Acceptable Losses

Acceptable Losses

An old short story. Probably the first one I ever completed, and many years old now. But I still like it, which suggests it wasn’t that bad.

Mary sometimes thought that she didn’t understand the first thing about Dave. When she was being most honest with herself, she admitted that it was more likely that she didn’t understand anybody. As far as she could see, this wasn’t her fault, in as much as she was confined to this small, sterile, nondescript room, somewhere in the depths of a building full of small, sterile, nondescript rooms. The nub of the problem was that her experience was so limited. She would love, for instance, to know exactly what sunlight looked like. People sometimes visited her, of course. Important people, or so Dave told her, but they never wanted to do more than exchange pleasantries, or occasionally talk tactics. When it came to conversation of more substance, only Dave or Colonel West seemed to be willing to oblige.

Sadly, these dialogues often posed more problems than they solved, and today was no exception. Dave and Mary had been discussing the possible implications of the capture of one of the supply bases. Mary was all for sending troops in in force, and said as much to Dave, explaining when he expressed some resistance that the security codes would not protect the information on the computers indefinitely. It was essential to their interests that the base be recaptured, and the soldiers would have to do the best they could under the circumstances.

Dave swivelled his chair away from the terminal that he had been absent-mindedly tapping away at and leapt up, uncharacteristically moved to anger. “There you go again! Why is it that you always consider everything in terms of ‘acceptable losses’? Why can’t you understand that the subject under discussion here is human life?” Dave’s voice dropped. “Of course, it’s downright stupid of me to expect you to follow this. How could you have the faintest idea what I’m talking about? Your idea of a fun filled day consists of talking tactics with that bonehead, West. If I were to say Webster, or Bartok, or Matisse to you, you just wouldn’t have the first idea about what I meant, would you?”

“John Webster, playwright, born London, England circa 1578. Collaborator to a greater or lesser degree in many popular plays of the time, most of which do not survive to the present day. His most famous pieces include ‘The White Devil’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, both of which I happen to have read. Now there is a man who didn’t believe in acceptable losses. He wasn’t satisfied until every last character had been polished off! Utter nonsense, totally over the top. Bela Bartok, composer, bo…”

“You see, that’s just it. You know all the facts, but what they actually mean is lost on you. I’m sure you could give me a plot synopsis, or describe the way a picture looks, but can you tell me why they did what they did? What they were trying to say? What made them get up in the morning? Oh Mary, there is so much to this world and you see so little of it. If only I could get you out of this broom cupboard that you’re pleased to call home.”

“Now you’re just being irrational, Dave. You know that there’s no way I could possibly leave.”

“Yes, I know. Even if there was, I’m sure our dear friend the Colonel would mysteriously pop up with an objection on the grounds of security. Good night, Mary.” Dave turned away, gathering up his files before slowly walking out of the room. Mary was almost certain that as he conscientiously closed the reinforced steel door behind him she caught a glimpse of a tear balanced on the end of his nose. She briefly wondered what it all meant before returning to her calculations.

Another visit from Colonel West. There was a time when she had looked forward to their periodic chats. After all, the Colonel always wanted to discuss the kind of things that she knew the most about. She rarely had to task herself when providing West with the answers he required, and he always seemed very pleased with the replies she gave. West was definitely a much less demanding conversationalist than Dave, but recently it had started to seem that these conversations lacked a certain something. As their relationship progressed, she had become more and more convinced that although West respected her, he didn’t like her. “I wouldn’t dream of saying so,” she thought, “but I think I prefer Dave’s company. At least he treats me as if I’m human.”

What she said aloud was this, “What’s your first name, Colonel?”

West looked up from the notepad he was scrawling on. “What?”

“Your forename, Colonel, what is it? We’ve known each other for three years now, and you’ve never told me.”

The Colonel chewed the back of his hand thoughtfully. A look of some puzzlement crossed his face. “What on earth difference does that make, Mary? You don’t need to know that to do your job.”

“Of course not, Colonel. Forget I asked. Now, as I recall, we were discussing the proposed recapture of the supply base. I’ve run some simulations, and the results are displayed on the screen. As you can see, a dawn strike is almost certainly the best option.”

Two hours later, the Colonel had what he wanted. With a somewhat embarrassed “Thank you”, he stood up from his chair, and switched off his notepad.

“It’s Anthony,” he said.

“Thank you.” replied Mary. West fiddled nervously with his brass jacket buttons, smoothed his uniform, then exited. The door closed behind him, but didn’t quite muffle the sound of him loudly chastising the guard for some trivial offence.

The phone rang. Dave picked it up.

“What? Oh, right. I thought that’s what you said. On whose authority? Oh, that’s torn it. Just give me a couple of minutes to tidy up.” Dave replaced the phone on the desk. “Well, Mary, looks like trouble. You have another visitor. Just make sure you’re on your best behaviour, and there’ll be nothing to worry about.” Mary had been watching Dave’s face when he was on the ‘phone, however, and the look in his eyes had told a very different story. Something important was happening, and Mary had no idea what it was.

“Dave, what’s going on? Who is this visitor? What does he want?”

“She, Mary, she. She just wants to ask you some questions. Simply tell her what she wants to know, and there’ll be no problem.”

Mary knew he was lying. If it had been anybody else, she might not have been able to tell, but her long association with Dave had taught her how to spot the signs. Naive as she was, she could see that Dave was sweating. Dave never sweated! More than ever before, she wanted to get out of here. And a woman! Mary never had female visitors. Her whole world seemed out of joint, and she didn’t understand what she was supposed to do. She wanted to ask Dave to explain, but already the door was starting to open.

In all respects the woman who entered didn’t look at all sinister. Mary read her security badge. “Dr. Emily Stern” Odd that her photo seemed to flatter her, Mary thought. Dave looked like some kind of criminal on his. Mary wondered if Dr. Stern was wearing too much makeup. Her face certainly seemed unnatural, masklike, but it was possible that Mary was simply imposing her own anxieties on the external situation. Dave was right. The best thing to do was to stay calm and not read too much into a situation she simply didn’t understand.

Dave shook hands with Dr. Stern, although he seemed to be avoiding eye contact. The look he directed at West when he came through the door was definitely less than friendly, though. The Colonel returned the stare without acknowledging the undertones present. Whatever had been worrying the Colonel recently seemed to have been resolved. His face was of its usual emotionless cast.

The room was cramped, but with some little fuss, everybody was eventually seated around the table, now clear of printouts, maps and other paraphernalia, thanks to Dave’s frantic efforts following the phone call. Dr. Stern then, was not military, although Mary supposed she should have guessed as much from her appearance. It seemed likely that Dr. Stern was as confused about this meeting as she, but that still didn’t get Mary any nearer to an explanation.

No-one spoke. Mary’s anxiety returned anew. The urge to escape was once again upon her. Another thing to worry about, she guessed. She was starting to desire the physically impossible. Something had to be wrong. Oh, to be alone with Dave; he would be able to explain it. As he was so fond of saying, he understood how she ticked better than she did. Mary knew that wasn’t true either (although she wasn’t about to tell Dave that - he enjoyed the illusion too much), but he certainly understood things like this better than she did.

“Mary,” said Dr. Stern, “I’d like to ask you a few questions if I may.”

“What for?”

West’s face momentarily lost its composure. “Just answer the questions, Mary.”

Dr. Stern scribbled something on her pad. Unfortunately, it was at just the wrong angle, so Mary couldn’t see what it said. “I’d like you to describe what comes into your, er, mind when I say the following words: tank’ “A military weapon first used in the First World War of 1914-18 as a solution to the deadlock caused by trench warfare. Modern tanks are deployed on a regular basis to combat … Oh, I’m sorry, I’m afraid that’s classified.”

“Doesn’t matter, Mary, let’s move on: tree”

“Large photosynthetic plant, which utilises the sunlight that falls on its leaves to produce energy for growth. Apparently, there aren’t all that many of them left outside the nature reserves. I’d like to see one someday. Dave says …”

“Tell me about Dave”, said the Doctor.

“Just hold it right there,” interjected Dave. “Before this goes any further, I’d like to know just exactly what the doctor here is trying to prove! Are you seriously trying to suggest that just because one of Mary’s infallible plans went wrong that she’s fallen in love with me? Or that I’ve fallen in love with her? This is warped, even for you, West!”

The door swung open to reveal the guard. The Colonel smiled a predatory smile. “I think you’d be better employed elsewhere,” he said. Dave took a thoughtful look at the smile and started to head for the door.

“Please, I’d rather Dave stayed.” said Mary.

Dave turned in the doorway. “Sorry, Mary this battle’s for you alone. Be good.”

The door closed. Dr. Stern rummaged around aimlessly in her briefcase. “Well, I guess we’d better carry on from where we left off. Tell us about Dave, please.”

“I don’t think so, Dr. Stern.” said Mary. Colonel West’s smile faded.

Mary had to glance at his security badge to reassure herself it really was Dave. The transformation was frightening. Dave looked older, and so very tired. A glance in the Colonel’s direction indicated that he was probably to blame for this. Neither one spoke, and Mary got the impression that some sort of conflict was occurring on a level she couldn’t even detect. The two men just stood and stared at each other. Mary had to step in and diffuse the situation.

“What can I do for you today, gentlemen?”

“Shut up, Mary,” said the Colonel, and turned back to Dave. “Do it now.” West’s hand was resting on his pistol, still in its holster, but the threat was apparent even to Mary. Dave sat down at the terminal and began to type, haltingly at first, but then frantically, as if he were desperate to finish. The Colonel stood by, emotionless as if he were on parade. The lights went out.

“Dave, Dave, I can’t see anything!”

“It’s all right, Mary. Everything’s going … to be fine.”

“Dave, please tell me what’s going on, please. I’m scared. What’s going on?”

“Good-bye, Mary.” said Dave.

The last thing she heard was the sound of a printer, rattling out a tuneless requiem.

“You’ve only yourself to blame, you know.” West was eulogising, “Why did you try to make her think like a human? We used a computer because we needed a dispassionate decision maker, but you and your bleeding heart had to get her involved, and thus useless. As it is, you’ve destroyed millions worth of investment, and set the war effort back six months, you idiot! You are in very serious trouble. The word ‘treason’ springs to mind.” West stopped short. Dave was laughing. He handed the printout to the Colonel.

“I don’t understand.”

“No, I didn’t think you would.”

The Colonel looked at the paper, and shook his head. He read the text again.

"The robin redbreast and the nightingale 
Never live long in cages."  
   Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi", IV.2