We let hope carry us as we sprint across the murky Spree and past the gray-stoned New Guard War Memorial, quiet and empty. Our shoes slap the black pavement of Under the Lindens Boulevard, Humboldt University rising to our right, somber statues keeping sentry on the roof. A metal fence surrounds its inner courtyard, and Frau eyes it as a place of refuge, but we’re fewer than a thousand steps to the embassy, so we press on.
The boulevard splits, Linden trees sprouting from its median, and our lungs wheeze like dusty bellows as the distance catches up to us. We slow to a jog before the National Library, facade covered in scaffolding, yet another building under construction. Frau says something, but I can’t hear her over the sound of my own ragged breathing.
“What?” I ask, but at that moment, another horde spills from Friedrich Street ahead of us, swarming in the same half-run we saw on the bridge.
Frau swears and we skitter to a stop, color high in our cheeks, sweat clinging to our hair. Boo is pulling at the straps of her pack, wanting to get down. I look at the scaffolding, wondering if we can climb it, and pray the horde won’t notice us.
But they do.
A howl rises from a thousand throats. And somewhere behind us the other horde answers. We are surrounded.
We throw ourselves at the gates of the library but they’re locked. We rattle them, screaming for someone to let us in. The horde is less than a minute away, and we’re hiding in a dead-end.
Wordlessly, Frau and I begin to fumble at the straps of Boo’s pack. The fence is high, but there’s enough clearance to toss our baby over. It’s October, and she’s still just 18 months, but she can walk and I’ve seen her cry at the TV when something scary comes, so I know that she will run, that she will not watch us torn to pieces, she will not see it.
But before we can slip her free and lift her above the spikes of the fence, a short man in coke-bottle glasses rushes towards us from inside the courtyard and fumbles at a heavy set of keys. The gate creaks as he swings it wide and we tumble into safety, running for the door. He locks it behind us, and a few seconds later, the horde crashes against the bars, straining the metal as they grope after us, gates squealing under the pressure.
Frau tightens Boo’s straps, and we hurry inside. Neither of us speaks of what we’d been willing to do. There’ll be time for that later. We hope.
Empty round desks crowd the lobby like ugly mushrooms, and we climb stairs two at a time, up away from the mob outside. Our rescuer speaks hurried German over his shoulder.
“You’re lucky somebody spotted you,” he says. I strain to hear him over the moans, now only in my head.
“What’s going on out there?” Frau asks in flawless German, just as the man says, “Why were you out there?”
A lull comes as each waits for the other’s answer, Boo fussing as I catch my breath. Frau digs grapes from her pocket and stuffs them into Boo’s mouth, one at a time. The baby quiets, chewing.
“You don’t know?” the man asks. He’s an older gentleman, cropped white hair vivid against brown skin.
The stairs open into a massive space, four or five stories high, all lined with shelves and desks. Frightened faces peak over banisters from the floors above. There must be hundreds.
“There was an attack, maybe half an hour ago. Two explosions.”
In this universe, we visited the Bundestag, where the German parliament meets, and crossed beneath the Friedrichstraße train station a dozen times. In a nearby Berlin, explosions in both kill two dozen people–the lucky ones, it turns out, because smoke from the bombs settles over the survivors, and everyone it touches turns. They become mindless and violent, biting with snapping jaws and rending with twitching fingers. They chase down any unaffected they can find and rip them to ragged pieces. And there are thousands of them.
“But where’s the military? Why aren’t they controlling the situation?”
Another man, dirty brown hair receding from his face, limps from between broad, lacquered desks. He leans against a wooden shelf and scowls at me.
“This isn’t America, yeah?” he says in crisp German. “There’s no tank on every street corner. Our police don’t run around with battle rifles.” It’s what many Germans think America is like. I don’t bother arguing. We follow our rescuer up internal stairs to the highest level, and the limping young man shuffles along behind us. Frau has finished stuffing food into Boo’s face, and the baby rests her head, sated.
We approach a tall, plate window overlooking the boulevard below, and the sight makes Frau and I latch onto each other.
Under the Lindens teems with the exposed, heads bobbing as they jog. We hear nothing on the floors below us. We pray that the gates hold.
A woman hidden behind black religious garb approaches us, little boy clinging to her hand. Our rescuer turns to them, grim-faced, and they speak together quietly in a language I don’t understand–I think it must be Arabic–as the little boy stares at us.
After a moment, the man turns to us and says, “It’s Osman here who spotted you,” motioning to the boy.
“Thank you,” we tell the child but he shies away. We thank the father, too, for coming downstairs, and then the mother as well for good measure. We introduce ourselves. The father, Rafiq, volunteers that he and his wife, Layla, were born in Morocco, but Osman is a true Berliner. Below us, the city is tearing itself apart.
Keys jingle at Rafiq’s waist, and I make small talk. “So, are you the janitor?”
He frowns at me over his glasses. “What? No. I’m a librarian.” He turns back to the window and so doesn’t see the blood in my cheeks. I tell myself I’d assumed because of the keys, not because of his ethnicity, but even I’m not sure if that’s true.
“Is it contagious?” Frau asks suddenly. “If they bite you, will you become one?” Everyone must be thinking it. That’s how it works in the movies.
“Life imitating art,” I mutter, sinking into myself. It becomes harder to follow the German conversation around me. Frau shoots me a questioning look as Boo pats her cheeks, and I try to focus.
The young man who followed us upstairs shakes his head. He tells us his name is Jörg, and says, “It’s not contagious. You won’t become one of them. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? You don’t want to develop an illness that might spread to your own country. You give it a shelf-life.”
We crowd around him then, desperate for information.
“How do you know that?” I ask him. “How do you know it isn’t contagious?”
Jörg frowns, and Rafiq’s head swivels to face him, waiting.
“Because,” Jörg went on. “I was there.”
And he tells us: That morning, he was biking through the city, ferrying documents from one government building to another, and at 9 that morning, just as we were getting ready in both universes to leave our hotel, he was climbing the steps of the parliament building when an explosion rang it like a bell. In this universe, we crossed the lobby of the Bundestag and took an elevator to the roof. We had to pass through a lock system in the foyer where only one door could be opened at a time. No one checked us for explosives.
“But that entrance is only for tourists,” he says. “Couriers use a different door.”
He tells us that when the bomb went off, parliament was in session, and we take a moment to let that sink in. Members of parliament, their aides, their secretaries–they’re outside now, howling. Maybe even the chancellor. My skin crawls and I shiver, but Frau wraps her arm around mine, and Boo smiles at me oblivious, and I swallow back the bile that’s climbing up my throat.
The explosion threw him backwards, he tells us, back down the steps, and that is what saved his life.
“I wanted to help,” he says in a small voice.
He climbed the steps, but was more shaken than he thought, and so rested there at the top. An odd haze filled the lobby beyond. He waited for sirens, but none came. Instead, his phone buzzed with a text:
A biological attack has taken place in Berlin. You are not safe. Find shelter immediately. Do not enter the street for any reason or you will be killed.
He holds up his phone, and the others around us nod. They got the message too. Tourists shopping, business folk going to work, kids late to school. They flooded the library and when the last had come in, Rafiq locked the gate.
“I saw the security guards first,” Jörg says. “I don’t know how they weren’t exposed.” They moved through the lobby quietly, pistols out.
The sharp report of the first shot was nearly as deafening as the explosion had been, but it was quickly drowned out by the volley that followed as both guards emptied their clips.
And that’s when Jörg saw them. They surged forward and overwhelmed the guards, ripping them to pieces as Jörg watched, stunned. The whole thing took less than 15 seconds.
They wheeled around to face the door, where Jörg knelt, and surged toward him.
“But I hesitated,” he says, staring at his shoes now. “It was–at the front of the pack was my MP, Theres Weber. I voted for her. And there she was, eyes wide, teeth gnashing.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
Jörg swallows. “I ran.”
And ran, and as he was running, he noticed others running too, through parks and down streets, charging into buildings, hiding in the boots of cars. In just a few minutes the city was a ghost town.
In this universe and that one, we were at that moment in the elevator. Our hotel was a set of mini-apartments. There is no reception, and we saw no one.
He ran past open doors, a dozen opportunities for shelter, chased by the memory of what he had seen, until his body remembered its fall down the stairs and he stuttered to a pained walk.
“I stumbled to the gate as the last people were pushing inside.”
“He was the last,” Rafiq said. “Until you three.” He offers an ironic smile and I am buoyed that there are still people like this in the world.
“That doesn’t explain how you know they aren’t contagious,” Frau says, bouncing Boo. “Did you see someone get bit?”
Jörg frowns, and I think he might cry.
“Yeah,” he says and lifts his shirt to expose his hip. Shallow but unmistakeable, bitemarks ooze above his belt.
“It was Theres Weber,” he says, and now he is crying.
As he spoke, a crowd had gathered, and we gasp as one and take a step back.
“I’m fine,” he says. “I don’t feel sick at all.” And I believe him. But how could he or I be sure?
“Let me look at it,” Rafiq says. Most of Jörg’s audience melts away then to hide among the shelves and desks until the nightmare is over.
“I said I’m fine,” Jörg says.
“Even if you aren’t contagious, the human mouth is disgusting. The wound has to be cleaned and bandaged.” Rafiq says something to Layla in a language I don’t know, and she rushes off, Osman clutching her hand.
“We should see who’s been bitten,” I say. I want to be proactive in a situation for which I am not prepared.
“Is there a vault or anything here?” Frau asks when Layla returns, lugging a plastic first aid kit. “Somewhere you keep rare and valuable books?”
Rafiq shakes his head and rubs disinfectant into his hands. He orders Jörg to sit, and then begins to dress the wound. He works in silence for several minutes, but when he’s finished, he answers at last, “Nowhere big enough to fit all the people who’ve been bitten.”
Frau shrugs. “I was thinking more for us.”
Gunshots ring from the street below amid the sudden squeal of tires. We rush to the windows and peer down.
A black limousine with tinted windows cruises up Under the Lindens Boulevard, swerving between the groping figures that surround the vehicle. It chugs forward, slow and steady, mowing down the exposed, bouncing over them like they were speed bumps.
“It’s us!” Frau shouts, and I am confused. In that other universe, as in this one, I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, and I’ve been obsessing over parallel universes. For two full seconds, I imagine another version of Frau, Boo, and I in the limo, rolling to safety.
Instead I say, “Huh?”
“Americans!” Frau says. “Look!”
I squint at the long, black car. Little flags flap from its antenna, and even from this distance, I see its tiny stars.
“They’re going to the embassy! That means it must be safe there!”
Frau nods. “We just have to get there first.” The car below stalls then, back wheels spinning uselessly over mountains of bodies, horde massing around it. “Looks like it’ll be tougher than we thought.”
A man pops from the limousine’s sunroof, black skin, black suit, black tie, pistol gleaming in his hand. He fires into the faces of the six exposed crowding the back passenger-side door, and into that gap, another man bursts from the vehicle. Firing his own gun, he sprints to the boot of the car and throws himself against the bumper, shoving and straining. Even from five stories, we see tendons pulling his neck. The man in the sunroof fires until his pistol is empty, then drops it through the sunroof as someone inside hands another up, which he fires and fires. The horde is thinning, but there must still be two hundred figures drawn by the noise and motion lurching through the street. A horseshoe of bodies surrounds the car, wheels still spinning.
I glance over my shoulder, into the library, and have to swallow a cry. I am surrounded by survivors, engrossed, jaws hanging, eyes wide. We look like the exposed, just waiting our turn. Rafiq lingers nearby with Layla and Osman. Boo plays with Frau’s hair. I can no longer find Jörg’s face in the crowd.
I swing back to the window to see the man give one final shove before the limo’s wheels catch and they are rolling again. The shooter is still in the sunroof, but either he’s out of bullets or he’s conserving them, because he isn’t firing. The pusher leaps and lands gracefully on the limousine’s boot where he clings to the lip of the window. The man in the sunroof stretches for him, and the other man, the brave idiot, scrambles forward, and I pray that he will make it.
But that’s stupid. As foolish as fleeing into city had been.
There are too many of the exposed, and the road is heaped with bodies, and as he struggles to keep his balance, a hand snags his heel.
He’s yanked from the car and disappears beneath a sea of rending fingers and teeth. The street shines red in the late morning light.
We gasp from the top floor of the library. I look at Frau and she is crying, but then so am I.
Neither of us realizes something has changed until we hear someone scream.
I spin, searching for Jörg, convinced that he has turned and is now carving a path through the survivors, but I spy him crouched beside a stack of books, crying, face in his hands.
The limo below cannot keep a straight line, and the faster it goes, the worse it gets. Its engine revs but it spins out and crashes into the iron gates of our fasthold, those same gates where Frau and I nearly died, the violence of the impact shaking the building around us.
Gunshots ring from the first floor a moment later, and before I realize it, we are running again.
(End Part Two)