Salt Magic Blues

rating: +50+x

For miles in one direction, the desert stretched. Ruins and dead cities occasionally rose from the ground, twisting upwards like the strange skeletons of forgotten lizards. But mostly, the desert simply stretched. Sand and rock in one direction, sand and rock in another direction, demarcated only by the horizon.

Through this desert wound a road. A long time ago, it had been a road of tarmac, a shining exemplar of American construction that was the pride of its engineers and creators. A great route running through the desert, moving people from place to place in style and comfort. But, well, things had changed. A new age of magic had begun, and people were less concerned with long-distance travel and more concerned with stopping the Foundation from stripping their personhood away.

On this road, in the distance, two figures could be seen approaching. One was short. She had messy brown hair and a permanently belligerent stare. The other one was tall, bulky, and gave a look of mild satisfaction at the pretty scene before him. He seemed like the kind of person who always looked a little vague, whatever mood he was in. The two of them would once have seemed a little odd, walking together through this sandy waste, but "once" was a very long time ago. In an era when nobody batted an eyelid at a bulbous fish-man galloping down the road on cloven hooves, any pair of human-looking mutants was a pretty unremarkable thing.

“Getting dark soon”, said the tall one. He picked at a spot on his nose. The short one fixed her glare upon him, and batted his hand away.

“Don’t do that. Infection”, she muttered.

“It’s a spot.”

“Still. Infection. Hard to get medicine these days.”

“Claire, I know of at least 14 people capable of healing any infection back home. One of them was groomsman at my wedding. And if I end up dead-”

“I am not resurrecting you if you get yourself killed, Norman”, Claire snapped. She patted her jacket. Damn. No cigarettes. And Norman only smoked a pipe, the hipster.

“Anyway, the fact remains- it's still getting dark soon”, murmured Norman. He looked up at the sky. An early moon had indeed begun to rise up. It was coming earlier and earlier every day, as the slow drive towards winter started.

“Well, we have a mission. Queen told us. The Free State needs better weapons if it’s going to stop the Jailors a second time, and they had an old base over here somewhere. Need to make sure it’s not still full of them. Need to loot it.”

“That’s our mission?”

Claire sighed. “Do you ever listen to the briefings? Yes, that’s our mission. Big ‘ole site. Pretended to be a museum. Mentioned in that list we nicked off them. So stay sharp.”

Norman smiled as they walked onwards. Claire hadn’t actually told him what the mission was. The Queen had asked her to do a thing, so Claire had roped Norman into it because Norman normally did what she asked. The Foundation's assault had left both of them alone, and they’d bonded over a shared love of 90s sci-fi shows. That, and the fact that they both really needed a friend.

There were no "briefings" in the Free State of Vegas; it was all too informal for that. None of them could stand that sort of strait-laced way of living, even Claire. But the girl had been Foundation before the blue had got her, and Norman supposed that old habits and turns of phrase died hard.

“I really think we ought to be discussing how dark it’s getting.”

Claire sighed, and began scanning the horizon. Norman could tell that she knew he was right, but she’d always thought of herself as the clever, observant one, so it was very irritating to her when Norman took into consideration something she’d neglected. Norman did not mind this. “Fine. We’ll make camp over on that hill and look into this place tomorrow. And you’d better hope that someone doesn’t go and raid the place while we’re sleeping.”

Norman decided not to mention that if anyone had been planning to loot a building which had been abandoned for months, then they probably would have done so already. But he was a gentle soul, and Claire was his friend. The two of them dragged their weary bodies onwards as the sun began to set.

There’s a pleasure in a good campfire that people don’t often appreciate. The wind in your hair, the open plains stretched before and after you, the cold at your back matched by the heat of the flame.

Claire had spent so long in the Foundation’s grey halls and damp concrete cells that she was always happy to be outside. She’d been a mid-level researcher writing notes on some unspeakable horror or other, before she’d accidentally been contaminated with some of the blue stuff. She didn’t like to remember much about that time now.

She instead liked to remember what it was like when she was young. She’d grown up in the north of Canada, on a little house surrounded by cold fields. Unlike many Canadians, she had loved the snow and the frost. She’d run around the land like it was her own, entirely free, as the snow whipped around her face. It was a very foolish thing to do, what with the bears and other wildlife, but she hadn’t been able to help herself.

The years she’d spent repressing her need for freedom made her love the great outdoors. And when they were on a hill, in a now-untamed country, she was at her happiest. The lights of Free Vegas twinkled in the distance; less bright but still somehow happier than the city-that-was. Beyond them lay the hell of the Orange Zone, where the Foundation brooded over its multitude of failings. And in the other direction were all the other new societies that were popping up- the Desert Rats, the Kiowa Nomads, the Golden Commune of San Francisco.

“You’ve got that look in your eye”, came Norman’s deep baritone. She glared fondly up at him. Norman was her only real friend, now that Sarah was gone. She knew he’d lost someone too, a wife, but she’d never probed him. He didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it.

“I don’t have any look in my eye. Looks are for other people. I have glares.” She stopped looking around her, and glanced down instead. She saw, a few feet away, the half-eaten corpse of a mouse. She smiled.

“Don’t.” Norman was grave. For someone whom she’d seen punch a Foundation agent in the face while yelling “death to fascism”, Norman could be surprisingly touchy when people broke his own rules. But she couldn’t help herself- the mouse was so small, so fragile.

She shuffled across to it, held it in her hands, and stared. The flies that were gathering abruptly fled as the mouse’s innards started to grow back. Gashes were healed, skin was grown, fur began to stroke its way across its little body. It sewed itself up with barely a scratch, and before she knew it, a squeaking and terrified little rodent was jumping out of her hand and into a bush.

“Now that was some look in your eye.”

“I'm sorry, Norman, but it just wasn’t its time. Some awful bird had picked it apart, and hadn't even had the courtesy to eat it. It’s not like I was- it was fine, OK.”

Norman sighed, and said nothing. He was always a quiet person, but Claire recognised that particular quietness- he disapproved of her. Her magic was of a useful but dangerous kind, and it was vital that it was used properly. Bringing back things that had died unnaturally was one thing, but bringing back the elderly, or the suicidal- these were ethical quandaries he didn’t like her skirting close to. He got so twitchy that, these days, he simply disapproved of her powers altogether.

Claire resented this, but only slightly. Resentment should be reserved for the Jailors. She leant back and looked up at the stars, gently moving their way through the sky. They were clearer now, but fewer. She dreamt of a blue planet of enormous size, rising from the earth and heading towards the stars, there to dwell forever.

The site was not, as it transpired, a site at all. It really was just a museum. A museum of fossils.

This irked Claire, as many things did, but Norman was more placid about it. He liked museums. As a boy, he used to walk around them with his parents, staring up at all the distant pieces of the past. They always seemed to be disconnected from reality, but still so real; forgotten things, turned into something alien by being pinned behind glass, but with some lingering link to an unknown world.

This museum was smaller than those museums. It was also entirely non-anomalous, which confused them both. It was definitely a Foundation-run place- the uniformed bodies scattered in unnatural poses near the entrance demonstrated that- but they couldn’t work out what it was for. Why would they maintain an ordinary museum?

Rows upon rows of fossils lined the walls. They examined them all. They poked, touched and scanned them. At one point Claire tried to lick one, and Norman had to stop her. It was not a large museum, but it had clearly been lovingly looked after in the time before it was abandoned. Dinosaur bones, little cretaceous fossils, ancient eggs, prehistoric tools- it all gave Norman a glimmer of that same strange disconnected feeling from his childhood. Maybe this was a Foundation site, after all; the real pinned down until it was something unreal.

Maybe that was the point. A statement of intent. A little white building standing in a desert, displaying things never meant to be displayed.

After hours moving down corridors, upturning floorboards, and meticulously picking apart cupboards, they found themselves in the museum's central hall, a large, angular room full of bits of bone and rock. It was also a place they'd checked three times before.

“Nothing”, snarled Claire, collapsing to the floor before propping herself up against a dinosaur skeleton. It was a great lumbering thing of white bone, the only complete exhibit in the place. “We’ve been here for hours, and nothing. Why did the Foundation run this place?”

“Maybe they’re not completely bad”, ruminated Norman. “You came out of them, after all, and you’re alright. Maybe, once, they were redeemable.”

“I’m how I am in spite of them, not because of them. They don’t do altruism.” Claire looked up at the creature above her. “They never care about history, except when it’s dangerous.”

“History can be important. Maybe they were looking for something else. Something hidden in these bones. They might not have found it, but they do like to learn, after a- Claire?”

Claire was staring at the skeleton. She seemed transfixed. Norman frowned.

“I hope you’re not thinking of resurrecting that thing.”

“No, I… scan this for the last signs of life, would you?”

Raising an eyebrow, Norman took out a kludged-together homemade device, full of screens and whirrs, and pointed it at the skeleton. Strange.

“It says that it died a few years ago. Maybe… three? Four? But these are fossils, they were never alive themselves…”

“I think… I think it wants to be alive again.”

Norman looked sharply at her. Claire was still staring up in the same position, but he could tell that something was off. That was a- a very specific stare, and one which he knew well.

“Don’t, Claire! This thing is a skeleton! It’s ancient, it's not meant to exist in this place!”

And a quiet, low, defiant voice whispered back: “Neither are we.”

A low rumbling came from the skeleton. Slowly, a little trickling of white crystal began to form around it, before coalescing more and more into a single form as it trickled in from some invisible point in the air. The skeleton began to move. It roared. Claire scrambled back, still staring, as more and more of the crystal began to coat, cover, complete it. Until, finally, it stood there. A complete being, all full of salt and sadness.

It howled, a long and lonely lament, up at the hall’s ceiling.

“Get behind me!” roared Norman. His eyes lit blue, and a flickering flame began to spit in his hand. His mastery of fire wouldn’t do much against salt, but if he could buy Claire enough time…

But the creature ignored them both. It sniffed at the toppled red ropes that cordoned off the exhibits. It made a low, sad sound as it looked at the sunlight. It began to move, stomping through the huge iron doors at the end of the hall. It passed out of sight.

“Great”, snapped Norman, “just great. Why the hell did you do that?”

He regretted his snap as soon as it came out, but Claire didn’t look ashamed, or distressed. She sat down on the floor, ignoring the low rumble of distant claws. “She was sad, Norman. So sad. She’d spent so long looking for her- her children, I think, and she found them, and then they’d been taken from her. Again. And she didn't realise until I- I'm sorry. I shouldn't have.”

Norman sighed. “Come on. We can’t let that thing get out.”

The dinosaur was disappearing off towards the other end of the museum. There were only about five or six rooms in the place, and the one it was heading for was directly opposite the hall. They gradually crept down, trying not to be noticed, each assuming the other was less scared than they were.

When the dinosaur entered the room at the end, they began to move faster. But as soon as they reached the central atrium, a great and terrible screech rang down the halls, and then a kind of shattering sound came which echoed around their skulls. They pelted down the corridor and entered the final hall- a light, airy octagon, framed by a beaming skylight. This was a happy room, which barely seemed to have been abandoned at all. Dinosaur eggs lined the walls, behind cages of glass, the sun reflecting and refracting off their pale surfaces.

At the end of the hall was a cluster of large eggs, all completely hall. They were all round, and slightly greying; similar, but none identical. They were bunched up together, surrounded by shattered salt crystals. Curled up around them in a protective semicircle was the skeleton of a dinosaur- fully collapsed and recently disturbed, but distinctly recognisable.

Once again, a mother had found her children.

The two of them stood, in silence, quietly staring. Then Claire looked up at the skylight. It had been carved in the shape of the Foundation's logo.

“Well”, said one of them. “That was that.” And the other one nodded slowly.

Another campfire, another hill. Free Vegas was close. The mystery of the museum was, at least in part, solved. Home, along with the many conclusions and beginnings it forever promised, would come tomorrow.

Norman shifted his hands, manipulating the fire with his magic. He drew great shapes of dragons and birds from the flames to amuse Claire, but she wasn’t in the right mood. She just kept staring up at the sky. She watched as the stars twinkled, looking down on her from impossible distances. She thought about salt.

She was aware of Norman gently panicking to himself. He didn’t like to see her upset. He was such a gentle creature, really, eager to please and pacify. But she wasn’t sure she could be pacified. A little mouse came and sniffed at her hair, before squeaking and running away.

Eventually, Norman stopped playing with the flame, and was silent for a while. He looked into the fire as Claire continued to fix her eyes up at the void.

“Am I an evil thing?” The question came from nowhere, but it forced its way out of her lips regardless. She was aware of Norman shifting, paying closer and sudden attention.

“Of course not. You’re a good person, Claire. You resurrect mice! Only good people would resurrect mice.”

“She just wanted her children. She died long ago, but she stayed around to find her children. And then she did, she found them, and the Foundation took her away again. I was Foundation. I was one of them.”

She sat up. Her long dark hair played over her eyes, obscuring them. “I was such a cold thing. I'd forgotten my home, I'd forgotten snow, what it was like to- I was the kind of creature who would have done all those things, those terrible things. What would I be without magic? If I hadn't been chosen by the blue, become one of the things we studied, been locked up and then hunted down… they took her from her children, Norman, just because she was a creature of magic. They stuck her up on a display for people to stare at.”

Norman stared into the fire for a while. Then he shuffled over, and put a great arm around her. She could tell he didn’t quite know what to say. It really wasn’t fair of her, she thought, when he had his own thoughts, and feelings, and losses to deal with. He’d seen the same stuff too. They looked at the moon for a while, its round and full and cold light washing over the desert.

“You’re broken, Claire”, he said eventually. “So am I. I was nobody before this happened, ekeing out a half-life on the edge of the world. I was there because things hadn’t turned out alright. I think that’s what happened to you, too; the world twisted you into a particular thing, which you didn't really want to be. But then you realised that was wrong. Maybe they’re right, and the blue changed our minds, maybe that was what made us better. But I don’t think that’s all that there is. I think we always had an inkling that things were wrong, that our eggs weren't lined up quite right, and the blue just lets us see that more clearly. We can change. We can bring mothers from the dead and help them find the home we never had.”

Claire sniffed, and smiled, and glared. Norman was nice. And broken. And her friend.

The two of them watched the moon rise until they fell asleep. In Free Vegas, thousands slept, with nightmares of things that were and dreams of things that would be. In a little white museum, frail bones rested easy on giant eggs, never to be disturbed again. On a hillside, by a dwindling fire, a woman dreamed of a deep blue planet rising from the earth, and of a place to be happily broken forever.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License