Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Book One, Part One

Chapter One: Discovery

    He was tired and hot. Houston midafternoon hot -- heavy, breathless and thick. Driving halfway across Texas and back with no AC the last three days had left him road-grimy and in desperate need of a shower -- a tap-water shower long enough to allow his apartment to cool down from leaving the thermostat off while he was away -- and big, sweaty glasses of sweet iced tea, that reliable southern summer tonic.
    Shower, tea, couch, TV, maybe a book or magazine, maybe even rouse himself to nuke some dinner. His immediate priorities had shrunk to that. He had a few days ahead of him with some well-earned vegetating to look forward to. It sounded like Heaven.
    He dragged himself up the walk, dimly noticing that the front window was covered with condensation. He might have cared about that, but it didn't seem to be worth the effort. The door seemed to be stuck, requiring almost more energy than he had left to force it open. When it finally gave in, there was a sound like ice breaking and an unexpected frigid blast from inside.
    Damn, he thought as he stumbled into the gloom, blinking and fumbling, mentally kicking himself for carelessness. His electric bill would be higher than his rent.
    Again.
    He pulled his gear in behind him and slammed the door, plunging the apartment into movie-theater darkness.
    His breath puffed out in a little cloud. Man, it's way cold in here, he thought. Something's not right.
    Turning around, the subdued light diffusing through the closed front window curtains into his living room wanly lit an unexpected object standing between the couch and the TV. Momentary panic over confronting an intruder quickly turned to confusion. It looked like...
    What the hell...? he wondered. He flipped on the lights.
    It was a pillar of frost, so thickly encrusted that it was difficult to make out just what it was in the dim light. So cold, it made him ache, drawing the sweat off his body to add to its icy covering. Cold enough to turn his sweatbox apartment into a walk-in freezer. A monument of cold.
    I'm too tired for this, he thought. No sense of what he was seeing illuminated his stupor.
    He moved in for a closer look, reaching out halfheartedly to touch the thing, shocked at just how incredibly cold it was. A foot away from the object, he felt his fingers going numb and quickly pulled away. As he took another uncertain half-step, he felt the carpet crunch softly, like frozen grass. He swayed back and forth slightly, staring.
    Wake up, he told himself. Think. What is it?
    Kind of cylindrical, maybe a little over five feet tall. Definitely body-sized, though a bit smallish -- it seemed too cold to just be a body. He couldn't make out any details through the thick frost, but there wasn't anything else he could think of that had the same general shape, tapering as it did to a relatively small base. Except maybe a mannequin. Could it be some kind of bizarro practical joke? Bit expensive for a prank. He didn't know anyone who would be in for anything like this. And he didn't remember ordering any large frozen goods himself. At least, not when he was sober...
    What if it was some kind of dead body planted here? A corpse dumped off on him for -- well, no reason that he could think of. Should he call someone? Who? 911? Too late for a paramedic. What would he tell the police?
    "Well, I came back from a three-day out-of-town gig and somebody dumped a frozen stiff in my apartment." Sounded lame and scary at the same time.
    Come to think of it, the door had been locked, and that was the only way in. Of course, the manager could get in any time she felt like it. So could anyone else, if they were determined. Could it be a mob hit? Was he being framed? CIA? KGB? His mind babbled on by itself, irrationally revisiting way too many bad movies.
    He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. Think, dammit. You've got a brain. Use it.   
    Must have been planted just after he left for his road trip. By someone who knew he'd be away? He looked for a shipping order or tag. Nothing was evident. There hadn't been a note on his door or in his mailbox. He glanced at the answering machine. No messages -- it was probably frozen solid.
    How long would it take for a really cold object to accumulate this much frost in a closed apartment? Hmm, as this thing dried the air by removing moisture, more would just pour in from the ultra-humid outside through scores of tiny openings, from electrical wiring conduits to mouse holes. Then there were the plumbing vents and the poorly sealed front windows, upstairs and down. The door seals were none too good, either. It would create a vapor pump.
    Bet there were icicles around the attic access, he thought (he was right).
    Broken ice littered the entryway around the door, the TV and couch looked frozen and he could see his footprints in the carpet. There was ice everywhere. Even the walls looked frosty. Everything bore an icy sheen.
    Great. Mildew smell for weeks, he thought glumly. Been there before.
    To stay this cold for long enough to attract as much moisture as it had, there had to be some kind of active refrigeration involved. Or liquid nitrogen. He doubted stone or even solid metal would be massive enough to stay so cold for so long. There were no cords, cables or pipes snaked across the floor. He knew that the carpet was laid directly on the concrete foundation slab. It looked undisturbed. If laying pipes through the slab had been necessary, surely someone would be curious about the noise involved in excavating concrete. And there would have to be a condenser coil somewhere. Something high-capacity and noisy.
    Wonder how this affects the adjoining apartments? he mused to himself. He hoped it made his noisy neighbors miserable.
    There weren't any wheel marks on the carpet. Would the slab support a solid stone or metal statue? How could it stand upright with no evident supports unless it was anchored to the slab? What's it doing here? What am I supposed to do with it? Why me? His thoughts spun away into mere confusion. It all added up to nothing.
    There was a cold thing in his apartment. That's all he knew.
    His sweat-drenched tee-shirt was beginning to freeze in front. Shivering, he cleared his throat and watched his breath make fairy crystals on top of the older frost.
    He started aloud, "Well..." and stopped.
    As soon as the sound left his mouth, there was a change -- a sensation like being somehow aware of a hundred-million hidden silent switches closing. On a giddy wave of unreality, his sense of direction depolarized for an instant. His gut churned briefly while his eyeballs seemed to spin. For a moment, he thought he was going to be sick, but the feeling passed quickly.
    The intense coldness had disappeared, as if a freezer door had suddenly slammed shut in front of him. The icy mass settled and shifted, playing an arrangement of crinkling sounds. One shard broke off, crashed merrily to the floor and rolled in front of him. He nudged it with his toe and it disintegrated, sinking into the already insulted carpet. He watched as a drop of meltwater rolled off the ice and plopped to the floor. Dripping sounds started.
    Defrosting, he realized. That was something he understood.
    Stepping over to the understairs closet, he grabbed his wet-dry shop vac, a pile of old towels he used as rags (they happened to be clean and relatively dry, for a change), dumped all of the accumulated crap out of a styrofoam ice chest and started looking for his ice pick.
    No, not an ice pick, he thought. No telling what he could inadvertently punch a hole in. His Larry hammer, that's the thing -- a rubber mallet for breaking up the chunks. And a plastic spatula.
    It went quickly. The ice had no firm grip and never had a chance. Big pieces broke off easily and went into the styro. The towels caught most of the runoff, and the shop vac pretty much dried off the carpet (it might survive). By the time all the ice was off and in the sink, he was sweating. Well, of course -- the thermostat was still off. He felt lightheaded as he went up the stairs to throw a log on the air conditioning. It was too much to cope with.
    Shower. Now. Whatever else was happening, it would just have to wait.   

    Some time later, feeling nearly alive again, he walked deliberately back downstairs, eyes straight ahead, carefully avoiding even looking at what he was only half-sure would be in the middle of his living room.
    In his tiny kitchen, he observed the full tea ritual, making enough for a long evening. He rummaged around in the freezer for the least objectionable entree, watched it spin around in the microwave, then ate slowly at the table, reading every page of yesterday's newspaper. Eventually, he ran out of delaying tactics. Pouring another glass of tea, he went to his couch and sat down to consider his new objet d'art.
    It was a statue of a young woman, really no more than a girl. There was a hint of primitive naturalism in its composition, combined with what he thought was a faintly Egyptian pose -- standing at relaxed attention, feet together, chin level, arms bent forward and outstretched fingers lying together flatly, her hands nearly touching in front. Her expression was completely serene, eyes closed, mouth relaxed.
    Her clothing was difficult to categorize, since it appeared to be vacuum-packed tightly around her body, like the plastic wrapping on freeze-dried survival rations. There seemed to be a long cloak or drape enclosing the back half of her body from shoulder to ankles, a blouse or tunic with long sleeves, and a short skirt in what he thought of as a Roman style.
    Her long, unruly hair was tightly plastered to her head and shoulders as well, with finely etched lines suggesting individual strands as would be typical of classical Greek statuary, only executed with obsessive attention to detail. Her proportions were textbook perfect, with no evident stylistic distortions or artistic liberties taken.
    She was the ultra-realistic work of some unknown Pygmalion.
    The material from which she was carved (...molded? ...assembled?) seemed to be some kind of very dense and fine-grained colorless stone (...metal? ...plastic?) with a disturbing pattern that had the illusion of being just under a smooth but non-reflective surface. It was reminiscent of a stereogram, hinting at some 'three dimensional' image that would pop into view if you looked at it just right and concentrated hard enough. The confusing nature of the surface made it hard to get a firm grasp of the fine details of the sculpture. Too close an examination provoked a queasy feeling akin to seasickness. There were no obvious tool marks, chips or defects, and the finish was perfectly consistent down to the sudden transition at the base of every fold.
    Its surface was warm to the touch, which -- considering how cold it had been -- was pretty amazing. At room temperature, air molecules are flying around at nearly seven hundred miles per hour -- though not very far, of course, before caroming off a neighbor. Heat was motion -- the faster the average speed of the miniscully vibrating molecules of a substance, the higher its heat. The intensity of the cold he'd experienced suggested that this object's molecules weren't vibrating fast enough to get a ticket in a school zone. The seemingly instantaneous acceleration of every atom of such a massive object would require an energy release equivalent to a small explosion, the same as launching it from a cannon. The whole thing should have shattered from the thermal shock, or at least the ice should have exploded from its surface.
    To balance such an object on such a small platform as the figure's feet should have been just about impossible. Yet he had brushed against it hard enough during defrosting that it should have at least wobbled. He reached out and gave the statue a tentative whack on the side, then a series of harder slaps. He had once thwacked the side of an armored turret on the old battleship Texas at the San Jacinto Monument. It seemed insubstantial compared to this. There was absolutely no acoustic response, no vibration or effect of any kind. It had the feel of the end of a massive steel beam sticking out of megatons of concrete.
    Curiosity reared its ugly head, a charming flaw of his all his life. He went back to the closet and rummaged through his tools and the pile of crap formerly residing in the styro. First thing up was the ice pick. Sitting cross-legged on the floor at the back of the statue, he looked for an out-of-the-way area near the bottom of the cloak and tried, with increasing intensity, to chip off a sample. Using the Larry hammer, all he succeeded in doing was ruining the pick.
    OK, take this, he thought, and went to work with a glasscutter. As far as he could tell, he couldn't make the slightest mark. Various drill bits went the way of the ice pick.
    Altogether too gleefully, he went for the Dremel tool. He was expecting by now to fail to make any impression whatsoever and was not disappointed. In the spirit of fun and research, he hammered it with his Moe bar, stinging his hands. Nada.
    Finally, all he had left was a nifty little mini-blowtorch that ran off of tiny propane and oxygen cylinders that he'd bought at Radio Shack on a whim and never used. He ran the cylinders dry and the spot he attacked was not only unmarked, but also not detectably hotter than the area around it.
    Settling back in his couch, he stared at the figure for a long time until he realized what it reminded him of: Han Solo at the beginning of the third Star Wars movie cast into a block of -- what was it called? Oh, yeah. Carbonite or carbomite or whatever. He knew now why he was so uneasy in dealing directly with what was obvious.
    This could not possibly be a Terrestrial artifact. The current state of what he knew about human technology, art and science could not produce such a work as this that had displayed such impossible characteristics and behavior. He was looking at the product of a technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Moreover, it appeared to be -- it could be -- a traveler in some kind of suspended animation. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. What it was doing in his living room was a complete mystery. He hadn't a clue as to how to proceed. But he was certain of his conclusion.
    It always had bothered him in science fiction stories that the characters never snapped to the obvious, as if it was some inescapable tenet of the genre that people could not come to terms with facts staring them in the face that were patently outside of their everyday experience. It couldn't be possible that he would encounter an alien artifact, but it was plain to him that he had, so he had to deal with it. No problemo.
    He had always kept what he thought to be an open mind on the subject of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. It was not likely that our species was the sole example of intelligent, conscious life in such a vast universe as we could see around us. Given (as he believed): 1) that there were untold billions of billions of stars; 2) that planetary formation tended to be a normal part of stellar development; 3) that life was a consequence of natural chemical reactions in primitive environments and astonishingly adaptable; 4) that evolution mandated increasing complexity in organisms tending toward greater intelligence, and; 5) that there was ample time and opportunity for life as we understand it to have developed countless times in myriad places -- then it was really a mystery and a wonder why there had been no contact with beings on other planets. Indeed, the independent development of intelligent life on any planet in a given galaxy following the rise of the first technologically competent species should be nearly impossible.
    Our little solar system is about five billion years old, give or take. The Milky Way galaxy is about three times older than that. Allowing the first five or so billion years for several generations of star formation to build up enough life-sustaining heavy elements in the interstellar medium through supernova events, there has been ample time for some alien race around an older star to crawl from the primeval ooze, figure out spaceflight and -- even at modest sublight speeds -- populate every suitable planet in the entire galaxy. Including ours, a long time ago. So where the hell are they?
    He absolutely believed that they didn't show up in Billy Joe Bob's south forty, driving a flying saucer that looked like two cheap pie plates glued together, dismembering yokels' livestock and abducting the peasantry. Why would any self-respecting advanced being waste his time with the likes of the shotgun-toting yahoos who -- between swigs -- inarticulately regale the credulous with patently stupid lurid tales of unlikely close encounters?
    No, ET, when he/she/it shows up, arrives in style, presents his/her/its credentials to the United Nations, holds a news conference, grants interviews and goes to Disneyland.
    Unless, of course, he/she/it shows up as a popsicle in my living room, he thought glumly. So where do I go from here? Notify the authorities? What authorities? There probably weren't any qualified authorities for such a phenomenon. Except maybe ones with butterfly nets who would escort him to a nice padded room with no view.
    Maybe such an artifact's arrival in his apartment was an accident. Maybe everyone in the neighborhood had one of their own. Maybe his apartment happened to be built on a cosmic landing zone or interstellar bypass. Maybe he'd won the Galactic Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Could be anything from dumb luck (of one kind or another) to intentional design. Too bad there didn't seem to be an accompanying manual. Would he get in trouble for harboring an illegal alien? He laughed silently at that thought, considering what part of the country he was in.
    Of one thing he was determined. Whatever happened, he was going to treat it in a rational, matter-of-fact manner. In a way, his lifelong obsession with reading anything he could get his hands on, especially sci-fi, was going to stand him in good stead.
    In such a philosophical state, he dozed off right there on the couch.


Chapter Two: Arrival


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Patrick Hill, 2000