THE STARLING


CHAPTER ONE

Malika sat with her feet dangling off the edge of a wooden platform, perched high in the canopy of the Forest in the Sky.

She was 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 comprised the eastern border of the Starling Territory.

Her new home.

It was beautiful in its way she supposed.

The sunset cast 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 loomed above the horizon.

Or perhaps it just seemed melancholy to her.

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

Her 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 her 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,” said Malika softly. “He knew so much, predicted so much. Why couldn’t he have predicted his own disappearance?”

Water welled up suddenly in her eyes, and she clenched her fists and ground her teeth, but she couldn’t stop them from coming. The tears poured down her cheeks.

Her chest tightened and her breathing grew strained, telltale signs of an impending panic attack. She sighed and whispered, “launch Bionic App Store.”

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

“Search store,” she said, ignoring the featured product. She knew what she needed. “Find Fockitall.”

A moving hologram of a beefy leather-clad man on an air-bike popped onto her screen. The man was jeering and making a lewd gesture with his left hand, while the words Fockitall, developed by MegaCorp floated beneath him.

Malika hesitated, wondering whether she really needed the app again. Her mom had told her to stop app-doping so much.

The beefy man revved his engine, as if goading her on.

Malika blinked the tears out of her eyes. “If Mom really cared,” she said 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!” said Malika all of a sudden, and in that instant, her tears dried up, her breathing cleared and the aching in her chest faded away.

She looked down on the Metropolis again and watched in silence as the so-called Advanced People scuttled 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.

Her people, the Starlings.

A hawk circling the skyline caught her eye, and she watched as it rode up on a gust of air and climbed toward the Star Dome. As it flew closer, the bird’s wingspan grew in stature, and Malika realized that this was no hawk at all, but a sentinel returning from a Starling mission.

Malika saw 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.

Her cheeks grew flush when she saw his face.

It was Dax, the boy who had spoken to her in the dining den last month. The older Starlings never spoke to her, or even seemed to know she was alive, but he had noticed her. He had even smiled and said hello, and asked if she wanted to join them for dinner that night.

But by the time dinner came around, he had already left.

Malika had seen 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 was the first Malika had seen of Dax since. He must have been sent on a mission.

Dax peeled off his bionic wings and walked hurriedly into the Dome. A bell clanged in the distance as he stepped inside.

“Rrrather disquieting. Sentinel returrrns alone.”

Malika jumped. She thought she had heard someone speak, but it must have been her imagination. She looked behind at the giant Redwood tree, which supported the platform on which she sat. A small door was carved into the tree trunk, and she thought perhaps someone else had come onto the platform to watch the sunset as well, but there was no one there. She was alone.

It was just Malika on the platform and the trees surrounding her, their august branches swaying gently in the misty breeze.

Trees didn’t talk, Malika reminded herself, not even in the Enchanted Starling Forest. Although she had always wondered why they referred to the Forest as being enchanted.

“Quorrum is called.”

She jumped again. Someone was definitely there. She looked up and peered into the gnarled branches towering above her and gasped.

Two golden eyes were staring down at her from the nearest branch, shining like a pair of sparkling stars in a moonless sky. She rubbed her eyes and opened them again.

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

Then she noticed 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 was a bobcat!