9pm, 17th December (later that night). Crumbling
‘We have to make one last trip to the United Nations,’ Joe said, ‘and we need to leave within the hour.’
The rest of the group had gathered in the living room and right now had their eyes fixed on Prime Minister Tollsen as he stood pensively by the cold, bare fireplace, his pipe in the corner of his mouth and his hands in his pockets. He did not face them, but rather stared into the empty hearth, almost as though he were talking to himself. Joe continued.
‘All of our efforts to hold the global community together are rapidly unravelling,’ Joe said. Abruptly, he turned to face the group. ‘It was to be expected. As doom looms ever higher, so will our fears begin to take over.’
Elsa spoke next from the couch where she sat with Max by her side. ‘Is there anything we can do? Can we up the ante on Team Max and get even more footage of him out there? Swamp the whole world with him?’
Joe shook his head. ‘We have done what we can, but this is not the time for despair. Despite the downward spiral beginning to accelerate once again, the majority of our fellow world leaders are still in fact united and doing all they can to maintain as much control as possible. At present, the majority of the unrest is spreading throughout the Third World as provisions of essentials from the First World begin to dissipate. In these last few days, the developed nations have become more and more self-serving and less and less caring of their foreign brothers and sisters. It is a shame, but as I said, it was not unforseen.’
‘Wars?’ Kris asked from the other end of the same couch.
’Civil and cross border,’ Joe replied, taking his pipe out of his mouth to inspect the wood grain. ‘Africa is overrun with strife and even if we are successful in the arena, it will take many years to restore the continent to its previous state. Civil war grips India, while Muslim fundamentalists storm across the border from Pakistan. Central America is rife with rebel uprisings and Mexico has imploded as the general population finally strikes back at the corruption in the government and the rampant drug cartels. However, if you are looking for a saving Grace, all of the G20 leaders are aligned, including Australia. There are even plans being made to potentially ally together to fight off any form of Nar’gellan invasion, as futile as it might be.’
’What will you do, Joe,’ Elsa asked, ‘if Max falls in the arena? What will you do right at that moment if it happens?’
Joe looked up at Elsa and then flicked his gaze to Kris and Peter in turn. ’The first thing I shall do is make sure all of you are as safe as possible. There will be space on my helicopter for all of you and it will not be lifting off without any of you. Let me be crystal clear on that.’
’Thank you, ‘Joe,’ Elsa said. ‘I never doubted you would live up to your word and on the night, if the worst happens, I don’t doubt you will still live up to it.’
Joe nodded then said, ‘As for what we do next, I will pass that to Abdullah.’
The Sheikh nodded his head once and rose from his seat at the far end of the coffee table. Max watched him rise and noted his movements were no longer truly languid. The man had slowed. He was tired. Max was not sure if Abdullah or Joe really slept most nights, knowing they were never far from a telephone, talking to someone somewhere in the world about who knew what, but it undoubtedly had to do with world politics, security or leading their own respective nations.
Abdullah walked across to stand next to Joe and then turned to face everyone. ‘Thank you, Joe,’ he started. ‘Yes, we do have a contingency plan if God’s design is for Max to fall in the arena. I cannot give you the exact details of that plan yet, but let me just say that we do have a secure facility under construction and nearing completion, which is deeply hidden in case the world is conquered by Macktidas’ army. A select few other dignitaries and world leaders have been invited to enter with us, but only a few. It is not an open invitation, but I imagine many of our peers will have their own such facilities ready to enter if the need arises. Our facility is not far from here and will only take us a matter of hours to reach. There we will either ride out the storm or we will pass from this world into Allah’s hands.’
‘When will you be back from New York?’ Kris asked, not looking at Abdullah, but instead keeping her gaze downcast into her lap.
‘Three days,’ Abdullah replied, bowing his own head. ‘We will be on the ground for one day only. There is only so much we can do now, so we will both be returning as quickly as we can.’
Joe nodded next to him and replaced the pipe in his mouth, putting both hands in his pockets.
Max cast a sideways glance to Kris to find her still downcast. He then nudged an elbow into Elsa’s side and flicked his head towards Kris. Elsa looked, took the cue and moved across to lead Kris out onto the balcony. Meanwhile, Max stood up and stepped across to Joe and Abdullah.
‘That pipe’s getting a good work out,’ he said to Joe.
‘This pipe is my oldest friend and at times like these, you need your friends around you,’ Joe replied.
’Well, make sure you hurry back from New York then. We need you here too,’ Max added and he looked sideways to Abdullah. ‘Some of us need you more than others.’ Abdullah nodded silently without returning the look. ‘So, what’s your plan with the UN?’ Max asked. ’How much more can you really do to keep things together?’
Joe sighed and looked away. ‘Not much I’m afraid,’ he said. ‘Apart from increased military intervention, we’re at the limit of peaceful control. Max, you haven’t directly noticed any local deterioration because you are largely hidden away here on the island, but even here in Australia, our streets are filling up with more and more soldiers. Unfortunately, desertions from our military ranks are also increasing. Order is eroding faster than we can bolster it. Plain and simple, the end of the world is coming and it is no longer possible to maintain structure. As I said, this was predicted, but now that we are at this point, it makes it no less dispiriting.’
‘I’m surprised we all kept it together for as long as we have.’
‘Do not underestimate the calibre of positive impact that Team Max has had,’ Joe replied as he snuck a sideways glance at Abdullah, who had turned to look out onto the balcony where Elsa and Kris stood together. ‘We took a gamble on our little publicity stunt, but it paid off handsomely. It is fair to say, the world took heed of your mantra that “together we win” even if winning means staving off anarchy for as long as possible before we are all annihilated.’
Max nodded. ‘There is an obvious question in all this that no one has really asked yet because we’re all so focused on getting to the arena and giving it our best shot on the night. Even if we win, will the world ever be the same?’
Joe looked directly into Max’s eyes. ‘That, my friend,’ Joe started, ‘is what really keeps me awake at night. I have for some time, stopped concerning myself with your perils in the arena as I know you will perform to the best of your ability and the outcome will be what it will be. I cannot control that. However, the question you ask holds far greater peril than the outcome of your exploits in the duels. We all wish for victory, but the old saying is true in this case. Be careful what you wish for because you may actually receive it.’
‘You mean victory brings its own risks? If I lose, we all die, but if I win, who knows what state the world will be in because of all the carnage we’ll have self-inflicted leading up the arena? Extinction might be a less painful way to go out than slowly killing ourselves in a world gone medieval?’
‘Correct,’ Joe said, his eyes glittering as he peered out from beneath his brow. ‘We might find ourselves scurrying off to that bunker straight after the duels even if you do win. There might not be a world worth living in for some time, if ever again.’
‘Is it really that bad out there?’ Max asked.
‘I did not lie in my description just now, but what I did not describe is my prediction of what happens from here. Yes, the Third World is in turmoil, but the First World is teetering. We have two weeks left and I foretell by the end of this week, much of Europe, the United States and Asia will also have descended into significant chaos. World banks are shutting down, locking up global funds. International airlines are no longer running, fragmenting the world population. Economies are dissolving as trade ceases and political systems are almost meaningless, allowing anarchy to overrun any form of attempt at administration of society. Even here in Australia we are plunging ourselves into madness. I already have plans in place to retract the military to key strongholds around the country to merely protect themselves rather than maintain law and order. This strategy is to preserve some semblance of military assets that can be used post the arena, whatever situation we find ourselves in. Make no mistake, Max, come New Year’s Eve, some of us will be watching your efforts on a live broadcast, if there is any network still capable of broadcasting, but the vast majority of the human race will likely be tearing itself apart or just plain hiding. Ugly is a woefully inadequate adjective. Abominable is getting closer, but honestly, I think the horror will be unimaginable and thank God for that because I do not want to even try to visualize what our world will have become in only two weeks time.’
Max held Joe’s eye contact through his Prime Minister’s entire monologue. At the end, he lowered his gaze to the empty fireplace and absently nodded. Max searched his feelings for how he felt about this stark portrayal of reality and found that it did not affect him. Yes, he wanted to win to save the lives of those he cared for and the lives of all the good people in the world, but he now acknowledged for the first time, that in saving their lives, he would likely be condemning them to live in a world of horrors. The truth is, he could not control any of that. All he could do was fight as hard as he could and make sure his family was protected one way or another, regardless of if he lived or died and he had already put those measures in place. It seemed that destiny had locked him in now and he was just there for the ride.
‘Excuse me,’ Abdullah said quietly, bowing slightly and in a swirl of his robes turned and stepped away.
Max looked up and around and found Abdullah moving out onto the balcony as Elsa was coming in. Outside, Kris still stood by the railing by herself. As Max watched, Abdullah slid up next to her, placing a hand over Kris’ on top of the stone barrier.
Elsa came over to stand next to Max and close to Joe. ‘She’ll be alright,’ Elsa whispered coarsely. ‘She just didn’t know about the trip. Came as a bit of a shock.’
Joe sighed. ‘It is a last minute decision and unfortunately, unavoidable.’
Elsa shrugged. ‘She knows that. It’s just...well, you know what it is. Time’s short.’
Joe looked down and then sideways out to the balcony where his friend’s swirling robes virtually enveloped both he and Kris together. ‘Yes it is,’ he said softly. ‘Yes, it is.’