Director Sato stood alone in the study, waiting while the CIA satellite-imaging division processed her request. One of the luxuries of working in the D.C. area was the satellite coverage. With luck, one of them might have been properly positioned to get photos of this home tonight . . . possibly capturing a vehicle leaving the place in the last half hour.
"Sorry, ma'am," the satellite technician said. "No coverage of those coordinates tonight. Do you want to make a reposition request?"
"No thanks. Too late." She hung up.
Sato exhaled, now having no idea how they would figure out where their target had gone. She walked out to the foyer, where her men had bagged Agent Hartmann's body and were carrying it toward the chopper. Sato had ordered Agent Simkins to gather his men and prepare for the return to Langley, but Simkins was in the living room on his hands and knees. He looked like he was ill.
He glanced up, an odd look on his face. "Did you see this?" He pointed at the living-room floor.
Sato came over and looked down at the plush carpet. She shook her head, seeing nothing.
"Crouch down," Simkins said. "Look at the nap of the carpet."
She did. After a moment, she saw it. The fibers of the carpet looked like they had been mashed down . . . depressed along two straight lines as if the wheels of something heavy had been rolled across the room.
"The strange thing," Simkins said, "is where the tracks go." He pointed.
Sato's gaze followed the faint parallel lines across the living-room carpet. The tracks seemed to disappear beneath a large floor-to-ceiling painting that hung beside the fireplace. What in the world?
Simkins walked over to the painting and tried to lift it down from the wall. It didn't budge. "It's fixed," he said, now running his fingers around the edges. "Hold on, there's something underneath . . ." His finger hit a small lever beneath the bottom edge, and something clicked.
Sato stepped forward as Simkins pushed the frame and the entire painting rotated slowly on its center, like a revolving door.
He raised his flashlight and shined it into the dark space beyond.
Sato's eyes narrowed. Here we go.
At the end of a short corridor stood a heavy metal door.
The memories that had billowed through the blackness of Langdon's mind had come and gone. In their wake, a trail of red-hot sparks was swirling, along with the same eerie, distant whisper.
Verbum significatium . . . Verbum omnificum . . . Verbum perdo.
The chanting continued like the drone of voices in a medieval canticle.
Verbum significatium . . . Verbum omnificum. The words now tumbled through the empty void, fresh voices echoing all around him.
Apocalypsis . . . Franklin . . . Apocalypsis . . . Verbum . . . Apocalypsis . . .
Without warning, a mournful bell began tolling somewhere in the distance. The bell rang on and on, growing louder. It tolled more urgently now, as if hoping Langdon would understand, as if urging his mind to follow.
The tolling bell in the clock tower rang for three full minutes, rattling the crystal chandelier that hung above Langdon's head. Decades ago, he had attended lectures in this well-loved assembly hall at Phillips Exeter Academy. Today, however, he was here to listen to a dear friend address the student body. As the lights dimmed, Langdon took a seat against the back wall, beneath a pantheon of headmaster portraits.
A hush fell across the crowd. In total darkness, a tall, shadowy figure crossed the stage and took the podium. "Good morning," the faceless voice whispered into the microphone.
Everyone sat up, straining to see who was addressing them.
A slide projector flashed to life, revealing a faded sepia photograph--a dramatic castle with a red sandstone facade, high square towers, and Gothic embellishments.
The shadow spoke again. "Who can tell me where this is?"
"England!" a girl declared in the darkness. "This facade is a blend of early Gothic and late Romanesque, making this the quintessential Norman castle and placing it in England at about the twelfth century."
"Wow," the faceless voice replied. "Someone knows her architecture."
Quiet groans all around.
"Unfortunately," the shadow added, "you missed by three thousand miles and half a millennium."
The room perked up.
The projector now flashed a full-color, modern photo of the same castle from a different angle. The castle's Seneca Creek sandstone towers dominated the foreground, but in the background, startlingly close, stood the majestic, white, columned dome of the U.S. Capitol Building.
"Hold on!" the girl exclaimed. "There's a Norman castle in D.C.?!"
"Since 1855," the voice replied. "Which is when this next photo was taken."
A new slide appeared--a black-and-white interior shot, depicting a massive vaulted ballroom, furnished with animal skeletons, scientific display cases, glass jars with biological samples, archaeological artifacts, and plaster casts of prehistoric reptiles.
"This wondrous castle," the voice said, "was America's first real science museum. It was a gift to America from a wealthy British scientist who, like our forefathers, believed our fledgling country could become the land of enlightenment. He bequeathed to our forefathers a massive fortune and asked them to build at the core of our nation `an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.' " He paused a long moment. "Who can tell me the name of this generous scientist?"
A timid voice in front ventured, "James Smithson?"
A whisper of recognition rippled through the crowd. "Smithson indeed," the man on stage replied. Peter Solomon now stepped into the light, his gray eyes flashing playfully. "Good morning. My name is Peter Solomon, and I am secretary of the Smithsonian Institution."
The students broke into wild applause.
In the shadows, Langdon watched with admiration as Peter captivated the young minds with a photographic tour of the Smithsonian Institution's early history. The show began with Smithsonian Castle, its basement science labs, corridors lined with exhibits, a salon full of mollusks, scientists who called themselves "the curators of crustaceans," and even an old photo of the castle's two most popular residents--a pair of now-deceased owls named Diffusion and Increase. The half-hour slide show ended with an impressive satellite photo of the National Mall, now lined with enormous Smithsonian museums.
"As I said when I began," Solomon stated in conclusion, "James Smithson and our forefathers envisioned our great country to be a land of enlightenment. I believe today they would be proud. Their great Smithsonian Institution stands as a symbol of science and knowledge at the very core of America. It is a living, breathing, working tribute to our forefathers' dream for America--a country founded on the principles of knowledge, wisdom, and science."
Solomon clicked off the slides to an energetic round of applause. The houselights came up, along with dozens of eager hands with questions.
Solomon called on a small red-haired boy in the middle.
"Mr. Solomon?" the boy said, sounding puzzled. "You said our forefathers fled the religious oppression of Europe to establish a country on the principles of scientific advancement."
"But . . . I was under the impression our forefathers were devoutly religious men who founded America as a Christian nation."
Solomon smiled. "My friends, don't get me wrong, our forefathers were deeply religious men, but they were Deists--men who believed in God, but in a universal and open-minded way. The only religious ideal they put forth was religious freedom." He pulled the microphone from the podium and strode out to the edge of the stage. "America's forefathers had a vision of a spiritually enlightened utopia, in which freedom of thought, education of the masses, and scientific advancement would replace the darkness of outdated religious superstition."
A blond girl in back raised her hand.
"Sir," the girl said, holding up her cell phone, "I've been researching you online, and Wikipedia says you're a prominent Freemason."
Solomon held up his Masonic ring. "I could have saved you the data charges."
The students laughed.
"Yes, well," the girl continued, hesitating, "you just mentioned `outdated religious superstition,' and it seems to me that if anyone is responsible for propagating outdated superstitions . . . it would be the Masons."
Solomon seemed unfazed. "Oh? How so?"
"Well, I've read a lot about Masonry, and I know you've got a lot of strange ancient rituals and beliefs. This article online even says that Masons believe in the power of some kind of ancient magical wisdom . . . which can elevate man to the realm of the gods?"
Everyone turned and stared at the girl as if she were nuts.
"Actually," Solomon said, "she's right."
The kids all spun around and faced front, eyes widening.
Solomon suppressed a smile and asked the girl, "Does it offer any other Wiki-wisdom about this magical knowledge?"
The girl looked uneasy now, but she began to read from the Web site. "`To ensure this powerful wisdom could not be used by the unworthy, the early adepts wrote down their knowledge in code . . . cloaking its potent truth in a metaphorical language of symbols, myth, and allegory. To this day, this encrypted wisdom is all around us . . . encoded in our mythology, our art, and the occult texts of the ages. Unfortunately, modern man has lost the ability to decipher this complex network of symbolism . . . and the great truth has been lost.'"
Solomon waited. "That's all?"
The girl shifted in her seat. "Actually, there is a little bit more."
"I should hope so. Please . . . tell us."
The girl looked hesitant, but she cleared her throat and continued. "`According to legend, the sages who encrypted the Ancient Mysteries long ago left behind a key of sorts . . . a password that could be used to unlock the encrypted secrets. This magical password--known as the verbum significatium--is said to hold the power to lift the darkness and unlock the Ancient Mysteries, opening them to all human understanding.' "
Solomon smiled wistfully. "Ah, yes . . . the verbum significatium." He stared into space for a moment and then lowered his eyes again to the blond girl. "And where is this wonderful word now?"
The girl looked apprehensive, clearly wishing she had not challenged their guest speaker. She finished reading. " `Legend holds that the verbum significatium is buried deep underground, where it waits patiently for a pivotal moment in history . . . a moment when mankind can no longer survive without the truth, knowledge, and wisdom of the ages. At this dark crossroads, mankind will at last unearth the Word and herald in a wondrous new age of enlightenment.' "
The girl turned off her phone and shrank down in her seat.
After a long silence, another student raised his hand. "Mr. Solomon, you don't actually believe that, right?"
Solomon smiled. "Why not? Our mythologies have a long tradition of magic words that provide insight and godlike powers. To this day, children still shout `abracadabra' in hopes of creating something out of nothing. Of course, we've all forgotten that this word is not a toy; it has roots in ancient Aramaic mysticism--Avrah KaDabra--meaning `I create as I speak.' "
"But, sir," the student now pressed, "surely you don't believe that a single word . . . this verbum significatium . . . whatever it is . . . has the power to unlock ancient wisdom . . . and bring about a worldwide enlightenment?"
Peter Solomon's face revealed nothing. "My own beliefs should not concern you. What should concern you is that this prophecy of a coming enlightenment is echoed in virtually every faith and philosophical tradition on earth. Hindus call it the Krita Age, astrologers call it the Age of Aquarius, the Jews describe the coming of the Messiah, theosophists call it the New Age, cosmologists call it Harmonic Convergence and predict the actual date."
"December 21, 2012!" someone called.
"Yes, unnervingly soon . . . if you're a believer in Mayan math."
Langdon chuckled, recalling how Solomon, ten years ago, had correctly predicted the current spate of television specials predicting that the year 2012 would mark the End of the World.
"Timing aside," Solomon said, "I find it wondrous to note that throughout history, all of mankind's disparate philosophies have all concurred on one thing--that a great enlightenment is coming. In every culture, in every era, in every corner of the world, the human dream has focused on the same exact concept--the coming apotheosis of man . . . the impending transformation of our human minds into their true potentiality." He smiled. "What could possibly explain such a synchronicity of beliefs?"
"Truth," said a quiet voice in the crowd. Solomon wheeled. "Who said that?"
The hand that went up belonged to a tiny Asian boy whose soft features suggested he might be Nepalese or Tibetan. "Maybe there is a universal truth embedded in everyone's soul. Maybe we all have the same story hiding inside, like a shared constant in our DNA. Maybe this collective truth is responsible for the similarity in all of our stories."
Solomon was beaming as he pressed his hands together and bowed reverently to the boy. "Thank you."
Everyone was quiet.
"Truth," Solomon said, addressing the room. "Truth has power. And if we all gravitate toward similar ideas, maybe we do so because those ideas are true . . . written deep within us. And when we hear the truth, even if we don't understand it, we feel that truth resonate within us . . . vibrating with our unconscious wisdom. Perhaps the truth is not learned by us, but rather, the truth is re-called . . . re-membered . . . re-cognized . . . as that which is already inside us."
The silence in the hall was complete.
Solomon let it sit for a long moment, then quietly said, "In closing, I should warn you that unveiling the truth is never easy. Throughout history, every period of enlightenment has been accompanied by darkness, pushing in opposition. Such are the laws of nature and balance. And if we look at the darkness growing in the world today, we have to realize that this means there is equal light growing. We are on the verge of a truly great period of illumination, and all of us--all of you--are profoundly blessed to be living through this pivotal moment of history. Of all the people who have ever lived, in all the eras in history . . . we are in that narrow window of time during which we will bear witness to our ultimate renaissance. After millennia of darkness, we will see our sciences, our minds, and even our religions unveil the truth."
Solomon was about to get a hearty round of applause when he held up his hand for silence. "Miss?" He pointed directly to the contentious blond girl in back with the cell phone. "I know you and I didn't agree on much, but I want to thank you. Your passion is an important catalyst in the coming changes. Darkness feeds on apathy . . . and conviction is our most potent antidote. Keep studying your faith. Study the Bible." He smiled. "Especially the final pages."
"The Apocalypse?" she said.
"Absolutely. The Book of Revelation is a vibrant example of our shared truth. The last book of the Bible tells the identical story as countless other traditions. They all predict the coming unveiling of great wisdom."
Someone else said, "But isn't the Apocalypse about the end of the world? You know, the Antichrist, Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil?"
Solomon chuckled. "Who here studies Greek?" Several hands went up.
"What does the word apocalypse literally mean?"
"It means," one student began, and then paused as if surprised. "Apocalypse means `to unveil' . . . or `to reveal.' "
Solomon gave the boy a nod of approval. "Exactly. The Apocalypse is literally a reveal-ation. The Book of Reveal-ation in the Bible predicts an unveiling of great truth and unimaginable wisdom. The Apocalypse is not the end of the world, but rather it is the end of the world as we know it. The prophecy of the Apocalypse is just one of the Bible's beautiful messages that has been distorted." Solomon stepped to the front of the stage. "Believe me, the Apocalypse is coming . . . and it will be nothing like what we were taught."
High over his head, the bell began to toll.
The students erupted into bewildered and thunderous applause.
Katherine Solomon was teetering on the edge of consciousness when she was jolted by the shock wave of a deafening explosion.
Moments later, she smelled smoke.
Her ears were ringing.
There were muffled voices. Distant. Shouting. Footsteps. Suddenly she was breathing more clearly. The cloth had been pulled from her mouth.
"You're safe," a man's voice whispered. "Just hold on."
She expected the man to pull the needle out of her arm but instead he was yelling orders. "Bring the medical kit . . . attach an IV to the needle . . . infuse lactated Ringer's solution . . . get me a blood pressure." As the man began checking her vital signs, he said, "Ms. Solomon, the person who did this to you . . . where did he go?"
Katherine tried to speak, but she could not. "Ms. Solomon?" the voice repeated. "Where did he go?"
Katherine tried to pry her eyes open, but she felt herself fading.
"We need to know where he went," the man urged.
Katherine whispered three words in response, although she knew they made no sense. "The . . . sacred . . . mountain."
Director Sato stepped over the mangled steel door and descended a wooden ramp into the hidden basement. One of her agents met her at the bottom.
"Director, I think you'll want to see this."
Sato followed the agent into a small room off the narrow hallway. The room was brightly lit and barren, except for a pile of clothing on the floor. She recognized Robert Langdon's tweed coat and loafers.
Her agent pointed toward the far wall at a large, casketlike container.
What in the world?
Sato moved toward the container, seeing now that it was fed by a clear plastic pipe that ran through the wall. Warily, she approached the tank.
Now she could see that it had a small slider on top. She reached down and slid the covering to one side, revealing a small portal-like window.
Beneath the Plexiglas . . . floated the submerged, vacant face of Professor Robert Langdon.
The endless void in which Langdon hovered was suddenly filled by a blinding sun. Rays of white-hot light streamed across the blackness of space, burning into his mind.
The light was everywhere.
Suddenly, within the radiant cloud before him, a beautiful silhouette appeared. It was a face . . . blurry and indistinct . . . two eyes staring at him across the void. Streams of light surrounded the face, and Langdon wondered if he was looking into the face of God.
Sato stared down into the tank, wondering if Professor Langdon had any idea what had happened. She doubted it. After all, disorientation was the entire purpose of this technology. Sensory-deprivation tanks had been around since the fifties and were still a popular getaway for wealthy New Age experimenters. "Floating," as it was called, offered a transcendental back-to- the-womb experience . . . a kind of meditative aid that quieted brain activity by removing all sensory input--light, sound, touch, and even the pull of gravity. In traditional tanks, the person would float on his back in a hyperbuoyant saline solution that kept his face above the water so he could breathe.
In recent years, however, these tanks had taken a quantum leap.
This new technology--known as Total Liquid Ventilation (TLV)--was so counterintuitive that few believed it existed.
Liquid breathing had been a reality since 1966, when Leland C. Clark successfully kept alive a mouse that had been submerged for several hours in an oxygenated perfluorocarbon. In 1989, TLV technology made a dramatic appearance in the movie The Abyss, although few viewers realized that they were watching real science.
Total Liquid Ventilation had been born of modern medicine's attempts to help premature babies breathe by returning them to the liquid-filled state of the womb. Human lungs, having spent nine months in utero, were no strangers to a liquid-filled state. Perfluorocarbons had once been too viscous to be fully breathable, but modern breakthroughs had made breathable liquids almost the consistency of water.
The CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology--"the Wizards of Langley," as they were known within the intelligence community--had worked extensively with oxygenated perfluorocarbons to develop technologies for the U.S. military. The navy's elite deep-ocean diving teams found that breathing oxygenated liquid, rather than the usual heliox or trimix, gave them the ability to dive to much greater depths without risk of pressure sickness. Similarly, NASA and the air force had learned that pilots equipped with a liquid breathing apparatus rather than a traditional oxygen tank could withstand far higher g-forces than usual because liquid spread the g-force more evenly throughout the internal organs than gas did.
Sato had heard that there were now "extreme experience labs" where one could try these Total Liquid Ventilation tanks--"Meditation Machines," as they were called. This particular tank had probably been installed for its owner's private experimentation, although the addition of heavy, lockable latches left little doubt in Sato's mind that this tank had also been used for darker applications . . . an interrogation technique with which the CIA was familiar.
The infamous interrogation technique of water boarding was highly effective because the victim truly believed he was drowning. Sato knew of several classified operations in which sensory- deprivation tanks like these had been used to enhance that illusion to terrifying new levels. A victim submerged in breathable liquid could literally be "drowned." The panic associated with the drowning experience usually made the victim unaware that the liquid he was breathing was slightly more viscous than water. When the liquid poured into his lungs, he would often black out from fear, and then awaken in the ultimate "solitary confinement."
Topical numbing agents, paralysis drugs, and hallucinogens were mixed with the warm oxygenated liquid to give the prisoner the sense he was entirely separated from his body. When his mind sent commands to move his limbs, nothing happened. The state of being "dead" was terrifying on its own, but the true disorientation came from the "rebirthing" process, which, with the aid of bright lights, cold air, and deafening noise, could be extremely traumatic and painful. After a handful of rebirths and subsequent drownings, the prisoner became so disorientated that he had no idea if he was alive or dead . . . and he would tell the interrogator absolutely anything.
Sato wondered if she should wait for a medical team to extract Langdon, but she knew she didn't have time. I need to know what he knows.
"Turn out the lights," she said. "And find me some blankets."
The blinding sun had vanished.
The face had also disappeared.
The blackness had returned, but Langdon could now hear distant whispers echoing across the light-years of emptiness. Muffled voices . . . unintelligible words. There were vibrations now . . . as if the world were about to shake apart.
Then it happened.
Without warning, the universe was ripped in two. An enormous chasm opened in the void . . . as if space itself had ruptured at the seams. A grayish mist poured through the opening, and Langdon saw a terrifying sight. Disembodied hands were suddenly reaching for him, grabbing his body, trying to yank him out of his world.
No! He tried to fight them off, but he had no arms . . . no fists. Or did he? Suddenly he felt his body materializing around his mind. His flesh had returned and it was being seized by powerful hands that were dragging him upward. No! Please!
But it was too late.
Pain racked his chest as the hands heaved him through the opening. His lungs felt like they were filled with sand. I can't breathe! He was suddenly on his back on the coldest, hardest surface he could imagine. Something was pressing on his chest, over and over, hard and painful. He was spewing out the warmth.
I want to go back.
He felt like he was a child being born from a womb. He was convulsing, coughing up liquid. He felt pain in his chest and neck. Excruciating pain. His throat was on fire. People were talking, trying to whisper, but it was deafening. His vision was blurred, and all he could see was muted shapes. His skin felt numb, like dead leather.
His chest felt heavier now . . . pressure. I can't breathe!
He was coughing up more liquid. An overwhelming gag reflex seized him, and he gasped inward. Cold air poured into his lungs, and he felt like a newborn taking his first breath on earth. This world was excruciating. All Langdon wanted was to return to the womb.
Robert Langdon had no idea how much time had passed. He could feel now that he was lying on his side, wrapped in towels and blankets on a hard floor. A familiar face was gazing down at him . . . but the streams of glorious light were gone. The echoes of distant chanting still hung in his mind.
Verbum significatium . . . Verbum omnificum . . .
"Professor Langdon," someone whispered. "Do you know where you are?"
Langdon nodded weakly, still coughing.
More important, he had begun to realize what was going on tonight.