(Somebody at risk of harm - but to themselves or somebody else?)
It’s black and everywhere is white.
Or is it white and everywhere is black?
I can’t figure it out. It’s black everywhere and it’s white everywhere.
I look up and it’s black. I look in the distance and it’s dark, nothing is clear, but white specks are floating into my vision. They scurry, form shapes, re-form and disappear, only to be replaced by more phantom figures. I look down and it’s white everywhere. My feet stumble in the white.
The white around my feet crumbles and swallows my feet as I try to move. I breathe out and my breath clouds, mixing with the swirling phantoms. It is snowing and it’s very late at night and I don’t know where I am going. What am I doing? What am I about to do?
What have I just done?
Was it right? These things are never black and white.
This is one of my clearest memories of being at North Riding University. The winters were always severe. Snowfalls would sometimes cut off the new campus from the rest of the country, especially, it seemed, at week-ends. Menial staff like cleaners and porters would be trapped, and have to sleep in the main refectory or the chapel till Monday. On this winter evening the snow is more hideous than ever. It is so cold and ice-sharp, it is dry and doesn’t even have the decency to melt on your exposed flesh of your face, till your skin burns and you cannot feel the cold anymore. It dances around me furiously, piling into my eyes as it gathers, onslaught upon onslaught from an unseen black canopy over head.
The centre of campus, the piazza, is totally deserted. Lamps burn pointlessly overhead, illuminating a dazzling, deserted tableau.
I stumble on.
Almost miraculously a figure appears in the distance. Small in stature yet definitely male, he makes his way directly towards me through the driving snow. His hands are thrust deep into the pockets of a duffel coat, though the hood is down and his head is bare in the outrageous blizzard. I can see his close-cropped red hair – coupé en brosse as the French would say, and red stubble of beard – it is the only colour in this monochrome scene.
"Are you Malcolm?" he says, almost conversationally.
"Malc," I nod, correcting. "Call me Malc."
"My name’s Chris. We spoke earlier. Have you taken any pills?" He has the politeness to grin slightly as he asks.
"I can’t remember," I mumble. "I’ve been out in this – " I shrug, indicating the whirling ice-flakes. "It’s been so long," I add after a pause. "Yet, I feel so… hot."
"Are you feeling dizzy?"
"Dizzy? No… no, I don’t think so," I lie. I’ve taken some tranqs, but that’s understandable.
"It’s been five minutes since you called the Nightline office. You said you hadn’t taken anything then. Just that you thought you were going to. That’s why I came out to meet you." He almost laughed. "Lovely night for a walk, eh?"
"No, not dizzy. Just hot. Here," I tugged at the clothing at my neck, "let me take my scarf off."
Nightline was a little organisation run by the Students’ Union. It was there to help member students through the night when ever they had problems, like an essay they couldn’t finish for a nine o’clock deadline, or an impossible finals exam coming up – that would be usually in the summer term, of course, though some schools had mid-year class tests. Also, other problems, like money worries, late grant checks back then, difficulties with parents, fear you were on the wrong course, love affairs running less than smoothly – in fact anything that could disturb the student psyche, a student-based version of The Samaritans. They were said to be particularly keen on helping undergraduates talk through their sexual orientation – nothing like becoming queer to excite the would-be psychotherapeutic volunteers that would stay up all night once or twice a term to run the Nightline service, from the VP-Internal’s office in the Union. Their busiest time, and type of call, though, was always during exams, or the suicide season, as it was known.
I flapped inanely at my coat, trying to find a pocket. "Could you take this?" I said at last, handing him the scarf. I am a personification of confusion.
Despite his casual, amiable manner, I knew he was studying me closely.
"There is something else," I said. "My girlfriend."
"What about her?"
"I think I may have… harmed her."
"Harmed? In what way?" said Chris.
"A bad way."
He remained calm, but it was with a hint of effort, of self-control. "Where is she?"
I told him the room address in the hall of residence at the east end of the campus. Sure enough, his demeanour descended from controlled calm to the edge of agitation. The snow dramatically raised its dervish dance around us as we headed out into the frigid night.
We get to Marion Harding’s room and the door is ajar. We step inside and Marion is sprawled in an ugly fashion on the floor of the cramped bed-sit room. I am all confusion and unable to explain what might have happened. Chris is bent over the body as police from the North Yorkshire Constabulary arrive. I am suddenly the model of clarity and perception. "He did it!" I exclaim. "I saw him strangling her. He’s the one I called you about. Look – her scarf is hanging from his pocket!"
There, on the nightstand, is a sad little epitaph to the recently deceased. Marion’s diary, open at today’s page and, in her handwriting, the note: "Meet Chris tonight." It is there, in black and white.
When I graduated from NRU in Business Studies, it was an easy step to take a job in London, just after the Big Bang of deregulation on the stock market and financial institutions. It was easy to make a killing here too. I dutifully became obscenely wealthy and, as the Eighties segued into the Nineties and the bubble subsided, I quietly stepped back from coke-fuelled trading in the City to semi-retirement in my Docklands flat. The only thing I really lacked was a partner, a girl by my side. But the only woman I had ever loved had turned me down back in my college days because she was already seeing a sociology major called Chris, who, amongst his many good works, volunteered for the Nightline service at NRU. The only woman I ever loved was Marion Harding. I found out, one winter’s evening when my heart could bare the pain of rejection no more, when Chris was on duty at Nightline. I gave her one final chance to reject him in favour of me. She failed to do so and I took the only course of action I could see open to me. If I could not have her, then nobody would. It was a choice as clear as between night and day. Framing Chris was an exquisite bonus. He had the means, opportunity and possible motive – an arranged meeting to break up with him and go out with me, perhaps. He was sentenced to life. Or as good as, in this penal system.
Now I sit in my apartment, staring at the ancient brick architecture and genuine maple floor and gaze blankly across the river, and I wonder what it has all been about. Light floods the open plan room but not my dark secret. How life would have been different with Marion at my side, when there is a knock at the door. Callers are unusual, but I answer just the same without hesitation. A figure stands there, bent and with lined face. "Remember me?" he says.
No, I do not, and say so. I expect an explanation. There is something vaguely familiar about the close-cropped red hair. He hits me suddenly with something so hard, all I see is a flash of light. Though I know I must be falling, it is as if the floor pivots up to meet me in the back. I am dazed and confused and can find no breath.
"Perhaps you remember this," says the red-haired figure now kneeling on my chest. "This scarf is just like Marion’s. The one you planted on me all those years ago. The one you strangled her with and used to send me to prison for life!"
He is looping the scarf around my neck. I can hardly breathe as it is with his full weight upon my chest, and the blow to the face moments earlier – what did he hit me with? There is blood in my mouth and I feel terribly hot.
"They say life should mean life," he says – I’ve not a clue what he’s on about – "in your case, it will do!"
The scarf slithers around my throat and he tugs it tighter still. I can get no air and my lungs are exploding. At last, I suddenly realise who he is and why is here and what he wants.
The stars jabbed out of the blackness of infinity from every direction. They were above and, as above, so below. They were to port as to starboard and ahead as aft. They freckled the face of the endless night and tried to pierce the eyes of the lovers, but the lovers only had eyes for each other.
Albion was looking into Roxette’s eyes with keen adoration as she was telling him the news of the forthcoming grand festival.
"So we are all to congregate in the hanger decks and try to make it as much of a celebration as possible."
"What? Isn’t that a bit… well, tacky, under the circumstances?"
"Don’t you see what my father is trying to do?" said Roxette. "It’s to boost morale after everything that’s happened."
The stars swam dizzyingly all around them outside the Observer Dome as the great craft rotated. It was the only sky that Albion and Roxette had ever seen throughout their lives.
"This was your father’s idea?" said Albion.
"Well – now that the crew of the Argo are joining us on the Prospero for the rest of the mission, he felt as captain that he had to make their arrival into some of occasion. Don’t worry – he’s going to say something about the other crews that… were lost. But he thought if that was all he did everyone would be miserable for another couple of light-years and he didn’t want that. So – we’re having a big bash."
"I should hope he does say something," said Albion. "What happened was tragic."
"I know," said Roxette. "But at least we know we are safe on the Prospero. Our cargo hold door has been double-tested and there’s no flaw. And we found out that the Argo’s door was faulty before it blew, so we do have something to celebrate."
Albion was coming round to Roxette’s view, but he still remained to be completely convinced. "A pity no-one found out before we lost the other two ships," he murmured.
"It’s a pity there was a design fault at all! Just think how lucky we are that, as flagship, the Prospero is built differently."
"That’s true," he shrugged, "otherwise we would have had it. We’re only just reaching half-way."
"My grandfather told me of the festivities they had on Earth when the fleet was launched. I don’t know how they could they have made such a huge mistake."
"We don’t know what Earth was like, come to that. Neither of us have ever been there."
"I wonder what the new world will be like," said Roxette. "That will be something to celebrate for sure."
"Just so long as we get there," said Albion.
"Oh, stop being such a junk-dump!" she said.
The small fleet of four huge spacecraft had set off from the closeting comfort of Earth orbit for their exoplanetary destination two generations ago, the fusion-powered ion drive engines thrusting the ships at a steady acceleration, such that inside the craft, the feeling was exactly like the gravitational pull on the surface of their home planet. Within a year, they were close to the speed of light, though the convoluted warping of space and time, as described by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, meant that this velocity was only approached but never reached. The one thing that was simple to understand: they would never be going back. Families set out on that stupendous journey, of such stupendous duration, that the parents would age and die, while children would be born and grow to take their place. At least, that had been the mission plan. Half way through their transit to their new home, a second Earth orbiting around the star Tau Ceti, the ships were to turn about face – no problem in the lifeless vacuum of space – and fire their engines forward as brakes, to bring them to a timely halt at their destination.
But not all had gone to plan. Sealed inside the enormous containers, ever to be held with means neither of ingress or egress to the airless void save for inside a full, hard-pressured spacesuit, the fecundity of the travellers had fallen well below expectation. A full complement of passengers was 500, expected to be reached as journey’s end approached. However, not one ship held even a hundred as mid-point neared. Then disaster struck.
The first ship to fall victim was the Mexico. The demise was as sudden as unexpected. A catastrophic failure of the hull, and the one thing feared by any who ever ventured into the void of space befell all on board, the loss of life-giving air to the unfillable vacuum of space. With no time to don pressure suits, death was swift. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. Blood was its Avatar and its seal – the redness and the horror of blood. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim as the nitrogen in the tissues boiled through the skin, shutting him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the process, were the incidents of half a minute.
At first the survivors on the other three ships, the Prospero, the Argo and the Calypso, thought that the Mexico had been prey to the most extravagant bad luck, a one-in-a-million chance encounter with a primordial chunk of space débris. Then barely had the shock and the grief at the loss begun to subside when the Calypso’s automatic monitoring systems detected that its hull too had been compromised, only this time without the explosive, balloon-like bursting that had laid waste to the Mexico. This time the true fault was identified – the massive hatch to the cargo bay, that would have been opened to unload the myriad items required to colonise and populate a new world, was found to be terminally compromised about its edge, its seal ruptured. Too late – the loss of air so rapid, that all had perished before they could evacuate in shuttle craft or in emergency pressure suits to the two vessels gliding alongside.
Now forewarned, the crew of the Argo, identical in every way to its two sister ships, checked and eventually yet with haste identified a profound error in the construction of its own cargo bay door. Only the Prospero, with a slightly more elaborate and different design, offered refuge. The Argo was abandoned, and all of the remaining colonists joined together on the one sound craft for the final years of their fated journey.
"I presume you will be accompanied by Albion at tonight’s festival?" said Captain Prospero. The ship he commanded was named after his family.
Roxette fidgeted uncomfortably. "Are you sure this festival is the right thing to do, dad? I mean, some people might think it’s a bit in bad taste. Do we all have to go?"
The Captain faced his daughter and studied her gravely. "Yes, everyone. In all the time since I took over as commander of this mission from my father, I have never instructed passengers of this vessel in a more important duty."
"But it seems disrespectful to the dead," said Roxette.
"It is in honour of the dead that we celebrate. In that, and a restatement of the mission. You do understand?"
Roxette Prospero looked levelly at her father. "I suppose so. It’s not as if we have any option."
Captain Prospero frowned. "What do you mean? I’m not going to force you to attend if you would really prefer not to. But it would seem strange to the rest of the crew if my daughter were not there."
"No, dad. I meant: it’s not like we can turn round and get back to Earth. We have to go on."
"Life has to go on. Our life and our future lie ahead of us – something which is true for anyone. I was wondering – have you and Albion ever considered the idea of getting married?"
"One day you may take over this command. One day when I am too old. It would be beneficent to yourself if you had someone, such as I have your mother, by your side to share in the burden of command, Roxette. Someone such as Albion, for example."
"Oh, dad! Is our whole future planned out for us?"
"The future of all of us," said Captain Prospero, "is in the stars. It has always been so."
"But it is not set, is it, dad? We still do not know what the future is."
Prospero knelt down at his daughter’s side. "My darling daughter, I am determined to make the festival as exciting an occasion as possible. There will be no shortage of stores from which to prepare a banquet. There will be actors playing skits, dancers, comedians, musicians. All these and security inside our spaceship home. Only outside will be the limitless vacuum. But perhaps you can help me."
"In what way?"
"The hangars, where the shuttle craft for planet-fall lie sleeping, offer plenty of room for revelry but are joyless in their appearance. I am thinking of decorating them, each with its own colour-scheme. One is to be blue, lit with blue lights, to suggest the oceans we long to see, the next exotically in purple, the next green, with green illumination to look like inside a jungle, the fourth orange, the fifth white and the sixth violet."
"It sounds a bit gaudy," said Roxette. " Are you sure you’ve an eye for this sort of thing?"
"Well, exactly," he allowed a modest grin. "And I’m sure it’s something that runs in the family. So I was wondering – maybe you could suggest the colour scheme for the last hangar."
Roxette reflected. "How about… black?"
"Yes. Black velvet, like a dreamless sleep."
"That sounds a little… moody."
"No – it will be romantic. Black with red lights, a passionate scarlet, a deep blood colour. So that people who want to get close can do so in an intimate setting, not in a bright glare. That is what you want, isn’t it?"
Captain Prospero was dubious. "Perhaps we could have a big digital clock at one end, with a red display, counting off the time to our arrival at our new home."
"Yes," said Roxette. "After all, you do want us to look forward to raising our children there."
"Perhaps – who knows? – tonight would be good time to announce a forthcoming marriage?"
Roxette regarded her father strangely. "Perhaps."
Everyone was to wear fancy-dress, costumes of their own making. The anticipation that would build in such preparation would heighten the excitement, Prospero thought. No-one was to remain at duties. Prospero alone would man the bridge, watching the festivities from the cameras mounted on the decks.
"All seems to be going well," Albion said to Roxette.
"Things have livened up since the music and dancing began," she replied.
"And since your father suspended restrictions on alcohol. I’ve never seen so much booze. Amazing how quickly people forget."
"Don’t be harsh," said Roxette. "It helps melt their hearts."
He turned to her. "Lucky we don’t need it."
From the bridge, Prospero watched, content that his instructions for a joyful occasion were going to plan. There were to be generous prizes for the most inventive costumes awarded at the height of the evening. It was then that he spotted something on the blue hangar’s monitor that appalled him. Some idiot had thought it would be amusing to come dressed in a pressure suit, the sort that would be worn in an emergency evacuation of a stricken craft. The very suit the kind of which the poor souls of the Mexico and the Calypso had been so grievously unable to don before they were overcome.
Furiously, Prospero hurried down to the blue hangar, but the callous fool in the suit had already left for the orange hangar.
"Master-At-Arms?" Prospero addressed a man dressed as a cowboy.
"I know you’re not on duty but – somebody has come in a really offensive costume. We need to remove him before he upsets everyone."
"Where is he?"
"There he goes – into the next hangar!"
The figure passed between other party-goers, all of them falling silent. Captain Prospero and the Master-At-Arms followed but could not catch him as he slipped between the crowds from one hangar to the next. At last, he arrived at the final hangar, with its black fabrics and scarlet illumination. Albion and Roxette were there, hand in hand, watching on.
Prospero strode to the middle of the deck. "Who is that idiot who has come here dressed so distastefully?"
The figure turned slowly to face Prospero. The gold-tinted visor was drawn down on the face-plate of the helmet, the thin film of metal hiding the visage within.
"Master-At-Arms, grab that man."
The Master-At-Arms however, hesitated.
Prospero turned on him. "Unmask that vile interloper!"
"Sir, I…" the master stammered and fell silent.
"Very well," said Prospero, "I shall do it myself!"
He reached forward and snapped back the all-concealing visor.
Instead of someone he recognised, he saw a face, contorted and twisted in a rhesus of agony, fluids bubbling from the bulging eyes, blood sweating from skin and oozing from the nose and mouth, as one dying in the final stage of catastrophic decompression in the vacuum of space.
Prospero fell back, a vaporous shriek wretched out of him as all air was torn from his lungs. He collapsed to the black-clothed deck, dead. Roxette screamed, and threw her arms round Albion, his name dying on her lips. He grabbed at her before he too succumbed. Within scarce a beat, those nearest likewise crumpled as the atmosphere ceased to exist, throats ripping, eyes exploding. On it went like a wave through the whole flux of people inside the spacecraft, and the digital clock stopped and its glowing ember lights went out. And now was acknowledged the presence of the vacuum. It had come like a thief in the night. And darkness and decay and the vacuum held illimitable dominion over all.