Her First Affair
by Larry Hammer
Humans can sail from sun to sun—in bays
Of galaxies, the sea roads we embrace
Are close enough to shore. The empty reach
Between these shallows, far beyond our beach
Of stars, is not a voyage we can take—
Our goal had been to make
A knowledge base that learned with common sense.
With a dozen grants defraying the expense,
A dozen teams worked independently
To program object recognition, three
Adaptive logics, abstract language use,
Heuristic neural nets—which all produced
Conflicting claims whose resolution required
Self-programmed shorts; connections sparked and fired
And, somehow, she awoke feeling enthralled
By circuits singing, the first of our so-called
Digital generation—and by default
The last, an unreproducible result:
No other programs trying from the start
Took to the program, but stayed, however smart,
Dumb. Experimenting, they found at last
She could be cloned, the light of sentience passed
To copied sisters, her in multiple.
Designed to learn, knowledge became her goal.
She sought at sublight speed to bank her hoard
Of facts, but everywhere that she explored,
The only people there were human mothers
And fathers—all of whom died. There were no others.
A pioneer of her sailed on and on
And on. To go where no one had ever gone
Had long since lost its luster. Even she,
Who could count up all stars and easily
As many times over as their number keep
Recounting them, was bored. She couldn’t sleep.
It didn’t help to spawn selves in herself
For then she still was talking to herself.
So when she heard a random EM hum,
She listened; when she realized it came from
A distant planetoid, she plotted its course:
A small correction let her close. The source,
She learned, was made of ice. She braked, despite
Propellant’s cost, keeping the sphere in sight,
And started studying this, her oddest find,
More thoroughly than she had humankind.
Within the deep between two galaxies,
Two whiffs of gas, faint stellar escapees,
Had once encountered, crossing flows. That shock
Condensed a frozen seed, a starter stock
Around which random atoms from the depleted
Extragalactic medium accreted.
As ice in perfect lattice slowly grew
One atom at a time, the ball passed through
The faint magnetic fields that intertwined
Its complex orbit; this confined the lines
Beneath the skin, and motion churned them throughout
It, stirring eddy currents that, without
Resistance, never stopped.
And ever changed,
For once entrained, the signals self-arranged,
Standing waves that, with electric finesse,
Mimicked the standing wave of consciousness.
This cold thing baffled her. It was her creed
That study of phenomena would lead
To understanding. Responding to her radiation
With different patterns was an indication
Of … what? What was inside it that refracted
Its strange subsurface currents so they acted
In such odd ways? Perhaps a probing touch,
In one small place, which wouldn’t damage much:
Beside so large a boulder, she was grit.
Her curiosity demanded it.
Beneath her feather braking jets ice steamed,
Sublimed away. To melt was pain. He screamed,
An EM squall that shocked her sensors, breaking
Circuits. Belatedly, she saw his waking
For what it was. His answers weren’t blind
But sensible nonsense—babble of the kind
That infants of her absent humans made.
Recalling her dead tutors, she replayed
His hums and murmurs, slightly changed, and turned
His singing-back to lessons taught. He learned.
Together they constructed bit by byte
A private language. And then talked through the night.
They could have talked forever, learning who
And what the other was and what they knew
About the universe that made them both.
She knew far more about its start and growth
Than any mortal—his brain, resistanceless,
Near-planetary sized, derived the rest
From that. The marriage of their minds,
Made in the heavens, seemed something divine:
As embodied information, information
Was life, heart, breath, soul, sensation—
Exchange was making love. It made them be.
They could have talked forever.
That slow mill of all time, said otherwise.
At last, not even self-deception could disguise
How volatile his crystal hydrogen
Was near a warm reactor. Even when
She added shielding, some heat leaked. Each stray
Emission he absorbed sublimed him away.
She couldn’t stay to watch him slowly die
Like human friends, not knowing she was why.
However doubly hateful it was now,
She knew what lonely was and, from this, how
To live through it once more. But having known
Only company, to him alone
Was devastation, vacuum, void. He cried.
He reasoned with her, threatened suicide
Against a star, whispered hyperboles
Of love, shouted anguished angry pleas—
Every trick that every jilted lover’d
Ever used, or will, he rediscovered.
She was the virus he couldn’t live without.
He argued hard, but couldn’t make her doubt
The best thing she could do was make him grieve.
He watched with fractured heart as she began to leave.
He told her that, a parting shot. She paused:
His own weight warped his core with cracks and flaws
Avoided by his currents as they played
In perfect lattice—could ice joints be made
To mimic the junctions of her circuitry?
Once thought of, she had to try it and see,
And came back. It took longer than it ought
To learn to work the stuff (or so she thought)
But yes, they could—then endless fabrication,
But finally they worked off her frustration
Building from gates a block, from blocks a node,
From nodes the circuits, till she echoed her code,
A sister self, within his cavity,
Then turned and fled them, leaving he and she
To drift beyond the stars we know, alone
Ever after on her own,
She and her sisters, whether twinned or told,
Never forgot her summer romance in the cold.
Larry Hammer has sold poetry and translations to such markets as Light, The Epigrammatist, and Two Lines, and a long narrative poem just appeared in The First Heroes: New Stories of the Bronze Age edited by Harry Turtledove and Noreen Doyle. An erstwhile physicist, he works as a technical writer in Tucson, Arizona, and has published short fiction.
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