A swell of skittering feet and chittering noises reached his ears after just a few steps. A few seconds later the grenade drowned the noise out for a few moments—the blast was brutal in the tunnel—but he focused all his energy on running as fast as he could.
Moments later he heard the mine detonate and was slapped by another blast of air. “Fuck, my ears are going to be toast,” he panted. He pulled another grenade out of his vest to drop behind him, but couldn’t juggle his carbine and pull the pin at the same time.
The chittering was getting louder as he caromed through the twisting tunnel. “How—damn—long—is—this—thing?” he yelled between breaths. It felt like he’d been running for miles.
When he was thirty yards from the tunnel entrance—daylight streamed inside and spilled against the wall at the final corner—he chanced a glance backward.
A dozen bugs were following him, no more than ten yards behind him and gaining.
He skidded on the stone floor as he tried to slow for the turn out the entrance. He slammed into the wall, and saw Farro jumped at the noise, spinning to face him, raising his carbine.
Lucas ducked and dropped his carbine, letting it hang from its sling and flop around as he ran. He pulled the pin on the grenade he was still carrying, and held the spoon firmly in place.
“Incoming!,” Lucas yelled, and barely made it out the cave mouth before the first of the swarm of bugs spilled out.
Farro sidestepped as Lucas stumbled and fell hard on the hill outside the cave and opened fire on the bugs. Lucas could barely hear the shots from Farro’s carbine after the punishment his ears had taken in the tunnel.
He rolled over awkwardly, wincing at the pain in his mouth. He’d loosened some teeth on the butt of his carbine when he fell. He threw the grenade into the tunnel mouth, yelling “Frag out!” and spraying bloody spit on the ground beside him.
Farro had killed several bugs as soon as they’d tried to leave the cave, causing a jam at the cave entrance. The swarm was trying to climb over, but he was coolly putting double taps into each one that tried, making the pileup larger.
Lucas heard Farro curse as his rifle ran dry, and a single bug made it out of the tunnel intact before the grenade exploded, blowing chunks of the dog-size creatures over the men.
The sole surviving bug landed on its back after the blast and struggled to right itself. Lucas faced a struggle of his own as he tried to untangle his carbine. The sling had hung up on something and he couldn’t get it free to shoot the bug.
“Fuck!” he yelled, as the bug came upright and launched itself at him. He desperately grabbed for his pistol and had just closed his hand on the grip when a giant came in from the side and punted the bug, hard.
The bug flew a dozen yards through the air, chittering madly, legs flailing, before plummeting fifty yards down the sheer cliff beyond the edge of the path to the cave.
“Damn, Johnson. Glad to see you’re feeling better,” Lucas grinned at his friend.
Johnson smiled back, and went to one knee, grunting in pain. Lucas was surprised to see his hands were flex-cuffed in front of him. Farro came into view, and his arm was splinted.
“What the hell?” he looked at Farro for explanation.
“Long story.” Farro said, sighing. “Let’s patch the big guy back up, and you can tell us where you’ve been for 12 hours.”
“This is some seriously weird shit,” Johnson said, from where he was leaning against his pack. His hands were still cuffed, and he had an open MRE entree pouch held between his boots. He frowned as he tried to eat without spilling his food.
“Tell me about it,” Farro muttered. He winced as Lucas finished tying his splinted arm to his chest. Lucas had had to set the bone; Farro had jarred it out of place trying to support his carbine to shoot the bugs. “You’re sure Weller’s body was… up and talking?”
“Well, he wasn’t where we left him. And there was no sign his body was dragged away. Looked to me like he got up himself.” Lucas said. “And I told you, I talked to him.”
“And you’re sure you were only in there for ten minutes,” Farro said.
“Yeah, man. Ten minutes, tops. He attacked me almost as soon as I got to that central room.”
“Fuck,” Farro said. “I know we’ve seen some weird stuff, but we’re talking about… time travel, I guess.”
“At least we know why the guys left,” Lucas said. “But why didn’t they send someone in?”
Johnson swore under his breath as he almost knocked the food pouch over. “Maybe they did, and they didn’t see us.”
“What do you mean?” Lucas asked.
“You guys need to read more,” Johnson said around a mouthful of plastic spoon, as he righted his food pouch. It sounded like “Oo guysh eed oo read ore”. He stuck the spoon back in the pouch and continued.
“There’s two possibilities. Either there’s some kind of time dilation effect in the tunnels, where time outside runs much faster, or it’s like we were taken out of time for awhile. So when they went in there, they didn’t see us. I mean, they should’ve seen the mines, right? They should’ve known we wouldn’t leave mines behind us.”
“Nerd,” Farro said, shaking his head.
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t really matter.” Lucas said. “They’re gone, and we don’t know when they’re coming back.” He paused, and heaved a deep breath before continuing.
“Shit, they might’ve already been back if it is the time dilation or whatever. We were in there for over an hour the first time, and if my ten minutes was twelve hours, that hour could’ve been over three days. We have no idea what day it is out here.”
“So, what do we do?” Farro asked. “We’re going to be black on water pretty damn soon.” They’d each had three liters of water on them, and were down to about a liter each. Even in the shade of the rocky hill, it was hot. Especially in full battle rattle.
“No radio, no GPS, no map. Not even a flare.” Lucas ticked off his fingers. “We take our best guess at where the MSR is and head down there. Try to follow the tracks our trucks left, as much as we can. Then hope a convoy comes by before a bunch of hajis show up.”
He turned to Johnson. “You up to walking?”
Johnson shrugged and nodded. “I feel okay. A lot better than I should, with a knife wound in my back.”
“And that’s why you don’t want us to uncuff you.” Lucas said, flatly.
“That’s right. You might be better off leaving me up here,” Johnson said seriously.
“Fuck that, man.” Farro said. He touched his splinted arm unconsciously. “We’re not leaving you behind, no way.”
“Farro’s right,” Lucas said, firmly. “No way. Whatever’s up with you, Dare or one of the other magic types will know how to fix it.”
Johnson shrugged. “Well, what are we waiting for?”