THE STARLING


CHAPTER ONE

I sit with my feet dangling off the edge of a wooden platform, perched high in the canopy of the Forest in the Sky.

I am beginning to grow accustomed to the ominous mood of the Forest at dusk, the smell of pine and the creaking moans of the towering Redwood trees that comprise the eastern border of the Starling Territory.

My new home.

It’s beautiful in its way I suppose.

The sunset casts a melancholy glow over the vast metropolis sprawling across the Valley floor a mile below, intensified by the chill mist floating down from the mountains that loom above the horizon.

Or perhaps it just seems melancholy to me.

It all looks so small and insignificant from up here. The Advanced Metropolis and its tall phallic buildings poking up above the clouds, buzzing with their supposedly advanced technologies.

My father used to always say that the technologies used in the Federation were primitive compared to what was truly possible.

He would pluck a flower off a tree, waive it in my face and exclaim, “Look how marvelous it is! The beauty of it — the patterns — it’s mindblowing. Think of the power of nature. We will never be able to match such complexity with our man-made inventions. Life is the greatest of all technologies.”

“It’s as if he always knew I belonged up here,” I say softly. “He knew so much, predicted so much. Why couldn’t he have predicted his own disappearance?”

Water wells up suddenly in my eyes, and I clench my fists and grind my teeth, but I can’t stop them from coming. The tears pour down my cheeks.

My chest tightens and my breathing grows strained, telltale signs of an impending panic attack. I sigh and whisper, “launch Bionic App Store.”

A transparent screen materializes in the air in front of me. Dancing on the screen is a holographic menu featuring the week’s Most Popular bionic apps. At the top of the list is an app called Commune.

“Search store,” I say, ignoring the featured product. I know what I need. “Find Fockitall.”

A moving hologram of a beefy leather-clad man on an air-bike pops onto my screen. The man jeers and makes a lewd gesture with his left hand, while the words Fockitall, developed by MegaCorp float beneath him.

I hesitate, wondering whether I really need the app again. My mom told me to stop app-doping so much.

The beefy man revs his engine, as if goading me on.

I blink the tears out of my eyes. “If Mom really cared,” I say softly, “she would have come to visit by now. She has no room to talk anyway — she just sits around all day, doping herself into oblivion.”

“Install!” I say all of a sudden, and in that instant, my tears dry up, my breathing clears and the aching in my chest fades away.

I look down on the Metropolis again and watch in silence as the so-called Advanced People scuttle about like ants in their flying cars, oblivious to the danger surrounding them — the constant threat to their lives kept at bay by the People in the Sky.

My people, the Starlings.

A hawk circling the skyline catches my eye, and I watch as it rides up on a gust of air and climbs toward the Star Dome. As it flies closer, the bird’s wingspan grows in stature, and I realize that this is no hawk at all, but a sentinel returning from a Starling mission.

I see the sentinel swoop gracefully down onto the landing platform of the First Tree and stand to his full height, a tall handsome boy with sandy blonde hair.

My cheeks grow flush when I see his face.

It’s Dax, the boy who spoke to me in the dining den last month. The older Starlings never speak to me, or even seem to know I’m alive, but he noticed me. He even smiled and said hello, and asked if I wanted to join them for dinner that night.

But by the time dinner came around, he was gone.

I saw him momentarily, conversing in hushed tones with Master Valmiki at the head table. Then Master Daedalus pulled him aside, and they snuck away together.

This is the first I have seen of Dax since. He must have been sent on a mission.

Dax peels off his bionic wings and walks hurriedly into the Dome. A bell clangs in the distance as he steps inside.

“Rrrather disquieting. Sentinel returrrns alone.”

I jump. I thought I heard someone speak, but it must have been my imagination. I look behind at the giant Redwood tree, which supports the platform on which I’m sitting. A small door is carved into the tree trunk, and I thought perhaps someone else came onto the platform to watch the sunset as well, but there’s no one there. I’m alone.

It’s just me on the platform and the trees surrounding me, their august branches swaying gently in the misty breeze.

Trees don’t talk, I remind myself, not even in the Enchanted Starling Forest. Although I have always wondered why they refer to the Forest as being enchanted.

“Quorrum is called.”

I jump again. Someone is definitely there. I look up and peer into the gnarled branches towering above me and gasp.

Two golden eyes are staring down at me from the nearest branch, shining like a pair of sparkling stars in a moonless sky. I rub my eyes and open them again.

The starry lights are still there, floating amidst the branches, framed by a green blanket of leaves.

Then I notice a furry face surrounding the eyes, with thick golden fur dashed with black spots and tall whiskers and large, perky ears lined with black tufts of fuzz, and a stubby tail swishing back and forth with arrogant airs. It’s a bobcat!