Max Arena

All Rights Reserved ©

Kris

9:57am, 2nd July (the next day). Kris

Kris Blake sat alone at the corner table inside the cafe, her abandoned cappuccino steaming away untouched in front of her, while she methodically slid the screen of her iPad upwards to read another news article. The cafe was essentially empty with herself as the only paying customer and one other person, the owner, who sat quietly behind the counter on his lonesome, reading his own iPad.

The sound of the front door opening startled the owner into action, prompting him to jump up and grab a menu, ready to dash out and greet his second customer. Meanwhile, Kris remained transfixed to her iPad. The newcomer looked around the room and spied Kris, then walked across the room to where she sat.

‘Hey, good lookin’,’ the newcomer said brightly.

The spoken words raised Kris from her reading and she looked up, a smile immediately adorning her face.

‘Hey, yourself’ Kris replied. ‘What are you doing here, Elsa? I thought you were on holidays?’

‘Yeah, we were,’ Elsa said, pulling out a chair to sit down, ‘but this whole alien invasion thing and the end of the world kind of got in the way.’

‘Hmph. Aliens. Always showing up at the wrong time.’

Elsa smiled back and then saw a shadow appear by her side.

‘Good morning,’ the owner of the cafe said, failing miserably to hide the over eagerness in his voice. ‘Can I get you something?’

‘Ah, sure,’ Elsa replied, smiling back at him. ‘Latte, please, and...one of those apple and cinnamon muffins you’ve got there?’

‘Of course,’ he replied quickly. ‘Won’t be long.’

Elsa turned back to Kris and found her smiling again.

‘That was charitable,’ Kris said. ‘Normally this place is chock full, but I don’t think he’s going to get much business today. I don’t think any of his staff even turned up.’

’Are you working today?’ Kris asked.

‘Yeah, but not yesterday.’

‘Not yesterday? Why not? Monday’s normally your busiest day in the gym isn’t it?’

‘Yep. Normally, but I doubt anyone turned up. Most people probably stayed home like me just in case things got a bit hairy out in public.’

‘What do you mean hairy?’

Kris tilted her head slightly askew and replied, ‘Haven’t you been watching the news?’

‘No,’ Elsa replied, shaking her head. ‘Long story. We’ve been a bit busy since the, you know, the alien thing came up. We had to ditch our holiday pretty quickly yesterday morning and haven’t really had time to stay on top of things.’

’Well, you’ve got plenty of catching up to do then,’ Kris said, closing the lid of her iPad cover and placing it on the table next to her. ‘As soon as this alien news broke on Sunday night, the crime rate ratcheted up. Break-ins. Assaults. Arson. Lots of random stuff, so there was no way I was going out yesterday, busy day in the gym or not.’

‘And what brought you out today?’

‘Have you ever seen so many police on the streets? The Prime Minister sure lived up to his word and if we ever get a chance to vote for Joseph Tollsen again, he’s got my tick.’

‘The Prime Minister? What did he do?’

‘Wow,’ Kris said, eyebrows raised. ’You really are out of the loop. He held a joint press conference late yesterday afternoon with all the state premiers and promised to fix this spike in crime by flooding the streets with police and voila, the streets are flooded with police and the crime rate’s back down again. Still a bit dodgy, but safe enough for me to come back to work.’

Elsa let her gaze wander away as she recalled their conversation with Prime Minister Tollsen yesterday and his excusing himself to attend to something important. Now she knew where he had gone. He had gone out and made a promise to keep everyone safe, just like the promise he had made to her and Max. Elsa nodded silently as she felt her trust for the man deepen even further. Prime Minister Joseph Tollsen was a man of his word.

Movement next to her pulled Elsa from her reverie. A plate hosting an over-sized muffin appeared on the table in front of her, followed by a lightly steaming latte in a tall ceramic mug. Elsa turned and smiled up at the cafe owner.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

The owner smiled back, a hint of something deeper than gratitude behind the expression, almost like he was just happy to see a smiling face let alone a customer in his empty cafe. Then Elsa realised her perception of what was happening around her was unique. Her and Max’s perspective on the situation was from the inside looking out, knowing and understanding the truth of the emerging global crisis, but out here in the public it was completely different.

Everyday people everywhere were experiencing this affair in ways she had not imagined. Yesterday, Kris had stayed home out of fear for her safety, but had then been “rescued” by the integrity of a politician. Meanwhile, the cafe owner was just happy to see a friendly face, with Elsa’s smile as therapeutic as the comforting words of a skilled councillor.

Elsa needed to start paying attention to everyone around her. Society was on the brink and if it deteriorated any further, even if Max won in the arena, the world might already be too far gone to save.

‘So, if you’re here to do a gym session,’ Kris began, bringing Elsa back to the present, ‘that muffin’s not going to be your friend.’

‘Oh, no,’ Elsa said, waving the comment away and breaking the warm muffin in half, releasing a faint bloom of steam. ‘I’m not here to go to the gym. I came here hoping to talk to you actually.’

’To me?’ Kris queried, picking up her coffee and taking a sip. ‘What about?’

‘I need your help,’ Elsa said directly, also picking up her latte and fixing her gaze on Kris, looking over the rim of her mug, ‘and in return, I can help you.’

Kris paused, her response coming carefully. ‘Are you in trouble?’

‘Sort of,’ Elsa replied, ‘but first let me tell you how I can help you and then we can talk about you returning the favour.’

‘Okay,’ Kris answered slowly, leaning back in her chair. ‘Why do I need help?’

‘Protection.’

‘Why do I need protection?’

’Well, like you said, the crime rate is up because of this alien invasion stuff and I can offer you protection from all that. I can keep you safe all the way through this thing, right up until the arena duel on New Year’s Eve and maybe after that too if needed. The best of protection too. Not just a hideout or something, but real protection. Full military detail. The real deal. As good as the Prime Minister gets. In fact, exactly what the Prime Minister gets.’

Kris squinted back. ‘Okay, so let’s assume you know what you’re talking about and I get this protection, as good as the Prime Minister gets,’ she said slowly, ‘but what do I have to do for you?’

‘This is going to sound weird,’ Elsa said, ‘but I need you to train my husband. I need you to be his personal trainer for the next six months and I mean full on training. Weights. Stamina. Functional fitness. The lot and multiple sessions every day and in whatever creative ways you can imagine. If you can do that for me, I can guarantee the best protection you can imagine, regardless of how bad things might get.’

Kris paused then said, ‘You’re right. That does sound weird. The world’s going to hell and you’ll keep me safe if I train your husband? None of that makes any sense.’

Elsa nodded and put her coffee down on the table. ‘I knew this would be too hard to explain, so let me just show you what’s going on here.’

‘Show me what?’ Kris asked as she watched Elsa pull out her phone and quickly type in a message. ‘Who are you texting?’

Elsa finished typing the message and put the phone down. ‘Watch the door,’ she said, flicking her head sideways.

Kris snapped her gaze up to the entry as it swung open and in walked two men in cotton trousers and polo shirts. They weren’t big men, but they were not small either and then it slammed into her and she sat bolt upright. Both men had gun holsters strapped around their torsos. They were armed!

The cafe owner instinctively jumped up from his seat behind the counter with a menu in hand, only to be greeted in return by one of the men holding up a hand that very clearly indicated they were not there to dine. The owner froze, slipped his gaze down onto their weapons and then slowly retreated back to his stool, like a tabby cat confronted with a full blown lion.

‘It’s okay, Kris,’ Elsa said. ‘The guys with the guns are with me. They’re friends.’

Kris continued to eye off both men as they scanned the room and then split up to position themselves on opposite sides of the interior, their hands clasped together in front of them.

‘They’re really with you?’ Kris asked, her eyes still wide.

‘Yes, they are,’ Kris answered. ‘These guys are part of the protection I was talking about. I know it’s confronting, but they’re here to keep us safe, so try not to worry about them.’

Kris eased herself back in her chair, still eyeing off the armed newcomers. ‘Easy for you to say,’ she said. ‘Is this what you needed to show me. Your armed escort?’

Elsa shook her head. ‘No. There’s something else. You know the images of that face that have been scratched into the Himalayas and the Sahara?’

‘Yeah,’ Kris replied. ‘Of course I do. They’re all over the internet.’

‘Pull one of them up on your iPad.’

‘Why?’ Kris asked, her squint returning.

‘It’s time for the main part of the show and how I explain what I’m talking about.’

Kris eyed Elsa from across the table and then flicked her gaze back to the two silent guards at each end of the room. Slowly, she retrieved her iPad to open an internet browser. Searching under images, she easily found a plethora of pictures depicting the mysterious stranger’s face scribed onto various landscapes around the world.

‘Okay?’ Kris said. ‘Which image do you want?’

‘Whatever one is clearest.’

Kris scrolled the screen up a few flicks and then tapped on one of the little pictures.

‘Okay. Now what?’ Kris asked, looking up to see Elsa tapping a button on her phone.

‘Look down at your image and then watch the door again,’ Elsa said simply, picking up her latte and leaning back in her own chair, taking a slow sip, her gaze locked onto Kris over the rim of the mug.

Kris turned her attention back to the door. Silence filled the room. She shot a couple of sideways glances at the two burly men while she waited. Elsa continued to take long sips of her drink, not shifting her gaze from Kris. Then the door opened and Kris flicked her eyes back up in that direction as in walked another man.

In contrast, this man was solidly built in his shorts and t-shirt, but he also looked familiar. Very familiar, almost like she had just been looking at him and then, like a wave surging up onto the beach, recognition built. Kris’ eyes widened. The wave surged higher and as it peaked, Kris’ brain locked onto the detail of the face.

Quickly she glanced down at her iPad and the wave crashed and broke. The man in the doorway and the image on the screen shared the same face. It was him. It was the stranger the aliens had come to fight and he was standing right here in front of her.

‘Kris?’ Elsa said gently. ‘I’d like you to meet my husband Max and yes, he’s the one whose face is scratched into the north face of Mount Everest.’

Kris stared glassy eyed at Max, her face blank and her mouth open. Max cast a glance down at Elsa who looked back up and waved for him to sit down next to her. As Max sat down, Kris’ stare followed him.

‘Kris, I need you to...,’ Elsa started.

’Why you?’ Kris cut in, her eyes large.

Max held Elsa’s boggling gaze for a moment and then looked sideways at Elsa who tried to rescue him.

‘Kris, I need to explain...’ Elsa started again.

’Why do the aliens want you?’ Kris asked, her entire focus squared on Max through her wide eyes.

Elsa opened her mouth to speak, but Max laid a hand on her thigh. She looked across at her husband and he nodded. She closed her mouth.

Turning back to Kris, Max said, ’Kris, I’m not ready to tell you that. Let’s be clear. My wife trusts you and that means I trust you, but I don’t know you nearly well enough to trust you with that particular secret, yet.’

Kris stayed silent, searching Max’s face for something. Then she leaned back in her chair, her composure returning. Looking down at the table, she recollected herself, the silence in the cafe almost overwhelmed by the turning cogs of her mind.

‘Okay,’ she finally said, shaking her head slightly. ’There’s a lot going on here, so let me get this straight? You want me to train you and in return, you’ll give me protection up until you go into the arena?’

‘Yes,’ Elsa said, resuming control of the conversation. Max sat back a little. ‘The same protection the Prime Minister gets.’

‘What does that mean? The same as the Prime Minister gets?’

‘You could say Joseph Tollsen is our sponsor. That’s who these guys are,’ Elsa replied, waving her hand at the two burly men inside the cafe with them. They’re from the Prime Minister’s own personal detail and they’re assigned to protecting Max and I and the kids and if you help us, they’ll protect you too.’

Kris shook her head. ’Hold on. I’m really struggling with this. Fine you’ll protect me, but why do you want me to train Max? Max needs combat training. Weapons training and all that sort of stuff. I don’t do any of that. I do basic functional fitness, so surely, the Prime Minister can give you someone out of the army or the SAS that would be better for what he needs? Why me?’

Max leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. ‘We trust you, Kris. Simple as that. Elsa and I don’t make friends easily. We never have and we’ve never needed to. We have each other and our children and that’s enough for us, but like I said, we trust you.’

‘But I make Elsa do a few burpees and squat jumps. That’s all. You’re a fit looking guy, Max. You don’t need burpees. You need gladiator stuff and you won’t get that from me.’

‘Kris, believe me when I say I know how to fight. I don’t need you to teach me how to defend myself or use a weapon. It’s in my blood. Don’t ask why. It just is. As for being fit? Yes, I’m naturally pretty fit, but pretty fit is nowhere near good enough for what I need to do. I need someone to make me faster, stronger and just plain better and Elsa thinks you can do that. You’ve done it for her and she thinks you can do it for me, so Kris, we’re asking you to help us because right now, you’re the only person in the world we can trust with this, so how about it?’

Kris sat mute. The cogs in her mind had ratcheted up. Max leaned back. Elsa looked on. Several seconds of silence stretched out and then Kris spoke again.

‘Alright, maybe I can train you,’ she said, ‘but there’s one thing you have to do for me first.’

‘What’s that?’ Max asked.

‘You said you think you’re pretty fit? Is that right?’ she asked.

Max nodded.

‘Well,’ Kris replied, ‘prove it.’

* * *

Ten minutes later, Max, Elsa and Kris were walking down towards the other end of the shopping village to Kris’ gym, a six man security detail surrounding them. Peter led the group, his eyes never stationary, while his team walked equally spaced at a few metres distance around the civilian trio. The entourage crossed paths with only two other people on their short walk, causing each individual to shy back against the wall to let them pass.

Within the confines of the security ring, Max now carried a black sports bag in one hand and Elsa’s hand in the other. Just in front of them, Kris walked stiffly along, her eyes darting back and forth between Peter and the members of his team that walked in her field of vision.

When they reached the front door of the gym, Peter stopped and turned, the rest of his team stopping simultaneously with him, maintaining their formation. Peter indicated for Kris to open the door. Retrieving a swipe card, she deactivated the lock.

One of Peter’s team members immediately reached forward and opened the door, allowing Peter to briskly step inside, a second team member slipping in behind him. Everyone else stayed put. As the silent seconds ticked by, Kris darted her gaze around the ring of remaining security. Then the man holding the door open twitched his head slightly as a message crackled in his ear piece.

‘It’s clear,’ he said. ‘You can go in.’ Kris paused. ’You can go in now, please.’

The tone stirred Kris into action and she stepped inside. Max let Elsa go in next and then followed suit. The four remaining guards stayed outside to take up sentry positions, their presence as nondescript as tanks parked on a regular suburban street.

Once inside, Kris noticed that Peter and the other guard had positioned themselves strategically on opposing sides of the gym. The interior was not overly large and right now it was completely void of any other patrons. One third of the space stood filled with an orderly collection of cardio equipment; treadmills, rowing machines, cross-trainers and bike machines all lined up in rows, shoulder to shoulder. The second third of the space hosted an assortment of weights machines comprising pulleys and stacks of rectangular slabs of grey iron, clearly designed to work every inch of the body. The final third of the gym was reserved for free weights. An expansive, floor to ceiling mirror filled the length of the wall with a rubberised mat stretched across the floor in front of it. A double rack of dumbbells and barbells stood against the mirror and a row of benches lined the centre of the mat. All in all, it was a pretty standard, contemporary gym. Neat, tidy and functional.

Kris stood transfixed just inside the entry.

‘What do you want us to do?’ Elsa asked gently.

Kris stirred and turned around. ‘Um, get changed I guess,’ she said.

Max looked around the room.

‘Over there in the corner,’ Kris added, motioning to a door on the far side of the room. ‘Meet you back here.’

Max nodded and made his way to the change room. A minute later he came back out dressed all in black in an Adidas training tank top and black shorts, but the most striking things were his shoes. Bright orange Nike Frees with blue laces and matching blue swoosh.

Kris arched an eyebrow as she looked him up and down. ‘Nice bling,’ she said. ‘I hope your moves are as flash as your shoes, big guy?’

Kris stepped across and laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. ‘You’re just jealous,’ she replied, ‘because he’s got brighter shoes than you.’

Glancing down at her own red Nikes with yellow laces, Kris nodded. ‘You got that right. Not happy.’

Max and Elsa looked at each other. Suddenly, a sharp clap brought their gazes back round to Kris.

‘Enough gas bagging,’ Kris shot out. ‘Let’s get busy. First, let’s see how well you bench. Ditch the bag and come with me.’

Max obeyed, pushing his bag into a niche in the nearby open lockers and then following Kris through the gym to the free weights area. Elsa followed at a distance. Once on the rubber mat, Kris dragged the benches out of the way and turned to face Max.

‘First trick. How many push ups can you do?’ she asked curtly.

‘Don’t know,’ Max replied. ‘Never tried.’

‘Give me ten to start, but if you can do twenty, even better.’

Max nodded and lowered himself to the floor. He started his push ups, slowly at first, but then as he got closer to ten, he sped up. After twenty, he pushed himself to his feet.

Kris mused silently for a moment and then said, ‘Give me twenty more, but this time put your feet up on the bench behind you.’

Max turned to look at the bench and then lowered himself down again, planting his toes on the red, vinyl covered bench to elevate his feet. Thirty seconds later, Max was finished and back standing. Kris scanned him for any signs of fatigue and failed.

‘Good,’ she said at last. ‘Now, tell me how you got that chest of your’s? Lifting weights or all natural?’

‘All natural,’ Max said.

Behind Kris, Elsa smiled.

‘Alright,’ Kris continued, ‘let’s do some bench press. We’ll start you off light and then see what you can get up to, but before we do that, let’s do a few more upper body stretches just to make sure nothing goes pop.’

A few minutes later, with his torso and arms fully stretched, Max lay on a bench with a weighted barbell resting on the rack over his prone form.

‘Okay, there’s forty kilos on the bar,’ Kris started. ‘I reckon you’ll lift this easy, but just go steady. We don’t want you in traction before you have to save the world. Try for ten.’

Max nodded and grabbed the bar firmly with both hands, assuming a wide grip. Pushing upwards, he easily lifted the bar clear. Then, lowering it slowly to his chest, he paused before pushing it all the way back up. At the top, he paused again and then lowered it down to his chest again. Kris watched carefully, her arms crossed and a slight knit in her brow. After his tenth repetition, Max gently clattered the bar back onto the rack and sat up.

‘How was that?’ Kris asked.

‘Like you said. Easy,’ Max replied.

‘Let’s double it,’ Kris shot back. ‘Grab another twenty kilo plate and bang it on that end. I’ll get this end.’

Max stood and walked over to grab another large weight plate. Together, he and Kris loaded twice the weight onto the bar, forcing it to bend slightly.

‘Can I borrow one of your guys to give you a spot?’ Kris asked.

Max looked across at Peter who in turn nodded to the other member of his team. The man obliged and silently walked across to stand at the head of the bench, while Max lay down again.

Kris stepped out of the way and stood to the side. ‘Go steady again,’ she said. ‘This will be tougher. Try for five and if you can, go to ten.’

A few moments later, Max had easily pressed the barbell through five repetitions and without a pause, followed through with another five. Replacing the bar on the rack, he sat up and looked at Kris.

‘More?’ she asked, squinting.

‘Double again,’ he replied.

Kris paused as she looked him over. ‘Fine, but we’ll need another one of your boys.’

Two minutes later, one hundred and sixty kilos burdened the bar, which gravity now seriously assaulted, placing a definite bow in it. Max lay on his back underneath the bar, while another of Peter’s security team had come inside to spot with one man positioned at each end of the weighted load.

‘The bar’s at max load,’ Kris said, ‘and I want you blokes on each end to keep your hands on it at all times. Max is going to have some trouble with this, so stay focused.’

The two men said nothing and instead braced their feet a little wider apart, their hands placed on the ends of the bar.

‘Max, I want you to try one lift,’ Kris continued. ‘Down and up is fine. These guys will help you all the way. Okay?’

‘Yeah,’ Max said as he gripped the bar again. ‘Sure thing.’

Max took a deep breath, focused on the bar and pushed up. The two guards’ hands stayed loosely held on each end. Max paused at the top and then slowly lowered the bar. Smoothly he controlled it all the way down to his chest and then just as smoothly, pushed it all the way back up.

‘Good work, Max,’ Kris said. ‘Now put it back on the rack.’

Max held the bar raised in the air for another moment and then slowly lowered it back down to his chest.

‘Alright, Max. Push it up and rack it,’ Kris repeated a little firmer.

Max smoothly pushed the bar back up all the way to the top and then after another pause, lowered it down again. Kris opened her mouth to speak, but held her tongue as Max pushed the bar up again a little faster. Kris then watched Max pump out another seven repetitions without halting.

At the end, Max replaced the bar on the rack and sat up. Turning to Kris he found her frowning with crossed arms and beaded eyes. Max ignored the look and asked, ‘Got a bigger bar?’

Elsa’s smile widened. The two security guards exchanged glances. Kris didn’t budge.

‘Off the bench,’ she finally said. ‘Let’s go rowing.’

Five minutes later, Max was standing in the middle of the free weights area, the bench press bar on the floor in front of him and forty kilos slapped on each end.

‘Now, just like I showed you,’ Kris said as she stepped up beside Max. ‘Feet hip width apart. Knees slightly bent and your torso bent over at the hips till your back is about thirty degrees angled up from the plane of the floor. Make sure your back is arched up as well. Shoulders high and butt stuck out the back. You lose that form, your lower back is going to hate you for a long time.’

Max mimicked Kris’ bent over stance. Kris continued.

‘Now grab the bar with an overhand grip, just wider than shoulder width,’ she said. ‘Pull the bar smoothly up, no jerking, till it hits your gut. Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift. Don’t try to just use your arms because you’ll fail and probably pop a bicep along the way. At the top, hold the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades as much as you can for a full second and then slowly lower it down again. Do ten if you can. If you can’t, just lift it as many times as you can. Make sure you keep that back arched and your butt out. Okay?’

‘Got it,’ Max replied, reaching down to grip the bar as instructed.

‘Right. Take it slow,’ Kris said, stepping out of the way.

With his grip on the bar, Max looked up in the full length mirror to confirm his form. Staring himself down, he pulled the bar off the ground. Fifteen seconds later he had completed ten smooth repetitions with no falter. Placing the bar back on the ground, he straightened and looked in the mirror at Kris who was already returning the look.

‘Let me guess?’ she asked. ‘Double?’

Max nodded. Kris flicked a glance at Elsa who shrugged in reply. Kris then turned and walked over to grab another heavy weight plate, her frown deepening.

Thirty minutes later and now on the squat rack, Max eased the bar back onto the pegs and off his shoulders. Ducking out from underneath the bar, he looked sideways at Kris.

‘What’s next?’ he asked.

Kris just looked at him, her frown now permanently ingrained. Silence settled over them, its strength as potent as any drug. Kris switched her look across to Elsa who shifted uncomfortably on the bench on which she was sitting, but remained quiet.

‘There’s nothing left to lift,’ Kris finally said. ‘I’ve made you work every muscle group across every inch of your body and maxxed the weights and machines out at the same time. You’ve pulled and pushed yourself around the gym and lifted more than I’ve seen most grown men do and I’ve seen some seriously big men and on top of that, I can’t even see a drop of sweat on you. Hell, you just squatted two hundred kilos like the bar was empty. I...I don’t know what to...’

Kris trailed off shaking her head. She looked askew at the ground, her frown now verging on worry. Elsa stood up and walked over to Max and they silently looked at each other. Max then flicked a glance up to Peter, who was looking right back at him, his face like stone, his eyes hard and piercing. Max also glanced at the other two security guards in the room and they too were looking at him. Elsa had also noticed that the spotlight had centred squarely on her husband. She leaned in.

‘I think you might have just scared everyone,’ she whispered.

Kris’ eyes snapped up at hearing the whispering. ‘Clear some space,’ she quipped. ‘Time for some cardio.’

Max and Elsa glanced at each other again and then watched Kris start to drag a bench off to the side of the free weights area. Max stepped in and helped out by pulling two more benches clear to make a space in the centre of the mat in front of the mirror. Elsa stepped back to stand by one of the benches. Sneaking a peek up, she found Peter and his two comrades no longer looking at Max. That at least made her feel a little more relaxed.

Kris turned to Max and said, ‘So, we just established you can lift pretty good, but that’s only half the story. If you really are fit, you can do more than just pump iron. Let’s check out your cardio. Cool?’

‘Cool,’ Max replied.

‘Right, you should be warm after all those weights, so I think we can crack straight into a tabata. Do you know what that is?’

‘Yep,’ Max said. ‘Elsa whinges about them all the time and that you make her do too many, but just to check, it’s twenty seconds flat out for the first exercise then ten seconds rest and then twenty seconds flat out for the second exercise and repeat three more times. All up that’s four minutes right?’

’That’s right and flat out are the key words. We need one hundred percent. Don’t leave anything out. We’re going to check your heart rate at the end and I want at least a hundred and forty beats per second or else it means you’re not trying hard enough. We’ll mix it up with burpees as the first exercise and uneven push ups for the second. You okay with what those are?’

‘Burpees I know, but what’s an uneven push up?’ Max asked.

Kris turned to the rack behind her and lifted off a bright red medicine ball. She then threw it at Max who caught it.

‘Normal push up,’ Kris started, ‘but with one hand on the ball. When you come back up to the top, roll the ball across and put it underneath your other hand and do another push up. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Fast as you can. okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘Good. We’ll start in ten seconds. Burpees first.’

Max nodded and dropped the medicine ball down next to his feet, waiting silently for Kris to kick him off. In the extended pause, Kris looked Max up and down. The man was pumped. She had seen lots of ultra fit men in her time and Max was in that club, but there was something else about him. Sure he was strong. Crazy strong, but it was the way he moved. Smooth and balanced, but there was something else. Purpose. Everything he did had a purpose and everything he did, he finished. Without realising it, Kris was as tense as a gazelle on the open plains, her nerves on the edge.

‘Go,’ she barked and in a blur, Max dropped to the floor to start his burpees.

Four minutes later it was done. Max had finally cracked a sweat, but only just. It was more a slight glisten if you caught him at the right angle beneath the lights. His breathing laboured slightly as he held his fingers to his throat, checking his own pulse. Kris watched as her stopwatch clicked up to fifteen seconds.

‘Stop,’ she said. ‘What’d you get?’

‘Eighteen,’ Max said, his breathing now back at normal levels.

Kris slowly raised her gaze to meet his.

‘What?’ Max asked.

‘Eighteen? You’re sure?’ she asked dead pan.

‘Eighteen, bang on,’ Max replied.

‘Let’s do another one,’ Kris said hurriedly, stepping over and kicking the medicine ball out of the way, ‘but burpees only this time and instead of ten seconds rest standing up, stay down in the push up position.’

‘Okay,’ Max replied. ‘You want me to start on the ground?’

‘Yep.’

Max lowered himself down and pushed himself up into a push up position on his hands and toes. ‘Say when,’ he said.

‘When,’ Kris shot back.

Just over four intense minutes later, Max stood checking his own pulse again, while Kris monitored her stop watch.

‘Stop,’ Kris said.

‘Twenty,’ Max followed up with.

Kris froze. Max and Elsa looked at each other. Kris then turned and with her hands on her hips, walked a few paces away from them. Elsa looked over at Peter who was again fixed on Max. Things were definitely uncomfortable now.

‘What’s wrong, Kris?’ Elsa asked.

Kris stopped walking and slowly shook her head, her back still turned.

‘What is it?’ Elsa pushed.

Kris spun and looked at her, hard.

‘Your husband just did back to back tabatas and through his second one, did a steady burpee every two seconds every cycle, no problem. That’s not world record pace, but it’s pretty damn good.’

‘That’s great isn’t it?’ Elsa asked brightly.

‘Yeah, it is,’ Kris answered, ‘but his heart rate hasn’t even broken seventy-five beats a minute and that’s a resting heart rate for most blokes.’

‘Like he said, he’s pretty fit,’ Elsa added.

‘That’s not pretty fit, Elsa,’ Kris rifled back, shaking her head emphatically. ’That’s insanely fit. He just ripped his way through two breakneck tabatas without cracking a decent sweat on top of making a mockery of every weights exercise I can think of and demonstrating if he really tried, he’d stand a damn good chance of nudging every power lifting record in the book. That’s not normal. It’s far from normal and so, it leaves me with only one question to ask and I need a straight answer here. Absolute truth.’

‘Fire away,’ Max replied.

‘Are you on any drugs, performance enhancing, medicinal or otherwise that could explain your...your high levels of fitness and strength? I don’t care if you’re a steroid freak. I’m not here to judge you and if you need to be on roids to make you fit enough to fight off aliens and save the world then so be it. Bring it on. I just need to know because if you are on something, it makes a huge difference to how I train you?’

‘No, I’m not on anything,’ Max said straight faced. ‘Never have been. Wouldn’t even know what to take.’

Kris stood stock still, her arms crossed as she studied Max’s face. The silence stretched. Elsa crossed her gaze to Peter who was not watching, but she knew he was listening.

‘Okay,’ Kris finally said. ‘You are what you are, even though I’ve never seen or heard of anyone like you.’

‘So, what do you say?’ Elsa chipped in. ‘Are you in?’

Kris shifted her gaze to Elsa for a few moments and then turned to look at one of the silent televisions hanging from the wall in front of the row of empty treadmills. The images consistently showed emergency services in action all over the country as fear grew unchecked. People in pain. Lives being randomly destroyed and then an image appeared depicting Max’s face carved on to the Himalayan Range and her mind was made up. Turning back to Max and Elsa, she fixed them in her focus.

‘If the world’s going to end,’ Kris said, ‘then you’re the guys I want to be with. I’m in.’

‘Thank you!’ Elsa shot back, running over to embrace Kris. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’

Kris returned the hug, but over Elsa’s shoulder she kept her eyes on Max who looked evenly back. She may have had a smile on her face, but inwardly, deep inside Kris’ head, alarm bells had just started ringing.

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