The Amazing Adventures
of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey
the year wore on, Sara matured quickly. Physically, she was unchanged from the day she
first thawed out, but her mind blossomed like a hothouse rose. Her childhood would be done
by next summer and Alex wanted her to savor it as much as possible, so he tried to
encourage her tutors to go easy on her. For the most part, they acted like a bunch of
doting grandfathers, anyway. But as a faculty, they found it was not going to be as easy
as they had first thought to deal with their precocious student. Once their pedagogical
experience and preconceptions went the way of the poor, shattered playground, they
realized that they had as much to learn about Sara as they hoped she would be able to
learn from them.
Mere facts she absorbed greedily, always
eager to explore every corner of her new world. Books that she enjoyed
— like Tolkien's
The Lord of the Rings or Mark Twain's A
Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court — were savored as if she were reading
every word aloud, setting up scenes in her mind. Boring stuff she could skim through as
fast as she could manage the page turns, every word filed away perfectly and
permanently — though not necessarily usefully. Knowledge was more than an accumulation of facts. There
had to be meaning, context and experience.
Her language skills were a good example.
She arrived on our planet with perfect knowledge of every word in (it was practically
official now) every language known to man, but barely able to communicate. As her
experience widened, context gave meaning to empty syllables.
When she finally saw the
elephant, it became real to her in every one of her languages in a way mere definitions
could not provide. Then, as she learned about where the elephant lived, what he ate, his
habits and legends in books, stories and those late-night wildlife shows on cable, the
word 'elephant' took on meaning and depth and became a link in the vast web of
mental associations we call learning.
Chess was another good example. Naturally,
it was one of the first things the Russians taught her. She quickly became rather good at
it, a gifted amateur who could hold her own against most of them
— until her
computer-mind took over, analyzing by sheer brute force every possible move that could be
made, guiding her unerringly to the best outcome in the fewest moves. It was no fun that
way, of course, so she usually just 'turned it off' and played without benefit of alien
It was this ability to pick and choose
just how much of her vast abilities she wanted to use that kept her
sane — in touch with the same reality as humans. In her heart,
she was a normal little girl — albeit unusually quick and bright — who just
happened to be able to do the most amazing and outrageous things.
When she wanted to…
The trick was in keeping her from wanting
to, on the one hand — and making her want to, on the other.
Teaching her required a team effort. They
often had to work in rotating shifts as unexpected turns developed, with a fresh group
going in to cover the previous group's hasty retreat. For example, shortly after the
unfortunate incident with the cement truck ("I was only trying to
found himself trying to explain how such a massive-looking thing could be so fragile.
He covered the square-cube relationship
and how it applied to scale, which Sara learned quickly enough. That led to stress,
loading, tension and structural analysis, which required an assist from Ivanovitch, the
mathematician. Math was Sara's easiest subject in certain respects, since any kind of
calculation could be done instantly, and she amassed myriad
complex formulae at a glance. The practical
application of all this theory led to something else.
It turned out that Sara's mysterious
'sense' could be trained to recognize how a thing was put together by its
'feel', which included not only a direct perception of an object's material
composition and construction, but its internal stresses as different forces were applied.
It was not like sight, which perceives only the surfaces of
objects — this involved the
whole object in three dimensions as a perceptible mass, including at least a crude
approximation of internal structure. Sara decided to call it 'kreening'
(conjugating the verb 'to kreen': you kreen; she kreens; they kreen; I have been
kreening, it was kreened…).
So Nevsky, the chemist, was called in to
help her identify various elements and compounds in a way that was similar to how Sara
learned colors. He presented a substance, she kreened it, he named and described it, and
she remembered it. Iron, carbon, lead, brass, clay, wood (as many varieties as they could
find), leather, polystyrene, glass, bone, paper, glue, ceramics. Water, oil (from cooking
to motor), antifreeze, Jell-O, paraffin, albumin, soap, mercury.
Which brought Popov back in to help her
sort everything out and make organized sense of it all. 'Seeing' involves much
more than transmitting images focussed on the retina to the brain. It also involves
invoking a rich panoply of cognitive and affective associations, from mere calculation to
ineffable beauty. The ex-KGB intelligence analyst had made a career of looking at
meaningless blobs of light and shadow on an emulsion and extracting knowledge. Though he
couldn't kreen himself, he knew how to make data sing, and taught Sara the tune.
She was soon able to report that a wall
was (in order) paint, paper, gypsum, paper, pine or fiberglass, paper, gypsum, paper and
paint. That there were nails here, here and here. Three-conductor copper wiring ran along
this stud, each wire covered with Teflon insulation, the whole bound up with vinyl and
stapled there, there and there. A water pipe ran this way. That's where a mouse
lives. You have five quarters, two nickels, three dimes and a penny in your pocket.
The physicist, Borodin, summed up what
they had learned. "It is like a penetrating energy field surrounding her in every
direction that brings to her computer-mind a virtual representation of her surroundings.
When she decides to become conscious of it, she is immersed in a three-dimensional model
that carries information about position, composition, relative density and pressure."
All they had to do was to 'calibrate the instrument' by methodically testing a
wide sampling of various objects to destruction while Sara kreened them.
Well, that basically involved tearing
things apart. Sara was very good at that. Mrs. J eventually made them go somewhere
else to conduct their little experiments.
sort of domestic tranquillity set in, with Dinah spending more
and more nights at Alex's until she was basically moved in. It
took her a while to more-or-less formally commit fully to their relationship (whatever that meant),
but she made the most
of her newfound sexuality to attack Alex ferociously and creatively from time to time.
The comfortable familiarity of her former lonliness and
self-imposed isolation gradually faded from memory.
Alex, for the most part, accepted his lot with grace, if not dignity. He had long ago
given up trying to figure out women in general and was mostly grateful not to be living
alone anymore. Besides, in his own private, inner Disneyland, Dinah was an E-ticket ride
— and anyway, despite their myriad differences, he liked her. With Sara and Mrs. J,
the unlikely group constituted a bizarre instant family.
Dinah was undergoing a crisis of cognitive
dissonance regarding her position with Perry, Dyess, Eyelandt. Despite mounting pressure
from Wayans' unctuous sidekick, Robbins, she was prepared to call off the dogs
she'd unleashed on the Chinese-financed chemical plant. There was just nothing dirty
going on, she was convinced, and it bothered her no end that Robbins didn't seem to
care. He seemed to accept her judgement while finding it to be irrelevant to
"So quit," said Alex.
"You're a good lawyer, aren't you? I'll bet Wayans isn't paying
you half of what you're worth. You committed, idealistic types always get shafted
'for the cause' when it comes to bread."
"I'm not a quitter," Dinah
said. "And it's not the money. Someone else would just get my job, and
there's more at stake than just me, here. People could get hurt, and I don't
want to walk away from that. Besides, if I did quit, what do you think I'm
Hang out my shingle? There are a hell of a lot of lawyers out there trying to make it
on their own who probably don't make as much as you do."
"That's not possible."
"Well, it's not as easy as you
think, just because I'm a lawyer." She made a face at
him. "The kind of
job with an established firm that pays well — that's not what I want to do.
I'm more like a prosecutor."
"Yeah, you be bad. All you need is a
six-shooter and a ten-gallon hat. I bet you'd look great with a handlebar mustache.
So how come you didn't end up with the FBI or the DA's office?"
"Wayans was after
bigger game. It sounded good, like I could make a real difference. For the most part, I
think I did. That's important to me."
"Why? What makes you want to save the
world? What's up with being some kind of avenging superhero? Look," he said,
"While you were dedicating every waking moment to your Black Knight's holy war,
life went on without you."
"Alex, you were an Army brat and
joined the Navy. I know you understand duty, honor, country…"
"Oh, spare me. Yeah, and while I was
sailing around in a smelly shitcan, all my buddies were going to college, getting laid,
starting careers, making babies… They had a life. All I got when I came back to the
real world as a veteran was spit on."
Dinah rolled her eyes and played her tiny
violin. "Poor baby," she mocked. "I seem to recall your telling me you went
back to college. GI Bill, wasn't it?"
"Sure. There were lots of vets on
campus back then. Nobody had anything to do with us, 'cause everybody
knew that vets
were all baby-killers and maniacs. So the only people you could hang with were other vets.
And they were all baby-killers and maniacs."
Dinah had to laugh. "So that's
why you decided to be a musician. Fringe of society kind of stuff, carefree, no
"I got over it. I'm a musician
because I can be. I like it, it's easy for me, and I have lots of time for myself.
And, a life. I get paid to do something I really like to do,
something that's fulfilling to me.
Sometimes, on a gig, I'll see some fat cat in a tuxedo looking at me in a way that I
know he would give up whatever he's doing to do what I'm doing. If time is
money, oh Ms. Billable Hours, then I'm rich. You, on the other hand, are a soldier
who never came home. How can you defend a way of life you've never experienced?"
Dinah had to think about that one. It got
"I'm sorry, Dinah."
"No, no. You're right. And I
think I've changed quite a bit from when we first met. Anyway, you are not exactly a
paragon of normalcy. I don't get how you can lecture me on getting a life. You do
what you do because you have to do it, Alex. It's a calling, and you know it.
It's the same with me."
She winked slyly, "Anyway, don't you think
I've loosened up just a wee bit?"
"Whoo," he breathed. "Oh,
yeah, come to think of it."
"Actually," she said, moving
closer and arching her back, "I think you're the one who needs more loosening
finally decided that Sara had to be given the car keys, in a manner of speaking. He
thought she was able to handle wider forays into the world outside the compound
without a constant chaperone, as long as she let him know where she was going and gave a
complete account of what she had done when she got back.
He wasn't particularly concerned
about keeping her a secret. By now, plenty of people had seen Sara do things that were not
believable, so they just didn't believe it. You couldn't even be sure of
photographs these days, or videos, either.
So what if two thousand people saw her flying
down the high-occupancy lane in the middle of the Katy Freeway? What were they going to
say? Who were they going to tell? At least that many people saw various kinds of
UFO's every day. Sara was just another one. They made movies in Houston all the time
these days (cheap labor, lots of light, different locations and a city that practically
slobbered en masse over things Hollywood), so that's probably what it was.
I'll bet that was the blonde from Babewatch! Damn, I should have tried to get an
Anyway, before long, Alex would go ahead
and contact NASA and let them worry about how to break the news. Then everyone in Houston
will tell everyone else that, "Oh yeah, I knew all along. We used to hang out
together at the Galleria." Stories would beget stories, each one topping the last,
until it would have taken a whole platoon of Sara's to have been as many places as
people swore to, or done as many spectacular feats as myriad fertile imaginations could
"Yep. There I wuz tryin' to
figure out how I wuz a'goin' t' get close enuff to pour muh concrete,
cussin' up a blue streak 'bout th' damn fool what put a wall in
when up she comes an' sez, all polite like, 'Can I help?' Next thing I
knowed, gol-durn if she didn't jist pick that whole damn cee-ment truck up oven her
haid an' jump over th' wall with it. 'Course, when she lighted on
t'other side — well, it wuz more'n that ol' Peterbilt could take.
Th' frame broke plumb in two, yessiree, cab goes one way an' the rest of it ever'
whichaway, cee-ment flyin' all over ever'thin' in sight. Biggest damn mess
you ever saw. So I sez to her, I sez, 'Well, darlin', I shore appreciate th'
help, but how in the' hell 'm I gonna 'splain this to muh dis-patcher?
Huh?' An' she starts in bawlin', an' next thing I know, there wuz a
whole buncha Russkies and Mes'kins runnin' 'round… An', ya know
what? They tell her what t'do and she jist picks up all th' pieces an'
I'll be damn'd if she didn't jist weld the whole kit 'n kaboodle back
together agin jist by a'lookin' at it. I ain't lyin'! By th' time
she wuz done, all it needed wuz a paint job, an' it'd be like brand spankin' new.
An' them Mes'kins done scooped up the cee-ment quicker' 'n' spit
an' the next thing I knew, I wuz back on th' road. Well, I
enuff to tell nobody 'bout what I saw with muh own eyes, they'd a'thought I
wuz plumb loco. But, I swear t' God, that's th' honest truth."
So, OK, in this case it was.
was one of the few musicians he knew who actually enjoyed playing at the Petroleum Club.
It was mostly snooze music for a few rich geezers and their
pretty, young 'nieces' and maybe a
couple of tables of blue-haired widows with their gay-eyed dance-studio escorts. Usually
there would be a huddle of oil patch suits talking 'bidness' with a couple of
Japs or Norwegians at one of the corner tables. And then there were the
regulars — grandly
decaying members who came arrayed in fruitless splendor to dance while they still
The white-gloved staff was surly and the
management indifferently obnoxious to the musicians, making it as difficult as possible to
bring in the necessary amps and cases. Forget going to the bar, and hide in a back room on
breaks, with a cup of coffee if you scrounged it yourself from the kitchen. The music
could only be old and bland — no jazz, no rock, nothing hip or cool, certainly no
originals. Lots of rhumbas, cha-cha-chas, bossas, ballads, show tunes, waltzes,
standards — mostly popular before Alex was born. Vocals were barely tolerated in the later sets, if
you didn't mind singing over their tin-cup-and-string ceiling speakers. Above all,
they were required to play so as not to offend anyone. Couldn't have that.
But the view…! From the stage, you
could survey 180-degrees through a nearly unobstructed glass wall 24-feet high. From the
club's location on the 43rd floor of the Exxon Building on the southeast edge of
Houston's downtown urban canyons, you could see all the way to Galveston (so Alex
thought, though the skyglow on the horizon was probably Clear Lake). At night, you could
see right into the offices in adjacent skyscrapers to the left, and to the right, you
could catch the nightly fireworks show at Astroworld. In between were the lights of half
the metropolitan area of Houston.
Outlining every corner and street were the
amberish sodium streetlights and their older mercury-vapor hard-bluish cousins. Flickering
neon signs and blinking traffic lights vied with the river of advancing and retreating
headlights and taillights on the Gulf Freeway, stretching directly away into the distance.
There were the fairyland cities of light made by the towers and skeletal structures of the
Pasadena refinery complexes, punctuated by the fiery belches of flared waste gas
— like a vision of Oz gone mad. Closer in was the palace of the Maxwell House coffee plant,
a sort of refinery in its own right. There was the nervous undertow of house lights and
porch lights going on and off in vast, mysterious patterns, and the occasional frantic
beat of emergency vehicles rushing to complete their unknown missions. The powerful
beacons of locomotives wound their majestic way along the Ship Channel, and the gracefully
descending landing lights of the jetliners settling to the ground at Hobby Airport traced
lazy loops in the black sky. Sometimes the stadium lights would be on at the University of
Houston, and occasionally the full moon would rise, deep orange and baleful, through the
miasma above the chemical plants. At other times, the fabulous lightshow of marching
thunderstorms would parade across the vista.
He imagined it was like playing in the
skylounge of some future 'Titanic' spaceliner cruising above a great spiral
galaxy. Or he would be a savage scientist from Stone Age Borneo, trying to measure the
unknowable portents of the utterly alien landscape before him.
Alex was not bothered by the usual jazz
snob's disdain at having to play drivel, or the jaded professional's attitude of
dismissal of the music they performed. He enjoyed playing so much that anything with notes in
it could be appreciated at some level, and he would do his best to ply his craft with all
the excellence he could muster.
Old Elgie Morrel's piano stylings may
have been predictable, but there was a sense of gravity about his chord progressions that
Alex could work with, never playing the same tune the same way twice. They understood each
other well enough to make the small, simultaneous decisions about transient dynamics,
phrasing and inflections in that timeless communion that exists between working musicians,
an almost shared consciousness that normal people never experienced. They'd make a
little turn here or an accent there, maybe change keys or directions together, all without
design or logic — then they would trade glances and smile. Not that they didn't
drive each other crazy, on and off the stage. Still, it was this strange thing that
players shared with each other — through good gigs and bad, sometimes barely
noticeable and at other times deliriously powerful — that provided the drug that
compelled otherwise able and intelligent people to embrace the bondage of musicianship.
That, and the vision within
— different for each player — of the essence of music's power to express the
inexpressible. To those upon whom the vision has been bestowed, everything else becomes
unimportant. Musicians are, in this way, like prophets. And, like prophets, are often
without honor among their worldly peers. So they play because they must, and if they
Alex sometimes thought of these things as
he stared out the great windows while pulling the thick strings of his Fender P-bass. He
knew that the people who came to wherever it was he was playing that night, came for his
magic, to let him do the things that he could do to them. For he had power. It was his
pulsing fundamental beat that drove them. He could make them dance. He could make them
stumble. He could make them sweat.
Sometimes, he wished he could just make
them go home.
On this particular night, his
appeared outside the windows, in the form of a blond-haloed face peering through the
tangle of legs beneath the Abernathy's table directly across the half-acre dance
floor from the stage. Her head bobbed up and down, trying to attract his attention, as she
kreened whether or not any heads turned her direction. Having finally caught his eye, she
smiled prettily as he winked at her.
It seemed she was there for the concert,
such as it was. He knew she could hear everything they played, so he pumped up the
intensity, pushing the others to keep up with him. They all looked at him like he was
losing his mind, but he was playing for a special audience and dragged them with him.
The night wore on as the dancers tottered
and wheeled, Sara mimicking their movements in the air outside, barely visible in black
jeans and a dark gray sweatshirt except for her hands and face, her wild mane of bright
hair and trashed-out white tennies. The jaded customers paid no attention and the waiters
were busy. She could have danced all night if Mac Kirtland hadn't gotten an eyeful
and played an uncharacteristically strident 'splat' on his trumpet, blowing his
mute onto the middle of the dance floor, attracting everyone's attention as Sara
ducked quickly below the window.
Mac stared popeyed at the spot where Sara
had been cavorting, while everyone else stared at him. He finally shook his head as if
clearing his vision, and tried to remember what they were playing. A busboy tossed him his
Jeff Johnston peered out from behind his
cymbals. "Hey, Mac. I'll take some of whatever you're smoking." Elgie
looked concerned, Alex looked at the ceiling.
Between tunes, Mac leaned over and asked
Alex uncertainly, "You didn't happen to see anything…
Anything, uh, unusual just
now, did you?"
"You mean, like an Unidentified
"Well, sorta…" he said,
"Sure did," said Alex.
Relieved somewhat, Mac asked, "What
did it look like to you?"
After some careful thought, Alex replied,
"It looked like a trumpet mute."
"Very funny. You're a big
"Well, what do you think you
Mac stared out the window for a while.
"What makes you think I saw anything," he declared. "I just had a sudden
cough, that's all."
Alex chuckled and they started up again.
So did Sara. So did Mac, this time with the mute hitting Mr. Houliburton right in the
butt. The maitre d' retrieved the errant missile, handing it over with a scowl.
"You really ought to take something
for that cough," Alex told him. The band played on. Mac was torn between trying not
to look out the window again and wanting to get a better look. He kept his left hand on
This time he was prepared when Sara began
to dance. She was maybe a couple of hundred feet away from the building and difficult to
spot unless you were looking for her. She glided back and forth, spun and pirouetted,
turned and swooped in elegant free form, waving and smiling as Mac stared and Alex nodded
benignly at her antics. Mac glanced over at Alex to see if he was paying attention, and
quickly turned back, afraid to miss anything. He stopped even making a pretense of
playing, as Elgie signaled frantically for him to take a solo.
"You have got to be seeing
this," hissed Mac.
Mac gestured at the window behind the
Abernathy's table, "That girl."
"I wouldn't exactly call Mrs.
Abernathy a girl…"
"No, no, no. The one outside. Outside
"Now, what would a girl be doing
outside the window?"
"She's dancing. In the air.
Don't you see her?"
"You mean, she's dancing by
herself? Now, that's unusual."
Mac was beside himself. Pointing
dramatically, he loudly proclaimed, "Look!"
The music stopped as every head swiveled
Mac sputtered at his audience, still
Some uncertainly craned their necks to
look at the ceiling.
"In the sky!" He was shaking his
pointing finger wildly. Sara executed a nice back flip and dove for the street as everyone
in the club followed Mac's finger. There was a long silence.
Finally, Mr. Abernathy, peering myopically
through the glass, ventured, "It's a bird…?"
Jeff, seeing the spiraling lights over the
airport, opined caustically, "It's a plane."
Mac was practically hopping up and down in
frustration. "It's… it's… it's…"
The assembled multitude turned back to the
stage, as Mac's outstretched arm slowly dropped to his side.
Alex told him, as gently as he could,
"Maybe you should play an octave lower."
© Patrick Hill, 1999