Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.
On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.
Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.
He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.
“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.
“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.
“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.
Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.
“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”
“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.
Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”
She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.
“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”
“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”
“I was going to guess Russia.”
“And you’re American?”
“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.
“Do you have family waiting for you, Mr…” she asked abruptly, interrupting his daydream.
“Suarez. Keith Suarez, but please call me Keith.”
“I’m Stasja Volk.”
“Nice to meet you. No, I don’t have any family waiting for me, just a rude and incompetent orderly that nearly tore my pecker off changing my catheter last time.”
Her mouthparts did something that Keith had never seen before. The titanium grinders opened wide and the diamond drills retracted entirely. A part of him knew that she was smiling and it made him glad. “Why are you so eager to wake up then?” she asked, still smiling.
“Because these four month vacations serve a lot of useful functions: Psychologically, we need human contact in order to not go insane out here. AstroCore uses the down time to perform maintenance and upgrades on us. Your legs will be as good as new when we return.” Habit? Routine? Loneliness? He found that he didn’t have a good reason. “Don’t you want to go back?”
“No. My grandchildren are vicious little monsters who plot and fight for chunks of me. I’d rather spend my life among these mechanical beasts—as a mechanical beast, than with them.”
“You have grandchildren?” The hazy image of the Eastern European beauty was replaced by a shriveled old hag sleeping in a tank somewhere.
“And great grandchildren, but they’re yet too young to pick at my bones.”
“What did you do for a living, Stasja?”
“Ah, I was an excellent chef and later a decent food critic. I started with a small restaurant in Kiev and ended with a chain all across Europe. Food was my passion. I lived to eat. Now,” she snorted in disgust, “I eat to live. I eat dirt. What did you do, Keith?” She pronounced his name Keet.
“I had a third-rate gaming startup that eventually got bought by a larger adult fantasy immersive gaming company and I worked with them for a long time.”
“Adult fantasy as in porno or as in sword and sorcery?” Her motorized maw did that delightful yawning thing again.
“The former.” He tried to say it straight, but the heat radiators on his back tingled and he feared he was blushing—and that she could tell. Was he getting self-conscious in his old age?
She laughed. “Don’t be ashamed. I played those games a few times myself.”
Dammit, she could tell! “Well, it was a living.”
“Sometimes living is just not enough. I miss the taste of hot chocolate. Isn’t that funny? Of all the magnificent food I had the pleasure of enjoying in my life, I miss hot chocolate. My first husband—I was married three times, but my first husband was the love of my life—made the best hot chocolate.”
“Why did you guys split up?”
“He died of cancer, back when people died of cancer.”
It was a naive question, but it had been awhile since he’d carried on a conversation with anyone… or carried anyone.
“It’s okay,” she quickly added. “It was a long time ago and I held him in the end.”
He didn’t know why, but her presence focused his attention. He couldn’t just relax and zone out. He started to see things that he’d never noticed before. They were in fact alloy arthropods toiling on a hunk of left over material from the formation of the solar system, but they were also human beings. The evidence was everywhere: two crabs in the distance held manipulators as they ambulated on, some were clustered into small family units; others were absorbed in fast, intimate laser conversations. This wasn’t just a bizarre retirement community… it was a community.
“What about you? Have you been married?”
“Yeah, a while ago. I was married for three years before she found Jesus and was born again. All of a sudden my job offended her and she divorced me, never married again after that.” He laughed to himself. “Her cooking was horrible anyway.”
“Well, you’re in luck. I’m an excellent cook.” There was a hint of sadness and flirtation in her tone and it warmed Keith.
They reached the delineated terminator, an alien shore, where photons and cosmic rays crashed onto an asteroidal beach. Thousands of flat, rounded forms dotted the powdery landscape like black pebbles in the sand. The tracks of many spindly legs wove and swirled around them creating intricate designs of fractal splendor.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, “like a Japanese rock garden.”
“Yeah, it is pretty.”
They added their own tracks to the pattern. All the best perches were already taken, but he carefully placed her on a gentle hill that would receive ample light as 21 Lutetia tumbled in the night.
He turned to search for his own spot, but she clasped his claw and pulled him close. “Stay with me, Keith. I enjoy your company.”
He trained both eyestalks on her polished obsidian face and studied her in the entire spectrum, from ultraviolet to inferred, then settled down next to Stasja Volk and went to sleep.
Keith Suarez awoke in a recently drained tank at the center of a colorless room surrounded by diagnostic and “quantum entangling” telepresence machines. He was damp and cold and the scent of pine disinfectant stung his nose. An approximation of a human form loomed large over him.
“Who the hell are you? What are you?” Keith’s organic eyeballs failed to focus.
“I’m Fred, your attendant and physical therapist.” It was a robot. It was white and round with big expressive eyes and Keith thought it looked like an enlarged child’s toy. It was probably called “Fred” because it sounded like “friend”.
“He’s been dismissed,” the robot said cheerfully.
“Listen, if it’s because of the small altercation we had—”
“Not at all, to improve service, all of the personnel that work with our clients have been replaced by healthcare robots such as me.”
His heart began to pound in his boney chest. Keith wanted to send the stupid-faced robot a hot laser reply, but instead hissed in his hoarse, old man’s voice, “But we need human interaction!”
“Why are you getting upset, Mr. Suarez? My records show that you assaulted Carlos Fontaine during your last vacation. I thought you would be glad to be rid of him.”
“Because I just spent eight months as a robot, working with robots and strangulation is human contact. Where’s Carlos!” He erupted into cough attack.
Fred adjusted his tank’s cocktail and Keith instantly felt unreasonably calmer. A part of him realized that he preferred the robot to Carlos. He could better relate to its cool plastic exterior, which only frightened him more.
The days and weeks went by much as they had on other vacations. They poked and prodded, kneaded and wrung him. He was always in pain and achingly lonely. The only difference this time around, aside from Fred’s vacant optimism, was that he found himself thinking of Stasja often. He imagined them lying next to each other on a dusty hill basking in the sun. Their claws still locked together. He worried about how her family was treating her and he hoped someone had brought her a hot chocolate, but doubted it. He wanted to do something nice for her. He wanted to make her happy. Keith tried contacting her once, but Fred explained that her records had been made private by her caregivers.
One day, Keith saw himself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the skeletal figure with loose, spotted skin staring back at him. That’s when 21 Lutetia became more real than this Earthly life. Something clicked in his mind: this was just an old and molted carapace ready to be sloughed off. He knew it was crazy, but the thought reassured him.
If only their existence on the asteroid were richer. Given his programming knowledge and limited clearance, he could enhance the overall experience of crabs. He was, after all, a software engineer and he knew AstroCore Ltd. used tried and true technology to minimize problems. Technology he understood.
A month into his vacation, he called Fred. “Can’t you bring me a work slate?”
“What do you need a slate for?”
He thought of an excuse. “I want to get in touch with my ex-wife. I’m feeling nostalgic and I want to patch things up.”
“No, I’m sorry. That wouldn’t be appropriate.” The robot turned and slid away.
Over the course of the second month Keith continued to be dehumanized. He was shunted from white room to white room, given tests and physicals, and the whole while he worked on Fred. He concocted reasons to get a slate, like wanting to catch up on current events and brushing up on crab design to improve his success rate in fixing them. One day, he simply broke down and cried. He failed at every turn. Fred would smile gently, deny him the slate and continue his therapies or spoon feeding him the bland, nutritionally-balanced compote he’d grown to detest.
Then, in casual conservation, Keith realized that Fred, via the diagnostic equipment around and within him, knew when he was lying. Maybe it was his heart rate or the MRIs, but it was the robot’s one advantage over human creativity. He thought about it for a few days and concluded that he had to be honest or the Fred would suspect an ulterior motive and continue rejecting his requests, but he couldn’t very well tell it he was going to vandalize the whole set up…
On the next visit, and without any real planning, Keith blurted out, “Look, Fred, I’m going to use the slate to check up on a friend of mine over on 21 Lutetia. Six of her legs were broken pretty badly and I want to make sure the repairs are going fine. If not, I need to put in a more detailed work order,” and as he said it, he knew that he wasn’t lying. He would check up on Stasja. It would be the first thing he did.
“That’s a good sign, Mr. Suarez. I’ll bring one over at once.”
Air hissed out of Keith and he realized he’d been holding his breath. He lay back in his tank and waited, thinking that Fred may be affable enough, but it wouldn’t be able to pass the Turning Test to save its synthetic life. The bedside robot returned, handed him the work slate and left.
Keith quickly checked the status of Stasja Volk’s crab and was content to find it mending properly. Then he accessed the source code that dictated the information flow between the receptors on the crab and the atrophied old bodies on Earth. Security was minimal. Nobody suspected the elderly clients of AstroCore Ltd. to hack the system. Keith got to work.
The crabs were simple machines, nothing more than ore processing plants with legs. All control and computation—all thinking—was done remotely by human brains. The way it was set up, ninety-nine percent of the sensory data poured into the visual and auditory cortexes of the brain. Because of his familiarity with immersive sexual gaming, he knew it was a simple matter to make small changes to the script and redirect some of that input into other regions of the brain. For example, taste. He played with taste and assigned unique flavors to different substances: nickel became sweet and iron tangy. He made gold savory and silicates salty. Stone was sour. The rare organics embedded in the rock had an exotic spice to them. Clay was slightly bitter and ice was creamy. And, he smiled to himself; the right combination would yield something very similar to a hot chocolate.
He paid attention to smell as well and by sending an electrical impulse to the piriform cortex the stream of charged particles blowing in the solar wind had the fresh, invigorating fragrance of a spring breeze. Touch was the easiest for him. By stimulating the somatosensory cortex the feel of another’s carapace sensor pads became comforting, and depending on the degree, could be quite painful or would send you shuddering in ecstasy. For better or worse, being a crab would become a fully sensual experience.
He uploaded the changes to the unit encasing his tank and prayed (When was the last time he’d prayed?) that no one would discover the minute changes before the system rebooted. The last month crept by like a damaged crab over the dunes of 21 Lutetia. On the last day of his tortuous vacation, the tank enclosed around him and slowly filled with warm amniotic fluid. The vast network of human brains was rebooting and he was infinitely relieved that he’d gotten away with it. He was going home. As he lulled off to sleep, he contemplated waking up, holding Stasja’s claw. Darkness engulfed him.
Suddenly, a red digital warning sign flashed in his mind’s eye and he was jolted awake. The maternal liquid that cradled his frail body flushed out and the tank was wrenched open.
Keith sat up painfully and saw a man—a human man—standing in the white room. His unnaturally young face was incongruent with the tweed jacket and pale blue dress shirt, an old man’s sense of business casual.
“What’s going on?” He asked, his voice divulging his mounting anxiety.
“What’s going on, Mr. Keith Leandro Suarez, is that we’ve detected subtle, but significant tampering with the feedback programming of the mining drones. Those changes originated from right here,” he waved a hand around accusingly, “from your unit.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Jason Leung, the CIO of AstroCore Ltd., and you’ve created a huge problem for us both.”
“Did the changes go live?”
“Oh, they went live alright, about ten days ago.”
“Ten days?” Deep confusion mingled with his anxiety.
“Yep, we kept you sedated in your tank until I could come down here personally. I wanted to gauge your motives, make sure this wasn’t a corporate espionage/sabotage situation.”
Keith wasn’t listening. Ten days? All the other crabs had most likely scurried away and begun their feeding frenzy. Stasja, finding him inactive and unresponsive, had probably left him lying there on the surface.
Leung continued, “and let me tell you, when our clients logged-on over there, they were assaulted by so much sensory overload we had chaos on our hands.”
My God, what had he done? He imagined Stasja scared and in pain. He had introduced pain to 21 Lutetia! But the changes were miniscule compared to what the human nervous system could handle, a pale imitation! But after the numbness of being a crab, had it been too much? No, he knew it wasn’t. “Um, I’m sure the initial sensations were disorienting, but after a few moments of adjustment they would welcome the added stimulation.”
Leung gave Keith a look of barely restrained impatience. The look young people, even artificially maintained young people, gave the naturally geriatric. “Well, that wasn’t your decision to make, Mr. Suarez. You’ve violated our contract and so we’re removing you from AstroCore’s custody.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Terror gripped Keith. He’d never stopped to consider the consequences. All that was left for the old were these corporate work-for-care programs. “What am I supposed to do? I can’t afford private insurance and I’ve worked for you as a goddamned miner for years!”
“You should have thought of that before you disrupted the whole operation.”
“I didn’t disrupt anything! You have no idea what it’s like to be a fucking crab, scrounging around on a barren rock in the depths of space! It’s isolating and anesthetizing. All I did was give our lives a bit more flavor.” He was shaking and sobbing now. These biological eyes were too damned leaky. “It’s like living in a sensory deprivation suit with only a camera and radio for contact.”
Leung leaned on Keith’s tank with both hands, like someone comfortable with exercising power. “I’m sorry, Mr. Suarez, but your trifling not only affected thousands of lives, it impacted operations. We now have to wait eight months to undue your hasty changes.”
“Impacted operations?” Keith repeated. That’s all that really mattered to these people. He looked at Jason Leung’s unlined, unscuffed face and he couldn’t read it. It lacked the story, the personality of a well-worn carapace. AstroCore Ltd. didn’t see them as patients, or even clients, they saw them only as hardware: aging organic servers in constant need of attention. All they cared about was how many tons of precious metal were stripped from the asteroid and rocketed back to Earth.
He was never going to see Stasja Volk again, or 21 Lutetia. He was probably going to wither and die in a government-run hospice somewhere and he wasn’t entirely sure that was a bad thing.
“For what it’s worth, Mr. Suarez, I don’t think this was a criminal matter and we won’t press any charges, but the bedside robot will be in shortly to disconnect you from the equipment. Is there any family you would like us to contact?”
No, there’s no family. Keith’s mind churned. He’d dealt with people like this before, when they devoured his little company. They weren’t overly concerned with one vulnerable old man. Leung turned to leave.
“Wait!” Keith croaked in desperation.
“You said the crabs have been running with my changes for almost two weeks, right? Please, do me a favor—one last request—and check the production stats. Compare them to last year’s figures.”
“I don’t think—”
“Please! What do you have to lose, five minutes? I have everything to lose!”
AstroCore’s CIO got a distant, glazed-over look and Keith feared that he’d already written him off, but the daze went on a bit too long and Keith understood that he was consulting some kind of invisible data, maybe an augmented reality display.
“The numbers have more than doubled,” he said coolly, still staring at nothing.
“Of course they have! Think about it, if you’ve spent years eating rocks and metal, utterly starved of substance, and suddenly they taste and smell incredibly appetizing, you’d relish every last grain of dirt, wouldn’t you?”
Leung never recovered from his numbers trance. “I’ve shared this with the CEO and we agree that you may be on to something.”
Keith gave Leung a minute more of imperceptible conference, then asked, “Am I still in trouble?”
The pause stretched a few minutes longer, and then he said, “I’ve added a note to your record and your access will be severely limited in the future, but your client status will not be revoked. Since there’s nothing we can really do for the next year, we’re willing to further research this. If this level of performance is maintained, we’ll make your changes permanent and maybe even build on them.”
Keith slumped back into his tank, exhausted.
The first thing he noticed when his consciousness loaded into the crab-form was the crisp scent of ions spraying in from space. Then he became aware that his body was rocking side-to-side to the rhythm of eight heaving legs. His eyestalks swiveled around but failed to spot other crabs.
“You’re awake?” It was Stasja’s luminous voice.
He panned down and saw that he was clumsily riding upon her carapace. “My God, I’m back…” A shattering kind of joy spread inside him.
“What happened to you? The laser chatter among the other residents, when we all came back online, was that you had been expelled.”
“For a while there, I was.”
“Does it have anything to do with this new awareness, these new sensations we’ve been feeling?”
It was great to be with her again. She hadn’t abandoned him. “Yeah, I hacked into our operating system and customized the data inputs, ran into trouble with the higher-ups about it, but we sorted it all out.” He tried to sound nonchalant, but didn’t quite pull it off.
“Why did you do it?”
“Why did you stay up here on the surface with me for two weeks instead of following your prescribed feeding impulse?”
She stopped crawling and the swaying of her body ceased. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. He knew that she had felt an even stronger impulse.
“Here, I can walk now.” He slid off her, leaving an ugly scrape on her otherwise flawless shell. “Oh, I’m sorry, I spoiled your finish.”
“It was bound to happen out here and now I can tell people I got that one carrying an injured friend back home.”
He ran a manipulator along the scratch and gently lingered over her sensor pad. Her heat radiators flared in the infrared. “Have you been down to the mines?” he asked.
“No, after seven days, I began trying to drag you down there with me. I haven’t made it to the nearest hole yet.”
“Come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.” They hurried over the unforgiving ground, like two lovers running in the rain. Keith pulled her into the first mine shaft he spotted and instantly an aromatic banquet overwhelmed their inadequate analyzers.
“Keith, what is that?”
The smell of food—actual mouth-watering food—made the blast furnace in his belly rumble. “Just rocks and dirt,” he said.
Without warning, he was hit with a barrage of lasers from the dark; greetings, questions, praise. Everyone wanted to know if he was responsible for this gastronomic awakening or if he was the ol’pervert that reintroduced the orgasm to the retirement crabs? He didn’t respond. He was too taken aback by the fundamental change in the atmosphere of 21 Lutetia, no longer were the crabs engrossed in mindless consumption. They were feasting. He led Stasja over the adulating, inquiring bodies of other diners, to a patch of bare asteroidal wall and motioned for her to take a bite.
Without hesitation, she plunged her mechanical mouth into the stone, pulverizing it with her mineral mills and deposit rakes. She used her articulate maxillae to stuff different combinations of substances into her mouth, playing with flavors. Despite his burning hunger, Keith hung back and watched Stasja lose herself in her passion.
After a long while of culinary exploration, she pulled herself off the well-eaten wall and faced him. “You did this for me?”
“Nah, I did this for me. You said you were a good cook.”
“I love it.” Stasja Volk beamed at him. She gently patted a sensory pad on his face and fed him a clump of ore. It was, without exaggeration, the most delicious thing he’d eaten in years.
“Well, this wasn’t really the surprise.” He turned and picked carefully at the wall; taking a bit of nickel from one particular vein and ice from the ground. He combined them with a hint of clay and sprinkled some trace organic volatiles on top. “Taste this and tell me what you think,” he said, nervously passing the metallic, dirty snowball to Stasja.
Sensing it was something special, she nibbled tentatively. She didn’t react at first. Long moments passed; he waited patiently. Her frame slowly began to tremble and her new legs buckled. Keith caught her and held her, rubbing her carapace reassuringly.
“It tastes like hot chocolate,” she whispered, the faint light of her laser barely visible. “Is this real?”
They were two shadows embracing in a cave. “It feels real, Stasja, and that’s all that matters.”
Alex Hernandez is a Cuban-American science fiction writer from Miami, FL who has recently sold stories to Baen books.