Mic Drop at SXSW

This short story was written for 2020 NYC Midnite Round 2. The Judges feedback is posted after the end of the story. The genre was SPY, the location AN AWARDS CEREMONY, the character a WELDER. We had 3 days to write a 2000 word story.

Synopsis: Innovators, tech giants and industrial spies all vie for show stopping tech at The South by Southwest Technology Awards. This year, if she doesn’t get caught, construction welder WenJi will drop a mic, or ten, in the famous venues.

WenJi stared at her kitchenette’s worn counter then at her cell phone. She was tired and wanted to reply “no” to the last text.  Instead, she poured her coffee into a steel thermos and packed her lunch.  As sunrise began to brighten the Austin skyline, she tossed her welder’s hood and gloves onto the passenger seat and headed for work.  The commute would give her time to think. 

She considered her aging parents, her unstable brother and the fumes wafting in from the hiccupping engine of her car.  Her day job paid her bills but it was her night work that supported everything else. She fished her cell from her pocket as the traffic slowed. She typed “ok” and hit send.  

That evening, WenJi stared at the kinetic sculptures scattered through Long Park while she waited. Mrs. Ming, the matronly owner of the neighborhood bakery, arrived and interrupted WenJi’s awe, “The art is stunning, isn’t it?”

WenJi bowed her head in deference to the woman. “Good evening, ba Ming.” The young woman used the Vietnamese honorifics with the native ease instilled by her parents. “I have loved these metal works since I was a girl. Strength and grace in perfect balance.”

The two women silently admired the art. Then Mrs. Ming rested her weathered hand on WenJi’s forearm. “You have been making deliveries and doing errands for me since before you started college. You trust me and ask no foolish questions.”

WenJi nodded, “Yes, you have helped me, and my family. You talked to my father when I chose technical school and ‘man’s work’ over university. You helped me find my first welding job, taught me how to buy a used car, and let me borrow a van when I moved out on my own. You are my bὰ ngoḁi, I have no other grandmother here.”  WenJi still delivered unopened bakery boxes to a warehouse in San Antonio twice a month. A $300 cash bonus followed each trip and helped her pay her student debt.

Mrs. Ming patted WenJi’s arm. “You have also helped me. Remember when you flew to Florida for spring break and delivered my son’s laptop to his weight loss clinic?”

WenJi did indeed remember. She had returned to Texas with mouse ears, a sunburn, and a $2000 ‘bonus’ that ended up going toward medical bills for her younger brother, Taavi.  He landed in rehab the weekend after his high school graduation.  WenJi convinced Taavi to spend his summer ‘away’ in rehab and her parents ignored the truth.  She used her welding skills to build hidden floor compartments into the bakery’s vans to earn enough cash to cover Taavi’s care.

Mrs. Ming spoke again, “There are new opportunities, WenJi.” The elder’s tone grew excited. “Listen sharp and hear what an old woman knows.”

A few weeks later, WenJi got a call to take the welder’s test for the job she’d applied for at Mrs. Ming’s suggestion. The work would be for a construction company building the event spaces for the South by Southwest Technology Awards. As a journeyman level, female minority and certified welder, WenJi was a prize candidate for companies looking to meet diversity quotas for contracts. She checked a lot of boxes. Including those requiring citizenship since her parents had immigrated three months before she was born.  It wasn’t long before the offer came to join the crew.  

WenJi enjoyed building the steel infrastructure of the settings and venues. She endured the hazing and bullish behavior of her fellow welders. As the days passed, they came to respect her work and gave up the foolishness. Her first day off she received an unexpected delivery of five small boxes neatly stacked in a paper grocery bag.  Each contained a cheap cell phone and a metal container the size of a breath mint tin. They were labeled ‘Surge Suppressor’ and had three thin wires protruding from one end.  She suspiciously turned the box over and over in her hands, weighing it and her options. One cell phone buzzed. Cautiously, she answered.

“WenJi, I see you received the package.” 

The voice was not Mrs. Ming’s.  The man on the call sounded like a middle aged newscaster.  WenJi hesitated then hastily disconnected. She’d only ever spoken to Mrs. Ming.  An hour later, her personal cell pinged a text.  It was from Mrs. Ming: ‘8pm Long Park.’ WenJi paced in her apartment hoping she had not screwed up by answering that call.

Mrs. Ming arrived on the arm of an older, white man. WenJi greeted the old woman, “Ba Ming, you should not be out in the night air.”  She eyed Ming’s escort nervously.

“Yes, child, but we do as is necessary. This is Mr. Andrew Johnston.” Mrs. Ming patted the man’s arm and smiled at WenJi. “He is a sponsor of mine, and has been keen to enlist your talents. You have proven yourself as a trustworthy worker. Andrew has more lucrative opportunities for you than I can offer.”

WenJi nodded at the man then took the elder woman’s hands in hers. “Thank you, ba Ming, you have honored me and my family. I will make you proud.” She bowed her head and kissed the woman’s hands.

Mrs. Ming gathered the young woman into a firm hug and kissed her hair. “I am very proud of you WenJi. You are like my own daughter. I will always have a treat for you at the shop. Stay sharp, and listen to Andrew.” Mrs. Ming stepped away from the pair. “Now, I have to go warm these old bones.”  With a final wave over her shoulder, the woman puttered away.

Andrew smiled, “Now that we have been formally introduced, let’s talk about those packages.”

“I’m sorry I hung up on you. I just never…”

Andrew interrupted her, “No, no. You did the right thing. I thought Mrs. Ming had talked to you already.”

“I see. So…” WenJi hesitated then continued, “those aren’t bombs or anything? I don’t want to be responsible for that kind of thing.”

“Of course not, no. That would be crazy. They are merely listening devices for your new job site. I want you to tack weld them behind the electrical outlets and wire them to the power. Positive, negative, antenna.  Install them wherever you can, especially in the floors of the meeting rooms and in the privacy booths.  Once they are in place, hold the phone near the box and press #741. The signal will activate. After work, destroy the phone, just like on television shows. Take out the sim card and break it, twist the phone apart and toss everything in separate garbage cans on your way home. Easy peasy.”

WenJi shrugged. “Easy peasy, right. What if I get caught?”

Andrew smiled warmly. “Don’t get caught. People are counting on you, right? Mrs. Ming, your parents, your brother. They all need you, don’t they?”

“Yeah.” WenJi picked at a callous. “Why listen in on a conference when you can just buy a ticket? This seems…weird.” 

“People gossip at these events. We want to hear what they say when no one else is around. Learn what problems there are and about what’s coming next. This helps us know where to focus our tech efforts. This is a big deal, but you can do this. You are really talented. I’ve been watching. I wouldn’t give you this job if I didn’t think you were ready.” Andrew placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned in close. He smelled of Irish Spring soap, same as her father.  

“You can do this and your rewards will be higher than you have ever earned.”

WenJi shivered and pulled back slightly. “Ok, just the five?”

“No, I’ll have more delivered as you place those. We want as many as possible in position. But, take your time. Be careful. I’ll know each time one is activated.” Andrew held out his hand. “Let me see your phone and I’ll give you my cell. Text me if any problems arise.”

WenJi watched as he entered his name and number.  “I am not sure about this. It’s a lot.”

Andrew returned her phone, holding her hand for a brief moment. “This assignment will pay enough to cover your brother’s schooling, maybe even move your folks out of that slum. If anything bad happens, I’ll take care of your family. I promise.” His calm, strong tone and encouragement warmed WenJi’s face and she tugged her hand away.

“You promise to take care of them,” She briefly met his gaze. “But what about me?”

Andrew smiled at her. “You too. I promise. Look, I get it, you don’t know me. Let’s go get a latte and fix that.” Andrew offered his elbow and WenJi reluctantly tucked her hand into the crook of his arm.

____

Nearly a week passed and Andrew worried he had missed the mark in grooming his new protégé.  Then his phone buzzed and the proof appeared on his screen: the first and second devices were activated with strong signals. Andrew smiled, he’d judged the woman rightly after all. He would deliver her bonus personally and bolster their bond.

At the work site, WenJi lingered in her welding at the SXSW awards stage. The noise of the construction covered the pounding of her pulse in her ears. The arc welder flickered off as she paused and raised her welding hood. A familiar supervisor neared and inspected her work.

“Any trouble?” The young woman, dressed in dark colors and a gold hard hat spoke quietly.

WenJi stuffed her cold hands into her pockets. “No. The handler texted about meeting right after I activated them.”

“Good. Make your pickup and continue as I said. My team will piggyback on the signals so we can grab the audio files and track him. There will be extra in it for you if you think you can draw him in closer. He must be well connected. My employer could use a deep link like him. From what you described, he seemed to be quite charmed with you.”

WenJi scuffed at the pavement with her boot. “He’s old. I think it is probably just a ‘daddy’s proud of you’ kind of thing. Besides, don’t you think this is complicated enough without adding more?”

The woman laughed. “What’s so complicated about boy meets girl?” The woman cocked her eyebrow at WenJi’s discomfort. “Seriously?” She huffed with derision. “Industrial spying is complicated by definition. Why else would it pay so well? We’re on the bottom rung. We do the job, get the bucks or get dead.  Best way to get out alive is to grab the cash from both sides then vanish.”

WenJi eyed the woman. “No loyalty, no worry about what might happen? No family to think about?”

The supervisor paused, “No and hell no. Look, these aren’t your friends. Even old Ming was just paying you cash to take risks. You know they aren’t on your side. They only care about their corporate gigs. If I hadn’t stumbled across you welding in those mics, somebody else might have. Andrew would drop you dead in a ditch if you became a show stopping problem. At least with me, you get paid from both sides and aren’t dead. Plus, I’m not giving you fairytale crap about the outcome if you screw up. I’m not your friend.” The woman glanced around again and slipped WenJi a thick brown envelope from her clipboard. “Anyway, here’s the first payment. Tomorrow, I’ll get you into the green room. Break a leg!”

WenJi sighed as the supervisor walked away. This wasn’t how she’d imagined all this playing out. She’d become the puppet for two masters. Her only solace was that it would pay well, as long as she kept to their script. She fished another ‘surge suppressor’ from her tool bag, flipped down her hood and struck the plasma arc. She’d drop the mics and collect the cash before the curtains closed on this dangerous performance.

Judges Feedback: ”Mic Drop at SXSW” by Rebecca Wilson –   WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1663}  The main character is very easy to identify with because it feels like she is learning as she goes like just the audience is.  To that end, the secrets about this situation are revealed at effective and clearly strategic times.  Also, because the main character is caught in something of an impossible situation throughout, the suspense and tension remain high, incentivizing the reader to pay close attention.  {1943}  The premise of this story was very strong. I liked the combination of the Vietnamese culture and industrial espionage. This created an interesting dynamic with WenJi’s respect for Mrs. Ming, and Mrs. Ming’s grandmotherly appearance of concern for WenJi’s welfare. You portrayed a strong picture of the reality of WenJi’s life, struggling to help her family. The plot to weld the listening devices into the new building was intriguing. The description of Andrew “grooming his new protégé” was quite chilling. Good job!  {1970}  I liked the the relationship between WenJi and Mrs. Wing. It’s refreshing to read a story that includes generational reverence. “Listen sharp and hear what an old woman knows.” is a line that works anywhere, in any culture. Thanks!  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1663}  The next step for this piece would be about focus.  WenJi’s family history is heartfelt and compelling, certainly, but takes a fairly large part of the story before WenJi becomes deep into her mission.  It’s possible that the exposition could be condensed, reaching WenJi’s actual mission sooner.  There is the opportunity to integrate more of those details with action as it happens.  There could stand to be a scene or two of her actually installing these devices.  Going too deeply into the context of the story before the plot starts moving risks slowing the pace and rhythm.  {1943}  I was curious about the fact that WenJi went even further, and started working for two sides. It wasn’t very clear how she managed to do this. I wasn’t sure that it was actually needed, as I felt it released tension, rather than building more. I wonder if you might end with more tension if WenJi tried to call an end to her role in the espionage, but then realized that she was now trapped. I would have liked to have seen more of Mrs. Ming, maybe with her showing a more chilling side at the end.  {1970}  There’s not much to say about what needs work in “Mic Drop at SXSW”. Given that this is a short story, I can suggest that the plot reads more like one that could play out over many chapters. The ending as it is is a bit abrupt. I do like an ending that leaves one thinking about the possibilities, but in this case it’s just not enough food for thought. Good story, could be expanded. Thanks!