Max Arena

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Trials and Politics

10am, 4th July (2 days later). Trials and Politics

Elsa and the kids walked together out of the western wing of the house and past the massive pool complex. Crossing the faultless green lawn, they approached the collection of vehicles and aircraft scattered on the grass.

Three dusky tan coloured Black Hawk helicopters sat clustered off to one side with two prime mover trucks on the other. Around the perimeter of the gathering, the security contingent had intensified with more soldiers than Elsa had seen in the last day or so since coming to the estate.

In the broad space between the trucks and the helicopters, resembling an arena of sorts, a familiar scene was unfolding. Elsa had partaken in enough outdoor boot camps to know a fitness layout when she saw one, except this looked far more hardcore than anything she had ever seen before.

Sure there were the usual medicine balls and kettlebells scattered around, but there were also pre-loaded dumbbells and barbells stacked with massive weights, gymnastics high bars and ropes and along one side, a series of hurdles lined up, the white painted jumps gleaming in the mid morning sun. The scene promised sweat and grind and right in the middle of it all stood Kris, dressed in her lycra kit, cap and sunglasses and surrounded by a pack of the most muscular and athletic looking men Elsa had ever seen, all of them with their shirts off and their physiques rippling.

‘What a surprise?’ Elsa called out. ‘Here you are, ringed by a pack of half naked, gorgeous guys. Typical.’

‘Stick to what you’re good at I say,’ Kris called back as she laid some more training cones out on the ground.

‘Jason, look at these!’ Millie shrieked, pulling her little brother away and running towards a pile of big padded shields.

‘You two be careful,’ Elsa called out, ‘and stay out of the way!’

‘I see the kids are settling in just fine,’ Kris added, smiling after the two children.

‘Ducks in water,’ Elsa replied, scanning the scene and casually eyeing off some of the stripped down blokes. ‘As soon as they saw how huge their bedrooms are and found the heated indoor pool that was it. No care about not being at home any more. We’re on a permanent holiday and they’re happy as anything. How are you doing?’

Kris stopped laying the cones down and returned Elsa’s direct look. ‘Fine. My brother and his wife have let mum and dad come and stay with them, so they can all look after each other, so that’s good. As for my friends, most of them have gone AWOL, but I can’t blame them. It’s got to be pretty tough out there for everyone right now, so I guess they’re all looking out for themselves? I don’t know how else to think about it, so I’m trying not to? At least I can distract myself by getting back to doing something I know.’

‘Punishing people you mean?’ Elsa said, grinning.

’Improving the quality of their lives, is what you really mean?’

‘Yeah, right,’ Elsa said, waving the comment away. ‘So this is what you were cooking up all day yesterday? How does it work?’

‘This is Max’s first test,’ Kris replied, continuing to lay out more cones. ‘I don’t expect it to be too hard for him, but the purpose is not to test his limits, but to see how he goes against these blokes. It’ll give me a benchmark for where and how to start.’

Elsa turned back to look at the group of well-toned men, all of whom were now doing a group push-up session. ‘And who are these chiselled hunks of manliness? You call them up out of your little black book?’

‘They wish. The Australian Army’s finest apparently. I asked Peter if he could rustle up a bunch of the fittest blokes he knows and lo and behold, these fellahs came tumbling out of these helicopters this morning and ripped their shirts off.’

‘I’ll bet the shirts only came off after they got eyes on you?’

‘Hard to blame them really,’ Kris said shrugging.

‘Now all we need is for Joe to get here and we can get this show on the road.’

Kris smiled and shook her head. ‘I love the way you’re on a first name basis with the Prime Minister,’ she said. ‘It’s so cool.’

‘You will be pretty soon too. He’s a nice chap. Now where’s Max?’ Elsa asked looking around.

‘Over here, gorgeous,’ a voice called out from behind her.

Turning around, Elsa found Max walking down the back ramp of one of the trucks, dressed in his black singlet, black shorts and orange shoes.

‘You can take your eyes off the man candy now,’ Max added, coming up to Elsa and giving her a big squeeze.

‘What man candy?’ Elsa replied, looking exaggeratedly around.

‘I could hear you two drooling from inside the truck. So shallow.’

‘Enough kanoodling, big fellah,’ Kris quipped. ‘We’ve got work to do. Come over here and meet the opposition.’

Max released his wife and gave her a peck on the lips before he walked away.

’Go get ‘em, tiger,’ Elsa said winking.

Kris led Max across the grass to where the other men still clustered around, each of them doing their own stretching exercises now. Peter towed along a few paces behind. Without his jacket on, Peter’s automatic handgun was clearly visible in his shoulder holster and while his movements were relaxed, his tension was palpable. Behind his dark sunglasses, he eyed off the group, one by one

‘On your feet, boys!’ Kris called out. ‘Time for some introductions.’

All ten of the men straightened up and shuffled around to form a half circle focusing on Kris and Max. Peter stayed in the rear, his hands crossed in front of him.

‘I’d like you all to meet Max, so say “Hi, Max”,’ Kris added.

Not a single word came back as all ten men shifted their focuses to Max, squints and frowns the norm. Max impassively returned the looks.

‘Well, that’s friendly,’ Kris said, raising her eyebrows. ‘Max, meet the lads. These guys are apparently the Australian Army’s fittest and finest. They’ll be your competition today and you’ll be theirs’. This morning we’re going to see just how fit you are while you and them slug it out on the course I’ve set up for you.’

‘Can we have a tour, please?’ a tall, blonde and finely hewn young man queried from out of the group, ‘and I think you might need to hold my hand.’

‘Your buddies have got plenty of hands,’ Kris shot back. ‘Maybe you can ask one of them to hold your’s?’

The group smiled and chuckled. Max and Peter didn’t.

‘Come with me,’ Kris said, striding right through the circle and further out onto the grass.

Max let the group turn and follow Kris, so he could fall in at the back with Peter tagging along behind. Kris talked as she walked, gesturing at the various coloured markers and equipment on the ground as she approached them.

‘It’s a four hundred metre course and you’re doing it three times with no rest,’ she said. ‘First station is squat jumps over these hurdles. Ten all up. Easy start. Then high tail it down here to station two where one of my friendly helpers will drop a twenty kilo plate on your back, so you can do thirty push ups while wearing it.’

’How’s about you sit on top of me?’ the blonde piped up.

‘If you’ve still got enough breath to be funny,’ Kris continued, ’station three is ten clean and jerks, which should be right up your alley, pretty boy? she said over her shoulder to the blonde. ‘Hope you can handle the weight?’

‘I handle heavy objects all the...’

‘And then for station four,’ Kris said over the top. ‘Leaping lunges with fifteen kilo dumbbells in each hand.’

The blonde bloke opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when he heard a voice speak quietly from behind him.

‘Do your legs run as fast as your mouth?’

The blonde snapped around and found Max right behind him. Max’s cool blue eyes speared back at him.

‘They’ll run all over you, mate,’ the blonde answered, his face scrunching up.

The group turned to focus on the two men as the blonde squared up on Max, who remained stock still, his bulky shoulders tense.

‘Stay with me, boys!’ Kris called out, a faint smile fluttering on her face. Max walked past the blonde, revealing Peter who was standing behind him. A grin split Peter’s face. The blonde sneered at him and turned to follow the group as they returned their attention to Kris. ‘Station five is a rope pull. You’ve all got a twenty kilo plate at the end of a twenty metre rope. Haul that rope in as fast as you can and then run it back out the other way and do it again. You got twenty to do.’

Kris paused and let the group stand there for a moment as they visually imagined doing the exercise Kris had just explained. Glancing at the blonde, she found his demeanour far more serious now that Max had geed him up. As for Max, he looked like he always did. Rock solid. This was going to be very interesting.

‘On we go,’ she said. ‘Station six is ten burpees, but none of your standard, easy peasy burpees. For these I want you doing a handstand press instead of jumping up into the air and a proper man push up when you’re on the ground. If you need help with your handstands, there’ll be some more of my friendly helpers here to catch your ankles.’

Kris led the group around the last curve of the four hundred metre course and back to where they had started. Looking up, she saw two of the black armoured Land Cruisers coming to a stop next to the trucks. Body guards piled out first and then she recognised Prime Minister Tollsen emerge from the back seat of the first vehicle.

‘And station seven is some good old fashioned muscle ups,’ Kris called out, coming to a stop at a collection of horizontal bars high off the ground. ‘The bars are nine feet off the ground, so your feet will be clear of the turf when you’re hanging and if you can’t get your big, manly bodies off the ground and up to the bar, there will be the usual friendly helpers around to give you a milk crate for assistance, but I don’t think any of you will be asking for help will you?’

Silence.

‘Then, to finish off,’ Kris added as she watched the Prime Minister start walking towards her, ‘a sprint. Here to the far end and back again. It’s two hundred metres and when you get back here after your sprints, haul arse right back into station one for your squat jumps again, unless if it’s circuit three, in which case you’re done. Clear?’

More silence.

‘Good,’ Kris called out, clapping her hands. ‘You’ve got three minutes to get ready before being over there on the starting line, so stretch up and I’ll see you in a tick. If you’re not there when I blow the whistle to start, you’re out.’

The group slowly moved closer to the starting line and began preparing for the challenge. Max held off towards the back of the pack and found some space on his own. Kris couldn’t help but notice the blonde guy staring him down. Max was oblivious.

‘It’s Kris isn’t it?’ the Prime Minister asked, stepping forward and extending a hand.’

‘Ah...yes,’ Kris replied, woodenly accepting the handshake. ‘It is.’

‘Nice to meet you and please, call me Joe,’ the Prime Minister replied. ‘I think we’re going to get to know each other well enough to be first name friends.’

‘Okay, Joe. Nice to meet you too.’

‘How do you think Max is going to go against these chaps?’ Joe asked, waving his hand towards the limbering young men.

‘Well, sir, ordinarily I’d say this is a pretty formidable bunch of blokes to race against...’

Ordinarily?’ the Prime Minister interrupted.

‘Yes, sir. Ordinarily, but I don’t think there’s anything ordinary about Max,’ Kris replied, turning to look at Max who was standing stationery on the starting line, hands down by his sides and his stance wide. ‘Fair enough I’ve only seen him in action once, but that was freakish. I’ve never even heard of anyone doing what he did and then there’s the way he moves. Everything he does has purpose. He doesn’t waste his movements and when I think about it, I can’t recall ever seeing him look even a little bit awkward in any way.’

‘You think he’ll beat all these stallions?’ the Prime Minister asked, looking her squarely in the eye.

Kris returned the look. ‘Joe, I don’t think he’s going to just beat them. I think he’s going to blow them away.’

A pause ensued as they both looked at Max, still standing like a stone pillar at the starting line. The blonde guy stepped right up next to him, brushing Max’s shoulder. Neither man turned to look at the other, but Kris knew that daggers were flying in their minds.

Joe smiled. ‘Let’s just hope they all behave themselves. Nice to meet you,’ he said as he walked back to a safe place just past the finishing line.

Kris watched her Prime Minister walk away, his body guards discretely forming a wide perimeter around him. She looked down at her watch. The three minutes were up.

‘Show time, boys!’ Kris called out.

The men all lined up at the start with Max in the middle. A little bit of jostling took place, so Kris gave them a few seconds to settle in. She then placed her whistle between her lips. Max had not moved. All of the other men stood crouched in some shape or form, but he simply stood upright, his feet planted. Then she blew the whistle.

All ten soldiers launched off the starting line in a dead sprint to the first station, their feet thundering on the turf. Kris squinted. One man had stayed behind. Max, absolutely unmoved. Kris took the whistle from her mouth and walked slowly over.

‘What’s going on, Max?’ she asked casually. ‘Forget something?’

‘You mean the bit about this being a race?’ Max asked back.

‘Yeah. It was kind of an important bit,’ Kris answered. ‘How much start are you going to give them?’

‘I figure the first circuit should make it fair.’

Kris looked silently at him as he held poised, his attention zeroed on his competitors. Kris also turned and looked at the pack, who were mostly finishing up their squat jumps with the front runner legging it towards Station Two, closely followed by the blonde in second place.

‘Okay. It’s your call,’ she said. ‘See you at the end.’

Kris walked away to the finish line to watch the race unfold. As she stood there, Kris reflected on how surreal all this was. Here she stood, at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, staying at a billionaire’s horse stud estate, watching a pack of human stallions tear around a cross fit circuit, so she could bench mark her new client that in six months time was going to battle to the death against an assortment of aliens in an attempt to save humanity from extraterrestrial annihilation. It was just plain ridiculous, but underneath it all, she was scared, very scared.

Right now though, Kris held her fears in check. She was in control, but still they buzzed away in the background, incessantly. There were times though, mostly at night or when Kris was alone and it was quiet, that her thoughts slipped their chains and went wild. That was when the shakes came, followed by the tears and the roar in her head, like breakers on a beach, crashing over her. One after the other after the other. Relentless and never stopping.

‘You alright?’ Elsa asked as she came up beside Kris.

Kris’ head snapped up. ‘Yeah. Why?’ she asked quickly.

‘Looked like you were somewhere else.’

Kris shook her head. ‘No, I was just thinking it’s not every day you get to meet the Prime Minister.’

‘You can say that again,’ Elsa said, casting a glance over her shoulder at Joe. ‘So, what’s Max doing? Why are you giving everyone else such a big head start?’

‘Nothing to do with me. It’s all his idea.’

‘Oh, so it’s probably right about now I should tell you he’s pretty competitive.’

‘A lot like you then?’ Kris said smiling and playfully elbowing Elsa in the arm.

‘Yeah, we’re great role models for our kids.’

‘They couldn’t have any better,’ Kris said, her smile softening as she looked at Elsa.

Elsa returned the look and then turned back to the circuit. Both women watched as the group of men pushed themselves through the exercises, the leaders going as hard as they could and the back runners now just pacing themselves, so they could at least keep their dignity by simply completing the course and not failing to finish.

Meanwhile, Max stood unmoved on the starting line, watching the blonde guy drop from the overhead bar at station seven, his muscle ups done. The blonde then turned to begin his two hundred metre sprint to finish his first circuit. Fifty metres down the track he passed the front runner and moved into the lead.

‘He’s pretty fit this blondey,’ Elsa said. ‘He’s almost one circuit in and still looks keen.’

‘Yeah, he’s got some go. I agree with that.’

‘You reckon Max can still take him with this head start?’

Kris turned to look at Max who now had a firm bead on the blonde, his gaze fixed on him as he turned at the other end to start running back.

‘Elsa, I think he’s going to downright embarrass him.’

‘Wow! You think Max is that good?’

‘There’s something special about your husband,’ Kris replied. ‘He’s got something I’ve never seen before and I reckon we’re in for a real show here.’

Kris also turned to look at her husband, who was now starting to tense up as the blonde approached the finish line.

‘Strap yourself in,’ Kris said as the blonde charged past them, sweat streaming off him. ‘We’re off.’

The blonde guy straightened as he ran towards Max, his eyes drilling into his adversary’s. As he pounded past the starting line, Max launched as well and in a split second, he was ahead of the blonde and into his squat jumps.

All ten hurdles were lined up in close sequence like a condensed hurdle course. All the other competitors had squat jumped over each hurdle with a couple of small hops in between each. Not Max. He bounded cleanly over each one without pausing or slowing down, one at a time and if anything, got faster as he progressed. Within seconds he was sprinting away to station two, while the blonde had just jumped over the second hurdle.

‘Did you see...’ Elsa started.

‘Yes, I did,’ Kris finished.

Now Max was down and doing his push ups. As he dropped to the ground, one of the assistants placed a twenty kilo weight plate on his back, which made absolutely no difference. In just over half a minute, he had ripped through all thirty push ups, shrugged the weight plate off his back like a rag and sped off towards station three. The blonde was just struggling over the last hurdle.

‘Max will hit the wall somewhere won’t he?’ Elsa asked.

‘Don’t count on it,’ Kris returned.

Now Max was into his clean and jerks. No sooner had he stopped in front of his barbell and he had flicked it up over his head as he squatted down. In the blink of an eye, Max straightened to full height and then thrown the barbell back down to his feet. In a matter of seconds, Max had completed all ten and was off again.

‘How heavy are those barbells?’ Elsa asked.

‘Fifteen on each end plus a ten kilo bar, so forty kilos all up.’

‘And he just threw it around like it was made of plastic.’

‘We should be paying money to watch this,’ Kris replied.

By the time Kris had finished her sentence, Max had picked up both his fifteen kilo dumbbells at station four and launched into his leaping lunges. The complete set lasted only a few more seconds as Max’s pace failed to slacken. By now the blonde was halfway through his push ups, pain etched into his face.

As Max picked up the end of his rope at station five, he had caught up to the stragglers in the race. The two last placed competitors were methodically pulling their ropes in one hand over another, with no intention of breaking any speed records. One of them even stopped and put his hands on his hips to watch Max haul his rope in so fast, the twenty kilo plate at the end bounced and skittered across the grass. Max finished his twentieth repetition before the other, still trying competitor had got halfway through his set.

Station six still had three other men at it, struggling through Kris’ signature burpee set. Each of them had stopped at least once mid set to rest, but when Max joined them, it didn’t take long for them all to stop and just watch him. Max hurled himself into the exercises, his power and balance eye-popping. Every competitor so far had needed help at some stage to hold their balance in the handstand position, but not Max. He went from push up position on the ground to inverting himself better than any seasoned acrobat, the handstand press not slowing him down in the slightest. In less than half a minute, Max had smashed out all ten burpees and was up and running again, leaving the other three men watching him power away.

‘Most people hate even thinking about doing your special burpees,’ Elsa said, ‘but he just ate them up.’

‘I suspect he even enjoyed them,’ Kris said.

Max charged into station seven just as fast as he had entered station one. Muscle ups. An elite bodyweight exercise that tested even the fittest and strongest of people. If there was any true test of individual strength, this was it. Max ripped through his set of ten in less than thirty seconds.

‘He did it again,’ Elsa said.

‘Yeah. It’s a bad joke,’ Kris replied.

As Max dropped to the ground, he left another competitor dangling and struggling on his bar. Only four other men lay ahead of him. Turning to start sprinting to the other end of the circuit, Max shot a glance across to where the blonde was just finishing his second round of clean and jerks, the man still going as hard as he could, but clearly labouring.

And he was off. Max legged it like no one Kris had ever seen run before, his arms and legs pumping like pistons. His entire body transformed into a machine, more train-like than human being. Back straight and stride long, Max tore across the turf. Kris felt her mouth gaping.

Then Max turned to come back and Kris’ gaze stayed glued to him, hypnotised by his motion. Max screamed past two other competitors on the way back like they were out for a casual jog. One of them even shied away as he burned past. Then he was back at the finishing line and the ground thundered as he ran past Kris and Elsa, heading straight back into the hurdle squat jumps, his pace no slower than the first time he did them.

Kris pried her eyes off Max and thought inwardly for a moment. Yes, Max’s performance was nothing short of astonishing, but his efforts were too regular, too even. He was pacing himself, which meant only one thing. He was holding back.

Looking up, Kris watched Max drop into his push ups, leaving his ninth competitor on the squat jumps. Kris then swung her gaze around the surrounds of the circuit and reality slapped her hard. Every single person in line of sight to the course had stopped to watch Max. All of the patrolling soldiers, all the helicopter pilots lounging nearby and even all of the security detail who should have been watching every other way, had halted to gawk. Everyone was fixated on him. That confirmed how she herself felt. In awe.

‘Yes, he has everyone’s attention,’ a voice said behind her.

Kris turned to see Prime Minister Tollsen step up next to her. ‘You got that right, sir, I mean, Joe,’ Kris stammered.

‘I suspect he’s just about to bruise that chap’s ego too,’ Joe said, nodding towards the blonde who was grunting his way through his first few burpees, just as Max powered through his second set of clean and jerks.

‘Yeah, it’s going to be a real tragedy,’ Kris drawled.

Joe smiled.

Max scooped up his dumbbells at station four and launched into his leaping lunges, the spring in his step as fresh as his first. Kris flicked her gaze to the blonde who was still straining his way through his burpees, even with an assistant helping him to keep his balance with every handstand press.

Then Max was with him. He stormed into the station and literally dived forward onto the ground and straight into a push up. In an instant he was inverted and doing his handstand press. The blonde sneered, but to his credit kept going as hard as he could. As both men competed at their own pace, Max caught up to the blonde and they both finished at the same time, rising to their feet and coming face to face.

‘Who are you?’ the blonde shouted at him. ‘What are you on?’

Max paused and looked at him. It was like chalk and cheese, the difference in stature of the two men. The shirtless, blonde stood half hunched over and breathing hard, while Max held himself firm and upright, his chest rising and falling steadily, but not heaving, a light sweat over his tanned skin.

Then Max took everyone by surprise, not least of all the blonde, as he bent down, drove forwards and in the blink of an eye, picked the blonde up and draped him over his shoulders. An instant later Max was off and running to station six where the first two competitors he had passed were still sitting down watching the show.

Coming into the station, Max thundered to a halt and virtually threw the blonde off his shoulders and down to the feet of his fellow soldiers. The blonde stumbled around and made to get to his feet to attack Max, but the other soldiers grabbed him and held him back, smiles on their faces. Max ignored the ruckus and grabbed the nearest rope to start dragging it in like there was a paper weight on the end and not a twenty kilo plate.

As the blonde continued to rant and rave at him, Max completed his set and then sprinted into the muscle ups station. Kris jogged across to the bar where Max was rhythmically pulling himself up and down and stood next to him.

‘Hey, you’re holding back,’ she said quietly. ‘Don’t.’

Max dropped to the ground, his set finished.

‘Okay,’ he mumbled back without looking at her and launched away.

Kris watched him turn the corner and go. Max’s first sprint had been awesome, but this time it was unbelievable. Kris froze in her tracks. Even fifty metres away, she could feel the vibrations in the ground as he tore across the grass. Goose bumps rose on her skin. If things had been surreal before, the strangeness had just ratcheted up to a whole new level.

Max turned and sprinted back and without breaking stride, launched into his third set of hurdle squat jumps. By now, all ten competitors had stopped and were congregating in the middle of the circuit. Even the blonde had settled down and was sulkily watching the show. Some of them had even started to cheer Max on.

‘So much for the race?’ Elsa said.

‘He’s not done yet,’ Kris replied.

‘Is he getting faster?’ Elsa asked.

‘Like I said, he’s not done yet.’

By now Max was into his last set of push ups and he’d even told the assistant to drop a second weight plate onto his back. Then he was into the clean and jerks and now instead of just springing up from the squat to stand, he was actually jumping with the barbell overhead.

‘Is he meant to be doing that?’ Elsa asked slowly.

Kris didn’t reply, her attention fixed on Max, her eyes squinting. Then Max got stuck into his leaping lunges and instead of keeping the dumbbells down by his side as he leapt, he raised them out to the sides, arms straight and unwavering.

Then he was sprinting away and into the burpees at station five. This time he did double handstand presses on each rep. After finishing them just as fast as the first round, Max powered into the rope pull station. With the weight pulled in the first time, instead of running the weight back out to the start point, Max picked it up with both hands and in an overhead throw, tossed it back out over the grass. With his foot on his end of the rope, he stopped the plate from dragging the rope away. Max then hauled it in again, and again, and seventeen more times, throwing the weight back out every time.

Finally it was muscle up time again. Max made no variations to the exercise this time through, but his speed was simply incredible. No sooner was he dangling full length from the bar, he was then on top of the bar. Up. Down. Up. Down. No pause and at full speed.

Dropping back to the ground, Max sprang straight into action. Kris stood waiting for him at the final turn before he started the full length sprints to the finish and caught his expression full on. It was all consuming. Max’s eyes were like lasers and his look sheer purpose. Just for a moment, as he ran towards her, Kris’ fears bubbled up. An unnatural spark glinted in those eyes, dangerous and raw and it deserved to be feared.

‘Better,’ was all she could say as he ran past, the breeze ruffling her hair.

Max said nothing and looked up to fix his sights on the other end of the circuit as he bounded into the final sprint. Kris scanned the surroundings again. Not only had everyone stopped to watch, but they were now crowding in even closer. Kris could feel the energy around her. She could sense the heightened atmosphere. The air was thick with it.

Looking back at Max, he was now full on pelting up the middle of the circuit, his former competitors all on their feet, except the blonde, shouting and clapping. Max roared past them and three seconds later, stabbed his feet into the grass to turn around at the end. As he turned, Max again revealed his face to Kris and there was that expression, still in place. All purpose. A chill sliced through her.

Like a cheetah after a kill, Max powered immediately into top gear. Kris walked across to the finishing line and stood directly in his path. Even at one hundred metres, she could see him looking right at her, his blue eyes boring into her’s. As he ran, Max’s bulk grew in front of her. Kris could now feel him, his energy palpable, radiating off him like heat from the sun. She knew her eyes were wide open and her whole body tense. Larger and larger Max loomed, his solid musculature rippling and pumping as he charged onwards. It was a buzz. It was exhilarating.

Then, at the last second, Max veered to the right and tore past her. Kris didn’t move, instead she let the wash of his slipstream flow over her. She closed her eyes and the thrill faded away. The show was over, for today at least. Kris had expected something special to happen, but this was beyond her imaginings. For the first time, Kris wondered if Max was truly human. Then a cry from over her shoulder brought her back to the present.

‘Choppers inbound!’ came a shout from the Prime Minister’s head of security.

Instantly, Peter was in action, sprinting towards Max. ‘Get those birds airborne!’ he called out while pointing to the three Black Hawks, the flight crews scuttling into action. ‘Max, get the family into the house!’

Max was already racing over to grab the kids off Elsa.

‘Kris!’ Elsa shouted. ‘Come with us!’

Kris stood frozen for a moment.

’Come on!’ Elsa shouted again as Max gathered both Millie and Jason up into his arms and turned for the house.

Kris finally moved, bolting into the protection of the Dyson’s security detail, just as it enveloped them and started to move towards the house.

‘How close are they?’ Peter called out as he ran alongside his security team.

‘They’re already here!’ the Prime Minister’s security chief yelled back.

Peter turned to look and found the man pointing to the south over the hilly bushland. Sure enough, three olive green Black Hawks had just risen over the top of the trees and were already bearing down on the estate, heading straight for the circuit.

‘Faster!’ Peter called out. ‘Get Sword and Shield to the house!’

As a group, the Prime Minister’s security detail had virtually lifted Joe off the ground to start carrying him towards the house. Max, Elsa and the kids were sprinting too, Peter and his crew still surrounding them as they ran. Meanwhile, the Black Hawk air crews had abandoned any attempt at take-off and instead, along with every soldier on the grounds, retrieved their weapons and were busy positioning themselves around the immediate area to provide covering fire. House staff were running as fast as they could in any direction away from the incoming helicopters. It was pandemonium.

Suddenly, a strange voice shouted out from behind the Dyson’s skeltering group. ‘Wait! They are friendly!’

‘Wait! Wait!’ Joe also called out. ‘They’re American!’

Peter slowed and turned back to look up at the incoming aircraft, the sound of their chopping blades now very loud. He immediately checked the insignia on the sides and stopped running.

‘Hold up, fellahs!’ he called out. ‘Anchors, Max!’

Max also slowed and turned. Both Millie and Jason craned their heads around their father’s body to look as well. Elsa stood behind Max’s right shoulder with Kris behind her. Peter stepped directly in front of Max, placing himself between the Dysons and the intruding aircraft. Peter’s team fanned out either side of him, shoulder to shoulder, the team now a human shield.

‘They’ve got stars and stripes on the side alright,’ the Prime Minister’s security chief called out, ‘but what’s that other badge?’

Peter noticed a second insignia on the central chopper and looked a little harder. He then immediately turned to the Prime Minister, who was straightening himself up after being put back on the ground, his security detail still ringed closely around him, several of them with guns drawn.

‘Sir, is that what I think it is?’ Peter yelled across to Joe.

‘Yes, it is!’ Joe yelled back, his voice only just audible above the noise of the encroaching choppers.

All three of the aircraft were now hovering off to the side of the circuit and Max got his first good look at them. Through the open cargo doors, he could see two of the Black Hawks were loaded with soldiers, mini guns bristling from both sides. The third, central helicopter had less people in it and contained what looked like civilians. Max also noted that the central helicopter bore a second insignia in addition to its standard US military single star and striped wings. The second insignia was colourful and intricate, but the words inscribed around its circumference were plain and clear.

Max turned to Elsa and shouted, ‘I don’t care what that insignia says! I don’t trust any of this!’

Peter turned and nodded to them both. By now, all three Blacks Hawks’ wheels were bumping onto the grass, their bulky bodies in neat triangular formation. A few moments later, the noise of the blades started to whine down as their engines shut off.

Just then, Peter suddenly spun to his right and in the blink of an eye, had his handgun unholstered and in his hand, pointing it at a group of strangers that had come up between his team and the Prime Minister’s from behind. His entire security detail instantly followed suit, their own guns whipping out in unison.

‘Wait!’ Joe yelled. ‘They’re with me!’

Max flicked his gaze around as well and found an odd group of five people. Four gigantic, suit-clad bodyguards all stood in a perfect square, their massive frames shielding a central figure all together different to them. An Arab. The central figure stood calmly and without any indication of anxiousness considering the knuckle-whitening tension all around. The Arab’s face was the only skin Max could see, the man’s eyes hidden behind sunglasses and his hands folded in front of him within the generous sleeves of his flowing, white robe, which billowed fluidly in the breeze from the slowing rotors.

‘Who is he, sir?’ Peter called out.

‘A friend!’ Joe called back. ‘You can trust him!’

At first Peter did not move, his gun trained unwaveringly on the group. Then he slowly lowered it and without reholstering, turned back to the now stationery Black Hawks. ‘Eyes back on the birds, fellahs!’ he ordered his crew, who all followed his example.

Then, soldiers poured out from the three US Army Black Hawks to fan out in crouched positions surrounding the aircraft, each of them holding a machine gun and aiming it in the direction of an Australian soldier. A stand-off ensued.

’Put ‘em away, boys!’ called out a drawling American accent.

Max shifted his gaze to the central helicopter and found a silver-haired, middle-aged man climbing out. The man was a little shaky and ungainly, but as soon as he got both his feet on the ground, his posture squared up and Max could tell he was a figure of authority. He also recognised the man and despite his high office, Max did not feel in the slightest bit honoured to be confronted with the approach of the President of the United States.

‘Joe, is that you?’ the President called out, waving as he approached the Prime Minister.

‘Yes, Lester it is,’ Joe called back while stepping out from the cover of his security detail, his chief slotting in step behind him. ‘This is a surprise. You know you really should have called first?’

‘Sorry about that,’ the President drawled back, presenting his hand. The two men shook firmly, but even from where Max stood, he could feel the triteness behind the greeting. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind me dropping in while I was passing through. Our trip to China got cut a little short by all this alien baloney and well, your place is on the way home and a little bird told me you’ve got the world’s most mysterious man in your stables, literally by the looks of it,’ the President said holding his arms out wide in reference to the stud estate, ‘so I just had to stop by.’

‘Always a pleasure to have you here, Lester,’ Joe said, slipping easily into his renowned diplomacy skill set. ‘By the way, happy fourth of July. Pity it’s not happier.’

‘You got that right, Joe. The whole world’s gone crazy and why do we have to find out like this that we aren’t alone in the universe? Why couldn’t ET really be a friendly little pug like Hollywood said?’

‘Does it ever turn out like Hollywood said?’

‘No. No it doesn’t, but there is one thing that’s sure as hell Hollywood about this and that’s the hero. Where is he, Joe? Where’s our mystery man?’

‘He’s here. In fact, he was just giving us a display of his prowess and I have to say, Lester, based on what I just witnessed, I highly doubt there is anyone more skilled than he to fight for our lives. He just blew away the Australian Army’s finest and hardly raised a sweat.’

‘Well, that might be something, Joe, but if we’re really going to test him, let’s put him up against my rangers and seals. See who walks away taller. Now where is he?’

‘He’s right here,’ Joe said, turning and holding a hand out to Max.

‘You mean that guy there. If he’s so good, why’s he hiding?’

Max put the kids down and they scurried around to Elsa. Max then made to step out from behind the security detail, but Peter put a hand up first.

‘Stay put, Max,’ he ordered. ‘Let the President in, fellahs.’

Max held his place and the security detail opened out a little as the Prime Minister and the President approached.

‘Mister President,’ Joe said, ‘I’d like to introduce Max Dyson, his wife Elsa and their two children Millie and Jason. Max, Elsa, this is President Bartholomew, the forty-fifth President of the United States of America.’

President Bartholomew waited for Max to hold out his hand, but he didn’t and then after an awkward pause, President Bartholomew finally held out his own hand. Max took it and the handshake was firm. The President looked him hard in the eye and Max returned the scrutiny.

‘Hmm, you’re a big fellah,’ the President said, withdrawing his hand and looking Max up and down, ‘but what makes you so special, Max? Why have these aliens come from God knows where in the universe to threaten us and pluck you out of six billion people to defend us?’

‘With all due respect, Mister President,’ Max replied, his voice even and his return gaze firm, ‘you don’t need to know that.’

The President squinted, his pale blue eyes unyielding. ’I think you’re wrong, son. I deserve to know everything. If you step into that arena, you’ll be defending me and the whole United States as well as yourself, so we can either go inside and talk this over all civilised like or if you want we can stand right out here in the open. I don’t care, but before I leave, I’ll have my questions answered.’

Max did not move. The President’s face hardened.

‘Excuse me, President Bartholomew,’ sounded a new voice, its accent exotic and rich. The Arab broke from his security detail, removed his sunglasses and approached Max, Joe and the President, his hands appearing from his sleeves, his right hand extended, palm upwards. ‘It has been too long since last we spoke.’

President Bartholomew dragged his stare away from Max and found the Arab coming over to him. Peter adjusted his stance and Max noticed in the background, a cohort of soldiers shifted the aims of their machine guns to the robed newcomer.

‘We’ve met before?’ the President asked, none too kindly.

‘Only over the phone,’ the Arab replied, ‘when your F-22 Raptor crashed in our central desert last February.’

‘How did you know about that?’ the President quipped back.

‘Because the central desert is the ancestral home to my people, the Balasti Bedouin. It also narrowly missed crashing into my desert palace.’

The President baulked. ‘Your palace...?’ the President vaguely repeated.

‘I am Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Salahuddin, ruler and Sheikh of the Emirate of Balasti,’ the Arab said patiently, bowing his head slightly. ‘At your service.’

The President baulked again. All eyes settled on him and he knew it as he flicked a sideways glance at Joe.

‘Good to meet you in person,’ the President finally said, methodically extending his own hand, which Sheikh Abdullah warmly accepted. ‘Funny seeing you here?’

Sheikh Abdullah smiled and lowered his gaze slightly. ‘It is I who am honoured to meet you in person,’ he said smoothly. ‘You have displayed tremendous wisdom and leadership in your relatively short time in office. As for my presence here, I too have surprised our good friend Joe by arriving unannounced late yesterday evening for the same purpose as you. Mister Dyson has garnered enormous interest and I came offering my help and resources to assist Joseph in preparing Mister Dyson for the ordeal ahead. After all, as you have so delicately pointed out, Mister Dyson holds the fate of us all in his hands and if I can humbly help in any way, that is the least I and my people can do. No doubt your intentions are equal?’

The President held his tongue and cast another sideways glance to Joe. The Prime Minister said nothing and merely returned the look, a half smile on his lips.

‘Yes,’ the President finally answered. ‘I’m here to help, but I mean it when I say I want some answers.’ President Bartholomew then turned to face Max and continued. ‘I need to be convinced that this fellah is capable of fighting off whatever God-awful aliens come down into that arena. I’ve got the finest soldiers in the world cooling their heels back in the states that could probably beat this guy hands down, so before I leave, he’s going to have to prove he’s got what it takes.’

Max stood impassive, his blue eyes bright and hard.

‘Then may I boldly make a suggestion, Mister President?’ Sheikh Abdullah asked, his tone soft.

Joe turned to look at the Arab, his smile fading and the corners of his eyes creasing slightly.

‘What?’ President Bartholomew virtually barked.

‘We have just witnessed Mister Dyson’s physical prowess in completing the obstacle course behind you and though I can honestly say it was highly impressive, I too share your concerns about his combat ability.’

‘What do you suggest?’ President Bartholomew said, his eyes narrowing as he shifted his attention to the Arab.

‘Select the finest fifteen of your soldiers and secret service that are with you here,’ Sheikh Abdullah replied, fluidly raising his right hand towards the fanned out US Army personnel, ‘and let us pit Mister Dyson against them in a challenge?’

The President looked from Sheikh Abdullah to Joe whose half smile had returned to accompany his nodding head. President Bartholomew then turned and looked at his own men. After a few seconds of thought, he turned back.

‘You’re on,’ he said. Then turning to Max. ‘You start at the far end of the course and you have to get to this end by going through all my boys who will be spaced out in twos and threes. Anyone puts you on the ground, you lose. Anyone you put on the ground is out. Got it?’

‘Yes,’ Max firmly replied.

‘You’ve got ten minutes to get your butt up on the starting line,’ President Bartholomew shot back before turning to walk back towards his helicopters.

‘You need to know,’ Max started to say, bringing the President up short to half turn around and look back, ‘fifteen’s not enough men.’

The President gave Max a long cold stare before turning away and walking back to his helicopter, calling his ranking officer across to join him.

Max turned to look at Elsa. ‘Stay close to Peter,’ he said. ‘This is all still pretty hairy and I don’t trust this bloke one bit, President or not.’

Kris stepped around Elsa and said, ‘You sure about this, Max? You’re fit and all, but these blokes are trained soldiers. You really think you can take down fifteen of them on your own?’

The rich, rolling tones of Sheikh Abdullah sounded, drawing Kris’ attention towards him. ‘I saw smartphone footage of Max bringing down more than twice that number of aliens only a few days ago,’ he said, ‘and they were far more vicious than any of these soldiers.’

‘It’s a clever play, your Highness,’ Joe added, his smile now fully borne. ‘You gave Bartholomew exactly what he wants knowing full well that Max will best his men. You used his confidence against him.’

‘I did nothing that you were not already thinking, Joe,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, a faint smile also lifting his cheekbones. ‘It was just that as usual, my mouth spoke too quickly.’

‘Everyone,’ Joe said, ‘I would like to introduce his royal highness, Sheikh Abdullah of Balasti. He is here as my guest and I assure you all that you can trust him as equally as you trust me, if not more so.’

Sheikh Abdullah stepped back a pace and bowed.

‘He is also,’ Joe continued, ‘the most eloquent man I know and possesses an intellect second to none. I am proud to call him my friend and as I will explain later, he is here to help.’ Joe then turned to Peter. ‘I apologise for not telling you earlier, Peter. You deserved to know.’

’If it’s you vouching for him, sir,’ Peter replied, ‘then he’s a friend of mine too.’

Joe nodded to Peter and turned back to Sheikh Abdullah. ‘Come, my friend. Let’s leave the real world experts to their work, while we politicians and diplomats play our games. We have a President to wrangle and I don’t fancy doing it on my own.’

Sheikh Abdullah bore a full smile now too and allowed Joe to lead him off towards President Bartholomew’s black hawks.

‘What are all those men doing taking their shirts off, Daddy?’ Millie asked, poking her head around his waist.

Max turned to look and found several of the President’s soldiers and two of his secret service personnel disrobing to bare torsos and breaking up into pairs and threes, spaced along the length of the one hundred metre course Max had just completed.

‘You better get up the other end,’ Elsa said to Max. ‘You don’t want to keep the President of the United States waiting.’

Max turned back to his wife and said, ‘I won’t be long and stay close to Peter.’ He then flicked a gaze across to his chief of security. ‘You got them, mate?’

‘You never have to ask me that,’ Peter replied, an edge in his tone. ‘If I don’t have them, I’m already dead.’

Max nodded silently and then looked down to tussle the hair on both his kids heads. ‘Stay with Mummy, you two. Okay?’

‘Where are you going?’ Jason asked, looking up and squinting at his father.

Max turned around and said, ‘Through those fifteen blokes.’

Kris smiled and watched him stride off. Two minutes later, Max stood at the head of the course, looking down the length of it, all fifteen of his opponents’ gazes glued on him. Kris held her fingers poised over the stopwatch button of her watch. If she thought she could record this with her smart phone and put it on YouTube, she would, but something about national security made her think against it.

‘When I pull the trigger,’ shouted the highest ranking US soldier, ‘you’re away!’

Max nodded.

‘Ten bucks says he doesn’t get past halfway,’ President Bartholomew said rhetorically to anyone in earshot, including Joe and Sheikh Abdullah, both of whom ignored the comment.

Max tensed as he bored his gaze into the eyes of the first pair of soldiers ten metres in front of him. They were both big men and were clearly used to fighting for a living, Special Forces tattoos sporting on their upper arms. The gunshot cracked and Max launched.

Driving forward at the left side man, Max hit him square in the midriff with his left shoulder and instantly lifted him off the ground, the wind knocked out of the man’s lungs. At the same time, the other man came at his right side, but Max shot out his right hand, palm open and smacked him hard on the chest, sending him stumbling away to trip over his own heels and onto the ground. Max then drove upwards with his legs and hefted the still winded man on his shoulder up and overhead, so he held him like a common barbell, face up to the sky.

‘Holy Moses,’ the ranking US soldier muttered.

Similar comments mumbled their way around the lips of the surrounding onlookers as disbelief rippled outwards. Everyone stood transfixed, except for Millie and Jason whose shrill cheers broke the strangled silence all around. President Bartholomew stood stony faced, a scowl threatening to cloud his features. Joe and Sheikh Abdullah also remained unmoved, their eyes drinking in the vision.

Like a colossus with the now struggling soldier still held overhead like a sack of potatoes, Max looked up to face the next group of three soldiers in his path. Striding forward, he sized them up. They attempted to split and encircle him, but Max responded first. Driving all the way up through his legs, Max physically hurled the overhead man at the nearest soldier in front of him and sent both of them flailing to the grass. Immediately Max felt a forearm grip around his neck from behind. The other man remaining on his feet came straight at him and threw a right jab at his face. In one movement, Max bent at the waist and used his torso to lever the man behind him off the ground while thrusting his left hand up in front to catch the incoming jab and grip the fist in his own. The soldier behind the punch frowned and tried to pull his hand away, but failed, as Max’s grip held like a steel claw. Max then suddenly released the man’s fist, pivoted on his toes and spun to the right, bending over further as he did. The legs of the man on his back swung outwards like the blades of a helicopter, collecting his comrade at knee level, scything his own legs out from under him.

Max then gripped the wrists of the man on his back and slowly, brutishly, pulled them away from each other, until he wore the man on his back like a cloak. Pivoting again, Max spun and released the man’s wrists, sending him flying to the turf.

‘That’s five down,’ Elsa said. ‘Ten to go.’

‘And he’s only thirty seconds in,’ Kris added.

‘Go, Daddy!’ Millie squealed.

Max turned and found five soldiers charging at him, the next pair and group of three having combined forces. Bending over, he held both arms out wide and launched forward too. Aiming for two of the soldiers in the middle of the line of five, he smashed headlong into them, violently barrelling both of them over to lie sprawled and unmoving on the grass. Planting his right foot, he crouched and turned to look up at the other three men coming back at him. Driving forward and up, Max caught the first man high on the chest with his left hand, lifting him off his feet, his legs still running in mid air. Carrying his own momentum forward, Max then redirected the man’s bulk downwards to smash him flat on his back, another man out.

A blow to his ribs sent Max staggering backwards, the full blown kick in the stomach hitting the mark. His peripheral vision glimpsed a punch coming in from the other side and he cricked his neck just slightly to the side to let the blow graze his left cheek. One more backward step was all he needed and Max was back on the offensive.

The owner of the kick was still coming at him, this time with a roundhouse version. The man’s boot swung up towards Max’s face, but he ducked beneath it and simultaneously spun one eighty degrees. He then again drove upwards, but backwards this time into the body of the other man coming in from the left. The manoeuvre picked the soldier up off the ground and Max ran backwards with him flailing on his back like a live bearskin cloak. Max then snapped upright and pushed upwards with his legs, flinging his own arms high and straight into a backward flip. The soldier slipped off his frame and crashed to the ground while Max sailed over him, his legs flipping overhead until they planted back on the turf, his backward somersault complete.

Max looked up and found the last soldier bearing down on him. The soldier leapt high and shot his right foot out, his boot headed for Max’s nose. Without flinching, Max calmly stepped to the left, let the blow sail past and reached up to grab the airborne man by the nearest arm. Pulling downward, he smashed the soldier into the ground, hard.

Not a single voice broke the silence, except Millie’s and Jason’s. They were going nuts. President Bartholomew now wore a deeply entrenched scowl, while Joe and Sheikh Abdullah spared a quick glance to each other with raised eyebrows.

‘Just over a minute gone,’ Kris said.

‘He can do back flips...?’ Elsa said vaguely.

Max straightened and looked down the remaining length of the course. The final five soldiers all stood shoulder to shoulder in a line. Slowly, they started to spread out and approach, the flanks of the line advancing a little faster to encircle Max. He let them.

Standing in the centre of the circle, Max glanced at each of his opponents in turn. They hesitated, watching him for a missed reaction, an instant of weakness. Max looked down at the ground and froze, knowing the ploy would bring them on. The five soldiers charged together.

With open palms and only half strength blows, Max spun and lashed out, his movements a blur, but clinically precise. A cacophony of slaps and grunts accompanied the performance, the lopsided bout lasting only a matter of seconds as first one, then another, a third and then the last two men together flew outwards and to the ground in varying states of consciousness.

Max rose from his half crouch and turned to face the finish end of the course where Elsa, the kids and Kris stood, the children jumping and screaming. Max strode down to them and right past President Bartholomew, who glared at him from beneath his hooded brow.

‘Wahoo!’ the kids yelled as Max came up.

Elsa simply beamed, wrapping her wide open arms around her husband, who gently returned the embrace.

‘Will they be okay?’ she asked, glancing out to the carnage on the lawn behind.

‘They’ll be fine,’ he replied. Looking across at Kris he asked, ‘How long?’

‘Just over three minutes,’ she said. ‘Would’ve been quicker if you’d jogged over the line.’

Max smiled. ‘Sorry. I won’t do it again,’ he said.

Kris nodded, a faint smile lifting the corners of her mouth.

‘Max, the boss wants me to get you all inside,’ Peter said, walking over. ‘Show’s over.’

Max looked over at the American Black Hawks and found Joe and Sheikh Abdullah in conversation with a highly animated President Bartholomew. Off to the side, the fifteen defeated soldiers were being led or carried from the course towards the helicopters. Despite standing tall and ripping through the opposition, Max suspected he had some bruised ribs and a minor black eye from the glancing blow to the cheek, but the injuries would be healed by tomorrow. They weren’t his biggest concern.

Up until now he had known exactly who his enemy is. Macktidas, but all of a sudden, Max suspected he had just made a new enemy, right here on Earth and this one might be even more dangerous than any alien foe he was destined to meet in the arena. The President of the United States.

* * *

Charles Ingot the Third turned away from the computer screen on his desk to look into space. As Chief of Staff for the President of the United States he had seen many extraordinary things and come up against many unfathomable challenges, but triumph had never failed him. That’s why he was still top of the heap with everyone else snapping at his heels, vying to knock him off. However, what he had just seen had for the first time in a long time, caused him to pause.

‘Tell me, general,’ he said, ’what do you think about Max? How good is he?’

Sitting on the opposite side of the desk, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs pulled closed the screen of his own laptop to lean back in his chair. Lacing his fingers together and resting his hands in his lap, he pondered the question. The Chief of Staff turned to look at him, raising an eyebrow at the silence.

‘What’s up, Bob? It’s not like you to be gun shy?’ Ingot asked.

‘He’s good,’ Stratton replied. ‘Very good. I’ve never seen anyone carve their way through fifteen soldiers as quick as he did and in that fashion. He has natural combat skills and intuition, but it’s his raw physicality that elevates him. His raw strength and power coupled with his superior reflexes make him dangerous. However, I can’t truly judge him until I see him handle a weapon and oppose a foe equally as armed, but right now, there is every chance he is one of the most formidable individuals I’ve ever seen.’

Ingot snuck a quick look at the general’s massive panel of multi-coloured ribbons on his left lapel. He knew he was in the presence of military greatness. Not only was Stratton a four-star general and the highest ranking officer in the United States military, but he was also the most decorated soldier in American history. The feats this man had achieved would reside in legend forever.

‘That’s a big call from a man like you,’ the Chief of Staff answered.

The general looked across the desk and nailed Ingot in his gaze, his clear blue eyes as piercing as lasers.

‘Let’s be clear, Mister Ingot,’ Stratton said. ‘What this man just did was exceptional, maybe even extraordinary, but in my almost forty years of soldiering, I have witnessed many extraordinary acts of physical ability both on and off the field of battle. Yes, he took those men apart, with minimal effort too, but now let’s get to the reality of it. Would he perform equally as well in the heat of combat, duelling a creature of absolutely unknown prowess in the intensity of a life or death bout?’

The Chief of Staff waited for the general to answer his own question, but he didn’t. Reluctantly he succumb to the rhetorical response.

‘So, could he?’

‘That remains to be seen,’ the general replied evenly, ‘but right now, he might be as good if not better than anyone we could place in that position. What I would like to know, Mister Ingot, is what is precisely on your mind here? I have provided intel for you and my initial thoughts on the abilities of the subject, but before we progress any further in this conversation, I would like to know what your exact interest is here?’

Charles Ingot the Third held the general’s gaze for as long as he could, but ultimately looked away. Whilst his will had been hardened in the corridors of political power, his colleague’s character had been forged in the fires of battle and tempered like the steel anvil of a blacksmith. It was pointless going head to head with him across the table and besides, he needed the general on his side. He could not afford to lose the man’s trust. The fate of the world rested on the shoulders of this mystery man, this Maximilian Dyson and if he was to contain or manage this man, he would need Stratton’s covert forces and black operations skills.

There was also the as yet unacknowledged opportunity beyond the arena. The impact of an alien threat on the world had already begun to rapidly alter the dynamics of international relationships. The world was changing and if this Max actually defeated all comers in the arena, Max would instantly become the most potent man on the planet. The saviour of the world. The hero of mankind and if that eventuated, then Charles absolutely needed to have control of this man because victory in the arena would likely change the world forever and Charles wanted to be in the right place at the right time to grab control of that world.

‘My interest, General,’ the Chief of Staff began, leaning forward and relocking his gaze onto the senior soldier’s, ‘is exactly the same as your’s. The continued safety and security of our United States of America and right now, I don’t know if this Maximilian is friend or foe. Yes, he can fight, but is he fighting for all of us or just himself? His allegiances are unknown and until they are known, he is dangerous and if the truth confirms him to be dangerous, then we will need a mechanism for removing the threat and that’s where you step up to the plate, General.’ Charles paused and leaned back. ‘Is that precise enough for you?’

‘I’m a soldier, Mister Ingot,’ General Stratton replied, his blue eyes shining like tinged chrome. ‘I serve at the pleasure of the President and if he commands me, I will obey.’ The general then paused and his gaze firmed even harder. ’However and let me be crystal clear on this, you are not the President.’

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