“First, you must cross my palm with silver.” Moira cackles every time she says it, which is every time she sees me. It wasn’t funny the first time. I guess she doesn’t care all that much.
Rolling my eyes, I drop a credit into the tip jar and spit into the biotip jar, then hold out my hand. Moira jabs a chela into my fingertip before lifting my hand to her mouth.
“Woah, wait, holy shit, Moira, what are you doing?”
“You want to see a whole year into the future, kid? Smearing your finger on a crystal ball isn’t going to do the trick, not to see that far ahead. How about you shut up and let me do my job?”
I close my eyes, but it doesn’t really help, because it’s more the feeling than the seeing that’s the problem. I feel Moira’s dry lips scratch closed around my finger; I feel her split tongue wrap around my knuckle and slide up and down my fingernail. Then, a blessed numbness creeps up my hand, all the way to the wrist, and I don’t have to feel anything she’s doing anymore. I hadn’t realized their saliva contained anesthetic, and shit, it’s fast-acting. I’m startled enough to open my eyes. She’s staring back at me with those ancient iridescent bug-eyes of hers. They’re starting to frost over — her eyelashes are limned with white and it’s spreading. She’s grinning at me.
“Oh, yeah, kid. This is gonna be a good one.”
Three years ago, I turned off all the lights, locked the door behind me, and left Earth behind. I was the last one off the planet — the night janitor, leaving for the weekend. Except instead of the weekend, it was forever.
You’d think I’d have gotten some kind of acknowledgement for being the last one off the planet, but it didn’t happen that way. The first guy to leave, now he got a huge statue and a plaque at the Capitol and probably a shit-ton of libraries named after him, because he was taking a huge risk. He was accepting the Crab-People’s invitation to live on their oversized planet, and who knew if they’d eat him? I mean, let’s be honest: we all thought they were going eat him.
In all our hundreds of years of speculation, we never thought first contact would involve aliens who actually wanted to solve our problems.
But he went, and a then a year later he sent word back that he was fine and that the Crab-People were nice. That’s how he put it: they’re nice. He said that we were all welcome to join him. And everyone else went to the new planet, made new statues, carved new plaques, built new libraries.
And I was the last one. Saying goodbye to the whale, patting the tree, climbing into my little ship, and tagging along after. “Wait for me, guys! Guys! … Guys?” And by the time I showed up, they’d already forgotten about me.
Moira is deep under now, not grinning anymore. She’s clicking from somewhere in her upper carapace; ice crystals have formed in the deep wrinkles that cover her face. She still has my finger in her mouth, and I would pull it out but the forks of her tongue are wrapped around my finger so tightly that I can’t even wiggle it. The numbness has been replaced by aching cold, bone-deep. The frost on her face has spread to my skin, and I wonder if it will do any lasting damage to my soft human tissue. The cold doesn’t hurt their chiton the same way it can hurt skin, but I’ve never seen the seeing-frost spread so far. I wonder if it goes deeper, too. I wonder if it will hurt us both.
I hope that when she surfaces, and lets my finger out of her mouth, she’ll have good news for me.
Here are some things the Crab-People already had, even before they got in touch with us: Gambling. Radios. Rubber-bands. Fortune-telling.
Here are some things that we brought with us: Sewing. Alcohol. Butter. Soccer.
Here are some things that we’ve invented together since the humans got here: Unpoppable soccer balls. Butter-flavored pop. Puncture-proof condoms.
It wasn’t too bad, staying behind. I thought it would be terrible and lonely, but with everyone gone, Earth was pretty great. I got to go to the beach and see the whale, and there wasn’t a line or anything. The air cleared up pretty quickly, what with the algae bloom in full effect. It was so quiet, and there were no ads anywhere, and I wasn’t worried about getting mugged when I went outside at night. A few months after everyone left, I realized that the night was brighter. I looked up and there was light in the sky: I could see stars. Between the algae and the absence of light pollution, the night sky was cracked open, and then it was just… it was all right there. All that sky.
I slept outside, most nights, because inside was musty and smelled like rotting food. I had a sleeping bag, and I would just lay down on the grass and watch the stars until my head swam. There were a ton of stars. I mean a ton. They looked so different in real life from how they were in pictures. I learned to find constellations. And then, when my vision started to blur, I would cover my eyes with a shirt — if I didn’t cover them, it was too bright for me to sleep. I would wrap my old flannel around my face, and fall asleep, and dream about those stars some more. It was amazing.
But then I left those stars behind, and I came to the new place. You can’t stay behind forever. Right?
Moira’s eyes crack and thaw. The frost falls off her face in big dripping chunks, and she spits out my finger. It’s all purple and puckered at the end, hickeyed. I wipe it on my shirtfront and wait for her to tell me the answer to my question.
She doesn’t say anything for a long time, just looks at me with those glittering eyes. Then she spits my blood onto the ground and looks away, spits again. And again. Like my blood is bitter. Like it’s poison.
The Crab-People were so generous. They just wanted to stay on the few parts of their planet that they were already using, and they gave us the rest. They didn’t lay out a bunch of rules for us — just the basics.
\1. Don’t use their planet like we’d used Earth.
\2. Don’t kill the Crab-People.
That was it.
And everyone who showed up before me, they did a great job. They were in paradise, they thought. They marveled at the oceans, which were clean and blue. No whale, but lots of other stuff. They spent hours every day looking into the sky and breathing the clean air as deep down into their lungs as they could get it. They went outside at night and looked at the moons. And the humans, they all agreed not to ruin it. They started fresh, and they were doing great. They weren’t cutting down all the trees, and they weren’t dumping toxic waste anywhere, and they weren’t killing the Crab-People. Everyone was holding their breath — like they were all asking, Can we really do it? And by the time I showed up, they’d decided that the answer would be “yes.”
Moira is breathing fast, clicking her chelae together. Her glittering eyes dart from me to the beaded curtain over the door, then back. She wants to run.
“Moira, don’t worry. I’m not — I’m not going to hurt you. Just tell me what you saw.”
She licks her lips. She won’t look me in the eyes.
“You want to know what I saw, kid? I saw what you did.”
“I thought you looked into the future?”
“What, you think they’re separate? What you did and what you’re doing and what you’re going to do?” She’s shouting now, and those little clicks in her carapace are underscoring her words like castanets. “You think I can just see what’s going to happen without seeing why? What’s wrong with you? What’s wr—”
I jump up and clap a hand over her mouth.
“Moira, you need to quiet the hell down, or someone’s gonna hear you.”
Her breath whistles through her slitted nostrils, warm on my hand, and she nods. I take my hand off her mouth and swallow.
“OK, so, look. It’s not what you think.”
I told them I wanted to go back. Nobody remembered me. Nobody gave a shit about me. Nobody wanted to hear about the stars in the Earth-sky, the endless stars, and the air, and the fact that the whale started singing after all the people left, so loud I could hear her before I could see her. All they wanted to talk about was Crab-People, how great the Crab-People were, and had I seen the soccer match between the humans and the Crab-People? And wasn’t it amazing that we were actually going to pull this thing off?
I told them I wanted to go back, and they laughed. Ha-ha, good one, what was your name again? This chick’s funny. Go back. What’s to go back to?
I told them that the tree actually grew fruit. A year after they’d all left, the tree grew fruit, and inside the fruit were seeds, and I’d planted one, and it sprouted. I told them that if some of us went back, we might be able to make Earth habitable again, and then maybe we could all go home someday.
And they cracked up.
That’s when I started seeing Moira. I wanted to know how the little sprout was doing. How the whale was doing. The bees. And when I smeared some blood on her crystal ball, she said she could see them — she said that the sprout was a sapling now, with strong, lithe branches reaching towards the moon. She said that there was actually another whale, and that was why the singing had started — it was an all-clear call, the one we knew about telling the other to come out of hiding. She told me that the bees had raised up a second queen and were going to establish a second hive, outside of the museum.
I told them I wanted to go back, and they laughed at me, and made jokes about Old-Earth Australia. They said I could ride the first penal ship back if I managed to cause enough trouble.
And I looked up at the all-wrong stars in the Crab-People’s sky, and I wondered.
“Kid, you know what they’ll do to you.” She looks less scared now, more sad. I think she understands.
“I don’t know, Moira. That’s why I came to you. I wanted to be sure. Before—”
“Right, okay. OK. Here’s what I saw. I saw you do it, and then I saw them lift you up as a hero. They were throwing you a goddamned parade, just like you always wanted, and—” I register that my palm hurts before I realize that I’ve slapped her. Blue liquid trickles out of her split lower lip.
“Don’t lie to me, Moira.” I realize that I’m saying her name a lot. I don’t know why. “Tell me. Tell me, Moira. Tell me what you saw.” I’m close to her, and she’s leaning away from me like I smell bad. With a shaking claw, she tugs off the filmy scarf that she wears over her hairless grey scalp and presses it to her mouth, soaking up some of the blue blood. It muffles her voice, and I make her repeat what she said. And then I make her say it again.
“They send you back. They send you back all by yourself. You’re there, all alone, looking up at the sky. You’re crying and laughing and saying ‘alone, alone, alone.’ ”
“And they send me back because—”
“Don’t do it.” She’s whispering, and her typically glassy eyes are matte with tears. “Please, kid. Please don’t.”
I shake my head. “I don’t have a choice, Moira. You know I don’t. I can’t stay here.”
“You can, we’re happy to have you here. It’s nice to have neighbors. Please, don’t. Don’t break the peace between us.”
“I won’t. They’ll say I went crazy from being by myself for so long, and your people — they’ll understand. It’s like you said. I’ll be alone.” A little laugh bubbles out of me as I say it again and again. “Alone. Alone. Alone.”
I pick up the crystal ball that sits on her little folding table. She’s pressed against the wall, her claws scratching into the plaster. She’s pleading, talking about her family, her grandchildren. I almost can’t do it, but then I close my eyes and think about the sky on Earth, all of stars in all the right places.
I smash her carapace open with the crystal ball, and I yank out her frilled lungs and crush them beneath my heel.
I walk out into the street holding her claws aloft in one of my hands. They drip blue blood down my arm like ink, and it soaks into my shirt, staining it at the armpit. I get half a block before I hear the first screams.
I’m going home.
About the Author
Sarah Gailey is a Bay Area native, currently living and working in beautiful Oakland, California. Her fiction has appeared in Mothership Zeta and Fireside; her nonfiction has been published by Mashable, Tor.com, and the Boston Globe. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Watch for her debut novella, River of Teeth, from Tor.com in 2017.