The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Thirty: Money

       Sara seemed to be very pleased with herself. She couldn't wait to tell the usual gang gathered for dinner at Mrs. J's, waiting impatiently until the ritual conversational preliminaries eventually played out.
       "Vell," prompted Mrs. J, "Out vith it. You been squirming like havink pants full of ants. So tell us vhat you can't vait to be tellink us."
       "Oh," said Sara, transparently trying to look casual about it, "It's just something I worked out in my spare time. No big deal, really. Sort of a public service kinda thing."
       She smiled expectantly, as if maybe someone would try to guess what it was. They stared at her, refusing to take the bait, until she couldn't hold back any longer.
       "Spam," she announced smugly.
       The others looked at each other for a moment, mostly shrugging. Finally Alex told her, "That's nice, but I already get all the spam I can use."
       "Not any more," Sara countered. "I got rid of it."
       "Gee, thanks," Alex replied, then looked at her suspiciously. "Uh… What did you do to my computer?"
       "Not a thing. But you won't be getting any more spam," she assured him. "Nobody will."
       Jimmie was interested. "Nobody?"
       "I mean everybody," she said, spreading her arms as if to encompass the whole world. "I fixed it — well, anyway, Susan fixed it — so that there won't be any more spam. Anywhere. Ever."
       Mrs. J was not particularly impressed. "Bah. Not buyink Spam anyvay. Vouldn't feed to pigs. Phui!"
       Dinah's eyes narrowed. "Let me see if I understand this. You put some kind of filter on the Internet that prevents unsolicited advertisements from being transmitted?"
       "Yeah. And those stupid chain letters and phoney come-ons. All that crapola that everybody hates. Not good stuff, though — just the real spam. I mean, I know spam when I see it — everybody does. And nobody likes it. It slows down the whole 'Net. So Susan basically takes a look at whatever's out there — and if it's spam, it goes right back to the sender. Every bit of it. Cool, huh?"
       Obviously, Jimmie thought so. Mrs. J snorted dismissively. Lanna looked clueless. Dinah was horrified.
       Alex's eyes widened. He knew she was pretty much constantly 'on' the 'Net, but he evidently hadn't been keeping up with the extent to which she had become interconnected. This surprised him, though he knew it shouldn't have.
       "Sara," he told her, almost scolding, "I hope you haven't been pirating wireless access. I thought we had a talk about that. As far as I know, I'm only paying for one cell number for you to use legally."
       "Yeah, I know. And I only use it for regular phone calls. This is different. I mean, y'know — I was designed to fly. I was meant to do it, so it's something I do. It's so obvious that nobody ever even thought about whether I should do it or not. This is the same thing, I think. I was designed to be a computer — a really connected computer. S'far as I know, that's maybe the big reason I'm here at a time when the whole Internet thing is happening. It's my nature to be plugged into that, to be a part of it. I'm absolutely sure of it. But don't worry, I'm not tapping into anything the way you think."
       Alex and Jimmie looked at each other.
       Sara went on. "Remember how the NASA guys spent a lot of time trying to cut off a piece of hair for a sample?"
       Alex smiled to himself. He'd tried to do the same thing. He couldn't do it, and neither could they. Nobody could, not with any technology available on Earth.
       "I figured out later — there's a way, sorta. Watch this," she said.
       She reached out and put her hand palm down on the center of the dining room table. A tiny, downy hair on the back of her wrist began to glow like a soft, golden lightbulb filament.
       "That's just so you can see it," she said.
       It detached itself and slowly rose from her arm, then hovered at eye level.
       Sara explained, "What's really neat is that it's still really part of me. It's connected completely, like it's still attached, as much 'me' as my fingers, even if it's on the Moon. And it's just like me as far as being a computer. It can 'hear' and 'see' — all the kreening stuff, radio, x-rays, lasers, whatever."
       "Part of you?" Alex asked. "What — some kind of hyperspace wormhole connection or something?"
       "Beats me," shrugged Sara. "Anything it kreens, I kreen — and vice-versa. In real time, as far as I know."
       Alex mused, "No wonder SETI can't pick anything up. If the people who sent you can do this, they sure don't need radio."
       "So you're saying that little speck is like a fragment of a hologram," said Jimmie, transfixed.
       Even Lanna couldn't help but stare at the tiny glowing floater. "Like a what?"
       Jimmie filled her in. "A film hologram records an image of an object in 3-D. When you look at it from different angles, you see the object from different angles. If you cut off a small corner, you can still see the whole object through it, only from a much smaller angle."
       "Yep," said Sara. "That little thing there is me — just less of me, except that, as far as I'm concerned, it's still just as much a part of me as ever. So I haven't really lost anything. It doesn't look very big, but it's the equivalent of a couple of buildings full of computers and stuff. Now, watch this."
       The glowing hair moved away under its own power, slowly so that everybody could see it. It headed for the door and disappeared through the keyhole.
       "Let me guess," said Jimmie. "It's gonna latch on to some communications nexus like an Internet router or satellite."
       Sara looked appreciatively at Jimmie. "Sure. How'd you know?"
       Jimmie said, "I've known for some time that you were doing something like this. I mean, it's obvious to me — and maybe some others, I'd think — that you're a lot more a part of the 'Net than radio and stuff would allow. I thought for a while that some of your 'software' had more or less infected the core servers and routers. I recognized some of the things we'd done in the Fort and knew I sure didn't put it out there."
       "Jeez, Sara," said Alex. "This is sounding more and more like an actual alien invasion outta some 50's B-movie sci-fi thriller. Maybe you should check the basement for pods, Mrs. J."
       "No basement," Mrs. J mumbled. "Nobody havink basement in Houston."
       Lanna shivered. "That kinda creeps me out."
       "Well, just call me Gort," said Sara. "The only difference between me and the giant robot in The Day the Earth Stood Still is the costume."
       "And your winning personality," added Alex.
       "Marginally," said Lanna.
       Dinah finally spoke up. "All this is very interesting, Sara. But let's get back to this spam thing. What the hell were you thinking of? Maybe you don't like what spammers do…"
       "Hah!" said everybody else simultaneously.
       "…but you do not have the right to unilaterally enforce any kind of self-imposed edict. You do not own the Internet. You cannot just decide what people can or can't do just because you feel like it."
       "Oh, come on, Dinah," Alex said. "Spammers deserve to die. I've heard you say so yourself."
       She gave Alex a withering glare. Alex withered.
       Dinah continued, "So what if tomorrow she decides to ban X-rated sites? I suppose she could, and there's not a thing anybody could do about it. As many people as there are that would applaud such a thing, there are probably as many who have their reasons to patronize that kind of crap, and others who make a living from it."
       "I'm not into censorship," said Sara defensively.
       "Oh, yes you are," Dinah countered. "That's exactly what your spam ban is: censorship. And even worse. What about privacy? In some manner, you are opening everybody's mail, aren't you?"
       "Well," Sara said, "It's not really me, y'know."
       "Sure," said Dinah sarcastically, "It's just Susan, your all-purpose excuse, replicating the part of your personality that 'knows spam when you see it' God-knows-how-many millions of times to peer over every shoulder on the planet. This is Orwellian on an almost unimaginable scale. Tell me again how Louise Layne sent you an email."
       Unexpectedly chastened, Sara sat back in her chair, arms folded across her chest, looking sulky. "I can't help being what I am."
       "I know," said Dinah, "You're practically a metaphor for the Internet. But you have to act responsibly. This kind of thing, if it became public, could scare a lot of people to death."
       "You mean," said Alex, "Something like the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast?"
       "Or worse. It could become a target of demagoguery," Dinah said.
       Sara looked miserable. Only moments before, she'd expected everyone to be wowed by her announcement. Now she felt like a criminal or something.
       There was an uncomfortable silence, finally broken by — of all people — Lanna.
       "I had a thought," she began hesitantly. The others looked dubiously at her.
       "The only thing that was really stupid about what she did with this spam stuff is that she did it for free. I bet there's a lot of people who would pay to have Sara or Susan or whatever keep them from getting spams. If they signed up, it would be like choosing to let her look at their stuff so that she could keep it out. Wouldn't that be OK?"
       They were practically astonished. It really was a thought — heaven help them, maybe even a good one.
       Alex looked at her suspiciously and said, "Alright, what have you done with the real Lanna?"
       "No," she said, "I'm serious. We set this up to run through Exocybernautics and she can unspam anybody that pays and nobody can possibly be freaked out by robo-brat, here, taking over the world. What's wrong with that? I think it's about time we got her to earn her keep. I don't think we're gonna be able to be NASA 'consultants' forever. They're running out of things to do to her."
       "Now, wait a minute," said Alex. "That's exploitation. No way…"
       "And another thing," Lanna went on, ignoring him. "All this do-good stuff — which is very wonderful, I'm sure… If she really wants to do something for people, she's using the wrong kind of superpowers. As far as I'm concerned, the guy with the most real power on this planet is that Bill Whatsisname — you know, the Micro-something geek with all the money. Billions, isn't it? Now, that's a superpower. Then there's this Bruce Wayans — he's using his money to go after all kinds of bad guys and evil corporations…"
       "And aliens," muttered Sara.
       "Exactly," agreed Lanna. "You know what I mean. If you're so smart, Miss Super-duper, then why aren't you rich? You oughtta be able to, like, find all kinds of buried treasure and diamonds and stuff, figure out the stock market, invent a better whatchamacallit — anything you want. So what's stopping you? If you have enough money, then if you want to do all kinds of 'good deeds' or whatever, you can use it to — I dunno — maybe, like, invest in things that'll help out a lot more people in Third-World hellholes than flying around flapping your cape and waving."
       The rest of the group was pretty much stunned by Lanna's — well, practically obnoxious outburst. Crass, really. But — interesting. They had to mull it over for a while.
       Finally, Alex said, "Sure, she could do a lot of that. Everything has consequences, though. F'rinstance, if she digs up all of the treasure ever lost on the Spanish Main, and maybe an undiscovered motherlode or two, it would have a pretty dramatic impact on gold prices. Maybe enough to destabilize world currencies. Same with basically manipulating the stock market — which I'm sure she could do."
       "So?" Lanna asked.
       "Well, she can't just…" Alex struggled to try to find some way to make Lanna understand. "It wouldn't be right. It's interfering…"
       "And this would be bad because…?" Lanna challenged.
       Alex waved his hands in exasperation. "Because it's not right. It would be like taking unfair advantage of this…" he struggled, "This gift to our world."
       "How do you know that's not the whole idea?" Lanna pressed. "If she's able to do stuff like manage the stock market, why shouldn't she?"
       Alex gave up, looking helplessly at Dinah.
       Dinah told her. "To begin with, it's dangerous, with the potential for a lot of unintended consequences. Take your suggestion of investing to 'do good'. Sure, there're some countries around the world that have a lot of problems with endemic poverty and all the misery associated with it. Essentially, though, they're just a century behind the developed nations, undergoing a lot of the problems that were typical in the US a hundred years ago. Pouring money on a problem doesn't make it go away, because that doesn't necessarily change human behavior."
       Dinah went on, "The principal thing that's holding a lot of emerging nations back is lack of freedom. Controlled economies remove the great motivators of human economic behavior — fear and greed. There is no sociological theory that has ever been found to replace the effect of having to worry about providing for your family's future and trying to make it better. Targeted investment is just another form of controlling an economy."
       She continued, "Just look at the War on Poverty. Since Lyndon Johnson, the government has transferred five trillion dollars from wealth producers and working citizens to various bureaucracies. There are just as many 'poor people' now as there ever were — except lately, since some of those programs have started to disaappear and a lot of people who could actually work were forced to fend for themselves. Which — surprise! — they're doing.
       "The success of some of the Asian nations in overcoming the effects of poverty is a good example. Basically, just get out of the way and people will make their own opportunities. I think poverty happens when governments — and they don't have to be what you'd call oppressive — try to run the economy. They should just make sure that people play by the rules and manage the infrastucture."
       Alex made a snoring sound to let Dinah know how much everybody appreciated her lecture. She stopped, satisfied that she had made her point to the jury.
       Jimmie jumped into the gap. "Sara's not — I hate to say it — the, uh, creative type. No offense, but she just doesn't think that way. I mean, she's smart, alright — but I don't think she's motivated to invent things on her own. Which is probably on purpose, I'd guess. Or she'd put everybody out of business."
       He glanced at Sara, who didn't seem to be the least bit offended, then went on, "I've learned an awful lot by working on stuff with her, though. I mean, I really do have a pretty cool OS shell that's modelled on her as an interface of sorts, like way beyond speech recognition and Artificial Intelligence. I don't know if I'd have ever done something this complete on my own — actually, I'm sure I wouldn't have — but it's basically my own work, at least the creative parts of it. And there's some other stuff, too, that I'm pretty sure is worth a lot if I ever get back into marketing mode. Sara's pretty much my partner in developing it, so I don't see why she shouldn't get a lot of the credit and everything. Still, it's not anything like a gift from her Cryptoaliens on a silver platter. It's really just normal software evolution based maybe on an insight or two that I wouldn't have had if I hadn't met Sara. Or imagined her…"
       Dinah said, "The main concern I have with Sara and money is the same one I've always had. If she is known to have deep pockets, it will attract every kind of lawsuit imaginable. In fact, that's already begun."
       Mrs. J said, "Real reason Sara not gold-diggink gorl is Alex. He is not beink vhat you vould say materialistic. Has no regard for being capitalist, happy to be poor musician. Smart, maybe — gots good heart and fine principles — but not takink anytink serious, like life big joke. Hah!
       "Is fine thing, though. Vhat if Sara raised by serious guy vith serious agenda, beink greedy or fascist powermonger? Or some kind of Central Committee? Vould make monster like vhat Frankenstein vas nothink."
       Lanna said, "So just because the Cryptos dump her on some kind of loser, she has to go along? What a waste."
       Alex wouldn't allow himself to be offended by Lanna. "You're too kind," he told her graciously.
       "Hey, sorry," she said. "You gotta admit, you're holding her back with all this 'do-the-right-thing' comic book crap. I just don't see what's wrong with someone with her talents making a buck doing something useful. All she needs is a little ambition and a manager who'll look after her career."
       "A manager?" said Alex. "I suppose that would be… You?"
       "Sure," said Lanna. "Why not? Tell 'im, Jimmie, dear."
       Obediently, Jimmie confirmed, "She, uh, has a certain amount of ability when it comes to business. I mean, she pretty much takes care of Exocybernautics these days. It's really expanded, and Lanna — well, she is my 'marketing mode' right now. Does a good job, too. I must admit I was, uh, kinda surprised…"
       Dinah added, "Alex, she's aggressive, motivated, savvy, shrewd — a real Class-A personality. Jimmie was her first 'acquisition', so to speak, but she's capitalized on the opportunity. She knows how to get what she wants."
       "That's for sure," Sara said almost — but not quite — inaudibly, pointedly looking at Jimmie.
       Alex was on the defensive. "Oh, this is too much. No way I'm gonna sit here and listen to this…"
       Sara interrupted him before he could work up his rant.
       "Alex," she said. "Lanna's right."
       That got everybody's attention.
       "And Alex is right, too. So is Dinah and Jimmie and Mrs. J. It would be stupid not to use all the abilities I was given. There's got to be a lot more to what I'm doing here than being a flying bulldozer. I also don't think I should decide for people what I should do that would affect them. If people think I can be useful, they'll ask — I guess I'm too eager to be helpful sometimes.
       "And it's also true that I'm probably not much good at being a conduit for Cryptoalien goodies — so there's a deliberate limitation that makes it obvious that I should be doing what I can do or it would be limited, too.
       "Having Alex as my dad was also a deliberate choice for the Cryptos. Yeah, I'm not a material girl like Lanna — and maybe it's a good thing that I don't take everything as seriously as Dinah. Though she's a terrific influence, too. I mean, I really should be very careful to do the right thing. That's all I was trying to do, but I guess I didn't think it through very well.
       "But I really do think I should do something like what Lanna's talking about. I think I can maybe do some good things if I generate a little cash flow somehow. Then I can afford to hire Dinah to keep the vultures away."
       Sara stopped. The others waited patiently while she collected her thoughts.
       "I guess I'm babbling," she said. "Maybe I'm confused or something. There's a lot of things that Susan can't just figure out for me, you know. That's why I have all of you."
       She appeared to concentrate briefly, mostly to let the others know she was 'doing' something. "OK — spam's back," Sara sighed.
       Everybody groaned.
       "Now," she said, "What's a good way for a flying bulldozer to make some serious money without toppling civilization as we know it? And I don't want to put anybody out of business…"
       "Easy," said Mrs. J. "Salvage. Hah!"
       "Salvage?" Sara asked.
       "For hire," Mrs. J replied. "How much you thinkink NASA be payink to get no-good sputnik back from Mars? Not changink vorld, but plenty useful, no? Lot of other stuff you can be gettink from bottom of sea, maybe cleanink up things like Chernobyl mess, gettink rid of minefields. Nobody else can do."
       Jimmy added, "Movies. Remember the Moon video? And the computer game she projected — where she was 'inside', like virtual reality? And the photomanipulations with all the Russians in them? Anything she sees or even imagines, she can output to video or film. I'll bet her movie rendition of the Midgarde 'trip' she took would be bigger than Star Wars. She could even do a 3-D IMAX version. It wouldn't be so much competition with Hollywood — like anybody'd really care — 'cause it would attract it's own audience. A bigger pie kinda thing."
       Alex came up with, "Lectures. They pay a lot of money and she could really put on a show — multimedia and everything. It could be like a concert tour. You combine that with a book and she'd have something very marketable and certainly unique. Low overhead, since airfare wouldn't be much of a problem — though her food expenses on the road might run kinda high…"
       "You'll need to form a corporation and will need a lot more legal services than I can manage on my own," said Dinah. "If you actually do any of this, I'll have to put together a team. It'll probably eventually involve constitutional issues and international treaties. Which would have probably happened anyway. At least we might be able to afford it now."
       Lanna smiled at Sara for perhaps the first time. "You just leave all the messy details to me, honey."
       And, also for the first time, Sara smiled back at Lanna like she meant it.

Chapter Thirty-one: Politics

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© Patrick Hill, 2000