THE STARLING


CHAPTER ONE

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

She is 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.

Her new home.

It’s beautiful in its way she supposes.

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 her.

It all looks so small and insignificant from up here, she thinks. 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,” says Malika softly. “He knew so much, predicted so much. Why couldn’t he have predicted his own disappearance?”

Water wells up suddenly in her eyes, and she clenches her fists and grinds her teeth, but she can’t stop them from coming. The tears pour down her cheeks.

Her chest tightens and her breathing grows strained, telltale signs of an impending panic attack. She sighs and whispers, “launch Bionic App Store.”

A transparent screen materializes in the air in front of her. 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,” she says, ignoring the featured product. She knows what she needs. “Find Fockitall.”

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

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

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

Malika blinks the tears out of her eyes. “If Mom really cared,” she says 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!” says Malika all of a sudden, and in that instant, her tears dry up, her breathing clears and the aching in her chest fades away.

She looks down on the Metropolis again and watches 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.

Her people, the Starlings.

A hawk circling the skyline catches her eye, and she watches 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 Malika realizes that this is no hawk at all, but a sentinel returning from a Starling mission.

Malika sees 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 grow flush when she sees his face.

It’s Dax, the boy who spoke to her in the dining den last month. The older Starlings never speak to her, or even seem to know she’s alive, but he noticed her. He 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 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 Malika has 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.”

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

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

Trees don’t talk, Malika reminds herself, not even in the Enchanted Starling Forest. Although she has always wondered why they refer to the Forest as being enchanted.

“Quorrum is called.”

She jumps again. Someone is definitely there. She looks up and peers into the gnarled branches towering above her and gasps.

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

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

Then she notices 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!

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.

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

The pedestal carries her up and over a tall arch and stops at an ornately carved wooden door leading into the trunk of the majestic First Tree. She steps into the tree trunk, and the shaft begins moving upward.

The bioluminescent numbers flash by again with increasing speed — 51, 52, 53…100…1999 — as the elevator gains momentum, until they are nothing but a blur, and then all at once the platform begins to slow and comes to a silent stop. The wall no longer displays any numbers at all, Malika sees, but just the glowing Starling insignia.

She walks out of the tree and onto an expansive balcony overlooking the entire Starling Territory.

Thousands of people stand there together on the platform, their heads turned as one toward the breathtaking Forest scenery.

No one notices Malika enter the gathering, nor seems to care that she’s late. Malika recognizes a few faces she knows here and there, but she has never seen most of these people before. Many are dressed in strange garb and seem to be from far off lands. She wonders if this is the full extent of the Starling Order, or if there are some who decided not to attend the meeting.

Every Starling present at that moment is focused solely and intently on the woman standing at the head of the congregation, pointing out over the horizon and speaking to them in a deep and solemn voice.

The woman is striking to behold. She is not tall, nor big of stature, but her presence commands such attention as of a great warrior leading an army into battle.

She wears a flowing golden dress that comes down to her ankles and shimmers in the twilight when she moves, and she stands barefoot on a small tree stump as she speaks.

Long, black hair flows down her slender back, and her supple skin glows with the health of infinite youth. A fierceness burns in her dark, sparkling eyes with an intensity that would make even the bravest of men quail, but when she smiles, her stern features are transformed into those of an angel, and the ferocity of her gaze gives way to a boundless joy, like a child’s.

She is Valmiki Gandarva, Master of Command and Leader of the Starling Order.

But she is not smiling as she addresses the agitated crowd gathered around the grand balcony of the First Tree on that darkening evening.

“Welcome — one and all — to the 201st Convening of the Starling Order,” she opens her arms in a gesture that seems to envelope the gathering in a collective embrace. “To those who have journeyed far to join us tonight, I thank you. Not everyone could be here with us, unfortunately, but do not fault those who have not come for their absence. They serve the Order in other ways.”

“She sounds a bit defensive, doesn’t she?” someone whispers nearby.

Malika looks down to see a short, pale girl with cropped blonde hair and clear blue eyes smiling up at her. There is something slightly strange about the way the girl smiles. “I wonder whose absence is troubling Master Valmiki tonight? Everyone seems to be here.” The girl oggles the crowd, and Malika follows her gaze as she points to a stout man wearing a fur cloak and shearling boots.

“That’s Tenzing Sherpa,” she whispers. “Leader of the Mountain Order. They came a long way to be here.” A mass of people are standing behind him, all dressed in warm furs and heavy boots.

The girl scans the crowd again, and this time her gaze rests on a group of lean, sun-kissed people dressed in almost nothing. A woman stands at the head of the group wearing coconut shells and a bright sarong. “That’s Waemea Moon,” says the girl. “Leader of the Island Order.”

“They must be cold,” says Malika.

“Master Vish would have given them a warming draught,” says the girl with a wink. “They’re not used to wearing much. It’s always hot on the Islands.”

The girl points at another group standing off at a distance in the far corner of the room. They are draped from head to foot in light cloths, with colorful woolen shawls thrown across their shoulders. Each of them are peering quietly at the rest of the congregation, their brilliant, green eyes shining through their head scarves. An august man with a gold headdress stands at the head of this group. “And that’s Shah Jahan,” says the girl. “Leader of the Desert Order. I wonder who’s missing?”

“I’m Bella by the way,” she says, holding up her open palm and staring at Malika again. Malika meets the girl’s palm with her own. It’s the greeting they learned in Command.

“I saw you sitting by yourself in Command training yesterday,” continues the girl. “You can sit near me next time, if you want. My parents are both experts in Command, so I’m pretty good. I can teach you some tricks.”

Bella points her finger at the back of an older Starling man who is standing just in front of them, facing the front of the room and listening to Valmiki speak. The man is wearing an absurd-looking hard hat with a propeller on top.

Bella spins her finger in a winding motion, and the propellor on the man’s hat suddenly comes to life. Then she flicks her finger upward, and the hat lifts off the man’s head and begins floating in the air. The man is too focused on Valmiki’s words to notice.

“Take it,” whispers Bella, bringing her finger close to Malika’s hand. Malika’s eyes widen and she shakes her head. “I don’t know how!”

“Just focus on the object you want to Command,” says Bella. “It’s all about focus.”