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.