THE STARLING


BEFORE

I stand on the ledge and scan the glimmering skyline.

Then it hits me.

The danger of the mission I have just accepted washes over me like a wave. I could be imprisoned for life, or killed.

My pulse starts racing. What was I thinking?

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

I back off the ledge and turn to go back inside, but then I remember my father’s smiling blue eyes.

Clenching my fists, I step back up and find my 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 seems small and insignificant from where I stand.

“I can do this,” I tell myself, taking a deep breath to calm my nerves.

Then I notice my hand. It’s trembling.

I curse, and then give the command, “launch Bionic App Store.”

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

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

I say the command, “Install app,” and in that very instant, my hand stops trembling, my breath slows, I stand taller, my shoulders broaden, and a confident light shines in my dark, almond-shaped eyes.

I look across the horizon again, zero in on my target, and leap off the ledge.

CHAPTER ONE

I circle the sky just above the FIA building, trying to decide what to do. Someone is pacing the rooftop, and staring up at me.

Then I understand.

I swoop down towards him and land angrily by his side.

“Nico!” I whisper. “What are you doing here?”

His face falls. Perhaps he had been imagining a warmer welcome. “I had to see you,” he says 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?” I say, not taking the bait. “Have you been spying on me!?”

Nico meets my 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 taps a clunky watch on his wrist. “I’ve got a special hack.”

I glare at him, but my anger fizzles out as I look into his brown puppy-dog eyes. I’ve always been a sucker for those eyes.

“Alright,” I say with a resigned sigh, “but we have to be fast.”

“I can be fast,” says Nico happily, bringing his face close to mine, but I turn my back.

“Help me take off these wings,” I whisper.

We pull the bionic wings off my sore arms, and I fold the feathers and tuck them into my back pocket. I finally turn back to face him, human again.

Nico looks at me in surprise. My dark hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail, and my lips are wet with gloss. He’s not used to seeing me this way. “Cleaned up for the cameras, huh?” Nico whispers as we start tip-toeing along the side of the building together. “Did you use the Sexy app?” I punch him, and he stumbles backward from the force.

“What are they feeding you up there?” he says, rubbing his throbbing arm. “It didn’t used to hurt that bad.” He grabs my hand, pulls my face close to his and looks into my eyes.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispers.

I let down my guard and smile. “I’ve missed you too Nico,” I whisper back.

Nico’s face suddenly darkens. “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,” I say with a sad smile. “I will never forget the people I love.” I drop my head. “That’s why I’m here.”

Nico lifts my chin and returns my sad smile. Then he looks up toward the western sky.

The majestic Sky Dome floats above the clouds in the horizon, like a castle, glowing brightly in the pale moonlight. Some say the Dome is magical. Others call it haunted. “What’s it like up there?”

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

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

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

“I know what you are,” says Nico softly. “But that doesn’t have to change who you are on the inside.” He taps me gently on the chest, places his hand behind my neck and pulls my lips close to his.

Suddenly, we hear a loud buzzing sound in the sky.

I duck my head into Nico’s chest as a drone zooms across the rooftop.