A door opened, and Maria Jones' eyes slowly focused on the movement.
"Oh, for Christ's sake."
Jack Bright's voice echoed in the office, sound waves parabolically running directly into Maria's head. Maria had insisted on the enormous windowed room as her office when she became director of the Records and Information Security Administration. Very nearly her only condition for accepting the job, and O5-10 had been more than willing to accommodate. But the echo did, at times, cause a problem.
Maria was halfway into her second Black Russian, no attempt being made to conceal the empty bottle of Barton's vodka and the near-empty bottle of Kahlua. Maria was a sloppy drunk.
"Thisss…it's once a year, Jack," she said, "once a year. And look! The Barton's is empty. Maybe I won't buy the next one." She looked into the murky glass. "Maybe".
Jack stood five-foot-one in his current body, but every inch was radiating judgment. "Pathetic. You never seemed like the cry-for-help type to me."
"Oh, get fucked, Jack," she slurred again, turning in her desk, making more of an effort to seem like someone still on the clock, putting bottles away. "Five years ago, Jack. Just finished the vodka from the inheritance. Little Kahlua left, though. Maybe next year I'll just spike the late-night coffee and call it a night. Happy deathday, Dave, you and all the ashes and both bottles you left behind."
"This is bad timing, Maria," Jack said. "Another administrator would have you out for this. At least a writeup. Maybe something more serious."
Maria adopted the most unique facial expression humankind had yet invented: the smile on the face of a drunk person who heard what must have been the funniest thing they had ever heard in their entire lives. She cracked up laughing, throwing her head back. She put the glass down. When she came back into composure, she lifted the glass again and gestured at Jack. "Do it again," she said, still giggling.
"Threaten me with a straight face," she said, the smile gone instantly. "I wanna see you do it again."
"Some gravity. That's much better."
"Fucking pricks. Picking this day to send me this horseshit," she said, pointing to her leftmost computer screen and the email pulled up on it at the moment. She had had six hours to receive it, read it, dismiss it, delete it, recover it, reread it, consider it, delete it in a more permanent fashion, use Level 5 authorization to recover it from complete oblivion, and finally just stare at it. And the last hour had been spent mixing drinks accordingly.
"It's happening, Maria. We're doing it again. We're taking another shot. This isn't some kind of lark—"
"Oh, don't you even try to tell me what a fucking lark Omega-7 was the first time around." Maria took another drink, trying to hide the tremble. "No fucking redactions for this user account. I've seen all of it. I've seen every after-action report from every mission you fuckers ever sent Able on —"
"Maria, you know full well I didn't send —"
" — every mission you fuckers ever sent a sociopath and a teenage girl and a pack of jarhead patsies on, every death, every "action-oriented casualty incident" where a Chaos Insurgency operative happened to put a bullet into an Omega-Sevener's head, complete with every redacted autopsy record strongly suggesting death by edged weapon of "indeterminable composition" at close range. Every interdepartmental memo — fucking nine of them from your office, Jack! Good fucking work there! — claiming that Able would never behave — " Maria deepened her voice for this " — would 'never behave in such a dishonorable fashion during a combat scenario due to his warrior ethos'. He's a fucking homicidal sociopath, and you fuckers romanticize that to a 'warrior ethos' because he had old tattoos and because he cashed your checks for a little while."
Bright said nothing. Maria watched him meander across the room, looking at bookshelves. Maria realized at some point that he wasn't going to respond to her. Under different circumstances, she would have taken that as a cue that she had pushed her luck. Under these circumstances, however, she was going to speak her mind.
"Yeah, Jack. Let me bend over backwards here with all the effort I'm going to make taking your word for it — or the word of whichever grand, glorious shadowy voice is speaking into your ear this week — that things are going to be different this time. Things are different every time. You know what never changes? These conversations, Jack. Greek letters change. Mission statements are rephrased by the new interns. But here we find ourselves every time, right on the edge.
"This is the fucking cliff, Jack. Every time we put ourselves into one of these new 'initiatives', one of these new 'programs', one of these new 'projects' or whatever the hell buzzword we have to convince ourselves we're not funding the road to hell again, every single time, we come to this place again, the last place where we can stop ourselves, and we can say 'no, God dammit, this is not what we do here.' And every fucking time, we go right off the cliff again."
Jack was standing, arms crossed, leaned against the nearest wall. Maria was half-panting, trying to regain her breath after the last speech.
Maria sighed. "What, Jack?"
"You know what the moment is when I realize that we don't need to have you drugged, amnesticized, given an elaborate cover story and dropped into a sinecure in some state office in Wyoming somewhere?" Maria noticed that Jack wasn't making eye contact through this.
Maria brought the glass up to her lips, steadied the tremor again, took another gulp. "I assume that several individuals higher-ranked than yourself believe I have failsafe programs in place in the event that I no longer show up for work, and that those will not be the sort of thing the Foundation can recover from easily."
Jack looked directly at her and laughed. "Assuming those exist? Assuming we don't already know about them and have countermeasures in place? Assuming you're the first person to have had that thought? Assuming that so many people in positions similar to yours haven't done the same thing, to the point that we don't even take offense to the implications at this point? No, Maria, even assuming all of that, we'll be hurt by those, but we'll survive. We're the Foundation. We are eternal, like the Catholic Church, or NBC. We're not scared of some — and I mean this with all sincerity, regardless of however sarcastic it may sound — hellaciously destructive forced retirement party."
Even a full foot shorter than she was, there was no mistaking the intensity with which he spoke. "Every time we have these conversations, at the beginning of them, when you're snarling about how 'unforgivable' we are and how 'terrible' all of our actions are and how 'skewed our moral compass' has become — like we were ever kindergarten teachers to start with — every time you start those rants, you keep saying 'you'. 'How dare you,' 'how could you', 'I don't wanna help you', and on and on. Like you're, what, an auxilliary here? Minor League Foundation?
"But by the end of the conversation, it's 'we'. Why do 'we' have to do this? How can 'we' do something different? And that's a little more accurate, isn't it? You talk about Able cashing my paychecks — whose were you cashing? You talk about the shadowy voices whispering in my ear — you think yours are more noble because they send emails with Comic Sans signatures at the bottom? We are the Foundation. You're the Foundation too. Get on the fucking team."
Maria was frozen into place while she watched Bright turn around and walk out of the office. "And answer your emails."
Maria stared at the closed door for two full minutes, then groped around the desk, feeling for her glass. Without looking, she grabbed it and threw the rest of the drink back in one swallow. She collapsed into her chair, soundless tears streaming down her face.
TO: MARIA JONES, DIRECTOR, RAISA
SUBJ: MOBILE TASK FORCE ALPHA-NINER
KEYWORDS: RESURRECTION, LIGHT, LAST HOPE
REQUESTING CLEARANCE LEVEL "BRAVO" FILES ON FOLLOWING PERSONNEL RELATED TO PROJECT RESURRECTION TO BE TRANSFERRED TO DOCTOR SOPHIA LIGHT, COMMANDER, MOBILE TASK FORCE ALPHA-NINER.
MCCLANAHAN, BRANDON A.
SHEPHERD, ZACKARY S.
BOYD, ELIZABETH J.
LOPEZ, WILLIAM I.
ABRAMS, WILLIAM T.
AVALON, PETER X.
WORKWISE, FATIMAH A.
CHASE, NOAH S.
Several of the names on the list were well-known Foundation agents, the best of the best. Their reputation preceded them when they walked into rooms. Technically, all the names of the list were. But the last four…
The phone rang, the loud noise startling the hell out of Maria initially, followed by a slight chill when Maria realized that her hatred of telephone conversations was well-known among everyone who would have the potential to have her office phone number, and that she had only received two phone calls in her tenure as the Director of the organization, and they had both come from the same person. This was certainly no different. She picked up the receiver.
"Good evening, ma'am," she said.
"You know, I hate that when other people do that," the voice on the other end replied.
"Do what, ma'am?"
"Guess ahead of time who's calling them on the phone. Don't worry. It's charming when you do it." The voice paused. "Are you sober enough to listen?"
Maria swallowed. "Yes, ma'am."
"The email you've been reading intermittently for the last nine hours? That you've deleted four times?"
"Yes, ma'am." Maria wasn't surprised that The Archivist had this information available to her.
Maria sucked in air through her teeth, preparing to reply, before the voice cut her off again.
"What do they informally call me?"
"They call you 'The Archivist', ma'am."
"What is my formal title?"
"And what was my last formal title? That you are aware of."
"Director of RAISA, ma'am."
"You wouldn't have received that email if there was any other one that could have been sent. Do you understand, Maria?"
Maria watched the room around her darken just a bit, her irises closing. "Yes, ma'am."
"That new assistant. Take her with you. I think she has potential that the others didn't."
"Take her where, ma'am?"
"You know full well that you're going to reactivate those last four yourself. Take Alexandra with you."
Maria sighed. "Yes, ma'am."
"One more thing."
The voice let the silence stretch out until Maria asked, "Yes?"
"Don't buy another bottle of Barton's. He's dead and you're not. It's time to let go."
Maria sighed, said nothing for a time. She knew the person on the other end was still there. "Yes, ma'am."
"Thank you." The line went dead.
Maria looked at the email for another five minutes, cursed, and began gathering the data.