Maximillian's barge was equipped with energy shielding that absorbed the heat and radiation of the blast, but the physical shock slammed the barge's aft section with enough force to nearly tear it away. The metal groaned and everything not locked down - other than the eerie Jerlemain Bondsmen - went flying into the open air hangar. Maximillian lost his sense of direction as he was tossed painfully about. He was saved by a miraculous and Herculean effort on the part of the Chimopterans piloting the barge. Their skill in riding through the shockwave was nothing short of incredible considering several vessels that were struck much less forcefully broke apart or lost control.

When their course steadied Maximillian managed to pull himself upright. He could feel his left arm had been injured and his gauntlets were filling with blood. The life-support functions of his suit began to hiss and pop as the automedic injected painkillers and coagulants into his blood. There was a loud snap and a jolt of pain as micro splints began to sew his bones together. Maximillian looked dazedly back at the deck of the carrier and the perfectly ordered ranks of the Jerlemain Bondsmen. No, not perfectly, some were standing off to the side in a smaller formation. His gaze traveled over their pale bodies and to the center of their regiment where Rathus lay immobile. Even from half way across the hangar Maximillian could see that his new Lieutenant had been slain. How irritating.

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

"Reporting another hit, ma'am." Eliza said, excitement edging her voice. "A big one, looks like a supply ship of some sort. Almost got two with it. They lost some smaller craft in the blast as well."

It was welcome news, but their one possible attack, the one way they could take the fight to the enemy, was not going nearly as well as Raylene had hoped. Things had started well enough, with a direct hit near the engines of one of the huge cruisers. It had fallen back, a white hot smoking boil of damage on its side, house-sized pieces of armor plate dropping away to do untold damage to whatever they hit below on earth. A second hit only a few seconds later had caused the ship to crush several smaller assault craft and then ultimately fire away from the group and back into orbit. This brief gap allowed another missile to punch through the picket of capital ships and into the midst of smaller craft.

After that early success things had become grim. The capital ships had poured intense fire into the salvos of nuclear missiles and destroyed all of them in harmless interceptions. They were beginning to fall back though, reaching the limits of their endurance as non-atmospheric vessels. It was obvious from telescopic data that most had sustained light to moderate damage simply from wrestling their immense bulk halfway through the atmosphere. Only a few dozen missiles of Russian origin remained, but with the capital ships gone Raylene held a last slim hope that the crude Soviet weapons would find targets.

"They're pulling clear completely." One of the technicians said somewhat breathlessly. "T-minus nine seconds to the next target intersection."

A timer counted down in the corner of the big screen.

8…7…6…5…4…

The countdown disappeared.

"They got it." Eliza said.

Three more timers appeared and three more missiles were shot down by the smaller vessels. The next one was different. Much different. As its counter reached zero the blue dot representing it winked out. Then, two seconds later, so did a huge mass of red dots.

"Telescopic imaging downloading…" Eliza watched with anticipation as their computer pulled the image burst from one of their monitoring stations. "Going on the big screen now."

An overlay window opened and began to fill with sequential images. It did not take close inspection to get a big reaction from the room. As the first shot finished loading a cheer went through the technical staff. Plainly visible was a massive multi-megaton nuclear airburst, egg-shaped in the upper atmosphere with a flattening where it hit the outer limits. Backlit by the enormous blast a half dozen or more of the big barges and countless smaller ships could be seen breaking apart. How many were actually caught inside the huge blast would require closer analysis.

"Stat crunching is in," reported Eliza. "We just wiped out 20.9% of the vessels in the column, not including cap ships. We're tracking another 37 vessels in addition to that number which are in danger of losing control or coming apart from damage. They're still almost a minute out from full reentry."

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

"We're losing power in number six and number seven, O'Flobby!" Cried Captain O'Mugyay to his Chief Engineer. "Lock down those fires and get us auxiliary power or we're going to lose our vector."

Positively 100% Never Crashes was going to crash, O'Mugyay could feel it in his hollow bones. He had been through some rough drops, he'd fought with ships until they were coming apart at the seams, and his pilots had just miraculously pulled them out of one near certain death. But not this time. This time they had lost power to 8 of their 12 engines, with raging fires in engineering threatening to take out two more of the ion pulse drives.

"For O'Godly's sake Captain, we're boiling alive in here," shouted O'Flobby over the communicator, "we'll be lucky if we last twenty seconds in this heat."

"Then you have twenty seconds to get those engines back online and stabilize those fires." The Captain replied, cutting off a response from O'Flobby because the screaming in the background was beginning to frighten the bridge crew.

The barge shook madly and with a sound like grinding steel teeth one of the gun turrets on the ship's spine sheared away. There was a split-second of screaming and then static over the communicator.

"Get the rest of those damn gun crews out of their turrets!" O'Mugyay snapped at an ensign who was staring at him in abject terror.

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