Kohler, incredibly, was standing for a moment, teetering on two withered legs. His face was white with fear. “Vittoria! You can’t remove that trap!”
Langdon watched, bewildered by the director’s sudden panic.
“Five hundred nanograms!” Kohler said. “If you break the magnetic field—”
“Director,” Vittoria assured, “it’s perfectly safe. Every trap has a failsafe—a back‑up battery in case it is removed from its recharger. The specimen remains suspended even if I remove the canister.”
Kohler looked uncertain. Then, hesitantly, he settled back into his chair.
“The batteries activate automatically,” Vittoria said, “when the trap is moved from the recharger. They work for twenty‑four hours. Like a reserve tank of gas.” She turned to Langdon, as if sensing his discomfort. “Antimatter has some astonishing characteristics, Mr. Langdon, which make it quite dangerous. A ten milligram sample—the volume of a grain of sand—is hypothesized to hold as much energy as about two hundred metric tons of conventional rocket fuel.”
Langdon’s head was spinning again.
“It is the energy source of tomorrow. A thousand times more powerful than nuclear energy. One hundred percent efficient. No byproducts. No radiation. No pollution. A few grams could power a major city for a week.”
Grams? Langdon stepped uneasily back from the podium.
“Don’t worry,” Vittoria said. “These samples are minuscule fractions of a gram—millionths. Relatively harmless.” She reached for the canister again and twisted it from its docking platform.
Kohler twitched but did not interfere. As the trap came free, there was a sharp beep, and a small LED display activated near the base of the trap. The red digits blinked, counting down from twenty‑four hours.
24:00:00 . . .
23:59:59 . . .
23:59:58 . . .
Langdon studied the descending counter and decided it looked unsettlingly like a time bomb.
“The battery,” Vittoria explained, “will run for the full twenty‑four hours before dying. It can be recharged by placing the trap back on the podium. It’s designed as a safety measure, but it’s also convenient for transport.”
“Transport?” Kohler looked thunderstruck. “You take this stuff out of the lab?”
“Of course not,” Vittoria said. “But the mobility allows us to study it.”
Vittoria led Langdon and Kohler to the far end of the room. She pulled a curtain aside to reveal a window, beyond which was a large room. The walls, floors, and ceiling were entirely plated in steel. The room reminded Langdon of the holding tank of an oil freighter he had once taken to Papua New Guinea to study Hanta body graffiti.
“It’s an annihilation tank,” Vittoria declared.
Kohler looked up. “You actually observe annihilations?”
“My father was fascinated with the physics of the Big Bang—large amounts of energy from minuscule kernels of matter.” Vittoria pulled open a steel drawer beneath the window. She placed the trap inside the drawer and closed it. Then she pulled a lever beside the drawer. A moment later, the trap appeared on the other side of the glass, rolling smoothly in a wide arc across the metal floor until it came to a stop near the center of the room.
Vittoria gave a tight smile. “You’re about to witness your first antimatter‑matter annihilation. A few millionths of a gram. A relatively minuscule specimen.”
Langdon looked out at the antimatter trap sitting alone on the floor of the enormous tank. Kohler also turned toward the window, looking uncertain.
“Normally,” Vittoria explained, “we’d have to wait the full twenty‑four hours until the batteries died, but this chamber contains magnets beneath the floor that can override the trap, pulling the antimatter out of suspension. And when the matter and antimatter touch . . .”
“Annihilation,” Kohler whispered.
“One more thing,” Vittoria said. “Antimatter releases pure energy. A one hundred percent conversion of mass to photons. So don’t look directly at the sample. Shield your eyes.”
Langdon was wary, but he now sensed Vittoria was being overly dramatic. Don’t look directly at the canister? The device was more than thirty yards away, behind an ultrathick wall of tinted Plexiglas. Moreover, the speck in the canister was invisible, microscopic. Shield my eyes? Langdon thought. How much energy could that speck possibly —
Vittoria pressed the button.
Instantly, Langdon was blinded. A brilliant point of light shone in the canister and then exploded outward in a shock wave of light that radiated in all directions, erupting against the window before him with thunderous force. He stumbled back as the detonation rocked the vault. The light burned bright for a moment, searing, and then, after an instant, it rushed back inward, absorbing in on itself, and collapsing into a tiny speck that disappeared to nothing. Langdon blinked in pain, slowly recovering his eyesight. He squinted into the smoldering chamber. The canister on the floor had entirely disappeared. Vaporized. Not a trace.
He stared in wonder. “G . . . God.”
Vittoria nodded sadly. “That’s precisely what my father said.”