Backwater Archives

Brianna Bullen


She logged into her domain, an archive threatening to extinguish itself under its own over-stimulated, under-filtered information swarms. Pottering around for a minute, hyperlink diving, she quickly restrained herself and closed the browser. There was a subtle art to hyperlink diving: an arc into its deep data, not a plonk. A chosen entry point. A set limit of time through which to hold her breath and explore. She was desecrating her practice this morning, just clicking on each random video in her feed to pass time. There was no meaning to her searches. No rhythm. Even the cat video—tabby tinkering at the piano—seemed empty. Perhaps she needed to adjust her anti-discontentment prescription.

She reached under her desk, hefting up a donation box. The box heaved out dust upon hitting the surface. It was heavy with history and a first edition Oxford English Dictionary. Inside was a cross-section of a lifetime—old ‘selfie’ photographs with film stars and family, print paperbacks with silicon space babes, an old Nokia phone. Tracing her fingers over its cracked screen, she imagined its owner dropping it at a house party decades ago. The woman who donated it was clearly into her second century—body movements shrunken with age gave her away—but surgery kept her at a pleasant fifty-five. She had not wanted to tell a senior citizen that, ‘we no longer accepted material items,’ instead accepting them with a smile, waiting to politely register each item into the ‘not accepted’ list.

Theirs was an old-school computer method, but these items were simply archaic.

She typed in her name; her profile and projected reasons for turning away an item instantly loaded. Her ideological positions and socioeconomic context textually reflected back to her. She clicked ‘no contemporary historical value,’ ‘lack of physical space,’ and ‘over-abundance of similar items.’ The rejection request came back with a glowing tick.

Centuries ago, the Vatican had an illiterate archive keeper to prevent the papers in his care from getting read. This had always seemed limiting to the internet archivist. What was an archive if it was never read by the person maintaining it? It could be entirely composed of kid’s coloring books and Sudoku pages and nobody would know. If an archive had to be hidden, accessible to a very elite few, what was the point? The archives would get unbalanced, inactive, and die, mold and disease seeping into their pages.

There was nothing beyond her cubicle walls that she could see, but she could hear the monotonous drone of the other worker’s monitors and their tap-dancing fingers clicking keys. Behind her: a clock; the occasional co-worker passing towards the kitchen. Her desk: an epi-pen; box; a terrarium with an artificial cactus, gifted by her sister with the message ‘something to your green thumb level.’ Her screen called, light pulsing. Memes merged, siren called.

She had once tracked their trajectory. Most had a life of four weeks, the longest–lasting six months, with longer half-lives in mutations. The latest variation of the mythic ‘adulting’ concept flashed, depicting a snake caught with its jaw open, mid-violence, above a small rodent. The snake was listed as ‘deadlines,’ the mouse ‘me.’

She added it to the ‘adult and responsibilities’ bank, with the historical tags: *Youth apathy; *Responsibility anxiety; *anti-work aesthetic.

In image analysis, she wrote: ‘7/8/207— Modern youth express their discontentment. They have chosen to represent themselves as a rodent, reduced and made to feel like a pest by the world, which is represented by a snake plunging upon them.’

Six hours ticked by.  She cross-categorized more images into the databanks, composing associated notes on social significance. The daily ‘grind’ was not often felt, but worn in the onset of arthritis in her wrist and a sore back from sitting in her meaty prison for too long. Occasionally her body, tyrannical and tourettic, would repeat itself like a broken note, doubling up in staccato jerks, gestures and phrases. But when she could ignore these fleeting bodily sensations, she felt so immersed in the instantaneous.  Its fleeting history connected her with the world and the two-hundred co-workers looking at similar works. She ‘tagged’ Barry from block four in an article relating to the latest political cage match which had killed the leader of the opposition, receiving a like in response and a tag chain of familiar names. At peace, she joked aloud into the silence ‘I have reached peak algorithm.’

An essay, published three weeks ago, popped up in her feed. She had not limited her publication date. To recover and make permanent last week was her only task. The company slogans, stuck to her desktop, read like accusation of stupidity in their block lettering.

‘The recent past can be acted on.’

‘All pasts are still living, but this is the most vital.’

‘The distant past is catatonic.’

‘Record and filter wisely.’

‘Permanence had become obsolete.’

She returned to the box. She was already viewing it with nostalgic pity. One of the books, the only one without a human on the cover, caught her attention. It was advertising its  awards inside a star in the corner. She flipped to the first page, getting through the pages of abstract concepts and wondrous world-building before her computer’s pull became too much. She skimmed through to the end, through scenes of tension, high stakes and visceral violence she only half-understood. The crisp pages grazed against her fingers as she grazed their content. There was difference. Wilderness. The possibility of love within such isolation. So kitsch.

Yet, something—some ache—nestled in. Cautiously, even though she knew logically no one was around to see her actions, she went back to the content information of the box and deleted the title from the record. She put the book in her bag and logged out.

Surely something set for incineration would not be missed. Still, she remembered a recent headline: a woman had been arrested for reading aloud a book to her son in a park, as she had not paid for the access to it. Payment for information was still a social tenet.

As she left she saw faces and bodies, their movement like a collage, over-laid. It was overwhelming, being reminded of other humans. All seemed to have forgotten how to speak, until one man loaded an opening. ‘That moment when …’

People jumped to fill his narrative gap. ‘You fart and nobody hears.’

‘You want to die and nobody cares’ (crossing three categories: apathy/nihilism, bad-taste suicide ideation, and meme lead-ins).

‘You want to laugh and it’s so inappropriate you’ll lose all your friends and family.’

They quickly realized there was no humor without the image attached. They fell back into silent step together.

The commute home was long. Static. The people standing up without seats moved in predictable, rhythmic waves. They were becoming one with the train in a near-erotic push-pull union. Some looked at screens. Most had implants to listen directly to music without an external machine. She herself tapped the trigger in her ear and adjusted the song onto a ‘classic’ album that had not been erased through time. She nestled into the seat, not looking out to see the landscape drift by. Industrial smoggy phalluses scene-shifted to flat country field, to tree-cleared nothingness. Someone was talking in Cantonese over his information-line, clearly not having the tech update enabling muted direct information transfer. Disrupted from her blue-screen doze, she swapped her receptors to instantly translate the conversation. Something about a death in the family. She tuned out quickly, the words too real for prying ears. Words that needed to be said in person. The music melded over the hum of the train, blocking the world out in art. She slept for the next twenty minutes.

She woke when her stop was announced, three syllables that made her sigh with relief in Pavlovian response. She leapt off the train, clopping down the tiny and worn-down station pavement into a featureless field. The under-used station’s sign had been defaced for three months now with a tag: ‘Rueben was here.’ It was stupid to use a real name, practically calling down action upon you. Still, it made her wonder if Rueben was still there, or if he only existed in the moment of time in which the message was written. Nobody else seemed to care enough about the stop to remove it. After forty minutes of walking, the environment changed with the soil. The grass had been pressed down with water and footprints, muddy trails from the rain. Shrubs sprouted. Wildflowers whimsically hid among the grass. She took off her heels as soon as the mud got too thick and the tree branches too grasping. It was another kilometer of walking to get home, through a slimy wasteland punctuated by blistered feet falling into slop.

The journeys you take for money and meaning.

Her hometown was backwater in every Google-definition sense of the world: it was perched over a river, not touched by the currents pulling around them. Its water was stagnant, broken only by the occasional beer can, glossy green with a sun-stripped red logo.  She walked along the banks of the river. In the middle of the lake was an island of mangrove trees. Their roots emerged out of the soil, proliferating out like their own branches, inverted down. Her mother had always thought they looked like the veiny hands of alien lifeforms grabbing onto the earth in possession, much to her sister’s disappointment. The ecosystem below was cloudy and opaque, full of oysters orgasming and crabs and mud-lobsters creeping like nature’s lice. Beneath the water, the roots continued to spread out wide, a hidden neural network with an ice-bergs material secrecy. It had grown unchecked for decades, maybe centuries, a thickly rooted ecology. It had broken several boats throughout the years, from non-locals ignoring the ‘Do not swim/boat/jet-ski/bring dogs’ sign. The air hummed with cicadas and humidity, with the occasional beat of a fish leaping. The sun had disappeared behind the trees, orange segments shining through gaps and giving the trees a stark silhouette. This was a place of stillness. Nothing moved but the light and minutia of life.

It was a place both isolated and peaceful, with the problems and joys of both.

No development or progress. No history here, outside of the land itself. People lived in self-enclosed daily rhythms, impacting nothing, desiring nothing more. They moved through life like amnesiacs, emptied of memory or understanding of the world outside.

The path fragmented. She moved onto the next. When she looked back, the grass obscured the track on which she had just walked as if to say ‘no turning back.’

While there was no significant economic growth, there were no significant losses, either. They made and sold enough for their needs in a mutually beneficial exchange with the land. Still, she could never ‘chug’ along working the land, mechanical and repetitious. She did not want to be integrated into nature’s system as its robotic worker, an agricultural-bio-borg.

She saw her house, made distinct from its neighbors by the number of native plants swallowing the front-yard. She came from a family of hoarders, her sister stockpiling this plant life. The boundary between yard and house, and yard and neighbors’, had been breached by she-oaks and chocolate lilies. She entered the house, always already unlocked. The fears conditioned in the city made her cringe every time at the ease of access. Trauma accumulated in the amygdala, embedding anxiety. The book felt heavy in her backpack. The walls creaked with family secrets long stifled. Every day, she expected the worst, to come home to their mutilated bodies, but things never changed. Her father would always be smiling at her from the stove. Her mother would be reading on the couch. They would continue to live in the inert present.

(This story has been rejected from the global archives, on the grounds of lacking historical importance, original impact, completeness and monetary value).

Bio: Brianna Bullen is a Deakin University PhD candidate writing a thesis involving post-humanism, science fiction, memory and AI. She has had work published in LiNQ, Verandah, Voiceworks, and Buzzcuts, and is a finalist in the Newcastle Writers Short Story competition 2017. Her interests lie in sci-fi, trashy B-movies, and subversion.

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