Lord help me, I'm back on my bullshit.


Prologue

Marco lounged in his seat. Considering that the seat was hard, plastic, and standing at a height meant for someone a foot shorter, this was no small feat. His lounging was deliberate. If he forced himself to relax, the buzz of anxiety in the back of his mind would find no purchase in his body.

So he hoped.

His eyes, however, betrayed him to any casual observer in the café. They focused unceasingly on the datapad he had set up on the table. The support on the back of the touchscreen device meant that Marco didn't have to bend over to read the information it displayed. The left side was an endlessly scrolling program that scanned for breaking news on the Grand Line. No real stories had shown up in months; everything was about failed expeditions. On the one hand, Marco was comforted: no one had beaten him to some great discovery. On the other, he was disappointed. While the drive to explore the great unknown was at an all-time high, the Grand Line asteroid belt was simply too great an obstacle.

The right side of the datapad displayed Marco's IPEC messaging account. He had sent out a contract request to the IPSC more than a month ago, but no one had taken him up on it. The page automatically refreshed every twenty seconds. No new messages had appeared in the hour since Marco had begun staring at it.

This was, Marco reflected, about as productive as watching grass grow. But he had finished the rest of his work for the day—being an upper-level engineer in IPEC meant that he could pick and choose his responsibilities, and he'd chosen to be finished—and so had little else to do but contemplate how rash the decision to offer up a contract to the IPSC had been. Years had passed since his last voyage into space, and that had ended in disaster. Who was to say this one would be any different?

But something called him to the stars, the same thing that had compelled him to accept the position as an intern on Whitebeard's cruiser all those years ago. No one had thought the legendary IPEC pirate could be brought down; he was superhuman. And yet a wayward asteroid near the Grand Line had crippled their vessel, and Marco had been the only one to make it to an escape pod before the life support systems failed. Rescue crews had found Marco, starved and severely dehydrated, in the pod two weeks later. The limited recycling systems on the pod had converted his breath to water and oxygen, but that couldn't be maintained indefinitely, and Marco had been on the verge of death when the emergency response team rushed him to a medical bay. His memories of the last few days in that pod, alongside his rescue, were hazy. By all rights, the experience should've discouraged him from ever setting foot in a spaceship again.

And yet.

Marco sighed. His inbox dinged with a message from another engineer: the United Blues Marine Corps was launching another legal assault on them for "pirating" their technology. Marco fired back a response with the outline for their usual legal loopholes attached. The UBMC was persistent, he'd give them that. Despite the IPEC's status as a legal space exploration entity, the UBMC was determined to have a monopoly on the stars and so constantly looked for any reason at all to take the IPEC down.

It was tiring, honestly.

Marco's inbox dinged again. Expecting another email about the UBMC, Marco didn't process immediately that the sender's email wasn't an internal IPEC address. When he did, he was wary of a virus, but then he saw the extension and his heart leapt into his throat. That was an IPSC address.

Hardly daring to hope, Marco opened the message and took in the text with hungry eyes. Mental plans dusty from disuse began to rise again, and he smiled.

The stars were calling.


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