Sixty‑four minutes had passed when an incredulous and slightly air‑sick Robert Langdon stepped down the gangplank onto the sun‑drenched runway. A crisp breeze rustled the lapels of his tweed jacket. The open space felt wonderful. He squinted out at the lush green valley rising to snowcapped peaks all around them.
I’m dreaming, he told himself. Any minute now I’ll be waking up.
“Welcome to Switzerland,” the pilot said, yelling over the roar of the X‑33’s misted‑fuel HEDM engines winding down behind them.
Langdon checked his watch. It read 7:07 A.M.
“You just crossed six time zones,” the pilot offered. “It’s a little past 1 P.M. here.”
Langdon reset his watch.
“How do you feel?”
He rubbed his stomach. “Like I’ve been eating Styrofoam.”
The pilot nodded. “Altitude sickness. We were at sixty thousand feet. You’re thirty percent lighter up there. Lucky we only did a puddle jump. If we’d gone to Tokyo I’d have taken her all the way up—a hundred miles. Now that’ll get your insides rolling.”
Langdon gave a wan nod and counted himself lucky. All things considered, the flight had been remarkably ordinary. Aside from a bone‑crushing acceleration during take off, the plane’s motion had been fairly typical—occasional minor turbulence, a few pressure changes as they’d climbed, but nothing at all to suggest they had been hurtling through space at the mind‑numbing speed of 11,000 miles per hour.
A handful of technicians scurried onto the runway to tend to the X‑33. The pilot escorted Langdon to a black Peugeot sedan in a parking area beside the control tower. Moments later they were speeding down a paved road that stretched out across the valley floor. A faint cluster of buildings rose in the distance. Outside, the grassy plains tore by in a blur.
Langdon watched in disbelief as the pilot pushed the speedometer up around 170 kilometers an hour—over 100 miles per hour. What is it with this guy and speed? he wondered.
“Five kilometers to the lab,” the pilot said. “I’ll have you there in two minutes.”
Langdon searched in vain for a seat belt. Why not make it three and get us there alive?
The car raced on.
“Do you like Reba?” the pilot asked, jamming a cassette into the tape deck.
A woman started singing.
It’s just the fear of being alone . . .
No fear here, Langdon thought absently. His female colleagues often ribbed him that his collection of museum‑quality artifacts was nothing more than a transparent attempt to fill an empty home, a home they insisted would benefit greatly from the presence of a woman. Langdon always laughed it off, reminding them he already had three loves in his life—symbology, water polo, and bachelorhood—the latter being a freedom that enabled him to travel the world, sleep as late as he wanted, and enjoy quiet nights at home with a brandy and a good book.
“We’re like a small city,” the pilot said, pulling Langdon from his daydream. “Not just labs. We’ve got supermarkets, a hospital, even a cinema.”
Langdon nodded blankly and looked out at the sprawling expanse of buildings rising before them.
“In fact,” the pilot added, “we possess the largest machine on earth.”
“Really?” Langdon scanned the countryside.
“You won’t see it out there, sir.” The pilot smiled. “It’s buried six stories below the earth.”
Langdon didn’t have time to ask. Without warning the pilot jammed on the brakes. The car skidded to a stop outside a reinforced sentry booth.
Langdon read the sign before them.
He suddenly felt a wave of panic, realizing where he was. “My God! I didn’t bring my passport!”
“Passports are unnecessary,” the driver assured. “We have a standing arrangement with the Swiss government.”
Langdon watched dumbfounded as his driver gave the guard an ID. The sentry ran it through an electronic authentication device. The machine flashed green.
“Robert Langdon,” the driver replied.
The sentry arched his eyebrows. He turned and checked a computer printout, verifying it against the data on his computer screen. Then he returned to the window. “Enjoy your stay, Mr. Langdon.”
The car shot off again, accelerating another 200 yards around a sweeping rotary that led to the facility’s main entrance. Looming before them was a rectangular, ultramodern structure of glass and steel. Langdon was amazed by the building’s striking transparent design. He had always had a fond love of architecture.
“The Glass Cathedral,” the escort offered.
“Hell, no. A church is the one thing we don’t have. Physics is the religion around here. Use the Lord’s name in vain all you like,” he laughed, “just don’t slander any quarks or mesons.”
Langdon sat bewildered as the driver swung the car around and brought it to a stop in front of the glass building. Quarks and mesons? No border control? Mach 15 jets? Who the hell are these guys? The engraved granite slab in front of the building bore the answer:
Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire
“Nuclear Research?” Langdon asked, fairly certain his translation was correct.
The driver did not answer. He was leaning forward, busily adjusting the car’s cassette player. “This is your stop. The director will meet you at this entrance.”
Langdon noted a man in a wheelchair exiting the building. He looked to be in his early sixties. Gaunt and totally bald with a sternly set jaw, he wore a white lab coat and dress shoes propped firmly on the wheelchair’s footrest. Even at a distance his eyes looked lifeless—like two gray stones.
“Is that him?” Langdon asked.
The driver looked up. “Well, I’ll be.” He turned and gave Langdon an ominous smile. “Speak of the devil.”
Uncertain what to expect, Langdon stepped from the vehicle.
The man in the wheelchair accelerated toward Langdon and offered a clammy hand. “Mr. Langdon? We spoke on the phone. My name is Maximilian Kohler.”