Axion had lost more than two thirds of his deployed forces, most of his assault ships, and toeholds across the human planet. He had committed his entire reserve force of his own platoon to attacking the suspected lair of the human witch that Maximillian so desperately wanted. Axion hoped to at least kill or capture her and thus avoid the fate that befell the Imperatrixian ambassador. Though he considered his commander an incompetent and tactless bully he still respected Maximillian's willingness to murder subordinates and even nominal equals.

Unfortunately for Axion he had little good news to report. It had taken him three hours and terrible casualties to breach the underground bunker complex beneath the human mansion. Once inside the humans had seemingly fought even harder, battling through dangerously narrow corridors and down vehicle tunnels that cost the Imperatrixians dearly in killed and wounded. The last human holdouts were protecting the entrance to some sort of subterranean rail line. They had collapsed the archway leading to the rail tunnel and were fighting with their backs against the rubble. Sensor drones had revealed less than a dozen of the humans still alive, though the intensity of their fire had not waned even slightly as their casualties mounted.

Axion had asked for volunteers from his most slightly wounded troopers. The final assault was to be a hand to hand fight - a headlong charge at the human position - and an effort to capture at least a handful to find out where the tunnel terminated. So far the humans had all fought to the death. Even the injured humans had taken their own lives rather than be captured by the Imperatrixian forces. Axion knew the commander of the human forces still survived, and he wanted her taken for interrogation, no matter how many lives it cost. Even Axion's own if need be.

Ahead of him Axion could see the smoky light of the tunnel entrance. A quartet of Chimopterans in rebreather masks were working to clear debris so that a support vehicle could be brought down. They stood to attention smartly as he approached and as he passed returned to shifting the debris and chattering quietly to each other in their clicking Chimopteran language. It was a reasonable assumption that no Imperatrixian would speak Chimopteran since even Imperatrixian translators were usually either automated or one of the servant races. Axion was an exception; a broadly educated Imperatrixian of the warrior caste.

"He's in trouble with the boss," chattered one of the Chimopterans. "Going to lose his head over this one."

"That's too bad, he is an encrusted cloacae but at least he does not kill us," replied one of the others.

It was true, Axion was justifiably feared by the Chimopteran work teams attached to his command but he had yet to kill one for even the grossest incompetence. Some of his men resented his soft hand with subservient races but Axion preferred to follow the path of the rare commander-scholars like Omnius Hr5, who left his troops behind on the high gravity planet of Mordaci XI and forged an alliance with the squat indigenous species there to achieve his conquest of the system or Ralthuk Xn2 who outwitted the Chimopteran rogue admiral O'Crossley and defeated his fleet with a vastly inferior force of Chimopteran merchantmen vessels. These were his heroes, not idiot brutes like Maximillian.

The Chimopterans passed out of earshot, still gossiping, and Axion emerged into the hazy twilight. The house that concealed the tunnel entrance was in ruins. The rubble was being picked over by teams of Chimopterans with braces of snuffling Gortuk hounds, searching for survivors of either side. A pair of battered power suits stood ominously empty, their contents either extracted into a flesh recycler or evacuated to Well Meaning Gesture in orbit for medical treatment. Several Chimopterans were toiling away loading heavy oricalcium shock staffs onto a bulk transporter. The staffs would be used during the assault - a rarely employed tool capable of rendering anything short of a Chimopteran Reptitan unconscious with a single solid hit.

Axion approached and carefully unburdened himself of his nuclear reaper. It settled gently on the scorched grass and powered down. He took up a shock staff and whirled it once in his hands to get the feel of the weapon. Not liking it, he shifted it to the bed of the fat tired bulk transporter and picked another. The second one met with his approval and he walked off towards the communications uplink idly leaning its weight over his shoulder.

He reached the hermetically sealed dome of the communications uplink and stooped to gain entrance to the segmented airlock. The door sealed behind him and the air hissed and became pressurized. Axion passed through a second set of airlock doors that bathed his armor in a blue decontamination light, baking off bacteria that might be clinging to its pockmarked surface. Inside the communications uplink sat Moxos. Crippled in battle and relying on an array of medical cybernetics to regulate his bodily functions, the withered Imperatrixian was hunched over the dials and sliders of the orbital comms system.

"Lord Maximillian has been quite impatient," Moxos rasped, his voice accompanied by a chorus of clicking from his respirator.

"He can wait." Axion declared, balancing his new shock staff against a bank of computers and removing his helmet.

Moxos made a choking sound that Axion recognized as laughter.

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