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.’
’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?’
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?’
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.