The USS Transit, fresh from an exploration of a new M Class planet and a brief skirmish with the Borg, settled into standard orbit around Earth. Captain Pipkins stood at the window of his ready room, watching the horizon of his beloved home planet moving steadily across continents.
As the Transit cruised above the surface of the globe, Pipkins grimly observed the snowless Antarctic, the dwindling rainforests of South America, unbroken ocean where low-lying pacific islands had been, the North American Desert encroaching north, and the remaining fragments of Arctic sea ice. As the Transit passed into the dark side, he saw Europe lit up below him – all those light bulbs, and most of them probably not LCD. Gritting his teeth, the Captain stepped out on to the bridge. “Intern, where is Commander Prompt?”
At his makeshift workstation in a corner or the bridge, the intern tapped his screen and replied, “I believe he’s in Holodeck Two, Captain: it’s currently running Friendly Romulens“.
The audience whooped and clapped with escalating energy as generous offers of cuddles, cooking and cash came in for the beaming hopefuls on the stage. The Commander folded his arms and smiled, his eyes twinkling with satisfaction and relief. This was the seventh time he’d run the program, and with each modification it had been better.
‘Friendly Romulens’, an intergalactic event showcasing new business ideas, had always been a buzz, considered a great success by all taking part. Now, he thought, it was as close to perfect as he could get it – audio, timing, jokes – thanks not only to his vision and technical upgrades, but a team he was proud of.
With perfect timing, a voice overrode the applause. “Commander Prompt to the bridge.” He nodded; he was done. “Computer: end program.” The stage and audience disappeared.
Moments later the lift doors opened on deck three, and there stood the Captain. “In my ready room, Number One,” he said, indicating a cream wooden door. Closing it behind him, Prompt raised an eyebrow. “Problem?”
“Not exactly. Commander RioGrande has been doing some research , and it seems we have a brief opportunity to make use of a temporal rift in the settlement of Totnes. We can use this rift to go back in time to 1712, just as Thomas Newcomen is about to invent the steam engine, and prevent him from doing so. Now, Commander, I don’t need to tell you what this might mean for mankind.”
Prompt nodded. “It would avert the industrial revolution, eliminating the effects of man-made climate change.”
“And don’t forget peak oil; Commander RioGrande was very clear about that.” Pipkins turned again to look out of the window. “But Counsellor Bunks has reminded me – in fact, she was most emphatic – that if we do go back in time and prevent the steam engine from being invented, we will alter the course of the future, with unknown consequences.”
A slow smile spread across Prompt’s face. “That, Captain, is exactly why we should do it.”
Pipkins stood at his window for a moment, the back of his head silhouetted against the stars . Then he turned. “Agreed. Make it so, Commander. You have twenty minutes before the temporal rift closes.”
“I’ll assemble an Away Team.”
Half way up Totnes High Street the air shimmered, and four officers from the USS Transit materialised: two on the pavement, and two off. “Watch out, Commander!” yelled Lt Long as she pulled Prompt to safety, a nanosecond before a delivery van sped past.
“Right,” said Commander Bennison, consulting her antique watch. “We’ve got eighteen seconds until the temporal rift opens. When it does, it only stays open for one second. We’ve got to get through as fast as we can!”
The Away Team looked around them. Commander Bennison snatched up a skateboard from a shop doorway, and Lt Long grabbed a unicycle that was leaning against some railings. Prompt narrowed his eyes as he looked down the hill at a yellow bus coming towards them. “Oh, no,” said Bennison. “You can’t! It’s going the wrong way; you’ll reverse the flow of time!”
He grinned. “Not if we put the bus in reverse! Computer : arch.”
On his word, a whole spectrum of colours began flowing and crackling across the stone arch that spanned the narrow street below, filling the space with an oscillating rainbow. A couple of passing Totnesians glanced at it briefly, and resumed their conversation.
Long glanced at the clock above the arch: seven seconds left. “Now!” she yelled, leaping on to the unicycle and wobbling rapidly down the hill. Apologising to the bus driver, Prompt leapt into his seat, rammed the bus into reverse and screeched backwards towards the arch. Bennison brought up the rear on her skateboard, gathering speed as they all plunged together into the iridescent sheet of colour.
The team came tumbling out of the arch on the lower side. “We made it,” said Long, glancing around at the old shop-fronts, the women in long skirts, and men with beards and broad-brimmed hats. “We’re in the 18th century.”
Commander Prompt pointed. “Look.” Below them was a broad plain, stretching down to the river. “But how are we going to find Newcomen?”
Bennison said, “I was talking to someone the other day who knows a descendent of his. Apparently the workshop was in the area where the Tourist Information office used to be – I mean, will be, in the future.”
They made their way down the hill, and using their tricorders, soon found the exact location. Beside a stream was a small stone shed, from which came the sound of banging on metal. Their phasers set on stun, the team burst in through the low wooden door.
A bearded man, his shirtsleeves rolled up to show grimy, muscled forearms, leapt back against the wall, his eyes wide.
“Thomas Newcomen?” barked Prompt.
He nodded, speechless.
“Are you trying to invent a steam engine? A device that will lead to the combustion engine, which will lead to the breakdown of local economies, ripping communities apart?”
“Commander,” interjected Long, “we haven’t got much time.”
Newcomen looked even more bewildered.
“Oh yes,” went on Prompt, “which will also lead to unbridled capitalism, resulting in social inequality, polluted rivers, soil depletion, acidic oceans, mass extinction,climate change, and the eventual destruction of humanity?”
Newcomen’s eyes darted left and right. “Nay, tha’s got it all wrang. I be developin a means of two-wheeled travel.” He pointed to a metal cylinder the surface of a bench. “This ‘ere’s gooin to be wad I call its crass bar.”
“You’re fixing up a bike?” Prompt looked closely at the hollow cylinder. Alongside it lay a smaller, solid cylinder that looked as though it would fit within the first. “You’re lying.” He rapped. “That’s a piston!”
Both men lunged for the objects at the same time – and as they did so, the Away Team were suddenly enveloped in a shimmering film of rainbow colours that pulled them off their feet and out of the shed, sucking them back across the plain, up the hill, and through the arch – where they landed back in the 21st century. Fortunately they had arrived on a traffic-free day, so instead of materialising in the path of a van, this time they found themselves standing on a chalk hopscotch grid.
The Commander, clutching the metal tube in one hand, touched his transmitter with the other. “Prompt to the Transit: three to beam up.”
Later, in the Observation Lounge, Lt Hula stood beside the screen, showing a visual record of the mission that he’d edited from images uploaded from the team’s tricorders. The final scene showed the prismatic colours fading to nothing, and a flock of pigeons landing on the top of the arch. Hula dimmed the screen.
“And so, Captain,” said Prompt, “we were unable to alter the course of time. But we did bring this back.” He handed the hollow cylinder to the Captain.
“A remarkable artefact,” murmured Pipkins as he turned it in his hands. “One half of the prototype of the very first piston.”
“He’ll just make another,” said Prompt.
“Unless all your talk of destroying humanity puts him off,” commented Counsellor Bunks.
Pipkins shook his head. “Then someone else would invent the steam engine, sooner or later. One of the interns has been doing some research. Are any of you familiar with the work of Professor Shelduck? According to him, even if Newcomen had been put off, which is highly unlikely, the idea of an engine was in the Field and would have emerged anyway, in someone else’s hands. No, we have always been going to burn our fossil fuels until they ran out completely. Nothing can change that – not even the crew of the USS Transit.”
Captain’s Log: The Away Team have been unable to avert humanity’s headlong rush into global environmental disaster. It seems that we truly cannot change the past. Be that as it may, the crew of the Transit are all agreed on one thing: we can shape both the present and the future, and together, make them as good as they can be. And that, as long as The Transit is under my command, is what we will do.
Lt Long, relaxing in her seat on the bridge, turned to Prompt and said, “Well, I’ve never seen a bus go backwards so fast. Perhaps you should be considering a new career, Commander.”
Prompt looked at her, and half-closed one eye. “Oh, no – I have a Friendly Romulens’ Forum to arrange. Intern, lay in a course for Risa.” He winked. “I understand The Risans are looking out for new recruits to their circus. I’m sure they could use a uni-cycle rider.”
Captain Pipkins smiled, and raised a hand. “Engage.”
Image: Jeff Hill with thanks. For more Totnes images: