Thomas stepped out onto the upper deck. It was the start of his shift, and it was going to be a long one; he’d told the first mate he’d stay an extra hour so the latter could catch up on a bit of sleep, as the unfortunate fellow had worked the length of an extra shift the previous night rearranging an errant sail.
Thomas didn’t mind. It was precisely this moment that had drawn him to the sea in the first place, that moment a dozen years ago as a diminutive deck hand when his uncle had allowed him to come on his first sail. He remembered coming up on deck at that same moment of the night, the masts of the merchant ship rising like giants above his head, the sails, so large to a child’s eyes, outlined sharply in white against the deep indigo sky speckled with a thousand glittering stars. It was a long time ago, and since then he had left behind the merchant ships of his youth and joined the Royal Navy, but that was a moment he carried with him, and he remembered it every time he climbed the ladder and stepped up on deck to begin a night shift.
The stars were the same now, of course, as they had been then. He remembered that night long ago as being in early summer, and it was May now, the time when Orion was sinking and Sagittarius rising with the scorpion he forever chased across the sky. It was about three hours after sunset, and the evening was warm and peaceful, perhaps a little on the humid side; after all, they were just off the coast of Bermuda, about twenty miles out, having recently completed a tour of the British forts that lay scattered throughout the islands of the Caribbean. They had brought the forts supplies and new companies of soldiers from England, and taken aboard all those whose term was up and were slated to return.
It was every sailor’s dream to go the Caribbean. Thomas had lost count of how many times he had visited on board some Navy vessel, and he generally spent more time on the ocean or docked at St. Kitts and Nevis or Grenada than he did at home, so it could no longer be termed an adventure for him. It was pleasant to remember when it was.
Still, whether you were a young British garrison officer on his first assignment to a Caribbean fort or a seasoned Naval navigator, you were going to run into the same problem at some point: a good cup of English tea was hopelessly hard to find here. Thomas had learned to live without it, or at least with an inferior version of it, but even he missed it sometimes. Home was still home, even if you spent the greater part of your time away from it, and it seemed to Thomas that no matter how many adventures the traveler might see, home was the more abiding thing. It did not escape his notice during their various stops and the exchanges of soldiers that occurred that the ones coming on board were just as jolly as those getting off.
He always carried with him a leather-bound notebook with the words Semper Explorans, Latin for “Always Exploring”, emblazoned on the front cover, a gift from a childhood friend back home when he had joined the Navy. The friend had written on the inside, “Always keep that spirit. And come visit Newcastle now and again.” Thomas always felt a faint glimmer of sadness when he read those words, though he loved his life on the sea. In just a few words, his friend had summed up the seafarer’s dilemma, the chronic melancholy found in the poems and songs of sailors whose love for the sea took them ever away from home, but in whose hearts home ever lingered on.
The seaman who was ending his shift went sleepily down into the lower levels of the ship, and Thomas was left alone above-deck. He went to starboard bow and looked up, placing his hands on the familiar old wood of the ship’s railing. The stars looked back down. The compasses and navigation systems were getting more and more sophisticated these days, but he still preferred the old fashioned way. He knew the paths of the stars by heart; he could tell you anything about the way they moved at any season, at any point on the known earth. He was the best the Navy had, which is why he was always on the transatlantic voyages that required an expert head for navigation.
He continued to gaze upwards. The ship was heading northeast by east, 55 degrees according to the compass, although he needed no instrument to obtain that information. The inaccuracy of their position irritated him. They should be 51 exactly. He knew he had given the helmsmen the correct direction, and they had never failed to direct the ship correctly, so this occurrence was quite unusual. It was not an emergency at the moment, but it did mean that they would eventually end up in Lisbon rather than Liverpool by way of the Irish Sea, so he needed to redo the calculations based on their current position.
A glance at Polaris was enough for him to reassess their latitude. Longitude was a bit trickier, and he looked hard at the waning gibbous moon as he considered their east-west position. This was usually done based on the length of time they had been sailing and their speed, but everyone on the high seas knew that dead reckoning was dangerously inaccurate and he had been trying some new methods that used the angle of the moon, and with excellent results thus far.
He nodded as the proper longitude reading appeared in his head. He pulled out the leather-bound journal and a pencil and jotted down the new numbers. A few mental calculations and he had deduced the proper direction. Northeast, 49 degrees. He ripped out the page and turned towards the hatch where he could pop his head down and give the information to the helmsmen.
As he began to walk towards the center of the ship he idly pulled the compass out of his pocket and glanced at it. He halted. His brow furrowed. The compass read their direction as…south? He looked up again. Northeast by east, 55 degrees. He looked at his compass again. South-southeast, 157.5 degrees. He turned. The needle of the compass held at north. It did not appear to be broken. He looked at the stars. Northeast by east. They certainly weren’t broken.
He glanced around the sky, then around the ship, less alarmed than bewildered. Everything looked normal. Everything was as it should be. Everything was at peace. The night was perfectly quiet, the wind was not too strong, just enough for a good speed, and the ship made little noise as it cut gently through the placid water. It was a fine night for sailing, really. What was wrong? Maybe nothing. Maybe his compass was broken, and he laughed at himself, albeit a little nervously, as he realized that a simple tool failure was probably the answer. Nonetheless, he had to stop himself from breaking into a run as he went down the hatch to the navigation room and rushed past the quizzical helmsman to the large compass that was positioned near the steering wheel. Thomas looked at it rather timidly.
South-southeast, 157.5 degrees.
He blazed out as rapidly as he had come in. The helmsman watched him wonderingly, then turned back to the compass. His eyes widened when he saw what it read.
Thomas ran to his cabin, sifting through the thousands of notes in his head, the star maps that he had memorized, the variations, the tiny margins of error that could occur. Nothing could even begin to explain why they looked like they were heading north but according to the compass they were heading south. He entered the tiny cell and pulled out a stack of star charts and almanacs that were piled under his desk. They were covered in dust, untouched for he did not know how many months or years, as he never needed to look at them. He fisted through the pages, the old paper cracking and complaining at being woken from its long slumber, the clouds of dust leaping up into the air as he checked the charts against those filed away in his mind. Everything matched. He had made no error.
He went back above-deck and looked pleadingly at the stars, wondering what he could possibly have miscalculated. He turned south, or what he thought was south, towards Sagittarius, and followed the arrow of the archer towards Antares, the red eye of his enemy, Scorpio. He squinted. Antares was usually red, but it wasn’t tonight. It was a bright, pale blue, like Deneb in Cygnus or Vega in Lyra. And the claws of the monster were different. They had turned towards the archer, as though the scorpion was facing him. He looked back at Sagittarius. The archer was shining brightly, more brightly than before. Thomas had always fancied that the stars were brighter here than elsewhere, more glittering and diamondlike, but this was something else. Something was happening. Thomas looked out across the sea. It was calm as a mirror and radiant with the brilliance of the strangely shining stars, the constellations that had moved for the first time in all the time that humans had studied stars.
Thomas had no idea what to do. Neither his childhood on the merchant ships nor his Navy training nor his years of star knowledge had prepared him for this. Who should he believe, the stars or the compass? He smiled slightly, a flicker of adventure lighting up his face. He knew the answer. He did not know where they were taking him, but he always trusted the stars.