Hobbes was backing away, his head slowly moving from side to side as his brain tried to deny what his ears were telling him. He managed two whole steps before making a sandwich of Gregor with Bodil on the other side. Gregor closed his hand around the archaeologist’s right wrist, just in case the he got careless with the pistol he was holding. Hobbes turned his head and looked up into Gregor’s pain filled eyes.
“Are you okay?” The big bodyguard asked quietly.
Hobbes seemed to pull himself together.
“Yes. I… It was…” He took a breath. “I’m okay, thanks.”
Gregor let go of the man’s wrist.
“Okay then. Just be calm.”
Hobbes turned away, nodding and massaging his wrist with his other hand.
While this little exchange was going on Ranger Weis was very slowly edging his way up the steps. When just the top of his head creeped above floor level he stopped and took in the scene.
From left to right the part tilled, part ceiling rubble filled floor area was a sea of mottled white and red translucent carapaces. Hundreds of juvenile ticks in various stages of development, most being from between ten to thirty centimetres long, skittered hither and thither across the floor. Some fought with each other in deadly single combat while elsewhere seething piles of them indicated what happened to the losers. Scattered body parts confirming the cannibalistic fate of the unsuccessful combatants.
What Weis wasn’t seeing, though, was any adults. It was only when his eyes adjusted from the gloom of the concourse to the bright shaft of afternoon sunlight illuminating what he thought were rocks at the base of the shaft that he realised that all the adult bugs were piled together in a high pyramid there. Dozens of them, each slowly trying to climb on the backs of the others so that the whole pile collapsed and rebuilt itself before then collapsing again. Just as slowly, Weis made his way back down the steps and reported what he had seen to the others.
The whispered discussion that followed was in danger of becoming more heated and more audible and so attracting the horde of ticks down on them like an avalanche. That was until Weis stopped it dead.
“Look, it’s only bugs. We can deal with a bunch of bloody bugs. The alternative, though, is goin’ all the way back again and maybe tryin’ to get through a bloody big worm and after that maybe more of them bloody creepers.”
Bodil got in first with the obvious objection.
“But you said there were hundreds of them.”
“Juveniles. I said there was hundreds of juveniles. You can jump up and down on them and squash ‘em flat ‘cause their shells are still soft.”
“What about the adults?”
Weis held up a finger.
“I’ve thought of that.” Holding his rifle between his knees Weis pulled of his pack and dropped it in the middle of the group. Opening it he delved inside and pulled out one of the belts of grenades he had brought from Wembley. “I didn’t know if these were gonna come in handy or not so I only fetched one belt down with me.”
Bodil looked at the grenades doubtfully. They didn’t look particularly dangerous. Basically they were just a small metal ball about the size of a pool ball but with a protrusion on the top. Weis pulled one of them free from the belt.
“Ignore the top one, that’s smoke, the last thing we need down ‘ere.” He twisted and then flipped over the protruding part to reveal a simple red painted metal button. “Press this, chuck it at the pile of adults at the bottom of the shaft and three seconds later it goes boom.” He carefully covered the button again and twist-locked the cap back into place. “I reckon three will do the trick if we throw them together. That’ll leave us one for any emergency.”
“Like it not working?”
Weis turned to Hobbes. The look he gave the archaeologist was not kind.
“It’ll work Mister ‘Obbes. If it doesn’t we can always run back down the tunnel can’t we? Oh wait…” Hobbes withered under the little ranger’s stare. Weis sniffed pointedly and carried on. “We’re gonna have to use feet, guns, anything we have to get close enough to throw the grenades. After they’ve gone off we make a run for the ladder. Then I’ll hold ‘em back with Joanna long enough for you to get up.”
Everyone looked at each other. It was a plan. Not much of a plan, but still a plan and much better than going back, Bodil thought, with a mental image of what was likely behind them and probably getting closer even now.
Those without guns looked in their packs for any kind of a weapon. Bodil offered Ellie her trowel, it was the only thing she had that looked in any way offensive. Ellie looked at it then smiled as she politely shook her head and pulled from her own pack a cloth wrapped something. Unwrapped it revealed itself to be a long, broad-bladed combat knife. The archaeologist in Bodil recognised it as being very old, probably pre-sirtuin. Ellie looked at it fondly for a moment before becoming business-like again.
Bodil was about to offer the trowel to Gregor, but, Gregor was already flexing the fingers of his hammer-like fists. She shrugged and stuffed the trowel back into her pack.
Weis then went through the plan again before handing a grenade to Ellie. He held back a moment from handing one to Gregor.
“Thinks you can lob this big man?”
“I can stick it up my ass and fart it further than you can throw ‘little man’. I can do it.”
Weis grinned back happily and the grenade disappeared into Gregor’s fist.
“Okay then folks. Let’s do this. Keep together and watch each other’s backs.”
Just as slowly as Weis had done earlier the tight group of five climbed the steps. Like Weis had done, they also stopped before reaching the top so that their eyes could adjust and they could see for themselves what Weis had described.
Bodil’s stomach cramped and she felt like she needed to pee. Hobbes supplied the words to what she was feeling.
“Holy Mother.” He whispered, very very quietly. “Holy fucking Mother.”
“Steady now.” Weis warned. “It’s just bugs. Concentrate on stomping the little buggers into paste and remember that the really dangerous ones are gonna get blown to shit… Pardon my fucking language.”