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Max Arena

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Max Arena

 

by

 

Jamie Doyle

 

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2013 Jamie Doyle

 

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For my wife because I love her…

 

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Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

Contents

 

11:10pm, 31st December. The Arena

7:06pm, 30th June (6 months earlier). Discovery

11:28am. 1st July. Canberra, Australia (the next morning). A New Friend

1st July (15 minutes later). A New Enemy

9:57am, 2nd July (the next day). Kris

3pm, 2nd July (later the same day). Isolation

10am, 4th July (2 days later). Trials and Politics

8pm, 4th July (later that night). Sheikh Abdullah

11pm, 4th July (later that night). Fear

8am, 5th July (the next morning). Compassion

10:30am, 12th July (7 days later). Fractionation

9pm, 12th July (later that night). The Truth

Noon, 16th July (4 days later). Skirmish

Noon, 20th July (4 days later). Spiralling Downwards

5:30pm, 21st July (the next day). Team Max

11:45am. 22nd July (the next day). A Spark

Noon, 29th July (7 days later). Revelation

4pm, 29th July (later that afternoon). Rules of Engagement

10pm, 29th July (later that night). Trouble on the Fenceline

3am, 2nd August (3 days later). Prophecy

10am, 2nd August (later that morning). Evacuation

5pm, 2nd August (later that same day). Dread

9am, 5th August (3 days later). Light and Pancakes

4pm, 5th August (later that day). Secret Flame

10pm, 5th August (later that night). Faith

8am, 7th August (2 days later). Unveiled

9pm, 7th August (later that night). The World Sees

2pm, 15th August (8 days later). Maximum Exposure

10pm, 15th August (later that night). Boys’ Night

4:30pm, 10th September (almost 1 month later). Rescue

4th October (almost 1 month later). Peace

5pm, 4th October (later that afternoon). Unleashed

11pm, 6th October (2 days later). Not Ever

9am, 13th October (1 week later). Steel In Hand

12:30pm, 14th October (1 day later). Everything

7:30am, 12h November (1 month later). Arena Plans

3am, 22nd November (10 days later). Maternal Vision

Noon, 1st December (8 days later). Christmas Hope

Noon, 1st December (same time). Together We Win

9pm, 1st December (later that night). The Pain of a Good Man

4:30am, 2nd December (the next morning). Dawn

1pm, 17th December (15 days later). Committed

9pm, 17th December (later that night). Crumbling

5pm, 29th December (12 days later). It Makes You…Human

5pm, 31st December (2 days later). Final Reflections

11pm, 31st December (6 hours later). Clash of Blades

11:20pm, 31st December. Impenetrable

11:40pm, 31st December. Warlord

12:25pm, 1st January. Glimmer

THE END

Who Is Jamie Doyle?

Also By Jamie Doyle?

 

 

11:10pm, 31st December. The Arena

 

Max crouched on all fours, looking down to see his own blood drip and splash on the lush, green grass of the arena surface. The stadium crowd and in fact the whole world had disappeared behind a white fog, impenetrable and silent. He knew his wife and children were out there and with him in spirit, but right now, right here, he was alone and that was okay. That was how he needed it to be.

He had just taken a battering and needed to focus. Max wasn’t hurt, not really. If he survived the night, the shallow gash on his forehead would heal quickly enough. Max certainly wasn’t scared either. In fact, he now knew exactly what he had to do to get through this bout. He had wondered for the past six months what it would really be like in the arena. The chaos of the crowd. The atmosphere beneath the lights. Even the feel of the humid night air. All of it he had wondered about, but now Max knew and on top of that, he also knew how to beat this foe.

Looking up, he saw his instrument of victory. The fog receded a little to reveal his sword, skewered into the ground like the Excalibur of legend. The perfectly smithed blade glittered beneath the stadium lights, its perfection belying its lethal capacity to kill. All Max had to do now was rise to his feet, walk the handful of metres towards it and take hold of the hilt. With the blade in his hand, he would have victory secured.

Max knew that his foe was bearing down on him from behind, mistakenly sensing that he was wounded and vulnerable. Without rushing, almost casually, Max straightened and rose firmly to his feet. Pausing slightly, he then stepped forwards and in a few paces reached his destination. He looked down at the weapon and paused again. His mind imagined him reaching down and grasping the leather strapped grip. Then Max imagined pulling it effortlessly clear of the turf and twisting it to hold it upright in front of his face, his second hand coming up to rest on the hilt directly beneath his other. Mentally, Max could feel the surprising lightness of the weapon. He could also see the keen, double edge with twin glimmers of light rippling along them. Max could even feel the weight of the humidity infused air, the hair on his arms and legs cloyed with the slight bead of sweat. He was ready.

Reaching down with his right hand, Max repeated his imagined scene in real life. A moment later he was standing with the sword in front of his face, his gaze watching the light play down the blade edges. His foe was almost upon him. The sound of the crowd started to diffuse back through the steadily thinning fog. The world was coming back to him, or perhaps he was coming back to the world.

Looking up into the crowd, the fog receded further to show a section of the stadium, a private viewing booth, mid way up the stand. Its floor to ceiling glass framed three figures huddled together, looking down on him like an angel and two cherubs. His wife and their two beautiful children. There they were. Every reason in the world he needed to live was standing there looking over him. Now Max was really ready.

Behind him, Max’s foe was launching into the air, preparing to strike him down. His fingers gripped the hilt of his sword even tighter. The noise of the crowd roared back into his senses and the green grass of the arena sprang back into clarity. Stepping lightly, but firmly back onto the ball of his left foot, Max spun, sword slicing the air. It was time to fight. It was time to live.

 

7:06pm, 30th June (6 months earlier). Discovery

 

Max gently laid his sleeping three your old son down on the bed and pulled the sheet over him. He then reached across and grabbed the stuffed doggy from the other side of the mattress and tucked it into his boy’s floppy embrace. Straightening up, Max looked down at the little boy and the tiniest of smiles curled the corners of his mouth.

A soft hand laid itself on Max’s shoulder and without looking around, he reached up and rested his own hand on his wife’s. Together they held their little boy in a lingering gaze before turning to switch off the bedroom light and leave the room.

‘The little man played hard today,’ Max said as he walked into the small kitchen of their apartment.

‘Both him and his sister,’ his wife said as she walked into the living room to flick on the television. ‘She passed out just as quick as him. She’s already snoring next door.’

Max smiled as he started putting the children’s dishes into the dishwasher. ‘Beach holidays will do that to you. Struggling a bit myself.’

‘Oh, diddums. Had a big day did you?’ his wife drawled back.

‘I wasn’t the one who had a kip at lunch time.’

‘I needed that,’ his wife said, sidling up behind Max, ‘to keep up with you after the kids went to bed,’ she finished as she slid her arms around her husband’s chest from behind.

Max straightened and spun in her embrace, pulling her in closer as he did. ‘And what exactly, young Elsa, did you plan on getting up to now that the kids have left the room?’

‘Use your imagination, champ,’ Elsa replied, a smile drawing across her face.

‘Hmmm, you know my imagination is bigger than the Earth,’ Max returned, an equally intentioned smile on his features.

‘That’s why I married you,’ Elsa said, slipping backwards out of Max’s embrace. ‘Now hurry up and clean the kitchen and I’ll see you in the adults’ room.’

‘Your wish…’ Max said, bowing.

With that, Elsa left the room and Max watched her go, keenly aware that his heart rate had skipped slightly up. There weren’t many things, physically or emotionally in life that impacted him, but from the first moment Max had met Elsa, it was not only his heart rate that had skipped up. His entire life had found new meaning. He knew he had at last found something worth holding on to and when the time came, worth fighting for.

Turning back to his chores, Max finished loading the dishes into the dishwasher. He then wiped down the benches and after a quick glance around to make sure all was in order, washed his hands and moved into the living room to turn off the television. With the remote in hand, Max’s finger started moving towards the off button, when something on the screen caught his attention. His finger immediately stopped and his heart rate edged up again. His eyes widened slightly as his attention zoomed in on the image on the screen.

It was a face, one that he’d seen countless times and usually in a mirror as he looked at himself, except this time, his face was not in a mirror. It was etched into the snow clad, north slope of Mount Everest, at least five thousand metres above sea level and over five hundred metres in height.

‘Elsa?’ Max said quietly, but firmly. ‘You need to see this.’

For the next ten minutes, Max and Elsa stood together watching the news reports across the various channels. Max held Elsa’s hand and she pulled herself in close to his side. Max’s heart rate had settled, but now her’s was racing. Every channel showed the same story and it was all about Max, or at least the images they were showing were all images of him.

Shot after shot, showed Max’s face impossibly sketched into natural landscapes across the world with enough detail to know that it was him. Etched into the snow and ice of Mount Himalaya in Nepal. Glassed into the sands of the Sahara Desert in Libya. Scribed into the shallow corals of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Carved out of the bare rocks of the Hajar Mountain Range in the Sultanate of Oman.

Max was everywhere and all of the images had apparently appeared virtually at the same time, but with no evidence of how or more importantly, by whom. It was a complete and gob-smackingly unbelievable mystery, but not to Elsa. The mystery stood right next to her, holding her hand. She had known Max for ten years and knew that those ten years of her life had been her best. She had loved and been loved in return like she could not have imagined. She now had two beautiful children to love just as fiercely and she had hope for a future. A hope that she knew could not exist without Max. He was her everything, but now it was all at risk, but then again, she knew this day had been coming.

Suddenly, the television switched off. Max threw the remote control onto the couch and turned to face Elsa. She couldn’t look up to him. She couldn’t look into those deep blue eyes and keep her composure, so she pulled his hand up to her chest and looked at it instead.

‘It’s time,’ was all Max said.

Elsa nodded and felt the first upwelling of tears.

Max pulled her in tight and stroked her hair. ‘We knew this day was coming,’ he said quietly.

Elsa tried to hold the tears back by screwing up her eyes.

‘I made two promises,’ Max continued. ‘First, I would avenge my mother.’

The first tear squeezed itself out of the corner of Elsa’s eye.

‘And second,’ Max said, ‘I would protect my family, even if it kills me.’

And then her emotions got the better of her. A retching sob tore at Elsa and she buried her face into Max’s chest, clawing at his shirt and spilling tears down his front. Max simply held her tight. Right now it was all he could do, but soon the time would come for more. He needed to prepare. He needed to be ready for what came next and more than anything, he needed to be ready to die. There could be no hope for victory if he was not ready to die.

 

  • * *

 

It was two o’clock in the morning. Max and Elsa had not slept a moment since turning off the television. They lay still in their bed, Elsa resting her head on Max’s chest and Max’s arm enveloping her. Though their voices were silent, their minds were awash with imaginings of what would happen next in their uncertain lives. Then Max heard the quiet crunch of grass underfoot outside their ground floor apartment. He heard the soft scrape of boots on the paved patio. He even heard the almost imperceptible rustle of synthetic material as what must have been five or six people gathered and positioned themselves in the courtyard beyond the glass sliding doors of their bedroom. Whoever was outside, they were all undoubtedly armed in some manner with orders to use force as necessary. Maybe they carried non-lethal ammunition? Rubber bullets and tranquilisers? To kill the man whose face was inscribed all across the world would be to learn absolutely nothing, so they could only be here to apprehend and detain. Not to kill, but maybe that was being too optimistic?

Max whispered quietly, ‘Elsa, they’re here.’

Elsa’s head jerked up.

‘I’m going to bring the kids in here with us,’ he added.

‘Go. Quickly,’ she almost pleaded.

Springing from the bed wearing only boxer shorts, Max moved as swiftly and as quietly as he could into their son, Jason’s bedroom. Picking up their still seeping son, he carried him back before placing him gently on the bed next to Elsa. Elsa immediately pulled him close, while Max disappeared out the door to get their five year old daughter, Millie. A few moments later he was back with the little girl cradled in his arms, also still asleep. He then crowded his wife and their two children up to the head of the bed and asked them to be as quiet as possible.

Listening as keenly as he could, Max failed to hear anything from outside. Whoever the intruders were, they were ready and they were coming. Max stood in front of the bed, his stance like a granite sculpture, feet apart, arms flexed down by his sides and his hands spread open. Elsa looked at Max’s silhouette and again marvelled at her husband’s physicality. He was not a huge man, but he was solid and muscular and whenever he moved, it was with purpose. Powerful if necessary, but then as gentle as a soft breeze when called for. Right now, he was there to protect them and she pitied whoever was coming inside.

Then Max turned and lifted his right hand to his lips and blew them all a kiss. His glance lingered just slightly and in that moment, Elsa knew she and the kids were safe. Despite the danger outside those doors, there was no safer place for them to be than behind her husband and their father’s form. She smiled and squeezed the kids. Then Max turned back to the doors and the night closed in.

It was over in moments, glimpsed by Elsa only through snatches of half-light from the street lamps outside and the sickle moon. A cacophony of harsh, brutal sounds accompanied the melee. Smashed locks, shattered glass, grunts and groans and two gun shots, the twin reports deafening in the confines of the bedroom. It happened so fast that neither Elsa nor the kids had time to cry out.

Then a foreign voice shouted out, ‘Get the light!’

Blinding light filled the room and Elsa clamped her eyes shut, unconsciously pulling the two children in even closer, both of them burrowing their own faces into her chest as they huddled on the bed.

‘Don’t move, mate,’ said the same foreign voice, the person’s voice firm, but covering an edge of uncertainty. ‘Nobody wants to bring you down.’

‘You already tried that,’ came Max’s voice, even in tone and absolutely without fear.

Hearing this riposte, Elsa couldn’t contain her angst any longer and popped her head up. The scene that assailed her was like nothing she could ever wish for.

Their bedroom had been invaded by four black clad soldiers, completely surrounding the bed at close quarters with handguns extended in front and pointed directly at her husband. The only flesh she could see were their eyes inside balaclavas and all four pairs were fixed, wide open and jittery, on Max. In contrast it appeared as though Max had not budged a muscle, his stance exactly the same as it had been while standing in the dark, waiting for the assailants to come into the room; rock solid and unflinching. Then he did move.

‘Are you okay, honey?’ he asked as he turned to look her and the kids over.

Then she saw the two deep bruises spreading across his chest. ‘What are they?’ she cried out, her hand shooting forth to gesture at the injuries.

‘He shot me. Twice,’ came the simple reply.

Elsa threw glances at each of the men. ‘Who did that? Which one of you…?’

‘It was him,’ Max said calmly, turning and flicking a finger towards the shattered sliding glass door, ‘and he can’t hear you.’

Elsa directed her glance through the smashed portal and noticed the soles of a pair of boots on the edge of the shadows in the courtyard. ‘What happened to…?’

‘Like I said,’ Max cut-in, ‘he shot me and there was no way he was going to shoot me again, let alone you or the kids, so I showed him the door.’

‘That’s enough,’ the foreign voice interrupted. Elsa looked across to note the owner of the command as the tallest and broadest of the four intruders. ‘We’ve got orders to bring you back with us, unharmed.’

‘You’ve already botched that,’ Max replied, ‘and I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here with my family and if you want this to turn out differently, you’ll have to ditch your rubber bullets and put real ones in to even stand a chance.’

‘I don’t think you appreciate the seriousness of your situation,’ the gun-toting man pressed.

Max’s gaze burned into the man’s. The black clad intruder nervously shuffled his stance, while remaining firmly behind the cover of his gun.

‘I know exactly why you’re here,’ Max said in a low voice, ‘and if you think you four and your other two men out in the living room are enough to apprehend me, then it’s you that doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of your situation.’

The team leader of the assailants flicked his gaze towards the door leading into the living room, then back at Max.

‘Good move,’ Max added. ‘I’d reassess my options right now too if I were you.’

‘You’re coming in with…’

‘No,’ Max shot back firmly, a slight rise in his tone. ‘Get on the phone to your boss and let him know if he wants to talk to me, he can come here. I’m not leaving my family. Now get out or I’ll put you all through the window.’

The team leader held his ground, his eyes looking Max up and down, a myriad of options clearly scurrying through his mind. ‘Okay,’ he finally said. ‘You sit tight. My guys are stepping out to cover the perimeter while I get some advice.’

Max did not move, his stance still unflinching. One by one, the four intruders backed out of the bedroom and through the smashed glass doors. As they retreated into the darkness, two of them picked up their unconscious colleague and dragged him away.

It was not until all sight of the four intruders had disappeared that Max moved and when he did, he immediately climbed across the bed and enveloped his entire family in his arms.

 

  • * *

 

Four hours later, the thin light of dawn crept underneath and around the edges of the curtains in Millie’s bedroom. Max watched the light gradually brighten, his night time vigil coming to a close. Looking sideways, he beheld Elsa and Millie, snuggled together beneath the covers of the adjacent single bed, peace gracing their features as they slumbered. Then, looking down, Max’s gaze wandered across their son, Jason’s sleeping face. He too lay oblivious to the growing turmoil. At least for now, they were all safe because any minute, that would likely change.

Then Max heard a sudden flurry of rustling approaching the bedroom door. Swiftly rising from the bed and still dressed only in his boxer shorts, he padded soundlessly across the room to stand against the wall and beside the door frame. The rustling stopped and a rapid knock rapped at the door. Elsa’s head snapped up. Max raised his finger to his lips and held out a raised hand. Elsa kept quiet and fixed her gaze on the closed door.

‘What?’ Max said to the back side of the door.

‘We’ve got to go, now,’ came the urgent reply, the voice familiar as the team leader of the intruders.

‘Like I said,’ Max started, ‘I’m not going anywhere without my family.’

‘You’re all coming. We’ve got a plane on the tarmac, ready to fly you all to Canberra.’

‘Why Canberra?’ Max asked.

‘You said you wanted my boss to come here,’ the voice replied, the urgency still evident, ‘well, he can’t, so he’s sent his jet up for you to go to him. Okay?’

‘Who’s your boss?’

A muffled profanity sounded behind the door before the man continued. ‘The Prime Minister of Australia, which makes him your boss too and believe it or not, he’s on your side.’

‘He’s not my boss,’ Max returned, ‘and right now, there’s only four people on my side. Me, my wife and our two kids. Everyone else, the jury’s out.’

‘Come on! We’ve got to go, now!’

Max cast a glance to Elsa who wore angst all over her face. Something was wrong.

‘Why the rush?’ Max asked.

‘Something’s happening on the street.’

‘What do you mean something?’

‘Some sort of military exercise or…I don’t know. All I know is there’s blokes with guns running all over the streets out here and I’ve got orders to get you and your family onto a plane and out of the way, so come on!’

Max turned back to Elsa and gave a single nod. She nodded back. Max pulled the door open to reveal the team leader, anxiety clawing at his features. It was clearly not the time to squabble. Max turned and rushed to the bed, scooping both children up into his arms as though they were weightless. By now they were awake, but not very certain of their surroundings, so when Max picked them up, they compliantly curled into his arms. Elsa followed Max through the door, still in her own pyjamas and Max in his boxers.

‘There’s a Land Cruiser out the front,’ the black-clad gunman said as he led them through the apartment and out the front door. ‘It’ll take you straight to the airport with two other cars in escort. You’ll be safe with us.’

Emerging onto the footpath, Max halted and looked around. He heard a scream from somewhere down the street. Elsa pulled up close behind him and they both looked in the direction of the distress. Then breaking glass sounded from the other direction. Then tyres screeched on a nearby corner and the sound of a car accident ripped the morning stillness apart.

‘Come on!’ the team leader called out, holding the back door of a white Land Cruiser open that was parked just down the street from them.

Another scream sounded from a different direction. And then another from somewhere else. Then Max heard footsteps, running. Turning around he saw a young man sprinting along the footpath towards them, having exited from the adjacent apartment block stairwell. Then another young man appeared ten or so metres behind him, also sprinting. Fear twisted their faces.

‘Get behind me,’ Max said simply to Elsa.

Elsa did not hesitate. Quickly she slid around behind Max’s form as he slipped the two kids down to the ground to wedge them between his legs and his wife’s. Two of the black clad intruders appeared from the opposite side of the car with their hand guns drawn and aimed at the running men.

‘Stop!’ they yelled. The two young men did not stop. ‘Stop or we fire!’

Still the two young men ran, their running motions wild and desperate. Sporadic screaming and smashing windows now emanated up and down the street and across the neighbourhood. Max clenched his fists, his gaze fixed on the first young man, but already prepared to confront the second as well. Crouching slightly, he readied to tackle the first one head on. The black-clad gunmen continued to shout and threaten them and then the situation changed, completely and utterly.

From the stairwell of the adjacent apartment building that the two young men had emerged from, two other figures appeared. Max saw them come into view over the shoulder of the second running man and he instantly knew what was happening. Meantime, the black-clad gunmen were taken totally by surprise, their attention shifting immediately from the two young men to these two new figures, disbelief causing their aims and their jaws to drop.

‘What are they?’ Elsa whispered from behind Max.

‘They’re dead,’ Max replied. ‘Get in the car.’

The two young men sprinted past Max, unhindered by him or the gunmen. Now Max had a clear view of the newcomers and he immediately began sizing them up. They were essentially humanoid in form, but very tall. Max stood at six feet and three inches and even from where he stood, he could tell these beings were easily two to three inches taller than himself. They were also powerfully built, their heavily muscled arms and legs moving fluidly as they ran after the two young men.

However, most striking was their skin, its texture ruddy and gnarled, like driftwood on a storm swept beach, but it was the colour. Black. Not jet black, but iridescent black, the metallic sheen making them glisten in the early morning light. They also wore what looked like some sort of silver body armour with matching helmets and utility belts around their waists on which hung some small implements. To say they were aliens was obvious, but that was not Max’s first thought. His mind turned immediately to defence. He was the only thing standing between these creatures and his family and nothing, absolutely nothing was getting past him while he lived.

‘I’m not leaving you,’ Elsa said from behind him.

‘Get in the car,’ Max shot back, his voice quiet and firm with no edge of fear. ‘You’ll be safer there.’

‘No, we won’t,’ she replied.

One of the black clad gunmen finally found the nerve to speak, shouting as aggressively as he could at the beings.

‘Stop or I shoot!’ he shouted, his gun wavering in the face of the two loping creatures.

Max no longer had time to urge Elsa to move. He fixed his sights on the first creature. That was where he would start, but not where he would finish. The creatures ran on.

‘I mean it!’ the gunman continued shouting. ‘I’ll shoot!’

Then suddenly the first creature pulled up, his arms spreading out to the sides. A gurgled grunt sounded and the second creature stumbled to an abrupt stop behind it, issuing its own incoherent grunt. The first creature stared straight at Max, frozen in place. Max stared back. No one moved.

Then the creature grunted again and gesticulated in Max’s direction. The second one also peered closely at Max for a few seconds before erupting into a series of grunts and gurgles as well. By now both creatures were pointing at Max and waving their arms around, their alien language much more energetic now.

‘What are they doing?’ Elsa asked.

‘No clue,’ Max replied without shifting his focus, ‘but they’re pretty jumpy. Maybe they’re worried about the guns?’

‘I doubt it. They’re looking at you. Not at these other blokes with their guns out.’

Then the first creature pulled one of the implements off its belt and grunted into it. After a few more grunts and gesticulations, it reaffixed the implement back onto its belt.

‘I’m not sure,’ Elsa started, ‘but why do I get the awful feeling that he just called in reinforcements?’

‘Come on!’ the team leader’s shout sounded from behind them. ‘Get in the car now! While you’ve got a chance!’

‘I’m not getting in that car,’ Elsa said.

‘And I’m not making you,’ Max answered. ‘Whatever these things are, we’re all fronting up to them together out here.’

Max felt Elsa’s hands rest on his shoulders from behind. He could also feel his kids arms wrapped around his thighs. It was all the encouragement he needed. Then a new sound kicked in.

Running feet, slapping on the footpath came from behind Max. He quickly flicked a glance over his shoulder and saw three more of the aliens emerge from the driveway of the apartment block up the street. Then a similar noise came from across the street. Four more creatures were now charging over the road towards them.

‘Get in the car!’ the team leader raged, his desperation matching his flushed face and the veins ridging up his neck.

Max ignored him and looked around. ‘Get in the arch,’ he instructed his wife, pointing to the pedestrian entry into their apartment block. It was a bricked pathway fronted by a concrete arch about three metres wide and eight feet high. Either side of it, the fence was well over six feet high. If he positioned himself in the middle with his family behind, he could oppose the creatures two at a time at most and they would struggle to get around behind him. It would have to do.

Elsa pulled the kids through the arch and deep onto the path to allow Max to stand a few metres in front of them.

‘What are you doing?’ the team leader shrieked.

‘You look after yourself,’ Max replied without looking at him. Instead he looked around at the nine aliens that had essentially surrounded them. The team leader by now had drawn his own gun and was backing up into the space in front of Max on the footpath. His two colleagues were doing likewise, so now Max had them as human shields in front of him.

‘I’d put your guns away and save your skins,’ Max said to the gunmen. ‘They’re here for me. Not you.’

‘My orders are to bring you in,’ the team leader said. ‘Not let these gorillas take you first.’

‘Your guns won’t be enough.’

‘Let’s find out about that,’ the team leader snarled back, his upper lip curling.

Max turned to his family. ‘Crouch down and stay low,’ he said. ‘These blokes are going down shooting.’

Elsa nodded and pulled the two children in tighter, huddling them close on the ground at the same time. Max turned back.

The nine aliens held their ring around the gunmen, but were ever so slightly closing in tighter and tighter. At this stage, none of the creatures had tried to present a weapon. Meantime, the team leader held his aim on the creature directly in front of him.

‘Aim for the heads!’ he shouted to his men. ‘Single shot into each one!’

The creatures continued to close.

Elsa covered her children’s faces with her arms and bowed her own head.

Max stood as firm and as tense as a bear.

Then a gunshot sounded. The team leader had fired his pistol, the report deafening. The creature he was aiming at dodged sideways with lightning reflexes, the bullet whizzing across the street. Then the other two men also fired, but their targets also dodged out of the way. The team leader fired again, but it was too late. The creatures moved with frightening speed and agility. In a split second, all nine aliens had converged on the three men and buried them beneath a mass of writhing, glistening bodies.

Max stepped back a pace, completely helpless to prevent the assault. Seconds later, the aliens straightened and three of them dragged the three unmoving men further away down the footpath. Max could not tell if the men were alive or dead. It didn’t matter because now it was his turn

With the bodies out of the way, the nine aliens regrouped in front of Max, tightly knit and poised. Max held his ground, his feet planted at shoulder width and his arms tensed by his side, fists clenched and knuckles white. His gaze flicked back and forth between the alien faces staring him down. The creatures’ bright blue orbs inside their deeply cowled eye sockets betrayed nothing. Then he noticed a jitter in the eyes of the one on the far left, its features slightly more twitchy than the rest. Max bore his gaze into its face, seeking to force an error and he got what he wanted.

The creature suddenly lunged forward out of sync with the rest, its arms reaching ungainly forward. Max let it come and then let fly with a savage, straight left punch, smashing into its face and sending it reeling backwards to the ground in a crumpled heap.

The remaining eight creatures watched mutely as their fellow soldier was brutally felled. They then returned their attention to Max and collectively shuffled around the circle, filling the gap of their fallen comrade.

Max continued to eye them off. No additional weaknesses showed, but at least he had marginally improved his odds. Then without warning, the two directly in front of him charged forward. Max met them with quick fire, straight right and left punches to their faces. Both aliens pummelled backwards. Then two more waded in from either side. A simultaneous side kick to the right and driving punch to the left dispatched both of them.

Five down. Four to go.

Then all four remaining aliens lunged forward, their long arms scrabbling to gain a hold of Max. Max in turn swatted the gaggle of limbs away and let fly with a flurry of lethally directed blows from both his hands and his feet and in mere seconds, the four aliens lay in an unmoving ring of bodies around him.

Max quickly surveyed his victims. They were all out for the count. He turned to find his wife and kids peeking up at him from their huddle.

‘You okay?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ Elsa said.

‘Did you beat the bad guys?’ Jason asked meekly.

The sound of more flapping feet rattled from both sides of the street.

‘Not yet,’ Max said. ‘Stay with Mummy. She’ll protect you.’

Elsa tried to smile. Max turned back to the street and looked about. He counted at least fifteen more of the black, loping creatures, all converging on him. Clenching his fists again, he summed them up.

They attacked in groups of two or three, restricted by the arch around Max. Elsa struggled to absorb the battle, but it was clearly one sided. Max held the upper hand the whole time. Her husband’s body transformed into a whirling blur of fists, elbows, knees and feet, all of his blows connecting with sickening accuracy and power. Fighting relentlessly and without pause, the conflict lasted maybe a few minutes, but it felt like much longer to Elsa. Despite wanting to shield the children’s view of the fight, she found herself unconsciously watching it and allowing Jason and Millie to also watch their father pummel the strange, hapless creatures, their little, upturned faces filled with a mixture of fear and wonder.

Max spun one last time and launched a right foot into the head of the last creature, sending the alien spinning violently away to crumple into the gutter. It was over. Max looked at the carnage surrounding him. Still standing firm in the mouth of the arch in only his boxers, he had not a scratch on him. He did not bother to count the number of felled aliens, but if had, he would have needed more fingers and toes.

‘Is it finished?’ Elsa asked.

Max continued to scan the street and the surrounds. Then he saw them. Still more of the creatures lurked around corners and behind cars up and down the street. Slowly they emerged from hiding and began to cautiously shuffle towards him.

‘Not even close,’ Max said, not at all breathless after his ordeal. ‘We could be here a while.’

‘Are there any people around who can call triple oh?

Max looked around again. ‘There are people looking out the windows and some coming out onto their balconies.’

‘Help!’ Elsa immediately called out. ‘Somebody help!’

Max held his attention on the gathering creatures. He now estimated at least fifty or so more of the black skinned aliens in sight and quite probably still more of them coming out of hiding.

Then the front passenger door of the white Land Cruiser burst open and one of the black clad soldiers from the night before leaned out.

‘I’ve called for backup!’ he yelled. ‘Triple oh lines are jammed, but I got through to the local army base and they’re choppering in two platoons!’

Max continued to eye off the opposition. ‘That won’t be enough,’ he said quietly.

‘Why aren’t they attacking?’ Elsa asked.

‘They know what they’ll get if they do,’ Max replied.

‘But there’s so many?’

Suddenly, a single, much larger alien barged its way onto the scene, pushing past the others. It was at least seven feet tall and sported a pattern of blue stripes and dots on its breast plate.

‘I think the boss is here,’ Max said.

The black clad man in the Land Cruiser glanced around and then hurriedly retreated back inside the cabin, slamming the door shut.

The alien newcomer loped straight up to Max who was ready to bring him down too if needed. The newcomer stopped at the edge of the crush of bodies and slowly scanned them. He then looked at Max and grunted. Max stared him down. Then the alien retrieved an implement from his belt and held it up in front of him. Suddenly, the air between Max and the alien shimmered and a holographic image appeared.

The image depicted a similar looking alien, but with piercing green instead of blue eyes and a silver circlet around its bony crest. It was hard to tell, but to Max it looked like the creature was smiling. Then it spoke, in English.

‘I have found you,’ the creature said in a guttural tone. ‘You have proven most difficult to locate, but now my quest is complete.’

‘What do you want?’ Max asked evenly.

‘I want you to die,’ the alien replied, his eyes glaring out of the holographic image.

‘Why?’

‘You are the last remaining life in the royal Nar’gellan bloodline and with you dead, there can be no challenge to my rule.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Max said quietly, but firmly, continually flicking his gaze back to the surrounding street to monitor the movements of the slowly increasing numbers of aliens.

‘Don’t be insolent!’ the creature shot back, its nostrils flaring. ‘You know who you are. I know your mother told you before she abandoned you.’

The aggression failed to pique Max as he kept scanning the surrounds.

‘She didn’t abandon me,’ Max said quietly. ‘She left to protect me.’

‘Your mother was a coward! She abandoned you just as she abandoned the rest of her family as I slew them to gain the throne.’ Max stayed silent as he slid his gaze back to the creature. ‘That is why she earned a slow death.’

Max’s attention finally piqued. His eyes narrowed.

‘Yes, your mother is dead,’ the creature carried on, his tone low and cold. ‘I slit her throat myself, but not before I bled her. As a queen, she would normally receive a noble death, but as a coward, she received only pain.’

Max held silent, but even from behind, Elsa could see his jaw muscles bunching as he gritted his teeth like a steel vice.

‘So, that leaves only you,’ the alien continued, ‘and what are you? What sort of half-breed has your mother spawned?’

Max’s clenched fists began to tremble.

‘It matters not,’ the creature added derisively. ‘Your mother is dead and you are the only one left with royal blood to challenge me. I wonder, are you a coward too? I suspect so, but we must find out the truth to end this affair.’

Max refused to speak. He was now sizing up the large alien standing behind the hologram that was controlling it.

‘Your silence proves your weakness,’ the creature pushed. ‘Now, let me outline the very last chance you are going to get to keep your life. In six months time, exactly, I expect you to enter an arena of your choice on this planet and compete in three duels against my three greatest champions. If you are victorious in all three duels, which are to the death, then you will keep your life and I and my army will depart, forever. However, if you fall in the arena, then not only will you die and your puerile bloodline come to an end, but I will kill every living being on this forsaken planet of yours’ just to ensure all evidence of you and your family is gone forever. Do you understand?’

Max held his tongue and his ground, his granite stare fixed on the holographic creature.

‘Still silent? So be it. I’ve said all I need. Go and prepare in whatever way seems fit. Train or cower, I care not, but be assured that your slaughter is inevitable. You and your race are doomed to die in six months. That is all you need to know.”

‘There is only one thing I know,’ Max said, taking a single step toward the hologram.

‘And what is that little half breed?’ the monster sneered back, it’s gleaming, white teeth bared to the gums.

‘If you want me to die, you better come down here and do it yourself because your army isn’t big enough.’

‘Yes, I can see you do have some skill,’ the creature said, glancing around at the scattered bodies of his soldiers on the footpath, ‘but a skirmish with my footmen is nothing compared to the adversaries you will face in the arena. I should imagine you won’t even get past the first duel let alone make the third, but I do believe in mercy and giving you this fighting chance to stay alive is the least I can do for you. Now, I have to go and broadcast to your entire world my intentions and their imminent deaths. I expect the next few hours on your planet will be quite interesting.’

‘There is one more thing I know,’ Max said, carefully taking two more strides forward to position himself almost face to face with the hologram.

‘What?’ the creature asked.

‘You talk too much,’ Max said and then in a blur, launched a driving punch that penetrated straight through the hologram and smashed into the bridge of the nose of the towering alien behind the image. The creature fell backwards onto the footpath and Max followed it down. Grabbing its throat, he crashed a flurry of blows into the side of its head, the last contact producing a sickening squelch. Max let the limp body fall to the footpath. Looking up, he saw that none of the other alien soldiers, which now numbered well over a hundred, had moved to help. Clearly he was now off limits. His destiny had been laid out and not one of these alien soldiers dared to defy their leader’s orders.

Max took a deep breath and turned back to his wife and children who were still huddled deep in the arch.

‘We’re done here,’ he said. ‘These blokes aren’t going to touch me. Might as well go inside, pack up and wait and see what happens next.’

The sound of helicopter blades chopping through the early morning air drifted over the street. Max ignored them and helped Elsa, Jason and Millie to their feet. Walking back up the path to their apartment, Millie asked, ‘Daddy, why don’t you have any pants on?’

Max smiled. That was all the proof he needed that at least he was still alive, for now.

 

11:28am. 1st July. Canberra, Australia (the next morning). A New Friend

 

The Dysons disembarked the Holden Caprice limousine onto the driveway of the Prime Minister’s Lodge in Canberra and straight into a heavily armed contingent of soldiers. Elsa instinctively huddled the kids into her legs, while Max scanned the vicinity, noting that a significant number of extra soldiers patrolled the grounds around the stately building. It was now late morning in the Australian Capital Territory after they had all been whisked away from the Sunshine Coast in the Prime Minister’s private jet and the whole family was well and truly in unknown waters.

The three black Land Cruisers that had accompanied the limousine from the airport now spewed out another armed detail. These men weren’t dressed like soldiers, but instead were clad in jeans, polo shirts and black spray jackets. They moved with quiet purpose and rarely spoke directly to each other, instead using ear pieces and wrist microphones. Right now their hand guns nestled discretely beneath their jackets, but Max knew they could come out any time, fluidly and lethally. These were no mere soldiers. They were trained killers.

The apparent leader of the detail walked over to them. He was tall and while not hugely built, he definitely had a strong physical prowess about him. His keen, dark eyes never stopped moving. Nothing missed his gaze.

‘Come with me, please?’ he said quietly, but clearly.

Max turned and waited for Elsa to nod that she was ready and then he led them into the grand, old building behind the leader of the team. They went through a procession of antique furnished state rooms and hallways until they emerged into a room with only a single, elderly male occupant. The man rose as they entered.

‘Thank you, Peter,’ the man said, his voice matching all the media clips Max had ever heard or seen of him.

The leader of the security detail nodded and silently slipped back out the door they had come through, closing it as he did. The elderly man motioned for Max, Elsa and the kids to come and sit with him on the over sized, leather buttoned plushly sofa and chairs clustered generously around the fireplace. As they approached, he held out his hand and after giving it a hesitating glance, Max accepted it and immediately noted the surprising strength in the older man’s grip.

‘Good morning, Mister Dyson,’ the man said. ‘I’m Joseph Tollsen and thank you for coming.’

‘Good morning to you, Mister Prime Minister,’ Max replied, releasing the man’s hand and stepping aside to reveal Elsa and the kids. ‘This is my wife Elsa and Millie and Jason.’

The Prime Minister gently shook Elsa’s hand and then squatted down to eye level with the kids, his movements also more firm and agile than one would expect of a senior citizen. Max squinted at him, mentally locking the detail away.

‘Good morning to you both,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said to the kids. ‘Would you like some morning tea?’

Silence returned as Millie and Jason shied deeper into their mother’s legs.

‘You can have anything you want,’ the Prime Minister added, ‘if it’s okay with Mum and Dad that is?’

The Prime Minister looked up to see Elsa shrugging and nodding.

‘Can we have ice cream?’ Millie asked timidly.

The Prime Minister smiled. ‘Of course you can. What flavour?’

‘Chocolate!’ Jason suddenly called out, his eyes as wide and as bright as sunflowers.

‘Chocolate it is,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said. Pulling a mobile phone out of his pocket, he pressed a button to place the order through to the kitchen. ‘Anything for mum and dad?’ he asked.

‘English Breakfast tea?’ Elsa asked.

‘Of course,’ the Prime Minister replied. ‘Max?’

‘I could actually do with something to eat.’

‘Sandwiches? Burger?’

‘Sandwiches. Whatever you’ve got.’

The Prime Minister nodded and placed another order for tea and roast beef sandwiches. Then, putting the phone away, he motioned for them all to sit with him around the fireplace.

‘Please, come and sit down,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I don’t have anything for the kids to play with. Not having a family of my own, I don’t have a stash of toys at hand. They’re welcome to watch television next door if that’s okay?’

‘We came prepared,’ Elsa said as Max unslung the backpack he carried on his shoulder. Elsa zipped it open and pulled out a couple of children’s’ books and packs of cards. ‘Why don’t you two go and sit over there on the floor while mummy and daddy talk to the nice man?’

Millie turned to Elsa and asked, ‘Is he the Prime Minister of Australia?’

‘Yes, he is, darling,’ Elsa replied smiling and shooting a quick glance at the Prime Minister who winked back.

Millie then grabbed her brother’s hand and marched them both across to stand in front of the Prime Minister’s chair where she said, ‘You have a very nice house, Mister Prime Minister.’

The man smiled warmly in return and leaned forward to say, ‘Thank you, Millie. You have very nice manners and it’s a pleasure to have you and your brother here. If you need anything, please ask. I’m sure we can sort anything out.’

Millie nodded and dragged Jason away with her to sit off to the side on the richly carpeted floor. Elsa took the books and cards over and Millie promptly opened one of the books and began to read to Jason.

Elsa sat back down again, next to Max on the couch and the two of them looked expectantly at their host. The up close position gave Max the opportunity to take in even more detail in the Prime Minister’s appearance. He was not a young man. The creases around the corners of his eyes and across his forehead betrayed both his twilight age and a life likely spent in relentless worry. Fortunately, he had managed to retain a full head of thick, fulsome hair, but it was completely grey.

However, there were some clear signs that despite his advanced years, the Prime Minister of Australia was still as self aware as any younger man. His appearance was neat and trim, his cotton trousers pressed perfectly and his long sleeve shirt fitted to his frame like a glove with a pair of what looked like gold nugget cuff links adorning the finish. His crossed legs allowed him to show off a pair of gleaming, burgundy dress shoes that completed the ensemble, but it was his eyes. Within the confines of his older face, the Prime Minister’s eyes shone clear and sharp, like a panther’s eyes in the thick darkness of the jungle. This was not a dull witted man and now Max understood how both his movements and strength of grip were superior to his outward, elderly appearance. The Prime Minister had grown old before his time. The office had dragged him down, but not burned him out.

‘Sixty-eight,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said, locking his gaze onto Max’s. ‘I’m sixty-eight years of age, which doesn’t make me the oldest elected Prime Minister in history, but it does put me in third place for the honour.’

‘You move well for your age,’ Max returned.

‘Max!’ Elsa hissed, slapping her husband on the thigh.

The Prime Minister smiled and waved his hand. ‘The observation is fair, Elsa and besides, I accept the flattery. I may look like an old man, but I assure you, up here where it counts, ‘he tapped the side of his head, ‘I can still keep up with the youngest of my colleagues and adversaries.’

Max nodded, his gaze still locked onto the Prime Minister’s sparkling eyes. Next to Max, Elsa silently preened out some offending creases in her skirt.

‘I must also add,’ the Prime Minister started again before the silence pushed through into discomfort, ‘is that you have two beautiful children.’ Elsa lifted her gaze and smiled. ‘I’ve always considered the manner of children in unfamiliar places to be a fair reflection of their parents’ manners and your children have passed the test with impeccable marks.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ Elsa said. ‘That’s a nice thing to say.’

‘Please, Elsa, you may dispense with the “sir”,’ the Prime Minister said, waving again. ‘Call me Joe. That’s what my friends call me and that’s precisely what I am hoping we can be?’

‘With all due respect, Joe,’ Max chimed in, ‘since your boys smashed their way into our apartment in the middle of the night, none of this has felt like an offer of friendship. It feels more like a kidnap.’

‘And for that I must apologise. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can appreciate, these unusual circumstances have driven me to make some aggressive plans. However, what I can assure you of is that the guns that have confronted and surrounded you are for your protection. You are not in custody here. You are free to leave any time if you wish, but as I said, I do genuinely want us to be friends and before you dismiss that offer, please hear me out?’

Elsa turned to look at Max and said, ‘Well, we don’t have a holiday to go back to, so we might as well sit and listen?’

Max nodded and they both turned back to Joe.

‘Thank you,’ Joe said. ‘I will not begin with what has already transpired such as the engraving of your face on various natural landscapes, the unprecedented occurrence of aliens on our streets and of course, the forced invitation of yourself to fight a series of death duels to defend the survival of the human race. While extraordinary, let’s put those things aside for now. Instead, I wish to first explain how I feel about all of these developments and what I see as the implications of them.’

Joe paused. Max and Elsa nodded. The Prime Minister restarted.

‘While it has been less than twenty-four hours since news broke of the etching of your face across the world, Max, the global search for you has intensified into the single biggest and most outrageous man hunt in history. Every nation with the capability to do so, is scouring the planet for you. Secret Service and Special Forces elements are running rampant. Fortunately, we got to you first and so the reason we had to smash into your apartment in the middle of the night is because we did not know if you were already being detained by forces from another country or organisation. If that had been the case, God knows what would have happened, but we would have fought tooth and nail to keep you safe. You need to know that there are several other nations and factions out there with less than honourable intentions for you. That is also the reason why you have been surrounded by armed men and women everywhere you have gone today. I am trying desperately to protect you. Does that make sense so far?’

Max held his gaze on the Prime Minister and all he could find in the man’s expression and most of all in his deep blue eyes was truth.

‘Yes, it does,’ Max said.

‘Good,’ Joe continued. ‘Now let me go on by offering a plan and then I would like to pass across to you both to say anything you feel you need to. Is that okay?’

Both Elsa and Max nodded.

‘Very well,’ Joe added. ‘It seems we have six months, virtually to the day until you are expected to enter the arena. New Year’s Eve seems a rather melodramatic date, but so be it. We probably can’t change the schedule, so let’s use it in our planning. What I propose is that you and your family place yourselves under my protection and I will provide you with whatever means are at my disposal to ensure you are firstly kept safe and secondly, you receive all the freedom and tools to train in preparation for what is coming. The details we can work out in due course, but as part of this offer I will place two guarantees at your feet. One, you will be safe, absolutely and completely. That goes for your whole family. You will never need or want for anything and I will not restrict your freedom unnecessarily. You will have the best security resources surrounding you, all day, every day, all the way up to the arena date and if, dear God, you are successful, Max, my protection will continue beyond the arena for as long as needed. My second guarantee is you can leave my protection at any time, freely and completely. My protection is an offer and you can rebuke it at any time without repercussion and without giving reason. I will not have you living in fear or restriction. If you do decide to leave, you are welcome back at any time, again without reason. So, having said that, this is why I started with an offer of friendship. I want you all to feel safe and there is no better place to feel safe than in the company of those you trust and it is in our friends and family that we place the greatest trust. I promise I will be nothing but honest, respectful and as understanding as any person can be. So, it would be my honour to accommodate you from here on. Now, I’ll be quiet and you can have time alone to think or ask me any question you want.’

With that, the Prime Minister leaned back in his chair. On cue, the door opened and a man bearing a wide silver platter entered. Walking across to the coffee table in the midst of the Prime Minister and Max and Elsa, he placed it down and quietly left. The Prime Minister leaned forward and gestured to the two bowls of chocolate ice cream. Elsa nodded.

‘Jason? Millie?’ Joe called out. ‘Your ice cream is here.’

Squeals came back as the two kids jumped up and scampered across. Joe handed them both a bowl and a spoon.

‘Outside on the patio, please kids?’ Max said. ‘We don’t want to ruin the Prime Minister’s expensive carpet.’

Elsa stood up and led both Millie and Jason out through the wide French doors and onto the broad patio overlooking the gardens. Once outside, Elsa again noted the liberal security presence surrounding The Lodge.

‘Just sit here, kids where mummy and daddy can see you okay?’ she asked.

Both children plonked themselves down and started to hoe into their desserts. Elsa cast another glance around at all the armed soldiers and guards and while none of them directly returned her look, she had no doubt they were all cognisant of her and the kids.

Inside, Joe had poured himself a cup of tea and was about to pour Elsa one when she came back and sat down. ‘Milk or sugar?’ he asked her.

‘One sugar, please?’ she replied.

Meanwhile Max took up two roast beef sandwiches and promptly ate them both with minimum fuss.

Joe noted Max’s relish and said, ‘I apologise if my staff onboard the jet didn’t offer you anything to eat?’

‘Don’t worry about Max,’ Elsa cut in. ‘They did give us something on the plane, but Max is always hungry, so he always eats like that. Costs a fortune to feed him.’

The Prime Minister smiled and nodded. Leaning back, he stirred his tea in front of him. ‘So, do you have any questions?’

‘Yes, I do,’ Elsa replied after taking a sip of her tea.

Max reached forward and took two more sandwiches from the plate. Joe’s gaze flicked to him and then back to Elsa as he silently held his cup up to his face, looking over the rim.

‘Firstly, thank you for coming to get us last night and even though it did seem a bit heavy handed at the time, I can now see why you had to do it that way. It makes sense that there might be…others looking for us that aren’t so friendly.’

Joe nodded.

‘Secondly, thanks for the offer of protection and I know I appreciate it, but here’s my question. If we accept your offer, would you object to us living at home through all this? We need to make sure the disruption on the kids is as small as possible.’

Joe considered an answer and then said, ‘I promised I would be nothing but honest and so, while my answer is yes, you can reside at home if that’s what you really want, but quite frankly, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to not do that.’

Elsa paused. ‘Why not?’

‘There are two reasons, Elsa. The first is your safety. Again, while it has only been a matter of hours since your plight became public, we are already seeing a sharp rise in lawlessness across the country. Criminal activity has jumped. The potential for the end of the world will do that. People are frightened and reacting with violence. I don’t want you out in that world. You’re already the centre of attention. If the public knew you were at home, they would mob you, swarm your house and try to break in. Despite my security, your freedom would be greatly restricted and Heaven forbid, you may even be injured. Also, if any of these other rogue nations and factions scouring for you were to become aware of your location, they would try to kidnap you with lethal force and while my security would defend you against them, it would be dangerous for you and your family to be in any situation like that. The second reason for my discouraging you to go home is logistics. My team can protect you better if you are in a secret location that is fully self-contained. I propose a private estate that will not only be comfortable, but completely secure. It can be close to Brisbane if you’d prefer to stay local or it can be anywhere in Australia. I know that neither of you have any immediate family, but if you have friends that you want to stay close to, we can accommodate that. You can all live as normal a life as possible with tailored schooling for the children, provision of all your necessities and Max will have access to all the training facilities he requires, right on site without any need to go into the public forum. You would be free to come and go as you please with transport at hand. I know it wouldn’t be home and I would not treat you as a prisoner in any way, but I do think it is the best way to provide your protection.’

Elsa stayed silent and then sipped her tea. ‘I have another question,’ she finally said. ‘Will you tell anyone that you’ve found us and you’re sheltering us? By that I mean other nations or even the Australian public?’

‘That’s a good question,’ Joe replied, ‘and the only way I can answer that is I won’t announce your location without your permission, but I think regardless of what we may want, information concerning your location will probably be gained by external parties within the next few days anyway. I can only keep you secret for so long.’

‘What do you mean?’ Elsa asked.

‘Well, my security located you in about five hours, but it’s fair to say we had a head start with local knowledge. Other parties would naturally take longer, but probably not much. Any party with a half decent intelligence capability will by now have learned you are Australians, your home address and by now also where you were on holidays. In fact, I expect your home is currently being monitored by multiple parties and it would not surprise me if there are already eyes on this building right now because if anyone has tracked you to your holiday apartment, they will likely have followed the trail all the way here. To give at least the Americans the credit they deserve, they probably have a spy satellite overhead right now, so even if we wanted to keep your location secret, it is virtually impossible to do so for very long. However, the public are a different matter. We could hide you from them for some time longer, but the same outcome is inevitable. Information leaks, either intentionally or by accident. It just happens, but this is where I ask what you would like to do? Would you prefer to remain hidden for as long as possible or instead announce yourselves to the world?’

‘You’re more of an expert on these sorts of things, so what do you think?’ Elsa asked.

‘I don’t know yet. It’s too early to judge the best course of action. We need to wait and see what the public reaction is to all this. Apart from the immediate spike in general unrest, denial might take hold yet and the whole matter might wash over or alternatively, public unrest might continue to escalate. Either way, I still don’t know what the best course of action is, but there are two things I would suggest. First, we secret you as quickly as possible into a secure estate, while I navigate the diplomatic waters with our fellow nations and secondly, we keep you under wraps for as long as possible until I understand exactly what our security situation is. Does that make sense?’

Elsa nodded. ‘Max, what do you think?’ she asked.

Max, who had been looking out the windows at the passing security guards, broke his silence.

‘That all sounds fine to me,’ he said, turning back to the Prime Minister, ‘but I’d like to know why you haven’t asked me anything about myself? Don’t you want to know who I am and why these aliens want a piece of me before they kill us all?’

The Prime Minister looked across at Max over the top of his cup of tea. After a long pause he turned and put his cup down on the side table next to his chair.

‘I do want to know, Max,’ Joe said, fixing his gaze directly on him. ‘I want to know all those things, but it can wait for now. Those questions will come, soon. I already sense that you have little desire to divulge anything and that’s fine, but soon you will need to start sharing some fundamentals, mainly so I know how to help you. However, right now mine and your most important priority is to be safe and I’m confident that is the case right now, but today will be a long day. I expect a long list of international leaders and dignitaries to be calling me. Like I said, your whereabouts will stay secret for only so long. I just hope everyone behaves themselves and no one gets hurt. Fingers crossed.’

Max held the Prime Minister’s steady gaze for a few moments longer and reaffirmed the same sense of honesty he had gleaned from the man so far.

‘Okay,’ Max said. ‘That’s fine with me too and while we’re being honest as new friends, let me share the first thing about us. We don’t have what you would call true friends. We pretty much keep to ourselves because we have each other and that’s all we’ve ever needed until now. So, we don’t let people into our lives very easily and to start doing that now will be difficult, but I have to say, Joe, I‘m a pretty good judge of character and you strike me as a decent, trust worthy bloke. I think we could be friends, but we’re a long way from that yet.’

Joe nodded. ‘I appreciate that, Max. Thank you.’

‘And thank you from us too,’ Elsa said, clasping her husband’s hand. ‘We’re coming to terms with all of this just like you, but now having met you and you’ve explained why you’ve, you know, surrounded us with guns, thanks for protecting us. We realise now that we could be in a much worse place if you hadn’t found us so quickly.’

‘Anything I have is your’s and your family’s’ Elsa. Like I said earlier, my security will defend you with their lives if needed. The man who led you into this room, Peter, will be team lead for your own personal security detail and I can assure you, there is no finer person alive than he to keep you safe. Peter has until now been my own team lead, but I bequeath him to you from here onwards. Trust him like your own blood. He will not let you down and neither will I. You are now my responsibility.’

‘Thank you,’ Elsa said simply.

‘Now, I think I should probably go and check the state of play out in the world. I suspect my list of return phone calls is building, so if there is anything else?’

‘I have one more question,’ Elsa said.

‘Please?’ the Prime Minister replied.

‘We need to get back up to Brisbane tomorrow morning to see someone. Can we do that?’

Max turned to look at his wife.

‘Of course,’ Joe answered. ‘Like I said, whatever you need is yours’. You don’t have to tell me who you need to see or why, but it would help plan the security detail.’

‘Oh, I’ll tell you. We need a personal trainer for Max and I know the perfect person.’

Joe raised his eyebrows. ‘I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention it, you will have access to all of our military resources and in there somewhere is probably the ideal training solution.’

‘Thank you and maybe you’re right,’ Elsa said, ‘but like Max said, we don’t readily trust just anyone and this person I have in mind is the absolute right person for this job. Whether or not she agrees is another thing, but Max needs a trainer and I think it needs to be her.’

The Prime Minister studied Elsa’s face for a few moments and then said, ‘As you wish. It obviously means a lot to you, so by all means. I’ll send Peter in to discuss the travel plan. As for the rest of today, you are welcome to stay here. Your rooms are made up and treat the house as your own. I will catch you when I can.’

With that, the Prime Minister stood and left the room, leaving Max and Elsa to watch him go. The room was silent except for the giggles of the children outside.

‘I meant what I said,’ Max stated. ‘He has a good feel about him.’

‘I think so too,’ Elsa replied. ‘Funny thing is, I now feel guilty that I didn’t vote for him.’

Max smiled and wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulders to gently squeeze her.

 

1st July (15 minutes later). A New Enemy

 

‘Are you sure that’s him?’ the younger man in the crisp, charcoal coloured suit asked, leaning back in his leather chair as he scanned the hardcopy photos spilling out of the manila folder on his desk.

‘Yes,’ replied the more elderly Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, US Army General Robert Stratton, from a lounge across the office, ‘and his name is Maximilian Augustus Dyson.’

The man behind the desk looked over at the aging soldier from under his arched eyebrows. ‘For real? That’s his name?’

‘Yes, it is. Read it right off his birth certificate as my car drove through the White House gates.’

‘Wow. His mum and dad had a real Roman fetish thing going on. Must have sucked going through high school with that mouthful.’

‘Wouldn’t rightly know as we can’t find any evidence he ever went to school, let alone who his parents are,’ the Chairman added.

‘So, he’s a John Doe?’ the younger man asked, returning his attention to the photos.

‘Not exactly. His parents are a mystery, but we got all the routine stuff on him, no problem. He’s an average guy. Wife, two kids and lives in a regular neighbourhood. Runs a small landscaping business on his own. Pays his taxes every year and seems to keep to himself. Nothing special, until now.’

The man in the suit, Charles Ingot the Third, dropped a photo back down onto the pile and rose from his chair. Walking around the desk, he crossed the room to a sideboard and lifted the glass coffee pot out from the percolator. As he picked up a mug he said, ‘General, I didn’t get all the way into the White House to be Chief of Staff to the President by being dumb.’ He finished pouring his coffee and replaced the pot. He then turned to face the Chairman. ‘I got here by knowing more than anyone else about everything and right now, I don’t know nearly enough about this Maximilian guy. You tell me he’s a regular Joe, but that clearly is not the case. You don’t get randomly selected out of a global population of over six billion to be champion of the world against an alien race. You get chosen to be champion because of something specific. No, he is not just a regular Joe. He’s somebody and you need to find out who. Now, tell me you know where he is?’

‘He’s with the Australian Prime Minister at his residence in Canberra,’ the Chairman returned, non-plussed by the Chief of Staff’s verbal belting. ‘Those photos are sourced from Prime Minister Tollsen’s own CCTV network at his residence, courtesy of our boys at the NSA, who hacked them out. The pictures are an hour old, but we believe this Mister Dyson is still at the same location.’

‘So, our mystery man is being hosted by Prime Minister Tollsen?’ the Chief of Staff mused.

‘Is that a problem?’ the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs asked.

‘I don’t know,’ came the reply. ‘He’s a classic politician and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it means he’s a lot wilier than we want him to be. He might hand this Maximilian over to us willingly for the greater good because he knows we can manage him better or he might hold out because he doesn’t trust us. I don’t know him well enough yet to judge him.’

‘And I thought you said you knew more than everyone else about everything?’ the Chairman said as he rose from the couch, collecting his peaked cap from the coffee table as he did.

‘Don’t play with my words, Mister Chairman,’ the younger man said coolly. ‘You just get me what I need to know.’

‘And what about POTUS?’ the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs returned. ‘Now that you know where this guy is, what will you propose to the President?’

‘When it comes to the President, I’ve always found the concerned big brother approach works best. If the world needs saving, then the United States are here to lend a hand to our little brother, so why shouldn’t Australia hand this Maximilian over to us, so we can make sure he’s kept safe and fit until he needs to set foot in the arena? Who else would you trust with that job other than the only true super power left in the world?’

‘And if they do hand him over,’ the Chairman added, ‘while you’re busy keeping him safe, you’ll also interrogate him to get the truth out of who he is and why he’s so interesting to these aliens and in the process, see if there is any scope to access alien technology and get a jump on the rest of the planet. Does that match your thinking?’

The Chief of Staff to the President of the United States fixed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in his gaze and said, ‘All in the name of peace, my friend.’

‘Sure,’ the Chairman said as he turned for the door, a wry smile slicing across his face. ‘We wouldn’t want some jumped up little backwater country like Australia out showing America when it comes to saving the human race now would we?’

‘Just get me that intel, General. Pronto.’

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs let his smile harden as he opened the door, his eyes steeling over. The two men locked gazes for a moment just long enough to tighten the tension in the room and then the General was gone. The Chief of Staff watched the door close and then turned back to his desk and the photos strewn across it. His eyes bore into the face. He would have this man. He would own this man and then after he had his secrets, he would kill him.

 

9:57am, 2nd July (the next day). Kris

 

Kris Blake sat alone at the corner table inside the cafe, her abandoned cappuccino steaming away untouched in front of her, while she methodically slid the screen of her iPad upwards to read another news article. The cafe was essentially empty with herself as the only paying customer and one other person, the owner, who sat quietly behind the counter on his lonesome, reading his own iPad.

The sound of the front door opening startled the owner into action, prompting him to jump up and grab a menu, ready to dash out and greet his second customer. Meanwhile, Kris remained transfixed to her iPad. The newcomer looked around the room and spied Kris, then walked across the room to where she sat.

‘Hey, good lookin’,’ the newcomer said brightly.

The spoken words raised Kris from her reading and she looked up, a smile immediately adorning her face.

‘Hey, yourself’ Kris replied. ‘What are you doing here, Elsa? I thought you were on holidays?’

‘Yeah, we were,’ Elsa said, pulling out a chair to sit down, ‘but this whole alien invasion thing and the end of the world kind of got in the way.’

‘Hmph. Aliens. Always showing up at the wrong time.’

Elsa smiled back and then saw a shadow appear by her side.

‘Good morning,’ the owner of the cafe said, failing miserably to hide the over eagerness in his voice. ‘Can I get you something?’

‘Ah, sure,’ Elsa replied, smiling back at him. ‘Latte, please, and…one of those apple and cinnamon muffins you’ve got there?’

‘Of course,’ he replied quickly. ‘Won’t be long.’

Elsa turned back to Kris and found her smiling again.

‘That was charitable,’ Kris said. ‘Normally this place is chock full, but I don’t think he’s going to get much business today. I don’t think any of his staff even turned up.’

‘Are you working today?’ Kris asked.

‘Yeah, but not yesterday.’

‘Not yesterday? Why not? Monday’s normally your busiest day in the gym isn’t it?’

‘Yep. Normally, but I doubt anyone turned up. Most people probably stayed home like me just in case things got a bit hairy out in public.’

‘What do you mean hairy?’

Kris tilted her head slightly askew and replied, ‘Haven’t you been watching the news?’

‘No,’ Elsa replied, shaking her head. ‘Long story. We’ve been a bit busy since the, you know, the alien thing came up. We had to ditch our holiday pretty quickly yesterday morning and haven’t really had time to stay on top of things.’

‘Well, you’ve got plenty of catching up to do then,’ Kris said, closing the lid of her iPad cover and placing it on the table next to her. ‘As soon as this alien news broke on Sunday night, the crime rate ratcheted up. Break-ins. Assaults. Arson. Lots of random stuff, so there was no way I was going out yesterday, busy day in the gym or not.’

‘And what brought you out today?’

‘Have you ever seen so many police on the streets? The Prime Minister sure lived up to his word and if we ever get a chance to vote for Joseph Tollsen again, he’s got my tick.’

‘The Prime Minister? What did he do?’

‘Wow,’ Kris said, eyebrows raised. ‘You really are out of the loop. He held a joint press conference late yesterday afternoon with all the state premiers and promised to fix this spike in crime by flooding the streets with police and voila, the streets are flooded with police and the crime rate’s back down again. Still a bit dodgy, but safe enough for me to come back to work.’

Elsa let her gaze wander away as she recalled their conversation with Prime Minister Tollsen yesterday and his excusing himself to attend to something important. Now she knew where he had gone. He had gone out and made a promise to keep everyone safe, just like the promise he had made to her and Max. Elsa nodded silently as she felt her trust for the man deepen even further. Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen was a man of his word.

Movement next to her pulled Elsa from her reverie. A plate hosting an over-sized muffin appeared on the table in front of her, followed by a lightly steaming latte in a tall ceramic mug. Elsa turned and smiled up at the cafe owner.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

The owner smiled back, a hint of something deeper than gratitude behind the expression, almost like he was just happy to see a smiling face let alone a customer in his empty cafe. Then Elsa realised her perception of what was happening around her was unique. Her and Max’s perspective on the situation was from the inside looking out, knowing and understanding the truth of the emerging global crisis, but out here in the public it was completely different.

Everyday people everywhere were experiencing this affair in ways she had not imagined. Yesterday, Kris had stayed home out of fear for her safety, but had then been “rescued” by the integrity of a politician. Meanwhile, the cafe owner was just happy to see a friendly face, with Elsa’s smile as therapeutic as the comforting words of a skilled councillor.

Elsa needed to start paying attention to everyone around her. Society was on the brink and if it deteriorated any further, even if Max won in the arena, the world might already be too far gone to save.

‘So, if you’re here to do a gym session,’ Kris began, bringing Elsa back to the present, ‘that muffin’s not going to be your friend.’

‘Oh, no,’ Elsa said, waving the comment away and breaking the warm muffin in half, releasing a faint bloom of steam. ‘I’m not here to go to the gym. I came here hoping to talk to you actually.’

‘To me?’ Kris queried, picking up her coffee and taking a sip. ‘What about?’

‘I need your help,’ Elsa said directly, also picking up her latte and fixing her gaze on Kris, looking over the rim of her mug, ‘and in return, I can help you.’

Kris paused, her response coming carefully. ‘Are you in trouble?’

‘Sort of,’ Elsa replied, ‘but first let me tell you how I can help you and then we can talk about you returning the favour.’

‘Okay,’ Kris answered slowly, leaning back in her chair. ‘Why do I need help?’

‘Protection.’

‘Why do I need protection?’

‘Well, like you said, the crime rate is up because of this alien invasion stuff and I can offer you protection from all that. I can keep you safe all the way through this thing, right up until the arena duel on New Year’s Eve and maybe after that too if needed. The best of protection too. Not just a hideout or something, but real protection. Full military detail. The real deal. As good as the Prime Minister gets. In fact, exactly what the Prime Minister gets.’

Kris squinted back. ‘Okay, so let’s assume you know what you’re talking about and I get this protection, as good as the Prime Minister gets,’ she said slowly, ‘but what do I have to do for you?’

‘This is going to sound weird,’ Elsa said, ‘but I need you to train my husband. I need you to be his personal trainer for the next six months and I mean full on training. Weights. Stamina. Functional fitness. The lot and multiple sessions every day and in whatever creative ways you can imagine. If you can do that for me, I can guarantee the best protection you can imagine, regardless of how bad things might get.’

Kris paused then said, ‘You’re right. That does sound weird. The world’s going to hell and you’ll keep me safe if I train your husband? None of that makes any sense.’

Elsa nodded and put her coffee down on the table. ‘I knew this would be too hard to explain, so let me just show you what’s going on here.’

‘Show me what?’ Kris asked as she watched Elsa pull out her phone and quickly type in a message. ‘Who are you texting?’

Elsa finished typing the message and put the phone down. ‘Watch the door,’ she said, flicking her head sideways.

Kris snapped her gaze up to the entry as it swung open and in walked two men in cotton trousers and polo shirts. They weren’t big men, but they were not small either and then it slammed into her and she sat bolt upright. Both men had gun holsters strapped around their torsos. They were armed!

The cafe owner instinctively jumped up from his seat behind the counter with a menu in hand, only to be greeted in return by one of the men holding up a hand that very clearly indicated they were not there to dine. The owner froze, slipped his gaze down onto their weapons and then slowly retreated back to his stool, like a tabby cat confronted with a full blown lion.

‘It’s okay, Kris,’ Elsa said. ‘The guys with the guns are with me. They’re friends.’

Kris continued to eye off both men as they scanned the room and then split up to position themselves on opposite sides of the interior, their hands clasped together in front of them.

‘They’re really with you?’ Kris asked, her eyes still wide.

‘Yes, they are,’ Kris answered. ‘These guys are part of the protection I was talking about. I know it’s confronting, but they’re here to keep us safe, so try not to worry about them.’

Kris eased herself back in her chair, still eyeing off the armed newcomers. ‘Easy for you to say,’ she said. ‘Is this what you needed to show me. Your armed escort?’

Elsa shook her head. ‘No. There’s something else. You know the images of that face that have been scratched into the Himalayas and the Sahara?’

‘Yeah,’ Kris replied. ‘Of course I do. They’re all over the internet.’

‘Pull one of them up on your iPad.’

‘Why?’ Kris asked, her squint returning.

‘It’s time for the main part of the show and how I explain what I’m talking about.’

Kris eyed Elsa from across the table and then flicked her gaze back to the two silent guards at each end of the room. Slowly, she retrieved her iPad to open an internet browser. Searching under images, she easily found a plethora of pictures depicting the mysterious stranger’s face scribed onto various landscapes around the world.

‘Okay?’ Kris said. ‘Which image do you want?’

‘Whatever one is clearest.’

Kris scrolled the screen up a few flicks and then tapped on one of the little pictures.

‘Okay. Now what?’ Kris asked, looking up to see Elsa tapping a button on her phone.

‘Look down at your image and then watch the door again,’ Elsa said simply, picking up her latte and leaning back in her own chair, taking a slow sip, her gaze locked onto Kris over the rim of the mug.

Kris turned her attention back to the door. Silence filled the room. She shot a couple of sideways glances at the two burly men while she waited. Elsa continued to take long sips of her drink, not shifting her gaze from Kris. Then the door opened and Kris flicked her eyes back up in that direction as in walked another man.

In contrast, this man was solidly built in his shorts and t-shirt, but he also looked familiar. Very familiar, almost like she had just been looking at him and then, like a wave surging up onto the beach, recognition built. Kris’ eyes widened. The wave surged higher and as it peaked, Kris’ brain locked onto the detail of the face.

Quickly she glanced down at her iPad and the wave crashed and broke. The man in the doorway and the image on the screen shared the same face. It was him. It was the stranger the aliens had come to fight and he was standing right here in front of her.

‘Kris?’ Elsa said gently. ‘I’d like you to meet my husband Max and yes, he’s the one whose face is scratched into the north face of Mount Everest.’

Kris stared glassy eyed at Max, her face blank and her mouth open. Max cast a glance down at Elsa who looked back up and waved for him to sit down next to her. As Max sat down, Kris’ stare followed him.

‘Kris, I need you to…,’ Elsa started.

‘Why you?’ Kris cut in, her eyes large.

Max held Elsa’s boggling gaze for a moment and then looked sideways at Elsa who tried to rescue him.

‘Kris, I need to explain…’ Elsa started again.

‘Why do the aliens want you?’ Kris asked, her entire focus squared on Max through her wide eyes.

Elsa opened her mouth to speak, but Max laid a hand on her thigh. She looked across at her husband and he nodded. She closed her mouth.

Turning back to Kris, Max said, ‘Kris, I’m not ready to tell you that. Let’s be clear. My wife trusts you and that means I trust you, but I don’t know you nearly well enough to trust you with that particular secret, yet.’

Kris stayed silent, searching Max’s face for something. Then she leaned back in her chair, her composure returning. Looking down at the table, she recollected herself, the silence in the cafe almost overwhelmed by the turning cogs of her mind.

‘Okay,’ she finally said, shaking her head slightly. ‘There’s a lot going on here, so let me get this straight? You want me to train you and in return, you’ll give me protection up until you go into the arena?’

‘Yes,’ Elsa said, resuming control of the conversation. Max sat back a little. ‘The same protection the Prime Minister gets.’

‘What does that mean? The same as the Prime Minister gets?’

‘You could say Joseph Tollsen is our sponsor. That’s who these guys are,’ Elsa replied, waving her hand at the two burly men inside the cafe with them. They’re from the Prime Minister’s own personal detail and they’re assigned to protecting Max and I and the kids and if you help us, they’ll protect you too.’

Kris shook her head. ‘Hold on. I’m really struggling with this. Fine you’ll protect me, but why do you want me to train Max? Max needs combat training. Weapons training and all that sort of stuff. I don’t do any of that. I do basic functional fitness, so surely, the Prime Minister can give you someone out of the army or the SAS that would be better for what he needs? Why me?’

Max leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. ‘We trust you, Kris. Simple as that. Elsa and I don’t make friends easily. We never have and we’ve never needed to. We have each other and our children and that’s enough for us, but like I said, we trust you.’

‘But I make Elsa do a few burpees and squat jumps. That’s all. You’re a fit looking guy, Max. You don’t need burpees. You need gladiator stuff and you won’t get that from me.’

‘Kris, believe me when I say I know how to fight. I don’t need you to teach me how to defend myself or use a weapon. It’s in my blood. Don’t ask why. It just is. As for being fit? Yes, I’m naturally pretty fit, but pretty fit is nowhere near good enough for what I need to do. I need someone to make me faster, stronger and just plain better and Elsa thinks you can do that. You’ve done it for her and she thinks you can do it for me, so Kris, we’re asking you to help us because right now, you’re the only person in the world we can trust with this, so how about it?’

Kris sat mute. The cogs in her mind had ratcheted up. Max leaned back. Elsa looked on. Several seconds of silence stretched out and then Kris spoke again.

‘Alright, maybe I can train you,’ she said, ‘but there’s one thing you have to do for me first.’

‘What’s that?’ Max asked.

‘You said you think you’re pretty fit? Is that right?’ she asked.

Max nodded.

‘Well,’ Kris replied, ‘prove it.’

 

  • * *

 

Ten minutes later, Max, Elsa and Kris were walking down towards the other end of the shopping village to Kris’ gym, a six man security detail surrounding them. Peter led the group, his eyes never stationary, while his team walked equally spaced at a few metres distance around the civilian trio. The entourage crossed paths with only two other people on their short walk, causing each individual to shy back against the wall to let them pass.

Within the confines of the security ring, Max now carried a black sports bag in one hand and Elsa’s hand in the other. Just in front of them, Kris walked stiffly along, her eyes darting back and forth between Peter and the members of his team that walked in her field of vision.

When they reached the front door of the gym, Peter stopped and turned, the rest of his team stopping simultaneously with him, maintaining their formation. Peter indicated for Kris to open the door. Retrieving a swipe card, she deactivated the lock.

One of Peter’s team members immediately reached forward and opened the door, allowing Peter to briskly step inside, a second team member slipping in behind him. Everyone else stayed put. As the silent seconds ticked by, Kris darted her gaze around the ring of remaining security. Then the man holding the door open twitched his head slightly as a message crackled in his ear piece.

‘It’s clear,’ he said. ‘You can go in.’ Kris paused. ‘You can go in now, please.’

The tone stirred Kris into action and she stepped inside. Max let Elsa go in next and then followed suit. The four remaining guards stayed outside to take up sentry positions, their presence as nondescript as tanks parked on a regular suburban street.

Once inside, Kris noticed that Peter and the other guard had positioned themselves strategically on opposing sides of the gym. The interior was not overly large and right now it was completely void of any other patrons. One third of the space stood filled with an orderly collection of cardio equipment; treadmills, rowing machines, cross-trainers and bike machines all lined up in rows, shoulder to shoulder. The second third of the space hosted an assortment of weights machines comprising pulleys and stacks of rectangular slabs of grey iron, clearly designed to work every inch of the body. The final third of the gym was reserved for free weights. An expansive, floor to ceiling mirror filled the length of the wall with a rubberised mat stretched across the floor in front of it. A double rack of dumbbells and barbells stood against the mirror and a row of benches lined the centre of the mat. All in all, it was a pretty standard, contemporary gym. Neat, tidy and functional.

Kris stood transfixed just inside the entry.

‘What do you want us to do?’ Elsa asked gently.

Kris stirred and turned around. ‘Um, get changed I guess,’ she said.

Max looked around the room.

‘Over there in the corner,’ Kris added, motioning to a door on the far side of the room. ‘Meet you back here.’

Max nodded and made his way to the change room. A minute later he came back out dressed all in black in an Adidas training tank top and black shorts, but the most striking things were his shoes. Bright orange Nike Frees with blue laces and matching blue swoosh.

Kris arched an eyebrow as she looked him up and down. ‘Nice bling,’ she said. ‘I hope your moves are as flash as your shoes, big guy?’

Kris stepped across and laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. ‘You’re just jealous,’ she replied, ‘because he’s got brighter shoes than you.’

Glancing down at her own red Nikes with yellow laces, Kris nodded. ‘You got that right. Not happy.’

Max and Elsa looked at each other. Suddenly, a sharp clap brought their gazes back round to Kris.

‘Enough gas bagging,’ Kris shot out. ‘Let’s get busy. First, let’s see how well you bench. Ditch the bag and come with me.’

Max obeyed, pushing his bag into a niche in the nearby open lockers and then following Kris through the gym to the free weights area. Elsa followed at a distance. Once on the rubber mat, Kris dragged the benches out of the way and turned to face Max.

‘First trick. How many push ups can you do?’ she asked curtly.

‘Don’t know,’ Max replied. ‘Never tried.’

‘Give me ten to start, but if you can do twenty, even better.’

Max nodded and lowered himself to the floor. He started his push ups, slowly at first, but then as he got closer to ten, he sped up. After twenty, he pushed himself to his feet.

Kris mused silently for a moment and then said, ‘Give me twenty more, but this time put your feet up on the bench behind you.’

Max turned to look at the bench and then lowered himself down again, planting his toes on the red, vinyl covered bench to elevate his feet. Thirty seconds later, Max was finished and back standing. Kris scanned him for any signs of fatigue and failed.

‘Good,’ she said at last. ‘Now, tell me how you got that chest of your’s? Lifting weights or all natural?’

‘All natural,’ Max said.

Behind Kris, Elsa smiled.

‘Alright,’ Kris continued, ‘let’s do some bench press. We’ll start you off light and then see what you can get up to, but before we do that, let’s do a few more upper body stretches just to make sure nothing goes pop.’

A few minutes later, with his torso and arms fully stretched, Max lay on a bench with a weighted barbell resting on the rack over his prone form.

‘Okay, there’s forty kilos on the bar,’ Kris started. ‘I reckon you’ll lift this easy, but just go steady. We don’t want you in traction before you have to save the world. Try for ten.’

Max nodded and grabbed the bar firmly with both hands, assuming a wide grip. Pushing upwards, he easily lifted the bar clear. Then, lowering it slowly to his chest, he paused before pushing it all the way back up. At the top, he paused again and then lowered it down to his chest again. Kris watched carefully, her arms crossed and a slight knit in her brow. After his tenth repetition, Max gently clattered the bar back onto the rack and sat up.

‘How was that?’ Kris asked.

‘Like you said. Easy,’ Max replied.

‘Let’s double it,’ Kris shot back. ‘Grab another twenty kilo plate and bang it on that end. I’ll get this end.’

Max stood and walked over to grab another large weight plate. Together, he and Kris loaded twice the weight onto the bar, forcing it to bend slightly.

‘Can I borrow one of your guys to give you a spot?’ Kris asked.

Max looked across at Peter who in turn nodded to the other member of his team. The man obliged and silently walked across to stand at the head of the bench, while Max lay down again.

Kris stepped out of the way and stood to the side. ‘Go steady again,’ she said. ‘This will be tougher. Try for five and if you can, go to ten.’

A few moments later, Max had easily pressed the barbell through five repetitions and without a pause, followed through with another five. Replacing the bar on the rack, he sat up and looked at Kris.

‘More?’ she asked, squinting.

‘Double again,’ he replied.

Kris paused as she looked him over. ‘Fine, but we’ll need another one of your boys.’

Two minutes later, one hundred and sixty kilos burdened the bar, which gravity now seriously assaulted, placing a definite bow in it. Max lay on his back underneath the bar, while another of Peter’s security team had come inside to spot with one man positioned at each end of the weighted load.

‘The bar’s at max load,’ Kris said, ‘and I want you blokes on each end to keep your hands on it at all times. Max is going to have some trouble with this, so stay focused.’

The two men said nothing and instead braced their feet a little wider apart, their hands placed on the ends of the bar.

‘Max, I want you to try one lift,’ Kris continued. ‘Down and up is fine. These guys will help you all the way. Okay?’

‘Yeah,’ Max said as he gripped the bar again. ‘Sure thing.’

Max took a deep breath, focused on the bar and pushed up. The two guards’ hands stayed loosely held on each end. Max paused at the top and then slowly lowered the bar. Smoothly he controlled it all the way down to his chest and then just as smoothly, pushed it all the way back up.

‘Good work, Max,’ Kris said. ‘Now put it back on the rack.’

Max held the bar raised in the air for another moment and then slowly lowered it back down to his chest.

‘Alright, Max. Push it up and rack it,’ Kris repeated a little firmer.

Max smoothly pushed the bar back up all the way to the top and then after another pause, lowered it down again. Kris opened her mouth to speak, but held her tongue as Max pushed the bar up again a little faster. Kris then watched Max pump out another seven repetitions without halting.

At the end, Max replaced the bar on the rack and sat up. Turning to Kris he found her frowning with crossed arms and beaded eyes. Max ignored the look and asked, ‘Got a bigger bar?’

Elsa’s smile widened. The two security guards exchanged glances. Kris didn’t budge.

‘Off the bench,’ she finally said. ‘Let’s go rowing.’

Five minutes later, Max was standing in the middle of the free weights area, the bench press bar on the floor in front of him and forty kilos slapped on each end.

‘Now, just like I showed you,’ Kris said as she stepped up beside Max. ‘Feet hip width apart. Knees slightly bent and your torso bent over at the hips till your back is about thirty degrees angled up from the plane of the floor. Make sure your back is arched up as well. Shoulders high and butt stuck out the back. You lose that form, your lower back is going to hate you for a long time.’

Max mimicked Kris’ bent over stance. Kris continued.

‘Now grab the bar with an overhand grip, just wider than shoulder width,’ she said. ‘Pull the bar smoothly up, no jerking, till it hits your gut. Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift. Don’t try to just use your arms because you’ll fail and probably pop a bicep along the way. At the top, hold the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades as much as you can for a full second and then slowly lower it down again. Do ten if you can. If you can’t, just lift it as many times as you can. Make sure you keep that back arched and your butt out. Okay?’

‘Got it,’ Max replied, reaching down to grip the bar as instructed.

‘Right. Take it slow,’ Kris said, stepping out of the way.

With his grip on the bar, Max looked up in the full length mirror to confirm his form. Staring himself down, he pulled the bar off the ground. Fifteen seconds later he had completed ten smooth repetitions with no falter. Placing the bar back on the ground, he straightened and looked in the mirror at Kris who was already returning the look.

‘Let me guess?’ she asked. ‘Double?’

Max nodded. Kris flicked a glance at Elsa who shrugged in reply. Kris then turned and walked over to grab another heavy weight plate, her frown deepening.

Thirty minutes later and now on the squat rack, Max eased the bar back onto the pegs and off his shoulders. Ducking out from underneath the bar, he looked sideways at Kris.

‘What’s next?’ he asked.

Kris just looked at him, her frown now permanently ingrained. Silence settled over them, its strength as potent as any drug. Kris switched her look across to Elsa who shifted uncomfortably on the bench on which she was sitting, but remained quiet.

‘There’s nothing left to lift,’ Kris finally said. ‘I’ve made you work every muscle group across every inch of your body and maxxed the weights and machines out at the same time. You’ve pulled and pushed yourself around the gym and lifted more than I’ve seen most grown men do and I’ve seen some seriously big men and on top of that, I can’t even see a drop of sweat on you. Hell, you just squatted two hundred kilos like the bar was empty. I…I don’t know what to…’

Kris trailed off shaking her head. She looked askew at the ground, her frown now verging on worry. Elsa stood up and walked over to Max and they silently looked at each other. Max then flicked a glance up to Peter, who was looking right back at him, his face like stone, his eyes hard and piercing. Max also glanced at the other two security guards in the room and they too were looking at him. Elsa had also noticed that the spotlight had centred squarely on her husband. She leaned in.

‘I think you might have just scared everyone,’ she whispered.

Kris’ eyes snapped up at hearing the whispering. ‘Clear some space,’ she quipped. ‘Time for some cardio.’

Max and Elsa glanced at each other again and then watched Kris start to drag a bench off to the side of the free weights area. Max stepped in and helped out by pulling two more benches clear to make a space in the centre of the mat in front of the mirror. Elsa stepped back to stand by one of the benches. Sneaking a peek up, she found Peter and his two comrades no longer looking at Max. That at least made her feel a little more relaxed.

Kris turned to Max and said, ‘So, we just established you can lift pretty good, but that’s only half the story. If you really are fit, you can do more than just pump iron. Let’s check out your cardio. Cool?’

‘Cool,’ Max replied.

‘Right, you should be warm after all those weights, so I think we can crack straight into a tabata. Do you know what that is?’

‘Yep,’ Max said. ‘Elsa whinges about them all the time and that you make her do too many, but just to check, it’s twenty seconds flat out for the first exercise then ten seconds rest and then twenty seconds flat out for the second exercise and repeat three more times. All up that’s four minutes right?’

‘That’s right and flat out are the key words. We need one hundred percent. Don’t leave anything out. We’re going to check your heart rate at the end and I want at least a hundred and forty beats per second or else it means you’re not trying hard enough. We’ll mix it up with burpees as the first exercise and uneven push ups for the second. You okay with what those are?’

‘Burpees I know, but what’s an uneven push up?’ Max asked.

Kris turned to the rack behind her and lifted off a bright red medicine ball. She then threw it at Max who caught it.

‘Normal push up,’ Kris started, ‘but with one hand on the ball. When you come back up to the top, roll the ball across and put it underneath your other hand and do another push up. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Fast as you can. okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘Good. We’ll start in ten seconds. Burpees first.’

Max nodded and dropped the medicine ball down next to his feet, waiting silently for Kris to kick him off. In the extended pause, Kris looked Max up and down. The man was pumped. She had seen lots of ultra fit men in her time and Max was in that club, but there was something else about him. Sure he was strong. Crazy strong, but it was the way he moved. Smooth and balanced, but there was something else. Purpose. Everything he did had a purpose and everything he did, he finished. Without realising it, Kris was as tense as a gazelle on the open plains, her nerves on the edge.

‘Go,’ she barked and in a blur, Max dropped to the floor to start his burpees.

Four minutes later it was done. Max had finally cracked a sweat, but only just. It was more a slight glisten if you caught him at the right angle beneath the lights. His breathing laboured slightly as he held his fingers to his throat, checking his own pulse. Kris watched as her stopwatch clicked up to fifteen seconds.

‘Stop,’ she said. ‘What’d you get?’

‘Eighteen,’ Max said, his breathing now back at normal levels.

Kris slowly raised her gaze to meet his.

‘What?’ Max asked.

‘Eighteen? You’re sure?’ she asked dead pan.

‘Eighteen, bang on,’ Max replied.

‘Let’s do another one,’ Kris said hurriedly, stepping over and kicking the medicine ball out of the way, ‘but burpees only this time and instead of ten seconds rest standing up, stay down in the push up position.’

‘Okay,’ Max replied. ‘You want me to start on the ground?’

‘Yep.’

Max lowered himself down and pushed himself up into a push up position on his hands and toes. ‘Say when,’ he said.

‘When,’ Kris shot back.

Just over four intense minutes later, Max stood checking his own pulse again, while Kris monitored her stop watch.

‘Stop,’ Kris said.

‘Twenty,’ Max followed up with.

Kris froze. Max and Elsa looked at each other. Kris then turned and with her hands on her hips, walked a few paces away from them. Elsa looked over at Peter who was again fixed on Max. Things were definitely uncomfortable now.

‘What’s wrong, Kris?’ Elsa asked.

Kris stopped walking and slowly shook her head, her back still turned.

‘What is it?’ Elsa pushed.

Kris spun and looked at her, hard.

‘Your husband just did back to back tabatas and through his second one, did a steady burpee every two seconds every cycle, no problem. That’s not world record pace, but it’s pretty damn good.’

‘That’s great isn’t it?’ Elsa asked brightly.

‘Yeah, it is,’ Kris answered, ‘but his heart rate hasn’t even broken seventy-five beats a minute and that’s a resting heart rate for most blokes.’

‘Like he said, he’s pretty fit,’ Elsa added.

‘That’s not pretty fit, Elsa,’ Kris rifled back, shaking her head emphatically. ‘That’s insanely fit. He just ripped his way through two breakneck tabatas without cracking a decent sweat on top of making a mockery of every weights exercise I can think of and demonstrating if he really tried, he’d stand a damn good chance of nudging every power lifting record in the book. That’s not normal. It’s far from normal and so, it leaves me with only one question to ask and I need a straight answer here. Absolute truth.’

‘Fire away,’ Max replied.

‘Are you on any drugs, performance enhancing, medicinal or otherwise that could explain your…your high levels of fitness and strength? I don’t care if you’re a steroid freak. I’m not here to judge you and if you need to be on roids to make you fit enough to fight off aliens and save the world then so be it. Bring it on. I just need to know because if you are on something, it makes a huge difference to how I train you?’

‘No, I’m not on anything,’ Max said straight faced. ‘Never have been. Wouldn’t even know what to take.’

Kris stood stock still, her arms crossed as she studied Max’s face. The silence stretched. Elsa crossed her gaze to Peter who was not watching, but she knew he was listening.

‘Okay,’ Kris finally said. ‘You are what you are, even though I’ve never seen or heard of anyone like you.’

‘So, what do you say?’ Elsa chipped in. ‘Are you in?’

Kris shifted her gaze to Elsa for a few moments and then turned to look at one of the silent televisions hanging from the wall in front of the row of empty treadmills. The images consistently showed emergency services in action all over the country as fear grew unchecked. People in pain. Lives being randomly destroyed and then an image appeared depicting Max’s face carved on to the Himalayan Range and her mind was made up. Turning back to Max and Elsa, she fixed them in her focus.

‘If the world’s going to end,’ Kris said, ‘then you’re the guys I want to be with. I’m in.’

‘Thank you!’ Elsa shot back, running over to embrace Kris. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’

Kris returned the hug, but over Elsa’s shoulder she kept her eyes on Max who looked evenly back. She may have had a smile on her face, but inwardly, deep inside Kris’ head, alarm bells had just started ringing.

 

3pm, 2nd July (later the same day). Isolation

 

While Max and Elsa left to pick up the kids, Kris was whisked into one of the security detail’s black, armoured Land Cruisers and driven straight back to her apartment. Once there, she had precisely two hours to pack. If it didn’t find its way into a bag in that time, it stayed behind.

She was then bundled back into the Land Cruiser and driven away without being given any indication of where they were going. After about thirty minutes of silent travel in the back seat on her own, Kris looked through the windscreen and noticed that another of the Land Cruisers had returned and linked back up with them to take the lead. Turning around, she then found the other two Land Cruisers behind her’s, all four vehicles lined up in convoy. Somewhere enroute to wherever they were going, the entire security entourage had rejoined them. Kris assumed Max, Elsa and the kids were in one of the other four-wheel drives, probably the other middle one behind her’s, which made her feel a little better. If the star of the hour, Max was with them, they were going somewhere safe.

Relaxing a little, Kris started to actually take notice of what was beyond her window instead of fretting about what she might have just agreed to. They were hurtling along on a freeway, on the way out of Brisbane by the looks of it with not much traffic on the road around them. However, even though they were speeding, several other cars were still passing them. Then suddenly, their Land Cruiser flew past the still smouldering wreckage of a multi-car pile-up that had just been pushed off to the side of the road. Whipping her head round, Kris tried to get a longer look at the scene, but it flashed by too fast.

‘Was that a car crash back there?’ she asked the driver and his front seat passenger.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ came the simple reply from the passenger.

Then Kris heard a siren. Turning around, she found a red Lexus careering towards them with a police car in pursuit.

‘Hold your line,’ Kris heard a voice say from the walkie-talkie in the hand of the front seat passenger. ‘Let them go by.’

Suddenly the red Lexus shot past them, followed closely by the police car, its sirens wailing. Kris’ gaze stayed glued to the two cars as they continued to speed away, weaving through the sparse traffic.

‘How fast are they going?’ Kris asked.

‘About two hundred,’ the front seat passenger replied, no hint of surprise in his tone.

‘Two hun-,’ Kris started to blurt out and then stopped, her hand shooting up to her mouth to force back a scream.

The red Lexus had just attempted to swerve round a van and instead sharply clipped its back corner. In an instant both vehicles came spectacularly unstuck from the bitumen. The van lifted violently off the ground and started to barrel roll in a tight spin. Simultaneously, the red Lexus got snagged and lifted off the ground to start cart wheeling along the road next to it. Both vehicles shredded smashed panels and metal parts as they spun out of control.

‘Break right!’ barked the voice from the walkie-talkie.

Kris was suddenly pulled sharply to the left, her seat belt biting into her side, as the driver took evasive action. Then the police car slid past their left hand side, its tyres smoking as it braked to a halt. Then the still flipping Lexus and van first filled the windscreen and then the side windows as their Land Cruiser came up behind the stricken vehicles and swerved around them. Kris could not remove her gaze from the carnage and in less than a handful of seconds, the entire scene began to recede behind them.

‘Shouldn’t we stop to help?’ Kris called out, still craning her head round to look out the rear window and past the other two Land Cruisers.

‘No, ma’am,’ came the toneless reply.

‘But they’ll be hurt! We need to…’

‘No, ma’am. It’s outside our scope.’

‘It’s what?’ Kris threw back, turning towards the front again. ‘What scope?’

‘Our operations scope is to get you to the safe house as quickly as possible and without deviation. The police can take care of the crash and any injured parties.’

Kris thought about protesting further, but realised that the tone or rather the lack of tone in his voice meant she had no chance of changing his mind.

‘So where is this safe house?’ she asked instead.

‘ETA is about thirty minutes away.’

‘ETA?’

‘Estimated time of arrival.’

‘You have an acronym for that?’ Kris asked, her eyebrows arched. ‘Are you guys mercenaries?’

‘Private security firm, ma’am. Please, don’t call us mercenaries? That’s not nice.’

Kris nodded slowly, looking at the driver’s sunglass shrouded eyes in the rear view mirror.

‘Are you ex-military?’ she asked more warily.

‘Yes,’ was the single word reply.

That was enough for Kris. She knew prodding them any further would be pointless and besides, she now knew what she had suspected. Elsa had been spot-on when she said she would be surrounded by a very serious security detail.

Settling back into her seat, Kris turned her attention back out the window and noticed them for the first time. Scattered across the landscape, columns of smoke trailed into the air. Some thin and wispy, while others billowed thicker and blacker. Fires. The city had begun to burn.

 

  • * *

 

Thirty minutes later, after having exited the freeway and travelled down a sequence of increasingly narrower roads, Kris felt the Land Cruiser turn onto an unsealed road. The landscape had also become progressively less urban until finally it had turned into pristine bush. They were well and truly outside the city limits now.

A couple of minutes later, the Land Cruiser started to slow down. Looking forward again, Kris saw the front vehicle stop at a large, brick and iron-wrought gate that stood closed. On either side of the gate, the similarly styled fence extended away into the bush. A group of armed soldiers milled around outside the gate, blocking their path to it. One of the soldiers started walking up to the driver’s side window of the lead four-wheel drive.

After a brief conversation, the soldier stepped back and two of his comrades pulled the gate open. The lead Land Cruiser drove slowly through with Kris’ close behind. As they passed through the portal, Kris spied cameras bristling all over the gate and fence, while two camouflaged, Army jeeps sat parked just inside.

As they continued along the wide, dirt road, the bush environment persisted for a while, but then abruptly changed to well-tended, wooden-fenced paddocks. Kris saw a few horses placidly grazing within the confines of the paddocks and a large collection of stables set off to the side. It was a horse stud. A really big one. Wherever they were, it reeked of money.

The paddocks fell behind them and after another few minutes, the house came into view, although to call it a house was doing it an injustice. As they got closer, the house sprawled further and further outwards. It was enormous. It looked to comprise a central complex and two massive wings splaying diagonally out behind. Vast green lawns devoid of trees and shrubs surrounded the house with the surrounding bush set as the backdrop. Kris had never seen anything like it, at least not up close in real life.

Scattered patrols and sentries of more soldiers patrolled the exterior of the house and the grounds. Security was very tight. There was even an Army helicopter resting on the side lawn, its four massive rotor blades drooping down over its hulking chassis and two very large looking machine guns poking out of portals on both sides. Kris’ unease ratcheted up.

The convoy drove into a broad, circling drive that led them right up to the massive portico entry. All four Land Cruisers stopped underneath the cover, lined up one behind the other. More soldiers appeared outside the cars and encircled the now stationery convoy.

‘Let’s go,’ sounded the voice from the walkie-talkie.

The front seat passenger and the driver disembarked at the same time, leaving Kris alone in the back seat to watch the armed soldiers and security detail have a quick conversation. Unsure of what to do, Kris stayed buckled up and still. Then the front seat passenger man opened the rear left side door and motioned for her to exit out his side.

Without hesitation, Kris did so. Turning to her left, she saw Max, Elsa and the kids climb out from the Land Cruiser behind her’s. Elsa spotted her and started to make her way across.

‘I’ll get the kids sorted in their rooms!’ Max called out.

‘Okay!’ Elsa returned, waving over her shoulder.

Max and the two children walked into the house with Peter and two other bodyguards.

‘You okay?’ Elsa asked as she came up to Kris.

‘Fine,’ she replied. ‘Just never imagined I’d be important enough to have a military escort.’

Elsa smiled. ‘I know what you mean, but I think we better get used to a whole lot of things not being what we’d ever imagined.’

‘Things like aliens invading the world and killing everyone you mean?’

‘Yeah,’ Elsa said, turning away to look at their surrounds. ‘Nice place isn’t it?’

‘Sure is,’ Kris replied, turning to look more at the number of soldiers around the grounds than at the luxuries of the estate. ‘I wonder why we’ve got the run of the place?’

‘I’m not game to ask. I’m just assuming it’s Prime Ministerial privilege and leave it at that.’

‘Is he coming up?’ Kris asked.

‘He said he’d try to make it up tomorrow if he could. Said he had a lot on his plate, which I can only guess is true. He is the Prime Minister after all.’

Kris nodded. A pause developed.

‘Did you see the smoke?’ Kris finally asked, looking down at the gravel beneath her feet.

‘Yes,’ Elsa replied quietly. ‘There was a lot of it wasn’t there?’

‘Yes,’ Kris said just as quietly. ‘Things must be getting worse out there.’

‘They are,’ Kris replied. ‘We got a run down in the car from Peter. He’s clued in to the Prime Minister’s regular news updates. Seems like arson is the new craze around town.’

Kris rubbed her face with her hands and said, ‘I don’t get any of this. I can be pretty tough if I need to when the time comes, but right now, I’m struggling. All of this is just plain wrong.’

Elsa turned and looked Kris straight in the eye. ‘I’m with you, Kris. I’m struggling too and I know you don’t need a pep talk right now, but let’s make a deal? You and me? Whatever happens, it’s you and me. We need to be able to count on each other. If it gets too hard or too dark for you, I’m here and if I start to lose it, I can count on you. We’ll get each other through this. Okay? What do you say?’

Kris returned the steely look and nodded. Then Elsa stepped forward and they embraced. As they stood close to each other, Elsa said, ‘You can count on Max too and you see all these soldiers, he’s better than all of them put together.’

They stepped apart, Elsa’s hands still on Kris’ shoulders. ‘Wait and see,’ she said. ‘Max is everything we need him to be. He’s just not ready yet. You think he’s impressive now? Wait until you’ve trained him. He’ll be better than anything or anyone else in the world. He just needs your help and I know you’re up for it.’

Kris nodded. ‘Don’t worry. He’ll get everything I’ve got. You can count on it. You can count on me too. Girls together.’

Elsa smiled and repeated, ‘Girls together.’

The two women smiled and nodded, then they turned, arms around each others’ waists and walked together into the house.

 

10am, 4th July (2 days later). Trials and Politics

 

Elsa and the kids walked together out of the western wing of the house and past the massive pool complex. Crossing the faultless green lawn, they approached the collection of vehicles and aircraft scattered on the grass.

Three dusky tan coloured Black Hawk helicopters sat clustered off to one side with two prime mover trucks on the other. Around the perimeter of the gathering, the security contingent had intensified with more soldiers than Elsa had seen in the last day or so since coming to the estate.

In the broad space between the trucks and the helicopters, resembling an arena of sorts, a familiar scene was unfolding. Elsa had partaken in enough outdoor boot camps to know a fitness layout when she saw one, except this looked far more hardcore than anything she had ever seen before.

Sure there were the usual medicine balls and kettlebells scattered around, but there were also pre-loaded dumbbells and barbells stacked with massive weights, gymnastics high bars and ropes and along one side, a series of hurdles lined up, the white painted jumps gleaming in the mid morning sun. The scene promised sweat and grind and right in the middle of it all stood Kris, dressed in her lycra kit, cap and sunglasses and surrounded by a pack of the most muscular and athletic looking men Elsa had ever seen, all of them with their shirts off and their physiques rippling.

‘What a surprise?’ Elsa called out. ‘Here you are, ringed by a pack of half naked, gorgeous guys. Typical.’

‘Stick to what you’re good at I say,’ Kris called back as she laid some more training cones out on the ground.

‘Jason, look at these!’ Millie shrieked, pulling her little brother away and running towards a pile of big padded shields.

‘You two be careful,’ Elsa called out, ‘and stay out of the way!’

‘I see the kids are settling in just fine,’ Kris added, smiling after the two children.

‘Ducks in water,’ Elsa replied, scanning the scene and casually eyeing off some of the stripped down blokes. ‘As soon as they saw how huge their bedrooms are and found the heated indoor pool that was it. No care about not being at home any more. We’re on a permanent holiday and they’re happy as anything. How are you doing?’

Kris stopped laying the cones down and returned Elsa’s direct look. ‘Fine. My brother and his wife have let mum and dad come and stay with them, so they can all look after each other, so that’s good. As for my friends, most of them have gone AWOL, but I can’t blame them. It’s got to be pretty tough out there for everyone right now, so I guess they’re all looking out for themselves? I don’t know how else to think about it, so I’m trying not to? At least I can distract myself by getting back to doing something I know.’

‘Punishing people you mean?’ Elsa said, grinning.

‘Improving the quality of their lives, is what you really mean?’

‘Yeah, right,’ Elsa said, waving the comment away. ‘So this is what you were cooking up all day yesterday? How does it work?’

‘This is Max’s first test,’ Kris replied, continuing to lay out more cones. ‘I don’t expect it to be too hard for him, but the purpose is not to test his limits, but to see how he goes against these blokes. It’ll give me a benchmark for where and how to start.’

Elsa turned back to look at the group of well-toned men, all of whom were now doing a group push-up session. ‘And who are these chiselled hunks of manliness? You call them up out of your little black book?’

‘They wish. The Australian Army’s finest apparently. I asked Peter if he could rustle up a bunch of the fittest blokes he knows and lo and behold, these fellahs came tumbling out of these helicopters this morning and ripped their shirts off.’

‘I’ll bet the shirts only came off after they got eyes on you?’

‘Hard to blame them really,’ Kris said shrugging.

‘Now all we need is for Joe to get here and we can get this show on the road.’

Kris smiled and shook her head. ‘I love the way you’re on a first name basis with the Prime Minister,’ she said. ‘It’s so cool.’

‘You will be pretty soon too. He’s a nice chap. Now where’s Max?’ Elsa asked looking around.

‘Over here, gorgeous,’ a voice called out from behind her.

Turning around, Elsa found Max walking down the back ramp of one of the trucks, dressed in his black singlet, black shorts and orange shoes.

‘You can take your eyes off the man candy now,’ Max added, coming up to Elsa and giving her a big squeeze.

‘What man candy?’ Elsa replied, looking exaggeratedly around.

‘I could hear you two drooling from inside the truck. So shallow.’

‘Enough kanoodling, big fellah,’ Kris quipped. ‘We’ve got work to do. Come over here and meet the opposition.’

Max released his wife and gave her a peck on the lips before he walked away.

‘Go get ‘em, tiger,’ Elsa said winking.

Kris led Max across the grass to where the other men still clustered around, each of them doing their own stretching exercises now. Peter towed along a few paces behind. Without his jacket on, Peter’s automatic handgun was clearly visible in his shoulder holster and while his movements were relaxed, his tension was palpable. Behind his dark sunglasses, he eyed off the group, one by one

‘On your feet, boys!’ Kris called out. ‘Time for some introductions.’

All ten of the men straightened up and shuffled around to form a half circle focusing on Kris and Max. Peter stayed in the rear, his hands crossed in front of him.

‘I’d like you all to meet Max, so say “Hi, Max”,’ Kris added.

Not a single word came back as all ten men shifted their focuses to Max, squints and frowns the norm. Max impassively returned the looks.

‘Well, that’s friendly,’ Kris said, raising her eyebrows. ‘Max, meet the lads. These guys are apparently the Australian Army’s fittest and finest. They’ll be your competition today and you’ll be theirs’. This morning we’re going to see just how fit you are while you and them slug it out on the course I’ve set up for you.’

‘Can we have a tour, please?’ a tall, blonde and finely hewn young man queried from out of the group, ‘and I think you might need to hold my hand.’

‘Your buddies have got plenty of hands,’ Kris shot back. ‘Maybe you can ask one of them to hold your’s?’

The group smiled and chuckled. Max and Peter didn’t.

‘Come with me,’ Kris said, striding right through the circle and further out onto the grass.

Max let the group turn and follow Kris, so he could fall in at the back with Peter tagging along behind. Kris talked as she walked, gesturing at the various coloured markers and equipment on the ground as she approached them.

‘It’s a four hundred metre course and you’re doing it three times with no rest,’ she said. ‘First station is squat jumps over these hurdles. Ten all up. Easy start. Then high tail it down here to station two where one of my friendly helpers will drop a twenty kilo plate on your back, so you can do thirty push ups while wearing it.’

‘How’s about you sit on top of me?’ the blonde piped up.

‘If you’ve still got enough breath to be funny,’ Kris continued, ‘station three is ten clean and jerks, which should be right up your alley, pretty boy? she said over her shoulder to the blonde. ‘Hope you can handle the weight?’

‘I handle heavy objects all the…’

‘And then for station four,’ Kris said over the top. ‘Leaping lunges with fifteen kilo dumbbells in each hand.’

The blonde bloke opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when he heard a voice speak quietly from behind him.

‘Do your legs run as fast as your mouth?’

The blonde snapped around and found Max right behind him. Max’s cool blue eyes speared back at him.

‘They’ll run all over you, mate,’ the blonde answered, his face scrunching up.

The group turned to focus on the two men as the blonde squared up on Max, who remained stock still, his bulky shoulders tense.

‘Stay with me, boys!’ Kris called out, a faint smile fluttering on her face. Max walked past the blonde, revealing Peter who was standing behind him. A grin split Peter’s face. The blonde sneered at him and turned to follow the group as they returned their attention to Kris. ‘Station five is a rope pull. You’ve all got a twenty kilo plate at the end of a twenty metre rope. Haul that rope in as fast as you can and then run it back out the other way and do it again. You got twenty to do.’

Kris paused and let the group stand there for a moment as they visually imagined doing the exercise Kris had just explained. Glancing at the blonde, she found his demeanour far more serious now that Max had geed him up. As for Max, he looked like he always did. Rock solid. This was going to be very interesting.

‘On we go,’ she said. ‘Station six is ten burpees, but none of your standard, easy peasy burpees. For these I want you doing a handstand press instead of jumping up into the air and a proper man push up when you’re on the ground. If you need help with your handstands, there’ll be some more of my friendly helpers here to catch your ankles.’

Kris led the group around the last curve of the four hundred metre course and back to where they had started. Looking up, she saw two of the black armoured Land Cruisers coming to a stop next to the trucks. Body guards piled out first and then she recognised Prime Minister Tollsen emerge from the back seat of the first vehicle.

‘And station seven is some good old fashioned muscle ups,’ Kris called out, coming to a stop at a collection of horizontal bars high off the ground. ‘The bars are nine feet off the ground, so your feet will be clear of the turf when you’re hanging and if you can’t get your big, manly bodies off the ground and up to the bar, there will be the usual friendly helpers around to give you a milk crate for assistance, but I don’t think any of you will be asking for help will you?’

Silence.

‘Then, to finish off,’ Kris added as she watched the Prime Minister start walking towards her, ‘a sprint. Here to the far end and back again. It’s two hundred metres and when you get back here after your sprints, haul arse right back into station one for your squat jumps again, unless if it’s circuit three, in which case you’re done. Clear?’

More silence.

‘Good,’ Kris called out, clapping her hands. ‘You’ve got three minutes to get ready before being over there on the starting line, so stretch up and I’ll see you in a tick. If you’re not there when I blow the whistle to start, you’re out.’

The group slowly moved closer to the starting line and began preparing for the challenge. Max held off towards the back of the pack and found some space on his own. Kris couldn’t help but notice the blonde guy staring him down. Max was oblivious.

‘It’s Kris isn’t it?’ the Prime Minister asked, stepping forward and extending a hand.’

‘Ah…yes,’ Kris replied, woodenly accepting the handshake. ‘It is.’

‘Nice to meet you and please, call me Joe,’ the Prime Minister replied. ‘I think we’re going to get to know each other well enough to be first name friends.’

‘Okay, Joe. Nice to meet you too.’

‘How do you think Max is going to go against these chaps?’ Joe asked, waving his hand towards the limbering young men.

‘Well, sir, ordinarily I’d say this is a pretty formidable bunch of blokes to race against…’

Ordinarily?’ the Prime Minister interrupted.

‘Yes, sir. Ordinarily, but I don’t think there’s anything ordinary about Max,’ Kris replied, turning to look at Max who was standing stationery on the starting line, hands down by his sides and his stance wide. ‘Fair enough I’ve only seen him in action once, but that was freakish. I’ve never even heard of anyone doing what he did and then there’s the way he moves. Everything he does has purpose. He doesn’t waste his movements and when I think about it, I can’t recall ever seeing him look even a little bit awkward in any way.’

‘You think he’ll beat all these stallions?’ the Prime Minister asked, looking her squarely in the eye.

Kris returned the look. ‘Joe, I don’t think he’s going to just beat them. I think he’s going to blow them away.’

A pause ensued as they both looked at Max, still standing like a stone pillar at the starting line. The blonde guy stepped right up next to him, brushing Max’s shoulder. Neither man turned to look at the other, but Kris knew that daggers were flying in their minds.

Joe smiled. ‘Let’s just hope they all behave themselves. Nice to meet you,’ he said as he walked back to a safe place just past the finishing line.

Kris watched her Prime Minister walk away, his body guards discretely forming a wide perimeter around him. She looked down at her watch. The three minutes were up.

‘Show time, boys!’ Kris called out.

The men all lined up at the start with Max in the middle. A little bit of jostling took place, so Kris gave them a few seconds to settle in. She then placed her whistle between her lips. Max had not moved. All of the other men stood crouched in some shape or form, but he simply stood upright, his feet planted. Then she blew the whistle.

All ten soldiers launched off the starting line in a dead sprint to the first station, their feet thundering on the turf. Kris squinted. One man had stayed behind. Max, absolutely unmoved. Kris took the whistle from her mouth and walked slowly over.

‘What’s going on, Max?’ she asked casually. ‘Forget something?’

‘You mean the bit about this being a race?’ Max asked back.

‘Yeah. It was kind of an important bit,’ Kris answered. ‘How much start are you going to give them?’

‘I figure the first circuit should make it fair.’

Kris looked silently at him as he held poised, his attention zeroed on his competitors. Kris also turned and looked at the pack, who were mostly finishing up their squat jumps with the front runner legging it towards Station Two, closely followed by the blonde in second place.

‘Okay. It’s your call,’ she said. ‘See you at the end.’

Kris walked away to the finish line to watch the race unfold. As she stood there, Kris reflected on how surreal all this was. Here she stood, at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, staying at a billionaire’s horse stud estate, watching a pack of human stallions tear around a cross fit circuit, so she could bench mark her new client that in six months time was going to battle to the death against an assortment of aliens in an attempt to save humanity from extraterrestrial annihilation. It was just plain ridiculous, but underneath it all, she was scared, very scared.

Right now though, Kris held her fears in check. She was in control, but still they buzzed away in the background, incessantly. There were times though, mostly at night or when Kris was alone and it was quiet, that her thoughts slipped their chains and went wild. That was when the shakes came, followed by the tears and the roar in her head, like breakers on a beach, crashing over her. One after the other after the other. Relentless and never stopping.

‘You alright?’ Elsa asked as she came up beside Kris.

Kris’ head snapped up. ‘Yeah. Why?’ she asked quickly.

‘Looked like you were somewhere else.’

Kris shook her head. ‘No, I was just thinking it’s not every day you get to meet the Prime Minister.’

‘You can say that again,’ Elsa said, casting a glance over her shoulder at Joe. ‘So, what’s Max doing? Why are you giving everyone else such a big head start?’

‘Nothing to do with me. It’s all his idea.’

‘Oh, so it’s probably right about now I should tell you he’s pretty competitive.’

‘A lot like you then?’ Kris said smiling and playfully elbowing Elsa in the arm.

‘Yeah, we’re great role models for our kids.’

‘They couldn’t have any better,’ Kris said, her smile softening as she looked at Elsa.

Elsa returned the look and then turned back to the circuit. Both women watched as the group of men pushed themselves through the exercises, the leaders going as hard as they could and the back runners now just pacing themselves, so they could at least keep their dignity by simply completing the course and not failing to finish.

Meanwhile, Max stood unmoved on the starting line, watching the blonde guy drop from the overhead bar at station seven, his muscle ups done. The blonde then turned to begin his two hundred metre sprint to finish his first circuit. Fifty metres down the track he passed the front runner and moved into the lead.

‘He’s pretty fit this blondey,’ Elsa said. ‘He’s almost one circuit in and still looks keen.’

‘Yeah, he’s got some go. I agree with that.’

‘You reckon Max can still take him with this head start?’

Kris turned to look at Max who now had a firm bead on the blonde, his gaze fixed on him as he turned at the other end to start running back.

‘Elsa, I think he’s going to downright embarrass him.’

‘Wow! You think Max is that good?’

‘There’s something special about your husband,’ Kris replied. ‘He’s got something I’ve never seen before and I reckon we’re in for a real show here.’

Kris also turned to look at her husband, who was now starting to tense up as the blonde approached the finish line.

‘Strap yourself in,’ Kris said as the blonde charged past them, sweat streaming off him. ‘We’re off.’

The blonde guy straightened as he ran towards Max, his eyes drilling into his adversary’s. As he pounded past the starting line, Max launched as well and in a split second, he was ahead of the blonde and into his squat jumps.

All ten hurdles were lined up in close sequence like a condensed hurdle course. All the other competitors had squat jumped over each hurdle with a couple of small hops in between each. Not Max. He bounded cleanly over each one without pausing or slowing down, one at a time and if anything, got faster as he progressed. Within seconds he was sprinting away to station two, while the blonde had just jumped over the second hurdle.

‘Did you see…’ Elsa started.

‘Yes, I did,’ Kris finished.

Now Max was down and doing his push ups. As he dropped to the ground, one of the assistants placed a twenty kilo weight plate on his back, which made absolutely no difference. In just over half a minute, he had ripped through all thirty push ups, shrugged the weight plate off his back like a rag and sped off towards station three. The blonde was just struggling over the last hurdle.

‘Max will hit the wall somewhere won’t he?’ Elsa asked.

‘Don’t count on it,’ Kris returned.

Now Max was into his clean and jerks. No sooner had he stopped in front of his barbell and he had flicked it up over his head as he squatted down. In the blink of an eye, Max straightened to full height and then thrown the barbell back down to his feet. In a matter of seconds, Max had completed all ten and was off again.

‘How heavy are those barbells?’ Elsa asked.

‘Fifteen on each end plus a ten kilo bar, so forty kilos all up.’

‘And he just threw it around like it was made of plastic.’

‘We should be paying money to watch this,’ Kris replied.

By the time Kris had finished her sentence, Max had picked up both his fifteen kilo dumbbells at station four and launched into his leaping lunges. The complete set lasted only a few more seconds as Max’s pace failed to slacken. By now the blonde was halfway through his push ups, pain etched into his face.

As Max picked up the end of his rope at station five, he had caught up to the stragglers in the race. The two last placed competitors were methodically pulling their ropes in one hand over another, with no intention of breaking any speed records. One of them even stopped and put his hands on his hips to watch Max haul his rope in so fast, the twenty kilo plate at the end bounced and skittered across the grass. Max finished his twentieth repetition before the other, still trying competitor had got halfway through his set.

Station six still had three other men at it, struggling through Kris’ signature burpee set. Each of them had stopped at least once mid set to rest, but when Max joined them, it didn’t take long for them all to stop and just watch him. Max hurled himself into the exercises, his power and balance eye-popping. Every competitor so far had needed help at some stage to hold their balance in the handstand position, but not Max. He went from push up position on the ground to inverting himself better than any seasoned acrobat, the handstand press not slowing him down in the slightest. In less than half a minute, Max had smashed out all ten burpees and was up and running again, leaving the other three men watching him power away.

‘Most people hate even thinking about doing your special burpees,’ Elsa said, ‘but he just ate them up.’

‘I suspect he even enjoyed them,’ Kris said.

Max charged into station seven just as fast as he had entered station one. Muscle ups. An elite bodyweight exercise that tested even the fittest and strongest of people. If there was any true test of individual strength, this was it. Max ripped through his set of ten in less than thirty seconds.

‘He did it again,’ Elsa said.

‘Yeah. It’s a bad joke,’ Kris replied.

As Max dropped to the ground, he left another competitor dangling and struggling on his bar. Only four other men lay ahead of him. Turning to start sprinting to the other end of the circuit, Max shot a glance across to where the blonde was just finishing his second round of clean and jerks, the man still going as hard as he could, but clearly labouring.

And he was off. Max legged it like no one Kris had ever seen run before, his arms and legs pumping like pistons. His entire body transformed into a machine, more train-like than human being. Back straight and stride long, Max tore across the turf. Kris felt her mouth gaping.

Then Max turned to come back and Kris’ gaze stayed glued to him, hypnotised by his motion. Max screamed past two other competitors on the way back like they were out for a casual jog. One of them even shied away as he burned past. Then he was back at the finishing line and the ground thundered as he ran past Kris and Elsa, heading straight back into the hurdle squat jumps, his pace no slower than the first time he did them.

Kris pried her eyes off Max and thought inwardly for a moment. Yes, Max’s performance was nothing short of astonishing, but his efforts were too regular, too even. He was pacing himself, which meant only one thing. He was holding back.

Looking up, Kris watched Max drop into his push ups, leaving his ninth competitor on the squat jumps. Kris then swung her gaze around the surrounds of the circuit and reality slapped her hard. Every single person in line of sight to the course had stopped to watch Max. All of the patrolling soldiers, all the helicopter pilots lounging nearby and even all of the security detail who should have been watching every other way, had halted to gawk. Everyone was fixated on him. That confirmed how she herself felt. In awe.

‘Yes, he has everyone’s attention,’ a voice said behind her.

Kris turned to see Prime Minister Tollsen step up next to her. ‘You got that right, sir, I mean, Joe,’ Kris stammered.

‘I suspect he’s just about to bruise that chap’s ego too,’ Joe said, nodding towards the blonde who was grunting his way through his first few burpees, just as Max powered through his second set of clean and jerks.

‘Yeah, it’s going to be a real tragedy,’ Kris drawled.

Joe smiled.

Max scooped up his dumbbells at station four and launched into his leaping lunges, the spring in his step as fresh as his first. Kris flicked her gaze to the blonde who was still straining his way through his burpees, even with an assistant helping him to keep his balance with every handstand press.

Then Max was with him. He stormed into the station and literally dived forward onto the ground and straight into a push up. In an instant he was inverted and doing his handstand press. The blonde sneered, but to his credit kept going as hard as he could. As both men competed at their own pace, Max caught up to the blonde and they both finished at the same time, rising to their feet and coming face to face.

‘Who are you?’ the blonde shouted at him. ‘What are you on?’

Max paused and looked at him. It was like chalk and cheese, the difference in stature of the two men. The shirtless, blonde stood half hunched over and breathing hard, while Max held himself firm and upright, his chest rising and falling steadily, but not heaving, a light sweat over his tanned skin.

Then Max took everyone by surprise, not least of all the blonde, as he bent down, drove forwards and in the blink of an eye, picked the blonde up and draped him over his shoulders. An instant later Max was off and running to station six where the first two competitors he had passed were still sitting down watching the show.

Coming into the station, Max thundered to a halt and virtually threw the blonde off his shoulders and down to the feet of his fellow soldiers. The blonde stumbled around and made to get to his feet to attack Max, but the other soldiers grabbed him and held him back, smiles on their faces. Max ignored the ruckus and grabbed the nearest rope to start dragging it in like there was a paper weight on the end and not a twenty kilo plate.

As the blonde continued to rant and rave at him, Max completed his set and then sprinted into the muscle ups station. Kris jogged across to the bar where Max was rhythmically pulling himself up and down and stood next to him.

‘Hey, you’re holding back,’ she said quietly. ‘Don’t.’

Max dropped to the ground, his set finished.

‘Okay,’ he mumbled back without looking at her and launched away.

Kris watched him turn the corner and go. Max’s first sprint had been awesome, but this time it was unbelievable. Kris froze in her tracks. Even fifty metres away, she could feel the vibrations in the ground as he tore across the grass. Goose bumps rose on her skin. If things had been surreal before, the strangeness had just ratcheted up to a whole new level.

Max turned and sprinted back and without breaking stride, launched into his third set of hurdle squat jumps. By now, all ten competitors had stopped and were congregating in the middle of the circuit. Even the blonde had settled down and was sulkily watching the show. Some of them had even started to cheer Max on.

‘So much for the race?’ Elsa said.

‘He’s not done yet,’ Kris replied.

‘Is he getting faster?’ Elsa asked.

‘Like I said, he’s not done yet.’

By now Max was into his last set of push ups and he’d even told the assistant to drop a second weight plate onto his back. Then he was into the clean and jerks and now instead of just springing up from the squat to stand, he was actually jumping with the barbell overhead.

‘Is he meant to be doing that?’ Elsa asked slowly.

Kris didn’t reply, her attention fixed on Max, her eyes squinting. Then Max got stuck into his leaping lunges and instead of keeping the dumbbells down by his side as he leapt, he raised them out to the sides, arms straight and unwavering.

Then he was sprinting away and into the burpees at station five. This time he did double handstand presses on each rep. After finishing them just as fast as the first round, Max powered into the rope pull station. With the weight pulled in the first time, instead of running the weight back out to the start point, Max picked it up with both hands and in an overhead throw, tossed it back out over the grass. With his foot on his end of the rope, he stopped the plate from dragging the rope away. Max then hauled it in again, and again, and seventeen more times, throwing the weight back out every time.

Finally it was muscle up time again. Max made no variations to the exercise this time through, but his speed was simply incredible. No sooner was he dangling full length from the bar, he was then on top of the bar. Up. Down. Up. Down. No pause and at full speed.

Dropping back to the ground, Max sprang straight into action. Kris stood waiting for him at the final turn before he started the full length sprints to the finish and caught his expression full on. It was all consuming. Max’s eyes were like lasers and his look sheer purpose. Just for a moment, as he ran towards her, Kris’ fears bubbled up. An unnatural spark glinted in those eyes, dangerous and raw and it deserved to be feared.

‘Better,’ was all she could say as he ran past, the breeze ruffling her hair.

Max said nothing and looked up to fix his sights on the other end of the circuit as he bounded into the final sprint. Kris scanned the surroundings again. Not only had everyone stopped to watch, but they were now crowding in even closer. Kris could feel the energy around her. She could sense the heightened atmosphere. The air was thick with it.

Looking back at Max, he was now full on pelting up the middle of the circuit, his former competitors all on their feet, except the blonde, shouting and clapping. Max roared past them and three seconds later, stabbed his feet into the grass to turn around at the end. As he turned, Max again revealed his face to Kris and there was that expression, still in place. All purpose. A chill sliced through her.

Like a cheetah after a kill, Max powered immediately into top gear. Kris walked across to the finishing line and stood directly in his path. Even at one hundred metres, she could see him looking right at her, his blue eyes boring into her’s. As he ran, Max’s bulk grew in front of her. Kris could now feel him, his energy palpable, radiating off him like heat from the sun. She knew her eyes were wide open and her whole body tense. Larger and larger Max loomed, his solid musculature rippling and pumping as he charged onwards. It was a buzz. It was exhilarating.

Then, at the last second, Max veered to the right and tore past her. Kris didn’t move, instead she let the wash of his slipstream flow over her. She closed her eyes and the thrill faded away. The show was over, for today at least. Kris had expected something special to happen, but this was beyond her imaginings. For the first time, Kris wondered if Max was truly human. Then a cry from over her shoulder brought her back to the present.

‘Choppers inbound!’ came a shout from the Prime Minister’s head of security.

Instantly, Peter was in action, sprinting towards Max. ‘Get those birds airborne!’ he called out while pointing to the three Black Hawks, the flight crews scuttling into action. ‘Max, get the family into the house!’

Max was already racing over to grab the kids off Elsa.

‘Kris!’ Elsa shouted. ‘Come with us!’

Kris stood frozen for a moment.

‘Come on!’ Elsa shouted again as Max gathered both Millie and Jason up into his arms and turned for the house.

Kris finally moved, bolting into the protection of the Dyson’s security detail, just as it enveloped them and started to move towards the house.

‘How close are they?’ Peter called out as he ran alongside his security team.

‘They’re already here!’ the Prime Minister’s security chief yelled back.

Peter turned to look and found the man pointing to the south over the hilly bushland. Sure enough, three olive green Black Hawks had just risen over the top of the trees and were already bearing down on the estate, heading straight for the circuit.

‘Faster!’ Peter called out. ‘Get Sword and Shield to the house!’

As a group, the Prime Minister’s security detail had virtually lifted Joe off the ground to start carrying him towards the house. Max, Elsa and the kids were sprinting too, Peter and his crew still surrounding them as they ran. Meanwhile, the Black Hawk air crews had abandoned any attempt at take-off and instead, along with every soldier on the grounds, retrieved their weapons and were busy positioning themselves around the immediate area to provide covering fire. House staff were running as fast as they could in any direction away from the incoming helicopters. It was pandemonium.

Suddenly, a strange voice shouted out from behind the Dyson’s skeltering group. ‘Wait! They are friendly!’

‘Wait! Wait!’ Joe also called out. ‘They’re American!’

Peter slowed and turned back to look up at the incoming aircraft, the sound of their chopping blades now very loud. He immediately checked the insignia on the sides and stopped running.

‘Hold up, fellahs!’ he called out. ‘Anchors, Max!’

Max also slowed and turned. Both Millie and Jason craned their heads around their father’s body to look as well. Elsa stood behind Max’s right shoulder with Kris behind her. Peter stepped directly in front of Max, placing himself between the Dysons and the intruding aircraft. Peter’s team fanned out either side of him, shoulder to shoulder, the team now a human shield.

‘They’ve got stars and stripes on the side alright,’ the Prime Minister’s security chief called out, ‘but what’s that other badge?’

Peter noticed a second insignia on the central chopper and looked a little harder. He then immediately turned to the Prime Minister, who was straightening himself up after being put back on the ground, his security detail still ringed closely around him, several of them with guns drawn.

‘Sir, is that what I think it is?’ Peter yelled across to Joe.

‘Yes, it is!’ Joe yelled back, his voice only just audible above the noise of the encroaching choppers.

All three of the aircraft were now hovering off to the side of the circuit and Max got his first good look at them. Through the open cargo doors, he could see two of the Black Hawks were loaded with soldiers, mini guns bristling from both sides. The third, central helicopter had less people in it and contained what looked like civilians. Max also noted that the central helicopter bore a second insignia in addition to its standard US military single star and striped wings. The second insignia was colourful and intricate, but the words inscribed around its circumference were plain and clear.

Max turned to Elsa and shouted, ‘I don’t care what that insignia says! I don’t trust any of this!’

Peter turned and nodded to them both. By now, all three Blacks Hawks’ wheels were bumping onto the grass, their bulky bodies in neat triangular formation. A few moments later, the noise of the blades started to whine down as their engines shut off.

Just then, Peter suddenly spun to his right and in the blink of an eye, had his handgun unholstered and in his hand, pointing it at a group of strangers that had come up between his team and the Prime Minister’s from behind. His entire security detail instantly followed suit, their own guns whipping out in unison.

‘Wait!’ Joe yelled. ‘They’re with me!’

Max flicked his gaze around as well and found an odd group of five people. Four gigantic, suit-clad bodyguards all stood in a perfect square, their massive frames shielding a central figure all together different to them. An Arab. The central figure stood calmly and without any indication of anxiousness considering the knuckle-whitening tension all around. The Arab’s face was the only skin Max could see, the man’s eyes hidden behind sunglasses and his hands folded in front of him within the generous sleeves of his flowing, white robe, which billowed fluidly in the breeze from the slowing rotors.

‘Who is he, sir?’ Peter called out.

‘A friend!’ Joe called back. ‘You can trust him!’

At first Peter did not move, his gun trained unwaveringly on the group. Then he slowly lowered it and without reholstering, turned back to the now stationery Black Hawks. ‘Eyes back on the birds, fellahs!’ he ordered his crew, who all followed his example.

Then, soldiers poured out from the three US Army Black Hawks to fan out in crouched positions surrounding the aircraft, each of them holding a machine gun and aiming it in the direction of an Australian soldier. A stand-off ensued.

‘Put ‘em away, boys!’ called out a drawling American accent.

Max shifted his gaze to the central helicopter and found a silver-haired, middle-aged man climbing out. The man was a little shaky and ungainly, but as soon as he got both his feet on the ground, his posture squared up and Max could tell he was a figure of authority. He also recognised the man and despite his high office, Max did not feel in the slightest bit honoured to be confronted with the approach of the President of the United States.

‘Joe, is that you?’ the President called out, waving as he approached the Prime Minister.

‘Yes, Lester it is,’ Joe called back while stepping out from the cover of his security detail, his chief slotting in step behind him. ‘This is a surprise. You know you really should have called first?’

‘Sorry about that,’ the President drawled back, presenting his hand. The two men shook firmly, but even from where Max stood, he could feel the triteness behind the greeting. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind me dropping in while I was passing through. Our trip to China got cut a little short by all this alien baloney and well, your place is on the way home and a little bird told me you’ve got the world’s most mysterious man in your stables, literally by the looks of it,’ the President said holding his arms out wide in reference to the stud estate, ‘so I just had to stop by.’

‘Always a pleasure to have you here, Lester,’ Joe said, slipping easily into his renowned diplomacy skill set. ‘By the way, happy fourth of July. Pity it’s not happier.’

‘You got that right, Joe. The whole world’s gone crazy and why do we have to find out like this that we aren’t alone in the universe? Why couldn’t ET really be a friendly little pug like Hollywood said?’

‘Does it ever turn out like Hollywood said?’

‘No. No it doesn’t, but there is one thing that’s sure as hell Hollywood about this and that’s the hero. Where is he, Joe? Where’s our mystery man?’

‘He’s here. In fact, he was just giving us a display of his prowess and I have to say, Lester, based on what I just witnessed, I highly doubt there is anyone more skilled than he to fight for our lives. He just blew away the Australian Army’s finest and hardly raised a sweat.’

‘Well, that might be something, Joe, but if we’re really going to test him, let’s put him up against my rangers and seals. See who walks away taller. Now where is he?’

‘He’s right here,’ Joe said, turning and holding a hand out to Max.

‘You mean that guy there. If he’s so good, why’s he hiding?’

Max put the kids down and they scurried around to Elsa. Max then made to step out from behind the security detail, but Peter put a hand up first.

‘Stay put, Max,’ he ordered. ‘Let the President in, fellahs.’

Max held his place and the security detail opened out a little as the Prime Minister and the President approached.

‘Mister President,’ Joe said, ‘I’d like to introduce Max Dyson, his wife Elsa and their two children Millie and Jason. Max, Elsa, this is President Bartholomew, the forty-fifth President of the United States of America.’

President Bartholomew waited for Max to hold out his hand, but he didn’t and then after an awkward pause, President Bartholomew finally held out his own hand. Max took it and the handshake was firm. The President looked him hard in the eye and Max returned the scrutiny.

‘Hmm, you’re a big fellah,’ the President said, withdrawing his hand and looking Max up and down, ‘but what makes you so special, Max? Why have these aliens come from God knows where in the universe to threaten us and pluck you out of six billion people to defend us?’

‘With all due respect, Mister President,’ Max replied, his voice even and his return gaze firm, ‘you don’t need to know that.’

The President squinted, his pale blue eyes unyielding. ‘I think you’re wrong, son. I deserve to know everything. If you step into that arena, you’ll be defending me and the whole United States as well as yourself, so we can either go inside and talk this over all civilised like or if you want we can stand right out here in the open. I don’t care, but before I leave, I’ll have my questions answered.’

Max did not move. The President’s face hardened.

‘Excuse me, President Bartholomew,’ sounded a new voice, its accent exotic and rich. The Arab broke from his security detail, removed his sunglasses and approached Max, Joe and the President, his hands appearing from his sleeves, his right hand extended, palm upwards. ‘It has been too long since last we spoke.’

President Bartholomew dragged his stare away from Max and found the Arab coming over to him. Peter adjusted his stance and Max noticed in the background, a cohort of soldiers shifted the aims of their machine guns to the robed newcomer.

‘We’ve met before?’ the President asked, none too kindly.

‘Only over the phone,’ the Arab replied, ‘when your F-22 Raptor crashed in our central desert last February.’

‘How did you know about that?’ the President quipped back.

‘Because the central desert is the ancestral home to my people, the Balasti Bedouin. It also narrowly missed crashing into my desert palace.’

The President baulked. ‘Your palace…?’ the President vaguely repeated.

‘I am Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Salahuddin, ruler and Sheikh of the Emirate of Balasti,’ the Arab said patiently, bowing his head slightly. ‘At your service.’

The President baulked again. All eyes settled on him and he knew it as he flicked a sideways glance at Joe.

‘Good to meet you in person,’ the President finally said, methodically extending his own hand, which Sheikh Abdullah warmly accepted. ‘Funny seeing you here?’

Sheikh Abdullah smiled and lowered his gaze slightly. ‘It is I who am honoured to meet you in person,’ he said smoothly. ‘You have displayed tremendous wisdom and leadership in your relatively short time in office. As for my presence here, I too have surprised our good friend Joe by arriving unannounced late yesterday evening for the same purpose as you. Mister Dyson has garnered enormous interest and I came offering my help and resources to assist Joseph in preparing Mister Dyson for the ordeal ahead. After all, as you have so delicately pointed out, Mister Dyson holds the fate of us all in his hands and if I can humbly help in any way, that is the least I and my people can do. No doubt your intentions are equal?’

The President held his tongue and cast another sideways glance to Joe. The Prime Minister said nothing and merely returned the look, a half smile on his lips.

‘Yes,’ the President finally answered. ‘I’m here to help, but I mean it when I say I want some answers.’ President Bartholomew then turned to face Max and continued. ‘I need to be convinced that this fellah is capable of fighting off whatever God-awful aliens come down into that arena. I’ve got the finest soldiers in the world cooling their heels back in the states that could probably beat this guy hands down, so before I leave, he’s going to have to prove he’s got what it takes.’

Max stood impassive, his blue eyes bright and hard.

‘Then may I boldly make a suggestion, Mister President?’ Sheikh Abdullah asked, his tone soft.

Joe turned to look at the Arab, his smile fading and the corners of his eyes creasing slightly.

‘What?’ President Bartholomew virtually barked.

‘We have just witnessed Mister Dyson’s physical prowess in completing the obstacle course behind you and though I can honestly say it was highly impressive, I too share your concerns about his combat ability.’

‘What do you suggest?’ President Bartholomew said, his eyes narrowing as he shifted his attention to the Arab.

‘Select the finest fifteen of your soldiers and secret service that are with you here,’ Sheikh Abdullah replied, fluidly raising his right hand towards the fanned out US Army personnel, ‘and let us pit Mister Dyson against them in a challenge?’

The President looked from Sheikh Abdullah to Joe whose half smile had returned to accompany his nodding head. President Bartholomew then turned and looked at his own men. After a few seconds of thought, he turned back.

‘You’re on,’ he said. Then turning to Max. ‘You start at the far end of the course and you have to get to this end by going through all my boys who will be spaced out in twos and threes. Anyone puts you on the ground, you lose. Anyone you put on the ground is out. Got it?’

‘Yes,’ Max firmly replied.

‘You’ve got ten minutes to get your butt up on the starting line,’ President Bartholomew shot back before turning to walk back towards his helicopters.

‘You need to know,’ Max started to say, bringing the President up short to half turn around and look back, ‘fifteen’s not enough men.’

The President gave Max a long cold stare before turning away and walking back to his helicopter, calling his ranking officer across to join him.

Max turned to look at Elsa. ‘Stay close to Peter,’ he said. ‘This is all still pretty hairy and I don’t trust this bloke one bit, President or not.’

Kris stepped around Elsa and said, ‘You sure about this, Max? You’re fit and all, but these blokes are trained soldiers. You really think you can take down fifteen of them on your own?’

The rich, rolling tones of Sheikh Abdullah sounded, drawing Kris’ attention towards him. ‘I saw smartphone footage of Max bringing down more than twice that number of aliens only a few days ago,’ he said, ‘and they were far more vicious than any of these soldiers.’

‘It’s a clever play, your Highness,’ Joe added, his smile now fully borne. ‘You gave Bartholomew exactly what he wants knowing full well that Max will best his men. You used his confidence against him.’

‘I did nothing that you were not already thinking, Joe,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, a faint smile also lifting his cheekbones. ‘It was just that as usual, my mouth spoke too quickly.’

‘Everyone,’ Joe said, ‘I would like to introduce his royal highness, Sheikh Abdullah of Balasti. He is here as my guest and I assure you all that you can trust him as equally as you trust me, if not more so.’

Sheikh Abdullah stepped back a pace and bowed.

‘He is also,’ Joe continued, ‘the most eloquent man I know and possesses an intellect second to none. I am proud to call him my friend and as I will explain later, he is here to help.’ Joe then turned to Peter. ‘I apologise for not telling you earlier, Peter. You deserved to know.’

‘If it’s you vouching for him, sir,’ Peter replied, ‘then he’s a friend of mine too.’

Joe nodded to Peter and turned back to Sheikh Abdullah. ‘Come, my friend. Let’s leave the real world experts to their work, while we politicians and diplomats play our games. We have a President to wrangle and I don’t fancy doing it on my own.’

Sheikh Abdullah bore a full smile now too and allowed Joe to lead him off towards President Bartholomew’s black hawks.

‘What are all those men doing taking their shirts off, Daddy?’ Millie asked, poking her head around his waist.

Max turned to look and found several of the President’s soldiers and two of his secret service personnel disrobing to bare torsos and breaking up into pairs and threes, spaced along the length of the one hundred metre course Max had just completed.

‘You better get up the other end,’ Elsa said to Max. ‘You don’t want to keep the President of the United States waiting.’

Max turned back to his wife and said, ‘I won’t be long and stay close to Peter.’ He then flicked a gaze across to his chief of security. ‘You got them, mate?’

‘You never have to ask me that,’ Peter replied, an edge in his tone. ‘If I don’t have them, I’m already dead.’

Max nodded silently and then looked down to tussle the hair on both his kids heads. ‘Stay with Mummy, you two. Okay?’

‘Where are you going?’ Jason asked, looking up and squinting at his father.

Max turned around and said, ‘Through those fifteen blokes.’

Kris smiled and watched him stride off. Two minutes later, Max stood at the head of the course, looking down the length of it, all fifteen of his opponents’ gazes glued on him. Kris held her fingers poised over the stopwatch button of her watch. If she thought she could record this with her smart phone and put it on YouTube, she would, but something about national security made her think against it.

‘When I pull the trigger,’ shouted the highest ranking US soldier, ‘you’re away!’

Max nodded.

‘Ten bucks says he doesn’t get past halfway,’ President Bartholomew said rhetorically to anyone in earshot, including Joe and Sheikh Abdullah, both of whom ignored the comment.

Max tensed as he bored his gaze into the eyes of the first pair of soldiers ten metres in front of him. They were both big men and were clearly used to fighting for a living, Special Forces tattoos sporting on their upper arms. The gunshot cracked and Max launched.

Driving forward at the left side man, Max hit him square in the midriff with his left shoulder and instantly lifted him off the ground, the wind knocked out of the man’s lungs. At the same time, the other man came at his right side, but Max shot out his right hand, palm open and smacked him hard on the chest, sending him stumbling away to trip over his own heels and onto the ground. Max then drove upwards with his legs and hefted the still winded man on his shoulder up and overhead, so he held him like a common barbell, face up to the sky.

‘Holy Moses,’ the ranking US soldier muttered.

Similar comments mumbled their way around the lips of the surrounding onlookers as disbelief rippled outwards. Everyone stood transfixed, except for Millie and Jason whose shrill cheers broke the strangled silence all around. President Bartholomew stood stony faced, a scowl threatening to cloud his features. Joe and Sheikh Abdullah also remained unmoved, their eyes drinking in the vision.

Like a colossus with the now struggling soldier still held overhead like a sack of potatoes, Max looked up to face the next group of three soldiers in his path. Striding forward, he sized them up. They attempted to split and encircle him, but Max responded first. Driving all the way up through his legs, Max physically hurled the overhead man at the nearest soldier in front of him and sent both of them flailing to the grass. Immediately Max felt a forearm grip around his neck from behind. The other man remaining on his feet came straight at him and threw a right jab at his face. In one movement, Max bent at the waist and used his torso to lever the man behind him off the ground while thrusting his left hand up in front to catch the incoming jab and grip the fist in his own. The soldier behind the punch frowned and tried to pull his hand away, but failed, as Max’s grip held like a steel claw. Max then suddenly released the man’s fist, pivoted on his toes and spun to the right, bending over further as he did. The legs of the man on his back swung outwards like the blades of a helicopter, collecting his comrade at knee level, scything his own legs out from under him.

Max then gripped the wrists of the man on his back and slowly, brutishly, pulled them away from each other, until he wore the man on his back like a cloak. Pivoting again, Max spun and released the man’s wrists, sending him flying to the turf.

‘That’s five down,’ Elsa said. ‘Ten to go.’

‘And he’s only thirty seconds in,’ Kris added.

‘Go, Daddy!’ Millie squealed.

Max turned and found five soldiers charging at him, the next pair and group of three having combined forces. Bending over, he held both arms out wide and launched forward too. Aiming for two of the soldiers in the middle of the line of five, he smashed headlong into them, violently barrelling both of them over to lie sprawled and unmoving on the grass. Planting his right foot, he crouched and turned to look up at the other three men coming back at him. Driving forward and up, Max caught the first man high on the chest with his left hand, lifting him off his feet, his legs still running in mid air. Carrying his own momentum forward, Max then redirected the man’s bulk downwards to smash him flat on his back, another man out.

A blow to his ribs sent Max staggering backwards, the full blown kick in the stomach hitting the mark. His peripheral vision glimpsed a punch coming in from the other side and he cricked his neck just slightly to the side to let the blow graze his left cheek. One more backward step was all he needed and Max was back on the offensive.

The owner of the kick was still coming at him, this time with a roundhouse version. The man’s boot swung up towards Max’s face, but he ducked beneath it and simultaneously spun one eighty degrees. He then again drove upwards, but backwards this time into the body of the other man coming in from the left. The manoeuvre picked the soldier up off the ground and Max ran backwards with him flailing on his back like a live bearskin cloak. Max then snapped upright and pushed upwards with his legs, flinging his own arms high and straight into a backward flip. The soldier slipped off his frame and crashed to the ground while Max sailed over him, his legs flipping overhead until they planted back on the turf, his backward somersault complete.

Max looked up and found the last soldier bearing down on him. The soldier leapt high and shot his right foot out, his boot headed for Max’s nose. Without flinching, Max calmly stepped to the left, let the blow sail past and reached up to grab the airborne man by the nearest arm. Pulling downward, he smashed the soldier into the ground, hard.

Not a single voice broke the silence, except Millie’s and Jason’s. They were going nuts. President Bartholomew now wore a deeply entrenched scowl, while Joe and Sheikh Abdullah spared a quick glance to each other with raised eyebrows.

‘Just over a minute gone,’ Kris said.

‘He can do back flips…?’ Elsa said vaguely.

Max straightened and looked down the remaining length of the course. The final five soldiers all stood shoulder to shoulder in a line. Slowly, they started to spread out and approach, the flanks of the line advancing a little faster to encircle Max. He let them.

Standing in the centre of the circle, Max glanced at each of his opponents in turn. They hesitated, watching him for a missed reaction, an instant of weakness. Max looked down at the ground and froze, knowing the ploy would bring them on. The five soldiers charged together.

With open palms and only half strength blows, Max spun and lashed out, his movements a blur, but clinically precise. A cacophony of slaps and grunts accompanied the performance, the lopsided bout lasting only a matter of seconds as first one, then another, a third and then the last two men together flew outwards and to the ground in varying states of consciousness.

Max rose from his half crouch and turned to face the finish end of the course where Elsa, the kids and Kris stood, the children jumping and screaming. Max strode down to them and right past President Bartholomew, who glared at him from beneath his hooded brow.

‘Wahoo!’ the kids yelled as Max came up.

Elsa simply beamed, wrapping her wide open arms around her husband, who gently returned the embrace.

‘Will they be okay?’ she asked, glancing out to the carnage on the lawn behind.

‘They’ll be fine,’ he replied. Looking across at Kris he asked, ‘How long?’

‘Just over three minutes,’ she said. ‘Would’ve been quicker if you’d jogged over the line.’

Max smiled. ‘Sorry. I won’t do it again,’ he said.

Kris nodded, a faint smile lifting the corners of her mouth.

‘Max, the boss wants me to get you all inside,’ Peter said, walking over. ‘Show’s over.’

Max looked over at the American Black Hawks and found Joe and Sheikh Abdullah in conversation with a highly animated President Bartholomew. Off to the side, the fifteen defeated soldiers were being led or carried from the course towards the helicopters. Despite standing tall and ripping through the opposition, Max suspected he had some bruised ribs and a minor black eye from the glancing blow to the cheek, but the injuries would be healed by tomorrow. They weren’t his biggest concern.

Up until now he had known exactly who his enemy is. Macktidas, but all of a sudden, Max suspected he had just made a new enemy, right here on Earth and this one might be even more dangerous than any alien foe he was destined to meet in the arena. The President of the United States.

 

  • * *

 

Charles Ingot the Third turned away from the computer screen on his desk to look into space. As Chief of Staff for the President of the United States he had seen many extraordinary things and come up against many unfathomable challenges, but triumph had never failed him. That’s why he was still top of the heap with everyone else snapping at his heels, vying to knock him off. However, what he had just seen had for the first time in a long time, caused him to pause.

‘Tell me, general,’ he said, ‘what do you think about Max? How good is he?’

Sitting on the opposite side of the desk, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs pulled closed the screen of his own laptop to lean back in his chair. Lacing his fingers together and resting his hands in his lap, he pondered the question. The Chief of Staff turned to look at him, raising an eyebrow at the silence.

‘What’s up, Bob? It’s not like you to be gun shy?’ Ingot asked.

‘He’s good,’ Stratton replied. ‘Very good. I’ve never seen anyone carve their way through fifteen soldiers as quick as he did and in that fashion. He has natural combat skills and intuition, but it’s his raw physicality that elevates him. His raw strength and power coupled with his superior reflexes make him dangerous. However, I can’t truly judge him until I see him handle a weapon and oppose a foe equally as armed, but right now, there is every chance he is one of the most formidable individuals I’ve ever seen.’

Ingot snuck a quick look at the general’s massive panel of multi-coloured ribbons on his left lapel. He knew he was in the presence of military greatness. Not only was Stratton a four-star general and the highest ranking officer in the United States military, but he was also the most decorated soldier in American history. The feats this man had achieved would reside in legend forever.

‘That’s a big call from a man like you,’ the Chief of Staff answered.

The general looked across the desk and nailed Ingot in his gaze, his clear blue eyes as piercing as lasers.

‘Let’s be clear, Mister Ingot,’ Stratton said. ‘What this man just did was exceptional, maybe even extraordinary, but in my almost forty years of soldiering, I have witnessed many extraordinary acts of physical ability both on and off the field of battle. Yes, he took those men apart, with minimal effort too, but now let’s get to the reality of it. Would he perform equally as well in the heat of combat, duelling a creature of absolutely unknown prowess in the intensity of a life or death bout?’

The Chief of Staff waited for the general to answer his own question, but he didn’t. Reluctantly he succumb to the rhetorical response.

‘So, could he?’

‘That remains to be seen,’ the general replied evenly, ‘but right now, he might be as good if not better than anyone we could place in that position. What I would like to know, Mister Ingot, is what is precisely on your mind here? I have provided intel for you and my initial thoughts on the abilities of the subject, but before we progress any further in this conversation, I would like to know what your exact interest is here?’

Charles Ingot the Third held the general’s gaze for as long as he could, but ultimately looked away. Whilst his will had been hardened in the corridors of political power, his colleague’s character had been forged in the fires of battle and tempered like the steel anvil of a blacksmith. It was pointless going head to head with him across the table and besides, he needed the general on his side. He could not afford to lose the man’s trust. The fate of the world rested on the shoulders of this mystery man, this Maximilian Dyson and if he was to contain or manage this man, he would need Stratton’s covert forces and black operations skills.

There was also the as yet unacknowledged opportunity beyond the arena. The impact of an alien threat on the world had already begun to rapidly alter the dynamics of international relationships. The world was changing and if this Max actually defeated all comers in the arena, Max would instantly become the most potent man on the planet. The saviour of the world. The hero of mankind and if that eventuated, then Charles absolutely needed to have control of this man because victory in the arena would likely change the world forever and Charles wanted to be in the right place at the right time to grab control of that world.

‘My interest, General,’ the Chief of Staff began, leaning forward and relocking his gaze onto the senior soldier’s, ‘is exactly the same as your’s. The continued safety and security of our United States of America and right now, I don’t know if this Maximilian is friend or foe. Yes, he can fight, but is he fighting for all of us or just himself? His allegiances are unknown and until they are known, he is dangerous and if the truth confirms him to be dangerous, then we will need a mechanism for removing the threat and that’s where you step up to the plate, General.’ Charles paused and leaned back. ‘Is that precise enough for you?’

‘I’m a soldier, Mister Ingot,’ General Stratton replied, his blue eyes shining like tinged chrome. ‘I serve at the pleasure of the President and if he commands me, I will obey.’ The general then paused and his gaze firmed even harder. ‘However and let me be crystal clear on this, you are not the President.’

 

8pm, 4th July (later that night). Sheikh Abdullah

 

‘How did the American Army get out here in those choppers without us knowing about it?’ Elsa asked, ‘and with the American president too?’

The staff had just cleared the dessert bowls from the table inside the formal dining room and left coffees and teas with the occupants. Elsa and Max sat opposite Sheikh Abdullah with the Prime Minister on their right at one end of the table and Kris on their left at the other end.

‘There is a US Army base about fifty kilometres south of here,’ Joe replied, waving his hand. ‘It’s got a runway big enough to land the old space shuttles. Seems like they can also land Airforce One there without telling us. I’ve already asked Peter to get some radar equipment in. We don’t want any more unwanted guests.’

‘The President seemed pretty grumpy,’ Kris said.

‘He’s got a lot on his mind,’ Joe answered.

‘Don’t we all?’ Kris added softly.

‘Yes, quite right, Kris and no I won’t make excuses for him,’ Joe added, wrapping his hands around his tea cup. ‘He’s normally quite crotchety anyway, but today he was particularly venomous.’

A pause ensued. Sheikh Abdullah raised his head and slid a silent gaze around the table.

‘So, now it is my turn,’ the Sheikh started as he sat back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap, ’to firstly apologise for my unannounced arrival this morning and to secondly, explain my presence. Elsa, Kris, Max, it is my privilege to make your acquaintances and as Joe indicated this morning, I am here to help. Through helping you, I would also hope that we can become friends. This is going to be an arduous time for us all and the more friends we can keep close, the stronger we will be in facing our uncertain future.’

Another pause followed.

‘Well,’ Max started, leaning back and placing his arm around the back of his wife’s chair, ‘it’s like Peter said this morning. Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of ours’, so welcome aboard I guess.’

‘That’s a gracious notion, my friend,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, dipping his head slightly, ‘and it is whole heartedly accepted, so thank you. However, it remains appropriate that I now explain to you the reason for my presence. In recent years, since assuming his office, Prime Minister Tollsen and I have become fast friends and close allies within the international diplomatic landscape and it is right now, at this most dire time of need, that I feel compelled to firm that friendship even further.’

Max smiled. ‘That’s a really long winded way of saying you’re both in cahoots.’

Sheikh Abdullah also smiled.

Joe chimed in. ‘You better be careful, Abdullah,’ he said. ‘It seems Max might be immune to your silver tongue.’

‘You are right as always, Joseph,’ Sheikh Abdullah added. ‘Max, your comment is a timely reminder that friends always speak plainly with one another and so, from now on, that is how I shall talk with all of you. I appreciate your honesty.’

Max turned to Elsa and squeezed her shoulders with his arm. ‘Well, before we all go speaking plainly with each other, I think it’s only fair that I let you know that Elsa here is the brains in the family. If you need some thinking to be done or something clever to do, talk to her. If you need something heavy picked up, I’m your man.’

Joe and Sheikh Abdullah exchanged a quick glance.

‘Don’t sell yourself too short, Max,’ Joe said, picking up his cup of tea and holding it in front of his lips, the steam wafting over his face. ‘You handled POTUS quite magnificently this morning. Not many people possess the courage to stand up to the leader of the free world.’

‘Why do you call him POTUS?’ Kris asked.

‘It is an acronym for President of the United States,’ Joe answered. ‘So much easier to say than President Bartholomew.’

Max shifted in his seat and looked sideways at Joe. ‘I never bought into this whole leader of the free world thing,’ he said. ‘I didn’t vote for him and like Kris said, he just seems like a grumpy old man to me.’

‘You’ve just accurately described myself and most other diplomats on any given day,’ Joe said, lowering his tea cup back down into his saucer, ‘except of course for all the grumpy old women. Let’s not discriminate.’

‘Don’t sell yourself too short, Joe,’ Max returned. ‘I’ve never thought of you like that.’

Joe looked across at Max and held his eye for just a moment, accepting the compliment. Joe then glanced again at Abdullah, who also acknowledged the unspoken acknowledgement.

‘So, now if I may boldly grasp everyone’s attention,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, leaning forward and placing his hands carefully on the table in front of him, one hand delicately placed flat on top of the other. ‘I will explain myself.’

The rest of the table fell quiet.

‘Let me begin by reiterating my promise to you all and then I will explain my justification for being here,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, his tone smooth and clear. ‘I have insisted to Joseph that I can be of the utmost help in ensuring you are all afforded ample resources and absolute safety to prepare Max for the arena and in so doing, provide all of humanity its greatest opportunity to survive this ordeal. I offer this aid openly, willingly and without qualification. There are several reasons why I make this offer, some of which I will retain for myself, though they are not in any way sinister, but primarily my aid is for pure charity. We are all in danger. Our entire species is in the greatest of peril and I find myself with the ability to help and as such, both my personal morals and my religious beliefs demand that I provide that assistance. So, I come humbly, but not all together passively, to give to you all that is mine to give, including my energy and effort and the energy and effort of my people. That aid can begin now and will endure until the arena event has concluded. You may refuse my aid, but I assure you, even then, I will continue in the background to do what I can. I will not let this opportunity go unaddressed. So, before I explain how I justify providing this aid, does anyone wish to ask any questions of me?’

‘I have one,’ Kris said. ‘How involved do you want to be in managing Max’s training? Joe has promised to stay out of it other than to provide us what we need to get the job done. Would you want anything more, like maybe exclusive access to Max?’

‘No and no,’ Sheikh Abdullah said. ‘My involvement in Max’s training will be exactly the same as Joe has promised to provide. I will not interfere and will only assist in whatever way you make requests for additional resources. As for access to Max? No, I do not desire to have exclusive or privileged access to him or to anyone else. I will spend most of my time with your Prime Minister, navigating the treacherous waters of international diplomacy and security. I am a statesman and a dignitary by trade. I am not a soldier or a physical trainer. Those disciplines are yours’ to command. I am in the humblest sense of this venture, your servant. Nothing more.’

Kris nodded slowly and then looked down at the table and away from Abdullah at the other end. Abdullah continued to appraise Kris for a few more moments before speaking again.

‘So, what can I provide and how?’ the Sheikh said. ‘I have access to financial reserves that are largely unequalled by anyone else or any organisation or country in the world. If I were to say that I had billions of dollars at my disposal, it would not be an untruth and I can access it immediately. These funds are not locked in complicated trusts or stocks and bonds. It is real money. Effectively cash and as much as you will need. Perhaps more importantly though, I have access to an extensive international intelligence network. I have resources hidden deep within many of the highest and mid tier security organisations throughout Europe, North America and Asia. My people are very well connected and very secure. They can remain undetected and still provide to me secrets that even their own national rulers do not have knowledge of. I also have similar resources in the world’s most powerful and influential corporations and non-government organisations. There is very little that happens in the world that I do not have visibility of either beforehand or immediately after. I must also indicate that none of these assets can be traced back to me or anyone close to me. I am effectively anonymous to them, but I in turn, know all of them. Now, how is it I have ownership of all these resources and means? Oil and gas. Vast amounts of it.’

‘As soon as you said you’re from Balasti,’ Elsa interjected, ‘I think we all figured you were wealthy, but just how much money do you have?’

‘The answer is, I do not know and it is likely too much to ever know,’ Abdullah said simply. ‘There is no boast in my words. It is merely the truth, so I no longer ponder this question. Money is now a tool for me to gain what is truly important to me.’

‘And what is important to a man with more money than he can count?’ Kris asked.

Sheikh Abdullah turned to Kris again and held her even stare, not aggressively, but curiously.

‘The safety and prosperity of my people and to prevent, where I can, hardship and injustice in the world,’ he said.

‘Looking after your own people I get,’ Kris added, ‘but tell us what hardships you’ve helped with and what injustices you’ve prevented across the world?’

Joe flicked his gaze between Kris and Abdullah. Kris’ rising tension was obvious and it stood in stark contrast to Abdullah’s even, relaxed demeanour. Joe quietly continued to sip his tea.

‘It is a reasonable challenge,’ Abdullah began, ‘and in answering it, let me ask if you can recall all of the world’s largest natural disasters in the previous ten years? The Chilean and Italian earthquakes? The volcanic eruption in the Philippines? The devastating floods in Brazil and Turkey and of course the horrific drought and poverty across the Horn of Africa? I have contributed more than three times as much aid to those humanitarian causes than any other country or organisation and they are but a few of the sum total of causes I and my people have benefited to.’

Kris nodded silently. Abdullah continued.

‘As for injustice, many of these acts have to remain secret to prevent the existence and effectiveness of my clandestine network becoming known. However, I will freely tell you of some. You may remember four years ago that genocide threatened to tear through the African nation of Rwanda for a second time, but I, let’s say, donated substantial funding to the French government for military provisions, which allowed the foreign legion to enter the conflict and put a swift end to it. Also, six years ago, the independent island state of Sakoyna in the Aleutian Islands almost became a war zone as the both the United States and the Russian Federation sent warships to secure the newly discovered offshore gas reserves. The conflict reached flash point with both nations prepared to invade and second the independent state into their territories and in the process, likely annihilate their sovereignty and much of their tiny population. Fortunately, I managed to broker a peace deal by providing both nations with excess gas supply from my country’s own reserves at a highly discounted rate. My network also managed to prevent a nuclear calamity three years ago when a rogue terrorist group secured a weapon of mass destruction and were transferring it to South Africa to detonate in retaliation for the escalation and seeming return of an apartheid regime. You will be completely unaware of that incident, but I assure you, it almost resulted in the single most calamitous loss of life since the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War.’

Kris remained silent and after a moment, looked across to Joe, who nodded.

‘Okay, I believe you,’ she said at length. ‘Nice to know someone’s out there looking out for us.’

‘So, your highness,’ Elsa asked, ‘what exactly can you bring to us that will help us that Joe can’t already provide?’

‘You are correct in assuming that your Prime Minister can amply assist you, but what I will bring is security on a level that will far exceed his military provision. Not only will I provide additional security directly around you, but I will provide a remote cover that ensures any plots to disrupt your preparations will be identified in their formative stages and dismantled. My network runs wide and deep and they are loyal to me. I can also tell you that my people are already aware of several factions seeking to cause you harm. The wheels are already in motion to bring them down.’

‘Why would anyone want to hurt us?’ Elsa asked, looking between Joe and Abdullah. ‘We’re the good guys aren’t we?’

‘Fear,’ Joe replied, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Uncertainty. We’re facing the end of the world and we’ve been given only one way out. A stranger called Max, but no one knows anything about him or if he’s even capable of victory. So, in some cases these other factions want simply to kill Max off and replace him with their own champion that they know and trust. Other factions would like to remove Max and attempt to broker a peace deal with the aliens. On their own, these are rational options considering the circumstances, but we all know, they are not truly viable and so, Max and by extension, all of you need the best protection possible.’

‘Unfortunately, that is true,’ Abdullah added. ‘The entire world is in crisis and even though all seems calm enough here on this estate, out there, as Joe has said, fear and uncertainty hold sway. My network and my funds can help navigate us safely through these troubled times to arrive at the arena unharmed and ably prepared to fight.’

‘How bad is it out there?’ Kris asked, her face sullen and hooded. ‘The news is full of all sorts of trouble, but really, how bad is it?’

Joe and Abdullah both held quiet for a few moments. Then Abdullah lifted his hands from the table and leaned back, lowering his hands to his lap and his head slightly. Joe took the cue.

‘People are in pain,’ Joe said. ‘People are dying.’

‘People are dying here or in other places?’ Kris asked, her tone rising.

‘Right here,’ Joe replied quietly, ‘and everywhere else. Nowhere is immune.’

‘What do you mean?’ Elsa asked. ‘What’s going on?’

Joe lowered his gaze for a moment and then looked directly up at Elsa.

‘Anarchy is on the rise, everywhere,’ he said. ‘It’s only been a few days since we received Macktidas’ threat, so there is still widespread denial of any pending doom, but in many places, panic is breaking out. Civil wars, religious conflicts and general unrest are on the rise all over the world.’

‘What about here?’ Kris asked, her urgency clear. ‘What sort of unrest is happening here?’

‘It is only local at the moment,’ Joe said, turning to face Kris, ‘and the state emergency services are managing the unrest adequately, but the tension is growing. Incidents of assault and battery, break and enter and arson are common, but we have seen an overall rise in general crime and violence. Like I said and I will not hide it from you, people are in pain and people are dying. The spectre of the end of the world is rising over us all and while we are not yet on the brink of irrevocable chaos, that unimaginable concept is now visible on the horizon. That is why, more than ever, we need Abdullah’s assistance. He has the resources to help us and keep us safe. If we, the human race, are to survive this ordeal, we have to at the very least make sure Max survives long enough to make it into the arena, but with Abdullah’s help, we all stand a chance of ensuring he is also fit and prepared. I welcome his service and I encourage you all to try to feel the same.’

 

11pm, 4th July (later that night). Fear

 

Kris sat alone on her bed, the massive wall mounted television on, but the appliance not grabbing her attention in the slightest. Instead she was numb. Her mind and body under siege.

Joe and Abdullah were right. The world was coming apart at the seams and the media were broadcasting it as an endless stream of images of violence and pain, but it was not this media driven assault of global mayhem that had her struck low. It was the news that she had received and missed during dinner. News that stabbed right into her soul.

While at dinner, Kris had received a voice message from her brother. Her parents were staying with him and his wife to keep safe. Her parents weren’t invalids and were entirely independent under normal circumstances, but the world had skewed a long way from normal in the last couple of days and so, in just being sensible, they had all decided to shelter under the same roof and keep an eye out for each other. Turned out, that notion had been an illusion. Violence had found them anyway and hit them hard.

Late that afternoon, four masked men had smashed their way through the back door of her brother’s home with steel bars and baled her brother and his wife and her parents up in a bedroom. After locking them in, the men had proceeded to smash their way through the house and ravage through their belongings to take whatever they wanted, mainly loose cash and some jewellery. Fortunately, no one had been hurt. That at least was a blessing, but it was still abuse, cruel and cutting.

The experience had left them all shaken, but Kris’ mother had fared the worst. Even while they had all huddled in the corner of the bedroom listening to their lives being violated, she had turned inwards and buried her consciousness deep inside herself, rendering herself effectively comatose and non-responsive.

The men had robbed them quickly and left without a word, but their damage now looked like it would linger with them forever more. Her brother had tried to sound strong on the phone, but Kris could tell, beneath his brave words, he was struggling, on the verge of losing it himself. Kris had enormous respect for her sibling, who had in fact pulled her through some tough times as well, but this time, the world was a different and much more awful place. He needed help and she was stuck here, powerless and remote.

As soon as Kris had found the message she had called her brother, but there was no answer, the phone turned off, or something else. She called again and again and again. Thirty times all up, but nothing and now, with no idea what was going on, all Kris had was her guilt and it had struck her numb.

The television in her bedroom was on, but it was as far away as the other side of the world. Kris had shut out the stories of pain and horror on the screen and instead focused inwards on her own anguish. It was late at night and even though she knew countless security staff patrolled the grounds outside, terror had slipped into her bedroom and just like it had done to her family, it had baled her up. The world inside her head was quiet, deathly quiet and in that silence, Kris’ fear started to swell.

In her own solitude and now with the added anxiety of her family’s suffering and her powerlessness to help, the night had begun to press in on Kris. The background buzz, which never really went away, grew in intensity. First it blocked out Kris’ hearing, like a swarm of bees inside her head. Then she could feel her fingers start to tremble and her feet twitch. Slowly the shakes spread throughout her body, causing Kris to shake all over like she was having a fit. By now, voluntary movement had become difficult and all she could do was sit on the bed and let her fear overcome her.

Finally, Kris heard a new sound in her head, a low roar, like surf gently swashing on a wide sandy beach. Steadily, the roar grew to larger and larger waves, pushing the buzzing aside. Kris forced her chin down until her face was buried as low as she could get it into her chest. Straining like she was half frozen, Kris then brought her hands up to her face, her fingers clawed. The waves pounded harder and harder. The wide sandy beach was now a rocky, jagged, line of teeth and the surf crashed down upon them like a tempest let loose in her head. The world outside her mind was gone, dashed upon the rocks and washed away into the vastness of a broiling, dark ocean.

Slipping slowly sideways on the bed, Kris curled her legs up into a foetal position. Tears streamed from her eyes. Trembling racked her entire body and her face screwed up into a mask of pain, the source invisible. All of this gripped her in complete silence, not a sound coming from her. Elsewhere in the house, everyone was either asleep or preparing for a night’s rest, but not Kris. In her room, her demons held her hostage and she could find no escape. The night drew on and the world outside became even more quiet, but not in Kris’ head. In there, it was very, very far from quiet.

 

8am, 5th July (the next morning). Compassion

 

The early morning sun warmed the western lawn, the rich green turf glistening with a full crop of overnight dew like diamonds strewn across a green blanket. Kris stood still, transfixed in the midst of the sea of grass, her eyes closed and her lungs full.

The smell of freshly cropped grass was one of Kris’ strongest and most personal sensations she harboured, reminding her of her childhood and all the times she had helped mow the broad lawns of their far North Queensland home. The drenching, tropical rains made lawn maintenance a common, weekend activity and she loved it. Sure, it was hard work, but she had never considered it a chore. It was something she and her father did together. It was their job and their time as father and daughter, sacred and special.

When the job was done, they would sit on the steps of the back patio and share a lemonade to cool down, talking about nothing, but life in general. It was relaxed. It was nice and above all, it was safe, unlike today.

‘Anything else you want outside, Kris?’ the assistant shouted from beside the semi-trailer.

Breaking from her day dream, Kris turned and looked into the lit interior of the massive semi-trailer. Racks of dumbbells, barbells and other fitness kit lined the walls. It was a virtual fitness emporium and it was Kris’ source of physical inspiration for Max’s training routine, as provided by Joe.

‘Grab two more twenty kilo dumbbells,’ she called out, ‘and put them down the far end of the course.’

‘Okay,’ came the reply as the assistant turned and headed up the ramp and into the trailer.

Kris lifted her sunglasses and rubbed her eyes. It was going to be a long day. The lack of a decent night’s sleep had seen to that. Quickly she turned her attention to something else, not wanting to allow the still buzzing fears in her mind to rise back up.

Turning, Kris looked out over the wide swath of grass that had hosted yesterday’s training course and impromptu political games. It was much clearer and normal looking now with the helicopters repositioned onto the eastern lawn on the other side of the property, the scene more easily fitting the bill of a regular, billionaire estate, if that really was normal? Kris’ assistants were still busy running around the lawn, completing the final stages of setting up a new course for Max to charge through and as she surveyed the scene, Kris’ gaze was quickly dragged to the centre where with his back to her, stood the man himself. Max.

Kris held him in her gaze for a few moments. He was not stretching. He was not warming up. He was simply still, statuesque. When Max was in motion, Kris felt the overpowering purpose he exuded, but even now, completely stationery, that same purpose radiated. He was a literal force of nature and even though she had only known him for less than a week, if the world needed saving, she could hope for no better champion. Her only concern was exactly what value could she add to his preparation? The man was already fitter than a team of oxen and just as strong to boot. How was she going to make him better?

Just then, a new voice brought Kris’ attention around.

As salam alaykum,’ Sheikh Abdullah said in his rich, rolling accent. ‘Good morning, Kris.’

Kris turned and found the Sheikh standing behind her, dressed identically as the day before. His pristine white robe gleamed flawlessly in the bright early morning sun, his hands hidden inside his sleeves and his face sheltered behind dark sunglasses. Abdullah’s countenance emanated complete serenity and calm, his manner and speech soothing and relaxed, but still Kris’ intuition held him in deep suspicion. Abdullah spoke eloquently and logically, but so did Joe and she trusted him, so why did she not trust this man? Was the Sheikh just different or was it something else? Until Kris knew more about him, she was not letting her guard down.

‘Be right with you, Max!’ Kris called out. Max waved back to her without turning around. Kris returned her attention to the Sheikh. ‘Good morning to you, your Highness. Is there something I can help you with?’

‘No, thank you,’ he said. ‘I have come only to watch. Max’s prowess yesterday was absorbing and like nothing I have ever personally witnessed, so without anything pressing to attend to right now, I wish only to observe some more and not be in your way. Can I seek your permission to do so?’

‘Sure,’ Kris said, shrugging. ‘We’ll be over that way, so steer clear. I’d hate for Max to clean you up with a barbell or something.’

‘Thank you,’ Abdullah said, bowing slightly.

Kris turned and started to walk out towards Max when the Sheikh’s voice brought her up again. She rolled her eyes and turned back.

‘What now?’ Kris asked a little more harshly than she would have with a good night’s sleep.

‘My apologies and I do not wish to pry,’ Sheikh Abdullah started, ‘but I could not help that you are looking a little weary this morning.’

‘Yeah, tough night’s sleep,’ she answered, realising her sunglasses were still on her forehead and pulled them down. ‘Strange house and all that.’

‘Yes, I am sure,’ Abdullah said. ‘I do, however, have one further question to ask, which is also of a personal nature and which you may ignore and leave be as you wish?’

Kris squinted behind her sunglasses as she unconsciously squared up a little on Abdullah. It was at that point she noticed two of his hulking body guards lurking a short distance away behind him, their massive physiques obvious in their well tailored, casual slacks and shirts. Kris also noticed Peter step into her field of vision a little further behind the two giants, his attention firmly fixed on the two guards.

‘What’s on your mind?’ Kris asked evenly.

‘Your family’s security and your well being,’ Abdullah said.

Kris tilted her head slightly askew, eyeing off the man. ‘What are you talking about?’ she asked, her jaws set.

Abdullah paused, then answered.

‘I have been informed that your brother’s house was broken into yesterday and that he, his wife and your parents were present during the invasion?’

Kris froze. She suddenly became acutely aware of the buzzing in her head.

‘How do you know about that?’ she replied sharply. ‘Have you been spying on them?’

‘The only answer I can give is yes, but please, let me explain as it is only for the best of intentions?’

‘And those intentions are?’ Kris asked, her tone rising and the buzzing ticking up a notch as well.

‘To keep them safe and…’

‘Fat load of good that did!’

‘…to ensure your peace of mind.’

‘My peace of mind?’ Kris almost shouted, the buzzing ratcheting up. ‘What business of your’s is my peace of mind?’

Abdullah bowed his head. ‘I have come to offer you my help,’ he said quietly.

Kris opened her mouth to shout again and then realised Max was standing beside her. Momentarily startled by his sudden and silent appearance, she held her tongue and just looked at him.

‘What’s going on?’ Max asked, looking between Kris and the Sheikh.

Abdullah started. ‘I have come to offer my assistance to Kris and her family,’ he said, ‘but have unfortunately managed only to offend.’

Max looked at Kris who was still looking silently back at him. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

Kris closed her eyes and shook her head. The buzzing quieted slightly.

‘Yeah. Fine,’ she said tensely.

‘Doesn’t sound like it?’ Max persisted.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ Kris shot back. ‘Let’s get on with this. We’re late.’

Kris started to walk away. Max watched her go and then turned back to the Sheikh.

‘Anything I need to know about here?’ he asked.

‘Thank you, Max, but I shall keep the details of my disagreement with Kris private,’ Abdullah said. ‘However, when you manage a moment, please inform her that I would like to offer the services of my own personal body guards as full time security for her family until this is all over.’

Max held Sheikh Abdullah in his gaze for a moment, searching the man’s shielded eyes and face for any hidden meaning in his words.

‘That’s pretty good of you, your Highness,’ Max said finally.

‘My intentions are directed towards maintaining Kris’ peace of mind by ensuring she knows her family is safe.’

‘Yeah, I get that,’ Max replied, nodding slowly, ‘but it’s still a hell of a nice thing to do.’

Abdullah dipped his head slightly. ‘I cannot abide injustice where I can assist.’

‘You know, I’m not a deep and meaningful kind of bloke, but I can usually pick the good guys from the bad pretty quickly and I have to say, you’re well and truly on the good side.’

‘Thank you, Max. Again, your honesty and forthrightness are refreshing and appreciated.’

‘And don’t worry about Kris. I’ve only known her for a few days more than I’ve known you and she’s right up there on the good side with you, so whatever’s bugging her right now, she’ll be right. I’ll get Elsa to talk to her and I’ll pass on your offer as well. She’ll take it up. I know she will. She’d be mad not to.’

‘Again, it is appreciated,’ Abdullah said.

‘Okay, well, I better get out there,’ Max said, jerking a thumb back over his shoulder. ‘Got a human race to save and all that. I’ll see you later.’

Sheikh Abdullah bowed again and Max turned and jogged over to Kris. The Sheikh looked back up and watched as Max and Kris held a short conversation and then Max began his training session with push ups and burpees. Kris flicked a quick glance in Abdullah’s direction and then turned her back on him. A pang bit into Abdullah’s chest. He barely knew Kris, but she had strength, mountains of it and that was good. She would need it, as would they all.

The Sheikh then looked across at Peter who was now standing alone off to the side of the course. The man was looking directly back at him, his own sunglasses hiding his eyes, but even from where he stood, Abdullah knew Peter’s gaze was acute.

Abdullah looked away, thinking to himself. They were all good people and strong too, but they were not yet the team they needed to be. He had to find a way to bring them together. As individuals they were each formidable, even Elsa in her own way, but until they all bonded, Max, Elsa, Kris, Joe and even himself, would sooner or later be swept up in the chaos threatening to engulf the world and their doom would be assured. Together though and with God willing, they stood a chance. Despite the darkness encroaching all around them, they might just be able to light the spark that would keep the light alive. Maybe, they could do it. Maybe, but time was short and it was already darker than he had expected.

 

10:30am, 12th July (7 days later). Fractionation

 

Looking out over the pool and through the fence to the lush expanse of the western lawn basking in the warmth of the winter sun, Elsa tried to convince herself it was just another normal day, but the news she had just heard, coupled with everything else going on around her forced that fantasy far, far away. She wondered, not for the first time, if life would ever be normal again.

Elsa could hear Millie and Jason inside with their teacher, doing their schooling in front of the electronic whiteboard, learning about natural landscapes versus artificial ones. The kids liked their new teacher. He was patient, considerate and well skilled and the curriculum he taught was excellent, but it was wrong. The kids should still be in their normal class room, surrounded by their school friends. Not here, hiding. Fair enough they were hiding in luxury, but it was still hiding. Their childhoods had been kidnapped and their friends stolen away. They were being deprived of a basic right and it tore at her.

Meanwhile, here she sat by a resort style pool, surrounded by military grade security sharing a coffee with the Prime Minister of Australia. There was absolutely nothing normal about that. The constant sound of circling helicopters had become the standard white noise on the estate. Heavy vehicles came and went at all hours and while their privacy was essentially respected, they also had to tolerate the roaming patrols and general knowledge that they were never truly alone. Not truly.

‘I’ll leave you be,’ the Prime Minister said, pushing his chair back from the table and standing up.

‘No, wait?’ Elsa said, breaking from her thoughts. ‘Please, stay? I just…drifted off for a minute. Sorry.’

Joe stood looking down at her, waiting patiently.

‘Really,’ Elsa said, holding both hands out, palms down. ‘I’m okay. It’s just…tough news to take. That’s all.’

Joe sat back down again.

‘Please, keep going?’ Elsa insisted, picking up her coffee.

Joe nodded. ‘Very well. As I was saying, the news as of last night is that social services are starting to falter in the provincial areas. Regional transport of goods is starting to become erratic and so, the supply of basic food stuffs is becoming unreliable in the supermarkets outside of the capital and larger cities. We are trying to support the major freight companies with military logistics to keep the food supply networks functioning throughout the country, but this is an increasing challenge as we are needing to use more and more military resources at the same time in maintaining law and order in the capital cities.’

Elsa smiled grimly. ‘So the small towns are struggling for food and the big cities are struggling to keep the peace?’ she asked.

‘In a nutshell, yes. At least the capitals have food on the shelves, for now, but law and order is slowly eroding. It’s not out of control and thankfully the fascination with arson seems to have lost its novelty, but still our paramedic, police and fire services are stretched. Everyone is on edge.’

‘But we’re holding?’ Elsa asked. ‘I mean, we haven’t started to spiral uncontrollably downwards have we?’

Joe paused and that moment of silence spoke volumes to Elsa.

‘Have we, Joe?’ Elsa pushed.

‘No, we haven’t,’ Joe finally answered, shaking his head gently. As he did, he also looked out over the western lawn and spied Max out exercising with Kris, the two of them just jogging together for the moment. ‘However, we’re now starting to see migration from the struggling provincial centres into the capital cities. People think the big cities are holding up better than the regional centres, so they’re making the move, but that will only exacerbate the burden on the larger centres. Yes, they have more reliable food supplies, but the increasing population will break that reliability and then, the inevitable increase in lawlessness will take place. You mention a spiral? Well, I can see that spiral beginning to brew.’

‘Why, Joe?’ Elsa asked a little more desperately than she would have liked. ‘I understand that people are afraid of the end of the world. That’s obvious, but we all still have to live for the next six months and plunging ourselves straight into anarchy is, well…it’s just like giving up. I don’t get it.’

Joe sighed and leaned back in his chair, looking out to the lawn again. This time he found Kris standing next to Max who was doing a single arm handstand next to her.

‘The human psyche is quite simple, Elsa,’ Joe continued. ‘When faced with adversity, especially anything life threatening, we choose fight or flight. It’s a primal response. We instinctively react with one or the other and for those of us that have given up, we’ve chosen flight and that manifests as “there is no tomorrow” and “we’re all doomed” and so, these people slip into antisocial behaviour. They choose to live by the law of the jungle and exploit everyone else. It’s these people who have stopped working and have resorted to stealing and violence. It’s these people who are escalating the rise of chaos.’

‘And those who have chosen to fight?’

‘They’re the ones still going to work and trying to hold on to the normal lives we had two weeks ago. Fortunately denial works in our favour here. The vast majority of the population still doesn’t truly believe all this media hype about an alien invasion and the world is doomed. At this point denial is supporting the “fight” mentality, but as the “flight” population grows, those out there in denial become increasingly victimised and disillusioned and turn to “flight”. This trend is common in the early stages of any major threat, but we need to counteract the trend quickly. This burgeoning migration of people is one key indicator that the social fabric is unraveling.’

‘So what do we do, Joe?’ Elsa asked, also leaning back in her chair, her eyes flicking side to side, slightly frantic.

Joe paused then said, ‘I truly don’t know, Elsa, but what I do know is that if we are to stand any chance of having a human race beyond the duels, we have to keep you and your family safe. That is non-negotiable. Max needs to make it to the arena safe, fit and mentally prepared to fight and that means everyone he holds dear in his life also needs to be safe.’

Elsa fell quiet again, her gaze dropping to the table. Joe held his own peace, allowing Elsa to arrange her thoughts. He turned and looked back out over the grass and this time found Max doing one armed pushups with his feet raised on a bench. Kris hovered over him, like a drill sergeant with a cadet. Then Joe looked further afield and as expected, he found Peter, leaning against the wheel hub of Kris’ support truck, his manner relaxed, but Joe knew better. Peter had every angle checked and every person within five hundred metres squared away. The man was a hawk and his talons were always at the ready.

Joe turned his attention back to Elsa.

‘What’s on your mind?’ he gently asked.

Elsa half shook her head and looked up, rolling her eyes as she did.

‘You don’t have to say if you don’t want to, but…’ Joe started.

‘No, I will,’ Elsa interrupted. ‘It’s just that it all sounds so selfish.’

‘Try me.’

Elsa paused and gathered her words.

‘Okay,’ she began, the words tumbling out of her mouth. ‘The world outside is going to hell and Max and myself and the kids are all living here in luxury as safe as houses. There’s nothing fair about that, but on top if it all, I don’t even want to be here. The kids deserve their childhood back. They’re innocent, but again, at least they’re safe and when I say something like that, I feel like such a hypocrite. I’m whinging, but I’ve got nothing to whinge about compared to just about everyone else out there. How screwed up is that?’

‘Sounds perfectly normal to me,’ Joe said mildly. ‘This evil threat came unbeckoned and uncalled. We’re all struggling with how to deal with it emotionally.’

‘Don’t get me wrong, Joe and I’m not going to give away too much that we’ll tell you soon anyway, but Max and I have expected this thing for some time. We knew Macktidas would come one day and we’ve prepared ourselves for it. I’ve known for several years that one day I would have to sacrifice Max and my family’s happiness. What I didn’t expect was for Macktidas to threaten to kill the entire human race. My point is, I thought I was ready, but the bastard upped the ante so damn high that now I don’t know what to do or how to feel even about it.’

Joe held his gaze on Elsa, resting his elbows on the table top and lifting his clenched hands to his face, looking over them at her. Elsa looked away towards the house where she could still hear the kids and their teacher talking. The pause in their conversation lengthened. Joe finally spoke, his tone quiet.

‘Elsa, you bear a guilt that I don’t think many people in the world today could truly understand,’ Joe began. ‘However, let me try to rationalise what may be troubling you?’

Elsa flicked a quick glance at him and nodded before looking quickly away again.

Joe nodded, then said, ‘I have sent good men and women to their deaths in wars in faraway lands for reasons that were not always obvious to me and were certainly not obvious to those innocent souls. I would even go so far as to say, I expected them to lay down their lives if they had to. While the exact reasons for the conflicts were not apparent, the need for their sacrifice and hardship was, at least to me. Freedom and I do not mean freedom in any clichéd sense or glamorous ideal, but for the very essence of the word and its pure, unambiguous definition. Freedom. There is no finer cause to fight for except maybe love, but not everyone has love as a luxury. You however do, Elsa. You have both freedom and love to fight for and in this God awful situation we find ourselves, you unfortunately are being forced to sacrifice one for the other and that is not fair. For humanity to retain its freedom, you have to sacrifice the one you love. On the other hand, if you choose to keep the one you love safe, we will all lose our freedom. There is nothing fair or just about anything in that.’

Elsa still did not look at him. Joe continued.

‘I imagine you have already asked yourself many times over, Elsa, why is your husband and your happiness more important than the lives and freedom of countless others? Well, the answer is obvious. Because he’s your husband and it’s your happiness and you’re absolutely entitled to both of those, so here’s the thing…

Elsa finally looked up, the harder edge in Joe’s last words focusing her attention. She found Joe’s eyes fixed on her’s, his pupils glinting steely hard, like flint stones reflecting bright light. He continued.

‘Elsa, you’re also entitled to your guilt. Bear it and suffer it. Come to terms with it and when you’re ready, beat it down,’ he said, his tone still quiet, but now fierce as he more clearly enunciated his syllables, forcing emotion into his words. ‘This is what you have to do and I know you’re capable of it. I’ve seen strength before, Elsa and I don’t mean physical strength, but real strength. Strength of character, of principal. The sort of strength that lifts people out of the mire and frees them. The sort of strength that lights a torch in the dark and leads others to home, to safety. The sort of strength that can inspire normal people to do great things and you, Elsa, I can sense that strength in you. Your husband has the strength of body to beat monstrous foes away from the door, but do you know why he does it? Not because he’s a big man who can fight like an archangel. No, he does it because of you, because of how you inspire him. He does it because of how you raise his children and how you protect them and love them and protect him as well. Max will save us all if he can, but not because of us, but because of you. You are as much the hero here as he is and I don’t think it’s in your nature to give up, so don’t. Fight as hard as you can and for as long as you can. Fight like I know you can because when the rest of us are struggling to keep our heads above the deep, dark waters of despair, I know we will always have your light above us, in front us, leading us on and giving us strength and hope. You’re our rock, Elsa and we need you. We need you more than anyone because Max needs you.’

Elsa sat frozen, her breath caught in her lungs. Joe’s words rooted her to the spot and deep down in her core, she felt a spark light, a match in the dark and now Elsa could feel that new warmth spreading quickly through her. Her eyes wide, her body tense, she felt her growing despair melt as the warmth advanced along her limbs, right to the tips of her fingers.

Elsa breathed and turned her head towards the house. Inside the kids were giggling. She could feel a cool breeze fluttering across her skin. She was alive. Her family was safe and now she knew what she had to do. Her internal conflict, her guilt was gone. She needed to be strong. She needed to be the torch Joe spoke of. Max needed her. Millie and Jason needed her. They all needed her.

Joe spoke. ‘I think that’s one of the best pep talks I’ve ever given.’

Elsa turned back to him and found a gentle smile, her Prime Minister having reverted back to an old friend. Putting down her coffee, Elsa reached out and clasped Joe’s hand and squeezed it tight.

‘You are one of the best of men, Joseph Tollsen,’ she said beaming, ‘and all I can say is thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’

Joe smiled back and he also felt something else he had not felt for a long time, warmth in his soul.

‘You are very welcome, Elsa’ he said. ‘Now, I must go and try to keep the peace in the world at large. I appreciate the conversation.’

Meanwhile, out on the lawn, Kris looked back at the house to see Joe stand up and leave Elsa alone in the pool enclosure. She wondered what they had been talking about. Things had looked pretty tense for a bit there, but that hand holding at the end seemed a lot more relaxed. A clunk brought her attention back to the lawn.

Max straightened from his haunches after having completed his fifty squat jumps and thrown the barbell that had been across his shoulders to the ground. Sweat gleamed off his fully pumped frame. Kris had worked him pretty hard and it showed, but Max had also lapped it all up and even now though he was breathing a little heavy, in a few moments, he would be fully recovered. The man was unbreakable, or maybe she wasn’t trying hard enough.

‘That’s enough for this morning,’ Kris said. ‘Go have a shower and a rest. We’re hitting the gym this afternoon and we’re taking it up a gear.’

‘You’re the boss,’ Max said, without even the slightest hint of sarcasm.

Max started to walk off, but the familiar, exotic tones of Sheikh Abdullah pulled him up short. He immediately snuck a glance at Kris and saw her dip her head and shake it slightly.

‘Yes, your Highness,’ Max answered, turning as he did to find Abdullah gliding out onto the lawn, two of his body guards flanking him.

‘Excuse me,’ Kris drawled and stepped off towards the truck.

‘Please, Kris, may I also speak with you?’ the Sheikh called out.

Kris halted and paused, her stiff frame clearly portraying her testy mood. Then she turned and walked woodenly back, her gaze directed everywhere, but toward Abdullah.

‘Thank you,’ the Sheikh said, bowing slightly. ‘I do not wish to take up much of your valuable time, but I was hoping to briefly investigate if there are any additional training aids you would like? In particular I can provide to you engineering services that can construct any custom designed equipment, electrical or mechanical, that you may like or can think of. Do not feel anything is beyond your reach or perhaps even your imagination. There is also the question of weapons. I assume you will also be conducting combat training with weapons as part of your preparations?’

Max stood mutely for a moment and then turned to look at Kris. Kris’s sunglasses hid her rolling eyes.

‘I’ll think about it,’ she said, folding her arms.

‘Thank you,’ Abdullah said. ‘It would be my honour to help you and to be guided by what you consider is important.’

‘Sure. Is that all?’ Kris shot back while looking away to the horizon.

‘Yes,’ Sheikh Abdullah said and bowed again. ‘Shukran jazeelin. Thank you.’

Kris turned and walked away towards the open trailer, leaving Max and Abdullah to watch her go. As she disappeared inside, Elsa walked up to them from the house.

‘Good morning, your Highness,’ she said.

Salaam Alaykum,’ Abdullah said. ‘I trust you are well this morning?’

‘I am thank you,’ she replied, then turning to Max. ‘You done for this morning?’

‘Yeah. Got another session this afternoon. Get ready for a whingey husband tonight.’

‘Toughen up, big guy,’ Elsa replied, kissing him on the cheek. ‘Where’d Kris go? I wanted to catch up with her.’

‘She’s In the back of the truck,’ Max offered. ‘Hey, while you’re in there, see if there’s anything eating her. She’s been a bit squirly the last couple of days.’

Abdullah said nothing.

‘Really?’ Elsa said, raising her eyebrows. ‘I hadn’t noticed.’

‘Of course not. You just bring out the best in people, darling.’

‘Shut up,’ Elsa drawled, slapping Max on the backside. ‘Oh, sorry,’ she quickly added, whipping her hand up to her chin and looking at Sheikh Abdullah. ‘I didn’t mean to…you know?’

Abdullah nodded back. ‘I am not embarrassed. He is your husband and therefore you have some ownership of his…anatomy.’

Elsa smiled. ‘Okay. See you boys later.’

She then turned and skipped off and into the confines of the trailer to find Kris.

‘Hey,’ Max said, turning to Abdullah, ‘Kris will come good. I don’ think it’s you she’s all worked up about. I suspect it’s everything. Hard to blame anyone for being off their game considering what’s going on out there,’ Max added, waving a hand in the air. ‘At least she took up your offer for security for her brother and parents, which I will repeat was an awfully nice gesture. You’re a good man for doing that.’

‘It is the least I can do.’

‘As for combat training, I’m not up for anything like that yet, so let’s not talk about weapons. When we need them, I’ll let you know. Kris might have some ideas for other stuff though. I’ll bring it up again this afternoon.’

‘As you wish, Max. I trust you and Kris to know how best to prepare, so I will wait your instruction. I do have another question specifically for you if you will permit me?’

‘You don’t have to be so polite, your Highness. If we’re going to be friends, let’s get a little more relaxed on the protocol, alright?’

‘As you wish and in return you may now drop the royal pleasantries. My name is Abdullah.’

Max nodded. ‘Sure thing, Abdullah. What’s on your mind?’

‘Your past and your life are your business and the truth behind your role in this present predicament is also your’s to protect. However, I do wonder if there is some information you can provide that may aid us in preparing for the arena and also assist us in persevering through these difficult times prior to the duels?’

Max paused and then slowly said, ‘So, you’re basically asking me to come clean on exactly who I am and why Macktidas has come looking for me? Is that it?”

‘Yes.’

Max put his hands on his hips and looked down at the ground. After a few seconds he flicked his gaze back up to Abdullah who was still keenly fixed on him.

‘Tonight,’ Max said finally. ‘I’ll tell you everything tonight.’

‘I do not wish to pressure you…’

‘No, it’s time,’ Max cut-in. ‘No more secrets. You all deserve to know the truth so, after dinner I’ll spell it all out for everyone.’

‘Thank you, Max,’ Abdullah replied. ‘I realise this is a very large offering for you and I appreciate your trust. I shall bother you no more today and see you this evening.’

Max held the Sheikh’s gaze for a few seconds and then nodded, allowing him to step backwards and turn away, his two bodyguards slipping in behind to shadow him off the lawn and into the house. Max glimpsed Peter in his peripheral vision coming up on his right side.

‘Pete,’ Max said without turning, ‘do you trust people easily?’

‘No,’ Peter replied. ‘The job doesn’t allow it, but when I do trust someone, it’s absolute and if you’re wondering, I trusted you the moment we met.’

Max paused as the words buried themselves into his consciousness. He then turned and looked squarely at Peter. ‘Goes for me too, mate. Absolute is right. You’re a good man and I know my family’s in good hands.’

Peter nodded back.

Max added, ‘What about his Highness? Sheikh Abdullah?’

Peter cast a sideways glance towards the house and folded his arms. ‘I’m starting to think, yes. He’s one of Joe’s best mates and that’s usually good enough for me, but I also get some good vibes off him in general.’

‘I’m with you,’ Max replied. ‘He has a genuine feel about him. I can’t put a finger on it, but when he says something, I just struggle to believe it could be anything but true. What he did for Kris, putting those bodyguards onto her family. He didn’t do that just to keep her peace of mind. He did it because he cares. Full stop.’

Peter nodded again. ‘Yeah, I’m in with that.’

The two men stood in silence for a few moments, comfortable with their own thoughts.

‘Oh,’ Max started, ‘you’re invited to dinner tonight and by that I mean, no lurking in the shadows watching over everyone, but actually sitting at the table with the rest of us, eating and drinking and using a knife and fork. I’ve got a story to tell and you need to hear it firsthand.’

‘Okay. I can do that. Do I have to talk to anyone?’

Max smiled. ‘No. It might spoil your lone wolf charm thing you’ve got going on, but you know, improvise. Adapt and overcome and all that.’

‘Got it. You going back inside now?’

‘Yeah, shower time and early lunch,’ Max answered, turning towards the house.

Peter nodded and lifted his wrist mike to his mouth and said, ‘Sword on the move back to the house.’

Max stopped and turned back. ‘Sword? Is that me?’

Peter nodded.

‘So, that means Joe is Shield?’

Peter nodded again.

‘What about everyone else. Have we all got code names?’

‘Yeah. Even the kids.’

‘List them out. See if I can guess who’s who.’

Peter hesitated.

‘Come on?’ Max pushed. ‘Try me.’

‘Gaia.’

‘Mother Earth. Has to be Elsa.’

Peter nodded. ‘Tabby.’

‘Millie.’

Another nod. ‘Tiger.’

‘Jason.’

‘Right again. Nike.’

‘Kris,’ Max said smiling. ‘She’ll love that.’

‘Greek goddess of victory. Seemed appropriate.’

‘Got that right. Now what about you?’

‘Peter’s just fine, mate.’

‘Not likely. How about Raptor, like an eagle? Not the dinosaur.’

‘Bit corny isn’t it?’

‘Matches my sense of humour,’ Max said, slapping Peter on the shoulder. ‘Raptor it is.’

The two men turned and started to walk back to the house. As they passed the trailer, Max looked in and called out to Kris and Elsa, ‘See you at lunch!’

‘Okay!’ Elsa called back.

Inside the trailer, Elsa sat on top of a crate, leaning against the side wall, while Kris sat across from her on a padded bench, idly handling a weighted wrist band.

‘So, they’re okay are they? Your brother and your parents?’ Elsa asked.

‘Yeah, they’re fine,’ Kris replied, looking down at the wrist band as she twisted it. ‘Mum’s getting better. She’s even started to talk again, but she’s still real timid.’

‘And Abdullah’s security guards make them feel safer?’

‘Yeah, seems like it.’

‘You know that’s a hell of a nice thing Abdullah did, giving you those blokes to keep your family safe. He didn’t have to.’

‘It’s business for him,’ Kris shot back. ‘He even said it himself. He needs me to not be worried about other stuff, so I can stay focused on Max’s training. That’s all.’

Elsa carefully regarded her friend. ‘Maybe, but a less nice person wouldn’t have cared at all. I think he’s genuinely a good bloke and here to help.’

Kris looked away.

‘Okay, let’s drop it,’ Elsa added, ‘but be warned, I’m a serial nagger for helping people get through issues. You can’t hide from me for long.’

Kris looked up and finally smiled, nodding. ‘I can see that.’

Elsa gave Kris a shrewd look and then jumped down from the crate. Turning to start walking out, she called out, ‘Don’t be late for dinner tonight. Max is spilling the beans on everything and I know you’ll want to hear it straight up.’

Kris’ face perked up and she got to her feet. ‘You mean…’

‘Everything!’ Elsa called back.

Kris froze, her mind already doing cartwheels on what she might learn tonight.

Elsa reached the top of the ramp and stopped. Turning back she looked at Kris, her eyes soft. ‘I meant what I said the other day,’ she added. Kris looked back up at her. ‘I’m here for you and when the time comes, I’m going to need you too. Abdullah’s a good man and I think you agree with me. Time could be real short, Kris. Don’t waste it being afraid and angry.’

Kris dropped her gaze from Elsa’s, her instant excitement melting completely away. Silence suddenly gripped her. Elsa kept her gaze on Kris, wordlessly pleading for her friend to acknowledge the pain she was feeling. The silence grew thin and tense.

‘I’ll see you tonight,’ Elsa finally said and turned down the ramp and out onto the lawn. Inside the trailer, Kris remained transfixed. Physically, she was standing alone with no one else in the trailer, but in her mind, she was utterly alone with no other soul on earth. Deep inside Kris’ head, the buzzing had kicked into action and she could feel her finger tips trembling. Suddenly, it became very, very dark inside the confines of the trailer and her knees started to shake.

 

9pm, 12th July (later that night). The Truth

 

Max stood in front of the high-mantled, stone fireplace and cast his gaze around the expansive living room. The broad, plush room had enough space and comfort to accommodate at least twenty people or more. However, tonight there were only five and he held centre stage.

Then Peter walked in through the main door to make it six. Pulling the door closed behind him, Peter locked it and pocketed the key in his jeans. Turning to Max, he said, ‘The room’s secure.’

Max nodded and Peter moved a little further into the room, standing at ease with all of the room’s occupants in front of him, squarely in his forward field of vision. Instinctively, Peter’s eyes flicked from window to window.

Meanwhile, all other eyes in the room locked onto Max. One by one, he scanned the faces of everyone present. Elsa sat at one end of the central couch, her eyes bright and perky, letting him know she was there to support him if needed. Max winked at her.

Then to Kris at the other end of the couch, who was anything but perky. Since their morning training session, her mood had turned very gloomy and now she sat scrunched into the corner of the vast, leather upholstery, her feet pulled up and her eyes sunken. Something had happened and Max immediately felt an unbidden emotion rise within himself. Compassion and it was strange because he had never felt it before for anyone other than Elsa or their children.

Acknowledging the new sensation, Max stored it away and slid his gaze sideways to where Sheikh Abdullah sat in a separate armchair, his robes elegantly draped all around. In the uneven, slightly hooded light of the room, his pristine white attire radiated a gentle glow, making him appear preternatural. The aura suited him. Despite the good vibes Max was getting from the man, Abdullah remained mysterious. Seemingly trustworthy, but mysterious nonetheless.

Then, rotating his head back the other way, Max found Joe standing not far from him, leaning against the edge of the fireplace mantle. In Joe’s mouth was a pipe, unlit, but perched between his lips just like he was puffing away on it. The pipe looked right at home on him and if this had been anywhere else in a normal world, Joe could have been anyone’s grandfather, older, wiser and more care free, but this was not a normal world and Max knew Joe was far from care free.

‘The floor is yours’, Max,’ Joe said, removing his pipe for a moment.

Max nodded and stole a few extra moments to convince himself his first words were the right ones.

‘Okay,’ he started. ‘I promised you all the truth and that’s exactly what you’re going to get, from start to finish. Unfortunately, I’m no Abdullah or Joe when it comes to telling stories, so if you’re looking for clever words or turns of phrase for effect, get ready to be disappointed, but be rest assured that what I’m about to tell you is true. Absolutely true. It might get weird and over the top, but every word is real. I don’t tell lies. I never have and I’m not about to start.’

Max paused and silent expectation flowed back at him.

‘Good,’ Max continued. ‘Now fortunately, I don’t have to start by convincing you that aliens exist. Macktidas has done that for me, so that’s one bullet dodged, but now I do have to give you the second big punch line. I’m half alien too.’

Max paused again as he rescanned all the faces in the room. To everyone’s credit, no one blinked or budged. No one even uttered a sound. It was as though he had just spoken the most mundane comment in the world.

‘Well,’ Max added, ‘that went down a lot easier than I figured it would.’

‘To be fair to you, Max,’ Joe said quietly, ‘the possibility of you having extra terrestrial genetics is a notion we have all entertained quite strongly since this affair began. Let’s consider the facts. You are being hunted by an alien warlord and your physical prowess is to be perfectly blunt, superhuman. However, despite our growing suspicions of your heritage, thank you for sharing it openly. Now, please, go on when you are ready?’

Max nodded and looked down at the ground as he realised his naivety. He would not underestimate his new friends again. He then flicked his gaze up to Elsa who nodded back at him, urging him to continue. That was all he needed.

‘Okay, moving along then,’ Max continued. ‘Let’s start with some facts. I don’t know who my father is, but he was human. It was my mother who was the alien. She was Nar’gellan to be exact and it’s the Nar’gellans that are threatening to wipe us out. That big ugly one we all saw on the TV two weeks ago, that’s Macktidas and he’s the king or ruler or general or whatever he calls himself, but he’s in charge and he wants me.’

‘Why?’ Kris asked suddenly, instantly dragging all eyes in the room onto her sullen face.

Max paused in response, not because he was unsure of how to answer, but now as Kris looked directly back at him, he saw full on the darkening shadows around her eyes, evidencing the deep depths of her internal pain. Something was torturing Kris and it wounded Max to see it, but this was not the time or the place to deal with it. Instead, Max quelled his concerns and vowed to make amends as soon as the spotlight shifted from himself.

‘Because I’m the last link to the previous royal family that Macktidas murdered to gain control of the Nar’gellan race,’ Max replied. ‘While I’m alive, Macktidas can’t claim full leadership.’

‘So, not only are you half alien, but you’re also some sort of alien prince or something?’ Kris pushed.

‘Yes,’ Max said directly. ‘My mother was the queen and her partner was the king. They had three offspring. Two males and a female, but Macktidas killed them all to gain the throne. Everyone except my mother’

‘And I assume she survived by escaping to Earth?’ Joe asked.

‘Yes,’ Max answered, turning his gaze to him. ‘She ran hard and fast and came here, knowing she needed to give birth to a new heir to keep the blood line alive. If she died without another child, Macktidas would become the undisputed ruler of the Nar’gellans and nothing could stop him from unleashing death on countless innocent races across the universe.’

‘Why?’ Kris asked. ‘Why does he want to just kill everyone?’

This time Max paused to consider what to say next.

‘I will tell you what I know,’ he answered, ‘and by that I mean I will tell you everything that my mother told me, but I don’t have all the details, so I’ll do the best I can.’

Kris nodded.

‘A long time ago, the Nar’gellans were enslaved and after many generations, they fought their way out of captivity to gain existence in their own right. Their fight from slavery was credited to one family and that family’s blood line has remained intact and on the throne until my family was murdered. Over the centuries, the Nar’gellan race prospered, mainly as a military force for hire helping other enslaved and captive races gain freedom. It all sounds very noble and all, but considering what I knew of my mother and her nature, I believe it. She was as noble a creature as you’ll ever find. Anyway, the Nar’gellans were happy doing what they did, but Macktidas is a war monger and he knew that the Nar’gellan species had evolved to be a fighting force in the universe and that if he usurped power, nothing would stand in his way for ultimate power. You’ve all seen the videos of his foot soldiers attacking me, so I guess you can imagine what a whole army of millions of them would be like? ’

‘If they’re anything like you,’ Joe said, ‘then yes, my imagination can easily conjure up an all conquering race.’

A few nods around the room added support to Joe’s words.

‘From what my mother told me,’ Max continued, ‘Macktidas’ only desire in life is to fight, kill and dominate everything and now that he’s got a whole race of elite warriors at his bidding, he can waltz around the universe doing exactly that, plundering as he goes. God knows how many beings and entire races he’s killed off in the thirty plus years he’s been in charge and now he’s lining up humanity as his next target.’

Joe took his pipe from his mouth and spoke again. ‘Max, you speak of your parents in past tense,’ he said, ‘and there is certainly no trace of either your mother or father in the civil records, so…’

‘Where are they?’ Max interrupted.

‘Yes,’ Joe replied carefully. ‘Where are they?’

Max mused for a moment as his mother’s face filled his mind. It had been several years since he had seen her.

‘She’s gone,’ Max finally said as he shifted his gaze from space back to the Prime Minister’s face, ‘and probably dead. She up and left me five years ago and I haven’t seen or heard from her since.’

‘Why do you think she has passed away?’

‘She told me when she left that Macktidas was getting closer and she had to take his attention away from me, so she took off, hoping to distract Macktidas. Now that he’s found me, I figure Macktidas found her first, got my location out of her and probably killed her as soon as he could. I couldn’t imagine Macktidas being merciful.’

Joe nodded and placed his pipe back between his teeth. ‘And your father?’ Joe asked.

‘No idea,’ Max shot straight back as he looked down at his feet. ‘Never met him and my mother never spoke of him either, except to say that she was thankful for all he had given her and that I would never know him.’

‘Why?’ Kris asked. ‘Why couldn’t you ever meet him? Did your mother and him break up?’

‘No. They were never together,’ Max said, looking up to Kris. ‘When my mother escaped from Macktidas, she came to Earth in Nar’gellan form knowing she had to find a mate and bear a child, but in her alien form, that was never going to work out. So, how she did it, I don’t really know, but she changed her appearance to look human. I think she had some sort of biogenetic drug that transformed her somehow on the outside, but inside she was still all Nar’gellan. Like I said, I don’t really know how she did it, but she did and she landed a mate as well. My father and then she left him. Straight away. She got what she needed and was always thankful for it, but she didn’t need him and as it turns out, I didn’t either.’

‘That explains a good many things about our situation,’ Joe said as he removed his pipe from his mouth and inspected the polished wooden surface, rubbing the bowl with his thumb. ‘Your story is indeed truly remarkable and I thank you for sharing it with us. However, if you will allow me to strike off on a tangent for a moment, may I ask a question regarding the duels?’

Max nodded once and Joe returned the gesture.

‘If Macktidas wants to assure undisputed claim to the throne, then I imagine he will want to kill you with his bare hands? Is that a fair assumption?’

Max nodded.

Joe paused and slowly spun his pipe in his hand as he pondered. ‘That being the case, why then has Macktidas demanded three bouts? Which bout would he enter because if he enters the first and loses, why conduct the remaining bouts and then on the other hand, if Macktidas waits till either the second or third bouts, he runs the risk of you being killed by someone or something else before he gets the chance, which would defeat his purpose of killing you himself. The logic escapes me.’

‘This is really only a guess, Joe,’ Max replied, ‘but I expect Macktidas to save himself for the third bout because that’s how I would do it. He’ll probably watch the first two bouts to identify my strengths and weaknesses and then exploit them in the third bout. Macktidas also knows I’m half Nar’gellan and I doubt he’ll underestimate me because of that fact alone. After all, he did see me beat up a lot of his lackeys, so he knows I’ve got some skills. He’ll probably also place opponents in the first two bouts with different skill sets to make sure he gets a rounded look at what I’m capable of and ensure he doesn’t miss anything for when it’s his turn to come at me.’

‘Those are interesting assumptions,’ Joe returned, ‘and you seem sure of yourself in making them. Without being disrespectful, why so assertive?’

‘Like I said, that’s how I would do it.’

Joe nodded slowly, falling quiet as he carefully replaced his pipe between his lips.

‘And if you do win,’ Kris started, ‘and Macktidas is dead, do you really think his aliens will leave us alone?’

‘Yes,’ Max replied quickly and firmly. ‘My mother taught me that a Nar’gellan’s word is unbreakable. They may love to fight, but if nothing else, they’re honourable, and that means Macktidas too. If a Nar’gellan makes a promise or a pact, it’s a locked in deal, so do I think they will leave us alone if I win? Yes. Absolutely.’

‘Again, if you do win,’ Joe asked, his piercing eyes squinting, ‘do you imagine that opens the door for you to reclaim the Nar’gellan throne for your bloodline? Would you become king?’

‘I doubt it. I can’t imagine the Nar’gellans want a half-breed on the throne, but then again, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want it. My family is here and I’m not going anywhere,’ Max said, looking to Elsa who smiled in return.

Silence settled in the room. Max waited for more questions. The distant chop-chop of a helicopter sounded through the thick glass of the windows and French doors. The silence grew.

‘Well, that’s the whole story,’ Max finally said. ‘It’s not a lot of words, but it is the story of my life. It’s why I’m here and what my destiny is and for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you’ve all been dragged into this. If I could do this my way, I’d tell Macktidas there’s only one duel. Me and him and the winner gets to stay alive and leave everyone else and everything else out of it. None of you deserve to be part of this. This whole thing is personal and that’s how it should have stayed.’

‘Yeah, well, it didn’t turn out that way did it?’ Kris said evenly without raising her gaze from the ground.

This time silence smothered the room. Elsa bowed her head and fidgeted her fingers in her lap. Joe flicked a glance across the room to Abdullah, who snapped his own hazel eyes up towards his before latching them onto Kris’. At the back of the couch, Peter took a single step forward to where Kris sat, his own eyes lasered onto the back of Kris’ head. Max broke the pause.

‘No, it did not turn out that way, Kris,’ he started, ‘and like I said, if…’

‘There’s no “ifs”, Max,’ Kris shot back, her tone notching up and her face coming back up to look squarely at him. ‘There’s only now and there’s only reality and we have to deal with it.’

Silence again. Peter took another step forwards and looked up to Max, who shook his head once, short and sharp. Peter nodded and settled in place. Max spoke again.

‘What exactly do you mean by that, Kris?’ he asked.

‘It means, I could sit here and whinge that we’re all going to die because of you, couldn’t I?  I could blame you and your alien family for all this and that my family is in danger because of you.  That would be easy and then we can all get angry that the rest of us don’t deserve this mess and that you should just run off and sort this thing out yourself and let the rest of us live in peace. We could all do that couldn’t we and that would be fair, except it isn’t fair, is it?’

Another pause.

Max gently pushed on. ‘If that’s not fair, Kris, then what is?’ he asked carefully.

‘None of this. None of this is fair. It’s all about as unfair as it gets,’ Kris grated out, her face crunching even more tightly into a frown as she shook her head, her blonde hair flailing about.  ‘The reality is that none of this is your fault. It’s not anybody’s fault and we’ve got to stop looking for someone to blame.  I’ve got to stop looking for someone to blame.’

At these last words, Elsa’s head lifted and she slowly turned her gaze sideways to look at her new friend on the opposite end of the couch.  Kris was now hunched right over, her arms folded firm against her chest and her knees up hard, her eyes shut tight as angst ratcheted across her face.  Elsa looked up to Max and found him looking right back at her.  He sharply shook his head, suggesting she not slide across to comfort Kris yet.  This had to play out.

‘Tell us what’s on your mind, Kris?’ Max asked. ‘Tell us what you need us to know?’

Joe slid his gaze sideways to Max to briefly appraise him, quickly studying his face and finding nothing but sincerity. He then slid his gaze back to Kris who spoke again, her voice trembling and hard.

‘It’s time we all accepted that this is not going away,’ she pushed out. ‘This is real.  This is our life now and if we’re looking for a way out, you’re actually our life line and not the one to blame.  You’re the one we need.  You’re the solution and I need to get on board with that.’  Kris sharply lifted her head, her eyes snapping open to look straight up at Max, who remained steadfast and honed right back into Kris’ eyes, which now burned brightly inside her deep shadows.  ‘My family is in danger out there and at the end of this they might all get killed.  Hell, I might die and all of you, but you’re our hero, Max and we all need to work together to make sure you’re ready.  We need to help you and I need to accept that and start pulling my weight, starting right now.  Right here.  Right now.’

Max stood as firm as granite, unmoving, holding Kris’ fierce gaze and then, after the pause had lasted long enough to let Kris’ words and emotion sink in, he slowly nodded to her.  She nodded back, her lips tight and her jaw set.  Max then flicked his eyes across to Elsa who acknowledged the cue and carefully moved along the couch to gently place an arm around Kris’ shoulders.  Kris broke her fix on Max and immediately unwound, sinking her face into Elsa’s shoulder and quietly sobbing. Behind the couch, Peter took two steps back as the tension in the room dissipated.

‘Max,’ Joe said as he stepped in closer, ‘thank you for diffusing the situation.’

Max glanced at Joe long enough to acknowledge his Prime Minister’s comment and then he looked back to Elsa and Kris. ‘I didn’t do anything,’ he said. ‘Kris let it out herself.’

‘To the untrained eye perhaps, however, I know skill when I see it.’

Max broke his gaze off his wife and Kris and looked askew at Joe who continued.

‘Whether you realise it or not,’ Joe said, ‘you in fact helped Kris unleash her deepest fears.  By being direct and not being over bearing, you supported her and let her know it was time to let out her pain and that with her new friends around her, it would be okay.’

Max looked up to see Elsa and Kris rise together from the couch to walk across to the door.  Peter stepped aside and opened the portal for them, talking into his wrist microphone as he did to let his team know they were on the move.  Max did not turn back to Joe, but instead let his gaze fall to the floor.

‘Something happened tonight, Joe’ he said.

‘What happened?’ Joe asked quietly.

‘I felt compassion for someone other than someone in my family,’ he said.  ‘Kris’ pain was obvious and it hit me, hard and I’ve never reacted that way.’

‘We’re all going through new sensations right now, Max,’ Joe said.  ‘These times are unprecedented and new to all of us.  Even for Abdullah and I who have experienced the turmoil of war, this is new.  I think we can all expect to undergo some changes before this is over.  I also think that if we do not change in some way we will not have any hope of success.’

Max looked up.  Joe looked back, his pipe resting in his hand against his chest.  The grandfatherly look was back, but the eyes still shone bright.

Joe continued.  ‘Go and reflect on tonight, Max,’ he said, ‘and then get some rest.  Kris will be alright in the morning, but I have a strong suspicion she is going to push you quite hard.  I might even come out and watch the sport?’

Max smiled with Joe and nodded.  ‘Okay. I’ll do that. Thanks for the talk.’

‘And thank you again for sharing your story tonight.  I also have plenty to reflect on, but now with the truth in my care, I feel more confident of where we need to go.’

Max nodded again and walked off.  Peter fell in step with him and together the two men left the room.  Just before Peter stepped through the door, he glanced back at Joe who nodded and held up his pipe in return.

‘He is an excellent sentinel your Peter,’ Abdullah said from his chair where he still sat amidst his robes.  ‘You are fond of him?’

‘Yes, I am,’ Joe replied as he placed his pipe back between his teeth and moved across to sit at the end of the couch where Kris had been, closer to Abdullah.  ‘Laying down his life to save another is not a cliché for him.  It is very real.  I’ve seen him do it and I am thankful that he and Max have struck up a friendship because I can now see Peter would do the same for Max and his family.’

‘You have a remarkable ability to bring the best out in people, Joseph.  I see it again and again and you have done the same with Max and Elsa.  They trust you implicitly and that is good because they deserve your trust in return.’

Joe smiled and leaned back against the couch, taking a fake draw on his pipe.  ‘Abdullah, you have exceptional skill in creeping up on a topic.  I can sense there is more on your mind than discussing my charm.  As you well know, you can be plain with me.’

This time Abdullah smiled, the shadows folding across his bronzed face.  ‘Thank you for the invitation to speak and I suspect that what is on my mind has been on your’s for just as long. I now also see evidence that this issue is beginning to dawn on everyone in the group.’

‘And what issue is that?’ Joe asked, still puffing away on his dormant pipe and looking across at Abdullah from beneath arched brows.

‘Max alone is not our solution. He is one man, albeit half-alien and extremely impressive, but he is still just one man and that is not enough to defeat this peril that lays siege to us. Max needs us as much as we need him. Kris spoke passionately of it tonight as she released some of her fears, that we need to be a team supporting Max and her passion is well placed. You have all been together for a little over two weeks. However, in the few days that I have been with you all, I have not seen any bonds that bind you all together. You have appeared to me as a group of strong-willed individuals, very capable in your own ways, but not bound as a team and that is what is needed most. A team, but tonight we all witnessed a spark. A glimpse of awakening of what you all need to be to even dare dream of success. While I am thankful to Max for sharing his secret, I am most thankful for Kris’ passion. She has proven that hope is stirring within you. You are finding your courage and preparing to stand up to the doom that stalks us. I will sleep a little more easily tonight knowing that you all may have just taken your first, tentative steps on the path to becoming a team.’

Joe nodded silently as he held his pipe in place in his mouth with one hand. ‘You know,’ he started, ‘we can never be a team without you, my friend? I can only bring them together so much. We need your wisdom and guidance and more than anything, your spirituality to glue us in place. I am a statesman with the best of intentions, but you, my friend, you are the disciple of life and all its mystery. We need you to lead us into the jaws of doom. As you say, we cannot hope to succeed if we are not a team, but I say to you that we cannot hope to be a team without you leading us.

Abdullah’s hazel eyes glittered beneath his dark brow, his white Keffiyeh framing his face and radiating the slight gloom away. His gaze held unblinking for a few moments and then he relented. Closing his eyes, Abdullah gently nodded once, the movement more like a slight bow.

In return, Joe nodded also. He then turned his gaze to the empty fireplace and shifting his pipe between his lips, lost himself in dark thoughts of the troubles and pain that pillaged the world outside as he sat in safe silence.

 

Noon, 16th July (4 days later). Skirmish

 

Max looked around the small living room and again noted the liberal placement of family photos. The room was as much a shrine to Kris’ family as it was a place to relax and catch up, just as they were doing right now with Kris’ parents in their suburban home in Brisbane.

‘That one’s my favourite over there,’ Kris’ father said from the centre of the couch, his wrinkled and spotted hand pointing a finger towards the sideboard across the room.

Max turned to look and amongst the plethora of other photos crammed into every available space, he found a picture of what looked like a skinny young, blonde haired girl in a red sports uniform.

‘Stop it, Dad!’ Kris chirped, elbowing her father in the ribs from where she sat next to him. ‘I didn’t come all the way here to get embarrassed by you. You do that every time I bring people over.’

‘She’s right, dear,’ Kris’ Mum said from the opposite side of Kris’ father, ‘besides, if you really want to embarrass her, you should get everyone to look at that one over there.’

Max glanced around and found Kris’ mother pointing to a side table with a teenage looking Kris in a school uniform smiling away and proudly showing off her dental braces.

Elsa giggled from the chair next to Max, forcing Kris to shoot her a not so friendly look. Elsa shrugged meekly, but the smirk stayed well and truly in place.

‘That’s it,’ Kris said abruptly, making to get up. ‘We’re out of here. I love you guys, but I didn’t come here to get…’

‘Oh, hush,’ Kris’ mother said, ‘and sit down. I’m going to make tea. Orders, please?’

Kris’ mother stood up and looked around.

‘White with two, please?’ Elsa asked.

Max shook his head.

Kris’ mother turned to Peter who was pretending to stand from idly in a far corner of the room. He also shook his head and held a hand up.

‘Black, no sugar,’ Kris said.

Kris turned to her daughter and frowned. ‘When did you stop taking milk?’ she said. ‘Milk’s good for you.’

‘Mum, I stopped having milk in my tea when I was sixteen,’ Kris replied, pulling a face. ‘You say that every time and while you’re in the kitchen, I think you better get Max something to eat. It’s been at least an hour since he devoured anything, so he’s probably starving.’

Kris’ mother turned to look at Max, who looked back a little uncertainly. Max failed to articulate anything and so Kris jumped in.

‘He’s just being polite, Mum,’ she said. ‘You said you had some roast lamb left over. Toss some of it on some bread and that’ll keep him happy.’

Max simply shrugged and raised his eyebrows.

‘Good,’ Kris’ mother said. ‘I don’t allow hungry men in my house. If you’re hungry, you eat.’

Shuffling out of the room, Kris’ mother kept up the monologue, fast becoming inaudible as she moved out of earshot.

‘You’re going to eat and you’re going to like it,’ Kris said, pointing a finger at Max. ‘Pete, you better sit yourself down too before she comes back or she’ll make you sit. Men don’t stand in mum’s house either.’

Peter cast a sideways glance out to the kitchen where Kris’ mother had disappeared to and for a moment, actually looked a little uncertain as well.

‘So, Max,’ Kris’ father started, ‘my little girl tells me you’re going to save the world. How do you feel about that?’

Max turned back to Kris’ father and found an old man’s and a father’s careful face looking back. Despite his advanced years and almost bald and sun splotched scalp, the man was clearly his daughter’s father. Sitting side by side, Kris and her father’s resemblance was obvious. Even the old man’s witty and often cheeky personality proved he and Kris were cut from the same cloth.

‘I’ll do my best, sir,’ Max said straight back. ‘That’s a promise.’

Kris’ father held Max’s gaze for a moment and then slowly nodded. ‘Can’t ask more than that of a man and from what Kris tells me, your best is a show worth watching.’

This time Max nodded. Elsa reached across and rubbed her husband’s thigh, allowing Max to grab her hand and squeeze it.

‘I told you, Dad,’ Kris followed up. ‘Max is the real deal. It’s a pity we can’t get you out to watch him train, but maybe I can get some of it on film and email it through.’

‘You can try,’ Kris’ father replied, frowning and shifting in his seat. The internet’s gotten all squirly. Some days it doesn’t get out of bed at all.’

Kris smiled and slapped her father on the arm. ‘You and the internet,’ she said chuckling. ‘Who would have thought you’d even be on speaking terms with it? An old bloke like you.’

Just then, Max twitched his head slightly to the side. Peter instantly registered the movement and tuned his own senses. Releasing Elsa’s hand, Max smoothly rose and turned to the doorway leading out to the hall. The conversation between Kris, her father and Elsa meandered on, while Peter swiftly stepped away from the wall to follow Max out of the room.

Out in the hallway, Max paused and looked both ways. The floor plan of the house was simple with a central hall running the length of the dwelling and all the rooms coming off either side. Max looked to the right and found one of Abdullah’s security guards standing at the rear door of the house, keenly peering through a gap in the curtains over the glass pane in the rear door, marking any activity in the backyard. Max then looked left and found another of Abdullah’s security guards in a similar pose, looking out the glass pane of the front door.

Peter flicked a glance to Max and froze. Max suddenly had that look about him. All purpose and while he wasn’t tense, Max was ready. Lifting his wrist microphone to his mouth, Peter spoke to his team who were waiting outside on the street in the armoured Land Cruisers.

‘Any action out there?’ he asked.

‘Nothing,’ came the reply from one of his men. ‘All clear. You coming out?’

‘No. We’re good in here. Out,’ Peter said, closing the link and returning to Max. ‘What’s up, mate? You look spooked.’

Max didn’t respond and instead started walking down the hall towards the front door. Peter quickly stepped off after him, trying to look past his bulk to the guard ahead. Hearing the approaching footsteps, the guard glanced over his shoulder to see Max flick his head, indicating he wanted the door open.

As the man pulled the portal ajar, Peter called out, ‘Hold up, mate!’

Peter’s effort failed as Max crossed the threshold and stepped out onto the steps leading down to the front yard. Peter raised his wrist microphone as he quickly followed behind.

‘Sword is coming out the front,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Cover the street.’

As Peter exited the door, he found Max halfway down the stairs, while in his peripheral vision, he saw his team tumbling out of two of the three black Land Cruisers on the opposing kerb. Max reached the bottom of the stairs and walked out the front gate and onto the footpath where he stopped. This allowed Peter to catch him up a few moments later and stand next to him.

Peter then looked both ways along the street, firstly to confirm his team had taken up full covering positions up and down from him, but also to see if there was any other activity in view. The street was empty.

‘What’s on your mind, big fellah?’ Peter asked quietly as he continued to scan the surrounds.

‘Something’s not right,’ Max evenly replied as he too looked around, slowly and methodically.

‘How do you know?’ Peter carefully asked, checking the Land Cruisers to make sure the three vehicles had their drivers all on seat and ready.

‘Heard something outside and it was wrong.’

Peter paused and instinctively visualised drawing his own gun in rehearsal for a threat he could not sense. ‘You heard something outside?’ Peter pushed. ‘That’s it?’

‘That’s how it works for me,’ Max answered, his gaze fixed down the length of the street to the right. ‘Don’t ask me why, but when it happens, I know I need to be ready.’

Peter didn’t say anything in return and then he saw Max’s jaw line firm up. Immediately he flicked his attention round to align with Max’s gaze down the street.

‘There,’ was all Max said, his tone quiet, but deliberate.

Then Peter saw the car. A maroon, dual cab ute had turned onto the empty street about two hundred metres down and was driving towards them. Peter squinted and then noted the first hint of trouble.

‘Draw and hold,’ Peter said into his microphone. ‘The ute’s packing.’

Immediately, all four of Peter’s men reached into their jackets to draw their handguns, letting them rest in front with double-handed grips, ready for use. Strategically positioned at four corners, they now had Max’s position covered from all directions.

‘Watch your cross fire,’ Peter continued. ‘Let’s hope we discourage them from visiting.’

The ute came closer and now Peter clearly saw what he had suspected. He did not know how many occupants were inside the vehicle, but two men stood on the rear tray, holding onto the chrome roll bar at the back of the cabin, which indicated they were not out for a friendly jaunt. Then one of the men banged his fist on the roof and that was enough to convince Peter to draw his own gun and let it hang by his side.

Peter snuck a look at Max and saw that his expression had set like granite, his eyes boring into the incoming vehicle. Glancing down, Peter found Max’s fists clenched, his forearms like roped steel.

Turning back to the house, Peter called out to the guard at the top of the stairs, ‘Keep everyone inside! We got this!’

As Peter turned back to face the ute, he heard the front door of the house close and the locks snap into place. Then the ute slowed and crawled into the firing zone set up by Peter’s men. None of his team flinched. Neither did Max, but Peter could literally feel the man’s leashed aggression burning off him. Every shred of Peter’s military experience screamed at him that this was very soon going to get out of hand. Then the ute stopped in the centre of the road right in front of Max and Peter.

‘Oooooooweeee!’ one of the men on the back tray called out, his long, straggly hair flaying about as he looked wildly around at each of Peter’s team. ‘Look at all these boys and their guns!’

Even from where he stood on the kerb, Peter could see the wide dilation of the pupils of both men as they leered at everyone. His whole body tensed.

‘They’re wired,’ Peter said into his wrist microphone and loud enough for Max to hear. ‘Might even be a suicide run.’

Then the front and back passenger doors of the dual cab flew open and three equally as frantic men climbed out, all of them armed with makeshift clubs filled ranging from baseball bats to tyre crowbars. Up on the tray back, the two men bent down and lifted up their own timber off-cut clubs. They then jumped to the ground and lined up in front of Max and Peter with their comrades.

‘What’s on your mind, boys?’ Peter asked, his tone flat.

The loud one from the back tray spoke up in answer. ‘We’re back to finish the job.’

Peter read the faces of all five men as he replied. ‘There’s nothing here for you. Best you leave now.’

The leer on the man’s face broadened and he turned both ways to look at his own crew. They all sneered back and shook their heads. Peter slowly moved his gun round from his side to rest in both hands at the front.

‘Ooooh, look?’ the thug cooed as he pointed at Peter. ‘He’s got a gun too.’

‘And I don’t want to have to use it. Now go.’

The thug’s sneer turned into a snarl. ‘Why don’t you put your gun down and see how you go with just your hands?’

‘Not today. Last warning,’ Peter said, affixing his gaze on the lead thug. ‘Get back in your car and leave. Now.’

The thug raised his wooden club and opened his mouth to respond, but a voice from up in the house cut him off.

‘That’s them!’ shouted Kris’ mother. ‘They’re the ones who robbed us!’

Peter snapped around to see Kris and her parents at the window of the front living room. Kris had her arms around her mother, whose face had drained to pale white. Next to Kris, her father’s eyes raged.

‘Hey, boys, there they are!’ the thug called out. ‘Say hello!’

All five men raised their hands and clubs and started waving up at the window, their collective actions more demented than friendly.

‘We’re done here,’ Peter said, raising his gun and levelling it at the lead thug. ‘Back in the car! Now!’

All four of Peter’s team mirrored his actions, raising their own weapons. In a heartbeat, the street strained with tension. Then everything changed.

Max stepped off the kerb and in front of Peter’s gun, blocking his aim. All five thugs instantly removed their attention from the house and adjusted their gazes onto Max. The wild looks in their eyes suddenly sharpened to the new threat. Max had made them hesitate.

‘Out of the way, Max,’ Peter said through clenched teeth.

‘No,’ Max returned. ‘They’re mine.’

The leer returned to the lead thug’s face as he hefted his length of timber. ‘So, you want a piece of this do you, big man?’

Max said nothing, his feet planted on the bitumen, his stance shoulder width and his clenched fists by his sides. Peter side stepped to the right to regain his aim on the lead thug.

‘Step away, Max,’ Peter pushed. ‘We’ve got this.’

‘No. I’ve got this,’ Max replied. ‘They’re all going to die.’

Max’s spoken words again made the thugs pause. Glancing at each other, they started to lower their clubs. Even the leader shuffled his feet as he looked from Max to Peter and back again. The tension tightened.

‘Max!’ called out another voice from the house. This time Peter didn’t have to turn to recognise the source. It was Elsa. ‘No one dies today!’

The scene remained frozen. Peter scanned all the faces of the intruders, searching for any sign of their breaking ranks. At the four corners, Peter’s team members held their aims on the nearest thug, their fingers pressed against the triggers of their guns. Max held murderously firm.

‘Max!’ sounded Elsa’s voice again, but louder this time as more of a command than a warning. ‘No one dies! I mean it!’

A subtle movement forced Peter to look down at Max’s fists as they unclenched, a fleshy pink colour replacing the white in his knuckles. The thugs all looked at Max again and then at their leader as he spoke again.

‘Well, you heard the lady,’ he said, his hesitation seeping away while rehefting his club. ‘Let’s see what you got. Come on, boys!’

As a group, the thugs started to spread out in a half circle around Max, leaving the leader in the centre. Max stepped forward three careful paces, his movements like liquid ice and his lancing gaze driving into the man across from him. Peter cast a quick glance into the cab of the ute and spotted the driver still in place, ready for a quick getaway if needed. Simultaneously, Peter’s team adjusted their positions to keep their aims on the crew of thugs.

He couldn’t afford the milliseconds to look, but Peter knew they had steadily attracted attention from other residents up and down the street. Heads and eyes peered out over window ledges and from behind curtains. Some brave souls had even ventured out into their front yards and Peter knew at least one smart phone was out and recording the entire event. This would be all over the internet in minutes, but first it had to end.

The lead thug glared back at Max, his wild eyes crazily looking him up and down. In return, Max’s chiselled face held eyes of spitfire and then, it was on.

With eyes bugging out and a mad cry, the lead thug suddenly lunged forward, his club raised high. Max did not budge. As the thug closed, he swung his club down towards Max’s skull, his cries pitching higher.

Instead of moving to avoid the strike, Max whipped his left hand up and simply caught the block of timber as it came down, stopping the strike dead in the air. Then, without pausing, he pulled the club inwards to himself, bringing the thug stumbling in closer and without releasing the weapon, Max snapped his open right hand into the face of the thug, sending him flying backwards off his feet. The man was instantly unconscious, releasing his hold on the club as he sailed away.

The attack and brutal outcome happened so quickly that none of the surrounding thugs even reacted. Max now stood in the middle of the street, wooden club in hand and the lead thug crumpled on the bitumen a few paces away.

Peter blinked. Yes, he had seen that happen. Then another thug moved and then a second. Both men came from opposing sides, but not fast enough. Dropping the club, Max dropped to his haunches and pirouetted on his right foot, swinging his left leg out in a reverse sweep towards the incoming thug on his right. A split second later, the man crashed to the ground, his legs cut ruthlessly out from underneath and his tyre crowbar twirling away. His head cracked against the asphalt and he was out.

The second thug closed in, his cricket bat swinging, but with blinding speed and flawless balance, Max continued his sweep and then shot upwards off his left leg to launch into the air. The thug’s bat cracked into Max’s left hip, but he didn’t feel it as he twisted in mid flight and brought his open right hand crashing down onto the man’s crown. The blow stopped the man dead in his tracks, instantly stunning him. The thug’s knees melted and he toppled backwards to the road, unconscious.

Seeing an opening, the remaining two thugs charged forwards. Max took a step back and braced himself. The thug on his left swung his wooden club at Max’s head, while the thug on the right aimed his baseball bat at Max’s midriff. Making a choice, Max quickly stepped back another pace and rotated his shoulders around to the left to launch a direct punch at the incoming wooden club.

Max’s right fist smashed into the timber club and the wooden off-cut cracked underneath his clenched knuckles. The violence of the impact jarred the weapon from the thug’s hands, leaving him puzzled. Then the incoming baseball bat behind Max smacked into his exposed lower back.

Gritting his teeth, but not flinching, Max ignored the blow and closed in on the dazed thug in front of him. Two strides was all it took for Max to reach the man and then effortlessly lift him off the ground to hurl him overhead towards the footpath. Moments later, the man crashed into the grass, the wind knocked completely out of his lungs.

In a flash, Instinct drove Max to turn and raise his left forearm just as the incoming baseball bat cracked into it, blocking a blow to his head. The resulting crack suggested Max’s arm had just broken, but he behaved like nothing had happened.

The thug just stared at Max with vacant eyes, disbelief rampant in the look. With a flick of his forearm, Max ripped the bat from the man’s grasp and claimed it for his own. Taking a step towards the man, Max forced the thug to take a step back. Continuing to advance and sidestep, Max steered the man towards the ute where he eventually backed up against the cab.

Lifting the baseball bat up in front of him, Max gripped both ends with each hand, while he held the thug in his glare. A splintering sound crackled in the silence, prompting the thug to glance down at his former weapon. Looking at Max’s hands, the thug noted the blinding whiteness of Max’s knuckles as he gripped the bat.

Even from where Peter stood on the kerb, he heard the splintering. A second later, Max snapped the baseball bat in half with his bare hands, shards of timber clouding the air. The eyes of the thug almost popped clean out of his head. Max’s expression did not shift.

‘Leave him be, Max!’ came Elsa’s voice from the stairs as she started to climb down them. ‘Back away!’

Max did not move at first, but then a few moments later he stepped back from the now trembling thug. Dropping the remains of the bat, he let his open hands fall to his sides. Elsa dodged the bodies scattered on the bitumen and came up by her husband’s side to gently place her hands on his shoulders.

Peter eased his gun down and spoke into his wrist microphone. ‘Get the driver out of the car,’ he ordered, ‘and be careful. He could be armed.’ Instantly, the four of Peter’s men moved to converge on the ute.

Suddenly, the ute’s rear tyres screeched and smoked as the driver sought to escape. In the split seconds for the rubber to take grip, Max reacted. Turning, he grabbed the back edge of the rear tray as the ute pulled madly away. Elsa’s hands scrabbled for her husband, but instead grasped thin air. Holding on at arm’s length, Max hung off the back of the ute, his orange shoes dragging on the bitumen.

‘Hold your fire!’ Peter yelled, forcing his entire team to drop their aims to the road. ‘Cruiser One after them. Let’s go!’

Peter started sprinting across the road to the nearest Land Cruiser, which already had its engine running. Two of his team followed immediately behind. Seconds later, the big four-wheel drive had screeched a half-circle around and was in pursuit. Meanwhile, Elsa had locked her gaze onto the speeding ute and her husband hanging off the back.

As he hung on, Max consciously checked his grip on the edge of the tray and convinced himself it was firm. Then with his feet still dragging on the asphalt, he strained every muscle in his upper body to pull himself upwards. Max’s shoulder and back muscles bunched like twisted towels as he hauled himself in. Then with enough purchase, he hooked his elbows over the tray edge and lifted his feet clear of the road. If he cared to look, Max would have seen that his orange shoes had shredded clear at the toes and his feet were bloody and scraped, but the pain did not register.

Then, using his core muscles and pulling his legs in, Max flipped himself over and into the back tray of the ute. Using his momentum, he rolled towards the cab and sprang up to grab the chrome roll bar. Through the small window into the cab, Max noticed the driver turn and spy him, his eyes bugging out.

A second later, the driver reefed on the steering wheel to send the already speeding ute into a wild swerve. Max held on with both hands, his posture rock solid, his intention resolute. Removing one hand, he cocked his fist and then piled it into the glass, instantly shattering it.

The cab filled with glass fragments and confusion. The driver inadvertently reefed the steering wheel back the other way and the car violently lurched to the opposite side of the street. Max swayed, but his balance held as he gripped tight.

Instinctively, the driver tried to right the trajectory of the careering vehicle, but over corrected and lost control. In that split second, Max looked up and ahead and saw that the street was rapidly coming to an end, terminating at a t-intersection with suburban houses on all sides.

With no human control, the ute swerved again and this time turned too sharply, forcing the front right tyre to bite into the bitumen and compel the rear of the car to pitch upwards. The driver screamed. Max reacted.

As the rear tray lifted beneath him, Max automatically vaulted straight up, using the vehicle’s rising inertia to push him higher. Then flicking his feet upwards, Max started to somersault backwards as the ute flipped underneath him. As the rear of the ute’s tray passed below, Max reached out his hands to place them flat on the steel to steady himself as the car continued to flip.

Then as the ute completed its overturn, Max completed his own somersault and landed squarely on the now exposed underside of the ute as it slammed, rear end first into the road. With arms held out wide, Max gained his balance and rode the upturned vehicle along the bitumen as it screeched and groaned beneath him.

Looking up again, Max noted the ute was entering the t-intersection and he was out of time. The wreck of the ute ripped over the kerb at the end of the street and started to lift off again. With his footing gone and the house in front now filling his vision, Max jumped again.

Back down the street, Elsa had not moved. As the ute had retreated away from her with her husband being dragged along behind, Elsa had remained transfixed. Kris had run down from the house to stand next to her, her own reaction just as horrified. Then the ute had flipped and finally crashed into the house at the end of the street.

Peter’s black Land Cruiser suddenly obscured Elsa’s view of the scene and like waking from a nightmare, she startled and then she was running. Kris launched after her, the two women sprinting down the road. Elsa’s parents by now had also come down from the house and were standing in the middle of the road with Peter’s team and Abdullah’s security guards surrounding them.

Onlookers filled front yards down the length of the street. Gasps and shocked cries filled the air. Then the brake lights of Peter’s Land Cruiser came on as he reached the crash site, the vehicle’s tyres screeching. Elsa and Kris were still running. Pandemonium owned the street.

Hurling himself from the front passenger seat of the four-wheel drive, Peter hit the road and ran over the kerb, his two team members right behind. Looking around, Peter searched everywhere for Max, but the lawn was void of any bodies. He then looked up to the house where the upside down ute had smashed through the front facade, its hulk smoking and groaning and covered by debris.

Rushing forward, Peter climbed up the wreckage and into the house. Standing in the ruined living room, he looked around. Again, no bodies, but plenty of carnage.

‘Check the driver,’ Peter yelled, ‘and be careful! He could still be conscious and armed!’

The two team members immediately drew their guns and redirected their attention to the cab of the ute.

‘He’s not,’ sounded a voice from behind Peter. ‘He’s out.’

Peter spun around and looked over the wreckage of the ute to see Max rise up on the other side. Blood trickled down the left side of his face and his shirt was completely ripped apart.

‘You okay?’ Peter called out as he started to scramble across the mess.

‘Fine,’ Max replied as he bent down to lift something from the floor, ‘but this guy’s not so good.’

Peter finally reached Max and found him standing still, propping up the driver of the ute with only his right hand. The man was completely limp with a busted bottom lip. Peter just stared at them. Off to the side, Peter’s two team mates did likewise. An odd silence fell over the scene.

‘Max!’ sounded Elsa’s voice.

The cry broke the spell and Max lowered the man to the ground. ‘You better look away, fellahs,’ he said. ‘I’m about to get into trouble.’

 

Noon, 20th July (4 days later). Spiraling Downwards

 

‘How are you getting on with Kris?’ the Prime Minister asked as he absently looked at the rain streaks flowing erratically down the window pane, the gloomy palette behind the glass successfully replicating his mood.

Sitting on the leather buttoned sofa next to Joe’s own leather chair in the estate’s study, Sheikh Abdullah put his khawa down on the side table next to him and also considered the inclement weather outside. The previous few weeks of spectacular winter conditions had finally given way to the inevitable, mid-season wind and rain. However, the poor weather had not dampened the security measures in place around the estate and if anything, vigilance had increased. The world outside was deteriorating in sync with the weather as civilisation’s downward spiral accelerated.

‘We seem to have found common ground,’ Abdullah replied, almost in monotone, the richness of his accent deeply subdued. ‘I can now hold a civil conversation with her. She has even come to me with some requests for additional training equipment.’

‘But no weapons yet?’

‘A batch of javelins only.’

Joe looked away from the window towards his friend. ‘Is it because Max remains frightened that he cannot control his Nar’gellan instincts to kill if he picks up a weapon?’

‘I assume so,’ Abdullah replied flatly, his gaze fixed on the rain smeared window.

‘Is there any means of us coaching him to control his non-human side?’ Joe asked.

‘Perhaps.’

Joe held his peace. He knew better than to push Abdullah to divulge his thoughts. A few moments later, Joe’s discretion paid dividends when Abdullah continued.

‘I do not yet know the man well enough to understand his nature,’ Abdullah added as he broke his fix on the window to look down at his folded hands in his lap. ‘Max can fight. Of that I have no doubt. He can also kill and will do it unhesitatingly when the arena comes, but fighting and killing are not enough. Max must have control for without it, he may become blind and mindless in the midst of battle and lose his way. He could be overcome by his bloodlust and seek his own glorious death instead of holding focus on victory. I have seen this fault in others, Joe and Max may be of the same ilk.’

Joe studied his friend’s face for a few moments in silence. He had known Abdullah for only a couple of years, but in that very short space of time they had become as close as brothers. They were each other’s closest confidantes and had partnered on several occasions to influence diplomatic relations on the world stage, mostly with success, but not always. Today, Abdullah’s demeanour seemed outwardly normal, but underneath the composed exterior, Joe could sense a growing struggle. Abdullah was beginning to falter.

Joe looked back to the window. ‘I am not so foolish to say that everything will be alright if we keep our chins up,’ he said, ‘and I am not going to encourage you to hold tight to Kris’ inspiration from last week. Nor will I state the obvious in that you and I are the two best placed and most capable people of holding this fragmenting world together.’

Abdullah nodded, silently, his hands laid one on top of the other in his lap, his crisp, white robe draping the couch around him. Joe continued.

‘The United Nations are splitting apart,’ Joe added. ‘Much of Africa is already in turmoil and the European Union is on the brink of imploding. The nightmare scenario grows and all the while, President Bartholomew continues to distance the United States further away from everyone else, threatening to launch a nuclear tirade at any nation that even suggests to challenge their superpower status. It is madness and on top of that I am convinced Lester is plotting to usurp Max away from us. I trust his Chief of Staff as much as I trust any criminal with an open bank vault in front of him.’

‘Charles Ingot the Third,’ Abdullah said simply and nothing else, still looking down at his hands.

‘Yes, Charles Ingot the Third. I sincerely hope Charles Ingot the First and Second were more respectable gentlemen? Anyway, as I said, you and I are in the unenviable position of attempting to hold all of this together, assuring everyone that Max is the right and only candidate to enter the arena and that we can protect him until then. Did I tell you that Komarov, the Russian Premier called this morning and tried to convince me he had a more capable candidate? Some Cossack spawned, special forces soldier that he claimed had beaten two brown bears with his bare hands. I do enjoy his stories.’

‘It is not enough, Joe,’ Abdullah finally said. Joe turned his attention back to Abdullah and found him looking intently back at him. Abdullah continued. ‘Our words are no longer enough. The world is tumbling into the abyss. Our collegiate of world leaders are slowly losing control of their own people and we need to count ourselves in that lot. My own kingdom experienced its first food riot yesterday and here in Australia, the migration from the regional centres to the capital cities has accelerated resulting in escalating violence and unrest. We are fast approaching the verge, my friend and traditional diplomacy will not win the day. The majority of the United Nations distrusts you and I, claiming this alien invasion to be a conspiracy and our presentation and harbouring of the apparent world’s saviour is a ploy to gain ascendency over all others. Our friends are now few and seldom heard in our defence. We need something new. Something radical, otherwise our demise will quicken and Macktidas will be denied his revenge on Max due to our inward destruction and whilst I have not yet given up hope, I am failing to see a path to stability. You are my greatest and most reliable friend in all matters, Joseph, but I am becoming afraid that not even you and I together can maintain the peace and there is no other to turn to. My friend, the path before us is darkening and the sun is fast fading from sight.’

Joe looked across the room at nothing in particular as the gravity of Abdullah’s words dragged at his conscience. ‘I have a cabinet meeting tomorrow,’ Joe began, ‘where I will advocate we abandon all regional emergency services to refocus them on the larger population centres to maintain law and order. Triage is what any good field doctor would call it. Prioritisation is what any good project manager would call it, but I don’t call it either. I call it abandonment. Plain and simple and we could well be committing many to death. I don’t believe any who voted either for or against me ever imagined I would have control of life or death over them.’ He paused, the sound of the rain spattering on the windows a dull backdrop. ‘I agree with you,’ Joe continued as he turned back to Abdullah. ‘Our words have failed and now the only actions left are to minimise the carnage until doom descends on us like an angel of death. I too am struggling to find the light.’

Abdullah remained silent. They had both shared their thoughts and were in full alignment. Nothing more needed to be said. The silence now existed for each of them to search their minds for hope.

Joe rose to his feet and crossed to the window. The rain soaked pane prevented a clear view through to the outside, but he was not really seeing as he stood at the portal. Joe’s mind had turned inward. How do you convince the entire world to stand up to a threat unprecedented and supremely deadly? How do you combat fear on every front imaginable and how, above all else, could Joe keep his own hope intact? Then his eyes caught a glimpse of something outside, something unlooked for, but when Joe saw it, he suddenly felt it, just like he had felt it every time before and in that instant, Joe had the answer.

‘Abdullah, come to the window,’ Joe said.

Looking up, Abdullah found his friend peering intently through the glass and out into the weather.

‘Come and tell me what you can see through this window,’ Joe pushed.

Abdullah keenly noted the abrupt change in Joe’s tone of voice. The previous melancholy had been replaced by something decidedly more appealing. Optimism. He rose and crossed to stand beside Joe, directing his own gaze out through the streaky glass.

At first Abdullah saw only the drab gloom of a rainy, winter’s day, but he knew this was not what had piqued Joe’s interest. He then looked through the rain and saw figures outside. People out in the weather. A flash of orange instantly betrayed Max’s presence on the western lawn and then Abdullah saw another figure moving along side Max. Kris. They were training and by the looks of it, training just as hard as on any beautiful, sunny day. The rain was not slowing them down.

Abdullah smiled and then realised he and Joe were sharing the same feeling. Not optimism, but something more primal. Hope, just like he always felt when he watched Max train. The man was an inspiration and today, Max was solidifying that truth. Max’s dedication to the arena was relentless. He never stopped and even on a day like today and only four days after being beaten and bruised while visiting Kris’ parents, here he was, driving himself to be better and more prepared to try and save the world. There also, right beside him and just as committed was Kris, sharing Max’s pain and dedication in equal shares. Abdullah unconsciously rubbed his forearm.

‘Those are goose bumps you’re feeling aren’t they?’ Joe asked.

Abdullah turned and looked Joe in the eye, immediately noting the gleam. ‘Yes, they are,’ he said, his own eyes dilating.

Joe nodded, a spreading smile adorning his face. ‘I think it’s time we gave the whole world goose bumps,’ he added.

An equally broad smile broke out on Abdullah’s face and together the two of them turned back to the window to watch Max and Kris continue to slog their way through the mud and rain.

 

5:30pm, 21st July (the next day). Team Max

 

Elsa spread the grated cheese over the two almost complete pizzas and then shuffled across the bench to the sink to wash her hands. With her back turned, Max slipped past Elsa and reached out towards the nearest pizza. Without turning to look, Elsa shot out her own hand and sharply slapped her husband on the wrist. Max recoiled and frowned at her.

‘Come on?’ he pleaded. ‘You can’t leave food lying around on the bench and expect me not to eat it? Especially after what Kris just made me do. I’m hungry.’

‘You’re not getting any now,’ Elsa said as she turned on the tap, ‘and if you keep back chatting me, you won’t be getting any later when they’re cooked.’

‘Wow. Cranky. Maybe you should do some training with Kris too? Get your stress levels down.’

Elsa’s eyebrows knitted as she washed her hands. ‘Hmm, that’s not a bad idea. Since this alien thing started up, you’ve been hogging Kris all to yourself. I haven’t had a session for almost a month. Maybe I will hit her up?’

‘Might as well. Other than flogging me around, I don’t think she’s got much else to do. Might be good for both of you?’

‘I’m just over here, you know?’ Kris called out from the adjoining living room, where she sat on the couch reading from her iPad, ‘and a girls’ only session sounds like a great idea, Elsa. Let’s lock it in for tomorrow!’

‘Cool!’ Elsa called back. ‘That’s a date!’

Elsa then turned around and just in time found Max reaching again for the unguarded pizzas. Another slap rang out in the kitchen.

‘Unlucky,’ Elsa said. ‘Now get out of here before I get Kris to make you do both your sessions tomorrow on one leg.’

Max scoffed. ‘Hmph. Too late. Did that today.’

‘How about one arm tied behind your back too then, smarty pants? Now go on, get,’ Elsa ordered as she shooed Max away from the bench and out into the living room.

Just then, Joe and Abdullah walked into the kitchen.

‘Look out,’ Max said, eyeing the pair off. ‘Management’s in the room.’

‘As you were,’ Joe said, holding both hands up. ‘Just an informal delegation.’

‘May we discuss something with you, please?’ Abdullah asked.

‘Sure,’ Elsa replied. ‘I was just keeping my thieving husband away from the kids’ dinner. What’s going on?’

Joe stepped across to the sliding glass doors leading from the living room out to the patio and ducked his head out. ‘Peter, could you come in here, please?’

A few seconds later, Peter entered from outside and slid the doors closed behind himself. Kris walked over from the couch to stand at one end of the bench, while Joe and Abdullah positioned themselves on the living room side of the bench. Max and Elsa stood side by side opposite them on the kitchen side, while Peter leaned against a wall on the edge of the gathering.

‘Thank you for your time,’ Abdullah began. ‘Joseph and I have a proposition for you all.’

‘That doesn’t sound informal,’ Max said.

‘Diplomacy one oh one,’ Joe replied. ‘Gain trust first and then escalate.’

Max nodded, but stayed silent.

Abdullah continued. ‘As you are aware, societies the world over are beginning to decay into chaos. Some places more rapidly than others and some more deeply than others. The world is approaching the precipice of self-destruction and it is only one month into a six month lead up to the arena. At this rate, we will destroy ourselves long before Macktidas and his alien forces potentially sweep onto the world. Something must be done and the usual diplomacy is failing. Joseph and I have tried in vain to hold the international community together, but distrust and fear are tearing old alliances apart and reigniting old prejudices. If a unifying solution is not identified soon, very soon, then wars will erupt and our doom will be sealed.’

‘You’ve got a plan haven’t you?’ Elsa asked. ‘You and Joe have always got a plan.’

Abdullah smiled and dipped his head. ‘Of sorts. The idea is Joseph’s and the implementation is mine. I will let Joseph divulge the details and I will assist where I can.’

All heads and eyes turned to the Prime Minister.

‘The idea itself is simple,’ Joe began, ‘but it’s Abdullah’s finances and resources that will make it work, if you all align behind it.’ Silence encouraged Joe to go on. ‘Essentially, the world is ensconced in uncertainty. A threat has come from a vague enemy that promises oblivion, however, that threat has disappeared again and left us all in the throes of fear and for many of us, not really sure that we believe the threat to be real. So, we have started to turn our fear of the unknown onto ourselves and each other, letting that fear feed off itself, so it becomes self perpetuating. We are in a downward spiral and we need to break the momentum and there is only one way to do that.’

Joe paused again.

‘Okay, I’ll ask,’ Kris said. ‘How do we break the momentum?’

‘Hope,’ Joe said. ‘We give the world hope. We have no visibility or confirmation of our enemy. Macktidas has made his threat and disappeared, but we have done the same with our hope. We have hidden it. Macktidas named it and then we hid it because we needed to protect it, safeguard it and make sure it was ready for the arena at the due time.’

‘When you say “it”, you mean Max don’t you?’ Kris asked.

‘More or less,’ Joe replied, his enthusiasm notching up. ‘Max is our symbol and our instrument of hope that Macktidas can be defeated, but personally I think all of you here in this room are the heart of our hope. It is all of you that will get Max into that arena and ensure he fights like the champion we all know him to be.’

‘So what would you like us to do?’ Elsa asked. ‘What are you thinking?’

‘As I said, Max is our symbol and so, it’s time to reveal our symbol. It’s time for the world to see what their champion is capable of and for everyone to start grasping the hope we all so desperately need in the face of this unknown enemy, but before we can reveal Max, all of you need to agree to the plan because this is not just about Max. It’s about all of you. You are a team. Showcasing Max without any of your support will doom the venture to failure. You are all important to each other and to the whole. If any one of you chooses not to embrace this venture, it will fail.’

‘What exactly did you have in mind?’ Kris asked. ‘How do we reveal Max?’

‘Public relations. We’re going to market him like any movie star or sporting hero, except to the extreme. We’re going to take Max to the world with the biggest song and dance marketing campaign history has ever seen. Every living human on the planet will see Max’s face, hear Max’s voice and watch Max train. Then as they say, seeing is believing and with that collective and shared belief in Max’s capability, the world’s hope will naturally grow and order will hopefully be restored.’

The group fell silent as eyes and attentions turned inward. Kris spoke first.

‘What sort of marketing are you thinking of?’ she asked. ‘TV? Facebook?’

‘Everything,’ Joe replied. ‘Full coverage across all forms of media, both traditional and contemporary. This is potentially the end of the world we’re talking about, so this campaign is all or nothing. We need the world to see Max everywhere they look. We need the world to have him front of mind all the time. We need everyone to think they know him, who he is and what he will do for them and by that I mean lay down his life to save theirs’. The world needs a saviour and in this day and age, any good saviour lives and breathes mass media. It’s the only way to touch the whole world at the same time, every second of every day right up until the arena.’

‘Sounds a bit distracting,’ Kris continued. ‘If you’re going to plaster Max all over every media outlet on the planet, that takes time. He needs to train and nothing can get in the way of that or else everything we’re trying to do here is for nothing.’

‘I agree with you, Kris,’ Joe said, ‘and our intentions are aligned against your concerns. We will not allow anything to disrupt or impede your training. In fact, the focus on the training is the key to this plan. What we are hoping to do is to take your training sessions to the world.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘The campaign builds through phases. Phase one is we introduce Max through inviting the world’s news media onto the estate, under highly restricted terms of course. Once here, they can broadcast and record much of what they see, but with the focus squared on your training sessions. The only indulgence is a couple of brief interviews with each of you. The world needs to see and know Max, intimately. We need to showcase his extraordinary abilities, but at the same time make him human, so people can relate to him as just another person with a family and support group behind him. The only difference is, this family man is going to save all of us.’

Kris nodded, then asked, ‘What’s phase two?’

‘We take his training public,’ Joe replied. ‘We set up training sessions in local venues. Sporting grounds. Community halls. Maybe even schools, but the venues would be local to the estate to reduce the logistical challenge. Of course the security would be tight, but the key is we let the public in to see Max up close and personal as he goes through his paces with you, Kris. By doing this, we let the crowd mentality notch itself up to the next level. As I said, seeing is believing and I am quite sure that anyone who sees Max do his stuff in the flesh will quickly become believers. This will require some added showmanship in your training sessions of course, but not much. Personally, I think Max sells himself. We just need to let him loose.’

Kris frowned. ‘Don’t underestimate how much effort a show like that takes,’ she said. ‘It’s that sort of distraction I’m worried about. Next you’ll want to sell t-shirts and caps with Max’s face on them.’

Joe looked sideways at Abdullah. Kris spotted the glance and jumped on it.

‘You’re joking aren’t you?’ she shot back. ‘You’re not thinking of…’

‘It is a possibility,’ Joe added. ‘Like I said, people need to see Max everywhere and if that means merchandising, so be it. We’d be crazy not to.’

Kris rolled her eyes and asked, ‘Is there a phase three?’

‘Maybe,’ Joe answered, ‘but it will depend heavily on the state of play at the time. If the campaign is working and the social fabric is beginning to mend as global support for Max grows, then maybe we do something extra, but if the world is continuing to slide downwards, we will likely have to retract ourselves and hide out for the duration. There are too many variables to consider before planning too far in advance.’

Abdullah picked up the thread. ‘So, there are the fundamentals for the plan and some details to consider. The concept is valid and both Joseph and I believe it has an excellent chance of success, but as Joe indicated, it needs all of you to support it or else it will fail. We do not expect any decisions to be made now and would rather you pondered our proposal overnight, but if you have any initial thoughts for us or the group, please can you voice them now?’

Kris eyed off both Joe and Abdullah in turn and then looked down at the bench. Elsa turned to lean against the sink, her head dipped and her arms folded. Peter continued to scan the windows from beneath arched eyebrows, his eyes squinting a little more than usual. The silence dug in and then Elsa spoke.

‘Well, I don’t need to sleep on it,’ she said, looking up at Abdullah and then Joe. ‘I’m sold. If you think this is worth trying then I’m in. I trust you both.’

Kris looked up at Elsa from beneath her brow. Elsa looked back. A few moments later, Kris nodded.

‘Okay,’ she said, raising her head. ‘I’m in too, but the second it starts distracting the training, I’m out. We can’t let the show become the main game. Winning in the arena is what counts.’

Both Joe and Abdullah nodded. Joe then turned to look back at Peter, who was still unmoved against the wall behind them all.

‘What say you, Peter?’ Joe asked. ‘You’re our security expert and if you think this is too dangerous, then please, share your counsel?’

Peter did not shift his visual fix on the windows, but answered with total attention to the question.

‘No counsel from me, sir,’ Peter returned. ‘I’m in.’

Joe smiled. ‘You’re not just being a good soldier and following orders against your better judgement are you?’ he asked.

‘No, sir,’ Peter replied as he turned to look his Prime Minister in the eye. ‘You were bang on when you said “seeing is believing”. I’ve seen Max up close and now I’m a believer. We need to do this, so I’ll make sure we get through it all safely. That’s my part in this deal.’

Joe nodded. Peter returned his gaze to the windows. Abdullah turned his attention to Max, who looked back.

‘You remain the only person unspoken, my friend,’ Abdullah said, holding his hands out wide.

Max held the Sheikh’s gaze for a few moments and then turned to reach out and grasp one of Elsa’s hands.

‘I learnt a long time ago that I can trust Elsa’s judgement in things like this,’ Max said. ‘My alien half doesn’t understand human behaviour so well, so I find things turn out better if I rely on her call, but you know what? Over the last few weeks I’ve learnt that I can trust all of your judgements as well, so if you’re all in favour then I’m in too and as for being distracted by the show and the cameras,’ Max added and turned to look at Kris, ‘not a chance. You tell me where to go and what to do and I’m doing it. No matter what.’

Kris nodded, her features softening. Elsa squeezed Max’s hand and Joe and Abdullah smiled in unison.

Then Kris said, ‘There is just one thing.’

‘And that is?’ Joe asked.

‘We need a team name.’

‘We did have a suggestion,’ Joe replied. ‘How about World Hope?’

Kris pressed her lips tightly together and bore her gaze into first Joe and then into Abdullah.

‘You don’t approve do you?’ Joe asked carefully.

Kris slowly shook her head.

‘Very well,’ Joe said. ‘What would you suggest?’

Kris looked around the group and landed last of all back on her Prime Minister, a smile spreading across her face. ‘Team Max.’

 

11:45am. 22nd July (the next day). A Spark

 

‘What’s going on? Straight through!’ Kris called out as she approached the Balinese style gazebo on the edge of the western lawn, which was isolated from the main house by a long, winding gravel path.

Sheikh Abdullah looked up from his iPad as he reclined on the padded, wicker lounge. Rising to his feet he bowed slightly and said, ‘I’m sorry. I did not catch what you said.’

‘I said straight through,’ Kris replied. ‘Your bodyguards didn’t even blink.’

Abdullah cast a sideways glance to his two hulking guards and smiled. ‘I hope they did not blink. They are under strict instructions to let through those that I trust.’

Kris tried to force back a shy little smile, but failed. Abdullah saved her.

‘So, now that you are safely inside my security shield, may I presume you are here to discuss something pressing?’ the Sheikh asked.

‘Well, I don’t know about pressing…’ Kris said, shuffling her feet.

‘Even better,’ Abdullah added. ‘I need rescuing from my research into political science and would welcome any distraction you can afford me. Please, come and sit?’

With that, Abdullah turned and waved a hand to the collection of vacant chairs under the gazebo. Kris eyed them off and then stepped underneath the shade to take a seat next to where Abdullah had been sitting. Abdullah followed behind and waited for Kris to sit down before resettling himself and placing his closed iPad in his lap. ‘Now, distract me, please?’

‘Um, I really just came out,’ Kris started meekly, ‘to see what you thought of the name Team Max?’

‘I like it,’ Abdullah said immediately. ‘It is a clever play on words and highly marketable. It is perfect.’

Kris’ eyes lit up and her smiled lifted higher. Sitting up a little straighter in her chair, she literally beamed back at the Sheikh. ‘Good because I’ve also got an idea for a team logo and colours.’

Abdullah dipped his chin slightly and raised his eyebrows. ‘Go on.’

‘Can I borrow your iPad, please?’

‘Of course,’ Abdullah replied, lifting the device from his lap and passing it over.

‘Can I buy an app too?’ Kris asked, squinting.

‘Of course, but nothing over five dollars. I am trying to curb my spending.’

Kris flicked a glance up at him from beneath an arched brow.

‘My feeble attempt at humour,’ he said. ‘Buy away.’

‘Thanks. Give me a second and I’ll show you what I mean.’

For the next couple of minutes, Kris swiped and tapped her fingers across the screen, while Abdullah watched on silently. As Kris worked and Abdullah observed, he realised he was relaxed and probably the most relaxed he had been in recent days if not the last few weeks. Abdullah’s self awareness also noted that this was the first time he and Kris had been alone together and she was not being aggressive towards him. He held onto the thought and savoured it.

‘You ready?’ Kris suddenly asked, looking up from her work.

‘Please?’ Abdullah replied, holding his right hand out.

Kris held the iPad up in front of her and flipped it around to reveal the screen. Abdullah’s eyes fixed onto a bright, orange background with a large, black “X” positioned squarely in the middle. The “X” was blocky and solid in style and looked like it had wet, orange paint dripping down from the top edges.

‘So, what do you think?’ Kris asked eagerly.

Abdullah continued to study the illustration in silence, forcing Kris to squirm a little in her seat. After a few protracted moments, the Sheikh finally lifted his face to her.

‘Again, I like it,’ he said. ‘It is simple yet striking and as many of this current generation say, it is in your face.’

‘Bingo!’ Kris shot back. ‘Nailed it in one. It’s simple and it’s in your face, plus it’s the letter “X”, which gen Y has some weird fascination with, so they’re going to love it for sure.’

Abdullah leaned back in his chair and appraised Kris through soft eyes, allowing her to tumble through the conversation unhindered.

‘Yesterday you talked about marketing and merchandise,’ Kris continued, ‘and all that stuff and I got to thinking, what about orange? We all know that’s Max’s trademark colour, what with his shoes and all plus it’s a brilliant colour for marketing. Bright, unmistakable and no one else really uses it, so why can’t we?’

Abdullah remained quiet, his contentment growing as he basked in Kris’ unbridled passion and the accompanying rise and fall of her voice.

‘It’s like you said,’ Kris added. ‘It’s perfect. If we plaster this logo around everywhere, it’s instantly recognisable and basically doubles as a picture of Max everywhere you look. Caps, t-shirts, billboards, you name it. It’ll be everywhere, which means Max will be everywhere at the same time. No one can miss it. It’s awesome. It’s..it’s…’

‘A great idea,’ Abdullah gently interjected.

At that moment, Kris realised she had been gibbering away and her self consciousness rose up. Slinking back a little in her chair, she dropped her gaze downwards.

Abdullah smiled and said, ‘You have convinced me, Kris. We will run with your proposal. Orange is an excellent colour and largely unutilised, except of course by the Dutch royal family, but I think in this instance they will forgive us.’

Kris’ eyes lit up again and she pulled a little fist pump. ‘Yes!’ she said through gritted teeth, ‘which brings me to my next question. Well, questions really.’

‘Hmm.’

‘If we’re going to do this,’ she started as she handed the iPad back, ‘we need to start by painting the truck and renaming it.’ Abdullah listened. ‘I was thinking we could call it the Pain Train and paint it all orange with the logo blown up on the sides and the back. That way when we take it out to our public training sessions, we’re fully advertised. We might also want to repaint one of your helicopters while we’re at it and the Land Cruisers too?’

Abdullah nodded silently, again letting Kris roll onwards.

‘I’ve also been thinking,’ Kris continued, ‘about your offer to fund some more training kit. We’re going to need some more advanced stuff like timing equipment, video cameras and some iPads or tablets. Basically, I need to start recording Max’s efforts a lot more closely to monitor his improvements and work out how to keep him challenged. There’s only so many burpees and push ups I can get him to do before he starts doing them in his sleep. I’ll also need some comms kit.’

‘Comms?’ Abdullah asked, tilting his head.

‘I’m not sure what exactly, but some sort of hands free type stuff, so I can talk to Max while he’s off running around on the other side of the lawn or where ever he is and he can hear me without having wires or cables getting in the way. I was thinking some sort of headset for me and some sort of ear piece type thing for Max. Do you think we could do that?’

Abdullah remained silent and after a few moments pause, he nodded.

‘Cool!’ Kris cooed, a wide grin adorning her face. ‘Thanks.’

‘I am sure my people can arrange all of these things,’ Abdullah said, ‘and if there is anything else, please ask?’

‘I will. Count on it,’ Kris replied. Then, as she stopped talking, Kris’ eyes dimmed a fraction and she dropped her gaze again, but this time a frown forlorned her features. ‘I just wish…’

Abdullah let Kris hold her pause and then softly pushed. ‘What do you wish for, Kris?’

The pause drew on a few moments more and then Kris looked briefly up at Abdullah and then off to the side, the faraway focus still in place.

‘I’ve always wanted to run a business,’ Kris started quietly, ‘and this thing we’re doing, this Team Max thing, feels like it is kind of my business and my chance to make that dream come true, except…it’s not. It’s nothing like it. It’s absolutely nothing like it and I just wish…’

‘And what do you wish for?’ Abdullah gently asked again when Kris trailed off.

Then Kris snapped out of her malaise and straightened up to look back at Abdullah. ‘I just wish it hadn’t taken the end of the world to make my dream come true. That’s all.’

In return, Abdullah’s features tenderly folded as he smiled and added, ‘I have found in life, Kris, that everywhere you look and especially in tragedy, there is good. It sounds contradictory I know, but when life is at its most desperate, at its most dire, there is light. You may have to look hard to find it, but it will be there, waiting to be found. You have your business now, better late than never and God willing, we will all get time beyond the arena to fulfil more of our dreams?’

Kris’ lips crinkled into a little smile of her own as she looked into Abdullah’s hazelnut eyes. After a few moments of comfort, she rose to her feet and said one word. ‘Thanks.’

Abdullah also rose and bowed slightly. Kris then turned and stepped out from the gazebo and back on to the path.

‘Oh,’ Kris said, stopping and turning back. ‘I never did say thanks for putting those security guards on my brother’s house, so, thanks.’

‘You are most welcome. Your safety and your family’s safety is paramount to us all. I trust they are still safe?’

‘Yeah, they’re fine, especially with Max’s guest appearances where he tears up the entire neighbourhood. They couldn’t be safer.’

‘Please, let me know if I can assist further?’

‘You know, Max was right in what he said?’ Kris added.

‘And what did Max say if I may?’

Kris looked deep into Abdullah’s eyes again. ‘It was a nice thing for you to do.’

Abdullah smiled, but this time he did not bow his head or look away, instead he held Kris’ gaze. She lingered her gaze also for just a moment more and then without another word, turned and walked away, leaving Abdullah to watch her go, his smile now matching the warmth spreading through his soul.

 

Noon, 29th July (7 days later). Revelation

 

Kris walked into the living room and plonked down onto the couch. Reaching forward to the coffee table, she picked up the remote control for the television and idly switched it on. The news appeared and she rolled her eyes, immediately changing the channel before it became depressing.

The screen flickered and shifted and then she baulked. For a few seconds, Kris sat unblinking and looking at the screen, not sure of exactly what she was seeing and then it dawned on her.

‘Elsa!’ she called out. ‘Get in here and look at this!’

‘Why?’ Elsa’s voice rang out from the kitchen. ‘What is it?’

‘There’s an alien on TV!’

Two seconds later, Elsa charged into the living room, stopping behind the couch where Kris sat as she too stared at the screen, her bottom jaw dangling.

‘Is that…?’ Elsa started.

‘…an alien. Yes,’ Kris finished for her.

The television screen held a single image. A close-up of what could only be a Nar’gellan, its rugged, purplish-black features housing two baleful eyes, glaring out from the Neanderthal type brow.

‘Check the other channels,’ Elsa asked.

Kris pressed the button once, twice, three times and the vision remained the same.

‘They’ve hijacked all the channels,’ Kris replied. ‘What’s going on?’

‘I don’t know.’

And then it spoke.

‘I am Macktidas,’ the alien spoke, its voice guttural and cruel. ‘Soon, I and my race will conquer your world, but for now, I have given you a reprieve, a stay of execution to prepare your champion for his defeat in the arena.’

‘Cocky bugger,’ Kris said through gritted teeth.

Elsa ignored the comment, her mind analysing every inch of the creature that sought to kill her husband and destroy the world. Macktidas continued.

‘Use your remaining days well, for in five months time, doom comes at my hand. I have nothing more to say other than the only thought I savour more than your race’s destruction, is the death of Max Dyson. Ensure he lives through to the allotted time, so I can kill him. That is my only demand.’

The screen flickered and a re-run of MASH came on, all vestiges of the alien commander gone. Both women sat and stood in silence, the words of their foe recycling through their minds.

Elsa suddenly jolted. ‘Max!’

Then Kris shot to her feet and turned. ‘Where is he?’ she barked.

‘I’m here,’ sounded a voice from behind them.

Both Elsa and Kris flashed around to find Max walking casually out from the hallway and into the kitchen.

‘Did you see that?’ Elsa asked quickly.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, walking across to open the fridge. ‘Caught it on the TV in the bedroom.’

The phone suddenly rang in its cradle on the kitchen bench. Elsa dashed across and answered it.

‘Hello?’ she said. Then said, ‘Ok, hold on.’

Elsa then pressed the speaker button and put the hand set down on the bench. Joe’s voice sounded.

‘Thanks, Elsa,’ he said. ‘I’m here with Abdullah in Canberra. Can I ask who is there with you?’

‘Kris and Max,’ Elsa replied.

‘Good. I assume you all saw the broadcast just then?’

‘Yes, we did.’

‘Right. I just wanted to see firstly if everyone is ok?’

‘We’re fine,’ Elsa replied for everyone. ‘Just a bit shocked.’

‘Understandable, but at least this was only a broadcast with no physical action. Max, do you have any thoughts?’

‘Nope,’ Max replied through a mouthful of the sandwich he had taken out of the fridge. ‘He didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.’

‘True,’ Joe said from the phone. ‘It did appear to just be a reinforcement of the existing threat. A fear inducing ploy if you will?’

‘However, if I may?’ Abdullah chimed in. ‘I think Macktidas has inadvertently aided our plight, albeit in a somewhat painful way.’

‘What do you mean?’ Kris asked.

‘He has just removed any uncertainty and denial around his threat. Since disappearing after the original broadcast one month ago, a large portion of the population has wondered if this alien scourge was real, but now it will be beyond doubt. The advantage for us is now our plan to take Max to the world has a firm base upon which to build. The disadvantage, the painfulness of this latest broadcast however, is that Macktidas’ renewed vengeance has likely notched up the general fear levels and the downward spiral of law and order is likely to also quickly accelerate. We have to commence our plan without delay, so I am proposing we contact media organisations tonight and begin the marketing campaign immediately. Does this have everyone’s blessing?’

Elsa looked at Kris’ nodding features and then turned to see Max shrug and nod as well.

‘We’re all in agreement here,’ she called out. ‘What do you need from us?’

‘Nothing,’ Abdullah replied. ‘Just try to get a good night’s sleep if you can? The media will begin to arrive tomorrow, so prepare for a change in lifestyle on the estate. Joseph and I will handle the logistics and be back in the morning to assist.’

‘Okay. See you then,’ Elsa replied.

The line went dead and Elsa returned the handset to the cradle.

‘Can’t wait for the media circus to come to town,’ Kris drawled.

‘Yes. It’s going to get pretty interesting around here,’ Elsa replied.

Elsa felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to see Max next to her.

‘You got a sec?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, sure.’

Max flicked his head sideways and started to walk out of the kitchen and down the hallway to the formal dining room next door, away from Kris. Elsa followed. Once alone, Max stopped and crossed his arms, a stony look firming his features.

‘That’s not a happy look,’ Elsa said. ‘What’s up?’

‘Just before the broadcast,’ Max started, ‘Macktidas came directly to me.’

Directly to you?’ Elsa asked, her brow creasing. ‘What do you mean directly?’

‘He got into my head. Like telepathy or something. I could hear him and even though I couldn’t see him, I knew it was him.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Well, for starters he outlined the rules for the duels, so now I know what sort of extra training I need to do and what weapons I can use, but other than that, nothing really different to what he said on the TV. Just a little more bullish. Bragging about how he’s going to kill me just like he did my mother. That sort of stuff.’

‘Are you okay?’ Elsa asked, stepping forward and placing her hands on her husband’s chest.

‘I’m fine,’ Max said, clasping his wife’s hands in his. ‘Takes more than a bit of bragging to get to me, but there was something else. Something he showed me, inside my head.’

‘Like what?’

‘Images, like I was looking through his eyes.’

‘Images of what?’

‘Him torturing my mother.’

‘No!’ Elsa gasped. ‘He didn’t?’

‘Yeah, he did, but that’s okay. It wasn’t nice, but I can handle it. I guess he thought it would rattle me, but if anything, it’s worked me up even more because right after he got out of my head, something else happened.’

‘What?’

‘I can feel her, Elsa, my mother I mean. I can feel her presence in my head.’

‘What, as some sort of memory from when you were a kid with her?’ Elsa asked.

‘No, not like that. One of the things Nar’gellans are capable of is some sort of telepathy, like what Macktidas just did with me, but I’ve never been able to do it. I always figured my human genetics couldn’t support it or something, but I think Macktidas may have woken it up inside me and now I have the ability to link my mind to others and in this case, my mother’s mind.’

‘But she’s dead, Max. You said it yourself. Macktidas killed her and the images he just showed you of him torturing her are proof.’

‘Yeah, it looks like he tortured her alright and that’s how he probably found out about me and where I am, but this feeling I have inside my head, it feels real. It feels like she’s actually in there, not talking to me, but just letting me know that she’s there for me.’

‘But if she’s dead…’

‘That’s just it, Elsa,’ Max cut-in, his eyes perhaps the brightest and most fervent she had ever seen them as they radiated right into hers’, ‘I think she’s alive. I think Macktidas has her holed up somewhere out there, alive.’

Elsa’s mouth gaped, speech failing to cross her lips. Max continued.

‘No one needs to know this,’ Max added. ‘It stays between us and I don’t really know why I’m telling you because it doesn’t change anything we’re doing or how we’re doing it. I just had to tell you because, well, because it’s kind of important. That’s all.’

Elsa smiled and gripped Max’s hands even tighter as she leaned in close to his face.

‘Of course it’s important,’ she said. ‘She’s your mother and now you know she’s still with you, all the way through whatever comes next and that makes you a little bit stronger. Max, you’ve now got another reason to get through this thing and keep living, so maybe one day you can save her too?’

Max looked deep into his wife’s eyes and found yet again, the love, the joy and the inspiration she constantly gave him and now that he knew his mother was in fact still alive, Elsa was right. He did feel stronger and not just a little bit, but mountains full.

 

4pm, 29th July (later that afternoon). Rules of Engagement

 

Max, Elsa and Kris sat around the large oak desk in the estate’s main study, their attention focused on the telephone sitting in the middle, it’s receiver on the hook, but Abdullah’s voice emanating from the hands free speaker. In the far corner stood Peter, not appearing to listen.

‘So, it is one on one combat?’ Abdullah asked. ‘You will face only one opponent in each of the duels?’

‘That’s right,’ Max replied. ‘Just me and whatever one thing Macktidas wants to put up against me.’

‘And guns of any sort are prohibited?’ Abdullah added.

‘That’s right,’ Max replied. ‘I can only use basic weapons like swords, knives and spears, which I can throw if I want to, but no guns are allowed.’

‘And the types of basic weapons can be any variation on a theme?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Swords with extendable blades or blades that can be fired as projectiles?’ Abdullah asked.

‘He didn’t say,’ Max answered. ‘Macktidas just said no guns or the likes. The bouts are basically hand to hand combat. Not gun fights.’

‘What about armour?’ Kris asked. ‘Is that allowed?’

‘No,’ Max replied simply. ‘Not even a little bit. I can wear whatever clothes I want, but no armour or exoskeleton as he described it.’

Kris nodded. Joe’s voice came on the line next.

‘And how should the weapons be dispensed during the bouts?’ he asked.

‘He didn’t say anything about that,’ Max said, ‘but I figure we don’t want to just leave them lying around the place in case I trip over them or one of the bad guys picks something up to use against me.’

‘True,’ Joe said. ‘We need to consider some form of provision system where we can feed weapons on request safely to you and not inadvertently to your opponents.’

The line went quiet.

‘Max,’ Kris said, ‘have you ever used a sword?’

‘No,’ he answered, looking at her. ‘Never needed to.’

‘Maybe it’s time we had some real weapons made and tied them into your training?’

‘No,’ Max replied directly and without hesitation.

‘Why not, Max?’ Joe asked over the line.

Max held a pause as he looked down at his hands.

‘Max?’ Joe pushed.

‘Not yet,’ Max finally said, his head jerking up to look at the phone. ‘Just not yet.’

A slight pause followed and then Joe replied. ‘Very well. That decision is your’s.’

Another pause occurred as Kris and Elsa looked at each other and Max looked away. Abdullah filled the silence.

‘It seems we have the information we need to more fully prepare for the arena,’ he said. ‘There is little more we can discuss at this moment and with some selfishness, for Joe and I here in New York, it is the middle of the night and we need some rest before convening with our colleagues at the United Nations in the morning, where we will outline our PR plan for bringing Team Max to the world. I will not go into detail, but suffice to say, Macktidas’ appearance yesterday has fuelled the already rampant fear and uncertainty of our fellow leaders and I do believe we literally stand on the brink of chaos. Our plan for Team Max is very much developing as our last chance at bringing the world back from that brink, so if you will excuse us, Joe and I must retire. We will call you tomorrow with whatever information we can pass on from our discussions. Ma as Salama.

The line clicked dead and the room fell silent. From his corner across the room, Peter cast an eye towards Max and noted his pensive face. Elsa and Kris both rose and walked out together, discussing Joe and Abdullah’s United Nations mission, while Max remained seated, leaning forwards in his seat, elbows resting on his thighs and his gaze directed at the floor between his feet.

Instead of speaking or leaving, Peter simply held his silence and his vigil.

 

10pm, 29th July (later that night). Trouble on the Fenceline

 

‘Max!’ came the call from down the corridor.

Max held his hand on the door knob leading to his and Elsa’s guest wing and turned to find Peter walking briskly down the hall towards him.

‘What’s up, mate?’ Max asked.

‘I know it’s crash time, but can I nab you for fifteen minutes to show you something?’

Max studied his personal bodyguard’s features for a moment and came to a quick conclusion. ‘It’s important isn’t it?’ he asked.

‘Yeah. You need to see this.’

Max hesitated again.

‘Don’t worry,’ Peter added. ‘Elsa and the kids will be fine while we go for a walk. My guys are all over this place.’

‘It’s not that,’ Max replied, shaking his head and looking down. ‘I trust your guys, no problem. I just had a bad feeling about something when you said I need to see this.’

‘Hair on the back of your neck type of feeling again? Like when you got spooked at Kris’ brother’s place and put six blokes in hospital?’

Max nodded, his eyes glimmering out from beneath his brow like black diamonds. ‘Like I said, that’s how it happens. The feeling comes out of nowhere and it’s always on the money.’

‘Okay,’ Peter said, ‘now I’ve got the jitters and I definitely think you need to come and see this.’

Without another word, the two men filed back down the corridor, their stride and pace firm.

A minute later, Peter led Max out the front door of the mansion and through the night along the road back towards the main gate into the estate. The star strewn night glittered overhead, the stars more radiant than usual for the new moon. Max’s night vision quickly adjusted, allowing him to make out the dirt road winding away ahead of them into the pitch of the night. Either side of the road, the shadows pressed in hard from all directions.

Still the bad feeling lingered in Max’s mind. Peter’s urgency had triggered his senses like an omen foretelling doom. There was something not right in the night surrounding them, almost as though they were not alone.

Peter stopped and turned to whisper. ‘The main gate’s about fifty metres in front of us. From here it’s whispers only. There’s a platoon spread out around the gate in full camouflage, so you won’t see many of them, but rest assured they’re there and armed to the teeth. They have night vision goggles on too, so they will be able to identify us just fine and know not to shoot us.’

‘Hopefully they’re aiming through the fence to the other side, mate?’ Max replied, whispering. ‘There’s only good guys on this side.’

‘Never trust a fence, Max. Trust only the men around you and your own ears and eyes. Yes, there’s a fence, but that’s no guarantee some bad guy hasn’t breached it further down the line and is coming in from behind to shoot you in the back.’

Max nodded. ‘Fair enough. Now, why are we here?’

Peter unslung a small container from over his shoulder and pulled out two pieces of kit.

‘Night vision goggles for you,’ he said, handing one of the items to Max, ‘and some for me. You’ll need these to see what I have to show you. Just slip the strap over your head and face. The on switch is on the side there. It’ll take you a few seconds to adjust to the green colour and the different contrasts and depths, so don’t move until you’ve got a grip on it, just to be safe. We don’t want you stumbling around like a drunk with all these guns around.’

‘Thanks,’ Max said as he pulled the goggles over his head. ‘By the way, that bad feeling, it’s getting worse.’

‘You and me both,’ Peter replied as he also strapped on his goggles. A few seconds later he asked, ‘You good to go?’

Max rotated his head a couple of times to get his bearings and then replied, ‘Yep. I’m good.’

‘Okay. We’re going to walk slowly along the road some more with me in front and you right behind until we get to the gate.’

‘Then what?’

‘You’ll see.’

Then Peter turned and started walking. Max followed as instructed and suddenly, his senses piqued. Something was absolutely not right. As he walked along in the green imbued world of the night vision goggles, he could more clearly see the surroundings and make out the bordering bushland on either side of the road. The impenetrable shadow walls seemed to press in on them like a giant vice, constricting the air around them. Max realised his entire body had tensed, his nerves jingling.

Up ahead, the front gate of the estate emerged out of the gloom. Peter pulled up and Max stopped behind him, glancing over his bodyguard’s right shoulder. Two soldiers materialised off the ground, their camouflage in the dark rendering them essentially invisible until they stood up. A series of hand and arm gestures between Peter and one of the soldiers led Peter to move to the grass on the left side of the road and crouch down on his haunches with both of the soldiers. Max moved across and followed suit. Then Peter and the soldiers lay down on their fronts and began crawling towards the gate. Again Max followed their lead. A few moments later all four men had reached the fence line, Peter waving Max into the middle next to him and both soldiers flanking them, their rifles aiming out through the fence and into the dark bushland beyond.

Peter leaned across and whispered in Max’s ear. ‘Focus on the bush. Give it a minute and you’ll see them.’

Max held his obvious question to himself and did as he was asked. Looking through the fence, all he could see was a mottled blackness as the starlight reflected off the complex pattern of leaves, branches and bark. Nothing stirred. Not a breath of wind shifted the night. Silence roared and then a twig snapped. Not loudly, but in the absence of any other sound it was like a gunshot. Then he saw them. Eyes.

They were unmistakable. Two bright, blinking pinpoints appeared in the mass of dark foliage. Then they moved and another set appeared a little further to the right. Then two more near the first set and then Max heard the whispering. Spoken words, in English. They weren’t animals. They were people and then Max grasped the cause of his unease. These eyes belonged to hostile people seeking a way into the estate. They were all under threat.

As the minutes passed, more and more sets of eyes appeared and every now and again Max made out the shape and movement of human forms amongst the trees. He could not be sure, but he estimated upwards of fifteen or so individuals. That probably meant there were more that he could not see. Max also got the feeling that these people were not just moving randomly around, but were in fact scouting the fence line, looking for security and ways to circumvent it. Unconsciously, Max clenched his fists and started to consider various combat scenarios if the need arose.

A tap on his shoulder made Max look to his left. Peter was waving him back away from the fence. Leaving the two soldiers on guard on the ground, Max and Peter crawled back over the grass until they were about twenty metres clear of the perimeter. They both then stood up and Peter indicated for Max to remove his goggles. A few seconds later with their natural night vision restored, the two men stepped back onto the road and started walking back to the house.

Max started. ‘They’re trying to find a way in aren’t they?’ he asked. ‘They know the place is heavily guarded, but they’re still keen?’

‘Yes,’ Peter replied.

‘Which means they’re desperate?’

‘Yes.’

‘Which is why you’re worried and why my intuition went nuts?’

‘Yes.’

The two men walked in silence for a few moments.

‘How long till they run the gauntlet?’ Max finally asked.

‘Two days. Maybe three at the most. I figure as soon as whatever food they have runs low enough, that’s it. They’re coming over the fence.’

‘You think these are people from some town nearby, forced to scavenge for food?’

‘You’ve heard the same security reports I have,’ Peter replied. ‘We all know there’s a growing migration of people from the regional centres towards the capital cities due to food shortages. My guess is these people are on their way to Brisbane and this is a convenient opportunity along the way for some pillaging, but who cares where they’re from. Like you say, they’re desperate. Anarchy is only three square meals away and by the looks of this lot, they’ve already missed at least one if not two meals.’ Then Peter stopped and turned to face Max who stopped right next to him, the two men squaring off on the road in the night. Peter continued. ‘I had to show you this, Max so you knew the truth in advance of any potential trouble. The outside world is just on the other side of that fence, keen to come in and cause chaos. If these guys do breach the fence, don’t worry. We’ve got an evacuation plan ready to go, which we’ll discuss in the morning, so your family and Kris will all be safe, but what you need to be ready for is what you might have to do to protect your family.’

‘Tell me,’ Max replied.

‘I’m trained to do whatever is necessary, so I can pull a trigger if I have to, but you, Max, if the ugly side of humanity breaks through that fence and gets right up in our faces, they could well be ready to kill for what they need, so you need to be ready to fight fire with the same. You need to gear yourself up for retaliation.’

‘You mean I might have to kill someone?’

Peter paused and then said, ‘Yes. You might have to kill someone. Do you think you can do that?’

Even in the gloom of the moonless night, Max could see the glimmer of Peter’s eyes and he held them in the gaze of his own. He then shifted his attention down to his own hands, holding them out, palms up. Then, clenching them, he looked back up at Peter and said one word.

‘Yes.’

 

3am, 2nd August (3 days later). Prophecy

 

Elsa woke to find Max standing over her.  It was dark and she was outside, lying on the ground.  Something was not right, but just having Max there made her feel safe.  Looking around, she found Millie and Jason curled up together next to her.  Max held his hand out and she grasped it to let him pull her to her feet.

Lightning suddenly ripped across the brooding sky, the luminescent flash revealing they stood on the western lawn of the estate, alone as a family, the time of day impossible to tell, but it was not night. It was just dark.  Very, very dark.

A light, cool breeze sprung up, rippling Elsa’s clothes.  It was an odd wind, damp and clammy.  Max as usual was impervious to the elements, standing there in his black training gear, his orange shoes glowing slightly in the gloom.  Her husband.  Her rock.

The breeze picked up.  A prick of fear stabbed inside Elsa.  Max noted the flinch and he pulled her in tight.  The kids woke up and Elsa looked down to see them stir.  Impulsively, she bent down and helped them up, pulling them and Max in to her, the family huddling together.

More lightning rent the broiling ceiling overhead.  The breeze increased to a wind and now Elsa could definitely feel wetness in the air.  Elsa looked up at Max, his face calm, but firm.  His control settled Elsa down a little, but now the children clung more tightly to Elsa and Max’s legs, also sensing something was amiss.  Max leaned his head in close, resting his forehead against her’s.  Elsa’s nerves settled a little more, but she knew something awful was coming.  Something she could not outrun.  Something that was going to hurt her and her family.

Then she felt the rumble.  Looking down, Elsa saw her feet shaking on the trembling grass.  She looked back up.  Max raised his forefinger to his lips and Elsa saw in his eyes that no matter what happened next, they would be alright.  He would protect them.

The rumbling grew.  The wind whistled, ripping at their clothes.  Lightning sizzled and scorched across the now pitch black palette overhead.  Elsa locked Max’s eyes into her gaze, his calm the only safe haven in the storm around them.

Then suddenly, Max started to grow in size.  Panic rose inside Elsa, but Max shook his head and smiled lightly.  Elsa’s panic subsided.  She fell to her knees and clutched onto the kids.  They were all she had now.

Max continued to grow in stature, towering over Elsa and the children like a giant.  Far over his head, the lightning blistered as the storm intensified.  Then Elsa sensed someone else with her.  She looked over her shoulder and there was Kris, standing still and looking past her into the distance.  Beside Kris stood Joseph, Abdullah and Peter, also with their gazes fixed on the horizon.  They were all there, Team Max and then Elsa noticed a crowd of people behind them.  Instantly she knew there were thousands, probably even millions or more, everyone looking into the distance.

The rumbling grew and Elsa turned back to Max who was still looking down at her, his blue eyes gleaming in the dim light, like beacons in the night.  Then, rising up behind Max, even larger than he, Elsa saw the focus of everyone’s gaze.

On the horizon, a vast, enormous wave surged across the land.  White caps frothed on its mountainous crest as it devoured the earth and now Elsa knew what was coming.  Death to all.  The end of the world.  The doom that Macktidas had promised was here.  She looked back to Max and now he smiled, really smiled and the warmth of that smile filled Elsa with pride in the knowledge that Max was there to protect them all.

Then Max turned, his gaze lingering on Elsa for as long as he could.  The wave rumbled onwards.  Max squared up to face it, the tempest before it raging against him, but he stood firm, immovable and implacable.  Max planted his feet and spread his immense arms out wide, his formidable stature now truly god like.

Humanity cowered down behind him.  Doom beat down upon them.  Only Elsa stood behind her husband, her children standing with her.  Together they would face the end.  Together, if fate demanded, they would die as one.

Max leaned forward and braced himself.  The wave slammed into him, the force of the water pummelling him back, but only a few steps did he retreat.  Digging his orange-clad feet into the earth, Max challenged the power of the wave and tamed it.  The wave surged up against him, but failed to pass his colossal form.

Elsa could see the strain on her husband’s face.  The enormity of his struggle was palpable and it ripped at her heart, but pride overwhelmed the pain knowing her husband was the only thing standing between doom and the rest of the world and Max was winning.

Still the wave surged, but still Max held it back.  The titanic struggle seemed to endure forever as the world watched on.  Then, the wave slackened.  The water started to slide off Max’s frame and recede.  He had done it.  He had beaten back the tide of death and saved them all.

The people of the world rose together as one, behind Elsa and the children.  Elsa smiled down at Millie and Jason and they smiled back, joy binding them together now.  Their father, her husband had saved them.  Elsa looked back up at Max and instantly her smile faded.

Max was caught in the water and it was dragging him away.  The boiling tide clung to him like glue, pulling him into the mass.  He struggled, but failed.  Max’s footing faltered.  He stumbled and then he fell.

Elsa stepped forward, her arms reaching out to try and grab Max, a silent scream issuing from her mouth.  Max fell into the tide, his head disappearing beneath the turmoil.  Elsa screamed again, her cry still soundless.  Then Max surfaced and he turned to look at her, his blue eyes brighter than ever.  He did not cry out.  He did not smile.  He merely looked at Elsa as he washed away, as the tide stole him away.

Gradually, Max’s gleaming blue eyes grew more and more distant.  Elsa let her hands fall to her sides.  The children rushed forward and held on to their mother and together they watched Max slip further and further away.  Finally, the light of Max’s eyes winked out and he was gone.  They stood there alone, Elsa, the children and all of humanity, their saviour taken away, but their lives saved.

 

10am, 2nd August (later that morning). Evacuation

 

The western lawn of the estate lay bathed in the warming light of the midmorning sun, the rays soaking the vast green turf with energy and promise. Parked on the far side of the lawn sat Kris’ training truck, it’s freshly painted orange exterior emblazoned with giant, black “X” logos on all sides. The Pain Train as it was now labelled, had its back and side ramps open with various bits of training kit spread across the lawn around it.

From where Max and the kids stood in the kitchen, Elsa and Kris could not see them, but they could watch the ladies as they went through their own dual fitness session. In their fluorescent nylons, both Kris and Elsa lunged their way over the grass and through the sunshine with weight laden barbells across their shoulders. Even from this distance, Max could clearly tell they were doing it tough. He could also hear Kris shouting at Elsa, and herself, to go harder. Max couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face.

‘Daddy?’ Millie asked. ‘Is Mummy feeling okay today?

Max looked down at his little girl and said, ‘She’s okay, sweetheart. She said she had a nightmare last night. That’s all and we know dreams can’t hurt us don’t we?’

‘I’m not talking about that, Daddy,’ Millie replied, pointing out to Elsa. ‘I want to know why she’s walking funny?’

‘Yeah, Daddy,’ Jason chimed in, pulling a face. ‘What’s Mummy doing?’

Max chuckled. ‘Mummy is getting smashed by Kris.’

‘But Kris normally smashes you,’ Millie added.

‘Yes, she does and she’s very good at it,’ Max answered, ‘but right now it’s Mummy’s turn to get smashed and besides, it makes her fitter and stronger.’

‘Why does Mummy need to be fitter and stronger?’ Millie asked. ‘Is she going to fight aliens like you?’

Max hesitated and then squatted down to turn and look his five year old daughter directly in the eye. His smile faded, but his expression remained soft. ‘Darling, Mummy will be safe, just like you and Jason. I’m the only one who has to fight the aliens. No one else.’

‘I don’t want you to fight aliens,’ Jason said as he came up to Max and hugged him from behind.

Max smiled and half turned, gently pulling Jason round to stand next to his sister. He placed a hand on each of their shoulders and asked with a mock sternness, ‘Is Daddy a big strong man?’

Both children nodded.

‘And is Daddy fast?’

Two more nods.

‘And is Daddy brave?’

‘Yes!’ Millie half shouted.

‘Then don’t worry about me fighting aliens. It’s the aliens you should be worried about.’

Two more nods.

Max smiled and pulled them both in close to squeeze them. With his eyes shut, all he could feel was unconditional love. When Max was jumping as high as he could, running as fast as he could and pushing himself to limits he didn’t know were there, it was this feeling that drove him. Not desperation. Not anger and certainly not fear. It was love and it was moments like these Max needed to keep himself fuelled.

More shouting floated in from the lawn. Max let the kids go and stood up to look back outside. Now Kris and Elsa were down doing burpees and box jump combinations. Kris was clearly the fitter of the two women, but Elsa was pushing herself hard. Kris had been on a few model shoots for fitness magazines before, but Max had to admit, Elsa could just as easily get a gig like that if she kept up this pace.

‘Hey, kiddies?’ Max said, looking down at his two children who looked back up at him. ‘Want to have some fun?’

Both children beamed back, their heads nodding vigorously.

A few minutes later, Max had both children off the ground, tucked up close against his chest, one in each arm and peeking around the corner of the mansion to the western lawn. Kris and Elsa were currently doing some skipping, with Kris pushing Elsa on. All Max had to do now was wait for the two of them to turn their backs and he could make his move. Just then, Kris and Elsa finished skipping and threw their ropes off to the side.

‘Come on!’ Kris urged. ‘Sprint time!’

Elsa straightened up from resting. ‘You’re evil.’

‘Yes, I am and that’s why you love me,’ Kris returned. ‘Now let’s go!’

Elsa trudged over to where Kris was now standing. Elsa stopped and put her hands on her hips. Kris was also breathing hard, but she held her posture a little firmer than Elsa.

‘Fifty metres!’ Kris barked. ‘Go!’ and with that, the two women lurched forwards, running as fast as their weary legs would allow them, heading away from Max and the kids.

‘Let’s go,’ Max whispered and launched himself into his own sprint. He also had about fifty metres to go to get to the cover of the Pain Train and hide behind it before either Kris or Elsa turned around.

To be fair, it was not really much of a challenge. Max was fresh and the ladies were beat. Even with two kids under his arms, Max easily made it to the Pain Train before either of the women turned around. Then as Kris and Elsa sprinted back, he and the kids shuffled around the bulky truck to stay hidden from view, the kiddies being helpfully quiet.

Now Max knew Kris would finish the session with some core work like she always did with him and sure enough, she got both herself and Elsa down to push out some planks. Max held a single finger up to his lips to indicate to the kids to remain quiet, which they did, despite the big, fat smiles on their faces. Max carefully opened a side cabinet on the Pain Train with the label “water hose” and inside found a length of hose attached to a regular tap. Uncoiling the hose, Max pulled a generous length out. Closing the spray nozzle on the hose, he then turned the tap on and watched it go taut as pressurised water filled it. Turning back to the children he held his finger up to his lips again and first picked Millie up to perch her on his shoulders and then picked up Jason and cradled him in one arm against his chest. Then squatting down, Max picked up the hose.

Silently, he crept towards the back end of the Pain Train, the hose unravelling as he went. Once at the end of the truck, Max turned around and flicked the hose out to make sure it wasn’t caught up. Then listening to hear what the two women were doing, he confirmed they had finished their planks and were now just sitting around talking, the session over.

Max whispered, ‘One. Two. Three!’ and he charged out from round the back of the truck. As he did, Max unscrewed the nozzle and water burst from the hose. Running right at the two women, Max managed to hit both of them with the first initial spray, not hard enough to knock them over, but definitely drench them.

A combination of shrieks, squeals and kiddie laughter filled the air. Elsa and Kris split up, so Max followed Elsa and he doused her some more. Meanwhile, Kris stopped and started shouting at him, so Max turned the spray back on her and chased after her as she scrambled away. With his back turned on his wife, Elsa grabbed Max from behind and tried to wrestle the hose from him. Kris saw her struggling and charged in from the other side.

Max knew he could fend them off, but instead he feigned a struggle. Holding the hose with the same hand that held Jason, he reached up and pulled Millie off his shoulders with his other hand. She was giggling like mad. Then with Millie safely down on his chest, Max fell backwards and the spray from the hose went straight up to shower down over them all. Within seconds, everyone was wet through. Max was on the bottom, while the kids, Elsa and Kris held him down as the hose continued to rain down and then Max felt it again. Love.

This was what he needed. This was Max’s fuel. Kris was as good as family for him and right now, all the people he cared about were with him, safe and happy. Life, no matter how many more days of it they would have, could never get better than this.

And then, the sirens sounded and their world suddenly changed for the worse.

Max was instantly on his feet, his head turning from side to side, his senses going berserk. Elsa and Kris both froze on the ground, looking wide eyed at each other. The children were oblivious as they continued to fight over the still spraying hose. Then a voice called out.

‘Stay there,’ Peter yelled from a side door of the house. ‘We’re coming to you!’

On cue, Peter’s team scrambled into view from out of various doors and from around both sides of the house. All of them had their pistols drawn.

Max turned and shepherded the two kids into himself, while Elsa and Kris, with their wits now intact, also rose and clustered in close. Looking around, Max noted that every military patrol within sight was running towards the front of the estate. Perhaps the dam wall had finally broken and the outside world had broken in?

Peter and his team reached them, immediately clustering around in a tight circle, facing outwards in all directions, weapons drawn, but not aimed.

‘Time to go,’ Peter said, his eyes skitting ceaselessly.

‘Go where?’ Elsa shot back.

‘Eastern lawn. Choppers are already firing up for evac.’

‘Evac?’ Kris shot back. ‘We’re leaving?’

‘Yes. All of us. Right now,’ Peter returned. ‘My team will escort you out while the troops hold the boundary line.’

‘And we’re not coming back?’ Kris continued. ‘Just like that we’re out of here?’

‘Just like that,’ Peter replied without looking at her. ‘We’re no longer safe here and we have to go now.’ Then Peter flicked a hand up to his ear microphone. A pause ensued as he listened. A few seconds later, Peter said to his team, ‘Eastern patrols have confirmed another raiding party on their line. We’ve now got two fronts. The front gate and the eastern perimeter.’

‘Which is where the choppers are,’ Max added.

Peter nodded. ‘Yeah. That’s where the choppers are,’ Peter confirmed, ‘so let’s get moving. I’ll take the lead. My guys will ring you all the way, so stay inside the circle. We’re going to go fast, so get ready. Are we good?’

Just then, the first shots rang out. Automatic gunfire sounded from somewhere near the front gate. The two children shrieked. Elsa and Kris shot glances at each other. Max picked up both kids and murmured in their ears to comfort them. Then he looked up at Peter.

Peter nodded once and led off.

The pace was hard and fast. Peter and his team all carried their guns in two-handed grips, muzzles pointing down to the ground as they ran. Peter’s focus was in an arc directly in front, while the rest of his team covered all other angles. Elsa and Kris hustled to keep up, while Max fluidly jogged along inside the mobile cluster, unencumbered by the weight or bulk of both Millie and Jason. Both children stayed quiet, not struggling or crying out, but rather frozen in place.

As they approached the front corner of the house, more gun fire sounded. Peter raised a flat palm indicating everyone to stop as he pressed up against the wall. Cautiously he peered around the edge. A pause.

Then without turning, Peter waved his hand behind himself and stepped around the corner. One of his team said, ‘Go,’ and they were all in motion again, following after Peter.

Once around the corner, they were all confronted with a sight they had never expected to see up close and in real life. Soldiers everywhere and on the move. Army jeeps full of armed men in camouflage, revved away down the main road towards the front gate. More gunfire sounded in the distance, accompanied now by shouting, some of it clear military orders, but most of it just panicked yells.

Peter led them quickly into cover under the main portico. Again he held up a flat palm and they all stopped behind a large stone column. Peter’s team kept the circle tight around them, guns still pointing down and eyes scanning the surrounds.

The sirens stopped blaring and the commotion settled down somewhat as most of the soldiers finished streaming past them. The noise of the speeding jeeps progressed a little further away down the road and in just a few seconds, the group seemed alone at the house. The gun fire and shouting still raged down towards the gate, but right now, they were the only ones left by the mansion.

‘How much further?’ Kris asked.

‘Round the corner of the house and then one hundred metres out onto the eastern lawn,’ Peter replied without looking at her. ‘Six Black Hawks. The nearest one is our’s.’

‘Are they…shooting at ordinary people up at the gate?’ Elsa asked quietly, so as the children didn’t hear her.’

‘Rubber bullets,’ Peter returned. ‘The Prime Minister wouldn’t let us load anything else. He didn’t want the army shooting our own civilians. Breaks every military principle.’

Elsa nodded silently. Then she gasped, holding her left hand up in front of her face.

‘What?’ Peter asked, snapping around to look at her.

‘My wedding ring,’ Elsa said. ‘I took it off before training with Kris. It’s on the dresser in the bedroom.’

Peter just looked at her. He then shifted his gaze sideways to Max, who looked imperviously back. Peter opened his mouth to speak, but Elsa cut him off.

‘I’m not spending what could be the last few months of my life without my wedding ring, Peter,’ Elsa said. ‘I’ll happily leave everything else behind, but not my wedding ring.’

‘What about Jo Jo?’ Millie asked from within Max’s clutches. ‘We can’t leave Jo Jo behind.’

‘What’s Jo Jo?’ Peter asked evenly.

Elsa sighed. ‘She’s Millie’s bed time stuffed toy.’

‘And Jay Jay!’ Millie squealed.

‘Jay Jay!’ Jason joined in. ‘Got to get Jay Jay!’

Elsa tightened her lips.

‘And Jay Jay is Jason’s toy?’ Peter asked.

Elsa nodded. Peter closed his eyes and took deep breath in through his nose as he did a mental assessment of the situation.

‘We’re going back into the house, mate,’ Max said. Peter snapped his eyes open and Max continued. ‘It’ll take five minutes. In and out.’

Peter held Max in a steely stare for a few moments and then nodded. ‘Okay,’ he relented. ‘In and out. Two toys and a wedding ring. You know exactly where they are?’

‘Yep. They’re all in the main bedroom. The kids dumped their toys on our bed this morning.’

‘Good,’ Peter said and then turned to one of his team members. ‘Get everyone straight to the birds and strap them in. We’ll be there in five minutes with wheels up as soon as we board. Give me continuous reports while we’re apart.’ Peter tapped his ear microphone to emphasise the point.

His team member nodded and Peter turned back to Max.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘Stay behind me and this time, I really mean behind me.’

Max nodded and let the kids down, allowing Elsa to take them both in to her. He then stepped forward and kissed Elsa sharply on the lips. ‘See you in five,’ he said.

Elsa nodded and Max was gone.

Peter led the way through the main entry under the portico, his gun lowered in a two handed grip, his eyes scanning every inch of the floor plan as they moved. Max hustled along behind, his own eyes smoothly registering everything in sight.

Across the broad marble floor they rushed and then up the wide, open staircase to the first floor. Turning left, Max followed Peter along the landing and into a hallway that turned twice more to lead to the rear of the west wing where the main retreat was located, including the main bedrooms.

At the very end of the corridor, the space widened and a massive set of wooden doors stood open, revealing Max and Elsa’s bedroom. Pausing at the threshold, Peter scanned the room and listened. Nothing.

‘Grab the stuff,’ Peter said crisply.

Max hustled past to the dresser where he plucked Elsa’s wedding ring off the polished surface. Slipping it into a pocket, he turned to the enormous, super king size bed and surveyed the space. There they were. Jo Jo and Jay Jay, a stuffed elephant and a stuffed frog, resting atop the mass of pillows and cushions at the head of the bed. Dashing around to the side of the bed, Max grabbed both toys and shoved them under an arm.

‘Done,’ he said. ‘Let’s roll.’

Peter silently nodded and said into his wrist microphone, ‘Got the goods. We’re coming out.’ Then after pausing to listen to the reply in his earpiece, he said, ‘They’re at the chopper. All they need is us.’

‘Right behind you,’ Max replied.

Without another word, Peter turned back to the doors, gun lowered, but ready to use. Max followed him out and back down the corridor. Quickly, they made their way towards the landing above the main entry, their senses still firing. Then suddenly Max reached out and grabbed Peter’s shoulder. Peter flinched, but halted as Max forcibly pulled him up.

‘Wait,’ Max hissed.

Peter shot a look back over his shoulder. ‘What?’

‘There’s someone in the foyer.’

Peter squinted back. ‘How do you know?’

‘I just do.’

Peter held Max in his steady gaze for a few moments and then slowly nodded. ‘Okay. Let’s do this real careful. Stay here and I’ll have a sneak peek. If there are any bad guys, we back track to another exit. Got it?’

‘Got it.’

Turning back to the landing, Peter stepped carefully up to the threshold and then pressing up against the wall, he snuck an eye out for a look. There was no one in sight, but this was no time to be rash. If Max’s instincts were squirly, that deserved respect. Peter paused and kept looking. Then he saw it.

The khaki coloured and oval shaped object sailed up from below the landing and arced gracefully over the wrought-iron railing to drop onto the carpeted floor in front of Peter. It took exactly that long for him to realise what it was. A grenade.

‘Go!’ Peter yelled as he turned and started to run back in towards Max. Max took only a split second to take it all in, but instead of running, he reached forward and grabbed Peter by the front of his shirt to pull him even faster into the hallway and hurl him down the corridor.

A moment later, the world erupted as the blast ripped into the hallway, stripping wood and plasterboard from the walls. The ensuing shockwave lifted both men off their feet and hurled them even further down the corridor. Dust filled the air as the noise ricocheted around.

Silence settled and Max popped his head up. He had a slight ring in his ears, but otherwise his senses all seemed fine. Snapping his head sideways, he found Peter face down and groaning. Rising to his haunches, Max checked the hallway behind them and found a mess.

Splintered wood and broken plasterboard lined the walls, while the floor had been completely blown away at the threshold to the landing where the full force of the blast had centred. The space literally looked like a bomb had gone off and now, Max could hear voices.

‘Get up there and finish them off!’ a voice shouted.

‘But we blew them to…’ a second voice started.

‘Just get up there!’ the first voice cut-in. ‘They’re all military in here, so they might have survived that. Finish them off and hurry up!’

‘Ahhh,’ Peter moaned as started to rise up on all fours.

Max looked at him and in that split second, made his decision. They were going out the same way they had come in and that meant going straight through whoever it was coming up the stairs to kill them.

Standing up, Max scanned the remains of the hallway and quickly judged the distance between himself and the hole in the floor and the width of the hole.

‘What are you doing?’ Peter asked, his voice hoarse and heavy.

‘Getting us out of here.’

Peter looked up and immediately saw that Max’s expression had hardened into steel, his clenched fists clearly broadcasting his intent. Footsteps sounded on the staircase outside. Max took a step forward.

‘No,’ Peter croaked out. ‘We need to double back.’

Max ignored the comment and kept moving forwards, his pace increasing with every step. Peter pushed uncertainly to his feet. The figure of a man appeared on the landing at the top of the staircase, a soldier’s rifle in his grasp. Max was now virtually sprinting. Peter remembered his gun, but then realised he was no longer holding it. The intruder with the gun froze as he took in the vision of Max charging at him. Max was at full pelt now and without slowing down, he ripped off a chunk of splintered wood from the wall and a split second later, launched himself out over the ragged hole in the floor.

The intruder’s eyes grew wide as Max filled his sight. In mid flight, Max pegged the lump of wood at the man, hitting him squarely between the eyes. Continuing his flight, Max forward somersaulted and cleared the hole in the floor to land on his feet on the far side on the main landing.

Gunfire tore through the air, forcing Max to dive onto his stomach and lie flat. Bullets strafed the edge of the landing next to him, sending wooden shards spinning past his face. In the fraction of a second view Max had gained of the foyer, he had located the second man to be near the main doors leading out to the portico. All Max had to do was get off this landing, cross the ten metres to the doors and take the man out. More gunfire ripped up the landing in front of him. Max squinted. He knew what he had to do, but how?

Glancing around, Max made a decision. The unconscious man next to him had dropped his rifle. Rolling onto his back, Max grabbed the gun and tossed it back through the hole in the floor the grenade had blasted. Hoping for it to cause a diversion, Max jumped up as fast as he could and bounded up onto the landing railing to launch himself out into thin air, four metres off the unforgiving marble floor below.

Fortunately, the falling rifle had diverted the gunman’s attention and he did not react immediately to Max’s ploy. The gunman watched the rifle tumble harmlessly to the ground, just as Max went airborne. Two seconds later, the rifle clattered to the marble floor and the gunman started to return his aim back to Max, who was now somersaulting towards the ground.

Max’s feet planted firmly onto the marble just as the gunman was brining the muzzle of his rifle round to fix onto Max’s torso. Max used his momentum to instantly bound forwards and close the gap, his right fist raised to deliver a killing blow. The gunman arced his barrel up and pulled the trigger. Max’s eyes zeroed in on the target, every ounce of his being set to pummel the life out of this man.

The sound of the single shot filled the foyer, but Max did not hear it as he focused on landing his blow. In that split second, Max saw the gunman recoil backwards, forcing his fist to go wide of the mark. Landing on his feet, Max watched his foe crumple backwards out the main doors to land in a heap on the steps of the front entry. With his fist still half raised, Max looked down on his now dead enemy. He then turned and looked back up at the landing.

There was Peter, perched on the edge of the hole in the landing floor, his gun still in both hands, arms outstretched and barrel pointing down at where the intruder had been. Looking directly at him, Max could tell Peter’s dazed wits had been replaced by honed steel, his single shot having taken the man out.

Max nodded once and Peter reciprocated. No words were spoken.

One minute later, both men were outside and running across the eastern lawn towards the Black Hawks. All of the choppers squatted lightly on the broad, green turf with their rotors whining overhead, ready for lift off. Soldiers kneeled at regular spacings around all of the aircraft, guarding the perimeter. None of them turned to look at Peter and Max as they sprinted past, plasterboard dust smeared over their clothes and faces.

Through the open door of the nearest Black Hawk, Max could see his family, Kris and Peter’s team, all strapped in to their seats. As they ran up, Peter’s team hauled them aboard.

‘Go!’ Peter yelled.

The pilot acknowledged the command by lifting the chopper’s wheels off the ground. Peter quickly helped strap Max in next to Elsa as they rose upwards. Then after strapping himself in, he looked out the side door just as the aircraft powered forwards to bank over the mansion.

From the air, Peter gained a much wider view of the state of play all around the estate. Intruders were running rampant, climbing over the boundary fence at multiple places. Meanwhile, the military detail were reforming near the main gate and beginning to move in an orderly fashion back towards the remaining Black Hawks, cutting down intruders as they went. Peter suspected they were no longer using rubber bullets. The situation demanded lethal action. They were now shooting the very citizens they were meant to protect.

Peter turned to look across at Elsa who had covered Millie’s and Jason’s eyes, while Max had wrapped an arm around her shoulders, still protecting his family. The man was unstoppable. Sure, Peter had just saved Max’s life, but Max’s athleticism was unbelievable. The way he had fearlessly launched himself off that landing and then in the blink of an eye, got on top of that guy and almost killed him? That had been nothing short of superhuman.

Fortunately, Peter’s own aim had held true, otherwise right now Max might be dead and all of them doomed. Then, as if Max had been reading Peter’s mind, he looked around and nodded to him.

Peter nodded back and after a few brief moments of holding each others’ gaze, Peter looked back out the open door to watch the bush pass underneath them in a speed blur.

 

5pm, 2nd August (later that same day). Dread

 

Max walked into the living room to find Elsa awake and seated on the couch in the growing gloom of the late winter’s afternoon. Both Millie and Jason lay asleep on either side of her, their heads nestled in her lap. While peace adorned the children’s faces, weariness dragged at Elsa’s features. Fighting fatigue to keep her bloodshot eyes open, she had no intention of letting her guard slip following their escape.

Elsa had not noticed Max standing there, so he stayed in the doorway and watched his family, letting his mind’s eye play back the afternoon’s flight from the estate to their arrival here in their new refuge.

It had taken two hours to fly to their new base, the journey completed entirely in silence, everyone’s’ thoughts all consuming. Elsa and Max had cuddled the kids the whole way, sharing a few brief glances at each other, but nothing more. Kris however, had remained frozen in her seat from the moment they lifted off. During the trip, Elsa had tried several times to stir her, but failed, Kris’ gaze stuck unseeing out the side door.

After flying over Brisbane and reaching the coast, the Black Hawk had turned north and hugged the seaboard. Steadily, the pilot veered the Black Hawk out to sea until all they could see beneath them was the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, embroidered with a generous smattering of mid afternoon whitecaps.

Then, an island appeared and the helicopter banked to circumnavigate it, revealing the land mass to be essentially a low relief, oval-shaped dome with fringing palm trees and open, grassed slopes rising on all sides. On the very crest of the hill a sizeable mansion lay with broad, open lawns surrounding it.

A few minutes later the pilot had put the Black Hawk down on the southern lawn and they all disembarked, a golf cart waiting to transport them up to the house. Kris had needed to be forcibly carried out of the aircraft and seated in the cart, her silence escalating to effective paralysis. Clearly in the advanced stages of shock, Peter had immediately called the medical staff to get an emergency room ready for Kris inside the house.

To call the residence a house was a gross understatement. It was another mansion, very different in design from the previous one, but probably even more palatial. The building was three storeys in places with contemporary architecture comprising a blend of rendered masonry, glass, steel and exposed timber. Seated atop the hill, it commanded the island like a fortress in the ocean.

Inside, the mansion’s massive size was well accompanied by huge rooms and expansive views over the ocean worthy of any billionaire’s dollar. Again, how Joseph had laid his hands on this place was not a question anyone wanted to ask and to be fair right now, was not really food for thought anyway considering their plight to get to it.

Since landing, the whole group had introverted. Kris had been immediately whisked away into one of the bedroom suites upstairs with a team of paramedics, while Elsa had brought the kids into this living room, seeking quiet and solace for her and the kids to rest. Peter had also disappeared indicating he had to finalise the security details for their stay.

That had left Max all alone and with nothing else to do, he had walked the grounds. He had very much wanted to talk to Joseph and Abdullah, but that would have to wait, until tonight. He did briefly run into one of Peter’s team though, who gave him a run down on the estate and its security, indicating their new location was much safer than the last. Foot, air and sea patrols protected the island. No one was getting in here unless they wanted to start a war, so with the sun starting its descent into the dim, winter horizon, Max had made his way upstairs to find Elsa and the children.

In the upstairs living room, Elsa stirred and her eyes blearily found Max across the room. Max moved to turn on the light, but Elsa’s voice stopped him.

‘Don’t,’ she said. ‘You’ll wake the kids.’

Max nodded and withdrew his hand. Gently, Elsa extracted both children from her lap and left them in peace on the couch. She then led Max out of the room and into an adjacent sitting room, where she did turn on the light. A sumptuous square of couches surrounded a huge, carved coffee table resting on a plush, pile rug. Elsa lowered herself onto one of the couches and rubbed her face. She then looked up at Max who looked no different to how he normally did, calm, but alert.

‘I know you’re half alien,’ Elsa started, ‘but doesn’t the human half ever get tired?’

Max curled a corner of his mouth and sidled in next to her.

‘I may not be tired as you, but what I am tired of is running and hiding,’ Max replied, holding his wife’s hand.

‘Five months, darling. That’s when the running and hiding stops.’

Max nodded. In five months time maybe everything stopped, forever. Elsa continued.

‘So, did you find out where we are?’ she asked, looking around the room. ‘Joe sure can pull some strings. This place is a palace.’

‘One of Sir Reginald Flottmore’s holiday pads apparently?’ Max replied.

The Sir Reginald Flottmore? The richest man in the world?’

‘Yeah. His portraits are all over the walls downstairs. It’s like a shrine. The bloke from Peter’s team says both Joe and Abdullah are mates with Flottmore. Pretty powerful trio.’

‘Too right. Got to admit, I do like this place more than the last one though. Not really a ranch kind of girl. Much prefer the beach.’

‘Pity we didn’t have time to pack the bikini,’ Max replied, nudging his wife.

‘Didn’t have time to pack anything,’ she replied, pulling a face. ‘I hope there’s a shopping trip in the plan?’

‘I hope there are still shops out there that are open?’ Max added.

Elsa nodded silently, her eyes dipping down. Max continued.

‘Peter’s man was also saying that the plan was to move us here sooner or later anyway. It’s easier to protect us and it has better facilities. The attack just upped the schedule a bit.’

Elsa rubbed her face again with her spare hand. Max squeezed her other hand.

‘That was pretty scary back there,’ she said. ‘I know they were just ordinary people made desperate by fear and they were really just hungry, but that was..’ she trailed off shaking her head.

‘You’re right. They were just hungry,’ Max replied.

‘But hungry enough to want to shoot us and do God knows what else?’ Elsa shot back.

‘I guess all this proves that civilisation can be pretty fragile when it gets threatened,’ Max answered. ‘We don’t know what it’s really like out there. We see things on TV and Peter gives us his security briefings, but that’s only information. Actually living out there must be completely different and much harder than we can imagine? We know people are dying, really dying and today we saw how that happens, right up close.’ Max paused as the daylight outside slipped completely away into twilight. ‘Maybe we needed to see that? Maybe we needed a wakeup call to get us ready for what’s coming next?’

Elsa glanced up at her husband and then snuggled a little more closely into him.

‘Maybe?’ she said. ‘But that was a little too close for me. I just hope the kids don’t get affected by whatever they saw?’ Max nodded. Elsa added, ‘I hope all the staff and the soldiers got out too and that no one else was hurt, apart from the two guys you and Peter took out?’

‘Peter’s man also said all the staff got out, but two soldiers were killed and lots of civilians. The rubber bullets got swapped out while we were leaving.’

Elsa winced, but stayed quiet. Max took in a deep breath and squeezed his wife’s hand again before standing up to turn and face her.

‘Good news is,’ he started, ‘Millie and Jason’s teacher is already here and he’ll be ready to start teaching again tomorrow, so the kids at least might be able to get back into their normal routine quickly?’

‘There’s no more normal for us, dear,’ Elsa replied, looking up at him. ‘We just have to deal with whatever comes our way.’

Max nodded. ‘True enough.’

‘Let’s just try to keep the kids as sane as we can,’ Elsa said, also rising and stifling a yawn.

Max suddenly turned and found Peter in the doorway to the room.

‘Pete, what’s up?’ Max asked.

‘Just checking in,’ he replied. ‘I’ll leave you be.’

An instant later, he was gone.

‘Him and his team were really something today weren’t they?’ Elsa said.

‘Yeah,’ Max said absently. ‘Give me a second would you?’

‘Sure,’ Elsa said uncertainly as Max hurried from the room and through the doorway Peter had just been in.

Jogging down the corridor and to a landing where a carpet covered staircase descended down to the next floor, Max found Peter halfway down the steps.

‘Hey!’ he called out. ‘Hold up!’

Peter stopped and turned on the midway landing. Max came down to stand with him.

‘What is it?’ Peter asked. ‘Need anything?’

‘No,’ Max said, ‘but I do need to say…’ Max started.

‘No, you don’t,’ Peter cut in, waving a hand and starting to turn to keep going down the stairs. ‘I don’t need to hear it.’

‘Yes, you do because I need to say it,’ Max pushed.

Peter stopped, but only half turned back.

‘You saved my life today,’ Max continued, ‘and you rescued my family and I know that’s your job and all, but for me, that makes you as good as blood. I’m not going to say I owe you. That stuff’s not for real life, but if the cards ever play out in reverse, I’m there for you and you can believe that.’

Then Peter turned full round and looked Max in the eye. ‘I do believe it,’ he said, ‘because you’re the one saying it. Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance to square me up in the arena, but just so you know, I didn’t shoot that bloke today to save you because we need to get you into the arena safe and sound. I shot that bloke because you’re a mate and I’ll never let a mate down.’

Max nodded and Peter held his eye for a few moments. Finally breaking the lock, Peter turned and made his way further down the stairs leaving Max to watch him go.

 

  • * *

 

As the darkling twilight bloomed over the eastern horizon outside, upstairs in one of the sumptuous bedroom suites, Kris lay shivering under the blankets of her bed. Her sedatives had stolen her consciousness away, but the drugs had not had any effect on the storm that continued to rage inside her mind. She was as good as crippled. Despite the drugs, Kris’ body had given up on her, rendering her paralytic. Right now, she was awash in a tempest that was threatening to take both her sanity and her life.

The storm had started the moment the sirens had gone off and by the time they had clambered into the chopper, it had reached cyclone levels. Kris had run as hard as she could to get to the chopper and had carried Jason to safety like he was her own flesh and blood, but the effort had claimed her. The moment someone had strapped her into her seat, she was lost, the fear in her mind rampant.

None of the ensuing treatment from the paramedic team had registered. Elsa’s pleading for her to wake up had not made any impact. Abdullah had even called and asked to be put on speaker to talk to her, but Kris’ incapacity had imprisoned her and Abdullah had suffered through total silence. With nothing else to be done after medicating her, the staff had left Kris alone for regular monitoring with no visitors.

So there she lay, a bone sucking chill racking her to the core. Outside, the calm, placid ocean surrounding the island lay in stark contrast to the wild, broiling seas consuming Kris’ mind, the howling winds and towering swells unrelenting. As time passed, the night drew on and Kris’ grasp on life faltered.

 

  • * *

 

Far across the globe, the Lear Jet’s wheels lifted smoothly off the tarmac, its tyres still spinning as they disappeared neatly into the enclosed undercarriage slots in the belly of the plane. Inside, Abdullah looked absently out the window at the tranquil, aqua blue waters of the Arabian Gulf as they passed beneath him. If he had bothered to look carefully, he would have seen a mother dugong and her calf, peacefully grazing in the shallows on the scattered patches of sea grass.

However, his mind was elsewhere, seeking solace amidst an ever growing tornado of worries. The United States had just escalated their entire armed services to DEFCON 3, placing them on alert readiness for full military defence and retaliation if provoked anywhere in the world. President Bartholomew had finally reacted to Russia’s poorly restrained military that were frequently crossing out of their own borders to fight their own raging civil war. Any further wayward air strikes were not going to go unchallenged.

On top of this, Abdullah’s own kingdom was in an ever tightening grip of hunger. Food imports had declined to critical levels due mostly to piracy in the Straits of Hormuz at the entry to the Arabian Gulf. His attempts to pay the Sultan of Oman and the Iranian President extra funds to police the straits had failed. Pirates now raided at will, effectively blocking any incoming trade to his country and others inside the gulf, bringing the once friendly neighbours ever closer to outright conflict.

Now Kris had gone down and that was too much. Abdullah had to get back to Australia. The rest of the world would have to wait. Team Max, his new found friends needed him and that pull was too strong to ignore. Within minutes of receiving the call from Joseph, Abdullah was walking across the tarmac at his private airstrip to his fastest jet. His laptop sat on the seat next to him, closed and disregarded, but full of briefing papers and emails that outlined the state of play of civilisation across the planet, all of the news variations on a calamitous theme.

As always when Abdullah sought peace, his mind wandered to a single image. A woman, her face young, beautiful and flawless. Her dark, hazel-coloured eyes gazed serenely back, their shimmering depth mirroring his soul. A picture of Heaven.

Al-ḥamdu lillāh,’ Abdullah said to himself. ‘Praise be to Allah.’

Then the image morphed and Kris filled the space in his mind and he whispered something very different.

‘Please, do not take another?’

 

9am, 5th August (3 days later). Light and Pancakes

 

A soft light slowly filtered into Kris’ senses, but from where, she did not know. Nor did she much care. All she knew was that it was peaceful and quiet. No storm raged about her and it had not been like this for a very long time.

The light grew steadily brighter and a different world slowly began to take form. A large window full of seamless blue sky filled Kris’ vision, a slight wafting breeze ruffling the lace curtains either side of the space. The peace infused her.

Then she smelled something. Something delicious. Kris searched her memory for the aroma and found it. Pancakes. By now she knew she was awake and that could only be good. Bright blue sky, pancakes and no pain inside her mind.

Turning her head to look around, Kris discovered a massive bedroom. She did not recognise any of the furnishings or fittings, but the total serenity overcame any hint of uncertainty. It just felt safe and that made her actual whereabouts unimportant.

Laying her head back down on the pillow, Kris watched reflected light play across the ceiling, dancing and flickering in a random and carefree pattern. The chatter of parrots sounded through the window and behind it all, there was another sound, something familiar. The sea.

A twinge of fear pricked inside her. The storm was coming back. Kris’ eyes flicked around the room again, waiting for the roar to rise and crash, but instead it stayed in the background. The waves did not rear up. The sea stayed calm. The world held its peace.

‘It is the real ocean you hear,’ sounded a soft, familiar voice, its rolling baritone as musical to her ears as any classical symphony. Kris lifted her head and found Abdullah sitting in a large, ornately carved and upholstered chair beyond the foot of her bed. ‘The sea in your head is silent and calm. You are safe, Kris. You have found your way to shore.’

Kris did not know what to say, so all she did was look at Abdullah’s kindly face, absorb it and attach it to his words. She was safe and Abdullah was here to prove it. He spoke again.

‘You were adrift a long time,’ he said. ‘Three days have passed since you left us, but you have returned. Your strength has brought you to safe haven and with just a little more recuperation, you will be free of your fears forever. Of that I am sure.’

Kris still did not know what to say and then her senses reminded her of something else.

‘Pancakes?’ she asked with a blend of uncertainty and hope.

Abdullah smiled, his features softening even further. ‘I apologise,’ he said. ‘Pancakes are perhaps my one true weakness and I have just indulged myself. However, if you wish, I can have some more sent up in just a few minutes?’

‘You’ve been here the whole time?’ Kris asked quietly.

‘Not the whole time. Elsa, Max and Joseph, and even Millie and Jason have been sharing the vigil. They all care very much about you, Kris and will be overjoyed to know you have awoken.’

Kris looked at Abdullah a little longer, unable to break her gaze from his face. He appeared so calm, so tranquil and something else? Secure. That was it. Secure. Like Max, the world revolved around Abdullah, not the other way around. Abdullah affected the world. It did not affect him, but the difference between Abdullah and Max was that Max acted physically, whereas Abdullah always remained passive, his calm, soothing demeanour belying his true strength and his true power. In many ways, Abdullah was far stronger and far more powerful than Max could ever be and as this man sat quietly in his chair at the foot of the bed, his pristine white robes draped around him and his hands resting comfortably on his crossed knees, Kris knew that it had been Abdullah who had brought her back to shore. It was Abdullah who had saved her from the turmoil in her mind. How, she did not know, but deep in her heart, she knew it had been him, sitting quietly at the end of the bed, undoubtedly praying to his god and just watching. A sentinel. Her sentinel.

Kris let her head fall back to the pillow and returned her view to the playing lights on the ceiling. It was time to start living again.

 

4pm, 5th August (later that day). Secret Flame

 

The twenty kilo kettle bell sailed through the air to hit the turf twenty metres away from where Max had hurled it. The steel ball thudded deep into the luxuriant green grass to join the growing pile of other twenty kilo kettle bells Max had thrown. Before the steel ball hit the ground, Max had another one in his left hand and was winding up to throw it too.

From his stationary stance, Max had twin stock piles of kettle bells on each side of him and with alternating underarm swings like dual windmills, he was tossing the kettle bells one at a time as far as he could out across the northern lawn of the estate. Speed was his primary concern, picking up and throwing the bells as quickly as he could, but as he found his rhythm, Max increased his power, stretching the growing pile further and further away.

Hurling the final bell out into space and a good twenty-five metres distant, Max straightened up and paused. He didn’t know what to do next, at least not right away. So, he launched forward into a three quarter sprint across the grass and away towards the far tree line to fill the pause with something. As he ran, Max wondered what he could do when he reached the trees. Max also hoped that the set of eyes watching from behind him would soon be able to get back down on the grass to help.

Back up on the balcony behind him, Kris watched Max go through his paces, jealous that he had his orange sneakers on and was active while she was house-bound in her dressing gown. Still, it was good to see that the daily routine went on unhindered by her absence. The world still needed saving, regardless of her state of health.

Closing her eyes, Kris let the soft sounds of the sea wash over her, the sensation now calming and not in the least disturbing. Abdullah was right. Her fears had left her and now reality was firmly in perspective. She understood what she needed to do and also acknowledged that despite her’s, Max’s and everyone else’s best efforts, the world was still probably doomed. If that was the case, she would die. Her family would die and everything good and beautiful in the world would be lost. So be it. Fate is fate, but Kris would not let fate come easily. She would fight it and she would fight it till she fell in front of it.

‘Hey, you,’ sounded a voice behind her.

Kris turned and opened her eyes. Elsa had snuck up behind her on the balcony.

‘Hey, you too,’ Kris replied, smiling.

The two women gently hugged and then stepped back to look at each other.

‘You look good,’ Elsa said.

‘I feel good. I really do.’

Elsa turned and stepped up to the glass balustrade to see her husband running back towards the house from the distant trees.

‘You know he’s been lost without you?’ Elsa said.

‘I get that a lot with men,’ Kris replied.

‘Yeah, you’re a real heart breaker,’ Kris said in return, smiling, ‘but really, you should have seen him yesterday. He had one of your boys go find a big enough ladder so he could climb up on top of the Pain Train and jump off it again and again as fast as he could. It was all he could think of.’

Kris raised her eyebrows. ‘That’s not bad.’

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Elsa drawled, ‘but only to a point. He couldn’t think of anything else after that, so he tried going up the ladder on his hands instead.’

‘And how’d that go?’

‘Poorly, but it was pretty funny.’

‘I’ll have to remember that next time I need a laugh.’

Elsa looked back at Kris and studied her face. ‘You really do look good. We were worried as hell about you. You went down real hard.’

‘Abdullah said you’d all been to sit with me and I…’ Kris started, ‘…I think it helped me. This might sound a little weird, but while I was down, it was like being lost at sea in a storm, a really, really bad storm and without a life jacket or anything. The waves just kept crashing down on me and it was dark. So dark, the whole time, but then, a light started to shine on the horizon. At first I lost sight of it as the waves kept coming down on me, but slowly the light lifted higher and got brighter and somehow it gave me the strength to start treading water. My head stayed up more and more and then I realised I was kicking my legs and paddling towards the light because where there’s light, there’s hope isn’t there? So, as the light grew brighter, I got stronger. The sky grew lighter and the waves died down and then finally, at last, my feet touched the bottom…and I woke up.’

‘And who did you see?’ Elsa asked.

Kris flicked her gaze sideways and almost whispered, ‘Abdullah.’

Elsa nodded. ‘That’s right because he hardly left your side the whole time. Sure, Max and I and Joseph came in and sat with you a fair bit, but Abdullah, he hardly left your room since he got to the estate the morning after you crashed.’

Kris dipped her head and turned to look out over the lawn to find Max doing standing military presses with a barbell. Elsa continued.

‘The moment he landed,’ Elsa added, ‘he came straight up and in the three nights and two days you were down, he left your side maybe a couple of times to freshen up and eat, although most of the time he ate out on the balcony.’

‘Yeah, I think it was the smell of his pancakes that actually woke me up,’ Kris said smiling.

‘Maybe it was the pancakes at the end, but if that light you saw in the storm really was hope, that hope had a name. Abdullah. He sat here with his prayer beads day and night and at night, he didn’t sleep. He sat in that chair and he prayed and he prayed and he prayed. You hear stories about people doing things like that, but he actually did it. I swear he has not slept a wink in the three nights that have passed and then during the day, he did no work. He’s left everything up to Joe while he sat here with you. The man is a saint or whatever the equivalent is in Islam, so if you’re looking for someone to hug, it’s him. It’s absolutely Abdullah. He’s been lost without you too.’

Kris stayed silent, listening to Elsa’s deposition and feeling the depth of her words as they touched her deep inside. She could still see that light inside her mind, but now it had taken on a new dimension. The light now had a feeling associated with it, an emotion more powerful than any other, but Kris couldn’t bring herself to openly admit it. Instead she kept her feelings hidden despite the discomfort it gave her. The end of the world was not the time to get all soppy. She had a role to play here and her own personal desires had to come second.

Looking up, Kris found Max standing down on the grass looking directly up at her. Her mind was made up. She needed to focus. Sacrifices needed to be made and Kris would sacrifice her feelings for Abdullah because that was the right thing to do.

 

10pm, 5th August (later that night). Faith

 

Max watched Elsa leave the dining room, on her way to check in on Kris before going to bed.

‘Your wife has a strong and kind heart,’ Abdullah said from across the table.

Max turned to face him. ‘Yes, she does,’ he replied. ‘In most ways she’s stronger than me.’

‘I think you are as strong as each other,’ Abdullah said in return, ‘and I do not consider it a coincidence that you have found each other.’

Max smirked. ‘You think it was God?’

‘Let’s just say you deserve each other.’

Max nodded, his smile widening.

‘Why do you smile, my friend?’ Abdullah asked, his head slightly tilted.

‘Because I can’t help, but smile when I talk to you.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Let me put it this way. I don’t know what you hear when you listen to yourself, but for everyone else, it’s pure therapy. You have this natural ability to put people at ease and make them feel safe. Take all of us for example. You’ve come into all of our lives and in just a little over a month with the end of the world staring us down, you’ve counselled us, settled us down and to be fair, saved us from a world going bad. Fair enough, Joe has played a big role too, but it’s been you Abdullah, it’s been you who has quietly pulled all the strings in the background and got us this far and that takes skills and patience the likes of which I can’t fathom. That’s why I’m smiling. You make me want to smile.’

Abdullah looked down at his folded hands resting in his lap. ‘I have my faith to help me,’ he said. ‘God is the bedrock on which I stand and labour and that is all the support I need, but let me say this,’ and Abdullah raised his head again to look across the table at Max. ‘While you, Max choose not to recognise Allah’s divine influence and that is your fair and just choice, you do still follow a life of faith.’

‘And what faith would that be?’ Max asked, genuinely curious.

‘Faith in yourself. The burden you carry now is perhaps greater than any other burden in the history of mankind and yet you carry it as strongly as you carry your weights. That is because of your unbreakable faith in yourself,’ Abdullah said.

Max silently held Abdullah in his gaze for a few moments and then said, ‘What I say to you now, I know you won’t interpret as arrogant because it’s not. This burden you mention, it’s easy for me to carry because for a long time now I’ve known what I have to do. I’ve come to grips with it.’

‘That is true, but you do not place expectations on yourself either. If you win, you win. If you fall, you fall, but it would not be because you did not give it everything you have.’

‘That’s right. It’s the only way I know how to do this.’

‘However,’ Abdullah said, then paused, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the table in front, ‘despite your outward strength, you are afraid, aren’t you?’

Max hesitated, then nodded slightly. ‘Yes, but not about dying.’

‘No. Your fear is not for yourself is it? It is not for losing your own life?’

‘No, it’s not.’

‘You fear is what will happen to your family if you fall in the arena and you are not alive to protect them from whatever happens next. Is that not so?’

Max nodded again. Abdullah continued.

‘You say I have counselled each of us with words of comfort and guidance,’ he said, ‘but in this matter, my friend, I have no words that can allay your fears and I am sorry for it. You may well fall in the arena and the fate of your family and indeed all of us will lie beyond our mortal control and rest in the hands of God alone, so I will not shower you with false hope. If you do fall in the arena, your family may suffer in the aftermath. However, if you will permit my belief to intrude…?’

‘Please, speak your mind,’ Max replied.

‘…even if you do not have faith in God, I believe he will reward you with what is fitting.’

‘And what would be fitting?’

‘Death finds us all, Max. I do not have to tell you that. When and how it finds us is a mystery, but there is no mystery about what happens after we pass.’

‘You mean Heaven?’

‘Yes and for a good man like you and good people like your family, Heaven indeed awaits. That is the only consolation I can give you.’

Max held his new friend’s eye, not searching for anything, but rather trying to imprint the moment in his mind. Max had never chosen to be close to anyone other than Elsa and their children, but right now, right at this moment, he felt compelled to know this man. It felt right. It felt as though he and Abdullah were completely like minded, maybe even kindred. Then Max spoke.

‘You speak of mysteries, Abdullah’ he said. ‘Well, your faith is a mystery to me and yes, you’re right. I do have faith in myself and yes, it is unbreakable, but I can only believe in what I can see and what I can feel. My hands, my legs and my heart. These are the instruments of my faith and I know they are powerful. I know I can move mountains if I choose to. That’s not hubris. It’s just the truth, but even though I don’t understand your faith and God Himself, I have to say, I admire your faith all the same. It’s as unbreakable as my faith is in myself and I have nothing, but respect for that.’

Sheikh Abdullah did not say a word. Instead he nodded, his eyes slightly softening and a tiny curl forming at the corners of his mouth. Max continued.

‘You don’t just wear your faith, Abdullah, you’re immersed in it and you’re not only comfortable in that place, but it absolutely suits you and there’s something else I have to tell you now.’

Sheikh Abdullah’s gaze remained locked on Max’s. Max resumed.

‘I might be the one in the arena saving the world, but you, your Highness, are the one that is going to keep the world safe after I’m done. The world needs me only right now, but it needs you forever more. You’re a man separate from other men and for what you have done already for my family, all I can say is thank you. Thank you for being here and more than anything, thank you for being you.’

Abdullah did not smile. He did not even move. A deep silence suffused the room as both men held in place, looking wordlessly across the table at each other.

Then Abdullah smoothly rose to his feet. Turning, he glided around the table to where Max sat. Max also rose and the two men stood before each other for a moment before warmly embracing and for those few moments, despite all the trouble in their worlds, doom slipped away and two new friends set their paths and fates together in stone.

 

8am, 7th August (2 days later). Unveiled

 

‘Do your make-up this morning?’ Kris asked.

‘Yes, Ma’am,’ Max replied as he walked across the grass towards her with Jason perched on his shoulders and Elsa and Millie walking along side. ‘Even got some product in my hair.’

Suddenly, Millie broke out of her mother’s hand hold and sprinted towards Kris, who held her arms out wide.

‘Come here, you,’ Kris called out as the little girl charged into her embrace. Sweeping Millie off her feet, Kris spun around, Millie’s legs swinging outwards in unison as she giggled.

Max lifted Jason off his shoulders and plonked him down on the grass, letting him run over and wrap his arms around Kris’ legs as well. Elsa smiled and slipped an arm around Max’s waist. A few moments later, the sound of approaching aircraft made them all turn and look towards the west.

‘Here they come,’ Elsa said just as three helicopter silhouettes appeared over the tree tops, heading right for the estate.

‘Show time,’ Kris said as she put Millie back down on the ground.

‘Yes, it is,’ sounded a voice behind them.

Everyone turned to find Joseph and Abdullah walking up behind them, also looking up at the incoming craft.

‘I pray this works,’ Abdullah said.

‘No fear, Your Highness,’ Kris said, still holding Millie’s hand. ‘One look at what Max is just about to do and I guarantee the whole world will sit up and watch.’

 

  • * *

 

On the edge of Kris’ training area on the southern lawn of the estate, Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen stood in front of the assembled media and waited for them all to fix their attention on him. All up, about twenty press professionals stood restlessly in the warm winter’s sun, cordoned together and clearly eager to get their first look at this mysterious champion of theirs’.

After disgorging from the helicopters, the men and women of the media gallery had been herded into this particular space and instructed to set up their cameras, which they all did quickly and without question. Several individuals had also attempted to snatch a few shots of the generous scattering of military security across the broad lawn, but were quickly and forthrightly told to be patient, or else. Joe cleared his throat and all eyes fixed on him.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he began, ‘firstly, thank you for accepting our invitation to be here with us for the next few days. We will show you to your lodgings in a short while and endeavour to make your stay both comfortable and rewarding.’

A few heads turned and looked around, mostly to remind themselves of just how much security surrounded them. Some looked up to the constantly circling Black Hawk high overhead, but most held their stance, eyes in front and fingers cocked on the trigger buttons of their digital cameras hanging around their necks.

Joe continued. ‘Secondly, this is no holiday retreat you’ve been invited to. We need your help, sincerely. As you know, mankind and indeed all the world, has been threatened by an alien menace that seeks to destroy us for reasons we do not know. We will continue to try and establish the reason for this threat, but also as you all know, this menace has indicated one means of averting and nullifying this threat and that is through the actions of one man. A chosen man. A man who from the six billion people on this planet, has been selected to enter a life and death arena to fight for the survival of all that we know and hold dear. If this man is victorious against whatever foes are pitted against him, we all will be spared this threat and live on unchallenged and unharmed.’

The contingent of reporters and photographers stood transfixed to Joe’s monologue . He had them in his sway and he knew it. Joe kept on.

‘However, despite this glimmer of optimism for peace, our way of life has begun to erode due to the uncertainty of our future. Doom gathers over us like storm clouds and fear has taken root in our society, across all the world. The very fabric of our civilisation is in jeopardy, even before this alien menace has set foot on our planet. If we are to survive beyond the arena, then we as a species must bond together to first make it to the arena. We are beginning to falter as we let our fears grow unchecked and unchallenged. We are beginning to die before we have even tried to fight back. We are in fact killing ourselves. So, what we bring to you today and in turn ask you to send across the world, is hope. We have a weapon with which to combat our fears in this gathering darkness. We have a torch that will shine a light on all our faces and lead us forward. We have a champion, the likes of which none of us have ever seen and have only ever imagined or read about in the wilds of mythology and legend. We have a man, just one man and why he was chosen, we don’t know, but thank God it was him because he is worthy of legend and today, you will see him for the first time and the help we ask of you is to tell the world about him. Take your message to every corner of the globe. Show your pictures and vision to all who can see. Shout his name and his might across the world for all who can hear. It is time to beat the drums and bring ourselves together and remind ourselves that we are human and we are powerful and in the face of this spectre that seeks to bring us down, we are one. We are one.

Jaws dropped. Eyes grew wide and the world became still behind Joe’s passion. Goose bumps rose and tingled over skin. Even those in military dress standing within earshot felt that same tingle. Joe held the pause just long enough for his words to escalate the emotion he needed his audience to feel. Searching the eyes of the gallery, he found his message ingrained. His first job was done. Joe then raised his left arm to the green expanse adjacent and said firmly, ‘I give you Max.’

All heads flicked around to the circuit course laid out on the grass and the group scrambled to their cameras, jostling as they moved. Joe slipped quietly away and started to make his way towards a marquee that had been set up at the end of the circuit closest the house. Under the shade sat Abdullah, his gaze hooded behind his sunglasses, but Joe knew he was scanning the scene in front; the grassed circuit, the media gallery and across the other side of the circuit, the Pain Train, it’s orange bulk and massive “X” the perfect backdrop.

Joe sat in the vacant chair next to Abdullah and also cast his gaze across the scene in front. Then, lifting his hand, Abdullah rested it on Joe’s forearm next to him and without turning spoke quietly.

‘Thank you, Joseph. Your words reflect your soul. You are indeed the right man to lead us.’

Joe nodded and felt goose bumps rise on his own skin. Even he was looking forward to this.

Then the door of the Pain Train began to lower, the ramp slowly opening until it closed onto the rich green turf. A few moments later, Max strode out of the trailer and directly into the public eye, the world collectively holding its breath.

 

9pm, 7th August (later that night). The World Sees

 

‘Well, it’s official,’ Kris said as she walked into the sitting room after dinner to join Max, Elsa, Joe and Abdullah. ‘Max, you’re the most famous human on the planet right now. This morning’s training footage just went to the all time top on YouTube, knocking Gangnam Style off the top spot with over three million hits and that was just today.’

Max who was standing at the wide open threshold leading out onto the immense stone balcony simply turned and raised his bottle of electrolytes to her, nodding as he did.

‘That’s my man,’ Elsa said, smooching over and snaking an arm around her husband’s waist and pulling in close. From his seat on the couch, Abdullah cast a quick glance over the rim of his cup of tea to Joe who nodded back from his own seat on the opposite side of the coffee table.

‘So, I think this deserves a celebration,’ Kris continued. ‘Someone mentioned something about a wine cellar downstairs and if whoever owns this place is as rich as I think they are, then that cellar must have some pretty flash champers in it. Who’s up for a glass?’

‘I’m in!’ Elsa called back.

‘Great! Who else?’ Kris asked. ‘Max, as your trainer, you can have one glass. Maybe two if you promise to give me double burpees tomorrow.’

‘Gee. You know how to charm a bloke,’ Max replied, turning back in to face the rest of the group. ‘Guess I’m in then.’

‘It would be my pleasure to join you,’ Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen said.

‘Your Highness?’ Kris asked, turning to face Abdullah.

‘Thank you, but no,’ Abdullah said, bowing in his seat and lowering his cup of tea to his lap.

‘Oh,’ Kris said suddenly, raising a hand to her mouth. ‘Sorry. Sorry. Religion right?’

Abdullah smiled and nodded. Kris then held both her hands out in front, a blush colouring her cheeks.

‘Please, do not be concerned,’ Abdullah said, his smile widening. ‘My indulgence is watching you all enjoy the fruits of the cellar. Toast away.’

Kris smiled now too as she and Abdullah looked at each other a little longer than intended. Elsa nudged Max in the ribs with an elbow. Max nudged her back.

‘Well,’ Elsa said dramatically, ‘I’ll go find the butler then shall I?’

Kris stirred herself and looked around. ‘Ah, yeah,’ she said. ‘Um, I think you just dial zero or something for room service don’t you?’

‘You just sit down and I’ll sort it out,’ Elsa replied, moving across the room to the sideboard to pick up the phone.

‘So, Max,’ Joe began, ‘it’s about now we need to ask how skilled you are with Twitter?’

‘Technically, Joe, I don’t even have a smartphone,’ Max answered. ‘In my hands that Samsung I’ve got is a dumbphone. I’ve heard of Twitter, but if I had to tweet to save my life, I’d be as good as dead.’

‘Well, perhaps it’s time the old dog learnt a new trick,’ Joe replied. ‘You can’t be the lord of social media and remain mute. Tomorrow we shall have to teach you how to speak, Gen Y style.’

‘Mister Prime Minister, I wish you luck,’ Max said, turning to look back out over the balcony to see only the blackness of a moonless night. ‘I really do.’

‘Champagne is on its way,’ Elsa announced, crossing to sit on the couch next to where Kris had seated herself. The two of them slapped hands in a high five and giggled.

‘We’re number one,’ Kris sang.

‘And we’re having champagne,’ Elsa followed on.

Abdullah turned and placed his empty cup of tea on the side table next to him before rising to cross and join Max by the opening. From beneath arched eyebrows, Joe watched him move past. Instead of following, Joe deliberately leaned forward and distracted Elsa and Kris into conversation with him to leave the two men alone.

‘Come,’ Abdullah said quietly to Max, ‘share some fresh air with me, please?

Max looked to his side and tracked his gaze on Abdullah as he stepped out onto the darkened balcony, his gleaming white robe still shimmering beneath the star light. Max followed him outside, leaving the halo of light from the sitting room behind.

‘I have a palace,’ Abdullah began, ‘which is washed by the shores of the Arabian Gulf. It has a balcony much like this one and it is on that balcony that I find the greatest peace, late at night.’

Max held his silence. Looking out to the horizon, the stars gleamed like a billion diamonds cast across a sable blanket. Abdullah continued.

‘The sharpness of the salt and the cool of the breeze both stimulate and ease my mind. I find it as restful and as calming as any moment I spend in prayer. As Allah is my lord and protector, right at this moment, I feel as if I am at home on that balcony.’

Abdullah closed his eyes and breathed in a deep lungful of the sea breeze. Max turned to see the silhouette of his new friend’s face against the gentle light from the living room. He then looked back up at the night sky and traced his gaze from star to star.

‘When all this is over,’ Max said,’ you should make sure that balcony is the first place you go.’

‘I will, my friend, and I would dearly love for you, your family and all of us here tonight to come with me and share my balcony with me.’

That’s a deal,’ Max said, turning and holding out a hand.

Abdullah also turned and looked down at Max’s hand and then back up at him. Reaching out, he warmly accepted the handshake with both hands and then before letting go he said, ‘Max, today you became an internet sensation and if we can keep the momentum going, we may just hold mankind’s course long enough to make the arena, but be aware, you also made some deadly enemies.’

‘How do you mean?’ Max replied.

‘Most will see you as a potential saviour, but there are some, a powerful some, who will have confirmed you as a potential threat.’

‘I’m no threat. You know that. The only thing I’m bringing down is whatever turns up in that arena.’

‘What you need to know, is that while the majority of the world is living day by day to make the arena, there are some whose pursuits force them to see beyond the arena and plan for all of the possibilities that may await after your possible victory.’

‘People like you, you mean?’

‘Yes. People like me, who recognise this time for what it is. A watershed. Win or lose in the arena, Max, be rest assured, the world will never be the same again. If you die, we all will possibly perish in a storm of violence and death. However, if you win, the man-made boundaries of international politics and sovereignty will shift and change. How exactly, I do not know, but it is inevitable. I can already see it happening and as I said, there are those among us in the international diplomatic community that are already seeking to gain advantage in any unsettled time post the arena and it is these people who feel threatened by you, who may rise as a force to be reckoned with.’

‘Do you know who these people are?’

‘I know some and many of them I can waylay or fend off, but we are fast heading for even more tenuous times. We may be able to restore some semblance of order back to the world in these last few months, but these new enemies will now target you directly. Be vigilant, Max. You are surrounded by friends here in this place, but as the saying goes, sometimes the wolf presents itself in sheep’s clothing and when the disguise falls away, you must act and act decisively.’

Max held his gaze locked on to the gleam in the Sheikh’s eyes. From inside the living room, Joseph looked out onto the balcony and found them, standing close together in firm silence. At that moment, Joseph felt the same tingle run up his spine that he had felt this morning while watching Max perform for the media.

Greatness stood outside, just beyond the light, but Joseph knew that in those two men, Max and Abdullah, the light shone so powerfully that the world had to stand up and take notice. Today’s spike on social media would take hold and it would grow. They had planted a seed of hope and now they needed to make sure it bloomed. A stand had finally been made.

 

  • * *

 

From behind his White House desk, the United States Chief of Staff scrutinised the face of General Robert Stratton. Seated across the room in the burgundy coloured chesterfield couch, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had held his pause for longer than was comfortable, the extended silence not boding well for a palatable response.

‘I can hear those big, brass wheels of your’s grinding inside your head from this side of the room, General,’ Charles Ingot the Third said. ‘What are they telling you?’

General Stratton looked up and said, ‘No.’

It was now Ingot’s turn to pause. ‘What precisely does “no” mean, General?’

The General’s eyes locked onto the Chief of Staff’s, his pupils chips of blue steel. ‘I will not provide you with any assets to challenge this man.’

Ingot’s eyes creased to slants as his knuckles whitened. With a tense jaw he spoke in a highly measured tone.

‘I thought we were in this together?’ he asked. ‘No, doesn’t feel like a team play.’

General Stratton did not flinch. ‘In matters of politics and diplomacy, you Mister Ingot, are the expert. In matters of military combat on scales both grand and individual, I am the expert and in this matter I say, I have no assets that can best this man, so I will not place them in harm’s way. If you wish to further this pursuit, you will have to find alternate means outside of the United States armed forces.’

‘Ingot’s tone remained venomous. ‘Let me be plain, General. You will provide me with a challenger.’

‘Mister Ingot, the vision you just watched from CNN was recorded by two of my finest soldiers who infiltrated the media gallery. If I was to provide you with the asset you seek, it would likely have been either of those two men, but they clearly indicated through the course of the footage by coded means that they recognise their skills to be inferior to this Max. In short, they conclude they are no match for him and their opinions guide my decision. I cannot help you. If a worthy challenger exists, he or she does not reside within the United States armed forces.’

Ingot sat bolt upright and craned forwards, his eyes firing bullets. ‘No way! You’ve got over two million soldiers at your beck and call and you’re telling me not a single one of them can beat this Max? No SEAL. No Delta. No Ranger or any other Special Forces or secret damn soldier you’ve got hidden anywhere can knock this man over?’

‘No.’

‘No!’ Ingot shouted back, banging his fist on the desk. Rising, he leaned forward on his clenched fists and glared across the room. General Stratton did not move, his demeanour holding steely cold. ‘Let me repeat myself, General! You will find me a man who can beat this Max! That’s a direct order!’

General Stratton remained steadfast, the abuse thrown at him as ineffectively erosive as a cloud drift against a craggy, alpine peak. Then, after a few moments, he too rose to gather up his attaché and peaked cap. Once collected, General Stratton flicked his cap under his arm and straightened to squarely address the Chief of Staff.

‘You will note, Mister Ingot,’ the General began, ‘that I do not salute you as it is not my requirement. Nor is it my wish. I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States and you are not him and as such, I will ignore your demand. I have other matters to attend to and so will take your leave. Have a good day.’

‘You will not turn your back on me!’

General Stratton continued walking towards the door.

‘Damn it, man!’ Ingot erupted. ‘You will find me a man who can kill this Max, so I can control them in turn and then kill them off!’

General Stratton paused, his hand clasping the door handle. Ingot stood ramrod behind his desk. Tension rippled throughout the room. Finally, General Stratton turned, slowly and deliberately to refix his gaze on the Chief of Staff whose red, tendon lined face glowered back. The elderly soldier’s ice blue focus polarised the politician’s volcanic fury. The General spoke first.

‘Mister Ingot, you underestimate the nature of my patriotism. Whilst I too wish the champion of the human race could be a United States born and bred warrior, that wish will not be borne true from the ranks of our military. So, to serve the greater good of all mankind, I defer the honour of champion to the individual who is clearly best suited for the endeavour and from my estimations, that individual is Max. He appears to be the warrior we need and as such I encourage you to leave him unhindered. At the very least, your quest to usurp Max’s role will gain no support from myself. This conversation is concluded and again, I bid you good day.’

The two men stayed glued together for a few moments longer and then General Stratton turned and opened the door. With fresh colour rising in his face, Charles Ingot the Third watched the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff close the door and leave him alone.

 

2pm, 15th August (8 days later). Maximum Exposure

 

Max walked out of the dressing shed beneath the clubhouse and down the length of the tunnel leading to the playing field. As he ventured through the semi-darkness towards the bright light at the end of the corridor, he became aware of the growing sound ahead of him. It began as background static, like the white noise of an aircraft cabin in flight. Steadily the noise grew to the constant chatter of a flowing stream and then even more to the incessant drone of traffic speeding along a motorway.

Reaching the brink of the tunnel, the shadow of the subterranean gloom ended at Max’s feet and the stark brightness of the mid afternoon sunshine pushed up against the toes of his orange sneakers. The sound of the motorway had now risen to the steady roar of the sea as if standing on the beach to behold the great majesty of the ocean.

There was a crowd outside around the playing field and it had to be five or six thousand strong. Max could not make out the people in the glare of the daylight and even if he had not been able to hear them, he could feel them. Tension filled the air like an archer’s bowstring. He could even feel the ground trembling through the rubber soles of his shoes. The masses had come. He now had to make them believe he was their saviour. That was the only way Max could assure the safety of his family, by convincing the world that he deserved their unconditional support and that he was not a false hope that should be challenged or worse, doubted

Kris walked up behind Max and also stopped short of the threshold. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve got stage fright?’ she asked.

‘You really think this is going to work?’ Max asked back.

‘This is you we’re talking about,’ Kris replied. ‘You’re the entire Olympics rolled into one. What’s not to like?’

Max turned to face her, his expression stone. ‘You know I trust you,’ he said. ‘You’re as good as family to me now and family is everything. If you say this will work and will keep us all safe, then that’s good enough for me.’

Kris didn’t smile. She didn’t nod. She simply said, ‘It will work.’

Max did nod. ‘Okay. You’ll get everything I got.’

‘I always do,’ Kris replied. ‘You just repeat what you did for the media last week and you’ll have this lot throwing their underwear and babies at you. It’s a standard speed and power session today. Forty-five minutes of dynamic weights and sprints. Easy stuff.’

Max turned back to the light, his eyes adjusting to the glare. Outside, he could now see the dense crowd lining the edge of the playing field on the opposite side. He could see the freshly cropped grass of the playing surface, its condition mint green despite being the off season of the local football league. Max could also see some of the training equipment laid out in the centre of the field. The stage was set and there was only one thing missing.

‘It’s show time,’ Kris said quietly, just above the dull roar of the crowd.

‘Yes, it is,’ Max said in return.

‘You go make an entrance,’ Kris added ‘and I’ll see you out there in a minute.’

After just a few seconds hesitation, Max strode over the threshold and out onto the grass. The crowd instantly erupted. As he walked towards the centre of the field, he pirouetted a full three hundred and sixty degrees to survey the full circumference of the playing field.

The crowd pressed up to the railing at the edge of the field on all sides, more than twenty deep in places. Just inside the railing, a rank of plain clothes security guards stood evenly spaced every ten or so metres, their backs to Max and their eyes undoubtedly dissecting the human mass in front of them for any signs of trouble. Scaffold towers bearing cameras atop them were also spaced out around the exterior of the field with extra cameras mounted on top of the clubhouse and grandstand. The images they were capturing were not only being beamed live to a global audience, but also to the massive LCD screen perched on the roof of the clubhouse.

Overhead, Max could also count at least three helicopters rattling away. One he recognised as a TV station chopper, its aerial image of the field and the swarming crowd surrounding it, currently on display on the big screen. The other two choppers were unmarked and Max suspected they carried snipers and general surveillance staff. Max also knew there were other snipers spread around the grounds, hidden from view, but clinically observing all.

Max could not make out any specific sound bites from the crowd as the shouting and yelling melded into a deafening cacophony, but there were placards. Some of them supportive, but there were also more than a couple that did not cast favour on him. At least two of them were direct, unabashed death threats, but most were just generally defeatist, predicting the end of the world was inevitable and no human stood a chance in the arena. Max turned away from them all.

Casting a glance up to the clubhouse atop the solitary grandstand, Max imagined he could see through the glass to where Elsa, Jason and Millie stood, most likely huddled together up against the window. He was doing this “show” against his better judgement, but Elsa, Kris and Abdullah were convinced it was the right thing to do and he trusted them all completely, so here he was, surrounded by thousands and on display like a prize pony except this was no little town show. This was a warm-up for Armageddon.

Turning back to the front, Max reached the middle of the playing field. The roar of the crowd was unyielding, but he had relegated it into the background, his senses piquing. Scanning about, Max noted the course spread out across the playing field. He locked into memory all of the equipment Kris had laid out, what it was, its location, the patterns the lay out formed and the various ways in which he would be instructed to utilise each piece and in what order. The kit comprised a collection of dumbbells, weighted barbells, heavy kettlebells, cones and metal boxes. All standard stuff, but in the hands of an expert physical trainer, it was a recipe for torture. Max felt another presence come up behind him.

‘You know they’re already loving those orange shoes,’ Kris shouted above the din.

‘Let’s give them something else to love,’ Max shouted back and then from his pocket, he retrieved a single communications earpiece, slipping it in place over his right ear. He then retrieved a tiny transponder from his pocket and taped it onto the base of his throat. Finally, he turned back to face Kris.

Kris smiled and placed her headset on, positioning the microphone arm directly in front of her lips. ‘You got me?’ she asked.

‘Loud and clear,’ came Max’s reply in her ears.

Kris looked to the side to see a group of burly men jog out onto the field to disperse in groups of three to the four quadrants of the field.

‘In case you’re wondering,’ Kris added, ‘the hired help double up as extra security. I’m safe as houses out here.’

‘I know. That’s because I’m here.’

Kris’ smile broadened. ‘Let’s get this party started.’

She then held up both hands and the massive, LCD clock display perched on top of the clubhouse lit up, showing the number ten. The crowd went nuts. Kris paused and then dropped both hands. The clock began to count down.

‘Let’s start with ten burpees,’ Kris said, ‘and then haul arse over to the boxes and get creative. Your call, but after that, you’re doing tumbling runs back and forth across the field. At least six and spice it up too.’

Max nodded.

Kris’ gaze took Max in and again awe consumed her. Max had assumed his typical stance. Amidst this throng of humanity, he didn’t just stand firm. He was absolutely unassailable, his face cast iron and every fibre of his body taught as steel. The clock hit zero. A horn blasted and Max launched into action. The crowd exploded.

For the next forty-five minutes, while Max ripped through the routine, Abdullah stood up against the full length windows in the clubhouse, unmoving and unblinking. He had witnessed Max perform similar, Herculean feats on several occasions prior to today, so instead he directed his attention to the crowd.

This performance was crucial. It had to serve two purposes. The first was to force Max to integrate with the public. His focused, personal drive to safeguard his family through victory in the arena was admirable and noble, but for Max to reach his full potential, he needed to know that the world itself was worth saving. Knowing that fact, believing that fact and fighting for that fact could only lift him even higher. By performing in front of the public and inspiring them to support him, Max might just realise that the world beyond his personal space is in fact a wonderful place full of good people.

The second purpose was the complete reverse of the first. The public needed to see Max. They needed to get to know him and realise that if the world is going to be saved, then there is undoubtedly no better or greater champion than Max. Abdullah himself had no doubts what so ever that Max would win over the public. His physical prowess had already won over the most powerful leaders in the world and as for the public, Max would easily be the most exciting athlete they would ever see. Then, with the public won over and in full support, the constant security threats and negative sentiments would die off and not only would he and his family be safe, but he would be the hero everyone needed right now.

So, instead of watching Max charge through the training session like a god come to Earth, Sheikh Abdullah watched the crowd. Before Max strode onto the field, the crowd was generally restless, just eager to see this mystery man who had been selected not by them, but for them by an alien race, to defend their lives. It was hard to tell if the crowd was for or against Max with some clear pockets of support and other clear pockets of dissent and unfortunately, hatred. Then when Max started his routine, the crowd ramped up the volume with the sentiment becoming clearly negative, mainly as they realised there would be no weapons on show, only physical training. It made sense. The crowd needed to know their ordained champion was skilled at killing and drawing blood. The public needed to see swords and knives, not push ups and weights exercises.

Then Max pulled off his first real, eye-opening feat and the crowd lulled. By Max’s standards it was simple stuff, but for the general public, the effort was enough for them to stop and consider if they had actually just seen an ordinary man do what he had just done and how was that possible?

After Max completed his ten burpees at breakneck pace to warm up, he jogged across to the boxes, of which there were five. The first and shortest box stood at forty centimetres high and then each of the other four boxes increased in height by another forty centimetres to the last box, which stood at two metres. The four boxes rested lined up one after the other in increasing height with a gap in between each. Max simply ran up to the first box and without breaking stride, bounded on top, feet together. Then, without slowing down or pausing, bounded down to the ground and bounded straight up onto the next box like a human kangaroo and proceeded to continue all the way through until finally, he bounded straight up onto the two metre box before swan diving off and executing a double somersault to land neatly back on the grass.

By now the crowd had quietened down a little, but then Max did his next trick. He turned back to the two metre box and vaulted up to the top into a hand stand. Then, again without pausing, he flipped forwards to land on the ground and vaulted up onto the next slightly shorter box and into a handstand. He then repeated the motions all the way back to the shortest box to ultimately land neatly on the grass at the end of the boxes. By now, the crowd was noticeably dulled. He had their attention.

Next up Kris had him perform some extraordinary tumbling runs up and down the length of the field, which at any Olympics in history, would have easily secured him the gold medal. Triple and quadruple somersaults and twists were standard fare and all of them executed with unnatural precision. On his final two runs Max improvised and snatched up a fifteen kilogram kettlebell from the edge of the field and just like a rhythmic gymnast, flung it up in the air to catch it again in between tumbles and flips without dropping it or missing a beat. Now the crowd was stunned. This wasn’t just like the Olympics. It was like the Olympics on steroids.

Then Max proceeded to walk the entire length of the field on his hands, except to say he walked was an understatement. He essentially ran on his hands and then when he reached the far end with Kris jogging along next to him, he not only stayed on his hands to perform a set of vertical press-ups, but then did ten single arm vertical press-ups on each hand. As he pushed himself through the sets, a lone voice rang out over the now smothering silence, ‘Max! Go, Max!’

Now halfway through his routine, Max’s pace did not falter even slightly. Abdullah kept his gaze and senses keyed into the masses. There was no longer any evidence of hostility. The negative placards had been lowered and those outspoken groups had disappeared into the sea of silence, but that lone voice of support had stirred a ripple and now Abdullah could feel the tension changing. People were whispering in each others’ ears, but not taking their eyes off Max, unwilling to let slip even a moment of the spectacle. Bodies began to press harder up against the railing. Even the security detail was exchanging queried glances as to what was going on, but Abdullah knew exactly what was happening. Max had the crowd hooked and now he had another twenty minutes to reel them in.

After his handstands, Max dropped back to his feet and sprinted to the middle of the field where a weighted barbell lay. The over-sized radii of the multiple, circular weight plates on each end of the bar clearly indicated a significant amount of steel mass was locked on. Max did not break stride. He ran up to the bar, squatted down and then immediately pushed upwards with his arms and legs to toss the entire bar and weights into the air. He then deftly caught the bar with his upstretched hands and lowered it down onto his shoulders behind his neck, military style. Kris then motioned for him to follow her and Max did, not walking or even jogging, but in great bounding strides, launching from one foot to the other. Kris led him in a growing spiral that led outwards until he reached the boundary fence. Max then shifted from single leg bounds to double leg bounds, the barbell bending and flexing over his shoulders.

Abdullah could see the expressions on the faces in the crowd as Max got close enough to let them see the weight denominations on the plates. One hundred kilos. Shock. Disbelief. Astonishment. Hands covered open mouths. Slack jaws, and then, a fist in the crowd punched the air and a cheer went up as Max went past. Next, a group of young girls started jumping and screaming as Max bounded by. The further round the crowd Max went, the wave effect in the crowd followed him.

Then Kris flicked a hand out towards the centre of the field and Max instantly obeyed. Heaving the barbell off his shoulders and casually throwing it out in front of him, he sprinted to the middle of the playing field where he found three fifteen kilo kettle bells. Squatting down he grabbed two of them by their handles and then tossed each of them into the air and before anyone knew what he was doing, he then threw up the third one and started to juggle all three.

Abdullah watched, heard and felt the crowd respond. They went nuts. Max was now not just training or even performing, but he was showcasing his talent. No one had ever seen a man juggle kettlebells of any weight let alone fifteen kilos each and Max was doing it easy. Kris positioned herself in front of Max and motioned for him to start walking forwards, which he did. Then Kris started to jog backwards and Max followed, his gaze glued to the flying kettlebells. Then Kris turned and jogged faster, veering again towards the outer fence line. Max stayed with her and kept his routine in check. This time the crowd response doubled. Up close, they recognised Max for what he was. Awesome. Half sprinting, he kept all three kettlebells smoothly in motion and all the while making it look as easy as a Sunday afternoon stroll. The only proof that Max was working at superhuman capacity was the sweat cascading down his skin.

After a full lap around the field, Kris flicked her hand out again and this time it was towards the far end. Max again instantly obeyed, letting the three kettlebells thump back to earth and not giving them a second’s thought as he sprinted to where Kris had instructed him. Once there he looked the length of the field to find Kris standing at the other end, exactly one hundred metres distant, with her right arm raised. The giant LCD screen on the clubhouse read, ‘100m 0sec’. It was clearly a one hundred metre time trial and Max was ready to go, crouched on the white line at his feet, his back arched in a sprinter’s start position.

Then Kris let her hand fall and Max was off, Kris’ voice inside his earphones giving him the word. Max launched off the spot, his entire body ripped with straining muscle and tendons. Before anyone could really focus on his movement, Max was halfway down the field, his orange shoes a fluorescent blur against the green of the turf. With his knees pumping high in front of him and his arms driving like hammers Max rocketed the length of the field, his pace blinding all the way through to the end where he blew past Kris at full speed. Jamming his feet into the grass, Max slowed himself and jogged back to where Kris stood, looking up at the big screen on the clubhouse as he did.

Fingers and hands shot out of the crowd towards the LCD screen as the masses noticed the time. 10.21sec. It was not Olympic time, but it was close and they had just witnessed it. Then the crowd noticed Max crouching in position in front of Kris, ready to run the length again. Kris raised her hand. The timer zeroed and she dropped her hand. Max shot off again, barely having had time to recover from the first time trial.

With seemingly even greater power, Max sprinted the length of the field, his orange shoes now just an arc of colour against the green palette. Again he covered the distance before anyone really knew what was happening. Hammering himself to a stop, Max, and the entire crowd, turned to look at the clock. 10.14sec. The cheer was deafening. This was really real.

Then Max was down on the line again, crouched and ready to go. Kris’ raised arm snapped down and Max flashed into action. This time he virtually flew off the line, his feet exploding into motion when they hit the ground. Not a single pair of eyes blinked before Max careened past Kris at the finish line. This time after stopping, Max did not turn to look at the screen. The crowd did and their response confirmed to him what he suspected. 10.06sec. He was getting faster. Max was now in the realm of Olympic skill.

With over six thousand people filling the air with cheers and screams, Max again crouched on the starting line in front of Kris. Again she raised her arm. The noise and racket faded into the background of Max’s senses. His entire being focused on the silence in his earphones. Then Kris dropped her arm and said, ‘Go.’

Max snapped into action, every fibre in every muscle rippling. He kept his head down for the first twenty metres, his gaze fixed on the ground. He then raised it up to focus on the finish line and in a matter of heartbeats, blew past halfway. From the crowd’s perspective, it looked like Max was floating, his orange-clad feet hardly seeming to touch the ground. His hands and arms also disappeared as they powered his motion like a steam train at full tilt. Max lost all sense of his surrounds. All he could see was the finish line and despite his blinding pace, the world seemed to grow still around him, his heart beat slow and resounding in his ears and in what seemed like minutes, but was really only seconds, Max streaked to the far length of the field and smashed past the finish line.

Stuttering to a rapid stop, Max straightened and sucked in a deep breath. The time trials were over and the entire session was done. His focus melted away and the roar of the crowd washed over him like an ocean wave surging to shore. Looking around, the entire field was thronged by a heaving mass of raucous humanity. All Max could see was smiles and all he could feel was energy.

‘Take a look at the screen, big guy,’ Kris’ voice said into his earphones.

Max turned and looked up at the big screen. 9.98sec.

‘You’re now officially one of the fastest men on the planet,’ Kris added.

Max shifted his gaze from the screen to the glass windows of the clubhouse. Sheikh Abdullah watched Max look up in his direction, but he knew the man was not seeking him, but rather his family. Turning to the side, Sheikh Abdullah found Elsa standing on her own with Millie and Jason jumping at the glass, just as excited as the thousands of strangers outside cheering on their father. Then Elsa slowly lifted her hand and placed it flat on the glass.

Abdullah quickly turned back to Max and found him staring back up with his own hand out in front. They had found each other and they both now knew that there was hope for them all to be safe, while Max continued his training to save the world. Now it was Abdullah’s turn to smile.

Al-ḥamdu lillāh,’ he said to himself. ‘Praise be to Allah.’

 

10pm, 15th August (later that night). Boys’ Night

 

The matte black military helicopter skimmed the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the faint light of the sickle moon illuminating the sea just enough to make it shimmer and shift like black mercury. Flying low enough to avoid radar detection, the aircraft was effectively invisible and almost inaudible with its state of the art noise dampening technology.

Approaching the island estate, the mansion’s lights glared into the night like a beacon, allowing the pilot to easily fix on to her target without the need of the high tech controls surrounding her. Suddenly, the fringing palms of the island jutted up in front, but without any hint of panic, the pilot calmly adjusted the rotator controls to smoothly lift the helicopter over the trees, the palm fronds lightly ruffling in the downwash.

The broad southern lawn of the estate opened up beneath the aircraft as it zoomed ahead. The mansion was now clearly visible in the pilot’s night vision goggles. With a flick of a switch on the side of her helmet, the view through the goggles changed from night vision to thermal. Four human shaped figures instantly lit up on the back patio of the mansion. The pilot smiled.

‘I have eyes on all four targets,’ she said into her helmet microphone.

‘Roger that,’ crackled the reply. ‘Continue with patrol circuit. Stay in touch.’

Peter ignored the whisper quiet helicopter as it flew overhead. Instead his gaze roamed around the nightscape across the southern lawn spreading out from the back patio of the mansion. He knew there were at least three foot patrols out there somewhere along with the patrolling helicopter overhead and two more naval patrol boats lurking not far off the beach, but none of this guaranteed their safety. At least not in his mind. He was the last line. He was the safety net. Max and his family were only truly safe while he remained vigilant and more importantly, alive.

‘Your helicopters, Abdullah,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said as he stood on the verge of the patio, turning his unlit pipe in his left hand, ‘are like vampires. They come out after dusk and then disappear before the sun rises. I would dearly like to see one of them up close in the light of day, just to confirm they are real.’

‘That can be arranged, my friend,’ Abdullah replied from next to Joe, as he looked up at the night sky. ‘I can assure you they are a ride worth having at least once in your life.’

Joe smiled and placed his pipe between his teeth, taking false draws to further relax himself. He then slid a sideways glance to Max who stood a little further out on the grass, more in the dark than in the light. He was restless tonight, but perhaps that was to be expected. All of them were still trying to unwind after their hectic afternoon spent coordinating and executing Max’s first public training session. The dregs of their adrenalin were beginning to sputter out, but still sleep eluded them.

‘What’s on your mind, Max?’ Joe asked.

Max flicked a sideways glance at his Prime Minister and then back to the night. ‘I was trying to remember that song that came over the PA system this afternoon at the end of the session. The one where the whole crowd started to do that overhead clapping thing.’

‘Yes, I remember,’ Joe replied. ‘It was very popular. Inspirational even. Perhaps it could be the Team Max theme song?’

‘Yeah, maybe,’ Max agreed, ‘but we should probably check that off with Kris. She’s the marketing executive.’

‘Hmm,’ Joe hummed, but said nothing more as he mentally ran through the afternoon’s events again.

The silence grew. Abdullah remained fixed on the stars overhead. Peter continued to scan the nocturnal surrounds and Joe quietly puffed on his pipe. The only exception was Max, who shuffled from foot to foot, constantly half turning to look around at nothing in particular.

‘I envy your energy, Max,’ Joe said, ‘except at times like this when sleep should be knocking on your door. Is there something you could suggest to help settle you down?’

‘Well, maybe,’ Max replied coyly. ‘What about poker?’

Joe raised his eyebrows. ‘Poker? Now that’s an interesting proposition. Why poker?’

‘We’ve got four grown men standing around in the dark, late at night, not doing much. There’s got to be some cards in this place somewhere and how many more times are we going to get away from the girls to have a boys’ night?’

Joe nodded. ‘It’s good reasoning, but unfortunately, old chap,’ he said, ‘I have to place some calls tonight. In particular to your good friend President Bartholomew. I am expecting him to request another audience with you seeing as you now have the attention of the world. I suspect he is feeling a little jealous at your rapid rise to stardom and the fact that you are not borne of the stars and stripes.’

Abdullah cast a sideways glance at this last comment, but held his peace.

‘Well, he can queue up like everyone else if he wants to be in the crowd,’ Max replied. ‘Abdullah? Fancy a few hands of poker?’

Abdullah smiled. ‘I am sorry, Max,’ he replied, ‘but gambling is not permitted by my faith.’

‘We don’t have to play for money, which is probably a good thing, considering I’ve never played poker in my life.’

‘Really?’ Joe chimed in. ‘You’ve never played poker, Max?’

Max shook his head. ‘Never had any friends to play with.’

Joe’s eyebrows arched slightly as Max’s revelation sunk in. Without replying, he returned his pipe to his mouth.

‘So, Max,’ Peter said from a little further across to the side of the patio, ‘you’re telling us there’s something you’re not good at?’

‘Mate, rest assured,’ Max answered, ‘there’s plenty of things I’m not good at.’

Peter nodded and held his quiet as he spied a foot patrol emerging from round the corner of the mansion to begin walking out onto the lawn, their night camouflage rendering them almost invisible, but not to his eyes.

Joe broke into the silence. ‘That was an outstanding juggling act today, Max,’ he said. ‘How heavy were those kettlebells?’

‘Fifteen kilos each.’

‘Impressive. Have I told you I can juggle?’

Max and even Abdullah turned as one to look at Joe. Peter also slid a sideways glance to his Prime Minister.

‘Not fifteen kilo kettlebells mind you,’ Joe added, ‘but in my hey day I could keep at least five balls airborne. Every now and again I still keep my hand in and do three or four balls. It helps keep my mind agile. Scientifically proven you know?’

‘I’m sure it is, Mister Prime Minister,’ Max said. ‘I can see you in your office, prepping for a cabinet meeting or a press conference, juggling away. You should put on a show for us some day. Millie and Jason would love it. Heck, I’d love it.’

Joe smiled and raised his pipe in salute. ‘I’ll put it on the calendar. Not this week though. I’ll need some time to dust off the skills first.’

‘What about you, Abdullah?’ Max asked. ‘Any hidden talents?’

‘Brooms,’ the Sheikh replied.

This time Max and Joe shared a look.

‘Brooms?’ Max asked.

‘Yes, brooms,’ Abdullah said. ‘As a teenager I once balanced four brooms simultaneously. One standing upright on each outstretched palm. A third standing upright on my left foot and a fourth standing upright on the bridge of my nose.’

‘That’s…different,’ Max said.

‘Yes, and most rewarding too,’ Abdullah returned, ‘right up until the moment the broom on my nose slipped off and lodged into my eye and the whole show came tumbling down. Never again have I tried since that moment, preferring to retire at the peak of my prowess.’

Max smiled. ‘What do you think, Joe? Fancy yourself at broom balancing?’

‘No,’ Joe replied. ‘Some people have the gift and well, the rest of us do not.’

‘What about you, Peter?’ Max asked, turning back to his bodyguard to find him looking upwards at the roof line of the mansion. ‘What’s your secret talent?’

‘I can put six rounds through the centre of a target at three hundred metres in less than four seconds,’ he replied evenly.

Max deliberately paused to let Peter try again, which he did.

‘And as a kid I taught myself how to throw cards,’ Peter said. ‘You know, playing cards? I could flick them into a bucket four or five metres away and never miss. I’ve always been good with my aim.’

‘You still do it when no one’s around?’ Max asked.

A slight pause and then Peter said, ‘Yeah. When no one’s around. It’s…well, you know, it’s fun. I reckon I could even beat you at it.’

‘I have no doubt,’ Max replied. ‘Like I said, there’re plenty of things I’m no good at it.’

A mutual silence slipped over the group. Joe puffed away on his unlit pipe. Abdullah mentally traced the constellations overhead, while Peter continued to scan the surrounds. Max merely looked about at nothing in particular, shuffling his feet and folding his arms. The silence stretched and then Max broke it.

‘You really want to know what I’m no good at?’ Max asked. None of the other three men turned to face him, but all of them refixed their full attention onto him. ‘Emotions. I don’t do emotions very well.’

Another brief pause ensued, which Joe ventured into.

‘You’ll have to help us with that one, Max?’ Joe asked.

‘Nar’gellans don’t do emotions. Feelings just don’t come naturally to them. Not even anger when they fight. Nar’gellans’ actions and behaviours are driven by purpose alone. If getting angry serves a purpose, they behave aggressively. If they lose a loved one, they move straight on past it. There’s no remorse or grieving. They just accept it and get on with their own lives.’

‘What about love?’ Abdullah asked. ‘Did your mother love you?’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ Max answered, looking down at his shuffling feet. ‘As a kid, I knew Mum was hard on me, but I just figured she wasn’t one for cuddles and kisses, so I dealt with that, but then as I got older and she told me the truth of who she was and who I am, it all came together. If she had ever shown anything that looked or felt like love, it probably wasn’t real love. It was just a behaviour she used to make sure there was meaning in my childhood. Nar’gellans know as well as humans that children need to know they are safe and protected, so they can have confidence to grow and learn. That’s all my mother was doing for me when she acted like she loved me.’

‘And your human side?’ Abdullah asked. ‘Has it increased your capacity to feel?’

‘Maybe a little bit. I probably do have more emotional range and depth than any Nar’gellan does, but it’s all pretty shallow and most of the times pretty clumsy. I’d probably behave the same way at a funeral as I would at a kid’s birthday party. Dull. I just don’t know what to feel most of the time, so I try to avoid feelings all together.’

‘Do you feel love?’ Abdullah pushed.

Max hesitated. Peter, Abdullah and Joe noticed the hesitation and let it play out.

‘Yes,’ Max finally replied. ‘It’s probably one of the two emotions I do feel clearly. I love my family, so much that sometime it’s dangerous.’

‘Why dangerous?’ Abdullah asked very carefully.

‘If anyone threatens them, it drives me into rage, which is the only other emotion I know I feel clearly. I don’t do angry. It’s too docile. If I get triggered, I cut straight to rage and as you can probably imagine, that’s not a good place for me to be. It can be bad for other people too.’

Abdullah turned to face Max, his white robes gently billowing in the light breeze. Max tasted salt on the zephyr as he looked the Sheikh in the eye.

‘But, prior to your confrontation with those thugs outside Kris’ brother’s house,’ Abdullah asked, ‘you’ve never hurt anyone have you?’

‘Max shook his head and said, ‘No. Not before then.’

‘Why is that?’

‘Elsa. She’s had to intervene a couple of times. I won’t say when or why, but if she hadn’t stepped in, chances are I’d have blood on my hands. I know I’ve got it in me to kill. I’m half Nar’gellan and those instincts are hard to put down when they get fired up, but Elsa knows how to settle me down and for that I’m grateful. If she hadn’t saved me on those earlier occasions, Millie and Jason wouldn’t have a dad around them and for that, I’d never forgive myself.’

Abdullah held Max’s gaze for a few more moments in the gloom. He then nodded and turned back to the sky. Peter also realised he had unconsciously halted his instinctive scanning of the surrounds and flicked his gaze back up to the fringing bushes around the lawn. The silence lengthened.

‘Well, I think it might be time for me to make that call to President Bartholomew,’ Joe said, removing his pipe and sighing. ‘Thank you for your company tonight, gentlemen. It wasn’t poker, but it did help me to relax. May I also congratulate you all one more time on our successful media foray this afternoon. Time will tell, but I do believe we have already begun to turn the world’s despair into hope, so thank you and good evening.’

Masa`a al khair,‘ Abdullah said without turning.

‘Good night, sir,’ Peter added.

With that, Joe turned on his heel and walked back inside as Peter spoke quietly into his wrist microphone, announcing the Prime Minister’s return into the mansion.

‘I think it’s time to get Peter into bed too,’ Max said, stretching his clasped hands over his head. ‘Come on, mate. Our work here is done.’

Peter nodded and stepped closer to him.

‘You staying up, your Highness?’ Max asked.

‘Yes, for a little longer,’ Abdullah replied, not turning away from the night. ‘I have much left to reflect on.’

‘See you tomorrow then,’ Max said and he and Peter walked into the house, leaving Abdullah on his lonesome.

Abdullah did not reply or even turn. He kept his gaze fixed squarely on the night sky, but his eyes were unseeing, his thoughts turned inwards. The afternoon media session that unveiled Max to the world had indeed proven to be a huge success and he felt very pleased and even heartened by their prospects as a result. However, Abdullah now had a new issue and it focused again on Max.

His revelation of his immature emotional intelligence was a concern. If Max could not control his Nar’gellan instincts to kill, then he ran a real risk of losing his control in the arena and being defeated or even worse, seeking a glorious death like an ancient Samurai. That was out of the question and now Abdullah had a new goal. How to reign in Max’s Nar’gellan instincts, but not subdue them at the same time.

Despite the lateness of the hour, Abdullah knew sleep would not come easily to him tonight.

 

4:30pm, 10th September (almost 1 month later). Rescue

 

Rain streaked down the car window, preventing Max from seeing much of anything outside. Not that it mattered. There was nothing to see anyway. They were on the freeway, elevated above the suburbs of Brisbane, but instead of cruising amidst a steady flow of traffic, the entire Team Max convoy was stationary and had been for at least the last ten minutes. If Max could see outside, he knew that all he would see is a car park.

Sitting on his lonesome in the back of the central van, he occupied himself with only his thoughts. Max had just completed another public training session and was on his way home to the island estate via the airport. Elsa and the kids had stayed home this time and Kris had headed off to see her parents and brother. Max hated being apart from his family, even for only a couple of hours, which this trip was meant to be, but now with the freeway as mobile as a blocked artery, it was going to be even longer.

Then Peter’s voice sounded over the internal speakers in the cabin. ‘We got a multiple car accident up ahead,’ he said. ‘Eye in the sky thinks there might be someone trapped in one of the cars too. Could be here a while. If you want, we can call the chopper in and air lift you direct off the freeway?’

Max thought for a moment and then replied. ‘No. Not in this weather with all these people about. It’s too risky.’

‘Want me to dial up Elsa and tell her we’ll be late?’ Peter asked.

Max thought again for a moment and then asked, ‘Are the fireys or paramedics on the scene up ahead or are they stuck in traffic just like us?’

‘Let me check,’ Peter said and then a minute later returned. ‘Looks like there’s one fire truck on site with another struggling through the traffic jam a kilometre behind us. No sign of any paramedics. I’d think about that air lift, Max. This isn’t going to get sorted out in a hurry.’

Max pondered a little more and then said, ‘Get Elsa on the line and patch it through to my headset. I’m going for a walk.’

‘Not sure that’s a good idea, mate,’ Peter said as casually as he could. ‘What’s on your mind?’

‘Time for some air,’ Max replied as he grabbed his training bag and pulled out his training headset and a white cap.

Retying his laces to make sure they were firm, Max then moved across and reefed open the sliding door. A grey veil of streaky rain filled the opening. Beyond it sat three lanes of stationery, smoking cars. Stepping out of the van, Max looked at the bright orange Team Max Land Cruiser directly behind his van and watched three of his security detail step out into the rain, their spray jackets concealing whatever weapons they carried underneath.

Turning the other way, Max found another matching orange Land Cruiser in front with two more security personnel already on the bitumen next to it. Then the front door of his own van swung open and out hopped Peter, minus the customary sun glasses. Peter looked directly at Max.

‘Any chance,’ Peter started, ‘I can convince you to get back inside?’

Max put on his cap and then slipped his headset over the top. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said, shaking his head.

‘I know where you’re going,’ Peter added, ‘and while I think it’s swell you to want to try and help out up there at the crash, we should leave it to the experts.’

Don’t worry, mate. It’ll be fine.’

Peter looked around as the rest of his security team converged on them, forming a tight cluster amongst the stranded traffic. ‘Max, the saviour of the world doesn’t just go for a walk through a jammed freeway and not cause a scene. Especially when you’ve still got your orange shoes on and a six person security detail surrounding you. This is not just a walk.’

Max also took in the surrounds. Peter was right. He was already dragging attention in like a fishing trawler. Every car window in sight was wound down with faces gawking out. The camera flashes too had already started, the gloomy conditions not deterring anyone. Max knew that in minutes, his walk would be all over the internet. He turned back to Peter.

‘Well, let’s get on with it. After you,’ Max said, gesturing forward with his arm.

Peter eyed him off from beneath a furrowed brow and nodded. Quickly he barked some commands to his team and they set off. Two of Peter’s team led the way, followed by himself, then Max and finally the last three of his team. In a tight single file, the group made their way down the dotted line separating the adjacent lines of stopped cars.

From his headset, Max heard a phone number being dialled and then a ring tone. A few seconds later, Elsa’s voice sounded.

‘Hey, honey,’ Elsa said sweetly. ‘Whatcha doing?’

‘Trying to get home.’

‘Be a lot faster if you got back in the van.’

Max kept walking, but baulked in replying. Clandestinely, he flicked his gaze skyward. ‘How do you know I’m not in the van?’

‘Facebook.’

‘I’m already on Facebook?’

‘TV too. Live feed. You know, it’s not fair that every time you get ants in your pants, you drag Peter and his team out to chase after you?’

‘They love it,’ Max said as he noted the now steady stream of camera flashes around them. ‘Makes them feel important.’

‘They are important, dear.’

Max nodded as he watched Peter’s lead team members push a person back into his car and close the door on him.

‘Yeah. Sorry,’ he replied. ‘You’re right. I shouldn’t be flippant about that.’

‘What are you doing anyway? It’s not really the place for a walk?’

‘There’s an accident up ahead. The fireys are on site and I figured I could take a back seat and get stuck here for hours away from you and the kids or I could go lend a hand and maybe speed things up a bit.’

A pause on the other end. ‘Ok,’ Elsa finally said. ‘You do what needs doing. We’ll make sure dinner doesn’t go cold.’

‘Thanks, honey. Knew I could count on you.’

‘Max?’

‘Yeah?’

‘You’re a good man and I love you.’

‘I know. I’ll see you soon. Bye.’

‘See ya.’

The line went dead. Max looked in front. People were now out of their cars and filling the gaps between the vehicles, waiting for him to pass by. The shouting and camera flashes were constant and Peter’s team were working much harder to clear a path. Over the tops of the heads, Max could see the fire truck up ahead, its red and blue lights flashing on top of the cab, the rain making the colours sparkle.

A few minutes later, Peter’s team broke through a thick ring of bystanders to step out into a clearing in the middle of the multi-lane road. The freeway at this point had elevated to three storeys off the ground to cross over a major urban arterial below. Up here the wind had also picked up and despite the slight chill, Max felt no discomfort, his sleeveless, full length black training compression suit, white cap and orange shoes all he had on.

The centrepiece of the clearing was a mangled mass of steel, rubber and broken glass. Three cars had come to grief, clearly while at high speed. Rain diluted oil and petrol coated the bitumen all around, giving the ground a greasy look and filling the air with a petrochemical reek, but none of this deterred the firemen on site.

Four of them crawled all over the wreckage, the pouring rain not slowing them down as they shouted orders and instructions to each other. Two other firemen crouched off to the side, administering first aid to two semi-conscious people laid out on blankets.

Amidst the chaos, another distinct human sound rang shrilly out. Screams. Max lowered himself down onto his haunches and peered into the darkness inside the twisted pile of junk. The persistent flashing of the fire truck’s lights lit up a face.

Deep inside the wreckage of the middle car, a young girl hung upside down, screeching uncontrollably. All Max could see was her face and the blood streaming down it. The purpose of the four firemen working the wreckage was now clear. Free the girl and do it quickly. All four men pulled, clawed and tore at the steel with hammers, cutters and their gloved hands. It was desperate stuff and from Max’s viewpoint, it looked dire.

Casting a quick glance around the ring of bystanders, Max noted that the crash itself was no longer the centre of attention. He was. All eyes had turned to him. He could even see a few hopeful people holding out notepads and pens for autographing. Max clenched his fists. He had not come down here to turn the situation into a circus. He had come to help.

None of the firemen had noticed Max and his security detail’s arrival, so Max walked across to the two firemen attending to the injured people off to the side. One of the men sensed movement and looked sideways to find two orange shoes. He then flicked a look up and found the rest of Max. After a full two seconds of his brain registering the image, the fireman’s eyes widened.

‘Chief?’ he called out. ‘Look at this!’

Max turned back to the wreckage and watched as one of the firemen, who was bent over and attempting to lift a twisted piece of steel, turned without straightening. He squinted through the rain and similarly to his colleague, after a few seconds’ cogitation, realised who he was looking at. Releasing his grip on the wreckage, the Fire Chief jumped down to the bitumen and walked over, finger pointing at Max.

‘Tell me you’re not just a Max groupie?’ he shouted.

‘I’m not just a Max groupie,’ Max replied, stepping toward him. ‘It’s really me. We got caught in the jam like everyone else and seeing as your buddies are still aways back down the road, I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help?’

The Fire Chief stood and thought for a moment, his composure astonishing amidst the screaming, the rain and hundreds of onlookers now surrounding them. Then he nodded.

‘Maybe there is something you can do,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’

Max followed the chief as he turned and led him around to the far side of the wreckage. Peter and his team hurriedly moved with them, trying to keep an unbroken shield between Max and the surrounding crowd. The chief stopped and Max stepped up next to him.

‘Our hydraulic tools aren’t working and we can’t wait for the other crew to get here to help,’ the chief started. ‘This girl’s in a bad way and we’ve got to get her out now, but all we’ve got are our manual tools and our bare hands.’

‘So what do you want me to do?’ Max asked, inspecting the wreck.

‘We need to lift her car about three feet higher to clear her door of the wreckage next to it and get it open, but the car obviously weighs a tonne and we can’t get enough hands around this bit of chassis here to lift the thing,’ the chief said, putting his hand onto a crumpled part of the rear of the girl’s car. ‘There’s only enough space for one set of hands.’

As he finished his explanation, the chief looked up at Max, his meaning crystal clear.

Max held his hands up. ‘They’re all yours’, Chief.’

A grim smile lined the fireman’s face. ‘Put these on, mate,’ the chief ordered as he took off his own gloves and handed them over. ‘I’ll get a spare set and get the boys organised.’

The Fire Chief turned to jog back around the mass of twisted junk, but then stopped and turned back.

‘Max, we don’t get this girl out now, she dies,’ the chief said, his eyes hollow and dark. ‘You really think you can lift this thing?’

Max’s eyes gleamed blue steel in return, his gloved hands clenched by his sides. ‘Get your boys ready to open that door.’

The chief nodded silently and turned away to start jogging again. Max watched him go and then looked down at where he was going to grip his hands onto the steel. Off to the side, but not far away, Peter stood mute, transfixed by the transformation Max had undergone. He had seen it many times already, but it never failed to stun him.

Instantly, Max could go from calm and relaxed to pure, lethal purpose and right now, Max was all purpose. He radiated it from head to toe. His entire frame was taut and cocked, but fully controlled. Peter had never, ever seen anyone or anything like it.

A shout from the other side of the wreck dragged Peter’s attention away. Max also looked up and he found the Chief with three of his team all standing by the blocked driver’s door of the girl’s car. Her screams had become weaker. Time was almost out.

Even the crowd sensed the heightened urgency. They had become restless. The camera flashes were incessant. The shouts of encouragement even louder. Peter’s team were really starting to struggle to hold the crowd back from pushing in to where Max stood. Something had to be done, right now.

‘Ready, Max?’ the chief shouted.

Max half squatted and gripped the piece of chassis with both hands, squaring his feet up on the bitumen as he did, the soles of his feet scratching and crunching. The wet steel was slippery in his gloved fingers, but his hands gripped the wreckage like twin vices, clamped and firm. Then without looking back at the chief, Max’s eyes fixed level and unseeing on the wreckage in front of him.

‘Ready!’ he called back.

‘Lift!’ the chief yelled.

Max’s focus instantly drew inwards. While he remained aware of the world around him, it faded into the background. The rain softened. The shouts of the masses dulled. The screams of the young girl drifted away. Inside himself, Max searched for energy and like turning on a switch, he found it.

Power ripped through every molecule of his body like a mass of unleashed lightning bolts. Energy surged out from his core to every point in his being. Through the taut mass of muscles in his legs and down to the soles of his feet flat on the rain-soaked bitumen. Up the length of his bunched back and along his arms to the tips of his fingers as they gripped the steel through his heavy gloves. Even into his eyes as they blazed brilliant blue in the gathering gloom, and then Max lifted.

Grinding steel screeched and unbroken glass popped as the mangled chassis started to rise, Max’s brute strength forcing it to come clear of the ground. The four firemen screamed encouragement. The throng of onlookers raised a supporting roar. Only Peter looked on silently, his awe overwhelming him.

The wreckage continued to rise higher. The cheering rallied even more, but Max heard nothing. All his focus fixed on every straining muscle, tendon and sinew in his body. He could feel the bite of the steel through his gloves. He could feel the unforgiving hardness of the bitumen beneath his feet. He could especially feel the weight of the wreckage trying to drive him through the ground as it begrudgingly rose upwards.

‘One more foot, Max!’ the chief shouted. ‘One foot higher!’

Max’s awareness plucked the chief’s voice out from the background. He knew he was close to success, but Max also knew that if he dropped the wreckage now, it could injure the young girl even more and maybe even kill her instantly?

Upwards Max drove, his thighs and back as rigid as the steel he gripped. Inch by painful inch he lifted, adrenalin coursing through his system like a wildfire. Life for Max was all about right here and right now. He had to give the best of himself to save the girl.

The chief’s wide eyes stayed glued to the rising edge of the car door. Slowly, it crept up. He held a simple pocket knife in his left hand, ready to cut through the seatbelt when he needed to. Beside him, his three colleagues also stood transfixed on the rising car door. Time slowed as their sights tunnelled in. Then it happened.

‘It’s clear!’ the chief yelled. ‘Pull!’

Simultaneously, all four firemen reached forward to grab the frame of the car door and pull it open. Their combined strength went even further as they ripped the entire door clean off its hinges, the battered hunk of steel flying away from the wreck to slide to a halt some distance back. The chief lunged forward and with his pocket knife, he cut the seat belt away.

The firemen reached desperately into the wreck to catch the girl as she fell clear. As a team, the four men quickly, but gently, extricated the young girl out of the darkened interior of the wreckage and out into the grey drizzling rain. Feverish applause filled the air.

‘We’re clear, Max!’ the chief shouted. ‘Let her go!’

Suddenly, the world flooded back into Max’s life. Unclenching his vice like grip and pulling his hands away, the steel crashed back to the road, screeching and squealing like a thousand finger nails scraping down a black board. Stepping back, Max watched the twisted pile settle uncomfortably back onto the bitumen, making sure no errant pieces of shrapnel came flying out.

Then he heard the chief’s voice coming at him. ‘You did it!’ the fireman shouted as he jogged over, a massive grin across his face. ‘You, son of a bitch, you did it!’

Max slid his gaze up from the wreck to take him in. The flash of cameras was eye popping, the intensity lighting up the entire scene. The chief reached Max and clapped his hands down hard onto his shoulders.

‘You, bloody legend!’ he shouted. ‘You’re a hero!’

Max held his gaze on the chief for a moment and then looked over the man’s shoulder to where the young girl was already having first aid bestowed upon her as she lay on the petrol slick asphalt. She was alive and that was all that mattered.

‘You’re a hero, Max!’ the chief persisted, taking his hands off his shoulders. ‘I can’t believe you actually lifted that thing!’

‘I’m no hero, chief,’ Max said as quietly as he could in the surmounting din, while looking down to watch his own hands remove his gloves. It’s not about me.’

From where Peter stood, he could see and hear the entire conversation. Silently he listened in. Max’s quiet, controlled tone rang out in sharp contrast to the fire chief’s exuberance. Max’s reverse transformation was complete. Instantly, he had changed back from all purpose to pure calm.

‘What do you mean, it’s not about you?’ the chief shot back. ‘I’ve been at this job for over twenty years and I’ve never seen anything like that! That was real hero stuff!’

Max looked up, his eyes blue and piercing. ‘It was team work,’ he said simply. ‘That girl doesn’t get to live without all of us doing our bit. On my own, she dies, but with you and your team, she lives.’

The chief’s smile softened a little as he took in the words. Max continued.

‘Tonight the headlines will probably be all about me,’ he said, ‘but I know better. I stood here and watched you guys pull that girl out of there. You’re as responsible as I am and as for me being a hero, no way. I’ve helped save one life. You guys save lives every day. You’re the heroes. I can’t wait to go home and tell my kids I got to hang out with a bunch of fireys today. They’re going to love that.’

The chief was speechless. Peter could see him searching for words and failing. Then Max held out a hand and the chief looked down at it, still dumbfounded. Then, after a long pause, he clasped Max’s hand and looked back up into his gleaming blue eyes. The flash of cameras broke out afresh, capturing the moment forever.

 

4th October (almost 1 month later). Peace

 

*2pm, 4*th October, Brisbane, Australia

 

Looking up at the sun, Max could feel the sweat already dripping off his skin and beading on his forehead. Winter had well and truly been hurried away by the onset of an unseasonably heated spring. Spreading his gaze across the horizon, he found the expected anvil-shaped thunderhead clouds brewing over the sea. There was a storm coming, but the cooling rains would come too late for him this afternoon.

Lowering his sight, he looked around the boundary of the suburban football ground and found the usual throng of people, thirty, forty deep all around, a small army of security and military personnel managing the crowd. Overhead, the now routine sounds of circling helicopters, both media and military, added to the background noise of the thousands of onlookers chattering and shouting. It was just another Tuesday in front of the public, but complacency was the furthest thing from Max’s mind. He was here, as always, with purpose.

‘You good to go, Max?’ Kris’ voice sounded in his miniature ear piece.

Turning around, Max found Kris striding up from the Pain Train, her wireless comms set on her head, looking around at the equipment laid out on the playing field.

‘Let’s get busy,’ Max replied through his miniature microphone that was held in place around the base of his throat by a thin ribbon circlet.

‘This crowd keeps getting bigger every week,’ Kris added. ‘They’re going to need more soldiers soon.’

‘They’re always well behaved. The most trouble we’ve had yet is a few errant pairs of undies sailing over the fence. Could be a lot worse.’

Kris smiled. ‘What makes you think those undies were for you?’

Now Max smiled. ‘Don’t make me laugh. Not when you’re just about to run me into the ground. It’s too evil.’

‘Right then. Enough chit chat. We’re getting the wind up from the director anyway.’

Max flicked a glance to the top of the Pain Train where a woman stood with her hand in the air indicating the live media broadcasts were about to commence.

‘What do you want first?’ Max asked, roaming his gaze over all the equipment.

‘Straight into thirty handstand presses and then run on down to the dumbbells at the far end,’ Kris replied, walking away towards where the dumbbells lay.

Run down to the other end?’

‘Yeah, run, on your hands of course. Those fancy orange shoes of your’s aren’t going to get dirty today. You’ll be upside down most of the time.’

‘Remind me again why we’re friends?’

‘You got ten seconds. Quit your yapping,’ Kris shot back as she continued to walk away from him, waving her hand back at him.

Max shook his head and smiled as he lowered his hands to his sides. A voice sounded a ten second countdown over the loud speakers. Max’s eyes narrowed.

 

11:12am, 4th October, Bangkok, Thailand

 

Patpong Road broiled like a living sea as the throng of people heaved and surged along its length. Thousands and thousands of locals and tourists swarmed in the space, the noise deafening as the masses roared and rumbled like ocean swells crashing onto the shore.

Up and down the street, massive, three storey high television screens sucked in the masses’ collective attention, keeping them absorbed and well behaved. It was Tuesday and this event was now a regular, weekly event on the city’s calendar. Everyone was here for one reason and right now the giant screens were filled with that reason. Max.

Suddenly, the crowd erupted as one. The cheer rumbled the ground and the buildings over a full city block away. A vast field of orange flags with black “X”s sprouted from the mass, turning the street into a vibrant tempest. Up on the screens a single figure stood, his muscle clad frame almost ten metres tall, his stance firm with feet apart after having just landed from a quadruple somersault, while sailing over one of his own Team Max Land Cruisers, completely unassisted.

The vision then showed Max doing a backflip and landing cleanly on his hands to hold himself inverted on the grass. Kris then dashed past him and Max turned to chase after her, still on his hands. Max’s pursuit took him through an obstacle course, over benches, under low level bars and even up a stack of boxes arranged like stairs, not faltering once.

Patpong Road oohed and ahhed with every obstacle crossed and then when Max eventually flipped back onto his feet, the applause thundered like an army of horses, loose in the city streets.

Smiles warmed the multitude of faces comprising every colour, race and creed. Joy consumed the crowd, with laughter and cheers the common language.

 

8:21am, 4th October, The Empty Quarter, Sultanate of Oman

 

Heat and dust filled the air of the tiny village, its ramshackle huts clustered together around a central well. Surrounding the little enclave, the desert rose, the towering, rust red sand dunes dwarfing the village, drifts of sand whisking off the lofty crests of the intricate, wind carved masses.

At midmorning, the village would normally bustle with activity as the locals busied themselves with routine chores. Hauling water. Tending to the camels or repairing the huts, but not today. Today was Tuesday and that meant only one thing. Max day.

Inside the largest of the huts, the majlis, the villagers gathered in front of the solitary television, seated on the floor on a tapestry of woven rugs, the deep rich colours of the threads matching the multicoloured abayat of the women and in stark contrast to the white, flowing dishdashas of the men. Dancing around the seated adults were the children, their shrieks and cries a symphony of fun as the vision on the screen played out.

Max had just picked up a barbell and placed it across his shoulders, the massive weight plates on each end making the steel bar wobble as he moved. The camera then cut to Kris who flicked a finger and instantly, Max turned and started to hop, great bounding hops, down the length of the field.

Suddenly, one of the Omani men jumped up and grabbed a broom from the nearby wall and slipped it over his own shoulders, mimicking Max. The whole room broke into cheers and laughter as the man proceeded to hop the best he could around the rugs. All the children jumped up and copied him, the hopping parade laughing and giggling its way around the majlis.

Then one of the women pointed at the television and called out. The man with the broom paused, looked at the screen and then dashed back to the wall to grab the mop as well. Then holding the broom in one hand and the mop in the other, he started to jump as high as he could. The children followed suit and the majlis broke out into a fresh round of cheers.

Suddenly, the door to the majlis flew open and everyone turned. An Omani man stood there, framed and unmoving against the stark sun of the desert outside. Everyone stopped, watching him. Then in a flurry, the man produced something from behind his back and held them up in front. Orange running shoes.

The majlis exploded. Applause and shouts drew the man inside to wild embraces from his fellow, male villagers. His trip to the capital had been successful. In moments, the man had the shoes on, the broom and the mop in hand and he was leading the children around the room, pretending to be their hero.

Outside the desert rolled on, the constant whistle and dull roar of the wind punctuated only by the joy bursting from the tiny village deep within its heart.

 

6:36am, 4th Paris, France

 

The faintest predawn colour tinged the eastern horizon, while overhead, a clear palette of inky blackness flooded the sky, a smattering of stars still twinkling through. Reaching up from the ground below, the Eiffel Tower’s needle-like tip soared above the urban panoply of Paris, its metallic structure fully aglow like a giant, golden sceptre defying the nocturnal shade.

In the shadow of the tower, the full length of Avenue Anatole had become a fairground, its grassed parade crowded with revellers. A string of enormous television screens lined the twin edges of the elongate space with stalls and makeshift cafes set up to keep the thousands entertained, despite the very early hour. Orange t-shirts emblazoned with black “X”s were the standard uniform with orange shoes generously spread throughout.

Right now though, the crowd stood hushed as they raised their eyes up to the huge electronic screens, watching Max thunder down the field. His orange shoes blazed as he sprinted over the turf, his entire body a powerhouse of motion. As Max ran and without slowing down, he plucked up kettlebells from the ground and with unbroken, fluid movements, hurled them diagonally away to smash into randomly placed targets. As the last target disintegrated into a cloud of splinters, Avenue Anatole cheered as one, filled champagne glasses rising together and sparkling like a field of diamonds.

Then Max stepped off his left foot and changed direction. Almost immediately back up to full speed, he fixed his focus on a new target. The camera panned across to Kris who was pointing to an object fifty metres down field, an object the rugby union mad, French people recognised. It was a scrummaging sled, padded on one side and loaded up with weights on the tray on the other side. Normally this contraption would be pushed by eight men in structural unison, but today, there was only Max, at full tilt.

The crowd froze again, hands clasped tightly together, lips tightly pressed and eyes wide. Mouths opened agape and all conversation stopped as Max ploughed onwards. The early morning became still and then Max slammed into the sled.

Instantly, the contraption bucked up as Max hit the pads at the front. Driving in hard, his power brutish, the pile of weights on the tray jostled and bounced, but it did not stop him. Driving forward, Max pushed the sled over the grass like it was a tenth of the colossal weight it actually bore. Avenue Anatole rose again, cheering and shouting. A chant broke out. ‘Max! Max! Max!’

Champagne spilled as embraces broke out. Hats flew through the air and dancing ripped through the crowd like a virus. It was pandemonium. It was delirious and as the sun slowly brightened the eastern sky, joy filled the streets, parks and homes of Paris.

 

4:48am, 4th October, 100km east of Freetown, Sierra Leone

 

The small rebel band crept up on the jungle encampment, their slick dark skin and dark clothing camouflaging them discretely in the deep shadows of the night shrouded foliage. In their hands, the men carried an assortment of guns and machetes, the weapons silent and restrained for now, but at the ready to deliver pain and death to their sworn enemies in this bloody civil war. Innocence lay just beyond the trees and the sole intent of these murderers was to brutalise it with no mercy.

Then they stopped. Through the trees the rebels could see what looked like the entire village huddled together in the centre of a small conclave of huts, their jostling bodies lit up by the roaring light of a nearby bonfire, its flames licking the dark, night air. The villagers cheered as they jumped up and down. Then a chant broke out, a single word repeated over and over again, filling the clearing with elation, the emotion spilling out into the glooming forest.

‘Max! Max! Max!’

Instantly, the small band of rebels froze. Looking around at each other, they also started to feverishly whisper Max’s name amongst themselves. Guns were lowered and machetes reslung. The band quickly came together and a quick, hushed conversation and vote ensued.

Then, as a group, the rebels straightened to hurry out of the jungle and into the clearing. The firelight lit up their gleaming, sweat-streaked bodies and a shout of alarm went up from the first villager to spot them.

Suddenly, the whole cluster of villagers broke out into an awful wailing, cowering as they did. The men in the group instinctively squirmed to the front of the group in a vain hope to shield their wives and children from the onslaught of the rebels. A stand-off quickly developed, a thick tension straining the scene.

Then, very slowly and carefully, the leader of the rebels laid his gun down onto the grass, never removing his gaze from the villagers as he did. As he straightened, one by one, all of his men followed suit, laying down their own weapons. Stillness enveloped the clearing as both sides eyed each other. Only two sounds could be heard. The sharp crackling of the bonfire and a scratchy voice coming from behind the clustered villagers.

Tentatively, the leader of the rebels raised his arm and pointed towards the villagers. Flicking his chin upwards he indicated he could hear the voice behind them. The nearest villager carefully turned his head to face back into the crowd and as he did, his fellow villagers copied him.

A gradual break in the group formed and as it opened back into the centre of the clearing, the rebels held their breath. Finally, the source of the voice was revealed. There stood a single television hooked up to a satellite dish, the image on the flickering screen difficult to perceive, but one single colour in the image, orange, making it absolutely clear what was on.

The nearest villager turned back to the rebels to find them enthralled. Gently, he motioned for them to come closer. The villagers moved further apart and the opening grew wider. The leader of the rebels took the first step to enter the space. His band followed gingerly behind them, their eyes darting from the faces of the villagers to the glowing television. Slowly, the two groups silently came together in front of the appliance, their eager faces all latched onto the same image.

On the screen, Max cart wheeled like a gymnast along a thin, steel pole raised high above the ground,. When he reached the end, he vaulted off amid a mixture of somersaults and twists, but as he flew through the air, two of Kris’ assistants threw two kettlebells up at him.

As Max turned in midair, he threw out both arms, plucking both kettlebells from their trajectories. A split second later, his feet planted onto the ground and he seamlessly pirouetted to hurl both kettlebells away. The camera panned sideways to lock onto the hurtling missiles and just in time, caught them as they obliterated a distant target.

The clearing instantly launched into cheers. Howls and hoots filled the air. Fists punched high and complete strangers draped their arms over each others’ shoulders as they jumped. Euphoria took over as villagers and rebels alike celebrated together. A chant quickly rose into tune.

‘Max! Max! Max!’

In the jungle beyond the edge of the clearing, the animals watched as the two groups of enemies melded, their conflict forgotten in the face of their shared hero. Behind them, the rebels’ weapons lay uncared for as joy took over the clearing.

 

3:30am, 4th October, Atlantic Ocean

 

The light of the full moon flowed out across the night darkened ocean like a pale, shimmering carpet. The vast, untamed mass of the Atlantic lay quiet and still in the early hours of the morning, the tranquillity normally unassailable, except here in this little patch of water.

The massive cruise liner, the Dreaming Seas, carved elegantly through the glassy waters, its huge bulk lit up like a colossal lantern against the backdrop of liquid blackness. Onboard, over two thousand passengers had not yet gone to bed. The party raged with every television tuned into the same broadcast. Max.

Young and old, married and single, all revelled in the action beaming off the screens. Orange, Team Max t-shirts and matching Team Max flags filled the decks, clubs, cinemas and bars as everyone got into the spirit. Even the crew were right into it, going a step further as they dressed themselves in black track suits and orange shoes. The Captain himself led the partying as he stood on the stage in the main theatre cheering and yelling for everyone to copy their hero as Max bounded and leaped around the playing field.

Many of the women had also dressed up as Kris, wearing tight leggings and t-shirts replete with pony tails and caps. A bunch of clearly enamoured young men had also done the same, cross-dressing in their best Kris outfits to prance around and hurl themselves into spontaneous push ups and burpees.

It was nuts. It was fun and not a single face missed a smile. The next morning, breakfast would be subdued, but that would be deserved. Tonight, the Dreaming Seas rocked in full party mode as joy took the helm.

 

1:14am, 4th October, New York, United States of America

 

Times Square at night. Iconic. Brilliant. Vibrant. Tonight it was all these things and despite being just a regular, Autumn Tuesday night, it was also as crowded as any New Year’s Eve. Over a million people crammed together, illuminated by the dizzying television screens towering over them from multiple buildings. Orange adorned almost every living body and every wall space around the square. At ground level, an army of orange shoes stamped and trod the ground.

Like a real-life computer game, the crowd stood virtually fully immersed in the giant vision surrounding them. Motion flashed all around. Images flickered into focus and then snapped onto a new picture, quicker than the brain could clearly register. Wonder and awe ran rampant amongst the masses, eyes fixed wide open and mouths gaping. Surreality had taken over.

Up on the tall, slender, twenty-five storey facade of the New York Times Tower at the head of the square, the vertical stack of huge television screens all linked together to form a single, seamless image and right now, Max filled it.

The camera view from directly head on, showed Max hunched over and driving forward, a tightly bound harness strapped around his torso. With his teeth bared and sweat pouring from his face, Max lifted each knee high to then pound it down into the turf and propel himself forward, one mighty step at a time as he struggled against an unseen force behind him.

Then the camera lifted higher to reveal two taut straps playing backwards from Max’s harness. As the camera lifted higher again, the source of Max’s resistance came into view. At the end of each strap, a Team Max Land Cruiser trailed, a driver sitting in each vehicle to keep the cars on a straight line, while Max pulled both of them together across the grass with no help what so ever.

A simple, raucous chant filled Times Square as over a million voices tried sending their encouragement direct across the globe to where Max strained and toiled.

‘Max! Max! Max!’

As if in response, Max’s pace quickened, his steady stride becoming a half-jog. Then Kris appeared next to him, shouting her own encouragement and the chant in the square grew even louder. Max got even faster, his efforts generating more momentum.

The chant of the crowd rose ever higher, becoming dangerously harmonic. The ground rumbled. The buildings shook and the air itself thrummed. The noise could be heard all through the city, seeming to shake the very foundations of the earth. Inside apartments, throughout Central Park, in the subways inside trains and on the platforms, the chant reverberated.

New York was locked on to Max. They lived and breathed every step he took, every drop of sweat that beaded on his brow and every pulse of his blood. The chant was hypnotic and as powerful as any force the world had ever seen. Tonight, New York’s heart beat in time with their hero Max.

 

*4*th October, 3:30pm, Brisbane, Australia

 

Max stabbed his feet into the turf to slow his sprint as he arrived at the far end of the field. Breathing hard, he turned and looked up at the big digital clock on top of the Pain Train. He had just run a one hundred metre sprint and the time revealed 9.76sec. The crowd around the edge of the field was more ballistic than ever, a sea of orange filling the circumference.

‘You’re getting faster,’ Max heard Kris say through his ear piece. ‘Keep this up and you’ll be the fastest man on the planet by Christmas.’

‘That’s the plan isn’t it?’ Max said back through his throat mounted microphone.

‘You’ve already got a bagful of world records for other stuff,’ Kris replied. ‘Why stop now?’

Max started walking across to where Kris stood in the centre of the field, her assistants scurrying around and collecting all of the equipment, the session over. As he walked, Max turned and looked over to a cordoned off area in the crowd where Elsa and the kids sat, ensconced in a heavy security detail. He waved and the family waved back, their smiles beaming.

‘Hey, what do you think the global viewer count was today?’ Kris asked as he came up next to her.

‘Don’t know. Not keeping tabs on it. You tell me,’ Max replied as he panned his gaze around the still rowdy crowd, waving some more as he did.

‘Well, last week it was one point eight billion and I reckon today we might have cracked two,’ Kris said, also waving to the crowd. ‘Hell, you were virtually sprinting with two Land Cruisers strapped to your back today. You won’t see that anywhere else on TV.’

Max smiled. ‘Does that mean I’m pulling three of them next week?’ Max asked, flicking a sideways glance to her.

In reply, Kris shook her head and pointed back over Max’s shoulder. He turned and found the Pain Train.

‘Aim high, Max,’ Kris said. ‘Oooh, hey! It’s our song! The Team Max anthem. Get your hands up!’

‘You first,’ he shot back.

‘Not a chance. There’s no way you’re getting me to do that thing.’

‘Embarrassed?’

‘No. Well, maybe.’

Max chuckled and jogged away over the grass towards his family. As he ran, he caught Peter’s attention off to the side of the cordoned area and pointed towards Elsa and the kids. Understanding the request, Peter nodded. Max then motioned for his family to come out onto the grass.

With twin shrieks, Millie and Jason broke out of Elsa’s grasp and tumbled across the turf to ram into Max. Kneeling on the ground, Max placed Millie on one side and Jason on the other as Elsa quickly ran up behind them to stand over the top. Then together, the whole Dyson family lifted their hands up to clap overhead in unison with the crowd and the anthem.

The masses responded, forcing the noise levels even higher. Then Max jumped to his feet and while his family continued to clap, he scanned the crowd, tuning himself in with the music. With his timing clued in, Max stamped his foot in between the hand claps to add to the rhythm. It didn’t take long for the crowd to latch on and they followed suit, their overhead claps now blended with alternating foot stamps.

‘What are you doing?’ Kris asked through his ear piece.

‘Making it harder for you,’ Max replied.

Kris grinned and shook her head as she watched Max, Elsa and the kids dance around the field together, stamping their feet and clapping their hands. Around the edge of the field, the noise rose higher again. Cameras perched on scaffolding, seated on top of the Pain Train and even from helicopters overhead, all focused on Max and his family as they joined in the fun. The images instantly relayed around the world, ensnaring over two billion people sitting, standing, jumping and dancing in front of their televisions.

Today, tonight and every other time of day across the world roared with the unifying sound and harmony of the Team Max anthem. Whatever continent, whatever city, where ever the place, remote or big city, the music was the same, but more importantly, a common emotion filled the hearts of humanity. Joy.

 

5pm, 4th October (later that afternoon). Unleashed

 

With the afternoon’s training session over, Max now sat alone in the back of his orange van as the Team Max convoy sped along the freeway towards the city where Max was scheduled to attend a public relations dinner. Kris had stayed at the training ground for an interview, while Elsa and the kids had headed straight back to the airport to get an early flight back to the island estate. So, with the spare time afforded and oblivious to the now routine protective motorcade surrounding him, Max looked out at the long afternoon shadows stretching beneath the crimson tinged sky and reflected on the question Kris had posed last night.

‘When are you going to start weapons training?’ Kris had asked.

A fair question. After three months and now being half way to the arena, apart from the odd javelin, Max had deliberately steered clear of using weapons of any kind. Not because he didn’t feel comfortable using them. Far from it. Despite not having any direct experience with hand held blades or implements of any kind, he knew his physical skills and natural instincts would hold him in good stead when the time came. No, it was not inexperience or discomfort that held him back. It was purpose.

So far, Max had had no reason to use weapons of any kind as his own bare hands, feet and muscle had been enough to get by. They were weapons enough for now. He had not yet killed anyone or anything, alien or human and Max knew that once he picked up an instrument of combat, it would not be to wound or hurt. It would be to kill and that prospect required restraint. He needed to control that side of him which he knew lurked not so deeply inside.

Max was a warrior. Not a soldier, but a killer. It was the Nar’gellan blood inside him, yearning to break free and fight, to the death. It was only his human compassion that held the blood lust in check. If Max let that lust loose too early, he may not rein it back in. It was too dangerous and could bring them all undone, especially now when the world had warmed to him and his popularity was sky high. If the public discovered his barbaric streak, he might be branded a psychopath and lose all the support he and the others had worked so hard to garner. That outcome would also jeopardise their chances of making it to the arena as public unrest would again spiral rapidly downwards. Right now, Max was the only thing holding everyone together, but still the question remained. When would he pick up a weapon?

Chatter from the front seat of the van pulled Max from his thoughts. Up front, Peter sat in the passenger seat with another member of his team behind the steering wheel. Peter was listening into his ear piece to an unseen voice while scanning the surrounds outside the windows. He looked agitated.

‘From which direction?’ Peter sharply asked into his collar microphone.

A few seconds passed. Max craned slightly forwards.

Two of them? What vectors?’ Peter asked even more urgently.

Another few seconds silence, then Peter suddenly bolted up straight.

‘Repeat! Say again!’ he barked.

Max shifted forward to lean on his knees, his head turned slightly askew to better hear.

Peter jolted forwards to pull the walkie talkie from the dashboard, shouting into it, ‘Red Flag! Red Flag! Get us off the freeway and underground now!’

The van immediately sped up, following the lead cars in the convoy as they swerved across lanes to start weaving their way forwards.

Max broke his restraints. ‘What’s happening, Peter?’ he asked.

‘Not now, mate!’ Peter quipped and then into the walkie talkie, ‘There’s a shopping centre carpark just off the next exit! Three kilometres down on the left! Sirens on and clear the path!’

Max braced himself more firmly in the back as the scenery outside started to blur. Wailing sirens now surrounded them as the four-strong motorcade of orange and black vehicles raced through the scattering traffic.

‘Talk to me, Peter!’ Max called out. ‘What can I do?’

‘Sit tight and…!’ Peter stopped mid-sentence, placing a finger on his earpiece. ‘They did what?’

Peter abruptly leaned forwards to look through the windscreen and up to the sky. Max judged the direction of his gaze and turned to look out his own window and up to the same place in the sky. Framed against the late afternoon sky, he saw their aerial support, an Australian Army Black Hawk helicopter, shadowing them.

Suddenly, the Black Hawk banked sharply to the right, just as something streaked in from behind it. The incoming object slammed directly into the Black Hawk, instantly turning it into a fireball.

‘All assets! We need all assets now!’ Peter yelled into his collar microphone. Pulling a mobile phone from his trousers pocket, he tossed it over his shoulder to Max and called out, ‘Hit triple one! That’s Joe’s hot line and tell him we’re under attack with full reinforcements called in!’

Max immediately pressed the required buttons as the van swerved sharply, throwing him off balance. ‘Who shot down the Black Hawk?’ Max yelled as he held the phone up to his ear.

‘Don’t know yet! Unconfirmed!’

The phone rang three times and Joe’s voice came on.

‘Yes, Peter?’ Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen asked.

‘It’s Max,’ Max said. ‘Peter’s busy. We’re under attack.’

‘You’re what?’

‘Someone just shot down our Black Hawk and the whole motorcade is steaming to some underground carpark just off the freeway.’

‘Who fired at you?’

‘Pete, do you know who shot at us yet?’

Peter’s bottom jaw fell and he pulled off his sunglasses to look at the driver. Hollowly, he said, ‘The yanks. They’ve got two Apaches on us.’

Max froze. Abdullah’s warning boomed though his head. “Beware wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

‘Well, Max?’ sounded Joe’s voice in the phone. ‘Who fired on you?’

Max shook his head and answered. ‘The Americans. Two Apaches apparently are right on us.’

Silence screamed back down the line. Then Joe spoke again.

‘Close the call,’ he said. ‘You keep your focus there. I’ll get things moving from here and Max, Peter will get you out of this.’

‘I know he will, Joe. I know he will,’ Max replied and the line went dead.

The van lurched again and Max threw out a forearm to stay upright.

‘There!’ Peter yelled and held the walkie talkie up to his mouth. ‘There’s the off ramp. Everyone off now! The carpark entry is straight through the main intersection at the base of the ramp and then immediately to the left. Run the light if it’s red and take out the boom gate going in.’

The van lurched again, this time to the left. Max looked through the windscreen and saw the lead four wheel drives burst through the surrounding traffic to charge onto the off ramp. Other cars squealed tyres as they ducked and weaved out of the way, skittering to the sides. Then everything escalated.

The very front four wheel drive suddenly erupted in a shower of glass and metal shards. One of its front tyres blew out and the vehicle instantly lifted off the road to become momentarily airborne. Smashing back into the ground, metal shrieked and groaned as it slid further down the off ramp. The second lead car accelerated and sped around the sliding wreck, Max’s van following suit along with the last four wheel drive at the rear.

A second explosion rocked the van causing Max, Peter and the driver to flinch. Max spun round and discovered the last four wheel drive skewing wildly off the tarmac to smash into the concrete barrier on the edge of the off ramp, its chassis completely destroyed.

‘They’re picking us off!’ Peter yelled. ‘Get us into that carpark!’

The van’s engine roared as it followed the new lead four wheel drive down towards the intersection. Max fixed his gaze out in front, forsaking the burning wreckage behind them. Salvation lay in front. Death lay behind.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the new lead car suddenly lifted up and blew sideways off the road as a missile slammed into its side, igniting it into a mass of flame and smoke.

‘Keep going!’ Peter yelled.

The driver floored the accelerator, throwing Max back in his seat.

‘Get us in there!’ Peter added.

Then Max heard it, the unmistakable thud, thud, thud of helicopter rotors right overhead. A shadow blew momentarily over the van from back to front and then they finally saw it. Their assailant. A United States Army AH64 Apache helicopter gunship and it was everything that fear could bring to bear on a battlefield.

The driver of the van took his foot off the accelerator as his eyes tracked the incoming beast skim over the top of the van and begin to lower itself on the far side of the intersection ahead. The slim bodied helicopter, bearing United States Army insignia, spun to face them front on as it came down, its wing mounted chain guns and missiles now pointing squarely at the van. The driver halted the van at the base of the off ramp on the opposite side of the intersection.

All traffic movement at the intersection froze, leaving the centre of the four-way junction oddly vacant and apart from random rubbish blowing in the downwash of the Apache, deathly still. A handful of people in the stationary cars at the lights broke cover and fled, but most stayed ducked down inside their cars, peeking over dashboards and window ledges.

In the Team Max van, all three men sat rigidly in their seats, eyes stuck on the aerial demon squatting not more than twenty meters away, its entire arsenal locked onto them. Peter moved first as he lowered his chin down to his collar microphone.

‘Max is unsecure,’ he said slowly and clearly. ‘Single bogey has us cornered at the base of the off ramp. Detail terminated. Bogey’s intentions unclear. Say again. Bogey’s intentions unclear. No sign of second bogey. All assets hold their distance till I say.’

‘What’s he doing, boss?’ the driver asked.

Peter paused as he carefully leaned forward to look out the windscreen at the sky. ‘I don’t know, but if he wanted to kill Max, he would have done it by now.’

‘He can’t take Max hostage in that thing,’ the driver replied.

‘He’s holding us here for some reason,’ Peter answered, continuing to search the sky, ‘but for what, I don’t know.’

‘Maybe they want to…’ the driver started.

‘There!’ Peter yelled, pointing to the left.

The driver spun his gaze to the left and found another grey helicopter coming in low over the surrounding buildings. This one was different to the Apache, its frame more squat with skids on the base instead of wheels and large, open doors on both sides. It also carried fewer armaments compared to the Apache, but the view into the big open doors revealed seated soldiers armed with guns. The aircraft also bore a United States Marines insignia.

‘We have a third bogey,’ Peter said into his microphone. ‘Repeat, a third bogey. A UH-1 Yankee incoming to join the Apache sitting in front of us. We could have a kidnap in play. I need live beads on the Yankee ASAP to discourage it from taking Max. Confirm, live beads.’

‘Thoughts, boss?’ the driver asked, watching the Yankee set down on the left hand side of the intersection, causing some of the stationary cars to madly back out of the way. As it set down, the new aircraft rotated ninety degrees to face the starboard side door onto the vacant junction.

‘We’re a good ten minutes away from any sort of support,’ Peter replied, ‘so, we’re as good as on our own.’

‘What do we do?’ the driver asked.

‘We sit tight while that thing’s in our face,’ Peter said, flicking his head toward the winged monster across the intersection.

‘What the…?’ the driver suddenly said, craning slightly to the left.

Peter squinted in the same direction. Exiting from the Yankee were three very odd figures. None of them looked like soldiers, but to call them regular civilians was also off the mark. Way off.

The first man was huge. Massive. A giant black man dressed in loose, long, black pants that ruffled around his legs in the Huey’s downwash like twin parachutes and nothing but a maroon vest covering his enormous, muscle clad torso. The second man was normal build and wearing normal kit, but in his right hand he carried a long, curved sword that glittered a light orange in the late afternoon light. The third man was Asian in appearance and not overly tall, but what he lacked in size, he doubled up on in weapons. In each hand he carried a short sword, the twin blades straight, simple and unadorned, but lethal in every respect. To the average Xbox fanatic it looked just like a trio of computer game characters come to life, striding out to do battle.

‘Who are they supposed to…?’ the driver started, but was interrupted.

‘Max!’ Peter yelled, spinning in his seat.

The sound of the rear sliding door opening had caused Peter to look backwards. Max paused as he held the door half open, but not looking Peter in the eye.

‘You keep your arse in this vehicle!’ Peter yelled.

‘Wolves in sheep’s clothing,’ Max replied.

‘What?’ Peter called back. ‘What are you talking about?’

Now Max turned and looked his personal body guard and close friend directly in the eye. ‘They’re here for me. To test me,’ he said.

‘What do you mean, test you?’

‘Someone in the American camp wants to replace me with their own pawn. I have to prove them wrong or else you’re going to die right here and now and I won’t let that.’

‘What’s not going to happen is you getting out of this van! You sit tight till the cavalry gets here in a few minutes and that’s an order!’

‘Not going to happen, Pete.’

‘Yes, it is!’

Max held Peter’s glare for a few moments and then slowly shook his head. Swiftly, Max threw the sliding door open and jumped out. Peter tried to turn and open his own door just as quickly, but failed. Max got there first and held his open palm flat against the outside of the window, firmly forcing the door closed against Peter’s pushing. Max looked through the glass and shook his head again. Peter tried to lower the window with the electric button, but Max’s force was too great even for the window’s motor, causing it to squeal and whine as it failed to lower the pane. Peter pressed the button harder and then pushed on the door some more, but Max held firm.

Peter closed his eyes and stopped, taking a deep breath. He opened them and found Max still staring impassively back at him through the glass. Peter stared back for a few moments and reluctantly nodded before leaning back from the door. Max nodded back and stepped out from the van to reach into his pocket and retrieve Peter’s mobile phone that he had used to call the Prime Minister. Max made a twirling motion with his finger and Peter lowered the window as instructed.

Max tossed the phone in and said, ‘You might want to video this and get it on record. You might also want to call Joe and tell him what’s happening.’

Peter nodded and replied, ‘Whatever you do, mate, after you’re done kicking these boys’ arses, get out of the way of that Apache. Not even you’re man enough to bring that thing down on your own.’

Max turned and looked first at the hulking war bird and then turned to take in the still burning wreckage of the nearest four wheel drive that had been leading the motorcade. Inside the twisted carnage lay the bodies of four loyal men and women, sworn to protect him, who had paid the ultimate price. Killed by their own allies. Max’s knuckles shone white as his fists curled into clubs of sinew and bone.

‘Just make sure you get this on tape,’ Max muttered, ‘and don’t ever show it to my kids.’

Peter froze. The timbre of Max’s voice chilled the blood in his veins. Never in his extended life in combat had he ever heard anything like it. Max’s voice dripped with intent, thick with purpose and the tone forbode only one thing. Death.

Max strode out into the still vacant intersection, the swirling downwash ripping at his black training tank top and shorts that he had not yet changed out of. Errant newspaper scraps flapped around his orange shoes, skittering away as he strode further out onto the vacant bitumen. Once in the centre, Max stopped and turned to face the three characters who had also come out to line up side by side in front of him only metres away.

Peter brought up his phone and pressed the record button, aiming it at the impromptu arena in the centre of the intersection. He also dialed the Prime Minister’s number and waited while it rang three times.

‘Max or Peter?’ Joseph Tollsen’s voice asked.

‘It’s Peter. Max is a little busy.’

‘Explain?’

‘The Apaches have wiped out the rest of the motorcade and left us pinned down just off the freeway at the lights. One of the Apaches is sitting right in front of us while the other one presumably is somewhere upstairs covering the area.’

‘Where are you and why is Max a little busy?’

‘A US Marines Yankee has come in too and just offloaded a trio of what I can only describe as duelers, obviously looking to challenge Max, who has stepped out to face up to them. I’m stuck in the car getting it all on tape and talking to you.’

‘Are there any bystanders?’

Peter looked around the intersection. ‘A few people stuck in their cars hiding, but no one on the street. Collateral damage will be minimal if any.’

‘Good,’ the Prime Minster said, a hint of relief in his voice. ‘Do these duelers look like a match for Max?’

‘Let’s just say, they’d probably belt anyone I know out of the ring, but for Max, my money’s on him.’

‘Are they armed?’

‘Two of them. With swords.’

A pause on the line. Then, ‘God help them. Everything is about to change.’

A shiver sliced its way up Peter’s spine. He kept his hands steady and silently sent a message of support out to Max.

Max no longer felt the pressure in his clenched fists, his attention locked on the trio of combatants in front of him, wondering who would come first. Not that it mattered and then he found out.

The giant black man stepped forward and closed the space between him and Max, his fists also balled into human maces. His white eyes gleamed out of his dark face, malice spitting forth. Max had no need to tense in readiness. His wits already stood poised to react.

Suddenly, the giant’s torso muscles rippled and he launched a devastating right arm punch straight towards Max’s face at blinding speed. Max stepped back and the fist pulled up just short. The man’s left fist then swung in a blur from Max’s right, headed straight at his chin. Max stepped back again, his movements definite, but almost casual. Three more straight drive punches ended in thin air in front of Max’s face, the rapid fire almost too fast for Peter to clearly see, but for Max, he foresaw them all and then stood back to watch the giant take a pause. The untrained eye would have judged Max as calm and relaxed, but Peter could see the enormous tension riled up inside him, like a dam cracking under a full load of water, waiting to burst.

The giant roared and lunged forward at Max, his huge, burly arms like a grizzly’s, swiping and swinging, clawing and grabbing, but every move the man made, Max deftly stepped aside from or ducked under, turning all the while to stay square on to his attacker.

The black man screamed now, his rage directed purely at Max who eyed him off just beyond arm’s reach. Then the giant lunged again, his massive left leg leading as he stepped into an inhuman right armed drive, his entire, goliath frame pushing his right fist through the air like a pile driver.

This time Max reacted offensively. Mirror imaging the giant, he stepped forward with his right foot and pushed his left hand out in front, his palm open. The giant’s fist and Max’s open hand smacked together, full on. An almighty slap resounded across the intersection like a sonic boom. The impact instantly brought both men to a standstill. Frozen together with the giant’s fist in Max’s hand, the two men stood locked together, both men glaring at each other from close quarters. The giant snarled, his upper lip curling. Max’s face held stern and resolute. No give came.

Then the giant tried to pull away, but couldn’t move, his hand stuck fast in Max’s grip. He pulled harder and failed again. Then in a blur, Max let fly a vicious, right-handed, upper cut, but not at the man’s chin and instead at his open right underarm. The blow cannoned upwards to connect right on target.

The giant roared as he was lifted off his feet by the blow and with Max still holding his arm firmly extended out in front, the blow also ripped the man’s shoulder joint apart. A loud pop ricocheted around the intersection and Max let the fist go.

Before anyone had time to react, Max then lashed out with his left foot, pivoting and kicking upwards into the giant’s inner left thigh. The man was again jolted momentarily off his feet as a hideous snap sounded.

As the giant fell to his knees, he glanced down at his broken femur, which was the last thing he ever did. Max rose up and lifted his right fist overhead and barreled it downwards, smashing it into the back of the giant’s head. A sickening sound like a melon cracking emanated as Max followed his blow all the way through.

Driven into the bitumen, the giant crumpled and lay still. Max straightened and stepped back, his eyes still glued on his downed opponent. He then paused to wait. Nothing. Then Max looked up, his focus now realigning onto the two remaining opponents.

In the van, silence held sway. The bout had lasted maybe one minute and Max’s own attack had been only a fraction of it, the retaliation and killing blow combination lasting only seconds.

‘One down,’ Peter mumbled.

‘That was one punch wasn’t it?’ the driver asked, awe dripping from his lips.

‘That wasn’t a punch,’ Peter replied. ‘That was a freight train.’

‘What’s happening, Peter?’ the Prime Minster asked over the still open line.

‘Max just took out the unarmed guy. Monstered him.’

‘And now?’

‘Looks like the single sword guy is lining up.’

Sure enough, in the intersection, the man bearing the single, long, curved sword stepped forward to face up to Max. The downwash of the Apache and the Yankee still ripped at their clothing, but the disturbance played no problem for either man. Peter kept the phone’s viewfinder fixed on them as the second bout began.

The mystery attacker sprang instantly into action, his sword flashing in glittering arcs in and around Max’s form as Max dodged and weaved. The blade repeatedly sliced the air cleanly in front of Max’s face and chest, but each time Max was faster, pre-empting each strike and its direction to move safely out of the way.

The sword wielder moved faster, upping the speed and ferocity of his attacks. The steel of the blade became a whirl as the late afternoon light flashed and blinked off its surface. Max stepped to the left and lifted his right foot as the sword diced downwards past his leg, its tip striking sparks as it scratched the bitumen. Max then ducked down as the blade crossed murderously across his midriff level, its razor sharp edge cutting the air just millimetres over Max’s head. As he ducked, Max knew what was coming next.

His attacker recognised his position as being suddenly dominant and Max’s as being vulnerable, so the swordsman continued his horizontal swipe through and then seamlessly redirected it upwards until he stood, towering over Max with his blade held high in both hands. Driving his hands down, the sword followed suit, slicing downwards in a killing blow, aimed directly at Max’s head. A grimace contorted the swordsman’s face as he struck with all his power and skill. The blade flashed down.

Without looking up and still on his haunches, Max snapped both hands upwards into an overhand clap, his open palms slapping together just as the sword came between them. Max’s palms gripped the sword like a vice, instantly stopping its lethal arc. The swordsman stumbled, his momentum rudely halted and his initiative stolen away.

Max looked up, like a disciple genuflecting before a priest, except there was nothing benevolent in it. With the blade still firmly gripped between his palms, Max straightened and rose to full height. The man tried to pull the sword free, but Max’s unbreakable grip held. The swordsman was completely defenseless. Cold steel shone In Max’s eyes. Even twenty metres away and inside the van, Peter could feel his friend’s intent.

In a flash, Max stepped forward, pulling the blade along his left hand side. Fluidly, he released his right hand and shot his right fist out to smash it into the swordsman’s nose, snapping the man’s head back. Instantly, the swordsman released his grip on the hilt of the blade and with his left hand, Max reached forwards and with an underhanded flick, clipped the sword up into the air, causing it to flip and somersault end over end with the grip landing in his waiting left hand. The swordsman stumbled back, clutching at his face, oblivious to his disarming.

Max paused, sword in hand, as his attacker gathered himself, both hands pressed against his nose, his watering eyes taking in and registering his predicament. Max did not let the moment linger. With blinding speed, he reversed the blade in his left hand and pivoted on his right foot to spin into his opponent. The now backward facing tip of the blade speared directly into the man’s left breast, cleaving straight through to pierce outwards from his back like a skewer.

Time slowed. The swordsman’s hands slowly peeled downwards from his face, revealing a mixture of pain and incredulity. His knees quivered and a shuddering breath drew raggedly into his lungs. Max looked back at him over his left shoulder, his hands still on the hilt of the weapon. Blood began to drip from the man’s shattered nose and he finally rested his gaze on Max’s eyes only for the light to go out of his own. Finally, he collapsed to the ground.

Max kept his grip on the sword as the man fell, the blade pulling itself effortlessly clear of the body. Not even a drop of blood marred its immaculate surface. Max stood still, again fixing his attention on the corpse to ensure it was in fact dead. A few moments later, Max snapped his gaze up onto the third man.

‘Two down,’ Peter said.

‘You said two down?’ Joe asked across the line.

‘Yeah. One to go.’

‘And did he kill the second?’

‘With his own sword.’

Another pause. Then Joe spoke again. ‘Air support will be with you in eight minutes. Five Black Hawks and two Hornets. President Bartholomew is attempting to contact your bogeys directly to return them home immediately.’

‘Let me tell you, sir,’ Peter added. ‘Nothing’s going to save this last bloke. Not now Max has a sword.’

Silence again streamed down the phone line.

In the middle of the intersection, Max stood tall against the last opponent, his sword held upright in both hands in front of him, unwavering. Surrounded by guns and soldiers, friendly and aggressive, the two men faced off unphased. Car doors opened as courage grew. Several bystanders had now exited their cars and crouched down behind their vehicles, hiding from the helicopters. Mobile phones filled their hands, the ensuing moments poised for registering in history.

Then the final swordsman moved, his double swords whirling like twin shredders in front of him as he advanced. Max held firm, his granite gaze lasering through the twirling blades and boring right into the heart of his attacker’s eyes, his will focused on only one outcome. Then it was Max’s turn to move.

It happened so fast that Peter’s senses didn’t immediately register that Max was in motion. One instant he was stationary, sword held in front and the next he had launched himself directly into the steel maelstrom, his own sword blazing in the late afternoon light.

With the speed and power of a titan, Max’s sword flashed and blurred, not parrying, but smashing into his opponent’s blades. Sparks skittered about the two men like a cloud of electric fireflies, the noise a staccato clatter of steel on steel. Max’s opponent immediately halted his advance and started to back pedal, Peter clearly noting the surprise on the man’s face. He had been instantly matched and was now in danger of being almost as quickly overcome.

Max sliced, diced, swiped and slashed, not recklessly or thoughtlessly, but methodically and cleanly, his balanced stride pushing him forwards into the fight. Despite being outnumbered in steel, Max was dominating and he knew it. Every attack struck his enemy’s weapon harder and harder, throwing his opponent more and more off balance and out of kilter. Max had him rattled.

Sensing it was time for all or nothing, Max’s foe planted his back foot and gritted his teeth. Bending his knees, he leapt high and spun three hundred and sixty degrees to bring down a double bladed strike, right onto Max’s head, using all his strength and the added power of gravity to maximize the attack to break through Max’s defenses.

Max anticipated the maneuver and like a dancer, deftly stepped to his left and spun, pivoting on the ball of his right foot, slashing his own blade downwards at the same time against his opponent’s unguarded right side. His opponent’s swords cut downwards into empty space, while Max’s cut diagonally downwards into his foe’s right leg. The blade sliced surgically through muscle and bone to sever the limb just below the knee.

A heart-stopping scream ripped through the air as the swordsman collapsed to the bitumen, blood pumping from his ruined leg. As he fell, he twisted to land on his back, his swords clattering to the road. Looking up, the man watched as Max turned to look back down at him. In that moment, he knew he had never had a chance of victory. The moment he had raised his weapons against Max, he had been dead.

Max stepped up to the prone man, who to his credit had quickly relegated the extraordinary pain that must have been racking him right now, as he defiantly glared back. Max did not speak. All he did was pause for a moment. The twin downwash of the Apache and the Yankee filled the intersection. Dust and grit swirled around the two men. On the edge of the scene, multiple smart phones captured the moment, Max filling the centre of the vision, his sword held out to his side as he stood over his downed enemy. Then, in an instant, it was over.

Abruptly, Max reversed his grip on his sword, knelt forward and drove the blade firmly into the prone man’s heart. His enemy flinched once, his arms held rigid for a few moments in the air and then falling back to the ground.

Peter sat frozen, his entire body locked in place and his eyes dilated to their maximum possible extent as adrenaline filled him. The spectacle he had just witnessed was absolutely unlike anything he had ever seen. Awe consumed him, but so too did something else. A deep, twinge of fear. Peter trusted Max, implicitly, but what he had just seen was as raw and as primal as any prehistoric animal hunting and killing its prey. Right now, Peter wasn’t sure just how human Max was and how alien he had become.

‘What’s going on, Peter?’ sounded the Prime Minister’s voice.

‘He killed him, sir,’ Peter said flatly.

‘And what is Max doing now?’

‘He’s just kneeling there, in the centre of the intersection like some sort of…crusader or something, head bowed and his sword stuck in the other bloke’s chest,’ Peter struggled to say. ‘Sir, I don’t know how to describe exactly what just…’

‘Leave it, Peter,’ Joe interrupted. ‘What’s important is that you have reinforcements incoming in sixty seconds. POTUS should also be on the radio right now to personally send his birds home. Your instructions are to let them go. We’ll sort all this out later. You just get Max back in the van now.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Peter replied and the line went dead.

Lowering the phone to his lap, Peter remained very still. Every instinct in his mind screamed at him to get Max back into safety, but still he stayed inert. Outside, surrounded by blood, there kneeled a man that right now, Peter did not recognise. That man just a few minutes earlier had been Peter’s most respected friend, but Joe was right in what he had warned. Everything had changed. Max had killed and he was no longer the same man. What Max had become, Peter did not know and for the first time in his life, Peter was genuinely afraid.

 

11pm, 6th October (2 days later). Not Ever

 

Sheikh Abdullah stood motionless against the balcony railing, his white robes billowing gently in the late evening sea breeze, his visage angelic against the glittering backdrop of night. At this moment, all was quiet in the near midnight hour. Not even the ever-present chop of scouting helicopters sullied the silence. All lay still, but not asleep.

The Sheikh’s mind whirled like a dervish as it assessed a thousand different possibilities of what could happen from this day forth. Max had finally killed and he had done it in such a fashion that it concerned Abdullah, deeply. The man’s ferocity had been vicious and unbridled. He had given no quarter in the face of his disarmed and defenseless enemies, but it was not this merciless brutality that had Abdullah’s mind enthralled. It was Max’s purpose. Yes, he had killed, some may even say slaughtered, but he had done it with such clear and clinical intention. This was not the act of a man defending himself. This was the act of a killer. The act of a potential psychopath.

Behind Abdullah, Joe stepped over the threshold of the balcony, exiting from the lit interior of the living room and out into the hazy darkness of the night air to join him.

‘President Bartholomew has offered,’ Joe said as he walked up next to Abdullah, ‘to fly over and personally present his apologies to Max and ourselves. I tried to assure him that was not necessary, but he would not be dissuaded. He’ll be here day after tomorrow.’

‘And his chief of staff?’ Abdullah asked. ‘In what predicament does Charles Ingot the Third find himself?’

Joe sighed and put his mobile phone back into his trousers pocket. ‘Incarcerated for treason, which is probably a life sentence regardless of what comes New Year’s Eve. You never did trust him did you?’

Abdullah shifted his gaze heavenward. ‘The man’s patriotism blinkered his perspective. He loved himself first and his country second with no place for a third. He needed something larger than himself to believe in to see the world for what it truly is.’

‘And how do you see the world tonight, my friend?’ Joe asked. ‘You have hardly spoken for the last two days and although I know what troubles you for it troubles me also, I need you to help me think it through. I am the politician in this partnership. You are the expert on the human condition.’

Abdullah stood silently for a few moments, his gaze still roaming the night sky. His eyes found the constellation of Orion and traced its starry outline across the nocturnal vista. The Hunter stood eternally strong in the celestial realm, his club raised high, his sword on his belt and his shield held firmly out in front, his weapon clad form the most recognizable and famous of all the constellations. Perhaps, Abdullah thought, this ancient warrior now has a rival here on Earth?

‘Max carries a conflict deep inside himself that none of us could ever understand,’ Abdullah finally said, lowering his gaze to search the shadows of the vast lawns. ‘While his mixed genetics have combined constructively to create the magnificent physical specimen that he is, that same cocktail of genetics has twisted his human emotions and his Nar’gellan instincts together and he is now wrestling to separate them. He knew that the moment he took a life, his alien blood would rise up against his human spirit. Max is on the brink of being overcome by his own demons and we are at the mercy of the outcome of that duel. ‘

Joe nodded. It was what he had suspected. ‘If right now Max is fighting a battle against his own Nar’gellan lust for blood,’ Joe started, ‘how can we help him? What does he need to overcome this lust?’

‘Love,’ sounded a new voice behind them.

Joe turned to see Elsa standing on the threshold, her face shrouded in shadows, but her form haloed by an aura of light cast from inside the room. The Prime Minster unconsciously held his breath. Right now he felt like he was surrounded by angels, plotting the downfall of demons with the fate of the world as the prize. The moment ensnared him.

‘Yes,’ said Abdullah, fluidly turning to face Elsa as she walked out onto the balcony to join them. ‘Love is what Max needs right now.’

Joe blinked and he regained his senses. ‘Are you suggesting Max needs love from others or his own love to beat his Nar’gellan impulses?’

‘Both,’ Elsa answered.

‘And let’s be clear,’ Abdullah added, ‘Max needs love not to overcome his alien instincts, but to balance his Nar’gellan blood. We still need the alien warrior inside Max to come forth when needed, but Max needs human love to keep it in check. It is time for Max to learn how to be both of this world and of another.’

Joe nodded again. Abdullah’s arched look noted the Prime Minister’s understanding and then he turned to Elsa. ‘If I may ask, where is Max now?’

‘He’s with the kids,’ Elsa replied, crossing her arms against the slight chill in the breeze. ‘Jason had a bad dream and Max lay down with him to help him get back to sleep. Knowing Max, he’ll probably take the opportunity to crash with him for a few hours and then sneak into bed later.’

Abdullah nodded and then asked, ‘And how are you?’ Abdullah asked.

Elsa cast a quick glance at the Sheikh to find his eyes shimmering in the diffuse light. Looking away over the railing and into the darkness, she rubbed her arms. ‘Getting a bit tenser every day. While I’ve known for years that this time was coming, nothing can prepare you for it. Not really. Up until now it’s all been theory, but as every day ends, it gets a little more real. I don’t think I’m ready yet to accept I could be losing Max in a couple of months’ time and to be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.’

‘Time will tell,’ Abdullah said, ‘and you know that I and Joseph are always here to help carry your burden in whatever way we can.’

Elsa flicked her gaze back to Abdullah and found that same evocative look in his shimmering eyes, like starlight glittering off rippled water at the bottom of two deep wells. She knew that behind those eyes, there resided the mind of an extraordinary human being, capable of leading vast masses or touching the soul of a single person. Not for the first time, Elsa wondered if Abdullah’s involvement in their plight at this crucial point in the history of humanity was chance or actually divine intervention. If Elsa could have prayed for someone to come and help them right now, she would have prayed to God to send Abdullah. Goose bumps broke out on her skin.

‘I know,’ she said simply, ‘and don’t worry. I’ll be taking you up on that offer a few times before we get to the end.’

Abdullah bowed and placed his flat, upright palms together. Joe held his peace and indulged in the moment.

‘Well, I’ll leave you two night owls to your politics,’ Elsa added. ‘I promised Kris I’d get up and watch her early session with Max tomorrow and we all know I’m not a morning person without a good night’s sleep.’

Masa`a al khair,’ Abdullah said. ‘Good night.’

‘Good night, Abdullah,’ Elsa replied and then turning to Joe asked. ‘Will we see you tomorrow, Joe?’

‘In the morning, yes,’ Joe said in return, ‘but unfortunately I will be making my way back to Canberra around noon. Duty calls.’

‘Okay. I’ll see you in the morning then. Good night.’

‘Good night, Elsa,’ Joe said smiling. ‘I hope you sleep well.’

Elsa smiled back and turned to walk from the balcony and back into the house. Abruptly, she stopped just inside the threshold and turned back. Joe looked up and saw again the aura enshrouding her. Abdullah also looked up.

‘He’s okay you know?’ Elsa began. ‘Max I mean. I know he’s been a bit quiet the last couple of days since the incident, but give him a break. He just killed three men and that would shake up any of us. He’s been busy wrapping it around in his head in his own way, but he’s okay. He’s not about to lose the plot and go psycho or anything like that, so don’t worry about him. Max is fine, but what I said before is true. He needs to know he has everybody’s support and right now he knows that he does. Max has all the love he needs. As for him snapping out of it, my guess is tomorrow he’ll wake up and be the same old Max. Just wait and see.’

‘We have been worried about him,’ Joe said gently.

‘Well, don’t,’ Elsa offered back. ‘He’s a good enough man for all of us and he will never let us down. Not ever. Worry about everything else, but don’t ever worry about Max.’

Abdullah bowed again, his silent action speaking louder than the words he could have spoken.

‘Thank you, Elsa,’ Joe said. ‘Your words have earned our trust. Good night.’

Elsa cast her glance from man to man and then seeing their acceptance of her advice, turned and left. Joe and Abdullah stood silently for a few moments and then turned together to face each other. Abdullah spoke first.

‘So, let us follow Elsa’s advice and find something else to worry about,’ he said.

 

9am, 13th October (1 week later). Steel In Hand

 

Kris cast a careful eye over the grassed course on the mansion lawn as her small army of assistants scuttled out of the way to the shade of the Pain Train. She then scanned the edges of the course and found a scattered host of television cameras, strategically positioned to record the spectacle for the evening news. Max was still number one on all forms of media and today it was CNN’s turn to get their fix.

Satisfied that all was in order, Kris turned her attention back to the mansion end of the course, where she found Max waiting in his usual training attire of black shorts, black singlet and orange shoes. Even from this distance she could tell his body mass had grown significantly since meeting him for the first time over three months ago. Max had responded so much more than she had imagined. Now it was time for another test. Maybe today was the day.

Speaking into her wireless headset microphone, Kris addressed Max. ‘You ready?’

Max looked up at Kris across the distance and said, ‘Let’s do it.’

‘On my mark,’ Kris replied and she watched Max immediately drop down on to his front on the grass. She then began the countdown. ‘Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!’

Instantly, Max was up and sprinting, launching himself forward across the turf away from the mansion. A corridor of five javelins stabbed into the ground on alternating sides lined up in front of him. Fifty metres beyond them stood five human shaped cut-outs, shoulder to shoulder.

Max fixed his gaze on the central cut-out as he powered forwards, his arms and knees pumping hard. As he approached the first javelin, his eyes still glued to the cut-out, his left arm snapped out and without glancing at the spear or slowing down, he snatched it out of the ground and in a single, fluid motion, hurled it straight ahead.

Without slowing his sprint, Max charged on towards the next javelin, which was on his right side. As he sprinted past and plucked it free, the first javelin, thudded into and through the chest of the central cut-out, its tip jutting out the back of the splintered target. An instant later, Max had hurled the second javelin towards the far left target and maintaining his pace, he careened onto the third javelin.

Again, just as the second javelin lanced its target, Max grabbed and fired the third javelin towards the far right cut-out. This one speared right through the head of the target and only seconds later, the cut-out to its left copped the fourth javelin clean through its neck.

Back down the course, Max reached the fifth javelin and again pulled it free with his left hand as he sprinted past and sent it flying, dead straight at the last human-shaped cut-out. The weapon’s steel tip glinted in the mid morning sun as it pierced the air at blinding speed. Max did not wait to see the impact as he responded to Kris’ command in his ear.

‘Ice,’ was all she said.

Just as the fifth javelin ripped into its target, the force of the impact tearing it violently in half, Max side stepped sharply to his right towards a red marker cone on the ground, which he rounded to face back down another course directly adjacent to the javelin course he had just completed.

Without pausing, Max accelerated ahead, snapping his gaze up to the end fifty metres distant. Standing like a gleaming, white portal at the far end was a rectangular block of ice, three metres tall and two metres wide. Max also knew it was ten inches thick and solid and that he had to go through it, literally.

‘You’ve got fifteen seconds,’ Kris said evenly into his ear.

Lined down both sides of the course were more javelins as well as uniformly spaced kettlebells, weighing fifteen kilograms each. With the time remaining, Max had only these “tools” to break through the ice blockade fifty metres away.

Max’s vision sharpened, bringing the array of “tools” into stark focus with the ice shining bright at the end. While still accelerating into the start of the course, Max already had his plan secured.

In the first ten metres, he reached full speed. Snapping both hands out, Max grabbed a javelin from each side and with a double-armed throw, hurled both of them down the length of the course. Seconds later and forty metres in front, the two javelins speared into the very centre of the ice block, quivering in place and cracking the face.

Moments later, two kettlebells smashed into the frozen block right next to the two javelins, the added impact blasting a depression into the cracked face. Then two more kettlebells pummeled in, expanding and deepening the depression, causing the javelins to fall out. Large cracks crazed outwards across the gleaming surface.

Twenty five metres out, Max hurled two more javelins, their damage even greater at this shorter distance. A circular crater had now formed with some serious structural damage starting to expand outwards in the ice.

At fifteen metres, Max picked up two more kettlebells, one in each hand, still at full pelt and with a double-armed, underarm swing, flung both “tools” at the ice. Both kettlebells subsequently crashed into the very centre of the block, knocking out the two protruding javelins and even more ice.

At ten metres, two more kettlebells wreaked even more havoc and now, Max was out of room. At five metres out, he picked up two more kettlebells and this time did not throw them. Instead, he tucked them under each arm and ploughed his frame forwards with no hint of slowing down.

Kris squinted her eyes as she stared at the unfolding scene, her body tense.

Max took two more sprinting steps and his orange clad feet left the ground. He became airborne and like a human javelin, flew through the air, his body ramrod straight from his pointed toes to his outstretched arms and in his far reaching hands, he held the two kettlebells. Pulling his chin to his chest, Max aimed directly for the centre of the crater he had pummeled into the ice. He closed his eyes and Kris held her breath.

The kettlebells took the brunt of the impact, smashing through the last couple of distressed inches of ice. Shards of frozen water exploded out the back of the block as first the kettlebells came through, closely followed by Max’s outstretched arms.

A split second later, Max’s entire frame shot through the gaping hole, his shoulders blasting the final blockages away from the hole. As his orange sneakers came through, Max let go of the kettlebells and let gravity pull him downwards. Arcing his body down, Max hit the grass at full throttle and executed a forward roll and let go of the kettlebells, fragments of ice sailing through the air behind him in his wake.

No sooner had Max started to straighten to his feet, he heard Kris’ voice in his earpiece.

‘Get to the sword,’ she said.

Sharply pivoting on his left foot, Max spun ninety degrees and spotted his next marker cone nearby. Bounding towards it, he rounded it and dropped straight into a sprinter’s starting crouch next to it.

‘Go,’ said Kris.

The adrenalin coursing through Max’s body instantly ratcheted up even higher, firing every muscle fibre in his body to maximum power. His entire frame snapped into motion, his left foot flicking forwards, his left arm flicking back and high and his right arm flicking hard forwards. Max’s legs drove into the ground to push himself forward like a prime mover, powering into action. In four seconds, he had transformed from human being into a freight train.

Lifting his focus from his feet and up to the end of the one hundred metre stretch of open grass, Max spied a sword stuck into the turf, its steel blade shining like a mirror in the sun.

Kris looked intently on. The moment she had said go, she had clicked a button that remotely started a timer. Max’s speed was being recorded.

Storming across the green velvet, Max’s senses honed in on the hilt of the blade. A white tunnel closed out the rest of the world. No longer consciously controlling his hurtling form, Max was in full auto mode, his body now more like a machine, intent on achieving only one thing. Getting that weapon into his hands as quickly as physically possible.

‘Come on,’ Kris mumbled, the tension in her voice matching the tension in her body. Today really could be the day. It felt right. It felt very, very right.

Motoring at ten metres out, Max whipped out his right hand and in full flight and literally in mid stride and airborne, he plucked the sword cleanly from the ground. Simultaneously, he crossed an invisible laser beam and the timer stopped.

‘That’s it,’ Kris said to Max. ‘You’re done. Take a breather.’

While Max slowed down, Kris closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Both the ice test and the javelin course were new ones and he had aced them, but right now, she needed to know the time for the sprint. If it was what she hoped, it was a milestone and an unbelievable one at that.

Kris lifted her left wrist up, which bore a miniature touch screen. For the first few moments, the screen was blank and then suddenly, some numbers lit up. It was a time in seconds and hundredths of seconds.

Her brain took a split second to register the time and then Kris deflated, all the tension in her body melting away. Nine point six seconds exactly. No world record today, but Max was closer again.

‘Zero point two seconds short,’ Kris said as she looked across at Max who had turned back to face her across the lawn. ‘You’re close enough to taste it.’

Max sucked in two lungs of precious air and then said, ‘Next time. At least we gave the viewers a good show. Hey, that ice thing was cool. Where’d you get that idea from?’

‘Me, but it was Abdullah’s very clever boys who made it. Those guys are awesome.’

‘You got that right,’ Max replied, his breathing already completely smoothed out. Holding up the sword in his right hand, he added, ‘Did his boys make this sword too?’

‘Sure did and it’s all your’s. Got another surprise for you too,’ Kris added, eyeing off Max.

‘Am I going to like it?’ Max asked, eyeing Kris right back.

‘Don’t know, but Abdullah, Joe, Elsa and I had a huddle up yesterday and we made an executive decision.’

‘And?’

‘You’re starting weapons training today,’ Kris said carefully, watching Max for a reaction.

Max paused and held his gaze on Kris. He then lifted the sword and looked slowly up and down the length of the blade, its pristine, silver surface shimmering in the sun. Then without looking back at Kris, Max said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it.’

Kris let out a silent breath. She then turned and waved back at the Pain Train to her assistants, who in turn scurried inside.

‘Good,’ Kris said. ‘I was worried you wouldn’t be happy about picking up a weapon yet.’

‘Got to start some time,’ Max replied, looking back at her. ‘Probably needed a bit of a nudge anyway, so thanks. How’s this going to work?’

‘Check out the Pain Train,’ Kris replied. ‘Here come your instructors.’

Max glanced over to the bright orange truck and trailer and saw five men walking across the lawn towards him, all of them wearing white, martial arts dogi and carrying bladed weapons of varying shapes and sizes.

‘Have fun,’ Kris added. ‘I’ll see you in a bit.’

Max nodded and stayed silent. Kris could sense Max already shifting his focus to the new challenge coming his way. She smiled. Turning away, she walked briskly across to the Pain Train herself and jogged up the ramp of the trailer. Popping her sunglasses up onto her cap brim, she headed towards the back of the space, to find her lap top resting on a wooden box. Flipping the lid open, Kris diligently entered some notes for the training session and then started analysing the data compared to all of the earlier sessions to track Max’s performance.

There was no doubt. While his efforts had steadily improved session on session over the last few months, Max’s results over the last week had jumped incredibly. He was performing out of his skin. It was like he had found another piston or two inside of himself and thrown in a turbo charger and some nitrous as well. Max was almost at superhuman levels in everything he did.

Since the impromptu duels in the city last week, something had changed. Outside of training, Max was the same old Max, but as soon as he laced on those orange shoes, he became, well, not human and perhaps that was it. Maybe Max had actually become less human in recent days and more alien.

Abdullah had asked her if she had witnessed any difference in him since the incident in the city and well, the numbers in front of her proved it. Max was pushing himself to Olympic levels and would probably be smashing world records all over the place before the arena came up.

Salaam Alaykum,’ Abdullah said. ‘Good morning, Kris.

Kris flicked her gaze up to find Abdullah standing on the threshold of the ramp.

‘Your Highness,’ Kris said in return, a smile suddenly filling her face. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘I came to see exactly how you planned on punishing Max with three tonnes of dry ice and have not been disappointed,’ he replied, his gentle rolling tone melodious to her ears.

Kris’ smile widened and she pulled the lid of the lap top down.

Stepping out from behind the box and walking up to him, she said, ‘Good to hear and thanks again for organizing it. CNN sure got a good show.’

‘Your tests today were clever. You tested not only Max’s speed and agility, but also his ability to think quickly and strategically by needing to plan a means to get through the ice at pace. Very clever indeed.’

A blush started to form on Kris’ face. Quickly pulling her sunglasses off her cap and down over her eyes, she stepped past Abdullah and walked down the ramp and past two of his hulking body guards at the base.

‘Thank you,’ she said more abruptly than she liked. ‘Now let’s see how he’s getting on with that new sword you made for him.’

Abdullah smiled and turned to follow Kris out onto the grass and into the warm sun. Together they walked towards where Max, with sword in hand, stood encircled by all five of his instructors, their swords raised. Keeping a very clear distance, Kris and Abdullah stopped. Abdullah moved up next to Kris just as one of the instructors began demonstrating to Max, how to move his feet and shift his balance in tune with his sword to contend with multiple attackers.

‘May I ask if you have noticed any significant differences in Max’s performance over this last week?’ Abdullah asked.

‘You bet,’ Kris replied, half turning to face Abdullah, but not taking her eyes off Max and his tuition. ‘His normal rate of improvement has gone off the charts this last week.’

‘An example?’

‘Well, if he’d been running in the Olympic one hundred metres today, he would’ve come second, just, whereas last week he would’ve struggled to even make a semi-final. He’s also lifting heavier. Max is squatting, bench pressing and dead lifting much more than he was two weeks ago. I also reckon he’s more agile and nimble now too. He’s always been pretty good on his feet and in the air, but now he tumbles and flips and somersaults like mad. All round, Max is more athletic now than ever before and I have to say, still improving and that’s, well…’

Abdullah allowed Kris to pause, but then realised she had stopped all together.

‘And that’s what?’ he asked carefully.

Kris let her gaze drop from Max’s sword training to the ground.

‘It doesn’t seem natural,’ Kris finally added. ‘It doesn’t seem…human.’

Abdullah flicked his gaze to Kris who was still half lost in thought.

‘That is because,’ Abdullah began, ‘Max is not all together human.’

‘I know,’ Kris said, regaining her composure and looking back up to find Max practicing a parry and thrust sequence with his sword. ‘I know he’s half alien, but now it’s starting to become obvious and I guess it’s a little off putting. He’s always had this serious, purpose-like mood he gets into when he trains and that’s good because you know he’s giving it his all, but now, that purpose-like mood has ratcheted up to…well, something more like rage. If I didn’t know it was Max out there, I’d probably be scared of him. I saw Peter’s video of him fighting those three goons the other day and that did scare me. I’ve never seen him like that and how he looked when he killed those three men, I can see that same look in his eye now when he trains and if that’s what his alien side brings out, then maybe I should be scared? Maybe we should all be scared? Who knows what he’s capable of, especially now that I know he’s probably going to break every single athletics world record in the book in the next couple of weeks and on top of that, he’s just picked up a sword. What if his alien side takes over again? He could…’

Kris trailed off and fell silent. Abdullah stepped forward and around to face Kris squarely. Lifting his sun glasses to his forehead, he reached out and grasped her hand. The contact was gentle and soft and Kris did not flinch. Instead she looked into the Sheikh’s hazel coloured eyes and found instant comfort.

‘Max is both of this world and of another,’ Abdullah started, ‘and we need him to be both human and Nar’gellan at the same time. However, that has proven difficult for him up until now. The duels in the city last week brought his Nar’gellan instincts to the fore and when he unleashed those instincts, he finally realised what he is capable of. He can kill. The challenge for him now is to integrate the killing, blood lust instincts of his alien genetics with his human emotions. In effect he needs to balance his thirst to kill with his human compassion and reason. Only then will he be able to truly unleash and control his physical skills and compete in the arena. Max now knows what he needs to do to become what he was destined to be.’

‘And what is that?’ Kris asked. ‘What is he destined to be?’

‘Either the champion who saves humanity and frees the Nar’gellan race or,’ Abdullah said and paused briefly, ‘the tragic warrior doomed to die a glorious, but ultimately hopeless death. God only knows which.’

Kris looked down again, her face drawn and a little pale.

Abdullah smiled and squeezed her hand gently.

‘In the mean time,’ he said, ‘I can assure you that you have nothing to fear from Max. His dramatic improvements in the last week are evidence that he is in control. He is no danger to us or anyone else. He is adapting and he is adapting well. I think we are in for an exciting time and I envy you for being so close to him.’

Kris let a little smile crinkle the corners of her mouth. Abdullah let her hand go and stepped back to her side. Kris felt the warmth of his touch linger slightly on her hand. She also realised her heart was beating just a bit faster too.

Suddenly, one of the five instructors flashed forwards, an oblique strike of his sword slicing down towards Max’s back. Max deftly turned and deflected the strike away and then subtly shifted his weight to repel another instructor’s strike from his left side. One by one in a seemingly random sequence around the circle, each instructor attacked and each time, Max ably defended himself.

On and on the series of attacks continued with Max deflecting blow after blow, his style smooth and rhythmic. Kris stood mesmerized by the fluidity of the thrusting and parrying, transfixed by the dance of the six men as they integrated with no give or take. In contrast, Abdullah focused keenly on Max himself, studying his movements, but more particularly, his face.

Max’s attention was as sharp as his blade. His spatial awareness almost preternatural as he anticipated every attack, regardless of if he could actually see it or if it was coming from behind. His natural skill with the sword was uncanny, but this skill coupled with his instincts made him impenetrable. However, there was a problem.

Abdullah held up his hand and cried out, ‘Stop!’

Immediately, all five instructors shouldered their swords and stepped back. Max froze, his body still tensed for any attack and his eyes searching. In his right hand, his sword shone like a mirror in the sun, his grasp firm and surgically steady.

Abdullah glided forwards across the grass towards the group, while Kris looked on. Max lowered his sword and turned to look at his friend.

‘Max,’ Abdullah said, ‘it would seem you have a natural talent in wielding a sword and that sword in particular suits you very well. Like a glove if you will?’

‘Yeah,’ Max replied. ‘It feels good.’

‘And you move very well,’ Abdullah continued. ‘Your footwork and balance allow you to use your speed and strength to considerable advantage. The five gentlemen surrounding you right now are five of the finest swordsmen in the world and I assure you, their attacks in this exercise are nothing less than full blooded. Your defense is excellent, but I note, that is all you are doing. Defending yourself. May I ask why you have not attacked in return?’

‘I might be good,’ Max said in return, ‘but there’s only so much I can do with one sword against five blokes. I can’t get ahead of them.’

Abdullah nodded silently.

‘As I suspected,’ he said. ‘So, let us give you your wish. Inspect the hilt.’

Max cocked his head at Abdullah and paused.

‘Go ahead,’ Abdullah pushed, gesturing to Max’s weapon. ‘Inspect the hilt.’

Max lifted the hilt of his sword up to waist level and did as he was instructed.

‘You will find under the rear of the hilt,’ Abdullah added, ‘a small touch pad, which you can activate with your thumb by quickly adjusting your grip. The touch pad will only function via your thumb print, making it ineffective to any other. Press it.’

Max dipped the tip of the sword down, so he could look under the hilt. There it was. A small, orange circle, which he could indeed depress if he switched his thumb to the back of the handle and pushed up. Raising his sword back up, Max nudged the touchpad with his right thumb.

Instinctively, his left hand shot up to catch the handle of the new weapon that shot out sideways. In the blink of an eye, Max now held in each hand, identical swords that just a moment ago had been joined into one.

‘Seamless blades held together by reversible magnets,’ Abdullah said. ‘Depress the touchpad and the magnets switch poles to separate the weapons. Bring both weapons back together and the magnets will automatically reverse again to rejoin them. You asked for two swords and now you have them.’

Max inspected both blades and found they truly were identical, both in weight and appearance. He smiled and looked up at Abdullah, only to find Abdullah smiling back.

‘Now you have no excuses,’ Abdullah said.

Max nodded back and then turned to face his instructors again, his swords held wide. Abdullah’s smile widened. A few moments later, the clash and ring of steel refilled the morning air.

 

12:30pm, 14th October (1 day later). Everything

 

The walls of the studio green room stood plastered with posters of Sally Sainsbury, her sparkling green eyes glittering above a faultless, iridescent smile that blistered out of her artificially tanned face. Sally might just as well have had the word “fake” tattooed on her forehead, but there she was, the undeniable megastar and queen of day time television; the goddess adored by hundreds of millions of stimulus poor humans around the world.

Max decided to simply look at the ground. After all, he was just about to go out on stage and meet the woman in front of a live studio audience and countless viewers. He didn’t feel a need to overdose on her visage before experiencing her for real up close. Max was tempted to scratch his nose, but resisted. The make-up on his face had begun to dry and constrict making it feel like he had just emerged from one of Kris’ mud-saturated obstacle courses. It was fair to say, he was not enjoying himself. Not one little bit.

Elsa had convinced him that the best way to keep up his public relations profile and maintain the wild momentum of Team Max, was for him to do the occasional television interview. So, here he was dressed in apparently the most aptly styled blue jeans and fitted, white, short sleeve shirt and of course his trademark orange shoes, waiting to be summoned out into the limelight and exhibited like a prize trophy. At least it genuinely was for a good cause

The door opened.

‘Hi, Max!’ sounded a mousey little voice.

Max turned looked up. There in the door stood a tiny, doll-like figure, doing her best to be a miniature, Sally Sainsbury, right down to the glitter infused make-up and unnatural tan. A microphone headset and wired ear plugs graced her features, clearly indicating her to be some sort of stage assistant.

‘Sally’s waiting,’ she said, all chirpy like.

Max nodded and without a word, followed the miniature Sally out the door and down a corridor towards a pair of large, non-descript double doors. There the assistant stopped, holding a hand up like some sort of army platoon leader, instructing Max to come to a halt behind her. Cocking her head, she listened to instructions in her headset. Max took the pause as an opportunity to again go over the questions he had been briefed on earlier, that Sally would be asking. He had winced then and he winced again now. This was not going to be a pleasant experience and in all honesty, he was struggling deeply with how this affair was going to support his public relations. Getting interviewed on international television by an animated, beauty pageant doll with an IQ of single figures was in no way going to help him.

Then the assistant’s hand came down and she stepped to the side.

‘You’re on,’ she said with infinite glee and a dazzling smile worthy of any toothpaste advertisement.

Again Max nodded. The double doors swung automatically open and instantly he was assaulted by a cacophony of crowd delirium and the Team Max anthem blasting out. Holding his discomfort in place, Max walked out and the assault intensified. Lights flared overhead. Cameras rolled all around him. Looking at the crowd, they were all on their feet, clapping overhead and stamping their feet in time to the anthem. It was a madhouse and for a moment, he had to pause to take it all in.

Letting his senses settle, Max absorbed the chaos and resumed his walk to the stage. Turning, he stepped up and came face to face with the undisputed champion of day time television.

Sally Sainsbury stood in front of him like a wax figure sculpted from perfect inorganic materials. She was faultless, if you liked heavily bronzed, intricately manicured and fulsomely figured blondes that is. Barbie was a poor representation of the perfect woman against this creature. Love or hate Sally Sainsbury, up close she was a sight to see and now that Max had seen her, all he wanted to do was turn and leave, quickly.

Remembering his offstage coaching from the support staff, Max accepted Sally’s proffered hand, but deliberately held off on kissing it. Instead he shook it briefly and then turned away to make sure his seat was behind him. Sally stood for a split second watching Max turn away, displaying her slight irritation at not getting the greeting she so clearly desired, but then shrugged and settled into her ludicrously oversized, leather chair, shuffling her notes. Max followed suit and lowered himself down into his own jumping castle sized chair, looking as comfortable as a man sitting in an electric chair. The crowd slowly settled as the anthem trailed off, having a couple of false starts at silence before eventually the chants of Max and Sally trailed off. The quiet that followed was as loaded as a gun and so Max waited for whatever came next and then the Sally Sainsbury onslaught began.

It started with the most remarkable, unblemished and blinding smile Max could ever have imagined. Sally’s glittering make-up set her features flashing beneath the stage lights and then she opened her mouth to speak. Before a single syllable passed her full, glossy lips, the crowd erupted again. The Max and Sally chants immediately reached fever pitch and Max noticed a dozen burly men appear from nowhere to stand along the front edge of the stage. A protection detail. Max wondered if they carried Peter’s skill sets and immediately doubted it, but at least now he had a little bit of comedy to put himself at ease. The crowd again simmered down and this time Sally actually managed to speak.

‘Maximilian Augustus Dyson,’ Sally started off, her voice crisp, clear and every shred of every word so sharply enunciated it was impossible to not listen to her voice. ‘You are without a doubt the most famous person to ever grace my stage.’

The crowd made a solid attempt to reclaim the airspace, but Sally waved them down.

‘Please, everyone? Please? I know it’s exciting,’ she said, gaining control again. ‘Gee, even I’m excited and I’ve interviewed the President, but as they say here in TV Land, the show must go on. So, let’s show a little Sally Sainsbury hospitality and hold the applause for just a little bit.’

The crowd obliged. Max waited his turn, wondering what on Earth Sally Sainsbury hospitality was.

‘Now, Max,’ Sally said, ‘as I said, you are the most famous person to ever grace my stage and I have to say, I hope that we can have an encore performance in January to not only celebrate the New year, but the saving of the world?’

It took Max a few seconds to realise it was his cue to speak. ‘Ah, yeah. That would be nice.’

‘Yes, it would because at the moment my January calendar is wide open, for obvious reasons.’

Max just nodded, dumbly.

‘So, you are something of a recluse, Max and I can understand that. Saving the world is not a vocation that would weigh easily on anyone’s mind. In fact it has to be the biggest responsibility anyone in the world has ever had to bear. How does it sit with you, knowing the entire world is looking to you to save their lives and the lives of their children?’

Max paused. He had been briefed before the show about the questions Sally was going to ask, so he had time to prepare answers, but here, now on the stage and in front of millions, his doubts about the purpose of this so called public relations exercise returned.

‘Um, it’s…it’s not really…’ and he trailed off, not comfortable with the answer he had crafted earlier.

‘Max, you can tell us the truth. It’s all we want,’ Sally said, her famous “mothering” face and tone appearing in full bloom. Despite its obvious falsity, Max chose to take the advice literally and simply tell her the truth. Suddenly, he was at ease.

‘I don’t wear the weight of the world on my shoulders,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how to because it has no meaning to me.’

‘I don’t understand, Max,’ Sally replied. ‘When you walk down the street, all eyes turn to you, not because you cut a striking figure, but because you are the world’s saviour. We all need you to win.’

Max paused before he replied. ‘Sally, the truth is I don’t know everyone in the world and I never will. I know everyone is putting their faith in me, I get that. How can I not, but that’s too much for me. It’s not tangible. It’s outside my reasoning.’

‘So then let me ask the question a different way,’ Sally said. ‘If you’re not saving the world for all of us, then why are you doing it? To save yourself?’

‘No,’ Max said abruptly, leaving a loud pause afterwards to hammer home his feeling. ‘I’m not afraid of dying.’

‘Then why are you doing it?’

‘For those that I care about.’

‘And who are they? Your wife and children?’

‘Yes, first and foremost, but they’re not the only ones?’

‘Who else?’

‘That doesn’t matter, but they know who they are because I’ve told them. What I will say though is that I only know them because of this whole…affair,’ Max said, waving his arm. ‘It’s crazy, but before I got singled out to go into the arena, I had only my family and to be honest, they were all I needed to be happy, but now with the fate of the world in the balance, I’ve had some of the finest people anyone could ever know come into my life and for that I consider myself blessed, so when I say I’m doing this for those that I care about, they’re on that list too and like I said, they know who they are.’

‘Thank you for sharing, Max,’ Sally said, with a tone Max could almost believe was genuine, ‘but don’t forget about us too okay?’

Max nodded while the crowd let a few stray cheers and whistles out.

‘What about your chances in the arena?’ Sally asked. ‘We’ve all seen you train and I have to tell you, Max, when you put on those orange sneakers, I get as giddy as any school girl watching you hurl yourself around. No one can deny your physical prowess. I particularly enjoyed watching you smash through that ice block challenge yesterday and you were so, so close to the one hundred metre world record. It has to be said that everything you do seems superhuman, but is it enough? Do you really think you can defeat all the alien opponents that will be placed in front of you in the arena? Do you really think you can win?’

Max glanced out at the audience hidden behind the lights and the cameras and then down at the stage. Then he answered.

‘I know you’d all like to hear me say something like, “hell yes, I’m going to kick those aliens right back into outer space” or “those aliens better have a God to pray to because they’re going to need all the help they can get against me”, but I’m not. I won’t say that because I can’t.’

‘Why can’t you? You don’t think you can win?’

‘I don’t know, Sally. It’s as simple as that. I have no clue who or what is going to drop out of the sky to try and tear me apart on New Year’s Eve. I don’t even know if they’re going to play by the rules. Instead of one alien per bout, they might drop two or three or ten and they might all have six arms or maybe they’ll all be clones of me and that’s not a good thought. I know for sure I wouldn’t want to fight me, let alone two or more of me, so do I think I’ll win? I don’t know. I really don’t, but before anyone thinks I’m giving up, forget that. I’ve never backed away from anything in my life and when someone, some alien threatens the ones I love, they better believe they’ve got the fight of their lives in front of them. If I lose, it won’t be because I didn’t use every shred, every ounce, every fibre of my being to beat them. I will absolutely not let my life leave my body without giving up all that I have to win, but if I die, so be it. I’m not afraid of dying. If I have to die to save those that I love, it’s game on. I know my wife is at home right now struggling to hear me say this, but she knows it as much as I do. I will lay everything down. Everything, even if it means running headlong into Death. That’s what I’ll do. That’s what I’ll do.’

Silence engulfed the entire studio. Sally sat as still as a doll in a toy chair. The stage hands all stood motionless and the audience was paralysed. Even the air hung heavy with shock, but then a lone voice shouted out from behind the stage lights.

‘Team Max! Team Max!’

And then another shout followed and quickly the silence was smashed out of the studio by the audience regaining its composure. Max had stunned them for a moment, but now they were back. Sally however, was visibly moved. She gingerly placed her fingers over her mouth and looked about her, startled, like coming out of a deep daydream. A glisten in her eyes even betrayed brimming tears. The queen of daytime television had been brought undone.

Then quickly shuffling in her chair, Sally clenched her hands and wiggled her head to reclaim her self confidence. Looking down at her notes, she cleared her throat and looked back up as the audience again settled down.

‘So, Max,’ she said a little thickly, ‘you mentioned God. Do you follow a faith? Does Maximilian Augustus Dyson believe in The Almighty?’

‘No,’ Max replied simply.

‘No? Not ever?’

‘No, not ever. I’ve never followed a religion and I don’t feel any inkling to begin believing now.’

‘Why is that?’

‘Let’s get one thing straight. I have the utmost respect for anyone’s faith and will never question anyone’s beliefs of any sort. In fact, I admire the religious and theological beliefs that people hold dear and the strength of many people’s beliefs, but it’s just not for me. I don’t even really think about it. What I do believe in is myself and those that I care about. My faith in myself is unshakeable. I have never doubted myself and I’m in no mood to start now. As for the people I love, they’re real. I see them every day and they give me all the support I need and more and for that I will be forever grateful. They believe in me and I believe in them. Let me also say that while I’ll be the one in the arena beating off the bad guys, if I win, these people are just as responsible for saving the world as I am, if not more so. I can fight. You better believe that, but I can’t get this done on my own. This is a team effort and though you may never see everyone I’m talking about, if you do have faith in God, send your prayers to them as well because they’re in this just as deep as I am. You need them to be just as strong if not stronger than me and you know what, they’re proving that to be true. I’m not the hero in this. They’re the heroes. Win or lose.’

Sally nodded slowly and silently. The silence stretched for a few moments more and Max wondered if he had broken the will of this media leviathan, which would only be a good thing as he was starting to get restless. His answers so far had come from the heart and it felt good to get his thoughts and feelings out, but this last question had started to stray a little too far out of his comfort zone . Then she spoke.

‘So, Max,’ she began, leaning forwards to rest her elbows on her knees, her glittering face coming even closer, ‘can you tell us about your childhood? What was your upbringing like and your mother in particular, what was she like because I understand you never knew your father as he left when you were very young?’

Now he was right out of his comfort zone. His childhood was off limits. His mother was off limits and as for his father, well, Sally was right about him not ever being in the picture, but that wasn’t his fault. The man didn’t know he had been used to spawn a human/alien hybrid child then left none the wiser when his mother ran off the next day. That didn’t make him a bad Dad.

‘Max?’ Sally asked, pulling Max out of his thoughts. ‘Your childhood?’

Max tightened his lips and looked down at his hands. How do you refuse Sally Sainsbury an answer on live television and maintain your integrity? Then he was saved.

‘Do you sleep in the nude?’ shouted a female voice from out of the audience?

This reignited the masses. Max turned away from Sally who immediately began trying to waive the crowd back down again. The question was repeated by another random voice from the crowd. Then another. Max smiled. Sally was going into over drive.

Then Max said, ‘Sorry, Sally, but I think the question deserves an answer.’

Sally was aghast. Her eyes flamed as she realised she was having her show hijacked and worse than that, her biggest star guest of all time was heavily compliant in the crime. Max stood up, looked down at Sally and shrugged. Then he turned away and walked off the front of the stage and past the line of cameras and stage hands. The cameras rolled out of the way and spun to keep focus on him.

The audience was baying like a zoo full of animals at feeding time. Max held up his hands and waved them about. Slowly the noise died down and Max was left standing alone in front of the massive bank of mostly female patrons.

‘Okay,’ he started. ‘Who asked the question?’

A hand tentatively rose at one end of the audience. Max faced the young lady, probably roughly in her mid-twenties and asked, ‘So, you want to know if I sleep in the nude?’

Virtually the entire crowd nodded. Max smiled.

‘No,’ he said. Disappointment rippled through the masses. ‘I wear briefs…and nothing else.’

Instantly the crowd ratcheted up again. Max waved them down and as they were quieting, another question shot out, this time from a forty-something lady, jumping in her seat like a fifteen-something teenager.

‘What’s your star sign?’ she shouted.

‘Ahh, good question. Gemini.’

The forty-something squealed. ‘Same as me!’ and she started shaking the lady sitting next to her.

‘Does that mean you’ve got a twin brother and what’s his phone number?’ shouted another voice from across the crowd.

‘No, sorry. No twin brother,’ Max answered.

‘A cousin?’ came another shout.

Max grinned and shook his head. ‘Uh, uh. No cousin either.’

‘Twin sister?’ called out a voice from the front row. Max looked and found the source to be a tall, leggy blonde who clearly knew her way around a gym. Max’s grin widened and he shook his head again. The lady shrugged.

And now the questions came thick and fast. Max took a couple of steps back and let the crowd connection overwhelm him. Team Max wanted public relations? Well, it couldn’t get any better than this. Holding his arms out wide Max bowed once and everyone got to their feet, jumping and cheering. Then Max bowed again and the chant rose even higher.

‘Team Max! Team Max! Team Max!’

This was so much better than talking about his childhood. Finally turning away from the crowd, Max walked back past the row of cameras and stage hands and back up onto the stage where Sally was still sitting in her chair, the fury now blooming across her whole face, her body as tense as a snake poised to strike. Max knew there was no point in trying to placate her, so he simply grabbed up Sally’s hand and kissed the back of it.

Sally tried to soften her features but failed, lancing Max with her glare. Noticing the downward spiralling influence the situation was having on the show, the studio director rallied the crew to rescue. Suddenly, the Team Max anthem fired up and the crowd immediately took over, clapping and stomping their feet so hard the entire studio shuddered with the rhythm.

Max took the cue and gave Sally one final smile before releasing her hand and turning away. Walking off the stage, he couldn’t help himself as he threw one final bow to the audience who by now were absolutely unrestrained. Smiling like a lottery winner, Max walked towards the studio doors and through them. The Team Max juggernaut was still rolling. Mission accomplished.

 

7:30am, 12h November (1 month later). Arena Plans

 

Abdullah and Joe walked into the mansion’s informal dining room and kitchen area to find Max, Elsa, the kids and Kris all together. The rooms were a bustle of activity, just like any family or group of friends getting ready for the day ahead.

Max sat at the table with Millie and Jason, a pile of bacon and eggs on his plate, his second breakfast already half demolished after having been put through an early morning training session by Kris. In the kitchen Elsa moved from the cupboards to the bench, making the children’s meals, while Kris poured milk into her bowl of muesli.

Joe looked around and found Peter out on the balcony, his phone in hand as he talked to someone. Joe waved him in and Peter wound up his conversation.

‘This looks ominous,’ Elsa said as she moved to the dining table to place plates of buttered toast in front of Millie and Jason.

‘Nice to see you all this morning,’ Joe said carefully, looking around at all the activity, ‘and why exactly is our appearance ominous, Elsa?’

Elsa moved back into the kitchen to put four more slices of bread into the toaster. Kris slipped past her with her muesli, while Max remained hunched over his own plate of food.

‘It means,’ Elsa started, ‘that it’s not often we see either of you this early in the day, so when both of you turn up together, it’s ominous.’

Joe nodded and glanced sideways to watch Peter come in off the balcony through the sliding door.

‘That’s an interesting assumption,’ Joe replied. ‘Perhaps we need to make a concerted effort to come and share breakfast with you more often?’

‘That’d be nice, but we know you’re busy men,’ Elsa said, just as the toaster popped up the four slices. ‘Toast?’

‘No thank you. We both had our breakfast earlier while watching Kris put Max through his paces this morning. Breakfast and a show, so to speak.’

‘Yeah, I saw you blokes up there, sipping your lattes while I broke a sweat,’ Max said as he swallowed his last fried egg and stood up to take his plate back to the kitchen. ‘Kris even made me do some extra plyometrics for entertainment value. You two blokes owe me.’

‘Don’t worry about him,’ Kris chimed in as she paused in between mouthfuls. ‘He’s all talk. He’s just miffed about me nailing him with the baseball pitching machine.’

‘My back’s all purple polka dots right now,’ Max replied as he grabbed an apple out of the fruit bowl. ‘In some countries you’d go to jail for what you did to me this morning. Assault and battery comes to mind.’

‘Aww, see, kiddies, what Kris puts your daddy through,’ Elsa said to Millie and Jason as she came to sit at the table with them to eat her toast. ‘She can be so mean sometimes.’

‘Wait till I get that baseball pitcher upgraded to a medicine ball cannon,’ Kris said, a grin in place.

‘A what?’ Max shot back.

Kris continued. ‘A medicine ball cannon. Abdullah promised me he’d get his engineers to whip one up for us.’

‘Not for us,’ Max said. ‘For you.’

Kris shrugged and got back to her muesli.

‘You were saying, Joe?’ Elsa said, returning the focus to Prime Minister Tollsen.

‘Thank you, Elsa, and I must say it always make me feel at home seeing you all together and enjoying each other’s company,’ Joe said, casting a quick glance to Abdullah who shot one back with a slight nod. ‘However, your suspicions, Elsa have proven correct, we do have an ulterior reason for calling on you all this morning and before I go on, sorry for the late notice, but we are going to disrupt your plans for today.’

‘Sounds fine to me,’ Max said, tossing his apple core in the bin and grabbing a second one. ‘Anything to get Kris away from cannons that shoot big heavy things at me.’

‘What’s on your mind?’ Elsa asked as she pushed Jason’s plate back in front of him to better catch at least some of the crumbs tumbling from his mouth.

‘We are going to take a small excursion to see the progress of the arena construction,’ Joe said.

Max slid a gaze back to Prime Minister Tollsen, but held his tongue. Peter also flicked a quick glance to Joe before returning to subconsciously scanning the windows.

‘I will now pass over to Abdullah to explain the operation,’ Joe continued, ‘and why it has taken so long for us to divulge anything regarding the arena project.’

All eyes turned to the Sheikh.

As salam alaykum,’ Abdullah greeted. ‘Good morning, everyone and may I also express how comforting it is to see you all together.’

‘To be fair, Your Highness,’ Elsa said, ‘we’re actually not all together unless Joe and yourself are with us too. We’re not Team Max without either of you.’

Abdullah smiled and bowed. Joe let his lips curl slightly and nodded, not to Elsa, but more to himself as a gush of warmth spread through his chest.

‘Thank you, Elsa,’ Abdullah replied. ‘Your words are very kind and so now, as Joseph said, I will outline to you where we are going and how.’ Everyone held quiet, either continuing to eat or pausing their meal to stop and listen. ‘Deliberately, we have not discussed the venue for the arena duels up until now. The reason for that is simple. Security. There are still several factions and organisations in the world that provide very real and credible threats to our safety. They still distrust us and would prefer to disrupt our preparations for New Year’s Eve and even kill us for their own reasons. Some are political. Others are religious and some are totally unexplainable. Regardless of the motives, the dangers of revealing the arena location too soon were too great, but now as New Year’s Eve approaches and the stadium construction matures, it is time for you all to witness the site ahead of any other delegations.’

‘Is it far,’ Elsa asked, ‘and is it safe to take the kids?’

‘It is not far and yes, it is safe to take Millie and Jason. Your protection is assured.’

‘How far is not far?’ Kris asked. ‘Somewhere on the east coast? Brisbane? Sydney? Melbourne?’

‘It is on the east coast of Australia, yes, but it is not in any of the capital cities,’ Abdullah replied.

‘If it’s not in a city, then I can’t think of any stadium big enough,’ Kris added. ‘I assume you’re inviting a crowd?’

Peter watched the interplay between Abdullah and Kris, his own mind asking exactly the same questions, but his voice remaining silent.

‘We are not utilising an existing stadium,’ Abdullah replied. ‘Rather we are constructing a new, fit for purpose stadium that will, yes, be able to hold a crowd. Not too large, but large enough for a representative audience to witness the event first hand.’

‘So where is it?’Max asked.

Abdullah turned to Max and said, ‘Saint Augustine Island.’

Max, Elsa and Kris all looked searchingly at each other, shoulders shrugging.

‘It’s next door,’ sounded Peter’s voice. All eyes turned towards Team Max’s head of security. ‘It’s just over that way about fifty kilometres,’ Peter added, jerking a thumb behind him.

‘You’re building a secret stadium right next door to us,’ Kris asked slowly, ‘knowing the whole world has their eyes on this island right here?’

‘We are,’ Abdullah answered, ‘and you have Joseph to thank for the brilliance in the simplicity. While the world is focused on our little island here, we have distracted them from the stadium island, which is so close, but so deeply in our shadow that no one would notice it.’

‘How much have you built so far?’ Kris asked.

‘We have been under construction for almost a month and are nearing completion of the main frame. We now would like you all to visit and especially Max and Kris to outline any preferred arena details you would like integrated such as weapons ports, shape of the arena space and the type of duelling surface. It is time to start designing and building these elements in.’

‘You mean you want to know,’ Kris began, ‘what we need to gain ourselves an advantage?’

‘Yes. You need to identify what elements will suit your strategy and skills, so we can make sure these elements are meticulously integrated. This may, unfortunately, require you to think somewhat like an engineer, but I assure you, my men are the most capable available to assist us.’

‘How is it you can manage to get a construction project like this going right now, all things considered?’ Elsa asked, getting up from the table and gathering her plate along with Millie and Jason’s plates. ‘I mean, sure we’ve managed to bring the world back from the brink to an extent and everyone’s a bit happier, but we’re all still perched on a knife edge and here you are, building a new stadium. The money I imagine is not an issue, but the logistics and in particular, the people. To build a stadium right now and in a matter of months compared to the usual, I don’t know two or three years it would normally take, where are you getting the people? You’d need thousands of workers and I can’t imagine there are thousands of willing workers just floating around right now?’

‘Your observation is astute,’ Abdullah said. ‘So, we had to adapt and the first criteria for the new stadium was the size. Saint Augustine Island is not overly large. Also, we do not plan on an overly large audience. We are designing it to accommodate approximately twenty thousand people, which by today’s standards is small, but given the stadium’s remote location, the fact it will be televised globally and our need to maintain security right up until the event commences, an overly large audience does not suit our planning.’

‘Okay,’ Elsa said slowly, ‘and the workers?’

‘Yes, the workers,’ Abdullah continued. ‘Given the relatively small size of the stadium and the fact it is a once-off event and so will not require durable construction, we realised we could build using a temporary design with temporary materials. Therefore, the key was not heavy machinery and cutting-edge construction technology, but rather simple materials and people power, hence why your question, Elsa is so important. We needed construction workers. Thousands of them and not necessarily skilled in any way. Worker bees if you will and only a handful of skilled supervisors to ensure progress and integrity of the work. Fortunately, only minimal technology and advanced engineering are needed for this approach, so the project is actually quite simple to execute.’

Elsa opened her mouth to ask again, but was cut short by Abdullah.

‘India,’ he said. ‘We sourced much of our labour force from India, where we knew there were tens of thousands of willing workers with no families of their own to spend these last few months with. So, we promised them two things if they joined our team. Subsistence in the form of guaranteed food and comfortable shelter and then payment in full of a substantial reward if our civilisation continued beyond the arena.’

‘You promised them riches if we all survived?’ Elsa asked. ‘And they bought into that?’

‘In their droves and as I am sure you would know,’ Abdullah replied, ‘I would like nothing more than to pay them their riches. The finances are already in place.’

‘You said it’s only a small stadium,’ Kris cut in. ‘Who’s invited?’

Abdullah waved a languid arm towards Joe who stepped forward.

‘Select world leaders only,’ he said. ‘There is a coalition within the United Nations that Sheikh Abdullah and I have managed to forge over the last few months, who have assisted each other in many ways to maintain a core of peace and control in the world. Be under no illusion that if this coalition did not exist, anarchy would have overcome us months ago despite the positive impact of Team Max. It is these dignitaries and a few more that will be in attendance. They are allowed to invite any direct and extended family relatives and some close associates if they wish.’

‘That won’t fill a twenty thousand capacity stadium,’ Max said. ‘Who’s making up the numbers?’

‘The workers,’ Joe answered. ‘We have fifteen thousand on site, so that should go a long way to filling the seats.’

‘Clever,’ Max added before throwing his second apple core in the bin.

The room fell quiet, except for Millie and Jason who were now tickling each other at the table.

‘Right,’ Elsa said. ‘I better get these two trouble makers out of here and into class. What time are we off?’

‘One o’clock,’ Joe replied. ‘We will convene on the north lawn and go via helicopter shuttle.’

‘Not the Black Hawks again?’ Kris said. ‘They’re so noisy.’

‘I’m sorry, Kris, but yes,’ Joe said.

Kris scowled.

‘Sir?’ Peter started. ‘Can I cover off a few things with your security chief before we go?’

‘Please, do,’ Joe replied. ‘Excuse me, Max?’ May Abdullah and I have a quick word with you and Kris?’

‘Sure,’ Max replied as he began peeling a banana. ‘It better be quick though. I’ve got weapons training in half an hour.’

Joe then led Max, Kris and Abdullah through the dining room and into the living room where they stood clustered around the coffee table. Joe began.

‘Max. Kris. We really do need you both to think carefully about what arena details you would like to have designed in and why. We were thinking things such as how weapons are positioned or made available around the arena. Perhaps they could be delivered through portholes in the floor or via windows in the surrounding wall? Also, would you like grass or some sort of synthetic surface on the arena itself? Kris, please also give thought as to how you would like to interact with Max on the night and Max, think about where and how you would like your family to be accommodated. This is just as important as weapons distribution as we want to make sure you have as much peace of mind as possible regarding your family’s comfort during the duels and also that you can see them clearly and they have no obstructions or difficulties in seeing you.’

Max nodded. Abdullah now spoke.

‘We are approaching the last, my friends,’ he said, his normally melodic rolling tone now serious. ‘Our planning and preparations are at the critical stage. Do not hold back on your requests. If you can imagine it, my engineers will make it so. Let hope drive your creativity.’

Joe looked on as both Max and Kris nodded, gravity clearly etched on their features. Abdullah was right. The planning was coming to a close. Fate would imminently arrive. The only question left unanswered is, would doom come hand in hand.

 

3am, 22nd November (10 days later). Maternal Vision

 

Blackness filled his vision. Complete. Total and utter. Not a hint nor a shade of any form of light fought against the darkness. It was all consuming and in it Max found a certain comfort, but then he became aware of something else. Something not at all comforting. Pain.

Suddenly light blasted into his senses, instantly and entirely replacing the darkness, causing his mind to spin. At first the light was a haze with no definition within it. Then slowly, images formed. Edges appeared and even colour. Depth and clarity followed and finally, Max beheld a vision and it was strange, but above all, it was awful.

In front of him stood a massive, wall-sized pane of glass, looking out to a dark void scape that held within it, splinters of light. Space. That was all it could be. Stars and space, but it was not this odd view that was awful. It was the reflection he could see in the glass and it was not himself. It was his mother and she was in pain.

Max had never seen his mother in alien form, but he instinctively recognised her and to see her now like this and for the first time was despairing. He did not know her true anatomy, but it was obvious that she had been injured, horribly. Max also suspected the injuries were not accidental, but had been inflicted, cruelly.

Her arms were scarred and raw. Her legs were cut and scalded and her face disfigured. His mother had been tortured and while Max could still see the strength of her defiance in her eyes, he could also feel her will faltering. Her ordeal had been long and brutal, but still she resisted.

Max searched his mother’s mind, how he did this he did not know, but he did and instantly found the source of her strength. Her son. Max himself. She knew Max still lived and that while he lived, her hope held.

Suddenly, it dawned on Max that this was a vision and he was in fact looking through his mother’s eyes like they were his own. He wondered what other things he could do in this form? He tried to speak to his mother and he heard his own spoken words as he willed them into reality.

‘Mother?’ Max said urgently. ‘Is that you?’

‘My son,’ sounded a voice that despite the foreign language, Max could somehow understand. Obvious also was the relief. ‘At last you have found me.’

‘Where are you?’

‘I am in Macktidas’ jail on the Nar’gellan command ship.’

‘Where is that?’

‘Far, beyond your physical reach, but do not worry yourself with my situation. I am alive and I will keep myself alive as long as you live. Macktidas cannot break me, no matter how heinous his methods.’

‘Why is he torturing you?’

‘Originally it was to find you, but since his discovery of you, it has turned into mindless entertainment. I think now he wants me to witness your death and then he will finally kill me and claim the throne without dispute.’’

‘Tell me what I can do? How do I free you?’

‘You cannot free me. Not even I know where in the universe I am, but I can assure you, we are nowhere close to Earth. I am beyond you.’

‘There has to be something I can do? There has to be? Tell me?’

‘There is one thing you can do.’

‘What?”

‘You can kill Macktidas.’

‘If I can’t reach him, how do I do that?’

‘He will come to you. I know he has challenged you to a series of duels. It is the common custom of our people to hold tournaments, whereby our ruler must reconfirm their eligibility to command by defeating three opponents in combat, the final one being a genuine challenger for the throne. In this case, because Macktidas knows you are the rightful ruler, he has at least demonstrated some honour and relegated himself to challenger status, but this means you have the disadvantage. You must compete in all three duels, but finally, at the last, you will gain your opportunity. Macktidas is the challenger and so, he personally will enter the arena for the third duel and that will be your opportunity to kill him and rightfully claim your throne. Until he kills you, he knows his claim to the throne is in dispute.’

‘But you are the rightful ruler of the Nar’gellan race. Not me.’

‘When Macktidas usurped the throne and killed your father and your older siblings, I abdicated by fleeing. I no longer held the strength of arms or loyalty in the population to remain as leader, but you, my son, do have the abilities needed to rule. I raised you deliberately to do so for I knew that eventually Macktidas would find you and now he has. Your destiny has arrived and I know you are ready to claim it.’

‘I also know who I am, mother. I’m a half breed and even though I’ll fight to the death and maybe even win the first and second duel, I know my chances against Macktidas are small. He is an elite. A select strain of the Nar’gellan species. For me to defeat him after having fought two duels, I will need extraordinary luck and even then, that may not be enough.’

‘My son, open your mind and open your heart. Even from my jail cell I can feel the strength growing inside you. I can feel your Nar’gellan and human halves melding together, making you whole. I can feel your purpose inside your mind and how both your human and Nar’gellan passions drive you. Do not be dismayed by your half breed genetics. It is in fact your humanity that gives you the edge over Macktidas. Your human emotions make you superior to his blind, Nar’gellan blood lust. You have the most powerful weapon of all inside your heart. Love. Nar’gellans do not feel love. Not even I. We raise children and grow affinities for our fellow Nar’gellans in ways other than through love, such as respect and loyalty. We do not feel love. We are just not capable of it. Humans naturally feel love and when you face Macktidas, it will be your love that ultimately defeats him.’

‘I don’t understand. How can you feel what’s in my heart and in my mind? Not even I can decipher my feelings that clearly.’

‘Nar’gellan mothers retain a mental link to their children, all through their lives. I have watched you ever since the day I left, but due to the complexity of your human genetics, you have not naturally activated your link and so I could not communicate with you. I could only watch, but it seems at last, you have broken through and I am thankful because I have another message for you now. In addition to your humanity providing you the advantage in combat, be also aware that Macktidas has a physical weakness. Nar’gellans are vulnerable to what humans call electricity. Our blood stream is particularly sensitive to its charging effects, to the point that we literally boil from the inside out, so make sure you use electricity where possible in your arsenal, but beware, you yourself may also be partially or highly susceptible to the same damaging effects. I do not know if your human cell structure aids you in any way, so take care.’

‘Thank you. Now tell me, what else I can do for you while we’re linked?’

‘There is nothing. Just fulfil your destiny and be the son I raised you to be. Only then will I be free, regardless of my life or death.’

Suddenly, a scraping noise sounded and through his mother’s eyes in the reflection of the glass, Max watched a portal slide open behind her. She did not turn. She did not flinch, but Max felt her dismay as a figure filled the frame. The shape was huge. Enormous and without ever having seen his full form, Max knew who it was. Macktidas.

The beast looked just like any other of the Nar’gellan soldiers Max had seen and beaten, except this monster was half the size again. Macktidas towered over his mother’s broken form and the glare from his eyes portrayed the malice his mother had spoken of.

‘Go now,’ his mother said silently to Max. ‘There is nothing for you to see here. Be strong and be my son.’

‘Mother!’ Max called out. ‘Mother wait! Tell him I’m going to kill him! Tell him he’s going to die!’

‘Goodbye, Max.’

And the light snuffed out and the complete and total blackness returned, but this time, Max fought against it. He knew what lay on the other side of the dark. His mother. He had finally found her and she needed him and he would not go quietly away. Surrounded by pitch, Max struck out. He flailed. He wailed. He cursed and shouted and then he woke up in bed, fighting an invisible foe.

 

Noon, 1st December (8 days later). Christmas Hope

 

‘What time is he on?’ Kris asked as she hung another candy cane on the Christmas tree that had been put up in the formal living room.

‘Midday,’ Elsa replied as she helped Jason hang a glitter coated pine cone on a lower branch. ‘He’s got the whole show to himself again. I think Sally’s going to really grill him today given she won’t get a third bite at him.’

‘How was he feeling this morning?’ I know he hated the last time he went up against her, but he was awesome anyway. He made Sally look like an extra on her own show.’

Elsa reached into a box and pulled out two more ruby red baubles and gave one each to Jason and Millie who scurried off to hang them.

‘Yeah, he did,’ Elsa replied. ‘I’ve got to admit though, I don’t mind watching the odd bit of Sally Sainsbury. Sure, she’s fake and the whole show is sickening, but hey, if you’re looking for a release from reality, Sally’s the goods. You can’t get much more unreal or over the top than her.’

‘Can’t argue with that,’ Kris said as she stood on tiptoes to perch a snowman on a high branch. ‘Wow, this tree is huge! I’ve never had one even half as big as this.’

‘Me neither,’ Elsa agreed, pulling a length of silver tinsel out of the box and searching around for somewhere to string it up. ‘Hey, are you heading back to Brisbane to spend Christmas with your family?’

‘Just Christmas Eve and most of Christmas day. Be back Christmas night. Can’t afford to slack off this close to the finish line.’

‘Well, it’s your call,’ Elsa said as she tossed the tinsel off to the side and instead pulled out a small reindeer and a star for the kids, ‘but I reckon you should stay there through to Boxing Day. You’ve got Max this far. I think he can handle himself for a couple of days on his own. I know I don’t need to remind you this might be the last Christmas before the end of the world.’

Kris didn’t answer. Instead she paused and looked out the wide space of the opening onto the balcony. Outside, the rising heat of the midmorning summer sun formed a haze over the distant palm trees bordering the beach. The bleached blue sky hung flawlessly behind. Then the lazy silhouette of a Black Hawk droned into view offshore of the island, its ceaseless presence no longer a distraction.

‘Hey,’ Elsa said gently as she came up behind Kris and laid a hand on her shoulder. Kris stirred and half smiled. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to be a bully. You do what you want and I’ll shut up.’

‘No. It’s alright,’ Kris said, turning and fully opening up her smile. ‘You’re allowed to lecture me. Friends get a free shot. If it was anyone else, they’d be getting a death stare.’

‘I’d love to have you here on Christmas Day,’ Elsa added, ‘and I know Max and the kids would too and as for Abdullah? Well, I think we all know how he’d feel, even though Christmas is not technically on his calendar.’

Kris nodded and quickly turned away to walk back to the coffee table in the centre of the room to get her glass of water.

‘It’s none of my business,’ Elsa added, ‘but seeing as you gave me one free shot, I’ll take a second too. You and Abdullah need to sort out your feelings and get on with being together. This whole end of the world thing might cause some trouble with that too.’

‘What am I going to do?’ Kris said, raising a hand and then letting it drop to slap against her thigh. ‘I don’t even know how to, you know, ask him out.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He’s Muslim and I’m not. That’s not going to work.’

‘Is that it? Is that what’s stopping you? Religion?’

‘Come on, Elsa?’ Kris said, putting her glass back down and walking back to rummage in the decorations box for another trinket. ‘Religion’s pretty important and let’s face it. Abdullah’s not exactly a casual worshipper and on top of that, he’s a king. There’s no way he could spend any time with me. He needs to have a princess for a girlfriend and a Muslim princess to boot. I’ve got nothing that’s going to work with him.’

Elsa smiled and looked upon her friend with soft eyes and a gentle smile. Kris noted the silence and looked back.

‘What?’ Kris said, her head askance.

‘I think it’s sweet.’

‘What’s sweet?’

‘That you care so much about Abdullah that you think you’re not good enough for him and don’t want to hurt him by putting him into a difficult situation.’

Kris paused and held her gaze on Elsa for a moment to then let it drift away into space. Elsa let her words sink in for a few seconds more and then walked over to take Kris’ hand and lead her away from the tree to sit down on a couch.

‘Kris, you both care for each other,’ Elsa began, ‘not just as close friends, but as probably something more and given we’re all staring down the barrel of only one more month of life as we know it, take a chance. Don’t let something like religion get in the way of at least telling him how you feel. Life literally might be too short to waste this opportunity and you know what I think? I think that despite his devout belief in Islam, Abdullah is a much bigger believer in human spirit and if he cares for you in the same way you care for him, he won’t let his religion get in the way.’

Kris listened silently and nodded at the end. Elsa let the pause linger, waiting for Kris to break it first.

‘Okay,’ Kris finally said softly, looking down into her lap. ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘Don’t think about it!’ Elsa protested, reaching across to squeeze Kris’ hand. ‘Do it! Besides, the man’s a king! He’s rich and he’s pretty damn good looking too. If I didn’t have Max hanging around, I’d be all over Abdullah. The man’s a catch and so are you by the way, so get on with it!’

Now Kris smiled a wide, beaming grin. Elsa squeezed her hand again and Kris looked up.

‘Okay,’ Kris said. ‘I’ll think really, really hard about it.’

‘That’s better,’ Elsa replied, turning to watch Millie and Jason start pulling a bunch of tinsel strings out of another box.

‘And what about you?’ Kris asked.

Elsa turned back and said, ‘What about me?’

‘Now it’s my turn for a free shot. How are you holding up? You might be just about to lose your husband and then there’s Millie and Jason. How are you handling them?’

‘I don’t worry so much about Max and I know that sounds a bit cold, but the truth is, we’ve known for a long time that this was coming. It’s still hard to deal with, but Max has to do what Max has to do and I bought into that. What I do struggle with though is the kids. Not that they really know what’s coming. It’s more that when Max first told me all about his alien side and that Macktidas would one day come along and upend us, it was just us. Me and him. No kids to think about, but now we’ve got Millie and Jason and it’s different. Completely different. Now we have someone else in our lives to protect and its’ hard to come to grips with the fact that they might just be about to lose the greatest protector they could ever have in their father and then if that happens and Macktidas’ army comes in to kill us all, all they’ll have is me and I’ll be useless in helping them. I’m not a soldier, let alone anything like Max, so that’s what makes it hard. I just feel, you know, helpless when I think about it, so I shut it out, at least as much as I can.’

Elsa stopped and looked at her children as they wrapped each other in strings of green, red and silver tinsel, giggling like mad. Now it was Kris’ turn to look softly at her friend.

‘Let me tell you something,’ Kris said softly, dragging Elsa’s attention back to her. ‘I’m not a mother and I may never be one, but I’ve spent enough time with you and Max and the kids and what I know is that when Millie and Jason look up at you, it’s unconditional love. Their eyes brim with it and if Max is no longer around to protect all of you, they don’t need you to be just like Max. They need you to be just like you. Their mother and someone who unconditionally loves them in return. You may not be able to fight off alien hordes, but the way you protect your children is by wrapping them in love all the way to the end and that’s better than anything else. Love may not save your lives, but it will keep the fear at bay and it’s hard to ask for much more than that. Love is really all a child wants and you’ve got loads of love to give them.’

Staring at Kris, Elsa’s eyes grew wide, her pupils deep and full as tears filmed across them. Leaning forward, Elsa gently embraced her friend and held her tight. Kris hugged her back and they stayed locked together in silence.

Suddenly, the two women felt little hands pulling at them and they broke apart to find Millie and Jason tugging on their clothes.

‘Our turn! Our turn!’ they pleaded. Elsa and Kris laughed, genuine, heart-warming laughter in return.

‘Okay!’ Elsa called out and hefted Millie off her feet as she stood up, hugging her close and spinning.

Kris followed suit, lifting Jason off the floor too, squeezing him into her chest as he giggled and giggled.

 

Noon, 1st December (same time). Together We Win

 

‘Max?’ Sally asked. ‘You’re mysteriously quiet? Why so pensive?’

Max looked up at his host and searched her eyes for even the most remote possibility that she would ask anything other than another question about how he was feeling and unfortunately, he failed. So, Max decided to take matters into his own hands and usurp the interview, regardless of the consequences.

‘Sally, I don’t want to talk about myself anymore,’ he said plainly. ‘In all honesty, I’m just a regular bloke. Sure, in a month’s time I’m going to step into the arena and defend the world’s safety against God knows what sort of aliens, but today, right now, I’m not the most important story on the planet.’

Sally’s response as best Max could make out was mainly shock. At first she opened her eyes slightly wider and stiffened a little in her chair, but then slowly Max saw the wheels start to grind back into motion. Her eyes squinted marginally and then hardened around the edges as a slight tension gripped her jaw line.

‘So, Max,’ Sally said, probably a little more tersely than she would have liked, ‘if you are not the biggest story on the planet today, what on Earth is?’

‘Us,’ Max replied, holding his hands out to the sides, palms open and looking from Sally to the audience. ‘All of us.’

‘I don’t understand. All eyes are on you right now, Max, so why don’t we get back to you?’ Sally said, shifting in her seat and attempting to wrest control back of the interview.

‘Sally, I’m not a deep thinker,’ Max ploughed on, ‘and I’m absolutely not a philosopher or a visionary. I’m no good at any of that stuff, but what I am good at is observing things. I see, hear and feel things around me and then react on instinct. I don’t think deeply about how I react. I just do it and that seems to have got me this far in life. So I must be observing things okay, so let me tell you what my observation is that explains why I think all of us are the biggest story in the world right now?’

If Sally had been allowed to stand up and rail at Max, she would have, but the queen of day time television does no such thing, so seeking guidance and support, she looked across at her stage producer, who immediately signalled back that she had to run with it. Sally’s return glare to the producer promised imminent discomfort, but she had to give in. Turning back to Max, she plucked up all her depths of professionalism and fashioned the most radiating, flawless and completely disingenuous smile. A weaker man would have flinched, but it bounced off Max like a bug off a windshield.

‘Please, go on, Max?’ she oozed. ‘What is this observation of your’s?’

‘Well,’ Max said, leaning back in his chair, ‘five months ago when all this first started and that big, ugly alien popped up on the screen and threatened everyone, fear took over. Everywhere. I could see it. I could hear it and I could absolutely feel it. It was rampant and you didn’t need to be a good observer to know that fear was king back then.’

‘And now?’ Sally expertly cut-in. ‘Five months on, what do you observe now?’

‘Hope.’

Sally arched an eyebrow. ‘Hope? How can that be when we all know that big, ugly alien is still out there planning to kill us all?’

‘Sure, he’s still out there and yes, he’s still coming for us, but five months on, we’re not living in fear any more. Hope has taken over and my proof is in what I see, hear and feel.’

‘And what exactly do you see, hear and feel?’

‘I see wars on hold. I see people trying to live normal lives. I see crime rates lower than before all this started. I hear new songs of hope and joy on the radio. I hear people being interviewed all over the world, encouraging others to get out of hiding and celebrate life. I even hear studio audiences laughing at my bad jokes.’

The audience cheered and clapped on cue.

Sally forced out a small smile. ‘So what do you feel, Max? Do you feel hope around you?’

‘More than anything. Every time I lace up these orange shoes and run around in front of a crowd, it’s viral. The air is thick with it. If I had a butterfly net, I could catch it all day. I can even feel it right now. Right here. This audience is not sitting here in fear. They’re pumped. They’re up for whatever comes next. They’re not waiting for some big, dumb alien to come down and wipe us out, are you?’ Max said, turning to the audience. The crowd burst into action. Cheers, whoops and applause burst out.

Max and Sally patiently waited for the crowd to settle down, even though it took some time. As the noise dissipated, Max took in Sally’s expression and noted it had softened. The crinkles at the corners of her eyes had gone and the firmness of her jaw had eased. She sat silently watching the audience beyond the cameras, her eyes taking it all in. When the crowd finally fell quiet, Sally did not re-engage. Instead she sat looking beyond the bright lights and out into space. Max ventured gently in.

‘Sally, I know you can feel it too, can’t you?’ he asked.

Sally broke from her reverie and looked directly at Max. The facade was gone. It had broken and melted away. Just like that. No longer did the queen of day time television sit across from Max. Sally was just another human on the planet, living in the same moment and the same world as everyone else.

‘I can feel it,’ she said quietly.

‘And now,’ Max added, ‘do you want me to share with you the rare deep thinking that I’ve done and tell you why I think hope has replaced fear?’

Sally nodded.

Max leaned forward and over a billion television screens filled with a close-up of Maximilian Augustus Dyson.

‘Five months ago when we were first threatened, fear set in because we all retreated from the threat. We hid. We pulled back into ourselves. We ran away from the danger and ultimately, we all wound up alone. Not literally, although in many cases yes, but figuratively. Families pulled in and hid away. Individuals with nowhere to go, isolated themselves. We stopped going outside. We stopped trusting each other. We didn’t even talk to each other and by all of us hiding away, we allowed fear to take control and rule our lives. Then that fear drove many people to strike out and hurt others and that ramped the fear up even higher. We self-escalated and every day, we notched the fear level up again and again. We were all, each of us alone and under the control of fear.’

‘And then you came out and gave us something to hope for,’ Sally not so much asked, but just said.

‘Well, sure I was part of the catalyst to change, but you know what,’ Max said, ‘I didn’t make hope. People don’t make hope. It’s an emotion, so it’s always there. Hope is always there inside people, it just has to have the courage to come out and while fear was ruling the roost, there was no way hope was coming out to play. So, sure, I gave hope a little bit of a leg up, but hope performs best when it has company, when it has friends. When one person hopes, it helps another person start to hope and then like any good virus, it becomes contagious and before you know it, hope is everywhere, fuelling itself and that’s what happened over the last few months. Our hope found its courage and it beat fear down. We found hope and we beat fear down. We did it, together and that’s why I say, the most important story in the world right now is all about us. All of us. We’ve stood up. We’ve said enough of this fear crap. We’re not going to hide in some hole and wait for whatever happens next. We’re going to get up and face it and live life while we can. This story is about the entire human race living in hope. That’s what this story is about and inside that story there’s a lesson to be learnt.’

Sally tilted her head. ‘A lesson? What lesson?’

‘Alone, we will lose. Alone we are powerless. Alone we will destroy ourselves and each other and by the time the aliens turn up, we’ll have already killed ourselves, but together, we have real power. If we’re going to beat this alien thug and his armies, we can only do it together. Our real strength is in finding each other, standing next to each other and supporting each other. No one has to live in fear because if we all face this as one, we can do anything we want and that goes for me too. I’m no one on my own, but with my family and those that I care about by my side, together we’re a force to be reckoned with and then there’s the support all of you give me. The hope you instil in me is overwhelming. I may not be superman, but bloody hell, some days I sure feel like it. I have learned over the last few months I need all of you, just as much as you need me. The lesson in all this is, alone we lose, but together…together we win.’

Max rammed the last word out through gritted teeth, his clenched fist pumping the air. Instantly, the crowd ripped the air apart. It was like all the herds of Africa had rumbled into the studio at once. Even if Max had wanted to talk, it was pointless. Every single person in the audience was up and jumping or stamping their feet or clapping their hands red raw. Pandemonium reigned and then the Team Max anthem sounded and the noise levels escalated even higher with the overhead clapping and foot stomping.

Meanwhile, up on stage, Sally just stared at Max, all semblance of her television personality completely gone. Even her make-up looked dulled down. She was now just simply Sally and then she slowly got to her feet and took a step forward to stand in front of Max. He looked up at her and then she put her arms out wide. For a long moment, Max sat and looked up at her like a child beholding his mother and then, slowly, he too stood up and accepted Sally’s gentle, but firm embrace. Max hugged her in return like he would his own children. It was warm, genuine and honestly felt really good. Despite the rioting crowd and the fact he could not see Sally’s face, Max knew she was crying and that made him feel even better because he knew they were cleansing tears of joy. Max smiled probably one of the widest and happiest smiles he had ever felt and hugged Sally even harder.

 

9pm, 1st December (later that night). The Pain of a Good Man

 

The mansion’s formal living room ebbed and flowed with a tide of casual conversation and good natured cheer. As the crowd grew more and more comfortable, the volume of laughter steadily rose and the clink of glassware became more frequent. Christmas spirit gripped the island and for tonight at least, most thoughts turned away from the arena to find welcome respite in the festive season.

Prominently placed in front of one of the expansive windows overlooking the north lawn where Max and Kris trained, stood the Christmas tree, the angel crowning its peak looking down on the gathering, its glitter encrusted halo flecking the ceiling with blinking starlight.

Silver trays of Christmas cake, candy canes and rum balls adorned the sideboards and side tables, while the coffee table had become the serve yourself bar with various forms of spirits lined up next to a broad bank of glass tumblers. Beside the tumblers stood a metal ice tub, accommodating glistening bottles of genuine French champagne, while nestled in amongst it all was a large, glass bowl of punch, the sweet, orange-coloured cocktail brimming with large chunks of fresh citrus fruit.

Dinner had come and gone and many of the residents and workers in the household had now convened to toast the beginning of the Christmas season. Most people clustered inside the living room where the air conditioning held the sultry evening heat at bay, while out on the balcony there stood a single person.

Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen leaned silently against the railing, looking back into the room over the open threshold, his hands in his pockets and his wooden pipe stuck between his lips. It was hard to tell from a distance, but up close, a gentle curling of the corners of his mouth could be seen, the unconscious smile matching the warmth he felt in his heart.

Inside, Joe could see Millie and Jason playing at the feet of the Christmas tree, scouring the presents for any with their names on them. Helping them were a handful of other children also staying on the estate as sons and daughters of some of the support staff. Max and Elsa were talking to Millie and Jason’s teacher, while over the back, Kris was sharing a drink with several of the kitchen staff.

The entire household had never been called together like this before and Joe was a little surprised to see just how many people were needed to make this operation work. Again, another reminder that teamwork is the key. None of them could do this on their own. A memory flashed through Joe’s mind as he recalled Max on the Sally Sainsbury show earlier in the day and his soliloquy, ‘Alone we lose, but together we win.’ Joe’s smile widened a little more and he nodded to himself.

Joe then noticed the crowd part as another figure entered the fray. It could only be one person and as the parting of the crowd lined up with his perspective, Joe found Abdullah gliding towards him.

As salam alaykum, Joseph,’ Abdullah said stopping in front of him and bowing slightly, ‘and season’s greetings to you also.’

Joe removed the pipe from his mouth and extended his hand, which Abdullah accepted with both of his.

‘And the best of the season to you also, Your Highness,’ Joe replied. ‘I would wish you many things right now, but I shall restrain myself to just one wish in this instance. May we all have peace?’

Abdullah straightened and nodded. ‘Yes. May we all find peace, my dear friend?’

‘Can I seek you out a beverage?’ Joe asked.

‘No thank you. However, I may attempt some of your Christmas cake a little later.’

‘My advice is first check with the kitchen staff, which tray has the alcohol free recipe. The piece I just had would absolutely not have been to your liking.’

‘I shall. Thank you,’ Abdullah replied, stepping forward and next to the Prime Minister to rest both hands on the railing as he looked over the distant palms to the star-rich sky. ‘I notice your pipe has become a more frequent companion in recent months. Does it still provide as much solace as always?’

Joe looked down at his pipe in his hand and turned it over, the rich grain of the wood shining in the hazy light.

‘Yes it does’ Joe said. ‘This pipe is as much a part of my life as any person and even though I have refrained from lighting a fire in it for four years now, I do still enjoy the feel and smell of it at close quarters. As you know, I went through my darkest days with the support of this old piece of wood and it has never let me down. Even now as I continue to starve it of sustenance, it fills me with comfort. Even now as we stare down the end of the world.’

Abdullah turned and looked at Joseph, enjoying the sight of his close friend lost in the sight and detail of his most prized possession.

‘It gladdens me to see you happy at this time, Joseph,’ Abdullah said. ‘You have worked tirelessly to corral and coordinate our political colleagues over these last few months and I must say, we have all been rewarded with wonderful success. In particular, your efforts at the United Nations Council this last month has been nothing short of magnificent. Our European counterparts are certainly struggling to remain united, but you have convinced them that hope lies in unity rather than isolation.’

Joe unlocked his gaze from his pipe and turned also to look out over the darkened edge. ‘It is an age-old message and truth, Abdullah. True strength lies in unity. Weakness is spawned from isolation. However, it occurred to me this afternoon that while I and you I might add, have worked tirelessly to hammer home that truth, we should have just wheeled Max into the council. His performance today was astonishing.’

‘Yes, it was,’ Abdullah replied. ‘He is a most remarkable man. His physical superiority is without question, but every day, he reveals more and more glimpses of his natural leadership. When he chooses to, he not only speaks eloquently, but he speaks from the heart and it is pure. Our old foe, Charles Ingot the Third was right to fear Max. If we are successful and Max survives the arena and he chooses to, he could well initiate a new world order and bring other nations and institutions crashing down. Billions would follow him as a Messiah. He could command vast armies and unlike any other current leader or general, actually lead his armies into battle himself. The man has the potential to be a colossus. Fortunately and I do believe this to be true, Max harbours no such ambition.’

‘I agree,’ Joe said. ‘He is a family man and it is exactly that humility, which makes him great. I envy him. Not for his incredible traits and skills, but for knowing himself and for his humble pursuits.’

A silence enveloped them. Joe replaced his pipe between his teeth. Abdullah breathed in the night air. Neither man knew it, but the same thoughts filled their minds. Their childhoods. Their parents. Their siblings and where all of these dear people in their lives were now. The silence persisted, comfortably.

‘Gentlemen,’ sounded a familiar voice. ‘You’re hiding.’

Both Abdullah and Joe broke from their reveries and turned to see Max striding out over the threshold and onto the balcony to join them at the railing. Max popped a large slab of Christmas cake into his mouth and then repositioned a handful of rum balls in his other hand as he came up next to them.

‘Hiding, yes,’ Joe said, ‘but happy to be found.’

‘Good, because you’ve both been AWOL for the last two weeks,’ Max said as he sorted through his rum balls.

‘It is a conundrum,’ Joe replied as he turned back to the view, ‘but political life has actually intensified as the end of the world looms. I would have expected all of us politician’s to have been lynched or stoned to death by now.’

‘I’m sure that has actually happened in some parts of the world,’ Max said as he selected his next morsel, ‘and it’s just that here in the civilised world, our morals are lingering a touch longer. And you, Your Highness. Duty calls?’

‘I have been at home,’ Abdullah replied. ‘My final voyage.’

‘Not if I’ve got anything to do with it.’

Abdullah smiled and cast a quick glance at Max. Max flicked his eyebrows up and popped a rumball into his mouth.

Joe took his pipe from his mouth and turned to the other two men. ‘Gentlemen, before I go and avail myself of some ridiculously expensive champagne and mingle with the troops, Max let me just say that today you were nothing short of marvellous with Ms Sainsbury. I know you have been uncomfortable with the entire media campaign, but that discomfort has in no way affected your contributions. Today you spoke like a statesman. No, that is an understatement. You spoke like a leader and it is a voice like your’s with conviction and weight that the world needs right now. Our world is teetering once again, but today, I am already seeing evidence that you have pulled us all back together again, better than any way either I or Abdullah could have managed. You know there are already over fifty t-shirt designs around the world with variations on the theme of, “Alone we lose, but together we win”? You are an even bigger global phenomenon now than you were twelve hours ago and that I honestly thought would have been impossible, but apparently nothing is beyond you.’

Max held his gaze on his Prime Minister for a few moments and then looked sideways to find Abdullah’s piercing hazel eyes as well. He then looked down at the rumballs in his hand.

‘You know, Mister Prime Minister, sure those words came out of my mouth today, but they were inspired by someone else. Two someone elses in fact. Yourself and His Royal Highness here,’ Max said, waving an arm towards Abdullah. ‘You two are the architects of Team Max, so if I sounded magnificent today, it’s because I’ve got two of the best mentors around. You’ve not only guided us successfully to where we are today and that includes keeping the entire world on track, but you’ve done it with compassion and kindness and if we do all fall at the arena, I’m glad of one thing, we’ve become friends. Before Macktidas carved my face all over the planet and caused all this trouble, I had no desire to really know anyone else. I didn’t need friends. I had my family and that was all I needed and wanted. Well, I was wrong. You’ve both opened my eyes and I know I’m a better person for knowing you both, so for what it’s worth, thank you. You’re good men. Thank you.’

A silence cocooned them and inside that silence, an unspoken bond cemented itself. Abdullah stepped forward and extended his right hand out into the space between them all, palm down. Max followed the Sheikh’s lead and stepped forward as well to place his own hand over Abdullah’s. Joe then followed suit last, his smile widening around his pipe.

Then Joe said with a small chuckle, ‘Your Highness, he just did it again.’

Abdullah nodded and smiled also. ‘Yes, he did. Yes, he did.’

‘Thank you, gentlemen,’ Joe said and plucked his pipe from between his teeth to raise it in toast. ‘I am venturing inside for some champagne. Enjoy the air.’

Ma as Salama,’ Abdullah said. ‘Good evening.’

Max watched Joe go and something struck him. His Prime Minister was sauntering with one hand in his pocket and the other up holding his pipe in his mouth. The man actually looked relaxed despite the potential end of the world being closer than ever. Max smiled and looked up at the night sky.

Abdullah spoke. ‘Joseph does indeed seem at ease this evening does he not and if I could hazard a guess at the reason, I imagine it is because it is a long time indeed since he felt the warmth of family. Joseph has been alone in this world for a long time, too long, but in this struggle we are all in, he has found all of you and that has given him the comfort of family. You have all become his sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and he is a more contented man for it.’

Max turned and looked into his friend’s deep eyes, the hazel irises ebony in the half light. A gleam of secrets glistened inside them, but wrapped around the eyes, Max found the familiar reassurance of friendship. Max could not help, but trust this man and perhaps now was the time to find out some more truths? Perhaps there would never be a better time to learn of the man beneath the robes?

‘Abdullah, can I be completely candid with you?’ Max asked, stepping up to the railing and turning his back to it to lean against it.

‘I would have it no other way, my friend,’ Abdullah replied, turning to send his gaze back out over the horizon and into the stars.

‘Good. Thanks,’ Max said, absently watching the crowd shuffle and move inside the living room as he gathered his thoughts. ‘I have an observation and a question and you don’t have to answer the question, but gee you intrigue me, so I’ve got to ask.’

‘The feeling is mutual, Max and I think it only fair you ask for some insights into me considering what you have divulged of yourself over the last few months.’

‘Alright, here goes. The end of the world might be coming and with you and Joe’s help, we’ve managed to hold things together pretty well. Not just for ourselves, but the whole planet. You and Joe can’t take enough credit for what you’ve done and if this all comes to a relatively good end, you both deserve the highest honours anyone can grant. However, here’s my observation, it’s been you and your quiet counsel that’s helped us all come to terms with our individual fears and regrets and make peace with ourselves and so now here’s my question, what about you? How do you make peace? No one lives a life without some sort of regret or pain. Not even you. Before you said Joe had lived alone in the world for too long and the moment you said that, I looked at you because if anything, you seem just as alone as Joe, if not more so. Maybe your religion is your company? I don’t know, but what I do know is that we’ve all got demons and for anyone who is alone, those demons get even more nasty. Just ask Kris. So, how do you make peace? What demons have you beaten down to be so content?’

Sheikh Abdullah did not move. A few moments later, Max realised the man had frozen and maybe even hardened a little. He seemed tense. Then Abdullah dropped his head and looked down at the ground beyond the railing. The silence held in place like a lock on a vault. Max wondered if he should apologise and abandon the subject, but then Abdullah spoke, quietly and not much more than a whisper.

‘Her name is Fathiya and she is waiting for me,’ Abdullah said, not looking up at Max.

The tone and broken inflections of Abdullah’s voice instantly betrayed the depth of his emotion and then he looked up and the gravity of the revelation hit Max like a boulder slamming down onto his shoulders. Even in the half-light, Max could clearly see Abdullah’s face and what was etched across it. Pain.

A deep sadness flowed from the wells in Abdullah’s eyes. The man’s hurt was palpable and Max suspected a lesser person would have been overcome by the magnitude of this emotion, but not this man. The expression on Abdullah’s face proved he had confronted his demons and beaten them down, but still they haunted him.

‘She was nineteen and I was twenty-one,’ Sheikh Abdullah finally resumed, his voice low, but clear. ‘We were betrothed and a wedding date set for her twentieth birthday. We had enjoyed each other’s love for many years as younger, more innocent creatures and knew our destinies were intertwined, so we decided not to rush. What did time matter to us when we had the rest of our lives? So, even with our families having already given us permission to marry, we held off and waited till we were ready.’

Sheikh Abdullah lifted his chin and cast a sightless gaze into the distance, tears welling in his eyes and then he said, ‘Such is life when you are young.’

The Sheikh then closed his eyes and a single, fulsome tear, streaked from one eye to run down his cheek and splash on the back of his hand as it rested on the stone railing. The dam did not break though. Abdullah held his composure and after a few moments of silence, he turned back to look Max directly in the eye. He did not wipe the streak from his face or in any way acknowledge the tear and even though Max could see that the few moments of collection had eased the pain, still it remained like the remnants of a wave on a rocky beach, the swash ebbing away, but pockets of foam still caught amongst the broken shore. Abdullah’s pain was deep. He continued in his low tone.

‘Fathiya died in a car accident, one month before her twentieth birthday. One month before the day we were to be married. One month before we were to stand before God and accept his blessing, but it was not to be. I lost my dream that day, but Fathiya lost her life. God had ordained a different design.’

Quiet descended again and Sheikh Abdullah once more turned his gaze down to his folded hands, his face creasing and his lips twisted. His demons had stirred again. The Sheikh’s eyes grew hard, the deep wells icing over. His eyes squinted and the tiniest of trembles flickered in his eyelids. Then, Abdullah lifted his chin to cast his gaze unseeingly heavenward again. The steel in his expression melted away and the soft sadness of before returned. Taking a deep breath like a man breathing in freedom after many years of incarceration, he resumed his tale.

‘I searched my soul for my faith through many dark nights and stark lonely days. You speak of demons, Max. They came to me in great hordes, hacking and biting, cutting and scoring, seeking to render me and bring me undone. For a long time, a very long time, I floundered and flailed and there were times when I did not care if I fell, such was my misery, but through all the darkness, I had a beacon. A veritable light that shone in the dark. Fathiya. Even though she had died, she had never left me. She was in my heart and watching over me as she always had. Fathiya saved me from my demons. It was she who kept me alive and after I had beaten the demons away, I came to one inescapable conclusion. One absolute certainty. Fathiya had entered my life for one reason and that was to be my salvation and to keep me alive and there is only one being in the universe capable of executing such design. God. Allah had seen fit to give Fathiya to me to keep me alive and why is that important you wonder? Why is it important that I live while she died? I do not yet know that purpose, but the last few months have perhaps given me a glimpse.’

Abdullah then turned and looked Max squarely in the eye.

‘To guide us,’ Max said slowly as the thought dawned on him like the sun rising on a new day. ‘God kept you alive to guide all of us to the end?’

A soft smile warmed Sheikh Abdullah’s features. ‘Perhaps, my friend? Perhaps? I do not pretend to know the mind of God, but perhaps?’

Max and Abdullah’s gazes remained locked together for a few moments longer as the separate weights on their minds lifted like balloons into a cloudless, blue sky, allowing broad, warm smiles to grace their features.

It was Max who looked away first, straightening from the railing and pushing back.

‘Time for some shut eye,’ he said. ‘Kris has me lined up for an early session tomorrow on the beach. Sand training and I suspect she’s probably going to wheel out that medicine ball cannon you built for her, which by the way I haven’t thanked you for yet.’

Abdullah smiled even more broadly as Max rolled his eyes. ‘I have no doubt,’ Abdullah said, ‘that it will take much, much more than that contraption to make you pause, my friend and to be honest and I think we both know this to be true, it will give Kris more pleasure in using it than it will aid you in your training. She enjoys testing you very much.’

‘You got that right. She’s a mean one. Anyway, see you tomorrow.’

Ma as Salama. Good night,’ Abdullah aid with a slight bow. Max turned and started to walk off, but then was brought up short as the Sheikh added something else. ‘And thank you, Max, for asking after me. It has been a long time since I told anyone of Fathiya. You have resurrected some beautiful memories and I will sleep well tonight.’

Max said nothing, instead choosing to enjoy the compliment as he beheld his friend whose white robes gently shone in the low light against the sable backdrop of night. He nodded and then turned away as Abdullah watched him go.

 

4:30am, 2nd December (the next morning). Dawn

 

In the burgeoning light of the new day, Max sat on the northern lawn, doing up the blue laces on his orange shoes. Then, looking up, he beheld the dawn. Ragged scraps of gray black clouds lay scattered across the eastern sky, the light of the unrisen sun touching their bellies to make them glow like giant lanterns. Overhead the lightly star flecked night was growing lighter as the strength of the dawn pushed it from the Heavens.

Standing up, Max sucked in a breath of fresh air that filled the very pits of his lungs. Then, holding it, he absorbed every molecule of oxygen to finally exhale it back into the air. He felt calm. He felt prepared. He felt ready.

Then, sensing someone behind him, Max turned and found Sheikh Abdullah walking towards him, emerging from out of the shadows. His flowing robes gave him the appearance of floating rather than walking, with one hand hidden within the folds of his clothes and his other hand held out in front, clutching his prayer beads as he fingered them individually on the leather strap. The moment struck Max as somewhat surreal, almost divine. Like the Sheikh was an angel striding out of thin air to address him.

‘Your Highness,’ Max said, ‘you’re just in time. Kris’ lackeys have just lugged that cannon contraption your boys made down to the beach, so they can pummel me with it. Should be a good show if you’re up for it?’

‘Good morning, Max,’ Abdullah greeted in his smooth, melodic tone. ‘Thank you, but no. I shall pass on your offer this morning, but I do wish you luck.’

‘Thanks. I’ll show you the bruises later,’ Max replied as he turned to readdress the sunrise.

“I see you enjoy the dawn just as I do?’ Abdullah said, stepping up next to Max to gaze at the sky.

‘Dawn and sunset. My favourite times of day.’

‘Dawn brings hope,’ Sheikh Abdullah said.

‘And sunset brings those we love back home together,’ Max added.

A silence slipped over them. The horizon changed shade to a silvery gold.

Abdullah spoke first. ‘Last night you asked me a question and after reflecting on my answer, I confess I did not tell you all that was on my mind.’

Max looked down at the ground and then back up at the sunrise. Abdullah continued.

‘As I said, my demons are tamed. Not banished forever, but certainly tamed and I told you how I accomplished that, but I did not answer your question. I did not explain why I am content despite the doom that threatens us. How is it I have my peace in all this uncertainty?’

Max remained silent. Abdullah continued.

‘Eternity. It is eternity that provides my solace. If Death awaits us all in the arena, I know that I will be reunited with Fathiya to share the eternity we had hoped for. God will be waiting for me to place my hand in Fathiya’s once again and I can be nothing but content with that surety. That is why I do not fear Death. In truth, if it were not for my purpose in life to guide my people in the world and aid all of us through these troubled times, I would welcome Death.’

Max turned and looked at his friend as the warming glow of sunrise touched their faces.

‘However,’ Abdullah added, ‘my solace in this perspective has been shaken in the last few months. It seems I have found a reason to live and now, for the very first time since Fathiya left this mortal realm, I have meaning other than my perceived purpose to want to stay alive and that is to share my life with you, Max and the special people surrounding us. It is all of you that have given me a desire to live, so if you succeed in the arena and life continues for us all, I will also be content. Eternity in the afterlife is no longer the only prize. Life itself is now equally as precious to me.’

Abdullah shifted to return Max’s look as the sun broke free of the chains of the horizon, sending a bloom of gold flooding across the grass field. A gentle breeze also stirred across the lawn, ruffling Abdullah’s robes and the trees surrounding the estate.

Kris walked carefully up to the two silent men from behind. ‘Max?’ she asked carefully. ‘It’s time to go get sweaty.’

Abdullah broke his gaze off and gently turned to bow to Kris. ‘As salaam alaykum, Kris. Good morning.’

‘Good morning, Your Highness,’ Kris returned, smiling a little awkwardly.

Max noted Kris’ shyness and the difference in Abdullah’s bow, that it was slightly deeper and more prolonged, making it almost intimate.

‘I will leave you both to your training,’ Abdullah said and glided away.

Max flicked his gaze from Abdullah to Kris and then back to Abdullah.

‘What?’ Kris asked, hands held out to the sides.

‘Hold on a sec,’ Max said to Kris before bounding off after the Sheikh. ‘Your Highness, excuse me?’

Sheikh Abdullah halted to let Max jog around in front of him.

‘Thanks for coming down to see me this morning and thank you for sharing,’ Max said. ‘The more I get to know you, the more you make me realise I should have gone out looking for friends a long time ago.’

Abdullah gently nodded again.

Max continued. ‘But, something just occurred to me. Something that maybe no one else is going to say to you, so I guess it might just have to be me. Remember also that I’m no expert in these sorts of things, but last night you told me Fathiya was the love of your life. Well, maybe she was the love of your past life and that somewhere out there is the love of your future life? You also just said you’d be content to spend the rest of your life with the special people around us, so…’ Max trailed off to cast a glance over the Sheikh’s shoulder towards Kris.

Abdullah guessed the direction of Max’s gaze and resisted turning. Instead he looked down and resettled his hands inside the sleeves of his robes.

‘You are wrong, Max,’ he said simply, looking up at him. Max squinted in return as the Sheikh’s mouth crinkled upwards. ‘You may very well be an expert in these matters after all.’

Then without another word, Abdullah glided past Max and off towards the mansion. Max did not turn to watch him go, but rather just crossed his arms and grinned. In front of him, the new day had begun and all he could do was think how good it already was.

‘Come on, Max!’ Kris called out. ‘Get your fancy shoes over here! It’s crying time!’

 

1pm, 17th December (15 days later). Committed

 

The bare dirt and stones beneath their feet radiated heat like they were standing on an oven. The midday summer sun baked the stark earth, which coupled with the breeze, stirred up wandering whirly winds that sent dust swirling around them. Elsa felt the perspiration on her forehead beading into droplets, ready to streak her reddened face. Her long sleeve top was already stuck to her back and it felt like her whole body was preparing to dissolve.

It was hot and it was humid and it was unpleasant, but they had come for a reason. This is where it would all happen. This would be the site of their victory or their doom. This was the arena and it would be their last visit before fate took centre stage.

Team Max stood scattered around the barren arena space inside the three-quarter constructed stands, watching thousands of workmen crawling all over the growing structures. This was not a modern construction site. It was an ant colony. Human power ruled here with only two large cranes in operation. Everything else was being done by many hands working together. Lifting. Pushing. Cutting and bolting. There was nothing this workforce could not achieve.

Prime Minister Tollsen ambled over in his cotton trousers, light long sleeve shirt and white Panama hat, looking the virtual colonist. ‘Elsa, I would apologise for the conditions,’ he said, ‘but this is Queensland after all and well, summer is summer.’

‘I’m glad we left the kids at home,’ Elsa replied, looking around. ‘How do they work in this heat?’

‘We treat them well with short shifts and plenty of food and drink, but yes, their efforts are remarkable. Despite these conditions and only two weeks to go, we’re on track for New Year’s Eve. I’m hopeful we’ll have some grass in the next few days too.’

Joe turned to Peter who was standing off to the side, surveying the activity.

‘What’s on your mind, Peter?’ Joe asked.

‘I’m wondering where you’re going to be sitting,’ Peter replied, his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses as he scanned the structures.

Joe turned and lifted a hand toward the northern end of the growing stadium. ‘There will be a row of glass boxes midway up that stand, which Elsa, Abdullah and I will be accommodated in. I suspect Kris will want to be closer to the action down at ground level somewhere, but that will be her choice.’

‘Got room for me?’ Peter asked.

‘Of course, Peter. You’re most welcome.’

‘Good,’ Peter replied, removing his sunglasses and looking at the Prime Minister, ‘because the moment Max sets foot in this arena, I’m out of a job and then if he goes down in a bout, the next thing I’m doing is standing in front of you. If this all goes to hell, sir, no one gets to you unless it’s through me.’

Prime Minister Tollsen beheld one of the few men he had ever built a true friendship with, even if it was as his body guard. Joe then removed his own sunglasses, stepped across and held out his hand. Peter accepted it and Joe laid his spare hand on top.

‘If we go down,’ Joe said, ‘we go down side by side. That’s my promise to you.’

Peter nodded.

Elsa watched the exchange and felt goose bumps ripple across her skin. They were two weeks out and she had witnessed more and more moments such as these amongst the group and in the staff at the estate. The tension was rising and everyone was making plans or amends. Suddenly, she wished she had Millie and Jason with her to wrap them in a cuddle. Instead, she looked around to find her husband.

Max, Kris and Abdullah stood in the very heart of the bare arena. Both Max and Kris were sweating profusely, but Abdullah shimmering in his robes and sunglasses looked decidedly cool as he stood and listened to the conversation.

‘I think we do regularly spaced weapons stations,’ Kris said, turning as she pointed to various points on the arena boundary, ‘with the same stock of weapons at each and heaps of them. Like ten of each type at each station. Ten javelins. Ten swords. Ten of everything. That way you’ll never run out and you’ll never be far from whatever you want.’

‘Yeah,’ Max replied, nodding. ‘Sounds good. As for the boundary itself, I like the idea of putting a continuous ledge around the whole arena. Make the bottom half solid concrete, but then the upper half is clear Perspex set to the back of the concrete beneath it to make a ledge, which I can use for evasion if I need to. Kind of like what they have for ice hockey games, so I can use it like a vaulting platform or running on top of to get away from whatever it is that’s coming at me.’

‘Yeah, I like that too,’ Kris added. ‘Gives you a bit of height advantage. Then the weapons stations can be openings or gates or something in the Perspex and they can either leave the weapons on the ledge or throw them out onto the arena surface.’

Max nodded, also turning to survey the growing stadium. Abdullah continued to watch and listen in silence, carefully studying Max’s face and demeanour as he considered how his bouts would unfold and what advantages he would like.

‘The surface needs to be grass,’ Max said. ‘Not thick turf, but thinnish and even. I need to feel the ground beneath my feet and get instant grip. I don’t want to sink in or rip up divots, so when I change direction, it’s instantaneous and has no give. If I put my foot down to start sprinting, I need to be straight into full gear and not fighting against anything. Not even for a split second.’

‘What about fake grass?’ Kris asked.

‘It’s a good idea, but to be honest, I like real grass and I’m more comfortable on that.’

‘Fair enough,’ Kris said. ‘What shoes are you going to wear?’

‘I was thinking moulded studs, like touch football shoes.’

‘Orange of course?’ Kris quipped.

‘Bright as anything.’

Kris smiled. ‘And other kit?’

‘Hadn’t really thought about it, but light weight I guess and probably skin tight,’ Max replied and then turned to Abdullah. ‘Could you get someone in your secret engineering stable to whip something up?’

Abdullah did not speak, but silently nodded. Max held his gaze on Abdullah for a few moments and then flicked his gaze across to Kris who looked back between him and Abdullah. The silence held, the baking heat intensifying the quiet as the sounds of construction and the multitude of workers’ voices murmured in the background.

Elsa came up behind Max and clasped his hand as she stood next to him. Joe and Peter also came to stand silently with the group. Now everyone stood together, looking around the gathering, connecting with each other. No words sullied the moment. All thoughts alternated between reaching out to others and then turning inwards to self reflect.

Abdullah broke first, turning and serenely crossing the space in the middle to approach Kris. She watched him come close and then when he reached her, he raised his right forearm and bowed slightly. Kris paused and just looked at him. Not awkwardly. Not in confusion, but acceptingly. She then placed her left hand on Abdullah’s forearm and together they turned for the arena exit and walked away.

Elsa squeezed Max’s hand. Max turned to look at Joe and found him smiling gently, watching the couple move away. He then looked down and nodded before ambling behind them with Peter in tow.

Elsa leaned into Max’s ear and gleefully whispered one word. ‘Yes!’

 

9pm, 17th December (later that night). Crumbling

 

‘We have to make one last trip to the United Nations,’ Joe said, ‘and we need to leave within the hour.’

The rest of the group had gathered in the living room and right now had their eyes fixed on Prime Minister Tollsen as he stood pensively by the cold, bare fireplace, his pipe in the corner of his mouth and his hands in his pockets. He did not face them, but rather stared into the empty hearth, almost as though he were talking to himself. Joe continued.

‘All of our efforts to hold the global community together are rapidly unravelling,’ Joe said. Abruptly, he turned to face the group. ‘It was to be expected. As doom looms ever higher, so will our fears begin to take over.’

Elsa spoke next from the couch where she sat with Max by her side. ‘Is there anything we can do? Can we up the ante on Team Max and get even more footage of him out there? Swamp the whole world with him?’

Joe shook his head. ‘We have done what we can, but this is not the time for despair. Despite the downward spiral beginning to accelerate once again, the majority of our fellow world leaders are still in fact united and doing all they can to maintain as much control as possible. At present, the majority of the unrest is spreading throughout the Third World as provisions of essentials from the First World begin to dissipate. In these last few days, the developed nations have become more and more self-serving and less and less caring of their foreign brothers and sisters. It is a shame, but as I said, it was not unforseen.’

‘Wars?’ Kris asked from the other end of the same couch.

‘Civil and cross border,’ Joe replied, taking his pipe out of his mouth to inspect the wood grain. ‘Africa is overrun with strife and even if we are successful in the arena, it will take many years to restore the continent to its previous state. Civil war grips India, while Muslim fundamentalists storm across the border from Pakistan. Central America is rife with rebel uprisings and Mexico has imploded as the general population finally strikes back at the corruption in the government and the rampant drug cartels. However, if you are looking for a saving Grace, all of the G20 leaders are aligned, including Australia. There are even plans being made to potentially ally together to fight off any form of Nar’gellan invasion, as futile as it might be.’

‘What will you do, Joe,’ Elsa asked, ‘if Max falls in the arena? What will you do right at that moment if it happens?’

Joe looked up at Elsa and then flicked his gaze to Kris and Peter in turn. ‘The first thing I shall do is make sure all of you are as safe as possible. There will be space on my helicopter for all of you and it will not be lifting off without any of you. Let me be crystal clear on that.’

‘Thank you, ‘Joe,’ Elsa said. ‘I never doubted you would live up to your word and on the night, if the worst happens, I don’t doubt you will still live up to it.’

Joe nodded then said, ‘As for what we do next, I will pass that to Abdullah.’

The Sheikh nodded his head once and rose from his seat at the far end of the coffee table. Max watched him rise and noted his movements were no longer truly languid. The man had slowed. He was tired. Max was not sure if Abdullah or Joe really slept most nights, knowing they were never far from a telephone, talking to someone somewhere in the world about who knew what, but it undoubtedly had to do with world politics, security or leading their own respective nations.

Abdullah walked across to stand next to Joe and then turned to face everyone. ‘Thank you, Joe,’ he started. ‘Yes, we do have a contingency plan if God’s design is for Max to fall in the arena. I cannot give you the exact details of that plan yet, but let me just say that we do have a secure facility under construction and nearing completion, which is deeply hidden in case the world is conquered by Macktidas’ army. A select few other dignitaries and world leaders have been invited to enter with us, but only a few. It is not an open invitation, but I imagine many of our peers will have their own such facilities ready to enter if the need arises. Our facility is not far from here and will only take us a matter of hours to reach. There we will either ride out the storm or we will pass from this world into Allah’s hands.’

‘When will you be back from New York?’ Kris asked, not looking at Abdullah, but instead keeping her gaze downcast into her lap.

‘Three days,’ Abdullah replied, bowing his own head. ‘We will be on the ground for one day only. There is only so much we can do now, so we will both be returning as quickly as we can.’

Joe nodded next to him and replaced the pipe in his mouth, putting both hands in his pockets.

Max cast a sideways glance to Kris to find her still downcast. He then nudged an elbow into Elsa’s side and flicked his head towards Kris. Elsa looked, took the cue and moved across to lead Kris out onto the balcony. Meanwhile, Max stood up and stepped across to Joe and Abdullah.

‘That pipe’s getting a good work out,’ he said to Joe.

‘This pipe is my oldest friend and at times like these, you need your friends around you,’ Joe replied.

‘Well, make sure you hurry back from New York then. We need you here too,’ Max added and he looked sideways to Abdullah. ‘Some of us need you more than others.’ Abdullah nodded silently without returning the look. ‘So, what’s your plan with the UN?’ Max asked. ‘How much more can you really do to keep things together?’

Joe sighed and looked away. ‘Not much I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Apart from increased military intervention, we’re at the limit of peaceful control. Max, you haven’t directly noticed any local deterioration because you are largely hidden away here on the island, but even here in Australia, our streets are filling up with more and more soldiers. Unfortunately, desertions from our military ranks are also increasing. Order is eroding faster than we can bolster it. Plain and simple, the end of the world is coming and it is no longer possible to maintain structure. As I said, this was predicted, but now that we are at this point, it makes it no less dispiriting.’

‘I’m surprised we all kept it together for as long as we have.’

‘Do not underestimate the calibre of positive impact that Team Max has had,’ Joe replied as he snuck a sideways glance at Abdullah, who had turned to look out onto the balcony where Elsa and Kris stood together. ‘We took a gamble on our little publicity stunt, but it paid off handsomely. It is fair to say, the world took heed of your mantra that “together we win” even if winning means staving off anarchy for as long as possible before we are all annihilated.’

Max nodded. ‘There is an obvious question in all this that no one has really asked yet because we’re all so focused on getting to the arena and giving it our best shot on the night. Even if we win, will the world ever be the same?’

Joe looked directly into Max’s eyes. ‘That, my friend,’ Joe started, ‘is what really keeps me awake at night. I have for some time, stopped concerning myself with your perils in the arena as I know you will perform to the best of your ability and the outcome will be what it will be. I cannot control that. However, the question you ask holds far greater peril than the outcome of your exploits in the duels. We all wish for victory, but the old saying is true in this case. Be careful what you wish for because you may actually receive it.’

‘You mean victory brings its own risks? If I lose, we all die, but if I win, who knows what state the world will be in because of all the carnage we’ll have self-inflicted leading up the arena? Extinction might be a less painful way to go out than slowly killing ourselves in a world gone medieval?’

‘Correct,’ Joe said, his eyes glittering as he peered out from beneath his brow. ‘We might find ourselves scurrying off to that bunker straight after the duels even if you do win. There might not be a world worth living in for some time, if ever again.’

‘Is it really that bad out there?’ Max asked.

‘I did not lie in my description just now, but what I did not describe is my prediction of what happens from here. Yes, the Third World is in turmoil, but the First World is teetering. We have two weeks left and I foretell by the end of this week, much of Europe, the United States and Asia will also have descended into significant chaos. World banks are shutting down, locking up global funds. International airlines are no longer running, fragmenting the world population. Economies are dissolving as trade ceases and political systems are almost meaningless, allowing anarchy to overrun any form of attempt at administration of society. Even here in Australia we are plunging ourselves into madness. I already have plans in place to retract the military to key strongholds around the country to merely protect themselves rather than maintain law and order. This strategy is to preserve some semblance of military assets that can be used post the arena, whatever situation we find ourselves in. Make no mistake, Max, come New Year’s Eve, some of us will be watching your efforts on a live broadcast, if there is any network still capable of broadcasting, but the vast majority of the human race will likely be tearing itself apart or just plain hiding. Ugly is a woefully inadequate adjective. Abominable is getting closer, but honestly, I think the horror will be unimaginable and thank God for that because I do not want to even try to visualize what our world will have become in only two weeks time.’

Max held Joe’s eye contact through his Prime Minister’s entire monologue. At the end, he lowered his gaze to the empty fireplace and absently nodded. Max searched his feelings for how he felt about this stark portrayal of reality and found that it did not affect him. Yes, he wanted to win to save the lives of those he cared for and the lives of all the good people in the world, but he now acknowledged for the first time, that in saving their lives, he would likely be condemning them to live in a world of horrors. The truth is, he could not control any of that. All he could do was fight as hard as he could and make sure his family was protected one way or another, regardless of if he lived or died and he had already put those measures in place. It seemed that destiny had locked him in now and he was just there for the ride.

‘Excuse me,’ Abdullah said quietly, bowing slightly and in a swirl of his robes turned and stepped away.

Max looked up and around and found Abdullah moving out onto the balcony as Elsa was coming in. Outside, Kris still stood by the railing by herself. As Max watched, Abdullah slid up next to her, placing a hand over Kris’ on top of the stone barrier.

Elsa came over to stand next to Max and close to Joe. ‘She’ll be alright,’ Elsa whispered coarsely. ‘She just didn’t know about the trip. Came as a bit of a shock.’

Joe sighed. ‘It is a last minute decision and unfortunately, unavoidable.’

Elsa shrugged. ‘She knows that. It’s just…well, you know what it is. Time’s short.’

Joe looked down and then sideways out to the balcony where his friend’s swirling robes virtually enveloped both he and Kris together. ‘Yes it is,’ he said softly. ‘Yes, it is.’

 

5pm, 29th December (12 days later). It Makes You…Human

 

Looking down the length of the lawn, Max’s inverted perspective from his handstand position, did not impede his view of what he had to do next. Thirty metres away stood two medicine ball canons, an assistant behind each one, slightly angling the barrels upwards and inwards to aim at him. A short corridor of five javelins on each side was also laid out just in front of his position and behind each canon, there stood two very tall targets. All Max had to do, was on Kris’ command, drop back to the turf and fire all ten javelins into the targets, while dodging a flurry of body bruising medicine balls raining down on him.

A single drop of sweat beaded on the tip of Max’s nose as he waited, his gaze fixed along the length of space between himself and the canons. His hand stand position held rock steady. A gentle sea breeze floated across his wet skin. The bead of sweat swelled and then dropped.

‘Go,’ sounded Kris’ sharp command in his headset.

Instantly, Max flipped back to his feet and in that split second, he knew two medicine balls were already inbound. Driving forward, Max ducked under the first two missiles and through his peripheral vision, judged where the next two were going to come at him.

In a blur, Max grabbed the first two javelins, one in each hand and squatted down to let the next two medicine balls pass overhead. Springing up, both javelins flashed out of his hands and immediately he had the next two in hand. Springing upwards, the next two balls passed underneath his tucked feet.

Moments later, the second pair of javelins sluiced through the air to slam into the centre of each target right next to the first two. As they drove home, Max had already launched the third pair of javelins while dodging past two more balls.

Spinning on his right foot, Max plucked out another javelin and fired it forwards. Then spinning back the other way, he let two more medicine balls sail past, one of them brushing his upper arm as he grabbed another javelin and hurled it.

With one javelin left on each side, Max looked up to see two more medicine balls plummeting in, dead centre on his midriff. With millimetres to spare, Max dropped flat onto the turf on his stomach to let the heavy missiles fly past. Then quick as a blink, he sprang back up and reached out to both sides to claim the last two javelins. Taking a single step forward, he powered them away, just as the twin shadows of two more medicine balls grew on his torso.

This time he did not budge or try to evade the balls. As the javelins flew away out of his hands and his immediate field of focus, Max refixed his attention on the two incoming missiles. Taking a stride forwards, he drove his two fists out in front and literally punched both balls back and away in the direction from which they came. With resounding thuds, both balls flew like they were hollow rather than the solid masses they were.

‘Keep them coming,’ Max said in a low tone into his microphone.

‘You heard the man,’ Kris said. ‘Fire at will.’

Max fixed his sights on the two canons twenty metres away and watched as the assistants pulled their triggers again. Two more balls launched and Max stepped forward to meet them. This time, he spun and kicked out, smashing the balls way with his right foot. As he straightened, two more balls were already coming. This time he punched them away again.

Slowly, step by step, Max progressed down the lawn, smashing away every ball as it assaulted him. Fifteen metres away. Ten metres away. With every step he approached, the assistants lowered the angle of the barrel and the power of each ball grew stronger and stronger, but still Max marched on. Balls flew at him and he whacked them away with even greater power.

Like a colossus striding through a maelstrom, Max kept ploughing forwards. The balls came faster and harder and Max belted them away even faster and harder. Kris did not realise she was holding her breath and that her mouth had slipped open.

Nine metres. Seven metres. Five metres. The assistants fired one more ball each.

‘Move!’ Max bellowed.

The two assistants baulked only momentarily before they registered what was coming next. As a pair, they sprang off and away from their canons, abandoning their posts. Five metres in front of them, Max stared down the last two medicine balls as they barrelled towards him, coming in hard at chest height.

With one final step forward, Max shot out both fists, his back leg driving all the way through his core and up through his back and into his shoulders, the full force of his body erupting out along his arms and ultimately into his fists.

A body thudding sound emanated from the contact as he hammered his fists into each ball, sending them thumping backwards in straight lines back along the paths they had come. Each ball flew back and crashed into its own canon, smashing the apparatus in showers of debris.

As the ruckus settled, Kris dragged her gaze away from the broken canons to find Max still in his final, powerful pose with both fists out and his body braced. A few moments later he straightened to look down upon his mechanical victims like a victorious gladiator. Max’s voice sounded in Kris’ headset.

‘They had it coming,’ he said. ‘I should’ve done that the first time you pulled them out.’

It took Kris a few moments, but finally her smile broke free and she nodded. ‘I’m surprised it took you so long,’ she said.

‘Just being polite,’ Max replied as he turned to look at her.

Kris put her hands on her hips and looked at both her cowering assistants, still lying on the grass nearby their ruined canons.

‘That’s a wrap, people,’ she said, clapping her hands. ‘Let’s get it all back in the truck…or the bin.’

Kris then turned to look back up at the balcony overlooking the lawn. There stood the whole gang. Elsa, the kids, Abdullah and Joe. She waved and they all waved back before turning to go back inside out of the heat. Only one remained. Abdullah. She kept her eyes on him and he kept his on her’s. Though too far apart to hear or even really see each other clearly, their unspoken moments were enough.

Finally, Kris gave a little wave and a smile and turned away. Making her way back through the training course and weaving past the equipment and scurrying assistants, she walked over to the Pain Train. At the foot of the ramp leading up into the trailer, a sun shelter had been set up with some fold-out chairs and a big cooler box full of ice and drinks. There sat Max, gulping down a bottle of electrolyte drink. Two empty bottles already lay at his feet, while sweat poured off him.

Kris stepped into the shade and pulled up a chair next to Max. Grabbing a drink of her own out of the cooler box, she cracked the seal and said, ‘I don’t think we should expect snow on New Year’s Eve.’

Max drained the last of his own drink and took in a breath. ‘No,’ he said as he reached across and pulled out another drink. ‘Just as well we didn’t go with team beanies in the uniform then.’

Kris nodded and took a swig of her own drink. She then added, ‘Hey, I forgot to tell you, you broke another record this morning. Mike Powell’s eight point nine five metres for long jump. You cleared just over nine metres and you didn’t even need a sand pit.’

‘Awesome,’ Max said flatly as he swirled his drink, watching the bright red liquid swish around inside the bottle.

‘Yep, you’re a walking record book. One hundred metres. Two hundred metres. Four hundred and eight hundred. Long Jump. Javelin. All the power lifting events. If the world was a normal place, you’d be a shoe-in at the Olympics for a bag full of medals.’

‘If the world was a normal place?’ Max mused. ‘Pity I’m not eligible.’ Kris looked sideways at him. Max slid a look back. ‘Alien hybrid. Remember?’

Kris nodded slowly and then pulled another gulp from her bottle.

Max rose and dropped his empty bottle onto the ground with the others and reached down into the cool box to grab another. Cracking the seal, he walked across to the edge of the shade to look out at Kris’ assistants as they cleared the equipment away.

‘Are you scared?’ Max asked.

Kris looked up at Max’s back for a few moments and then out to her assistants as well. ‘Terrified,’ she said.

‘It doesn’t show. You’re putting on a brave face and it’s impressive.’

‘You should see me when you’re not around.’

Max looked down at the ground. ‘He’s the best man I’ve ever known and even though I haven’t known many, I reckon he’s about as good as a man gets.’

Kris flicked her gaze back to Max’s back. ‘Abdullah you mean?’

‘Yeah. You two have only been seeing each other for a couple of weeks, but already, he’s rubbing off on you,’ Max said. He then turned to face her. ‘I know you’ve struggled with the whole end of the world thing. We all have, but I think you’ve had it really bad. I don’t know why and it doesn’t matter, but since you let Abdullah in, you’ve seemed stronger. You spring a little higher. You smile a little more and when you do smile, that hint of sorrow isn’t there. Instead it’s exactly what it is. A smile and it’s great. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you genuinely happy, but maybe, just maybe I can see it now.’

Kris smiled and looked away.

‘There it is,’ Max said, ‘and it looks good on you. Oh, and hey, you’ve rubbed off on Abdullah too.’

‘How so?’ Kris asked, looking back.

‘He’d started to slow down. The man’s a naturally pretty fluid kind of mover, but bit by bit, he was starting to just become slow. Worn down, but now, he’s back, but he’s different too. He’s back to normal speed, but now when he talks, he reminisces more. He talks about his homeland. The desert. The seasons and even his family. You could say he was a bit of a closed book before when it came to his personal life. He’d easily sprout all sorts of wise words and deep and meaningful thoughts about life in general, but his own life? Off limits. Now he’s an open book. Last night I sat with him for a couple of hours and I must have said maybe five words, while he rattled off story after story about his father. It was great. It was really great and that’s you, Kris. That’s you bringing out the very best in the man. Up until now, all we’ve seen is the best in him. Now we get to see the very best, so thanks.’

‘You’re welcome, I guess,’ Kris replied, tilting her bottle a little and watching the bright blue electrolyte liquid angle inside. ‘I was wondering where he was last night. If I’d known he was having a boys’ night with you, I would’ve just dragged him out.’

‘It’s not like there were cigars and brandy,’ Max said, turning back to the lawn to watch two assistants push a trolley bearing the remains of the medicine ball canons across the grass towards the Pain Train.

‘I don’t see him as much as I’d like to you know,’ Kris continued. ‘He’s always got something that needs doing. It’s like he’s trying to save the world all by himself.’

‘You know if we win, you’ll probably see even less of him?’

Kris looked down between her feet and nodded. ‘Yeah. He told me. The world’s a mess and even if you do win, it’s going to take a long time to put it back together and he’s the perfect man to do that.’ She shrugged and looked up. ‘That’s who he is. It’s what he does and I won’t stand in the way of it.’

‘You know, it’s fast turning out that if we save the world,’ Max started, glancing across to see two Black Hawks appear on the opposite horizon, flying in formation as they circled around the island, ‘it’s not for ourselves, but for our children. Lots of people have said over the years we should strive to ensure a better world for our kids. Well, here’s our chance. Our grandparents did it after the world wars. Our great grand parents did it after the great depression and now, we get to have our chance if we beat Macktidas. Let’s hope we’re up to it?’

Kris sat quietly and just listened to Max’s words. As the silence deepened, Max turned to look back to find Kris looking right back at him, a softness in her expression. There was no smile as such, but a gentleness in her face.

‘You’re just like him, you know?’ she said.

‘Like who?’ Max replied, squinting a little.

‘Abdullah.’

‘Not a chance,’ Max replied, shaking his head and taking a swig from his bottle.

‘Yes, you are. Whether you know it or not doesn’t matter, but you are. You’re a natural leader, Max. Physically, you’re just plain inspiring, but more and more, when you speak, it’s from the heart and you’re even more inspiring. You touch people in ways that make them feel recognised, acknowledged and that’s special. You’re deep. You’re meaningful, but you’re more than that. You’re genuine. You talk about Abdullah being the perfect man to lead the world, but you’re the complete package. You could lead on and off the battlefield if you had to. People would follow you where ever you went, whatever the need and in a lot of ways, billions already are. The world has placed their trust in you, not just because you’re a giant physically, but because of the way you talk as well. The way you think. The way you feel about things. What you said on Sally Sainsbury’s wasn’t just a flash of brilliance. It was awesome. You’ve got a natural talent to lead. Let’s face it. It’s in your blood. You’re Nar’gellan royalty, but what makes you even more special is your humanity. It makes you real. It makes you…human. Just like the rest of us.’

Max looked back at Kris as she spoke her final words. ‘Now you sound just like Abdullah. He said something similar to me after I killed those three blokes in the city.’

Kris got to her feet and walked over to stand next to Max. ‘Maybe we’re all rubbing off on each other,’ she said, ‘but I mean what I said. We all know you’re unique in this world and I hate the fact that you have to step into that arena and put your life on the line for all of us, but I’m glad it is you. I also hope you win not just to save us all from Macktidas, but because if you do win, you’ll be there on the other side to save us from ourselves.’

Max looked edgeways at Kris and silently appraised her. Her return look was a mixture of hope and maybe a little desperation. It suddenly dawned on Max that perhaps the way she felt right now was an exact representation of how millions if not billions of people around the world felt right now. Hope that maybe there would be life after the arena, but desperate for it to be a life worth living.

Instead of saying anything in reply, Max turned and wrapped his arms around Kris. She responded by hugging him back just as tightly and for a few quiet seconds they stayed together as the summer heat stirred a gentle sea breeze across the lawn.

Stepping back, they unlocked their embrace and Max gestured towards the mansion. ‘Dinner time,’ he said. ‘We’ve been doing a week of last suppers and tonight’s my choice, so it’s roast lamb. Elsa’s a star in the kitchen, which is just one of the reasons why I love her.’

‘Yeah, she’s a good woman alright,’ Kris agreed. ‘Got room for two more at the table?’

‘You and Abdullah?’

‘Yep.’

‘Shouldn’t you be off having a romantic candlelight dinner or something?’

‘Nah,’ Kris said, waiving the comment away and starting to walk towards the mansion. ‘Not that kind of girl, besides, lamb roast would be my last supper too, so make sure there’s plenty of gravy.’

Max nodded. ‘Maybe I should’ve married you?’

Kris shook her head. ‘Forget it, champ. You can’t afford me.’

At that moment, Elsa stepped out onto the balcony to wave them in for dinner and stopped. Folding her arms, she smiled and shook her head. Out on the lawn, Max had wrestled Kris up over his shoulders into a fireman’s carry and was jogging back to the house. There was no talking and no shouting. Only laughter and it was the sweetest sound Elsa could hope for. With just two days to the arena, laughter was what they all needed. It proved they were still alive and holding onto hope.

 

5pm, 31st December (2 days later). Final Reflections

 

The thick, green carpet of the mansion’s north lawn pulled away as the helicopter’s wheels lifted off, the shuddering shadow of the aircraft’s rotating blades making the turf flicker beneath the afternoon sun.

As Joe looked out the window of the helicopter, the aircraft slowly spun clockwise to reveal the Pain Train on the edge of the lawn, the truck’s iridescent orange bulk flaming against the rich green foliage behind. Then as the craft rose higher still, the deep, bottomless blue of the sea flowed into view beyond the palm trees fringing their tropical hide away. The Pacific Ocean. So vast and so humbling that Joe had no words in his mind to describe it, so he let his thoughts fall silent, his mute appreciation the highest honour.

Then as usually occurred when he was in the air, Joe’s mind wandered into reflections of his own personal circumstances and the history of his life. However, this time instead of lamenting the death of his parents when he was an infant and the loneliness of his orphanage upbringing, Joe’s thoughts instantly found a much happier refuge. The present.

Yes, the world was facing an imminent and likely doom, but right now, right here, Joe had finally found what it was like to have a family. Not through blood or birth, but family nonetheless. Max, Elsa and of course their children, Millie and Jason as well as Abdullah and Kris and not forgetting Peter too. Together they were his kin. They were his siblings in this time of need and even though it had taken his whole life to find this happiness, Joe was grateful for it. His world was a better place for having become close to these people and if his world ended now, that was fine by him. His last six months had been the best of his life and finishing now would be finishing on a long awaited and much deserved high.

From his seat across the cabin, Peter saw the smile creep over Joe’s face as his Prime Minister looked out the window. It was true. The man was happy and Peter knew that true happiness had been as elusive to Prime Minister Tollsen as the sun is to the moon. Peter had been with Joe now for the last six years and in that time had grown to respect the man more than his own father

Peter had been a broken man after discharging from his SAS regiment. Losing five of his men on his last mission had brought him undone, completely. Alcohol, drugs and finally a trip to emergency after swallowing a bottle full of pills had been his response to the trauma and ceaseless nightmares.

Then a former commanding officer had fished him out of his hospital bed, guided him through rehab and found him a job on a government security detail. Peter had turned up to work, insecure, lacking all confidence and ready to throw in the towel before he started. Then out of the car stepped the Prime Minister of Australia and before he knew it, Peter was shaking hands with one of the world’s most powerful people as he accepted the role of leading Joseph Tollsen’s personal security team.

It was a good thing Peter had had no time to think as he probably would have refused the role and run straight back into the nearest dark shadow. As it turned out, Joseph Tollsen saved his life. The man’s honesty, wisdom and humility demanded respect and Peter gave it in spades. Joseph Tollsen was the proverbial man amongst men and here at the possible end of it all, Peter could think of no finer person to be with and then Max had come along.

Kris looked forward to the seats in front to find Peter looking across at Joe. She knew Peter looked up to Joe more than anyone else in the world and felt happy for him to have found that respect in someone else.

She then looked down and thought about who that person would be for her and found her father’s face filling her mind. He had always been her guiding light. It was her father who had encouraged her to leave home and find her own life, even though he was never far away to help her when she stumbled. It was her father who had supported Kris in starting her own personal training business. It was her father who had helped her through the messy breakdown of a long term relationship and it had been her father who had been on the other end of the phone whenever her single life became unbearable.

Sure, Kris loved her mother, but she had built a special bond with her father. All those times she and he had spent out in the yard of their north Queensland home, cutting the grass and drinking lemonade afterwards. The simple things. The things that really count.

Then Kris realised again whose hand lay clasped with her’s right now. Kris felt the warmth inside their entwined fingers. She felt the softness of the man’s skin and the comfort it radiated. Nestling in closer to Abdullah, Kris let the image of her father sitting on the back steps of their house in the bright summer sun drinking lemonade linger as she squeezed Abdullah’s hand. The wind tossed waves of her sea of despair were long gone. Kris was free from fear and life was good. At last life was good.

Abdullah returned the squeeze and revelled in the closeness of Kris. These next few hours might be their last together and even if they did survive beyond the arena, any chance of enduring bliss together would be severely challenged, but those thoughts were not for now. Instead, Abdullah had cleared his mind and let his conscience wander through the sacred passages of the Quran, soothing his mood, while letting his body relax in the close comfort of his new love, Kris.

If Heaven lay just beyond the realms of this day, Abdullah knew eternal solace was close at hand. He had almost wasted his life after the tragedy of losing Fathiya, but with Allah’s divine intervention and his own courage, Abdullah had regained control and found his destiny. Here now and maybe at the end, he knew he had done all he could and if this select group of wonderful people could not save the world, then the world was beyond saving and so be it.

Abdullah had searched the globe for worthy allies in his fight against injustice and along the way he had found Joseph Tollsen and that had been a rich day indeed. Then calamity had dawned with the appearance of Macktidas and his alien horde and in that time of dire desperation, these other individuals surrounding him had risen to the challenge. Abdullah felt blessed. Truly blessed, for not only did he now know these wonderful people, but he knew they considered him to be their friend. Allah be praised. Peace was with him, come what may.

In the back row, Elsa sat on one side with Max at the other end and their two children filling the space between. It had been a surreal day, struggling to find the right mood to get on with all the appearances of a normal day for the sake of the kids. While Millie and Jason knew that tonight their father was going to a special place to fight some aliens and that was exciting and all, how could she explain to them that their father might actually get killed and if that happened, the world was going to come to a violent end? What possible meaning could you give to that? What rationale?

There was nothing, so she had kept up the half truths and the veiled deception and the day had passed, slowly and painfully, but it had passed. Max had been great. Every moment he had kept close to her and the kids. A hug here. A touch there. Never far away. Always there.

Then the dream Elsa had had of Max protecting her and the children and the rest of humanity came back to her. She vividly recalled Max’s transformation into the giant the world needed to save them, but then she also remembered how the tide had dragged him away at the end and left her alone. Scared and alone. Was it an omen? Was it a portent of Max’s death, even if he did save them by winning tonight? Elsa had not told Max any details about the dream, not wanting to upset or unsettle him, so she had harboured this vision within herself and now, here at the end, it haunted her still. It was as if the images were shackled into her conscience to deliberately torture her. Again she remembered Max’s eyes winking out in the darkness as the sea sucked him into the void. How could she rid herself of this fear and then she turned her head and there was Max looking back at her.

Max’s bright blue eyes burned back at her, their radiance maybe stronger today than she had ever seen them before. There he sat, the man she loved and the man the whole world loved. Their champion. Her champion. Max.

‘I love you,’ Max mouthed as he reached over their two children to rest a hand on her shoulder.

Elsa felt the warmth in that touch and in that moment, the haunting images from her nightmare fractured and washed away. Her hero was here, still alive and full of hope. They were all still together and this was no time to wallow in despair. This was maybe their last time to enjoy life together? Right now, life really could be too short to worry.

Lifting her own hand, Elsa laid it on top of Max’s and smiled back. She mouthed, ‘I love you too.’

Max did not smile back, but he held a gentleness in his expression that Elsa adored and it was the last little thing she needed to beat off her worry. Looking down, Elsa gave Jason a cuddle and scratched Millie behind the ear, both kids giggling in return. A deep tingle rippled across Elsa’s skin, quickening her heart beat a little. Joy. Pure joy.

Pulling his hand back, Max let Elsa focus on the kids for a bit. He knew she was having a tough time today, so every moment that happiness found her she deserved to hold on to it while she could. Looking out the window Max cast a brief glance at the helicopter gunships accompanying them to the arena island. Inside them, he could see the soldiers who had remained loyal to Joe and Abdullah, sacrificing their personal lives and families to see them all the way to the end. On the arena island were even more soldiers making the same sacrifices. Everywhere Max had gone in the last six months, he had been surrounded by strangers giving up their safety to protect him and his family and while he was now about to repay them all through risking his own life, he still could not come to grips with the depth and breadth of care being afforded him.

This was not how he had wanted this to unfold. Max had spent much of his adult life preparing for this day, knowing Macktidas would eventually find him and now that the day was here, he was ready, but he had inadvertently dragged the world and all humanity into it. Civilisation had imploded and Death stalked the Earth, scything down millions as law and order decayed. The world had become a war zone and all the work Team Max had done to hold it together had finally been unravelled. There was only one thing left to do. Fight and fight to the death.

Max fought off an urge to draw himself inwards and unleash his Nar’gellan blood lust. There was still time for that. Right now he needed to be with his family. They needed him too. Refocusing on the helicopter drifting along next to theirs, Max reasserted his humanity and kept his alien instincts at bay.

Next to him, Jason giggled again and Max turned to look. Seeing Elsa tickling their little boy, Max dug his fingers gently into Millie’s ribs and she squealed as well. Instantly, they were all laughing and squealing and like a ripple spreading across the surface of a lake, that joy spread through the cabin of the helicopter. Unbidden, matching smiles gilded the faces of everyone else.

Team Max was together at the end and against all the odds that their doom had stacked against them, still they found joy. Still they found the courage to be happy and for them, this was a victory on its own.

 

11pm, 31st December (6 hours later). Clash of Blades

 

Max walked warily yet purposefully onto the flawless green turf of the arena, his senses piqued and his frame tense. He was alone inside the boundaries of the enclosure with no clear sign of his first adversary, but despite the absence of his foe, he knew it was close. The atmosphere over the island had become more and more charged as the evening had drawn later.

At first the late afternoon winds blowing over the island had picked up, blustering the palms and foliage until right on sundown, a brief, but powerful thunderstorm ripped overhead. This had caused chaos for the arriving dignitaries and world leaders. Helicopters were buffeted, while ground staff raced in near panic to execute emergency landing and rescue procedures.

Then, after the storm had passed, the atmosphere had remained charged, only slightly, but definitely. This charge had persisted through sundown and the length of the night so far. It had put everyone on an even sharper edge than was expected, considering the world might be just about to end. Something was lurking out of sight, preparing to attack. The world was being stalked.

Max had stayed close to Elsa and the kids, the family virtually shutting itself up in their own private quarters inside one of the stadium stands. Only at the end had Abdullah, Joe and Peter come to see them and wish him luck. It had been a brief coming together and largely symbolic as Max’s mental preparation had already pushed him past meaningful engagement with others outside of his family. Max was loaded and ready to fire. The arena beckoned him.

Elsa had been brave with no tears. Millie and Jason had just asked him to be careful and then after a final and lingering family hug, Max had left their quarters and made his way downstairs. It was time for destiny to make an entrance.

Max had met Kris in the main weapons yard downstairs and together they had checked their communications kit, Max with his earpiece in place and microphone stuck to the base of his throat and Kris with her headset. They both knew the system was also wired into Abdullah and Joe’s private booth as well as Elsa’s. They could all hear Max and Kris talk, but none of them could talk back for risk of distracting him, not even Elsa.

Then Kris had handed Max his first weapon. His sword. He had hefted it and twisted it and then lowered it to his side. Finally and wordlessly, Max gave Kris a hug and that was it. He left the world behind. Striding through the doors and into the arena, Max was on his own.

Standing now on the turf, his sword held out to his right side, cocked and ready, Max scanned the grassed surface with no idea of what to expect as his first opponent, so he expected nothing, except to have to fight for his life. The electricity in the air had intensified. Random, tiny blue sparks now crackled all around like miniature firecrackers.

Max knew the crowd surrounded him, the twenty thousand strong mass loud and raucous, but he had closed it out. All was quiet in his world. Everything was still as he waited. Inside himself, Max had slowly unfurled his Nar’gellan instincts, ensuring his human emotions kept them in check. Now, standing on the arena surface, Max’s alien urge for combat and blood was barely contained. He was like a fighting dog, straining at its chain to break free and wreak carnage upon his first foe. Max’s muscles rippled as they flexed and tensed.

Then, he felt it. The electricity in the air amped up and Max raised his head to fix his gaze on the centre of the arena. Suddenly, a brilliant blue column of light shot down from out of the inky blackness of the night sky to stab into the green grass.

The crowd gasped. Max did not flinch. Then the light snapped off and a golden figure stood in its place, lustrous and tall. Slowly the glow hazed away and there it stood, Max’s first foe.

The creature was humanoid in shape with two arms, two legs and a head as part of a tall and lithe build, similar to an Olympic high jumper. Dressed in a shiny, purple, lycra type suit, the alien radiated a shimmering metallic sheen that enhanced its extraterrestrial nature and dazzled all who looked upon it. However, Max’s attention cut straight through the distraction to the katana like sword in the alien’s hands, which demonstrated its true intent. The creature also wore a helmet with a mirrored visor, so Max had no clue what the alien’s face looked like or what form its eyes took to take in its vision.

All up, the enemy did not look overly dangerous, but Max knew that was folly. Macktidas would not have sent a patsy down for him to slay. This creature was here to test him and expose any weaknesses he had and if possible, exploit them and kill him. This seemingly mundane being was absolutely lethal and Max could only treat it as such.

Then, two more shimmering columns of blue light appeared either side of the creature and a few moments later, two additional and completely identical creatures stood in front of Max as well. Three foes. Max heard Kris gasp in his earpiece. Macktidas had cheated. The golden rule of only one opponent per bout was already out the window. Well, so be it. Max had no recourse. No judges to complain to. All he had was his hands, his feet, his skills and his will and they would have to be enough.

The three sword wielding creatures fanned out and started to advance. Max raised his sword and eyed them off. As a trio, they moved gracefully and in harmony. Max started to move as well, side stepping carefully to the left, crossing his feet over as he went and trying to circle around to engage only the creature on that end. The ploy failed as the three foes automatically adjusted and wheeled as one line, keeping Max squarely in the middle. Max realised the counter move and stopped. Trying to be clever was not going to work. This was going to be a full frontal assault. Max would have to weather the first brunt and manoeuvre himself out to an edge during combat.

Suddenly, the charge came as all three creatures launched as one, their swords whistling through the still, thick air. Max stepped to the right, parried the blow from the furthermost right attacker and rolled. Rising back to his feet, he was immediately on the defensive with all three assailants instantly reforming and crowding in around on three sides, their blades flashing.

Max back peddled as he defended, his sword barely repelling the triple blades. The speed and agility of his attackers was too much for him to even contemplate a thrust or a strike. He had time only to parry, dodge and keep moving just fast enough to avoid being cut down.

His progress backwards increased as his foes ratcheted up their aggression. Max’s spatial awareness told him he was fast coming up on the boundary of the arena, which meant he was running out of room to manoeuvre. Max tried to keep moving to the right to spin the melee back towards open ground, but the trio cleverly kept adjusting their progress to keep him hemmed in.

Even one scratch of those blades could be fatal if they were poisoned in any way. Max needed to get clear and regroup, then find a place to make a stand and get on the front foot. Victory would not come while terms were being dictated to him, but suddenly he was out of room.

Max’s foot pressed up against the wall and then a plan spawned in his mind. His preferred design of the wall to be four foot high with a ledge on it in front of the protective, see-through barrier was immediately going to pay dividends. Spinning a full three sixty degrees to his right, Max knocked a strike clear and then sprang straight up and back to land on the ledge. Immediately cart wheeling to the right with no hands and back to the crowd, Max cleared a horizontal slice that passed underneath his head.

Suddenly, he was clear. Bounding away to the right, Max sprinted along the ledge and away from his foes. As he ran, he could hear the crowd banging on the see-through barrier next to him, the hands and faces of the stadium workers pressed against it, spurring him on. Running as fast as he could, Max traversed about fifty metres back towards the centre of the arena. He could not see the three creatures, but he knew they were close behind him. He would have to hit the ground swinging to stay alive and so he did.

Springing sideways to his left, Max somersaulted back onto the grass. As his feet hit the turf, he planted his right foot and flicked his gaze round to see all three creatures bearing right down on top of him. He had been too slow.

Instantly, Max was back on the defensive. Three blades whistled around him and all he could do was duck and dodge, well and truly on the back foot now, flailing his own sword, trying to parry everything that came his way. Max knew he was struggling, badly. Fear did not touch him, but frustration did. He was better than this and then it happened.

As Max flicked his sword across to his left side to block a slash, the attacker on his right side slashed its own weapon and the hilt of its sword connected with Max’s forehead. Then another blow from the middle foe’s sword hilt hit him under the chin and Max felt his feet leave the ground.

Max remained conscious after the blows and surreally saw the trio of creatures slide away at the bottom of his field of vision and the night sky slide in to replace them. Max knew he was airborne on his back and slowly back flipping as he sailed away from the fight. Max also knew he had let go of his sword. Where it was now, he had no clue, but that was not his first concern. He needed to land safely and get himself back into the fight and more importantly, get on top of it.

As he sailed through the air, Max dropped his right shoulder and arm and forced himself to twist, torso first until he was face down in mid air. Just in time, he crashed into the grass, chest first and slid on the slick grassy surface. Fortunately Max got his hands down first to break the fall and keep the wind in his lungs. As he slid, Max turned his focus inwards. By getting smashed, he had inadvertently bought himself a few seconds of respite.

Coming to a stop, Max rose up and crouched on all fours. Looking down, he saw his own blood drip and splash onto the lush, green grass of the arena surface. The stadium crowd and in fact the whole world had now completely disappeared behind a white fog, impenetrable and silent. Max was alone, but that was okay. That was how he needed it to be.

He had just taken a battering and needed to focus. He wasn’t hurt, not really. If he survived the night, the shallow gash on his forehead would heal quickly enough. Max certainly wasn’t scared either. In fact, he now knew exactly what he had to do to get through this bout. He had wondered for the past six months what it would be like in the arena. The chaos of the crowd. The atmosphere beneath the lights. Even the feel of the humid night air. All of it he had wondered about, but now Max knew it all and on top of that, he also knew how to beat this foe. All three of them.

Looking up, Max saw his instrument of victory. The fog receded a little to reveal his sword, skewered into the ground, its hilt and handle sticking out of the grass like the Excalibur of legend, the perfectly smithed blade glittering beneath the stadium lights, its perfection belying its lethal capacity to kill. All Max had to do now was rise to his feet, walk the handful of metres towards it and take hold of the handle. With the blade in his hand, he would have victory secured.

Max knew that his foes were bearing down on him from behind, mistakenly sensing that he was wounded and vulnerable. Without rushing, almost casually, Max straightened and rose to his feet. Pausing momentarily, he stepped off and in a few paces reached his destination. Looking down at the weapon, he paused again. Max’s mind imagined him reaching down and grasping the leather strapped handle. Then Max imagined pulling it effortlessly clear of the turf and twisting it to hold it upright in front of his face, his second hand coming up to rest on the handle directly beneath his other. Mentally, Max could feel the surprising lightness of the weapon. He could also see the glimmers of light rippling along the keen, double-edged blades. Max could even feel the weight of the humidity infused air, the hair on his arms and legs cloyed with a slight bead of sweat. He was ready.

Reaching down with his right hand, Max repeated the scene in real life. A moment later he stood with his sword in front of his face, his gaze watching the light play down the blade edges. His foes were almost upon him, the sound of the crowd starting to diffuse through the thinning fog, coming back to him, or perhaps he was returning to the world.

Looking up into the crowd, a patch of fog faded to show a section of the stadium, a private viewing booth, mid way up the stand. The booth’s floor to ceiling glass framed three figures huddled together, looking down on him like an angel and two cherubs. Elsa, Millie and Jason. There they were. Every reason in the world he needed to live was standing there looking over him. Now Max was really ready.

Behind him, Max’s foes were launching into the air, preparing to strike him down. Max’s fingers gripped the handle of his sword even tighter. The noise of the crowd roared back into his senses and the green grass of the arena sprang back into clarity. Stepping lightly, but firmly back onto the ball of his left foot, Max spun, his sword slicing the air. It was time to fight. It was time to live.

The blow he smashed back into his attacker’s blade, showered sparks into the night air. The attacker stumbled backwards, caught off balance by the ferocity of the blow. Max immediately followed through with another aggressive strike that sent a second attacker’s blow skittering off sideways. Spinning on his foot, Max shot out his right foot and pounded it into the chest of the third charging attacker, sending the creature airborne backwards to land on the ground and roll awkwardly back to its feet.

Suddenly, Max was back in the fight, the evidence being all three foes had paused to stand still around him, just watching. Max held his sword up and slowly looked at each of them in turn. This was how he had imagined it. This was how he needed it to be.

‘What’s he doing?’ Joe asked into the communal comms system.

‘He’s getting into the fight,’ Abdullah said. ‘He needs to own it by taking it away from them. This is how he wins.’

Up in her private booth, Elsa listened to Abdullah’s comments and said quietly under her breath, ‘‘This is how he lives.’

Down in the arena, Max’s hardened glare held the three attackers at bay, the trio slowly circling him like a pack of wild dogs on the savannah, closing in to kill their prey.  Max kept his sword up in front, his double handed grip like a vice.  Then, without looking down, he slid his thumb up to the base of the hilt and pressed the button.  A click sounded and the sword instantly became something completely different.

The trio of creatures suddenly stopped circling and watched as Max’s sword split cleanly into two identical weapons.  The powerful magnets that held the two halves together as a whole were now inactive, allowing Max to pull them apart and hold them out to the sides in each hand.  Now he was twice as lethal.  Having only a single blade before had slowed him down, allowing him to focus only on defence.  With two blades, he could now take the fight to them. The fight was now his.

Again, the three slim creatures charged forwards as a single unit. Their swords carved the air, but Max was up to it. With speed greater than theirs’, he whirled and slashed, sending his enemies’ blades bouncing away, not just in defence, but with aggression. Sparks skittered through the air and with the first onslaught smashed away, Max launched his own attack. Spinning and slashing, jumping and slicing, his twin swords assaulted the three creatures, forcing them to recoil and back away. Slowly, but surely, Max began to corral the trio back towards the nearest edge of the arena, their cohesion and alignment as a group deteriorating.

‘That a boy, Max,’ Kris muttered. ‘Now start taking them out.’

Max drove forwards, his left sword thrusting and his right sword slashing away a feeble strike. Pivoting, he spun hard to his left and with both swords slicing horizontally, he smashed away the blade of the left hand attacker, knocking the creature off balance and stumbling to the ground. The central attacker quickly leapt over its downed comrade, its own sword raised overhead and arcing murderously downwards, chopping to kill. Without looking up, in the blink of an eye, Max crouched, planted and sliced upwards with his right blade, evading the blow and striking his own contact at the same time.

Unexpectedly to the crowd, but not to Max, the leaping creature’s hands separated from its forearms, the shimmering sword spinning upwards into the air with both of the creature’s hands still locked onto the hilt. Purple blood sprayed outwards as the wounded attacker stumbled to its knees. The crowd went nuts. Not even Max’s ice cold concentration could keep the sound out. Twenty thousand screaming human beings rejoiced as one, their hopes suddenly springing to life as their hero drew first blood.

Up in Elsa’s private booth, she remained silent, holding her children close as their father stood stoically in the arena below them. She knew he was now in control, but his life and theirs were still far from assured. The night remained desperately dangerous.

Down in the weapons yard, peering through the plexiglass, Kris silently clenched her fists and her jaws, a fierceness she had never felt before glaring from her eyes. Then another voice entered her ear piece. It was Abdullah.

‘I see now he spoke the truth,’ the Sheikh said quietly, ‘and we never had cause to doubt him. He knows who he is and what he has to do. He shines with belief and it humbles me.’

‘He’s our man, Your Majesty,’ Kris replied, ‘and the show’s just started.’

Down on the grass, Max ignored his downed foe and instead coolly turned to face its remaining comrades, eyeing them off. Instinctively they backed slowly away. The table had well and truly been turned. Now they were the prey and they knew it.

Straightening to his full height, Max held both swords out wide and began to pace towards them. The remaining two aliens unconsciously stayed close to each other, the natural herd mentality kicking in when a predator is on the prowl. Max did not afford them the time to regain any of their lost confidence. He had to end this and end it now. He moved in.

Max’s swords instantly became a blur, their movements betrayed only by the flashes of reflected light and the frantic parries and dodges of his opponents. The two creatures immediately started back peddling, shoulder to shoulder at first, but slowly Max started to drive a wedge between them. Smashing their swords away, he steadily split them apart and singled them out. Spinning and slashing, Max worked his way in between the two of them, until he was effectively battling one on each side of himself. The aliens thought they had gained the advantage now, but that was false. Max had them where he needed them.

Max found a steady rhythm of sword play that kept both attackers safely at bay and then with that equilibrium set, he ratcheted up the hostility. His left side opponent hacked at him and with one sword, Max blocked it and instantly followed through with his second blade to smash his foe’s sword away, causing the creature to stumble off balance. Without closing to kill, Max spun back to the other creature and repeated the manoeuvre, sending it stumbling away too. Spinning back to the first creature, Max leapt into the air, just as the alien lunged at him. Again with one sword, he flicked the attacker’s sword safely away and while still spinning in the air, Max’s second blade whipped around at neck height and an instant later, the alien’s head lopped upwards and clear of its shoulders.

This time the crowd went berserk, the noise absolutely deafening as all twenty thousand human beings in the stadium launched to their feet and screamed. Not just blood this time, but the first kill. It was more than most had dreamed of and all of a sudden, hope flooded the arena, if only for this moment in time.

Kris jumped and screamed, punching the air. Elsa closed her eyes and a breathless sigh passed her lips. Millie and Jason squealed. In the private booth next door, Sheikh Abdullah, Joe and Peter silently watched. As the dead alien’s body crumpled to the ground, Abdullah nodded and said a silent prayer to Allah.

Down in the arena, no sooner did Max’s feet touch the ground than he had spun to face his final able foe. The creature stood almost aimlessly, its sword wavering in front of itself. No semblance of confidence remained in the alien’s manner. Max refused it any respite. With the crowd roaring for more blood, he went straight on the offensive. He did not want to take the chance that Macktidas would cheat again and send down some more attackers to regain the upper hand in the bout.

With one blade up and the other angled out to the side, Max walked briskly forward. The creature immediately started to shuffle backwards, even before the first blow came. Max adjusted his line slightly and forced his foe to change direction. Within a few steps, the alien was back pedalling back to where its still living, but incapacitated comrade was stumbling around.

Then, Max tensed and both of his swords flashed into action. He tempered his speed, forcing the alien to fend constantly and not be able to attack. Max’s swords whirled in perfect choreography, keeping his enemy exactly where he wanted it to be. With patience, he wheeled the creature through one hundred and eighty degrees, placing it in front of him and the third, wounded creature behind him.

Kris squinted at the scene unfolding out in the middle. Max had the upper hand and all he had to do was make a final strike and the bout would be effectively over. Unconsciously, she muttered aloud into her headset.

‘Kill it, Max. Kill it now.’

A hundred feet away, Max held his foe in place with his steady sword play and then replied, ‘Whatever you say, Kris.’

Kris’ mouth gaped. The man had time and awareness to talk back. In the middle of a duel to the death, Max still found time to listen to her and speak back and then it happened, almost too fast for her to see it.

Max half stepped back and allowed his enemy a little extra room to move, inviting it to attack. The alien stepped forward and slashed downwards towards his left shoulder, but Max anticipated the move and with his left sword he cut across his body and knocked the blow away, while quickly following with his right sword to smack the opposing blade away even harder. Using his attacking momentum, Max spun on his right foot and stepped forward with his left to close the gap between him and his stumbling enemy. Lifting his left sword up, Max speared it forwards using a backhanded grip to drive it squarely into the chest of the alien, skewering it.

In the same spinning movement, Max whipped his right sword around and flung it, the blade glittering as it spun, hilt over tip until it hammered into the chest of the third, injured alien behind him. The hapless creature flew backwards as the weapon buried itself up to the hilt in its torso. Meanwhile, the alien in front of Max dropped its own sword and stood dumbly on its quivering legs, looking down at the sword sticking out of its own chest. Feebly, it reached up with both hands to touch the blade, almost as though it needed to feel the weapon to believe it was there, sucking its life away. Finally, the creature fell backwards to the ground, dead.

The crowd surged again and now there was aggression in the combined voices. Surprise at one death had been replaced by bravado that their champion had now tallied up three deaths and a duel score of one to nothing. The crowd knew two more bouts were coming, but Max had won the first fight, even when the bad guys had cheated and now surely nothing could stop him?

Max stood still in the centre of the human maelstrom, allowing the jubilation to wash over him, but not be absorbed into it.

‘Thanks for the tip,’ Max said to Kris.

Kris smiled. ‘Never doubted you. Not for a second.’

Suddenly, the dead alien in front of Max, shimmered and vanished. He looked around and found the other two bodies already gone.

‘Here comes round two,’ Max muttered.

‘Get those swords up,’ Kris replied, an edge in her voice. ‘I don’t think you’re getting any rest time.’

Max turned round to look at Kris and nodded. He then looked directly up above to Elsa’s private booth. Max stood motionless for a moment, staring at his wife and their children. He then raised his left sword up and tapped the hilt against his chest, directly over his heart. Max watched as Elsa stood up, her silhouette framed against the backdrop of light in the booth. Delicately, she placed her own hand on her own heart. Neither of them smiled. Neither of them dared. Death still lurked in the shadows.

 

11:20pm, 31st December. Impenetrable

 

Suddenly, another blue column of light shot down from the night sky to drive into the very centre of the arena. Max spun to face it, his sword whipping up. The crowd gasped as the electricity in the air amped up again. Sparks fluttered in space, but Max ignored them, his focus lasered in on the shaft of light and the shape forming inside it.

Then the blue column snapped off and a massive figure remained, still shrouded in a shimmering golden haze. Slowly, the aura faded and Max got his first look at the creature beneath. His eyes squinted as he took in the gargantuan beast.

Like an ogre direct from a fairy tale, the creature was gigantic, standing over seven feet tall and bearing the bulk of an elephant. Two tree trunk like legs supported its obese mass, while two stumpy arms with no hands protruded from each side of its torso. On top of that, it was ugly. Pale grey skin hung off its loathsome form in great craggy folds, its skin tone mottled and patchy like mouldy bread.

Then Max looked up at its bald, pale head and found above its wide, slavering mouth, only one eye staring back at him. The eye was central, but oblong in shape, stretching from one side of its face to the other like it had been pulled across the front of its skull.

Instantly Max knew what that meant. The creature did not need peripheral vision as it could probably see clearly across a wide field of sight with no blind spots. There would be no sneaking past this thing. He would be fighting this foe head on in all directions.

Max stepped to his right, but the alien did not move. Max continued side stepping and as he moved further sideways, the creature finally turned its head to track him, but still it made no move to attack. Daring a quick look down, Max found his second sword blade lying on the grass where the previous alien had perished. Without removing his focus from the being, Max bent down, picked up the second blade and deftly put the two weapons back together.

‘Javelin,’ he said into his comms. ‘Toss it out.’

Immediately, a portal opened in the wall nearby Max and out flew a fist sized metal cylinder. It hit the grass and rolled to a stop near his feet. Max took two more careful steps and then inverting his sword, skewered it into the turf. Still without removing his gaze from the alien, Max bent down and picked up the metal object. Feeling it in his hands, he found the etchings over a small touch pad and pressed it.

In a blink, telescopic, metal extensions shot out from both ends. One end thickened to a blunt finish, while the other end tapered to a lethal pin point. Max hefted the missile out to the side with his right hand and then raised it to shoulder height. At the same time, Max pulled his sword clear of the turf and held it ready too.

Staring the beast down, thirty metres distant, Max locked his mental cross hairs onto the creature’s chest. In a flurry, he charged forward two steps and unleashed the javelin. Soundlessly, the missile drove through the air, its deadly point glittering. The creature did not react and the javelin smashed into its chest, the point digging into the insipid, folded skin, forming ripples like a pebble falling into a pond.

The beast did not flinch. In fact it did not move at all and immediately Max knew why. The moment the javelin’s point hit its skin, the weapon bounced back and away, failing to penetrate. The attack had been futile. The alien’s skin was its armour and no blade or missile was getting through it.

Max subconsciously turned the sword in his left hand and then passing it unlooking into his right hand, he cast it away towards the weapons portal from where the javelin had come. It would be useless in this bout.

‘What do you want?’ Kris asked.

‘Don’t know yet,’ he replied. ‘I’ll have to test this thing first to find…’

A blur of movement from the creature’s chest suddenly cut Max’s reply short. Like a panther, he dived to the right, rolled and came up on his toes to look again at the creature. A flabby gash had opened up on the giant’s chest, but there was no sign of what had apparently just shot out of it towards him.

‘What the hell was that, Kris?’ he asked.

‘It shot something out of its chest,’ she replied. ‘Like green golf balls. Hang on! What’s that, where the things landed?’

‘You tell me. I’m not taking my eyes off this thing in case it does it again.’

‘The balls, they’re smoking on the grass.’

Max was now moving slowly in a gradual arc towards the weapons portal, his steps fluid as he shifted his weight and balance from foot to foot. He would not be taken by surprise again.

‘What do you mean they’re smoking?’ he asked. ‘Are they on fire?’

‘No,’ Kris said back vaguely. ‘I think they’re melting, like they’re made of acid or something.’

‘Must be corrosive,’ Max said as he came closer to the weapons portal, his eyes still locked on the slowly turning monster, watching him move. ‘Toss me out a big shield, a little shield and a knife.’

‘You heard him!’ Kris called out.

A few seconds later, three items slid through the portal to drop to the grass below. Max sidestepped a little further and without breaking his focus on the beast, leaned down and first picked up the knife.

The blade was a standard combat knife that was also perfectly weighted for throwing. It was sheathed and Max slapped the weapon against his right hip, the material shrouding the sheath sticking to the fabric of his combat suit. Another piece of engineering brilliance from Abdullah’s engineering think tank.

Then Max reached down and grabbed a shield with each of his hands. The smaller shield was a perfect disc, just over half a metre in diameter and light weight, making it perfect for easy manoeuvrability and close quarter combat with a sword. Its front surface was as smooth as pressed metal and shone like polished silver, flashing under the overhead lights like a mirror in the sun.

The second shield was massive. A full two metres in height and a metre wide, it was thick, but completely see through, allowing its bearer to hide fully behind it, but retain full sight of any opponent. It was also relatively lightweight considering its bulk.

Max hefted the straps of the big shield onto his left arm and the bindings of the smaller shield onto his right arm. Testing the weight and feel of both shields with his own balance, Max satisfied himself he was ready and then stepped off towards the giant.

With careful paces, he began closing the gap between them. With no clear plan of how to attack this alien, Max remained on his toes and alert, both shields raised. To discover this being’s weakness, he would need to provoke it into attack, which would either provide a path to victory or get himself killed.

Then it happened. Max saw the creature’s chest sharply convulse and the gash spat out a short stream of apple sized missiles directly at him. Chancing the strength of the big shield, Max jammed it into the ground and braced himself behind it.

The missiles smacked into the clear guard like machine gun bullets. Max’s orange shoes slid slightly backwards on the turf as he tried to hold his ground against the barrage. Then he noticed that the missiles had not bounced off and instead had stuck to the shield and were now smoking. Max could also hear a slight sizzle and see the clear material of the shield beginning to bubble where the missiles had lodged.

They were corrosive. Not much, but enough. The shield could take a lot more punishment yet, but under a big enough onslaught it would eventually fall apart. As for what it could do to human skin, that was not an attractive thought.

The barrage stopped, so Max straightened up and eyed off the creature through the top half of the shield. He also tossed the small shield aside. It would be useless here. He needed more protection than it could afford.

Max began moving again, but this time changed his path to move diagonally forwards to the creature’s left. He still needed to find a weakness. Now only ten metres away, the creature shuffled its massive legs to keep Max in its wide line of sight. The movement caught Max’s eye. It was ungainly. Awkward even, like the alien was only just mobile and preferred to not move if it could avoid it.

Then before Max could formulate a plan, its chest convulsed again and another round of missiles shot out. Max quickly brought the shield up again and dug his toes in against the force of the impacts. Instantly the front surface of the shield began to blister and hiss. Then something else happened.

Without moving its feet, the creature twisted its torso and flicked its left arm out in front. In a blur, a tentacle erupted from the end of the arm to bridge the distance to Max and smack into the shield, disrupting Max’s balance. The creature twisted the other way and its right arm shot round and out came another tentacle to bash into Max’s shield. This second blow caught Max well off guard and sent him flying backwards to land and slide on his back to a halt, the huge shield lying over him like a cover.

Then Max felt the ground shake and knew what that meant. Snapping to his feet, the shield up in front again, Max found the alien loping towards him, its massive, flabby bulk, sloughing like a dough ball. Its pace was very slow, but it was mobile and now Max knew it had two whipping tentacles in its armoury as well as the corrosive balls and impenetrable skin. This just got a whole lot harder.

Max lifted his shield and doing his best to hold it out to his right side for protection, he started to run. Directing his path in a wide arc around to the alien’s right, he tried to get around to its back side. The alien halted its loping and attempted to continue turning to keep Max in front, but Max accelerated. A volley of bullets suddenly shot out from the creature’s chest, only one of which connected with the shield, the rest shooting past behind Max.

As Max ran further, he kept his focus on the alien’s one, over-sized eye, trying to get outside of its field of vision. Then, as he ran further around to the back of the creature, he found something odd and stopped in his tracks. The creature did in fact have two eyes. On the back of its bald skull, there was a second, identical eye, stretched across and staring. It literally had an eye in the back of its head. Getting in behind the alien’s field of vision was impossible. Max needed another plan.

Suddenly, another sharp burst of corrosive balls sprayed at him. Max easily side stepped them, but failed to see the ploy. As he stepped left, Max stepped straight into the ambush of the nearest tentacle arm shooting out and knocking him backwards off his feet again. The force of this blow was lessened by the shield, but still it stunned him.

The world monetarily disappeared behind a black veil and Max’s centre of gravity went missing. Knowing he was flying uncontrollably through the air, Max came to his senses just in time to feel the full force of the ground pummel him as he rolled to a stop, ten metres behind where he had been standing.

Again Max felt the earth tremoring beneath him. The creature was coming. Max lifted his head and found himself to be still a shade groggy and with very little time to get clear. Rising to his feet, Max lifted the shield just in time as another barrage of balls fired forth from the loping alien’s chest. Max dug the shield in and absorbed the hail of balls, but the acidic effects of the previous bursts had weekend the shield.

The see through material buckled inwards and Max shied back. Then the shield smashed completely through as a tentacle crashed into it and without the protection of the shield, impacted Max’s chest to send him flying backwards again, this time like a rag doll.

High up in their family private booth, Elsa gasped, her hand whipping up to her gaping mouth. Millie squealed and Jason cowered. Elsa’s wide, glassy eyes took in the full scene, her pupils dilated open and sucking it all in. She watched as her husband’s feet lifted off the ground. She watched as Max’s body flailed uncontrollably. She watched as her hero slammed into the turf and rolled to a halt, unmoving.

The crowd sat stunned. The joy of the first victory now lay buried beneath the brutal reality of this second duel’s awful twist. Their champion was down, beaten senseless by a brute of a monster. Disaster rose up from the floor of the arena and fear clenched at the hearts and throats of all watching.

Abdullah’s fist clutched his prayer beads as he muttered a prayer. Joe placed his hand against the glass of his booth, sending his own prayer out across the space. Kris gaped, her hands balled up on her head.

Meanwhile, the creature continued to bear down on Max, the grass beneath its bulk being trampled and broken as it blundered ahead. Kris’ eyes goggled as she watched the horror unfold. Max was out cold and about to die.

‘Get up, Max,’ she whispered. ‘Get up.’

And then he moved. First Max’s hands snapped open as though they were feeling the grass beneath them. Then Max’s head shot up, his eyes instantly locking onto the lumbering beast bearing down on him and finally, he was up.

In one single powerful motion, Max drove himself upwards with his arms and then continued the drive with his legs, propelling him high into the air and into a flawless backward somersault.

The creature shot out a tentacle, but as Max’s feet approached the ground to land, he twisted and the tentacle snapped past his side. Now on the ground, Max sprang sideways and was instantly at full sprint, legging it in a wide arc outside of the reach of the alien’s assault armoury and towards where he had discarded the small shield.

‘Toss out some javelins,’ Max rasped as he sprinted, ‘and a broadsword.’

‘Done,’ Kris replied, almost breathless as she struggled to react to how quickly Max had gone from out cold to full action.

Max ran to the small, silver shield and scooped it up, turning as he did and just in time too as another stream of acid balls shot out of the alien’s chest. This time, without a big shield to hide behind, Max had to wield his smaller shield about to deflect all of the missiles. Two bounced off to smoke on the grass, but two stuck to the shield and instantly it began to pit and steam.

The creature was too far away to strike out with its tentacles, so while it reloaded its chest cavity with more acid balls, Max looked behind him and found the broadsword and a pile of retracted javelins lying behind him against the wall and below a weapons portal.

Dropping the still smoking shield to the grass, Max picked up the broadsword and drove the big heavy blade point first into the ground next to him, so its hilt was close and easy to grab. He then picked up a javelin and pressed the button to loose the telescopic extensions. Max then stuck the javelin into the turf next to the broadsword and finally recollected the small shield. A quick inspection of the front face of the shield revealed it would probably only be good for one more barrage of corrosive balls. That would have to do.

Looking back up, Max found the beast slowly waddling towards him, trying to get its tentacles in range of a strike. Max braced himself and waited for his foe to come closer. He had a plan, but it was far from well thought out.

Inside his mind, Max was calm. The world again faded behind a white fog and he was alone with his senses. His Nar’gellan instincts were firing his thoughts and actions, but his human composure kept him focused. Max could feel the electricity in the air, tingling through the light sweat on his skin. He could feel the slight sea breeze stirring the hairs on his arms. He could feel the humidity, sticky and thick around him. Max could also feel his heartbeat, steady and strong, slightly elevated, but slowing as he focused.

Max was in control, his entire being poised to strike, but he needed the beast to strike first. His success depended on it. His everything depended on it and then it happened, the speed of it all a blur to the crowd, but to Max, a languid slow motion.

The beast’s chest twitched and four more acid balls shot out, directly at Max’s head. He saw them coming and held his stance as he watched them grow larger and larger in front of him. Then at the last minute, Max ducked and all of the missiles sailed overhead. Now came the next part.

Max knew the creature’s left tentacle was already shooting out across the space to ambush him as he crouched below the incoming acid balls. Snapping up, Max pirouetted to the right, dropped the shield and wrapped both hands around the hilt of the inverted broadsword next to him.

The alien’s tentacle flicked past Max, but he would not let it go untouched. Smoothly and with lightning speed, Max pulled the broadsword clear of the grass and swung it murderously down in as tight an arc as he could. The massive blade scythed the air and struck the tentacle as it reached full extension next to Max.

The serrated edge of the blade cut deeply. A spray of green liquid misted into a cloud as the broadsword carved through the pale grey appendage. A moment later the tentacle retracted back, but the leading metre of it fell to the turf, diced off.

The crowd roared. The creature roared. Max dropped the broadsword and without looking, reached behind him to pluck the javelin out of the ground. Shuffling his feet, he looked up at the giant alien to find it writhing and contorting on its huge legs, its other, intact tentacle whipping around like an out of control fire hose. The monster was distracted by its pain. The brief respite allowed Max to fix his focus on the creature’s front eye. He took two steps forward.

In a smooth, but potent action, Max hurled the javelin at the giant creature’s head, seeking to skewer it through its eye. The javelin soared true, but the creature’s agitated state made the target too hard and the missile drove into its forehead instead, bouncing off to no avail.

Despite his shot having missed, Max knew he still held the advantage. The alien was still heavily distressed at having its tentacle hacked off and so, Max was unguarded and free to attack unharried, but how to kill it? His plan had been a good one, but he had been too far away, so there was only one thing to do. He needed to be closer.

Reaching down to his right thigh, Max unsheathed his knife and launched forwards, his orange shoes a coloured blur against the green grass. Like a bolt of lightning, he darted straight at the massive alien. The creature’s flailing tentacles, both good and injured, whipped around in a frenzy, but Max dodged and dived to get past them and right up to the creature’s huge bulk.

As soon as he got in close, Max jumped high and using the folds in the creature’s skin as toeholds, he scaled up the monster’s hide in two bounds and latched himself onto the head. Once there, Max came eye to eye with the creature. Up close, the alien’s eye was no longer just an oblong, black smear. It was in fact like a rainbow coloured honeycomb, a micropattern of hexagons arrayed in a kaleidoscope of hues and saturations, but Max was not there to admire.

The creature was instantly aware of Max’s intention and shook its great bulk, snapping its head from side to side and shaking its body, but Max held on with his left arm wrapped around the top of the alien’s scalp. Raising his right hand, the knife gleamed and flashed.

Elsa held her breath, her mouth open and her body frozen. Abdullah’s fingers paused playing with his prayer beads and Joe leaned in closer to the glass, his nose almost touching the pane. Peter remained transfixed. Kris’ fists balled so tightly her nails dug into her palms. Time seemed to slow as the crowd watched Max hold his blade out ready to strike. The beast thrashed and bucked, trying to dislodge him and then the blade flashed one last time.

Max drove the blade inwards, driving it squarely into the centre of the alien’s eye, right up to the hilt. A gurgling roar filled the stadium only to be drowned out by the ecstasy of the crowd. The creature’s full body convulsions became too great for Max to hold on and he was thrown out to the side.

This time he controlled his impact with the ground and rolled straight to his feet. Quickly Max turned, his instincts still forcing him onto his toes, wary and ready, but the duel was over.

The hideous, grey brute was still flailing around, but was now completely aimless, clearly in its death throes. Max stepped backwards away from it just in case some final, biological death mechanism erupted from it. Then it died. Suddenly the convulsions just stopped. It froze for a moment and then toppled over, its disgusting, flabby skin flopping about.

Max watched it fall, emotionally agnostic to its death. He had won, but all he could do was merely acknowledge it. There was no celebration. No internal joy or satisfaction. It was simply a job done because as the crowd rejoiced his second victory, Max knew the ordeal was far from over.

He had defeated two foes. He had won two duels, but now came the third. Now came the hardest. Now came Macktidas.

 

11:40pm, 31st December. Warlord

 

The crowd was delirious. It was a celebration. It was jubilation. It was sheer ecstasy. With the second alien foe dispatched and its corpse vanished from the arena, hope had been replaced by the absolute height of confidence, its deep emotion running rampant amongst the throng of humanity.

Two different species of extraterrestrial had come and gone, both of them beaten and killed by the crowd’s human champion. What had seemed impossible was now feeling like a certainty. Mankind would not only win tonight, but it would prove its worth to be greater than the alien oppressors threatening it with genocide. Humanity was the stronger race and all it had to do now was beat down the final foe and claim a righteous victory.

In contrast to the mayhem around him, Max stood silent and motionless within the confines of the arena. Unlike the masses surrounding him, he knew that the space between himself and any possible victory was wide and dark, like a chasm pitching far into the depths of the Earth. His final foe still stood between himself and the light of safety and that foe was more fearsome, more dangerous and more skilled than anything he had yet seen tonight. Macktidas.

Max had never seen the creature in real life, but he had seen and felt its potency through the mind link he shared with his mother. Macktidas was a warrior and a monster. Borne of the elite in the Nar’gellan race, he physically dominated all others and by the might of his own hands, he had wrested the rulership of his race from Max’s parents, inflicting death and carnage in the act.

Max’s mother had known Macktidas would eventually find her son and so she had guided him into a life of preparation, not of hiding. The truth had been the most effective means of helping Max come to terms with what was just about to unfold. Silently, Max thanked his mother again. She had been right to prepare him and now he was ready. Ready to fight and ready to die if needs be.

Standing at one end of the arena, Max had eyes only for three people. With no weapon in hand, he stood motionless, looking up at the glass box where his family stood. He had no words for his wife and children, but he knew in his heart what their thoughts were because those thoughts were his also. They always had been. He may right now be champion for the human race, but his family were his heroes and if his life ended in this next bout, Max knew his life had been full and rich and so had his family’s. The time had come. Max placed his open palm on his heart and sent his love up through the space between them. He watched Elsa do the same.

Then, Max sensed a change in the atmosphere. He stood at one end of the arena, nearest his family and so had the majority of the field behind him. The mood in the stadium abruptly changed, the celebration suddenly halting, like it had been rudely interrupted. Max felt a slight electric charge in the air. Arms and fingers raised all around the stadium, pointing to the centre of the arena, jubilant faces suddenly becoming tense and frightful. Something was happening behind him.

Max held his gaze on his family for just a moment longer and then slowly turned on the spot. His gaze moved round one hundred and eighty degrees and Max found the source of the interruption.

A broad, cerulean beam of light shone directly down from the heavens and onto the very centre of the grassed area. It penetrated from the dark skies overhead like a shaft of energy. Inside the blue column, Max could see tiny sparks of energy, rippling and crackling like miniature electrical storms.

‘What is that?’ Kris asked.

‘Macktidas,’ Max replied.

‘So, you really think he’s coming after all?’

‘I have no doubt and when he does come, he won’t stop. This is where it ends.’

‘Then go and grab a weapon would you?

‘Make sure the gloves are charged.’

‘On it,’ Kris said, ‘and remember, our only pair is up the other end from me?’

Max acknowledged the warning. Abdullah’s engineering team had really struggled to invent this particular weapon and so only one, sole pair of electric gloves had been made in time and even now it was dangerously hap hazard to use. The charging mechanism was flaky and prone to failing, but it was all they had and to be fair, Abdullah’s engineers had come through with everything else Max had needed, including some of the weapons he had already used in the first two bouts. This was not a time to complain. This was a time to fight.

‘Thanks,’ Max replied. ‘Here we go.’

‘Go stick it to him, big guy,’ Kris growled back. ’Make him wish he’d never heard of you.’

Max opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, the atmosphere charged even higher. The shaft of blue light intensified to a deeper shade and the electricity bolts inside arced even brighter.

The crowd cowed down. A slight breeze stirred the blades of grass, ruffling the surface of the arena like ripples on the ocean. Max started to walk, slowly circling the crackling beam of energy, his attention glued to it. He kept his movements steady and fluid, his balance firm. Max knew that the moment Macktidas hit the ground, it would be relentless, right up until someone or something died.

Then it happened. The shaft of light suddenly blazed, its radiance engulfing the stadium and momentarily blinding everyone. Instead of raising his hands to cover his eyes, Max squinted into the brilliance and in that instant, he saw his foe appear.

A split second later, Macktidas was on the turf, accompanied by a great gust of swirling wind that seemed to snuff out the shaft of light. A great, gut-wrenching roar rent the night, cowering all twenty thousand people in the stands, the unholy noise trembling the ground beneath them.

Max beheld the monster, all nine feet of him, the width across his shoulders equal to Max’s height. Macktidas resembled his own soldiers in physical shape, appearing as a giant, gorilla-like humanoid with dark, shimmering skin and the heaving musculature of a Greek God. His armour shone in sparkling silver, his linked, breast and back plates covering his torso while forearm, thigh and shin plates protected his limbs. His face was pure anger, the whites of his eyes glaring balefully out from beneath a deep brow and above great, rounded cheekbones. His bared teeth bore fangs as long as short swords and molars that could grind human bones like candy. His giant nostrils flared like volcanic vents, his breathing harsh and louder than a steam train, and then he moved.

Macktidas charged forward on all fours like a gigantic silverback, his massive fists pounding into the grass, tearing up huge divots. His roar matched the shuddering of the ground as he rumbled forwards, not lumbering or ungainly, but powerfully like a huge machine that greedily ate up the space in front of it, devouring any sense of order before it.

In a matter of split seconds, Macktidas had covered the fifty metres between himself and Max, his enormous, bunched fists whipping up over his head and then swinging down towards Max like twin wrecking balls.

Max had frozen, but he was balanced, poised to move once his enemy showed its hand. As Macktidas’ blows hurtled towards him, Max took two steps forward and leapt high, somersaulting over his foe’s fists and landing nimbly on the grass to Macktidas’ left side. Max hit the ground running and just as well. Macktidas’ speed was blinding. In an instant the beast turned and thrashed out at his smaller opponent, but Max was again equal to the task, forward rolling and coming up clear.

Now Max was sprinting. If everything his mother had told him was true, he needed to get those electric gloves on. They would be his only true chance of victory and they were up the other end. Pumping his legs like pistons, Max powered across the turf, his orange shoes a blur, but Macktidas was right after him, bellowing like the world was coming to an end. As Max ran, Macktidas swung his massive fists after him, just missing, but Max could feel the rush of air on his back.

‘Gloves are out,’ Kris said into his earpiece, ‘but they’re not charged yet. They’re playing up again.’

‘He’s too close anyway,’ Max breathed back.

With Macktidas swinging at his heels, Max sprinted directly for the far end of the arena. He could see the gloves on the ledge, but he also knew that if he hit the wall, Macktidas would smash straight into him. He needed to stay in the clear and give himself room to manoeuvre.

Suddenly, with only twenty metres to go before running out of space and still at full speed, Max jumped up, tucked his feet in and spun in the air. Turning and rolling in mid flight, he flattened himself to hit the grass, chest first. As he touched down, Max kicked his feet out and dug his toes in, using his hands for added grip. Effectively facing the other way, Max juddered to a halt, looked up and found his enemy screaming onto him.

Launching forward, Max stayed low and like a bullet, he zipped straight through the monster’s lumbering legs and out into the clear, sprinting again like a man on fire.

The giant roared and spun, flailing his huge brawny arms in the air. Without pausing, Macktidas bounded off in pursuit, his eyes boring into Max’s back. Max ran even faster than before. With the extra space, he could concentrate more clearly on his plan of attack. Lasering his gaze ahead of him, Max saw the ledge at the far end where Kris and the primary weapons bay lay.

‘Tridents,’ he breathed and as he watched, two gleaming objects were placed on the ledge.

With the giant’s roar filling his senses, Max ran on. The crowd had vanished behind an impenetrable veil of adrenalin and focus. The world around him was gone. Even the wind in his hair and bracing across his face was without sensation. All Max could feel was his own heartbeat, his lungs bellowing and his blood siphoning throughout his body, fuelling him faster and faster. Until he could get to the gloves, all Max could do was evade the creature’s fury, but right now he wanted a weapon. He needed to make the alien bleed. That at least might make it pause and take notice.

Max could feel Macktidas still behind him, but his spatial awareness also told him he had only a few moments space. Charging up to the ledge, Max leapt forward, somersaulted and twisted to land on the raised platform in a squatting position, his hands reaching down between his legs to grasp the handles of the tridents. Macktidas filled his vision, the giant’s snarling, bawling visage blotting out everything behind it, and then Max sprang.

Uncoiling his legs like steel springs, Max vaulted high overhead Macktidas. As he sailed over the creature’s left shoulder, he stabbed downwards with his right trident, puncturing Macktidas’ upper back in the fleshy part behind the collar bone. Pulling the trident out, Max fell to the ground, rolled and was up and sprinting again.

Instantly Max realised the creature was not in pursuit. Reaching the centre of the arena, he braved to stop and turn. Macktidas still stood at the end where Max had vaulted over him, clutching at his upper back where Max had stabbed him. Max could see a rich purple liquid seeping through the alien’s clenched hand covering the wound. He had hurt the monster and it had suddenly taken notice.

If Max’s focus had allowed him to, he would have heard the hysteria of the crowd as they realised their champion had drawn blood. Sparing a glance down at his trident, Max found a thin smear of the same purple substance on the steel. He had hurt the alien, but it was a flesh wound and would not waylay it for long. If Macktidas’ healing abilities were as potent as his own, the injury was probably already healing. Max needed the gloves. Without any further pause, he started sprinting for the far end, the cat and mouse game continuing.

‘Those gloves charged yet?’ he asked as he ran, the tridents flashing in silver whirls on either side of his hurtling form.

‘Yes,’ Kris replied. ‘Get ‘em on.’

Then Max sensed something else. Something behind him. Without turning, Max dived chest first onto the ground and slid forwards on the slick grass, his arms and the tridents out wide. Lifting his chin, he watched a massive javelin spear the air overhead, right where his torso had been. The ten foot long spike continued on straight as a line until it crashed into the barrier at the end of the stadium, the crowd behind the clear Perspex scurrying like rats to avoid the impact should the weapon break through.

Max didn’t pause. Instantly, he was up and running again, but as he rose, he cast a glance behind him and found Macktidas already thundering down the length of the arena, voraciously chewing up the space between them. He also now had his sword in hand. Macktidas had upped the ante.

Knees driving, hands pumping and heart beating, Max drove forwards to the end. He could see the gloves lying on the ledge, but again he knew Macktidas was too close for him to retrieve them. No sooner would he have them in his hands and the behemoth would be on top of him, disallowing him the killer grip he needed around Macktidas’ throat to effect maximum injury. There was only one thing to do. Confront the beast.

Arcing slightly to his right, Max led Macktidas to the side. Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the monster raise his sword out to the right. Planting his foot, Max jumped high and spun. Macktidas’ sword sliced the air beneath him, murderously cleaving the space Max had been in. As Max flew high, he extended his tridents out, the points cutting like spikes.

Hitting the ground, Max turned and looked up at his enemy, finding him doubled over and roaring. The crowd were again going berserk, but Max was uncaring. Cautious tension racked his body. Suddenly Macktidas flicked his face round and Max saw the gash high on his right cheek. He had cut the giant’s face open, forcing more purple blood to spill out. The monster’s lips peeled back to reveal its full mouth of teeth, gleaming in rows of pearlescent death. Malevolence radiated, contorting Macktidas’ face into pure nightmare. Max knew this face. This was the face that had killed his family. Instead of fear, the expression lifted Max even higher.

As Max stared back at the beast, he suddenly realised the giant’s sword was moving, much faster than anything he had ever experienced. Buckling his knees, Max controlled a backward fall onto his heels as the sword scythed over him. Springing back up, he bounded backwards to gain more space, but Macktidas’ massive left fist drilled downwards faster than he had expected. Dodging to the right, the blow pounded the grass next to Max, the impact rocking the ground. Max turned to dodge again, but this time he was too slow. Macktidas flicked his left fist up off the ground and his knuckles caught Max full on in the chest, lifting him off his feet and hurtling backwards. The brutality of the blow knocked the air from Max’s lungs and the tridents from his hands.

Sailing backwards, Max kept his focus fixed on Macktidas who was already moving to catch up to him. In mid flight, Max sucked in a new lung full of air and flicked his feet up over his head in a backward somersault. Landing on his feet again, Max’s gaze filled with Macktidas bearing down on him, his huge sword slicing downwards like an enormous cleaver, edge down onto his head.

Stepping to the side, the blade slammed into the ground next to Max, burying deep and forming a great cleave in the turf. Max was ready this time for the follow-up blow as Macktidas’ left fist drove down. Diving forward, he got inside Macktidas’ defences and again slipped between his legs. Macktidas spun, looking down for his foe, but Max was too quick, ducking and diving to stay out of the giant’s reach.

Then Macktidas lifted a foot and Max had his advantage. Nimbly, he stepped up onto the monster’s foot and using it for a boost, drove upwards to smash his right fist in under the creature’s chin, snapping Macktidas’ head backwards, but Macktidas had simultaneously countered with a straight left punch. The blow struck Max in the stomach and he flew backwards, tumbling in flight and out of control.

Macktidas stumbled backwards, his sword flailing. Max tumbled to the ground, rolling out into the centre of the arena like a discarded rag doll. Both combatants paused. Macktidas stood dazed. Max lay unmoving. The crowd fell silent.

‘Get up!’ Kris yelled. ‘Get up!’

High in her glass box, Elsa instinctively reached forward to lay her hand on the glass, a gasp whispering past her lips. She could feel her heart hammering, her blood pulsing. Tunnel vision consumed her perspective as she searched for movement, and then Max’s fingers flinched.

‘He’s alive!’ Kris squealed, but her glee quickly dissipated as she realised Max was far from well. Then a thought entered her mind. A promise she had made and now felt an overpowering urge to break. Looking around, Kris found her second in command in the weapons bay and shouted to him. ‘Take the lead! I’ve got to do something!’

The man looked across at Kris and instantly goggled. ‘No!’ he shouted, frantically waving his arms. ‘Don’t do that!’

‘You just watch the shop!’ Kris shot back as she opened the weapons bay portal and stuck her head through.

Meanwhile, out in the arena, Max had slowly pushed himself up to all fours, his movements still strained. Across from him, Macktidas shook his head, his vision still swimming.

‘Get up,’ Peter muttered, his clenched fist and forearm planted onto the glass of the box.

Next to him, Joe bored his gaze across the space and into Max, trying to telepathically ignite him. Next to Joe, Abdullah prayed. It was all he could do.

From his all fours posture, Max looked down at the grass beneath him. The gently stirring blades confused him, making him unsure if his focus was out or if the perception was real. He bunched his fists and felt the turf in his clenches. It was real. He was alive, but he still didn’t have his balance right. Then he remembered. Macktidas!

Snapping his head back up, Max locked his gaze onto the creature, who with one final shake of his head, cleared his vision, allowing the stadium to come back into alignment. A moment later Macktidas also realised he was still holding his sword and the very next moment,