George Nikolopoulos is a speculative fiction writer from Athens, Greece. His short stories have been published (and/or are pending) in "Gruff Variations" Anthology, Mad Scientist Journal, QuarterReads, SF Comet, Bards & Sages Quarterly, "Up and Coming – Stories by the 2016 Campbell-eligible Authors" Anthology, "Sci Phi Journal", Unsung Stories, 9 Tales from Elsewhere, "Clash of the Titles" Anthology, Szortal, Stella's Literary Bistro, Diasporic Literature Spot, as well as many magazines and anthologies in Greece and Cyprus.
His children's fantasy novelette "The Three Princesses" has been published in Cyprus and his poetry collections "Glass Boats" and "Missed Opportunities" have been published in Greece. He has been a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. He blogs at georgenikolopoulos.wordpress.com
A Rise to the Surface by George Nikolopoulos
As I often do at night, I am at the Observatory, looking at the planet surface on a silver screen. The surface is lethal and has been so for a million years.
I stare at the Blue Planet, shining in the night sky. When the atmosphere and the water of our own planet began to evaporate, our people dreamed of flying there to colonize it. Strange ships were built, capable of traveling through the void between worlds.
The mission failed. Our planet died. We retreated underground, where there was still water to be found. We built cities to live in, until we could find a way to reverse the destruction so we could walk on the surface again. My ancestors built their city in a deep cavern under a hill; we are still living down there.
As dawn breaks, I see a strange creature rolling over the plains; though I have never seen anything like it, I believe I know what it is. As it approaches, it seems gigantic. I am not sure what I expected an alien to look like, but I certainly did not expect it to look like this.
It is coming close to the hillside above me. Its belly opens. Several much smaller creatures emerge, though they are still larger than our own people. What is going on? Are the small ones its children? Is it giving birth on the planet surface?
After watching the creatures for a while, it finally dawns on me. The large one is just a machine that moves. I know we used to have machines like this, in the old days. The aliens are the small ones who came out of the machine's belly.
They are all white, with big round heads and shiny black faces. I can discern no eyes, ears or nose-slits; I wonder how they can see and communicate. Their bodies are large and bloated. They have two arms only, and two legs.
I am over-excited. I feel my upper body expanding, then contracting. I have to share the knowledge. I know there used to be a machine for communicating over long distances, but no one has needed to use it for thousands of years and it is long dead now.
I continue watching the aliens for several hours. They walk around clumsily, gathering dirt and pebbles and putting them in little boxes. As night falls, they get back into their machine and leave.
I walk back to the City-Under-The-Hill. A grey city with grey houses, grey people walking the grey streets. I feel the ocean breeze on my skin as I walk along the shore. I wonder what it would be like, sailing the ocean; they say there is another city on the far side. But no one can cross the ocean, no more than one can walk the planet's surface; strange beings roam its dark waters.
I do not pass by my house; instead I walk to the house of my instructor, Runner. He was named so because in his youth he was once so excited that he ran, like people used to do in the old days. I would have loved to see him run, but it was centuries before I was born. Runner is an old man now; no more running for him.
I knock at his door and wait. After a while he opens it. He greets me with a smile, showing his multitude of teeth. I tried to count them, once, when I was younger and he had dozed off with his mouth open, but unfortunately he woke before I had managed to count them all. They say he is a thousand years old -- I do not believe it, but he must be close -- so I guess there must be nearly a hundred teeth in that mouth.
"What brings you to my doorstep, Stargazer?" he says, after a long pause. He motions me inside, indicating that I can sit down and get refreshed before I reply. I am still so excited about the news I bring that I almost spill it out right there at the doorstep, but of course I am not that rude.
I am Stargazer; I chose that name myself on my hundredth birthday, at my coming-of-age ceremony. I have always wanted to go outside and see the stars. I know it is impossible but I still dream about it, sometimes. That is why I am so often at the Observatory. It is the only place where I can look at the surface; a relic of the old days, when our people still thought it would be possible to return up there someday. I am the only one who goes to the Observatory now; Runner was the one who showed it to me, but he is too old now to walk that far.
I enter the house and sit on the sofa. He goes to the kitchen; after a long while he comes back, bringing me a cup of boiled water with herbs. One cup leads to another as we engage in idle conversation, and before I know it several hours have passed and I have not spoken about my great discovery yet.
In the end, he politely raises an eyebrow; I finally get to tell him about what I saw at the Observatory. His eyes widen as I speak, showing his amazement; he does not say anything until I finish speaking, however.
"I would give everything to meet the people from the Blue Planet," I say in the end.
He is puzzled. "Why do you say that?" he says. "How do you know the strangers hail from there?"
"I just know."
He sighs. "I thought I taught you better than that," he says. "This is not an argument."
I shrug. "The old ones believed that the Blue Planet can sustain life," I say. "You taught me so yourself. That is why we coveted it, when our own planet started to die. Where else could they be from?"
It is not only that. The Blue Planet has been haunting my dreams; I know deep in my bones it is the place where the strangers come from. But I am not going to tell him about my dreams and my hunches; and my reasoning seems to satisfy him.
"You should wear a suit," he says.
A suit? We wear a piece of cloth around our genitals to protect them when we're sexually active; we wear gloves on our lower hands during ceremonies. But what is a suit?
He reads my expression. "A space-suit," he says. He stumbles over the unfamiliar word. "The old ones had crafted space-suits so that we could walk the surface if the need arose. But there was never a need, so they are still stored near the Observatory."
My mouth hangs open. "You mean that I can wear a space-suit and just stroll to the surface?" I say. I feel betrayed. "You knew I have always dreamed of going outside and yet you never told me."
"You were impetuous in your youth," he says. "That was why you reminded me of myself. You wanted to go to the surface, but there was no reason for you to go there -- only danger. Now, however, there is a reason that I can see."
Though he tries to hide it, I sense he is just as excited as I am. He gives me instructions on where I can find the suit, and how to wear it, and how to find the hidden path to the gates that lead outside, and the procedure for opening the doors safely and closing them again behind me. We meticulously go over everything we know about the surface. A couple of days pass while he instructs me, so then we are hungry and he brings food. We eat four different kinds of bread and a vegetable pie he bakes for the occasion. Another day passes while we doze, digesting the excessive quantities of food.
I finally leave his house, shaken. Now that my dream seems to be within reach, I begin to feel afraid. Can I survive the surface? I meditate as I walk, trying to get in touch with my inner feelings.
Normally in a situation such as this, I should go home and remain isolated for twenty days, contemplating all angles in order to make the right decision. This time there is no need; I make my decision right there on the spot.
Even if I have to risk everything to fulfill it, I cannot throw away my dream. I cannot remain down here and pretend that nothing has changed.
But there is still something I have to do before I go. I have to get the blessing of Shadowchaser, and I have a feeling that this will not come easy.
She greets me as an equal and a companion. We have been paired since puberty; the elders calculated that our cycles of sexual activity would intersect a couple of centuries later, giving us the prospect of having children. This was too wonderful an opportunity for the elders to miss; our good fortune is that we had always been fond of each other, so it was a happy arrangement for us. Now there are less than eighty years left before we can consummate our relationship and become a proper couple.
I glance at her chest. Her nipples are protruding, her breasts bulging; she is not wearing a loincloth yet, so her sexual cycle must be just starting. I will not be sexually active for another ten years -- we will be finally attuned on the cycle after that one -- but the thought is strangely arousing, for a fleeting moment. Then it passes, and I am myself again.
I tell her about my quest, as I've already begun to think of it. Her face is set in stone. "You have been poisoned with knowledge," she says.
I know her beliefs but I respectfully disagree; knowledge is a gift, not a poison; and yet I understand that I have indeed been poisoned. I have been poisoned with glory. The glory of our people's past; our past tastes like dust and ashes in my mouth. We lived on the surface. We gazed at the stars. We were proud.
We were alive.
Now there is just this grey City-Under-The-Hill. We used to communicate with the other colonies, but they have been silent for hundreds of thousands of years. Or it is us that have been silent. Silent as the tomb.
She does not share my sentiments. She is not interested in the past; she is happy with things as they are. "If you meet these aliens," she says, "it will be the end of us."
"They have come to save us," I say.
She shakes her head. "You cannot really believe this," she says.
I do not. I know they have not come to save us; it is possible that they are not even aware that we exist. But they will save us, one way or the other; I feel it in my bones also. And yet I do not want to tell her about my feelings, either.
I reach out and take her four hands in mine. Our eight arms entwine. "I have to go," I say. "I am sorry that you do not see things the way that I do, but disagreement is healthy among couples. Still, I will be back. Will you wait for me?"
To this she agrees. She was born to wait, as we all were. A million years underground have prepared us for a lot of waiting.
As I take my lonely road to the surface, I turn to look back towards the city. For twenty heartbeats, I pause. Then I turn and start walking again.