The Wind, My Chariot (July 2021)
By Eleanor R. Wood
They rode the winds like airborne seeds. Their spherical bodies were pale blue, feathery, delicate as the snowflakes of Earth yet robust against Mizaura's buffeting air currents. Tariq watched them from the settlement's forward viewpane, the reinforced perspex bowing against the wind. He knew it was designed that way, but it still unsettled him.
As one of the colony's newest arrivals, he was still orienting himself to the planet and its unceasing weather. He had known he would need time to adjust, not only after his time in stasis, but also to the reality that he would never see home again. This was his home now. The transition was no simpler because he had departed Earth with nothing left to lose; if anything, it made him mourn anew at the impossibility of sharing these wonders with his loved ones. But the plague had taken them, and he had buried one-by-one his parents, his brother, his sisters: always wondering if he was next.
His turn never came. He immersed himself in study and leapt at the chance to leave his memories behind. And now here he stood, rapt with fascination at Mizaura's astounding inhabitants.
One of them paused by the viewing pane, its outer body rotating counter to the wind to keep it still. Its inner body remained motionless. It had no discernable eyes, yet Tariq knew it was looking at him. It was all tendrils, lacy but structured. He was mesmerised.
“I am Trel.”
The voice filled his mind, as though it were the loudest thought he had ever had. He faltered, pressing his palms to the perspex for stability ... and to get closer to her.
"You spoke to me!"
He knew the Rill spoke to some of the settlers. Such ambassadors were the reason human and Rill had existed peacefully side by side these past ten years. The complex, sentient beings had no structures or societies as humans understood them, but they were a highly intelligent, philosophical species whose mind-to-mind communication extended to humans.
Trel expanded into Tariq's consciousness, feeling her way through his thoughts. It should have felt invasive, a violation of his mind, but she — most definitely she — was soothing and gentle, seeking not to divulge his secrets but bridge a gap between the two of them.
“Your mind feels safe,” she said, and let herself be swept away on the breeze.
The moment she was gone, he missed her. The void she left behind was an ache. He had touched an alien mind, and he wanted more. He wanted to know her.
He was a botanist, not an ambassador. He was here to help cultivate native wind-resistant plants, hoping to cross their genes with crops from Earth.
But from that moment on, his thoughts were consumed with Trel.
Tariq knew only one of the colony's three ambassadors by name. Asli had been the first to show him around when he'd arrived, and she checked in every so often to make sure he was settling in. He sought her out the day after his encounter with Trel.
"How did it happen, your connection with the Rill?" he asked over breakfast rations.
“Paulo introduced me to them," she said. "He's the head of Human-Rill Relations. He was the first ambassador. The rest of us go through him, to begin with."
"They don't just... pick someone, then? The Rill, I mean."
She forked a mouthful of rehydrated egg and looked at him. "No. Their ambassadors work with ours. Otherwise it would just be random communication."
"And they can talk to anyone? Any person designated ambassador?"
"Nope. Some people can't communicate with them. That's why new ambassadors have a trial period to make sure they can actually do the job." Asli pushed her empty plate aside. "Why all the questions, Tariq?"
He almost told her. But the ambassadors' procedures implied he might get Trel into trouble if she wasn't meant to have singled him out. And ... there was something in Asli's tone that told him her job was just that to her. She betrayed no hint of affection for her ambassadorial counterparts. It was diplomacy. Mutual respect.
His thoughts of Trel went far beyond such casual bonds.
"I'm just curious, that's all," he said, and finished his coffee.
The next time she visited him, he was drifting to sleep.
“Trel...” he sent back, knowing she heard him somehow.
“You soar alone,” she said.
”What do you mean?”
“Your solitude calls to me. No being should soar alone.”
“Is that why you chose me?” he asked.
In reply, she immersed him in a night sky shimmering with stars. She was seeing it as she spoke with him, and he felt as though he rode with her on the rolling wind. Other Rill floated around them or raced past, catching faster currents.
“Where are you going?” he asked her.
“Going?” He sensed her confusion even as he marvelled at their minds converting thought into words or imagery each could grasp.
“From place to place... where do you go?”
“We do not 'go',” she said. “We are carried. We ride the air, from division to death. Your stationary lives seem so limiting.”
Tariq almost laughed. “Stationary? I was born on a planet orbiting a star a thousand light years away.”
“You come from the stars and then you stay still. We are never still.”
He felt the lightness of her form, like fluff on the breeze. His own body felt heavy and unyielding in his bed. Trel receded from his mind as his physical awareness returned.
He reached for her, but she was gone.
He worked with his plants, but he thought of Trel. As the weeks passed, Tariq kept himself contained, nursing his isolation as he had in his final months on Earth. He exchanged pleasantries with fellow colonists, but his deeper interactions were reserved for Trel. Her mind was a haven; their merging soothed his grief and lingering homesickness. He stood by the viewpane every evening, watching innumerable Rill tumbling past, willing her to appear. But she was far away, carried hundreds of kilometres on the air streams. The constant rumble of the wind promised her return, and her mind still touched his at night.
One night she woke him with tremendous urgency.
“Tariq! My Tariq!”
Her Tariq. He smiled as he awoke. “What is it, my Trel?”
“Danger! The winds are coming.”
Wind howled around the settlement as he immersed his mind in hers. “Yes. We've noticed the winds.” He sent a wry smile and wondered how her mind would translate it.
“There have been no winds. Not for four cycles.”
A seed of dread germinated.
”Then what are these?” He projected the creak of the settlement's walls flexing as they were designed to.
“The air. Not the winds. Your rigid bodies and structures will not survive. You must flee to the stars until they pass!”
He sat up, throwing aside covers and pulling on boots. “We cannot flee.” He had to warn the colony.
“But you MUST!” Her desperation battered at him.
He raced to Meteorology. Zara looked up in concern at his sleep-tousled arrival.
"What's happening with the weather?" he asked her.
"High winds. Why?"
"Is that all?"
"There's a storm brewing, but we didn't want to worry everyone. It'll hit tomorrow. We're battening everything down and we'll just have to ride it out. Don't look so petrified, Tariq! It's not as if we aren't used to this planet's crazy weather."
"This is different. We need to prepare."
"We'll be fine. Stop panicking."
Why didn't she already know how urgent this was? Why hadn't the ambassadors warned everyone? He ran to Asli's quarters and bashed at her door until she opened it, squinting and sleepy.
"Tariq? What are you doing here?"
"You're not worried? You're ... you're not even awake. They haven't told you, have they?"
"Who hasn't told me what?"
"The Rill! We're in danger, Asli. All of us!"
She pushed dark hair away from her face. "Tariq, calm down. You're not making any sense. What are we in danger from?"
"The winds. There's a storm coming, and it's like nothing we've seen before. It hasn't happened for decades."
"Did you talk to Zara? She's on duty tonight."
She wasn't listening. "Haven't the Rill ambassadors told you anything? Warned you about this? They're not trying to warn you right now?"
She shook her head at him. "Do I look like I'm in a Rill conference right now? I spoke with an ambassador yesterday, about perfectly ordinary matters. I'm trying to sleep, Tariq. Can't this wait until morning?"
It hit him then. The ambassadors' connection was nothing like his and Trel's. He'd always assumed they had similar bonds, but Asli spoke of conferences, pre-ordained and formal. Trel was part of him. Her mind was an extension of his. He reached out and found her, anxious and fearful.
"You need to set up an emergency conference. Right now."
He took a breath. "Because I've been communicating with one of the Rill for weeks, and she's telling me we're all in grave danger."
Asli stared at him for a long moment. Then she grabbed a sweatshirt, dragged it on over her pyjamas, and ran down the corridor.
"Come on!" she yelled back at him.
The conference room was softly lit, with comfortable couches and cushions.
Asli pointed to a comms panel. "Call the other ambassadors for me. That panel links directly to them." She began powering noise-cancelling headsets and adjusting the room's temperature.
Tariq was confused. "What are you doing?"
"We need distraction-free surroundings to communicate," Asli said, and pointed to a chair in one corner. "Sit there. Don't interrupt."
Two other colonists appeared. Tariq recognised one of them as Paulo.
"What's this all about, Asli?"
She explained Tariq's presence and Trel's warning. Paulo shot him a suspicious look.
”Why don't they know about this, Trel? Why weren't they warned too?”
“Our ambassadors don't understand, she said. They don't feel you like I do. They don't realise you won't be safe when the winds come.”
“You mean they only use thoughts? Words?”
“Yes. Just words, images, thoughts. But I've felt the weight of your body, just as you've felt the lightness of mine. You've shown me the material of your structures. Truly shown me, with more than words. I've felt what it's like to be you.”
Just as he had felt what it was like to be her.
The ambassadors didn't understand each other the way he and Trel did. There was no malice, no failure to alert them. Merely a lack of comprehension between two vastly different species.
“It's too late,” he sent her, knowing it was true. They were trapped. Their one-way ships could not be relaunched. He got up and left the conference room, numb with the certainty of Trel's fears.
The winds increased, the walls held, and he began to hope Zara was right. But even with Trel's warning, there was nowhere to go. As the storm gathered more strength, the settlers began making their way to the common rooms. Slowly, they huddled together. At some point, Asli and the other two ambassadors joined them, their faces pale and grim. They must have spoken to the Rill, but to no avail now.
The winds were deafening even through the walls. Through the viewpanes, Tariq could see flying debris and whirling clouds of dust. When the first one shattered, he reached again for Trel amidst the cries of his fellow colonists.
She wasn't there.
It was like reaching for a solid step in the dark and finding nothing underfoot. His mind stumbled. He panicked.
“Trel! His mental voice was an all-encompassing yell. TRELLL!”
His throat clenched. His heart thundered a drumbeat of doom in his chest. The noise of the wind and the terrified screams were all he could hear, and he realised his own voice was among them. Why had Trel abandoned him when he needed her most? Where was she?
“I need you, I need you, Trel, please, I need you!” He was saying the words aloud even as he threw his thought into the void.
The walls shook with the storm's pressure. Flying shards of perspex caught in his hair and ripped his skin.
Everything was wrong. They were all going to die here. There was a time he had wanted to die, to join his family, to no longer be alone. But that time had passed. He realised with devastating certainty that he wanted to live. Fear obscured his mind along with his new loss.
"Trel!" he shouted her name aloud. He clung to the times they had shared, the nights soaring along on the breeze of their emotions and Mizaura's currents. He sought the peace he had found there...
... and he knew. He knew what was wrong.
He had always been calm when he'd connected with Trel. Peaceful. His mind relaxed and open. Not tense, panicked, petrified as he was now. His desperation was sabotaging his efforts.
As the weather sought the colony's destruction, Tariq breathed deeply. He forced himself to calm despite the terror around him. He went inward, he slowed his mind, he pushed away his mortal fear and reached. Reached for the peace, the freedom, the oneness he shared with Trel. The sounds of wind and panic subsided. He heard only his conscious breath and his pounding heart.
Trel flowed into his mind. Her relief was second only to his own.
“It's happening!” he told her.
“Go to the stars! Go, until it passes!” She was frantic.
”We can't! It's like you said. We're stationary.”
The roof tore away with a shriek of ripping metal. Wind sucked the breath from Tariq's lungs as the walls buckled in their foundations. He glimpsed terrified colonists flung through the air and realised he was flying along in the maelstrom, limbs flailing, his chest on fire. Terror seized him and he felt himself slipping from Trel.
Trel grabbed his mind and held it. As his body was tossed and broken, he clung to the lifeline of her consciousness.
He felt her.
He knew her.
Her form was his. Their minds were one.
The pain and destruction around him faded and fell away.
Together they travelled a bright, clear sky with the feathery blue bodies of a hundred Rill soaring on the wind, half a planet distant and ever further.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Eleanor R. Wood’s stories have appeared in Galaxy's Edge, Diabolical Plots, PodCastle, Nature: Futures, The Best of British Fantasy 2019, and various anthologies, among other places. She writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee. She blogs at creativepanoply.wordpress.com and tweets @erwrites.