The last of the food was finished and the party set off again. Pretty soon more and more foliage started to appear and the humidity started to rise. Ranger Weis stopped everyone to remind them that they were once again entering the preferred climate for the giant London Ticks. Consequently, weapons were rechecked and caution cranked up a notch or two.
Mister Hobbes became increasingly twitchy. His torch beam flashed around erratically and everyone was becoming nervous. Not just nervous about meeting ticks, nervous instead about Hobbes accidently shooting someone.
Ellie called a halt with the excuse of checking Gregor’s bandage. During the pause she exchanged a meaningful look with Ranger Weis.
“Mister ‘Obbes.” Turning, Weis greeted the archaeologist cheerfully. He put an arm over the shoulders of the taller man and steered him a few steps away from the others. “Listen mate. We’re gonna be going up that escalator where we had the run in with all them bugs.” He saw the archaeologist swallow and look up the tunnel as if expecting to see hordes of the pale insectoids hurtling out of the darkness at any second. Weis squeezed his shoulders.
“Now, what wiv the big fellah out of commission as it were, I’m gonna need you to do like what he was doing before.”
Hobbes dragged his gaze away from the blackness to look at Weis quizzically.
“Wh… Erm, what do you mean?”
“Well, I’m going to go on a bit in front with old Joanna here.” He lifted his rifle so Hobbes could see. “So what I need you to do is to keep your torch shining on me all the time see. That way I can concentrate of what’s up ahead without ‘avin’ to worry about anythin’ creeping up behind me… cos you’ll be watching out for me, won’t you?”
Hobbes thought about it, realising that by doing what the ranger suggested it would mean that Weis and his rifle would be between him and any danger from the hideous ticks. He nodded enthusiastically.
“I can do that Ranger. I won’t let you out of my sight. I promise.”
“Good man.” Weis said, patting Hobbes’ shoulder. “Good man.” Then he pulled Hobbes down to head level so that he could whisper. “The thing is, though Mister ‘Obbes.” Weis melodramatically looked over his shoulder at where Ellie and Professor Hill fussed around Gregor. Then he turned back and pulled the archaeologist even closer. “The thing is, it would be better if you didn’t keep your weapon pointed at me too, ‘cause then the others might start thinking that you actually expect something to be behind me.” Weis smiled. “An’ we don’t want them two ladies getting all jumpy now do we?”
Hobbes was listening very carefully and eagerly agreeing to the logic of Weis’ words.
“Yes, yes. I see. Don’t you worry Ranger. I’ll do my bit.”
“So no pointy pointy with the gun Mister ‘Obbes. Okay?”
“Oh absolutely. No pointy pointy. Erm, what if I do see a bug.”
Weis used the same voice he used when one of the Gu-Nar walked into camp one day with one of Weis’ carefully laid booby traps proudly hanging from a thong around his neck.
“If you see a bug, and it’s going for me, I want you to shout very loud. What I don’t want you to do is to try and shoot it.” He waged a finger in front of Hobbes’ nose. “Okay?”
“Okay, got it. Erm, what if I see one and it’s coming towards me?”
Weis looked at Hobbes unblinkingly.
“You feel free to blow its bloody ‘ead off Mister ‘Obbes.”
Right. Yes. Got it.”
“Good man.” With a last pat on the archaeologist’s shoulder Weis turned back to the rest of the party.
Ellie’s glance upwards from where she was not adjusting Gregor’s bandage was met with an almost imperceptible nod from Weis. She stood up.
“All done here. Lead on Ranger Weis.”
“Right you are Missus.” Weis acknowledged, turning on his heel. As he passed Hobbes, he gave the man an exaggerated stage wink. Then he walked slowly into the darkness backlit in an unwavering beam of light from the archaeologist’s torch.
Hobbes let the ranger get almost to the limit of his beam before setting off after him, so concentrated on keeping the little man illuminated that his hand never once shook.
Behind Hobbes Ellie and Gregor shuffled forward, managing to keep the easy pace Weis had set.
Behind them Bodil turned in the opposite direction and, searching with her torch as she did so, listened intently for any sounds coming from the way they had just come. Satisfied, only then did she turn back and hurry to catch up with the others.
As it turned out, the climb back up the escalator proved entirely uneventful. It was slow and about half way up archaeologist Hobbes had to help Ellie support a sweating and grimacing Gregor up the slope. But nothing attacked them. They never saw or heard any bugs at all. Not even the little translucent juveniles that hadn’t yet learned not to automatically attack anything that moved. Weis actually felt a little disappointed, he had been looking forward to stomping the little sods underfoot.
At last the party reached the concourse at the top of the escalator and their luck still held out. Now they only had to work their way along the narrow passages and up a final flight of stone steps onto the main ticket concourse where the vertical shaft led up into the fresh air.
Bodil checked her wrist. 15:17. They had been down here for over seven hours, it would likely be eight hours by the time they reached the surface. Oh for a shower. Even if there was no hot water, as long as she could stand under some kind of watery cascade and wash off the dirt, the sweat and the dried blood. As they reached the foot of the steps up to the ticket concourse she could feel the draught of fresh air from above. She closed her eyes.
“Oh, can you just feel that?” She opened her eyes again when she ran into the stationary wall that was Gregor’s back.
Up ahead Weis held up a fist. Everyone stood still.
“Never mind that.” He whispered. “Can you hear… that?”
Bodil dragged her tired thoughts away from showers and fresh air and listened. From up the steps, from up above them in the main concourse, came a persistent chittering, clicking, scampering of hard insect feet. Lots and lots of insect feet.