IN THAT HOUR after dawn the horizon did not seem far away. The line where the watery sky met the gray sea was not well defined; it was as if the cheerless clouds grew denser out towards that circle until at the final meeting, all the way round, there was not an abrupt transition, but a simple mingling of twin elements. So the area confined under that low sky was not a large one. Beyond the circle, in every direction, the sea extended for a thousand miles, and beneath it the water was two miles deep; neither figure was easily to be grasped by the imagination, although acceptable as an academic fact. Two long miles below lay the sea bottom, darker than the center of the longest and darkest tunnel ever built by man, under pressures greater than any ever built up in factory or laboratory, a world unknown and unexplored, to be visited not by men but perhaps by their dead bodies encased in and made part of the iron coffins of their crushed-in ships. And the big ships, to insignificant man so huge and so solid, sank to that sea bottom, to the immemorial ooze in the darkness and cold, with no more ado or stir than would be caused comparatively by specks of dust falling on a ballroom floor.
On the surface the limited area enclosed by the near horizon bore many ships. The long gray rollers from the northeast swept in endless succession across the area, each demonstrating its unlimited power. To each one as it arrived the ships made obeisance, rolling far over, and then heaving up their bows, mounting towards the sky, next rolling far over the other way, bows down, sterns up, slithering down the long slope before beginning the next roll and the next pitch, the next rise and the next fall; there were many ships in many lines and many columns, and by looking at the ships the course and position of each wave could be traced diagonally across line and column — ships here rising on the crest and there sinking in the trough until the mastheads only were visible, ships here rolling far to port and ships there rolling far to starboard, towards each other and away, as long as patience could endure to watch.p>
And the ships were diversified like their motions — big ships and small, samson posts and cargo booms, freighters and tankers, new ships and old. Yet they all seemed to be animated by one will, all heading doggedly to the east, their transient washes all parallel; furthermore, if they were watched for any length of time it would be seen that at long irregular intervals they changed their direction a few degrees to port or a few degrees to starboard, rear ships following their leaders. But despite these variations of course it would soon be apparent to the observer that the resultant general direction of travel of this mass of ships was eastward, doggedly and steadily, so that with every hour that passed they had covered a few of the thousand miles that lay between them and their easterly goal, whatever it might be. The same spirit animated each ship.
Nevertheless, continuous observation would also reveal that the animating spirit was not infallible, that these ships were not faultless machines. Hardly one of those alterations of course failed to produce a crisis somewhere among those thirty-seven ships. That might have been expected by the experienced observer even if each ship had been a mere machine not subject to human direction, because every ship was different from her neighbors; each reacted slightly differently at the application of the rudder, each was influenced in a different way by the waves which met her from dead ahead, or on the bow, or on the beam, and each was variously influenced by the wind. With ships hardly half a mile apart in one direction, and hardly a quarter of a mile apart in the other, these small differences of behavior grew into matters of intense importance.
This would have been true even if each ship had been perfect in herself, and that was far from the case. The laboring engines grinding away in each of them were not capable of quite consistent performance, nor was the fuel absolutely uniform, and as time went on tubes might clog and valves might stick, so that the propellers that the engines drove would not continue to turn at a uniform rate. And compasses might not be absolutely true. And with the consumption of fuel and stores and with the consequent change of displacement the thrust of the propellers would bring about a different result even if miraculously they were kept turning at uniform speed. All these variables might bring about a relative change of position of only a few feet in a minute, but in those close-packed columns of ships a few feet's difference in one minute could bring disaster in twenty.
Above and beyond all these variables was the human variable, the greatest variable of all. Men's hands turned wheels, men's eyes watched the gauges, men's skill kept the compass needles steady on the cards. All kinds of men, of slow reactions and of fast, cautious men and reckless men, men of vast experience and men of almost none; and the differences between the men were of more importance than the differences between the ships; the latter differences might bring about disaster in twenty minutes, but the human variable — a careless order or a misheard order, a wheel turned the wrong way or a calculation brought to a wrong conclusion — could bring disaster in twenty seconds. The alterations in course were directed by the leading ship in the center column; the hauling down of the signal flags which blew stiffly from her halyard indicated the exact moment when the turn had to be begun, one turn of a series planned days before. It was easy enough to make a wrong turn; it was easier still to feel a slight doubt about which turn was due to be made; it was just as easy to doubt the competence of one's neighbors. A cautious man might linger awhile before giving the order, waiting to see what the others were doing, and those moments of delay could bring the bows of a ship in the next column pointing right at the beam, at the center and heart, of the ship that hesitated. A touch could be death.
Compared with the immensity of the sea on which they floated, the ships were tiny, insignificant; it might seem miraculous that they should cross that immensity in the face of the forces of nature and arrive with certitude at their destination. It was the intelligence and ingenuity of man which made that possible, the accumulation of knowledge and experience since the first flint was chipped and the first picture signs were written. Now it was the intelligence and ingenuity of man which were adding to the hazards. There was menace in that lowering sky and in those huge waves, yet despite that menace the ships were continuing their complex and difficult maneuvers, close-packed to within a hairs-breadth of disaster, for should they discontinue those maneuvers, should they spread out to a safe distance, they were facing worse disaster still.
A thousand miles ahead of them men were waiting for those ships to arrive, men and women and children, although they did not know of the existence of those particular ships, not their names, nor the names of the men inside them with three quarters of an inch of iron between them and the cold immensity of the sea. If those ships, if thousands of other ships equally unknown, did not reach their destination, the men and women and children who awaited their arrival would be hungry, cold, diseased. They might be torn to pieces by explosives. They might suffer a fate even worse — a fate they had years earlier decided, coldly, would be worse; they might be subjected to a tyrant of alien thought, their liberties torn from them, and in that case — they knew it by instinct even when they were not capable of logical deduction — not only they, but the whole human race would suffer, and liberty would decline throughout the world.
On board the ships there were men imbued with the same knowledge, even if that knowledge was forgotten in the urgency of keeping station and maintaining course and speed, and even though in the same ship with them were plenty of men who did not have that knowledge, men who were there amid those perils for other reasons or for no reason, men who desired money or drink or women or the security that money can sometimes buy, men with much to forget and half-wits with nothing to forget, men with children to feed and men with problems too difficult to face.
They were engaged upon the task of keeping the propellers turning, or of keeping the ships afloat, or of maintaining them in their stations or of keeping them in working condition, or they were engaged in feeding the men who occupied themselves with these tasks. But while they carried out their duties, whether from motives lofty or base or nonexistent, they were no more than parts of the ships they served — not machined to any measurable tolerance thanks to their human variability — and they, or their ships (not to differentiate between ships and their crews) were things to be fought for, things to be protected by one side or destroyed by the other; things to be escorted across the ocean or things to be sent down into the freezing depths.