The tolling bell in the clock tower rang for three full minutes, rattling the crystal chandelier that hung above Langdons head. Decades ago, he had attended lectures in this well-loved assembly hall at Phillips Exeter Academy. Today, however, he was here to listen to a dear friend address the student body. As the lights dimmed, Langdon took a seat against the back wall, beneath a pantheon of headmaster portraits.
A hush fell across the crowd.
In total darkness, a tall, shadowy figure crossed the stage and took the podium. Good morning, the faceless voice whispered into the microphone.
Everyone sat up, straining to see who was addressing them.
A slide projector flashed to life, revealing a faded sepia photographa dramatic castle with a red sandstone facade, high square towers, and Gothic embellishments.
The shadow spoke again. Who can tell me where this is?
England! a girl declared in the darkness. This facade is a blend of early Gothic and late Romanesque, making this the quintessential Norman castle and placing it in England at about the twelfth century.
Wow, the faceless voice replied. Someone knows her architecture.
Quiet groans all around.
Unfortunately, the shadow added, you missed by three thousand miles and half a millennium.
The room perked up.
The projector now flashed a full-color, modern photo of the same castle from a different angle. The castles Seneca Creek sandstone towers dominated the foreground, but in the background, startlingly close, stood the majestic, white, columned dome of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Hold on! the girl exclaimed. Theres a Norman castle in D.C.?!
Since 1855, the voice replied. Which is when this next photo was taken.
A new slide appeareda black-and-white interior shot, depicting a massive vaulted ballroom, furnished with animal skeletons, scientific display cases, glass jars with biological samples, archaeological artifacts, and plaster casts of prehistoric reptiles.
This wondrous castle, the voice said, was Americas first real science museum. It was a gift to America from a wealthy British scientist who, like our forefathers, believed our fledgling country could become the land of enlightenment. He bequeathed to our forefathers a massive fortune and asked them to build at the core of our nation an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. He paused a long moment. Who can tell me the name of this generous scientist?
A timid voice in front ventured, James Smithson?
A whisper of recognition rippled through the crowd.
Smithson indeed, the man on stage replied. Peter Solomon now stepped into the light, his gray eyes flashing playfully. Good morning. My name is Peter Solomon, and I am secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
The students broke into wild applause.
In the shadows, Langdon watched with admiration as Peter captivated the young minds with a photographic tour of the Smithsonian Institutions early history. The show began with Smithsonian Castle, its basement science labs, corridors lined with exhibits, a salon full of mollusks, scientists who called themselves the curators of crustaceans, and even an old photo of the castles two most popular residentsa pair of now-deceased owls named Diffusion and Increase. The half-hour slide show ended with an impressive satellite photo of the National Mall, now lined with enormous Smithsonian museums.
As I said when I began, Solomon stated in conclusion, James Smithson and our forefathers envisioned our great country to be a land of enlightenment. I believe today they would be proud. Their great Smithsonian Institution stands as a symbol of science and knowledge at the very core of America. It is a living, breathing, working tribute to our forefathers dream for Americaa country founded on the principles of knowledge, wisdom, and science.
Solomon clicked off the slides to an energetic round of applause. The houselights came up, along with dozens of eager hands with questions.
Solomon called on a small red-haired boy in the middle.
Mr. Solomon? the boy said, sounding puzzled. You said our forefathers fled the religious oppression of Europe to establish a country on the principles of scientific advancement.
But . . . I was under the impression our forefathers were devoutly religious men who founded America as a Christian nation.
Solomon smiled. My friends, dont get me wrong, our forefathers were deeply religious men, but they were Deistsmen who believed in God, but in a universal and open-minded way. The only religious ideal they put forth was religious freedom. He pulled the microphone from the podium and strode out to the edge of the stage. Americas forefathers had a vision of a spiritually enlightened utopia, in which freedom of thought, education of the masses, and scientific advancement would replace the darkness of outdated religious superstition.
A blond girl in back raised her hand.
Sir, the girl said, holding up her cell phone, Ive been researching you online, and Wikipedia
says youre a prominent Freemason.
Solomon held up his Masonic ring. I could have saved you the data charges.
The students laughed.
Yes, well, the girl continued, hesitating, you just mentioned outdated religious superstition, and it seems to me that if anyone is responsible for propagating outdated superstitions . . . it would be the Masons.
Solomon seemed unfazed. Oh? How so?
Well, Ive read a lot about Masonry, and I know youve got a lot of strange ancient rituals and beliefs. This article online even says that Masons believe in the power of some kind of ancient magical wisdom . . . which can elevate man to the realm of the gods?
Everyone turned and stared at the girl as if she were nuts.
Actually, Solomon said, shes right.
The kids all spun around and faced front, eyes widening.
Solomon suppressed a smile and asked the girl, Does it offer any other Wiki-wisdom about this magical knowledge?
The girl looked uneasy now, but she began to read from the Web site. To ensure this powerful wisdom could not be used by the unworthy, the early adepts wrote down their knowledge in code . . . cloaking its potent truth in a metaphorical language of symbols, myth, and allegory. To this day, this encrypted wisdom is all around us . . . encoded in our mythology, our art, and the occult texts of the ages. Unfortunately, modern man has lost the ability to decipher this complex network of symbolism . . . and the great truth has been lost.
Solomon waited. Thats all?
The girl shifted in her seat. Actually, there is a little bit more.
I should hope so. Please . . . tell us.
The girl looked hesitant, but she cleared her throat and continued. According to legend, the sages who encrypted the Ancient Mysteries long ago left behind a key of sorts . . . a passwordthat could be used to unlock the encrypted secrets. This magical passwordknown as the verbum significatiumis said to hold the power to lift the darkness and unlock the Ancient Mysteries, opening them to all human understanding.
Solomon smiled wistfully. Ah, yes . . . the verbum significatium. He stared into space for a moment and then lowered his eyes again to the blond girl. And where is this wonderful word
The girl looked apprehensive, clearly wishing she had not challenged their guest speaker. She finished reading. Legend holds that the verbum significatium is buried deep underground, where it waits patiently for a pivotal moment in history . . . a moment when mankind can no longer survive without the truth, knowledge, and wisdom of the ages. At this dark crossroads, mankind will at last unearth the Word and herald in a wondrous new age of enlightenment.
The girl turned off her phone and shrank down in her seat.
After a long silence, another student raised his hand. Mr. Solomon, you dont actually believe that, right?
Solomon smiled. Why not? Our mythologies have a long tradition of magic words that provide insight and godlike powers. To this day, children still shout abracadabra in hopes of creating something out of nothing. Of course, weve all forgotten that this word is not a toy; it has roots in ancient Aramaic mysticismAvrah KaDabrameaning I create as I speak.
But, sir, the student now pressed, surely you dont believe that a single word . . . this verbum significatium . . . whatever it is . . . has the power to unlock ancient wisdom . . . and bring about a worldwide enlightenment?
Peter Solomons face revealed nothing. My own beliefs should not concern you. What should concern you is that this prophecy of a coming enlightenment is echoed in virtually every faith and philosophical tradition on earth. Hindus call it the Krita Age, astrologers call it the Age of Aquarius, the Jews describe the coming of the Messiah, theosophists call it the New Age, cosmologists call it Harmonic Convergence and predict the actual date.
December 21, 2012! someone called.
Yes, unnervingly soon . . . if youre a believer in Mayan math.
Langdon chuckled, recalling how Solomon, ten years ago, had correctly predicted the current spate of television specials predicting that the year 2012 would mark the End of the World.
Timing aside, Solomon said, I find it wondrous to note that throughout history, all of mankinds disparate philosophies have all concurred on one thingthat a great enlightenment is coming. In every culture, in every era, in every corner of the world, the human dream has focused on the same exact conceptthe coming apotheosis of man . . . the impending transformation of our human minds into their true potentiality. He smiled. What could possibly explain such a synchronicity of beliefs?
Truth, said a quiet voice in the crowd.
Solomon wheeled. Who said that?
The hand that went up belonged to a tiny Asian boy whose soft features suggested he might be Nepalese or Tibetan. Maybe there is a universal truth embedded in everyones soul. Maybe we all have the same story hiding inside, like a shared constant in our DNA. Maybe this collective truth is responsible for the similarity in all of our stories.
Solomon was beaming as he pressed his hands together and bowed reverently to the boy. Thank you.
Everyone was quiet.
Truth, Solomon said, addressing the room. Truth has power. And if we all gravitate toward similar ideas, maybe we do so because those ideas are true . . . written deep within us. And when we hear the truth, even if we dont understand it, we feel that truth resonate within us . . . vibrating with our unconscious wisdom. Perhaps the truth is not learned by us, but rather, the truth is re-called . . . re-membered . . . re-cognized . . . as that which is already inside us.
The silence in the hall was complete.
Solomon let it sit for a long moment, then quietly said, In closing, I should warn you that unveiling the truth is never easy. Throughout history, every period of enlightenment has been accompanied by darkness, pushing in opposition. Such are the laws of nature and balance. And if we look at the darkness growing in the world today, we have to realize that this means there is equal light growing. We are on the verge of a truly great period of illumination, and all of usall of youare profoundly blessed to be living through this pivotal moment of history. Of all the people who have ever lived, in all the eras in history . . . we are in that narrow window of time during which we will bear witness to our ultimate renaissance. After millennia of darkness, we will see our sciences, our minds, and even our religions unveil the truth.
Solomon was about to get a hearty round of applause when he held up his hand for silence. Miss? He pointed directly to the contentious blond girl in back with the cell phone. I know you and I didnt agree on much, but I want to thank you. Your passion is an important catalyst in the coming changes. Darkness feeds on apathy . . . and conviction is our most potent antidote. Keep studying your faith. Study the Bible. He smiled. Especially the final pages.
The Apocalypse? she said.
Absolutely. The Book of Revelation is a vibrant example of our shared truth. The last book of the Bible tells the identical story as countless other traditions. They all predict the coming unveiling of great wisdom.
Someone else said, But isnt the Apocalypse about the end of the world? You know, the Antichrist, Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil?
Solomon chuckled. Who here studies Greek?
Several hands went up.
What does the word apocalypse literally mean?
It means, one student began, and then paused as if surprised. Apocalypse means to unveil . . . or to reveal.
Solomon gave the boy a nod of approval. Exactly. The Apocalypse is literally a reveal-ation. The Book of Reveal-ation in the Bible predicts an unveiling of great truth and unimaginable wisdom. The Apocalypse is not the end of the world, but rather it is the end of the world as we know it. The prophecy of the Apocalypse is just one of the Bibles beautiful messages that has been distorted. Solomon stepped to the front of the stage. Believe me, the Apocalypse is coming . . . and it will be nothing like what we were taught.
High over his head, the bell began to toll.
The students erupted into bewildered and thunderous applause.