10pm, 15th August (later that night). Boys’ Night
The matte black military helicopter skimmed the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the faint light of the sickle moon illuminating the sea just enough to make it shimmer and shift like black mercury. Flying low enough to avoid radar detection, the aircraft was effectively invisible and almost inaudible with its state of the art noise dampening technology.
Approaching the island estate, the mansion’s lights glared into the night like a beacon, allowing the pilot to easily fix on to her target without the need of the high tech controls surrounding her. Suddenly, the fringing palms of the island jutted up in front, but without any hint of panic, the pilot calmly adjusted the rotator controls to smoothly lift the helicopter over the trees, the palm fronds lightly ruffling in the downwash.
The broad southern lawn of the estate opened up beneath the aircraft as it zoomed ahead. The mansion was now clearly visible in the pilot’s night vision goggles. With a flick of a switch on the side of her helmet, the view through the goggles changed from night vision to thermal. Four human shaped figures instantly lit up on the back patio of the mansion. The pilot smiled.
‘I have eyes on all four targets,’ she said into her helmet microphone.
‘Roger that,’ crackled the reply. ‘Continue with patrol circuit. Stay in touch.’
Peter ignored the whisper quiet helicopter as it flew overhead. Instead his gaze roamed around the nightscape across the southern lawn spreading out from the back patio of the mansion. He knew there were at least three foot patrols out there somewhere along with the patrolling helicopter overhead and two more naval patrol boats lurking not far off the beach, but none of this guaranteed their safety. At least not in his mind. He was the last line. He was the safety net. Max and his family were only truly safe while he remained vigilant and more importantly, alive.
‘Your helicopters, Abdullah,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said as he stood on the verge of the patio, turning his unlit pipe in his left hand, ‘are like vampires. They come out after dusk and then disappear before the sun rises. I would dearly like to see one of them up close in the light of day, just to confirm they are real.’
‘That can be arranged, my friend,’ Abdullah replied from next to Joe, as he looked up at the night sky. ‘I can assure you they are a ride worth having at least once in your life.’
Joe smiled and placed his pipe between his teeth, taking false draws to further relax himself. He then slid a sideways glance to Max who stood a little further out on the grass, more in the dark than in the light. He was restless tonight, but perhaps that was to be expected. All of them were still trying to unwind after their hectic afternoon spent coordinating and executing Max’s first public training session. The dregs of their adrenalin were beginning to sputter out, but still sleep eluded them.
‘What’s on your mind, Max?’ Joe asked.
Max flicked a sideways glance at his Prime Minister and then back to the night. ‘I was trying to remember that song that came over the PA system this afternoon at the end of the session. The one where the whole crowd started to do that overhead clapping thing.’
‘Yes, I remember,’ Joe replied. ‘It was very popular. Inspirational even. Perhaps it could be the Team Max theme song?’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ Max agreed, ‘but we should probably check that off with Kris. She’s the marketing executive.’
‘Hmm,’ Joe hummed, but said nothing more as he mentally ran through the afternoon’s events again.
The silence grew. Abdullah remained fixed on the stars overhead. Peter continued to scan the nocturnal surrounds and Joe quietly puffed on his pipe. The only exception was Max, who shuffled from foot to foot, constantly half turning to look around at nothing in particular.
‘I envy your energy, Max,’ Joe said, ‘except at times like this when sleep should be knocking on your door. Is there something you could suggest to help settle you down?’
‘Well, maybe,’ Max replied coyly. ‘What about poker?’
Joe raised his eyebrows. ‘Poker? Now that’s an interesting proposition. Why poker?’
‘We’ve got four grown men standing around in the dark, late at night, not doing much. There’s got to be some cards in this place somewhere and how many more times are we going to get away from the girls to have a boys’ night?’
Joe nodded. ‘It’s good reasoning, but unfortunately, old chap,’ he said, ‘I have to place some calls tonight. In particular to your good friend President Bartholomew. I am expecting him to request another audience with you seeing as you now have the attention of the world. I suspect he is feeling a little jealous at your rapid rise to stardom and the fact that you are not borne of the stars and stripes.’
Abdullah cast a sideways glance at this last comment, but held his peace.
‘Well, he can queue up like everyone else if he wants to be in the crowd,’ Max replied. ‘Abdullah? Fancy a few hands of poker?’
Abdullah smiled. ‘I am sorry, Max,’ he replied, ‘but gambling is not permitted by my faith.’
‘We don’t have to play for money, which is probably a good thing, considering I’ve never played poker in my life.’
‘Really?’ Joe chimed in. ‘You’ve never played poker, Max?’
Max shook his head. ‘Never had any friends to play with.’
Joe’s eyebrows arched slightly as Max’s revelation sunk in. Without replying, he returned his pipe to his mouth.
‘So, Max,’ Peter said from a little further across to the side of the patio, ‘you’re telling us there’s something you’re not good at?’
‘Mate, rest assured,’ Max answered, ‘there’s plenty of things I’m not good at.’
Peter nodded and held his quiet as he spied a foot patrol emerging from round the corner of the mansion to begin walking out onto the lawn, their night camouflage rendering them almost invisible, but not to his eyes.
Joe broke into the silence. ‘That was an outstanding juggling act today, Max,’ he said. ‘How heavy were those kettlebells?’
‘Fifteen kilos each.’
‘Impressive. Have I told you I can juggle?’
Max and even Abdullah turned as one to look at Joe. Peter also slid a sideways glance to his Prime Minister.
‘Not fifteen kilo kettlebells mind you,’ Joe added, ‘but in my hey day I could keep at least five balls airborne. Every now and again I still keep my hand in and do three or four balls. It helps keep my mind agile. Scientifically proven you know?’
‘I’m sure it is, Mister Prime Minister,’ Max said. ‘I can see you in your office, prepping for a cabinet meeting or a press conference, juggling away. You should put on a show for us some day. Millie and Jason would love it. Heck, I’d love it.’
Joe smiled and raised his pipe in salute. ‘I’ll put it on the calendar. Not this week though. I’ll need some time to dust off the skills first.’
‘What about you, Abdullah?’ Max asked. ‘Any hidden talents?’
‘Brooms,’ the Sheikh replied.
This time Max and Joe shared a look.
‘Brooms?’ Max asked.
‘Yes, brooms,’ Abdullah said. ‘As a teenager I once balanced four brooms simultaneously. One standing upright on each outstretched palm. A third standing upright on my left foot and a fourth standing upright on the bridge of my nose.’
‘That’s...different,’ Max said.
‘Yes, and most rewarding too,’ Abdullah returned, ‘right up until the moment the broom on my nose slipped off and lodged into my eye and the whole show came tumbling down. Never again have I tried since that moment, preferring to retire at the peak of my prowess.’
Max smiled. ‘What do you think, Joe? Fancy yourself at broom balancing?’
‘No,’ Joe replied. ‘Some people have the gift and well, the rest of us do not.’
‘What about you, Peter?’ Max asked, turning back to his bodyguard to find him looking upwards at the roof line of the mansion. ‘What’s your secret talent?’
‘I can put six rounds through the centre of a target at three hundred metres in less than four seconds,’ he replied evenly.
Max deliberately paused to let Peter try again, which he did.
‘And as a kid I taught myself how to throw cards,’ Peter said. ‘You know, playing cards? I could flick them into a bucket four or five metres away and never miss. I’ve always been good with my aim.’
‘You still do it when no one’s around?’ Max asked.
A slight pause and then Peter said, ‘Yeah. When no one’s around. It’s...well, you know, it’s fun. I reckon I could even beat you at it.’
‘I have no doubt,’ Max replied. ‘Like I said, there’re plenty of things I’m no good at it.’
A mutual silence slipped over the group. Joe puffed away on his unlit pipe. Abdullah mentally traced the constellations overhead, while Peter continued to scan the surrounds. Max merely looked about at nothing in particular, shuffling his feet and folding his arms. The silence stretched and then Max broke it.
‘You really want to know what I’m no good at?’ Max asked. None of the other three men turned to face him, but all of them refixed their full attention onto him. ‘Emotions. I don’t do emotions very well.’
Another brief pause ensued, which Joe ventured into.
‘You’ll have to help us with that one, Max?’ Joe asked.
‘Nar’gellans don’t do emotions. Feelings just don’t come naturally to them. Not even anger when they fight. Nar’gellans’ actions and behaviours are driven by purpose alone. If getting angry serves a purpose, they behave aggressively. If they lose a loved one, they move straight on past it. There’s no remorse or grieving. They just accept it and get on with their own lives.’
‘What about love?’ Abdullah asked. ‘Did your mother love you?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Max answered, looking down at his shuffling feet. ‘As a kid, I knew Mum was hard on me, but I just figured she wasn’t one for cuddles and kisses, so I dealt with that, but then as I got older and she told me the truth of who she was and who I am, it all came together. If she had ever shown anything that looked or felt like love, it probably wasn’t real love. It was just a behaviour she used to make sure there was meaning in my childhood. Nar’gellans know as well as humans that children need to know they are safe and protected, so they can have confidence to grow and learn. That’s all my mother was doing for me when she acted like she loved me.’
‘And your human side?’ Abdullah asked. ‘Has it increased your capacity to feel?’
‘Maybe a little bit. I probably do have more emotional range and depth than any Nar’gellan does, but it’s all pretty shallow and most of the times pretty clumsy. I’d probably behave the same way at a funeral as I would at a kid’s birthday party. Dull. I just don’t know what to feel most of the time, so I try to avoid feelings all together.’
’Do you feel love?’ Abdullah pushed.
Max hesitated. Peter, Abdullah and Joe noticed the hesitation and let it play out.
‘Yes,’ Max finally replied. ‘It’s probably one of the two emotions I do feel clearly. I love my family, so much that sometime it’s dangerous.’
‘Why dangerous?’ Abdullah asked very carefully.
‘If anyone threatens them, it drives me into rage, which is the only other emotion I know I feel clearly. I don’t do angry. It’s too docile. If I get triggered, I cut straight to rage and as you can probably imagine, that’s not a good place for me to be. It can be bad for other people too.’
Abdullah turned to face Max, his white robes gently billowing in the light breeze. Max tasted salt on the zephyr as he looked the Sheikh in the eye.
‘But, prior to your confrontation with those thugs outside Kris’ brother’s house,’ Abdullah asked, ‘you’ve never hurt anyone have you?’
’Max shook his head and said, ‘No. Not before then.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Elsa. She’s had to intervene a couple of times. I won’t say when or why, but if she hadn’t stepped in, chances are I’d have blood on my hands. I know I’ve got it in me to kill. I’m half Nar’gellan and those instincts are hard to put down when they get fired up, but Elsa knows how to settle me down and for that I’m grateful. If she hadn’t saved me on those earlier occasions, Millie and Jason wouldn’t have a dad around them and for that, I’d never forgive myself.’
Abdullah held Max’s gaze for a few more moments in the gloom. He then nodded and turned back to the sky. Peter also realised he had unconsciously halted his instinctive scanning of the surrounds and flicked his gaze back up to the fringing bushes around the lawn. The silence lengthened.
‘Well, I think it might be time for me to make that call to President Bartholomew,’ Joe said, removing his pipe and sighing. ‘Thank you for your company tonight, gentlemen. It wasn’t poker, but it did help me to relax. May I also congratulate you all one more time on our successful media foray this afternoon. Time will tell, but I do believe we have already begun to turn the world’s despair into hope, so thank you and good evening.’
’Masa`a al khair,’ Abdullah said without turning.
‘Good night, sir,’ Peter added.
With that, Joe turned on his heel and walked back inside as Peter spoke quietly into his wrist microphone, announcing the Prime Minister’s return into the mansion.
‘I think it’s time to get Peter into bed too,’ Max said, stretching his clasped hands over his head. ‘Come on, mate. Our work here is done.’
Peter nodded and stepped closer to him.
‘You staying up, your Highness?’ Max asked.
‘Yes, for a little longer,’ Abdullah replied, not turning away from the night. ‘I have much left to reflect on.’
‘See you tomorrow then,’ Max said and he and Peter walked into the house, leaving Abdullah on his lonesome.
Abdullah did not reply or even turn. He kept his gaze fixed squarely on the night sky, but his eyes were unseeing, his thoughts turned inwards. The afternoon media session that unveiled Max to the world had indeed proven to be a huge success and he felt very pleased and even heartened by their prospects as a result. However, Abdullah now had a new issue and it focused again on Max.
His revelation of his immature emotional intelligence was a concern. If Max could not control his Nar’gellan instincts to kill, then he ran a real risk of losing his control in the arena and being defeated or even worse, seeking a glorious death like an ancient Samurai. That was out of the question and now Abdullah had a new goal. How to reign in Max’s Nar’gellan instincts, but not subdue them at the same time.
Despite the lateness of the hour, Abdullah knew sleep would not come easily to him tonight.