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!

Malika staggered up to her feet and assumed a clumsy fighting stance. The bobcat chuckled.

“Starrling training slow this yearrr.”

The cat leapt off the branch and landed silently on the platform next to Malika’s feet.

“I arrrr Cheshka,” said the cat with a long, illustrious purr.

“You’re a cat,” said Malika.

“I arrrr bobkat,” replied Cheshka. “Not just kat.” She bounded around the platform with astonishing agility, pouncing nimbly here and there as if to prove the point, and then leapt back up to the gnarled branch above and climbed high into the tree.

Malika peered up to the tree and waited for the cat to reappear, but there was no further sign of the strange animal.

After a while, she sat back down, and her mind started drifting toward depressing thoughts again, when something hard landed next to her with a thud.

She looked to her right to find a peculiar purple fruit of some sort rolling on the platform by her thigh. Then Cheshka leapt down next to it.

“Gift forrr new Starrling girl. Welcome to Forrrest.” The cat stared at Malika expectantly, her bright golden eyes open wide, not blinking.

“Oh I — uh — thanks,” said Malika, picking up the purple fruit and squeezing its soft fuzzy flesh.

“Eat,” said Cheshka. “Frruits make happy. Betterrr than app.”

Malika took a small bite from the fruit and chewed cautiously. “It’s delicious!” she exclaimed, her spirits rising again.

“But…how come you can talk!?” she asked, digging into the fruit while staring at the bizarre animal, her eyes open wide in amazement. She offered the cat a bite. “Do all animals in the Forest talk?”

“Why you think Forrrest called enchanted?” said Cheshka, lapping up the juice dribbling off the fruit.

Malika shrugged. “I thought they call it enchanted because the trees are so tall.”

“Nothing in Forrrest as you expect,” said Cheshka, twitching her ears. “Enchantment is everywherrr. Trees grrrow tall above clouds, yes, but frruits also enchanted.”

Malika paused before taking another bite of the sticky purple fruit in her hands. “Enchantment good forrr the soul,” said Cheshka with a wink. Malika continued eating. “And animals talk, yes. But — not all animals smarrrt like me. Only some arrr.” She wet her furry paw and rubbed her whiskers clean.

“Do the Starling Masters know about this?” asked Malika, taking the last bite of fruit and licking the sticky juice off her own fingers.

Cheshka sat down next to Malika and curled up near her feet. “Of courrrs,” she responded, swishing her tail back and forth. “It is how Forrrest animals learned speech. Starrling Masterrs experiment on animals long time ago, so we can talk together and not kill each other. But we smarrter than they rrrealize.”

Cheshka lifted her chin proudly.

“We escape from experiments, and now Forrrest is ours, not yourrrs.”

“Oh, I’m not a Starling Master,” said Malika, looking down at her hands. “I just got here a few weeks ago. I’m still in training.”

“Yes clearrly so,” said Cheshka with another chuckle. “Why I say — quorrum is called. You must go to First Tree.”

Just then, Malika heard a rustling behind her, and she turned around to find a slender robot emerging out of the large tree trunk and zipping toward her.

“Ms. Malika — what are you doing here?” said the robot, in a tinny voice. “A quorum has been called. All Starlings must report to First Tree immediately!”

Malika stood up hurriedly and looked at Cheshka, who winked at her and then bounded up into the trees without another word.

“Thanks Zadie,” said Malika to the robot. She walked quickly to the door in the trunk and then looked back. “Aren’t you coming?”

Zadie cast her mechanical eyes down to the platform floor. “Server Bots are not invited to quorums,” she said, avoiding Malika’s gaze. The robot zipped to where Malika had left the pit of the purple fruit on the platform, extended her long mechanical arm to the ground to pick it up, and zipped back into the tree trunk without talking more.

“Oh sorry,” said Malika, blushing. “Thanks for picking that up. I — umm — forgot I dropped it there.”

Zadie didn’t respond. Malika followed her through the door, and they stood in awkward silence as the floor inside the tree trunk began moving and slid smoothly downwards like an elevator.

It was mostly dark inside the huge tree, but faint bioluminescent numbers would periodically light up on the wall in front of them, flashing on and off, one by one, as they descended down the tree to the lower floors.

100, 99, 98 — the numbers flashed by as they dropped down, down, down all the way to Level 50, which was the common transit level connecting all the giant trees and other living structures in the Starling Territory.

The platform slowed as they arrived at the transit level. Zadie zipped out of the door as soon as it clicked into place, zooming down the transit bridge at top speed, without looking back.

Malika stepped onto the wooden bridge, and as soon as her feet hit the floor, a thin green leaflike pedestal emerged from beneath it, lifting her up a few inches into the air, and carried her down the causeway.

She passed several other Server Bots zipping to and fro as she glided along the latticework of bridges that wound through the Forest, but she did not see another Starling anywhere.

They must all be at quorum already, she thought, her chest tightening. She wondered how Starling Masters dealt with truancy.

She floated past trees of all shapes and sizes, some small and cozy, housing Starling families, others magnificently large, used as space observatories or bionic laboratories, and others still that were not exactly trees but some other sort of twisted and gnarled living structure, each with its own unique facade. These had been designed, or so she had been told during Orientation, by the Starling Masters of Bionism as places of social communion.

At last Malika saw the First Tree towering in the distance and noticed a few other stragglers slipping quietly in just ahead of her. The knot in her stomach relaxed a bit.