Sky Islands – Chapter 10

Belinda woke with a gasp and a start, sitting straight up in bed and gasping for air. Her shirt was drenched in sweat and stuck to her body. Belinda scrubbed one hand through her sweat damp hair while clutching her blanket close to her chest with the other and trying to slow her breathing. She had been dreaming that she watched Faxon standing on the edge of Deadwood as it began to splinter apart and fall to the clouds below.

In the dream, Belinda had grabbed a rope from one of their launchers and leapt from Hailey with it in hand, arms spread wide and legs together as if she were trying to fly. She fell, catching up to Faxon as her body became more streamlined and surged forward with gravity’s push helping her in the race. Her fingertips had just touched Faxon’s as he disappeared in the roiling and angry sickly green clouds of agonizing death below the islands. The instant he disappeared, the rope had reached its limit and jerked Belinda to a stop that would have, in real life, ripped her arm from the rest of her body.

Belinda had hung there, searching for any sign of Faxon in the mist, but then a tendril of the fog began to extend up toward her. The shape formed into a hand and grasped her arm, causing excruciating pain just as she woke up.

Her breathing and heart rate now more under control, Belinda looked at her arm, which was missing the angry red welt she thought should have been there.

Belinda sighed and fell back into her bed with a wet smack against the damp pillow and sheets. She sat back up immediately and climbed from bed. Her stomach growled at her as she rubbed it with a hand. Judging by the light streaming through the gaps in her blinds, she figured she had been asleep for only an hour or so.

She peeled her damp shirt off and replaced quickly toweled her torso off before pulling on a new shirt. Looking in the mirror, she saw that her eyes were slightly red and puffy, as if she had been crying in her sleep. Having changed, Belinda made her way out into the living room and, more specifically, the kitchen.

“When did you get back?” Kyden asked, still sitting at his workbench, bent over some project or another.

“’Bout an hour ago,” Belinda said. She pulled a package of crackers from a shelf in a cabinet and ripped it open before popping a pair of cracker sandwiching some cheese into her mouth. “What’re you working on?” she asked, spraying crumbs from her lips as she talked.

“Remember you said something about a safety harness?” he asked.

Belinda nodded, but there was no way Kyden could see that so she said, “Yeah,” after swallowing her cracker.

“Well, here you go,” Kyden said. He turned around a handed Belinda her zipper.

“Um, Ky? This is just my zipper with some holes drilled in it.”

“Right. You’ll need these too.” Kyden handed Belinda  a pair of clips that were vaguely triangular with rounded corners. They were attached to pair of drab green canvas straps that then connected to a single strap. The straps from the clips were not the same length, one of them being much longer than the other.

“Okay?” Belinda said, looking at the mess that was in and draped over her hands. “Not sure exactly how this will be a safety harness.”

“That’s not the harness. That’s what connects the harness to the zipper. Here’s the harness.” He took the clips, straps, and zipper back from Belinda before handing her a large bundle of the same type of straps, but these ones were black instead of green.

“Is this the harness I had in my room?” Belinda asked, taking a few steps and leaning to the side so she could see through her open door. The drab green harness was still hanging off the mannequin, but it had definitely be moved recently.

“Not quite,” Kyden answered. I took the measurements from that one and made this out of thinner and lighter canvas. But, it will still hold the same amount of weight as the one you have, so there is the option of wearing this under your clothes.”

Belinda just looked at Kyden, the harness in her hands.

“Alright, so maybe wearing it under your clothes would be weird. But it should work.”

“Should? You mean you haven’t tested it yet?”

“Of course not. Sand bags won’t stay in that thing. I need an actual person to ride in it.”

“Look, Ky,” Belinda said as she tried to hand the harness back to him. “I love you like a brother, and I trust your work, but I am not going to be the one who hangs out over nothing with an untested harness.”

“Over nothing? Why would you do that? I just have to hang my rope back up across the living room. It’s anchored well enough to hold you up. That way you’re only a few feet off the ground. And we could even do it over the couch.”

Belinda nodded before saying, “Okay, we might as well get going.”

Kyden ducked down and pulled a coil of rope from a shelf beneath his workbench. He tied it off with an anchor much like the ones Belinda had seen in pictures of old docks in her history class. She never really thought those pictures were real because she couldn’t imagine having so much dirty water that was used just for recreation.

The rope was fed through an eyehook near the corner of the ceiling before Kyden took the end again and walked across the living room to another eyehook and anchor that mirrored the one he had just used. Putting his foot against the wall and pulled the rope tight.

“Good, now we just need to get you up there.” He came back over and showed Belinda how to get into the harness. Once it was hanging off her, Kyden proceeded to pull on the buckles until the canvas was snug against her body. There were two main straps that were nothing more than loops that reached over her shoulder, down to between her legs, and back up again where the ends connected with a buckle. These two loops were connected with a strap that crossed over her chest that could be tightened, and a mirrored one across her back. The last strap was a third loop that went around her waist, just above her hips.

Kyden took the zipper and placed it on the rope before hooking the clips through the holes on the front and back with a snapping sound. He then took the single strap that hung down and hooked it to a clip on the back of the harness while Belinda was standing on the back of the couch.

“Ready to try it?” he asked. Instead of answering, Belinda just pushed off from the top of the couch.

She seemed to float through the air to the middle of the room, where the rope was lowest, so her movement stopped there.

“So? How’s it feel?” Kyden asked, rubbing his hands together.

“Well,” Belinda grunted. “It definitely works and would save my life.” Kyden’s smile grew wider. “But.” His smile disappeared. “It’s really hard to breathe. Plus it’s pretty painful in the crotch area.”

Kyden’s head was hanging as he pushed her back to the couch so they could unhook her.

“Hey, it’s a start,” Belinda said, clapping her hand on his shoulder. “The zippers weren’t perfect the first time either.”

“I guess,” Kyden grumbled.

“Well, I’m going to take this,” Belinda said, jumping to remove her zipper from the rope above her head, “and I’m going to see if I can find any deliveries that need delivering.” Kyden grunted at her, examining the harness, which he had laid out on the surface of his workbench.

Belinda left the house and, no sooner had the door shut behind her than she had to reach down and rub the sore spots on the insides of her upper thighs. Even through the pants she’d been wearing, she was pretty sure the design of the fabric would be imprinted on her skin.

She left Hailey and traveled in an ever-expanding spiral outward, picking up and dropping off deliveries. Most people would just give either her, or one of her cohorts, something that they could easily take to the next island over if they saw one of them around. Belinda was glad to take these easy jobs because, even though it wasn’t much, it was easy money.

While Belinda was making her rounds of the island, she saw Iliana off in the distance when she was on Constance, but as soon as Iliana noticed her, she turned and walked quickly away, leaving Belinda standing there, staring at an empty spot. There was one more thing she noticed about all of the islands that she visited.

There were at least a half dozen Keepers wandering around on each of them.

Seeing one Keeper on an island before was entirely normal. Seeing two would have been something strange, but not totally unheard of. Seeing three Keepers together was completely unheard of.

Not only had the number of Keepers around significantly doubled, but later on in the day, Belinda even saw a few of Spenser’s new black garbed Protectors walking around a couple of the islands. Most of them just kept a hand planted on the butt of the clubs that hung from their belts, but one of them walked around with his club in hand, leather strap firmly around his wrist, smacking the business end of the club in the palm of his other hand.

Belinda had seen pictures, and even videos, of guns from the Ascenders in school, but she had only ever seen a gun in the museum on Paquin at the Southern Appalachian Federal Museum. And she had definitely never seen it fired. Or, for that matter, any bullets for said gun. The Ascenders had never seen a point in continuing the manufacture of black powder for firearms since the islands were fed entirely by farming, making hunting unnecessary, and they were too busy just trying to survive to think about starting any arguments that may call for the use of a gun.

As she was heading back to Hailey, racing the setting sun across the sky, Belinda thought about the day. So much had happened, from finding out both Varnell and Deeadwood were gone. Faxon had a twin brother, and Faxon was now dead. Raiden was “interrogated” by Spenser’s goons. Iliana freaked out about everything they had been doing, and she didn’t know where Rook stood with everything now because of that.

After shedding so many tears in the past few days, Belinda just felt numb. She knew this were worse than they ever had been before, but she didn’t feel it anymore. The only thing she could really compare it to was accidentally cutting yourself with a new razor while shaving. The blade is so sharp that you don’t feel it for a bit, but the damage has still been done.

Belinda walked into her house like a zombie, mind completely empty and her body just running on instinct. She dropped her bag with a thud next to the door before kicking it shut and walked across the living room to her bedroom, which she walked through to the bathroom. After using the bathroom, she came back out into the living room and jumped in surprise.

Sitting on the couches and chairs was everyone. Kyden, Rook, Iliana, Elisha, and Riaden were all there.

“Good. You’re home,” Kyden said.

“Um, what is this, guys?” Belinda asked as they all stared at her.

“This is an intervention,” Iliana said, standing up and taking Belinda’s hand, leading her over to a chair. When she allowed herself to be sat down, Belinda realized that the rest of the seats were angled so they could all look at her. “We all love and care about you, Belinda. This is a safe place.”

“Seriously, guys. What’s going on?” When Iliana sat back down, all of them scooted forward to the edge of their seats, and leaned forward, supporting themselves with their elbows on their knees. Belinda shrank back into her seat as far as she could before she said, “You’re all really starting to freak me out.”

“Belinda,” Rook began, “we have all gotten very concerned about you these past few days. You are running around while injured and not eating enough. We are worried that you’re going to stress yourself out and run yourself so ragged that something very bad will happen to you.”

“So tonight,” Elisha continued, “you are eating a good meal and getting as much sleep as possible after relaxing ad relieving some stress.”

“And how exactly am I going to do that?”

“Wait here,” Raiden said. The five people around her all rose from their seats at the same time and walked behind Belinda, into the kitchen. Raiden was hobbling slightly, still recovering from his run-in with Dante and Jyff that morning.

One by one, the group made their way back into the living room, each carrying a tray heaped with food of all different kinds. The last to return was Kyden. He set a stack of plates and silverware in the middle of the table before taking his seat like all the rest.

“Where did all of this come from?” Belinda asked, leaning forward in the chair, her legs folded under her, hands planted on the end of the arm rests to keep her from toppling out of the chair.

“I have a friend on Pelorum. When everyone told me what you’d been doing, I sent Rook over to see him. They always sell me food pretty cheap because I buy so much.”

“Wait,” Elisha said. “So that means you charge regular rates and get to pocket the rest of our money?”

“How do you think I can afford to live while only being open half the day?” Elisha grabbed a roll from a pyramid of them and chucked it at Raiden. The roll bounced off his head, popping up into the air. Raiden tilted his head back and caught it in his mouth. He ripped the bread from between his teeth, taking a huge chunk out of it, and the rest of them cheered.

“Dig in, everyone,” he said around his full mouth. They all started by grabbing plates from the table before heaping them with steaming piles of food from the various trays around the table. When Belinda was ready to sit back and eat, her plate had a few rolls balanced on top of a mound of mashed potatoes, some sliced turkey, and a pile of mixed vegetables.

Belinda finished off her plate and went back for seconds before most of the rest of the group had eaten half of their first helpings. They talked and joked as they ate together for the first time in at least a week, small bits of food flying from their mouths as they laughed, but no one cared. Everyone finished off their plates, leaving bits of each type of food sitting on the trays on which they had been brought out, but they were all stuffed, leaning back in their chairs, hands on their bellies.

“I haven’t eaten that much in a month,” Belinda said.

“Me neither,” Kyden replied, the second word mostly obscured by an enormous belch that got everyone in the room giggling again. He got up from his chair and began moving the trays into the kitchen before heading into his room.

“Thank you guys so much,” Belinda continued. “I definitely really needed something like this.”

“We figured we all did with everything that’s gone on this week,” Iliana said.

“And guys,” Belinda said, looking at Rook and Iliana sitting together on the couch, “I’m really sorry I hadn’t noticed the two of you were together. I think it’s great, and I’m really happy for you.”

“Thank you,” Rook replied, kissing Iliana on the top of her head. “Hey, have you heard anything from Fax?”

Belinda felt like she’d been slammed in the gut with a battering ram. She nodded her head a single time.

“Well? How is he?” Elisha asked.

“He’s dead.”

The words were quiet, so much so that it was hard for everyone to hear her, regardless of how close together they were all sitting. But, all the same, they had the same effect that a hand grenade dropping onto the coffee table would have had. Everyone got silent immediately and started shifting around awkwardly in their seats.

Kyden came back out from his room, a large stack of papers held in his hands, saying, “So, who’s ready to play tonight?” He looked around at everyone sitting silently and ignoring his question. “Wait, what did I miss?”

“Fax is dead,” Raiden told him.

“No way.” Kyden fell back into his chair, putting the papers on the table. “What happened?”

Belinda told the story of talking to Zeo, meeting Declan, and discovering Faxon’s fate. The entire time she stared at a blank spot on the table top and spoke in a robotic monotone voice.

“I had no idea Fax had a brother, let alone a twin,” Elisha said.

“I did,” Rook said. Everyone there looked over at him. “I went over to his place a few months ago and met Declan then. Fax asked me not to tell you guys about him because he wasn’t ready to share that part of his life with people yet, since he’d just met his brother himself.”

“Declan told me that he moved back south so the two of them could meet closer to three years ago.”

They once again all sat in silence, no one wanting to make eye contact with anyone else.

Iliana clapped her hands together, the sharp sound echoing through the oppressive silence of the living room before she said, “Hey. We said tonight was about relaxing and getting rid of some stress. We shouldn’t be thinking about these things. I know it sucks, and it sucks a lot, but there will be plenty of time to process and deal with this stuff later.” She turned to look at Kyden. “I, for one, would love to play a little tonight. Anyone else?”

Everyone nodded their heads except Raiden. Now it was Belinda’s turn to explain the ancient Ascender game Kyden had been sent. Kyden passed out all of their character sheets, including one for Raiden that he had made up earlier that day, once he found out Raiden was going to be joining them.

They all once again dove headlong into the adventure of their fictional counterparts, trying to find this shards of power so they could be woven back into the tapestry of light and death before all of reality unraveled. Just as it had happened last time, as Belinda became more engrossed in the game, and, more particularly, in her character, Magella, she became less concerned with what was going on in the real world.

Raiden, even though he had never played before, seemed to be a natural. He completely took control of his character, Torgged. Torgged was a dwarf paladin, so the way Kyden described him made every chuckle. He was about four feet tall, wearing a full suit of plate armor that was shined so bright it could almost be used as a torch. This definitely came in handy when the group found themselves in a room with three beams of light, each of a different color, and they needed to reflect them into same colored crystals in order to unlock and open the door.

The night was filled with laughter, cheering, and drinking. They also began to do things that were a little more ridiculous as they went on. At one point, Elisha’s character, Genevieve, got frustrated while they were questioning a prostitute about the location of someone who was rumored to have one of the shards. She snapped the leg off a bar stool before shoving it up the hooker’s ass, killing her as the jagged end popped out the front of her throat. Everyone laughed so hard that more than one drink was spilled on the floor and some of them had to fight to catch their breaths once Genevieve picked up the prostitute by the stool leg and started waving her around like a puppet, smacking someone else in the tavern with the corpse. Kyden groaned while the rest of the group laughed, claiming he now needed to figure out how much damage a prostitute’s corpse would do to someone who was hit with it.

The adventuring company began acting with more wild abandon and lost sight of the actual adventure they were on, instead trying to cause as much damage and chaos to the village they were in. That was the point at which Kyden called the game and collected the character sheets, making his final notes before returning the papers to wherever he kept them in his bedroom.

The laughter was finally starting to die down by the time he came back out to the living room, grabbing another round of beers for the group. Belinda took hers, thanking Kyden, and twisted off the cap before standing up.

“Think I’m going to take this for a little walk. Get some fresh air,” she said, taking her coat from the wall peg near the door and slipping it on, then dropping her bag onto her shoulder, purely out of habit.

“Want a little company?” Raiden asked.

“Sounds good. Let’s go,” Belinda replied, opening the door and stepping outside. She stood outside, examining the rectangle of light that poured from the open door, taking a sip of her drink as she waited for Raiden to join her. He did a few moments later, closing the door with a click.

The two of them started walking in silence at first, just taking the occasional sip of their drinks in the bright light of the full moon. Belinda was glad that she grabbed her coat. It was starting to turn from summer to fall, and the temperature drop at night for this time of the year could be very drastic. Close to the point of sweating during the day while wearing a light outfit of a tank top and thin pants, Belinda was now pulling her coat close around her to keep the bite of the howling wind from reaching her skin.

“So,” Raiden said, breaking the silence that separated the two of them, “you guys have really known about all this for days?”

Belinda nodded before realizing it was too dark to see the gesture even if Raiden had been looking at her instead of off into the distance, so she said, “Yeah. I was trying to get somewhere when Gautier was gone. Then I talked to Spense and he told me pretty much everything else we know.”

“What did you guys mean earlier today when you mentioned that Hailey should have been gone too?”

Belinda sighed. “I didn’t really want to get into it too much, but two days ago, I woke up and saw hundreds of blinking lights out in the supports under Hailey. Each of those lights ended up being a separate bomb. Last night, they would have all been detonated if we hadn’t gotten rid of them, and we’d be just as dead now as everyone from Varnell and Deadwood.”

Raiden nodded in his head in silence as he took a moment to process it all. “Wait,” he said, stopping where he was. “How did you wake up and see Hailey’s supports? Were you sleeping under the island or something?”

“Yep,” Belinda said before taking another sip and swirling the little bit that remained of her beer around the bottom of the bottle.

“How in the world would you do that?” Raiden asked. He tilted his head back and drained the last of his beer.

“Come on,” Belinda said, tiliting her head off toward the side of the island. “I’ll show you.” She turned and walked toward the end of Hailey, the launcher post coming in to view as they got closer. The ladder had been rolled up and just left on the deck of the island next to the pole, so Belinda didn’t have to worry about teaching Raiden to descend on the zipper. She locked the end of the rope ladders into their spots before kicking the roll off the edge of the island, listening to it unspool, the wooden rungs clattering against each other as they fell.

Belinda drained her drink before tossing the bottle over the edge of the island, watching it flip and tumble through the air, plummeting to the death clouds below. She grabbed the top run and dropped over the edge of the island, beginning her descent to the deck below. As she climbed, she saw Raiden’s bottle flip by past her as it followed hers to the hidden earth below her. She then felt the ladder swing around a bit more and looked up to see Raiden following her down.

Reaching the deck below, the ladder was waving around quite a bit from the movement of Raiden climbing being magnified through the rest of the rope length. She yelled up at him to hang on for a minute, and the waving began to slow almost immediately. Waiting for the rope ladder to become mostly still, she dropped to the deck outcropping beneath her feet and ducked down, tying the bottom of the ladder off.

She yelled at Raiden to continue before walking over and dropping onto the couch, letting her bag fall to the wood and lean against the side of the couch. The deck was near pitch black with the main island of Hailey above them blocking the moonlight. She pulled open the door of the small fridge, flooding a small portion of the smaller deck with a rectangular dull glow from the dying light bulb inside. Raiden dropped the last few feet to the deck with a thud before wiping his palms off on the front of his pants and walking over to join her.

He flopped back onto the couch next to her, arm held out to land on the arm rest before he said, “So how long have you guys had this thing down here?”

“Couple of years,” Belinda replied, which Raiden answered with a whistle. “Yeah. This is where we based everything when Kyden installed our windmills.”

“You know, I’ve heard about those, but I never really believed it. I figured he had just figured out some way to tap into the power grid without the government knowing about it.”

“Nah. Illegal isn’t Ky’s style. He would much rather look at a problem and figure out how to solve it intelligently than to just steal the answer. Hence, the windmills.”

Raiden squinted his eyes and looked into the distance under the island, but he gave up after a few seconds. “Where are they, anyway?” he asked.

“Right about there.” Belinda pointed right to where Raiden had been looking. “You can’t see them in this dark, but if you listen real carefully, you can hear the metal squeaking as they spin.” She pulled a soda from the fridge, figuring she’d had enough to drink that night, and kicked the door shut, plunging them into almost absolute darkness.

Raiden shifted in his seat, groaning and wincing as he grabbed his side with his hand.

“How are you feeling after getting worked over this morning?” Belinda asked. “I can’t believe our Spense would have someone do that.”

“Our Spense wouldn’t,” Raiden answered, his voice strained as he tried to take the shallowest breaths possible. “But that isn’t our Spense anymore. President Spenser really only looks and sounds like ours, but they’re almost two completely different people.”

Belinda thought for a moment before nodding. “I guess you’re right. I wasn’t looking at him to hard the first time I met with him, but when I went back, he definitely seemed like something was wrong. I’d never seen Spenser stressed out like that before.”

“He’d never been responsible for people who were being killed in large numbers before either. But it’s the way we deal with our stress that defines who we are, and having people beat on an old friend in case he’s hiding something from you is not the right way to do things.”

“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

The two of them simply sat in silence for a few minutes. Neither of them felt the need to fill the silence with mindless talking, so if they had nothing they really wanted to say, they just didn’t say anything.

“I still can’t believe you guys actually built your own little deck down here,” Raiden said. “It’s like having your own patio. Like those houses from the history books.”

“Originally it was just a place to put things to get together so we could install the windmills,” Belinda said. She finally opened her drink, releasing an angry hiss as the plastic cap broke the seal. “Then, we realized it was a nice place to get away to and relax. People eventually stopped wanting to come down here, opting instead to hang out at the Screaming Eagle, so I became the only one of us to ever use the deck any more. That’s why the fridge is still stocked.” She took a long gulp of her drink, wincing as the cold of the soda aggravated a spot on one of her teeth. She probed the spot with her tongue but couldn’t find anything wrong. “I was the only one to come down here for a long while until  .Rook and Lia, anyway.”

“Yeah, they told me about that. Did you seriously not know that the two of them were together?”

“It’s not like I’m proud of it, but I had no idea.”

“The ‘Moving-In Together’ party didn’t give you any clue?” Raiden was working very hard to contain his laughter at this point.

Belinda crossed her arms over her chest and turned to sit sideways on the couch, leaning back against her armrest before saying, “You know, if you keep this up, I might just push you over the edge. No one knows we’re down here, and no one’s awake to hear you scream anyway?”

“Oh yeah?” Raiden said. “You think I’d scream?”

“Like a little girl.” The pair looked at each other before Belinda cracked first and started to chuckle. Raiden followed suit only seconds later. Their laughter took hold of them and continued to grow until tears were streaming down their cheeks and both of them were holding their sides. Belinda just because of a cramp, while Raiden was doing so due to a cramp and the pain from his beating earlier that morning.

Belinda heard a pop off in the distance. Their laughter was finally dying down, which was the only reason she had a chance to hear it, but the wind’s direction that night helped to carry the sound to them. She was wiping the last of the tears from her eyes, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath when she heard two more pops almost on top of each other.

“Did you hear that?” Raiden asked. “What are those popping noises?”

“It’s probably just one of our windmills. Every once in a while an alternator will go bad and we need to replace them. I think the last one to do that sounded like a bunch of popping sounds.”

Then five or six pops came one right after the other, evenly spaced out.

“Alright, maybe it’s not an alternator. You ever heard anything mechanical go bad uniformly?” Belinda could just make out the silhouette of Raiden shaking his head. Then, off in the distance, she saw a faint flash behind him. She leaned over to the side to see around his head and saw a few more flashes. They were yellowish orange in color and lasted for only a split second.

About five seconds later they heard a series of pops. The same number of and with the same time between each flash.

“Take a look at that,” Belinda said, pointing behind Raiden, but the gesture was futile as he was already turning his head. There were a handful of more flashes, followed by the pops just a few seconds later. Then Belinda heard a high pitched, yet still faint, shriek with a much groaning that was much lower in tone. “Oh my god,” she said, putting a hand over her mouth.

“What? What is it?” Raiden asked.

Belinda stood from the couch and walked to the edge of the small deck. Her eyes were locked on the spot where the flashes and pops were coming from, their pace increasing. “That’s Bellerophon.”

“There’s no way it’s possibly Bellerophon. How could it be? You really think whoever’s doing this would go after another island right here the day after destroying Deadwood and Varnell?” Raiden was now standing next to Belinda, watching the flashes and pops, which were now coming three or four at a time.

“Why not? They know we’ve got nothing on them. Fuck, we’re absolutely no closer to figuring out who’s doing this today than we were before Gautier was bombed.” Belinda was yelling her, her hands clenched into fists at her sides, and her knuckles would have been white if there was enough light to see them. Her jaws clenched tight whenever her mouth closed for more than a few seconds. “This stupid fuck is just showing off now. Come on. We’ve got to stop this.” Belinda turned toward the ladder and heard a metallic click just behind her.

“I wouldn’t take another step if I were you,” a voice said. Belinda stopped right where she was, not even wanting to breathe once she recognized the voice. It was the guy who’d first answered the door when she’d delivered the package of electronics to Tavion Wald.

“You?” she said, not moving even an inch. “What the fuck are you doing here? How did you know about this deck?”

“Silly girl, haven’t figured it out yet? I’m not entirely surprised. My mentor found this deck the night he put the explosives beneath Hailey. He figured it was you who had defused his bombs, saving Hailey and all souls living here. He also thought you would enjoy a demonstration, allow you to actually see an island descending.”

Belinda heard some shuffling behind her. The noise of this guy, whatever his name was, breathing got louder, and she felt a hard, cold circle pressed against the back of her neck.

“Now,” he said, “you might as well enjoy the show.”

“Why are you doing this?” Raiden asked. “What do you guys want?”

“There’s nothing you, or anyone can give us to make us stop. We just want to return the world to the way it once was. By our calculations, the toxic gasses which have blanketed the Earth for all these hundreds of years are no longer dangerous. We just want people to resume their rightful place, living on the ground.”

“You’re fucking insane,” Belinda hissed through her clenched teeth. She felt Raiden’s hand pat her arm, trying to calm her down, but every flash of light added fuel to the inferno of rage she felt engulfing her insides. “There’s no way you’re going to get away with this. I’m going to hunt you down. Hunt you down and stop you. And then, once I’ve caught you, I’m going to drop both of you off one of these islands and smile as I watch your bodies drop into the fucking clouds below.”

“Now that’s not very nice,” the voice said. Belinda shuddered as she felt his warm breath on the back of her neck as he spoke. “What exactly is stopping me from putting a bullet in your skull right now and doing exactly what you say you’ll do to me?”

“Because we know you’re not a monster,” Raiden interjected before Belinda could talk. Her mouth snapped shut with a click. “Because we know that you don’t really want to kill all these people.”

“Kill? No,” the man said. “But, if killing people is what it takes to get the rest’s attention, then that is what we are prepared to do. To sacrifice a few for the good of the many.”

“You know what?” Belinda snarled. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going to just drop you off an island. No, that’s too good for you. Too quick. Instead, I’m going to break your knees and arms. Then I’m going to put you in a cage and lower you into the clouds below. I’ll keep dipping you in and pulling you out for a while before I finally drop you in. Then you’ll see whether or not they’re still toxic, instead of just calculating how dangerous they are.”

“Why? So you can be labeled as a sadist, a sociopath, and a murderer of innocent people?”

“Innocent?” Belinda yelled. She spun around to face him, but instead, all she saw was a round metal circle full of darkness inches from her face. She saw the circle bounce up slightly and heard a slight creaking of metal. “How can you call yourself innocent with what’s going on over at Bellerophon?”

“It would be interesting trying to prove us guilty of anything now, wouldn’t it? We know that you have no actual proof of who is doing anything.”

Belinda seethed with rage. Her knuckles popped as she tightened her fists.

“Now, why don’t you turn back around and watch the show? We put a lot of time and effort into making it especially impressive for you.” The man quickly flicked whatever he had in his hand to the side, allowing Belinda to see that whatever it was being pointed at her was a long tube of metal that connected to a larger block of metal with what looked like a cylinder inside of it. The rest of the object was obscured by the man’s hand and darkness.

As she was turning back around, Belinda swung her arm up, punching the back of the man’s hand, the one that was holding the contraption. His arm and hand flew wide, but he had a good grip on the thing, so it stayed in his hand. Just seconds after striking him, there was a bright flash from the end of the metal tube and a deafening crack. The man swore and brought his arm and, what Belinda now thought to be a gun, back around so it was levelled at her and Raiden.

She ducked under his arm and, with a roar, charged at the man, driving her shoulder into his stomach and knocking him to the ground. Or, at least, that’s what she was planning on doing. Instead, he slammed his hand down on the back of her head, knocking her to the wooden deck below her. She collapsed to the wooden blanks, feeling the rough grains of the material rub against her cheek. She rolled over just in time to see the gun pointed back at her face.

She heard another click as the man manipulated something on the back of the gun, spinning the large cylinder she saw. He put his foot on her chest to hold her in place as he bent down, the pattern of the tread on his shoes dug into her chest.

“Now that wasn’t very nice,” he said, spitting in her face as he did so. “You are seriously making me consider ignoring my orders and killing you right here and now. However,” he continued, lifting the gun and pointing it upward, but keeping her pinned with his foot, “it would be much more painful for you to continue seeing islands destroyed, knowing all the while that there is nothing you can do to stop it.”

The man removed his foot and grabbed her by her coat, dragging her back up to her feet.

“You will watch as the last of Bellerophon is made to nothing,” he said, turning Belinda around and holding her still with his arm across her collarbones, the gun pressed against the side of her head. The flashes of each individual explosion increased in speed before Belinda heard snapping and crashing noises. She could barely make out large shapes of the island from the moonlight, but what she could make out through the dark started her weeping.

The island was coming apart. As more of the supports were obliterated, chunks and sections of Bellerophon gave way to gravity, which grabbed the island’s deck and ripped it apart, smashing into more sections of the supports below, mangling them and making the job of the explosives that much easier. Large sections of Bellerophon tumbled down into the darkness and the clouds below. There was no way she could hear it, but she imagined the sound of a thousand people screaming in terror as the ground literally disappeared under their feet.

“No!” she screamed into the night.

“I was wrong,” Raiden said in a calm voice. He hadn’t moved since everything had started, just stayed locked where he was, watching the destruction of an island. “You are a monster.”

“Say what you will,” the man sneered, “we will not be stopped.”

At that, Belinda had seen and heard too much. She didn’t care if she died that night, so long as someone was punished for Bellerophon and all the others before. She tilted her head forward and whipped it back, slamming her skull into the guy’s nose. She heard a loud, sickening crack and felt warmth spread over the back of her head, matting her hair down. He immediately removed the gun from her head and released his grip on her, both hands moving instinctively to cover his broken nose.

Belinda reached for him, grabbing his shirt and yanking him toward her. He managed to bring the gun down and Belinda heard another crack and felt something shove her shoulder back. Kicking at his knees, she smiled as the man yelled out in pain, tumbling to the deck.

Raiden, finally moving, jumped over to help her, pinning his gun hand to the deck with a boot.

“You know what?” Belinda asked, leaning over him as he had moments before. “I think I’ll settle for putting whoever you work with in a cage. You I’m going to throw over right now.”

Belinda dragged him over to the edge and put her foot on his stomach, giving him a sharp kick. The man’s body rolled right up to the edge, and she heard another metallic click. Momentum took control and the man toppled over the precipice. Just before his body disappeared, there was another crack, and Belinda heard a grunt from Raiden behind her. The man, at the last possible moment, reached out and grabbed a hold of Belinda’s pant leg, throwing her off balance.

She saw one leg go over the edge, but was powerless to stop it. Belinda saw the man’s body tumble away through the air, but the damage had been done. She toppled over, arms cartwheeling in the air as she tried to regain her balance, but it was futile. Instead, Belinda grasped for the edge of the deck and was able to grab on.

Pain shot through Belinda’s arms and shoulders when her body jerked to a halt. “Raiden!” she yelled out, looking up at the lip of the deck and seeing the underside of Hailey above her in the glow of the rising sun. “Help!”

Raiden did not answer her. All she could hear was a slight moaning over the sound of the wind, and some scuffling around on the wood above her.

“Raiden, pull me up,” she yelled, but was only answered by more groaning. A hand flopped over the edge of the island above her. The fingers twitched a few times before falling still. A small stream of blood ran down one of the fingers where it collected on the fingertip before dripping down past Belinda, falling to the clouds below her.

*****

The man sat in his large, overstuffed chair. He took a sip of his steaming tea before replacing the cup on the saucer he held in his left hand. He let the warm liquid sit in his mouth for a moment, savoring its flavor before swallowing it. The man gently placed his cup and saucer on the table next to his chair with a few soft clinks before rising and crossing the room to the map hanging from the wall. He stood and examined the document, a smile on his face, and his arms held behind his back.

The man took a red marker from a shelf near the map and uncapped it, drawing an X over the island Bellerophon. He recapped the marker, replacing it on the shelf. The map now showed only one island next that was a direct neighbor of Hailey, Verbena.

Verbena already had a red mark by its name, indicating that it had been marked for bomb installation, but Fairchance took precedence.

On the map, Fairchance already had a thick red circle around it. Bombs had already been planted and were ready to be detonated.

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