Katherine Solomon was teetering on the edge of consciousness when she was jolted by the shock wave of a deafening explosion.
Moments later, she smelled smoke.
Her ears were ringing.
There were muffled voices. Distant. Shouting. Footsteps. Suddenly she was breathing more clearly. The cloth had been pulled from her mouth.
Youre safe, a mans voice whispered. Just hold on.
She expected the man to pull the needle out of her arm but instead he was yelling orders. Bring the medical kit . . . attach an IV to the needle . . . infuse lactated Ringers solution . . . get me a blood pressure. As the man began checking her vital signs, he said, Ms. Solomon, the person who did this to you . . . where did he go?
Katherine tried to speak, but she could not.
Ms. Solomon? the voice repeated. Where did he go?
Katherine tried to pry her eyes open, but she felt herself fading.
We need to know where he went, the man urged.
Katherine whispered three words in response, although she knew they made no sense. The . . . sacred . . . mountain.
Director Sato stepped over the mangled steel door and descended a wooden ramp into the hidden basement. One of her agents met her at the bottom.
Director, I think youll want to see this.
Sato followed the agent into a small room off the narrow hallway. The room was brightly lit and barren, except for a pile of clothing on the floor. She recognized Robert Langdons tweed coat and loafers.
Her agent pointed toward the far wall at a large, casketlike container.
What in the world?
Sato moved toward the container, seeing now that it was fed by a clear plastic pipe that ran through the wall. Warily, she approached the tank.
Now she could see that it had a small slider on top. She reached down and slid the covering to one side, revealing a small portal-like window.
Beneath the Plexiglas . . . floated the submerged, vacant face of Professor Robert Langdon.
The endless void in which Langdon hovered was suddenly filled by a blinding sun. Rays of white-hot light streamed across the blackness of space, burning into his mind.
The light was everywhere.
Suddenly, within the radiant cloud before him, a beautiful silhouette appeared. It was a face . . . blurry and indistinct . . . two eyes staring at him across the void. Streams of light surrounded the face, and Langdon wondered if he was looking into the face of God.
Sato stared down into the tank, wondering if Professor Langdon had any idea what had happened. She doubted it. After all, disorientation was the entire purpose of this technology.
Sensory-deprivation tanks had been around since the fifties and were still a popular getaway for wealthy New Age experimenters. Floating, as it was called, offered a transcendental back-to-the-womb experience . . . a kind of meditative aid that quieted brain activity by removing all sensory inputlight, sound, touch, and even the pull of gravity. In traditional tanks, the person would float on his back in a hyperbuoyant saline solution that kept his face above the water so he could breathe.
In recent years, however, these tanks had taken a quantum leap.
This new technologyknown as Total Liquid Ventilation (TLV)was so counterintuitive that few believed it existed.
Liquid breathing had been a reality since 1966, when Leland C. Clark successfully kept alive a mouse that had been submerged for several hours in an oxygenated perfluorocarbon. In 1989, TLV technology made a dramatic appearance in the movie The Abyss, although few viewers realized that they were watching real science.
Total Liquid Ventilation had been born of modern medicines attempts to help premature babies breathe by returning them to the liquid-filled state of the womb. Human lungs, having spent nine months in utero, were no strangers to a liquid-filled state. Perfluorocarbons had once been too viscous to be fully breathable, but modern breakthroughs had made breathable liquids almost the consistency of water.
The CIAs Directorate of Science and Technologythe Wizards of Langley, as they were known within the intelligence communityhad worked extensively with oxygenated perfluorocarbons to develop technologies for the U.S. military. The navys elite deep-ocean diving teams found that breathing oxygenated liquid, rather than the usual heliox or trimix, gave them the ability to dive to much greater depths without risk of pressure sickness. Similarly, NASA and the air force had learned that pilots equipped with a liquid breathing apparatus rather than a traditional oxygen tank could withstand far higher g-forces than usual because liquid spread the g-force more evenly throughout the internal organs than gas did.
Sato had heard that there were now extreme experience labs where one could try these Total Liquid Ventilation tanksMeditation Machines, as they were called. This particular tank had probably been installed for its owners private experimentation, although the addition of heavy, lockable latches left little doubt in Satos mind that this tank had also been used for darker applications . . . an interrogation technique with which the CIA was familiar.
The infamous interrogation technique of water boarding was highly effective because the victim truly believed he was drowning. Sato knew of several classified operations in which sensory-deprivation tanks like these had been used to enhance that illusion to terrifying new levels. A victim submerged in breathable liquid could literally be drowned. The panic associated with
the drowning experience usually made the victim unaware that the liquid he was breathing was slightly more viscous than water. When the liquid poured into his lungs, he would often black out from fear, and then awaken in the ultimate solitary confinement.
Topical numbing agents, paralysis drugs, and hallucinogens were mixed with the warm oxygenated liquid to give the prisoner the sense he was entirely separated from his body. When his mind sent commands to move his limbs, nothing happened. The state of being dead was terrifying on its own, but the true disorientation came from the rebirthing process, which, with the aid of bright lights, cold air, and deafening noise, could be extremely traumatic and painful. After a handful of rebirths and subsequent drownings, the prisoner became so disorientated that he had no idea if he was alive or dead . . . and he would tell the interrogator absolutely anything.
Sato wondered if she should wait for a medical team to extract Langdon, but she knew she didnt have time. I need to know what he knows.
Turn out the lights, she said. And find me some blankets.
The blinding sun had vanished.
The face had also disappeared.
The blackness had returned, but Langdon could now hear distant whispers echoing across the light-years of emptiness. Muffled voices . . . unintelligible words. There were vibrations now . . . as if the world were about to shake apart.
Then it happened.
Without warning, the universe was ripped in two. An enormous chasm opened in the void . . . as if space itself had ruptured at the seams. A grayish mist poured through the opening, and Langdon saw a terrifying sight. Disembodied hands were suddenly reaching for him, grabbing his body, trying to yank him out of his world.
No! He tried to fight them off, but he had no arms . . . no fists. Or did he? Suddenly he felt his body materializing around his mind. His flesh had returned and it was being seized by powerful hands that were dragging him upward. No! Please!
But it was too late.
Pain racked his chest as the hands heaved him through the opening. His lungs felt like they were filled with sand. I cant breathe! He was suddenly on his back on the coldest, hardest surface he could imagine. Something was pressing on his chest, over and over, hard and painful. He was spewing out the warmth.
I want to go back.
He felt like he was a child being born from a womb.
He was convulsing, coughing up liquid. He felt pain in his chest and neck. Excruciating pain. His throat was on fire. People were talking, trying to whisper, but it was deafening. His vision was blurred, and all he could see was muted shapes. His skin felt numb, like dead leather.
His chest felt heavier now . . . pressure. I cant breathe!
He was coughing up more liquid. An overwhelming gag reflex seized him, and he gasped inward. Cold air poured into his lungs, and he felt like a newborn taking his first breath on earth. This world was excruciating. All Langdon wanted was to return to the womb.
Robert Langdon had no idea how much time had passed. He could feel now that he was lying on his side, wrapped in towels and blankets on a hard floor. A familiar face was gazing down at him . . . but the streams of glorious light were gone. The echoes of distant chanting still hung in his mind.
Verbum significatium . . . Verbum omnificum . . .
Professor Langdon, someone whispered. Do you know where you are?
Langdon nodded weakly, still coughing.
More important, he had begun to realize what was going on tonight.