Nigrescence

William Thompson, doctoral student in astronomy, was very much enjoying using the 24″ refracting telescope at the newly opened University of London Observatory. Not only was the telescope a joy to use, and not only did he have to share the use of it with (at worst) about five or six other people, there was the purely practical matter of its location at Mill Hill East, making the commute from his lodgings in Camden Town a matter of twenty minutes’ journey on the Great Northern, instead of the seemingly endless trudge all the way across London to the observatory at Greenwich, where he had had to conduct the practical observations required for his Bachelor of Science.

Progress was coming along nicely with his work on the absorption spectra of the stars constituting the Pleiades group, or so-called ‘Seven Sisters’, and he was getting along better than ever with his supervisor, Prof Humphries, who’d also tutored him before his graduation. It was through the professor that Thompson received regular updates on the most exciting current developments in astronomy and cosmology, particularly those astoundingly precise observations by Sir Eddington which were, bit by bit, starting to persuade astronomers around the world of the veracity of the outlandish claims about the nature of gravity and space-time made by Einstein some thirteen years previously.

Humphries was a kindly, genteel fellow in late middle age, due to retire within the next few years, whose personal appearance matched that of the stereotypical ‘absent-minded professor’ almost to a T: a bald, somewhat liver-spotted dome of a head flanked by flyaway wisps of unruly whitish hair, spectacles of a design that had last been fashionable when Victoria was still alive (and quite possibly dated from that era, in fact), and a wardrobe that consisted mostly of slightly tired-looking tweed three-piece suits, accessorized with an assortment of amusingly tasteless bow ties. In addition to these eccentricities of dress (which were not, after all, exactly unheard-of in senior academics) there was the odd contrast between his profession as a scientist and his interest in – no, obsession with – literature of the most un-literary and sensationalist kind, having a particular taste for fantasy, the supernatural and what is sometimes called ‘science-fiction’, although from what Thompson could tell, Prof Humphries favoured the kind that had precious little to do with any kind of ‘science’ in the accepted sense. Thompson recalled one occasion when, during a tutorial with Humphries, the professor had excused himself from his office to prepare a pot of tea and the student had taken the opportunity to browse the selection of lurid pulp magazines that littered the desk in addition to astronomical journals, College paperwork and so on. Most of the stories whose summaries Thompson scanned were generic adventure, romance or crime tales with some superficial gloss of the monstrous or uncanny applied to them, but in a recent issue of Weird Tales there was one story that seemed different enough from the rest that when the professor returned with the tea tray Thompson asked if he might borrow it. Humphries assented and Thompson read the story in one sitting when he got home. The style he thought biliously florid and overwrought but the central theme of the story – the reawakening of an immensely powerful and apparently immortal monster from outer space that had once ruled the Earth with its kin or offspring many millions of years ago, and intended to do so once again following geological epochs of dormancy – was menacing and original enough to stick in his head for a long time after he read it. One phrase that remained with him in particular was:

…the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars“.

The story had once again arisen unbidden to Thompson’s mind over a year later while working alone at the Observatory, intermittently taking photographs of the Pleiades in the visible to test the optimal exposure settings for the plates, and then diverting the light into the spectrograph to split it into its infinite range of constituent colours with the seemingly random pattern of black bars showing where the various atomic and ionic species in the stars’ atmospheres had intercepted certain wavelengths. Thanks to colleagues in the chemistry department, it was now possible even to photograph the spectral lines extending some way into the infra-red. Thompson always felt something approaching a mystical connection with far-distant objects when observing them like this, and felt awe at the idea of seeing light emitted many centuries ago from these stars that were nonetheless near neighbours in the scheme of things.

It was while he was taking a break from serious astronomical work and was using the eyepiece of the telescope to observe the cluster directly – ‘stargazing’ in the most literal sense – that he noticed something odd. Atlas, the second-brightest star at the far east of the cluster, was simply not to be seen. Thompson moved from the eyepiece, shook his head with his eyes closed and then once again replaced his eye at the small cylindrical protrusion from the side of the telescope’s main barrel.

Again, the star, which he’d observed, photographed and analyzed countless times in the past months, was simply not there. Wondering if an unusually dense and localized speck of dirt had fallen on the outer lens of the telescope, Thompson quickly cranked the handles of the mechanism actuating the position of the telescope, too impatient to let the natural velocity of the Earth’s rotation shift the consellation’s apparent position for him. Immediately putting his eye back to the eyepiece, he was astonished to see that not only was Atlas still invisible, but the nearby Merope had also vanished. And he shuddered as he considered that nearby, in this context, nonetheless meant several light-years distant.

Whatever was happening was surely totally unprecedented in the entire history of astronomy. The weird sense of dread was now competing with giddy excitement at the prospect of making the discovery of a lifetime, and Thompson ran over to the storage cupboard to fetch a photographic plate. Putting his eye to the eyepiece again while he mentally calculated the optimal exposure time, he was simultaneously thrilled and horrified to discover that Electra and Caleano had now vanished too, and Maia, while still visible, was surely several magnitudes dimmer than it had been just a few moments before.

Trying to overcome the involuntary tremor in his hands, Thompson made the necessary configurational changes to the telescope in order to take a photograph, turned the already dim lighting in the observation chamber down still further, installed the plate and poured the developer solution into the tray on the processing table as quickly as he dared, anxious to catch this phenomenon while it was happening. The exposure made, he all but tore the plate off the back of the camera and ran over to the table before placing it in the solution as gently as his agitated state would allow. As the negative began to appear, faint background stars began to show up as tiny black dots on the white background of empty space. But where Thompson was expecting the now suddenly empty areas of the Pleiades to show up as a blank white void, there was a large, blob-shaped black patch corresponding to the area formerly occupied by the now vanished stars.

His heart pounding in his throat and barely able to breathe, Thompson swiftly switched the telescope back to viewing mode and once again put his eye to the eyepiece, scarcely daring to wonder what he might see. By now the entire cluster had vanished into pitch blackness, and with a cold thrill of horror he saw that those stars apparently close to the cluster but in fact thousands or millions of light-years behind it were likewise starting to dim and wink out altogether even as he watched.

Thompson reeled back from the eyepiece and stumbled over to the cupboard for another plate, determined to discharge his duties as a scientist and document this phenomenon as thoroughly and objectively as possible. But this took him past the processing table, and the in the dim light he caught a view of his first plate, now resting in the stop bath, and his heart skipped a beat. For the large black blob, which should by rights have corresponded to an intensely bright area of the photographed scene, was easily two or three times as big as it had been when the image had first appeared in the developer. The student ran over to the light switch and turned the level up, heedless now of harming the photograph, and ran back to the table. The black blob was bigger than ever and Thompson watched in terror as the blackness expanded to fill the entire plate.

There was a moment of perfect stillness in which Thompson made no move and barely even drew breath. Perhaps this phenomenon had run its course? Thompson began racking his brain for any hypothesis, even from the most unorthodox areas of science or pseudoscience, for something that could explain the bizarre events which had overtaken him in just the last few minutes.

But there was more to come. For at that moment, the main light in the small observation room flickered and went out. In almost pitch darkness, Thompson could think of nothing to do but look at the illuminated dial of his wristwatch and was dismayed to see that, too, fade to blackness before his eyes. Stumbling now and guided more by memory than sight, he made his way over to a window and hurled open the thick shutters.

And below him, spreading for many miles to the east, south and west, the great dazzling cityscape was disappearing as a tide of blackness, emanating apparently from the very spot where the Observatory stood, swept gradually out in all directions.

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