Hours later, Grace arrived at the main highway outside Cloister Eleven. She wore a bandage around her head with a widening spot of blood on her left temple. She limped, favoring her knee, lugging her duffel as she crossed to the east side of the road. A sign pointed the way to destinations north.
An odd taste in her mouth drew her attention. Grace fiddled with her tongue and spat out most of a broken upper molar that had dangled carelessly from its socket for the last couple of hours. Should have been pulled when I was a kid, she thought.
Grace sat down at the sign. She listened to the wind in the grass. The sun was setting, clouds clumped around it like angry red steers. She looked up at the sign again. Port Casper was three hundred kilometers away. Her destination.
She turned to look at the road as she heard an engine whisper far in the distance. As it grew closer and louder, she recognized the wheeze of the motor and the squeak of the bed as her dad’s ancient pickup jostled along the highway.
Soon the truck was close enough for Grace to hear the crunch of gravel. Two headlights appeared around a corner as the gray beast, dappled with rust, came to a slow stop.
The window protested as Dan Donner lowered it.
“Need any help, Gracie?” he said.
“No, Dad,” she said, tossing the duffel into the bed. She ran around the truck and hopped aboard. The old leather seat felt hard and cool.
“We got about an hour, so why don’t you lay back and rest?” he said. She caught his gaze on her bandage.
He’s still looking after his little girl, she thought. Grace smiled and stretched out while her dad pressed down the accelerator and the truck lurched forward.
“What happened to your head, Gracie?”
She grinned, reaching into her suit and pulling out a single sheet of paper.
“I’ll tell you, Dad—”
“Don’t try to read that in the dark,” he said, reaching forward and switching on the dome light. It hissed and flickered, but provided enough light for the document with the Red Fox Academy seal.
Grace read aloud:
FROM: CMDT. G. HUBER, RED FOX ACADEMY, CLOISTER 11
TO: CDT. DONNER, GRACE JEAN
CC: CLOISTER 11 COUNCIL, ALL MEMBERS
In accordance with Red Fox Academy Charter, you have been granted pre-waiver status as a result of successful completion of Weapons and Strategy Testing And Qualification Course [WSTQC] “C” [ref: “Mini Grinder Charlie”] and shall be afforded the opportunity to achieve a permanent waiver to operate as Protector upon successful completion of WSTQC Master [ref: “Meat Grinder”] within the boundaries of the compstate of Wyoming and any and all other states, provinces, or sovereignties that honor the Cloister Act certification of Protector.
Caveats of waiver include a testing proctor in good standing at Red Fox Academy. Daily duty status is inconsequential and shall not be refused. Those certifying must adhere to the rules set forth by a standard enrollment contract. Completion of the certification must take place before the time and date of official termination from program [ref: sundown, dated this day] (see document date above). Red Fox Academy is in no way responsible for injury or death due to the waiver recipient’s willingness to enter the qualifying course.
Good luck, Donner. Don’t come back.
Commandant Gene Huber
Red Fox Academy
She finished the document and turned to her father.
“I beat Meat Grinder.”
He exhaled. She recognized the relief, happy to wipe away at least one worry from her father’s mind. He reached over and patted her leg.
“I knew you would.”
She put her hand over his.
He switched off the dome light and they continued north. In the dark, Grace folded the sheet and put it back in her pocket. The bounce of the rough road relaxed Grace. She looked out the window as kilometers clicked by.
Half an hour passed.
“Read it to me again, Gracie.”
She indulged her father.
After nearly an hour, the highway curved along the Platte River toward Port Casper. A road appeared, trailing east past the Glendo Reservoir. It was the road to their ranch.
This represented the farthest Grace had ever been from cloister. Modern education gave students the world, but only through a screen. Riding in the car, the windshield felt like a screen. Now, as she prepared to step outside, she fully understood how much her scenery had changed. She’d been on the new track for longer than she had realized.
Where had it changed?
Beyond her horizon.
“Are you going to be all right? Some rough characters along the road to Port.”
The silence was awkward. He told Grace nothing new and they both knew it. Leaving cloister was always the plan.
“Don’t worry,” she said finally. “It’s only a short hike.” Grace grabbed her duffel from the bed of the whirring electric truck.
She had reached to shut the truck door when her dad turned to look at her. “Gracie, cloister’s cloister. It’s a fish tank. If it wasn’t for the protections we have from the outside, it would be a helluva lot worse, but we’re pretty fish in a bowl, slowly losing our minds. I know the outside won’t alter your core, so I’m in no fear for you. Just feeling sentimental. Call me, and say hey to Raj and his family for me. For us.”
His pride in her made her feel strong. Grace fought back tears, swallowing. “You can connect at any time, Dad. Giant screen. Global communications. Remember?”
“Hmph. Save your money like I showed you.”
He crossed the seats and brought her in close with a quick hug.
“See you, Gracie.”
Ninety kilometers in the distance, an engine flare lit the evening sky. She watched as the bright dot rose above the horizon and angled away.
“Another cruiser leaving port, heading toward the Belt,” he said, wistfully. He got back behind the wheel.
“Love you, girl.”
The door slammed and the truck rumbled away.
Under a starry, moonless sky, Grace started toward Port Casper. She marveled at how similar the sights were to Cloister Eleven. Little had changed in a century, or two, or three. Grass whispered in the breeze, the mesas kept watch, and most of the land remained open, save for small towns. Cattle grazed on the hills and prairies, as they always had. The grass didn’t look as full as the turf on their family ranch, and the cattle were decidedly less robust, but it wasn’t so different outside cloister. Not here, anyway.
Along the highway, modern transports passed her by, centuries more advanced than her father’s truck. They didn’t sound as if they might break down at any minute. Outside of weapons, most technology in Cloister Eleven was crude. You didn’t use machines if you couldn’t repair them yourself. She doubted any of the transport pilots were able to fix their machines.
By midnight, she had covered a third of the distance from the junction to Port Casper. She was surprised that she didn’t feel sleepy. Back at the academy, she was known to snore at lights out. Adrenaline didn’t last this long, did it? Something kept her alert as she pushed forward.
Just before dawn, she left the road and found a scrubby patch under a lodgepole pine and laid out a bed roll, using her duffel as a pillow. Her academy uniform, made of a multi-layer moisture wicking fabric, kept her warm. She fingered the cloth as she laid down. The hand-made suit felt old-fashioned. She knew everyone in Port Casper wore mimic fabric. So would she, Grace decided. But for now, she had her uniform.
Grace removed her weapons, held them by their grips across her chest, and slept. She dreamt of dark times, familiar and unfamiliar voices.