Maxine scrambled back, her hands clawing through hot ash. The robot opened its sickle pincers, and from the core, a sallow light shot out, stitching across Maxine’s skin, peeling the creases of her eyelids.
"Icharo sodo: Maxine Starr," the robot’s electronic voice screeched.
It knows my name...it said my name.
Maxine tried to stand.
Maxine ironed herself, grabbed Henry, and hoisted them up with all her strength. This time is worked. Woof skidded in front of them, fangs bared, eyes scrunched in rabid defiance.
The Minotaur’s lips curved into a cracked grin. Maxine could see the creature clearer now: it was covered in ruddy hair, a corrugated suit and a gold medallion was embedded in its chest, emblazoned with the symbol of a bull, horns bucked. Ready to charge. Ready to kill.
The robot trundled forward. Pincers. Snapping. And then it hit Maxine like a bullet train.
Cancer. It’s a crab! Maxine screamed in her mind. She tried to say something to Henry, but her lips were welded shut, her breath bogged in her lungs.
The robot’s pincers opened like spiked petals. A barrel ignited inside. "Let it be known that at this hour," the robot droned, "32TRX...Vanguard of the Coalition, destroyed the Starr-line forever. Exaltation to the Norkcellus!"
The Minotaur stomped its hooves. "Exaltation to the Norkcellus!"
Maxine turned to Henry--tears were tracing paths down his ash-smeared cheeks.
The two creatures stepped closer, shadows swallowing the light. The robot’s weapon spun like a tornado of hell-fire. The hot air screamed. Maxine could say nothing, could do nothing. She only had time to snatch the scruff of Woof’s neck and try to hold him back. Her desperate whispers ebbed into a cracked breath.
I’m sorry boy. I’m--
"Jula-tijana!" the crab screamed.
Maxine breathed just as--
--and an emerald javelin pounded into the robot. In a flash of fire, the crab twisted into the air, sparks cascading over its body, cables flashing in the moonlight.
Maxine looked up.
The Minotaur unleashed a guttural roar. Three fiery beams pummelled him backward, spraying dirt-wings into the air.
Maxine snatched Henry’s shirt. "Go, go, go!"
Dragging Henry to his feet, Maxine trust Woof forward.
They ran as fast as their tar-heeled shoes could carry them, and fell behind a burning tree trunk. Maxine gasped for air. It was enough cover. Hopefully. Only when she knew they were hidden, did she glance back.
Across the rippling skin of the lake, an emerald orb shoot forward and ploughed into the ground. The impact thundered into Maxine’s skull, forcing her to close her eyes. She collapsed, Woof and Henry falling with her. When the reverberations stopped, Maxine looked back, a horror-soaked lump lodged in her throat.
Bullwhips of green fire crackled across its shell, spilling onto the grass. Against the shadows, it looked like some sort of glowing egg.
Maxine watched, her limbs shaking. The orb unhinged like a cosmic bulb greeting the dawn.
Another monster. Coming for me.
Maxine caught a flash of chrome--as the robot leapt into the air, landed on the orb and drove its claws into its shell.
The orb collapsed. The ground shuddered again. The Minotaur charged towards the orb with renewed fury.
Maxine ducked down. "Don’t move," she tried to whisper, but found she was already shouting. Henry took off his glasses and wiped his eyes like a fastidious insect. Maxine nodded (although she did not know why) and looked back.
A man stood where the orb had been. And in slashes of steel and silver and emerald, a man was punching the robot. He lunged, ducked and kicked the Minotaur’s chest, spraying sparks across the night sky. With every blow, shockwaves simmered through the jelly of Maxine’s eyes.
From afar, the man looked encased in some sort of an incandescent suit. Every time he punched, speckled stars glinted across his body. He turned momentarily into the burning flames of the park, and Maxine saw he wore a helmet with two fluted horns.
The Minotaur and the robot surged forward, slashing. With one graceful twirl of his body, the man punched the Minotaur away, bucked his head and head-butted the robot with his horns.
Maxine emitted a yelp she had never heard herself make. The robot careened backward, as the man leaped onto the creature’s dome-shaped body, pried it open and wrenched a creature from the depths of its body.
Maxine gasped. In the man’s grip was a screaming, thrilling, dripping, snapping crustacean the colour of rusted blood. The robot’s pincers tried to seize it back, but the man was faster, dodging its sweeping blows, like some sort of impossible Matador.
"Ill-nata rouf!" the man boomed. "John nashar!"
Maxine reached for her locket. Her vision began to blur, the falling embers transforming into pulsing bulbs of fire. She had heard it, hadn’t she? First her name and then—she felt torn, a piece of paper lost in a fathomless storm.
Maxine snapped her gaze to Henry. “Run. Get out of here!”
"I can’t. I won’t," Henry replied, adjusting his cracked glasses. “We’re friends.” He stood tall, taller than she had ever seen, as Woof barked into the roiling smog.
And there, they looked across the destruction of Chinese Garden. Together.
The robot and the Minotaur stood by the water’s edge, cradling their crackling wounds. The man stood between two burning trees and raised his arm, a dark cannon unfolding from his forearm.
"Maxine il Vanguard!"
A churning ball of light slammed into the robot--it spun across the park with an ear-splitting cry.
The Minotaur dodged the beam. Charged. The man lowered his head, flung his arms back, bucked his horns and--
They collided with a world-churning crack. The thunderous force made Maxine fall to her knees, to look away, but the sound remained, tattooed upon her mind, for it seemed, forever. Henry helped Maxine to her feet. Hand-in-hand, they turned.
The Minotaur and the man were locked in battle, plummeting into the river in stitches of light. A whimper. Maxine looked down. Woof lay motionless.
No! Breath stalled in her lungs, Maxine rushed to him, skidding to her knees.
"Woof!" Maxine said, her voice crushed, gone.
She passed her hand through Woof’s thick fur. Had he been cut? Stabbed? Worse? But then with a growl-infused grunt and a shake of his tail, Woof wiggled up. He blinked repeatedly and licked Maxine’s face. It was okay. Just the impact. Just the…
Madness. Maxine looked up.
The man stepped out of the water, and the ground tremored beneath his boots in vortexes of hot steam. His helmet melted away.
The first thing Maxine noticed where his eyes: turquoise diamonds in slits of grey. Two horns sat on either side of his head like a glorious crown. He nodded to no-one. Paused. Maxine hummed--she had no idea why--as the man’s horns became supple and receded into his temples.
Ed Sheeran’s hair…
Henry gasped. Woof yelped Maxine swallowed the dirt stuck beneath her tongue.
The man’s face looked normal--human. He wore a pulsing, high-tech suit. A gilded medallion lay in the centre of his chest with the symbol of a defiant ram. As he stepped forward, the medallion glowed like it had just been removed from a kiln.
"I do not have time to explain. They are coming," the man said. He extended a gloved hand as black as his suit. "Fly with me."
Maxine’s heart thumped in her chest. Scampering footsteps. Henry appeared by her side, staring, speechless. Only Woof seemed comfortable--he sniffed the man’s dripping fingertips.
"Woof, get away--"
"Is he your pledged?" the man said and pointed at Henry.
Maxine coughed until it felt her lungs would dribble out of her mouth. "My pledged?" And then she realised she was speaking to a creature from the stars. She reached for Woof, but found he was still fixated on the man’s golden belt.
Henry, eyes-wide, sniffled. "I don’t know about pledged. But I’m Henry, her boy...friend. Erm, but not in the way you were thinking," he turned to Maxine. "Wait, are we?"
"Nope. Settled. Anyyyway, that German Shepherd over there is Woof."
Henry reached for the man’s hand to shake it. The man’s forehead creased with confusion.
What are we doing? We’re talking to him! He doesn’t even know what a handshake is. He probably grew up on a farm. In Siberia. In space. Space-Siberia!
The man tapped a few buttons on his belt. With an electronic chirp, a glowing window shimmered in front of his eyes. It morphed into a shape: a clear map of Singapore.
The man stepped towards her. As he did, heat trickled across Maxine’s skin. And then he reached forward, grabbed Maxine’s hand, and inspected--
Her locket. Maxine looked at her locket. Then him. In wide-eyed stupor.
"A-Are you an a-alien?" Henry stuttered.
"On this planet, yes. Elsewhere, no. These questions are a matter of perspective," the man replied.
The man pointed his smoking gauntlet at Maxine’s locket; a lattice of glittering lasers traced over it. "Weln! I should never have saved its signature to Arienna’s databanks. It was a simple task to track it."
"What the bloody-hell is going on? Give my locket back!" Maxine blurted. She snatched her locket back, but the man pulled the chain, and it remained in his hand. Maxine was amazed the chain wasn’t broken--it was as if it had melded off her neck and reattached itself.
"I will ask you one more time. Fly with me. They will return."
"Return and do what?"
"Take you. The predicament lies in the boy and the mammal. I did not anticipate them."
"Take me?" Maxine said, and she found she was shaking. "But I haven’t done a-n-y-thing to a-n-y-one?"
In one firm, graceful swoop, the man grabbed Henry and slung him onto his back. Like he was a sack of potatoes. Like he was nothing. Henry scrambled to hold on, peering over the man’s shoulder.
"Maxine, I think we should go with him."
"Henry, get off the alien back. Seriously."
"The boy speaks sense. You will be Muja-dil," the man said. "In human-speak: deceased."
"Muja-dil, right," Henry said and nodded at Maxine.
Maxine studied the man one more time. His body was something out of a Greek God handbook. And his face, dark and unknowable. Another thought struck her: He’s kinda gorgeous...wait--ALIEN from Space-Siberia! Stop that!
"There are fluctuations in your endothermic body temperature," the man remarked, a red emblem revolving around his wrist. "Do you wish me to conduct a body scan?"
"Wha--no, no. Everything’s cool!"
"Hardly. Singapore’s humidity is hampering my tetragrams," the man sniffed.
Maxine couldn’t take it any longer. She stepped in front of the man, breathed deeply, and spoke as loudly as she could, "Stop. Just now, when you were fighting that big robot, you said...John."
Had she heard it? Maxine found her arms holding herself, comforting the dark thought. And as the last remains of the fires crackled around her, she felt it--sorrow sliced her heart like a hot scalpel. No. She had hidden that name for months; it was her secret.
A gentle smile warmed the man’s thin lips. "John Starr, yes. John is the reason I am here."
"You’ve got the wrong John."
The pools of the man’s eyes flashed, reflecting the embers that still flittered in the air. "I am not mistaken," he said. "Excuse me: I have forgotten your customary human social norm--the introduction. My name is Kade Aluzaran, Commander and Vanguard of the Arien Empire," he said, and he stood taller, militantly. "Now we shall leave."
"Zai-tonium laced crystals are charged Commander Kade," an electronic female voice said. Kade tapped his belt, pleased.
"Where are we headed?" Henry asked.
Kade’s helmet materialized over his head in strands of green light. He tilted his head, and again, in swirls of liquid, ridged horns solidified around his temples.
Maxine rubbed the aching bridge of her nose. This was all getting too unbelievable, too alien, too utterly insane. A raging headache brewed in the corners of her eyes. Upon the horizon, two aureoles rocketed into the sky.
"They are upon us," Kade said.
Kade offered his hand again, welcoming. Maxine found her arms shuddering, on the verge of shattering.
What this really happening? Maxine contemplated a concussion. Maybe she hit her head too hard, digested too much debris. Maybe she was suffering from some form of instant PTSD? But then Maxine found herself drawn to Kade’s unreadable eyes. She looked into those emerald tunnels and into another cosmos. He was an alien. There was nothing else to believe in.
She reached forward and grabbed Kade’s hand.
Kade nodded, lifted Maxine like she was nothing, and placed her gently over his back, alongside Henry. Maxine found her body snap to his suit like a magnet, skin to skin. A flush of warmth rose in her cheeks.
"Electro-static-bio-conduction," Kade said, turning back. "It will not hold for long. But do not worry. If you drop mid-flight, I will save you from doom."
"Good to know," Maxine wheezed.
"And now the furry one."
Kade grabbed Woof under his belly, until his paws dangled in the air. Woof didn’t rebel--he licked his hands. When Kade seemed ready, he stopped, looked up, took two steps and soared into the sky.
A funnel of cold air slammed into Maxine. She closed her eyes, as wind billowed through her clothes, her skin, chilling her sweat. When she finally opened her eyes, they were soaring through the clouds.
Moisture drenched Maxine’s face until her nose dripped. Then she did what she thought she would never do--she looked down. Singapore was nothing more than a blob of blinking lights.
"I hate air!" Maxine screamed, but realised no-one could hear over the thunder of their climb. And they rose, higher and higher into the atmosphere, away from Singapore, away from everything.
Maxine turned. Henry’s eyes were sealed shut. She peeked over Kade’s shoulder and saw Woof’s droopy ears stapled to his head.
A streak of heat cleaved through the clouds.
Maxine hissed as it shot by, skimming the flesh of her legs. More beams punctured the darkness, a fusillade of alien weaponry.
Kade swept around and faced them. Holding Woof with one hand, he opened his other fist.
A crackling orb screeched through the sky. The force thrust them back, spinning. Maxine screamed.
"Keep the locket close to you," Kade shouted, as vapour enveloped them in an icy grip. Maxine nodded, held the locket in a shivering wet fist. Their clothes were soaked. Freezing water ran down their arms and legs. The air was tight. Solid, almost.
"Scan void-point," Kade commanded.
A throbbing lights erected in front of them. Maxine leaned over Kade’s shoulder: paths, shapes and glowing bulbs connected, symbol by symbol, like an interlocking puzzle. No--a map.
An alien starchart.
"Alpheric Prime. Pyxis Star Station," a female voice said from Kade’s helmet.
"The Gods watch over us," Kade said, and with one last button push, blasted into a clot of clouds.
Maxine held on right, her arms aching. She sensed more beams of light screaming past, calling for their destruction, even though her eyes were closed. She opened them.
A hue of silver trickled over her skin, a waterway of starlight that bathed the world. We’re becoming a rainbow, she thought. And just when Maxine thought she couldn’t believe it anymore, a hole bloomed in front of them, snapping, singing, an infinite ravine into a fathomless sea of stars.
"Welcome home," a voice said. But Maxine, for the life of her, didn’t have a clue who had said it.