Vren. Bri. Doh. Gred.
Did you ever get a tune into your head that just wouldn't go away? One that you didn't even recognize, or have any idea where you first heard it, but there it was anyway? Day after day? Well, this wasn't exactly a tune, but rather four nonsense words that had been randomly popping into my head every few days for several months now, and they were just as irritating. Wondering absently what they could mean, I wearily tossed my briefcase (containing my lunch rather than papers of any importance) onto my chair and turned on the PC. Another day in Cubicle 49, I thought, another day of my life down the drain.
A cartoon image of a woman with spiky cyan hair appeared on the screen as the operating system loaded. Good morning, Ryoko, I thought to myself, and automatically checked my phone for messages. Pleased to find none waiting, I picked up a mug from my desk and walked over to the drinking fountain to fill it with water, returning just as the image disappeared from the screen to be replaced by a network login box. A university records office had to be one of the least exciting places on Earth, I thought to myself, and being located in Fontana, California didn't help much.
"Was that Ryoko?" said a cheery voice behind me. "Cool!" I turned to see one of the student assistants grinning at me, a slender but athletic young woman a few inches shorter than me with an improbable mane of sandy-colored hair topping off a lively, distinctly mischievous face. "I'm Kiri," she announced brightly. "Ryoko's one of my favorite characters from Tenchi Muyo. You into anime too?" (Just in case you've been living in a cave for the past decade, I suppose I should explain that "anime" is what used to be known as "Japanimation," a genre with a devoted worldwide following, especially among science fiction enthusiasts).
"I am when I can afford it," I replied, rather bemused. Student assistants didn't usually deign to talk to staff except when they had to. Generation gap and all that, I supposed. "Expensive stuff, though. My name's Wilbur, by the way."
"I know," she said. "Wilbur Barton. It's in the staff directory. Can I call you Will? Wilbur always reminds me of--who was that horse again--"
"Mr. Ed," I said helpfully. "Actually, Wilbur was his owner, but I knew who you meant."
She looked at the screen again, now with its corporate-dull login window waiting. "Tenchi's my favorite series. Have you ever seen the whole thing?"
"No, not really," I answered, wondering when I could get to work. Not that I particularly wanted to; it was a dull, routine paper-pushing job that any trained monkey could do, but it did pay the bills. "I've only seen the first two episodes."
She only hesitated for a moment. "Why don't you come over to my place and watch it with me? I've just gotten the new DVD reissue of all thirteen episodes." I suddenly felt oddly disoriented, as if I'd wandered into a play without realizing it. Seeing my surprise, she added rapidly, "I'm not from this town, and I really don't know many people here. And most of these students seem to think animation is just for kids." Clearly sensing weakness like any efficient predator, she threw in the clincher. "And I'll make dinner. Deal?"
By this time I was really beginning to wonder what I was getting myself into, but as she started scribbling her address on the back of a five-part carbon form I decided what the hell, what could I lose? She tied up the transaction with a brisk "Five-thirty, then?" and as I nodded dumbly she was already disappearing back into the student work area down the hall.
I slowly sat down, staring at her nearly illegible handwriting, trying to reassure myself that I hadn't just hallucinated the whole thing. "Wilbur," said one of the other clerks, seeing that I was now free, "Ms. D'Arcangelo wants to see you." I shuddered involuntarily, my train of thought now irretrievably derailed.
Ms. D'Arcangelo, my immediate supervisor, was a very tall, very thin woman in her early fifties, with the imposing title of Head Supervisor of Enrollment Processing. Perched above a set of bleak facial features that she liked to consider aristocratic was an immense beehive of greying hair, firmly set into place (evidently by chemical means) and with a distinct bluish tinge. Rumor had it that she had a first name. However, it also held that the last person who had discovered it had vanished without warning. (Of course, we could have just looked it up, but that would have spoiled the fun).
"Now Wilbur," she had begun, staring at me over her pince-nez in what was no doubt intended to be a kindly manner, "about your work statistics last month..." The clock moved very slowly that day.
Her name is Kiri, I found myself thinking more than once. She looked me up in the staff directory. She says she'll make dinner. This is no way for a forty-six-year-old middle-aged adult to act, I reprimanded myself, but I still found her popping into my thoughts at the most inopportune times, such as during Ms. D'Arcangelo's investigation into why my performance output had dropped an immense two percentage points from last month's.
Five o'clock arrived at last. I had barely enough time to get home, change, and head out again.
I was expecting a typical student apartment building, but the address she had provided turned out to be a modest ranch-style house in a quiet residential neighborhood. A small but expensive Mishima sports utility vehicle was parked out front. Half-anticipating a hoax, I rang the bell, but it was indeed the whirlwind calling herself Kiri who answered the bell and invited me in.
"I'm sorry if I railroaded you a bit today," she said as she closed the door behind us, "but I didn't want to get you into trouble with your boss. I thought keeping things brief would be a good idea."
"Thanks," I said dryly. "It was interesting."
"Look," she said, all too accurately reading my nervousness, "if you're expecting me to attack you or something, don't worry. Or get your hopes up, either," she added wickedly. "I really meant what I said. I'm looking forward to watching anime with someone intelligent for a change. But first," she announced gaily, "dinner!"
Dinner turned out to be a simple but very tasty rice dish with some stir fried vegetables on the side. We ate at a small kitchen table with no formalities. "So tell me about yourself," she said between mouthfuls.
"Well," I started out hesitantly, "I can't really say I lead much of an interesting life. I basically type data into a terminal for most of the day, and spend what's left fixing what went wrong once it went in."
"So how'd you end up there?" she asked, as I seized the moment to wolf down a few forkfuls myself.
I thought about it. How had I ended up there, anyway? "I guess I found that what I really wanted to do wasn't considered worth doing anymore, and I have to pay the bills somehow."
"And what was that?" she wanted to know. She had a distinctly uncomfortable talent for quickly getting to the heart of things, I thought to myself.
I explained that back in the early seventies I'd gotten my degree in aerospace engineering, in hopes of hooking up with NASA. That was when the country still seemed to be riding an endless wave of prosperity and could afford to indulge itself in living out its dreams. As it happened, I got out of school and started looking for work at about the same time that people quit tuning their TV sets to the launches. In the intervening years I'd worked here and there in the aerospace industry, and found that more and more I was working for a system that valued something much different than I did. The clincher was a well-publicized disaster and the ugly revelations afterwards. The sleazy compromises that had led to the multiple-fatality fireworks display were all too familiar to me on a daily basis. I decided to get out.
"At least in a records office I don't have to make life and death decisions on the basis of someone's career priorities," I finished. "Besides, one advantage of working a low-paying job is that I can be myself. I don't have to worry as much about what other people think."
She, on the other hand, was skillfully reticent about herself, as I quickly discovered. Although I did manage to determine that she was single and lived alone, I realized later that was about the sum of it.
After dinner I offered to help with the dishes, but was firmly turned down. "Look around a bit, why don't you?" she suggested, and with that authorization I proceeded to wander around aimlessly. Although the place definitely had a "lived-in" look, it had none of the college student atmosphere I remembered all too well from my own school days. Scanning through the two bookshelves along one wall (the first thing I look at when visiting a strange house), I found a mix of science fiction, advanced physics textbooks, and a number of travel guidebooks. Lying on a table were several books of astrophysics conference papers from the university library, and a photocopied class handout with PHY934 at the top.
"You're in Brinkman's seminar?" I asked in astonishment. Alan Brinkman was one of the most renowned theoretical physicists in the world, and a prime catch for California University/Fontana. Gaining admission to his classes was infamously difficult. "Yup," Kiri called back from the kitchen. "He's a really neat guy. Did you know he used to play in a rock band when he worked at Lawrence Livermore?" I shook my head. There was definitely more to this girl than met the eye.
"How old are you, anyway?" I blurted out. I was rather astonished that she would be doing post-graduate work in physics; I had assumed that she was an undergraduate student.
"Oh, older than I look," came back the answer. "Ahem," she added with mock indignation. "Don't you know better than to ask a woman her age?" I felt my face redden and was grateful that she was still crashing around the kitchen, although there was nothing in her tone of voice to indicate that she was offended. Needless to say, she never answered the question.
Dishes cleared away, she opened a cabinet, revealing a combo DVD/laserdisc player and the largest flat-screen TV I had ever seen. Below was a huge assortment of laserdiscs, most sporting Japanese characters on their spines, along with a few DVDs. "Where on earth did you all get this?" I marveled. "It must have cost a fortune."
"Nah," she replied airily. "I've got connections. This is nothing. Wait 'til you see the picture," and I eagerly settled onto the sofa for the promised entertainment as Kiri plopped down next to me and wielded the remote.
A popular format for anime is a series of half-hour episodes with one continuous story line, and Tenchi Muyo was no exception. By the end of the fourth episode we were singing the end title song together, and it was obvious to me that she really did enjoy it as much as I. At the end of episode five, when the demon/space-pirate/genetically-engineered-superbeing Ryoko swore impassioned vengeance on the arch-villain Kagato, I put my arm around her shoulders without thinking, and then pulled it back with an embarrassed apology. "Hey, it's okay. We're friends, right?" she protested. "Put it back," and as I did so she leaned against me contentedly. We were both sorry when the seventh and final episode of the first series ended and I reluctantly suggested that I really ought to be getting home.
"Let's do this again soon," she said to my delight, and there was apparently nothing insincere in her tone. Not having a life in any event I hastily agreed, and as I turned to go she planted a quick kiss on my cheek. "Until then," she said softly. I was hardly aware of driving home, as all I had in my head was Kiri.
Sanity returned somewhat as I unlocked my apartment door and re-entered familiar surroundings, with all of their associations. A lifetime of going nowhere was pretty much summed up in the piles of books, videos and a few pictures scattered around. There was a framed pair of black and white photographs of my parents, of whom I had no real memories at all. There was also a color print of Jeannette, whom I had lived with for a few years, until she decided that a successful career person was her ideal mate. I found myself wondering what Kiri really wanted, and on that rather sour note fell asleep.
The next day I expected to find that the world had reverted back to its usual tedious state, but to my surprise found a note waiting on my desk when I returned from lunch. "Have lots more anime," it said. "When next?" It was signed, "Kiri." A phone number was scribbled underneath. For the next hour I put off doing anything about it, then decided to hell with it and picked up the phone.
"When next" proved to be that same evening. Didn't she have a life, either, I wondered? I couldn't imagine that there weren't at least several potential suitors dogging her, but I wasn't about to argue the issue. I was there at five-thirty on the dot.
"So how old are you?" she asked over dinner. Hmmph, I thought, recalling the previous evening's gaffe, but told her anyway. "You must have worked or something after high school," she calculated.
"Actually, no," I said. "I didn't go to the public schools. When I was fifteen, my parents and I were on a car trip, and there was some kind of accident. They were both killed, and although I survived I was left with no memories at all from before the day I woke up."
"You woke up in the hospital?" she asked.
"No, I was at home, being taken care of by a relative, my Aunt Dory. Apparently I had long since recovered physically, but hadn't been able to form memories properly. Then one day my brain just started working properly again. It's kind of like that trite expression about 'today being the first day of the rest of your life.' In my case it really was."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I really didn't mean to pry into anything painful." I explained that it wasn't at all, since I had no memory of my parents or my life before that morning. "You don't remember anything before that? Even now?" she exclaimed in evident disbelief.
"No, I really don't. I had to be taught to speak English again, and I didn't remember anyone or anything. My aunt took care of me and arranged for private tutors until I could catch up in school, and basically acted as my family for as far back as I can remember."
"I do have one weird memory from my childhood. I know it sounds strange to call it that," I added, "considering that I was at least sixteen at the time, but for me that was childhood. Anyway, I remember poking around in Aunt Dory's things in the way a small child will do before he knows better, and finding a really strange picture. I suppose my memory of it has become distorted over the years, but it was as if it were three-dimensional or something, like looking through a window at a scene, and it was a picture of a group of people in odd clothes posing in front of a big beautiful building. Aunt Dory was in there somewhere. I especially remember one of the other people, because she was a teen-aged girl with bright red hair and great big green eyes. It must have been some kind of costume party, I guess. There were also several other children and an adult couple. I don't know why, but I remember feeling so--sad looking at them."
"Wow," said Kiri with a definite catch in her throat, obviously moved. "That must have really made an impression on you, to remember all those details."
"I asked my aunt about the picture, and she pooh-poohed me, saying I must have dreamed it. I looked for it later and it was gone. Maybe I did dream it; it seems so unreal, and yet the memory still gives me a queer feeling whenever it pops into mind." She had been watching me intently during this entire recitation. Her pale blue eyes struck me as oddly expressionless, somehow out of place in the otherwise lively face.
"That's creepy, all right," she finally acknowledged after a thoughtful pause. "Maybe it was some kind of artifact left over from the accident." I shrugged.
"Maybe. Anyway, even though I forgot about it for a long time, when Aunt Dory died I actually looked for that picture when I sorted her things, but it never did turn up, so you may be right." And then we went on to lose ourselves in another two hours of anime, Iria this time, and before I knew it the evening was gone.
The next day at work the subject of my parents came back to me as I tried to concentrate on entering an endless stack of input forms. A little over a year ago I had finally decided to track down all the information I could find on my parents, assuming that it would be a relatively straightforward piece of research. The online archives of the local newspapers seemed a logical place to start, and sure enough I found a few brief articles, including one remarkably short news item that simply mentioned an auto accident on Interstate 15 and listed me as a survivor. There were no details at all, such as employers, addresses, or anything else to use as a further lead.
I then tried contacting the state police, only to be told that records for that time period had been damaged by a computer malfunction and were unavailable. An inquiry with the Social Security Administration yielded a standard form giving lifetime contributions and other bookkeeping data.
At this point I turned to a former college buddy of mine, a dedicated hacker type who enjoyed boasting of his ability to ferret out virtually anything stored on computers. I provided him with what I had located. Six weeks later he informed me, quite chagrined, that he had gone as far as he could. It turned out that he had found himself within a dizzying maze of dead ends, nonexistent files, and circular references. Employers invariably turned out to be no longer in business (sorry, no forwarding address); addresses given had been built over with skyscrapers or otherwise bulldozed long ago.
"Your parents weren't CIA by any chance, were they?" he asked suspiciously. "Because otherwise I'd have to say that their lives must have been so screwed up by computers that they would have been lucky to have gotten their electric bills on time." I could only shrug and thank him for his efforts. "S'allright," he said. "Actually, it was the most interesting challenge I've had in a couple years." As he was leaving, he said once more, "You sure they weren't CIA?"
The final touch came a few weeks later. I'd driven over to Redlands to see someone at the university there, and took along one of the newspaper articles I'd printed out from the online archives. While I was there I stopped by the local library to see if their hard-copy files might provide me with any other clues.
In place of the article I had found online, the copy in the library, which was yellow with age, featured an article about the rutabaga crop in Santa Ana. A check of the other articles I'd retrieved yielded similar results. I even drove to several other nearby towns and checked their copies on file, to the same effect. As far as I could tell, the articles I had found online had never actually appeared in any printed newspaper.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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