8pm, 4th July (later that night). Sheikh Abdullah
‘How did the American Army get out here in those choppers without us knowing about it?’ Elsa asked, ‘and with the American president too?’
The staff had just cleared the dessert bowls from the table inside the formal dining room and left coffees and teas with the occupants. Elsa and Max sat opposite Sheikh Abdullah with the Prime Minister on their right at one end of the table and Kris on their left at the other end.
‘There is a US Army base about fifty kilometres south of here,’ Joe replied, waving his hand. ‘It’s got a runway big enough to land the old space shuttles. Seems like they can also land Airforce One there without telling us. I’ve already asked Peter to get some radar equipment in. We don’t want any more unwanted guests.’
‘The President seemed pretty grumpy,’ Kris said.
‘He’s got a lot on his mind,’ Joe answered.
‘Don’t we all?’ Kris added softly.
‘Yes, quite right, Kris and no I won’t make excuses for him,’ Joe added, wrapping his hands around his tea cup. ‘He’s normally quite crotchety anyway, but today he was particularly venomous.’
A pause ensued. Sheikh Abdullah raised his head and slid a silent gaze around the table.
‘So, now it is my turn,’ the Sheikh started as he sat back in his chair, folding his hands in his lap, ’to firstly apologise for my unannounced arrival this morning and to secondly, explain my presence. Elsa, Kris, Max, it is my privilege to make your acquaintances and as Joe indicated this morning, I am here to help. Through helping you, I would also hope that we can become friends. This is going to be an arduous time for us all and the more friends we can keep close, the stronger we will be in facing our uncertain future.’
Another pause followed.
‘Well,’ Max started, leaning back and placing his arm around the back of his wife’s chair, ‘it’s like Peter said this morning. Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of ours’, so welcome aboard I guess.’
‘That’s a gracious notion, my friend,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, dipping his head slightly, ‘and it is whole heartedly accepted, so thank you. However, it remains appropriate that I now explain to you the reason for my presence. In recent years, since assuming his office, Prime Minister Tollsen and I have become fast friends and close allies within the international diplomatic landscape and it is right now, at this most dire time of need, that I feel compelled to firm that friendship even further.’
Max smiled. ‘That’s a really long winded way of saying you’re both in cahoots.’
Sheikh Abdullah also smiled.
Joe chimed in. ‘You better be careful, Abdullah,’ he said. ‘It seems Max might be immune to your silver tongue.’
‘You are right as always, Joseph,’ Sheikh Abdullah added. ‘Max, your comment is a timely reminder that friends always speak plainly with one another and so, from now on, that is how I shall talk with all of you. I appreciate your honesty.’
Max turned to Elsa and squeezed her shoulders with his arm. ‘Well, before we all go speaking plainly with each other, I think it’s only fair that I let you know that Elsa here is the brains in the family. If you need some thinking to be done or something clever to do, talk to her. If you need something heavy picked up, I’m your man.’
Joe and Sheikh Abdullah exchanged a quick glance.
‘Don’t sell yourself too short, Max,’ Joe said, picking up his cup of tea and holding it in front of his lips, the steam wafting over his face. ‘You handled POTUS quite magnificently this morning. Not many people possess the courage to stand up to the leader of the free world.’
‘Why do you call him POTUS?’ Kris asked.
‘It is an acronym for President of the United States,’ Joe answered. ‘So much easier to say than President Bartholomew.’
Max shifted in his seat and looked sideways at Joe. ‘I never bought into this whole leader of the free world thing,’ he said. ‘I didn’t vote for him and like Kris said, he just seems like a grumpy old man to me.’
‘You’ve just accurately described myself and most other diplomats on any given day,’ Joe said, lowering his tea cup back down into his saucer, ‘except of course for all the grumpy old women. Let’s not discriminate.’
’Don’t sell yourself too short, Joe,’ Max returned. ‘I’ve never thought of you like that.’
Joe looked across at Max and held his eye for just a moment, accepting the compliment. Joe then glanced again at Abdullah, who also acknowledged the unspoken acknowledgement.
‘So, now if I may boldly grasp everyone’s attention,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, leaning forward and placing his hands carefully on the table in front of him, one hand delicately placed flat on top of the other. ‘I will explain myself.’
The rest of the table fell quiet.
‘Let me begin by reiterating my promise to you all and then I will explain my justification for being here,’ Sheikh Abdullah said, his tone smooth and clear. ’I have insisted to Joseph that I can be of the utmost help in ensuring you are all afforded ample resources and absolute safety to prepare Max for the arena and in so doing, provide all of humanity its greatest opportunity to survive this ordeal. I offer this aid openly, willingly and without qualification. There are several reasons why I make this offer, some of which I will retain for myself, though they are not in any way sinister, but primarily my aid is for pure charity. We are all in danger. Our entire species is in the greatest of peril and I find myself with the ability to help and as such, both my personal morals and my religious beliefs demand that I provide that assistance. So, I come humbly, but not all together passively, to give to you all that is mine to give, including my energy and effort and the energy and effort of my people. That aid can begin now and will endure until the arena event has concluded. You may refuse my aid, but I assure you, even then, I will continue in the background to do what I can. I will not let this opportunity go unaddressed. So, before I explain how I justify providing this aid, does anyone wish to ask any questions of me?’
‘I have one,’ Kris said. ‘How involved do you want to be in managing Max’s training? Joe has promised to stay out of it other than to provide us what we need to get the job done. Would you want anything more, like maybe exclusive access to Max?’
‘No and no,’ Sheikh Abdullah said. ‘My involvement in Max’s training will be exactly the same as Joe has promised to provide. I will not interfere and will only assist in whatever way you make requests for additional resources. As for access to Max? No, I do not desire to have exclusive or privileged access to him or to anyone else. I will spend most of my time with your Prime Minister, navigating the treacherous waters of international diplomacy and security. I am a statesman and a dignitary by trade. I am not a soldier or a physical trainer. Those disciplines are yours’ to command. I am in the humblest sense of this venture, your servant. Nothing more.’
Kris nodded slowly and then looked down at the table and away from Abdullah at the other end. Abdullah continued to appraise Kris for a few more moments before speaking again.
‘So, what can I provide and how?’ the Sheikh said. ’I have access to financial reserves that are largely unequalled by anyone else or any organisation or country in the world. If I were to say that I had billions of dollars at my disposal, it would not be an untruth and I can access it immediately. These funds are not locked in complicated trusts or stocks and bonds. It is real money. Effectively cash and as much as you will need. Perhaps more importantly though, I have access to an extensive international intelligence network. I have resources hidden deep within many of the highest and mid tier security organisations throughout Europe, North America and Asia. My people are very well connected and very secure. They can remain undetected and still provide to me secrets that even their own national rulers do not have knowledge of. I also have similar resources in the world’s most powerful and influential corporations and non-government organisations. There is very little that happens in the world that I do not have visibility of either beforehand or immediately after. I must also indicate that none of these assets can be traced back to me or anyone close to me. I am effectively anonymous to them, but I in turn, know all of them. Now, how is it I have ownership of all these resources and means? Oil and gas. Vast amounts of it.’
‘As soon as you said you’re from Balasti,’ Elsa interjected, ‘I think we all figured you were wealthy, but just how much money do you have?’
‘The answer is, I do not know and it is likely too much to ever know,’ Abdullah said simply. ‘There is no boast in my words. It is merely the truth, so I no longer ponder this question. Money is now a tool for me to gain what is truly important to me.’
’And what is important to a man with more money than he can count?’ Kris asked.
Sheikh Abdullah turned to Kris again and held her even stare, not aggressively, but curiously.
‘The safety and prosperity of my people and to prevent, where I can, hardship and injustice in the world,’ he said.
‘Looking after your own people I get,’ Kris added, ‘but tell us what hardships you’ve helped with and what injustices you’ve prevented across the world?’
Joe flicked his gaze between Kris and Abdullah. Kris’ rising tension was obvious and it stood in stark contrast to Abdullah’s even, relaxed demeanour. Joe quietly continued to sip his tea.
‘It is a reasonable challenge,’ Abdullah began, ‘and in answering it, let me ask if you can recall all of the world’s largest natural disasters in the previous ten years? The Chilean and Italian earthquakes? The volcanic eruption in the Philippines? The devastating floods in Brazil and Turkey and of course the horrific drought and poverty across the Horn of Africa? I have contributed more than three times as much aid to those humanitarian causes than any other country or organisation and they are but a few of the sum total of causes I and my people have benefited to.’
Kris nodded silently. Abdullah continued.
‘As for injustice, many of these acts have to remain secret to prevent the existence and effectiveness of my clandestine network becoming known. However, I will freely tell you of some. You may remember four years ago that genocide threatened to tear through the African nation of Rwanda for a second time, but I, let’s say, donated substantial funding to the French government for military provisions, which allowed the foreign legion to enter the conflict and put a swift end to it. Also, six years ago, the independent island state of Sakoyna in the Aleutian Islands almost became a war zone as the both the United States and the Russian Federation sent warships to secure the newly discovered offshore gas reserves. The conflict reached flash point with both nations prepared to invade and second the independent state into their territories and in the process, likely annihilate their sovereignty and much of their tiny population. Fortunately, I managed to broker a peace deal by providing both nations with excess gas supply from my country’s own reserves at a highly discounted rate. My network also managed to prevent a nuclear calamity three years ago when a rogue terrorist group secured a weapon of mass destruction and were transferring it to South Africa to detonate in retaliation for the escalation and seeming return of an apartheid regime. You will be completely unaware of that incident, but I assure you, it almost resulted in the single most calamitous loss of life since the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War.’
Kris remained silent and after a moment, looked across to Joe, who nodded.
‘Okay, I believe you,’ she said at length. ‘Nice to know someone’s out there looking out for us.’
‘So, your highness,’ Elsa asked, ‘what exactly can you bring to us that will help us that Joe can’t already provide?’
‘You are correct in assuming that your Prime Minister can amply assist you, but what I will bring is security on a level that will far exceed his military provision. Not only will I provide additional security directly around you, but I will provide a remote cover that ensures any plots to disrupt your preparations will be identified in their formative stages and dismantled. My network runs wide and deep and they are loyal to me. I can also tell you that my people are already aware of several factions seeking to cause you harm. The wheels are already in motion to bring them down.’
‘Why would anyone want to hurt us?’ Elsa asked, looking between Joe and Abdullah. ‘We’re the good guys aren’t we?’
‘Fear,’ Joe replied, shrugging his shoulders. ‘Uncertainty. We’re facing the end of the world and we’ve been given only one way out. A stranger called Max, but no one knows anything about him or if he’s even capable of victory. So, in some cases these other factions want simply to kill Max off and replace him with their own champion that they know and trust. Other factions would like to remove Max and attempt to broker a peace deal with the aliens. On their own, these are rational options considering the circumstances, but we all know, they are not truly viable and so, Max and by extension, all of you need the best protection possible.’
‘Unfortunately, that is true,’ Abdullah added. ‘The entire world is in crisis and even though all seems calm enough here on this estate, out there, as Joe has said, fear and uncertainty hold sway. My network and my funds can help navigate us safely through these troubled times to arrive at the arena unharmed and ably prepared to fight.’
‘How bad is it out there?’ Kris asked, her face sullen and hooded. ‘The news is full of all sorts of trouble, but really, how bad is it?’
Joe and Abdullah both held quiet for a few moments. Then Abdullah lifted his hands from the table and leaned back, lowering his hands to his lap and his head slightly. Joe took the cue.
‘People are in pain,’ Joe said. ‘People are dying.’
’People are dying here or in other places?’ Kris asked, her tone rising.
‘Right here,’ Joe replied quietly, ’and everywhere else. Nowhere is immune.’
‘What do you mean?’ Elsa asked. ‘What’s going on?’
Joe lowered his gaze for a moment and then looked directly up at Elsa.
‘Anarchy is on the rise, everywhere,’ he said. ‘It’s only been a few days since we received Macktidas’ threat, so there is still widespread denial of any pending doom, but in many places, panic is breaking out. Civil wars, religious conflicts and general unrest are on the rise all over the world.’
’What about here?’ Kris asked, her urgency clear. ’What sort of unrest is happening here?’