It began with a faint dot on a computer screen. If it had ended there, if nobody had noticed, the world wouldn’t have been much changed. A couple of hundred thousand people would be dead, the British climate would be worse than ever, and it would take twice as long to get from London to Birmingham. Cosmically speaking, that’s small beer.
It didn’t happen that way.
I - London: T-23
“Are you quite sure about this?” asked Jim Hacker.
Sir Humphrey shook his head dolefully. “Yes, Prime Minister. The Americans and Russians have offered to help, but they’re privately admitting that they can’t get anything put together in the time available.”
“So what the hell are we supposed to do?”
“Sir, there is a long British tradition of last-minute innovation and hare-brained plans saving the day. Dunkirk, the Dam-Busters, the Falklands war, the Italian Job... It may be that the best way to handle the situation is to let loose some of our finest improvisational minds, experts who will let nothing stand in the way of success, and give them every possible motive to succeed.”
“You’re not suggesting we hand the problem over to... to Alan Sugar, are you?”
“We can’t afford his fees, I’m afraid, and he’d want to turn it into a full length TV series. We need a faster solution.”
“Who did you have in mind, then?”
Wordlessly, the Senior Civil Servant handed him the list.
“So this is it,” said the Prime Minister, “we’re all going to die...”
II - Dunsfold Aerodrome, Surrey: T-22
“Now earlier in the show,” said Richard Hammond, “We told you that Captain Slow was going to try driving the Bugatti Veyron at its top speed, 253 miles an hour. Well…”
A production assistant stepped into shot and made a throat-cutting gesture. “Sorry, we’re going to have to stop recording.”
“What the hell for?” said Jeremy Clarkson.
“Word just came in from Broadcasting House. The Director General wants all of you in London right away.”
“That’s going to bugger the schedule,” said Richard Hammond.
“Can’t be helped,” said the voice of the producer, amplified over the PA system. “I think they saw Jeremy’s expenses claim.” The studio audience laughed, assuming it was another stunt.
“Oh bloody hell,” said Jeremy. “It was nice knowing you, chaps.”
“It’s been… interesting,” said Richard.
“Don’t worry,” said James, “We’ll find someone to replace you.”
“Ha bloody ha.”
“Race you to Broadcasting House?” asked Richard.
“How much do you want to bet on it?” Jeremy asked. “If I’m going to be out of a job I might as well get as much of your money as I can.”
“They’ve sent transport,” said the production assistant, listening to the voice in his headphone, “it’s waiting outside.”
“What have we got?” asked Jeremy, detaching his microphone. “Some bloody BBC bus?”
“Reception says it’s a helicopter.”
“Exactly how much did you fiddle?” asked Richard, following Jeremy out of the studio, with James taking the rear, followed by a fast-thinking cameraman. Outside the helicopter was sitting on the tarmac, its rotor blade already spinning.
“That’s a bloody Lynx,” shouted James, “the fastest helicopter in service. What did you do, Jeremy, pawn the DG’s Bentley?”
“And why are there armed soldiers guarding it?” added Richard.
“Because it belongs to the army,” said one of the soldiers, saluting Jeremy, and added “if you’d like to step aboard please, gentlemen.”
“What if we don’t?” asked James.
“That might be... unfortunate,” said the soldier, doing something clicky and ominous to his gun.
“Fair enough,” shouted Richard, climbing aboard.
“Works for me,” said Jeremy, ducking low, and followed him under the rotors and into the helicopter.
“Sir?” shouted the soldier, “We’re waiting.”
“This had better not be bloody ‘This Is Your Life,’” said James.
“I can promise you it isn’t,” said the soldier.
“You’ve Been Framed?”
“Okay. But I’m not leaving a tip.” James followed them aboard, and the soldier slammed the door behind him, while another showed him how to strap into his seat. The engines started to make a lot more noise, and the helicopter lurched into the air.
III - Downing Street, London: T-22
“Okay,” whispered Jeremy. “I’ve cracked it; I know why we’re here.”
“Go on,” said James. “Enlighten us, oh Brain of Britain.”
“The penny didn’t drop until I saw that Patrick Moore was here; then I twigged.”
“And?” said Richard.
“Patrick Moore, right? Loveable eccentric, older than God, astronomer, musician, very patriotic.”
“And then there’s me. Loveable eccentric, young and handsome, driver, very patriotic.”
“So it’s obvious, isn’t it? They want us to go to Afghanistan to entertain the troops.”
“And where do Richard and I fit into this?” asked James.
“You’re the comic relief, of course.”
“You plonker,” said Richard. “Assuming for the sake of argument that the government found you entertaining, which I doubt, why in The Stig’s name would they kidnap you in the middle of a recording? Why fly us to London?”
“They didn’t want to waste our time, of course.”
“Which is why we’ve been sat here for nearly an hour,” said James. “While Sir Patrick gets wheeled straight in to see the PM.”
A mousy-looking man in formal clothing came in and said “If you’d like to come through, the Prime Minister is ready for you now.” He led them along a short corridor and into the cabinet room, where the Prime Minister and Patrick Moore were looking at some papers.
“Thank you all for coming,” said Hacker.
“We weren’t given much of a choice,” said Hammond.
“Yes. My apologies for that, there really is an urgent situation. Please, sit where you can see the screen.” He gestured to a plasma screen on a mobile stand. Sir Patrick, if you’d like to explain..?”
Sir Patrick moved to a seat facing them, and an astronomical photograph of a fairly nondescript group of stars appeared on the screen. “This is a recent picture from Hubble. I’m going to switch back and forward between it and another taken a few hours later.” The picture didn’t seem to change, apart from one dot that moved slightly. “As you can see, the object here appears to be moving.”
“And?” asked Hammond.
“To cut a long story short, a new asteroid has been discovered, and it’s on a collision course with the Earth.”
“How big an asteroid?” asked James. “End of the world stuff?”
“Fortunately no,” said Sir Patrick. “It’s roughly the size of, oh, let’s say the Albert Hall, and can’t weigh more than a few thousand tons.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“We’ve been tracking it for a week now, and we can predict where it will hit the Earth, within five miles or so. Somewhere in the near vicinity of Milton Keynes, in just over three weeks.”
“Milton Keynes?” said Jeremy. “What’s the problem? Probably improve the place. You’ve got three weeks to evacuate.”
“Our best estimate,” said Hacker, “is several billion pounds in damage if the area of total destruction includes the city, plus another couple of billion in damage to the surrounding area. We’re probably going to have to replace every window over about fifty square miles, for example. And Milton Keynes is a major transportation nexus, we’ll probably need to reroute railways and shut down the M1 for a few months. All of that will come out of the taxpayer’s pockets, of course.”
“Jeremy,” said Richard, “if the M1 is out of action what happens to the rest of Britain’s roads?”
“Total bloody gridlock.”
“So where do we come in?” asked Jeremy. “Blow the bloody thing up, what’s the problem?”
“The problem,” said Hacker, “is that neither the Russians nor the Americans have boosters ready to launch before the asteroid hits us, and neither are prepared to divert the resources that would be needed for a crash program. Our experts say that there’s nothing to be done. Which leaves the situation in your hands.”
“Our hands?” said Jeremy incredulously.
“Think of it as a challenge,” said Hacker. “We’re prepared to give you a budget of a hundred thousand pounds and full access to any resources or technical assistance you might need. All you need do is stop the asteroid from hitting Britain. It ought to be easy for people with your expertise.” Hacker crossed his fingers behind his back.
“It’d make one hell of a show. We could have a countdown clock in a corner of the screen, and spend hours arguing about how we’re going to do it.”
“And end up in the Tower of London when we balls it up and drop the asteroid on Windsor Castle or something,” said James.
“That’s very unlikely,” said Hacker. “As I understand it, a slight change in the asteroid’s course should make it miss the Earth completely.”
“That’s a hell of a challenge,” said James.
Almost inevitably, Jeremy said the fatal words: “How hard could it be?”
“Are you totally out of your bloody mind? How the hell are we going to get a rocket built in time?” said Richard.
“Now there,” said Sir Patrick, “I might be able to help. There’s a chap in Wigan with some very interesting ideas on rocketry, and he owes me a favour...”
IV - 62 West Wallaby Street, Wigan: T-21
“So let me get this straight,” said Jeremy, “you built a rocket and flew it to the moon, but you can’t use it to get to a poxy little asteroid?”
“The problem,” said Wallace - he didn’t seem to have any other name – “is that the fuel we used was a little ...um... temperamental. We got to the moon all right, but we were lucky it didn’t blow up the rocket.” His dog nodded mournfully, and handed James a clipboard covered with chemical formulae and equations.
“Seriously? You used this stuff?” Wallace and the dog nodded. “You’re braver than I am.”
“Is it really that bad?” asked Richard.
“Think of the most enormous explosion we’ve ever had on the show,” said James. “Then make it a couple of hundred times bigger. They’re lucky they didn’t destroy the whole of bloody Wigan.”
“That’s it, then,” said Jeremy. “The Stig’s driving.”
“Works for me.”
“But what about Wigan?” asked Wallace.
“We’ll launch it from somewhere a bit safer,” said Jeremy. “Salisbury Plain ought to be okay. Worse we’ll do there is blow up Stonehenge. That’ll annoy the hippies, so it’s a win/win situation.”
Sir Patrick produced a slide rule from his pocket, made a few calculations, and said “Assuming that your figures are accurate, and that we’ll need to transport about a ton of equipment to the asteroid, we’ll need to keep the total weight of the final stage to about five tons, including the re-entry vehicle. We’ll be using a lot of fuel to match speed with the asteroid, much more than you needed to get to the Moon.”
“So we need something aerodynamic and lightweight for the re-entry vehicle...” mused Jeremy.
“You can forget Robin Reliants now,” said James, guessing where Jeremy was headed. “We want this thing to work, not roll over and crash two minutes after we launch. And the owner’s club said they’d lynch us if we wrecked another one.”
“I’ve got a Reliant Regal,” said Wallace, “but I really need it for my business.”
“I’m not sure it would be much of an improvement anyway,” said James. “We need something a lot... well... saner.”
“Bond Bug,” said Richard. “Same sort of weight, much more aerodynamic. Perfect.”
“That’s just a souped-up Reliant with a different body style.”
“Yes, but when did you ever hear of someone rolling one?”
“That’s because they only built a couple of thousand of them, and most of them crashed and burned the first time they rolled.”
“I don’t care,” said Jeremy. “We’re not talking about any old driver, this is the Stig!”
“The same Stig that rolled a Robin the first time he tried to drive one.”
“Oh ye of little faith.”
Crossovers so far Top Gear / Yes Minister / Wallace and Gromit / The Sky at Night, more to come...
Notes for the perplexed: The Top Gear team and The Stig are real people, but appear to be playing roles in the show. I would hate to believe that adults really behave like that without a script...
Sir Patrick Moore, astronomer, musician, TV personality and author, presented The Sky at Night for fifty or so years, making it the longest-running TV show with a single presenter in the world. He also played his on-screen self in episodes of Doctor Who and numerous other British TV shows. He died in December 2012.
The Bond Bug was a real car, a souped-up version of the Reliant series of three-wheeled cars. Like them, its handling left a lot to be desired.
The title of this story and one aspect of its plot were suggested by a filk song, "Falling Down on Milton Keynes," which is an authorized parody of Mitchell Burnside-Clapp’s "Falling Down on New Jersey" which is based on the song "Rolling Down to Old Maui".