Max Arena

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Dread

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?’

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