5pm, 31st December (2 days later). Final Reflections
The thick, green carpet of the mansion’s north lawn pulled away as the helicopter’s wheels lifted off, the shuddering shadow of the aircraft’s rotating blades making the turf flicker beneath the afternoon sun.
As Joe looked out the window of the helicopter, the aircraft slowly spun clockwise to reveal the Pain Train on the edge of the lawn, the truck’s iridescent orange bulk flaming against the rich green foliage behind. Then as the craft rose higher still, the deep, bottomless blue of the sea flowed into view beyond the palm trees fringing their tropical hide away. The Pacific Ocean. So vast and so humbling that Joe had no words in his mind to describe it, so he let his thoughts fall silent, his mute appreciation the highest honour.
Then as usually occurred when he was in the air, Joe’s mind wandered into reflections of his own personal circumstances and the history of his life. However, this time instead of lamenting the death of his parents when he was an infant and the loneliness of his orphanage upbringing, Joe’s thoughts instantly found a much happier refuge. The present.
Yes, the world was facing an imminent and likely doom, but right now, right here, Joe had finally found what it was like to have a family. Not through blood or birth, but family nonetheless. Max, Elsa and of course their children, Millie and Jason as well as Abdullah and Kris and not forgetting Peter too. Together they were his kin. They were his siblings in this time of need and even though it had taken his whole life to find this happiness, Joe was grateful for it. His world was a better place for having become close to these people and if his world ended now, that was fine by him. His last six months had been the best of his life and finishing now would be finishing on a long awaited and much deserved high.
From his seat across the cabin, Peter saw the smile creep over Joe’s face as his Prime Minister looked out the window. It was true. The man was happy and Peter knew that true happiness had been as elusive to Prime Minister Tollsen as the sun is to the moon. Peter had been with Joe now for the last six years and in that time had grown to respect the man more than his own father
Peter had been a broken man after discharging from his SAS regiment. Losing five of his men on his last mission had brought him undone, completely. Alcohol, drugs and finally a trip to emergency after swallowing a bottle full of pills had been his response to the trauma and ceaseless nightmares.
Then a former commanding officer had fished him out of his hospital bed, guided him through rehab and found him a job on a government security detail. Peter had turned up to work, insecure, lacking all confidence and ready to throw in the towel before he started. Then out of the car stepped the Prime Minister of Australia and before he knew it, Peter was shaking hands with one of the world’s most powerful people as he accepted the role of leading Joseph Tollsen’s personal security team.
It was a good thing Peter had had no time to think as he probably would have refused the role and run straight back into the nearest dark shadow. As it turned out, Joseph Tollsen saved his life. The man’s honesty, wisdom and humility demanded respect and Peter gave it in spades. Joseph Tollsen was the proverbial man amongst men and here at the possible end of it all, Peter could think of no finer person to be with and then Max had come along.
Kris looked forward to the seats in front to find Peter looking across at Joe. She knew Peter looked up to Joe more than anyone else in the world and felt happy for him to have found that respect in someone else.
She then looked down and thought about who that person would be for her and found her father’s face filling her mind. He had always been her guiding light. It was her father who had encouraged her to leave home and find her own life, even though he was never far away to help her when she stumbled. It was her father who had supported Kris in starting her own personal training business. It was her father who had helped her through the messy breakdown of a long term relationship and it had been her father who had been on the other end of the phone whenever her single life became unbearable.
Sure, Kris loved her mother, but she had built a special bond with her father. All those times she and he had spent out in the yard of their north Queensland home, cutting the grass and drinking lemonade afterwards. The simple things. The things that really count.
Then Kris realised again whose hand lay clasped with her’s right now. Kris felt the warmth inside their entwined fingers. She felt the softness of the man’s skin and the comfort it radiated. Nestling in closer to Abdullah, Kris let the image of her father sitting on the back steps of their house in the bright summer sun drinking lemonade linger as she squeezed Abdullah’s hand. The wind tossed waves of her sea of despair were long gone. Kris was free from fear and life was good. At last life was good.
Abdullah returned the squeeze and revelled in the closeness of Kris. These next few hours might be their last together and even if they did survive beyond the arena, any chance of enduring bliss together would be severely challenged, but those thoughts were not for now. Instead, Abdullah had cleared his mind and let his conscience wander through the sacred passages of the Quran, soothing his mood, while letting his body relax in the close comfort of his new love, Kris.
If Heaven lay just beyond the realms of this day, Abdullah knew eternal solace was close at hand. He had almost wasted his life after the tragedy of losing Fathiya, but with Allah’s divine intervention and his own courage, Abdullah had regained control and found his destiny. Here now and maybe at the end, he knew he had done all he could and if this select group of wonderful people could not save the world, then the world was beyond saving and so be it.
Abdullah had searched the globe for worthy allies in his fight against injustice and along the way he had found Joseph Tollsen and that had been a rich day indeed. Then calamity had dawned with the appearance of Macktidas and his alien horde and in that time of dire desperation, these other individuals surrounding him had risen to the challenge. Abdullah felt blessed. Truly blessed, for not only did he now know these wonderful people, but he knew they considered him to be their friend. Allah be praised. Peace was with him, come what may.
In the back row, Elsa sat on one side with Max at the other end and their two children filling the space between. It had been a surreal day, struggling to find the right mood to get on with all the appearances of a normal day for the sake of the kids. While Millie and Jason knew that tonight their father was going to a special place to fight some aliens and that was exciting and all, how could she explain to them that their father might actually get killed and if that happened, the world was going to come to a violent end? What possible meaning could you give to that? What rationale?
There was nothing, so she had kept up the half truths and the veiled deception and the day had passed, slowly and painfully, but it had passed. Max had been great. Every moment he had kept close to her and the kids. A hug here. A touch there. Never far away. Always there.
Then the dream Elsa had had of Max protecting her and the children and the rest of humanity came back to her. She vividly recalled Max’s transformation into the giant the world needed to save them, but then she also remembered how the tide had dragged him away at the end and left her alone. Scared and alone. Was it an omen? Was it a portent of Max’s death, even if he did save them by winning tonight? Elsa had not told Max any details about the dream, not wanting to upset or unsettle him, so she had harboured this vision within herself and now, here at the end, it haunted her still. It was as if the images were shackled into her conscience to deliberately torture her. Again she remembered Max’s eyes winking out in the darkness as the sea sucked him into the void. How could she rid herself of this fear and then she turned her head and there was Max looking back at her.
Max’s bright blue eyes burned back at her, their radiance maybe stronger today than she had ever seen them before. There he sat, the man she loved and the man the whole world loved. Their champion. Her champion. Max.
‘I love you,’ Max mouthed as he reached over their two children to rest a hand on her shoulder.
Elsa felt the warmth in that touch and in that moment, the haunting images from her nightmare fractured and washed away. Her hero was here, still alive and full of hope. They were all still together and this was no time to wallow in despair. This was maybe their last time to enjoy life together? Right now, life really could be too short to worry.
Lifting her own hand, Elsa laid it on top of Max’s and smiled back. She mouthed, ‘I love you too.’
Max did not smile back, but he held a gentleness in his expression that Elsa adored and it was the last little thing she needed to beat off her worry. Looking down, Elsa gave Jason a cuddle and scratched Millie behind the ear, both kids giggling in return. A deep tingle rippled across Elsa’s skin, quickening her heart beat a little. Joy. Pure joy.
Pulling his hand back, Max let Elsa focus on the kids for a bit. He knew she was having a tough time today, so every moment that happiness found her she deserved to hold on to it while she could. Looking out the window Max cast a brief glance at the helicopter gunships accompanying them to the arena island. Inside them, he could see the soldiers who had remained loyal to Joe and Abdullah, sacrificing their personal lives and families to see them all the way to the end. On the arena island were even more soldiers making the same sacrifices. Everywhere Max had gone in the last six months, he had been surrounded by strangers giving up their safety to protect him and his family and while he was now about to repay them all through risking his own life, he still could not come to grips with the depth and breadth of care being afforded him.
This was not how he had wanted this to unfold. Max had spent much of his adult life preparing for this day, knowing Macktidas would eventually find him and now that the day was here, he was ready, but he had inadvertently dragged the world and all humanity into it. Civilisation had imploded and Death stalked the Earth, scything down millions as law and order decayed. The world had become a war zone and all the work Team Max had done to hold it together had finally been unravelled. There was only one thing left to do. Fight and fight to the death.
Max fought off an urge to draw himself inwards and unleash his Nar’gellan blood lust. There was still time for that. Right now he needed to be with his family. They needed him too. Refocusing on the helicopter drifting along next to theirs, Max reasserted his humanity and kept his alien instincts at bay.
Next to him, Jason giggled again and Max turned to look. Seeing Elsa tickling their little boy, Max dug his fingers gently into Millie’s ribs and she squealed as well. Instantly, they were all laughing and squealing and like a ripple spreading across the surface of a lake, that joy spread through the cabin of the helicopter. Unbidden, matching smiles gilded the faces of everyone else.
Team Max was together at the end and against all the odds that their doom had stacked against them, still they found joy. Still they found the courage to be happy and for them, this was a victory on its own.