BOOK 2 // NINETEEN: Friend in Need

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            Erica worked more quickly than we thought.

No more than two days after the meeting, she burst into breakfast looking completely dishevelled, fuelled by frantic energy.

"Hey!" she called, dragging the attention of the dining hall towards her. "Can you guys come look at something?"

It was hard to work out whether her frenzied manner was the result of that something, or if it had more to do with a lack of sleep. Either way, the only way to find out was to do what she wanted and follow her.

Ten minutes later, and we were all in the security pod, huddled around the seat Erica had taken in front of all the screens. Some of them were completely blank, while others buzzed with static – but even of the screens that were showing some kind of vague picture, none of them looked like what I might have seen on TV back home.

It was then that I noticed Erica's workspace – in other words, the desk in front of her. To say it was messy was the understatement of the century. Scribbled notes, balled up pieces of paper that hadn't made it anywhere near a bin, old wrappers and used cups – however Erica's mind worked, it clearly didn't need a tidy space to think.

Nova spoke for all of us when she asked: "So, what's going on?"

Erica pushed some of the mess away and reached for the mouse. "There's something weird going on here," she said. "I don't know what it is. You guys should take a look."

Her hand moved at lightning speed across the keyboard, a series of tap-tap-taps ringing out loudly across the room. My eyes darted from screen to screen without really knowing where to look.

"So I'm getting the signal from the capital," she said. "Or at least somewhere near the capital. The range seems about right, and it's the strongest thing out here for miles, so I'd place a pretty hefty bet on it. Look, let me just pull up the location..."

Another succession of taps, and the screen in front of her became illuminated. Displayed on it was a map: one of the entire country, spaced far enough back to see the outline of all the isles, as well as our approximate location in the midlands, which was marked by a blinking red dot.

"I'm getting the signal from here..." The map zoomed in, heading further south until a signal point appeared in the south east. "That's definitely New London. And yet, when I try and pick up what it's transmitting..."

She clicked once more, and the map disappeared.

Only to be replaced by something completely different.

The sound of raucous, fake laughter hit us first – and not just because it seemed so absurdly out of place in the quiet room. It was the type of cheesy, recorded response that would only feature on some over-the-top, overproduced telesales programme.

And, weirdly, that was exactly what was onscreen.

Nova said what we were all thinking. "What on earth is this?"

My eyes went to the screen. It was suddenly lit with a burst of bright colour: an artificially lit set complete with equally brightly-dressed hosts. A woman with the smoothest blonde bob I'd ever seen stood there grinning in an orange sunflower print dress, beside a male co-host who seemed unable to bend over on account of his immaculately pressed suit. He was grinning, too – and with such a wide, dazzling smile that it seemed to risk blinding someone.

The whole setup was... odd. It looked like a typical telesales programme, with a glittering set and overenthusiastic hosts, but there was something off. Like all the components were there, but somehow they'd been hashed together in the wrong way.

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