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.

“Did it see me?” I ask, panting. The drone circles around us, and then flies away. “I don’t think that was a TV drone,” Nico whispers, grabbing me by the hand. “That thing belongs to the FIA. Let’s hurry. We don’t have much time.”

We scurry to the center of the vast rooftop and find the entry panel, leading down to the passage below. It’s sealed shut. The words Federation Intelligence Agency are emblazoned across it.

The panel is made of dark glass. “Stand back,” Nico presses a button on his watch, and a series of loud beeps fire out of the device. Nothing happens. The panel remains shut.

I sigh. “Hold on,” Nico insists, “I just need a second to recalibrate.”

“It’s okay, Nico,” I say, gently touching his wrist. “I’ve got this.”

I close my eyes and wave my hand slowly back-and-forth above the panel, whispering the Command I learned in Starling training the day before. Nothing happens for a few seconds, and then it suddenly lights up. A jumble of numbers flashes onto the screen. We hear a click and a pop, and the panel slides open.

I look at Nico, and he nods. “Impressive,” he says. “I’ve got the code now. Just say the word, and I’ll open it again. And I’ve got your hack code too,” he adds with a wink. “So we can talk while you’re in there.”

I brush Nico’s cheek with my hands and jump into the hole.

“Be careful,” he whispers as he watches me slip into the darkness below. The panel slides shut, trapping me inside the headquarters of the FIA.

“I’m in.” I look around and find myself in a long, narrow corridor lined with doors on either side. I hurry down the hall examining each door. They all look the same. The doors are all painted a dark blue color, and none of them are labeled. A sound echoes down the hallway. I freeze. Someone is coming towards me, and there’s nowhere for me to hide.

I press into the recess of the door nearest me and whisper to myself, “command — launch Bionic App Store.” The transparent screen pops up again.

“Search store,” I say quietly. “Find Cuttlefish.” An image of a tiny octopus-like creature flashes before me. The footsteps get nearer.

“Install!” I whisper, and my smooth, dark skin suddenly transforms into something alien-like, mimicking the rough texture and dark blue color of the door behind me. I blend into the background just in time. A man comes into view. He walks directly toward me, at a slow and steady pace.

I shut my eyes as the man draws nearer, step by step. I hold my breath. My heart pounds in my chest. The man passes right by me without stopping and keeps walking down the hall at the same, measured pace. Clip, clop, clip, clop, clip… He continues down the hallway and disappears around a corner.

“What was that?” says Nico’s voice in my ear. “A patrol Droid,” I whisper back, opening my eyes. “He seemed like a clunker. Walked right past me.”

“Strange,” says Nico. “I figured the FIA would employ state-of-the-art Droids.”

I look around again. “How will I find the right door? They all look exactly the same.”

“There’s a large data store registering about a hundred paces to your right,” says Nico. “It must be near there.” I step away from the door where I’ve been hiding, and my skin returns to its usual complexion.

I turn to the right, count a hundred paces and stop in the middle of two doors, one on each side of the hall.

The door to my left has a small glass panel on the wall next to it.

“I think I found it.” I walk over to the door and examine the panel. Words of warning flash across the small glass screen as I near:

Top Secret. Entry Restricted.

I launch the App Store again. I whisper, “find Eye Masker,” and a hologram of my own face pops up, with the words Eye Masker, developed by Malika Zegman written below it.

“Install.” My dark, black eyes are suddenly transformed into a brilliant blue. I look directly at the glass panel next to the door, keeping my eyes open wide as a laser beam shoots across them. “Welcome, Dr. Zegman,” says a smooth metallic voice. The door slides open. I slip in, and the door locks shut behind me.

The room is dimly lit, and the walls are lined with a fuzzy charcoal gray material. “Can you hear me?” I say to Nico. Silence. The walls must block the Network from getting in. I’m on my own.

An empty steel chair spins slowly in the middle of the room. I sit in the chair, and a harsh, white floodlight turns on from above. The chair stops spinning.

“State your instructions,” says the same voice.

I clear my throat. “Retrieve visual backup — Dr. Noam Zegman.”

I hear a soft whirring sound, like the purring of a cat, and then the room goes pitch black. “Backup retrieved,” replies the voice. “Ready to play.”

“Play last hour,” I say. The lights flash on again, but I am no longer in the secret room at the FIA. I’m transported to a scene in a dusty old warehouse, somewhere far away.

I look down at my hands, but they are not my own anymore. They are my father’s hands, tied together with a wire. His wrists are bleeding. I can hear his raspy breath, coming in short bursts. The sound of my father dying.

I look around. The warehouse walls are lined with tall stacks of cardboard boxes. Each box is marked with a strange insignia:

{0–|-0}

Hazardous Biomass

A door swings open somewhere and slams shut again. Suddenly, the scene jerks upward, and I find myself staring into a pair of cold, grey eyes.

“Can’t talk,” I hear my father gasp. “My lungs.”

The cold eyes blink almost imperceptibly, and the scene jerks again as the owner of the eyes releases his grip on my father’s head, and a body comes into view. My father’s tormentor is a tall, pale man wearing a white lab coat, covered in red stains. The man turns and walks to a steel table positioned a few feet away, where a beaker of red liquid is boiling next to a fat syringe.

A shrill voice suddenly pierces the air, like the sound of metal scraping concrete, and I cover my ears in pain.

“You will talk,” says the voice, “or you will die. Alas, it would have been much easier, Dr. Zegman, if you had not gone to such pains to encrypt your memory banks. It’s a shame this has to be so — grueling. But not to worry, Doctor.”