Sunday, May 9th, 2021
Agent Sasha Merlo sat within the office of Edgar Holman, Director of Foundation Site-64 and a longtime friend. As she relaxed in one of the comfortable chairs he kept in front of his desk, she looked around the room at the various pieces of minor anomalous artwork that covered the walls. Her eyes snapped back to her host as Holman finished filling out some paperwork and cleared his throat.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you to stop by,” he said, taking off his reading glasses.
“Well, you haven’t started yelling at me, so I assume I’m not in trouble, yet,” Merlo replied with a grin. “I figured you just liked my company.”
“Cute,” Holman chuckled. “I’m afraid it’s a little more important than that. You are aware that William Johnson, my Assistant Director of Task Forces is planning to retire in two months, yes?”
“I heard rumors…” Merlo furrowed her brow. “Why?”
Holman slid a small folder to her and gestured for her to read. Merlo’s eyes widened as she scanned the words on the pages therein.
As such, I am recommending Agent Sasha Merlo (Commanding Officer, MTF Gamma-13) to fill the position of Assistant Site Director of Task Forces following Johnson's retirement…
“But… why?” she asked.
“Because you get results, messy as they are sometimes,” Holman explained. “That, and you are an exceptional leader who has proven herself time and time again as part of the Gamma-13. If anyone is qualified to take over for Johnson once he leaves, it’s you.”
“Doesn’t Johnson get a say in this?”
“He agrees with me, and will be filing a similar recommendation.” Holman smiled. “Job’s basically yours already.”
Merlo rubbed her temple. She opened her mouth to speak, blinked, then closed it again. The process repeated itself twice more before she managed to get her thoughts in order.
“But what about the Lawbringers?” She asked. “If I climb the ladder, who takes their reins?”
“I was under the impression that Agent Shaw was a good candidate,” Holman answered. “Is that not the case?”
“No, Clarissa would easily be my top choice, I just…” Merlo gave a flustered sigh. “I guess I never saw myself ever being on the admin side of things.”
“We never do.” Holman shrugged. “But in the end, someone needs to step up to the plate and get the job done, and right now, you are the person I think will do the best in the position.”
Holman then swiveled in his chair, turning away from Merlo. He then chuckled as Merlo watched the top of his head shake.
“That also puts you in a position to take over as Site Director when I eventually retire,” he added.
“Wait, what?!” Merlo went pale. “Say that one more time, please?!”
“Oh, come on.” Holman swiveled his chair back to face her. “I’ve had this job for over two decades. At some point, I need to pass the torch. You’re the only person in this facility who I feel comfortable doing that with. You know the locale, you know the anomalous communities, you know Site-64.”
Merlo remained silent. Her eyes remained locked with Holman’s. There she could see his absolute sincerity.
“I’m at the point in my career where I need to start thinking about my legacy, Sasha,” Holman went on. “Passing the torch to you, and knowing the site was in competent hands after I leave will be a positive part of that.”
“Will you give me a week to consider?” Merlo asked.
“Take all the time you need,” Holman replied.
Merlo gave a small smile and nodded. As she made her way to the exit, she turned to look back at her superior.
“I’m glad you think so highly of me, Ed,” she said. “It means a lot.”
2007 - Saturday, March 3rd
As the van came to a stop, the members of the mobile task force inside did their final preps. An anonymous tip from within Seattle’s anomalous community had informed them of a massive anart and paratech dump within a warehouse. Within half an hour, the raid would commence.
The rookie triple checked her gear. She had helped conduct raids for the FBI when she was a cyberoperations specialist, but this times things were different. She fresh out of MTF training. Magic, ghosts, eldritch horrors, and all the wonderful things that go bump in the night had been shown to exist. How anyone could feel prepared in this situation, she did not know. She tied her brunette hair into a ponytail and let out a nervous sigh.
“First op?” the veteran agent sitting next to her asked. The rookie quietly nodded.
“Is it that obvious?” she asked.
“I’m afraid so,” he replied with a chuckle, and scratched the stubble on his chin. “All the newbies have a certain way about them. No worries, we’ve all been there before. Stick with me and I promise you’ll do fine. Guaranteed, or your body back.”
The rookie smiled and nodded, then fell silent as the task force lead cleared her throat and turned to them to remind them of the key points of their briefing.
Monday, May 10th, 2021
As Merlo finished telling Agent Clarissa Shaw about her pending decision, she watched her colleague think in silence for several moments. Shaw took off her glasses and chewed on the arm, the gears turning in her head. Eventually, Shaw sighed and shrugged.
“So, which way are you currently leaning?” Shaw asked.
“I have no idea…” Merlo sank into her office chair. “Field work is what makes me feel alive, you know? It’s all I’ve ever done and all I’ve ever wanted to do. Being a paper pusher seems… unnatural.”
“So, what’s the problem? If being in the field is so important to you, if it’s what you live for, your answer seems pretty cut and dry.”
“Yeah, but what about Gabe and Jessie?”
“What about them?” Shaw raised an eyebrow.
“I’m far less likely to get shot if I take the job.” Merlo explained. “Plus, I’ll be around them more. I’ve missed four out of five birthdays for Jessie. Can’t count how many times I’ve left Gabe high and dry…”
“They both seem fine with things the way they are now.” Shaw shrugged. “Listen, Sasha, in the end this is going to boil down to what you want. I’d think you’d make a really good MTF Director. I really do. Hell, you’d make a kickass Site Director. But at the same time being in an office day after day would just crush the life out of you. I feel like I’ve known you long enough that I can say that. Don’t do that to yourself.”
“Right…” Merlo sighed. “I guess part of me thinks that if I don’t take this, I’m letting tons of people down.”
“And if you do take it, you’ll let yourself down,” Shaw chuckled. “Maybe even Gamma-13, too. I mean, who would they even get to replace you?”
Merlo smiled and gestured at her friend. Shaw’s grin immediately vanished.
“Nooooooooo…” Shaw said slowly, pointing an accusatory finger at Merlo. “Sasha, if you think we’re Asimov’s Fuckups now…”
“It’s what?” Merlo interrupted. “Going to get worse? And here I thought I was selling myself short. Shaw, none of our problems as a task force were ever leadership based and you know it. You’d excel as task force lead. Believe me, I’d know.”
The two agents looked at each other in silence for several seconds and then burst into laughter.
“You fucking hypocrite!” Shaw finally said between gasps for air. Her voice then took on an imitative tone. “I don’t think I should take this job, Clarissa, but here are all the reasons you could take mine.”
“Would you though?” Merlo asked as the laughter died down, “If I take the job, would you step up for the Lawbringers?”
“No one could lead this team as well as you do.” Shaw shook her head. “The thought of attempting terrifies me. But yeah. I’d do it. I hope you don’t make me though.”
2007 - Saturday, March 3rd
The rookie stood fourth in a line of her fellow task force members. The veteran stood in front of her, and looked back to give her a small nod of confidence. She nodded in return, then watched as the lead agent quickly took out what looked like a tube of red paint, and applied it to the handle of the nearby warehouse door. The lead agent gave them the signal to hold as the handle, then the entire door, became red hot and disintegrated before them. The dust from the door had not even settled by the time another agent threw a flashbang into the warehouse interior. The explosive went off, the interior of the warehouse filling with the sound of confused voices as the team funneled in.
Armed thugs attempted to draw weapons, but were quickly taken down by bursts of rifle fire. The rookie watched a muscular woman topple as she discharged six of her rounds. She gave pause as she watched the woman’s body limply slide down the side of a crate, but snapped back into focus as the veteran tapped her on the shoulder.
“Come on!” he shouted over the din, and pointed toward the interior of the warehouse where a cacophony of metallic sounds, confused shouting, and gunfire filled the air.
The rookie nodded and quickly fell in behind him, her weapon held tightly in her hands. She gave one last glance back at the woman she killed before snapping her head back to the matter at hand.
Wednesday, May 12th, 2021
Agent Merlo sat within a booth at the Secret Crest Pub, a brewpub in Portland’s Pearl District that had become a popular spot among Site-64 personnel during their off time, mainly due to the fact that its original owner had once been a retired Site Director. Across from her was a lanky and stubble coated agent by the name of Daniel Navarro.
“How’s the robo-hand treating you?” Merlo asked after taking a sip from her beer. “I’m still surprised you went ahead and had it installed.”
The anart specialist sipped his drink with his left hand and then shrugged.
“It gives me phantom pain from time to time,” he replied, “and I can’t use my left arm to do magic anymore, but hey, at least I can do this again.” Navarro then proceeded to extend his left middle finger.
“Classy as always.” Merlo shook her head as she chuckled.
“I try.” Navarro smiled. “So, what’s all this Shaw told me about you getting a promotion?”
“Site-64’s Director of MTFs is retiring,” Merlo explained. “Holman wants me to take the job.”
“And you didn’t tell him no then and there?”
“You would have?”
“You bet, but keep in mind that the day I'm considered is the day Hell freezes over, so we'd have bigger problems on our hands,” Navarro replied. “Fuck that kind of responsibility. Being a field agent is far too much fun, plus my mistakes only affect a handful of people at most, usually. Last thing I want on my conscience is to be the guy who sent an entire task force on a mission and got them all banished to the deepest circle of Hell.”
Navarro paused as he noticed Merlo was staring intently into her half-finished pint.
“You’re still on the fence about it then?”
“Well I was,” Merlo frowned, “but now I’m not so sure. I don’t want to be the one who sends a task force to the ninth ring of Hell.”
“I mean, that’s just me. I’d doubt you’d ever get your people in that kind of situation to begin with. You think things through too well.” Navarro sighed. “Alternatively, if you take the job you wouldn’t be able to go on crazy magic adventures with me anymore.”
“True,” Merlo conceded, “but if I take the job, when your magic adventure backfires, like it always does, I’ll be in a position to help with your whole ‘not getting fired, amnesticized, and/or shot’ thing.
“Where’s the fun in that, though?” Navarro chuckled. “Listen, Sasha, in the end you do whatever you feel is best for you. Personally, I think your talents would be wasted as a paper pusher, but what do I know?”
Navarro then gestured to the server for another round.
2007 - Saturday, March 3rd
“What the hell is that thing?!” the rookie shouted over a continuous wave of incoming machinegun fire. Her and the veteran had hidden behind a forklift for cover. At the center of the nearby clearing what could best be described as an robotic sentry turret opened fire at them.
“Hell if I know!” the veteran replied, taking a series of quick potshots at the robot before returning to the safety of the rapidly deteriorating forklift. “But it’s pissed, whatever it is.”
The rookie peered over the forklift’s side to get a better look. The robot's main body resembled a large black vase standing on four thick spidery legs. A thin red line formed a ring around its middle, emitting a bright light that intensively glowed in their direction. Two gun barrels adorned each side. All four fired a stream of bullets rapidly in their direction. The rookie flipped her rifle into full auto and quickly took aim, shouting as she emptied the rest of her magazine into the mechanical beast. She watched it take multiple steps back from the force of the impact, however, the bullets only made small dents in its armor. The turret began a process of self-repair as it stepped forward to reclaim its lost ground, and begin its stream of fire once again.
“Shit!” the rookie shouted as she ducked back behind the forklift and reloaded. “Bullets aren’t cracking this thing. Got any other ideas?”
“Just one…” the veteran replied, and pulled out a knife.
“You brought a knife to a gunfight? Are you crazy!”
“Probably!” the veteran shouted, cutting his left hand with the blade.
The rookie’s eyes widened as she watched his hand immediately burst into flames. The veteran gave a shout as he shot to his feet and pointed his palm at the droid, a giant pillar of blue flames engulfing the automaton as it let out a horrifying shriek. The veteran then closed his fist, the flames immediately dying, leaving a smoldering pile of charred metal and melted plastic where the turret once stood.
“I’ll answer your questions later, provided they let you remember them,” the veteran told the rookie as he began to bandage the cut on his hand. “Preferably when all the bad guys are dead and bullets aren’t trying to find a home within us.”
Friday, May 14th, 2021
Merlo sat in Site-64’s cafeteria, a cup of stale coffee in her hands as she looked over the notepad in front of her. Jotted down on it was a pro and con list regarding taking the assistant director position. Both columns were of equal length, and held equally compelling arguments. She signed, and looked at the clock on the far wall.
“Why the hell can’t I make up my mind…” Merlo mumbled as she rubbed her eyes. “I can make split second decisions during an op, but I can’t decide on this bullshit… Fuck me.”
She sighed and rested her head on the table. She still hadn’t told Gabe. Mainly because she already knew what he was going to say. Same as Shaw and Navarro. Follow her heart. The only problem was her heart wasn’t keen on leading her anywhere. At least not this time.
“Well that is that and this is this.
Will you tell me what you saw and I'll tell you what you missed,
when the ocean met the sky. (You missed, you missed)
You missed when time and life shook hands and said goodbye. (You missed)
When the earth folded in on itself. (You missed)
And said "Good luck, for your sake I hope heaven and hell (You missed, you missed)
are really there, but I wouldn't hold my breath." (You missed, you missed)
You wasted life, why wouldn't you waste death? (You missed, you missed)
You wasted life, why wouldn't you waste death?”
Merlo raised her head as the sound of monotone singing became audible. Soon after, a slender man in a lab coat with messy blond hair entered the cafeteria, a pair of earbuds visible within his ears as he made his way directly to the coffee machine. An amused smile came to Merlo’s face as she recognized him as Researcher Conwell, primary investigator of the site’s Anomalous Materials Lab. She listened to him continue to sing while preparing his coffee. Eventually he turned around, and upon seeing her, stopped mid-sentence. He blushed as he pulled his earbuds out.
“Uh, sorry,” Conwell mumbled. “Normally no one is here around this time…”
“Oh, don’t mind me.” Merlo chuckled. “You keep doing your thing. I won’t tell anyone, superstar.”
Conwell gave a small smile and approached her table.
“What are you even doing here?” he asked. “I thought MTF members had normal hours when not on ops.”
“I needed to think through a few things,” Merlo answered. “What are you doing here?”
“Lab’s running a reaction that needs round-the-clock surveillance and samples collected every hour or so. Tonight’s my shift.”
“Fun times,” Merlo commented. “Hey, Jacob, mind if I pick your brain for a bit.”
“I’ve got a bit of time, sure.” Conwell shrugged. “What’s up?”
“You’re married, right?”
Conwell raised an eyebrow, then flicked the titanium wedding band on his finger.
“A little under six years now…”
“Kate and I have a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. Where’re you going with this?”
“Just humor me for a few more questions,” Merlo sighed. “You don’t travel a lot for your position, right? Like, most nights you’re home to see your family?”
“Yeah, most of the time I am.” Conwell scratched the back of his head. “Exceptions being when I’m here for experiments or get called out to Site-77 to help with some of their AMAT projects, but that’s mainly because I’m on good terms with their Site Director. I imagine its different if you’re on an MTF, though. The whole ‘mobile’ thing.”
“Bingo,” Merlo replied. “I have a chance to change that though, the Task Force director’s position is opening up, and Holman is offering it to me…”
“Well hey, congratulations!” Conwell exclaimed. “You should totally take it. You’d be great there.”
Merlo remained silent and looked at the pro and con list on the table before her.
“But you’re not so certain, are you?” Conwell observed.
“I have no idea why. Part of me knows I’d probably do fine there, and that it would be better for me and my family if I take the job, but at the same time I can’t stand the thought of wasting away over paperwork, sitting in meetings, and hobnobbing with the big wigs. It’s just not me.” Merlo sighed deeply. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, if it was me, I’d take the job,” Conwell said, sitting down across from Merlo and looking over her pro and con list. “Then again, I’m not a field agent who eats danger for breakfast. Have you asked your family what they think?”
Merlo shook her head.
“Gabe’s just going to say, ‘do whatever makes you happy.’” Merlo rubbed her temple. “But the problem with that is if I choose what makes me happy I’ll feel like shit. ‘Sorry sweetie, rather than take a better paying job that is safer, and allows me to be a bigger part of our daughter’s life I’m going to choose to keep on galivanting off into the sunset on my merry adventures, cause it’s what I want. See you later if I don’t die.’”
Conwell chuckled and shook his head.
“What’s so fucking funny?” Merlo snapped.
“You already know what decision you’re going to make,” Conwell commented, looking at his watch. He then stood and returned Merlo’s pro and con list to her. “You’re just afraid of the repercussions.”
He then put his earbuds back in place and finished the rest of his coffee, chucking the paper cup into a nearby trashcan.
“If I was in your shoes, I’d take the job,” Conwell continued. “Safer spot to be, you get to see your family more, and you would be good at it. But, hey, what do I know. I’m just a scientist. You take care.”
Merlo listened as Conwell began singing to himself once more as he took his exit.
“As life gets longer, awful feels softer.
Well it feels pretty soft to me.
And if it takes shit to make bliss,
Then I feel pretty blissfully.”
2007 - Saturday, March 3rd
The battle within the warehouse had begun to wind down. Most of the hostiles had been either apprehended or killed. Most of the anomalous art pieces and paratech had been secured. Only a few pockets of resistance remained for the MTF to mop up.
One such pocket, that the rookie and the veteran had been assigned to, was in the form of a lanky black android that had fortified itself among multiple crates with its supposed owner. An MTF sniper had downed the owner, but the android’s bullet resistance and impressive skills with small arms had prevented the rookie and the veteran from closing in to complete containment.
“Can’t you just flash fry this guy too?” the rookie whispered from their cover behind a pile of crates.
“If I wanted to burn this whole place down, sure,” the veteran replied. “It’s surrounded by wooden crates. That’s not happening.”
“What good is being able to summon fire if you can be bested by a pile of wooden boxes?” the rookie asked, peering over their cover, only to duck to avoid a burst of bullets flying past her head. The force of the shots hitting a far stack of crates knocked a smaller crate off a larger one, and onto the floor. “I have an idea. Can you provide me covering fire?”
“Almost getting shot gave an idea?” the veteran asked. “If this idea boils down to shooting the guy, I’m docking you for no originality.”
“Humor me,” the rookie hissed back. “Can you provide covering fire? Get this guy focusing only on you?”
“Just tell me when…”
The rookie grinned and counted down on her fingers
The second the final finger went down the rookie shot up and dashed towards the android’s fortress, the veteran letting loose a spray of bullets that kept the robot behind cover. Eventually the rookie vanished from the veteran’s view. He quickly ducked back behind cover to reload, the android sending a barrage of bullets toward his location. The veteran held his breath, and waited for the click of an empty magazine, before peering out from cover. Sure enough, the black droid was reloading, unaware of the rookie on top of the pile of crates behind it, forcing a crate off the top of the stack…
“That’s just stupid…” the veteran said to himself with a smirk as he watched the crate fall, landing right on top of the android and flattening it under its weight. The rookie lost no time hopping down and quickly pinning the incapacitated droid beneath yet another crate.
“Going to dock me for originality?” the rookie asked with a smug smile as the veteran approached.
“I mean, you just knocked a box onto it. That’s not exactly, well, thinking too far outside the box is it?”
“Everyone’s a critic…” the rookie said as she rolled her eyes and quickly flagged down the rest of the containment team for assistance.
“I’m afraid so.”
Saturday, May 15th, 2021
Agent Merlo sat in her living room, curled up in a blanket on her couch. As the credits to Empire Strikes Back ran across the TV screen, her husband was in the other room, putting their daughter to bed. By the time the credits had finished their crawl, Gabe had returned, lazily crawling under the blanket with her and pulling her close. She rested her head on his shoulder and then sighed.
“Got something I need to talk to you about,” she said.
“Oh no, that can’t be good.” Gabe chuckled. “What’s up?”
“You know how the Director of Task Forces is retiring?”
“Holman’s offered me the job.”
“That’s fantastic,” Gabe said with a smile. “You going to take it?”
“I don’t know yet…” Merlo said after a pause.
“Do or don’t, I’ll support you either way.”
“Do you think I should take it?” Merlo asked, turning her head to look at her husband’s stubble covered face. She could see her reflection in his glasses. She looked so tired.
“I think you should do what will make you happy,” Gabe replied. “If that means staying an MTF agent, go for it.”
Merlo shot up and put her head in her hands before she let out a deep breath.
“For once, Gabe, could you please lose the chill? Please?” She snapped. “Tell me what the fuck you want! Have a fucking opinion! Tell me you want me to take the job, that you and Jessie miss me and want me to be here more. Tell me that its selfish to continue being an MTF agent when such a better opportunity has come up. Get mad! Just… do something! Please! This is why I waited this long to tell you! You never have a fucking opinion.”
“Grr? Arg?” Gabe said with a frown, halfheartedly shaking his fists. “Sasha, I mean what I said. If you’re happy on the sales floor, there is absolutely no reason to bump up to management. Stay head of the Lawbringers if you want. I’m fine with it. Really. I knew what I signed up for when we got married, and Jessie seems to understand things in her own way.”
He then wrapped his arm back around her and pulled her into a hug.
“I take it you told others first? What did they say?”
“Shaw and Navarro think I should pass. Holman and Conwell said I should take it.”
“And what do you think?”
Merlo looked at Gabe. He smiled and gave her a kiss on her forehead.
“I don’t know…” she mumbled.
“When do you have to let Holman know?”
“I told him I’d have an answer by tomorrow.”
“Well, think on it tonight. I’ve told you what I think. Whatever decision you make, know that I’m proud of you, and will support you.”
Merlo gave him a small smile and rested her head back on his shoulder.
“Jedi?” she asked as she sank back into a comfortable spot.
“Love to,” said Gabe as he got up to change the disk in the Blu-ray player.
2007 - Saturday, March 3rd
Overall, the raid was a success. Minor personnel casualties, high anomalous object turnaround, and numerous apprehended persons of interest. Still, when the combat dust had settled, their job had only just started. By the time cleanup was done, amnestics distributed, and all hands evacuated for the disinformation guys to take over, the sun had become low in the sky. However, the work eventually came to an end, and the MTF members were loaded back into their vans for transport back to the site for debriefing.
“That was fun,” the veteran said the rookie. “We should do this again sometime.”
“Do you want to bring the auto-turret, or should I?” she asked with a sheepish grin on her face.
The veteran chuckled and shook his head.
“Never caught your name, by the way,” he said, extending a handshake.
“Sasha Grimmer,” the rookie replied, accepting the gesture. Her grip was strong.
“Daniel Navarro,” the veteran said in return. “Not bad for your first raid. Holman should keep an eye on you. You’re going places.”
Sunday, May 16th, 2021
Merlo stood in front of the office door and hesitated, reading the entry plaque several times.
Edgar Holman, Site Director
It was about the third readthrough that the words on the plaque began to change in her mind’s eyes. By the time she had read the plaque for a fifth time she thought the engraving actually read:
Sasha Merlo, Site Director
“In or out, Agent Merlo.”
Merlo blinked as she snapped out of it, the voice of Holman’s secretary breaking her train of thought.
“Right, sorry,” Merlo apologized, and let out a final sigh as she opened the door. The Site Director peered at her from his desk and smiled.
“You wanted to speak to me, Merlo?” He asked.
“Yes sir,” Merlo said. She moved across the room and took a seat in one of the chairs.
“Oh? Whatever about?” Holman chuckled, and neatly folded his hands.
“I’ve made my decision…”