Jet wasn't convinced Attan's theory was valid. He thought they should spend more time exploring the caves beneath Attania, and the strange memory elementals which inhabited them. He wanted Attan and the three ships to continue charting the edges of the barrier to see if it did indeed encircle all of Attania.
The half-formed shadow creature concerned him, however. It spoke of their origins, of which Meetoo was clearly a reflection. And possibly Attan, too. Were these creatures elementals which experimented by taking on physical form to see what it was like? Since Attan had discovered the first sea creature, their expedition had come across at least a dozen more, not all as voracious and deadly as the first one had been. Some were tiny, no larger than an insect, while others rivaled their ships in size. All of the half-solid, half-elemental creatures existed within a few miles of the barrier. That explained why none—with the exception of Meetoo if you could classify him in the same category as these creatures—had even been found on land.
Jet understood that Family were undergoing changes also, so perhaps it wasn't quite fair to say nothing like the development of these sea creatures had happened on land. There seemed to be a sharp divide between types of Family changes: some Family became more and more like non-family over the years, growing weaker in their elemental powers and showing physical differences like body type and hair discrepancies such as curls. Doll's parents were examples of that. Even Lorra had unusually curly hair, though her powers as a royal cousin were still strong.
Other Family like him and Attan, and Mattie and Daniel and several of the younger royals, grew stronger in their elemental abilities, and could throw off their human personas at will. This group, including Jet, felt the pull towards becoming elemental for good.
A third group seemed torn in between. Those were the ones most susceptible to Stenson's persuasions. Those Family were most likely to release.
Was there a right answer? No. Family was still evolving just like Attania was still evolving. Stenson was no help. The truth of the matter was Jet wanted to drop everything and rush out to join Attan on his expedition. But he couldn't.
"Dad?" Zephyr's high voice pierced Jet's clouded thoughts. "Are you going to take me up in the sky today? You said you would." His plaintive eyes peered up at his father.
Jet smiled at his second son. "Sure, just give me a minute." This was a big reason why Jet had to stay. Zephyr needed him. The boy was precocious in his elemental abilities, and Maddie wouldn't hear of anyone else teaching her son besides his father, the King. Truthfully, Jet wasn't sure anyone else could handle Zeph. Attan, maybe. But Maddie wouldn't have that. He put away his communicator. "Ready?" he asked his son.
Attan found himself increasingly drawn to the unknown depths of the sea, and to the half-formed creatures that dwelled there. As they rounded the Eastern Sea and headed northward, Attan discovered more and more of the half-physical, half-elemental beings. It was as if they couldn't make up their minds which they wanted to be—or they had no clear conception.
He went into them as he found them, aware of their pull so he wasn't caught off guard like the first time. They were amalgams, like him and Meetoo, and truth be told of Family as well. But where Family had modeled themselves on the human shape of non-family, these new creatures had no models except the sea and sky and the occasional fish which wandered into their territory. It was as if the entire territory near the boundary of the world was not quite stable. Delving deeper into the consciousnesses of the creatures he discovered that there were caves underneath the sea as well.
He followed one of the caves back, suspecting what he would find: bands of colored lights lined the walls. So he waited and watched, and sure enough, periodically the caves would erupt with color elementals who dashed themselves in a frenzy against the barrier. That explained where some of these creatures came from. Although most of the color elementals retreated to their underwater caves after their aborted attempt to either breach the barrier or extend the barrier, not all of them disappeared. Attan watched as some of the memory elementals were absorbed into the sea creatures.
It made Attan wonder why the color elementals tried so desperately to cross the barrier. What did they remember that the rest of Attania had forgotten?
Elea worried about him. She often waited at the rail of her ship as dawn broke and Attan returned to his physical form. She shivered as Attan materialized next to her, so he warmed the air around them with a thought. "You should still be sleeping," he admonished her gently. Meetoo was. After the first several nightly excursions, Meetoo had lost interest and preferred to sleep. He slept in Elea's room, which Attan was glad for; at least, she had someone to protect her. And Elea was good for Meetoo also, although lately he seemed much more stable.
She shivered again, and Attan realized it was not from the cold. "You're going to leave me, aren't you?"
Attan didn't say anything. The thought had crossed his mind some time ago, and he wasn't quite sure how long he would be able to push it aside. He thought he knew how to fix Attania. The memory elementals had given him the idea, but to test it, he would have to cross the barrier. He opened his arms and Elea came into them, burying her head against his chest. "You promised," she whispered.
"There's Meetoo," Attan said. "And Greg." But somehow he knew Elea would choose Meetoo, despite the fact that he was Family and she wasn't. "Meetoo loves you." He did. For all that he'd become human in only a few short months, Meetoo did not share Family's aversion to relationships with non-family.
But even that wasn't quite true, either. Thomas Merrell had loved the non-family Emma after all.
"Do you love me?" Elea sniffed, raising her head to peer gravely into Attan's eyes.
"You're the only one who understands me," Attan replied softly. "Of course I love you."
It didn't change anything. He was never meant for this existence, not like Meetoo or his father Jet. Attan was Attania on a level far beyond most Elementals.
"When?" Elea whispered, broken.
"Soon," Attan replied. "Will you sing me across the sea?"
Tears welling in her eyes, Elea nodded. Attan comforted her the only way he knew how. He went into her as he would another Elemental. It was second nature to him; he didn't expect to feel anything, but he did. Deep down, so deep he might have missed it if he had not grown into his abilities these past months, he encountered a spark reminiscent of Family. No, not Family, something purer, more primal, more—elemental.
Elea's spirit answered his own, revealing at last why her people had this power to sing elementals to the sea. Evolution might have changed them all, but deep down they were all the same—they were all Attania.
Awed and humbled, Attan took physical form and hugged Elea tight against him until the sun was high in the sky and curious glances from the crew reminded them that they, too, had things to do.
Days later they rounded the northern tip of Attania and headed into previously uncharted waters. Here, the barrier was much closer to land and Attan found no sign of color elementals in this area either. The entire north was one big frozen wasteland, except for those parts his father had thawed for farming many years ago. Even those territories were still sparsely populated, and Jet and Daniel had learned early on that manipulating climate in one area of Attani adversely affected it in other areas, so it wasn't always a workable solution. It was why on this expedition they were careful to modify only the area directly around their ships, lest they cause destructive coastal storms in their wake.
Since there seemed to be no caves nearby, Attan used himself as a substitute for the color elementals and threw his essence against the barrier. Daniel monitored in wind form, though he did not participate. Elea stood by just in case, with Meetoo on one side of her and Greg on the other. Without the influence of memory elementals, there didn't seem to be any of the half-formed creatures either.
Where he touched it, stretching his essence in a wide swath across the barrier in imitation of a group of color elementals, Attan felt the barrier give very slightly, as if it were more spongy than solid. When he retreated, the barrier retained its new expanded border. It still wasn't enough, though.
Attan wanted to talk to Stenson, who seemed to know more than he was willing to admit, but the ancient Elemental avoided contact with him. The communicators, too, seemed to have reached their limit out here in the frozen Northern Sea. For the first time since their voyage began, Attan was unable to reach his father.
Attan, being what he was, didn't really need a communicator, however. After his experiment with the northern barrier, Attan resumed his nightly habit of expanding his consciousness all across Attania. In this fashion he was able to touch the essences of every living thing on Attania, though only Elemental Family could actually respond to his ethereal touch.
It put him at ease being able to touch his parents and his younger siblings, though he was careful not to wake them, especially the children. He concentrated his essence in Jet's presence, not really surprised when his father responded sleepily, before jerking fully awake and looking around as if he could truly see Attan standing there. Attan wondered if he could make that happen. He had never actually tried to materialize when his essence was stretched so thin across Attania, but he tried narrowing down his focus to this place, and just like that, he was solid.
"Attan?" Jet bolted to his feet. "Did something happen?"
Jet was in Wister again, probably to train Zephyr, Attan realized, as his father grabbed his arm and swiftly led him out of the bedroom where Madelyne lay sleeping still. He led them to his study one level down where they could talk in privacy.
"I'm still on the ship, Dad," Attan said as they settled in two armchairs. "I mean, I was—I'm going back. I just came because I didn't want you to worry. The communicators stopped working."
Jet shook his head in wonder. "You just came back," he repeated. "As in—now? How are you able to do that?"
Attan smiled sheepishly. "I just figured it out," he admitted. "It's not that hard."
"I thought I felt you a couple of times since you've been gone, but I was sure it was just my imagination. Was it?"
"No, it was me. I figured out how to stretch myself across Attania, though it took me until today to realize I could move my physical body the same way."
Jet let out a low chuckle. "You continue to amaze me," he said. "I suppose you didn't need the ships after all."
"Well, no, but I didn't know that when we started," Attan said. "I can sense exactly where the barrier is all around Attania."
"And it does go all the way around?"
Attan nodded. "Closer in some spots, farther away from land in others. I think it's the boundary where Attania stopped becoming physical. I think maybe it stopped too soon, or it's not done yet. That's why we don't have enough space to support all of us. I was hoping to talk to Stenson, to see if he could tell us why it stopped right there, so maybe we can fix it, extend the borders."
"Good luck with that," Jet said. "Stenson has made himself scarce ever since you started this expedition."
Attan figured he could find Stenson, the same way he'd found Jet, by stretching his essence all across Attania until he felt Stenson's presence.
"When you come back, after the expedition is complete, we can talk about our next step," Jet continued. "I'll work on Stenson. I'd like to explore more of the caves before we do anything about the borders. If Maddie will let me, I'd like to take both you and Zephyr with me. He could use the practice, and it will be good for him to spend time with his older brother."
Attan smiled faintly. "I'd like that," he murmured. "I really would." He glanced around his father's study, which was filled with books and pictures of Madelyne, Zephyr, Lorra and the twins, and even his mom. He spotted one of himself on the shelf also. The fire-red statue he had carved for his mom was there as well. After he had given his parents the two carvings, right before Jet's wedding to Lorra, they had swapped carvings, so Doll had the one of Jet, and Jet kept the one of Doll, as remembrances of each other. Now that Attan knew they were carved from memory stone, it made sense for Jet to keep the statue of Doll, which was imbued with her fire essence and was as true a memory of Doll as Attan could make it. He touched it briefly, making it glow. "I'd better get back," he said.
Jet stood and opened his arms for a hug. Attan was beginning to see the attraction of hugs. He held onto his father until Jet stepped back. "Are you sure everything's all right?" he asked, and Attan nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He let go of his physical self before his father could suggest a merge. There were some things he didn't want his father to see.
It was easy to find Stenson. Attan took shape in the older Elemental's hotel room in Darcy. He hadn't gone very far after all. Stenson's eyes widened in shock as Attan appeared, before narrowing shrewdly. "Aren't you supposed to be on a ship somewhere?" he asked.
"I am," Attan said. "I just came to talk to you." He sat cross-legged on the end of Stenson's bed, causing the older man to get up and turn on a light to put some distance between them. Stenson eyed him suspiciously. "I want to cross the barrier."
"You can't." Stenson folded his arms across his chest. "You'll destroy us if you do. I told you that."
"Why?" Attan asked bluntly. "Why do the color elementals try so hard to cross over, then? Why do elementals come to Elea's people to be sung across the sea? There has to be a reason for it. Why, for that matter, does Attania stop where it does?"
"I told you I don't remember a lot," Stenson said, "but I remember enough. We weren't always what we are now. Attania formed from the inside out. Our earliest ancestors became the core of this place; they're the ones you call the color elementals. They hold all our memories, of what we were before we were elementals, long before we became physical."
"Weren't you originally one of them?" Attan asked. Stenson had hinted at it in the past.
"I have vague memories of a time before Attania, in the deep emptiness out there." Stenson waved his hands in a wide circle. "All I know is I like it here and I don't want to go back to that existence. I won't remember this one, and neither will you."
"I'll tell you what I found on this expedition," Attan said quietly. "I found that Attania is unfinished. The edges of the barrier are . . . unstable. Creatures exist there that are neither purely physical nor completely elemental. The color elementals are influencing them; they're also trying to push the border further out, since they haven't been able to breach it."
Stenson frowned. "Are you saying they're trying to complete Attania?"
Attan nodded vehemently. "That's exactly what I think. And I want to help. If I can cross the border, just me, not a whole group of elementals, it might not damage the barrier like you're so afraid of, and once I'm on the other side, maybe I can help complete the process."
"It might not damage it," Stenson replied. "Are you willing to take that chance? And what can you do out there anyway? There's nothing out there, I told you."
"I won't die though, will I?" Attan asked. "If we do nothing, Attania will not be able to sustain itself for much longer, you know that. What my dad started is not going to be enough; either Family or non-family or both will perish."
Stenson smiled wryly. "Why do you think I've been pushing the releases?" he said. "Why not help me to do that instead, now that you understand the problem?"
"I'm going to do it whether you help me or not," Attan said.
Stenson gazed thoughtfully at Attan. "You'll have to finish what we started at the beginning," he said finally. "And you won't ever be able to come back once Attania is complete."
"I know." Attan spoke softly. "But I'll be part of Attania."
Stenson scoffed. "Not as if you'll know."
That didn't matter. What mattered was that all the people Attan loved would be safe, that Attania would endure. He could accept that.
"Will you help to guide my father and the others once I'm . . . there?" Attan asked. That's what he really wanted to ask Stenson. Whether he would stop trying to sabotage Jet at every turn and work together for Attania's future."
"All I ever wanted was to make this place better," Stenson said. "Don't screw it up, kid."
Attan smiled. He really should go into Stenson to verify the truth in what he said, but at this point, he chose to believe the older Elemental. What could he do in any case if Stenson had said no? "Then this is good-by," Attan said.
He disappeared as quickly as he'd come, thinning his essence again until it lay like a blanket over all of Attania. There was no reason to wait until the expedition continued its way around the Western Sea and back to port at Palmer. Attan knew exactly where the barrier lay. He would have to leave it up to his father and younger brother to investigate the caves which riddled Attania from the inside, though with any luck, the answers they sought would become clear once Attan completed Attania.
Elea was waiting for him as usual, her large eyes solemn as she watched him take form in front of her. This time, Meetoo stood with her, also solemn. Meetoo had sensed him every time he'd expanded his essence across Attania. He was a good choice to carry on here when Attan couldn't.
"It's time," Attan said simply. "Get Greg."
Meetoo flashed off to find Greg, rousing him out of bed to his annoyed grumbles, which ceased as Meetoo quickly whispered what he needed. Greg threw his clothes on and let Meetoo carry him to where Attan and Elea waited on deck. "You're sure about this?" he asked. Neither Daniel nor Reg were there, which meant Attan hadn't told them what he planned.
"Yes." Attan didn't elaborate. "I need you to take Elea and me to the barrier, and none of the Family can be close by or they'll get pulled in. I'll give us wind to get us there, but you'll have to row Elea back on your own power once it's done."
They clambered into the small boat which Meetoo helped lower down to the sea with wind. He stayed on the bigger ship while Attan guided them out towards the barrier. "Make sure they don't follow," Attan instructed Meetoo, who nodded. He'd use whatever power he needed to make sure Daniel and the others remained safe.
He brought them as close to the barrier as he dared. "I'm ready," he said. Abruptly, Elea threw herself against him, rocking the boat. He hugged her back gently and passed her back to Greg, who steadied her with his hands on her shoulders. Greg locked eyes with Attan, and nodded.
Elea began singing; at first, her voice warbled unsteadily but after a moment or two it evened out and its sweet tones rang out over the sea. Attan let the waves of her song wash through him, changing him, and his heart expanded. The pull became unbearable and Attan gave himself up to it, letting go of his body one last time as he let himself be drawn towards the barrier. Elea's eyes tracked him in that uncanny way of hers. It made him feel connected to her even as his essence touched the barrier. He wasn't sure what to expect, but the barrier melded with him, the waves of Elea's song matching the waves that made up the barrier and passing him through it seamlessly.
He was through. From this side, Attania looked like a lop-sided oval while all around it was emptiness, as Stenson had warned him. He still retained his sense of self, though. Stenson had been wrong about that. Attan let himself acclimate to this side of the barrier and as he did so he realized the vast expanse of space around him wasn't so empty after all. Pinpoints of light flickered in the far distance. Perhaps it had been empty at the beginning, but it wasn't now. In addition, Attan felt the faint spark of other presences, elementals perhaps? Or something else? It didn't matter; Attan was here for a reason.
He tentatively touched the barrier from this side, but the waves had changed. He could not return, not without someone like Elea to sing him back through. But returning was not his plan. He expanded his essence to encompass all of Attania from the outside, completing the circle which the barrier had sealed. As he did so, the barrier dissolved into him or he became the barrier, he wasn't quite sure. But as the edges of the barrier melted into each other Attania formed a complete circle at last, expanding to more than double its original size. Attan felt stretched to capacity, and with the dissolution of the barrier, he once again felt Attania as part of himself, with sweeping oceans and dots of new land, islands, which pushed up in a violent rumble, creating waves of water which spread outward from each new explosion. It was a harsh birth, every bit as unstable as Meetoo's birth had been, but on a much larger scale. Attan only hoped Meetoo and the others would be able to control the damage.
He felt himself growing faint, his thoughts less coherent, his goals fuzzy. He was, and he was content. He was Attania; Attania was him. Stenson was right after all, was his last fragmented thought. Attan became Attania and ceased to be himself.
All across Attania, the seas roiled and the land shook violently, knocking down buildings and creating huge fissures in the land. Meetoo streaked out to where Greg and Elea floated in the water, heedless of Attan's warning. There was no longer a barrier there but the sea shook their little boat around, threatening to capsize it at any moment. Meetoo scooped them up, boat and all, and deposited them back on the main ship, which was also dancing crazily in the waves.
Daniel and Reg spilled out onto deck, wild-eyed. "Where's Attan?" Daniel gritted even as he threw out his hand and calmed the sea.
"Gone." Meetoo answered for them. "The barrier's gone, too."
Daniel looked, and his jaw dropped open. "What did he do?"
Elea's lips quivered and great tears glistened in her eyes, but she faced Daniel bravely as she said, "He saved us all."
In Wister, Jet cried out as realized he could no longer sense his son. "No!" His bed shook, and he was thrown to the floor. "No!" he cried again, but he had no time to mourn as Zephyr rushed into the room, his little eyes round with fear.
"Dad, are we going to die?"
"No, son. Go protect your mother while I take care of this." He patted Zeph on the head and let go of his body. He couldn't fix everything as Attania struggled through its birth throes, but he managed to stabilize the area around Wister, and through contact with his other governors across Attania, made sure that they were doing their best to protect their people as well.
It was months before the worst of the tremors settled down, and years before they ceased completely, but with Family and non-family working together, they weathered through it. Attania had gained half a world, with land and seas rich with promise. Color elementals had rushed forth from their caves to permeate the new areas, imprinting memory and creating more of the half-formed creatures that were undergoing their own throes of development.
The biggest change of all was the night sky. It was velvet black at times, with tiny pinpricks of light which formed odd patterns that changed at various times of the year. Jet wondered if Attan was one of them, but deep down he knew he wasn't—Attan was right here, among them, a part of the very land he had helped create. Even though he couldn't feel him anymore, he believed with all his heart that Attan remained.
*** Stay tuned for part 3, tentatively titled "Attania Forever." The story isn't over. Thank you for reading!