Malika staggers up to her feet and assumes a clumsy fighting stance. The bobcat chuckles.
“Starrling training slow this yearrr.”
The cat leaps off the branch and lands silently on the platform next to Malika’s feet.
“I arrrr Cheshka,” says the cat with a long, illustrious purr.
“You’re a cat,” says Malika.
“I arrrr bobkat,” replies Cheshka. “Not just kat.” She bounds around the platform with astonishing agility, pouncing nimbly here and there as if to prove the point, and then leaps back up to the gnarled branch above and climbs high into the tree.
Malika peers up to the tree and waits for the cat to reappear, but there is no further sign of the strange animal.
After a while, she sits back down, and her mind starts drifting toward depressing thoughts again, when something hard lands next to her with a thud.
She looks to her right to find a peculiar purple fruit of some sort rolling on the platform by her thigh. Then Cheshka leaps down next to it.
“Gift forrr new Starrling girl. Welcome to Forrrest.” The cat stares at Malika expectantly, her bright golden eyes open wide, not blinking.
“Oh I — uh — thanks,” says Malika, picking up the purple fruit and squeezing its soft fuzzy flesh.
“Eat,” says Cheshka. “Frruits make happy. Betterrr than app.”
Malika takes a small bite from the fruit and chews cautiously. “It’s delicious!” she exclaims, her spirits rising again.
“But…how come you can talk!?” she asks, digging into the fruit while staring at the bizarre animal, her eyes open wide in amazement. She offers the cat a bite. “Do all animals in the Forest talk?”
“Why you think Forrrest called enchanted?” says Cheshka, lapping up the juice dribbling off the fruit.
Malika shrugs. “I thought they call it enchanted because the trees are so tall.”
“Nothing in Forrrest as you expect,” says Cheshka, twitching her ears. “Enchantment is everywherrr. Trees grrrow tall above clouds, yes, but frruits also enchanted.”
Malika pauses before taking another bite of the sticky purple fruit in her hands. “Enchantment good forrr the soul,” says Cheshka with a wink. Malika continues eating. “And animals talk, yes. But — not all animals smarrrt like me. Only some arrr.” She wets her furry paw and rubs her whiskers clean.
“Do the Starling Masters know about this?” asks Malika, taking the last bite of fruit and licking the sticky juice off her own fingers.
Cheshka sits down next to Malika and curls up near her feet. “Of courrrs,” she responds, 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 lifts her chin proudly.
“We escape from experiments, and now Forrrest is ours, not yourrrs.”
“Oh, I’m not a Starling Master,” says Malika, looking down at her hands. “I just got here a few weeks ago. I’m still in training.”
“Yes clearrly so,” says Cheshka with another chuckle. “Why I say — quorrum is called. You must go to First Tree.”
Just then, Malika hears a rustling behind her, and she turns around to find a slender robot emerging out of the large tree trunk and zipping toward her.
“Ms. Malika — what are you doing here?” says the robot, in a tinny voice. “A quorum has been called. All Starlings must report to First Tree immediately!”
Malika stands up hurriedly and looks at Cheshka, who winks at her and then bounds up into the trees without another word.
“Thanks Zadie,” says Malika to the robot. She walks quickly to the door in the trunk and then looks back. “Aren’t you coming?”
Zadie casts her mechanical eyes down to the platform floor. “Server Bots are not invited to quorums,” she says, avoiding Malika’s gaze. The robot zips to where Malika left the pit of the purple fruit on the platform, extends her long mechanical arm to the ground to pick it up, and zips back into the tree trunk without talking more.
“Oh sorry,” says Malika, blushing. “Thanks for picking that up. I — umm — forgot I dropped it there.”
Zadie doesn’t respond. Malika follows her through the door, and they stand in awkward silence as the floor inside the tree trunk begins moving and slides smoothly downwards like an elevator.
It is mostly dark inside the huge tree, but faint bioluminescent numbers periodically light up on the wall in front of them, flashing on and off, one by one, as they descend down the tree to the lower floors.
100, 99, 98 — the numbers flash by as they drop down, down, down all the way to Level 50, which is the common transit level connecting all the giant trees and other living structures in the Starling Territory.
The platform slows as they arrive at the transit level. Zadie zips out of the door as soon as it clicks into place, zooming down the transit bridge at top speed, without looking back.
Malika steps onto the wooden bridge, and as soon as her feet hit the floor, a thin green leaflike pedestal emerges from beneath it, lifting her up a few inches into the air, and carries her down the causeway.
She passes several other Server Bots zipping to and fro as she glides along the latticework of bridges that wind through the Forest, but she doesn’t see another Starling anywhere.
They must all be at quorum already, she thinks, her chest tightening. She wonders how Starling Masters deal with truancy.
She floats 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 are not exactly trees but some other sort of twisted and gnarled living structure, each with its own unique facade. These were designed, or so she was told during Orientation, by the Starling Masters of Bionism as places of social communion.