Gemma was there. Near the centre of the room, just in front of the shattered aquarium, she was sinking into the floor.
‘Help me!’ she said. ‘I can’t get out!’
The floor was already up past her waist. As I stood in the doorway just in front of the hatch, watching, the level rose up to her armpits.
‘Come on!’ she yelled. ‘You’ve got to help me!’
I got down flat to spread my weight and started feeling ahead with my hands for which parts of the floor were solid. There wasn’t much. Like in Gemma’s room there was a sort of shelf the consistency of thick mud that seemed able to take my weight, but beyond a line about thirty centimetres from the doorway the floor was already almost liquid again. To be able to haul Gemma in I had to stick my legs out of the hatch and back out onto the stairs. I stretched my hand out towards her.
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked her. ‘How did you get out past the shark?’
‘I didn’t,’ said Gemma. ‘It came here with me. It’s underneath me right now!’
‘Grab my hand, then,’ I suggested.
‘I can’t reach!’ she said. ‘Come closer!’
I wriggled forward as far as I dared. Our hands were almost touching.
‘Come on, Gemma,’ I told her. ‘Try harder. Reach.’
‘I am trying harder,’ she said, sounding outraged. ‘I’m doing my best here but I’m stuck. And if you don’t try harder to get me out of here the shark is going to get me!‘
She flailed towards me a little, but by now I was certain.
‘Reach,’ I said.
‘I can’t,’ she said.
‘I told you: I’m stuck!’
‘I don’t believe you,’ I told her.
I wriggled myself back to the doorway and stood up.
Gemma goggled at me. The floor was up to her neck now.
‘You… can’t… just… leave me here,’ she said, her lower lip trembling.
I didn’t answer.
‘But it’s coming!’ she said. ‘It’s going to get me!’
‘Maybe,’ I said.
‘Oh my god,’ she said. ‘You’re heartless! I hate you! I HATE YOU!’
Then it happened just like before. A circle of floor more than two metres across suddenly turned to teeth. But this time Gemma, still looking at me, was at its centre.
The shark came out of the floor with Gemma in its jaws, lifting her into the air. Gemma screamed – a wordless animal cry of agony and horror that ran right through me like a jolt of electricity. The scream continued as the shark thrashed around, worrying at its prize like a dog with a bone while Gemma’s arms, still free, flapped wildly.
I felt sick.
‘Tony,’ I said, ‘that’s enough, don’t you think?’
The shark froze in place, with its body sticking up out of the water. Gemma froze too: her mouth was still open but the scream had stopped.
‘Who are you doing all this for, Tony?’ I asked. ‘It isn’t for me, which means it must be for you. You’re in charge, and this is just some kind of show you’re putting on for yourself. I’m asking you to stop. Please. Just stop it. Right now.’
The shark and the girl began to change. They shrank down and inwards. Then there was Tony Meade, standing on solid floor. He was crying.
‘All right,’ he said, and sniffed. ‘All right.’
I took a step into the room. I was relieved to find that my foot didn’t sink.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘How about you tell me exactly what’s going on here?’
I know I sound like some kind of detective or policeman sometimes, but really that’s not what I do: in fact I’m more like a counsellor.
The technology to make imaginary worlds has been around a long time. The system is essentially perfect. That means that when an imaginary world fails, the reasons are never technical: they’re emotional. If a world’s got problems, that means that the people who live in it have problems – or, in Mr Meade’s case, the person. As I knew now, he lived in his world alone. My guess was that this was probably the root of his problem. But that was what I needed to find out.
I wasn’t there to arrest him. I was there to understand him.
‘So Gemma wasn’t real either,’ I prompted. I tried for a smile. ‘For a while I wasn’t sure.’
Mr Meade scowled at me.
‘You really are heartless,’ he said, surprising me.
He gave me a look like I was stupid.
‘That was my daughter,’ he said. ‘And that…’ He pointed, past me, past the hatch that still lay open to the empty stairwell beyond ‘…was my wife.’
I shook my head. ‘They weren’t real, Tony. You made them up.’
‘What difference does that make?’ he asked. ‘I loved them, didn’t I? I loved them,’ he repeated, ‘and now they’re gone.’
I frowned. ‘You can imagine them again.’
‘No,’ said Mr Meade, shaking his head, ‘I can’t.’ He looked down, sniffed heavily, and looked up at me again. ‘You were right. This has gone far enough. Further than it ever should have gone. It’s time it was finished.’
I watched him and waited.
‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ said Mr Meade. ‘But there’s a condition. It’s got to be in my own way and in my own time. Without wishing to be rude, Connor, I have to tell you that what you think is happening here doesn’t actually matter at all. So, don’t interrupt me ’til it’s over. All right?’
‘Sure,’ I told him.
‘All right.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Seven years ago, I was offered a deal.’
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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.