Belinda let the steaming hot water spray from the showerhead above her and wash over her body. She had cried herself to sleep for a few more hours, finally waking when the sun was getting high in the sky. Thankfully Kyden had left her alone for that time. She leaned forward, supporting herself with her hands on the walls of the shower so the water struck the top of her head. She sighed, watching the water and suds swirl down the drain. She reached down and twisted the knobs to turn the water off.
Grabbing one of the towels from a rod on the wall, Belinda rubbed her head with it, and her hair was almost immediately dry. Before getting in the shower she had chopped off quite a bit of it so it was so short that it was almost pointless washing it. She then toweled off her legs before wrapping the towel around herself and stepping out of the shower onto a fluffy mat on the floor.
She pushed open the door that led into her bedroom, letting the cloud of steam waft out behind her and rise to the ceiling. Dropping her towel to the floor, Belinda picked up the outfit she had left sitting on top of her bed and pulled it on. Belinda quickly rubbed her still damp hair with her hands, making it stick out straight in every direction, as she opened the door to the living room and stepped out.
“What is that incredible smell?” she asked Kyden, who she saw was standing in the kitchen, his back turned to her.
“Breakfast,” he said as he turned around. He was drying his hands with a small towel and pointed over toward the coffee table when he was done. Sitting on the couch, Belinda saw a pair of plates in front of her. They each had a half-circle of eggs with crisp white cubes of onion and gooey orange melted cheese leaking out the sides. There were also two round golden biscuits on each plate with a matching pair of sausage links. Sitting in the middle of the table was a small bunch of silverware and two plastic cups of orange juice.
“What prompted all this?” Belinda asked as Kyden took his seat in his usual chair. “It’s been a while since one of us has actually cooked anything.”
“I just thought that it was a good day for a good, fresh start. And there’s no better way to start fresh than with a good breakfast.”
Belinda got up from the couch and gave Kyden a big hug. “Thank you,” she whispered in his ear. He simply nodded with a smile in response on she sat back on her couch, folding her legs under her and picked up her plate. The two of them sat and ate without talking. There was only the sound of chewing, drinking, and the forks on plates in the house.
“What time is it, anyway?” Belinda asked, setting her plate back on the coffee table and leaning back on the couch again.
“Just after ten,” Kyden said after turning his body to look at the small clock set above his workbench. “Why?”
Belinda was in the middle of downing the last of her orange juice when Kyden answered her. She stopped drinking and her eyes grew wide. “Shit.” She put her cup back down and jumped over the back of her couch, bolting into her room.
“What is it?” Kyden asked.
“Last night I promised something I would make a delivery to Ezra first thing in the morning.”
Kyden looked at the map of the islands Belinda and her group serviced. It was a group of about seventy-five of them, all in the southern section of the Appalachian island chain. Hailey was in the approximate center of their range. “There’s no way you’re going to make it there before noon. So much for ‘first thing in the morning,’” Kyden said.
Belinda threw herself on the couch to land on her back so she could pull her shoes on over her feet. “Yeah, I figured that out all on my own,” Belinda snapped at Kyden. She groaned, rubbing the bridge of her nose with her thumb and finger, eyes closed. “Look, I’m sorry. I really appreciate breakfast, but I need to get this package delivered.”
“It’s fine,” Kyden said. “I’ll clean up. You go.”
She gave him another hug before speeding out the door.
The sun was way too high in the sky for her liking considering she was just leaving the house for the day, and it was a good bit warmer than it had been the day before. Belinda was thankful that she had chosen to wear a lighter outfit as there were no signs of storms in the area, or even clouds in the sky. Ezra was on the edge of the zone in which Belinda would guarantee deliveries. Parth had been the border before, but she could cross that island off their map now.
Not wanting to deal with transferring the zipper around a basket or two each ride, Belinda used the line launchers whenever she could. She was in such a hurry that the launch tubes were dumped back in their brackets and the zipper was spread around the rope so Belinda could snap it shut the second that it made contact with the target plate on the neighboring island.
Belinda took off from every island with the speed kicked all the way up to five and never bothered to turn the speed down until she popped the zipper open to drop to the deck. She hit each platform at a dead run and gradually lowered her speed to a jog across the island, leaving the ropes connected in her haste.
When she landed on Ezra, Belinda pulled out the package to glance at the name on it as she jogged toward the buildings in front of her. She stopped where she was when she read the name. Tavion Wald. She tried to figure out the likelihood that there was a second Tavion Wald who lived on Ezra, but determined that it would be impossible.
“What are the chances?” she said under her breath. Spenser said not to talk to Tavion, but now Belinda had an actual reason to search out the man. Would Spenser find out if she happened to sneak a few questions out Parth into their conversation?
She started to jog again, looking at the buildings around her. She didn’t think any of the others had made it to Ezra since they started their patch signaling system, so this would be a good opportunity to pass some of them out. After the delivery, of course.
The building Belinda found herself standing in front of, package in hand, was one of the strangest she had ever seen on the islands, and it was way on the outskirts of Ezra. It had at least a half dozen old Ascender satellite dishes arrayed on the flat roof. There were no windows on the entire building, which was built in the shape of a perfect square. The only thing to break that shape was a rectangular box with a black, shiny circle protruding from one end.
Belinda hear the whirring of gears and saw the box move to point the black circle at her. She walked up to the door and knocked on it, watching the box continue moving to keep the front pointed directly at her. Almost a minute later, the door opened, little more than a seam in the building face that revealed darkness inside.
“What is it?” someone asked from inside. Belinda could only see a sliver of their face and one eye peeking out at her.
“Hello. I have a delivery for this address.” She held up the package to show the person inside. A hand shot out from inside, snagging the package from her grasp and yanking it back inside before slamming the door shut in Belinda’s face.
She stood there for a moment, mouth hanging open. No one had ever done that to her before. She let her left hand drop, one of the green and silver patches hanging from her fingers. “You’re welcome!” Belinda yelled before kicking the bottom of the door and turning to walk away. She had gotten a yard away from the building before hearing the door open again behind her.
“Hello? Are you the one who delivered my package?” a voice asked behind her, bringing Belinda to a halt.
“Yeah,” she replied, turning around in place.
“I am very sorry about my associate,” the man said, hands folded in front of him. He was standing under an awning that had not been there before, and Belinda assumed had extended from the house from just above the door. “He is not used to dealing with people on a regular basis, so his manners have been largely forgotten.” Belinda stayed where she was, looking at the strange man. He had a welding mask on with the visor flipped up. He also wore a thick brown leather apron with a heavy jacket underneath. Belinda was marveling at the fact that he was wearing something like that outside and had yet to begin sweating.
“Anyway, thank you for bringing the package.” The man nodded after a moment with no response for Belinda and turned to go back inside.
“I’m sorry it’s late,” she said. Tavion stopped and turned back to her. “I picked it up last night from a store on Hailey and promised the shop owner I would bring it to you first thing in the morning, but I obviously didn’t.”
Tavion grinned warmly at her. “It’s quite alright. No harm done.” He began turning back to the door.
“Can I ask you about Parth?” Belinda asked. Tavion stopped again, this time his hand was frozen on the doorknob. He hesitated before turning back around. The smile was gone.
“Why would I think I know anything about Parth?” he asked as his hand dropped from the knob.
“Well, Ezra was the closest island to Parth and I heard that you saw something.”
Tavion’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I saw something. But, no, I will not tell you about it. Whoever told you I saw anything most likely also told you to not come and talk to me about it, did they not? If they mentioned my having seen anything related to the tragedy which befell Parth, then they also would have told you what I saw, so I have nothing to contribute. Good day.” Tavion turned and slipped back through the narrow crack in the door before Belinda could respond. The awning retracted silently back into the building until it was flush with the exterior wall, and Belinda couldn’t even identify a seam.
“I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on,” Belinda yelled at the sealed bunker of a house in front of her. “Do you want Ezra to be next?” She threw her hands in the air before walking away in exasperation. “What kind of idiot doesn’t care about all the people who just died so close by?” she grumbled to herself as she made her way back to the main portion of Ezra where all of the other buildings were.
She spent the next few hours wandering around the island, handing out both types of patches to everyone who was willing to stop and talk to her. She also managed to throw in at least one question about Parth in every exchange. After distributing at least thirty patches, and even getting an order she could drop off on her way home that evening, all that Belinda had learned about Parth is that it seemed like Tavion Wald was the only person who knew absolutely anything about it.
Eventually, she had started asking about Tavion himself, but the people of Ezra seemed to know almost as little about him as they did about Parth’s fate. They knew his name and where he lived, and that he was almost never seen outside during daylight hours. Whenever he was seen, he was always covered from head to toe, with just his face showing under a very wide brimmed hat so that no sunlight every touched any portion of his skin.
And he was smart. Of everything she heard about Tavion that day, that was the one common thread that ran through every conversation. The people of Ezra didn’t know how smart, but they all said that he was smart. ‘Near genius’ was the phrase she heard more often than not.
Frustrated at having discovered nothing, Belinda left Ezra and made her way back to Hailey. Luckily, on most islands, no one had bothered messing with the ropes she had left up, so she could just zip back across the gaps and yank on the rope to start the winch winding it back to where it belongs.
The sky was blue streaked with orange and pink when Belinda landed back on Hailey, after dropping off the product order from Ezra at a small shop on Varnell. It had been a long, and generally unproductive day in the way of stopping the island bombings. The only positive point of the day was that she had created dozens of new potential customers. When she walked back in to her home, Belinda saw Kyden sitting in her char, a thick sheaf of paper in his hands. The same cardboard wall from the other day separated him from the rest of the coffee table. Rook and Iliana were sharing the couch, Rook’s arm around her shoulder, and Elisha was perched on the largest chair other than Kyden’s. Elisha’s legs were drawn up in front of her so she somewhat resembled a gargoyle Belinda had seen in pictures in her history textbook that had been perched on the edge of an ancient Ascender cathedral.
“Hey guy,” she said, hanging her bag on the hook near the door that already held her trench coat. They all returned the greeting.
“You want to play with us this time?” Elisha asked, or are we all going to get lectured again? Iliana snorted with laughter, but Belinda ignored the comment, walking into the kitchen and getting a drink from the fridge before pulling up a different chair and sitting in it.
“So what are we playing?” she asked, twisting the plastic cap off the bottle and taking a sip of the brightly colored liquid.
“It’s a game Ky got from the library archives over on Fairchance,” Rook answered.
“Holy shit. Ky actually left the island?” Belinda asked. “Where was I when that happened?”
“Haha,” Kyden said in a monotone voice as he separated the thick stack of papers into a series of smaller stacks. “My friend is the head librarian there and she thought that was something I would find interesting. It was never actually cataloged in the library system, and she couldn’t find a real place for it, so she said my having it would be better than destroying it to save room.”
“It’s basically playing pretend for adults,” Iliana added. “We could use another person now that Fax is… well… you know.”
“So what’s the point of the game?” Belinda asked as Kyden handed out a few sheets of paper covered in writing to each of the others.
“Adventure! Ha ha!” Elisha yelled.
“You guys go on adventures and try to defeat evil,” Kyden answered.
“Then what do you do?” Belinda asked him as she took a few sheets of paper that he handed her.
“He is the Game Master. That means he is in control of every character that isn’t one of us and he tells us what is going on. The GM also creates the story and adventure that we go on.”
“Interesting. Then what is this?” Belinda ask, looking at the sheets Kyden had given her. They were covered in writing, like the ones he had given Rook, Iliana, and Elisha.
“That’s your character sheet. It tells you who you are and what you can do. I already made a character for you.” Kyden looked at the rest of the group. “You guys ready to start?” They all nodded at him.
“Alright,” he said, flipping a page. “The five of you are standing in the forest clearing where you made camp last night. Suddenly an arrow flies out of the darkness between the trees and strikes Crunan in the throat. The arrow head protrudes from his neck, blood dripping from its point as his eyes roll back in his head. You hear a gurgling come from his throat as he coughs, spraying a red mist in the air as he drops to his knees before collapsing on the dead leaves that litter the forest floor.”
The three others all cheered at this.
“Wait, so people dying is good in this game?” Belinda asked, looking at the reactions of the others in astonishment.
“That was Fax’s character,” Kyden explained.
“Oh, right,” Belinda said.
They continued playing deep into the night. Belinda found that her character, a human Ranger named Magella Dryadson, was a perfect fit for her. She loved being the first one into battle to take out a goblin with a sword through the back or a well-placed arrow in the heart. Belinda joined her friends in laughing and cheering as they moved through the world that existed only in Kyden’s head. She even managed to forget about all the bombings and the danger they were all in living on the islands until there was a loud hiss from Kyden’s workbench.
They all looked over to see a thin trail of smoke racing toward the ceiling before there was a blinding flash and a crack that left Belinda’s ears ringing. Belinda worked her jaw and dug a fingertip into each ear, trying to get the ringing to go away. She blinked her eyes in a futile attempt to banish the white spots that dotted her vision like a bad case of herpes.
“What the hell was that?” she heard Rook yell, but the sound of his voice was muffled, as if she was holding pillows over her hears and was in a different room.
“We should be dead,” Kyden responded, rising from his chair and making his way over to his bench, hand trailing on the wall to help his balance.
“What are you talking about?” Belinda could hear Elisha’s voice much more clearly than she had Rook’s.
Kyden grabbed something from his workbench, but Belinda still couldn’t see well enough to make out what it was. He dropped it on the coffee table and it clattered around as it settled before he said, “That was the bomb I had rigged from under Hailey. If we had done nothing, Hailey would be on its way back down to the ground right now.”
The group sat in their chairs, looking wide eyed at the impotent explosive in front of them.
“I thought you said it was going to be a small flash and pop,” Belinda said, leaning in to get a closer look at the bomb.
“Why did it go off now?” Iliana asked.
“Well,” Kyden began as he sat back in his chair, his eyes also locked on the device, “there was no timer in the bomb. This is also not from a chain reaction of other devices around it, which means that my original thought was correct. Whoever is doing this has figured out a way to detonate these things remotely.”
“Are you telling me that this jackass is somewhere nearby?” Belinda asked.
“Could be. I have no idea what the remote device they’re using is, or what the range on it is. For all I know, they’re standing on the edge of Varnell, or they could be a hundred islands away. There’s no way to tell.”
“There’s no way to track the signal?” Rook asked.
“Maybe there would have been if I had known exactly what kind of signal was going to be used and exactly when. Then I could have possibly set something up, but now, no. There’s nothing I can do.”
“What about setting up some way of scanning for a signal for the next time this guy tries to detonate an island?” Belinda asked, looking toward Kyden’s workbench. “Don’t you have something you could use to do that?”
“I may be able to do that, but it won’t be something done quickly. And there’s no guarantee that it will actually work.”
“It’s better than nothing,” Elisha added.
They sat in silence, looking at the open metal box with wires spilling from its open top onto the table surface around it.
“I don’t really feel like playing anymore,” Iliana broke the silence.
The others all agreed and said goodnight before heading off into the darkness outside to their own homes and beds. Belinda closed the door to her bedroom behind her and pulled off some of her clothes before crawling between the sheets of her bed and drifting off to sleep.
She woke up the next morning to the sound of a bird chirping outside her window. Belinda rubbed the sleep from her eyes before rolling out of bed and crashing to the floor. She got dressed, wearing whichever clothes were on the top of her pile of clean clothing that was starting to overflow her laundry basket and cascade to the floor, a sure sign that she should probably think about putting her laundry away sometime in the next few days.
Kyden was noticeably absent from his workbench. It looked like he had actually made it to his bed last night before passing out. She grabbed a bottle of cold coffee she had made a few days ago from the fridge and downed it quickly before digging a muffin out of a brown paper bag and taking a bite out of it as she threw her bag over her shoulder and headed out the door.
She had nowhere in particular to start working today, for either deliveries or investigating the person bombing the islands, so she took her time walking around Hailey, but she saw no patches on any doors. In fact, she gradually realized that she was seeing no people either. There would generally be at least a handful of people walking around between the houses and various places of business scattered across the island, but the place looked like a ghost town.
As she wandered, gathering speed until she was jogging between and around the buildings, Belinda heard the faint sound of voices on the other side of The Screaming Eagle. When Belinda rounded the corner, she saw what looked like the entire population of Hailey standing over near one of the edges of the island.
Belinda walked over toward the mass of people, her heart rate increased when she saw that everyone was looking off in one direction, exactly as the people on Gattman had done the morning they saw that Gautier had vanished.
When she got to the edge of the island, Belinda was standing on the basket platform that should have been connected to Varnell, off to the side of the main crowd. The ropes that should have transported the baskets was hanging limp from its brackets and Varnell was gone.
The man stood at a table in his home, leaning forward, supported by his fists, which were planted on the table top on either side of a map. The document was one of the ancient Ascender maps of the Appalachian Mountains, but had the islands’ locations added by a government cartographer. There were five islands with large red exes through them already. The man pulled a red marker from his pocket and uncapped it before crossing out three more islands. One was labelled Varnell. The second was named Deadwood. The third was Hailey.
He replaced the cap on the marker before dropping it back into his pocket. The man crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the map. Eight total islands gone so far. Eight sent back to earth where they belonged. No. Where people belonged. Where people were meant to live.
He had a lot more work to do, and he was worried that the government would discover a way to foil him before his plans had all come to fruition. The man smiled as he took his marker back out.
He circled a few random islands around the south Appalachian chain before stopping, tapping the bottom of the marker on his chin as he continued to study the map. Finally, he drew one more circle before putting the marker down and turning to continue working on his devices, leaving the map alone on the table.
The last circle had been around one more island. That island was named Fairchance.