When Weis and Gregor started to get so far away that the surrounding darkness threatened to hide them from view, Ellie started to creep forward to keep Gregor within range of her torch. Bodil and Hobbes followed suit but with Hobbes’ torch now turning like a demented lighthouse to make sure nothing was creeping up on them while they tried to make sure nothing crept up Weis and Gregor.
In this way the two groups made their way down the incline until Weis suddenly shouted.
“Bugs! On the ground, twelve o’clock!”
Even twenty or so metres back the gunfire from, first, Weis’ weapon and then another when Gregor joined in, was literally deafening. Hobbes grabbed Bodil by the shoulders and was shouting something at her while trying to pull her back up the slope, but she could only see his mouth moving. Any sound he was making was drowned out by the ringing in her ears and it was only the louder cracks of more shots being fired that she could hear above that.
Bodil freed herself with a twist of her shoulders and the last she saw of the field archaeologist he was clawing his way back up the slope in a panic. She turned around to somehow try and tell Ellie that Hobbes had gone, but Ellie was now half way towards Gregor. The choice between following Hobbes or going after Ellie was made by her feet before her brain got a word in. Hobbes was heading towards safety… probably. But Bodil hadn’t got her reputation for being a right hardnosed bit… expedition leader for nothing so she was already several fast steps closer to the gunfire by the time her brain agreed with what her feet were already doing.
But even before Ellie had reached Gregor the gunfire ceased. Weis and Gregor stood with their weapons at the ready while sweeping in front of them with their torch beams.
When Bodil joined them her ears were still ringing so asking what had just happened seemed pointless. The lack of hearing, however, wasn’t such a problem for the other three and Bodil watched as a strange and silent conversation of hand gestures, fingers and fists took place in front of her.
Then Bodil was distracted a startled look on Ellie’s face that indicated something behind her. A fraction of a second later Gregor’s pistol pointed over her shoulder and Bodil closed her eyes. There was no gunshot. Fortunately neither was there the sudden pain of a giant tick’s mouth parts piercing her flesh. There was only Hobbes. Gregor relaxed, Ellie scowled and Bodil tried to slow her heart rate.
There were no comments directed to the field archaeologist. He had done the right thing. From early infancy it is absolutely drilled into everyone to get the hell away from anything that can kill you. Hobbes’ reactions were the natural ones. It was only the very specific training of the others that had allowed them to do the opposite… With a large degree of bloody-mindedness, too, in Bodil’s case.
As a tight group, they carefully made their way down the last few steps to the bottom of the escalator slope. Waiting for them were maybe a dozen or so shattered corpses of sergeant Glasser’s giant ‘London Ticks’. Some of the pale and fetid looking dead things were pretty well intact, with just a neat hole in the dorsal shield that leaked yellow ichor. Others, though, had been blown apart by the explosive rounds from Weis’ weapon and ranger Weis was now examining the various dead ticks with professional interest.
Slowly, as they all watched Weis poking about amongst the sticky remains, the ringing in Bodil’s ears subsided. She started to hear the movement of boots on the ground and the occasional random expletive from Ranger Weis.
“Well.” Bodil ventured, testing her voice. It sounded odd. “That was, interesting.”
The others took that as some kind of cue and a tension relieving conversation broke out. Well, except for Gregor of course. However, when Weis returned to them, wiping his fingers down the legs of his trousers, his expression wasn’t comforting.
“Problem?” Ellie asked.
“Yeah, could be, could be.”
Hobbes was already turning back up the tunnel.
“Perhaps we should head back then?”
“What kind of problem?” Bodil put in, while grabbing Hobbes by the arm.
Weis started with a sniff, something he always seemed to do.
“The thing is, all those little buggers we just shot up are all girlies. Some of ‘em ‘ave still got eggs attached. But some of ‘em ‘aven’t though. An’ that’s the problem.”
There was a general muttering along the lines of “Oh shit” as everyone understood the significance of Weis’ words.
“’Course,” Weis went on. “They might not ‘ave ‘atched yet. Might not. But if they ‘ave then there’s gonna be ‘undreds of the buggers. Could be crawlin’ with ‘em down there.” He indicated further into the darkness. “Depends ‘ow long they’ve bin ‘atched.”
Ellie cursed under her breath, but looked more annoyed than worried.
Bodil let go of Hobbe’s arm. Hobbes thankfully stayed put. Bodil turned to Weis.
“Is there any way of knowing? How long they might have been hatched for.”
Weis thought about it, screwing his nose up.
“My guess is a few days. All them females gather together to lay so they’re all gonna be layin about the same time. ‘Course that’s just goin’ by what we can see ‘ere. Might be there’s others further on that have bin an’ gone.”
“You mean, already laid their eggs and left?”
“Yeah.” He paused and did some more nose scrunching before again sniffing. “If you pushed me though, I’d say no. See,” He looked up at the ceiling and all around. “This is like perfect for them, just here. Further up the way we came it’s too wet, rots the eggs. Further on the way we’re going it’s gonna be too cold.”
Ellie re-joined the conversation.
“How do you know that?”
“Vegetation innit. Makes it warmer, all that nice warm mossy shit. Not gonna be enough water further on. No water, no mossy shit, no bugs.”
Ellie looked much less annoyed.
“Good. We go on. Weis, please take point. If you don’t mind I’d like Gregor up with you. Mister Hobbes, Professor Hill, you’re next. I’ll keep an eye out behind us.”
Weis didn’t look too happy at having his order of march changed but a moment’s thought showed him it made sense. The ticks could be behind them now as well.
They set off.