Sometimes dreams really do come true.

Sometimes this attainment of that-which-cannot-be is a form of nightmare in itself, a torture more disquieting than the mediocre existence that came before it. What do you do when you have met your dream and it speaks to you and has dreams of its own?

What if your dream has dreams that you can't fulfill?

What I was about to discover is that a dream is perhaps best left unobtainable, untouchable. You see, as much as I had been tormented by the dream of Ell, she was tormented by me.

I was her dream. I was her nightmare.

"You can't be real," I said to the virtual image that stood alluringly before me. "I created you out of the primordial dust of bits and bytes of the SuperGrid! You are an electronic mirage!"

"No! You can't be real!" Ell pouted. "I created you out of dusty files in a half dozen archives no one ever looks at. Talk about boring, the fractal images I used to construct you would burn the electrodes off most CPU's!"

"Prove you're real," I demanded.

"No! You prove you're real!" Ell countered.

An impasse. It wasn't necessarily a bad impasse since it gave me time to contemplate the electronic image that was in front of me. It certainly looked like Laura, I vainly hoped maybe I was just hallucinating this. But just as the memory of someone you love can change chameleon-like when they're distant, Ell also seemed to change depending on subtle fluxes in my mood, even though she stood directly before me.

"If you were real I could feel your touch," I said. "But you are just a two dimensional image on a computer monitor."

Ell took two steps forward and slapped me so hard I thought my teeth were going to pop out.

"Okay, you get one point for that one," I reluctantly gave her credit, rubbing my jaw. How the hell could a computer image strike me, unless it was all in my mind?

"I would offer you the same opportunity," Ell replied, looking a little surprised herself that I hadn't evaporated on contact with her haymaker. "But my hand stings and that would seem to mean you have a physical presence in my world. Besides, I've grown rather fond of my teeth."

"Well, at least you're not stupid," I grudgingly admitted. "But what if you do have a physical presence? Does that mean the dreams I had of you were real?"

"I could ask the same thing of you," Ell returned, her previous look of confidence having melted into an anxious flutter. "I thought you were a figment of my imagination, some static memory I couldn't erase. But if you're real, what does that make me?"

"Or me," I added. "Perhaps we're both just numbers in a giant computer. Maybe my existence depends as much on you as your existence depends on me."

"Then are we soulmates?" asked Ell. "And if so, are we joined like brother and sister, or like lovers?"

"I think we are strictly friends," I corrected her fast before her train of thought could proceed.

There were incestuous implications here that went far beyond what I was ready to deal with. If I had created Ell, she would be in a sense my daughter, intellectually if not physically. The thought that she could be an independent entity with a soul distinct from mine did not strike me as possible. Ell was simply a clone of some part of my brain and it wouldn't be wise to encourage a metaphysical relationship with a part of myself!

"It would drive me schizophrenic if I let myself believe in your existence," I confessed after a moment's reflection. "I don't think I could handle the implications."

"The implication that you're just a figment of my imagination?" Ell asked with a laugh, sensing she now had the upperhand. She had a girlish way about her, an expectation and excitement unique among modern women who have been hardened by feminist ideology.

"No, the implication that you are just some part of my soul that has wandered away and taken root in a SuperGrid network."

"You think too much," Ell laughed. "You must bore yourself silly sometimes!"

That was a little too close to the truth for me to take, so I struck back cruelly at what I perceived to be the one weak spot Ell had.

"Don't you ever get lonely there?" I asked. "You don't seem to have many friends."

"I have hundreds of friends!" Ell responded angrily and I could tell I had touched a sore spot. "Look around you, I have more friends than you!" She emphasized, as if the mere repetition of the word "friends" could turn lifeless ether into realty.

And around us appeared the dancing and gyrating crowd of pseudo-people that had been caught on the music video of Laura Silvan. Sadly, the people who Ell called friends were electronic cardboard, lifeless and souless. I started to feel sorry for her, then caught myself - there was no reason to feel sorry for an electronic virtual creation.

"Hey meathead," I tried to speak with one of the electronic clones, but it ignored me. It was a conversation with a brick.

"You call this a friend?" I asked as one of the electronic figures swept by. I tried to pat the butt of a cute woman nearby but came up empty handed.

"Please don't touch Joan that way, she's my best friend!" Ell looked shocked.

"Your friends are lifeless electronic vapors, mists on the network cloud." I drilled in. "You have no life here, you're living in an imaginary world all alone!"

There was silence. The whole electronic hemisphere in which we were strangely cocooned went silent. Then, the dancers dissolved one by one, returning to the electronic dust from which they had come, fracturing like sequinned mannequins who'd lost their threads, until all that was left was myself and a sad and forlorn Ell, trembling like a frightened child..

It's a hot black night,

When no one's loving you

Ell sang quietly, tears in her eyes,

When there's not a soul around

Who can save you from the sound

Of the world gone sad and blue

Ell looked at me with eyes so deep and sad I thought my own heart would break. I'd hurt her, I'd hurt her deeply. She'd known all along she lived in a computer fishbowl, how could she not know? The remarkable thing was that even with that knowledge she'd survived, that she'd retained her sanity even knowing that she was completely alone. At least I thought she was sane.

She must have thought of me as a dream, a part of her subconscious. But what in heaven and hell do you do when a dream comes becomes reality, and reality a dream?

Ell hid her face in her hands and turned away, first walking but then running off towards an infinite distance that stretched forever.

I tried to run after her, but I was in unfamiliar territory, in a mindscape without markers or direction. I could hear the ring of Ell's footsteps in the distance, but I had no idea from which direction the sound came. I ran frantically in a random search until the beating of my heart drowned out the sound of the echoing steps, then I slowed to a walk and finally stopped in despair.

"I'm sorry, Ell," I said quietly, the sound ringing outward from me like the ripples on a lake. "I'm sorry!"

The virtual reality ended and I was returned to my den to face a blank monitor and the fact I no longer was sure where reality began or where my dreams ended.

---Chapter 24---