The world was anathema to life. Well, Belan considered, that wasn’t entirely true. It hosted a thriving ecosystem of flora and fauna that were uniformly hostile in the extreme. Its atmosphere, thoroughly poisonous to him, had apparently created the perfect conditions for organisms deadlier than any he’d ever known to thrive. It was as if — he allowed himself the foolish anthropomorphism, given the circumstances — the world itself hated the rest of the universe, and anything unlucky enough to find itself in its clutches would suffer the full brunt of its wrath.
Indeed, the earth beneath him seemed to be alive, spongy and wet in places and sharp and chitinous in others. What appeared to be conventional plant life when his damaged ship had first picked up the planet on its scanners as it limped away from an old four-dimensional minefield left in some long-forgotten war was, he had since realized, a collection of semi-intelligent and potentially very dangerous creatures. In his first hours on the surface he’d been assaulted by poisonous spores, showers of acidic darts, and grasping tendrils that threatened to crush his bones. His suit had protected him from the worst of it, but it was a standard spacefaring model meant to shield its inhabitant from the vacuum, not from these sorts of hostile conditions. Every so often, it would inform him in its irritatingly chipper voice of critical damage to its integrity.
Really, it was a miracle he’d managed to survive the landing at all. His ship, a small transport vessel meant for short-haul trips between neighboring stars, had been too crippled by the explosion to do anything but tilt itself towards the world, a target its computer had deemed more likely to allow for his survival that the alternative of drifting blindly through space. He could land, activate the ship’s distress beacon, and wait for rescue. That plan fell apart when the vessel entered the toxic atmosphere and something smashed it out of the sky, sending it spiraling to the ground below. When Belan extricated himself from the wreck, he realized what that something was — a massive, bony spike that had pierced the stern of the ship and torn it nearly in half.
There had been no signs of technologically-developed life on the planet, and yet, something had not only fired a kinetic weapon with enough force to rip apart the hull of his transport, but had somehow been able to perform the calculations required to hit a distant target traveling at several hundred kilometers per hour. It was as if he’d been a slow-moving insect buzzing around some giant’s face, and the titan had simply reached out and swatted him.
But he’d had little time to consider the meaning of the attack. The ground beneath the crash site began to shift and tremble soon after the dust settled, and as he clamored to higher ground he witnessed an enormous sinkhole swallow up his ship into the blackness below. At first, he’d assumed it was some kind of pre-existing fault that had been disturbed by the impact, but the emanation of warm, putrid gases from the hollow pit suggested something more threatening.
Whatever it was, it had devoured his last hope along with the transport. He had no means of leaving the planet, no survival tools beyond his suit, and no way of signalling anyone who might happen to pass by the backwater rock he was stranded on. He contemplated asking his suit to gradually replace the oxygen it circulated with carbon monoxide, but to his frustration he found the survival instinct within him was too strong to allow for that kind of gentle death. And so he began to walk.
There was no danger that he would asphyxiate or die of dehydration, as long as his suit was intact. It was able to strain the alien soup of the planet’s air into oxygen and nitrogen, as well as recycle his waste fluid into potable water. But, he quickly realized, he was far more likely to be killed quickly and brutally by some form of native life anyway. Ossific ridges shot out of the earth in response to his footsteps, threatening to skewer him like the spike which had impaled his ship. He escaped into an overgrown area with only a few minor punctures to his suit, which its autorepair systems had immediately sealed.
But the jungle-like environment he had found himself in concealed dangers of its own — more subtle, perhaps, but no less hazardous. Paths seemed to shift and twist as he pushed his way through. Vines curled around his limbs, restricting his movement. Globular pods hung gravid from tree-like structures that merged high above into a nearly-impenetrable canopy, disgorging corrosive mist when disturbed by movement.
The world only got stranger as he pressed on, evincing forms of life and geographical features he never would have guessed existed. Elaborate hives of beetle-like creatures rose out of fissures in the earth, sending streams of the tiny insects scuttling to and fro on unfathomable missions. Rivers of bubbling acid cut across the landscape. Jutting vents spewed clouds of noxious fumes into the air, giving the sky a sickly reddish-orange tone.
He walked on, his suit accumulating damage as he went. Hours passed, then days — shorter than he was accustomed to. There was no possibility of sleep, and the gland implant he’d had installed years earlier was running overtime keeping him going with a steady infusion of stimulants that had the added benefit of dulling the hunger he knew would otherwise be creeping over him. But around sunset, the world would go silent and still for a few minutes, and he had the eerie sensation that its inhabitants were watching him — studying him.
In these quiet moments, Belan tried to recall how he’d arrived on the planet. He had been traveling somewhere, looking for something. Scavenging, maybe? To his surprise, he found that his memories of his time before the crash had become flickering phantoms, vague images of places and people that seemed far less real than the nightmare he relentlessly trudged through now. Maybe, he considered, he was experiencing stimulant psychosis.
He had told his suit to stop talking to him, the voice of its rudimentary intelligence having long since become more irritating than helpful. Instead, it had begun to convey important information via a projected heads-up display as it did then, informing him that repairing the near-continual damage to itself had depleted its charge to dangerously-low levels. He ignored it, continuing his relentless march onwards. Where was he going? He pushed the question out of his mind. Somewhere along the line, it had ceased to matter. All that mattered was that he kept going.
By the time he reached the cavern, he was crawling. A barbed, lashing tendril had caught him off guard, severing his leg just below the knee in an instant. His suit had sealed off the gap and cauterized the wound, and as he pulled himself away he watched in amazement as a small swarm of the chittering insects he’d seen earlier emerged from a nearby hive and carried the limb to a glowing, emerald pool, where they leapt in along with it. Both the beetles and his leg dissolved with a hiss as they sunk into the liquid.
And now he found himself at the mouth of a small cave. It had gotten too dark to see unaided, and his suit’s sensors were failing, but there was a dim light emanating from the hole, which was just large enough for him to haul himself into. His muscles screamed as he shifted his body into the gap and searched for any purchase to pull himself further inside. The walls, he realized, were warm and damp, and afforded little assistance in his egress. Belan squirmed and contorted, his stump dragging uselessly behind him, and finally managed to work himself entirely into the tunnel.
He couldn’t rationalize why he was doing any of this. His suit was failing, his mind and body were exhausted, and with the last of his energy expended in his struggle, he reflected that the space of the cavern would at least be a reasonably comfortable place to die. He gazed at the soft light in the distance and felt himself drifting into unconsciousness when something happened that jolted him back into awareness.
The tunnel walls around him rippled and constricted, but rather than crush him outright, the contractions seemed to be pulling him deeper into the cave. The rhythmic motions pushed him on, and Belan wondered whether he might have unwittingly crawled into the mouth of a creature like the one which had devoured his ship. Helpless to move and lacking the strength to resist, he surrendered to the motion and allowed himself to be drawn into the depths. It was, he realized, comforting in a strange sort of way, the sensation of being surrounded and gently compressed. He lost track of the passage of time, felt himself slowly rocked to sleep by the contractions.
He awoke with a start when he was dropped several feet onto a moist surface. The light was brighter now, and the walls themselves seemed to pulse with a faint bioluminescence. Belan steadied himself, noticing that the display on his suit had disappeared. He whispered a command to the suit to reactivate it, but received no response. It was finally dead, then — but he wasn’t. Without thinking, he lifted the seals that joined the hood to the rest of the unit, then peeled it back and tentatively took in a breath of warm, wet air. He could breathe. Finding himself strangely exhilarated, he shrugged off the rest of the suit, and then removed the simple top and leggings he wore beneath it.
Again he began crawling, moving in the direction of the light. He was startled to realize that the wet, slippery surface of the ground beneath him was triggering a sexual response in his fatigued body. Nevertheless, he kept going, marveling as he did at the intricate, shifting patterns of slick flesh that made up the corridor. His earlier fear and then resignation to his inevitable death had vanished, replaced by a spark of curiosity towards the labyrinth he found himself in. He’d expected to conclude his journey in some enormous monster’s stomach, and instead he was now approaching the source of the light he’d seen from the surface.
He felt the ground beneath him dip and he tumbled down, landing in an open, circular space surrounding a translucent, rippling orb that occupied most of the cavernous room. He sat in awe of it, a miniature sun that emanated a blue-green light from within. It was the most beautiful thing Belan had ever seen. Thin tendrils snaked around the cavern, itself composed of the same pulsating flesh as the path he’d taken to get there. The network of veins seemed to travel up and into the ceiling, out through out tunnels like the one he’d arrived from, and down deeper into the earth.
But, it dawned on him, “earth” was not entirely an accurate term. The entire world was a living thing in its own right, a single, vast organism. Hundreds of years ago, scientists back on Earth had put forward the “Gaia hypothesis” to describe the interconnected nature of humanity’s cradle. The planet — the creature — he now found himself deep within seemed to be the ultimate expression of that theory. Sure, the Earth had maintained a certain sort of balance on a geological scale, until humans mucked it all up, but even then there was a distinction between the organic and inorganic, the creatures which roamed and ate and bred and the land and sea and skies in which they did it. Here, that distinction was blurred to the point of meaninglessness.
Belan crept towards the orb. Had the world itself been leading him here? Or had its surface emanations merely reacted to him as a foreign body and attempted to dispose of him in the same way that his own would deal with invading bacteria? It didn’t matter anymore. He tentatively reached out towards its rippling surface, peering into its viscous depths. His hand pressed at the warm exterior, then sunk inside, and he understood. He had thought that the planet hated him, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. It loved him. And, Belan realized, as he pushed into the sphere, he loved it too.