The Geophage

By Hyun-jin Park, PhD

Department of Astrobiology, Commonwealth Autonomous University

I've avoided landing on my homeworld since my time in the field. Belphegor VII was a lifeless rock of interest to only the asteroid miners and geologists, until they drilled inside. I was in the system at the time, taking samples of proto-microbial life in the core of an organic slushball comet. Mercs hired by the Regal Mining Consortium dragged me towards the inner system at laser point, refusing to explain until I was in orbit.

Belphegor VII was a terrestrial world with an overactive core, thick magnetosphere, and heavy seismic activity. It was an airless hellscape of lava flows, crashing continents, and poisonous gases. In a few billion years, it might've even been habitable for life, but not now. Early surveys hadn't even found microbial life, or even substantial organic proteins.

At least, until a robotic drill found something in the northern hemisphere. Strange crystalline coils of a strangely organic nature snaked deep into the core. Their location along an active fault line was thought to be coincidental at first, as they did not match prior mineralogical surveys. These thread-like strands were exposed to magma, radiation, and worse, yet they seemed to repair damage to themselves.

Identifying them as something other than geological was one reason they brought me there. A mining engineer thought they may be colonies of some unknown microbe, or some novel form of chemosynthetic life. I was unsure, but I entertained such concepts as I looked over the data. The fibers, each as thick as a human body, was electrically conductive, and exhibited distinctive circulation of nutrients. I hypothesized these might be some chthonic analog of coral reefs, perhaps even similar to neuronal dendrites and roots, reaching up from that cruel world's crust. It was a hypothesis I later regretted.

Then came the neutrino scans. There was a massive deposit of dense rock, unlike everything else in the world's interior, deep beneath those strands. This continent-sized mass was the epicenter of the most intense seismic activity, so we only sent robotic probes. The intensity of those events, those eruptions and earthquakes, only increased as we dug deeper. Based on the materials comprising those organic strands, the Consortium estimated it could be a larger, more valuable deposit than anything else in the system. Not mere mineral wealth, but potentially, xenobiological. Just because they were a mining company did not mean they were blind to the potential for bio-prospecting.

They sent down an entire automated drilling expedition. Self-replicating robots, mining nukes, real planet-cracking kit. They even gave me a half-hearted apology for their earlier abduction, promising me rights on anything they uncovered. Greed and curiosity alike kept me around, despite my better judgment. They were ready to rip the planet apart to get to the motherlode. It was quite ironic, in retrospect.

The seismic activity grew intense to blow rocks into orbit. The first landers were outright annihilated, as the ground rose beneath them. They had to move the command ship to a different orbit, to avoid the rocks that heaving world blasted up. Had the world hosted life as we knew it, any of those supervolcanic eruptions would've been extinction level. Perhaps they still were, in a different sense.

Belphegor VII wasn't just throwing rocks. It was giving birth. What we thought was a motherlode beneath that continent was indeed a mother. Those strange roots we encountered were its sensory organs, like the hair on your skin. The thing cast its offspring into the depths of space, surrounded by rocky cocoons. Like a virus erupting from a cell, it cast its children towards other stars, and other worlds for it to feed on.

It erupted as the world ripped itself apart. It was a massive, horrid thing, like a cyclopean hedgehog. It was layers of rocky, metallic shell, each pointed like barbed wire. The only gap in that armor was an eyespot or mouth the size of a city, from which grew its nerve-like tendrils. It may have not even noticed us, but there was no question about it. It was alive. Hopefully, it did not recognize us.

The Consortium left it in that system, at the center of what used to be Belphegor VII. We tried to track its spawn as best we could, but it was nearly impossible to discern them from other asteroids. We could track where they go, but it would take thousands, if not millions of years, to get there. There's been talk of trying to kill them, which would require at least a relativistic rail gun. I hope none of them escape that system, although we have time to find them all.

The mother, the Geophage, is at least hundreds of millions of years old. It's been there long before humanity was, and it will be there long after we're gone. Perhaps it traveled for millions of years through the void, become coming upon a suitable world to parasitize. Perhaps other worlds, now settled by humanity, are among that number.

Now we know what to look for, at least. When I compare the latest geological data from home, the seismic anomalies are far more terrifying and familiar. Another one is waking up.