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.’
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?”
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?’
‘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.’
’Come on?’ Max pushed. ‘Try me.’
‘Mother Earth. Has to be Elsa.’
Peter nodded. ‘Tabby.’
Another nod. ‘Tiger.’
‘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.