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CHAPTER 15

FASHIONED OF BLACK fabric that was stretched across supportive arches, the tunnel was about twenty feet wide and sloped gently upward to the left. The tunnel floor was covered with plush black carpet, and two strands of strip lighting along the base of the walls provided the only illumination.

“Shoes, please,” a docent whispered to the new arrivals. “Everyone please remove your shoes, and carry them with you.”

Langdon stepped out of his patent-leather dress shoes, and his stocking feet sank deep into the remarkably soft carpet. He felt his body relax instinctively. All around him, he heard appreciative sighs.

As he padded farther down the passage, Langdon finally saw the end—a black curtain barrier where guests were being greeted by docents who handed each of them what appeared to be a thick beach towel before ushering them through the curtain.

Inside the tunnel, the earlier buzz of anticipation had now dissolved into uncertain silence. As Langdon arrived at the curtain, a docent handed him a folded piece of fabric, which he realized was not a beach towel but rather a small plush blanket with a pillow sewn into one end. Langdon thanked the docent and stepped through the curtain into the space beyond.

For the second time tonight, he was forced to stop in his tracks. Although Langdon could not say what he had imagined he would see beyond the curtain, it most certainly was nothing close to the scene now before him.

Are we … outdoors?

Langdon was standing on the edge of an expansive field. Above him stretched a dazzling sky of stars, and in the distance, a slender crescent moon was just rising behind a lone maple tree. Crickets chirped and a warm breeze caressed his face, the wafting air thick with the earthy scent of freshly cut grass beneath his stocking feet.

“Sir?” a docent whispered, taking his arm and guiding him into the field. “Please find a space here on the grass. Lay out your blanket, and enjoy.”

Langdon padded out into the field along with the other equally flabbergasted guests, most of whom were now choosing spots on the vast lawn to spread out their blankets. The manicured grassy area was about the size of a hockey rink and bounded all around by trees, fescue, and cattails, which rustled in the breeze.

It had taken Langdon several moments to realize this was all an illusion—a tremendous work of art.

I’m inside an elaborate planetarium, he thought, marveling at the impeccable attention to detail.

The star-filled sky above was a projection, complete with a moon, scudding clouds, and distant rolling hills. The rustling trees and grasses were truly there—either superb fakes or a small forest of living plants in concealed pots. This nebulous perimeter of vegetation cleverly disguised the enormous room’s hard edges, giving the impression of a natural environment.

Langdon crouched down and felt the grass, which was soft and lifelike, but entirely dry. He’d read about the new synthetic turfs that were fooling even professional athletes, and yet Kirsch had gone a step further and created slightly uneven ground, with small swales and mounds as in a real meadow.

Langdon recalled the first time he had been fooled by his senses. He was a child in a small boat drifting through a moonlit harbor where a pirate ship was engaged in a deafening cannon battle. Langdon’s young mind had been incapable of accepting that he was not in a harbor at all, but in fact he was in a cavernous underground theater that had been flooded with water to create this illusion for the classic Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean.

Tonight, the effect was staggeringly realistic, and as the guests around him took it in, Langdon could see that their wonder and delight mirrored his own. He had to give Edmond credit—not so much for creating this amazing illusion, but for persuading hundreds of adults to kick off their fancy shoes, lie down on the lawn, and gaze up at the heavens.

We used to do this as kids, but somewhere along the way, we stopped.

Langdon reclined and placed his head on the pillow, letting his body melt into the soft grass.

Overhead, the stars twinkled, and for an instant, Langdon was a teenager again, lying on the lush fairways of the Bald Peak golf course at midnight with his best friend, pondering the mysteries of life. With a little luck, Langdon mused, Edmond Kirsch might solve some of those mysteries for us tonight.

 

At the rear of the theater, Admiral Luis Ávila took one final survey of the room and moved silently backward, slipping out unseen through the same curtain through which he had just entered. Alone in the entry tunnel, he ran a hand along the fabric walls until he located a seam. As quietly as possible, he pulled apart the Velcro closure, stepped through the wall, and resealed the cloth behind him.

All illusions evaporated.

Ávila was no longer standing in a meadow.

He was in an enormous rectangular space that was dominated by a sprawling oval-shaped bubble. A room built within a room. The construction before him—a domed theater of sorts—was surrounded by a towering exoskeleton of scaffolding that supported a tangle of cables, lights, and audio speakers. Pointing inward, a shimmering array of video projectors glowed in unison, casting wide beams of light downward onto the translucent surface of the dome, and creating the illusion within of a starlit sky and rolling hills.

Ávila admired Kirsch’s knack for drama, although the futurist could never have imagined just how dramatic his night would soon turn out to be.

Remember what is at stake. You are a soldier in a noble war. Part of a greater whole.

Ávila had rehearsed this mission in his mind numerous times. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the oversized rosary beads. At that moment, from an overhead bank of speakers inside the dome, a man’s voice thundered down like the voice of God.

“Good evening, friends. My name is Edmond Kirsch.”

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