NOMAD — Episode 6: Manifest

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Editor’s note: If you missed the first few episodes of “Nomad,” you can catch up on the Coeur Voice page at Cdapress.com.

“OK, give it a shot,” Mik said as she scooted out from under the industrial sink in the kitchen at Moonrise, a wrench in her hand. Her long hair was pulled back to keep it out of her face while she worked, but a few strands had slipped free, falling across her forehead.

The sink had been giving Delphine trouble for weeks, often refusing to produce hot water, as if to spite her. She’d meant to get it looked at, but there never seemed to be enough time — or enough credits to hire a handyman.

When Mik showed up this morning for her first shift at the cafe, she claimed she could repair whatever was wrong. Now she was about to prove it — or not.

Delphine twisted the handle. Sure enough, hot water sprayed from the tap.

“Oh,” Delphine said, surprised despite herself. “You fixed it.”

“Told you I can fix things,” Mik said. She glanced up at Delphine. “Fix more than your plumbing, too.”

Delphine suppressed a grimace when she recalled what Mik had said to her last night about needing “protection” from the local gangs. “I’m telling you, I don’t need that. Look at me,” she said, gesturing toward her whole body with her organic hand. “I’m basically unkillable.”

“Basically, huh?” Mik’s expression twitched into something like skepticism.

Delphine sighed through her nose. “You know how people think of humans. We eat capsaicin for fun. Sometimes we cut off our limbs and call that medical treatment. We’re basically monsters from an abyss.”

Mik hummed in acknowledgement as she straightened, bracing one hand against the edge of the sink. She moved stiffly, as if kneeling had been painful. Delphine wondered, not for the first time, what had happened to Mik’s leg that so limited her mobility.

Across the galaxy, humans were known for their hardiness. A broken leg was a permanently disabling injury to many creatures, if they didn’t go into shock and die; most humans, however, could recover and even regain full function.

Limb loss was much the same. Delphine knew that she seemed intimidatingly strong to some beings, simply because she’d survived the amputation of her arm.

The average human could tolerate, at least for a little while, temperatures well below the freezing point of water and halfway to boiling — conditions that would kill many other life forms. Human endurance was frightening to behold: Early humans evolved as persistence hunters, pursuing large game at a walking pace, for days at a stretch, until their prey simply died of exhaustion. Compared to many species, humans simply didn’t get tired.

Humans could also reproduce at a rate of one per standard year. Delphine knew that some species considered them to be something like vermin — numerous and hard to kill.

As Mik moved to let her purple hair down, Delphine noticed that a crescent moon was tattooed on the back of Mik’s neck, indigo against her warm brown skin. The tattoo curved around a thin white scar, so neat and clean that it had to be surgical. Instead of covering the scar, the crescent moon almost accentuated it.

Delphine felt herself stiffen. She knew a gang tattoo when she saw it.

She’d never seen the symbol around here. But it looked as if Mik had some kind of affiliation, maybe in another system. Stars — Delphine had offered her a job partly in the hopes of avoiding these kinds of entanglements. Now what was she supposed to do?

She must’ve looked stricken, because Mik’s eyes were dark when she caught Delphine looking. “What?” she asked.

“The — scar,” Delphine said, catching herself just in time. She wasn’t sure if it was wise to bring up the tattoo casually. “On your neck.”

For a moment, Mik was quiet. Delphine wondered if she would respond at all.

Then Mik pressed her lips into a thin line and said, “You know what a slave implant is?”

Delphine shook her head.

“It’s a tiny little chip,” Mik said. “They put it in surgically. Tracks your location. You wander too far from the designated area, the chip gets hot. You keep going, it explodes.”

“What?” Delphine knew that indentured servitude and various forms of slavery were legal on some worlds — and still practiced even on worlds where it wasn’t legal. But she’d never heard of such a barbaric device.

“I saw a woman walk off the grounds once, when I was a kid,” Mik said, in a low voice. She wasn’t quite looking at Delphine. “She got through the gate before anyone noticed where she was headed, and by then, nobody could go after her. People were screaming at her to turn around. She just kept walking. There was a loud bang, and then — red mist. Her whole head was just gone.”

Delphine’s mouth had gone abruptly dry. “She didn’t know what would happen?”

“She knew,” Mik said simply. Then she shrugged. “The implant isn’t really for the person who tries to run. It’s for everyone else.”

“And you’ve got one in your neck?”

Mik didn’t answer, just moved to scoop up the rest of her tools.

It hit Delphine, then, what Mik had explained without saying it out loud: that she had been a slave at some point in her life, and apparently during her childhood.

Delphine wondered how long ago that was. But before she could think of how to formulate the question, the bell above the entrance chimed, announcing the arrival of a customer.

It was Neal. He’d arrived like clockwork for his regular order, but he looked more harried than usual, the thin skin beneath his eyes looking almost bruised with sleeplessness.

“Late night?” Delphine asked, ringing up his order.

Neal hesitated. “Had some work to do after the wake,” he said.

That gave Delphine pause. She knew that Neal did some work for the Jed, one of the two gangs that held sway on this station. He seemed to think of it much like any other job, though he kept it quiet.

“Was it a weird manifest?” Delphine asked. That was a large part of Neal’s work: helping to manage “sensitive cargo” that needed to be smuggled into or out of the station.

“Live cargo,” he admitted.

She raised her eyebrows. “Exotic animals?”

Neal chewed his lip. Then he dropped his voice. “If you consider humans to be exotic,” he said. “Then yeah.”

Delphine’s heart stumbled. Before she could speak, she felt a presence behind her — Mik, who had stepped out of the kitchen and was now staring at Neal with dark eyes.

“Explain,” she said. “Now.”

[Which is stronger — Neal’s conscience or his ties to the Jed? Will Mik’s past lead her to intervene with the mysterious “cargo,” and does Delphine dare to get involved? Tune in next Saturday for NOMAD: Episode 7.]

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