The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Letter to the Aurora Universe Writers' Group
from Toomey

        What a lousy gig last Saturday. Cohen House, the faculty lounge at Rice University, a wedding reception for the undead. They didn't drink and wouldn't dance, slumped insensately in their chairs staring at some morose spot in space. I think the bride and groom committed ritual suicide after cutting the cake, but nobody seemed to care. We played harder and harder, but they weren't listening. There is nothing worse for a performer. I felt drained and defeated, and slunk miserably into the welcome darkness when at last the unmerry crowd returned from whence they came.
        So I was in pissy mood when finally ensconced in my usual booth at Denny's along about fourish in the deadest calm of the still premorning. The waitresses know what to order for me as soon as my van pulls into the nearly empty parking lot, making even small conversation unnecessary. They know the customary physical pain I feel after a Saturday gig. My feet scream nearly audibly, and sweat mingles with soreness the length of my body. The adrenaline bill has come due.
        I sit in the back. There is no compensating glow on this morning from the satisfaction I usually get from owning a crowd of people for a few hours. I feel myself drooping inexorably into some kind of half swoon, vision tunneling, background noises fading to black. I'm in the center of a speading pool of stillness, content to merely exist without thought or movement until I accidentally discover a steaming plate of food under my nose. A Scram Slam: eggs, tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms piled up beside dark, crispy hash-browned potatoes, with bacon and sausage. English muffin on the side. And iced tea. I decide to live after all.
        I notice without at first comprehending that I am not alone. She's sitting on the other side of the booth, eyeing my plate as if wondering if I'm going to eat all of that. I gesture an offer for her to help herself, but she only shrugs. Of course. She can't eat real food. So I add a plate of imaginary waffles to the table. Her favorite.
        I compliment her on the substantiality her manifestation. She laughs and says I should be this delirious more often. Well, I respond, I've been thinking of you a lot. Thinking, she says, but not writing. It'll come, I protest. She gives me a look. Well, what am I to do? I have a life in the real world. Yeah, and it's killing me. No! I swear, there's so much I have to do. She replied, I know your excuses — if you really believed them, would I be here tonight?
        You're right, I thought after a while. It's not really my schedule. I can make the time if I want. I've probably written more e-mail lately than the equivalent of a dozen chapters. I'm just lost. I know where I want to go, but I don't know how to get there. She smiled tolerantly and told me, that's why I'm here, obviously. Thanks, I reply.
        I've called a meeting, she says. Here? Tonight? Right now, she replies, see? I turn to see the others arriving. Jimmie, sliding into the booth next to her, Mrs. J wedging her bulk next to me, Dinah and Alex pulling up chairs. Adjoining booths fill up with Russians and Cubans, Elgie's band a pushes a couple of tables together to sit with the Generals, tuxedos mixing incongruously with shorts, sweats and sneakers. An old redneck cement trucker waves from his stool at the counter. Grungy Urban Animals saunter in, boards tucked under their arms, and sit on the floor. Good Lord, I think. Good thing nobody else here can see them, though I notice the waitress looking at me very funny. Shaking my head and pouring the rest of my tea down my throat does not disperse the crowd. I get a refill, trying my best to ignore the cast of characters, who try their best to make me look completely certifiable. The waitress retreats, shaking her head.
        Since you're all here, maybe you can help me out. They try their best, but it quickly devolves into a cacophony of arguments over reasons why each one of them think the story should move in their direction. Wait a minute, I say. It's about her, you know, looking across the table. I can't use everyone all the time. Bullshit, Mack says, picking up his roundball. I'm outta here, man. Looks like us folks still don't get no respect at Denny's. They leave with the band. Some of the Russians stand up uncertainly. I'm not in a mood to be nice. The mob thins out. Maybe I'm returning to the land of the sane.
        She says, we've left somebody out. Oh, yeah. There's Ken Clarke and Louise Layne, but they're still a ways off. And the NASA boys, and… No, she says, pointing at the door. Bruce Wayans and his odious sidekick, Robbins, make their way back to us. I want to hide. Crap, I say, no matter what I do, I don't like these guys. Congratulations, she beams, that's what they're for. I know, gotta have heavies. But they're no match for you. They're not believable. They basically just suck. I should go back and edit them away.
        Wayans, in his oiliest manner, says he has a proposition for me. I know where you're trying to go with your story. I can help, he says. How, I ask suspiciously. You quoted Arthur C. Clarke once (Yeah, interjected Robbins, attributing it to Theodore Sturgeon. I glared at him.), to paraphrase, "A technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic." OK, that's what the Cryptoaliens who created her are into. We got into that a little bit at the end of Part 1, but it doesn't really kick in until NASA gets their hands on her.
        You just didn't go far enough, he went on. I'm taking advice from an imaginary bogyman? He smiled confidently. An entity, he said, that is sufficiently advanced — he paused theatrically, making me smile a bit — is indistinguishable from god.
        Whoa. Alright, that's where a lot of these AU stories are headed, even if they don't want to confront it. Goddesses, angels, past and future. A lot of the attributes, and with the unfortunate propensity of much of the human race to follow blindly, it seems a natural destination. But she is still a physical, created being, not some spiritual essence. Except for tonight, she reminded me.
        Oh, but there's so much more here, Wayans went on. Made from the impossibly dense material from the surface of a neutron star, her enormous and intricately complex gravitationally compensated mass gives her unimaginably vast computational capacity married to global communication, the ability to subconsciously create hordes of virtual agents to multitask problems in the background, limitless power and mobility, profound invulnerability of body and spirit… She has arrived at the precise moment of human history when we are just beginning to be profoundly interconnected, yet before we have irretrievably cast our seed into the greater cosmos. Her visage does not inspire fear or apprehension, her deeds will inspire love and reverence. She will end war. She will mitigate disasters. She will terraform the unusable parts of Terra itself. She will make the trains run on time. Anyone with any access to any kind of electronic communication can, essentially, pray to her. Their message will be heard, at some level. If worthy, she might intervene.
        We have heard voices of those who imagine a future in which it's possible for the memories and attributes of a person, perhaps something that could be called a soul, could be uploaded to some kind of mass storage device. A form of continuance of personal consciousness that may never end, existing in a virtual Paradise — or Hell — made to order and subject to whim. If such a thing is possible at all, it will be possible for her.
        At what price? Is this the Final Exam for our species as we near that point in time when we must take our place among the starfaring civilizations of our Galaxy? That we must choose to accept the benign ministrations of a perfect instrumentality, or pursue the hard course in fulfillment of the destiny of our race? The Cryptoaliens provide no clue. She is here devoid of answers. We are contaminated by their advanced civilization only to the extent that we choose to accept the consequences of this mighty gift.
        Quite a speech, I admitted, impressed. I don't know if I am up to serving such a vision. You aren't, he replied, but you have no choice. Fine, then. So how do you figure in the scheme of things. Oh, he smiled broadly, for every god, you must have a devil. I will confront her with the ultimate temptations. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. With my guidance, naturally. What a bastard, I thought. Thank you, he answered.
        My mind and body finally gave out. Not for the first time, I was awakened gently by my waitress, finished my by now cold breakfast, and staggered to my van for the short trip the rest of the way home. I tip well enough for them to tolerate my little eccentricities.
        Tomorrow, I will start anew.

Macbeth's reply

        Watching the van ease out of the parking lot, its right rear wheel bounding up and over the curbing of the exit, Laura sighed heavily and picked up the crumpled dollar left behind for her.
        "Takes all kinds." she mumbled to no one in particular and perhaps not even to herself.
        She quietly returned to the isolated table at the rear of the kitchen where all the waitresses routinely congregate to smoke their cigarettes free from the stares of the patrons. A Marlboro quickly placed and lit in her young mouth brought a small bit of comfort to an otherwise unpleasurable night.
        The fact was that Laura hated working nights. She only took this job at Denny's until her new husband of three months found another job. He had been downsized at Raytheon and there just wasn't a lot of call for someone with four years experience as a cruise missile flight control systems specialist. He installed the linkages from the servos to the winglets - not exactly something that Dell or Compaq would be interested in. So Laura did what she knew how to do to help. She waitressed. Even then, the only job open was at this Denny's on the graveyard shift. She took it and the rent got paid.
        Laura exhaled a long puff of smoke up and away from the other two waitresses before beginning her commentary on the last customer - a favorite pastime of waitresses everywhere.
        "Did you see that guy in two? Jeez."
        "Oh, yeah." said the dark-haired Toni, stirring the ice in her now empty glass of cola. "That's Tommy or Timmy or something. He's a musician; comes in here all the time. He's a Western omelet?"
        "Yeah." confirmed Laura. All customers are what they eat to waitresses. "He kept talkin' to himself and looking around everywhere. Weird." She took another long drag for comfort.
        A brief chuckle from Betty, the ancient waitress, drew stares all around. With the patience of years, Betty dabbed out her Kool in the ashtray without further comment. Her latest cigarette safely extinguished, Betty leaned back in her teetering chair to look back into the young faces around her. Betty's old, tired eyes met Laura's young, tired eyes with a smile.
        "Not so weird, hon." said Betty calmly. "He's a writer."
        "Uh-uh, Betts, he's in a band." chimed in Toni. "He told me about it one time when I asked about all his sheet music and stuff."
        Betty winked once, her beaming smile telling everyone how well she knew better.
        "Maybe so, Toni, but he's a writer alright. I've seen plenty of 'em come in here over the years. Always at night, worried about some character in their story or how to write something. It's all inside of 'em, churning around an' such. I've seen enough of 'em, I'll tell you." Betty leaned forward, her voice becoming low and serious. "It's at night when it can really take hold of 'em, those stories and the characters they make. They become real sometimes, so real they go with 'em everywhere. They even come here sometimes."
        Toni and Laura simply stared for a moment, unsure of what ol' Betty was saying.
        "Who comes here?" mumbled a confused Toni.
        "Didn't you see 'em?" Betty's grin broadened.
        "I waited on him, Betts. I saw him." Laura sounded annoyed.
        "Not him, Laura, the rest."
        "Rest who?" Laura really wasn't in the mood for this.
        "Did ya see the Cubans and the Russians and guy with the blonde and …"
        "BETTS! Are you nuts?" laughed Laura. "The place was empty except for that Ronny guy."
        "Toomey." corrected Toni, finally remembering.
        "Whatever. Quit playing with my head, Betty." demanded Laura. "You're always doing that!"
        "Okay by me." shrugged Betty, lighting up another in a series of menthol cigarettes. "I'm just sayin' that when you've been in this business as long as I have, you get to know how to spot your customers and, sometimes, you see a little bit more than what you expected. That one was a writer, that's all I'm sayin'."
        The topic safely dropped from the conversation as Laura tapped a new pack of cigarettes to settle the tobacco before opening the wrapper. A quiet ding came from the door sensor bell. Toni peeked out at the front.
        "Single in booth six. Who's got six?"
        "That's me." groaned Laura as her legs raised her from her chair in spite of some great imaginary weight on her shoulders. "No rest for the wicked."
        Stepping from the kitchen to the dining room, Laura noted the tired looking guy sitting by himself at a table meant for six. As she approached, she noticed how he tried to discretely talk to the sugar bowl from behind an open menu.
        Oh, no, she thought. Another nutcase. Then another thought came to mind, influenced by what Betty had talked about in the kitchen. A writer?
        In the instant that thought passed through her mind, faded images of other beings slowly appeared at the table. There was a second man dressed in a khaki shirt sitting next to a naked blonde woman who appeared to be excited about the stand-up card with a picture of waffles on it. On the other side of the table, a large five-legged creature covered in brown fur peered down at the menu studiously, evidently asking question after question for each item. At the center of the table, a smaller creature with eight legs rummaged through the sugar packets, inspecting each one for the printed information that spoke in glowing terms about each of the fifty states. The creature seemed annoyed by the repeats of Minnesota.
        All of them simultaneously looked up at Laura and smiled a silly, toothy grin.
        A quick scream of surprise came from Laura as her checkbook and pen dropped to the floor. Frozen in place, Laura could only stare in disbelief at the bizarre group before her.
        The large spider creature's head rotated slightly while the rest laughed good-naturedly at her surprise. The tiny creature on the table accidentally knocked over the sugar packets, spilling them across the table much to the annoyance of the tired man who had first sat down alone in booth number six.

Toomey's reply

        Dawn creased the refinery-stained air over the Pasadena Denny's. The nearly hysterical Laura had gone home early, probably never to return. Fortunately, nobody else had seen or heard the source of her distress. Except, of course, Betty, who knew she would have to answer for this little incident sooner or later.
        It turned out to be sooner. The next trucker that wandered in to sit at the counter muttered at her as she plopped a glass of water in front of him, "Hope you enjoyed yourself."
        Betty sighed, "Another reprimand. Oh, well. How many does that make?"
        "Four, on this planet alone. I am disgusted with your lack of concern for these people. This incident may well traumatize Laura for some time. Why do you take these kinds of assignments if you're just going to jeopardize the mission with your immature little practical jokes?"
        "Oh, lighten up," Betty said sourly. "She'll attribute what she thought she saw to lack of sleep and some crazy old lady, 'playin' with my head'," she mimicked. "I told you I should have been the cook. Nobody talks to him."
        "I needed you to be closer." He pretended to study his menu. "The vision was complete?"
        "Perfect, naturally. Immature I may be, but I know how to do my job."
        "I'm not doubting that." His fingers drummed the counter top momentarily. "How are the waffles?"
        Betty wrinkled her nose, "Crap. This is not a civilized world."
        He looked even more disappointed than when he entered. "OK. I'll just take what Toomey had."
        She turned to the cook, "Scram Slam, English," and brought him a sweaty glass of tea.
        "How much longer is this going to take?" Betty asked impatiently. "Surely by now he is sufficiently prepared."
        "His speed leaves something to be desired," he replied dryly. "We'll not be able to leave until I'm satisfied that he's completely reliable."
        Betty muttered something disparagingly incomprehensible, turning it into a cough.
        "Oh, I wouldn't be so impatient if I were you," he told her smugly. "We'll be going to Singapore next. I've got a role for you that you deserve. Just the thing you need to straighten you out a little."
        Betty snorted, "Like this isn't punishment enough. I look like Popeye's mother."
        "Then you'll be pleased to learn that you'll be a much younger female soon. Merely a teenager. A Chinese housemaid, in fact, for a middle-aged American businessman and his wife. He's one of our original subjects on this planet, from before your arrival. This will be a return visit."
        "Doesn't sound so bad."
        "Well, there's this one little detail. Very minor, actually. Something about a 'headache clause'." He grinned maliciously, obviously satisfied with himself. Betty really didn't like the sound of that. What the hell was a 'headache clause'?
        He finished his breakfast just as Betty's shift ended. Watching them leave the restaurant, the cook elbowed the dishwasher, nodding his head at their retreating backs. "Amateurs," he muttered. His companion nodded his agreement. They vanished with soft popping noises, abandoned clothes falling to the wet, food-strewn kitchen floor.
        The cashier looked up at the noise, then caught the manager's eye. He came over and asked, "You're tracking them?" She gestured at the glowing cash register screen which he glanced at briefly. "Very good. And you're sure they didn't suspect we were monitoring them?" She gave him a withering look. Together, they went out the back door and shortly thereafter, soared off into the brightening sky.
        The two Mexicans lounging in the booth by the door watched their rapidly dwindling forms disappear beyond the horizon. "I thought they'd never leave," said the scruffier looking of the two.
        "Well, I've seen enough," said the other one. "I'm certain that we'll have to continue our surveillance indefinitely. I'm just glad we got here in time. The kinds of damage these bunglers could do is unimaginable."
        They made their way to the old phone booth. Somehow, both managed to get inside together. There was a brief flash, and the booth was empty.
        The young couple in the corner booth beamed up soon after. The busboy departed via the wormhole in the broom closet after filing a report with the Mixmaster. Some old geezer in a trench coat suddenly shed coat and decades in one fluid movement, unfurled his magnificent wings and rose into the sky trailing glory. A couple of coffee-sipping refinery workers were the last to leave, climbing into their battered pickup truck and exiting the parking lot straight up at about twenty G's, bound for the dark side of the moon.
        Dark-haired Toni was the only one left. She surveyed the now abandoned Denny's, smiling to herself. Such a fuss, she thought. There must have been representatives from every advanced race in this section of the Galaxy here tonight, in layer after layer of increasing sophistication and power, weaving grand machinations and strategies.
        For the millionth time, she thought about how much easier it could be if they would just leave everything to her. After all, she was the point of this whole tangled mess, wasn't she? She shrugged and thought, my time will come soon enough.
        She reached up and removed the dark wig, wild gold spilling riotously across her shoulders. The shapeless waitress uniform fell away from her magically, revealing the cape and familiar costume beneath, golden symbol proudly bared across her breasts.
        Lightly skipping to the front door, she turned the sign around to read 'Closed' to the traffic along 225, shut it carefully behind her and, laughing with pure joy, flashed into the waiting sky.
        A few blocks away, Toomey slept on. 

Proper Waffles
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© Patrick Hill, 2000