Early in 2023, I tried an experiment. I wrote a short piece of fiction and made it accessible from my homepage. However, I also put it behind a button which had a simple message: “Don’t press this”.
Those who ignored the warning were given the following scene, along with the choice at the end. They had to email me so they could only choose one option. (Content warning: there’s a bit of horror, mainly involving painful transformation.)
One moment you’re staring at your screen, and the next you’re in an enormous cavern which opens to the sea. Flaming torches flicker on the walls. Something breaks the surface of a deep dark pool in the centre. Light dances on its skin… no, its shell. The crab scuttles sideways onto the ground. It towers over you. You shrink back, your nostrils filled with the thing’s salty stench.
A deep voice reverberates inside your mind. “Hmmmm.” The crab leans forward, claws clicking, one of its mandibles inches from your face. “How are you feeling about your choice to press that button?”
Any response you try to make is stopped by a rumble of laughter. “Silly question, I know. You think you’re trapped in a cave with a giant sea monster. You’re almost right. I’m actually a giant, magic sea monster.”
It moves back a bit and settles on the floor, claws resting in front of it. “Perhaps you feel like the button was a rigged game. Of course you were going to press it. No point thinking about what’s done, though. I’d be thinking about the next choice you need to make.”
The crab raises an arm, the human-sized vice on the end wide open. “I don’t like people much. The problem is, there’s one in my cave.” A green orb of light blooms between the claw. “I’m thinking of turning it into another crab. Just a little one. I’d put it in the sea for a year, and then transform it back and send it home. Partly so it’d learn not to go where it’s not wanted, but mainly because I can.”
The light goes out and the monster scurries back to the water, returning with a large wooden box. The metal hinges have rusted and barnacles coat the sides, but there are no gaps to show you what’s inside.
“Or, you could choose to open this.” The crab places it at your feet. “You’ll get to remain a human, and I’ll send you back home immediately.” It sounds amused as it speaks again. “Maybe what’s inside will be the better choice. Maybe not! Is it worth finding out?”
Become a crab
The light in the crab’s claw returns, but warps into green smoke when it releases it. You shudder as it envelopes you, making your eyes and throat sting. Even as you try to cover your mouth, the stinging spreads. Your arms itch, but it’s under your skin; scratching does nothing to soothe it. Claws burst from your wrists, shattering your hands. You merely emit a gasping croak when you cry out. Your tongue suddenly feels wrong in your mouth. It tears in two and the parts wriggle free, crawling up your cheeks and onto your forehead.
Now it’s like you’re being pounded with hammers all over. You can barely make out the cave through the haze, but it looks like it’s growing. Your legs split like your tongue did, into more parts. By the time you’ve tumbled to the ground, they’ve reattached themselves along your body. Finally, your insides burn and something solid forces its way up your throat. It’s turned to liquid by the time it leaves your mouth and spreads with more tingling across your body, hardening once more.
You know something’s dreadfully amiss, but you can’t remember what. You’re suddenly desperate for water, and for food. Words tumble through your mind, but they soon become unfamiliar. The last ones you understand are from a deep voice.
“One normal crab, as promised. Best learn how to find food, I reckon. I’d avoid getting eaten too. Have a nice year.”
You stumble forwards, which feels wrong. Sideways is better. Soon it feels natural. You slip into the salty water and ride the tide out to sea.
Open the box
With some effort, you pull the lid of the box open. The hinges squeal and the wood creaks. Thick green smoke billows out, obscuring everything and making your eyes and throat sting. As you cough and try not to inhale more, images of the sea fill your mind. You imagine a mass of crustaceans on the ocean floor, huge and menacing like the monstrous crab. The smoke rushes from the cave, and the creatures drum their arms on their legs. Green lights bloom between their claws.
Screams carry on the wind from impossible distances, quickly turning to gasping croaks. Still you’re lost in the fog, blind to your surroundings, but able – forced – to see further. Tongues split and crawl out onto foreheads, becoming antennae. Two legs become eight, while claws burst from arms. White liquid pours from mouths and rolls over bodies, hardening into dark shells. And then, all you hear is scuttling.
When the smoke clears, you’re back in front of your screen. One final image appears in your mind. Across the world, billions of crabs are carried to the sea on invisible waves. Their arms and legs flail in strange directions, unused to them as they are. You hear the deep voice in your mind again as the scene fades.
“We didn’t do anything to you, as promised. You’re going to be lonely for a while, though. Best learn how to find food, I reckon. I’d avoid injuring yourself too. Have a nice year.”
Almost everyone who got in touch decided to open the box. Most weren’t pleased with the result, and regretted that they hadn’t opted to become a crab. (The exception was fellow editor Katherine Kirk, whose response was as follows: “I’m 100% satisfied with this result and would do it again!”)
This can be worth bearing in mind if any of your characters ever have to make a difficult decision. If you need them to go one way but it seems likely they’d go the other, is there any way you can disguise one of the choices? Regret can create great tension in a story, especially if a decision is clearly awful with the benefit of hindsight.
Can you think of any good examples of this in fiction? Do you already include anything similar in your own stories? (Think trickster gods, cursed monkey paws and the like.) And also, which choice did you make above? Email me or let me know in the comments!