Deal with the Devil - Kit Rocha Page 0,1

and holstered her pistol. There probably were eyes on her—the pickers waiting to crawl the place when she was gone. They would wait for her to take first pass at the bodies, out of grudging respect as well as self-preservation. As victor, she had the greatest right to claim the spoils.

She knelt beside one of the bodies, and spent shell casings bit into her skin through her pants. They weren’t even from this firefight, just scattered detritus. Another testament to this area’s legacy of violence.

Once upon a time, this had been a nice neighborhood. The building on Nina’s left used to house city offices, and the one across the street—now a highly trafficked brothel—was an old warehouse that had been converted into chichi lofts catering to the young and wealthy. A faded sign still hung on the side of the building—Now leasing for Spring 2043.

They never finished the construction, and no one but squatters ever got the chance to move in. Not after the devastation of 2042.

Not after the Flares.

It started with a solar storm. For two days, a huge blast of magnetic energy surged toward earth, headed straight for southern Europe, exciting scientists and doomsday preppers alike. In the end, huge areas of France, Spain, and Italy were impacted, though the long-term damage to their power grids was minimal.

No, the worst thing about that storm was how it interfered with satellites, scrambling their signals so that no one noticed the much larger coronal mass ejection in its wake.

The second solar flare hit North America head on. By that time, the United States’ utility infrastructure had been crumbling for decades, ignored or worse by politicians with other priorities—tax cuts for corporations and new fighter jets and the same old fossil fuels that had driven them into the Energy Wars to begin with. The flare struck a killing blow, pushing the weakened government to its knees as it plunged the country into darkness and chaos.

This used to be a nice neighborhood, not that Nina knew any of that firsthand. But there were plenty of old-timers down at the local bar who’d tell you all about the world that once was—the shining city of Atlanta, back before the desolation of the Flares—for the cost of a few highballs.

Nina’s stomach twisted. She could still feel the hungry weight of those stares on her as she rose and backed away from the corpse at her feet.

Tonight, the vultures could have it. All she wanted was to get home.

* * *

The scavengers were already converging.

Perched on the rooftop where he’d been doing recon, Knox watched the gang of kids creep out of the darkness. They moved like shadows themselves, wraith-thin and nearly silent. The shitty streetlights dimmed and surged as the kids spread out in the bloodstained alley, swarming the dead bodies with tragic efficiency.

They worked fast, gathering up everything Nina had left behind. Bloodied clothes, worn boots, even the shitty gun wedged under a broken crate. A girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen popped the magazine to check it before tucking the handgun through her belt. Before long, the group had stripped the men down to their underwear and melted back into the gloom.

The whole thing had taken only minutes. The men who’d tried to jump Nina lay sprawled and exposed on the cracked asphalt, their pale skin washed out by the flickering metal-halide lights. They looked even sadder like this. Naked, abandoned.

And dead. Very, very dead.

Knox eased back from the edge of the roof and rolled to his feet, ignoring the warning ache in his muscles. He got a running start and made the leap between buildings. The impact of the landing stabbed through his knees, and he rolled to disperse the shock of the force—something he wouldn’t have had to do a week ago.

Time contracted around Knox. He could feel each second that slipped away. He swung out onto the rickety fire ladder and slid toward the ground, ruthlessly forcing his mind back to the job.

But he kept seeing those dead bodies. Nina had killed four armed men in the time it had taken Knox to draw a deep breath, then walked away from the encounter without a scratch.

Of course this job couldn’t be easy.

His safe house was a mile-and-a-half hike through the shittier parts of Atlanta. This far south of the TechCorps HQ, security was lax, and Protectorate forces wouldn’t venture out without a direct order. There were no checkpoints like the ones lining the streets that wound their