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Real Numbers

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This story features an upsetting character death.
A military drone fires two missiles.
War arrived quietly every 2.5 years. After each peace settlement expired, the USR grew bolder, justifying the next conflict with more outrageous claims than before. International authorities became apathetic; allies no longer offered assistance. For years, Chancellor Abby Walsh wasted resources applying for aid. Now she simply scheduled a drone evaluation and stood before her monitors, ready for another fruitless attempt to remedy USR “grievances” through negotiation.

Whether it came to war or not, she couldn’t let her nation sink further into debt. The well-trimmed parks and spacious public squares of her childhood had been swapped for empty malls and crowded tenements, and now even those were crumbling. When their school closed, Abby had promised her best friend Kara that she would revive their town. Kara had smiled and anointed Abby’s forehead with engine grease. Kara didn’t believe it could be done. Walsh wasn’t sure she believed herself anymore.

She had no leverage. The USR owned 64% of all international patents, and every year their drones were enhanced by the latest advances in polymer science and artificial piloting. Years ago, Junior Representative Abby Walsh had convinced Parliament to fund expensive drone engineering programs at public universities, naively believing it would provide the expertise they needed to compete. Instead, 75% of program graduates fled to more lucrative countries. As her country bore the costs of war after war, she was forced to close all the programs she’d championed over the years — all except one.

An alert appeared on screen: the evaluation strike was about to begin. Walsh assigned the testing area to her main monitor and waited for the rolling clouds to become a battlefield. In 10 minutes and 45 seconds, she received a notification that enemy drones had been detected. In response, 25 drones launched into the stratosphere. They whipped the clouds with their evasive motions, releasing lightning and fireworks on enemy equipment. The monitoring console emitted a short siren; one of her drones had been destroyed. Then another, and another. Finally there was a chime; an enemy drone had fallen. The 5 minutes of engagement expired, and the drones were called back.

Jada Davis, the commander of self-piloting operations, came on the screen to her right, and Walsh’s assistant Ren appeared on the left.

“The USR drones are showing a 10% improvement in speed and targeting over the last engagement,” Davis said. “That’s enough to eliminate our equipment before the week is through. Luckily, we uncovered a couple patterns in their operation. By adjusting the algorithms to predict their movements, we could improve outcomes by up to 25%. We’d be fighting an uphill battle, but we’d have a chance.”

Ren looked away from the screen to punch in some numbers. “Even if our drones are 25% more effective than their performance today, they only have a 20-30% chance of lasting long enough for the USR to call off their strikes. However, that is high enough to reduce interest rates on a warfare loan. We could use it to purchase new drones from abroad and pay it back over the next thirty years.”

“How low would these interest rates be?” Davis asked.

“Our credit rating fell after we defaulted on some payments last year. The best we could get is 13%.”

Walsh shook her head. “We can’t afford the interest we’re paying now. Any more loans and we’ll default on all of them.”

“Then we’re looking at giving them the money they’re asking for, equivalent to 0.075% of our assets.”

“It could be worse,” Davis said. “By our updated projections, war would force us to liquidate 0.25% of our assets.”

It was a clear choice. “If we concede 0.075%, what services would be forfeit?”

Ren looked off screen again. “The Second Dawn Institute has the highest cost-benefit ratio, so it’s slated for the next cut. The Second Dawn Institute hosts – ”

“I’m familiar with it.” Walsh had kept The Second Dawn Institute open through budget slashes, debt collections, and austerity mandates. As long as it continued, she hadn’t failed Kara – not yet. “How much could we afford to pay without losing it?”

“Umm, well…” Ren made a few mouse clicks and grimaced. “If you negotiate all the way down to 0.025%, parliament might consider an across-the-board cut.”

“All right. Anything else on the chopping block?”

“Not that I can tell, sir. The programs with the next highest ratios are within 2% of each other, so the remaining 60% of cuts would be negotiated by the budget committee.”

“Thank you both. Please connect me with the USR delegation.”

They saluted and faded from view. The main screen brightened, rendering a smooth table with three professionals in designer suits. The president was absent, as always. If only Walsh could make him look her in the eye just once.

The man in the center smiled. “My name is William Donheart. It’s an honor to meet with you, Chancellor.”

Walsh couldn’t say the same, so she just nodded in acknowledgement.

“I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances. We aren’t interested in a full-scale war any more than you are. However, we’re under pressure from industry to recoup the costs of your violations of the Pan-Oceanic Trade Agreement. We’re requesting 0.075% of your assets to pay those costs, barely anything.”

Walsh crossed her arms. “A 0.075% concession may be barely anything to you, Ambassador, but we don’t have resources to spare or excess wealth to tax. We’ll lose vital programs.”

“Every program is ‘vital’ to someone.” He chuckled. “No one remembers the days when soldiers were sent to slaughter each other. Be thankful those days are gone.”

“Soldiers may not slaughter each other, but our citizens still need food and shelter. After our last round of budgets cuts, homeless deaths went up 10%, and childhood malnutrition rose by 15%.”

“Those events were most unfortunate,” Donheart replied, “but the weather that year was an anomaly. The winter was unusually harsh on those without shelter, and the summer was too dry to keep food prices down. These things happen. It doesn’t mean nations with a few extra storms can dismiss international agreements. Our request is lower than the cost of a bloodless drone war. It’s more than reasonable.”

“You’re right, 0.075% is less than the cost of a war. But 4.5% isn’t, and that’s the cost we’ll be facing in the next decade if you continue demanding reparations regularly. It seems the low cost of extorting money has created a habit that only a real war will break.”

Donheart raised his hands. “We’re not here to exchange harsh words.”

“My final offer is 0.025%,” Walsh said.

“We’re not authorized to agree to an offer that low.”

“Then your president should have sent someone who is.” Walsh disconnected the session, and dialed the command station. “Davis, prepare for a full-scale engagement.”

“Already underway,” Davis replied.

Walsh sighed and stepped down from her workstation. She needed something to calm her nerves. A bottle of sherry waited in the cabinet. No, Kara always said Abby made poor choices after drinking – if she hadn’t made a poor choice already. Maybe starting a war was the right decision, or maybe she couldn’t stomach the alternative. The chance of ending this war with enough funds to save The Second Dawn Institute was small, but it was a chance. She would hold onto hope a little longer.

She sighed and opened the fridge. Kara used to pour her milk when she couldn’t sleep. Kara would say that with strong enough bones, Abby could get up no matter how far she fell.

Walsh was stepping back up to the dark screens of her workstation, milk in hand, when the main monitor flashed. An emergency transmission waited for her.

She pressed the receiver. “What is it?”

Davis appeared, her face crumpled in concern. “Their drones are incoming, but they aren’t the drones we faced in the evaluation round. They are a completely new model. I don’t have good measurements on them because they destroyed our sensors so fast.”

“They sent old drones to the evaluation?” Walsh slammed her milk on the desk. She dialed Ren.

Ren appeared on her left.

“Please tell me sending false drones to an evaluation is a violation of international accords, trade agreements, anything.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Ren answered. “Evaluations are an informal tool of diplomacy.”

“This doesn’t make sense.” Davis said. “Evaluations have always been used to intimidate opponents into favorable settlements. Some countries have used prototypes they can’t mass produce, but I’ve never heard of drones underperforming.”

“What are our chances of getting through this?”

Ren clicked furiously. “We don’t have accurate data, but they must have invested billions on this upgrade. With so little damage to their equipment, this war is a sunk cost for them. They have no reason to end it. Projected chances of outlasting them are 0.5% at best.”

“Get me back in touch with them now,” Walsh said. She had no choice but to reopen the negotiations. Would they answer? She sighed in relief when the main screen began loading and pushed her milk out of sight.

“Chancellor, what a welcome surprise,” Donheart said. The three sat in the same positions as they had previously. They hadn’t left the table.

“I believe I acted too soon in our earlier conversation,” Walsh said. “Your settlement offer is reasonable. I’d like to take you up on it.”

Donheart gave her a toothy smile. “That was a pre-war settlement offer. The engagement has already begun. If you want to call it off now, that would qualify as surrender. The standard agreement for surrender is 5%.”

“I think we can be generous.” A woman to the left of him cut in. “It’s early in the engagement, so we’ll settle for 3%.”

Donheart frowned, then shrugged. “All right.”

Walsh considered them for a moment. It was too smooth, too arranged. They had deliberately sent inferior drones to the evaluation. She could think of only one reason why they would do that: so she wouldn’t settle. A 3% pre-war settlement over a mere trade violation would cause scrutiny in the international courts. A 3% surrender settlement? No one would raise an eyebrow over that. They laid a trap, and she had fallen right into it.

The settlement would put her country on the verge of collapse. Then they would return.

“I’ll agree to your 3% settlement,” she told them. “However, I must inform you that after the settlement, we will liquidate our assets to foreign interests other than the USR. All government functions will be privatized. Without a government, our trade agreements will be void. Next time, you will have no one to negotiate with. We will have no assets left to take.”

Donheart opened his mouth to say something and paused. They stared at her for several moments.

“That’s absurd!” The woman to his left said. “You wouldn’t destroy yourself because of some reparations.”

“Taking into account this settlement and future ones like it, we have projected that our destruction is inevitable,” Walsh said. She forced a slight smile, as though her nation were mere numbers on a sheet. “It’s in our best interest to cash in our assets before you claim them. If I get a good price, perhaps I can retire to an island estate.”

The three exchanged a concerned glance.

“Give us a moment,” Donheart said. The screen went dark.

Ten sips of milk later, they called back.

“After some deliberation,” Donheart said, “we have decided to accept your offer of 0.075%.”

Walsh opened her mouth to accept and hesitated. The Second Dawn Institute would be gone. She’d tapped every resource she had to save it; there was no fallback this time. What would Kara say? Would she think Abby had betrayed her? No, Kara had always been the pragmatic one. She would say that’s the way it was.

“Chancellor?” Donheart’s brows creased.

Walsh sighed. “That is acceptable.”

“Acceptable?” Donheart smiled and shook his head. “It’s the lowest amount we’re authorized to agree to, and that was in case you accepted the pre-war offer. You are a savvy negotiator; your people are lucky to have you.”

“They won’t feel lucky when the cuts go through.”

Donheart waved a hand in dismissal. “People are becoming spoiled, living in such an advanced era. Remind them how foot soldiers died from diseases and cold before they reached the battlefront.”

“Ambassador, have you ever lived in poverty? Hearing about other people’s suffering doesn’t make yours any better.”

“Come now, you received a small drone strike and some monetary penalties. You have my sympathies regarding the rest of your misfortunes, but,” he shrugged, “every nation has to deal with poor weather and unfortunate accidents. A few austerity measures will help you cut down the excess weight, get leaner and more effective.”

“Goodbye Mr. Donheart, I’ll have my assistant get in touch regarding the paperwork.” Walsh disconnected the line.

Walsh sighed, letting her shoulders sag while there was no one to watch her defeat. Then she rang her assistant.

“Chancellor?” Ren flashed on screen.

“We’ve agreed to a 0.075% settlement. Please see that the paperwork goes through, and arrange for a transport to the Second Dawn Institute on its last day. I would like to give the final order.”


The Second Dawn Institute had large pillars that were once white. They hadn’t been cleaned since another round of cuts 7 years before. The lights were dimly reflected in the peeling linoleum tiles. On either side of the wide hallway, beds lined the walls 2.5 feet apart, just enough room for equipment providing food and respiration to the withered occupants.

“Ms. Chancellor, I beg you one last time to reconsider,” the director of the institute met her inside. “Only 2% of families were able to secure alternate care. Medical technology is improving; with some investment, up to 71% of our over 1,200 patients could recover and leave this facility.”

“I’m sorry, Director,” Walsh replied. “We don’t have the money for maintenance, much less investment. The funding that preserves one patient will feed and clothe a family.”

Kara lay in the far bed on the left side. Walsh pulled a chair next to her and took her hand. Kara’s closed eyes, dark and sunken, looked nothing like they had during their carefree days playing hopscotch and sharing ice cream at their neighborhood park. After the public schools closed, Kara’s family couldn’t afford to send her elsewhere. While Abby finished high school and attended college, Kara went to work at a local factory. The health department couldn’t afford safety inspections at the factory; no one caught the corroded pipes that eventually burst, leaving chemical burns all over Kara’s body. Her family couldn’t afford detoxification treatments, and Kara slipped into a coma. Now Abby couldn’t afford to keep her alive.

They’d say she died because she was in a dangerous profession, or because of a freak accident, or because she didn’t seek adequate medical care.

“You were right, Kara,” Abby whispered, squeezing her hand. “I couldn’t turn it around, not with work, not with will, not with hope. I couldn’t beat them. I’m sorry.”

Walsh closed her eyes and steeled herself. “Director, is the euthanasia ready?”

The director sniffed. “It’s ready.”

“Do it.”

 

Comments

  1. Tiberia

    : (

    • Cay Reet

      My feelings exactly, but still a great story.

      • Chris Winkle

        Sorry.

        • Tiberia

          Gonna have to report you to the feels police. You are charged with inciting feelings, with flagrantly and without care highlighting the human cost of economics, and with aggressively hooking interest with a knowing intent to influence.

          Just had to rock the boat, huh? Couldn’t write a banal chosen one story like a proper citizen, huh? Had to “be creative” and “hold a mirror to real life”, huh?

          This is why Rome fell.

  2. American Charioteer

    Was the USR’s decision to under-report the performance of their drones (while every other nation over-reported performance) inspired by Nazi Germany over-reporting military production to intimidate its neighbors at a time when other nations were under-reporting to stay within treaty limits?

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