Belinda heard a chirping sound in the darkness of her closed eyes. She opened her eyes and the same black, white, and red bird from the previous day was hopping around on the armrest near where she had laid her head on her pillow. The previous night Belinda had been so furious at her friends lack of concern that she didn’t tryst herself to stay around them without saying something that she would never be able to take back or repair the damage from.
Instead of risking that, Belinda had decided to sleep on the couch down on their deck under Hailey. That way, she figured she could keep an eye on the support structure, doubting that whoever was setting the bombs would risk waking her up. Belinda closed her eyes again while she stretched her arms and legs out. The blanket she had brought down with her had been grabbed by the wind sometime during the night and thrown against the fridge next to the couch.
Belinda sat up on the sofa and stuffed the pillow into her bag before reaching for the blanket.
“Holy shit,” she said as her eyes saw the hundreds of red lights shining out at her from the darkness. Belinda left the blanket where it was and grabbed her zipper from her bag. Snapping it to the rope, she hit the motor button and immediately switched the speed up to five. The zipper rocketed up the line, towing Belinda behind it. The cord rubbed against Belinda’s back and she could feel that part of her skin warming up quickly from the friction. Belinda’s eyes crossed the threshold of Hailey’s deck and she popped open the zipper, disengaging the motor as the wheels came free of the rope.
The momentum of her race up from below continued to carry Belinda up and her feet lightly touched the deck of Hailey before she was instantly off like a bullet toward her home.
She tackled in the door like a linebacker before she yelled, “Everybody up! There’s bombs on Hailey!”
Kyden, Rook, Iliana, and Elisha were all still on the couches and chairs where they had been the night before, papers still littered the table. The four of them jumped at the sound of Belinda’s yell before yawning and rubbing their eyes. Iliana extricated herself from under Rook’s arm to stand and stretch.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, arms raised all the way up as she stood on her toes stretching.
“What I mean, is that this thing,” Belinda said, picking up the gutted device from Kyden’s workbench, “is down on the supports of Hailey. Except there’s hundreds of them. And I’m pretty sure they’re not empty.”
Everyone jumped from where they were. Kyden grabbed a bundle that had been on the floor under his workbench and tossed it to Rook, who caught it and slung it over his shoulder. Everyone bolted from the house, Kyden yelling something after them that Belinda didn’t catch and ran over to where Belinda had dropped the rope to the lower deck. She already had her zipper in hand and leapt at the rope, snapping the device as she started to fall.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Elisha yelled after her, but Belinda was already speeding down the rope. When she reached the halfway point, Belinda engaged the motor to slow her descent so she touched down lightly on the deck below. A rope ladder with wooden steps rattled down next to Belinda and she looked up to see Elisha, Iliana, and Rook already following her down, but taking much longer with the ladder than she had with the rope and zipper.
Belinda jogged across the platform, tossing her bag and zipper onto the couch she had used as a bed the previous night and leapt out into the jungle of supports under Hailey. She struck one metal beam and grabbed on to the sides of it before using her hands and feet to climb up the surface to the glowing light that indicated a bomb. When she reached it, Belinda grabbed it with both hands and yanked it from the metal. It looked almost identical to the one Kyden had on his bench up above, except that it was heavier, still being full of explosives.
And there was an antenna poking almost a foot from the top of it.
Belinda grabbed the thin metal antenna and yanked it sideways, ripping from the device. She then hurled the box as far as she could away from the supports of Hailey. Belinda jumped from the support she was on to the next one like a monkey leaping from branch to branch and did the same thing with the device she saw there.
By this time, the other three had finally made it to the platform and were standing there, staring at all of the glowing dots staring back at them.
“How did all these get here?” Iliana asked?
“No idea,” Belinda yelled, jumping to a third support. This one was made of wood and had no bomb attached, so she methodically moved on to the next. “I was down here all night.” Grab beam. “They weren’t there when I went to sleep.” Climb to and detach device. “Nothing woke me up last night.” Rip off antenna and throw both away. “Whoever is doing this, must be very good at what they do.” Move on to the next beam. “They also didn’t use my rope to get down here.”
“How could you know that?” Elisha yelled at her out in the tangle of supports.
“If they had, their weight would have engaged the winch up above and I would have been stuck down here.” She threw a fourth device off into the distance and watched it spiral down into the clouds below. “Get your asses out here and help me. These ones have antennas, so make sure you rip those off before tossing them just in case whatever signal the antenna is for reaches them down there.”
“Make sure you hang on to three of them,” Rook yelled back as he landed on his first support beam.
“Why three?” Belinda asked, scrambling up another.
“Ky wants two to deactivate so he can send one back to Spense. He wants to deactivate the third and try something with it.”
Belinda grunted in acknowledgement, yanking yet another device from the structure under her home.
The group gradually made their way across every support beam for Hailey, checking each one carefully to make sure there were no more bombs planted. After an hour of work, they had all made their way back to their little platform, three of the bombs lay before them as they slouched against the couch, bent forward with hands on knees, or simply lay on the wooden paneling under their feet. All of them gasped for air, their clothing drenched in sweat from the exertion.
“Someone should get,” Iliana said between deep gulps of air, “these back to Ky before they go off.”
“I’ll do it,” Belinda said, stretching her back before shoving them into her bag. The three left behind watched as she attached her zipper to the rope and shot up into the air. Belinda popped back above the rim of Hailey and took off at a run again, sprinting through the still open door of her home. “Here you go,” she said, once again catching her breath as she leaned against Kyden’s workbench where she had just deposited her bag with the bombs inside.
“You got three?” Kyden snapped the light on over the bench and carefully pulled the devices out of the bag to lay them in a row in front of him. His hands froze in the air over them. “These are different,” he mumbled.
“So what? Defuse the damn things so we don’t blow up.” Belinda was pacing behind Kyden, looking over his shoulder as much as possible.
“Why do they have antennae?” he asked.
“That’s your job to figure out. Now make with the no-go-boom.”
Kyden took a deep breath before unscrewing the side panel of the first device. He pulled the outer casing off to reveal what looked exactly the same as the previous bomb, but this one was filled with a manila colored putty. Kyden removed a small stick, about a quarter inch across and cut the wires from it. He continued to do the same with the other three devices before scooping the putty out and wrapping it in plastic. He took the three lumps and placed them in a canvas bag that was then tucked under his workbench.
“Done,” Kyden said, lying his tools on the workbench next to the gutted boxes.
“That’s it?” Belinda asked, stepping up to look at them over his shoulder, one finger in her mouth as she chewed one of her nails.
“Yes, well, this type of explosive is one in which it is entirely safe to handle unless it has a detonator in it,” he explained, waving his hand over the three short sticks that had been removed and cut away. “Without those, or a quite substantial shock, there is no way the explosive will detonate.”
“So I understand wanting to have one of these for you to examine and another for Spense, but why the third?”
Kyden was busy digging through a drawer. He pulled something out and held it up before explaining. “I want to see exactly when these would have gone off if they had not been tampered with.” He attached the small object to the wires that the detonators had previously been on. “This is filled with a small amount of powder that will flash and pop when the bomb would have exploded. I need to leave this device otherwise unaltered so as to understand this person’s plans.”
At that point, Iliana, Rook, and Elisha stumbled into the house through the still open door. They were all dripping with sweat, Iliana hung off of Rook’s arm as Elisha crashed to the couch, much the same way Belinda had the other day.
“Is it all good now?” Iliana asked, dropping from Rook into a chair, her body going limp the moment it touched the fabric.
“Yes,” Kyden said before going on to explain what he had done and what he had discovered by dissecting the bombs. “So Hailey is safe for now, but someone needs to get one of these over to Spense right away.”
Belinda looked at her friends who were arrayed around the room much the way she would expect a group of corpses to be before saying, “I’ll take it over to him. See if they figured anything else out. Or if another island was lost last night.” She grabbed one of the devices and walked out of the room, putting it in her bag as she moved.
She made her way from one island to the next, once more taking the long detour that was now necessary due to Gautier’s absence, before landing on Fairchance. Belinda made her way to the capital building only to find it surrounded by men in what appeared to be Keeper uniforms, except that their shirts were black and they wore two red sashes which crossed to make an X over their chests. They were also carrying short clubs, about two feet long, hanging from their belts.
“Stop. Do not come any closer,” one of the men barked, hand on the butt of his club when Belinda came within five feet of their ring around the capital.
“I’m here to see President Crittenden,” she replied. “He’ll want to see me.”
“I’m sorry ma’am, but we’re under strict orders to not allow anyone to enter the premises without express verbal permission.” A second guard came over, hand on his half-drawn club.
“It’s alright,” Belinda hear someone say from the door. She looked up to see Hadley walking out of the door toward them. “Ms. Snell is expected by President Crittenden. He would be most unhappy if she were detained any longer.” The men nodded at her before taking their hands from their clubs and resuming their positions outside the capital building, faces like stone, but eyes always moving.
Belinda slid in between the men and met Hadley in front of the door, who then lead Belinda inside the capital. The building was silent except for the sound of frantically shuffling paper and people speed walking from one place to another. “What in the hell is going on?” Belinda whispered to Hadley, who held up a finger in response.
“President Crittenden wanted me to bring you directly to him. He’ll explain everything you’re authorized to know.” Hadley turned and continued down the hallway, the heels of her shoes clicking with every step she took. Belinda followed her up the same staircase as last time before they stopped outside the double doors to Spenser’s office. Hadley knocked and they heard a grunt from within, so she pushed the door open slightly and gestured for Belinda to enter.
She walked through the door, which was closed immediately behind her, and saw Spenser sitting at his desk, head in his hands, elbows supported on the desktop, an open beer bottle sitting next to him, sweating onto the wood.
“What do you want?” Spenser moaned without looking up.
Belinda walked over to the desk and set her bag on it before saying, “Thought you might like to find something we found.”
Spenser jerked his head up. He had dark rings under both his eyes and his now stringy and greasy hair was hanging untied around his face. His shirt was rumpled and Belinda saw it was halfway untucked when he got up. “You’re going to want a beer,” he said, walking across the room to his hidden fridge.
“No thanks. It’s a little early, isn’t it?”
“That’s the only reason I’m not drinking something stronger. It also wasn’t a question.” Spenser twisted the cap off the second bottle and placed it on his desk with a hollow thud right next to Belinda’s bag.
“So, what did you and Ky find?” Spenser sank back into his chair, reclined slightly, and took a sip from his drink.
“This,” Belinda said, pulling the device shell from her bag and laying it on the desk.
“Where did you get that?” Spenser asked as he leaned forward to get a better look.
“They were all over Hailey’s supports this morning. We got them all off, plus this one and two more that Ky has.” Spenser picked up the deactivated bomb to look at it.
“It’s the same size as the last one, but why is there an antenna?”
“Ky thinks that these are now radio detonated. We snapped the antennas off the ones from below Hailey before throwing them away to be safe.”
“What is he doing with the other two he has?”
“Well, one of them is just to look over. He didn’t get a chance to before I came to see you since all he was really focused on was deactivating them.”
“And the other?”
“He wants to see when the bombs would have gone off if we hadn’t bothered them.”
“How is he going to do that? Please don’t tell me he left one of these things active.”
“No,” Belinda said, opening the bomb casing on Spenser’s desk. “These wires were connected to a detonator that Ky cut out. He attached a small thing that will flash and pop when it gets the signal to blow up.”
Spenser nodded as he looked at the snipped wires. “How did you get these before Hailey was destroyed?”
“Since they’re radio detonated, Ky thinks whoever destroyed Gautier may be just planting a bunch of bombs so he can detonate them whenever he wants.”
Spenser leaned back in his chair and breathed deeply. “Good, so that means we can stop any more by just checking the supports every morning.”
“’Any more?’ I thought it was only Gautier so far with Hailey planted.”
Spenser shook his head and sighed, sinking deeper into his seat as if the leather were trying to swallow him whole. “Shadow, Liann, and Parth all disappeared last night.”
“What the fuck?” Belinda yelled, throwing her hands in the air and letting them fall to slap against her thighs. “Who the fuck is doing this? Did anyone see anything this time?”
“Yes,” Spenser answered. He consulted a notebook on his desk before continuing. “A man named Tavion Wald was on Ezra last night. He said that around four in the morning, he saw a group of flashes off in the direction of Parth before hearing some popping noises. Then he heard some groaning and snapping before there was silence again.”
“What was this guy doing out at four in the morning?” Belinda asked, narrowing her eyes at Spenser.
“He said he was out for a walk since he was having trouble getting to sleep. A Keeper on Ezra confirmed this, saying that Tavion is normally out at night due to a severe sun allergy. He breaks out in painful welts with even five minutes of exposure to the sun.”
“Well, can I go talk to this guy? See if I can find out something the Keepers didn’t?”
Spenser sighed, rubbing his closed eyelids with his thumb and forefinger. “Look, Bell. I know I asked for your and Ky’s help on this, but you’re not a Keeper. Or a Protector like the men outside. You are just a regular citizen. I can’t have you running around like you’re an agent of the government.”
“I get it,” Belinda said as she placed her beer bottle back on Spenser’s desk and stood from her chair. “You can use us when it suits you, but when we may show up your government, we need to stop and back down.” Belinda collected her bag from the desk and slung it across her chest.
“Bell, that’s not what this is. Everything just needs to be done properly and officially,” Spenser said, standing behind his desk, watching as she walked from his office.
“You can take your ‘proper’ and ‘official’ government and shove it. I’m going to save some lives.” Belinda slammed the door to Spenser’s office. The few people occupying the silent hallway looked at the source of the noise, but when they saw the scowl on Belinda’s face, they turned and hurried away lest they get caught in the wrath of someone who dared to talk that way to the President.
Belinda stormed out of the capital building and past the ring of Protectors outside, shoving one of them with her shoulder. She made her way back to Hailey and arrived as the sun was starting to slide back down the sky. Her anger at Spenser had raged inside her like an inferno, but it was finally beginning to cool down now.
She slowly made her way in the general direction of her home, meandering around the portion of the island with the stores, the metal eagle she was so familiar with peeking over the tops of most of the buildings. She wasn’t paying attention to anything around her, but her eye happened to catch the white and blue circle of one of their patches.
Belinda knocked on the open door of the store before ducking into the darkness. Even though it was a store, it was still generally common courtesy to knock before entering as a large number of people simply built their stores onto the fronts of their homes.
“Hello,” a man called to her from a back room. “I’ll be right with you. Feel free to look around.” Belinda took the man’s invitation and started to wander the store, looking at the items up on the walls and shelves. They were mostly old electronic equipment. Small screens. Large screens. Computer components. “See anything you like?” the man asked as he stepped from a doorway into the front of the shop.
Belinda held up the patch she had removed from his doorway. “You have something that needs to be delivered?” she asked.
“Ah, yes. I was expecting Faxon last evening or this morning, but he never showed up.”
Belinda grimaced. “Fax probably won’t be making any more deliveries. Not for a while, at least.”
“What a shame,” the man said, folding his hands in front of his body. “He was such a nice boy. Anyways, let me go get you that package.” The man walked back through the door he had just come from, and Belinda could hear the noise of things shifting around.
“What exactly is it you sell here?”
“Old Ascender electronics. Some people like to collect everything they can from the Ascenders, even if it’s nothing more than broken junk. I’ve even heard that a few people have gotten some of these things to work again.”
“You don’t believe them?” Belinda asked as the man came back out, a small box in his hand.
“Have you ever heard the old Ascender myth of Bigfoot?”
“Many Ascenders actually did not believe in him either because they never got any proof that he really existed.”
“We also have no proof that there is actually anything under our planets holding them up. For all we know, they’re all just connected at some support structure core, and or planet is nothing but spindly things built from that.”
“Yes,” the man said, handing the box the Belinda, “but if that were the case, then where did everything we have come from. We may have never seen the ground, but there is still evidence that it is there.”
“I never said I didn’t believe in the ground,” Belinda chuckled. She glanced at the package and saw that it was addressed to Ezra. Breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t going to Shadow, Liann, or Parth, she slid the box into her bag and did some quick silent calculations, her finger twitching as if it were drawing the numbers in the air.
“It’s a little late for me to make it to Ezra and back before the sun comes down. Is it okay if this gets delivered first thing in the morning?”
“Of course,” the man nodded. Belinda smiled and thanked him before turning to leave the shop. Smiling to herself, Belinda considered stopping by The Screaming Eagle to see if Faxon was there so they could talk, but decided to just go and get some sleep instead.
Approaching the portion of the island over their little deck down in the supports, Belinda saw that the rope ladder was still anchored to where it had been that morning. She shrugged, figuring that it had been left there in the rush to see what was happening with the bombs. Belinda clipped her zipper onto the rope and slide down to the deck below. She landed lightly, her shoes barely making a noise on the wood of the protrusion from the deck. She sighed to herself, remembering the nights she and Faxon had spent down there together, just talking and leaning on each other in the wind.
Belinda turned and walked onto the main deck, but stopped short. She heard some moaning and heavy breathing coming from the couch. She took light steps closer, touching her toes to the wood first instead of her heel to help her more smoothly transfer her body weight and cutting down on the noises of her walking. She saw some shapes moving in the fading light, but could really only make out light and dark.
“Rook,” she heard a voice moan in front of her. Squinting her eyes, Belinda could make out a pair of hands moving on what looked like someone’s back. Belinda took another step closer, but was careless and the sole of her shoe scuffed the wooden platform they were all on.
Iliana gasped as she sat up, wearing only a black bra and pants, straddling Rook, who lay on the couch underneath her. The sun illuminated part of her dark olive skin with its red glow.
“Bell,” Iliana basically shrieked, leaning over to snatch her thin shirt from the deck next to the sofa and trying to cover herself. “What are you doing here?”
“I slept down here last night. That’s how I found the bombs. What are you too doing down here? How long has something been going on between the two of you?” Belinda spread her feet apart a bit and planted her hands on her hips, giving the two of them an admonishing look. Iliana pulled her shirt on over her head and climbed off of Rook, who pulled his own shirt back on.
“Seriously, Bell?” he asked as his head popped from the hole at the top of the shirt and he sat up so Iliana could join him on the couch. “You haven’t noticed anything? Are you just oblivious or do you not care about your friends?”
“I care,” Belinda said in protest before muttering under her breath, “and I’m not oblivious.”
“Then how could you not have known about us?” Iliana asked. She leaned in toward Rook and he put his arm around her shoulder.
“I don’t know. You guys never said anything.”
“You came to the party we threw when we moved in together,” Rook yelled. “Is there a more clear sign than that? Did we need to tattoo it on our foreheads?”
Belinda looked at the couple on the couch, the gears turning in her head, but something still wasn’t clicking. She couldn’t think of having seen any sign that they were together before that night. “But why are you guys down here?” she asked.
“Well,” Rook said, looking at Iliana, “we hadn’t been down here in a long time and after being here this morning, we thought we could have some fun down here.”
“But, then how will I make sure that more bombs aren’t planned on Hailey’s supports?”
“First, we’ll stay down here tonight,” Iliana said, snuggling in closer to Rook.
“Second,” he continued, “this person hasn’t even tried to blow up the last set of bombs yet. They have no idea that anything is missing.”
“Fine, fine,” Belinda grumbled. “Just do me one favor in the morning.” Belinda walked over to her rope and clipped the zipper onto it as Iliana and Rook looked at each other before moving to her. “Burn the couch.”
Belinda kicked the motor into gear and sailed up the rope. Rook and IIliana’s eyes followed her, but they couldn’t see the tears that had started ftp leak from the corners of her eyes. They had nothing to do with the wind from her ascent.
Belinda half trudged and half stumbled her way back home. She hadn’t slept very well on the couch down on the deck the previous night. Add that to how hard she had been pushing herself the past few days, and she wasn’t entirely sure how she was able to stand upright anymore, let alone walk anywhere.
She pushed the door to her house open and shambled her way across the living room, only noticing that Kyden was asleep, face down on his workbench. She walked into her room and snapped the light on before dropping her bag to the floor with a thud. She stepped over to stand at the foot of her bed before tilting forward and collapsing like a skyscraper being demolished onto the unmade sheets and mass of pillows that littered the top of her mattress.
Belinda felt like she lay there for only a moment before opening her eyes, but when she did, the dull reddish orange glow of the rising sun illuminated a patch on her wall through the slightly open curtains of her window. Right in front of her face was a picture frame standing on her bedside table. The picture was of her, a huge smile on her face. Faxon was smiling too, arm around her shoulder. They were sitting on the sofa that had been usurped by Rook and Iliana the previous night.
It was an older picture. Belinda still wore her hair longer, reaching partway down her back. Faxon’s cheeks were covered in peach fuzz, sprinkled with a few darker strands of hair here and there. Faxon had always thought, as they were growing up, that being able to grow a beard was the real sign of someone being a man, so he was thrilled when the first scraggly strands of hair started to appear on his face.
Belinda grabbed the picture from the table and hurled it at the wall where it struck with an explosion of glass that tinkled softly to the wood floor below. Tears sprouted from her eyes and began to march down her cheeks and soak her pillowcase. The tears came faster, the dark spot on her pillow growing under her head.
She heard a yawn come from the living room followed by the soft creak of her door opening just a crack. There was nothing for a minute before the tap of wood on wood as he door was closed, allowing her some privacy.
The man paced around his living room. His assistant, Breton sat in a stiff wooden chair with a pad of paper flipped up to reveal a page only half filled with notes. The man held one hand pressed to the small of his back while using his other to gesture as he continued lecturing Breton on the chemical composition of the explosives being used in the devices they spent their nights attaching to the supports of island structures.
The man continued to throw out chemical formulas of components he told Breton were in the compounds. The man then moved on to a rant of the nature of the word “island,” which, he claimed, had been misappropriated when used to describe their current living situation.
“Why do we still remain aloft atop these structures of lies?” he asked no one in particular. “Who says that the clouds beneath are still toxic? Or, for that matter, that they ever were in the first place?” Breton continued to scribble every word the man said on his notepad verbatim. “On whose authority did the so-called Ascenders rise above the earth to live amongst the birds and the clouds? Furthermore, on whose authority was this government which we are supposed to obey established?”
The man continued his rant until the sun outside had reached its zenith, but the pair inside had no indication of this, as the home they shared had no windows.