The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Twenty-seven: Debut

       The prime-time NASA press conference promised to draw more national and international attention than the agency had attracted since Apollo 11. The fever pitch of leak-fueled speculation guaranteed record ratings, and every network on the planet planned to be on the air live with what surely had the potential of being the most sensational news event imaginable. There was by now no doubt in anybody's minds that this was about contact with aliens.
       Little green men. Bug-eyed monsters. E.T. on a bike. Space invaders. Inhuman beings. Almond-eyed grays. Benevolent gods. Denebian slime-devils. Cosmic avatars. Tentacled ammonia-breathers. Angelic messengers. Insectoidal nightmares. Pointy-eared Vulcans. Robotic warriors. Supermen. The Blob. Creatures of pure energy. Uncle Martin. Leather biker-babes from Venus. Ming the Merciless. The Coneheads.
       Official government sources gave wink-and-a-nod confirmation to the basic substance of the upcoming NASA announcement, but refused to elaborate, neither confirming nor denying rumors, speculation or wild-assed guesses. Unofficial sources remained vague as well. Basically, no politician in the know had the slightest idea how this was going to play with the public, and none of them wanted to take responsibility for what might turn into panic in the streets. Let NASA do it, see what happened, then pick up the pieces. This is called 'leadership'.
       The day finally arrived, one chosen carefully to have no conflicts with major sporting events or other distractions. The world's attention turned to Houston.
       In the large auditoreum at JSC, stage hands set up a podium to the right of center stage with a long, blue draped table to the left and a projection screen in the center, above and behind. Chairs and microphones were set for nine panelists, each place labelled with a name plate and equipped with paper and pencils for notes, water glasses and icy pitchers.
       The section of writing-desk seats for the working press was flanked by open areas filled with technicians wielding every kind of camera, recorder and gadget imaginable, boom microphones waving like a sea of metal reeds above them, straining toward the brightly lit stage. Cables crawled in an unruly sprawl, ready to snare the feet of the unwary. Lights winked and glared. Bag-encumbered still photographers sat cross-legged on the floor in the wide aisle in front of the stage, carefully measuring and remeasuring focus and exposure, impatient fingers twitching on well-worn shutter releases. 
       As each representative of the various media networks, syndicates and publishing empires entered, they were given a press kit and led to their assigned seats. A few of them were fussed over by attendant techs who scurried to make necessary connections and insure that their hair was crisply perfect. There were no stringers or local bureau reporters in this crowd — the biggies were here in person, and each one of them was laying to be the one who made everyone else's news with the killer question that defined a story. None of them had a clue as to what it might be.
       The gallery of VIPs, NASA bureaucrats and scientists filled the theater seating in the back. Alex's influence only managed to get seats for Dinah, Jimmie and Lanna. He gave up his own seat to Mrs. J and claimed a stool in the wings behind the curtain, just outside the green room door. He was wearing his 'It's OK, I'm with the Band' t-shirt and had a broken Clear-Com around his neck and a clipboard so that he would look like a proper stagehand. A battered lighting tree on a pole the network pool guys had brought in — over-extended and top-heavy with too many Par cans — was perched precariously behind the edge of the curtain, surrounded by a tangled pile of thick electrical cables around its weighted base. It provided perfect cover with an excellent view. He was happier this way and nobody bothered him (Silvers had seen to that).
       About fifteen minutes before showtime, Steve Astin amiably wandered into the humming melee of the fourth estate, greeting everyone easily and familiarly, making small talk and shaking hands all around. He ignored the occasional preemptive questions from the inevitably impatient, and casually tossed out a carefully chosen joke or two to lighten the mood. Before climbing up on stage, he made the rounds of the cameramen, engineers and crewmen, slapping hands and calling most of them by name.
       With five minutes left before airtime, he took his place as Master of Ceremonies behind the podium mic. The restrained clamor subsided.
       His gaze swept the room as he began, "You're probably all wondering why we called this meeting." He paused as a slight but appreciative response chuckled around the auditoreum.
       "Well, we won't keep you in suspense much longer. You'll note in your press packets that a great deal of supplementary material will be released simultaneously beginning at midnight, Houston time, on the Internet and through the usual peer-reviewed channels for later publication in the journals. I want you to note that everything prepared to date by this project's scientific team is in the nature of very preliminary reports. This whole effort was literally thrown together at a moment's notice on an essentially volunteer basis and is not yet part of any appropriated program or mission."
       He paused for a moment. "I know there are going to be a lot of questions about what some of you may perceive as unnecessary secrecy, withholding information in the public interest from the American people until we felt like having a press conference.  Believe me, this briefing tonight is the earliest possible time we could announce what little we have learned to date. Anything we could have released before now would have been completely premature — perhaps even irresponsible. I hope each of you can communicate some appreciation of why it was necessary to delay full disclosure of what you are about to learn until we had a chance to have some idea of what we were dealing with ourselves."
       He motioned to the right side of the stage where Alex was lurking. The panelists filed out of the green room and quickly took their seats. The parade o' docs was expected, but Sara's appearance caused a none-too-subtle murmur to swell through the room. She was wearing her blue NASA flight coveralls with the 'Susan P' nametag and not trying very hard to look serious. She took her place at the far end.
       Who's the girl? whispered through the press corps and echoed through watching newsrooms everywhere. Some kind of kid genius? some wondered. Nah, lookit the way she's dressed, said others. No way she's an astronaut, a few observed. Think she found something? was another guess. Maybe she's a channeler, opined some others. One of the SETI volunteers, seemed to be a reasonable theory. Maybe it's the Flying Girl
       In Norfolk, Virginia, a whole shipload of watching sailors let out a gang-whoop of recognition. In a bar ashore, a certain Marine gunnery sergeant peered hazily at the TV, shaking his head, his drink forgotten. 
       Astin outlined the sequence of events. "I will introduce NASA Director Dan Silvers first. After his opening remarks, each of the representatives of our scientific team will give a brief presentation. We'll conclude with a limited — limited — question-and-answer session. I know that it won't be enough time tonight, but there will be quite a lot of information available to you after this is over. You'll have other chances to follow up when you have caught up on your reading and know more — and we know more."
       The stage manager held up his hand. Astin nodded at him and then leaned over the podium, grinning down at the assembled reporters. "I know I don't have to tell you this, but I'm going to anyway. Y'all behave y'selves, heah?" he said, in perfectly affected Texian English.
       There was brief laughter. He was so good at this.
       "In five," said the stage manager, "four, three…"
       Nothing happened for a full minute while anchors around the world announced the preemption of regularly scheduled programs for a special presentation from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
       On cue, Astin began, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Steve Astin. On behalf of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the United States of America, I'd like to welcome our distinguished guests, members of the media and our viewing audience. I am honored to be your host and moderator for this brief presentation. NASA Director Dan Silvers will make an opening statement."
       Astin sat down while Silvers strode onto the stage and planted himself behind the podium.
       "From the moment mankind realized that there were other worlds than this one, the cradle of our species," Silvers began, "we have, in our literature and in our imaginations, contemplated the eventual possibility of someday visiting these worlds and meeting their inhabitants — or of receiving a visitation ourselves. For if we have begun to accomplish the ancient dream of being able to leave this island Earth and conquer the vast distances of space, then it would seem to be a certainty that there must be other intelligent life on distant planets who can do the same. Surely, some civilizations must exist that mastered starfaring science and technology long before our earliest ancestors first turned their wondering gaze upon the heavens."
       Silvers continued, "The heart of the space program has always been a search for other life, for other habitats that can support life, for the understanding of how life interacts with the universe, for discovering the means of transporting the life of our birth planet to new worlds. Our robotic missions to Mars always asked the questions, 'Is there life here? Could there have been life here in ages past? Could life survive here in a possibly terraformed future?' Hubble peers into distant nebulae to look for the elements that can support life and watches the birth of new stars, surrounded by dusty disks of matter that may coalesce into new Earths where life may begin anew. SETI — the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — turns the attention of a worldwide network of listeners, professionals and amateurs alike, whose myriad computers sift through a cosmos full of static, noise and the 'Music of the Spheres' in search of signals of intelligence. Our far-flung probes leave our solar system carrying messages, images and sounds from all the peoples of Earth to those who may in some distant corner of the universe know that we send our greetings."
       He paused for a moment to emphasize his next statement, then spoke very deliberately.
       "Four months ago, this agency received an answer to the age-old question of whether there actually is intelligent life on other worlds — an answer, as you will learn, that raises a great many other questions. We quickly assembled a scientific team to conduct a preliminary examination that has confirmed — beyond any shadow of doubt — the authenticity of the existence on our planet…" he paused for effect, "Of an artifact… Created by a technologically advanced… Extraterrestrial civilization."
       Silvers knew that would require translation, but he wanted to be precise.
       He went on, "This artifact was deliberately crafted to superficially resemble a human being in appearance and communicate with us in our own languages."
       Silvers could see the eyes of many of the reporters flicking two-by-two in Sara's direction. They're not so dumb, he thought.
       "Furthermore, the artifact was endowed with a highly advanced artificial intelligence — and personality — that is to all extents and purposes indistinguishable from that of any normal human being. So much so that it is inappropriate to refer to this artifact or address it by anything other than — her — chosen name."
       "Would you mind standing up, Susan, so everyone can have a look at you?" he beckoned. Sara bounced to her feet, smiling brightly as the film cameras whirred and clicked a mechanical symphony.
       Silvers introduced her. "Miss Susan P is the de facto representative of an extraterrestrial civilization that created her and sent her to our world. I'm sure you will discover, as we have, that she is a charming young lady, whatever her origins. It has been a pleasure for all of us to work closely with her these past few all-too-short months. Susan?"
       Silvers moved to the side as she made her way to the podium. Rather than adjust the mic down to her height, Sara simply rose about eight inches off the stage, as if — as far as anyone in the audience could tell — she had stepped up on a short riser. She just wanted to avoid the obnoxious amplified grinding noise the gooseneck made when it was moved. From his vantage point in the wings, Alex smiled to himself, hoping she'd remember to 'step down' when she was finished. Maybe Susan never forgot anything, but Sara sometimes had to be told to come in out of the rain.
       When the susurration of rustling and whispering noises died down, she put on her sternest expression and intoned into the microphone, "People of Earth…" The echoes reverberated through the auditoreum.
       She stopped for a moment, then broke out in silvery, childlike laughter. "Boy, did that sound silly!" she said, and laughed again.
       The audience, at first taken aback, soon joined her. The rising tension produced by Silvers' speech was completely forgotten.
       She began again, unselfconscious and totally at ease. "I thought about making some kinda really boring statement or whatever, but finally decided that it wouldn't be too cool. I just want you to know that I'm not here on any kind of weird mission or anything. Mostly, I just want to get to know what your really beautiful planet is like and try to meet as many people as possible. I hope I make a lot more friends and maybe have a chance to help out whenever I can."
       "I hate to say this," she admitted, "but there's a lot of stuff I don't know, like where I came from or who built me and sent me here. I'm just glad that they did. Whoever they were pretty much just dropped me off like I was a foundling, except that they found a good home for me. But I didn't really know anything, 'cause I was like brand new and didn't wake up 'till after I got here. I guess they didn't want me to know too much so that I wouldn't mess things up, y'know, like violating some kinda 'Prime Directive'. So I haven't really been all that much help as far as being able to tell anyone anything about my home planet. Sorry about that."
       "Anyway, there's really not a whole lot I can tell you right now. As far as I'm concerned, this meeting is more for the scientists to tell you what they found out. They're the ones who really did all the work, so I'm gonna turn you back over to them. I'll talk to you later some time. Nice meeting you. Bye."
       Without further ado, she turned and began to walk off the stage, waving cheerfully at the cameras — sure enough, still eight inches off the floor. A little detail that nobody missed.
     Too late, Alex waved his arms to try to get her attention, slipping off of his perch on the stool. The clipboard fell from his lap and tangled his feet, causing him to stumble into the pile of wiring,  which propelled him heavily into the lighting tree. Trailing cables, Alex and the disintegrating collection of light fixtures hurtled onto the stage straight at Silvers, who was waiting to escort Sara to the green room.
       Deftly, moving almost too fast to follow, Sara caught the end of the pole inches from Silvers' head with one hand, and with the other, neatly juggled the loose cans to a relatively safe landing on the stage. Flicking her wrist slightly, she raised the far end of the pole off the floor, dumping Alex from the base just before a severed wire arced across it, showering sparks. It made a great picture.
       She quickly restored the now-useless lighting tree to its original position, helped Alex to his feet, and disappeared into the green room with Silvers. The whole impromptu show hadn't lasted fifteen seconds. For a moment, the audience was stunned.
       Then, like a single organism, the pack of newshounds leaped to their feet. The biggest quarry they had ever encountered was getting away from them. Just like that. They were simultaneously dazed and frantic. They milled and clamored, gesticulating furiously.
       "Come back…"
       "Miss, uh…"
       "Director Silvers…"
       "Colonel Astin…"
       "What about…"
       "A statement…"
       "A question…"
       "The public…"
       "The audience…"
       "Our readers…"
       "You can't…"
       "This is…"
       "An outrage…"
       Oh, the humanity.
       Astin was as surprised as everybody else. All he could do was take his place behind the podium and calmly wait for the tumult to subside. Gradually, the shouts faded to grumbles and — trying not to look embarrassed at their unprofessional outburst — the ladies and gentlemen of the press took their seats. Their thoughts were black.
        What the hell just happened? An alien. We just saw a fucking alien. For what, two minutes? Was she walking on air? Is this some kind of trick? Jeez, she handled that damned light pole like a toothpick. And is she fast, or what? Then she just walks away. Not one goddamned question. And now we're stuck with a bunch of fucking chromedomes.
       Astin decided that the rest of the show would go as planned and cleared his throat politely. They glared at him. He smiled slightly and introduced the first panelist as if nothing had happened. As if they were here to discuss an interesting sample brought back from somewhere in space.
       Dr. Uwuwu (pronounced 'ooh-YOU-woo'), a chemist, addressed what they had learned — or guessed — about her physical composition. Excerpts: "It was immediately obvious that she was composed of some extremely dense material outside our experience… It proved to be impossible to obtain any kind of sample for analysis, and conventional methodologies such as spectroscopy and reagent tests, and even x-rays, were useless… We were able to obtain useful imagery and data from a scanning electron microscope, which — as you can see in the next slide — shows a very complex topograpy at a sub-molecular level, which almost certainly extends to even finer reticulations going down to sub-atomic scales… Integral 'software' management of the arrangements of these folds produces the appearance of surface coloration and texture… Though we were unable to peer inside her, seismic studies indicate that she is essentially hollow, comprised of an extremely thin, crumpled membrane of possibly degenerate material that, if 'smoothed out', might resemble an approximately kilometer-wide 'bubble'."
       To their credit, most of the reporters followed this and were intrigued in spite of themselves. They got the essential point — that she only looked human and was made of something with which NASA's scientists were completely unfamiliar. Something definitely not of this Earth. But why? their instincts screamed.
       Dr. Best, the physicist, showed her 'rubber-sheet-and-bowling-ball' program on the overhead screen and talked about very, very large masses carefully counterbalanced between opposing forces of gravity and antigravity. Her excerpts: "We do not yet understand the mechanism for her being able to control and manipulate the relationship between these two forces… Her effect on satellites indicates a rest mass equivalent to billions — thousands of millions — of tons… Similarly, her power source is, for now, presumed to involve nuclear — as opposed to chemical — processes of an unknown type… Simply knowing that such an effect is possible will inform our research."
       They understood this, too. Levitation. And power. Whoa
       Dr. Wong was a computer scientist. His excerpts: "As biological organisms have as their basic unit of construction the protoplasmic cell, so too does it appear that she has as a basis at least the analog of nanomolecular computing units linked together in a massively parallel matrix… This would indicate that she employs something like quantum gates, or even something more exotic… It appears to be trans-binary… Essentially, this would be the equivalent of of a very large mountain of Pentium-zillion chips running under a millionth-generation operating system with practically unlimited RAM."
       The somewhat ditzy girl was a computer? Did that make her some kind of android? (Or, technically, gynoid…)
       Dr Azimov was a roboticist. Excerpts included: "This gives her the capacity to very precisely control her physical attributes to simulate normal movement, emit photons with incredible accuracy and speed, and manage her suite of electromagnetic sensing and communication capabilities at almost countless simultaneous frequencies… These AI virtual agents are like internal clones, numbering potentially in the millions, and each capable of executing highly sophisticated semi-autonomous routines under a sophisticated hierarchical management structure."
       Photon emission? Laser beams? What electromagnetic sensing and communications capabilities? Radar? Radio? Millions of clones?
       Dr. Taumbaugh was an astronomer. Excerpts: "We only regard such materials as exotic because of their scarcity on Earth… The total mass of such highly dense degenerate matter in the universe far exceeds that of the relatively insignificant dregs of stellar formation — rocky planets… The physical properties of the bulk of the matter that makes up the cosmos are completely unknown… Therefore, we have not the slightest clue as to her point of origin… Since we have been able to learn nothing about them, we have come to refer to the unknown entities responsible for her manufacture as Cryptoaliens."
       Major disappointment. Why would mysterious 'Cryptoaliens' just drop her off without the slightest hint of who they were, where they came from or why they did it. It doesn't make sense…
       Dr. Zagan's specialty was cosmology. His excerpts: "Out of the uncounted billions and billions of stars in this galaxy — which is itself only one of billions — the independent development of life that we now know is a certainty must have been repeated countless times throughout the billions of years since its formation following the Big Bang… Even allowing for the seeding of the interstellar medium with heavy elements by countless supernovae, the first great starfaring civilization may have matured billions of years before our own star was born… We have been provided with a glimpse of the almost unlimited potential that intelligence can eventually master."
       Is that it? This girl is an just an example of what is possible? Without instructions? So that we humans can figure it out for ourselves? What good is that? Maybe this'll just show us how stupid we are.
       Dr. Belloes discussed her psychological makeup. His excerpts: "Obviously, she is not a biological organism, which means she does not have the chemical and hormonal variations that influence our own day-to-day behavior, and furthermore, lacks the animal drives which compel us to satisfy physical needs and urges… She has been provided with what amounts to programming that simulates these processes… I do not believe it is possible for a psychological practitioner who is unaware of her unusual physical attributes to determine that she is, indeed, the product of an alien manufacturing process… She exhibits remarkable stability — evidently, her mental design is as indestructable as her physical design… It will be interesting to see if her personality matures — especially as her physical body evidently does not… The only appropriate characterization I can give is that I consider her to be… A human being."
       A human being. Made, for Christ's sake, who-knows-where by who-knows-what for who-knows-why?
       Astin wrapped it up. "So you can see that we've been busy. I think it's appropriate for NASA to focus on what the agency does best, which is deal with science and technology. That's what we've done — and we are not even close to being finished. The evaluation of the data already gathered will consume countless man-hours and it would appear that we have only scratched the surface. Our presentation today was as brief as we could possibly make it and is supplemented in much greater detail by the written material that will be released at midnight."
       He looked directly and pointedly at the reporters below him. "I hope you can appreciate that this kind of background is necessary in order to understand the phenomenon that the public will want you to deal with. Susan — as she prefers to be called — will be available at a later date. When she is, you'll know a lot more about her than we did a few months ago."
       He opened it up for questions. It was like dynamiting a dam. Everything came rushing out at once.
       "How long has NASA been supressing evidence of alien spaceships?"
       "How many more of these aliens are presently on our planet?"
       "Have aliens infiltrated the higest levels of our government?"
       "Is she dangerously radioactive?"
       "What kind of fuel does she require?"
       "Can she change her shape?"
       "Can she read our minds?"
       "Will she reproduce?"
       "What does the 'P' stand for?"
       "Where was she discovered?"
       "How long has she been on our planet?"
       "Will she meet the President?"
       "Will she address the U.N.?"
       "Where does she live?"
       "How can she be contacted?"
       "Does she have an agent?"
       "When will the American people learn the truth about Roswell?"
       "Is she a scout for a possible invasion?"
       "Will there be an immediate follow-up press conference?"
       "Is she dangerous?"
       "Could she explode?"
       "Is she in contact with others of her kind?"
       "When will we see her again?"
       "Is she still in the building?"
       "Why can't she come out?"
       "What are you hiding?"
       Sighing, Astin looked at his watch. When the torrent had run its course, he said, "How about if we start with a question for Dr. Uwuwu."
       There was a long silence.
       "Something about chemistry might be appropriate," he prompted.
       There was a shuffling of program notes. Finally, a correspondent in the first row raised his hand.
       "Ah, yes. Mr. Bitzer."
       Steve Astin earned his salary that night.

Chapter Twenty-eight: Singapore

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© Patrick Hill, 2000