Beneath A Saffron Sky

Summary: Settlers from Earth struggle to survive in cities floating in the clouds of Venus, protected only by their own ingenuity and sky piracy. During an aerial privateering assignment, an ace pilot encounters an unknown foe in the sulfuric skies.

The Venusian Cities

Beneath the saffron skies of Venus floated the United Cities, the last bastions of human culture in the inner system. As Earth, Mars, and Luna were dominated by incomprehensibly posthuman clades, Venus stood as a final redoubt of classical Terran culture. Dominated by independent city-states founded by various parties for differing purposes, they found common cause in survival. While none of the Terran, Lunar, or Martian polities yet launched an incursion, the intelligence analysts of the Venusian city-states watched the skies with fevered, and justified, paranoia.

Even without aggressive exhumans, transhuman existence upon Venus was a greatly precarious proposition. The sallow, wispy clouds that comprised the upper atmosphere carried sulfuric acid that corroded the outer casings of the aerostat cites that drifted between air currents. The deeper portions of the atmosphere possessed an ambient pressure rivalling the Earth's benthic trenches. To evade the crushing pressures, the cities drifted fifty kilometers above the surface, like an airborne fleet of galleons. Each rode upon a ballast of actively maintained vacuum, able to compensate for the weight of the cities beneath. Unlike the zeppelins of old, the United Cities were designed without the need to land.

Compounding the acidic atmosphere and savage storms, the crushing pressure of the surface barred easy access to raw materials. Thus, resources were constantly rationed and scarce, despite the technological capacities available to the United Cities. Spacecraft and cargo shuttles were a zealously guarded resource, as offworld transit and automated surface mines provided vital raw materials necessary for upkeep and manufacturing. Due to the chaotic environment, more than a quarter of all shipments regularly went missing.

Not all of the disappearances were entirely explicable by natural entropy. The veil of caustic clouds concealed the efforts of sky pirates to pilfer essentials for their own ends. Such skyborne piracy was a constant source of mistrust between the Venusian city-states, despite all of them illicitly partaking and endorsing it out of a cynical pragmatism. The employment of privateers to augment their security forces caused the free-fliers to willfully change sides, given the impunity and tacit endorsement such arrangements offered. However, the façade of unity between the United Cities was strained by gritted teeth and hushed whispers, just as the patina on the cities' hulls was eroded unceasingly by the gas around it.

The Ace of Campeche

Greatest amongst the Venusian privateers was Kwan Lu, the Ace of Campeche. A human pilot able to command a swarm of drones through his implants, he was able to best foes that outnumbered him and outgunned him on innumerable occasions. Not since the Sinking of Arirang in the early decades of Venusian colonization did a pilot have the reputation he did. Even when he returned with an empty fuel tank and lack of prizes, he brought an often-desired cargo of daring stories. His craft's blackbox and sensors bore witnesses to his feats and escapades, seemingly validating the most peculiar of yarns. While be brought back many a tall-tale, he never returned with excuses.

Kwan Lu reclined on the leather-backed seats of his favorite hangout, the Crosswinds Cantina. His build was stocky by any standard, and his black, hirsute beard clung to his face like an animal seeking warmth. His olive green jumpsuit was a dark, somber shade reminiscent of forest shadows. On his belt was a Type 96 Broomhandle signal laser, modified into a sidearm. His mirthful, ruddy face, however, was constantly occupied by a grin of guileless simplicity.

Kwan sat enjoying a glass of terrestrial vintage, with a woman on each arm. In one of his arms was, Irene Costigan, an auburn-haired aviatrix with beauty worthy of Celtic goddess. In the other was Sofia Starr, an ebon-skinned bodybuilder that worked in the manufactories by day. Together, they laughed, wined, and dined. A young woman with short, sun-colored hair approached the privateer and his admirers, clearing her throat before nodding her head like a royal supplicant. "Captain Lu? Are you really as good as they say?"

"Ask your mother, kid," Kwan replied.

"I already shagged yours," the young woman replied, with a tongue like a striking viper.

Instead of taking umbrage, Kwan grinned wryly. "I like the energy," he said. "Take a seat, kid."

The girl sat across from the pilot. She introduced herself as Alicia Alvarez, apprentice escort pilot in the City Air Patrol. He sent his companions away and set his drink down while he listened to her, recognizing a kindred ambition with her tone and bearing. She detailed her plans for a career change to the private sector, seeking to work with a privateer crew instead of the mind-numbing mundanity of the patrols around the city and retrieving cargo balloons from the surface.

Despite remembering how his own former commander contemptuously admonished him, Kwan resisted the temptation to do the same. Instead, he politely and gently described why staying in the CAP was a better idea. The privateers acted alone and autonomously for long periods, far from any support and friendly faces. Conversely, CAP operated with greater coordination and closer to home, on missions of vital imperative for Campeche's continued survival. Privateers were a gray area between the city-states, but faced little protection if caught. While he respected her ambition, he told her to spend a few more years in the CAP before he'd take on another apprentice. After all, he reminded her, his last partner was shot down by an over-zealous drone patrol from Yian.

Kwan felt a tinge of guilt as he saw the look on Alicia's face, but nevertheless knew it was for her own good. Campeche needed heroes more than ever, as he was scoundrel enough for the entire city. In his brief respites between piratical sorties, he aimed to do as much good as he could in the time he had. He'd lost his brother and sister in Arirang, but he'd been fortunate to make it to his relatives in Campeche. Enemies were plentiful, but true friends far between.

Preparations

Following an eventful night, Kwan planned to depart on a long-term surveillance mission of Tepoztlan's mining near the Venusian north pole. He'd need a craft with a low profile and high loiter time, so he'd gone with a Galveston-class G-51 electric turboprop, armored with composite ceramic plating. The craft superficially resembled something dating from the World Wars, but the innards were far more sophisticated and stealthy than the gasoline-chugging warbirds of Terran antiquity. He'd become proficient with such aircraft raiding cargo shuttles before the sluggish Arunite interceptors could respond. His knowledge of the plane and its handling was as intimate and familiar as that of his partners the prior night, and just as expert.

In his tenure as both a pilot and a lover, Kwan made himself knowledgeable handling all manner of craft and riders. Like passengers on a flight, he felt it was his duty to give them a pleasant voyage. He'd had all sorts of companions in both regards, men, women, and a few that defied such binary classification, but he'd received no complaints. A rule of his that he would do his utmost to bring back all who ventured out with him, as friends were in short supply where he went. In both regards, it was a sacred trust even those who explored him rarely understood.

While devoid of direct support, Kwan would not be alone on his sortie. Three other propeller craft, minus the life-support pod for the pilot, would be joining him. Each was controlled by a brain upload of his, and he coordinated with them using a unique highly informational, low bandwidth communications language with combined optical, electronic, and acoustic signaling. Each of the craft had a call-sign named his favorite authors: Erwin, Ashton, and Philips. He checked a few off his list, making a mental note to name his next support craft Lucille.

The hanger Kwan launched from had few human eyes watching it. Part of it was due to a dearth of human staff necessary for such operations. Another portion was due to the need for deniability in case of blown cover. Kwan himself was sealed in a self-sufficient metal pod, able to eject and drift to safety with a balloon if need be, which was sealed in the armored cockpit of the lead plane. The augmented reality display around him projected data from outside the craft, rendering much of the instrumentation invisible in the cockpit. His wingmen, other aircraft, and weapons targeting were clearly denoted for situational awareness. He'd designed the setup himself, and he was more than confident in its performance. Like a maturing caterpillar, he prepared to enrapture himself in a metallic cocoon.

When it went inexplicably when blank for a moment, Kwan felt an involuntary shudder was the system flickered back to life. He immediately ran failure diagnostics, but the technician accompanying him told him that the cause had similarly affected her own systems. The radiation hardening and shielding of vital systems prevented the wholly baleful effects of the electromagnetic pulse. He wondered if it was just a power surge or some form of mechanical accident, but the quick technical summary he skimmed over detailed no such indicators.

Despite having the all-clear to launch, Kwan double-checked and triple-checked all of his systems. He'd spent years designing each, but he'd never experienced a malfunction like the current one. He wondered if one of their rival city-states deployed an EMP weapon or HERF beam of some sort as a component of an insidious plot, but the limited accounts he read suggested it was no such weapon he was familiar with. Judging from the failure times of nearby atmospheric buoys and hull support drones prior to their own rebooting, he made a mental note of the direction from which it came.

Fortunately for his wavering mind, Kwan calculated the direction was relatively close to his destination. If it was some weapon or indirect means of attack, Tepoztlan was the most logical source. He'd found the politics of such an attack to be perplexing, as Tepoztlan had no direct animosities with Campeche, beyond the usual, opportunistic supply raids. An EMP weapon misfire, a scientific experiment gone awry, or perhaps a test intended for use in conjunction with something else, was a thought that similarly crossed his mind. Like a proverbial shot across the bow, he hoped the EMP did not herald the return of the days of total war. One Arirang was bad enough, and he wanted to prevent any undeserving ghosts from reaching Venus' surface. Recalling the myths of a thousand ancient sects, he needed no faith to believe in the literal Hell beneath him. One miscalculation would consign him to the same infernal hellscape where the dead of Arirang laid undisturbed.

Kwan checked his automatic cannons, his missiles, and his support drone launcher. He felt he'd need firepower where he was going, so he ensured he suffered no paucity of parlous and lethal devices. Ensuring his escorts where similarly well-armed, he began his departure from Campeche. The incessant buzzing of the electric turbo-propellers were like a horde of demonic locusts. The outer doors opened, bathing the hangar with the ochre like of a Venusian dawn. The electromagnetic catapult beneath his craft came to life with an electric roar. The sulfurous stench of rotten eggs filled the cockpit, and the catapult activated.

The Scouting Run

Kwan felt gravitational forces compress his chest like some horrid medieval torture device. The unpleasant sensation lasted only a split second before he found himself flying above a bank of clouds that swirled like eddies of the sky. The sun almost blinded him, necessitating he make adjustments on his AR HUD. Behind him, he saw the reassuring indicators of his electronic wingmen appear with the usual alacrity.

Kwan pulled the formation higher into the air, so they'd miss the stormfront bearing down on them with unusual celerity. The smell in the cockpit became more intense, and he turned his attention towards the flight plan. Given their position in the atmosphere, they could coast most of the way before running into their resupply dirigible. The automated vessel would have hooks the squadron could reattach themselves to, which would be used to resupply and refuel. Its outer skin made of metamaterials and active camouflage, so he bore little fear the enemy would find it. It was by sheer luck he found Yian locating a similar craft near Campeche's own surface mines.

Kwan found himself zoning out as he entered the flight-plan into the AGI copilot. His destination was hours ahead of him, and his full attention would not be needed unless the array of sensors on the airplane's exterior reported any contacts. He reached into his virtual library and pulled out a digital book, a collection of old pulp stories. He found himself thumbing through its pages as the cruel Venusian sun lorded over him. His digital duplicates did the same without complaint.

The long-lasting Venusian day wore on, and Kwan found himself wondering of Tepoztlan's activities. Each of the city-states was founded as a distinct colony in the previous century, back when largely comprehensible civilizations still existed on the other worlds in the solar system. Yian was founded as a retreat for Chinese web-celebrities and their followers. Arun was an Indian biomedical research lab, specializing in neurological augmentation. Campeche was founded by a Texan defense contractor for exoplanetary aircraft design. Basilica was a Russian Orthodox religious retreat, built by the Grigori-Cosmist Rocket Sect of the prior century. Tepoztlan was a control center for early remote-operated surface mines. Eryx was a corporate headquarters, originally built as an offworld tax haven by a translucent metamaterials firm. Arirang was a Korean diplomat's attempt at a utopian, cosmopolitan community, a de facto capital worthy of Earth's cosmic sibling. Increasingly militant attempts to bring the other colonies into line resulted in it being destroyed by an allied fleet.

Kwan recalled the official history adopted by the rebel city-states was the colony destroyed itself to prevent boarding attempts, but plenty of accounts disputed that. The truth, like the innumerable dead, were forever buried beneath a saffron shroud. In the years that followed, the last wave of refugees from all corners of Earth arrived, turning each colony into a far more cosmopolitan and crowded facility than any of the original builders intended. Thus, the dream of Arirang lived on, although far more diffuse than the founding intentions. He was simply glad he found a place to thrive.

Kwan finished off another book of old pulp tales, so he began to read through his collection of translated classics. He'd polished off Mark Twain, Lu Xun, George Orwell, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lord Dunsany, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ernst Junger, Hone Tupara, Anuj Singh, and others. The pulp writers were his guilty pleasure at first, but later became his bread and butter. They were neither the myths nor faiths that erected a thousand temples or a thousand terrible wars, but they motivated him towards his own missions. Styling himself after those ancient trappings was what he attributed his success to. The world that spawned those yarns was long gone, but he would be their torchbearer, an Azrael on wings of wrath.

Kwan arrived at the resupply dirigible ahead of schedule by a half-hour or so, and he saw the fading light of day over the horizon as he flew northeast. He wondered if one day, eons in the future, Venus would be terraformed in Earth's image. Part of him yearned for the blue skies and bustling mega-cities of his youth, but he came to respect Venus as it was. Living with biological and electronic near-immortality was miraculous enough for him. He continued rumination as he closed upon the airship.

Like the flying aircraft carriers prototyped in the era his pulp stories were written in, Kwan knew the supply blimp operated on similar principles. He latched onto the bar above him, which held his plane like the old-fashioned parasite fighters. The plane's batteries would be inductively recharged by the blimp's power stores, and smaller servitor drones replaced any worn out parts. Like an elephant devoured by swarming ants, the drones checked his vessel inside and out prior to his departure. While it took a few hours, the time was a pittance compared to the half-day of flight time still ahead. He occupied his time with training simulations, each based on historical encounters with enemy interceptors and patrol drones.

Kwan honestly hoped he'd be able to deploy his sensors and surveillance cargo without harassment, but he knew how fast things could fail. He'd almost escorted a cargo haul back to Campeche when a swarm of Basilican attack drones descended on him from a weak point in the hull's point defenses. The brazen assault was barely fought off, but resulted in a thorough review of escort tactics. Eager to forestall such a scenario from befalling him on his probing thrust into Tepoztlan's airspace, he changed the variables to account for increasingly unlikely scenarios, such as a grand air armada waiting for him. As his squadron departed the supply dirigible, he bore no way of knowing what he would face would vault from the improbable to the impossible.

The Place of Metal

Kwan reached the outer edge of Tepoztlan airspace without incident. While the antegrade Venusian winds moved in an opposite direction of Earth's, he nevertheless found it provided ample cover for his squadron. While the fuselage of his craft was not especially stealthy, the ambient clouds and dense pressure provided more than enough cover to mask his arrival. The world's literal fog of war made privateering possible, and also caused the cities to lose between a fifth to a third of their surface mine output. He did not know the specifics of how the quartz-bodied mining bots operated, but he hoped his surveillance package would allow his city to glean more information as to improving their own surface industries.

Kwan maintained radio silence with his fellow craft, instead relying on custom, low-power signal lasers able to cut through the fog like an assassin's stiletto. Integrating their approach vectors together, they ducked beneath the projected paths of Tepoztlani patrols. They dove into the cloud bank beneath their normal altitudes, so that their engines began to choke and sputter in the dense formations. Adjusting his bearing slightly, he passively began to check for radio contacts.

On his HUD, Kwan saw the radio contacts he expected, and some he did not. He picked up the reassuring periodic contacts from the surface mines and facilities, but the others were far more troubling. Like the flotsam from a great shipwreck, the air was riddled with distress beacons on all the standard emergency frequencies. What nearly caused him to turn back was perplexing matter of distress beacons ceasing to broadcast.

Uncertain as to what might have transpired, Kwan deployed the surveillance package from his squadron's payloads. A portion of them fell to the surface, aiming to observe the Tepoztlani facilities. The others, solar powered stealth drones, turned towards the sky and the city's projected position. Such drones would be used for illicit broadcasts and cyberwarfare, in addition to more mundane physical surveillance. He redirected them to search for the city and the source of the distress beacons, curious as to what might have transpired.

What Kwan found immediately curious was the reported size of the surface facilities. A central, large structure was detected where none was reported a year ago, roughly in the center of the other Tepoztlani facilities. He found the idea of such an industrial development on the surface preposterous, dismissing it as a false positive of some mountain or rock formation. Cross-referencing his radar and geographical data revealed no such mountain, which caused some inexplicable chill to run down his spine.

Following the discovery of the enigmatic metal mound below, Kwan turned his attentions to the broadcasted bedlam above. Using his AI organizer, he filtered out all that were automated , looping messages in hope of isolating another human. While he had no intention to make the true reasons for his flight known, he'd want to know if he could provide assistance. His egotism was directly correlated with his altruism, as he knew any survivors would provide valuable intelligence on any possible threats he faced.

Kwan heard a woman screaming over the radio, which caused him to snap into a defensive mindset. He heard children crying for their parents. He heard a man calling for his brother. He sifted through the voices on the radio, rushing to isolate them before they were silenced forever. As his surveillance drones completed their first orbit around Tepoztlan's presumed location, the utter absence of the city sunk his own heart beneath the clouds. What he thought was a factory, was instead the dead, sunken hull of the city. The yellow fog was Tepoztlan's funereal pall, as it joined Arirang in historical oblivion.

Dancing With Ghosts

Eager to safe what was left from its murderers, Kwan accelerated into the midst of the distress beacons. His clandestine mission was now a frantic rescue operation. Something was snuffing out the ghostly voices of those left, and he made it a top priority to stop them. If another city-state annihilated Tepoztlan, he knew it was only a matter of time before they struck again. He banked hard to the left and ordered his squadron into the V-shaped formation they ceaselessly drilled in. He deployed small, disposable insect-sized drones to observer their rears. With weapons free, he broke the radio silence.

"Survivors of Tepoztlan, this is Captain Kwan Lu of the Campeche Defense Force," he said. "I need to know what happened."

"The Ace of Campeche?" said a man's voice, in an irate, disbelieving tone. "This must be a trick!"

Immediately, the radio came alive with clamoring voices, each demanding an answer while time was short. There came cries of premature gratitude for saving them. They were opposed by a few raucous and accusatory voices drowned out by the others. Others begged for salvation, offering themselves or what scant possessions they had in exchange for exfiltration. Kwan knew each of them was at risk by allowing themselves to speak, but he had a plan.

Kwan noted the voices that were silent were those with beacons drifting above a certain altitude. The atmospheric escape pods, like those used by the city-states and crewed craft, were programmed to drift upwards for easier extraction. He presumed the feature made them easier prey for whatever was picking them off. He issued a set of instructions to the survivors, how to override the altitude control system. It would keep them lower, where they'd have a better chance of avoiding the fate that befell the others. He redirected a cargo blimp to retrieve them, as well as any data blackboxes ejected from downed craft and the city. Like the cockpits of ejected fighters, they were intended to be retrieved with a methodology akin to an ancient Fulton recovery system. He knew every bit of information would be valuable, especially against an unknown foe.

Kwan climbed towards the edge of his craft's maximum altitude, scanning on his sensors for any contact. As his squadron found naught but dead distress beacons and drifting corpses, he wondered if he'd arrived too late. The escape pods below heeded his advice, descending towards lower altitudes where they'd hopefully find safety. While the air was denser, he had no doubt the escape pods could withstand them. Even the long-defunct Soviet Union landed operable probes on the Venusian surface. His own engineering background drove him to think the Tepoztlani pods would be especially robust, given their expertise in mining and manufacturing.

As he loitered for nearly a half hour without contacts, Kwan found himself ticking off a checklist of possible culprits. The Tepoztlanis possessed no particular, longstanding enmities with any other city-state, nor did they have major conflicting economic interests. The Tepoztlanis were the party that provided the initial expertise for surface mining to the other cities, back during the formation of the United Cities. Their resources and technical secrets were targeted by privateers like himself, just as they targeted other cities, but such things were par for the course on Venus. As he saw a peculiar signature on the radar, he mentally found himself wondering if the murderers were even from their world.

Kwan saw the shadow of a craft diving through a cloudbank, briefly providing him a silhouette reminiscent of a predatory raptor. He dove to investigate, bringing his plane into a steep descent like a diving hawk. A burst of white noise shrieked over his radio, and his AI reported radar interference. It increased as he closed in on the craft. Carefully, he superimposed sensor types on his AR HUD as he planned his attack route. He had little doubt the guilty party was lined up on his gunsights.

Kwan beheld the shape of the fighter that was murdering survivors. Its overall geometry was unlike anything he was familiar with, on Venus or elsewhere. It superficially resembled the airframe of his own fighter, and it was painted the same shade as the cloudbank it emerged from. It was clearly crewed, with an opaque cockpit of obsidian-black glass visible on the dorsal side. It bore a tailfin more akin to some piscine creature pulled from the benthic depths than any creature of the terrestrial skies. The wings were swept and almost organic, each sharply crescent-shaped like a harvesting sickle. Beneath its nose a glowing rod, undoubtedly a weapon of some sort. He estimated the overall dimensions to be slightly bigger than his own fighter in length and wingspan.

Wondering if the radar interference was due to some defensive system built inside, Kwan opted for simplicity's sake on his attack run. Like the ace pilots he idolized, he opened up on his prey with his guns. A stream of gyrojet rounds ripped the atmosphere like a musket fusillade. Twin streams of micro-rocket engines behind each tracer round momentarily paved an illuminated roadway between himself and his target. The caseless rounds ripped into the darkened canopy, causing it to shatter.

Kwan never saw the pilot or system that guided the craft, presuming it was controlled from the canopy. The enigmatic fighter designed beneath the Venusian clouds, never to resurface. He directed his wingmen to confirm the kill, using the radar distortion to identify any similar craft to the one he'd just killed. While he was unsure of how the thing flew, he recalled the wings looking strangely organic as they collapsed into the clouds. He wondered if offworld technology, such as that developed by a posthuman clade, was involved. If that was the case, he wondered, then why would they deploy such curiously archaic craft? He'd been aware of some advanced posthuman designs, but they were well beyond the manufacturing capabilities of anything on Venus.

Kwan sent down Philips to reconnoiter the cloudy depths first, while he designed with Ashton and Erwin. His lowest wingman descended after what it thought was a source of radar distortion, and he steeled himself for contact once more. Given the rate at which the radio beacons were silenced, he believed more than one craft was involved. As he turned his swarm's sensors on the possible contact, he sighed when he realized it was just a dead escape pod with a damaged transmitter. Examining it more closely, he allowed his gun-cam record footage of the scorch marks and slagged metal for later analysis.

As he turned for a better angle on the pod, Kwan sensed he was being watched. He detected four more contacts in the clouds, both approaching from above. He prepped his blackbox for ejection should he be killed, presuming someone would be around to retrieve it. If the enemy truly wanted to exterminate the United Cities, they would find each city isolated and easy prey. Therefore, he resolved, he had to protect the survivors until they could be debriefed. His adopted world had to know more on the threat they faced. He jammed the throttle and raced into an intercept course.

Like other fighter pilots, Kwan internalized John Boyd's OODA loop with a clerical rigorousness. He observed his position relative to the contacts, which now moved with an alarming swiftness. He oriented his wingmen and his own craft to intercept them, their weapons pointed in probable attack vectors. He decided to use missiles, due to the low visibility of the cloudbank. He acted, moving towards the enemy as he released his missiles. His wingmen followed suit, each focused on a separate contact.

Kwan was relieved when two of them reported the immediate cessation of the radar anomaly, but the ominous silence from the fourth caused him to refocus. For all he knew, the enemy could be toying with him to determine his own capabilities, sacrificing a few craft for valuable intelligence. Thus, he wanted to eliminate the final craft as soon as possible, with the potential for other aircraft involved. He scanned probable vectors, but none of his other craft reported contact.

Kwan felt a jarring burst of pain in his sinus as Erwin went down, felled by the illusive bogey that reappeared too close for comfort. He reflexively fired off a spiteful burst of cannon-fire in the direction that it came from, knowing it amounted to little. Even with the rocket engines accelerating each round, they'd be well outside the range of the contact. Curious as to how such a quick turn was accomplished, he turned his ailerons and dove into the cloud, wondering if he'd emerge alive. Like a lone soldier patrolling in a jungle, he was in the enemy's terrain now.

Kwan readied another missile, but changed up the guidance system. Above him, the sun hung in the heavens like an overripe fruit precariously suspended above an abyss. The ones fired in the prior volley had relied on micro-radar, terahertz, and infrared, using the radar distortion to calculate their detonation point. He wondered if he'd wounded the enemy craft, and it was now trying to take them down with it. Such behavior could indicate a combat drone rather than conventional crew, a common move by city-states with pilot shortages. Or, as he pessimistically noted, it could simply be a reckless idiot. The skies ate kids like that alive, a fact he'd almost succumbed to himself in his more reckless years. Thus, he adjusted his missile to prioritize thermal targeting, and veered away.

Kwan did not expect his missile to jerk through the clouds like a skittish fish. The false quietude that came over the cockpit was shattered when he realized the incredible trajectory of the guided projectile. The contact was performing sharp turns he'd thought impossible for the craft, especially one performing evasive maneuvers. Given the way it was heading, he thought it was leading the missile directly back towards him. Unleashing a tirade of ribald blasphemies, he sped out of the clouds for a higher altitude.

As he climbed, Kwan narrowly missed the craft beneath him. It past underneath him by a hair's breadth, averting a collision by the closest of margins. If the other pilot could see his face, he'd no doubt it would be wide-eyed fear and sweat. Curious as to how the craft performed up close, he looked down at the data fed to him by the cameras beneath his plane. A stream of iridescent colors erupted from a nozzle-like extrusion beneath the craft's nose. Behind it roared a flare of exhaust, orange as the remorseless Venusian sun. The wings flailed like the maddened flapping of a panicked bird. Mesmerized for a split second, he almost forgot the missile behind it.

Kwan dropped a flare from the aft of his craft, which hit the cockpit canopy of the enemy fighter before tumbling off. The missile emerged from the clouds towards the underbelly of the enemy craft, roaring like a hungry dinosaur. It erupted like a minuscule volcano a moment later, showering the underbelly of the craft with lethal shrapnel. A few chunks of it hit the edge of Kwan's own plane, but mercifully hit the armored parts of the fuselage. His enemy was not so lucky.

Kwan would later analyze the footage of the craft's demise as though with a fine-tooth comb. For a moment, it was like a supernova erupted in the clouds of that ochre sky. Afterwards, the craft seemed to anticlimactically disintegrate as though stricken with an eon of entropy in an instant. The wings, torn like tattered draperies, fluttered through the air like autumn leaves. The fuselage split in half, revealing the doomed pilot to the raw elements for the first and last time. Much to his surprise, the pilot still reacted.

Kwan saw the pilot was clearly not human, but was a close approximation in cosmic terms. Its head was almost ophidian in nature, with a scaly green hide and two slitted pupils that moved independently. Its nose resembled a sunken snout more than any mammal-analog, and its alligator-like teeth were yellowed and serrated. It was clad in a suit of fabric superficially resembling the same materials as the craft's wings, which scintillated a wide spectrum of colors, including those beyond the native human range. Its claws terminated in three digited gloves, where a single opposable digit stood opposite two claws. Due to footwear of a similar design, he could not count the number of toes. In short, it resembled a great therapod predator of prehistory attempting to pantomime the human form.

While he could read neither its face nor mind, Kwan nevertheless noted an expression that seemed to him as nonchalance or apathy regarding its own demise. As the creature vanished forever beneath the clouds, he immediately understood the importance of the footage he recorded. Above him, he thought he sensed a larger radar distortion than before. Eager to avoid further tempting fate, he descended to rejoin his wingmen at a lower altitude. He immediately set about organizing his findings for imminent broadcast back home. If his gut was correct, what he just encountered was a threat to all of Venus. Almost ignoring the strictures on operational silence, he prepared to make his broadcast as he eagerly departed the area of operations.

The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Flyer

Kwan Lu had no doubt the footage of his lethal pirouette with the scaled ones would evoke a storm of controversy when the other city-states beheld it. Some would witness it with open-eyed terror. Others might decry it as an elaborate fabrication, with which to cover Campeche's sinking of Tepoztlan. No matter how blame was assigned, he knew it would incite braying for blood, including his own. Aware his own credibility would be strained strained like a man narrowly holding on above a yawning precipice, Kwan turned his squadron back to Campeche for a detailed debriefing.

Kwan escorted the two dozen or so survivors back to Campeche, aware their testimony would be key to convincing his critics. He'd scored five kills against an enemy force, at the loss of one of his wingmen. It was always painful to lose another of himself, but it was a kill-to-loss ratio other pilots would be glad to have. He'd leave the scientists to study the footage from all his fighters, in hopes of discovering more about the enigmatic adversaries and their aircraft.

During the sojourn home, Kwan wandered if the long-feared exhuman invasion finally arrived. He wondered if the United Cities' very existence was some affront to some aggressive posthuman polity, or an offworld empire decided to exterminate them like insects. While immensely disturbing, neither satisfied Kwan's curiosity. The posthuman atmospheric craft his own research turned up were far beyond anything deployed on Venus, and would definitely outperform anything Campeche or its rivals could throw at it. Should some offworld conqueror design to annihilate them, it would be a triviality to nuke the drifting cities from orbit, or otherwise obliterate them with impunity.

The exotic nature of the aircraft, plus the shape of their pilots, caused Kwan to think the threat was grown closer to home. He wondered if those bizarre rocket-powered ornithopters, as far as he could classify them, were not plucked from the obscene visions of a mad inventor. He considered the possibility their pilots could be bio-engineered, cyborg bodies, or even robots of some sort. Coupled with whatever strange energy weapon and potential radar distortion their craft possessed, they'd easily be a perfectly deniable force for annihilating rivals with impunity.

Whether some posthuman polity was targeting them with peculiar weapons due to some cultural taboo or a rival city-state was testing a covert strike force, Kwan knew he'd be meeting them again. He kept a careful vigil while flying back, sometimes circling back or taking extraneous detours to ensure he was not being followed. While his radar and sensors were utterly absent of any hints of distortion or contact, it nevertheless heightened his paranoia.

Kwan felt his unnerved mind start to act as nearly fraying rope above a candle. He ruminated that those ornithopters could perhaps glide for months on thermals, using slower burn on their rocket thrusters when necessary. He wondered if the enemy possessed some method of stealth he was unaware of, and that he was leading the flotilla that destroyed Tepoztlan home. As they were also silent on the radio, he wondered if they communicated with some similarly esoteric method. Like a mouse fearing being pounced on by imaginary cats, he kept his squadron low in the clouds, well aware of anything shifting above them. Memories of that larger distortion conjured hallucinations of some dreadful mothership silently pursuing in his wake.

Everything Kwan once found soothing now bore an aura of possible subterfuge to it. Passing through dusk between the Venusian day and night, he felt as though he traveled through some chthonic cavern near the surface. More than once he mistook a thunderstorm passing beneath him for enemy energy weapons, causing him to yelp like he'd been whipped. He feared enemy raids and ambushes before, but such things were entirely mundane compared to the unknown foe he now found himself against. More than once, he imagined Campeche becoming like Tepoztlan or Arirang, only blaming himself for a catastrophe he believed was imminent.

Kwan nevertheless forced himself onwards. Beneath his guns rested not only his own fate, but those he'd rescued from Tepoztlan's doom. Despite the relentless curiosity that gnawed unceasingly like a charnel worm, he abstained from breaking radio silence to debrief them on his own. However, they did not seem particularly keen on chatting with him, particularly as he'd instructed them to remain quiet as their lives depended on it. While he bore little conception of what they were thinking, he had little doubt it would shed some light on his foes. As tempted as he was, he did not break protocol to talk. Some of the blackboxes he recovered bore the uploaded minds of a substantial portion of the city's population. He found it oddly poetic that the literal ghosts of Tepoztlan would take revenge upon their murderers.

When Revenants Stir

As happened twice before, Kwan arrived back after Campeche declared him legally dead. He was greeted by a CAP escort that included the young pilot from before, Alicia Alvarez, as well as his typical social companion and oft-paramour Irene Costigan. They came out to bring the dirigible loaded with survivors in, a task more suited to machines but nevertheless performed for psychological support and as a display of solidarity. He personally got out of the plane, as to meet the survivors personally.

What Kwan saw was a parade of human misery, the likes of which he hadn't seen since his family's evacuation of Earth. He saw a pair of children in the same escape pod with their mother's body, who died of injuries during the trip. He saw a man that once possessed tremendous girth, reduced to sagging skin and a skeletal build. He saw a woman missing an arm and a leg due to impromptu amputation, but nevertheless coped with her predicament by telling puns. He saw a doctor with a box full of cyborg brains, removed hurriedly from their bodies during a rushed evacuation. Immediately afterwards, he let more qualified staff handle the debriefing and analysis.

Kwan was inwardly glad to have his hands cleared of responsibility for the survivors' lives. He had little doubt they'd have died of dehydration, starvation, disease, or similarly unpleasant fates if the enemy hadn't killed them. He took the time to visit the Crosswinds Cantina, only to find a crowd of his fans waiting for him there. He'd ruined a betting pool amongst those that thought he'd died, and those that earned money were considerate enough to pay his tab. They raised the usual queries about what happened, and he retorted with the usual excuses about how he'd explain the next day. He'd become a master at watching his tongue under inebriation, although the implants helped. He had no desire to start a panic on his way back.

When he was brought in to the CAP's briefing room the following morning, Kwan was more than a little hungover. His nocturnal intoxication was over, although the headache remained during the briefing with Commander Austin that morning. He recognized Alicia and Irene amongst the other faces in that crowded room, along with the city's prominent scientists. They stared at a holographic display of a peculiar object.

Kwan found it reminiscent of some carven Paleolithic effigy, an uncouth eidolon from primitive times. It nevertheless bore angles and geometry too clean to be anything but deliberately machined. From the flatness of its surfaces and inhumanly precise sharpness of its edges, he presumed it was some posthuman artifact of uncertain purpose. Despite resembling a series of three interlocking rings, it nevertheless exuded a sense of eldritch mystery.

Commander Austin, an urban maintenance AGI downloaded into a biological body, began her talk by stating the galaxy was almost a dozen billion years old, and the artifact was about a tenth of that. The artifact pictured, she described, was uncovered by Tepoztlani robotic excavators six months ago. At first, the Tepoztlani thought it was a posthuman artifact, but dating confirmed it was much, much older. Nevertheless, Tepoztlani researchers noted a peculiar radiation being emitted from the artifact, and began to investigate it under utmost secrecy. The Tepoztlani researchers named it the Snakehole, after the artifact's likeness to the symbol used by followers of Yig in an obscure tome on unspeakable cults. What transpired afterwards was still uncertain, but the enemy craft appeared outside the city's hull.

The room stared at Commander Austin, before Kwan voiced his own questions. When he inquired as to how this was known, Commander Austin showed the files from one of the blackboxes he recovered, a technical report from a destroyed lab. Another of the survivors was a remorseful scientist, Dr. Osei Okafur, eager to atone for his own role in inadvertently unleashing the scourge. So, Kwan asked him if he possessed any combat skills. While he did not, Kwan knew exactly how the scientist could assist him.

Enemy Unknown

In spite of their rampant mistrust and resource raids, the United Cities nominally maintained the façade of political unity to ward off any offworld depredations. In addition to deterring any expansion into their own world, the United Cities maintained an oft-disused forum for matters of mutual interest. These included offworld trade and colonization efforts beyond the Belt, as well as distribution of satellite assets. Among the orbital assets were a formidable and rarely-contested network of weather satellites, which were invaluable for planning the itineraries of the floating cities.

What Kwan intended for Dr. Okafur was for him to find a way to use the satellites to scan for invader aircraft. Even though they flitted about on biomechanical "wings," they bore the telltale radar distortions and preferred the upper atmosphere. Using his own knowledge of signal processing, he discussed possible ways to detect the anomalous radar profiles that characterized the enemy's craft. Knowing where they were, and where they were moving to, was key to defeating them.

Kwan also interviewed the survivors, scanned uploaded minds, and mined blackbox data to find out all he could regarding the doom of Tepoztlan. Recalling the date of its sinking was the same as the electromagnetic pulse that affected his craft before his fateful sortie, he began to draw profiles on the enemy's weapons and tactics. The recordings of the damaged escape pod caused Dr. Okafur to hypothesize their craft were equipped with a particle beam or plasma weapon, as a laser able to cause that sort of damage would be invisible to the naked eye. It was even possible that it generated the interference that helped constantly distort the craft's profile on radar.

What worried Kwan was how such small craft were able to down a well-equipped city, riddled with gun turrets and swarming interceptors. He doubted such small craft were capable of discharging an electromagnetic pulse able to be felt all the way in Campeche, but the EMP alone would not have been enough to down the city. The Venusian aerostat cities were designed with hardening against solar coronal activity, and post-Arirang, enemy EMP and HERF attacks in mind. Even the total failure of all electronic systems would be insufficient to sink the city, as its hull provided it the vital buoyancy.

As Kwan and Dr. Okafur poured over the survivors' accounts and blackbox data, the swiftness of the city's fall occurred with a worrying rapidity. Thus, he believed that cumulative damage by the fighters' weapons was insufficient to sink the city, unless they significantly underestimated the energy weapon's discharge rates. The possibility that a single enemy aircraft could provide a swift euthanasia to an entire aerostat was disturbing, but Dr. Okafur reassured him by reminding Kwan of his old engineering lessons in thermodynamics.

Dr. Okafur corroborated his account by providing Kwan with images of Tepoztlan's wreckage, provided by the surveillance probes. Even accounting for the damage of the fall, he saw a gaping aperture in the saucer-shaped hull wreathed with slag, like an industrial halo. It pointed to a single, powerful weapon that was likely deployed at close range, as the atmosphere of Venus greatly dispersed the blasts of energy weapons. He wondered, perhaps, if the EMP was some form of supplementary attack or secondary effect accompanying the discharge of a city-killing weapon. In the mundane parlance, the enemy had to get close to use their most powerful weapon.

Such an idea was a small comfort to Kwan. Hunting enemy craft through the clouds was something he'd spent decades of his extended life doing, and he'd scored more kills than any other ace in human or transhuman history. He recalled the magnitude of that dreadful contact, that behemoth of a radar distortion on the edge of his sensors. He wondered what lethal leviathan of the skies was responsible for that, and he immediately connected his ruminations with his early discussion with Dr. Okafur. Perhaps, he considered, that an enemy flagship of such size would be the one bearing such a payload. Running the numbers, he was terrified to find he was right. Worse, the adjusted satellite data showed that several contacts matching the ones he'd recorded were bearing down on Campeche. The city had a day left, at most, before it joining the corpses of Arirang and Tepoztlan in the sulfurous hellscape below.

Enemy Within

A call for help went out to the other Free Cities, asking for assistance against an unknown posthuman force descending on Campeche. The specifications that Kwan and Dr. Okafur deciphered went out with them, to further lend credence to their tale. Contained within the transmission was a tacit admission of the discovery during an illicit survey, but the knowledge that a minor embarrassment was nothing when weighed against extinction. When sending it, Kwan never bothered to ask for permission, although he'd technically submitted an official request before it went out. By covering himself on both counts, he ensured the Campeche City Council would have little grounds to keep their knowledge to himself.

Kwan did not know the enemy or where they came from, but framing the enemies as posthuman constructs would be more believable to the other aerostats. Given the distances involved, he doubted they'd be able to launch sorties with any significant force before the enemy arrived. Assuming they'd bother to launch anything, he pessimistically noted. Thus, he'd made sure his contacts in Civil Defense and CAP were prepared. While he bore no doubt they'd make preparations, their actual readiness would not be tested until the time the enemy arrived.

Despite the incredulousness that he suspected the other aerostat cities would have, Kwan was nevertheless surprised by the news that trickled in over a sleepless night. The Basilicans launched a relief force towards Campeche, blessing their signature Cossack and Hussar craft in a syncretic Orthodox service. A disgruntled group of Eryx mercenaries, annoyed over delayed payments, seized a passenger zeppelin with flame-pistols in hand, and announced their attentions to defect to the invaders, before they were unceremoniously blown out of the air. The Tepoztlani diaspora on other aerostats lobbied for support, paying for mercenaries, privateers, and freebooters to assist the defense of Campeche. Surprisingly, an encrypted communication arrived from Yian, which alerted Campeche to an illicit surveillance system, similar to the one Campeche deployed near Yian, that utterly escaped their notice. While he was pleasantly surprised, he doubted the sent help would arrive in time.

Kwan's mind shifted towards a variety of delaying strategies. Even with Yian's sensors boosting their own, there was still too much about the enemy fleet that was unknown. The city could not flee, given its size and speed limitations. Campeche possessed no nuclear or antimatter weapons in readily deployable form, as the largest they could manage was a dirty bomb made from casks of radioactive waste. He suggested using spare space shuttles as improvised orbital bombardment munitions, but he knew such plans would be useless against a well-prepared foe. He had no doubt Sofia was hard at working making drones and munitions in the manufactories, while Irene and the CDF drilled with Alicia and the CAP. There was no time for revelry or relaxation, as the hours until extinction wore on.

Kwan felt his nerves fraying under that dreadful duress. Temerity had been his prior source of salvation, and he wondered if even his iron will was faltering. Every hour, he observed the progress of the radar anomalies shifting through the roiling stormclouds of Venus. Like a candle burning the rope suspending a guillotine blade, he understood the doom that awaited them. Whatever and wherever the enemy emerged from, they would neither stop nor relent until he put them down. He wondered if perhaps he'd be the first and last Venusian ace to score a kill on such foes.

Kwan planned to organize harassment raids against the enemy, to thin their ranks and reconnoiter their numbers before the decisive engagement. He readied his own craft as they came within interception range, downloading into a similar automated fighter to replace Erwin. With Lucille operational, his squadron was whole once more. With great trepidation, Kwan organized his squadron for a sortie that would end his life or grant him the glory due a legend. Like a pulp hero of old, he greeted either fate with the aplomb due a true warrior of the skies.

The Battle of Campeche

Across his career as a pilot, Kwan had developed his own superstitions regarding the pre-flight checklist. He checked his ailerons worked on the right wing first, and then the left. He kept his Broomhandle fully charged, before slipping it into an authentic leather holster. He slipped on an emergency smart-suit over his standard garb with a tightness the smart fabrics remembered well. He brushed and flossed, lest he found himself in the great feast-hall of Norse Valhalla with something stuck between his front teeth. He performed them with a solemnity he had not done so before, for this was no mere resource raid he was about to embark upon.

Kwan launched into the air with his wingmen behind him, each an echo of his own mind. They escorted him like the Praetorians of old Rome, bearing him to the battle that would seal the destiny of his adopted city. He thought he saw Irene's plane leading a CAP squadron that passed above him, but he did not divert from his intended course. Instead, he pinpointed the way towards the heart of the enemy squadron, and hit the throttle. They were coming in from higher in the atmosphere, and he planned to surprise them from below.

Around him, the dark clouds of a Venusian thunderstorm smothered the light filtering from above. Lightning danced beneath him like an insane strobe, across a stormfront that seemed at least a hundred kilometers long. Through the insane clouds he flew, his armament and reflexes his only comfort in a world that had been trying to kill him since his arrival on it. Like his ancestors and comrades, he flew to mock the amoral elements that surrounded them. Like a mote of light in oblivion, so was his existence before the rest of the universe. He only hoped to go out in a glorious conflagration.

Lightning raked across the sky like an electric lash, and Kwan saw it. The evil shape emerged from a thunderhead like a daemonic ship from Stygian mirk. It was baroque and barbed, a terrible thing that never darkened terrestrial skies. The hull shape reminded Kwan of some barbaric torture device, until the crash of lightning caused him to think of it as a leering tyrannosaur skull. His eyes followed its geometry as electricity arced around it.

Kwan saw it was more than half the size of Campeche, but much of its bulk was devoted to armaments and armor. Like the A-10 Warthog that adorned posters in his teenage self's room, the vessel was built around a single, massive cannon. The central spine of the craft was a grotesquely enlarged energy cannon, scaled up from the miniscule versions on the fragile fighter craft. It was bulbous and phallic, like a member pulsating with otherworldly energies. Underneath it ran rib-like protrusions that connected what he imagined was a flight deck of some sort.

Kwan saw a swarm of ornithopters emerged from the front, lending credence to the theory. Using thermal imaging, he saw a massive source of emissions within the flight deck. Whatever was there, he reasoned, would hopefully be an important target. Like their archaic, maritime counterparts, even airborne aircraft carriers were vulnerable on the flight deck. Transmitting his sightings back to base on a low-bandwidth, encrypted tactical network, he followed his instincts. He found himself mentally calling the craft the Dreadnaught, simply because of its size and appearance. Its shape bore no doubt it was the ship that killed Tepoztlan.

Steering upwards into a sharp climb, Kwan fired his first salvo of missiles. A patrolling swarm of ornithopters exploded in brilliant infernos of plasma, showering the dark clouds like Spring Festival fireworks. The colorful sparks nevertheless seemed muted, as though by the macabre thoughts that ran through Kwan's head. He directed his wingmen to assault the carrier from behind and below, as to test its body for weak points. Even if he utterly failed, he reasoned, he'd at least buy valuable time for Campeche.

Kwan followed behind Lucille and Philips, but he broke off with Ashton to attack the flight deck. Two turrets, each bearing energy weapons akin to the ornithopters, opened up on them. Another volley of missiles, this time at close range, silenced them permanently. Despite the apparent turn of good fortune, he hesitated to press the attack. His instincts proved vindicated when burst of energy from two ornithopters concealed by a nearby cloud blasted Philips out of the sky. Lucille engaged the pair of ornithopters from before with auto-cannons, diving through the clouds at accelerations impossible for a human to handle.

Kwan saw a dozen more ornithopters flying out the Dreadnaught's maul, rocketing out before swooping like predatory eagles. The torrent of fighters' afterburners was like the torches of an angry mob descending upon him. How the craft could deploy so many fighters so fast was beyond him, but he bore no illusions he was against mere transhuman engineering. As he was set upon from all angles, he sent Ashton on a final flight into the mouth of the carrier.

Kwan saw that Ashton made a valiant effort, going in with guns and missiles blazing. It downed two ornithopters and a point defense turret, until it crashed into the flight deck. Its flaming wreckage pinwheeled across the ground for a second before it exploded, taking out a final pair of bogeys even in death. However, the airspeed of the Dreadnaught increased. Its bearing towards Campeche was unaltered. As he heard a scream over his implants, he saw Lucille went down after an enemy fighter crashed into it. They'd learned his tactics and emulated them, with much greater success.

Kwan honestly thought his luck would terminate their, beset on all sides by an unceasing swarm of enemy fighters. He considered ejecting to some safe, low altitude, but he knew that Campeche still needed him. He wondered if he could perhaps lay low, wait for the enemy to finish, and then rejoin the relief force that was en route from the other United Cities. He understood that it was more likely he'd be shot down, or simply asphyxiate when his air ran out. He almost succumbed to that despair, when the bogey that was lining him up vanished in a fireball.

"Need some help?" came Alicia's chipper voice over the radio. "I brought the whole gang!"

Kwan looked up to see the CAP and CDF squadrons, pilots he helped train, descending on the ornithopters like sharks in a feeding frenzy. The sky above them became a rain of bullets, bombs, and blasts, as the tables turned against the enemy swarm. Despite the friendly reinforcements, he knew that his own window was narrowing. Ashton's final sacrifice temporarily stemmed the flow of enemy reinforcements, but it would not last. He throttled forwards, aiming towards the enemy flight deck.

Kwan brought his plane into the enemy flight deck, narrowly missing hitting the massive energy cannon above him. Beneath him was a chrome floor, marred only by wreckage from his former wingman and enemy craft. He fired a few spiteful shots into the cannon above him, hoping to find some weakness that would disable or damage it. While his shots had no apparent effect, he saw something that seemed important.

Kwan beheld the end of the hangar was an artifact like the one from Commander Austin's presentation. It was held suspended in a translucent sphere at the end of the flightpath, with wires emerging from the walls like a nest of waking pythons. He trained his weapons at it, unloading a salvo at the strange icon. A rocket streaked through the air, but it did not hit the container directly in front of it. Instead, it hit the fighter that emerged from the hole in space just before it. Before Kwan had time to react, inertia brought his own craft through it.

The World Beyond

Kwan did not expect to awaken again, but he was greatly alarmed to find himself back on Earth. He recognized it was Earth because of the gravity and sun, but something was greatly amiss. The oceans beneath him were like Tyrian purple devoid of regal grace, and the sky bore a sinister green hue of toxic sludge. He thought himself far above it for a moment, and he recognized the vaguely familiar outlines of the continents. It was then something told his mind this was not the Earth of his own youth.

Kwan saw snippets of a Terran history that was not humanity's. He felt as though an inhuman intellect was probing his own, just as he vainly struggled for some sense of physicality. Time seemed an illusion to him, folding back upon him like a broken kaleidoscope. Phantasmagoric images, as obscene as the visions of madness, paraded themselves before his sight.

Kwan saw the pack-hunting dinosaurs change over eons that passed as instance. He noted the absence of a certain meteor impact near what he thought was the Yucatan. The view changed to the creatures that came to inhabit the world. From therapod to bipedal sapient, the scaled beings evolved with a particularly reptilian cruelty. Physically, they were more serpentine and leaner than the humanoid being Kwan saw tumble from the fighter. They advanced quickly and aggressively, reaching the industrial age with technologies developed in a vastly different order. Resources were mercilessly ripped from the earth to fuel the perpetual wars for dominance between the scaled beings' empires. Having ruined one world more thoroughly than humanity ever did, they set their sights on the others.

Kwan saw the Carnisaurs, as he dubbed them, found colonies on their own solar system. As the resources on Earth became scarcer, he saw them fight amongst themselves once more. As the elites of Earth retreated to the colonies, they left their subjects to die in the anoxic waters, acidic oceans, and methane-filled skies. After leaving Earth as a poor imitation of Venus, they resumed their hostilities against each other, with nary a scruple or lesson learned.

Kwan saw the Hegemony of these Carnisaurs spanned across the solar system and beyond. Yet they fought each other in wars large and small, ever seeking advantages over the other. When a Venusian garrison found a familiar pre-terrestrial artifact at a dig site, they began to study it. On the other side, they saw broken visions of a solar system where the primates became dominant. Their scientists proposed a way to open a wormhole between dimensions using the artifact, so that they might extinguish this potential threat and expand into an infinitude of other universes. Should they accomplish this, then they would have a multiverse to defile.

Kwan saw the warlord behind the invasion briefly, yet somehow knew he was entitled the High Devourer. He transplanted his brain into the body of a cyborg tyrannosaur, as to eat his enemies and condemned prisoners in ritual executions. Bio-engineering a servitor race of clones, aircraft, and equipment specifically for the task, they set about their plan. When Tepoztlani researchers began experimenting with their world's Snakehole artifact, the Hegemony attacked without warning. The Dreadnaught came through with a fully-charged cannon, and the humans did not know what hit them.

Kwan once more found himself in his plane, and he instinctively jerked around, as if executing a sharp turn. He saw the artifact floating before him, and he opened up with his guns as if trap shooting. The artifact vanished, as if pulverized into dust. The instant dragged on into an eternity, as he found himself wondering where he was, or what was the presence that mesmerized him like a charmed snake. He blinked, and he found himself back in the hanger.

Kwan saw the artifact at the end of the flight deck, the one he targeted on his initial run, was intact lo longer. Sparks issued from the wires around him. He activated his plane once more, speeding down the flight deck like a runway. Behind him, he could hear explosions and the groan of metal members. He ignored confused shouting on his radio as he struggled to get airborne. The improvised runway beneath him waivered, and he knew which way the vessel was going.

Kwan used the vessel's sudden jerk to catapult his plane through the rib-like members in the walls, with ample room to spare. He battled to start his engine as the power flickered on and off, gripping the throttle like a lover in a coital climax. He thrust back once more, only to find himself crashing towards the lower atmosphere. His plane crashed around him, so he did something he had not hoped to do.

Kwan ejected, sending the wreckage of his plane to join the Dreadnaught's hull in that tomb beneath the clouds. He waited until the radios reported no contacts before broadcasting his position. As he awaited rescue, he wondered if anyone would believe what he'd witnessed. He would never know for certain of the veracity of that insane otherworld the invaders came, or if they were merely some elaborate posthuman experiment. While he did not know he would eventually be given credit for killing the Dreadnaught by the combined militaries of the United Cities, he did know be recommending Alicia for immediate promotion.