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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.

“What’s up?”

“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.

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1 Redstone Science Fiction #4, September 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 09.01.10 at 7:16 am }

[…] Salt of the Earth by Mary Robinette […]

2 Tweets that mention Salt of the Earth | Redstone Science Fiction -- Topsy.com { 09.01.10 at 1:24 pm }

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SF&FWritersOfAm., Mary Robinette Kowal, Michelle Anderson, Caren Gussoff, John McCarthy and others. John McCarthy said: RT @MaryRobinette: You can read my short story SALT OF THE EARTH at Redstone SF today. http://is.gd/ePHlf […]

3 Pete Wood { 09.01.10 at 2:56 pm }

Wow. This is the kind of story I like. Great characters acting like real people with a SF backdrop. Some people have the SF first and the characters second which I think misses the point. The story got me thinking. It is almost the flip side of Dune. I found the treatment of salt very possible given the constraints of the world of the story. And, salt has often been in short supply here on good old Earth. There were salt riots in the South during the Civil War. Overall, a great read!

4 Sunil { 09.01.10 at 3:37 pm }

Salt! An inventive premise, and I like the sort of funny/creepy image of everyone at the memorial service crying into tearsheets.

5 Sam M-B { 09.01.10 at 7:39 pm }

I agree with Pete, though I’m going to nitpick only a very little on a story I really enjoyed. As a parent, definitely some heartstring pulling, but the mother’s reaction overall didn’t quite sit with me. There was a little anger there, but not the rage I’ve had over tinier things (HOW COULD YOU LEAVE THE WINDEX OUT WHERE THE KIDS COULD GET IT OH MY GOD). What was particularly missing to me was the grief; losing a child in such a horrific, stupid, pointless way… I don’t know how, even with another child to think of, the mother was able to put herself together so quickly and carry on.

Still, the world built here held together quite well and the bits and pieces interlocked in a very satisfying way. Particularly poignant was the depiction of the mother’s (and father’s) relationships with the autistic older son.

(The hardest disbelief to suspend was that, on a world where salt was so scarce that it was reclaimed from human sweat, salt was used as a child’s treat. But this was redeemed in the way it foreshadowed what was to come. )

I do love two of the little details: 1. the title! 2. cursing with “Lot’s Wife!” was, simply, awesome.

6 Pete Wood { 09.02.10 at 11:04 am }

Good points. I guess I figured that Mom was in a depressed stupor and that is why she didn’t express the rage and grief. I thought Mom came from a rich family and that maybe they could afford expensive salt treats.

7 Editor’s Note – September 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 09.02.10 at 1:36 pm }

[…] main fiction this month is an excellent story, “Salt of the Earth” by Mary Robinette Kowal. She won the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has been a […]

8 Merc { 09.12.10 at 11:36 am }

I really enjoyed that one–especially the end. (Also love how “Lot’s Wife!” is a curse–that’s so perfect!) Thanks for the fun read. :)