Halleyâs comet was when it started, back in 1986. For ages I had wanted to see it. I bought the books, read the dates for the best sightings, scanned the skies with my fancy telescope and kept a log of its progress. Damn, if we had the internet back then, I would have been up to my armpits in ecstasy and anticipation. But I was dissatisfied with my involvement. I wanted to really see it, be where I could almost touch it. That hunger to be close grew into something of an obsession.
Ayers rock â Uluru they call it nowadays â right in the heart of Australia, was the place I had to be. All the articles agreed on this point. And there were ready-made ways of getting there. Some of the airlines were planning night flights, although to me that was hardly an improvement of what I was already doing. And it was sharing; I wanted to have it all to myself. I wanted to go to Ayers rock, but not part of a guided tour.
I wanted an adventure. I wanted to be part of the experience, not just a witness. I made up my mind that I was going, and under my own steam.
My parents werenât too keen on the idea.
âDonât be stupid,â my father said. âThe cometâs coming in April. What about your studies?â
âIâll be gone two weeks at the most,â I said. âAnd Iâm not stupid. How many chances do we get to witness something as incredible as a comet that comes every 75 years?â
My parents remained silent.
ââŠ And my studies arenât going to suffer. The semester is only three, four weeks old then, and my mates will lend me their notes.â
My father rubbed his forehead, and I could see the âGod help usâ expression in his eyes.
âHow are you going to get there?â my mother asked. âBus, plane?â
âNo,â I replied. âI want to drive up in my car.â
My mother yelped. âYour car? Do you think that youâll get to Ayers Rock in your car?â
âI gave it a good overhaul last week,â I said. âIt goes like a rocketâŠâ
The rocket gave up on me on some dusty track between Oodnadatta and Granite Downs. I was still about 500 kilometres from my destination, but it might as well have been 5,000.
I was fortunate, I thought, that my car had the consideration to crack up in the late afternoon, when the big heat was past. After my initial tantrum, and with feet more bruised and battered than my carâs body, I slumped into the front seat and decided to wait it out. I had a few litres of water in the back, or rather front of my VW bug, with a few courses of sandwiches that I had organised for myself, and felt it would be safer to wait there than go wandering off and getting caught in a blasting desert sun.
Two depressing days passed, and there had been no passing traffic. This was in the days before mobile phones, and on my student budget, I wouldnât have had the foresight to carry a satellite phone anyways. So much, I thought wearily, for my adventurous short cuts. I was down to a few mouthfuls of water, and my sandwiches were becoming slightly toasted. I got to the stage where I was considering hiking my way out of this predicament.
The car was obviously a write-off â fire does incredible things to VW motors â so there was no need to go backwards. My timetable for arriving at the Rock wasnât too inconvenienced at this stage, for I had allowed myself plenty of time to get there. The time had come for me to hoof it. âŠ in the morning, when I could see the track. It shouldnât be too hard, I naively figured. After all, hadnât someone recently successfully run through the hottest part of the desert? I reckoned I could make the next station by tomorrow night.
I settled down for the evening, planning to get an early start, and studied my map for my strategic hike.
It was towards sunrise when I was awoken by a snort and another panting sound. My eyes flickered open and I had to stare for a few moments in the pre-dawn dimness before I could focus my eyes. A horse stood before me, its head shaking like it was evading flies. I suddenly realised that a man was sitting on the horse and I stumbled out of my car.
âAm I glad to see you,â I said. I think it came out as a cross between a sob and a rasp.
âStrike me,â he said. His voice was slow and very nasal. âWhat the bloody hell are you doinâ out here?â
âWellâŠâ Suddenly I felt foolish. He dismounted his horse and ambled over. He had a dog beside him .
When he stopped before me, I had to suppress a nervous smile. Despite my embarrassment, his appearance reminded me of the clichĂ©d Stockman: the bow-legged gait, the flat dusty hat atop the long unshaven face, the strong, almost leathery hands, and more. His companion was one of those tough black and tan, multi-ancestral cattle dogs that stare at you suspiciously and shepherd you along.
âI was on my way to Ayers Rock,â I said, âto see Halleyâs comet.â His dog sniffed at my heels, and my genitals, and I had mixed feelings about its intentions.
âHarleyâs what? Whatâs that, mate?â
I couldnât believe my ears. Stranded here in the desert, and who should I come across but someone who hadnât even heard of Halleyâs comet. I explained to him about the comet and why I wanted to see it. He took off his hat, scratched his balding head and stared at me as if I was pulling his leg.
âMe nameâs Bob Fellowes, but me mates call me Snowy,â was all he said. I looked at him and wondered why he was called Snowy, for the patch of hair on his head was as red as copper.
âMy nameâs Greg Meillionâ, I said, reciprocating the introduction.
He continued to stare at me. He seemed to be assessing my story, and there was a hint of a smile on his lips. He put his hat back on his head and turned away.
âCome on, Melon,â he drawled. âIâm headinâ towards Fleminâs Range. Iâll drop you off there. Grab yer gear.â
âWhich wayâs that?â I asked nervously, trying to calculate my dates and costs for travel arrangements.
âCloser to where yer want to get,â he answered laconically.
âI picked up my carry pack and water can and followed him.
âHave you been out here all night?â I asked. I pictured him having a homestead just over the rise, while Iâd been sheltering in my car these past two days.
âBeen out here fer the past three days,â he replied.
âDead cattle and âroos, Melon.â
I didnât understand. His story came out in dribs and drabs.
âA few days ago,â he said, âI was doinâ me rounds and found close to a dozen of me cattle dead. Theyâd been burned to a crisp. Couldnât figger it out.â Silence followed, then, what seemed like minutes later, Snowy continued. âThought it mustâve been some wild black fellers on walkabout, so I went lookinâ, followinâ some tracks .
âThen I came across some dead âroos, all killed the same way. Itâs peculiar, mate.âSnowy went quiet again, his hand absently scratching his dogâs head. âKept followinâ the tracks, and kept findinâdead animals. All done in the same way. Wasnât the abos that done it. They at least eat their food, and treat the land with respect.â
âYou donât think it was me, do you?â I asked, nervously. Iâd hate for this tough outbacker to get stuck into me.
âHâmmm. You? A bloke like you? Strewth, Melon, come off it.â
I didnât know whether to feel indignant or relieved.
âThen youâve just stumbled across me?â
âYer could say that. We was followinâ the tracks. They come just past yer car. See the scorch marks along the scrub? It crosses over yer car, where it looks all burned out.â
A vague thought, yet an ironic realisation crossed my mind. âThat was just over two days ago,â I muttered. My mind couldnât imagine how to complete the thought.
Snowy pointed into the fading darkness. A faint light was dawning with the rising sun, and I could barely make out a clump of rocks.
âThe tracks are headinâ towards Fleminâs Range, so you can come with us, if yer like.â
He turned again, and ambled towards his horse.
âHow far is it âŠ to get there?â
âEh? âBout two days. Three days if it gets too hot.â
Two days? That would really cut my arrival in time to see the comet very finely. But I had no choice. I hoped that I could arrange some quick transport once I got to Flemingâs Range.
We set off, moving towards a now golden sunrise. As the sun moved skyward and the heat quickly dried the flimsy dew, I saw traces of what Snowy had described earlier. On a few occasions we came across scorched remnants of animals: dingos, kangaroos, even some goannas. Snowy showed me the trail he was tracking, a shallowly etched, continuous ditch moving randomly across the plain. I pointed out that it wasnât just animals that had been burnt, there was also spinifex lying singed and blackened. He just nodded, as if he had already known it.
âYou donât reckon that Itâs aborigines,â I said. âWhat do you think has done this?â
I had asked this question a dozen times, and Snowy was yet to answer. Finally, he looked at the horizon and said, quite nonchalantly, âSomethinâ from space.â
This floored me. âWhat, like a meteor shower? I donât understand.â
I hoped that Snowy would answer me. I couldnât bear for him to go quiet on me again after heâd made the statement.
âSpace, Melon,â he said, âsome thing from space. Thatâs a fact.â
âHow âŠ what âŠ howâŠ?â I was tongue tied.
âI seen what it came in.â He stopped and looked me in the eye. âI didnât wanna tell yer, cause it was my business. But youâve been bloody nagginâ me ever since this morninâ. So perhaps now, yerâll shut up.â
I was confused by his ambiguity. Was this a story just to shut me up, or was he telling me the truth to stun me into silence?
âYou mean âŠ?â I said. My speech was nothing but halting half statements.
âListen, Melon,â he said, âIâm trackinâ some thing from outer space. I came across its craft, or whatever you city folk call them, just after In started out on me trackinâ. I reckon it crashed.â
âAnd itâs gone on a killing spree? How do you know?â
âIf you seen it, youâd know mate. When yer out here in the desert Melon, yer get to see many strange sights. Iâve seen them before, sometimes two or three of âem.â
You canât get more matter of fact than people of the outback. I actually believe him.
âJust think of it,â I said. A million thoughts flashed through my mind at once. âIf we find it, just imagine what we can learn from it.â
âHowâs it goinâ ter pay me back fer me dead stock?â Snowy responded, seriously.
Suddenly I blinked. Something had flashed, and I was blinded for a few moments. âHell, what was that?â I exclaimed.
Snowy looked up, and we both saw what appeared to be swirling dust and smoke rising and falling around a fiery glare. Although we were a fair distance from the swirl, Snowy seemed to study it intently. His forefinger rubbed lightly down the side of his mouth, from his nose to his chin.
âI reckon thatâs our killer, mate,â he said at last. âFer sure.â
He set off towards the movement, waving me forward to accompany him. âLetâs take it easy, Melon. I donât want it runninâ off now that weâve found it.â
âOr sizzling us up like a charcoal grill,â I added ruefully.
About a hundred metres from the swirl, it flared again, and we both had to cover our eyes. Suddenly, I smelled something burning and without warning, Snowy hurled himself at me, knocking me face down onto the ground. His dog bounded around us, barking and snapping. Grabbing a handful of dirt and sand, he flung it at me. Then he tore off his shirt and commenced to flog me with it. Only then did I realise that my carry pack had been set alight, and Snowy was trying to extinguish the flames. I quickly unbuckled the straps and dropped my pack onto the desert floor. In seconds, all that remained was a blackened ball of melted fabric and twisted metal.
Snowy grabbed my arm and dragged me across to some cover under a gnarled dried up tree. This was the fastest I had ever seen Snowy move. However, when he spoke again, his voice was as nasally and matter of fact as usual.
âI suppose Iâll have ter sort him out meself,â he said, pulling on his smoked shirt and rebuttoning it.
âWhat happened?â I stammered. Everything had happened so fast, that it seemed like a blur.
âWell,â he drawled, pulling out a satchel of tobacco, âall I seen was a ray of light come flashinâ from our mate up there, and strike you just above the shoulder.â Snowy rolled out a cigarette and tossed it onto his lips. âYer pack suddenly burst into flames. I couldnât have me new mate go poof on me.â There was a hint of a smile on his mouth as he said this.
The cigarette hung from his lower lip and refused to fall as he spoke. He pulled out a box of matches and lit up.
âRight you are,â he said and got up.
âWhere are you going?â I asked foolishly.
âIâve got a score to settle, havenât I?â
âBut you just saw what it did. What have you got to fight it?â
Snowy looked at me and shrugged. âWhat yer see, mate, is what yer get.â
He walked up the slight rise, leaving his horse rummaging for some grass beside me. His dog fell in beside Snowy, but kept looking back at me, expecting me to follow. Grudgingly, I pulled myself up and followed. As we drew closer, I could make out the shape of the glaring thing. Snowy was right; it was from space, a beast from somewhere far, far away.
I must have done a double take, because I could see right through the creature. It stood erect, on three âŠ legs. Its shape wasnât humanoid, or animal, or anything that I can compare it with. It was round, and âŠ square. It had protuberances like eyes on stems, but there didnât appear to be flesh or blood. It was almost invisible, but at certain angles of its body it reflected the sunlight. And when reflecting, the blinding reflection scorched the soil and the grass, leaving a small shallow trail. My binoculars had been fried inside my back back, so I couldnât give it a closer study. It wasnât made of rock, or vegetation. Was it some amazing transparent, solar flesh?
It circled on its three legs and faced us. From its cubicled top, a head shape rose on a slender neck and looked in our direction. Itâs crystal eyes flashed, emitting blinding colours and it looked up as if to search the sunâs movement.
I stood with my mouth open. Snowy rolled up his sleeves and said, âWell, here goes.â He turned and looked at his dog. âYou stay there.â The dog sat on his haunches and grinned.
I must have been too stunned for action (he says heroically) or protestation. I just stared as Snowy walked up to meet the thing face to face. The beast seemed to click its head into position to reflect the sun at Snowy, but Snowy strode up in a circular fashion, easily avoiding a piercing tract of lethal light. He walked away from us, to avoid any light hitting us.
The alien screed, then realigned its body and head. There seemed to be a panel raise above its head, and became malleable in order to manipulate the sunâs rays. There was a blast of light, and the ground behind Snowy exploded into a ball of flames. There was a shriek, and I saw a lizard hurl itself into the air before disintegrating. The panel continued to realign itself, but Snowy continued to advance onto the alien.
What happened then occurred and was over in just a few moments. The alien seemed to rear up and spin on its three heels. Then it lowered its head to Snowyâs head level and emitted a shrilling roar. Snowy took another step forward and let a fist go straight at its head.
The face shattered, and in a moment the crystal beast lay smashed on the ground before him.
My mind was reeling from this brief, yet deadly battle. It all seemed unreal. Pulling myself out of my daze, I realised that Snowy was standing in front of me. He seemed to be disappointed; he was shaking his head and clucking his tongue.
I tried to speak. I kept looking from Snowy to the piled remnants up the rise.
âYer know,â pondered Snowy, âIâve known hundreds of blokes just like that thing.â He nodded his head backwards. âThey try to hand it out, tryinâ ter bluff yer, thinkinâ yer canât match âem.â
I realised that Snowy was still puffing away on his cigarette. He took a long drag, then flicked the butt away.
âThen, when yer put them to the test, theyâre no match. Yer just aim fer their weakness.â
âBut howâŠ?â I asked. âWhat was its weakness?â
âMelon, mate,âhe said. âHe had a glass jaw.â