February half term in 1985 is over for the Kids and they reluctantly board their morning buses to return to school. Outside the steamed-up bus windows Dedcot basks in a grey, icy morning drizzle. The drivers seem keen to disgorge their young passengers into the crowd of pupils milling around outside school and pull away smartly as soon as their doors close. Nobody is heading into school and the reason is clearly displayed: both Teachers Unions have called a one-day strike action against the Thatcher Government. Pupils are stranded in town and the queue for that one pay phone down the road is already long. The gang instead join a steady stream of teenagers heading into Dedcot town centre. They stop off at the Library to warm up, borrow some SF paperbacks and look up whatever is ailing the ‘chickens’: Vit D deficiency they think. Moving on, a stop in Woolies allows Tank to renew his cassette collection (and image) with some New Wave music. They end up at some of the scrap stores by the railway junction where Kin indulges in a little light-fingered rummaging but fails to find UV bulbs. After lunch and some brainstorming they end up at a tanning salon where Tank scrounges a broken fluorescent tube. The rest of the day is spent playing D&D in the hideout and avoiding their problems at home.
The following day school re-opens and their education resumes with another wacky Maths lesson from ‘Mad Mr MacAllister’, who is actually quite engaging despite his insistence on wearing a foil lined bike helmet at all times “to protect against aliens”. The Kids are the only ones to take this statement seriously, for some reason, so he rather likes them. Later lessons include an unsubtle history project on the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and an all-out argument with their RE teacher on the nature and existence of Miracles. Meanwhile in the playground there are mention of a chicken coop being raided, a missing cat, and Blakey swears he’s seen a giant spider out by Sutton Courtney quarries. After school Pete is a bit distracted, having spotted his sister boarding the train to Reading. At the hideout, Kin manages to get the tube working as a UV source and lights up the railway carriage like a beacon. They now ponder the difficulty of getting chickens to wear sunglasses and how to obtain blackout curtains.
On Wednesday school starts with the utter tedium of English grammar and subordinating conjunctions. In French, pupils are enticed with the possibility of an exchange visit next year. A biology lesson has Andy briefly animated about cell structure until it becomes apparent that he’s confusing mitochondria with midichlorians. Over lunch of mystery stew the Kids deal with high drama from Nellie Anderson, whose beloved pony has been stolen away in a trailer. This is rapidly overtaken in interest by Andy’s reaction to “plague family” jibes: a lively bout of fisticuffs takes place involving Andy, Tank and Robbie. Normally this results in detention but another lightning Teachers’ strike has been called and all pupils are sent home. The Kids slope off to their hideout where they are very disconcerted to find the pteranodon ‘chickens’ missing; there are scratch marks on the padlock.
The gang head off north to the quarries and gravel pits in the hope of luring the pterano-chickens back and maybe finding this giant spider that Blakey claimed to have seen. These pits and quarries, some flooded, pockmark the flat landscape between Dedcot and the River Thames. Many are very deep, littered with rusting machinery and some of them have interestingly coloured water within. Overgrown bunds make it all a bit of a maze if they stray off the road. Needless to say, the gang take their bikes cross-country almost immediately. Somewhere out along the most northerly stretch of quarries the Kids find their chickens swooping down on something on the lake quarry shore. They seem to be trying to keep a stray dog away from some obviously baited traps. Robbie persuades them back with a lure. While poking around here the kids discover a rowboat hidden in the reeds nearby. In it there’s a life jacket, an old tin half full of dog food, some very thick (insulated) rubber gloves, and a toolbox. Out on the water they see a set of unusual wind turbines turning in the breeze. Following the friendly dog, some of the kids discover a fenced off junkyard hidden in the willows, owned by Reet who is pleased to get her dog back and not happy about the traps nearby. She introduces them to a rusty old robot that she’s been tinkering with. It looks about as old as Isaac. Back at the quarry Sean and Tank have taken the rowboat out to look at the turbines and the island. The turbines look a bit odd but they can’t find anywhere to land on the island in the failing light so they head back to shore and put the boat back in its hiding place again.
The gang meet up in the twilight and decide to head home, following the quarrymen cycling home in the distance. In the failing light Ash spots hoofprints in the mud by the side of the road so they stop to investigate. The tracks lead towards a hut but, before they can sneak nearer, they’re disturbed by an odd pressure building in their head and wires swaying along the nearby pylons. Sparks jump along the wires as they see a small, unknown type of magnetrine drone skims up from the Thames and dives into the flooded quarry. After a minute or two a frogman climbs out on the far side of the quarry, looks around, picks up a bag and then heads towards the towers. Tank opts to rescue the pony. Robbie tries to follow the frogman while everyone else tries to look for the drone. They can’t see it in the dark water but Andy notices a scrap of paper tumbling away in the breeze. After a brief chase he catches it: it’s waxy and translucent and on it:
Первый свидание 0800
Meanwhile Robbie has done a good job of following the frogman all the way to the railway station. She loses him in the crowd but not before getting a brief look in the lights: he’s tall and fair-haired with ears that kinda stick out. By now it’s getting late so the kids head home, all except Tank who returns the tired pony to Haddon Hill farm to a hero’s welcome from Nellie. Meanwhile Kin has borrowed one of his Mum’s dictionaries, much to her amusement, and is trying to translate the note:
First rendezvous 0800
The following morning Robbie sets off for school early. This is so that she can put up all the hand-made posters she’s produced announcing a ‘Student Strike! in support of the Teachers’… Much to her amazement it works a dream with almost no-one crossing the gates; students or staff. In fact by mid-morning it has spread to Reading and London. The Kids have another day of freedom. They start by trying to figure out the note and fortunately both Tank and Andy, being Eagle Scouts, can read a map accurately enough to place the location to the south side of the railway underpass, where the Railwaymen’s Hostel is located. During the morning the whole place seems unusually busy and teeming with railway staff, they find it impossible to sneak in so instead retreat to their hideout to re-plan. While pondering the problem, one part of the gang bikes off to have another look at the turbines. This morning they find the rowboat is alarmingly bloodstained. The gloves are still there but no toolbox. Sean and Robbie row Tank and Tommy over to the turbines: these are clearly hand made and generate some sort of force field which holds them in place and stops them from being touched. A small stream of bubbles can be seen rising from under each one. Rowing around the island they spot a concealed inlet and row in under the willows. A faint track leads up to a tiny clearing which has small lumps of disturbed earth around it. They discover that these are pet graves: a couple of them yield mangled chicken carcasses. By now rather spooked, the kids don’t explore any further but make their retreat back to shore.
In Dedcot, the reason for all the extra activity around the station becomes apparent at lunchtime. Union Leader Jimmy Knapp arrives to hold a large rally and explain his no-strike strategy. Dedcot station is teeming with railwaymen and leaflets opposing rail privatisation are being handed out everywhere. The kids decide that all this activity is a perfect distraction and decide to scope out the Railwaymen’s hostel again from the vantage point of Platform 1. They locate the frogman’s shabby room and, when he heads out, Kin and Robby manage some breaking and entering from the roof. The room is astoundingly sparse, no sign even of the frogman’s bag, but Robbie swipes a manky SF paperback stuffed down the side of a rotting armchair. It’s ‘The Last Day of Creation’ by Wolfgang Jeschke. Elsewhere, Andy and Tank observe the frogman enter Dedcot Working Men’s Club across the road, licensed premises which they are clearly not allowed to enter at their age. Nonetheless with some skilful skulking around they manage to be helpful at the kitchen entrance around the back, and learn that the sound equipment being unloaded is for the cabaret act that night with guest star Eva Leigh! After much charm and persuasion they, along with Kin and Tommy for tech support, are allowed in to help set up the stage. Back across the road Ash has been observing the final NUR rally of the day with fascination; amongst the crowd she spots six plain clothes intelligence agents circulating amongst the crowd, two of them recognisable to her from the Greenham Common camps. After a while she also notices a hooded figure moving carefully out of sight of the agents. He’s very good but she can’t quite make out what he’s doing. The rally ends and the crowd disperses, adults to their evening entertainment and most of the kids go home for tea. Tank and Tommy however get their supper in the club kitchen and a night of sultry entertainment by the beautiful German singer, Ms Eva. They only just about remember to keep an eye on the frogman and notice him copying down the 3 columns and 12 rows of numbers chalked up by the dartboard. They rapidly do the same.
The next day at school the Kids are all very tired and having trouble following the lessons. Even Mr MacAllister is exasperated with them. The only high point is that it’s fish n chip day in the canteen so Robbie blags extra portions for them off Mrs Fossett. Over lunch they ponder the riddle of the number clusters before finally realising that they need to combine them with the stolen paperback to extract a sequence of words. These read: Ask Tom: “Do you have nail guns?” “We expect delivery next week.” They have absolutely no idea who Tom might be. Dejected, they head back to class for the afternoon. Andy points out that at least the frogman can’t have got far either because he has to replace his paperback from either Forbidden Planet or Andromeda bookshop before deciphering the message. They arrange to meet up first thing on Saturday at the hideout. Later that Friday night almost all the kids are watching TV when a well-known advert comes on for Texas DIY superstores. Its catchphrase is “Ask for Tom!” Robbie, however, is not watching TV. From her darkened room at the back of Mrs Fossett’s house she’s been looking out over her old back garden. Sometime after midnight she sees a figure come silently up the back path and be let in by her Dad. It’s the frogman.
Saturday dawns grey and miserable but Kin and Pete are nonetheless up and out on the Ridgeway making the most of the weekend. Tommy is also up early trying to get his vintage tractor to unseize. Tank is helping out at the Rawnsley farm. Pete has an athletics meet to get to afterwards but the rest of the gang eventually meet up on Dedcot Broadway for a spot of loitering without intent. They’re eventually shooed out of WHSmiths, and then they notice Dentons Toyshop is unusually busy. Although too cool for such kid’s stuff nowadays, they are aware that Transformers and Cabbage Patch Dolls were the big hits over Christmas, and that a new batch of ‘Bigger! Better!’ Transformers has just come out. In the absence of Andy and their regular D&D game, most of the kids decide to head to the quarries. Tank decides instead to go and check up on Nellie Anderson’s pony; he gets a warm greeting from Nellie and an offer to teach him to ride which he innocently accepts.
Back at the quarries the rest of the group row out to the peculiar buoys which don’t move even when the water and the boat do. Tommy carefully gets a plastic-wrapped Gizmo out to scan one and discovers some sort of security field around it, along with the force field. Bubbles are still coming out from underneath it and there’s the distinct whiff of ozone. Sean heroically decides to dive into the water and try to swim inside, and he manages to get far enough down to see a pipe emitting the bubbles, but then becomes severely disoriented. Which way is up? Eventually he thrashes his way out and to the surface, but not before getting severely scared. Attempts to get him back into the rowboat fail badly; the boat capsizes and pitches everyone into the murky water. The gang swim and scramble their way onto the nearby island to dry out. This time, as they’re spending a little more time on the island, they stumble across the camouflaged bird hide in amongst the common reeds and it looks like just the place to warm up. Inside, it quickly becomes obvious that it’s not for birding at all. There are crude benches with machine parts, electronics, and more homemade cages. Tommy and Kin inspect the new components with great interest, but many are far too advanced for them to figure out. One particular silicon chip with a logo of tetrahedrons and a line of kanji catches their eye. Gizmo contains something with a similar design. A few notes with mathematical formulae are scattered on the workbench. By now merely damp and very worried about being caught, the Kids row back to shore and head home to get changed.
Later in the afternoon Tank, Sean and Robbie head into Texas DIY store, a new warehouse alongside the Broadway underpass. Run to latest modern US practices, the staff are underpaid and disaffected. They are chased away from the power tools by a young sales assistant with ‘Ian’ on his name tag and have the bright idea of checking all the other names tags – none are ‘Tom’. Sean goes over to charm the senior supervisor labelled ‘Madge’ and describes the frogman as someone he’s supposed to meet. “Oh yes, Ian was looking for him too” is the reply. Rather than confronting the surly youth again they keep lookout around the back and Robbie sneaks in to ransack the employee lockers. Their pitiful locks are no match for her skills and she quickly locates a folded IBM punch card in Ian’s jacket pocket. Tank copies it and they replace it and exit without being caught. They deduce that the punched holes are some sort of cutout code but are not sure what to combine it with. A bible is the traditional solution but an attempt with one at the library yields rubbish. Further spycraft is abandoned in favour of getting home for something much more important: this week’s Dr Who episode ‘The Two Doctors’.
Later that evening, once she’s absolutely sure her dad is at work and Mrs Fosset thinks she’s asleep, Robbie breaks into the old family home. The house is cold and silent. Upstairs, her brothers’ stuff has been shoved away out of sight and only a few empty cans in her dad’s room show it has been used. Her own bedroom has been completely cleared apart from a new, black duffle shoved under the bed. Inside she discovers a wetsuit, an empty ammo case and a short-wave German radio set to 1345 AM. She leaves everything as it is and retreats silently.
Much later that evening the gang regroups to investigate the second quarry under cover of darkness. They poke around the edges trying to locate the drone’s hiding place. Listening in via Gizmo they can hear the distinctive sounds of a modem and binary code being transmitted. Tommy attempts to hack into the programming and manages to reset the ‘lethality’ setting to zero while still reporting level 5, which he then locks with a password. Other hacks are unsuccessful. Shortly after they’re surprised by the drone suddenly and noisily emerging from the water nearby and speeding away northeast. They note the vector and set off after it on their bikes, keeping to the paths and roads as best they can in the dark. They reach the village of Appleford on the banks of the Thames and have a hunt around but cannot find any sign of the drone. It’s gone into hiding again.
Wearily, they set off back home along Hobbyhorse Lane. As they approach the first quarry they can hear a motorboat moving off in the distance. They cycle a few hundred yards further on before being stopped in their tracks by a blast of icy air and a huge pressure headache in their heads. Out of nowhere the sky fills with thick snowflakes and a lashing wind, an enormous Gauss ship appears in a haze of electrical discharges. Metal is bending, parts come loose and fall down towards the heaving quarry water. The ship creaks and begins to fall toward the water, while the quarry now seems to freeze into ice. At the centre of the ice is a small area that instead has turned into a boiling, muddy sludge. The ship slowly falls with a tormented metallic scream. Torn off magnetrine discs seem to be frozen in the air… And then, the entire scene is gone. The wind is still. The only things that remain are a few snowflakes that quickly melt away, and clothes that are covered with mud and soaked through. Everyone has a pounding headache. They struggle home where Tommy bemused to find that his Aunt Sephie is still awake at 1am, doing something down in the meadow field.
On Sunday morning Kin finds time to develop his latest photographic plates which include some disappointing landscapes, the first quarry, the blond frogman at the NUR rally, the falling Gauss ship, and the middle of Sutton Courtney village which looks odd for some reason. Maybe it’s the peculiar car outside the pub. The gang reconvene at the hideout and Sean turns up waving the ubiquitous British Rail timetable for Spring/Summer 1985, widely and freely available at all stations. When they pull out the battered punch card and match it to some pages for their area they find the message:
Pulling out their battered Ordnance Survey map they identify this as a location just west of Appleford, and a time. ‘We ide’ baffles everyone for a minute until Kin puts the parts together and reads it as ‘willow’ in German. It is 11:00 hrs. They pelt off to Appleford to hunt up and down the Thames path amongst the many, many willow trees growing along the banks and ditches. Sean finally realises that the nearby woven sculpture of St Birinus is also made of willow and inside, carefully sealed in waterproof packaging, is an advanced hard drive from a computer. At this point he freezes, noting that a number of red targeting dots have suddenly appeared on his person. The gang is suddenly very thankful that Tommy overrode the weapon settings. They scramble away as fast as they can and head back to their hideout. Here Kin improvises some connectors to read what’s on the drive while Tommy, with Gizmo’s help, enters into an escalating security hacking duel for control of the drone. He thinks he wins. Kin’s improvised machine downloads data files which turn out to be research data for turning the Loop into a “hypervelocity disruptor cannon”. Kin heads home immediately and contrives to get the hard drive confiscated by his parents, despite his loud protests. The others depart somewhat later but are brought up short just outside their hideout by the sight of the drone approaching. It is sleek and dark and deadly looking. It comes to a halt hovering mere centimetres away from Gizmo.