A large domed building appeared on their right and Talbot turned the sports car into a half empty car park. After leaving the car, Anu led him along to a small side door. She frisked a swipe card and the door slid open.
“I’m allowed to come here because of my studies,” she said,
She ignored two guards and led Talbot into an elevator. They ascended for an amazingly long time before the elevator stopped and the door slid open. Inside was a modern room. Row upon row of books stretched out in front of them. Talbot frowned. The place was crowded with people, mostly students by the look of them, who sat in tables or wandered up and down the aisles.
“It’s crowded,” he said. “I’ll look for a spare table.”
Anu swung around, her forehead lined with a frown. “What did you say Talbot?”
“I didn’t expect it to be crowded, that’s all.”
Anu continued to frown. “But it’s not, Talbot. It’s never crowded. That’s why I enjoy coming here.”
Talbot blinked as Anu walked right through the middle of a circle of laughing students.
“Oh excuse me!” one girl muttered sarcastically as she stepped back to stop avoid being bumped.
Talbot walked around the group and caught up to his friend.
Anu gazed at him. “Were you just joking about the crowd?” she asked.
“No. There are people everywhere. That girl didn’t appreciate it when you just about knocked her over.”
The group of students behind them roared with laughter when the girl muttered something insulting about Blues and nodded at Anu.
“Oh hush up,” Talbot called out. “We’re sorry we almost knocked you over but the racial slur isn’t appreciated.”
“Talbot,” Anu gasped. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Sorry. That girl is a bitch.”
Anu stopped. She was slightly taller than he was and gaped down at him, her blue eyes intense. “There’s no girl there, Talbot. The only three other people in the room are the librarian behind her desk and two security guards.”
“Rubbish. The place is packed.”
Anu seized his arm and guided him to an empty table. Funny, he thought two guys were there seconds before. They sat down opposite each other and she gripped both his hands,
“What exactly do you see, Talbot?” she whispered.
“A noisy room filled with students, a stern faced librarian, half a dozen men in business suits and the security guards you mentioned.”
“Why, what do you see?”
“The room is deadly quiet, Talbot. The librarian is reading and the security guards look bored. There’s nobody else here.”
“I’m hallucinating again, aren’t I?”
“I think it’s more than that, Talbot. I think we both are.”
“So we both see different things?”
“What about this room?”
“Ignore the people and describe it.”
Talbot did and Anu nodded. “Yes, that’s what I see so except for the people we appear to see the same room. What other sensations do you have?”
“What do you mean?”
“You mentioned noise. What other things can you smell or sense?”
“The air is stuffy from all the people.”
“To me it’s fresh and smells of cleaning materials.”
“You smell nice, Anu.”
Anu smiled. “My new perfume. That’s real enough.”
“I like your new shorts and jersey.”
“Talbot I’m wearing a top and skirt. You’re the one in shorts.”
“Oh moon,” Talbot gasped again. “I’ve got jeans on, Anu.”
“I’m right. Both of us are seeing different things.”
“But other things are real, this library for example.”
Anu’s hands trembled slightly. “Want to try an experiment. Talbot?” she asked.
“You still have that Band-Aid I placed over that round lump on your neck. Take it off and try to pull your lump out slightly.”
Anu reached forward and pulled the Band-Aid off. The wound beneath had stopped bleeding but still felt sore. Talbot moved his left hand up and managed to grip the solid lump between his thump and first finger.
“Let me.” the girl whispered.
Talbot let go and felt her cold fingers against his skin. Anu’s fingers pinched slightly but there was no other pain.
The girl squeezed and pulled.
“That’s great… Oh shit!”
A distinct clink vibrated through his head. He shut his eyes in an automatic reaction but immediately opened them again.A sink of musty air engulfed him, the lights went out and one bare bulb swung down from an ancient ceiling. It felt ten degrees colder than a second before.
“Are you okay, Talbot?”
Talbot saw Anu’s worried face. She looked beautiful but different. The blue jersey and shorts were gone, too. She was dressed in a clean white but well-worn blouse and a faded blue skirt worn by women three decades earlier.
“I’m okay but I see everything different again. Even you are different.”
Talbot gazed around. In a low voice he described everything. They were in the same room but it looked ancient. Rows upon rows of books were covered in dust. In the shadows above the one light bulb spider webs hung everywhere. The place smelt damp and he could hear the drip, drip, drip of water.
“Are there any people around?”
“I can see your blouse and skirt but they look old fashioned, like those of my mother’s generation and…”
“My clothes are brand new, Talbot,” Anu gasped.
“Oh moon,” Talbot gasped.
He ran a hand over his face. “I’ve got a beard yet I shaved this morning and my clothes are all tatty and need to be cleaned.”
“Hang on, Talbot.” Anu reached out and touched his neck.
He heard a click, found his eyes shut and opened them again to find everything back as it was.
“Yes. Back to normal.”
“I pushed that lump back. It seems to click inside a tiny holder.”
“This is scary, Anu.”
“I think you saw the real world, Talbot. The one we see now is the fake one. That’s why you and I see different things.”
“You were there, Anu. So was this room but it seemed to be hundreds of years old.”
“We’re real, the room is here but everything else is an delusion. Perhaps our whole lives are an illusion. Your life and mine could be entirely different.”
“But we’re real and together.”
“Perhaps our subconscious can only be altered so far. At some point our real selves vetoes the suggestions implanted on our mind.”
So what do we do?'” Talbot asked.
“Take me into the real world you’ve found.”
“But how? If I go back, won’t I just be talking to an hallucination or at the best, the real you with no memory of us here right now?”
“I don’t think it’s like that. We talked and you told me about my clothes, your beard and this room in an old decrypted condition.”
“But you couldn’t see it.”
“No but if I pulled my lump out I probably would.”
Talbot frowned. “It’s too risky. It’s firmly embedded and you could bleed to death if we tried to shift it. It took a fair wallop to dislodge mine.”
Anu shook her head. “I’ll take the risk.”
“But I won’t. Look Anu, even if everything we’ve learned is only half right we are possibly the only people alive in this city, country or wherever we are.”
“So in that case, the beings in charge would help. If they wanted us brought together to they wouldn’t allow me to die.”
“Unless they can’t physically touch us. If you were bleeding, not even a doctor in our hallucinations would be able to help.”
“So you will need to be very careful, Talbot,” Anu whispered. “I want you to cut the thing out.”