INFERNO 29 - Welcome to My Woven Words

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BATHED IN RED light, the subterranean cavern resonated with the sounds of hell-inspired music—the wail of voices, the dissonant pinch of strings, and the deep roll of timpani, which thundered through the grotto like a seismic tremor.
As far as Langdon could see, the floor of this underground world was a glassy sheet of water—dark, still, smooth—like black ice on a frozen New England pond.
The lagoon that reflects no stars.
Rising        out    of     the    water, meticulously arranged in seemingly endless rows, were hundreds upon hundreds of thick Doric columns, each climbing thirty feet to support the cavern’s vaulted ceiling. The columns were lit from below by a series of individual red spotlights, creating a surreal forest of illuminated trunks that telescoped off into the darkness like some kind of mirrored illusion.
Langdon and Brüder paused at the bottom of the stairs, momentarily stalled on the threshold of the spectral hollow before them. The cavern itself seemed to glow with a reddish hue, and as Langdon took it all in, he could feel himself breathing as shallowly as possible.
The air down here was heavier than he’d imagined.
Langdon could see the crowd in the distance to their left. The concert was taking place deep in the underground space, halfway back against the far wall, its audience seated on an expanse of platforms. Several hundred spectators sat in concentric rings that had been arranged around the orchestra while a hundred more stood around the perimeter. Still others had taken up positions out on the near boardwalks, leaning on the sturdy railings and gazing down into the water as they listened to the music.
Langdon found himself scanning the sea of amorphous silhouettes, his eyes searching for Sienna. She was nowhere in sight. Instead he saw figures in tuxedos, gowns, bishts, burkas, and even tourists in shorts and sweatshirts. The cross section of humanity, gathered in the crimson light, looked to Langdon like celebrants in some kind of occult mass.
If Sienna’s down here, he realized, it will be nearly impossible to spot her.
At that moment a heavyset man moved past them, exiting up the stairs, coughing as he went. Brüder spun and watched him go, scrutinizing him carefully. Langdon felt a faint tickle in his own throat but told himself it was his imagination.
Brüder now took a tentative step forward on the boardwalk, eyeing their numerous options. The path before them looked like the entrance to the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The single boardwalk quickly forked into three, each of those branching off again, creating a suspended maze, hovering over the water, weaving in and out of the columns and snaking into the darkness.
I found myself within a forest dark, Langdon thought, recalling the ominous first canto of Dante’s masterwork, for the straightforward
pathway had been lost.
     Langdon      peered      over       the
walkway’s railing into the water. It
was about four feet deep and
surprisingly clear. The stone tile floor was visible, blanketed by a fine layer of silt.
Brüder took a quick look down, gave a noncommittal grunt, and then raised his eyes back to the room. “Do you see anything that looks like the area in Zobrist’s video?”
Everything, Langdon thought, surveying the steep, damp walls around them. He motioned to the most remote corner of the cavern, far off to the right, away from the congestion of the orchestral platform. “I’m      guessing    back there
Brüder nodded. “My instinct as well.”
The two of them hurried down the boardwalk, choosing the right-hand fork, which carried them away from the crowd, in the direction of the farthest reaches of the sunken palace.
As they walked, Langdon realized how easy it would be to hide overnight in this space, undetected. Zobrist could have done just that to make his video. Of course, if he had generously underwritten this weeklong concert series, he also could have simply requested some private time in the cistern.
Not that it matters anymore.
Brüder was striding faster now, as if subconsciously keeping pace with the symphony’s tempo, which had increased into a cascading series of descending semitone suspensions.
Dante and Virgil’s descent into hell.
Langdon intently scanned the steep, mossy walls in the distance to their right, trying to match them up with what they had seen in the video. At each new fork in the boardwalk, they turned right, moving farther from the crowd, heading for the cavern’s most remote corner. Langdon looked back and was astounded by the distance they had covered.
They advanced at almost a jog now, passing a handful of meandering visitors, but by the time they entered the deepest parts of the cistern, the number of people had thinned to nothing.
Brüder and Langdon were alone.
“It all looks the same,” Brüder despaired. “Where do we start?” Langdon shared his frustration. He remembered the video vividly, but nothing down here leaped out as a recognizable feature.
Langdon studied the softly lit informational signs that dotted the boardwalk as they moved ahead. One described the twenty-onemillion-gallon capacity of the room. Another pointed out a nonmatching pillar that had been looted from a nearby structure during construction. And still another offered a diagram of an ancient carving now faded from view—the Crying Hen’s Eye symbol, which wept for all the slaves who died while building the cistern.
Strangely, it was a sign that bore a single word that now stopped
Langdon dead in his tracks.
     Brüder     halted,     too,      turning.
“What’s wrong?” Langdon pointed.
On the sign, accompanied by a directional arrow, was the name of a fearsome Gorgon—an infamous female monster.
Brüder read the sign and shrugged.
“So what?”
Langdon’s heart was pounding. He knew Medusa was not only the fearsome snake-haired spirit whose gaze could turn anyone who looked at her to stone, but was also a prominent member of the Greek pantheon of subterranean spirits … a specific category known as the chthonic monsters.
Follow deep into the sunken palace
for here, in the darkness, the chthonic monster waits …
She’s pointing the way, Langdon realized, breaking into a run along the boardwalk. Brüder could barely keep up with him as Langdon zigzagged into the darkness, following the signs for Medusa. Finally, he reached a dead end at a small viewing platform near the base of the cistern’s rightmost wall.
There before him was an incredible sight.
Rising out of the water was a colossal carved marble block—the head of Medusa—her hair writhing with snakes. Making her presence here even more bizarre was the fact that her head had been placed on her neck upside down.
Inverted as the damned, Langdon realized, picturing Botticelli’s Map of Hell and the inverted sinners he had placed in the Malebolge.
Brüder arrived breathless beside Langdon at the railing, staring out at the upside-down Medusa with a look of bewilderment.
Langdon suspected that this carved head, which now served as a plinth supporting one of the columns, had probably been pillaged from elsewhere and used here as an inexpensive building supply. The reason for Medusa’s inverted position was no doubt the superstitious belief that the inversion would rob her of her evil powers. Even so, Langdon could not shake off the barrage of haunting thoughts that assailed him.
Dante’s Inferno. The finale. The center of the earth. Where gravity inverts itself. Where up becomes down.
His skin now prickling with foreboding, Langdon squinted through the reddish haze that surrounded the sculpted head. Most of Medusa’s serpent-infested hair was submerged underwater, but her eyes were above the surface, facing to the left, staring out across the lagoon.
Fearfully, Langdon leaned over the railing and turned his head, letting his gaze follow the statue’s out into the familiar empty corner of the sunken palace.
In an instant, he knew.
This was the spot.
Zobrist’s ground zero.

stealthily, sliding beneath the railing and dropping down into the chestdeep water. As the rush of cool liquid permeated his clothing, his muscles tensed against the chill. The floor of the cistern was slippery beneath his boots, but it felt solid. He stood a moment, taking stock, watching the concentric circles of water rippling away from his body like shock waves across the lagoon.
For a moment Brüder didn’t breathe. Move slowly, he told
himself. Create no turbulence.
Above him on the boardwalk, Langdon stood at the railing, scanning the surrounding boardwalks.
“All set,” Langdon whispered.
“Nobody sees you.”
Brüder turned and faced the huge upside-down head of Medusa, which was brightly lit by a red spotlight. The inverted monster looked even larger now that Brüder was down at her level.
“Follow Medusa’s gaze across the lagoon,” Langdon whispered. “Zobrist had a flair for symbolism and dramatics … I wouldn’t be surprised if he placed his creation directly in the lethal sight line of Medusa.”
Great minds think alike. Brüder felt grateful that the American professor had insisted on making the descent with him; Langdon’s expertise had guided them almost immediately to this distant corner of the cistern.
As the strains of the Dante Symphony continued to reverberate in the distance, Brüder took out his waterproof Tovatec penlight and submerged it beneath the water, flipping the switch. A bright halogen beam pierced the water, illuminating the cistern floor before him.
Easy, Brüder reminded himself.
Don’t disturb a thing.
Without another word, he began his careful journey out into the lagoon, wading in slow motion through the water, moving his
flashlight methodically back and forth like an underwater minesweeper.
At the railing, Langdon had begun to feel an unsettling tightness in his throat. The air in the cistern, despite the humidity, tasted stale and oxygen-depleted to him. As Brüder waded carefully out into the lagoon, the professor reassured himself that everything would be fine.
We arrived in time.
It’s all intact.
Brüder’s team can contain this.

Even so, Langdon felt jumpy. As a lifelong claustrophobe, he knew he would be anxious down here under any circumstances. Something about thousands of tons of earth hovering overhead … supported by nothing but decaying pillars.
He pushed the thought from his mind and took another glance behind him for anyone taking undue interest. Nothing.
The only people nearby were standing on various other boardwalks, and they were all looking in the opposite direction, toward the orchestra. No one seemed to have noticed Brüder slowly wading across the water in this deep corner of the cistern.
Langdon returned his gaze to the SRS team leader, whose submerged halogen beam still oscillated eerily in front of him, lighting the way.
As Langdon looked on, his peripheral vision suddenly picked up movement to his left—an ominous black form rising out of the water in front of Brüder. Langdon wheeled and stared into the looming darkness, half expecting to see some kind of leviathan rearing up from beneath the surface.
Brüder had stopped short, apparently having seen it, too.
In the far corner, a wavering black shape rose some thirty feet up the wall. The ghostly silhouette looked nearly identical to that of the plague doctor who’d appeared in Zobrist’s video.
It’s a shadow, Langdon realized, exhaling. Brüder’s shadow.
The shadow had been cast as Brüder moved past a submerged spotlight in the lagoon, exactly, it seemed, as Zobrist’s shadow had done in the video.
“This is the spot,” Langdon called out to Brüder. “You’re close.”
Brüder nodded and continued inching his way out into the lagoon. Langdon moved along the railing, staying even with him. As the agent moved farther and farther away, Langdon stole another quick glance toward the orchestra to make sure Brüder had not been noticed.
As Langdon again returned his gaze to the lagoon, a glint of reflected light caught his eye on the boardwalk at his feet.
He looked down and saw a tiny puddle of red liquid.
Strangely, Langdon was standing in it.
Am I bleeding?
Langdon felt no pain, and yet he frantically began searching himself for some injury or possible reaction to an unseen toxin in the air. He checked his nose for a possible bleed, his fingernails, his ears.
Baffled as to where the blood had come from, Langdon glanced around, confirming that he was indeed alone on the deserted walkway.
Langdon looked down at the puddle again, and this time he noticed a tiny rivulet flowing along the boardwalk and collecting in the low spot at his feet. The red liquid, it seemed, was coming from somewhere up ahead and trickling down an incline in the boardwalk.
Someone is injured up there, Langdon sensed. He glanced quickly out at Brüder, who was nearing the center of the lagoon.
Langdon strode quickly up the boardwalk, following the rivulet. As he advanced toward the dead end, the rivulet became wider, flowing freely. What in the world? At this point it turned into a small stream. He broke into a jog, following the flowing liquid all the way to the wall, where the boardwalk suddenly ended.
Dead end.
In the murky darkness, he found a large pool, which was glistening red, as if someone had just been slaughtered here.
In that instant, as Langdon watched the red liquid dripping off the boardwalk into the cistern, he realized that his original assessment was mistaken.
It’s not blood.
The red lights of the vast space, combined with the red hue of the boardwalk, had created an illusion, giving these clear droplets a reddishblack tint.
It’s just water.
Instead of bringing a sense of relief, the revelation infused him with blunt fear. He stared down at the puddle of water, now seeing splashes on the banister … and footprints.
Someone climbed out of the water here.
Langdon spun to call out to Brüder, but he was too far away and the music had progressed into a fortissimo of brass and timpani. It was deafening. Langdon suddenly felt a presence beside him.
I’m not alone out here.
In slow motion, Langdon turned toward the wall where the boardwalk dead-ended. Ten feet away,
shrouded in dark shadows, he was able to discern a rounded form, like a large stone cloaked in black cloth, dripping in a pool of water. The form was motionless.
And then it moved.
The form elongated, its featureless head rotating upward from its bowed position.
A person huddled in a black burka,
Langdon realized.
The traditional Islamic body covering left no skin showing, but as the veiled head turned toward Langdon, two dark eyes materialized, staring out through the narrow slit of the burka’s face covering, locking intently on Langdon.
In an instant, he knew.
Sienna Brooks exploded from her hiding place. She accelerated to a sprint in a single stride, plowing into Langdon and driving him to the ground as she raced off down the boardwalk.

OUT IN THE lagoon, Agent Brüder had stopped in his tracks. The halogen beam of his Tovatec penlight had just picked up the sharp glint of metal up ahead on the submerged cistern floor.
Barely breathing, Brüder took a delicate step closer, cautious not to create any turbulence in the water. Through the glassy surface, he could now make out a sleek rectangle of titanium, bolted to the floor.
Zobrist’s plaque.
The water was so clear he could almost read tomorrow’s date and accompanying text:
Think again, Brüder mused, his confidence rising. We have several
hours to stop this before tomorrow.
Picturing Zobrist’s video, Brüder gently inched the flashlight beam to the left of the plaque, searching for the tethered Solublon bag. As the beam illuminated the darkened water, Brüder strained his gaze in confusion.
No bag.
He moved the beam farther to the left, to the precise spot where the bag had appeared on the video.
Still nothing.
But … it was right here!
Brüder’s jaw clenched as he took another tentative step closer, sweeping the beam slowly around the entire area.
There was no bag. Only the plaque.
For a brief, hopeful instant, Brüder wondered if perhaps this threat, like so many things today, had been nothing but an illusion.
Was it all a hoax?!
Did Zobrist just want to scare us?!
And then he saw it.
To the left of the plaque, barely visible on the lagoon floor, lay a limp tether. The flaccid string looked like a lifeless worm in the water. At the far end of the string was a tiny plastic clasp, from which hung a few tatters of Solublon plastic.
Brüder stared down at the frayed relic of the transparent bag. It clung to the end of the tether like the tattered knot of a popped party balloon.
The truth settled slowly in his gut.
We’re too late.
He pictured the submerged bag dissolving and breaking apart … its deadly contents spreading out into the water … and bubbling up to the surface of the lagoon.
With a tremulous finger, he flicked off his flashlight and stood a moment in the darkness, trying to gather his thoughts.
Those thoughts turned quickly to prayer.
God help us all.
“Agent Brüder, repeat!” Sinskey shouted into her radio, descending halfway down the stairwell into the cistern, trying to get better reception.
“I didn’t copy that!”
The warm wind rushed past her, up the stairs toward the open doorway above. Outside, the SRS team had arrived and its members were prepping behind the building in an effort to keep their hazmat gear out of sight while they waited to receive Brüder’s assessment.
“… ruptured bag …” Brüder’s voice crackled in Sinskey’s comm. “… and
… released.”
What?! Sinskey prayed she was misunderstanding as she rushed farther down the stairs. “Repeat!” she commanded, nearing the base of the stairwell, where the orchestral music grew louder.
Brüder’s voice was much clearer this time. “… and I repeat … the contagion has been dispersed!”
Sinskey lurched forward, nearly falling into the cistern’s entryway at the base of the stairwell. How can
that be?!
“The bag has dissolved,” Brüder’s voice snapped loudly. “The contagion is in the water!”
A cold sweat gripped Dr. Sinskey as she raised her eyes and tried to process the sprawling underground world now spread out before her. Through the reddish haze, she saw a vast expanse of water from which sprang hundreds of columns. Most of all, however, she saw people.
Hundreds of people.
Sinskey stared out at the unsuspecting crowd, all of them confined in Zobrist’s underground death trap. She reacted on instinct. “Agent Brüder, come up at once. We’ll begin evacuating people immediately.”
Brüder’s reply was instantaneous. “Absolutely not! Seal the doors! Nobody gets out of here!”
As director of the World Health Organization, Elizabeth Sinskey was accustomed to having her orders followed without question. For an instant, she thought she had misunderstood the lead SRS agent’s words. Seal the doors?!
“Dr. Sinskey!” Brüder shouted over the music. “Do you read me?! Close the goddamn doors!”
Brüder repeated the command, but it was unnecessary. Sinskey knew he was correct. In the face of a possible pandemic, containment was the only viable option.
Sinskey reflexively reached up and gripped her lapis lazuli amulet. Sacrifice the few to save the many. With a hardening resolve, she raised the radio to her lips. “Confirmed, Agent Brüder. I’ll give the order to seal the doors.”
Sinskey was about to turn away from the horror of the cistern and give the command to seal the area when she sensed a sudden commotion in the crowd.
Not far away, a woman in a black burka was dashing toward her along a crowded boardwalk, knocking people out of the way as she ran. The veiled woman seemed to be headed directly for Sinskey and the exit.
She’s being chased, Sinskey realized, spotting a man running behind her.
Then Sinskey froze. That’s Langdon!
Sinskey’s eyes whipped back to the woman in the burka, who was approaching fast and now shouting something in Turkish to all the people on the boardwalk. Sinskey didn’t speak Turkish, but judging from the panicked reaction of the people, the woman’s words were the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
A ripple of panic swept through the crowd, and suddenly it was not only the veiled woman and Langdon who were dashing for the stairs. Everyone was.
Sinskey turned her back to the oncoming stampede and began shouting desperately up the stairs to her team.
     “Lock      the      doors!”       Sinskey
screamed. “Seal the cistern! NOW!”
By the time Langdon skidded around the corner into the stairwell, Sinskey was halfway up the stairs, clambering toward the surface, shouting wildly to close the doors. Sienna Brooks was close on her heels, struggling with her heavy, wet burka as she lumbered up the stairs.
Bounding after them, Langdon could feel a tidal wave of terrified concertgoers surging up behind him.
“Seal the exit!” Sinskey shouted again.
Langdon’s long legs carried him three steps at a time, gaining fast on Sienna. Above, he could see the cistern’s heavy double doors begin to swing inward.
Too slow.
Sienna overtook Sinskey, grabbing her shoulder and using it as leverage to launch past her, clambering wildly over her toward the exit. Sinskey stumbled forward onto her knees, her beloved amulet hitting the cement stairs and breaking in half.
Langdon fought the instinct to stop and help the fallen woman, but instead, he hurtled past her, sprinting toward the top landing.
Sienna was only a few feet away now, almost within reach, but she had attained the landing, and the doors were not closing fast enough. Without breaking stride, Sienna deftly angled her slender body and leaped sideways through the narrow opening.
She was halfway through the doors when her burka snagged on a latch, halting her in her tracks, wedged in the middle of the doorway, mere inches from freedom. As she writhed to escape, Langdon’s hand shot out and seized a clump of her burka. He held fast, pulling back, trying to reel her in, but she wriggled frantically and suddenly Langdon was holding only a wet clump of fabric.
The doors slammed onto the fabric, barely missing Langdon’s hands. The wadded cloth was now pinched in the doorway, making it impossible for the men outside to push the doors all the way closed.
Through the narrow slit, Langdon could see Sienna Brooks sprinting across a busy street, her bald head shining in the streetlights. She was wearing the same sweater and blue jeans she had been wearing all day, and Langdon suddenly felt a fiery, upwelling sense of betrayal.
The feeling lasted only an instant. A sudden, crushing weight rammed Langdon hard against the door.
The stampede had arrived behind him.
The stairwell echoed with shouts of terror and confusion as the sounds of the symphony orchestra deteriorated into a confused cacophony below. Langdon could feel the pressure on his back increasing as the bottleneck thickened. His rib cage began to compress painfully against the door.
Then the doors exploded outward, and Langdon was launched into the night like a cork from a bottle of champagne. He stumbled across the sidewalk, nearly falling into the street. Behind him, a stream of humanity was flowing up out of the earth like ants escaping from a poisoned anthill.
The SRS agents, hearing the sounds of chaos, now emerged from behind the building. Their appearance in full hazmat gear and respirators immediately amplified the panic.
Langdon turned away and peered across the street after Sienna. All he could see was traffic and lights and confusion.
Then, for a fleeting instant, down the street to his left, the pale flash of a bald head shone in the night, darting along a crowded sidewalk and disappearing around a corner.
Langdon shot a desperate glance behind him, searching for Sinskey, or the police, or an SRS agent who was not wearing a bulky hazmat suit.
Langdon knew he was on his own.
Without hesitation, he sprinted after Sienna.
Far below, in the deepest recesses of the cistern, Agent Brüder stood all alone in the waist-deep water. The sounds of pandemonium echoed through the darkness as frenzied tourists and musicians shoved their way toward the exit and disappeared up the stairs.
The doors were never sealed, Brüder realized to his horror.

Containment has failed.

By Dan Brown

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