The NetJets Citation Excel bounced through heavy turbulence as it rocketed skyward out of Tassignano Airport and banked toward Venice. On board, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey barely noticed the bumpy departure as she absently stroked her amulet and gazed out the window into empty space.
They had finally stopped giving her the injections, and Sinskey's mind was already feeling clearer. In the seat beside her, Agent Brüder remained silent, probably pondering the bizarre turn of events that had just transpired.
Everything is upside down, Sinskey thought, still struggling to believe what she had just witnessed.
Thirty minutes ago, they had stormed the tiny airfield to intercept Langdon as he boarded the private jet he had summoned. Instead of finding the professor, however, they discovered an idling Citation Excel and two NetJets pilots pacing the tarmac and checking their watches.
Robert Langdon was a no-show.
Then came the phone call.
When the cell phone rang, Sinskey was where she had been all day-in the backseat of the black van. Agent Brüder entered the vehicle with a stupefied look on his face as he handed her his phone.
"Urgent call for you, ma'am."
"Who is it?" she asked.
"He asked me to tell you only that he has pressing information to give you about Bertrand Zobrist."
Sinskey grabbed the phone. "This is Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey."
"Dr. Sinskey, you and I have never met, but my organization has been responsible for hiding Bertrand Zobrist from you for the last year."
Sinskey sat bolt upright. "Whoever the hell you are, you've been harboring a criminal!"
"We've done nothing illegal, but that's not-"
"The hell you haven't!"
The man on the line took a long, patient breath, speaking very softly now. "You and I will have plenty of time to debate the ethics of my actions. I know you don't know me, but I do know quite a bit about you. Mr. Zobrist has been paying me handsomely to keep you and others away from him for the past year. I am now breaching my own strict protocol by contacting you. And yet, I believe we have no choice but to pool our resources. Bertrand Zobrist, I fear, may have done something terrible."
Sinskey could not fathom who this man was. "You're just figuring this out now?!"
"Yes, that is correct. Just now." His tone was earnest.
Sinskey tried to shake off the cobwebs. "Who are you?"
"Someone who wants to help you before it's too late. I'm in possession of a video message created by Bertrand Zobrist. He asked me to release it to the world ... tomorrow. I think you need to see it immediately."
"What does it say?"
"Not on the phone. We need to meet."
"How do I know I can trust you?"
"Because I'm about to tell you where Robert Langdon is ... and why he's acting so strangely."
Sinskey reeled at the mention of Langdon's name, and she listened in astonishment to the outlandish explanation. This man seemed to have been complicit with her enemy for the last year, and yet, as she listened to the details, Sinskey's gut told her she needed to trust what he was saying.
I have no choice but to comply.
Their combined resources made short work of commandeering the "jilted" NetJets Citation Excel. Sinskey and the soldiers were now in pursuit, racing toward Venice, where, according to this man's information, Langdon and his two traveling companions were at this very moment arriving by train. It was too late to summon the local authorities, but the man on the line claimed to know where Langdon was headed.
St. Mark's Square? Sinskey felt a chill as she imagined the crowds in Venice's most populated area. "How do you know this?"
"Not on the phone," the man said. "But you should be aware that Robert Langdon is unwittingly traveling with a very dangerous individual."
"Who?!" Sinskey demanded.
"One of Zobrist's closest confidants." The man sighed heavily. "Someone I trusted. Foolishly, apparently. Someone I believe may now be a severe threat."
As the private jet headed for Venice's Marco Polo Airport carrying Sinskey and the six soldiers, Sinskey's thoughts returned to Robert Langdon. He lost his memory? He recalls nothing? The strange news, while explaining several things, made Sinskey feel even worse than she already did about involving the distinguished academic in this crisis.
I left him no choice.
Almost two days ago, when Sinskey recruited Langdon, she hadn't even let him go back to his house for his passport. Instead, she had arranged for his quiet passage through the Florence Airport as a special liaison to the World Health Organization.
As the C-130 lumbered into the air and pointed east across the Atlantic, Sinskey had glanced at Langdon beside her and noticed he did not look well. He was staring intently at the sidewall of the windowless hull.
"Professor, you do realize this plane has no windows? Until recently, it was used as a military transport."
Langdon turned, his face ashen. "Yes, I noticed that the moment I stepped aboard. I'm not so good in enclosed spaces."
"So you're pretending to look out an imaginary window?"
He gave a sheepish smile. "Something like that, yes."
"Well, look at this instead." She pulled out a photo of her lanky, green-eyed nemesis and laid it in front of him. "This is Bertrand Zobrist."
Sinskey had already told Langdon about her confrontation with Zobrist at the Council on Foreign Relations, the man's passion for the Population Apocalypse Equation, his widely circulated comments about the global benefits of the Black Plague, and, most ominously, his total disappearance from sight over the past year.
"How does someone that prominent stay hidden for so long?" Langdon asked.
"He had a lot of help. Professional help. Maybe even a foreign government."
"What government would condone the creation of a plague?"
"The same governments that try to obtain nuclear warheads on the black market. Don't forget that an effective plague is the ultimate biochemical weapon, and it's worth a fortune. Zobrist easily could have lied to his partners and assured them his creation had a limited range. Zobrist would be the only one who had any idea what his creation actually did."
Langdon fell silent.
"In any case," Sinskey continued, "if not for power or money, those helping Zobrist could have helped because they shared his ideology. Zobrist has no shortage of disciples who would do anything for him. He was quite a celebrity. In fact, he gave a speech at your university not long ago."
Sinskey took out a pen and wrote on the border of Zobrist's photo-the letter H followed by a plus sign. "You're good with symbols," she said. "Do you recognize this one?"
"H-plus," Langdon whispered, nodding vaguely. "Sure, a few summers ago it was posted all over campus. I assumed it was some kind of chemistry conference."
Sinskey chuckled. "No, those were signs for the 2010 'Humanity-plus' Summit-one of the largest Transhumanism gatherings ever. H-plus is the symbol of the Transhumanist movement."
Langdon cocked his head, as if trying to place the term.
"Transhumanism," Sinskey said, "is an intellectual movement, a philosophy of sorts, and it's quickly taking root in the scientific community. It essentially states that humans should use technology to transcend the weaknesses inherent in our human bodies. In other words, the next step in human evolution should be that we begin biologically engineering ourselves."
"Sounds ominous," Langdon said.
"Like all change, it's just a matter of degree. Technically, we've been engineering ourselves for years now-developing vaccines that make children immune to certain diseases ... polio, smallpox, typhoid. The difference is that now, with Zobrist's breakthroughs in germ-line genetic engineering, we're learning how to create inheritable immunizations, those that would affect the recipient at the core germ-line level-making all subsequent generations immune to that disease
Langdon looked startled. "So the human species would essentially undergo an evolution that makes it immune to typhoid, for example?"
"It's more of an assisted evolution," Sinskey corrected. "Normally, the evolutionary process-whether it be a lungfish developing feet or an ape developing opposable thumbs-takes millennia to occur. Now we can make radical genetic adaptations in a single generation. Proponents of the technology consider it the ultimate expression of Darwinian 'survival of the fittest'-humans becoming a species that learns to improve its own evolutionary process."
"Sounds more like playing God," Langdon replied.
"I agree wholeheartedly," Sinskey said. "Zobrist, however, like many other Transhumanists, argued strongly that it is mankind's evolutionary obligation to use all the powers at our disposal-germ-line genetic mutation, for one-to improve as a species. The problem is that our genetic makeup is like a house of cards-each piece connected to and supported by countless others-often in ways we don't understand. If we try to remove a single human trait, we can cause hundreds of others to shift simultaneously, possibly with catastrophic effects."
Langdon nodded. "There's a reason evolution is a gradual process."
"Precisely!" Sinskey said, feeling her admiration for the professor growing with each passing moment. "We're tinkering with a process that took aeons to build. These are dangerous times. We now literally have the capacity to activate certain gene sequences that will result in our descendants having increased dexterity, stamina, strength, even intelligence-essentially a super-race. These hypothetical 'enhanced' individuals are what Transhumanists refer to as posthumans, which some believe will be the future of our species."
"Sounds eerily like eugenics," Langdon replied.
The reference made Sinskey's skin crawl.
In the 1940s, Nazi scientists had dabbled in a technology they'd dubbed eugenics-an attempt to use rudimentary genetic engineering to increase the birth rate of those with certain "desirable" genetic traits, while decreasing the birth rate of those with "less desirable" ethnic traits.
Ethnic cleansing at the genetic level.
"There are similarities," Sinskey admitted, "and while it's hard to fathom how one would engineer a new human race, there are a lot of smart people who believe it is critical to our survival that we begin that very process. One of the contributors to the Transhumanist magazine H+ described germ-line genetic engineering as 'the clear next step,' and claimed it 'epitomized the true potential of our species.' " Sinskey paused. "Then again, in the magazine's defense, they also ran a Discover magazine piece called 'The Most Dangerous Idea in the World.' "
"I think I'd side with the latter," Langdon said. "At least from the sociocultural standpoint."
"Well, I assume that genetic enhancements-much like cosmetic surgery-cost a lot of money, right?"
"Of course. Not everyone could afford to improve themselves or their children."
"Which means that legalized genetic enhancements would immediately create a world of haves and have-nots. We already have a growing chasm between the rich and the poor, but genetic engineering would create a race of superhumans and ... perceived subhumans. You think people are concerned about the ultrarich one percent running the world? Just imagine if that one percent were also, quite literally, a superior species-smarter, stronger, healthier. It's the kind of situation that would be ripe for slavery or ethnic cleansing."
Sinskey smiled at the handsome academic beside her. "Professor, you have very quickly grasped what I believe to be the most serious pitfall of genetic engineering."
"Well, I may have grasped that, but I'm still confused about Zobrist. All of this Transhumanist thinking seems to be about bettering humankind, making us more healthy, curing fatal diseases, extending our longevity. And yet Zobrist's views on overpopulation seem to endorse killing off people. His ideas on Transhumanism and overpopulation seem to be in conflict, don't they?"
Sinskey gave a solemn sigh. It was a good question, and unfortunately it had a clear and troubling answer. "Zobrist believed wholeheartedly in Transhumanism-in bettering the species through technology; however, he also believed our species would go extinct before we got a chance to do that. In effect, if nobody takes action, our sheer numbers will kill off the species before we get a chance to realize the promise of genetic engineering."
Langdon's eyes went wide. "So Zobrist wanted to thin the herd ... in order to buy more time?"
Sinskey nodded. "He once described himself as being trapped on a ship where the passengers double in number every hour, while he is desperately trying to build a lifeboat before the ship sinks under its own weight." She paused. "He advocated throwing half the people overboard."
Langdon winced. "Frightening thought."
"Quite. Make no mistake about it," she said. "Zobrist firmly believed that a drastic curbing of the human population will be remembered one day as the ultimate act of heroism ... the moment the human race chose to survive."
"As I said, frightening."
"More so because Zobrist was not alone in his thinking. When Zobrist died, he became a martyr for a lot of people. I have no idea who we're going to run into when we arrive in Florence, but we'll need to be very careful. We won't be the only ones trying to find this plague, and for your own safety, we can't let a soul know you're in Italy looking for it."
Langdon told her about his friend Ignazio Busoni, a Dante specialist, who Langdon believed could get him into Palazzo Vecchio for a quiet after-hours look at the painting that contained the words cerca trova, from Zobrist's little projector. Busoni might also be able to help Langdon understand the strange quote about the eyes of death.
Sinskey pulled back her long silver hair and looked intently at Langdon. "Seek and find, Professor. Time is running out."
Sinskey went to an onboard storeroom and retrieved the WHO's most secure hazmat tube-a model with biometric sealing capability.
"Give me your thumb," she said, setting the canister in front of Langdon.
Langdon looked puzzled but obliged.
Sinskey programmed the tube so that Langdon would be the only person who could open it. Then she took the little projector and placed it safely inside.
"Think of it as a portable lockbox," she said with a smile.
"With a biohazard symbol?" Langdon looked uneasy.
"It's all we have. On the bright side, nobody will mess with it."
Langdon excused himself to stretch his legs and use the restroom. While he was gone, Sinskey tried to slip the sealed canister into his jacket pocket. Unfortunately it didn't fit.
He can't be carrying this projector around in plain sight. She thought a moment and then headed back to the storeroom for a scalpel and a stitch kit. With expert precision, she cut a slit in the lining of Langdon's jacket and carefully sewed a hidden pocket that was the exact size required to conceal the biotube.
When Langdon returned, she was just finishing the final stitches.
The professor stopped and stared as if she had defaced the Mona Lisa. "You sliced into the lining of my Harris Tweed?"
"Relax, Professor," she said. "I'm a trained surgeon. The stitches are quite professional."