2pm, 15th August (8 days later). Maximum Exposure
Max walked out of the dressing shed beneath the clubhouse and down the length of the tunnel leading to the playing field. As he ventured through the semi-darkness towards the bright light at the end of the corridor, he became aware of the growing sound ahead of him. It began as background static, like the white noise of an aircraft cabin in flight. Steadily the noise grew to the constant chatter of a flowing stream and then even more to the incessant drone of traffic speeding along a motorway.
Reaching the brink of the tunnel, the shadow of the subterranean gloom ended at Max’s feet and the stark brightness of the mid afternoon sunshine pushed up against the toes of his orange sneakers. The sound of the motorway had now risen to the steady roar of the sea as if standing on the beach to behold the great majesty of the ocean.
There was a crowd outside around the playing field and it had to be five or six thousand strong. Max could not make out the people in the glare of the daylight and even if he had not been able to hear them, he could feel them. Tension filled the air like an archer’s bowstring. He could even feel the ground trembling through the rubber soles of his shoes. The masses had come. He now had to make them believe he was their saviour. That was the only way Max could assure the safety of his family, by convincing the world that he deserved their unconditional support and that he was not a false hope that should be challenged or worse, doubted
Kris walked up behind Max and also stopped short of the threshold. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve got stage fright?’ she asked.
‘You really think this is going to work?’ Max asked back.
’This is you we’re talking about,’ Kris replied. ‘You’re the entire Olympics rolled into one. What’s not to like?’
Max turned to face her, his expression stone. ‘You know I trust you,’ he said. ’You’re as good as family to me now and family is everything. If you say this will work and will keep us all safe, then that’s good enough for me.’
Kris didn’t smile. She didn’t nod. She simply said, ‘It will work.’
Max did nod. ‘Okay. You’ll get everything I got.’
‘I always do,’ Kris replied. ‘You just repeat what you did for the media last week and you’ll have this lot throwing their underwear and babies at you. It’s a standard speed and power session today. Forty-five minutes of dynamic weights and sprints. Easy stuff.’
Max turned back to the light, his eyes adjusting to the glare. Outside, he could now see the dense crowd lining the edge of the playing field on the opposite side. He could see the freshly cropped grass of the playing surface, its condition mint green despite being the off season of the local football league. Max could also see some of the training equipment laid out in the centre of the field. The stage was set and there was only one thing missing.
‘It’s show time,’ Kris said quietly, just above the dull roar of the crowd.
‘Yes, it is,’ Max said in return.
‘You go make an entrance,’ Kris added ‘and I’ll see you out there in a minute.’
After just a few seconds hesitation, Max strode over the threshold and out onto the grass. The crowd instantly erupted. As he walked towards the centre of the field, he pirouetted a full three hundred and sixty degrees to survey the full circumference of the playing field.
The crowd pressed up to the railing at the edge of the field on all sides, more than twenty deep in places. Just inside the railing, a rank of plain clothes security guards stood evenly spaced every ten or so metres, their backs to Max and their eyes undoubtedly dissecting the human mass in front of them for any signs of trouble. Scaffold towers bearing cameras atop them were also spaced out around the exterior of the field with extra cameras mounted on top of the clubhouse and grandstand. The images they were capturing were not only being beamed live to a global audience, but also to the massive LCD screen perched on the roof of the clubhouse.
Overhead, Max could also count at least three helicopters rattling away. One he recognised as a TV station chopper, its aerial image of the field and the swarming crowd surrounding it, currently on display on the big screen. The other two choppers were unmarked and Max suspected they carried snipers and general surveillance staff. Max also knew there were other snipers spread around the grounds, hidden from view, but clinically observing all.
Max could not make out any specific sound bites from the crowd as the shouting and yelling melded into a deafening cacophony, but there were placards. Some of them supportive, but there were also more than a couple that did not cast favour on him. At least two of them were direct, unabashed death threats, but most were just generally defeatist, predicting the end of the world was inevitable and no human stood a chance in the arena. Max turned away from them all.
Casting a glance up to the clubhouse atop the solitary grandstand, Max imagined he could see through the glass to where Elsa, Jason and Millie stood, most likely huddled together up against the window. He was doing this “show” against his better judgement, but Elsa, Kris and Abdullah were convinced it was the right thing to do and he trusted them all completely, so here he was, surrounded by thousands and on display like a prize pony except this was no little town show. This was a warm-up for Armageddon.
Turning back to the front, Max reached the middle of the playing field. The roar of the crowd was unyielding, but he had relegated it into the background, his senses piquing. Scanning about, Max noted the course spread out across the playing field. He locked into memory all of the equipment Kris had laid out, what it was, its location, the patterns the lay out formed and the various ways in which he would be instructed to utilise each piece and in what order. The kit comprised a collection of dumbbells, weighted barbells, heavy kettlebells, cones and metal boxes. All standard stuff, but in the hands of an expert physical trainer, it was a recipe for torture. Max felt another presence come up behind him.
‘You know they’re already loving those orange shoes,’ Kris shouted above the din.
‘Let’s give them something else to love,’ Max shouted back and then from his pocket, he retrieved a single communications earpiece, slipping it in place over his right ear. He then retrieved a tiny transponder from his pocket and taped it onto the base of his throat. Finally, he turned back to face Kris.
Kris smiled and placed her headset on, positioning the microphone arm directly in front of her lips. ‘You got me?’ she asked.
‘Loud and clear,’ came Max’s reply in her ears.
Kris looked to the side to see a group of burly men jog out onto the field to disperse in groups of three to the four quadrants of the field.
‘In case you’re wondering,’ Kris added, ‘the hired help double up as extra security. I’m safe as houses out here.’
’I know. That’s because I’m here.’
Kris’ smile broadened. ‘Let’s get this party started.’
She then held up both hands and the massive, LCD clock display perched on top of the clubhouse lit up, showing the number ten. The crowd went nuts. Kris paused and then dropped both hands. The clock began to count down.
‘Let’s start with ten burpees,’ Kris said, ‘and then haul arse over to the boxes and get creative. Your call, but after that, you’re doing tumbling runs back and forth across the field. At least six and spice it up too.’
Kris’ gaze took Max in and again awe consumed her. Max had assumed his typical stance. Amidst this throng of humanity, he didn’t just stand firm. He was absolutely unassailable, his face cast iron and every fibre of his body taught as steel. The clock hit zero. A horn blasted and Max launched into action. The crowd exploded.
For the next forty-five minutes, while Max ripped through the routine, Abdullah stood up against the full length windows in the clubhouse, unmoving and unblinking. He had witnessed Max perform similar, Herculean feats on several occasions prior to today, so instead he directed his attention to the crowd.
This performance was crucial. It had to serve two purposes. The first was to force Max to integrate with the public. His focused, personal drive to safeguard his family through victory in the arena was admirable and noble, but for Max to reach his full potential, he needed to know that the world itself was worth saving. Knowing that fact, believing that fact and fighting for that fact could only lift him even higher. By performing in front of the public and inspiring them to support him, Max might just realise that the world beyond his personal space is in fact a wonderful place full of good people.
The second purpose was the complete reverse of the first. The public needed to see Max. They needed to get to know him and realise that if the world is going to be saved, then there is undoubtedly no better or greater champion than Max. Abdullah himself had no doubts what so ever that Max would win over the public. His physical prowess had already won over the most powerful leaders in the world and as for the public, Max would easily be the most exciting athlete they would ever see. Then, with the public won over and in full support, the constant security threats and negative sentiments would die off and not only would he and his family be safe, but he would be the hero everyone needed right now.
So, instead of watching Max charge through the training session like a god come to Earth, Sheikh Abdullah watched the crowd. Before Max strode onto the field, the crowd was generally restless, just eager to see this mystery man who had been selected not by them, but for them by an alien race, to defend their lives. It was hard to tell if the crowd was for or against Max with some clear pockets of support and other clear pockets of dissent and unfortunately, hatred. Then when Max started his routine, the crowd ramped up the volume with the sentiment becoming clearly negative, mainly as they realised there would be no weapons on show, only physical training. It made sense. The crowd needed to know their ordained champion was skilled at killing and drawing blood. The public needed to see swords and knives, not push ups and weights exercises.
Then Max pulled off his first real, eye-opening feat and the crowd lulled. By Max’s standards it was simple stuff, but for the general public, the effort was enough for them to stop and consider if they had actually just seen an ordinary man do what he had just done and how was that possible?
After Max completed his ten burpees at breakneck pace to warm up, he jogged across to the boxes, of which there were five. The first and shortest box stood at forty centimetres high and then each of the other four boxes increased in height by another forty centimetres to the last box, which stood at two metres. The four boxes rested lined up one after the other in increasing height with a gap in between each. Max simply ran up to the first box and without breaking stride, bounded on top, feet together. Then, without slowing down or pausing, bounded down to the ground and bounded straight up onto the next box like a human kangaroo and proceeded to continue all the way through until finally, he bounded straight up onto the two metre box before swan diving off and executing a double somersault to land neatly back on the grass.
By now the crowd had quietened down a little, but then Max did his next trick. He turned back to the two metre box and vaulted up to the top into a hand stand. Then, again without pausing, he flipped forwards to land on the ground and vaulted up onto the next slightly shorter box and into a handstand. He then repeated the motions all the way back to the shortest box to ultimately land neatly on the grass at the end of the boxes. By now, the crowd was noticeably dulled. He had their attention.
Next up Kris had him perform some extraordinary tumbling runs up and down the length of the field, which at any Olympics in history, would have easily secured him the gold medal. Triple and quadruple somersaults and twists were standard fare and all of them executed with unnatural precision. On his final two runs Max improvised and snatched up a fifteen kilogram kettlebell from the edge of the field and just like a rhythmic gymnast, flung it up in the air to catch it again in between tumbles and flips without dropping it or missing a beat. Now the crowd was stunned. This wasn’t just like the Olympics. It was like the Olympics on steroids.
Then Max proceeded to walk the entire length of the field on his hands, except to say he walked was an understatement. He essentially ran on his hands and then when he reached the far end with Kris jogging along next to him, he not only stayed on his hands to perform a set of vertical press-ups, but then did ten single arm vertical press-ups on each hand. As he pushed himself through the sets, a lone voice rang out over the now smothering silence, ‘Max! Go, Max!’
Now halfway through his routine, Max’s pace did not falter even slightly. Abdullah kept his gaze and senses keyed into the masses. There was no longer any evidence of hostility. The negative placards had been lowered and those outspoken groups had disappeared into the sea of silence, but that lone voice of support had stirred a ripple and now Abdullah could feel the tension changing. People were whispering in each others’ ears, but not taking their eyes off Max, unwilling to let slip even a moment of the spectacle. Bodies began to press harder up against the railing. Even the security detail was exchanging queried glances as to what was going on, but Abdullah knew exactly what was happening. Max had the crowd hooked and now he had another twenty minutes to reel them in.
After his handstands, Max dropped back to his feet and sprinted to the middle of the field where a weighted barbell lay. The over-sized radii of the multiple, circular weight plates on each end of the bar clearly indicated a significant amount of steel mass was locked on. Max did not break stride. He ran up to the bar, squatted down and then immediately pushed upwards with his arms and legs to toss the entire bar and weights into the air. He then deftly caught the bar with his upstretched hands and lowered it down onto his shoulders behind his neck, military style. Kris then motioned for him to follow her and Max did, not walking or even jogging, but in great bounding strides, launching from one foot to the other. Kris led him in a growing spiral that led outwards until he reached the boundary fence. Max then shifted from single leg bounds to double leg bounds, the barbell bending and flexing over his shoulders.
Abdullah could see the expressions on the faces in the crowd as Max got close enough to let them see the weight denominations on the plates. One hundred kilos. Shock. Disbelief. Astonishment. Hands covered open mouths. Slack jaws, and then, a fist in the crowd punched the air and a cheer went up as Max went past. Next, a group of young girls started jumping and screaming as Max bounded by. The further round the crowd Max went, the wave effect in the crowd followed him.
Then Kris flicked a hand out towards the centre of the field and Max instantly obeyed. Heaving the barbell off his shoulders and casually throwing it out in front of him, he sprinted to the middle of the playing field where he found three fifteen kilo kettle bells. Squatting down he grabbed two of them by their handles and then tossed each of them into the air and before anyone knew what he was doing, he then threw up the third one and started to juggle all three.
Abdullah watched, heard and felt the crowd respond. They went nuts. Max was now not just training or even performing, but he was showcasing his talent. No one had ever seen a man juggle kettlebells of any weight let alone fifteen kilos each and Max was doing it easy. Kris positioned herself in front of Max and motioned for him to start walking forwards, which he did. Then Kris started to jog backwards and Max followed, his gaze glued to the flying kettlebells. Then Kris turned and jogged faster, veering again towards the outer fence line. Max stayed with her and kept his routine in check. This time the crowd response doubled. Up close, they recognised Max for what he was. Awesome. Half sprinting, he kept all three kettlebells smoothly in motion and all the while making it look as easy as a Sunday afternoon stroll. The only proof that Max was working at superhuman capacity was the sweat cascading down his skin.
After a full lap around the field, Kris flicked her hand out again and this time it was towards the far end. Max again instantly obeyed, letting the three kettlebells thump back to earth and not giving them a second’s thought as he sprinted to where Kris had instructed him. Once there he looked the length of the field to find Kris standing at the other end, exactly one hundred metres distant, with her right arm raised. The giant LCD screen on the clubhouse read, ‘100m 0sec’. It was clearly a one hundred metre time trial and Max was ready to go, crouched on the white line at his feet, his back arched in a sprinter’s start position.
Then Kris let her hand fall and Max was off, Kris’ voice inside his earphones giving him the word. Max launched off the spot, his entire body ripped with straining muscle and tendons. Before anyone could really focus on his movement, Max was halfway down the field, his orange shoes a fluorescent blur against the green of the turf. With his knees pumping high in front of him and his arms driving like hammers Max rocketed the length of the field, his pace blinding all the way through to the end where he blew past Kris at full speed. Jamming his feet into the grass, Max slowed himself and jogged back to where Kris stood, looking up at the big screen on the clubhouse as he did.
Fingers and hands shot out of the crowd towards the LCD screen as the masses noticed the time. 10.21sec. It was not Olympic time, but it was close and they had just witnessed it. Then the crowd noticed Max crouching in position in front of Kris, ready to run the length again. Kris raised her hand. The timer zeroed and she dropped her hand. Max shot off again, barely having had time to recover from the first time trial.
With seemingly even greater power, Max sprinted the length of the field, his orange shoes now just an arc of colour against the green palette. Again he covered the distance before anyone really knew what was happening. Hammering himself to a stop, Max, and the entire crowd, turned to look at the clock. 10.14sec. The cheer was deafening. This was really real.
Then Max was down on the line again, crouched and ready to go. Kris’ raised arm snapped down and Max flashed into action. This time he virtually flew off the line, his feet exploding into motion when they hit the ground. Not a single pair of eyes blinked before Max careened past Kris at the finish line. This time after stopping, Max did not turn to look at the screen. The crowd did and their response confirmed to him what he suspected. 10.06sec. He was getting faster. Max was now in the realm of Olympic skill.
With over six thousand people filling the air with cheers and screams, Max again crouched on the starting line in front of Kris. Again she raised her arm. The noise and racket faded into the background of Max’s senses. His entire being focused on the silence in his earphones. Then Kris dropped her arm and said, ‘Go.’
Max snapped into action, every fibre in every muscle rippling. He kept his head down for the first twenty metres, his gaze fixed on the ground. He then raised it up to focus on the finish line and in a matter of heartbeats, blew past halfway. From the crowd’s perspective, it looked like Max was floating, his orange-clad feet hardly seeming to touch the ground. His hands and arms also disappeared as they powered his motion like a steam train at full tilt. Max lost all sense of his surrounds. All he could see was the finish line and despite his blinding pace, the world seemed to grow still around him, his heart beat slow and resounding in his ears and in what seemed like minutes, but was really only seconds, Max streaked to the far length of the field and smashed past the finish line.
Stuttering to a rapid stop, Max straightened and sucked in a deep breath. The time trials were over and the entire session was done. His focus melted away and the roar of the crowd washed over him like an ocean wave surging to shore. Looking around, the entire field was thronged by a heaving mass of raucous humanity. All Max could see was smiles and all he could feel was energy.
‘Take a look at the screen, big guy,’ Kris’ voice said into his earphones.
Max turned and looked up at the big screen. 9.98sec.
‘You’re now officially one of the fastest men on the planet,’ Kris added.
Max shifted his gaze from the screen to the glass windows of the clubhouse. Sheikh Abdullah watched Max look up in his direction, but he knew the man was not seeking him, but rather his family. Turning to the side, Sheikh Abdullah found Elsa standing on her own with Millie and Jason jumping at the glass, just as excited as the thousands of strangers outside cheering on their father. Then Elsa slowly lifted her hand and placed it flat on the glass.
Abdullah quickly turned back to Max and found him staring back up with his own hand out in front. They had found each other and they both now knew that there was hope for them all to be safe, while Max continued his training to save the world. Now it was Abdullah’s turn to smile.
’Al-ḥamdu lillāh,’ he said to himself. ’Praise be to Allah.’