‘Gemma got older,’ said Mr Meade. ‘She had to: kids do. She had to start asking questions. She had to know why she couldn’t be with anyone her own age. She had to ask about leaving, and I had to tell her she couldn’t. I had to imagine all those things for her. They were inevitable. But the problem wasn’t just her.
‘The more time passed,’ he continued, ‘the more I started to worry that I couldn’t properly imagine either of them. As the years went by I understood that the real Alice, too, just like Gemma, would have changed in ways I would never have been able to predict – but my Alice and Gemma, the ones who lived here, could only change in ways that I could imagine for them. It was like they were limited by me. Sometimes I even felt like I was holding them back.’
He spread his hands.
‘Now, Connor,’ he said, ‘do you see my problem?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘For your wife and daughter to continue to exist, they could never be allowed to guess that they weren’t real. That must have made things very difficult for you.’
‘I had to make myself believe in them,’ said Meade. ‘Even though I knew they weren’t real: I had to act as though everything was fine. If I ever gave them the slightest clue that things weren’t as they seemed, it would have been like killing them.’
I knew what he meant.
‘It would also,’ said Mr Meade, ‘have meant admitting to myself the truth: that I’d been wrong to imagine them here. That they would never be part of my world.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t face that – not then. So I thought of another solution.’
He looked at me. By now the volcano had vanished too. We were standing in darkness except for a low greenish glow that seemed to come from Mr Meade himself.
‘I needed someone,’ he said, ‘to come here and prove to me my problem. I needed someone tough and cool and thorough, who would investigate the situation here and reach the only possible conclusion about its causes. I needed someone who could make me face up to what I’ve done.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘you called me.’
‘But Connor,’ said Mr Meade, ‘that’s not quite how it happened, is it? There’s one more thing that you haven’t admitted to yourself either, isn’t there?’
Now, at last, I began to get frightened.
‘I didn’t want an outsider,’ said Mr Meade, his glowing eyes staring straight into mine. ‘I couldn’t have some stranger come here and force me to confess my secrets, could I? That’s why this world has never had visitors. That’s why,’ he added, ‘the only real person who’s ever been here is me.’
‘What about me?’ I asked him, still trying not to believe it. ‘I’m real. I’m here.’
Mr Meade smiled.
‘Denial,’ he said. ‘It’s always the first response.’
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I had nothing to say.
I’d known all along, I realised. I’d known when I’d failed to contact headquarters. I’d known when I’d failed to remember my life before I came to this world.
I had never existed outside it. There was no me, except for what Mr Meade had imagined.
I looked down at my hands. They were already gone. So was the rest of my body. But something of me remained: I could still see Mr Meade standing there in watery darkness lit only by the glow that came from himself.
‘Goodbye, Connor,’ he said. ‘I’m grateful to you. You did exactly what I imagined you would do. So I’ll do you a favour. As I finish this, I’ll let you watch.’
He stretched his arms out to either side of himself like he’d been crucified. Then he started to disappear.
It began in his fingers and the tips of his toes: they faded like a dream. His hands and feet went next, then the nothingness started to climb his arms and legs. It was as if schools of invisible flesh-eating fish were consuming him from the extremities inwards. His limbs vanished. His torso shrank. Soon there was nothing left of him but his head. Then that began to disappear as well.
Mr Meade was smiling as his face went: the bare teeth left beneath still looked like a grin. His eyes seemed to get bigger for a moment as their lids and brows dissolved to nothing, giving him a strange, temporary expression of surprise before the eyeballs went too. His skull hung there in the darkness for a moment, still glowing from what was inside it. Then that shrank and vanished and the real Mr Meade – and the only real thing about me – was revealed.
There was a brain. Except for a few tubes and wires attached to it, it was naked.
Brains don’t take up much space – not compared to a whole human body. Brains don’t require much energy – about the same as an old-fashioned lightbulb. It was a brutal solution to the problem of human overpopulation and overcrowding but, for now, it worked: in his mind Mr Meade could live out his life in a luxury that the richest person in the real world could only dream of. The system would give him everything he wanted – nearly.
The watery darkness shimmered and then I saw the last thing I ever would – that Mr Meade’s brain was surrounded by more, from other people who’d made the same decision. There were billions of brains floating there, dreaming their dreams, living the best lives they could imagine.
Were any of them happy?
I would never know.
I wasn’t there.
THE FAIL by Sam Enthoven (c) 2015. All rights reserved.