A battered car door leaning against a highway sign announced in spray-paint letters Hugh Singh’s arrival in the EXTRATERRESTRIAL OUTBACK.
After crossing the invisible border, he eased his foot off the accelerator, lowered his window, and gazed across at the ochre and khaki ensemble of hillocks and flats, low bushes and grasses. Nothing in the landscape moved.
The town was a collection of one-story buildings and windless treetops huddled along a single, tarred road. Heat shimmered from the roofs of parked cars, a bright sun offered no respite for shadows. Hugh stopped outside the pub, consulted the map, checked the time, ran his hand over the ventilation outlet as he leafed through a loosely-bound folder of photos and hand-written notes. He threw the folder onto the back seat as a man approached the car. The man’s eyes were lost in his dark face, and his lips were blistered.
“Welcome, brother,” the man said, revealing a trio of milk teeth. He wiped a patch of dust from Hugh’s bonnet with his hem of his shirt. “Nice to get visitors in town. Wash your car for five bucks.”
A trail of worn carpet led him to the bar, where he pulled up stool next to the morning’s only patron. There was no one serving. A cork board above a sparsely-filled spirits shelf displayed several paper cuttings, a flying saucer sketched in ink on an American dollar bill, and a sign that proclaimed Thirst aid administered here since 1971! He filled a plastic cup from jug of still water, took a sip, spat it out and left the cup on the counter.
“You’re the fella from the department,” the man next to him said without turning.
“Mr Patty is it? Hugh. Hugh Singh. Yes, I just arrived.”
Don Patty stared at Hugh’s outstretched hand. “Don.”
“Good to meet you, Don.”
“They only sent one of you then.”
“How many were you expecting?”
“We’re short staffed, and no one else had much appetite for the drive. I’m glad I did though. Some lovely country out past the ranges I must say.”
Don Patty swirled his beer then poured it down his throat. “There sure is. We’ve got a lot to offer in these parts if people just took the trouble to find us. You know, I didn’t believe it when I heard they were sending someone up. Never been much interest from you mob before, though we never expected it. I know you don’t like to draw attention to what goes on out here.”
“I’m new in the department. This is my first official off-site actually.”
“Go up there and shut the bugger up.”
“Where’s your property?”
“You sound like a Kiwi but you don’t look like one.”
“It’s up at the northern edge of the state forest. That’s where it came down. I told ‘em all that on the phone. Did you see the photos I sent?”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“You’re the expert.”
“I can follow you up whenever you’re ready to go.”
“What’d they send you up in?”
“I drove my own car.”
“It’s four-wheel-drive territory you know. They should have told you that.” Don Patty twisted a frayed, felt hat over his head and landed from his stool onto a set of buckram legs.
They left through the rear, past a dark kitchen, past a flight of wooden stairs, past a dog’s water bowl. The man who had wiped down Hugh’s car was there, his shirt streaked with red dirt and grease. Hugh gave him the coins in his pocket. Patty nodded to the man and then pointed at the front passenger door of a mud-splashed four-by-four. Hugh climbed inside, nudged aside a set of secateurs, a few rags and a carton of canned soup.
“Chuck ‘em on the floor,” Patty said, and he jiggled the gear stick, and punched it into first.
* * *
The truck tore out onto the street, leaving mini dust and gravel storms in its wake. Hugh waved at a kid and a dog who were eyeing them from the door of a mechanic shop.
“Things are not pretty around here,” Patty said. “You can see it. The town needs some life, we need more outsiders. We’ve got a lot to offer than just pretty sunrises”
“Before we get up there, I just have a few follow up questions my colleagues at the department didn’t have time to ask,” he said.
Don Patty responded by way of adjusting the side mirror.
“When exactly did you find it?”
“In the morning, early. The day before I phoned you mob. I sent documents. Did you get the documents?”
“Yeah, I… Was it just you up there?”
“You mentioned something about a fire.”
“Yeah, I might have written that.” The man adjusted himself in his seat, gazed at the rearview mirror. “I was clearing some land, when I saw this smoke. Thick, black stuff, like someone incinerating tyres. At first I thought to myself it’s those blokes from the mines. I’ve seen ‘em going in and out of the forest, surveying they say. But when I drove on, I saw some spot fires at the edge of my property near the creek and long tracks where the grass had burned as though a plane had made a rough landing. But there was no plane. It wasn’t the work of any of the people around here, that’s for sure.”
“Did you call the local fire authorities?”
“I’m a volunteer. I know when it’s serious enough to get people out of bed.”
“Were there several objects, or just one?”
“I don’t know, mate. Isn’t that why you’re here? You’ll see soon enough for yourself.”
Flat and still and strung as though taught with wire, the landscape streamed by. Hugh stretched an arm out the window to take a photo. After about half-an-hour a head appeared in the back seat. A mess of blond, eyes and nose running, the skin of sun-loved youth.
“Oh, hello,” Hugh said. “I didn’t see you there.”
“She was asleep.”
It wasn’t so much as a shake of the head, but a single twist, a practised wince.
“What’s your name?” Hugh asked. The girl buried her face in her arm.
They reached the end of a dirt road where Hugh jumped out to open a wire gate. With no visible track to follow, Patty steered the four-by-four down a grassy hill, papers on the dash slid from one end to the other as the cabin rolled this way and that. They followed a creek bed and stopped at a huddle of ghost gums, whose sinuous frames weeped over a blackened crater.
Before the truck had stopped Hugh was out of the vehicle, his phone held above his head.
“That’s it,” Patty said. He killed the engine, got out and locked the doors. “You wait here,” he said, and tapped on the closed rear window. From the back of his truck he took a short shovel and two pairs of working goggles, one of which he handed to Hugh.
The crater was deep and wide enough to fit a horse, streaks of tarred earth fanned out from its perimeter, the surfaces of the tree trunks facing it were charred, their leaves covered in black dust. From somewhere behind the obsidian shards, a faint glow.
“It’s still warm. I wouldn’t get too close,” Patty said.
Hugh took the shovel and prodded the crater’s base. He hit once, twice, harder on the third, and a dull thud echoed through the pit. He brought the shovel blade to his face.
“Did you see it come down?” Hugh said with one hand over his mouth and nose.
“Nope,” Dan Patty said. After a few moments, he twisted his neck at the truck and his entire body followed. “Girl did but. Like a falling firework she said.”
“And this is how you found it?”
Squinting, Hugh took more photos, then held his phone up to the sky. He returned to the truck, dialed a number. “No network. I have to call the office.”
“How much do you reckon?”
“Hard to say. I haven’t seen anything like this before. If it is what it is, judging by the circumference of the crater… the impact depth, around fifteen centimetres in diameter, might be more. We’d have to excavate to be certain—”
“No, I mean how much will I get for it?”
“Money?” Hugh said and laughed, and when Don Patty didn’t smile he removed the goggles. “Assuming it’s legitimate, the department won’t pay you anything for it.”
“Huh.” Flies began to swing about the man’s ears. “But we’ll get some sort of certificate, a survey report or something to show off. You wouldn’t just take it away would you?”
“Let me call the office. How close is your place? I’d like to use your phone if you don’t mind.”
“No phone. I’ll take you back into town.” Don Patty brushed down his faded shorts and returned to the four-by-four. The girl was asleep on the back seat.
The drive back was silent. Afternoon had arrived and brought with it a bright radiance, heat and more flies.
Hugh found a signal as they pulled up at the pub. “So, we’ll be in touch I suppose,” he said through the passenger window after he’d closed the door. “There’s not much I can do until I touch base with the office. What’s the best number to get you on?”
“I called the papers too, you know. They know about it. And they’ll know about any cover ups. People will want to come here and see this. Learn the truth.”
“Look, Mr Patty. People witness strange events, they’re not always what they seem. And there are hoaxes. Someone might be playing a trick on you, understand?”
“There’s a lot of strange things about,” Patty said and spat at the ground. “This is no hoax. People around here are straight up. It’s happened before. I’ve been saying it for years. Must be a reason for it. Leave a message for me at the pub. I’ll get it.”
* * *
It was a frantic call, ten minutes before knock off time. Hey it’s the new bloke. Ring back tomorrow they said. Did you even meet Patty? How’s the weather out there? See your first echidna? It took some conversation for Hugh to convince them to check the photos he’d sent through, and some more to convince them that it wasn’t some creative revenge for having dispatched him six hours west into the desert. It doesn’t have the smell of a publicity stunt, a conspiracy theory sure, but it’s worth a further look. It might even be something. An hour later they called. Hugh’s photos had stilled cubicles and circulated upwards like paper kites aflame! The questions were serious, trucks were reserved, equipment sought, full access assumed. This was the real thing. Your first assignment. Hugh was told to spend the night if he could, get back in touch with the man, prevent contamination.
A woman with grey hair and yellow lips stood behind the bar, gave him the key to the only room and told him to pay whenever he was ready. “It hasn’t been used in a while,” she said with an accent he couldn’t place, “you’ll find sheets in the hall cupboard.”
Hanging on the staircase walls was a photo gallery of grainy landscapes, groups of young men and women slouching on cars or in front of tractors or sitting on horses. More blurry photos of snake-like objects, and a newspaper clipping reporting missing persons. A younger Don Patty was there standing behind the bar chinking glasses with a younger version of the woman he’d seen downstairs.
“Yeah I know him,” the woman said, laughing as she poured the excess froth from Hugh’s beer. “He owns the mortgage on this place.”
“That explains the E.T paraphernalia.”
“And what a roaring trade that’s bringing in,” the woman replied.
“Do you know where his house is? He reported an environmental hazard at his property and I need to make sure he doesn’t try to interfere with it until our people arrive.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Environmental hazard. Is that what he’s calling it?”
“Not exactly. So you know about it?”
“Oh yeah, and about all the rest. Patty’s got it into himself that we’re living in our very own Area 51.”
“Did you hear or see anything a couple of nights ago?”
“I didn’t see anything come down from the sky if that’s what you’re asking. A few blokes said they heard an explosion late at night coming from the other side of the forest. What I want to know is, why you?”
“Why did you come?”
“They sent me up to investigate. It’s my job.”
“It’s your job to drive across half the state to our little speck of a town on nothing but the word of Don Patty.”
“I suppose it is. Though they didn’t mention that in the interview.”
The woman laughed in short, gasping bursts, then performed a mumbling sigh. She poured another drink and set it on the bar. “Well I for one am glad you’re here. Anyone from out of town is welcome, even if you’re not a little green man.”
Hugh raised his glass to the ceiling. “Not green at least.” He drained his drink, pulled out his phone, checked his emails, swiped through the day’s photos. He held up a photo of the crater.
The woman glanced at the image. “Patty must think all his Christmases have come at once. But it’ll take more than a hole in the ground to save this pub and this town, we need real people.”
“There was a young girl with him,” he said. “About seven or eight she looked like.”
The woman’s mouth flattened. She lit a cigarette, went to the cash register and wrote something down on a piece of paper. “Maybe you can do something useful,” she said and handed the paper to Hugh.
* * *
The shed stood at the centre of a wide circle of dry grass. Tyres, lengths of wire, metal shards, the skeletons of ancient fences, all brittle and whitened and hovering like forgotten satellites between the crumbling dirt paths. Three walls and a roof, baring its baking innards to the expanse. Hugh parked his car in the shade of a towering gum, and paced out a few lines on the dusty concrete landing, murmuring ‘good dog’ to an old ridgeback that lay splayed over a split fabric couch. Inside the shed, bottles stood atop of every surface – a set of drawers, an rusted refrigerator, bench tops and bed frames – cobwebs draped down the steel pylons where they met the aluminium ceiling. On a wicker chair sat a plate of uneaten food next to a pile of soiled undergarments. A row of petrol cans and cement bags formed a trench around a buzzing freezer. Hugh spotted a silhouette moving among the shadows, strands of blond hair, spidery legs, it slipped past a couch and disappeared behind a side curtain in the shed’s wall. He moved his head just in time to see it disturb the leaves in the bush across the way.
A voice cleared itself and Don Patty stepped out of nowhere, his face a raw crimson, a rifle strapped around his chest. He stared at Hugh’s car, then at Hugh, who was still looking out for the ghost in the trees. “What are you doing here? You’re trespassing,” he said as he laced his boots on a concrete block.
“I heard back from the office,” Hugh said. He followed Patty around the rear of the shed. “Good news. They’re sending up a team tomorrow, we’ll take samples, cordon off the site. I’m staying down at the pub tonight if you want to join me for dinner.”
Patty straightened his back and clapped his stomach. “You’re joking?”
“Well, isn’t that great… but I can’t tonight.”
“Is the site still accessible? I thought we could take one more look if you have time, maybe you’ve got some fencing wire so we can build a perimeter.
“Can’t.” Don Patty pulled a canvas sheet off a motorbike, which he wheeled out to a clearing among the garden debris. “Not today. First thing tomorrow, how’s that?”
“We’ve got to secure the site. To prevent contamination. What if someone falls in?”
“Inquisitive roos,” Hugh scratched his neck and laughed. “Or the media. You said you were in contact with the papers. They might have already sent someone up.”
The man shook his head, lifted his body to kick start the bike, then stopped midway. “Girl’s gone missing. I’ve got to go. I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
Hugh took a breath, held it in. “Do you need help? Should we call the police?”
“I can help look if you want.”
“She won’t have got far. I’ll find you.” Don Patty waited until Hugh had started his car, followed him to the corner of the gravel road which was his driveway. The motorbike squealed and it was off racing towards the forest.
Hugh rolled the car along until the red speck of flannel shirt had disappeared in his mirror, then he swung around and drove back up to Patty’s property. He took some photos of the shed, its furniture, of a child’s bed he found wedged against the corrugated wall.
“Hello?” he called out to the cluster of bushes. “I won’t hurt you. It’s me, Hugh, from before. Are you alright?”
A voice replied from beyond, a whisper half-dissolved. Hugh looked over his shoulder at his car, checked his phone, then fed himself between the arching trunks and into the bush.
It wasn’t a path, but a sequence of turns around columns of trees, a sharp left at a decaying trunk, straight down an orange rivulet, through a broken wire fence, and along the creek bed. He found her crouched over the crater, pointing down and speaking singsong words at the hole.
“Hey, come back from there,” he said “It’s dangerous.”
She screamed as he grabbed her by the armpits, struck out with elbows and heels, and writhed still after he’d deposited her on the ground a good twenty metres away from the smouldering pit. She sniffed, wiped her nose on her only piece of clothing, a oversized t-shirt.
“You could have hurt yourself,” Hugh said pulling the shirt down below her knees. Old and new scratches criss-crossed her thighs and shins. “I have to take you home. Your dad is looking for you.”
The girl shook her head.
“Is Mr Patty your father?”
“I want to see mummy.”
With a grubby finger she pointed in the direction of the site.
“Your mummy lives over there?”
“Pop said they took her and that one day she’d come back.”
Hugh stood up, shielded his face from the setting sun, glanced at his phone. At the edge of the crater, a coalition of flies and mosquitos were raging against the charred soil. He inspected the depression and its epicentre, listened to the deep crackles and pops, he squatted and started to reach down into the warmth, held himself in that position for a few seconds before returning to the girl.
“Your Pop told me you saw something fall from the sky, is that true?”
The girl nodded, then shook her head. “It was bright as a night sun, and set the canopy ablaze,” she said as though reading the sentence off her bare feet.
“How old are you?”
The girl held up six fingers.
“Did Pop make this hole himself?”
The girl said nothing.
“We should go,” he said. “Your Pop will be worried.”
They were crossing the creek bed hand in hand when the wail of Patty’s motorbike echoed off the trees.
Hugh ducked, took the girl by the shoulders. “Do you want me to take you home? Because you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. I can help you.”
“I want to find mummy,” the girl said.
“Do you know Mrs Arden at the pub? We can take you to her for now if you like. She can cook us some fish and chips for dinner. How about that? Would you like that?”
Hugh checked his phone, dialled a number but heard only beeps.
The girl complained about thirst. Hugh put a finger to his lips, and crabbed to the bank of the creek bed to watch Patty, who had dismounted near the site, and was loping around it with his hands on his hips. After some time he loosened the rifle from his shoulder, sat on his haunches and began hammering the butt end into the pit, releasing a cloud of smoke with each strike. From a crate on the back of his bike, he took out a bag, emptied it into the pit then resumed the pounding.
“Pop!” The girl had climbed the bank and began shouting, and Hugh just managed to clasp her hand before she ran. Patty reacted by flipping the rifle, and when Hugh stood up, the girl holding his hand, he didn’t lower the barrel.
“I found her playing near the site,” Hugh called out.
Patty stood motionless.
“You can go now, it’s off. Tell your people not to come. We don’t need you.”
“Mr Patty, let’s be reasonable.”
Patty cocked his gun. “Let her go, she’ll be fine.”
“Not until you put down the gun.”
“You’re on my property.”
With the girl hooked into one arm, Hugh took to the trees, scrambling from ditch to ditch, up the hill, past the decaying trunk. The girl did not struggle when he dropped her in the front seat, and didn’t say a word when he skidded down Patty’s drive and headed back into the town, one eye on the road in front of him and another focussed on the rearview mirror.
He kicked the pub’s door open, strode through the bar and sat the girl on the counter. A group of four people who stood at a table near the television stopped drinking at stared at them.
Mrs Arden wiped her hands on her apron. “What’s going on here then?”
“He’s crazy. Call the police, quick before he gets here.”
“Come now, Rosie,” she said, wiping the girl’s face with a cloth. “We haven’t seen you for a while now, have we?” She looked at Hugh and frowned. “You needn’t bother with the police. He’s crazy that Patty, but he’s not a bad man. Doesn’t know how to look after if he tried, but he wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone.”
Hugh leaned into the bar. “He faked the whole thing you know. I could have him for misleading a public official, wasting resources.”
Mrs Arden blinked. “I’ll look after Rosie, Mr Singh, don’t you worry. If Patty’s guilty of anything, it’s that he’s stubborn. He’s protective of her, that’s all. The main this is she’ll get a good feed tonight. Sleep in a clean bed.”
“You call pointing a gun at me and a child ‘protective’?”
Mrs Arden sat Rosie on the floor and opened a packet of chips in front of her.
“He told her that her mother was abducted by aliens for Christ’s sake.”
Mrs Arden looked over Hugh’s shoulder at the table of four. “That’s half the truth. A surveyor from out of town it was, one of you lot I suppose, took the bait on one of Patty’s mad stories, then when that didn’t work out, took his pretty daughter off to Cairns with him. The son-in-law,” Mrs Arden raised a gun-shaped hand to her head “Rosie must’ve been three, poor child. You could say Patty’s problems started there, or that they were there all along.”
One of the guests, a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt, was hovering next to Hugh with four empty glasses. “Another round thanks, Sue,” she said, then turned to Hugh. “You drew the short straw too huh?” And when Hugh didn’t react. “We saw the photos, don’t know if it’s an encounter of the third kind or anything but weird stuff happening in small towns always gets clicks.”
“No,” Hugh said, loosening his collar. “I’m from Environment.”
“So it’s legit then?”
“Media,” Mrs Arden mouthed the words after the young woman had left with her drinks.
The door swung open, and Patty inched through the bar as though stepping on coals. He spent a while on each of the faces around him, nodded at them, then settled his gaze on the counter. “About before,” he said, “I’m sorry, you understand? We don’t need to mention anything, do we? Trying to do right isn’t a crime.”
Hugh punched at his phone. “Right isn’t the word I’d use, but don’t worry, I’m calling it off, Mr Patty. I’ve a mind to call social services too. That shed of yours, it’s no place to raise a child. You need help. Does she even go to school?”
He called it in, first the office, where he got the answering machine, then the depot. No trucks were ready, no one was booked. Never heard of the place. Why on Earth would they be driving out to Woop Woop anyway? Ah, you’re the new guy. They always send the new guy. The gag was still fresh. Hugh hung up.
“So?” Patty said. “Are they coming?”
Hugh stared at the man.
“No one’s coming.”
Patty went behind the bar and poured himself a beer, stooped to whisper to Rosie, who was busy laying out her chips in a row.
Up in his room, Hugh opened the manila folder, held up one of Patty’s photos, laughed to himself. He took off his shoes and socks, picked up his car keys, and went back downstairs. In the meantime, the journalists had bailed up Patty against the bar, hailing questions down upon him.
As Hugh passed the group one of the journalists patted him on the shoulder. “So it’s true then? The town has a visitor from out of space? What is the government saying?”
Hugh handed the journalist the manila folder, gave Patty a quick look up and down. “The department is making no comment,” he said, and walked out into the night.