Langdon walked slowly, feeling strangely disembodied, as if he were moving through a particularly vivid nightmare. What could be more dangerous than a plague?
Sienna had said nothing more since she had climbed out of the boat and motioned for Langdon to follow her away from the docks, along a quiet gravel path, farther away from the water and the crowds.
Although Sienna's tears had stopped, Langdon sensed a torrent of emotion building up within her. He could hear sirens wailing in the distance, but Sienna appeared not to notice. She was staring blankly at the ground, seemingly hypnotized by the rhythmic crunch of the gravel beneath their feet.
They entered a small park, and Sienna guided him into a dense grove of trees, where they were hidden away from the world. Here they sat on a bench that overlooked the water. On the far shore, the ancient Galata Tower glistened above the quiet residences that dotted the hillside. The world looked strangely peaceful from here, a far cry, Langdon imagined, from what was probably transpiring at the cistern. By now, he suspected, Sinskey and the SRS team had realized that they had arrived too late to stop the plague.
Beside him, Sienna stared out across the sea. "I don't have much time, Robert," she said. "The authorities will eventually figure out where I went. But before they do, I need you to hear the truth ... all of it."
Langdon gave her a silent nod.
Sienna wiped her eyes and shifted on the bench to face him fully. "Bertrand Zobrist ..." she began. "He was my first love. He became my mentor."
"I've already been told, Sienna," Langdon said.
She gave him a startled look but continued speaking, as if afraid to lose her momentum. "I met him at an impressionable age, and his ideas and intellect bewitched me. Bertrand believed, as I do, that our species is on the brink of collapse ... that we're facing a horrifying end, which is racing toward us so much faster than anyone dares accept."
Langdon made no reply.
"My entire childhood," Sienna said, "I wanted to save the world. And all I was ever told was: 'You can't save the world, so don't sacrifice your happiness trying.' " She paused, her face taut, holding back tears. "Then I met Bertrand-a beautiful, brilliant man who told me not only that saving the world was possible ... but that doing so was a moral imperative. He introduced me to an entire circle of like-minded individuals-people of staggering abilities and intellect ... people who really could change the future. For the first time in my life, I no longer felt all alone, Robert."
Langdon offered a soft smile, sensing the pain in her words.
"I've endured some terrible things in my life," Sienna continued, her voice increasingly unsteady. "Things I've had trouble moving past ..." She broke his gaze and ran an anxious palm across her bald scalp before collecting herself and turning back to him. "And maybe that's why the only thing that keeps me going is my belief that we are capable of being better than we are ... capable of taking action to avoid a catastrophic future."
"And Bertrand believed that, too?" Langdon asked.
"Absolutely. Bertrand had boundless hope for humankind. He was a Transhumanist who believed we are living on the threshold of a glittering 'posthuman' age-an era of true transformation. He had the mind of a futurist, eyes that could see down the road in ways few others could even imagine. He understood the astonishing powers of technology and believed that in the span of several generations, our species would become a different animal entirely-genetically enhanced to be healthier, smarter, stronger, even more compassionate." She paused. "Except for one problem. He didn't think we'd live long enough as a species to realize that possibility."
"Due to overpopulation ..." Langdon said.
She nodded. "The Malthusian catastrophe. Bertrand used to tell me he felt like St. George trying to slay the chthonic monster."
Langdon didn't follow her meaning. "Medusa?"
"Metaphorically, yes. Medusa and the entire class of chthonic deities live underground because they're associated directly with Mother Earth. In allegory, chthonics are always symbols of-"
"Fertility," Langdon said, startled that the parallel had not occurred to him earlier. Fruitfulness. Population.
"Yes, fertility," Sienna replied. "Bertrand used the term 'chthonic monster' to represent the ominous threat of our own fecundity. He described our overproduction of offspring as a monster looming on the horizon ... a monster we needed to contain immediately, before it consumed us all."
Our own virility stalks us, Langdon realized. The chthonic monster. "And Bertrand battled this monster ... how?"
"Please understand," she said defensively, "these are not easy problems to solve. Triage is always a messy process. A man who severs the leg of a three-year-old child is a horrific criminal ... until that man is a doctor who saves the child from gangrene. Sometimes the only choice is the lesser of two evils." She began tearing up again. "I believe Bertrand had a noble goal ... but his methods ..." She looked away, on the verge of breaking down.
"Sienna," Langdon whispered gently. "I need to understand all of this. I need you to explain to me what Bertrand did. What did he release into the world?"
Sienna faced him again, her soft brown eyes radiating a darker fear. "He released a virus," she whispered. "A very specific kind of virus."
Langdon held his breath. "Tell me."
"Bertrand created something known as a viral vector. It's a virus intentionally designed to install genetic information into the cell it's attacking." Sienna paused to let him process the idea. "A vector virus ... rather than killing its host cell ... inserts a piece of predetermined DNA into that cell, essentially modifying the cell's genome."
Langdon struggled to grasp her meaning. This virus changes our DNA?
"The insidious nature of this virus," Sienna continued, "is that none of us know it has infected us. No one gets sick. It causes no overt symptoms to suggest that it's changing us genetically."
For a moment Langdon could feel the blood pulsing in his veins. "And what changes does it make?"
Sienna closed her eyes for a moment. "Robert," she whispered, "as soon as this virus was released into the cistern's lagoon, a chain reaction began. Every person who descended into that cavern and breathed the air became infected. They became viral hosts ... unwitting accomplices who transferred the virus to others, sparking an exponential proliferation of disease that will now have torn across the planet like a forest fire. By now, the virus will have penetrated the global population. You, me ... everyone."
Langdon rose from the bench and began pacing frantically before her. "And what does it do to us?" he repeated.
Sienna was silent for a long moment. "The virus has the ability to render the human body ... infertile." She shifted uncomfortably. "Bertrand created a sterility plague."
Her words struck Langdon hard. A virus that makes us infertile? Langdon knew there existed viruses that could cause sterility, but a highly contagious airborne pathogen that could do so by altering us genetically seemed to belong in another world ... some kind of Orwellian dystopia of the future.
"Bertrand often theorized about a virus like this," Sienna said quietly, "but I never imagined he would attempt to create it ... much less succeed. When I got his letter and learned what he had done, I was in shock. I tried desperately to find him, to beg him to destroy his creation. But I arrived too late."
"Hold on," Langdon interjected, finally finding his voice. "If the virus makes everyone on earth infertile, there will be no new generations, and the human race will start dying out ... immediately."
"Correct," she responded, her voice sounding small. "Except extinction was not Bertrand's goal-quite the opposite, in fact-which is why he created a randomly activating virus. Even though Inferno is now endemic in all human DNA and will be passed along by all of us from this generation forward, it will 'activate' only in a certain percentage of people. In other words, the virus is now carried by everyone on earth, and yet it will cause sterility in only a randomly selected part of the population."
"What ... part?" Langdon heard himself say, incredulous even to be asking such a question
"Well, as you know, Bertrand was fixated on the Black Death-the plague that indiscriminately killed one third of the European population. Nature, he believed, knew how to cull itself. When Bertrand did the math on infertility, he was exhilarated to discover that the plague's death rate of one in three seemed to be the precise ratio required to start winnowing the human population at a manageable rate."
That's monstrous, Langdon thought.
"The Black Plague thinned the herd and paved the way for the Renaissance," she said, "and Bertrand created Inferno as a kind of modern-day catalyst for global renewal-a Transhumanist Black Death-the difference being that those manifesting the disease, rather than perishing, would simply become infertile. Assuming Bertrand's virus has taken hold, one third of the world's population is now sterile ... and one third of the population will continue to be sterile for all time. The effect would be similar to that of a recessive gene ... which gets passed along to all offspring, and yet exerts its influence in only a small percentage of them."
Sienna's hands were shaking as she continued. "In Bertrand's letter to me, he sounded quite proud, saying he considered Inferno to be a very elegant and humane resolution of the problem." Fresh tears formed in her eyes, and she wiped them away. "Compared to the virulence of the Black Death, I admit there is some compassion in this approach. There will be no hospitals overflowing with the sick and dying, no bodies rotting in the streets, and no anguished survivors enduring the death of loved ones. Humans will simply stop having so many babies. Our planet will experience a steady reduction in our birth rate until the population curve actually inverts, and our total numbers begin to decrease." She paused. "The result will be far more potent than the plague, which only briefly curbed our numbers, creating a temporary dip in the graph of human expansion. With Inferno, Bertrand created a long-term solution, a permanent solution ... a Transhumanist solution. He was a germ-line genetic engineer. He solved problems at the root level."
"It's genetic terrorism ..." Langdon whispered. "It's changing who we are, who we've always been, at the most fundamental level."
"Bertrand didn't see it that way. He dreamed of fixing the fatal flaw in human evolution ... the fact that our species is simply too prolific. We are an organism that, despite our unmatched intellect, cannot seem to control our own numbers. No amount of free contraception, education, or government enticement works. We keep having babies ... whether we want to or not. Did you know the CDC just announced that nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned? And, in underdeveloped nations, that number is over seventy percent!"
Langdon had seen these statistics before and yet only now was he starting to understand their implications. As a species, humans were like the rabbits that were introduced on certain Pacific islands and allowed to reproduce unchecked to the point that they decimated their ecosystem and finally went extinct.
Bertrand Zobrist has redesigned our species ... in an attempt to save us ... transforming us into a less fruitful population.
Langdon took a deep breath and stared out at the Bosporus, feeling as ungrounded as the boats sailing in the distance. The sirens were growing still louder, coming from the direction of the docks, and Langdon sensed that time was running out.
"The most frightening thing of all," Sienna said, "is not that Inferno causes sterility, but rather that it has the ability to do so. An airborne viral vector is a quantum leap-years ahead of its time. Bertrand has suddenly lifted us out of the dark ages of genetic engineering and launched us headlong into the future. He has unlocked the evolutionary process and given humankind the ability to redefine our species in broad, sweeping strokes. Pandora is out of the box, and there's no putting her back in. Bertrand has created the keys to modify the human race ... and if those keys fall into the wrong hands, then God help us. This technology should never have been created. As soon as I read Bertrand's letter explaining how he had achieved his goals, I burned it. Then I vowed to find his virus and destroy all traces of it."
"I don't understand," Langdon declared, his voice laced with anger. "If you wanted to destroy the virus, why didn't you cooperate with Dr. Sinskey and the WHO? You should have called the CDC or someone."
"You can't be serious! Government agencies are the last entities on earth that should have access to this technology! Think about it, Robert. Throughout all of human history, every groundbreaking technology ever discovered by science has been weaponized-from simple fire to nuclear power-and almost always at the hands of powerful governments. Where do you think our biological weapons come from? They originate from research done at places like the WHO and CDC. Bertrand's technology-a pandemic virus used as a genetic vector-is the most powerful weapon ever created. It paves the way for horrors we can't yet even imagine, including targeted biological weapons. Imagine a pathogen that attacks only those people whose genetic code contains certain ethnic markers. It could enable widespread ethnic cleansing on the genetic level!"
"I see your concerns, Sienna, I do, but this technology could also be used for good, couldn't it? Isn't this discovery a godsend for genetic medicine? A new way to deliver global inoculations, for example?"
"Perhaps, but unfortunately, I've learned to expect the worst from people who hold power."
In the distance Langdon could hear the whine of a helicopter shatter the air. He peered through the trees back in the direction of the Spice Bazaar and saw the running lights of an aircraft skimming up over the hill and streaking toward the docks.
Sienna tensed. "I need to go," she said, standing up and glancing to the west toward Atatürk Bridge. "I think I can get across the bridge on foot, and from there reach-"
"You're not leaving, Sienna," he said firmly.
"Robert, I came back because I felt I owed you an explanation. Now you have it."
"No, Sienna," Langdon said. "You came back because you've been running your whole life, and you finally realized you can't run anymore."
Sienna seemed to shrink before him. "What choice do I have?" she asked, watching the helicopter scan the water. "They'll put me in prison as soon as they find me."
"You've done nothing wrong, Sienna. You didn't create this virus ... nor did you release it."
"True, but I went to great lengths to prevent the World Health Organization from finding it. If I don't end up in a Turkish prison, I'll face some kind of international tribunal on charges of biological terrorism."
As the thrum of the helicopter grew louder, Langdon looked toward the docks in the distance. The craft was hovering in place, rotors churning the water as its searchlight strafed the boats.
Sienna looked ready to bolt at any instant.
"Please listen," Langdon said, softening his tone. "I know you've been through a lot, and I know you're scared, but you need to think of the big picture. Bertrand created this virus. You tried to stop it."
"But I failed."
"Yes, and now that the virus is out, the scientific and medical communities will need to understand it fully. You're the only person who knows anything at all about it. Maybe there's a way to neutralize it ... or do something to prepare." Langdon's penetrating gaze bore into her. "Sienna, the world needs to know what you know. You can't just disappear."
Sienna's slim frame was shaking now, as if the floodgates of sorrow and uncertainty were about to burst wide. "Robert, I ... I don't know what to do. I don't even know who I am anymore. Look at me." She put a hand on her bald scalp. "I've turned into a monster. How can I possibly face-"
Langdon stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. He could feel her body trembling, feel her frailty against his chest. He whispered softly in her ear.
"Sienna, I know you want to run, but I'm not going to let you. Sooner or later you need to start trusting someone."
"I can't ..." She was sobbing. "I'm not sure I know how."
Langdon held her tighter. "You start small. You take that first tiny step. You trust me."