The Golden Sound of The Forever Now by Rolf Ebeling

Rolf Ebeling imagines a world where the air is poison and music is taboo.

Image generated with OpenAI
A year after the government mandated sealed enclosures for every house, Brad and Kelly moved into their new neighborhood. They pulled up to their "forever home" in a stale-smelling rental car in time to see the moving company haul the last of their belongings inside. Six-legged flatbed moving robots loaded with boxes scurried through a giant tube that stretched from the back of the moving truck to the front door airlock.

A thick plexiglass divider separated Brad from Kelly. Kelly sat on her side of the car writing in a notebook and listening to an algorithmically generated music stream. Over the hiss of the car's oxygen system, Brad could hear muffled glitchy fragments of the algo track. The bleep bloop blap made Brad nervous. He wanted the movers to finish up, so he could get inside the house and shut the doors. He would wait impatiently until there were fewer patrols, unpack his turntable, and play something from his record collection. Maybe the Lingering Stigma complete singles compilation. Or Regrettable Impression's Terminal Risk Aversion. The self-titled debut of Narcissistic Collapse.

Brad stiffened when he realized the flatbeds were carting his vinyl. He wondered if he had lined the boxes with good enough sensor dampening gel packs. The county's big plastics reclamation levy had funded a lot of fancy detection hardware.

The enforcement drone - a newer model lingering on the front lawn - let rip with a siren chirp and buzzed over to the flatbeds in the moving tube. VIOLATION flashed on its display screen. Inside the tube, the flatbeds dumped Brad's record boxes and scrambled back to the moving truck. Overhead, a ten-rotor heavy hauler drone descended, slit open the moving tube, reached in, grabbed the pile of boxes with its claw, and roared off with all of Brad's LPs.

Brad's vision shimmered and contracted. Darkness leaked in from the blurry edges. The world around him started to spin. A muffled roar whooshed inside his head and sweat dampened the back of his neck. He felt himself open his mouth to scream. Over the ringing in his ears, Brad could hear Kelly calling his name. She said things like "are you OK?" and "sorry." When he didn't answer, she said "but" and then "clear guidance" and "about polyvinyl chloride", but Brad didn't understand how any of those words explained how a part of himself had just vanished.

Brad dug his fingers into the car seat. He turned to see a flock of installer drones hovering over the roof unfurl a big yellow and black striped tent over their house. The three-in-one atmosphere extractor, oxygen generator, and air recycler unit bolted down next to the garage started up. Air from inside the house blasted out of the unit's vent, shaking bushes and stripping leaves off a nearby tree. Brad could hear the sucking sound as the tent deflated into tight shrink wrap. The oxygen generator kicked in with a thump and began filling the house with new manufactured air.

As the moving truck retracted the damaged tube, the enforcement drone buzzed over to Brad and Kelly's car, extended a telescopic arm, and tapped three times on the windshield. Startled, Brad looked at the drone. The drone flashed EXIT VEHICLE NOW. After fumbling with the wax paper package, he cinched his single use breathing hood tight, got out, and joined Kelly. Their rental car drove away on autopilot.

The drone hurried them across the lawn to the airlock. As they ran, Brad caught a dim glimpse of someone standing at the end of the street, arms folded, watching. Brad slowed down to look, but the drone squawked and nudged him forward.

Brad and Kelly stepped into the weird amber gloom inside their new home. They breathed in the cool sterile air. Kelley turned on the lights. Their moving boxes - minus Brad's records - were neatly stacked in a tight grid pattern filling the entryway.

The drone sealed the door shut.

Seven years later, most homes in the neighborhood had been upgraded from standard issue shrink wrap to permanent enclosures. Over that time, Kelly relayed increasingly frequent and detailed construction updates to Brad from windows that overlooked the neighborhood. At first, Kelley had paid little attention to the outside, relishing the time to write. As months became years inside their cocoon, however, Brad heard less typing, and heard more about the neighborhood.

Kelly had watched some families start over completely and assemble new prefabricated homes. She thought a few were shaped like moon bases. Others looked like fat submarines. One family had burrowed down deep into their lot and shut the lid of their house like a capped-off missile silo. She was most interested in one house, however. The owners were doing something different. "I think they're adding a separate cottage," she had said. "It's nice."

Brad and Kelly bought full body prophylactic suits once they became widely available. Brad sprung for an aftermarket countermeasure package. Kelly stuck with the factory defaults. She suited up and went out right away. She returned hours later, elated, and tried to pull Brad outside. Brad wanted to wait until late when he thought there would be nobody around.

After Kelly went to bed, Brad slipped on his new prophy. An icon showing a personal drone rotated slowly in the corner of the suit's forearm dashboard screen. Brad had paid the yearly subscription fee for the premium extraction package.

Brad stepped through the airlock out onto their front lawn. His prophy - transparent and rubbery - felt stuffy and smelled medicinal. As he took a few more steps, his suit's internal speakers crackled with the sound of grass rustling under his feet. He inhaled. He exhaled. He inhaled again. Brad checked his watch. Time moved forward normally. He exhaled.

Up and down the street, overlapping tubes bridged houses that had formed pod covenants. One cul-de-sac was completely covered by a geodesic dome. Brad and Kelly's house, however, stood disconnected and alone on the block. When they had moved in, they hadn't known anyone in the neighborhood to pod with. Brad's job had already gone fully remote, they didn't have kids, and even their rescue dog application stalled out with the approval committees and expired. Brad and Kelly did not have an opportunity or an excuse to meet the neighbors, let alone go halfsies on a bubble veranda.

Brad heard a grind and scrape. A tall, lanky figure on a skateboard - the old kind with plywood, four wheels, and no battery - came to a slow stop. Silhouetted by the streetlight, he stepped off the board, pulled an aerosol can from his prophy pouch, shook it, knelt, and sprayed over what looked like a cardboard template onto the asphalt. The figure finished, stood back up, looked at Brad for a moment, and then skated around the corner.

Brad walked over to see what he had painted.

"SOON," it said, in glistening block letters.

Three months later, Kelly sat down next to Brad on the bonus room couch. She had news. Lingering around the large delivery drone pad and talking up the neighbors had paid off with an invite.

"Brad, make the effort for me. Get to know Gary. Jen is great," she said. "I would like to have friends."

Kelly went on to say that she wanted happy hour on a porch, a sunset barbecue, and maybe even renting cabins together with other couples like Jen and Gary - whoever they were - for long weekends. Kelly was excited that things had loosened up. The recently updated regulations allowed for scheduled and limited external social activity with certified and licensed prophylaxis equipment. The neighborhood changed quickly. Bistro lights appeared over rebuilt back decks. Smoke from new firepits drifted over fences. Laughter and sounds from outdoor movies echoed between houses. Apparently, Jen and Gary were having different couples over all the time. Kelly wanted in on it.

Brad did not. In fact, since moving day, he had spent most of his time in the bonus room. It had been years now since he'd spoken to his friends, or even anyone from his old middle management job. He had retired soon after moving into their house, but his attention had already begun to drift away from the heads in rectangles that flitted in and out of video conference meetings. In his retirement party call, other than a few familiar faces, the screen was a grid of people whose names he didn't recognize. He made excuses and logged off when the awkward silence became too much. Someone said "Brad looked sad" before Brad tapped the exit meeting button.

Brad had not prepared well for retirement. Unlike Kelly, he never found much to do outside of work. For years, he had told himself he was "doing his job" and that was what important. He told himself once he turned in his laptop and tossed his ID badge, he would figure things out. Worst case scenario, he thought, I will have plenty of time to listen to my records.

Then the county dropped Brad's entire record collection into an enzyme vat and dissolved the vinyl for recycling. This had really spun Brad in a sour direction. Replacing any of his records was impossible. All plastic production had been nationalized, and the government seized the few plants pressing new vinyl, compact discs, and cassettes. Other than for prophylactic suit production, the use of polyethylene, polycarbonate, or polyvinyl chloride had been deemed gratuitous or inessential by the Atmospheric Defense Act. Even if Brad could have gone out to browse, the last used record stores had vanished. Their stock was confiscated for reallocation to prophy manufacturing plants. He could not find anything he liked on the music services. Streaming music companies had pivoted hard in the economic downturns, dropped anything that required licenses or royalty payments, and padded their libraries with cheap soundalike artists - or cheaper yet - artificial intelligence-generated music they owned outright. Most people did not notice or care that you couldn't hear the real Rump State complete studio sessions anymore. Brad cared.

Settled into the sagging leather cushions of the bonus room couch, Brad tried to remember fragments of songs late into the night. Sometimes, he could reconstruct bits of the Slow Life Model demos, or the Engage and Deny singles, or the good import version of Irrational Atrocity. Some nights - if he concentrated - he could remake a drum fill, a chorus, or a bridge in his mind and remember where he had been - and what he had been doing - when he first played Impenetrable Unit's "Determination of Non-Significance," the Calamity Records Unseemly compilation, or Adolescent Imprint's Progress to Eternity. He could almost go back in time and be right there again in those exact perfect seconds.

"Please," said Kelly. "I need this."

"Risky," said Brad. "Not worth it."

Brad thought back to how it had all started. The videos had been the first sign. The earliest one showed a laughing woman in a tech company hoodie, sitting at the end of a polished plywood table, saying "We need to take this offline!" over and over, while her officemates whispered outside the conference room doorway. Another showed EMT workers struggling to keep a grip on a naked man - his skin wrinkly from half a day in the resort pool - gyrating and singing "The Dirty Capybara" at the top of his lungs. Then the one that freaked everyone out: the smiling marathon winner who crossed the finish line and just kept running. Unsure of what to do, or convinced it was a stunt, the crowds parted, letting her go. News helicopters hovered and patrol cars followed until she finally collapsed on the pavement - her legs and arms pumping, scraping against the asphalt - still smiling nearly 100 miles away from where she had started.

"We both have prophies," said Kelly. "You have the fancy loadout."

"It's too soon," said Brad.

"Aren't you tired of this? I'm tired of this."

"Tired of what?"

The phenomenon spread. Normal people in normal situations would be having a normal day, but in one unpredictable, not normal second, they would freeze up, their eyes fixated on something unseen. What was causing it? Virus again? Food additive? Designer drug in the water supply? Hi-speed internet radiation? Sonic weapon? Carbon capture gone wrong? Scientists could not explain or stop it. Conspiracy theorists hopped from one nutball solution to the next, sending prices soaring on chicken wire for Faraday shelter cages one week, 40-pound bags of cattle laxative the next, emptying store shelves and filling emergency rooms.

"I'm tired of being inside this house. I'm tired of not seeing anyone. I'm tired of not having friends." said Kelly.

"I didn't create this situation." said Brad.

"I'm tired of you saying that."

"I'm tired of it being reality."

Several months later, a group of corporate astronauts from a years-long stint on a private space station returned to Earth. Alarmed by the news reports from home, they exited their return vehicle in full EVA gear, and wandered through the desert space port. The security footage showed the astronauts standing in the control room with a handful of staff scattered around them: a smiling guard in a stained shirt sipping an empty cup of coffee, a flight director emphatically tapping his cracked tablet screen and laughing, and a scientist excitedly writing the same equation repeatedly on a white board, red ink smeared over her hand. The astronauts were fine. They breathed air they had brought down from the space station.

"The reality is that you're paranoid," said Kelly.

"That isn't fair," said Brad.

"No, what isn't fair is being stuck in this house for seven years while you hide in the back being pissed off. This isn't what was supposed to happen to our lives. This isn't what my life is supposed to be."

"This isn't what I wanted to happen either."

Plastic sheeting, duct tape, portable air conditioners, HVAC filters, generators, fans - and anything that people thought could be strapped together to push out old air and clean new air - disappeared from the big box stores overnight. For the first time since the last conventional pandemic, offices emptied out, schools closed, traffic disappeared, wild animals pranced through suburbs, and tech companies hit the double-digit trillion net worth mark. The lucky vanished into their homes. The rest avoided each other and relied on cheap masks, taped together pieces of scuba gear and trash bags, or modified inflatable Halloween costumes. Some tried rolling down the street in giant hamster balls.

"We can go outside right now. We have amazing suits that will protect us," said Kelly.

"They're not perfect. And there is no do-over if something happens," said Brad.

"Nothing is going to happen except that we will sit on a nice deck and have a drink or two. Maybe we will talk about which new house mods are the best. Or maybe what it has been like to be stuck inside a giant plastic bag for seven years. Jesus. I just - can you try? Get out of this room and just try? Maybe Gary likes some of the same music as you? Jen said he has stacks of records. Would it be so bad to make a friend?"

"Calm down."

The incident numbers plateaued, then decreased. People would decide it was all over, see their friends and loved ones, and have a great old time. The numbers would rocket back up. People backed off. The numbers would drop again. Blood tests on victims indicated unusually high levels of dopamine, the chemical the brain produces when you're actually having a good time with other people. The dopamine somehow interacted with the air in their lungs. So, if you were hanging around other humans, were happy, had enough dopamine sloshing around, and happened to breathe in a cloud of bad air, well, you were kind of fucked.

"Do not tell me to calm down, Brad," said Kelly.

"I'm just saying," said Brad.

"Saying what? That you want us to stay inside here forever? What?"

"Not forever. I'm trying to avoid forever. The bad kind of forever."

The Temporal Torus theory - complete with a donut-shaped diagram - tried to explain what was happening: dopamine-drunk people would take a deep breath and get caught inside themselves, going round and round, forever living out some random happy moment they had just experienced. People wondered when it would happen to them. What would they be doing? What about their bodies? Who would take care of them? How long would they be alive? What would they be thinking about forever?

"You're hopeless," said Kelly.

"These prophies aren't guaranteed to stop someone getting donutted on some Friday night," said Brad. "Maybe it will be you. Maybe it will be me. Maybe I will be sitting on a back deck, talking suburban bullshit that I don't care about with this couple I don't know named Jen and Gary, and when I stand up to go to the bathroom, suddenly my prophy will get caught in a folding chair. Maybe it will rip, just a little tear. Maybe I won't notice. Maybe the safety system won't warn me or patch the hole in time. Maybe I will be feeling just good enough, forgetting the world around me for a moment, and I will take one last breath and that will be it. I will be caught forever in my mind walking to Jen and Gary's toilet, thinking I need to pee but never really getting to piss. I will get thrown into toroidal hospice care because you wanted to hang out with Jen and Gary. That will be my eternity. That will be my forever," said Brad.

Kelly kept quiet for a long time. Finally, she spoke. "I need to get out. I need to have friends again."

"What kind of records?" asked Brad.

On Friday, Brad and Kelly suited up and walked over to Jen and Gary's. The four of them sat on the back deck in folding chairs around a built-in fire pit, connected bladders of white wine and craft beer to their liquid intake valves, and loaded clips of hummus-filled cracker pellets into their food hoppers. Kelly slipped right in to being happy.

Brad kept quiet and drank. He realized this was the house with the renovation that Kelly had been watching intently. A small two-story cottage - complete with its own independent air system and airlock - stood in the corner of the large backyard. Warm light shone out of the wide second floor windows. From his elevated vantage point on the deck, Brad could see the top of a big writing desk with a laptop, a coffee mug filled with pens, a neat pile of books, and several stacks of white paper.

"Maybe I need someplace where I can start again - you know, start writing again?" said Kelly.

"Then you need to come up with me." said Jen, grabbing Kelly's wrist. "There are dozens of cottages exactly like that," she said, pointing across the yard.

Brad sat across from Gary. For a while, Gary chimed in with bland comments about the weather and the overreach of the homeowner's association. He didn't mention anything about records. Now, while Jen and Kelly talked, Gary sat in silence, arms folded, staring into the fire. Brad couldn't quite see Gary's face through the glossy sheen of his suit. The reflection of the flames flickered across Gary's prophy.

No records, no reason to talk, thought Brad. He checked his chronometer and finished off his second beer. He got up - carefully - to grab a third from the cooler, clipped in the IPA bladder, took a long sip, turned around to return to his chair, and nearly smacked into Gary's boney chest. Brad looked up, startled. Gary stood inches from Brad's face, staring down intently.

"Look at those two, Kelly," said Jen, leaning in. "I think we are moving to parallel play."

Kelly glanced at Brad and turned back to Jen. "How often do you go up there?" she asked.

Brad looked down to avoid eye contact, unsure of what to do, but something under Gary's prophy caught his eye. Gary wore a thin ratty flannel over a faded black tee shirt. The scratchy curves of hand-scrawled white letters peeked out between the open shirt buttons. The flaking silkscreen design was familiar. Brad skimmed over the swirl of song names, record labels, album titles, tour branding, and band logos in his mind. In a second, he knew. A disorienting warmth flowed through his body. His throat tightened.

"That," Brad said to Gary, still staring at his chest, "is a Maw of Heaven tee. Forever Now tour."

"What was the B-side of the first Maw of Heaven release?" asked Gary.

Brad looked up. "It was a split 7-inch with Prepare for Violence. No B-side."

"Follow me," said Gary. He turned around and walked into the back door airlock.

"Next thing you know we'll be grounding them for throwing an all-night party," said Jen.

Kelly slapped her Riesling bladder against Jen's Prosecco bladder. "Cheers."

Brad felt compelled. He glanced up to check for enforcement drones, then hopped into the airlock. Inside the house, he trailed Gary down a dim hallway. Gary rolled back a carpet, opened a hatch in the hardwood floor, and stepped down into the darkness. Brad followed him down the ladder.

Gary turned on the lights. The two of them stood in the center of a long windowless room surrounded by floor to ceiling shelves, spaced thirteen inches apart and running the length of each wall. Each shelf was packed with thousands of record albums. Gary closed the hatch above Brad.

"I watch old record plant manufacturing videos. I like watching the lathe cut into lacquer. The silver sprayed on to the disc. The electroplating bath. The metal stamp pressing into warm polyvinyl chloride," said Gary.

Water rimmed Brad's eyes. He stepped towards the shelves and ran his index finger along the tops of the jackets. The records were alphabetized, but he sensed a greater pattern in the colors of the thin spines pressed together. Without reading the titles, he recognized the clusters of white and gray between D and E, the large groups of red between M and N, and the long stretch of black between S and T. Brad walked back and forth, following his instinct. He pulled one out: Weaponized Attention by The Damning Indictments. He moved to the next: No Conventional Sense of Shame, by Long Time Funeral Planner. The next: Situational Awareness, by Elicit and Manipulate. Brad thought that the first Developed Assets live LP must be there, and it was. He knew then that the Incontinence mini album would be on the shelf, and it was.

"Remember Friday record release days? Tearing the plastic wrap from a sleeve? Cueing a song for the first time?" said Gary.

The sensation of understanding Gary was strange. These were not Brad's records, but Brad could instinctually see the spiraling line connecting them to one another. Brad understood why Gary having The Grundles second LP meant he would have to own Tradecraft's third, and that meant there was no way he didn't have Loose Meat and Deep-Fried Butter, and if he had that, The Learned Men's Friendly Apocalypse had to be there too. Brad was surprised and uncomfortable at how this made him feel.

"Remember the sound? The needle quietly crackling, shimmying down vinyl grooves? The first spiraling blast of distortion? The shimmer of melody? The sound pulled you down into another world." said Gary. "It would swallow you."

It was also strange for Brad to see such pristine copies of all the records he had lost. Here was everything and more that had been taken from him seven years ago, neatly preserved and bagged in contraband Schedule 1 polypropylene sleeves. Brad moved back to the M section and pulled an album, knowing it would be there, and it was. He choked up as he cradled the 23-minute live-to-acetate performance of Maw Of Heaven's "The Golden Sound of the Forever Now" on limited pressing.

"Can you hear it, Brad?" asked Gary.

"Hear it?" said Brad.

Gary stepped closer. "The Golden Sound of The Forever Now. Can you hear it?"

"Right now?"

"You'll hear it again. Soon."

Brad and Gary stood in silence. The gleaming light in the room made strange circular patterns and shadows on the high-end ceramic sensor dampening tiles covering the ceiling and floor. A low electrical hum pulsed through two oversized speakers parked in the corners of the room. A tear teetered at the edge of Brad's eyelid.

Two weeks later, Brad and Kelly video conferenced. Kelly was upstairs in the bedroom packing. Brad was in the bonus room.

"Jen and I are going up to the cottages for the weekend. Finally get some writing done. But I'll be back." said Kelly. "Maybe have a beer with Gary?"

"Maybe," said Brad.

"Wow, a 'maybe'. Is Gary making you join a cult?"

"Kel -"

"It's great. Go. Get out."

Hours after Kelly left, Brad stood on the sidewalk outside their house in the dark, running prophy diagnostics. Gary rolled up on a skateboard wearing a large airtight backpack over his prophy. He carried a second board.

"You skate?" asked Gary.

"Did," said Brad. "Where are we going?"

Gary handed the board to Brad. "You'll need this too." Gary handed him a button that looked a little like the kind Brad used to pin on his backpack in high school. Brad recognized the image: an Infinite Annihilation brand distortion pedal, the kind the nine Maw of Heaven guitarists used. Brad slipped it into his prophy's chest pouch.

Brad waited for Gary to skate off first. Brad had rolled through his big 3, 4, and 5-oh birthdays since he last stepped on a board, but now he felt pulled to try. He stepped on the board, wobbled, and nearly face-planted before enough muscle memory kicked in. He followed Gary down concrete walking paths through the subdivision, their wheels click-clack-click-clacking over concrete seams as they ducked under the passageways connecting houses. They shot out onto different streets, crisscrossing the neighborhood, carving one way, then the other, their buzzing wheels and asphalt scrapes echoing between glass encased houses and tube-shaped articulated RVs parked in dead ends.

They made their way out of their suburb, under the freeway overpasses, through the quiet downtown towards the end of a lonely commercial district and came to a stop in a strip mall parking lot. At one end stood an empty tire store and abandoned tanning salon. At the other end there was a falafel takeout with broken windows and a boarded-up convenience store.

Wedged between sat The Taint, a seemingly abandoned club with a dirty stucco facade and no windows. On the roof, a large grayscale camouflage tarp covered what looked like several large boxes. When a breeze lifted an edge of the tarp, Brad thought he could see a stack of five-gallon buckets and a bundle of air pipes.

Two burly guys stood at either side of the door to The Taint. One wore a Faithless Electors shirt under his prophy, the other a Filibustanut baseball tee. Both wore the same Infinite Annihilation buttons. One puffed on an electronic cigarette module screwed into his mouth port.

Gary walked up to the burlies and spoke. "Crowd?"

Filibustanut blew a jet of vapor out of the top of his prophy. "Cock rockers bussed in from the group home for the early bird slot. Bat cavers will clear out soon."

The door to The Taint swung open. An icy keyboard riff and a moaning vocal boomed outward. Fog rolled out onto the parking lot, followed by a crowd dressed in black under their prophies. Brad stepped aside as a gaunt man - pushing eighty at least - with aviator sunglasses and swept back dyed hair slowly swooped out into the parking lot. More shuffled out, some with walkers or canes, most in thick eyeliner, droopy sweaters, and chunky felt shoes. Brad spotted carefully ripped shirts with safety pin accessories and sewn-on patches on jeans jackets: Human Factors; the import version of Euphorics' Endless Exhaustion EP; Gray Love by Gray Lovers.

The synthesizers-in-the-rain track cut off. The last person out of the door - caked in undead makeup, singing and swaying - danced up to Gary, handed him a set of keys, and gingerly stepped into a black minivan. The door slid shut. The bat cavers drove off.

Gary pocketed the keys and walked inside. Brad followed him past wood laminate walls plastered with faded band flyers and out into the middle of The Taint. Brad instinctually sniffed, half-expecting to smell spilled beer instead of the antiseptic air in his prophy. The disco lights were on slow rotation, spreading muted rainbow circles on the scuffed parquet floor.

Gary walked to a small stage in the corner, flicked on two bendy arm lights clamped to a warehouse store folding table. He pulled off a black tarp and revealed a pair of turntables with Dirtbag Circus Records logo mats on the platters. Gary twisted knobs and pushed up a slider on a mixer. Twin thump-thumps from the amplifier powering up rumbled The Taint's speaker system. Gary opened his backpack and pulled out a stack of LPs.

More men showed up. A skinny one with a Kompromat tattoo, then a skinnier one with a Penetration Test patch on his backpack. Continual Compliance and Mega Null State tees on the next two. Then more dudes in vintage merch: Constrained Action Hypothesis and Crisis Actors bootleg shirts; Bitter Visions cover shot on a black XXXL sweatshirt; Bonus Flap stocking cap; Porking Lot trucker hat; Falsity hoodie; Shadowban Dark Patterns patch; Everything Is So Dumb logo sewn onto the back of a black leather jacket, complete with an upside-down smiley-face and YOU MADE IT WEIRD in a severe yellow all-caps serif typeface.

"Pick," said Gary.

Brad stepped up on to the stage. The silent crowd looked at him as he braced the back of the stack with his left hand, flipping front to back, letting albums lean against his gut. His heart raced. Classic A-side lead? Deep cut? Obscure regional outfit? Brad landed on the last album, pulled the deep black heavyweight vinyl from the sleeve, and placed it on the platter. Gary nodded, powered on the turntable, and lowered the tone arm. The diamond stylus dropped into the record's groove. A kick drum beat rumbled, making Brad's phophy vibrate. Rapid snare cracks bounced off the walls. A corrosive bass riff kicked in. The choppy fuzzed guitar and screams of If You Defy Me, You Die, side one, track one, filled the room.

Brad left the stage and sank into a round booth. Gary segued one track into another. Brad drummed his knuckles on the aluminum edge of the table and hummed the choruses as the sound swirled around him. Distant memories flashed and flickered, then grew closer, fuller, and sharper: a late-night drive with "Chokepoint" blasting; a house party roiling to "Pending Allegations"; a dark club surging to "Material Adverse Effect." Brad felt heat behind his eyes. His breath hitched. Tears rolled into the corners of his mouth.

Gary dropped "Sovereign Citizen." The Taint's middle-age off-key men's choir came to life and sang along, their voices digitally compressed from their prophy sound units. Brad joined them.

Over the next few months, Kelly and Brad regularly suited up and went to Jen and Gary's house for bladders and pouches. Afterwards, Brad would follow Gary to The Taint.

Tonight, Jen moved her chair close to Kelly's. Gary walked slowly over to the far end of the deck. Brad trailed behind.

"Church is in session," said Jen, loud enough for Brad to hear. "Our Gentlemen of Perpetual Preoccupation."

"Services weekly," said Kelly, softly.

Brad stood with Gary at the railing. "Are we on tonight?"

Gary shook his head. "Place needed some construction work done. We'll be back soon." He folded his arms and looked out over the backyard fence towards downtown.

Maybe Gary was expanding. Attendance at The Taint had grown steadily, with one or two new north-of-fifty dudes with expanding beards and balding heads showing up each week. They would stand around awkwardly until Gary would nod at their t-shirt, pull them into a sub-genre clique huddled in a corner, and leave the group to discuss decades-old set lists or the imperial phase of a band. Gary brought fresh stacks of records and would layer in classics and deep cuts. The crowd would swell and lurch to the rhythm. A few nights, it had gotten packed enough that guys would get stuck together and had to peel themselves away from each other's prophies.

The world outside of The Taint blundered on. Businesses with large real estate holdings had cashed in on big government contracts, invested in toroidal hospice care, replaced rows of desks with bunk beds, and, for the extreme cases, overhauled phone and conference rooms with straps and cushioned walls. After the initial panic and brief worldwide flirtation with unity, the sight of government debt and taxes paying for donutters living out their natural lives in sleek hi-rises and ritzy tech campuses made everyone extra pissy. One bunch wrung hands over not paying for more free suits. Others balked at paying for selfish morons who refused to wear the free suits. Some started to think the suits were a plot.

The conspiracy-industrial complex pushed an evolving epic involving the Big Air corporations, a corrupt scientific cabal dubbed the "Deep Substrate", and the global plastics consortium. Sweaty men in front of slick animated graphics leaned into microphones and warned in deep tones that this group of technocratic, lab-coat-wearing, recycling terrorists were controlling the air for profit. Not wanting to miss out on the payday, the same sweaty men also ran scrolling promotions for atmospheric detoxification herbal supplements across the screen as they spoke. On the mainstream commercial sites, it wasn't hard to find drone sensor dampeners. If you looked in the darker e-commerce corners, 3D printer plans for dart swarms that could take out enforcement drones were there for the downloading.

Sporadic demonstrations became organized protests; organized protests devolved into riots; riots metastasized into coordinated attacks. One group seized a prophylactic production plant and rolled racks of suits out to the street. The surging crowds overwhelmed the organizers just as a drone flock swooped down and deployed taser webs. In another city, drones guarding a prophy distribution warehouse disappeared in bursts of metallic dust. Men in balaclavas and tactical gear scattered from the facility, leaving it in flames. The acrid smell of burning plastic lingered in the air for months. Across the world, prophies were liberated, or destroyed, or both. In each incident, dozens, even hundreds, of people would go donut regardless, whether they were trying to grab a suit or set a thousand on fire.

Gary turned to Brad and smiled. "You won't have to hold your breath for long."

A month later, Brad and Kelly video conferenced again. Kelly was driving. Brad could see blue sky and trees rushing by behind her.

"Why don't you drive up?" said Kelly. "I know you might be busy with Gary, but maybe if you talk to him, he'll come too. It's beautiful up there. We could be away from -"

"It's just not our thing, Kelly," said Brad, flipping the Infinite Annihilation button between his fingers.

That night, Brad stopped at the upstairs hallway window on his way to bed. He looked out on to the street. Something glimmered on the asphalt.

Brad suited up, exited the airlock, walked across the lawn to the edge of the curb, and looked down at the wet paint.

"NOW," it said in gold letters.

The moon, dirty red, loomed low and large in the dark. Slow gusts of wind bent pine trunks and whistled in the needles. Gary and Brad skated through the suburb, circling through roundabouts, and rolling down nearly every street in the connected neighborhoods. Other dudes on boards joined, appearing one after the other, swerving one way and then another, down their cracked driveways onto the street, passing over the golden NOW spray-painted in front of their houses. The sound of grinding wheels built into a roar as the pack grew, leaning into slopes to the right, then to the left, gradually heading out of their suburban homes and down towards The Taint.

Gary had upgraded The Taint with its own air system. Four jumbo three-in-one atmospheric units sat on the roof. Large pipes snaked down from the units and curved into holes cut into the outside walls. The entire building was coated in a thick glossy black sealant. An airlock had replaced the front door.

Gary welcomed the crowd. Brad wanted to ask him about the new setup, but Gary was busy herding clusters of men into the airlock. Brad drifted in with the last of the pack. Gary shut the airlock door.

Inside The Taint, Brad felt a sudden rush and forgot about the air system. Along the far wall, Gary's entire collection of albums was set out in crates on tables. The dance floor glitter ball spun slowly and projected shimmering, golden-hued circles of light that flickered over the crisp record sleeves. The crowd murmured with quiet joy. Brad wondered how Gary had moved all his albums here without a squadron of county drones swooping in. Underneath the tables, Brad saw several large roller bags, each made with a dense web of ceramic tiles woven into rugged fabric. The tiles looked like the ones in Gary's basement.

This night was going to be different. The packed room parted for Gary as he walked to the stage and stood behind the turntable decks. "Pick," he said, gesturing towards the records.

The murmuring in the crowd grew into an excited din. Brad heard beer bladders clipping into valves, and the men shuffled into a long line. One by one, they stepped forward to the row of crates, gently flipped through the albums, selected one record, and lined up near the stage to hand it to Gary. Many were in tears, clutching their selection, hot breath fogging their prophies. Brad joined the end of the line, and when it was his turn, he went straight for Maw of Heaven. He found nothing between the M and N dividers, and turned around, disheartened. Brad looked up at the stage. Gary held "The Golden Sound of the Forever Now" in his hands. He placed it last in the lineup. It would come.

Gary dropped the needle. Corrupted Play's "Crispy Boy" raged out of the speakers. The room filled with double-time drums: bump thwack, bump thwack, bump thwack, bump thwack. Cymbals hissed and glasslike guitar chords shattered against the walls. Brad rocketed back to high school: senior year, out by the upper field, boombox blaring, leaning against the back wall snack shack, flicking a clove cigarette, and laughing. Gary cut hard into "Treason": one, two, three, it was college again, and Brad was piled into a creaky station wagon driving to a third city for a fifth Incept Date show in a row. Gary crossfaded into Shadow Docket, "Wetwork": the bass went boom dah dah, boom dah dah, and Brad was at the roof party, dawn in a new city, the sun rising between the distant towers.

For hours, Brad and the mass of men pushed up against the stage, rolling back and forth in their sea of prophy-covered denim and damp t-shirts, yelping when their song was played, and throwing their arms into the air.

Gary held the final record above his head. Guttural cheers erupted as he lowered it onto the turntable. Gary walked to the edge of the stage and spread his arms wide.

"The Golden Sound of The Forever Now" began. Warmth flooded through Brad. He was running in shimmering sunlight again, his feet hitting sand in time to the pounding bass. He was riding through unfamiliar subway stations again, the thwack thwack of wheels against rails matching the bap bap of the beat. He was holding a hand gently in the dark again, the echoing chords bursting as a bonfire crackled. For a moment, he was back again in those exact perfect seconds.

Brad felt a low thump. Then another. Brad strained to look around the room. Empty beer bladders flipped and flopped down the waxed bar top and stuck to one of the new air vents. Two more thumps. Brad looked at the opposite wall. Paper flyers flew off a bulletin board and zig zagged away from the other vent.

Something wasn't right. Atmospheric units didn't work like this. The warmth in Brad's body curdled. He imagined the room starting to spin around him, the yellowed ceiling tiles, laminate walls, and dirty carpet seeming to curve inwards.

Before Brad could check his prophy display, an elbow nudged him. Then another, harder. Someone grabbed his shoulder, turning him around, pointing, pulling him towards center of the mosh pit. The mass of men pushed against each other in the dark. Their inky bodies lurched in the flickering lights, stumbling, half-running, jumping up, and falling back into each other. Someone else shoved Brad forward. Hands reached out and grabbed and dragged him deeper into the current. With forearms shielding, fists clenched, crushed sweaty faces, wild eyes, and jutting jaws behind prophies, the roiling mass swirled and smashed, shouting "NOW NOW NOW NOW."

Gary tore into his prophy, digging his fingers into the plastic, stretching, and tearing, a fountain of sparks spraying as he ripped his way free.

The pit howled. The pit shredded into itself. Men clawed into their suits. Sparks flared up and arced as fingers punctured prophies, lighting up faces in flashes of gold.

Brad felt himself lifted. His feet lost contact with the sticky floor. Hands grabbed, pulled, and stretched prophies all around him. His arms were pinned. Sparks ricocheted. Flashes blinded. Brad sank. Knees connected to his head. Boots pinned his hands. He screamed and tried to stand up. The pit shifted and spasmed and spit Brad out, slamming him against a wall. The Infinite Annihilation button flew out of his pouch, skittered away, and disappeared into the pit. Brad slumped to the floor. He looked back at Gary.

Gary breathed deeply. The pit wailed. Gary stepped off the stage out onto the sea of upstretched hands. He walked over the crowd, stopped, closed his eyes, and fell backwards, swallowed by the grinding, churning mass of bodies.

The music stopped. The men, freed from their prophies, lurched around the circle, lost in their own secret joy, hearing a song only they could hear. Sparks popped and fizzed, throwing flashes of golden light on their euphoric faces.

Brad sat up against the wall. Cool sweat trickled down his neck. He checked his prophy. Functional. He tried to stand up but slid back down. His legs and arms tingled. He took a deep breath. He rolled onto all fours and tried to stand again. Halfway up, he noticed one of Gary's sensor-dampening roller bags under a folding table.

Brad grabbed the bag, carefully made his way around the edges of the room, stepped up onto the stage, and stood in front of the turntables. He packed as many of Gary's records as he could, stepped off the stage, carefully made his way around the edges of the room again, exited the airlock, and walked out to the parking lot. He tapped the drone icon on his prophy dashboard, then held the bag of records securely in his hands. In a few minutes, the personal extraction drone appeared above and descended. It cradled Brad with its padded claws, rose high into the air, roared over the downtown, past the freeway overpasses, back down to the domes and tubes of the neighborhood, and deposited Brad on the front lawn of his home.

Brad stepped into the front door airlock. He looked down at the bag in his hand. For a moment, he wondered if he would have been happier in the pit, and then walked down the hall to the bonus room.

The drone sealed the door shut.

In the morning, they would kill the power to the modified 3-in-1s on The Taint's roof, force open the airlock, and step inside. They would walk over the scattered paper flyers and empty bladders. A slow, rhythmic sound would come out of the speakers: click, whoosh, crackle; click, whoosh, crackle. Their flashlights would shine on the smiling, lumbering men shuffling and stumbling in a slow circle, round and round and round in the dark. Some of the men would be dragged along between others. Some would be on the ground. Some would step on them. The pit would swirl.

They would walk over to Gary's turntables. "The Golden Sound of The Forever Now" would still be spinning, the needle caught in the runout groove.


  1. It is a very good extrapolation of our experience of the Covid pandemic. Great description of the conflict between safety and community. It drove home the power of music in people’s lives both as memory retrieval and propellant. It also showed how music can free you even in prison-like circumstances. It’s also a very good example of the paradox between wanting to always be happy vs. remembering happiness. Let’s all hope we escape this situation.

  2. This story is a fine example of using science fiction as a tool for social commentary.

    I love the inventive use of band names and songs for foreshadowing (“Lingering Stigma”, “Terminal Risk Aversion”, “Narcissistic Collapse”, ‘No Conventional Sense of Shame”, “Situational Awareness”) and for adding texture to a scene (“Endless Exhaustion” and “Gray Love” playing for the old people…).

    It is an obvious satire of our recent pandemic. However, I also absorbed a sort of “fight club” theme - an older married retired man trying to reach back and reclaim his wild youth.

    (Also - vinyl records, skateboards, band t-shirts - this story and this writer would enjoy my hometown of Portland, Oregon!)

  3. The scenario seems unlikely to me, but then many unlikely things have occured. My reaction to this is more "Brave New World" for a different time rather than the other suggestions that have been made.

  4. This was an entertaining story; a depiction of a dystopian future with keen attention to detail. The names of the “classic” bands were a scream. And the government overreach, to some extent, and in other ways, imitates the reality of today. I couldn’t help but recall book banning and other censorship that goes on now. I’m not certain what happened at the very end, but I’m supposing that Big Brother ultimately had his way. A very thought-provoking story, and very well-written. Thank you.

  5. Fantastic. This story is so much more than any mere pandemic story: the idea here is as original as it is laden with terror. (And though there may be a nod to Brave New World and other dystopian-wannabe-utopian tales, there's something wonderfully creepy lurking at the corners here.)

  6. As a vinyl collector myself I felt genuine pain when his collection was destroyed! I love how the underground lifestyle of today is transported to an allegorical future that, as others have said, makes a great social commentary on today. This is really savvy, narrative driven writing that make this story and its setting very compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  7. I am overwhelmed by the imagination exhibited in this story, starting with the euphoric names of the bands and the titles of their songs, continuing on to the story of Brad and Gary and the heart wrenching trail of woe and joy they travel in the dystopian world that Rolf creates. The man is genius.