The Zed Word (Kim Knox)
With the loud ring of a bell, the door to the shop swung back and hit the wooden stop nailed into the floor. Hit it hard. Sofie winced and rubbed her palms against her thighs. Nettie said she’d only be ten minutes, half an hour tops. Of course, in the time she was away a customer was bound to turn up.
All right, she could do this. It was probably one of Nettie’s regular clients, here for a not-quite so legal upgrade on their reclaimed flesh. They’d be as nervous as her. More so. Simple.
Sofie wet her lips and put on her best smile. It was more of a rictus. “The proprietor is currently away from the premises. My name’s Sofie. I’d be happy to help in any way I can.”
Her explanation was swallowed up by the hard boots of the woman striding into the shop’s small space. The dull light of the afternoon dipped further as the tall form of a reclaimed man blocked the open doorway.
“Why is it so dark in here?”
Sofie jumped to her feet, the action almost automatic at the woman’s barked question. Shit. Someone from the administration. She recognised the voice from official daily broadcasts. Eileen Corsen, commander of the unit that kept the vast protective dome sealed against the out-world. Sofie had no idea her friend was quite so well connected. “Nettie…I mean Engineer Jolan says it’s best for her equipment.”
Corsen squinted. “Turn the bloody lights up. The enclave is running on full power. No need to scrimp.”
“Yes, of course.” Sofie—her heart beating hard—scrambled into the narrow passage behind the curving shop counter and flicked up every switch she could find.
Light flared around the interior. Sofie preferred the shadow. In the half-darkness the hint of clean skin was something sweet, a delicate promise. In the full glare of the radiant lamps hanging from the curved ceiling, the reclaimed spare parts Nettie dealt in were…disturbing. Hands, arms, legs, whole torsos sat on shelves or hung in neat rows from metal hooks. The thin glass box with newly molded faces, complete with hair and eyes was something Sofie never wanted to look at in full light.
The special, locked box—the one that held more intimate parts—Nettie kept in the safe. Sofie didn’t want to begin to think about that.
Sofie drew in a breath and planted her hands on the counter. The smooth wood was cool and calming against her skin. It was pointless trying to point out that Nettie was the engineer. No one argued with a woman like Corsen. “How can I help you, Commander?”
“Zed’s malfunctioning.” Corsen snapped her fingers and the reclaimed man moved forward to stand beside the commander.
With the glare of the light on his skin, Sofie was able to see him clearly for the first time. She moved out from behind the counter as if she were a puppet on strings. Was he the kind of reclaimed flesh the administration took home? He could change her mind about taking someone undead for herself.
Sofie walked around him. The commander had him mirroring her own military style, but he’d lost the stark black tunic in favor of a sleeveless white shirt. The definition in his arms alone would have Nettie drooling. Her friend appreciated fine workmanship. So close, with the subtle, clean scent of his skin and the smooth rise and fall of his broad chest, Sofie would happily follow her.
She wiped a hand across her mouth, changing the action to a quick series of taps against her lips. “Can you not take him back to your dealer, Commander?”
Without thought, Sofie brushed a light finger over the solid length of his forearm. Her own skin tingled. “His…his warranty will cover any internal repairs.”
She knew that much. Had witnessed Nettie say it too many times to the clients who often slunk into her shop with their reclaimed flesh. It protected her. Nettie offered illegal skinware. But not straight away.
Commander Corsen said nothing. Sofie glanced away from the man and caught the quick twitch to the older woman’s right eye. And she’d seen that all too often in her friend’s business. Mr. Beautiful wasn’t exactly legal to begin with.
“Ah, so he’s out of warranty. I understand.”
Sofie took his hand, turning over his thick palm, trying to buy herself time as her heart hammered. She stroked over his long fingers to the marked lines crossing his skin. What could these hands do? Were they strong and clever? Made to explore— She caught herself. This man wasn’t hers.
Where was Nettie? She would know what to do, what else to say. Zed wasn’t legal. Someone had breached bio-fuel storage to reclaim him. He was so beautiful. It would’ve been a shame if his body had been rendered for something as unworthy as powering the lights or pushing hot water through her shower. A damn shame.
“Leave him with me.” The words were out of Sofie’s mouth before she could stop them. What was she doing?
“Can’t you effect repairs now? Whilst I wait?”
Sofie ignored the questions the commander’s hard voice had made into orders. She had to kill time until her friend got back. “What symptoms is he showing?”
“Obviously, he’s being used for pleasure.” Corsen pursed her lips. “In the time I’ve owned him, he’s never fulfilled any part of his remit.” She glared at him, her dark eyes sour. “Not one part. Fucking defective zombie.”
Sofie held down a wince. It wasn’t a word Nettie allowed. They were reclaimed or rescued, or at a push, second-lifers. Never the zed word. “So…he’s been conditioned incorrectly.” She snatched more phrases from her time in the shop, wanting him away from this harridan, even if it was for the short time of repair. “That’s a full reinstall. So a few days is likely.”
“Days?” Corsen gripped his arm and pulled him back. Zed’s hand slipped free from Sofie’s and she missed its warmth. “I don’t have days.”
“Everyone will tell you the same.” Sofie ducked in front of the commander, her arm stretching out to negligently block the way. “As he’s…out of warranty, there’s no access to the machine or the grinders that formed him. So it’s very hit and miss. That sort of investigation takes time.”
Corsen fixed her gimlet gaze on the man again. Sofie was sure that if he could, he’d shudder. But his smoothly masculine face remained calm, hazel eyes staring straight ahead. “He was due to perform at a private party.”
Sofie’s fingers flexed against the metal frame. More information than she ever wanted to know. “Tell you what.” She worked another rictus smile across her mouth. Nettie was going to kill her. “We have a pleasure-rescue in the back. Fitted with the latest skinware. Not as pretty as this one here, but he’s well proportioned.” She fought the blush she knew was rising. “He was a model in his first-life.”
“And he works?” Corsen slid the man beside her an angered look.
“Absolutely!” Sofie rubbed her hands together and scrambled back to the counter. She flicked through the panels set beneath the wood and pulled out the rental key for the flesh she wanted. She pressed the button at the end of the long steel spike and a red light flashed. A moment later, a man appeared in the passage behind her. “This is Alexei.”
Sofie offered the key to Corsen. The woman’s eyes narrowed on it, before she snatched it up and flicked it on again. Alexei stepped smoothly into the space before the counter. He was as tall as Zed, but Alexei was more of a Nordic god with bulging muscles, golden hair and piercing blue eyes.
“He’s a replacement.” The commander didn’t phrase it as a question.
Nettie was going to kill her. Then reanimate her…just so she could kill her again. “Of course, Commander Corsen.”
Corsen fisted her hand in Alexei’s hair and yanked his head down, taking his mouth. Sofie looked away, embarrassed and then horrified. Was the commander going for a full test run, right there? She looked to Zed. Better Alexei than him.
Her heart turned over. Had that been a disturbed flicker in Zed’s eyes?
“Is…is that a deal, Commander?”
Corsen released Alexei and stepped back, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes shone. Sofie knew in that moment, Nettie would never see Alexei again. How many times could someone die and be brought back? Sofie was about to find out. First hand.
“Deal.” Corsen turned on her boot heel, Alexei close behind her.
“But when do you want your reclaimed man returned?” Sofie pushed down the panic in her voice. “Commander?”
“Keep him. He’s yours.” Corsen tossed Zed’s key over her shoulder. It clattered to the floor at his feet. And with that she was gone.
Sofie sank back into her chair and slowly let her body slump until her forehead hit the smooth wood of the counter. She swore softly. She had the shop to herself for five minutes and she’d lost her friend one of her best rentals. All because she’d taken a shine to some flesh.
Well, she had money. She could at least pay for something. She winced at the thought of having to pay for the full length of Alexei’s rental to the commander. It would be interesting explaining that expense away on her monthly allowance.
The door banged back into its frame and Sofie jumped up.
Zed stood before it, his key in his hand, a thumb pressed against the centre of the long spike. How was he holding his key? His programming was supposed to make that impossible.
Sofie blinked. “How did you…?”
He snapped the key in two. No effort, just the sharp crack of breaking metal. And then he focused on her.
Sofie lurched back, her body moving, escaping without her consent. He’d broken his control key. Shit. Fuck. She had to get out. Because that look. That look said one thing. Hunger.
So much for saving him from the commander. Who the hell was going to save her from him?
Nettie had scrambler weapons. Somewhere. Sofie darted along the passage to the storage rooms, clattering her way past the crowded benches lined with parts, circuits, papers and Nettie’s neat lines of tools and monitoring equipment. The weapons were here somewhere. They were short range, but would shut down reclaimed internal units. And everything else within a two metre radius.
“Looking for these?” Zed held up fat, steel guns, one in each hand.
Sofie stumbled back against a bench, the wooden edge digging into her spine. She ignored the pain. “Actually. Yes.”
His smile was sharp. Sofie’s heart squeezed. No one had the right to look that beautiful and that wicked.
“You don’t need these.” His thumbs gouged holes into the frame of the weapons, sparks spitting over this fingers.
“They weren’t mine.” Sofie wet her lips. “You broke your key. You’re free. You should—” she jerked her head towards the passage leading out to the front of the shop “—go.”
The two broken weapons clattered into a metal box behind him. His head tilted. In the fierce white light of the storage room, his beauty caught her and her heart drummed. Sofie gripped the worn edge of the counter, welcoming the bite of pain. She shouldn’t be thinking these insane things. He had broken his key, the only technology that controlled his programming. He was rogue. Dangerous.
“But…” Zed took a step closer, the same flare of hunger burning over him. His chest lifted as he took a deepened breath. “I smell the want on you. It was there from the minute you laid eyes on me.”
Heat scorched Sofie’s face. He was enhanced, his senses altered to detect the slightest touch of arousal. Someone had paid a lot of money to make Zed into a superior pleasure-rescue. “Your reclaimed form is very…nice. It doesn’t mean—”
He pinned her to the bench, towering over her, his face dropped to shadow. “You ever done it with a zombie?”
His lips brushed her ear and her denial faded. “I’m the walking dead, sweetheart.” Strong hands framed her hips, the heat of his body bleeding through the thin cotton of her dress. “The plague got me. Changed me. I died in 2052. Became a beautiful corpse.” His voice was heavy and warm, belying the darkness of his words. “So answer my question. You ever fucked a zombie?”
Sofie closed her eyes, the throb in her belly making thought almost impossible. “We don’t use the zed word here.”
His low laughter spiralled through her and she squeaked as, with no effort, he picked her up and placed her on the cluttered bench. “So considerate.” His large hands teased up the cotton of her dress, his hazel eyes fixed on her. “But they made it my name. Zed. Nothing else.”
Sofie’s heart turned over. She touched his cheek, her fingers light and uncertain. Zed was twenty years dead and plague-made perfect. The reclaimed weren’t supposed to remember anything of their first-life. But then they also weren’t supposed to break free of their programming. “What do you remember?”
Something flickered in his eyes, but was gone a second later. He exposed her thighs and she sucked in a quick breath. “I remember that you’re a sweet little thing. And I should show my appreciation for you getting me away from the commander.” His thumbs drew slow patterns on the sensitive skin of her inner thigh, teasing ever closer to the growing ache of her sex. His smile was dark. “You like it.”
What was she doing? Yes, she’d admired reclaimed flesh, but she’d never been with one. Their lack of free will had never been a turn on. But Zed…Zed was different. And she couldn’t remember anyone pushing want under her skin so quickly as he did with the lightest of touches.
His gaze narrowed on her, his hands heavy and still against her skin. “Decision made?”
“You’re so sure of yourself…”
His grin was hard, lighting up his eyes. He was quite the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Alive or undead. “The things I can do.” He eased her forward over the bench, until her bare thighs pushed up against the rough fabric of his combats. His mouth brushed against her jaw and her pulse jumped. “I can make you come quick, or so slow you’ll be begging me to fuck you.”
Sofie swallowed, her hands trembling against the expanse of his chest. “Both.”
He laughed. “Greedy.”
“You’re my first.” She held his gaze. “I want the works.”
“Your first—what was it—rescue?”
Sofie’s gaze dropped and she fixed on the strong column of his throat. She didn’t want to lie. But the truth would end it. Just like always. “Yes. And…” She didn’t think she’d be having this conversation today. “I’ll simply say, I haven’t had a lot of experience.”
Zed tilted her chin up. His thumb stroked under her lip and the light touch warmed her, stealing under her skin. “How much?”
“Twice. Once.” She winced. “Perhaps.”
He let out a long breath and Sofie waited for the let down. The familiar look of pity. Then the brusque explanation of how even he didn’t do virgins. Especially virgins her age. As if she were a crone at twenty five. The men in her circle were all too used to reclaimed flesh, preferring experienced—but mindless—partners with absolutely no strings. And she had always wanted more. Or thought she had.
“Then we go slow.” Zed’s mouth curved into a wicked smile. “To begin with.”
“The men you know? They’re idiots.” His breath burned against her parted mouth. “But all the more for me to eat.”
“Are you going to make inappropriate zombie jokes all the time?”
“Ah…” He licked her upper lip. “We do not use the zed word here.”
A laugh broke from her. She was starting to like this man. And he was a man. Not some thing under her total control. “So…here?”
“Again, to begin with.” He ran a hand down her back, the low rasp of her zip following. Cool air brushed her skin and she arched into the caress of his hot fingers against her spine. “Do you trust me?”
Sofie wet her lips. “No.”
His smile was dark. “Good. I wouldn’t trust me either.”
Her heart thudded and she didn’t know where to put her hands. She caught them in the rumpled material of her dress. “What do you want me to do?”
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to do a thing.” He eased her fingers free of her dress and pushed it down over her shoulders, letting it fall to her waist. Brushing strands of hair away from her neck, he leaned in to graze a pulse point. Sofie’s breath hitched, the sudden spark of want firing under her flesh. His low groan chased it. “Just one bite…”
Sofie teased her trembling fingers in his thick hair. “Trying to scare me?”
He grinned against her skin. “Now why would you be scared of a little nip from an undead stranger?”
She fought her own smile. “You’re a very twisted man.”
“I am indeed. Now.” His lips brushed hers, his breath sweet. Her heart drummed as his tongue tasted her, slow and sure, his body still and strong. He pressed harder, drawing her mouth open. Anticipation heated her blood, but she didn’t rush, didn’t stumble into an amateur kiss. Zed had more experience than anyone she would ever know, and she wasn’t going to forfeit that.
But still…she wanted to touch him. To find the perfection hinted at by his tight shirt. Her nervous fingers drew lines over his stomach, inching the fabric up to reveal taut, hair-roughened skin over hard muscle.
Zed broke the half kiss. His darkened gaze held her. “Want to see?”
Sofie gave a wordless nod, the quickness of her pulse making a light-hearted quip impossible.
He yanked off his shirt, dropping it to the floor. “No tattered flesh. Not a hit of sag.” He took her cool hand and pressed it to his stomach. The heat of his skin stung her palm, sparking need straight to her belly. He drew her hand up, pulling her closer again. His smirk lit his eyes. “Hot and hard.”
Sofie pressed her lips together, the sweet taste of him still there. “Zed…”
“And now I get to see you.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Only fair.”
She reddened and unclipped her bra. No man had ever seen her naked. It was a strange first time. But at that minute, with his gaze hot on her and her flesh tight and firing with need, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She’d lied before. She did trust him. Something instinctive. And she didn’t want to question it.
Her clothes—all of them—joined his shirt on the floor and Zed swept her up, sudden and strong. She wrapped her legs around his hips, her skin tormented by the tough fabric of his combats and the nearness of hot, bare flesh.
His fingers found her, a slow, sure caress that ran lightning up her spine and she rolled her hips against him, needing to satisfy the sudden deep ache. She buried her face against his shoulder. The warm scent of his skin slid into her lungs, the lift of his chest as he drew in air a delicious push against her breasts. He felt so very much alive. “Just who are you, Zed?” The question escaped her. She couldn’t help it. Zed wastoo perfect.
“You want to talk?”
Sofie blushed and forced her head up, holding his gaze. Need heated his hazel eyes. He was alive in a way that reclaimed flesh never was. And the reason she could never have sex with one— one that wasn’t Zed.
She touched his jaw, tracing her thumb over his firm lips, moving to draw a line down the cleft in his chin. Touching him gave her confidence. “I want to know you.”
Zed stared at her. He stilled, his only movement the steady rise and fall of his chest. Panic swelled though Sofie. What had she said? Had she rebooted his broken conditioning? Had she just brought back the man she didn’t want? Shit. Shit.
He kissed her. Hard. The sudden surge of desire, hers and his, pushed her against him and wrapped her body around him like a second skin. His clever fingers pushed in and curled, chasing the first pulses of her release up through her body as Sofie urged him deeper, harder—
A cry broke from her and the sweet crash of light and fire arched her spine. Zed held her, watched her…and she found his mouth as the echoes of her orgasm faded. She let out a long breath and wrapped herself around him again. “So nice…”
He dropped a kiss on her shoulder, something soft and almost gentle. “Yes, you are.”
She smiled against his skin, enjoying his strength and the solid heat of his body. “What next?”
His laughter shook her. “Working me hard?”
Sofie drew back to look at him. “I’d prefer our pleasure to be mutual.”
Zed’s mouth thinned. “I woke in a dark room three days ago. I had memories. Mine. But not.”
She blinked. Was his sudden admission a distraction, a way to break her questions? Of his stopping her getting too close? A reminder of what he was. “The grinders implant instructions.”
“People who find and program the reclaimed.”
He frowned, his eyes distant. “I saw others. Rising out of vats…” He was back. “They had keys. But my key didn’t hold me.” He lifted an eyebrow. “And the commander? No way. No way in hell.” He squeezed her till she squeaked and he grinned. “Not when I have a sweet little morsel like you.”
Sofie summoned up a glare. “And yet more inappropriate zombie references.”
“Oh, you said the zed word again…”
Sofie gave him one of his own dark smiles. “What are you going to do about it?”
His low groan vibrated through her breastbone and ran an excited shiver through her flesh. Still holding her, he backed her into the cool plaster of a bare stretch of wall. Sofie shivered. Zed loomed over her, his face in shadow and his fingers moving between their bodies. The clicks of a zip drawing down caught her breath.
“I’m going to do this.” His deep voice was little more than a growl and his fingers and the head of his dick brushed against her sex, even as his other hand kept a hot and firm grip on her thigh hooked over his hip. He eased in so slowly, so sure, and Sofie stiffened. “Breathe. Relax. Just me.”
“No jokes?” Sofie pressed her forehead to his throat, drawing in his scent. There was no pain. But the unfamiliar fullness, the press of his body around her, against her, his heat, his strength spun her thoughts and licked fire under her skin.
Zed swallowed. “Fighting not to come like a boy. Because you’re tight and hot and…” Both hands flexed against her thighs as he rolled his hips and sank into her body. He stilled. “Good?”
Strain lined his voice and her heart tightened. She kissed his throat, the rough stubble pricking her lips. An utterly strange first lover, but she wouldn’t change him. Not for one single minute. “Very good.” And she pushed down against him.
Zed swore, something low and filthy and Sofie grinned…but that faded as he eased back. The delicious friction forced her to gasp. His smile was dark. “Better?” His mouth found hers to deny her answer.
He stroked deep. And Sofie grabbed at him, her fingers biting into the firm muscles of his shoulders. Sweet pain swept over her. She wanted more, she wanted all of him. His taste. His heat. His power. All of it pounding into her, consuming her.
Zed drove into her and she clung to him, met every hard thrust. Sweat slicked between them and fire chased along her veins. The perfect angle of his body increased the fierce pressure pulsing in her flesh. Faster and deeper, both him and her need.
She groaned against his mouth. Almost. Almost…
His thumb flicked against her clit and the sudden rush of sensation surged through her, releasing a flare of blistering heat. Her mouth broke from his, a fierce cry escaping her. Her body was hardly her own. Caught with heat and rolling waves of pleasure, she arched her spine, holding him deeper, chasing the last echoes of her release. And finding his.
Zed stiffened, crushing her to him, his face buried against her neck. For a long moment, he simply breathed and Sofie let herself relax into his strong and secure hold. His mouth moved over her damp skin and one word rumbled, “Brains…”
Sofie let out an unladylike snort. She slapped his shoulder, unable to hold back her grin. Then she kissed him, slow and deep and easy. She pulled back and let out a long sigh. He was so perfect. “Let me keep you.”
“I’m sorry.” Heat cut across her face and she bit back the need to curse. She’d broken the moment. He wasn’t meat, some reclaimed flesh for her to flick on with a key. “I didn’t mean…” She struggled free of him and he let her. She scrambled to pull on her clothes, hating the sour twist in her gut. Stupid. Stupid, to say that.
She yanked her dress over her head and fought her arms through the sleeves. What was she doing? Nettie. Nettie would be back any minute…and she hadn’t given her friend’s return a thought. “You have to go—”
The shop door slammed, but Sofie was still staring at her half-naked lover. “That’ll be Nettie. I lost her a lucrative rental. She’s going to kill me.”
Zed took her hand, his fingers warm and steady. “Then I get to keep you.” His eyes shone. “And brains don’t taste half as bad as you’d think…”
She wiped trembling fingers over her face. “Nettie should look at your sense of humour.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t screw with perfection, sweetheart.”
Sofie spluttered a laugh, fighting it back as her friend appeared in the doorway to the storeroom. Nettie frowned, but Sofie took a step forward. Zed stood behind her. Solid. Real. Hers.
“Nettie. Honestly. I can explain everything…”