7:06pm, 30th June (6 months earlier). Discovery
Max gently laid his sleeping three your old son down on the bed and pulled the sheet over him. He then reached across and grabbed the stuffed doggy from the other side of the mattress and tucked it into his boy’s floppy embrace. Straightening up, Max looked down at the little boy and the tiniest of smiles curled the corners of his mouth.
A soft hand laid itself on Max’s shoulder and without looking around, he reached up and rested his own hand on his wife’s. Together they held their little boy in a lingering gaze before turning to switch off the bedroom light and leave the room.
‘The little man played hard today,’ Max said as he walked into the small kitchen of their apartment.
‘Both him and his sister,’ his wife said as she walked into the living room to flick on the television. ‘She passed out just as quick as him. She’s already snoring next door.’
Max smiled as he started putting the children’s dishes into the dishwasher. ‘Beach holidays will do that to you. Struggling a bit myself.’
‘Oh, diddums. Had a big day did you?’ his wife drawled back.
‘I wasn’t the one who had a kip at lunch time.’
‘I needed that,’ his wife said, sidling up behind Max, ‘to keep up with you after the kids went to bed,’ she finished as she slid her arms around her husband’s chest from behind.
Max straightened and spun in her embrace, pulling her in closer as he did. ‘And what exactly, young Elsa, did you plan on getting up to now that the kids have left the room?’
‘Use your imagination, champ,’ Elsa replied, a smile drawing across her face.
‘Hmmm, you know my imagination is bigger than the Earth,’ Max returned, an equally intentioned smile on his features.
‘That’s why I married you,’ Elsa said, slipping backwards out of Max’s embrace. ‘Now hurry up and clean the kitchen and I’ll see you in the adults’ room.’
‘Your wish…’ Max said, bowing.
With that, Elsa left the room and Max watched her go, keenly aware that his heart rate had skipped slightly up. There weren’t many things, physically or emotionally in life that impacted him, but from the first moment Max had met Elsa, it was not only his heart rate that had skipped up. His entire life had found new meaning. He knew he had at last found something worth holding on to and when the time came, worth fighting for.
Turning back to his chores, Max finished loading the dishes into the dishwasher. He then wiped down the benches and after a quick glance around to make sure all was in order, washed his hands and moved into the living room to turn off the television. With the remote in hand, Max’s finger started moving towards the off button, when something on the screen caught his attention. His finger immediately stopped and his heart rate edged up again. His eyes widened slightly as his attention zoomed in on the image on the screen.
It was a face, one that he’d seen countless times and usually in a mirror as he looked at himself, except this time, his face was not in a mirror. It was etched into the snow clad, north slope of Mount Everest, at least five thousand metres above sea level and over five hundred metres in height.
‘Elsa?’ Max said quietly, but firmly. ‘You need to see this.’
For the next ten minutes, Max and Elsa stood together watching the news reports across the various channels. Max held Elsa’s hand and she pulled herself in close to his side. Max’s heart rate had settled, but now her’s was racing. Every channel showed the same story and it was all about Max, or at least the images they were showing were all images of him.
Shot after shot, showed Max’s face impossibly sketched into natural landscapes across the world with enough detail to know that it was him. Etched into the snow and ice of Mount Himalaya in Nepal. Glassed into the sands of the Sahara Desert in Libya. Scribed into the shallow corals of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Carved out of the bare rocks of the Hajar Mountain Range in the Sultanate of Oman.
Max was everywhere and all of the images had apparently appeared virtually at the same time, but with no evidence of how or more importantly, by whom. It was a complete and gob-smackingly unbelievable mystery, but not to Elsa. The mystery stood right next to her, holding her hand. She had known Max for ten years and knew that those ten years of her life had been her best. She had loved and been loved in return like she could not have imagined. She now had two beautiful children to love just as fiercely and she had hope for a future. A hope that she knew could not exist without Max. He was her everything, but now it was all at risk, but then again, she knew this day had been coming.
Suddenly, the television switched off. Max threw the remote control onto the couch and turned to face Elsa. She couldn’t look up to him. She couldn’t look into those deep blue eyes and keep her composure, so she pulled his hand up to her chest and looked at it instead.
‘It’s time,’ was all Max said.
Elsa nodded and felt the first upwelling of tears.
Max pulled her in tight and stroked her hair. ‘We knew this day was coming,’ he said quietly.
Elsa tried to hold the tears back by screwing up her eyes.
‘I made two promises,’ Max continued. ‘First, I would avenge my mother.’
The first tear squeezed itself out of the corner of Elsa’s eye.
‘And second,’ Max said, ‘I would protect my family, even if it kills me.’
And then her emotions got the better of her. A retching sob tore at Elsa and she buried her face into Max’s chest, clawing at his shirt and spilling tears down his front. Max simply held her tight. Right now it was all he could do, but soon the time would come for more. He needed to prepare. He needed to be ready for what came next and more than anything, he needed to be ready to die. There could be no hope for victory if he was not ready to die.
* * *
It was two o’clock in the morning. Max and Elsa had not slept a moment since turning off the television. They lay still in their bed, Elsa resting her head on Max’s chest and Max’s arm enveloping her. Though their voices were silent, their minds were awash with imaginings of what would happen next in their uncertain lives. Then Max heard the quiet crunch of grass underfoot outside their ground floor apartment. He heard the soft scrape of boots on the paved patio. He even heard the almost imperceptible rustle of synthetic material as what must have been five or six people gathered and positioned themselves in the courtyard beyond the glass sliding doors of their bedroom. Whoever was outside, they were all undoubtedly armed in some manner with orders to use force as necessary. Maybe they carried non-lethal ammunition? Rubber bullets and tranquilisers? To kill the man whose face was inscribed all across the world would be to learn absolutely nothing, so they could only be here to apprehend and detain. Not to kill, but maybe that was being too optimistic?
Max whispered quietly, ‘Elsa, they’re here.’
Elsa’s head jerked up.
‘I’m going to bring the kids in here with us,’ he added.
‘Go. Quickly,’ she almost pleaded.
Springing from the bed wearing only boxer shorts, Max moved as swiftly and as quietly as he could into their son, Jason’s bedroom. Picking up their still seeping son, he carried him back before placing him gently on the bed next to Elsa. Elsa immediately pulled him close, while Max disappeared out the door to get their five year old daughter, Millie. A few moments later he was back with the little girl cradled in his arms, also still asleep. He then crowded his wife and their two children up to the head of the bed and asked them to be as quiet as possible.
Listening as keenly as he could, Max failed to hear anything from outside. Whoever the intruders were, they were ready and they were coming. Max stood in front of the bed, his stance like a granite sculpture, feet apart, arms flexed down by his sides and his hands spread open. Elsa looked at Max’s silhouette and again marvelled at her husband’s physicality. He was not a huge man, but he was solid and muscular and whenever he moved, it was with purpose. Powerful if necessary, but then as gentle as a soft breeze when called for. Right now, he was there to protect them and she pitied whoever was coming inside.
Then Max turned and lifted his right hand to his lips and blew them all a kiss. His glance lingered just slightly and in that moment, Elsa knew she and the kids were safe. Despite the danger outside those doors, there was no safer place for them to be than behind her husband and their father’s form. She smiled and squeezed the kids. Then Max turned back to the doors and the night closed in.
It was over in moments, glimpsed by Elsa only through snatches of half-light from the street lamps outside and the sickle moon. A cacophony of harsh, brutal sounds accompanied the melee. Smashed locks, shattered glass, grunts and groans and two gun shots, the twin reports deafening in the confines of the bedroom. It happened so fast that neither Elsa nor the kids had time to cry out.
Then a foreign voice shouted out, ‘Get the light!’
Blinding light filled the room and Elsa clamped her eyes shut, unconsciously pulling the two children in even closer, both of them burrowing their own faces into her chest as they huddled on the bed.
‘Don’t move, mate,’ said the same foreign voice, the person’s voice firm, but covering an edge of uncertainty. ‘Nobody wants to bring you down.’
‘You already tried that,’ came Max’s voice, even in tone and absolutely without fear.
Hearing this riposte, Elsa couldn’t contain her angst any longer and popped her head up. The scene that assailed her was like nothing she could ever wish for.
Their bedroom had been invaded by four black clad soldiers, completely surrounding the bed at close quarters with handguns extended in front and pointed directly at her husband. The only flesh she could see were their eyes inside balaclavas and all four pairs were fixed, wide open and jittery, on Max. In contrast it appeared as though Max had not budged a muscle, his stance exactly the same as it had been while standing in the dark, waiting for the assailants to come into the room; rock solid and unflinching. Then he did move.
‘Are you okay, honey?’ he asked as he turned to look her and the kids over.
Then she saw the two deep bruises spreading across his chest. ‘What are they?’ she cried out, her hand shooting forth to gesture at the injuries.
‘He shot me. Twice,’ came the simple reply.
Elsa threw glances at each of the men. ‘Who did that? Which one of you…?’
‘It was him,’ Max said calmly, turning and flicking a finger towards the shattered sliding glass door, ‘and he can’t hear you.’
Elsa directed her glance through the smashed portal and noticed the soles of a pair of boots on the edge of the shadows in the courtyard. ‘What happened to…?’
‘Like I said,’ Max cut-in, ‘he shot me and there was no way he was going to shoot me again, let alone you or the kids, so I showed him the door.’
‘That’s enough,’ the foreign voice interrupted. Elsa looked across to note the owner of the command as the tallest and broadest of the four intruders. ‘We’ve got orders to bring you back with us, unharmed.’
‘You’ve already botched that,’ Max replied, ‘and I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here with my family and if you want this to turn out differently, you’ll have to ditch your rubber bullets and put real ones in to even stand a chance.’
‘I don’t think you appreciate the seriousness of your situation,’ the gun-toting man pressed.
Max’s gaze burned into the man’s. The black clad intruder nervously shuffled his stance, while remaining firmly behind the cover of his gun.
‘I know exactly why you’re here,’ Max said in a low voice, ’and if you think you four and your other two men out in the living room are enough to apprehend me, then it’s you that doesn’t appreciate the seriousness of your situation.’
The team leader of the assailants flicked his gaze towards the door leading into the living room, then back at Max.
‘Good move,’ Max added. ‘I’d reassess my options right now too if I were you.’
‘You’re coming in with…’
‘No,’ Max shot back firmly, a slight rise in his tone. ’Get on the phone to your boss and let him know if he wants to talk to me, he can come here. I’m not leaving my family. Now get out or I’ll put you all through the window.’
The team leader held his ground, his eyes looking Max up and down, a myriad of options clearly scurrying through his mind. ‘Okay,’ he finally said. ‘You sit tight. My guys are stepping out to cover the perimeter while I get some advice.’
Max did not move, his stance still unflinching. One by one, the four intruders backed out of the bedroom and through the smashed glass doors. As they retreated into the darkness, two of them picked up their unconscious colleague and dragged him away.
It was not until all sight of the four intruders had disappeared that Max moved and when he did, he immediately climbed across the bed and enveloped his entire family in his arms.
* * *
Four hours later, the thin light of dawn crept underneath and around the edges of the curtains in Millie’s bedroom. Max watched the light gradually brighten, his night time vigil coming to a close. Looking sideways, he beheld Elsa and Millie, snuggled together beneath the covers of the adjacent single bed, peace gracing their features as they slumbered. Then, looking down, Max’s gaze wandered across their son, Jason’s sleeping face. He too lay oblivious to the growing turmoil. At least for now, they were all safe because any minute, that would likely change.
Then Max heard a sudden flurry of rustling approaching the bedroom door. Swiftly rising from the bed and still dressed only in his boxer shorts, he padded soundlessly across the room to stand against the wall and beside the door frame. The rustling stopped and a rapid knock rapped at the door. Elsa’s head snapped up. Max raised his finger to his lips and held out a raised hand. Elsa kept quiet and fixed her gaze on the closed door.
‘What?’ Max said to the back side of the door.
’We’ve got to go, now,’ came the urgent reply, the voice familiar as the team leader of the intruders.
‘Like I said,’ Max started, ‘I’m not going anywhere without my family.’
’You’re all coming. We’ve got a plane on the tarmac, ready to fly you all to Canberra.’
‘Why Canberra?’ Max asked.
‘You said you wanted my boss to come here,’ the voice replied, the urgency still evident, ‘well, he can’t, so he’s sent his jet up for you to go to him. Okay?’
‘Who’s your boss?’
A muffled profanity sounded behind the door before the man continued. ’The Prime Minister of Australia, which makes him your boss too and believe it or not, he’s on your side.’
‘He’s not my boss,’ Max returned, ‘and right now, there’s only four people on my side. Me, my wife and our two kids. Everyone else, the jury’s out.’
’Come on! We’ve got to go, now!’
Max cast a glance to Elsa who wore angst all over her face. Something was wrong.
‘Why the rush?’ Max asked.
‘Something’s happening on the street.’
’What do you mean something?’
‘Some sort of military exercise or…I don’t know. All I know is there’s blokes with guns running all over the streets out here and I’ve got orders to get you and your family onto a plane and out of the way, so come on!’
Max turned back to Elsa and gave a single nod. She nodded back. Max pulled the door open to reveal the team leader, anxiety clawing at his features. It was clearly not the time to squabble. Max turned and rushed to the bed, scooping both children up into his arms as though they were weightless. By now they were awake, but not very certain of their surroundings, so when Max picked them up, they compliantly curled into his arms. Elsa followed Max through the door, still in her own pyjamas and Max in his boxers.
‘There’s a Land Cruiser out the front,’ the black-clad gunman said as he led them through the apartment and out the front door. ‘It’ll take you straight to the airport with two other cars in escort. You’ll be safe with us.’
Emerging onto the footpath, Max halted and looked around. He heard a scream from somewhere down the street. Elsa pulled up close behind him and they both looked in the direction of the distress. Then breaking glass sounded from the other direction. Then tyres screeched on a nearby corner and the sound of a car accident ripped the morning stillness apart.
‘Come on!’ the team leader called out, holding the back door of a white Land Cruiser open that was parked just down the street from them.
Another scream sounded from a different direction. And then another from somewhere else. Then Max heard footsteps, running. Turning around he saw a young man sprinting along the footpath towards them, having exited from the adjacent apartment block stairwell. Then another young man appeared ten or so metres behind him, also sprinting. Fear twisted their faces.
‘Get behind me,’ Max said simply to Elsa.
Elsa did not hesitate. Quickly she slid around behind Max’s form as he slipped the two kids down to the ground to wedge them between his legs and his wife’s. Two of the black clad intruders appeared from the opposite side of the car with their hand guns drawn and aimed at the running men.
‘Stop!’ they yelled. The two young men did not stop. ‘Stop or we fire!’
Still the two young men ran, their running motions wild and desperate. Sporadic screaming and smashing windows now emanated up and down the street and across the neighbourhood. Max clenched his fists, his gaze fixed on the first young man, but already prepared to confront the second as well. Crouching slightly, he readied to tackle the first one head on. The black-clad gunmen continued to shout and threaten them and then the situation changed, completely and utterly.
From the stairwell of the adjacent apartment building that the two young men had emerged from, two other figures appeared. Max saw them come into view over the shoulder of the second running man and he instantly knew what was happening. Meantime, the black-clad gunmen were taken totally by surprise, their attention shifting immediately from the two young men to these two new figures, disbelief causing their aims and their jaws to drop.
‘What are they?’ Elsa whispered from behind Max.
‘They’re dead,’ Max replied. ‘Get in the car.’
The two young men sprinted past Max, unhindered by him or the gunmen. Now Max had a clear view of the newcomers and he immediately began sizing them up. They were essentially humanoid in form, but very tall. Max stood at six feet and three inches and even from where he stood, he could tell these beings were easily two to three inches taller than himself. They were also powerfully built, their heavily muscled arms and legs moving fluidly as they ran after the two young men.
However, most striking was their skin, its texture ruddy and gnarled, like driftwood on a storm swept beach, but it was the colour. Black. Not jet black, but iridescent black, the metallic sheen making them glisten in the early morning light. They also wore what looked like some sort of silver body armour with matching helmets and utility belts around their waists on which hung some small implements. To say they were aliens was obvious, but that was not Max’s first thought. His mind turned immediately to defence. He was the only thing standing between these creatures and his family and nothing, absolutely nothing was getting past him while he lived.
‘I’m not leaving you,’ Elsa said from behind him.
‘Get in the car,’ Max shot back, his voice quiet and firm with no edge of fear. ‘You’ll be safer there.’
‘No, we won’t,’ she replied.
One of the black clad gunmen finally found the nerve to speak, shouting as aggressively as he could at the beings.
‘Stop or I shoot!’ he shouted, his gun wavering in the face of the two loping creatures.
Max no longer had time to urge Elsa to move. He fixed his sights on the first creature. That was where he would start, but not where he would finish. The creatures ran on.
‘I mean it!’ the gunman continued shouting. ‘I’ll shoot!’
Then suddenly the first creature pulled up, his arms spreading out to the sides. A gurgled grunt sounded and the second creature stumbled to an abrupt stop behind it, issuing its own incoherent grunt. The first creature stared straight at Max, frozen in place. Max stared back. No one moved.
Then the creature grunted again and gesticulated in Max’s direction. The second one also peered closely at Max for a few seconds before erupting into a series of grunts and gurgles as well. By now both creatures were pointing at Max and waving their arms around, their alien language much more energetic now.
‘What are they doing?’ Elsa asked.
‘No clue,’ Max replied without shifting his focus, ‘but they’re pretty jumpy. Maybe they’re worried about the guns?’
’I doubt it. They’re looking at you. Not at these other blokes with their guns out.’
Then the first creature pulled one of the implements off its belt and grunted into it. After a few more grunts and gesticulations, it reaffixed the implement back onto its belt.
‘I’m not sure,’ Elsa started, ‘but why do I get the awful feeling that he just called in reinforcements?’
‘Come on!’ the team leader’s shout sounded from behind them. ‘Get in the car now! While you’ve got a chance!’
‘I’m not getting in that car,’ Elsa said.
‘And I’m not making you,’ Max answered. ‘Whatever these things are, we’re all fronting up to them together out here.’
Max felt Elsa’s hands rest on his shoulders from behind. He could also feel his kids arms wrapped around his thighs. It was all the encouragement he needed. Then a new sound kicked in.
Running feet, slapping on the footpath came from behind Max. He quickly flicked a glance over his shoulder and saw three more of the aliens emerge from the driveway of the apartment block up the street. Then a similar noise came from across the street. Four more creatures were now charging over the road towards them.
‘Get in the car!’ the team leader raged, his desperation matching his flushed face and the veins ridging up his neck.
Max ignored him and looked around. ‘Get in the arch,’ he instructed his wife, pointing to the pedestrian entry into their apartment block. It was a bricked pathway fronted by a concrete arch about three metres wide and eight feet high. Either side of it, the fence was well over six feet high. If he positioned himself in the middle with his family behind, he could oppose the creatures two at a time at most and they would struggle to get around behind him. It would have to do.
Elsa pulled the kids through the arch and deep onto the path to allow Max to stand a few metres in front of them.
‘What are you doing?’ the team leader shrieked.
‘You look after yourself,’ Max replied without looking at him. Instead he looked around at the nine aliens that had essentially surrounded them. The team leader by now had drawn his own gun and was backing up into the space in front of Max on the footpath. His two colleagues were doing likewise, so now Max had them as human shields in front of him.
‘I’d put your guns away and save your skins,’ Max said to the gunmen. ‘They’re here for me. Not you.’
‘My orders are to bring you in,’ the team leader said. ‘Not let these gorillas take you first.’
‘Your guns won’t be enough.’
‘Let’s find out about that,’ the team leader snarled back, his upper lip curling.
Max turned to his family. ‘Crouch down and stay low,’ he said. ‘These blokes are going down shooting.’
Elsa nodded and pulled the two children in tighter, huddling them close on the ground at the same time. Max turned back.
The nine aliens held their ring around the gunmen, but were ever so slightly closing in tighter and tighter. At this stage, none of the creatures had tried to present a weapon. Meantime, the team leader held his aim on the creature directly in front of him.
‘Aim for the heads!’ he shouted to his men. ‘Single shot into each one!’
The creatures continued to close.
Elsa covered her children’s faces with her arms and bowed her own head.
Max stood as firm and as tense as a bear.
Then a gunshot sounded. The team leader had fired his pistol, the report deafening. The creature he was aiming at dodged sideways with lightning reflexes, the bullet whizzing across the street. Then the other two men also fired, but their targets also dodged out of the way. The team leader fired again, but it was too late. The creatures moved with frightening speed and agility. In a split second, all nine aliens had converged on the three men and buried them beneath a mass of writhing, glistening bodies.
Max stepped back a pace, completely helpless to prevent the assault. Seconds later, the aliens straightened and three of them dragged the three unmoving men further away down the footpath. Max could not tell if the men were alive or dead. It didn’t matter because now it was his turn
With the bodies out of the way, the nine aliens regrouped in front of Max, tightly knit and poised. Max held his ground, his feet planted at shoulder width and his arms tensed by his side, fists clenched and knuckles white. His gaze flicked back and forth between the alien faces staring him down. The creatures’ bright blue orbs inside their deeply cowled eye sockets betrayed nothing. Then he noticed a jitter in the eyes of the one on the far left, its features slightly more twitchy than the rest. Max bore his gaze into its face, seeking to force an error and he got what he wanted.
The creature suddenly lunged forward out of sync with the rest, its arms reaching ungainly forward. Max let it come and then let fly with a savage, straight left punch, smashing into its face and sending it reeling backwards to the ground in a crumpled heap.
The remaining eight creatures watched mutely as their fellow soldier was brutally felled. They then returned their attention to Max and collectively shuffled around the circle, filling the gap of their fallen comrade.
Max continued to eye them off. No additional weaknesses showed, but at least he had marginally improved his odds. Then without warning, the two directly in front of him charged forward. Max met them with quick fire, straight right and left punches to their faces. Both aliens pummelled backwards. Then two more waded in from either side. A simultaneous side kick to the right and driving punch to the left dispatched both of them.
Five down. Four to go.
Then all four remaining aliens lunged forward, their long arms scrabbling to gain a hold of Max. Max in turn swatted the gaggle of limbs away and let fly with a flurry of lethally directed blows from both his hands and his feet and in mere seconds, the four aliens lay in an unmoving ring of bodies around him.
Max quickly surveyed his victims. They were all out for the count. He turned to find his wife and kids peeking up at him from their huddle.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ Elsa said.
‘Did you beat the bad guys?’ Jason asked meekly.
The sound of more flapping feet rattled from both sides of the street.
‘Not yet,’ Max said. ‘Stay with Mummy. She’ll protect you.’
Elsa tried to smile. Max turned back to the street and looked about. He counted at least fifteen more of the black, loping creatures, all converging on him. Clenching his fists again, he summed them up.
They attacked in groups of two or three, restricted by the arch around Max. Elsa struggled to absorb the battle, but it was clearly one sided. Max held the upper hand the whole time. Her husband’s body transformed into a whirling blur of fists, elbows, knees and feet, all of his blows connecting with sickening accuracy and power. Fighting relentlessly and without pause, the conflict lasted maybe a few minutes, but it felt like much longer to Elsa. Despite wanting to shield the children’s view of the fight, she found herself unconsciously watching it and allowing Jason and Millie to also watch their father pummel the strange, hapless creatures, their little, upturned faces filled with a mixture of fear and wonder.
Max spun one last time and launched a right foot into the head of the last creature, sending the alien spinning violently away to crumple into the gutter. It was over. Max looked at the carnage surrounding him. Still standing firm in the mouth of the arch in only his boxers, he had not a scratch on him. He did not bother to count the number of felled aliens, but if had, he would have needed more fingers and toes.
‘Is it finished?’ Elsa asked.
Max continued to scan the street and the surrounds. Then he saw them. Still more of the creatures lurked around corners and behind cars up and down the street. Slowly they emerged from hiding and began to cautiously shuffle towards him.
‘Not even close,’ Max said, not at all breathless after his ordeal. ‘We could be here a while.’
’Are there any people around who can call triple oh?
Max looked around again. ‘There are people looking out the windows and some coming out onto their balconies.’
‘Help!’ Elsa immediately called out. ‘Somebody help!’
Max held his attention on the gathering creatures. He now estimated at least fifty or so more of the black skinned aliens in sight and quite probably still more of them coming out of hiding.
Then the front passenger door of the white Land Cruiser burst open and one of the black clad soldiers from the night before leaned out.
‘I’ve called for backup!’ he yelled. ‘Triple oh lines are jammed, but I got through to the local army base and they’re choppering in two platoons!’
Max continued to eye off the opposition. ‘That won’t be enough,’ he said quietly.
‘Why aren’t they attacking?’ Elsa asked.
‘They know what they’ll get if they do,’ Max replied.
‘But there’s so many?’
Suddenly, a single, much larger alien barged its way onto the scene, pushing past the others. It was at least seven feet tall and sported a pattern of blue stripes and dots on its breast plate.
‘I think the boss is here,’ Max said.
The black clad man in the Land Cruiser glanced around and then hurriedly retreated back inside the cabin, slamming the door shut.
The alien newcomer loped straight up to Max who was ready to bring him down too if needed. The newcomer stopped at the edge of the crush of bodies and slowly scanned them. He then looked at Max and grunted. Max stared him down. Then the alien retrieved an implement from his belt and held it up in front of him. Suddenly, the air between Max and the alien shimmered and a holographic image appeared.
The image depicted a similar looking alien, but with piercing green instead of blue eyes and a silver circlet around its bony crest. It was hard to tell, but to Max it looked like the creature was smiling. Then it spoke, in English.
‘I have found you,’ the creature said in a guttural tone. ‘You have proven most difficult to locate, but now my quest is complete.’
‘What do you want?’ Max asked evenly.
‘I want you to die,’ the alien replied, his eyes glaring out of the holographic image.
‘You are the last remaining life in the royal Nar’gellan bloodline and with you dead, there can be no challenge to my rule.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Max said quietly, but firmly, continually flicking his gaze back to the surrounding street to monitor the movements of the slowly increasing numbers of aliens.
‘Don’t be insolent!’ the creature shot back, its nostrils flaring. ‘You know who you are. I know your mother told you before she abandoned you.’
The aggression failed to pique Max as he kept scanning the surrounds.
‘She didn’t abandon me,’ Max said quietly. ‘She left to protect me.’
‘Your mother was a coward! She abandoned you just as she abandoned the rest of her family as I slew them to gain the throne.’ Max stayed silent as he slid his gaze back to the creature. ‘That is why she earned a slow death.’
Max’s attention finally piqued. His eyes narrowed.
‘Yes, your mother is dead,’ the creature carried on, his tone low and cold. ‘I slit her throat myself, but not before I bled her. As a queen, she would normally receive a noble death, but as a coward, she received only pain.’
Max held silent, but even from behind, Elsa could see his jaw muscles bunching as he gritted his teeth like a steel vice.
‘So, that leaves only you,’ the alien continued, ‘and what are you? What sort of half-breed has your mother spawned?’
Max’s clenched fists began to tremble.
‘It matters not,’ the creature added derisively. ‘Your mother is dead and you are the only one left with royal blood to challenge me. I wonder, are you a coward too? I suspect so, but we must find out the truth to end this affair.’
Max refused to speak. He was now sizing up the large alien standing behind the hologram that was controlling it.
‘Your silence proves your weakness,’ the creature pushed. ‘Now, let me outline the very last chance you are going to get to keep your life. In six months time, exactly, I expect you to enter an arena of your choice on this planet and compete in three duels against my three greatest champions. If you are victorious in all three duels, which are to the death, then you will keep your life and I and my army will depart, forever. However, if you fall in the arena, then not only will you die and your puerile bloodline come to an end, but I will kill every living being on this forsaken planet of yours’ just to ensure all evidence of you and your family is gone forever. Do you understand?’
Max held his tongue and his ground, his granite stare fixed on the holographic creature.
’Still silent? So be it. I’ve said all I need. Go and prepare in whatever way seems fit. Train or cower, I care not, but be assured that your slaughter is inevitable. You and your race are doomed to die in six months. That is all you need to know.”
‘There is only one thing I know,’ Max said, taking a single step toward the hologram.
‘And what is that little half breed?’ the monster sneered back, it’s gleaming, white teeth bared to the gums.
‘If you want me to die, you better come down here and do it yourself because your army isn’t big enough.’
‘Yes, I can see you do have some skill,’ the creature said, glancing around at the scattered bodies of his soldiers on the footpath, ‘but a skirmish with my footmen is nothing compared to the adversaries you will face in the arena. I should imagine you won’t even get past the first duel let alone make the third, but I do believe in mercy and giving you this fighting chance to stay alive is the least I can do for you. Now, I have to go and broadcast to your entire world my intentions and their imminent deaths. I expect the next few hours on your planet will be quite interesting.’
’There is one more thing I know,’ Max said, carefully taking two more strides forward to position himself almost face to face with the hologram.
‘What?’ the creature asked.
‘You talk too much,’ Max said and then in a blur, launched a driving punch that penetrated straight through the hologram and smashed into the bridge of the nose of the towering alien behind the image. The creature fell backwards onto the footpath and Max followed it down. Grabbing its throat, he crashed a flurry of blows into the side of its head, the last contact producing a sickening squelch. Max let the limp body fall to the footpath. Looking up, he saw that none of the other alien soldiers, which now numbered well over a hundred, had moved to help. Clearly he was now off limits. His destiny had been laid out and not one of these alien soldiers dared to defy their leader’s orders.
Max took a deep breath and turned back to his wife and children who were still huddled deep in the arch.
‘We’re done here,’ he said. ‘These blokes aren’t going to touch me. Might as well go inside, pack up and wait and see what happens next.’
The sound of helicopter blades chopping through the early morning air drifted over the street. Max ignored them and helped Elsa, Jason and Millie to their feet. Walking back up the path to their apartment, Millie asked, ‘Daddy, why don’t you have any pants on?’
Max smiled. That was all the proof he needed that at least he was still alive, for now.