By Joan Milligan

Based on Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman"

He was actually a practicing catholic, or that's what he told himself since Sandra died. It seemed to be important to her on her last few weeks, and he's just been too sad, too angry and too much in hopeless love to notice what he was promising her. He went to church in dangling way, every third Sunday or less, and fought a losing battle with sleep each time. Sometimes he felt bad about it, as if he was only doing it for her, not from honest faith. But well, it was a bit too late for that now.

He considered himself pro-life, and even got smitten about it once in a loud feminist magazine. Used to stare at the article for hours at end, then get up, fix himself lunch with a shrug and do all kinds of things meant to take his mind off thinking. He wrote a short paper for on-line publication virtually preaching against cloning, and even bashed the very idea that a computer could beat the world's chess champion once upon a time. All that, though, was before Sandra died

He still truly believed in some sort of god.

He worked in a large building along with hundreds, maybe thousands of men and women, most of whom performed much lesser jobs, and liked it fine most of the time, though he didn't give it much thinking. He was at work at eight AM normally, filling forms and discussing budget issues, then going on a short coffee break, and then he entered a large white room, and that was the last anyone of the office saw of him for the day. In seven PM every day, he would go out, wash his hands and look back at the room's great white door with an expression of disgust.

He would go home then, eat a lowly, tasteless supper and fall asleep watching bad, old cartoons. The next morning he would wake up, go to stare at the mirror and look for what seemed like eons into sunken gray eyes, as if looking for something deep inside them. He'd then sigh and get ready for work.

And the routine repeated itself, day after day after day.

His co-workers - and he had quite a few, though he kept no close relationship with any of them - often gave wild speculations about what might be in the great white room. Anything from an alien spaceship to a hot genetically enhanced babe was thrown over the table in informal dinner meetings he never seemed to attend. After all, people said, when you work in this company, you never know what to expect. Why, only a few months ago, a computer has been sighted hurrying down one hall, supposedly fleeing a horde of angry secretaries. How said computer developed such peculiar abilities was never on anyone's mind, and as none of the secretaries bothered to deny the whole scenario, people stuck to it like flies to honey, and told it religiously to any newcomer to the place.

It was a very large, very mysterious software corporate that he worked in, and while he seemed to pay it as little mind as he did anything else, not many people let him forget it. Family reunions opened up with sentences like "what have you guys done for the future of humanity today", and he has pretty much gotten used to it.

With time, he also got used to long staff meetings that stretched for hours into the night. When everyone was yawning while this junior programmer or another grasped at his long, matted hair in frustration over a glitch that posed a problem only to him. He got used to the long, sterile corridors stretching away into infinity, their harsh neon light blinding and unforgiving. He got used to the lousy cafeteria and the gossip and small talk, and almost - almost - to everyone blushing and backing away with a muted stutter moments after asking him about his wife.

It was not that they forgot - he knew that much. Sandra was too widely familiar and loved in the company for her death to pass quietly and with no notice. They mourned together, so it seemed in the first few days, before he started seeing the world in shades of gray. It was just that, perhaps, like him, they wanted just a bit too hard to have her back, and a slip of the tongue was a privilege they were entitled to. It was hard for them as well, and he seemed to acknowledge that.

He got used to it, like he did to everything.

Except the room, the locked, white room with its walls like bars of a prison.

And the metallic, inanimate body that lay there and awaited power, thought, life.

He called it Kari.

Formally, it was Artificial Robotic Intelligence, model K, but he's been reading on old Asimov novels, had a lot of time to do so since Sandra left them to gather dust, saw how letters became names and names became people. And at some stage, it wasn't just the K model anymore, she was Kari.

It was his job to come into the room every day, loom over her polished body with its perfect hands, smooth silvery skin and shapely breasts, every detail down to the smallest, least important to her function. He checked power output, scanned for design flaws, grafted strange, artificial skin, and for an hour, sat there on a chair too low for him and talked to her.

With time, he found no more design flaws.

Power fluctuations became a freak incident, nothing to be worried about at most times.

The skin was all over her, then, soft like real flesh, warm.

He began talking to her more and more.

He told himself he was just doing his job, perhaps the only job he had left. Enriching her vocabulary, introducing her to concepts, ideas, reading her great works of literature. He told himself he was making her ready for the life she was sure to have one day.

His superiors agreed, and told him to continue, so he had no feelings of guilt.

After a while, also, no feeling of time.

He could sit there for hours at end, and sometimes did.

His co-workers saw less and less of him, and found their own ways of explaining it and going on the rest of the day's matters. There was a rumor that he's gotten a huge raise to senior scientist, and another that he was practicing for a mission of vital importance to national security. Some theorized it had something to do with Sandra, though most people preferred to avoid such ideas. There was even one woman who explained he found a gateway to heaven, and was making daily conversation with his departed love, but most somewhat justly dismissed her as a case of sleep deprivation.

No one entered the room. Perhaps out of respect - perhaps out of fear.

He was never interrupted, and indeed never gave it any thought.

He gave his co-workers very little thought by then.

One day he brought to work a box full of clothes, clothes of all shapes and kinds. Jeans, T-shirts, overalls, underwear. He even brought some dresses that once belonged to Sandra. When asked what he was doing, his only reply was a mutter, something about wardrobe being too full. He was never confronted directly about it.

Most people considered him a miserable, lost man.

He dressed her in the finest, softest he had. He dressed her with Sandra's clothes.

She looked like a doll, a strange thing, lying on a horizontal, polished surface, her unblinking eyes staring upward, like a marionette with her strings cut or a rag doll that lost her stuffing.

She lay there like a modern-day marble woman, forever cold to the touch of her sculptor.

The next day he came to his superiors and told them he quits.

They pleaded with him to stay, but not too much. Honestly, his work was not much needed anymore. The project was ready and soon to be launched, and maybe inside they thought he was better off in his home, as his bizarre behavior was already brought to their knowledge.

He went home that night, fixed himself his lousy supper, and fell asleep watching "Space Odyssey".

The next day he returned to the office.

His co-workers were surprised, but thought he may have regretted what he did the day before. None of them spoke out when he entered the room again. None of them followed him.

None of them talked about it, though inside, they all wondered.

He went straight to her.

She was still lying on her lab table, like a pedestal, her eyes still large, blank, silvery. She looked up at the ceiling, or perhaps not looked at all. She was undressed, and the clothes' box was gone.

He turned her on, and she didn't move.

He called her name, and she didn't respond.

He cried, and she didn't rise to wipe his tears. She remained quiet, oblivious, lifeless and mechanical.

Just then, he lifted his head, and he gave out a scream not realizing what he was saying in it, mumbled words about Sandra' true love and artificial intelligence and all the others things that were just covers to everything real. He promised he will love her because in that moment he had no choice, if only that could make her warm than he would do it, he would do anything right now.

A soft hand appeared out of nowhere on his shoulder at that moment and a voice that was neither male nor female or maybe both spoke, and offered him things. And he cried and shouted and he said yes.

He got up from the floor just in time to see a person closing the great white door behind him, or her, he couldn't tell as much as he tried, it just seemed to be both. And it was very elegantly dressed, and walked with slow sureness, and it was laughing.

He looked back to Kari. He touched her hand, and she blinked.

He slipped a finger on her forehead, and she stretched lazily. He caressed her shoulder and she smiled. He leaned and smelled her rich hair and she slowly sat up, and she gave him a little chuckle like a glowing gem.

He wrapped her in his coat and carried her on his arms out of the great room with its towering walls, and to the building where all his co-workers were having their lunch break. He put her in his car and took her home, and on the way they spoke, and laughed, and became good friends, and that night they were already lying in bed together.

At some stage during the wondrous weeks that followed, after he found a new job and they started to plan the wedding, she asked him how a man as nice as him could have remained single for so long. For a moment, then, a sensation filled him that there was something not right about what she said, that there was something he ought to recall and tell her, something he'd forgotten, but he could not possibly remember what.