Sky Islands – Chapter 1

The sun warmed the skin of Belinda’s cheeks and the wind whistled through her close cropped light brown hair as she continued to race towards the island in front of her. The muscles in her arms were just beginning to burn with the strain of keeping her dangling below the metal contraption that was her only connection to the rope above her, and the only thing keeping her from plummeting to certain death below. Her smile grew wider as she tucked her legs up closer to her body in preparation to dismount from the zipper.

The clouds below her disappeared as she flew over the edge of the island and dropped to the ground allowing her knees to absorb the brunt of the shock. She tucked her head down and rolled forward, her momentum carrying her right back to her feet, where she had to take a few quick steps to dissipate the rest of her forward motion. She pulled the goggles from her eyes and let them dangle against her collar bones as she folded up the zipper and placed it in a specially sewn pouch of the bag that was slung across her back.

Belinda unhooked the rope she had been dangling from moments ago and, with a flick, let it retract off into the distance. She couldn’t see it, but she knew there was a post on the island she’d just come from with a rapidly filling spool of rope.

Reaching behind her, Belinda grasped her bag and swung it around so it was now hanging against her side. She pulled open the flap on top to check the name and number written on the top envelope before starting off toward the buildings no more than fifty feet in front of her, the bag thumping against her right thigh with every other step.

“Hey, Belinda, good to see you again,” someone called to her as she got closer to the structures ahead. She smiled at them and waved, but continued on her way without saying anything. She was greeted similarly by about a quarter of the people she passed, which wasn’t all that many, really. This particular island could only hold fifty people, being one of the smaller islands around.

Rounding the corner of one of the buildings Belinda grasped a door frame with her hand to help swing her body through the opening. She was instantly plunged into a bit of gloomy darkness. Not many people bothered with illuminating the insides of their homes or stores during the day since the light from the sun outside was constantly so fierce. They needed to have a break from the bright every once in a while.

“Can I help you?” a shape behind a counter asked. Belinda squinted her eyes, blinking them, trying to adjust them to the sudden dim light.

“Yeah,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a thick envelope that was a foot square. “I’m looking for someone named Willa. Willa Zolkowski.”

“I’m right here, sweetie.” Belinda was now able to see well enough to make out a woman push aside a curtain and walk from a door to a back room of the shop. The man behind the counter nodded at her before turning to dig through a box that was set on a table behind the counter. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Sure is. Someone by the name of Anika Mar paid me to bring you this,” Belinda said, placing the envelope on the counter with a faint slap sound. Belinda turned to go, but Willa’s voice stopped her.

“Who are you? Why would Anika pay you to deliver this when we have a perfectly fine post system?” The man behind the counter, who Belinda assumed was her husband didn’t quite turn around, but he had stopped his digging and tilted his head to make it easier to hear their conversation.

“My name’s Belinda Snell,” she replied, offering her hand which Willa and her husband both shook. “I thought I could improve on the existing post, so I got a group of friends together and we started our own competing delivery system.” Belinda lifted the flap of her bag yet again and dug inside, pulling out a circular cloth patch about six inches across.

The design of the patch had a black outline with a mostly white background, but the top left quarter was a bright blue. In the center of the patch was a red shield, flat on top and rounded on bottom, with a gold falcon in it, wings outstretched and clawed feet grasping for something not pictured.

“If you’re ever in need of our services, just place this on the right side of your door. When one of us is on this island, we’ll see it and collect your package.”

“What makes you so much better than the post system we’ve already got?” the man asked.

“We guarantee delivery in a matter of hours, not days.”

“How could you possibly make such a guarantee?” Will asked.

“Because of this.” Belinda reached to the bulky side pouch of her bag and pulled out a block of metal. With a flick of her wrist, the contraption unfolded. It transformed into a small square with two cylinder hand holds extending from the sides. This small block was connected to a larger block of metal with the tops of two wheels poking from the top. There was a seam along one side of the upper block with the wheels that was spring loaded so the zipper could just be snapped to the ropes. Belinda held it out to Willa.

“What is that?” Willa asked as she turned the contraption over in her hands.

“Simply put, it’s a pulley. My friend Kyden created it, and he calls them “zippers” because he added a piece that keeps us moving fast when we’re out on the lines.”

“Lines?” Willa handed the zipper to her husband.

“Fast?” her husband asked.

“We launch ropes from island to island and then use that to slide across the lines. There is a problem with the ropes sagging from our weight in the middle, so Kyden devised a small motor that saves energy from the first half of the trip, and then uses it to keep up our speed as we ascend the line and approach our target island.”

“How are you going to keep up your speed standards if you keep handing these out?” Willa asked as Belinda took the zipper from the man and, with a second flick of her wrist, collapsed it back in on itself.

“Simple, Belinda replied as she slipped the zipper back into its custom pocket. “We only made a hundred of those pick-up patches, and they’re only being given to stores and businesses. Then, we give these patches out to regular people.” Belinda pulled out another patch to show them. This one was a diamond, two inches on each side, with a black border, a green background, and a silver caret in the middle. “Then, people stick this next to their door to let my employees and I that they want to order something. We deliver the order to their shop of choice, and deliver the product when it’s ready.”

“That is quite an idea,” Willas’s husband said. Willa slid the pick-up patch across the counter towards her and, lifting it, started to spin it in her fingers before placing it underneath the counter.

“We will definitely keep all that in mind,” Will said. “Seems to be worth it,” she said, turning toward her husband. “I wasn’t expecting this,” she lifted the envelope Belinda had delivered, “for at least a week.”

Belinda turned and started walking towards the spotlight of a door. “Just remember,” she said over her shoulder, “if you ever need us, just stick that patch to the right of your door.” She ducked out into the glaring sunlight, eyes shut. She slowly opened them so they could adjust to the drastic difference. Looking in her bag, Belinda read the name and address on the next package and walked toward the edge of the island opposite from where she had come from.

When she reached the edge, Belinda approached the post that had recently been installed. She lifted a long tube attached by a hose to the post. Angling the tube and squinting into the distance, she pulled a switch on it and heard a whump as a shaft of metal was shot from the end of the tube, trailing a rope behind it. The metal shaft arced through the sky and, as it started to descend, snapped open and began to rotate. It was going to be close, only a foot from the target. As the spinning shaft neared the next island, its course altered as the magnet on the end of it was attracted to the metal plate of the target. Once the rope struck, Belinda used a crank to reel in the excess rope before jumping up to grab the rope with her hands, putting her full weight on it to make sure it was safely secured.

Happy with what she felt, Belinda pulled out her zipper and flicked it open. She hopped into the air and snapped the zipper to the rope. Without her feet landing back on the island, Belinda grasped each hand hold and soared off into the sky on the way to her next delivery.

#

That evening as the sun lowered and caused the clouds beneath the islands to glow pink, Belinda rolled to a landing on the island she called home. She snapped the zipper closed again, stowing it in its pocket, and released the rope from its target, letting it slither off the edge of the island and make its way back across the sky gap. She kept walking and made her way to the house on the edge of all the island’s building. She shared the house with her best friend, and creator of the zippers, Kyden Bedard.

Belinda inserted a key into the door and twisted it. She heard a click come from in the door so she removed the key and slid the door open. No sooner had she stepped inside than Belinda was assaulted with music blaring from a series of speakers mounted up on the walls throughout the house.

Their home was fairly small, only two bedrooms with a shared bathroom between them, a kitchen barely large enough to open the oven without hitting a cabinet. However, the largest room, which took up at least a third of the space, was their living room/Kyden’s work room.

In front of her, a giant bear of a figure was perched on a stool and hunched over a bench. Belinda couldn’t see what he was working on, but Kyden was definitely focused on just his current project. He probably wasn’t even hearing the music, regardless of the pair of speakers mounted at each end of his work bench.

Saying that the living room was cluttered would be like saying a demolished building was just a pile of dirt. There were clothes hanging over the couch almost a foot thick in some spots. The short table was so covered in dishes that it was almost impossible to determine there actually was a table there instead of just a mound of plates and bowls balanced precariously one atop the other.

“Ky,” Belinda yelled as the current song began to fade out, thinking there would be a lull in the onslaught, but the music simply transitioned into the next track with no decrease in volume whatsoever. Belinda groaned, rolling her eyes at Kyden’s back as he reached for a screwdriver hanging from the pegboard he had mounted on the wall. Belinda removed her now empty bag from her shoulder and dropped it onto the seat of a chair before walking over to him.

“Ky,” she said again, punching him in the shoulder. Kyden looked over at her before putting what looked like nothing more than a heap of scrap metal gingerly on the work bench. He reached toward a thin metal device and pushed a circular button that was set on its face below a screen and inside of another larger circle. The music immediately cut off.

“Hey, Bell. When did you get back?” Kyden swiveled on his stool before getting to his feet and carrying an empty cup to the sink in their kitchen to refill it. Kyden was enormous. At well over six feet tall, and most likely approaching seven feet, he was the tallest person Belinda had ever met. But he wasn’t just large in height, he was large in girth as well. Kyden wasn’t extremely fat, but he wasn’t thin by any stretch of imagination either. His shoulder length strawberry blond hair was tied back into a pony tail at the base of his neck. He wore a coat that extended down to his knees with pockets on the front. The sleeves of the coat had been ripped off, and the once white fabric was now dingy and grey from lack of cleaning. Kyden’s skin was pale due to the fact that he almost never went outside, and looked almost like it was shining against the dull grey of his clothing. The coat was open in the middle, and he wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath, exposing his almost furry chest and belly beneath it.

“Just a minute ago,” she replied, climbing onto his stool that was too tall for her to comfortably sit on. She kicked against one of the legs of his work bench to set the seat spinning. She saw a slight grimace on Kyden’s face during one of her rotations. He hated when she kicked, nudged, tapped, or even breathed on his work bench. Especially when he was in the middle of a project. “What are you working on?”

“Our water pump,” he said quickly behind the glass of water just as he was about to take a drink. Before he’d finished say anything, Kyden had turned and walked into his bedroom.

“What?” Belinda yelled after him, leaping from the stool whose chair continued to spin in her absence. “Not this again.” She followed him into his room which was, if it was possible, more cluttered than their living room. “Last time you improved our water pump, it felt like someone was drooling on me whenever I showered for almost a month. I can’t deal with that again.”

Kyden turned toward her, finger raised in the air and mouth open to say something, but when he saw Belinda leaning against his door frame, arms crossed over her chest and eyes burning holes in his head, he turned back to his dresser without saying anything. Kyden pulled a long sleeve black shirt with an elaborate white design covering the sleeves from a drawer. He slid off the coat and pulled the shirt on before retrieving the coat from the floor and sliding his arms back into it.

“I know what I’m doing this time,” he said, turning and walking through the bathroom and into Belinda’s bedroom as a means of escape before heading back into the living room. Belinda’s room was the cleanest room in their house. All the clothes were neatly placed in their drawers. The bed was made, and the only place that even resembled clutter was a thick wire frame that supported a series of cloth webbing straps that she was working on sewing together into a harness.

“Well at least you admit you didn’t last time. “Belinda threw her hands in the air and turned around to head him off in the living room. “What are you even trying to do to the pump this time? Make the water smell better? Make it hotter? Have the shower spray chicken soup instead of water?”

“I could actually do that pretty easily without touching the pump. I’d just need to open the shower head and place some…” he cut off as he saw the glower on Belinda’s face. He sighed heavily before dropping into a chair, almost crushing Belinda’s bag, but she snatched it away just before his weight trapped it. “I’m trying to increase our water pressure while decreasing the amount of power used by the pump.”

“We do not pay for electricity,” Belinda yelled. “You should know that. You designed, built, and installed our windmills and batteries on the bottom of the island before cutting our house off from the regular power grid.”

“But if I reduce the power used by the water pump, then we can…”

“I don’t care,” Belinda cut him off, hands raised in front of her. “I don’t care what you were trying to do. I need to go meet the others and see how they did today. When I get back, I want that shower working.” Belinda pointed at the wall where the bathroom was.

She pulled her bag back on over her head and stormed out the door.

“By the way, messing with the pump wouldn’t do anything to the water’s temperature,” Kyden yelled from inside the house. Belinda growled and slammed the door shut behind her. She stalked off across the island toward The Screaming Eagle, the best bar on any island for fifty trips. She walked up to a large building with a large metal eagle perched over the door, head ducked down as if it were screaming at anyone entering. Belinda walked in and sat at the bar.

“Hey, Ray. When are you finally going to decide to sell me that?” Belinda called to a man down the bar while pointing at a small booklet of paper set in a frame on the wall behind the bar.

“Why, Belinda, I could never find it in myself to part with the namesake of my dear establishment.” Raiden Anker walked up and leaned forward, hands on the bar. “Now, what can I get you to drink?”

“I’ll have a Black Sun.”

Raiden nodded, turning to mix the drink for her. The booklet was an ancient book of poetry that Raiden had found in a box of junk while cleaning out his grandfather’s home after he died. Raiden had been thinking about opening a bar with the money he’d been left by his late grandfather, and now he had a name for the place as well. On the cover of the book was a pair of metal eagles out in space, one screaming. He’d also named a drink after each of the poems in the booklet.

Raiden turned back around, placing a glass filled with black liquid except for a band of yellow on the bottom on the bar in front of Belinda. “Well hello, Elly,” he said with a smile, looking up from the glass.

Belinda took a sip of her drink and looked over her shoulder to see her best friend, other than Kyden, and the first person to agree to help her start the delivery company, Elisha Zerbini was standing in front of her, hands placed on hips, one hip cocked to the side, and a devilish grin on her face.

“Ray. I’ll have what she’s having.” Raiden nodded and got back to work. Elisha stepped up to Belinda and grabbed Belinda’s drink off the bar over her shoulder.

“And what do you think you’re doing?” Belinda asked in mock disgust.

“Give me a break. You know he always pours mine stronger, and I can’t take all that much,” Elisha answered into her glass. Raiden turned back around and placed the new drink on the bar, a huge, almost goofy looking grin on his face. His eyes travelled from the drink to Elisha only to see her with Belinda’s glass in hand. The smile slid off his face and his eyes fell before he turned and trudged a little way down the bar to clean a sink full of glasses.

Belinda picked up the new drink and took a sip only to gag, cough, and spit most of it back out in a fine mist which hung in the air for a few moments all at the same time.

“Is that the strong one?” someone asked, sweeping past Belinda and snatching the glass from her hand while she was preoccupied with trying to clear the fire from her throat. She looked up to see her boyfriend, Faxon Latorre, down the drink in a single gulp through eyes streaming with tears.

“How in the hell can you drink that?” Elisha asked with a slight chuckle.

“You know I’d do just about anything to protect my sweet Belinda,” he said with a wink.

“Come on Fax, don’t make me barf,” Iliana Kittler said, sliding onto the open bar stool next to Belinda. “Where the hell is Rook? Why do we always have to wait for his ass to get here?”

“Aw, Ana, I’m really feeling the love,” the final member of their group, Rook Lahr said, clapping Faxon on the back before going to stand behind Iliana with his hands on her shoulders, causing the most minuscule of smiles to crack open her face. “Hey Ray, can we get a round of Armageddons?”

Ray smiled at him before lining up a row of six shot glasses on the bar. He poured some bottles into a tin cup before shaking it with ice and pouring the concoction out into the glasses. Ray then took a sip of something before reaching under the bar and taking out a lighter. Flicking the lighter open and igniting it, he sprayed the liquid out of his mouth directly into the flame, causing a cloud of flame to billow toward the shot glasses.

Belinda, Elisha, Faxon, Rook, Iliana, and Raiden all picked up a shot glass, blew the flames out, and downed their drinks.

“So what lame ass excuse did Ky give this time?” Iliana asked.

“He didn’t. I don’t bother asking to come with us anymore.”

“You know that guy’s totally in love with you, right?” Rook asked as he signaled Raiden for another drink.

“Who cares?” Faxon said, wrapping an arm around Belinda’s shoulders from behind her. “Who would ever want to be with someone who does absolutely nothing all day?” Belinda smiled up at Faxon and put her hand on his arm.

“So who had the most interesting delivery today?” Elisha asked the group. Rook told them of a delivery of baby dolls to a single man with no children who had the same style of dolls strewn around his home. Iliana told a story of someone who was obviously suffering from bright sickness because as soon as they opened the door they started to scream until Iliana had closed it for them.

The group all stayed silent for a few moments, swirling their drinks in the glasses. No one like to talk about bright sickness much, especially since they knew that taking this opportunity to deliver packages greatly increased their chances of catching it.

Ever since their ancient ancestor had fled the ground into the sky, there had been an increase in the cases of mental illnesses. It was finally determined that this was due to the incredible increase in their exposure to sunlight. Being so much higher up than their ancestors had been, they had very few sources of shade during the day. Almost no clouds and absolutely no natural vegetation made the world a much brighter and hotter place.

The group told a few more stories before parting ways. The sun had set quite some time ago by that point, and the moon was high in the sky, so large and clear at this altitude that it seemed as if it were trying to devour the entire night sky. Faxon stumbled slightly as they left The Screaming Eagle, but Rook helped him stay upright. Belinda gave everyone a hug goodbye, and kissed Faxon on his cheek before heading back toward her house. She could still see the lights on through the windows, and could barely hear music still playing inside. Instead of going in, she kept walking over to the edge of the building to where Kyden had installed the launcher for their zipper system making the entire delivery operation possible.

She removed the launching tube and pulled the rope from it, unspooling it on the ground at her feet. When she had judged a length of about forty feet, she replaced the launch tube in its bracket and kicked the rope over the edge. It snaked off into emptiness with a slight hiss as the rough fibers of the rope rubbed against the wooden edge of the island. She heard a clunk of metal striking metal below her and the rope stopped moving.

Pulling out her zipper, Belinda attached it to the rope and sat on the edge of the island. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nostrils, tilting her head back in the soft glow of the moon. Without opening her eyes, Belinda grasped the handles of the zipper and kicked her legs out, sending her body out into the void at the edge of the island. Her speed increased as she fell until she pressed a button on the end of the right handhold which engaged the small motor, but since she had placed the zipper on the rope backwards, it helped to slow and control her fall instead of speeding her up.

It barely took thirty seconds before Belinda’s eyes caught the shape of a thin platform emerge from the gloom beneath the island. Her feet struck the wood and she felt it flex under her weight and momentum, but it didn’t even come close to cracking. She had built it flexible like a diving board from the old pictures she had seen in her history classes.

Belinda removed the zipper from the rope but did not disconnect the rope from its target plate this time. Instead she walked along the thin platform until she got to a much larger deck that contained a couch and a small fridge. There was also a bank of batteries which hummed with their power. Thick cables snaked away from them into the darkness where Belinda knew they were connected to the wind turbines Kyden had installed in order to make their home entirely self-sufficient.

That had been the last time Kyden had left the surface of their home island. While working, a strong gust had hit the turbines, making the blades spin faster. Kyden had not been expecting it, and one of the blades hit him in the face, splitting his lip and breaking his nose. He had stumbled from the blow and almost fallen off the deck, but Faxon had been there helping and was able to grab onto the ridiculous lab coat that he insisted on wearing at all times.

Ever since that night, Kyden had been less of a creator and more of a tinkerer. It was only by Belinda’s continuous pushing that he had created the zippers.

Belinda collapsed into the soft and broken in cushions of the couch. She kicked her shoes off and pulled her socks off before flipping the door of the small fridge open with her toe. Inside were a few small snacks, a six pack of beer, and some other assorted juices and sodas. This had been the original place where everyone had gathered before Ky’s accident. Most of the rest of them thought it was too dangerous to all hang out on a rickety deck they had all built and fixed while they were growing up, so they had decided against Belinda’s protestations to change their meeting place to The Screaming Eagle.

Now Belinda was the only one who still came down here. She was the only one who had truly appreciated the view for what it was before anyone.

Belinda reached in the fridge and removed a soda bottle. She twisted the cap off with a loud hiss of air before taking a sip of the electric blue liquid inside. She also grabbed the remains of a bag of chips and munched on a few of them. Along with the diving board, Belinda had seen pictures of grocery stores in history class as well. The stores had been bigger than any building currently on their island. Filled with nothing but shelves upon shelves of food. Back then there had been so many different types of the same food that everything had needed its own label and name. Now people just said they wanted the blue soda or the white cheese and that was enough.

Her economics teacher, Mr. Burke, had told them that originally, after the Ascension, the name the government had given the years in which people fled the ground, some people had tried to continue with open competition in the making and selling of food. But the government shut that down pretty quick. There were so few resources in the beginning that nothing could be wasted by making duplicates of things already being made by someone else. So, the government took samplings of each independent food grower/maker and awarded contracts to those they deemed to be the best. Their competitors were given the choice to either work for those contracted or find some other way to support their families.

Down below the island, Belinda liked to look at the supporting structure that held them all in the air like ants in the palm of a giant’s hand. She knew that the supports extended down to the tip of a mountain named Mount Mitchell in what was once called the Appalachian mountains, but she had never seen anything more than the metal and wood skeleton that held them aloft.

The original structure had been built hastily because the Ascenders had been in a rush to escape the ever expanding clouds of toxic gases that had enveloped the earth below them. The gases were said to cause extreme reactions with any skin they came in contact with. A person’s skin would immediately turn red and grow hives as if it were an allergic reaction. Then with more exposure, the skin would dry out and crack open until the flesh turned to dust and just fell from the person’s body, leaving all of their muscles and organs exposed. Hopefully, by that point, you were either dead or had passed out from the excruciating pain, because then the gas would do the same thing to the flesh of your insides.

Belinda shivered just at the thought of it as she took another sip of her soda. She slouched farther down onto the couch, letting all the muscles in her body finally relax after such a long day of travelling. Her eyelids felt heavy and she let them droop down. The bottle of soda slipped from her hand, the fizzing liquid spilled onto the wooden deck as it rolled off the edge. Belinda was fast asleep before the bottle finally toppled into the abyss.

*****

Miles away from Belinda, someone else was on another, smaller deck that been built extending from the support structure of one of the islands. This was a smaller island, and one of the more recently constructed, so structure holding it aloft was built almost entirely from metal struts. The figure, little more than a silhouette outlined by the moonlight, was busy attaching small devices to the main struts holding up the island no more than twenty feet above their head. It took just a little over two minutes to attach the device, power it up, and make sure it was set and working correctly before moving off to the next spot.

All told, the shadow attached more than fifty of these devices in a matter of two hours. Then, when their backpack was empty and hanging limp from their shoulders, they retrieved a set of gloves and what looked like the steel toes removed from a pair of work boots. The gloves were slipped onto their hands and the steel toes clipped on to the front of their shoes.

The figure stood at the edge of the platform, toes hanging off the edge. They flexed their knees and swung their arms, leaping off the edge. The figure flew through the air only to collide with one of the farthest outlying supports for the island. They struck the metal with a clunk, both hands and feet sticking to the metal beam as if it were covered in glue.

The figure scrambled to the top side of the angled strut before starting to crawl up the metal like a lizard, each appendage clunking against the metal with each movement as they slowly inched their way back to the island’s surface.

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