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 powers 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 a question of how much he’s actually changed?
- 3 To Be Read lists
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Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Heat Level: 5
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Coming Home, Criminals & Outlaws, Enemies to Lovers, In Uniform, Rescue, Second Chances, Smartass Twinks, Trapped Together
Word Count: 85000
Languages Available: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
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.”READ MORE
“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?”
“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.COLLAPSE
The year is 2111 and Matt Tennimore works for the Queer Extraction Services Association in the Blue States of America. He has been called in for an assignment: rescue a captured Blue soldier who is stuck in Idaho, over in the Red States. In 2056, the United States had been divided into two parts following a civil war – Red and Blue. The cultures of the two regions are distinctly different, following the basic political ideology we have today, but taken to the extreme.
In the Red states, gays are persecuted and forced into “re-education,” along with being chipped and monitored. Gays can petition to be rescued by the Blue states and get asylum there. The Blue States are more liberal, more economically prosperous, and in some ways more advanced technically.
Matt is surprised to find that the soldier he is being sent to retrieve is former classmate (and former crush) James Ayala. Although the two were friends in high school and Matt was attracted to James, once James found out Matt was gay, he broke off their friendship and turned to cold looks and nasty comments instead. Yet the attraction is still there when Matt sees James again, and after James’s apology and explanation for his behavior, the two soon develop a friendship and ultimately romantic relationship.
One problem the men face is that James was subject to a military experiment and implanted with some sort of unknown device that is affecting his brain. It allows James to read brain waves from others that most people can not access or interpret, giving him an empathic ability to sense how someone is feeling or what they are intending. It also helps him sense when someone is approaching or they are being followed. As his brain continues to integrate this implant, James’s skills develop further, turning into an almost telepathic skill to read minds in some cases. Yet it is unclear exactly how the implant will continue to develop and if James is in danger from the experimentation.
This book combines three elements interwoven in the story. The first is the futuristic tale of a country divided along political lines. To be honest, this is the part of the book I struggled with the most. I found a lot of the exposition slowed the story down for me, especially in the beginning when there was a lot of background information all at once. I also frequently found it confusing and I had to reread sections to try and understand the politics, military, and other aspects of the world building. Now I am someone who likes to “get” everything before moving on, so I may have gotten more caught up than other readers would. But even by the end of the story, I still had trouble remembering what the acrononmys meant, and in some cases knowing whether they were “good guys” or “bad guys.”
The second element to the book is the road trip story as James and Matt race to get out of Idaho and back to Oregon. This is one of my favorite tropes and I thought it was done very well here. Lots of excitement that kept this story moving without just being a string of life-threatening situations one after another. There was a lot of time to get to know James and Matt and I really enjoyed the thrill of following their attempt to escape. I also think this is an area where the world-building really worked. Watching James’s mental talents develop as he learned how to use his implant was exciting, especially his mental telepathy with Matt and his ability to read and track the enemy. And I loved the friends they met along the way, especially Miz the “talking” horse and Beni the horny nun. (Leading to my favorite line of the book, “We need someone to fuck the nun.”)
At its heart, 18% Gray is really a love story though between Matt and James. I loved Matt’s voice right from the start in the prologue and he and James interacted so well together. It was interesting to see how James’s implant affected their relationship dynamic. Having your partner be able to read your thoughts (and in some cases influence them) adds a whole other layer of complexity to a relationship. I liked how real that all felt, from James almost mentally “pushing” Matt to do something before he caught himself, to how Matt struggles with keeping his feelings about James hidden from him, to the way James’s mood could change based on what Matt was feeling.
I also liked the way the book explores Matt’s submissive side, and his desire to be controlled by James during sex. Part of Matt wants to completely give in to this need, while the rest of him struggles with letting go. They are a perfect fit. James loves to have control and loves a man who can let go and just enjoy the pleasure and Matt loves to give himself over to James. The sex between them is super hot and their relationship felt real and loving.
Matt’s extended family was a great addition. I loved the grandpas Lance and Sid and especially the terrifying Gramma Anais! I enjoyed that the entire family were all military types, trained practically from birth to do these jobs, and almost like a club of cousins and relatives.
There was lot happening in this book and at times it felt like a bit too much to keep track of. But I loved the story of James and Matt and I really enjoyed the humor interwoven throughout. The road trip plot really worked for me, as did the part about the implant and how it affected both men. Despite the slower start, I would definitely recommend this book and look forward to reading more by this author.
P.S. According to Tenino’s website, a second book is in the works focusing on Laslo and Logan (I am so excited for this – loved Logan!).