Prologue

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The hot orange glow of the sun beat down on Meifen Rassmussen as she sat half in shade, half out beside the leaning cinderblock bunkhouse. Surrounded by nothing but dirt then fields and a stretch of chain link fence encircling the compound, there was nowhere to could go to escape the heat.

Her straight black hair, grown long in the two years of her sentence, hung limp and dripping with sweat over her eyes. The armless undershirt that covered her small braless breasts had once been white but sweat and the constant dust that blew through the camp turned it a dirty shade of gray. The blue sweats were pushed up above her knees, creating a kind of greenhouse around her thighs but providing at least a degree of comfort for her bare shins.

A limp breeze stirred the still air for a moment and Meifen sighed, pushing back her hair. The sound of dust carried by the wind, clacking against the rough timber roof of the empty bunkhouse, was the only sound she could hear.

The other women of the camp had already been released leaving only her to remain in a place that once housed five hundred. Even most of the guards were gone, just the warden and a staff of two to keep her from finding one of the many holes in the fence or just strolling out through the front gates. Not that Meifen had any plans for going anywhere. She planned on serving her time. She deserved it.

The crunch of footsteps on the parched dirt drew her attention and she glanced up as a shadow fell over. A tall man, maybe six-feet to her five-three, broad in the shoulders. Wei Ling, one of the two guards who remained.

"Warden wants you," he said.

"For what," she croaked, throat dusty as the landscape.

"What do you think? Got better things to do than watch and feed the likes of you." He waved his baton toward the cinderblock office fifty meters away. "You coming, or do I gotta carry you?"

Meifen grunted, a small laugh. The last time they tangled, he ended up with a broken arm and four broken fingers. She received a concussion and spent two steaming months in the box. But the camp had a full staff then including five other guards to pull her off him.

Pushing off the ground, she stood and smacked the dust from her rear. Feeling his eyes on, Meifen chose to ignore them, not wanting to give any reason to put a bullet in her head. She'd heard of it happening to other prisoners still considered dangerous when the camps began closing.

She led the way but stood aside the office door, allowing Wei to knock and announce who it was. The call to come in came and the door was held open for her. She bowed at the gesture and proceeded inside, stopping at the bare metal chair in front of the warden's desk.

Warden Jennings was a balding man in his fifties, a few wisps of gray hair combed over a shiny white dome. No taller than she was, he had the look of a paper pusher with bottle glasses and perched on a thin sharp nose.

Signing a series of papers, Jennings waved for her to sit and Meifen did so without a word, hands folding into her lap. When he was done, he set the papers aside and whipped the glasses from his face, squinting as he looked her over.

"Do you know what I was just signing," he asked.

"My death warrant?"

Jennings grinned.

"No," he said. "I was sorely tempted but that would've meant twice as much paperwork, for both me and the men that would carry it out, and frankly we have better things we need to be doing right now."

"So it's really happening."

"What's that?"

"Invasion," Meifen said.

"It appears Earth didn't get the message the first time around," Jennings said. "Every citizen has been called to help defend against them. And keeping you caged like you should be has taken a backseat out of necessity. Hence, all the paperwork."

"I'm free?"

Jennings slipped the glasses back onto his nose and slid a sheet across his desk.

"Until your nature gets the best of you," he said. "Only next time I'd be willing to bet it'd be a death sentence and we won't have to worry about you any more."

Meifen reached onto the desk for the paper and pulled it into her lap. Two paragraphs, typed and signed at the bottom. Her release papers.

"When," she asked.

"You're free to go now," Jennings said. "As of two minutes ago, the camp is closed for business. How you make your way back to the city is your problem."

"My things?"

She turned at the sound of items clattering against a table and found Wei holding an overturned box, its contents what she had been transported to the camp with.

"You can take it back to the bunkhouse and change," Jennings said. "But I suggest you do so quickly. In an hour this place will be empty and the power will be turned off."

Meifen nodded. Folding her release papers, she tucked them into the waist of her sweats and walked to the table to collect her things. Gathering them into her arms, she paused at the door and nodded back toward the warden and left.

#

Taking a bucket to the pump in the yard, Meifen filled it with water and returned to the bunkhouse. Stripping the clothes from her body, she sponged off the sweat and dirt caked onto her skin. She rinsed her hair and tied it back into a ponytail for the first time since she was a girl.

Toweling off with a thin sheet from her bed, Meifen sorted through her possessions. A shiny black polyester shirt and skirt. Underwear so skimpy and lacey they served little practical purpose. A pair of heavy boots that laced to her knees. A pea coat against rains not likely to return for another few months. Her phone, though the battery was long dead. Thirty-five hundred Colonial Dollars in five-hundred dollar bills. She supposed they called them "Republican Dollars" now. And her Calcutta Arms Desert Eagle.

Picking up the gun, she remembered the familiar and comforting weight. Popping the clip into a palm, she found it still fully loaded with seven .50 Action Express rounds. Pulling back the slide, an eighth ejected from the breach. She caught it, loaded it back into the chamber, and clicked the clip back into place.

"I guess they were serious about the right to bear arms," Meifen mumbled to no one.

After dressing and lacing on her boots, she pulled the shoulder harness over her arms, holstering both the pistol and phone, and felt like a human for the first time in almost twenty months.

Leaving the pea coat, she walked to the door-less entry and glanced back at her former home for the last time, shadows from the lowering sun already darkening the corners. Five hundred beds, all empty. Once they had been full of women, some sentenced to months for petty crimes. Many in the middle of the sentences and looking for parole on good behavior. There were few like her and she'd seen the population turn over twice in her time.

Meifen turned her back on the room and walked to the main gate, now wide open as the guards and warden had backed their trucks into the yard and were loading them with whatever supplies the camp still contained. She stood at the threshold, finding herself almost afraid to take the next step.

"What's the matter, girl," Wei called out.

"I'm not sure what's out there," Meifen said quietly.

"What?"

"I'm not sure what's out there."

"The city you grew up in, a new republic, a coming invasion. Nothing a girl handy with a pistol like you can't handle."

"That's what worries me."

Lifting her foot tentatively, Meifen crossed to the other side of the gate and stared down the long dusty road back to New Chicago and whatever waited for her there when she returned.

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