“Shut it down! Shut it all down!”
Chelse burst into the tiny studio, arms waving wildly, a look of panic smeared across her normally calm features. Zed and Heather looked up from the equipment, surprised.
“Shut it down?” Heather asked. “But we’re nearly done for the day anyway. We’ve only got, what, ten minutes left to go?” Zed’s finger hovered uncertainly above the panel, a battered old Kreubsig 700 they’d bought third-hand from a junk dealer. Zed seemed anxious, but then, they always were. A legacy of a corporate past.
“Right bloody now! ACMA’s practically at the door!” Chelse shouted. Why weren’t they moving? 2PLY FM definitely did not have a license to do what they were doing. If ACMA – the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the broadcasting watchdog – caught them transmitting on an illegal channel, they’d not only confiscate the audio equipment they’d begged and borrowed over the past few years, but slap an injunction on them so fast it would make their heads spin. Hell, for all the talk that ACMA was a ‘toothless tiger’, Chelse knew better than most just how ruthless they could be. Just ask her Uncle Greg – if he ever made it out of prison.
Still, it seemed her urgency was getting through. Heather gave a terse nod and signalled Zed, who faded out the current song – Little Mix’s latest banger, Shout Out to My Ex – and flicked on the announcer’s mic. Heather remained cool and collected as she spoke into the cardioid, a picture of professionalism. She didn’t rush her words or stumble; it was important to maintain 2PLY FM’s brand even in the face of crisis.
“And that’s all for this afternoon. We’re ending a little early today, but tune in tomorrow for more fresh mixes and unsanctioned opinions from 10 till 2. I’m Hetch McKinnon on 2PLY FM saying: talk soon.” Heather nodded and Zed cut the signal, their pirate transmitter whirring strangely as it shut down. Like everything else in the room, it was old and failed constantly, but Chelse had managed to get it up and running again every time it refused to start. She might not have finished her physics PhD, but she’d still learned to navigate a circuit. Chelse spoke, flustered.
“Okay, the guy who called said a representative from ACMA’s due any moment to investigate a few complaints they’ve received from this neighbourhood. Obviously, someone’s ratted on us.” Heather’s face darkened.
“I’ll bet it was Mrs Logan. She never could mind her own business!”
“Look, pointing fingers at this stage isn’t going to help. Yes, it probably was Mrs Logan because she’s a nosy retiree who complains about everything, but it doesn’t matter. What we need to do is -”
The doorbell rang. Everybody froze, darting nervous glances at each other. Zed whimpered.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” said Chelse, whispering like it made a difference. “I’m going to go answer the door. Heather and Zed, you two are my friends over for the afternoon. Act like it.”
“What do you want us to do?” asked Heather. “Sit on your couch? Stand around awkwardly making small talk?”
“I don’t care! Make a cup of tea or something! I have to go deal with ACMA. Everybody out! Shoo! Go!” They filed out of the room, Zed carefully shutting the hinge-mounted bookcase behind them. This house had an honest-to-goodness secret room in it. Chelse’s grandfather was to thank for that, a man with a whole load of money and a taste for amateur mystery novels. The bookcase door was opened by way of a latch hidden behind a copy of Valerie Geller’s Beyond Powerful Radio, hilariously out of place among the dusty history volumes that surrounded it. But in a way, it was every bit as much a classic as its leather-bound neighbors.
Chelse stood in front of the door, breathing deeply, as the echoes of a second doorbell ring faded. Straightening her ratty Nickelback tee, she wondered what on earth she was going to say to the ACMA representative. She reached for the door handle, but stopped when she noticed Heather coming up behind her.
“What are you doing?” she hissed, well aware that anyone outside would probably be able to hear them. “I said go act natural somewhere!”
“Who made you the boss?” Heather hissed back, annoyed. “You’re probably going to screw this up! Since when have you ever been good at acting natural?”
“Well maybe you should go dunk your head in motor oil!”
“And maybe you should take your pathological power complex and -”
“Hello?” came a voice from outside. “Is someone there?”
“Just a moment!” replied Chelse, staring daggers at Heather, who backed down reluctantly. The dark-haired woman didn’t seem at all happy with the situation. Well, tough. Chelse was far from overjoyed herself.
Adopting what she hoped was a pleasant smile – she worked in radio, for heaven’s sake, who knew what a facial expression was? – Chelse opened the door to reveal a small rotund man with a bright shock of red hair. He was wearing a pair of bell-bottom jeans and a floral shirt with a little badge reading “ACMA” pinned on. He lowered his tablet at Chelse’s appearance.
“Oh, er, hello!” he said, a bit taken aback by Chelse’s fixed smile. “I, uh, I’m just here for a routine investigation into a complaint lodged by someone in the area.”
Chelse kept staring at the bizarre little man, taking in his oversized glasses and the earbud headphones stuffed hastily into his shirt pocket. Heather stepped forward, adding the weight of her glare to Chelse’s. The little man grew profoundly nervous, eyes darting between the imposing women.
“Er… if I could just… someone should have called on ahead?” This last part was delivered as a plea. Chelse blinked, coming to her senses.
“Yes, of course! You must be the ACMA representative!” Her tone was friendly, but her eyes seemed to say back away slowly and no one gets hurt. The little man’s smile faltered.
“Yes, I’m… I’m Derek.”
“And what can we help you with today, Derek from ACMA?” sighed Heather.
Derek cleared his throat, eager to take refuge in official business.
“I’m here today on behalf of a number of complaints issued by residents of this neighborhood. It seems their televisions have been experiencing strange interference, especially between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.”
“10 am and 2 pm? Who’s even watching TV then, anyway?” asked Heather, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Derek. “But either way, it’s my job to investigate. Now,” he continued, raising the tablet, “have you experienced the same interference? It might manifest as static on the screen, or ghost audio from something that isn’t your program.”
“I certainly haven’t,” said Chelse.
“I don’t even live here, but I promise you, Derek, my TV’s perfectly fine,” added Heather. Derek grunted, poking something on the tablet.
“Fine, fine. Next, have you been picking up any unusual signals or interference on any of your other networked devices? Mobile phones, iPads? Smart fridge?”
“Smart fridge? What do you think we are, futurists?” asked Heather.
“No, nothing unusual,” said Chelse, trying to maintain at least a veneer of civility.
“Just one more thing,” said Derek, tapping away. “Do you have any broadcasting equipment in the house?” He raised his head, looking straight at Chelse for some reason. She played it cool.
“Ahhh… no, no I don’t think so.”
“Are you sure? It could be something as simple as an unshielded micro, or a faulty radio set.”
“Hmmm… sorry, drawing a blank here.”
“What about that antenna in the library, Chez?” said Heather, innocently. “Coulda sworn you had some sort of a device.” Chelse glared at Heather, furious.
“Oh, yes!” she forced through gritted teeth. “The antenna. I had forgotten. How… silly of me.” You’re dead, said her eyes.
“An antenna? Could be broadcasting inadvertently,” said Derek, oblivious. “Mind if I come in and check it out?”
“Not at all! Seems like it’s open season for people to just do what they want! Come in, stay a while. Steal my stuff! Rob me blind! Betray my trust!” Chelse said, throwing the door wide open. “Hell, while you’re at it, sure you don’t want to stick a knife in my back and twist?”
“Ah – no, just a look will be fine.” Derek was nearly sweating. Today was meant to be his day off. Why had he agreed to cover for Dorothy again? She could damn well do her own shifts from now on. He paused just inside the doorway, uncertain. “If you want, I can come back tomorrow…”
“No, now is perfect. Just peachy. Go on, little man! Go investigate, or whatever it is you’re meant to be doing. The library is down the hall, third door on the left.” Derek opened his mouth to respond, thought better of it, and scurried away off down the hall.
As he went, he happened to glance into the kitchen, catching sight of Zed holding a very large mug of coffee with a hideous grin on their face. Derek slowed his step to stare at the repulsive expression. It was like an alien who had been taught how to smile from an instruction manual but had never actually observed a live human in the act. At the sight of Derek, Zed’s hand started trembling violently, and their mug crashed to the ground, shattering into pieces. Derek stepped forward to help them clean up, noticed that that horrible, horrible grin had become even more pronounced, and instead fled down the corridor towards the library.
Dorothy, he thought, if you had any idea…
“And what, exactly, was that little stunt you pulled back there, friendo?” Chelse spat. “Are you that keen to get us shut down?”
“Obviously not!” said Heather, exasperated. “If you stopped to think for one second you’d realize I’m taking the fastest path to getting ACMA off our back.”
“And how you doing that, then? By just telling them just where to look? ‘Awful sorry, Derek old chap, transmitter’s in the library, just slap the darbies on me and off to the clinker, hey, mate?’ ” Chelse said, in crude imitation of Heather’s voice. It wasn’t a very good impression. Heather rolled her eyes.
“Moron, we set up that dummy broadcasting unit in the library for a reason. Which is more likely to send ACMA packing: finding exactly what they’re hoping for, or searching for a signal generator that doesn’t exist?” Chelse’s eyes bulged, but she didn’t say anything.
“You know I’m right. Just admit it! We’ve been doing this 2PLY gig for two years. When are you going to learn to concede a point?”
“Bleah!” said Chelse.
“Bleah! That’s all I have to say to you.”
“I’ll take it. Should we go check on Derek?”
“…yes, I suppose we should.”
Heather arrived in the library just as Derek was leaning over the tiny broadcasting unit set up on one of the reading tables, frowning. He prodded the unit, consulted his tablet, then leaned back, scratching at his patchy stubble in confusion.
“That can’t be right.” he muttered. “It’s the right frequency range, but…”
“Find what you were looking for?” inquired Heather innocently, leaning against the door frame with casual abandon.
“Not really,” replied Derek. “This unit’s sending out the right kind of signal, for sure, but it doesn’t have the power to reach beyond this room, let alone extend to other homes in the area.”
“Oh yeah? How strange.”
“It certainly is. Where’s your friend – the owner of this house?”
“Our other friend had an accident in the kitchen. Chez stopped to help them out.”
“Do you think you could have her come in here? Tell her it won’t take very long.”
“Sure thing, Derek. Won’t be a tick.” Heather stalked off down the hallway. After a moment, he could hear voices raised in argument. He sighed, looking back to his tablet.
He just couldn’t understand it – the signal finding app he was using was registering another signal, a very faint one, emanating from somewhere close by. Derek held it aloft, trying to get a better read on the origin, but no matter what he did it seemed to originate from one of the walls of bookshelves. Which was impossible – there was nothing back there. The hallway simply ended.
The raised voices continued, and he set down the tablet, wandering over to the shelves to idly inspect the titles there. Why couldn’t any of his jobs just be simple? Browsing, he came upon a worn-looking copy of Valerie Geller’s Beyond Powerful Radio and reached for it, smiling. This was the spirit of radio, as far as Derek was concerned – the glamor of it: a man and his microphone, entrancing audiences hundreds of miles away or just outside the door. Radio had always held a powerful romance for him, conjuring up images of Rod Serling’s radio dramas from the 40s and 50s or Fran Kelly’s warm inviting tones on the ABC. But that was all before certain economic realities had ambushed him, dragging him kicking and screaming sideways into a world of regulatory lawsuits and pettifogging bureaucracy. Hence his business here.
With a sigh for what could have been, he went to slot the book back into place when he noticed a strange bit of metal behind where it sat. Curious, he tugged on it, and almost yelped in surprise when something gave and the entire bookcase swung forward a bit, like it was mounted on hinges. Darting a paranoid glance over his shoulder, Derek pulled the secret bookcase door all the way open, exposing the chamber within.
“No way…” he breathed, gaze skipping over the rather antique radio equipment. Contained within were all the parts of a functioning radio station: microphones, a transmitter (the object of his quest), even an ancient Kreubsig 700 panel that had seen better days.
The legend “2PLY FM” was scrawled on a wooden plank hanging from the wall opposite. Well, here was the source of the interference, anyway. He wandered forward, eager to inspect their set-up before reporting it in to the office. This would mean a fine for the owner, certainly, and likely the confiscation of all their equipment.
Why couldn’t people just comply with the regulations? They were hardly draconian – though deep down even Derek admitted ACMA had been particularly overbearing as of late, glibly re-allocating entire frequency bands at the government’s behest and effectively killing off a host of small independent community broadcasters.
Then again, progress always required sacrifices, he supposed.
“I just don’t get what your issue is today,” Chelse said, as she and Heather walked down the hall. “You’re acting like…”
She trailed off as they entered the library, taking in the situation at a glance. The dummy broadcaster neglected, the bookcase door ajar, and inside Derek, turning around to see who’d come in…
Chelse did the only rational thing: she bolted forward and slammed the bookcase door shut, placing her body weight against it. From inside came a weak cry of “Hey, open up!” and a few feeble knocks against the divider. Heather stared, dumbfounded.
“Good going, you raving lunatic! What’s your plan now, then? Keep him inside until he starves to death?” she demanded.
“I don’t know! I don’t know! I panicked!”
“Well good bloody going! We’re buggered now!”
Chelse fell silent. She knew Heather was right. Shit. What was she going to do now?
“Derek?” she called, hopefully. “Do you want to come out here? I’m sure we can talk this over. There’s been a terrible misunderstanding.” There was no response.
“Derek? Damn! What’s he doing in there?”
“Probably resigned to his fate. Or maybe he died out of embarrassment on your behalf.”
On the other side of the partition, Derek sank to the floor and shook his head.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” he said. “They’ve really done it now.” And tapped a well-practiced sequence into his tablet.
About ten minutes later, Zed drifted into the room, clearly distressed. Their lips were pressed tight together and their eyes wild. They seemed on the verge of a panic attack.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” asked Heather, concerned. Chelse hadn’t shifted from her bookshelf post. Zed whimpered, pointing mutely out the large picture window that dominated one wall of the library.
“Outside?” Heather wandered over, looked out, and her face grew pale.
“Chelse… Chelse, you’re going to want to see this.” Chelse stood up, guard duty forgotten, and joined Heather at the window.
“Oh my god…” she whispered. “It’s just like my Uncle Greg said. It’s all happening again!”
Outside the window, a dozen black vans with ACMA stamped in stark white letters on their side had pulled up, and a pair of black choppers circled the sky. Black-suited ACMA operatives were busy cordoning off the area with witches’ hats while others brandished terrifying weaponry. Nearby, in a black ACMA sedan, a group of what could only be lawyers counter-signed paperwork and cackled gleefully.
Heather was right.
2PLY FM was buggered.