"I'm sorry," her father said. "I could tell you about math, but if I got caught..." He looked nervously around the deserted hills.
Vittoria followed his gaze. "Okay," she whispered, "just tell me quietly."
The motion of the elevator startled her. Vittoria opened her eyes. He was gone.
Reality rushed in, wrapping a frosty grip around her. She looked to Langdon. The earnest concern in his gaze felt like the warmth of a guardian angel, especially in the aura of Kohler's chill.
A single sentient thought began pounding at Vittoria with unrelenting force.
Where is the antimatter?
The horrifying answer was only a moment away.
"Maximilian Kohler. Kindly call your office immediately."
Blazing sunbeams flooded Langdon's eyes as the elevator doors opened into the main atrium. Before the echo of the announcement on the intercom overhead faded, every electronic device on Kohler's wheelchair started beeping and buzzing simultaneously. His pager. His phone. His E-mail. Kohler glanced down at the blinking lights in apparent bewilderment. The director had resurfaced, and he was back in range.
"Director Kohler. Please call your office."
The sound of his name on the PA seemed to startle Kohler.
He glanced up, looking angered and then almost immediately concerned. Langdon's eyes met his, and Vittoria's too. The three of them were motionless a moment, as if all the tension between them had been erased and replaced by a single, unifying foreboding.
Kohler took his cell phone from the armrest. He dialed an extension and fought off another coughing fit. Vittoria and Langdon waited.
"This is... Director Kohler," he said, wheezing. "Yes? I was subterranean, out of range." He listened, his gray eyes widening. "Who? Yes, patch it through." There was a pause. "Hello? This is Maximilian Kohler. I am the director of CERN. With whom am I speaking?"
Vittoria and Langdon watched in silence as Kohler listened.
"It would be unwise," Kohler finally said, "to speak of this by phone. I will be there immediately." He was coughing again. "Meet me... at Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Forty minutes." Kohler's breath seemed to be failing him now. He descended into a fit of coughing and barely managed to choke out the words, "Locate the canister immediately... I am coming." Then he clicked off his phone.
Vittoria ran to Kohler's side, but Kohler could no longer speak. Langdon watched as Vittoria pulled out her cell phone and paged CERN's infirmary. Langdon felt like a ship on the periphery of a storm... tossed but detached.
Meet me at Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Kohler's words echoed.
The uncertain shadows that had fogged Langdon's mind all morning, in a single instant, solidified into a vivid image. As he stood there in the swirl of confusion, he felt a door inside him open... as if some mystic threshold had just been breached. The ambigram. The murdered priest/scientist. The antimatter. And now... the target. Leonardo da Vinci Airport could only mean one thing. In a moment of stark realization, Langdon knew he had just crossed over. He had become a believer.
Five kilotons. Let there be light.
Two paramedics materialized, racing across the atrium in white smocks. They knelt by Kohler, putting an oxygen mask on his face. Scientists in the hall stopped and stood back.
Kohler took two long pulls, pushed the mask aside, and still gasping for air, looked up at Vittoria and Langdon. "Rome."
"Rome?" Vittoria demanded. "The antimatter is in Rome? Who called?"
Kohler's face was twisted, his gray eyes watering. "The Swiss..." He choked on the words, and the paramedics put the mask back over his face. As they prepared to take him away, Kohler reached up and grabbed Langdon's arm.
Langdon nodded. He knew.
"Go..." Kohler wheezed beneath his mask. "Go... call me..." Then the paramedics were rolling him away.
Vittoria stood riveted to the floor, watching him go. Then she turned to Langdon. "Rome? But... what was that about the Swiss?"
Langdon put a hand on her shoulder, barely whispering the words. "The Swiss Guard," he said. "The sworn sentinels of Vatican City."
The X-33 space plane roared into the sky and arched south toward Rome. On board, Langdon sat in silence. The last fifteen minutes had been a blur. Now that he had finished briefing Vittoria on the Illuminati and their covenant against the Vatican, the scope of this situation was starting to sink in.
What the hell am I doing? Langdon wondered. I should have gone home when I had the chance! Deep down, though, he knew he'd never had the chance.
Langdon's better judgment had screamed at him to return to Boston. Nonetheless, academic astonishment had somehow vetoed prudence. Everything he had ever believed about the demise of the Illuminati was suddenly looking like a brilliant sham. Part of him craved proof. Confirmation. There was also a question of conscience. With Kohler ailing and Vittoria on her own, Langdon knew that if his knowledge of the Illuminati could assist in any way, he had a moral obligation to be here.
There was more, though. Although Langdon was ashamed to admit it, his initial horror on hearing about the antimatter's location was not only the danger to human life in Vatican City, but for something else as well.
The world's largest art collection was now sitting on a time bomb. The Vatican Museum housed over 60,000 priceless pieces in 1,407 rooms - Michelangelo, da Vinci, Bernini, Botticelli. Langdon wondered if all of the art could possibly be evacuated if necessary. He knew it was impossible. Many of the pieces were sculptures weighing tons. Not to mention, the greatest treasures were architectural - the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, Michelangelo's famed spiral staircase leading to the Museo Vaticano - priceless testaments to man's creative genius. Langdon wondered how much time was left on the canister.
"Thanks for coming," Vittoria said, her voice quiet.
Langdon emerged from his daydream and looked up. Vittoria was sitting across the aisle. Even in the stark fluorescent light of the cabin, there was an aura of composure about her - an almost magnetic radiance of wholeness. Her breathing seemed deeper now, as if a spark of self-preservation had ignited within her... a craving for justice and retribution, fueled by a daughter's love.
Vittoria had not had time to change from her shorts and sleeveless top, and her tawny legs were now goose-bumped in the cold of the plane. Instinctively Langdon removed his jacket and offered it to her.
"American chivalry?" She accepted, her eyes thanking him silently.
The plane jostled across some turbulence, and Langdon felt a surge of danger. The windowless cabin felt cramped again, and he tried to imagine himself in an open field. The notion, he realized, was ironic. He had been in an open field when it had happened. Crushing darkness. He pushed the memory from his mind. Ancient history.
Vittoria was watching him. "Do you believe in God, Mr. Langdon?"
The question startled him. The earnestness in Vittoria's voice was even more disarming than the inquiry. Do I believe in God? He had hoped for a lighter topic of conversation to pass the trip.
A spiritual conundrum, Langdon thought. That's what my friends call me. Although he studied religion for years, Langdon was not a religious man. He respected the power of faith, the benevolence of churches, the strength religion gave to many people... and yet, for him, the intellectual suspension of disbelief that was imperative if one were truly going to "believe" had always proved too big an obstacle for his academic mind. "I want to believe," he heard himself say.
Vittoria's reply carried no judgment or challenge. "So why don't you?"
He chuckled. "Well, it's not that easy. Having faith requires leaps of faith, cerebral acceptance of miracles - immaculate conceptions and divine interventions. And then there are the codes of conduct. The Bible, the Koran, Buddhist scripture... they all carry similar requirements - and similar penalties. They claim that if I don't live by a specific code I will go to hell. I can't imagine a God who would rule that way."
"I hope you don't let your students dodge questions that shamelessly."
The comment caught him off guard. "What?"
"Mr. Langdon, I did not ask if you believe what man says about God. I asked if you believed in God. There is a difference. Holy scripture is stories... legends and history of man's quest to understand his own need for meaning. I am not asking you to pass judgment on literature. I am asking if you believe in God. When you lie out under the stars, do you sense the divine? Do you feel in your gut that you are staring up at the work of God's hand?"
Langdon took a long moment to consider it.
"I'm prying," Vittoria apologized.
"No, I just..."
"Certainly you must debate issues of faith with your classes."
"And you play devil's advocate, I imagine. Always fueling the debate."
Langdon smiled. "You must be a teacher too."
"No, but I learned from a master. My father could argue two sides of a Mobius Strip."
Langdon laughed, picturing the artful crafting of a Mobius Strip - a twisted ring of paper, which technically possessed only one side. Langdon had first seen the single-sided shape in the artwork of M. C. Escher. "May I ask you a question, Ms. Vetra?"
"Call me Vittoria. Ms. Vetra makes me feel old."
He sighed inwardly, suddenly sensing his own age. "Vittoria, I'm Robert."
"You had a question."
"Yes. As a scientist and the daughter of a Catholic priest, what do you think of religion?"
Vittoria paused, brushing a lock of hair from her eyes. "Religion is like language or dress. We gravitate toward the practices with which we were raised. In the end, though, we are all proclaiming the same thing. That life has meaning. That we are grateful for the power that created us."
Langdon was intrigued. "So you're saying that whether you are a Christian or a Muslim simply depends on where you were born?"
"Isn't it obvious? Look at the diffusion of religion around the globe."
"So faith is random?"
"Hardly. Faith is universal. Our specific methods for understanding it are arbitrary. Some of us pray to Jesus, some of us go to Mecca, some of us study subatomic particles. In the end we are all just searching for truth, that which is greater than ourselves."
Langdon wished his students could express themselves so clearly. Hell, he wished he could express himself so clearly. "And God?" he asked. "Do you believe in God?"
Vittoria was silent for a long time. "Science tells me God must exist. My mind tells me I will never understand God. And my heart tells me I am not meant to."
How's that for concise, he thought. "So you believe God is fact, but we will never understand Him."
"Her," she said with a smile. "Your Native Americans had it right."
Langdon chuckled. "Mother Earth."
"Gaea. The planet is an organism. All of us are cells with different purposes. And yet we are intertwined. Serving each other. Serving the whole."
Looking at her, Langdon felt something stir within him that he had not felt in a long time. There was a bewitching clarity in her eyes... a purity in her voice. He felt drawn.
"Mr. Langdon, let me ask you another question."
"Robert," he said. Mr. Langdon makes me feel old. I am old!
"If you don't mind my asking, Robert, how did you get involved with the Illuminati?"
Langdon thought back. "Actually, it was money."
Vittoria looked disappointed. "Money? Consulting, you mean?"
Langdon laughed, realizing how it must have sounded. "No. Money as in currency." He reached in his pants pocket and pulled out some money. He found a one-dollar bill. "I became fascinated with the cult when I first learned that U.S. currency is covered with Illuminati symbology."
Vittoria's eyes narrowed, apparently not knowing whether or not to take him seriously.
Langdon handed her the bill. "Look at the back. See the Great Seal on the left?"
Vittoria turned the one-dollar bill over. "You mean the pyramid?"
"The pyramid. Do you know what pyramids have to do with U.S. history?"
"Exactly," Langdon said. "Absolutely nothing."
Vittoria frowned. "So why is it the central symbol of your Great Seal?"
"An eerie bit of history," Langdon said. "The pyramid is an occult symbol representing a convergence upward, toward the ultimate source of Illumination. See what's above it?"
Vittoria studied the bill. "An eye inside a triangle."
"It's called the trinacria. Have you ever seen that eye in a triangle anywhere else?"
Vittoria was silent a moment. "Actually, yes, but I'm not sure..."
"It's emblazoned on Masonic lodges around the world."
"The symbol is Masonic?"
"Actually, no. It's Illuminati. They called it their 'shining delta.' A call for enlightened change. The eye signifies the Illuminati's ability to infiltrate and watch all things. The shining triangle represents enlightenment. And the triangle is also the Greek letter delta, which is the mathematical symbol for - "
Langdon smiled. "I forgot I was talking to a scientist."
"So you're saying the U.S. Great Seal is a call for enlightened, all-seeing change?"
"Some would call it a New World Order."
Vittoria seemed startled. She glanced down at the bill again. "The writing under the pyramid says Novus... Ordo..."
"Novus Ordo Seculorum," Langdon said. "It means New Secular Order."
"Secular as in non religious?"
"Nonreligious. The phrase not only clearly states the Illuminati objective, but it also blatantly contradicts the phrase beside it. In God We Trust."
Vittoria seemed troubled. "But how could all this symbology end up on the most powerful currency in the world?"
"Most academics believe it was through Vice President Henry Wallace. He was an upper echelon Mason and certainly had ties to the Illuminati. Whether it was as a member or innocently under their influence, nobody knows. But it was Wallace who sold the design of the Great Seal to the president."
"How? Why would the president have agreed to - "
"The president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Wallace simply told him Novus Ordo Seculorum meant New Deal."
Vittoria seemed skeptical. "And Roosevelt didn't have anyone else look at the symbol before telling the Treasury to print it?"
"No need. He and Wallace were like brothers."
"Check your history books," Langdon said with a smile. "Franklin D. Roosevelt was a well-known Mason."