Continued from part one…
I closed and locked the door and carefully navigated down the 3 worn – fading, pink concrete steps and onto a path that had more cracks in it than my face did, with at least 3 generations of weeds trying to completely cover the narrow path. The path and I had a lot more in common than I’d like to admit; both of us had exceeded our usefulness and both of us were rarely seen. Both of us had once been laid down with love.
The only other surprise, other than the ambulance in my driveway was the driver who jumped out to greet me.
It was Max; every present smile on his face – not condescending exactly, but seemingly very sure of himself and in a medic uniform of sorts. In the passenger seat, less confident and not as smiley was Steve. He waved and said, “hi Ollie.”
“Hi Steve, and hello Max,” I shook Max’s hand and he gently guided me to the back of the ambulance as though we were two long lost friends about to go for a stroll.
Inside, was a setting that I would never have expected in the back of an ambulance. There was an armchair, a small desk, a fridge, well-decorated walls – a picture of a Seaview and it was carpeted in a dark beige – high-quality carpet. Beside the armchair was a comical smaller version of the armchair. Max pulled down a small step-ladder and guided me up to the inside of the van and carefully – while crouching, into the waiting armchair which swallowed me as soon as I sat on it. I’d never experienced such a comfortable seat. If I’d died in that moment, I would have died quite comfortably.
Max advised me that he was going to strap me in, holding his hands up to show he meant no ‘funny business’ and carefully pulled a seat belt across and clipped me in. He stepped back and nodded, as though he’d personally decorated the van himself and was seeing his excellent handiwork for the first time.
He jumped out and closed one door, then said something to someone, and moved out of sight. Two doors closed, Steve jumped in the back of the van and closed the door behind him, then came over and shook my hand. Not to the same level as Max, but he smiled and intentionally nodded hello. He then took the seat next to me and strapped himself in.
“Ok, Max,” he said, then opened the fridge and pulled out a small vial and a needle. He put a strap on me, tapped my elbow, thumbed a vein, wiped it with a antiseptic cloth and gently inserted the needle.
“Sorry Ollie…nearly there…” he said reassuringly.
Then used his mouth to open the vial bottle and pushed it into the back of the syringe, then hoisted the contents onto a small hanging hook I hadn’t noticed before. The fluid was golden and looked more like honey. I didn’t ask what was in the bottle. Not because I didn’t care, but because whatever journey I’d accepted and signed away, was no longer under my control.
Steve talked about the science – in far too much detail than my poor shrinking brain could handle, and so I found my eyes grew heavy too quickly and my body relaxed too much in the most comfortable armchair I’d ever been on. Within seconds, I plummeted into a very deep sleep.
It might have been days, but was highly likely less than a few hours, I woke up as the van stopped and Steve and Max used a pulley system to lift the armchair, almost to the point where my head might have touched the roof of the van, and it moved towards them and out of the van and into an enormous warehouse.
Two women, young – pretty, smiling and courteous, introduced themselves. I tried to raise my hand and be polite, but found that both arms, and legs for that matter, were completely asleep. I could move them with an effort but found that I didn’t want to move anything. I could barely smile and must have looked like a twat. Nobody seemed to care as they remotely brought the armchair down and it automatically settled gently on a cargo carrier. The armchair laid back completely into a bed and it began to move forward again. I watched the high ceilings and wondered where the hell I was, as I was moved through this huge metallic cavern. My eyes couldn’t stay open, so I closed them and returned to my slumber without effort.
It took me awhile to realise I was in a dream. I was back at work, in the centre of London – Holborn and my colleagues and I were congratulating ourselves on the praise online of our latest campaign. My boss – ever crabby and sour – came over to congratulate us on our ‘win’ and warned us that success was fleeting and we were only as good as our last campaign.
The strangest part was that my boss was no longer the ready-to-retire asshole I’d worked closely with for the better part of 15 years, he was a lot younger and a lot more handsome than I ever recall. The other strange detail was that he was searing white running shoes with pulled up socks, a fashion that was reserved more for the ‘Shoreditch Hipsters’ than the creatives over a certain age and of a particular demographic.
“You look different, Adam,” I said.
“Ollie…oh, Ollie. You simple fool. You’ll never realise that I was always this way, you just chose to see me as older.” As though to prove a point, he turned to the side and I saw he was wearing a mask. Underneath that mask, from a side view, I shrank back as I realised the horror of his face was nothing like the mask. It was brutally disfigured, not just old, but burned and deformed. He looked more like a bloody skeleton and nothing like the hipster. His trainers were black and dirty, and his socks were torn and old and faded. I ran from my desk and where the lifts should have been, I found a brightly lit corridor leading into a large hospital room filled with many beds. On each of the beds were many men and women, all of them old; all of them asleep.
In the first bed, I saw my boss – Adam. His eyes were closed, though I could still recognise him. Next to him were other colleagues, who should have been younger, but they’d aged a great deal in the minute or so since I’d walked away. Then my sister was there; still young and beautiful as she’d always seemed to me, but then her hands – they were wrinkled bony and she seemed so much thinner than I’d remembered her being. She smiled, and I saw that her teeth were yellowed and half of them were missing. She seemed not to notice, her eyes sparked with mischief and a vibrancy for life regardless. She lightly turned, almost pirouetting and spun off as she called for me to join her.
As I stepped off, I realised I was on a tightrope but seemed to have this sudden ability to walk it with ease. My hands were young again and I had an agility that I’d forgotten. I began to chase her as I ran on the rope, she laughed and cartwheeled ahead of me – always a few meters ahead. I saw my ex-fiancé, who’d died many years before – laughing and playing with my sister. Others joined in; I recognised most of them. Laughing, chatting excitedly, dancing and spinning and somersaulting and acting like children.
Then it hit me. When I looked behind me at the bodies in the beds, they were of the people dancing ahead of me. Then I saw my body, as it was the last time I’d looked in a mirror. Then the pain was back, the foggy memory, the burning in my veins and the waiting for death.
I opened my eyes and looked into two of the most beautiful coloured blue beacons I’d ever seen. A small, white circle around a black iris, and lots of little white lines that stretched across the light blue. The whites of the eyes were so perfectly healthy and clear, surrounded by perfectly formed Caucasian eyes and a radiance that was curious and confident.
“Welcome to our home, Oliver Martin Beaconsfield,” a small, perfectly formed mouth said. She moved away, and I saw that her face was beautiful in a traditional, western way. Blonde, defined cheekbones, studious but charismatic demeanour and fit. She wore a lab coat and a name badge which read, “Susannah Montreal”.
I looked down and saw that I was in light-grey pyjamas and white socks and that I’d been transferred to a hospital gurney. The small room was similar to a hospital but much more comfortable. Instead of sterile walls with tiles and cupboards, there were pictures of oceans and mountains with some limited shelves. I felt like it was less of a hospital and more of an Ikea showroom. If Ikea showrooms had labs, that is.
Doctor Montreal insisted that I call her Susannah and was quick to assure me that ‘we were all friends here and in this together’.
“I’m sorry we drugged you. You’ll understand why in a little bit. It’s important that we keep our location secret,” she put her hands together almost in prayer as she accentuated her words.
I just nodded, not really trusting my mouth, and not just because it was dryer than an Australian summer.
“Shortly, you’ll feel wide awake, so I’ll take you to a short presentation on what we’ve done so far, it’s truly exciting!” she clapped her hands and her eyes lit up, “…and we can all have lunch together after that and you can ask questions.”
Once more, I nodded and tried to smile – hoping it wasn’t a grimace.
Then my mind woke up. It was like the sun had come up inside my mind, after a very long period of darkness. It wasn’t just awake, it was alert; aware of everything at once. I hadn’t experienced such clarity in… I couldn’t even remember when that was.
I wanted to sit up and say something but the usual pains that I got when I first woke up, were back. Getting up could take a while so I started to warm up my hands and feet and tense them, ready for the excruciating pain that was my usual waking world. Only this time, I didn’t have the fog to hide behind. No clouds to mask the harsh pain that came with old age. To make things worse, I recalled being told that I wouldn’t be able to take any of my usual pain meds anymore, so this pain was going to be pretty bad.
It was worse than ever.
Susannah helped me up and stood by patiently while my body adjusted to standing. I looked around me, stunned by how clear my thoughts were and my perception of everything. Even as I registered the pain coming from my veins, my muscles, my bones and lower back, I slowly turned to register everything.
“Think you can take a walk with me?” She asked me and held out her arm as support. I took it and leaned on her more than I wanted to but realised I had no choice. It was either sit back down or brace myself and deal with it. I gritted my teeth and waited for the extremity of the pain to subside.
I began to walk, slowly, then we exited a door that whooshed aside like something from a Star Trek ship. I wanted to make a comment, but Susannah laughed – a musical sound that sounded so natural yet was something I hadn’t heard much in recent years – and said, “we’re trying not to be a bad sci-fi set here.”
I did chuckle, albeit inwardly, and allowed Susannah to move me through a large open space where a man and woman were looking up at a screen and pointing to something. It was a group of cells on one side and a photograph of some teeth in a photo on the right, that had been zoomed in on a projector on the wall. The quality was so sharp that I almost thought I was walking into the jaws of some unseen human predator.
When the doors whooshed shut, the two looked at us and smiled at Susannah, then looked at me with curiosity. The man put his pen down and walked towards me, smiling, “hi Ollie, I’m Aaron, really nice to meet you. Welcome to our home.”
I shook Aaron’s hand and whispered, “thanks,” but wasn’t sure if he heard me. He didn’t seem too bothered. He had a small scar on his left cheek that made it easier to assign his name to him and better remember it. Tips from Alzheimer’s patients.
The stern looking woman beside the man seemed friendly enough as she introduced herself as ‘Moira’ and shook my hand, giving me the impression she was eager to resume her work.
Susannah excused us and told them we’d see them at lunch and were off on a small tour.
As we politely excused ourselves and left their area, Susannah warned me that our ‘home’ was quite big, and that we’d just cover some of the key areas. There was going to be plenty of time to explore in coming days.
“Why did you guys pick me up in the ambulance?” I asked Susannah, hoping she’d level with me. I added, “isn’t it going to look more conspicuous?”
With a small smile and a nod, she said, “yep, “but…it also provides legitimacy if you don’t return home. An ambulance took you away, and perhaps you didn’t make it…”
I smiled thinly, not quite certain how I felt about the realisation that not returning home would be an almost certain reality.
In another area, I saw a meeting room with several people standing around a long bar table. Susannah walked to the frosted glass – which had a intricately detailed pattern of a clock, and knocked on the door, she opened it and held it wide.
“Excuse the intrusion, everyone. May I present Oliver Beaconsfield?” she intentionally stood in the way so that nobody thought to get up and start with the shaking hands business.
“We’ll all get better chance to introduce ourselves properly to Ollie – as he prefers to be called, later.” It struck me that so much of my conversation with Max and Steve had been relayed to people in this facility.
Everyone smiled and waved, and I recognised Steve in the audience, who smiled politely and waved too. We left the meeting room and Susannah gave me a detailed brief on the current meeting. While I didn’t understand exactly what they were working on, I knew enough to know it was breaking medical research.
“Our research is centred around Telomeres shortening,” she said.
I slowed down, and looked at her, grabbing her arm without realising I was doing it. She didn’t flinch but her ever-present smile let me know she was prepared for my questions.
“I know, I know…you’ve been reading that in order to extend life, we need to lengthen the Telomeres,” she added, as we continued to walk through a brilliant white corridor that led to a huge steel door, with a steering wheel that looked more like the opening to a submarine. “The Telomeres research is a long topic, so let’s leave that for later.” It wasn’t a suggestion, of that I was sure.
There were two panels on either side of the wheel and a small window with blue light. She pressed a key combination on one side, while using a badge from her pocket on the other one and simultaneously looked up at the camera which had swivelled down to us. The camera must have approved because the lights went green and the large door resounded with a large click, before slowly detaching itself and swinging towards us.
We stepped back and looked into the eeriest room I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes.
“It’s a form of ultra violet light,” Susannah explained as we stepped into the blue room. The door clanged shut behind us, but the sound was much softer on that side and we hardly noticed it. It’s quite calming and promotes healing. There are species of insects which produce substances that are affected by it,” she added as I realised that the glass around us was a sort of terrarium filled with bees.
“Oh wow!” I exclaimed. I hadn’t meant to be so vocal, but the realisation seemed a bit of a shock. I leaned on Susannah again and realised I hadn’t needed her assistance for some time.
I’d once been in an underwater aquarium, in which I was surrounded by a variety of exotic fish. The feeling was a natural curiosity and wonder at the world around us and a feeling that I’d somehow crept in to a private world that I wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to witness. That’s how I felt as I looked around me at this world of bees. There were rockeries and trees and flowers and what looked like a healthy bio-system.
“Our bees here are very important to the research and the outcome of the tests. No, let me correct that, they’re absolutely vital to it! Without them, we’d still be fumbling in the dark. It’s quite miraculous how nature works, really…” she seemed to trail off, and for a moment I saw her as the scientist who was curious about the world enough to want to better it, or at least prolong it for others. Whether she was remembering something or simply thinking about the wondrous world surrounding us, I couldn’t tell, though I was happy to let her wallow in it while I thought about the thousands of bees and the enormous setup in this man-made cave. The length of the circular room must have been about 20 meters. While we were the only ones inside the room, I noticed towards the other end that a figure in protective clothing was inside the tank. Then I realised it wasn’t a person, it was a robot!
“We have a number of them; doing mundane tasks that save us a lot of time,” Susannah said, having just snapped out of her reverie.
“That’s pretty impressive,” I said, not wanting to also add that it was an expensive but also impressive one too.
She sensed my curiosity and added, “our funding is quite generous at the moment, because we’ve produced results. Finally,” she added.
The robot was busy fiddling with some canisters and performing tasks I couldn’t imagine, though I did notice it wasn’t on legs but on a wheel system.
We walked slowly through the room, side by side, as I no longer felt the need for Susannah’s physical support.
“You’ll have many questions, but it will take days for you
to understand some of how we’ve come this far and probably a lot longer than
you expect to get your head around it.”
As the room was round, there was no other end per se, however, at a point that felt like half-way, there were other doors similar to the one we used to enter. Susannah led us towards one of these and used the previous method of identifying herself.
We exited into an ambient corridor with equidistantly spaced doors. Each of these had names on them.
“These are our living quarters; they’re very nice.”
We walked, with Susannah linking her arm inside mine, more for the act of comradeship than to steady me, but either way, I was beginning to warm to her.
It had been a long time since a young woman had been so physically close to me and I had no idea how to react.
I let her lead me past a large number of doors, through a seemingly endless corridor that slowly curved around what must have been the world’s largest scientific facility.
We slowed down, then stopped outside a door. My breath caught in my throat and I wheezed, then coughed.
“Hey…you ok Ollie?” Susannah asked with obvious concern.
I nodded and patted my lungs – forcing a smile to reassure her that I was fine, before returning my attention to the door plaque.
End of part two.
Thanks for reading another Fox Emerson tale