‘By the end of the twenty-first century,’ Mr Meade began, ‘there were too many people for the Earth to support them anymore. The seas were all dead; the land was all used up by people and their needs. There was mass starvation. Diseases swept the globe. There were constant wars, as those with the strength and stupidity to do it fought over what was left. It was chaos. But we found a way out.’
He pointed at his head.
‘What if we could live in our minds instead? What if was possible to leave reality and spend our lives in other, better places that we could imagine for ourselves? The imagination would never run out of space or resources: the imagination was infinite. In the imagination, there would be room for everyone.
‘Getting there,’ he continued, ‘seemed like a short step. People spent half their lives in their imaginations already through stories, dreams and games. We already had the technology to create the worlds we wanted, and share them with others. So why couldn’t we live in our imaginations all the time? What was stopping us? Just one thing: our bodies.
‘It was our bodies that took up all the space. It was our bodies that needed food, warmth, shelter, light, medicine, more. Our bodies had used up the Earth. They were holding us back. To be free we had to break out. And that,’ said Mr Meade, looking at me, ‘was the deal we were offered.
‘We could either carry on as we were – crammed up against each other, starving, miserable, fighting for the final scraps. Or we could live with total control of our lives, in any way we cared to imagine – and leave our bodies behind.’
He paused. I took the opportunity to get a word in.
‘Why are you telling me this stuff, Tony?’ I asked. ‘I know all this.’
‘You know only what you’re allowed to know, Connor,’ said Mr Meade. ‘The only way you’ll know more is by hearing it from me.’
I blinked, surprised again.
‘May I continue?’ asked Mr Meade.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Thank you.’ Mr Meade bit his lip and sighed.
Around him, his world began to change.
‘I had a wife,’ he said. ‘We had a daughter. The three of us loved each other very deeply, but we were unhappy. I don’t mean to say that life in the camps was any harder on us than it was on other families: it wasn’t. It was hard on everyone. It was hard to get enough to eat and drink, and it was hard to live with any kind of dignity with so many of us packed into such a small space like we were. One day I realised that I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I thought that Gemma and Alice shouldn’t have to stand it either. So I decided we should take the deal. But there was a problem…’
‘Alice didn’t agree,’ I said.
Mr Meade scowled at me.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Please go on.’
‘The problem was Gemma,’ said Mr Meade. ‘Alice thought it wasn’t right that we should make a decision like this on her behalf. It was fine for Alice and I to leave our bodies and go live somewhere imaginary: we’d seen enough of the real world to know we wanted no part of it anymore. But Gemma was just a child: she’d barely lived, barely seen anything. To decide, for her, that we would go and never come back – to take her away from the real world forever, before she’d really had a chance to find out about it for herself? We didn’t have the right to do that to her. That’s what Alice said.
‘But,’ Mr Meade continued, ‘I didn’t listen.’
The air had got darker and thicker. The whole of the room was an aquarium now: fish scuttled up the walls on spider legs and swam, wriggling, all around us.
‘I took a decision: I went ahead and booked the operation for myself, and told Alice and Gemma what I’d done.’
Mr Meade smiled bleakly.
‘The idea was that when they saw I was serious, it would make them decide to go through with it too and come with me. It almost worked. When Alice realised there was no way she could talk me out of it, she booked the operation for two days after mine. Two days after I left, Alice and Gemma were supposed to follow me to our new home.
‘We spent my last few days in the real world deciding what we wanted our next one to be like. My job was to make sure it was all here and ready for when they arrived. Then Alice and Gemma took me to the clinic. They held my hands as the surgeons gave me the anaesthetic. I told them not to be scared, that I would see them again soon and then we would be together for the rest of our lives.’
‘I left my body and came here. I got it all just the way they wanted. But they never arrived.’
The walls of the castle had become transparent. Or perhaps it had ceased to exist: it was hard for me to tell. The floor still felt solid beneath my feet. Mr Meade was still standing just a few steps away from me, but everything else was water. Away out to my left I could see the volcano: that seemed to be underwater now too. Its fake-looking lava lit us with a low orange glow.
‘I suppose,’ said Mr Meade, ‘that Alice and Gemma must have changed their minds. Maybe they never really wanted to come with me at all: I don’t know. I waited. I kept hoping. And when my hope died and I knew I couldn’t wait any longer, I did the only other thing I could.’
‘You imagined them,’ I said.
Meade looked at me, but this time he just nodded.
‘To begin with,’ he said, ‘it was easier than I thought it would be. I remembered every detail about them that I could, and the system did the rest. It made them live and breathe. It made them love and laugh. It made them be here, exactly as if they were. I was amazed at how real they were. At first it was hard to tell the difference – and I didn’t want to. I only wanted us to be happy. And, for seven years, we were.’
‘Then what happened?’ I asked.
I wanted to hear him say it. But I already knew.
THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.