Rick ran across the wide avenue, dodging the slowly moving air cars and yachts, and leaping over the yellow-pod hedge at the center; no easy feat, as it was three feet high and four feet wide. He approached the boys across the street from the Golden River casino, trying to contain the frantic fear that gripped his heart.
"Hey, guys," he said casually. "Have you seen Michael?"
"Not for a while," one boy said.
"I think he was down there about an hour ago," Dirk said, pointing down the sidewalk.
Rick began walking fast in the direction Dirk had pointed. That was Michael's usual spot; he liked to look at the things in the pawn shop window while he waited for his next customer; sometimes they would even take him inside and buy him something. But when Rick arrived, Michael was nowhere to be seen; he looked up and down the sidewalk and scanned the other side. He was about to run across the street again to ask some of the boys over there, when a shiny red air yacht glided up to the curb and stopped. It hovered silently for an endless minute before the door opened and a long-legged, bare-chested, wet-headed Michael stepped out.
Michael smiled as soon as he saw Rick, and walked toward him. "That was awesome!" he exclaimed. "They got a jacuzzi and everything in there!"
"Yeah, that's great," Rick said, taking Michael's arm. "Come on, we gotta get you off the street!" He began leading Michael along the sidewalk, back toward the barn.
"What's going on?" Michael asked.
"You gotta leave," Rick said.
"The Nirkads," Rick lied; he knew that was the one thing that would strike terror into the heart of any boy on the Strip. "I heard somebody say they're looking for you; they want you!"
"Oh, shit!" Michael exclaimed.
"We gotta get you to a safe place!" Rick said.
"Where?" Michael asked. "The Nirkads are everywhere!"
"I have an idea," Rick said. He took Michael up to the Golden River; a quick pace that Michael had trouble keeping up with, in spite of his long legs; he was constantly amazed at how fast Rick could move when he wanted to. Gleaming air cars seemed to stand still, their gobs of chrome streaked with red, blue and orange neon, their shining bodies speckled with points of glittering colors that slid with softly wavering patience along the contours and blisters, their drivers eagerly searching for that one special boy to satisfy their craving. They passed many boys, as well; gangs of smooth, bare legs and bright, freckled faces; blue eyes and brown; golden skin and dusty caramel; blonds, brunettes, red heads and blacks.
Not waiting to get to an intersection, Rick pulled Michael out into the sluggish traffic, dodging a yacht and two cars. He got a short run at the center hedge and leaped it, sticking the landing on the other side, so as not to step in front of a larger, faster moving yacht.
Michael was left to make the hurtle on his own; he stood beside the hedge until there was a space in the traffic where he could step out into the lane and get a run at it. By the time he made his jump, the large yacht had passed and they were able to run the rest of the way across the boulevard.
At the corner of the Golden River casino, Rick stopped. "Go back to the barn," he said. "Get your stuff, get everything!" He knew Michael had a lot of things he'd gotten from the pawn shop over the years, particularly, a couple of collectible swords. "I'll meet you there in ten minutes."
Michael nodded and raced up the narrow side street, into deeper shadows. Rick continued along the Strip, passing more glitzy gamblers, well-dressed diners, partiers and fun-seekers, and gangs of boys ready for business.
The barn was quiet, no one was there. The colored neon lights shown over the long work bench and the broad, concrete floor, casting hazy clouds of orange, green and blue.
Michael went up to the second-level loft and back along the outer wall of the barn, to the corner he'd called his own for the last five years of his life. His blankets were there, in a crumpled heap, a bed he'd shared with dozens of other boys, including Rick, a bed where he'd lost his virginity to a girl and had several others since, a bed stained with the DNA of many boys and the scents of many more. That was his bed, he slept nowhere else, ever. On the wall, two gleaming, elaborately formed swords hung, crossing each other like a big X, and below them, a small cardboard box of his other belongings: a second pair of raggedly cut off jeans, a few t-shirts and tank tops, musk-scented deodorant, tubes of hair inhibitor, toothpaste and lube, a comb, a pair of scissors, a magnifying glass, a couple of pens, a small knife, and a few other little trinkets he'd picked up along the way.
Michael could fit many of his things in his pockets, especially the lucky gold token he'd gotten from the Golden River casino; the little, silver car that had been blessed by a young priest that had picked him up many times; and of course, his credit chit, which had nearly thirteen-thousand credits on it. He pulled one of the tank tops over his head and pulled it down to cover most of his lean belly. He took the swords from the wall, where they'd hung for over a year, and slid them into their sheathes, wrapped them with his shirts and shorts, and then rolled them in a white towel.
He heard the door open down stairs. "Michael!" Rick's voice came up to him.
"Coming," Michael replied. He grabbed a thin, leather necklace from beside where the swords had been hanging and pulled it over his head, the small crystal that dangled from it glittered in the soft light of the loft as it lay against his chest.
He grabbed the cloth roll with his swords in it and started for the stairs. Then he stopped and looked back at the corner where he'd spent the last five years of his life. Except for the blankets and the empty box, there was nothing left of him there, as if he'd never been.
Michael walked away slowly, feeling something strange weighing down the pit of his stomach. He stopped for a brief moment as he came to each of the little, blanket nests of the other boys, boys he somehow knew he'd never see again. A tear spilled over the rim of his eye and rolled slowly down his cheek. The more boys' things he passed, the more young lives he'd shared here, the more his tears came; by the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, his sweet, tanned face was well streaked with glistening tracks.
"Com' on, com' on," Rick said as Michael walked across the broad floor. As Michael came closer, Rick could see the tears on his face, and the realization hit him; he would probably never see Michael again either, after tonight. Rick felt tears sting his own eyes and had to fight hard to keep his face from crumpling; his heart took a sudden dive and he had to look away for a moment.
"Com' on, you big pussy!" Rick said, laying a hand on Michael's shoulder. He pushed Michael out the door, to his car, which waited just outside the barn. Michael got in and closed the door, his rolled swords laying across his bare thighs; Rick walked around the back of the car and paused to control his face again; he had to push his feelings way down this time; he had to keep a clear head so he could help Michael in the best way he could.
Rick slid in behind the instrument panel and closed the door; he took the hologoggles from the dash and slipped them around his head. Laying a practiced hand on the control stick, he eased the car forward, down the narrow street, to the next cross street. They rode in silence, both choking back tears. Left and left again, and they were immersed in traffic on the Strip. Slow moving cars surrounded them; lights and windows and boys bedazzled them; colors and smells and sounds ran together in a frenzy of sex and glitz and gluttony.
"What's your favorite name?" Rick asked finally.
"What?" Michael didn't understand.
"You have to change your name," Rick said. "What's your favorite name?"
"Oh - uh - I don't know," Michael said. "I never really thought about it."
"Well, think about it now," Rick said.
"Who's that new kid you brought in?" Michael asked.
"Logan," Rick said.
"Is he nice?" Michael asked.
"I really don't know him that well, yet," Rick said. "But he seems nice. Jeffy certainly likes him!"
"Oh, well, if Jeffy likes him, he must be alright!"
"Dagwynn likes him, too," Rick said. "And so do the twins."
"That settles it," Michael said. "My name is Logan!"
"Good," Rick said. "Memorize it, and think of a new last name, too."
"A new last name, too?" Michael exclaimed. "What could be better than Schlumfetter?"
Rick chuckled. "How about Michaelson?"
"Hmmm," Michael thought. "I don't know if I can spell that..."
"Funny," Rick said flatly. They slowly passed another casino, called The Colosseum, which blared music into the street; above the avenue, giant holographic people jumped and gyrated with the heavy drum beat. Across the street was a wide fountain, where dozens of naked children splashed and played around lights that rotated colors; holographic sea horses and mermaids swam in the air around them. Beyond the fountain were twin towers that rose eighty stories into the night; the Mandalay Hyatt was the biggest hotel on the planet. Now, they were getting into rival territory; boys from other houses did their business here, not that the customers would notice the difference, these boys were just as gorgeous and young as the boys from barn 91 and the houses around it. But the gang leaders, like Rick, kept their boys separate, so their casino-owner bosses wouldn't step on each others' profits.
Up the street from the Colosseum was the New Vegas Casino, the Atlantis Casino, the Dog Star Casino, and half a dozen others; alternating with them were the Sweet Water Inn, the Shady Brook Plaza, which also had a fountain where naked children swam, and several more.
The Strip ended, oddly enough, with a broad cross street and a gigantic Red Catholic Cathedral; a great gothic building of cold gray stone and blue neon, which tried with varying degrees of success, to combine the glitz of the Strip with the reserved good taste of the church, and yet maintain the brooding sternness of true gothic architecture.
Rick parked the car in the lot beside the hulking building; it hovered silently on a cushion of turquoise light as Rick and Michael got out.
"Are you sure this is the best idea?" Michael asked.
"The Nirkads are all over this planet," Rick said. "The only way to get you away from them is to get you off world, and this is the best way I know of."
"But the Reds?" he exclaimed. "I don't know..."
"Well, what about that priest who used to do you all the time?" Rick asked. "Can't he help?"
"Cleric Everett?" Michael mused. "Maybe..."
"But you can't talk," Rick said. "You can't tell anybody about the Strip, or anything that goes on here; if you do, and it gets back here, the Nirkads will know, and they'll come after you - and me, too, and everybody in the barn!"
The two teenaged boys crossed the parking lot and walked around to the front of the massive cathedral. Broad marble steps lead up to high, arching doors that stood open, welcoming any who would come, in spite of the hour or location. Before entering, Rick turned to Michael and searched the fifteen-year-old's eyes, then, with tears filling his own eyes, wrapped his arms around Michael's shoulders and hugged him tightly.
"I love you, Mikey," Rick said. "I'm gonna miss you so much!" Rick's tears fell on Michael's shoulder and his shuddering breath warmed his ear.
Michael nodded, he couldn't speak; his voice caught in his throat, but his tears also wetted Rick's shoulder. His belly tightened and his body lurched into Rick's. "I..." His voice caught again. "...don't wanna go," he managed to whisper through trembling lips. He cried hard, his slim body shaking in Rick's arms. "...never.. see you again..." he choked.
Rick kissed his cheek. "I don't want you to go either," he said. "But you have to..." He sobbed for another minute. "I love you too much; I can't stand the thought of them torturing you... or...!" He kissed Michael's neck and cheek again, then Michael turned his head and their lips pressed together amid salty tears.
Finally, Rick mustered his strength and pushed Michael away. Taking his hand, he lead the wayward teen through the great, arching doors and across the cold marble floor.
The cathedral was as quiet as a tomb; all the hurry and glitz of the Strip remained outside; inside was only silence. A small basin of water stood on a pedestal in the center of the entry; Rick paused a moment to dip his fingers into it and touch it to his tongue. Michael copied him, though he really wasn't sure why; he'd never been religious, but only wanted to share as much as possible in whatever Rick did.
The pair continued up the center of the great hall. Massive pillars rose to vaulted arches; blue and green neon contrasted with red and yellow holographic flames above golden braziers; broad, smooth marble floors were inset with mystical glyphs of blue and red tiles; other doors stood brooding between the columns, dark and mysterious. At the head of the cathedral, a wide circular pool of shimmering blue water lay, with great holographic flames rising above it; water and fire, the center of the Red Catholic faith.
'This place makes the barn seem tiny and cramped,' Michael thought.
As they approached the front, an old priest in long, red robes came out from the right, to meet them. "Peace be with you, my sons," he said.
"Peace be with you, Emissary," Rick said.
"Is Cleric Everett available?" Michael asked.
"Yes, I believe he is," the balding, silver-haired priest replied. "Is he your confessor?"
"Yeah," Michael said.
The priest raised his arm and spoke into the commlink on his wrist. "Cleric Everett, are you available?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm here," came a quick reply, sounding tinny from the small device.
"A confessor is here to see you," the priest said. "In the Sanctuary."
"I'll be right there," the voice replied.
"Are you boys from the Strip?" the priest asked, backing away slowly.
"Yes," Rick said. "The Nirkads have put a death mark on my friend, here."
"Oh, I see," the priest said, his expression turning serious. "Well, don't worry, we can move you off world and get you a whole new identity; the Nirkads will never find you."
"I've already chosen a new name," Michael said.
"Good," the priest said. "You're a step ahead. Very smart. Will both of you be going?"
"No, just him," Rick said. "But I'll want to find him later; he's my brother - well - half-brother."
"Of course," the priest said. "Well, Cleric Everett will set it all up for you. I'll leave you to him and give you your privacy." He clasped his hands in front of his chest and bowed, then turned and walked away the way he'd come.
A moment later, a tall, blond priest, also in long, red robes, came from the same door and walked toward them. Rick noticed that this priest was a gorgeous young man, with tanned skin, blue eyes and luscious lips; he was tall and slim, and Rick suddenly found himself wanting to see his body beneath his robes.
"Mmm," Rick whispered. "He's cute!"
"You should see him without the robes!" Michael said.
"I heard that!" Everett said, smiling broadly as he came close.
"Oh, yeah," Michael said, "and he hears really good, too!"
"Hi, I'm Cleric Everett," he said, extending a hand to Rick. "You must be Rick; I've been wanting to meet you for a long time."
Rick shook his hand. "Likewise!" he said. He felt the young priest's eyes softly feeling their way into his soul, stripping him naked to his heart, and at the same time, sharing the young priest's naked soul with him. Rick forced himself back to the task at hand. "We need to get Michael off world as soon as possible," he said. "The Nirkads are after him."
"Come," Everett said. "Let's go into my office." He stepped between Rick and Michael and slipped an arm across each of their shoulders.
Just beyond the dark, arched door through which the priests had entered the great hall, a smaller passage turned and a wide staircase took them down below the main floor. Many offices and rooms opened onto the long hall; Everett opened a door and motioned them inside.
The room was small; dark, stone walls softly lit by a flickering, holographic fire place and blue neon. A wide desk, a chair and a small sofa occupied the dark, stone floor. A boy of about fourteen stood beside the sofa, pulling his shorts up his smooth legs and covering his bare butt. He looked up, a little surprised; his soft blue eyes seemed cautious.
"Boys, this is TJ," Everett said as he followed them in. "TJ, this is Rick and Michael. Please, sit down, all of you. TJ just recently had a run-in with the Nirkads, too; they were just about to start cutting on him, when he got away."
Rick sat on the end of the sofa and Michael sat next to TJ. "Congratulations," Everett went on as he sat behind the desk. "You two are going to be brothers!" He turned on a lamp with a touch and soft, white light spilled across his desk. "I need to get both of you off world, and I think the easiest way to do that would be if you travel together, as a pair." He touched a pad on his desk and many holographic screens popped up before him. "Now, the first thing we need to do is give you both new names..."
"I've already chosen a new name," Michael said. "It's Logan Michaelson."
"OK, that will work," Everett said. "And TJ, you can travel as - what?"
"What's your favorite name?" Rick asked him.
"Well," the boy said, speaking for the first time in a somewhat hoarse voice, "I've always liked the name Shane."
"OK," Everett said. "Shane it is! You are now Shane Michaelson, and we'll say you are half-brothers, that will explain the differences in your appearances." On the screen, he began selecting choices as he talked. "Logan, your mother's name was Trish; she died a year after you were born. Shane, your mother's name is Amanda and she's still married to the father of both of you; his name is - let's say - Howard, by the way... And you're going to meet them on Baltimora 4e, where they have been surveying for a new colony..."
"By the way," Rick said. "I have something else to discuss with you when we're finished with these two."
"OK," Everett said. "One thing at a time, though." He turned his attention back to Michael and TJ. "Now, both of you were born on Tellana B3 and have been living with your dad's mother, Beverly Michaelson, for the last year..." Everett went on to give both boys such a detailed past that Rick was amazed, while at the same time, accessing records on other colony worlds to create false birth records, medical records, school records, travel vouchers - the works. In the space of an hour, he built a complete history for both of them, all the while, calling them by their new names, so they'd get used to being addressed that way.
Both boys nodded and smiled as they tried to remember it all; Rick noticed their hands coming together as they reassured each other that they would be there for each other. In the corner, beneath the blue neon light, documents came off the printer as well, fully plasticized, laminated, encoded, and absolutely authentic, to the most updated security measures. Michael gave his credit chit to Everett and received Logan Michaelson's, with all data and funds transferred and fully laundered.
"Wow!" Rick exclaimed. "You must do this a lot!"
"You'd be surprised," Everett smiled back. With a few more screens flashing by, he had them booked on the next starliner out, first thing in the morning. "OK, boys, you're all set! You'll be traveling first class on the Starliner Calisto, and you'll be traveling with a group of Red Catholic priests, including myself; you'll be acolytes."
"Acto - whats?" TJ asked.
"Acolytes," Everett repeated. "It means you'll be assistants to the priests, so you'll stay close to us, share our quarters, you'll eat with us, sleep with us, and no one will bother you, or ask too many questions."
"Spiff!" Michael exclaimed. "When do we leave?"
"In about six hours," Everett said. "So, we'd better get you some new clothes, and then you'd better get some sleep; tomorrow is going to be a busy day!" He stood up and lead the three boys from the room.
Down the long hall, he opened another door and ushered the boys into another small room, with two beds. Michael laid his rolled up swords and belongings on the nearest bed.
"OK," Everett said. "I'd better take that for now; I'll keep it in a safe place and return it to you when you get settled." Michael reluctantly handed him the roll. "Now, take off all your clothes and give them to me, your shoes, too; from now on, you'll sleep naked and you'll wear only acolyte robes, which you'll find there in the closet. Keep only the cards and documents I printed for you; everything else must go, right down to the last thread!"
"No underwear?" TJ asked.
"Nope!" Everett opened his bright red robe to show that he, too, was stark naked beneath it. Rick almost licked his lips at the quick glance of Everett's heavy, blond cock.
Michael and TJ began stripping and handing their clothes to Everett, who draped them over his arm. When both boys were naked, they stood there, looking at each other, and waiting for their next instruction. Both boys sported soft, golden suntans and smooth, ivory hips. TJ's honey-blond hair was copied down to his wrists and ankles, not heavily, but a "timid" sort of adolescence. Michael's hair was darker brown and wavy on his head, but golden and glittering on his arms and legs.
"OK," Everett said. "I know you're both probably excited and nervous, but try to get some sleep. I'll come for you in about five hours." Everett began to close the door.
"Wait!" Rick said. He moved in and gave Michael one last long, wet kiss good-bye.
"Spiff!" TJ said as Everett closed the door. "He really loves you, doesn't he?"
"Yeah," Michael replied, his voice cracking a bit. "Well, OK, little brother - Shane - which bed do you want?"
"Yours!" TJ replied.
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