In Which Mackenzie Hits The Wall

Professor Stone wasn’t exactly ecstatic when I told him that I’d have an answer for him tomorrow, but he was willing to accept it.

And despite all the worst case scenarios that my brain was scripting about what might happen the next morning, I left Emily in a pretty good mood. I was prepared for the worst, but since there wasn’t anything I could actually do about the worst, I was occupied with what I would do in other eventualities.

I was pretty sure that in the event the testing revealed the patch job needed a patch job, I could convince him to extend the grace period until the start of the next class, but I also thought that if it looked like it was going to be too close to call I could tell him that everything seemed okay and then in the unlikely event that we couldn’t smooth the rough spots out before I had to spend a whole class in the Em, tell him that this small thing that hadn’t looked like a problem had blown up into something bigger and beg for an incomplete.

It was kind of the opposite of my previous stance of playing totally safe when it came to my grade, but I was invested now… and I was pretty sure that it would all work out. If Emily showed any sign of actual pain from exposure now, I’d still pull out… but I wasn’t about to give up for a mere disquieting tingle.

Maybe I was a little unreasonably confident, but a little confidence could be a good thing since I still had one more class to go to. Overconfidence could be deadly in a fight, but it took some arrogance to step onto the mats with student gladiators and martial prowess majors and not immediately be put on the defensive.

Of course, finding the dividing line between “cocky enough to make an account of oneself” and “too cocky to see it coming” is a tricky thing, which might be why my first takedown of the day was so quick and brutal.

It didn’t help anything that it came from a direction that I hadn’t expected at all, though maybe I should have: Coach Callahan herself.

As was often the case, she wasn’t present in our section at the start of the class. Pala got things started as normal. I was waiting for my turn in the rotation when suddenly the world jerked sideways and spun around. When I got my focus back, the room was laying on its side, I was on my back against the new floor with my feet pointed at what had been the ceiling, and Coach Callahan was standing in an awkward ballet pose with one foot pressing all her weight down on my chest and leaning back against one of the new walls with her other foot.

“I didn’t expect you to stab me in the back,” she said. “I thought you had a greater sense of self-preservation than that.”

“What?” I said. I was just starting to make sense of my perspective… it turned out I was actually upside down against the wall and being held in place by Callahan’s boot… and now I had this other thing to make sense of.

“It isn’t that I even trusted you… I never trust people,” she said. “I just expect that if I hit them hard enough where they’re weak, they’ll fold… and your grades are your weak point. But I’ve survived enough battles with opponents who should be dead to know not even to trust that, which is why I checked the records when I came in this morning.”

“Records?” I repeated… not the most coherent question, but what I could manage.

“The boxes keep an echo of how they’re used and what magic is used around them,” she said. “And who’s doing it. You came in, piddled around for a minute, and then nothing. You didn’t even activate it. So I asked the guard in the lobby, and he said you were out the door not long after I was.”

“Not by choice… had to!” I said.

It hadn’t exactly been the most productive session, but this ire seemed a bit much if she just thought I was slacking off… she didn’t get this violent for slacking off in class. Where was this anger coming from? Once upon a time I would have just thought of her as being irrationally and randomly angry, and she could be prone to that kind of display, but this felt purposeful.

“Had to… had to?” she repeated. “What was so fucking important that you had to leave my babies unattended for almost an hour and a half?”

“I… I’m not supposed to use them unsupervised,” I reminded her. “Remember? You said I needed a babysitter!”

“Fucking hell!” she said. “That smarmy treelicking suit was your babysitter! And you were supposed to be watching her, not giving her full access by herself!”

“…but she left at the same time I did,” I said. “That’s why I had to leave.”

“Minotaurshit!” Coach Callahan said. “The blue box stayed active after you left, during which time it recorded all manner of eldritch shit I can’t begin to interpret, and there’s only one signature.”

She tensed, which dug her heel into my sternum in a way that made me seriously worry what would happen to my ribs and lungs if her leather boots were enchanted, as they almost certainly were… and then all at once she relaxed, and I crashed several feet down into the floor.

“But, obviously, you didn’t know you were leaving her alone,” she said. “Which means your problem isn’t being stupid enough to forget what you were there for, just not smart enough to see through her tricks.”

“I swear, she left when I did,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s the part that makes you not smart enough,” Callahan said.

“No, ask your guard friend,” I said. “We left together! She must have come back later.”

“The record shows it was in continuous use from before the time you left,” she said.

“Are you sure you know how to read it?”

“The only reason I’m not putting you back up against that wall and then through it is that I’m actually not,” she said. “But I’m pretty damned sure I can tell the difference between in use and not in use.”

“Can you show me?” I asked.

I didn’t like the idea of having been fooled by Acantha for two reasons, only one of which being how it might reflect on my intelligence. I knew it wasn’t necessarily personal… she had her own agenda, and we’d both known that… but the idea that she would go behind my back and put me in this position wasn’t a pleasant one.

“Okay,” she said. She turned around and looked at the room. Everybody including the duped fighters were staring at us. She looked at the one from the blue box, “Fini.”

It vanished. The red one didn’t even flicker.

“Nobody uses the blue box until we know what the bitch did to them!” she said. “I’m not having the whole thing scuttled if they explode or murder someone.”

“…but what shall we do in the meantime?” Pala asked.

“Get out your crayons and color quietly at your desks… use the red one, genius!” Callahan said. She grabbed me by the wrist and headed by the door. “With me.”

“The command affects each one separately?” I asked as she dragged me down the hall.

“They’re separate items,” she said.

So assuming the coach wasn’t just seriously confused, maybe Acantha had simply heard or felt me using the command word and used that as a pretext to end the session early. It wasn’t the whole riddle, but it could be part of it. The need to keep up with Coach Callahan kept me from any further conversation until we got to her office, where she got straight to the point.

Her desk held a large, blank piece of parchment pinned down in the corners and two hexagonal crystal spires, one blue and one red.

“These are the records, adjusted to start at the end of class,” she said. She picked the blue one up and slammed it down on the desk, at the corner of the parchment, which immediately filled with tiny writing and squiggly lines. “You might be able to get more out of the crystals themselves, but it’s high-end stuff. This is the readout for the benefit of the magically impaired.”

“Were the boxes running without a record just now, or are there spares?” I asked.

“Spares,” she said. “They’re experimental, so I’ve got dozens of crystals for each of them in case they need to be bundled off for men in robes to stare at and say ‘hmm’. I wasn’t going to let them run without a record when there was a chance there might be sabotage.”

“But you were going to let them run?” I said.

“Yeah, because I figured she’d just taken an unexpected opportunity to give them a deep divination without anyone around to later contradict whatever results she claimed to have found. When I found out you hadn’t just fucked off on your own and she hadn’t just dismissed you but tricked you into leaving, the chance that she actually did something to them went way the fuck up.”

“She had to know about the records,” I said. “She had the specs.”

“Yeah, but the specs she had didn’t show there were two sets of crystals,” Coach Callahan said. “One in the boxes and one keep a remote copy… that little detail was a later addition, and I made sure she got earlier papers… strangely, the main memory crystal in the blue box had a hairline fracture that apparently made it unsuitable for storing energy.”

“So this is what her activity looks like,” I said. The writing was seriously tiny and cramped, and in between the lines of Pax and what looked like enchanter’s shorthand there were a lot of complicated runes, but I saw it literally had her signature at the top.

“Yeah,” she said. She moved the crystal and put the red one on the parchment. “This is yours.”

The writing and the squiggles were larger, and even then a much smaller amount of the parchment was filled. Just a note that the door was opened, my signature where I entered, the command word, and a note that I exited and that the door closed.

“Can I see hers?” I asked. It seemed safer than telling her to show it to me again.

“Knock yourself out,” she said, putting the blue crystal back.

She pointed at a line near the top.

“This is when she activated it,” she said. “The stuff after that… well, it would be gibberish to me, but I don’t think it’s the right gibberish. The more I look at it, the more I think it’s wrong. I’ve looked at readouts before, and there’s pieces missing. It’s like it registered that stuff was done, but not what. I really hope that’s from her attempt to erase the records, and that it’s not permanent, because if the recording system developed a quirk they’ll probably scrap the tests.

“Okay… just so I can try separate out what normal usage activity and what’s her throwing unspecified magic at the boxes, can you show me what a deactivation looks like?” I asked.

She touched the parchment with her finger and gave it a flick. The text jumped down quite a bit, the lines at the top falling off and dissolving into little puffs of ink as new lines appeared at the bottom.

“Right here,” she said, pointing at the last recorded event. “That’s when the activation ended, apparently because she had everything she needed, because that’s all she wrote. Bitch packed up and left after that.”

“…wait, there was only one activation the whole time?” I asked.

“I didn’t pore over a scroll until my eyes wanted to stab me looking for normal usage, but yeah, I think so,” she said.

“Can you tell how the thing ended?” I asked.

“Well, she didn’t stab it to death, I can tell you that,” she said. “It lists the manner of death when there’s a phantasmal fatality. This just says ‘Phantasm Ended’.”

“Show me mine again,” I said, my previous hesitation gone now that an idea had taken hold of me.

“You’re the boss,” she said with a tone that could only be taken as a warning, but she did it anyway.

The first and last actual event on mine said “Command Word: Fini. 0 Phantasms Active — 0 Phantasms Dispelled.”

It was possible there was more than one situation which would result in the label of “Activation Ended”, but evidently using the command word wasn’t one of them… and if the command word’s effect was recorded as a dispelling, then manual dispelling an active phantasm would probably be grouped together under the same heading, which meant she hadn’t done that.

I put the blue crystal back on myself and figured out how to enlarge the text enough to make out the time stamp on the activation. I noticed there seemed to be a gap of a few minutes between it and the first of the spikes of arcane activity denoted by the rune notation. There was a line of text just before that, which said “Duration Set: “, but there was nothing after the column. Like Coach Callahan had said, it was like there were pieces missing.

I worked the scroll back to the bottom.

Coach Callahan had said Acantha had been alone for almost an hour and a half, but the activation and deactivation were exactly ninety minutes apart. A nice, round number… a multiple of ten. Probably the actual energy usage of the devices would allow them to run for a bit longer than that, but professional enchanters liked to keep things like that tidy. Rounding down to the nearest ten minutes instead of running the internal powerstones dry made things more predictable.

I just needed to check one more thing: the timestamp on mine. As I’d thought, it was just after the first timestamp from the blue crystal.

“…I know what she did,” I said.

“What are you trying to do, heighten the drama?” Coach Callahan said. “Don’t be fucking coy, Frybaby. Explain. Now. Not five minutes from now. Not two days from now. Now.”

“S-she mocked herself before I left,” I said. “Then pretended that my command word affected her dupilcate, who was still hiding in the box while we left, supposedly so she could investigate the anomaly… that’s why there’s a small delay between the activation and anything else. We talked a little before we left… she might have wanted to hurry me out of the room, but she didn’t want it to be suspicious, and her duplicate would still have over an hour to herself”

“So what was the duplicate doing the whole time?”

“That… I don’t know,” I said. “But I don’t think it matters.”

“Doesn’t matter?”

“I mean, I don’t think it will have had any lasting effects!” I clarified quickly. “Phantasm, remember? She could have broken the box in half and it would have only been an illusion. Anything she did to the box would have ended when she did… which is probably why the record is so weird. Either it didn’t know how to record illusionary events that happened to it, or… okay, this hurts my head to think about, but parts of the record were illusionary, and vanished, leaving only the most esoteric bits. The way our memories of the phantasms are real, even though all physical effects aren’t.”

“So what would the point of this little exercise be? What could she accomplish?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Wait… yes, I do. Because memories of interacting with the illusion are real, and do persist. So it’s like you said, she gave it a deeper and more thorough investigation than she could have given with me around… especially since she would have had a hard time sabotaging the crystal afterwards. I just don’t know what she would have been looking for that she couldn’t have passed off as legitimately doing the job she was sent here for.”

“And on top of that, how would she get the information out? What, did she write it down before she poofed?”

“No, the writing wouldn’t be real,” I said. “She would have needed to tell it to herself… or someone else, who would pass it on, but that would make the whole thing more complicated.”

“The activity’s pretty steady right up until she expired, though,” Coach Callahan said. “Maybe she snuck back in? That doesn’t sound right… why make an alibi and then risk blowing it? Elves are sneaky bastards, but if she thought she could bypass building security without raising any flags, she wouldn’t have picked a plan that only gave her a limited amount of quality time.”

“Well, she’s bound to have a pocket mirror,” I said. “If it was on her when she was in the mockbox… the mockery would also have had a mirror?”

“Is there any chance that would even work? Could you get yourself on the other side of an illusionary mirror?”

“…maybe?” I said. I wasn’t remotely sure how it would. If nothing else, it would probably require explaining the intended result to an operator, and it would be an unusual enough event that it would be remembered later. “But unless there was someone else in the room… oh, shit! There was.”


“Not an actual person,” I said. “Acantha has a spectral assistant. It’s like an invisible golem… I can see it, sort of, but it’s out of phase with this plane most of the time. She could have invoked it in the box and ordered it to stay with the duplicate and take notes, then return to her.”

“And you’re sure she had this thing with her last night?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She brought it out to take a memo about an idea she had, for her other job.”

“What was this idea, exactly??”

“I… she actually asked me not to tell,” I said.

“And that didn’t strike you as fucking suspicious?”

“No!” I said. “It wasn’t anything about the boxes, it was just a random product idea that came to her when we were talking about the nature and limitation of illusions.”

“That sounds like it has something to do with the boxes… what makes so sure it didn’t have something to do with her plans?”

“Because it didn’t,” I said. “The only reason she made a point to tell me to keep it under my hat is because it could be valuable and she didn’t want someone else to steal it before she could sell it!”

As soon as I said it, I knew… and so did she. Coach Callahan’s pupils widened and her eyelids narrowed.

We both said it at the same time.

“I know what she did.”

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35 Responses to “Chapter 174: Parchment Scrolls”

  1. fragzilla says:

    Well I don’t!

    Current score: 1
    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      Me either! Now I’m going up the wall trying to figure it out.

      Unless – oh no, she didn’t try to steal the information on how to make the mockbox so she could sell it? Acantha the industrial spy?

      Current score: 0
      • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

        Whoops, somehow responded to the wrong comment. Ignore me.

        Current score: 0
    • adfasdfasdf says:

      stole it so she could sell it

      Current score: 0
  2. Burnsidhe says:

    Hah. Yeah, Acantha examined the mockboxes in depth in order to duplicate them, partly for the illusory beer trick and partly because the techniques would come in handy.

    Or more specifically.. she invoked her duplicate, left with Mack.. but left her phantasmal secretary with her illusionary duplicate in order to thoroughly investigate the mockbox in detail.

    Current score: 0
    • Burnsidhe says:

      As for *why*, that’s still up in the air. Maybe she’s just as suspicious of them as Callahan is.

      Current score: 0
    • Burnsidhe says:

      Or.. you know, with enough of them, you could get your own, *personal* research think tank going…

      Current score: 0
  3. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    Typo report:

    “S-she mocked herself before I left,” I said. “Then pretended that my command word affected her dupilcate,”

    Current score: 0
    • Lunaroki says:

      Another typo to report:

      what makes * so sure it didn’t have something to do with her plans?”

      Missing a “you” after “makes”.

      Current score: 0
  4. pedestrian says:

    Oh, Acantha, Acantha, Acantha…..tsk, tsk, tsk.

    We are sooo disappointed in you!….sigh

    Girl, you are cruisin’ for a brusin’.

    And Calahan is Big Momma with an attitude to chastise the naughty.

    Current score: 0
  5. Lunaroki says:

    Wow. Illusions doing research on the device that creates them in order to pass those secrets along to the original through a phantasmal assistant! Mind. Blown.

    Current score: 0
  6. zeel says:

    Wow. Hang on, weren’t the boxes RED and blue? Why is there an orange box?

    Current score: 0
    • Zukira Phaera says:

      Orange would make more sense as the polar opposite in terms of colors. … Although now I’m resisting the urge to trall back through to check it, I think you’re right about it originally being listed as red.

      Current score: 0
      • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

        You know, I’m pretty sure it was red, too. I think this might be a continuity error.

        Current score: 0
        • zeel says:

          Oh I checked. It was red.

          Current score: 0
          • Oh, dang… I went back and forth on that a bunch of times because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep either of them the same color as the original box. I guess somehow I convinced myself I’d gone the other way.

            The weird thing is I was looking at the previous chapters like crazy in prepping this chapter, and I still didn’t notice.

            Current score: 0
  7. Erm says:

    The record shows it was in continuous use from before the time you left

    But that’s impossible! Mack saw Acantha leave! There’s no way Acantha could have been in two… places… at the same time…


    Current score: 0
  8. Readaholic says:

    Sneaky Acantha!

    Current score: 0
  9. Joe says:

    I went back and checked the idea Acantha had written down. It was about using illusionary alcohol – I assumed so that people could get drunk and foolish, but then end the illusion, be sober and suffer no hangover. I’m not sure how studying the mockboxes for another hour would advance that research. Or how Callahan would come to that conclusion. Unless that statement was another deception on Mack. In which case, it’s not a very good clue to her activities. So… waiting for the answer.

    Current score: 0
    • Morten says:

      Didn’t. But it gave her a pretense for summoning her assistant. Which she then chose not to dismiss.

      Current score: 0
    • Ermarian says:

      I don’t think the particular idea is relevant – Mack and Callahan both twigged to the “stealing the idea before she could sell it” part. Acantha seems to have wanted to do some idea-stealing on her own.

      Not sure how much Callahan or her enchanters care about that, since industrial enchantment isn’t her main business. Still, she’d probably have negotiated for some payment that Acantha is cheating her out of by reverse-engineering the mockboxes and marketing them on her own. Depending on how patents work, she might even interfere with Callahan’s own use of the boxes.

      Considering what Callahan just did to Mack, and how Callahan feels about elves, Acantha had better be ready to run or talk very fast.

      Current score: 0
      • Oni says:

        I’m really, really hoping that this escalated into a full-on event between Jilly Bean and Miss A.

        Also, I have no idea whatsoever as to what Acantha is up to here.

        Current score: 0
      • orc says:

        …given how she immediately saw military applications

        Current score: 0
  10. Mike says:

    Well don’t take 5 minutes, don’t take 2 days, tell us what she did!

    Current score: 0
  11. Narel says:

    Oooo… I am quite enjoying these chapters.

    Current score: 0
  12. Zathras IX says:

    In which Mackenzie’s
    Troubles have now been doubled
    By duplicity

    Current score: 0
  13. Tapestry says:

    Dammit I hate cliffhangers almost as much as I hate not having this technology.

    Current score: 0
  14. yamaraion says:

    What is the range from the mockboxes that the duplicate can travel? Can it leave the room. Cannot remember if it was mentioned.

    Current score: 0
  15. Seth says:

    If everyone is lucky, she’s just stealing the idea to resell it to an arms dealer.

    If everyone is unlucky, she’s had her mind twisted into believing the best way to prove to the world how dangerous these boxes can be is to give one to MackDaddy or Mercy.

    Current score: 0
    • zeel says:

      Can we all just agree that’s theory is way to far fetched to even talk about.

      Current score: 0
      • pedestrian says:

        Sorry zeel but I gotta disagree.

        I was exchanging tweets via carrier pigeon the other day with my good buddy, Hieronymus. We are in the midst of a debate of what philosophic proofs would be required to begin discussing formulating empiric proofs of amphigoral impossibilities.

        And the good Baron von Münchhausen pointed out, that no imponderability is so incorporeal as be beyond being flogged into iotacistic oblivion.

        The relevancy of his brilliant nonobservantion, to this discussion, in my considered opinion, is that we are readers are masochistic enough to enjoy attempting to interpret the magniloquencial imperspicuousness of Alexandra’s fiendish imagineerings and diabolicaly ineffable fubulism.

        Current score: 0
      • Angnor says:

        I tend to agree. None of that fits with what we have seen of Acantha, especially the OT story where she visits the enchanter who made the boxes.

        And there’s no reason to suspect a connection to either The Man or Mercy.

        Current score: 0
        • Burnsidhe says:

          She may also have been testing exactly how *capable* the illusionary duplicates are. If her duplicate was just as capable in analyzing and casting spells, then that tells her something too.

          Further, she might actually not have had ill intent. She was hired by the university to investigate the capabilities of the mockboxes. She did so. If I’m reading her ethical stance correctly, she’s going to keep what she found out confidential and not duplicate the mockboxes; as work for hire, what she finds out doesn’t belong to her, but to the university.

          Current score: 0
  16. JustMe says:

    Pedestrian & Burnsidhe: I just finished re-reading book 1 where many of the comments are removed, but yours are still around. I really enjoy your comments. They may not be as pithy as the haikus, but I find your comments intriguing ant humorous.

    Current score: 0
  17. pedestrian says:

    JustMe, Donkey shines minor herring. Very kind of you,

    Though I have always found Formicidae rather humorless. They never laugh at my jokes or have the consideration to groan at my puns!

    As a literary hack
    when I try a haiku
    my nose takes a tack
    resulting in a haachoo!

    Current score: 0