[Excerpt] Ghost Pirate Gambit

Ghost Pirate Gambit is almost here!

In celebration, I’m posting an excerpt; it occurs a few chapters in, but it’s one of my favorite scenes in the first part of the book, where Raj and Lasadi first officially meet. You can also download the first four chapters for free — no need to sign up for any email lists. 🙂

And don’t forget that through May 30th I’m offering a BOGO (buy one, gift one) deal!

Email me with proof of purchase, and the name and email address of a friend you think would enjoy Ghost Pirate Gambit. I’ll send them a copy for free.

Pick up your copy of Ghost Pirate Gambit today!


Excerpt from Ghost Pirate Gambit

The woman with the blond braid has dropped the service industry facade, but she doesn’t seem worried at being caught red-handed in theft. There’s a sort of feral grace in the way she tensed at his voice; she holds herself like a fighter. Something tells him she’ll struggle almost to the death before accepting captivity — and that she’s done it before.

Her gaze rakes down his body, evaluating; the calculating glint in her smoky brown eyes tells Raj she’s no stranger to getting herself out of a tricky situation.

Oh. And that she’ll write him off as collateral damage in a heartbeat.

She definitely isn’t a member of the catering team. Raj likes being right more when it doesn’t mean a major kink in his plans.

“Stay back,” she hisses. Her fingertips are on the plinth’s control panel, her hand clad in one of those shimmering silver antimicrobial gloves all the catering staff are wearing. “You’ll get us both killed.”

Raj freezes.

“Lasers,” the woman says in explanation. She waves her free hand at the base of the plinth. “They’ll kneecap us both if I screw this up.”

“I knew you weren’t a caterer,” Raj says.

“And I knew you weren’t an investor,” she answers. The bioscanner under her fingertips shifts from threatening red to a soothing green, pulses green a second time, then stays that way. A faint click sounds from the control panel and the forcefield around the obsidian totem dissolves with a sigh. The woman’s shoulders loosen imperceptibly. “But you didn’t turn me in to Sumilang.”

“It wouldn’t have been polite.”

“Polite? It’d fit perfect with the asshole Arquellian act.” She tilts her chin to study him. “Unless it’s not an act.”

And at that he places her accent: Corusca.

Ah. Could be another problem.

Indira’s moon is the newest member of the Indiran Alliance, which includes Arquelle. Only Arquelle is a founding member — and perhaps a touch aggressive when it comes to bringing new countries into the fold. Corusca’s citizens had been split on joining, and Arquelle had pushed, coercing an unpopular decision through the Senate. Frustrations in Corusca led to an Alliance occupation, which led to a viciously effective insurgency, which led to a retaliatory “peace” effort. Which led to Raj’s first command post.

Tensions had spread on both sides, until the deaths of seven hundred and twelve souls aboard a neutral New Manilan medical transport poured fuel on the flames. The resulting Battle of Tannis had been disastrous for everyone involved — but far, far worse for Coruscans.

“Let’s talk this through,” Raj says.

“Nothing to talk about,” the Coruscan woman says. “You walk back out of this room and I won’t tell Sumilang about your grift. We both get what we want.”

“One problem,” says Raj. He may feel bad about the war, but he’s got a job to do. He lifts his chin to the obsidian totem behind her. “I’m here for that.”

She blinks in surprise, but her hesitation doesn’t last long. A flash of decision in her eyes; he tries to move before she does, but she’s too quick. She ducks his arm, snatching the totem as she pivots, an elbow to his ribs as she whirls past.

Raj muffles a groan at the burst of pain in his side, bites back a curse as he lunges after her, acutely aware of the slightest sounds of their scuffle. The party outside the museum hall is loud, but not loud enough.

He catches her arm and spins her off her footing; she nearly drops the totem, but as he lunges for it, she tightens her grip once more and swings it at his head. He ducks, just in time. The breeze it makes passing over his head sets his hair on end.

She wasn’t expecting to miss, and she put a touch too much force into the swing. Just enough that Raj can use her momentum to push her off her footing. She pivots at the last second to avoid hitting another golden plinth — this one topped with a saint’s altar — and Raj tackles her before she can take off running again.

They roll to the floor, barely missing the tray of puff pastries she’d left on the table against the wall, Raj cushioning their fall to keep from making too much noise. She’s wiry, but he’s stronger, and he’s gaining the upper hand. He catches her wrist above her head when she tries to swing the totem at him again, frees the electric barb from his belt with his other hand, and jams it against her temple.

She goes still, chest heaving with breath. Every muscle in her body is tense; he can feel her taut strength pressed against his own. She smells like vetiver, with heady undertones of sweet caramel and brush fire.

Focus, Raj.

“I think I win,” Raj says.

In response, the woman ghosts him a smile and glances down. When he tries to follow her gaze, the cold point of a blade pricks below his chin. The corner of her mouth curls up.

“Try it,” she says.

The electric barb won’t kill her, but if he discharges it into her temple it could do some gnarly things to her wiring. Course, he won’t get far at all if she bites that blade into his jugular. He’s not interested in leaving any bodies behind on this job, but he’s pretty sure she doesn’t have that same hang-up — especially about an Arquellian like him. Either way, she’s faster than him. Even if he was willing to pull the trigger, she could slit his throat before the jolt knocked her cold.

She’s watching him make his decision, a hint of amusement on her lips. Like she’s already solved this particular puzzle and she’s waiting for him to catch on.

Her lips part as though she’s about to speak, then she glances up, eyelashes sweeping wide.

He hears it, too: voices heading towards them.

Raj acts before he can second-guess himself, rolling them both out of sight under the hem of the tablecloth. He keeps his grip on her wrist, the electric barb against her temple. He can still feel the edge of her blade against his throat — only now their positions are reversed and she’s straddling his chest.

The woman gives a startled laugh, then presses her lips shut tight and holds as still as he, waiting for the scuffing heels and muttered complaints of the caterers to pass by. Her professional mask has melted into something more playful, and he revises her age downwards. She can’t be any older than him, despite the experienced way she carries herself.

“What’s your name?” Raj whispers when the caterers have passed. One of the woman’s eyebrows lift, but she doesn’t move the knife from his throat. “I’m Raj.”

“Hi, Raj. I know you’re not going to pull that trigger.”

“And you’re not going to slit my throat.”

“I’m not?”

“You’ve got a buyer for this thing?”

“None of your business.”

“Mine pays top dollar. Tell you what. We work together to get out of this and I’ll make sure you get your share. Fifty-fifty.”

“I kill you, I get one hundred percent.”

“You don’t know how good my buyer’s rates can be. What’s your name?”

The woman snorts a laugh and moves without warning, rolling off him and out from under the table, disappearing in a rustle of tablecloth.

Raj hisses out a curse and scrambles out after her, but the woman’s halfway across the hall by the time he gets to his feet. And — how the hell? — she stole his electric barb.

She glances back to gauge her lead, and that’s why she doesn’t notice him: the burly wall of a security guard stepping around the corner. She runs smack into the guard’s chest and the big man’s hands close around her shoulders like vise grips.

And there’s that animal desperation flashing over her face once more — the wild fear of the trap, the feral instinct to fight her way out even if it kills her.


Download the rest of the sample here, or buy your copy of Ghost Pirate Gambit today!

Ghost Pirate Gambit Sample: Click here to download

Travel guide: Bulari

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Whether you’re here to dance the night away in an exclusive nightclub, discover a new favorite artist in one of the many museums, or sample your way through Bulari’s incredible food scene, this once-ignored city has something for everyone.

(Bulari Saga art by Dusty Crosley.)

Welcome to Bulari! These days, the capital city of New Sarjun has thoroughly transcended its reputation as a hardscrabble mining outpost to become a hotbed of culture and cuisine. You don’t have to look too hard to see the roots, however. Scraping out a city this impressive in a climate so harsh was no small feat, and the citizens of Bulari are understandably proud. 

It’s a city of many contradictions, and travelers with an adventurous spirit are sure to find a thrill in the myriad of experiences available. Whether touring the stunning natural desert landscape, shopping your way through the Tamarind, or rubbing elbows with celebrities at one of many exclusive restaurants, Bulari has plenty to offer. 

When to go and weather

Prized for its mineral-rich hills rather than its climate, the Bulari Valley varies from uncomfortably warm to soul-meltingly hot. For that reason, most tourists visit sometime between the first of the fall thunderstorms and the last of the spring desert bloom. If you have time, escape the heat with a romantic getaway to the southern New Sarjunian town of Alusina for a weekend of wine tasting, art galleries, and river cruises. 

Neighborhoods: Central Bulari

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The Tamarind
Surrounding a lush swath of park blocks just east of the downtown core, the Tamarind is a paradise for shopping, dining, and people watching. The towering eucalyptus, oak, fan palm, and tree aloe ward off the worst of Bulari’s heat, creating a pleasant place to while away the afternoon with a cup of tea or a glass of Alusinian cinsuat in one of the many parkside cafes. Most of the better hotels, such as the Blue Falcon, are located in this neighborhood, as well. 

Downtown
The business heart of Bulari, the downtown area is clean, crisp, and cutting edge. Expect a well-heeled crowd of young professionals on their way to the top of the corporate ladder, with plenty of sophisticated dining options to impress potential clients. The neighborhood quiets down in the evenings as the night life fires up in the Tamarind.  

Government District
New Sarjun’s seat of power is also home to many of Bulari’s most interesting museums. Stroll the People’s Plaza for a good example at the early colonial architecture typical to the city, and be sure to visit National Museum for an in-depth exploration of the city’s history. Visitors are also welcome inside the lobby of the capitol building, where impressive columns showcase the famed local sandstone and rose salt. The international embassies are all here, too, if you run into any issues.

University of Bulari 
This gorgeous Hypatia Educational Facilities Corporation campus is just up the bluff from downtown, and offers a beautiful view out over the city. The University’s biology programs are particularly well-known, and plant lovers will delight in a stroll through the campus’s botanical garden to explore the extensive collection of local flora. 

Neighborhoods: North Bulari

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Casino District
A trip to Bulari isn’t complete without a visit to the spectacular Casino District. Try your luck on the develier tables at the venerable Orveto’s Thousands, or sit in on a game of mystix at the newest jewel of the drag, the Lorelei. After dinner at one of the many exquisite restaurants, catch a show at Ayisha’s Palace. The gorgeous music venue’s namesake, Ayisha Amadule performs regularly and puts on an incredible show. Top off the night with a cocktail at the exclusive Devil’s Table before retiring to your high-rise hotel room at the Aterciopelado to admire the view of downtown Bulari. 

Geordi Jimenez Space Terminal
While you may be tempted to spend as little time as possible transiting the space terminal, it’s worth a second look. This busy hub is more than a transit center, it’s the lifeline of New Sarjun, and a great spot for people watching. If you find yourself with some extra time before your shuttle off-planet, catch a bite to eat on Levels A or B. The kitsch travel themed watering hole Le Comptoir Darna in particular is worth a stop. And if you need a last-minute gift (or a quick prosthetic repair), you’ll find something unique at a little repair shop called Hallelujah It’s Fixed run by the charming Hallelujah Oni. 

Travel advisory: While Levels A and B are perfectly safe, it’s best to leave the terminal’s Level C to the locals.

Jet Park
There’s not currently much of note in Jet Park, but rumors have it the space terminal’s nearest neighborhood is on its way up. There have been some significant investments lately from local business owners, including the gentech-focused Juvex Spa Center, and a brewery venture backed by the controversial owner of the Jungle, Willem Jaantzen

Neighborhoods: The Fingers

Travel advisory: It’s best not to visit the Fingers without a local guide.

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Dry Creek
This formerly working class neighborhood has been in steep decline over the last few decades as violence between local gangs made the neighborhood quite dangerous. Bottom line, avoid Dry Creek.

Altamira
Once a wealthy settlement in its own right, Altamira’s fortunes were reversed after being swallowed up by Bulari proper a little over a century ago. Now, Altamira is one of the nicest of Bulari’s Finger slums, in part due to the iron rule of a local criminal organization led by one of recent memory’s most infamous Bulari citizens, Thala Coeur. The street gang boss turned former mayor continued running the neighborhood from exile, and is rumored to have retaken her throne. Altamira is safe enough if you have an escort.

Carama Town
The smallest of Bulari’s Finger ravines spilled out long ago to create the largest of the town’s slums, spreading into the plain south of Bulari’s downtown. Carama Town is a largely working class neighborhood where new immigrants tend to cluster in regionally-influenced micro-neighborhoods that each have their own flavor. If you have time to kill and a good driver to guide you, a trip through Carama Town’s famous traffic can be a thrill. 

Of course, most tourists don’t go any farther than Anjali Lumaban Boulevard, a stunning monument to one of the city’s founders. On weekends, you’ll find a vibrant farmer’s market in the plaza, a good place to buy souvenirs and taste the local street food. And don’t miss the various culture and music festivals held throughout the year.

Where to eat

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Bulari is a city of immigrants, and they’ve all brought their most impressive recipes. No matter your favorite dish back home, you’re sure to find a restaurant in Bulari that makes it better. 

The Jungle
Topping every epicurean traveler’s must-visit list, the Jungle’s reputation is certainly fueled by the notoriety of its owner, Willem Jaantzen. However, the dining experience lives up to the hype. There are no bad tables at the Jungle! Incredible living foliage creates a private retreat at every table, and exquisite white-glove table service makes every guest feel like royalty. Only the luckiest guests can secure an invitation to the exclusive Golden Orchid room in the back of the restaurant, where Bulari’s elite conduct business over chic cocktails and appetizers. 

Be sure to make your reservation well ahead of time, or prepare to wait for hours for a seat at the bar. 

Jade’s Finest Coffee and Chicken
At first glance this hole-in-the-wall downtown diner may not look like much, but don’t be fooled. You may not see anyone sitting at the tables, but Jade’s does a brisk business in takeaway — it’s a local favorite both for residents and business people on their lunch break. Don’t miss the chicken in black bean sauce!

The Oasis
The Oasis is the best place in Bulari to try the city’s most famous local dish, korris. Any of the dishes on the menu will delight, but if you’re in a group, do yourself a favor and let the owner, Ajesh Paiman, choose a feast for you. Oh, and if you believe the rumors, the Oasis is also the place to catch a glimpse of some of the biggest players in Bulari’s seedy underbelly. Be warned that the korris here is spiced for locals, not tourists, so ask for a milder version if you’re not accustomed to New Sarjunian heat. 

The Devil’s Table
Buy-ins at the high roller’s tables here may cost as much as your shuttle ticket back into orbit, but anyone can enjoy a cocktail or dinner at the bar. Be aware that the dress code is strictly enforced, but even if you didn’t bring evening wear it’s worth a shopping spree in the Tamarind for a glimpse inside this exclusive experience and a chance to set eyes on the proprietor. One of Bulari’s rising darlings, Phaera D also owns the Lorelei Casino and has been scandalizing the press lately with rumors that she’s stepping out with the notorious Willem Jaantzen.

Lucky’s Palladium Coast
If you need to get away from the always-on energy of the Casino District, Lucky’s is the place to go. A few blocks off the main drag, patrons don’t visit Lucky’s for the food so much as the camaraderie. It’s a great place to drink with the locals! Sit at the bar and you’re just as likely to run into a great gambling legend as an off-duty dealer. Keep an eye out, and you might just spot some of the most powerful names in the casino business doing business over mediocre noodles. 


Curious to visit Bulari yourself? Pick up Double Edged — the first book of the Bulari Saga — and immerse yourself in the adventure today.

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The Final Waking: a short story for #burningcat

They think I’m dead.

The heretics threw my body into the trash pit with the rest of the refuse — they should have burned me, but they didn’t know.

My legs and neck are broken, my torso slashed open. It itches as the wound knits, my bones ache as they heal, but I know from experience that this will pass. Though this is the worst death yet, by far.

Ever since I took my vows I’ve wondered how my ninth and final waking will feel. I expected panic, but despite the trash pit, despite the state of my body, my soul is strangely peaceful. True death still terrifies me, but I thank the Goddess this is the last time I’ll be revived.

I hear a chittering and open my good eye to see a spun sugar scorpion crouching over me, considering me for a meal. A drop of pure sucrose gleams opalescent on the tip of her barb, poised a hand’s breadth from my pupil. 

For a moment I imagine that I could startle it, take the poison lance through my skull and finally be done with this for good — I won’t wake a tenth time.

But it would be a disgrace to die here on this trash heap with my Goddess unavenged. 

“I’m not dead,” I whisper to the scorpion and she rears up, startled. She skitters back a safe distance then waits, watching me. 

“I wondered,” she says finally. Her carapace shimmers in the dim light. “They should have burned your body.”

“They didn’t know.”

She clicks one candied pincer derisively. “They don’t know anything.”

“Did any of my sisters survive?”

That sway to the left and then the right, it could be a shrug. 

The vertebrae in my neck seem to be healed enough that I can chance sitting up, so I do, watching in fascinated horror as my shattered right shinbone snaps back into place. A miracle, some might call it. I used to think so, too. I blink, but my bad eye stays shut. It happened three lives ago, when a fight against a monsoon leopard had taken my eye along with a life from both myself and Vallizha. I keep hoping it will heal with one of these wakings. 

If it didn’t this final time, though, it never will.

Waking up is always the worst, but soon my bones are in place and the afterglow of rebirth begins to set in — it feels like warm gold, pooled sunshine, and I want to curl up and nap until the pain is over. 

Intoxicating, yes. But beneath the glow, I’m laying in a putrid trash pit, my sisters are gone or dead, and my Goddess has been slain. 

The spun sugar scorpion is still watching me. 

I pull myself into a crouch; my recently-shattered shinbone holds my weight. “We must drive them out of the City,” I tell the scorpion. “Will you help me?”

She laughs, a cynical hiss. “Yeah, not a chance.” Her feet rattle against heaps of bone as she turns and skitters away. “Door’s to your left,” she calls.

I could tell her that the heretics’ arrival and the Goddess’ fall isn’t just a problem for the Sisterhood, it spells ruin for all the strange denizens of our City — even those living in its trash pits. But I am not spending my last life arguing with a spun sugar scorpion. I search the trash heap for any other survivors before I go, but find nothing but rot and filth. I know some of my sisters were on their last lives — I can’t think of watching Vallizha die her final time or I’ll collapse into grief. But surely not all. Surely I will find some of them in the City.

I finally crawl through the door the spun sugar scorpion pointed out, then unsheath my claws to scale the City wall and find my revenge. 

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The heretics came in with the first fall thunderstorm, sailing over the City’s walls with the lightning and splashing into the cobbled streets in gouts of rain. The storm was violent and impassible; the battle was the same. 

The Sisterhood fought tooth and claw, but the heretics took us by surprise, slashes of lightning illuminating flashing swords. The temple doors had been battered down as much by the wind as the heretics’s clubs, shards of shattered stained glass and hails of barbed arrows falling over us one and the same. The black pools on the ancient mosaic floors were rainwater or blood or both. 

The Goddess’ roar of agony as the heretics lassoed her with razorwire and pulled her to onto their forest of spears must have shaken the entire City. But if my sisters and I screamed as we died, no one could have heard us over the thunder and rain. 

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By daylight I can see that the heretics are only humans, and their numbers are less than impressive. Why have they come? Maybe they think our City is an abomination because it is a refuge for non-humans and those of us who chose to become something more than human to serve the Goddess. Maybe they serve a rival god. Maybe they are simply looking to loot the temple for treasure. 

The heretics have set up camp in the temple. Taking prayer rugs for bedrolls, breaking apart the altar for their cookfires, pissing in the holy garden. They’re drinking wine out reliquaries which used to contain the eyeteeth and claws of sainted sisters who went before us — Vallizha will have her own if I can find her body once this is all over. The holy relics have been tossed down the same trash chute they’d thrown my body down, I can only suppose. 

I sneak onto the rooftop of the market across the street to watch. They’re rounding up the locals, sorting them at the temple steps. Children herded into the courtyard, the men and women judged by some metric I don’t understand and loaded into carts. It’s not by species, it’s not by gender. It doesn’t seem to be by age. As I watch, a dulmo tries to resist, spikes flaring out along his forearms and whipcord tongue snaring one of the heretics by the throat and snapping his weak human neck. 

The rebellion doesn’t last long. A pair of heretics release a volley of bolts from their crossbows and the dulmo’s blood joins the smears that already paint the temple steps. 

As the crowd screams and wails in the aftermath of the dulmo’s death, I see the first flicker of hope. There. Lurking in the alley across the street is Izari. I’ll always know her by the way she walks, the ferocious set to her shoulders, and the geometric tattoos scrawled on the backs of her hands. 

She looks like she’s about to pounce, and when she does, she’ll die once more. She’s lost fewer lives than me, but she can’t afford to be careless, even so. 

Izari crouches, knife in hand. 

I flare.

I’m not sure it will work. In the ritual that made me part of the Sisterhood, drops of the Goddess’s fiery blood burned my tongue, mingled with the blood on my sliced-open palms and kindled fire throughout every vein. 

Now am I in you eternally, the Goddess had told me, as I am in your sisters

It’s her power that grants us the blessing and curse of our many deaths, that brings light to our eyes in the dark, that lengthens our eyeteeth, that slashes claws through our palms to be weapons and tools. 

And which links all of us in the Sisterhood together. 

There is no precedent for the murder of the Goddess, so I have no idea if I can still call on her powers. But I revived one last time, didn’t I? Maybe, just maybe, there’s hope.

Across the street, Izari stiffens. She felt my presence, and now she turns to scan the rooftops. When she spots me, she smiles, fangs bared.

Then her smile widens, and I feel it, too. Brixha’s flare, from behind the temple. Ooli answering from closer to the City’s walls. Nazhiimi’s call, distantly faint but ready to fight.

Cloak yourselves, I whisper through our bloodlink. And meet me on the temple steps.

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Seven of my sisters are still silent. I know for a fact that four passed the threshold the final time in the attack last night — I cannot think about Vallizha — but that leaves eight of us to fight. 

First, though, we must get close enough. 

I drape a scarf over my head, but my good eye still burns yellow, an unworthy shadow of the Goddess’s own crimson flames. Once the heretics look me or any of my sisters in the eye they’ll know who we are.

A weeping venaia does a double take when she glimpses under my hood. Her doe’s face goes bright with fear, then hope. Ooli grabs her arm from the other side and the venaia stifles a yelp. “Don’t give us away,” I hiss. “And when the fighting starts, tell the others to run.” The venaia nods fiercely and clacks her hooves together beneath her robes. 

They spot Brixha first, I feel her flare of fury as one of the heretics throws off her hood. She whirls with knives in hands and blood sprays from the heretic’s throat. I roar and leap at a heretic who’s shoving the gentle venaia toward a cart, burying my blade in his back. The venaia throws back her head and lets fly her ululating call. The heretics — and the few human citizens in the crowd — throw their hands over their ears. 

The Goddess protects my formerly human ears, and I charge the temple gate after Ooli.

Two heretics go down under Ooli’s blade before the first crossbow bolt takes her through the throat. A second buries itself in her thigh.

I don’t have time to mourn her final death, because a third crossbow bolt shatters against the temple steps beyond me; I felt the wind of its passing on my cheek. 

I grab one of the heretics who’s charging at me and spin; the fourth bolt buries itself in his back and I plunge into the temple to find safety from the archers. 

The sight that greets me through the temple doors makes me stumble. 

They’ve slain the Goddess, but they haven’t been able to move her from the sanctuary. She lays on her side, fur matted with blood that has stopped flowing, though rivulets of it ran molten through the tile floor, scoring deep channels. Her ember eyes are wide open and glossy black as dead coals. 

Someone screams my name, and I realize I’m gaping. I tear my gaze away from the horror of my fallen Goddess and duck the sword that whistles past where my head had just been. The swordsman swings again as I jump back, knives in my hands. 

He’s grinning at me, his blade black with the blood of my fellow City denizens, and of my sisters. “Die, abomination,” he growls as he thrusts, and I block the blade of his sword in my crossed knives and force him back. I draw blood on his shoulder but the tip of my knife blade only sparks along the metal of his breastplate as I spin. 

He swings again, and I may be faster but he has strength and a longer reach. Still, I dive in close and bury a knife in his thigh — he roars in pain and forces me back, and just as I’m about to finish him off, searing pain carves through my back. I fall, my legs useless because of the throwing axe buried deep in my spine. Ice washes through my lower back. 

The swordsman grins and advances. “We’ll wipe this City from the face of the earth,” he says. I pull myself away until my back is against the soft fur of my Goddess. My hand presses into seeping cold gash in her side.

Now am I in you eternally.

The swordsman advances. “I thought I killed you before,” he says with a bemused smile. “How many times does it take for you all to die?”

All I have left is the utility blade on my belt, and I can’t move my legs. I can’t fight. But I can die with a purpose. I snatch the blade free and he laughs, but his expression turns to confusion as I slash the length of my arm and press it to the gash in the Goddess’s side. 

“Crazy fanatics,” he growls, and he plunges his sword through my chest and into the Goddess, mingling even more of my blood with hers.

I’m growing cold. 

Behind me, I feel my Goddess begin to stir. 

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I open my eyes — both my eyes — and they burn like flames.

I’m not alone.

We roar as we get to our feet, razorwire snapping like threads, tearing spears from the healing wounds in our chest and pinning heretics to the ground with them, claws slicing through ribcages and splaying them open like butterflies on display. 

I’m not alone.

Ooli is here. Vapar and Lida and other old mentors are here. Presences I know only as venerable saints from epic historical tales are here.

Vallizha is here — her presence floods through me and we embrace in joy, though in the consciousness of the Goddess it is wholly inadequate to think in concepts like me, her, us. 

The Goddess is all. We are all — and we burn. 

And we howl in vengeance as the heretics burn, too. 

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This story was written as an offering to the Queen of Burning Cat, a convention coming to Portland in 2020. #burningcat

Header photo by William Moreland on Unsplash

Crossfire (Bulari Saga 2) [Excerpt]

Unlike my Durga System novellas, which are designed to stand alone, I wrote the Bulari Saga to be one overall story arc — though each book is meant to be a satisfying read on its own.

Don’t worry. I hate cliffhanger books, too. 🙂

I normally share the first chapter or prologue of a new book when I launch it — but since Crossfire begins a day or so after the climax of Double Edged, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find a section that wasn’t super spoiler-y.

Fortunately, one of my favorite scenes made the cut.

I edited the following section to avoid a couple of spoilers, but please enjoy the gloriousness that is Starla’s girl gang blowing off steam. I’ve just finished the draft of Bulari Saga 3, and am plotting out Bulari Saga 4 — and it’s been fun to watch these ladies take up more of the spotlight.

Read on for the excerpt.


CrossfireFinal

Trouble is dead. Long live trouble.

Killing the leader of a violent cult was supposed to make the city a safer place, but instead it created a power imbalance that’s left a deadly war raging in the streets of Bulari.

When Willem Jaantzen is approached for help by local casino magnate Phaera D, he has the sinking feeling the only way to end this war is to betray the people he loves the most. And he’s starting to suspect that Phaera wants more from him than just his help.

Whatever decision he makes feels like the wrong one. And as his goddaughter chips away at the mystery surrounding their latest discovery, bringing peace back to the Bulari underground is quickly becoming the least of his worries.

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Starla

Music thrums through Starla Dusai’s chest, beating like a fever through the packed dancers. 

Simca’s incandescent in hot pink, sequins shimmering off her minidress, stacks of rainbow neon cuffs glowing on her brown arms. Her black hair’s in a thick queue, braided through with strands that spark in the light like starbugs, and the spikes of her stilettos flash a different color with every step. 

Leti’s in liquid turquoise from the band of her black fedora to the fine weave of her suit to the sharp-ass points of her gleaming dress shoes. Her tie drinks up the light, luminous black silk. 

Starla’s in silver that probably makes her pale skin gray and ghostly, but she loves the feel of the flounced skirt swishing against her thighs, loves the way it makes her look like she actually has curves. 

And it must be working, because she’s had no shortage of guys to dance with tonight. A Ganesh-class transport, the Maria Elena III, is still in orbit, and every nightclub in the city is flush with travelers and crew. 

The beat transitions to double time, the bass picking up to a low rumble that pulses once on one and twice on four and Starla loves this song, she claps and raises her hands with the rest of the crowd, lets her hips move how they want. The latest guy yells something to her but she’s left her lens at home tonight and she closes her eyes to bask in the rhythm, ignoring him. Whatever he’s trying to tell her doesn’t matter. She’s not going home with anyone. 

The beat transitions again a few minutes later and the guy’s gone. Leti is dancing in his place, her moves light-years beyond the grind he’d been attempting. Starla grins and takes Leti’s proffered hand. Simca shimmies her hips through a gap in the dance floor to join them, and the whole world shrinks down to this moment: sweat and color and light and bodies against bodies, all shot through with the pulse of the music. 

“Water,” Simca signs after a moment, and Starla nods — she’s been parched for ages, but having too much fun to leave the floor. 

“You must be boiling alive,” she signs to Leti. Starla’s overheated in her skimpy dress, but where she and Simca are both gleaming with sweat, Leti is dapper as ever. 

“Girl’s gotta look good,” Leti signs back. She pulls out a silk handkerchief and dabs at her dark brow, tucks it back in her pocket. “Sorry I ruined your chances tonight,” she signs. “Every man on that dance floor thinks you’re with me now.”

“Good,” Starla signs. “I’m not in the mood. But Simca . . .” She lifts her chin and Leti glances back to see Simca at the bar, trios of waters and shocking blue cocktails lined up in front of her. Guys on either side of her are trying to get her attention. 

Leti laughs, elbows her way between Simca and one of the guys, gives her a Hey, babe look and a wink. She starts handing drinks back to Starla. 

They find one of the few reasonably lit booths where they can see to talk. “Hopefully now I’ve ruined both your chances to go home with a boyfriend-of-the-week,” Leti signs with a smile. “Tonight’s supposed to be girls night.” 

It’s a weekly chance for them to blow off steam, and after the events of the last few days Starla has plenty of steam to blow. Simca, too; she’s got an air of wild abandon about her tonight that’s stronger than her usual, stronger than past times they’ve cheated at cards with Death and walked away grinning. Someone on their team didn’t walk away this time. And following the initial numbness, that knowledge makes the crush of bodies more captivating, the cocktails sweeter, the beat more intoxicating.

Starla almost feels like she’s in a trance, and when she catches Simca’s eye and sees her intensity, her fever, she knows Simca feels the same.

Leti works in media, some complicated consulting job helping vid stars and politicians and night club owners with messaging and news appearances. Starla understands just as much about her job as Leti understands about Starla’s work designing security systems for Admant. Leti knows Starla’s godfather is Willem Jaantzen, but she has no idea the nature of the jobs Starla sometimes hires Simca for.

Leti’s only aware that something happened at work this week, and she accepted the usual brush-off when she asked about it. Tonight, she’s slipped into the role of chaperone, letting her girlfriends work out whatever they need to on the dance floor and putting up enough guard for three. 

And they need her tonight, god knows — this club is thick with horny single dudes from the Maria Elena III. Starla and her friends have barely claimed their booth when a man elbows up to the table, leans in with a conspiratorial smile to say something to Leti. Leti frowns at him. “I’m deaf,” she yells. It looks like he’s shouting louder — or maybe it’s just loud in the club, because Simca yells back at him across the table. 

The man abandons Leti and leans towards Simca. Starla can’t read his lips, and Simca’s angled away from her, but she recognizes the drug-pusher’s gesture of one hand flashing open to reveal the glittering blue tab in his palm. Shard. He pops the tab under his tongue with a glassy grin, then pulls a bag from his pocket for Simca. 

Simca’s shaking her head, shooing him out of the booth. He gives her an apologetically wounded look — Hey, just trying to offer a good deal — and sidles off, ignoring Leti and Starla. 

“Fucking pushers,” Simca signs. She takes a drink and makes a face after the man’s back. 

Leti waves a hand to dismiss him. “Hey, did you end up signing with that new agent?” she asks Simca, and Simca rolls her eyes, the conversation swirling back to her latest search for a wrestling agent who’s not scammy. It’s not a night out without fending off at least one shard pusher, these days. 

Starla follows along with the latest dramatic twist in Simca’s agent saga, but only half-heartedly; talk isn’t doing it for her tonight, and as soon as the last drops of cocktail are emptied from their glasses, she drags Leti and Simca impatiently back out to the dance floor.

Only now the energy is different. The beat is still steady, but a knot of people at the far edge of the crowd have stopped dancing, stillness rippling out from them as heads turn to see what’s happening. 

Starla elbows her way through — it’s not her job, but sometimes there are fights, and if she can help she will. Plus, throwing a few punches might feel almost as good as dancing tonight. 

She stops at the edge of the crowd, eyes wide. 

Everyone’s staring, and no one’s helping. There’s nothing to help. 

The shard pusher from earlier is convulsing on the floor, mouth split open like he’s screaming, tears of blood streaming from his eyes, black ichor leaking from his nostrils. His fingers claw protectively over his chest; bloody blisters form on the backs of his hands, his neck, his hairline as Starla watches in horror.

A scatter of his product has fallen out of his hand and is glittering on the dance floor. Starla hadn’t been paying attention earlier, but now she sees his shard looks different from what she’s used to seeing in clubs. Something about the color, the shape of the package is oddly familiar, and she realizes with a start where she’s seen it before: in the drug-cooking operation that had been working out of the warehouse her godfather, Willem Jaantzen, is purchasing. 

Others are pocketing the shard even as the pusher spasms in death. Starla signs for Leti to give her her handkerchief, then scoops up one of the strange shard tabs herself. She tucks it in her purse. No one seems to notice, not with the screaming man acting out his dying moment on the dance floor. 

Starla grabs Leti’s and Simca’s hands and drags them to the exit. 

She’s not going to stand around and watch yet another person die this week.


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Double Edged (Bulari Saga 1) [Excerpt]

Ever since I released the first Durga System novella back in 2016, I’ve heard the same thing from readers:

I loved it, but I want MORE!”

With every Durga System novella I wrote, I got the same praise/complaint combination. Reviewers kept talking about how they could sense a larger story behind the books I was giving them. Friends texted me asking what’s the deal with this character, or when they’re going to get a novella with that character.

Through all these years, I’ve been plugging away at a series of full-length novels set in the Durga System universe, and I’m excited to announce that IT’S ALMOST HERE!

Double Edged is the first book in the Bulari Saga, set about 20 years after Negative Return, 15 years after Starfall, and 10 years after Deviant Flux.

It’s coming out May 31st.

Mark your calendars, or sign up to my newsletter to get a reminder when it’s published.

(I’ll also be doing a giveaway or two for my newsletter, and offering fun sneak peaks leading up to the launch — don’t miss it!)

Read on for an excerpt.


Double Edged (Bulari Saga 1)

DoubleEdgedFinal

Thala Coeur—Blackheart—is dead.

Willem Jaantzen has been waiting to hear those words for almost twenty years. But he was also hoping they’d hold more satisfaction. Because it turns out his arch enemy has died as she lived—sowing chaos and destruction—and when a mysterious package arrives on his doorstep, he realizes she’s sent him one last puzzle from beyond the grave.

As Jaantzen and his crew are plunged back into a game he thought they’d left far behind, one thing becomes painfully clear: Solving Coeur’s puzzle could be key to preventing the city from crumbling back into another civil war—or it could be the thing that destroys them all.

Because this secret isn’t just worth killing for. It’s worth coming back from the dead for.

The Bulari Saga series is part of Jessie Kwak’s Durga System universe, a fast-paced series of gangster sci-fi stories set in a far-future world where humans may have left their home planet to populate the stars, but they haven’t managed to leave behind their vices. And that’s very good for business.

Read on for an excerpt.


Oriol

Busting up a casino has never been at the top of Oriol Sina’s bucket list, but here he is, standing in the middle of the Dorothy Queen dressed for trouble in a suit he’d much rather be admiring on another man.

From the outside, the Dorothy Queen looks like a golden top orbiting New Sarjun, glittering levels faceted like a cut stone surrounding a tapering spindle. On the inside, it’s one hundred and fifty levels of gaudily themed hotels, overpriced restaurants, dubious recreation spaces, and raucous gambling. You don’t get on the Dorothy Queen without a work permit, a vendor license, or a bank account large enough to turn the Demosga family’s eyes vivid green with greed. And the first two won’t get you on the casino floor unless you’re young and look good in a dress. 

Oriol is neither, and his bank account is definitely lacking. What he does have is a contract with a woman who’s got far more secrets than he prefers in an employer.

Pays well, though. 

Oriol drums his fingers against the sensitive pressure plates of his thigh, stretches calves both real and manufactured, scans the casino floor. He’ll be glad to leave. He can see the fun if there’s a paycheck in it, but damned if he’d spend actual cash on the pleasure of visiting the Dorothy Queen again. 

Jobs he usually takes these days, they’re the low-intrigue, high-pay type that help him afford the ever-increasing bills for his aging mech prosthetics. Which means he spends most of his days knocking back whiskey with working folk and fighting the occasional scrapper, not fending off insistent waitstaff and pretending rich people have a sense of humor. But Oriol’s a professional. He can manage any gig so long as there’s a definite end date with a return ticket to New Sarjun attached, and in two days’ time he’ll be home and working his tan back up.

He loses another ten New Sarjunian marks of his employer’s money at Devilier before he finally gets the message from the woman who’s code-named Frog:

“Target’s here. By the alien, I’m going in.”

Her voice is routed through the scrambler they’re all using, flat and distorted in Oriol’s earpiece. The words crawl across the bottom of his vision as well. He’s running an ops lens, which he hates. The disorienting overlay flashing in his peripheral reminds him too much of the darker work he did in Alliance special ops, those days when anyone back in the home office could jack in and take whatever they want from him: vital stats, sensory inputs, fears, dreams. He’s been batting away low-level flashbacks tonight, flashbacks reminding him why he should stick to his rule of taking only tech-free jobs, jobs that rely on instinct and training alone. 

But right now he’s got a voice in his ear and a glowing lattice of lines across his vision, and at least the flat voice in his ear isn’t the nameless ops tech who was his most constant companion in the Alliance — for the morning wake-up call, for the evening check-in, in the bathroom, in those rare times he had a spare moment to visit someone else’s bed. 

There’s no feeling in the world like the inability to unplug from your masters. And none quite like the joy he felt waking up in the hospital with no leg and realizing he was too damaged to go back in, that he would be decommissioned with enough salary and savings to buy out his own indenture and do whatever the hell he’d always wanted to. 

Turns out, what he wants to do is crime for money. It pays well, you get to see the universe, and you meet the most fascinating array of people. Like Frog and Rabbit, his co-heisters. Like their boss, the woman in the white suit. Like that man over there by the “alien.”

The alien Frog was referring to is an oversized blinking sign advertising a drinks bar. It’s a cartoonish imagining of what aliens would look like if they existed: gangly and green-skinned, with an array of lumpy appendages and tentacles sprouting from its head. Stereotypical, of course — the Demosga family has no imagination Oriol’s heard of, except for famously in the secret-level chambers where they take cheats and thieves. No, this creature’s something out of a horror vid with the copyrights filed off. 

Or not. Who’s going to sue someone like Aiax Demosga for copyright infringement?

The target’s hovering at a low-roller’s table like he’s deciding whether or not to throw out some coin. He’s tall, with a paunch born of beer and worry and thinning, nutrient-poor hair. He’s got the wide-eyed look of a first-timer to the Dorothy Queen and the cheap suit of someone who’s been told to dress his best even though it’s still levels below what the rest of these rich asses throw out as too threadbare for work clothes. Even if Oriol didn’t know why the man was here, it would be clear he doesn’t belong in this crowd.

Oriol blinks three times to mark him, and a floating star appears above the lanky man’s head. It tracks him without delay even as he decides against the low-baller’s table, gawks at the alien, and weaves through the crowd to the cashier. Oriol can see the star out of the corner of his eye as he scans the room for Aiax Demosga’s security guards, each marked with a red exclamation point like he’s in a goddamn video game.

Never again with a job that requires an ops lens. 

Frog’s neon-blue exclamation point, superimposed above her sleek bun of silver hair, passes by the target’s star; even watching for the drop, Oriol doesn’t see her pause. 

“Package is away,” she says. “I confirm he’s got the ring.”

“Copy package away,” says mission control. “Starting clock now.”

A clock appears in the corner of Oriol’s vision, counting up. The three-minute mark is the time when the drug Frog slipped into the target’s drink should take effect. 

It’s go time for Oriol. 

Oriol places another losing bet on Devilier, sighs with unfeigned remorse — he would’ve welcomed a few more marks in his pocket — then tosses his last few chips to the dealer and twines his way through the glittering crowd, following the star.

“I see him,” Oriol murmurs. “Rabbit take the Gold entrance; Frog take Platinum.”

They call him Tiger. The code names were assigned by the bosses; Oriol doesn’t ask if it’s not going to get in the way of his work. He sees his teammates begin to move through the crowd. They’re already coded into the tracker overlay, Frog in the blue and Rabbit — a man — marked by an exclamation point in sizzling green. 

The graphics may be cheesy, but damn, this ops lens is the good tech. Almost Alliance military grade. Oriol’s dying to know who’s backing the lady in the white suit, but he doesn’t make it a habit to ask where his employers get their funds. He didn’t when he took the Alliance’s offer of food and family as a kid, and he isn’t going to start now. 

The target’s star bobs towards the cashier, then abruptly changes direction, making a straight shot towards the bathrooms.

The clock reads 03:07.

Oriol feels his body get loose and ready for action; it’s a feeling better than any drug. 

“On it,” he murmurs. 

* * *

The lady in the white suit had found Oriol on his shore leave on Maribi Station, just off the back of a security job that had been disappointingly uneventful. No space pirate battles, no lasers, no explosions — and no hazard pay. His former crewmates had been off drinking away their earnings; he’d gone for tune-ups to his prosthetic leg. He and it both were getting on in life, requiring a little more maintenance and a little less partying than in years past. 

The job came across his comm while the fake leg doctor had him plugged into a diagnostics harness: Wanted, security for a short trip to the Dorothy Queen. Excellent pay.

His thumb — hovering a moment over reply — hit Send on the message without a second thought when the diagnosis came in. The biomechanical interface at his hip joint would need to be completely replaced in the next six months.

With that on the horizon, Oriol could use a little extra cash before he headed home. And the Dorothy Queen would carry him back to New Sarjun. 

He’d met his new boss: an olive-skinned woman in a simple white suit with three stars pinned to the lapel and smooth black hair bound tight in a bun. The man and woman flanking her wore gray suits, no stars. She’d introduced herself as Sister Kalia; she’d not introduced them at all. 

They needed a simple job done — a criminal job, she was careful to warn him, with the plainspoken concern of someone who’d never hired a mercenary before and didn’t want to offend him. 

They wouldn’t be robbing the casino itself, she said — probably for the best, given that the stakes for robbing a Demosga casino, including in the Dorothy Queen, the Lucky’s Double, or the Little Brother, were a visit to Aiax Demosga’s private family jail. 

No, his job would merely be to intercept a critical item before the carrier had a chance to complete its sale. 

“So you’re with the OIC?” Oriol asked, and got a cool look. “NMLF? The Coda?” Three strikes, but he wasn’t surprised. Sister Kalia and her friends didn’t look like they were working with one of the many anti-Alliance resistance groups; they looked well-fed and even more well-funded. 

His next guess was going to be that they were corporate spies, until a chime sounded softly through the room and Sister Kalia informed him they’d finish the conversation later; now was time for prayer. He was welcome to join them if he liked, she said, with one perfectly plucked eyebrow raised in question. 

He’d declined. 

“Your soul burns pure,” she said as he turned away. “It wouldn’t hurt you to spend some time refueling the flame before it begins to sputter.”

He stopped with one hand above the palm lock, turned back to look at her, intrigued despite himself. “What do you mean?”

“Your true human soul. We’ll need all the bright ones when it comes time to pass the test.” 

“I’m good at tests,” Oriol answered, but the intensity of her smile had churned his gut like poison. 

* * *

Oriol props the target as comfortably as possible in the bathroom supply closet, then slips the ring off a pudgy finger and into a lead-lined zippered pocket in his suit vest. He riffles through the man’s pockets for anything that seems valuable.

“Sorry,” he mutters, but this will play so much better if it looks like a basic robbery. After all, who would steal such a chintzy ring?

There’s not much, just the man’s scant winnings and a black plastic ID badge; turns out the target’s some breed of bioengineer working for an Arquellian agricorp. Agricultural tech can be worth its weight in gold on arid New Sarjun, out in Durga’s Belt, and even on fertile-yet-crowded Indira. And the Demosga family still makes a good portion of its fortune from food production, so it makes sense that he’d be trying to make a deal here.

Not the sexiest intel Oriol’s ever stolen, but it’s probably worth good money to the right buyer. 

“I’ve got it,” he murmurs as he shuts the door to the supply closet. Hopefully the target’ll wake up with only a headache, plus lighter a few New Sarjunian marks. “Heading back to base.”

“Copy.”

His job had been to take care of the target somewhere private and let Sister Kalia’s tech team handle the surveillance monitors, but he’s having trouble walking calm. Any moment now one of Demosga’s thugs is going to land a meaty hand on his shoulder and the whole game will be over. But he coaches his posture into relaxation, tosses out smiles and congratulations and winks as he crosses the casino floor, then leans casually against the gold-plated wall of the elevator while it whisks him to level ninety-seven.

Level ninety-seven is one of the full-floor suites, no worries about your neighbors down the hall wondering why so many people are coming and going from a single room. In another time, Oriol would’ve taken the time to appreciate the room’s luxe amenities. But this job hasn’t given them much time to explore — and they’re not about to linger now that they’ve got the goods. 

He can smell the blood and ozone the instant the elevator’s doors slide open. 

A pistol whines, warming to the palm of its owner. 

“Out of the elevator,” commands a voice. 

It — and the plasma pistol — belong to a pale-skinned man Oriol’s never seen before. He’s not simply a new addition to the crew, Oriol notes. Sister Kalia’s two gray suits are both dead, and she’s bound in a chair beside the bed, gagged. Her white suit jacket blooms deep red.

Another armed stranger is sitting at Sister Kalia’s ops desk, monitoring the feeds from his, Rabbit’s, and Frog’s ops lenses. 

Fucking ops lenses. 

“Rabbit, Frog, come on home,” the woman says into her headset, her voice echoing flatly in Oriol’s ear. The same scrambler that was meant to keep Sister Kalia’s team’s identity obscured hid the fact that they were being fed direction from an unfamiliar voice.

A third stranger, another man, is sitting on the bed beside Sister Kalia. Tanned complexion, shaved head, eyes blue as ice. An old scar bisects his cheek, twisting his lips down as he smiles. 

“You thought you could beat the Dawn to this, Kalia?” says the blue-eyed man. He watches her as though expecting her to speak. Sister Kalia’s eyes go wide, then her eyelids flutter back down. The red stain on her suit is spreading. She’s not long for this plane if she doesn’t get medical care in a minute or two. 

“I’ll take the ring, please,” the man says.

Oriol’s mind is racing. They didn’t kill him right off the bat; they may not be planning on it — or maybe they just don’t want to risk firing a plasma pistol on this ship. Looks like the gray suits were both done with knives. 

Oriol holds up his hands, but the man with the pistol’s not going to get close enough to him to pat him down. 

The man gestures with his gun. “Get it. Slow.”

“I got no part in this, man,” Oriol says. Sister Kalia’s eyelids flicker open at that. “I give somebody the ring, I get a payday. That’s what I’m here for.”

But Oriol can see in the gunman’s eyes that he’s not doing deals with mercenaries. Whatever Sister Kalia and this new band of thugs both want, it’s not just about greed. There’s something deep-seated and calculating in the terrible gaze the gunman turns on Oriol. 

Oriol is split seconds from reacting when the elevator door opens once more with a stream of profanity. The man with the plasma pistol spins and shoots, burning a hole in Rabbit’s chest. 

Oriol may be paid like a merc, but he still fights like an Alliance special ops soldier. He pivots and kicks, the blow from his prosthetic foot snapping the shooter’s wrist and sending the gun flying. A second kick breaks the man’s sternum, and he collapses, blood in his mouth and gasping for breath. 

The desk operator flings herself at him. Oriol snatches his karambit from its sheath at his groin, blocks her left arm with his right as she tries to get a clear shot, twists to hook the curved blade into the meat above her elbow and bring her screaming to her knees, releases to slash the abdomen. A prosthetic knee to her chin and the woman’s head snaps back. She slumps to the ground. 

“Drop the knife.”

Behind him, Frog has scooped up the pistol, and she’s got it aimed squarely at his head. He doesn’t even have to turn to know: her feed is still running to the ops desk and he can see the back of his head just beyond the sights. 

He’s got another view, too. Rabbit lying in the elevator, the doors trying repeatedly to shut on his body, his dead eyes rolled up to see Frog with her military-styled silver bun, her mercenary’s muscles, her double-crosser’s right arm straight and sure. 

“You can have the ring,” he says. “I really don’t care.”

“Drop the knife,” she says again. 

He loosens his grip on the karambit, letting it dangle by its ring around his index finger. 

The man with the ice-blue eyes is watching him. Sister Kalia is watching him, eyes open and aware, with the peaceful calm of a woman who’s accepted the warm silk of death winding around her body. She meets his gaze and hers sharpens suddenly, ferocious. Her chin dips — decision made — and Sister Kalia lets out a low, guttural keen, her body racked and shivering. 

In the feeds, Oriol sees the exact moment Frog’s attention wavers to Sister Kalia. The moment the sights of the pistol sway off-center. 

He pivots to the left and steps into her outstretched arm, bringing the karambit in his right hand under and up, slashing the curved hook back down again past ear and neck and shoulder and clean in a spray of her blood. She’s already tripping forward, and he uses the rest of her momentum to fling her at the blue-eyed man standing by Sister Kalia’s body. 

Oriol leaps over Rabbit’s body and pushes him out of the elevator; the doors finally sigh closed. He slams his hand on the panel; he doesn’t care where it opens so long as it’s not on level ninety-seven with Frog, the blue-eyed man, and far too many bodies. 

He pinches the lens out of his eye between two fingers, crushes it to a sizzle of smoke. 

He’s got no clue what’s on this ring, but one thing’s for sure. It’d better not be tips for growing soybeans. 

* * *

For such a svelte casino, its escape pods are shit. Oriol must’ve blacked out in the rocky reentry, because he wakes with a start, gasping for breath and choking on what air he finds. Hot, arid atmosphere sears his sinuses with the sharp bite of pollution, the odor of hundreds of millions of humans crammed together in a volatile brew.

Oriol laughs with relief, breathes deep once more. 

He hopes wherever Sister Kalia’s religion has taken her is peaceful. But him? He’ll take New Sarjun, thank you very much. 

No feeling in the universe is quite like coming home to the city of Bulari.

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Deviant Flux [An Excerpt — Chapter 1]

To everyone who’s been asking when I’ll be releasing my next book in the Durga System Series — I have an answer for you:

March 8, 2019

(AKA my birthday.)

That’s still a ways out, so here’s a sneak peek at the first chapter of the sequel to Starfall.

Be sure to read to the end — I have a really exciting offer you won’t want to miss! (Especially if you think March is too long to wait to read the whole thing!)


Deviant Flux cover: A young South Asian woman with magenta hair, looking over her shoulder against a background of a space station

Deviant Flux

A Durga System Novella

by Jessie Kwak

She thought nothing could come between herself and her new family. She was wrong.

It’s been five years since Starla Dusai’s home station was destroyed by the Alliance, and she’s spent every minute searching for evidence that she wasn’t the only survivor.

When she receives a tip that her beloved cousin Mona is alive and well on an astroid station out in Durga’s Belt, she drops everything to find her. Thrust into an unfamiliar world of crime cartels and union politics, Starla soon realizes Mona is caught up in a dangerous plot — and that saving her might just mean giving up the new family she’s come to love.

If it doesn’t get the both killed first.

Read on for the first chapter.


Chapter 1: Starla

The air here is thick with memories.

Starla Dusai breathes deep the sharp tang of oil and sweat, the sweet musk of antifreeze and unwashed bodies passed through the recycler too many times to count: Maribi Station smells like home.

At least, it’s the closest she’s found since she watched Alliance missiles shatter her family home into stars five years ago.

There are differences, of course. For one, there are too many people here, bodies crowded into every corner, in every corridor and doorway, brushing past her from every direction. The air is more electric than in her childhood home of Silk Station, too, geared towards entertaining the thousands of travelers who arrive here to catch shuttles deeper out into the black or farther into Durga’s Belt, or who are waiting for the bigger transports to shuttle them back to the surface of one of the two sunward planets, Indira or New Sarjun.

On Silk Station there was breathing room — even when her parents’ ship was in port and Silk Station swelled with crew, it was all family. And in her new planetside home on New Sarjun, Starla can go for hours without seeing another soul if she wants. In a way, her godfather’s home ebbs and flows just as Silk Station did, especially in the past few years with his soldiers and hired mercenaries flooding in and out, thudding footsteps and the tang of blood in the dry air waking Starla more than once in the middle of the night.

She’s taking the long way to meet Gia at the boxing gym, through Terminal A, which is doubly packed with people this close to the shift change. Starla hopes this will give her better odds of finding the one person she’s desperate to find — even if the press of people is making it more difficult to actually pick an individual out of the crowd.

She hadn’t counted on the newcomers. Terminal A isn’t just packed with station inhabitants today. A ferry from elsewhere in Durga’s Belt has just docked, judging by the glut of travelers shouldering duffel bags and stopping in the middle of the passage to frown at the station transit maps and mouth questions to each other.

Starla slips through them, ignoring the few that seem to ask her for directions.

Her comm buzzes with a message from Gia.

You skipping training?

Starla’s beginning to regret coming this way. She thought heading through a large swath of the population would give her a better chance of spotting her target, but it’s just chaos, a constant swarm of people.

It’s hard to take it all in.

The terminal’s length is lined with shopping and entertainment, callers beckoning from the neon-clad doorways of casinos and brothels and bars — a heady pulse thrums through Starla’s chest as she passes one, and she catches a glimpse of a room packed with bodies and smoke and flashing lights, the mass of people dancing. For Starla, it’s just after lunch. But in such a transient place, you can choose your own time.

So long as you keep moving, it seems. In the stream of Terminal A, she can’t find a single spot to just stand for one second and type out a reply to Gia without being in the way. Somebody always needs to get by, or set something where you’re standing, or open the door you didn’t notice behind you.

It makes her skin crawl. Silk Station didn’t use to make her skin crawl — it fit like a glove. Is it this station in particular? Or is it that she’s become used to wide open spaces after five years living on New Sarjun?

Gia’s message blinks insistently at the edge of her field of vision.

She sidesteps a hawker in religious headgear who clutches at her arm and tries to hand her a saint token, saying something to her around blue-painted teeth. Starla brushes the woman back and slips into the lee of a pile of crates for a second’s breather, grabs her comm.

Be there in 5.

She pushes Send; Gia’s message disappears from her heads-up.

Gia has a thing about timeliness that Starla should probably try to emulate, but she can’t be bothered this trip. Despite being comfortable with the station’s layout, she keeps misjudging the time it will take her to get through Maribi’s labyrinth — and she’s always hesitant to leave off her search.

Because her cousin Mona is here, she knows it. And in her imagination, every instant she turns away from an open doorway, Mona walks past. Near misses, it has to be — she’s been all over this damned station.

And she’s running out of time.

Be here in 2. Had any luck?

Gia’s response blinks on the bottom of Starla’s heads-up. Starla swipes it away without responding, because, no, she hasn’t had any luck. Anyway, Starla can tell Gia in person when she gets to the boxing gym. In five.

Starla stops to scan the terminal, turns to find a woman in a forklift suit yelling at her. Probably to get out of the way so she can get to the crates; words blink at the bottom of her heads-up, the unit’s attempt to transcribe the forklift operator’s diatribe. It’s coming out garbled — maybe she’s got an accent, maybe it’s too loud for the unit to work properly.

Or maybe she’s using too many expletives. One thing Starla has realized on this trip with Gia is that the software isn’t programmed to transcribe swear words. She’ll have to fix that.

Starla waves both hands at the forklift operator — All right, all right. — and ducks back into the throng. She keeps scanning the people passing, out of habit, but doesn’t see anyone who looks like her cousin.

After five years of searching, she’s seen nothing of her family but obituaries. Auntie Faye’s ship was shot down shortly after the attack on Silk Station. Amit was picked up by the Alliance and has since disappeared. Uncle Ro was cornered on the volcanic moon Pele, shot himself before he could be arrested. Deyva hasn’t been heard from in years and is presumed dead.

Her parents and countless others died in the initial attack.

So when one of her godfather’s smuggling contacts saw someone matching the description of Starla’s cousin, Mona, working on Maribi Station, Starla had to see for herself — and fast.

There are still a few bounties on the boards for missing members of the Silk Station diaspora, and others are out there hunting her cousins, her aunts, her uncles. It’s what worries Starla the most, that maybe the reason she hasn’t found any of them is because they’re being snatched up by bounty hunters first, trundled into cargo holds and whisked off into secret Alliance prisons.

Like she’d been shipped off to Redrock Prison right after the attack. She’d had the help of her godfather, Willem Jaantzen, to escape, and now she’ll do anything she can to help the others.

If she can find them.

But there are dozens more Alliance prisons throughout the Durga System.

And a hundred more hub stations like Maribi bored into Durga’s Belt and Bixia Yuanjin’s moons.

It doesn’t matter. Starla will find Mona, even if she has to open every door in this place.

A change in the current of foot traffic catches her attention. Somewhere up ahead, the crush of people is getting more packed on the edges, and individuals are looking up and turning back around, slipping into open doorways, making themselves scarce.

Starla’s been paying so much attention to the faces of the people around her that she’s nearly in the middle of it before she realizes what’s going on: an Indiran Alliance squadron marching through the center of Terminal A, five soldiers with hands on weapons like they think Maribi is theirs to police — or like they’re expecting to stir up trouble. Their riot visors are down and scanning the crowd, and Starla’s mouth goes dry.

She knows what they’re scanning for. Known criminals. Terrorist group members. Exiled freedom fighters. The daughters of notorious pirate families.

She tries not to look frantic, tries to blend in, but she’s caught at the edge of the crowd — even those who aren’t on an Alliance wanted list aren’t too keen to mix up with a troop like this. If she runs, if she pushes through, she’ll only attract more attention.

But in a second she’ll be face to face with the soldiers, and that close, their facial recognition will uncover her for sure.

She’d rather run and look suspicious than get caught — but as she tenses, someone grabs her from behind, pulls her through an open doorway and out of sight.

A hand clamps over her mouth, though Starla doesn’t think she’s cried out. Gia’s been training her well, though, and Starla breaks free in seconds, spins to meet her attacker.

She doesn’t recognize the woman’s face at first, not with the wild mane of magenta hair and the scar slashed across her nose and cheek. But she would recognize the way those hands formed her namesign anywhere.

“Starla,” she signs, “it’s okay. It’s me.”

Mona.

Durga Logo skull and crossbones with fedora


Want More Deviant Flux?

As I mentioned above, Deviant Flux is on its way. In fact — drumroll please! — I’ve set an official release date of March 8th.

Which, you know. Is still a few months out from the actual book getting into your hot little hands.

That’s why I’m SUPER EXCITED to let you, my awesome newsletter subscriber, read it early.

I’ll be serializing the rest of Deviant Flux to my newsletter, sending out a chapter a week for the next 15 weeks.

Want to get in on this action?

CLICK HERE.

You’ll be signed up for the Deviant Flux serial list, and be the first to read the book.

Happy reading!

Jessie

(P.S. What do you think so far? Let me know — I’m so excited to finally be able to share this story with you!)

(P.P.S. Here’s that link again to sign up to get new chapters of Deviant Flux delivered to your inbox.)

Starfall –> An Excerpt

I’m ridiculously excited to share this novella with you. In fact, I’ve been trying to reread it all afternoon in order to proof it for typos – but I keep finding myself caught up in the story and skipping ahead. (Even though I know what happened – I wrote the damn thing.)

Starfall is the story of a deaf teen girl who’s whole life has just been turned on its head. After her home was destroyed in an Alliance attack, Starla Dusai finds herself held in an ill-famed prison on a wretched desert planet. Her parents – infamous space pirates – may be dead, but Starla’s unable to glean even the most basic information from the civilian interpreter brought in to speak with her.

Meanwhile, notorious crime lord Willem Jaantzen is about to end a fearsome vendetta – and most probably his life. When he learns his goddaughter has been captured by the Alliance, will he be able to save her? And her, him?

If your interest is piqued, read on for the first chapter. Or, dive straight in and buy it here.

Oh – and if you want to read the whole thing for free, no problemo.

Happy reading!

Starfall cover


STARFALL [Chapter 1]

Gravity here is crushing.

Starla Dusai switches gingerly from side to back to sitting, the terrible mass of this planet making it hard to breathe, making her joints and bones ache, her heart race at the slightest movement.

Not that she has much opportunity to move.

The cell she’s in is about two paces wide and just long enough for the cot — which is not long enough for Starla. At fifteen, she’s already shot past her Indira-born parents by a full head, growth spurts set free by the low gravity of Silk Station.

She’s tried to sleep the last three nights with legs crooked up and spine curled forward, but the ache in her knees wakes her, the ache in whichever side is being rammed by this planet’s gravity through the thin mattress.

The ache in her heart of not knowing if anyone else is still alive.

Cot, sink, toilet. Harsh yellow overhead lights that call out sickly undertones in her pale-colored skin. The walls are featureless but for what looks like a speaker and a camera in the ceiling opposite the cot, where she can’t reach. Useless to her, anyway.

Food is dispensed automatically through a slot at what seems like regular times. The lights dim and rise. A cleaning bot scurries through every afternoon and then slips back into its pocket door. On the second day, Starla tried to catch it, but it shocked her so badly the muscles in her hands twitched for what felt like an hour. She lets it do its job in peace now.

The air smells sharp and scorched, like a recycler system gone over-hot and baking its seals. The temperature is uncomfortably warm.

It’s what she’s always imagined desert-hot New Sarjun would smell like.

Because she’s on New Sarjun.

She has to be.

She’s in an Alliance prison colony on New Sarjun.

There’s no place else she could possibly be.

* * *

At the end of the third day, guards.

A man and a woman, wearing the same uniform as the Alliance soldiers who’d transported her from Silk Station. They slip through the door, come at her with outstretched hands and careful quiet steps like they’re trying to corner a wild animal and they’re not sure it won’t bite. The man says something to his partner, his pudgy lips mashing the words into meaningless shapes.

They don’t bother trying to speak to her.

Starla pushes herself into the corner of the cot, feet digging into the mattress. She’s snarling as they pounce, drag her to her feet — she’s panting with the effort of moving on this stupid, stupid planet — and wrench her arms backwards into cuffs. They push her through the door. She’s barefoot.

Starla tries to stay calm, but for as badly as she has wanted to leave the cell over the last three days, now the metallic, vibrating hallways and branching corridors close in on her. She cranes her neck to see down the corridors they pass and is rewarded with a shove between the shoulder blades.

The two wrestle her through hallways, keying regularly through double-thickness glass doors to enter less secure — or more secure? Starla doesn’t know — areas of the prison. Into a dingy metal room, bigger than her cell, a single metal table bolted to the floor, a bench on one side, a chair on the other. They fold her kicking and struggling and panting onto the bench, uncuff her, and slam her hands into new restraints on the table before she even realizes she had a brief moment of freedom.

Job done. The two leave.

Starla twists, cranes her neck to see the door they left through, trying to learn anything she can about this new prison.

Brushed aluminum walls and a floor scuffed with shoe rubber — some of the marks scraping high up the wall as though someone had been testing the strength of it, or kicking out in anger. The walls are battered, with dents and dings that catch the harsh light and pool it into tiny craters. The room stinks of something acrid, a mix of cleaning solvent and welding fumes that seems to be cycling through the air vents.

Starla coughs.

She’s waiting only a moment before two women enter. One’s short, even for planetborn, with a blunt gray bob and glasses, wearing a plain purple dress suit. The other’s tall and thin, with a square jaw and thick black hair cut close to her scalp. She wears an Indiran Alliance uniform. They remind her of something, a split second of recognition that fades the more Starla tries to grasp at it.

The short woman wrinkles her nose and says something to the tall one, too fast for Starla to catch.

“Hi Starla,” the short woman says then, speaking and signing. “My name is Hali.” She spells it out, then makes her hand into an H and taps it against her left shoulder. “This is Lieutenant Mahr.” Mahr doesn’t get a name sign.

Starla lifts her chin a touch, but makes no show that she’s understood. The short woman, Hali, frowns at her.

“She’s a child,” Hali says to the Alliance woman, Mahr. She’s speaking more clearly now than when she first entered the room. Starla stares at her lips, greedy for information. “You can’t keep her like this. There are laws.”

The lieutenant shrugs. “Figure out what she knows,” she says — or, Starla thinks she says. The lieutenant’s lips barely move, her scowl permanently carved into her dry, angry mouth.

Hali turns back to Starla, speaking and signing again. “Have they treated you well?”

Starla frowns. What is she supposed to answer to that? Everything’s fine, thanks for asking? The amenities could be a bit more posh, but they’re serviceable?

She raises a hand to sign something rude, but she’s cuffed to the table.

Her hand comes up short with a jerk.

“We can’t communicate if she’s restrained,” Hali says to Mahr.

If Mahr replies, Starla can’t tell. The lieutenant turns to knock on the door, looks like she shouts something through it, and one of the original guards returns with leg restraints, locking Starla to the crossbar of the bench before releasing her hands. “Thank you,” Hali tells him. He ignores her.

Hali sits in the chair across from Starla; Mahr leans against the wall with arms crossed, one hand resting on the stunner in her hip holster. Hali sees this and frowns. “She’s a child,” she says again. Mahr just raises an eyebrow.

Starla sits with hands folded. Trying to look like a child, whatever children look like on Indira. She’s heard her entire life, from newcomers to Silk Station, from people born on either planet — Indira or New Sarjun — that she and her asteroid-born cousins look years ahead of their age because of their height. On some, like Mona, it looks graceful. On Starla it just looks boyish and scrappy. One of the uncles told her that once. She thinks he meant it as a compliment.

A stab of panic pierces Starla’s heart.

She tries not to worry about her cousins. About Mona. About Auntie Faye. About her parents. She saw escape pods, shooting like torpedoes; she saw ships peeling away from docking bays and flashing out of view before the Alliance missiles tore through the station and set Starla’s home blazing bright as Durga herself.

1, 4, 9, 16, 25 . . .

Starla forces herself through multiplications to redirect her thoughts.

She’s missed something: Hali signing to her. Starla furrows her brow, and Hali repeats herself. “I’m here to decide what to do with you. Do you understand?”

Starla finally nods. She’s found that if she refuses to respond at all, some people write off communication for good. This might be her only chance to get answers.

“Good.” The woman’s still speaking aloud while her hands dance, probably for Mahr’s benefit. “Do you know where you are?”

Starla considers. Is the woman gauging her knowledge of geography, or her intelligence in general? Probably both. Prison, Starla signs. New Sarjun.

Hali frowns at that last sign, and Starla fingerspells it. She can’t remember the standard USL sign for New Sarjun — she and Mona had their own slang for so many things.

“Yes,” says Hali. “That’s right. You’re under Alliance protection.”

What happened to my parents? Starla leaves the last sign hanging in the air a moment before resting her hands back on the table.

Hali looks at Mahr, who’s apparently said something to her — Starla sees only the last few syllables slicing out of Mahr’s sneering lips. “She’s asking about her parents,” Hali says. Mahr just shakes her head.

“We’ll get to that,” Hali says and signs to Starla. “But for now I have some questions. Can you tell me about life on Silk Station? Were you taken care of there?”

Starla wrinkles her nose. It was home, she signs, confused. Was she taken care of there? What the hell was that supposed to mean?

“Who raised you?”

Starla glances from Hali to Mahr, who is watching her coldly. What are these questions?

My parents raised me, Starla signs. Where are they?

Hali ignores her question. “I’m confused. Did your parents take you with them on their raids? On the Nanshe?”

Of course not, Starla signs. She’d wanted to go for years, but they hadn’t let her. Not until this year, until her fifteenth birthday, when they’d finally agreed she could start training as crew. If not for that, she wouldn’t have been on the Nanshe when the Alliance attacked Silk Station. Wouldn’t have —

Hali is waving to get her attention. “Then who raised you when they were gone?”

Starla shrugs. What, did this woman want a list? Any number of aunts, uncles, older cousins, station mechanics, and cooks had done the job.

Starla and the other children had stalked Silk Station, hurtling through the corridors as if propelled by rockets, chasing after older cousins in the peculiar game they played in the figure-eight hallway near the bioregenerative gardens, screaming and reversing directions on a toe, arms flinging out to correct over-exuberant spins in the low gravity. They were legion, underfoot, existing continuously on the verge between play and being snatched up by one of the station crew and given a chore.

Dinners were the same chaos, a gaggle of children descending on the commissary at any hour, whenever they were hungry. School was TUTOR, an AI that came preloaded with courses from Hypatia Educational Facilities Corporation that students could work through at will, with full knowledge that their progress data was being reported to the aunts and uncles. Curfew was a word from the novels she downloaded from TUTOR.

Who had raised her?

Whoever was around, Starla signs.

“Whoever was around,” Hali says, and she and Mahr share a look full of meaning that Starla can’t decipher. “You’re very thin,” she says and signs to Starla. “Did they feed you well?”

What the hell did that mean?

Starla glares at her. Where are my parents?

“We’re just trying to understand your life,” Hali says, hands fluid and defensive. “You’re on the edge of what the Alliance considers a child. Your parents chose to become criminals, but you had no choice. You’ve had a hard life. Do you understand?”

Starla feels a chill. Raj and Lasadi Dusai chose to live life on the fringes, managing their glorious and infamous empire from an asteroid station hidden deep in the debris of Durga’s Belt. Starla Dusai, on the other hand, could tell a sob story about being beaten and neglected and starved at the hands of her horrible pirate parents, and win a free ticket into the open arms of the Indiran Alliance. A free ticket into the society her parents had fled years ago.

Where are my parents? Starla snarls the words on stiff, angry fingers.

Hali looks sad. “I don’t think she’s ready to talk yet,” she says to Mahr.

Mahr knocks on the door and the two guards come back in, hands and stunners raised to subdue her.

Where are —

Starla gets only those words out before her hands are grabbed, her arms cuffed, her ribs slammed into the hard metal edge of the table.

They drag her back to her cell.


Interest piqued? Read STARFALL for free here.

Cover Reveal! Shifting Borders [plus excerpt]

I’m excited to announce that I have an official cover for Shifting Borders!

ShiftingBorders-679x1024

It was designed by Eloise Knapp from EK Cover Design, and I think it does a fantastic job conveying the mood of the book.

Writing Shifting Borders and working on the Four Windows project has been a long, exhausting process, and sometimes along the way I’ve forgotten that an actual, finished book will be the result of all this hard work.

This gorgeous cover is a reminder of that.

The manuscript is currently with my editor, Kyra Freestar, after which we’ll finalize the layout and get it ready to launch – appropriately just in time for my favorite spooky month, October.

Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when it’s ready to go (and to get biweekly writing prompts and reading recommendations).

In celebration of the cover reveal, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, wherein Patricia and Valeria quickly find themselves over their heads. I’d love to hear what you think – feel free to shoot me an email, or leave a note in the comments!


Shifting Borders [excerpt]

Patricia Ramos-Waites picked her way through the brackish puddles that passed for a sidewalk in this part of town. Reflected streetlight traced oily slicks in the pitted gravel, and a faint mist gathered on her cheeks and fogged her glasses. The neon sign announcing “Oh Pho” cast an orange hue in the premature evening gloom, but through the windows — papered with peeling, handwritten specials — the restaurant looked empty.

No, not empty. Her sister sat at a table near the door, shredding the label of her Tsingtao. Patricia waved, and Valeria scowled. Fantastic.

“Two small number sixes,” Valeria said to the waitress before rising to kiss Patricia. They were alone in the restaurant, no surprise for a Monday night, given how far it was from civilization. Oh Pho’s regular clientele of commercial truck drivers and warehouse workers had gone home for the night, and it was too far from the artists’ lofts and shops in Georgetown’s main strip to attract the few people that actually lived down here.

“I saw two of your buses go by already,” said Valeria. “You said you’d be here by 5:30.”

Patricia wedged her stuffed backpack into the plastic booth opposite her sister, then slid in beside it. “Work was fine today, thanks for asking,” she said. “We’ve been short-staffed this week, so things are extra busy. How are you doing, Val?” She searched her sister’s face for cracks there — it had only been two weeks since the funeral, and though she’d called daily, Valeria had been putting her off.

She’d be putting her off today, as well. “Jesus, Pati,” Valeria sighed. “Don’t be a bitch. You’re just never late.”

“I can’t make the buses run on time.”

“But you can call.”

So this was how it was going to go. “It’s 5:45, Val.”

“Yeah. And I’ve got places to be.”

“Then don’t let me keep you waiting,” Patricia snapped — and instantly regretted it, but didn’t apologize. Just another snipe-fest between sisters, she thought.

The waitress returned before any more friendly fire could be loosed, two massive bowls of soup balanced on her tray. Valeria set to plucking out her slices of beef while they were still pink, draping them over the side of her bowl. Patricia used her chopsticks to plunge her beef deeper into the boiling broth.

“I need a favor from you tonight, Pati,” Valeria said, shredding basil leaves into her soup without making eye contact. Patricia watched her with a sinking feeling, taking in her sister’s black clothes, the black gloves lying on the table, the faint scent of pungent herbs rising above the anise aroma of the pho.

Nighttime favors meant Resurrections.

“I have to help Ava with her science project,” Patricia said automatically. She reached for the Sriracha, but hesitated when she saw the nozzle’s tip: crusted over and black. Jalepeños would be — Patricia sighed. Would have been fine. Valeria had dumped them all into her bowl, and was busy doctoring her soup into a nuclear accident of gloppy brown plum sauce and safety-orange Sriracha. Chili oil formed a greasy slick across the top.

“It’s important.” Valeria finally looked up. “It’s Marco.”

Patricia’s heart broke for her sister. “Oh, no. No no no.”

“Please, Pati.”

“Do you have a permit? A court order? Because how will you explain to my kids that their mom has to go to jail over an illegal resurrection? Val, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry he’s gone.” She reached across the table, took Valeria’s cold hand in hers. The nails were ragged, chewed to the nub like Valeria used to do when they were girls. They were painted a cafe con leche color which nearly matched her own skin, a subdued tone that worried Patricia. Everything about Valeria had been more subdued since Marco’s accident.

And then the hand was gone. “Wouldn’t you have brought Joe back if you could have?”

That stab, unfair and unexpected, sliced neatly through six years of emotional scar tissue. “Joe is in Heaven,” Patricia said quietly. “Why would I bring him back from that?”

“What if you knew he wanted to come?”

“You can’t speak to the dead in their graves.”

“You can if they want to be spoken to.” Valeria met her gaze, eyes fierce and tear-bright, smoky eye makeup smudged around the lids. The restaurant’s neon open sign called out the reddish tones in her dark hair, but her curls hung limp, and her lips were chapped under the silver gloss she wore. “When I go out to his grave, I can sense him, just a little bit. He’s waiting there. He wants me.”

“But do you have the legal paperwork?” Patricia stabbed at her soup with her chopsticks. Legally, a few ghosts were allowed to come back, mostly to help solve unsolvable cases or clear up disputes over wills. Illegally…. Patricia didn’t want to know. Valeria had been selling her body for years to a local Mexican Resurrectionist, acting as a Host for the spirits he brought back. Valeria claimed that they only worked the lucrative court contracts, but Patricia knew her better than that.

Valeria hesitated, and Patricia could see her practicing the lie. But then she sighed. “No. I don’t. This is entirely for me.”

“Then I can’t help you.”

“Patricia, is it a crime to bring back the man I love? When he wants to be with me?”

“You said you were done with the illegal stuff. I’m not bailing you out of jail again.” Patricia struggled to get a grip on a slippery piece of tendon, but her hand was shaking too badly to hold the chopsticks steady. Droplets of broth spattered the table when the morsel hit the soup’s surface. “I won’t help you.”

“I’ll be careful,” Valeria said. “No one will ever know.”

Patricia sighed. “Why do you need me? What about your Mexican guy?”

“Lucho’s a businessman. He won’t do a resurrection for free, and I can’t pay him.”

A chill traced itself down Patricia’s spine. “So you’re going to—“

“I’ve done it before. I’m not just hosting for him now — he’s taken me on as an apprentice. I’ve done the last few resurrections on my own.”

“Val.” Patricia almost reached to take her sister’s hand again. “Come over tonight. Adrian’s at an away game, Ava’s got her science project to keep her busy, and I think I might even have a bottle of wine somewhere. You can stay over.”

“I can’t, it has to be tonight.” Valeria slurped a quick spoonful of broth, coughed on the chili sauces.

In the kitchen, the waitress and the cook were talking loudly in Vietnamese, pots banging as they cleaned up from the day. Calling this Monday night a bust, Patricia thought. Ready to go home to their own families just as soon as the Ramos sisters finished their meal. Patricia was suddenly very tired. “He’s dead, Val,” she said after a moment. “He won’t be the Marco you loved.”

“You haven’t seen them, the way people are when they’re reunited. The spooks are just as thrilled as the clients. I’ve made so many people happy, Pati. When do I get to be happy?”

“Val, this is stupid. You have to move on.”

“Yeah, like you did? You still wear Joe’s goddamn ring, Pati.” She dug into her purse, and threw a ten dollar bill on the table. “Forget it. Forget I ever asked you anything.”

“Valeria, wait.” Patricia grabbed her wrist, and Valeria didn’t try to pull away. “Promise me…”

“Promise you what.”

Promise me you won’t disappear without a trace this time, Patricia wanted to say, but that would only spark a fight she didn’t have the energy for. “Promise you’ll talk to me before you do anything rash.”

Valeria pulled away. “I am fucking talking to you, Pati.” She shrugged her purse over her shoulder and slammed the door as she left.

*

Forest Lawn Cemetery was a ten minute drive from Patricia’s house in White Center — less, the way Valeria was driving. “Slow down,” Patricia hissed, gripping the door handle with all her strength. “If you get pulled over, I don’t know how you’ll explain that to them.” She gestured at the duffel bag in the back seat. She had only a vague idea of what it contained, but it smelled sweet and foul as rotting fruit. “What’s the hurry? He’s not going anywhere.”

Valeria’s jaw tightened. “No hurry,” she said, but she glanced once more in the rearview mirror, and the speedometer crept slightly higher.

They parked a few blocks away, where no one would remark on an extra car, and stepped past the heavy chain that blocked the cemetery’s driveway. The earlier mist had shifted to a light rain, which was already soaking through the black Highline Pirates hoodie Patricia’s oldest son had left at home. Her only rain jacket was baby blue, and had been summarily vetoed by Valeria.

Rows of flat headstones tufted the well-manicured lawn, following the gentle contours of the hills. Trim Japanese maples dotted the grounds, and a few oaks stretched dark silhouettes against the low clouds. Persistent clouds meant Patricia hadn’t seen the moon for over a week, but the city lights infused the fog with the faintest of glows, illuminating their way. Barely.

Marco’s grave was in the northeast corner — far from the road, Patricia saw with relief, tucked near the strip of wild brambled forest that covered the ridge’s steep eastern shoulder. 

A waist-high fence separated the civilized dead from the disordered urban forest, and overhanging branches afforded them just enough cover from the rain. The toes of her sneakers squelched in sodden fresh turf.

Patricia shivered, realizing she was standing on Marco’s grave. She stepped aside.

Valeria’s duffle bag clinked as she set it down. She stooped to brush the leaves and grass clippings off the stone:

Marco Caruso

1975 — 2014

“Who will Marco be when you bring him back?” Patricia whispered, and Valeria stiffened but did not answer.

Valeria’s face glowed in the flame of her lighter; her jaw was set, her eyes flashing steel. She lit a pair of candles on the headstone, then a propane camping lamp. She shook a pair of coals onto a grate over the flame. “Stop looking over your shoulder. You’re making me nervous.”

“I thought the cops were cracking down on illegal resurrections.”

“The cops around here have drug deals to watch for. They’re not out patrolling the cemeteries.” Strain as she might, Patricia couldn’t see the gate over the rise of the hill — still, she felt exposed and nervous. Valeria looked up from her careful arrangement of…bones? Patricia shivered. “It’s fine, Pati. I’ve done this dozens of times. Hold this.” She handed her the flask of vile smelling liquid, and Patricia held it at arm’s length. She tried to force herself to relax.

The candles on the headstone sputtered as fat raindrops splashed down through the branches. It was never any use to talk sense into Valeria when she had a plan. When they were kids she’d nearly drowned after breaking into a neighbor’s swimming pool in Managua — Patricia had refused to go with her, and Valeria had snuck away to go on her own.

Their father had been angry with them both, but it was Patricia who’d gotten the spanking for not watching out for her little sister. Granted, Valeria had been in the emergency room, but the injustice still smarted.

Patricia had seen that same determined look in Valeria’s eye tonight. “What do you need me to do?” she asked, afraid of the answer.

“I’ll do all the ritual, don’t worry about that. I just need you to hand me things when I need them, and to break the circle if anything goes wrong.”

“Scalpel, stat,” Patricia said, trying to laugh. She shivered instead.

“Normally the Resurrectionist summons a spirit into a Host, but I’ve been reading about modifications to the spell that let a Resurrectionist call the spirit directly into herself.”

“Reading?”

“I’ve done the original spell before, and the variation isn’t tricky. You’re here just because if anything goes wrong, I’ll need you to break the circle. Here.” Valeria dumped the now-lit coals into a censor like they used in Catholic churches, and handed it over to Patricia with a pair of tongs and a baggie full of some sweet-smelling herbs. “If anything goes wrong, just dump the herbs onto the coals, erase part of the circle with your foot, and put a coal in each of my hands.”

“Val—“

“Nothing’s going to go wrong. But if it does, you just dump the herbs, break the circle—“

“And put a burning coal into each of your bare hands,” Patricia said. She swallowed.

“Right. And keep an eye out.”

“For the security guard?”

“Sure.” Valeria swung her gaze over the cemetery, searching. When she seemed satisfied that they were alone, she lay down over the grave, her head resting just below the stone. She began to whisper at first, in Spanish oddly accented from years forgetting their native tongue, and then relearning it at the hands of her Mexican Resurrectionist. She seemed tense at first, hands clenched on her belly, but as she spoke she slowly relaxed, drawing her palms down over her hips, smoothing her dress in a way that seemed both self-conscious and sensual. Water began to seep up out of the fresh turf, darkening Valeria’s dress, cradling her hips like ghostly fingers. Patricia shivered.

Valeria’s voice fell to a whisper, and then she fell silent though her lips still moved. Patricia leaned closer, trying to make out the words. The salt ring glimmered a brief moment, then went dull once more. A faint play of light flashed over the wall of foliage beyond the edge of the cemetery.

Patricia looked up, startled.

Valeria’s hands clutched the grass, fingers worming their way into the fresh soil, her back arching, shoulders writhing against the headstone.

The light came again, stronger.

It could be the headlights of a car, maybe, someone turning down a residential street? The foliage above them lit up again. Flashlight.

Patricia’s mouth went dry.

“Valeria,” she whispered, but her sister didn’t seem to hear. “Valeria.” A breeze stirred the grass inside the salt circle, toyed with the ends of Valeria’s hair. The air around Patricia was still.

The beam of light came again, stronger now. The police. Patricia’s mind whirled as she thought up excuses, but there was no excuse that could explain away what they were so obviously doing. Oh, Lord, her job, her kids. The church. “Valeria!”

Her sister moaned.

Patricia glanced back over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of a small group in the distance, rough voices, laughter muffled by the fog. A hint of cigarette smoke drifted on the breeze before them.

Not the police.

“Valeria, we have to go.” Patricia hesitated, her foot poised over the line to erase it. What would breaking the circle right now do to her sister?

As if in response to the thought, Valeria’s body arched violently away from the ground, her face screwed into a silent scream. A trickle of black blood seeped from one nostril, and when she opened her eyes, the whites were colored an unholy pink.

Patricia fumbled for the brazier. She dashed her foot across the salt line, feeling a hurricane force of wind tear into her as she did. Her hair whipped across her eyes. She grabbed for Valeria’s hand, plucked a fiery coal from the censor.

The stench of burned flesh stung her nostrils as she dropped the first coal into Valeria’s hand — her sister gasped, flinging it away to hiss in the wet grass.

“Can’t take him,” Valeria whispered. “I almost—“

“Hey, hey, what you doing?” A shout came from behind them. “Ramos?”

The men were running, now, the glowing butt of a cigarette flicked into the grass, the silhouette of a handgun against the fog.

Patricia grabbed Valeria’s hands, tugging desperately against her sister’s dead weight. “No, no no nooo,” Valeria gasped. Her body arched again, wrenching violently as her heels dug into the fresh turf above Marco’s grave. She screamed, piercing the night.

Patricia pulled once more with all her might, dragging her sister’s writhing body past the salt line.

She gasped as an ice-cold wind rushed through her, then searing heat; her body suddenly felt too tight.

Too tight, yet surprisingly strong. She yanked her sister to her feet and half-carried, half-dragged her toward the cover of dense brush at the edge of the cemetery.

A gun shot rang out. Bark splintered off the oak above them. Someone let off a stream of curses. “Don’t kill her, pendejo!”

Patricia boosted Valeria over the fence, then vaulted it herself, tumbling into a clutching Oregon grape that clawed at her baggy sweatshirt. She grabbed Valeria’s arm, propelling her through the underbrush like a reluctant toddler, heedless of blackberry thorns and slapping wet ferns, sliding ever downward through the sloping underbrush.

Now running, now tumbling, until Patricia’s shins hit against the trunk of a fallen tree and she dropped, stifling a cry. She wriggled her way between the tree and the sodden earth, hugging her sister tight to her, hand clamped over Valeria’s mouth.

Valeria shook uncontrollably, but whether from fear or cold — or from the spell — Patricia couldn’t tell.

The crashing pursuit continued a few minutes longer, the men calling to each other, the beams of their flashlights streaking terrifyingly close to where the Ramos sisters lay. After a long while the sounds faded to silence.

Patricia stayed still, unsure if they had actually left; the chorus of rushing blood in her ears and her sister’s ragged breath muffled all other sounds. A stone dug into her ribs. When she could bear it no more, she lifted her weight onto just one shoulder, shifting so her hand could brush away the stone.

A twig snapped. Less than ten feet away.

She froze, her heart pounding.

“Val. Valium, baby.” The same man who had shouted earlier was wheezing now, his voice raspy from liquor and smoke. “I know you’re in here somewhere. I know you can hear me, and you know what I want. I’m gonna send one of my boys to see you tomorrow. Call me in the morning, we talk and I’ll send Charles. But sweetheart, you think you’re smart, you try to lay low? I’ll send Javier.”

He waited as though expecting a response, but damned if Patricia was going to give him one. Valeria’s breath came ragged and hot under Patricia’s hand.

After what seemed like eternity, Patricia heard him clamber, swearing, back through the underbrush.

Patricia gripped her sister tight a while longer, her cheek wet with Valeria’s tears, Valeria’s fingers curled in her hair, her own fingers digging into the wet thin fabric of Valeria’s dress. Valeria was shivering, flighty tremors that slowly grew into sobs.

The rich black earth reeked of decay, the slick mat of waterlogged leaves beneath them rotting back into soil. Something crawled over Patricia’s hand. It had started to rain in earnest now, gathering in the leaves, dripping in fat drops onto Patricia’s back.

“We should go,” Patricia said finally, but she couldn’t make herself move. She should be afraid, she should feel cold, but the only sensation Patricia was aware of was joy, elation at finding herself in Valeria’s arms. :val, valvalval:

Something stirred deep within her, its attention pulsing toward Valeria. She stroked her sister’s back, brushed her lips against her cheek.

“I failed, Pati,” Valeria said after a long moment. “There’s no second chance. He’s gone forever.”

Patricia kissed her sister’s forehead, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Warm, vital blood rushed in her veins. “It’s OK, babe,” she heard herself say. “I’m here.”

A pressure, like the pulsing ache of an anxiety attack, began in Patricia’s chest, like her ribcage was too tight, her lungs carved of stone. She forced herself to take deep breaths, pushing against the pain.

“They wanted Marco,” she heard Valeria say. “And they probably got him.”

“What?” The pressure inside her chest swirled, fluttering against her ribcage. A wave of clammy heat broke over her, and she tugged at the throat of her hoodie, trying to breathe. Nausea, throbbing head, hot flashes, Patricia ticked off the symptoms, trying to remember if she’d hit her head. She pushed Valeria away from her and scrambled out from beneath the fallen tree, just in time to revisit her earlier meal of pho.

Patricia wiped her lips on the sleeve of the now-filthy hoodie. Sorry, Gabe.

“You OK, Pati?”

Valeria’s voice swam to her as though through water. “Who were they?” Patricia asked, and Valeria started to answer, in that hedging way when she was trying to lie without lying. Patricia couldn’t make out her words — they sounded muddled, echoey, and Patricia fought down her rising panic. I think I have a concussion, she tried to tell her sister, but her lips wouldn’t move. I think. . . . And the pressure — the presence? — in Patricia’s chest stopped fluttering. It shifted, just ever so slightly.

:who?:

“I’m Patricia,” she whispered. “Who are you?”

Valeria stopped mid-sentence. “Pati? Oh, shit. Pati?”

Patricia could feel her sister’s hands on her face, hear her frantic voice, but all she could focus on was the swirling voice in her head. :whowhowho?: The world went black.


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