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.)

I’ll Be at WorldCon this Weekend! + Cover Reveal!

WorldCon 76 is happening this weekend in San Jose, CA, and I’ll be there with books to sell, stickers to give away, and high fives aplenty.

If you’ll be attending, come see me at the Abyssinian Books booth, where Arianna Golden has generously offered me table space.

If you won’t be attending and are curious about my shenanigans there, Instagram is my in-the-moment social media app of choice. (You can follow me here.) I’m sometimes on the Twitters (@jkwak), but I’ve removed it from my phone for the sake of actually getting things done. 🙂

Come see me!

I’ll have a large number of stickers and a limited number of temporary tattoos to give away to people in the know.

You’re now in the know. 

Stickers

Deviant Flux Cover Reveal!

You’ve all been either patiently waiting and patiently bugging me about when the next Durga System book is coming out.

Well, I’m excited to announce that I have a cover for it! It’s super gorgeous, and done by the same cover artist that did Negative Return (Fiona Jayde).

Deviant Flux is another novella in the Durga System universe, and it’s a direct sequel to Starfall.

I’ll be announcing the preorder date soon (it’ll be out this fall).

To be sure you don’t miss this announcement, click here.

Deviant-flux

Set five years after the events of Starfall — 

Desperate to find her cousin Mona, Starla Dusai takes to the skies. 

It’s been five years since Starla Dusai’s family home was destroyed and her clan of space pirates scattered throughout the Durga System. When she receives a tip that her beloved cousin Mona is alive, she drops everything to find her. But Mona’s caught up in a plot that might just get them both killed — and saving her might just mean giving up the new family Starla has built.

Deviant Flux is coming Fall of 2018.

Click here to be notified when Deviant Flux is available for sale.


All Systems Red

The Murderbot Diaries
by Martha Wells

Murderbot


(I LOVED this book and just got my husband to read it. He kept laughing out loud last night.)

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

Find it on AmazonKoboBarnes & NobleIndieBound

Writing a World in Glimpses

Two years ago, I wrote the short story that gave me my first glimpse into the Durga System. (It was published in the second volume of Bikes in Space, a fantastic series of feminist bicycle science fiction edited by Elly Blue.)

In that story, Willem Jaantzen was the villain — but as I expanded on the premise of the original short story I became more and more fascinated by him and his crew.

(If you’ve read Starfall, you’ve been introduced to Starla already; if you’ve read Negative Return you’ve gotten to meet Manu.)

Since those books came out, I’ve written another novella, a novel, and a short story — all set in the same world. Each dips into Willem Jaantzen’s story, especially exploring his relationship with his goddaughter, Starla Dusai. 

Writing these books has been like solving a puzzle. The entire world is one massive picture, and every book or story lets me shine a light on another small portion of that picture. 

And, believe me — I hear my readers! I read the reviews that say “I want more story!”

I’ll be releasing more stories soon. 🙂

Ultimately, my goal is to structure the Durga System books like this: one central series of full-length novels centered around Jaantzen and his crew, bolstered by a constellation of character-specific novellas and short stories that shine the flashlight on fascinating parts of the picture that aren’t within the scope of the main series.

One such story that’s just come to light is the moment that Willem Jaantzen meets Starla’s parents, the famed space pirates Raj and Lasadi Dusai.

When I was asked to write an exclusive short story as part of a giveaway (more on that in a second), I knew that was the story I wanted to write.

rogue

“Rogue” takes place many, many years before Starfall, when Jaantzen is just getting his feet underneath him.

A tricky job is starting to go south — and it only gets worse when he comes face-to-face with the most notorious space pirates in the Durga System.

Of course, every story I write introduces me to new facets of the world that I’d like to explore. After writing “Rogue,” I’m beginning to suspect I may have to write a side series featuring Raj and Lasadi’s adventures aboard the Nanshe

Stay tuned — more Durga System stories are imminent. In my next post I’ll be revealing the cover of my next novella, Deviant Flux!

“Rogue” is available for a limited time as part of the Distant Worlds Giveaway over at Bookwrapt through the end of August. Go get it before it’s gone!


For Your To-Be-Read List

An Oath of Dogs

oath-of-dogs

by Wendy Wagner

(I recently devoured this fantastic far-future colony adventure with a dash of mystery by local Portland author and all-around delightful human, Wendy Wagner.)  

Kate Standish has been on the forest-world of Huginn less than a week and she’s already pretty sure her new company murdered her boss. But the little town of mill workers and farmers is more worried about eco-terrorism and a series of attacks by the bizarre, sentient dogs of this planet, than a death most people would like to believe is an accident. That is, until Kate’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy which threatens them all.

Find it on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound

Happy Birthday, Negative Return!

It’s been over a year since I released Negative Return.

While I had hoped to have less of a gap in my publishing schedule this time around, part of the reason for the delay is that I’m saving up my words to give you something really exciting later this year.

I’m not yet ready to announce release dates, but I do have another Durga System novella and three full-length novels in the works for sometime in the winter.

You’ll be hearing more over the next few months as I get things finalized and can share bits of books with you. (Stay tuned for a cover reveal for the next novella, Deviant Flux — I just saw the final design, and it’s amazing!)

One other thing I’m doing to prepare for the launch is trying to get the existing Durga System books into the hands as many readers as possible. I ran a sale on Starfall a few months ago, and now it’s Negative Return’s time to shine.

negative-return

Get Negative Return for $0.99

What readers are saying about Negative Return:

“…another expertly blended mix of crime story and science fiction.”

“I love the characters, and can’t wait for more.”

“Best single word description – unputdownable!”

Amazon | Kobo | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | More store

Oh, and one more thing…

Reviews are critical in helping readers discover books by indie authors. If you’ve read Starfall or Negative Return and want to share the love (and make sure I can keep writing more in the series!), please leave a review. 

Thank you so much!


For Your To-Be-Read List

Bikes Not Rockets

bikes-not-rockets

edited by Elly Blue

*Note — I’ve had stories in several of the Bikes in Space series. In fact, one story inspired the Durga System series! I don’t have a story in this volume, but it will be very worth checking out. 

Bikes Not Rockets
 is the fifth volume of the feminist bicycle science fiction series, Bikes in Space. Featuring 12 works by talented writers and artists, you’ll find a wide range of perspectives and visions.

The common theme among all of the stories is the bicycles that propel all these protagonists towards and through major turning points in their lives (and the universe!).

Preorder your copy on Kickstarter!


Nepenthe Rising

nep-rising

by John Triptych

In the far future, two major factions are locked in a galactic cold war. As tensions mount between the technocratic Union and the genome-harnessing Concordance, both sides anxiously watch for a chance to conquer the other.

The Nepenthe is a pirate vessel, loyal to neither. Led by the enigmatic Captain Dangard, her rough and ready crew includes the cat-like alien Commander Creull, Zeno the immortal synthetic, the dashing Garrett Strand, and Duncan Hauk, a promising young recruit. 

Hired by a cryptic employer, the crew waylays a transport ship carrying a mysterious passenger. In due time, this incident sparks the beginnings of an interstellar conflict that could threaten the state of known space.


Survivor

survivor

by S.J. Bryant

For eons a dark force has lurked inside Archalon, waiting.

In 2354 the Confederacy set it free. Now the alien uprising is imminent and there’s only one person left to stop it.

Nova goes where others dare not. She shoots first, talks little, and carries a chip on her shoulder the size of Boullion 5. Her reckless courage is all that stands between the Ancients and the annihilation of the human race.

Fear the hero who has nothing left to lose.

If you love science fiction, don’t miss out on this action-packed adventure!

Get it on AmazonKobo, Nook

Is it… Adventure Time?

Years ago when I worked at the Seattle Repertory Theater as a house manager, one of my coworkers (Hi Rachel!) gave me this card. 

It made me laugh a decade ago, and it still does now. That’s why it’s still pinned above my desk, eight-ish moves later.

I like going on adventures, and although I’m not sure I’d take a chance on Omaha with Paco the trapeze artist, I get a kick out of imagining just what Omaha-ian wonders he could show me. 

I guess that’s why I’m a writer. 

And I guess going on adventures is why we both (you and me, I mean — not sure about Paco) like reading.

While I continue cooking up the next book in the Durga System series, I have some other fantastic book adventures to share with you. 

But… first I have a question.

Would you go to Omaha with Paco?

Let me know.


For your To-Be-Read list

‘Tis the season for book sales, I guess! The following books are all on sale right now for $0.99 — making them a great deal if they strike your fancy!

Speaking of, the ebook of Starfall is also on sale for $0.99 at the moment. 

Maybe you already have a copy — but maybe you have a friend who’d be interested in checking it out?

Now’s a great time to share the love!

Here’s the Amazon link for Starfall.
Here’s the rest of the vendors.


The Other

the-other

by Marilyn Peake

“Aliens, UFOs, time travel…..what’s not to love!”

With alien sightings on the rise and a mysterious virus ravaging the places where the sightings occur, many are beginning to believe the unknown pathogen may be extraterrestrial. 

Psychology professor Dr. Cora Frost had a different theory: the bizarre symptoms were nothing more than mass hysteria. But while in the midst of field research on an alien-worshipping cult in Roswell, New Mexico, Cora makes a discovery that upends her entire worldview. In a shocking series of events, her past and future collide, forever changing her life.

Find it on Amazon
Find it on other retailers


Starbound

starbound

by JJ Green

“One of those can’t-put-it-down-until-the-end reads.”

Jas Harrington was only a baby when a massive fire at a fledging Martian colony took the lives of everyone close to her. After growing up in institutions on Mars and Earth, Jas travels to Antarctica to train as a deep space security operative.

All she wants is to graduate college and fulfill her dreams, but it isn’t long before she faces familiar prejudice against returned colonists.

For once, fighting her way out of her problems isn’t an option, until it is.

Starbound is the prequel to the fast-paced, action-packed Shadows of the Void space opera serial.

Get on Amazon.

It’s Spring!

It’s finally officially nice here, after one last miserable stretch of cold and gloomy weather, and my husband and I spent the weekend landscaping our yard.

(That’s us with a Subaru filled with trees and flowers, above.)

As is the way of landscaping projects, what we thought would take three days actually took five — but we’re done! Sore and full of blisters, but done.

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(Left: Optimistic Jessie on Day 1. Right: FINISHED!! Not pictured, exhausted Jessie and Robert.)

It was a nice change of pace, actually.

For the past few months, every spare moment has been spent in front of my laptop, trying to make a slurry of words, characters, plot twists, and themes fit together into a cohesive whole.

(Not unlike laying a bunch of flagstones, now that I think about it. Move one element, and the whole %#*$& thing has to be reworked.)

But last Wednesday, I finished up the next novel in the Durga System series! Unlike the novellas Starfall and Negative Return, this will be the first in a trilogy of serial full-length novels featuring Jaantzen and his crew — and some very thrilling happenings. 

I’m excited to share it with you! The tentative release date is October, but if you want to read it sooner and leave a review, give me a shout and I’ll add you to the Advance Reader Crew. 
 

Story Hour with Jessie and Friends

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I had a reading at a local Portland pub. I’m generally pretty hesitant to get up in front of crowds, but I managed to work through the butterflies and have a great time!

So much fun that I think I’ll even do it again some time. Stay tuned. 

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(Photo by author/filmmaker Kelley Baker.)



For your To-Be-Read list

I hope you’re in the mood for a good book, because I have several fantastic recommendations this week! Read on, friends, read on. 


Refuge

refuge

by Gerhard Gehrke

“The more of this book I read, the harder it was to put down.”

Sometime during their thousand-year voyage, the invaders perished.

But their slaves, the minders, survived to finish the journey to Earth. 

Deanne doesn’t believe any of the news about visiting aliens. She’s a felon serving time in a California youth detention center. 

As the lights go out and the world falls down around Deanne and her fellow inmates, she discovers something that might hold the key to their survival. Saving Earth will mean risking not only her life, but what makes her human…

Find it on Amazon


Insurrection: The Complete Omnibus

insurrection

by Anela Deen

“I raced through this story so fast my Kindle squealed.”

*On sale for $0.99 through May 5th!

For twenty years Inquisitor Gemson Agaton used torture and interrogation to root out subversives undermining the Establishment. Now he’s on the subject’s side of the interrogation table, duty to the regime he believes in pitted against loyalty to the one person he always protected.

And Gemson isn’t the only target on the Establishment’s radar. As Earth’s citizens rally to resist the regime’s dictatorial rule, many are listening, including one of the Establishment’s most talented operatives. To find and betray him is her directive. To fall in love with him is treason.

Get on Amazon.


A Conspiracy of Rogues

cons-of-rogues

by Jonathan Burgess

“The Blackscale gang is absolute hoot! I can hardly wait to read the next one.”

There’s never been a scam like the city of Abattra. People are drawn to it by the promise of riches and a chance to start over, but the only ones prospering are the Resplendent oligarchs.

The young dragon Greasetrap is looking to change that. Raised to be a thief in the Blackscale crew, he’s in town alongside his siblings to steal a fortune. With the help of a street-savvy fighter they intend to rob the oligarchs of the city for the first time in history. But Greasetrap isn’t the only one with a scheme, and soon he’ll find himself up against a sorcerer’s vicious criminal gang.

Because the vault everyone wants to break into hides more than just gold—it holds the key to an ancient secret held dear by the most powerful Resplendents in Abattra.

Both books released this week! Get them on Amazon.

In praise of reading under the covers

When I was a kid I used to stay up all night reading — totally the stereotypical thing with a flashlight under the covers, devouring Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula Leguin and Nancy Drew and, well, anything I could get my hands on.

Last night I had flashbacks of childhood as I devoured Paula Hawkings’ Into the Water. I kept turning pages hours after my husband was sound asleep, unable to put the book down until the very last page.

It was awesome.

If you like thrillers and are looking for your next late night read, I highly recommend it. 

If you prefer thrillers in space, I’ve got a sci-fi recommendation for you today! Waypoint Kangaroo is a delightful debut spy novel by fellow Portland author Curtis Chen. (I think you’ll especially like it if you enjoyed the wry humor in my book Negative Return).


Into the Water

Into the water

by Paula Hawkins

A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.

Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.

With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.

Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.

Find it at Amazon, Powell’s, IndieBound


Waypoint Kangaroo

kangaroo

by Curtis Chen

Kangaroo isn’t your typical spy. Sure, he has extensive agency training, access to bleeding-edge technology, and a ready supply of clever (to him) quips and retorts. But what sets him apart is “the pocket.” It’s a portal that opens into an empty, seemingly infinite, parallel universe, and Kangaroo is the only person in the world who can use it. But he’s pretty sure the agency only keeps him around to exploit his superpower.

After he bungles yet another mission, Kangaroo gets sent away on a mandatory “vacation:” an interplanetary cruise to Mars. While he tries to make the most of his exile, two passengers are found dead, and Kangaroo has to risk blowing his cover. It turns out he isn’t the only spy on the ship–and he’s just starting to unravel a massive conspiracy which threatens the entire Solar System.

Now, Kangaroo has to stop a disaster which would shatter the delicate peace that’s existed between Earth and Mars ever since the brutal Martian Independence War. A new interplanetary conflict would be devastating for both sides. Millions of lives are at stake.

Weren’t vacations supposed to be relaxing?

Find it wherever books are sold: Amazon, Powell’s, IndieBound   

Cover Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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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