Suzanne Palmer is an award-winning and acclaimed writer of science fiction. She won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Secret Life of Bots” in 2018 and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the novella "Waterlines" in 2020. Her short fiction has also won readers’ awards for Asimov’s, Analog, and Interzone magazines, and has been included in the Locus Recommended Reading List.
Palmer has a Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where as a student she was the head librarian of the UMass Science Fiction Society and spent many fine summers reading in the stacks from back to front (she wanted to hit Zelazny sooner rather than later.) She lives in western Massachusetts and is a Linux and database system administrator for the Sciences at Smith College. You can find her online at zanzjan.net and on Twitter at @zanzjan.
From a Hugo Award-winning author comes the third book in this action-packed sci-fi caper, starring Fergus Ferguson, interstellar repo man and professional finder.LeseprobeChapter 1
Fergus is back on Earth at last, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. However, it seems the universe has other plans for him. When his cousin sends him off to help out a friend, Fergus accidently
stumbles across a piece of an ancient alien artifact that some very powerful people seem to think means the entire solar system is in danger. And since he's the one who found it, they're certain it's also his problem to deal with.
With the help of his newfound sister, friends both old and new, and some enemies, too, Fergus needs to find the rest of the artifact and destroy the pieces before anyone can reassemble the original and open a multidimensional door between Earth and a vast, implacable, alien swarm. Problem is, the pieces could be anywhere on Earth, and he's not the only one out searching.
“Neptune smells,” Fergus Ferguson said.
His sister Isla was slouched low on the worn, brown sofa in the tiny, cluttered apartment above the Drowned Lad, a lightball on dim hovering overhead. She glanced up from her handpad, pushed away a lock of red hair from her face, and scowled at him. “What?” she said.
“I said Neptune smells. It’s the damnedest thing,” he said. He was perched on an old oak stool, one leg mysteriously a centimeter shorter than the others so that it wobbled every time he took a breath, his chin in his hand and elbow on the kitchenette’s island. “I mean, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about the atmosphere, and it’s so cold everything is frozen, but when you get back from any kind of out‑of‑ship activity, your exosuit smells. It can take weeks to fade.”
“I asked—five minutes ago, mind—if ye knew how to calculate the proper speed and insertion angle for a standard Cricket-class cargo ship carrying five tons of liquid water to land on one of the wind-cities of Neptune,” she said. “Not how it smells.”
Fergus shrugged. “No one would do that. They’d let the water freeze so its mass distribution is stable. Keeping it liquid would burn a lot of energy and make the whole process harder.”
“I’m sure the exam proctors would be entirely happy to give me full credit for writing in This is dumb and also Neptune smells
instead of doing the actual math they asked for,” Isla said. “I am trying to study
here. Don’t ye have something else to do?”
“At the moment, no. Gavin kicked me out of the bar.”
“Big surprise there. It’s probably the ammonium sulfide.”
“The reason why Neptune smells
,” Isla said. “Honestly, don’t ye know anything at all?”
He got up from the stool, stretched his lower back, and looked around the tiny apartment. “Discovering I have a little sister I never knew about has been fantastic,” he said. “It makes me feel so loved and appreciated.”
“If ye want to be appreciated, go down to the bar and grab me some chips, then,” she said, and looked up again long enough to give him a very big, very insincere smile. “Take as much time as ye need.”
At least it was something to do, besides sitting there trapped by his own desperate need to make himself useful to people who had no use for him, however much they all tried to pretend otherwise.
Chips it was, then. He went down the narrow back stairs to the bar kitchen. It was Friday but still early yet, and the Drowned Lad
’s cook, Ian, was leaning against a counter, staring off into something imaginary behind an opaque pair of movie goggles, utterly unaware of anything around him. Fergus had questioned Gavin’s sanity for sticking with the old-fashioned kitchen gear, but it hadn’t taken long for him to admit that his cousin’s way made for much tastier food. At least when Ian didn’t let it burn; there was a basket of chips down in the oil that was already well past golden and heading toward greasy charcoal; Fergus lifted the basket out to drain, and Ian turned off his glasses.
“Oh, hey, Ferg. Didn’t hear ye come down. Help yerself,” Ian said, then caught a look at the cooling basket and winced. “Oh. I’ll start more. Give me a few?”
“Sure,” Fergus said.
Against Gavin’s earlier injunction, he went back out into the bar. His cousin was pulling glasses out of the autowash behind the counter and stacking them back in the shelves. He looked up when Fergus walked in, sighed, and went back to his task. “I could help with that,” Fergus said.
“Done now,” Gavin said. He closed the autowash door and leaned back against the back wall, with its display of bottles. “That didn’t take long for her to kick ye out, too.”
“Yeah,” Fergus said. “Apparently, she doesn’t want to know how Neptune smells.”
Gavin snorted. “Kids these days,” he said.
There were only a few people in the bar, though that would change once the rainy April gloom outside settled into the more-comfortable full dark of night. Fergus had been there for a little under two weeks now, trying to assimilate the fact that he had a little sister, born after he’d run off to Mars at fifteen and never looked back. He didn’t know where he belonged anymore. If he and his cousin hadn’t looked like they could be twins with their matching red beards, no one would ever believe he was even from there. His speech had long since drifted into more Mars than Scotland, more offworlder than Earth.
“This is her last exam, then she’ll head back to our folks’ place for break,” Gavin said. Fergus’s aunt and uncle had raised Isla, having realized after Fergus’s departure just how badly his mother couldn’t. And now his mother was gone too, years past, and it was both a guilty relief and a lingering, painful recognition that now nothing ever would be resolved, made amends for, or even understood.
“Sorry,” Fergus said. “I don’t mean to get in everyone’s way.”
“That’s not it at all,” Gavin said. “But I’ve been meaning to have a word or two with ye about it. Sit.” He pointed to an empty stool at the bar.
Fergus sat. Gavin gestured toward a bottle of scotch on the counter, but he shook his head. He’d never been much of a drinker—except for a few occasions when he spectacularly was—but he had reasons now to need to stay in control. At least in that respect, Scotland so far had been good for him, no unsettled rumbling of electric, alien bees in his gut to add to his unease.
Gavin poured them both water instead.
“Ye came back, and yer full of tales of Mars, and Saturn, and places so far away I can hardly imagine them. And all yer tales are full of people and aliens and running around, doing dangerous stuff. Ye make it all sound like the best fun, but I saw that scar on yer leg and more than a few others like it. And yer ear . . .”
“Some bastard cut it off,” Fergus said. He resisted the temptation to reach up and touch the replacement. “It’s a new grow. The cells take a while to figure out how to look natural.”
“That’s the thing. Ye say ‘someone cut my ear off’ like I’d say I just bought a pint o’ milk down at Dougal’s. Sitting around, doing normal, boring stuff isn’t yer game, Fergus.”
“Not really, no,” he admitted. “But I’m trying to learn.”
“Well, I have a reprieve for ye. A job,” Gavin said. “Ye said ye find things for a living, so I’ve got a friend that needs something found. Should only take ye a day or two, and ye’ll be back before Isla heads off. It’ll be good for ye.”
Ian came out of the back and sheepishly set down a bowl of chips in front of Fergus before scuttling quickly back into the kitchen. This batch wasn’t any less burnt than the last.
Gavin closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath, then opened them again. “Besides,” he said. “Isla will bankrupt me on chips alone if she doesn’t have to get up and fetch them herself. What do ye think?”
It did sound good, and more than that, it grabbed his curiosity. Fergus had tracked down stolen spaceships, missing art, historic relics, and kidnapped people, all across the galaxy, but he hadn’t expected to find any need of his skills here. What rare, interesting, possibly priceless thing had gone missing that he could go find?
“Okay, then,” he said. “I’m in. What is it?”
“My friend Duff,” Gavin said. “He’s lost one of his flocks out in the hills.”
“. . . Sheep?” Fergus asked.
“Sheep,” Gavin confirmed. He smiled. “After closing tonight, I’ll help you pack.”