Dense, dark towering storm clouds could be briefly seen in the entire horizon as flashes of lightning lit the overcast skies. Creaks and groans came from the strained wooden reinforced decks while the taut sheets of the sails cracked and snapped as the gale slammed against the full sails.
Another flash of lightning lit up the world followed by a crash of thunder and the girl holding on tightly to the helm wheel turned an anxious face to the stern of the ship. The flash of lightning gave enough light for her to make out the trio of ships pursuing them from behind.
"My dear, Clarie!" A voice tingled with excitement called out behind her. She turned around and saw Professor Hamlot in an oversized oil skin, shuffling his way over in the shifting deck. Clarie reached out and held onto the Professor while he attached a lifeline to the mast.
"Professor!" Clarie yelled over the dim of the storm and spat out the rainwater that entered her mouth. It left a slightly unpleasant metallic tang after taste in her mouth. "Why are you doing out here?"
"The ship is rocking too much!" The greying hair Professor in his fifties cheerfully replied. He tried to rub the beads of water forming on his crystal glasses away but gave up after a short while. Instead, he looked around with interest at their predicament before breaking into a smile. "This is more interesting than being cooped up in the cabin!"
"It's not safe here, Professor!" Clarie scolded. "The storm is too heavy! And..."
"And the Clergy is chasing us," Professor Hamlot finished the sentence. "Well, I doubt they can catch us in this storm. At this rate, its more likely this ship would crash first before they can reach us."
"Well, they do seem mightly desperate enough to risk their lives for the artifact we dug up, eh?" Professor Hamlot patted his side where a pouch hung there under the oilskin.
Clarie tightened her hands on the wheel at the Professor's words. She looked up at the bulbous leather bags in their cradle which were filled with heated aether which proved lift for the airship which in reality was just a small skiff. It was all they could get their hands on as they ran from the Clergy of the Protectorate when they started appearing at the dig site of the ruins.
They were having an archeology dig and exploration of ruins at the edge of the world when the Protectorate suddenly appeared with a small fleet and started killing everyone. She, the Professor and a couple of others managed to board the skiff and take off before being chased by the Protectorate forces.
The small skiff was large enough to carry a dozen people. It has two aether cradles on both sides which both housed a large leather bladder of heated aetherium. A bronze pipe connected the bladders into the bowels of the skiff where a furnace fueled with aether crystals pumped the super heated aetherium gas into the blades.
Another pipe ran off the bladders into a condenser which cooled down aetherium gas formed back into crystals, to be reused. The magically treated bladders hold the heated gas which created lift, allowing the small skiff to fly in the skies. This magic technology allowed ships to fly in the skies, allowing people and goods to travel from one place to place easily.
Another flash of lightning lit the skies and Clarie looked up at the sails which pushed the skiff. She wanted to trim the sails but fear that the Clergy ships will catch up to them, hence she left the sail wings open, which made the strong winds rock the small ship madly.
Unlike the Clergy ships which had spinning propellers powered by steam and muscles, their skiff could only rely on the air currents to move. It was a risk she has to take.
"My dear child," The Professor suddenly pointed forward. "Those clouds... we seemed to be headed right into them. Do you think we should change course?"
Clarie snapped her eyes forward and under the random flashes of lightning, she spotted what was coming up directly before their small airship and her eyes grew determined. "No! We are going to use that cloud as cover to escape from the Clergy's ships!"
Straits of The Isles, The Isles
The knife like bow of the UNS Goblin sliced through the waves smoothly, throwing up a spray of seawater over its bow. Droplets of seawater splashed over Sherene's bare feet as she stood at the railing on the bow, enjoying the sea and wind.
Commander Ford stood a small distance away, he naturally adjusted his center of gravity according to the roll of the ship. He raised his binoculars and scanned the dots of sails over the horizon line, which under the powerful magnification, showed those sailing ships bearing the flags of the Islanders.
"Lady Sherene," Ford called out. "Looks like the Islanders are sending an escort over. We can see their land soon."
Sherene turned around and smiled while holding on to her hair that was being blown all over by the sea wind. "Than I shall return to the cabin and get ready to meet our escorts."
Ford gave a nod and watched Sherene head past the armored 5" gun turret and into the fore superstructure. "From Chief of Navy to baby sitter for the Boss..."
He gave a chuckle to himself before he headed into the superstructure and climbed the stairs and into the bridge where a Marine stood at attention and announced his presence. He waved the crew back to their stations and sat down on the Captain's chair. "Status?"
"Sir," His XO, an elf with a tanned complexion reported. "Radar is picking up four surface contacts on a direct course to our bearing."
"Lookouts are reporting they are flying the Isles flag," His XO continued. "May I suggest we turn out the crew to their battle stations as a drill and precaution?"
Ford grinned and nodded, "Do it."
The XO smiled back and he hit a red button. Immediately a whooping siren sounded and the lights all went off and were replaced by red lights followed by a canned recording. "Attention, attention! All hands battle stations! Repeat! All hands battle stations!"
Ford checked his watch and noted the time before he looked out the armored windows of the bridge. The Slayer class corvettes had a crew of 42 and 14 Marines serving on board. The off duty crew quickly donned their gear and uniforms, rushing to their stations while the Marines geared up for firefighting duties or manned the various machine guns stations.
A flustered Sherene appeared at the hatch and Ford waved her over to the spare seat on the side. "An attack?"
"No... just a precaution..." Ford reassured Sherene who took the seat. "If nothing happens, treat it as a drill for the crew."
Sherene nodded, "I hope this visit to the Isles will cement our relationship."
Ford grinned, "Oh, they want our tech so badly that they will agree to whatever terms we give them."
Sherene sighed, "It's been almost a year since the defeat of the Emperor. I really hope there will be peace."
"We are at peace now," Ford replied. "Aren't we?"
"Yes... But there are too many refugees trying to enter our lands," Sherene said. "I really don't want to turn them away, but... we simply can't handle such numbers!"
"And with some remnants of the Empire's forces running around playing bandit kings..." Sherene sighed again. "There is just too much suffering going around."
Ford nodded, "Yes, for a few months, it was pretty hairy... Both the Marines and SDF have their hands full doing border patrols and bandit extermination. But its all stable now, didn't we introduced the Foreign Workers policy for those refugees?"
"Yes, it gave those people some form of livelihood and shelter..." Sherene said unhappily. "But I feel like we are taking advantage of their situation!"
"Well, we needed a large unskilled labor force for many of our projects," Ford pointed out. "Its a win win situation for us all."
"With the Foreign Workers policy, we hire them over as temporary workers," Ford continued. "Food and lodging are provided and they work the farms, lumber mills, mines and construction projects. And if they pass our criteria, they will be granted citizenship."
"This frees up our more critical skilled and trained labor," Ford said. "So that our skilled labor force can be focused on more important work."
"You meant to focus on weapons production? And the military took over more than half of our national taxes to be spent on defense!" Sherene waved an angry fist at Ford who laughed it off. "I know we need manpower for everything... but still taking advantage of someone who is down, just feels wrong..."
"If you want peace, you should prepare for war," Ford quoted and laughed at Sherene's expression. "Don't worry about those people, they will settle down and adapt. People always do and our economy is finally picking up from the aftermath of the war."
"Now, the empire has splintered into dozens of factions," Ford said. "Just as we predicted. If the Isles sign an alliance with us, we will be the strongest force here. I doubt anyone will find fault with us."
"Hmph!" Sherene was still unhappy about how the military had usurped her budget.
"Captain!" The XO stepped in. "All stations green. The ship is at full battle readiness."
Ford checked his watch and nodded. "Good work."
"Sirs!" The communication officer called out. "Slayer, Archer, and Resource reporting battle ready!"
Ford stood up from his chair and strolled over to the forward windows of the bridge. "How long before the Isles' ships come into hailing distance?"
"Within thirty minutes, Cap," The XO replied. "If there are no course changes."
"Good," Ford replied. He walked over to the side and glanced out of the windows, seeing the large cargo freighter, Resource, which they spent more than eleven months to construct. It looked like a minified cross between a 20th century aircraft carrier and ocean freighter.
Its superstructure and twin funnels sat on the side of the flat top deck. Cranes clustered the other side of the deck while massive containers made of wood were stacked on top of one another. The reason for the design for this type of freighter was so in times of war, the ships could be easily converted into a seaplane carrier.
Flanking both sides of the freighter, were the other two Slayer class corvettes, UNS Slayer and Archer, riding the waves as they escorted the freighter from the rear. Sherene came over and joined Ford at the window and looked at the massive freighter and let out a long sigh.
"So all the funding for the Navy went into that beast?" Sherene shook her head in mock disappointment. "You know you could have built a few more ships with the same amount of resources?"
"Well, that 'beast' can transport the entire cargo capacity of the entire Isles's navy and merchant," Ford grinned. "And even sail twice their speed."
"You do know we want to show off to the Islanders right?" Ford asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yes, yes..." Sherene rolled her eyes. "You men always like to show off... to see who has the bigger stick!"
"Hahaha!" Ford laughed. "Well, if my bigger stick gives us the better end of a deal, why not?"
"Is that why you want to make a pass by of the Islander's capital before sailing into Port Sanctuary?" Sherene narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
"Hehehe," Ford winked at Sherene. "This is why you're the Boss's wife!"
Sherene let out a long sigh and gave in. "Well if you to do that, I guess you better make it a grand entrance!"
"Of course!" Ford patted his chest. "It will be a grand entrance!"
"Well, I hope so," Sherene gestured to the far horizon where the sky looked dark. "It looks like a storm is coming."