Episode 4: Time for a Picnic

July 1984 and it’s the start of the kids’ big summer holiday at last. The days are long and mostly hot, although sudden downpours of rain and odd blasts of cold northern wind adds uncertainty to any outdoor plans. Ominous events include lightning setting fire to ancient York Cathedral and a 5.4 earthquake centred on Wales was felt throughout the country. In BBC news much of northern England is on strike, UK unemployment is at a record 3 and a quarter million, the L.A. Olympics are about to begin on telly and Stonehenge Solstice Festival was attended by over 30,000 new age travellers. Teenagers bored by skylarks, sheep and hayfever in the countryside can take refuge in the cinema with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom still showing and Star Trek II: the Search for Spock due out anytime now.

In their hideout the kids gather to playtest a new superheroes RPG and have fun practicing hawking with Robbie’s three cretaceous ‘chickens’ before laying plans to meet up at the cinema the following afternoon. The kids are especially pleased that the three feathered friends now line up and wait in turn for their go at the lure. On returning home for tea Tank learns from his disgruntled sister that auditions for ‘Starlight Express’ will be open and not just confined to members of the local AmDram club. This is a chance to impress the fair Natalie! He phones around the next morning to change plans. Only Kin opts out as his father wants to dismantle the lawnmower: details of the 32nd annual Dedcot Lawnmower Grand Prix have arrived by post and this is always a big thing in their household. Robbie gets ambushed by her older twin brothers and is summarily frogmarched down to Boots the Chemist to hand in her prescription; she’s no idea why they are pretending to care about this as she just flushes the stuff down the toilet anyway.

Auditions start at the community centre next to the allotments; Ms Julia immediately corrals the entire bystanding gang into her dance auditions as a way of balancing out the large number of girls present. If the lads can move around on roller skates then they’re in. The girls’ audition takes a bit longer but eventually the chorus is sorted and it’s time to move on to the second part: the singing auditions. To no-one’s surprise Natalie lands the leading role of Pearl. Tank steps up for the part of Rusty but despite all that practice has just reached competence and so he remains in the chorus. Robbie steps up and nails the role of Greaseball. Andy was noticed harmonising away in the background and gets called forward by Ms Julia for a proper trial. He is awarded the other lead role of Rusty. Much angst ensues. Well, not for Robbie who is just plain enjoying herself.

Pete is certainly not enjoying himself back at home the next day. Although he’d passed his school exams and been allowed to resume training with Coach Grundy, the atmosphere at home is still strained and not helped by his sister who has given up gymnastics entirely. Coach is also somewhat disappointed at how bad Pete’s form is after a term unsupervised. Andy has a much better time at home as he intercepts a phone call for his Mum and manages to rebook her hospital appointment for the following afternoon and gets the rest of the family to support his arrangements. Robbie helps Mrs Fosset with her garden and manages to avoid her brothers. Luckily, they seem not to have come home recently. Tank and his sister also return home to find an odd but enticing smell of home baking in the air but no sign of parental supervision, they must be out at a concert again. Kin and his dad delve into the inner workings of a brand-new lawnmower but emerge in good time to clean up properly and report for dinner.

Monday rolls around and the grown-ups head off to work leaving idle kids to sleep in, all except the farm kids who still have chores to do. Tank discovers that mum and dad are still away and is uneasy enough to search around for any sort of note. Instead he finds a handwritten playlist for a set of bands that include Hawkwind and Wishbone Ash. It vaguely reminds him of a leaflet they found back at Easter so he brings it along to the hideout. Robbie takes advantage of her Dad’s snoring and her brothers’ continued absence to sneak around their bedroom for a bit; she learns that they have acquired a huge new CD player, several latest CDs including the Stonehenge concert, plus Reebok trainers and Pepe jeans; not too plausible for a couple of dossers on the dole. Andy spends the morning finalising camp details with the Scoutmaster before rounding up all supporting family members so that his Mum can be driven to her hospital appointment with no excuses. He waves them off and settles in to an afternoon of babysitting.

Pete, Robbie and Kin join Tank at the hideout where they root around in their discarded trash. They retrieve the colourful poster from Easter listing a number of free festivals to be held around southern England either side of the great gathering at Stonehenge. Tank can find no immediate local link but nonetheless has a growing suspicion that his parents have gone a bit potty. Robbie exercises her chickens. Teatime rolls around and the gang disperses home. Meanwhile Andy is starting to get worried as his parents haven’t returned from the cottage hospital as yet. A quick phone call confirms that they left ages ago. He continues to wait. At Pete’s home an awkward cold supper is made by his dad who starts to edge around the topic of who his mum spends time with and where she might be. Pete and his sister are clueless. Kin also reports in for food to find that his father, the Major, is AWOL. Sudden absences happen regularly, but never ‘WOL’. A phone call by mum establishes that he left work over an hour ago. Only Robbie is pleased by the turn of events since she has the whole house to herself. She checks around her dad’s bedroom while he’s out on night shift but finds no contraband or other signs of inexplicable income. She sleeps soundly.

The following morning Andy has finished prematurely panicking and has become positively perturbed. He calls in emergency help from Grandparents living in Ilsley and sees to the farm animals while they drive over, in preference to dealing with his baby brother’s nappies. At a nearby farm Tank is also dealing with a neglected herd but afterwards can at least ditch his older sister without a qualm. Pete searches through the household desk and unearths some pamphlets for other secondary schools in the county; it seems that his mum was looking at other education options for him. One school, King Alfred’s, was holding an open day the day before. Over breakfast Kin looked up the emergency contact details which both his parents keep up to date ‘just in case’. His father’s work number, 0793 782500, was obviously not on Harwell base as he had assumed. Dialling the number got him through to a cheerful female voice saying, “Royal Military College of Science; how can I help?”

The gang reconvened in their hideout to compare notes. Andy’s parents went to an appointment at Wantage Cottage Hospital, Pete’s mum was likely visiting King Alfred’s School in Wantage, and Kin’s father would have had to drive through Wantage on his way home from RMCS in Shrivenham. They immediately assemble essential supplies for exploration (mostly squash and snacks) and set off to cycle the 10 miles into Wantage. Along Portway they notice that there’s slightly more cars headed towards Dedcot than usual, and fewer buses. A quick chat to an elderly gran at one bus stop gets them no further, but once they arrive in Wantage market place a few parked and abandoned buses are a clue. Some of the shops are closed up but that might just be due to the recession. Happily, Woolworths is still open and it lures Tank in to check out their pop chart cassettes and chat to the disco kids hanging out there. Andy chats with some cooler kids lurking by the statue. The others look for a cafe. All return with scrappy posters and news about some sort of hippy gathering going on “up the ’ill” at Segsbury. Poring over the local Ordnance Survey map they learn that Segsbury Camp is an iron age hillfort above Letcombe villages, just off the Ridgeway. They set off to find it.

‘The People’s Free Festival’ turns out not to be hard to find — in fact it’s impossible to miss. The rock music thundering out over the countryside can be heard from miles away and is a source of great vexation to Letcombe pensioners. The kids pedal very slowly up the track to the iron age embankment but are stopped there by an eclectic mix of Hippies and Hells Angels. They are told in no uncertain terms to push off, “this ain’t no place for kids”. Meekly, the kids push off before circling around the hillfort to look into the place from a higher point on the Ridgeway. The Ridgeway is crammed with carelessly parked cars and it gives them enough elevation to see several hundred adults milling around inside the large hillfort. There festival goers are clustering around at least two stages rigged up for the bands and some sort of cylindrical machine on legs in the middle of the camp. The kids have another go at sneaking inside but without success, the steep embankment makes it all too easy for bouncers to guard the camp.

The kids retreat again to the Ridgeway and decide to knock on the door of the nearby farmhouse. Here our kids are distracted by the familiar sound of livestock in distress in the nearby barn. This farm, too, has been deserted by its occupants. While the country lads set to on their third milking duty of the day, the others break into the main house. Robbie looks around upstairs to make sure no children have been left behind, Kin locates a pair of decent binoculars and Pete finds an outbuilding used as an observation post. A nearby set of notebooks have familiar handwriting inside, the cryptic entries only start about a month ago (mid project) and finish abruptly last weekend. The entries are clearly bland in case curious civilians happen upon them and contain no clues to the purpose and original setup. Scanning the crowd again with the binoculars the kids notice that the crowd is unusually diverse in age and clothing for the usual rock festival scene, but it contains no-one under the age of 16. Some of the parents are spotted, plus one of the twins, and one woman who might possibly be the Professor they rescued from a cretaceous cove at Christmas.

Inevitably, Kin starts to focus on the interesting contraption in the middle of the camp. He can’t see many details from a distance but it has ‘ArAN’ printed on the side and thick cables going into the ground next to the track. ‘How is it powered?’ he wonders. Clearly not from the stage generators which are powering their own edifices of amps and speakers. The kids note similar thick cables coming back up by the track as it enters the farmyard. A quick check by Kin confirms that they don’t power the farm — all the farm buildings are powered from a standard mains grid unit that runs a line in from the nearby A338 road. They follow machine’s cables which snake out of the farmyard southwards, run through a large field of ripe barley, and plunge into the cool shade of Angeldown plantation. It’s nice to get away from the noise of the bands. Inside the beech and conifer plantation the light is dim and birds remain silent. As the kids come in sight of a large and active Echo Sphere they get the distinct feeling that they are not alone. A dark and hooded shape looms above them “Go back!”, it commands, “go BACK”.
Robbie is having none of this. “A Nazgul costume? Cool! Why should we go back?”
“Leave this place immediately, for your own protection and the common good.”
“Isaac, is that you?!”

It is, of course, and Isaac is charmed to see his young helpers once again. He’s been worried by his master’s absence and after they take him to see the festival at Segsbury, he realises that something has gone wrong so he’s keen to see the ArAN machine powered down. The farm lads, Tank and Andy, haven’t yet seen a problem that can’t be solved by enough torque on a large tractor but thankfully both Kin and Isaac persuade them otherwise. Those overloaded power cables run through the echo sphere and into a secure maintenance hatch alongside it. They realise that the echo sphere is being used as some kind of control mechanism and that it’s possible to scale down the shunted power to a stable minimum. After studying the controls carefully, Kin reckons he could do this if he could just obtain the vital key to unlock it all. Tank has an absolute brainwave; since Professor Thelin’s time portal was controlled by music then this mechanism should be also and he’s pretty sure, given the Prof’s previous taste in music, that the current pop hit ‘Jump (for my love)’ by the Pointer Sisters is her choice. He even has it on his Sony Walkman! With this data Kin is able to stabilise the power feed.

The next step is to get down inside the access hatch and try to close the power off entirely. However the hatch is extremely sturdy and has unusually excellent security controls on it. At this point the kids realise that the mad Professor has hacked directly into the power of the main Harwell Loop. Isaac does not know any of the security controls but, after the kids have flailed around a little, he does draw their attention to a small, worn pad on the side of the hatch. It seems that one ‘M. Warren’ signed off on hatch maintenance about a month ago. They go back to the farm to look up M. Warrens in the phone directory but there aren’t any listed in the Wantage/Faringdon book. Having hit a dead end they reluctantly cycle back to Dedcot and their silent or subdued homes. Robbie, as a last resort, asks her dad to see if he can find any details for M. Warren in maintenance while he’s on his night shift.

Kin’s mother and sister have also disappeared. He’s looking up M. Warrens (all 12 of them) in the Dedcot phone book when he is startled by a knocking at his back door and the unexpected appearance of an unusually feral Ash. She thumps a quarter carcass of fresh deer down on the kitchen table and asks if she can swop it for a large amount of fresh vegetables and fruit. Kin agrees and tentatively offers the use of a hot shower while he gathers supplies. Ash cheerfully accepts. She has been living free range around Greenham Common and is pleased to report that her mum is just fine. After she vanishes again Kin knuckles down to some serious cleaning up.

In the morning Robbie is amazed and pleased to find that her dad has actually come up with the goods. One Michael Warren is enlisted with Harwell as a maintenance engineer for the western segment of the Loop, and he even provides an address in Dedcot suburbs. She breezes in to the hideout and is delighted to see Kin and Pete feeding the chickens high quality meat. Tank and Andy are horrified, “but that’s prime venison!” Too late.

Soon the kids set off to visit Michael Warren, arriving in front of an unremarkable semi-detached house with a neat front garden and no car in the drive. They knock on the front door several times but get no answer. A couple of them go around the back but there’s no answer there either. Kin is just deactivating its burglar alarm when Andy notices a twitching net curtain next door. Trying to allay suspicion they knock on the neighbour’s door to ask directly after Mr Warren and whether he’s gone to work. The nosy neighbour is pleased to inform them that Mr Warren doesn’t work any more, not since that nasty accident last month. They thank her politely and suggest that they’ll leave a note. Instead they slope round to the back door and quietly break in. Yes, it is locked but that doesn’t even cause Robbie to break stride on her way through.

Inside they find a neat and tidy domestic house with all the signs that adults have tidied up and left. Then they hear a noise from upstairs. While some raid the household desk Tank and Andy go to take a look, fearing a large dog might be about, but are surprised to see a grown man peering down at them from behind the bannisters. Andy starts to apologise and grovel but Mr Warren just appears confused and a bit fearful of them. Tank notices the colourful pyjamas, teddy bear and burn marks on his scalp and suspects a brain injury. They start to treat him as just another kid and Michael is happy to have some company now his wife and carers have gone away. They learn that Michael had a bad electrical accident out on the Loop last month. They decide that they don’t like the Professor’s methods one bit. While they fix Michael some sandwiches Kin pilfers a map, some blueprints and an engineer’s ID card from the desk. They leave after phoning in to request a nurse for Michael, since they deem his neighbours to be ‘insufficiently concerned’.

The kids pedal off once again for Segsbury Free Festival and finally arrive after lunch. The party is still going loud and strong and appears to have swelled in number just from curious onlookers arriving. Many of the adults are now starting to look the worse for wear. The kids head through the barley field to meet up with Isaac. He’s glad to see them and will help within the scope of his orders. A close inspection of the access hatch reveals that it has very advanced levels of security: complex locks, plus a chip card reader, plus some sort of biometric pad. They note that Michael’s ID card does indeed have little gold square on it, but they can’t hack the biometric access. Kin deduces that the Professor has already altered its biometrics to her own data so Michael’s prints won’t help. The kids are despondent, but Isaac points out that they are also sitting on Michael’s map of the area. They have to leave Isaac to search for a different hatch, but he warns them that his master has left two dangerous robots underground to guard her experiment.

The next access hatch along, while concealed, is easy to find with the help of the map. Kin works carefully to spring it open and soon all the kids are climbing down and down into a dark passageway. It is a damp and cold place only occasionally lit by dim emergency LEDs. They can hear the skitterings of small creatures off in the darkness and the deep pulsing thrum of the gravitron far beneath. An Icy wind streams past them. Andy leads confidently off in one direction but fortunately Pete grabs him and turns him around. It seems that Pete has an absolute sense of direction and a very clear mental map of where they are relative to the surface. He heads them in the proper direction for the previous hatch and after several minutes of exploring in the gloom they find a ladder with those scary thick cables leading off into the dark.

The follow the cables past many side passages for a fair length of time before sneaking up on an equally dark and gloomy maintenance room for the Loop. Remembering Isaac’s warning the kids approach very cautiously. They cannot see any bots in the gloom but they can see the cables plugged into a Loop control panel of some kind. The power draw is making their hair stand on end. They can also hear an underground river rushing past underneath the floor grids, and they think they might have heard clicking movement from one of the dark niches off to one side. They retreat to come up with a plan. To get Kin enough time to shut the power down they decide to go for a classic distract and divert. Andy fetches his bike from aboveground while other kids map the passageways for him. Kin repurposes the lenses from his camera to give better magnification for whatever circuits he’ll be working on. Robbie gives them all a pep talk. Eventually they are ready to go.

Andy and Pete approach the control room from different corridors and their appearance is enough to trigger two tall, humanoid robots to break cover from the niches. The pale one clicks forward and powers up a screeching drill set into one arm. The dark one stalks forward with outstretched claws; they can’t see any obvious weapon although its red LEDs are lighting up in sequence. For a while it seems that the robots might stop at the threshold, but Pete and Andy throw taunts and random missiles at them in until they are provoked into giving chase. Pete draws the pale bot away and races madly through the maze of dim corridors, staying just ahead of the screeches and clicks as it scrabbles along behind him. Andy gets a much scarier time of it as the black one moves fast and smoothly after him as he pedals away; he’s never sure how close it is unless he looks over his shoulder which he can rarely do in the dim narrow passages. When he does, it’s always much too close. Meanwhile the others run into the room and Kin starts to examine the control station carefully, aware that if he gets this shutdown wrong he could cause a massive explosion or worse. Tank and Robbie start lifting the floor panels in a barrier around him, exposing the underground river and leaving just enough as a drawbridge for Pete and Andy. Finally their trap is ready and Tank sounds the ‘recall’ signal on his Walkman. Not a moment too soon Pete and Andy head for the music, trailing their bots behind them. They make it back into the room and skid behind the barrier just in time for Tank and Robbie to lift the last section of floor. The bots drop and disappear into the rushing water without a sound and only some bright flashes as their weapons short circuit. While everyone gets their breath back Kin throws the final set of switches and successfully disconnects the power cables.

The kids climb back up to the surface to be greeted by a thankful Isaac. He can’t promise to keep this a secret from his master but he will try. The kids make their way back to the festival to find that the party appears to be breaking up; lots of adults are trying to retrieve their clothing, cars and dignity from whatever mess they abandoned them in. The kids decide that they are not brave enough to face their parents at this point and will instead wait for them back home. They pedal tiredly back to Dedcot and await their fate. They are however resolved to Do Something about that professor. Back at home the kids are mostly unsurprised to find that their parents have found a perfectly rational explanation for their actions, because of course the weather is just perfect for a spot of camping and a picnic. Tank’s parents seem especially unrepentant. Andy’s are puzzled but amused, Pete’s seem to have come to some kind of grim realisation while away, and Kin’s have just gone completely silent about the matter. Kin has plans to type a briefing document instead. Robbie’s household remains unchanged.

Later in the summer, once rehearsals have caught up from festival disruption, Ms Julia’s Dance and Drama Academy are pleased to put on three performances of Starlight Express at the civic centre. The chorus is fine, the costumes are fine, the sound and light systems are very good and the three young stars are absolutely dazzling. The Dedcot Herald review even singles out Robbie for special mention and hopes that she “will go far” in her future. Andy never does manage to figure out how to sub in Tank as his understudy, but on opening night he does get to surreptitiously trip Natalie up during her skating routine, allowing Tank to scoop her up before she falls and to save the show. Now Natalie knows who Tank is, even if she is a bit embarrassed by it all.

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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 5: Marathon Man
Episode 6: Careless Wispas