Author: David Penn

On this planet in the Emerson V system, sardonically named Jacob’s Ladder by its first explorers, the dominant species looks superficially like an Earth stick insect. However, these creatures are as large as our blue whales, have ten minutely-jointed legs, each ending in an eye, and mouths which operate more like ancient vacuum cleaners than an insect’s mandibles. The ‘climbers’, as the first visiting team called them, have developed a rudimentary civilization amidst an extraordinary landscape: around the equatorial region of their world, vast plates of rock thrust miles upwards through the atmosphere, their outer edges running parallel with the line of the equator, so that the planet from space appears circled with a jagged ridge of rocky fins. On each side of this range, north and south, runs an impenetrable band of thick cloud, which produces constant lightning storms.

The climbers live on the very top of the plates, and on bridges which they have built between them – and at that only on the innermost peaks since, with good reason, they fear the storms that rage either side. They move by grasping hold of the rocky edges and hauling themselves along, or by slinging themselves under their slender bridges, which are composed of strands of the only material which the climbers have ever used for construction: their own dead bodies, held together by their saliva, which when spat out develops extremely powerful adhesive qualities. The corpses of any who have freshly died are first pulped – by specialised members of the community – into a paste, to which the saliva is added. Before this mixture hardens – which it does into a tensile chitin-like material with more than the strength of steel – it is flung out between the rock plates in a technique analogous to that of Earth spiders’ web-spinning.

The death rate among these rather graceful and even beautiful beings is pitifully high. Even with their many delicate and agile legs, it is easy for them to slip off the rock plates or bridges into the gulf below. How far that gulf descends, or what is at its bottom, none of the creatures know, because not one of them has ever been there and returned alive. Some courageous adventurers have attempted expeditions to the base of the fins, descending on woven body-paste ropes, but all expeditions so far have been lost or abandoned. No rope has been made which is long enough. Winds and storms also regularly blow individuals off their uncertain purchases. Rescue attempts are always made but are only successful if the victim has been caught on a ledge and not plunged too far into the depths.

In a terrible irony, what these creatures do not know, while it is plain to us through instrumental observation and cloaked visits, is that stretching away from either side of the central rock-plate range, beyond the cloud bands, is a world as close to paradise as any the galaxy has to offer. It is composed of warm seas, temperate land masses with wide grasslands and vast, fruitful forests, with no other intelligent species anywhere who might compete with the climbers, were they ever to venture into it. The situation on Jacob’s Ladder has haunted the minds of many an explorer and even Cosmographical Department official. But we are bound by the Galactic Non-interference Protocols, and there must be no exceptions.

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