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?’
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.