Marina laid the large wicker basket of her hot-air balloon sideways as she held open the edges of her envelope bag with wide-open arms. The inflator fan began to gradually expand the red and yellow striped-bag with cold air while her mother prepared the burners and made sure Marina had packed everything she needed for her long journey East. Her nephew helped load the propane tanks and strapped them in on each corner to achieve the equilibrium she needed to steer safely. Marina carried in the ballasts and other necessities, she paused while picking up the hunting knife from the ground. It was one of her favorite possessions that her father had given her. Though one that left her with an unfulfilled sadness. She remembered their last experiences together were filled with antagonistic arguments over her plans to retreat. Her father's last words were foreboding her from leaving the island at such a young age, he felt she wasn't strong or experienced enough to do so. Marina swallowed her emotions back from her family and tried best to suppress them. Her mother could see pass her thick shell and knew how regretful she felt about leaving things without making amends.
The fan had already bloated the envelope open and Marina reached for her mother's soft aged hands. "I'll miss you, ma". she said, her voice cracking slightly.
"I'll miss you too, baby girl. You know your father really wanted to be here".
"I know." Marina frowned. Her father had joined the other men instead to hunt for the migrating whales off the other end of the island.
The balloon had already filled up as Marina pushed her basket upright and her mother continued to work the burners to heat up the air inside.
"Send some letters once in a while, would ya?" yelled her nephew standing behind Grandma's wheelchair who sat smiling and pounding on her little wooden drums.
Marina hopped inside the basket making sure once more she had all her belongings, her backpack was filled with trinkets for trading, another filled with food and fresh water and a bucket. She made sure her other most treasured possession was inside her bag, her scrap-book journal.
She reached again for her mother's hand, as she began to ascend higher from the ground, she finally lets go. "I'll make you all proud..." she assured her. Marina grabbed a fist full of flower pedals from her pocket and sprinkled them down to her family beneath her praying for her safe trip.
"Grandma says the Sky Angels will watch over you!" screamed her nephew.
Marina was soon greeted by a bird's-eye view of her island several dozen feet from the ground and her family now shrunken below still waving and smiling.
"Love you all! I'll come back to visit!" she yelled.
She remembered her mother's expression had an undertone of sorrow as she watched her 16-year old daughter fly out into the world for the first time.
Marina quickly focused her gaze towards the other end of the island to try and find the family's hunting-hut at a distance. She hoped to catch a glimpse of her father nearby the Denver Sea but was left only with a sight of the small unoccupied archipelagos.
She continued soaring up and noticed her name written in stones on one of the nearby uninhabited islands, the way her father wrote it, spelled with heart-shaped A's. Marina's smile stretched as big and broad as she could muster while the tears finally poured down the side and then were carried away with the winds.
It was a gloomy day as the foggy low-level clouds began to overtake Marina's view now several miles from her home towards her long journey pass the vastness of the Mid-Western Sea. She sketched on her journal the shapes of the islands in the oceans she had never seen before. Like most youths her age, Marina's daydreams were fixated on the history of the people who lived before the floods. She looked down and watched the large masses of oceans she knew were never there before, and saw instead valleys and prairies beneath her with extinct wild horses galloping in the green open fields.
Marina opened a recreation of an old relic map of the U.S. from 200 years ago to guide her towards her first destination, a large cargo ship freighter used primarily as a checkpoint for balloonist in the area. As she balanced with her ballasts and checked the wind directions with rose pedals, she kept it steady and followed her compass.
To pass the time, Marina loved reading old geography books from when people still recognized states and countries. Though she knew the cautionary tales of old stories from the generations before her, she preferred to bury her thoughts in more joyful moments writing poetry and short stories. She grabbed the journal from her bag and flipped through her entries of her last big trip with her family in the California territories. Then she marked notes passing by the highest elevation in Arkansas, the Magazine Mountains which were now small sections of islands filled with rich vegetation.
Several hours later, Marina spotted a large ship painted with a yellow "B" symbol so the landing aircrafts could easily identify them miles out. She glided besides it but the high winds pushed and dragged her towards different directions like a tug-of-war. She tried best to balance herself and not lose control. She was pushed over a large mountain peak with a Mesa hidden behind it that appeared to have a few wooden houses scattered around. Those people in the village also had balloons on their fields but were much smaller single-person Hopper balloons. Marina continued to struggle fighting with the wind gusts when she saw the Hopper balloons begin to hover upwards to her direction.
"Hello, stranger!" a woman yelled carrying a megaphone. She was an older middle-aged woman with dirty blonde unkempt hair.
Several other hoppers were also rising up nearby around her, at least two more bearing different colored balloons. Marina could barely visualize the people inside them at first with the thick fog blinding her, but soon caught a glimpse of something tucked under their armpits.
"I'm sorry for trespassing." yelled Marina.
"This is our airspace, kid." said a bald frustrated man.
"Ok, I'm only heading to the freighter nearby, I don't mean to intrude."
Another man passed by also using his megaphone, he had long hair with thick facial hair. "We've had a lot of raiders come by these parts. You're not really stopping to loot are you?"
"No! Of course not"
"That's a fine balloon. You interested in trading, kid?" said the woman in the trio.
"Not a chance" yelled Marina starting to get suspicious of their assertiveness. "I'm good". She continued and tried best to steer away from them, but one of the men floated in her direction. She knew colliding would prove destructive for the both of them.
"Don't be so eager, we're just talking." said the bald man.
"You know a petite girl like you would benefit from a one-person hopper like this" the woman said. "It's much easier to balance".
Through the clouds Marina finally caught a clear glimpse of the freighter still at a distance away.
The woman noticed Marina staring down below towards the ship.
"Ok, let's take things a little slow, kid. Here's the deal. You've got to pay a toll to cross these waters here. They belong to us. Nobody crosses without paying, so don't make a fuss and toss a bag of your goodies down below".
The woman was chewing on tobacco and spat the black gunk to the side. "Peter or Tommy here would then fetch them and you'll be on your way to that ship you keep eye-balling. I hear they have good mussel soup".
Marina's heart raced, she looked again down to the freighter at flashing lights flickering below and then pausing and flickering again. She quickly noticed they were communicating with her in Morse code.
"S-T-E-E-R-C-L-E-A-R -F-R-O-M-I-S-L-A-N-D- S-O-U-T-H"
"Is there a problem?" one of the man said.
Marina could make out the bald man was carrying a bow and arrow and he began to point it towards her.
"Leave me alone!" Marina yelled. "I don't have anything worth giving!".
Marina quickly flickered her flashlight back below the ship.
"H-E-L-P" she clicked her lights on and off.
"No you don't get to call for help, kid. You won't get that privilege. A fine balloon like this, you must have something to offer. We're all just trying to survive here." the woman said.
"We should take her out before she gets down to the ship. Or it'll be too late.", one of the man yelled to the other. The wind started to push all of them like rag dolls in the skies, their balloons all flailed around erratically, but more so the lighter hopper balloons.
One of the man shot his arrow but missed Marina who quickly ducked down.
"Just give up, kid. You're outnumbered here" yelled the woman.
The long-haired man swung a grappling hook and clamped it onto Marina's basket. He jumped out of his balloon letting it drift away and hung from Marina's aircraft and began to climb on at full-speed. Marina's balloon began to tip over as she began to descend from the extra weight and lose balance. She pushed over all of her items to the other side but she swayed back and forth trying to regain her balance. Marina grabbed her hunting knife and headed to the rope dangling below. She quickly evaded another arrow that nearly pierced her in the shoulder.
"You don't want to do that!" the bald man yelled as she sawed the thick rope.
She managed to cut it in time before the long-haired man climbed over. He fell down screaming but released his parachute before hitting the ocean beneath and glided back towards his island.
"That wasn't good!" the woman cried out. "Last chance kid!"
"Please, get away from me!". Marina yelled, she rummaged desperately inside of her bags for something.
"Screw this girl, I got a clean shot of the envelope.", said the bald man drawing his bow
"Take it, Peter" said the woman. "We can still patch it up".
Marina brought out a flare gun and pointed it to the man's balloon. She pulled the trigger as he screamed which caused his envelope to melt. The man began to panic while trying to unbuckle himself from his harness straps. The balloon bursts into flames before he could finish and engulfed him in flames. He plummeted below hundreds of feet into the ocean.
"Peter!" cried the woman. Marina watched him fall and managed to finally steer away further from the woman who scowled at her. She brought out her megaphone but Marina could only hear her own burner due to the distance.
"You're dead! That was my brother!" the woman yelled and began to lower herself towards the crash site where Peter had fallen.
Marina made her way down passing through the cloudy fog now closer to the cargo ship. The flash lights continued to communicate with her.
"S-L-E-E-P" she flickered back.
As she navigated down to the ship, she noticed a boy around her age with shaggy brown hair and dark brown eyes. He reached over to grab her basket as Marina climbed over it with her backpack and sat on a bench nearby.
"Don't mention it" said the boy staring at Marina who seemed stressed and shaken-up.
The boy continued to deflate the balloon while she watched.
"My name's Marina."
"Are you, OK?"
"I... think so." Marina sighed.
"Good. You'll finally get a good night's rest here then. We'll get your propane tanks refilled, you can see my Uncle for payment... I saw the other balloons by the way. We call them the Hoppers around here. They're not too keen on visitors. That's not a good place to pass through."
"Yeah...I figured as much." said Marina.
"I uh. I didn't see more than a few moments since the fog was-"
"Armando!" interrupted an older man with grey hair sitting by a brewing kettle.
Armando walked over to him and came back with two cups of coffee and handed one it over to Marina.
She smiled and accepted it and nodded towards the old man.
"Thank you", she sipped cautiously looking around the ship. It seemed a little desolate. "Where's everyone at?"
"Oh the ships usually rowdier than this, we had a group of people set out on a few boats to look for the migrating whales. The rest are either sleeping beneath us or on the other side of the ship celebrating Independence Day.
"What? Really?" she chuckled. "You know I don't think Britain exists anymore".
"Whatever excuse to party" he laughed. "So where are you headed?"
She smiled and took another sip of coffee.
"The Appalachian Islands" Marina said. She grabbed her bag and headed towards the old man sitting by the bench. She handed him a burlap sack from inside. He opened it and took a peak inside and nodded. She returned back to sit with Armando.
"Were you flashing the lights?" said Marina.
"Yeah, I saw the tear drop from up above, but I couldn't understand what you were sending me. Did you loose the hoppers right away?"
"No." she sighed. "They almost killed me."
"What? They don't usually attack people passing through... well, at least none of the others mentioned anything like that. We get about 5 or 6 visitors every day."
"I... I think I killed one of them...", Marina had looked into Armando's eyes with a guilty expression. Armando placed his mug on the floor.
"You what?!" he yelled.
"I think I killed one of them... I had no choice, but to shoot their balloon with the flare gun. I had no choice."
"Listen, Marina. This is important, can you describe who you shot at?"
"Why? Do you know those people?"
"We do trading with them, there's an understanding between us and them, that's all there is. They give me the creeps though. Please, I need to know who you shot so I can tell the Captain".
"It was a man, bald headed, blue eyes. A woman, Sh-She, had blonde hair".
"Oh no, this is bad. That woman's the-"
Suddenly a loud siren began to resonate from the ship. One of the crew members shined their lights down towards the approaching boat below.
"Stop right there, Enola!" said a man using a loudspeaker from inside the ship.
"I want the kid", said the woman with the same megaphone she used before.
"A man came out from the control room with a thick white beard and long a white nautical captain's hat. He looked down at the unfamiliar guest and Armando sitting by the bench on high-alert.
"There's no girl here, Enola. We're not scheduled for a trade today so I suggest you be on your way. We have no business with you here".
"Ha. I have Peter's blood on her hands, Ned. I'm not leaving without the girl."
"I don't know what you're talking about Enola", the captain said. At this time the rest of the crew had gathered around, couple of grizzly men and women, and younger kids peaking out in their pajamas.
"I.. Armando, I don't know what to do here. I was only protecting myself".
"Don't worry, these guys aren't going to throw you to the dogs. We protect the sanctity of the Missouri Sea here".
"Enola, you don't want to ruin months of peaceful diplomatic relations here. You are out of line. We're done having this conversation".
"Oh, Is that your final verdict, Captain?" Enola said.
Marina and Armando rushed towards below the ship to keep her safe while the captain attempted to get rid of Enola and her small crew.
Then a loud deafening noise of what sounded like a moving rotor blade grew louder from a distance. Enola yelled something muzzled in her megaphone speakers.
"What's that noise!?" Armando yelled. His tone had changed dramatically.
"We need to get you out of here Marina. This sounds bad and the Captain won't risk his entire crew for a stranded visitor. Marina ran behind Armando leading her to the other end of the ship where he presented her with an old rusted electric motor-boat.
"Are you- Are you sure?"
Armando tossed a bag of fish carcasses in the boat. "Yes. Just get somewhere safe. There's an island 10 miles over that direction" he pointed over to a blurry mountain range in the distance. "There's another sister-freighter checkpoint east of that".
"Thank you, Armando...for everything".
Marina jumped in the boat and cranked the ignition but it failed creating an engine knocking noise. She sighed, "Maybe I wasn't ready to go out on my own after all..."
"Don't say that. You said you defended yourself from the hoppers right? I'd say that's substantial proof you can take care of yourself".
Marina looked up at Armando standing on the edge of the ship.
"That guy was a cold-blooded killer, Marina. Don't waste an ounce of regret on him".
She tried the ignition once again and it cranked and sailed away as fast as she could. She looked back towards Armando who had already left. Marina patted her pockets and felt her hunting knife there.
"I told you, I'd make you proud".