Narkvosu just wanted to survive. At least long enough to complete his quest. He cared little about the tunnel war raging beneath his sub-level. He cared less about his home city. Alone, he explored the last obstacle to his journey, an ancient cavern carved out long ago. Concrete and steel now dust. Bedrock exposed. Nothing remained, the creek running through, the moister and gangumoss making short work of what was once probably a vast habitation. If one could not define any of the telltale signatures of a past civilisation, the sub-level appeared just like a long natural cave.
A hundred thousand years.
That’s the theory.
When humanity migrated underground.
A hundred thousand theories as to why they did.
A hundred thousand theories as to what the surface is like.
Narkvosu just needed to prove just one. That a way out to the surface existed. That the mythical surface was real. That the Apollogon fables were true. Many like him had attempted this, most now embedded in legend.
The supra-government persecuted all that tried or peddled in the outer-surface sciences. This conflict with the Echelon Renegada offered Narkvosu a chance to get closer to the upper sublevels. Strategically the tunnel networks above the city levels proved to be vulnerabilities for the ruling class for generations. Conquest, piracy, and restrictions made these tunnels impossible to traverse.
Beyond them dwell the plethora of outcast machine men and modified humans.
Two years he travelled upward.
Two years of fighting, surviving and hiding.
Two years of working in mines, of digging, of exploring.
He survived so far, and he would be damned if he came so close to breaching the surface and die in the cold, dark wilderness.
Of the myriad of theories, he held on to one, its importance to his expedition crucial.
This sun, if indeed it existed, should be warming the lithosphere by now. Science knew and proved that the radiation pumping up from the Earth’s core provided warm for all life to exist. But the higher he journeyed, the colder it felt. He knew some regions had sublevels ending in rock and ice. The Echelons were a place where no ice had ever been known to exist. Water ran down. Wildlife thrived. No ice. Narkvosu gambled everything.
This was the place. The sublevels went up and up. Cavities, pockets, shafts, all interconnected with tunnels, all man-made.
Somewhere up there he knew was the surface.
Narkvosu also knew the trek upwards would get harder, relishing his perseverance for carrying his climbing equipment for two years. He lost colleagues, friends, his sanity, his innocence, but the climbing gear, invented and handmade by that miner he befriended, would survive.
He rested among the mushmush for a day, letting their acrid stench protect him from predators.
Narkvosu began his ascent well rested and in earnest. He could sleep a year but he felt he was close. The sublevel was unusually spacious. He figured it might have once been a public space rather than residential. The bedrock appeared smooth and straight, lacking the twisting contours evident in other, much lower places.
There was no pressure pushing down here, he thought, remembering the lectures of famous Geotheologist, Tarieven Acadamus.
Once at the top, he peered into a square cave, untouched by the elements. Inside, a shaft, soared upward which after a brief climb brought him up to another sublevel. As he peered out into the darkness, he lost some of his enthusiasm. He needed to decide whether to push on with the supplies he had left, or go back and try again with the terrain knowledge he now knew. A risk either way. The tunnel battle destroyed many of the communities he sheltered in, and now that he was officially a deserter, an instant death penalty awaited him. To press on, there was no going back. He would die, or his hope that the one theory in thousands would prove true. That another world existed on the surface. A living world under a living sun.
If proved right, he would find sustenance, recover and head back down. Narkvosu did not consider this fantasy thinking. He survived so far. He had gone from eating people-meat supplied readily and free from the city food collective, to killing for his own people-meat. The war made it easy, but killing and eating were a major hurdle for him. Now he ate non-people-meat, grubberts, dliths, even insects. He felt confident; he could eat the exo-biology if they did exist.
And the sun, he bet he could survive that too. The old Geotheologist warned of a painful death from its exposure. Burning light, he called it. Narkvosu felt unconvinced. The cooler sublevels defying that logic.
One theory he could agree held true was that the air thinned the higher the elevation. He could barely breathe now and was forced to slow down.
He decided to press ahead.
For the first time, he noticed that this sublevel was free of any moister. The concrete walls were still intact. The further he traversed he encountered less and less wildlife. This meant that it got darker and darker as the luminescent gangumoss struggled to survive in this dry and cold environment.
Narkvosu, now excited, found a tunnel entrance and ventured inside. For the first time in a long while he trod on steps. He encountered more steps and climb further and further up.
The air grew tighter in the chest, but he persevered.
Narkvosu found a room. Inside he came across nothing but square walls and stains where artefacts once stood but had corroded away. He discovered a narrow shaft and continued up until he came to another room.
Same story, corrosion stains, thin, hardly breathable air.
But this one had something that looked like a hatch.
A glass panel.
Narkvosu gazed into the little window but could see nothing but a black void. He heard a hiss and that is when he noticed the crack forming near the edge of the glass. He watched and heard air hissing through the tiny aperture.
The pressure is vastly lower out there, he thought as the thrill of his discovery tingled along his spine. He found more rooms, similar in layout. Each with solid steel hatch doors twice his size. He now truly believed the science behind his ancestors, that they were once twice his size.
Narkvosu studied what he could see outside the small round glass panels embedded in the centre of each hatch door. He noticed tiny lights above. Thousands of them, like gangumoss growing on the ceiling, but instead of greenblue. These tiny lights glowed brilliant white.
Was this the sun? he thought, re-imagining every fable he had ever read.
He touched the glass. Cold, freezing, unbearable.
He looked at what he was convinced was the surface but all he saw was a smooth, featureless dark plain. His heart skipped a beat when he spotted the horizon in the distance, a line where the tiny lights ended and the dim surface began. If he strained his eyes he could almost see it glow.
Narkvosu had done it.
He had reached the surface.
But the thrill of it all faded quickly. His fantasy destroyed, he huddled in a corner and rested. His thoughts turned to surviving the journey back. He had accomplished what no other man had ever done, but even that triumph felt stale. How many others have reached this spot and discovered the awful truth? How many died returning or if they did return, held back the truth? Did the supra-government know this? Did the Apollogon Geotheocracy also know and suppress it to expatiate their mythology?
Narkvosu remembered the myth about the moving sun. It was why life and language had its day and night, and why gangumoss and chrokar cycle in brightness to accommodate civilisation’s sleep patterns.
The sun moved.
Day and night.
So he slept. Conserving his energy. Counting the minutes.
A mining slave once told him, an anecdote he had picked up along the way, that a cult of scientist believed that the earth was a ball and that the sun rotated ‘around’ the Earth. They had built a gravity machine to detect and prove it. This information was one of the reasons Narkvosu persisted on his quest to the surface.
He waited more than a whole day, drifting in and out of consciousness. Even in the dim light, he could see his skin losing its blue colouring. Narkvosu looked outside one last time. He looked up at the little lights, millions of them. His eyes noticed a dark patch, almost perfectly round. Whatever it was hiding in the shadows, Narkvosu knew he would never find out. Time and the thin air had turned against him.
With a disillusioned soul, he began his journey back down to the city levels, first crawling, then, as the air returned into his lungs, to normal walking. Narkvosu just wanted to survive long enough to get home, even though he knew he would pay a heavy price for his desertion. And a heavier price if he ever told anyone the results of his quest beyond the sub-levels.