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The Thing in the Attic

5th October 2017
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The final cut in the cliffs through which the stream fell was another chimney. It was steeper and more smooth-walled than the one which had taken them out of the gorge under the waterfall, but narrow enough to be climbed by bracing one’s back against one side, and one’s hands and feet against the other. The column of air inside the chimney was filled with spray, but in Hell that was too minor a discomfort to bother about.

At long last Honath heaved himself over the edge of the chimney onto flat rock, drenched and exhausted, but filled with an elation he could not suppress and did not want to. They were above the attic jungle; they had beaten Hell itself. He looked around to make sure that Mathild was safe, and then reached a hand down to Alaskon. The navigator’s bad leg had been giving him trouble. Honath heaved mightily and Alaskon came heavily over the edge and lit sprawling on the high mesa.

The stars were out. For a while they simply sat and gasped for breath. Then they turned, one by one, to see where they were.

There was not a great deal to see. There was the mesa, domed with stars on all sides and a shining, finned spindle, like a gigantic minnow, pointing skyward in the center of the rocky plateau. And around the spindle, indistinct in the starlight….

… Around the shining minnow, tending it, were Giants.

This, then, was the end of the battle to do what was right, whatever the odds. All the show of courage against superstition, all the black battles against Hell itself, came down to this: The Giants were real!

They were unarguably real. Though they were twice as tall as men, stood straighter, had broader shoulders, were heavier across the seat and had no visible tails, their fellowship with men was clear. Even their voices, as they shouted to each other around their towering metal minnow, were the voices of men made into gods, voices as remote from those of men as the voices of men were remote from those of monkeys, yet just as clearly of the same family.

These were the Giants of the Book of Laws. They were not only real, but they had come back to Tellura as they had promised to do.

And they would know what to do with unbelievers, and with fugitives from Hell. It had all been for nothing—not only the physical struggle, but the fight to be allowed to think for oneself as well. The gods existed, literally, actually. This belief was the real hell from which Honath had been trying to fight free all his life—but now it was no longer just a belief. It was a fact, a fact that he was seeing with his own eyes.

The Giants had returned to judge their handiwork. And the first of the people they would meet would be three outcasts, three condemned and degraded criminals, three jail-breakers—the worst possible detritus of the attic world.

All this went searing through Honath’s mind in less than a second, but nevertheless Alaskon’s mind evidently had worked still faster. Always the most outspoken unbeliever of the entire little group of rebels, the one among them whose whole world was founded upon the existence of rational explanations for everything, his was the point of view most completely challenged by the sight before them now. With a deep, sharply indrawn breath, he turned abruptly and walked away from them.

Mathild uttered a cry of protest, which she choked off in the middle; but it was already too late. A round eye on the great silver minnow came alight, bathing them all in an oval patch of brilliance.

Honath darted after the navigator. Without looking back, Alaskon suddenly was running. For an instant longer Honath saw his figure, poised delicately against the black sky. Then he dropped silently out of sight, as suddenly and completely as if he had never been.

Alaskon had borne every hardship and every terror of the ascent from Hell with courage and even with cheerfulness but he had been unable to face being told that it had all been meaningless.

Sick at heart, Honath turned back, shielding his eyes from the miraculous light. There was a clear call in some unknown language from near the spindle.

Then there were footsteps, several pairs of them, coming closer.

It was time for the Second Judgment.

After a long moment, a big voice from the darkness said: “Don’t be afraid. We mean you no harm. We’re men, just as you are.”

The language had the archaic flavor of the Book of Laws, but it was otherwise perfectly understandable. A second voice said: “What are you called?”

Honath’s tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of his mouth. While he was struggling with it, Mathild’s voice came clearly from beside him:

“He is Honath the Pursemaker, and I am Mathild the Forager.”

“You are a long distance from the place we left your people,” the first Giant said. “Don’t you still live in the vine-webs above the jungles?”

“Lord—”

“My name is Jarl Eleven. This man is Gerhardt Adler.”

This seemed to stop Mathild completely. Honath could understand why. The very notion of addressing Giants by name was nearly paralyzing. But since they were already as good as cast down into Hell again, nothing could be lost by it.

“Jarl Eleven,” he said, “the people still live among the vines. The floor of the jungle is forbidden. Only criminals are sent there. We are criminals.”

“Oh?” Jarl Eleven said. “And you’ve come all the way from the surface to this mesa? Gerhardt, this is prodigious. You have no idea what the surface of this planet is like—it’s a place where evolution has never managed to leave the tooth-and-nail stage. Dinosaurs from every period of the Mesozoic, primitive mammals all the way up the scale to the ancient cats the works. That’s why the original seeding team put these people in the treetops instead.”

“Honath, what was your crime?” Gerhardt Adler said.

Honath was almost relieved to have the questioning come so quickly to this point. Jarl Eleven’s aside, with its many terms he could not understand, had been frightening in its very meaninglessness.

“There were five of us,” Honath said in a low voice. “We said we—that we did not believe in the Giants.”

There was a brief silence. Then, shockingly, both Jarl Eleven and Gerhardt Adler burst into enormous laughter.

Mathild cowered, her hands over her ears. Even Honath flinched and took a step backward. Instantly, the laughter stopped, and the Giant called Jarl Eleven stepped into the oval of light and sat down beside them. In the light, it could be seen that his face and hands were hairless, although there was hair on his crown; the rest of his body was covered by a kind of cloth. Seated, he was no taller than Honath, and did not seem quite so fearsome.

“I beg your pardon,” he said. “It was unkind of us to laugh, but what you said was highly unexpected. Gerhardt, come over here and squat down, so that you don’t look so much like a statue of some general. Tell me, Honath, in what way did you not believe in the Giants?”

Honath could hardly believe his ears. A Giant had begged his pardon! Was this still some joke even more cruel? But whatever the reason, Jarl Eleven had asked him a question.

“Each of the five of us differed,” he said. “I held that you were not—not real except as symbols of some abstract truth. One of us, the wisest, believed that you did not exist in any sense at all. But we all agreed that you were not gods.”

“And of course we aren’t,” Jarl Eleven said. “We’re men. We come from the same stock as you. We’re not your rulers, but your brothers. Do you understand what I say?”

“No,” Honath admitted.

“Then let me tell you about it. There are men on many worlds, Honath. They differ from one another, because the worlds differ, and different kinds of men are needed to people each one. Gerhardt and I are the kind of men who live on a world called Earth, and many other worlds like it. We are two very minor members of a huge project called a ‘seeding program’, which has been going on for thousands of years now. It’s the job of the seeding program to survey newly discovered worlds, and then to make men suitable to live on each new world.”

“To make men? But only gods—”

“No, no. Be patient and listen,” said Jarl Eleven. “We don’t make men. We make them suitable. There’s a great deal of difference between the two. We take the living germ plasm, the sperm and the egg, and we modify it. When the modified man emerges, we help him to settle down in his new world. That’s what we did on Tellura—it happened long ago, before Gerhardt and I were even born. Now we’ve come back to see how you people are getting along, and to lend a hand if necessary.”

He looked from Honath to Mathild, and back again. “Do you understand?” he said.

“I’m trying.” Honath said. “But you should go down to the jungle-top, then. We’re not like the others; they are the people you want to see.”

“We shall, in the morning. We just landed here. But, just because you’re not like the others, we’re more interested in you now. Tell me, has any condemned man ever escaped from the jungle floor before you people?”

“No, never. That’s not surprising. There are monsters down there.”

Jarl Eleven looked sidewise at the other Giant. He seemed to be smiling. “When you see the films,” he remarked, “you’ll call that the understatement of the century. Honath, how did you three manage to escape, then?”

Haltingly at first, and then with more confidence as the memories came crowding vividly back, Honath told him. When he mentioned the feast at the demon’s nest, Jarl Eleven again looked significantly at Adler, but he did not interrupt.

“And finally we got to the top of the chimney and came out on this flat space,” Honath said. “Alaskon was still with us then, but when he saw you and the metal thing he threw himself back down the cleft. He was a criminal like us, but he should not have died. He was a brave man, and a wise one.”

“Not wise enough to wait until all the evidence was in,” Adler said enigmatically. “All in all, Jarl, I’d say ‘prodigious’ is the word for it. This is easily the most successful seeding job any team has ever done, at least in this limb of the galaxy. And what a stroke of luck, to be on the spot just as it came to term, and with a couple at that!”

“What does he mean?” Honath said.

“Just this, Honath. When the seeding team set your people up in business on Tellura, they didn’t mean for you to live forever in the treetops. They knew that, sooner or later, you’d have to come down to the ground and learn to fight this planet on its own terms. Otherwise, you’d go stale and die out.”

“Live on the ground all the time?” Mathild said in a faint voice.

“Yes, Mathild. The life in the treetops was to have been only an interim period, while you gathered knowledge you needed about Tellura and put it to use. But to be the real masters of the world, you will have to conquer the surface, too.

“The device your people worked out, that of sending criminals to the surface, was the best way of conquering the planet that they could have picked. It takes a strong will and courage to go against custom, and both those qualities are needed to lick Tellura. Your people exiled just such fighting spirits to the surface, year after year after year.

“Sooner or later, some of those exiles were going to discover how to live successfully on the ground and make it possible for the rest of your people to leave the trees. You and Honath have done just that.”

“Observe please, Jarl,” Adler said. “The crime in this first successful case was ideological. That was the crucial turn in the criminal policy of these people. A spirit of revolt is not quite enough, but couple it with brains and—ecce homo!”

Honath’s head was swimming. “But what does all this mean?” he said. “Are we—not condemned to Hell any more?”

“No, you’re still condemned, if you still want to call it that,” Jarl Eleven said soberly. “You’ve learned how to live down there, and you’ve found out something even more valuable: how to stay alive while cutting down your enemies. Do you know that you killed three demons with your bare hands, you and Mathild and Alaskon?”

“Killed—”

“Certainly,” Jarl Eleven said. “You ate three eggs. That is the classical way, and indeed the only way, to wipe out monsters like the dinosaurs. You can’t kill the adults with anything short of an anti-tank gun, but they’re helpless in embryo—and the adults haven’t the sense to guard their nests.”

Honath heard, but only distantly. Even his awareness of Mathild’s warmth next to him did not seem to help much.

“Then we have to go back down there,” he said dully. “And this time forever.”

“Yes,” Jarl Eleven said, his voice gentle. “But you wont be alone, Honath. Beginning tomorrow, you’ll have all your people with you.”

All our people? But you’re going to drive them out?”

“All of them. Oh, we won’t prohibit the use of the vine-webs too, but from now on your race will have to fight it out on the surface as well. You and Mathild have proven that it can be done. It’s high time the rest of you learned, too.”

“Jarl, you think too little of these young people themselves,” Adler said. “Tell them what is in store for them. They are frightened.”

“Of course, of course. It’s obvious. Honath, you and Mathild are the only living individuals of your race who know how to survive down there on the surface. And we’re not going to tell your people how to do that. We aren’t even going to drop them so much as a hint. That part of it is up to you.”

Honath’s jaw dropped.

“It’s up to you,” Jarl Eleven repeated firmly. “We’ll return you to your tribe tomorrow, and we’ll tell your people that you two know the rules for successful life on the ground—and that everyone else has to go down and live there too. We’ll tell them nothing else but that. What do you think they’ll do then?”

“I don’t know,” Honath said dazedly. “Anything could happen. They might even make us Spokesman and Spokeswoman—except that we’re just common criminals.”

“Uncommon pioneers, Honath. The man and the woman to lead the humanity of Tellura out of the attic, into the wide world.” Jarl Eleven got to his feet, the great light playing over him. Looking up after him, Honath saw that there were at least a dozen other Giants standing just outside the oval of light, listening intently to every word.

“But there’s a little time to be passed before we begin,” Jarl Eleven said. “Perhaps you two would like to look over our ship.”

Humbly, but with a soundless emotion much like music inside him, Honath took Mathild’s hand. Together they walked away from the chimney to Hell, following the footsteps of the Giants.

 

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