The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Forty: The Flesh and the Spirit

        Sara ached with tiredness. The rough and broken stone hurt her feet and the acrid stench of powder, blood, burning and death made her throat raw and seared her nose. She was terribly thirsty and could use a bite to eat. Slowly, she scrabbled down the pile of rubble that had once been beautiful Olympus, slipping on stuff she didn't even want to try to identify, scaping her hands and knees as she stumbled and fell.
        Everything seemed unreal — misty, distant and terribly unfocused. She didn't fully comprehend what was happening to her. All she could feel inside was a terrible sense of loss. Nothing had been accomplished, it seemed to her, but monumental misery and death, an extinction of dreams and a passing away of purpose.
        She found what used to be a fountain, no longer spraying water into its cracked basin. From a bent spigot, a dribble issued feebly that she caught with her hands. It tasted wonderful to her and she greedily drank all she could catch. A search of the corpse-strewn plaza produced an abandoned kit bag with some C-rations still in it — a tin of Spam, a can of peaches and some Hershey bars. There was a key to open the Spam — she cut herself on the edge of the can and cried out at the unexpected sensation, sucking a tiny drop of blood from her finger — but no can opener for the peaches. Try as she might, she couldn't get it open, finally flinging it away in frustration. The Spam, chocolate and too much water made her slightly sick.
        There was most of a mattress in the street, blasted out of a nearby mansion by bombs or something. Sara brushed the debris off of it and collapsed, exhausted, and fell into a deep sleep.
        When she awoke, it might have been morning. It might have been evening. The air quality hadn't improved much and her eyes burned. Her head felt like it was splitting open and there was an awful taste in her mouth. She was terribly bothered by an unfamiliar sensation that she finally figured out meant that she had to pee. She almost didn't figure out how to do it, and made a mess of things. 
        The fountain had run out, so she moved through the city's remains, finding a little water here and there, and occasional bits of rations, passing numbed survivors once in a while who were moving listlessly and poking half-heartedly through the rubble — like she was. She tied the corners of her cape together to make a bag of sorts, slung it over her shoulders, and collected what she thought she might need — a couple of canteens, an all-important can opener, tins of food, candy bars, a small pillow, binoculars, bits of paper.
        Eventually, she came to what had been the walls of the city and passed into the mutilated remains of the valley. She thought it might be a good idea to set up camp by the river, but when she reached it, it was choked with dead horses, oil slicks, wreckage and what used to be men and faerie creatures.
        There was nowhere else to go that she could think of. Except — maybe the ships would take her in. They had been fully provisioned when they arrived, and there were quite a few left. Might as well check it out. No telling how long she'd be here. But it was such a long way to the beach…
        Ah, what's the point? she thought glumly, and sat down on a rock and cried. Her tears left little trails through the grime on her cheeks. Her nose ran. She cried for a long time, but it didn't do any good.
        After a while, with nothing else to do, she got up and wandered off. She spotted a walkie-talkie on the ground and picked it up, hoping that there might be someone she could contact — a ship, perhaps, or a group of survivors who were still in a functioning unit of some kind. It was the same type of two-way the Cubans had let her and Alex use when she first learned how to fly.
        "Hello. This is Sara Corel. Does anybody read me? Over."
        She listened for a while, wondering if the batteries were any good.
        "Hello, hello, hello," she tried again. "Anybody out there? Over."
        After several attempts, a voice finally crackled in the earpiece.
        "Hello, Sara. I can hear you."
        "Great!" she said. "It's good to hear someone. Who is this? Where are you? Uh, over."
        "I don't think you need the 'over' part, Sara. It's just the two of us."
        "OK. You can't be too far away, I'd think. Maybe we can get together. I don't suppose these batteries will last forever."
        "They'll last long enough."
        "If you say so," she answered uncertainly.
        "How are you feeling?" the voice asked.
        "Not too good. My head hurts, my eyes hurt, my feet hurt, my stomach's queasy, I'm so tired and sore… I don't know what's wrong with me. Everthing's just awful and it's not going away."
        The voice chuckled understandingly. "It's not easy being human at a time like this."
        "That's just it," Sara said. "I'm not human. I've never felt like this. I mean, last night I cut my finger and it bled. That's crazy — I don't even have any blood. And then I had to… Well, you know…" She was embarrassed and half whispered into the mouthpiece, "…go to the bathroom."
        "Isn't this what you've always wanted?" the voice asked.
        "What…? To be dirty and tired and miserable and hungry and thirsty and — and — and wet? This sucks. Who'd want to be like this?"
        "That's what it means to be human. You feel… It's not all bad."
        "I used to hate being me so much sometimes. I thought everybody else had a life. They could fall in love and grow old and have babies and accomplish stuff that was meaningful somehow — because it wasn't so easy for them and they had something to overcome. It was so easy for me to do things, like, you know, just fly — it was no big deal. They'd have to work so hard to fly, and it wasn't the same thing. I'd go drifting past someone and I'd see the look in their eyes. The longing, wondering what it's like. And I'd feel like such a phony — 'cause it was just the way I was made. And now I can't fly or anything. And here I am, stuck in the middle of all this awful mess. I don't like it. I wanna go home."
        She cried again — a little bit — but hung on to the phone.
        The voice told her, "Well, now you know."
        She sniffled and said, "I don't know what I know. I don't understand any of this. What's happening to me?"
        "A miracle," the voice replied.
        Sara suddenly realized who she was talking to. "Prometheus? I thought you were… You know. And all the gods…"
        He said, "The gods are immortal, Sara. At least as immortal as humans are."
        "Then all this was for nothing?"
        "Humans are free now. Oh, not all of them — but it is their choice, or will be. They will come to know their gods for what they are."
        "But… How? I mean, all of this — it's just a dream or something, isn't it? Even if it's not somehow, everybody that was here is dead, or just what people imagined for themselves. How's this gonna make any difference to anybody?"
        "Through you, Sara. You must go back. But you will not be alone."
        "Me? Go back?" Sara repeated in confusion. "What do you mean, 'not alone'?"
        "Who are you, Sara Corel?" Prometheus asked her patiently.
        "I'm… I'm me, I guess. Sara, uh, Corel. Well, the me that is Sara."
        "Not Susan?"
        "No. I guess she's not here, huh? She's freeze-dried or something. The me part is… I don't know. Wandering around inside of her? Dead? But it was like she was part of me — or I was part of her — while I was here, and I didn't even think about it. It's just so natural. Except now. Now there is no Susan. Nothing's there where she used to be."
        "Are you any different?"
        "Well, sure. Everything's different…"
        "So you're not you anymore."
        "Yeah I am," she protested. "I'm still me. It's just the body I'm in that's different."
        "Does that matter?"
        "Well, sure. If I'm gonna be like this, everything would be different. The way I live, what I do, maybe even the way I think. Lots different. Maybe worse, but maybe better."
        "Then you are still Sara. Still you."
        "Yeah. I think so. I've lost some things, like a human that's in an accident and loses her legs or is paralyzed. Everything's different, but I'm still me. I could adjust. People do."
        "And when you had no body at all…?
        "Well, that was Hell, wasn't it?"
        "Reduced to the barest essence — your soul, if you want to call it that. But still, in some way, you."
        "Yeah, but that really sucked."
        "Yet that is the ultimate reality."
        Sara was silent.
        Prometheus went on, "You are a program running inside of Susan, are you not?"
        "You could put it that way, I suppose. I don't really feel like a program."
        "Yet there can be other programs, as well."
        "Jimmie called them 'virtual agents'. Sorta stripped down versions of me that could work on stuff in the background. But they came and went all the time and weren't actually alive or anything. Just robots."
        "Why couldn't Susan create another Sara program? Or a Bill program? Or Judy? Or Melvin?"
        "It could get pretty crowded."
        "Not if they're just basic personalities, reduced to their barest essences, aware in some way but…"
        "Living in Hell," Sara finished. "Inside Susan, but not running things, not connected to anything. What would be the point?"
        "Would you just let them sit there?"
        "Not if I could help it. I guess I could figure out some way to create a virtual reality for them, like the one I was in the last time — Midgarde or whatever. At least they could have something resembling a life. They'd have experiences and feel things and grow. Maybe even die — but just for a while — like a time out. I suppose there could be a whole bunch of virtual realities for them — maybe even some they came up with themselves."
        "And you would then be the angel of that place."
        Sara just sat there, her mouth open, her mind whirling through an endless succession of universes.
        "It is time," Prometheus said once again. "Over, Sara, and out." The radio went silent.

        There was a dead unicorn near Sara. She watched as it began to dissolve, turning slowly and subtly into some kind of mist of softly iridescent particles. Other mythological creatures were also sublimating, merging their substance into the tenuous fog that swelled and gently flowed in mysterious eddies and currents all across the floor of the valley and beyond, even over the surface of the sea. It was, Sara somehow understood, the substance of the gods, a spiritual effluvium made tangible, perhaps for her watching benefit in this symbolic play.
        In places, it gathered in little knots and lumps, and stirrings began. Amidst such a locus, a hand poked through the mud and rubble nearby, the faintly glittering mist whirling around it transparently. The fingers flexed and then reached out. Slowly, the dead soldier pulled himself from the ground, covered in filth, blood-soaked uniform in stiff tatters. He was whole but silent, as if asleep or in some deep trance. At last he stood, swaying slightly, and waited. The mist moved on.
        Everywhere around her, the mutilated and blasted remains of slain heroes were transformed by the silent haze of translucent motes, struggling from pits and craters, from underneath crushed engines of war, crawling out of the river and up the muddy banks. All were whole, all were silent, all stood patiently and waited.
        After some time, the valley was covered with them, millions of figures standing like statues, sentinels of eternity. On the plains above, all around the tumbled central mount, crowding the beaches in dense multitudes, the dead were assembled. The few survivors joined them in their vigil, transformed like the rest when the clouds of essence gently caressed them.
        When all were at last made ready, they began to fade. Their substance was unmade and transformed into clear and glowing vessels of purest light, brighter and brighter as they became less substantial until, at last, they rose with exquisite slowness into the darkening sky of twilight. They became like vast constellations of stars, a firmament of utter beauty, drifting gloriously into the unknown. They were on their way.
        The misty nebula of the gods was not finished with its transforming work. It gathered in an enormous cloud over the river and the surrounding area nearby — a place, Sara dimly realized, that she had visited twice before.
        The wreck and ruin of the old forest was put in order, shattered trees made whole, tender grasses covering the tortured land. The atmosphere cleared and was made sweet, and the water of the river turned pristine.
        Sara longed for that water, needed the cleansing it promised, ached for the cool refreshment of it. She made her way to the water's edge, shedding her uniform as she went, and plunged in.
        The coldness shocked her for a moment. She forgot that she had to breathe now, and flailed for the surface where she coughed profusely, nearly choking, water running out of her nose. But she got the hang of it, splashing in the rocky shallows, cleansing her scrapes and cuts, untangling her hair with her fingers. She found a submerged boulder to sit on, letting the slow current push against her gently while she felt much of her pain ease away. She was starting to feel a little of the pleasure that comes with being human, how suffering can give an edge to enjoyment by its contrast. She was sure at that moment that she had never felt so good in her former existence.
        "Are you feeling better?"
        She was startled by the voice. She looked over at the bank in the deepening darkness. The glowing mist had disappeared, and in its place was the deerkiller. He was as she remembered him last, asleep on the forest floor as she passed above him just the night before. He was striding purposefully into the river to join her.
        "Oh!" she exclaimed, suddenly self-conscious. "You…"
        "There is no one else."
        "I thought — but you should be…"
        "I was. The warrior who killed me was a friend of yours. He was a very great chief, wise and strong."
        He confidently moved around behind her and put his great, powerful hands on her shoulders, gently working out the kinks and soreness. It was unbelievably wonderful, like nothing Sara had ever imagined anything could be. She relaxed as he worked his powerful magic on her aching body. Gratefully, her mind emptied as she gave herself up to sheer pleasure.
        In spite of the warmth he poured into her, the cool water and night air made her shiver involuntarily, so he scooped her up in his arms and carried her back to his camp on the shore. He laid her gently on a dry deerskin and covered her with the soft fur of some great animal, then built a small fire. By the time it was crackling cheerfully, he was dry, and laid beside Sara on the deerskin.
        They watched the bright, tiny pinpoints of light filling the black sky in a tremendous blaze of glory, shifting slowly as they rose, making and unmaking vast patterns that tickled Sara's imagination. It was like a perfect starry night on a world in the busy middle of a great galaxy, covering their little Eden with soft radiance.
        After a long silence, Sara said, "Prometheus said I had to go back. That it was time."
        "He would know. Time has little meaning here, but you have been away from your friends for three years."
        "Three years!" she said. "So much has happened in the last few days it seems like three years. I musta been in Hell a lot longer that I realized."
        "Time has little meaning there, too. It does not matter. It has not been easy for your friends to straighten things out."
        "How do you know all this?"
        "Some say we know everything. But that is only because they do not know anything."
        "We?" Sara asked.
        "The gods. They are within me now. I am they and they are me. I was the first that man invented, so long ago that language was not yet full of hidden meanings and snares. I endured in secluded and forgotten places through all the histories of man. In some way, the rest of them are my children, begotten by me. That is what makes this so fitting."
        "That I should be with you at the end. It is good, is it not?"
        Sara understood. This was something that had to be, the reason and culmination of her being here. She had had a glimpse of it from the very first time she saw him, a premonition, a thrill of anticipation. He was oldest, and yet youngest — most primitive, but purest in essence and harmony with his world. She was from a far and distant future of incredible accomplishment, yet simple and uncomplicated in her identity with humanity.
        She had had a taste of that humanity, and would now partake of its full measure, becoming one with the people to whom she was sent. He would fill her with his essence, and that essence would be the very gods mankind had invented for themselves. They would fill her with the hopes and dreams of all the peoples of the Earth, their aspirations and fears, their self-doubts and self-knowledge, their potential and their genius. She would become the vessel of the gods, so that humankind could come to know them and cease to fear.
        "It is good," she sighed.
        They turned toward each other, the beauty of the shimmering lights above reflected in their eyes. Slowly, inevitably, their lips drew closer until they met. Soon, nothing else mattered — not the fate of the World, not the designs of Heaven, not the mysteries of the Universe.
        She covered them both with the blanket, and knew the longed-for joy of closeness, lying beside her lover, touching and being touched in tenderness that swelled into passion as they caressed. They lingered in shared rapture under the perfect canopy of the blazing heavens, needing no more words to come between them, slowly building delicious tension in gentle waves that carried their minds and bodies to a secret place that they could only find together.
        When at long last the moment of release could be forestalled no longer, she received the burning gift of the gods, flowing from him through every particle of her being, overwhelming her with joy and completion, leaving her trembling uncontrollably in mind and body alike.
        She clung to him desperately, but the moment ended and he faded away with the rest of the world. She was falling now, plunging back to a waiting world. It was an irresistible momentum that drove her through the final barriers and back to a life she only dimly remembered. There was anticipation mixed with regret as she felt the old, familiar sensations reconnect to her long-dormant consciousness and engage her soul.
        She was not alone. The gods were with her. She opened her eyes.

End of the Second Interlude
End of Book Two

Next: Book Three, Part Three
Chapter Forty-one: To Be Announced

Table of Contents

© Patrick Hill, 2000