Grace stretched in bed and placed the ptenda on her forearm, watching its bands encircle her wrist. The tiny screen glowed blue as it connected. Immediately a readout of her vital signs appeared, followed by adjustments to a workout regimen she’d been fiddling with a few weeks before. She knew her ptenda was entangled with a unit hundreds of kilometers away. Sometimes she could barely believe this was human technology, as common as coffee outside her cloister. Once she graduated, she might be assigned to one of those big cities. She planned on it. Imagine, each person with interlocking technology, ptenda in sync with ptenda across the grid. What would it be like, connected all the time?
Grace heard the click of the door and shoved her arm beneath the covers.
“Grace. C’mon, you gotta get up.”
Flora Tannenbaum shook her gently, then moved away. Grace understood the caution. Flora was thin and easily breakable. More than once she’d swatted Flora for waking her up.
Grace turned with a blank face, like a toy doll activated. Flora waited stiffly. Grace blinked and smiled. Flora, ever anxious and easy to tease, relaxed.
“You’re panting, Flora. What is it?” Grace said calmly, not a hint that she harbored forbidden technology under the sheets.
“We have the mini grinder first thing this morning, remember, and—” Flora fidgeted.
At least her friend’s routine panic was punctual. Grace pushed herself up and sat on the edge of the rack in their big room on campus.
“…what if we’re late, Grace? We’ll catch hell.”
Grace didn’t mind catching hell as long as she could skin it, stuff it, and mount it on her wall.
“Don’t worry, Flora. I’ll be ready. I’ll meet you on deck in ten minutes.”
Grace waited until Flora scampered out of the room before she sighed.
The grinders were real-time, physical tests syncopating the usual academy rhythm of memorization and theory. Grace knew the grinders were necessary. People of her profession had a hazardous life, and it was better this than dying in the line of duty. Today, classmates would probably wash out.
Grace had hoped Flora would undergo positive change, else why attend the academy? Protectors came in many sizes and abilities, each instructed in a wide range of skills, from hand-to-hand combat to espionage. But Flora didn’t take to any of these disciplines, and her anxiety was dangerous. It would kill her.
Grace reached behind the headboard of her bunk. A simple biometric lock recognized her DNA and the safe opened. Grace unlatched the ptenda and stowed it, reaching for her gun. Her gaze fell on another object in the safe. A dermal dot. It was small and blue, made to adhere to the skin. Perfect for tracking an opponent. Or locating a lost friend. Like the ptenda, absolutely forbidden.
She didn’t let herself think. She grabbed the dot and closed the safe. Then, like any morning, she went through her weapon safety routine.
“Stopwatch.” She paused. “Start.” Grace began to disassemble and reassemble her pistol in a way a magician might sleeve a card or roll a coin on the back of his hand.
Her gun, unlike the ptenda, was perfectly regulation. The Trulane ninety-two-A, nine millimeter, was a true antique that first belonged to her great-great-great-great grandfather. She called it Ronnie. It had been preserved perfectly and improved generationally: barrel extender, auto fire, round capacity, templates, biometric security, and tracking. It was still hard iron, improvements aside. Balanced, true, and crude: made to kill. Grace felt modern phasewave firearms were, by contrast, barely weapons. They had hundreds of alternative uses: shaping walls, plowing fields, pest extermination, muscle and bone therapy. She wondered, not for the first time, why ptendas were forbidden and phasewaves included in their training.
“Stop.” Grace barked. Eleven seconds. “Lights!” The room went dark and she began again.
Even in the dark, the gun’s every curve and angle were familiar. She turned the lights back on, holstered Ronnie, and marked the time.
Grace grabbed her uniform. It was sky blue and white, made of a form-fitting, semi-bullet-resistant material. Tight, but stretchy. On others, the uniform often amplified physical imperfection. Not so with Grace. It complimented her form perfectly. The colors of the uniform matched her steel blue wolf’s eyes and blonde hair.
As she turned toward the mirror to align her pins, Grace wondered if she was vain, or just grateful. After all, attraction distraction was a useful tactic. With other people, anyway. Today she would face a grinder. It didn’t care what she wore.
• • •
Mustered at the range in the chill Wyoming spring, the platoon stood at ease while Finn Smith, the range master, briefed them on the morning’s drill. Beyond him was mini grinder Charlie, a maze of narrow channels filled with black-dyed water. The banks held foliage three meters thick and four high. The entrance and exit changed before each trial. Thirty meters away, another instructor sat in a high tower with a bird’s-eye view of the range. He would trigger and operate the obstacles.
Grace shifted impatiently. She thought Smith was boring, bored, and boorish. The man, fit and competent-looking at first blush, sleepwalked. She deduced that the forty-ish former protector, who had never worked outside the cloister, had a setback from which he had never recovered. She played with the reasons in her mind. Divorce with complications, most likely. Next in line, a botched mission and a demotion. Distant third: a closet drinker and always in one of two states, drunk or hungover. Maybe a combination of the two, or perhaps a trifecta.
The loss of a child ran through her head briefly. No, she decided. He’d have ended his own life or lived enough for both.
Smith droned on. Grace knew the drill for mini grinder Charlie, but it was clear Smith wanted to make certain the cadets understood the importance of training before tackling the final exam. She understood that much. The Meat Grinder was deadly.
The body of the Meat Grinder was a former electric motor factory, thirty-one kilometers outside Cheyenne. It was the deadliest training range in any cloister. The tricks and traps of the part obstacle course, part killing field, part final exam were legendary. Making it through meant a job in any compstate.
Cadets trained outside the Meat Grinder in the various mini grinders. It was a three-year program. Of the thousand or so students, fifteen had already died in the mini grinders. Most deaths were due to recklessness, not following instructions. The rest were pure accidents.
Finn Smith barked the cadets to attention.
“That’s the drill, professionals! Remember, you will have to qualify in the Meat Grinder next year with the standard toolkit, so get used to it now. Tannenbaum!”
“Run down the Grinder toolkit.”
“Twelve-inch Bowie. Cloister Arms CA1031. A bag of rocks. A dirty stinking Kwong Amory PhaseWave 86! Sir! And uh, one more…I can’t remember, sir.”
“Tannenbaum, you are lame. Pity I cannot wash you out until next year for this crap.” He turned his attention to Grace. “Squeeze the tube, Donner.”
“Sir! And weapon of choice, sir!” Grace recited the information, and thought Flora should become a farmer.
“We will be in mini grinder Charlie this morning. Later this week, day to be determined, we will be at mini grinder Alpha.” He looked at his orders.
Grace and Flora prepped their gear.
“You go last,” Grace whispered.
“Yeah,” Flora said, shakily.
Grace’s heart sank. She fingered the dermal dot in her pocket. There was nothing mini about Charlie’s complexity. And the dot would, at least, help Grace pinpoint Flora for a rescue. It was forbidden technology, but it wasn’t cheating on the test. Flora could fail all on her own. At least this way she might not die. Grace pulled her friend into a hug and slipped the dot behind Flora’s ear.
“First volunteer?” Smith said.
Cadet Nick Bellows stepped forward. Nick was massive in all his two-meter tall, chocolate glory. His assault rifle resembled a pistol in his hands. Grace smiled. She and Nick had planned for him to go first. He was sure to survive, and they figured it would lift Flora’s morale.
Nick stepped into the black water, a meter deep in most places. The surface barely reached his upper thigh.
Smith raised a yellow rag high above his head. When he dropped the rag, the trench boiled. Nick raised his weapon, loaded with foam bullets, and waded forward. He turned twenty meters ahead and vanished, shielded by the plants and banks.
Grace and her mates stood in silence for a few moments. Then came a whipping sound followed by short, rapid bursts of gunfire. Silence again. Then an explosion, followed by more gunfire.
“Bellows’s rifle,” Grace said. “Bet he’s keeping Charlie from claiming his skull.”
A few nearby cadets murmured agreement. Flora was silent. She was staring at the spot where Nick had disappeared.
“Flora. Say something.”
Flora looked up at Grace, her brow puckered with concern.
“Higher education is hell,” she said, smiling weakly.
“You’d better believe it, Red,” came a whisper from behind. Bill Hoffman, a cadet in their platoon. His opinion was seldom welcome. “The grinders eat up cadets like you two. Odds are not good for the ladies, historically. But good luck, and try not to muss your hair!”
Grace glanced at Flora and they shared a smirk. Hoffman’s performance on mini grinders was infamously poor. His taunt wasn’t worth a response.
Six and a half minutes later, the tower man raised his yellow rag. Nick had finished the course. Grace imagined him standing triumphant. She was sure he wanted to share the victory with someone who appreciated the genius of Charlie. Fortunately, that was the plan.
“I’m going next,” Grace said.
She removed her holster and hung it on a surprised Flora. Then she trotted up to Smith.
“Donner? Your weapon…”
Grace unzipped her uniform and slid out of it.
She stood before them in her academy-issued underwear. At Smith’s incredulous expression, she tapped her temple with her index finger. Grace was a few centimeters shorter than he, but she felt taller.
“This is my weapon of choice, Instructor Smith, sir!”
What could he say? The yellow rag dropped. She dove into the trench, lost in the inky water.
Two minutes later, Grace emerged from the exit and into Nick’s open arms and proud smile. The big man wrapped her in a towel and shook her hand. Above, the man in the tower raised his yellow rag.
“How’d you get here so fast? You beat Charlie by being hydrodynamic?”
Grace grinned. “Closer than you think, Nick. Charlie is designed to counter our preferred environment: places that are flat, dry, and free of foliage,” she said. “A guy like you is formidable against surprises popping out of bushes or from underwater. You’re an unmovable force, especially with that cannon of yours.”
“And you?” Nick said.
She shrugged. “It’s mostly water. Too clumsy to walk. I swam for it.”
“The leg grabbers had no legs to grab. The eye in the sky,” Grace nodded at the tower, “had little to see, with the water dyed black.” Nick smiled at that, but Grace continued. “The shoreline whips and cannons fired wildly at my wake. If I made one. So aside from a few cuts and scrapes from bumping into things swimming blind under the murk, I’m as whole as you.”
Bellows couldn’t hold out any longer. “Speaking of whole, did I mention you’re brilliant black?”
“Thanks, Nick?” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“Look at yourself! Hell, look at me. The water. The dye.”
Grace looked at Nick’s legs and the discoloration on his uniform. Then she looked at her hands. They were a dark purple, like eggplant. So were her legs. She pulled around the end of her braid: her hair was jet black. Standing in the heat of the Wyoming sun had dried her skin and set the dye.
“Huh. That’s unexpected,” she mused.
• • •
Back in the dorm, Grace admired her new look. She liked the black hair so much she considered dying it in the future. She parted her hair and saw the scalp had been darkened to the same deep purple-gray. A brief search via the console eased her mind. The dye was non-toxic. The chemicals were used for six common skin ailments.
She dressed for evening meal and found Flora eating at their usual spot. Flora was the real triumph today. She had passed the grinder with plenty of time. The tower watchman even praised her quick thinking. Grace had never been so proud of her friend.
Now they sat in the mess hall with their war wounds, both purplish-black, though Flora’s color reflected bruises as well as dye. Sounds of celebration clattered around them.
“Toward the end, it was like I was watching somebody else run Charlie,” Flora said. “It all became automatic. I jumped. I dove. I swerved. All at the right times.”
Grace smiled. “I told you the training would pay off.”
Bill Hoffman walked by their table, glowering.
“Too bad Hoffman failed,” Grace added. “Do you think we should give him some pudding?”
“Hoffman said he lost everything today because you beat Charlie. Did you know that?” Flora always had a better handle on the gossip.
“Everything? Serves him right, I suppose,” Grace grunted as she shoved food in her mouth. “Bill Hoffman needs to lose more money. He’s a leech sucking the young ones dry.”
“Not cash, Grace. He lost his weapon.”
Grace stopped eating. “You mean his 2100 Cloister Arms Bushwhacker? He was stupid enough to wager that gorgeous gun?”
Her searching eyes caught Hoffman’s glare as he sat at his table, his food untouched.
“Yeah, he said it belonged to his grandmother.”
“He should apologize to his grandmother and live with the disgrace,” Grace said, turning back to Flora. “He’s a careless gambler and opportunist.” She felt herself getting angry and reminded herself that Hoffman wasn’t worth the effort.
“I’m glad it was on my account,” Grace said, finally. “Without his weapon, and that last failure, he’ll never make protector. If he’s fortunate, the Meat Grinder may spare him of a life of shame and poverty.” She took another bite of roasted chicken.
“So who won his weapon?”