Pepper lay strapped to a blunt, cone-shaped heatshield with a hundred miles of Chilo’s atmosphere to fall through yet. The edges of the 2,000-degree fireball created by the shock wave of his reentry licked and danced at the edges of his vision. A small taste of hell, he thought, as the contraption under his back wobbled and threatened to overturn.
When the roaring abated, Pepper cracked free of the crude heatshield and ran his spacesuit through a self-check. Even with the protection of the ablative plastics he’d just ridden down out of orbit, the suit had become a bit toasty.
But within tolerances. Inside, Pepper only broke a gentle sweat.
He threw the blackened cone away from him and re-oriented himself to face downward. Dirty brown and yellow clouds choked the world below him as far as he could see. The planet Chilo in all its glory: sulfuric acid-laced clouds, crushing pressure, no breathable atmosphere. Not somewhere most would call home.
A quick look straight below again. It really didn’t feel like he was moving faster than the speed of sound.
He’d survived deorbiting in nothing more than a spacesuit and a personal heatshield. But now the tricky part approached.
A tiny buzz in Pepper’s ear got his attention. He yawned, ear drums popping. His dreadlocks, bunched up inside the helmet, scraped against each other as a young-sounding male voice piped up in Pepper’s helmet. The man sounded bored with a side of professional neutral. For the man behind that particular voice, this was just another shift, just another day. "Unidentified reentry vehicle, this is Eupatoria Port Authority, come in. "
Air thundered past Pepper, buffeting him.
"Hello, Eupatoria, " Pepper said. The spacesuit’s radio still worked. That would be helpful.
"Yes, unidentified vehicle, your transponder seems to be down. "
Pepper threw out his arms to maximize drag. "I don’t have a transponder. "
"That’s a finable offense, " the voice replied. "What are you deorbiting in? We’re having trouble tracking you. "
Pepper explained the situation in brief while scanning the horizon.
There was a long pause on the other end. Then a polite cough. "You deorbited with a handmade heatshield and an armored spacesuit? "
"The situation was complicated. Can you do me a favor? I need you to provide me with coordinates. Where I am, where I’m headed, and where I might be able to land. " Eventually this slowing parabola would end.
A brief off-mic murmur drifted by. "Unidentified . . . just please hold. "
He wasn’t going anywhere. Pepper caught the glint of a far-off structure: a tiny thread reaching up from the clouds into the dark depth of space. Shame that hadn’t been an option. A lot less excitement to just take an elevator down to one of Chilo’s floating cities. At the bottom of that thread might even be Eupatoria and the somewhat surprised Port Authority officials who’d started the day out thinking today would be a day like any other.
"Still here, " Pepper said.
"What’s your name, sir? "
"Juan Smith. " Pepper’s last alias. Over the last few decades working as assassin, spy, and general all-around human weapon, he’d gotten used to a regular rotation of false names. In the centuries before that, he could dimly remember even more identities and names.
A crisp, older, and quite officious woman joined the discussion. "Mr. Smith, voice identification has been confirmed. Mr. Smith, you are aware that you are wanted for the murder of the entire crew of the Sheikh Professional. "
"Ah. " Pepper nodded. That would come up.
"Well, Mr. Smith, this is quite an unorthodox methodology for deorbiting yourself, and you must realize that even if you survive you’ll still be a wanted criminal. We are scrambling recovery vehicles for you right now. When you pop your parachute we will pick you up. But I am being asked to explain your rights before you are picked up. In the event that the pickup is not successful, would you like to enter a plea for prosperity and name legal counsel to continue your defense in the event that you are not present for your trial? "
"No need for all that crap, " Pepper sniffed. "I did it. "
"Your confession may not stand up due to the peculiar circumstances. Can you elaborate? "
The never-ending carpet of dreary clouds visibly rose to meet him. Not a lot of time left for details. "About that rescue effort: one little problem, " he said. "I don’t have a parachute. "
Silence from Eupatoria filled his helmet as they digested that. "You don’t have a parachute? " The original male voice sounded shocked.
"Are you committing suicide? " the woman asked just after him.
"Spaceships don’t routinely include parachutes in their manifest, " Pepper muttered. "Particularly ones where no one expected anyone from the ship to ever dip into the orbital well. "
The clouds rose faster, gaining definition. He could see lumpy clumps, and long whisps scattered behind those larger formations.
"So here is what I need, " Pepper said. "You need to tell me where the nearest city is. "
"But without a chute... "
"Terminal velocity at city height is a hundred twenty miles an hour. As some aboard the Sheikh found out, I’m not easily breakable. You help me hit a city, you either get to pick up my body, or come arrest me. "
"You’ll endanger others, you’re a projectile. "
"I’ll hit one of the farm levels, " Pepper promised. "Besides, you’ll want to hear my side of the story. "
More off-the-mic chatter between the two people watching over him. Then they returned. "What did happen there? We still need more details. "
"I didn’t start it, " Pepper said. "I just replied . . . in kind. "
Several minutes later he angled himself toward a glint in the clouds. He’d slowed down over the long minutes to just over a hundred miles an hour.
It was still going to hurt.
"Eupatoria. " The glint grew into a round silvery shape just above the puffy yellow and orange clouds. Pepper felt he might as well tie things up, just in case he didn’t make it. "I’m sending you a prerecorded burst. It explains everything. "
If Eupatoria, or any other of Chilo’s floating cities, paid attention to his warning, they all might live.
But Pepper doubted it. The invasion of Chilo would begin soon enough, in fits and starts. If he survived the impact, he might be able to help rouse its populace to defend itself.
A round silver city hurtled toward Pepper.
They said one should relax before major impacts, but at this speed Pepper really didn’t think it mattered what he did, it was going to hurt either way.
With just one last-second adjustment to aim himself at the green band of the farm section of the giant floating city, Pepper tensed before he hit.
Excerpted from Sly Mongoose by Tobias S. Buckell
Copyright © 2008 by Tobias S. Buckell
Published in August 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.