Slowly, they completed the journey out of the stairwell and onto the concourse. The escalator slope that led up to the entrance excavation was about thirty metres away. They would need to get right up to the base of it to be able to lob their grenades up into the seething mass of adult ticks.
Right now, though, they were becoming the centre of attention of the hundreds of smaller juveniles that almost carpeted the concourse floor. The smaller ticks, those about the size of your foot, swarmed towards the party immediately. The larger, older ones held back, waving their antennae in the air as if assessing if the newcomers were food or threat.
And so it began. The leading edge of the wave of semi-transparent insectoids met their deaths under the feet of the five man stomping machine as it inched across the mostly unseen tiled floor. Many more were stopped by finding the sudden and unexpected delicacy of the splattered insides of their fallen comrades. These in turn provided a bridge for the rear ranks to scamper over in their mad rush towards the sweet smelling meat that had come amongst them so willingly. Now some of the older juveniles joined their smaller cousins. Their initial caution drowned out by the need to feed.
For the party it meant that the going became harder as they had to raise their feet higher to crush the climbers. Hands and weapons swatted away those bugs that had escaped the stomping and had climbed past the impenetrable leather of the boots to try and sink their teeth into less protected areas of leg. Occasional gunshots were now also required to take out the bigger ticks before they could get to them and do more serious damage.
By the time the party was half way to the escalator trough their muscles were starting to ache from the effort. It wasn’t helping that painful bites oozed blood, adding to the insect gore which now completely soaked their legs and boots.
Despite his injuries Gregor worked overtime keeping the scrambling insects off his team mates, ignoring those which climbed and bit his own body until he had a free moment to deal with them. Fortunately, many of the ticks were being attracted to Gregor’s blood soaked clothing but found the stiff foam bandage underneath them impossible to penetrate.
They were almost at the foot of the escalator when the mass of the older juveniles, those who had held back, decided to attack. Weis, supported by Hobbes and Bodil did sterling work with their weapons, holding them back while Ellie and Gregor did their best to keep the seemingly never ending stream of smaller ticks off them.
The massed gunfire forced the larger ticks to a sticky standstill, mainly due to Weis’ ‘Joanna’ spewing out a full auto 7.6mm firestorm, saving the heavy calibre explosive rounds for his stand at the base of the ladder. Then the twin drums at last spun empty and now there was only the crack of the two pistols to be heard over the squishy, sucky, sticky advance of the remaining ticks. The bigger ones again waved their antennae in the air. Weis and Bodil glanced at each other. Hobbes cursed.
While the smaller bugs still came on relentlessly, the larger ones now crept over their fallen with more caution. Then they stopped again, their antennae working overtime. Then, incredibly, they backed away for a few steps before suddenly surging forward, past the incredulous party, even knocking their smaller brethren flying as they funnelled their way into the escalator troughs and upwards towards the adults. Many of the smaller ticks followed them until only the smallest of them was left vainly snapping at the boots of the amazed humans. Five pairs of boots made short work of those and the party was soon left standing victorious in the stinking mess of splattered bugs that formed a thick, wide trail all the way back to the stairs.
Hobbes raised his arms in the air.
“Yes! We beat the fuckers! Look at them run!”
And it was true. Where before only the adults filled the area below the entrance hole, now it was a seething mass of all sizes, all climbing over each other to be the top of the pile.
“Effing perfect.” Weis crooned, taking out his grenade. Bodil and Gregor followed suit while Hobbes, his arms still raised, danced a stomping jig of sorts amongst the slippery corpses of the countless ticks they had slaughtered.
“After three ok?”
The three grenadiers flipped open the caps and three thumbs hovered over the three red buttons.
“One… Twoooo… Three!”
The little balls sailed upwards and disappeared into the morass of squirming bugs.
They just had time to drop and cover their heads before there was a short rolling explosion as the three grenades went off and the air was immediately filled by a cloud of disintegrating insects. Hobbes wasn’t quite so lucky. He missed the shout to duck entirely and as a result was left with his arms still raised above his head, covered in insect offal and spitting pieces of carapace out of his mouth. He was a figure of mixed amusement and pity to the others when they stood up again. Bodil helped him clean up while the others stood around the base of the escalator watching a slow ‘waterfall’ of dead insects slide down onto the concourse.
It was only when a shower of plaster fell on the heads of the bug stompers that they thought to look around. Plaster dust hung in the air all across the concourse.
“It’ll be the concussion wave.” Ellie said.
Weis stepped away from the brightness near the escalator, shading his eyes to try and see better.
“There was no concussion wave. Well, there was, but it was made up of bug bits.”
“Do you think the roof will fall in?”
Weis was looking unhappy.
“Nah, not from three itty bitty grenades.”
Bodil stepped away from the still dripping and complaining Hobbes to get water from her pack to help clean him down.
There was another fall of plaster from the ceiling, followed by a few ceiling tiles. The few tiles became a constant stream moving in a straight line across the ceiling towards the. Then another line of falling tiles began from the ceiling above the far side of the concourse. Then another. Then the same thing only along the near wall. All of the lines were moving directly towards them. Weis was backing away.
“I think we need to get out of here.”
Everyone was watching the strange falling tiles except Gregor who moved closer to Ellie. Hobbes was looking around.
“Is it an earthquake?”
Weis started shepherding them towards the escalator. He looked over his shoulder to answer the archaeologist.
“I don’t think so Mister Hobbes...”
Which was as far as he got as the opening jaws of the carrion worm rose from a pile of erupting soil and concrete to close around Hobbes’ torso and drag the shocked looking archaeologist back down into the ground.
For a second nobody moved. Then the ceiling cracked open and another carrion worm dropped the seven and a half metres to the floor. It lay stunned only for a second before seeming to shake itself awake. At the same time the wall closest to them split open and a third giant worm hung from the hole, waving its snapping jaws as it tried to free itself further.
“Everybody out! Run!”
The voice was Gregor’s, who was already pushing his boss towards the slippery duckboards of the escalator.
Weis blinked. Slinging his almost empty rifle over his shoulder he pulled the last grenade from the belt, armed it and tossed it down the hole Hobbes had been dragged down. If the man wasn’t already dead he hoped this act of mercy would make his end quicker than the one those dripping jaws promised. Then he turned and ran with the others.
Somehow, despite several falls along the way, they all managed to make it up to the base of the ladder. Looking back down the escalator trough into the gloom below it was apparent that the worms were having even more difficulty managing the slick aluminium walls and wooden duckboards, but they were coming and now there were more of them too. Weis counted six so far but who knows how many more were going to emerge from the earth that surrounded them. He had exactly eleven rounds of heavy calibre rifle ammo left.
Behind him, Gregor had insisted Bodil and Ellie go first. In fact, despite direct orders to the contrary he manhandled Ellie and lifted her up onto the ladder behind the professor. Only then did she get the message and clamber up after Bodil. Once they were moving Gregor started to climb but his own weight was much greater than that of his boss and it was hard going. Below him he heard the first shots from the ranger’s rifle. Gritting his teeth he redoubled his efforts.
Weis had dropped two of the worms dead in the trough below him. The problem now was that the remaining worms, now eight, found clambering over their kins’ corpses easier going than the tick lubricated empty trough. Two more rounds killed another. To Weis the dead worm seemed to have had a grin on its face thinking it had outsmarted the human prey.
“No so smart now are you?” He muttered and he glanced over his shoulder to see how far Gregor had climbed. About half way it turned out. A quick calculation told Weis that at the current rate the rest of the worms would join him at the base of the ladder just as Gregor was getting to the top. “Oh fuckety, fuckety fuck fuck.” He put an explosive round each into two more worms and hoped that it would slow them down a bit as he bolted for the ladder.
Bodil climbed out of the hole panting hard. She had never been so scared in her life. Ellie appeared at her side.
“Find a rope!”
Bodil looked around frantically but aside from the console for the electric lights there was absolutely nothing.
“I’ll check the truck!”
With a look of pure determination turning her mouth into a snarl Ellie went for the console.
“No Time. Help me with these wires.”
Gregor knew that the wounds in his abdomen had opened. He could feel his strength ebbing away and his fingers were going numb. We turned his head to warn Weis that he was going to fall but his head swam and it was all he could do to hold on to the ladder. He felt a weight on his back.
“P…Poppy. No, not now… not…”
“Shut up Greggie, it’s me.”
Ellie passed the cable under Gregor’s arms and tied it off in a bowline. Then she scampered back up the ladder just in time to help Bodil take the huge man’s weight.
While Gregor’s almost limp body inched its way upwards Weis held on to the ladder below him and pointed the rifle down into the gaping maw a metre below his feet. He pulled the trigger.
Using strength they didn’t know they possessed, Ellie and Bodil managed to haul the barely crawling Gregor up over the rim of the hole. Running to him they each took an arm and pulled. To their surprise Gregor now seemed to move fairly easily, then Weis appeared, with his head wedged between the big man’s thighs, and pushing with all his might with his legs. All four of them tumbled onto the grass floor of the tent.
Very much to Bodil’s surprise Weis thrust his rifle into her arms.
“Here! Shoot the fuckers while we move Lumpy here out of the way.”
Not waiting Weis then took most of the weight of the big bodyguard as he and Ellie manhandled him out of the tent. They went about five metres before Weis dropped Gregor and doubled back.
Bodil looked at the rifle in her hands. She looked at the hole in the ground. She looked at the head of the worm reaching up out of it towards her.
Weis heard the first shot as he reached the flatbed truck they had arrived in.
“Three.” He sniffed as he pulled a steel box towards him.
The second shot seemed closer and he figured the Proff was backing away… which wasn’t good.
Inside the box was the other grenade belt and a whole load of paper wrapped packets. He lifted out the belt with one hand while rummaging in one of his numerous pockets for something with the other. He finally pulled out what looked like a pen with a ring on one end. He jabbed the end of the pen into the nearest paper package then put the grenade belt back into the box. Which is about when the third shot rang out.
“One. Get running Proff! Big bang incoming.”
Bodil pulled the trigger again but didn’t hear the click as the firing pin fell onto an empty chamber. The ringing in her ears also meant that she didn’t hear Weis either. But, the twisting, intertwining bodies of two very annoyed carrion worms was more than enough to convince her that now was the time to leave. She almost ran into the little ranger as Weis, carrying a metal box in his hands and holding some kind of metal ring in his teeth, barrelled past her. Bodil continued running to where Ellie was pulling a crawling Gregor along towards a low mound. She ran to them and had started helping when Weis appeared from the tent screaming at the top of his lungs, not that Bodil heard.
But Ellie did and pulled her and Gregor down to the ground.
At that moment the ground came up and punched all three of them in the chest, winding them all. Bodil just had time to look up and see, arms and legs floundering, a bemused Weis looking down at her as he sailed overhead to land somewhere on the other side of the mound.
Several minutes later came the sound of the vertibird rotors getting louder as it got closer to the column of red smoke Ellie had set off. On the mound, the remaining four members of the party were looking back at the wide, shallow crater where the orange tent had once stood over a rocky hole. The mood was sombre and tinged with a little guilt. Hobbes may not have been a brave man and even though he was definitely annoying, he had not deserved a death like that.
Weis, chewing a blade of grass, watched as Ellie tenderly attended to Gregor’s injuries. He didn’t know who these people were or why they were here but they’d done alright by his book.