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18% Gray [MultiFormat]
eBook by Anne Tenino

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: In a future where the United States has split along party lines, Agent Matt Tennimore's job is to get people out of the Confederated Red States, whether they're captured special ops agents from his own country or gay CRS citizens who've petitioned for asylum. He never expected to have to retrieve his high school crush, aka the guy who ostracized him for being gay. Rescuing James Ayala isn't going to be easy: he's crawling with tracking nanos and has a cybernetic brain implant that's granted him psychic power he isn't sure how to control. That's the good news. The bad? The implant is compromising James's mental stability. So they're on the run, avoiding surveillance by AI aircraft and hiding from enemy militia. Then James confesses he tormented Matt in high school because James wanted him. Matt can't resist the temptation James offers, but he wants so much more than sex, assuming they ever make it home alive. Is James really a good bet when he's got a ticking time bomb in his brain and there's the question of how much he's actually changed?

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: September 2011

25 Reader Ratings:
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March 2104

Matt spent the time on his knees thinking. Oh, he should have been concentrating on the dick in his mouth, but he'd lost interest in it a few weeks ago. About one week after he'd started putting said dick in his mouth.

Actually, it wasn't so much the dick in his mouth he was sick of; it was the dick attached to it.

"Dude, deep-throat me," Steve begged in a whiny voice.

Matt had learned from recent experience that snorting in derision when you were giving a guy a blow job didn't end well for either party. He sent Steve a scathing look. Yeah, that's gonna happen.

If Matt weren't a hormonal, sex-deprived sixteen-year-old, he probably wouldn't even be hard.

Oblivious to Matt, Steve thrust his hips a little. Matt planted his hands on Steve's hips and held them still against the tractor Steve was leaning on. The dumbass moaned.

Matt was so getting a blow job this time. No more letting Steve get away with the hand job treatment. He'd managed to convince Steve to blow him--what? Three times, maybe? And in that same period of time Matt was sure he'd given Steve... let's see... two to three blow jobs a week--he'd call it 2.5--for five weeks was... 12.5 blow jobs.

Look, ma! He could suck cock and do math at the same time!

He should have made Steve blow him first. He sighed around Steve's erection. Live and learn.

"Oh, yeah, suck it, baby," Steve moaned. This guy watched too many porn vids. To pass the time, Matt reviewed how he'd ended up here on his knees.

Fact: Matt was the only out kid in their high school. Announcing you were gay wasn't that typical in a small town, even in a state like Oregon, where ninety-five percent of the people had joined the Blue States of America after the Split in '56. Oregon had mostly just lost Ontario and a little of the southeastern corner in '56 when Idaho went Red.

Fact: Statistically, Matt knew there had to be about fourteen other queer guys in his school. There were 230 kids in the whole K-through-12 school in Weimer. If about twelve percent of the population was queer, that meant there were twenty-eight gay or lesbian kids in school. Half of them were of no interest to him, having the wrong equipment and all. That left fourteen potential playmates for him. But they could be in kindergarten for all he knew.

Fact: Weimer was the largest town in the county, at just under 3,000 people, plus another couple thousand on outlying ranches. The closest school district to Weimer was 120 kilometers away, and it had fewer than one hundred kids in it.

Fact: He could forget sex with some sympathetic guy out of high school (or, you know, some elderly pervert--he was sixteen; he wasn't that picky). Matt wouldn't be of age for two more years, and no one would fuck with an underage kid in his family. Most of his cousins--and his mom--knew three ways to eviscerate someone with their pinky nail. Crap, he knew that. It was a requirement of growing up in the Kell-Viteaux clan.

Conclusion: It was going to be really fucking hard for him to get any action in this town. Like, ever.

Clearly, tactical planning was necessary. So, he'd come up with a simple two-step plan.

Step 1: He was a horny sixteen-year-old queer boy in an isolated, conservative community. He also happened to be relatively attractive. Instead of hunting his prey, it seemed easier to become the prey. So he very publicly came out in September.

Step 2: Wait to be caught.

Result? By February not a single underage, horny, closeted guy had come on to him. It looked like the plan was a bust.

So when Steve came on to him one drunken night last month? Matt was so happy for another guy to touch him that he jumped at the chance. Literally. Climbed right up Steve.

So now he had a closeted boyfriend. Really, fuck-buddy was a more accurate term.

So, yay! Matt was fucking around with the quarterback of the football team, but no one knew it except Matt's family (well, he hadn't worked up to telling Dad yet, but Mom and the grampas knew). Not only could he not brag about his hot fuck-buddy, but the fuck-buddy had misplaced his personality to top it off.

Somehow, this wasn't as great as he thought it would be when he had come up with the grand plan to get some action. Too bad his closeted fuck-buddy didn't blow him more, to make up for it. And, you know, for being generally boring. But Steve was the only game in town, and they both knew it.

Steve started to make those noises he made when he was getting close, and Matt snapped back to attention. Oh, yeah. Sucking cock. Matt glanced up at Steve.

Ugh. He was too... classically handsome. Dark hair, built, tall, perfect nose. Too cliche. Of course the totally hot quarterback was gay! Matt closed his eyes and imagined Steve as someone else. It was the only way he was going to get this done. Matt just wasn't capable of giving it that necessary extra little bit if he had to give it to Steve.

Matt imagined the guy he imagined every time he sucked Steve off anymore. The guy who probably wasn't gay, but telling himself that hadn't stopped Matt from wanting him. James Ayala. Steve's best friend.

James didn't go in for a lot of the high school hubris Matt saw in most jocks (exhibit A? Fucking his mouth). James had self-confidence, and he didn't need to treat anyone like shit to make himself feel better. He never bullied or ridiculed. He was the original strong, silent type, who understood what personal integrity was before most guys had even heard of it.

And if James was a little less than classically handsome? Something about the way he was put together, and the way he moved, and the way Matt felt when James looked at him more than made up for it.

So it was James's hard cock he was sucking right now. He could feel James's hand in his hair, gripping it tight, almost painfully tight. Forcing him to take it. Matt shivered at the idea and sucked harder, humming a little.

Steve gave a grunt, ruining Matt's good time.

Why was that fantasy a turn-on when he imagined James doing it, but if Steve did it Matt felt compelled to twist his sac?

Matt opened his eyes and started pulling off Steve. He didn't know if he could finish if the guy was going to make noise and ruin his fantasy.

That's when Matt saw the guy standing in the door of Steve's family's machine shed. Backlit, he was mostly a silhouette, but there was just enough interior light that Matt could make out his face.

"James," Matt breathed.

Steve froze and then gave himself whiplash cranking his head toward the door.

"Fuck, dude!" Steve yelped, pushing on Matt's shoulders.

"Shit," Matt groaned, pulling his hands off Steve's hips. He didn't see how this could be good.

"Jesus Christ!" James spat, his face going red with anger and... was that hatred?

Then James turned and walked out.

* * * *

Steve tried to get Matt to finish but Matt told him to fuck off and left, looking for James. Matt climbed on his crotch rocket, not entirely sure what he was doing but knowing he needed to talk to him. It wasn't like they were close friends, exactly, but James had been really cool to him. They were friendly.

He found James outside his family ranch house, plugging in his own crotch rocket. Matt pulled up silently, just the gravel crunching under his wheels. He raised the shield on the rocket, apprehensive and unsure what he was going to say.

Shit. He knew James could hear him, but he kept his back to Matt. Matt figured his best approach was a brazen one. He got off the bike.

"Th'fuck?" Matt asked James, walking up behind him.

James stood up from where he'd been stowing his helmet behind the seat. "I didn't know you were a fag," James said coldly, not even turning around.

Matt felt like someone had kicked him in the nuts. No one said the F-word anymore. Unless they were one. Then it was okay. But otherwise? Nuh-uh.

But it was so much more than that.

"How could you not know I was queer, James? Everyone knows I'm queer. Somebody lased it into the bathroom wall! 'Need your cock sucked? Call Matt Tennimore.'"

"Yeah, I saw it." James wouldn't look at him, disgusted. "I just thought it couldn't be true about someone like you."

"Whadya mean, 'someone like me'? Someone skinny and short and kinda effeminate?" It was a measure of how upset Matt was that he called himself effeminate. Most of the time he refused to admit he might be.

Not that there was anything wrong with it, of course.

"No!" James finally looked at him, the same look in his eye that he'd had when he'd found Matt on his knees in front of Steve's cock. "Someone I liked." James turned and stalked off toward his front door.

"But if you like me...." Matt wanted to kick his own ass as soon as he opened his mouth.

James turned but just gave Matt that stony look he was so good at. He snorted in disgust. "Gimme a fucking break. You think I'm going to hang out with a faggot like you?"

"What about Steve? He's a fag too! He still your friend?" Matt called after him.

All he got in reply was a slamming front door.

Matt waited a minute. He felt hot and cold by turns, and his fists were clenched so hard he could feel the nails bite into his palms. It wasn't the worst treatment he'd gotten in this fucking town, but it hurt the most.

This can't end like this.

But it did, of course.

* * * *

For the next four months of school, James was Matt's enemy. Cold looks, snide comments in class, and a lot of James pretending Matt didn't exist.

Finally James went off to Oregon State, and Matt breathed a sigh of relief. Probably partly because Steve went off to college too. Matt was pretty fucking sick of Steve by then.

Not that he ever touched him again after that day, but Steve kept bugging him to.

James's leaving felt like a splinter in his chest. Not because he gave a shit, but because what a fucking dick! No one gave him that kind of shit! He had relatives in Special Ops, and they'd kick James's sorry ass for calling Matt a fag.

Except he didn't ever tell them about it, because he didn't want anyone to know what a loser he was. It certainly wasn't because he wanted to save James's ass.

* * * *

Chapter One

October 2111

Matt walked into the QESA office first, but no one was there except Bull. Bull had gotten his nickname for very obvious reasons, and Matt thought it was kinda funny to see a huge, broadly muscled guy two meters tall scrunched down at the dispatch center, hunching over the embedded vid-datascreen. Bull had been seriously injured on an extraction last week and was apparently still taking it easy.

"Queer Extraction Services Association, can I help you?" Bull was saying into the vid-datascreen.

Matt waited for him to finish the call and said hi.

"Wish I was out in the fucking field," Bull grouched when Matt asked him what was up. "Lance is in the house," he added before Matt could ask.

"How much longer you stuck being the receptionist?"

"Nothing wrong with bein' a receptionist." Bull scowled sulkily. "Known some pretty hot receptionists."

"Yeah? So you're thinking about quitting fieldwork and making this a permanent gig?"

"Fuck no!" Bull's voice went so high it almost cracked. "'Sides, gotta get outta here. Make room for the new trainee tomorrow."

"New trainee, huh?"

"Yeah, you're gonna love workin' with him." Bull was smirking.

"Yeah? He hot?"

Bull gave another little smirk. "Oh, he isn't really your type."

"Is he your type?"

Bull looked thoughtful. Then he shook his head. The vid-datascreen chimed again. Another incoming call.

So Matt went on in to the old farmhouse to find Lance. The house was almost 250 years old and had been in the family since it was built. It was kind of nice to have that kind of connection to the past. Although it was ridiculously outdated. No house-bots, no sonic shower, no embedded tech (other than security devices). The list went on.

"Lance?" Matt hollered as soon as he was in the back door. Nothing. "Grampa?" Sometimes Lance refused to answer to anything but Grampa, but not when it was work. Judging from the message Matt had received, this was work.

"Grampa?" Matt tried again.

Still nothing. Matt started searching the house, but he ran across Lance and Sid almost immediately, making out on the couch like they were in their twenties and not their seventies. Well, Lance was in his seventies.

"Aaaaaahh! My eyes! I'm blind!"

All he got was a pissy look. "Go back in the kitchen and make coffee," Lance told him grumpily. "We'll be there in a minute."

"Didn't you guys hear me come in?"

"We were busy." Grampa Sid smiled at him, his leg still wrapped around Lance's thigh.

Horny old bastards.

Matt went into the kitchen. If he was going out on a job, this might be one of the last chances he'd have for home-brewed coffee for a while. He was going to enjoy it.

He stood in front of the coffeemaker, tapping his fingers impatiently while it got its shit together and ground up some beans. He glanced up at the wall behind it.

Jesus, these old people.

"Lance!" he hollered.

"Right behind you," Lance answered practically in his ear, making Matt jump. Show-off.

"You may still be all ninja quiet, old man, but you guys haven't changed the damn calendar since last year. It's not even a digital calendar. It's October and this thing is on December 2110."

Lance shrugged. "Sid likes the picture. I keep it there for him. Makes him happy."

"Where'd Grampa Sid go, anyway?"

"Why does he get to be called Grampa Sid, but I just get Lance?"

"You're my boss. Where is he?"

"He has a new hoverboard he's trying out."

"Jesus, Lance! Those things are dangerous. He's almost seventy. He shouldn't be riding that."

"I make him wear a harness."

"Yeah, but does he?" Sid was a fucking daredevil on a board, in spite of being generally subdued otherwise.

"Yep." Lance smiled a little evilly. "Surprise inspections. And if he doesn't pass, the consequences are grave."

Matt so didn't want to know what the consequences were. He poured them each a cup of coffee.

"What are you doing here?" Lance asked him when Matt handed over the coffee.

"You sent me an encrypted text telling me you needed me to check in. The mind really is the first thing to go." Matt shook his head in mock sorrow.

"Didn't think you'd come by in person. Expected you to vid or something. I thought your mom said you'd be at home this week."

"Yeah, well she isn't totally up-to-date with my social calendar. I went to the beach to see Simon."

"Thought you guys broke up."

"We did, but we weren't really serious, anyway. He wanted me to meet his new boyfriend, so I came, I saw, I met, and I was underwhelmed."

"That why you're grumpy?"

"No." Yes.

"Ah." Lance just looked at him over the rim of his mug. He wanted details, but he had some weird idea that he wasn't a nosy old man, and wouldn't pry. So he liked to use silence instead.

Matt quirked an eyebrow at him.

Lance smiled back mildly, steaming coffee mug in one hand, other hand in his pocket. Rocking back and forth on his feet.

Matt debated waiting this out but decided he didn't have the patience. "There's nothing to tell. So, you got a job for me or what?"

Lance walked over and sat down at the kitchen table, planting his elbows. He looked apprehensive. "Yeah, I do, but it's not an easy one."

Matt shrugged. "Easy isn't really my thing."

"Like we haven't known that since you were born?"

Matt ignored that. "So, c'mon, tell."

"I got an encrypted file from Special Operations Unified Force last night. They want to contract for the extraction of a SOUF Lieutenant in Red Idaho. He was captured in Boulder, then identified as gay in POW camp. He's out of re-education now, and SOUF wants him back."

"'Kay, what's the hard part?"

"He's only been out of re-education for three weeks. He's a level-one parolee." So, he was tracked twenty-four hours a day via satellite by a dedicated Artificial Intelligence, not spot-checked.

"Seriously? That's doable if we have our guy in Red Satellite Tracking build us an ID, but they can't wait until he's not being tracked in real time by AI anymore?" It was so much easier to work around the tracking chip of a level-two parolee being intermittently tracked by a computer. Computer tracking reports were only logged once every twenty-four hours.

"Nope. They want him back ASAP."

"So why didn't they go in after him when he was a POW or in re-education?" The military could get away with a rescue like that. Once he was no longer a military prisoner, it was an inexcusable act of aggression to send a military team in to rescue him, but contractors could get away with it. Or some political BS like that.

"They didn't know where he was. His Blue chip was deactivated on the battlefield. If you take this job, you're going in alone, Matt. It's super down-low."

"Okay." Matt shrugged. He could do it. Infiltration was his specialty. Brute force? Not so much.

Just then Sid walked into the room, got a cup of coffee, and gave Matt a one-armed hug before sitting next to Lance with his coffee. "You guys talking business? Okay if I listen in?"

"Yeah." Lance pretty much told Sid everything anyway. "Babe, can you hand me the tablet over there?" Lance pointed to the mini-comp on the other side of Sid. He brought up a file and projected it for Matt. "This is the file they sent me on the guy. Looks like they blacked out a lot of stuff, but the basics are there. You probably know him; he was a couple of years older than you and went to school in Weimer."

"Probably? Lance, there were less than three hundred kids in the entire school system there. I definitely knew him." He just couldn't figure out who it might be. Please, don't let it be Steve. Matt skimmed the usual military bullshit at the beginning of the file until he found the name.

"Oh holy fuck," he muttered. Worse than Steve.


"It's James fucking Ayala!"

"That's a weird middle name to saddle a kid with," Sid said mildly.

Matt scowled at him. Smartass.

"Okay, so who's James Ayala to you?"

"He's a fucking homophobe, that's who! He treated me like shit in high school for being gay."

"Whadya mean, 'like shit'?" Both grampas were instantly on alert. Their high school experiences had been so bad Matt felt like an idiot even bringing it up.

"Nothing, really. He just called me a fag and stuff."

They blinked at him across the table. Fine, so he hadn't been targeted for death by an organized bunch of homophobic Junior New Coalition for Christians members during the Split Between the States like they had. Not everyone could live a life of glamour.

"Ooooh, that's bad," Grampa Sid said. As far as Matt could tell, he wasn't mocking him.

"Calling someone a fag is bad?" Lance asked incredulously.

Sid huffed at him. "Yeah. No one uses the F-word anymore, Lance, unless they're gay themselves. Then it's okay. You're asking Matt to go extract a fucking homophobe. Th'fuck, Lance?"

"He's gay!" Lance defended.

"That's what the Red Idaho Authority says. Doesn't mean he is," Matt pointed out.

"Lots of kids in the closet did stupid shit to protect themselves. The biggest homophobes are probably all homos," Lance pointed out.

"Yeah, but he did it to our grandson, babe. If you're in the closet and using it to insult someone else? Definite F-word violation. Definitely over the line." Sid was almost rabidly protective of his family. "Besides, in this day and age, no one should be using the word if they're in the closet, because there's no excuse for being in the closet. Not in the Blue."

Grampa Sid was a bit of a militant old fag too.

"So he was a confused kid in a small town. You know Matt was the only out kid in his school when he was there. Maybe Ayala was scared. Maybe his family was unsupportive. Maybe he's sorry for using the word when he didn't have the fag seal of approval." Lance was pushing it now. Matt cringed a little.

Sid pulled out all the stops. He whipped out the "hurt" face. "Lance," he said in a quavery voice, "are you mocking me?" His big blue eyes looked wet, like he might even have tears in them.

Definitely over the top. Lance had to see through that.

"Oh, babe, you know I'm not mocking you!" Lance swallowed, because of course he was. "I'm sorry if it seemed like that. Here, let me get you some coffee." He practically knocked over his chair getting up from the table.

"Hope you're taking notes, boy," Sid murmured to Matt once Lance was across the room.

Jesus, was it any wonder he was a smartass with role models like these? Yeah, he was taking notes: Grampa Lance is gullible.

Lance set Sid's coffee down in front of him, running an apologetic hand across his back at the same time. He looked at Matt. "Listen, it's a job. I can give it to someone else if you want. But we have to get him out or give the contract to a competitor. He may be gay, he may not, but someone's gotta go in and save his sorry ass. Maybe being on the receiving end of their bullshit has made him more sympathetic if he isn't gay."

Sid suddenly broke out in a smile. "You know, even if he isn't gay, you'll be the one saving his sorry ass if you go, Matt."

Matt stared at his Grampa. It would be nice to rub James's face in it....

"Besides, like Lance said, the closet cases are always the biggest homophobes." Sid winked at him. "You never know--you could even get revenge sex out of this job."

Lance cleared his throat. "You know, babe, I can't really condone sex on the--"

"Kinda cosmic justice, don't you think?" Sid cut Lance off as if he hadn't said a word.

Matt thought about it a little. "Ah, shit." He sighed, still not sure, but.... "Guess I'll do it." He was a dumbass.

Sid smiled and stood up. "Really need to get back on that board now. I've got a new client coming next month and I need to be up on this shit." He looked down at Lance.

"We all right, babe?" Lance asked. He had on his "contrite" face.

Sid leaned over for a quick kiss. "Of course, Lance. Why wouldn't we be?" Sid was wearing "innocence" now.

As soon as Sid was out of the room, Lance leaned across the table and said in a low voice, "You see how I handled the husband, Matt? I hope you're taking notes."

Freaks. Both of them.

* * * *

The package. James was just the package. Admittedly, it was a term agents used when they couldn't speak freely, but clients were sometimes called packages.

Matt sighed. Less than twenty-four hours ago he'd agreed to this extraction in the Grampas' kitchen, and already he was regretting it. Not even the lure of revenge sex was very convincing anymore. He didn't really want revenge sex. But he couldn't back out, because he was disembarking the high-speed rail outside Ontario at the OR-ID border.

The truth was, he wanted the kind of sex he'd listened to Simon and his boyfriend having through the wall the other night. He didn't think much of Simon's boyfriend, but the way they were all gooey and lovey was... disturbing.

It wasn't like Matt wanted a boyfriend--he was only twenty-three! He had years of being a dog ahead of him, if he followed his cousin Laslo's example. It was just that Simon and his boyfriend (th'fuck was his name again?) were, like, all happy and shit.

Being around a couple like that, it was hard not to want that gooey, warm-inside feeling. Even if he didn't want it, want it. Revenge sex sounded pretty cold after something like that.

Matt sighed again. He knew he wasn't going to have revenge sex, even if it was on tap (which he kinda doubted). He'd had a thing for James in high school. Like, a big old stiff thing. And somehow it would be just too lame for words to ruin that stupid crush he'd had with revenge sex seven years later.

Dumbass. Him. Really.

* * * *

While he was waiting to cross the border into Idaho, a group of RIA militia marched past Matt, assault-Directed Energy Weapons on their backs. Older tech, although from China. Still could do serious damage. He knew he looked disinterested, but inside he shivered.

He still wasn't familiar with their new uniforms. They looked... sinister. The Red had only just accepted they weren't the United States of old and had given up the traditional US military uniforms. Now the Red's unis were made of all-weather fabric, just like every other uni in the world, but they wore their body armor on the outside. That was the sinister-looking part. Please don't let me meet up with those assholes or their buddies once I get the package.

Matt fucking hated border crossings with forged documents. No matter how good the forgery was, there was always the chance his fake ID wouldn't hold up. Then they'd type his DNA and he'd really be fucked.

Or his secret tech pantry shielding would fail and they'd catch him with illegal military tech and then he'd still really be fucked. Really. He hated undercover border crossings.

He hated old buildings like this too. Ontario was one of the few places there had been actual fighting in Oregon during the Split Between the States. Washington and California had both gone Blue immediately, with few to no contested areas, just like Oregon. Nevada and Idaho were the only states bordering Oregon that had gone Red. There were no major towns on the OR-NV border. Ontario had been an Oregon municipality on the OR-ID border. Now it was a half-bombed-out wreck that belonged to Idaho.

The Red Idaho Authority Immigration Services building was northwest of Ontario, right off 84. It was made out of the recycled mix-crete typical of the mid-twenty-first century. Matt had seen some really nice buildings made with recycled masonry and mix-crete. The RIA Immigration Services building was not one of those.

It was built with pieces of bombed-out buildings and mix-crete mortar, with too few windows. On the other hand, it fit right into the whole immigration building oeuvre.

The bamboo-chip floor was yellowed, and the lighting was fluorescent, for God's sake. They could have used antique glass as masonry, mix-crete as mortar, and day-spectrum lighting. He'd seen that somewhere. It was kinda cool.

He was far enough forward in line to see the Immigration agents. Actual people, not AI. Labor was so cheap in Idaho it wasn't worth the investment in expensive foreign tech for the RIA. They still had the same comps he'd seen when he'd come through here last year. The datascreens sat on top of the desks instead of in them. They hadn't made comps like that since the twenty-first century.

Matt made it through Immigration, barely earning a glance. He breathed a sigh of relief. But it was always that way. It was the getting out with the package that seemed to be the problem.

* * * *

Chapter Two

He was officially in the Red Idaho Authority, now. The people in the RIA never looked much different to him. Mostly just like poorer versions of the people he'd grown up around in eastern Oregon. Except for the very few who looked like much, much richer versions of the people he'd grown up around.

But they sure as hell acted differently. He'd been accosted by people wanting to earn enough (or steal enough) to make it through another day the second he stepped outside the Immigration building. Kids wanting spare bills (reminding him he was in Idaho where people actually carried money, and he might want to find a teller-bot). Rough-looking guys wanting to be his guide (for what didn't matter, because they just wanted to guide him to a back alley and take his cash, paycards, and any other valuables he might have). Women wanting to do him for money. Boys wanting to suck his cock. Older people with holo-cards to sell. Whatever. He'd been through it so many times in so many Red states he didn't even notice anymore.

Well, except for the boys with the long eyelashes and puffy lips who wanted to suck his cock. He noticed them.

Once through the gauntlet, Matt got a nutrition bar and cup of coffee at a kiosk. Jesus, he needed to start mainlining caffeine.

After paying with his hookup, Matt had to send the receipt to SpecOps Accounting. It was truly fucked that even on a covert operation he had to keep track of his spending in real time or QESA wouldn't get reimbursed. The transmission was encrypted, of course, and he was set up to bounce off Red satellites to a "legitimate" business in California, but still.

Covert, his ass.

He found a seat at a bench nearby. It wasn't a particularly pleasant place to sit, but most of Ontario wasn't. They'd barely rebuilt after the battles here fifty years before. Red states were all the same.

A guy came along, breaking into Matt's distraction. "Anyone sittin' here?"

Matt gave him a quick once-over. Not the happy, gay kinda once-over. The "I'm a covert agent from the Blue" once-over.

Camo all-weathers, kinda outta shape, long hair, mid-fifties. Not military: everyone wore all-weathers, even civilians. You could wear all-weathers for weeks without them showing dirt or smelling (much). What was not to like? Idaho was a hunter's paradise so camo wasn't unusual. Probably wanted money. Matt decided he was harmless. "Nah. Go 'head."

"Ya here for the huntin'?"

"Pretty much," Matt said agreeably.

"Yeah, not so good the last few years. Back when they used to stock deer 'n' antelope, now that was some huntin'. Why, my Granddaddy--"

Oh, fuck me. A talker. Matt groaned. Audibly. Wasn't like the guy was listening to him. After a half-hour treatise on how much better the hunting was in Idaho before either of them existed ("...and I don't give a good goddamn what them Blue liberals say, it ain't global warming! 'S'a conspiracy. Plain's the nose on my face!") Matt managed to fake a very important text.

As he answered, he picked up his pack, gave the guy a nonchalant wave, and took off to rent a crotch rocket. An environmentally harmless electric crotch rocket.

* * * *

Matt made camp just outside of Payette that night. He easily could have made it to Boise just after dark, but he wanted time to think. And he liked camping. He even built himself a campfire. Completely unnecessary, and not that smart since it wasn't quite the rainy season yet, but what the hell? He was feeling maudlin. It added ambience.

Apparently too much ambience. He barely had a decent fire going before another packer came along on the trail Matt had been following. It was deep dusk now, and most travelers had stopped for the night already, whether in one of the camping shelters or beside the trail like Matt had. When the guy stopped and asked Matt, "Feel like some company tonight?" Matt almost would have thought it was a pickup. Except no one who wanted to live long as a free queer would be that obvious in the Red. This guy must be just that naive.

"No," he said shortly, and gave the guy an unblinking stare until he moved on. It was only as he was walking away, and Matt was checking out his ass--hey, he was a good looking-guy--that Matt saw the gray handkerchief peeking out of the guy's pocket.

It was even 18% gray. At least it looked that way in the fading light. Most queers in the Red just settled for any old medium-gray square of cloth. But 18% gray had double meaning. The use of gray or grayscale handkerchiefs was to show someone was queer but living under the oppression of the Confederated Red States. The anti-rainbow flag.

Eighteen percent was a common background color for art stills, but in this case it had been co-opted to represent the 18% of all "gay" gene carriers who weren't queers. Because that's how most queers who lived in the Red had to live. Like the other 18%.

Matt always found the use of the 18% flag funny. Not even all gay men could tell the difference between 18% gray and any other medium gray. He always figured it was only the queerest of the queer who could. Survival of the queerest. Something like that.

Matt almost called the guy back, but he really wanted to be alone tonight. The guy would be all right. He was headed in the right direction, anyway--toward Oregon. If he was smart, that's where he was going. And he'd be more careful with the pickups. It wasn't like the grayscale flag was some kind of state secret.

He spent the time next to the campfire thinking over the extraction.

First Lieutenant James Ayala was captured by RIA troops during the Fall of Boulder in July. Boise's very active Blue cell was probably what James had to thank for this rescue. He was barely out of re-education camp. A level-one parolee, tracked by AI in real time. Matt was going to have to do some fancy chip recoding to extract James, which meant he had to carry a recoder, along with all his other illegal tech.

Thank God for that hollow leg. Or rather, the landmine that led to the hollow leg.

* * * *

When Matt got up at the ass crack of dawn (he may be some kinda special agent, but he still liked to sleep in), he wasn't feeling particularly grateful for the hollow leg. Or the landmine. Mornings like this, his thigh ached. It may look like a regular leg and act like a regular leg, but it didn't fucking feel like a regular leg. So he opened an instant-hot coffee pouch and tried to be thankful that he'd stepped on an old-tech mine, and not an atomizer mine. He couldn't be thankful for the shitty coffee.

It wasn't until his second cup of coffee--and the NSAID kicked in--that he could work up to not being un-thankful. His fucking thigh still throbbed a little. He looked at his timepiece, and opened up the damn leg to get his vid hookup. A regular hookup was fine in Idaho, but the vid model wasn't available to regular civilians in the Red, yet. So it meant another gadget in his fake leg. He was a walking tech pantry.

It would be really cool if he could just have a Brain-link feed the com directly into his neural network, but with tech like that he may as well have "Blue undercover agent: shoot at will" lased on his forehead. Besides, they hadn't worked out the vid feed for that, yet. Too disorienting.

Andry was on vid when he called in.

"Where th'fuck are you?" Andry scowled.

"What the hell are you doing there? Let me talk to Lance." Shit. Andry was the new trainee?

Andry's scowl morphed into a smirk. "Gramps's eating breakfast and he told me to only get him if you were having problems."

"Is he letting you check in the other agents, or just me?"

Now the smirk became a sulky lip. "Just you. I'm training on your ass."

"Fine. Tell your 'boss' I'm a half hour out of Boise by crotch rocket and hoping to be back out tonight. I won't check in again until tomorrow morning."

"Why not tonight?"

"'N'case I don't make it out tonight. Might have to stay overnight depending on the sitch with the package."

Andry rolled his eyes. "You mean James?"

"Yeah, James."

"What is your problem with James Ayala?" Before Matt could answer, he heard Andry mutter "Sorry" to someone off-vid and then he turned back to the monitor. "Okay, I have you checked in at 0724 with no check-in until tomorrow at 0730." Then Andry ended the transmission.

"I don't have a problem with James Ayala," Matt told the blank vid screen. And his stupid fucking little brother. Then he smirked a little. Lance probably got all over Andry's ass for non-essential communications on an encrypted transmission.

Fine. He was going to see James Ayala, help him get the hell out of Idaho, laugh in his face, and then never see him again. It was seven years ago, and a lifetime in experience. And he was over it. Except for that revenge thing. Laughing in his face should take care of that, right?

* * * *

James had picked up his tail. It was disconcerting, since Matt thought he was pretty good at remaining undetected normally. He'd been trained by those relatives in Special Ops. He shouldn't be that easy to pick out. He must be concentrating too much on the James of the past and not on the one right in front of him. He came around a corner and realized he'd lost James. Fuck.

Matt cleared the block, including an alley. When he first looked down it, he'd been surprised to see a Dumpster. He hadn't known you could get someone to service them. No one could fit inside a Sorpacter, but clearly someone could fit inside or behind a Dumpster.

When he checked it out, he found nothing. Except a really bad smell, which was now clinging to him even with the all-weathers he wore. Nice.

James had to be long gone by now. Matt would have to stake out his house. He looked around the corner at the end of the block just in case.

Bingo. The facade of a building partway down the cross street was being deconstructed, although there weren't any workers around at the moment. There was equipment, scaffolding, even some debris strewn about. He bet James was there, and since it was deserted it was a good place to approach him. James might recognize him, and Matt couldn't predict his reaction. It would be better without witnesses. A familiar reaction could cause problems when a guy was wearing the pink triangle. Even if "familiar" translated to "fistfight." It could be reported and linked to James.

In front of the deconstruction zone sat a construction-sized Sorpacter. It was attached by a sorting chute up the scaffolding, with openings about every three meters so stuff could be dropped in. He didn't think anyone could fit inside the unit, but he checked to be sure. The sorting bot inside slammed the cover in his face. Nothing.

Matt turned back toward the scaffolding. He was looking left, so he didn't see James climb out of the sorting chute. He did manage to catch movement out of the corner of his eye right before 85 kilos of man hit him from 2.5 meters above him.

Not the way he usually preferred to be jumped by a guy. "Fuck, James!" he sputtered, his cheek mashed into the rough sidewalk. He could feel James freeze when Matt said his name. He had Matt's arms twisted into some impossible configuration by then.

"Th'fuck?" muttered James, letting up on Matt's arms a little. Thank God.

"Get off me, you fucking idiot!" Matt hissed. "If anyone sees you lying on another man on the street, you're going back into re-education."

"You were following me," James pointed out calmly, not moving.

"Yeah, so I could talk to you. I'm not trying to do anything to you! Would I have been so obviously following you if I wanted to fuck with you?" Okay, so Matt hadn't known he was so obviously following, but he'd use what he had. "C'mon, James. Seriously, you need to get off me before someone sees."

James got up, but Matt could feel him standing very still back there in defensive--or offensive--readiness. Matt rolled over and looked up at James a few seconds before standing.

James stared at him stonily, ready for anything as Matt dragged his sore ass off the concrete. He really would have preferred a plastic composite walkway. Idaho seemed a little short on modern updates, though.

Matt could clearly see the pink triangle on the front of James's shirt. Yeah, it would be obvious to anyone that this guy just got out of re-education.

"Th'fuck?" James asked again, the look on his face changing from stony to confused. "Matt?"

* * * *

Ten minutes later, they were walking down the street together, each holding a coffee pouch. James had that completely blank expression he was so good at.

"What are you doing here? You need to get th'fuck out of the Red, Matt."

"I'm gonna go." Matt kept his voice just as low. "As soon as you're ready."

James said nothing for half a block, just stared straight ahead. "You're rescuing me?" He whispered incredulously.

Matt imagined his smirk bore a striking resemblance to Andry's from that morning. "Yup," he said cheerfully.

"I don't need you to rescue me." James's tone was flat.

"Then why haven't you left yet? You've been out of the camp three weeks."

"How do you know that?"

"Sorry; that's classified info." Matt was just goading him, now.

James snorted. "I have clearances you've never heard of."

Matt got serious. "Yeah, I'm thinking my file on you was incomplete. You aren't a SOUF Regular or a Ranger, are you?"

"Your file on me? Who the hell are you with?"

"You show me yours, I'll show you mine."

"Fine. I'm Psi-force." Matt took a small misstep. Psi-force was one of the most secretive and legendary branches of SpecOps, formed from the Blue remnants of Rangers PSYOPS after Fort Bragg and Camp LeJeune went Red in the '50s. When the Blue states military reorganized in 2057, the Marines and all Special Operating Forces formed their own branch of the military--Special Operations Unified Force. Psi-force was one of the units that ultimately fell under the jurisdiction of both SOUF Command and the ArmySF Subcommand. Psi-force troops could be embedded with any military unit.

"Your turn." James nudged him.

Matt stopped walking and turned to James. Let the fucker face this one head-on. "I'm an extraction agent for Queer Extraction Services Association."

James gave another little snort, and stared for a second. "I'm being rescued by a contractor," he muttered to himself.

Matt smirked again. They turned and continued on.

"You have a licensed recoder?" James asked in a low voice.

"Yeah." Matt smirked a little more. It wasn't like they let just anybody walk around with a recoder. James needed him for that if nothing else.

"Guess that's all right, then. Thank God."

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