Christmas in Zonei Pt. 02

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Chapter Three

“Fuckin’ son of a bitch!”

Hearing a deep angry voice so close to him, Kim was instantly wide-awake, heart pounding. He jumped to his feet and backed away from the giant on his futon. The events of the previous evening came back to him in a rush, but that did little to slow his rapid heartbeat.

Raeden was sitting up, looking at his feet.

Afraid to take his eyes off the man’s face, Kim’s took a quick glance at his feet as well, then did a double take. His filthy toes were dark, almost purple, and clearly swollen. Kim took a step closer and peered at the feet. There appeared to be large blisters sprouting up on his toes.

“Oh my god! What happened? That looks painful.”

“No shit! It hurts like a son of a bitch,” Raeden growled. “What is this place? Where the hell am I?”

“You’re in my unit. I brought you in because it was so cold last night.”

The look Raeden gave him was incredulous. “Why?”

“I … I couldn’t leave you out there. You would have frozen to death by now.”

Raeden’s eyes clouded, becoming unfocused, looking as bleak as Zonezee. He closed them and sank back to a prone position on the bed. “You should have left me there. It would have been a blessing.” His voice was hollow.

Empty. His life is empty. This realization came to Kim and he didn’t question it. His own life was lonely, but it paled in comparison to Raeden’s agonizing void. Somehow he knew this.

He wasn’t sure what to say and the silence stretched. He glanced at the slim black intel attached to his left wrist. It was five-thirty, the time he normally got up for work. He liked to sleep in on Sundays, his only day off, and even though he’d spent a restless night freezing on the floor, he couldn’t go back to sleep now. He was too agitated.

He became aware of the stench coming off of Raeden. How the hell do I get him out of my home?

His eyes roved over the derelict. He wasn’t asleep, Kim didn’t think. His breathing was too rapid and his face was pinched. He lay perfectly still, however, his hands on his chest. Kim’s stomach lurched as he realized the man’s fingers were dark and swollen too—they looked like they were starting to blister as well.

Oh shit! Kim realized, He’s got frostbite. He probably won’t be able to walk anytime soon.

Raeden groaned. “Fuck! You got some’in for pain?” His voice was gravelly, like course-grit sandpaper.

“Aspirin,” Kim offered.

“Hell! You got a gun? Just shoot me now!”

Kim had no response to that. The penalty for possessing a firearm was death. No one even talked like that anymore. Where’d this guy come from?

Raeden sat up abruptly, shifted his left arm so his wrist was exposed, then stared dully at the strip of red skin around his wrist. “Fuck! The little fuckers. Hope they sizzled their balls off when they tried to access my intel.”

His attention turned to Kim and he glared at him with an intensity that was frightening. “Go get me some fuckin’ alcohol. Tekila or gin or somethin’.”

“Uh … I can’t afford it,” Kim said softly, shrinking back in spite of himself. Raeden seemed unpredictable, even sober. And alcohol was expensive. If he bought a bottle or two he would short himself either food or power for the week.

Raeden lurched to his knees, his scowl dark and threatening.

Kim took a few steps back, readying himself to flee. He can’t chase me on those feet, can he?

His question was answered almost immediately as Raeden lifted one knee and placed his foot on the futon. He started to stand then fell back onto the bed, howling in pain and rage.

He rocked back and forth his face contorted in agony. “Fuck!” he screamed.

Kim did not come any closer but stood, shaking, near his front door.

Raeden turned a baleful eye on Kim. “You go get me some god-damned booze. Right now!” he yelled.

Kim shook his head silently, watching the derelict warily.

“I’m fuckin’ stuck here with Mister Namby Pamby.” His voice slipped into a falsetto, “I don’t do booze. I don’t do drugs. Here, have an aspirin for your mutilated feet.”

“Sorry,” Kim said. He felt redness creeping up his face.

Raeden snorted and reached for the aspirin bottle that Kim had left on the crate next to the bed. It had a childproof cap on it and as Raeden used his blistered fingers to put the pressure he needed on the lid to open it, his face bloomed with pain.

“Fuck!” he screamed and threw the bottle across the room. It slammed into the wall with terrific force, making Kim jump even though the bottle was nowhere close to where he was standing.

“I can’t fuckin’ do shit!” the giant screamed. “You fuckin’ should left me out there. What the hell were you thinkin’ bringing me in here like this?”

“Obviously, I wasn’t,” Kim said dryly.

“No, you weren’t!” Raeden casino oyna huffed and crossed his arms across his chest, closing his eyes. He was clearly in a great deal of pain. It reminded Kim of the last days with his mother, when he was helpless to ease her suffering, except his mother had accepted her torment with strength and grace.

He crossed the room and picked up the aspirin bottle. Opening it, he dumped six into his hand. Keeping an eye on Raeden, his heart beating in his ears, he approached slowly.

Raeden opened his eyes and looked at him. Kim almost fell back at the fury he saw in the big man’s eyes, but instead he held out the pills in a shaking palm.

Wordlessly Raeden held out his hand, palm up and Kim dumped the pills onto it. While Raeden popped the pills into his mouth, Kim poured him a glass of water and handed it to him. He took it and drained it, handing the cup back to Raeden without a thank you. Then he lay back and stretched out on futon with a groan, closing his eyes.

Kim watched him for several long minutes. He appeared to trying to go to sleep. Kim slid his shoes on and shrugged into his coat, then he stepped out the front door of his apartment. He paced to the end of the hall where there was a large window. It was snowing heavily outside, a billion tiny flakes making the buildings across the street appear washed out and nebulous.

He took a deep breath and steeled his nerves. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I haven’t done anything illegal. He put his wrist in front of his face and spoke into it. “Intel: Corpsec.”

“Is this an emergency?” The feminine voice had no inflection.

“No.”

“Connecting,” the voice said.

A few moments later another voice came on the line, as mechanical as the first. “Good morning, Mr. Takemoto. Please state your problem.”

“There is a man who needs help. He’s injured, and his intel has been stolen.”

“Your intel hasn’t been stolen. You are using it.”

Kim sighed. Artificial intelligence wasn’t—intelligent, that is. He hated going around and around with them. “I’m calling for someone else. Can I talk to a human, please?”

“You will need to get him to call in himself.”

“He can’t. His intel has been stolen.”

“Your intel hasn’t been stolen. You are using it.”

Kim groaned in frustration. Surely Corpsec had enough money to build a better front-end system. He suspected that they did this just to keep all but the most persistent from ever reaching them.

“I need to talk to a real human, please.”

“Mr. Takemoto. Please state your problem. I will help you with it.”

Twenty minutes later Kim disconnected with an abrupt, “End connection.” If he’d had a device he could throw against the wall, he would have. He’d spent ten minutes going around and around with the AI before he was finally allowed to talk to a real person.

The Corpsec lady had been even more frustrating than the AI. She had been adamant that Raeden would need to come in in person to have his intel replaced. Kim had explained why that was impossible: Raeden could not walk, and without an intel, he couldn’t hire private a pickup service. Corpsec did not do pickup, she’d insisted. Raeden would have to get to the closest Corpsec office himself.

Kim didn’t have the funds to hire a cab. Even if he could find a service that ventured into Zonei, their fare would be astronomical. Cab service was one of the few things that actually cost more in the lower zones than in the higher zones, because of the risk involved.

Kim had tried logic and reason with the lady first. Then he had resorted to pleading with her to help. When she’d figured out that he’d brought an injured stranger into his unit, she had laughed and told him he was an idiot. “There ain’t nothing I can do about your brain,” she’d said. When he continued to argue with her she’d finally lost her temper with him. He’d disconnected when she threatened to have him arrested for wasting her time. He wasn’t sure she could do that, but he didn’t want to chance it.

For the time being, he was stuck with Raeden.

He went back into his unit, surprised by how warm it was even though he hadn’t run the hotplate yet this morning. The object of his frustration was asleep. He filled the kettle and put it on. He needed to go grocery shopping, but he still had some tea left.

 

*****

 

Kim was still trembling slightly when he returned home. Grocery shopping was always a nerve-wracking ordeal for him. The actual shopping wasn’t a problem, but traversing the short distance between the border of Zonem and the store was always frightening. For the way back he always hired Carlos and Pablo to escort him. Otherwise, he may not have made it out of Zonem with groceries in hand, let alone unscathed.

Carlos had a crush on him, he was pretty sure. The big Latino always smiled broadly and ate him up with his eyes, but not in a creepy way. Carlos had a mental disability of slot oyna some sort. He rarely spoke, but when he did, his speech was slow and measured and his words were simple. Pablo didn’t talk much either and never smiled. The brothers looked a lot alike: both were tall and beefy with bushy dark eyebrows, square jaws, and jet-black hair. The resemblance ended there though. Pablo was cold and hard; he’d seen way too much violence at an early age, Kim thought. Carlos likely had too, but it hadn’t affected him in the same way. Sometimes Kim wished he could be like Carlos—blissfully ignorant and perpetually optimistic.

The brothers had to leave him at the border of Zonei. Neither of them had clearance for any zone higher than Zonem. After that, Kim would move as fast as possible to his apartment. Compared to Zonem, Zonei was safe and secure, but he’d been attacked more than once. If he was lucky, the muggers would take his groceries and run.

Kim’s racing heart did not calm down as it usually did once he was behind the locked door of his unit. The urine smell, if anything, was even stronger than the day before and Kim wondered if perhaps Raeden had peed in his bed. Wouldn’t that be a treat? With a mixture of relief and revulsion, he noticed that the water pitcher, which was on the floor next to the futon, contained a suspiciously yellow liquid. Ugh!

Raeden was sitting up in bed watching him. Kim had forgone buying juice and eggs so that he could afford a large bottle aspirin and some laundry soap to accommodate his new guest. He set the bag of groceries on the counter.

“You’re like a rabbit or something,” Raeden said. “Always frightened.”

“I’m not a walking mountain like you, Raeden.” Kim bristled with indignation. He hated that he was a coward, but he couldn’t really help it.

Raeden raised an eyebrow and it made his face look suddenly open. Younger. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Kim.”

“Kim?” Raeden narrowed his eyes and he looked him up and down. “You’re not a girl.”

Kim rolled his eyes. He went through this routine every time he met someone new. He was small and slight and wore his black hair in a braid down to his waist. Sometimes he cursed his mother for giving him a girl’s name. He drew himself up to his full height, trying to make his thin shoulders look broader. Glaring at Raeden, he said, “Of course not. Kim is a Korean boy’s name. My mom was of Korean descent.”

“Korean?”

“You know … ancestors from the country of Korea?” Kim’s mother had been half-Korean, half Caucasian. His father had apparently been full-blooded Japanese, born in America.

“I’ve heard of it.”

Kim turned his back on Raeden and started unloading groceries. Dry goods went into his cupboard and the few things he’d bought that needed to be kept cold went into the food box near the window in the other room.

“What’d you get to eat? I’m starving,” Raeden said.

Kim sighed. I can barely feed myself and now I have to feed him. “What would you like to eat? How about some bread, cheese, and fruit?”

“You got any steak?”

Kim’s mouth dropped open and he looked sharply at Raeden. The big man looked completely serious.

Kim snorted. “I don’t buy meat. I’d end up spending my entire paycheck on one meal.” That was an exaggeration, but not by much. Meat was terribly expensive. He only ate meat once or twice a year.

“No meat?” Raeden looked incredulous. “How do you survive without meat?”

“You eat vegetables, beans, and rice.”

“Fuckin’ A! I ain’t no rabbit like you. I need meat.”

“Sorry,” Kim said bluntly, “bread, cheese, and fruit is what I got.”

Raeden grunted and glared at him. “All right. Give it to me,” he growled.

Grateful fucker, aren’t you? Kim thought bitterly as he prepared a small meal for himself and Raeden.

 

*****

 

“Why?” Raeden asked.

“Because you stink!”

“Get used to it.”

“No. You’re in my home. You will maintain a minimum standard and you’re way below it right now.”

“I didn’t ask to be here. You should have left me where you found me.”

“Yes, I should have, but I didn’t,” Kim snapped. “Besides, look at how filthy your hands and feet are. If those blisters pop, they’ll get infected. By now Raeden’s blisters had gotten larger, and many of them were very dark, almost black. You need to get clean if you don’t want to end up stuck here forever.”

Raeden growled something unintelligible, staring at his mutilated feet.

“Hand me your coat and hat and then see if you can crawl into the bathroom. I think you’ll feel a lot better once you’re clean.”

“Ain’t nothin’ gonna make me feel better.”

Kim stood at the foot of the futon and glared at him, hands on hips.

Raeden snatched the wool skullcap off his head and threw it at him, his anger apparent in the force of his throw. The soft cap smacked Kim harmlessly in the chest and he let the filthy hat fall to the canlı casino siteleri floor. The big man’s greasy hair was plastered to his head where the cap had been. He started working on the top button of his wool jacket with his blistered, swollen fingertips, swearing under his breath.

“Here, let me.” Kim’s anger vanished as soon as he saw Raeden struggling to do as he’d asked. He dropped to his knees next to the bed and leaned over Raeden. Brushing the big man’s injured hands away, his own nimble fingers made short work of the buttons. Raeden scowled at him, but leaned forward so Kim could help him slide the coat off.

The room was a comfortable temperature now, having been warmed by the three teakettle’s worth of water Kim had heated for the bath. The gauge on the PowMon sat at one-point-five percent. He would recharge it while Raeden was soaking in the tub.

As he lifted the filthy coat away from Raeden, he realized there was a distinct vomit smell wafting off of it. Ugh! He tossed it onto the floor next to the skullcap. He would do laundry now too.

Raeden lurched to his hands and knees on the futon, resting his weight on the heels of his hands, his fingertips curled carefully away from the soft surface. With a determined look on his face, he began to crawl slowly off the futon, cursing as his fingertips grazed the edge.

Kim found he was holding his breath as he shadowed the big man on his slow progress to the bathroom. Daylight filtered through from the other side of the curtained partition and Kim shuddered as he got a look at Raeden’s blistered feet from the underside. The toes were almost unrecognizable as such and Kim wondered if the darkness he saw was the toes themselves or simply dirt. There was a long clear blister along the edge of one of his soles, and some smaller but still sizable blisters here and there on his feet.

Raeden’s pants were filthy, the seat of which was caked in dried mud. Kim was suddenly aware of the huge muscles moving underneath the layer of soiled fabric and he quickly looked away.

Once in the bathroom, Raeden flipped over to a sitting position. “Fuckin’ ridiculous. I don’t need no bath,” he grumbled.

Kim ignored his comment, applying toothpaste to a spare toothbrush and handing it to the man.

“You don’t have a sonic toothbrush?” Raeden asked. When Kim shook his head, Raeden took the brush and brushed his teeth without objection, taking his time and seeming to do a thorough job. Kim wondered how long it had been since he’d brushed his teeth.

He knelt up to spit and rinse in the sink, his giant stature making him almost as tall on his knees as Kim was standing.

When he finished, Kim took the opportunity to unbutton Raeden’s shirt for him. The act seemed intimate. It was different from when he helped his mother during her final days, more like something you would do with a lover. Kim found himself keeping his eyes averted lest Raeden catch him ogling.

When he stepped behind Raeden to help him slip it off, his breath caught in his throat. Raeden was wearing a skintight tank under his shirt, but it was clear that his massive shoulders and back were ripped. Kim had never seen such perfection and hadn’t expected it, given the vagrant’s deplorable condition.

Then he gasped in surprise and a tremor of fear ran through him. Raeden’s skin had a pattern on it, like scales. When he looked closely he saw it wasn’t something that had been inked into his skin—it was part of the skin itself. The faint, intricate lines covered his shoulders and the base of his neck, disappearing up into his hairline. His skin started to crawl as the realization hit him. He gasped out, “You’re a mod!”

“No shit!” Raeden’s response was irritated. “You didn’t figure that out by my size? No normal people are this big.”

Kim found that he had involuntarily taken a few steps back, but there was nowhere to go in the small bathroom. His heart was slamming against his ribs. “I … I’ve never seen a mod close up before,” he stammered, trying to get his terror under control. Mods were extremely dangerous … unpredictable.

Raeden smirked at him.

“I thought … I thought…”

“You thought mods were a myth?” Raeden quirked an eyebrow at him in amusement and somehow that eased his fear a notch. He stared at the scale pattern which seemed to cover every inch of Raeden’s exposed skin except his face.

“What can you do?” The question slipped out of his mouth unbidden.

“Nothin’ anymore,” Raeden growled.

Kim’s curiosity got the better of his fear. “But what kind of mod are you?” he pressed.

“Nothin’ anymore,” Raeden repeated. His voice had an edge to it and Kim decided he shouldn’t push for an answer. He wondered briefly if Raeden could read minds—he’d heard that some of them could—but he dismissed that thought. The giant didn’t seem like that kind of mod.

Raeden began to struggle out of his undershirt and Kim stepped close to help him. His bare back, when it was revealed, looked as big as the side of building to Kim. His impossibly broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist that was still twice as wide as Kim’s own. Hell, his biceps are probably bigger around than I am, Kim thought.

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