Notes From the Underground


by M. C. Tuggle


It is a good day to rock.

We end our final rehearsal and step away from our instruments. On the table in one corner of the dark studio sits the bottle wrapped in damp cloth. Jesse, Dickie, and I tie on our headbands. I open the bottle, wipe condensation off the neck and lip, and pour three glasses.

I lift my glass and say, “To music.”

Jesse and Dickie answer, “To life.”

We drink the peach wine, now cool and sweet. But I am the only one who can taste it.

Jesse, our drummer, lifts the crossbar and rolls the overhead garage door open, revealing a bright July day. And something else. All three of us stop and stare in total silence at something we had not expected. Just outside the door, five kids stand waiting. We had hoped for at least one, maybe two. Seeing this many willing to risk infection to hear us play — well, I look at Jesse and Dickie and can see the pride in their faces.

It takes me a moment before I can speak.

“Thank you for coming out.”

Four heads nod. A girl with fresh pink patches of missing hair, and dressed much too warmly for the weather, pumps her fist. A bald boy stooping beside her croaks, “We hadda come. We lost our Elf.”

We laugh at his joke. It is good and rare to hear that many people laughing together, and it is easy to laugh at such nonsense. Nothing is as treasured and guarded as a person’s extremely low frequency radio, which picks up transmissions through the ground, the only long-distance communication possible with the old infrastructure fried and so much C-14 in the air.

I lean close to Dickie. “Look. Teddy’s here.”

“Is he the one who needs a kidney?”

I nod. These days, almost everyone needs something. And we all need music.

Dickie turns away and limps around the studio to check the equipment. I can tell he’s energized by the turnout. He gives me a thumbs up and turns on our Elf radio. It crackles to life, and our fans give us air fist bumps.

I don’t see how Dickie does it. He not only salvaged enough burned-out electronics to rig up our amps and Elf equipment, but also wired the studio. And somehow, he makes everything hold together. A dozen solar panels cover the roof of our studio, and wires and cables of many colors twist and wind through the walls. Two red cables from the roof connect our Elf transmitter and receiver to antennas deep in the ground. He did it all.

The interior of the studio, now on display with the door opened, is Dickie’s masterpiece, a riot of circuit boards, cabling, batteries of all shapes and sizes, giant homebrew speakers, racks of gadgets with blinking LEDs of yellow, blue, and red, power inverters, and shiny ceramic insulators.

This day will be our capstone. We will play the song I have written, and we will shock the world with the best music ever heard in what will be the ultimate Battle of the Bands.

Then we will celebrate, our way.

speculative-fiction-storyThe Elf warms up, and Dickie slowly turns up the volume. On the radio, the Mixer says, “It is now 16:05 GMT. In a few minutes, we will feature the final round of the third annual Battle of the Bands.”

At best count, over 25,000 fans around the world are tuned in on homemade Elf radios, it being too risky to gather for concerts. The Mixer’s voice comes through over bursts of distortion, and sometimes sounds hollow. I remind myself he’s 1,100 miles away, using an Elf transmitter that sends currents through the ground that flow back and forth around the planet, creating oscillating fields that in turn form radio waves, waves that often pass through underground aquifers, further distorting his voice.

But I always loved the distortion. It always sounded so — real. And appropriate for the age we are in. It was only a month after the attack that some kids started reaching out underground after all other comms were knocked out. Dickie and I were some of the first to send music, by which I mean real, live music, to the Mixers who coordinated comms and programs. Other groups formed, and we all created a new sound, which got the name Endie Music, since we were living in the End of Time. Now there are over 70 groups playing and broadcasting new music in a world that thought it had lost the ability to create anything of worth or beauty.

Jesse is getting nervous. Seated at his drum set, his one good eye closed, he taps his sticks on his prosthetic knee. He’s always full of energy, at least compared to most people.

The Mixer’s voice crackles over the speaker. “Endie fans, this is the showdown you have waited for. First of all, we are honored to have as our chief judge, from Boston, Philip Simon.”

Damn. I shut my eyes and bow my head when I hear that name. Philip Simon thinks he invented Endie music. Says it must stick to power chords, and ridicules anyone using open chords. What a bigot. Doesn’t he know the only rule in Endie Rock is no rules?

The other two judges are okay. But Simon has a way of bullying others into agreeing with him.

But we’re not beaten. 27Club, the other finalist, has a total of 232 points. We have 218. Since we’re behind, we get to play last and make the final impression. And we have a song like no other.

“Endies,” says the Mixer, his voice grainy and warped from its passage through the earth. “I’ve been asked to remind our listeners that the bands have agreed to accept the judges’ decision. We have received comms from fans who want to support their favorite band. But our judges have the final say.”

Jesse, Dickie, and I glance at each other. I can see they’re as pumped by our unseen fans as I am. My heart beats a little faster.

Then the Mixer says, “We are down to the final set of the Battle of the Bands for 2023. First up — 27Club.”

There’s a long, suspenseful pause. Then, 27Club starts with a slow but killer bass line. After two measures, the lead guitar comes slashing in, backed by bass drum doubles that give the song crazy energy.

And of course, they stick to power chords.

Their lead singer belts out the words like he’s pouring out his soul. Dickie and Jesse and I cannot look at each other. 27Club is just that good.

The song ends and the Mixer says, “That was ‘Ripped Memories,’ by 27Club. Great piece.”

I nod in agreement.

“We will resume the 2023 Battle of the Bands shortly.” A warbling tone, punctuated by crashes of static, is all I hear. More waiting.

After three long minutes of sweating, we turn our eyes toward the Elf radio when the Mixer speaks again. “As the judges confer, I want to introduce the last set of the 2023 Battle of the Bands. In a few moments, we’re going to hear Divine Wind, a top contender in all three Battle of the Bands. They’ve been together for four years, and still have their original members.”

The Elf radio squeals, but not long, and the Mixer continues. “And now, here is Divine Wind with its new song, ‘Last Ode.’”

This is it. Jesse starts on the snare drum with double stroke rolls. Dickie uses a pick on the bass, creating a stalking, angry bottom. The bass drum kicks in, and in the middle of the measure, I come in with the lead guitar. And yes, open chords with the fast riffs, but cutting back during the verses so the words stand out. I feel myself soaring over the city, pulled skyward by the beat. Jesse and Dickie look like saints in spiritual ecstasy. Pure magic. The song we rehearsed so many days and nights now flows out of us and into the mics and the transmitter, and from there to the depths of the earth itself. And to our fans here and beyond.

It ends with me singing the vocals: “And we pass our long love’s day/We pass our long love’s day/Yes, pass our long love’s–”

Our song ends, abruptly. Just the way we planned it. I float back to earth and look at our little audience. The balding girl wipes her eyes. Two of our audience members give us air fist bumps, and the others respond with old-fashioned applause. Soon all five are clapping their hands.

The Elf radio is silent for what seems like eternity. Finally, the Mixer says, “And that was Divine Wind performing their original composition, ‘Last Ode.’ Great effort, guys. As soon as I hear from the judges, I will announce the winner.”

Waiting. It’s always made me crazy. Now it’s pure torture. We talk to our audience, chat among ourselves, pretend to adjust our equipment. The minutes tick by.

Jesse nods toward one of our fans, a little guy who can’t stop wobbling. Jesse leans close to me and says, “He looks like he’s gonna croak any second. Should we tell them now?”

I shake my head. “After we hear the good news. We’re about to make history, man. I feel it.”

Jesse responds with his lop-sided grin.

A static burst in the giant speaker hurts my ears and makes my skull resonate. I start to turn down the volume, but then the Mixer’s voice comes through with unusual clarity.

speculative-story“The judges have… come to an agreement.”

I clench my eyes shut and focus on breathing.

“Endies, if you were listening just now, you experienced something historic.”

His last word forces my eyes wide open.

“Divine Wind has posted the largest point gain in the history of the Battle of the Bands.”

Now, despite my best efforts, my breathing is fast, shallow. My head spins.

“The judges awarded Divine Wind 41 points, something unprecedented in our three-year history.”

That word again. Even through the pops and squeals of the radio’s background noise, I can hear the Mixer’s excitement. My heart is thumping harder as he speaks.

“That puts Divine Wind at 259 total points. However, 27Club, by the unanimous decision of our three judges, received 30 points for today’s performance. That gives 27Club a total score of 262, making them the new winner of the 2023 Battle of the Bands. Congratulations.”

When I turn to Jesse, he is shaking his head and blinking in shock with his one eye. Dickie, his Gibson bass hanging from his neck, faces the head-high speaker, motionless.

In front of us, the girl sobs, “No.” I do not look at her.

No one speaks for almost a minute. Then, the Mixer says, “It is now 16:35 GMT. We will mix scheduled comms until 17:15 GMT.”

Dickie places his bass on its stand, then stoops and kills the power to the ELF radio. It buzzes a moment, pops, then is silent.

I look around and take a deep breath. I place my guitar on its stand. There is only one thing for me to do. I tread into the back of the studio and return with a small stack of paper. To Jesse I say, “We made history, just like we planned. And now it gets better.”

Jesse stares at the papers, then gazes at me. He nods his head. Dickie shuffles to my side.

I march toward our fans. The overdressed girl and the bald boy shrink back as I approach.

“Don’t worry.” I thrust the forms toward her.

The girl frowns at me, and her forehead and part of her scalp crinkle up. She lowers her head toward the papers. When she raises her head, her eyes meet mine. “Is this for real?”

“Yes. All three of us are doing this.” I look around at the others. “Whatever you need.” I give them my slyest grin. “And there’s no way you can stop us.”

The girl raises her hand to her mouth and tries to stifle a sound that’s both a laugh and a sob. Before taking the forms from my hand, she wipes tears from her eyes. She stares at the form’s title: Anatomical Gift From Living Donor. She gazes at me. “Why are you doing this?”

I glance at my band mates and shrug my shoulders. “Well — you can’t have concerts without fans.” Now all five kids press close, staring at us. I say, “We can walk to the free clinic before dark. Maybe get started in the morning.”

The girl nods. With a faint smile, she says, “Let’s go.” Jesse rolls the studio door shut and locks it. We head toward the street.

The kid with the wobbly legs slumps onto a gurney hidden behind some junked cars, and Teddy pushes him across the pavement. It is a long walk to the clinic, but the weather isn’t so bad, and the talk is very pleasant. We move along. And keep moving. For music. For life.


About the Author

M. C. Tuggle is a writer living and working in Charlotte, North Carolina. His fantasy, sci-fi, and literary stories have appeared in Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Mystic Signals, Fabula Argentea, and Fiction 365. The Novel Fox published his novella Aztec Midnight in December 2014.

More by the Author

Aztec Midnight: “This fast-paced novella amps up the suspense with well-crafted dialogue and a Mexican drug cartel subplot. . . . M. C. Tuggle’s meticulous creation of a suspenseful, driving thriller makes Aztec Midnight very engaging.” (Foreword Clarion Reviews)

World’s Shortest Author Interview

Who would you drive across country to see perform?

I would drive across country to hear Yes with Chris Squire picking that celestial bass guitar.

What’s your favorite imaginary color?

My favorite imaginary color is Donald Trump’s hair.

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