Robert Langdon was no longer falling.
There was no more terror. No pain. Not even the sound of the racing wind. There was only the soft sound of lapping water, as though he were comfortably asleep on a beach.
In a paradox of self‑awareness, Langdon sensed this was death. He felt glad for it. He allowed the drifting numbness to possess him entirely. He let it carry him wherever it was he would go. His pain and fear had been anesthetized, and he did not wish it back at any price. His final memory had been one that could only have been conjured in hell.
Take me. Please . . .
But the lapping that lulled in him a far‑off sense of peace was also pulling him back. It was trying to awaken him from a dream. No! Let me be! He did not want to awaken. He sensed demons gathering on the perimeter of his bliss, pounding to shatter his rapture. Fuzzy images swirled. Voices yelled. Wind churned. No, please! The more he fought, the more the fury filtered through.
Then, harshly, he was living it all again . . .
The helicopter was in a dizzying dead climb. He was trapped inside. Beyond the open door, the lights of Rome looked farther away with every passing second. His survival instinct told him to jettison the canister right now. Langdon knew it would take less than twenty seconds for the canister to fall half a mile. But it would be falling toward a city of people.
Langdon wondered how high they were now. Small prop planes, he knew, flew at altitudes of about four miles. This helicopter had to be at a good fraction of that by now. Two miles up? Three? There was still a chance. If they timed the drop perfectly, the canister would fall only partway toward earth, exploding a safe distance over the ground and away from the chopper. Langdon looked out at the city sprawling below them.
“And if you calculate incorrectly?” the camerlegno said.
Langdon turned, startled. The camerlegno was not even looking at him, apparently having read Langdon’s thoughts from the ghostly reflection in the windshield. Oddly, the camerlegno was no longer engrossed in his controls. His hands were not even on the throttle. The chopper, it seemed, was now in some sort of autopilot mode, locked in a climb. The camerlegno reached above his head, to the ceiling of the cockpit, fishing behind a cable‑housing, where he removed a key, taped there out of view.
Langdon watched in bewilderment as the camerlegno quickly unlocked the metal cargo box bolted between the seats. He removed some sort of large, black, nylon pack. He lay it on the seat next to him. Langdon’s thoughts churned. The camerlegno’s movements seemed composed, as if he had a solution.
“Give me the canister,” the camerlegno said, his tone serene.
Langdon did not know what to think anymore. He thrust the canister to the camerlegno. “Ninety seconds!”
What the camerlegno did with the antimatter took Langdon totally by surprise. Holding the canister carefully in his hands, the camerlegno placed it inside the cargo box. Then he closed the heavy lid and used the key to lock it tight.
“What are you doing!” Langdon demanded.
“Leading us from temptation.” The camerlegno threw the key out the open window.
As the key tumbled into the night, Langdon felt his soul falling with it.
The camerlegno then took the nylon pack and slipped his arms through the straps. He fastened a waist clamp around his stomach and cinched it all down like a backpack. He turned to a dumbstruck Robert Langdon.
“I’m sorry,” the camerlegno said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.” Then he opened his door and hurled himself into the night.
The image burned in Langdon’s unconscious mind, and with it came the pain. Real pain. Physical pain. Aching. Searing. He begged to be taken, to let it end, but as the water lapped louder in his ears, new images began to flash. His hell had only just begun. He saw bits and pieces. Scattered frames of sheer panic. He lay halfway between death and nightmare, begging for deliverance, but the pictures grew brighter in his mind.
The antimatter canister was locked out of reach. It counted relentlessly downward as the chopper shot upward. Fifty seconds. Higher. Higher. Langdon spun wildly in the cabin, trying to make sense of what he had just seen. Forty‑five seconds. He dug under seats searching for another parachute. Forty seconds. There was none! There had to be an option! Thirty‑five seconds. He raced to the open doorway of the chopper and stood in the raging wind, gazing down at the lights of Rome below. Thirty‑two seconds.
And then he made the choice.
The unbelievable choice . . .
With no parachute, Robert Langdon had jumped out the door. As the night swallowed his tumbling body, the helicopter seemed to rocket off above him, the sound of its rotors evaporating in the deafening rush of his own free fall.
As he plummeted toward earth, Robert Langdon felt something he had not experienced since his years on the high dive—the inexorable pull of gravity during a dead drop. The faster he fell, the harder the earth seemed to pull, sucking him down. This time, however, the drop was not fifty feet into a pool. The drop was thousands of feet into a city—an endless expanse of pavement and concrete.
Somewhere in the torrent of wind and desperation, Kohler’s voice echoed from the grave . . . words he had spoken earlier this morning standing at CERN’s free‑fall tube. One square yard of drag will slow a falling body almost twenty percent. Twenty percent, Langdon now realized, was not even close to what one would need to survive a fall like this. Nonetheless, more out of paralysis than hope, he clenched in his hands the sole object he had grabbed from the chopper on his way out the door. It was an odd memento, but it was one that for a fleeting instant had given him hope.
The windshield tarp had been lying in the back of the helicopter. It was a concave rectangle—about four yards by two—like a huge fitted sheet . . . the crudest approximation of a parachute imaginable. It had no harness, only bungie loops at either end for fastening it to the curvature of the windshield. Langdon had grabbed it, slid his hands through the loops, held on, and leapt out into the void.
His last great act of youthful defiance.
No illusions of life beyond this moment.
Langdon fell like a rock. Feet first. Arms raised. His hands gripping the loops. The tarp billowed like a mushroom overhead. The wind tore past him violently.
As he plummeted toward earth, there was a deep explosion somewhere above him. It seemed farther off than he had expected. Almost instantly, the shock wave hit. He felt the breath crushed from his lungs. There was a sudden warmth in the air all around him. He fought to hold on. A wall of heat raced down from above. The top of the tarp began to smolder . . . but held.
Langdon rocketed downward, on the edge of a billowing shroud of light, feeling like a surfer trying to outrun a thousand‑foot tidal wave. Then suddenly, the heat receded.
He was falling again through the dark coolness.
For an instant, Langdon felt hope. A moment later, though, that hope faded like the withdrawing heat above. Despite his straining arms assuring him that the tarp was slowing his fall, the wind still tore past his body with deafening velocity. Langdon had no doubt he was still moving too fast to survive the fall. He would be crushed when he hit the ground.
Mathematical figures tumbled through his brain, but he was too numb to make sense of them . . . one square yard of drag . . . 20 percent reduction of speed. All Langdon could figure was that the tarp over his head was big enough to slow him more than 20 percent. Unfortunately, though, he could tell from the wind whipping past him that whatever good the tarp was doing was not enough. He was still falling fast . . . there would be no surviving the impact on the waiting sea of concrete.
Beneath him, the lights of Rome spread out in all directions. The city looked like an enormous starlit sky that Langdon was falling into. The perfect expanse of stars was marred only by a dark strip that split the city in two—a wide, unlit ribbon that wound through the dots of light like a fat snake. Langdon stared down at the meandering swatch of black.
Suddenly, like the surging crest of an unexpected wave, hope filled him again.
With almost maniacal vigor, Langdon yanked down hard with his right hand on the canopy. The tarp suddenly flapped louder, billowing, cutting right to find the path of least resistance. Langdon felt himself drifting sideways. He pulled again, harder, ignoring the pain in his palm. The tarp flared, and Langdon sensed his body sliding laterally. Not much. But some! He looked beneath him again, to the sinuous serpent of black. It was off to the right, but he was still pretty high. Had he waited too long? He pulled with all his might and accepted somehow that it was now in the hands of God. He focused hard on the widest part of the serpent and . . . for the first time in his life, prayed for a miracle.
The rest was a blur.
The darkness rushing up beneath him . . . the diving instincts coming back . . . the reflexive locking of his spine and pointing of the toes . . . the inflating of his lungs to protect his vital organs . . . the flexing of his legs into a battering ram . . . and finally . . . the thankfulness that the winding Tiber River was raging . . . making its waters frothy and air‑filled . . . and three times softer than standing water.
Then there was impact . . . and blackness.
It had been the thundering sound of the flapping canopy that drew the group’s eyes away from the fireball in the sky. The sky above Rome had been filled with sights tonight . . . a skyrocketing helicopter, an enormous explosion, and now this strange object that had plummeted into the churning waters of the Tiber River, directly off the shore of the river’s tiny island, Isola Tiberina.
Ever since the island had been used to quarantine the sick during the Roman plague of A.D. 1656, it had been thought to have mystic healing properties. For this reason, the island had later become the site for Rome’s Hospital Tiberina.
The body was battered when they pulled it onto shore. The man still had a faint pulse, which was amazing, they thought. They wondered if it was Isola Tiberina’s mythical reputation for healing that had somehow kept his heart pumping. Minutes later, when the man began coughing and slowly regained consciousness, the group decided the island must indeed be magical.