Glaring Problem
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Halley’s 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 – Uluru they call it nowadays – 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 weren’t too keen on the idea.

“Don’t be stupid,” my father said. “The comet’s coming in April. What about your studies?”

“I’ll be gone two weeks at the most,” I said. “And I’m not stupid. How many chances do we get to witness something as incredible as a comet that comes every 75 years?”

My parents remained silent.

“… And my studies aren’t going to suffer. The semester is only three, four weeks old then, and my mates will lend me their notes.”

My father rubbed his forehead, and I could see the ‘God help us’ expression in his eyes.

“How are you going to get there?” my mother asked. “Bus, plane?”

“No,” I replied. “I want to drive up in my car.”

My mother yelped. “Your car? Do you think that you’ll get to Ayers Rock in your car?”

“I gave it a good overhaul last week,” I said. “It goes like a rocket…”

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 car’s 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 wouldn’t 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 – fire does incredible things to VW motors – so there was no need to go backwards. My timetable for arriving at the Rock wasn’t 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. … in the morning, when I could see the track. It shouldn’t be too hard, I naively figured. After all, hadn’t 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.

“Am I glad to see you,” I said. I think it came out as a cross between a sob and a rasp.

“Strike me,” he said. His voice was slow and very nasal. “What the bloody hell are you doin’ out here?”

“Well…” 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 clichéd 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.

“I was on my way to Ayers Rock,” I said, “to see Halley’s comet.” His dog sniffed at my heels, and my genitals, and I had mixed feelings about its intentions.

“Harley’s what? What’s that, mate?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Stranded here in the desert, and who should I come across but someone who hadn’t even heard of Halley’s 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.

“Me name’s Bob Fellowes, but me mates call me Snowy,” 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.

“My name’s Greg Meillion”, 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.

“Come on, Melon,” he drawled. “I’m headin’ towards Flemin’s Range. I’ll drop you off there. Grab yer gear.”

“Which way’s that?” I asked nervously, trying to calculate my dates and costs for travel arrangements.

“Closer to where yer want to get,” he answered laconically.

“I picked up my carry pack and water can and followed him.

“Have you been out here all night?” I asked. I pictured him having a homestead just over the rise, while I’d been sheltering in my car these past two days.

“Been out here fer the past three days,” he replied.
“Why’s that?”
“Dead cattle and ‘roos, Melon.”
I didn’t understand. His story came out in dribs and drabs.
“A few days ago,” he said, “I was doin’ me rounds and found close to a dozen of me cattle dead. They’d been burned to a crisp. Couldn’t figger it out.” Silence followed, then, what seemed like minutes later, Snowy continued. “Thought it must’ve been some wild black fellers on walkabout, so I went lookin’, followin’ some tracks .

“Then I came across some dead ‘roos, all killed the same way. It’s peculiar, mate.”Snowy went quiet again, his hand absently scratching his dog’s head. “Kept followin’ the tracks, and kept findin’dead animals. All done in the same way. Wasn’t the abos that done it. They at least eat their food, and treat the land with respect.”

“You don’t think it was me, do you?” I asked, nervously. I’d hate for this tough outbacker to get stuck into me.

“H’mmm. You? A bloke like you? Strewth, Melon, come off it.”

I didn’t know whether to feel indignant or relieved.

“Then you’ve just stumbled across me?”

“Yer could say that. We was followin’ 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.”

A vague thought, yet an ironic realisation crossed my mind. “That was just over two days ago,” I muttered. My mind couldn’t 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.

“The tracks are headin’ towards Flemin’s Range, so you can come with us, if yer like.”

He turned again, and ambled towards his horse.

“How far is it … to get there?”

“Eh? ‘Bout two days. Three days if it gets too hot.”

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 Fleming’s 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 wasn’t just animals that had been burnt, there was also spinifex lying singed and blackened. He just nodded, as if he had already known it.

“You don’t reckon that It’s aborigines,” I said. “What do you think has done this?”

I had asked this question a dozen times, and Snowy was yet to answer. Finally, he looked at the horizon and said, quite nonchalantly, “Somethin’ from space.”

This floored me. “What, like a meteor shower? I don’t understand.”

I hoped that Snowy would answer me. I couldn’t bear for him to go quiet on me again after he’d made the statement.

“Space, Melon,” he said, “some thing from space. That’s a fact.”

“How … what … how…?” I was tongue tied.

“I seen what it came in.” He stopped and looked me in the eye. “I didn’t wanna tell yer, cause it was my business. But you’ve been bloody naggin’ me ever since this mornin’. So perhaps now, yer’ll shut up.”

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?

“You mean …?” I said. My speech was nothing but halting half statements.

“Listen, Melon,” he said, “I’m trackin’ some thing from outer space. I came across its craft, or whatever you city folk call them, just after In started out on me trackin’. I reckon it crashed.”

“And it’s gone on a killing spree? How do you know?”

“If you seen it, you’d know mate. When yer out here in the desert Melon, yer get to see many strange sights. I’ve seen them before, sometimes two or three of ‘em.”

You can’t get more matter of fact than people of the outback. I actually believe him.

“Just think of it,” I said. A million thoughts flashed through my mind at once. “If we find it, just imagine what we can learn from it.”

“How’s it goin’ ter pay me back fer me dead stock?” Snowy responded, seriously.

Suddenly I blinked. Something had flashed, and I was blinded for a few moments. “Hell, what was that?” 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.

“I reckon that’s our killer, mate,” he said at last. “Fer sure.”

He set off towards the movement, waving me forward to accompany him. “Let’s take it easy, Melon. I don’t want it runnin’ off now that we’ve found it.”

“Or sizzling us up like a charcoal grill,” 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.

“I suppose I’ll have ter sort him out meself,” he said, pulling on his smoked shirt and rebuttoning it.

“What happened?” I stammered. Everything had happened so fast, that it seemed like a blur.

“Well,” he drawled, pulling out a satchel of tobacco, “all I seen was a ray of light come flashin’ from our mate up there, and strike you just above the shoulder.” Snowy rolled out a cigarette and tossed it onto his lips. “Yer pack suddenly burst into flames. I couldn’t have me new mate go poof on me.” 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.

“Right you are,” he said and got up.

“Where are you going?” I asked foolishly.

“I’ve got a score to settle, haven’t I?”

“But you just saw what it did. What have you got to fight it?”

Snowy looked at me and shrugged. “What yer see, mate, is what yer get.”

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 … legs. Its shape wasn’t humanoid, or animal, or anything that I can compare it with. It was round, and … square. It had protuberances like eyes on stems, but there didn’t 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 couldn’t give it a closer study. It wasn’t 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. It’s crystal eyes flashed, emitting blinding colours and it looked up as if to search the sun’s movement.

I stood with my mouth open. Snowy rolled up his sleeves and said, “Well, here goes.” He turned and looked at his dog. “You stay there.” 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 sun’s 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 Snowy’s 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.

“Yer know,” pondered Snowy, “I’ve known hundreds of blokes just like that thing.” He nodded his head backwards. “They try to hand it out, tryin’ ter bluff yer, thinkin’ yer can’t match ‘em.”

I realised that Snowy was still puffing away on his cigarette. He took a long drag, then flicked the butt away.

“Then, when yer put them to the test, they’re no match. Yer just aim fer their weakness.”

“But how…?” I asked. “What was its weakness?”

“Melon, mate,”he said. “He had a glass jaw.”

THE END.