We Have Fed Our Sea
by Poul Anderson
They named her Southern Cross and launched her on the road whose end they would never see. Months afterward she was moving at half the speed of light; if there was to be enough reaction mass for deceleration and maneuver, the blast must be terminated. And so the long silence came. For four and a half centuries, the ship would fall.
They manned her by turns, and dreamed other ships, and launched them, and saw how a few of the shortest journeys ended. Then they died.
And other men came after them. Wars flamed up and burned out, the howling peoples dwelt in smashed cities and kindled their fires with books. Conquerors followed, and conquerors of those, an empire killed its mother aborning, a religion called men to strange hilltops, a new race and a new state bestrode the Earth. But still the ships fell upward through night, and always there were men to stand watch upon them. Sometimes the men wore peaked caps and comets, sometimes steel helmets, sometimes decorous gray cowls, eventually blue berets with a winged star; but always they watched the ships, and more and more often as the decades passed they brought their craft to new harbors.
After ten generations, the Southern Cross was not quite halfway to her own goal, though she was the farthest from Earth of any human work. She was showing a little wear, here a scratch, there a patch, and not all the graffiti of bored and lonely men rubbed out by their successors. But those fields and particles which served her for eye, brain, nerve still swept heaven; each man at the end of his watch took a box of microplates with him as he made the hundred light-year stride to Earth’s Moon. Much of this was lost, or gathered dust, in the century when Earthmen were busy surviving. But there came a time when a patient electrically seeing machine ran through many such plates from many ships. And so it condemned certain people to death.
Sundown burned across great waters. Far to the west, the clouds banked tall above New Zealand threw hot gold into the sky. In that direction, the sea was too bright to look upon. Eastward it faded through green and royal blue to night, where the first stars trod forth and trembled. There was just enough wind to ruffle the surface, send wavelets lapping against the hull of the ketch, flow down the idle mainsail and stir the girl’s loosened pale hair.
Terangi Maclaren pointed north. “The kelp beds are that way,” he drawled. “Main source of the family income, y’ know. They mutate, crossbreed, and get seaweed which furnishes all kind of useful products. It’s beyond me, thank the honorable ancestors. Biochemistry is an organized mess. I’ll stick to something simple, like the degenerate nucleus.”
The girl giggled. “And if it isn’t degenerate, will you make it so?” she asked.
She was a technic like himself, of course: he would never have let a common on his boat, since a few machines were, in effect, a sizable crew. Her rank was higher than his, so high that no one in her family worked productively — whereas Maclaren was one of the few in his who did not. She was of carefully selected mutant Burmese strain, with amber skin, exquisite small features, and greenish-blond hair. Maclaren had been angling for weeks to get her alone like this. Not that General Feng, her drug-torpid null of a guardian, cared how much scandal she made, flying about the planet without so much as an amazon for chaperone. But she was more a creature of the Citadel and its hectic lights than of the sunset ocean.
Maclaren chuckled. “I wasn’t swearing at the nucleus,” he said. “Degeneracy is a state of matter under certain extreme conditions. Not too well understood, even after three hundred years of quantum theory. But I wander, and I would rather wonder. At you, naturally.”
He padded barefoot across the deck and sat down by her. He was a tall man in his early thirties, slender, with wide shoulders and big hands, dark-haired and brown-skinned like all Oceanians; but there was an aquiline beak on the broad highcheeked face, and some forgotten English ancestor looked out of hazel eyes. Like her, he wore merely an informal sarong and a few jewels.
“You’re talking like a scholar, Terangi,” she said. It was not a compliment. There was a growing element in the richest families who found Confucius, Plato, Einstein, and the other classics a thundering bore.
“Oh, but I am one,” said Maclaren. “You’d be amazed how parched and stuffy I can get. Why, as a student—”
“But you were the amateur swim-wrestling champion!” she protested.
“True. I could also drink any two men under the table and knew every dive on Earth and the Moon. However, d’ you imagine my father, bless his dreary collection of old-fashioned virtues, would have subsidized me all these years if I didn’t bring some credit to the family? It’s kudos, having an astrophysicist for a son. Even if I am a rather expensive astrophysicist.” He grinned through the gathering dusk. “Every so often, when I’d been on a particularly outrageous binge, he would threaten to cut my allowance off. Then I’d have no choice but to come up with a new observation or a brilliant new theory, or at least a book.”
She snuggled a little closer. “Is that why you are going out to space now?” she asked.
“Well, no,” said Maclaren. “That’s purely my own idea. My notion of fun. I told you I was getting stuffy in my dotage.”
“I haven’t seen you very often in the Citadel, the last few years,” she agreed. “And you were so busy when you did show.”
“Politics, of a sort. The ship’s course couldn’t be changed without an order from a reluctant Exploration Authority, which meant bribing the right people, heading off the opposition, wheedling the Protector himself… d’ you know, I discovered it was fun. I might even take up politics as a hobby, when I get back.”
“How long will you be gone?” she asked.
“Can’t say for certain, but probably just a month. That ought to furnish me with enough material for several years of study. Might dash back to the ship at odd moments for the rest of my life, of course. It’ll take up permanent residence around that star.”
“Couldn’t you come home… every night?” she murmured.
“Don’t tempt me,” he groaned. “I can’t. One month is the standard minimum watch on an interstellar vessel, barring emergencies. You see, every transmission uses up a Frank tube, which costs money.”
“Well,” she pouted, “if you think so much of an old dead star—”
“You don’t understand, your gorgeousness. This is the first chance anyone has ever had, in more than two centuries of space travel, to get a close look at a truly burned-out star. There was even some argument whether the class existed. Is the universe old enough for any sun to have used up its nuclear and gravitational energy? By the ancestors, it’s conceivable this one is left over from some previous cycle of creation!”
He felt a stiffening in her body, as if she resented his talk of what she neither understood nor cared about. And for a moment he resented her. She didn’t really care about this boat either, or him, or anything except her own lovely shell. Why was he wasting time in the old worn routines, when he should be studying and preparing? He knew precisely why.
And then her rigidity melted in a little shudder. He glanced at her, she was a shadow with a palely glowing mane, in the deep blue twilight. The last embers of sun were almost gone, and one star after another woke overhead, soon the sky would be crowded with their keenness.
Almost, she whispered: “Where is this spaceship, now?”
A bit startled, he pointed at the first tracing of the Southern Cross. “That way,” he said. “She was originally bound for Alpha Crucis, and hasn’t been diverted very far off that course. Since she’s a good thirty parsecs out, we wouldn’t notice the difference if we could see that far.”