TITLE: "The Place Where Dreams are Born" An "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence"/"Sandman" crossover

AUTHOR: "Matrix Refugee"

RATING: PG-13 to mild R

WARNING: Contains strongly implied sexual contact -- slash/het (what DO you call it when one of the participants is a hermaphrodite?!): Desire/Gigolo Joe

ARCHIVE: Permission granted

FEEDBACK: Would be greatly appreciated!

SUMMARY: The Endless muse over a drowning world where man forgets to dream and where a child-robot dreams in their place...

DISCLAIMER: I do not own "A.I., Artificial Intelligence", its characters, settings, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, Amblin Entertainment, et al. Nor do I own "The Sandman" series, its characters, settings, concepts and other indicia, which belong to Neil Gaiman and the many talented artists who collaborated with him, to DC Comics, et al.

NOTES: This idea just flew in out of nowhere. Since I got seriously hooked on Neil Gaiman's classic graphic novel series, I wanted to write a "Sandman" fic, but I couldn't come up with my own original plotline. Then, as I tried to prime the pump of ideas, I started thinking of possible crossovers. At that point, I remembered the very last line in one of my favorite movies, "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence", where David the child-android falls asleep at the end of the happiest day of his existence: "And for the first time in his life, he went to that place where dreams are born." And it dawned on me that "that place where dreams are born" just might be the realm of the Lord of Dreams... The more I thought about it, the more I realized that just about all the Endless might have played a role in the world of "A.I."....

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On the rim of reality as we know it lies a labyrinthine garden under a twilit sky. A tall figure in a monk-like robe wanders its paths, like a hermit of the ancient times. His eyes are blind, and yet he knows every inch of the infinite paths of the garden, just as he knows every line of the book he carries clasped to his chest.

Destiny, for that is the cenobite's name, pauses in his perambulations and opens the book to a page, a paragraph, a line describing a world drowning in man's folly, where man vies with his own creations, only adding the sorrow and despair which swamp his world...

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The waters from the melting polar icecaps rose faster than the mortals of earth could have expected. The urban planners of the cities and towns along the shores of the wealthier nations had scrabbled to prepare for the rising of the seas, but the climatologists' predictions came to pass too soon. Man had wasted far too much time wrangling over which course of action would be the best to take. And then the great equalizer came: wealthier and poor nations alike suffered from tidal waves and superstorms that forced the tideline further inland. The former suffered from the result of inertia, the latter from lack of resources.

Millions died in the flooding or were forced to move inland. Millions more would die of starvation from shortened food supplies due to loss of farmland when the coastal residents moved inland. The population slowly stablized, but it did not reach equilibrium until people started to settle in secure communities centered around the larger cities and the governments installed legal sanctions to regulate and license pregnancies. Thus robots took the place of the poorer workers who had died in the catastrophe. This only created animosity among the survivors in the lower classes, who saw themselves cheated out of good jobs and replaced by silicon and metal beings that did not need to paid wages or given benefits packages. Thus, they avail themselves of every oppurtunity to attack these usurpers. As fast as the robotics design corporations build these machines, the dispossessed humans find newer, more ghastly ways to abuse, damage and destroy these creations.

Yet even as the robotics designers in their secure facilities set in remote areas created newer and better models, an unseen cloud of forboding overshadowed them and their laboratories.

As they cheer themselves on at the inception of every new model, an unseen, uninvited guest lurks in their midst. A squat, pallid, hideously ugly female figure, known as Despair to those whom she haunts, crouches in the corner, arms folded under her flaccid breasts, watching them, silent, patient, waiting. Their hour of glory may be now, but that glory will soon fade away along with their species, unless they can learn to harmonize with their world and with their creations.

Despair fingers the tarnished ring on her left index finger, caressing the barbed hook attached to the ring. Now was her time to watch and wait, but she is patient, like the others of her kind, the Endless...

As the designers disperse, leading their creation out to present it to the world at large, Despair leaves the laboratory-conference room and emerges onto the ledge outside the arched floor to ceiling window that lights the room. She crouches behind the statue that stands out there in the winter sleet and rain, the emblem of the corporation: a bronze statue with arms spread behind it, chest lifted, stepping slightly forward like a metal Venus emerging from the sea, or a strange bird about to take wing.

Despair turns her steady, unblinking squint southward, over the waters that have drowned this city and the waves which lap at the foot of the Cybertronics building where she perches. She gazes beyond the mist to a city which man has built, whose chief purpose is trafficking in the delights which man has created, lovers who can fulfill man's insatiable desires, even as he slowly descends into a welter of madness. Two of Despair's siblings walk its streets, her younger sister inciting delightful madness and a delirium of childlike wierdness, her elder twin inspiring man's lusts and desires...

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There's, um, this really, really strange city I've started hanging out in. Um, it's got a lot of really pretty lights. All colored lights, like rainbows or colored fishes. And these wierd gateways into the city. They're like big heads, all lit up with blue and pink lights. And the road goes right in through the mouths of these big heads. It's nice, but it's kinda wierd to look at and it feels, I dunno, odd I guess. Going in through the mouth, I mean.

What's the name of this city? Oh, I wish I could remember it. The name kinda ran away from me.... I forget a lot of things.

Lots and lots of people come here. I guess they go 'cause, um, it makes them happy. Lots of lonely people come here and find people to like them for a little while. It makes them feel special and liked for a while. There's a whole lot of really strange people here, special people, kinda like dolls I guess. I mean, they're some kind of machines that look just like people and act like them. That's really freaky, but if they make lonely people happy, I guess they're a good thing. People need to find their happiness wherever they can, so they won't go crazy from being sad. The world's a sad scary place when it used to be happy. So people come to this city to get away from all that sad-scary stuff and find a friend, or a lover, I guess, with one of those doll-machine people. I've never had one of those, though a lot of the guy-ones have said some really nice things to me. I don't hate them like those wierd people that smash the doll-machines up in those Flesh Fairs. But I don't really think I'd like one of them touching me, one of those doll-machine people. I really don't like people touching me, so having one of those doll-machines would feel too creepy.

I dunno.... if someone likes that, they're welcome to it. They got plenty to choose from here. The doll-machine guys can be really nice sometimes. One time these guys -- I mean meat-people guys -- these guys were making fun of my multi-colored hair and my tatty clothes. I tried to just walk away from them. I hoped they'd just leave me alone, but one of them threw a bottle at me. He hit me with it and that made me cry, so they started laughing at me for crying, so I ran to get away from them. But I tripped on some wet newspapers and fell down.

Then one of those doll-machine guys came along and helped me up. He took a handkerchief from inside the shiny coat he wore and he wiped my eyes with it, the handkerchief, I mean. He smelled so nice... so nice... like flowers... like a whole garden. He asked me if I was alone, if someone had left me there by myself. I told him I was alone, that I'd been looking for my doggie. But I said I was fine being alone. He seemed puzzled by that. They aren't very smart, but he was very nice. So very nice. He told me his name was... something... I told him my name was Del. He said that was a sweet name, a delightful name. I told him I used to be called Delight, but something happened to me... so it got changed into Delirium. He told me I was very pretty whatever my name was. That made me feel good. I felt so good I wanted to do something special for him, but I don't think things like him can feel, so I didn't bother. That must be so sad, not to feel anything.

It's.... um, a nice place, kinda... but my brother -- well, my sister... well, kinda both, uh... Desire could tell you more about it than I can. Desire would know...

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Oh yes, I could tell you a lot about Rouge City, anything you'd want to know. I didn't lift a finger to assist in any of the construction work: the humans did that for me. But you might say it was a city which I helped to build. You might call me a creative consultant for the project, just as I helped inspire the designers who created the lover-Mechas and sex-bots that crowd its streets. I'm there in the thick of things a lot of the time, rubbing shoulders with common-garden humans and the playthings they created in their own image. I've even had a few humans mistake me for a sex-bot and apporach me. Seeing the look on their faces when they find out I'm something more timeless and tireless than a mere intelligent toy gives me an incredible jag.

I've even dallied with a few of these lover-Mechas, like a wine-seller sampling his stock to ensure its quality. I inspired the designers to create this breed of Mecha to fulfill a human need for pleasure without the risk of accidental impregnation. But when you play the games I devise, there's always a price to pay: Inevitably, some of these silly humans grow far too fond of these creatures, which, as perfect as they are, can only imitate the ways of lovers, with no emotional attachment or true yearning for their lovers' touch.

Of course, I'm immune to this risk: I know the embrace of a lover-Mecha is only an illusion of love and lust and desire. And these mechanicals are none the wiser for having been with me, though I may approach them in the same evening in both my male and my female aspects.

Each model has its specfic talents and style of seduction: some the tender devotee, some the cruel lover, some the kittenish little darling, some the sultry paramour, some the winsome charmer. But while you find a variety of techniques from one model to another, you won't find any variation among individual units of that model. Unlike human beings, If you've had a unit of X-Y-Z model, you've had 'em all. But then I met one Mecha in particular.

I had not yet sampled one of his model, the Companionates model J-1229, so the novelty of this particular model attracted my attention. At that point, the design for a lot of male lover-models had followed the brawny pulp romantic hero template, muscles and all. But the J-1229 had a more graceful build, like a dancer's, with a slight hint of androgyny about him that brought a grin to my lips. He was obviously male, mind you, but he was a strong contrast to the husky blonde beasts on the street.

One night as I was walking along the main boulevard, coming from an encounter with a human in the back room of a night club, I spotted him as he passed by, dancing along the sidewalk, showing off for the crowds of passersby. The rainbow neon lights on the building fronts flashed off his slickeed-back raven black hair, his high cheekbones, off his green-golden eyes, off the glossy black frock-coat jacket he wore. He practically glowed with charm and invitation. He hopped up onto the base of a lamppost, holding onto it as he swung slowly around it, imitating a dancer in some almost-forgotten classic movie-musical, then hopped off, the skirts of his coat flaring a little, and clicked his heels before he landed on his neatly-shod feet.

I stepped back into the shadows, watching him pass by, a dark rainbow amid the garish lights. I followed him on his merry promenade through the streets, to a night club called "Here, Kitty-Kitty", its entryway draped with pink neon cat-girls. I followed him inside, keeping at a respectful distance. A coat-check girl-Mecha in a French maid's costume with black velvet cat's ears and a tail took my raincoat; the hostess of the establishment, a tall blonde woman with a sturdy frame under her black lace evening gown approached, chatting with me as she escorted me to the bar area. I requested a table where I could see without being seen, then after ordering a drink, I sat back to watch what happened. I knew he would be there: I could feel it.

He came in a few moments later, approaching the bar to chat with the barkeep. Before I sampled the dark-haired charmer, I chose to see him work his magic: I scanned the bar for a likely partner for him.

In a booth, three girls sat with an older woman, clearly the maiden aunt of one of them. The maiden aunt's niece nudged her companion, whispering to her. The aunt giggled behind her hand and shook her head, revealing her obviously discomfited delight with the club and the company it hosted. At my nudging, one of their companions took note of the charmer at the bar and pointed him out. The aunt twittered, blushing, demurely refusing, but the younger women prevailed upon her to "at least talk to him for a moment."

"Hey, Joe, whaddayah know?" the niece called to the dark charmer.

He turned his piercingly caressing gaze to them before he turned his head, a gesture peculiar to his kind, then approached their table. I sat back to watch what unfolded and listen to their chatter. The maiden aunt did her best to demurely thwart his attentions, but one would have to be utterly insensible not to see that she really welcomed him.

At length, she surrendered to his polite and well-paced advances and let him take her hand as he led her out, presumably to a more private space.

Two hours passed before the three girls departed in the company of the older woman, now freed of the chains of her maidenhood. A few moments later, Joe returned, clearly seeking out another heart to charm, another lonely soul to delight.

"Hey, Joe, whaddayah know?" I said, as he passed my corner table.

He paused, lifting onto his toes as he turned back to me, stepping out with one foot pointed like the well-trained dancer his designers had designed him to simulate. Even the very act of walking had been transformed into sheer poetry.

"You asked for me by name, dear lady?" he asked, bowing deeply to me. I had opted to manifest as a woman, at least for the present moment. Once I got him alone would be a different matter entirely.

"Yes, I did," I said. I introduced as "somewhat of a conisseur" of Mechas, and that I had a goal of testing every model that existed. He promised that he could do more than satisfy my curiosity, that if I so desired, he could show me the stars.

I let him lead the way: he brought me up a winding staircase to a room set aside for him and the customers he entertained. As we entered the room and he shut the door behind us, he clicked his head to his left, triggering a tiny device deep within his torso. The melody and words of an old love song floated from within him. "'Stars shining bright above you.../ Night breezes seem to whisper 'I love you'... /Birds murmur in the sycamore tree.../ 'Dream a little dream of me...' "

I smiled at these words, making my smile look like delighted amusement, when in fact, the words are really inane to me. But I'm simply hardened against that brand of sentiment. I know more than I care to about dreams.

"Ah... they're playing our song," I said.

He smiled. "If you say that this is our song, Desiree, then it shall be so." He bowed with the grace of an angel, holding out his hand to me. "And if this is to be our song, may I have this dance with you?"

I put my hand in his and drew him close to me, guiding his other hand to my waist. He stood slightly taller than I, but I could still look into those perfectly green eyes, tinted with gold around the rims of his pupils.

I let him approach my feminine side first, letting him seduce me with gentle words and sweet caresses, before I turned him over on his back and took possession of him, male to male. Most Mechas whom I consort with thus regard my transmutation blankly and give it no second consideration as they let me have my way with them. But instead, this Joe regarded me with puzzlement, his glossy head cocked in a way that nearly made my cynical heart melt. He aske me outright, how was this possible?

This caught me off guard, and I had to reveal to him more of my identity, that I was no common mortal lover, but the essence of human desire and the one who inspired these desires. That clearly made little sense to his limited intellect, but he seemed to accept it as part of this strange encounter.

I gazed deep into him: he was not like most of his kind, blankly following the prompts which his designers had programmed into him. By some happy fault in the process of his creation, he had the potential to change. I thought it best to help nudge this process of change: Thus, even as I entered him, I embued him with a new talent, with the desire to seek out genuine love, intimacy, even the more cool-burning aspect of love which the humans call friendship

I never saw him again in Rouge City, or at least, not in such a setting. The next time that I saw him, he was not alone but he wasn't seeking out another customer: A child who was not a human child clung to this Joe's hand, letting the taller Mecha guide him as he sought out a way to find his own innocent desires.

This Joe had promised to show me the stars, but I could show him so much more than that...

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I really hate taking suicides, mostly because there's so many of them these days, it's enough to drive me crazy. The only thing that bugs me nearly as much is Flesh Fairs since their whole deal is destroying things that technically aren't even alive, but I gotta be there anyway. But I really, really can't stand it when a kid suicides.

For instance, this one kid I just came for, David Hobby. The poor kid's dad is some robotics expert, the top in his flied and the CEO of Cybertronics, a company that makes robots. Mind you, David and his dad were really close when David was a kid. But then David's mom died in a gas explosion that wrecked their house -- I was there; it wasn't just an unfortunate event: some anti-Mecha goons had rigged a bomb to the gas meter, intending to kill Dr. Hobby. After that, Allen, David's dad, buried himself in his work to keep the edge of his own depression. David got depressed as well, but of course dear old dad was too busy to really take notice. He just had the poor little guy put on anti-depressants. That might keep the symptoms at bay, but that doesn't keep my younger sister Despair from lurking in the shadows. And David's a smart kid: he found a way to bypass the computer-chip-powered security device-thingie on the dispenser for the pills... so he OD'ed on them.

Man, I hated being there. What a waste.

Dear old dad repented of what he'd not done sooner, and he's hard at work designing a new kind of Mecha. I'll give him credit for making lemonade out of lemons, but he should have done that a lot sooner, then I might not have had to come for his kid. Guess who he wants his new robot to look just like?

Yep.

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At the edge of his realm, where it touches the drowning realm of humanity, the Lord of the Dreaming stands gazing into the deep waters, lost in thought, watching this despairing world grown short on true dreams. From the pouch hanging from his belt he takes a handful of dust and casts it onto the waters, watching it dim the reflected starlight before sinking into the depths, sinking down to a small boy who is not a boy, lying on a divan-bed in a suburban house. Though the boy does not sleep, he still can dream: his creators have captured the ability to dream and imbued their singular creation with it.

And this child dreams... of winning his mother's love, of claiming her full affections in the same measure as she shows her elder son, the flesh and blood child of her womb, of becoming real in the same way the Blue Fairy transformed a wooden puppet into a real boy in the fairy-tale his mother read to him and his brother...

A quiet smile passes over Dream's face. Let this robotic child carry this dream in his silicon heart. Let it guide him through his world, through fire, air and water; let it help to survive the horrors he will encounter on his journey. Let it inspire another of his kind, already feeling the stirrings of true love and desire, to take it upon himself to see that this child's dream comes true. Let this child's creators congratulate themselves for their success in creating "a Mecha that can dream", but let their joy fade as their creation slips away to seek a more satisfying answer than their dry science. Let it stay with this child through a vigil underwater, encased in an amphibious ornithopter in the midst of a drowned fairy tale theme-park, before an image of the Blue Fairy, whom this child had hoped could help make true his dream....

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Coming for a Mecha is never easy for me. But coming for that lover-Mecha... now that was a mind-bender.

I knew Joe had it in for him when I showed up for Samantha Bevins, one of his best customers in Haddonfield, moments before the silicon dream-boy was to meet up with her in the Shangri-La Hotel. Only her gentleman-friend Tony the Mecha-hater got there first. I was glad to get her out of that mess and away from that rat. But then Joe showed up, with Tony lurking in the shadows of the room, making sure his frame-up worked. I had a bad feeling I'd be coming for Joe, since the Flesh Fair was in Barn Creek that night. I had a busy night with the sheer number of Mechas they trashed. I honestly wanted to yell at the goons running the damn thing, but they wouldn't have heard me.

And sure enough, Joe was there and his number got called, his and a little kid who'd gotten caught by the Flesh Fair Hounds. I was afraid this would turn into a repeat of the Trenton incident -- the night the Flesh Fair goons sent what turned out to be a flesh and blood man through the "Mecha Chopper". Urk. I may be Death, but there's stuff that's too gruesome even for me.

...But the kid turned out to be a robot-kid. The Flesh Fair goons had him and Joe the hottie chained to this bag-toss machine that would douse them with acid when people hit the targets with the red beanbags the hucksters had been handing out. All they needed was for the crowd to start tossing those damn beanbags...

Then the kid started yelling for his mommy, just like a real kid; the crowd went bonkers in a good way: they started throwing the beanbags and anything else they could throw at the Flesh Fair goons. No more Mecha-smashing for that night, thank goodness. So as soon as David-the-kid-bot and Joe the hottie were running free, I bugged outta there. I had other jobs to take care of...

Only I wasn't quite finished with Joe.

The police caught up with him and David when they reached what's left of New York City and the world headquarters of the company that had built David. As I found out, David had some kind of bug in his brain about wanting to be real so his mom would love him, so he'd gone chasing after the "Blue Fairy", hoping she could do the same deal for him that she did for Pinocchio. I don't know all the details about that: you'd have to ask my younger brother Dream, but the family that had hosted the kid, Henry and Monica Swinton and their son Martin, was familiar to me: I'd come for their son once when he was sick with some childhood disease known as Sinclair's Syndrome, but he'd rallied.

Either way, the cops caught up with Joe and took him back to Haddonfield to shut him down permanently.

I hate routine Mecha memory-cube wipes as much as I hate Flesh Fairs. Maybe it's less painful for the Mechas than getting smashed to bits or burned, but it's gotta be the last word on "killing someone with kindness". The techs are so sterile about it, worse than executioners in the old days of capital punishment. And when all is said and done, there's nothing for me to lead into my realm. I guess it annoys me on two counts: one, because the humans are unjustly destroying things they made in their own image, and two, because it's a waste of my time.

But... this time was different.

When I got to the basement tech room at the Haddonfield police station, I found the usual group of techs strapping their suspect to a steel table and preparing their high-tech cube-wiping gadgets. Joe seemed to take this all in stride, but I could see in his eyes he only wanted to know why they were doing this to him, when he has done nothing wrong. I swear, if I could read his chipboard mind, I would have seen him asking why he had no chance to defend himself.

The chief tech threw the switch on the cube-wiping device. Joe tensed for a second, the way they often do...

But then he was there, at my side, smiling right at me. I couldn't help staring: what the hell was going on?!

"You called for me by name, my lady?" he asked, bowing like the perfect gentleman they had made him to be.

"Well... I came for you, but it wasn't for that," I said.

Someone came up behind me and jabbed me in the rump. I jolted and turned to find my kid sibling Desire behind me, grinning that annoying, slightly creepy grin.

"Desire, what do you want?" I asked, glaring into those slitty yellow eyes.

"Only the young male Galatea you just escorted into our realm," Desire said, dropping Joe a wink. "I've marked him as mine."

Joe looked from Desire's face to mine. "Yes, this man-and-woman touched me as no one had before."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, exasperated.

Desire leaned one forearm on Joe's shoulder; Joe glanced sidewise at his admirer, smiling sweetly yet with barely-veiled sultriness.

"It means that none of this would have happened if I hadn't given him something no Mecha has had before: I gave him the chance to want something beyond what his creators intended for him." Desire patted Joe's arm. "Come with me, pet: I have a place in my realm set aside just for you."

Joe proferred his arm to Desire. "Say no more: lead the way, you who are both lord and master, lady and mistress to me."

"You needn't ask twice," Desire said, taking Joe's arm and stepping away out of sight.

I have to admit, I caught myself fuming with envy. I've seen people fading away from cancer and other diseases who asked to be allowed to have one night with a lover-Mecha before they died. I've wondered what the fuss is over lover-Mechas, and so a teeny part of me wondered what Joe the dream-boy would be like.

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Sleep offered Monica Swinton her only refuge from the shadows that haunted her waking hours. Even in her son Martin's face, she saw a reflection of David's face looking back: more innocent, golden-haired and blue-eyed, unlike her dark-haired "real" son. When other women would throw themselves into working, or dull their pain with alcohol or the trendier drugs on the market, she chose to retreat into dreams.

Here, lying in her bed, lying curled up on the couch, she could close her eyes and there in the darkness see David's blue eyes gazing back at her, lightening her darkness, coming to her in dreams. Here in dreams, she ran with him, hand in hand through sunlit avenues of trees, laughing with him. Here in dreams, she lies in a hammock with David resting in her arms, his body warm from within, his sandy-blond hair tousled, his little simulated heart beating against her heart.

But other times, she dreamt of that dark day she had to give him up. She dreamt of running after him to find him again, fleeing through the gnarled forest, David's voice calling to her, echoing, his words pleading for love, for acceptance, pleading that he be as real to her as Martin... She dreamt of moving over deep waters, of plunging into their depths, seeking David on the bottom, only to feel a cage close over her, to feel the waters grow cold and freeze around her, sealing her in. She fought to awaken from that dream, but she did so only to awaken in a dreamless darkness more numbing than the nightmare.

Or worse still, that shadowy man in black would appear, his deep-set black eyes looking at her, glinting slightly red from under his wild mane of blue-black hair, his pallid face so thin it almost looked skull-like. He gazed at her in silent reproach, so gentle it seared her soul, before vanishing as silently as he had appeared...

She neglected her gardening, she stopped reading. She rose only to eat a few mouthfuls before crawling back to bed. Martin was growing and busy with school. Henry, her husband, was often away on business -- the company had expanded and they needed more and more of his expertise in marketing their new lines of products. But David was not there to comfort her. If only they had somehow worked past that series of foolish but dangerous misunderstandings, David might still live with them, filling her days with his delightfulness, keeping her company after Henry passed away and Martin moved on...

Now her only refuge with him existed in dreams, and even that had its flaws and fears.

And nightmares.

Sometimes she dreamt about that lover-Mecha Dr. Hobby had told her about, the one that had found David in the forest and brought him to Cybertronics' Manhatten building in search of the Blue Fairy... oh what was his name... Jake? Joe?... Joe... that she and Joe had gone in search of David themselves, travelling through fire and water, through urban sprawl and tangled forests, through dreams and nightmares, meeting with a motley band of companions who helped them: a daffy but clever astronomer and her service-Mecha buddy, a foul-mouthed but fiercely loyal Irishwoman, a young man who dreamed awake, a black-clad woman who guarded her heart with a sword, a young reporter who could have stumbled in from a 1930s movie and his photographer sidekick who hid something noble under a shabby exterior. ...Other nights, she dreamt of people talking about her and her story as if they knew it inside and out, as if someone had retold it in a book or a movie or maybe both, but she passed among them like a ghost.

Time passed.... She knew she aged, but she avoided mirrors, avoided looking at her reflection to avoid seeing the despair in her eyes, the same despair that weighed on her heart as if some heavy person sat on it.

Martin worried about her; finally he consulted several specialists regarding her condition. At length, they had her moved from home to a clinic that specialized in sleep disorders, situated up in the Catskills Mountains, not far from Sleepy Hollow, a peaceful place that seemed to dream alongside the patients housed there.

She stopped seeing the pale man in black. The nightmares grew less frequent, thanks to the help of a therapeutic AI which served as a "dream therapist", helping her to consciously move through her dreams. But she could still stay alert for only a few hours at a time.

Martin visited her every week: he had finished college and moved on to an architectural school. Soon he'd joined a design firm specializing in SmartHouses, which he stayed with until he had earned enough noteriety to start his own firm...

Meanwhile, Monica spent her days moving between her dreams and her short waking moments, until she slid into something between the two...

And then she awakened in a new place. Or at first it seemed like a new place. She opened her eyes and glanced around her without rising... Strange... she lay in her own bed in her old bedroom, in their house in Camden, the furniture and pictures and knick-knacks just as they had been when David had lived with them....

There were others there too. Strangers, tall silvery beings like statues made of glass over a core of silver filagree, moving about silently, gracefully, a soft electric humming-trill passing among them. But she felt no fear at their presence. Somehow she knew they meant her no harm.

And then they had gone. And he was there, tiptoeing into the room, guided by one of those silvery beings, approaching the bed almost as if he feared he might awaken her. Her David came to the bedside and climbed up beside her, gently moving her hair out of her face. She opened her eyes completely, looking at him. This was no dream... this was real. But how?

She set aside the whys and wherefores, The dream that had hovered in her sleep for most of her life had come true. David and she were together again.

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They did it, those crazy humans. They completely trashed their planet. The place froze into a solid block of ice. I came for the last humans about 400 years ago, a group of people living little better than animals foraging in the glaciers. Now, a group of humanity's creations, or the descendents of the Mechas humankind designed, has arrived on earth from an off-planet research facility and they're now sifting through the frozen rubble, trying to find out all that they can about the humans and what happened.

And they found a way to revive the dead through some wild version of cloning. I thought I was finished with going back and forth to that planet, but I guess not. At least, not till these "Specialists" or whatever these souped-up Mechas call themselves, call it quits on their odd resurrection/resuscitation projects. I draw the line on that: sure, clone a dead person and revive them so you can find out what humans were like, but you can study them for only one day. After that, I come back for them.

It's getting late: they resurrected the cute kid-bot's mom after they found him, and now her time's up... And my brother Dream has job for me to do for him...

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"Monica? Hey, Monica... time to wake up," a girl's voice called in Monica's ear.

Monica opened her eyes and looked around. Night had fallen and the room lay dark. She looked up to see a slim young woman with teased-up black hair standing beside the bed, leaning over her and David. A silver ankh hung on a chain about the stranger's neck. At first Monica wondered if this girl might be a part of her dreams, but she recognized the girl's pale face with its kohl-rimmed eyes and black-painted lips. She had seen this girl leaving the hospital just before Martin's doctor had told her and Henry that their son might only be pending.

"I know you..." Monica said, hearing fear in her voice. "I know why you came: it's really happening this time."

The girl nodded. "Yep. This is it."

Monica looked at David, lying on the pillow next to hers, his eyes closed, his face still smiling. Somehow she knew his spirit had left. "Wait... where is he?"

"It's all right," Death said. "He's waiting for you in the place where dreams are born. I'm here to take you to him."

"Where dreams are born... what is that place?" Monica asked, rising and letting Death take her hand.

"We call it the Dreaming; my brother Dream is the head honcho of the place," Death said. "C'mon: they're waiting for you."

"They?"

"David, silly. And Dream wants to meet you, too: You helped cause quite a stir in the Dreaming, you and David."

"I'm sorry about that, I mean, to cause such trouble..." Monica faltered, dropping her gaze.

Death reached out with one black-tipped finger and tucked it under Monica's chin, tilting the woman's gaze up to hers. "Hey, we're used to it: people are always doing wierd things with dreams. This one's just a little out of the ordinary since it's the first time a Mecha ever dreamed..."

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"Daaaavid... Hey David, time to wake up."

A lady's gentle voice called to him softly. He opened his eyes and looked up. At the bottom of the bed, next to Teddy, sat a lady with dark hair all bushied up. Her face looked white and her lips were painted black and she'd drawn an odd curly design under one of her eyes, but she smiled at him nicely, like she knew him somehow. She wore tight black clothes a little like what some of those strange ladies in Rouge City wore, but nowhere as wierd-looking. On a chain around her neck she wore a funny-looking silver cross with a big loop on top of it. She seemed very nice, very safe.

"Who are you?" he asked.

"I'm a friend you've never met before," she said. "I'm here to take you to your new home."

David looked around. "Is it safe?"

"Perfectly safe." She looked at Teddy and rubbed his ears. Teddy grumbled a little, but let her pat him anyway. "Cute bear. Is he yours?"

"Yes, he's my friend Teddy. Can he come with me?"

"Oh, yes he can! You're going to love it there."

David looked at Mommy. He knew he couldn't wake her: she slept too soundly for that. She was dead, like the little bird he'd found in the garden when he and Mommy were out playing. He looked up at the lady in black. "Will Mommy be there, too?"

"She'll be there with you soon, but there's someone you gotta meet first." She held out her hand to him. "Come on: It's okay. I don't bite."

"Okay," David said. He picked up Teddy with one arm and put his other small hand into Death's white hand.

Everything around them changed. Mommy's bedroom vanished and they stood in a sunlit place with trees and grass. Birds chirped in the branches overhead and the breeze smelled sweet with roses, like Mommy's garden. Death led him along a path which ran beside a small stream chattering over smooth stones.

The stream and the path led through meadows and a forest, till the stream ended in a large pond at the foot of a rocky ledge.

A dark figure approached them from the shadows at the foot of the ledge, walking along the edge of the pond, coming closer. From a distance he appeared to be a tall man dressed in a long, flowing black coat with designs like dark flames around the bottom, a pouch hung from the belt around his waist. David drew closer to Death when he looked up at the man's face: the stranger seemed to have the head of a strange animal, like a bug without feelers. But when he stopped before them, the stranger reached up and removed it, revealing another, gentler face behind it. David realized the man had been wearing a mask or a helmet of some kind.

The mask faded away, giving David a good look at the man's face: his skin was as white as moonlight and his black eyes, looking out from deep inside his face, shone like stars. He seemed a little sad, but a trace of a smile showed in the corners of his mouth. He seemed just a little scary, too, but he seemed very safe as well.

David let go of Death's hand. "Who are you?" he asked the stranger.

I am Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming, the stranger replied, in a deep but quiet and gentle voice with an accent that reminded David of Joe's voice. Welcome, David: we've been expecting you for some time now.

David looked around and realized Death had gone away. "Where is she?"

She weill return soon: wait and see, Morpheus said.

"Is this where you live?"

This is a small part of my kingdom, one of the many lands that make up the Dreaming.

"Is it real?"

Morpheus tilted his head from one side to the other slowly. It is a different sort of 'real' compared with the reality that you knew.

David felt that coldness which meant fear. "If I am here... does that mean I'm only a dream?"

Morpheus gave him a reassuring smile. You were born from a dream, David. The man who created you dreamed of a time when humans and the Mechas they created would live in harmony. He wanted you to be the first of a new kind of machine. But because the humans refused to respect their creations, his dream never came true.

"Is it safe here?"

Morpheus smiled again. You will have nothing to fear as long as you stay here in this garden, he said. The Lord of the Dreaming raised his eyes, gazing down the path. He reached down gently, placing one hand on David's shoulder and leaning down slightly. She has arrived.

He gently turned David around, facing down the path.

Death approached, leading Mommy by the hand. As they came closer, Mommy looked up, her eyes growing shiny with happy tears. She let go of Death's hand, walking more quickly but not quite running. David ran to her, hugging her around the waist.

"Mommy! You came here to our new home!" he cried.

Mommy caught him up in her arms, hugging him. "David, sweetie!" He giggled, happy, beyond happy to be with her once again. And they would always have each other.

Monica set David on his feet, letting him go, but keeping a hand on his shoulder. "But what is this place? Is it heaven? I'm a little confused...." She looked up to see that dark man who had appeared in her dreams. She almost quailed back from him, but her eyes found his and saw no reproach in them this time. Only compassion.

No, not quite heaven. It is your true dream made real, Morpheus said. I saw your dreams, how you longed to bring David back to your side, how you tormented yourself with guilt over casting him off and losing him. You forfeited heaven by clinging to your weakness, yet by your strength you paid much of the debt. I had to respect your strength and allow you and your son to find shelter here, since your worst sorrows and your greatest joys came to you in dreams.

Mommy looked away, the way Martin used to do, if she caught him doing something naughty. "Yes... sleep... that was my only refuge... but it could be just as bad as being awake and missing David. Sometimes I wonder... what it would have been like if David and I and that lover-Mecha who helped him had been able to live together as a family. Joe was David's real father, and that made me... oh, this is too silly..."

Morpheus gave her a quietly indulgent smile. No. The things that can seem the most foolish may in fact be the most wise things you can think of.

"Okay... That made me want Joe almost as much as I wanted David. But not... for that... you know..." Her cheeks went pink with embarassment.

"And I think that's a good place for us to make our grand entrance," said an approaching voice, like a softly husky woman's voice or a young man's light voice.

David and Monica both gazed down the path. Two figures approached, clad in glossy black garments, both slender, both somewhat masculine and feminine at the same time, but the slightly taller of the two looked clearly male, one with unblinking green eyes looking to Monica with innocent passion, the other with golden eyes, hooded, not quite hiding the mocking glint in them.

"Hey, Joe, whaddayah know?" David said, approaching the green-eyed young man.

Joe approached David, a smile lighting up his face as he leaned down to his young friend. "David? Did you find your Blue Fairy? Did she turn you into a real boy?"

"I found her, but she couldn't make me real, because I was real already," David said. "I was... a different kind of real."

"Then your dreams have all come true?"

"Yes, Joe: Mommy is here with me forever," David said, then looked up at her.

Monica took a cautious step closer to Joe. "You're him: You're the lover-Mecha Dr. Hobby told me about," she said. "You're Joe?"

"My customers once asked for me by that name," Joe replied. "You then are David's mommy?"

"Yes... though I'm afraid I didn't do a very good job of that," Mommy said.

"But you were sorry for all the sad things, weren't you?" David asked. "Mr. Morpheus said you dreamed about looking for me and finding me and taking me home. If you want something, you dream about it, don't you?" David asked. He looked around for Morpheus, but the pale man and the pale lady and the strange-looking man who reminded him of Joe had all gone away. "But where did they go?"

"Have no fear," Joe said, putting a hand on David's shoulder. "They most likely stepped away in their fashion to let us have our space to reacquaint ourselves with each other. But they are not far."

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Matthew the raven fluttered his wings to stabilize himself as he landed on Morpheus's shoulder.

"Great job, boss! Yah got the kid-bot back with his mom, an' the mom got her little guy back, an' the hottie-bot got saved so he could hang with the both of 'em forever," the raven said.

"Ah, yes, Dream: a nice tidy happy ending for a most welcome change," Desire said, lounging on a couch in the atrium overlooking the valley. "I knew you had to be hiding some streak of sentimentality deep within you, Dream."

Dream turned away from the window which transmuted into a solid wall behind him. No. It isn't sentimentality, Desire. They obtained what their hearts and souls longed for. But they first had to die to obtain it. They will endure as long as the Dreaming exists. But they dwell here as mere shadows compared to what they once were in their own plane of existence.

"Yeah, but they're out of harm's way and they're happy together: that's more than they had where they came from," Death said, coming to her younger brother's side and putting a hand on his free shoulder as she looked up at him. Dream turned his face to look down at her, the shadow of a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. "I see that smile" she said. "You're happy for them, too."

Desire chuckled, sitting up and turning over to lean against one arm of the sofa, chin resting on folded arms. "Ring out wild bells: Dream has smiled. These nice, tidy happy endings do serve a purpose after all."

THE END

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Literary Easter Eggs:

Words from "Dream a Little Dream" -- These lyrics serve as the title of "Sandman Issue #3" (I think). Plus, Laurie E. Smith, one of the foremost "A.I." fans and my fanfiction mentor, suggested this song might be on Joe's internal jukebox, in the "A.I." Roleplaying Game which she manages (and plays Joe in! ;8D) on Yahoo!

Monica's adventure dream -- A nod to the current campaign of the "A.I." RPG on Yahoo!, which I take part in (I play the swordwoman, the reporter, and the photographer). ::Waves to the other players in it; Hi, folks!::

Dream's accent -- For some strange reason, I always hear Neil Gaiman's voice as Dream's voice, so I couldn't resist giving Dream the same accent. ::Grin:: And the fact that I use asterisks ( ... ) instead of quotation marks around his dialogue lines is my way of reflecting the different shaped and colored (White on black instead the usual black on white) dialogue balloons used for Dream's dialogue in the graphic novels.