The Archivists

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Ten years ago, back before Feddema Global moved its operations undersea, Margaret Feddema had a big meeting go awry. Mister Horn quoted something she’d said, something she had no memory of saying. (“Of course I’ll cover your costs, as long as you produce physical evidence.”) And then, worse, he sat there rubbing his temples as she sifted through the stacks of paper that littered her desk.

Afterward, Margaret stared out the window for a full hour, motionless, the city churning beneath her. She checked her pulse rate and said: “Let’s make this moment never happen again.”

By the next morning, she’d put together the plan: There was to be a dedicated team responsible for monitoring and recording every word she said, no matter where or when.

They had a guy from Diamond’s come in and install microphones all over the place, and I mean everywhere. If Margaret muttered something in the elevator, in her car, on the toilet, there’d be someone out there to hear it, write it down, memorize it, file it, and be ready to read it back to her, anytime, anywhere.

Problem was, who would be on this team? Who would be on duty twenty-four hours a day? Who would have the dedication, the focus, the will? Who would have the ability? And bottom line, people: Who could Margaret trust with every last thought in her head?

Her then-assistant Sean Bittman, now known as Sal of Sal’s Fish House, chewed on it for a while and brought up China Sweet. China Sweet was essentially a bounty hunter, though her business cards — razor sharp and emblazoned with the silhouette of a cherry tree — just said LOST IS FOUND. She specialized in finding runaway girls, and she and Feddema Global often did favors for one another.

Bittman goes on to chatter about branched protoplasmic extensions of nerve cells and how when you’re young, see, your brain is filled with interconnections, literally, physically, right, so you’re open to infinite possibilities. Which is why the time to teach your kid French or calculus or whatever is when they’re still spitting up on your tired, defeated shoulder. Their minds can make leaps that older kids can’t, you know?

“You need a crew that’s loyal? That’s highly trained? You get some kids in here who still have their dendrites. You put your stamp on them early.”

So they bring in China Sweet (née Maxine Estra), still practically a kid herself, still trying to sort through all the lessons her mother taught her. She said: I know the streets of this city, and I know the girls who have been abandoned there.

“I need children who can be trained to listen and transcribe and process and replay,” Margaret said. And China Sweet said no problem. China Sweet said give me 48 hours.

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China Sweet

Seriously though China Sweet had no idea. Sure, she knew where to go for the girls who were desperate enough to do the full menu, and she was happy to get them their start, knowing they’d probably graduate to the White Clinic with full benefits. And she knew where to go for the girls who’d end up with slit throats down by the docks. But where to go for the girls who would be attentive, who would sit still. Who would understand that they had a future, and a say in how that future played out. (It never even occurred to her to seek out boys.) (That was not her training.)

Turned out China Sweet had to break all her mother’s rules and go on a case-by-case basis. Two-thirds of it was just looking in the girl’s eyes and seeing what peered back. She hit the shelters, the orphanages, the nooks inside Board Street Terminal. She had to do actual interviews, which was uncomfortable. I think this is when she first started wearing the mask, picked up for cheap in Trigger Corner. She operated better knowing that their eyes couldn’t see hers, and that her face betrayed absolutely nothing.

By the end of the first day she’d learned what to look for. It wasn’t anything she wanted to put into words but if she had to make a sweeping generalization, it’d be: They do not want to die yet. That was the broad starting point, and eliminated the majority of the girls she rounded up. Twelve hours later she had her list of candidates, and the hard part began: convincing them she wasn’t a slave trader, drug dealer, pornographic pamphleteer, &c. Fifty dollars usually settled it.

Forty-eight hours were up and she had eighteen girls, ranging from the age of six to fourteen, who’d agreed to meet at Global for briefing and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Only twelve showed up. They were tiny and hard. They smelled like the floor of a bar.

Margaret explained what they wanted the girls to do. She projected a few diagrams on the conference room screen. She played some recordings and had them write down what they heard. Some of the girls didn’t know how to write and Bittman brought up the idea of Jerry teaching them to write in some kind of code, for added security. (Jerry being the go-to guy for encrypting classified messages, back before he was replaced by the Dragonfly.) Which they ended up implementing and to this day some of the Archivists still can’t write in regular English.

They fed the girls and put them up at a nearby hotel that was nice but not too nice — China Sweet had recommended against frightening them further with too much luxury. By morning, three of them had stolen the pillows and soap and vanished, but the rest were ready to go to work.

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The Womb

There were six weeks of training. Listening, memorization, recall, categorization and retrieval, cataloguing, indexing, abstracting. Role playing, trust falls. Speech therapy. Holistic theory. Elucidation. Penmanship. Logic.

They listened to hours of tapes and transcribed everything in Jerry’s invented shorthand. They labeled and cross-referenced each document, and remembered exactly where they put it.

In the evenings, Margaret would coax their stories from them. They didn’t meet each other’s eyes as they talked of drunks and back rooms. They lifted up crisp new shirts to show infected wounds. They learned each other’s real names.

On what the girls would later call graduation night, Margaret escorted them all through a concealed door behind her office. This led into a large, multi-level apartment that had originally been for her personal use. But once she decided that the girls had to be kept on the premises and never allowed to leave, she had it remodeled into a womb where the girls would never want for anything.

Margaret gave them the tour, showing them their new home. Like the couriers, each would have her own room, their own lockable trunk to put anything they wanted to keep to themselves. Each would get whatever they wanted from the chef (except Mexican which Gustav considered to be “below their station”). Each would get whatever they wanted to wear. Each would get any kind of pet they wanted as long as it was containable and not disruptive.

Each would be assigned a pen pal out in the office, someone whose job it’d be to tell them about the outside world in blunt, realistic terms. (For a ten-month stretch, Hogwild was assigned to be the pen pal of Chandra, the Archivist of Politics, and it was a job he came to treasure.)

Each would get basically anything they wanted, aside from freedom. And at this point in the tour, Margaret gestured to the door leading back out to her office. She said if anyone wanted to leave, now was the time. Because after she closed this door again, it would be sealed shut forever. They would spend the rest of their lives here, in absolute safety, with no wounds and no drunks. Because out there, Margaret said, out there were people who would break them open to see what they knew.

It was a long moment before Dana, the second oldest, walked out the door and through the office and was gone, not looking back. She was quickly followed by Amy. Maia let out a small cry but didn’t move.

And that was it. Margaret closed the door and hugged each one in turn, there in the buried center of the office building. From then on, the only time they saw natural light was during the brief and supervised trips to the upper level courtyard to watch the stars make their arc.

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The Methodology

They were each given special training in a particular subject, and as information came in it would be filtered to the correct girl for analysis and filing.

ANABEL, Archivist of Material
CHANDRA, Archivist of Politics
KAREN C, Archivist of Import
KAREN J, Archivist of Leisure
LILY, Archivist of Personnel
MAIA, Archivist of Confidence
PENNY, Archivist of Export

Their shifts were spent in soundproof booths, headphones clamped over their ears, tiny pens scurrying to keep up. Documents were filed in the Archive, the bottom floor of the dormitory, which looked like pure chaos but was tightly organized according to their own internal rules.

After some rough starts and refinements to the system, it all just worked. By the sixth month they had a record of every word Margaret said every day, and if she needed to refer to something it was as simple as shouting out to the concealed microphones: “What did I agree to on March 14?” or “What was that fantastic idea I had in the middle of the night?”

The Archivists came to operate on an almost instinctive level. Much of their communication was nonverbal. Their methodology was constantly being improved, their codes streamlined. Gustav would make them dinner and they’d sit on the floor and eat and laugh.

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Despite never going outside, they had a rich understanding of the world due to their eavesdropping and their pen pals. But there were always little gaps in their knowledge, and soon enough these gaps started to be filled in with invention. And these inventions, while minor, were enough to spin things off into unexpected trajectories. There was a parallel group of male archivists out there, for example. The country was a theocracy. Fort Hook sprawled across several states. Winter was three months of darkness. Hot sauce tasted like blood. Rain could leave scars.

But the most damaging invention turned out to be Rosa. She started out as a little bedtime story that Lily came up with. Not even a story, really — just a character, some woman out there in the city who knew about them. That was it. A woman who knew their names, knew where they lived, knew their histories. And she followed their development from afar, never interfering but taking an interest for reasons she kept to herself. Just the idea of someone out there who cared.

The other girls immediately warmed to this concept and Rosa grew in their minds, in the dead space between them, becoming their own personal archivist, familiar with their every thought, not judging but empathizing, comforting them in their times of need, helping them decide between right and wrong. One night, without really thinking about it, Penny called her Mom and the others instantly knew who she meant and the name stuck.

A PRAYER — Dear Mom, please make Annie shut up with her boring theories. Please let you-know-who not make a big deal about holding hands after lights out. Please let F just go to bed early and be quiet. Please let us go to the courtyard tomorrow, if it is fair. Please let me have good dreams. You know what I mean. Please give my sisters quiet sleep, and whatever dreams they request, and amen.

As the girls moved through their teens, yeah there were fights. And there were camps. Trunks were broken into and diaries read. Unforgivable things were said.

There were a couple of prom nights with some wearing tuxes while others wore swollen pink dresses. There were a few recitals, a few plays. They collaborated on a story about a boy who could breathe underwater but never finished it.

In their sixth year, Anabel managed to successfully hang herself with a length of pantyhose. Her body was quietly removed and her expertise in Material shared among the others.

Since the company was moved to its undersea location, there beneath Sal’s Fish House, there have been no further incidents. But more and more frequently, the girls are spending the night together in one room, whispering.

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Next | Coming soon

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©MMXI · Joshua Allen

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