1pm, 17th December (15 days later). Committed
The bare dirt and stones beneath their feet radiated heat like they were standing on an oven. The midday summer sun baked the stark earth, which coupled with the breeze, stirred up wandering whirly winds that sent dust swirling around them. Elsa felt the perspiration on her forehead beading into droplets, ready to streak her reddened face. Her long sleeve top was already stuck to her back and it felt like her whole body was preparing to dissolve.
It was hot and it was humid and it was unpleasant, but they had come for a reason. This is where it would all happen. This would be the site of their victory or their doom. This was the arena and it would be their last visit before fate took centre stage.
Team Max stood scattered around the barren arena space inside the three-quarter constructed stands, watching thousands of workmen crawling all over the growing structures. This was not a modern construction site. It was an ant colony. Human power ruled here with only two large cranes in operation. Everything else was being done by many hands working together. Lifting. Pushing. Cutting and bolting. There was nothing this workforce could not achieve.
Prime Minister Tollsen ambled over in his cotton trousers, light long sleeve shirt and white Panama hat, looking the virtual colonist. ‘Elsa, I would apologise for the conditions,’ he said, ‘but this is Queensland after all and well, summer is summer.’
‘I’m glad we left the kids at home,’ Elsa replied, looking around. ‘How do they work in this heat?’
‘We treat them well with short shifts and plenty of food and drink, but yes, their efforts are remarkable. Despite these conditions and only two weeks to go, we’re on track for New Year’s Eve. I’m hopeful we’ll have some grass in the next few days too.’
Joe turned to Peter who was standing off to the side, surveying the activity.
‘What’s on your mind, Peter?’ Joe asked.
‘I’m wondering where you’re going to be sitting,’ Peter replied, his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses as he scanned the structures.
Joe turned and lifted a hand toward the northern end of the growing stadium. ‘There will be a row of glass boxes midway up that stand, which Elsa, Abdullah and I will be accommodated in. I suspect Kris will want to be closer to the action down at ground level somewhere, but that will be her choice.’
‘Got room for me?’ Peter asked.
‘Of course, Peter. You’re most welcome.’
‘Good,’ Peter replied, removing his sunglasses and looking at the Prime Minister, ‘because the moment Max sets foot in this arena, I’m out of a job and then if he goes down in a bout, the next thing I’m doing is standing in front of you. If this all goes to hell, sir, no one gets to you unless it’s through me.’
Prime Minister Tollsen beheld one of the few men he had ever built a true friendship with, even if it was as his body guard. Joe then removed his own sunglasses, stepped across and held out his hand. Peter accepted it and Joe laid his spare hand on top.
’If we go down,’ Joe said, ’we go down side by side. That’s my promise to you.’
Elsa watched the exchange and felt goose bumps ripple across her skin. They were two weeks out and she had witnessed more and more moments such as these amongst the group and in the staff at the estate. The tension was rising and everyone was making plans or amends. Suddenly, she wished she had Millie and Jason with her to wrap them in a cuddle. Instead, she looked around to find her husband.
Max, Kris and Abdullah stood in the very heart of the bare arena. Both Max and Kris were sweating profusely, but Abdullah shimmering in his robes and sunglasses looked decidedly cool as he stood and listened to the conversation.
‘I think we do regularly spaced weapons stations,’ Kris said, turning as she pointed to various points on the arena boundary, ‘with the same stock of weapons at each and heaps of them. Like ten of each type at each station. Ten javelins. Ten swords. Ten of everything. That way you’ll never run out and you’ll never be far from whatever you want.’
‘Yeah,’ Max replied, nodding. ‘Sounds good. As for the boundary itself, I like the idea of putting a continuous ledge around the whole arena. Make the bottom half solid concrete, but then the upper half is clear Perspex set to the back of the concrete beneath it to make a ledge, which I can use for evasion if I need to. Kind of like what they have for ice hockey games, so I can use it like a vaulting platform or running on top of to get away from whatever it is that’s coming at me.’
‘Yeah, I like that too,’ Kris added. ‘Gives you a bit of height advantage. Then the weapons stations can be openings or gates or something in the Perspex and they can either leave the weapons on the ledge or throw them out onto the arena surface.’
Max nodded, also turning to survey the growing stadium. Abdullah continued to watch and listen in silence, carefully studying Max’s face and demeanour as he considered how his bouts would unfold and what advantages he would like.
‘The surface needs to be grass,’ Max said. ‘Not thick turf, but thinnish and even. I need to feel the ground beneath my feet and get instant grip. I don’t want to sink in or rip up divots, so when I change direction, it’s instantaneous and has no give. If I put my foot down to start sprinting, I need to be straight into full gear and not fighting against anything. Not even for a split second.’
‘What about fake grass?’ Kris asked.
‘It’s a good idea, but to be honest, I like real grass and I’m more comfortable on that.’
‘Fair enough,’ Kris said. ‘What shoes are you going to wear?’
‘I was thinking moulded studs, like touch football shoes.’
‘Orange of course?’ Kris quipped.
‘Bright as anything.’
Kris smiled. ‘And other kit?’
‘Hadn’t really thought about it, but light weight I guess and probably skin tight,’ Max replied and then turned to Abdullah. ‘Could you get someone in your secret engineering stable to whip something up?’
Abdullah did not speak, but silently nodded. Max held his gaze on Abdullah for a few moments and then flicked his gaze across to Kris who looked back between him and Abdullah. The silence held, the baking heat intensifying the quiet as the sounds of construction and the multitude of workers’ voices murmured in the background.
Elsa came up behind Max and clasped his hand as she stood next to him. Joe and Peter also came to stand silently with the group. Now everyone stood together, looking around the gathering, connecting with each other. No words sullied the moment. All thoughts alternated between reaching out to others and then turning inwards to self reflect.
Abdullah broke first, turning and serenely crossing the space in the middle to approach Kris. She watched him come close and then when he reached her, he raised his right forearm and bowed slightly. Kris paused and just looked at him. Not awkwardly. Not in confusion, but acceptingly. She then placed her left hand on Abdullah’s forearm and together they turned for the arena exit and walked away.
Elsa squeezed Max’s hand. Max turned to look at Joe and found him smiling gently, watching the couple move away. He then looked down and nodded before ambling behind them with Peter in tow.
Elsa leaned into Max’s ear and gleefully whispered one word. ‘Yes!’