Till the day of the accident, the worst part of this job was that I couldn’t tell my friends and family what I really did at the Institute. They think I’m an intern or secretary. I’ve been given a script of what I’m allowed to say and it purposely makes my job sound so mind-numbingly, eyelid-droopingly, attention-driftingly boring that no one will ask any follow up questions. And that’s the point.
And till the day of the accident, the best part of my job was …everything else.
I’m an archivist at the Farthest Star Institute. That’s right. Farthest Star. It’s been almost a year, but I still can’t believe it. I still can’t believe that I’m an archivist at the Farthest Star Institute. Well, junior archivist. The Institute stores and owns a lot of documents—almost all of them secret—detailing the research, innovation, and discovery they do. They are associated with a government agency that investigates and studies atypical and unusual and weird phenomena. It’s like working at one of those premiere research and science institutes from the comics, where people invent things like telepathy machines and anti-gravity jackets, or study things like the applications of dark matter and brain function during the attainment of enlightenment. Sounds like hyperbole, but some of those things may actually be going on.
I wouldn’t know. I’m just an archivist. I shouldn’t say “just.” My job is vital, and that isn’t just something my boss tells me. Despite the title, I don’t just help manage the Institute’s archives, but its current records as well. The Institute generates a lot of data and gathers information from around the world and even beyond it. They have their own space telescope and underground observatory. All of that information has to be organized and stored and backed up and readily accessible, and while much of that process can and has been automated, a human touch is still needed. Counting my boss, the Master Archivist, there are seven of us onsite. We have colleagues all over the world, but still, I was surprised at first that there weren’t more of us for an Institute of Farthest Star’s size.
At my rank, I only get to read and know the content of surface level documents, maybe five to ten percent of the total archives. And most of that consists of public documents and heavily redacted records. I’ve had to get used to that. All documents are given alphanumeric codes so that we can find the correct one without knowing anything about the content or even the context. A request comes in and I find the information, not knowing if I’m pulling a bundle of love letters or a year’s worth of space surveys.
Digital documents are sent encoded, but I do spend a lot of time finding and delivering physical documents. Usually they are locked in boxes of various sizes, and I, being the “new guy,” have the pleasure of transporting them all over the sprawling campus, or sometimes to various neighboring counties, and sometimes accompanied by armed guards. My more senior colleagues get the fun out-of-state gigs. And international deliveries are usually handled by my boss or her boss.
So, I suppose that does sound boring. And it might be, if not for the deliveries. That’s when I get the chance to get to know the personnel. That’s when I get to overhear things people say that I’m not supposed to hear, or see things I wouldn’t normally be allowed to see. The odd snatch of conversation between managers about a possible ghost sighting that I catch as I walk onto an elevator. The file left open on someone’s desk on a page describing some kind of new radiation detector. Even the most careful people reveal something forbidden to an attentive eye. People aren’t as easily or monitored or predictably managed as our vast collection of documents.
Just in my first few months, I ran into one of the researchers and her technicians rushing down the hall. Their team had near-legendary status in the main archive office. I overheard one technician say that a Mr. Belmont had called with…stomach troubles. I was sure that the “stomach troubles” were not a euphemism for diarrhea. They fell silent and gave smiles and greetings as I passed. When they thought I was out of earshot, they continued their conversation and I could have sworn I heard the words “unstable” and “anomaly.” I put a hand over my own stomach, thankful that it wasn’t anomalous.
And there was the time I made an urgent document delivery to a conference room in the Spades suite. I was at the back door and saw an image projected on the wall of the darkened room, an image of a strange creature with large bright yellow-green eyes and an amorphous black body. The speaker had an ornate jar set on the table that shivered once or twice as if something were moving inside.
I’m no researcher or explorer. The one and only time I discovered knowledge, or rather uncovered it, I got myself fired. It has not been my ambition to create knowledge or even discover it. It’s been my aim to facilitate access to knowledge.
I may not be a discoverer, but I am human. I am curious about things. It would be nice (amazing actually) if I could read and study the documents under my care. It would help me to help my colleagues. I’ve got to be patient. Work my way up the ranks. I’ll get there someday, if I pay attention, watch and learn, all that usual stuff.
I don’t want to get to my boss’s level. The talks and presentations and travel all sound good, but she has to answer to people she doesn’t personally know. People who hold her personally responsible if there appears to be any breach in the archive or anything missing or out of place. And some of those people are…difficult to deal with. I have no desire for that type of thing. But I’d sure like to be one of the boss’s right hand guys. Someday. Right now, I just relish how lucky I am.
Before I started at the Institute, I served in a similar-ish position for a small university. One day I decided I’d try to impress my supervisor by doing an extra project on my own time. I found an impressive collection of rare original documents, books, scrolls, and letters, and more. Hundreds of items. And I soon realized that no one knew the university had such treasures. There had been a lot of turnover among the staff that did all the record-keeping and document-tracking. Those rare documents, gifts and bequests, had slipped through the cracks. When I went to my supervisor with what I’d found, she warned me not to say anything, told me I might lose my job. I hadn’t been officially assigned to the project after all. I might be liable if there were damages to any of the documents. She would “take the fall” as she put it. She wasn’t very good at faking concern.
Maybe she thought I would be compliant just because I was young and inexperienced. I stood my ground about going directly to the Dean myself. It didn’t take her long to start getting pushy, then hostile. She went from warning me I’d lose my job to threatening me with losing my job if I didn’t let her take the credit for the find. But I had documented proof that the discovery was mine.
I went to the Dean, who was ecstatic. The find would win the university a tremendous amount of prestige and credibility. After the Dean’s praise died down, and my name was forgotten, and the documents handed over to the care of experts for authentication, my supervisor found an excuse for letting me go. Inconsistencies in my time sheet or something.
On a whim and in a rage, I applied for an open position I found at Farthest Star. A position for an archivist. It was something I was supposed to build up to. It was a bonehead move, but at least there was no chance of my getting an interview, I told myself. Within a week, they called me for an interview.
They asked, of course, about my previous position. The bad feelings about my former supervisor bubbled up, but I kept it diplomatic. I told the truth, that I was let go because I refused a direct instruction from my supervisor. The interview panel reacted to that and I was certain I didn’t get the job. My current boss was on the panel. She didn’t ask why I hadn’t done as I’d been asked. She asked me why they should hire me if I’d demonstrated that I could not be relied upon to stay within the boundaries of my given duties and to follow instructions and commands from my superiors. I was prepared for that one. I knew it was a problem for the type of job I was seeking, one where reliability and strict adherence to codes, policies, and rules, was valued above independent judgment.
I told the truth again, hoping it didn’t sound cheesy or insincere. Even in the rigid and disciplined work of an archivist, situations would arise that were not covered in training, or by the policies and procedures. And sometimes one had to use individual judgment and go against prior instructions to assure a greater good. My soon-to-be new boss asked me what the greater good had been in the decision I made not to follow my previous supervisor’s instruction.
That one I refused to answer for reasons of privacy and embarrassment. I would probably come out of that story sounding, at best, defiant, or at worst, prideful and arrogant. I was lucky to get the interview, but I thought that my luck had run out. I hoped that I’d get another chance at the Institute someday.
But then they called me back. And there was a written test and a background check and an offer. And while I was still in a daze of disbelief, there was a golf cart tour of the Institute’s grounds, and a guide telling me which building my office would be in (because I would have my own office, overlooking a garden full of blue roses!). The golf cart went past an onsite gym, a restaurant or two, a movie theater, and overnight dorms where employees could stay for the night if it was too late to go home and they wanted a more comfortable place to sleep than the couch in their offices. It was familiar, because I’d just been working at a college, but it was so different. The Institute didn’t feel so much like being on a campus as it did being in a small town. A small town of which I was a new citizen.
As long as I had my credentials with me, I had free reign of all the general areas and I explored for months on my days off. Out of superstition, I’d never even gone on one of the Institute’s public tours. I’d only dreamed about and learned about Farthest Star from a distance.
Till the day of the accident, I had on my rose-colored glasses about the Institute, despite knowing there were controversial studies going on, and political things at the Director’s level, and rumored tensions with the government agency that we—that the Institute—worked with.
And until the day of the accident. I was far from the laboratories and containment facilities. Far from the wonders but also far from the dangers. Except when I was on deliveries.
We’re given the typical safety training upon hiring and on a regular basis thereafter: ergonomics, building evacuation, use of fire extinguishers, and the like. In addition, there are Institute-specific safety procedures that I had to sign confidentiality agreements to learn. The first thing that struck me when I attended was how seriously everyone else took the training. It wasn’t like in past jobs, where people fell asleep during the slide shows, cheated on the quizzes, and shuffled out of the training room having absorbed little to nothing. So I too paid closer attention and focused more than I might have otherwise. The training wasn’t even the end of it. There were weekly drills, surprise inspections, planned exercises, safety audits. Whatever else could be said of the Institute, it did seem to put safety above all other concerns.
So when the alarms went off on that typical Tuesday as I rolled my suitcase full of document deliveries between the Cloud and Sparrow suites, I knew what the sound and the color of the flashing lights in the hallway meant. I knew how to read the proximity gauges that indicated an alarm was pulled (and the potential danger was located) within two hundred feet of where I was standing and which direction. I followed procedure. There was no immediate danger in my building, so I quickly stowed the documents in a nearby storage locker and calmly move away from the location of the alarm.
I was only about ten feet away from the locker when I heard a boom that sounded through all my bones. The earth slipped beneath me. I reached out my hands to catch myself as I fell to the ground. The lights went out and the alarms stopped. The building had lost power. I sat in darkness, counting the seconds, counting past the time the emergency generators should have kicked in. They didn’t kick in. I reached for my badge and activated the tiny light on it. It would flash, serving as a rescue beacon. And a transmitter in the badge would send a signal to the rescue division. I had gone through a drill with a similar scenario only a few months past. I knew what to do.
I turned on my own little keyfob flashlight and continued moving in the direction that the safety lights had indicated before going out. Along the way, I encountered three offices where the workers had gotten locked inside when the building lost power. In two of them, they waved me on. Their badges were flashing. They signaled that they knew the protocol and were working to manually open the door. But in the third, there were only two people and both were banging on the door in a panic. There was a small emergency light in their office, by which I could see them in part shadow. But they hadn’t even activated their badges. They didn’t seem to be wearing them. I found the lockbox containing the key to the office entered the proper code and got the two people out. They rushed past me. I had to grab one of them to remind them to turn on their badges and why. One of them wasn’t even wearing her badge. The other turned his on and they continued on just ahead of me.
I crept along the hallway slowly, sweeping my flashlight back and forth, searching for anyone who might be hurt. I grabbed one of the first aid kits mounted on the wall. And one of the Institute’s special emergency kits. It wasn’t for me to use the special kit. My job was to carry it out of the building if I could.
I made it outside of the building and gave the special kit to a rescuer outside who was shepherding all the evacuees to the designated area on the west lawn. He nodded to me and shouted out a number. Five. That would mean that four other people had grabbed a special kit and brought it out to the rescuers. I’d always thought it was a strange thing, always wondered why the special kits were put in specific places if the procedure was to remove them from those places. No one had ever used or even opened any of those kits during drills and no one seemed to be opening any now.
I was told to keep the first aid kit with me. There were some cuts, scratches, bruises, and minor burns that needed tending. We stayed on the lawn for the better part of an hour before being ushered to a quarantine area, and then made to pass through what looked like a metal detector but was certainly no metal detector. Whatever they were afraid they would find, they didn’t find it. I watched people pass through the detector and be given the all-clear. I was given the all-clear. I was allowed to go to my offices, which were outside the “event perimeter,” to get my things and go home. I called my boss and colleagues. They were all right. They had been farther away than I had been, being in our offices. They’d heard the boom and felt a slight shake, like an aftershock. They’d been told that I was all right. I’d checked in with the roll call. That was why they had gone home already. I wasn’t allowed to bring my phone during deliveries, but they had tried calling me anyway. I adored my team, but I didn’t realize how shaken I was until I heard their worried messages, and I didn’t expect to feel so comforted by their voices.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I wasn’t scared, just unnerved. The next morning, I went into work, asking all the normal questions. And my team understood my need to know, but they reminded me that whatever had happened, we couldn’t know now. We would probably never know.
It was unsettling not knowing what rea——lly happened, not seeing something in the news, going back to work as if the accident was just another drill, wondering if there really was an accident or if it had been a very realistic exercise, wondering how far up the ranks I had to climb before I could be granted access to the knowledge that I, as an archivist, should have already had access to.
The accident site was cordoned off, the perimeter so far out that I couldn’t even see the buildings I’d been in that day, much less the event site itself. I imagined things like a giant crater in the earth where something had exploded or a building phasing in and out of existence. But speculation was as far as my knowledge would go. There would be a file on the accident—the event—documents, data, records. But it would be given an alphanumeric and I wouldn’t be able to identify it even if I were asked to pull the information.
My boss realized how nervous I was in the week after the accident. She sent me on fewer deliveries and checked up on me more often. And she broke a rule for me. She told me something about the accident. I hope she told me the truth. I believe she did. She told me that no one had lost their lives or even any limbs in the accident. There had been enough warning for personnel to flee. Just not enough to stop whatever it was that happened. Safety protocols worked and among those who helped to assure that everyone reached safety was me. I was one of many people who remembered and followed their training.
All those months of not knowing what information I was shuffling around and delivering, and it hadn’t bother me one wit. But now I was troubled. Of course it was natural, and it would probably pass in time, but I felt so helpless and useless despite what my boss said. But she was right. If I had made a difference, it was by doing my small part. There was some small comfort in that.
Still, I had to do more. A few weeks after the accident, I went to the training courses listings and signed up for every optional safety training session I could find. I asked to be put back on my full delivery schedule. I had to know more too. Learn about the rules. About when and how and why to follow them. And when and how and why to not. Depending on the situation, knowledge and ignorance could both be dangerous in equal measure.
If I was going to help protect the information I managed, protect myself and my team, protect my new home, be a good citizen, I had to get out of my office. And I had to go beyond what my given duties were even as I respected those duties. And I had to learn as best I could what was really going on in the Institute, my Institute.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel