“Berlin? We need to stop talking about Berlin. Our listeners will only put up with so much tragedy before they tune out.”
Ralph Hoffmann, radio newscaster, 2012
The Deadening stirred for the first time that year, rising higher and faster than Wisp’s worst fears had predicted. Columns of hazy vapors, yellow-orange in the rising sun, seeped from cracked pavement and open manhole covers, joining to ripple across Berlin’s derelict streets. And as if this wasn’t strange enough, the fumes – dubbed ‘Smog’ by the locals – were coming from the wrong direction.
Far to the northeast, they had already formed a dense curtain over the skeletal remains of the former Berlin Zoo. It would be a matter of minutes before the toxic storm began to swallow the majority of Dead City. Before the abandoned streets and alleys surrounding the tower became impassable, and every building turned into a death trap.
Because the smoke-like vapors corroded organic matter on contact, reducing human flesh to nothing in under a minute.
Wisp squeezed her eyes shut. This isn’t real. She rubbed her face in an attempt to make the nightmare go away. When she dared another peek, the Smog was still there. Seen from the top of Emperor Wilhelm’s bell-deprived bell tower, the orange-colored haze blurred the features of the shingle-roofed residential area beyond the shopping and entertainment centers bordering the church.
It didn’t make any mosh-diddling sense, because the thermometer on the stone wall beside her displayed twenty degrees Celsius. It was too early and not hot enough for the Smog to behave the way it did. But a strong wind, sharp and pungent like spilled acid, ripped at her hair and caused her eyes to water, driving home the point that this Deadening was very real indeed.
Crap. Wisp bit her lip hard and blinked the tears away. The others probably don’t know it’s blowing that way.
Judging by the speed and vehemence of the Smog’s spread, she estimated a time window of about thirty minutes to get the other Survivors together. Precious little time for all of them to climb the tower before the city turned into a skin-melting ground zero.
She slid off the ledge, tapping into her power before her boots hit the stone floor of the tower’s belfry. The Light pulsed inside her like a network of circuits that blossomed from her heart and branched outward. For a split second, it ran through every inch of her body, filling her with warmth and an overpowering sense of liberation.
Invigorated by the pulse of her power, Wisp wove her fingers through the air and gathered a small amount of luminescent energy, shaping it into a sphere the size of a two-euro coin. Once released, the ball of light hovered in the air before her. It glowed yellow, letting her know that the belfry, located more than ten meters above ground, wasn’t at risk of exposure to Smog. At least not within the next twenty-four hours.
The problem was with the city below. Not knowing where her friends were or how soon they’d be back made her hands clammy and her mouth dry.
“Find Luca,” Wisp said, invoking her best friend’s name like a mantra while she created a mental image of his olive-skinned face.
The command attuned the sphere to Luca’s fate instead of her own. Its golden glow transformed to a fiery shade of amber and it zipped through the lofty, glassless window arch before diving downward. Wisp clambered onto the ledge to observe the ball of light until it vanished among a row of abandoned cars, blotted out by the sunlight that flooded the city from the eastern horizon.
Not wasting another second, she held up a hand to shape another beacon as a warning messenger for Hannah. Unlike the first, this one didn’t budge. It stubbornly hovered in the same spot even when Wisp repeated the name with a flick of her fingers.
Okay, this is bad.
She sucked a breath through her teeth and turned her attention back to the cityscape beyond the ledge and the approaching Smog front. She surveyed nearby buildings in an attempt to pinpoint the most likely direction Hannah would have taken. The other girl had left early and before any of the others woke up, not telling anyone where she was planning to go.
You should have known better, Hannah.
Wisp rubbed her forehead against an oncoming headache. She couldn’t think of a reason why her gang member would stray farther than a kilometer from their base. The Survivors had set up shop in a former commercial district, so all the daily necessities could be scavenged close by.
I can’t help her right now. Wisp made a fist and lightly smacked the window arch, shoving her priorities back in line. The lives of all five gang members depended on her. She was the only one with power and the means to contact them in a hurry.
Having already dispatched a light to Luca, she created another for Max and sent it on its way in case the two guys had split up. The last sphere she sent off to Sara, the youngest and most vulnerable girl on her team. The danger beacon descended the stairwell to the first-floor museum. Sara was a few floors down, so it would be a matter of seconds for the tiny messenger to reach its target and put her on alert.
Assuming that all the beacons had reached their targets by now, Wisp shaped another sphere with her fingers. This one she sent swooping down to the large glass double doors, the entryway to the small museum on the first floor, and swapped positions with it.
The instant her boots touched down on the pavement, the abrupt intensity of the Smog’s pungent, throat-burning odor hit her like a slap to the face. She wheezed and her unprotected eyes teared up again, already succumbing to the approaching Deadening. The smell is too strong. We might not have thirty minutes.
“Sara!” She pulled the door handle hard. Something crashed into the wall beside her, a dazed, twitching, chittering heap of black and brown feathers that she didn’t pause to identify. As she rushed through the doorway, her own beacon caught up and trailed beside her, glowing a deeper red than the still-rising sun.
She raced through the entryway and the glass door leading to the first exhibition room.
“Sara?” she called out while running, her voice nearly drowned out by the heavy thuds of her combat boots on the mosaic floor.
Sara had to be here somewhere. She had to be.
Not slowing her pace, Wisp scanned the museum’s Romanesque stone reliefs and statues in passing. She dashed past the museum interior and made her way through the entry hall to the main chamber, the gang’s primary headquarters. There were signs of habitation everywhere. A small butane stove sat at the center of the circular chamber, flanked by three sleeping mats with bedrolls on them. Empty cans and dirty plastic dishes littered the floor. Spare pieces of clothing hung from the tall wall panels, which encircled the room, concealing the texts, and images that had, once upon a time, illustrated the church’s history for visiting tourists. Beside the passageway leading to the entry hall, an airtight display case held some of the gang’s treasures – family photos, rare snacks and the like.
The museum itself wasn’t airtight. The tall, arcing glass windows situated three meters above the ground floor were mostly intact, though one of them had been punctured by bullet holes last winter. No amount of cardboard and duct tape would keep the Smog from creeping inside. Meaning that on days like this one, the gang’s only option was to escape to the belfry and stay there until after sunset, the usual time for a Deadening to end.
At least until the next warm morning triggered the Smog all over again.
“Sara!” Wisp shouted, concern wearing down her patience. She came to a skidding halt at the center of the chamber and nearly tripped over one of the unfurled bedrolls. Whirling around, she spotted Sara in the small alcove on the west side of the room. The pale-skinned blonde sat with her back against the wall beside the stairwell, munching on a chocolate bar without a care in the world. The danger beacon hovered above her head, glowing the same shade of red as the one Wisp had created for herself.
Sara wasn’t paying attention. The thirteen-year-old sat transfixed, half-lidded eyes focused on the empty space ahead of her. A small music player dangled from her neck, its cord and earphones concealed by the mussed spill of her hair. The music was turned up loud enough to catch a burst of sweet ballad vocals from two meters away.
Wisp crossed the remaining distance and grabbed the cord, yanking the earphones from Sara’s ears. The girl jumped. A half-eaten chocolate bar slipped from her fingers and startled blue eyes flicked up to meet Wisp’s disapproving glare. The two girls were only three years apart and Wisp was actually a scant inch shorter, but her pocketed urban camouflage pants gave her an illusion of authority. In contrast, Sara’s fine-boned structure and delicate features made her look weaker than she was.
“Look up,” Wisp said, doing her best to sound gentle despite her urge to grab the girl’s arm and drag her up the stairs. “Waggle your crack, we don’t have all morning. I sent you a messenger, see? Come on, help me pack up the stuff we can’t do without.”
After a glance at the pair of hovering lights, Sara’s mouth fell open to reveal a clump of half-melted chocolate. She scrambled to collect her belongings from the floor, muttering a quiet ‘sorry’ while Wisp got started with the bedrolls. When she finished rolling Luca’s mat into a compact transportable bundle, Sara joined her to help with the rest of the makeshift beds.
“Any idea where Hannah went?” Wisp asked. “She’s out of my range.”
Sara’s face scrunched up. “No, she didn’t say anything. I’m sure she’s okay, though.” She sounded convinced enough, but her movements were jittery and urgent.
Wisp shook her head. “Yeah.” She picked up a pillow and shoved it underneath her arm. “I should be able to reach her, but I can’t.”
“Is my brother on the way?” Sara asked in a small squeaky voice. “You were able to reach him, right?”
On her way to the back of the chamber to collect a bundle of spare clothes, Wisp stopped to flash Sara what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “Max is fine. Don’t worry about him and Luca.” After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “I’m pretty certain Hannah is coming, too.”
She wasn’t so sure about that last part, but if a white lie gave Sara the reassurance needed to work faster, it was fine in her book. If worse comes to worst, I’ll go looking for her. I’m the only one who can.
The signs of habitation vanished from the room, bundled up and carried up the stairway to the belfry. After three trips upstairs, the two girls dumped their cargo in the most spacious section of the uppermost platform beneath the belfry. The room was an old construction of creaky wooden planks on stone bases, secured by a simple iron banister on one side and the tower’s inner wall on the other. Wisp dropped a cardboard box of snacks into the storage space, a hopelessly cluttered section of flooring that was only about five feet wide.
“I hope we can sleep here tonight,” Sara said as she put her pillow on the old carpet covering the stone floor of one of the two small chambers – their makeshift bedrooms. They branched off the main walkway and were never meant for people to live in.
“If the Smog goes poof at night, you can.” Wisp moved over to the girls’ room and dumped the last armful of clothes there.
Sara shot the window a suspicious frown. Up here, the tall window arcs had no glass in them and did nothing to keep the cold or the Smog from leaking inside. The belfry upstairs was worse though.
All the dead birds hung out up there.
“I’ll be on the lookout upstairs.” Wisp started up the stairs. “You stay here and think happy thoughts.”
Sara sank onto the carpet and hugged her legs, gaze darting to the music player, laying among the scattered clothes. “Okay,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper. “I know Max is coming home. He wouldn’t leave me alone.” The small light that hovered above her head had changed color to a lemony shade of green. Wisp took the other girl’s head into her hands and gave it a gentle rub, mussing her flaxen hair affectionately. Offering something like motherly comfort and tenderness in a place where there was none.
“Cheer up. It’s going to be fun when everyone gets back together. We’ve got plenty of snacks and booze for a few days.”
“Batteries, too.” Sara scrambled to pick her music player off the ground. “Max brought me a bunch from the mall. We can listen to the radio for however long we want.”
“That would be nice,” Wisp said, already climbing the stairway to the upper level.
Having reached the belfry, she climbed to one of the arc-framed ledges that offered a good view of the surrounding area, the new church building and the second, modern bell tower overlooking the Kurfürstendamm’s cityscape. Wisp squinted against the sunlight to check on the Smog and search nearby streets for any signs of her missing teammates.
Two hundred meters from the church square, the first columns of hungry Smog were already drifting across the Berlin Zoo and the adjoining train station. The main front followed behind. The upper levels of Berlin’s taller buildings still stuck out of the haze but half the city had vanished beneath it, swallowed by a seemingly infinite ocean of persimmon-hued fog.
The view was nothing new. Wisp and the other Survivors had witnessed and survived more than thirty Deadenings over the past year, each of them frightening in its own right. Today, for the first time since the Breakdown the year before, it had broken most of the rules that used to make it predictable. It stirred earlier and reached higher than the air temperature allowed and had emerged in a direction nearly opposite to the one she’d expected. The speed and vehemence of its expansion made Wisp’s heart clench with fear.
Maybe the Smog is evolving, too. She stared down at the city with watery, itchy eyes. Whoever it was who said it’ll fade away over time was full of snot.
A whistle sounded from below, snapping her back to action. Max and Luca sprinted across the church square with half-full shopping bags in their hands, hoods drawn up and bandanas pulled over their mouths. The relief of seeing them gave her a feeling of dizzying weightlessness and she jumped, waving her arms over her head and not caring one bit that they most likely couldn’t see her.
“We’re up here! Hurry!” She raced downstairs to the lower platform where Sara sat on the carpet with a wide-eyed stare. “They’re here!” Wisp pumped her fist in the air. “Should already be inside by now.”
“Hannah, too?” Sara asked.
Wisp’s mood took a dive. “No, not yet. But I bet they’ve seen her somewhere along the way.”
She rushed to the stairway, listening to the footsteps until Luca’s head emerged from below. He had pulled his bandana over his mouth and nose, but Wisp recognized his slender, reedy frame easily enough. He was well-toned, with piercing dark eyes and a shock of ear-length, frizzy black hair to match. Seeing him safe flooded her chest with warmth. If Luca and Max had made it back, Hannah had to be nearby.
Max followed right behind, taking the stairs two at a time. He was a sturdy, athletic guy in his early twenties, which made him the most senior member of their gang. His light brown hair was cut short haphazardly, with tufts sticking up in seemingly random directions. It looked as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and hacked away at it. Which was exactly what Sara had done when she’d cut it for him. In contrast, his short-boxed beard was neatly trimmed, his shirts and pants clean except for a fine layer of dust.
The two spheres she had dispatched earlier trailed along behind the new arrivals.
After moving closer to verify that neither one of the guys had been injured by exposure to Smog, Wisp fired off the question she dreaded the most. “Have you guys seen Hannah today?”
The two young men exchanged a glance.
“She’s not back yet?” Luca asked.
“No. She’s outside my range, and by the time I woke up, she was already gone.”
“Crap.” Max stepped onto the platform and put an arm around Sara, who clung to him and buried her face in his chest. “Should have tried harder to reclaim the radios those little shits to the north stole from us.” He set his gaze firmly on Wisp, making it clear where he believed the blame fell.
Or if they hadn’t driven us out of the university, we’d still be able to charge our cell phones with grid power. Yeah, I know.
Wisp stared right back at Max. “You know we’re only getting those radios back if we steal them. Which is something we’re going to do whenever. Everyone’s here except Hannah, so why don’t we worry about her first?”
Luca nodded. “Hannah was a survivor before the rest of us banded together, and she has keener instincts than most. I bet she’s waiting out the weather on a rooftop until it’s safe to return.”
He sounded convincing, but his hunched shoulders spoke a different language. No one looked particularly reassured. Max kept running his fingers through his hair, and Sara’s frown could have made the wind shiver.
“Is it going to be safe anytime soon?” the blonde girl asked. “The Smog is acting kind of weird today…”
“It is, but it can’t last forever,” Wisp said. “We’ll tune into Radio Berlin later and hear what they have to say about it.”
Her mind was already bouncing back to Hannah. Nothing about the older girl’s sudden disappearance sat right with her. This wasn’t the first time Hannah had gone out on her own without telling the others, but definitely the first time she had knowingly left Wisp’s range without warning.