Crab People

Diggory Karses stood on the sandy beach and looked out over the Gulf of Mexico. The sky turned from black to grey, and the red undersides of the storm-clouds announced the sun’s approach beyond the horizon.

Landward, the refinery flares burned into the dawn, their own dense haze joining with the charcoal clouds. Diggory marveled that the rising tides and sweltering days had not put an end to them—but there they were, clawing at the sky. The oil yards chugged away, and the sea rose, washing in with her the South. Diggory patrolled the Gulf to sweep up the South into an orderly package.

His puppy stuffed her nose into a crabhole and sniffed excitedly. Then, she dug for the crab. Diggory sat in the sand a few feet away and watched. The damp sand was cool against his palms. His puppy’s butt and tail stuck up in the air, her head buried as a mound of sand built up behind her.

Diggory wadded up a ball of sand and tossed it at his puppy’s behind. The sand sprayed over her hind quarters, but she was too excited about the crab to take any notice of it. Diggory smiled.

After several minutes of digging, the puppy became tired. She lay her belly on the cool sand, raised her head, and turned towards Diggory. He laughed. Her droopy ears were perked up, her face was transfixed in a silly open-mouth grin, and her tongue and nose were covered in sand. She snorted and sneezed to clear the sand from her nose.

Then, she plunged back into the hole and began digging again, pausing to bark and howl at the crab. Eventually, it ran from its hole towards the safety of the Gulf. Diggory’s puppy cut the crab off and danced around in the crab’s path, her face angelic with delight, darting in to nip around the crab’s claws, rearing back to avoid its pincher attacks.

She grabbed the crab lightly by its legs and tossed it further ashore, where it flopped over on its shell, its legs motionless in the air. She howled and lay by it on her back, wriggling in the sand and nudging it with her nose. She rolled onto her feet and gave the crab another toss, yelping when its pincher grabbed her. She thrashed her head around until the crab went flying, its pincher still attached to her lip.

She pawed away the pincher, and still grinning madly, pounced on the crab and corralled it between her paws. She dismembered it leg by leg, munching on the crab meat as the crab’s eye stalks tracked her. Then, she cracked open the crab’s shell and sucked on its body. She raised her head towards Diggory, her face enraptured in what a human can only comprehend as delight.

“Come here, girl,” said Diggory, and he gave her a good ear-scratching, and then a hearty shoulder-rub, as she piled her body into his lap, panting and grinning. He hugged her, and when he released her, she jumped from his lap and bounded away, scampering from crabhole to crabhole.

Diggory smiled. He imagined that the old horror films had gotten the attitude of a psychopath completely wrong. They focused on the depravity of murder, as if the killer understood the nature of his actions and reveled in it. But he could trust his puppy in the most intense game of keep-away to never bite a human’s hand—and to apologize in her own way if it happened. Nevertheless, she killed crabs with joy.

Diggory thought that perhaps a killer would be like his puppy. A killer’s delight wasn’t because he understood his deeds were wrongful, it was simply pleasure in the deed itself. Diggory thought that he would like to see a horror flick about a realistic killer, one whose face revealed only an unbridled joy in the purity and goodness of murder. Now that would be horror! That would be uncanny!

At first, he’d felt sorry for the crabs. Diggory was the sort of man who avoided killing ants that had poisoned him unless their deaths were necessary—and they seldom were. He’d never had an adversary or enemy whom he’d honestly wished to harm. He didn’t need to philosophize about whether he had some natural connection to his puppy’s delight in the slow dismemberment of crab-kind.

He’d rescued the crabs from her and knelt as the tide broke around his legs until the crabs had released their pincher-grips on the skin of his fingers and skittered off into depths unknown. It wasn’t that he was a vegan. He ate crabs. But it turned his stomach to see anything tortured.

What had removed the distaste from his mind was the way that the crabs sometimes stood before his puppy, just standing there, waving their pinchers at her, as if it might do some good. In the darkness before morning, as he raced down the beach on his ATV, he could hear the crunching of crabs under his wheels.

He stopped one day to view them in his headlights. A mass of crabs stood before him, all still, except their pinchers, waving at his ATV as if it were some rival that could be warded off by a display of crablike size and power. He looked behind him and saw crabs rushing into the tread-marks of his wheels, picking away at the remains of crabs that had been crushed.

And he’d realized that a crab was the biological equivalent of a video-game forest animal that existed for no other purpose than to level up player characters through its death. The ecosystem would suffer if all crabs were killed, but killing an individual, no matter the means, had no more moral significance than turning off a television set.

It was something his puppy was right about. Her brain wasn’t complex enough to trick itself into identifying with a crab’s responses. After that realization, Diggory simply took joy in watching the pleasure his puppy experienced as she played with, dismembered, and ate all the crabs she could find. It wasn’t something he would do himself, but there was nothing deficient in his puppy’s nature.

A crab was a one-trick pony. It scurried around, ate, and if cornered, stood waving its pinchers around, waiting for an event it could neither name nor comprehend. That might look like determination or futility, depending on your perspective, but it truly meant nothing at all.

As daylight fell across the beach, Diggory mounted his ATV and called to his puppy, “here, girl,” who leapt onto the seat behind him, wriggling until she had wedged her butt between his back and the sacks of supplies bungeed to the cargo carrier. Diggory lowered his goggles and sped along the beach.

When he’d completed his patrol, he stopped to wade out into the Gulf and retrieve his crab traps, which were tied to pilings that he imagined had once been nearly ashore. He had chosen the spot carefully. The shallows of the Gulf were interspersed with flooded highways and buildings, tangled with shipwrecks, all deadly traps for the unwary. His spot offered a clear, safe wade. He emptied his cages, taking care to avoid the pinchers that waved at him through the wire mesh.

Today’s haul was good—enough for several days of crab stew. He waded to shore, hopped back on his ATV, and sped back towards camp once his puppy had wedged herself in comfortably and safely.

Diggory enjoyed cooking—he could make the stew thick and rich, or thin and savory, or pretty much anything he could imagine, if the mess crew had the ingredients. It made him popular with the other newcomers, who, like Diggory, were underwhelmed by the variety offered by the military cooks.

That evening, as his puppy played in the encampment yard, Diggory carried a pail of crab stew to the refugee holding cages. He had so much that he didn’t know what else to do with it. Many of them stood and faced him, holding the steel wires of the cage in their fingers as he approached. One of them spoke English and asked Diggory where they would be sent.

Diggory shrugged. “North, I suppose, to Dillingham. Or even Winnipeg. Or New Beijing. I’m not sure.”

His interrogator turned to the other refugees and translated the information, although at the sound of the city names the caged crowd had already twittered with mixed relief and concern.

Diggory was intrigued. “Is there a problem with one of them?”

The man returned his shrug. “People think there’s better work on the Overland Express, in Winnipeg, but none is a bad place. I guess people have family in different places.”

“Ah,” Diggory replied. “That makes sense—look, tell them that once they’re processed, there’s no confinement. They’ll have access to trains and buses just like anyone else. It’s a nightmare figuring out where several billion people end up in this mess, but they’re welcome to try.”

The truth was that these people would have an easier time than most finding work, so they’d tend to stay where they were put. Diggory had been assigned to the vast northern lands, briefly, before his work on the Gulf, and he had seen the masses of Fugis—as the world’s masses flocking to the antipodes were known—crawling over the forests and plains and pouring out the Overland Express, which he knew as the Northern superhighway that carried the lifeblood of civilization from Manhattan through Dillingham, across the Strait, and through the extreme northern reaches of Asia and Europe. He’d seen them carving out the vast farms and ranches of the Northern reaches, the new breadbaskets of the world.

These people were the grist and marrow of civilization, as they’d always been. They had the know-how and grit needed to build and feed humanity’s last bastions. Diggory imagined that the United Nations analysts knew exactly where they were needed, and that was the reason for the cages, that’s where they’d end up. It was true that they were free to move about afterwards—to find family, but that was even less convenient than it might sound.

The Fugis seemed contented with the explanation that he gave. But Diggory’s interrogator continued: “Why the cage? We’re headed North anyway.”

Diggory wasn’t sure how to answer. “Beats me. My guess is the powers that be are worried that poor folk will wander around and end up someplace that ain’t set up to take ‘em. Then there’d be the trouble of rescuing y’all again. The cage part sucks. I suppose some asshole built it a long time ago. Transports will roll in and get you North safe and sound starting tomorrow.” That was the best he would do.

The man seemed satisfied, though. Diggory offered him some stew from the pail, but after ascertaining it was crab stew, the man just frowned and shook his head sadly. “No thank you,” he said, and turned away. Diggory gave up when another man swore and spit in the stew, ruining the entire pail.

Diggory glared at the man who had spat in the stew, but he felt confused. The man’s eyes held pity, not anger. Diggory had the sense that the man believed he had done Diggory a favor. Diggory shook his head in disbelief and dumped the stew by the latrines.

He sat up late with his puppy and a few of the patrol crew into the cloudless night. The sky, though humid, was deep, purple-black, vibrant with stars, and cut through by the Milky Way. They commented on the shooting stars, exchanged jokes and stories, and passed around a couple joints, and scooped crab-dip with tortillas, until one by one they retired to their tents. Diggory sat alone with his puppy after they had left, unwilling to let the night sky go.

Other than a few morning hours, the daytime hours were unbearable. The night was not much better—though it was, to be sure, better. The concrete shambles baked in the sun all day, absorbing its warmth, and by night, warmed the air like bricks heated in an oven. The only complete relief from the sweltering, humid summer came in the wee hours before morning and a precious few after dawn.

Diggory’s puppy slept on a small cot he had rigged in the corner of his tent. Like his cot, it was as far from the ground as he could manage. During the winter, she might snuggle with him. But during the summer, neither of them could tolerate the closeness. The warmth of their bodies atop the warmth of the earth made for a hot, sticky, wakeful night.

Diggory arose in the dankness of the morning and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. A thunderstorm with howling winds had swept in while he slept, awakening him. Dawn was overshadowed by the still-dispersing clouds of vapor and dust, which promised a sweltering day of humidity and twilight.

His puppy danced with excitement as he dressed, and she made a pouting face, leapt into his bed, and lay down with her nose between her paws and moped when he told her to stay in the tent. She was not a fan of inclement weather, but there was no good way to explain to her that she wouldn’t enjoy the ride today. He set out a bowl of crab stew as a guilt offering. She greedily wolfed it down, ignoring his departure.

He mounted his ATV and sped into the banks of fog, which glowed in the headlights without revealing its secrets. By the sound of his wheels, he knew he shared the path with thousands of crabs.

He cut his speed to a crawl, concerned that he might blunder into the Gulf. While that wouldn’t be dangerous for him, it would be embarrassing. The soft wet beach under the tides could suck the wheels of the ATV in and engulf it like quicksand. That would mean a truck and a crew out to rescue him, which could take months to live down.

A thudding noise against the front of his ATV broke his train of thought. He stopped, dismounted, and began to scuff around, looking for whatever he had hit. He was perhaps twenty meters from his ATV, its lights dim and fading in the fog, when a dark blur shot through the glowing vapor and sent Diggory reeling to the ground. He went down hard, hitting his tailbone.

Diggory rolled onto his knees and grabbed the blur, which responded by kneeing him in the chest and punching him in his face and ears. Diggory roared in pain and rage and flailed as his vision faded, but he could not land a blow. The figure had gotten the drop on Diggory and inflicted pain and damage too quickly. Diggory was winded. He waved his arms before him, slowly, hoping to ward off his attacker.

The figure released Diggory, who staggered to his feet and gave chase. He saw the figure dimly as it mounted his ATV and revved the engine. Diggory waved his arms feebly and gasped “Stop!” He took a breath and shouted: “Government property!” But the figure did not stop. It sped straight for him. Diggory was still reeling and winded from the surprise attack. He waved as furiously as he could manage. In his exhausted state, he realized too late that he must dodge.

A few minutes later, regaining consciousness, Diggory sat up from where he had fallen, sputtered, and spat sand from his mouth. He felt for his radio and called in the theft. The ATV had GPS and would lead his crew to the thief. He leaned back on the heels of his hands and let himself catch his breath as he waited for his crew to arrive.

The sun rose higher, improving visibility. A squad-mate motioned him to the empty cage of his ATV, and Diggory perched there as the team followed the blinking dot on the handle-bar mounted GPS display.

The fog cleared as thunderheads mounted over the shoreline. As Diggory’s driver crested a dune, a wrecked vessel suddenly loomed over them, and they almost piloted straight into her stern. She was the Tintagel of Norfolk, names that meant nothing to Diggory and which likely had not had anything to do with her for a long time.

She was a smallish fiberglass sailing vessel, keeled over on her port side. Diggory walked around her starboard side to avoid getting caught in her hanging rigging and canvas. From astern, she had looked worn but mostly peaceful and whole. But her whole starboard side had been stoved in and ripped away, and she lay on the shore like a gutted fish, hollow except for a few floatation logs that remained secured in a webbed netting that had, both obviously and recently, once held far more. Diggory’s ATV was parked beside her.

The man who had attacked him—or Diggory assumed it was his attacker, since other suspects didn’t present themselves—was motoring out to sea using Diggory’s self-inflating dinghy and pocket outboard. Diggory’s ride tossed his own dinghy onto the Gulf and motored out after the man, joined by Diggory, as well as by several other team members in their own crafts.

It was a slow chase—a pocket outboard did not generate much force, and hand-paddling did not much increase the speed. It was more of a follow than a chase, as a chase implies that someone might catch up.

The man paddled for the roof of a building the encroaching Gulf had nearly swallowed, where an old woman, a child, and a reclining body waited. The man reached the roof, and a ring of crabs scattered as he moved towards the body and handed to an old woman the first aid kit he had stolen from Diggory’s ATV. The man crouched by them, warding Diggory’s team away with waving arms. The team motored ahead, towards the roof, without pause.

Diggory and his pilot, their dinghy carrying the weight of two, reached the rooftop well after the others. The team medic had taken over for the man, who was kneeling next to a young woman stretched out on the gravel and asphalt roof. The old woman knelt as well, and the child cried. Diggory inferred that the situation was desperate but perhaps not hopeless, as the medic had set up an IV. The sergeant called in for a medivac.

The squad settled down on the rooftop to wait for the chopper that would carry away what Diggory assumed was a family. Their sergeant ordered Diggory and a squad-mate to return to shore and secure the ATVs.

Diggory resumed command of his little vessel and motored slowly towards the shoreline, where the smokestacks billowed steam and soot and fire.

He had not come out so far before—he’d not used his dinghy or ventured further than one could comfortably wade. He looked down into the depths and saw below him a tangled waste of metal and concrete.

The metal reddened with rust, and the concrete appeared dirty, browning where it was not covered in barnacles and seaweed. But occasionally, Diggory could make out a bright white glint. He stopped for a moment and peered down as the disturbance of his motor dissipated.

He could see that he floated above a graveyard of sorts—and not just a ghost town. Ten meters down a gleaming white form reclined on fading blacktop, peering up at him, partly covered in tattered cloth. He sensed some motion over the skeleton, and after concentrating some time, he made out the forms of scurrying crabs.

Diggory’s trance was pierced by his sergeant’s shout. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Private? Get a move on!”

Diggory turned towards the rooftop, which was only ten or twenty meters away. He saw the man who had attacked him brush a crab away from the young woman. He could dimly make out that all around his crew and the little family stood a host of crabs, waving their pinchers.

Diggory recalled the man who had spat in his stew. He leaned over the side of his dingy and retched.

Crab People
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