For an Imperatrixian, Axion was quite handsome. His head was flat and broad, with a slight ridge of cartilage for a nose and a single slit of a nostril. His large eyes were widely set beneath the narrow browless protrusions of bone and colored uncommonly dark brown for an Imperatrixian so that they appeared almost black. His mouth was wide and thin-lipped, with paired ridges of chitin inside his mouth for chewing and a fat triangular tongue that made speaking slow. Like all Imperatrixians not living on the homeworld his skin color was a very light gray. Although the natural color was a light blue this was caused by exposure to the radiation of the Imperatrixian sun, something Axion had not seen for at least a century.

"You know, the air outside is quite breathable Moxos." Axion remarked as he clipped his helmet to his belt.

"Teeming with bacteria." Moxos hissed and wagged a thin finger. "The biomass on this planet is out of control. Even the humans are beset by all manner of bacteria and virus. Their epidemiological records read like a Xarian witch incantation."

"You can't say you've really been to a world until you have breathed its air."

"I don't see you wandering around without your helmet." Moxos turned back to his communications console.

"I have a lot more to worry about than the air, old friend." Axion leaned over Moxos. "Establish the uplink. Let's get this over with."

Moxos bobbed his head in affirmation and with a few strokes of his fingers activated the channel to the orbiting cruiser Well Meaning Gesture.

"Commander!" Axion saluted the cameras.

The small portable viewer burst with color static and then stabilized into an image of the bridge of Well Meaning Gesture. Maximillian approached the cameras until his upper body and head filled the frame.

"I have both bad and good news to give you, Axion. The bad news is that you are failing me utterly and I plan on snapping your neck if your operation to eliminate the human witch does not succeed. The medical rejuvenators are full to their limit and the flesh recyclers are nearly at capacity as well. You have squandered the finest warriors Imperatrix has to offer."

"My apologies Commander Soak Xc8, the humans are well armed and quite willing to die if it means obstructing our investigation." Axion bit his tongue and did not mention that Maximillian's idea of an investigation looked suspiciously like a pathetically undermanned invasion. "I can, however, report that the last human resistance at this compound will be neutralized within the hour."

"Cold comfort, Axion. But I will lighten your day with good news. Our reinforcements will be arriving shortly, with a full regiment of code enforcement troopers, a division of bonded Thullian shock troops, three Chimopteran grav armor platoons, and several other assorted units. I have no doubt that these forces will ease our investigation and suppress unrest in the human populace. Wait though, there is even better news, for you at least! The Commerce Council has dispatched a class III esper to thought read me and determine if my intentions were in the best interest of unimpeded capitalism. If they decide that my intentions were not for the glory of trade then I will no longer be your commander."

"The news saddens me." Axion lied.

"I am sure it does!" Laughed Maximillian. "Of course if I am removed then you will likely be my replacement, despite your glaring incompetence."

"Again, I apologize for my failures. There can be no excuse for such losses as my forces have suffered."

"MY forces!" Roared Maximillian, his fist slamming into something outside of the camera's frame and causing static to ripple across the viewer. "You will bring me the witch or her shattered body, by the time I am through with my thought reading, or I will see your corpse blasted out of an airlock."

The transmission ended.

Moxos looked up at Axion and shrugged his frail shoulders. Axion turned away, marching out of the airlock and not bothering to put on his helmet. He drew in a deep breath of the human air, tasting oil smoke and burnt flesh, and wondered if he would die on the world.

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

Dale McElroy had just picked up Cokey Washington from her grandmother's house and was driving them both to work. It was a strange time for Dale. On one hand all of his theories about government conspiracies and an alien agenda seemed to be coming to fruition. On the other hand the aliens seemed to be shooting a lot of people from the government and did not look anything like Art Bell had made him believe.

"The president was safely evacuated from Washington D.C. yesterday amid heavy fighting between elements of the Virginia National Guard and the invaders. Civilians continue to stream out of urban areas currently under attack. If you are in one of these areas it is recommended that you flee in an orderly fashion, taking only what you can quickly gather and carry. If you are confronted directly by the invaders do not resist, a number of survivor accounts suggest that their attacks are often non-fatal in nature."

Every radio station that was still broadcasting had gone to an all-news format.

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