by Nicholas Stillman
The humans drew closer. Eightspeck heard of their resurgence through the chatter of clicks and stirring shells all around him. His fellow giant crabs warned him in unison about a massive change in the Earth-space infrastructure. He scurried crabwise along the particularly dense cloud of ammonia ices, frozen water vapor, and ammonium hydrosulfide crystals which formed a dark and stable gas belt around Jupiter. It all vibrated beneath him with the collective panic of millions. A dense growth in his mind shuddered as well, for he had a lifelong predilection for the human language called radio. Humanity finally jolted Earth, and his eight legs, out of dormancy.
He hurried to a plain of reposed crabs and climbed atop their carapaces. The horizon of shells before him rose and fell in subtle waves upon the frozen cloudscape. Their light yet mighty claws never moved off the bed of gasses. Only their hind legs rattled, and Eightspeck felt the reverberations through one of his own. His other hind leg tapped out the same sequence on the adjacent crab’s back. The chatter propagated through the whole superorganism, their words rattling autonomically into each other’s sensory legs. The message, however, sounded the same as when they had first deciphered radio words generations ago. Nearly everyone agreed to wipe out all life on Earth.
Eightspeck scrambled over their backs, trying to ignore the rapid clicks and louder clacks of the two-letter language. He could not, however, stop his left hind leg from repeating the same compassionate yet annihilative message. Between each step, he heard and passed along the plan to end humanity’s cyclical suffering. Their decadence went on after countless market crashes and fiat currency collapses. Even their radio signals had ceased long ago through warfare. They had nearly annihilated themselves, and their cycles of starvation would only perpetuate in space. Thus, they all had to die via mass ejection of radioactive clouds.
Eightspeck raised a hind leg to argue, but he balked. He listened for new evidence of humanity’s compassion, as his lack of data would only foment the masses further. The messages that clattered in, however, centered on killing all the primates as well. Otherwise, they could become as abhorrent as humans.
He gazed at his destination, the mountain where all cosmic data tumbled down. Made of living and dead crabs, it already teemed with impulsive ones like him. Some climbed for a view of the stars. Others sought to learn the human culture stacked upon the radio waves up there. Eightspeck hurried to join them, even though Earth and all its shiny probes had gone silent.
The rattle and prattle drummed through him from the population underfoot. No one could make sense of the shifting steel in Earth’s barely visible satellite space. Eightspeck looked for a rich food source so he could reach the mountaintop and see the activity himself. Though he lacked the biggest eyes for spotting Earth, he easily spotted the biggest female. She sat atop the landscape of crabs in a westward stream of delicious radioactive gas. She had a smaller carapace than him, but its four-meter spikes sliced the fumes into ribbons of red, tawny, and sepia. He rushed to her with a libidinal impulse which made him even more reckless than usual.
He settled beside her into a position that could last decades. Her luscious spikes and spots presented a nicer code than radio. The gasses fanning off her passed through the smaller spikes on his claws. He combed away the lighter streams to amass the ones that tasted like paradise. He balled the fog toward his mouthparts and sucked it all in. The orb became a cone, then nothing. He exhaled something clear and dull that pushed away the incoming sweetness. He took four and a quarter gulps and resumed his blissful thinking. The female did better, ignoring every nudge around her.
The ions and fine solids suffused his stomach with radioactive warmth–his stomach also serving as a lung. The gaseous food suppressed all his urges to seek the mountain. He only escaped the female by stumbling toward the colors of other dancing clouds. Their tangy currents tempted him even more. Chasing them, he reached a second layer of crabs who wrangled and ruminated on the backs of the first layer. He climbed on top of them, ignoring their natter and chatter.
Atop this bumpier sprawl stood a giant named Fourdot. Eightspeck gathered his willpower and crawled to him. He knocked on a massive claw bigger than him and received the permissive response of stillness. He clambered up the ramp of a claw, up the steplike elbow, and onto Fourdot’s back. He perched with his legs tucked in as three other travelers jostled aboard. Fourdot then lurched to the mountain. Each of his passengers burned off a love high that had nearly pinned them to females forever.
Eightspeck beheld a living landscape as aquiver as him. The highland of crabs braced for more news of the human reemergence. They dreamed in global reveries about gassing the whole blue planet. Their hind legs vibrated with plans for the mercy killing while their front ends gulped in Jupiter’s copious fumes. Those with Eightspeck’s build sat dormant after the death of all radio. Their specialized brains had no new signals from Earth to analyze, so they breathed, ate, and waited.
Fourdot carried his more ardent passengers over them. Eightspeck gazed farther at the distant islands of isolationist crabs. They debated in secret, planning a bigger move for the once-dirigible collective. A ring of legs tapped away about some new migration path, the streamlining of the language, or greater mountain height. No one chided them yet, for they looked too sedentary and afraid to present such ideas to the world. Another amalgamation cozily discussed the attractiveness of shells and sensory abilities and how their owners ought to breed. Through the rocking giant beneath him, Eightspeck only felt the signals about slaughtering humankind, the taps all faint yet multiplying.
He debarked near the base of the chitinous mountain. Its bottom had only sunk a few meters through the condensed icy clouds, while the top rose into the hoary overcast. He scuttled up the spiral ramp to the upper mists. Millions of constellated crabs formed the live crags and the walkway of palaver. They told him how the benighted humans had reached a level of eusociality with the advent of mass communication. Yet, humanity kept repeating its abject boom-and-bust cycles despite its vast knowledge. Without resource abundance from gas giants, all life forms on Earth ripped each other apart slowly via mutually assured cannibalism. Even the plants stole nutrients from their dead or starving neighbors. Only extinction could end their torture and turpitude.
While the crabs bemoaned, however, Eightspeck clambered over them with claws once used for pinning females. He passed along their loving message with language legs that had chiefly evolved through rape. He refrained from arguing with a mountain, though. As a decapod, he simply climbed it with more than twice the atavistic limbs as any barbaric human.
Other giant crabs rushed downward, chasing random fumes. Eightspeck scooted aside to let the crowd and the nutritive wisps go by. They left a thin yet pervading haze which flowed over his eyes and memories, leaving him hungry. He gazed down the mountainside at a gigantic swirl of far more tempting gasses. Multicolored and perennial, the stream fed a breeding colony coalesced on the cloudscape. The newer branch of the collective lined up their monumental claws for display. Some even paddled already, in practice for the concerted cloud ejection that would irradiate Earth. They just needed a few million more claws and one generation to fatten them.
Eightspeck hurried away two legs at a time. He scaled for hours to the upper deck of clouds. The crabs high above him had big enough eyes to see the rolling speck of Earth. They chatted about how to coordinate the future subspecies of attack crabs and how to best time the daily fanning of the gas. They debated how many centuries the columns would take to reach Earth and kill all its megafauna.
Exhausted, Eightspeck felt starved of not just radioactive food but also radio waves. The human language had soared through space for generations to make him relevant. Now, he heard only clicks and stomach growls. He stopped and let the words pulse through his legs, for a singular voice deserved his focus at last. Someone finally tried to supersede the orthodoxy. The one named Twostain suggested the collective ought to kill only ninety-six percent of the earthlings. He argued the smartest would survive to rule the abundant resources without brutal competition. The collective, quite discomposed, bewailed that the smarter humans imposed the most egregious systems of all. Incorrigible forever, they all had to die from radioactive gas, enough to seep through every vault.
Millions of minds started trouncing the vanguard of one. Eightspeck continued the climb, somehow alone in it all.
He weaved past some brawny crabs who carried up shells freshly molted off of juveniles. They packed the exuviae into tunnels held up by even brawnier crabs. Beyond them, Eightspeck passed another coterie, one bred like him for radio sensitivity. Its members crouched in silence, a living layer of the mountainside over the core of dead shells. Only one leg twitched, and only after a solar radio burst that made it through Jupiter’s harsh magnetosphere.
Hours later, a wave of clicks and clacks disseminated down the mountain. They reported an exodus from Earth in many spacecraft the size of mountains themselves. As if in warning, a random meteorite struck Eightspeck’s back. A leg hit him there next, then seven more legs followed by a stampede. The onslaught ended, and he hurried upward while the panicked crowd went down.
He remembered similar events called shudders which shook society every time an Earth probe swung close. The bedlam erupting beneath his feet threatened to shrink the whole mountain. He raced up the narrowing ramp which thinned even further as the walkway itself fled. The crabs rose like living cobblestones, an old Earth term. More eerily, they joined the cycle of unrest similar to those of humans. The vibrations felt immense, like a premonition of an avalanche.
He clung to an ancient carapace overlooking the cloudy plain. The precipice let him view the vast wall of storms that chafed along the border of the walkable region. Kilometers below, hundreds of terrified crabs scampered into the infinite lightning. Only a few survived the curtain of bolts to venture on. Soon, however, they simply fell through the less dense cloud band that swept opposite of their home plain. The panic and rumors from the stationary crabs made roads to further stupidity. A few specialists careened down the mountainside, breaking themselves to pieces to avoid the supposed wrath of the spacecraft.
Eightspeck scuttled through the ammonium clouds that hid most of the mountain from space. He struggled with poor visibility and poorer footing as the spiral ramp ended. The mountaintop consisted of only the best radio specialists and the freaks with the biggest eyes. They formed a pyramidal stairway. He nearly fell off it twice despite his assiduous footwork. He hungered as well but saw only black specks of void through the clouds.
The mountain had shrunk several meters. In minutes, however, he ascended enough to see entire swaths of space for the first time. He beheld a pane of star-flecked glass which humanity could only stare through a few centuries ago. He moved closer to it, crawling atop the famous giant named Sixteenblot who formed the summit.
At his blustery new height, Eightspeck looked for any encroaching probes beyond the space dust and moonlets. He only found the dab in the darkness the humans called Mars. By straining his eyes, he finally saw a particle beyond the red planet: Earth. Glitter and grains danced around it, as though the world had vomited all its metals into orbit. Over the course of a human minute, they moved.
The many spacecraft spread outward like another dying branch of humanity. At least visually, the people cried out for euthanasia as the collective had always said. They left behind an abhorrent brown speck of a world which used to glow blue. Now, it rusted and rotted away. The sunlight accentuated the stations and satellites still orbiting like eternal wreckage.
The elder Sixteenblot must have felt the stomach growls above him along with some empathy of his own. He exhaled a cloud of tartly-flavored radiation fed to him hours ago by a delivery crab. Somehow, even up here, Eightspeck’s claws knew the right tilts and trembles. They sorted the gasses by flavors and weights through a comb of spikes. Colors arose, and he ate them. But the wind wanted some too, and it had become more of a brawler midway up the mountain. Most of the food blew away.
Meteorites hissed and sizzled around him. The taunting fumes and their secrets faded. He slowly starved among their vanishing trails, his metabolism neither slow nor specialized for mountain life. His left hind leg chattered on, wasting energy without his control. It redelivered every signal that rose through Sixteenblot’s carapace. Not a word of it came from radio which carried all the past confessions of Earth.
The messages sounded speculative but likely: the humans must have decoded the crab language via cloud-piercing probes. The panic flowing down the mountain became tremulous. Even Eightspeck could spot a baleful spacecraft, a growing circle, heading straight for Jupiter. The dozens of other vessels didn’t appear tangled or chaotic like the lives of their passengers. Their design resembled not the crooked veins of humanity but pillars–perfect shapes never heard or conceived of by most crabs.
The closest pillar approached inexorably and at extreme speed. The circle grew bigger within Jupiter’s mere ten-hour day. Eightspeck watched some of the crabs below pinch off their own eyestalks, afraid to see the machinations the humans might bring. Farther down, the suicides spread with another spurt of bad information.
With the whole population beneath him, no one could see the eight specks on Eightspeck’s back. He stood on the most sessile crab in the world who would likely die with him or at least stay put. On the summit, he had pure anonymity and a unique immunity from ostracism. He readied his leg for a worldwide message the rankled masses could never trace to him.
Without a crackle of human radio, however, he had nothing of use to say.
His hunger, the suicide rate, and the circle in the sky all grew enormous over time. He waited while the mountain offered a slow death by starvation or a quick one by jumping off it. Yet, it also offered the best views and clues about the inscrutable humans. He chose starvation and clues topped with the torture of watching the delivery crabs arrive. They fed everyone below him by exhaling dense fumes into all the faces. The humans called it kissing. Eightspeck, however, lacked the specialized mouthparts for blocking the wind. Thus, on seeing his grim face looking down, the deliverers turned to every crab but him.
As the plated faces veered from him, and as the torture rained hard, he realized the spacecraft veered likewise. It loomed like a circular moon but with a strip of its side slightly visible. The giant-eyed crabs below him, in awe of the otherworldly shape, hadn’t yet signaled that the humans sped off course from Jupiter.
Eightspeck finally drummed his one-legged outcry based on his own little field of praxeology. He said the humans wanted the stars, not Jupiter. Otherwise, the mountain would only see a perfect circle instead of the spacecraft’s underbelly. He declared the humans had evolved into better life forms who’d molted the Earth like an old shell. He concluded that the radio waves ended not from humanity warring with itself, but because they’d developed a medium no one else could hear.
Sixteenblot sent down the message to the world. He tagged it as coming from a speaker he could not identify by variegated shell spots. The mountain soon juddered as thousands of conformists kicked their rage upward. The collective affirmed that the exposed belly of the spacecraft had all the weapons, and the humans didn’t deserve to breathe. Eightspeck felt the whole fracas. All of nature sang out of tune, on Earth and on Jupiter.
The derision only ceased when the bigger eyes announced a more startling observation. Instead of weapons, they saw the human word PEEKABOO emblazoned on the underside of the ineffable spacecraft.
Eightspeck swam through all his memories for the meaning of the vessel’s name. The answer seemed both clear yet incomprehensible. The humans considered their contact with Jupiter a mere child’s game, a fun little joke.
They infantilized the crabs. The gas giant and all its living ones looked small to them.
The humans sent a well-timed radio message, as if they had calculated the visual acuity of the topmost crabs. The signal, however, contained no human language at all. It arrived in a series of clicks like the rattle of chitinous legs:
“From life to life: Greetings, goodbye, and watch the ice.”
Eightspeck’s language skills finally became relevant, but the ten words overawed him into lifelong silence. Waves of relief rippled through Jupiter as its curvature blocked out the tail end of the passing spacecraft. Its message, one of peace from peers, sounded clear enough. However, the world would debate the old phrase about ice for millennia.
Eightspeck obeyed the advice from the technologically superior humans. He watched the ice, the frozen vapor and crystals which formed the densest cloud band around Jupiter. An empty plain of it had become visible through a sudden parting of the overcast. With the mountain lowered several meters, he could just make out the forms of crabs amassed on the horizon.
The population, he realized, nearly circumvented the planet. After building more mountains, crabs would soon fill the only dense enough cloud band for life on Jupiter. Then, they would war over limited space. Eightspeck glanced at the hordes of attack crabs on the shrinking plain. He wondered how they might repurpose themselves.
Much higher, the humans flew off to master the void in their colony vessel. Its fleeting gravitational pull allowed the curtain of clouds to close. The anthropic era ended like its wellspring of radio waves. A different epoch of catastrophism would begin with the overpopulation of crabs.
As the worldwide furor settled, so did Eightspeck. He felt enfeebled by the rapid-onset kwashiorkor which struck most of his kind after their energetic pursuits. Too tired to descend, he simply needed to park his pensiveness. He perched on the apex of Jupiter and watched the Earth turn blue again.
Sixteenblot shared enough food on calmer days. Twostain made crude deliveries on windy ones. Eightspeck used the energy to ponder which species, humans or crabs, had pushed the other toward space. Only one had reached true bliss and abundance in the stars. He waited to see if they might teleport back someday in their adult form. They could revisit their hatched egg called Earth, still adrift by the sun.
Given their growing pains here, he doubted they ever would.
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About the Author
Nicholas Stillman writes science-fiction with medical themes. His work has appeared in The Colored Lens, Bards and Sages Quarterly, The Martian Wave, Not One of Us: Animal Day II, and Helios Quarterly Magazine.