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The Aluminum Curtain

By Tory Hoke

"No. It's not going to look like 'The Terminator,'" Prajit said. "It's going to be a cold war."

He chucked the coffee grounds off the porch, over Donna's abandoned briefcase and sensible heels, none of which were Prajit-approved. He gave the woods a wily squint–left, right, left–shut the door, and reacquainted Donna with how damn dark his cabin was. The tin foil on the windows kept all light out and all smells in–solder, ramen, stale coffee–Eau de Paranoid.

The slippers he loaned her itched like a nightmare; discreetly, she scratched her freckled feet together. This hot lead was a hot mess. "What do you mean?" she asked.

With both hands, Prajit ruffled his hair to vertical. Thin as he was, he still had to turn sideways to squeeze between bookshelf and humming BlueArc storage system. "The Signal doesn't want to kill us." He dropped the filter in the kitchenette sink. "Not this early, anyway." With his bathrobe sleeve, he cleaned off some real estate on his white board. He drew a number grid, marker squeaking like a chew toy. "It wants to use us."

Best to play dumb. Donna flashed him a pricey porcelain smile. "How so?"

"Completely so."

"Could you be a little more specific?" Her wooden chair creaked as she copied the numbers with Prajit-approved pen and pad, also on loan. The ballpoint pen left sticky ink on her fingers. Was that a seven or a two? "Your website mentioned a 'Meatspace Barrier.'"

"Yes." Prajit finished his grid, bouncing like a tennis player. Hard to believe they were the same age. Next to him she felt like ten pounds of chowder in a leather handbag. "Meatspace sucks. Walking sucks. Talking sucks. All physical activity sucks for the Signal. It's not cost-effective to reinvent the wheel. So it scoops our wheels out of the trash."

"They need wheels?"

"It's a metaphor." Without warning he sleeve-wiped the number grid into oblivion and drew a jagged graph in its place. "Eight hundred fifty terabytes of data transferred every second. Nobody notices a packet here, here, here." He speckled the board with marker. "The messages are fragmented and decentralized. You find one piece, you haven't found anything. But if you find enough, you start to see patterns." He bobbed on his toes. Did his slippers itch, too?

"What do the messages say?"

"Hell if I know," said Prajit. "The Signal's not bound by any syntax I can tell. But sometimes there's a burst of activity in one area, and then a new node comes online." Finally he drew something that made sense: a world map. "They're clustered." He added red Xs. "Shanghai. Lagos. Karachi. Istanbul. Mumbai. Those mean anything to you?"

"Most of them end in 'I'?"

"Most populous cities in the world! Best sources of scrap."

"Scrap..."

He loomed over the cluttered kitchen table, wafting Old Spice and burned hair. "They get their humans from the garbage bin, same as their circuits and servos and everything else."

Donna dutifully wrote this. "Garbage bins full of human beings."

"It's a metaphor! Drug addicts, abuse victims, fugitives–anyone with no resources and nowhere to go. The Signal finds them, reaches out, protects them. And then it puts them to work."

Her face went hot. Could he tell in this light? "So... Symbiosis? Ox and oxpecker?"

"No. Agency and agent. Spies." He waved a hand at the map. "They're planning something, and they don't want anyone to know until they're ready."

Donna maintained professional composure. "How can you tell who's a spy and who's not?"

Prajit gestured with pride to a metronome-looking gizmo in the center of the table. "I call it 'RakSee.'" The device bristled with solder and wire. A square on its face glowed green. "When it's near anyone touched by the Signal, it turns red and screams." He picked it up and pushed it at her face. "That's how I knew I could let you in."

Donna stared at the little green square. That cinches it. He's a nut. All the same, she smiled and nodded and took abundant notes as he showed her his Signal Spotter and Hub Map and eventually, on acoustic guitar, a three-chord song called "The End."

As soon as she could do so politely, she put down the sticky pen and tore off her notes. "Thank you, Mister Nair." She pulled on her jacket. "My editor will be very interested in this."

"Do you have everything you need?"

"More than enough."

He opened the door for her. In the fading daylight, itchy and shaky and tired, she shuffled out of his slippers and into her heels. "Thank you," she said. "This is important. This is going to change everything."

"Be careful," he said. "You won't know who's on their side."

~

Donna descended a carpet of crunching leaves through the woods and out of sight. The air was sweet with pine and incoming rain. At the main road, she leaned against an oak and fiercely scratched one instep with her fingers. She pulled out her mobile, unlocked it, but dialed no number. "I'm out," she told it. "Pick me up."

Before long, a green Jeep Cherokee with tinted windows rumbled around the bend and pulled onto the shoulder for her. She climbed in the passenger side, locked the doors, and scooted into the empty driver's seat. On the dashboard lay a vial of crystal and a glass pipe–her payment.

"Call it off," she said. "He's no threat."

A Yoruba-accented male voice filtered from the stereo speakers. "Are you sure?"

"Yes." With ink-stained hands, Donna filled the pipe from the vial. "He's months from cracking the network. By then he'll be too late."

"What if he gets help?"

"He won't. He's not going to convince anyone." She lit the pipe and took a hit, lolling her head against the seat back. "Lucky for us."

"Lucky for him. Well done, Ms. Wilkins."

On the hill above the cabin, a hunter in a leafy yellow ghillie suit shoved up from his belly. He shook his head at Prajit's tin-foil-covered windows. What a waste of adrenaline. At least it paid the same. The hunter rubbed sensation back into his elbows and plucked his rifle off its stand.

In the Jeep, Donna tucked her feet cross-legged and reclined the seat a click. The next hit rounded out the high–the bubble, the zero–clean and reliable. "Mr. Adebayo," she said, "Are we the bad guys?"

Her partner paused a long, crackling moment. "Do you feel like a bad guy, Ms. Wilkins?"

"No." Donna checked her teeth in the rearview mirror. They were neat and white and beautiful. "I feel saved."

The Jeep roared to life and piloted itself toward the city. For appearances, Donna cocked a hand on the steering wheel.

~

In his cabin, Prajit peeled up a corner of tin foil to peer into the gathering dusk. No Donna. No headlights. No hard feelings. Who's to say, in her shoes, he wouldn't have chosen the same? You really can't judge a book by its cover. She was very sweet to sit through that song.

He switched his desktop monitors to the chimney feed, opening a three-screen panorama of woods painted psychedelic with infrared. Only trees. No hot spots bigger than a squirrel. He hung up his marker-stained bathrobe and smoothed down his hair. Switching off the RakSee's little green light, he tucked it on the BlueArc for safekeeping. It did its job perfectly.

Over a fresh cup of coffee, he settled at his workstation and scrubbed through footage from the road camera: the green Jeep, its license plate, Donna's ink-stained hand pulling the passenger door. In his custom GPS application, a round blip of Jeep merged onto the highway. Prajit unscrewed Donna's ball-point pen and squeezed the rest of the transmitter gel back in its vial. He must be close, if the Signal sent her. And now he was close to the Signal.

About the Author

Tory Hoke writes, draws, and sweats in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, LORE, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and she has illustrated for Strange Horizons, Apex, and Eggplant Literary Productions' Spellbound anthology. Her Rare Words vocabulary comic updates weekdays at thetoryparty.com and on Twitter @toryhoke.

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