Sky Islands – Chapter 3

Belinda finally made it home late that night. The Screaming Eagle was closed by the time she made it back to Hailey, so she would have to wait to see her friends the next day. Belinda made her way around the buildings, the metal eagle more of a silhouette at that time of night than a sculpture reflected the starlight from above at her.

It had taken hours for her to get back from Gattman after she had finished talking to Galen. The trip would have ordinarily been nothing special, only about forty-five minutes long, but since she had last her zipper in her exploration of what people had started calling the “Ruins of Gautier,” she had to take the regular basket lines all the way back.

When Belinda pushed open her front door, leaving heavily on it to support herself and keep from collapsing from exhaustion, she saw Kyden tinkering away at his workbench.

“Do you have a regular schedule for anything?” she asked him, flopping onto the couch, which was barely cleared off enough for her to stretch out on.

“Huh?” Kyden asked, turning on his stool. Belinda lifted her face from the couch cushion to see that his eyes were extremely bloodshot.

“Behold! Such an articulate statement hath been issued forth from none other than Kyden, master inventor and tinkerer extraordinaire!” Belinda’s voice booked through their small house and she flourished her hands. “What could you possibly be working on this late at night?”

“Late? I just got up.”

“Sure. Just a week ago,” Belinda snorted. “I’d be surprised if you knew what day it was.”

“I probably know what day it is,” Kyden grumbled, turning back to his workbench to tinker with whatever project had recently caught his fancy. “What took you so long to get home if it’s really as late as you say it is?”

“Ran into problems with a delivery,” Belinda replied, realizing that she had never actually delivered the package for Raiden. She and Galen had decided it would be best if word of Gautier’s disappearance did not start to spread quite yet. The only thing they could imagine happening from that was people beginning to panic thinking that their island was next. “And why would you have to take my word for the time? You’ve got a clock right there above your workbench.”

“It’s only right twice a day. Plus, I have something I want you to try out.” Kyden swiveled back around, a small block of metal with angled corners resting in his hand.

“What is it?” Belinda asked, rising from the couch to get a closer look at the object resting in his hand.

Kyden smiled before moving his grip so he was holding the sides of the block with just his fingertips. He made a sharp downward jerking movement. Parts descended from the main casing and snapped into place. The object he was now holding looked similar to the zipper Belinda had recently lost, but it was smaller, and had less showing. For one thing, the top was no longer open, so the wheels of the contraption were not visible any more. There was also a long piece of metal that looked like a lever running mostly parallel, except for a few curves, with the left side handle. However, the top portion still had the seam where the zipper would pop open, allowing the rider to drop from their line. There just wasn’t a visible pin or cord for it anymore. The top of the zipper was also now covered in a reflective black material.

“This,” he said, “is my new design for the zippers.”

“How long have you been working on this?” Belinda asked, gingerly lifting the zipper from Kyden’s hand to examine it. It was much smaller and lighter than her previous one had been.

“I started designing it the day after our first successful zipper test.”

Belinda remembered the first successful test. Successful being the operative word in that sentence since there had been at least fifteen unsuccessful tests. Luckily they had only been testing the original zippers on a ten foot length of rope that stretched from the roof of their house to a pole that had since been removed from the deck of Hailey. Failures had run the gamut from the zipper popping open and dumping Belinda back to the island the second any weight was put on the device to the inertia mechanism inside running counter to the rider’s direction, and just bringing them to a complete stop.

The day of the first successful test was on that she would never forget. At least, not the parts of it she still remembered. After the zipper worked on longer and longer stretches of rope, they had made the first open air test, spanning just the two hundred foot gap between Hailey and the closest neighboring island, Menan.

Kyden had ridden the basket system over to Menan, trailing the zipper rope behind him the entire time so he could install it on a pole on the other island. He waited there for Belinda to cross. The zipper snapped on to the rope perfectly, and when she hit the button at the hundred foot mark, the spring system perfectly pushed the zipper along the rope to Menan. That night, they had all gone to The Screaming Eagle, and that was the last thing from that day that made it into Belinda’s long term memory.

“Wait, are you going to make me go through those insane tests and trials that we did with the first zippers?” Belinda asked, cradling the new one protectively against her chest as if she were holding an infant in her arms.

“No,” Kyden laughed. “I got all that testing done with a low rope and bags of sand to approximate your weight.”

“Where did you put the rope. And how much do you think I weigh?” she asked, narrowing her eyes to stare at him. Kyden just pointed toward their ceiling. Looking up, Belinda saw a rope spanning the distance across their living room from one corner to the other. There was also a pile of small sand bags, about the size of her fist, laying on the floor in the corner of the room, toppling out of a burlap sack. “Wow. I really don’t spend all that much time here.”

Belinda used her palm to push the bottom portion of the new zipper up into the top. The pieces all folded themselves back into their storage location automatically, and she heard a click as the zipper became just a solid block of metal again. Turning it over, she saw there was a small clip on the bottom holding it all together. She depressed the clip with a finger and, with the same motion Kyden had used, snapped the zipper back out into its usable configuration.

“Best thing about these is right here,” Kyden said, tapping the black material on the top of the zipper’s housing.

“What is that?”

“Solar panel. This collects sunlight which runs the motor inside the housing. Now you don’t have to wait for energy to store before you can pick up speed. You just press this button on the right handle before sliding this small indicator, and you have a variable speed control.” Kyden pointed out the button and slider, which was nothing more than an arrow on a line cut into the handle with numbers one through five.

“Then how do we unlock the top so we can drop from the rope?” Belinda asked, looking for the cord which should be attached to the pins that held the whole thing together.

“You just squeeze the lever by the left handle. All of that stuff is internalized now. Notice there’s no hinged door on the side either. You just squeeze the handle, jump, get the rope inside the zipper, and let go of the handle to snap it closed again.”

“How in the hell do you think some of this stuff up?” Belinda turned the new zipper over again in her hand, marveling out the massive improvements made to it.

“Let me guess, going to go try it out?” Kyden asked.

“Of course I am. After I get a little sleep. You going to come watch when I do?”

“No. I figure you’ll probably want everyone to have one of these zippers, so I should probably get started on making five more.”

“You’re the best,” Belinda said, giving Kyden a brief hug and peck on the cheek. She headed to her room, but turned around and poked her head back in the door. “By the way, do you think there’s any way we could add a safety harness to these things?”

Kyden turned around to face her, right ankle resting on his left knee, one arm crossed over his chest supporting the other, tapping his chin with a finger.

“There may be a way, but I would have to do some more testing. Figure out metal strengths, maybe add a second motor for increased weight. Have to figure out a quick clip-in system too, and a method to keep the rider near the handles so they can activate the motor or pins…” Kyden trailed off as he turned back to his workbench, grabbing a sheet of paper and a pencil.

When she woke up, Belinda decided she should probably deliver Raiden’s package to Fairchance, Belinda walked to the other end of Hailey and launched a line to Varnell. She had passed Kyden on her way out, who was still bent over the same sheet of paper, but the pencil was much shorter now, and the page was covered in small scribbles. She pulled out the new zipper and opened it up. Standing underneath the rope, its shadow cutting her face in two, she inhaled deeply through her nose and let the breath out slowly through her mouth, eyes closed. Belinda squeezed the handle to reveal the pair of wheels that ran along the rope, as well as a small box next to each wheel that had a very small wheel bridge the gap, protruding from the motor just enough to have a solid contact with the large wheel. There was also now a third wheel on below the top pair so the rope would run between the wheels, keeping constant pressure so the motor was always useful.

Belinda leapt from Hailey’s deck and snapped the zipper shut around the rope. It sealed perfectly, the line extending off in both directions and running right through the center of the square hole on the front and back of the wheel housing. Instead of waiting for gravity to do its job, Belinda jammed the button with her thumb and threw the slider all the way to five. She heard a whirring come from inside, which must have been the motors getting to work. Suddenly, she rocketed off out into space, going faster in seconds than she ever had with a zipper before, other than possibly on her way down to the ruins of Gautier the day before.

For the first few seconds, it was difficult for Belinda to hold on to the handles and she silently thanked herself that she had mentioned the harness to Kyden. She crowed with joy as the zipper ate up the rope, sprinting the entire distance between the two islands. The wind ripped at her clothing, the trench coat she was still wearing snapped behind her like a flag caught in a tornado. The belt, already tied loosely, was quickly undone by the wind and torn away, allowing the coat to stretch out behind her like a cape as she careened through the air.

Belinda approached Varnell and, with the slider still pressed all the way to five, she continued to pick up speed. Five feet from the edge of Varnell’s deck, Belinda squeezed the lever with her left hand and heard a snap. The zipper had popped open and she began to drop. Her momentum continued bringing her forward, and, after tucking her legs in, her fit hit the wooden deck of Varnell right on the edge, the heel of her left shoe clipping the corner. Belinda rolled, but she had greatly underestimated the speed at which she had been travelling.

Her body rolled once and she tried to pop back upright like usual, but her speed had not decreased nearly enough, and the inertia of her flight kept her spinning forward so she slammed into the deck face first and slid six feet along the smooth wooden surface of the island.

Belinda heard a pounding close in on her through the deck before stopping right next to her?

“What the hell was that? Are you okay?” someone asked as they knelt down next to her. Belinda felt a hand under her shoulder and another under thigh. They applied gently pressure to roll her over. Belinda flopped onto her back to stare at the sky and see the face of an elderly man lined with both age and concern hovering over her. “Are you okay? Say something.”

Belinda’s face cracked into a smile, blood streaming from her nose and a split lip. She started to giggle softly, but it quickly evolved into loud laughter. Pain coursed through her body from the impact, only made worse by the fact that she hadn’t slept, or even really taken time to rest since she had woken up the day before.

“Do you need help getting up?” the old man asked. Belinda nodded, the only answer she was able to give as she couldn’t stop herself from laughing. The man held out his hand and pulled her to her feet. Belinda’s laughter died off and she wiped tears from under her eyes before brushing herself off. “What is this thing?” the man asked, retrieving the zipper from the deck. Its top had closed the second Belinda had let up the pressure on the release lever, but she could see that the speed selector was still on five, however there was no longer a whirring sound coming from it. She figured Kyden had installed something that would cut off the motor at a certain point or under the correct set of circumstances, such as when the top was opened to release the rope.

Belinda explained to the man, who said his name was Cyrus, how the zippers worked and the business she was trying to start. She showed him the pair of patches and told him to keep the smaller green and silver Order patch just in case he ever needed it. Cyrus thanked her before making sure she was okay yet again and walking off, slapping the patch in the palm of his hand.

Belinda managed to get to Gattman without falling and made her way not to the point she wished she could, since Gautier was no more, but to the slow moving citizen basket transportation system the government had installed on all the islands when they were first created by the Ascenders. Belinda saw Galen as she walked and the two of them exchanged knowing nods with each other. The people of Gattman knew that Gautier was gone, but Galen had not told them the details, and had asked them to not give the news to anyone who did not already know. Belinda stood on the slightly raised platform, waiting for the basket to inch its way toward her.

The basket system worked by wind power, large fan-like blades extended out above her head to catch the wind and turn a gear which, in turn, moved the pulleys the rope was attached to. Each basket was large enough to hold four or five people at a time, and each section of the transportation system had four baskets on it. Since the system was wind powered, the speed of the baskets depended entirely on the speed over the ever-present wind. It would range from a slight breeze, just enough to move the baskets, to a gale-force wind so strong not even Belinda would go outside in it. It had not taken the basket’s designers long to install a brake system to keep them from moving too fast in strong winds.

The basket inched over the platform, a small protrusion catching on a pole as it crossed onto the loading area and opened the door. The two passengers got off, making room for Belinda to board the basket. The basket door nudged a second pole just before passing out into open air and the door was nudged closed.

Belinda sat down in the bottom of the basket. Since she was the only one riding, she figured she might as well get comfortable. The basket bounced slightly as it traversed the expanse to Ariel, a miniscule island Belinda would need to use as a detour. It was so small that Kyden had it listed on the top of the list of islands on which it didn’t make sense to ever install a launcher.

Belinda closed her eyes and tilted her head back, letting the sunlight warm her face. She heard the fibers of the rope suspending the basket creak with their movement along with the light sound of whistling as the soft wind moved through the gaps in the woven basket’s sides. Opening her eyes, Belinda saw the rope above her and smiled. She grabbed the sides of the basket and pulled herself back to her feet before taking out and unfolding her new zipper. She grabbed one of the ropes that extended from the mount above her head to the corner of the basket and used that to help her climb up to stand on the front edge of the basket.

Belinda opened the top of the zipper and hooked to the rope. She pressed the button with her thumb and slid the speed selector to two this time since the rope was already moving. The zipper pulled her away from the basket, her feet sliding off the edge, and she continued to pick up speed until she was moving just slightly faster than she would have normally with the previous zipper incarnation.

In just a minute Belinda actually caught up to the next basket. She slid the speed back down to one and lifted her feet as she approached it. There were two other people already in the basket, but one of them saw her and they both moved to the corners on the opposite side from the one Belinda was approaching. She squeezed the lever and dropped right into the basket, her feet sailing over the edge before she extended her legs and grabbed the support ropes to stop her movement. The basket swung back and forth as a result of her dropping into it.

“Hey there,” she said to the man and woman who were staring at her, mouths both hanging slightly open. “Excuse me.” Belinda held up the zipper and slid between the two other passengers. She climbed back onto the edge of the basket and took off once more. She increased the speed to three this time and hung from below the metal contraption, loving the feeling of the wind whipping past her out in the sunlight with almost nothing solid around her to anchor her down. This was the closest to flight and true freedom she thought she would ever feel.

As she approached Ariel, Belinda slid her speed selector to one before pressing the button to shut the motor back off. She dropped from the rope with a thump on the island and only needed a few jogging steps to stop herself. She repeated the same process from Ariel to Dyton to Newhall and finally to Fairchance. Now that she had figured out how to use the zipper on the existing system, she felt no need to even bother with Kyden’s launcher system.

Each time she flew down the basket line, she would need to transfer across at least one basket, and they had passengers more often than not. The only time she ran into trouble was on the basket to Newhall because it was completely full. Instead of dropping into the wicker basket, Belinda slowed enough to alight on the edge like a bird landing on a branch. She then used the ropes for balance and walked along the edge of the basket to the other side where she could reattach the zipper and take off again.

Once she made it to Fairchance, the sun was at its highest point in the sky and Belinda felt like the its heat was trying to beat her down to the deck of the island and hold her there so it could burn her to a crisp. She hurried to the capital building, where Raiden’s package was addressed. Pushing the doors open, she stumbled into the cool dimness of the structure, sweat beading on her forehead. Belinda walked over to a water fountain and took a long drink of the cool crisp liquid. She also filled her hand a few times and splashed the water on her face and head.

After giving herself a few moments to cool off Belinda turned and made her way across the busy lobby of the Fairchance capital building. She passed a statue of the Ascenders, a group of men who were depicted as clawing their way up the side of a mountain before climbing on top of one another’s shoulders.

“Can I help you?” a woman behind a desk whose name tag said Yara asked. She had barely looked up to see Belinda was there before she bent her head back down to continue copying whatever was in front of her from small slips of paper into a large book.

“Yeah,” Belinda replied, digging the package from Raiden from her bag and reading the name off the top of it. “I’m here to deliver something to Hadley Anker.” She had only glanced at the address before, not noticing the name, so it didn’t register with Belinda until just now that she was bringing something to Raiden’s older sister Hadley.

Yara pointed in a vague down a hall and gave a series of clipped directions, not raising her head again to look at Belinda. Without another word, Belinda turned and walked off in the way Yara had indicated. She eventually got to a door with Hadley’s name carved into its wooden surface and some title that Belinda didn’t know the meaning of under it. She knocked twice on the door before hearing a curt “come in.”

“Ah, Belinda,” Hadley said, laying what she had been working on onto the surface of her desk and leaning back in her chair. Belinda looked around the office. It was much larger than she thought Hadley deserved. But then again, Belinda thought Hadley should have ropes tied around her ankles so she could be suspended upside down below an island and left there for a few days. There was a large window that had its curtains closed, but enough light seeped through the fabric for them to see each other clearly. The walls were bare and the only furniture in the room was Hadley’s large wooden desk, the overstuffed chair she was sitting in, and a rough looking wooden chair opposite her.

“I have a delivery for you,” Belinda replied, eyes downcast so she didn’t have to look Hadley in the face.

“I figured. I was expecting this yesterday.” Hadley picked up her pen and made a few short marks on a piece of paper on her desk. “Raiden has told me all about your little endeavor. But, please don’t sit down. I’m much too busy today for chit chat.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Belinda tossed the package onto Hadley’s desk. It spun once in the air before landing with a slap and sliding a few inches across the wood, not unlike Belinda had on Varnell just an hour ago. “Sorry it’s late.” Belinda slid the strap of her bag back over her head so it rested on her shoulder and crossed over her chest before turning to leave.

“Yes, why is it late? I thought your entire business plan was that you guaranteed delivery in a matter of hours.” Belinda turned back around to see that Hadley had leaned forward to rest her elbows on the top of her desk, fingers tented in front of her face.

“I ran into a problem with my usual route yesterday,” Belinda said.

“How do you usually get to Fairchance anyway?” Hadley asked.

“Hailey to Varnell to Gattman to Gautier to Pelorum to Fairchance.” Belinda rattled off the island names without thinking.

“Where did you run into a problem?” Belinda hesitated to answer and Hadley simply raised her eyebrows in response.

“Gautier.”

“Belinda, we know all about Gautier,” Hadley said, leaning back in her chair again. “We also know that you are the only who actually saw what remains of the island.”

“Galen,” Belinda growled under her breath.

“Of course Galen told us,” Hadley laughed. “As mayor of Gattman, he works for us. He also told us of your reckless actions to see the island which, frankly, didn’t surprise me in the slightest. I remember your proclivity for throwing caution and basic common sense to the wind.”

“So what if you know what I did?”

“Well, President Crittenden himself wants to speak with you, but I’m sure he would be grateful that you walked yourself in here, even if it was only to deliver a package, so he doesn’t have to send someone to bring you in.”

“Why would he want to talk to me?” Belinda asked. Her eyes had grown slightly wider and the defiant tone had dropped from her voice.

“Isn’t it obvious? Because of your devil may care attitude, you are the only one who has any idea of what happened to Gautier. Every attempt made by our people to access the remaining support structure fails.”

“My rope snapped from rubbing against jagged bits of metal,” Belinda said, her eyes downcast.

“I know. We all know. It’s all in the official report.” Hadley drummed her fingers on a closed folder sitting neatly squared with one of the corners of her desk.

“Perfect. That’s what I’ve always wanted, a whole bunch of strangers poking into my business.”

There was a series of light knocks on the door behind Belinda. Hadley looked up over Belinda’s shoulder to see who it was. She nodded at the person before gesturing to Belinda with an open hand.

“Now, Belinda. If you wouldn’t mind accompanying these nice men, President Crittenden is ready to speak with you.”

Belinda stayed in her chair, his knuckles turning white as she squeezed the armrests and glared at Hadley, but when she felt a pair of hands the size of her head take hold of each of her upper arms, Belinda shook them off with a quick jerk and pushed herself to her feet. She turned around to see the two largest men she had ever seen standing on either side of the open door. They were each wearing a black shirt, buttoned closed on the left side. On their right breasts were red patches with twenty sides. One of them had a black eighteen in the middle of it, and the other a black twelve.

Number eighteen pointed toward the door, his eyes never leaving Belinda. He had mostly grey hair with a little black mixed into it, and a long beard that tapered to a point over the center of his chest with a bit more grey than the hair on his head. His eyes had dark rings around them, and there were stress lines etched into his face. Belinda stepped into the hallway, followed by both men. They closed the door behind her before number twelve led the way, eighteen pushing Belinda’s shoulder, urging her to follow with a grunt.

Belinda followed twelve, but she scuffed the toe of her shoe against the floor with every step. Every fifty feet or so, number eighteen would nudge her forward again. He was getting less gentle each time. Twelve opened a door and led the trio into a staircase. They climbed up two flights of stairs to the third and top floor before exiting the stairwell. Eighteen shoved her from behind again, causing Belinda’s foot to get caught on the lip of the last step, and sent her sprawling on the floor of the landing.

Belinda looked at eighteen only to see a smirk on his face as he stood a few steps down from the landing, arms crossed over his chest. Belinda climbed back to her feet and followed twelve down the hall again. They eventually stopped in front of a pair of doors. Eighteen knocked on one of them. Belinda heard a loud thump echoing through the room on the other side.

“Come in,” a deep and somewhat gravelly voice called from behind the wood. Eighteen and twelve each grabbed the door in front of them and pushed them open. In front of her, sitting behind the most absurdly large desk Belinda had ever seen, was Spenser Crittenden, President of the Appalachian Islands.

*****

The man placed the last device into his bag before setting it on the floor by the door. He laid his outfit for the next night’s activities on top of it before returning to his bedroom and setting an alarm on his clock for midnight. Thankfully for him, the basket transportation system was not monitored, so no one would notice his nocturnal travels.

Before climbing into bed, the man opened a drawer and retrieved the magnetic gloves and boot tips and placed them by his bag as well. He smiled, knowing that the foolish girl he had seen almost die when she tried to visit Gautier had no idea what had happened. No one could possibly have any idea, other than those who were now living on land with the ruins of Gautier.

It wouldn’t be long now. Soon he would be able to attach his devices to up to five islands in a single night, and then his true plans would really begin. For, while he had been working on his devices that day, he had devised a way to activate them remotely, so it would not matter when he attached them, he could set them off whenever he wanted.


COME BACK JUNE 10th AT NOON FOR CHAPTER 4!

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