Ester Jones Diaz

by Rebekah McFarland

(Received an Honrable Mention in SAA's 2018 Archives Short Fiction Contest)

The box wasn’t empty. Maya frowned at it; it was an old Hollinger, one archivists had used in the twenty-first century, aligning with the measurement standard that Maya still followed. There were five others like it—thankfully empty—that Maya had been tickled to find in the back of the supply room. She picked up the box, sighing at the thin layer of dust on the lid. She wiped it away and stepped out of the supply room.

She was the last one in the office space. Cubicles sat empty, as did the open workstations facing the real-time view of Earth from their orbit. Maya had dimmed the lights despite the resulting gloominess, hoping she wouldn’t feel so forlorn if she couldn’t see how empty it all was.

The archives were little better. Maya felt adrift in the vacant space, small as the room itself was. It was just big enough to fit her desk, a small table, two chairs, and 51.5 linear feet worth of physical collection. 51.5 linear feet—huge, by Station standards. Each item was processed and carefully placed in the suspension shelves, the engines of which hummed softly. That’s what had drawn Maya to becoming a Physical Items Archivist, irrational as it had seemed at the time: the warm hum of shelves and the smell of old paper.

That was all gone now; the shelves were empty, powered down and silent. The Inner Star Foundation—an organization which for 148 years had provided scholarships to children wishing to become engineers—had shut its doors due to diminishing funds and the passing of its last director. Maya was given two years to find a permanent home for the physical archives before the building would be sold; the task seemed to take up every thought, every moment. Maya threw herself at the challenge whole-heartedly.

She hadn’t succeeded. The contents of the archives now sat in interdimensional storage—the questionable stability of which kept her up nights—and Maya was spending her last day in the offices feeding outdated supplies to the recycler. It was hard not to feel distraught; though she was still technically the collection’s archivist until the collection found a permanent home, it felt odd to be working out of her apartment. It felt a little too much like failure.

Maya set the box on the table and tied back her locs. Despite the nature of her job she hadn’t actually surveyed a collection since her school days. A rush of excitement ran through her as she lifted the lid. The contents smelled stale, with a hint of dust. A red, fragile card fell from the lid, released from where some inattentive user had accidentally crushed it years ago. “Closed for 65 years,” it read. The note itself was dated 137 years prior. Maya smiled and pulled out the first document.

“Why I Want To Fly In Space,” it read. Maya stared at it. It was handwritten, the letters shaky and loopy. “1) Becauze space is beatifull and I want to see it 2) I’m going to walk on the moone 3) I’m going to get a moone rock for my Momma. Ester Jones, Age 6.”

The paper was in good condition. Maya read it again and again; it made her think of her niece, who had written a note recently about why she wanted to go to Earth. That note, of course, had scrolled across a screen, voiced by Secretary80 while Maya did her ring commute. But there was something in the handwriting and the paper itself—lines carefully printed, yet ignored by the stalwart writer—that led Maya to feel the same determined sentiment in both missives.

She carefully placed the note aside. The next piece of paper—a small, brownish square—disintegrated as soon as she touched it. Maya panicked, calling Secretary80 for help. “What is this?”

“Scanning…twenty-first century newsprint,” Secretary80 said in an official voice emanating from the piece hooked around Maya’s ear. “Awful, useless material,” it added, editorially.

“Just great.” Maya had thought for sure that twenty-first century readers had moved to the early web for their news. She made a note to look it up later and moved on to the next item.

It was a wad of photographs—and wad, Maya decided as she spoke her findings, was the best word for it, since they had all seemed to fuse together. She set them aside and had Secretary80 send a note to a conservator friend.

School essays were next, followed by awards and dissertations. Ester Jones had won a scholarship to some now defunct university on Earth, becoming an engineer. She drew numerous designs and kept careful notes. “We’re going to get up there,” Ester wrote on the design for what Maya best determined to be a ship, “and we’re not going to let it be anything like it is down here.”

Ester’s designs grew even more numerous over the years: plans for feeding large communities, for low impact housing, for interplanetary travel. Her designs sprawled over printed meeting minutes, the backs of technical papers, notebooks, and even a type of porous paper Secretary80 called a “paper napkin.” Some were on proper graph paper, turning pale yellow at the edges. These were Maya’s favorite; Ester often wrote casual notes in the margin. “Smaller engine = more storage. DUH!!” and “pizza 4 din sorry on phone” brought a smile to Maya’s face. Ester’s loopy six-year-old handwriting had turned small and precise, even impressing Secretary80.

Ester Jones became Ester Jones Diaz, a fact unceremoniously recognized on a contract to work for DevNow Engineering. More designs followed on DevNow letterhead. One page had a child’s drawing of the solar system in the corner, with “good job!” written next to it in Ester’s handwriting.

Finally Maya came to a news article she could actually read, a printout from an early website. “Obituary,” it began, and Maya felt ice in her veins.

Of course—there was always the “of course.” Of course Ester Jones Diaz was long dead, but Maya still read with tears in her eyes. It had been peaceful. She had been surrounded by friends and her daughter, living evidence of 93 well-lived years. She had never made it to outer space, but the list of her accomplishments was massive. The two pictures within the article made a good pair: Ester in her 40s, looking up from her designs with an exasperated smile, and Ester older, umber skin wrinkled, smile small yet eyes warm.

Maya sat back and let the tears fall. “Do you need assistance,” Secretary80 asked.

“No, thanks,” Maya answered. She took the moment she needed.

She looked through the rest of the box and then—simply because she could—she looked through it again, start to finish. She sat back and blinked into the silent room. It had gotten late; Secretary80 had long given up reading out the ring commute times. Maya drummed her fingers on the table.

“Seighty, is there an accession log for this?”

Secretary80—after another notification of the new ring commute times—replied, “No log found.”

“Deed of gift, notice of intent, anything?”

“No log found.”

Maya sat back. “Hmm. She’s well before the foundation, so she’s not one of its students. Why do we have this?”

“As reported, I can find no conclusive answer in the archives’ records.”

“Sorry, rhetorical. Please contact the storage facility and tell them that I’ll need the ‘Raymond Thompson–Founder’ series. Do you have the location numbers?”

“I do. The facility is currently closed to access requests, however. The notice says new requests will be fielded Monday.”

“Ah, right.”

“And it’s late. Current commute times—”

“You’re right. Let me finish up here.”

“Shall I call a drone to deliver the box to the storage facility? Intake is still functioning at this hour.”

Maya stared at the box. “Not yet,” she said.

Maya finished cleaning out the supply room. She powered down the recycler and asked the lights to dim. Then she did something she had never done before: she took archival material home.

She felt like a fugitive the entire ring ride. The feeling helped to ease some of her sadness at leaving the offices. She had only worked with Inner Star for six years, but it felt like a whole lifetime was coming to a close. Having Ester near helped.

Her conservator friend got back to her the next day, willing to look at what he called, “your photo disaster.” He also offered her a table to work on in his lab, relieving Maya’s dogged, constant fear that her apartment would somehow burn down, flood, turn toxic, or all three at once, ultimately erasing Ester from history.

On Monday the storage people got back to her; she had them deliver the items to the conservation lab. One month later—amid the constant search for a final home for the archives—Maya finally determined that the box was indeed in scope, thanks to an entry in a journal belonging to the founder of Inner Star: “Thinking about Ester, or Mrs. Diaz as she was when we were kids. She once told me there was nothing that made her any more remarkable than the rest of the kids she had grown up with. She said it had to do with getting a scholarship, a chance. I figured, the more chances, the more Esters. I want to extend as many chances as I can.”

Secretary80 looked Ester up in the records of her hometown. Ester and Ramon Diaz had had one child and no grandchildren. There was a great grand cousin, but he had uploaded himself into a dreamscape three years ago. As for DevNow, Maya learned that it was one of the many companies absorbed into what made SWYFT, the engineering company behind Main Station and everything on it. She composed a message for Secretary80 to send to Jo Chow, the head archivist at SWYFT. She included a few shots of the designs, for completion’s sake. After three weeks Maya stopped waiting for a response, and after two months she had set it out of her mind. Ester became a nice anecdote to tell her friends or to entice potential locations for the archives.

One morning Secretary80 woke Maya up with a raucous buzzing. “SWYFT’s archivist is calling you. I have turned down three calls already but they have marked this as High Priority. Do you want to receive it?”

It was five a.m. Too confused to be annoyed, Maya blinked herself awake.

“Thank you, Seighty, send it through.” She rubbed her eyes. “Maya Bisiriyu speaking.”

“Good morning! This is Jo Chow, SWYFT senior archivist. Please tell me you still have these drawings. The Diaz diagrams.”

Maya’s stifled yawn got caught in her throat. “I do. They’re currently in storage while I shop around for a final location.”

“I can’t believe it! We’ll take those drawings, we’ll cover all the costs of transfer.”

Maya blinked again, suddenly wide awake. “I appreciate your interest, but I am not willing to split up the collection.”

“I understand. We’ll take it all.”

“It’s 51.5—er, 52.5 linear feet.”

“We’ll take it all. I’ll draft up the paper work. Can you be here in an hour?”

Maya could and was. She had never been to the SWYFT headquarters before, though the large building was in one of the vibrant centers of Main Station. As the ring car pulled up to it Maya took in the greenery covering the walls. Trees, vines, and seemingly every other manner of plant cascaded down and climbed up the building’s twenty stories in turns. She squinted; she could see people hoisting themselves on platforms, pruning and watering in the light of Station’s morning.

The foyer was open and bright, the air fresh and green. Maya followed a sleepy looking greeter to the archivist’s administrative office, where she was delighted to see a window looking out to the greenery. Jo Chow was sitting with an ecstatic engineer; both jumped up upon Maya’s entrance, talking at once and moving to shake her had. Somewhere amid the “excellent find”s and “sorry about the hour”s Maya noticed that Jo introduced Key Davis, SWYFT’s chief engineer.

“Nice to meet you, nice to meet you both. I haven’t had my coffee yet,” Maya said, shaking Key’s hand. “What’s actually going on?”

“Of the pictures you sent us,” Jo explained, after asking her Secretary to request coffee, “three were prototypes of systems that keep us alive today. The recycler system, the Granary, and—” at this Jo emphatically tapped her finger on her desk. “This station.”

Maya felt her eyes widen; she felt at once giddy and sluggish, as though she were a program trying to boot up. “Main Station,” was the best she could finally manage to say.

Key leaned forward, displaying a screen. “It used to be standard that everything DevNow engineers developed was property of DevNow itself. See,” here the engineer pointed to an image on the screen, “this is an example of a DevNow employee number. You can see that some of the DevNow plans have hundreds of these numbers; so many of them worked together on the plans that would eventually become Station.”

“But,” Jo said, “the ENTIRE design relied on the development of an orbital propulsion system that was self-sustaining.”

“This was at some point accomplished,” Key continued, “but the original plans detailing this accomplishment were never digitized. They went down some recycler long ago, as did any employee numbers and individual credit for the system’s creation.”

“Until today,” Jo said.

Key flipped through images on the screen before settling on one Maya had sent. A section of the image was enlarged; it read “DCN9731” in precise, small handwriting. “This is it, Dr. Bisiriyu. The reason you’re standing here today—why any of us are standing here at all—is Ester Diaz.”

Maya took several deep breaths and regarded the faces staring at her. She gathered her welling excitement into a calm place to keep from jumping out of her chair—though she couldn’t stop the huge smile that spread across her face. “There are even more—even more versions of this drawing. She was prolific. I’ve got a whole foot of them.”

Key and Jo’s smiles joined Maya’s; they all jumped out of their chairs after all.

The day was a whirlwind of activity. Maya called Inner Star’s lawyer and they worked through the deed, the words “in perpetuity” lifting two years of anxiety from Maya’s shoulders. Drones were sent hither and yon, and once again Ester Jones Diaz sat in front of Maya. “Bye, Ester,” Maya whispered, choking up despite herself as she looked over the finding aid one last time. “Bye, everyone.” She didn’t see Jo’s small, understanding smile.

When Maya woke up the next day she was surprised to find she hadn’t been dreaming. A few months later when Jo Chow reached out for Maya to do a presentation on Ester Jones Diaz’s papers she still wasn’t dreaming, nor was she dreaming when SWYFT revitalized the Inner Star Foundation with fresh funding. Maya thought of Ester often throughout her career, utilizing the find as an example when discussing the joint importance of digital and physical archives.

The moment when Maya had to actually pinch herself came forty-one years later, when a former alum of the Inner Star Foundation became the newest elected member of Main Station’s Governing Board. They proposed a vote to name the new twin station “Ester Station.” Maya watched the feed as Ester’s diagrams were projected in front of the Board, as photos and notes once more revealed to Maya the life Ester had led. She squealed in delight and even clapped when the proposal passed and the matter was put to a public vote.

A month later Maya cast her vote. She tried to stay up to see the results but it became too late; her eyes became heavy despite her best efforts. A few hours later she stretched and woke to a soft alert Secretary80 sent her. It was a clip from the feed.

“The votes are in! Ester Station officially opens to interstation transit at the end of this cycle. Transit tickets are available for purchase now.”

Maya quietly slipped into the bathroom. She leaned against the sink and let the tears fall.

“Do you need assistance,” Secretary80 asked.

“No, I’m alright,” Maya answered. She sniffed and cocked her head. “Actually, yes. Can you show me tickets to the new--to Ester Station?”

Secretary80 pinged an affirmative, listing the future commute times with gusto. 


© 2018 by Rebekah McFarland

About the author: Rebekah McFarland—who received her MLIS from Dominican University in 2014—is an archivist and bookbinder living in Chicago, Illinois. In addition to serving as the archivist for the Sisters of the Living Word, she often works as a project archivist for other institutions, most recently the College of American Pathologists and the Chicago History Museum. In addition to writing, she loves to read, knit, garden, and play video games.