I hurry to the stairs, past huddled families clutching each other among the stacks and peer beyond the ledge to the soft-carpeted entryway four stories below. It’s teeming with figures twisting into grotesque poses, jaws snapping, heads jerking. At the center black-clad men fire silver-matte handguns, muzzle fire reflected dully in a hundred surfaces but the report somehow lost in the noise around me. A third man sprints up the stairs, gray suit rumpled and soaked in sweat, as one of the exposed dashes after him.
In the moment I watch, the bodyguards are overwhelmed.
“Leon!” Frau shouts from somewhere behind me. Those who have hidden in the library are a churning mass of screaming, weeping anatomies torn from rational thought, colliding and recoiling like molecules of boiling water. Everyone is in motion, but all of us are trapped.
I dodge frightened people scurrying to arm themselves with encyclopedia volumes and thin plastic chairs. I know the man running up the stairs will not make it, and in that moment I hope his death will slow the exposed enough for us to escape. I bite back the guilt this feeling brings as people who’d been hiding on lower floors stream up as fast as their legs can carry them.
Frau crouches beside a door marked “STAFF,” propping it with her foot. From her pack, Boo is screaming the word she says when she wants to get down–”Up! Up!” Up!”
“Where’d you go?” Frau screams, but I am hysterical and all I can say is, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” She grabs my elbow and yanks me closer.
Rafiq, Layla, and Osman charge through the door that Frau is holding open, and Rafiq nods at us then frowns at the chaos, Osman burying his face in his father’s hip. They rush forward, Rafiq holding something like a hammer in both hands, and without breaking his stride, he swings it at a broad window, which shatters into a thousand points of light.
Someone strips the hammer from his hands and smashes the next window, but Rafiq and his family are already climbing onto the ledge. They drop onto the scaffolding that hugs the face of the building.
We throw ourselves at the window, 500 others close at our heels. Bodies sprawl between cars and among the Linden trees. They’ve been ripped to pieces, shredded to piles of limbs in pools of browning blood. The exposed are gone, and my heart sinks when I realize why. They’ve chased the diplomats into the building. They’re in the library now.
Scaffolding shimmies and rattles as we race down metal steps behind Rafiq and Layla and little Osman. Each level we pass offers a brief tableaux of the chaos inside: People screaming, surrounded by the exposed; parents forming rings around clusters of children.
They are frames in a movie I can’t help but watch:
Parents surrounding their children. The exposed swelling toward them. Fingers bitten off, hair wrenched from scalps, ears torn free. Parents fighting, blending in their intensity with the exposed.
Fewer parents, but the exposed dead and twitching. Adults herding children away, some sudden orphans.
And then we fly to the next level and they are lost to me. I hold their vision in my head as long as I can, lock it in my mind so that I do not forget–they fought and they won. I am just beginning to think that we can too, when the first body sails past and thumps to the pavement with a wet crunch. He does not move again.
Our feet find the solid ground of Under the Lindens Boulevard, but dozens of the exposed roam among abandoned, idling cars and they dash forward as survivors flood the street. The exposed above us crowd the scaffolding, which creaks and sways.
“Do you hear that?” Frau shouts as she, Boo, and I hide a moment behind a concrete outcropping of Humboldt University. Rafiq and his family are nearby, conferring in their language.
“What?” I shout, but I hear it too.
Sirens. The warble of approaching patrol cars.
Library survivors are everywhere, bleeding in the street, screaming, exposed tearing them down in little packs, ripping out throats, biting, punching. Frau is the first to notice that a dozen officers have blocked the southern entrance to Friedrich Street. Between them and us the exposed remain, but the survivors rush toward the line, anxious for the safety it’ll bring.
The exposed run with them, barreling forward in their own shuffling way.
We step from cover just as the police open fire, pistols kicking in a ragged line. At first, the flashing muzzles seek out only the exposed and survivors course through the picket, but the density of sprinting figures spikes and suddenly the police turn their weapons on everything before them, everything that moves, everything, and Frau and I are running again, Boo weeping, but it’s away from the firing line, the killing field. Rafiq, Layla, and Osman aren’t far, and we fall in behind them.
A dozen exposed break away, and even at a hundred yards, I can hear their shoes scraping the pavement as they give chase.
In this universe, we paused on Bebelplatz where once the Nazis burned books, but in the other, we sprint across it, St. Hedwig’s green dome rising before us, and leap the chain link fence of the Opera House, under construction like all of Berlin. Out of breath, legs aching, we stumble past mounds of bricks and sleeping equipment and scramble into the building.
Inside are more survivors crammed together in the lobby. Light dribbles through blue tarps draping the ceiling, past exposed ceiling beams and hanging wires.
“Come,” Rafiq says. “It isn’t safe here,” and he says it with such authority that we let him lead us down cracked marble stairs to a chipped wooden door set into a basement wall, where he stops to fumble at his keys.
“Is this a safe room?” someone asks.
Rafiq shakes his head and slides a key home, swinging open the door. He reaches in and flips a switch, and light flickers to life ahead of us. “It’s a tunnel,” he says. “The linden tunnel.”
“Where does it lead?”
“A subway line we can follow out of town,” he says and waves everyone inside. I’m the last to cross the threshold just as echoing footfalls rise in the room above us. Frau, Boo, and the others plunge deeper into the tunnel as Rafiq and I hurl ourselves against the door, but before we can throw the lock, a figure darts down the stairs and slams into the other side. With a yelp we manage to keep our place.
But it’s only Jörg. I haven’t seen him since the library, and he looks terrible as he peeks through the entryway. His face is pale, bite wound at his hip seeping blood through Rafiq’s bandages. All this running has loosened the gauze and torn the setting scab.
I think Jörg might be dying.
“Please,” he says, German muddled with pain. “I’m not contagious. I won’t turn.” We hear more footsteps above, and it’s impossible to know if it’s the exposed or other survivors. “Please!” he whispers. “Let me in!”
It’s only Rafiq and I there at the door. The others hesitate nearby as they scan the long brick and mortar tube for trouble. Boo has cuddled up on Frau’s chest and is babbling softly.
I turn back to Jörg, who bounces from one foot to the other, head cocked, listening.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and his features sag. “We can’t.”
I shove him bodily from the door and slam it shut, and Rafiq throws the lock. Jörg shouts something unintelligible, something piercing, prehistoric. He bangs at the door, and the others inside gasp, but he stops as quickly as he starts. I let myself assume that he has run away because it beats the alternative, that the exposed have gotten him, that I have murdered him. I tell myself we would hear him scream, and then someone does, high above us.
Rafiq regards me a long moment, and it’s impossible to know what he is thinking, but it cannot be worse than what I think of myself. Beneath rational thought is the fear that I am changing.
Rafiq says nothing, and we rejoin the group. Osman takes his father’s hand, and together they follow his mother, whose niqab sways with each step.
“How did you know this was here?” someone asks, and someone else adds, “What is this place?”
“It’s a tunnel, obviously,” Rafiq says.
“But why is it here?” Frau asks.
“I honestly don’t know. I think it used to carry the tram. Now a lot of the theatres use it for storage.” He nods to where massive backdrops hang from custom supports. Open or closed, my eyes carry Jörg’s manic face as he begs to be let inside.
I push it from my mind but can’t stop shivering until Frau takes my hand. I’ve missed part of the conversation, but Rafiq is nodding.
“Exactly,” he says. “We do the same. There are crates full of books down here. Stuff we can’t get rid of but for which there’s no shelf space. That’s why I had the key.”
“Where are we going?” I ask, and several of the others turn toward me, then look away.
Rafiq frowns. “I just said. The tunnel connects to the U5 subway line. We can use it to leave the city center and then we’ll be safe.”
“Isn’t it dark?” Frau asks.
“It is,” Layla says, voice muffled by fabric. “But tell me. Do you have a smartphone?”
“I lost mine at the library. But if enough of us have them, we can use them as flashlights.”
“That’s a great idea!” Frau says and fishes hers from a back pocket. In this universe and the other, Frau carries no purse.
Between the fifteen of us, there are six phones. We shine them into the curving subway tunnel, but the darkness swallows the light.
“Don’t forget about the third rail,” Rafiq says, and then we’re off.
We lumber over loose gravel and dirty wooden railway ties, the glow of our lights bouncing along dusty walls, footfalls blending into a solid echo, until the bigger glow of the Museum Island station rises like the dawn.
We approach it cautiously and in the process startle two black-clad soldiers, who slap their rifles to their shoulders, screaming voices echoing to incoherence.
We throw our hands up, and Boo begins to howl, but the soldiers do not shoot.
“Survivors?” One of them barks, and Frau and I exchange a look. Frau is filthy head to toe, hair heavy with sweat. I assume I am the same.
“Yes,” Rafiq says, and the soldier sets down her rifle to offer us a hand.
At last we stand on the platform, aching from terror and exhaustion. The other soldier reports our position into her walkie-talkie as the one who helped us kneels a long moment at the platform’s edge, curly blonde hair in a tight bun, face impassive, professional. Her jacket tag reads Gatzweiler. The other’s name is Oh.
At last Gatzweiler stands and beats the dust from her hands.
“You’re the first people we’ve had through here. The line’s under construction, so the stations are all inaccessible. It’s kept the tunnels clear of them.”
I can’t help but laugh. Berlin construction has saved our lives.
“What’s happening up there?” I ask. “Is it over?”
Oh shakes her head, black hair shiny in the white-yellow station light. “Not yet,” she says. “There are still thousands of them. We’re holding the perimeter until reinforcements arrive.”
“Thousands?” Rafiq chokes. “We’ve seen hundreds killed already. They’ve got to be running out of those things by now. Or is it–is it spreading?”
He casts a knowing look at me, but he’s inscrutable. I fight not to hang my head.
“All I know is what I’ve heard,” Oh says, eyeing the dead escalator leading to the street above.
“It was terrorism, wasn’t it?” someone asks, parroting what Jörg told us. “They bombed the Parliament Building and Friedrich Street Station, right? And everybody there got turned into killing machines? Just those two places, isn’t it?” The man is hysterical, and my skin crawls when I see Gatzweiler and Oh exchange a glance.
“Six,” Gatzweiler says. “There were six sites.”
We shout our questions over each other, but they’re all the same, so Gatzweiler understands and answers. We want to know where.
She turns her back to the dark tunnel and lets her rifle swing, counting them off.
“Parliament and Friedrich Street, like you said. Plus Potsdam Square, the market at Mehring Square, the Gendarmen Market, and the Brandenburg Gate.”
In this universe, in October, we walked through the Brandburger Tor, past the Reichstag, under Friedrichstraße Station. Each was packed with people.
“All told, we’ve heard it’s about 10 thousand people affected. Not including those killed after.”
“Great God,” someone mutters, and we stand there together, hugging each other and crying, while Gatzweiler and Oh watch with grim faces. They move off to confer.
I hear something I cannot identify, like trod-on gravel, and I picture Jörg wearing the slack mask of the exposed as he rushes down the subway tunnel, searching us out, searching me out, but I turn to the tunnel and it’s empty, save for darkness. The sound is getting louder, and suddenly it occurs to me what it is.
I look over to Frau, and she stares back, face long with fear, Boo crying softly on her chest. The noise is coming from the street above.
Oh is talking into her radio, static garbling the voice at the other end. She repeats it so that we all understand.
“Big group coming up from the south,” she says, and checks the clip of her rifle. “Flanking our position.” The gunfire is louder now, and I cannot tell if it’s 5 guns or 50. Gatzweiler pulls a round into the chamber and manages to mutter something, a swear or prayer, I’m not sure, before two more soldiers come tumbling down the dead escalator.
The exposed are above them, their knees bobbing in awkward tempo as they swarm towards us.
Gatzweiler and Oh open up, their rifles barking fire, line after line of exposed tumbling down dead, but there are too many, and as the first of them fall, two more climb past. We watch, clutching our ears, as the two new soldiers stagger back, crawling behind the line of fire. One looks too young to be a soldier, his hair black and matted, ochre skin ashen. He collapses to his back at Oh’s heels, the meagre rise of his chest the only sign that he still draws breath. His tag is covered in gore, and I cannot make out his name. The exposed have torn loose a fist-sized chunk below his ribs, which oozes red and white and pink.
The other soldier manages to rise to a knee and find the trigger of his rifle. He stands with Oh and Gatzweiler and empties his clip.
They fire, reload, fire again, but the exposed still jam the escalators. They are bottlenecked, but once they reach the platform, there will be no stopping them.
We pray, crouching there, that Gatzweiler and Oh and this third soldier will stem the flow, but the question is one of arithmetic, and I find myself doing the math in my head. How many rounds does a clip hold? How many clips does each soldier have? What’s the number of the exposed?
Oh’s rifle fails first but she rips the Heckler & Koch pistol from its holster at her hip, and opens up again. The three of them inch backwards, toe to heel in measured progression, stepping around their fallen comrade, the stench of raw meat and shit and vomit sliding like a wave, like a sonic boom at the vanguard of the exposed.
My heart seizes when I realize they’re abandoning him, but then I notice the stillness of his chest. He’s beyond the rending hands and gnashing teeth of the creatures who clamber toward us. Gatzweiler, Oh and the third soldier whose name I’ll never know must have fired 500 rounds, and hundreds of dead fill the escalator tunnel and spill onto the platform, but still they come.
They reach the dead man’s body and rip it in one motion to six pieces, and that’s when Gatzweiler’s rifle fails too.
She falls, her shrieks replacing the report of her rifle. We’ve scurried to the edge of the platform, and when Oh and the other soldier are shredded by the crush, it is as if a dam breaks.
A wall of reaching, bloody hands and broken snapping teeth crashes toward us, and we tumble from the platform to the tracks.
We spring away from the massing figures, screaming as our feet beat the railway ties. A hand snatches mine, crushing the bones of my fingers, and I recoil, heart thudding in my chest, and I know that this is the last breath I will take, the last sane thought I will have, and I look to the face of the person who will murder me, himself a victim, but my stomach flips again when I realize who it is.
Frau has taken my hand, and we are sprinting together, Boo bouncing in a quiet daze. A sizzling zap flashes and buzzes behind us and a bright light beats at our backs. The smell of burning meat reaches my nostrils, and this time I really will be sick, but I don’t have the luxury of vomiting. Some unlucky soul has trod on the third rail, and in my heart of hearts, I pray that that will slow the exposed so that we might escape.
We run, darkness descending, and I fumble to switch on my phone’s light. With ragged breath I slow at last to look behind us. There is no one, neither exposed nor survivor. It isn’t until we reach the next section that we understand why.
It’s the Opera House tunnel again. We’ve gone the wrong way.