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