Modern Times

The Dead Of Night.

Black and White. Part 4

The silvery cold eats at our coats, our feet and our noses, leaving only our hearts.

We are a thousand miles from anywhere, far enough for distance to make no difference. Whilst we seamen navigate by the stars, tonight we have nothing else. There is no wind, there is no moon, there is no horizon for the black of the sea merges with the black of the sky invisibly.

We could be in the middle of space. Which is what it feels like. The sky before us is bible black and the stars seem to shine the brighter for it. The night is so clear it feels as if one could reach out a hand and pluck one from the firmament.

Nobody I speak to has seen a night like this one. I’ve never seen one like it since. It is as if the gods have cleared the seas and the skies and left us on our own. Are we really God forsaken?

Or have we forsaken Him?

A shiver runs up my spine, my feet are numb. I only know they’re there because I can stamp on the floor. I turn to look at Fred, who is looking out the starboard side.

“Can… you see… anything, Fred?” I say, my teeth chattering and interrupting my speech.

“Nope. A night like?” But he continues to sweep nevertheless. It’s possible there’s a danger. It is why we’re here, after all. We are the lookouts.

And we’re all the ship has.

For this is a proper steamship. None of your pretty luxuries like GPS or computer navigation – or the hammering of a diesel that makes the decks vibrate in a sinister, inhuman way. We are on the finest steamship ever built, the most elegant and the most proud. Nine decks that make this a floating metal city. The seamen are also proud, hand picked the most of them and every one knows their job. That is to say, it’s not just the pride that comes with a fresh coat of white paint. It is the pride that comes with my decades of seamanship that has seen me on no few occasions in a slicing gale off the Horn and I’m standing on the yardarm. Where the spray reached the topgallant beneath me.

And yes, we were fully rigged.

So please don’t tell me that this could not have happened. When I say I’ve never seen a night like it, I mean that in thirty years of sailing the oceans, I’ve never seen a night as still or as dark as this. Colder, yes. Darker, no.

The stillness of a steamship has to be felt to be believed. Up here in the crowsnest it’s as if one is floating through the firmament itself.

Looking down it’s different, the mast’s stays plunge sixty fathoms to the bulwarks. The bulwark white against a sea that is black. There is a peppering of yellow to show the ship’s wake, and that from the portholes of the few cabins still illuminated.

It really is that dark!

“Reg” says Fred “can you see Eridanus?”

I look to the starry constellation of Orion, follow down a line that runs from Betelgeuse through Alnilam to Rigel and down to … where the star Eridanus should be.

It can’t have set.

“I can’t see it, Fred” I say, wondering if it’s my eyes. I’ve never seen a night like this, and now my mind’s playing tricks on me.

“There, there’s another just dimmed. Look, you can see them, even the tiniest, most distant stars.”

“You’re right” it’s as if they’re being swallowed up by some terrible sky monster. My heart runs cold. The chill runs straight through me. Slowly another one vanishes. I swallow hard, I cannot comprehend what is happening to the stars. They’ve been faithful companions all my life, and now they are leaving me.

Not only are we a thousand miles from any shore, totally independent of every element around us. We are dry, we are warm and we have light. The only thing we were dependent on was the firmament. Only now it feels as if the heavens that were once so secure are leaving us to a fate we had not dreamed of.

“Look” he points, reeling off a list of familiar names that form an arc in the sky. Beneath is the monster, rising with its terrible celestial darkness. It makes me shiver.

Suddenly he turns to me, his eyes wide, his face as white as any man’s I’ve ever seen. His lips move but I can’t hear the word he is saying. I’ve never seen a man like this. Then I catch it.


“Iceberg?” I say. I turn, look at … and realize. It is no celestial monster, but something far more terrible. If I was scared before, it is nothing. An icy hand holds my heart. My eyes see not a monster but a mountain of ice that is blocking out the stars.

I cup the voicetube to the bridge “Iceberg, dead ahead”

“Exact bearing” asks Murdoch. any officer on the bridge knows better than to question the validity of anything a lookout says.

“249 degrees, sir”

I hear a scuffle on the bridge. See tiny figures pointing, one runs inside again. I feel the ship heel as the helmsman changes our course. Now I can feel the engines, the propellers fighting the water.

There it is.

Black ice towering over us, three times taller than we are. Jagged peaks their sides a terrible silver in the light from our ship. It is so close! It feels as if we could touch it as we drift by.

The feeling of a ship’s hull being torn is one you never forget.

By four that morning, RMS Titanic lay on the floor of the ocean.

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