M e a n w h i l e ,
2 0 0 0  y e a r s   i n   t h e   f u t u r e . . .

 

Within two thousand years, the Earth falls prey to the imbalance of hot heads with nuclear testicles and a point to prove. By that day, we shall suppose that humankind has been moving out into the Sol system. Evolution can’t do much with an ornery species in a mere two thousand years, so human still shoot themselves in the foot, they just do it with gravity waves instead of bullets. So of course, our insanity came with us.


–X. H. Arbodor, The Exodous

 

Saturn

Saturn orbit, Year Standard 4157

Xaq Hobesian Arbidor burps in his dormitory room. He can smell the vacuum of space reaching for him. It’s pulling at the walls, almost breathing though the plastic, geodesic space. A moment later, the walls are contracting in on him, It happens ever so slowly, but relentlessly, just beyond the edge of direct perception. Xaq is aboard an artificial moon, the University of the Rings hive campus, in orbit around Saturn. Xaq suspects the weight of academe is squeezing him out like a mild—but not unexpected—case of gas. This was academe, intent on blowing him out into the galactic real world.

Sometimes he thought the only thing that really kept him from being blown out of the University of the Rings was pressure from the outside worlds to keep him in. He stared out through his coveted half-meter window, across the striped plain of orange, green and a hundred other dust colors that spread ten thousand miles to horizon’s edge, still one of the greatest set of rings in the galaxy. On the right was the black inner solar system and the little world that had cradled humanity more than a thousand years before. At the center was the sun, but Sol had never been much help from a one and a half billion kilometers away. Down 45,000 kilometers below was big, gassy Saturn, where tourists from Jupiter came to gawk at real rings. But it was out there—beyond the local planets to the interstellar spaces where even light years were inadequate to measure distance—out there, no one clamored for another Ph.D. in sexual anthropology.

Xaq was a local boy, born planetside in Saturnopolis, a hundred-kilometer egg that was once the crowning glory of a terraformed city. His mother had often reminded him how lucky he was to have such a fine school as the University of the Rings in his backyard—and that would feel obliged to take him. Xaq’s grades kept him out of Nucleus U or the other prized schools, so he made do with the University of the Rings and its uninspiring freeball teams. Xaq thought anthrosex could send him gallivanting around the galaxy investigating civilizations. So far he was a professional student, still hanging out in the Sol system where little remained besides history. Xaq had been out to Jupiter a few times. He had spent a few weekends zonked out on Mars.

Through all that, he had somehow attached a string of letters to his name that concluded in Ph.D. But even in the fortieth century, the market for philosophical dissertation was marginal. Xaq was moving on to Maven with designs on getting his AE! (Acknowledged Expert!) before his first Saturnine birthday, when he would be nearly thirty by Earth reckoning. An AE! could get assignments across the stars. All a Ph.D. was good for was a little office space and a job standing in front of a few hundred students mumbling at his shoes, like the dead-ended professors all around him. These days, Ph.D. was barely a step above lab assistant. Goal-directed they called him. Maven was just a boundary line to cross on the path to AE! The walls were a more treacherous obstacle.

All he needed now to get his Maven degree was completing his Equivocation. Xaq Hobesian Arbidor had to say something notable about human sexual anthropology. Xaq had nothing to say. Could the walls hold back thousands of years of academia?

For the past six hours he had studied thousands of magimages of Mother Earth. His dissertation had analyzed the twenty-third century Earth exodus from social, political, economic and ecological perspectives.

He kept looking. Xaq paged through history reports about that same old Earth on his screen, yawning, forcing his attention to pick up something, anything, scanning for biological quirks, generating a list of medical anomalies, until he came up with an alphabetical list, and right there at the top was one spelled in capital letters: AIDS.

 

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