THE OLD MAN by Charmaine Clark

     With concerned dismay he watched the silver machine spiral into the bush some distance away. The haze of heat and light smoke it created were soon dissipated by the valley wind that brought the smell of rain over the peaks.

     He didn't hasten to the rescue, as his reclused mind was confused, his rheumy body was protesting at the thought. Stubbornness and old age supplied his excuses, and his lonely hermitage made him value the shelter of his crude hut, and not go wandering in those virgin wild lands.

     Jack Danlon, his friendly neighbour of seventy miles away, could do that, his youth lent itself to the occasion, and the old man imagined the enthusiasm with envy.

     Then he remembered, Jack had come yesterday, bringing gossip, food, and his old man essentials. It would be about a month before he would come again, and know to look for survivors.

     Still his mind fought against delivering his ancient self to the wiles of the bush. But his usually dormant conscience struggled to convince him of his duties to mankind. Cursing several sources of his vexation, he submitted after a few more hours delay.

     As the night passed in chilly discomfort, his determination fell, and his mind strayed to the homeliness and warmth of his hut, which he and Jack had built three years ago. As he huddled over the fire in the early morning dew, he regretted not bringing a billy to fight off the biting chill with a hot brew. The early autumn briskness had played havoc with his arthritis, and his stiffened limbs were proving unresponsive in the new day. So as he plunged, scrambled, fell, stumbled and cursed his way through the thinning ground mists, he vigourously slapped his body to restore the circulation of his cold blood.

     With an injured foot gained in his first fall, and a boot that was slowly but surely disproving the worth of army goods, he stumbled forward. He threw his tattered coat on, preparing for the wet, casting about for a sheltered place to camp before the storm erupted.

     He was wet, cold and sore, the deluge had caught him five minutes from an overhanging buttress, that had dry sandy soil, and enough dead branches wedged under it for a sizeable blaze. After drying himself out a bit, he pulled the makings of damper from his swag and forgot about the pouring rain three feet away.

     The drumming rain on the ground soon had him in a heavy sleep, waking often, his frugal dinner causing him to take many trips through the dripping night to ease his gripes.

     The rain had left a beautifully clean day, as only a day in the bush can be, the old man felt youthful, and his spirits were high as he trudged along. But after a few hundred yards he noticed the dry brittle atmosphere, the quiet, and the oppressive stillness. He glanced around, but he could see no sign of life, the greenery hung in wilted dejection, and the air carried smells of decay.

     The dawn had brought an alien day, stillborn and empty, forlorn disaster in its depth of stillness, death on its breath. Sensitive and bare, as naked as the old man's bewilderment, replacing his well-being wit, eccentric determination, giving the urge to investigate.

     By mid-morning he figured to be reasonably close to his objective, his harsh voice crackled through the dryness, but all was quiet. The moisture seemed to have evaporated from his body, and the wrinkled parchment of his face felt cracked and burnt, he felt himself wilting with the grass. He was depressed by the silence, and despite the sunshine overhead, the still retained the night's chill. He hugged the light coat around him, and kept his eyes on the path of his stumbling feet. But the fatigue of his body was increasing, and he set his mind to the task of remaining steady.

     Far in the distance he thought he saw a glimmer of silver through the trees, and he wanted to hasten, but the growing weariness forced him to rest, so he folded his weary body on a mossy bank by a clear spring-fed pool. As he drifted into slumber, his relaxed form slipped, and with a start he awoke, once more cold and wet, hearing the repeated echoes of his own floundering.

     Dragging himself from the water, he stumbled forward in dazed bewilderment at the strange atmosphere, and the compelling force that drew him on. Desperation led him to shouting, straining his lungs, but his only answer was the thunderstorm echoes rolling and crashing around the hills like boulders thrown by giants.

     He could see the cause of his trials quite clearly now, but the hundred yards between him and his destination, might have been a hundred miles. Gathering his remaining strength he crawled forward, only to be halted by an insurmountable object.

     In the awesomely quiet land, within sight of the mysterious glitter, he struck a wall, he could not see.

     Not being able to go any further, he clawed himself into a sitting position on a rotting log, and puzzled over what he saw. Tentatively he stretched out a gnarled and grubby hand, his fingertips caressed the surface, and the ragged broken nails crumbled on contact. But the strain was too much, and he silently crumpled in an untidy heap of exhaustion.

     Slowly he grew conscious of the light filtering through closed lids, and shadows flickering across, sometimes hesitating. He remained peering through half-closed lashes for some time, struggling to recall the events which had placed him here. Dimly his mind retrieved the picture of the alien beings and the growing clarity of his memory opened his eyes sharply. Fear showed in their misty depths as he focused on the objects of his thoughts, and he scrabbled his bony hands in the loose soil in an effort to rise and run. But the beings just smiled and shook their large lion-like heads at him, then they turned and with loping strides were immersed in the glittering body of water they had created.

     Sitting up, the old man stared at his surroundings, his eyes greedily devouring the strange sights. He realized he was on a slight rise looking down on a small lake, and a group of the aliens were frolicking in the water with the ease of seals. Covering nearly the far side of the lake was a bubble structure, going far out and down into the water. Protruding from this structure was a balcony, from this the creatures were diving and leaping in abandonment. The lake was so clear, he could see the creature's lithe bodies disappearing into large circular openings in the building below the surface.

     A shadow fell across him, and he started, for the quiet and stillness of the land was still held tightly in the grip of power. He was even more startled as the smelly creature lowered its lanky figure to the ground beside him and started to speak.

     "Don't be afraid old man, we are your friends".

     His voice rolled out in smooth tones.

     "As you can see, we are not many, and no more of us will come," he said.

     The old man stared at the creature, then wrinkled his nose in disgust, and made to move away.

     The creature stretched out a long grey limb and placed a webbed hand on his arm.

     "Don't go, we must talk. I want to know you. You are the first being of this planet we have seen."

     Instinctively the old man shied at the touch, but he felt the warmth of the blood flowing beneath the cool, soft skin and heard the friendliness of the voice. He hesitated, then facing this foreign being, he took in the lengthy frame with its crop of matted red hair, loose grey skin and loin cloth, then decided to listen. He would keep his silence, this could maybe induce this thing to talk more, and provide him with a chance to escape.

     "Apparently you are very disturbed at our presence, so I shall explain it as best as possible."

     He clasped his arms around his bony knees and continued. "My name is Retep. We have traveled from a far distant world called Smar. Our culture is much more advanced than yours, but we are ruled by 'a tyrannical government', so we decided to escape. This took a lot of planning as we had to find somewhere of suitable climate, of great distance to avoid being followed and we had to do it in secret. Once we agreed on this destination we learned of it all that was possible, including the language and the best place to settle without creating fear."

     Retep stood up and leant against the bole of the huge tree which stood as sentinel to the unusual world. He scrutinized the old man patiently waiting for expected questions but when nothing was said he went on.

     "We still could not carry all the fluid, so we bought a tenth and the necessary chemicals. The walls or skins which hold this water were made of an extremely resistant substance which we converted into our living area. So that is, or we are, the silver object you saw three days ago, and there are no injured for you to revive, and no survivors to be rescued. One more thing, the water, to create this amount in such a short space of time we had to interfere with the elements slightly. Unfortunately this caused slight damage in the area, but this is only temporary and shall be restored by nature in a relatively short period. You see we have a machine which extracts 95% of moisture from everything within a certain radius, so, the dead animals, wilted foliage, dry atmosphere etcetera."

     Trembling with excitement, the old man pushed himself from the ground.

     "You mean all that? Wait till I tell everyone, I'll be famous, I'll be rich, can you tell me any more?"

     Abruptly he stopped and turned. "But I fell in a bit of spring back there, 'ow d'ya explain that?"

     "That's just it". Retep replied, "it is a spring and within a few hours of us draining it, it naturally filled itself again."

     Then the old man covered the glittering expanse with a sweep of his scrawny arm. "What d'ya need all this water for anyway?"

     The alien smiled and walked over and linked arms with the old fellow.

     "Our planet Smar is approximately 80% water, so from birth we lead very aquatic life. What you see down there is essential for us to live.

     "Crikey, won't Jack get a shock when I tell him, the silly bastard, he'll rush down the village tellin' everyone. But it's my story."

     He now almost ran down the slope dragging Retep with him.

     "C'mon mate, I'll have a look around and then I'll be off."

     With a few feet to the edge of the water Retep pulled them both to a halt.

     "I'm very sorry old friend, but you can't leave here particularly knowing what you do. We will not be subjected to tyranny again and we know your governments. We just wish to live here in peace forgotten by all but ourselves. But you will like it here, we will treat you well, we will even rehabilitate you into our way of life."

     The kindness with which Retep was speaking made the old man unaware of what was being said, but the words and fear crept back into his eyes. He withdrew his arm furtively eying off the rest of the beings on the other side of the lake, then swiftly he turned around and made a mad dash for the bush. One yard to go and he fell over backwards. He had again run into the invisible wall.

     A month later Jack Danlon found the remains of the old man on the edge of a large clearing and he knelt beside his old friend. The ants were busy carting away the decaying flesh and the sole of one boot was torn off and two toes were splintered and broken. Beside the body was the rotting remains of a sugar bag over which running postman had started to grow and shoots of green were thick between the weave.

     Jack called his mates and as they dug the grave, the silence was only interrupted by the birds chattering and scolding. As they stood above the fresh mound, Jack smelt the bush and thought it a good place to die. A few yards away, was a small pool of water, and while he was looking, the ground wind blew the remains of an animal pelt across its surface.

     He drew his gaze back to the grave, then roused himself,

     "Well, come on boys, there's nothing more we can do here. I wonder how that silly old bugger died, probably trying to get himself rich and famous."

ENDS Charmaine Clark