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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.


Chapter Text

His first memory had been walking the dusty cobblestone streets of the place he would later learn was Norn of Aveh, stumbling, falling.

His mother had picked him up in weak, trembling thin arms. “Sigurd… are you all right?” she had asked, as she touched the small wound, and it seemed to heal immediately. “You must be careful.”

It would only be years later that he understood the thinness, the weakness, had been that Shalimar was dying - at that age, not knowing that he would lose her in a few short years had been a mercy.

Yet, most of his childhood memories of Norn were there and were happy , despite his mother and the entire village being a poor desert town aside from, when, for reasons unknown to him at the time, King Edbart and his entire court would visit. His mother would tell him later on, that the king was his real father, but that it must be a secret, never to be spoken...

There had been other children he played with from everything from hopscotch and card games to war - something that, much later on in life, he would wish  only consisted of throwing sand mud at each other, until everyone needed to stand out in the late summer rains. 

And the weather, the scenery itself - the desert was, he had learned as he had grown and explored and played - not a bleak, hopeless landscape, but rather one where the planet’s strongest and most unique life lived. Everything had value in some way - from the sand sharks to the cacti to the sand itself, to the hard-earned water from the wells…

Those were memories he carried, that he held close even as he arrived in Bledavik as a squire, assigned to the tiny blonde child he had been told was Prince Bartholomew Fatima. “Never forget,” King Edbart had told him that day. “You are his protector. You are his squire, not mine.”

That had been as close to the truth that he had been told, at the time, but he felt a strong closeness to the child, as if he somehow knew some bond existed between them. He had watched Bartholomew grow over those two years, and had helped raise him along with the head butler of the castle help staff - Laurence Maison, with whom he had become close friends, almost seeing him as the father he never had, more so than his uncle who mostly took a distant approach to parenting.

In their own way, they were family in the castle just as much as he and his mother and uncle and cousin and the others in Norn had been. He, the oldest brother, although he couldn't ever tell anyone that he was Bartholomew’s half brother, Maison taking on the role of father that the king was too busy at first, then too sick, himself, to maintain…

Sigurd first heard the word “Solaris” then, at twelve.

“We allied with them for our victory over Kislev,” Maison had explained that night, as King Edbart’s body was prepared for burial. “I am certain they poisoned him, and have betrayed us. They are a dangerous place, a city above the clouds that sees us as mere farm animals. And this is likely not the end of their business with us. We must be alert…”

“Is everything in order?”

“Yes, tomorrow you shall flee with the prince and Marguerite to Nisan, they have agreed to provide shelter in case the palace shall be overtaken by either Kislev or Solaris. You do know how to care for two small children, correct?”

“Yes, Maison. Long enough to get them there safely, anyway. If anything, Marguerite would be easier to conceal than the young master. He already looks very distinctive, with our blonde hair, she just looks like any random baby.”

The entire palace shook with what sounded like a nearby blast. “They are attacking now?” Maison whispered. “I thought they would wait…”

“What are we going to do?”

“We defend the castle! Norn is closer than Nisan, I will send you out with our tribute to there. Kislev won’t bother with it if they’re taking us!”

Sigurd grabbed him in one last hug. “Please, live. If you must flee…”

“I shall. Discretion is the better part of valor, as I told you. We will meet at Norn once all has been settled. Live off the tribute. The villagers will know.”

With that, he ran for the back exit from the castle, and climbed between boxes of Ariberries in one of the trucks leaving for Norn. It seemed odd that Bart and Margie weren’t there - their nanny should have brought them? He was certain at the time, that somehow they had just gotten into another truck.

Norn was three hours from the castle by vehicle, he knew, and he kept time in the darkness on the pocket watch he carried. It was when they passed three hours into four that he began to worry, and finally risked climbing up to look out from between the boxes.

Nothing about this was right. This wasn’t Norn - instead it looked as if it were a military garrison of some sort. Kislev? Was our driver a spy? No… this is not even Kislev. It looks...weird. Like the flying saucer

The caravan pulled to a stop, and he ducked back down again to hear voices. A language, not Avehli or Universal Common… but one he had never heard before that point, that sounded as if it were harsh swearing for every word.

One of them began to unload the berries, and he knew he could stay hidden no longer. Running seemed like the best idea, but he had no idea of where he was and he knew from Maison that most militaries in the Aveh and Kislev areas killed those who fled, if they weren’t fast enough at seeking cover or getting taken prisoner.

He unholstered the revolver and threw it out, then unbuckled his sword belt and let it fall - the two weapons of an Aveh squire, now gone. Then, he held up his hands and waited.

“Didn’t know they were sending us a Lamb along with all the usual produce,” the person taking out the boxes sneered in Avehli. “The guard will take you soon. Stay, vile beast. And don’t eat our berries.”

“You stole them from us, why shouldn’t I?” He grabbed a handful. “If you’re going to kill me, at least I won’t die hungry.”

“It does seem you are a rather lively specimen. I assume you made your way here on purpose,” the guard said, and poked at him. “Or ‘someone’ issued orders after seeing the other Lambs from Norn.”

“What of-”

“It became a test site for our reactive weapons, when you started wandering too much for our taste.” The guard smiled. “You should be grateful you were spared such a fate.”

You killed-”

“So feisty for a pathetic Lamb. I didn’t, we did. We Abels, who hold the power of life and death over you Lambs. And we had enough. So Norn is gone.”

“You can’t even get the name right-”

“Shut up.” With that, the guard reached for something, and to Sigurd it smelled as if bitter almonds had been thrown in his face. He turned his face away, coughed, and glared as the guard ran away.

Someone else arrived in another hour, an overseer with a clipboard and lab coat, alongside what he recognized as an Aveh guard taken prisoner to translate. “You are a very special and strong Lamb. You will come with us. Even if you can resist a poison capsule to the face. That means you are exactly what we require for our subjects.”

He still wished he could run away, but it seemed better to play along for the time being. Even with his training as a squire, he knew he was a young boy with no weapons and only the ability to sense things, see things, that others didn’t - and at this point he saw no escape but following them.

It was a decision that, in his darker moments, Sigurd still wondered if it had been worth it, if he shouldn’t have just made a break for it and ran from the garrison…

The first thing they took from him was the gold scarab pocket watch from Bledavik, the next his clothes. “You should consider this a high honor for a filthy Lamb…” the Avehli-speaking prisoner said. “I will be recycled as soon as they have no need for me. You… will live. They do not like valuable subjects lost until they are done, and I have reached the end of my usefulness.”

“Why can’t you and I leave together? We could still run…”

“To where? We are already in flight. We dock in Etrenank in thirty minutes.” The guard closed his eyes. “I hear sometimes very special Lambs get gifted from the labs to a prominent Abel. If it had been me, I would lick my master’s hand every day.”

With that, the prisoner guarding him leaned close, his words a whisper inside Sigurd’s mind. “Shalimar wouldn’t be happy if you died in this place. For me, for us, don’t let them recycle you. You’re the last survivor of the Aveh nomads, the last one born with the gift without Ether. Remember that. I will have to administer this… when you wake up, pretend you remember nothing. Their technology to rearrange you can only work so far. You can only give them your mind if you want to.”

The stab of a needle into his arm, and his world faded into the waking nightmares that it would remain for what felt like an eternity.

He knew, faintly, when he was lying chained in the bed, floating in the sensory deprivation chamber, when the keepers of the testing lab occasionally did take mercy on him, to offer him food or to clean his body so it wouldn’t spread plague - something they seemed deathly afraid of, mentioning how it had wiped out so much of the layer they were operating...

Yet everything felt like it was unreal, except from the horrific pain with some of the injections - except in one of them, he remembered a quick stab from a shaking hand, a scared boy about his own age who gave him the anti-plague shot and then whispered an apology - then back to the fire burning in his veins, the faces, the voices that screamed in his head, which, after a while, he could no longer differentiate. Were they the others in this place screaming from their own tortures, or was it his own voice?

He felt it, too, the fast onrushes of anger and feelings he could not even give a name to, then almost instantly melting into a hopelessness so deep that he had to be restrained further, that his body was kept immobile so he wouldn’t try to escape in such a way again…

It became, to him, almost normal existence. At least I have survived one more day. At least I have gotten them to take off the chains. At least I can brace for the burning, make it back off if I rub my body against the tank at the worst…

And then, more. His gift felt more like a curse at the moment, to feel not just his own thoughts and bodily sensations but those of everyone else in this lab, his body so used to pain that it began to register differently, almost as its own pleasure… the screams felt one way, the peak of the latest injection another…

“Sigurd...look at me. Do you want out?” The question came in halting Avehli, as if the speaker were relying on a translation device, or had just learned it.

He had never heard those words before, never expected them. This had to be a dream, or a trap into being recycled. I am too weak. I cannot take any more. Norn and Fatima will die with me. He felt surprised at how weak his head felt to raise after this time… but then he had not eaten or drank for… how long? He was certain he had to be dreaming. Those words - very special Lambs get gifted from the labs to a prominent Abel- it had to be some sort of death dream, that these two men dressed in high military regalia stood there next to him. Nonetheless, he turned to lick the white-gloved hand that rested over his own filthy hand, and almost felt shocked at how happy he felt that hand wasn’t jerked back in disgust.

Did they change me to be like that? That I actually felt happiness from licking his hand?

He turned to the other commander, said something in what Sigurd now knew to be Solarian - he had trained himself in the language as difficult as it had been from the others in the lab - to speak, to think in it as an entirely separate thing to Avehli. 

“Whether he can say it or not, he does,” the other man said in an oddly accented form of Solarian. “Sign him out. Take him back up with you while I make the reports on this place.”

What? I am not dreaming?

“No, you are not.” The Solaris commander tapped buttons on the panel on his bed, unlocking him from the chain keeping him there, then pressed his thumb into his shock collar, unlocking it as well. “I am General Kahran Ramsus. Commander of the Holy Empire of Solaris. Somehow… your name just entered my mind. It is Sigurd, am I not correct?”

“It is…” The world around him still had this quality of unreality, as if he were walking through thick sand mud and could barely see, hear, think.

“I will carry you until you can stand. It may be a short while.” He could feel, and he didn’t know why, because by all accounts he should have felt terrified, but he felt safe, allowing himself to snuggle against this man. It was, he had to admit, the first kind touch of a human being in so long - even if it was that of one who didn’t see him as one and he knew it, and it hurt.

“Sigurd… do not cry. I do not know what you need, and it hurts me when you cry. Shh.” Ramsus held him closer as they got into the hovercar, then he turned to the driver. “Take us to my place. Call ahead and have my personal physicians from Jugend there. I am not having him in another lab or hospital, but he is in a very bad way. Experimental Drive… a partially successful DNA rewrite, a failed axonal rearrangement… God knows what else they put in him or tried with him, a Third Class rearrangement and testing lab...yes, I am aware that I have chosen a lab Lamb. Sigurd is mine , though, and I want him treated as well as I am. Understood?”

He knew enough to know that, itself, was part of how things worked. That if force didn’t or couldn’t work, the same objectives could be achieved via persuasion. If anything, he feared it would be more difficult to hold true to his desire to escape now that it had, in a way, been actually given to him. That he could have a far better life than the ground had ever promised…

I must remain on guard in this place.

Yet… he couldn’t resist the feeling of affection he felt for this man, Kahran Ramsus… something about him seemed different, though he couldn’t place exactly what it was. Nonetheless, he sat there with him in the living room of the commanders’ suite at Jugend… rather than just leaving him, as he found himself being examined, tested, once more…

And then the feeling of unreality slowly began to fade, the world began to take shape, the feeling of being drowned in sand mud with an increasing nauseated dread dissipated. For the first time since this, he felt almost like he had on the ground?

“I think that’s all we can do,” and while Sigurd understood Solarian he didn’t catch many of the words or terms. Malnutrition, dehydration, almost at the point of death, overdose of sedation, habituated to Drive of unknown form… “If you want your new pet to survive, keep him well-fed and with water. Do not overfeed too soon though, you will not want him having refeeding syndrome. And he will need an injection or inhalation of Drive every five hours.”

Ramsus nodded to them. “Of course I can keep up with that. Thank you for your work, and go see Requisition for your pay for the after-hours visit.” Then he turned toward Sigurd. “You are amazing. I have never seen eyes so blue. Were they that way before the rearrangement?”

“Yes, sir.” He felt that revealing more at the moment could be a bad idea. “The rearrangement fixed my hair the most. I like it.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie, he did like it, but it was a good distraction from how he had made sure to remember who he was, how he was, how he had broken the rearrangement.

“It will be a beautiful white once it is washed. Would you allow me?”

His heart beat fast in that moment - it was not as if, as a squire in Bledavik, he had been totally unaware of what could happen to someone in his position, and in fact, he had been told as much that when the prince matured, he belonged to him for all needs. And yet he had agreed, and felt almost shocked when all that happened was their standing together in a gilded bathroom, Ramsus showing him how the shower worked, and then leaving him alone.

Looking back on it, Sigurd had actually wished that he had forcibly taken him at the chances that first day - that would have made it so much simpler. He could have written him off, written it off as yet another abuse from Solaris, from its highest military officer himself. Another reason to make a break for it the first chance he had… and not a reason to stay, the bond he later understood had been made by Solaris itself to be equally harmful, Abel and Lamb, master and pet…

Instead, tired, feeling sick once more, he had flopped onto the bed next to Ramsus - who already slept, and who reached out in his sleep, and he had responded, curling up into those outreached arms, letting the general hold him to himself.

Sigurd had expected to work , from what glimpses he had seen of the camps on the ground, of masters traveling through Aveh - and Ramsus had laughed at that, a small smile forming on his lips, when he asked how to maintain the place.

“You are not a worker. If you were, you would be down there on the third class. You are a capable pet, and I think I want you to be capable of assisting me in battle. The records say you were in training as a squire in the Palace of Bledavik when Bishop Stein decided to place Shakhan in power. Two years ago…”

“It’s been that long?” Sigurd had asked, unable to hold back. “Do you know of anything?”

“Do not worry about it. You are in a far better place than that vile, hot desert. You are in the capital of Solaris itself, Etrenank. It is a privilege we rarely gift Lambs.” Ramsus reached out and patted his head at that. “Now, what would you wish to have for breakfast. I am going with some simple consommé and an egg white quiche.” 

Sigurd looked at the menu Ramsus held out and blinked. Nothing on here seemed like the food he had been used to on the ground - if anything, it seemed similar to food for babies and those with extremely delicate stomachs - lots of flavorless, spiceless, bland food. It did, however, seem better than the rations in the lab. “The biscuits with gravy and welcrumbls look good.”

The look of shock from Ramsus had surprised him. “Oh… those are so spicy. I have no idea how anyone could withstand such flavor.” He fanned at his mouth. “Pass me the cream for my coffee. It is far too strong again. I'm very sensitive for these things..."

That month had felt almost as disorienting as having been in the lab. Sigurd knew what it had been - the last month before the new year of training began at Jugend after the summer break. 

And he knew Ramsus wanted his pick of selection, his pet Lamb to be a worthy Solaris soldier. So, to keep the position he had somehow attained, he played along. From the emergency language lessons and programming to get his Solarian up to that of an average Solaris teenager, to styling his wardrobe and cutting his long messy hair into a neat, short proper soldier’s cut, to personally picking out his new sword and gun for training, to everything. In some ways, it felt similar to his training as a Bledavik squire…

In a way, it is merely switching uniforms.  

His first day at Jugend had seemed almost overwhelming - but he later realized that was the point , to make the trainees as pliable and open as possible, to make them need their instructors and fellow students and their sponsors. 

And from the first moment, it was not an easy experience for him - everything from the dog tags on his collar being the metal that signified a Lamb, over the holographic diamondglass Abels were allowed, to the white wool coat he had to wear over his uniform in dress, to his slightly odd speech from the language chip still integrating… 

He found himself sitting alone at the lunch hall that day, almost afraid. The Abels hadn’t actually physically fought him yet - if only that he was taller and stronger and most of this year’s Abel class seemed to be Ether specialists - but it wasn’t very comforting that the only reason he had not yet been beaten up was that he could dish out far more in return, to an average Solarian kid on the Ether user path.

What he hadn’t expected was a boy his own age, who seemed as slight as any of the Ether users at that point but, as he recognized it from looking at himself, obviously so from having been starved for too long, walking up to him and sniffing him. “I heard Lambs stink. But you do not stink. This is interesting.”

It took all the patience Sigurd had left to still his need to punch this rude, intrusive person, even if it would earn him a demerit and no affection from Ramsus once he arrived home. He nonetheless turned to him and whispered through gritted teeth. “Manners,” he hissed as he read the name tag. “Manners, Ricdeau. There are protocols even for us pets.”

The Abel boy’s eyes went wide as he stepped back into a defensive stance almost as if he expected to be hit, and seemed to cringe. “I… I am so very sorry! You just… something about you makes me so curious! You stand out… me!” He seemed almost ready to cry. “Please do not tell anyone I was rude! I already have ten demerits for talking out of turn in class and the only reason I have not been told to leave is that His Highness himself sent me here-”

Sigurd had no idea why he reached out to hug him, to reassure him, but something seemed familiar about him and he felt that, in a way, they were in the same position, even if this boy was an Abel. “Now you know I don’t smell, right?”

“You are correct and I do apologize…” he said. “I should not have said that. People say I smell too, like garbage and I should have died in the plague…”

“I smell nothing like that on you.” Sigurd leaned in closer and sniffed deeply enough for the other boy to hear him. “Flowers?”

“It is rose perfume. I love the smell, ever since I smelled it in a shop, my first time in Arboth Plaza. By the way, my name is Hyuga. Yours? Unless you do go by Harcourt…”

“Sigurd.” With that, he smiled at him. “We still have an hour left for lunch. Although this food…”

“It is food, why are you complaining. In fact, it is indeed very extravagant compared to the rations of food we were granted down there.” Hyuga moved over his tray, piled high with creamed chipped meat on bread rolls, some of each of the savory and sweet aspics, and what looked as if it were a still squirming pile of something undefinable. “I am very happy with it.”

“Down where? Are you from the ground too?”

“No!” Hyuga almost choked on a bite of aspic. “Though… admittedly it does not make much difference. I am from the ‘worker bees,’ the Third Class… and the only reason I am here is that I created a vaccine for the plague, before it escaped into Second Class or First Class. His Highness found it impressive enough to adopt me… and sponsor me for this place. He wishes for me to become his personal caretaker…”

Sigurd blinked. “ That is where I saw you before! You were giving plague vaccines where they kept me! But how… you can’t be much older than I am-“

“I like to play with things. To fit pieces together. To me, assembling a Gear, combining animal bodies, reverse-engineering the structure of a bacteria’s means of circumventing the immune system… it is all the same. It is… an entire world.” Hyuga smiled. “True, most boys my age are still working on mere models. But you do know down there… none of us are even expected to live. So we can play with whatever we want. Weapons, live DNA, what-ever. Because we will die anyway. Except… I did not.”

“You definitely enjoy talking,” Sigurd said, laughing slightly at that. “But you are interesting. What’s that book you have there on your reader?”

“‘Galaxies Of The Known Universe.’ Do you not notice?” He pointed to the marks on the screen. “This book is only for Gazel. But… I will let you read it. Because you actually care, even if you are a Lamb.”

“So… it says there are more planets… than this one and its suns and moons? That…does sound weird.”

“And it says we all came here from Lost Jerusalem… as wanderers cast out of the paradise of God for destroying it… and that this was not our intended destination, but God chose to bring us here.”

Sigurd sighed and tried to change the subject. Even in Nisan, the religion of his birth, he had already found himself bored. “...So, what are your classes and professors? I have general education and Solarian civics with Medena Van Houten - she just got promoted to teacher. Just got out… the rest of the day is intro math with Reinhardt, and firearms safety, marksmanship, and gun battle tactics with… Jesiah Blanche.”

“You have him too? I have him after quantum mathematics and computational problems, taught by the Gazel itself.” Hyuga smiled so widely he seemed to be almost backlit with happiness. “Only two other people are in the class, but it is amazing. I have gotten the chance to learn directly from the SOL nine-thousand!”

Sigurd felt nervous as he had walked into the classroom for the classroom portion of “Firearms Safety, Marksmanship, and Tactical Shooting.” He, after all, had learned to fire a simple revolver, but that maybe a month before having been captured by Solaris. 

He noticed someone even more nervous though - Hyuga, as he shuffled his book bag, his blueprint stack, and more, to try to find something. “I… uh, hope Commander Blanche doesn’t expect us to take them out here, I think I left it somewhere-”

Sigurd gently put his hand on the holster on his hip. “Would it happen to be still in here?”

“Oh!” Hyuga nodded at him almost gratefully. “I was certain I had dropped it into my bag while trying to reassemble it. I wanted to improve my performance…”

“Have you ever held one before?”

“, not exactly, but I’m sure I could work with it. I already do work with Gear weapons…”

“Still, Hyu, the reason we are here is to learn about these.” Sigurd turned it over in his hand, not exactly thinking of where the barrel pointed-

“Harcourt! One hundred demerits for being a goddamn idiot with a gun! That right there is how we get ourselves killed!”

He turned around to see a tall man with short clipped white hair and the bearing and medals of a commander, the ones he had only before seen on Ramsus’ dress uniform. “Sir…”

“Don’t apologize. I’m assumin’ yer new an’ won’t make that mistake again, so no need for apologies. I’m Commander Jesiah Blanche. Your teacher for all things gun in this academy. Welcome to my class. It seems you and Hyuga there are my only special selections this year, and you two are playing with your guns like kids or somethin.” He cracked a smile. “That’s good. Some of the best soldiers take initiative and have curiosity. But not too much of it. Anyway…” 

A quick turn to the classroom. “All of you, take your weapons out, pointed toward the floor, then slowly raise them to lower them onto your desk, pointed at the ballistic gel shield, safety on. That is why your desks are arranged in the way they are. Do not do what Harcourt did there. If your gun is out, whatever it’s pointed at’s gonna get shot, at least by the time you’re done learnin’ from me. If it’s not, you’re either unloadin’ or fixin’ and that means assume it’ll have an accident.”

There was something Sigurd found almost attractive about Commander Blanche - his attitude and skill reminded him of Maison, or of the men of Norn he had always, always noticed. He seemed to have a strong confidence, and yet such a direct, rough way of speaking and…

Then Sigurd realized it, as the hologram screens brought up a standard issue service pistol and a long list in Solarian - which Commander Blanche clicked on to make a third display in Avehli. 

He treats me like a person, not a pet or a curiosity. To him, I’m just another student, not Kahran Ramsus’ pet comfort Lamb.

“For whom do we need that ,” Verlaine spat from his seat. “That nasty desert Lamb that needs a bleach shower?”

“Five hundred demerits for disrespecting my rank,” Commander Blanche snarled. “Go read our student guidebook on unit cohesion again. And we are learning Avehli this semester, since Gebler has a distinct interest in the Ignas desert, where most of our activities have been for the last few years. Did you not pay attention in your intro to war theaters class? You aren’t gonna make it to Gebler, or even beyond a first line private, without knowing at least one ground language to a degree.” He turned back to the screens. “We will go over the first rules of gun safety and maintaining control of your weapons. Ricdeau, what is the second rule?”

“Sir, that would be be aware of your target and what is behind it. It would be-” Sigurd leaned in and pressed his finger to Hyuga's lips.

“More than that. You gotta think like a box around the target. What you’ll hit if you miss high, what you’ll hit if you miss low, if there’s another person they’re using as a shield.” 

Somehow, he felt like he wanted that class to last forever. Nonetheless, the classroom portion and test was soon over, and Sigurd found himself standing in a stall at the range, again next to Hyuga.

“Call me Jesiah,” the commander said, as he handed him his headset and ear protection. “It’s gonna be loud as hell in here even with this, and expediency outdoes proper names in here and on field!”

Then he pointed to the three weapons on the side of the stall and spoke to everyone. “You draw on command for each one. I will make it simple for you this time - each will be called in order, left to right from your SL-1 laser guide service pistol to your SolUzi to your HS-50 sniper rifle, but by the end of the year, you will be expected to switch out with very little notice, as well as try other weapons if you come back for my advanced marksmanship class. Two hours. You’re judged on accuracy, form, observance of proper firearm discipline, and a couple other factors I know. Then we go to the Gear simulators for an hour and you get to play with the really fun shit, to get ready for live fire in Gears in three months.”

“One good shooter out of two special selections ain’t bad,” Jesiah had said to him, as they walked out of the range toward the Gear simulators. “You’re my first S rank in a few years. By the way, has Commander Ramsus been keeping up with your sword practice? I want Hyuga to join you two for training, since you’re already friends and I can already tell he ain’t ever gonna be good with a gun.”

“Yes,” Sigurd said. “He can train with us. Have him come by the training grounds in the morning. That’s when we go out to spar.”

“Have you defeated Commander Ramsus yet?”

Sigurd had no idea, at the time, why Jesiah had asked the question aside from being a bit overly friendly. “Nah. He’s still so much stronger than I am and…”

“Don’t put too much effort into it until the time is right.” Jesiah seemed to look down. “Equal power in combat means you’ve matured enough for bonding. We all do it, but I don’t want you showin’ up at the Gebler resort party for another year at least.”

Sigurd had almost let down his guard that year. He knew his escape from Solaris could not happen yet, for all he knew, he had nowhere to return, and he admittedly found himself almost enjoying this life, all the while being too aware that he didn’t belong from the snarled remarks, the way people spoke to Kahr, as he now called him, and not to him whilst they were out together, everything .

Yet… at the same time, he had to admit that Etrenank was so much more advanced and convenient than even Bledavik had been. That Kahr took good care of him, that Jesiah seemed to see him as an equal and a friend despite the years until graduation, and Hyuga…

In Sigurd’s mind, they had become fast friends and the best of friends. The more they spent time together both in and out of class, it had just naturally formed. Though, he found himself wondering if it was simply because Hyuga was curious about Lambs and had one to study, 

Soon, though, Sigurd realized it had been more, that he wanted, needed some sort of social interaction even if too much overwhelmed him. And that he was, for all the things he was good at, not very good at making friends. 

But he didn’t mind the incessant talking and odd concepts - it was more interesting than anything he heard elsewhere, and Hyuga did seem to have several lines on the hottest gossip in Jugend - even if he was the target of much of it for everything from never shutting up to showing up in a full dress uniform class in a floral print shirt and shorts to the glasses he now wore.

“You know, Medena and Erich are getting a divorce soon.” Hyuga said, almost laughing as he spoke the words. “Couldn’t happen to better people. I hate him. Called me a dirty third class worker bee who just got lucky when I had to go to the Soylent facility with him - and then he gives a Lamb his seed… I would never…”

“So you only like Abel girls.”

“...Actually even the Abel girls do not draw my attention.” A soft whisper. “I… um.”

“For once, you can’t talk?” Sigurd teased. “Aw, Hyu… don’t think too much about it. Someday they’ll match us both.”

“That’s right…” Hyuga looked at him for a moment, as if he were contemplating him. “Anyway! So! I have been assigned to work with something way beyond that mere student simulator Jesiah has us training in. You know how our simulator Gears teach us to use a user interface, and to walk with our pedals? While everything is by wire, there is also a point where the interface is needed. My project is to create Gears that need no controls but our minds…”

“With our minds? That sounds weird…”

“It would be far more efficient, the machine moves as if it is your own body.” Hyuga said. “It is only the first step too…” He reached down and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shorts. “Want one? They make me feel good. I don’t know if you would-”

Sigurd shrugged. Why not , he had thought. I am already a hopeless addict to Drive. One more thing should not be an issue. He took one, only for Hyuga to giggle.

“You have no taste. I am learning the refined habits of the people up here. Soon? No one will call me a worker bee.” He slipped his into a long holder before lighting it, and they sat there for a few minutes in silence, neither seeming to know what to say next.

“Get! Scram!” The voice, from Medena. “I cannot believe that after my civics and morals class - and you being in Doctor Ezekiel’s battlefield medic class, Ricdeau - that the two of you are smoking upon my property. I won’t give you demerits since school is out, but if I ever catch either of you around here again…”

It had been the day before the new semester at Jugend started that Sigurd had done it. The thing Jesiah had warned him not to do - besting Kahr in sparring - and it had happened by accident at that. Normally, their sparring rounds ended with his stepping forward, backward, duck his sword sweep to the head, swing forward low as he did to try to sweep legs, but then Kahr would snap into that stance and seemingly imitate his move before he had time to block.

This time, he had broken form and just jabbed forward not even thinking and somehow, he stood over Kahran Ramsus, with his practice sword sank into position in the training armor, registering what would have been a lethal blow.

And with that, Kahr sat up, panting in exertion and yet, a stunned, yet seemingly happy look in his eyes. “My Sigurd. I have never been more proud. You have… done everything I have taught you…” He reached out for him. “You can now hold my life in your hands as my knight…”

“You would trust me with that? I could, I almost-”

“Yes, you would have. The shedding of another’s blood makes a Solarian man. And even if you are my pet… you have shed my blood.” He took off the armor to reveal a small cut from the sword. “And now I know I can trust you with even my own body, because you stopped at this. Tonight, let us celebrate together.”

Sigurd found himself wandering the hall of the Gebler vacation resort, the Drive he had taken pounding through his body, he could feel his pulse everywhere - it was a secret planetside location and he wondered where it was and if it was near Aveh and if he could just leave…

He took the number in his wallet out and punched it into the communicator between land and Etrenank. 

Yet he didn’t want to leave leave, and… he closed his eyes to try to process everything, as difficult as the different types of Drive and the alcohol and everything else he had been allowed now made it. 

“Blanche home, this is Racq-Billy no don’t eat that it’s an ammo shell! Ahem. Racquel. To whom am I speaking?”

“Sigurd…is Jesiah home?”

“Oh, I’ve heard a lot about you. And yes he is home. Hey Jess, come get the phone, it’s one of your people.”

“I… we, it was...I was, he was…”

“So it happened. I don’t know whether you want congratulations or sympathy so-”

“Maybe both!” Sigurd screamed into the phone. “It felt good and bad and he let me be on top the entire time and I think I love him but I don’t know anything and it hurts and I need him again but I burned him out and he’s asleep and-”

“I think you’re not doin’ too good. When I run into you and Hyuga tomorrow, you’re both goin’ back to my place. You both kinda need, I don’t know, space, I guess. Cain is makin’ him too isolated from the real world, and Kahr… you need to think before you two do your next bonding session, I’ll say that.”

“Th...thanks.” Sigurd ended the call and walked back to their suite, and the sight… he wasn’t sure if it was the Drive or the emotions that had just been under the surface for the last year… but he bent down and kissed those pale lips… everything about Kahr seemed pale in a way. The Solaris ideal. Purity expressed in blandness… but what we have done...what we are doing here…

“Oh… Sigurd. You have returned… lie here in my arms. Let me pet you…”

“Do you mean, there, because I, because…”

“Of course.” A kiss. “Do you love me?” 

Sigurd could feel it as if it were his own question, the pain behind it… and as conflicted as his feelings were, he knew he did, in some way, and...this was the closest thing to love he could imagine in the moment.

“Yes. I do.” 

And that seemed to break the ice, the odd distance that had been there since their first meeting. “...That makes me very happy.” 

He’s… crying?

“You… you don’t think I am trash? Everyone thinks that, ” Kahr managed to say through now shaking sobs, and Sigurd found himself holding onto him, not certain of what to do or say next. “Miang does. You’ve heard her. I shouldn’t be alive-”

“I don’t think you’re trash.” Sigurd kissed him. “I… don’t understand why she-”

“I… must tell you something. About myself, about this body, about where I was myself until recently…” He sat up in bed, the sheets falling to his waist, his voice a slur from the alcohol and Drive. “I was an asymptotic clone of the Emperor. Miang… created me. And then she threw me away, just as our God threw us away! But I was strong… why would I not be? I crawled into the body of a lab tech she killed…his corpse became the building blocks for my new body. But… I will show her I am worthy…”

Sigurd had no idea what he was saying, and instead just kissed him again. “I’m here. Go to sleep…”

The strangest thing about having crossed that line was how little it seemed to change. So many of the other students, the few other than Hyuga that he became friends with - Helmholz, an Abel that had attached himself to Hyuga as a friend, but seemed more like he was just mimicking him, and had become his friend by extension, Anne, a younger Lamb that had entered Jugend this semester, others…

All of them, when the topic came up, spoke in hushed tones about how the world would change once one became a man, a woman…

For Sigurd, next to nothing had really changed that much - although the remover of the Limiter that curbed that effect of the Drive and of his body’s natural maturing was bothersome - now, it almost felt his body had a mind of its own.

He had moved in with Jesiah though, if only that while he didn’t mind the biweekly parties at the Gebler resort and occasionally spending the night at Ramsus’s suite, both of them had come to an agreement that it was better to live separately for the purposes of military discipline - when it was the two of them, together, they would party into the late hours of the night. 

“Oh! Sigurd! I did not expect to see you here,” Hyuga smiled at him, a brief smile of acknowledgement, before rolling his luggage to the side of the other bed in the Blanches’ den, which had been turned into an impromptu guest room. “You are moving in here, too? The Emperor said I need to understand First Class family life as it is… different… different than my own… was…” 

And with that, Sigurd noticed something. The bright smile, the happiness, everything was gone and Hyuga sat on the bed, rocking back and forth, his glasses shoved into his face and their mirror switch on, as if he felt doing so would hide his eyes. He didn’t speak, which seemed so unusual, and Sigurd tried to think of something, anything helpful. He reached for the box of tissues by his bed, ignoring the voice in his head that told him he would need them and sat it next to Hyuga along with a blanket and pillow, and quickly scribbled a note in Avehli.

“Hopefully translating this to Solarian will take your mind off things. Maybe tell me in time. And I’ll let you be now. - Sigurd.”

He placed the note next to the tissue box and left it there. If Hyuga didn’t want to talk about it, he didn’t want to force him, if only that he already knew . Jesiah had told him one day, about the plague outbreak, that Hyuga had been the unnamed boy hero that had experimented on his own body’s antibodies while almost dead. That had been what Hyuga had talked about, and when he had first met him, but Jesiah had added that he had made both the vaccine in that way and that his research also had pointed to a cure made from a combination of an ancient mold with a standard panalphasol.

If I had saved Aveh I would be happy, Sigurd thought as he stood outside. For having saved all of Solaris… he is sad? But why… I am certain I lost all of my family as well, why is he crying over it…it won’t change where we are now…

Racquel smiled. “How good are you with kids? I need someone to keep an eye on Billy while I run to the store. Just keep him away from all the guns and you’re good!”

Sigurd nodded. “I once took care of a prince. Billy shouldn’t be a-”

A loud bang echoed from the hallway and they both ran to the source. At least Billy seemed okay, and no one else harmed. Racquel sighed and quickly checked the rifle, unloading it and leaning it against the wall again before walking outside. “Stop leaving your guns unlocked, Jess, did you just hear what Billy could have done? He could have killed any of us because you forget you have a toddler now and he bumped into it-”

“I knew my way around guns at his age,” Jesiah snapped, and Sigurd thought it better to leave as the argument became more heated and make sure Billy wasn’t getting into more trouble. I’ll go through here and make them all safe. Though it will take me a day with all the guns he’s got.

“Siggy.” Billy looked up at him. “Big brother!”

“N...not exactly,” Sigurd said, then ran after him just in time to pull him out of the fountain after he jumped in. “Maybe think that through, kid!”

“Aww, you’re no fun!”

“And you think I am no fun? Here.” Sigurd reached into the bag still flung over his arm. “It’s a stuffed rankar! Do you like-”

Billy grabbed it immediately and waved it around, making what sounded like dinosaur noises. “I’ll bite you!”

“Haha, you think you will bite the great Sigurd, fighter of all dragons?” He waved his finger forward at the stuffed dinosaur, and laughed as Billy lunged it forward for him. 

It felt… almost right again. Almost as if he were back in Bledavik, just being the older brother to Bartholomew… and watching him smile and play and run about like this… is he even still alive? I must find out at some point. If he is not, I will stay in Solaris, as I have nothing else. If he is still alive, I… I will see what has become of him, and bring Gebler to his side to fight for him. I could convince Jesiah and Kahr to go for that…

“Gotcha nose!” The stuffed dinosaur was in his face at that. “You’re dead!”

“Let’s just say I’m bit.” Sigurd handed the toy back to him. “You’re what, three? Where did you hear ‘dead?’”

“It’s what we do to people!”

Sigurd gasped. “No, Billy. No, it’s not. I...hope not, anyway.”

The thing he remembered most about the day they were matched to their permanent Gears was how boring it was waiting around, before it went from boredom to terror.

Jesiah had arrived with them, as had Kahr, because both of them had somehow totaled what they had in a battle on the ground a few months before that day. Ramsus had gone first - Jesiah had told him it was because he could instantly match to anything - and that part had gone by fast enough, with him taking the Gear called Wyvern out of the hangar, as if it were nothing.

Hyuga had been next, and Sigurd had watched the monitors worriedly from his position in the waiting area - he had heard of the machines, especially the newer models with no “stop” between the mind and the machine like this one - going out of control. 

“I made this thing, why will it not sync…” he heard his voice over the intercom. “It should line up with my brain pattern and boot me into the interface…”

“Your mind is elsewhere, Hyuga.” Jesiah snapped over the intercom. “Set it to compensate for that. To not need constant attention, ‘cause god knows your mind’s all over the place.”

And with that, the roar of Fenrir starting up shook the hangar, as the Gear finally synced to Hyuga, and then it had been Jesiah’s turn, and Sigurd had spent the next two hours waiting before he finally walked out.

“What, none of them worked for you?”

“I can’t stand this controlled by mind shit. Makes my head feel weird.” Jesiah said. “And none of these got guns. That one there relies on tentacle arms and is a repurposed fixbot, that one there is for a melee fighter, that one’s got a kickass Ether machine, but it looks like it’s built for a girl and no guns.” Jesiah threw his arm over Hyuga’s shoulders - he was there next to him, Fenrir back in the dock. “You gotta make me a gun.”

“S...sure thing,” Hyuga said, and looked at Sigurd. “Good luck, it’s your turn! Which of the Omnigears do you want? Since you’re so close to Kahran he’s probably taught you so much about them! The only one here I made was Fenrir, though I also have worked on the Aerod project all of these last months! But don’t tell anyone I told you both that. It’s super secret and Miss Hawaa is supposed to get credit…”

“How much have you worked on it? I haven’t seen you in any classes except advanced cell biology with Professor Karel and the battlefield medic course?” Jesiah said.

“Uh, um… about that, I am, extremely sorry-”

“Ricdeau,” Jesiah snapped. “You are under zero obligation to kiss my ass. You have created our best weapon yet, and just because she’s the development counselor for all of you but me don’t mean she gets to take credit. Solaris is a meritocracy, remember that, all of you. I’ll see to it everyone knows you made the Aerods.” He turned to him next. “Sig… I would recommend one suited for a Drive user. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t help it. The repurposed fixbot has an autoinjector.”

That had seemed like a good pick, until he had awakened in the infirmary with what he knew was a badly broken leg. “Oh… you are okay! I was so very worried…” Hyuga awkwardly patted his hand. “Jesiah told me you were only unconscious from what they had to give you to knock you out…”

“What happened,” Sigurd remembered asking, his mind hazy and dulled, his body so heavy it barely moved.

“You set it to give you your average dose of Drive. Except the power that amplified to in a Gear made you lose control, that’s what they said. That they had to let you total the thing into a wall before they could pull you out, and you fought them all the way… you snapped your leg kicking one of the soldiers…”

“I...I was being swarmed with horrific monsters… I could only see red, red everywhere and I wanted them all to die…” The memory had come back as the room swam around him - the Drive autoinject engaged, the rush of power and confidence and rage then… everything before his cameras had distorted into red, all living beings in the room into horrific monsters… the monsters overtaking and surrounding him, the room going blank…

Sigurd had began to debate the merits of sobriety after that - everyone used Drive. Everyone drank while doing it to ease down, he had told himself, and he felt that was probably why he had no control in the Gear - he hadn’t had access to the whiskey he grabbed from Jesiah’s storage or to the pills he bought from the student who took advanced chemistry.

Except part of him knew it was too much. Jesiah and Hyuga would only take a small sniff before an intense training session or a long project… he injected every three hours by this point and started feeling the need around the two hour point. Even Kahr seemed to have a suspicion of the thing they had once enjoyed in their parties, limiting himself to one vial.

But at the same time, he told himself that if it was that bad, Solaris would not allow it. It was not as if they even allowed spicy food, everything from clothing to speech was so highly regulated…

And at least his broken leg had been healed quickly, something else he felt grateful for. He knew on the ground it would have been a month before he walked again, here it was a day.

Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. I could get used to living here and being like this, he had thought. Maybe they won’t put me on the combat track and...

He still felt lonely during the nights - and he found himself missing the way Kahr would hold him, would cuddle with him, and that one night every two weeks… felt strangely not enough, especially with the Drive pounding through his body. The idea came to him that evening - he would move the nightstand between his and Hyuga’s beds, and put them together to see what he thought of the idea. After all, it wasn’t as if he didn’t see him staring, even though he wondered if he knew why or what he seemed to want.

And that was the moment he realized it. Even before Kahr, he had never really noticed the girls in Norn or Bledavik, only the men, even at that point when it was admiration and curiosity - and now, with desire added to it… he could have any girl in Jugend he craved, there had been that one day he had accidentally walked in on Racquel and felt...nothing, but everything about Hyuga felt absolutely charged with tension, from watching him dress to their sparring together…

He picked up a magazine that fell out from under Hyuga’s bed as he had moved it. Split Decision - Hottest Solaris Armed Forces Women AND Men, the cover read, and he sat there on the bed, and tried to peel two pages apart, as the thought hit him why he had to do that… if he is not interested, I swear I am breaking into Ramsus’s quarters even if it makes me a needy helpless pet Lamb…

“Sigurd... What is the meaning of this?” Hyuga asked, his eyes wide behind his glasses as he sat his book bag and tool bag down at the door. “Do they allow us to decorate the room or-”

“I’m pretty sure Jesiah and Racquel won’t mind whatever we do here...unless it involves high explosives, then Jesiah probably would wanna be in on it.” Sigurd reached out for him, the Drive high giving him confidence he usually would not have had. “Please, Hyu… I need you. I need someone more than him...”

“It took you this long to ask?” Hyuga whispered back. “Ever since a couple of months ago… I...I have wanted to try it, to have the experience, and Central Command will not match me for security reasons due to my being close to the Emperor and Miang says I am not an objective and-”

“Do me one favor and hush.” Sigurd placed his finger on Hyuga’s lips. “I...oh shit I forgot something…”

“I must prepare myself. I will return in a short while.”

Somehow, to Sigurd, it felt different with Hyuga. As if they were exploring each other’s bodies and needs and desires, finding the things they both craved and enjoyed… with Kahr, it was him, a pet Lamb, being a toy for the general. With Hyuga… it felt more like their friendship had opened up into an even more interesting dimension, especially after that first time…

And, Sigurd realized, later into their relationship, as things had gone on with them as a couple…  there had been the night that he let Hyuga enter him, something he hadn’t even considered doing with Kahr, since Kahr ordered him on top, the words that came to his mind unbidden, as he lay on his back looking up into that intense gaze of concentration, trying to guide Hyuga, as he had never been on top and seemed so nervous, yet so attentive… “I love you.”

“Would you tell me that if I was not-”


And somehow in that last year when everything felt kind of wrong but actually kind of right, he had began to reconcile with the idea that he was not only in Solaris, but one of its highest ranking soldiers, and that if his former family and nation somehow existed this was possibly the only way to save them - to influence this place to their favor. Nonetheless, he had felt inwardly conflicted about the thought, but did nothing to show that - and it finally seemed whatever tensions between them were gone.

They had all gone to the Gebler resort together, booking out the top two suites, and Jesiah had mentioned that there was something important that needed to be discussed.

He had pointed to a set of form-fitting armor suits on a rack in the space the moment they arrived, each with an embedded holder for a gem necklace that hung with each. “From now on, we wear these. Any elite force needs to have its special style that everyone knows it by. And we, the Solaris Elements of Gebler, will be the most stylish soldiers anyone has ever seen.” He held one of the suits out to Sigurd. “You’re Fire. You come from the desert and you’re-”

“Shouldn’t you be fire?” Sigurd asked. “You like guns and explosions and-”

“Shaddup. I’m Earth, ‘cause I’m kinda keepin the rest of you grounded.” Jesiah smiled. “Though I almost did take fire. I kinda flipped a coin. But the other two of you are easier. Kahr, man… you’re like the wind in battle. Never seen someone better in a Gear or with a sword. You’re air. And Hyuga… you study any situation and mask yourself like it. At the same time, you try to be everything to everyone. You’re water. Water in a douchebag but water.” A loud laugh. “Now put on your suits. We’re hitting the bar together in them and then coming back here and taking them off. Now that we’re all on the same level…”

Sigurd changed into the suit, and couldn’t help to admire himself. The fabric seemed to mold to his body’s shape… and then he turned to look at the admiring gaze from Jesiah and Ramsus both, only to see Hyuga still struggling into his suit. 

“I… I hate tight clothes, it hurts,” he whimpered. “Why are we doing this?”

“To look special…” Jesiah said. “C’mon, Hyuga. It can’t be that bad!”

Sigurd glared at everyone else. “Can’t you tell he needs some space? Let’s go somewhere together, Hyu…” 

“Fine, you two, just meet us in the bar once he’s dressed.” Jesiah threw his arm over Kahr’s shoulders. “Lookin’ good. What do you wanna drink?”

“Some champagne would be nice. To celebrate.”

Sigurd stepped into the closest private space, the bathroom, with Hyuga, holding him closely to himself as he seemed to cry uncontrollably. “Hyu… I know you’re shy…”

“I can’t stand the feel of that against my skin! It is so tight and it feels as if I am about to be squeezed like a grape! Please…”

“...Would it work if something else balanced it?” Sigurd dabbed at his face with a towel, and reached for his glasses to clean them. “Try it again, but with the weight of your sword to make something to distract you from the tightness.”

The weight of the sash and katana scabbard seemed to console him slightly as he tried to fit into the form-fitting suit again. “Why...why are we…”

“The media. Jesiah and Kahran have both informed me that Etren News has been informed our new elite Gebler unit will be introduced. They’re building us up like we’re a band or something.” Sigurd brushed out a bit of hair he had let grow out. “No one told you, Hyu?”

“No one tells me anything,” Hyuga whispered as he held Sigurd to himself again. “Ever since His Highness selected me for First Class and put me into Jugend… I have obeyed and done what I have been told until you… until you became my best friend. Even then… I feel torn…”

Sigurd held him. “I’m scared, myself, Hyu. I have little more idea of what is going on here than you do…”

Once they stepped out of the suite, there was a photographer already there. “Both of you, strike a pose! The Water Element and the Fire Element!”

Sigurd leaned against the building for his, and watched as Hyuga drew his sword and stood in ready position for his. Good thing Jesiah and Kahr went ahead of us. Even if demerits mean nothing with us all being friends now, and we've all graduated…

The commanders’ bar was noisy as always, and Sigurd worried for Hyuga with it, as it seemed to be his first time in such a situation. He reached out for him only to have his hand swatted back.

“I liked sneaking into bars,” Hyuga said with a wide smile on his face. “In the hives, they are the only place of happiness.” He seemed to no longer be shy, as he walked to the bar and flashed his holographic glass tags. “I shall have something green.”

Jesiah laughed at that, a loud, bellowing laugh as if he were already drunk. “God, Hyuga, you ever ordered at a First Class joint? You don’t order by color. You order by drink name or taste.”

Sigurd realized he had better step in. He likes things that make him look like he belongs among snobs. He leaned in close to Hyuga’s ear. “Order the absinthe to start.” Then he turned to the bartender. “A Night Flower for me, and a round of snortable Drive for all of us.”

Jesiah seemed to change in that moment - the teacher, the father figure he had felt like past, now...Sigurd understood what he meant that they were all equals now, all elite soldiers. He slammed the tankard of beer that sat before him onto the bar, his arm loose over Sigurd’s shoulders. “C’mon over here, Sig. Drink with me, it’ll take them fuckin’ forever to make a Night Flower.” 

“I need my Drive first,” he said, and emptied the powder in the vial onto the bar, an illegal act worthy of execution in the Third Class where the very drug tested on him was forbidden for pleasure. Kahr, next to him, withdrew four golden straws…

Sigurd had already consumed the entire vial, and the relief, the happiness, the rush of rage and bliss, and then he looked up into their shocked eyes.

“That is enough for an entire squad,” Kahr sniffed, his words sounding disappointed as he signaled the bartender for another vial. “I thought we were all going to split it.”

“I fucking needed it!” Sigurd hissed, the rage and need overwhelming him in that moment as he pushed Kahr back onto the bar. “Pet me…”

“Not here! Not yet! That is private! Are you insane?” Kahr asked, his pale face seeming to turn an interesting shade of actual color and Sigurd licked at his lips...

Jesiah grabbed him back. “Sig, drink .” He sat the Night Flower from the bartender next to him. “Let it ride. Not like that , the Drive.” 

Sigurd tried to focus on the drink as he threw it back. His favorite, even if the Drive made the effects strange, and he relaxed slightly as Hyuga gently rubbed his shoulders. “You’re just a little too ready for tonight.” 

“What do you mean…” he whispered.

“Tonight is when we all bond… not you and I or you and Kahran.” Hyuga smiled, a seemingly happy yet sad smile. “I’m nervous. We have to trade off with each other and…”

“Your first time with anyone but me.”

“One could say that.”

“Kahr likes it when you’re in control of him…” Sigurd whispered. “It might be different for you since you’re… one of his own species though.”

Hyuga nodded at that and sipped at his drink. “What about Jesiah? Were you not doing it with him, also?”

“He’s never had that kind of relationship with us until tonight. I’m not sure…” Sigurd sighed. “Hopefully he is the same as always. Anyway… how much longer do we have to stay here…”

“Another hour or two.” Hyuga caught the eye of the reporter next to him. “Would you wish to interview me about my work with the research and development in the Solaris armed forces? I will tell you more than you ever wished to know, although you must keep in mind our clearances.”

Sigurd laughed and moved back to Kahr, the only other quiet one. Jesiah was telling the same drunken battle story of settling a war between two pirate groups working Ignas by fighting them both so they allied and somehow losing his first battle Gear in a sandpit in the process, and Hyuga was rather excitedly equally loudly proclaiming the virtues of Aerods over larger reactive weapons, describing every point of the design and why a limited blast radius was better…

“Bored too?” He asked, this time more discreetly resting his hand over Kahr’s and gently stroking his fingers.

“Mm. One could say I am. Jesiah has told this story to every reporter in the place and probably a couple of Shevat spies while he’s at it. Hyuga… I think Requisitions should get him a pacifier. He does not know how to read a room. And I have no idea why Miang did not join us. I wanted her…she said she couldn't bear to see me right now...”

“She probably ducked out knowing it was for the four of us.” Sigurd leaned against him. “Would you wish to get us started? Since… you are frail and will need time to recover before Jesiah and Hyuga are ready for you?”

“Drive really does seem to work on Lambs…” A slightly amused look. “Perhaps too well. But yes. We will pair off first. Even if it leaves the two of them with each other.”

Sigurd blinked his eyes open - somehow, he had lost track of everything, time, space, anything except the bed he was on and all of the memories of the lab came rushing back and he couldn’t take this anymore and then Kahr was stroking his face, seeming concerned.

“Did something happen? You were amazing…” Kahr idly let a hand trace his abs. “ That is why I crave Lambs. So much power and you don’t care but just keep going, and I cannot get enough. It is my forbidden desire.”

Sigurd grabbed for him. “I didn’t remember-”

“The Drive must have done something different. Anyway… Hyuga and I both had an incredible experience, I must say… Jesiah though? Pathetic. Too drunk to do anything with us. But I painted a face on him anyway. When I got my strength back after you and Hyuga...”

That had been when the desperation had truly began to take hold. Sigurd felt almost heartsick every time he looked at Hyuga, even if Hyuga had said it was fine, he had enjoyed that night and how he loved how rough Sigurd had been, he remembered nothing of it, whether he had been in control at all, whether he was using or being used, and it had began to eat away at him. Am I no better than those Wels we went out to kill, he thought, as they returned from an on-foot mission in Aquvy to assist the Ethos, a week after that night.

Racquel had been the first to truly notice, that day. “Sigurd… is something wrong? I’ve noticed you don’t play with Billy anymore, you’re isolating yourself… do you need to talk? Sometimes these Wels missions can get to you. They seem almost like us. Jesiah was really almost broken the first time one begged for him to shoot it…” She touched his arm. “Also, this looks really messed up.”

“They had to give me an emergency Drive stabilizer. I… uh… I was in the Gear and hit the autoinject too much, it just felt so good, so right, like I could fly…”

“I heard. You could have died out there...that’s very rough. I… retired for that reason, not just because girls are supposed to retire out at Lieutenant once we’re matched to someone of a higher rank.” Racquel smiled. “I had my ambitions other than… being a housewife. I had my goals. But… I got tired of killing. And the Drive… it isn’t safe and good. The experiments… they ended up having to recycle all of the testing labs into the Soylent facilities except for-”

“One.” Sigurd closed his eyes at that. He had never known it before, had kept it out of his mind for fear of actually thinking about it. “Me,” he said softly, trying to hold back the tears. “Is there a way quit? To make me not need this infernal drug?”

Racquel sighed. “I wouldn’t advise it. In Jugend, we were told that once one becomes fully habituated to Drive, the body can only withstand a slow taper to limited dosing. That quitting is so difficult, that you will become the sickest you’ve ever felt and the cravings can last for years. And if you give in even once, quitting will be as bad as the first time. Can you handle that? Can you handle a week of being in delirium, unable to feel anything but pain, unable to control your body and mind, needing the antagonist for at least a year after?"

“That’s where I’m at now,” he whispered, and reached out for her. “Help me. Please. I fear Drive makes Wels.”

“That has not been proven, but it probably does make you feel as they do, and that isn’t good.” Racquel threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “I… no, we will support you. Jesiah’s been concerned too, and Hyuga has asked me if we could all talk…”

At first, it had seemed almost easy. Two doses of Drive missed, and he felt as if he were tired, sleepy, coming down with the cold that had swept through Etrenank that year. The first cravings had seemed almost like the desire for a cigarette but no matter how many he smoked, that offered next to no relief.

Then the feeling as if his muscles were moving of their own account, his legs kicking out from under him as he vomited, over and over again until he blanked out and woke up, Hyuga in bed next to him but fully dressed and holding him, not standing off to the side. “Sigurd… please… don’t leave me…”

“I won’t… why are you thinking I will?” Everything seemed more stable in that moment, and he reached out to hold him as his vision turned a sickly shade of green. “You like green...I wish you could see through my eyes right now….”

“He needs the antagonist,” Hyuga said to Racquel. “His vision is becoming affected…”

“This will make it worse,” Racquel whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry, but we have to try to save your brain. I’ll let you sleep for the worst…”

Sigurd only wished those words were true. He couldn’t sleep, only feel like he was caught between sleep and wakefulness like back then in the lab, and everything hurt, and all he could do was scream, the room a tableau of blurred too bright colors, his body shaking with intense spasms he knew were coming but he could not stop or even warn whomever was tending him…

Somehow, he could feel warmth, hear voices though the words they spoke made no sense, and he reached out for the arms that embraced him, not caring whose they were. The images danced through his mind - his mother? That prisoner on the transport? The others in the lab? Kahr? Hyuga? Maybe Racquel? 

None of it made any sense, and when he finally did feel sleep forcing its way onto him, he knew that had to be the end…

Except it hadn’t been, and it felt so strange when he opened his eyes and… saw the world that had seemed to have dropped away forever, although he had a massive headache.

Racquel and Hyuga helped him to sit up in bed, and he blinked at both. “What the hell happened to me,” he asked in a weak voice, as he looked at the intravenous lines in his arms.

“You made it, is what happened.” Racquel smiled at him. “It’s going to be a while to build your natural strength back, but it has been four days. The Drive is gone from your body. It has made some neurological changes that… may or may not undo themselves in time, but… you can make do with the antagonist to step you down the rest of the way there. Eventually you’ll want to be off all of it, but… the antagonist won’t make you high or cause loss of control.”

That he was alive surprised him, but he felt thankful that Racquel had done this, that Hyuga had. “Thank you…” Sigurd said, and sat up. “Hyu… will you help me dress? I am still dizzy.”

“I will…” He seemed distressed. “Were you like this when we bonded?”

Sigurd hugged him closely, and debated the merits of saying the truth. “I think we both know what happened then. It was permitted…”

“Permitted…” Hyuga nodded. “But… never mind. Let me get you dressed.”

“First, get me something for this headache.”

Over the next three months, things just seemed different , without the cocktail of Drive and the compensating alcohol and cigarettes and sleeping pills and whatever else got thrown into the mix. 

In a way, Sigurd felt raw, as if his emotions and nerves had been peeled back to a state of painful newness. It reminded him of the time he had been burned in a fight with an Ether caster at Jugend except all over, physically and mentally.

Except he also, for the first time since he had been in Solaris… felt alive . Everything felt so sensitive but so new, the good moments not dulled in a cycle of highs and lows. Things like when he could get the ground food most people in Solaris loathed over their flavorless preferences, when he and Hyuga were together even if the memory hung in his mind of how willing he was to betray him…

Solaris was, at its core, about absolute obedience, and the more Sigurd saw of it, the more he tired of it.

“Mopin’ ‘round again?” Jesiah had asked. “Don’t see why. You and Hyuga both got a damn bright future ahead. He’s likely gonna be one of Solaris’s top scientists. Mebbe even the one to get us back into the stars. be damn honest, I wish we could put you on the throne rather than Kahran. He’s the rightful heir, or so Miang says, but she’s up to something a lot shadier than just wantin’ to save her family. If we all just hold together, we'll change things...”

“You knew?”

“You gotta be more careful with the fuckin’ bugs ‘round these parts, Sig. But… it’s a noble motive. Kinda a hopeless one, ‘cause I’m assuming reactive weapons were used everywhere. One thing I know is we put down Lamb rebellions… way too hard. But if I can find out anything, I’ll see what I can do. And…” Jesiah slapped his back. “You and me gotta go to Requisitions again. Try out our new Gears. We got an assignment to Elru, and we’re the only ones who haven’t live trained yet. Hyuga just finished my Buntline, and they want to try you in a few of our customs.”

Sigurd felt a slight sense of fear as he waited while Jesiah went through setting up Buntline. He saw the options on his panel: Aegisknight, Swordknight, Opiomorph, Skyghene. 

After five hours of trying each, the Gear crew looked at him. “Your brain and neurological patterns will not map to a standard custom Solaris Gear, even one with only some synchronization needed,” the man behind the panel said. “You’ll have no choice but to use a standard fixbot unit, and serve in a fueling and repair position until we can make one for you.”

He hated fixbots - after all, he had lost control in one. Yet he got into it, one of the last non-autonomous fixbot Gears, and… it worked well enough. He had to use the unassisted manual user interface, but it didn’t seem to be anything he was too unused to doing, and within an hour, it was assigned to him, as what he would take to the field in Elru.

He could tell something wasn’t right from the moment they landed. In most of the missions they had done to this point in Gears, things had already escalated to heavy weaponry or Gear combat from both sides, if not someone already having used one of the reactive weapons that remained hidden on the planet.

Here? Nothing, and they were even welcomed by the Southern Elru Defense Force commander, who had immediately gotten on the intercom. “You’re showing up! We’ve been overrun by Wels! I was hoping Shevat would send someone to deal with it…”

“We ain’t from Shevat,” Jesiah had said, his voice bitter. “And that ain’t why they sent us. Retreat and assume cover positions. I am a man of honor, I do not fight unarmed combatants! Our orders are to purge you Lambs, but I expect an honorable fight!”

The commanders retreated as they all stood there, and Jesiah got back on the intercom speaking in Solarian. “Sigurd, Hyuga, Kahr… just make it for show. Get drunk and fire off all the vulcan cannons into the air pointed out over the ocean. Stomp around a bit, then get out and fight one Lamb each so you get your kills and then we go home. 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-‘” Sigurd gasped audibly at overhearing that from someone he loved and who loved him, but he could tell that Hyuga wanted to impress just the same as he had at that night with Kahr and himself...

“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.” Inwardly, Sigurd almost cheered for Jesiah with that. If there was one other person in this place who had a disgust for unnecessary death and for hurting other human beings solely for their race ...

He moved his Gear closer to Buntline, then had listened and watched in absolute sorrow and disgust as Kahr 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!”

Seeing Kahr in Wyvern move toward the defenseless city ahead made him feel as if his gut had dropped to his feet, but the absolute heartbreak that left his eyes brimming with tears was seeing Fenrir charge ahead, sword in position and auto-battle mode engaged. “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?” Sigurd asked, surprised at how weak he sounded, that he had reverted to formalities.

“I can’t, Sigurd. Kahran has my rank too, and you know Hyuga wants to kiss ass to get his first combat medals. I know this disgusts you. It does me, too…”

Sigurd watched as the kill count ticked up on his fixbot’s screen, and finally turned it off. He could take no more of the knowledge of what he was a part of…

Jesiah’s voice, over the intercom. “Kahran! Hyuga! This is enough!”

Kahr’s came back. “They sent us in for a purge, Jesiah, not a party-”

“Well we fuckin’ got a party,” Jesiah snapped. "One hundred Gears onfield, reinforcements on the way-”

Sigurd closed his eyes and slammed onto the pedals to run into the field. I don’t care if I die , he thought. Either they’ll rescue me if what we’re taught is true and others can get away, or I….I leave Solaris in a coffin. 

He suddenly heard a noise so loud his ear protectors were worthless, felt heat and fire and pain like he had never felt before, the molten metal drip onto his hand that had been on his panel, smelled burning metal and oil and he climbed out, the massive hulk of Buntline in a defensive position as Fenrir moved back and lay on the ground so he could get in…

“You got him, Hyuga?”

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

Sigurd grabbed for Hyuga’s shoulder. “No. Please don’t. Don’t hurt me any more… stop this…”

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

Sigurd sighed in relief. His charge into the sapper field had worked, even if his plans had been simple distraction or death for himself - Kahr hated equipping tank guards, and that must have been at the back of his mind.

In a way, though, he wished he hadn’t come back from that battle. It seemed as if Kahr and Hyuga both treated him the same - which felt worse, he almost wished they had seen him as a Lamb saboteur and not as a Solaris soldier too weakened from everything…

On his side though, he felt like there was a wall between them. That both, as much as they claimed to respect his battle abilities and as much as they seemed to enjoy how well-endowed he was - that in the end he was still a pet at best. That if he wasn’t a pet , that he would mean no more to either than the six hundred he had seen before he turned off his counter.

Jesiah was the only one he still trusted, if only from what he had seen in battle and what he had felt - that he did not want to slaughter innocent people, just because those were his orders. And that he did see them as equal people , not animals to be managed.

Hyuga had finally seemed to notice that night, a month of their beds being separate again, of Sigurd trying to just keep things friendly again. “Sigurd… maybe the Drive did something to you. And this last battle really shook you up.”

“I still owe you one for saving me.” He smiled, his practiced fake smile. “And what was that thing you did to my hand? You grabbed it, focused, and the metal burn healed-”

“The Arcane ethers. They are taught in medical training, though my power right now is limited to healing wounds like that. If I learn and work harder, they say one can even heal mortal wounds…” Hyuga looked sad, himself. “I… wonder. Wonder why I am being trained to heal, if our purpose is just to kill and die.”

“I’m tired of it.” Sigurd whispered. “There has to be some reason to fight and to die. Something to fight for. I could not…” He began to cry. “Those were people , Hyu-”

“Mere Lambs. Not our-”

“What the hell do you think I am,” Sigurd screamed, and grabbed at the shoulders of the loose sleeping robe. “I am a Lamb. Would you kill me? You rescued me. You listened to me. What makes me different from-”

“You have become one of us now. You are a Solarian, even if born a Lamb, and not an Abel.” Hyuga seemed to smile. “Do not trouble yourself. We gave you a gift and we will never take it back. It would not be honorable-”

“And what about killing six hundred unarmed people is honorable?” Sigurd let go of his robe. “Whatever. It is not as if you are listening…”

“I am… I just cannot grasp this concept yet.” Hyuga looked at him, almost questioning. “The Emperor and Gazel would not have commanded it if it were wrong. We cannot disobey them, Sigurd, not if we want to change things for us…” He blinked behind the glasses, and then got up and walked to his bag. 

“Hyu, what is-”

“Oh. I did find something while I was working in the P-five today. You said you were from Bledavik, Aveh and asked me if I could find information? I remembered that… and I got curious, I was supposed to throw this out. But… you can have it. If it would make you feel less homesick.” He extended a hand with a memory chip. “It apparently still exists, although I have no idea why you want it. Maybe we should go there and check in with the new leadership, if there is a non-combat position for you.”

Of all of the things he had expected to see as he had popped that memory chip into the cube reader slot of his tablet, what began to play before his eyes left him more enraged than a full stack of attack and focus Drive ever did.

He recognized Shakhan from back in the day - the info on the chip when he clicked on it filled in the details. Bishop Shakhan, appointed as spiritual advisor to the Court of Bledavik by Grand Bishop, appointed ruler of Aveh upon successful assasination of King Edbart and all adult heirs. All minor heirs remanded: Bartholomew and Marguerite Fatima to care and training of Shakhan, Sigurd Harcourt to be recycled.

That was when he recognized Bartholomew, a bit older in this - not a toddler anymore, but still a helpless child, and then he saw the first whipping. Fuck you, Shakhan. I will kill you with my own hands, if it is the last thing I do, he thought, as he closed the file with the screen frozen on Shakhan’s face, scowling as he raised the whip.

He couldn’t tell Kahr how he had seen it - he had no idea where any of them stood with each other at this point despite being fellow warriors, despite the many ways they were together.

Instead, he thought the best way he could raise the subject, because, after all, they had made the Elements to fix all the wrongs in Solaris from within, was to phrase it as one. Which he did, as he laid there between black bedsheets, his head rested on Kahr’s chest. His heart seemed to have an odd, almost asynchronous beat compared to Hyuga’s or Jesiah’s… “You know… I have heard of some problems in Ignas. I think we should make this an Elements mission. You and me and Jesiah and Hyuga. We could show our power by unseating Shakhan and installing a new leader.”

“I would not advise such a decision,” a voice that sounded too kind for the words echoed from the closet. “Also? As your advisor I am disappointed neither of you searched your quarters for bugs or hidden persons because you were so desperate. I can get it from Lambs and trash like yourself though.”

Kahr’s gaze had gone from admiring to enraged in that very moment. “Damned traitor! I gave you everything and you run away?”

Sigurd felt as if he were frozen in position once Miang’s gaze met his, and blinked as he found himself on the street, his clothes in a neat pile next to him.

Then she was there. “Oh, Sigurd, you must be suffering the aftereffects of the Drive. It does deeply affect people such as yourself. You should get dressed and go home before the media reports on the crazed Lamb Fire Element.”

It took every bit of his calm to slink away, pretending drunken embarrassment. All the while, his mind was racing with thoughts of what the hell had just happened, what was happening, that he had seen a terrifying thing that he could not make sense of and said terrifying thing trying to pretend concern and being their advisor friend…

He knew in that moment Kahr would be of no help, and could no longer be trusted at all, and that Miang’s once friendly, maternal yet hands off for most of them presence now felt as if fingers of ice had curled around his heart.

He found himself walking, trying to process the events in his mind on his way back to Jesiah’s place - he definitely couldn’t live with Kahr now, even if that was what Kahr seemed to want.

That was where he ran into Hyuga, in the garden outside, as he stared up at the moon. “Oh, Sigurd. Is something the matter?”

Everything , his mind screamed, but he thought better of it. “Nothing, really.”

“Because I think you’re not doing well off the Drive. Miang just called the place to warn us that you were acting strange.” Hyuga sighed. “I am happy they were afraid to use it on me, after the first time when I talked for a day straight.”

“Yeah, I probably need some more of the antagonist.” He knew from that not to mention his plan to Hyuga yet - he still saw Miang as an ally. “Is Jesiah awake?”

“Already in bed. But you should talk tomorrow. Let me get you to bed, you don’t look good.” Hyuga reached out for him and leaned close to his ear. “If you saw something that made you want to go home, I will be so very disappointed… but… but I will not tell anyone. But the Emperor… I just want him to like me. He’s my father now…”


Over the next weeks, he had formulated his plans in his secret discussions with Jesiah: he would conceal himself amongst the harvest ships’ Lamb workers to go planetside, and try to make connection with whatever was left of the Norn nomads, who had scattered into the desert after the attack, and if he couldn’t do so, to find a Shevatian agent and obtain their protection. Otherwise, he had next to no plans.

The time had gone by almost too quickly… and it hurt, especially seeing how upset Hyuga seemed, knowing how upset Kahr had been at his betrayal, the last time he had seen Billy, and Billy giving him a book to give to Kahr… and Jesiah telling him “don’t die out there,” and handing him an edible paper card with the coordinates of some guns and ammo that couldn’t be traced back to him.

He would give that book to Kahr, though in an irony, he would leave that book less than a few ticks from where he was to pick up his weapons. He looked at the cover one more time as he dialed the number on the public phone - he had thrown aside his own and disabled the chips installed in his head to make tracking harder, although he knew if Solaris really wanted him,  they would find him. Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

“Sigurd here! Kahr had to go to the ER after screwing up his stomach, so he can’t come to the phone right now! And this is Hyuga, he’s probably at the ICU right now so please leave a message after the beep!” He kept my voice. No idea, he was probably too busy.

“Kahr, there’s something I want you to have. It’s in a locker in front of the Esagila Minting Agency.” He read off the code, then tried to hold back the tears. “I’d like you to take it, if you would. Later…”

He walked down the street and checked the locker, in which sat an ammo belt, two SL-1 pistols, and the key code to a standard issue flight Gear, an MK-11. “‘Cause a good soldier always needs several plans. And good firepower. -Jesse.”

Sigurd laughed to himself, a bitter laugh. He hoped none of it was necessary…

And of course, as such often happened to be, it was. Of course that person on the harvest ship had to tell everyone that he was certain he had seen Element Harcourt and that had led to the harvest ships being locked down, his having to sneak back into Etrenank and then make his way to the Gear launch dock…

He saw the guard and knew that guard was going to die by his hand as he drew and fired, he told himself there was no choice… and then he heard familiar footsteps, the boots he was so used to hearing, the clinking of metal sword and medals - and he thought he said something back to Kahr as Kahr almost shrieked, as he jumped into the Gear, set manual flight mode… and then he was in a dive for the planet despite having only trained for flight in simulator.

He felt overwhelmingly sick and assumed it was that he needed the Drive antagonist, a dose three times the usual...then four times, but he felt even worse, unaware it was from the gravitational changes… at least he could see land, but he also saw several Solaris Gears in pursuit and whirled around to fire on them, then he was falling, falling…

Of course they’d kill me…

He blinked open his eyes to the wreckage of the Gear and the dry, hot desert night he had remembered from his childhood. Somehow… he had survived. He had no idea how , but he wrote that off to things he would find out later as he checked his map and compass. At least I’m near the Aveh border. I could have crashed into Kislev and… been in D Block until I died so…

He began to walk, as he drank the water from his canteen and tried to eat a small amount of food - he felt slightly stronger from that, and at least it was night…

It felt as if he had walked forever when the village took shape, and the guard seemed to recognize what looked like Solaris clothes, and barked in Avehli. “Who goes there!” 

Another man recognized him, and he him in return. His uncle Mimli, who had helped Shalimar raise him. “Sig? Ahem, Lord Sigurd?”

“Sig will do. It’s been some time, Uncle…” he whispered. “I’ve come to request an unused mine, and a private army, for the sake of rescuing His Highness!”

“Absolutely, once you get some rest!” Mimli grabbed him. “You have heard of the reactive weapon attack! We’ve actually been planning our revenge against Shakhan ever since we lost Norn! But you aren’t looking too good. Let’s get you in at Old Maison’s inn.”

“Maison? He is-”

“Alive, and he worried you had been killed!”

“Solaris tried their very best, and I feel it,” Sigurd whispered as he staggered to the inn. 

Maison stared for a moment. “Oh, Sigurd, you have grown into a very beautiful man. I was certain my mistake had gotten you killed…”

Enslaved and tortured, and made into a pet… Sigurd closed his eyes. “It almost did. But… instead we must rescue the young master!”

“First, you rest and I am summoning the village doctor! You look as if you have gone through Hell itself!”

“That I have,” he whispered. “Heaven… is hell.”