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.
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.