==> Bel: Get some bad news.
You’re covered from horns to toes in mud when your phone beeps the troll morse code for AD, indicating Jethro is trolling you.
It’s been a productive day. You dug up the old corrugated flex-pipe that ran from Galley’s reservoir tank to his cabin, drained and cleaned the tank, installed more durable pipe, replaced the long-corroded old pump, and started the reservoir refilling – for the first time since, presumably, shortly after Galley was taken away – with fresh, filtered river water instead of muddy backwash.
Then you cut out the old rusty pipes, which made a terrible racket but went pretty fast, and set the drone to putting in the replacement plumbing. You’d been hoping to get it all done in time to have a bath, but it’s getting on toward morning and you’re pretty sure the drone has hours of work left to do.
So instead of bathing properly, you just take Buglet down to the river for a wash. You sit chest-deep in the shallows in your shorts, grub on your head, to swipe the mud off yourself. When it comes time to rinse your hair, you hold Buglet up in one hand to keep it out of the water while you lie back. But it gives a sudden squirm and falls. You sit up quickly, prepared to rummage a panicky drowning grub out of the weeds, but find that the fat little creature floats quite nicely. You pick it up. It spits water at you, gives a piercing crow of triumph, and rolls off your hand into the water again.
You get your phone out, but you don’t answer your texts yet; you need the camera first. You film Buglet using your hand as a diving board. Buglet bobbing around between your knees, all six tiny pointy legs paddling madly. Buglet spitting and blowing bubbles. You perch it on a lily pad, and it’s light enough that it doesn’t sink it, though when you try to have Buglet wear a water lily as a hat it tries to eat the lily and in the process capsizes the leaf. When you fish it out, curled around its tasty flower prize, it makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like a laugh. As for you, you’ve been laughing all along.
Finally, you spread out a beach towel on the shore and lie on it to drip-dry. Buglet burrows into the crook of your neck, gnawing sleepily on your hair. You send Galley and Lu the video you took. Then, at last, you answer Jethro.
AD: = bro please tell me you got some kinda trackin device on erskin
AD: = bro cmon
AD: = look i don’t wanna be that guy but this is kinda fuckin important so would you answer yer fuckin texts
AD: = bro
CH: * I’ve been doing construction, I was covered in mud. What’s your emergency?
AD: = do you got a tracker on him or not
CH: * Why do you ask?“
AD: = BECAUSE I FUCKIN LOST HIM BEL JUST ANSWER THE DAMN QUESTION
You sit up, sending Buglet tumbling across the towel with a protesting squeak. The last time Jethro used allcaps, to the best of your knowlege, was when Galley was dying. He’s not easy to upset. Your stomach feels heavy all of a sudden.
CH: * Yes, I have a tracker. Give me a moment to check it.
AD: = oh thank fuck
You get out your husktop and call up the tracker’s coordinates, and also the record of Erskin’s computer use. What you find makes that heavy feeling so much worse.
CH: * He guessed I was tracking him. He ordered a bunch of flyers at once, and his husktop is now in a hivecluster called Glass Canyon. Which is on the other side of the planet.
CH: * He is not, of course, with it. I turned on its camera and it’s lying on its side on the floor of an empty vehicle.
AD: = shit
CH: * Jethro, you need to tell me everything.
He does. A few posts in, you extract Buglet from the sand where it was experimentally burying itself and cuddle it against your shoulder, mainly because you want to hug a pillow and you don’t have a pillow, but also because holding a delicate tiny creature will keep you from throwing a husktop-destroying tantrum. Buglet seems to sense your distress; at least, it paws at your hair with its little hooked feet as if trying to groom you.
AD: = you get why i din’t tell you before, right?
CH: * Yes.
CH: * I’ll troll you later.
AD: = uh… bro, you ok?
CH: * That doesn’t matter.
The little pencil icon, indicating he’s typing something, is lit up when you sign off, but you don’t bother signing back in. You feel lightheaded. You feel sick.
This is your fault. You could’ve stopped Erskin going, but you chose to use him as a stalking horse, and now he’s given you the slip – not only is he not leading you to Cloris, but you’ve lost track of him as well. You underestimated his abilities to an idiotic degree – just because he’s terrible with technology doesn’t mean he couldn’t put two and two together and guess you had a tracker in his husktop. He probably thought it was a bug you stuck inside it, rather than a hack that gave you access to its native GPS function, but that doesn’t matter when he ditched the whole machine.
How could you have screwed up so badly? You’re the one who kept telling him he’s not stupid, were you not listening to yourself? Did you not believe what you were saying? You’re the stupid one. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
"Blep.” Buglet is bored with being used as a comfort object. It starts trying to climb your hair. You disentangle it while it blows spit bubbles in your face.
Comfort isn’t what you need right now anyway. What you need is focus. And a plan. And Cloris’s head on a platter.
Giving up is not an option. Erskin Aspera is yours. No one is allowed to bully him but you.