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COMMANDER DIEGO GARZA stood against the back wall of Mónica Martín’s basement office and stared blankly at the television screen. His hands were still bound in handcuffs, and two Guardia agents flanked him closely, having acquiesced to Mónica Martín’s appeal to let him leave the armory so he could watch Kirsch’s announcement.

Garza had witnessed the futurist’s spectacle along with Mónica, Suresh, a half-dozen Guardia agents, and an unlikely group of palace night staff who had all dropped their duties and dashed downstairs to watch.

Now, on the TV before Garza, the raw static that had concluded Kirsch’s presentation had been replaced by a mosaic grid of news feeds from around the world—newscasters and pundits breathlessly recapping the futurist’s claims and launching into their own inevitable analyses—all of them talking at once, creating an unintelligible cacophony.

Across the room, one of Garza’s senior agents entered, scanned the crowd, located the commander, and strode briskly over to him. Without explanation, the guard removed Garza’s handcuffs and held out a cell phone. “A call for you, sir—Bishop Valdespino.”

Garza stared down at the device. Considering the bishop’s clandestine exit from the palace and the incriminating text found on his phone, Valdespino was the last person Garza had expected to call him tonight.

“This is Diego,” he answered.

“Thank you for answering,” the bishop said, sounding weary. “I realize you’ve had an unpleasant night.”

“Where are you?” Garza demanded.

“In the mountains. Outside the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen. I just met with Prince Julián and His Majesty the king.”

Garza could not imagine what the king was doing at the Valley of the Fallen at this hour, particularly given his condition. “I assume you know the king had me arrested?”

“Yes. It was a regrettable error, which we have remedied.”

Garza looked down at his unmanacled wrists.

“His Majesty asked me to call and extend his apologies. I will be watching over him here at the Hospital El Escorial. I’m afraid his time is drawing to a close.”

As is yours, Garza thought. “You should be advised that Suresh found a text on your phone—quite an incriminatory one. I believe the ConspiracyNet.com website plans to release it soon. I suspect the authorities will come to arrest you.”

Valdespino sighed deeply. “Yes, the text. I should have sought you out the instant it arrived this morning. Please trust me when I tell you that I had nothing to do with Edmond Kirsch’s murder, nor with the deaths of my two colleagues.”

“But the text clearly implicates you—”

“I’m being framed, Diego,” the bishop interrupted. “Someone has gone to great lengths to make me look complicit.”

Although Garza had never imagined Valdespino capable of murder, the notion of someone framing him made little sense. “Who would try to frame you?”

“That I don’t know,” the bishop said, sounding suddenly very old and bewildered. “I’m not sure it matters anymore. My reputation has been destroyed; my dearest friend, the king, is close to death; and there is not much more this night can take from me.” There was an eerie finality to Valdespino’s tone.

“Antonio … are you okay?”

Valdespino sighed. “Not really, Commander. I am tired. I doubt I will survive the coming investigation. And even if I do, the world seems to have outgrown its need for me.”

Garza could hear the heartbreak in the old bishop’s voice.

“A tiny favor, if I may,” Valdespino added. “At the moment, I am trying to serve two kings—one leaving his throne, the other ascending to it. Prince Julián has been attempting all night to connect with his fiancée. If you could find a way to reach Ambra Vidal, our future king would be forever in your debt.”


On the sprawling plaza outside the mountain church, Bishop Valdespino gazed down over the darkened Valley of the Fallen. A predawn mist was already creeping up the pine-studded ravines, and somewhere in the distance the shrill call of a bird of prey pierced the night.

Monk vulture, Valdespino thought, oddly amused by the sound. The bird’s plaintive wail seemed eerily appropriate at the moment, and the bishop wondered if perhaps the world was trying to tell him something.

Nearby, Guardia agents were wheeling the wearied king to his vehicle for transport back to the Hospital El Escorial.

I will come watch over you, my friend, the bishop thought. That is, if they permit me.

The Guardia agents glanced up repeatedly from the glow of their cell phones, their eyes continually returning to Valdespino, as if they suspected they would soon be called upon to make his arrest.

And yet I am innocent, the bishop thought, secretly suspecting he had been set up by one of Kirsch’s godless tech-savvy followers. The growing community of atheists enjoys nothing more than casting the Church in the role of the villain.

Deepening the bishop’s suspicion was news he had just heard about Kirsch’s presentation tonight. Unlike the video Kirsch had played for Valdespino in the Montserrat library, it seemed tonight’s version had ended on a hopeful note.

Kirsch tricked us.

A week ago, the presentation Valdespino and his colleagues had watched had been stopped prematurely … ending with a terrifying graphic that predicted the extermination of all humans.

A cataclysmic annihilation.

The long-prophesied apocalypse.

Even though Valdespino believed the prediction to be a lie, he knew that countless people would accept it as proof of impending doom.

Throughout history, fearful believers had fallen prey to apocalyptic prophecies; doomsday cults committed mass suicide to avoid the coming horrors, and devout fundamentalists ran up credit card debt believing the end was near.

There is nothing more damaging for children than the loss of hope, Valdespino thought, recalling how the combination of God’s love and the promise of heaven had been the most uplifting force in his own childhood. I was created by God, he had learned as a child, and one day I will live forever in God’s kingdom.

Kirsch had proclaimed the opposite: I am a cosmic accident, and soon I will be dead.

Valdespino had been deeply concerned about the damage Kirsch’s message would do to the poor souls who did not enjoy the futurist’s wealth and privilege—those who struggled daily just to eat or to provide for their children, those who required a glimmer of divine hope just to get out of bed every day and face their difficult lives.

Why Kirsch would show the clerics an apocalyptic ending remained a mystery to Valdespino. Perhaps Kirsch was merely trying to protect his big surprise, he thought. Or else he simply wanted to torture us a bit.

Either way, the damage had been done.

Valdespino gazed across the plaza and watched Prince Julián lovingly assist his father into the van. The young prince had handled the king’s confession remarkably well.

His Majesty’s decades-old secret.

Bishop Valdespino, of course, had known the king’s dangerous truth for years and had scrupulously protected it. Tonight, the king had decided to bare his soul to his only son. By choosing to do it here—within this mountaintop shrine to intolerance—the king had performed an act of symbolic defiance.

Now, as Valdespino gazed down into the deep ravine below, he felt deathly alone … as if he could simply step off the edge and fall forever into the welcoming darkness. He knew if he did, however, Kirsch’s band of atheists would gleefully declare that Valdespino had lost his faith in the wake of tonight’s scientific announcement.

My faith will never die, Mr. Kirsch.

It dwells beyond your realm of science.

Besides, if Kirsch’s prophecy about technology’s takeover were true, humanity was about to enter a period of almost unimaginable ethical ambiguity.

We will need faith and moral guidance now more than ever.

As Valdespino walked back across the plaza to join the king and Prince Julián, an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion settled deep within his bones.

At that moment, for the first time in his life, Bishop Valdespino wanted simply to lie down, close his eyes, and fall asleep forever.

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