The Thing in the Attic

by James Blish

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Honath and his fellow arch-doubters did not believe in the Giants, and for this they were cast into Hell. And when survival depended upon unwavering faith in their beliefs, they saw that there were Giants, after all....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

_It is written that after the Giants came to Tellura from the far
stars, they abode a while, and looked upon the surface of the land,
and found it wanting, and of evil omen. Therefore did they make men
to live always in the air and in the sunlight, and in the light of
the stars, that he would be reminded of them. And the Giants abode
yet a while, and taught men to speak, and to write, and to weave,
and to do many things which are needful to do, of which the
writings speak. And thereafter they departed to the far stars,
saying, Take this world as your own, and though we shall return,
fear not, for it is yours._

Honath the Pursemaker was hauled from the nets an hour before the rest of the prisoners, as befitted his role as the arch-doubter of them all. It was not yet dawn, but his captors led him in great bounds through the endless, musky-perfumed orchid gardens, small dark shapes with crooked legs, hunched shoulders, slim hairless tails carried, like his, in concentric spirals wound clockwise. Behind them sprang Honath on the end of a long tether, timing his leaps by theirs, since any slip would hang him summarily.

He would of course be on his way to the surface, some 250 feet below the orchid gardens, shortly after dawn in any event. But not even the arch-doubter of them all wanted to begin the trip--not even at the merciful snap-spine end of a tether--a moment before the law said, Go.

The looping, interwoven network of vines beneath them, each cable as thick through as a man’s body, bellied out and down sharply as the leapers reached the edge of the fern-tree forest which surrounded the copse of fan-palms. The whole party stopped before beginning the descent and looked eastward, across the dim bowl. The stars were paling more and more rapidly; only the bright constellation of the Parrot could still be picked out without doubt.

“A fine day,” one of the guards said, conversationally. “Better to go below on a sunny day than in the rain, pursemaker.”

Honath shuddered and said nothing. Of course it was always raining down below in Hell, that much could be seen by a child. Even on sunny days, the endless pinpoint rain of transpiration, from the hundred million leaves of the eternal trees, hazed the forest air and soaked the black bog forever.

He looked around in the brightening, misty morning. The eastern horizon was black against the limb of the great red sun, which had already risen about a third of its diameter; it was almost time for the small, blue-white, furiously hot consort to follow. All the way to that brink, as to every other horizon, the woven ocean of the treetops flowed gently in long, unbreaking waves, featureless as some smooth oil. Only nearby could the eye break that ocean into its details, into the world as it was: a great, many-tiered network, thickly overgrown with small ferns, with air-drinking orchids, with a thousand varieties of fungi sprouting wherever vine crossed vine and collected a little humus for them, with the vivid parasites sucking sap from the vines, the trees, and even each other. In the ponds of rain-water collected by the closely fitting leaves of the bromeliads tree-toads and peepers stopped down their hoarse songs dubiously as the light grew and fell silent one by one. In the trees below the world, the tentative morning screeches of the lizard-birds--the souls of the damned, or the devils who hunted them, no one was quite sure which--took up the concert.

A small gust of wind whipped out of the hollow above the glade of fan-palms, making the network under the party shift slightly, as if in a loom. Honath gave with it easily, automatically, but one of the smaller vines toward which he had moved one furless hand hissed at him and went pouring away into the darkness beneath--a chlorophyll-green snake, come up out of the dripping aerial pathways in which it hunted in ancestral gloom, to greet the suns and dry its scales in the quiet morning. Farther below, an astonished monkey, routed out of its bed by the disgusted serpent, sprang into another tree, reeling off ten mortal insults, one after the other, while still in mid-leap. The snake, of course, paid no attention, since it did not speak the language of men; but the party on the edge of the glade of fan-palms snickered appreciatively.

“Bad language they favor below,” another of the guards said. “A fit place for you and your blasphemers, pursemaker. Come now.”

The tether at Honath’s neck twitched, and then his captors were soaring in zig-zag bounds down into the hollow toward the Judgment Seat. He followed, since he had no choice, the tether threatening constantly to foul his arms, legs or tail, and--worse, far worse--making his every mortifying movement ungraceful. Above, the Parrot’s starry plumes flickered and faded into the general blue.

Toward the center of the saucer above the grove, the stitched leaf-and-leather houses clustered thickly, bound to the vines themselves, or hanging from an occasional branch too high or too slender to bear the vines. Many of these purses Honath knew well, not only as visitor but as artisan. The finest of them, the inverted flowers which opened automatically as the morning dew bathed them, yet which could be closed tightly and safely around their occupants at dusk by a single draw-string, were his own design as well as his own handiwork. They had been widely admired and imitated.

The reputation that they had given him, too, had helped to bring him to the end of the snap-spine tether. They had given weight to his words among others--weight enough to make him, at last, the arch-doubter, the man who leads the young into blasphemy, the man who questions the Book of Laws.

And they had probably helped to win him his passage on the Elevator to Hell.

The purses were already opening as the party swung among them. Here and there, sleepy faces blinked out from amid the exfoliating sections, criss-crossed by relaxing lengths of dew-soaked rawhide. Some of the awakening householders recognized Honath, of that he was sure, but none came out to follow the party--though the villagers should be beginning to drop from the hearts of their stitched flowers like ripe seed-pods by this hour of any normal day.

A Judgment was at hand, and they knew it--and even those who had slept the night in one of Honath’s finest houses would not speak for him now. Everyone knew, after all, that Honath did not believe in the Giants.

Honath could see the Judgment Seat itself now, a slung chair of woven cane crowned along the back with a row of gigantic mottled orchids. These had supposedly been transplanted there when the chair was made, but no one could remember how old they were; since there were no seasons, there was no particular reason why they should not have been there forever. The Seat itself was at the back of the arena and high above it, but in the gathering light Honath could make out the white-furred face of the Tribal Spokesman, like a lone silver-and-black pansy among the huge vivid blooms.

At the center of the arena proper was the Elevator itself. Honath had seen it often enough, and had himself witnessed Judgments where it was called into use, but he could still hardly believe that he was almost surely to be its next passenger. It consisted of nothing more than a large basket, deep enough so that one would have to leap out of it, and rimmed with thorns to prevent one from leaping back in. Three hempen ropes were tied to its rim, and were then cunningly interwound on a single-drum windlass of wood, which could be turned by two men even when the basket was loaded.

The procedure was equally simple. The condemned man was forced into the basket, and the basket lowered out of sight, until the slackening of the ropes indicated that it had touched the surface. The victim climbed out--and if he did not, the basket remained below until he starved or until Hell otherwise took care of its own--and the windlass was rewound.

The sentences were for varying periods of time, according to the severity of the crime, but in practical terms this formality was empty. Although the basket was dutifully lowered when the sentence had expired, no one had ever been known to get back into it. Of course, in a world without seasons or moons, and hence without any but an arbitrary year, long periods of time are not easy to count accurately. The basket could arrive thirty or forty days to one side or the other of the proper date. But this was only a technicality, however, for if keeping time was difficult in the attic world it was probably impossible in Hell.

Honath’s guards tied the free end of his tether to a branch and settled down around him. One abstractedly passed a pine cone to him and he tried to occupy his mind with the business of picking the juicy seeds from it, but somehow they had no flavor.

More captives were being brought in now, while the Spokesman watched with glittering black eyes from his high perch. There was Mathild the Forager, shivering as if with ague, the fur down her left side glistening and spiky, as though she had inadvertently overturned a tank plant on herself. After her was brought Alaskon the Navigator, a middle-aged man only a few years younger than Honath himself; he was tied up next to Honath, where he settled down at once, chewing at a joint of cane with apparent indifference.

Thus far, the gathering had proceeded without more than a few words being spoken, but that ended when the guards tried to bring Seth the Needlesmith from the nets. He could be heard at once, over the entire distance to the glade, alternately chattering and shrieking in a mixture of tones that might mean either fear or fury. Everyone in the glade but Alaskon turned to look, and heads emerged from purses like new butterflies from cocoons.

A moment later, Seth’s guards came over the lip of the glade in a tangled group, now shouting themselves. Somewhere in the middle of the knot Seth’s voice became still louder; obviously he was clinging with all five members to any vine or frond he could grasp, and was no sooner pried loose from one than he would leap by main force, backwards if possible, to another. Nevertheless he was being brought inexorably down into the arena, two feet forward, one foot back, three feet forward...

Honath’s guards resumed picking their pine-cones. During the disturbance, Honath realized Charl the Reader had been brought in quietly from the same side of the glade. He now sat opposite Alaskon, looking apathetically down at the vine-web, his shoulders hunched forward. He exuded despair; even to look at him made Honath feel a renewed shudder.

From the High Seat, the Spokesman said: “Honath the Pursemaker, Alaskon the Navigator, Charl the Reader, Seth the Needlesmith Mathild the Forager, you are called to answer to justice.”

“Justice!” Seth shouted, springing free of his captors with a tremendous bound and bringing up with a jerk on the end of his tether. “This is no justice! I have nothing to do with--”

The guards caught up with him and clamped brown hands firmly over his mouth. The Spokesman watched with amused malice.

“The accusations are three,” the Spokesman said. “The first, the telling of lies to children. Second, the casting into doubt of the divine order among men. Third, the denial of the Book of Laws. Each of you may speak in order of age. Honath the Pursemaker, your plea may be heard.”

Honath stood up, trembling a little, but feeling a surprisingly renewed surge of his old independence.

“Your charges,” he said, “all rest upon the denial of the Book of Laws. I have taught nothing else that is contrary to what we all believe, and called nothing else into doubt. And I deny the charge.”

The Spokesman looked down at him with disbelief. “Many men and women have said that you do not believe in the Giants, pursemaker,” he said. “You will not win mercy by piling up more lies.”

“I deny the charge,” Honath insisted. “I believe in the Book of Laws as a whole, and I believe in the Giants. I have taught only that the Giants were not real in the sense that we are real. I have taught that they were intended as symbols of some higher reality and were not meant to be taken as literal persons.”

“What higher reality is this?” the Spokesman demanded. “Describe it.”

“You ask me to do something the writers of the Book of Laws themselves couldn’t do,” Honath said hotly. “If they had to embody the reality in symbols rather than writing it down directly, how could a mere pursemaker do better?”

“This doctrine is wind,” the Spokesman said. “And it is plainly intended to undercut authority and the order established by the Book. Tell me, pursemaker: if men need not fear the Giants, why should they fear the law?”

“Because they are men, and it is to their interest to fear the law. They aren’t children, who need some physical Giant sitting over them with a whip to make them behave. Furthermore, Spokesman, this archaic belief itself undermines us. As long as we believe that there are real Giants, and that some day they’ll return and resume teaching us, so long will we fail to seek answers to our questions for ourselves. Half of what we know was given to us in the Book, and the other half is supposed to drop to us from the skies if we wait long enough. In the meantime, we vegetate.”

“If a part of the Book be untrue, there can be nothing to prevent that it is all untrue,” the Spokesman said heavily. “And we will lose even what you call the half of our knowledge--which is actually the whole of it--to those who see with clear eyes.”

Suddenly, Honath lost his temper. “Lose it, then!” he shouted. “Let us unlearn everything we know only by rote, go back to the beginning, learn all over again, and continue to learn, from our own experience. Spokesman, you are an old man, but there are still some of us who haven’t forgotten what curiosity means!”

“Quiet!” the Spokesman said. “We have heard enough. We call on Alaskon the Navigator.”

“Much of the Book is clearly untrue,” Alaskon said flatly, rising. “As a handbook of small trades it has served us well. As a guide to how the universe is made, it is nonsense, in my opinion; Honath is too kind to it. I’ve made no secret of what I think, and I still think it.”

“And will pay for it,” the Spokesman said, blinking slowly down at Alaskon. “Charl the Reader.”

“Nothing,” Charl said, without standing, or even looking up.

“You do not deny the charges?”

“I’ve nothing to say,” Charl said, but then, abruptly, his head jerked up, and he glared with desperate eyes at the Spokesman. “I can read, Spokesman. I have seen words in the Book of Laws that contradict each other. I’ve pointed them out. They’re facts, they exist on the pages. I’ve taught nothing, told no lies, preached no unbelief. I’ve pointed to the facts. That’s all.”

“Seth the Needlesmith, you may speak now.”

The guards took their hands gratefully off Seth’s mouth; they had been bitten several times in the process of keeping him quiet up to now. Seth resumed shouting at once.

“I’m no part of this group! I’m the victim of gossip, envious neighbors, smiths jealous of my skill and my custom! No man can say worse of me than that I sold needles to this pursemaker--sold them in good faith! The charges against me are lies, all lies!”

Honath jumped to his feet in fury, and then sat down again, choking back the answering shout almost without tasting its bitterness. What did it matter? Why should he bear witness against the young man? It would not help the others, and if Seth wanted to lie his way out of Hell, he might as well be given the chance.

The Spokesman was looking down at Seth with the identical expression of outraged disbelief which he had first bent upon Honath. “Who was it cut the blasphemies into the hardwood tree, by the house of Hosi the Lawgiver?” he demanded. “Sharp needles were at work there, and there are witnesses to say that your hands held them.”

“More lies!”

“Needles found in your house fit the furrows, Seth.”

“They were not mine--or they were stolen! I demand to be freed!”

“You will be freed,” the Spokesman said coldly. There was no possible doubt as to what he meant. Seth began to weep and to shout at the same time. Hands closed over his mouth again. “Mathild the Forager, your plea may be heard.”

The young woman stood up hesitantly. Her fur was nearly dry now, but she was still shivering.

“Spokesman,” she said, “I saw the things which Charl the Reader showed me. I doubted, but what Honath said restored my belief. I see no harm in his teachings. They remove doubt, instead of fostering it as you say they do. I see no evil in them, and I don’t understand why this is a crime.”

Honath looked over to her with new admiration. The Spokesman sighed heavily.

“I am sorry for you,” he said, “but as Spokesman we cannot allow ignorance of the law as a plea. We will be merciful to you all, however. Renounce your heresy, affirm your belief in the Book as it is written from bark to bark, and you shall be no more than cast out of the tribe.”

“I renounce it!” Seth cried. “I never shared it! It’s all blasphemy and every word is a lie! I believe in the Book, all of it!”

“You, needlesmith,” the Spokesman said, “have lied before this Judgment, and are probably lying now. You are not included in the dispensation.”

“Snake-spotted caterpillar! May your--ummulph.”

“Pursemaker, what is your answer?”

“It is No,” Honath said stonily. “I’ve spoken the truth. The truth can’t be unsaid.”

The Spokesman looked down at the rest of them. “As for you three, consider your answers carefully. To share the heresy means sharing the sentence. The penalty will not be lightened only because you did not invent the heresy.”

There was a long silence.

Honath swallowed hard. The courage and the faith in that silence made him feel smaller and more helpless than ever. He realized suddenly that the other three would have kept that silence, even without Seth’s defection to stiffen their spines. He wondered if he could have done so.

“Then we pronounce the sentence,” the Spokesman said. “You are one and all condemned to one thousand days in Hell.”

There was a concerted gasp from around the edges of the arena, where, without Honath’s having noticed it before, a silent crowd had gathered. He did not wonder at the sound. The sentence was the longest in the history of the tribe.

Not that it really meant anything. No one had ever come back from as little as one hundred days in Hell. No one had ever come back from Hell at all.

“Unlash the Elevator. All shall go together.”

The basket swayed. The last of the attic world that Honath saw was a circle of faces, not too close to the gap in the vine web, peering down after them. Then the basket fell another few yards to the next turn of the windlass and the faces vanished.

Seth was weeping in the bottom of the Elevator, curled up into a tight ball, the end of his tail wrapped around his nose and eyes. No one else could make a sound, least of Honath.

The gloom closed around them. It seemed extraordinarily still. The occasional harsh screams of a lizard-bird somehow distended the silence without breaking it. The light that filtered down into the long aisles between the trees seemed to be absorbed in a blue-green haze through which the lianas wove their long curved lines. The columns of tree-trunks, the pillars of the world, stood all around them, too distant in the dim light to allow them to gauge their speed of descent. Only the irregular plunges of the basket proved that it was even in motion any longer, though it swayed laterally in a complex, overlapping series of figure-eights.

Then the basket lurched downward once more, brought up short, and tipped sidewise, tumbling them all against the hard cane. Mathild cried out in a thin voice, and Seth uncurled almost instantly, clawing for a handhold. Another lurch, and the Elevator lay down on its side and was still.

They were in Hell.

Cautiously, Honath began to climb out, picking his way over the long thorns on the basket’s rim. After a moment, Charl the Reader followed, and then Alaskon took Mathild firmly by the hand and led her out onto the surface. The footing was wet and spongy, yet not at all resilient, and it felt cold; Honath’s toes curled involuntarily.

“Come on, Seth,” Charl said in a hushed voice. “They won’t haul it back up until we’re all out. You know that.”

Alaskon looked around into the chilly mists. “Yes,” he said. “And we’ll need a needlesmith down here. With good tools, there’s just a chance--”

Seth’s eyes had been darting back and forth from one to the other. With a sudden chattering scream, he bounded out of the bottom of the basket, soaring over their heads in a long, flat leap and struck the high knee at the base of the nearest tree, an immense fan palm. As he hit, his legs doubled under him, and almost in the same motion he seemed to rocket straight up into the murky air.

Gaping, Honath looked up after him. The young needlesmith had timed his course to the split second. He was already darting up the rope from which the Elevator was suspended. He did not even bother to look back.

After a moment, the basket tipped upright. The impact of Seth’s weight hitting the rope evidently had been taken by the windlass team to mean that the condemned people were all out on the surface; a twitch on the rope was the usual signal. The basket began to rise, hobbling and dancing. Its speed of ascent, added to Seth’s took his racing, dwindling figure out of sight quickly. After a while, the basket was gone, too.

“He’ll never get to the top,” Mathild whispered. “It’s too far, and he’s going too fast. He’ll lose strength and fall.”

“I don’t think so,” Alaskon said heavily. “He’s agile and strong. If anyone could make it, he could.”

“They’ll kill him if he does.”

“Of course they will,” Alaskon said, shrugging.

“I won’t miss him,” Honath said.

“No more will I. But we could use some sharp needles down here, Honath. Now we’ll have to plan to make our own--if we can identify the different woods, down here where there aren’t any leaves to help us tell them apart.”

Honath looked at the navigator curiously. Seth’s bolt for the sky had distracted him from the realization that the basket, too, was gone, but now that desolate fact hit home. “You actually plan to stay alive in Hell, don’t you, Alaskon?”

“Certainly,” Alaskon said calmly. “This is no more Hell than--up there--is Heaven. It’s the surface of the planet, no more, no less. We can stay alive if we don’t panic. Were you just going to sit here until the furies came for you, Honath?”

“I hadn’t thought much about it,” Honath confessed. “But if there is any chance that Seth will lose his grip on that rope--before he reaches the top and they stab him--shouldn’t we wait and see if we can catch him? He can’t weigh more than 35 pounds. Maybe we could contrive some sort of a net--”

“He’d just break our bones along with his,” Charl said. “I’m for getting out of here as fast as possible.”

“What for? Do you know a better place?”

“No, but whether this is Hell or not, there are demons down here. We’ve all seen them from up above. They must know that the Elevator always lands here and empties out free food. This must be a feeding-ground for them--”

He had not quite finished speaking when the branches began to sigh and toss, far above. A gust of stinging droplets poured along the blue air and thunder rumbled. Mathild whimpered.

“It’s only a squall coming up,” Honath said. But the words came out in a series of short croaks. As the wind had moved through the trees, Honath had automatically flexed his knees and put his arms out for handholds, awaiting the long wave of response to pass through the ground beneath him. But nothing happened. The surface under his feet remained stolidly where it was, flexing not a fraction of an inch in any direction. And there was nothing nearby for his hands to grasp.

He staggered, trying to compensate for the failure of the ground to move. At the same moment another gust of wind blew through the aisles, a little stronger than the first, and calling insistently for a new adjustment of his body to the waves which would be passing among the treetops. Again the squashy surface beneath him refused to respond. The familiar give-and-take of the vine-web to the winds, a part of his world as accustomed as the winds themselves, was gone.

Honath was forced to sit down, feeling distinctly ill. The damp, cool earth under his furless buttocks was unpleasant, but he could not have remained standing any longer without losing his meagre prisoner’s breakfast. One grappling hand caught hold of the ridged, gritting stems of a clump of horsetail, but the contact failed to allay the uneasiness.

The others seemed to be bearing it no better than Honath. Mathild in particular was rocking dizzily, her lips compressed, her hands clasped to her delicate ears.

Dizziness. It was unheard of up above, except among those who had suffered grave head injuries or were otherwise very ill. But on the motionless ground of Hell, it was evidently going to be with them constantly.

Charl squatted, swallowing convulsively. “I--I can’t stand,” he moaned.

“Nonsense!” Alaskon said, though he had remained standing only by clinging to the huge, mud-colored bulb of a cycadella. “It’s just a disturbance of our sense of balance. We’ll get used to it.”

“We’d better,” Honath said, relinquishing his grip on the horsetails by a sheer act of will. “I think Charl’s right about this being a feeding-ground, Alaskon. I hear something moving around in the ferns. And if this rain lasts long, the water will rise here, too. I’ve seen silver flashes from down here many a time after heavy rains.”

“That’s right,” Mathild said, her voice subdued. “The base of the fan-palm grove always floods. That’s why the treetops are lower there.”

The wind seemed to have let up a little, though the rain was still falling. Alaskon stood up tentatively and looked around.

“Then let’s move on,” he said. “If we try to keep under cover until we get to higher ground--”

A faint crackling sound, high above his head, interrupted him. It got louder. Feeling a sudden spasm of pure fear, Honath looked up.

Nothing could be seen for an instant but the far-away curtain of branches and fern fronds. Then, with shocking suddenness, something plummeted through the blue-green roof and came tumbling toward them. It was a man, twisting and tumbling through the air with grotesque slowness, like a child turning in its sleep. They scattered.

The body hit the ground with a sodden thump, but there were sharp overtones to the sound, like the bursting of a gourd. For a moment nobody moved. Then Honath crept forward.

It had been Seth, as Honath had realized the moment the figurine had burst through the branches far above. But it had not been the fall that had killed him. He had been run through by at least a dozen needles--some of them, beyond doubt, tools from his own shop, their points edged hair-fine by his own precious strops of leatherwood-bark.

There would be no reprieve from above. The sentence was one thousand days. This burst and broken huddle of fur was the only alternative.

And the first day had barely begun.

They toiled all the rest of the day to reach higher ground. As they stole cautiously closer to the foothills of the Great Range and the ground became firmer, they were able to take to the air for short stretches, but they were no sooner aloft among the willows than the lizard-birds came squalling down on them by the dozens, fighting among each other for the privilege of nipping these plump and incredibly slow-moving monkeys.

No man, no matter how confirmed a free-thinker, could have stood up under such an onslaught by the creatures he had been taught as a child to think of as his ancestors. The first time it happened, every member of the party dropped like a pine-cone to the sandy ground and lay paralyzed under the nearest cover, until the brindle-feathered, fan-tailed screamers tired of flying in such tight circles and headed for clearer air. Even after the lizard-birds had given up, they crouched quietly for a long time, waiting to see what greater demons might have been attracted by the commotion.

Luckily, on the higher ground there was much more cover from low-growing shrubs and trees--palmetto, sassafras, several kinds of laurel, magnolia, and a great many sedges. Up here, too, the endless jungle began to break around the bases of the great pink cliffs. Overhead were welcome vistas of open sky, sketchily crossed by woven bridges leading from the vine-world to the cliffs themselves. In the intervening columns of blue air a whole hierarchy of flying creatures ranked themselves, layer by layer. First, the low-flying beetles, bees and two-winged insects. Next were the dragonflies which hunted them, some with wingspreads as wide as two feet. Then the lizard-birds, hunting the dragonflies and anything else that could he nipped without fighting back. And at last, far above, the great gliding reptiles coasting along the brows of the cliffs, riding the rising currents of air, their long-jawed hunger stalking anything that flew--as they sometimes stalked the birds of the attic world, and the flying fish along the breast of the distant sea.

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