The Amazing Adventures
of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey
Chapter Three: Acquaintance
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
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?"
"This is a pencil, too."
took it in stride.
He showed her another, this time a red colored pencil. "And
"It is a pencil...?" she
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,
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
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
-- 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.
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.
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?"
"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
"It smells," she said,
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
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.
Lee'. What do you think?"
The girl shrugged her shoulders,
"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
Sara was unsure.
Alex nodded, encouragingly. She
"My name is Sara Corel," he prompted,
"Your name is Sara Corel?" she
"No, no, no, no.
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
Sara got it, now. "My name is Sara
"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
Lord, he felt like a teacher
"You may call me Sara," she
announced proudly. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr. Luther. May I call you
student, he thought.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Aaargh. "Before I asked you if you
knew what was on the other side of the wall."
"Yes," she replied.
"Can you 'sense' me
"If I were on the other side of the
wall, could you 'sense' me there?"
"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
"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?"
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
"Do you think you could if you wanted
"Do you want me to?"
She concentrated briefly, then asked,
Color? "How about blue?"
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.
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..."
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,
"That would be nice," he
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.
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
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.
© Patrick Hill, 2000