Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Three: Acquaintance

    In spite of her ignorance, Alex learned quite a bit about her over the next few hours. Apparently, as far as she was concerned, she'd had no previous existence before waking up in his apartment. There were no memories of any other time or place or sentient beings. She had no mission, instructions, directions, messages, greetings, commands, visions, assignments or illuminations to offer. She was devoid of specific knowledge, as well. So much for world-changing technology transfers.
    She was, however, equipped with an astonishingly complete vocabulary, even though she lacked any kind of experience to give meaning to the words she merely possessed. She knew the word 'elephant', for instance, but had only the most rudimentary understanding of what an elephant was, which was based on a definition using other words about which she lacked understanding as well.
    Alex remembered the childhood story of blind men describing an elephant.
    "It's like a snake", said one.
    "It's like a tree," said another.
    "It's like a house," said the third, and so on.
    In her case, she had seen neither elephant, snake, tree nor house. A child's idea of an elephant -- based on storybook pictures, cartoons and stories -- is nothing like the experience of an elephant first encountered in a zoo. A child, though, might be convinced she knows all about elephants.
    "That's not an elephant. It's too stinky!"
    As an experiment, he asked her, "Do you know what a pencil is?"
    She nodded enthusiastically.
    "Tell me what a pencil is," he demanded.
    "A pencil," she intoned, "is a tool. For the hand. It makes marks. It has a point..."
    He cut her off, "That's nice. Now, do you see any pencils?"
    She looked around, then shook her head. He reached over to the end table where he kept a large ceramic coffee cup crammed with every sort of writing implement, assorted combs, scissors, letter openers and other junk.
    "This is a pencil," he showed her.
    Unoffended, she nodded in agreement.
    He handed it to her, but it was obvious she had never held one before. There was no muscle memory of how to grip it properly, as an amnesiac would probably have. It was completely unfamiliar to her and she didn't have a clue as to what to do with it.
    He reached for another pencil. "Can you tell me what this is?"
    She couldn't.
    "This is a pencil, too."
    She took it in stride.
    He showed her another, this time a red colored pencil. "And this?"
    "It is a pencil...?" she guessed
    He nodded, then showed her a few more pencils of different sizes, shapes and colors, sharpened and unsharpened, which she identified. Then he showed her a pen.
    "A pencil," she said.
    "No, this is a pen."
    "A pen," she repeated, puzzled.
    He grabbed a notepad from the end table and scribbled with a pencil briefly, then the pen. Then he applied an eraser to each of the marks. He pointed to the smudged erasure, then to the tip of a pencil and said, "Lead." He pointed to the undamaged pen mark, then to its tip and said, "Ink."
    She got it.
    In fact, she picked up on things right away, permanently, and never had to be taught anything twice. Ignorant she might have been, but her intelligence was undeniable. She was able to extrapolate from context with only the slightest, most obscure clues.
    He thought he understood now why she had had so much trouble with 'a glass of water'. 'Glass' and 'water' were incompatible states of matter. The word 'of' defined no sensible relationship. She had been equipped with words and protocols, not phrases. One knows what a 'glass of water' is because one has acquired the experience of it. When she matched the experience with the words, it was a revelation to her, the beginning of language.
    Her body language, though, was finely developed. She had evidently been factory-equipped with a personality and a means of expressing it. And it was not a detectably alien personality, as Alex might have expected. Whatever she was, carbon-based or silicon-based -- animal, vegetable or mineral -- she would fit right in with the natives on this planet.
    He learned she had no idea that there were any other people but herself and Alex, and any larger universe than his apartment. It looked like she had been abandoned on his doorstep and it was up to him to make of her what he could. He was obviously meant to be her teacher, her guide, perhaps her sensei -- to function in loco parentis, lacking any other. It was a role he could accept. He was the right age to be her father and was pretty well qualified as a man of learning and experience.
    In the days of his misspent youth, he'd more or less accidentally gotten a degree in education while attending a cheap college in order to collect GI Bill money he figured was owed to him for military service. Following graduation, he lasted a whole year as a high school teacher before deciding it would be better to starve as a musician than put up with the educrat bureaucracy.
    He was a voracious and eclectic reader and, following his craft, widely traveled. Growing up as an Army brat, he'd lived in places like Taipei, Italy and Germany, Puerto Rico and White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico (which qualified as off-planet duty). Four years as a Navy musician had shown him the ports of the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. While his shipmates cruised the harbor dives, he always made a point of absorbing the 'cultural' sites and at least attempting to savor the native gestalt of each foreign locale.
    He was currently single and relatively unattached. His schedule was not tied to a daily grind -- he only worked an average of twelve or fifteen nights a month, playing with different bands and occasional shows. He even had a few bucks put away. He did not drink, smoke or take drugs, and was regarded by everyone who knew him as a decent kind of guy. He was not rich, famous or credentialed -- but he was honest, discreet and principled.
    The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that for whatever reasons some unknown entities had decided to drop their baby in his lap, their evident selection of him might have been no accident and was probably a good call. He didn't know how much the gig would pay (if anything), but he decided to take it.
    It suited him, he thought.

    Before breaking for lunch, Alex decided to try to clean up the mess on the carpet and pulled out his shop vac again, attacking the glass and water with careful intensity. The girl watched with questioning interest, so he felt compelled to explain.
    "No offense, but if I don't get all of the glass picked up I'm likely to slice my foot next time I come down here for a midnight bite. Glass might be a snack for you, but I get a bit squeamish at the sight of my own blood."
    He thought she probably understood at least part of what he said, but she might not yet have any concept of what it meant to get hurt. When he'd finished to his satisfaction, she got up from her chair, carefully walked over next to him, bent down and unerringly retrieved a tiny, glinting splinter from the carpet just outside the area he'd vacuumed. She offered it to him, but he declined, so she absently popped it in her mouth like a toddler would do with an interesting bug she'd just found. He winced.
    "Is that the last of it?" he asked. She nodded with confidence.
    "Well," he told her, "I guess you don't need glasses." He was going to have to do some comprehensive tests this afternoon to see just what she was capable of doing.
    "I'm going to make us some lunch. At least, something I can eat. You can have the plates and silverware when I'm finished, if you want. Why don't you practice walking around for a while 'till you get the hang of it."
    It seemed like a good idea to her. He watched for a while and decided she'd be an expert by the time he'd finished making their burgers and tea.
    When he finally called her over to the dinner table, she executed a perfect Michael Jackson moonwalk, finished up with a 180-degree spin and straddle-hopped over the chair back to land squarely in her seat. Somehow, the chair survived.
    "Show off," he muttered.
    She beamed, proud of herself. It looked like she'd been furnished with programs to walk, run and jump, as well as perform other movements, and had only to discover for herself how to access these abilities. It wasn't something she'd learned from him. But he got an unmistakable feeling that she was doing everything for the first time.
    He picked up a burger and took a bite while she watched. He'd wanted to start with something simple that wouldn't require utensils. He hoped she'd prefer human food.
    "This is typical Earth food, called a cheeseburger. It's delicious, easy to prepare, available everywhere, and contains all the important food groups -- meat, grain, milk byproducts, Miracle Whip, fruits, vegetables and grease. Try it?" he offered.
    "This is to eat?" she wondered, dubiously. She picked up her burger and turned it over a couple of times, shedding lettuce, tomatoes and pickles which he patiently restored. She sniffed it. Her eyes got big.
    "It smells," she said, approvingly.
    She took a bite, then quickly, greedily finished it off in about twenty seconds, cramming it into her mouth with both hands.
    "Good!" she sputtered, food fragments flying everywhere.
    "Better than my tea glass, I would think," he answered, brushing himself off. "Speaking of which, you might want to wash that down."
    He quickly took a sip from his own glass as an illustration. "Here," shoving her tea across the table, "Drink."
    This time, she managed to get actual liquid in her mouth without breaking anything, spilling only about half of it unconsciously down her chin.
    "Good!" she burbled, spraying copiously. She downed the rest of the tea (not counting spillage) in about three huge gulps. Evidently, her programmers had neglected to include table manners. He'd work on that.
    He wondered uneasily if she was housebroken.

    Lunch over, the first order of business was finding her a name.
    "On this planet, everybody and their pet has a name," Alex explained. "It's really quite convenient in crowds. In your case, something starting with 'S' would be appropriate, I suppose. Hmm..."
    He looked around for a clue and spotted a snack cake on the counter next to the sink.
    "How about 'Sara Lee'. What do you think?"
    The girl shrugged her shoulders, noncommittally.
    "Yeah, the 'Lee' part sucks," he admitted. "But 'Sara' works."
    She didn't protest. He didn't currently know anyone named Sara -- or Sarah -- and didn't recall anyone especially important from his past with that name.
    "Then Sara it is," he decided. His eyes fell on a software box on his computer desk. "Sara Corel. That has a nice ring to it. I like it. Problem solved."
    In ceremonial tones, he solemnly announced, "I hereby dub thee: Sara Corel."
    Sara looked at him cautiously. Alex explained, "That's your name from now on. If anyone asks you who you are or says, like, 'And who are you, little girl?' you say, 'My name is Sara Corel.' And if anyone calls out, 'Sara,' that's you. Trust me, this is great. You can mark your luggage and sign autographs now. And if anyone calls you on the phone, they won't have to say, 'Can I please speak to Whatsername,' they'll say, 'Is Sara home?' and I can yell, 'Sara, it's for you.' Let's try it."
    "What is your name?" Alex asked politely.
    Sara was unsure. "My name...?" she began.
    Alex nodded, encouragingly. She didn't respond.
    "My name is Sara Corel," he prompted, sotto voce.
    "Your name is Sara Corel?" she wondered.
    "No, no, no, no. My," he emphasized, pointing to his chest, "name is Alex Luther. Your name is Sara Corel. But I want you," he pointed at her, "to say, 'My name is Sara Corel', OK?" Sheesh.
    Sara got it, now. "My name is Sara Corel."
    "Very pleased to meet you, Ms. Corel. May I call you Sara?"
    "My name is Sara Corel?" she said, slightly confused.
    "Your full name is Sara Corel, but you can address someone by either name or both. 'Miss', 'Missus', or 'Miz' usually precedes women's names -- or last names used alone -- depending on whether their married or not (or when it's PC). In the South, sometimes single girls' first names are preceded by 'Miss'. I'll explain later. Men's full names or last names are ususally preceded by 'Mister'."
    Lord, he felt like a teacher again.
    "You may call me Sara," she announced proudly. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Luther. May I call you Alex?"
    What a student, he thought.

    The rest of the afternoon was spent testing various of her physical attributes. Sara had already picked up the two-year-old eternal 'why?' demand. It wasn't as annoying coming from her as it would have been from some brat, for some reason, and Alex hardly minded at all, trying his best to accommodate her as he went.
    Alex didn't have much in the way of sophisticated scientific apparatus, but he was a tool hound and dabbled with light woodworking and electronics, having made a lot of his own musical equipment in his abundant spare time. He had always liked tinkering around and had a compulsion to dismantle everything he could get his hands on, sometimes even putting it back together again without too many parts left over.
    He was dying to find out what made Sara tick, or at least figure out just what he was dealing with. He didn't really mean it in an impersonal way, but he regarded Sara by now as both a person and as some wonderful mystery that he had to know more about. It helped that Sara was as curious about discovering herself and her abilities as he was.
    He quickly confirmed that she was pretty much completely puncture-proof. He couldn't bring himself to try to stick a (carefully sterilized) pin in her, but Sara was happy to oblige, quickly ruining several pins, a couple of knives, a nail punch and assorted Exacto blades. She was delighted to try anything he suggested and nothing she tried seemed to bother her the slightest bit.
    Her skin felt completely normal when he applied force to it, up to a limit. Approaching the point where human skin would begin to stretch to the breaking point, it became increasingly difficult to go any further and eventually impossible -- as if bottoming out on a steel plate. She reported not the slightest discomfort. In the process of destroying several dangerous-looking implements, she also demonstrated considerable strength.
    Heat wasn't a problem for her, either. She could tell him that the gas flame on his stove felt 'hot', as a matter-of-fact observation, but it was obviously not unpleasant. She nonchalantly picked up his soldering gun by its red-hot tip and stuck her hand in a pot of boiling water without complaint. He was careful to emphasize to her what would befall him if he were the subject of such experiments. He had to convince her that he was the normal one on this planet.
    Sara didn't exactly understand the underlying mechanism, but with her help Alex was able to figure out that there was some sort of force-feedback involved that responded to pressure by causing her skin to react in a set way imitative of human skin tone. When he pushed her cheek with his finger, it didn't actually bend from the pressure he applied -- it was bent by some internal process in a way so as to mimic being bent by his finger. Up to a point, of course.
    Sara found she could disable the default response if she wished, whereupon her cheek reverted to the adamantine hardness he'd first experienced. When in her 'human' state, he could push her around. When she was not, she was unmovable.
    In either state, Sara could definitely take a punch. He gingerly banged her fingers with the Larry hammer with decreasing timidity until she took over and smacked herself so hard she broke the handle. She then smote herself mightily with the Moe bar right in the chops, bending it into uselessness. She was not only immune from harm, she was deeply confident of it.
    Despite her toughness, she seemed to have a very acute sense of touch. Her other senses were also greatly enhanced and highly accurate, though seemingly incapable of being overloaded. His strobe flash didn't make her blink at all and bothered her not in the slightest, apparently leaving no afterimages or spots before her eyes.
    Alex thought he probably had experienced her degree of hearing sensitivity once, while wearing headphones connected to a microphone preamp with the gain all the way up. He'd imagined he could hear himself sweat. The constant sensory overload of such high sensitivity would have been maddening, but she seemed to have a sort of filtering algorithm that made her only aware of what she wanted or needed to hear. Humans, especially teenagers, don't pay attention to every sound in their environment anyway. Sara just had a lot more background noise to ignore than usual. The remarkable thing about her hearing was her ability to pick out whatever sound she wanted to hear from a chaotic background.
    Still, her senses seemed to be based on being able to perceive the world as humans did, only more so. It would have been difficult to communicate meaningfully with people if everything she saw looked radically different, with a palette that included colors no one else could imagine. Her colors were our colors. However, by having her track his own residual body heat to recreate his movements in a 'game' he improvised, he was able to determine that her eyes registered infrared. Her mind -- at least her conscious mind -- didn't. Unless she wanted to or needed to.
    It was as if her 'human' mind was intimately interfaced with a powerful, highly advanced 'alien' computer that controlled her body. All she had to do was discover the right levers to pull and the machine took care of the details. It was so well integrated that it seemed continuous, but obviously much more was going on below the surface than she could know.
    Which was, come to think of it, the human model, too. You can't directly control your heart and you don't need to pay attention to your breathing, and once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you don't have to think about all the painfully learned technique of exactly which muscle pulled in coordination with another. Deconstructing routine tasks learned as a baby would be nearly impossible.
    Alex was beginning to think there might be no end to her abilities and that maybe he should call a comic book store for reference material. A sudden thought nearly panicked him. Inadvertent x-ray emission could be hazardous to his health.
    "Sara, would you mind facing that wall?"
    "OK."
    He scuttled directly behind her. "Can you see what's on the other side of the wall?"
    It had not occurred to her that there was another side to the wall. Intrigued, she looked at the wall with curious concentration. After a few moments, she said, "No. Only this side is all I can see. Did you want to know what is over there?"
    "I was just checking out a theory," he said, relieved and disappointed at the same time. It looked like there may be limits after all.
    "There is a room. It is just like this room," she said diffidently, "only backward."
    Alex paused. The apartment next door was the mirror image of his own. "I thought you couldn't see through the wall."
    "I am not seeing. I am..." she struggled to find the right word, "Sensing...? My eyes see this wall, but my -- mind -- has a sense. I touch... I feel the other room. I think some words are missing from me. I have a map... I have a model..."
    She was clearly frustrated. "The place where I am is in my mind on both sides of the walls."
    Alex thought for a while. "Can you tell me what color the carpet is?" He'd glimpsed it a few times through his neighbor's open door.
    "There is no color with this sensing, but the thickness of things has a feel." She continued to stare straight ahead of her, concentrating.
    "The room on the other side," she gestured behind her, "is also backward. And the one over there," pointing to the kitchenette, "is another backward."
    He understood her to be describing the architectural symmetry according to which the apartment complex had been laid out. She was certainly 'sensing' something through the walls, and it didn't have anything to do with x-rays. What, then. Radar? Sonar? Magnetic resonance imaging?
    "How long have you been able to 'sense' the other rooms."
    "When you wanted to know what was on the other side of the wall, I thought about it, and then I could do it."
    "But you couldn't do it before?"
    "Before what?"
    Aaargh. "Before I asked you if you knew what was on the other side of the wall."
    "Yes," she replied.
    "Can you 'sense' me now?"
    "Yes."
    "If I were on the other side of the wall, could you 'sense' me there?"
    "Yes."
    "Is there anyone else, any other human, in any of the other rooms?"
    "I don't think so."
    Everybody else was probably at work this afternoon.
    "Can you stop 'sensing' through the wall?"
    "I will try to," she said.
    "Yes," she said, uncertainly, "Well, not really. I can't... I can ignore the sense, but it is still with me. I still know you are there. But I do not see you. If I didn't want to know you were on the other side of a wall, I would know it, even if I didn't know I knew it."
    That certainly cleared things up.
    "Sara, I don't think you should pay attention to anything that happens on the other side of any walls. People need to have privacy. It's not nice to look at... You shouldn't 'sense' -- whatever that means -- anything that goes on in a room that you are not in."
    He'd have to go to the bathroom sooner or later.
    "For a while -- until I say differently -- please don't 'sense' anything you can't see with your eyes, OK? It's very important."
    She nodded disappointedly, "OK."
    Alex tentatively decided that she must be highly configurable. A new ability had been created, made to order by whatever internal computer managed her system. 'It' analyzed what it was she wanted to do, solved the problem of how to do it and made whatever changes were necessary in her physical structure to accomplish the task. Her 'human' attributes were a default setting, equipping her with speech, movement, and ordinary senses. But she could apparently extend her capabilities. He decided to test his hunch.
    "I don't want you to do what I'm going to ask you if you can do. I just want to know if you can do it as of this moment. Got it?"
    She nodded.
    He rummaged through a kitchen drawer until he found a flashlight that worked. He showed it to her and then cast the beam on the wall in front of her. He did his best to explain light and colors to her, at least the basics, and slapped a few colored gels in front of the lens from a stage lighting sampler he'd found in the same drawer. She caught on quickly.
    "Can you, right now, shine any kind of light from your eyes on to the wall?" he asked.
    She considered carefully. "Not now."
    "Do you think you could if you wanted to?"
    "Do you want me to?"
    "Go for it."
    She concentrated briefly, then asked, "Which color?"
    Color? "How about blue?" To match her eyes, he thought.
    She stared intently at the wall for a moment. There was a huge, hot flash of blue, blinding him. He shouted out in surprise and sank reflexively to the floor, covering his eyes, trying to blink out the yellow dazzle.
    Sara squealed, first with delight at her new trick, then with dismay when she saw Alex's reaction. She reached out and tried to grab him, to help him up, nearly breaking his ribs in the process. He moaned with pain, which frightened her. She dropped him, causing him to moan again. She wailed.
    Struggling to stand up and see through his watering eyes, Alex took the distraught girl in his arms to comfort her.
    "I'm all right, " he said, soothingly. "I was just startled, is all. I should have... Here now, don't cry."
    She buried her head in his arms and sobbed, "I...I...I...I'm...I'm... s...s...s...sor...sor...sor...ry...ry..."
    Deep breath. "Baw...aw...aw...aw...aw...aw..."
    "That's all right," he soothed. "It's OK. You didn't know. I didn't know. We'll just have to be more careful."
    He was relieved to find he could still breathe, though he'd have bruises, for sure. He stroked her hair and gently rocked her back and forth until she calmed down. It was a profoundly bonding moment. But like a small child caught doing something bad, the crisis passed quickly and was soon forgotten.
    The wall was another matter. There was a round area about two feet across that looked like a toasted marshmallow, crinkly brown and crusty in the middle and fading away to indistinctness. The top of the couch was smoldering slightly and the whole apartment was noticeably warmer. Alex felt lucky there wasn't a fire.
    "There goes my security deposit," he muttered, wondering if mere paint could repair the damage.
    "Uh, do you think you can control the intensity a little?" he asked her.
    "Not so bright?" she asked, innocently.
    "That would be nice," he replied, dryly.
    Sara turned back to the wall, but Alex interrupted her concentration to suggest that they start with a fresh patch of paint. It would show up better. She started again, trying to be oh-so-careful, the tip of her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth.
    Sure enough, a soft glow of blue light appeared on the wall. Alex looked at her eyes. Her lids were wide open and her irises glowed brightly, like Lifesaver LED's. The light was not coming through her pupils as he expected. It made more sense this way, of course. She could still see while emitting. Tres eerie, he thought, like something from a bad 50's thriller flick.
    She'd scare the shit out of someone in a dark alley.
    She turned excitedly toward him, the light ending abruptly as she faced him. "Was that good?" she said expectantly.
    "Very nice. Try for red, now."
    Sara turned back to the wall and instantly there was a red glow where the blue one had been. She tried other pure colors, keeping up an excited chatter all the while. At his direction, she experimented with intensity and focus. She could narrow the beams to laser-like points and hold them rock steady, even when moving around. Apparently, she could pick any frequency she wanted and control the beams' strength and tightness at will, her eyes subtly but visibly distorting as he put her through her paces.
    He didn't know if the light was collimated like a laser's, but she could easily generate enough power to burn through a few sample items he rounded up, using his old cast iron skillet as a backdrop. It didn't take long to fill the apartment with smoke and crater the skillet. Coughing profusely while he removed the battery from the smoke detector, he lectured her on how dangerous this all was and made her promise not to do it anymore unless he was around to supervise.
    Alex wondered how far above and below visible light she could go. Infrared shouldn't be a problem, he guessed. All the way to x-rays? Who knows? He hoped she wouldn't experiment on her own. He tried to make her understand that such a thing could be dangerous.
    He was dubious that Sara could actually achieve 'x-ray vision' (not that she would need it, given her 'sensing' ability), even if she could actually emit x-rays at high enough intensity and was able to resolve an image. For one thing, x-rays didn't reflect very well. Also, air absorbed x-rays, so it would be like trying to use headlights in a fog. Trying to peer through a wall at someone using x-rays would probably require intensity sufficient to ignite a fireball in the intervening atmosphere, vaporize the wall and condemn the subject to a gruesome demise.
    It would be great for starting a charcoal fire for a barbecue, though.


Chapter Four: First Evening


Table of Contents

Patrick Hill, 2000