Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Seven: Growing Up

        Sara was certainly a handful. Make that a bucketful. Several buckets, actually. Oh, hell, make up your own outlandish exaggeration — it won't come close enough. Imagine a really big two-year-old driven by an insatiable curiosity and zest for life that never runs out of steam and can run off with, disassemble and partially consume a Buick while you're tying your shoes.
        Not that she was intentionally mischievous. She always minded really well and never meant to cause any problems. It's just that she was so much quicker to get into trouble than anybody else was to foresee potential disaster.
        If a ball rolled under the porch, she'd just pick up the porch to get at it. She made a playhouse out of railroad ties brought in for landscaping, casually dragging the whole bundle across the lawn behind the rec room, leaving deep furrows in her wake. The forlorn little playground in one corner of the complex was transformed into a savage wasteland of twisted metal one afternoon while her keepers were distracted.
        Or, she'd lie at the bottom of the pool for a couple of hours, just watching the play of light the little waves made — until some other child's mother saw her 'drowning' and became hysterical. Maybe she'd casually pick up a tree to look at the neat little bugs in the roots. And then there was the flying…
        Since she didn't seem to need much sleep, she required a twenty-four hour watch. In teams. With constant two-way radio communications. The poor, overworked Cubans were beginning to think Castro wasn't so bad after all. Privately, they had a quaint name for her in Spanish that didn't translate very well.
        Gradually, boundaries were laid out and rules were made. Don't leave the complex. Stay on the ground. Don't pick up anything bigger than you are. Try not to bend, break or vaporize anything. Don't eat anything that wasn't served on a plate. Don't eat the plate.
        There were not many children in the apartments, since nearly half of them were filled with Mrs. J's people and she was not exactly 'family friendly'. Houston didn't allow housing discrimination against families with kids, but Mrs. J had a way of causing most families to look elsewhere, once she had enough of them on hand to keep up appearances. Sara was more than a little out of place playing with the younger ones that were closer to her mental age, but Alex was grateful that she had at least some interaction with other children. Their parents paid no attention to whatever outlandish stories their kids 'made up' about Sara. He did his best to keep her away from the older kids who might ask too many questions.
        As soon as Alex thought it was safe, he took Sara out in the piney woods north of town to a big clearing away from prying eyes where she could practice her flying. At first, he tied a string to her and guided her around like a kite, worried that she could easily dart off and never find her way back. They both soon gained confidence in her navigational skills and abilities. He let her go higher and higher, as long as she stayed right above the clearing and he could still see her with binoculars.
        She took to flight naturally. The air was her element and she claimed it with gusto. She could just become weightless, hair flowing around her head like an enormous golden halo, drifting with the breeze, pushing off with the tips of her toes and fingers from rocks and trees. Or she could zoom like a fighter plane, arms outstretched as she rolled and looped, making engine noises he could hear as she strafed him.
        Her 'sense' (whatever it was) ranged far around her, enabling her to dart through the tangled maze of tree trunks and branches without looking, chasing startled birds with squeals of delight. It enabled her to avoid, for the most part, a lot of messy bug splats, though mosquitoes and smaller critters inevitably adorned her face like a radiator grill. Houston is good to bugs — that's why they all move here.
        Aerodynamics was irrelevant to her. Any attitude would do — upside down, backwards, sideways, full front, headfirst, limbs flailing, pike position — but she seemed to prefer the natural posture of a skydiver, except on those few occasions when he allowed her to wear her costume.
        He'd wondered why any self-respecting highly-advanced alien designer would include a silly cape as part of her ensemble — something to trip over and get in her way. But when he saw it swirling around her, he had to admit it looked wonderful, lending flair and drama to an otherwise girlie outfit — providing a backdrop, setting the stage, emphasizing her fluid motions, teasing the imagination, stirring the soul and providing a billowing canvas upon which the eye could behold the lovliest of visions.
        At rest, it could be draped completely around her body, like an instant formal gown suitable for a diplomatic reception. In flight, it waved and fluttered majestically when in human sight close to the Earth, seeming to have a mind of its own — its motions independent of actual wind conditions or air speeds — with a predilection for that dramatic flowing look beloved of illustrators, a proud flag proclaiming her identity. At high speed, it clung tightly to her body, shrouding her like the skin of a supersonic missile.
        He decided that mere mortals could not wear a cape without looking and feeling silly — but Sara was a special being whose soaring confidence bore her uniqueness with natural dignity and unassuming pride. Her cape never got in her way. For Sara, it was… Well, it was perfect.
        They concocted several take-off styles. There was the basic 'Up, Up and Away!' — fist held high, leaping straight into the sky. And the 'Run, Skip and Jump' like George Reeves used to do in the old TV series, only Sara didn't fall into a mattress just off-screen. The 'Crouch-Jump' looked natural, but the 'Launch Pad' — simply rising into the air like a Space Shuttle — was boring.
        Landings required a little more thought. 'Feet First' in a skirt was definitely unladylike, and the cape always wanted to flow the wrong way, piling up against her hair. The 'Swoop' was graceful, but required a lot of runway, skimming low to the ground then pulling up to stall out and stop, touching down lightly — feet spread, hands on hips — for a stylish finish. The most spectacular — and most heart-stopping — was the 'Dive and Flip' — rocketing straight down to her landing point headfirst at high speed and then tucking into a tight half-somersault at the last instant to land on her feet, collapsing into a shock absorbing half-crouch and then popping up, arms wide, like a gymnast sticking a perfect landing off the parallel bars. Her timing had to be impeccable.
        A few tries (and a few craters) later, it was.
        After passing her basic competency exam and being awarded an elaborate 'Flight Certificate' (First Class), Alex took some maps, satellite photo printouts of the Houston area and a couple of the Cubans' military two-ways to the clearing for navigational exercises.
        "OK, can you see the airport? Over." Alex figured Sara was about two thousand feet directly above him, hanging stationary, posing a puzzle, no doubt, to some air traffic controller somewhere. He could barely see her.
        "Yeah. Whoa! There's a lot of planes there! Over."
        "Now, look right about fifteen degrees and about ten miles past and you should see the blimp hangar. Over."
        "Easy. Over."
        "That's I-45 running in front of it, just like I showed you on the map. Over."
        "Uh-huh. Over."
        "Follow it to the left until you see the green-gabled roof of the Marriott, like I pointed out on the way up here, with Sharpstown Mall next to it. That's Beltway 8. Over."
        "I got it. Over."
        "Now, stay on I-45 'till you get to the next big freeway intersection. Over."
        "I know! That's Loop 610. Over."
        "Follow it to the right. See where it splits off into 290 and turns to the left? Over."
        "There's some buildings in the way from this angle, but I see it. Over."
        "It should head south toward the Galleria and the big building with the searchlight on top. Over."
        "I don't see the searchlight. Over."
        "Not during the day. You saw it the other night. Over."
        "I knew that. Over."
        "You see the intersection with I-10? Over."
        "I think so. Uh, Memorial Park on the left — nothing but trees, right? Ooh — there's a polo game, with lots of horses. Over."
        "You got it. Just follow it to the right. Before you see Beltway 8 again, there's our apartments. Over."
        "There's too many trees. And billboards. Maybe if I was higher… Oh! Wait! I can see it! I can see it! Over."
        "You sure? Over." Alex figured she was looking through nearly twenty-five miles of murky Houston mid-afternoon haze with the lowering sun in her face.
        "Yeah! There's the Fiesta Mart, right next door. And there's Macdonald's. And the rec room! Ooh, I want to go right there and tell Banggo! I'll be right back!"
        Alex wasn't fast enough. "That's a negative on your request. Over."
        No response.
        "Sara. Over."
        Nothing but static.
        "SARA!" As if shouting would do any good.
        Sighing, he keyed his cell phone. "If you happen to see Sara anytime real soon, would you call me back?" he told Mrs. J. "And tell her to stay there 'till I get home."
        The phone rang about a minute later.
        Sara was grounded for a week.

        Sara's education got off to a slow start. Alex wasn't in a big hurry, since he really wanted her to get a little further along in her accelerated childhood before having to buckle down. Anyway, Dinah wasn't about to let anyone even close to Sara without being subjected to the most exhaustive background check and interview she could manage. Having made the commitment, she threw herself into the project with her usual fanatical zeal, spending almost every evening at the complex. She had a complete little office cubicle delivered to the 'B' unit, with a desk, computer, file cabinet and expensive leather swivel chair. It was strictly off limits to everyone, especially — she glared at Alex — Mrs. J.
        When the first three tutors passed her scrutiny, they made individual recommendations one at a time until they thought they had a good mix of talent, eventually settling on a faculty of twelve. Not a bad student-teacher ratio. As it turned out, Sara nearly had them outnumbered.
        Dinah had had little time for Alex during this period. Not that she seemed angry, just absorbed by her job. Since she was still working full time at her day gig — presumably at the same level of intensity — he tried to be sympathetic. But the only person she tolerated distracting her was Sara. Dinah would always take time out to talk to her, though there seemed to be an inordinate amount of discussion about moral principles, patriotism, duty-honor-country. Alex thought she might be laying it on a little thick, but Sara seemed to like it. It was kinda like exercising a first-strike capability, an anti-indoctrination indoctrination. Dinah was always on the lookout for signs that some wily ex-KGB operative might slip in a stray bit of propaganda.
        During a lull one evening, Alex asked her what her Internet searches had turned up on their co-conspirators.
        Dinah leaned back in her office chair and looked at the ceiling for a while. "Not really a damn thing." She sounded so disappointed.
        "What, no fugitives from the hangman's noose?" he asked, trying to make it sound lighthearted. "No former prison guards or genocidists? From the way you were carrying on, I thought maybe you were thinking something like the end of the Third Reich, when all those Nazis hopped the next submarine to Argentina, clutching bags of looted art treasures and gold." He glanced around at Mrs. J's expensive accoutrements.
        She ignored his tone. "No, pretty much like Mrs. J said. Yeah, nearly all of them were card-carrying Party members, but none of them were particularly distinguishable politically. Mainly minor functionaries, bureaucrats, technicians, teachers and artists."
        "I thought Mrs. J mentioned KGB and army."
        "Well, Popov…" (one of the tutors — Alex's eyebrows went up at this bit of news) "…was KGB alright. Technical analyst. Evaluated photos, electronic data, satellite imagery, all kinds of things. Drudge work, mostly. Our thinking…" ('our' thinking?) "…is that he should be able to help Sara make heads or tails of all the extra sensory input she has, to sort things out.
        "And the best engineer of the lot is a Red Army colonel, Gudenov. Actually, fairly distinguished. Authored a lot of scientific papers on things like load bearing, stress distribution and the like. Taught at their military academy, 'East Point'. He'll be helpful. Sara's a lot stronger than the stuff she can pick up. If she doesn't learn how to manage heavy loads, her strength won't be nearly as effective. That's the main reason she breaks everything.
        "Pretty much the same story for all of them, so far. They were brilliant, successful people until everything fell apart. Then they were out in the snow. Russia basically stopped paying the military, closed academies and universities, laid off half the government. Pensions over there won't buy dog food.
        "There were some immigration loopholes for a while that made it possible for some of these people — the lucky ones, I guess — to come to America and qualify for Social Security. Maybe not quite legally, but somehow someone at SSA approved their applications. Mrs. J and a few others like her figured this out and made some arrangements, mostly paid for by whatever these people could get selling nearly everything they had to the Russian Mafia black market for plane tickets and a stake. She got the stake in exchange for setting them up in a retirement community with their own kind in a warm climate.
        "Everybody wins. Russia sheds dead weight, the Russian Mafia makes a profit, the refugees live out their lives in relative comfort, Mrs. J doesn't do too badly… Well, I'm not knocking her. I think she's got her heart in the right place. She really cares for these people and they adore her. Anyway, American taxpayers end up footing part of the bill, but considering the clientele, I guess you could call it a brain drain. Hell, could be the State Department intervened at SSA."
        Alex thought about this for a while. "If this is all on the up-and-up, why all the secrecy? I mean, that's what set you off."
        Dinah shrugged her shoulders, "I think it might just be instinctive with them. Maybe you don't want to believe it, Alex, but these people grew up in kind of a bad place. And, yeah, someone like Wayans could make a big deal out of this, maybe pump his ratings in the south at a critical time."
        That surprised Alex. "The Black Knight? Feet of clay? What brought this on? I thought he was supposed to be Mr. Wonderful, the Great Crusader."
        Dinah took a deep breath. "This project I've been working on — you know, the Deer Park plant — I'm beginning to think there are some serious flaws in our case. There are Chinese nationals involved, all right, but from everything I've been able to find out about them, it looks like they're just investors who raised money from newly capitalistic Chinese citizens. The plant makes nothing but pharmaceutical feedstock. Some of it goes to Iraq eventually, but it's not good for anything more dangerous than sleeping pills."
        "So. Case closed, huh?" He had a sudden disquieting thought. "Does that mean you're going back to New York?"
        "No. Actually, I'm from Galveston, originally. 'Born On Island' as they say. I've always planned to stay here afterward. That's why I took the assignment."
        Alex wished he'd gotten that little bit of news sooner. He'd always assumed that she wouldn't be around long enough to try to become attached to her. Damn. Why hadn't she mentioned this earlier?
        She went on, "And we're going ahead. I talked this over with Wayans' assistant, Robbins, and everything's proceeding. Unless there's something else I don't know, it looks like the reason they're not backing off is because pursuing the suit will generate a lot of favorable publicity for Wayans, win or lose. He can always blame a loss on opposition politics. In any event, it'll be a disaster for the Chinese shareholders."
        "So what are you going to do about it?"
        "Look, Alex. I really believe in the stuff I've done. It's made a difference. We're in the middle of a cultural war in this country. Bruce Wayans made it possible to get at some people even the Feds wouldn't touch. It's a great cause…"
        Alex started humming "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".
        "You don't understand, Alex…"
        "I'll tell you what I understand," said Alex. "No disrespect, but that guy's a phony. I can't believe smart, reasonable people fall for his line of crap. He's on TV every damned day, and every time it's pure bullshit. What does he do, keep a couple of dozen minority kids in a box so he can have one handy every time someone turns on a camera? He runs focus groups and polls so he can tell everybody what they want to hear. He picks his causes based on interest groups he can line up behind him. I swear to God, if he can find a group of commie-bashers, he'll hang everyone here out to dry for the demographic boost."
        Dinah was not used to being surprised. She had never known Alex to be the slightest bit political. She couldn't even imagine him getting so worked up. It made her feel… She didn't know. Breathless? A little…
        Alex began again. "The bastard pays people like you to make high-profile headlines that invariably cost a lot of innocent people jobs so he can look good at someone else's expense. Everybody knows it, but they don't care, 'cause they approve of his policies. What policies? A policy for you, a policy for me, a policy in every pot."
        "That's enough, Alex. Sure, he's got enemies. Powerful enemies. There are people in this country that don't want him to succeed, a vast conspiracy…"
        "Well, sign me up."
        She was nearly speechless. No one had ever talked to her like this before. It suddenly dawned on her that here was someone who had jumped in front of a bullet to protect somebody who didn't need protecting, someone he'd only known a couple of days. To whom he had given his unconditional love. A love she wanted for herself…
        What did she have to do to get him to notice her? Wear a cape?
        What was she thinking? Oh, god, she felt faint. She was getting hot and dizzy. This was ridiculous. She had to get out of there before… She didn't know what. She lurched from her chair and grabbed her bag, heading out the door without a word.
        Alex called after her, "Dinah, wait…" But she was gone.

        Alex was still sitting morosely on the couch when Sara came drifting in around midnight. She could tell he was sad, so she went over and gave him a big, careful hug. He patted her absently.
        She said, "I thought you and Dinah were talking."
        He smiled, "Well, I guess you heard everything."
        "Sure, I heard you — I can't help that — but I wasn't listening, honest. You told me I shouldn't do that. But I can remember it if you want me to."
        "No, no. It was just between her and me, and it should stay that way. I'm afraid I may have said something Dinah didn't like. We had a little argument, I guess, and I got sorta carried away. She got mad at me and went home." He sighed, "I hope she still likes me tomorrow."
        "Oh, she will. I like you, and she likes me, so she has to like you."
        "Well, that certainly makes sense to me," he smiled. "Hey, who's on watch tonight?"
        "Raoul and Maria. We're gonna watch some movies tonight in the rec room with Mr. Andropov."
        The history tutor. He still ran on Moscow time, it seemed, only coming out at night. Well, that was convenient.
        "Nothing boring, I hope." Like some dreadful Russian costume epic, War and Peace or whatever.
        "Not tonight," she replied eagerly. "We're gonna see The Forbidden Planet 'cause it's got an alien robot in it, like me."
        "One of my favorite movies," he said with a smile.
        "And The Wizard of Oz," she continued, "I like stories about Wizards and Little People and stuff."
        "Do they know you're over here?"
        "Oops. I don't think so," she said, looking rather guilty. "I told Mr. Andropov I had to go to the bathroom." She giggled.
        That was her favorite trick on newbies — she never had to relieve herself. By the time they realized they'd been had, she was out the window.
        "Sara!" he said, simply shocked. But he giggled, too. "Where are they now?"
        "Mr. Andropov's behind the rec room, looking in the bushes with a flashlight. Raoul's running this way."
        "Go on. Put them out of their misery." He smacked her hard on the rump as she started for the door. "Shame on you, young lady."
        She scampered out, laughing.


Chapter Eight: Reconciliation


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© Patrick Hill, 2000