It was a high, sunny place, where everything was calm.
Dave McGrath had come to the islands to work on attachment with the New Zealand Geophysical Survey. He was due to stay six months, but he was already so in love with the place that he'd made the first tentative enquiries about immigration. He'd flown into Auckland at four o'clock in the morning, and had been stunned just by the clear smell of the air as he'd walked to his taxi. Despite the jet lag, every turn on the empty two-lane roads presented him with some new joyful sight. And every time he'd expected bureaucracy to get in the way of something he'd wanted to do, there was instead a wave of the hand and a promise that all was 'sweet as'. The kiwis, he'd swiftly decided, were the least frightened people on Earth.
Everything was going to be fine. Nothing was going to happen. His new friends at the Survey had, last weekend, cajoled him into throwing himself off a bridge with a bungee chord wrapped round his ankle, and he'd actually done it, freed from his fear. Every morning he woke to clean air, clear skies. Even the rain tasted good. He thought that it was when he'd gone whale-watching off Kaikoura that he'd finally got it: he'd seen the giant, serene bulk of a sperm whale surface and lie there, calm in the sun, breathing. And something inside Dave had relaxed in a way he'd never known before.
His mate Tony was more phlegmatic, had started to remark on the way Dave was grinning all the time. Tony just wondered at the pies that were available in every service station, and why all the chocolate tasted different. But Dave could tell that, underneath it all, he too was having a great time.
Their work took them up onto the slopes of Mount Ruapehu, a volcano that looked so classically like a volcano should - a black cone rising out of the lava plain, with clouds around its summit - that Dave had laughed at his first sight of it. They had taken radiosondes out of the back of the van, at the highest car park, and had started the long tramp up the slope of small, grey stones, the colour broken by patches of white lichen and weird, tiny flowers. Tony muttered something about how stupid they must look, with red, half-inflated balloons in their hands, as if they were on their way to a fancy-dress party.
The radiosondes carried instrument packages, each designed to monitor wind-speed, pressure, and other changing circumstances in the heights of the atmosphere.
They reached the designated site, checked their position with the GPS, and then released the sondes, Dave waiting for a moment, watching Tony's balloon spiralling upwards into the blue before letting go of his own. He detached the radio from his belt and clicked the button that connected him with the light aircraft that was somewhere up there, where Maggie would be filming the progress of the sondes while keeping up a stream of abuse at her husband, Geoff, who was the Survey's pilot.
'Mount Ruapehu field campaign to tracking aircraft, over. Tracking aircraft? Can you hear me?'
He clicked the button. There was just the hiss of static from the receiver. 'Weird.' He glanced at Tony. 'What's going to be interfering with it up here?'
Tony was shielding his eyes, staring up into the sky, trying to catch the plane. They could both hear the drone of the engine. 'Probably a new radio station. Volcano FM.'
This had become a running joke between them, how as they drove around the North Island, the radio stations gained eccentric little monopolies of their own in the most out-of-the-way areas, where there was no competition. 'Volcano FM, cool. Rock by day, lava by night.'
'Is that the aircraft?' Tony was blinking at something.
Dave followed his gaze. There was something sparkling up there, high against the blue. Sparkling and... burning?!
For a moment he felt fear again, but no, a moment later he realised, that wasn't an aircraft. It was a blazing light source, swiftly growing from a point, showing almost no parallax as he moved his head from side to side. Which meant it was coming straight at them!
'A meteor!' he yelled, full of wonder. He'd never seen one that had amounted to more than the streak of a shooting star. 'Sweet!'
'Sweet as!' laughed Tony back.
'It's going to land just over the ridge!'
'No, they always look like that, from what I've read.'
'Not this one, mate. Look at it, we're seeing it head on!'
They waited for a moment more. And then they both started to run, their boots slipping on the grey rock and dust, trying to get over the ridge into the low valley.
They got there just as the meteor hit, a liquid burst of flame smashing rock into gobbets of fire that fell all around them, the volcanic rock returned to its original state.
The noise hit them a moment later, a concussion that rolled across the valley, nearly knocking them off their feet.
They slid down the slope, coughing in the sudden smoke as darkness rolled across them, cutting off the sun.
'Look at it!' gasped Tony. 'I never thought I'd get to see one of these close up!'
But Dave was blinking, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. There was something... no, surely there couldn't be? 'Mate...' he said. 'Do you see something moving down there?'
He could see it in snatched moments through the smoke as the wind blew it right and left. The shattered rock. The hiss and glow of new lava. And something twisting on the ground. Moving with the unmistakable motion of life.
'It's just the smoke. No. No... I see it too!'
They made their way awkwardly through the smoke, waving it away from their faces. Their clothes were being blackened by it, the stuff of interplanetary space, which would soon be going into the washing machine and brought down to Earth, thought Dave randomly. His senses were full of the illusion before him, waiting to be proved wrong.
They stopped as they both became aware, at the same moment, that it wasn't an illusion.
Slithering on the dust in front of them, coiling and uncoiling like it was getting its bearings, was a tiny green snake.
Its skin shone, like it was chitinous, or somehow ceramic. The green was that of a polished mosaic tile. It had a hood, like that of a cobra, and its eyes were blank, covered with some kind of membrane. The most startling thing about it, though, was its face.
It had features, an intelligence about it. The tiny thing looked almost human.
'What is it?' Dave heard himself murmur. 'Some kind of worm...'
Dave couldn't believe he was awake. He suddenly had a vast new life before him. Papers to write. An endless new area of research. One, above all, that would keep him here, in the land he'd come to love. There would be prizes and speeches, of course, but those were nothing beside what this creature actually was, what it stood for, the sudden freeing idea that mankind wasn't alone in the cosmos. 'You know what this means, eh? Life in an asteroid! If life can flourish there, if it can survive that impact... well, then it's everywhere!'
'Cute little guy...' Tony had picked up the remains of a branch from a scrubby bush that had been blown apart by the impact. He squatted and hesitantly reached out to try and lift the creature from the ground. 'There's a home waiting for you in Turangi. Come here...'
It took a moment for Dave to register what happened next. The sound hit him first. He had a moment's thought of whalesong, of something loud and strong that communicated information. But this didn't have the homely, Earthlike quality of that noise. This was a scream, a tearing, screeching, horrible noise that made him want to run. He found that he'd instinctively covered his ears.
It was the snake. The snake was screaming. A sound that seemed far too loud for such a small creature.
And then, with a twist of its body, it was gone.
'What was that?' he shouted. He was looking round frantically at the ground, that ancient fear of the running rat or spider. 'Where is it?' 'It burrowed into the rock!' Tony was staring at a tiny, bubbling pool of lava that Dave was certain hadn't been there a moment ago. 'I think it made it molten!'
The wind changed direction, and suddenly the smoke was on them again. Immediately, Dave found that he couldn't breathe. 'The gasses... from the meteorite... Got to get some air!'
They jogged to a short distance away, out of the range of the smoke. Tony was shaking his head, his face a picture of astonishment. 'Dave, this is huge.'
'You're telling me. We have to find it!'
'We have to get a crew down here. Fence this off.'
'Sure. Just give me a second.' Dave took deep breaths. 'Okay, let's get back to the van.'
They started back the way they had come, heading for the upper car park, trying to run despite the pollution in their lungs and the rocks sliding beneath their feet.
Dave was feeling strange. All the hope that had bloomed inside him when he saw the creature had shrunk away when he'd heard that sound. It hadn't been a good sound. It had spoken of something wrong, to him. Something that didn't belong here. Something that was going to rip all that he'd found here apart, as the sound itself had ripped the air apart.
He was surprised to find that his arms had fallen to his sides, that his legs had stopped running. He was standing still, watching a little slide of volcanic gravel across his boots.
Tony looked back to him. 'You all right? Why have you stopped?' Dave didn't know. But he could see something of what he felt reflected in the look on Tony's face. 'Why have you?'
Tony looked annoyed, and made to get on. 'Come on.'
But he didn't. He just looked back at Dave again.
And Dave understood now. It was like this was a dream.
Or rather a nightmare. That feeling when you can't run. And something huge is coming to get you.
He felt cold from his stomach, the sunlight on his arms making him shiver. 'I can't move,' he said.
He was afraid. Afraid like he'd never been before. Scared like one of the possums they'd run over at night on the road, locked in their headlights, unable to run. As something hurtled at him.
'Me neither.' Tony sounded angry under the fear. As if he was being unreasonable with himself. 'I want to... It's like some kind of nerve paralysis. I keep telling my limbs to move, but...'
'I know. There's something... Can you feel it?' Dave could feel the direction from which the fear was coming, now.
Up into his stomach. From below. From deep under the world. 'Something underneath the ground.'
The roar made them both start, ducking their heads reflexively. Dave looked around desperately.
A few metres away to the right, a crack in the ground had split open; new, white-hot lava becoming exposed as he watched. Adrenaline rushed through him. He wanted to run like an animal. Wanted to get away. Had to! But the rage in his blood moved nothing. He couldn't run. Couldn't move. Mustn't! The thing underneath the world would get him if he did! And then, sickeningly, his limbs suddenly jerked into life.
He was moving again. So was Tony. Slowly, deliberately.
Towards the lava.
'What's going on?!' screamed Tony. 'Stop! Grab something!' He started to beat his hands on his own legs, as if trying to knock himself off his feet. But then he jerked upright, swinging into a parody of a walking posture. 'I can't...' whispered Dave.
'Dave!' He could hear Tony screaming behind him. His feet were carrying him to the edge of the lava now. 'Stop! Don't go in there!'
And now Dave could hear another scream. Something which scared him nearly as much as that earlier sound had, when it rose up into the clean, clear sky with the smoke and obscured all his hopes and dreams.
His boots slipped on the edge. His hands refused to grab anything as his body gave way and plunged into the chasm.
There was just a moment before the heat shock of the soft, caressing lava burnt Dave's consciousness away.
And in that moment, he realised that the scream was his.