Previously: After Zander discovers that Spacemart manufactured his coworker Ethel in an artificial womb, they travel down to the surface of the nature preserve planet to meet with his mysterious old friend, Waylen.
Zander sent an encrypted transmission ahead to get Waylen’s coordinates, so he should be expecting them. As they approach the campsite, Ethel can see him sitting on an overturned tree trunk, poking at a small fire with a stick. He looks up when he hears their feet crunch through the undergrowth, flashing a charming smile. “Zander! What an unexpected pleasure,” he says, standing to greet them. Zander shifts awkwardly and gives only a nod in response, so Waylen turns to Ethel, offering his hand. “I don’t believe I caught your name last time.”
“Ethel,” she says, accepting Waylen’s strong handshake with her own uncertain grip. She sees something flash in his eyes when he hears her name, something like recognition, but he smooths over his expression too quickly for her to analyze it.
“Pleased to meet you, Ethel. I have to apologize for our first meeting— I’m not normally so rude.” Zander snorts at that and Waylen shoots him a look. “I’m not normally so rude to strangers, that is,” he amends. “Now, why don’t you two take a seat by the fire? I was just about to start dinner.”
Perching on the edge of the tree trunk next to Zander, Ethel watches as Waylen stabs unidentified chunks of meat onto skewers, layering in some slices of root vegetables and balances them over the fire, which flashes brighter as drops of juice fall into it.
“So,” Waylen begins, once he’s finished, “why’re you here, Zander? Just can’t stay away?” He winks.
Zander clears his throat, the tips of his ears dusting pink. “I recently learned some information I’d like to discuss with you. Or confirm with you, depending.”
“Oh?” Squatting across from them in front of the fire, Waylen rests his chin on his hand. “Do tell.”
“Spacemart… Ethel, she… Did you know they’re making people now?”
“Yeah, Zander,” Waylen says, rolling his eyes as he turns the skewers over the flames. “Where have you been? Oh, that’s right, you ran off to some middle-of-nowhere part of the galaxy so you wouldn’t have to know things like that.”
Ethel watches Zander’s jaw clench. “Do you know why?” he asks, seeming to ignore Waylen’s dig.
“Ethel, when did you start working for Spacemart?” Waylen asks.
“When I turned twelve,” she answers. She remembers that posting fondly— she and a few others from her age group, all training under an older employee. The woman always gave them a piece of hard candy after their shift was over.
“There you have it.” Waylen does a sweeping gesture towards Ethel. “Child labor.”
Zander furrows his brow. “But the Corps all agreed on laws—”
“Laws that don’t apply to children of a business owner,” Waylen interrupts. “I’ll give you one guess for who’s listed on her… ‘birth’ certificate.”
Ethel flinches at that, averting her eyes from Waylen. She starts picking at the bark on the trunk as Zander splutters, outraged. “But Spacemart’s not a person, Waylen!”
“You know damn well that the law’s been treating them like one for a long time. Long before they made Ethel. Hell, long before you and me, even.” Waylen spits. “They’ll use whatever loopholes they can for free labor.”
“Free?” Zander spins to look at Ethel. “They don’t pay you?”
Ethel bites her lip, shoulders hunching at his wild-eyed attention. “No? I mean, I get room and board…”
“Do you think they pay the machines in their factories, Zander? This is just their next cost-cutting step: Human property,” Waylen sneers.
Ethel digs her nails into her knee as her head swims. No one’s ever put it like that before, and that bluntly. Spacemart always called her a “valued employee and family member.”
Noticing her distress, Zander places a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Unlike Spacemart, Ethel’s a person. She’s not property. And how the hell are they getting away with this? Why isn’t someone doing something?”
“It’s not as though we’re not trying,” Waylen says. “Which is more than I could say for you, since you left.” Zander lowers his eyes, for once appearing more ashamed than angry. “And Ethel…” Waylen’s expression softens. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… You’re the victim here, okay? They’ve done a terrible thing.”
“By creating me?” Ethel swallows around a lump in her throat.
“No!” Waylen hastily corrects. “By not setting you free.”
There’s a beat of awkward silence as each of them works through their own discomforts. Then, Waylen breaks the tension with a clap of his hands. “Dinner should be ready,” he says, passing the skewers around.
Ethel blows on the first chunk of meat until it stops steaming, then takes a careful bite. Her eyes fly open as the taste floods her mouth. She’s only ever had manufactured meat before, which is alright, though it all has the same bland flavor and soft texture. This stuff— wild caught, she assumes— has a bit of a chew to it, and there’s something beneath the smokiness from the fire that is both utterly foreign and equally delicious— like she can taste the life this animal lived, one filled with fresh air and vegetation and sun.
The meal eases any remaining tension, lulling them into a peaceful, contented silence. Once the food is done, Zander gets to his feet. “Well, we should probably head back.”
Standing, Waylen catches Zander’s hand in both of his own. “You know you’re welcome back anytime, right?” he says, running his thumb over Zander’s knuckles. “Here, or… Anywhere else.”
“I…” Zander blinks at their joined hands but doesn’t pull away. “I’ll have to think about it.”
Waylen smiles, a little rueful, and squeezes Zander’s hand once before dropping it. “Alright.”
“But, um,” he scratches the back of his neck. “I’m sure Ethel and I can make some time, drop by down here a bit more often.”
With a brilliant grin, Waylen says, “I’ll look forward to it.”
Join us next week for another installment of Spacemart! Missed a chapter? Catch up on lawrentian.com.