Maximilian Kohler, director general of CERN, was known behind his back as König —King. It was a title more of fear than reverence for the figure who ruled over his dominion from a wheelchair throne. Although few knew him personally, the horrific story of how he had been crippled was lore at CERN, and there were few there who blamed him for his bitterness . . . nor for his sworn dedication to pure science.
Langdon had only been in Kohler’s presence a few moments and already sensed the director was a man who kept his distance. Langdon found himself practically jogging to keep up with Kohler’s electric wheelchair as it sped silently toward the main entrance. The wheelchair was like none Langdon had ever seen—equipped with a bank of electronics including a multiline phone, a paging system, computer screen, even a small, detachable video camera. King Kohler’s mobile command center.
Langdon followed through a mechanical door into CERN’s voluminous main lobby.
The Glass Cathedral, Langdon mused, gazing upward toward heaven.
Overhead, the bluish glass roof shimmered in the afternoon sun, casting rays of geometric patterns in the air and giving the room a sense of grandeur. Angular shadows fell like veins across the white tiled walls and down to the marble floors. The air smelled clean, sterile. A handful of scientists moved briskly about, their footsteps echoing in the resonant space.
“This way, please, Mr. Langdon.” His voice sounded almost computerized. His accent was rigid and precise, like his stern features. Kohler coughed and wiped his mouth on a white handkerchief as he fixed his dead gray eyes on Langdon. “Please hurry.” His wheelchair seemed to leap across the tiled floor.
Langdon followed past what seemed to be countless hallways branching off the main atrium. Every hallway was alive with activity. The scientists who saw Kohler seemed to stare in surprise, eyeing Langdon as if wondering who he must be to command such company.
“I’m embarrassed to admit,” Langdon ventured, trying to make conversation, “that I’ve never heard of CERN.”
“Not surprising,” Kohler replied, his clipped response sounding harshly efficient. “Most Americans do not see Europe as the world leader in scientific research. They see us as nothing but a quaint shopping district—an odd perception if you consider the nationalities of men like Einstein, Galileo, and Newton.”
Langdon was unsure how to respond. He pulled the fax from his pocket. “This man in the photograph, can you—”
Kohler cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Please. Not here. I am taking you to him now.” He held out his hand. “Perhaps I should take that.”
Langdon handed over the fax and fell silently into step.
Kohler took a sharp left and entered a wide hallway adorned with awards and commendations. A particularly large plaque dominated the entry. Langdon slowed to read the engraved bronze as they passed.
ARS ELECTRONICA AWARD
For Cultural Innovation in the Digital Age
Awarded to Tim Berners Lee and CERN
for the invention of the
Well I’ll be damned, Langdon thought, reading the text. This guy wasn’t kidding. Langdon had always thought of the Web as an American invention. Then again, his knowledge was limited to the site for his own book and the occasional on‑line exploration of the Louvre or El Prado on his old Macintosh.
“The Web,” Kohler said, coughing again and wiping his mouth, “began here as a network of in‑house computer sites. It enabled scientists from different departments to share daily findings with one another. Of course, the entire world is under the impression the Web is U.S. technology.”
Langdon followed down the hall. “Why not set the record straight?”
Kohler shrugged, apparently disinterested. “A petty misconception over a petty technology. CERN is far greater than a global connection of computers. Our scientists produce miracles almost daily.”
Langdon gave Kohler a questioning look. “Miracles? “The word “miracle” was certainly not part of the vocabulary around Harvard’s Fairchild Science Building. Miracles were left for the School of Divinity.
“You sound skeptical,” Kohler said. “I thought you were a religious symbologist. Do you not believe in miracles?”
“I’m undecided on miracles,” Langdon said. Particularly those that take place in science labs.
“Perhaps miracle is the wrong word. I was simply trying to speak your language.”
“My language?” Langdon was suddenly uncomfortable. “Not to disappoint you, sir, but I study religious symbology —I’m an academic, not a priest.”
Kohler slowed suddenly and turned, his gaze softening a bit. “Of course. How simple of me. One does not need to have cancer to analyze its symptoms.”
Langdon had never heard it put quite that way.
As they moved down the hallway, Kohler gave an accepting nod. “I suspect you and I will understand each other perfectly, Mr. Langdon.”
Somehow Langdon doubted it.
As the pair hurried on, Langdon began to sense a deep rumbling up ahead. The noise got more and more pronounced with every step, reverberating through the walls. It seemed to be coming from the end of the hallway in front of them.
“What’s that?” Langdon finally asked, having to yell. He felt like they were approaching an active volcano.
“Free Fall Tube,” Kohler replied, his hollow voice cutting the air effortlessly. He offered no other explanation.
Langdon didn’t ask. He was exhausted, and Maximilian Kohler seemed disinterested in winning any hospitality awards. Langdon reminded himself why he was here. Illuminati. He assumed somewhere in this colossal facility was a body . . . a body branded with a symbol he had just flown 3,000 miles to see.
As they approached the end of the hall, the rumble became almost deafening, vibrating up through Langdon’s soles. They rounded the bend, and a viewing gallery appeared on the right. Four thick‑paned portals were embedded in a curved wall, like windows in a submarine. Langdon stopped and looked through one of the holes.
Professor Robert Langdon had seen some strange things in his life, but this was the strangest. He blinked a few times, wondering if he was hallucinating. He was staring into an enormous circular chamber. Inside the chamber, floating as though weightless, were people. Three of them. One waved and did a somersault in midair.
My God, he thought. I’m in the land of Oz.
The floor of the room was a mesh grid, like a giant sheet of chicken wire. Visible beneath the grid was the metallic blur of a huge propeller.
“Free fall tube,” Kohler said, stopping to wait for him. “Indoor skydiving. For stress relief. It’s a vertical wind tunnel.”
Langdon looked on in amazement. One of the free fallers, an obese woman, maneuvered toward the window. She was being buffeted by the air currents but grinned and flashed Langdon the thumbs‑up sign. Langdon smiled weakly and returned the gesture, wondering if she knew it was the ancient phallic symbol for masculine virility.
The heavyset woman, Langdon noticed, was the only one wearing what appeared to be a miniature parachute. The swathe of fabric billowed over her like a toy. “What’s her little chute for?” Langdon asked Kohler. “It can’t be more than a yard in diameter.”
“Friction,” Kohler said. “Decreases her aerodynamics so the fan can lift her.” He started down the the corridor again. “One square yard of drag will slow a falling body almost twenty percent.”
Langdon nodded blankly.
He never suspected that later that night, in a country hundreds of miles away, the information would save his life.