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Salt of the Earth

He jerked his head in a no and continued to wail.

Nikolas had never been frightened of Theo before. What had changed?

“Shut him up! People can hear him.”

“Theo!” Mr. Lathouris took his son by the arm and pulled him to the side, whispering angrily.

Theo jerked his arm free of his father’s grasp. “For Pete’s sake, I’m not staying here to listen to this.” He stalked to the door and spun dramatically to glare at Melia. “Make sure he’s better behaved than this when I come pick him up.” Before she could respond, he slammed out the door.

Nikolas’s screams cut off the moment the door closed.

Melia stared at him and then at the door. Mr. Lathouris apologized for Theo but Melia barely heard him. What was Nikolas trying to tell her?

“Melia, it’s time to go in.” Her dad crouched down next to them. “Is he going to be all right?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t know what set that off.” She turned to look up at Theo’s parents. “Why don’t you all go in, and I’ll stay out with Nikolas.”

Mr. Lathouris said, “I think Theo has probably gone home.”

Melia tried to smile at him. He knew his son well. Even if Theo wanted to come into the funeral, he wouldn’t be able to back down from his dramatic exit. “Nikolas? Do you want to go in to the memorial service?”

He nodded.

When she stood up, Nikolas followed her to the door like cattle to a salt lick.

She went through the motions of the service with the rest of the family and went to the rail when the priest held out the weeping cup. Melia took a sip of the saline, holding the sweetness of her daughter’s salt in her mouth.

The flushing machine had recovered much more salt than she had expected from Dora. Nearly 30 milligrams. How had her little girl ingested that much extra salt?

Her breath caught in her throat as she sat down. Was that why Nikolas was afraid of Theo?

Nikolas rocked in his seat, while the congregation shuffled past to taste their grief at the weeping cup. Melia leaned as close to him as she dared. “Did Daddy give you the salt?”

Nikolas stopped rocking. His right hand fluttered. Then his head jerked once.


What had happened? She could imagine Theo messing up Nikolas’s schedule and then trying to soothe him with salt. A spoonful would do no harm. Two, might have been all right. But Dora would have begged for anything that Nikolas got and she was too small to eat as much as Nikolas. It didn’t matter if he had planned on it.

Theo knew what the lethal dosage was. He knew what the symptoms were and he let her children lie in bed, dying, for a week. Because he couldn’t admit he had made a mistake.

And he was coming for her son in three days.

* * *

Melia dropped Nikolas off at the house with the sitter and went to the salt factory. She measured out some of the salt from Dora and entered the lab. Working methodically, she isolated the sodium from the salt’s sodium chloride. With the pure silvery element, she went through each of the steps, combining it with hydrazine hydrate to make a small quantity of sodium azide.

She packed the crystals in an airtight jar so there was no chance of water touching them. Then Melia carefully wiped all equipment with oil to catch any stray granules. Melia did not want to chance killing any of Seven Seasworkers if the sodium azide got wet. Just a few grains would be enough to make a cloud of odorless poison gas. It would dissipate quickly, and leave only the signs of a sodium deficiency, which was common enough on New Gaea. The oil kept it inert, but water would kill.

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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. :)