October 2015



Sam Enthoven

Chapter 3

The Queen

I didn’t go straight to her: Meade had designed his world with better manners than that. When I opened my eyes I was outside a door. I knocked.

‘Yes?’ said a voice from behind it.

‘Mrs Meade? I’m Connor. I was wondering if…’

‘Come in. Don’t mind the mess.’

The door opened on an artist’s studio. There were sketches all over the walls – shapes scored in charcoal lines on paper. I saw stacks of books on the floor. In the centre of the room, silhouetted against the twilight sky outside the window, a woman with long red hair was sitting with her back to me.

‘I hope you won’t think it rude if I don’t get up?’ said Mrs Meade. ‘The clay’s just perfect right now. Please: come around where we can see eachother.’

Stepping carefully between the book-stacks I did as she asked.

Mrs Meade’s denim dungarees were spattered with pale grey splodges. There were more grey marks on the scarf she’d used to tie her hair back. There was another grey splodge on her cheek. I liked the way she smiled at me.

‘Pottery,’ she said, indicating with her eyes the wheel that was spinning between her knees and, on it, the grey blob she was moulding there. ‘Ever tried it?’

‘Never,’ I said.

‘It’s harder than it looks. But I think I’m getting the hang of it.’

I watched her work. Her fingers were moving with amazing speed and delicacy. The shape she was making was unusual. From what little I knew of potter’s wheels, what was made on them was normally supposed to be rounded: what Mrs Meade was making had corners. With deft, precise, coaxing movements she shaped the clay into a four-sided pyramid from the apex of which, as I watched, another pyramid rose and spread. The second pyramid was upside-down. The two pyramids balanced on top of each other, spinning. They looked like one was a reflection of the other. The place where their tips touched was so small that it seemed the second pyramid couldn’t possibly balance there – but somehow the spin of the wheel and the skill of Mrs Meade’s fingers were keeping them upright.

As she noticed my mesmerised expression Mrs Meade’s smile became a proud grin. She sat back and pressed a switch on the floor with her foot. The wheel slowed and stopped and the pyramids sank back into each other, becoming again the grey blob from which they’d started.

‘Call me Alice,’ she said.

I swallowed and asked: ‘Do you know why I’m here, Alice?’

Her grin faded.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I do.’

‘All right then. Maybe the best way for me to start to try to understand what’s going on here,’ I said, ‘would be to ask why you are.’

She blinked.

‘How did you come to this place, Alice?’ I asked. ‘What made you decide to live here?’

She looked surprised.

‘We took the deal,’ she said, ‘obviously.’

‘Was it an easy decision for you?’

She stared at me.

‘Easy?’ she echoed. ‘Leaving behind the real world and everything we’d ever known? Taking that decision on Gemma’s behalf? No. I wouldn’t say that was easy.

I watched her.

‘But what kind of life,’ she asked, ‘would we have had if we’d stayed? Who wants to queue for food and water rations every day – and risk getting robbed of them every time on the way home? Who wants “home” to be a stinking tent you share with another family beside the latrine you share with six other families in your compound? Who wants to scrape out a life on a dirty, crowded, ruined “real” world when you can live in a place like this, with everything you want? Do you?

I said nothing, just waited.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said after a moment. ‘We don’t get visitors, and with the strangeness lately I’m a little on edge. Please excuse me.’

‘That’s OK,’ I told her. ‘I understand.’

I did: Mrs Meade’s reactions to my questions were giving me more information than she realised.

‘How about you?’ she asked. ‘When did you leave the real world? Recently? Because I’ve been wanting to know: When all the people like us took the deal and left their bodies behind, did that do any good? Is there more room now? Is life there better? Or is everything just as bad as it was?’

‘Honestly,’ I said, ‘I can’t even remember myself.’

There was a pause.

‘Would you say you’re happy here?’ I asked.

‘I’ve got Tony and Gem. I’ve got my art.’ She sighed then shrugged. ‘I think so. We’ve certainly been happy.’

‘So how do you explain the problems this world is having?’

Mrs Meade looked at me.

‘I don’t explain them,’ she said. ‘I can’t.’ She looked down. ‘I just wish that they would stop.’

We talked a little more but it was just for politeness. I already had everything Mrs Meade could give me.

Outside the room I took a deep, imaginary breath and thought through what I’d learned so far. I’d found one answer, I supposed, but it was more like an extra mystery on top of the first, balancing there, ready to fall.

I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of Gemma’s card.

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.




Sam Enthoven

Chapter 2

The Trouble

Mr Meade blinked some more but looked in my direction.

‘I’d like to talk to your wife and daughter,’ I told him, ‘and get their take on what’s going on here. I’ll question them, gently of course, and see what comes up. Maybe they’ll give us something we can go on. Something you might have missed.’

‘Yes,’ he said faintly. ‘Yes. I understand.’

‘But first,’ I asked, ‘is there somewhere I can be alone?’ I tapped the side of my head. ‘I need to check a couple of things.’

‘Of course,’ he said. He sniffed. ‘Right. Yes. Certainly.’

I blinked and we were in another room.

‘The guest suite,’ Meade explained. ‘Please make yourself comfortable.’

If I’d wanted to it would have been easy. It was a nice room. At its centre a round bed beckoned silkily, promising sweet dreams. To my left a long window gave a view of the volcano; to my right another gave another of the castle’s interior. It really was shaped like a giant champagne flute: from where I stood I could see that this room was near the brim. Above, the sky’s clear blue was deepening as the sun of Meade’s world began to set. Below was more empty space: a lot of it. Across from me and down, like bubbles clinging to the side of the castle’s gracefully curved mother-of-pearl interior wall, I could see three rooms, spaced far apart. They were too far away for me to be able to see into their windows: besides, their curtains were shut. The room with the aquarium must have been near the base of the castle. That was very far below. When I looked down all I could see at the bottom was mist.

‘Quite a place,’ I said.

‘Thank you,’ said Meade, cheering up a little. ‘As you can see and probably guess, there’s no direct path between the rooms here – not on foot.’ He reached for his back pocket. ‘Instead we use these.’

He gave me three playing cards.

‘They were my wife’s idea. This,’ he said (showing me the King of Hearts), ‘will take you straight to me. This,’ (he showed me the Queen), ‘will take you to Alice. And this will take you to our daughter.’

The third card was the Jack – but this Jack was female.

‘”The Gem,”‘ Meade simpered.

‘Cute,’ I lied.

‘Put your thumbs on the little hearts at the corners of the cards. You’ll be taken where you need to go.’


‘Well,’ said Meade, ‘I’ll leave you to it.’

He vanished.

The Gem, I thought. Sheesh.

I closed my eyes and tried to contact headquarters.

Yes: I’d arrived at Meade’s world without knowing anything about him or his family. I’d come knowing nothing except that I was needed: so what? I had a direct mental link to headquarters, from whom I could easily get all the background information I needed.

Except I couldn’t. As I stood there with my eyes shut I found I had no access to anything outside of Meade’s world. I couldn’t reach headquarters. I couldn’t reach anything. I couldn’t even get a message saying I had no access. That was worrying enough, but there was something else too.

Below the left corner of my mouth I was getting a strange tingling sensation. The tingle became an ache, then a throb, then a kind of bulging feeling, like something was swelling there. I opened my eyes. Past the bed was a round wooden door: I turned the handle and found what I was hoping for – a bathroom. In the mirror over the basin I examined my face to find out what was happening to it.

Below and to the left of my mouth, a spot had formed. It was a juicy zit – angry red, with a creamy yellow dot expanding at its centre. It was getting bigger as I watched.

I put two fingers either side of it and got ready to squeeze. I remember thinking that when this thing popped the eruption would be a lot more convincing than anything the tacky-looking volcano outside would ever manage. But the spot didn’t pop.

It opened. An eye looked out.

The eye was small – less than half a centimetre across – but it was human. It glanced around the bathroom as if getting its bearings and then, in the mirror, it looked at me.

That was when I knew I was in trouble. It was clear to me that Meade’s world had serious problems. In fact this was the worst fail I’d ever seen.

Meade’s world wasn’t real but it had real dangers: if it collapsed while I, Meade and his family and were all still inside it, two things could happen. One was that we might die. To be honest I preferred that option. The other was that we all might lose our minds.

I had to work fast.

Concentrating, I stared back at the eye and imagined. For a long, worrying second nothing happened but then the eye closed, my skin sealed over it and it was only a zit again, getting smaller and smaller until finally it was gone.

I rubbed my chin and made a face at the mirror.

If a world is shared, it’s always got to be by consent. There can be people who are supposed to be “in charge” and maybe the world will be based on their ideas. But everyone else who lives in that world has to agree to see things in the same way. If they don’t, that’s when you get problems. You can’t force everyone to agree: there will always be resistance. If the resistance is strong enough, things fall apart.

For an imaginary world to get as messed up as Meade’s was, there was only one explanation: someone really didn’t want to be there. Maybe they were being held there against their will; maybe they just hated it. Either way, that darkness and anguish were corrupting the place, making it come apart in ways that were going to be unpredictable.

I needed answers. I decided to go ask Alice. I put my thumbs on the hearts at the corners of her card and blinked.

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.



Sam Enthoven

Chapter 1

The World

When I opened my eyes I was standing on a small grassy island in the middle of a sea. The glare of the sun reflecting off the water put the face of the man who was waiting for me into shadow: I couldn’t see him clearly at first.

‘Connor!’ he said, taking my hand and shaking it. ‘I’m Tony Meade. Welcome to my world.’

When my dazzled eyes recovered I found that Mr Meade was a short, tubby, middle-aged man with a big, proud smile on his face. He was pointing at something behind me. Obediently I turned and looked.

Floating in the air a couple of hundred metres up above the sea, tethered there by five fine silver chains, was a volcano. Beside it, also floating, was a castle. The castle was shaped like a champagne flute. It twinkled.

‘Wow,’ I said to be polite.

I wasn’t impressed. Imaginary worlds are my job. I’m called in when they fail.

Apart from Mr Meade, nothing I could see was real. The volcano, the castle, the sea, the sky, the island we stood on: all of it had come from Mr Meade’s imagination. Everything in his world was there because he had chosen it. For him this place was supposed to be a paradise, containing all he could possibly want. That was why he lived there. But something was wrong. Mr Meade’s perfect world had problems. I’d just seen my first clue to what they might be.

Away out in the water, in the shadow of the floating volcano, something slipped beneath the surface, leaving ripples.

‘What was that?’ I asked, pointing.

‘What?’ asked Meade.

‘In the water. I saw something move.’

‘Really?’ said Meade, frowning. ‘I didn’t seen anything.’

I just looked at him and waited.

‘Um, OK…’ said Meade. ‘Well, we do have creatures: dolphins, rays, things like that. That’s why the island is here. My wife and daughter and I come down here to call the creatures up and play with them. But,’ he added, ‘and I’m sorry if this sounds rude, Connor – none of them are anywhere near right now.’ He tapped his head. ‘I would know.’

‘Right,’ I said, staying polite.

‘Perhaps you imagined it.’

‘Perhaps,’ I said.

I hadn’t. I’m careful with what I imagine. I’d seen what I’d seen, and it hadn’t been dolphins or rays: what had vanished beneath the water had looked a lot to me like the dorsal fin of a shark.

‘Well,’ said Meade, all smiles again. ‘Shall we…?’

I blinked and we were in the castle.

It looked the way I was coming to expect from Meade’s world: like something from a fairytale but with some sci-fi flourishes. The main space was a tall, narrow upside-down cone of what looked like mother of pearl. It glowed with a colour that was sometimes silver and sometimes the red of fingers over torchlight. A white staircase wound upwards around the interior of the cone in a widening spiral. There was no bannister, but the void beside me was criss-crossed by glittering gossamer threads, like cobwebs, waiting to catch me if I fell. The stairwell was safe. Of course it was. Mr Meade was a family man – as he kept telling me.

‘Seven years we’ve been here,’ he was saying, ‘my wife Alice, my daughter Gemma and I. The happiest years of our lives: I know that sounds corny but it’s true. We love it here. We’ve never had a problem before, and maybe the problems lately aren’t as bad as they seem. I mean, all this just couldn’t be coming to an end – not suddenly, not like this.’ Still climbing, he turned to look back at me. ‘I appreciate your coming, Connor, but I think you’ll understand me when I say that I really, really hope I’m wasting your time.’

‘Sure,’ I told him.

He was. We hadn’t needed to take the stairs; clearly we were taking the long way up because Meade needed to talk. That would have been fine, except that all I was hearing from him was denial.

Meade was proud of the world he’d created. That it was failing was an idea he didn’t want to face.

‘Still,’ he said as (to my relief) we reached the top of the stairs, ‘it’s quite a thrill to have a visitor for once. I can’t wait to show you this...’

There was a white-painted steel hatch, like something from an old submarine: Meade spun a wheel to unlock it, and pulled.

‘We all love our aquarium,’ he said. ‘Alice and Gemma and I chose all the creatures in it together – all our old favourites from the real world. We love watching them. We never get tired of – oh.’

The hatch was now open but the scene behind it clearly wasn’t what Meade had been expecting.

It was a round room with comfy-looking velvet sofas lining the walls. At its centre was a tall glass column that had recently contained a lot of fish and other water-based creatures: now the glass was shattered and the creatures and their water were all over the floor.

Most already looked dead – just lying there lifelessly on the sodden black carpet. Some were still flopping weakly, opening and closing their mouths as if gasping for breath.

‘Oh!’ said Mr Meade again. ‘But… who could have done this? I mean, I know that none of the creatures are real – but they don’t. Every one of these animals thinks they’re alive – and now they think they’re dying! This is just… horrible!’

I was inclined to agree with him, and not only for the reason he’d mentioned: at that moment I was noticing another clue. The fish nearest me – a dark blue one with a fat lower lip that gave it a gormless expression – was doing something I didn’t like.

Spots were forming in its scales. As I watched, the spots bulged, burst then sprouted long, thin legs – four on either side of the fish’s body. The fish came upright on its eight new legs, then, like a spider, it scuttled out of sight under a sofa.

Meade didn’t seem to notice.

‘I can’t understand it,’ he was saying. ‘Gemma would never do anything like this. Nor would Alice, of course. But nobody else is here. Who could have done it? Who?’

He was blinking a lot. I saw with alarm that he was about to cry.

‘Tony,’ I said. ‘Listen to me.’

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THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.




a novella in nine chapters


Sam Enthoven

publishing here weekly each Friday, free, from Oct 16th 2015

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