Salt of the Earth
“You liked the magnesium.”
“That’s because it retains the terroir, the essential characteristics of the place the salt came from. This? This is just polluting it for profit.”
He held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, okay. So go find a new source for us.”
“I do my best.”
The plants of New Gaea rose to staggering heights around Melia. Unlike the lowlands surrounding Delfie City, this part of the continent had ferns that would have seemed at home in the Cretaceous period back on Earth. The giant fernwood trees dripped in the constant humidity and smelled of spicy loam. She had searched most of the last week, piloting the rover between the trunks, but she had yet to find a new source of sodium.
Her saltsuit stuck to her skin as the sweat just sat on her body. Some of the fernwoods from this region had shown faint traces of sodium blight. She had hoped it was a sign of a deposit, but it looked like nothing more than a groundwater leach from an earlier colonist’s graveyard. After four hundred years, the bodies would not retain enough sodium to make exhuming them worth the furor from the historical societies.
If she could find even sodium carbonate, she could extract the sodium in the lab and then combine it with chlorine to make salt.
Her phone rang with a recording of Dora’s laughter. For a moment it seemed as if her daughter had stepped into the fern forest with her. She toggled it on, glancing down to see her dad’s icon. She grinned. He couldn’t stand being back in the factory.
“Melia–.” His voice shook like an old, old man. “How long will it take you to come home?”
“What’s wrong?” Her heart stopped. “Is it Mom?”
“Theo just called. Nikolas and Dora are in the hospital.”
The soil sampler dropped from her hand. Melia pressed the earpiece deeper into her ear, as she turned to the rover. “What–? What happened? What do you mean? What did he do to my children? What’s wrong with them?”
“I don’t know. They’ve been vomiting, so he’s been keeping them in bed, but this morning he couldn’t get Dora to wake up.”
Melia felt cold. “And Nikolas?” The rover recognized her as she approached and opened its door.
Her dad was silent for a moment. “We aren’t sure. He won’t talk, and stares at the wall, but…that’s normal.”
“No, it’s not.” Melia bit the words off as she backed the rover out of the clearing. She left her tools lying under the dripping canopy of ferns. “He has a routine; if he doesn’t follow it, something is very, very wrong.” Theo should have called her the moment they got sick.
She could hear her mom’s voice in the background asking Dad a question. Melia should have left the kids with Mom. She would have sent status reports every half hour.
Her dad said, “Your mother wants to know when you’ll be home.”
“Closest main road is L-90. I’m a good six hours away from that. Late tonight. Early tomorrow.”
“Tell me the closest town, and I’ll send an aero to get you.”
Melia could not breathe for the bubble of fear pressed against her throat. They could not be dying. She swallowed. “Campsol. Have it meet me at Campsol.”
The aero that met her was automated. In the silence of the cabin, Melia’s fear screamed around her. Why hadn’t Theo called her? He should have called her. Please let them be all right. Why hadn’t Theo called her when they got sick?
The phone rang once during the flight, laughing with Dora’s voice. She shut her eyes, without answering it, and listened to Dora laugh. She could do nothing to get there faster, and as long as she didn’t know better, her children were alive.
Let me be on time.