Not in the beginning, but early in the history of the world, many mortals suspected that the ones who called themselves gods were shirking their duty of properly governing the world. Some responded by entreating the gods. Others by railing against them.
But a few decided to try answering the question of what it was that the gods spent their time doing if they were not doing what was expected.
It was known that the gods lived far above the earth and somewhere below the stars. Their abode was not visible to mortal eyes, but if human sight could be extended, perhaps human eyes could see the comings and goings of the gods, and follow their course to where they landed in the mortal earthly realm.
These curious few gathered artisans, builders, scholars, and makers to devise and craft a great spyglass, the largest ever made. They were mocked by some, who claimed that humanity had no such powers of sight and could not just build them. They were denounced by some, who warned that it was blasphemous to try and see the gods when they did not want to be seen. And even those who marveled at the construction of the great spyglass were struck with horror at the prospect of seeing into the realm of the gods.
“Even if we can, we should not,” they said.
Through trial and error, through cuts and bruises, through doubt and resolve, this remarkable union of the curious and the skilled built their great spyglass. Their spyglass was strong enough to see above the canopies of the tallest forests, pierce through high-floating clouds, past thin empty sky, farther and farther into the rarefied stratum of being, where floated the glimmering and shimmering island on which the gods made their abode.
Those who gazed through the spyglass marveled at the beauty of the island, and gasped when they saw the iridescent gates that marked the entry into the city of the gods. The spyglass moved past the gates some distance, but not all, into the city. And there was a sight both expected and unexpected.
As expected, the gazer through the glass witnessed the gods. As unexpected, the gazer witnessed those gods doing little of import, displaying their finery to each other, sending down illusions of themselves to answer prayers, lying in stupors after drinking carafes of what could only be divine wine.
Day after day, the union of the spyglass watched, a turn being given to each and any who had a hand in the devising and building of the spyglass. Rarely did they witness any god descending to the mortal earthly realm. While it was said that a number of gods never descended, residing only in their own abode, to guard it, and to govern the mortal realm through go-betweens, most of the gods were expected to descend when it was their time and season to do so. Their powers were needed when poets asked for inspiration, when sovereigns asked for guidance, when farmers asked for rain, when the hungry asked for food, and the dying asked for peace in their passage to the afterlife. The gods governed the weather, the churning of the oceans, the movement of the moon, the growing of every blade of grass, the songs of the birds, and the birth of clouds. Without their guidance, the world would tip out of balance, and once that happened, disasters would tear the world apart, and those who lived within it would perish. So it was once believed.
But none of the gazers were truly surprised at what they witnessed. For they knew that if the gods had been watching the mortal realm, then surely one of them would have descended to stop the making of the great spyglass.
Some were confused, some angered by the gods’ seeming apathy, their ignoring of mortal earthly woes they could easily ease and were in fact tasked to ease. Some were confused, and some angered. But some were provoked to ask another question. No god had stopped them from building the great spyglass. So why not build a ladder? One that could reach the island of the gods. If the humans could climb up to the island and face the gods in their own realm, not just to entreat them, but show them that their human charges were worthy of being properly governed, perhaps then the gods would listen. For it was clear that the gods were not listening to any appeals spoken from the earthly realm.
And so, the union of the spyglass made a new plan. The devising and building of a great ladder.
But as it so happened, one of the gods was watching them after all. Cloaked in hazy gray robes, his form often slipped past the mortal eye. He had caught sight of the union after they started construction on the spyglass. What the gazers of the glass had only discovered about the gods, the god in the gray robes had known for many an eon. His fellow gods were idle, for the world they were set to govern had learned to mostly govern itself. And the gods did not wish to be troubled with the trifles of mortal existence. The god of the gray robes had watched and let the union build their spyglass, out of a spiteful desire to demonstrate to the other gods that they could not and should not ignore the doings of humans.
So the god of the gray robes watched and let the union build their ladder too, until it was of a sufficient size to worry the fragile and fleeting attention of his fellow gods.
When the other gods had gasped and spilled their wine and clutched at the jewels around their throats, as if the mortals were already at the gates, the god of the gray robes was satisfied.
The god of the gray robes descended to the mortal realm, for he did so often and was unafraid of the fall, unlike many of the other gods. He summoned a great fog to disperse the ladder-builders, and with the strength that all the gods possessed, he knocked down the ladder.
The union had not seen the god of the gray robes descend. They had only seen a gathering of gray clouds around and below the abode of the gods. They did not know that a god had knocked down their ladder, though a few did worry and cast their naked gazes upon the skies above.
The union was undeterred. They rebuilt the ladder, but again, the god of the gray robes descended in a gray fog, and knocked down the ladder. Now, there was no doubt among the ladder-builders. They knew that the gods were watching and that they disapproved. Yet the union tried again, this time in secret. And they watched the skies for the signs of a god descending, for the gathering of gray clouds. But they did not know that the god of the gray robes had remained upon the earthly realm. He sent wisps of fog through the realm, searching, searching, and he found the hidden place where the third ladder was being built. He knocked it down again.
Thrice thwarted, the union of the spyglass gathered to deliberate where there was no sign of fog.
Again the union cast their gaze into the sky, spying on the gods, searching for some way to let the gods know that they meant no dishonor in the building of their ladder. Perhaps there was a sympathetic god who could intervene on their behalf with the god who had destroyed their ladder. They had added another lens to the spyglass and could see farther into the gates of the city.
That was how they again saw something they did not expect to see. There were entire buildings in the city made of glittering gold, and tapestries made of silk drifting in fanciful breezes, and marble columns encrusted with precious stones and gems of every hue. The gazers recognized the very treasures that their people had lost through war and strife. How the treasures came to lie in the abode of the gods was curious to some.
But to others the true image of the gods was coming into clear focus as they gazed through the spyglass.
And the image was not a pretty one.
More of the gods, it seemed, were also watching the union of humans. The gods too had witnessed an unexpected sight. For the mortal beings with fleeting lives were more ingenious and determined and capable than they had expected. The mortals would not succeed, of course, in reaching the haven of the gods. Nevertheless, the gods were now sufficiently motivated to watch the humans, and ensure they did not make any trouble for the gods.
But so too were many gods intrigued by the condition of being watched. To the dismay of the god in the gray robes, his fellows began to mount great displays, flaunting their powers, dancing about in their finest attire, glowing with eternal youth and health. And unwittingly showing the humans of the mortal earthly realm, all that they possessed.
The humans saw much to envy and much to fear. But they also noticed something they had not known before. There were limits to the powers of the gods. Their displays only lasted for a certain while and they would stop to replenish themselves with the plentiful food from feasting tables arrayed throughout the city. These tables were always full of food, the offerings given to the gods at their earthbound temples.
The god of the gray robes wanted to destroy the spyglass, but the other gods forbade him from doing so. Too many of them enjoyed being watched. And they would not heed his warning that the reach of the mortal eye would grow farther if they did not stop the humans. And that reach would pry into places that the gods did not want anyone watching.
None of the gods could have imagined that the humans would ever turn their gaze elsewhere. But there came a day when the mortals of the earth wondered if there were any beings in the world to whom they could turn to help them reach the gods.
“The stars. The stars hang higher than the gods,” said a leader of the union.
“But the stars do not speak to us.”
“Even the gods cannot reach the stars. How can we ever reach them?”
“To find a path between us and them, we can start by looking at them.”
The great spyglass, which had for so long been set to gaze at the gods, began to shift direction. The union moved it so they might see far past the abode of the gods to the realm of the mysterious stars.
Only fragments of legends remained about the stars, whose dazzling radiance might be obscuring vast beings abiding in their centers. Ancient beings whose powers subsumed and surpassed that of the gods.
The union was uncertain if their spyglass could see far enough to reach the realm of the stars.
But their movement of the spyglass troubled the gods. Not because the humans sought to see the stars, for the gods could not fathom that any mortal would be capable of such a feat, a feat that no god could perform. The gods were troubled because the humans were no longer watching them. They were troubled because the humans dared to…reject them.
And so, they gave their leave to the god of the gray robes, who did not wait for them to change their minds before he descended to the mortal earthly realm.
The union did not see him coming until it was too late, for the spyglass was already pointed away from the abode of the gods. They were already looking through it to gauge the position according to their calculations.
Then the fog obscured all.
The mortals fled, for they could do no more than to flee before the power of a god. Flee and then return to rebuild whatever he broke.
The spyglass was no more.
The god of the gray robes had destroyed it and destroyed it utterly, smashing every lens, warping every strut, crushing every bolt, scorching and melting every panel.
The other gods had only wanted him to teach the humans a lesson. They had hoped that the humans would rebuild the spyglass and direct it only to the abode of the gods, and never look elsewhere again.
But it was too late.
It was too late indeed.
For before the god of the gray robes shattered the spyglass, the observer who was looking through it glimpsed something in the sky.
Not a star.
But another floating realm.
This other floating realm sat below the realm of the gods but not so far below. It had to be the abode of the giants.
Once in an age long past, many giants had lived among and been friendly with humans. Likewise, many humans lived among and were friendly with the giants. No human who still lived had ever visited the floating abode of the giants, but had only stories from long-gone ancestors. And the giants, who were master map-makers, had destroyed or obscured all maps in the human realm that revealed the giants’ realm.
Any ties between the two peoples had been broken long ago. Perhaps, the union thought, it was time to mend them. Or to make new ones.
For the realm of the giants was close enough to the abode of the gods that if the humans could reach the giant realm, they could build a bridge instead of a ladder. Likely there were already bridges spanning the distance between the realm of the giants and the realm of the gods.
Without the spyglass, the union could not see if the giants still lived. The giants had depended on the humans to provide much of their food. It may have been that the giants had all died out.
But without a spyglass and without a ladder, reaching the giants was the best plan that the union had.
Only one kind of dove could fly high enough to carry a message to the realm of the giants. The union sought, found, and recruited those who could train these doves, whose feathers were the very color of the sky into which they would rise, carrying the hope of the humans.
“If only we could fly,” one of the leaders of the union said, “all the way to the abode of the gods.”
“Indeed,” said another, “why do they try to stop us? What do they have to fear from us, I wonder?”
Without the spyglass, the union had to approximate the location of the floating island of the giants. Though they worked in secret, having learned how to hide from the casual glances of the gods, the union still feared that the gods were watching them, ready to thwart their plans by knocking the doves out of the sky. So they were patient, not sending too many doves at a time, hoping that at least one of them made it to the giants’ realm.
After a long while, one of the sky-feathered doves descended to the mortal earthly realm. She was sparking with health, lively and jolly. And she carried a message. The union opened it, fearing for a moment that it was their own message returned to them. But it was not.
The message came from the giants. It was a simple one. The giants would send an envoy according to the cautions outlined in the union’s message. They would do their best to avoid the gaze of the gods.
The envoy was led by one young giant who was excited to visit the mortal earthly realm, and surprised by how beautiful it was. She had been told (through godly rumor) that the realm of the humans was full of muck and vermin. The giant envoy and the human union gave much insult to each other in their ignorance. But they soon came to show each other kindness and humility.
Once, the giants had used their favored positions with the gods to summon lightning and storm and terror upon the humans below. For the giants were great engineers and had promised to build great machines for the humans. But they were betrayed when the humans stole their most precious designs and drafts for themselves, designs for machines that humans did not even have the skill to build. It was the gods who had revealed this treachery to the giants.
But the giants too had come to question the gods. The giants too had witnessed the gods’ neglect of the duties and obligations they had inherited from their ancestors. The giants’ numbers were indeed diminished because of their loss of trade with the earthly realm below.
After long negotiation, the giants agreed to allow humans to rise to their realm. The humans sent up great supplies of grain and vegetables. In return, the giants showed the humans the secrets of the levitating rocks that held up their realm and the realm of the gods. For it was the giants who had devised these rocks and built their own abode and the abode of the gods, in an age long past, when the gods asked for a home above the realms they ruled. The giants had thought it a noble request at the time.
The union of the now-lost spyglass discovered that there were no bridges, and had never been any, between the realm of the giants and the realm of the gods. They would have to build one. They still planned to speak with the gods, but more and more, they also planned for some to sneak past the iridescent gates and survey the city. It was blasphemy. The union revealed to the giants their intent. And were surprised when the giants only warned them not to get caught. The union assured the giants that if any of them were caught, they would make the gods believe that they had betrayed the giants’ hospitality. But the giants again surprised them. They would stand beside the union and tell the gods the truth, come what may.
They began to build the bridge, the giants working in the open, moving smaller floating rocks into position between their realm and the realm of the gods. The humans worked in secret in case the gods gazed their way.
“Why does their city have gates, if only the gods can reach it?” one of the giants asked one day.
But the union did not know. They had thought the giants might know. For it was the giants who had built those gates.
The gods were indeed watching. They were watching the humans of the mortal earthly realm, for they had begun to build another ladder. This ladder was a distraction. But it was only so for a short while. The gods soon noticed what the giants were doing. The giants claimed that they were building a monument, a gift for the gods, meant to symbolize the close bond between their two realms. The ropes connecting the rocks were too delicate for a giant to walk upon. They did appear to be only connecting and anchoring the floating rocks.
Most of the gods were delighted by the ingratiating gift. Most…but not all. The god of the gray robes, who once watched the spyglass, and the ladders, now watched the bridge.
And because he was truly watching, expending his powers to see beyond mortal sight, he perceived the hidden humans working on the bridges. As he had destroyed the ladder, as he had destroyed the spyglass, he sought to destroy the bridges. He warned the other gods, some of whom heeded and some of whom did not.
The gods had to be careful. They needed the loyalty of the giants, for the giants maintained the abode of the gods and many of the devices and edifices within that the gods enjoyed. They could not disturb the work of the giants. But they agreed that they could not allow the building of the bridges.
So they planned to sow discord between the two mortal peoples. The god of the gray robes visited the realm of the giants, warning their leaders that the gods knew of the true intent behind the “gift” that the giants were building. He warned them that the humans could not be trusted, that their intent was to rob the gods, and if they succeeded, they would next cast their thieving gaze at the giants. For so greedy and covetous were the humans, they would not stop until all in the world was theirs. Thus they warned the giants, some of whom heeded, and some of whom did not.
The precarious alliance between giants and humans was maintained by those who believed in its strength and necessity.
The alliance held, but the bridge did not.
Dismayed but not completely deterred, the leaders of the spyglass union met in secret, and deliberated. Thus far, only the god of the gray robes had acted against them. But some feared that any further actions would anger all the gods, and endanger not only themselves but the rest of the humans in the earthly realm. They argued over plans that they might be able to achieve, and even those they could never dream of realizing.
Even if they could fly straight up to the realm of the gods, the gods would only strike them down with storm and lightning. And even if the union had storms and lightning to counter the gods, even if their flight was propelled with great power and strength, the gods would push back with more power and strength. The gods would always have more power and strength. As they always had.
“Then perhaps we should study that power,” someone said. “Perhaps in doing so, we can learn how to copy it, or dare I say, improve upon it.”
“Then we could do properly what they do poorly, out of their indolence. We could wield it.”
And so the union of the spyglass began to build another spyglass, all the while fearing that the gods would descend and destroy it. But they did not.
Most of the gods were happy to have the humans planted in the earthly realm, and even happier that they would once again be watched. So long as there were no ladders, bridges, alliances with giants, what harm would their mere spying do? The gods began to prepare displays: arcs of lightning, shards of diamond as tall as a grown human man, rubies the size of a baby giant, layers of robes as wispy as mist, massive orbs of molten flame. The gods wanted the humans to gaze in wonder and cower in fear at such displays.
They would watch closely and quash any human effort to reach their heights.
But an alliance did abide in secret between the union of the spyglass and a sister union formed among the giants. The giants taught the humans their knowledge of engineering and building. The humans taught the giants how to grow food in the thin air and rigid soil of their realm. As the humans learned, they also added to the knowledge of the giants. They shared their observations through the spyglass, and they even built an eyepiece through which the giants themselves could gaze at the realm of the gods. Only a few giants ever saw the realm, those who visited only to maintain the edifices and the devices that the gods used. As the giants learned, they too added to the knowledge of the humans. They gave the gift of strange seeds from enchanting plants that grew well in their realm and thrived in the earthly soil.
All the while, the union tried to encourage their people not to make offerings to the gods. For if the gods starved, they would be at the mercy of the mortal people whom they ruled. They might wield their great powers at first, but those powers would wane in time.
But the people, out of fear, and truly out of wisdom as well, continued to make offerings. For even those who believed the union knew that they and those they cherished might perish at the hands of an angry god, before that god’s great powers came to an end.
The god of the gray robes warned his fellows about the union. He warned them to watch the giants as well, for one alliance at least still abided between the humans and the giants. And that one might serve as a model for more to come. Some of the gods heeded, and helped their gray-robed fellow to watch, some did not. But even those who watched could not watch every human at every moment.
They tried still to sow discord, not between giants and humans this time, but between the union and their fellow humans. The god of the gray robes would whisper in the ears of those who walked home in the early morning fog, of how the union did nothing but anger the gods, the great gods who governed and cared for the world and the mortal creatures living within it.
The gods who remained in their realm could not use their powers against the humans, for the mortal realm was too far away. But those who descended, used their powers to strike down a few, to sow fear as well as discord.
Knowing that their greatest power over the humans of the mortal earthly realm was in the offerings that they received, the gods demanded richer and richer offerings in exchange for the calming of their tempers, and forgiveness for those who were merely caught in the middle of the quarrel between the union and the gods.
And many people grew angry with the union of the spyglass.
So it came to be that the spyglass was destroyed again.
But this time, it was not the gods who did so. And it was not the giants who were once the enemies of the humans.
This time it was the humans themselves who destroyed the spyglass. And who warned any who dared to join the union that they too would suffer.
The leaders of the spyglass union gathered to announce that they would disband. To great celebration came this announcement.
But the leaders left with one message for their people.
“What need do the gods have to strike us down when we strike each other down for them?”
And so the union of the spyglass was no more.
But as they had hoped, there were those present at that monumental moment who heard their question and pondered upon it.
There would always be those gods who watched, ready to knock down all ladders, ready to collapse all bridges, ready to shatter all vision.
But so too, would there always be those humans and those giants who watched.
And who carried on the work of the union, even though they did not bear the union’s name.
For they learned that the gods had buried much knowledge, of giant engineers who had built a magnificent floating realm with their own genius and their own hands, and who had resided there until the gods took it from them, of human heroes who had once breached that same realm of the gods, provoking the gods to build the gates. Or rather, to have the giants build the gates.
The giants and the humans shared what they learned, and they shared what they had.
When the gods realized there was only a matter of time before their abode was breached and their power seized or dissipated, they fought with all those powers, striking down many. But more always rose. The gods tried to convince the giants that knowledge was an evil. They tried again to sow discord. And there was discord, but right alongside it there was harmony.
So the day did indeed come when the humans and giants built a craft that was able to fly all the way up to the realm of the gods.
And so the giants and the humans boarded their craft and sailed up to the abode of the gods. They watched through the array of spyglasses mounted around their craft, a craft built from levitating rocks, and clever alloys that resisted lightning, and woods that resisted rot, and sails that resisted fire. They watched for gray fogs and for storm and lightning and flame. They prepared for a battle. They prepared to die and plummet to the earthly realm.
But no storm or lightning or flame met them as they sailed up and landed before the iridescent gates. When they breached those gates, they met no resistance from gods. But they did meet danger. Raw energies arced and burst all about them, unwielded and unanchored.
Riches were tossed about like debris. Rich food and drink, eternally fresh, fruits eternally ripe, lay unconsumed on feasting tables, or on the ground, besides tables upturned.
The abode seemed empty, abandoned perhaps by gods who decided to flee rather than to face their enemies, those whom they had kept under foot for ages.
The humans and the giants went about the work of securing and anchoring the raw powers that seemed to have escaped their masters. Still alert, they slowly and cautiously moved through the city, searching and surveying.
Deep within the city, where no spyglass’s sight had ever reached, the giants and humans found a chamber, vast and unlocked. In it were great stores of raw materials, metals, floating stones, liquids charged with various energies. And a vast scroll upon which was drawn a complex design, drafted by giant hands.
“What is it?” the human captain asked, as he gazed at the design, his sight unable to reach the far end of the scroll.
The giant engineer who had unrolled the scroll marveled. “A vessel,” she said, “meant to reach the stars.”
There were false calculations jotted in the margins by smaller hands. Godly script, it seemed.
The contents of that chamber were much of the offerings that the gods had demanded.
The second-in-command shook her head. “If only they had left us alone. They would have had nothing to fear from us, if they did not take from us, and from our labors.”
“But they did fear,” the giant said. “That we would do as they did. Take from them and keep taking.”
“They had everything they could want and beyond,” the captain said. He turned to his friends and allies. “How can you have everything and still want more?”
“Let us take it as a warning, friends,” his second said. “When we come to possess the powers that they have left behind, let us not be as the gods were.”
“But where are they? Could they have succeeded in building a vessel and escaping?”
The giant engineer shook her head. “Not if their understanding of flight is reflected in this scroll.”
They further searched the chamber. And they found the ones who had once called themselves gods.
In one corner of the vast chamber lay dozens of husks, most covered in lavish trinkets. One of them had a sword through the chest, the blade slicing through many layers of gray robes. The rest seemed to lay in repose. There were oddly constructed objects nearby. Three planks of wood fastened with nails that were too long. Plates of metal welded in awkward positions. They had tried to build the vessel in the giants’ design, the very design that long, long ago had caused the giants to believe that the humans were thieves, and they should go to war. The gods had tried to build the vessel, but they had failed. For they had never once built anything themselves.
Those humans and giants who had inherited the work of a long-abandoned but never-forgotten union gathered in that corner of the vast chamber, and gazed down upon the husks.
But their gazes did not linger long, for also within that chamber lay a great work yet to be done. The gods could not do it.
But the giants and the humans together…they might do it. They might build a vessel to reach the stars.
Together, they might do a great many things worthy of doing.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel