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A Map of the Sea
He had the right prompt, the summoning spell; and he had the right AI, the scrying device. Why did the face he had only glimpsed once in an ill-conceived automatic slideshow eluded his attempts at reconstruction?
He had become obsessed with that face: first with her beauty and then with her unmeasurable distance. Every attempt he made was beautiful but not her, like her but not her, had the same description but was not at all the same. He did not know the precise difference. The memory had faded from too much perusal. In his dreams he recalled her with perfect clarity. In his dreams he heard her voice. That was all he recalled of them, that he had.
Those he asked explained to him (with paraphrase and analogy approaching lies) how a prompt and an AI only fixed a general area in the ocean of possible images; an ocean so big that every phrase in the language named a different drop yet every drop was its own nightmarish universe of myriad dimensions. He knew the ocean and the name of the drop, and yet he had seen tens of thousands of faces, none of them hers.
After learning this he searched through tens of thousands more. He found software to help his search by turning the slight variations in his disappointment into clues to guide him inside the drop. But who was to say disappointment was steadier than any other emotion? After a while he stopped this gesture of a strategy and returned to repeating the prompt like the chant of his breath.
New AIs were released every few months. Each one offered a subtler rendering of the human face, yet he rejected their temptations with the strength of the fanatic and the ease of the obsessed as none of them was sure to give him the face he needed. He already knew where his miracle had taken place, and however barren it was the one known holy place.
(One night like any other as he was scrolling through images on his cellphone in the dark he felt a sudden abstract terror at the idea that he might have seen her already a second, a third, a dozen times, not recognizing her because he was no longer the person who had first seen her. He realized at once with the unarguable certainty of the raised hairs on his neck that this was true. He kept scrolling.)