‘The Marathrall strip was what the whole war was about you know. How it started. The machine, the alien artefact, complicated everything,’ the man said, moving a chess piece across the board.
‘The Uploader, you mean?’ D’patha asked.
As he considered his next moved, D’patha saw an image of the Uploader in his mind’s eye: the huge octopus like sprawl of metal where he works, a facility which stretches for kilometres, its periphery patrolled by the neutral United Federation Peacekeeper force.
‘The Uploaded - are they that important?’
‘It’s nothing to do with them. They are all mostly common criminals. No, it’s more the technology. Why they put it on this so-called neutral strip of land between two long term enemies, between Volunteer and Creeth territory is beyond me.’
‘Maybe they thought it would stop the animosity,’ D’Patha replied, sweeping a bishop across the white squares.
‘Well, it didn’t.’
‘So, this job.’
‘Well, it refers directly to the machine.’
A few days later, D’patha is once again sitting in the Plaza of Hope, perched on a stool outside a coffee shop. He knows he’s being paid a considerable amount for this job, but can’t remember exactly why he has to be there in particular, or indeed who instructed him to come. He looks through the liquid in his glass, trying to divine meaning from its contents: small metallic pieces in the drink shimmer as they catch the rays of the setting sun, pieces which will work their way into his bloodstream and attach themselves to various pathways in his mind, boosting and enhancing neuro-synaptic transmission.
In the Marathrall strip, this stretch of neutral land between warring sides, it is all he can do to keep up with his colleagues and the circle of friends he mixes with. They can all afford the more expensive implants, but he must stick with a small flask of boosted intelligence; a boost which lasts as long as these machines’ half-life. He will have a mere four hours of illumination before he is plunged back down, slower thoughts once again cloying his mind.
He thinks of the money. He knows this is an attempt to somehow raise funds to purchase these sensational implants: implants which will transform his life. His mind will be boosted for this crucial evening, doubly so; his higher level of intelligence will enable interactions with an alien machine.
He has exceeded the recommended dose, trying to recall events, swallowing two of the measures in quick succession. Neural burnout doesn’t worry him this time; he’s boosted his mind up to six times the dose in the past, with no major long term side effects: just temporary loss of colour vision, the reason why he began to moderate his overdoses.
He flicks some empty pistachio shells onto the ground, enjoying the hurried scurrying of the automated street bugs as they fight to clean up his rubbish. Metal carapaces clunk dully into one another amidst a whirring of electric motors. In the distance, just across the Volunteer border, larger machines are at work: Chreeth craft on a bombing run. The ground shakes almost imperceptibly on each impact and if you listen carefully, the sound follows shortly afterwards. But relaxing in warmth of the evening, miles away from the front, the war seems almost a distant memory.
The sun sends shafts of glowing light to dance over the marble of the square before it finally winks out beneath the horizon. Bereft of the warmth, a cold wind instantly sets up and he wraps his jacket around him, leather creaking.
And then he sees it. Suddenly a white cat appears, where moments before there was nothing.
‘You see, the aliens came back,’ the man said, which caught D’patha’s attention, his head jerking up from the game.
The man noticed this and smiled. ‘Thought you’d be surprised,’ he continued. ‘Most people are, when I tell them.’
‘Why didn’t anyone know?’ asked D’patha.
‘I guess they wanted it to be secret.’
‘The aliens gave us, The Volunteers, a new copy of the machine. Maybe in the hope it would alleviate the acrimony between us and the Chreeth.’ The man turned his attention back to the board, plucking a knight between thumb and forefinger and dispatching one of D’Patha’s pawns.
‘But it’s huge! How…,’ D’Patha started, distracted by the move he hadn’t anticipated.
‘The original Uploader is huge, you are right. It has to process thousands of individuals. This is a portable version, if you like.’
‘And you think it can stop the war?’
‘Maybe. We took it over the Marathrall strip border, into Chreeth territory. Your move.’
D’patha considered the board for a few moments, shuffling another pawn forward, out of the knight’s reach. He immediately realised he’d made a mistake, distracted as he was by thoughts of the aliens’ return.
‘So this portable version you mention, it’s in Creeth territory? Did you want them to steal it?’ asked D’patha.
‘We need it over there. The VSB did anyway,’ the man said. ‘So this is where you come in.’
D’patha nodded, trying to hide his almost childlike enthusiasm at the mention of the Volunteer Secret Bureau.
‘Before they left us for good, the aliens told us how to isolate a specific patch in the machine. Using this it is possible to transfer a single mind from body to body, without ever having to enter the hive mind. Before you ask, I don’t know how it works. We need someone with a background in these kind of matters. To make the transfer back.’ As he spoke the last words, the man moved his knight back across the board, vanquish D’patha’s bishop. ‘Check,’ he then added.
‘Look I know a lot about the Uploader, but this seems… What about the Peacekeeper border controls?’ asked D’patha.
‘It’s all in here,’ the man replied, surreptitiously pushing a small capsule across the table, along the edge of the chess set. ‘Need to know basis only,’ he continued. ‘Information will remain in an artificially created engram, accessible only when the mission begins until the moment of completion. Then it will disappear forever. If any information is disclosed during this time you will be killed. As a safety measure, the engrams will not open until you receive the appropriate stimulus. Understand? Payment will be transferred directly if you succeed. Now make your next move and then let me see you swallow that pill.’
The white cat sits on the marble, looking at him smugly, eyes gleaming as if they had captured the last rays of the setting sun. When it realises it has his attention it stretches and then snakes its way through the table leg forest to rub itself warmly against his shin. A flea jumps from the cat’s hair and onto his skin, lancing a capillary bed with a specific protein. This flows up into the venous system of his leg, and eventually after a few seconds, jets up into the brain. There it binds a discrete nano-machine which sends waves of signals into his cerebral cortex.
As soon as he’d seen the cat, he’d recognised some importance attached to it. Something he couldn’t quite place. Then, as it rubs on his legs he finds himself caught with an impulse to grab the animal. When the machines in his mind begin to function, he realises the true importance of the animal: this was the pick up. He wonders why he didn’t realise before, wonders if his memory supplements weren’t functioning as well as they should be.
Finally, he picks up the cat and strokes it. At the same time, pathways begin to open in his mind. He understands what the cat is, looks searchingly into its eyes, trying to see something beyond. The cat responds with a loud guttural purr and its claws extend and sink into his thigh. He stands up, throws a tip on the table and walks away, cat cradled in his arms; protective of the fragile animal which he now knows is carrying something which could alter the entire direction of the war.