Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic
Jennie Bates Bozic
Copyright © 2013 by Jennie Bates Bozic LLC
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Published by Jennie Bates Bozic LLC
Cover Design by
Jennie Bates Bozic
Copyedited by Rebecca Weston
Formatting by Polgarus Studio
For Gram, who taught me to love tiny things.
In twenty seconds, a falcon will be released to hunt me down. Today I’m going up against Petunia. My trainer, George, has a thing for naming his birds after flowers, even though I can’t think of anything less appropriate. Delicate and pretty they are not, unless you think talons and claws would look nice in a bouquet.
High up in the trees, I lean back against my preferred trunk, pinching my wings against the bark. Their usual vivid blue changes to the mossy brown of the pine until they are almost invisible. If only I could do the same thing with my blonde hair. The heat and humidity have frizzed it out to epic proportions.
I glance up at the counter that’s barely visible through the leaves. Fifteen seconds.
My dart guns are strapped firmly to my forearms. I press my thumbs against the triggers to test the pressure. Plenty of resistance, but still enough give to let me know nothing is jammed. The guns can’t hit anything farther than two feet because the needle darts are too small. Longer-range darts are too big for me—in fact, they’re taller than I am.
I crouch down and latch my gaze onto the goal: a piece of pipe wedged into the branches of the biggest beech tree. It’s too small for the falcons, but large enough for me to squeeze inside. All I have to do is get from tree to tree without being spotted with as little flying as possible.
Five. Four. Three. Two. One. GO.
Petunia bursts out of the cage and instantly begins climbing above the canopy. I run along the branch toward the pine needles at the end, eyes fixed on each step. My wings cover my back and camouflage my scurrying legs.
I leap over a nub and feel my feet stick firmly to the branch when I land.
I pick up my right foot with difficulty and wipe it against a clean patch of bark, but I can’t get rid of all the stickiness. I should have worn socks today; I could have just slipped them off and kept going. Seconds are ticking away. Panicked, I look up at the sky. In the patches of blue, I can see Petunia circling overhead. Judging from her position, she’s probably looking in my direction right now.
Walking is out of the question. She’ll definitely see me if I fly.
So I wait. Sweat beads on my skin until my shirt is stuck firm to me, and a terrible itch makes me want to rub my back against the bark until it stops.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a person running through the underbrush of the forest and my heart stands still. He looks just like…but he’s not. I roll my eyes at myself. His hair is like Jack’s—jet black and long enough to graze the tops of his cheekbones—but that’s the only similarity. And Jack is not exactly close to the project seeing as he’s on the other side of the world in South Dakota. Still, that hair is enough to get my heart racing and aching all at once. It’s been a couple of days since Jack and I last talked. George has stepped up my training so that I’m out here several times a day, and when I’m finally free, the time difference gets in the way. Even without that, I don’t know how much conversing we would be able to do after back-to-back training sessions. I’ve been so exhausted I’ve barely been able to eat before falling asleep at night. George still hasn’t given me a good explanation for the extra workouts. He’s just said that I need to be in fantastic shape before my birthday.
I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but maybe that means they’re actually going to release me in a couple of days. I’ll turn sixteen, become an adult, and get to go out into the real world where the falcons have sharp beaks and no one has seen a tiny girl like me before.
I don’t recognize this Man-with-Jack’s-Hair, and I’m pretty sure he isn’t part of the Lilliput Project in any way since he’s running toward me. He doesn’t know that an invisible dome separates our worlds.
His face is about to find out.
He barrels into the dome and falls backward into the weeds, stunned. He’s skinnier than the last straggler I saw, and his clothes are barely hanging on. He’s only got one shoe; his left foot sports a holey sock. It’s hard to tell how old he is through all that grimy facial hair, but the eyes say that he’s in his thirties.
Mr. One Sock pulls himself up with difficulty, as though gravity has become too much for him.
He lets his head fall back, and he wails. I can’t hear him, but I don’t need to in order to sense his anguish. He pummels his fists against the wall until his knuckles leave oozing red marks.
That was the wrong move.
“Get out of here,” I whisper under my breath. “Go before they catch you.” The last time someone was found trespassing, Dr. Christiansen had her dragged out of sight, kicking and screaming and pleading for food. I don’t know what happened to her after that.
As if on cue, he stops pounding and stares at me as if he can actually see through the thick fibers that are supposed to camouflage the Lilliput Project with light-wrapping technology.
I flick my wings away from the branch so they return to their natural, brilliant blue color. The starving man gasps, steps back.
see me. I make a shooing gesture. Get out of here. You don’t want to be here.
But he just stands there, transfixed by the sight of a tiny teenaged girl. Then his eyes widen in horror, and he points at the branches above me.
Ever so slowly, I twist my head around, but it’s too late for caution. Leaves and twigs rain down around me as Petunia crashes through the canopy.
I dive off the branch and snap my wings open so I can hide underneath the very spot where I was just standing. I hook my toes into the bark—thank goodness for my sticky feet now—and extend both my arms out. My wings keep me hovering below the branch.
Now…which side is Petunia going to pick?
The branch bucks violently under her weight as she lands and bits of bark and dirt shower down around me. The impact dislodges my foot, and I flail around, trying to get my toes back into place. I fight to steady myself and keep my needle guns trained on both sides of the branch. If I’m a fraction of a second too late, I’ll end up with a nasty bruise from Petunia’s blunt beak. Maybe a broken bone.
Her head appears to my right. Before she can blink her beady eyes one more time, I fire a needle and it hits her on the cheek. For one terrifying moment, I wonder if it didn’t manage to get through her feathers, but then her eyes lose their focus as the paralysis sets in. After one last, desperate beat of her wings, she falls into the net below.
I twist around and give her a little wave goodbye. Farewell, Petunia. I’m sure you’ll sleep well.
I grab onto the bark, and with a few flutters, I vault back on top. I scan the fence, looking for my new friend. He smiles back at me and gives me a round of applause.
Then I see the guard. He’s creeping up behind the man, gun already out of its holster. I wave my arms frantically. It’s my turn to sound the warning.
I’m too late. The man turns his head and sees the guard, but he isn’t strong enough to escape. The desperate look in his eyes belongs to someone who knows he is trapped.
“George!” I scream. “George, help him!” I fly as fast as I can to the wall and hover there, pounding the fibers with my fists.
The guard lifts his dart gun and fires it soundlessly. The man’s eyes go blank, and he crumples into the weeds. There is no net to break his fall. The hawks of Lilliput are treated with more care than the people outside.
The guard signals his partner, and together they drag the man away. I wince as they tug his brittle form over roots and rocks. He looks like a bag of bones, and his face is so childlike…
How many others have there been? They come here looking for food, and they leave with a horrible headache. At least, I assume they leave that way. The last time I tried to ask, Dr. Christiansen shut me down. Then again, she does that regardless of the question.
My chest tightens, and it’s not just because I’m upset. I flutter to the ground and double over, gasping for breath. Dang it, I’m wheezing already. It’s not even noon, and my lungs are closing up.
“Lina! Where are you?” George stumbles through the underbrush and the ground shakes under my feet. I flick my wings so he’ll see me. He crashes over as fast as his thick, middle-aged legs will allow. The falcon, now hooded, clings to his gloved arm and jerks her head side to side with quick movements. She senses me, but she can’t do anything since George holds the tethers tied around her feet.
“Sorry she got so close,” he says, kneeling beside me. I’m still doubled over, trying to breathe. “Asthma attack?”
A nod is all I can manage.
He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a bag the size of his thumbnail. “Here you go. You’d better get it out yourself.”
I grab the purse and rummage through it until I find my asthma medication. Opening the tin, I break apart one of the capsules and inhale as deeply as the vise grip of the attack will allow. I’m too small for a regular inhaler. At six-and-a-quarter-inches, I’m too small for a
Within seconds, the feeling of drowning fades away, and I gulp down fresh air like a starving woman.
“Didn’t you see him?” I ask George.
“See who?” He fiddles with Petunia’s tethers without meeting my eyes. He’s a terrible liar.
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, okay. I was just wondering why he was able to see me. And, you know, whether or not he’s
“No one who works for the Lilliput Project would hurt that man,” George insists. Somehow his wording isn’t all that reassuring and he can tell. He sighs. “The wall is transparent. It always has been.”
“Then why did Dr. Christiansen—”
“I don’t know why.”
And that’s all I’m going to get from him on the subject. I think George would rather be thrown into a shark tank than make Dr. Christiansen angry. Then again, I can’t really blame George for hanging on to his job at all costs. I glance back toward the wall where my new friend stood only minutes ago.
“Do you want to try again? I’ll keep a closer eye on Petunia this time,” George offers hopefully. “No distractions.”
I draw another ragged breath. The attack has gone, but my lungs feel like sandpaper.
“I think I need a break,” I say.
“All right.” He looks down at the leaf-strewn ground. The trees are beginning to change color and shed their summer gowns. Fall is here. The nights are going to get really cold for those who don’t have a home anymore.
“Lina.” He waits for me to look up at him. “I’m sorry about the man. I’ll…ask about him.”
“Thanks.” I manage a smile. “I guess I’ll go grab something to eat.”
“I can carry you—”
. He’s not going to carry me anywhere. “I just need a little break, but I can fly on my own.”
He chuckles and runs a hand across his stubbled chin. “All right. How long do you think you’ll be?”
“Maybe an hour. I also need to stop by Mr. Coxworth’s to get your tobacco. That is, if you’ve reconsidered my offer…” I raise a questioning eyebrow. “One last hurrah?”
He sighs. “Lina, I’ll get fired. And there will be so many people there.”
“It’s my sixteenth birthday!”
“Exactly. All of your donors will be at the party. I saw the guest list.”
“How about helping me leave early then?”
He knows it’s a losing battle. “All right.”
“One pouch of the world’s finest tobacco coming right up!”
He cracks a smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “I suppose you don’t become an adult every day.”
“Nope. Free at last! Whatever that means.”
George clears his throat and moves his mouth around as though it’s full of pebbles and he can’t get the words out. “What do you think will change? I mean, what are your plans?”
I hover above the ground and tug a pine needle off the bottom of my sticky foot.
I want to go outside. I want to see the sun without a transparent wall in between. I want to see Jack in person for the first time.
I blush. “I don’t know yet. I heard there are still a couple of colleges open. I want to finally get to use all the skills we’ve been training. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?”
He nods half-heartedly. We’ve been over this before. I have to train in case animals break through a hole in the dome before it can be fixed. My life could someday depend on my ability to react and respond to the sorts of situations I would face practically every day if I were to live outside. I have to believe that’s the goal—to make me ready to live on my own. Even if no one’s talking about it, I need that hope. I cannot imagine living my life in this prison. It’s just not possible.