Celin's World

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Originally published 18 May 2005 at Backwash.com

A pair of free-swinging half-doors opened out onto the dirt street, a wide, flat path scarred by the travels of the creatures who moved back and forth in their daily routines. The shop had been there as long as the street had, more than twenty years. Before, it was wide open land, coated in green and orange grasses, grazed upon by the giant native beasts of the land.

Celin arrived before any of the roads had been laid, before any buildings had been built. He was sent to make the land habitable, bring humanity to the empty expanses. Now, he stood just inside the swinging doors, peering over their tops out into the fading daylight.

Two customers appeared; Celin moved away from the door to allow their entry. The setting sun glinted off their inky carapaces, distorted by the subtle fingerprint swirls in the shell. Their heads were oval, two large eyes set at opposite ends, with a wide slit of a mouth set vertically between them. This pair had rudimentary antennae still, betraying their youth. For so young, both were already adult size, just about up to Celin's chin and around 4 feet long. Their eight legs clattered on the wooden floor; their small juvenile pincers were pulled tight to their undersides, supporting the weight of the cloth 'saddlebags' hung across their thorax.

Celin whistled a friendly greeting; the color of the customers' eyes swirled and changed to a rich blue before their mouths tightened and whistled back. One expressed his pleasure at Celin's whistletalk; he had very poor penmanship and hasn't done well communicating with humans in the past.

Celin whistled that he hoped the lad could handle a pen well enough to draw his request, or point to what he wanted. Photos on the wall showed examples of Celin's past work; other bugs with deep scars and cuts covering their shells, limbs split to the point they could be seen clear through, gruesome-looking chin gouges. The eyes of the larger one faded to almost transparency, and he indicated he would need time to think about it. The other, the writing-challenged one, agreed, but whistled that he could go first.

Celin was a pioneer; a man tossed into the stars in a box of plastic and steel, to fall down upon another planet. Survey ships, ones manned by humans who never left their ships, had stopped by this planet before, and reported its habitability. It was closer to its native star, one unnamed except for its coordinates, and was heavily water-rich. No indigenous societies to negotiate with, and very little tectonic activity. The planet was a ball of green and blue serenity in a sparse solar system of two planets.

The first team of settlers, four hundred of them, arrived with tools and electronics. The colonist ship carried double the humans of other locations; no raw materials were sent with this group. The planet had more than enough to support new construction right away.

Celin was a mining surveyor. The lack of interesting or useful geology on the planet left little for him to do, so he explored for his own entertainment. Celin wandered for miles around the first settlement, Newlas Angeles, disappearing for weeks. He met small lizards, strange fishlike birds, and more insects than he had ever seen.

He followed the herds of huge beetle-like animals as they grazed the landscape. They had no cares, no predators -- other than carrion-eaters, there seemed to be no large carnivores -- and massed by the hundreds of thousands. They looked like the lakes of oil he had seen on a dead planet he surveyed in college. Miles of fluffy clouds reflected in an undulating black mirror. His reports, devoted to geological features he found, made no mention of the fauna he found. The powers-that-be ignored Celin's wandering, along with his reports, because nothing about him caused any great concern.

Celin prefered it this way. His life on Earth was as a city dweller, and his visits to other planets involved observing it on a viewscreen in the infra-red spectrum from three hundred thousand miles away. In college he was allowed trips to certain planets, for first-hand contact with the data he was observing from orbit, but none were particularly beautiful. They were planets used by students for experimentation, biospheres already damaged by time or nature or human intervention, and not worth much except as an example of what planets sometimes look like.

The beauty of Celin's new homeworld overpowered any sense of duty he had, and, fortunately, nobody expected him to keep up with his duties. On one level, it concerned him that he would be assigned to a planet that didn't need his services, but living off fruit and wild plants, lying in the sun, and spending an afternoon playing with the wild rodent-ants didn't bother him one bit. He devoted one day a week to probing some rock with his sensorbook, so he'd have something to report. He never saw anything worth more than a day's inspection.

More colonists arrived, spreading out across the small single continent. Two hundred thousand settlers had arrived by the time the first settlement was destroyed.

- - - - -

Celin had returned to his perch at the front doors of his shop, watching the street activity silhouetted against the reddening sky. The bold insect announced he was ready, and Celin proceeded with his standard set of questions:

How old are you? Three, it answered.

How long since your last molting? Eight months, it answered. Celin warned him this was a very important point; if it was less than five, the carapace could be fatally damaged. Yes, it insisted, at least eight months since he molted.

Had he ever been scarred before? Not in a shop, it said, but it showed Celin a mark on the underside of it's abdomen where it fell off a rock when it was young. Celin recognized it as a juvenile scar, brilliant orange in color because no chitin grew on it as he aged.

Was he under the influence of chemicals? No, it answered. Celin was staring intently at the beetle's eyes. Any paleness of transparency indicated nervousness, fear; anything that would indicate a lie would have gotten both bugs kicked out of the shop.

The other beetle's eyes were still very pale, and he drooled slightly, another nervous indicator. Celin hoped seeing his buddy get carved would settle the nervous bug's mind; Celin needed the money. Two beetles, large stags at that, would bring a nice wage.

- - - - -

The first colony destroyed -- the third one built -- was set in the center of a large grasslands. Farming projects extended outwards along radiating roads, claiming the land to support the growing human population. No beetles had been sighted in the area; ridges of low hills separated this prairie from the wilder badlands occupied by the large land animals.

The settlers had been ripped limb from limb; the bugs seemed to understand separating the heads was a quick way of finishing off the humans. None were left alive; no beetles remained in the area. The farmland was left trampled but untouched.

Celin first did not believe the insects would have done such a thing -- he went to the colony government and insisted there was some larger creature that was unknown to them.

In closed chambers, Celin rambled for hours about his travels, completely forgetting he could be fired for such a breach of duty. He described the placidity of every creature he met, but he admitted he had not seen everything. Sometimes there were dead creatures that appeared to have been killed by a predator, maybe something else was out there, he insisted. Celin had wandered the continent for two years, transmitting his reports as he went, and saw nothing to indicate the herbivores would do this. Kill humans, and not eat the plants? It was inconcievable.

The government did not believe Celin's assertion that the bugs were innocent, but they reached an agreement that Celin's expertise would find the creatures to blame, beetles or not. They assigned him a regiment of 'minutemen' guardsmen, and they were sent out to find the bugs responsible.

Shortly after he and his team were dispatched, another settlement ceased to respond to communications. Celin and his troops found it in similar condition to the other destroyed city. Humans pulled to pieces, everything left untouched. The tracks were immediately recognizeable by Celin; it was the large land beetles, moving in a wide swath across the land. Not far from the city, the troops found dead insects; the city tried to fight during the advance, managing to kill several, but very few insect bodies were found considering the armament the city was supposed to have.

When the regiment of soldiers, led by Celin, caught up with the bugs, they found out why so few bugs met their end. The bugs' shells were impervious to both bullets and beam weapons; only the microwave cannon seemed to drop a huge beetle, but it could only be fired once every few minutes.

- - - - -

The pale-eyed beetle watched intently as Celin set up the tools of his trade. The engraver looked much like a woodworking router: cylindrical, with a handle on each side, and a sharp point at the bottom. The bold beetle had elected for a series of grooves, rutting scars, carved above his shoulders. They were marks that a successful male recieved during competition for a mate. Losers tended to have scars on the tops of their heads and forearms, but the successful were tall enough, strong enough, to be high enough that he couldn't be stepped on.

The pale-eyed beetle asked what other things Celin could do; he must be younger, or more domesticated, Celin thought, to not readily recognize the patterns. Celin pointed out the fight-scars, long lines and jab-marks on the back, that indicated a strong defender. Older males usually requested those. Face-scars usually meant a good provider, once earned in nature by digging for roots and foraging in the forested areas. Celin even told the story of one small male who asked to have a wing-split engraved in his abdomen. Female! the two exclaimed, their eyes a mix of swirling yellows and greens; males did not have the rudimentary wings that the females had. Their carapace was a single smooth surface, but the females had a split where they could extend their wings for mating displays. The bugs whistled a few 'words' that Celin recognized as obscene slurs of some sort, but he had never learned what they meant. He clicked his tongue rapidly, emulating the rattling 'laugh' of the two beetles.

Celin turned and retrieved a cutting barb from the autoclave, and tightened it down into the engraver. Gripping it tightly in both hands, he pulled the trigger. The high-pitched whine wound up quickly, then died away as Celin released the switch.

Both insects' eyes had turned completely transparent. Celin could see the network of blood vessels underneath the dome of the eyes.

He had grown accustomed to seeing that, the view straight into the insect's skulls.

- - - - -

Celin's troops were the first to discover this effect, based on Celin's observations. Celin, in his travels, had noticed that the insects' joints were very weak. During mating, males often lost legs that grew back. Unfortunate rivals who ventured too close during egg-laying lost their entire heads.

While the insects had strong shearing power in their claws, much of their muscles were designed for holding their own weight. In close quarters, soldiers found it simple enough to get close by knocking the bug's claws away with the butt of their gun -- then ripping the beetle's head off. It was much easier than Celin thought it would be. The connecting tissue was almost paper-thin. The insects fear reactions were shocking: the water-clear eyes, the oozing from their mouths. In the wild, Celin only saw the blue eyes of happy insects; they blazed orange, even glowed in the dark, when the insects attacked. But transparent eyes were a sign of fear.

Celin's defense strategy did not reach the capitol in time. They returned to find it overrun, small buildings trampled flat, human bodies everywhere being scavanged by centipede-like mammals. The swath cut by the beetles was several miles across; the bugs were collecting themselves, working their way west across the continent in ever-growing numbers.

Earth issued orders to Celin and his men: defend the three remaining cities at all cost. Shortly after, the three cities named Celin interim governor.

Celin and his army reached the first city ahead of the insect invasion. They had traveled fifty miles around to get past the advancing phalanx of bugs. The thunder of the swarm's clawed legs pounding on the ground was a terrifying sound, but it was briefly drowned out by the cheers of the city residents welcoming Celin. They lined the streets as Celin's army drove through the center of town. Celin sat atop the lead truck, awed by the sight. He was their savior, the only person who could prevent death and destruction from befalling these people.

Once Celin trained a small army of strong men on how to disable the beetles, the fighting did not last long. Celin traveled back to Earth to be officialy awarded the position of colonial Governor.

He returned to the colony planet with great pomp and circumstance. This planet had been held up at humanity's Eden; it had been colonized so quickly due to the promise of a Paradise. The Earth government hid the massacres from the general public as best they could, preventing too much bad publicity. Other colonies had seen more deaths than this planet, so it was buried deep in the news reports, if reported at all.

Celin established his new government according to his instructions from Earth. He was told to remain military-heavy, in case more insects approach. Celin appointed members of his original army to leadership posts, and replaced all of the mayors with the former soldiers. The capitol was rebuilt at great expense, and many buildings were named for Celin. He disliked the attention, but was assured it was his reward for saving his people.

Shortly after, people began finding huge pictures drawn in the dirt outside of the city outskirts. Strange pictograms of humans and insects, alongside strange shapes and figures. Night observers found single insects were the culprits. Lone bugs had often been observed near the city, but three or more were required to sound an alarm.

Word quickly spread to the other planets: humans had been horrifically destroying an indigenous population, an intelligent species! Activists filled a standing-room only emergency assembly of parliment. The Earth government could not cover up this violation of colinization law fast enough.

Blame fell squarely on Celin.

He had observed the insects -- some reports said he even migrated with the beetles as one of their own. Celin was the first to develop a quick and violent way to kill the beetles. Now, Celin had established a warlord nation run by hardened soldiers, even named the new capitol building after himself. Celin was a monster in the eyes of Earth. Many called for his arrest; more called for his execution.

- - - - -

Celin prepared his customer on the 'board.' Insects couldn't sit in a chair like a human would: they required a slanted board shaped like an hourglass, so they could rest their belly on it and wrap their legs underneath to stop from sliding down. One large stag -- one of the few Celin had ever seen with ten legs -- snapped a board in half from squeezing too hard. This customer grabbed on tightly, but otherwise seemed relaxed. His eyes were pinkish, but not overly pale. Celin popped his lips together, making a sound like a cork leaving a bottle. The beetle grunted back.

The thorax was a trapezoid 'box' about a foot across in each direction. Celin thumped on it hard, listening for anything 'loose'. The bugs molted about every 10 months, just over a planetary year, and if this one had already started to shed then Celin couldn't cut into him. The key was to cut deep enough to scar the layer that would be sloughed during the next molt, and cut into the fresh flesh just far enough so that the scar will remain for successive moltings. Expose bare flesh by cutting deep or right before a molt, it could kill the bug.

Celin leaned over and stroked the bug's head. It's eyes glowed irridescent blue. The cutting tool shrieked it's way to top speed.

- - - - -

A new army landed on Celin's planet. It was heavily armed and well trained, sent from Earth to remove Celin from power. Intelligence reports painted Celin as preparing a bloody revolt to separate his planet from Earth's control. The soldiers were expecting an army of colonists ready to defend their planet to the death. The orbiting weapons platforms had even been deployed nuclear weapons, in the event that operations went horribly wrong.

Celin was removed from power without any bloodshed, much to the disappointment of many Earth residents.

No trials were held.

The lack of any real war did not make for good news, and the public seemed satisfied that things were taken care of.

Years later, a number of secret trials were held for the original survey team and a number of high-level Earth military personnel. Celin was encouraged to attend these trials, but declined. He had started a new business, and could not leave it for very long.

Celin did, however, recieve briefings on a regular basis. Anti-colonist terrorists had infiltrated much of the off-world information conduits. The surveyors that originally charted the planet (which, incidentally, still had no local name, other than "DA4," an abbreviation of it's location code) had, in fact, knowb of the primitive insect society, and destroyed all data they collected. The anti-colonization movement hoped war would erupt over this Eden-like planet, severing all hope of colonizing any other extrasolar planets. The colonists would be demonized for stealing the local's land; the monstrous, inhuman natives would massacre the humans to take back their lands, and Earth would have to intervene with force. Three generals were sentenced to life in prison for their cooperation with the terrorists in producing this war.

Unfortunately for the terrorists, that war did not succeed. All planetary power had been invested in a geologist who spent years of his life wandering the peaceful paradise of this distant planet. Had the original governor, a former general who had fought in the Eastasian conflicts, survived the insect onslaught, war would have been certain. He had been hand-picked by the terrorists as a perfect candidate for starting a revolution. The 'minuteman' army Celin led was, in fact, against colonization law. The original governor had started to prepare for a revolution, but was interrupted by a different army.

Celin's life, however, had been destroyed. His 'courtmartial' had branded him unhirable anywhere but here. Besides, he was unwilling to leave his planet. This was his home.

What was not reported was that Celin was responsible for the first negotiations of a truce with the insect society. The beetles Celin had watched during his original walkabouts were not part of the invading hordes, but were close to joining the war. Celin was recognized as familiar by these migrating bugs, and his strength as a warrior was respected by the bull males of the other herds. The new colonial government tolerated Celin's presence as long as they could, but once the bugs were comfortable, and once the reports were newsworthy, Celin was excluded from negotiations due to his caricature as a monster.

He had learned the bugs' language from the interpreters dispatched by Earth during negotiations, and spent his first year as an outcast wandering the countryside again.

For the first few months, Celin avoided any contact with the beetles, but they eventually tracked him down. By this time, the truce between humans and bugs meant total isolation from one another, but many beetles did not really want this; it was pushed by the humans, who did not want to share "their" land.

Celin could only speak in small chunks before his lips needed a rest from whistling, but he did his best to answer the questions posed by the beetles. Few had any interest in talking about their own culture. Humans were the topic of interest, and the beetles listened intently to Celin's every word.

- - - - -

The cutting tool barely touched the beetle's carapace when the bug rattled with the sound of a person cracking his knuckles. Celin turned off the tool and touched the insect's head again. It's eyes were white, almost transparent in a few spots. The cracking was it's joints locking up tight as it clenched down hard on the board.

'Hold on, you're fine' Celin whistled. It's eyes morphed to a baby-blue, and Celin started again. The cutting tool sunk into the shell with a burning smell, faintly like burning mahogany. He made a short swipe first, tesing the hardness of the shell, then went over it again much deeper.

He examined the cut afterwards, and was satisfied: matte black at the edges, yellow-orange right at the bottom. Without shutting off the engraver, he touched the bug's head with a free hand. It's eyes were almost all blue now, so Celin proceeded to make another 7 or 8 cuts. The grooves were jagged with extreme precision, an approximation of randomness but deliberately cut so as to not prevent growth or cause injury. In a mirror on the ceiling, the bug could see itself. Celin could tell the bug was whistling, but he couldn't hear it over the tool's whine.

Cutting completed, Celin stopped the tool and removed the engraving barb. The customer lifted himself off the board and walked over to his friend. The other bug, less pale than before, probed the cuts with a foreleg, asking his friend if it hurt. No, it said, not much worse than an early molting split.

- - - - -

Celin returned to the human world after six months living with the beetles, not knowing much more about their lifestyle than when he first met them. The beetles, however, had given him a list of talents that the bugs believed would help the colonists live on the planet with less effort.

Celin did not return to a major city; he started with a small town on the edge of the colony, one founded after his removal from power. At first, the locals were unfriendly, having believed the stories of Celin's betrayals, but a few listened, and he was eventually accepted as a go-between with the insects.

The bugs slowly joined human society, acting as farmhands and other helpers. They required very little payment, although it required patience to teach them their duties; while extremely intelligent in analysis and mathematics, they had little short-term memory, and little regard for written notes or instructions. A cottage industry of human 'bug wranglers' arose from the need for insectoid training. The separation treaty, while still in force, was largely ignored as the beetles proved themselves valuable to the developing planet-nation.

One other industry grew, created by Celin, based on the one part of bug culture he was privy to. The bugs treasured their battle scars, but their society was already becoming less warlike even before humans arrived. Celin worked out a way to give the scars as decoration, without the risk of actual combat. He opened his engraving shop in this small back-woods colony town, catering only to the bugs.

- - - - -

A new barb was pulled from the autoclave and installed in the cutting tool. Celin gestured to the board, and whistled a 'come on' to the other beetle. It hesitated, then started to approach. It's eyes were completely transparent again.

Celin tapped on it's carapace. There was no rattling sound, but Celin put down his cutting tool. 'Sorry,' he whistled, 'you're too close to molting.'

The bug's eyes turned blue briefly, then yellow. It was relieved that Celin provided a way out of the situation, without being too embarrasing about it.

'Come back in a few months, we'll carve you then.' The bug made an artificially angry comment about his disappointment, but agreed to return.

The other beetle setlled his account -- $250 for the engraving -- and thanked Celin for his work.

Celin watched the bugs amble out into the night. As they passed into the darkness they were all but invisible, except for the reflected lights glinting off their shells. He could hear them excitedly whistling to each other about how cool the cuts were on the one bug's back.

Satisfied that he'd seen his last customers for the night, Celin drew the roll-away door across the front opening and locked it tight. He slept in a back room that doubled as a store-room, dreaming away another night on his planet.