The Soundtrack of Your Life

“So when someone’s wife had a baby, why was he hearing ‘We Are the Champions’ instead of ‘Morning Has Broken,’ or ‘Hallelujah,’ or some soaring instrumental bullshit?”

“‘We are the Champions’ is top of list for favorite song for ‘winning,’” Kiran says, his doe eyes reproachful. “We are fine-tuning the algorithm, but micro-expressions are harder to quantify for happiness. Human response to–”

Felix cuts him off. “Yes, yes, we know, the mod response covers fifteen levels all the way from ennui to heartbreak, but we need to keep tweaking on the other end, even if most of these music lovers are bored depressives.”

About a dozen of us, the tech team plus my two-person marketing team, are sitting around a long table in one of the many conference rooms on our floor in the Winchester building near the Chelsea piers. The rooms are along the east side of the building with floor-to-ceiling glass and a view of lower midtown, the Empire State building rising behind the sun-warmed orange and yellow brick backs and sides of the warehouses that block the first line of sight. From this height, the city is calm; the only movement is the occasional familiar tiny sparkle, sunlight on a passing drone moving between buildings. It’s a respite from our windowless work area.

Felix, the project lead, is beating up on Kiran, the tech lead. I’ve been trying to figure out Felix’s pattern, some days he is cajoling and some days he’s much more of an asshole. He tends to wear his hair one of two ways; it’s jet black and shaved on the sides with a mop that either flips forward in a relaxed wave, or gets gelled back in a solid crest. Today it’s the former. My idea is that it’s an indicator of his mood, but so far it’s been an elusive theory.

He glares around the room. “Are you getting your feedback from everybody?”

Mine is in, but Lalla next to me shifts guiltily. Overall, our mod is working well. We’ve all been beta-testing and tagging responses for the tech team. There’s just a final remaining problem with inconsistent responses to positive reactions: the mod gets mixed up between joy and triumph, for example, the subtler contentment of snuggling with a pet versus the self-righteous satisfaction of proving someone wrong.

After delivering the usual lecture and extracting multiple assurances from Kiran that the next series of updates will fix the issue, Felix morphs into a pleading pep talk. “Let’s make this the next climate control,” he finishes, referring to the mod that’s held up as the aspirational goal throughout the industry. I assume everyone else is as sick of hearing this as I am.

Climate control was the first third-party leech mod to hit the market right as the Sphere’s main competitor, the Protector, came out, pushing demand for both models beyond supply for months. I was doing marketing for a startup that was integrating micro-expression recognition into a mod for pharmaceutical research when we were bought out by one of the big three, and the underlying technology was split into several development paths. Someone had the bright idea that people wanted more drama in their lives and a mod that curated a personal musical soundtrack would be just the thing to do that. I’m fine with the project in general, but I miss the startup atmosphere. We all know the rug can be pulled out from under us at any moment; Felix, for all his tattoos, is from corporate.


Once work is over for the day, I abandon Manhattan for Brooklyn. Emerging from the subterranean depths of the subway, I squint in the late afternoon sunlight that turns the pavement into a glittering expanse of tar line crisscrossed patchwork, the haze of heat thickening the air in the narrow space between buildings and street. I enable climate control in my Sphere with a curt nod at the console that floats leeward, and bat away an ad drone that swoops too close. The opening instrumental burst of “Here Comes the Sun” that heralds my return to daylight stutters and is replaced by Tech N9ne’s “Get the Fuck Out of Here.” Making a mental note of the mod’s abrupt mood swing, I ease into the fray on the sidewalk, threading my way between the other pedestrians, as walking becomes an intricate dance– if the approaching pedestrians are wearing a Sphere, a wider berth, if not, just enough for mine. You can tell by the slight fuzziness around the edges of the perimeter, and I slither around and between, feeling my gait adjust to the track’s synth bassline and staggered rhythm. The homeless proselytizer on the corner of Metropolitan pauses his ranting to give me an appreciative leer. I give him a thumbs-up and a few extra credits in his digital cup. I’m brimming with what passes as goodwill at the moment; I am remote the rest of the week to run interviews. I stop at the bodega across the street for a six pack, setting my Sphere to pass-through with a quick twitch of my head so I can traverse the narrow aisle and get the beer from the cooler.

About the Sphere. It’s everything. It’s better than sliced bread. It’s a personal field that surrounds you like an almost transparent egg, ranging in protective ability from basic air filtration (a necessity with the mutating corona variants, along with the requisite pollutants) to a protective weather mode that sheers off wind and rain, to hardcrack mode, which can deflect a knife or even a low velocity bullet. One of the viral early ads showed it shooting out from under a dropped grand piano, with a dummy in it, of course. It takes some getting used to when you first start wearing it; there’s a certain amount of contained area that has to adjust if you change your point of gravity.

Keri, the day clerk, gives me a bored nod from within his cage, eyes briefly swiveling away from his media screen as I aim my six-pack and then my iris at the receptor. Outside again, I turn on to Union Street, towards my apartment building. The Tech N9ne song that faded into the background as I entered the bodega has now turned into some silky down-tempo electronica, music to get home by, apparently. I feel as if I’m starting to wind down, so that’s okay.

Now don’t get me wrong, New York City is still shit. This is no bright utopian future, clean-swept and shining; just the same old haves and have-nots, the new technology mixed in with the old, electric vehicles not polluting while the older models carry on with it. Getting all the buildings up to code will take years. And there is still a homelessness problem, an affordable housing problem, rising prices, frozen wages, rats, cockroaches, piles of garbage, bad subway service, same as it ever was. But personal comfort and safety have taken a huge step forward; that must be acknowledged. And like all technology, prices for the Sphere and its competitors have dropped until the same population that generally has the latest high-tech items has one; you can hardly walk around Williamsburg on the weekend and see anybody without one.

I let myself into my apartment building’s small lobby and glance inside the mailroom. The usual clutter of packages on the floor; I kick them out of the way to check the mail. Then I stop to stab futilely at the elevator button, but it’s stuck on the third floor again; I hear it chiming up there, doors opening and closing. I take the stairs, panting hard by the time I reach the seventh floor.

Inside the cool dimness of my apartment, I tell the Sphere to shut down. I shiver my way out of the backpack that carries my laptop and Sphere’s battery pack, letting it slide onto a chair behind me. I am not quite ready to turn on the lights and confront whatever state I’ve left things in, so I open a beer and put the rest in the fridge. I take a long slow swallow, feeling the promise behind the cool prickly bitterness. My silhouette in the dresser mirror regards me in turn, face shadowed, a sturdy, compact frame, shorter than I’d like, but good hair, straight, shiny, hanging in a dark curtain to my shoulders, and good ass, so I’ve been told. Soon, some packet of dinner to microwave, general decision-making on cleaning myself and/or the kitchen, and then the nightly preparation begins.

To sleep. That’s my dream, just to lie down and sleep. But the night has other plans. I know I do sleep; because sometimes I come to sprawled like a dead crab washed up on the beach before returning to my monotonous routine, the semaphoring limbs, the heaving groans, my eyelids autonomous flaps of muscle over my reddened eyes, reopening inexorably of their own accord so that I can fixate on the slow march of the arms of the glowing clock face on the bedside table. And now I have a new nemesis who isn’t me, or my brain, or even sleep, but someone who has moved in upstairs.


Today is the first of a series of interviews I have to run, signing up volunteer beta-testers for our mod. The man on my screen is named Gerardo, a stolid fellow, probably mid-20s, square head with closely shaved dark hair. He lacks affect, but seems amiable enough. I introduce myself as Moira. My name is Janice but I like to mix it up. I check the input form. “You signed up through our online ad, it says here— what made you want to try our mod?”

 “Well, I’m on furlough and I liked the sound of it. Timing is right.” The background behind him must be his parent’s house; the white wall with a line of cross-stitched flowers in round frames doesn’t seem like his style.

“So the mod installs on your Sphere, and we start with some basics; some of it you give us, some of it we get from your stats, where you lived, who your influences were; you can link to any of your playlists or personal channels and that gets worked in too.”

He nods. I can tell he isn’t going to be one of those types with a lot of questions about privacy, AI, tracking, storage of personal data. I’ve got answers for all that anyway.

“I see you were brought up in Raleigh, North Carolina, joined the military and moved to Fort Liberty for basic training, and that you had an uncle who played blues guitar and took you to clubs.”

I pull down the rest of his profile and send a request code to his Sphere for installation. He accepts it. “The mod is going to play you some tracks, or parts of tracks…just to get some data points, see how we’re doing. Relax, you can close your eyes if you want.”

Once installation is complete, I start the test script remotely. The mod has chosen “Tell Mama,” an old Muddy Waters song. Gerardo’s face remains impassive but at the first break point he says, “I like that.” Apparently his micro-expressions have been sufficient for the mod to interpret his reaction; the readout agrees. I open my mouth to tell him about the next phase, but there’s a sudden barrage of thumps from upstairs, and I automatically mute my mic, much as any New Yorker does for a passing siren.

When my upstairs neighbor first arrived, I put the tumult down to the movers: the stamping of hard-soled feet over my head in a sporadic back and forth, too unpredictable to become familiar, a suppressed violence in the force of each step, intermittently spiraling into a violent culmination of bumps that shook the walls, only to return to the pacing. At first I was perplexed by the anger in those steps. When a week had gone by, I could no longer pretend that he was still unpacking or moving furniture.

If we are both home during the day, it’s infuriating, but at night, it becomes an assault. He goes to bed later and rises earlier than I do. He goes out in the evening, and I forget about him, only to be startled by the brutality of his homecoming.

I unmute; the noise has paused temporarily. “That would be fairly neutral music, maybe for when you’re occupied with something familiar, like driving—music you’d enjoy while doing that.”

Gerardo nods, and the script continues, pulling partial tracks from his reactions, keeping it low key, just getting his baseline profile. Once that’s established we work up to some unexpected outliers based on his responses— he has a self-pitying streak—his strongest emotional response is to “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers Band. We arrange a callback the following week to debrief, and I explain to him that his reactions and responses to his soundtrack go into a testing database for our tech team, and how he can tag anything he finds good, bad or interesting for us to discuss in our follow-up.


After the beer run to the bodega and some dinner, the real work begins. I prepare carefully, my methodical ritual. The beer will be imbibed, the mindless media offerings watched until I’m in a state of relaxed stupor. Yes, yes, I know, drinking to sleep is a terrible idea, but I have already been through the rest, the breathing exercises, the meditation, the white noise, the rain noise, the ocean noise, the relaxation music, the relaxation mantras, the hypnosis, the sleep studies, the biofeedback, and finally the drugs and the resultant sleep walking, sleep eating, hangover effect, anxiety, depression, and eventual resignation.

I can bear, I have borne, the lack of sleep if I can lie there in my familiar pattern, but I can’t lie there while being assailed from above; it’s tough to maintain a mindset of bleak acceptance with a warm rage kindling in my core. I tried going to bed with the Sphere and using the noise cancelling feature, but the external noise is merely a distraction, not a cause, and the complete silence is claustrophobic. It makes me feel as if I’m in an isolation tank, and still sleepless. So that’s where I’m at now. And it’s been three months.


The week progresses. Another day of interviews. Everyone thinks they love music more than other people. It’s a good thing for our marketing, that, and the fact that a large segment of the population is apparently bored out of their minds and searching for meaning in their daily existence.

 “I have tons of my own playlists,” says Annie with a stubby unicorn horn modification on her upper brow and a halo of purple curls. “How is this better?”

She seems curious rather than argumentative. Her profile says she loves Broadway musicals and Disney movie soundtracks.

“You ever watch a movie?” I say. “You know how the soundtrack fits in with what’s going on? It doesn’t just play song after song. It drops out for dialogue or tense moments, it enhances the mood, or it sets the mood; it follows dramatic moments; some of it’s instrumental, or orchestral, or audio effects, sometimes songs play that tie into the plot, or portray mood, or character, new songs, old songs, obscure songs, well known songs— without the soundtrack, movies would be really dull, right?”

She nods, there’s nothing to disagree with there.

“And you can still have playlists, or play any song from your subscription tier of the extended catalog anytime you want. That’s all included. But— ” Here I like to pause for effect. “—what if you had your own soundtrack, personalized for you, based off of the best data we have, not only on you and your tastes, your background and your exposure, but from what the entire data cloud says about everyone— everyone else who responds in a similar way to a song, and how they respond to other songs— we can predict not only that you’ll like a certain type of music, or song, but when you’ll like it— what sort of mood you’d be in when you’ll respond to it.”

“That sounds pretty cool,” she says, warming to the idea.

“And it learns with you, it’s AI— it improves over time, if it ever plays anything you don’t like you just let it know and it adapts.”

The ability of our mod to recognize micro-expressions comes from a well-researched and peer-certified branch of research used for psychological therapy. Even if you’re not depressed, our mod still has the ability to figure out how to help you feel happier and more productive. If you feel sluggish, it can play music that inspires you to get going, and so on.

“It’s going to help you understand your own story,” I tell her. I like to say this rather than, “It’s going to make you feel as if your life has meaning.”

I wish I had that answer for myself. When do things go from feeling like anything is possible into a routine that seems impossible to escape from? You don’t know what you want to do, only that it isn’t what you’re doing. I can’t even put my finger on when it changed.

Both my pitch and my reverie are interrupted by a track of purposeful stamps overhead, the creak and slam of a door, then a high-pitched keening that I realize sounds like a dog crying.

A few more days, interviews, six-packs and broken sleep patterns later, I have established there is a dog, probably a puppy, upstairs, and it is here to stay. It cries when he leaves and barks when he comes home, and now the pacing is complemented by a four-legged padding. It’s a relief to go back to the office.


“So who is our audience?” asks Maddie, the intern. She’s the newest member of our marketing team, very fresh-out-of-school and businesslike, with a crew cut and a cowlick like a rosette above her left temple. She poises expectantly, fingers on her touchpad. She’s the third to join our small group; so far it’s been just me and Lalla, steely gaze, long brown hair and vestiges of a Staten Island accent she tries to suppress.

We are back in one of the identical conference rooms; the view today is grey gloom, mist blocking the view and obscuring the top of the Empire State building.

I explain. “Single people, independent types, but at least people who spend a lot of time alone. We don’t see a family with younger children at home as our demographic.”

“Makes sense,” Maddie says, fingers tapping crisply. We are onboarding Maddie this week, getting her up to speed on the project and ready to work with Lalla on poking through the testing data for marketing ideas.

We settled on a name for the mod the week before last. I am still pleased with what I came up with, the Soundtrack of Your Life, or SOYL, and the logo idea, rounding out the Y to a U shape and dropping the descender down to a line under the rest of the acronym. There was some initial argument for Soundtrack of My Life from Felix, but it died quickly once I pointed out that with my suggestion we could call it the SOUL Mod. The idea had gone straight to Design, and would be ready in time for the pre-rollout marketing.

After our marketing meeting, the tech meeting. We move into an identical conference room two doors down. Although I feel for them, tech is not my problem. Happy to give the feedback, then it’s their problem. The onsite tech team is seated around the table, and Felix is beating up on Kiran again over the updates. Today his hair is gelled back and he’s still being an asshole, but I’m not ready to give up on my theory.

“Themes.” Felix turns and fixes on me, catching me off guard. “We need a marketing plan.”

My eyebrows rise before I can stop them. I’m still neck deep in pre-rollout, plus I have to follow up with all my beta-testers.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says, as I open my mouth. “We stay one step ahead. Next rollout after deployment is personalized themes. I need the first draft by Monday.”

I drag myself back to the work area. That means working this weekend. My mod pensively introduces “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” echoing my despondency. It fades out on the second verse as Lalla starts in on a beta tester story.

“So my user says he doesn’t want to hear creepy music when he goes down to the basement, and I’m trying to explain that when that happens in a movie it’s for the audience, but now the soundtrack is just for him. I mean, if he’s on a rollercoaster ride it could enhance it, but if he’s really scared it’s not going to scare him more. We go back and forth, he keeps adding more scenarios, like what if he’s all alone in an alley at night and someone is following him, what if his brakes fail when he’s driving down a winding road, but he finally gets it.”

I smile along with her, but Mr. Fantasy creeps back when the conversation is done. Nonetheless, I nudge my laptop to life, create a new ad package, wait for all the templates to load, title it THEMES, and open the notes panel.

My mod introduces a tight little percussion track— it’s subtle, but I have to be impressed with the no-nonsense, let’s-get-to-work vibe.

I type randomly, brainstorming. Imagine. Your own theme. Personalized for you. Built from your SOUL profile. Maybe better to emphasize that they build it.

Themes you create. Themes that grow with you. Themes that change with you. Themes for what and who is important to you. Scratch that. Themes for what’s important to you. Themes for who’s important to you.

I sneak a glance into the lab on the way to the bathroom. Joel is in today. I’ve had my eye on him for a while. One of these days I’ll see if he wants to get a drink after work.

I actually do have some sort of dating life, or I did. I tend to be a serial crusher, getting infatuated with one man at a time, and then taking it upon myself to initiate something. It’s more than how someone looks, and I don’t have a type. Usually something they say piques my interest, and then I find myself making up personalities for them that turn out to be more compelling than the real thing. Or so the trend goes. If I don’t lose interest first, they seem to find my expectations peculiar and inflexible, and after some negotiations they bow out, and I move on to the next one.

What was it Joel said? He had been on the phone, arguing patiently with one of the offshore developers when I was in the lab talking to Kiran until the rise in his voice caught my attention.

“It would work if we fixed it?” he was saying incredulously. Amused, I’d looked over and decided I liked the looks of him, lanky body and Mediterranean complexion. He wore his hair a bit long, in loose dark curls. He had seen my glance and grimaced back his frustration, which animated his normally serious face with all sorts of interesting lines.

Wary of prior misjudgments, I’ve been letting this one sit for a while, but my take is that he’s shy and a bit lonely, work is the most important thing to him, and that he needs to be drawn out.

But right now I need a marketing plan, and as usual, I’m exhausted. I focus my waning energy. I just need a foundation to work from. By Monday I need short blurbs, slogans, and longer descriptions. Also an executive summary, a project sub-plan, a timeline, proposed media channels and release dates. But the latter are templates I need to fill in; that’s just time, it’s the ideas that don’t come out of thin air. They need time to percolate.

After a couple of hours, I have enough to consider it a start. My mod settles into a relaxed beat, some instrumental Ska which morphs into Bad Manners’ “Walking in the Sunshine” as I prepare to leave the office. That one I have to check the credits for. I haven’t heard it before, but it seems to mirror my sense of relief. I tag it to report back to Kiran. The lab is empty, they’ve already left, so no drinks tonight, which is probably just as well.

Oh, I figured out who is living upstairs. I saw a heavy-jowled, stubble-faced brute complete with sports jacket and baseball cap in the mail room with a small dog, some sort of Shepherd mix, brown with black points, trailing him on a leash. And all too soon, what began as the soft padding became a louder romping, and as the beast gained size and strength, those legs beat a rapid tattoo over my head from one side of the room to the other.

It makes sense. If the owner can put that much angry force into his steps, that energy will rub off on the dog. When he leaves, the dog howls and cries. When he comes home, it barks unceasingly and gallops around like a demented pony.

I complain to the management company. They say they’ll speak to him. It doesn’t help. I thump on the ceiling when it starts up in the middle of the night, but I finally give up, as it just makes me angrier and it takes longer to relax afterwards. I bear it with icy resolve during the day, but at night, my anger turns to fantasies of homicidal ideation— you know, like suicidal ideation. You don’t want to do it yourself, but if someone else was to do it, that would be fine. Or maybe an accident? An accident would be good, too. Maybe some scaffolding could fall on both of them. Could one weaken it? Too many cameras, and timing would be critical. How about carbon monoxide? That would be quiet, at least, but would involve tubing, and the drilling of holes, not to mention a source for the gas. Murder is hard these days; especially murder that looks like an accident. Between all the security cams and drones, handhelds, digital tracking and personal field protection, it’s almost impossible. But you can’t stop a girl from dreaming, can you?

I know his name now, too. Bradley Wosinski. I get his mail sometimes, and take gratification in tossing it out.


Work is meetings and more meetings, with plenty of time wasted fluffing the executives, most recently with a series of demos of the proposed ad series, just our logo and the launch date, meant to mysteriously titillate, along with the endless rejiggering of my executive whitepaper for the Themes rollout, which Felix just can’t leave alone, having me change it one way and then another until it’s back where it started.

I follow up with my beta-testers, making sure they’re happy with the results they’re getting. Gerardo missed his last check-in, but when I bring up his profile it’s deactivated. Kiran is walking by in the hallway, so I call out to him.

“Do you know what happened to Gerardo, that guy from Raleigh?” My mod, which has been gamely playing Skillrex in an attempt to keep me focused, fades the volume back.

“He’s off the project,” he says, then stops and comes over to my desk. He adds in a low voice, “I was going to tell you. Actually he’s been accused of murder.” At his words, my mod surges to a brutal dubstep drop in tandem with my stomach, and goes silent.

 “I guess he thought his girlfriend was cheating on him. When the police got his Sphere disabled before picking him up, I got an alert that the mod’s access had been blocked, so I did a quick search and saw some local news reports.”

“That’s horrible.” I picture his lack of affect during our interactions. Should I have sensed something?


Gerardo is on my mind a lot this week. Felix brings the event up briefly at a meeting and says that although it’s very tragic, it’s something that’s bound to happen now and then within our customer base, as they’re made up of the general population. “Maybe if he’d had a mod for monitoring his mental state it could have helped, but we’ll never know for sure.”

After that it feels kind of like bad taste to talk about it, although I want to talk about it. I want to be absolved for not seeing that he was fucked up, though I don’t know what I could have done. I need comforting, but tonight Lalla is going home to babysit her niece, and Maddie is staying late to finish something. It may be time to check in with Joel about that drink. The bar scene in this area is not to my taste but there’s a legitimate dive nearby that is generally quiet enough to at least have a conversation, with a pairing of intimate stools between the wait station and the grimy window at the end of the bar. I picture confessing my guilt about Gerardo and getting the necessary reassurances: Joel gazing into my eyes with sympathy and understanding, and after a couple of beers, our knees brushing, casually at first, then with a firm pressure.

And a mere five minutes later, I’m heading home, trying not to feel humiliated. Joel has plans. He said it nicely, but he didn’t take a raincheck, either.

“Guess I got…what I deserved…” The mod has selected Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” which is melancholy enough, but I find the first line offensive. “Fuck you,” I snarl, and the mod breaks off, silent for a few long moments before easing into a series of gloomy drawn out chords from a string quartet, a quavering digital digeridoo bass holding the root.

The tech team’s latest upgrade to tweak the mod’s upper-end emotional response is deploying over the weekend. We’re all to report back about any results, but it’s hard to intend to have a strong feeling of satisfaction. In fact, I plan on not having one anytime soon.


The dog upstairs gains size and strength daily. It’s holding its own as far as the amount of racket it produces. The lonely howling has ruined the time in the evening when I’m accustomed to winding down. Being awake is not quite like being awake anymore, it’s like a dream, or a drugged haze. I go through the necessary motions automatically: showering, dressing, getting on the train, saving my last bits of brain power for work. I haven’t called my parents in weeks or gone to one of my neighborhood bars for even longer. I can’t put on any sort of social facade beyond what’s necessary for work, and that’s taking everything I have.

Also, I think my mod is fucking with me. It’s playing sadder songs all the time. I mean, I found tears on my cheeks yesterday during Debussy’s “Rêverie.” I’m just so tired. And I keep thinking about Gerardo.

One night as I’m leaving late, I see Kiran’s light still on in the lab. I almost don’t bother, but somehow my body propels me in, and I roll a chair over next to him. I ask him to bring up Gerardo’s last week of data. It takes a while. The testing data records all the personal tags on beta-testers, in production the data will be anonymized. Kiran correlates time and date with the soundtrack and overlays the emotional response data. He scrolls through the week. The music gets angrier, switching to a steady stream of old punk in the last few days: Black Flag, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, culminating with GG Allin and the Murder Junkies’ “I’ll Slice Yer Fucking Throat.”

“I guess this is when he did it,” Kiran says, pointing at the graph, which spikes to an extreme level of response, then falls to almost nothing. After the named tracks stop, the data dissolves into something called Koka’s Soundtrack Box No. 1. We download it and listen. It seems to be a series of strange and random atmospheric audio effects, played by the AI behind the mod. There’s a sense of release in it, but otherwise it’s devoid of any emotion.

We look at each other. The lab is silent, only the sporadic twangs of something like a door stopper spring being plucked. Kiran’s dark eyes are troubled.

Hesitantly I say, “So…what happens when someone is going to do something wrong? If they have a SOUL mod, is that going to feed off their reactions…help legitimize what they’re thinking? Maybe it gives them that last little push?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t know. They can do what they want with or without the mod. They could still play any music they want, right?”


Final deployment is here, then the official launch of our mod the day after. We have to be in the office by noon and stay until it’s done. I have no hope of getting much sleep as it’s already late. I’m just getting off the train, and I still need to wind down. My nemesis will be coming in late and getting up early. The dog will be intermittently howling and pacing. And I am mortally tired.

My evening is laid out before me, my night as well. And all the nights after that. The imagined relief of a successful rollout is already overshadowed by the knowledge that after this rollout comes the Themes rollout, and then the one after that, and the one after that. All I know is that something has to give, something has to matter. Portentously, my mod plays “Tristan and Isolde,” the insistent strains demanding some sort of resolution that feels beyond my grasp.

I get my beer and head home. The streets are quiet now; the darkness sucks the color from the parked cars and awnings, turning the building bricks and painted storefronts to shades of grey. A few spots of warmth and light from windows of occasional bars and restaurants don’t beckon me in. I am outside of all that.

Now my mod eases into “Dead Souls” by Joy Division, and I walk in step as it builds into the full strength of the refrain, perfectly embodying my overwhelming sense of futility. I feel like some great beast of the plains, plodding on in the face of a driving blizzard, snow up to my hocks.

The chance comes so easily, so naturally, it’s barely an intention. There is the dog, running around the lobby, barking hysterically, leash streaming behind it, and the partial view of a grey sweat-shirted figure in the mailroom, burrowing through the packages. Easy to put my Sphere on pass-through, open the door, fumble my way in, keeping it from the automatic close with my backpack, my eyes up as the dog dashes out through the sudden opening, still barking, while my nemesis turns, his mouth a round o of alarm. Easy to slowly rotate as he shoves by me, flinging the door wide, my pose one of surprised dismay, to catch a last glimpse of the dog as it tears into the street between two parked cars, to see him throw himself after it, his body twisting gracelessly as he maneuvers the narrow passage between the cars. Easy to put my hand to my mouth as I hear the screech of brakes, a heavy, satisfying thud, and a bystander’s shriek. Time freezes for a heartbeat; I feel my senses struggling to connect. Then I hear the barking, which I realize has never stopped, recede into the distance, and I am flooded with a sensation I barely recognize, a lightness that feels almost like floating. Inside my Sphere, the triumphant chorus of “We are the Champions” starts up. Reflexively, I tag it for Kiran.