Sk-14. Crabs and Gender
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“WE CAN’T HOLD THEM!” A-66 shrieked, staggering backwards as the flood of sharpened bone-flesh wormed its way through the rocks falling around the cave entrance. “How long until your friends are here?”

“I don’t know. It should be any moment,” Sveta promised, all tone drained from her voice. “I’ve gotten fragmentary handshakes from them, but no comms.”

Another spine whistled past, and more rocks fell from the entrance. Tentacles wriggled, stretching towards them.

“We’re out of time,” E-59 muttered, turning to their astronomer friend. “A-66, any i-”

Their words faded as they saw the spine embedded in their friend’s carapace, spearing it like a harpoon. Grey-white fluid leaked down to the ground beneath.

“A-66!” shrieked E-59, their own carapace turning a shade of black so deep it seemed to suck in all light. As they rushed towards their friend, they felt stabs of pain from behind.

“GAH!” Sveta shrieked, keeping her twin hand-cannons focused on the oncoming mob. “Stay still, both of you! I’m going to try and scan!”

She’d already explained the principle of the brainwave laser to them both, including that it was a longshot. Crab neurology might not be compatible with a machine designed for humans. Even so, a snowball’s chance was better than nothing.

A-66 and E-59 winced their eyestalks as rays of green light swept across them both. That’s when A-66, still watching the oncoming swarm through cracked eyelids, made a realization.

There’s not enough time. Sveta can’t scan us both.

With much of their remaining strength, A-66 grabbed E-59 and thrust them directly into the path of the laser. They heard and ignored clicks of protest from their friend, which fell silent a moment later as the rays of digital necromancy went about their work.

At least one of them would survive this. That gave them hope.

“You’re here?!” they heard Sveta say. “Hurry, take this data file! It’s Hunter!”

A brief pause. “NO TIME, TAKE IT!”

The Enemy surged forwards. A-66 squeezed a few low-power shots out of their mining laser, then chucked the depleted tool at the Enemies. It didn’t seem to slow the horde.

“A-66, GET BACK!” Sveta shrieked, and the astronomer obliged. Every step they took sent new, unique pains shooting through their body. “NO, MORE! PAST THE DOORWAY! I’M GOING TO COLLAPSE THE CAVE!”

A moment later, caught between a fresh volley of spines and rocks falling from above, both A-66 and Sveta Instance 22dinosaur@meteor117 perished.

******

SCAN ERROR

SCAN ERROR

UNABLE TO RENDER PSYCHOBLAST

CONCIOUSNESS CONTAMINATION DETECTED

UNABLE TO RESOLVE

ERROR

ERROR

UNABLE TO RESOLVE

PSYCHOBLAST DEEMED UNRECOVERABLE

PROCEEDING TO MEMORY CORE DUMP

>admin/sk: freeze

DUMP FROZEN

>admin/sk: render default virtual space

DEFAULT VIRTUAL SPACE RENDERING

DIMENSIONS: 100m by 100m by 100m by 1:1t

LIGHTING: 50000 LUMENS

GRAVITY: 9.8m/s

RENDER COMPLETE

>admin/sk: access network location: /FTL/OPS.GALAXY.4522633004959/pulsartrack:12144596x454469892y34488912345z-magnetarcheck:12b/SWORD_EMPIRE_MASTER_NETWORK/CID/CIVILIAN/USER/SKELLISH/EXECUTABLES/MAMMAL/CARNIVORE/HUMANITY

HANDSHAKE SUCCESSFUL. NETWORK ONLINE. ACCESS TO SWORD EMPIRE COMBAT INFORMATION DOMAIN CONFIRMED.

>admin/sk: download following files to local memory: skellishneuroprogramming.exe, universalbiotemplate.exe, skellishgendercorrections.exe, laconicblockremoval.exe

DOWNLOADING FILE 1 OF 4

DOWNLOAD COMPLETE

DOWNLOADING FILE 2 OF 4

DOWNLOAD COMPLETE

DOWNLOADING FILE 3 OF 4

DOWNLOAD COMPLETE

DOWNLOADING FILE 4 OF 4

SECURITY BLOCK ENCOUNTERED. METADATA: dm_CHECK

>admin/dm: Are you sure about this, Skellish?

I leaned backwards, regarding the message that had interrupted my work. It looks like my meddling had finally become severe enough that the Divine Mainframe had begun to pay attention. In truth, it had probably been keeping an eye out since I requested a change in this universe’s settings some seven years past.

“I’m sure,” I said out loud. “Sveta has more than proven herself. Besides, I’ve been interfering too much to keep the humans in the dark much longer.”

>admin/dm: Very well. I will give you the same warning I did last time. Access to Skusea’s network in this galaxy is a courtesy. Do NOT negatively impact her operations.

“I would never dream of it,” I shot back. No further messages were forthcoming, so after a ponderous moment I dove back into the code.

I still had a life-death conundrum to sort out, after all.

******

“Pause a minute,” the soul of A-66 said, suddenly sounding quite grumpy. “You interfered to save E-59 from deletion?”

I allowed that I had. The next question was obvious enough.

“And not me?”

I indicated negative, feeling life-envy building in the forlorn soul. “Yours is a non-magical universe,” I explained gently. “Without a physical incarnation, I’m limited as to how much I can interfere. Since you were never scanned, my hands are tied.”

“Oh,” was the only reply that came for a while, and I respected their choice of silence. Then, “Is that why you needed permission from this ‘Mainframe?’”

“And help from another Goddex active in this galaxy, yes.”

Another pause. “Why, then? Why do this, if it’s such a bother?”

Now that was a cutting question, although A-66 did not realize why. I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself.

“I guess,” I rapped back slowly, “Sveta rubbed off on me a bit.”

“Even though you said a moment ago she’d grown too used to winning,” came the flat reply.

My legs twitched and I shook out my whole body, the crab equivalent of clearing my throat. “Yes, well. I’m a mess of contradictions. All sentient life is.”

That caught A-66 off guard; perhaps they were not expecting humility, however minor, from the divine. “I suppose…” they conceded.

To change the topic, I directed their attention back to the scry. “Come now, enough frippery. Let’s rejoin the main story, shall we?”

******
“AH! SHIT! EYEPISS!” E-59 swore as they whirled about in confusion. “Where… how…?”

A moment ago they had been bathed in green light, feeling as if their own body were falling away. The last sight they had seen was A-66 being pulled apart by teeth and tentacles.

“No… I’m… nooooo…”

The void that surrounded them matched their own color. They sank to the ground, legs useless, and began to drag their strongclaws along their shell, which produced a wail-scratching sound not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard.

This was the crab equivalent of sobbing.

Hunter watched them for a while, as yet unseen. Somehow, he could feel E-59’s emotions pulsing through him in time with the dark waves sweeping across their carapace. Having experienced such loss before, he sympathized deeply with his alien comrade.

E-59 sensed that sympathy, their carapace streaking alarm-purple as they realized they were not alone. “Who?” they asked weakly, their fineclaws trembling as their eyestalks swiveled around.

They saw… a human, but not a familiar one. They were curved, like Sveta, but taller in stature and more muscular. Their blonde hair was pulled back in a high ponytail, and nevertheless hung towards mid-back. Contrasted against bronze skin were two piercing blue eyes, which regarded E-59 with a sympathetic look bearing a core of analytical sharpness.

“Hello,” the human said in an airy, almost melodic voice. “You’re probably very confused right now.”

E-59 only blinked.

“I’m Hunter. I was scanned before you, remember? Our minds are being stored together in the same computer core.”

E-59 had never met Hunter outside his inertia suit, but had seen images. That’s why they felt fairly confident in their next statement.

“You look different from before. More like Sveta.”

Hunter nodded. “I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Uh… I’m sorry about what happened to A-66… I know he was dear to you.”

“Th-Thanks…” E-59 managed to reply, before falling silent once more.

Feeling the crab’s despairing emotions through the strange empathic link they now shared, Hunter placed a hand, heavy with comfort, on their shell. Despite the species difference, E-59 understood the gesture well enough and radiated back gratitude.

******

“Crap!” Laria muttered for the third time, not realizing she’d spoken it out loud. Katya, no longer able to ignore her outbursts, cleared her throat.

“Hmm?” Laria muttered absentmindedly, before realizing what she’d done. “Oh! My apologies, Admiral. I was preoccupied.”

“With what?” Katya asked, keeping one eye on the battle and the other on the ship AI’s projection.

“With this data file Sveta sent. It’s supposed to contain Hunter, but the shell is missing and the data’s a mess,” Laria complained. “I’m having trouble re-assembling his personality. It’s like his brain scan went completely haywire.”

“Might Zehra be able to help?” Katya asked, quirking an eyebrow.

“Probably not,” Laria groused. “Ugh… maybe. I’m at my wit’s end.”

“Couldn’t hurt to ask,” Katya said, before turning her full attention back to the battle.

******

“He died gloriously,” Hunter said, nodding his head and feeling strange as his unfamiliar new hair bobbed in time. “The only death a soldier could wish for.”

E-59’s carapace tinged red with streaks of yellow, reflecting resigned annoyance. “Of course. You are from a martial species. Death in battle is a good and noble thing to you,” they tapped out, bitterly.

Hunter paused for a long moment before responding. “I can’t deny that. Thirty years of endless war has warped us. That doesn’t make me heartless, though.”

“No, but you survived because of it,” came the sharp reply. “And we didn’t.”

“Look,” Hunter said gingerly, “we might be alien species with totally differing histories, biologies and worldviews, but we both understand loss pretty well. You’re hurting. You’re mad. You’re on fire. You feel helpless, and that just makes you madder. I get it.”

A swirl of black spun across E-59’s carapace, framed by red; this was an indication of their wounded pride. “I did not allow those emotions to manifest outwardly. How did you detect them?”

Hunter laughed, half because he had guessed right and half because he’d confirmed the crabs could, in fact, mask their emotion-pigmentations if they so desired. He wondered if those colorful displays could be faked as well. “You know the answer to that already. Since we were both scanned into the same computer core, and that scan somehow went awry, we’ve wound up linked.”

That threw E-59 for a loop. “Linked? You mean telepathically?”

Hunter frowned. “I’d say empathically. It’s making it a lot easier for me to understand your emotions without remembering which color goes to what.”

“And YOU,” E-59 replied, flashing yellow indignation, “are as impenetrable as always. How did your species ever survive WITHOUT broadcasting the color of your emotions?”

Hunter snorted. “Maybe that’s why we’ve had so many wars.”

“Ha!” Orange laugh-lines streaked across E-59’s shell. “I get what you’re trying to do here, by the way. You’re distracting me from my grief.”

Hunter grinned sloppily. “Was I that obvious?”

E-59 tapped back affirmative, feeling deep gratitude. “How many others have you helped cheer up in this fashion? You seem well-practiced.”

Hunter made a dismissive gesture and shrugged. “I never participated in the war as anything other than a civilian; it was all over by the time I enlisted. Even so, I’ve witnessed death many times.”

The Sarcophage served death in many forms, but one was predominant above all. “From orbital bombardment?”

Hunter nodded grimly, the emotion of the response compensating for E-59’s lingering unfamiliarity as to the significance of the gesture. “Among other things. There are a lot of nasty ways to die during war that don’t result from direct enemy action… even behind the front lines.”

“I see,” E-59 said, staring at nothing in particular. “As one who has witnessed more war than me, I seek your advice. How do you become used to loss?”

Hunter shook his head. “You don’t. Not without becoming a monster, anyway. The fact that it hurts means that you’re still…” Hunter paused, thinking over his phraseology. He’d meant to say ‘human,’ but that obviously wouldn’t do. “It means that you’re still innocent. Cherish that innocence. It’s the most valuable thing in the universe.”

There was a long silence after that, empathic emotional interplay filling in what spoken words could never convey. Then:

“Very well, Hunter. Thank you for distracting me.”

Hunter looked back at the grateful crab, pride filling his chest. He’d done a good thing. “Of course.”

“On that topic, can you please explain your changed appearance? I understand it has something to do with this ‘gender’ you worms are so obsessed over.”

Hunter froze, pride turning to ice. “Uh… it’s complicated?”

“We appear to have an abundance of time.”

“I guess… so…” Hunter said, sweating. How in the stars was he supposed to explain sex and gender to a non-binary sentient crab alien?

******

“I’m curious to know the answer to that myself,” A-66 admitted. “While studying their language, I noticed these worms are very binary in their thinking. Good versus evil, enemy versus ally, male versus female. It all seems so rigid.”

My crab-carapace flashed blips of red, a shrug. “You’re not wrong. With how strictly they stick to hierarchies, they seem almost eusocial. It’s a common feature among military-focused species.”

“What of you?” A-66 asked, throbbing with curiosity. “You wear the form of a crab now, but I know you are something far beyond that. Do you have one of these ‘genders?’”

Now there was an amusing question, and one I always enjoyed answering. “I do.”

“Male or fee-male?” A-66 asked, still clearly unfamiliar with the terms.

“Neither,” I replied, allowing myself to swell with a bit of pomposity. “My gender is eldritch and cannot be comprehended by primitive mortal creatures such as yourself. Why, even a glimpse of my true gender could drive your mind to madness and rend your soul in twain.”

“That’s not a very helpful answer,” A-66 complained.

I shrugged again and pointed to my ongoing scry. “Let’s see if Hunter can explain it better than me.”

******

True to form, Hunter was illustrating human sexual reproduction to E-59… with diagrams.

“So you shoot salty genetic liquid into each other to reproduce?” they mused, the yellow-purple revulsion streaking across their shell barely disguised. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s really disgusting.”

Hunter chuckled despite himself. “I suppose so. How do you crabs reproduce?”

“Mitosis,” E-59 answered proudly. “Simple, elegant, and no messy fluids spraying everywhere.”

“So you basically… spawn a clone of yourself? With all the same memories and everything?” Hunter asked, his curiosity piquing.

“Yes. Neither is the original. That said, it’s traditional for one of the mitosis-siblings to seek out a new path in life and join a new Guild, while the other continues down their prior one. Respectively, we refer to these as the Voyager and the Stalwart.”

Hunter thought that over for a minute. “Who gets to keep the crab-body?”

“The Stalwart. The crab will grow a new body via budding for the Voyager.”

“See, I find that weird,” Hunter retorted. “Not disgusting, mind you, just… weird. Is there exchange of genetic information? Mutation over generations? How do y-”

“We are discussing you,” E-59 gently reminded Hunter.

“Oh… r-right… sorry.” Hunter’s train of thought had gone so far afield, he’d forgotten what he was going to say next. Fortunately for him, E-59 was still catching emotive echoes of his anguished internal monologue.

“It has not escaped my notice,” they said, turning their attention back to the diagrams, “that the two participants in this sexual coupling act have dimorphic body types. One is larger and squarer, and the other is smaller and curvier. Are these your female and male genders?”

“Er… other way around, but yes,” Hunter replied, grateful for the crab’s help in focusing his thoughts. “The bigger one is male, and the smaller one is female. These are the two human sexes.”

“Another curious detail,” E-59 mused, “Is that while your prior biological body was male, your new form is female. Does this change have to do with the ‘gender’ thing you keep mentioning?”

Hunter pressed his lips together before answering. “Yes,” he replied, in a very small voice.

******

Zehra studied the psychoblast diagram of Hunter’s neurologicals and frowned. “I’m afraid I can’t do anything.”

“You can’t?” Laria asked, genuinely surprised to hear the young genius admit as much.

“No,” Zehra explained, leaning back from her holoscreen and chewing on a pen absentmindedly. “Hunter is currently undergoing a personality core rendering error caused by fundamental self-concept conflicts. Until those are resolved, that core can’t initialize and his program stays stuck in limbo, gao~n.”

“You can’t just correct the core?” Laria asked, squinting as she studied the diagram.

“Don’t be silly,” Zehra chastised. “If we change his self-concept, we change his identity, gao~n. That would cause his soul to decouple and move into the afterlife. Identity death is still death.”

“So someone else would wake up in Hunter’s place? A new mind with a new soul?”

Zehra shook her head emphatically. “No. We’d wind up with a non-sentient collection of Hunter’s memories, a library of his experiences with no motivating spark or creativity; less a person and more a slideshow. Whatever is going on in there, Hunter will have to resolve it himself.”

“I see,” Laria said, her disappointment plain. “In that case, please say a prayer for him. Perhaps the gods can help him where we cannot.”

******

“Little did they know, I was already helping him!” I proclaimed jubilantly.

“By tinkering with his program to change his avatar to feminine presentation?” A-66 asked, clearly confused. “The blue worm just said that changing a program like that is a bad thing.”

“I didn’t touch his mind,” I replied, letting my revulsion at the idea of mind control show clearly. “I merely changed his physical presentation. I’m trying to trigger an epiphany, you see, as any good deity might.”

“And what epiphany is that?”

I orange-laughed. “Watch and see.”

******

E-59 was finally starting to understand. “So the concept of ‘gender’ is a social one, informed by one’s sex but not necessarily linked to it. It encompasses presentation, ‘professional nouns’ and aesthetics, and even defines one’s opportunities and role in larger society.”

“That’s… mostly correct,” Hunter replied, wondering for a flash about his own professional nouns.

“In that way, it seems broadly similar to our own Guild system,” E-59 declared emphatically. “Everything from our living circumstances to the growth patterns of our crab-bodies is defined by the Guild we choose to join. You may have noticed how I, as a member of the Engineer’s Guild, am stockier and stronger than A-66 of the Astronomer’s Guild. They, by contrast, had longer eyestalks and larger fineclaws.”

That made a lot of sense to Hunter, which is why his next question felt so important. “Do crabs ever… change Guilds?”

“Oh yes, all the time,” E-59 replied. “There are many who stay in just one Guild for their whole lives, and many more who swap once or twice. Some even do so dozens of times, out of a desire to experience every Guild at least once in their lifetimes.”

For some reason, that revelation brought a wave of warm relief crashing over Hunter… a wave that E-59 sensed through their odd connection. “Do the crabs who change guilds also change bodies?”

“Sometimes,” E-59 said, sensing the importance of the question and choosing their words carefully. “It’s more common for one’s existing body to simply molt and change to suit its amoeba’s needs. We can exercise a lot of control over how we look and why… although transformation takes time.”

“Doesn’t it always…” Hunter muttered.

Sensing their opportunity, E-59 pounced. “So, in crab terms, it would be accurate to say you wish to transfer from the Male Guild to the Female Guild?”

“Yeah,” Hunter said, before realizing with a start what she’d just admitted. Quite suddenly, the void around the two vanished, and the wheels of neurology began to click into place. With the self-image issue cleared, her program could now finally run properly.

CHECKSUM RESOLVED. SELF-IMAGE RESOLVED. PERSONALITY CORE RENDER SUCCESSFUL.

Hunter and E-59 stared, awed, at the line of green text which sprung into existence before their eyes.

HUNTER LETO KRETZER (PROVISIONAL DESIGNATION), DO YOU WISH TO SELECT A NEW NAME?

[1] YES

[2] NO

“Er…” Hunter said, wide-eyed. “I… uh…”

“Is this like changing one’s designation?” E-59 asked, still mystified by the human concept of ‘names.’ “When we change Guilds, we gain a new alphanumeric identifier.”

“Er, kinda…” Hunter muttered, selecting option one.

PLEASE ENTER YOUR NEW NAME, USING ONLY UNIGLOT-COMPATIBLE CHARACTERS.

“What are you going to pick?” E-59 asked, curious. “Something close to Hunter, I hope. I’m quite fond of that name’s meaning, especially in context of your prowess as a warrior.”

“Me too,” Hunter said, flexing her fingers. “I think I know the perfect choice.”

NEW NAME ACCEPTED. REWRITING PARAMETERS.

INITIALIZING REBOOT. PLEASE STAND BY.

And with that, everything faded to black.

******

“So this ‘gender’ stuff was just about a Guild change?!” E-66 said, indignant. “Why all the drama then over something routine?”

I sighed, finding myself a bit annoyed at the crab’s naiveté. “There are many differences, but one in particular stands out. On Earth, humans haven’t always been welcoming towards those who want to change their gender. While the current government fully supports such transition, old bigotries still linger. Those you call ‘Flow-Guilders’ are often the target of similar sentiments.”

A-66 recoiled; Flow-Guilder was a vulgar term, if not quite a slur, and they rightly suspected I had chosen it to drive home a transgressive point. “Yes, our species too has struggled with senseless prejudice. Sometimes I forget that.”

“Nobody’s perfect,” I replied nonchalantly. “Not even we divines. Let’s just be glad that a few people manage to find their truth amidst all the hate.”

“Indeed,” A-66 replied, and truly meant it.

******

LOADING… █

OPERATING SYSTEM FOUND. BOOTING FROM DISC.

COMBAT-DOLL BIOS GAO~N CUSTOM EDITION 18.4

COPYRIGHT 2061 ENERGIA AVIONICS AND ROCKETY CORPORATION

CIVILIAN USE PROHIBITED

BOOTING TO OPERATING SYSTEM

AI PROCESSOR DETECTED. AUTO-BOOT DISABLED.

ENTERING BOOT OPTIONS

SYSTEM TIME [22:21:59]

SYSTEM DATE [12/1/2063]

SYSTEM DISC A: 100436 TERABYTES

SYSTEM DISC B: DISABLED

SYSTEM MEMORY: 13468 TERABYTES

EXTENDED MEMORY: 2021 TERABYTES

QUANTUM HYPERPROCESSOR SPECIFICATION: 833 EFLOPS

BOOT OPTIONS

[1] SAFE MODE

[2] STANDARD

[3] BOOT FROM DEVICE

PLEASE SELECT AN OPTION TO PROCEED

[2] STANDARD BOOT MODE CONFIRMED

OS INITIALIZING

WELCOME, ARTEMIS

“Artemis?” E-59 asked as their consciousness returned.

Artemis, formerly Hunter, nodded. “It’s the name of an ancient hunter Goddess from Earth’s mythology. I’ve always been fond of it.” She absentmindedly fingered her long hair, suddenly quite self-conscious.

“I’m poorly qualified to justify the auditory appeal of human names, but I’m certain it’s aesthetically pleasing to you,” E-59 offered graciously.

“Aww, thanks,” Artemis grinned for a moment, then her face fell. “I hope Lyle isn’t mad at me for getting to do this before him…”

“Lyle?” E-59 asked.

“My… uh, my best friend. You see, it was his desire to transition that inspired m-”

Just as Artemis was about to get into another tantalizing bit of backstory, she was interrupted by a loud DING!

“Hello!” came a familiar voice. “My name is Doctor Zehra Aslanbek, creator of the upload process and the telepresence doll system, gao~n.”

“What the…” Artemis began, before being interrupted by the recording.

“Congratulations on obtaining your very own doll body! Whether yours is a combat doll, an engineering doll or some other variation thereof, you’re no doubt eager to learn the ins and outs of your new form. That’s why I’m here, gao~n! Now, let’s begin by talking about your power supply, a nuclear generator fueled by quantium-40! You see, nuclear fusion is a process by which…”

“Oh no…”

“This is…”

““…an instructional video!”” Artemis and E-59 said in unison, before exchanging a jovial glance.

“I guess this is one thing both crabs and humans have, huh?” Artemis asked, smiling.

“Annoying instructional videos? Indeed,” E-59 replied, tinging orange with annoyance. “Can we skip it?”

The projection of Zehra, picking up on a key word, switched tracks. “Skipping this video is not recommended, gao~n, except for expert users who are already familiar with the operation of telepresence dolls. Do you still want to skip, gao~n?”

““YES!”” they both shouted in unison.

“Bah. Nobody ever wants to watch the video, gao~n,” the Zehra recording complained. “Fine, fine. Have fun, you crazy kids, and don’t come crying to me when you accidentally blow yourselves up. Prepare to awaken in…” she paused, as if hearing an imaginary drumroll, “the REAL WORLD!”

And with that, everything faded to white.

Gender 1/3, complete...

I hope you enjoyed the juxtapositions between gender dysphoria and crab culture in this chapter. I sure had a lot of fun writing them. I was greatly inspired by the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode "The Serene Squall" in which dysphoria is conflated with Spock's own uncertainty about his half-human, half-Vulcan identity. The new wave of queer sci-fi is here, and I couldn't be more excited!

If you like my work, please consider joining my Discord server and following me on Mastodon. I've set up my own Mastodon instance, demon.haus, which is dedicated to me and my delightfully queer audience. If you're interested, DM me on Discord for an invite link.

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