A thick fog blankets England one dark October night in 1984. In Dedcot folk wake up suddenly in the middle of the night but, unable to figure out why, most fall quickly back to sleep again. A few dogs bark in the distance, their sound muffled by dense fog. High up on the downs one lone sheep meets a sudden, grisly demise. Next morning the kids wake up to another day of school, one of the last few before next week’s half term break. While most of them are blearily listening to Freedom and Pride on Mike Read’s breakfast show and their parents are hearing about a famine in Ethiopia on Radio 4, young Pete heads out on his morning run. He decides to stick to the footpaths and bridleways this morning since dodging cars in fog is never fun. At the furthest point of his run he comes across a two-dimensional sheep, its intestines and blood splattered across a circle of flattened grassland. He pokes around curiously for a few minutes but finds nothing more so heads home. It’s school time. Inevitably many school buses are delayed by the fog or diverted due to minor traffic shunts. The Sutton Courtney bus arrives especially late.
The school day wears on much as usual, although somewhat enlivened by their physics double period which includes demonstration of a van de Graaff generator. A minor brown-out of the local electricity grid is dismissed as an unrelated coincidence. Less riveting was their RE lesson which Mr Bebbington conducts with renewed enthusiasm since the summer hols. This time he has managed to get hold of a video tape of Billy Graham’s recent ‘Mission England’ stadium tour, which he plays in full. This razzmatazz is a world away from the sedate, even austere services most kids are accustomed to in their C of E parish church so they watch with the same bemused fascination that they might give an alien autopsy. Sean, sitting in the back, succumbs to a head-desk moment. The fog blows away by the afternoon so their PE lesson is enjoyed in customary drizzle. They get to meet their new teacher Ms Beckford, a Cross Country champion. Pete is delighted. Afterwards in the changing rooms Tommy is approached by classmate Blakey, who wants a favour. He hands Tommy a novelty Rubik’s cube which he’s found and which needs unsticking. The mechanism has jammed up. The cube is all cream coloured, presumably so that the faces can be customised later. Tommy agrees to take a look at it.
On the way home in school buses Tank and Andy noted a new crop circle by the side of the A4130 road near Chilcot stream. Being farm kids they know the Berks & Wilts farmers’ strict protocol for these pesky things: “if thee can spit across ’im: it be whirlwind. If ’im be big or pattern’d: it be them Oxford student prankers. Except if’n money or grockles be involved: then it be aliens. Always aliens.” This one looks like they could just about spit across it. Back home Tommy finishes untidying his bedroom which was thoroughly cleaned during his enforced absence over summer. Amongst his debris is a flyer for the Cardiff marathon that he’s been meaning to show Pete. He takes a poke at fixing Blakey’s cube but is unable to pry it apart, however he is intrigued by a faint green glow at the heart of it. He sets it aside in favour of another chance to try reprogramming his Nellie sphere and this time he succeeds in making it disappear.
Andy arrives home to find his Mum having a cup of tea with Mrs Bridges from the PTA who is pestering her about something to do with bible classes. With a shared glance Andy immediately invents some crisis out on the farm which his mum absolutely has to deal with right now. They get rid of Mrs Bridges and Andy is pleased to note a new NHS letter has arrived for mum. Before he can ask, she sits him down for a pleasant interrogation for what he’d like to have happen for his 13th birthday on Friday. Andy is stumped for ideas but allows that he’s a bit past the ice-cream and musical chairs stage; perhaps some sort of disco in the old barn and a buffet? So long as there’s still chocolate cake he’s happy. Mum seems happy too. Elsewhere Sean’s dinner time is made noisy by his dad’s relatively restrained rant about Commie recruiters on the high street, but Sean’s not really listening. His attention has been caught by a shadowy figure outside in the gathering fog. Just before it disappears it seems to point left. Meanwhile at their hideout Robbie is trying to work out how a bunch of bird bones have managed to end up in the chicken coop. She is a bit spooked when all her chickens start staring out into the fog down the railway line. Pete has a quiet night completing homework but sneaks out to the stairs when his parents’ argument becomes a little loud. He overhears something about “Alec bloody Geoffries” and shares an ominous look with his big sister — but is too unsettled to notice whether she was coming or going.
The next morning Tommy is delighted to find that his Nellie sphere has reappeared, but annoyed that he didn’t think to put anything inside to track it. Pete completes an invigorating run in fog along the lower hills and finds another crop circle behind Zulu Farm’s shop. Tank has a good chat about next Guy Fawkes night with PC Draper who was up and about unusually early. Once again the school buses are messed up, this time by traffic diversions near the Thames. School gossip is that the army are assisting with flooding. During English lessons Andy remembers to invite the gang to his birthday disco and Tank immediately starts scheming to persuade some girls along too. Tommy remembers to pass the Cardiff flyer along to Pete. Sean stares out the window at a slender figure in the fog who is pointing both up and down to its right. Robbie reminds everyone that they should pay a visit to Kin in hospital. Their Chemistry practical is a revision of the properties of acids and alkalis, enlivened by a sudden evacuation of the lab when chlorine gas is ‘accidentally’ produced. During the break Blakey was unsurprised that Tommy hadn’t got anywhere with the Rubik’s cube and told him to keep it. Study period after lunch was also disrupted as the library was closed for an audit. Instead the class was sent off to the metalworking lab where they were told to design a ‘dynamic sculpture’ to display in a civic competition. Ambitious plans were drawn up.
After school the gang head to their hideout to feed the chickens and figure out how to run a disco. Tank can supply all kinds of music from his cassette collection but is hazy on the technical details of amps and loudspeakers. A consult with Kin is in order. After calling home from the station payphone they hop on a train and fare dodge their way to Oxford and on to the Radcliffe hospital. Kin is laid up in bed with a broken leg and various third degree burns after an inadvisable stunt with his home-made jet pack. What has his mates falling about laughing though, is his blue hair. He hadn’t mentioned that. Eventually he gets around to telling them where to scrounge the kit and fends them away from his treat stash by throwing grapes. When the ward matron catches up with their mess they slope off home. Tank and Andy catch the bus while Sean and Robbie walk home together through the thick fog. Robbie’s still not sure about Sean but she enjoys their chat. Tommy bikes home and has just enough time to set up the Nellie sphere again, but this time he puts in a quick note introducing himself.
On Friday morning Pete wakes up first and this time heads off to the stadium to meet Coach Grundy and do some proper timed runs. He gets his winter schedule of indoor cross training which he hates but also has a chance to chat about restarting in competitions and about his new PE teacher. Coach agrees to meet up with Ms Beckford at the Saturday training session and go through some ideas with her. Pete heads off to school and runs into Robbie who is coming out of the goods yard. She’s looking a bit bothered and befeathered. Her three chickens have now been joined in the coop by a flock of pigeons; quite likely the pigeons they met back at Easter. She’s now sure there’s something out there in the fog. Traffic in the centre of town is jammed solid but eventually they are joined by Tank and Andy squabbling amiably over whether birthday bumps can still be administered. Finally, they meet up with Tommy who looks a little disturbed. His sphere experiment was entirely successful with the Nellie returning overnight looking slightly less rusty than it was before. Inside was an old newspaper, The Times, dated 1st November 1984 — two weeks into their future! Of urgent interest was the headline: ‘DEDCOT DESTROYED’ and the lead photo showing a huge Thing hovering over the cratered remains of their town. This puts a bit of a downer on their last day of school before half term. Even the teachers seem rattled when there’s the sound of gunfire out across the marshes to the north. Blakey, who lives over that way, confirms that the army has cordoned off the quarries and municipal dump. There is no flooding.
School breaks up a little early for half term and Sean exerts himself to persuade several girls to come to their disco that evening. Pete manages to confirm Saturday for meeting Coach Grundy with Ms Beckford. The gang regroup at Kin’s shed to borrow sound and lighting kit and persuade Sean’s older brother to drive it over to Andy’s barn. Tank provides the mandatory glitterball while Tommy supervises tech installations. Andy’s mum approves of their efforts and shoos Andy into the kitchen to help his Gran prepare food. Everyone else returns to town to do very belated present shopping for Andy. Their light teatime snack in anticipation of an evening feast is delayed because the station vending machines are empty. When they return to Andy’s farm the gang look as scruffy as usual, but the barn is noisy and colourful with strobing stage lights painting the fog in beams of neon colours. Several carloads of glammed up girls show up as promised and manage to pay almost as much attention to Andy as they do to their handsome heartthrob Sean. Andy’s mum and gran have outdone themselves with a mountain of food and all is going well until the opening of presents. Andy is suitably grateful for all the gifts but is most obviously pleased with Sean’s import of the latest TSR supplements and modules for Marvel Superheroes. It’s not long before he starts improvising a game for the gang. The girls are not impressed. When Sean also excuses himself to join the game it’s all over; the girls head home. The gang don’t even notice them leave.
On Saturday there is a late gathering of the gang. They pin the alarming Times newspaper up in the hideout cos maybe they ought to do something about it. After returning Kin’s equipment they decide that the most interesting thing to investigate are those odd crop circles. After first collecting the chickens for exercise they bike off to map the circles in a haphazard way. They find a couple more and notice that the circles are indented, in a line, and spaced closer together as they go up the hill. They conclude that something bounced to earth a few days ago and that’s what’s got the military all excitable over by Sutton Courtney village. They reach the topmost circle (where the flat sheep still lies) and notice that it lies at the top of the old railway cutting going into town. They decide to follow the railway cutting down until it reaches Upton village and the London Road. On the other side of the road it changes from a cutting to an embankment. Some of them head across to a nearby pub to ask about anything unusual, while others search for clues or tracks. At the pub they discover a local drunk being mocked for his invisible friend ‘Harvey’ who helped him home and then turned into a garden gnome. Back at the end of the cutting Robbie couldn’t help noticing that her chickens, sated on sheep entrails, had gone to roost in mid air. Something invisible was up there! When everyone returned the gang boosted titchy Tommy up and he managed to feel out a shape with an opening. He hauled himself inside and discovered what absolutely had to be a spaceship. With a bit of rope and some assisted scrambling everyone eventually joined him.
From inside, the craft is perfectly visible as a large egg-shaped pod made from some sort of reddish mineral. A faint hum can be heard. There are geometric symbols scattered everywhere but some obvious buttons, also egg shaped, are arranged in an arc along one side. So, of course, those buttons have to be pushed. After a lot of trial and error, and a few alarming changes in altitude, the kids sort of get the hang of moving this thing about, mostly. Two sets of six eggs particularly worry them. Five of the six blue eggs are lit up but only one of the six orange ones is alight, and that dimly. After thinking a bit Tommy takes the yellow cube out of his rucksack and feeds it to the console. The orange egg lights up more brightly – fuel! By the end of the afternoon the kids were confident enough to take it back to their hideout. Well maybe not that confident, but they certainly weren’t going to leave it hovering about for any adult to find. Very, very slowly, and at a height barely enough to clear trees and rooftops, they steer it back to town and tether it above the chicken coop, still invisible. At least they are flying too low to be a hazard to the military helicopters going into the quarries. They head home for dinner through the rising fog with great satisfaction. Once home Robbie has a bad encounter with her older brothers, one of whom has apparently been severely wounded and left an awful lot of blood in their bathroom. Her attempts to help are violently rebuffed.
In the very early hours of Sunday morning Pete is woken up — there’s something moving around in his room. After extensive thought he switches on a light. There, frozen in the beam, is a small green alien staring at him. Pete stares back equally frozen. They stay like that for some considerable time but eventually Pete tries offering the only thing he has to hand; a chocolate energy bar. The alien cautiously tries some and after a moment decides it’s the best thing since . It gobbles it down. As a first contact it’s amazingly successful. Warmth from the bedroom heater is also much appreciated and reverses the stony scale creeping over the alien’s limbs. Pete decides his first priority is to get it out of their house and to the hideout. After more chocolate bribery he persuades it into his sports bag which he successfully sneaks outside. A cautious jog across town bring him to the goods yard where he is relieved to find the stove lit and their hideout already warm because Robbie has bedded down there for the night. They try to exchange some key words with the alien but it just chatters back to them in staccato, multi toned dissonance. Quietly, up on the wall, the Times headline blurs as other possibilities come into existence. The print is a mess of double or triple overlain words and behind its crater photo a vague outline of a face is almost visible.
Hours later the fog outside lightens as daylight returns. Tommy turns up first, eager to explore ‘his’ spaceship and is introduced to the alien. Tank appears next and, to their surprise, Ash appears out of nowhere. All express various degrees of crogglement at the noisy alien. “So what shall we call him?” Tommy asks, “We can’t just call him Fred.” It turns out they can. Ash has been doing some investigation of her own and has a substantially more accurate map of the crop circles in the area and an outline of the new military zone around Sutton Courtney. Tank brings news of slurry tank sabotage at his farm and a mysterious burglary of the village shop where all the confectionary was taken. Reminded, Pete goes to get more energy bars and call home as he has some urgent questions to ask his big sister. “Weren’t you supposed to be at training yesterday?” she interrupts. Appalled at forgetting his most important session ever, Pete runs to the stadium to accept whatever penance Coach assigns him to. The rest of the gang show Fred up to the spacecraft, which gets him very noisy again as he points to various things. Tommy’s gizmo starts displaying a ‘working on something’ icon, but meanwhile Robbie’s pen and paper are proving more useful. When Fred gets to the orange eggs it starts using the pencil to draw a cube and what might be chemical structures. The kids recognise a water molecule at least.
After lunch the gang bikes back to Upton to see if they can find the missing ‘Harvey’. They cannot pry the drunk away from his tavern but, from his exasperated arm waving, discover which part of the village to search through. They don’t find any stone gargoyles resembling Fred but they do encounter Mrs Morris’ impressive garden gnome collection. They conclude that Fred and Harvey might be the same creature. Some heavy ordnance is heard from the Thames marshes to the north. Tank heads home to help mend the slurry tank. Ash also goes home briefly but is detained by a very pleasant lady from Social Security who is checking up on her ‘home schooling’ status. Ash is able to show her a convincing dissection lab in the back shed created from all her wildlife studies over the summer and bombards her with enough bio terminology to be reassuring. Ash also asserts that Gran will be providing a large Sunday roast later, and on that practical detail the DSS lady finally goes away. Robbie also heads home to see if everything is OK but the twins’ door is closed to her. She notices the sink is partly blocked and finds a 7.62 bullet in the U bend, so it was definitely the army which shot her brother. Pete returns briefly to the hideout with a wide variety of food to try out on Fred — chocolate bars are the clear favourite. The kids can relate to that.
At teatime a special broadcast from the BBC covers Mrs Thatcher’s announcement of “new, special measures in and around the UK Gravitron to counter the increased threat of terrorism.” Over Gran’s roast dinner Ash briefs Dad on the DSS snooper and he kindly provides her with a little extra defence. “If she comes back tell ’er I’m on emergency duty tomorrow with a special train scheduled and if she wants me back home she can complain ter Downing Street.” With a little questioning Ash learns that the London to Bristol Intercity train, due at Dedcot around 20:00 hrs, may pause to pick up a few extra carriages from the military depot. Upstairs in his room, Tommy is briefly distracted from tinkering with the Nellie sphere when his strange Welsh aunt wanders past the door. The signal on his oscilloscope distorts as she passes. Tommy finalises the settings and puts a note inside the sphere asking for more advice to prevent the destruction of Dedcot. He powers it up and waits.
Monday morning rolls around, as does the fog. Tommy is exasperated to find that his Nellie sphere now contains just a cartoon and no help. Pete attends training. Tank and Ash are diverted by the police past Rowstock roundabout garage where something has torn open the fuel tanks. Tank sneaks closer to check if the garage shop has been burgled (it has) and whether it still has any chocolate snacks (it hasn’t). They follow the scatter of tiny feet (or paws) back towards Dedcot and rescue a cold stone gargoyle from a watery ditch. They haul it back to their hideout to show Fred and Robbie who are sharing a chocolatey breakfast. Fred is very excited; they quickly warm their stone gargoyle in front of the stove where it transforms into another green alien slightly bigger than Fred which they call Barney. Fred and Barney chatter away at high volume with much hand waving. Tommy shows up in time to see Barney pointing repeatedly at the cooling towers of the Loop. Maybe there are more there? Pete turns up in time to plot a raid.
The cooling towers of the Loop lie alongside the railway line inside their own fenced military zone. The kids have trespassed here before of course, but then it was all quiet and now the army is riled up and shooting people. Ash decides to wear her school skirt for this raid, reasoning that even the army might hesitate at shooting a schoolgirl. Tommy and Tank guard the rear. The gang carefully time their run over the tracks and under the fence to avoid military patrols. Robbie, Fred and Barney in the lead, are most of the way to the towers when an unexpected patrol comes into sight, but Ash and Pete are caught out in full sight and dodge back towards the fence. Once through Ash heads left and Pete breaks right towards town with the army in pursuit. Robbie’s group gets into the tower unseen and the aliens make exuberant contact with a whole cluster of more little green things. Tank and Tommy decide to hide in the invisible spaceship and so have a commanding view of yet more military personnel deploying to make a systematic search of the goods yard. Just in time Tank remembers to grab the Times newspaper and release their Cretaceous chickens from the coop amid a flock of noisy pigeons. Rather than hang around Tommy and Tank decide to fly the spaceship over to the towers and attempt a rescue. Their control is just good enough to get the strange vessel over there and down into the steamy tower interior where they pick up all the aliens. The army lads can’t see anything except unexpected whirlwinds of litter and a lot of upset birds, but they’re very thoroughly spooked.
With Robbie, Tank, Tommy and a dozen aliens inside the little spaceship is starting to get crowded. On the plus side it is a lot easier to manoeuvre with lots more hands to help at the console. Tommy steers the ship back up again and heads it towards hill barn, the remotest point on his family’s farm. Once inside the kids set up a generator and the hatchery heaters to keep their alien friends warm. With more noisy chattering, some crude stick figure drawings, and a little translation help from gizmo the kids gather that two more aliens are still missing or taken. Also, the fuel is almost gone again. Tommy decides to seek help with the chemical formula of alien fuel at the town library where his favourite adult, Miss Green, is very pleased to see him and his friends. She helps them find the right books but lets them track down the details themselves; it turns out the second symbol is a triglyceride, although the star could symbolise a number of different things. Their real breakthrough comes with the third squiggle which turns out to closely resemble a phospholipid micelle; specifically casein. Tommy reads on a bit more before suddenly exclaiming “Milk! They’re powered by milk?!!” “Shhhh,” replies Miss Green, amused.
On their way back through town the kids are reunited with Ash and Pete, both thankfully unscathed. Tommy collects a pail of fresh milk from the cowshed while being very careful to ensure that its origin cannot be seen by any aliens. The kids get back to hill barn and let the aliens inspect the milk pail before they pour it all into their console. Most of the orange eggs light up at last. Ash hears about the missing alien pair and connects it to the special train due to transport something from the military depot tonight. But where is it going to? They phone Kin for some military intel and he is very, very emphatic that the aliens have to be rescued before the train goes into the box tunnel beyond Chippenham. “If they go in there, they are never coming out again.” Kin has picked up more information about Burlington Bunker than his parents would be happy with. So the kids now plan a train heist. Most of the plans they come up with to divert, derail or decouple the train have the disadvantage of causing a big pile up on the main east–west passenger route. Fortunately, they have an invisible spaceship; they can swoop down on it from above. Time for some thrilling heroics! They scatter to gather some ‘essential’ supplies: rucksacks, ropes, swimming goggles, marigold cleaning gloves, more milk, chocolate supplies, a copy of Useful Scouting Knots (for bowlines), a couple of Mrs Morris’ garden gnomes, and a recording of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ for their tape player. As night falls they make excellent work of manufacturing some smoke/stink bombs, no doubt thanks to their recent chemistry lessons.
Eventually they are all ready and pile into the spacecraft. With minimal bickering the aliens pilot it relatively smoothly out over the railway line and everyone gets ready as the 8pm train pulls away from Dedcot Station. Just beyond the cooling towers it diverts through the military compound and when it emerges again it has three more carriages attached at the rear. They follow it patiently until it clears Swindon town and chase it down as it gets onto the western plain. Flying almost on top of the last but one carriage they let Robbie down on ropes and she unfastens a roof panel with her Leatherman. As it peels off they spot a fridge inside and two special forces blokes starting to react. Ash sets her smoke grenades swirling and when the stink fills the carriage Tank, Ash and Pete jump down fully wrapped up in goggles and protective gear. Ash keeps the smoke swirling and Tank replays alien chatter recorded from his Walkman while they rescue two stone gargoyles from the fridge and pass them up to Robbie. Unfortunately the men in combat fatigues are professionals intent on their task so only Tank and Ash manage to dodge, kick and scramble their way back out up the ropes. Pete is grabbed by one of the scary adults and pulled back down. Tank lets go of his rope and jumps on top of the soldier, breaking his hold on Pete just long enough for the girls to pull them both to safety. Pete is very upset and Tank has injured his leg, but their mission is accomplished. The kids just regret that they didn’t get to substitute the garden gnomes for the gargoyles; that would certainly have upset Mrs T. when she arrives at Burlington.
With everyone aboard it soon becomes apparent that they’re not returning to Dedcot. The spacecraft swoops away and up beyond the atmosphere. The aliens rendezvous with another invisible craft somewhere in orbit. As they dock it becomes clear to the kids that they are in a much, much bigger mothership and also that their cluster of little green aliens are, indeed, very little. They are all met by a batch of very huge, green tentacled monsters with booming deep vocals and it doesn’t take any expert knowledge for the kids to recognise a cluster of alien juveniles in deep trouble with their parentals. Gizmo starts displaying an ‘upgrading’ icon. Pete tries to make the situation better by offering the adults a bar of chocolate, because that worked really well before. The adults pause, accept the token with care, and then boom something at the juveniles. One by one the younglings offer up their surprisingly large concealed stash of Earth contraband. Clearly chocolate is some sort of controlled substance for them also. With Tommy’s gizmo doing its best to translate more than Yes/No the aliens indicate that No, the kids cannot explore their spaceship. Yes, they are being returned home. And Another Time, as adults, they can call on a favour: their ‘Support the Peace Camps’ pin badges now have a ‘Made in [unintelligible squiggle]’ on the back.
The kids are flown back to their hideout. Unpacking their rucksacks, they discover that next week’s front page of The Times now reads ‘Fear after Sikhs kill Mrs Gandhi’, and Mrs Gandhi’s face is the lead photo. Pete discovers that his application to run in the Western Mail Marathon in Cardiff has been accepted (they haven’t thought to include an age check). Robbie debates with her gang about whether or not she should alert the authorities to her brother’s gunshot wounds to ensure that he gets proper medical attention. She eventually phones in an anonymous tip off from a payphone, which is just as well since both Tank and Tommy have already called it in via their trusted adults. When Saturday comes around all the kids pile onto the train to support Pete for his first marathon run. Pete is unexpectedly nervous on the train, and especially stressed going through Chippenham Box Tunnel. The marathon run itself is great; a double loop through the city starting and finishing at the civic centre. Pete doesn’t place, of course, but gets a pewter medallion as a souvenir, meets race winner Ieuan Ellis, and has his photo taken with that running celebrity and national treasure Jimmy Saville OBE. What a lucky chap.