THE STARLING


BEFORE

Malika stands on the ledge and scans the glimmering skyline.

Then it hits her.

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

Her pulse starts racing. What was she 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 she had volunteered?

She backs off the ledge and turns to go back inside, but then she remembers her father’s smiling blue eyes.

Clenching her fists, she steps back up and finds 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 seems small and insignificant from where she stands.

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

Then she notices her hand. It’s trembling.

She curses, and then gives the command, “launch Bionic App Store.”

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

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

She says the command, “Install app,” and in that very instant, her hand stops trembling, her breath slows, she stands taller, her shoulders broaden, and a confident light shines in her dark, almond-shaped eyes.

Malika looks across the horizon again, zeroes in on her target, and leaps off the ledge.

CHAPTER ONE

Nico paces nervously along the towering rooftop. Then he sees her.

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

Even from this distance, he can see why she is 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 be enough to mark her as one of the genetic elite — but there is something more.

It’s in the way she moves. Her confidence. As if she holds the answer to a marvelous secret. It’s like she has always known she’s better.

He checks the time. They’re running late. The cameras will find her soon.

Malika swoops down towards him and lands gracefully by his side. His pulse quickens as she draws near him, her tight black jumpsuit hugging the curves of her beautiful body.

He beams as he runs up to her.

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

His face falls. 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?” says Malika, not taking the bait. “Have you been spying on me!?”

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

Malika glares at him, but her anger fizzles out as she looks into his brown puppy-dog eyes. She’s always been a sucker for those eyes.

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

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

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

They pull the bionic wings off her muscular arms, and she folds the feathers and tucks them into her back pocket. She finally turns back to face him, human again.

Her dark hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail, and her plump lips are wet with gloss. “Cleaned up for the cameras, huh?” Nico whispers as they start tip-toeing along the side of the building together. “Did you use the Sexy app?” Malika punches him, and he stumbles backward from the force. He loves it when she does that.

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

“I’ve missed you,” he whispers.

Malika lets down her guard and smiles. “I’ve missed you too Nico,” she whispers 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,” says Malika with a sad smile. “I will never forget the people I love.” She drops her head. “That’s why I’m here.”

Nico lifts Malika’s chin and returns her 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,” says Malika with a shrug. “I can’t really talk about it.”

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

Malika turns her 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 her gently on the chest, places his hand behind her neck and pulls her lips close to his.

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

Malika ducks her head into Nico’s chest as a drone zooms across the rooftop. “Did it see me?” she asks, panting. The drone circles around them, and then flies away. “I don’t think that was a TV drone,” Nico whispers, grabbing Malika by the hand. “That thing belongs to the FIA. Let’s hurry. We don’t have much time.”

They 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.

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

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

Malika closes her eyes and waves her hand slowly back-and-forth above the panel, muttering some words under her breath. Nothing happens for a few seconds, and then it suddenly lights up. A jumble of numbers flashes onto the screen. They hear a click and a pop, and the panel slides open.

Malika looks 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.”

Malika brushes Nico’s cheek with her hands and jumps into the hole.

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

“I’m in.” She looks around and finds herself in a long, narrow corridor lined with doors on either side. She hurries 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. She freezes. Someone is coming towards her, and there’s nowhere for her to hide.

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

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

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

She shuts her eyes as the man draws nearer, step by step. She holds her breath. Her heart pounds in her chest. The man passes right by her 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 her ear. “A patrol Droid,” she whispers back, opening her eyes. “He seemed like a clunker. Walked right past me.”

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

Malika looks 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.” Malika steps away from the door where she’s been hiding, and her skin returns to its usual clear, glowing complexion.

She turns to the right, counts a hundred paces and stops in the middle of two doors, one on each side of the hall.

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

“I think I found it.” She walks over to the door and examines the panel. Words of warning flash across the small glass screen as she nears:

Top Secret. Entry Restricted.

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

“Install.” Her dark, black eyes are suddenly transformed into a brilliant blue. She looks directly at the glass panel next to the door, keeping her eyes open wide as a laser beam shoots across them. “Welcome, Dr. Zegman,” says a smooth metallic voice. The door slides open. Malika slips in, and the door locks shut behind her.

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

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

“State your instructions,” says the same voice.

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

She hears 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,” says Malika. The lights flash on again, but she is no longer in the secret room at the FIA. She’s transported to a scene in a dusty old warehouse, somewhere far away.

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

She looks 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 Malika finds herself staring into a pair of cold, grey eyes.

“Can’t talk,” she hears her father gasp. “My lungs.” The cold eyes blink almost imperceptibly.