Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A Background of Stars

Prologue 
Like the cataract-bleary morning after the night before, it's all coming back to me. The problem is that it's not a night at the bar, on the tiles or in the gutter: it's being in the wreckage of an overpriced sports car, bodily attached to a lamp-post a block away from the Metropolitan Police headquarters. The world seems to have been painted by an impressionist with a decorator's brush. I'm not sure whether the blurriness is something to do with the crash, or the alcohol clogging up my system like sugar in a petrol tank. 
Dr Templeton moves painfully in what's left of the passenger seat. He'd insisted on buckling his seatbelt before we'd set off, and at the time I'd sworn at the delay. Now I'm thankful he isn't decorating my bonnet like a particularly grisly ship's figurehead. However, if we don't keep moving, surviving the crash won't mean a thing. Unfortunately the car's not going anywhere without the assistance of a pick-up truck, and my legs are in a pretty similar state. Templeton is wedged under the dashboard as uncomfortably as an oversized package in a letterbox. 
A few faces gather outside, but it would take a full-on pitchforks-and-torches angry mob to protect us now. The other car is edging nearer, slowly edging pedestrians out of its path. It halts beside the ruin of my roadster, and the driver's window slides open like a high-tech door in a science-fiction movie. A bland, expressionless face appears at the window.
My legs are still refusing to listen, but for the sake of a last effort I scrabble at the handle and shove at the door with my elbow. The buckled metal twists and grinds, then the door drops off into the road. I'm sure it makes an impressive metallic clang, but I'm still unable to hear anything beyond a distant, high-pitched ringing, like a stereo on standby at night. I manage to move one leg, but the other is trapped between the bent steering column and the fascia. Drawing the line at tearing off my own limbs, I collapse back in my seat and stare at the featureless assassin. 
He levels a pistol through the window, and I try to think of some decent last words. It's difficult. I hadn't anticipated going out with my head ringing and my vision incomplete, as if I'm a television with a dodgy signal. 


Chapter one 
I think the first time I saw Dr Neil Templeton, long before he could trouble the news, was on a BBC panel show, sat between an obnoxious but quick-witted television intellectual and a smug preacher with sideburns borrowed from a wild west drama. Templeton was fuming, and the host was worried that he might catch light. At first I couldn't even tell what the argument was about, but I was fascinated by somebody being allowed to lose control so completely on television – the most public place you can be, without seeing a single one of your audience. 
It was Templeton's first television appearance, and he hadn't been prepared. Nobody can be, really – that's the fascination of the live broadcast. Even while the cameras are trained on you, eyeing your flesh like hyenas or sex-fiends, you don't realise what's going on. Not until some well-wishing relative or cackling friend shows you a video tape do you realise what the television has done to you. It’s a bored god, able to change whatever it looks upon to suit its whims. Or perhaps its more of a cackling demon, happy to corrupt you according to whatever sins amuse it most. Television barely needs directors: a camera will make anyone into an actor, although usually the kind that specialises in playing hammy villains. Just watch a few reality shows, if you don't believe me. 
Templeton had been out there battering his lapel mike with spittle as he lambasted his perfectly composed companions. He might not yet have had the manners, but he was already striking. He looked like the clergyman should have: piercing and fervent, in a battered, awful, outdated suit that would have suited a man who'd just been let out of prison after twenty years, with the same wardrobe. At least he was clean-shaven. 
When I saw him there, sweating and irate, I felt a dash of pity, but it was mostly swamped by my amusement. He had potential – I could see that much. He could be made presentable, taught to breathe properly, taught to dodge everything that wasn't part of the script. He could be brought under control. He was obviously intelligent, but out of his comfort zone, like a scholarship boy at a posh school. He could have been good at this, could have been the one in charge, making the preacher and the reviewer look like nit-picking nihilists, but somebody had sent him out there to the front lines without a gun. 
I checked the show out, and it turned out that Templeton had been a BBC conscript. They'd lost their main science man for the evening, couldn't get Richard Dawkins or anybody else the public would have heard of, so had given a work-experience kid a list of Cambridge fellows, a telephone, and forty-five minutes. Templeton was the first one who'd said yes, so they'd brought him in, dusted him off, sat him down, plugged him in and launched him on air with only a two-minute briefing and a five-second countdown as preparation. 
Templeton's inaugural filming was a disaster, but he wasn't alone in that. What mattered most was that he'd volunteered at all. If they'll willingly stand beneath the lights, they can be shaped, but if they don’t want to be there in the first place there's not a thing that can be done. There was a time when becoming a great man meant having a will to power. Now all you need is a will to publicity. Templeton had it, and, more importantly, he had It. He didn't just have ambition, he had a plan. He knew what he wanted and he was certain he could get it. The only bit he didn't know was how to get it, and that, I'd been hoping, until the first bullet splattered into the wall next to us, like the world's biggest mosquito hitting a windscreen, was where I came in. 
My name is Jeremy Maitland, and I get scientists drunk. Or rather, my name is Jez (for a while I flirted with 'Jem', but people kept calling me 'Miss'), and I used to be in events and publicity for a company you won't have heard of, because we specialised in conferences and conventions for scientists and academics. It was a strange business, but a pretty successful one. The geniuses loved it because it gave them a few good meals, plenty of good drinks, and made them feel like the life and soul of the party, rather than the awkward one standing in the kitchen holding an empty paper cup. So there were always plenty of people with several degrees apiece waving their arms and asking to attend, but on top of that we could hike our prices as high as we liked because all the attendance fees came out of departmental funds. When it came down to deciding between a weekend of debauched self-importance and a few new sets of Bunsen burners, the universities know where their priorities lay. 
The job was probably why I took a good look at Templeton when I saw him on that panel show: I knew scientists. I didn't know (or care) whether he was any good at the science part, but neither did the public. What I knew was that he could be made to look right, and these days that's what really matters. The media define reality. Multi-channel is the victory of relativism: we can choose our own brand of truth. 
 
It was nearly a year before I saw Templeton again, and this time he hit the prime time. With an accidental stroke of genius, he managed to do exactly what I would have advised him to: offend somebody. 
At work we were preparing for a new gig, trying to combine our usual specialist audience with public appeal by jamming together the Ideal Home Show (or whatever corporate nametag it has these days) and the Royal Society Christmas Lectures. It was a peculiar mixture, but our owner was an ex-scientist: there was little he liked more than an experiment. The idea was to have a selection of display stands, like an Olympia trade show, packed full of freebies and snacks, but with lectures on popular, dramatic scientific subjects held in a connected hall. We would invite engineers, designers and inventors and tell them to bring anything that might entertain the public and turn a buck. We were pitching halfway between The Gadget Show and Dragon's Den: show off the fun stuff, hide the shifty deals and percentages, and tell people how science might change their world within the next few years. Maybe it could have worked, too: people like science fiction they can almost touch, and images of a future they might live to see. 
At the time I had no real idea what Templeton did, but when I was examining the invitation lists, his name sprang out at me. After all, my life was all about creating glossiness, and I was used to seeing and working with those who already had a certain sheen. Templeton's tempestuous television appearance had, if not inspired me, at least aroused a flicker of interest, a sort of fascination with the grotesque. On screen he had looked like a ranting prophet dragged in from the wilderness, and just like that prophet there was something engaging about him, despite or because of his unkempt fury. This meant I was unusually intrigued by the prospect of his lecture. He was talking on the nebulous theme of 'The Value of Science', which could have been depressingly financial, but thankfully turned out to be nothing of the sort.
We'd booked an old-fashioned auditorium, a late 19th-century university building that could have functioned as a theatre or a music hall as easily as it could a lecture hall. There was a raised stage of wooden boards, a proscenium arch, and tall latticed windows that let in draughts. It was a period piece, an unusual scene for talks on science and technology, but curiously fitting: a room built in a time of invention, hope and scientific excitement. We would stand within the walls of the Golden Age, the last days of wonder, the basis of our modern world, and speak of another glowing dawn to come. Or something like that, anyway.
Without seating or exhibits, the space looked like a hangar after an air raid most of the planes didn't come back from. There were massive blank regions, walls so distant they felt like the horizon, and enough lights to replace the sun. Probably more than that, actually: it was late January, so the sun still seemed to be hibernating.
Once we had the hall, things started moving: drinks and nibbles were on their way; invitations, name badges and programmes had been slung through a thousand letter boxes; and we had something approximating a plan. To be honest, it was generally the planning where my skills as an organiser began to fall apart. I was good at the presentation, making us known, giving us the right appearance. Showing off, basically. The job title might have said 'events', but I actually occupied an odd space between marketing, advertising and striding about making sure everybody's glass was full. That’s why I tended to leave as much of the planning as possible to my deputy, Diane, if only to irritate her.
Two days before we were due to begin, the room was looking like a Christmas party before any guests arrived: carefully arranged and neatly festive, yet silent, as abandoned as an empty swimming pool or a vacant lot. The ballroom of the Marie Celeste. Diane was nearby, hefting fire extinguishers, checking alarms, and ticking things on a clipboard full of safety drills. I sauntered up to her and peered at the list over her shoulder.
"So, are we safe yet?" 
"Not with you running things." 
"Ha. Let me know when you've finished, okay?" 
She stomped off. It takes a special kind of woman to stomp, particularly in shoes that look like ski slopes. Diane Jones was an all-round problem. She knew what she was doing, and she never let anyone forget it. Everything she did was a stone to throw at people who made mistakes. In a purely technical, objective sense, she was a bitch. I'd also slept with her, which didn't help matters. This meant that I couldn't get rid of her without a really good, viciously persuasive reason or I'd be in chains for sex discrimination before I could say Germaine Greer. Diane was late-twenties tribunal-bait, dressing and talking to be noticed. She was everything that was wrong with feminism. It could have been quite entertaining to watch her righteous furies, if I hadn't been the one who had to deal with them. 
That was why I made her do health and safety: not only was it the most depressing part of event management, but it was also the one with the most opportunities for something to go horribly wrong and end with a series of bad excuses and unemployment.
Feeling unusually prepared, I had gone home and settled down to read the television guide. I did most of my watching vicariously: there was too much rubbish I had to be familiar with – far too much to actually warrant watching it all. So I would read the previews and flick through the message boards on the internet, and that got me more or less everything I needed. So there I was in my apartment, rooting through the Radio Times, when Templeton's name leapt out at me like an Evening Standard distributor. Templeton was listed as a talking head in one of those semi-serious, ideologically earnest but light-hearted science programmes. This sort of thing had been taking a few steps back towards the limelight recently: Tomorrow's World was still dead enough to make Top of the Pops look hale and hearty, but every so often there was a one or two-parter presented by somebody middle-aged, shabby, witty and popular. This was one of those, the sort of thing I'd watch and then half-wonder if I could put on my timesheet. This time I watched with my eyes a little more open than usual because I was still interested in Templeton, even though mine was the self-centred fascination of somebody who's seen a band in a pub and is waiting for them to hit the big-time. 
This time he was a talking head, standing in front of an anonymous academic building, not quite making eye contact with the cameras and wearing a shirt that matched the bags under his eyes. I sat up, or at least slouched slightly less, and watched him trying to rein in his gesticulations. Then he spoke, and I could have laughed aloud at his media-baiting if it hadn't been so obvious he was serious. He was a caged bear lashing out, unleashing his bitterness at what he saw as the captivity of his mind. 
There's a frightening number of madmen in the world who hate progress. There are religious freaks who think medicine is evil, and corporations who can't deal with change. There are people who can somehow look at everything we should be proud of and condemn it. People who want us to live short, squalid lives in caves so their prehistoric gods can be satisfied by our inertia. We have to go beyond this, stop limiting ourselves, and step boldly into the future, even if we can't be quite sure what it will bring. We can't stop the world changing, and why should we try to, when the future will make everything better and easier for everyone?” 
They cut him off, his clumsy, risky soundbite complete, but I'd heard enough. He had certainly improved from that disastrous first appearance on the box. True, this was an interview from which they'd cherrypicked, rather than a messy semi-live debate, and they were trying to make him look intelligent rather than borderline bonkers, but it still made me certain that he had potential. If you can brew up a controversy, it doesn’t matter whether you make any sense: people will be listening. 
On the back of that, Templeton managed to gather a few furious letters from religious groups and a short article in the Guardian. I knew at the time that if he carried on down that path he could start picking up interviews in Sunday supplements, maybe snaffle a book deal that wouldn't be buried in the academic section, and, if he was really lucky, get himself a fatwa from a maniac with visa troubles. 

At the venue the next day I was taping out the boundaries of the display stands like a colonial government dividing its empire between civil servants, allocating six feet by nine to the East Anglian Enterprise Association, or ten by seven to a collective of chemists from Cambridge. It all seemed to be happening in the East these days, which must have been reassuring for the locals because nothing else had happened there since the wool trade with the Netherlands ceased to be the big British earner. Innovation tends to gather together like hippies in Greenwich Village or rahs in Sloane Square. It’s a sort of technical version of keeping up with the Joneses: you need to keep an eye on the competition. For inventors and researchers – those who discover and create where once there was nothing – the only value is novelty. The drive to succeed is not a conspiracy against the public, as in, for instance, an insurance company, where you provide a consistent service and try to make what wealth you can from it. Instead, for a scientist, it's about searching and finding. It's more like being an explorer, only you don't need to put your shoes on. If you don't find anything, if you don't come home with a bag of gemstones and a train of slaves, you've achieved nothing. Your work focuses not on manipulating or supporting society, but on finding the lands society has not yet heard of. Science seeks empty spaces, and perhaps that is why space itself is the greatest goal of all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Basically, the exciting thing about science is that your only customer is history. Well, history and the wire transfer, private jet, 40% cut entrepreneurs who transform the newness into cash, because even the white-hot cutting-edge has to eat and sleep, or at least afford enough coffee to replace both.
While I was standing there, clutching a reel of yellow sticky tape and thinking about the next few days, Diane greeted me jovially. 
"Hey, Maitland.
"Oh, morning Diane, lovely to see you." That was sarcasm, for those reading in prose. Perhaps I should go into our brief relationship in greater detail, but I don't really want to. Now that I'm about to die in fairly unpleasant circumstances, I'd rather remember the interesting parts of my life than the sordid bits rated 15 for strong language and unsatisfying sexual content. 
"We're done." 
I smiled as patronisingly as possible, then mocked patting her on the head. "Well done. You should be proud of yourself." 
She tensed angrily and fumbled for a retort, then gave up, made a dismissive gesture and marched away.
The next morning was even less pleasant. Opening an event is like hosting a party, with all the same anxieties magnified beyond measure. Once everything's set out, it all comes down to watching the guest list, hoping, and worrying. To start off with a queue snaking down the street you need the sort of marketing budget that can buy small countries, which means that unless you're Top Gear, Banksy, a major museum or have an embassy or two behind you, you're going to be spending a while praying somebody bothers turning up. For those first few pre-opening hours, I scuttled about the room, making tiny adjustments to displays and decorations, shuffling seats around, then changing my mind and changing things back again. 
Still, soon enough the people came, wandering through the doors with all the trepidation and awe of supplicants entering a king's court. The moment they stepped inside, the guests were mobbed by bearers of drinks, freebies and leaflets, and everything changed. There was no time left for worrying.
A few hours after that, it was, if not bustling, at least a little more alive. Most of the guests were either opening night invites or booze-hounds with press passes, but the important part was that the room looked full. A casual observer would have seen a success, and it was my job to make sure that all the observers were very casual indeed. 
Back in the present, with a fairly solid expectation of being about to die, I find myself contemplating all the unfulfilled dreams: the things I never got around to doing, the words I really ought to have said, and, like every man, the ones who got away. For it was during those first few hours at Olympia, once we were finally open, that I first met Emily. I had found a moment of silence amid the hubbub, and was standing slightly at a loss, waiting for something to demand my attention, when a voice reached me. 
Hi there.” 
I turned around to find a young woman trying so hard to appear professional that she ended up looking earnest and nervous instead. She had shoved her dusty-blonde hair into a bunched ponytail, and escaping strands curved around thin cheeks and carefully plucked eyebrows. The heels on her calf-length boots brought her close to my height, a grey raincoat lapped lazily open on a white blouse, and her trousers were just as monochrome. It was an outfit to match a Blackberry, and all terribly City-chic, but she didn't seem to know what she was doing in it, and wound up standing awkwardly when she should have been elegant. I wondered if she'd come from another, swankier event, or whether she was naïve enough to think that reporters should be smartly dressed. 
This was Emily, and she was, as I had surmised, a journalist. We greeted one another politely and warmly, and moved straight onto the inevitable questions about the exhibition that bustled around us. 
"So, tell me about what you're trying to do here." 
Her words made me relax. There are two kinds of question in an interview, and beyond that the exact words barely matter. There's the aggressive approach that demands an answer, and won't be happy whatever you say. This is the lot that think it’s cool to repeatedly demand, at increasing volume, that you just answer the question. Then there's the friendly approach, which, when it comes down to it, just means 'talk'. It's an invitation rather than an accusation. So I talked. 
"This is a glimpse into our very real future. Not the outlandish, distant future of children's cartoons, full of little green men and cities beyond the stars, but the future that we'll all be living with in a few years. The future that will make all the little things a little bit easier for everyone. We've got thinking kitchen appliances, gadgets for your car, phone apps you won't believe you lived without, reactive speakers that can see where you are in the room. Shoes that charge your iPod. Gyroscoped shopping bags so you'll never break another egg. A thousand oddities that'll be all over the place in a few years." 
Not my best work, but it wasn't a bad ramble, and it set Emily scribbling at her notepad with a stern expression. 
I turned to guide her towards some of our more prominent exhibits, and caught sight of a vaguely familiar face. A man was crouching down among a snake's nest of power cables, but he wasn't concentrating on the plugs and wires. He was looking up at me thoughtfully, through eyes of intelligence and fervour. I had seen those eyes before. 
When I returned my attention to Emily, she was already drifting away, with a nervous smile that made me notice her cheekbones. As I watched her depart, I became aware of someone at my side, trying to attract my attention without doing anything, like a shy person trapped on the edge of a conversation, waiting for an opening that might never come. It was the same man who had been grubbing about with the power sockets, but now, our faces level, I recognised him as Dr Templeton. He was no longer riven by frustrated, bewildered and incandescent ire, like the first time I had seen him, but he was unmistakably the same man. In person, I realised that he wasn’t much older than me, but he dressed like he hadn’t left a university library for sixty years. 
"Hi there?" My opening was as much an enquiry as a greeting. 
"That speech you gave." It was fortunate that I’d already recognised him, because he didn't bother giving his name. I nodded, though I hadn't considered it a speech. "Did you mean it?" 
It should have been a simple question, but I hadn't thought of it in those terms. It was my job: it wasn't about truth or belief – just money. I still came out with a confident 'yes', but I think Templeton saw me hesitate, because his heavy, ponderous (in more ways than one) brows knotted like a particularly decrepit tree. I wasn't sure why, but that disapproving gesture filled me with an urge to impress him
"I mean it, alright, Dr Templeton. Everything takes constant, tiny steps forward. It's not just the world that science changes, but our individual lives, as well." 
When I'd finished, hoping I'd made the right impression, he stood in silence, doing more of that thinking he did so well. Pride flickered in me, but when he replied, it wasn't what I was expecting. He looked down to where his lapels would have been if he'd been wearing a jacket, realised he didn’t have a name badge, and mumbled, either confused or embarrassed: 
"You know my name." 
I hadn't realised I'd said it, but now that he mentioned it, I was as surprised as he was. "Yeah. I suppose I do." For a moment, I was taken aback, but I soon recovered. "I saw you on television." 
It was the wrong thing to say. "I've only been on television twice." 
I think I'd done the equivalent of asking a Vietnam veteran if he'd ever been to the jungle. Trying to work out how to continue, I decided, for once, not to lie. After all, he was a scientist: he dug truth. "I've seen both. The first time wasn't good, but the second one was getting there. You could get the hang of this. Seriously. You got my attention." 
His pride and his embarrassment were scrabbling away at each other like gladiators, hoping to attract the support of the rest of his brain. He clearly hadn't enjoyed his first jaunt in front of the camera, but then who did? When my number had been called, my girlfriend at the time had taped it, and watching that smug, shifty-eyed, semi-articulate image of myself had proved to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. I had looked and sounded like a salesman, the kind with greasy hair and a handshake that feels like fondling a fish. Seeing my fake smile, hearing my ridiculous, put-on pseudo-RP voice was not something I had wanted to do again. But I did. Once, twice, enough times to get used to it. And that same satisfied resignation was what Templeton needed to feel if he ever wanted to make it. At the time, of course, I had no idea just how much he cared about making it. Or, for that matter, where he was trying to make it to. 
Neither encounter stuck in my mind then, especially after what happened later that evening, but looking back now it seems curiously apt that I met Templeton and Emily almost at the same time. 
It was all going fairly well. At least, I think it was. Once things go horribly wrong, ‘massively mediocre' becomes something you can look back on fondly.

I had known all along that the real test would be the lectures, and that they were at least partly out of our hands. No matter how carefully you prepare an event like this, its success comes down to the speakers: what they say, and how they say it. There was real money to be made by reaching the public, and we thought we knew what they wanted: to be able to pretend they were learned, without having to hang out in lecture halls. They wanted science plus theatre, minus equations; soundbite academia they could repeat down the pub. I know this because I'm one of them, and, frankly, I love it. I'm not going to read a dusty tome about thermodynamics, but show me a documentary about a madman trying to build a space elevator in his shed and I'm sold. 
The scientists, on the other hand, wanted an impression of seriousness, but only an impression. They were like readers of the Booker shortlist who in their hearts just want Dan Brown with better prose. They thought they wanted something serious and intellectual, but really were just as keen as anyone else to be entertained, excited and inspired. They said they wanted a lecture, but I knew they longed for a rally. 
When Templeton stood there, not before cameras and jaded journalists, but before his people, the choir who were ready to be preached to, he gave them that rally. He wasn't quite inspiring, but he was inspired. The speech wasn't perfect, and he wasn't perfect, but you could see that he meant it. In reality television terms, he was the mediocre one singing their own, distressingly personal, song and being complimented by the judges even while they were being voted off. He didn't quite make it, but he had his fans, and I could see him getting a little further next year. 
I hadn't read the final programme, having spent dreary and serious hours beforehand checking and re-checking the safety precautions. Fire extinguishers had never been counted so carefully or repeatedly. As a result of my frantic morning, I hadn't found out what Templeton was going to say in his hour on the soapbox. I assumed he was just going to bang on about the same thing: isn't science great, why does nobody care about us? He certainly started off in that vein, but just as I was starting to hope for a few brutal lines to satisfy the journalists and needle the few obvious religious figures we'd attracted (like people who go to bawdy comedies at the theatre with the intention of walking out in disgust), he changed tack, and out came The Plan.
"This world is in ruins, or if it isn't now it will be soon. Don't worry – I have no intention of talking extensively about renewable energy like everyone else. No – I'm thinking further ahead than that. Even if we solve the energy crisis we'll still have problems. The population is growing, climate change is destroying the land, deforestation and chemicals are wrecking the atmosphere, and all over the world are stockpiles of weapons that could destroy civilisation again and again. We need more than the earth. And the fortunate thing is, we can have more. The chances of ours being the only inhabitable planet in the universe are as small as space is vast. Even with our current degree of scientific progress, we have the potential to find another world. Yet what do we do? Nothing. There is an expanding universe of mysteries out there, and we barely go beyond our doorsteps. I want to bring back the dream of discovery, re-start a journey that was begun and nearly abandoned half a century ago. I want to bring back the thrill of charting the unknown.” 
This was new, at least to me. Since the end of the noughties recession, once we’d all stopped bandying around dreadful ‘climate’ metaphors, space flight had been on the cards. Obama had said some stirring things about it (but he could have said stirring things about doing the washing up); the BBC were digging up archive footage, waiting for the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings; a few more of the literati had admitted that they really liked science fiction; and the pop scientists had been talking their clever little heads off about trying to start a new journey upwards. Now Dr Neil Templeton, with his noble forehead, half-decent oratory and competent shaving was in on the act, but unlike some of the others he had a very specific plan: he was going to set up an independent research and development programme, then head straight to Mars. Even better, he'd already started: in the past few weeks he'd managed to acquire not only the rudiments of funding, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a site. According to his speech, he planned to spend the next few months setting up a new space centre in a small and by most accounts pointless town in Cambridgeshire.
I’d no idea how he’d swung that, but I was impressed and hopeful. I was born in the middle of the ‘80s, and now, with nearly three and a half decades under my (gradually tightening) belt, there’s still nothing to define my generation, unless reality television and video games count. Landing a man on another planet might be just what we need to start taking ourselves seriously. Even if he dies now, in what’s left of my car, Templeton will at least be remembered for ambition, and that's more or less a compliment. 
When he finished, there was applause. It was neither a polite ripple nor a mighty tumult, but it was respectable, solid and satisfactory, a little bit like the building we were in. Templeton stepped away from his lectern, and then, just as the clapping began to subside, a shriller sound took its place. It was one of those sounds that always takes a few moments to identify, then a few more to make sense of. It was the fire alarm. 
The audience shifted in their seats, not sure how seriously to take the incessant wailing. Templeton turned around and stared imploringly towards the side of the room, where I was standing. It didn't stop, and soon everyone was on their feet, milling around like a packed children's playground, nobody quite sure what was going on. I marched up onto the stage, heading for the microphone. It might have been a false alarm, but I wasn't taking any chances. Lawyers gather around chances, and you can make up your own vulture/shark simile. 
Before I reached the mike stand, I knew it wasn't a false alarm: the floor was hot beneath my feet, and smoke was drifting up through the cracks between the wooden boards. As I reached Templeton's side he stepped back from the lectern and turned, colliding with me. I stuck out a foot to steady myself, and with a splintering crash the floorboards broke beneath me. Flames gushed up around us, like opening an oven onto burning food, where I was the food. I fell against Templeton, who was already wrong-footed, and the torn floorboards spread and crumbled beneath us. Gravity didn't leave us with any options, and we fell, in a fury of burnt wood and roiling, acrid smoke. 
My vision was nothing but streaks of thick grey and flickering orange, like the borders of a Francis Bacon painting. Shapes rose up around me, outlined in leaping flame, impossible to identify. Somewhere among them I found Templeton, and grabbed at his arm. Spluttering, we shouted at one another, but the words were unfathomable. There were creaking and rending sounds, and a burning beam crashed down beside us. Pulling Templeton behind me, I pushed through the smoke, searching for any light that didn’t come from flame. Narrow spars of brightness outlined a door, and I flailed at it, searching for the handle. I found it and rattled it pathetically until I realised it was locked. Cursing, I tried shouting hoarsely to anyone who might be on the other side. It was a futile act: even as I called, I knew that everyone else in the building would have been evacuated by now, and the fire brigade would still be far away. 
Hands clawed at my shoulder, and I turned to face Templeton, his face scored with ash, grime and bloody scratches, like somebody who’d run through a forest at night. I could just about hear his voice over the roar of the blaze.
There's so much to do. So much more. We can't die here.” His hands were clutching at my shirt, and I pulled them roughly away. His terror seemed to give me strength. 
We won't. Now stop panicking and get off me. I'll get you out.” 
He subsided and squatted in the dust, wrapping his arms around himself as if he were freezing rather than burning. 
I stepped away from the door and tried to stare it down. It didn’t work. Then I ran at it, driving my shoulder against the wood just above the handle. It shook but held, and I fell back, rubbing at my shoulder with my other hand. I'd read somewhere that you were supposed to kick doors, but I didn't have a clue how that worked. I'd never kicked anything but a shin, and not even that since the age of about fourteen. It was becoming harder to breathe, the air like sucking in gravel. With no better ideas, I flung myself at the door again, then again, and on the third attempt, with my shoulder feeling like it had been run over, the door burst outward and I collapsed into the bright space beyond. Smoke and flames gushed after me, as if they’d ben trying to escape too, and I staggered to my feet blinking in the lightbulb glare. It is strange how swiftly darkness makes us forget the light. 
I turned and plunged back into the room, where I found Templeton slumped, half-comatose on the floor, flames licking at his shoes. I grabbed an arm and dragged him across the few feet to the door. With each step I was seized by pangs of harsh, dry coughing. I wondered if this was how dying smokers felt, but clung to my task. 
We reached the corridor, and the cleaner air brought Templeton's eyes open once more. He tried to speak, but managed only coughing. I knew the feeling. Supporting him with my functional shoulder, I staggered away from the broken door, feeling the heat glaring at my retreating back. 
Fire alarms were wailing, reminding us that while we were no longer in the process of dying, we were far from safe. I knew enough of the layout of the building to try to guide us back to the the entrance, and had done enough of the checks myself to know that the understage doors should not have been locked. On top of that, I had enough common sense to know that if a fire's going to start itself, it's rarely going to do so in a locked room on a winter’s day in a city hardly known for its dryness and heat. I was beginning to think I had some questions to ask, probably in the presence of policemen. 
The corridor brought us back into the lecture hall by a side door. As I had guessed, it was empty, the seats in disarray, the stage collapsed into a smoking pit. The air was noxious, and the fire was spreading upwards out of the stage, clinging to the curtains and biting at the wooden panelling. Charred patches scored the chessboard floor. Templeton was moving more confidently now, and we supported one another equally, hobbling across the room and down the grand marbled stairs to the foyer. We each grasped one side of the heavy double doors and pulled them slowly open. The damp and puddled street appeared like a scene from a musical, revealing neat rows of scientists, journalists, guests, curious passers-by and the collected emergency services, all gazing at the burning building as Templeton and I swayed out through the doors. Cameras flashed, voices shouted and footsteps pounded in all directions. Everything smelt like the morning after Guy Fawkes' night. As we stumbled down the steps, figures grasped us by the arms and guided us to ambulances, while yellow-hatted firemen rushed past us into the building, cradling a huge anaconda of a hose between them. 
The best bit about getting out was the air, soft and cold, like beer on a summer's afternoon. Second best was reaching the ambulance, letting the exhaustion wash over me, and being only too happy to lie down and let them carry me away.