A boom shook the entire airship, preceding the announces from the on-board computer.
Warning! Navigation systems damaged. Can’t set a route. Can’t log to the radar and the virtual maps. Helm control settings have been transferred from “Semi-automatic” to “Manual” due to system errors. Helm unlocked. Lower cameras not functioning.
The vessel began to wave and roll without control, pushing some members of the crew from one side to the other of the bridge. A second flurry of cannon shots centered the hull and a tremor spread again through the entire ship.
Stern bridge damaged.
Marion rushed towards the helm, with an effort that seemed superhuman to her. She slipped on the floor in the moment the ship leaned to the right, but managed to clutch the control post and not to crash against a wall.
The helmswoman rose up, swearing, trying to put the Free Spirit back in balance. With a quick jerk she avoided another series of cannon shots coming from the small imperial fleet which was running after them.
Marion activated remote communication and send a message to the stern deck. «Captain, we’re in a bad one»
The captain’s voice came croaky from the control post loudspeakers.
«Everyone understood it»
«What do we do? We can’t cross the Great Route like that!»
«Give me a moment. One… two… farewell!»
Marion turned to watch the back screens. A lightning flashed horizontally in the air, between their ship and an imperial corvette. The high intensity electric current spread through the enemy aircraft shutting down its information systems. Its engines suddenly stopped working.
The men on the bridge held their breaths while the target started slowly losing height, sinking into the clouds.
«I like this stuff» said the Captain. «It’s a shame it needs twenty minutes to recharge»
The functioning cameras showed that the enemies had slowed down, made cautious by the pirates’ sudden display of strength. A pair of other corvettes went down, certainly to aid the ship that was swallowed by the clouds.
A message from the frigate Albatros of the Imperial Navy!
Marion activated again the microphones. «Captain, they sended us a message»
«Ignore it. We’ll bring the weapons to the Rebellion, and no imperial doggie’s gonna stop us. Lead the ship towards the Islands, I’m joinin’ you»
With her heart in her throat, Marion looked at the frontal screens, where the blue sky was interrupted by the infamous Floating Islands. At different heights, chunks of rock and earth levitated into the nothingness, like they had been torn out from the soil and put to hang in the skies by an invisible and unknown hand. The surfaces of the Islands were covered by a thick growth, sign that the man’s hand could never rule that place, nor will it ever. That place was impregnated with magic, wild and unstable, and where it is so strong life is too dangerous for men.
«Are you sure?» murmured the helmswoman, hesitant.
«We haven’t choice. We must shake them off and repair the Free Spirit»
Marion made the airship veer towards the archipelago. From the borders of the Islands overhung plants and bushes as big as a man, of species and varieties unknown to the helmswoman, along with roots of trees that seemed very ancient. Into the green stood out flowers with fleshy petals and big juicy fruits that seemed to emit their own light. In truth, the entire woods that covered the Islands emitted a glow unnatural and bewitching at the same time: different colors were reflected into the atmosphere returning to the Free Spirit‘s screen a rainbow aura that drew the crew’s curiosity and attention.
Captain Mayweather reached the bridge precisely when the airship inserted itself between two islands, entering in the heart of the archipelago. In the back screens, the imperial fleet had stopped, keeping itself at a reasonable distance from the shining mist of the Islands. Mayweather looked at that scene until the fleet disappeared behind the foliage, tiding up the bandana on his head.
«Let’s see if they’re ready to follow us here»
The Free Spirit landed with difficulty on a grassy clearing. The low growth, however, was as high as a man and the crew had to go down there and labor to bring it back to an acceptable height before the ship could finally touch the ground.
They did a complete analysis of their situation. It was impossible to think they could set out again without repairing the navigation instruments and they lacked some necessary spare parts, but at least the hull was still in decent condition and the weapons cargo for the Rebels wasn’t damaged.
«Do what you can» ordered the Captain to the man in charge of the on-board computer. He nodded with the resigned look of a soldier sent to war with poor equipment.
Near the Captain, the airship command waited for instructions.
«I want to explore the island, since we’re here. It’ll be a brief check. Vince, you come with me» said Mayweather pointing to the first officer.
Then he turned to vice-captain Ernst. «You’re in charge until my return»
Two gunners were added to the exploration team, named Damian and Kieran. The four pirates took their weapons and ventured into the wood.
They walked stealthily between the trees, making their way trough high grass and fronds taller than them. Over their heads, a various twittering signaled the presence of fauna, along with a rustling that could not be caused from the wind, which did not enter in there. The air, in fact, was damp and almost still, and in little time the scouts’ shirts were damp with sweat. It was an entire different weather in comparison to the clearing where they had landed, struck by strong cold winds.
About an hour passed since the start of the expedition. It was then that they found the tree.
They encountered it by chance and at the start they didn’t understand clearly what their eyes were watching. The trunk had a great vertical split at the center, the two halves were open like they were a book. But their marvel came from what there was inside it.
It wasn’t easily to distinguish from the rest of the wood, it seemed made of the same material. Following the ivy clinging around her they managed to find the neck, then the chin and the head.
«A statue?» asked Kieran, to himself rather than to someone in particular. This was in fact the first impression the figure embedded in the tree could give: the statue of a woman shaped with the same wood of the tree, so that only a part of the figure came out from the plant. The hips were the point in which the statue became one with the tree.
The group came closer, won by curiosity. A green bark had developed around the statue, like that of a young tree.
The Captain was now at a span from her face, when the woman’s closed eyes trembled.
The eyelids of green wood opened with the same fluidity of the human skin, revealing two dark eyes, like two pools of water containing a yellow twinkle in the center, a far glow that hinted intelligence.
The creature looked at Mayweather with a curious expression.
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