Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Twelve: Graduation

    Jimmie was like a kid with a new toy, wasting no time setting up an office in the strip center next door on I-10. It's pretty amazing how fast things can get done when you have enough money and enthusiasm to throw around, and Jimmie had both.
    In about a week, the new sign over the door said, 'Exocybernautics'. Inside, where there used to be a discount shoe store, there was now an incredibly pneumatic receptionist who was barely talented enough to sign for deliveries and take messages, Jimmie's office, a conference room big enough for twenty people, a small kitchenette, and a little apartment with a private shower where he could crash at odd intervals without having to leave his work for very long.
    In the middle of the box-strewn warehouse-like area in the back was computer-geek heaven, a seemingly disorganized hodgepodge of the latest available hardware -- and then some -- in a large room-within-a-room, acoustically isolated like a recording studio and electromagnetically shielded. There were no windows, and the lone entrance was like a cross between a heavy, walk-in freezer door and a submarine hatch. Only Jimmie, Sara and Alex could open it. Everybody who knew what was going on called it the 'Fort', short for 'Fort Solitude'.
    Dinah was able to find out more about Jimmie than he would have believed possible, and gave Alex a thumbs-up.
    "He's just a kid who's grown up with computers. They're his whole world, pretty much. He's nearly as good as he thinks he is, by all accounts, and happened to be in the right place at the right time to make some big bucks from a few things he came up with, mostly AI -- that's artificial intelligence --..."
    "Yeah, I knew that," Alex said.
    "...algorithms for computer games and expert systems. Truth is, he's probably luckier than he is smart."
    "I'll take luck over skill any day," said Alex. "So now this kid shows up and wants to lock himself in a sound-proofed room with Sara for a couple of hours a day. And you think that's OK?"
    "What's to worry about? You know she can take care of herself."
    "Sure, but her age is starting to catch up with her appearance already. These are two teenagers we're talking about, here."
    "Alex, she's still a virgin. She always will be. She's indestructible. Think about it."
    Alex didn't want to think about it.
    Dinah went on, "Do you think she could get pregnant? Or catch something?"
    Alex was embarrassed -- which happened easily to him -- and it showed, his face reddening. "Well, besides that..."
    "I'll bet you my golden lasso that boy has never had a date with a girl."
    "You mean, he's...?"
    "No. He just has other priorities. He's a whole lot more secure playing with a machine than doing the pimply adolescent thing."
    "He didn't have a whole lot of trouble talking to Sara," Alex reminded her.
    "Because, as far as he's concerned, she's a machine."
    Alex blinked a couple of times.
    "Look," said Dinah, "Chaperone her if you want. Maybe you'll be useful in the Fort, but you're likely to just get in the way. If anything happens between the two of them, then it's probably about time. She's not a baby anymore."
    "I know," said Alex, "I know."

    Alex did drop by the Fort pretty often, and he didn't get in the way. Sara spent about as much time with Jimmie as she did with the Russians, who felt a bit of jealousy for their young rival.
    In just over two years, she had learned about as much as their little ad hoc university could teach her. Their sessions had lost much of the earlier intensity, devolving at times into long reminiscences -- war stories, if you will -- that had the effect of fleshing out and humanizing the mere facts with which they had plied her. They were sending her now on world-spanning missions to exotic locales to let her catch the various flavors of humanity, and she would report back with tales of her encounters that would be dissected in minute detail for the lessons that they taught.
    Jimmie's explorations, on the other hand, were of her inner spaces. He was determined to communicate directly with her 'operating system' and find out how to more fully realize the vast potential her Cryptoalien makers had provided for in her construction. This fascinated Alex, who had been aware from the beginning that there was much more to her than they had so far discovered. Sara was certainly cooperative enough, though her attentions seemed more and more to focus on Jimmie, who was so intent on studying Sara the artifact that he seemed to ignore almost completely Sara the person.
    It turned out that Alex's guess about Sara's computer brain being able to reconfigure her structure to accomplish new tasks was essentially correct. One of the first things Jimmie tried was to turn Sara into a mouse.
    A computer mouse, that is. Once he explained to Sara's computer brain exactly how an infrared mouse worked, it took almost a negligible amount of time for her LED irises to adapt to pulse-modulated IR transmission. She could soon make the cursor scurry around a PC screen at will, complete with clicking, dragging and all the other mousely duties. Keyboard functions followed immediately. She could 'type' as fast as Jimmie's computer could accept the input. She didn't even have to look directly at the IR receiver -- evidently, she had plenty of power to bounce the 'beam' off the walls, and they never had to change her batteries.
    What was unexpected, at least to Alex, was her ability to create scenes in graphics programs. She could draw a line or render a shape exactly as she saw it with photographic precision. Well, of course. Duh, she's a computer. Alex wondered why neither he nor the Russians had thought of that. Too old, maybe?
    The eeriest part was that she learned to reconstruct any scene she had ever seen. Like her first sight of Alex, flapping his hands like gooney bird. Like the 'computer enhanced' murk-piercing vision of the apartments from high over the clearing so long ago. Like Mac launching his trumpet mute. Evidently, she had one hell of a lot of mass data storage space somewhere inside her.
    Sounds were there, too. And probably recordings of tastes, odors and every one of her myriad other senses, if they could figure out how to portray these on a computer screen. Alex hoped no one would ever figure out how to translate Sara's kreening into something understandable. He didn't want to know what she had sensed on late nights in the 'B' unit...
    It eased his mind somewhat to find that she really did lock up things he told her to hide from herself. When he told her not to listen in on Dinah and himself when they were in their room together, she could not access those memories unless he gave her express permission to do so. The data was there, but was something like a hidden file, and apparently only Alex had the key. Whew.
    The next step was to transfer data back into Sara. Jimmie explained the process and Sara listened raptly, hanging on every word. Again, the IR connection was easy, and she was soon accessing and reading files and graphics directly. The relatively slow speed of the IR port proved to be a bottleneck, however. When Jimmie explained to her how a CD-ROM worked, her computer mind adapted her IR output to laser-scan the surface of a disk directly. Just holding a disk in front of her face, she was able to transfer 650 Megs in a few seconds -- any faster tended to melt the plastic. She eventually was able to burn a CDR.
    Sara also 'learned' other IR devices such as TV remote controls, with which she had a lot of fun at Alex's expense one evening. The next thing Jimmie tried, though, opened a lot of doors. He had a Logitech keyboard/mouse combination that was radio wireless, 900 MHz. Borodin, her physics tutor, had explained the basics of radio to her, but Jimmie downloaded enough information about the nuts and bolts that her computer brain was able to configure a solution. Again, the cursor whirled and data flowed. And once the basics of radio transmission had been mastered, it was really only a small step to add voice transmission and, eventually, television signals.
    Oh, yes. Sara became a one-person multi-channel TV studio. She could broadcast directly to any set with an antenna, with immense power, overriding the standard broadcast transmissions of local stations. They tried it out late one night, replacing a real commercial on Channel 39 with a bogus one she remembered from Saturday Night Live. It affected every set in west Houston tuned to that channel, and nobody could tell the difference.
    She didn't affect cable or DSS dishes directly, but Jimmie's hacker instincts led him to waste a lot of time figuring out how to potentially interrupt satellite and microwave relays. It could be done. It had been done, in any number of bad sci-fi movies, with menacing aliens from another galaxy announcing their evil invasions to a helpless planet on every TV and radio. It was almost too tempting not to try.
    "We interrupt this program for a special announcement," Jimmie tells a stunned, worldwide audience.
    "Hi! Like, I'm Sara, and, y'know, I've just taken over your planet. Fer sure! [giggle] Have a nice day!"
    "We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming."
    But they didn't do it.
    Radio reception turned out to have unique problems. When Sara first stepped out of the shielded Fort with this ability enabled, she nearly went catatonic from the sudden sensory overload of so much radio noise, from local rock stations to police radios to just plain static. It was like a thousand new voices shouting at her at once. She quickly leaped back into the Fort.
    Like her other enhanced senses, Sara had to learn to shut most of it out. Jimmie proposed to her computer mind setting up what he called 'virtual agents', nearly independent artificial intelligence routines that would each be assigned a particular frequency to monitor, passing up information in a chain of command structure about transmissions that would be of interest or importance to Sara according to certain guidelines, and suppressing the rest. It worked. She was able to pick up the music or programs she liked whenever they were broadcast. And she didn't need headphones.
    There was more. Jimmie hacked her a cell phone account, though Alex later insisted it be set up and paid for in the usual manner, substituting Sara's abilities for the actual handset. Jimmie pointed out that it could get to be rather expensive, since he intended to use the link -- actually, several of them simultaneously -- to connect Sara directly to the Internet, no matter where she was. She could 'see' in her mind's eye anything that could be displayed on a monitor with a browser, and create websites just by imagining them. She would become a portable server, of sorts. Sara decided that she didn't want that much interconnectivity just yet, so she limited her major access time to Fort sessions, except when she wanted to check her e-mail.
    What Jimmie was really after was to be able to contact some of Sara's 'virtual agents' directly, any time of the day or night, bypassing Sara's consciousness. But there were evidently safety mechanisms provided by her makers for just such a scheme.

    Sara was at the 'A' unit watching Mrs. Jachimczyk putter around her kitchen preparing dinner. She was not her usual ebullient self, and Mrs. J could sense something was troubling her, mainly because Sara wasn't sticking her finger in every pot and constantly grabbing little samples off the cutting board.
    "Sara," she said, "You can talk to your old Banggo. Such a long face I am never havink seen, my child."
    "It's nothing. I'm just thinking."
    "Vell, tell me vhat it is that you are thinkink. Maybe ve can be thinkink the same things together, you and me. It is shame such a pretty gorl should be so sad."
    "That's just it. Everybody is always telling me how 'pretty' I'm supposed to be, it's embarrassing. Maybe I should be grateful for the way I was made, and I guess I am. But then I wonder, am I so weird that being pretty doesn't matter?"
    "Ah... There is someone you vant to be noticink you. Must be is Jimmie." She shook her head.
    "I'm with him almost every day. But it's like I'm not there. All he sees when he looks at me is some kind of computer to play with."
    "You are likink him?"
    "Sometimes. Sometimes I think I could just hate him."
    "So spoiled you are. Alvays center of attention vith ev'rybody. One silly boy not be lookink at you, you goink crazy."
    "Well, he's not like the other boys I know. They're so stupid, and I know they notice me, but they all think I'm too weird, too."
    "You not beink veird. You beink special. Maybe too special for some peoples, they not know how to be actink around you. Some of them, they not vant to say wrong thing, go on top of tall buildink in single bound. Hah!"
    Sara would never live that down. The creep deserved it, though. "I wish I wasn't so 'special'. I wish I were just like everyone else."
    "Sara, dollink, you can never be like ev'ryone else. Ve all haf to be vhat ve are. Sometimes, ev'ryone else thinks they vant to be sometink they are not, or vishes they not vhat they are. Is normal, so you normal too, like ev'ryone else. Could be lot vorse, vhat you are, having big 'S' on chest!"
    "Well, you can have my big 'S'. It stands for 'sucks', as far as I'm concerned.
    "Do you know where I went last week? Venus! It wasn't my idea, but nobody asked me, they just sent me off like I'm some kind of robot, to find some stupid Russian probe that landed there in ancient history. It took me hours to get there and back -- and maybe astronauts think space flight is cool, but I think it's boring. And then I spent a whole day trying to find something the size of a toaster in an area the size of Texas 'cause they didn't really have any idea of where it actually landed. I couldn't find it. It probably got corroded away years ago. It's like they think I can do anything. Well, maybe I can't.
    "You know what Venus is like? It's hot, it's ugly and it stinks. I mean, you think we have acid rain here, they've got acid rain. That's all they've got. So, OK, maybe that stuff doesn't actually hurt me or anything, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Who wants to take a shower in that stuff? I had to burn my way through half the stratosphere when I got back to get rid of the stench, and I can still taste it. Yuck.
    "So, is that what I'm supposed to do the rest of my life? Fly around and do all kinds of stupid missions? What, save the planet, rescue cats, change the course of mighty rivers? Why me? Am I going to be a freak forever?"
    Mrs. J tried to comfort her as best she could, patting her hand and letting her vent. When the silence grew too long, she said, "I not be borink you vith stories of vhat it vas like for me vhen pretty young gorl, but I know vhat means to be on mission. I vas, how you say, pretty hot chick vhen var against fascists vas over, then havink Cold Var against capitalists. Party think of things for pretty young gorl like me to be doink in foreign capitols vith enemy big shots. Not somethink I vould do if I am havink choice, maybe. But there vere vorse things to be doink in Russia. So I am makink best of it. Vas my fate, my destiny, doink vhat I vas best able to do because I believe I vas doink right thing for Motherland.
    "So I vas party gorl for Party. Making big whoopee all the time. And I vas very good at it. Hah!"
    "At least you knew what it was you had to do."
    "I vas just followink orders," she winked. "Sometimes, that's vhat you do. You do your duty, because you are best one to be doink it. You can cry about it, or you can be havink fun. I choose havink fun."
    "Well, I don't know what my 'duty' is. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. That's the problem, Banggo. I just don't know what I'm supposed to do."
    "Vhen time comes, you vill know."
    "I hope you're right. I just wish I could feel more like a person than a pile of junk."
    "Aha! I think maybe I can fix! I know vhat to do, cheer you up, maybe get boy's eye. Problem is, you pretty gorl, dressink like boy most of time. Black bluejeans, sveatshirts, tennis sneakers. Bah! Take this."
    She handed Sara a credit card with her own name on it.
    "Vas saving up for big surprise. So -- surprise! I tell Dinah, takink you to big mall all day, buyink sexy clothes Alex not vant you to vear in public. Not comink back 'till car filled up vith boxes.
    "Best medicine for gorl who is feelink bad. Shoppink! Hah!"

    Their planned rendezvous with NASA grew steadily nearer. Jimmie wanted to make some kind of big presentation of what he'd discovered about Sara's capabilities and the tutors decided that it should coincide with a gently formal wrap-up of their course of instructions. Sara had matured to the point where her apparent mental age matched her appearance -- which had never changed -- and showed no signs of progressing beyond that. It would all come together on the date of her third 'birthday'.
    Sara and the twelve Russians arrived early at Jimmie's conference room. Each had a short speech to give summarizing what they had studied together, and a certain amount of teary-eyed Slavic embracing to do that they didn't want to share with the rest. The old men vowed to stay together as a research team, submitting papers on what they had learned from their student that would undoubtedly be of interest to scholars world-wide in the days to come after her public debut. It would keep them busy, happy and arguing incessantly, perhaps putting off for a little while the inevitable decline into senility that loomed over them like an unwelcome cloud.
    Sara had evidently put Mrs. J's gift of a credit card to good use. She'd shed her tomboyish Urban Animals style and looked marvelous, a feast for every eye and a delight to behold. She had a lot to show and showed it well, treading close to the bounds of common decency, as any nubile and precocious teenaged beauty would do. Sure enough, Alex was usually apoplectic about what she wore out of the house, and she gauged her latest outfit's effectiveness by how close it came to inducing a coronary in him.
    She still felt disappointed that she wasn't making any apparent headway with Jimmie, though she practically oozed all over him in the age-old ways of maidens who have a victim locked firmly in their sights. But she obediently never kreened what happened in the Fort after she left, either.
    Jimmie, of course, couldn't help but notice. He was simultaneously drawn to finding every possible excuse to prolong their sessions, and terrified at the prospect of acting on his impulses and ruining everything. It was sweet, and it was awful.
    When Alex and Dinah arrived, the Russians were all on one side of the big table with Sara in the middle, lined up on either side of her, some sitting, others standing, everybody talking at once in a score of languages. The scene reminded Dinah of DaVinci's Last Supper. She wondered uneasily if the group included a Judas. She shrugged off the notion as a little healthy paranoia induced by Robbins. She'd heard unsettling things about a new Houston project and wondered what he was up to. She shook her head and decided to worry about that later.
    Mrs. Jachimczyk came in flanked by five of the Cubans -- Fidel, Rudy, Jesus, Ricky and Raoul (with his wife, Maria). They were all dressed up like regular gentlemen for the show, looking like some parody of Latino Mafiosi, until they loosened up a little.
    Jimmie's bouncily zaftig receptionist entered pushing a beverage cart and made sure everybody was happy and comfortable, and -- finally -- Jimmie came in and took his place at the podium end of the table opposite a rather large video screen. He seemed confident and comfortable addressing the group, and was wearing a tweed jacket and bow tie in a slightly ridiculous effort to look mature beyond his years. He got right to the point.
    "Well, I've come up with quite a bit on Sara's underlying 'computer brain'. In fact, the person we know as 'Sara' is to some extent a program running on top of the alien supercomputer that she really is. Sort of a 'user interface', like Windows. Except that it's so advanced, she's just as real a person as anybody else is. I'm no psychologist, but I'm convinced that she's essentially a normal, human girl. Or, at least, as normal as a human girl would be if she was an alien supercomputer."
    His audience was murmuring. This was no way to talk about their little girl.
    Jimmie went on, somewhat defensively, "I mean, we're basically personalities that have evolved in animal brains. So why not personalities in computers? Especially ones that are as far from what we think of as computers as we are from apes. This is old stuff in science fiction. The thing is, she was purposely made to be as human as possible. And whoever did this did a really good job, to the extent of separating her human personality from the rest of her 'brain'. Otherwise, she'd have really been alien."
    Alex made a throat-clearing noise to get attention. "I think we've all been aware of this all along. A mathematician named Somebody-or-other Turing said that we would someday have to conclude that a machine would have self-conscious awareness equivalent to a human's if you can communicate with one you can't see and not be able to tell the difference between it and a person. I think we all can agree that Sara passes the Turing Test, maybe better than some people can."
    Jimmie hastened to cover himself. "Well, sure. You guys all have known her a lot longer than I have. It's my job to try to figure out what her computer brain -- Sara calls it that -- can do. We know she can come up with all sorts of powers and abilities far beyond those of, uh -- like, mortal men. Nearly anything we can think of, even stuff that seems impossible, violates the Laws of Physics as we know them."
    Borodin, the physicist, harrumphed, "Newton trumps Aristotle, Einstein trumps Newton, Sara's Cryptoalien builders have a million years to trump Einstein. What do we know?"
    "Exactly," said Jimmie, conceding the point so he could get on with it. "So I tried to get underneath the operating system. It wasn't all that difficult, even though Sara herself didn't come equipped with a manual."
    Alex laughed, "I remember looking for one, three years ago. Maybe Sara ate it."
    There were a few appreciative chuckles.
    Jimmie quickly ran through his series of tests, with Sara demonstrating on the video screen -- hooked up as a computer monitor -- how she could maneuver the cursor and input keystrokes via infrared and radio. She showed slides of favorite moments that included photomanipulations of everybody wearing strange costumes or in unlikely settings. The group shot she managed with her and all the Russians seemingly posed in Moscow's Red Square brought out a few sniffles. Jimmie promised to make printouts.
    Probably the most vivid way he could make the point about Sara's computer abilities was their demonstration of the latest hit computer game. a first-person shooter. Jimmie turned off the monitor, pulled down a projection screen and motioned to the buxom receptionist to dim the lights.
    "You're all familiar with Sara's ability to project light from her irises. Well, watch this." A tiny blue dot appeared on the screen. "She doesn't have to do this consciously, y'know, like think about this in any detail. It's all controlled for her once her computer brain figures out how to do this from what she's learned or 'tells it'. As long as she more-or-less knows what she wants to do, all the calculations are done for her."
    The dot started moving back and forth to form a line, faster and faster until it appeared to be solid. Then there was another line below it, then another and another until the whole screen was filled with hundreds of parallel lines. Even though Sara was not evenly lined up with the screen and was fidgeting as usual, the image was perfectly squared up and solidly steady.
    "This is rasterization, like what a TV does, sweeping lines across a screen. Her little laser LED eyeballs are pretty amazing. Variable frequency through most of the electromagnetic spectrum and powerful as hell. Fast, too. OK, Sara -- hit it."
    The lines turned into an image. A moving image. The opening scene from the game -- an eerie, dark hallway leading off in the distance to some unsettling maze of terror.
    "Simultaneous to the picture, she can use IR to feed sound to this wireless stereo setup." The soundtrack came blaring up, then volumed down so that Jimmie could be heard above it.
    "She's in the game, completely immersed like virtual reality. We're seeing what she sees and hearing what she hears."
    The image on the screen lurched violently as she raced down corridors, dodging bursts of murderous fire from horrid shapes who pursued her mercilessly. It made even some of the Cubans green with motion sickness.
    "And she can change it, altering the graphics to suit her tastes. Go ahead, Sara."
    The monsters changed to little pandas and fluffy bunny rabbits. The walls took on softer hues and there were curtains framing sunshine-filled windows. The music became a recording of the Petroleum Club band, as all the creatures began to dance with each other. It was enough to make a hard-core gamer blow chunks.
    "What's really cool is that she can do it in 3-D, but I didn't have enough time to get glasses for everyone." Sara concluded the show to a round of applause, standing up to bow graciously, grinning like a schoolgirl recitalist who had just aced an etude.
    Jimmie turned the video screen back on, now hooked up to a TV receiver. Sara ran the Saturday Night Live bogus commercial. Jimmie went through the radio and TV discoveries while Alex tried to explain American humor to the Russians.
    "Vhat a country," one of them said.
    "She can handle God-knows-how-many channels simultaneously," said Jimmie. He tried to explain AI virtual agents, but there were too many uncomprehending stares, so he went to Star Trek mode. Everybody -- even the Russians -- had watched that show.
    "OK. One way to think of the whole picture of what Sara really is, is to imagine the Starship Enterprise. It's got all kinds of remote sensors and communications equipment and an awesome computer system, with a crew big enough to handle as many jobs as necessary to carry out its five-year mission, flying around the galaxy. Sara's the captain and gets to decide what to do and where to go. She's in complete control and everybody else does what she tells them needs to be done. They report to her on anything that comes up that she needs to know about. Captain Sara doesn't actually have to open a channel to Starfleet -- Uhuru does that. She doesn't have to aim the phasers and photon torpedoes -- Chekov does that. If some hyperspace anomaly comes into scanner range, Spock reports on it -- if it's potentially dangerous enough. Or illogical or fascinating. But not if it isn't. The captain just points at the viewscreen and says, 'Make it so.' And everything gets done. Well, in Sara's case, the whole crew is a holodeck simulation. And her 'crew' is potentially so big, I couldn't find an end to it.
    "Probably, the, uh, Cryptoaliens who made her could have chosen to make her look just like that if they'd wanted to. Or even like the giant robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Or anything else, for that matter."
    "So they makink Starship vhat is lookink good in bikini," said Mrs. J, "vith nice gorl inside."
    "Uh, well... That's essentially it," Jimmie stuttered.
    "But why the amnesia?" asked Dinah. "Why all the languages? What's the deal with the silly costume?"
    "That's not my department. I couldn't find any hidden Cryptoalien messages or anything even resembling a clue. Sara's file manager system is unbelievably sophisticated from what I can learn second hand. She says there's nothing actually hidden from her other than what Alex told her to ignore, and that's all stuff from after she arrived. For some reason, she was imprinted on him and he gets to decide a lot of what she can do in certain areas. Otherwise, there'd be no control whatsoever, and that could be potentially disastrous."
    Everyone looked at Alex, who just shrugged.
    "Anyway, I wasn't able to find a way to access anything directly. I do know that her kernel, the most basic part of her programming that defines her shape and abilities, is completely unbreakable, even to Sara -- like it's hard-wired. It's the essence of her invulnerability. Not only can she not be harmed by anything available to humans at this stage of our technological evolution -- at least, as far as I know -- but she can't be altered or changed from her intended design. It's fixed. I don't know why. She'll always look like she does now.
    "Sara's 'virtual agents' can be assigned automatically to other tasks, as well. Sensor stuff, like kreening. Now, when she enters a building, there are 'agents' that do things like survey the structure, count all the people and ceiling tiles, register every keystroke made on every computer in every office, record conversations and movements, track mice in the walls, you name it. She's never aware of any of it unless there's some reason she needs to know something. It's like constant super X-ray vision in all directions at the same time.
    "And now, when she's flying, she can track every little bug in her way and either avoid them or zap them."
    "No more grill face," said Sara happily.
    There was a lull while everyone mulled this over.
    The normally unobtrusive Maria piped up, "You nearly finished?"
    Jimmie nodded, "Just one more thing. A few more minutes at most."
    Maria got up, leaving the room.
    The video screen came to life again with a view of Sara leaving the Earth's atmosphere, the sky steadily changing to black as the stars came out. A lingering glance at Orion's belt showed computer image-enhanced wisps and clouds of stardust and gas. The view shifted until coming to rest on the nearly full moon, which swam closer with startling speed.
    Slowing as Sara's viewpoint neared the surface, more and more details became clearer -- craters large and small, passing rills and distant mountains, boulders everywhere. An object came into view and resolved itself into one of the old robot lunar landers. As she slowly approached, they could see the markings and weathering from the constant torture of wild temperature fluctuations, unfiltered solar radiation and micrometeorites. Gazing down from her perspective of about ten feet off the surface, boot prints showed up in the dust around the craft. Some dropped tool glinted nearby, half-buried and forgotten. The trail led to unmistakable tire tracks that marked the passage of the vehicle that had brought the strange visitors from another planet to and from this place. Drifting along, she followed them back to the distant base.
    There it was. Foil-covered scientific instruments littering the area around a discarded four-legged insectoidal descent stage, marked by the blast of the rising LEM's fiery exhaust. A flag stood watch over the long abandoned outpost.
    Sara's hovering viewpoint circled the scene, rising at one point when the sun was at her back so as not to cast a telltale shadow into the picture. Now she closed in on one particular item. The rover. Wheels slewed, patched up with a makeshift fender made from a map and tape, lacy dish antenna pointed hopefully at the sky, it filled the screen. And then started, ever so gently, to rise up in silent flight. The video faded to black.
    "It's in the warehouse," said Jimmie. The show was over.

    The lights went up and in came Maria carrying a big, gaudy birthday cake decorated with a large 'S', with three blazing sparklers and sixteen candles, singing Happy Birthday. They all joined in, bellowing lustily if not harmoniously.
    "Make a wish," somebody shouted.
    Sara gave her last surprise demonstration of the day by blowing out the sparklers with a tightly controlled mini-hurricane of intense cold, leaving a residue of frost on top of the icing and dousing the candles as well.
    For some reason, everybody looked at Alex, who explained, "Pure nitrogen. Every time she takes a breath, she separates out some of the nitrogen and packs it away somewhere, compressing it and chilling it. Prob'ly got the equivalent of who-knows-how-many gallons of the liquid stuff inside her. Enough to put out a couple of house fires, at least. She got the idea from a comic book and, well, you know..."
    They knew. Alien technology that seemed impossible. As usual. A shrug wave went around the table.
    Back to the party. The Cubans' ties came off and the Russians looked at the beverage cart hoping there was Vodka. There was. Good stuff, too -- as if anybody could tell the difference.
    There were presents, of course. The Russians went first, presenting Sara with an elaborately framed genuine sheepskin diploma, conferring on her a Bachelor of Terran Studies degree from the University of Terra, Eastern Division, Houston Campus. Sara accepted the honor with giggling dignity and bowed to each of her professors in turn, who each shook her hand, hugged her and wished her well.
    The Cubans gave her a box of priceless Cuban cigars. Sara loved cigars, and ate one right away, relishing each delicious morsel and saving the rest for later.
    Dinah gave her an authentic-looking ID card and decoder ring, signifying her induction as a charter member into the newly formed Legion of Superheroines. It was signed by all the other members, Dinah and Mrs. Jachimczyk.
    Jimmie looked embarrassed. Nobody had told him anything about gifts. Mrs. J said to Sara, "My suprize, you are already havink. Vith credit card already maxed out, sendink Banggo to poor house. But I think maybe I have another big surprize." She motioned to Jimmie, "Comink vith me." They left for a few minutes.
    When they came back, Jimmie was red-faced and stammering so hard nothing intelligible came out. He seemed to be trying to address Sara. Mrs. J dragged her up to the front of the room together with the scarcely breathing boy.
    "Sveet sixteen you are, my child, and never beink kissed. Jimmie, you are big idiot. Vhat you vaitink for? Give Sara birthday present she is rememberink."
    She gave him a push. Painfully at first, amid jeers and 'Whoo!' sounds, he did his duty. Sara was so surprised, she didn't respond at first, feeling as embarrassed as he was.
    But they got into it. Big time. And when they finally finished, Jimmie had to collapse quickly into his chair behind the table. Sara beamed. This wasn't over...
    At last it was Alex's turn. He stood up and admitted, "I don't really have a present to give you, though I've thought about it a lot. Usually, a dad would maybe have a set of car keys for this kind of birthday. Somehow, I don't think you'd really get a lot out of that..."
    "Unless she was starvin," cracked Ricky. Everyone laughed.
    "As far as jewelry is concerned, legend has it you can make your own. And, anyway, if you wore anything like that it would just burn up on re-entry someday.
    "So, what to give someone like you, who already embodies our greatest wishes and most perfect of dreams? You can soar above the whole world, fearing nothing and wanting for nothing. You are, yourself, a wondrous gift whose perhaps unlimited potential we can only dimly comprehend. You do not need a bauble from me.
    "So I finally decided what I should do to mark the occasion of the end of your childhood. Very soon, you will be out in the wider world, accomplishing miracles and delighting nations. You have turned out to have goodness in proportion to your beauty, and joy unlimited. We who have had the immeasurable pleasure of knowing you have come to love you, and we will be but the first of many.
    "Sara, I give you the best of what I have to offer. I give you my blessing.
    "Carry it with you always, and remember it when you feel the all-too-human doubts that make you as we are. Know that I know you will always choose to do the right thing to the best of your ability. And become a blessing to all of us in return."
    To which the gathering answered as one, "Amen."

End of Part One


Next: First Interlude
Chapter Thirteen: Another Awakening


Table of Contents

Patrick Hill, 2000