The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Nine: Lessons

        As 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 technology.
        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 help."), Popov 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.

        A 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 'the larger issues'.
        "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 going do? 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?"
        She shrugged. "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 responsibilities…"
        "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 awfully quiet.
        "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 up."

        Alex 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.
        "Hey, I'll bet that was the blonde from Babewatch! Damn, I should have tried to get an autograph."
        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 invent.
        "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 muh way, 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 waren't fool 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.

        Alex 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 were able.
        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 cannot, wither.
        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 'vision' 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 mute.
        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 Flying Object?"
        "Well, sorta…" he said, guardedly.
        "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 help."
        "Well, what do you think you saw?"
        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 the mute.
        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.
        "Seeing what?"
        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 the window."
        "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 his way.
        Mac sputtered at his audience, still pointing, "Up!"
        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."

Chapter Ten: Roundball

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© Patrick Hill, 1999