Steel In Hand
9am, 13th October (1 week later). Steel In Hand
Kris cast a careful eye over the grassed course on the mansion lawn as her small army of assistants scuttled out of the way to the shade of the Pain Train. She then scanned the edges of the course and found a scattered host of television cameras, strategically positioned to record the spectacle for the evening news. Max was still number one on all forms of media and today it was CNN’s turn to get their fix.
Satisfied that all was in order, Kris turned her attention back to the mansion end of the course, where she found Max waiting in his usual training attire of black shorts, black singlet and orange shoes. Even from this distance she could tell his body mass had grown significantly since meeting him for the first time over three months ago. Max had responded so much more than she had imagined. Now it was time for another test. Maybe today was the day.
Speaking into her wireless headset microphone, Kris addressed Max. ‘You ready?’
Max looked up at Kris across the distance and said, ‘Let’s do it.’
’On my mark,’ Kris replied and she watched Max immediately drop down on to his front on the grass. She then began the countdown. ‘Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!’
Instantly, Max was up and sprinting, launching himself forward across the turf away from the mansion. A corridor of five javelins stabbed into the ground on alternating sides lined up in front of him. Fifty metres beyond them stood five human shaped cut-outs, shoulder to shoulder.
Max fixed his gaze on the central cut-out as he powered forwards, his arms and knees pumping hard. As he approached the first javelin, his eyes still glued to the cut-out, his left arm snapped out and without glancing at the spear or slowing down, he snatched it out of the ground and in a single, fluid motion, hurled it straight ahead.
Without slowing his sprint, Max charged on towards the next javelin, which was on his right side. As he sprinted past and plucked it free, the first javelin, thudded into and through the chest of the central cut-out, its tip jutting out the back of the splintered target. An instant later, Max had hurled the second javelin towards the far left target and maintaining his pace, he careened onto the third javelin.
Again, just as the second javelin lanced its target, Max grabbed and fired the third javelin towards the far right cut-out. This one speared right through the head of the target and only seconds later, the cut-out to its left copped the fourth javelin clean through its neck.
Back down the course, Max reached the fifth javelin and again pulled it free with his left hand as he sprinted past and sent it flying, dead straight at the last human-shaped cut-out. The weapon’s steel tip glinted in the mid morning sun as it pierced the air at blinding speed. Max did not wait to see the impact as he responded to Kris’ command in his ear.
‘Ice,’ was all she said.
Just as the fifth javelin ripped into its target, the force of the impact tearing it violently in half, Max side stepped sharply to his right towards a red marker cone on the ground, which he rounded to face back down another course directly adjacent to the javelin course he had just completed.
Without pausing, Max accelerated ahead, snapping his gaze up to the end fifty metres distant. Standing like a gleaming, white portal at the far end was a rectangular block of ice, three metres tall and two metres wide. Max also knew it was ten inches thick and solid and that he had to go through it, literally.
’You’ve got fifteen seconds,’ Kris said evenly into his ear.
Lined down both sides of the course were more javelins as well as uniformly spaced kettlebells, weighing fifteen kilograms each. With the time remaining, Max had only these “tools” to break through the ice blockade fifty metres away.
Max’s vision sharpened, bringing the array of “tools” into stark focus with the ice shining bright at the end. While still accelerating into the start of the course, Max already had his plan secured.
In the first ten metres, he reached full speed. Snapping both hands out, Max grabbed a javelin from each side and with a double-armed throw, hurled both of them down the length of the course. Seconds later and forty metres in front, the two javelins speared into the very centre of the ice block, quivering in place and cracking the face.
Moments later, two kettlebells smashed into the frozen block right next to the two javelins, the added impact blasting a depression into the cracked face. Then two more kettlebells pummeled in, expanding and deepening the depression, causing the javelins to fall out. Large cracks crazed outwards across the gleaming surface.
Twenty five metres out, Max hurled two more javelins, their damage even greater at this shorter distance. A circular crater had now formed with some serious structural damage starting to expand outwards in the ice.
At fifteen metres, Max picked up two more kettlebells, one in each hand, still at full pelt and with a double-armed, underarm swing, flung both “tools” at the ice. Both kettlebells subsequently crashed into the very centre of the block, knocking out the two protruding javelins and even more ice.
At ten metres, two more kettlebells wreaked even more havoc and now, Max was out of room. At five metres out, he picked up two more kettlebells and this time did not throw them. Instead, he tucked them under each arm and ploughed his frame forwards with no hint of slowing down.
Kris squinted her eyes as she stared at the unfolding scene, her body tense.
Max took two more sprinting steps and his orange clad feet left the ground. He became airborne and like a human javelin, flew through the air, his body ramrod straight from his pointed toes to his outstretched arms and in his far reaching hands, he held the two kettlebells. Pulling his chin to his chest, Max aimed directly for the centre of the crater he had pummeled into the ice. He closed his eyes and Kris held her breath.
The kettlebells took the brunt of the impact, smashing through the last couple of distressed inches of ice. Shards of frozen water exploded out the back of the block as first the kettlebells came through, closely followed by Max’s outstretched arms.
A split second later, Max’s entire frame shot through the gaping hole, his shoulders blasting the final blockages away from the hole. As his orange sneakers came through, Max let go of the kettlebells and let gravity pull him downwards. Arcing his body down, Max hit the grass at full throttle and executed a forward roll and let go of the kettlebells, fragments of ice sailing through the air behind him in his wake.
No sooner had Max started to straighten to his feet, he heard Kris’ voice in his earpiece.
‘Get to the sword,’ she said.
Sharply pivoting on his left foot, Max spun ninety degrees and spotted his next marker cone nearby. Bounding towards it, he rounded it and dropped straight into a sprinter’s starting crouch next to it.
‘Go,’ said Kris.
The adrenalin coursing through Max’s body instantly ratcheted up even higher, firing every muscle fibre in his body to maximum power. His entire frame snapped into motion, his left foot flicking forwards, his left arm flicking back and high and his right arm flicking hard forwards. Max’s legs drove into the ground to push himself forward like a prime mover, powering into action. In four seconds, he had transformed from human being into a freight train.
Lifting his focus from his feet and up to the end of the one hundred metre stretch of open grass, Max spied a sword stuck into the turf, its steel blade shining like a mirror in the sun.
Kris looked intently on. The moment she had said go, she had clicked a button that remotely started a timer. Max’s speed was being recorded.
Storming across the green velvet, Max’s senses honed in on the hilt of the blade. A white tunnel closed out the rest of the world. No longer consciously controlling his hurtling form, Max was in full auto mode, his body now more like a machine, intent on achieving only one thing. Getting that weapon into his hands as quickly as physically possible.
’Come on,’ Kris mumbled, the tension in her voice matching the tension in her body. Today really could be the day. It felt right. It felt very, very right.
Motoring at ten metres out, Max whipped out his right hand and in full flight and literally in mid stride and airborne, he plucked the sword cleanly from the ground. Simultaneously, he crossed an invisible laser beam and the timer stopped.
’That’s it,’ Kris said to Max. ‘You’re done. Take a breather.’
While Max slowed down, Kris closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Both the ice test and the javelin course were new ones and he had aced them, but right now, she needed to know the time for the sprint. If it was what she hoped, it was a milestone and an unbelievable one at that.
Kris lifted her left wrist up, which bore a miniature touch screen. For the first few moments, the screen was blank and then suddenly, some numbers lit up. It was a time in seconds and hundredths of seconds.
Her brain took a split second to register the time and then Kris deflated, all the tension in her body melting away. Nine point six seconds exactly. No world record today, but Max was closer again.
’Zero point two seconds short,’ Kris said as she looked across at Max who had turned back to face her across the lawn. ‘You’re close enough to taste it.’
Max sucked in two lungs of precious air and then said, ‘Next time. At least we gave the viewers a good show. Hey, that ice thing was cool. Where’d you get that idea from?’
’Me, but it was Abdullah’s very clever boys who made it. Those guys are awesome.’
’You got that right,’ Max replied, his breathing already completely smoothed out. Holding up the sword in his right hand, he added, ‘Did his boys make this sword too?’
’Sure did and it’s all your’s. Got another surprise for you too,’ Kris added, eyeing off Max.
‘Am I going to like it?’ Max asked, eyeing Kris right back.
’Don’t know, but Abdullah, Joe, Elsa and I had a huddle up yesterday and we made an executive decision.’
‘You’re starting weapons training today,’ Kris said carefully, watching Max for a reaction.
Max paused and held his gaze on Kris. He then lifted the sword and looked slowly up and down the length of the blade, its pristine, silver surface shimmering in the sun. Then without looking back at Kris, Max said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it.’
Kris let out a silent breath. She then turned and waved back at the Pain Train to her assistants, who in turn scurried inside.
‘Good,’ Kris said. ‘I was worried you wouldn’t be happy about picking up a weapon yet.’
‘Got to start some time,’ Max replied, looking back at her. ‘Probably needed a bit of a nudge anyway, so thanks. How’s this going to work?’
’Check out the Pain Train,’ Kris replied. ‘Here come your instructors.’
Max glanced over to the bright orange truck and trailer and saw five men walking across the lawn towards him, all of them wearing white, martial arts dogi and carrying bladed weapons of varying shapes and sizes.
’Have fun,’ Kris added. ‘I’ll see you in a bit.’
Max nodded and stayed silent. Kris could sense Max already shifting his focus to the new challenge coming his way. She smiled. Turning away, she walked briskly across to the Pain Train herself and jogged up the ramp of the trailer. Popping her sunglasses up onto her cap brim, she headed towards the back of the space, to find her lap top resting on a wooden box. Flipping the lid open, Kris diligently entered some notes for the training session and then started analysing the data compared to all of the earlier sessions to track Max’s performance.
There was no doubt. While his efforts had steadily improved session on session over the last few months, Max’s results over the last week had jumped incredibly. He was performing out of his skin. It was like he had found another piston or two inside of himself and thrown in a turbo charger and some nitrous as well. Max was almost at superhuman levels in everything he did.
Since the impromptu duels in the city last week, something had changed. Outside of training, Max was the same old Max, but as soon as he laced on those orange shoes, he became, well, not human and perhaps that was it. Maybe Max had actually become less human in recent days and more alien.
Abdullah had asked her if she had witnessed any difference in him since the incident in the city and well, the numbers in front of her proved it. Max was pushing himself to Olympic levels and would probably be smashing world records all over the place before the arena came up.
’Salaam Alaykum,’ Abdullah said. ’Good morning, Kris.
Kris flicked her gaze up to find Abdullah standing on the threshold of the ramp.
’Your Highness,’ Kris said in return, a smile suddenly filling her face. ‘What can I do for you?’
’I came to see exactly how you planned on punishing Max with three tonnes of dry ice and have not been disappointed,’ he replied, his gentle rolling tone melodious to her ears.
Kris’ smile widened and she pulled the lid of the lap top down.
Stepping out from behind the box and walking up to him, she said, ‘Good to hear and thanks again for organizing it. CNN sure got a good show.’
’Your tests today were clever. You tested not only Max’s speed and agility, but also his ability to think quickly and strategically by needing to plan a means to get through the ice at pace. Very clever indeed.’
A blush started to form on Kris’ face. Quickly pulling her sunglasses off her cap and down over her eyes, she stepped past Abdullah and walked down the ramp and past two of his hulking body guards at the base.
‘Thank you,’ she said more abruptly than she liked. ‘Now let’s see how he’s getting on with that new sword you made for him.’
Abdullah smiled and turned to follow Kris out onto the grass and into the warm sun. Together they walked towards where Max, with sword in hand, stood encircled by all five of his instructors, their swords raised. Keeping a very clear distance, Kris and Abdullah stopped. Abdullah moved up next to Kris just as one of the instructors began demonstrating to Max, how to move his feet and shift his balance in tune with his sword to contend with multiple attackers.
‘May I ask if you have noticed any significant differences in Max’s performance over this last week?’ Abdullah asked.
’You bet,’ Kris replied, half turning to face Abdullah, but not taking her eyes off Max and his tuition. ‘His normal rate of improvement has gone off the charts this last week.’
’Well, if he’d been running in the Olympic one hundred metres today, he would’ve come second, just, whereas last week he would’ve struggled to even make a semi-final. He’s also lifting heavier. Max is squatting, bench pressing and dead lifting much more than he was two weeks ago. I also reckon he’s more agile and nimble now too. He’s always been pretty good on his feet and in the air, but now he tumbles and flips and somersaults like mad. All round, Max is more athletic now than ever before and I have to say, still improving and that’s, well…’
Abdullah allowed Kris to pause, but then realised she had stopped all together.
‘And that’s what?’ he asked carefully.
Kris let her gaze drop from Max’s sword training to the ground.
‘It doesn’t seem natural,’ Kris finally added. ‘It doesn’t seem…human.’
Abdullah flicked his gaze to Kris who was still half lost in thought.
’That is because,’ Abdullah began, ’Max is not all together human.’
’I know,’ Kris said, regaining her composure and looking back up to find Max practicing a parry and thrust sequence with his sword. ’I know he’s half alien, but now it’s starting to become obvious and I guess it’s a little off putting. He’s always had this serious, purpose-like mood he gets into when he trains and that’s good because you know he’s giving it his all, but now, that purpose-like mood has ratcheted up to…well, something more like rage. If I didn’t know it was Max out there, I’d probably be scared of him. I saw Peter’s video of him fighting those three goons the other day and that did scare me. I’ve never seen him like that and how he looked when he killed those three men, I can see that same look in his eye now when he trains and if that’s what his alien side brings out, then maybe I should be scared? Maybe we should all be scared? Who knows what he’s capable of, especially now that I know he’s probably going to break every single athletics world record in the book in the next couple of weeks and on top of that, he’s just picked up a sword. What if his alien side takes over again? He could…’
Kris trailed off and fell silent. Abdullah stepped forward and around to face Kris squarely. Lifting his sun glasses to his forehead, he reached out and grasped her hand. The contact was gentle and soft and Kris did not flinch. Instead she looked into the Sheikh’s hazel coloured eyes and found instant comfort.
’Max is both of this world and of another,’ Abdullah started, ‘and we need him to be both human and Nar’gellan at the same time. However, that has proven difficult for him up until now. The duels in the city last week brought his Nar’gellan instincts to the fore and when he unleashed those instincts, he finally realised what he is capable of. He can kill. The challenge for him now is to integrate the killing, blood lust instincts of his alien genetics with his human emotions. In effect he needs to balance his thirst to kill with his human compassion and reason. Only then will he be able to truly unleash and control his physical skills and compete in the arena. Max now knows what he needs to do to become what he was destined to be.’
‘And what is that?’ Kris asked. ‘What is he destined to be?’
’Either the champion who saves humanity and frees the Nar’gellan race or,’ Abdullah said and paused briefly, ‘the tragic warrior doomed to die a glorious, but ultimately hopeless death. God only knows which.’
Kris looked down again, her face drawn and a little pale.
Abdullah smiled and squeezed her hand gently.
’In the mean time,’ he said, ‘I can assure you that you have nothing to fear from Max. His dramatic improvements in the last week are evidence that he is in control. He is no danger to us or anyone else. He is adapting and he is adapting well. I think we are in for an exciting time and I envy you for being so close to him.’
Kris let a little smile crinkle the corners of her mouth. Abdullah let her hand go and stepped back to her side. Kris felt the warmth of his touch linger slightly on her hand. She also realised her heart was beating just a bit faster too.
Suddenly, one of the five instructors flashed forwards, an oblique strike of his sword slicing down towards Max’s back. Max deftly turned and deflected the strike away and then subtly shifted his weight to repel another instructor’s strike from his left side. One by one in a seemingly random sequence around the circle, each instructor attacked and each time, Max ably defended himself.
On and on the series of attacks continued with Max deflecting blow after blow, his style smooth and rhythmic. Kris stood mesmerized by the fluidity of the thrusting and parrying, transfixed by the dance of the six men as they integrated with no give or take. In contrast, Abdullah focused keenly on Max himself, studying his movements, but more particularly, his face.
Max’s attention was as sharp as his blade. His spatial awareness almost preternatural as he anticipated every attack, regardless of if he could actually see it or if it was coming from behind. His natural skill with the sword was uncanny, but this skill coupled with his instincts made him impenetrable. However, there was a problem.
Abdullah held up his hand and cried out, ‘Stop!’
Immediately, all five instructors shouldered their swords and stepped back. Max froze, his body still tensed for any attack and his eyes searching. In his right hand, his sword shone like a mirror in the sun, his grasp firm and surgically steady.
Abdullah glided forwards across the grass towards the group, while Kris looked on. Max lowered his sword and turned to look at his friend.
’Max,’ Abdullah said, ‘it would seem you have a natural talent in wielding a sword and that sword in particular suits you very well. Like a glove if you will?’
‘Yeah,’ Max replied. ‘It feels good.’
‘And you move very well,’ Abdullah continued. ‘Your footwork and balance allow you to use your speed and strength to considerable advantage. The five gentlemen surrounding you right now are five of the finest swordsmen in the world and I assure you, their attacks in this exercise are nothing less than full blooded. Your defense is excellent, but I note, that is all you are doing. Defending yourself. May I ask why you have not attacked in return?’
‘I might be good,’ Max said in return, ‘but there’s only so much I can do with one sword against five blokes. I can’t get ahead of them.’
Abdullah nodded silently.
‘As I suspected,’ he said. ‘So, let us give you your wish. Inspect the hilt.’
Max cocked his head at Abdullah and paused.
’Go ahead,’ Abdullah pushed, gesturing to Max’s weapon. ‘Inspect the hilt.’
Max lifted the hilt of his sword up to waist level and did as he was instructed.
‘You will find under the rear of the hilt,’ Abdullah added, ‘a small touch pad, which you can activate with your thumb by quickly adjusting your grip. The touch pad will only function via your thumb print, making it ineffective to any other. Press it.’
Max dipped the tip of the sword down, so he could look under the hilt. There it was. A small, orange circle, which he could indeed depress if he switched his thumb to the back of the handle and pushed up. Raising his sword back up, Max nudged the touchpad with his right thumb.
Instinctively, his left hand shot up to catch the handle of the new weapon that shot out sideways. In the blink of an eye, Max now held in each hand, identical swords that just a moment ago had been joined into one.
‘Seamless blades held together by reversible magnets,’ Abdullah said. ‘Depress the touchpad and the magnets switch poles to separate the weapons. Bring both weapons back together and the magnets will automatically reverse again to rejoin them. You asked for two swords and now you have them.’
Max inspected both blades and found they truly were identical, both in weight and appearance. He smiled and looked up at Abdullah, only to find Abdullah smiling back.
‘Now you have no excuses,’ Abdullah said.
Max nodded back and then turned to face his instructors again, his swords held wide. Abdullah’s smile widened. A few moments later, the clash and ring of steel refilled the morning air.