Dad is trying to teach me again. “It’s really cool, you know,” he says through the dumb beard he’s growing now. “You just need to focus, Alice.” God. I am already, Dad! I am! I reach out into the fabric of reality itself or whatever, like I’ve done a million times, and guess what? It’s the same. The rock wobbles in his hand, a bit. It’s just the sea.
“A little more,” he says. “You’ve almost got it.”
I really do try, by the way. I swear. I reach but I can’t grip, like fingers on wet glass. “Maybe it’s the wrong kind of rock,” I say. “Don’t we have anything else?”
“We’re lucky to have this. It’s all we’ve got left,” he says, “since the Magma went down.”
“Well, yeah. Rocks don’t float.”
He sighs, and around us the water rumbles. I can smell the salt above decks, that rich sharp tang on the air. I can feel the vibrations in the hull, the steady thrum of the engines, and, beneath, the sea. Dad talks about land like it’s a real big deal, but I’ve never felt any and I do just fine.
He takes a deep breath. Can’t he smell it? When I get old, will I still smell the salt? “Your mother and I took it from the Cairngorms, before, you know.” His hand opens, and the rock doesn’t fall. He winks. Moving his fingers, rippling like water, the rock pops, and is dust. “Did I ever tell you about the time when—”
It reforms around his arm. I can see little crystals of salt, drawn from the sea, glistening in the weak light. He flexes. They flicker.
“Not like the good old days,” he says. He tells the same old story of lifting up mountains and boiling back the waters and it might as well be about ancient Rome. Back then, the soldiers who guarded the borders from the oncoming barbarians were paid in salt. Then it fell.
“Alice? Are you listening?”
“I’ve heard it before, Dad. Like, literally infinity times before.”
He smiles and puts his stone hand on my shoulder. “Your mother always said it was a dumb idea.”
“I’m not stupid,” I say. “And I know why she left.”
“I’m not going to speak ill of your mother, Alice.” His smile stays fixed. “We can still show her – show her that we could—”
“I can’t, Dad! I’m not a freaking rock wizard or whatever, okay?!”
I shake him off and slam the door behind me, so he knows not to follow. I storm up the stairs and step out onto the wind-blasted tanker deck, surrounded by the two other battered hulks of the Stone Fleet and the cloudless midday sky. It was three last week, and four before that, but the Sun Fleet can run the storms and we can’t. For now they lag behind, the heat of their exhausts rippling over the horizon, waiting for the sea to swell again.
The salt is thick today. It boils out in the sun and leaves a thin skin, rough like a shark’s, and after seven days even Dad might notice. I look about. The aft railing is the worst, so I start there.
I hold out the palm of my hand and breathe. The little crystals rise in the air, and with a finger I flick them out to sea. No big deal. There’s more where that came from. Anyway, I don’t think Dad wants me to restore the land with nothing but crappy salt. I toss it back off the boat and it’s gone, dissolving in the sea. No use to anyone.
As I cast away the next batch, the ship moves. I raise a finger to the wind. It’s unchanged. Yet the sea rises, twists; I cry out. As if in confirmation, the rippling on the horizon pitches and thickens as the Sun Fleet fire up their solar engines. Their heat evaporates the water around them. They’re coming. I pull the nearest alarm rope and klaxons sound. Then I run.
I hear the crack of a rock, muffled under waves, faster than sound. One of the ripples fades out as its solar engine fails. It’s Dad. He raises a hand and his granite comes back to it, dripping saltwater. “Good spot. Go on, get below.”
“No way!” I shrug him off.
“Alice,” he says. “You know it’s not safe here. You know what they want.”
I sigh. “It’s not safe anywhere.” I ignore his protests and raise my gaze to the horizon. You have to know where to look. The Sun Fleet don’t carry fuel. Instead they come from the west, blazing towards us. Their funnels rise above the foam, venting water vapour. One has taken point, pushing ahead of the rest. I strain my eyes, searching for the glint of their Captain, and it’s then that they align the mirror.
It hits the Dolomite first. She takes a full focused beam, so thick with sun that the sea beneath bubbles, as if choking with rage, and she goes up in flames. I want us to turn, to rescue, but she is lost and I know it. The beam pivots. It strikes the Micaceous on the waterline; the metal hull softens, warps, and as the saltwater roars the molten steel drips, hissing, into the sea.
My fist clenches, the boat lurches in the waves, and the beam turns, languid, towards us.
Dad is beside me. “No worries, kiddo,” he says. “I got this.” He opens his hand and the rock unfolds outwards, like a parasol in origami. The beam makes a blinding corona against it, our shadows tearing beyond the horizon. We take a shared breath.
“Funny,” he mutters. “Thought she’d have a bit more in her.”
I reach out over the side, letting my fingers brush the edge of the beam. My hand promptly doesn’t burst into flames. This one isn’t a weapon. Dad doesn’t notice. He’s focusing entirely on the shield. Can’t his old ears hear the jangling, that tingling of glass on glass?
“Dad, it’s not—”
Mum is poised perfectly on the sunbeam, because of course she is. I look up, squinting, and see myself in her mirrors. I am smaller than I thought I was, and my hair is split ended, clumped, waving in the wind. My face falls a hundred times in the glass that wraps around her. “Are you alright, Alice? I’m sorry I left you with this,” she glances at Dad, “boor. But I’m here now, and that’s all that matters.”
“It wasn’t up to you,” he says. “She chose.”
“Do shut up, Greg. I’m talking to my daughter.” Mum steps off the sunbeam and onto the deck. “And I’m here to take her home. Free her from this stupid rock magic of yours, return her true inheritance. Seen much stone lately?” She raises a finger sunward, and a ball of light forms around it. “If you want, you can join the rest of it. You know how this part goes.”
“You’re wrong,” he says. “I don’t.” The shield collapses inward until it wraps around his left fist. “Alice, stay back,” he says, and swings.
Dad never talked about the times they fought. “Every fight is the same,” he told me once. “They’re always nasty, and if you’re lucky they’re short.” I guess he was right. She shines the Sun right in his eyes, and he misses, stumbling; in a single fluid movement, she grabs him, puts a beam right through his head, and pushes him over the edge.
I run to the railing and lean over, the crystals sticking to my shirt, but he isn’t there. I scream.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, dear.” She reaches out a hand. “But it’s all over. Everything’s going to be okay now. I promise.”
“Okay? You – you…”
She shrugs, and I see her smile for the first time in five years. Her incisors are plated in silver, and her grin gleams. “Well. You know what they say, dear. Rocks don’t float.”
She’s right, of course. Rocks don’t float. In that moment, then, as the sea roars the roar of a dying thing and the sun beats down on the deck, stripping the water and leaving the salt, I feel its pain; he is gone.
“Come with me,” she says. “I’ll give you back your birth-right and we can boil these empty oceans away to nothing. He lived for nothing. He died for nothing. All that’s left now is the Sun. You have a lot to learn.”
I look down. Dad’s granite lies on the scorched deck, charred black, a staff bereft of its wizard. I pick it up. “You total bitch,” I say. “You stone. Cold. Bitch.” The sea is screaming in my head. I can feel it below, writhing under the sun like an ant caught in a child’s game, flailing hot and blind and mad. I wind it tight around my heart, tension rising like the tide.
“He really has been an awful influence on you, Alice. I can’t believe he taught you things like that.”
“It wasn’t him,” I say. “I figured it out all by myself.” And I let it go.
The sea rises. Beneath the surface, the Sun holds no sway. What is evaporation to the sea? What is light to the depths? The boat pitches in the waves under a cloudless sky, a dot on the ocean of Earth. Mum stumbles. I raise a finger and the sea erupts.
Mum mutters something under her breath and raises her own hand. Light begins to form around it in layers, like how a pearl grows, each shell compressing the last. Then the light fizzles, darkens, and a shadow falls over the boat. I nod over her shoulder, sunward.
I’ll never know the look on her face. She turns to face the source of her power, but the Sun is not there. Instead, I bring the wave – a true monster of the deep, rising fully formed from the saltwater, tossing her Fleet aside, and blotting out the Sun. It crashes down on us, and I take a breath that is dark and cold and wet.
I stand there for a long time. Nothing moves but the rippling sea. The Fleets are gone, and I’m all that’s left. I look up at the Sun, down at the sea, and I remember I still have it clenched in my hands. I roll Dad’s magic through my fingers, searching again for his gift, and still I feel nothing but the pale echo of its salt. I let it go, and it drops. Rocks don’t float. I wish I could have shown him that. I turn on my heel, pick a heading, and walk.
Mum and Dad never gave up on the land. But it’s all gone, submerged, twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea. Or so I guess. When I reach down as far as I can, through all the fathoms of salt and darkness, I cannot feel it there.