The following is an excerpt from DEAD RINGER, now available for pre-order and on sale September 23. Copyright © 2014, Jessica Marting.
The smell of something burning dragged Livvy out of her tattered gardening magazine. Setting it aside, she saw curls of smoke lazily creep under her bedroom door. Her heart rose in her throat, and she forced herself to breathe normally. This was not the time to panic.
Atlantis’s fire protocol required everyone to gather in the common room. She shot a mournful look at the pots of geraniums she’d pilfered from the nursery and steeled herself. She opened her bedroom door, and instead of the hot orange fireball reminiscent of ones she had seen in movies, all she saw was smoke. Smoke, not fire, she reassured herself. Maybe it hadn’t spread too far, then. The residents might not have to try to brave the elements on what was left on the Earth’s surface. The smoke was thick in the corridor and she coughed, dropping to her knees, where the air was marginally better. She spotted Bryan and Ty a few feet ahead, also on all fours.
“The common room’s the other way,” she said.
Bryan didn’t answer her. “We’re getting out. Follow me.”
“Out” could only mean one place. “We can’t go out!” she protested. “It’s toxic outside!” Atlantis was a safe zone; the only people who could go to the surface were the members of the council, who came and went in white biohazard suits.
“Livvy, it’s all a lie,” Ty began, but Bryan cut him off.
“We’re leaving,” he reiterated.
“But we don’t have suits!” she protested. “The outside air will kill us!”
Bryan and Ty stared at one another for a long, agonizing moment. Livvy heard a scream come from another room, followed by a loud bang. “We’ll die if we stay here,” Bryan said. He coughed and dropped a little lower to the floor until his belly was almost level with the tiles. “Let’s go!”
Ty and Livvy followed Bryan through the corridor. The smoke grew thicker, and Livvy worried about where the fire had originated, if they were heading into it. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“Outside,” snapped Ty.
Livvy wasn’t sure there would be enough bio suits for the sixteen people currently in residence. The only ones in Atlantis belonged to the council, and they were kept under lock and key.
I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Livvy could stay here and choke to death on the smoke, or she could choke to death on the air outside. It was one of the phrases Bryan had been spouting lately, much to the irritation of the council. He’d picked it up from a book of short stories, published before Earth died in a nuclear explosion.
Livvy wanted to see the surface before she died.
Bryan halted, making Livvy crash into Ty’s backside. “Don’t look,” he cautioned. A tremor of fear shook his voice for the first time. Of course Livvy had to look, and she immediately regretted it.
Kent lay against the corridor wall, his eyes open but seeing nothing. A single hole marred his high forehead. His standard-issue grey uniform was dirty, the shirt torn. Livvy screamed before she could stop herself.
Heavy footsteps sounded through the corridor, followed by shouts. Livvy recognized the voices of Councillor Glazer and Dr. Rhodes.
“Maybe they can help us,” she said urgently and started to turn around.
Bryan turned stricken eyes to her and Ty. “No!” he said harshly. “Don’t you get it? They’re doing this!” He quickly ran his hand over Kent’s face, closing their friend’s eyes. “Let’s go.” At Livvy’s hesitation, he added, “Do you want to get shot? Let’s go!”
She didn’t have to be told again. She followed Bryan and Ty until they stopped at the council chambers. The smoke was much heavier, and Livvy took shallow breaths. She didn’t have access to the council chambers, but Bryan did, as the current elected representative of the Atlantis residents. He jerked a set of keys from his uniform pocket and stood up, leaving only his legs visible over the smoke. Over the far-off cries of other residents and awful popping noises, Livvy heard the jangle of metal and Ty’s panicked, “Hurry up!”
The office door opened, and they tumbled inside. Bryan slammed it behind them and locked it, then jammed a chair under the handle for good measure. Mercifully, the room was almost free of smoke, but Livvy knew that wouldn’t last long. “What about the others?” she asked, damning the fright in her voice.
Ty shook his head. “There are other escape points.” He swallowed hard. “And not everyone will get out alive.”
Bryan opened a storage closet door and dug around in it. He tossed a bunch of biohazard suits to the floor, kicking a helmet in a childish fit of pique. “In here,” he said. “We don’t have much time.”
Heavy knocking on the door made all three of them jump, and the booming voice of Dr. Rhodes yelled out, “Goddamn it, open up or I’ll shoot this down!”
“In here,” Bryan ordered them again, jerking on their arms. Livvy and Ty stared at the door, frozen. “There’s a secret exit through the closet.”
“Won’t we need suits?” Livvy asked.
Bryan whirled around and gripped her shoulders. “Listen to me, Livvy. There is nothing wrong with the surface. We’ve been lied to our whole lives. We need to get out of here, now.”
A vicious kick at the door made the chair shake against the knob. I’m damned if I do… “Okay,” she said weakly.
Bryan uncovered a door behind a false wall of the closet. It opened into a dark hallway narrow enough so they had to walk through in single file. Tiny green safety lights lined the walls.
They stopped at a dead end, with only a metal ladder leading up, starting a couple of feet off the floor. Bryan and Ty didn’t hesitate to climb on, and only the thought that there was a madman behind them made Livvy follow suit. As they ascended, she contemplated whether it would be worse to die of smoke inhalation, be shot to death, or suffocate on the toxic surface of the Earth. She couldn’t help it.
Ty stopped so suddenly that Livvy’s head bumped his feet. Above her, she heard Bryan cursing as he fiddled with something. “Got it,” he announced. The squeal of metal on metal made her cringe.
Light filled the tunnel, and it nearly blinded Livvy when Bryan and Ty hopped out of…whatever it was. When she climbed out, she saw it was a hole in the ground, surrounded by sand, brown grass, and scrubby plants.
She was on the surface.
She blinked against the light and took a few deep breaths of warm, dry air. She turned around to see a nondescript house, with a rickety wooden porch and boarded-up windows. There was no sign of Atlantis anywhere.
“Don’t just stand there!” Bryan yelled. “Run!”
She didn’t have time to think about her new circumstances. There was a paved road leading away from the house, and she dashed behind Bryan and Ty, legs pumping as hard as they could. Her throat burned from the smoke and she desperately wanted some water, but she didn’t stop. She could see a group of houses in the distance, shimmering in the heat like a mirage. Maybe it was.
“Did anyone else get out?” she huffed, catching up to Ty.
“Don’t know. There are different escape routes for different people.” He greedily sucked in a lungful of non-toxic air. “We’re heading for the town.” He pointed ahead. “Less chance of being shot.”
The three of them stopped and turned around. Saul and Mandy, their Atlantis greys smudged with grime, ran behind them. They must have had a harder time getting out.
“They’re not following us yet,” Saul reported.
“You sure?” Ty asked.
Saul nodded. “I think we were the only ones to get out.” He closed his eyes and Livvy saw his throat work. When he opened his eyes again, his voice was calm and steady. “We blocked off the exit we used, the one off the kitchen. I think they got to the rest before everyone else could escape.”
The rest of the people or the rest of the exits? Both, Livvy figured. She looked down at the weeds growing between the cracks in the asphalt, and the spiky plants that lined the road. Anything to get her mind off her friends dying in Atlantis.
“We need to keep moving,” Bryan said. His eyes were dry, but Livvy saw his jaw clench. He was enraged, and he needed an outlet for it.
Bryan took off at a hard, pounding run down the road. Everyone else followed. Livvy noticed the tear tracks running down Mandy’s cheeks, and she had to wipe her own eyes.
I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t.