Previously: Spacemart coworkers Ethel and Zander have learned from Zander’s friend, Waylen, that Ethel is part of a group of people manufactured by Spacemart for free child labor.
They begin to visit Waylen more often, after that. They spend most of their time sitting around the fire in his campsite and talking while Waylen prepares a meal, usually something simple, but always fresh and delicious. One afternoon he offers Ethel fish, which she’s never even had a manufactured version of. It flakes apart in her mouth, bursting with a flavor that she has trouble coming up with descriptors for, other than “salty.” She adores it, scarfing down her serving far too quickly. Waylen watches her with a good-natured smile and offers seconds.
Little by little, some of the iciness between Zander and Waylen begins to thaw, too. It may just be a product of spending more time together, falling back into the habit of whatever amicable relationship they had, however long ago. Or maybe they’ve talked it all through, in a conversation Ethel wasn’t privy to. She gave them some alone time on purpose, with the excuse of wanting to hike around and explore the surrounding forest. There are a lot of reasons to consider Ethel naïve, but even she can read a room.
Her favorite part of visiting Waylen, however, is when he and Zander tell her stories from the old days. It usually starts with one of them, most often Waylen, cracking some inside joke with a reference to their past. Then, all it takes is a gentle prod from Ethel to get them to launch into an explanation.
“So, the council denied our appeal to grant that planet protection,” Waylen says, in the middle of describing one of their protest group’s first attempts at curtailing Spacemart’s expansion. “Which I could’ve seen coming, all the bastards on the council are in the pocket of the Corps. Anyway, a bunch of us ended up at this trashy nightclub after that, trying to drown out our sorrows. All got damn near blackout drunk—”
“You did,” Zander corrects. “I wasn’t—”
“Oh, sure, you weren’t drunk, but you were—” Zander coughs delicately, raising a brow and angling his head in Ethel’s direction. “Well,” Waylen continues. “Point is, one of us knew the bartender, so we got talking to her, explaining the situation, and someone had this stupid idea, and the club had these huge boxes of confetti…”
Zander giggles, honestly giggles, and Ethel turns to stare at him like he’s grown a second head. “We broke into the Spacemart warehouse lot, and we…” Zander pauses, snorting with laugher. “We opened up the fuel tank of every delivery ship and just filled them with confetti.”
“Oh, no,” Ethel says.
The firelight reflects off Waylen’s eyes as he watches Zander laugh, expression fond. “Put that sector completely out of commission for two days,” Waylen says, “which is nothing for them, comparatively, but it felt real good.”
“So, if that appeal didn’t work, how’d you get them to leave this planet alone?” Ethel asks.
Laughter dying out, Zander stiffens. Waylen notices the shift, pursing his lips together. “Oh, nothing quite as interesting as confetti,” Waylen says, lightly.
Zander frowns. “We should head back.”
Ethel can see something flicker beneath Waylen’s cool exterior, something panicked and pleading. “Will you be back tomorrow? I’m planning to go finishing again.”
With one look at Waylen, Zander deflates. “Alright.”
On the shuttle ride back, Ethel tries to bite her tongue. She doesn’t really want to deal with the weird, gloomy aura that’s settled over Zander, but curiosity gets the better of her. “What did you do?” she asks, finally. “What made this planet different?”
Zander scrubs a hand over his face. “It’s not a pretty story, Ethel.”
“I don’t care,” she replies, sticking her chin out stubbornly. “I want to know.”
Sighing, Zander relents. “Well, our organization got bigger, for one thing. We had a lot more public support. But what really turned the tide was, well…” He glances at her, expression tinged with shame. “Bombs.”
Ethel’s eyes widen. “Bombs?”
Zander nods. “Yeah, bombs. We targeted their other strip-mining operations. Waylen was always very careful to target just the equipment, and we were slowing them down and costing them money, but they were doing a good job sweeping the whole thing under the rug.”
“One night, there was an inspection we didn’t know about. Explosives went off like normal, but this time…” His hand curls into a fist where it rests on his thigh. “Ten dead. A lot harder to sweep that under the rug.”
“Shit,” Ethel breathes.
“It was an accident, and Waylen felt awful about it, of course. But the council finally took notice. Put a lot of pressure on Spacemart to get control of their territory, and when faced with a choice between one planet and all-out war, they gave up the planet.”
“Is that why you left?”
“Not just that,” Zander says, shaking his head. “The nature preserve was made to placate us, and I knew that, but after everything that happened, I was ready to quit while we were ahead. A lot of the others, Waylen included, wanted that war. Thought it was the only way to change things. And maybe I was an idealist, but I wanted to change things without killing anyone.” He smiles at her, rueful. “They never got their war, or at least not as big as they wanted it. The organization lost a lot of backing after that. Turns out that the public doesn’t love the idea of killing people, either.”
He’s quiet, for a moment, while the shuttle lands. “I don’t know,” he says, eventually. “I don’t know if I’ll ever agree with Waylen, not completely, but I think I underestimated the kind of evil Spacemart is capable of. And maybe that puts the line in a different place than I thought it was.”
“It’s strange, for me,” Ethel admits. “Because they made me, and they raised me. But I wish they’d left some more of the trees alone. I wish they’d let me be a kid for longer. And I’m not sure what I’d even do with the money, but I kinda wish they’d pay me.”
Zander snorts. “I still can’t believe they don’t. Now, come on, let’s head inside.”
Join us next week for another installment of Spacemart! Missed a chapter? Catch up on lawrentian.com.