For what?

For a world slowly finding its way back from the brink. For the toxic soup outside the domes that had begun to show the first signs of recovery. The few surviving fish stocks were beginning to move away from mutation, growing fat on algae blooms capable of gobbling an atmosphere's worth of CO2. No, best not go there. Because no matter how greedy he got, there was no word to describe how absolutely crucial his father was. To home world. A memory several generations old for most of the fifty billion people out there, living their lives on distant planets, moons, space stations; wherever people who didn't live on Earth lived. Not even required learning anymore, now that Nova was the center of the universe. All roads led there now.

Mitch snapped back. The room was starting to empty; he was the last one still seated. And he really should be following the others, put in an appearance down the hall, grab some badly catered food and shake a few sweaty hands before he disappeared. But right now, he just wanted to go home.

So what if his friends were busy walking away from him? So what if they just didn't have that much in common anymore? Mitch gathered up his things and stuffed them into his satchel. Put himself on autopilot. On a good day he could fake a smile with the best of them. He could choke down bad sushi and bland sandwiches without so much as a grimace. But he couldn't do it for long.

Today, he couldn't do it at all.

No excuses or platitudes, he just walked the other way, introductions and networking be damned. It was pointless. Another six weeks 'till graduation, and then, what?

To say he didn't know was an understatement.

At least outside was a little more alive. Fellow students wandered on well-worn paths, lounged on benches and manicured lawns, shared space under flowering crabapple trees or on the steps of centuries old buildings. The dome was projecting a nice blue sky, did a pretty good job of hiding the ugly brown haze on the other side. Only on Earth could outside mean two completely different things. It could be clean and pretty, climate controlled and comfortable or a chemical stew so toxic you'd need full hazmat gear and a rebreather just to stay alive. All because the world outside was saturated with four hundred years of unregulated industrial pollution and the thousands of horribly toxic compounds needed to clean it up.

The natural healing cycle of one badly abused planet would take too long, millennia by the last estimate. His father was just speeding it up. Everyone called it the Process, tweaking the environment for optimal rehabilitation. A tradition at this point; it'd been a hundred and fifty years since what was left of the living planet was sealed in. Cities, lakes, generous patches of ocean. Billions of people stuffed into artificial habitats, so a moderately toxic atmosphere could be made deadly to every organism on the planet. The only things that could survive out there now were artificial; synthetics whose purpose, whose collective existence was defined by the trash they digested, and the clean air, water and pure elements they spat out after. They'd die off when the job was done; once the environment was clean enough, consuming themselves in one last act of sacrificial reclamation. Hard coded kill-switch, same thing that kept them out of the habitats. Air was too clean.

And they were about a tenth done, give or take a percentage point or two.

Mitch had only been out of doors once in his life, and that was enough. His father's idea to expose him early; to put him in an oversize space suit and trudge around in the muck outside. He shuddered at the memory, dug a hole in a dark part of his consciousness and tried to bury it there. People thought he was needlessly claustrophobic when it came to suits.

If only they knew.

The streets at the edge of the newly christened Kwan-Reinbrecht campus were decidedly low tech; people walking, riding bicycles; a couple of scooters. Mitch had to dodge around the more aggressive ones as he crossed. Buildings were jammed together, a mass of eclectic styles and colors, old, new, every possible configuration. And all horrendously expensive. Most of the affordable infrastructure was underground. The surface was reserved for ancient institutions, public buildings, public parks and the homes of the filthy rich. Only the trees didn't pay property taxes.

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