"This is Admiral Regel to fleet captains maintaining bombardment orbit. With the exception of supply and cargo vessels you are ordered to engage intercept speed and follow courses plotted by Party Up. Screening formation, arm all anti-torpedo and interceptor countermeasures and systems."

Regel nodded to the Chimopteran who was watching his every move. The creature turned back to its console and immediately carried out the Admiral's orders. The frigates, destroyers, and cruisers of the "Wow! Sector" battlefleet began to lumber as rapidly as possible towards the earth's atmosphere. At their head was the impossibly huge slab of the Imperatrixian fleet carrier Party Up.

***************

The assault force consisted of hundreds of vessels of different sizes and shapes, all buffeted by the heat of reentry as they blasted into the upper atmosphere of the earth. Leading the attack in were the tight "V" formations of interceptors and bombers, their wings folded flat against their fuselages, their nosecones tinged with the flickering traces of friction fire. The fighters were piloted by Imperatrixians, their armored flight suits hardwired into the controls of their craft. Each bomber was manned by a crew of four, with two Chimopterans manning the point defense systems, an Imperatrixian at the flight controls in a separated cockpit, and a moth-like Cadisi in its neural cocoon responsible for the bomb payload.

Behind this leading element was a mixture of different types of assault corvettes. These craft were sleek, fast, slightly larger than the dropships and shuttles, and loaded with specialized commandos. When they breached the atmosphere each corvette would peel off and make for a specific and pre-planned objective. Following the corvettes was a long stream of ships, ranging from the torpedo-like unguided drops that were simply fired from tubes on the capital ships, to the ponderous block-shaped attack barges. Most of the attack barges contained various armored and mechanized units, and these ships were getting the worst of the reentry. The friction and stress of breaking through the atmosphere had the barges' non-aerodynamic hulls white hot on the edges while inside they shook violently enough to make all but the most seasoned crewmen ill.

The keystone of the assault force was a priceless Imperatrixian war crawler; a mammoth centipede-like machine that walked on dozens of stubby legs as big around as Redwood trees. Inside its armored segments was a crew of hundreds along with more than a thousand of the most battle hardened troops in the whole fleet. The Jerlemain Bondsmen were brilliantly white-skinned with ceremonial blue stripes of war paint covering their almost naked bodies. They were tall and quite thin, but powerful muscles were plainly visible, taut and anxious beneath their thick hides. They were all eerily quiet, lost in a pre-battle psychic hymn that only they could hear.

Maximillian had requested and received fully half of the allotment of Jerlemain Bondsmen available in the battlefleet for the force he would lead to personally hunt down Linus Guthry and complete his conquest of the human world. Twelve hundred in all, and although he had never fought with the Jerlemain he was well versed on their fearsome reputation. They eschewed the heavy battle armor worn by the Imperatrixians and the shock troops of their lesser allies in favor of a simple meson body shield. It could only stand up to a few projectile or energy impacts and was more effective at saving them from shrapnel than anything else. For weapons they used a very basic projectile carbine of Vesuvian manufacture. Though they achieved unparalleled feats of raw skill with the carbine, managing pinpoint accurate snap shots at ranges that pushed the weapon's theoretical limits, they preferred to fight in hand to hand combat.

Each of the Jerlemain carried a dueling saber with a deadly-sharp bone blade taken from the thigh of a Coyochichi of their home world and carved by the individual Bondsmen. The Jerlemain had exceptionally long arms, longer even than an Imperatrixian in full armor, and with their sabers they could cut down their foes in melee combat with ease. Their physique and skill transformed their blade-wielding charges against the enemy into terrifically bloody but also beautiful dances of dexterity and fluidity. Were they not life-bonded to the Empire they would make Maximillian a bit nervous.

"Sir, a communication from Admiral Regel." Rathus, Maximillian's new chief Lieutenant, reported. "The fleet will be coming alongside us momentarily."

Maximillian watched through the heat-buffeted porthole of the carrier barge as tracers and fat spinning plasma projectiles began to cut down past them. Something flared brightly below and the barge juddered unpleasantly. One of the fast destroyers of the fleet hove into view on their port side, a black shape blocking their view of the unusual battle raging beyond. Above him Maximillian could hear the whirring traverse of the Chimopteran-manned point defense turrets on the barge. There was a fast thump-thump-thump as these guns opened up on something streaking unseen over their top and then a crack and the thud of debris hitting the hull.

Rathus was about to comment on the close-call when the deck slewed wildly beneath their feet. Maximillian dug his fingers into the thin metal interior wall next to him and watched as Rathus went spinning on his back across the open barge deck, almost colliding with one of the legs of the war crawler before their course steadied. Maximillian found it slightly disconcerting that the Bondsmen remained in their perfectly ordered ranks, singing with their minds, their bodies bending in the turbulence as though their feet were glued to the deck plates.

A warning alarm sounded somewhere towards the aft section and the point defense turrets began to thump again. Maximillian made his way as carefully as possible to the starboard side of the deck and watched through the porthole there as flickering tracers worked feverishly towards a large projectile that had just barely missed them. A Vesuvian drop ship maneuvered as best as it could to avoid being struck and turned too far into the gee forces. It began a hideous roll on its side and dropped away behind them, visibly shedding pieces of its stubby wing and engine. The missile plowed on past where the drop ship had been and Maximillian watched with bemusement as it struck one of the Chimopteran armor barges. His smile faded as blinding white light triggered his optic sensors to cut out for safety reasons.

"Atomic!" He bellowed an instant before the shockwave caught the tail end of their ship.

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