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March 27, 2023

The Hermit Crab

By J.T. Barr

I admit that I never wanted to be a father. I wanted to roam the stars, to be unburdened from the obligations and responsibilities of family and friendship. After all, who needed people when you had an AI-simulated girlfriend? And I had my modest cargo ship, The Hermit Crab. Everything else, especially people, was extra baggage.

It was only a drunk night on Kokomo Prime; a layover between a couple delivery gigs. I’d just come from Anteros, the planet’s fourth moon, with a shipment of helium-3. My guard was down after four Makahaki Sunrises at the spaceport bar. I decided to take a walk along the beach, and there she was.


It was like that stupid, cheesy tourism ad for Kikimara Resort. The one with a sultry woman’s voice saying, ‘Find Romance on Kokomo Prime.’ It was like that. She was silhouetted against the orange sunset, her tanned skin glistening, her hair flowing in the warm, salty breeze. Same as the holo-ad. I stood there like a fool, trying not to stare, until she inexplicably came to talk to me.

“You from space?” she asked in that melodic Kokomoan accent.

I nodded. Reached out my hand. “I’m Captain Ian Martinez.”

“Nice meet you, Ee Yan. I Keela of La’ka. Buy you drink?” She asked. And that was that.

Her place was a little house-boat made of wood and cheap polymer. We cooked fish for dinner, toasted to the stars and swam in the ocean, and talked about our hopes and dreams. She wanted to roam the stars too, she said, but was reluctant to leave her tribe. I told her all about the places I’d been. She told me all about Kokomoan culture and the La’ka tribe. So I stayed the night, then the next, and so on. When I finally left the planet, I’d been there almost two weeks. My delivery of sundries back to Anteros was late. Twenty percent of my fee was forfeit. But I didn’t care.

I came back. I started to take any job I could on Kokomo Prime, even domestic shipments, just to see Keela. They usually barely covered fuel. A cargo spaceship needs full loads to maximize profits, and I was taking jobs under ten percent of my weight capacity. With that kind of load, you’d better be hauling ancient alien relics, or it’s not worth it. So, after a few months, naturally, I started thinking about selling The Hermit Crab. And that’s when I knew I had to leave.

A starship captain’s life consists of a long reel of solitude, interspersed with a series of vignettes. Or so I always thought. To compartmentalize in this way becomes not only natural, not merely comfortable, but routine and necessary. Great distances of time and space are hostile canyons of desolace and loneliness that one must trek across alone, because people simply take up too much cargo space.

At first, I thought Keela was just another one of those vignettes. A pretty moment never meant to last. But it was my destiny to meet Keela; to shed my shell.

“Did you know the Kokomoan recluse craboid, native to the Blue Sea, sheds its shell once it becomes full-grown? Then its skin hardens into a permanent exoskeleton,” Keela once told me. Her pretty Kokomoan voice was overpowered by the tinny Universal spouting out of the translator.

“Fascinating,” I said, feigning interest. “Very unique crustacean.” I hadn’t actually chosen the name of The Hermit Crab, so I wasn’t exactly a crab enthusiast. I’d simply never changed the name after purchasing it. And I was far too interested in Keela to admit my general indifference to crabs. She loved sea life.

“That’s not all,” she continued, “It spends half of its life in complete solitude, scavenging for food and the occasional mate. But when it matures, and sheds its shell, it becomes more socially inclined. Then it seeks a permanent mate to raise offspring.”

“Sounds like a guy I once knew,” I said, playing dumb.

She punched me on the shoulder. “You’re silly.”

During our nights together, space always consumed my dreams. The inky blackness seduced me, wrapped itself around my awareness; a comforting blanket in the chaos of organic experience. It told me I needed no one. Not even myself. In the abyss, the ego can dissolve, and attachments, and pain, with it.

A shell that protects me.

A couple weeks later, I awoke in the middle of the night. It was time to leave, to retreat back to my shell. Careful not to wake Keela, I quietly packed my things in the middle of the night, and I left the house-boat for the spaceport. As I padded quietly down the dock, I turned my head for one last look, and saw her standing there, silhouetted in the pale moonlight. She was just within hearing distance.

“Love you,” she said.

So I ran.

For a spacer, moments of awareness, of consciousness, of life, are separated by large gulfs of dreamless sleep. Large lakes of oblivion where the spacer swims, ever so closely, above the deep fathoms of the abyss. A shell, then, is a necessity. A shell in which to hide from the countless dangers of the dark, and the horrors of sociality.

Because when you get attached to others, you get hurt.

I wonder if this is how a hermit crab feels?

After twenty-eight years in cryostasis, traveling at an average cruise speed of half of C, I arrived on cold, dreary Nereus Minor, fourteen light years away from Kokomo Prime. The wintry eyeball moon was frigid and dark, the opposite of Kokomo Prime. But its vast frozen tundra and regular displays of shimmering aurora were beautiful in a stark way. As those colorful lights danced across the twinkling starfield during the night, they served as a bitter reminder of all I’d left behind.

I spent a few weeks drinking, whoring around, and formalizing my next transport contract with one of the many guilds on the moon: a well-paying, fifty-year roundtrip gig to Shenandoah and back. Anything to take my mind off of Keela, who I knew had aged three decades while I was swimming slowly through the void. I sipped rum out of my flask everytime that thought crossed my mind.

One night, as I stared up at the aurora in a drunken trance, I received a secure datapacket on an incoming tightbeam from Kokomo Prime. It was coded to me alone. Judging by the date, it had to have been sent when I was about halfway through my interstellar journey. My heart raced as I read the text:

Ian, my love, I’m so sorry I scared you away. I would do anything to go back to that day, fourteen years ago, so maybe I could do things differently. I miss you so much.

The universe's sense of irony is cruel, my love. A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with a rare disease. They don’t know what it is. Instead of treatment, I decided to use my life savings for this tightbeam. I’ve sent it to half a dozen neighboring systems in the hope that it might catch you. If it does, I need you to know: we have a daughter together. I gave birth nine months after you left. She’s just as smart and adventurous as her father. She wants to visit the stars, too. Her name is Kee’ann.

I won’t be here whenever you get back, but know that I think of you everytime I look up at the night sky. As you once told me, we are only stardust. So from now on, when you look up at the stars, know that I’m there.

And I will be, forever.

With tears in my eyes, I marched straight to the comm center and spent a small fortune on a two-word reply, with instructions to relay this to her tribe, the La’ka: “I’m coming.” Then I promptly canceled my new transport contract, guild fines be damned, and prepared for a long, long journey back to Kokomo Prime. The message would take fourteen years to get there, and I’d take twenty-eight in The Hermit Crab. I slowly realized that I’d never see Keela again. And Kee’ann would be older than me.

My own daughter would be older than me.

I considered this as I took one last look at the dancing aurora above. I spotted Kokomo Prime’s red star framed in the sky between heavenly ribbons of green and blue, and drank in that view for many long moments. Then I boarded my ship, crawled into my cryostasis pod, and journeyed forth in time almost three decades.

After The Hermit Crab safely inserted into orbit above Kokomo Prime, I slowly awoke from cryostasis, and right away noticed a discrepancy with the clock. It had to be wrong -- it said one-hundred and fifty-two years had passed since I’d last been in the system. It should’ve been just under sixty.

I double and triple checked the date. Then I called into the spaceport to confirm.

The clock was correct, they said. I didn’t even need to inquire about Kee’ann. I already knew. I was too late to ever meet her. Voice trembling, I asked them to send my apologies and information to the La’ka tribe.

Numb, I ran diagnostics and found that a failsafe initiative had prematurely cut off the fusion reactor’s fuel supply to all five main engines. I’d never even made it to full cruise speed. The AI had judged that the problem was not one I could fix during interstellar travel, so instead of waking me, it had immediately begun braking with the much weaker yet functional ion drives, to avoid skipping over Kokomo Prime like a stone on water. The maneuver had succeeded, but had taken a century and a half to do so. All this thanks to a faulty valve on one engine.

I overrode the failsafe initiative. It would risk damage to the ship to attempt landing with one inoperable engine, but I didn’t care. I needed to land. I needed to find out what happened to my daughter. And so I began the atmospheric reentry sequence.

The rough reentry damaged The Hermit Crab beyond my immediate financial means of repair. Though lucky to be alive, I was stuck and broke. As the heavy weight of this truth pressed down upon me, I decided to do what I knew best: go find a bar.

The tropical air of Kokomo Prime rushed through the open breezeway of the spaceport and wrapped its arms around me. Due to my time spent in cryostasis, for me, it had been just four waking months since I’d felt that breeze. Since I’d seen Keela. In that warm breeze, I swore I could feel her embrace.

I also felt more than an ounce of shame as I walked through customs in a daze. Here I was, barely older, while my daughter was gone. I was finally at the terminus when I saw a middle-aged, dark-haired woman holding up a holo-sign with my name on it. I approached her slowly.

“Captain Ian Martinez?” she asked with no uncertainty in her voice. This woman knew me. Must’ve somehow had my picture from a long time ago. And she looked a lot like Keela. And a little like me.

I held out my hand. “Nice to meet you…”

“Luana.” She shook my hand warmly. “Luana Martinez of the La’ka tribe. This will be strange to hear… but I’m your great, great, great granddaughter.”

I stumbled as the concourse began to spin. She asked me if I wanted to sit down. She held onto my arm and walked me over to a bench, like I was some decrepit, walking corpse. Was I not? Was I not an ancient relic, a ghost wrenched out of the past?

“You must have a lot of questions,” she said.

“For now, just one. Where can I get a drink?”

The Makahaki Sunrise tasted just as tropical and exotic as I remembered. But even the sweet flavor of yellow seaberries couldn’t distract me from the abject truth of reality.

Luana patiently explained that Keela’s illness was, decades later, discovered to be a rare immune system disease caused by a toxic sea anemone. She’d probably brushed against the anemone while spear-fishing for dinner. It’d been pure, cosmic, bad luck. But, though there’d been no cure, I was relieved to hear that Keela’s palliative care was advanced enough that she didn’t suffer. Her death was quick and painless.

Our daughter Kee’ann had opened a small fishery which saw some modest success, and lifted her tribe to greater heights. She lived to be ninety years old, and she never got to meet her father. The father who abandoned her before she was ever born.

I sobbed quietly as Luana told me all about Kee’ann’s life, her troubles and triumphs, and her daughter’s success as a marine biologist, and so on. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride that I knew I had no right to feel. I had simply donated genetic material and ran off; I hadn’t raised my daughter. She had lived her life while I was sleeping dreamlessly in The Hermit Crab, in my shell, as it drifted slowly through the abyss.

Luana put her hand on my shoulder. “Would you like to meet the rest of the family?” she asked.

I wiped my eyes. “I’d love to.”

Article © J.T. Barr. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-02-06
Image(s) are public domain.
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