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Leaving Solaris

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Jesiah Blanche had been born and bred a military man. Of that, there was no question: he was a proven descendant of a pureblood Abel line, and everyone of his family had served the Holy Empire of Solaris in some branch of the armed forces at some point or another. In fact, the family joke had been “a Blanche in every branch.” Air Force? Infantry? Mechanized Division? Gebler? Ethos? All of those and  more .

In fact, his first memory that he had been able to recall had been at what had to have been three or four, his mother Mariah’s ceremonial revolver cradled in his tiny hands, as she helped him pull the trigger for the first time and he fell back onto her from the kickback, and screamed from the shock of the noise… and promptly got slapped for doing so. Her words after, had stuck with him his entire life. “Pick yourself up and keep at it, like a real soldier!”

Everything about his life, from then on, had been being the good soldier. Maintaining perfect grades in his classes and a high social credit from the moment he had been entered into the system at seven, because for a Blanche, being selected for Jugend as early as possible was not a choice but a requirement . Earning all of the badges available in the Ethos Scouting Force, because that proved his devotion to both his predetermined career path and to his society. He knew the Ultimate Virtues by heart - “ obedience, honor, valor, dignity, faith, service, power in absolute rule, stoicism, absolute purity…”

And he knew his capacity for excellence and what it provided - he had never felt more proud than when he held it in his hands, the golden envelope delivered by a personal messenger from Cain himself - his admission to Jugend itself as a boy, the earliest admission to Solaris’ military academy ever. 

That had been his first experience with the lofty words he strove to live, to be, being the exact opposite. From his first day, the bullies had zeroed in: his accent, his youth, his small stature, that he was one of the “snobs,” and anything else they could find about him. Nonetheless, he saw it as a challenge to overcome - and another point of his pride in himself, as a true Abel, was that he did , that he was above it all. That he was there to succeed, to win, and nothing would get in his path.

And as he aged and made it through the ranks just as he had been expected, as had been expected of him, the narrative that Solaris had began to push over these last few years - achievement via personal merit and strength - that did ring true to him. After all, the bullies had dropped off once his first two years had passed, once he had gotten on the path to instructor officer - suddenly the same people who had bullied him literally bowed to him, kissed the rings he wore, the first year and second year rewards of achievement from the Emperor himself.

Then, somehow, there had been that day that he looked in the mirror as a Gebler commander, as there wasn’t one in those days, there had been several alternating through the position. His face now filled out and looked as that of a man, his bearing now that of a true Solaris military officer, two medals already on his uniform for bravery on his first missions and for being the best marksman in Jugend...and he had felt so certain that he had chosen the right path, especially when his two variances from the norm had been let slide because of his importance.

The first had been the affecting of his style - he had researched the original Eldridge’s crew in his years of studies, and his genetic line as an Abel descended from them, and had decided that identity fit him far more than the snobbery of his immediate family - the original Space Cowboys as they had been called. He had taken to it slowly at the beginning - changing his highborn formal speech to an accent that only remained among the Second Class in Solaris, wearing boots with spurs over the preferred combat boots of his uniform - and somehow, he had been allowed.

The second had been Racquel. Everyone in Solaris was supposed to go through the central command matching system to have the ideal partner chosen for them, and Racquel had already been matched to someone else - Isaac Stein, the man who had been a thorn in his side from their first days as fellow students. 

To him, Stein came across exactly as people accused him of having been - someone who hadn’t earned a bit of his military record, someone who was only there because he had been thrown in by his parents to shape him up and give him a career and future. Yet he acted as if he was better than anyone, especially the Lamb students, something that had grated on Jesiah ever since they’d met - after all, he had asked himself, if a Lamb is good enough to get into Jugend, should we not respect their devotion to work and being like us, even if they can never be? Is our position as Abels not to guide them and treat them well, to show we are better?

That Racquel had been matched to him was an annoyance, especially because of how he watched their interactions. Racquel, what drew him to her was her independence and skill, that she didn’t seem to care that anyone might judge her for striving too hard for something other than reaching lieutenant and retiring out to start a family. In that way, she reminded him of his now-late from a battle on the surface mother. And Isaac, barely a man and so devoted to the concepts of the Ethos, treated her as if she was a mere servant, as if she were a third class Lamb worker bee.

So they had sneaked their relationship around Isaac, around the rules of Central Command, because she loved him as someone who respected her strength and independence, and he loved her, something that the system had not predicted. Neither of them had planned the pregnancy, and that, had Jesiah not been a Blanche and a Gebler commander, would have been a scandal enough to make him get busted down to the hives - it had been his name, placement, and something else that had spared him.

That someone else had been two fellow Gebler commanders he had known nothing about, which had been rather odd - but he wrote it off to being so absorbed in his own studies and training that he must have missed the young woman with purplish blue hair and the man with pale blonde hair, who both held the same rank he did.

The woman had spoken first, with a small, seemingly kind laugh to her voice. “These things happen,” she had said. “I understand you both wish to keep it. We will edit the Central Command system, if you do us one favor. You see, I am an advisor from the Ministry assigned to help. And I think you would be the perfect friend to help my new student here understand Jugend and his duties as a Gebler Commander. You see, he was trained offsite…”

The man, seemingly uncomfortable in his own body, despite having the most soldierly and professional bearing Jesiah had ever seen, looked at him with an almost sorrowful gaze. “I… am Kahran Ramsus. I need to learn my role.”

“Then it is settled!” With that, Jesiah had grabbed his hand and shook it hard, surprised at how unused to the gesture this new commander he had not even heard of had seemed. “You need a friend, you got one, Kahran. And Miss…”

“Miang. You and Racquel shall marry in two weeks. And thank you for dealing with my trash, and your agreement to let us in at your level.”

The way Ramsus had almost curled in on himself at that had seemed so strange, and Jesiah could only describe his feelings at that as creeped out. Nothing about the situation had passed the smell test at all - but then again, one thing he had become acutely aware of at Jugend, was that power and placement and role made the Ultimate Virtues mere buzzwords for whatever met the goals of Solaris.

But what are the goals of Solaris, he had asked, especially as Kahr slowly emerged from his shell in their private moments at the commanders’ bar, or wherever he could be certain they were talking alone, when Miang wasn’t there. They seemed to share the same beliefs, the same ideals themselves, success via personal merit and protecting the weak, that this system they had both discovered of personal favors, the one that made people like that creepy adviser of Kahr’s who had pushed her way into their group and Isaac Stein get all they wanted.

“We’ll fix it, together.” Jesiah remembered saying, his hands holding Kahr’s one night after they had gone out for drinks. “You and I, we’re gonna change things.”

Jesiah had never even thought of himself as a father - his own, Abram, still came to mind when he thought of the word. But, when he had held his own infant son in his arms for the first time, that had made him even more aware - and yet, looking at Racquel and at Billy, he saw what he had been missing in his life all along - that he could be something other than just a soldier.

In a way, he wished it hadn’t happened that way - he wanted to be someone without such concerns, but to have a wife that adored him, a baby, and a best friend - things he had never sought, never knew could be anything - and yet he had felt more satisfied with his life than ever before, more convinced things could be good regardless of whatever else happened in the world.

It had been that best friend, though, Kahr, that had entirely turned what he had been convinced was just his personal disquiet into white-hot rage, one night as they met again at the Gebler commander’s bar, with six words, a couple years after they had first met.

“What is our policy on torture?”

“We don’t do it. Ever.” Jesiah had hissed. “The Lambs do it, I have heard, but to torture is a violation of dignity and honor. We don’t ever do that, even to them. If someone’s told-”

“Come with me,” Kahr had said in almost a whisper. “I have… we are both Commander rank so they will let you into the laboratory as well. It is not a P-5 only.”

Kahr called for a hovercar for them, and Jesiah had found himself following him through a winding labyrinth of tunnels and paths. “Should I have armed myself…”

“No, Jes. We are not on enemy ground. We are headed down to the Third Class though, where the facility is kept as an improvement and testing facility.” He lowered his voice. “It is used to refine and readjust Lambs to be worthy of our land. But… I have a few questions.”

“Then I hope we can both answer - what the fuck, ” Jesiah had snapped when the sight greeted him, as they both stepped into the door - this was nothing like the labs up in the First Class layer or in Jugend. Bed after bed with people chained to them, screaming in pain. “Don’t they anesthetize them first?”

“Why, for mere animals,” Kahr had asked, and Jesiah glared at him.

“We treat dogs better up there! What the hell is this place? Is that what I think it is-”

“Drive… they are trying out the new form on them. I wondered if this is within our-”

“Absolutely not. ” Jesiah had felt almost sick, and then they saw him . Barely older than a boy, long unkempt and unwashed white hair, eyes rolled back into his head as he shrieked as if he had seen the most horrific sight ever…

“They picked him up from Norn in a raid demanded by Shakhan of the Ethos. This says he has been here a couple years-”

“Two years of this? Anyone who can survive two years of this place belongs where we are, not down here.”

“What I thought,” Kahr whispered. “I will use my pick of selection this year. For him.” He placed his hand over one chained hand. “Sigurd? Look at me. Do you want out?”

“Whether he can say it or not, he does.” Jesiah mumbled. “Sign him out. Take him back up with us while I make the reports on this place.”

He wondered if Sigurd would even survive out of that place, but he at least felt grateful that Kahr was such a kind and aware person, that they had been able to root out torture operating under their noses together. Although the sight of that innocent boy's torment haunted him more than any military operation in which he had ever taken part, he had almost let it fall by the wayside as the business of another year at Jugend began, and he had a class to teach…

He looked over the roster of fresh meat, as they were so roughly called by most of the other instructors, new students, as he preferred to refer to them. Most were the average students picked in conscription as either Abels or Lambs, or assigned by parents…

Special Commissions , read a last header on the list. Two students have been commissioned by Gebler or higher ranking officials. Names and information follow.

Jesiah knew who one of those would be, and breathed a sigh of relief that he had survived. 

Sigurd Harcourt, Lamb, M, 15. Commissioned by Gebler High Commander Kahran Ramsus. Special note: needs Drive injections every five hours, if his injection time comes up excuse him from class/training immediately.

The next one instantly intrigued him because, since himself, there had never been a direct commission from Cain.

Hyuga Ricdeau, Abel, M, 14. Commissioned by HRH Emperor Cain. Special note: do NOT engage in class discussions, as no one else gets to speak once he starts. Possibly abnormal brain patterns.

Instructors and students were supposed to remain distant, yet, as that year passed, Jesiah had found himself becoming fast friends with both Sigurd and Hyuga. Their determination reminded him of that he had, once, and both seemed to share the same goals he did - he had found himself almost brought to tears at listening to Sigurd speak of being in that horrific torture lab and how much he missed his home, of hearing Hyuga occasionally mention the plague or how the Third Class really lived before he quickly changed the subject to the lesson or to the new project he had chosen to begin...

And as a military man through and through, still, and as an instructor, he took his own pride in watching both train on their weapons - although he had been annoyed as a marksman by how awful Hyuga was with a gun. Sigurd seemed to be almost as good of a marksman as he and Kahr were, but looking at Hyuga’s targets made his brain hurt as to how he could miss the entire target completely… and then it came to him, when he had seen how close he held his books to his face.

“Have you ever had your eyes looked at?” Jesiah had asked him one day, near the end of the year. “You’re smarter than me, yet you can’t shoot worth a damn and you can’t see nothin’ not right to your face.”

“No…” he had said. “I did not want to be rearranged. Down there…it is easier to just throw someone away…”

Jesiah had paused for a moment to think, the words leaving him stunned. How could we be more willing to kill someone than just give him a pair of damn glasses?   He cleared his throat and smoothed his hands on his uniform. “You’re in Jugend now, and soon enough I’m gonna make a special group to fix things here. You’re damn good at thinkin’ and fixin’ stuff already. Go to the infirmary, here’s my note. Tell ‘em you need an eye exam, and Commander Blanche will cover requisitions for the best pair of glasses they got.”

He made a second note too: one that reassigned him for close combat and sword training with Sigurd under Ramsus. That way, even if his glasses get dirty or knocked off, he can still fight.

That had also been the day that he decided both Sigurd and Hyuga could stay with him and Racquel and Billy - as far as he was concerned, he trusted both of his students, and if anything, he thought they deserved a peaceful First Class family life after all both had been through, not an impersonal military dormitory.

And like that, they had all become close friends both at Jugend and off the clock in those next years - in a way, it seemed odd because Sigurd and Hyuga felt less like Billy and more like Kahr, close friends even with five years between them. Both were, in the eyes of Solaris law, effectively adults due to their situations of having no actual living parents, yet somehow Jesiah felt intensely weird about it when he caught Hyuga stealing his cigarettes and his alcohol - but let him have them anyway, as it was obvious he already had the habits - or when he watched Sigurd inject himself with Drive. They should not have to have these habits at fifteen…

He also knew there was definitely more than friendship and camaraderie between both of the younger men, but that was something else he tried not to interfere in, because it didn’t matter as long as both seemed happy with it and nothing happened in Billy’s earshot, as far as he was concerned. And that was how he had to keep it, because somewhere in a dark corner of his mind something asked if he wanted to watch Sigurd and Hyuga and that thought disturbed him, that he could find that appealing...

Racquel caught his sleeve as he left the house that day. “Can you take a week off and go somewhere with Billy? Sigurd is really wanting to quit Drive, and I don’t want Billy seeing him like that. He looks up to him. Like he’s his older brother…”

“I can’t, but I can keep Billy upstairs and out of the way. What do you know about Drive withdrawal?”

“More than you do,” Racquel said. “I was in the medical corps before I gave birth. Severe cravings. Hallucinations. Violent self harm if not stopped. Intense fever and cramping of all muscles. Intense vomiting. The nervous system and brain may have permanent damage. Death is unlikely but desired. One week. If he survives… I told him it might be better just to stay on Drive, because it can be maintained but… he tells me he fears the withdrawal, and wants to face it once and be done with it.”

“That sounds amazing,” Jesiah muttered.

“Now now, there’s no need to be sarcastic. What with my having experience, and Hyuga there having been trained a little in battlefield medicine… the two of us can hold things down. Possibly literally.” Racquel smiled. “Though I would ask for you and Kahr to stay too. It’s Imperial Birthday Week, so everything is closed down for the holiday anyway. As long as we all can get everything together for the birthday celebration at the end of the week, we are good. Just keep Billy upstairs and not in your gun locker room this time!”

“Uh, yeah, I thought he could stay there-“

“Jesiah, he’s three now. Do you know what he could have done?”

“I had good aim at three.”

“No.” Racquel looked at him in shock. “Our son is not joining the military. You and I both know what goes on. At the very least, he could get killed. Worse, he could kill someone else as both of us have, and live with that, that knowledge that they took a life, even if it was a Lamb. I want him to do something other than shoot things.”

“He should at least know how. Who knows what could happen.”

“It can wait, Jesiah.” Racquel sighed. “Now will you help me take anything dangerous or breakable and put it somewhere else? I would honestly prefer restraints, but with Sigurd, that would only make him worse. He still remembers them from the labs… the best I can do is sleeping medicine, and two injections of nanomachine dopamine inhibitors, and that is tricky because if I miscalculate his dose… that could cause permanent issues. I would rather it wear off and he awaken than…”

That rage Jesiah had felt before seemed to crystallize once more as he watched the confident, strong, composed soldier that reminded him so much of himself for sheer guts and determination absolutely broken, helpless from the effects of Drive withdrawal and yet seeming to know he was, and it broke his heart. Sigurd throwing up until he physically could not anymore, screaming that they were all monsters and he was about to die, barely sleeping because the medicine had so little effect over the pain…

And the only things that seemed to help beyond the few hours of quiet afforded by the medication when it worked, were when Racquel held his hand or when Kahr and Hyuga somehow both fit themselves into his bed and cuddled with him, even if the vomit and sweat meant both needed a shower afterward - one that Sigurd always refused, saying the water would burn him.

This cannot be the Emperor’s will. It seems Hyuga has a connection to Cain. And as Kahr and I are Gebler commanders… we will become the Elements of change within Solaris. And we’re bringing you with us to tell Cain what’s going on down here. Jesiah sighed, and looked over at Racquel. “How much longer…”

“It’s been four days. He should come out of the delirium tomorrow and reorient to reality…”

To see Sigurd’s courage and determination to get through that , to not only do so but seem stronger than ever as their next year came and went - as far as Jesiah was concerned, Lamb or not, Sigurd was the ideal Solaris soldier - and he had been so absolutely proud of him at that year’s graduation ceremony - to watch him stand there, being granted full honors…

It made him so proud of himself, too, as a teacher that both Sigurd and Hyuga had graduated with the highest honors available in Jugend. If nothing else, he was good at being a soldier and making more of them.

Maybe, he thought, things could work out as they were. The next week would be their first mission as the Elements, in their Gears - his own, new, the Buntline that he had worked with Hyuga to make, Sigurd in a standard model because they were still trying to match a control for his unusual patterns - which he blamed on the Drive.

That week leading up to it had been all training - practicing everything from their formation - a three point with Sigurd in the middle on defense and repairs, and himself, Ramsus, and Hyuga on point - to their foot combat, though they had been told they’d never need to step out of their Gears.

Jesiah realized that had been a lie the moment they had landed on the ground. Then someone handed him a stack of paperwork. “You are aware this is a purge, are you not,” the site command lieutenant said. “The first of four. Central Command has gotten tired of the bleating from Elru. That is why they’ve called on us to put it down. First wave is us. We’re giving them this as a warning shot. If they do not stop, there is a special gift our benefactors have in store…”

Something about this did not sit well with him at all. He was used to killing, used to war - but all of his missions, all of it to this point had been arbitration between the Lambs, putting down wars between them or direct entanglement with Shevat. This seemed unusual to say the least. 

“You could do it in your Gears,” the man said as he left them. “In fact, we would prefer such an overwhelming show of force-“

Fuck that,” Jesiah remembered his reply having been. “If this is a purge, we must at least have the dignity to euthanize them personally.”

Once the man had left, he had turned to the others. “You heard him, but I’m the Gebler commander here. I rank. My orders are for you to go get drunk. Then get in your Gears and fire at the air until the vulcans are empty. Then fly around a bit until your fuel’s up. Then… get out on the ground. You only attack any who attack you first. As long as you get one kill each, and you will because one of them will be dumb enough for it, it’s a successful mission-“

“What about ‘a million is a-‘“

“Hyuga. No. My parameters are final. One Lamb kill for each of you and you’re done. You’ll get it when you kill the first time, or at least I hope you will.”

Except while Sigurd seemed to - following his instructions to the letter and still seeming as if he were bitter, sad - he listened in absolute sorrow and disgust, as Ramsus issued new orders.

“I am a Commander as well. Jesiah wishes to spare them, but we need to make a point. If you wish to follow him, go to his side. If you want to purge the Lambs as Cain demands follow me!”

Sigurd moved to Jesiah’s side, out of the formation. “Hyuga. You aren’t-“

“It is what Cain commands. So do not let your tainted blood get in the way.”

“Aren’t you going to stop them? Commander Blanche?”

“I can’t, Sigurd. Kahran has my rank too. I know this disgusts you. It does me, too…”

Jesiah got back into Buntline, and flipped the switches for his display. Is this necessary… he asked as he stood back. If needed he would cover fire, and he knew he would probably have to , because if there was one thing he knew as a military man, it was that anyone, Abel or Lamb, resisted massacres. You fucking idiots, he snarled as he saw the Southern Elru Defense Force take shape on the horizon. Now you got them all wanting us dead rather than afraid of us!

He watched as the kill count ticked up. “Kahran! Hyuga! This is enough!”

“They sent us in for a purge, Jesiah, not a party-”

“Well we fuckin’ got a party,” Jesiah snapped, and readied the vulcans on Buntline. “One hundred Gears onfield, reinforcements on the way, and-Sigurd get the hell back, you’re targeted for a heat seeker-”

The sound of a heat-seeking missile tearing into a Gear echoed as his last words went out, and he rushed to cover Sigurd in escaping into Fenrir, knowing that that standard wouldn’t take more, that it was meant for recon, not fighting and that Buntline only had room for himself.

“You got him, Hyuga?”

“Yes, he is here with me! We’re going back out-”

“We are not!” Kahran yelled at that moment. “Where did my fuel go?”

Jesiah could only let his hands sink into his face, as he looked down at the sappers they had walked into and the dropping numbers on everyone's fuel counters - it looked as if he and Hyuga would have to attach Buntline and Fenrir to Wyvern to drag it from the field, as they were the only ones who had thought to equip tank guards. “Retreat! Now!”

In today’s Etren News , a major shakeup at Gebler. Our sources are reporting that Kahran Ramsus has been made sole Commander due to the failed purge last month in Elru, which was assumed to be the result of uncertainty with two commanders. 

Jesiah poured another double of whiskey. That had not been what happened, but he knew too well saying that it had been very good for Kahr, and even better for Hyuga - who had come back to their place the next morning, with the highest commendation of the Empire, almost beaming with pride over how much Cain liked him.

Nonetheless, they had gotten over it for the next missions, though the sense of betrayal had lingered a bit for Jesiah - that Kahran was more devoted to Miang than him, that Hyuga had so easily betrayed him to kiss Cain’s ass directly - though he couldn’t be that angry, he told himself, because isn’t that what we all exist to do?

He had found himself trusting Sigurd the most at that time, because of something he couldn’t identify - he finally wrote it off to his sense of honor. Something that in his opinion, everyone else could easily dispense with for expediency and survival, but not him, and that made him respect him all the more - even if the goal of the Elements now was ascending Kahr to the throne, he had to admit that, given the choice, he would have preferred Sigurd.

What the hell, he remembered thinking at the time. I would prefer a Lamb as the Emperor of Solaris? Man, shit is fucked, he thought as he watched Sigurd standing there, looking upset. "C'mon. Tell me you aren't gonna go down there. That you've reconsidered it. I know you wanna leave, I wanna put in my retirement some days. Hyuga and I kinda need you with us, and you know... they're gonna start collecting people like they did you again..."

“We need to talk. Alone, off the record. I know this place has monitoring everywhere…”

Jesiah laughed. “I’m sure they put bugs up our dicks. Bet they got some good data on all of us after the party last night.”

“I...would hope they don’t go that far,” Sigurd replied. “Although I wish I could drink like you and the others. Anyway…”

“Yes. I know where we could go.” Jesiah said. “There’s a place in Jugend where there is no monitoring. I’m sure you remember it.”

“The Drive trade spot.” Sigurd smiled at the memory. “Because our standard issue is attack or focus, but some people enjoyed more recreational types. So…”

“And we let it happen as a continued experiment, no better than what we did to you.” Jesiah mumbled. “The more things I find out…”

“And that’s why we need to have a chat off the record.” Sigurd brushed a stray strand of hair aside. “You must see it. And understand me.”

Jesiah had never heard him sound that sad, that desperate, not even when he was coming down off the Drive. “Then we will.”

Once they got to the spot, Sigurd pulled something from his bag - Jesiah recognized it as a memory bank chip. “How did you even get - those are Gazel only-”

“Hyuga found it for me. I asked him to pull the latest goings on at the Palace of Bledavik. He had no idea why I wanted it, and I’m keeping it that way-”

“You think I’d tell him? He’s smart as anything, but I’ve never seen someone more devoted to saving his own skin at any cost. I know that’s our first lesson here but most of us don’t take it so literal. So you're gonna go down with the harvest ships after all? That's your plan? Hide in one of them and get to Aveh?"

“He never told you, did he?” Sigurd looked at him. “Cain is… his surrogate father in effect. Grooming him to be a Gazel himself. I can’t get around that, and it hurts, have you ever fallen in love but you know…”

“I fell in love but I did get around it. My beloved Racquel there… Central Command assigned her to this Ethos asshole who left Jugend who...but I shouldn’t be tellin’ you about that. Thanks for the heads-up though.”

“Yeah.” Sigurd sighed, a bitter sigh. “I’m about to show you something horrible. So you understand the decision I need to make, and… if you’d like to come with me.”

Jesiah watched the clip begin to play, recorded from the cube in the Bledavik castle, the waterway dungeons… “The hell is this? Why’s that fucker beating up on that little boy with a whip? If that’s ours-”

“Shakhan of the Ethos. I am certain you remember him and his command. Directly reporting to and advised by the newly appointed Bishop Stein himself per this document. We aren’t allowed to purge these Lambs, but we can do anything short of that to make them not revolt, because we must keep the war between them and the others in Kislev going…”

Jesiah blinked. “What use does having beating the shit out of a little kid with a whip have, for our objectives in keeping Aveh and Kislev at war? I'm a father. If that was Billy, Shakhan there'd have two in the chest and one in the head before he could blink, I wouldn't give a fuck about the friendly fire charges...”

“Absolutely none,” Sigurd hissed, “That kid  is my half brother. I’m going there to save him. I would like this to be an Elements operation because it would be nice to have you and Kahr and Hyu backing me up here, but…”

“They’d never sign off of on it, because it would seem like open rebellion between Gebler and the Ethos. It would also quite frankly be that, but I am so sorely tempted…”

“Which is why I’m leaving. There are things more important than… us. Than Solaris.” Sigurd slammed both fists on the table. “I’m out of here tomorrow, on the next flight down to the surface. I land, and I’m missing in action, and that’s how it is. Just tell everyone else that. I already told Hyuga and… he seems sad to see me go. Said he wished I would stay, asked me why it’s so important-”

“I know why.” Jesiah said. “I’ll cover for you. But I’m worried you can’t take on surface life by yourself, it is far different down there, I have heard so much about the Lambs, and Shakhan is no pushover and-”

“Would you bet half of what you heard is wrong?” Sigurd asked, and held out a stack of identification papers. “If you ever want to. Your own way out, if you wish to take it.”

Jesiah slipped the papers into his own attaché. “I’m not sure, as temptin' as blowin' Shakhan's brains out would be, and getting rid of those Ethos chucklefucks while we're at it... I got a wife and a kid, I can still affect some things even if Kahran is the Commander now-”

“I wish I could make him understand, too. He needs me, almost more than Hyuga does.” Sigurd looked down at his hands. “He wants someone to love him. Miang says she does, she says she loves all of us, but I have my doubts. I have heard her calling him-”

“Trash. Garbage. No good. Might as well be a Lamb…”

“I don’t understand. He will just act as an obedient dog…”

Jesiah closed his eyes. “All of us. The obedient dogs of Solaris.”

“I… was born free.” Sigurd said. “So it might be slightly easier for me to find where I left off. I can understand why… you might hesitate. Why the rest of you might.” 

“Yeah…” Jesiah mumbled. “I’m gonna miss you, man. I… you’re better than any of us up here.”

“We’re all the same.” Sigurd grabbed him in a tight hug. “Someday, you’ll see what I mean.”

Someday had been almost a year from that day, and it had began with an odd statement from Hyuga. Of course, Jesiah had been used to odd, what he considered intentionally obscurantist statements from him for a while, but this one just stood out. “The time…. Emperor Cain feels it is near. We have began a new project to create the ultimate fusions between humans and Omnigears and… everything. To return to God who has cast us astray…”

“Why’re you tellin’ me this? ‘Cause you know I don’t give a crap about God. I can’t shoot it, and it’s not here, so what do I care? And you know my stance on the Ethos. So what if it soothes the Lambs, it's a waste of our time and resources, we could just be upfront about it and-”

“That would be why I asked you…” Hyuga had whispered. “I have my own doubts, even with the Emperor showing me Merkava itself. This thing in there, it looks like a worm. With which we are all somehow supposed to become one? It seems to make no sense for our objective of dominance of the planet. To me, it seems as pointless as throwing oneself down onto that desert and getting eaten by worms.”

“Then what the hell are we doing? You want me to go with you to Merkava?” Jesiah sighed. “Look, things are changing around here and not in ways I like, but there’s nothin’ any of us can do about it. It’s not like I can overrule Kahr now - y’know he ranks me and don’t listen to either of us. Just Miang and that creepy blonde guy…”

“That ‘creepy blonde guy,’ as you put it… is in charge of my, no, Solaris’ long term plan. Has been for years… do you not know his name? It is odd, unlike us, he only has one. It is rumored he is an embodied Gazel, as the Emperor promises I may someday be. That would be Krelian…”

“Didn’t know we had a ‘man behind the man,’ with him,” Jesiah mused. “Thought he was just one of us who got kicked upstairs. So he’s-”

“Who we have truly been working for. The Emperor is a mere figurehead. He fears the other Gazel and that man… is the real power of Solaris. Which is odd, as he was, according to my research, once our mortal enemy, the commander of Shevat. Somehow, many years ago, he converted to belief in the Emperor and God… and even had his DNA edited to free himself of being a Lamb…”

“Uh.” Jesiah blinked. None of this made any sense, and then Hyuga dropped the stack of papers on the table along with a memory chip. “You are… you like to read as much as I. Do not tell anyone I gave you this, Jesiah. It is confidential. Gazel only, top secret.”

“The fuck .” Jesiah spat. “Of course I won’t, but they never said anything was hidden from Gebler, we are the top-”

“I rank you now.” Hyuga said. “And I want you to know what you are doing. I want to know what I am doing. Why I have to work with raw matter that used to be humans and demihumans, why I spend my days at the Soylent facilities now. We are recycling them as the trash they are, yet I hear the screams from the ones left live as Wels, it feels as if it goes to the very cells of my brain when they cry out, sometimes I will take my sword to them simply for peace…”

“Wels? Those monsters the Lambs have been complaining about and demanding something be done over? We keep going to Elru and Aquvy to get rid of-“

“We are not getting rid of them. We are dumping the unsuitable ones, then killing them off, in hopes of harvesting something of value to reprocess-”

“Reprocess-” Jesiah’s voice trailed off as he read through each page of the plans for the M Project. “Merkava Project To Resurrect Yahweh Via Assimilation of… What.”

“That was what I thought. The idea is that we all become as one to ascend into space once more, but could we not do that another way? I hear their screams every time I fuse them… and it… I wonder if I would hurt the same when my body fuses to Fenrir…”

Jesiah knew he had to measure his words - for all he knew, for what he almost certainly knew, this was a trap. Hyuga had been trained to do exactly such , so trusting him was its own fool’s chance. “It would hurt a lot. You’d regret it, too. Imagine never feeling the touch of a lover again. Never enjoying your beloved peaches and cream and green milk tea. You… you must find another way. I will leave it at that. And you can tell them… I’m turning in my retirement papers as of this next week. I’ve had it with Gebler.”

Hyuga’s eyes went wide behind those gilded lenses he wore. “You… I never thought you would…”

“I’d advise the same for you. You… don’t need this. This place, these people. If you retire, you could live a happy life yourself like I plan to with Racquel and Billy…”

“Actually…” Hyuga leaned in. “I was not lying when I said I rank you. The Emperor has chosen me… he even created a new rank for me to hold. The Guardian Angel of the Empire of Solaris…”

“So, is this when you kill me for being a traitor?”

“No, you… you speak the truth. Plus, you have mentioned retirement, not treason. As long as you do not fight us or ally with Shevat or the Lambs, I have no personal issue with you. If anything… I am obligated to you as my senior and my instructor. So… friends.” Hyuga grabbed for his hand. “Just… I beg of you, do not force my hand.”

Jesiah smiled at him and shook his hand. “Friends. We Elements always stick together.”

“Speaking of which… if you do go to the surface, which I have no idea why you would desire to retire there amongst Lambs,” Hyuga sniffed, a disdainful sniff, before he continued. “Please find whatever news you can of Sigurd. I miss him. He… I know he was one of them and returned as they do to their helpless bleating but… he did not feel like an ordinary house pet to me.”

“That’s because he wasn’t,” Jesiah snapped. “He was the same as us, even if he wasn’t born up here. And if I hear you calling him a pet again, I will punch you in the face, Guardian Angel or not. He loved you, and until you got in as deep as you are now, you’d have never called him that.”

Hyuga seemed as if he were barely holding back tears. “That is right… you are right. I… this place changes people. I…”

“Keep it in mind. Where you are now, it’s too easy to lose yourself. Especially when you wanna. I’ve done it for too long.” Jesiah smiled at him. “Why I’m done.”

Officially, Jesiah did put in his retirement paperwork, and made the motions of a quiet resignation from Gebler and the official notice that aside from Kahran Ramsus, the Elements were now disbanded.

In private, he took those documents that Sigurd had given him, and began to construct his new identity for the ground. For one, he didn’t want any of his activities known or suspected in Solaris, and for two, he knew no one in Shevat or on the ground would accept Jesiah Blanche from Gebler as one of their own, immediately at least.

Racquel had known the entire time, been the most supportive wife anyone could ask - she had agreed to stay in Etrenank a couple more years while he scouted a safe place below, one where Solaris had no interest or influence, because that, at the time, had been his plan.

He wondered if that had been how Sigurd felt, as he left Etrenank, according to what Kahr had said, running off toward a Gear and stealing it for the flight to the planet below.

Although he was on a legitimate transport to the ground, he still felt uncomfortable - if anyone recognized him, he knew it would be an issue, and he also felt less than comfortable with only one gun with no reserve ammunition. 

But he was leaving Solaris, for the first time in his life, and he knew he would never come back.