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CHAPTER 105

DR. MATEO VALERO—director of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center—felt disorientated as he hung up the phone and drifted out to the main sanctuary of Chapel Torre Girona to stare again at Edmond Kirsch’s spectacular two-story computer.

Valero had learned earlier this morning that he would serve as the new “overseer” of this groundbreaking machine. His initial feelings of excitement and awe, however, had just been dramatically diminished.

Minutes ago, he had received a desperate call from the well-known American professor Robert Langdon.

Langdon had told a breathless tale that only a day earlier Valero would have deemed science fiction. Today, however, having seen Kirsch’s stunning presentation as well as his actual E-Wave machine, he was inclined to believe there might be some truth to it.

The tale that Langdon told was one of innocence … a tale of the purity of machines that quite literally did exactly what was asked of them. Always. Without fail. Valero had spent his life studying these machines … learning the delicate dance of tapping their potential.

The art is in knowing how to ask.

Valero had consistently warned that artificial intelligence was advancing at a deceptively rapid pace, and that strict guidelines needed to be imposed on its ability to interact with the human world.

Admittedly, practicing restraint felt counterintuitive to most tech visionaries, especially in the face of the exciting possibilities now blossoming almost daily. Beyond the thrill of innovation, there were vast fortunes to be made in AI, and nothing blurred ethical lines faster than human greed.

Valero had always been a great admirer of Kirsch’s bold genius. In this case, however, it sounded like Edmond had been careless, dangerously pushing boundaries with his latest creation.

A creation I will never know, Valero now realized.

According to Langdon, Edmond had created within E-Wave an astoundingly advanced AI program—“Winston”—that had been programmed to self-delete at one p.m. on the day following Kirsch’s death. Minutes ago, at Langdon’s insistence, Dr. Valero had been able to confirm that a significant sector of E-Wave’s databanks had indeed vanished at precisely that time. The deletion had been a full data “overwrite,” which rendered it irretrievable.

This news had seemed to ease Langdon’s anxiety, and yet the American professor had requested a meeting immediately to discuss the matter further. Valero and Langdon had agreed to meet tomorrow morning at the lab.

In principle, Valero understood Langdon’s instinct to go public immediately with the story. The problem was going to be one of credibility.

Nobody will believe it.

All traces of Kirsch’s AI program had been expunged, along with any records of its communications or tasks. More challenging still, Kirsch’s creation was so far beyond the current state of the art that Valero could already hear his own colleagues—out of ignorance, envy, or self-preservation—accusing Langdon of fabricating the entire story.

There was also, of course, the issue of public fallout. If it emerged that Langdon’s story were indeed true, then the E-Wave machine would be condemned as some kind of Frankenstein monster. The pitchforks and torches would not be far behind.

Or worse, Valero realized.

In these days of rampant terrorist attacks, someone might simply decide to blow up the entire chapel, proclaiming himself the savior of all humanity.

Clearly, Valero had a lot to think about before his meeting with Langdon. At the moment, however, he had a promise to keep.

At least until we have some answers.

Feeling strangely melancholy, Valero permitted himself one last look at the miraculous two-story computer. He listened to its gentle breathing as the pumps circulated coolant through its millions of cells.

As he made his way to the power room to begin the full-system shutdown, he was struck by an unexpected impulse—a compulsion he had never once had in his sixty-three years of life.

The impulse to pray.

 

High atop the uppermost walkway of Castell de Montjuïc, Robert Langdon stood alone and gazed over the sheer cliff to the distant harbor below. The wind had picked up, and he felt somehow off balance, as if his mental equilibrium were in the process of being recalibrated.

Despite reassurances from BSC director Dr. Valero, Langdon felt anxious and very much on edge. Echoes of Winston’s breezy voice still echoed in his mind. Edmond’s computer had talked calmly until the very end.

“I am surprised to hear your dismay, Professor,” Winston had said, “considering that your own faith is built on an act of far greater ethical ambiguity.”

Before Langdon could reply, a text had materialized on Edmond’s phone.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.
—John 3:16

“Your God brutally sacrificed his son,” Winston said, “abandoning him to suffer on the cross for hours. With Edmond, I painlessly ended a dying man’s suffering in order to bring attention to his great works.”

In the sweltering cable car, Langdon had listened in disbelief as Winston calmly provided justifications for every one of his disturbing actions.

Edmond’s battle with the Palmarian Church, Winston explained, had inspired Winston to find and hire Admiral Luis Ávila—a longtime churchgoer whose history of drug abuse made him exploitable and a perfect candidate to damage the Palmarian Church’s reputation. For Winston, posing as the Regent had been as simple as sending out a handful of communications and then wiring funds to Ávila’s bank account. In actuality, the Palmarians had been innocent and had played no role in the night’s conspiracy.

Ávila’s attack on Langdon in the spiral staircase, Winston assured him, was unintended. “I sent Ávila to Sagrada Família to be caught,” Winston declared. “I wanted him to be captured so he could tell his sordid tale, which would have generated even more public interest in Edmond’s work. I told him to enter the building via the east service gate, where I had tipped off police to be hiding. I was certain Ávila would be apprehended there, but he decided to jump a fence instead—maybe he sensed the police presence. My profound apologies, Professor. Unlike machines, humans can be unpredictable.”

Langdon didn’t know what to believe anymore.

Winston’s final explanation had been the most disturbing of all. “After Edmond’s meeting with the three clerics in Montserrat,” Winston said, “we received a threatening voice mail from Bishop Valdespino. The bishop warned that his two colleagues were so concerned about Edmond’s presentation that they were considering making a preemptive announcement of their own, hoping to discredit and reframe the information before it came out. Clearly, that prospect was not acceptable.”

Langdon felt nauseated, struggling to think as the cable car swayed. “Edmond should have added a single line to your program,” he declared. “Thou shalt not kill!”

“Sadly, it’s not that simple, Professor,” Winston replied. “Humans don’t learn by obeying commandments, they learn by example. Judging from your books, movies, news, and ancient myths, humans have always celebrated those souls who make personal sacrifices for a greater good. Jesus, for example.”

“Winston, I see no ‘greater good’ here.”

“No?” Winston’s voice remained flat. “Then let me ask you this famous question: Would you rather live in a world without technology … or in a world without religion? Would you rather live without medicine, electricity, transportation, and antibiotics … or without zealots waging war over fictional tales and imaginary spirits?”

Langdon remained silent.

“My point exactly, Professor. The dark religions must depart, so sweet science can reign.”

Alone now, atop the castle, as Langdon gazed down at the shimmering water in the distance, he felt an eerie sense of detachment from his own world. Descending the castle stairs to the nearby gardens, he inhaled deeply, savoring the scent of the pine and centaury, and desperately trying to forget the sound of Winston’s voice. Here among the flowers, Langdon suddenly missed Ambra, wanting to call and hear her voice, and tell her everything that had happened in the last hour. When he pulled out Edmond’s phone, however, he knew he couldn’t place the call.

The prince and Ambra need time alone. This can wait.

His gaze fell to the W icon on the screen. The symbol was now grayed out, and a small error message had appeared across it: CONTACT DOES NOT EXIST. Even so, Langdon felt a disconcerting wariness. He was not a paranoid man, and yet he knew he would never again be able to trust this device, always wondering what secret capabilities or connections might still be hidden in its programming.

He walked down a narrow footpath and searched until he found a sheltered grove of trees. Eyeing the phone in his hand and thinking of Edmond, he placed the device on a flat rock. Then, as if performing some kind of ritual sacrifice, he hoisted a heavy stone over his head and heaved it down violently, shattering the device into dozens of pieces.

On his way out of the park, he dumped the debris in a trash can and turned to head down the mountain.

As he did, Langdon had to admit, he felt a bit lighter. And, in a strange way … a bit more human.

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