BEN HAD NEVER BEEN TO Seventy Fourth Street before, or the park behind it. He had heard of it because he knew that from this road led another small road, a dead end that led to nowhere. At the far end of the road sat a regal building which had been standing for over two hundred years. Its beauty was celebrated, especially at night when the rows of purple blooming Paulownias were illuminated and romanticised by the delicate light of the ancient street lamps. The building once stood as a palatial home of a local aristocrat, who alongside his own home had built a series of coach houses where his servants lived. These coach houses lined a small road that arose from Seventy Fourth Street and now did nothing more than guild the walkway to the square and hide its beauty away from the rest of the city like a beautiful but veiled face, there but unseen. This place of beauty had been left to its own devices, and much like love, after a period without care, attention, or somebody to nurture it, became less than precious and eventually forgotten until it was past the point of recovery. History would regale how this road was purpose built to carry horse drawn coaches many years before the advent of the car, but which now carried only feet towards a crumbling backdrop of long lost decadence. He didn't much care for being here, and couldn't for the life of him think why Ami would arrange to meet him in this place. The thought that this dead end could in fact be a trap rose poisonously in his mind like air pockets escaping from a stagnant quagmire, inserting doubt upon pre-existing doubt, cairns set to lead him in the wrong direction. He acknowledged this brief moment of hesitation, but found himself accepting the fact that he had no other option, and so despite his fears steeled himself for the moments ahead.
He turned from Seventy Fourth Street and into the narrow lane. Above him were rows of poorly constructed coach houses, abandoned and no longer in use. Newspapers dating from over twenty years ago had been pasted to the windows in several layers, the deepest of which were peeling and yellow from the heat of the sun and ground with dust and grime. Before him stood the beautiful regal building, decorated with ornate iron balustrades covering the base of the long oversized windows. Underneath the Paulownias there were a series of benches that sat empty and looked rickety and partly rotten. As he approached, he saw that the park opened out to the left and to the right forming a T shape with the narrow lane that led up to it. On his first look he couldn't see anybody. He was stood beneath the trees, heavily laden with buds that looked set to burst into bloom as the temperature would surely rise next month, coaxing them out. There was no wind here, and it felt immediately warmer surrounded by the height of the buildings proudly standing tall, unashamed of their atrophy and disrepair. He was suddenly hit by an overwhelming desire to bring Hannah here, and to sit with her on the benches beneath the blossoming trees. In his vision they wouldn't speak, only sit together, needing nothing more than each other's company and the sight of Matthew playing at their feet. In his visions Matthew remained an eternal toddler, short of words and rich in love and awe for his father. It was only as he saw Matthew in his mind’s eye today, that he realised his reflections were always from the past, every vision born of a time before Bionics.
He was snatched back into reality as he heard Ami whisper his name. As he turned to the direction of the voice he saw her stood in the corner of the square. She was tucked into the shadow of the great building, and she motioned for him to sit. He sat as instructed onto the bench which was facing away from her, but he turned and gripped the panels of brittle and splintered wood in anticipation of her approach, his eyes never once leaving her face.
Ami waited hesitantly for a moment, seconds ticking by at a pace which felt as if time had become stationary, until she eventually took her first steps towards him. He could see her indecision in her cautious steps and in the way that her eyes darted left and right, occasionally looking back over her shoulder. For a moment Ben was sure that he had seen a man dart back into the shadows of the building behind Ami, but as she approached he soon found himself completely focussed on her presence, remembering why he was here and forgetting anything else. Just before she sat down next to him she took a deep and fortifying breath, and he wondered why it was that she looked so fitful and apprehensive. He followed her with his eyes, and as she sat he turned to face her. His leg and arm muscles were braced and ready to run like a watched gazelle in the African bush, aware he was being watched but still anxiously waiting, fearful that any quick and sudden departure could render him vulnerable and exposed.
Her long casual hair that he had admired on so many occasions was wrapped neatly into a bun behind her head, and she was wearing a long Macintosh that swung freely and draped open as she sat. For the first time that he could remember she was wearing trousers. She appeared different from his memory, beautiful still, but rather than the softly painted vision that he kept close in his mind, it was a harder edged reality in which she appeared sharply focused and dangerous.
"Ben, there isn't much time. You have to listen to me carefully."
"Hang on Ami." This was his first chance to try to find out what the hell was going on, and if there wasn't much time he sure as hell wasn't going to hand it straight over to her. "Before you start, I need to ask you something."
"No Ben. You need to listen." This woman looked like Ami, but for the first time he could detect a slight accent in her voice. It reminded him of Mr. Saad, the man who was trying to fund his continued research programme. This was the first time she had demanded anything.
"No, no. Ami wait. Listen. I have to ask you some things."
"There will be a time for your questions but it isn't now. At the moment your questions will get us both killed." He didn't interrupt her again and he sat with his arms obediently dropped into his lap, his muscles limp and helpless, sun melted candles, leaves starved of water. "Ben, everything that has happened to you over the last few hours was not supposed to happen. It should already be over. We are only lucky that it is not." Ben's mouth dropped open in shock. Lucky? He didn't feel too damn lucky. "You should already be dead."
"I know that. Somebody tried to shoot me at the lab."
"I'm not referring to the lab. You were never supposed to wake up today. They started it much quicker than I anticipated. If I had known I would have found a way to tell you at the bar."
"What bar? What did they start? Anyway, who are they" Ami wasn't making much sense to him. "Is this about Mark?"
"Ben, who do you think you work for?"
"You work for the government. Bionics is just the public face of the Office of Scientific Weaponry Development. OSWED."
"Yes, but not the one you see on the television, or in the newspaper. It's the same one, but it's the side of it that nobody knows about."
"Ami there is only one government."
"That's what I just said. There is the government that you see, the one that stands up and leads the country with clean hands, the one that can deny that certain things ever happened because they don't even know about it. They are public puppets. They are the ones that don't have to lie. Then there are the rest of us. The people that nobody knows about. The people that do what you might call dirty work."
"Ami, you're a scientist."
"Correct. But I don't work for you. I work for OSWED. They are supposed to be the people that keep you safe. It's supposed to be about intelligence and development. They believe it is what makes your Great Country so great.” Ben could hear a certain level of sarcasm coming through in her newly accented voice. "We work outside of standard military intelligence. We don't exist, at least as far as the rest of the world knows. That counts for the rest of the staff at Bionics."
"You're telling me that I work for a secret government agency, and that all of the staff I work with knew nothing about it except for you? What have you done with them? What happened to my research?"
"NO. Start paying attention Ben. You're the only one that doesn't know anything about it. Why do you think the lab and all of the staff have disappeared? The mission was complete. Your theory had been proven and NEMREC worked." She could detect the surprise on his face, the inability to understand as his mouth hung limply open. She wished that she could spare him the details, but she had to be honest. If ever there was a time it was now. "You were already supposed to be dead."
"What the hell!"
"They knew how good you were. They targeted you. They knew you would succeed so they started to control everything about you. They wanted your brilliance in the palm of their hand, and they did everything they could to get it. Your friends, your wife, your whole life. It's a set up Ben. It was all about getting NEMREC. You did it. They don't need you anymore."
"You're saying my whole life is a set up? That's bullshit Ami!" He was up and off the bench now, arms flailing like compliant branches in the wind without any control over their own movement. Who the hell does she think she is? Mark? Hannah? Matthew? She had to be lying.
"It's not bullshit. It's the truth. It's the first truthful thing you have heard in years. You discovered how to change people's DNA Ben. You know what they can do with that kind of knowledge." She was up on her feet now too, trying to make contact with him and reaching out for his arms as he span around, propelled by the inertia of disbelief. "I'm trying to cure disease, Ami not make weapons for your government."
"Your government, Ben. You might not be trying to make weapons but OSWED are. They want the ability to change DNA to build a stronger army. An elite force. They don't want to manufacture pharmaceuticals to cure Huntington's disease like you do. They want to make a stronger army and build weapons. They want people to be their weapons, and you have given them everything they need."
"And you?" He was stood still staring straight at her. "Why are you helping me if you work for them?" She sat down onto the bench, her head bowed. For a moment he thought he could see tears forming in her dark almond eyes.
"I want what you want, Ben." She turned her head up to look at him, and her eyes looked swollen and set to burst. "My father is dying. So am I. I want a chance to live to grow old." The pain in her face, in her blurry eyes and crumpled brow was a feeling that he recognised. He understood the feelings that she described, and he felt them every day in every one of his mutated cells. Her words could have been his own, his own feelings, his own hopes, his own aspirations. Any fears he had, any caution for the woman before him had passed. He saw his own reflection in her glassy eyes as he contemplated her sadness and regret. It softened him and he sensed the need for truth and trust, believing in the freedom and strength that it offered.
"Ami, why am I not dead already?"
"I don’t know. You should be. What she gave you should have been enough to kill you?"
"What who gave me?" He saw that same sense of pity on her face, as she wiped away a tear from her cheek. He traced his thoughts back to when he passed out on his settee, how he assumed he had merely been drunk, and how he had been dragged up the stairs, and how he had slept for thirty six hours, and how he had been sick, and how it was still there the next morning, and the next morning, and how Hannah hadn't been home. Suddenly he had visions of her as a spy carrying a gun and speaking in Russian on a foreign mission and seducing people to steal data chips, right before he reminded himself that the explanation that he had conjured up seemed utterly ridiculous. Yet still he said it. "You think Hannah tried to kill me?"
"No Ben. I know she tried to kill you. She poured you champagne, it was drugged. That's why you feel so awful now." She sat down on the bench, steadying herself, and attempting also to steady Ben, hoping that their current connection was enough to pull him towards her. Skin on skin, a real connection. She knew they had felt it before, and she hoped he felt it now.
"I threw up." He thought back to the pile of sick on the floor and couldn't remember ever being so pleased that he had been ill. He tried again to remind himself of the absurdity of her accusations, but found that the more time that passed and the more he listened to himself, the dismissal of her theory didn't seem quite so easy.
"Then that's why you're still here."
"Ami. What do they want from me?"
"They want you dead, Ben. It's their only aim. To them," she paused apologetically before she finished her sentence, "you already are. There is no record of your life anymore. It's not like you died, it's like you never existed."
"Ami, will you help me?” She nodded reassuringly. After everything that had happened this morning he had only one other question. "Ami, where have they taken my son?"