NOMAD — Episode 3: Discovery

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Story by KAYE THORNBRUGH

Illustrated by KAMI THORNBRUGH

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

• • •

In the communal washroom, two aliens discussed a murder.

“A big mess, I heard,” said one of the aliens, whose skin appeared to be covered in hard scales. “They found the body in a stairwell early this morning.”

Delphine listened while she stood at the long basin, thoroughly scrubbing her underarms with a washcloth. It was all she had time for just now, before lights-out in her sector. She was late getting off work; her boss Hakem was normally there when her shift ended, but tonight, she’d had to lock up without him. It was unlike him.

A handful of other beings were using the shower stalls on the other side of the washroom, water running noisily, gurgling around the drains on the floor. Steam clouded the air.

“One of the Heirs?” asked the other alien, whose long arms bent with an extra joint. The Heirs of Siromos were a nasty group of thugs plaguing Nomad station.

“Nah. I heard it was a shopkeeper.”

Delphine considered that as she wrung out her washcloth and prepared to leave. On this station, murders were like natural disasters—unpleasant, but unavoidable. Most people seemed to think of the occasional killing as something that just had to be lived with, especially considering how disinterested station management was. NOMAD’s security task force was a joke. If you didn’t want trouble in your shop, you paid the Heirs of Siromos, or maybe the Jeds—whoever held sway in your sector.

Or you didn’t, like Hakem, and you had someone like Kerav hanging around. Sooner or later, Delphine worried, her boss’ refusal to pay the protection fee would come back and bite them.

She wondered who the victim was. She would ask Hakem when she saw him tomorrow—he would know, probably.

As the station cycled into artificial night, the dome lights dimmed and the stars faded in. At this point in NOMAD’s orbit, Delphine could see Siromos, a misty blue gas giant, and four of its moons. Meanwhile, all across the station, shops prepared for the evening crowd. Neon lights hummed to life, illuminating the streets. Glowing signs beckoned from every side, in more languages than Delphine could easily count.

She cut across the main avenue, which was choked with beings on their way to Izar’s Palace, the only casino left on the station. The glittering lights and winking holographic girls projected on the casino’s elegant front facade never failed to attract travelers, enticing them inside. They reminded Delphine a little of the big black moths that used to glide right up to the zapper hanging outside her childhood window, then explode in a bright crack of electricity. She steered clear of the gambling halls, herself; she didn’t have enough money to go buying trouble.

Music piped from inside shops and eateries, an undercurrent of sound running beneath the burble of a hundred different languages out on the street. Delphine stopped at a food cart to buy a cup of hot, sour soup that had a few doughy, meat-filled dumplings bobbing in it.

She ate while she walked, weaving carefully through the crowd.

Some nights, Delphine did her shopping after work, or did her washing at the public laundry, or caught up with Neal somewhere. Neal was a skilled mechanic and rather special friend. When the mood struck her, she snuck in to see a movie at the mostly-empty cinema.

But tonight, she wanted nothing more than to go home.

At the edge of the shopping sector, Delphine stepped down a wide stairwell, to the lower level, which was lit pale blue. The crowds were much thinner down here—fewer tourists, more people heading home for the night cycle. She passed made her way to a row of pod units.

When she first arrived on NOMAD, four years ago now, she only had enough money to pay for a night at a time in a sleeper - a padded tube just big enough for a single person to crawl inside. It was claustrophobic, like sleeping in a coffin. Once she had steady work, she upgraded to a pod, which seemed luxurious by comparison.

The pod was two meters square, with a perfectly white interior, like an eggshell. Only a few furnishings came with the pod: a narrow bed that folded out of the wall, a few cheap shelving units, a white enamel table and a matching stool.

The only color came from her growing collection of terrariums. Delphine’s love for them was twofold: They required minimal care, much like Delphine herself, and they reminded her of the little green world where she grew up. By now, the pod was almost overflowing with plants.

“Did you have fun without me today?”

Delphine asked, toeing off her shoes. She’d read somewhere that talking to plants helped them grow. She wasn’t sure if it was true, but it couldn’t hurt.

“Just like always, huh? At least one of us is having a good time.”

She peeled off her uniform and changed into an old pair of shorts and a loose sleeveless top, the fabric worn soft and thin from countless laundry cycles. Then she reached under her left arm, pressing the hidden button. A brief, stinging jolt sparked through her shoulder as the catches released and the nerves disconnected, and then the prosthetic left arm came off.

Delphine always felt a little unbalanced when she removed the arm—lopsided, sort of, although it actually weighed less than her organic arm. Maybe someday she’d get a model that was closer to the real thing. A number of models were compatible with the permanent socket that had been surgically implanted into her shoulder.

Nobody had asked her if she wanted the implant. She woke up in the clinic with the surgery already done, too groggy from the anesthesia to remember much of what happened after the explosion. By now, she was used to the prosthesis. She relied on it. But it was uncomfortable to sleep with, in a way her organic arm never had been.

Sometimes, lying in bed at night with the prosthesis off, Delphine could still feel her old arm. It prickled with pins and needles, or it burned and stung so badly that her eyes watered. Painkillers did nothing; she’d tried. Her nonexistent hand occasionally felt like it was clenched in a painfully-tight fist, a grip she couldn’t relax.

The sensations didn’t mean anything. She knew that. It was just electrical signals misfiring, a body that couldn’t understand that part of it was gone.

Just now, her arm tingled uncomfortably, but that wasn’t so bad. With a sigh, Delphine rolled onto her right side, so her phantom limb wouldn’t be trapped under her, and waited for sleep.

***

Normally, Delphine was the first person inside Moonrise each morning, letting herself into the darkened coffee shop an hour before it opened. She valued that quiet time to herself.

But this time, as she turned onto Moonrise’s narrow avenue, she saw that the lights were already on. The door was propped open, too, and a uniformed station security officer was loitering out front.

Delphine’s steps slowed as she attempted to process the scene—something wasn’t right.

Then she sped up, pushing past the officer standing at the door and into the coffee shop, who shouted at her to stop. Three more officers were milling around inside.

“What’s going on here?” Delphine demanded.

Her first, probably irrational thought was that this had to do with Kerav and the Heirs of Siromos—some kind of retaliation for Hakem’s refusal to pay their protection fees. Had security received an anonymous “tip” about illicit goods or activities happening at Moonrise? That would explain a few things.

One of the officers looked up when Delphine entered. He was tall enough to tower over Delphine, green-skinned and three-eyed. A badge on his uniform identified him as “FEN.”

“Who let you in?” Fen asked with a frown. “Let me see your ident.”

“I was about to ask you the same question,” Delphine said hotly, even as she dug her ident unit out of her pocket and waved it in front of him. “Station security is supposed to give notice if they need to inspect a unit. We never received notice, so you have no business here—”

“This isn’t an inspection,” Fen said, but she barely heard him.

“We’re up to code,” Delphine went on. “And the rent on this unit is paid through the end of the year.” She huffed. “Now, I need to get ready to open the shop, so if you’ll excuse me—”

Shaking his head, Fen said, “You’re not opening today. It’s a matter of station security.”

“You can’t—”

“Are you going to leave quietly, or do you have to be escorted from the premises?”

Delphine paused, affronted. But it would do no good to make a scene and get locked up. She needed to talk to Hakem first. He would be able to straighten this out.

She spun toward the door. “Hakem’s going to be furious when he hears about this,” she said.

Fen grabbed her organic arm, forcing her to stop. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Hakem’s dead.”

Delphine froze. “What?”

“He was found dead last cycle.”

“But—” For a second, she stared at him, uncomprehending. Then she yanked her arm out of his grasp, as though burned. “That can’t be right. You must have him mixed up with someone else.”

“We don’t,” Fen told her, and though she refused to acknowledge it out loud, she knew it was true. That was why Hakem didn’t turn up at the end of her shift last night. He was dead—and she didn’t know. “Now, you need to clear out—”

She didn’t budge. “What happened?”

“It’s under investigation. That’s what we’re doing here.”

Delphine’s heart did a slow, painful somersault. “Where did they find him?” she asked. “In a stairwell someplace?”

Fen’s three eyes blinked in unison. “How did you know that?”

The room seemed to be tilting around Delphine. She felt as if the station’s artificial gravity were acting up. “I—I need to go,” she said, turning away from Fen and moving toward the door.

She stumbled out of Moonrise, onto the empty avenue—and realized abruptly that, without Hakem, there was no truly safe place for her to go.

• • •

Without Hakem, how will Delphine keep Moonrise afloat—and keep herself safe? Can she uncover the truth about her friend’s death, without meeting the same fate?

Tune in next Saturday for NOMAD: Episode 4.

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