Previously: After helping a mysterious old friend of Zander’s escape custody, Spacemart coworkers Ethel and Zander lied to the security officers investigating the case.  

After that morning, Zander is far more cordial to Ethel. One could even be forgiven for thinking that he was making the attempt to be friends, if he wasn’t being so awkward and stilted about it. It seems that Zander’s lack of conversational skills stems less from any problem he has with her, and more from his problems with socialization in general.  

Still, Ethel can tell he’s making an attempt. He offers to help her more around the store, where previously he’d been content to read on his tablet and let her do all the work. She wakes up one morning to the smell of something cooking and wanders out into the kitchen only for Zander to offer her pancakes. They somehow manage to be both a little burnt around the edges and underdone in the middle, but she’s so pleasantly surprised by the gesture that she doesn’t mind. He also starts spending less time cooped up in his room at night, sometimes joining her in the living room to frown at whatever show she’s watching and grumble complaints about the standards for television these days. 

And though he still isn’t that great at talking, he tries a bit of that, too. One night, during inventory, he asks, “So, kid, how’d you end up at an out-of-the-way place like this, anyway? Aren’t young people supposed to like crowds?” 

Laughing, Ethel types in the number of water jugs she just finished counting into her tablet. “I saw a video once, when I was a kid, of a forest. Huge trees, from some far-off planet somewhere. I grew up on a ship, so not a lot of green there. When it came time to pick which branch to work at next, well, it wasn’t that hard to choose.” Zander hums, to show he’s been listening. Ethel’s beginning to know him well enough to know that the conversation won’t continue without another prod. “What about you? Seems like you’ve led an exciting life, judging by your choice of company. How’d you end up here?” 

Zander shrugs. “You get to be my age; you start looking for a little peace and quiet.” 

“And before that?” Ethel presses. “How’d you meet Waylen?” 

Frowning at her, Zander says, “Not for you to know, kid,” which has been his response every time Ethel’s asked for more information about Waylen. She tried to argue a few days ago that she deserved to know, since she lied for them and all, but Zander came back with the fact that knowing any more would mean she would have to lie again, which was a point she had difficultly arguing with. 

She pouts, knowing better than to push it. “Why do you call me kid, anyway? I mean, I know I’m younger than you…” 

Rubbing a hand on the back of his neck, Zander gives her a sheepish look. “I, uh, sort of… Forgot your name.” 

“You’re the worst,” she tells him, but she laughs, because that fits in so perfectly with the rest of his deal. “It’s Ethel.” 

Zander relaxes, like he’s relieved at her lack of negative response. “Ethel, huh?” He quirks a brow. “What kind of ancient old lady name is that?” 

Wrinkling her nose, she says, “They gave all of us names like that.” 

“Who, your parents?” 

“No, Spacemart. They thought giving us classical names would put people more at ease.” 

Zander pauses in his sorting, hands hovering in the air. “Your parents gave you and your siblings away to Spacemart?” 

“I don’t have any parents,” she corrects. “Don’t have any siblings, either, technically, though there are others in my age group that I grew up with. All of them have names like mine. Since we’re all lab grown, they thought giving us old names would help balance out the new technology used to make us.” 

Zander turns to stare at her, suddenly pale. “You don’t have any… Lab grown?” 

“Yeah,” she says, confused at the look of mounting horror on his face. No one’s ever reacted like this before, though she supposes there’s been very few outside people she’s told. “Legally speaking, I think Spacemart is technically my mom,” she offers, assuming his hang-up is with the no parents thing. 

No longer pale, Zander goes red with fury. “They’re making people now?” 

Tilting her head, Ethel says, “Yes? I didn’t realize that was news to you. Artificial wombs have been available for decades.” 

“As an assisted reproductive technology, not… This!” He shouts, gesturing in her general direction. At her hurt look, Zander sighs. “Sorry, I didn’t mean…” He trails off and just stares at her for a minute. “Shit,” he says, finally. “Okay. Come on. We’ve gotta… Let’s go take a little trip on planet, okay?”  

She lets him tug her towards the door. “For what?” 

His expression looks deeply pained. “To see Waylen.” 

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