by Travis Perry -
The nomads knelt down when they prayed and then arched their backs to the rear, catching themselves with hands stretched to the rocky ground behind them, their faces swinging upward toward Eclectia’s ash-tormented dome of a sky. Their faces sought the sky, but their eyes remained closed as their lips mumbled their supplications to the Divine.
Ross Smit had worked many years to earn his place among the nomads. Most people in fact, did not even know that the nomads existed—he’d learned of them as a teen-ager from a friendly and overly-talkative-when-drinking miner.
He’d begun his efforts by first pursuing Human Studies at Zirconia University (though he’d grown up in an underwater colony mysteriously named “Enterprise”), not realizing for many years how much all he learned fell short of what his choice of study had been in the Golden Age of Social Sciences back on near-legendary Earth. He then had studied every fragmented bit he could learn about the dialect of the northern nomads—during The Voyage, nearly all languages of the past had been forgotten, leaving what had been called “English” as the dominant tongue. But that one language had since begun to split and fracture—and the nomads must have been different from the beginning. Even then, with all the knowledge of their language and culture he could attain, it had taken four years of him posing as a friendly trader before they’d accepted him into the tribe.
He dressed like them, ate like them, rode their giant insect mounts wherever they rode to follow their “buzbug” herd (the prefix “buz” did not refer to any sound the canine-sized insects made—Ross suspected the word tied back to some now-lost human language), and followed their customs in every way he knew how. Still, he was not fully accepted as one of them—he once asked them to teach him to pray, but they’d treated the very request as a near-blasphemy. So he’d learned to content himself with watching as they rose upright on their knees and fell backward, over and over, performing the evening prayer as the Whale set into barren hills far to the west.
He’d asked once why they did this and at first no one had answered. But finally, as the awkward silence stretched long, an answer came from one of the old women, the one who from time to time toothlessly grinned at him and seized his cheek in her iron grip as she served him supper, hurting him, but meaning only to show affection, laughing at what a good son he would have made…if only he’d been born human. She’d said, “To face Immakah, dear child.”
Through his studies he suspected the word referred to an ancient holy city on Earth. So instead of bowing down in humility to the ground as many praying cultures had done, of course they prayed upward to face their holy city. The sky somewhere contained the city, somewhere on Planet Earth—which they called “Ard,” though without real knowledge of what “Ard” was—so of course they faced the sky in prayer. That moment of discovery, that rapture of understanding—that was why he’d chosen Human Studies (what he’d once heard anciently had been called “Anthropology”). It was better than Wizardry—better to know his fellow man, and thus, himself, than to know the angels and whatever powers knowing them might offer.
But this day the prayers did not end with the setting of the sun. “Buzy! Buzy!” yelled one of the boys left out with the herd during prayer time. On ancient Earth it would have been like shouting, “The sheep! The sheep!”
At that same moment the bugs began sounding, their voices repeating in a, “AhAhAhAhAh AhAhAhAhAh.” Several of the praying nomads snapped upright and turned their heads. Most continued to pour petitions upward.
But in an instant the voiced “ahs” came much faster and in a much higher pitch. And much louder, as the entire herd emitted piercing near-screams. Now all the nomads, even the old ones, sprung to their feet, their eyes looking behind him wide with shock and terror. Ross whipped his head back eastward, the direction all the nomads were looking. He saw what all of them had seen, what his ears also began register as rumbling thunder. The entire herd, hundreds of bugs, were charging at full speed at the dismounted humans. As were the “aspbugs,” their mounts. All of them in a frenzied charge all at the same moment, straight at the humans, all of them together, and screaming, screaming, stampeding westward, as if trying run headlong into the blazing circle of the setting sun…