The jungle foliage became a mist of green, the sandy floor a streak of brick red. Jamaal’s bare feet kicked up a cloud of dust as he tore down the road. There wasn’t a pigeon in the nest faster than him, but today he was late. He checked the timer on his wrist, he had thirty minutes. It was the short cut through the Itinerant Terminal, or he could kiss his legs goodbye.
Tarpaulins flapped on top of makeshift dwellings formed from planks of wood and pieces of corrugated iron; kids dressed in rags batted a hover ball back and forth with glow gloves that had seen better days. A group of ten IT’s huddled round an old laptop while two women peddled hard on a static cycle power conversion system. Jamaal ran onwards, these were not his people. He looked at outsiders partly through jealous eyes with their liberty to roam, but more than not with a sense of sadness. Yes, they might be free but they were generally hungry, homeless, and susceptible to the elements: vicious sand storms that rose from the West and acid rain that rolled down off the Eastern mountains.
The Terminal disappeared behind him and the path narrowed as it snaked round the side of a steep hill. At the top of the bend stood Shila, a thin girl, one of her front teeth missing and a look of mischief on her face. She was dressed in clothes made from rubbish, the faded logos of long since dead multinationals printed across dirty white straw.
“Where are you going all in a hurry, eh?” she asked.
“I don’t speak to Termites?” he replied.
Shila stretched out a finger and pushed it into his port. A flap of skin that shielded a socket mounted on his stomach. He slapped her hand away.
“Do you even know what message you’re carrying?”
“It’s not for you,” he told her.
“You don’t know what it is, do you?”
“Why do you care?” asked Jamaal.
“Because it might be about the Terminal.”
“No one cares about the Terminal.”
“That’s why I want to read their messages,” she replied.
Jamaal checked the timer. As pretty as Shila was, she could not stop the turn of the clock. He took her by the shoulders and moved her out of his way, gently but forcefully.
“Fly away little pigeon,” she shouted after him.
Professor Degga was a large round man with a big smile, the bright white teeth a sign of his opulence. He sat behind a wooden desk and focused his attention on Jamaal.
“My boy, you brighten the nest. One thousand comes far too soon. Maybe I should give all your drops to Ibe or Yannick or even Khoonen.”
“If you want your message to arrive why would you give it to Khoonen?”
Degga poured out a small glass of water from a metal flask and pushed it across the desk to Jamaal, who downed the liquid in one long swig.
Professor Degga strolled out into the pen with his arm around Jamaal. Dinner was what Degga and the other ministers partook of, out in the pen it was feeding time. Ibe, a thin pigeon, shoved handfuls of grey looking stew into his mouth while leaning on his wooden stick. Degga leaned in close.
“It’s almost one month now? The nest isn’t made for those that can’t run.”
“Ibe limps everywhere, he’s not faking it. Give him a bit more time to mend and he’ll be as quick as me,” said Jamaal.
Degga bellowed out a raucous laugh. “You’re a funny boy Jamaal, I’ll miss you.”
Jamaal lifted a piece of grey meat off Ibe’s plate as he passed and dropped it into his mouth. Ibe smiled at him. It was a small price to pay.
“998,” said Akew, slapping him on the back. “998, most pigeons won’t even take those drops.”
“What you gonna do when you can fly the nest?” asked Ibe.
“There ain’t no flyin’, there’s just different cages or the vultures,” said Yannick, an older pigeon, in his mid thirties, who sat in the corner of the pen with his back to the wire fence.
“You know nothing old man, you’re too slow, you’d be split before you’ve reached two hundred,” Ibe spat, staring down the man.
“Hope can kill,” Yannick returned, staring into space.
Ibe whipped out his weapon, a razor blade taped to a lollipop stick and pushed it into Yannick’s face. “My knife can kill.”
Jamaal laid a placating hand on Ibe’s shoulder and helped him up. The boy slipped the blade back into his pocket and walked away.
In the small mud hut, Jamaal laid down on the floor cramped up with the others as they tossed and turned trying to get comfortable. He looked upwards at the ceiling, trying with his mind to break free from the nest, trying to imagine what the world outside was really like. Crystal clear there came an image of the mountain, unassailable, an omnipresent backdrop to his world.
In the loading bay he focused on the badly drawn picture of the mountain pinned to the wall not bearing to look at his own belly as he was hooked up to the branch. He couldn’t understand why after all this time it should make him so squeamish but it did. Finally Degga ruffled his hair; he was done.
Jamaal sped down the ravine, hoping to gain an extra few minutes to pass with Shila; that was if he could find her. He veered off the path taking a short cut through an overgrown field. Without warning he heard fast whooshing noises. Turning to his right he saw a machete slashing through the air. He stepped it up, and after a few paces the big man who was attacking him fell behind, a few more and he had stopped. Jamaal pulled up a safe distance away and turned to take him in. Panting heavily, the big man shouted.
“You tell Degga and his ministers they can’t send their messages this way. They don’t own this land, like the English never owned it or the Chinese after them.” Jamaal thought better of arguing and instead started out again across the sandy plain.
Before he reached the IT he saw Shila perched on a particularly gnarly looking tree. He checked the timer and despite the escapade with the knife-wielding maniac he still had more than an hour to make the drop.
“Waiting for me?”
“Don’t you want to try and stick your finger in me again?” he said, crouching down and looking up.
“I would if I had a branch.”
“And do what? Beam it straight into your mind?”
“My friend’s got a jacked holopic.”
“Nonsense little girl. That’s just vine noise”
“Get me a branch and I’ll show you.”
“I’ll find you a branch in exchange for a kiss.”
“Don’t you have to run off? I don’t want to get blown up just because you’re late.”
“Jamaal does not run, he glides.”
“Whatever,” said Shila, turning away. It was only moments before she turned back hoping to find his handsome face still staring at her, but he had vanished.
As usual, Jamaal stared at the picture as the data streamed into him. The light pulsed; Degga took in the undulations and stormed through the door. Outside he berated the static cyclists.
“That isn’t cycling, that’s sitting and waving your legs around. Speed up. I say speed up.”
Inside Jamaal manoeuvred himself over to the cupboard careful not to become unplugged. He eased out a draw and pulled out a branch from among the other leads. The footsteps of the professor echoed in the corridor. He pushed the draw closed and shuffled back into place. He stuffed the lead into his pants and whilst doing so unintentionally pulled the branch out of his port. The door opened, Jamaal turned slightly, as naturally as possible, shielding his stomach. Then he quickly reconnected it, just as the professor retook his seat at the desk.
“I don’t believe it, you’ve dropped frames. Those imbeciles can’t even cycle properly, and they wonder why I ration their portions.”
Jamaal’s eyes scanned the inside of the IT as he galloped through the red dust, but Shila was nowhere to be seen. He continued past it and towards the General’s camp. He was concerned when he heard the footfall of someone running behind him. Worried that it was the machete wielder he increased his pace.
“Hey!” Shila called out as the pigeon got away from her. Jamaal turned a rye smile on his lips. Reaching into his pants he pulled out the branch and puckered his lips. Shila turned on her heels and ran the other way. Within a few strides Jamaal was upon her, enveloping her with his arms.
“Hey cheeky boy, I only said a kiss.”
“I’m tired,” said Yella, Shila’s younger sister as she continued to ride. The jacked holopic juddered as the power from the static cycle coursed into it. Shila hooked Jamaal up and the hologram of Degga flickered into life, his 3D image surrounded by spinning maps of the IT.
“General, I have a simple message for you, hurt the Termites, not too many dead not yet, just get our message across – we want them gone.”
“Ow!” grimaced Jamaal as Shila ripped the branch out, sending the holopic blank.
“You can’t take this to him.”
“I’m late,” said Jamaal, getting to his feet.
“Please,” asked Shila but Jamaal turned his back and ran.
Jamaal descended through the jungle and down the densely overgrown path that led to the General’s camp. As usual the General treated him with contempt, plugging him in forcibly and never meeting his eye. It seemed to Jamaal that he took more care of his machines. He guessed the general knew they were worth more than him.
Back in the nest Jamaal picked at his food, the pen seemed relatively calm. The sound of heavy footsteps proceeded the arrival of Yannick as he brushed past the nonchalant guards, his arm hitched around Ibe’s shoulder, holding him up. There was a huge hole in Ibe’s stomach; he winced with pain. Yannick laid him down in the mud hut.
“Why did you bring him here?” asked Jamaal.
“I don’t leave a dying man,” replied Yannick.
“He’s not dying, he can’t run, he’s dead,” said Jamaal.
“Ah speed, the rightful measure of a man.” Yannick wiped his hands on his trousers. The sound of Degga ordering the guards into action could be heard from the other side of the pen.
“Do something. Talk to them. Delay them!” Yannick implored.
Jamaal ignored him, slipping round one side of the hut as Degga appeared flanked by two guards from the other. The officials marched up to Yannick who stood baring the entranceway to the hut.
“Give him a week to get better, I’ll take his drops,” said Yannick standing his ground.
Degga laughed and pushed Yannick forcefully aside. The officer that remained cracked his cane over Yannick’s knees sending him sprawling. Gripping the pigeon around his neck the guard cuffed a metal collar round his throat.
“We’re not animals,” spluttered Yannick, straining to breathe.
“You must be excited,” said Degga as he fiddled with some settings. Jamaal did not take his eyes off the picture of the mountain.
“We haven’t ever had a pigeon reach the landmark thousand, not on my watch. I’m imagining the Hyde Council will take your success as a sign of my own lofty standards.”
Jamaal paced from foot to foot. He was not sure he had ever felt excited and wondered if it was synonymous with fear.
Down in the ravine Shila and Jamaal walked in silence. Shila had a black eye and her lips were swollen. She walked with a distinct limp. After a while she spoke.
“We’re going over the mountain,” she said.
“We both are,” he said, stopping and looking at her.
“You’re going to the General.”
“This is my last drop.” He said.
With some difficulty Jamaal hooked himself up, and the 3D image of the general configured itself in front of them.
“Hyde council do not care, their silence on the matter is confirmation of their apathy. I say now, crush the termites without delay, any force necessary. Total destruction, the only solution.”
Shila took her feet off the pedals and the picture fizzled out. Jamaal unhooked himself and stared off into the distance.
“Do you know how many people are in the Terminal? We only need hours; we’re already packing, we’re…” Then she stopped, she realised she was asking him to give up his life for her people.
“Sorry I shouldn’t even ask, I know there’s nothing you can do.” She said as she knelt down next to him, took his hand in hers and kissed him fleetingly on the lips.
“Please, go slow, go as slow as you can go.” And with that she turned and left.
Jamaal walked along the path, looking at the ground, at the jungle, at the sky and then his eyes fixed on the mountain, and he started jogging, slowly at first. He had heard of malfunctions, tickers that never went boom, maybe it was a range thing? There was always a chance when you were as fast as him. He ran past the overgrown path that led down to the General and kept running, his pace picking up stride by stride. The mountain was in view now and he could taste the air getting fresher as he ascended. His feet pounded the ground as they propelled him forward. Faster and faster, he became a blur of sweat and flesh.