A stranger emerged from the woods at the bottom of the slope behind Len's house. The man had a face so serious, yet so bland, he seemed to have stepped from the pages of a crime comic book. He was dressed in an ill-fitting business suit and wore a topcoat against the chill of the cloudy, but colorful autumn morning.
His wide-brimmed hat was the stuff of 1940s crime movies. The man's entire wardrobe seemed somewhat out-of-fashion, as if he'd bought it all from a used-goods market. The man carried an old, scarred leather briefcase.
Despite his second-hand appearance, Len chose to view him as one of those FBI agents portrayed on television. He must be someone out of the ordinary. Walking among the trees along the creek was something not customarily done by door-to-door salesmen.
Len daydreamed an intriguing role for the stranger:
He was investigating a matter of national security. He needed Len's help, and would appoint him Deputy Special Agent to assist the government in this important, confidential investigation.
The Deputy Agent wanabee was a wheelchair-bound boy of 16 years. He had contracted polio, and his well-to-do parents had withdrawn him from school to be educated by a hired tutor. They gave him everything a kid in a wheelchair could want. He had an expensive telescope for studying the stars. He had a big shortwave receiver. And now he had a new toy: a portable computer.
Len was in his backyard at the edge of the slope above the creek. He had wheeled himself out there on this Saturday morning to watch the sun rise above the valley, and to work on the video-game he was programming in BASIC.
Because there had been some recent UFO reports in the newspaper, Len had his camera-equipped telescope beside his wheelchair. If a UFO showed up this morning, he would try to capture it on film. So far, none had appeared, but he was loaded and ready.
He wished he had his movie camera set up inside the house to record the stranger who was puffing up the slope straight toward him. It was too late now to refocus his telescope camera. The man would notice that he was being photographed, and might object.
Len's parents were away for the weekend, but he was being looked-after by their housekeeper, Elsie, who was currently dusting the front rooms of the large house behind him. She was a widowed Irish immigrant who watched after Len as if he were one of her own sons.
"Are you Leonard O'Beirne?"
The man showed no identification so Len guessed he must not be from the FBI, after all. They always showed their picture-ID. He pointed to Len's Tandy-100 portable computer. "That's a nice computer.
Can you program it."
"Yes," replied Len. "I'm working on a game, now."
"Good." The man looked around him and lowered his voice. "I'm here to seek your assistance for a confidential project. I can't tell you who I am or who I represent, but we'd sure like your help, and we're prepared to help you, in return.... Are you interested?"
Wow. Just like I imagined, thought the Deputy Agent. But he wanted to know more.
Len, who had been wheelchair-bound for several years, was not very wise in the real ways of the world. He trusted people. Most of those he met in his confined circumstances were polite and solicitous of his welfare. It didn't occur to him that this stranger might have an unworthy motive for his visit. This innocent naivety, however, proved to be an asset.
"Will you help us?" the man asked, without identifying "us."
"O-okay," replied Len, hesitantly.
"Good... I guess you'd like to have more memory in your computer, wouldn't you?... How much does it have---64k?"
"Thirty two... Not enough."
"I could easily get it modified to have a very large memory without changing its outside configuration. I and my associates have developed a new memory chip that's a quantum jump over current technology. We could install it in your computer. You could store gigabytes of data, and no one but you would know that."
"Gigabytes'? That's billions." Len found that hard to believe.
"It is, and there'd be no danger of losing them. You wouldn't need a battery to retain data in the new memory. But If we gave you this extra memory, we'd expect you to use most of it for a journal.... Do you know what a journal is?"
"It's like a diary, isn't it?"
"Yes. A diary, a record of the events in your life. People, places, things. In fact, everything you find to be of significance. You enter that data into your computer, and then you index it so we can search and retrieve it, later, by date and subject. We'll want to recover your journal sometime late in your life."
He avoided saying, "before you die."
All this seemed overwhelming to Len. A few minutes ago, he was just playing around with his little shoot-em game, and now some shadowy bunch of people wanted him to record his life for them. It seemed weirder than what he saw on television.
"How would I index my data?"
"We'll load an indexing program into your portable. It'll have a disguise name and interface, say, GAME01.BA---something like that. You run it after each journal entry, and it'll index all the important words in your new entry, and store them in a master index. You could add your own index terms, too. There'd be ample capacity."
"Sounds like a lot of work," replied Len, who was dubious about this idea. What experiences could he have that might be useful to anyone else? "I don't get around a lot, you know. I have polio."
The man smiled, benignly. "There's no problem about that. We'll get rid of your disease. We have advanced medical technology, too."
At this point, Len smiled, dubiously.
He surely couldn't believe that claim. His parents had sought the best medical help for him, but his legs seemed destined to remain unusable. What could this stranger do for him that those doctors couldn't? Hope was all he had left, though, so he was reluctant to assert this.
"Okay. If you'll cure me, I'll keep a journal."
"Good." The man took from his coat pocket a black leather, snap-open box. "We'll take care of it, right now." He opened the box and took out a shiny, pneumatic hypodermic injector. It looked like a raygun, not scary like a frosted-glass syringe with a long needle. "Maybe I should..."
The sight of the injector brought the discussion he'd been having with the stranger from the realm of possibility into the immediate, real world.
"Nothing to worry about. This stuff will kill the polio viruses in your body. Then I'll give you some pills to help you get your leg muscles back in shape. You have to do the physical therapy, yourself. It's that simple."
"I'd better talk to my parents about this, first."
The man pointed the injector skyward. "You can't do that, Leonard. This treatment has to be done in secret. After the injection, you just take the pills and quietly keep trying to walk. In a few weeks, you'll be almost as good as new. To your parents, it'll seem like a dramatic recovery. That's all they need to know. Then, you'll begin to get around and widen your universe of experiences so you can record them for us.... See?"
Len sat silent, his mind swirling with unease.
"We've helped others like you. I can't tell you who they are, but they're all cured and helping us now, just like I want you to."
"Okay, I'll do it. I hope it works."
The stranger lowered the injector. "It will. You'll see."
As he was being injected, the patient suddenly wondered how this stranger knew so much about him.
She hadn't seen the man slipping Len's computer into his briefcase, or she might have intervened in the transaction that was taking place. She went outside to ask Leonard who the stranger was, and what the devil he wanted, here.
"Oh, he just wanted directions to the main highway," was Len's casual reply to her question. "He got lost."
"Who was he?"
Len shook his head and answered truthfully. "I don't know. He didn't say."
In the jack-o-lantern in the window of his ground-floor bedroom, was Len's old movie camera. He had modified it to expose one frame of film every second. Now he had something for the record. He was already beginning to think and act like a Deputy Agent.
Len kept quiet about his impromptu medical treatment, as he'd been asked to.
The injection produced no ill effects, so he took the pills and did the exercises the stranger had taught him. Soon, he could wiggle his toes. Gradually, amazingly, he regained the full use of his legs, except for some residual instability due to muscle damage. He thought it best to inform his parents about his slow recovery, instead of surprising them by suddenly walking.
Their response was to rush him to a doctor, who was astounded at his increasing ability to walk without leg braces. The doctor called in other doctors, who were equally impressed. They conducted a lot of annoying tests, but they failed to understand the miracle. The baffled doctors did send Len's parents a big bill for verifying the recovery, though.
By the time its second semester began, Len was ready to attend the public school near his home. His parents made him use a cane for awhile. He dutifully used it, feigning locomotor difficulty like a secret agent might disguise himself while on a mission of danger.
In his newfound enthusiasm for life, he didn't forget his promise to his unidentified benefactor. He faithfully kept a journal of his life's activities. The first entry was a memo, for the record, of his encounters with the stranger from the forest. He discovered the journal program was password- protected, and automatically encrypted everything entered into it. This made Len feel even more like a secret agent, and assured him that his journal wouldn't be read by snoops.
But for whom was he compiling this record? Len thought of the UFO sightings the week the stranger first appeared. Could he be someone from a flying saucer? He'd looked so human and ordinary.... No matter. Len knew his journal would have personal uses. As he grew older, he could refer to it to refresh his memory, and to retrieve historical data he needed.
He began listing the television programs he watched and the movies he went to with his cousin, a plain but personable girl his own age. He recorded important events in his school classes, and in the school band, where he learned to play the oboe he talked his indulgent father into buying him. He listed all his new friends, and wrote of them in an honest and frank manner he would have been hesitant to do in an ordinary, parent-readable diary.
He found that expressing his innermost feelings in his journal acted to relieve stress, and allowed him to act more discreetly in his relations with others. He saved for the journal what he might have been tempted to say, in person. If he was annoyed with someone, he just wrote it up for the record. He thus gained a reputation as an easy-going fellow who didn't offend people.
If only they knew what I'm writing about them.
He recorded all this data in the privacy of his room. He didn't want anyone to know he kept a journal. His benefactor had impressed upon him the necessity of keeping this a secret. Len had a good memory, so he mentally noted things and later typed them into his computer. Sometimes he discretely made temporary, handwritten notes.
He took a touch-typing course, so he could work faster. Every night, no matter how fatigued he was, he entered something into his journal. For years, he typed until he felt his computer would suddenly reject anymore input, and he would have to cease his journal-keeping. But it didn't. The stranger's "associates" had truly made the little off-the-shelf computer into a vast receptacle for Len's data vitae, a healthy lifetime of it.
In college, he majored in journalism, a natural choice. In keeping his personal journal, he had taught himself to write fairly well, so he decided to write for a living. Upon graduation, he got a job with a local newspaper. Later, he moved to a large city, where he joined a news service, and became a roving reporter. Everywhere he went, he carried his reliable, old computer. Into it, went what he experienced and digests of the news he professionally reported.
As the years passed, Len's journal-keeping became primary in a way he couldn't have anticipated.... He found that his girlfriends got close enough to him to want to know about his journal-keeping. This troubled him. When one woman he was especially fond of tried to secretly read his computerized journal, he made a difficult choice:
he decided not to marry. He knew a wife would eventually discover his secret, and he had reached the point where that secret was uppermost in his personal priorities.
His journal-keeping was now an obsession. It took the place of a more-conventional hobby. It made such conventional anodynes as alcohol, dope, and promiscuity unnecessary. Even as he regretted his compulsion to journalize his life, Len marveled at the personal advantage it offered him: he had something which would accept his life experiences and opinions in an uncritical manner.
In middle age, his journal became his primary companion. Slowly, increasingly, it absorbed his life in words of sincere truth. And Len became almost as a medieval monk at the holy task of recording his world.
Leonard O'Beirne fitfully dozed in the late afternoon sun. In his lap, loosely gripped by his spotted, veined hands, was his computer. He reclined in a comfortable lawn chair in the garden of the nursing home he'd reluctantly retired to after he felt he could no longer care for himself. He'd been afraid he might accidentally die before the stranger who'd set him on his odd life's course could arrive to claim his journal. So he stashed himself in the home and waited.
He faced the residence building where he was living out the last of his life in a small room. These days, he had much less to record in the journal, but he kept at it, without fail. In his time, he'd had to miss an occasional day of data-entry, but he always added the missed day's info on the next.
He was determined to repay his benefactor for curing him of his childhood affliction, and for giving him a lifetime hobby and a satisfying profession he seemed born for. The yellowing sun behind him warmed the top of his head with its wispy strands of white hair. A bug crawled along an arm toward his computer.
He awoke unrefreshed just before a man emerged from the rear exit of the residence. He sat up in pain, the pain that was always there, now. A pain he desperately fought. He blinked and squinted at the approaching man.
"My God," he mumbled to himself. The stranger's appearance had changed but little from that distant morning when he gave Len a new life. He had some wrinkles, but unlike his Deputy Agent, he had aged much slower. He was better-dressed than before.
He can't be human.
Quickly, Len turned on his computer and accessed his journal program. He displayed on the screen the first eight of his long list of daily entry-titles.
"I knew you'd come."
Len handed his computer to the man. "Before I die..." He couldn't finish that thought. "You can see how I've entered and indexed every day's data, just like you wanted me to."
"Good. You've done well." The man smiled benignly as he stared at the computer's screen and paged backward. "Did you have any trouble recording all that information?"
"Oh, no. It was easy. Doing it became an important part of my life ---like shaving, but more enjoyable."
The benefactor turned off the computer and put it into his briefcase, the same battered one he'd carried decades ago. He looked at Len with sympathy.
"Do you want to die, now?"
Even though he'd intended to ask about this, Len was shocked by the relevance of the question. But, yes. He needed something else from the mysterious stranger: a way to go. "I'm ready, now. I've kept the pain in my gut a secret. If they knew about it, they'd stick me in a bed in the hospice and take away my computer.... Will you give me something?"
The man took from his coat pocket a small cellophane package. In it were two pills, one blue, one yellow. As he handed over the package, it crinkled in the quiet of the garden. "Take the blue one with your supper, and the yellow one before you go to bed. They'll put you to sleep and stop your heart. There'll be no pain---and nothing easily-detectable left in your body."
"Good... I have a question before you go."
"Are you from the stars? Are you an alien?"
"Yes, I am. I can't tell you where I've come from, but you've guessed correctly. Your journal will help us better understand your people. We thank you for it. Goodbye."
Len had more questions, but before he could ask them, the man turned and strode from the garden, and around the side of the residence. He carried with him Len's self-recorded, encrypted life.
Len watched sadly as the man left with his journal. He felt a void,as if something vital had been ripped from his body. From a table near his chair, he picked up a copy of the cafeteria menu which was circulated to the home's residents. He turned to today's menu, and took from his shirt-pocket a mechanical pencil he'd had for a long time. It bore the name of his father's old business: O'Beirne Hardware and Lumber Co.
In the margin of the menu, he briefly summarized the visit of the stranger. He indexed this summary. Then, he indexed his selection for supper. Since he no longer had his computer, he manually listed his own index terms in tiny letters.
He chewed it into a spitball-sized entity, then swallowed it.
Thus, he stored his final journal entry.
He left the garden and slowly headed for the cafeteria to have his last supper.
Len was annoyed by this turn of events. At his table, he fretted about it so much he couldn't begin to eat. He stared morosely at the cup of rice pudding he'd reluctantly taken. Finally, he decided he had to make a sacrifice to somehow amend his makeshift journal's data.
He ate everything but the pudding.
Frederick Rustam is a retired civil servant who writes stories for Web e-zines as a hobby. He formerly indexed technical reports for the Department. of Defense. He did this in an office not unlike that in his story "Information Retrieval." He doesn't keep a diary.