Descent into the Archives
by Dennis Mombauer
Issue 8: Weird | 2,356 words
© grandfailure/Adobe Stock
“We require the Tirani correspondence from the archives. Do not open it. Do not read it. Bring it to us.”
The instruction came from the fax machine line by line, accompanied by toneless buzzing. M. watched the paper, searching for a way to escape this assignment, but there was none. The instruction was in writing, addressed to him, and signed with the luminescent sigil of management. He shivered. This was his station of duty; he had nowhere else to go. It had taken him two years to get this job, and he had debts. If he stopped paying, bad things would happen fast.
The printer finished its work, and M. pulled the sheet out to read again. It had been postmarked as “urgent,” and “urgent” meant dropping everything, immediately, without delay.
“I have to get some files.” M. waved to his office partner V. on the way out. She looked up with surprise.
“Get some files?” Her eyes narrowed, “From where?”
“Yes.” M. had to force the words out. “From the archives.”
V. pressed her lips together and frowned. “Are you serious? Really? It’s a personal instruction? You can’t refuse?” She took a heavy purse from her desk drawer and threw it to him. “Here, take this. Use it to return, please.”
M. buttoned his jacket and took the first step. The staircase was wide and well lit, but with every level, the windows became lower and dustier, the illumination sparser.
M. clutched the purse in his pocket and cast one last glance out the windows before he descended beneath street level. Plaster flaked off the walls like dandruff, and where the stairs turned a corner, spiderwebs glittered in the ceiling’s high edges.
M. climbed down level after level until he reached the lowest landing, the terminus of the staircase. A door with three locks blocked the only exit, and a bearded man sat next to it on a chair.
“Hi, how are you? I need to enter the archives.” M. brandished the fax from management, but the man didn’t bat an eye.
“Sorry. I have an order not to let anyone from upstairs in, only archive staff. You must find someone to bring out your file.”
It sounded so tempting. M. had no desire to go into the archives; he just needed to keep his job. “Is there someone who could do it?”
“Not this week. The last group of archive drones went in yesterday; they won’t be out for a while.”
“I can’t wait a week.” M. pounded his finger on the paper and felt it tingle as it touched the sigil. Management must know this, but they had sent him anyway. This file must be important. “Look, it’s urgent.”
“What can be urgent about a file from the archives? It’s all just heaps of paperwork, isn’t it? And paper is patient.”
“I don’t know why this file is important. I only know I have to get it. Can’t you make an exception and let me through?” M. knew he shouldn’t, but what choice did he have? “I can pay you.”
“You have coins?”
M. raised the purse and jingled with it.
“Meh.” The bearded man sighed and pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “But this stays between us, right?”
The archives stretched around M. as far as he could see. Ring binders lined the branching hallways, their backs labeled with letters and dates, from months and years to centuries.
Paper dust hung in the air like plankton and settled on M.’s skin, causing him to itch all over. He headed as straight as possible and followed the hallways down into the past.
Clumps of entangled chits and sticky notes had overgrown the floor, rasping against his legs with every step. In the unsteady tube lights, the shadows contorted around him and seemed to reveal new junctions and side corridors with every step. The sooner he got out again, the better.
The archive vaults extended in endless flights of chambers and connecting passages, stripping M. of any sense of direction.
At the next crossroads, he found a coin box attached to an old-fashioned CRT monitor. He had never entered the archives, but he had heard of these things. His throat dried up as he weighed V.’s purse in his hand and found it lighter than he remembered.
He took out a coin, kissed it, then inserted it into the slot. If he turned back, he would lose his job, and his job was all he had.
The coin rattled through the machine before the monitor flickered to life. It showed M. as a blinking dot and the ever-changing archive maze extending around him. According to the legend, yellow hallways housed contracts and covenants, pacts and pledges, bonds and depositions; red corridors contained invoices and IOUs; brown ones had pickled flesh and preservation jars.
M. moved his finger over the vast colored sectors and their spiderwebs of interconnected lines. Graphite: inanimate objects and instruments, autonomous artifacts and installations. Magenta: stone tablets and sarcophagi, turnscrews and Vitruvian cuneiform.
Where was it? The CRT monitor would turn off any second, and M. still didn’t know where to go. The fonts grew tinier and tinier, with the abbreviations of sectors and sub-sectors becoming ever more complicated.
There. Pale Maya blue: correspondence and communiques, letter mail and messages. The monitor went blank.
M. took a deep breath, coughed on the dust, and walked. He had seen enough to know the general direction and headed toward it with long strides.
M. wished he had company or at least music, but he only heard the distant sounds of steps, doors snapping shut, and clattering typewriters. He couldn’t see a soul, just concrete and paper, cold brightness, and an eternity of files.
How should he find the Tirani correspondence? M. stopped at another coin box and fed it from the purse. The colors had changed, and the legend was scrambled. He frantically searched the map: left branch of the corridor, clockwise down the staircases.
Arrows were glued between the filing cabinets, but their directions didn’t correspond to the corridors of the archive maze, pointing at nothing or straight into the ground.
M. had never been clear about the nature of the archives, but he had lost colleagues to them. They had been on missions from management and failed to return. According to the official memorandums, they had simply “stopped working,” and no one had asked any more questions.
After what felt like hours of walking and dispensing coins, M. entered a hall whose exits were barred by wooden fence gates and padlocks.
“Hello?” M. rattled at a fence. “Is anyone here?”
“Yes…” A voice answered him, little more than a hoarse echo. “We can hear you… We can help you…”
It was a choir of calls from different directions, and soon, M. discovered their source: figures shuffled toward him with gaunt faces and dust-encrusted fingers, reaching out for him through the wooden slats.
“Who are you?” M. wrinkled his nose at their stench of musk and mummification.
The answer came in an assortment of voices, “We work here.”
“We maintain the archives.”
“We failed upstairs.”
“They transferred us here.”
“Did you bring us something?”
“Do you have a task for us?”
M. stared at the archive workers crowding behind the fences. “I need the Tirani correspondence. Can you give it to me?”
The workers responded in unison again, “Ekal Tirani.”
“This is a matter for the bosses, a matter for the archive executives.”
“We cannot give you the file.”
“Can you show me the way?” M. asked.
“We can guide you—”
“To the office elders—”
“The board of the archives.”
“But not for free.”
“I understand.” Paying these creatures was the same as paying the coin boxes, wasn’t it? The purse had grown so light, but what could M. do? His coins ran dangerously low, but if he paid them, it should still be enough to get back.
Keys jangled as the archive workers unlocked the gateways and encircled M. “Follow us, follow us. We will bring you to your file.”
The archive people led M. with blabbering voices along the identical corridors, which they seemed to be able to tell apart from the tiniest of features.
The environment changed. Step by step, everything became older and more faded, seemed to sink below the waves of a sepia sea. Folders sat on the shelves in colors that M. had never seen, labeled not mechanically but by hand or with stencils.
Bundles of paper filled the bordering halls to the ceiling, and M. thought he even saw scrolls and clay tablets among them.
“Oh, oh. We cannot escort you any farther, not farther than here.”
M. nodded and cast a last glance at the trembling figures. If he looked closer, maybe he could recognize someone, but for what purpose?
He pressed on alone toward a heavy door. Locked filing cabinets and drawers lined the walls, a masonry of dull metal and keyholes. A faint noise emanated from them, the rustling of trapped files and moaning folders.
“Hello? I’m here to pick up the Tirani correspondence for upstairs. For management. Can I come in?”
The door swung open before M. and revealed a chamber with a stone shaft where the floor should have been. It plummeted into an emptiness shrouded by fumes.
“What you seek is here,” a polyphonic whisper floated up with the fumes. “What you seek will stay here. Once in the archives, forever in the archives. There is no way back.”
“But I need this file, urgently.” M. had no intention to negotiate. His job depended on this file, and he would fulfill his duty. “It is for management.”
“We do not care. We are the ancestors of the office, the eldest and most ancient. Heed our words.”
“You must have needed correspondences in the past yourselves, don’t you remember? Old dossiers for reference, receipts for transactions, documents for conversations? Memoranda?”
“And what difference does it make? Even if I take this file upstairs with me now, it will sooner or later find its way here again. Sooner or later, everything finds its way here, doesn’t it? Because all paperwork trickles down into the archives.”
“We remember. We remember the odor of wealth. The perfume of profit. We are prepared for an exchange. Ten coins for Ekal Tirani. No more and no less.”
M. clenched his fingers around the purse in his pocket. He had eleven coins left. It had taken him ten to get here.
“We can smell it. We know you have it. Ekal Tirani, ten coins. We remember worth. We remember value.”
M. tried to swallow, but the inside of his mouth had dried up and left not a drop of saliva. How would he get back without coins? If he returned without the file, management would call him to the board room. Would they fire him over a missing correspondence?
M. straightened himself. They would, without hesitation. They would fire or transfer him, and he didn’t know what was worse.
“One. Two. Three.” M. threw coins into the shaft and watched them vanish without a sound. “Four. Five. Six. Seven.” He had to rummage for the last ones. “Eight. Nine. Ten.”
A leathery claw reached up from the abyss and handed something to M., “We have counted. Take this folder. Don’t look inside. Go.”
The archive staff vanished, and M. had only one coin left. The passages shifted again. Huge mechanisms labored in the distance, turning and bending the maze according to incomprehensible designs.
M. stopped at the first coin box and turned the last coin in his hands. Either he got out with this, or he was lost forever. He inserted the coin and studied the map as it appeared. Where was the exit? His heart hammered; his breathing accelerated. He was inside the black heart of the archives, and the colored sectors extended everywhere with no end in sight.
He found the staircase and charted the direction, marching as fast as he could while the memory remained fresh. The junctions rotated; the hallways rose and fell. He was out of breath and stopped at another navigation monitor. He had no more coins left and he was nowhere near the exit.
M. sank down against the wall and sat on the dust-choked floor. All that effort for one small folder… the Tirani correspondence couldn’t be substantial. But this wasn’t about the actual correspondence, was it? It was about him getting stranded in the archives even though he had done nothing wrong. Even though he had always completed his work.
What was so special about this damn folder? And what reason could there be not to look inside? Who could punish him if he perished here? What punishment could be worse?
Sitting on the floor, M. opened the folder, loosened the clamp, and started to read. He browsed rotten and decomposed pages, impossible dates, letter columns that contorted over the paper like strings of insects locked together.
Despite himself, M. sprung into motion and immediately stood up. Like a sleepwalker, his legs followed the letters’ convoluted path, carrying him forward at their command—but where, where to? Did he even pay attention to the way anymore? The correspondence wanted to get out; M. could feel it.
M. tried to flip the folder shut, but his arms didn’t obey him. His ears rang with whispers of Ekal Tirani and of escape, of hidden staircases and of secret backdoors. M. looked from one featureless hallway to the next and marched without knowing the difference.
The twisted letters of the correspondence burrowed through M.’s brain and dripped like sweat into his eyes, overlaying the crossroads with glowing blueprints.
M. stopped at a door, and the correspondence folder closed. He blinked while he caught his breath, and then his heart skipped a beat.
This was the entrance and the exit, the threshold of the archives. This was the way out: back up to the office, or to a different place entirely.
Dennis Mombauer works as Director of Research & Education for SYLCAN Trust, a civil society think tank in Sri Lanka that focuses on climate change, sustainable development, ecosystem restoration, and other related topics. He is also a writer of speculative fiction, weird fiction, and nonfiction that have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. His first English novel, The Fertile Clay, will be published by Nightscape Press in 2020. Find more about him on www.dennismombauer.com or follow him on Twitter at @DMombauer.