INFERNO 33 - Welcome to My Woven Words

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INFERNO 33


THE CLOCK IN the Swiss Consulate’s lobby had long since chimed 1 A.M.
The notepad on Sinskey’s desk was now a patchwork of handwritten text, questions, and diagrams. The director of the World Health Organization had neither moved nor spoken in more than five minutes. She stood at the window, staring out into the night.
Behind her, Langdon and Sienna waited, seated in silence, cradling the last of their Turkish coffee, the heavy aroma of its pulverized grounds and pistachio grains filling the room.
The only sound was the buzz of the fluorescent lights overhead.
Sienna could feel her own heart pounding, and she wondered what Sinskey was thinking, having now heard the truth in brutal detail.
Bertrand’s virus is a sterility plague. One third of the human population will be infertile.
Throughout the explanation, Sienna had watched Sinskey’s range of emotions, which, while restrained, had been palpable. First, there was a stunned acceptance of the fact that Zobrist had actually created an airborne vector virus. Next she had displayed fleeting hope when she learned that the virus was not designed to kill people. Then … slowly, there had been the spiraling horror as the truth set in, and she realized that vast portions of the earth’s population would be rendered sterile. It was clear that the revelation that the virus attacked human fertility affected Sinskey on a deeply personal level.
In Sienna’s case, the overwhelming emotion was relief. She had shared the complete contents of Bertrand’s letter with the WHO director. I have
no more secrets.
“Elizabeth?” Langdon ventured.
Sinskey emerged slowly from her thoughts. When she returned her gaze to them, her face was drawn. “Sienna,” she began, speaking in a flat tone, “the information you have provided will be very helpful in preparing a strategy to deal with this crisis. I appreciate your candor. As you know, pandemic vector viruses have been discussed theoretically as a possible way to immunize large populations, but everyone believed that the technology was still many years away.”
Sinskey returned to her desk, where she sat down.
“Forgive me,” she said, shaking her head. “This all feels like science fiction to me at the moment.”
Not surprising, Sienna thought. Every quantum leap in medicine had always felt this way—penicillin, anesthesia, X-rays, the first time humans looked through a microscope and saw a cell divide.
Dr. Sinskey gazed down at her notepad. “In a few hours, I will arrive in Geneva to a firestorm of questions. I have no doubt that the first question will be whether there is any way to counteract this virus.”
Sienna suspected she was right.
“And,” Sinskey continued, “I imagine the first proposed solution will be to analyze Bertrand’s virus, understand it as best as we can, and then attempt to engineer a second strain of it—a strain that we
reprogram in order to change our
DNA back to its original form.” Sinskey did not look optimistic as she turned her gaze to Sienna. “Whether a countervirus is even possible remains to be seen, but hypothetically speaking, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that
approach.”
My thoughts? Sienna felt herself glance reflexively at Langdon. The professor gave her a nod, sending a very clear message: You’ve come this
far. Speak your mind. Tell the truth as you see it.
Sienna cleared her throat, turned to Sinskey, and spoke in a clear, strong voice. “Ma’am, the world of genetic engineering is one I’ve inhabited with Bertrand for many years. As you know, the human genome is an extremely delicate structure … a house of cards. The more adjustments we make, the greater the chances we mistakenly alter the wrong card and bring the entire thing crashing down. My personal belief is that there is enormous danger in attempting to undo what has already been done. Bertrand was a genetic engineer of exceptional skill and vision. He was years ahead of his peers. At this point in time, I’m not sure I would trust anyone else to go poking around in the human genome, hoping to get it right. Even if you designed something you thought might work, trying it would involve reinfecting the entire population with something new.”
“Very true,” Sinskey said, seeming unsurprised by what she had just heard. “But of course, there is the bigger issue. We might not even want to counteract it.”
Her words caught Sienna off guard. “I’m sorry?”
“Ms. Brooks, I may disagree with Bertrand’s methods, but his assessment of the state of the world is accurate. This planet is facing a serious overpopulation issue. If we manage to neutralize Bertrand’s virus without a viable alternate plan … we are simply back at square one.”
Sienna’s shock must have been apparent, because Sinskey gave her a tired chuckle and added, “Not a viewpoint you expected to hear from me?”
Sienna shook her head. “I guess I’m not sure what to expect anymore.”
“Then perhaps I can surprise you again,” Sinskey went on. “As I mentioned earlier, leaders from top health agencies around the world will be gathering in Geneva in a matter of hours to discuss this crisis and prepare an action plan. I can’t recall a gathering of greater significance in all my years at the WHO.” She leveled her gaze at the young doctor. “Sienna, I would like you to have a
seat at that table.”
“Me?” Sienna recoiled. “I’m not a genetic engineer. I’ve told you everything I know.” She pointed to Sinskey’s notepad. “Everything I have to offer is right there in your notes.”
“Not by a long shot,” Langdon interjected. “Sienna, any meaningful debate about this virus will require
context. Dr. Sinskey and her team will need to develop a moral framework to assess their response to this crisis. She obviously believes you are in a unique position to add to that dialogue.”
“My moral framework, I suspect, will not please the WHO.”
“Probably not,” Langdon replied, “which is all the more reason for you to be there. You are a member of a new breed of thinkers. You provide counterpoint. You can help them understand the mind-set of
visionaries like Bertrand—brilliant individuals whose convictions are so strong that they take matters into
their own hands.”
“Bertrand was hardly the first.”
“No,” Sinskey interjected, “and he won’t be the last. Every month, the WHO uncovers labs where scientists are dabbling in the gray areas of science—everything from manipulating human stem cells to breeding chimeras … blended species that don’t exist in nature. It’s disturbing. Science is progressing so fast that nobody knows where the lines are drawn anymore.”
Sienna had to agree. Just recently, two very respected virologists— Fouchier and Kawaoka—had created a highly pathogenic mutant H5N1 virus. Despite the researchers’ purely academic intent, their new creation possessed certain capabilities that had alarmed biosecurity specialists and had created a firestorm of controversy online.
“I’m afraid it’s only going to get murkier,” Sinskey said. “We’re on the verge of new technologies that we
can’t yet even imagine.”
“And new philosophies as well,” Sienna added. “The Transhumanist movement is about to explode from the shadows into the mainstream. One of its fundamental tenets is that we as humans have a moral obligation to participate in our evolutionary process … to use our technologies to advance the species, to create better humans—healthier, stronger, with higher-functioning
brains. Everything will soon be possible.”
“And you don’t think that such beliefs are in conflict with the evolutionary process?”
“No,” Sienna responded without hesitation. “Humans have evolved incrementally over millennia, inventing new technologies along the way—rubbing sticks together for warmth, developing agriculture to feed ourselves, inventing vaccines to fight disease, and now, creating genetic tools to help engineer our own bodies so we can survive in a changing world.” She paused. “I believe genetic engineering is just another step in a long line of human advances.”
Sinskey was silent, deep in thought. “So you believe we should embrace these tools with open arms.”
“If we don’t embrace them,” Sienna replied, “then we are as undeserving of life as the caveman
who freezes to death because he’s
afraid to start a fire.”
Her words seemed to hang in the room for a long time before anyone spoke.
It was Langdon who broke the
silence. “Not to sound old-fashioned,” he began, “but I was raised on the theories of Darwin, and I can’t help but question the wisdom of
attempting to accelerate the natural
process of evolution.”
“Robert,” Sienna said emphatically,
“genetic engineering is not an acceleration of the evolutionary process. It is the natural course of events! What you forget is that it was evolution that created Bertrand Zobrist. His superior intellect was the product of the very process Darwin described … an evolution over time. Bertrand’s rare insight into genetics did not come as a flash of divine inspiration … it was the product of years of human intellectual progress.”
Langdon fell silent, apparently considering the notion.
     “And     as     a     Darwinist,”      she
continued, “you know that nature has always found a way to keep the human population in check—plagues, famines, floods. But let me ask you this—isn’t it possible that nature found a different way this time? Instead of sending us horrific disasters and misery … maybe nature, through the process of evolution, created a scientist who invented a different method of decreasing our numbers over time. No plagues. No death. Just a species more in tune with its environment—”
“Sienna,” Sinskey interrupted. “It’s late. We need to go. But before we do, I need to clarify one more thing. You have told me repeatedly tonight that Bertrand was not an evil man … that he loved humankind, and that he simply longed so deeply to save our species that he was able to rationalize taking such drastic measures.”
Sienna nodded. “The ends justify the means,” she said, quoting the notorious Florentine political theorist Machiavelli.
“So tell me,” Sinskey said, “do you believe that the ends justify the means? Do you believe that
Bertrand’s goal to save the world was so noble that it warranted his
releasing this virus?”
A tense silence settled in the room.
Sienna leaned in, close to the desk, her expression forceful. “Dr. Sinskey, as I told you, I believe
Bertrand’s actions were reckless and extremely dangerous. If I could have stopped him, I would have done so in a heartbeat. I need you to believe me.”
Elizabeth Sinskey reached across the desk and gently grasped both of Sienna’s hands in her own. “I do believe you, Sienna. I believe every word you’ve told me.”


THE PREDAWN AIR at Atatürk Airport was cold and laced with mist. A light fog had settled, hugging the tarmac around the private terminal.
Langdon, Sienna, and Sinskey arrived by town car and were met outside by a WHO staffer who helped them out of the vehicle.
“We’re ready whenever you are, ma’am,” the man said, ushering the trio into a modest terminal building.
“And Mr. Langdon’s arrangements?” Sinskey asked.
“Private plane to Florence. His temporary travel documents are already on board.”
Sinskey nodded her appreciation.
“And the other matter we discussed?”
“Already in motion. The package will be shipped as soon as possible.”
Sinskey thanked the man, who now headed out across the tarmac toward the plane. She turned to Langdon. “Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” She gave him a tired smile and pulled back her long silver hair, tucking it behind her ears.
      “Considering       the        situation,”
Langdon said playfully, “I’m not sure an art professor has much to offer.”
“You’ve offered plenty,” Sinskey said. “More than you know. Not the least of which being …” She motioned beside her to Sienna, but the young woman was no longer with them. Sienna was twenty yards back, having paused at a large window where she was staring out at the waiting C-130, apparently deep in thought.
“Thanks for trusting her,” Langdon said quietly. “I sense she hasn’t had
a lot of that in her life.”
“I suspect Sienna Brooks and I will find plenty of things to learn from each other.” Sinskey extended her palm. “Godspeed, Professor.”
“And to you,” Langdon said as they shook hands. “Best of luck in Geneva.”
“We’ll need it,” she said, and then nodded toward Sienna. “I’ll give you two a moment. Just send her out when you’re ready.”
As Sinskey headed across the terminal, she reached absently into her pocket and pulled out the two halves of her broken amulet, clutching them tightly in one palm.
“Don’t give up on that rod of Asclepius,” Langdon called out
behind her. “It’s fixable.”
“Thanks,” Sinskey replied with a wave. “I’m hoping everything is.”
Sienna Brooks stood alone at the window, gazing out at the lights of the runway, which looked ghostly in the low-lying fog and gathering clouds. Atop a control tower in the distance, the Turkish flag fluttered proudly—a field of red emblazoned with the ancient symbols of the crescent and star—vestiges of the Ottoman Empire, still flying proudly in the modern world.
“A Turkish lira for your thoughts?” a deep voice said behind her.
Sienna did not turn. “A storm is coming.”
“I know,” Langdon responded quietly.
After a long moment, Sienna turned to him. “And I wish you were coming to Geneva.”
“Nice of you to say so,” he replied. “But you’ll be busy talking about the future. The last thing you need is some old-fashioned college professor slowing you down.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “You think you’re too old for me, don’t you?”
     Langdon      laughed      out      loud.
“Sienna, I am definitely too old for you!”
She shifted uncomfortably, feeling embarrassed. “Okay … but at least you’ll know where to find me.” She managed a girlish shrug. “I mean … if you ever want to see me again.”
He smiled at her. “I’d enjoy that.”
She felt her spirits lift a bit, and yet
a long silence grew between them, neither of them quite certain how to say good-bye.
As Sienna stared up at the
American professor, she felt a surge of emotion she wasn’t accustomed to feeling. Without warning, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed him full on the lips. When she pulled away, her eyes were moist with tears. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered.
Langdon smiled affectionately and wrapped his arms around her. “I’ll miss you, too.”
They stood for a long while, locked in an embrace that neither seemed willing to end. Finally, Langdon spoke. “There’s an ancient saying … often attributed to Dante himself …” He paused. “‘Remember tonight …
for it’s the beginning of forever.’ ”
“Thank you, Robert,” she said, as the tears began to flow. “I finally feel like I have a purpose.”
Langdon pulled her closer. “You always said you wanted to save the world, Sienna. This might just be your chance.”
Sienna smiled softly and turned away. As she walked alone toward the waiting C-130, Sienna considered everything that had happened … everything that might still happen … and all the possible futures.
Remember tonight, she repeated to herself, for it’s the beginning of forever.
As Sienna climbed into the plane, she prayed that Dante was right.

THE PALE AFTERNOON sun dipped low over the Piazza del Duomo, glinting off the white tiles of Giotto’s bell tower and casting long shadows across Florence’s magnificent
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
The funeral for Ignazio Busoni was just getting under way as Robert Langdon slipped into the cathedral and found a seat, pleased that Ignazio’s life was to be memorialized here, in the timeless basilica that he had looked after for so many years.
Despite its vibrant facade, the interior of Florence’s cathedral was stark, empty, and austere.
Nonetheless, the ascetic sanctuary seemed to radiate an air of celebration today. From all over Italy, government officials, friends, and artworld colleagues had flooded into the church to remember the jovial mountain of a man they had lovingly called il Duomino.
The media had reported that Busoni passed away while doing what he loved most—taking a latenight stroll around the Duomo.
The tone of the funeral was surprisingly upbeat, with humorous commentary from friends and family, one colleague noting that Busoni’s love of Renaissance art, by his own admission, had been matched only by his love of spaghetti Bolognese and caramel budino.
After the service, as the mourners mingled and fondly recounted
incidents from Ignazio’s life, Langdon wandered around the interior of the Duomo, admiring the artwork that Ignazio had so deeply loved … Vasari’s Last Judgment beneath the dome, Donatello and Ghiberti’s stained-glass windows, Uccello’s clock, and the often-overlooked mosaic pavements that adorned the floor.
At some point Langdon found himself standing before a familiar face—that of Dante Alighieri. Depicted in the legendary fresco by Michelino, the great poet stood before Mount Purgatory and held forth in his hands, as if in humble offering, his masterpiece The Divine Comedy.
Langdon couldn’t help but wonder what Dante would have thought if he had known the effect his epic poem would have on the world, centuries later, in a future even the Florentine poet himself could never have envisioned.
He found eternal life, Langdon thought, recalling the early Greek philosophers’ views on fame. So long as they speak your name, you shall
never die.
     It    was     early     evening      when
Langdon made his way across Piazza
Sant’Elisabetta and returned to Florence’s elegant Hotel Brunelleschi. Upstairs in his room, he was relieved to find an oversize package waiting for him.
At last, the delivery had arrived.
The package I requested from Sinskey.
Hurriedly, Langdon cut the tape sealing the box and lifted out the precious contents, reassured to see that it had been meticulously packed and was cushioned in bubble wrapping.
To Langdon’s surprise, however,
the box contained some additional items. Elizabeth Sinskey, it seemed, had used her substantial influence to recover a bit more than he had requested. The box contained Langdon’s own clothing—button down shirt, khaki pants, and his frayed Harris Tweed jacket—all carefully cleaned and pressed. Even his cordovan loafers were here, newly polished. Inside the box, he was also pleased to find his wallet.
It was the discovery of one final item, however, that made Langdon chuckle. His reaction was part relief that the item had been returned … and part sheepishness that he cared so deeply about it.
My Mickey Mouse watch.
Langdon immediately fastened the collector’s edition timepiece on his wrist. The feel of the worn leather band against his skin made him feel strangely secure. By the time he had gotten dressed in his own clothes and slipped his feet back into his own loafers, Robert Langdon was feeling almost like himself again.
Langdon exited the hotel, carrying the delicate package with him in a Hotel Brunelleschi tote bag, which he had borrowed from the concierge. The evening was unusually warm, adding to the dreamlike quality of his walk along the Via dei Calzaiuoli toward the lone spire of the Palazzo Vecchio.
When he arrived, Langdon checked in at the security office, where his name was on a list to see Marta Alvarez. He was directed to the Hall of the Five Hundred, which was still bustling with tourists. Langdon had arrived right on time, expecting Marta to meet him here in the entryway, but she was nowhere to be seen.
He flagged down a passing docent.
“Scusi?” Langdon    called. “Dove passo trovare Marta Alvarez?”
The docent broke into a broad grin. “Signora Alvarez?! She no here! She have baby! Catalina! Molto bella!”
Langdon was pleased to hear Marta’s good news. “Ahh … che
bello,” he replied. “Stupendo!”
As the docent hurried off, Langdon wondered what he was supposed to do with the package he was carrying.
Quickly making up his mind, he crossed the crowded Hall of the Five Hundred, passing beneath Vasari’s mural and heading up into the palazzo museum, staying out of sight of any security guards.
Finally, he arrived outside the museum’s narrow andito. The passage was dark, sealed off with stanchions, a swag, and a sign:
CHIUSO/CLOSED.
Langdon took a careful glance around and then slipped under the swag and into the darkened space. He reached into his tote bag and carefully extracted the delicate package, peeling away the bubble wrapping.
When the plastic fell away, Dante’s death mask stared up at him once again. The fragile plaster was still in its original Ziploc bag, having been retrieved as Langdon had requested from the lockers at the Venice train station. The mask appeared to be in flawless condition with one small exception—the addition of a poem, inscribed in an elegant spiral shape, on its reverse side.
Langdon glanced at the antique display case. The Dante death mask
is displayed face front … nobody will notice.
He carefully removed the mask from the Ziploc bag. Then, very gently, he lifted it back onto the peg inside the display case. The mask sank into place, nestling against its familiar red velvet setting.
Langdon closed the case and stood a moment, gazing at Dante’s pale visage, a ghostly presence in the darkened room. Home at last.
Before exiting the room, Langdon discreetly removed the stanchions, swag, and sign from the doorway. As he crossed the gallery, he paused to speak to a young female docent.
“Signorina?” Langdon said. “The lights above the Dante death mask need to be turned on. It’s very hard
to see in the dark.”
“I’m sorry,” the young woman said, “but that exhibit is closed. The Dante death mask is no longer here.”
“That’s odd.” Langdon feigned a look of surprise. “I was just admiring it.”
The woman’s face registered confusion.
As she rushed off toward the andito, Langdon quietly slipped out of the museum.

By Dan Brown


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