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Sea of Clouds

A loud pop went off as the blood red Protectorate ship fired its forward steam cannon at the running air skiff. The stubby cannon rolled back on its wheels along the track while the gunners stuffed a large wooden wad onto the muzzle. Another gunner holding on to a large mallet hammered the wad deep into the muzzle like a bottle cork.

Once the cannon barrel was stoppered, the gun crew pushed the cannon forward into firing position. A steam man wearing thick leather apron and gloves ensured the leather hose dangling above the rear of the steam cannon was still tightly screwed into the cannon and has no leaks.

The dials on the pressure valve of the steam cannon started twitching towards the red zone as steam was pumped into the cannon's air tank. Once the pressure hit the highest mark, the steam man stepped back and pulled a lever which was connected to a steam whistle.

The whistle hissed sharply, producing a shrill cry. A Deacon in red robes watching from the back of the gun deck nodded to the gun crew who yanked the release cord, releasing the pent up steam stored inside the steam cannon's air tank.

The highly pressurized super heated steam burst out and popped the cork off the muzzle with a loud bang, sending the lead reinforced cork shooting off like a cannonball towards the running target.

The force of the releasing gas sent the steam cannon recoiling back on its tracks, and the half naked gunners leaped forward to reload the steam cannon again.

-----

"We need more steam!" Clarie yelled anxiously into the bronze speaking horn next to the helm. "They are coming up behind us!"

A whizz followed by a dull bang, shot by and Clarie instinctively ducked her head, as a lead shot flew over their ship. She cast a worried look behind, at the approaching Protectorate ships which suddenly appeared out of nowhere from the clouds and started shooting at them.

"We are running low on coal!" A hollow cry came from the speaking horn. "There's nothing to burn!"

Clarie muttered a curse under her breath as she peeked at the dials showing the skiff's steam pressure. There was barely enough pressure remaining to boost their sails, giving them some extra speed.

Thankfully, the wind was in their favor, allowing the sails wings which, Uwen was desperately putting out to push the ship forward. The Professor stood at her side, eyeing the approaching Protectorate ships with a frown. "I wonder how did they find us?"

"Uwen! Professor Hamlot!" Clarie suddenly called out. "Hold on to something! I am going to dive into the cloud layer!"

With that, she pulled the aether gas release level, releasing the trapped gas back into the reserve tank inside the belly of the ship. Almost immediately, the ship started to drop as the lighter than air gas inside the reserve tank cooled down and crystallized.

Clarie sprung the wheel, aiming for the largest cloud she could see and prayed that they will be safe.

-----

Goblin Sea, Off the Coast of Goblin City

A flotilla of seven ships plowed through the rough seas as they approached the island with a volcano spewing white smoke from its top. Leading the flotilla was a Slayer class corvette, and with its two other sister ships, they formed a triangle, shepherding the other four ships in the middle of the formation.

Lt Colonel Joseph, commanding officer of the Marine Expedition Force, stood inside the bridge of the transport ship. Smaller than Resource, but longer and wider than the corvette escorts, the Victory class cargo ships were the first design concept for standardized commercial merchant vessels which could also be used in wartime by the United Nations Navy as naval auxiliaries.

The ship's design was simple and crude, ugly in fact, considered by some compared to the sleek corvettes. Its bow was flat and squarish, while its profile was almost like a rectangular block of steel. Two pairs of cranes sat on fore and aft of the ship's deck and its superstructure and single smoke stack sat in the middle of the hull.

A small raised platform rose from the stern and the bow of the ship, each carrying a single mount for a pair of 20 mm autocannons. Powered by a dragonite fired boiler and a triple expansion steam engine
running with a single propulsion screw, it could push the ship to speeds of up to 10 knots.

Now, all four of the entire merchant ships were riding along with their escorts, their bellies filled with Marines and weapons of war. Joseph watched the approaching dormant volcano with steam rising off its peak.

He turned to the chart table behind him and looked over the detailed maps taken by the UAVs when they were still in operation, two years ago. His command staff crowded around him as they awaited his orders.

Joseph tapped on the map, at small crescent shaped cove. "As we planned before, the transports will drop anchor just off the coast and deploy the landing boats."

"The Navy will commerce fire support and bombard the beach while the Marines go for a direct amphibious assault," Joseph recapped their plans. He realized he has been learning and using big sophisticated words a lot these two years, compared to when he was just a simple general leading a cold steel army.

"Once we established a beachhead," Joseph's finger traced the path the Marines will take. "The First, Second and Third Battalion will spread out and head towards Goblin City."

"Fourth will hold and fortify the beach to allow the ships to unload supplies and heavy equipment," Joseph continued before he turned to the Naval Liason. "As discussed and planned, the Navy will dispatch two of the corvettes to the entrance of Goblin City and block them in."

Joseph turned back to the map, where he continued to trace his finger from the beachhead to the large sheltered cove at the foot of the volcano where Goblin City was at. "As the Navy blockades the city by the sea, the Marines will sweep towards the city by land."

"Remember," Joseph looked around the table at each officer's eyes. "We must take the beachhead as fast as possible! Without the beachhead, there are no other places we can land our troops."

The men around him nodded solemnly. Joseph continued, "This is a very simple and straightforward attack. Also, remember to advance together! The terrain is a jungle and it's easy to get cut off and trapped by the goblins! We are in their territory now!"

-----

United Nations, Haven, Fortress Singapore, Conference Room

"Let's get started," Blake said as the last attendee settled down. "First of all, I will like to announce our alliance with the Isles has finally formally signed by both parties."

The conference room broke into applause as the news was a welcoming one. Blake smiled to the image of Sherene and Ford. "Now, we are no longer alone in this place. We have friends."

"So, now, what do we have?" Blake asked the room. "Dr. Sharon? How you start your report first?"

"Our population is currently experiencing a baby boom," Dr. Sharon stood up. "With ample food, shelter, security, and proper healthcare, our population is growing steadily."

"Which also including our original crew, we have over a dozen confirmed pregnancies among the female crew.," Dr. Sharon said. "We humans will be getting second generations soon."

Blake and the rest of the human staff smiled at the news. Dr. Sharon cast a glance at Sherene who winked back to her before she cleared her throat and continued. "There is an increase in reports of sickness among the refugees, especially with the coming of autumn. I will like to propose we set up more field clinics to help with refugees to prevent an epidemic from breaking out."

"Ok," Blake nodded. "Next?"

Sherene cleared her throat as she started her report. "The next batch of public housing and the new town will be completed by mid spring next year. It should provide enough housing for the new citizens and provide more jobs for the new population."

"We are also allowing anyone under the foreign workers' scheme to take a citizenship test," Sherene said. "We will be testing basic literacy, skills, and character."

"If they pass, they will be admitted into the probation citizen scheme," Sherene explained. "If they did not commit any offenses for two years, they can be converted into a citizen."

"This scheme will allow them to buy government subsidized housing and other grants," Sherene said. "Also, they can apply to have their family live and study here with them."

"And the refugees?" Blake asked. "What are the plans in dealing with them camping at our borders?"

"There is no local governance around our borders now that the Empire has fractured," Sherene said. "We can't force the refugees to decamp without the use of force."

"I know," Blake sighed. "But they are draining our resources. We need to constantly have troops to watch over them, and even protect them when feral goblins and monsters attack them. And like what Dr. Sharon has said earlier medical care. Which could be used for our own people..."

"We already have taken in whoever that needs the help most, but... the numbers continue to grow as word spread that we are some kind of utopia in these times of hardship," Sherene said. "Our cities, towns, infrastructure, and even food production are unable to cope if we let everyone in."

"We need to find a way to stop the flood of refugees," Blake said. "What of the local government in the nearest city?"

"Sir," Intel Officer Tavor stood up. "The situation at the nearest Imperial city which is Amador is currently... in a mess."

"The slaves and gangs have mostly taken over the city streets," Tavor reported. "Imperial troops mostly have deserted or locked themselves down in the city's citadel and the governor has retreated to his estate."

"The gangs and slaves are now fighting over the city's stores and whoever controls the stores, will eventually be lord of the city," Tavor said. "Hence, there is no one to control the population. Even more so, any refugees."

"In fact, the majority of the Empire is facing the same problems," Tavor said. "From our intelligence findings shared with the Isles, most of the Empire's cities are facing total collapse, especially since there isn't enough farmers working the fields."

"Our prediction will be that if by next year, autumn, the Empire or cities that could not provide enough food," Tavor said in a serious tone. "They will face a massive starvation event."

"What numbers are we looking at?" Dr. Sharon asked.

"Two to two point five million deaths, at least," Tavor said. "And not all, if everyone thinks we have food here... We will be facing a horde of very hungry and desperate people at our borders."

"Aww... fuck..." Someone's curse broke the silence that followed Tavor's announcement.

Blake frowned as he turned his eyes to the map mounted on the side of the room. "Other than Haven, which has a natural barrier of heavily forested land populated by monsters and the ring of mountains will be safe and easily protected.

"But for cities, like Orwell's Point and Falledge..." Blake tapped his knuckles on the tabletop. "They will be overrun easily by desperate people..."

Tavor nodded, "And we can't afford to help or feed anyone at that time."

"Sir, I will like to suggest that we start our actions to prevent something like that from happening now," Tavor said.

"What actions are you recommending?" Blake asked with a frown.

"I recommend that with immediate effect as of now," Tavor said in a cold voice. "All refugees must be turned away. A no entry zone must be set up, preferably two kilometers or more."

"Anyone found inside the zone will be deemed as trespassers and will be shot on sight."

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