3pm, 2nd July (later the same day). Isolation
While Max and Elsa left to pick up the kids, Kris was whisked into one of the security detail’s black, armoured Land Cruisers and driven straight back to her apartment. Once there, she had precisely two hours to pack. If it didn’t find its way into a bag in that time, it stayed behind.
She was then bundled back into the Land Cruiser and driven away without being given any indication of where they were going. After about thirty minutes of silent travel in the back seat on her own, Kris looked through the windscreen and noticed that another of the Land Cruisers had returned and linked back up with them to take the lead. Turning around, she then found the other two Land Cruisers behind her’s, all four vehicles lined up in convoy. Somewhere enroute to wherever they were going, the entire security entourage had rejoined them. Kris assumed Max, Elsa and the kids were in one of the other four-wheel drives, probably the other middle one behind her’s, which made her feel a little better. If the star of the hour, Max was with them, they were going somewhere safe.
Relaxing a little, Kris started to actually take notice of what was beyond her window instead of fretting about what she might have just agreed to. They were hurtling along on a freeway, on the way out of Brisbane by the looks of it with not much traffic on the road around them. However, even though they were speeding, several other cars were still passing them. Then suddenly, their Land Cruiser flew past the still smouldering wreckage of a multi-car pile-up that had just been pushed off to the side of the road. Whipping her head round, Kris tried to get a longer look at the scene, but it flashed by too fast.
‘Was that a car crash back there?’ she asked the driver and his front seat passenger.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ came the simple reply from the passenger.
Then Kris heard a siren. Turning around, she found a red Lexus careering towards them with a police car in pursuit.
‘Hold your line,’ Kris heard a voice say from the walkie-talkie in the hand of the front seat passenger. ‘Let them go by.’
Suddenly the red Lexus shot past them, followed closely by the police car, its sirens wailing. Kris’ gaze stayed glued to the two cars as they continued to speed away, weaving through the sparse traffic.
‘How fast are they going?’ Kris asked.
‘About two hundred,’ the front seat passenger replied, no hint of surprise in his tone.
‘Two hun-,’ Kris started to blurt out and then stopped, her hand shooting up to her mouth to force back a scream.
The red Lexus had just attempted to swerve round a van and instead sharply clipped its back corner. In an instant both vehicles came spectacularly unstuck from the bitumen. The van lifted violently off the ground and started to barrel roll in a tight spin. Simultaneously, the red Lexus got snagged and lifted off the ground to start cart wheeling along the road next to it. Both vehicles shredded smashed panels and metal parts as they spun out of control.
‘Break right!’ barked the voice from the walkie-talkie.
Kris was suddenly pulled sharply to the left, her seat belt biting into her side, as the driver took evasive action. Then the police car slid past their left hand side, its tyres smoking as it braked to a halt. Then the still flipping Lexus and van first filled the windscreen and then the side windows as their Land Cruiser came up behind the stricken vehicles and swerved around them. Kris could not remove her gaze from the carnage and in less than a handful of seconds, the entire scene began to recede behind them.
‘Shouldn’t we stop to help?’ Kris called out, still craning her head round to look out the rear window and past the other two Land Cruisers.
‘No, ma’am,’ came the toneless reply.
‘But they’ll be hurt! We need to...’
‘No, ma’am. It’s outside our scope.’
’It’s what?’ Kris threw back, turning towards the front again. ‘What scope?’
‘Our operations scope is to get you to the safe house as quickly as possible and without deviation. The police can take care of the crash and any injured parties.’
Kris thought about protesting further, but realised that the tone or rather the lack of tone in his voice meant she had no chance of changing his mind.
‘So where is this safe house?’ she asked instead.
‘ETA is about thirty minutes away.’
‘Estimated time of arrival.’
‘You have an acronym for that?’ Kris asked, her eyebrows arched. ‘Are you guys mercenaries?’
‘Private security firm, ma’am. Please, don’t call us mercenaries? That’s not nice.’
Kris nodded slowly, looking at the driver’s sunglass shrouded eyes in the rear view mirror.
‘Are you ex-military?’ she asked more warily.
‘Yes,’ was the single word reply.
That was enough for Kris. She knew prodding them any further would be pointless and besides, she now knew what she had suspected. Elsa had been spot-on when she said she would be surrounded by a very serious security detail.
Settling back into her seat, Kris turned her attention back out the window and noticed them for the first time. Scattered across the landscape, columns of smoke trailed into the air. Some thin and wispy, while others billowed thicker and blacker. Fires. The city had begun to burn.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, after having exited the freeway and travelled down a sequence of increasingly narrower roads, Kris felt the Land Cruiser turn onto an unsealed road. The landscape had also become progressively less urban until finally it had turned into pristine bush. They were well and truly outside the city limits now.
A couple of minutes later, the Land Cruiser started to slow down. Looking forward again, Kris saw the front vehicle stop at a large, brick and iron-wrought gate that stood closed. On either side of the gate, the similarly styled fence extended away into the bush. A group of armed soldiers milled around outside the gate, blocking their path to it. One of the soldiers started walking up to the driver’s side window of the lead four-wheel drive.
After a brief conversation, the soldier stepped back and two of his comrades pulled the gate open. The lead Land Cruiser drove slowly through with Kris’ close behind. As they passed through the portal, Kris spied cameras bristling all over the gate and fence, while two camouflaged, Army jeeps sat parked just inside.
As they continued along the wide, dirt road, the bush environment persisted for a while, but then abruptly changed to well-tended, wooden-fenced paddocks. Kris saw a few horses placidly grazing within the confines of the paddocks and a large collection of stables set off to the side. It was a horse stud. A really big one. Wherever they were, it reeked of money.
The paddocks fell behind them and after another few minutes, the house came into view, although to call it a house was doing it an injustice. As they got closer, the house sprawled further and further outwards. It was enormous. It looked to comprise a central complex and two massive wings splaying diagonally out behind. Vast green lawns devoid of trees and shrubs surrounded the house with the surrounding bush set as the backdrop. Kris had never seen anything like it, at least not up close in real life.
Scattered patrols and sentries of more soldiers patrolled the exterior of the house and the grounds. Security was very tight. There was even an Army helicopter resting on the side lawn, its four massive rotor blades drooping down over its hulking chassis and two very large looking machine guns poking out of portals on both sides. Kris’ unease ratcheted up.
The convoy drove into a broad, circling drive that led them right up to the massive portico entry. All four Land Cruisers stopped underneath the cover, lined up one behind the other. More soldiers appeared outside the cars and encircled the now stationery convoy.
‘Let’s go,’ sounded the voice from the walkie-talkie.
The front seat passenger and the driver disembarked at the same time, leaving Kris alone in the back seat to watch the armed soldiers and security detail have a quick conversation. Unsure of what to do, Kris stayed buckled up and still. Then the front seat passenger man opened the rear left side door and motioned for her to exit out his side.
Without hesitation, Kris did so. Turning to her left, she saw Max, Elsa and the kids climb out from the Land Cruiser behind her’s. Elsa spotted her and started to make her way across.
‘I’ll get the kids sorted in their rooms!’ Max called out.
‘Okay!’ Elsa returned, waving over her shoulder.
Max and the two children walked into the house with Peter and two other bodyguards.
‘You okay?’ Elsa asked as she came up to Kris.
‘Fine,’ she replied. ‘Just never imagined I’d be important enough to have a military escort.’
Elsa smiled. ‘I know what you mean, but I think we better get used to a whole lot of things not being what we’d ever imagined.’
‘Things like aliens invading the world and killing everyone you mean?’
‘Yeah,’ Elsa said, turning away to look at their surrounds. ‘Nice place isn’t it?’
‘Sure is,’ Kris replied, turning to look more at the number of soldiers around the grounds than at the luxuries of the estate. ‘I wonder why we’ve got the run of the place?’
‘I’m not game to ask. I’m just assuming it’s Prime Ministerial privilege and leave it at that.’
‘Is he coming up?’ Kris asked.
‘He said he’d try to make it up tomorrow if he could. Said he had a lot on his plate, which I can only guess is true. He is the Prime Minister after all.’
Kris nodded. A pause developed.
‘Did you see the smoke?’ Kris finally asked, looking down at the gravel beneath her feet.
‘Yes,’ Elsa replied quietly. ‘There was a lot of it wasn’t there?’
‘Yes,’ Kris said just as quietly. ‘Things must be getting worse out there.’
‘They are,’ Kris replied. ‘We got a run down in the car from Peter. He’s clued in to the Prime Minister’s regular news updates. Seems like arson is the new craze around town.’
Kris rubbed her face with her hands and said, ‘I don’t get any of this. I can be pretty tough if I need to when the time comes, but right now, I’m struggling. All of this is just plain wrong.’
Elsa turned and looked Kris straight in the eye. ‘I’m with you, Kris. I’m struggling too and I know you don’t need a pep talk right now, but let’s make a deal? You and me? Whatever happens, it’s you and me. We need to be able to count on each other. If it gets too hard or too dark for you, I’m here and if I start to lose it, I can count on you. We’ll get each other through this. Okay? What do you say?’
Kris returned the steely look and nodded. Then Elsa stepped forward and they embraced. As they stood close to each other, Elsa said, ‘You can count on Max too and you see all these soldiers, he’s better than all of them put together.’
They stepped apart, Elsa’s hands still on Kris’ shoulders. ‘Wait and see,’ she said. ‘Max is everything we need him to be. He’s just not ready yet. You think he’s impressive now? Wait until you’ve trained him. He’ll be better than anything or anyone else in the world. He just needs your help and I know you’re up for it.’
Kris nodded. ’Don’t worry. He’ll get everything I’ve got. You can count on it. You can count on me too. Girls together.’
Elsa smiled and repeated, ‘Girls together.’
The two women smiled and nodded, then they turned, arms around each others’ waists and walked together into the house.