THE STARLING


BEFORE

Malika stood on the ledge and scanned the glimmering skyline.

Then it hit her.

The danger of the mission she had just accepted washed over her like a wave. She could be imprisoned for life, or killed.

Her pulse started racing. What had she been thinking?

Starling trainees never took missions in the first year, especially not serious ones like this. Even the older Starlings had balked when the objective had been revealed. And she had volunteered?

She backed off the ledge and turned to go back inside, but then she remembered her father’s smiling blue eyes.

Clenching her fists, she stepped back up and found her target — a tall, phallic building poking up above the clouds, rising up from the Valley floor a mile below.

The headquarters of the Federation Intelligence Agency. It seemed small and insignificant from where she was standing.

“I can do this,” she told herself, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves.

Then she noticed her hand. It was trembling.

She cursed, and then gave the command, “launch Bionic App Store.”

A transparent screen materialized in the air just in front of her, displaying a holographic menu of apps.

“Search store,” she whispered. “Find Bravado.” An animation of a roaring lion popped onto the screen, with the words Bravado App, developed by MegaCorp written beneath it.

She said the command, “Install app,” and in that very instant, her hand stopped trembling, her breath slowed, she stood taller, her shoulders broadened, and a confident light shone in her dark, almond-shaped eyes.

Malika looked across the horizon again, zeroed in on her target, and leapt off the ledge.

CHAPTER ONE

Nico paced nervously along the towering rooftop. Then he saw her.

Malika was circling the sky just above him, her wing suit gleaming in the moonlight.

Even from this distance, he could see why she was one of the Starling.

The perfect shape of her body, the radiance of her skin, her athleticism, her quick wit — any of these alone would have been enough to mark her as one of the genetic elite — but there was something more.

It was in the way she moved. Her confidence. As if she held the answer to a marvelous secret. It was like she had always known she was better.

He checked the time. They were running late. The cameras would find her soon.

Malika swooped down towards him and landed gracefully by his side. His pulse quickened as she drew near him, her tight black jumpsuit hugging the curves of her beautiful body.

He beamed as he ran up to her.

“Nico!” Malika whispered angrily. “What are you doing here?”

His face fell. He had been imagining a warmer welcome. “I had to see you,” he said breathlessly. “It’s been so long. And things have been so weird at school, with all the deaths.”

“How did you know I’d be here?” said Malika, not taking the bait. “Have you been spying on me!?”

Nico met her fiery gaze with a fire of his own. “I guess you could say that. Listen, Mali, I came to help. You can’t do this alone — it’s too dangerous! I can get you in.” He tapped a clunky watch on his wrist. “I’ve got a special hack.”

Malika glared at him, but her anger fizzled out as she looked into his brown puppy-dog eyes. She had always been a sucker for those eyes.

“Alright,” she said with a resigned sigh, “but we have to be fast.”

“I can be fast,” said Nico happily, bringing his face close to hers, but she turned her back. Not that he minded the view. Her jumpsuit accentuated her ample curves, especially from behind.

“Help me take off these wings,” she whispered.

They pulled the bionic wings off her muscular arms, and she folded the feathers and tucked them into her back pocket. She finally turned back to face him, human again.

Her dark hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail, and her plump lips were wet with gloss. “Cleaned up for the cameras, huh?” Nico whispered as they started tip-toeing along the side of the building together. “Did you use the Sexy app?” Malika punched him, and he stumbled backward from the force. He always loved it when she did that.

“What are they feeding you up there?” he said, rubbing his throbbing arm. “It didn’t used to hurt that bad.” He grabbed her hand, pulled her face close to his and looked into her shining, black eyes.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispered.

Malika let down her guard and smiled. “I’ve missed you too Nico,” she whispered back.

Nico’s face suddenly darkened. “Have you? I thought you would have forgotten me by now. They say the Starling have to leave all their worldly attachments behind once they go to the Sky.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Malika with a sad smile. “I will never forget the people I love.” She dropped her head. “That’s why I’m here.”

Nico lifted Malika’s chin and returned her sad smile. Then he looked up toward the western sky.

The majestic Sky Dome floated above the clouds in the horizon, like a castle, glowing brightly in the pale moonlight. Some said the Dome was magical. Others called it haunted. “What’s it like up there?”

“It’s okay,” said Malika with a shrug. “I can’t really talk about it.”

“Don’t talk,” said Nico, putting his finger on her lips. “No need to say anything.” He pulled her close. “You can just show me with a kiss.”

Malika turned her face away. “Please don’t do this, Nico. You know it’s forbidden. I am — ”

“I know what you are,” said Nico softly. “But that doesn’t have to change who you are on the inside.” He tapped her gently on the chest, placed his hand behind her neck and pulled her lips close to his.

Suddenly, they heard a loud buzzing sound in the sky.

Malika ducked her head into Nico’s chest as a drone zoomed across the rooftop.