Chapter 155: The Process of Elimination

on May 31, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Mackenzie Experiences The Daily Grind

Coach Callahan kicked off class that day with an announcement that she’d worked out a new routine for how to use the improved mockboxes.

“I call this procedure the meat grinder,” she said. “The reason for the name might not be apparent at first, but I’m going to keep tweaking things until it is.”

While I had no doubt that she would find ways to “improve” things, I found the description to be pretty apt. It worked a lot like the way things had gone on Monday after the initial mirror bout, but with two changes.

One, we were now fighting in two different rooms so it would matter less if anyone was fighting in duplicate bouts. Two, every time a meat fighter—her word for the un-duped combatant in each bout—lost a match the first time, they would immediately go again against the same opponent. If they won, they would dupe themselves to take the place of the vanquished fighter and then go to the other room and get in line.

Only when a real fighter lost twice was the loss recorded… but that didn’t happen very often.

This double elimination format was one of the things that made it meat grindery. The best fighters ended up being the ones who were duped, and their mockeries cycled through all the real fighters until they found someone who could beat them, which didn’t take long when everyone had two shots at it. Everyone in the special group was pretty quick on the uptake… no one was there just for being strong or tough or fast, or even just for having good fighting form. Everybody in our group was a fast learner when it came to getting killed or not.

As much as it disturbed me to understand Jillian Callahan’s point of view on anything, I could see why she liked phantasmal combat: every round, someone died, often in a hard and horrific fashion. Out on the battlefield, that would have been the end of it, barring rare and often expensive supernatural intervention that didn’t often preserve exact memories of the moment of death. Here, we remembered everything that we experienced and the moments leading up to it, and we were expected to learn from it.

In some ways, it seemed like we were turning the basic premise of the class on its head by incorporating the inevitability of death and defeat into the learning process. I was sure that had given the coach some fits, but maybe she trusted the speed and pressure of the procedure to keep us from trying to game the system in ways that wouldn’t be applicable in the real world. Knowing that we could be killed once without penalty didn’t give us any motivation to try to die the first time. We were all trying to win, which meant living, which meant taking down our opponent as hard and fast as possible.

And now that we’d all had a bit of time to internalize what fighting phantasmal opponents meant for us, we were all trying even harder, cutting loose in ways that would have been lethally dangerous before. It didn’t take long for the spectators waiting in line for their turn learned to line up against the wall at the very edge of the room as everything from natural weapons to berserker rages to elemental magic… not just mine… were employed in mock combats that had previously just involved melee weapons. I gained a newfound smidgen of respect for illusions after Asphodelos of all people managed to employ them to good effect for misdirection on the battlefield.

“The rule is don’t lose,” Coach Callahan said when a couple of people complained about tactics they considered to be cheating, including the aforementioned illusion. I wasn’t among them… I had been the first one to lose to Asphodelos when he used a mixture of illusions of himself and a cloaking illusion to strike me down while I wasted time figuring out which of the images of him was the real one, but I was more angry at myself for letting myself be suckerpunched by a vampire wannabe than I was at him for managing to do it. That, and I knew whatever points I lost in Coach Callahan’s eyes for taking a fall, I would only compound them by griping about it.

Plus, once I got over the shock of being taken down by a sword thrust that seemed to come literally from nowhere and started paying attention to my senses, I was able to take him out pretty easily in the second round. I wasn’t quite at the fighting-with-my-eyes-closed level… and saw no reason to ignore the evidence of one of my senses in most fights… but he seemed unprepared to defend himself against attackers who ignored his false images and homed in on his actual location through means other than sight.

It was possible that the real Asphodelos would learn to incorporate other senses into his illusions if he fought the mocked version of me or another fighter with better-than-human hearing or smell, but he wasn’t in the room when I took out his dupe, and I thought it would be difficult verging on impossible to make an illusion that could fool my elemental feelers. The phantasmal objects and people crated by the mockboxes made it seem routine, but actual physical presence was the hardest thing to fake as it was pretty much the opposite of what an illusion was.

Early on in the hour, a lot of the battles had lasted less than a minute, or no more than two. By the end, a stalemate of several minutes wasn’t uncommon, because everyone had fought everyone else multiple times. The coach called all of us into one room near the end of it.

“Couple of things,” she said. “One, I’m counting your losses but only in the literal sense. I want to know how many of them you each have, just because I want to know. If one of you has way less of them than everyone else, that’ll be a problem and we’ll deal with it. Mostly, I’m not going to grade you on how well you do in the meat grinder, I’m going to grade you on how well you do when you get out of it.” That sounded kind of ominous, but she didn’t expand on it and no one asked. “Second thing: this is the last class of the day for most of you. An hour every day is better than an hour every other day, but more than an hour would be better, especially since we only have two boxes. I can’t make any of you stay late, because allegedly you’re adults and your time is your own, but sometimes adults know that putting in a little extra time and work is worth it. The new mockboxes are not to be used without my supervision, but I will be here two hours after the end of class most days. If I’m not gonna be here to mind the shop, I’ll tell you, but otherwise if any of you want to stay late… any day… and keep the meat grinder going, you’re free to do so. Extra effort will be recognized, though not as much as the results of that effort.”

This announcement was met with a mixture of surprise and interest, though a lot of people seemed to be in the same boat as I was, which was the one that had come unmoored and was gently drifting towards the door. It wasn’t that I’d missed her not-exactly-subtle hint that staying late would be a good way to boost my grade, but it was a little late in the day to be making commitments like that. My friends would be worried if I didn’t show up for dinner.

I couldn’t see myself staying an extra two hours every day, not when I would still only be getting five credit hours for the class… but I doubted many people would. I decided to start the next day, on Wednesday, by staying a bit after the bell and seeing who else did the same. I couldn’t go for the whole time because I’d committed to meeting Jamie Bowman for dinner at seven, but by the same token I wouldn’t need to rush out to have dinner at the Arch at the usual time.

I was surprised when the bell rang at the end of class on Wednesday and not a single person left. Worse, as the minutes scrolled away, it became more and more apparent that everyone else was there for the long haul. Either that, or no one wanted to be the first person to leave… which would be fine for everyone else, but I had somewhere to be.

Worst of all was the fact that it wasn’t somewhere I was particularly thrilled about going. I’d said yes in part because I literally had nothing else to do and nowhere else to be on a random weeknight. Now I had to choose between staying another hour after the end of a fighting class taught by Coach Callahan or going on a date with Jamie Bowman… what kind of a choice was that? To anybody who knew anything about my life, it would have sounded like the set-up to a joke, but there I was.

On the one hand, I’d told Jamie that I’d be there, but on the other hand, this could impact my grades. The fact that Jamie probably more than half expected me to blow him off had to be considered, but did I want him to be right? It wasn’t that I cared about his opinion of me… well, okay, I did. It wasn’t that I needed him to like me, I just didn’t want him to dislike me on false grounds.

In the end, I left class a bit after six-thirty because I was too distracted by the argument in my head to get much out of staying… I was losing, and I was losing badly. My only consolation was that the longer the after-session went on, the more scattered everyone seemed to be. Maybe the coach would realize there was a point of diminishing returns and impose a shorter limit for future sessions.

Okay, that wasn’t that likely, but I could hope.

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17 Responses to “Chapter 155: The Process of Elimination”

  1. x says:

    “It didn’t take long for the spectators waiting in line for their turn learned to line up against the wall at the very edge of the room” (“long for the spectators learned”)
    “The phantasmal objects and people crated by the mockboxes” (“crated”)

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    • Bolongo says:

      For the first one, just change “for” to “before”.

      I’m not sure the second one is a typo at all. Maybe “crated” is slang once removed: mockboxed -> boxed -> crated. 😉

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      • Krey says:

        I’d love to believe it was supposed to be crated, but pretty sure there’s just an ‘e’ missing from created.

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  2. Jalben says:

    Yay more Coach time!

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  3. pedestrian says:

    “Now I had to choose between staying another hour after the end of a fighting class taught by Coach Callahan or going on a date with Jamie Bowman… what kind of a choice was that? To anybody who knew anything about my life, it would have sounded like the set-up to a joke, but there I was.”

    And, like I’ve said before, the Creator Deity for the Muniverse is basically a practical joker. I suss that Alexandra is infamous for short-sheeting, prank pizza deliveries and a whole assortment of other snickers and chuckles among her family and friends. Damn, she practically a poltergeist!

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    • Readaholic says:

      It may have just happened that way – or you may be right.
      Either way, most amusing dilemma for Mack.

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  4. tomclark says:

    Wait… did we just skip over an entire day?

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  5. Zathras IX says:

    A bowel movement
    Is also a “process of

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    • Lunaroki says:

      One which Mackenzie hasn’t been through for years.

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  6. Maahes0 says:

    I had hoped something like this would happen. I had been thinking of different things that would lead up to her staying after for more practice, I’m glad it happened this way.
    Now if only she would accept Dee’s previous offer for staff combat training.

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    • Erm says:

      Speaking of Dee, I wonder what her reaction to the meatgrinder setup would be.

      She’s summoned duplicates (link) inside her mindscape before, and seemed to be keenly aware of the implications of “creating” a temporary conscious entity. Not sure if this is comparable.

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  7. scree says:

    “I was surprised when the bell rang at the end of class on Wednesday”

    Holy cow, yes! Finally, after all these years of obsessive, ridiculous account of everything that gets said every minute of every day, you’ve finally done the sensible thing and skipped the drivel to focus on the story.

    You need to do this more. A whole lot more. But at least this is one baby step in the correct direction. Let’s hope it wasn’t an accident but a deliberate improvement.

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    • Shine says:

      Maybe we can get Acantha doing a musical number about being skipped over. Hart and Hall can provide the harmony…

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    • Brenda says:

      Wow. Would you be this forceful in your judgment if the author in question was published in print rather than online, free for your perusal?

      She’s been writing this serial for a long time now. Do you really think that your input is going to change her style, all on its own?

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    • Mickey Phoenix says:

      Scree, that was both rude and hypocritical. You’ve clearly been reading this same story that you are excoriating in no uncertain terms, so perhaps you might moderate your criticism at least to the “not overtly offensive” level?

      AE, you remain one of my favorite authors, and I for I’ve vastly enjoy your pacing, both when you choose to move fast, and when you choose to move slowly.

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