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CHAPTER 83

LANGDON AND AMBRA scanned the facade of the large chapel and found the entrance to the Barcelona Supercomputing Center at the southern tip of the church’s nave. Here, an ultramodern Plexiglas vestibule had been affixed to the outside of the rustic facade, giving the church the hybrid appearance of a building caught between centuries.

In an outer courtyard near the entrance stood a twelve-foot-tall bust of a primitive warrior’s head. Langdon couldn’t imagine what this artifact was doing on the grounds of a Catholic church, but he was fairly certain, knowing Edmond, that Kirsch’s workplace would be a land of contradictions.

Ambra hurried to the main entrance and pressed the call button at the door. As Langdon joined her, a security camera overhead rotated toward them, scanning back and forth for several long moments.

Then the door buzzed open.

Langdon and Ambra quickly pushed through the entrance into a large foyer that was fashioned from the church’s original narthex. It was an enclosed stone chamber, dimly lit and empty. Langdon had expected someone would appear to greet them—perhaps one of Edmond’s employees—but the lobby was deserted.

“Is there no one here?” Ambra whispered.

They became aware of the soft, pious strains of medieval church music—a polyphonic choral work for male voices that sounded vaguely familiar. Langdon couldn’t place it, but the eerie presence of religious music in a high-tech facility seemed to him a product of Edmond’s playful sense of humor.

Glowing in front of them on the wall of the lobby, a massive plasma screen provided the room’s sole light. The screen was projecting what could only be described as some kind of primitive computer game—clusters of black dots moving around on a white surface, like groups of bugs wandering aimlessly.

Not totally aimlessly, Langdon realized, now recognizing the patterns.

This famous computer-generated progression—known as Life—had been invented in the 1970s by a British mathematician, John Conway. The black dots—known as cells—moved, interacted, and reproduced based on a preordained series of “rules” entered by the programmer. Invariably, over time, guided only by these “initial rules of engagement,” the dots began organizing themselves into clusters, sequences, and recurring patterns—patterns that evolved, became more complex, and began to look startlingly similar to patterns seen in nature.

“Conway’s Game of Life,” Ambra said. “I saw a digital installation years ago based on it—a mixed-media piece titled Cellular Automaton.

Langdon was impressed, having heard of Life himself only because its inventor, Conway, had taught at Princeton.

The choral harmonies caught Langdon’s ear again. I feel like I’ve heard this piece. Perhaps a Renaissance Mass?

“Robert,” Ambra said, pointing. “Look.”

On the display screen, the bustling groups of dots had reversed direction and were accelerating, as if the program were now playing backward. The sequence rewound faster and faster, backward in time. The number of dots began diminishing … the cells no longer splitting and multiplying but recombining … their structures becoming simpler and simpler until finally there were only a handful of them, which continued merging … first eight, then four, then two, then …

One.

A single cell blinked in the middle of the screen.

Langdon felt a chill. The origin of life.

The dot blinked out, leaving only a void—an empty white screen.

The Game of Life was gone, and faint text began to materialize, growing more pronounced until they could read it.

If we admit a First Cause,

the mind still craves to know

whence it came and how it arose.

“That’s Darwin,” Langdon whispered, recognizing the legendary botanist’s eloquent phrasing of the same question Edmond Kirsch had been asking.

“Where do we come from?” Ambra said excitedly, reading the text.

“Exactly.”

Ambra smiled at him. “Shall we go find out?”

She motioned beside the display screen to a columned opening that appeared to connect to the main church.

As they stepped across the lobby, the display refreshed again, now showing a collage of words that appeared randomly on the screen. The number of words grew steadily and chaotically, with new words evolving, morphing, and combining into an intricate array of phrases.

… growth … fresh buds … beautiful ramifications …

As the image expanded, Langdon and Ambra saw the words evolve into the shape of a growing tree.

What in the world?

They stared intently at the graphic, and the sound of the a cappella voices grew louder around them. Langdon realized that they were not singing in Latin as he had imagined, but in English.

“My God, the words on the screen,” Ambra said. “I think they match the music.”

“You’re right,” Langdon agreed, seeing fresh text appear on-screen as it was being sung simultaneously.

… by slowly acting causes … not by miraculous acts …

Langdon listened and watched, feeling strangely disconcerted by the combination of words and music; the music was clearly religious, yet the text was anything but.

… organic beings … strongest live … weakest die …

Langdon stopped short.

I know this piece!

Edmond had taken Langdon to a performance of it several years ago. Titled Missa Charles Darwin, it was a Christian-style mass in which the composer had eschewed the traditional sacred Latin text and substituted excerpts from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to create a haunting juxtaposition of devout voices singing about the brutality of natural selection.

“Bizarre,” Langdon commented. “Edmond and I heard this piece together a while back—he loved it. Such a coincidence to hear it again.”

“No coincidence,” boomed a familiar voice from the speakers overhead. “Edmond taught me to welcome guests into my home by putting on some music they would appreciate and showing them something of interest to discuss.”

Langdon and Ambra stared up at the speakers in disbelief. The cheerful voice that welcomed them was distinctly British.

“I’m so glad you’ve found your way here,” said the very familiar synthetic voice. “I had no way to contact you.”

“Winston!” Langdon exclaimed, amazed to feel such relief from reconnecting with a machine. He and Ambra quickly recounted what had happened.

“It’s good to hear your voices,” Winston said. “So tell me, have we found what we were looking for?”

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