Mini Grinder Charlie
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.