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.

The pedestal carried her up and over a tall arch and stopped at an ornately carved wooden door leading into the trunk of the majestic First Tree. She stepped into the tree trunk, and the shaft began moving upward.

The bioluminescent numbers flashed by again with increasing speed — 51, 52, 53…100…1999 — as the elevator gained momentum, until they were nothing but a blur, and then all at once the platform began to slow and came to a silent stop. The wall no longer displayed any numbers at all, Malika saw, but just the glowing Starling insignia.

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

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

No one noticed Malika enter the gathering, nor seemed to care that she was late. Malika recognized a few faces she knew here and there, but she had never seen most of these people before. Many were dressed in strange garb and seemed to be from far off lands. She wondered if this was the full extent of the Starling Order, or if there were some who had decided not to attend the meeting.

Every Starling present at that moment was 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 was striking to behold. She was not tall, nor big of stature, but her presence commanded such attention as of a great warrior leading an army into battle.

She wore a flowing golden dress that came down to her ankles and shimmered in the twilight when she moved, and she stood barefoot on a small tree stump as she spoke.

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

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

But she was not smiling as she addressed 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 opened her arms in a gesture that seemed 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 whispered nearby.

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

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

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

“They must be cold,” said Malika.

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

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

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

“I saw you sitting by yourself in Command training yesterday,” continued 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 pointed her finger at the back of an older Starling man who was standing just in front of them, facing the front of the room and listening to Valmiki speak. The man was wearing an absurd-looking hard hat with a propeller on top.

Bella spun her finger in a winding motion, and the propellor on the man’s hat suddenly came to life. Then she flicked her finger upward, and the hat lifted off the man’s head and began floating in the air. The man was too focused on Valmiki’s words to notice.

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

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

Malika pointed her finger at the man’s head and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to concentrate as hard as she could on the hat. “You’ve got it,” said Bella, putting her hand back down to her side.

The hat remained afloat. Malika wagged her finger left and right, and the hat moved with it. Then suddenly, she lost her concentration, and the hat crashed down on the man’s head.

The man spun around to see what had happened, and the girls looked quickly away and pretended to be riveted by Valmiki’s speech.

“But now that those who are able, and willing, to join us tonight have all arrived,” continued Valmiki, “we may begin our formal proceedings.” Malika could have sworn she felt Valmiki’s gaze rest on her momentarily as she said this.

“First — an update on the Starling Order.” Valmiki waved her arm, and a large transparent screen materialized behind her, projecting an oddly-shaped map of the world onto the idyllic Forest backdrop.

“This is a map of the Starling Territories across the Federation,” continued Valmiki. She flicked her hand, and the scene changed to depict a war zone in a crowded metropolis with tall sky scrapers.

“As you know — and many may yet remember — we established these territories after the Technocratic Revolution ended, as safe havens for the genetic elite.”

Valmiki waved her hand again, and this time the scene changed to show Starlings in the Forest, conducting research with plants. “Since then, we have lived peacefully in the Starling Territories, as stewards of nature and leaders in innovation. But after fifty years of peaceful co-existence — with Federation and non-Federation peoples alike — our borders are under threat.”

The scene then shifted to show an expansive mountain backdrop, with weaponized invaders marching up a steep, snowy pass.

“There have been disappearances. Some Starling-friendly Federation citizens who have crossed into our borders to parlay with our Masters, never made it back home. No one knows where they have gone, but they are presumed dead. At the same time, Rogue Droids have been seen patrolling the eastern border of the Mountain Territory.”

Angry voices arose from the crowd, as cries of “Droids are traitors!” and “down with the Droids!” rang out. Valmiki held up her hand for silence, and the commotion died down.

“We must not fall prey to unwarranted prejudice. It is essential that we remain united. Do not forget the Droids who have lived among us in peace, and have helped us develop our powers. The patrolling droids are Rogue — remember that. We do not know whom they serve.”

“It’s Daedalus.”

Malika jumped.

“What?” She turned to see Bella staring up at her again. The man with the funny hat shot them an angry glance.

“The one who’s missing,” continued Bella. “Look.” She pointed to a group of smug Starling Trainees standing toward the front of the hall. Dax stood with them. “Master Daedalus is not with the Intelligence crew tonight. Dax is taking his place at the head of the group.”

Malika watched with annoyance as a skinny, blonde girl who was standing in the Intelligence group leaned into Dax and whispered something into his ear. Dax nodded, and the girl tossed her hair and smiled.

“So it’s Daedalus— Master of Intelligence and Leader of the Droids — that’s missing tonight. I bet that’s why Valmiki is so worried,” said Bella.

“Shhh!” the man with the hat shushed loudly, glaring back at both of them. They all turned together to listen to Valmiki again.

“We have sent out reconnaissance missions to learn more,” said Valmiki, with a look that suggested she would brook no further argument. No one in the audience dared utter a word in defiance, but the atmosphere remained tense. Malika caught some of the Starlings throwing suspicious glances toward Tenzing Sherpa, the Leader of the Mountain Territory, where the invasions were happening. And others seemed to have noticed the absence of Master Daedalus as well.

“I will keep you all informed as the situation unfolds,” said Valmiki. “And now, let’s move on to happier news.”

Valmiki then called the other Order Leaders onto stage one by one, and the Convening proceeded at pace. The mood of the crowd grew lighter as the evening wore on, and each of the Leaders unveiled incredible innovations from their Territories.

But something kept bothering Malika.