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Fantasy Science Fiction LGBTQ+

Sursum grimaced and yowled as he hauled the climbing rope with both hands, helping Eripio scale the final distance onto the lip of the cliff. His guttural vociferations echoed off the cave walls; startled glow-beetles scuttled deep inside their crevices. Sursum planted his feet firmly into an indentation in the rock and pulled with all his might. “Come on, Eripio, I won’t have you fall all the way back down home,” he said through clenched teeth. “Or else this’ll be the shortest expedition in history.” Eripio’s fingers emerged, latching onto the ledge. Then his lustrous blue hair surfaced. Sursum rushed toward him, grabbed his hand, and heaved him up.


The two remained sprawled on the edge of the crag, panting heavily. Eripio turned his head to Sursum, grinning. “We really should do that more often. It’ll help build up your stamina.” He barely held back a chuckle.


Sursum scowled back and shook his head in disbelief. “Unbelievable! The guy nearly plummets to his death and finds it funny.” He pretended to punch Eripio on the shoulder. “You had me worried sick there, slipping down like that. So how about just saying,Thank you for saving my life.’”


“I’ll be more careful next time.” He leaned over and pecked Sursum on the forehead. “And thanks for saving me, my gem. I’m sorry I gave you a scare.”


“You’d have done the same—now come on, you need to see this,” Sursum said, standing up. He helped Eripio to his feet. “I never said it was going to be easy, but the greater the effort, the better the reward—take a look at that.” They stood side by side on the edge of the overhang—hands clasped tight—and admired the cavern extending out as far as they saw. Far beneath, the city of Gdolea sprawled out like a coruscating diorama, blanketing the entire floor of the capacious realm.


The bright-rock of the cavern ceiling they lived under all their lives glimmered above them, accentuated by patches of scintillating greens and blues here and there. At this height the glowworts sparkled exceptionally strong. And from up here, the domed houses of the city passed for mere pebbles blanketed in moss. What resembled perforated lines of shimmering malachite was an intricate network of city streets lit by clumps of glowwort stuffed in regularly placed light baskets.


Eripio pointed towards a tiny green square inching forward along one of the twinkling lines. “That could be your master towing bright-stone from the quarry on the hauling rail.” He nudged Sursum with his elbow. “He’s probably cursing his apprentice now for taking so much time off and leaving all the grunt work to him.”


“No, he isn’t like that all. Master Fels and I are good. Sure, he never openly encourages me, but we have an understanding. He never comments on or stops me from my exploring.” Sursum glanced at him. “You should be more worried about your boss. The last thing I want is for you to get fired.”


Eripio made a comfortable living working in city administration, as blue-heads commonly did. Influential Gdoleans—primarily elders—still frowned upon blue-heads fraternizing with green-heads, much less being in a relationship with one.


Eripio shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll be fine. That old rock doesn’t scare me. And if she does fire me, I’ll just find another job, that’s all.” He grinned playfully. “I could apprentice under Master Fels and learn to be a stone mason like you.”


“A blue-head in the quarry? That’ll be the day.” Sursum chuckled.


Smoke wafted out of the houses here and there, floating upwards until the wind caught it in its stream, carrying it gently away into dark tunnels. Rock drones buzzed around—nothing more than little pulsating spots of red light from this distance; bi-winged lammelles swooped down now and then, catching them with their maws.


In the distance, at an altitude even higher than where they stood, water spouted out of a gaping hole on the rock face, cascading down and forming a narrow waterfall—the symbol of Gdolea. The long distance it plummeted meant the bulk of the water dissipated into mist before reaching the plunge pool. Its roar echoed constantly, providing the cavern with static background noise. A friend who frequented the sister cities in other caverns once told Sursum how the thundering sound of the waterfall always signaled she had come back home.


“Logic keeps insisting I’m mad to follow you up here,” Eripio said, “but I gotta hand it to you. The view is breath-taking.” He paused. “I wish we could show this to your parents.”


Sursum’s parents had hoped his fascination with spelunking and exploration was a childhood phase, but it only grew stronger through adolescence, much to their dismay. Now as a young adult Sursum spent all of his time away from the city when not at work, charting caves and studying rock formations. Of late his parents constantly argued with Sursum—they called his passion an unhealthy obsession.


Eripio peered into his face. “You okay? Not having second thoughts, are we?”


“Not on your life.” Sursum turned to him and smiled. “I was just thinking how strange it is. From up here it’s all so beautiful and calm. But when I’m down there, in the thick of it—the daily hustle and bustle, family, work, and all that—I can’t handle it.”


Talking about it alone made him anxious. All those people milling about, talking to him, telling him what to do and what not to do, or what he should think or not think. His chest tightened and his stomach twinged.


“And that’s okay,” Eripio said. He wrapped his arm around Sursum. “It’s okay to need distance from the community. There’s nothing wrong with that, or with you.”


The urge to get away led Sursum to speleology because it brought him away from the city, its crowds, and everything associated with it. Eripio never judged him and eventually became a respectful spelunker himself, frequently accompanying Sursum on expeditions. “If that’s what it takes to spend time with you, then I’ll gladly be a potholer,” he told Sursum once, after getting fed up with being left behind all the time.


Eripio ruffled Sursum’s green hair. “Come on, we should get going. This was the easy part, right? Who knows how long of a journey we have ahead.”


The two turned their backs on the vista and headed into the opening of a small cave. Though only occasional patches of glowwort lit up portions of their path, this posed no difficulty for any Gdolean worth their salt. Only when it became pitch black did they use glowwort lamps, kindling it with jaxa-beetle to enhance the glow.


They arrived at a point with a narrow, carved-out hole on the side of the cave wall. They crouched and crawled into it. Sursum led the way. Sheet crystal masks guarded their eyes from rubble as they plodded on—a costly but worthwhile investment. The corridor had a gradual incline and was one of countless small caves Sursum expanded over the years using stone carving tools and brute force.


After years of relentless digging and charting, Sursum had determined this particular tunnel led to an unknown network of caves and caverns above them. Hardly able to contain himself after his discovery, Sursum returned to the city, rushed straight to Eripio’s place—Eripio hadn’t joined him due to work—and clasped his hands. “I found it Eripio! This is it. This is the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for. There’s a network of caves that’ll take us upward!”


Upward. Sursum obsessed about this notion. Much of Gdolean history focused on spreading out and exploring downwards; what lay above and beyond the great cavern ceilings never interested the culture. As a source of luminescence and a boundary, the ancients believed the ceilings protected Gdolea from spirits occupying the stygian realms above. Few believed in actual spirits anymore, but still considered the notion of exploring upwards taboo, not to mention foolish. It cost too much time and energy, they claimed, and was surely fraught with danger.


#


“You’re both mad! Stark. Raving. Mad.” Sursum’s mother put down her wood carving tools and slumped back in her chair. He had told his parents of his breakthrough and their plans to go on an expedition to establish how far up the new network of caves went.


His father paced back and forth in the circular courtyard. “This obsession of yours has gone long enough, son. It needs to end.” He stopped in his steps and gave Sursum a concerned look. “You can’t spend your entire life chasing a silly dream! With all the time you spend in the caves you’ll never become a master stone mason and end up—”


“It’s not a dream. There is something up there,” Sursum said, clenching his fist, and stormed out.


“I’m not finished with you!” his father said. But after hearing Sursum’s door slam, he plopped down on a nearby stool, shaking his head.


Not long after, Eripio and Sursum started preparations. They pooled their earnings and purchased necessary gear and supplies, even making tools themselves when necessary to save funds. They established a base camp beneath the cliff they would first surmount. Once en route, they planned on setting up small deposits of supplies along the way, allowing them to replenish tools and materials without returning to base camp.


At the tolling of the third chime, they headed out, quietly, with no parade or fanfare. Sursum’s parents saw them off. As expected, Eripio’s parents didn’t appear. They went about their daily business, refusing to acknowledge their son’s mad escapade with a green-head.


Eripio hugged Sursum’s mother. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure he never gets hurt.”


#


Having worked their way through the narrow tunnel, Sursum and Eripio found themselves in a cavern, from which several caves ramified into several directions. They chose one with an ascent and walked into it. Marking their path with a trail of string interwoven with glowwort, they meandered through the cave system. When they grew tired they paused, ate, and slept. They repeated this several times, eventually losing track of time and not remembering how often they slept and awoke in the cave. The cave gradually grew narrower until it eventually became impassable.


“A dead end?” Eripio asked.


“No it’s just been closed in by gravel and rock. Time to get our shovels out.”


The burrowing progressed slowly. The cramped quarters, dampness, and fatigue weighed on Sursum like a ton of bright-rock. The slow sense of progress fueled his doubts. Was this all for naught? Was there nothing up here but endless layers of rock? Were all his theories and hypotheses nothing but fanciful delusions? Should he just call the whole thing off?


Sursum grew exhausted and stopped ruminating. He simply dug. Eripio had also grown quiet; his presence alone encouraged Sursum to keep going. He was inwardly thanking Eripio for giving him strength, when Sursum toppled forward to the ground, crying out. His shovel had unexpectedly broken through to the other side and bored a hole. After helping him up, Eripio stared ahead. Sursum followed his gaze. The two gasped. A faint light glimmered on the other side, similar to glowworts, but white and misty instead.


“I’ve never seen such strange light. What kind of a cavern could that be?” Eripio asked.


“Not sure. It looks kind of small for a cavern. It’s probably just another cave. But that light is baffling. Maybe there are different kinds of glowwort or bright-rock here.”


“Well, what are we waiting for? We’re explorers, aren’t we?” Eripio used both hands to widen the hole.


The two stepped out into the small cave. Dried out stalactites hung from the ceiling, reaching down towards the lumpy stalagmites on the cave floor. Not much moisture was in the air. A breeze brought a mustiness to their mouths. On one end, the cave led into deep darkness. What intrigued them, however, was the other end. They had to strain their eyes, but it was clear the strange luminescence came from that direction, and not from bright-rock or glowwort—as though one source of light emitted its rays into the darkness of the cave.


Sursum turned to Eripio. When their eyes met, they chuckled, quickly crescendo-ing into a laughter reverberating in the cave. After all the hours of toil, they had found something. Something nobody had ever encountered before.


Grabbing Eripio’s hand, Sursum lead the way toward the light. His exhaustion no longer dragged him down like a weight. Giddy with excitement, their pace picked up. But the light became increasingly brighter, forcing them to cover their eyes with their hands.


“Here, use this,” Eripio said and handed Sursum the sheet crystal mask. “It should be better than nothing.”


The crystal’s violet tint helped shield Sursum from some of the light. But brightness still overwhelmed him. Nevertheless, Sursum didn’t want to stop and kept moving onward until Eripio tugged him on his arm. “We need to pause a while, Sursum, and rest our eyes.”


Eripio pulled Sursum toward him and embraced him tightly. The two lifted their masks up and sank their faces into each other’s shoulder. Eripio’s scent saturated Sursum, giving him warmth and comfort.


“I don’t know what it is we’re heading into,” Sursum said—his voice muffled by Eripio’s dusty jacket, “but it’s nothing we’ve ever experienced before. It might even be dangerous. I want you to turn back and wait for me where the light isn’t as intense. Just in case.”


“If you think after all this time I’m gonna let you walk all alone into something unknown, you’re kookier than I thought.” Eripio ruffled Sursum’s hair. “Besides, I can’t let you have all the fun. And I made a promise to your mother—Okay, you ready now?”


They released themselves from each other, lowered their masks, and resumed their course.


With the help of several more pauses, their eyes progressively grew used to the new light, making it easier for them to see. But they still needed their crystal masks and their eyes instinctively sought out patches of lower brightness.


After what seemed an eternity, Sursum and Eripio reached the end of the cave. It opened out into a cavern, the size of which they had never before imagined in their wildest dreams. The sheer scale of the vista lying before them was mindboggling. Sursum trembled, and he fell to his knees.


“Wh-wh-what is this, Eripio? Where have we come?”


Also mesmerized, Eripio lowered himself slowly to the ground and sat keeping one knee raised, his arm wrapped around Sursum’s shoulder. “I always believed we’d find something—like the ruins of a long lost Gdolean cavern city or something. But this is nothing like what I expected, Sursum.”


“Can we be hallucinating?” Sursum asked.


“Well there’s only one way to find out, my gem.” Eripio stood up and helped Sursum to his feet.


Hands clasped tight and eyes wincing, they stepped out into the refulgent light.


The ground was arid and reddish. Enormous rock formations jutted out of the ground. A hot wind swept by, strewing sand into their noses and ears. In places the ground extended far into the distance with nothing interrupting it until it met a massive wall of blue light wrapping all around and above them, like a canopy of azure ether. Unlike the ceiling from their cavern, this aerial blanket didn’t have a tactile presence. White patches floated here and there high above them. And the light! It was ubiquitous. Far away a river—easily ten times broader than Sursum’s house—cut through the dry ground, with patches of green on either side of its banks. A solitary creature soared in the air, lammelle-like but larger and with a pointy maw. It was overwhelming. It was marvelous.


Sursum rested his head on Eripio’s shoulder and wept. Eripio gently patted his head.


#


Sursum and Eripio, the first Gdoleans to break out onto the surface of their world, returned numerous times and continued their exploration. They later discovered the surface world alternated between bright phases basked in light and dark phases, during which the blue ceiling turned pitch black with two waxing and waning white discs and innumerable points of coruscating light scattered everywhere. Missions naturally took place commonly during the dark phases—it was easier on their eyes and skin.


Later generations continued in their footsteps and began colonizing the surface. They erected a plate marking the spot where the intrepid pair first ventured out onto the surface of the planet. It commemorated the dawn of a new age in Gdolean civilization, an age of exploration.


Several millennia later, on the day after the first two Gdolean space ships—the Sursum and the Eripio—successfully returned from their missions to neighboring planets, the Gdolean spacefarers, blue-heads and green-heads alike, gathered around the memorial plaque. It had faded over the ages, but they could still make out the large word standing out among the rest: Upward.

June 25, 2021 13:01

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4 comments

Raina Joseph
03:33 Jul 01, 2021

I love the relationship between Sursum and Eripio. It sounds almost like a prologue to a longer novel.

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Jon R. Miller
09:45 Jul 01, 2021

Thank you for reading the story! :> The two characters really grew on me while writing this. I'd very much like to write some more stories, perhaps long-form, featuring them and their adventures.

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Tom D
17:00 Jun 26, 2021

Another intriguing read with a well-realised world and civilisation - I really enjoyed the pioneer/sense of discovery aspect of the story, and seeing the surface as described through the eyes of people who have dwelled below ground all their lives was a treat! Great job!

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Jon R. Miller
22:57 Jun 26, 2021

Thank you for reading it and I'm glad you liked it. When I started off, I thought this was going to be more of a story where the government/ruling class actually knows the surface world exists, but is keeping the knowledge secret. Sursum then "discovers" the surface, only to get arrested by the secret police before he can spread the news of the surface's existence. But as I was writing, it turned into an adventure story, and I felt it fit the two characters' personality better, so I went in that direction.

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