The backpack must have weighed 100 pounds by the time I had it full of all the things I thought I’d need or want. Medicines, snacks, clothes, a pillow and blanket. And then the tools, and the night-vision goggles, and lastly, the rifle.
I sat next to it in the middle of my floor, eating McDonald’s for what I thought might be the last time in my life and watching Big Bang Theory on my computer. A red light glowed intermittently on the wall near the door. I had a voice mail. I probably had many voice mails, all from Roger who no doubt was furious. I had finally shut off my cell phone, because it seemed to be ringing every five minutes and at least half of those calls were from Roger.
There was no going back. I sipped my soda.
The room was dark, other than the glow of my computer monitor and the voice mail light. When I got back from shopping the room was empty. There was no sign of the stink bug. Here, five hours later, I was starting to feel a little sick.
What if I had dreamed the whole thing?
What if I just threw away my job for nothing?
It was well past midnight. I slumped onto my pack.
The phone buzzed, jarring me awake. I reluctatly rose to answer it.
“Hello,” I said.
“Nate! Finally!” Roger’s voice flooded the room. “Where the hell did you go?”
His words echoed in my head.
“Nate? You there?”
“Did you hear me?”
The computer keyboard was illuminated by the monitor. I saw a bug crawling on it. “K’eel?”
The bug waved it’s antennae.
“What?” said Roger. “We need you here, man.”
“I have things to do,” I muttered. “I’ll call you when I’m back in town.”
“Wait. What? Where are you going?”
I leaned close to the bug, with the phone still pressed to my ear. “Later Rog. Bye.”
“No. Wait. Nate!” I cut him off with the press of a button.
“So how do we do this, K’eel?”
The bug opened its wings and flew to my luggage. I hefted the pack onto my shoulders. “I hope I can carry this.”
K’eel landed on the back of my hand. “Let’s go,” she said, and everything went grey.
My legs were leaden by the time I finally saw the light of the Vr’ak’l’s sun. The ladder was already there and waiting when I stepped from the marshmallow floor onto the solid rock of the white wall. K’eel was perched at the lip of the cave. V’x stood on the simple ladder of branches lashed together that the Vr’ak’l had hastily made for me to use.
I slumped against the wall and slid out of the backpack. “K’eel, I can’t carry this all the way.”
K’eel fluffed at me. “We cannot carry something so heavy.”
“Maybe you can carry some of it?”
“I will bear some of it,” volunteered V’x.
K’eel hissed at V’x. “You both have a long walk.” K’eel turned to me. “Can you make it smaller?”
“Yeah, there’s lots of little things in here. I can break it down.”
“Can you carry it down to the bottom?”
I peered over the edge. “I guess I have to.”
“We must hurry then. Night will be upon us soon,” said V’x.
I shrugged back into the shoulder straps and lowered myself onto the ladder. It creaked ominously under my weight. As I dropped rung by rung the ladder swayed and cracked ominously. I was more than halfway down when the ladder rocked. A loud snap, and the ladder shifted to the right. Suddenly I was falling.
Read Chapter 26.
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