Short Story: “Common Factor” By C. A. Brown

After what seemed like an eternity, De1La knew she was home. It had been five days. Five long, strange, alien days since the message had shown up in her assignment tray. The edges of the text box had been painted red, complete with ink blot textures and micro-circuitry that had been rigged to chirp like a cicada until the circuit was broken. It had taken her less than three minutes to open it.

In high-contrast print, it read: ‘REPLACEMENT NEEDED. HAZARD PAY. ACCEPT? Y/N

De1La hadn’t hesitated. Twenty-six years of Hollywood movie conditioning and spy games had told her that choosing “Y” when confronted with scary red messages is what interesting people do. Doubly so if the messages are worded in a mysterious way.

On some level, she knew that this was because games and movies would be pretty boring if everyone didn’t choose “Y“. There was even a protocol about it called “MONOMYTH“. A set of rules designed to ensure that the main character, player or not, would eventually choose “Y” even if they insisted on acting cool and selecting “N” like some kind of post-ironic meta-sarcastic hipster.

Of course, it hadn’t taken long for “MONOMYTH” to seep into real life. For the perfectly-pressed suits at some Corp somewhere to realise that cribbing their next killer app from a late-night game session might be a way to write the seven hours off as productive time. Surprisingly, there was little protest. Senders loved the fact that they could act like feudal lords, ordering and summoning at will. Readers loved the fact that life was a little bit more like the games.

But, everyone gets burned by this kind of thing eventually. The system had maybe a few months left before this number reached a critical mass. Unfortunately for De1La, the “MONOMYTH” design principles were still just about excitingly new enough. So, she had gleefully chosen “Y” and felt excited about it.

When the follow-through message arrived, it had sounded interesting. The group’s main reporter, JedFridge, had come down with a bad case of Maltese Mycotoxosis and they needed someone else to be their boots on the ground. Someone to give them a window into the world outside of spy games, chat chambers and synthetic food. Someone to inject a new conversation topic when debates about the reasons behind the brief change of James Bond’s service pistol during the late 1990s had reached their logical, fractious end.

So, De1La had been dispatched to the BrightFields Festival. Undercover, of course. Since she couldn’t just install a new player texture, she’d had to dip into group expenses for the wardrobe. It was a hideous mixture of neon, geometric prints and hologram vests. A far cry from the understated glamour of the average spy game.

The five days had gone on forever. Although she’d thought that countless virtual 20th century cocktail parties would prepare her for it, she soon realised the limitations of her training. The people who design games don’t go to mainstream events and the people who go to mainstream events don’t design games.

When she’d arrived at the pearly gates beside the robot-manicured festival field, she’d expected to overhear hundreds of interesting conversation snippets that would provide her with interesting avenues of investigation.

She didn’t. Every conversation seemed to consist of complaints about musicians she’d never heard of, repetitive tales about getting trashed on the latest designer chemicals and/or boasts about having the latest communication hardware.

About the only thing it was useful for was building her cover identity. So, when some guy in a checkerboard suit asked her if she’d was going to catch RayGlow’s set later whilst tripping balls on FourCream, she’d been able to confidently collate and repeat: ‘His second album was so crypto-derivative. You’d need something stronger. I once almost fried my synapses on Yellow42. Good times.‘ Just like speaking hesitant Russian to get past the guard at the beginning of Mission In Moscow III, it worked like a charm. The guy believed her.

On the fifth day, De1La realised that she didn’t have a single story to add to her report. For a while she’d thought about just describing what she saw but, even with the GonzoBuddy writing software she’d installed on her portable console, the algorithms couldn’t find a way to make the text fragments she fed into it sound like anything more than a bad poem.

Then, when hanging around near to the main stage after some up-and-coming NeoDubCore mixer had finished his third set, De1La got talking to one of the backing musicians. The green-haired woman had been sitting at the back of the stage cranking some kind of decapitated violin like it was an organ grinder. Although mixers didn’t mix with the riff-raff, backing musicians were little more than riff-raff themselves. Hired on three-hour talent contracts, then discarded. Still cheaper than licensing a hologram though.

Pointing at the instrument, the musician had told De1La that it was a called a Hurdy Gurdy. De1La had laughed and said ‘No way. Really?‘. Within three minutes, she had learnt that it worked like a mix between a violin and a keyboard. Within four minutes, she’d learnt that it was seriously old-school. Older than the electric guitar. Within five minutes, De11a felt at home for the first time in five days.

Even though De1La had never touched an instrument in her life, she recognised the passion. She recognised the fascination. She recognised the dedication. She recognised that she was talking to a fellow geek for the first time in days. It was like water in a desert. It felt like the two of them shared some common trait, heavily shaped by culture and circumstance, but still fundamentally the same. Like two dialects of the same language.

It was then, and only then, that she wrote her article and sent it to the group. It got nine views. She was practically a celebrity.

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