“Attention, Spacemart shoppers, we will be closing in ten minutes. Please bring your items to the front of the store to check out.” 

Ethel’s voice echoes through the store before she shuts the receiver off with a click. The last few straggling customers shuffle over to her register, where she scans their items and then their wrists for the credit payments. Their purchases mainly consist of snack foods and some restocking of camping supplies— jugs of water, extra firewood— and then finally, a rugged looking man buying a few packs of rifle ammo. 

Zander scoffs as the airlock wooshes shut behind the man. “Nature preserve my ass,” he mutters, raising his tablet back up to cover his face and kicking his feet up on the counter. Ethel squints, trying to make out the mirrored text through the transparent back of the tablet. It seems to be some sort of tabloid. 

Frowning, Ethel starts closing down her register. “It’s still a nature preserve,” she argues. “Controlled, licensed hunting keeps animal populations in check and prevents poaching and over-hunting.”  

Rolling his eyes, Zander mutters something about “Damn company scripts,” but doesn’t otherwise grace her with a response.  

Ethel sighs. Since she started at Spacemart two weeks ago, none of her conversations with her coworker have last much longer than that, despite her best efforts. They even share living quarters above the store, but he spends most of his time shut up in his room and only acknowledges her with a nod when they run into each other in the kitchen. He appears middle-aged, a few grays in his hair and lines on his face, which puts him somewhere around sixty or seventy, with the elongated lifespans these days. She supposes he’s been around long enough to have earned being a little crochety, not that she, at nineteen, can really relate.  

She also supposes he has a point about the “nature preserve”, though Spacemart does retain full legal authority over the planets under its jurisdiction and can do with them what they like, so she thinks it’s kind of nice that they set this planet aside, rather than mining it for resources. Even if that means Spacemart has to make money off hunting licenses and camping reservations instead. She’d never really seen anything approaching “nature” growing up, which is why she requested to be placed here, at the store on the moon orbiting the planet. Not that she’s actually got to go on planet, yet.  

Setting his tablet aside, Zander stands, groaning as he stretches out his back. “Come on, kid. Inventory time.” 

Ethel follows him to the back room, where they spend twenty minutes sorting through boxes in awkward silence. Well, awkward for her. Zander doesn’t look like he cares much, counting items with his ever-present bored expression.  

“So,” Ethel attempts, “how long have you worked here, exactly?” 

“Thirty years, or so,” Zander replies. 

“Were you by yourself, or…?” 

“Some other woman; she retired right before they hired you,” Zander says. He gives her a meaningful look. “She didn’t talk much.” 

Ethel furrows her brow and opens her mouth to reply, perhaps to finally tell him off for his attitude, but she gets interrupted by a pounding on the back door. 

They both freeze, looking at each other with wide eyes. Zander shakes it off first. “Bastards. Hours are clearly posted,” he says. She doesn’t bother to tell him that no customers ever come by this late. He must know, given the small blaster he grabs off a nearby table. 

He cautiously approaches the panel next to the airlock and she trails behind him, leaning her head around to watch the screen as he activates the external camera. It shows a figure in a spacesuit that has clearly seen better days, stained with a dark substance that she soon identifies as blood.  

“Zander, you piece of shit,” she hears the figure— a man, judging by the depth of his voice— shout through the tinny speaker. “Let me in.” 

Zander swears, but his posture relaxes. He shoots her a glance, smiling ruefully. “Sorry about this, kid,” he says, and unlocks the door. 

New term, new serial! Spacemart will continue next week!