Renegades of Tomorrow Bundle!

I’m incredibly delighted to announce that Double Edged, the first book of the Bulari Saga, was selected to be part of the Renegades of Tomorrow StoryBundle curated by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA).

If you’ve never seen a StoryBundle before, it’s a really cool deal. Basically, you can get bundles of themed ebooks at a ridiculously low price. Here’s the info on the Renegades of Tomorrow bundle:


Renegades of Tomorrow

“Not on my watch.”

Why do rule-breakers and rogues intrigue us? Perhaps because we know the rules often need changing. Meet thirteen reluctant heroes of all types as they face an unjust system and find they can’t leave well enough alone. Then join each of our carefully selected renegades on their thrilling adventure to make things right, one way or another!

SFWA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting, advancing, and supporting science fiction and fantasy writing in the United States and elsewhere. This year the SFWA Independent Authors Committee had the pleasure of sorting through over a hundred excellent books as we narrowed our selection down to these special stories.

We were fascinated and inspired by a determined cop who risks the wrath of her AI superiors to save her mentor from a ruthless crime boss in In The Paradise Factory. We were moved by the story of an illegal cyborg fighting to survive in Ternary and nanotech addict struggling to recover in ACHE. We reveled in tales of prison revolts, steam punk adventure, sci-fi espionage, underworld intrigue, and of entire galaxies standing on the brink of war in this exciting and varied look at the difference one person can make when they dare to say “not on my watch.” – The SFWA


The StoryBundle Deets

For StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you’re feeling generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of four books in any ebook format—WORLDWIDE.

  • Glitch Rain and Other Stories by Alex Livingston
  • Petra by Matthew S. Rotundo
  • The Diamond Device by M. H. Thaung
  • ACHE by Kelvin Myers

If you pay at least the bonus price of just $20, you get all four of the regular books, plus NINE more books for a total of 13!

  • The Ascension Machine by Rob Edwards
  • The Hands We’re Given by O.E. Tearmann
  • Situation Normal by Leonard Richardson
  • Ternary by Kristin L. Stamper
  • The Paradise Factory by Jim Keen
  • Double Edged by Jessie Kwak
  • Ardulum by J.S. Fields
  • Blue on Black by Carole Cummings
  • Centricity by Nathaniel Henderson

This bundle is available only for a limited time via StoryBundle. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub, .mobi) for all books!

It’s also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.

Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.

  • Get quality reads: We’ve chosen works from excellent authors to bundle together in one convenient package.
  • Pay what you want (minimum $5): You decide how much these fantastic books are worth. If you can only spare a little, that’s fine! You’ll still get access to a batch of exceptional titles.
  • Support authors who support DRM-free books: StoryBundle is a platform for authors to get exposure for their works, both for the titles featured in the bundle and for the rest of their catalog. Supporting authors who let you read their books on any device you want—restriction free—will show everyone there’s nothing wrong with ditching DRM.
  • Give to worthy causes: Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to The SFWA!
  • Receive extra books: If you beat the bonus price, you’ll get the bonus books!

StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.

For more information, visit our website at storybundle.com, tweet us at @storybundle and like us on Facebook.

Cursed Saint Caper! Plus Nanshe Chronicles FAQ

Hey hey! Nanshe Chronicles 3, aka Cursed Saint Caper is officially out, which means that the Nanshe Chronicles trilogy is now complete. Good news if you’re the sort of person who likes to know you’ll get closure before diving into a new series. 🙂

You can buy the print book directly from me (ebook is included!) or grab it on Amazon. If you’re a Kindle Unlimited reader, all three of the Nanshe Chronicles books are enrolled — but probably only for a few months, so get on it quick.

You can also grab Ghost Pirate Gambit, Blood River Blues, and Cursed Saint Caper on Audible, narrated by the wonderful J.S. Arquin.

I’ve been really thrilled by the response to this series — a huge thank you to everyone who’s already read it, reviewed, emailed, etc. You’re all amazing!

I’ve also gotten a few questions about the series, so I thought it would be fun to do a quick FAQ. Here we go…

Do I need to read any of your other books first?

Absolutely not! The Nanshe Chronicles is set in the same universe as the Bulari Saga, but they are both written as a standalone series set about thirty years apart. If you’ve already read the Bulari Saga you’ll find a few Easter eggs and at least one crossover character in the Nanshe Chronicles — but you can start with whichever series sounds more interesting.

Well, if I haven’t read either series, which should I start with?

It depends on what you’re in the mood for. Do you like a good heist with a quirky crew? The Nanshe Chronicles is basically Cowboy Bebop meets Leverage, with each book a standalone adventure where the crew of the Nanshe set off to explore fantastic new locations. The character arcs build over the course of the series.

The Bulari Saga, on the other hand, it’s all about politics and power struggles in the underworld of the city of Bulari. Picture Godfather meets the Expanse. Each of the five books build on one another to make a full story arc — so if you are looking for a meaty, high stakes drama to sink your teeth into, that’s a good place to start.

What about all these novellas?

There are three prequel novellas in the Bulari Saga and one in Nanshe Chronicles. They’re all designed to add more context and character backstory, and you definitely don’t need to have read them to enjoy the main series.

You can get the Nanshe Chronicles novella, Artemis City Shuffle for free by signing up for my mailing list.

If you do want the full Bulari Saga experience, I recommend downloading the ebook boxed set, which contains all five novels, three novellas, and a bunch of short stories. All for only $9.99.

You keep calling the Nanshe Chronicles a trilogy. Are you stopping after Cursed Saint Caper?

Absolutely not. I picture the Nanshe Chronicles as an ongoing series, with these first three books serving as the jumping off point. I actually have nine books planned!

This first trilogy is all about the crew getting together and learning to trust each other. Future books will explore character backstory more in-depth and build a richer world, in a similar format of the crew heading off on wild adventures.

When will book 4 come out?

I’m aiming for March 2023.

Who’s your favorite of all your characters?

How could you even ask that?? I could never have a favorite character!

(It’s definitely Manu.)

[Story Sale] Happy release day to NOIR!

When you write a 5-book saga with a rather large cast of characters, you’re likely to hear from readers that you should have written more about so-and-so.

One of those characters is Detective Timo Cho of the Bulari Police Department, who spends some time investigating our heroes and learning some truths of his own about how the seedy underbelly of Bulari works.

I agree. I loved Cho, and loved being in Cho’s point of view for his scenes. Because his storyline is a bit separate from the rest of the characters — he is investigating them, but not physically interacting until the end of the book — I actually approached his storyline as though I was writing a short story. The end result was a fun noir detective subplot mixed in with the rest of the adventure. (Complete, of course, with the femme fatale.)

I’d wanted to revisit Cho’s story for a while now, so when I saw a call for submissions to a sci-fi crime anthology called NOIR, I knew exactly what story I wanted to write.

“Storm Warning” is the story of Detective Timo Cho doing what he does best: asking too many questions.

It’s set in Bulari, but is completely apart from the events of the Bulari Saga, so it stands on its own. If you’ve read the Bulari Saga books, you’ll find another fan favorite character makes a cameo. If you haven’t read the Bulari Saga, no worries! “Storm Warning” is meant to be just plain fun.

I’ll include a snippet to whet your appetite in a second, but first:

NOIR

NOIR

edited by David B. Coe & John Zakour

A missing intergalactic artifact valuable enough to inspire murder. A cartoon gag gone bad that leads to a gruesome death. Greek deities unraveling a divine mystery in New York City. A human detective navigating the temptations of Faerie in pursuit of a magical killer. Call them sleuths, call them gumshoes, call them shamuses or dicks or beagles—these private investigators prowl the back alleys of imagination, explaining the unexplainable, seeking answers and justice for two hundred dollars a day plus expenses.

In Noir, speculative fiction authors Hal Bodner, Jessie Kwak, Esther M. Friesner, Travis Wade Beaty, John Zakour, Alex Bledsoe, Erik Grove, Andrija Popovic, Julie E. Czerneda, Aprilynne Pike, D.B. Jackson, Justin Jordan, Steven Harper, R.S. Belcher, and Eve Golden-Woods spin tales of intrigue and danger, introducing you to worlds where information is currency and life is cheap. So put on your fedora, raise your trench coat collar against the evening chill, and come explore the shadows. But remember, in this seedy business, you can trust no one…sometimes not even yourself.

Get the book:

Direct from the publisher
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, etc.


Storm Warning [Excerpt]

When Detective Timo Cho watches the replay he doesn’t pay attention to the body. He focuses on the killer’s eyes. 

They’re a deep, after-sunset blue with a thin ring of silver around the pupil, narrowed with intense focus though the lines around the eyes are relaxed. This surgery is complicated, but routine. The timestamp on the footage says they’re around the three-hour mark, but it’s not just the demands of the morning’s work threading the surgeon’s sclera with glints of red. The irritation could be from the lens he wears—the faintly shimmering assistive tech floating over delicate eye tissue—but Cho guesses the surgeon also hasn’t been sleeping well. There are bags under his eyes. The outside corner of the right eye is inflamed. 

And, there.

That’s the moment when things go wrong. A flurry of sudden blinking. The pupils flare, the brows draw in, the corners of the eyes crinkle in sudden confusion. One of the capillaries in the sclera of the left eye bursts, glazing the eye with a wash of red just before the surgeon begins making the fatal cuts. 

Ten seconds later, both eyes widen in horror. And squeeze shut. Cho turns the replay off. He’s seen what comes next enough times.

A Sulila-trained surgeon—the elitest of the elite—deliberately killed a patient in the middle of surgery and then slit his own throat. 

Cho leans back in his chair in the Bulari Police Department’s least-malfunctioning investigations cube, cracks his neck. Studies the patterns of water leaking into the ceiling, layered over the years like a topographical map. If only he could read that to understand what happened here—and how to proceed on this case without pissing off his supervisor, the public, or Sulila corporation. 

Cho’s supervisor, Major Ngara, would say start by making Sulila happy and keep the public from knowing why they should be angry. In fact, he’d given Cho step-by-step instructions, handed down from Sulila: review the hologram, declare the surgeon had a mental breakdown, write up a report that absolves Sulila of responsibility and reassures the public that their hospitals are safe.

Cho digs his mechanical left fingers into a hard knot of muscle in his right shoulder, lets the front legs of his chair clatter to the floor, and skims the replay back to the beginning. This time he lets his gaze go soft as the hologram plays around him, only half-watching the murder, waiting for something to ping his subconscious.

Getting to see the moment of a murder is rare. It definitely eliminates the who. Just leaves the why.

The holograms he usually works with are done after the fact, meticulously recorded by Hallie Bachelet and her crew of crime scene techs, body blanks programmed into the scene so detectives can play them like puppets and puzzle through what might have happened. This recording, though, is surgery-room footage, supplied by Sulila. The quality is amazing—way better than the tech the Bulari Police can get. Cho halfway expected the rich file to crash the BPD’s system when he loaded it in the scenario desk. 

Provided by Sulila means censored by Sulila. A few things are blurred: proprietary surgery tools, the patient’s medical data, and the assistant’s face. Cho’s not allowed to talk to them. The Sulila PR team has provided the BPD with a transcript of the assistant’s testimony to “protect an innocent person’s identity.”

Cho pulls out his comm. Hallie Bachelet answers almost immediately. “You around?” 

“Depends.” From the distant clatter of voices and ringing comms in the background it sounds like she’s in the office. “You got something happy and uplifting to show me? I just got back from a pretty rough scene.”

“It’s all puppy dogs and flowers in this investigations cube. I’m on the Sulila case. Can you help me with this footage?”

She’d say yes anyway, but a chance to muck around with proprietary Sulila footage sweetens the deal. Hallie swears under her breath.

She’s there by the time he has the scenario desk reset, slumping into the seat beside him with a sigh. She’s still dressed for a crime scene in silver-gray scrubs and an appropriately somber hijab, a touch of mascara smudged in the warm brown skin under each eye. 

“Bad day?” Cho asks. 

Hallie waves him off. “Same old. What’s your question?” 

He lets the footage run, pausing about ten seconds before things go wrong. This time, he’s not looking at the footage at all; he’s watching Hallie’s reaction. Her attention darts immediately to the blurred parts. 

“Any way to repair the blurring?” he asks. 

She scoots closer to the scenario desk. “Maybe. Super easy if it’s just a filter the PR team slapped on.” She types for a few minutes, then hits Play once more. The blurring is gone. “Who’s a hero?” 

“You are.”

Cho leans in to study the now-unblurred assistant as Hallie plays it again from the beginning, but he stops it before it gets to the murder—he did promise her something happy.

Hallie waves away his hand. “The day I’ve had, Timo, nothing else can faze me.” She frowns through the murder-suicide, then stops. Replays it.

“I thought you were looking for a cheer-up,” Cho says. 

“Shush.” Hallie leans in, hits Pause. “There.”

Cho frowns at the body, at the surgeon, at the frozen horror on the assistant’s face. “What?”

“There’s time missing in the recording,” Hallie says.

“Can you get it back?”

“That’ll be tougher than just clearing a filter, but I can get one of my techs on it. But Timo…”

Cho turns to meet her gaze.

“I thought you were supposed to have an easy solve on this.”

“Don’t you want to know what actually happened? Justice shouldn’t—” 

“Have compromises, I know. You say it all the time. Just promise me you won’t make any mistakes here.”

“I promise.” He seals the promise with a wink. “Can I thank you for the help here with dinner tonight?”

“I thought there was a storm warning.”

“That’s not until tomorrow.” 

Hallie’s smile tilts to the side. “Then sure. So long as we don’t talk about work.”

“Done.” 

Cho switches off the hologram when she leaves, does a fast search for the assistant’s profile, then wipes the search and logs out of the scenario desk. He’s got a few hours before dinner, and doesn’t owe Sulila’s PR team a report until tomorrow. Still time to ask a couple of questions. 


Read the rest of the story in NOIR. Get it today:

Meet the Crew of the Nanshe

I love a good “hiring the crew” montage. 

The uneasy gathering in the warehouse in Ronin. Viola Davis approaching the wives of her husband’s dead crew in Widows. Danny Ocean recruiting his accomplices in Ocean’s Eleven.

As I started writing the Nanshe Chronicles, I lived through my own crew-hiring montage. I already knew Raj and Lasadi, Starla’s parents — but I had no real ideas about who the rest of the characters would be. 

They had to be fun, flawed characters that I wanted to spend an entire series with. They had to have chemistry with each other. They had to have depth and mystery, and — most of all — they had to feel like real people whose dialogue and actions I was just recording.

I went for long walks. I jotted down ideas. I watched movies. And I just kept scratching until the magic started to happen and, one by one, the members of Raj and Lasadi’s little crew started to show up and talk to me.

The first book of the series is coming out in a little over a week, so I thought I’d give you a sneak peek at who you’ll be spending time with in the Nanshe Chronicles… using the tried and true heist writer trope of a most wanted list, of course. 🙂  

The art is from my cousin Nico Longoria, a talented freelance comic artist. Check out their Instagram and website for more amazing art!

Bounty board

Woman with dark blond hair in a braid, and pale skin, wearing a headset.

Lasadi Cazinho (Captain)

  • Birthplace: Corusca 
  • Last seen: Battle of Tannis (Corusca; presumed alive) 
  • Distinguishing features: Pragmatic and level-headed, ace pilot and capable commander. Fanatically attached to the cause of a free Corusca. 
  • Wanted for: Captain in Corusca Liberation Army terrorist organization 

Man with shoulder-length black hair and light brown skin.

Raj Demitriou (Grifter)

  • Birthplace: Arquelle 
  • Last seen: Battle of Tannis (Corusca) 
  • Distinguishing features: Quick thinker and charismatic leader with a penchant for lost causes. Captain in Arquellian navy, dishonorable discharge. 
  • Wanted for: Desertion 
  • Special handling: Family political connections require extremely delicate care in case of capture 

Man with black hair and pale skin, winking. Wearing a pair of goggles pushed up on forehead.

Jay Kamiya (Mechanic)

  • Birthplace: Corusca 
  • Last seen: Battle of Tannis (Corusca; presumed alive) 
  • Distinguishing features: Mechanic with a miracle touch, tendency to hotheadedness; full tattoo sleeves. Known associate of Lasadi Cazinho. 
  • Wanted for: Member of Corusca Liberation Army terrorist organization 

Woman with long, curly black hair, dark skin with freckles, red jacket.

Ruby Quiñones (Hacker)

  • Birthplace: Unknown 
  • Last seen: Ironfall (Dima) 
  • Distinguishing features: Tech genius with a promising future that went south (reasons classified); red leather jacket, freckles, golden tattoos on collarbones 
  • Wanted for: Intellectual property theft 
  • Special handling: If captured immediately deliver to Huancaya Corp 

Young man with a coif of curly black hair, freckles, dark skin. Holding up a peace sign.

Alexander Quiñones (Thief)

  • Birthplace: Unknown 
  • Last seen: Artemis City (Artemis) 
  • Distinguishing features: Fast talker with even quicker fingers; teenage brother of Ruby Quiñones, ward of Aymaya Apostles.  
  • Wanted for: Stealing anything that’s not nailed to the ground 
  • Special handling: Minor; requires maximum security if detained 

99c Sci-Fi Boxed Set Sale

A bunch of great space opera and sci-fi authors are offering 99c sales on their boxed sets this month, so I’ve collected as many as I could find here.

Know something else that should be included? Drop a line in the comments.

Athelon

Athelon (9 books)

By Justin Bell

A routine shuttle trip gone wrong. A young girl submerged into a galactic conflict. A single chance to help win the war.

Get it here.

Beam 3d

The Beam (6 books)

By Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant

When all of humanity is connected, the network is the true power.

Get it here.

Blackbeard

Blackbeard (7 books)

By Michael Wallace

The bestselling STARSHIP BLACKBEARD and SENTINEL series: Space battles, alien wars, and interstellar politics.

Get it here.

Colossus-collection

The Colossus Collection (4 books)

By Nicole Grotepas

Being arrested for murder isn’t so bad. At least she knows the truth.

Get it here.

3D_box_set_white

The Durga System (3 books)

By Jessie Kwak

Jail breaks, heists, and hostile takeovers — they’re ready for it all.

Get it here.

Earth-Space-series

Earth Space Service (9 books)

By James David Victor

Genetically engineered aliens. Hostile encounters. Just another day for the Earth Space Service Marines.

Get it here.

Freedom’s fire

Freedom’s Fire (6 books)

By Bobby Adair

It was never a question of if the aliens would come, it was only ever when.

Get it here.

Galactic-Arena

Galactic Arena (5 books)

By Dan Davis

Earth’s champions must fight for humanity. Until now, our heroes have all been defeated…

Get it here.

Gateway-to-the-galaxy

Gateway to the Galaxy (9 books)

By Jonathan Yanez and JR Castle

The Arilion Knights have faded to legend. Famed warriors of this galactic order have not been required to fight the darkness in the universe for centuries, until now.

Get it here.

Joshua-James

The Lost Starship (3 books)

By Joshua James

Save the cure. Kill the crew. That was the dying order of the captain of the starship Elixr. The ship followed the order. Then it lost its mind.

Get it here.

Outcast-marines

Outcasts of Earth (3 books)

By James David Victor

Criminals. Murderers. Thieves. That’s what makes the Outcast Marines special. And expendable.

Get it here.

Void-Wraith

Void Wraith (6 books)

By Chris Fox

Mankind’s outer colonies are disappearing. Without warning. Without a trace. Fleet command chalks the attacks up to pirates, but Captain Dryker of the UFC Johnston isn’t buying it.

Get it here.

Did I miss a 99c sci-fi boxed set sale this month?

Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading,
Jessie

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.

Durga Logo skull and crossbones with fedora

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Cover Reveal! Double Edged (Bulari Saga 1)

I’m going to make this quick, because you have books to read and I have books to write.

I’ve broken free from revisions for a minute to say hello, and to share with you some super exciting news.

I know I just released Deviant Flux, but the next Durga System book is coming soon.

That’s right — I have an official release date for the first book of the Bulari Saga, Double Edged.

Yep.

May 31st.

Mark your calendars — or JOIN MY MAILING LIST to get the alert.

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The Durga System novellas I’ve been releasing are just the appetizer for this series. For those of you who’ve left reviews on Starfall like…

“I enjoyed this peek into the hopefully amazing and long sci-fi series author Jessie Kwak is building. I’m excited to read more.”

“I got the sense that events set in motion here will get more interesting in later installments.”

“This is a great novella, it shows you a glimpse of a fully realized universe and leaves you wanting to explore it more.”

…YOUR WISH HAS BEEN FULFILLED.

DoubleEdgedFinal

Double Edged

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.

Join my mailing list and be the first to know when it’s out.

Want to help me write my next novella faster?

Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

(This is the first post in a series about how arthritis affects writers, and what we can do about it. TL;DR version: I’m doing a writing fundraiser for the Arthritis Foundation and you should donate here if you want to read my next book sooner.)

One night, after a few glasses of wine, I signed up to ride my bike 70 miles a day for 3 days to support the Arthritis Foundation.

70 miles a day — for 3 days.

(I’d really better start training.)

The intimidating distance aside, I’m really excited about this fundraiser. Why?

As a writer, arthritis research is important to me because if I lose the use of my hands, I use my livelihood. And it’s not just a thing to worry about when I get old — more than 52 million adults (1 in 5) and 300,000 children are living with some form of arthritis in the United States.

I’ve dealt with repetitive strain injury in my left wrist since I was in high school. At times, it’s been so bad I couldn’t type — a terrifying feeling for someone who makes a living with her words.

I’ve worked on ways to reduce the strain of my job through dictation and strength training.

I’ve cut out certain activities that exacerbate it (playing bass guitar, waiting tables, knitting as much as I used to).

But I’m well aware that if I don’t manage it now it could become debilitating.

The Arthritis Foundation does amazing work toward finding a cure for arthritis, as well as supporting and providing treatment access to adults and kids who are living with it. As a writer and a cyclist (and a human), their work is super important to me. That’s why I’m doing this fundraising ride, even though I’m terrified of fundraising and am super intimidated by the distance.

Here’s where writing comes in.

(And where you come in.)

Since I launched Negative Return, I’ve gotten a few emails that go something like, “I loved this book! When’s the next one coming out?”

My response is always a polite, “I hope this fall,” to the soundtrack of silent screaming inside my head because I wish I could write faster and had more time.

In particular, my hangup is the first draft. I love editing, but getting that first draft written is really tough for me — so I tend to procrastinate, wasting time noodling and plotting and re-plotting rather than just banging the damn thing out.

So I’ve decided to combine my fundraising efforts with the one thing people seem to want from me these days: another Durga System novella, stat.

Here’s the deal:

My fundraising goal is to raise $1,500 for the Arthritis Foundation by August 15.

My novella goal is to write 30k words.

I vow to you: For every dollar I raise, I’ll write 20 words.

That means for a $75 donation, you can purchase about 1500 words — or roughly a scene at my normal pace. For a mere $10 donation, you can purchase a snappy dialogue exchange, or maybe even a short-n-scrappy fight!

(Feel free to leave a comment on my donation page specifying what kind of thing you want me to write with the words you bought, and I’ll do my best to accommodate. 😉

If I reach my fundraising goal by August 15, I’ll have a completed first draft of the novella, and you, dear reader, will be that much closer to reading it.

To sweeten the deal, three lucky donors will win signed print copies of all three of my current published books! (Winners chosen at random after August 15).

I’ll also have a special Crew of Honor section in the next novella and on this site to thank donors.

How about it? Ready to crack the whip on my writing schedule, and do some good in the fight against arthritis?

You can donate here.

And thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart. You’re supporting incredibly important work.

And sci-fi gangsters.

Which are also important.

Donate.

Join The Crew!

Want to read my books for free?

Join The Crew!

The Crew is my advanced reader team, which helps me out by reading my books in advance (for free) and leaving reviews so new readers can find the books.

But more than that, The Crew is also a great way for me to reward hardcore fan with free books, giveaways, and other cool stuff.

What you get:

  • All of my Durga System novels and novellas before anybody else — for free!
  • Entry into quarterly drawing for print books and other great prizes.
  • Swag packet that includes buttons, bookmarks, and original art done by yours truly.
  • My eternal gratitude.

How it works: I send you an ebook copy of each new book, 2 to 3 weeks before it’s released. You then leave a review when you get a chance to read it.

(Ideally, close to the launch date. But I know were all busy — so just leave a review whenever you get a chance.)

I’ll be starting with my next book, Negative Return, which will be out at the end of June.

Interested? To join The Crew, just shoot me an email [jessie at jessiekwak.com] with a link to your review of one of my books. That can be on Goodreads, Amazon, or wherever.

A million thanks ahead of time!

Jessie

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.


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