Chapter 1

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Three days of the same droning voices, the same antiquated slides, the same congratulatory speeches. Mitch Karman couldn't hide his yawn. He was bloody exhausted, and had one piece of advice for whoever was dumb enough to take his place as conference bitch next year. Run. Run as fast as you can from these musty halls and mustier academics.

Before they swallow you whole.

He really had no idea what he was doing here, much less why he'd wasted the last four years in a discipline that'd been dying for decades. Fear of change? Cold feet? Seemed everyone else had the presence of mind, an epiphany of self-reflection or enough blind luck to find love for what they were studying. All to prepare for that magical time when working all day was all you ever thought about.

He yawned again, turned it into a closed mouth grimace. Better to look stern and intent than bleary eyed and bored. In his defense, today's speaker was just shy of a hundred and thirty years old. As for his subject, a comparison of the hydraulic properties of two and a half thousand-year-old cement to samples just half a millennium old, that could have used a little work. Riveting it was not. Didn't help that the old fogey could destroy each and every career in the room. One of the quirks of a department dedicated to the study of miscellaneous historical facts; bestowing so much power on their most...experienced academics. Nice way of putting it. Mitch knew it, so did everyone else currently fighting to stay awake.

He flipped open his Phab, checked his mail. Most people had their networks installed sub-dermally, one of the few legal implants under Unity law. Those who didn't usually wore them in an earring, necklace, wrist band; some unobtrusive trinket. The only sign of an interface would be a slight discoloration of one of their eyes, a few fingers twitching phantom commands or some strange expression that just didn't fit the circumstances. Like talking to no one in particular or laughing out loud when you were alone. But people did that anyway.

He carried a heavily modded antique around, an aesthetic choice that made him more like his grandparents than anyone his own age. Just liked his tech on the outside, where it didn't involve having one of his eyeballs hollowed out.

Nothing from Cairo yet.

Not really a surprise; he'd been waiting for the last couple of weeks for an inevitably irate Piss off before I call the cops on you. As for the rest...yup, ditched again. No surprise either. He'd never been the compelling one, so the prospect of heading into the core for the latest screening and a communal meal wasn't in the cards. Unless the idea came from someone else. Then they'd be all for it. Social politics. He just wanted some real company; no synths, no VR, just honest to goodness human company.

There was an audible sigh of relief when, finally, the good Herr Doctor Professor ran out of material and shut up. Mitch clapped, more to join with the rest than any appreciation for the lecture, then squinted and blinked when the lights came on. The hall was cavernous, could seat a couple hundred at least. All they could manage was thirty people, only a handful under middle age. It was depressing.

Times like this, he wondered why he'd ever chosen this study of obscurity in the first place. As a discipline, human history was alive and well. But the real money was in the stars, had been for centuries. Chronicling the great explorers, their voyages and discoveries, that was where anyone with any sense ended up. Focusing on twenty first century history, and in particular the growing social and economic tensions of the latter half of it, well, Mitch saw plenty of stuffy rooms, musty suits and ever smaller gatherings in his future.

He could wonder, but of course he already knew the answer. Because his father was who he was, because his mother was who she was, because his whole family was cut from the same freaking cloth. Except him. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, environmental scientists. Dad. They called him savior of the oceans. And on Earth, that wasn't just an honorific. It was twenty years of late nights and weeks away, missed birthdays, distant, emotionless contact, old movies and a gut level fear of not being good enough.

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