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Common Denominator

Posted by Wild Musette editor on

Common Denominator

by Melanie Harding-Shaw


When I first met my latest ex, “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits was belting out of the speakers and I had to wipe my hands before I danced with him because the bar was so sticky from spilled beer. That dance set up a false expectation for our relationship, although the bar itself should have tipped me off. I wonder what my chip would have played that night if I’d had it back then. Maybe “Luka” by Suzanne Vega, only he didn’t stop hitting when I cried.

He was just the latest in a series of poor choices on my part. Each time, I swear that the next time will be different. But it never is—I don’t know how to be different. I am the common denominator in my relationships. Maybe they’re my own fault.

When they asked for volunteers to beta test a media chip implanted in your brain I was first in line, although the queue wasn’t exactly stretching around the block. The promise of music played directly to my auditory cortex in response to my emotions was too tempting to refuse. I don’t deserve much but I had always known my messed-up life deserved its own soundtrack.

The chip didn’t disappoint. When I was depressed, it played something I couldn’t help but dance to. When I was angry, it mellowed me out. Soon everybody with money had one. I would never have been able to afford one myself.

I was sitting at a bar the first time it happened. A guy came and leaned beside me. He was wearing a white-collared shirt with the top two buttons undone so I had to keep pulling my eyes back up to his face and he smelled like clean clothes and money. He was looking at the chip controller on my wrist.

“You don’t see many of those around here,” he said with a smooth smile. He pulled his sleeve up a little and put his wrist next to mine to compare. “Yours looks like a newer model.” His fingers brushed mine as he pulled his sleeve back down.

I smiled into his blue eyes, “Yeah, I’m a tester. This upgrade hasn’t been released yet.” I would have carried on, maybe asked him to dance, but “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson started playing in my mind so loud that it drowned out every other sound in the bar. I winced and rubbed my temples and the volume went down a little.

“Are you okay? Can I buy you a drink?” the guy asked.

Was I okay? I wasn’t sure. The chip was not supposed to do that. “No thanks, I need to go—sorry.” I grabbed my coat from the stool next to me.

“Here’s my card. Give me a call when you’re feeling better,” he said. As he helped me put my coat on, his hands ran down my arms and I trembled a little. Was I being silly? The chip was designed to respond to my emotions and the only thing I was feeling was horny; it must be defective. He was beautiful and clearly successful. He was nothing like my ex-boyfriends. The volume of “Smooth Criminal” went back up. The common denominator in my relationships is me. I left without him.

I had to report the incident to the developers, of course. Playing loud music while you’re at a bar listening to loud music is not what the chips are supposed to do. I knew something was wrong when they didn’t let me leave. Instead I was interviewed by progressively more and more senior people at the company. No one was telling me what was going on, but I could kind of tell what the problem was. “Were your controllers still touching when the music started? Did they try and synch with each other?”

No, they didn’t, not that I noticed anyway. But I guess my chip was reading something from his chip or they wouldn’t be asking. When I finally got home I trawled the Internet for anything about the guy. He was a high-flying investment banker. I used the email address on his card to find his Facebook page, wondering if I should send him a friend request just to get access. His privacy settings were locked right down and everything else was corporate vanilla.

A folk guitar intro started playing in my mind and I looked down at my controller in surprise—“Whisper Your Mother’s Name“ by Jimmie Rodgers. I hit the stop button; it really wasn’t my thing. The chip was definitely defective. As soon as I took my hand away it started playing again. My finger hovered over the stop button. Would the developers have been so worried if it was just a defect, though?

I looked again at the Facebook login screen in front of me and then touched the back of my neck where the chip had been implanted with shaking hands. It only took a moment of searching his friends list to figure out who his mother was. I typed her name into the password field and was rewarded with full access to his page and messages.

He was too clever to put anything incriminating on Facebook messenger but the signs were clear for someone with my history. He looked different from my exes on the outside, but inside he was just the same. He was an abusive predator and he had at least three women on the hook.

The developers left me five messages the next day asking me to come in and have the chip removed. I looked around my dirty apartment, breathed in the smog from the diesel trains that ran below my window, and I packed a bag and left. “Cold War” by Janelle Monáe was the soundtrack of my escape. Was I alone?

I am the common denominator in my relationships. That is my superpower. I’m not a victim any more. The chip and I can tell if you’re going to beat me, or worse. Together, we can do something about it.




Melanie Harding-Shaw is a public policy writer by day and speculative fiction writer by night. She lives in Wellington, New Zealand, with her husband and three children.


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