28.05.19 / Self-Published / Science Fiction-Thriller / Kindle Edition / 266pp / 978-1946592088
About The Bulgari Saga
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.
Double Edged Bulari Saga 1 by Jessie Kwak Excerpt
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.
“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.”
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.
About Jessie Kwak
(From the Fiction portion of Jessie’s personal bio) I’ve also worked as a copywriter for a catalog company, a waitress in a brew pub, a driver and mechanic of many kinds of tractors, a carpenter in rural Venezuela, a house manager for a major regional theater, a stage manager for a tiny fringe company, and a slinger of popcorn for a movie theater in Yakima. I like writing best, but I have to admit you can get some good thinking done on the seat of a tractor.