by Jeanne Kramer-Smyth

(Winner of SAA's 2018 Archives Short Fiction Contest)

“It isn’t stealing if no one cares about it anymore,” Eleanor announced to the room cluttered with old tech. “And talking to yourself isn’t a sign that you’re a crazy old lady.”

Eleanor hitched a bag bursting with arcane wires and metal equipment onto her shoulder and wove her way through the close-set shelves of the Academy’s tech recycling warehouse. At the door, she took a deep breath and peered out. For now, the campus was still empty of quarantine enforcement.

The familiar path back to the Academy Archives felt long and lonely tonight, the heavy bag pulling on her shoulder and pointy bits of metal poking her side. She missed the bustle of a campus full of students. Her cheeks tingled and her fingers ached in the cold air.

Back inside, she shuffled through the dark into the windowless processing room before turning on the lights and switching on the radio. The warm air enveloped her and she longed for hot tea. Instead, she dumped her haul on the table and began sorting. Wires to the left, other hardware to the right.

The radio provided a steady stream of official Ushuaia announcements. Alternating solemn male and female voices listed city quarantine zones. She tried to tune out the latest mortality numbers—sky high and climbing. The voices kept her company, even as their statistics of the deadly disease, now spread far beyond its original outbreak in southern Argentina, urged her to work faster.

When she joined the Academy Archives twenty-seven years ago, a dozen staff helped new researchers weekly. Professors relied on archival materials. Public researchers, both local and from around the world, were frequent visitors.

Now the Academy held no classes; only the Archives remained open. Clients were few and far between.

It was a miracle Abena had donated her grandmother's data drives. Most would have thrown them away. Dr. Esi Aidoo had taught at the Academy for thirty years before retiring, their leading epidemiological statistician. Abena had donated four data drives found in her grandmother’s attic last month. Dr. Aidoo’s research remained, albeit trapped on obsolete media in a neat row on the processing room’s back shelf.

“I set up the remote cameras.” Grace’s voice startled Eleanor, making her drop a cable. “Where are you?” An Academy Archives “frequent flyer,” Grace had realized only that morning how valuable the contents of Dr. Aidoo’s drives might be to her research into the causes of the epidemic.

“Back here.” Eleanor called.

“Did you find what you need?” Grace set up a portable monitor near Eleanor’s tidy piles on the table.

“Some combination of these should work.” Eleanor put the last cable into the correct stack and picked up a rag to wipe grease from her fingers.

“We can watch for the quarantine patrols.” Grace switched on the display, showing four live feeds from across campus.

“Did you have trouble getting here?” Eleanor looked behind Grace. “Where’s the machine?”

“Yes, I had trouble. Quarantine patrols equal a lot of sneaking and no way to move a machine through the streets.”

“So why am I doing this? There isn’t any hardware to connect those to.” Eleanor waved toward the drives.

“The Hall of Science should have a machine from the right era. We can get there underground without being seen.”

Eleanor sat, leaning forward to rest her head on the table’s cool surface between her careful piles. Her voice was muffled as she spoke. “You’re sure you need the data now?”

“I’m sure.” Grace put her hand on Eleanor’s shoulder. “Her data might be the last link we need to document a connection between preventative cataract gene therapy and the population’s high vulnerability to Ushuaia. The body count is already so high. . . .”

“Okay.” Eleanor sat up and ran her hands through her short gray hair. Staying busy pushed the news reports of head-to-toe rashes and clouded eyes out of her mind. “Lead on.”

Eleanor perched the small cylindrical radio in the center of an empty cart that Grace grabbed from the corner. She slung her satchel on her shoulder.

“I wish we could do this all remotely.” Grace guided the rattling cart into the service elevator that led down to a level with tunnel access.

“We need the hardware to talk to those drives and the processing software in our onsite data enclave. Then we can push them anywhere you need.”

The elevator cheerily announced level B1. A few quick turns and they were walking through the first shadowy tunnel. Musty stale air closed in around them. The announcers’ voices echoed as the cart’s wheels rattled and squeaked. Grace navigated them to a slightly dented gray metal door that wasn’t locked.

They left the cart behind as they stepped through the narrow doorway into the basement of the Hall of Science. At the last moment, Eleanor grabbed the radio and tucked it into her bag. The muffled voices kept right on making officious announcements through the fabric.

“No overhead lights.” Grace pulled a small flashlight from her pocket. “This should be enough.”

“What else do you have in that pocket?” Eleanor laughed.

“A flamethrower.” Grace lead Eleanor up two flights of stairs. “And a universal translator.”

“Good to know you’re so prepared, but I’m not sure what you’re expecting to face tonight if you think we need those specific objects.” Eleanor followed, stepping carefully and holding tightly to the railing in the dark. “I haven’t been in here in ages.”

“I remember when they were trying to sell the old machines—they weren’t even worth reclaiming for scrap, so they just abandoned most of them. There should be one in here.” Grace pushed open an unlocked door on the second floor.

A large desk dominated the otherwise unfurnished office. “Hold this.” Grace handed Eleanor the flashlight as she got down on the floor and shimmied under the desk. She pulled wires from the floor outlets and fed them back up to Eleanor. The monitors, processors, and keyboard were integrated into the desk. When Grace pulled out a multi-tool with just the right screwdriver, Eleanor pointed accusingly.

“See, you did have something else in your pocket.”

“It was in a different pocket.” Grace opened up the side panel of the desk to get at the machine’s main processing unit. “Should we grab the keyboard and monitor?”

“Yes.” A light from outside the building swept across the ceiling. “Get down! Turn off the flashlight!” Eleanor whispered.

“They can’t hear us.” Grace whispered back. “Besides, your radio is louder than we are.”

Eleanor fumbled with the radio, making it momentarily louder before she found the switch to silence it. They sat behind the desk, watching until the lights stopped. Then they waited a little longer, listening for footsteps.

“I think we’re safe,” Grace spoke at a normal volume. “Let’s get this out and back to the Archives.”

They worked quickly. Eleanor didn’t turn the radio back on until they were in the processing room. The list of quarantine zones droned on.

Eleanor pulled one of Dr. Aidoo’s drives off the shelf and found the cables she needed to connect it to the computer they had scavenged. She breathed a sigh of relief when the machine booted up and recognized the first drive. She let Grace take over after that, navigating the screens smoothly. In moments, Grace cursed.

“What?” Eleanor asked.

“No. No. No. No.” Grace moaned, banging the keyboard.


“It’s all encrypted. Dr. Aidoo’s granddaughter didn’t give you a decoding key, did she?”

“No.” Eleanor shook her head, but walked to the box of papers that Abena had donated at the same time she had given the Archives the data drives. “It wouldn’t be on paper, right?”

“No.” Grace shook her head, coming to look over Eleanor’s shoulder. “It’s got to be a hardware-based key. Can we call her?”

“It’s the middle of the night.”

“It’s an emergency.”

“You really think she has it?”

“She might not even know she does. The keys often look like something else.”

“So we don’t need just a key—we need a key that doesn’t look like a key?”

“Exactly. Call.”

When Abena finally answered the video call, the screen revealed a sleepy face and a pink fuzzy bathrobe against a backdrop of quarantine supplies.

“Up late, Eleanor?” Abena rubbed her eyes. “I didn’t think the Academy Archives had such late hours.”

“Oh no, we woke you!” Eleanor said as Grace spoke over her.

“Do you have anything else from your grandmother from the Academy?”

“Of course you woke me. It’s four in the morning. Who is your friend, Eleanor?”

“This is Grace.” Eleanor pointed to the researcher, who waved, “She needs access to your grandmother’s data for her research into susceptibility to Ushuaia. I must extract the data here in the Archives before the quarantine shuts us out of here for at least the next month. We need a decryption key we hope you have.”

“Nice to meet you, Grace.” Abena smiled, her eyes brighter. “What exactly am I looking for?”

“Something that a cable could plug into? Or could plug into a computer. It might be hidden. It’s probably marked with the Academy logo.” Grace said.

Abena stood up, tightened her bathrobe and stepped outside the camera’s range. They could hear her moving things, shifting boxes. Her torso came back into view as she pulled a box onto the desk and dumped it out.

“This is all I have left from my grandmother’s Academy stuff.” Abena shifted the camera so Grace and Eleanor could see the jumble of objects. She sorted and lined things up. Pens and paper clips. Some postcards. Dr. Aidoo’s Academy ID, her smiling face frozen in time. Dark skin, bright smile, braids pulled up into an elegant bun on top of her head.

“I don’t see anything. Do you Grace?”

“The big green pen. Can you see if it opens?” Abena’s nimble fingers pushed and pulled at the pen.

“Oh!” Abena gasped as the pen came apart, revealing a port for a cable to connect to. “This could be it, couldn’t it? I’m glad I didn’t throw it out.”

“Yes!” Grace clapped her hands. “Yes. That has to be it.”

“But we need it here—right?” Eleanor asked Grace.

“Right.” Grace smiled until she saw the look on Eleanor’s face. “Oh no. Abena, are you already under quarantine?”

“Our zone has until morning. I have about three hours. How badly do you need this?”

“Badly.” Grace took a deep breath. “How much do you know about your grandmother’s research?”

“She researched the risks of the gene modifications designed to eliminate age-related cataracts. She refused the treatment. No one took her seriously. She couldn’t get funding or Academy backing to continue her work. Eventually she gave up and switched her focus. She counted herself lucky that they didn’t fire her.”

“Abena, I think your grandmother was right.” Grace spoke fast, excitedly. “I think that the gene therapy eliminated an old defense that would have protected people from Ushuaia. We might be able to use her data to help prevent Ushuaia from killing and blinding hundreds of thousands.”

“Would someone who still had the unmodified genes—would they be protected? Immune?”

“Maybe.” Grace shrugged.

“My mother never got the treatment. I never got the treatment. If you’re right, then I don’t need the quarantine. I’m probably one of the only people in the whole city who doesn’t! I’ll bring it to you.” 

“Are you sure?” Eleanor asked.

“Yes.” Abena nodded, wiping away tears as she smiled. “Yes. My grandmother was right and you are going to make sure the world knows!”

“Abena,” Grace stopped her from ending the call, “Right now, this is just a theory. I could be wrong. The epidemic could have nothing to do with the cataract gene therapy. You might be risking infection if you come out tonight.”

“I understand.” Abena nodded. “I do. But I’ll be careful and move fast. If there’s a chance this could help—how could I do anything else? Am I coming to the Academy Archives?”

“Yes,” Eleanor confirmed, “The same building where you dropped off the drives last month. Ring the bell when you get here.”

The next hour crawled by as Grace transferred the encrypted data off the first two drives into the machine from the Hall of Science. Finally Abena rang the bell and Eleanor led her back to the processing room.

“Here it is.” Abena pulled the pen out of an inside pocket of her jacket with a flourish.

Grace took the pen from her reverently, pulling it apart gently to reveal the port Abena had found. She handed it to Eleanor who worked methodically, testing a row of connection cables. Rescuing digital materials from the last century was her specialty; she was in her element now. Five AM and she had been up all night for the first time in years, but her hands didn’t shake and her eyes maintained their focus.

“Ah ha.” Eleanor sighed as the seventh cable connected neatly with a satisfying click. Eleanor looked up to see Abena and Grace watching her with grins. She connected the other end of the cable to the old Hall of Science computer.

Eleanor’s fingers flew across the keyboard. Grace pointed out where she had transferred the files. Eleanor’s first try to open the files just gave them gibberish. “Don’t worry.” She reassured them before she left the room at a run.

She returned in a few minutes with a box in one hand and a handful of new cables in the other. Eleanor sorted through the cables at the back of the processor until she found a match. Snaking the cable back around to the front of the machine, she came back to sit with Abena and Grace.

“The Academy’s science department provided staff with a few different encryption tools in the era that Dr. Aidoo worked here.” Eleanor opened the box, tipping it forward for the women to see inside. “Each of these mini-drives has a convenience copy of the decryption engine for one of them. We just need to find the right one.”

The sky was growing light when Eleanor found the right combination of decryption engine and Archives data enclave. She'd had to do some fancy leapfrogging from program to program and one virtual environment to the next within the processing machine to get everything working. But it did work.

Abena refused to leave. Seven AM saw Grace reviewing her first sample of Dr. Aidoo’s research data, unencrypted at last. And even then, Grace and Eleanor had to push Abena out of the processing room.

“Remember that we don’t know that you’re immune. You still have to be careful.” Grace repeated for the tenth time.

“I know,” Abena smiled, “I promise. Do you promise to keep me posted and to make sure my grandmother is given credit?”

“Absolutely.” Grace hugged Abena one last time, then pushed her out the door into the warm early morning sunlight.

“Your turn,” said Eleanor when the door closed behind Abena. “You need to get yourself home. I need a little more time with the Archives onsite enclaves to process the rest of the drives. I swear I will send you the pointers and passwords for the full copy of Dr. Aidoo’s files as soon as I can. But you have to be safe at home to do your part.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Don’t you ‘ma’am’ me.” Eleanor redirected Grace toward the door.

“Thank you.” Grace turned back taking Eleanor’s hands in her own. “Thank you for making this happen. You could have been asleep in your bed last night.”

“No.” Eleanor shook her head. “There is no way I could have gone into quarantine knowing that something that might help people was trapped on those drives. I have a duty to provide access to these records—just as you have a duty to follow the threads of your research.”

“Be careful. Watch the monitor. Get yourself home.” Grace pulled her into a long hug. “See you on the other side of all this.”

Eleanor locked the door behind Grace. One drive extracted and unencrypted, three to go. The radio announced a full quarantine sweep of the Academy zone at 9 AM. She had to work fast and stay lucky. She rolled up her sleeves and got typing.

She kicked off the final transfer of the third drive’s data as Grace’s cameras showed hulking quarantine buses rolling through the front gates. She turned off the radio and hooked up the final drive in the resulting quiet. The connections were easy. Eleanor didn’t have to experiment—she knew all the steps, but the transfer and decryption could go no faster.

Quarantine enforcement, in their bulky protective gear, entered the first building on campus just inside the gate. If they were going to search every building between her and the main gate, she had a little more time. The encrypted message to Grace with her access information went next.

Eleanor cycled her attention among the camera feeds, the data being first transferred off the drive and then decrypted and processed, and an old gym bag she filled with supplies.

They overrode the lock on the Academy Archives door easily. There was a lot of shouting when they found her. She pressed enter on the last upload command before stepping back to put her hands up in surrender.

“I’m the only one here. I will come with you—just please lock the door behind us.”

Quarantine enforcement hurried her along, securing the Archives at her insistence on their way out. Eleanor imagined the two screens beside one another—one showing her being taken away and the other sending Grace her final batch of data.

© 2018, Text and artwork by Jeanne Kramer-Smyth

About the author: Jeanne Kramer-Smyth has been the electronic-records archivist with the World Bank Group Archives since 2011. She earned her masters of library science from the Archives, Records, and Information Management Program at the University of Maryland iSchool after a twenty-year career as a software developer designing relational databases, creating custom database software, and participating in web-based software development. She is the author of Spellbound Blog where she has published dozens of essays exploring the intersection of archives and technology, with a special focus on electronic records, digitization, and access. Find her on Twitter at @spellboundblog. Beyond her work in archives and digital preservation, she is a writer, photographer, graphic designer, creative spirit, and fan of board games. Jeanne is the creator of the Pyramid Game Freeze Tag. A fan of many types of fiction, she has a special place in her heart (and large home library) for fantasy, science fiction, young adult, and historical fiction. She has published a number of short stories in anthologies. She lives in Maryland with her husband, son, and two cats.