Previously: After Zander discovers that Spacemart manufactured his coworker Ethel in an artificial womb, he decides to bring her down to the surface of the nature preserve planet to meet with his mysterious old friend, Waylen. 

Ethel restrains herself from pressing her face to the window of the shuttle as they make their descent onto the planet. Zander’s only just learned her real name, and the last thing she needs is him watching her display of her childlike wonder and deciding that “kid” is probably the most apt thing to call her, after all. Not that he seems to be paying her much attention. Instead, he stares grimly at the bags of rations in the seat next to him. She’d raised a brow at him when he packed them away and he’d mumbled something about how it was only polite to bring a gift.  

Satisfied that Zander’s focus will remain elsewhere, Ethel allows herself to keep hers trained on the view outside, though she carefully schools her expression into one of disinterest. At first, she sees the planet as a sort of swirl of green and brown and blue and white, only able to make out the edges of coastlines beneath the cloud layer as they get closer. Then she can differentiate the drifting swirls of white from the snow-capped poles, or the dust of snow atop mountain ranges, as the texture and dimension of the surface comes into focus.  

There’s a beauty in the rippling, sandy seas of desert, and the craggy edges where cliffsides meet the seas. But what really fills Ethel with awe are the forests. From a distance they look like carpets of moss, or even grass, both things she’s seen small patches of on the colony ship where she grew up, and some of the cities she’s worked in. The form of the individual trees, when they get near enough to make those out, is even familiar— She recalls a small tree in a city square, somewhere well-established enough to afford plants for vanity, rather than just for sustenance or oxygen supply. It isn’t until the shuttle slows its descent to coast along the treetops, however, that Ethel can truly begin to appreciate the sheer size of the vegetation beneath her. The tree from the city barely exceeded her height, while these would dwarf her.  

When they reach a break in the tree line, the shuttle stops in place before starting to slowly lower to the clearing below. Zander taps the transponder strapped to his wrist and sighs.  

“Well,” he says, “I hope you brought your hiking shoes.” Ethel decides against pointing out that they’re both sporting the same company-issue boots. 

Slinging one of the ration bags over her shoulder, she follows Zander out of the shuttle and towards the edge of the forest. She can’t help the open mouth stare she gives the trees, now that she’s up close. The diameter of some of the trunks is easily three or four times her wingspan, and she has to crane her neck to even approach seeing the tops of them from the ground. Zander glances back at her and catches her expression, the corners of his mouth quirking up, almost fond. 

“One of the few good things Spacemart ever did, deciding to leave this planet alone,” he tells her. “Imagine how many hundreds of years it took for these to grow, and how quickly they could’ve levelled it.” She nods, too dumbstruck for a verbal response, and he presses on with an uncharacteristic passion. “They missed out on a lot of ore, too. They were practically foaming at the mouth to strip mine this place, until we kicked up a fuss.” 

“We?” Ethel asks. “Meaning you and Waylen?” 

Zander frowns. “Yes, we were both involved. But the protest movement was far bigger than just the two of us.” 

Ethel drags her fingers over one of the moss-covered trunks, fingers coming away damp. “So that’s how the two of you met,” she says, thoughtful. “Protesting.” 

Nodding, Zander adds, “We were damn good at it, too. The stunts we pulled…” He smiles, a little wistful, as animals chirp and chatter in the background. “They never stood a chance. 

“Wait, if you were protesting Spacemart… How’d you end up working for them, if he ended up… Well…” There’s a lot of descriptors that might apply to Waylen. “Fugitive” seems the most accurate, though “criminal” could work as well. Perhaps even “terrorist,” though that may be too harsh. 

The smile slips off Zander’s face. “People change,” he shrugs. “Sometimes the line in the sand is in a different place for you than it is for them, and sometimes one of you is more capable of compromising than the other.” The transponder on his wrist beeps at him and he looks down at it. “Why don’t you ask him to explain it to you?” he asks. “Waylen’s just ahead.” 

Join us next week for another installment of Spacemart! Missed a chapter? Catch up on