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 broadening, 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. “Did it see me?” she asked, panting. The drone circled around them, and then flew away. “I don’t think that was a TV drone,” Nico whispered, grabbing Malika by the hand. “That thing belongs to the FIA. Let’s hurry. We don’t have much time.”

They scurried to the center of the vast rooftop and found the entry panel, leading down to the passage below. It was sealed shut. The words Federation Intelligence Agency were emblazoned across it.

The panel was made of dark glass. “Stand back,” Nico pressed a button on his watch, and a series of loud beeps fired out of the device. Nothing happened. The panel remained shut.

Malika sighed. “Hold on,” Nico insisted, “I just need a second to recalibrate.”

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

Malika closed her eyes and waved her hand slowly back-and-forth above the panel, muttering some words under her breath. Nothing happened for a few seconds, and then it suddenly lit up. A jumble of numbers flashed onto the screen. They heard a click and a pop, and the panel slid open.

Malika looked at Nico, and he nodded. “Impressive,” he said. “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 added with a wink. “So we can talk while you’re in there.”

Malika brushed Nico’s cheek with her hands and jumped into the hole.

“Be careful,” he whispered as he watched her slip into the darkness below. The panel slid shut, trapping her inside the headquarters of the FIA.

“I’m in.” She looked around and found herself in a long, narrow corridor lined with doors on either side. She hurried down the hall examining each door. They all looked the same. The doors were all painted a dark blue color, and none of them were labeled. A sound echoed down the hallway. She froze. Someone was coming towards her, and there was nowhere for her to hide.

She pressed into the recess of the door nearest her and whispered to herself, “command — launch Bionic App Store.” The transparent screen popped up again.

“Search store,” she said quietly. “Find Cuttlefish.” An image of a tiny octopus-like creature flashed before her. The footsteps got nearer.

“Install!” she whispered, and her smooth, dark skin suddenly transformed into something alien-like, mimicking the rough texture and dark blue color of the door behind her. She blended into the background just in time. A man came into view. He walked directly toward her, at a slow and steady pace.

She shut her eyes as the man drew nearer, step by step. She held her breath. Her heart pounded in her chest. The man passed right by her without stopping and kept walking down the hall at the same, measured pace. Clip, clop, clip, clop, clip… He continued down the hallway and disappeared around a corner.

“What was that?” said Nico’s voice in her ear. “A patrol Droid,” she whispered back, opening her eyes. “He seemed like a clunker. Walked right past me.”

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

Malika looked 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,” said Nico. “It must be near there.” Malika stepped away from the door where she’d been hiding, and her skin returned to its usual clear, glowing complexion.

She turned to the right, counted a hundred paces and stopped in the middle of two doors, one on each side of the hall.

The door to her left had a small glass panel on the wall next to it.

“I think I found it.” She walked over to the door and examined the panel. Words of warning flashed across the small glass screen as she neared:

Top Secret. Entry Restricted.

Malika launched the App Store again. She whispered, “find Eye Masker,” and a hologram of her own face poppep up, with the words Eye Masker, developed by Malika Zegman written below it.

“Install.” Her dark, black eyes were suddenly transformed into a brilliant blue. She looked directly at the glass panel next to the door, keeping her eyes open wide as a laser beam shot across them. “Welcome, Dr. Zegman,” said a smooth metallic voice. The door slid open. Malika slipped in, and the door locked shut behind her.

The room was dimly lit, and the walls were lined with a fuzzy charcoal gray material. “Can you hear me?” she said to Nico. Silence. The walls must have blocked the Network from getting in. She was on her own.

An empty steel chair spun slowly in the middle of the room. Malika sat in the chair, and a harsh, white floodlight turned on from above. The chair stopped spinning.

“State your instructions,said the same voice.

Malika cleared her throat. “Retrieve visual backup — Dr. Noam Zegman.”

She heard a soft whirring sound, like the purring of a cat, and then the room went pitch black. “Backup retrieved,” replied the voice. “Ready to play.”

“Play last hour,” said Malika. The lights flashed on again, but she was no longer in the secret room at the FIA. She was transported to a scene in a dusty old warehouse, somewhere far away.

She looked down at her hands, but they were not her own anymore. They were her father’s hands, tied together with a wire. His wrists were bleeding. She could hear his raspy breath, coming in short bursts. The sound of her father dying.

She looked around. The warehouse walls were lined with tall stacks of cardboard boxes. Each box was marked with a strange insignia:

{0–|-0}

Hazardous Biomass

A door swung open somewhere and slammed shut again. Suddenly, the scene jerked upward, and Malika found herself staring into a pair of cold, grey eyes.

“Can’t talk,” she heard her father gasp. “My lungs.”