Belinda woke to the glow of the sun burning pink through her still closed eyelids. She groaned, throwing her arm over her face to shield her eyes before starting upright with a gasp, eyes wide looking at her surroundings.
“Shit,” she hissed, hitting the couch cushions with her fists. “Shit, shit shit.” Belinda jumped from the couch and grabbed her bag, slinging it over her shoulder. She jogged on light feet toward the diving board like platform that extended out from the main part of the deck. The rope was still there, magnetic head secured to the metal target plate.
Belinda bent down and pressed a button on the metal head which caused the rope to disconnect from the plate. She pulled the rope closer toward herself and lifted her left foot to place it on the small ledge created where the rope entered into the metal head. Jumping out into space, she brought her other foot to it as well, giving her a slight amount of stability. The force of her weight suddenly on the rope engaged the spring powered winch mounted on the island.
The rope began to rise in the air, towing Belinda along with it. Normally any weight other than that of just the rope and magnetic head would have been too much for the winch, but she had convinced Kyden to make this one strong enough to haul a person up from the deck.
He didn’t know what she still went there most nights, but he had done it anyway.
As she reached the edge of the island above, Belinda reached up with one arm and grabbed it. Letting go of the rope, allowing it to whip up over the precipice, she hung in the air for a moment before hauling her body up onto the island. Belinda sprinted the short distance back to the house she shared with Kyden.
Throwing it open, the door crashed against the wall with a loud bang. As the door rebounded from the wall and slowed to a stop about halfway to being closed, Belinda heard Kyden cry out a wordless yell and fall from his workbench stool where he had fallen asleep the night before.
“What’s with all the racket this late at night?” he yelled as he used the stool to pull himself back to his feet.
“It’s morning, knucklehead. I slept in,” Belinda called as she headed into her bedroom. “I’m already late for my pickup.”
“How could you possibly be late for something you just happen to see around the islands?”
“Last night Ray asked me to come by this morning for a delivery he needed made over on Fairchance.” Belinda rummaged through one of her drawers as she tried to pull her tank top off from the day before. It ended up getting stuck on her head, so she gave up on the drawer and used both hands to yank it off before throwing it in the corner of her room near the bathroom door.
“What in the world does Raiden need sent over to the capital?” Kyden asked, peeking his head around the door frame to look into her room.
“A little privacy please,” Belinda yelled, holding a baggy shirt up to cover herself.
“We have these great new inventions called ‘doors,’” she heard him mumble under his breath as he went back over to his work bench. “Any idea what he wants you to deliver?”
“You know people never tell us. And personally, I really don’t care either.” Belinda grabbed what she was looking for and slid the form fitting dark grey long sleeve shirt over her head, tugging the bottom of it down and straightening it in her mirror. “Any idea what the weather is supposed to be today?” she asked, flopping onto the couch to replace her socks from the previous day with a new pair.
“Radio said something about rain. Not sure what day they were talking about though,” Kyden said, taking a few crackers from an open box on his work bench and shoving them in his mouth. “Should be loads of fun delivering packages in a downpour.”
“Great, just what I needed today,” Belinda said as she stormed back into her room and took a dark maroon trench coat from a hook on the wall, sliding her arms into it and cinching the belt tight around her waist. “Water pump fixed. Today,” she said, pointing her finger inches from Kyden’s chest before turning to the door.
Belinda ran from the house across the island in the bright sun to The Screaming Eagle. Raiden lived in a small home attached to the back of it. Belinda had always wondered why he just didn’t put a door in it to connect to the bar, but Raiden kept saying he wanted some way of separating work from home. She knocked on his door and handed him the pick-up patch when he opened the door.
“Trade you,” he said, handing her a box about two feet long which her eyes scanned for an address before she slid it into her bag. He graciously held back any comments about her being late, or her hair which was sticking straight out on the side she had slept on as she turned and headed toward the edge of the island in the general direction she was heading. Kyden had not yet had time to build enough of the posts and launchers for them to go to every island, a prospect which would most likely take him years, especially since he seemed to have given up on making them ever since his accident with the windmill.
The section of the island Belinda reached was too weak near the edge to support the post so Kyden had set it back about twelve feet. Belinda hefted the launcher and walked to the edge, trailing rope behind her and aiming as she approached. As soon as she got to the edge, Belinda launched the rope which burst from the pipe. She turned and walked back to the post to replace the launch tube, knowing that the rope would hit dead center in the target plate because she had used this line more often than any other they had installed.
As she hung the launch tube back in its bracket, the magnetic head struck the target right in the center. The spring loaded winch automatically reeled the slack back in. Belinda flicked open her zipper and hopped up to snap it onto the line, but this time she dropped back to the island, letting the zipper begin sliding down the taught rope. She crouched down to retie one of her shoes before jogging after the zipper, gradually picking up speed the closer she got to the edge.
The ever present clouds below the islands loomed in her view as the zipper scooted out into open air. Belinda reached the precipice, toe of her shoe hanging over the brink and she launched herself into the air, arms extended over her head. The metal handles smacked into the palms of her hands and the added weight of her body sent them flying down the line. Belinda sailed through the air, arms extended over her head, body at a slight angle from the speed of their movement, right knee slightly bent.
Halfway across the line, the rope began curving up toward her island destination. Seconds before the zipper would have started losing speed Belinda pressed the button on the handle and whatever mechanism Kyden had created kicked in, pushing the zipper forward. He had tried to explain to her how exactly it worked before, but all that he accomplished was making her frustrated and giving her a headache. It was enough for her to know that it worked. The hunk of metal ate up the rope as she continued to rise in the air and the outline of the next island became clearer with every passing second. Belinda grasped the cord hanging from the top of the zipper with the fingers of her left hand as she neared the island. The second her feet were over the deck, she yanked on the cord, pulling a pair of pins from the top of the zipper, allowing the top portion to split open, releasing the rope, and letting her drop from the line.
This time she only had to take a few quick steps before she was able to slow down and disconnect the rope to send it back across the gap. This was only Varnell, the first of four islands she would use to hop her way down the mountain range to Fairchance. Belinda jogged across the island, eyes scanning the buildings in search of any of the patches that may have been handed out here. There were none. She wasn’t entirely surprised. Varnell was on the smaller side of the islands, and it was mostly residential.
As she crossed the flat deck of the island, a few kids, the oldest maybe eight years old, began to follow behind her. They knew who she was, and most kids loved to watch Belinda and her friends zip between the islands. She got to the edge and launched the line, the kids staying five feet back from her. People were taught from before they could walk to stay away from the edges. The government had decided it would be too costly to install nets in case anyone fell, so it was suggested to stay ten feet back at all times. Belinda flew out over the abyss again, smile on her face as she heard the children behind her yell in excitement. She couldn’t turn to look at them, but she knew they would wait there until the rope slithered back into its position after her arrival at Gattman.
Most of the islands were arranged in a fairly north and south orientation, but there were points in the island chain where some islands branched off east and west. The Ascenders had designed the islands in hopes of connecting their decks and making one enormous island in the sky, but the clouds had risen too quickly and that dream had needed to be abandoned in favor of survival.
As she was walking across Gattman Belinda noticed that the island was almost entirely devoid of people. She turned a corner between two buildings near the post with the launcher and saw where everyone had gone. They were all gathered right up against the edge of the island, staring off into the distance.
“What’s going on?” she asked the first person she came across on the outskirts of the group.
“No idea,” he responded, looking back at her. “I just got here. Woke up late today.”
“Seems to be going around,” Belinda muttered, skirting the edge of the group while working her way toward the end of the island’s deck.
“Hey, I’m serious. I all need to back up to the minimum ten feet from the edge,” Belinda heard someone yelling over the murmuring of the gathered crowd. She saw a short man who looked no more than seventeen squeeze his way between some people and stumble into the open deck. “Fine,” he yelled at them. “When this island collapses and you all fall to your agonizing deaths, just remember that I warned you before you, you know, die.”
“Hey, what’s going on here?” Belinda asked him.
“I honestly don’t know. All I know is that some people are saying Gautier is gone.”
“Gone? How could an island be gone?”
“Thank you. That’s what I said. I told them it’s probably just hazy out this morning and they can’t see the island.” The man was wearing the navy blue cap, navy blue buttoned shirt with beige sash crossing his chest that signaled that he was a government Keeper in charge of keeping the peace on Gattman. He wandered off, kicking at small pieces of trash laying on the deck muttering something under his breath about how the people there should be so happy to have a Keeper who actually cares about their well-being.
Belinda chuckled after the little man before turning and marching up to the post. “I’ll figure this out,” she said to herself. The pump had not had time to repressurize the tank that launched the rope, so Belinda grabbed a small crank on the side of the pump and turned it until the needle on the pressure meter was well into the green zone Kyden had colored in on the gauge. She lifted the launch tube and marched to the edge of the island, pointing the tube at the spot where Gautier should have been. She had to admit that she couldn’t see the island either. It didn’t look too hazy out to her, but who knew what conditions were like near the other island.
A few people from the crowd had spied what she was doing and began wandering over. By the time Belinda launched the rope, she had gathered a group of about fifty people.
“What do you think you’re doing?” someone from the crowd asked.
“What none of you thought of: actually checking to see if Gautier is still there. The rope should be hitting right about now.” Belinda watched the sky ahead of her. The rope continued sailing out into the air without stopping. Eventually it dropped further before landing on the deck near her feet. The pulled on the rope to engage the winch. The rope slowly pulled back up to the island. She heard some grunting and huffing from behind her. When she turned around, Belinda saw the first person to join her working the crank on the pump.
“Let’s give it another shot, shall we?” he asked. She nodded in response as the metal head of the rope clanked back into place in the launch tube. Belinda nodded at him before aiming the tube a bit higher this time to get the maximum distance out of the shot. The rope leapt from the tube one more time with a loud whump. The rope sailed out just as t had before and continued to drop below where it should have. However, it suddenly stopped and the winch pulled back in the extra, leaving the rope stretched out into the distance but angled down steeply.
Belinda pulled out the zipper and flicked it open.
“What are you doing?” the man who had cranked the air pump for her asked.
“I’m going to go see what’s happening on Gautier. We’ll never know until someone actually gets over there. Since the baskets seem to be down, this looks like the only way.”
“You’re right,” the man said. “You need to get over there.”
Belinda hopped in the air and slapped the zipper against the rope, but the hinged door didn’t open because of the angle the rope was at. Belinda adjusted her grip on it and tried again, this time sliding the rope neatly into place. She started sliding down the line before a woman yelled out.
“How will you get back?”
She looked into the clouds below the island and dropped her feet, striking them on the deck right at the precipice, something she was only able to do because of the rope’s angle.
“We definitely need to know what happened, but you knowing won’t do anyone any good if you can’t get back.”
“She’s right,” the man said. “Everyone go get as much rope as you can.” The people all scurried off to their homes and places of business. Belinda pulled the pin on the zipper to remove it from the line. As people trickled back carrying various lengths of rope, the man began to tie them all together. “Here, we’ll tie one end around your waist so we can pull you back across when you need to come back.”
“What’s your name?” Belinda asked, tying a knot between two lengths of rope and tugging on them to make sure it was secure.
They continued working for a while until it looked like they had a rope long enough to span the distance. Belinda wrapped the line around her waist and over her shoulders, making a makeshift harness. A group of larger men were holding on to the very end of the rope to make sure it wouldn’t get ripped from their grips if it had been made too short.
Belinda walked to the edge of the island and, as everyone from Gattman watched, clipped on the zipper and pushed herself off.
Belinda flew through the air picking up speed much faster than she ever had before. The wheels in the zipper began to squeal and soft but high pitch shriek as they spun faster than they were ever designed to go.
In front of Belinda a shape like a tree with no leaves appeared protruding from the clouds below. Getting nearer, she saw that the shape was really created by many pieces of twisted and jagged metal that were spread out from each other. It almost looked like someone had taken all the fabric off an umbrella and then smashed the metal frame against a wall a few times.
Belinda’s eyes scanned the structure as she continued to rocket toward it and she couldn’t find any spot where she could stand. Grabbing the rope tied around her, she lifted it up and fed the rope over one handle of the zipper, around the part connecting to the rope, and then down around the other handle.
She slammed into the metal shape and bounced off, the handles of the zipper slipping immediately from her fingers. She fell a foot before the rope wound around her dug into her skin as it pulled her to a stop. Looking up from where she was dangling, Belinda saw that the rope had tightened around the zipper’s handle area and was the only thing keeping her from falling into the toxic clouds.
Belinda gasped for air since every square inch of it had been forced from her body due to the impact both with the metal structure and the rope harness constricting her through the shirt and trench coat. Belinda caught her breath before swiveling her body around to look at what she had run into.
Gautier was one of the last islands to be built, so Belinda, having spent a good amount of time underneath a number of different islands, knew that the later islands were constructed with much less care than the first. Having run out of wood up to construction standards, the support structures for these islands were built entirely of metal scraps. Looking around, Belinda saw that what she had hit was actually a ladder with a tube-like metal cage around it. This had been bolted to a metal cabinet about seven feet tall with a pair of doors on one side.
Up above the main trunk of the support was the smaller supports that branched off to grab onto the underside of the island and protect the snaking complex of plumbing and electric infrastructure that provided power and water to the citizens and businesses on each island.
The island deck was gone.
Instead of stretching out above her, most of the smaller supports looked as if they had been torn and sheared away. They all seemed to lean toward where Belinda was hanging from the rope which she saw had been snagged by a wicked looking jagged piece of metal. She breathed a sigh of relief that she had been hit something blunt instead of having been impaled on one of the thousand razor sharp protrusions that made the entire support structure look reminiscent of the ancient earth porcupine.
She couldn’t be sure of what had happened to Gautier, or the people that lived on it, but she was certain of one thing: something terrible had happened the night before.
Belinda used the cage around the ladder to help her climb back up and grab the zipper. Having done so, she gave three sharp tugs on the rope tied around her. The slack quickly disappeared and she started the long slow trip back up to Gattman. Belinda pressed the button on the handle, hoping that the spring mechanism had saved up some energy to help the people pulling her, but having snapped it on the rope backwards, it had saved nothing.
The muscles in Belinda’s arms started to burn as she reached what looked like the halfway point between Gattman and the wreckage of Gautier. She let go with her left handle to dangle by only her right in hopes that she could simply alternate which arm was supporting her and still make it back to Gattman.
“Alright,” she breathed to herself, “worst case scenario is I fall, hit the supports under Gattman, and I need to beg Kyden to make me another zipper.” She looked down and realized that with how far she was from Gattman yet, she wouldn’t hit the supports. She would plummet into the toxic clouds beneath her and the people above would end up dragging either a mass of organs or a skeleton back onto their island.
The zipper continued to crawl up the line toward Gattman, jerking along with every pull from the men up on the island. Belinda’s arms were getting more tired, and pain in her muscles getting worse with every passing moment. To compound things, her palms were beginning to sweat from holding on to the metal for so long, so she had to continuously adjust her grip.
Belinda felt the rope above her start to bounce around and move more as the wind picked up into faster gusts.
“Hurry,” she yelled toward Gattman. “The rope can snap any second.” Those towing her in began pulling with renewed vigor and Belinda’s progress sped up considerably. A particularly strong gust threw Belinda to the side. She looked up and saw the rope above her go slack.
Belinda screamed as she fell toward certain death below. She felt a slight jerk through the rope that was wrapped around her, but she kept falling. The menacing greyish green clouds roiled before her, filling her field of view as she plummeted toward them. She couldn’t be sure but she thought she imagined the clouds opening up a little directly underneath her as if there were a mouth getting ready to swallow her whole. Belinda felt another sudden jerk in the rope and she stopped dead where she was.
Hanging below Gattman, she was no more than twenty feet above the toxic clouds, a full three hundred feet under the deck of the island above. With slow, jerky movements, she began to ascend again. Belinda tried to slip her fingers underneath the ropes that were wrapped around her to move them slightly and relieve the pressure on the points where the rope had really bit into her, but it was tied too tightly around her body.
Belinda rose, moaning and groaning as each jerk caused a wave of pain to wash through her body from her chest, shoulders, and stomach. What felt like days later, she finally heard voices yelling and calling down to her.
“Are you okay?” she heard Galen yell faintly from above. “Are you still alive?”
Belinda tried to yell back up to him but the ropes were wound so tightly around her chest that it was already hard for her to breath, and impossible to take a big enough breath to yell. Instead, she waved her hands up at Galen.
The yanks pulling her upward stopped and Belinda felt hands grasping her body and clothing and haul her back onto the top of the deck. Belinda flopped onto her back, staring at the sky, her view wreathed with the questioning and concerned faces of the people of Gattman. People farther back in the crowd began shouting questions out.
“What did you see?”
“What happened to Gautier?”
“My cousin lives on Gautier. Did you see her? Her name is Taya Speck.”
“Everyone leave her be,” Galen barked over the other yells. Give her a little room to breathe.” The people nearest Belinda started to shuffle away, needing to wait for those behind them to make room first. Galen reached out his hand for Belinda.
“Thanks,” she gasped, grasping his wrist. He yanked her up to her feet. “Get this damn rope off me,” she said with a grimace on her face. Galen gently took the rope in hand and slowly unwound it from around her body. “Did anyone happen to grab my zipper?”
“No, it was too far away to reach when the rope snapped,” Galen said as he removed the last foot of rope. Belinda winced, pain coursing through her arms as full circulation was restored. “Is Gautier still there?”
“No,” Belinda said. “There’s nothing there.”
A hush spread through those in the crowd closest to here which was met by a chorus of “What did she say?” and “Where is Gautier?” from those too far away to hear what she said. The news spread through the crowd like wildfire. Some people began sobbing. Other simply turned and walked away, shaking their heads and commenting on what a tragedy it was. “Taya, no!” the woman in the crowd screamed as a man put his arm around her shoulders and led her away.
“Come one,” Galen said, gently placing a hand on Belinda’s shoulder, “we should probably finish this in private.”
“What are you, the mayor of Gattman?” Belinda asked, brushing his hand off.
“Yes.” Galen’s eyes were leveled directly at Belinda and he had a no nonsense look on his face. “And some questions need to be answered.”
Belinda took a deep breath and nodded before following him toward the largest building built exactly in the middle of Gattman.
A man woke up in his home. He had no idea what time of day it was, for he had designed the structure to be without windows. He rolled over and closed his eyes in hopes of drifting off to sleep for a little longer. He had been out much later the previous night than he was used to, and could feel the toll of all his nocturnal exertions on his body. Just as the man was falling to sleep, a shrill screech screamed through his home from the front room.
The man sat bolt upright, gasping deeply. He threw his sheets from his body and leapt from his bed. Throwing a shirt on and scrubbing his hands through his unkempt hair, the man walked through the darkness of his home to the front door. Flipping a small switch, the screeching stopped instantly, the proximity alarm having been turned off.
“Who in the hell is coming to bother me?” the man growled, his voice more of a rumble in his chest than actual noises of speech. The man opened the door just far enough for him to slip his body out and closed it swiftly behind him. In front of him stood one of the infernal new delivery people. He was tall with shaggy sandy blond hair and a couple of weeks’ worth of stubbly growing on his cheeks. The boy unslung his bag from his back and dug around inside before extracting and handing over a thin but long box. The man grunted at the delivery boy, eyes locked on the box. He turned and slid through the door to his home, plunging himself once again into perfect darkness.
The man pressed another button and a screen flicked on, bathing the front room of his home in a dull grey light. He had managed to get an ancient video camera and television monitor working again, so he installed them as a security feature on his home. He watched as the boy outside stared at his door for a few moments before replacing his bag on his back and turning to walk away.
The man flipped another switch, turning all of the lights on in his house. Around him, littering every available surface in the home, except for a narrow path to the door which he had navigated perfectly in complete darkness, were small metal contraptions, entirely identical to the ones he had mounted on the supports of Gautier the previous nights. There were thousands of the devices. Enough, he had calculated, to send all of the islands back down to land, where people were meant to live, and would live again one day.
COME BACK JUNE 7th AT NOON FOR CHAPTER 3!