Episode 9: Jolly Tots and Candy Bots

The end of Easter 1985 vacation looms and the Kids intend to fit in one last all-day game of AD&D before school and homework return to spoil their fun. This time Tommy can join them after weeks of hacking away at the operating system of a top secret Russian military drone. He hasn’t exactly got full control of it, but it’s at last detached from Gizmo, rendered “mostly harmless” and hidden away under baled hay behind a derelict tractor. He feels confident enough to join the gang gathering at Mill Farm in East Hendred where Andy has been left in charge while his Dad takes Mum off for her experimental all-day AIDs treatment. Fortunately the crop spraying, muck spreading and general cleaning are completed, so aside from keeping an eye on livestock Andy is up to date on chores. Andy, as DM, has obtained the two latest modules from TSR: ‘To Find a King’ and ‘The Bane of Llewelyn’.  Making a mental note to change all Welsh names at the earliest opportunity, he turns to the opening scene. “Pellham High Council is floundering, and the political situation is turning ugly, but the Monks of Brie have fortuitously discovered a long-forgotten prophecy! In Pellham’s time of greatest need, a long-dead king will arise to restore order. You have been chosen to prove that this is the time of the prophecy…”

Some hours later, and with a sad lack of oracular cheese, the gang are hungry enough to break for lunchtime. They pile into the farm kitchen for bacon butties with extra cheddar and salad cream, but Andy notices that the big old house is awfully silent and the door to the yard is standing wide open. Andy heads upstairs to check in on his little sister and baby brother, but neither are anywhere about. Pete jogs outside and notes lots of little footprints drying out in the sun from where a toddler has been splashing around in the puddles. These footprints don’t go back indoors but head through the gate towards the water meadow and stream. Tank turns the stove off and the gang head out together to follow the tracks, moving at a fair pace as the brook is nearby. The toddler’s trail clearly heads upstream through the mud. At the top corner of the meadow an old Nellie sphere lies embedded under an ancient Elm stump. The tracks go right up to the mouth of the sphere and then vanish. There is nothing inside but a rusty puddle and deep gloom. It looks a little less broken up than Andy remembers it. He calls out for Nathan but only echoes come back from the sphere.

While the others have been examining the sphere, Pete has been quartering the field and examining a wider group of marks. With his expert knowledge of running kit he recognises two sets of inferior High St trainers, sizes 1 and 2, heading up to the sphere and then away back to the farmhouse,  apparently running at full tilt. Pete runs after them and Tank attempts to overtake Pete without success. The trainer prints head into the yard to a shed where Andy knows that Nikki normally keeps her bike, and then there are two sets of bike tyre marks heading towards the village. Tommy returns to the Nellie sphere and hunts out an obscure port to plug Gizmo into. With some careful hacking he finds a garbled and corrupted log of some kind which nonetheless reveals an uptick in activity about an hour ago. “Yep; Nathan has gone pop!” he informs Andy with usual tact. They discuss the improved appearance of the sphere but come to no firm conclusions. Andy, Tank, Robbie and Pete climb inside, leaving their tech support outside, and demand that the sphere is activated. Tommy has read about ethics and checks that they’re consenting to whatever the hell this is before experimenting on them. “Get on with it!” is the gist of their reply. He throws some switches and types stuff into Gizmo. Nothing happens. He thumps it. It’s totally inert. Andy tries not to panic.

They decide to leave a reassuring note for Andy’s parents then bike off to follow Nikki and her mysterious friend even after the tracks vanish onto tarmac. Fortunately both Andy and Tank were born and grew up in the village so they have an abundant choice of friends, relatives, neighbours and other familiar adults to question along their way. There are several confirmed sightings of the girls heading uphill through the village in a south-easterly direction at some speed. Her companion is Sally, Tommy’s sister. They really don’t pay any attention to their sisters. Pete wonders who they would have gone to for help, well Tank’s farm is up that way, so they call in there. Susan is a much older sister and hasn’t seen the girls; they must have gone on up towards the Ridgeway. There’s Nellie spheres and barrows and iron-age earthworks in the fields and a tractor spraying the newly sprouting cereal crop. Tank’s Dad has also seen the girls and points them towards Meashill Plantation, an extensive stretch of Scots Pines and other conifers alongside the furthest back end of the Loop facility. It’s dim and dark in there but they hunt about a bit and spot a flash of metallic pink where both girls’ bikes are imperfectly concealed under a pile of branches. This spot is on the far side of the plantation and gives a good view of UKAEA Harwell’s double security fence with a patrol trackway, multiple sensors and (it is rumoured) a minefield in the long grass between them.

They all agree that what this place really needs is a covert way in, but they restrain Robbie from her usual casual wire cutting while they contemplate lethal security systems. They time the patrols. They deeply admire the improved and huge ABM 110 ‘fireguards’ and manage to side-track themselves for a time.  There follows some argument on whether the fence ought to display a warning sign for minefields as a military establishment, but Mrs Thatcher’s extensive privatisation programme has made such things very blurred. They search the woods again; there’s no sign of the toddler or any tunnel, but they do find fluffy wadding and scraps of Laura Ashley cotton prints, oddly enough. This is not anything the girls were wearing. Nothing is spotted in the trees but some sections of fence look like they’ve been bent out of shape a bit. Nothing is abnormal along the base but a few places along the top might have had branches pressed down on them. The lowest one of these has bot treads on the other side, not keeping to the trackway. They survey the fences but cannot see any way the girls could have got in or jumped a security bot without it noticing. They calculate that a bot could probably step over the fence if it was commanded to do so. Tommy is eager to hack into the next security bot, regardless of the danger. “I feel your desire to own a giant killer robot is going to get us all killed,” Tank pointed out, “by a giant killer robot.” “It’s a fair cop,” Tommy agreed.

They bicker. They plan. They speculate. They complain. They replan. Eventually Pete, who just can’t stay still for long, uses a gap between patrols to take a running leap up the outer perimeter fence and reach the top. Just as Kin calls out something about isolators, which makes no sense at all to Pete, he grasps the top wires and discover they have one heck of a bite. He plummets back to earth a bit shocked and much enlightened. They hide as an Army patrol returns to survey the section where an alarm was triggered but the patrol, having checked that no-one is on the inside, drive off muttering something about “meddling kids again”. The kids take a break to follow up the possibility that the fabric scraps are some kind of breadcrumb trail and set off in a search pattern going even further uphill towards the Ridgeway. They call a halt when they reach Grim’s Ditch, an ancient defensive earthwork which at this point runs just above and parallel to the Harwell boundary. While clambering about the earthwork Robbie and Tommy notice something pastel coloured concealed in the long grass by the big reservoir at the topmost corner of the facility, well inside the security perimeter. The gang is surprisingly vexed. “This is like being in the Secret Seven and discovering the bloody Famous Five got there first” Robbie complains.UKAEA Harwell in the 1980s

Spurred on by sibling competition they agree to try hacking into one of the giant killer firefighting robots.  Tommy points Gizmo at the next one to come stomping past on the other side of the fence and does an excellent job of violating as many security protocols as possible in a short space of time. It doesn’t even pause to notice him. The kids hide from human patrols while Tommy analyses the responses from Gizmo and comes up with even more devious algorithms. They try again. This one pauses to assess the situation but categorises the kids as small, harmless biologicals on correct side of fence and does not deploy whatever it is pointing at them. It stomps off. Tommy tries for a third and final time on the next bot to come up the hill without any more success. This one also pauses to consider them, and something about its body language makes Tank and Andy rush over to push Tommy to the ground. Their gallantry is misplaced, however, as it merely watches. Andy waves at it: it bobs its head. Tommy crouches down: it copies him. Tommy mimes stepping over the fence and, after it checks downhill for watchers, it leans on the fence and makes a bridge of itself. Kin worries about the electrified fence but the bot is undamaged and everyone scrambles across as fast as possible. They have about a minute before the next human patrol is due. At the inner fence Andy tries to charm the bot but is much too stressed to achieve anything. It stomps off on its rounds. Tank sits on Pete before he can electrocute himself again and Robbie, who has sensibly been keeping lookout, pulls them all down into the long grass just as the next patrol vehicle comes into view. Robbie lies on top of the lads to stop them moving. The patrol moves on.

The inner fence, while electrified at the top, is mainly hazardous for the amount of motion detectors and other gadgets attached to it. With some assistance from Tommy, Kin sets about disarming, rerouting and misdirecting as many of these as possible. As much by luck as skill, he manages to create a ‘mostly dead’ zone. With the addition of Gizmo triggering a full diagnostic run on the digital cameras, they’re pretty sure nothing is getting through to the security station. They revert to Robbie’s tried and tested method of getting under the fence and pelt across to the reservoir bund as quickly as possible. They go to ground next to the annoyingly smug little sisters, Nikki and Sally, who have been there reconnoitring for a while. The youngsters can bring them up to speed on this remote part of the Loop Facility, specifically Hangar 8 where all the echo sphere research seems to take place. The rear of the hangar is littered with a large collection of ‘newer’ looking spheres, some extremely large, and not all of them inert. One big one has been powered up and its interior seems to be pointing at the sky. But almost all the activity is going on inside, and the youngsters don’t know how to get in or what they’ll find.

The gang take charge with their superior… superiority. Andy instructs his little sister to create some sort of diversion further down the hill in exactly thirty minutes. She agrees to this and they scamper off enthusiastically. Robbie calls the gang to order and they carefully plot out what they need to do. The warehouse has military police on the main hangar doors and the smaller side door out to the sphere yard, but Tank spots that the techies have undermined their own security by propping open a grilled window in order to run a power cable outside. The kids also notice that the powered sphere appears to show through to the view from an entirely different sphere nearby and theorise that they could perhaps make use of a powered sphere to make their escape afterwards. Or use an inert sphere to hide in if Tommy can sort out which is which. Finding Nathan is the priority once they’re inside, so they’ll need to search a big area very rapidly and Pete is the obvious choice here. Andy will take over toddler minding once Nate is found. The plan once they get inside is mostly ‘we’ll deal with that once we get there’. They contemplate the scary looking MPs while Robbie gives them a good pep talk and they wait for a distraction.

Distraction arrives in the form of a massive column of flames with thick roils of oily black smoke climbing into the sky from somewhere downhill. A few seconds later a deep ‘whumph’ reaches them. Their sisters have managed to set light to a big fuel tank which is going to take some time to deal with. Robbie leads the gang in, sneaking a tortuous path through the maze of dumped spheres which keeps them entirely out of sight of the military. Tank is so convinced that this will now be a doddle that he cues up ‘The Heat Is ON’ on his Walkman and busts some dance moves on his way over to the insecure window. Sure enough, the grill has been altered enough to allow a thick cable and an improvised crowbar to fit through, so Tank levers it out of the way and boosts the rest of them inside with flourish and rhythm. Inside the gang quickly suss that they are on the edge of a well-lit, massive, massive open space. There is some low cover from the maze of desks, filing cabinets, banks of terminals and lots of powered up Nellie spheres, most of which look surprisingly new and shiny. At the centre, riveting their attention and looking very shiny indeed, is a most peculiar sort of mainframe. It’s surprisingly decorative.

Tommy and Kin need a moment to refocus their attention as their immediate reaction is “I want it!” “Can I stroke it?” “Can I lick the cooling cascade?” Andy pokes them ungently, “No, I am not unfreezing your tongue from that. You have to hack into it — now!” “Do what you’re here to do boys,” Robbie adds, “we’re on a tight schedule.” Kin hunts to find a physical connection into that thing but its configuration is novel, to say the least, and it looks like its power draw might be significant. Nonetheless, he rummages under the floor and manages to wire-wrap something into place to connect Gizmo up. Tommy starts to play too and gets into the data feed of current sphere experiments, but it’s not quite what he’s after. He backs out to look instead for an activation log from just before lunchtime and manages to find an unconfirmed outlier  of a sphere during the right time frame. He shows the serial number to Pete: H/B 119-698. Tommy considers adding a distraction but Pete is already off and running.

Pete has been eyeing up the vast hangar space and has already plotted a likely route to cover maximum ground before irate adults get to corner him. He plans to find and tag the target sphere on his way past using some distinctive Laura Ashley shorts so kindly donated by his sister. The initial run is successful enough that he manages to get most of the way around the hangar, spot the numbered sphere and toss shorts on top before a majority of the technicians and guards raise the alarm and give chase. Pete heads next to the opposite wall where there’s an array of conspicuous emergency power off switches. He slaps the lights and mains, triggering cries of distress from many of his pursuers as they hurry off to write a savepoint. When emergency lights come on instead Andy hauls the gang off towards the target sphere which, as he approaches, is clearly a live portal conveying sounds of a distressed toddler. Andy goes through without hesitation. One by one the rest of the gang clamber through as well, with Tank snatching up the shorts on the way in.  Now Pete gets his second piece of luck as furious staff try to trap him in a dead-end gangway. But the end of the aisle is blocked by a rectangular block of what looks like bubbling water which Pete vaults over at top speed. The pursuing adults are either unwilling or simply unable to do the same leap. It buys Pete just enough time to follow his mates through into the Nellie sphere.

The gang find themselves in an anonymous pale, clean room devoid of furniture but containing one tired, hungry, crying toddler. Andy ignores everything else except scooping up Nathan and magically produces a banana to calm him down. The view outside the triple glazed window is a fairly bland, flat landscape showing weather similar to the day they had just left but from a higher vantage point. There’s a scattering of other buildings nearby; all white, clean and very modern-looking. Their room also has an internal window displaying a number of bemused techie types looking in. The one door is locked and displays a warning triangle with some sort of spidery symbol inside. Looking back they can see a sleek, polished sphere with a live portal through which Pete’s pursuers are peering. They seem unwilling to step through. The gang wave cheekily back. Kin takes pictures to add insult to tactlessness. Robbie also waves to the new batch of adults behind the window.

Once it’s clear that no-one is coming through Tommy checks the current time and date on Gizmo: it has not changed. He asks for location and gets a longitude and latitude. He looks out the window but there are sadly no zeppelins or double suns in the sky. By this point the portal has closed and Andy has managed to get Nate calmed down enough that the snotty little tyke falls asleep on his shoulder. Some of the new techies have struggled into full hazmat suits and enter the room demanding to know who these kids are. Tommy is inclined to brazen it out; “don’t mind us, we’ll be gone soon…” would have been a great exit line if he’d had a lot more leadership and enough time to reprogram the Nellie sphere. Robbie takes over and spins a plausible tale about climbing into an old sphere in a local field and finding themselves here by accident. Once the time and place has been established the techs relax considerably and take off their hazmat gear. “We thought the toddler might have been from ‘further away’”, one of them explains, “is he up to date on his shots?” On closer consideration these techs look a bit junior, a lot relieved, and are sheepishly avoiding Andy’s eye. “We can call a taxi, where can we drop you off?” another asks. Tommy volunteers a nearby farm unconnected to any of their families. They are exceptionally vague on how the kids might have got here, who they are and what this building is, and hustle the gang downstairs and out to the car park via the fire exit.

Kin tries to observe and figure out how to get back inside at another time. Tommy is on full alert for the interior layout and other clues, such as the hexagon of tetrahedrons logo on the fire regulations.  As they leave the gang are hurriedly asked to sign a waiver and NDA document which inadvertently discloses that this is indeed the Iwasaka Research Lab. The kids happily sign with a mixture of real and false names, but as they are minors it is probably invalid anyway. The minivan drives them off and they can confirm that they’ve been in Culham, and reassuringly they are heading towards the column of black smoke still rising into the sky from the direction of UKAEA Harwell. The kids note, along the way, that security appears less severe than Harwell but perhaps their stuff is just more sophisticated. They get back just before Andy’s parents return, and he manages to blame his residual distress on Tank’s failed attempt at live swordplay. Nate is asleep and Nikki is out playing with Sally so everything is fine. The gang is delighted to be able to hand back those lilac-coloured Laura Ashley running shorts to Pete. Kin is distressed to discover that all his photographic plates from the day are completely fogged. And UKAEA complete a tidy up of discarded Nellie spheres scattered around the Hendreds, removing all but the most ancient and rusty.

Dedcot Introduction
Dedcot History
Dedcot Location Map
Dedcot Character Generation
Playground Football; rules of the game

Episode 1: Life on Mars Bars
Episode 2: Twix a Rock and a Hard Place
Episode 3: SCreme Egg Scramble
Episode 4: Time for a Picnic
Episode 5: Marathon Man
Episode 6: Careless Wispas
Episode 7: Bar Noir
Episode 8: It Takes Allsorts

Episode 10: Double Deckers and the Trusty Tube