Bodil held her ground, amused at what was going to be their guide and 'protector' on the expedition. Ranger Weis was short, about Ellie's height.
His uniform was creased, patched and very stained. A miasma of throat catching proportions crossed the metre or so separating her from Weis.
The unsavoury whole was topped off by a long, thin, rat-like face with a receding line of short black hair. Weis looked like the kind of man you would not like to meet in a dark street...
or even a brightly lit one, outside of a police station, during a shift change.
It was Ellie, then, who stepped forward to shake the Ranger's outstretched hand.
While the sweat from Weis' palm left an unforgettable oily texture on her skin, Ellie looked into the little man's face, into those dark, intense eyes,
and had a sudden gut-tightening deja vu experience that would haunt her dreams for weeks to come.
"Pleased to meet you, Ranger Weis," Ellie began, giving a minimal handshake before unconsciously wiping her palm down the leg of her trousers.
"My name is Ellie, this is Professor Hill and this," turning to Gregor, "is Gregor."
Weis smiled and nodded a greeting to each in turn.
"Nice to meet you Prof. Wotcha Gregor, you're a big un ain'tcha?"
Still rubbing her right hand against her leg, as if a modern-day Lady Macbeth, Ellie held out her left hand to the 4x4 they had been assigned.
"Shall we get started? Ranger Weis, you'll drive, I assume."
The party loaded up their own packs and climbed aboard. Weis in the driver seat.
Ellie, reluctantly, next to him while Bodil and Gregor tried to come to some comfortable arrangement on the not quite long enough back seat.
"Buckle up folks," Weis called out cheerfully while doing just that. "The roads ain't up to much out there and we might 'ave to do some, what the manual calls 'assertive driving'."
Weis had one speed, fast. The 4x4's suspension had long since given up the ghost. This combination resulted in an interesting journey.
The assertive driving Weis had hinted at involved bulldozing over any creature they happened to meet, and even some Weis had to go out of his way to intercept.
It took them nearly an hour to drive the fourteen kilometres to their destination.
Aching, nauseous and just a little blood-spattered, everyone climbed out of the vehicle and collected their belongings.
The area they had stopped in was a lush green landscape of bushes and ferns with trees of various sizes fighting to gain a foothold on the debris of the collapsed buildings that were now
nothing more than lumpy hills with occasional short lengths of stumpy, ivy-covered walls.
In the middle of all this, Weis had parked them next to a single large marquee tent of sun-bleached orange canvas.
From its centre pole hung a limp azure blue flag decorated with the golden disc and crescent of the Troys. Its newness oddly incompatible against the long service of the marquee.
On the other side of the tent was a pick-up. This, too, displayed a small and very new Troy family flag amateurishly attached to the top of its radio antenna.
Ellie rolled her eyes but was stopped from making a comment by the throwing back of a tent flap and the sudden appearance of a man in clean,
crisp clothing that looked just as out of place as the flags.
All eyes turned to the new arrival. Gregor took a step forward, which had the effect of stopping the man dead in his tracks.
Sufficiently warned, the man's eyes quickly scanned the four arrivals and then flicked back to settle on Ellie.
When the man spoke, his voice held a little keening note of suppressed anxiety.
"Miss Troy. A pleasure to have you visit us. My name is Timothy Nietzsche-Hume, Russel-Hobbes.
" Turning his head to check it was ok with Gregor, Hobbes extended a hand and risked a nervous step towards Ellie.
The giant never moved, so both motions were successfully completed, if somewhat awkwardly. "I'm to be your guide."
Ellie shook the man's hand in a perfunctory but not unfriendly way.
"Thank you for meeting us, er... Doctor...?"
"Doc... oh, no. Sorry. Just Mister for now. I am, or rather I was, the senior field archaeologist on the dig."
Ellie held onto the hand.
"So you're not anymore? How so?"
Mister Hobbes' nervousness ratcheted up a notch. It didn't help that his hand was being held in a surprisingly firm grip for such a small woman.
"Well, no. The, dig. Well, it's over. At least for now." He started to gabble. "I mean, it may be re-opened at some point. If, if you want it re-opening then I'm sure..."
Bodil stepped forward and interrupted Hobbes before he managed to insert his whole foot.
"Ellie. By the time the finds from a dig arrive back at their museum, or whatever, then the dig itself will already have concluded.
It's likely that it took some weeks at least after this dig ended for all the finds we found to have been cleaned and catalogued before being sent to us.
The field teams would have been re-assigned ages ago."
Ellie released the hand.
"I see." She offered a smile to Hobbes. "Oh well, at least we won't be getting in anybody's way then.
" Ellie moved towards the marquee and Hobbes just managed to dart in front of her to hold back the flap.
Inside the tent, the four gathered in front of the only thing of interest, a large hole in the ground.
Hobbes flipped some switches on a small portable panel and then joined them in peering down over the edge.
Now illuminated, the vertical shaft went down for about four metres, ending in muddy duckboards. A wooden ladder indicated how they were going to get down there.
Hobbes led the way, swinging out onto the ladder.
"I'm afraid the lifting gear was removed to another dig."
Bodil was next. Already the familiar thrill was buzzing through her as she tightened the straps on her pack and then followed Hobbes.
Ellie followed suit, then Weis. Then everybody stepped back well away from the foot of the ladder as Gregor committed his weight to the rungs.
It was Weis, looking up who voiced the question.
"We, er, we do have another ladder, right? You know, just in case?"
Three heads turned to Hobbes for the answer. Unfortunately, Hobbes answer came in the form of two frightened eyes and an open mouth.
More fortunately, Gregor arrived at the foot of the ladder, and the question became moot. Bodil sidled up to Hobbes and whispered in his ear.
"Are there any more ladders we have to go down?"
Hobbes shook his head.
"No, no more ladders. Some awkward, slippery-ish, slopes but no more ladders. I promise."
Bodil patted the man on the shoulder.
Before them now lay one such slope. Ellie examined it.
"Lead on Mister Hobbes."
Hobbes stepped onto the first angled, muddy, treacherous looking duckboard and edged forwards and downwards. Ellie watched him, and when there was room, she tapped Gregor on the arm.
"Greggie? Be a sweetie and go next, would you?"
Further down the slope, Hobbes risked a panicky glance over his shoulder. What he saw smiling at him, pushed his nervousness up two more notches.
Although vastly overgrown there were indications along the way that the descent they were making was definitely an ancient man-made construction.
Even a few yellowing tiles stuck to the remaining concrete where the roots of growing things hadn't yet managed to force their way through.
The ground, though, and even under the duckboards, was littered with thousands upon thousands of broken tiles and lumps of concrete and rusted rebar.
Never mind the killer fauna, Bodil thought as she edged her way down behind Ellie, it would be tetanus that would likely get you if you slipped over onto that lot.
Eventually, and without incident, they reached the bottom.
Now the hanging LEDs thinned out considerably, their pools of light barely touching each other over the uneven floor and dripping ceiling. Flashlights became the order of the day.
The air they walked in stank of dampness and rotting vegetation. For no real reason, they followed Hobbes in reverent silence until he led them through into a dimly lit open area.
Bodil tripped on something and almost fell. Ellie caught her with a strong steadying arm. They both automatically looked at what had caused the trip.
A rib cage, its ochre bones showing its great age.
Prey or predator, or just some victim of an accidental fall, it was impossible to tell, but its presence was a reminder that things died down here.
Hobbes came back to see what had happened. His torch took in the skeletal remains.
"Animal, maybe a deer. We did find some human remains. Not ancient either. Pathology told us that whoever they were, they were malnourished and diseased when they died.
The Gu-Nar wouldn't go near them."
Losing interest, Hobbes stepped back so that everyone could see him. He cleared his throat to get attention.
"This is the first area we excavated..."
Bodil interrupted him.
"You mean the second. What about the entry point?"
"Ah, right, no. That had already been done. The Gu-Nar showed it to us when they understood that we were looking for underground tunnels. The entry point was made by someone else.
Whoever they were, though, they didn't follow any kind of recognisable archaeological procedure."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as far as I'm aware, and you too, Professor. High explosives aren't the most delicate of tools for opening up archaeology."
"Explosives? Can you tell when?"
"Not my field but someone reckoned about a hundred years ago." Hobbes nodded at Weis, who was standing away from everyone else, his rifle across his chest. "You should ask Specialist Weis.
Things that go boom are his thing."
Weis, hearing his name looked up."
"Eh wot? It wasn't me. I've got witnesses."
Behind her black glasses, Ellie squeezed her eyes shut. She shook her head imperceptibly to clear the image that blossomed at Weis' words. Even so, it made her smile.