It is the Age of The Corporation.
The common man toils under the watchful eye of the elite and their enforcers. The rules of law have long been replaced by the politics of profit. For many centuries, the Covenants of Commerce have ruled mankind, from boardroom to factory floor, from mine deep to fertile field, upon the battlefields of heart, of mind, and of distant star.
The dark ages of feudalism have returned with capitalistic ferocity. There is no peace among the stars of mapped space; business is booming.
Impoverished workers drown in debt, laboring for subsistence pay. Mercenaries of every kind wage war, loyal to the banner of any company willing to meet their price. Everyone in existence is locked in a ceaseless struggle for economic dominance and survival. Scavengers and space pirates swoop in to loot what they can from the forgotten and unprotected.
To be a human being in such times is to be one among countless billions in a civilization spread across a vast universe, all ensnared in the same blood-soaked web of capitalism, most doomed to be ground to dust amidst the gears of progress.
There are some people, however, those rare few, who rise from the ranks of the faceless masses, to make their mark upon history.
This is one such tale.
1. DEATH AND TAXES
Samuel Hyst had been standing in line for nearly four hours, just behind his lifelong friend Ben Takeda. Both young men silently and grimly waited their turn to speak with the graduation administrator.
Now eighteen standard years of age and despite his academic scores being rather average, he had qualified for graduation. He was thankful for it. No one wanted to remain in the Citizen Academy for any longer than they absolutely had to.
Though he had few aspirations beyond graduation, he was positive that accruing more debt while he figured out those aspirations was not the most prudent choice. Each year spent in academy added another year of debt servitude for the average citizen who would, at best, go on to earn an average wage.
Samuel did, however, have a penchant for curiosity, and he often felt he was missing something in life, craving it even, though he couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that he sought. Like so many others in his age group, Samuel had been raised completely within the public system provided by Grotto Corporation, the company that was the ruling body of his world.
Samuel Hyst had been born on Baen 6, one of the eleven planets in the Baen System, which was owned and operated by the galaxy spanning mega-corporation known as Grotto.
Every other planet in the Baen system was simply named Baen, with a numerical modifier, the company obviously being more interested in efficiency than imagination when it came to the naming of planets.
The same held true for the names of people, machines, and many other elements of Grotto society. The primary business interest of Grotto Corporation was the exploitation of raw materials, ranging from gases, minerals, metals, or in Samuel’s case, human resources.
Due to the company’s focus on the base materials of industry, Grotto was one of the largest and most wealthy of the trade empires. It was also one of the most grindingly brutal with regards to its citizenry.
The masters of the corporation had created a debt-based society in which the citizens were charged by the corporation for compulsory education, health care, and housing requirements.
Citizens graduated from their compulsory education with anywhere from fifteen to eighteen years of accrued debt already logged against their credit lines. Including the costs of housing, health care and the everyday expense of being alive, resulted in subsistence level living conditions for the majority of the population as they labored for the company trying to pay off debt that would always outpace their wages.
People reached retirement age with little or nothing to pass on to their children except their own remaining debt, resulting in their offspring inheriting old debt from family members while accruing new debts of their own. These institutionalized debts were known as life-bonds.
In front of Samuel, Ben shifted impatiently. Always somewhat of a malcontent, he consistently found himself in trouble with academy authorities as a result of his inability to keep his mouth shut about any and everything that bothered him.
“You know there are elite families that exist at the top of this whole mess who inherit money, reserved spots at university and trade schools, even whole factories and planets, man,” Ben whispered harshly over his shoulder towards Samuel as the two of them waited for their turn with the administrator. “What kind of jobs are going to be left for normal folks like us if we can’t even get enough of a credit line after academy to buy training?”
Samuel nodded in agreement, partly out of habit, as it was the only way to get Ben to quiet down, but also because he actually did agree with his friend. While there were many trade empires in the universe that ruled their populations through debt-servitude, Grotto was unique in that the ruling class elites were also the skilled working class of Grotto society. Granted access by their extreme wealth to the expensive post-academy education, many of the elites of Grotto were trained in industrial trades and took a fierce pride in that fact.
“It’s like this bloodline workforce system keeps the low born down and the high born up,” grumbled Ben, whose demeanor had been growing increasingly sour the closer he got to the administrator, as if the eventual and inevitable fate of having his life-bond sealed was pushing him to new heights of philosophical fury. “If we can’t get trained for any jobs with wages that can get us out of the life-bond, then how are we going to get our kids into training either? It’s like I’m still a damn teenager and I already know that my kids are going to end up just like me. We’re trapped, man. Even your dad, I know he taught himself all that metalwork, but since it’s not accredited he still can’t get high wage work.”
“Ben, just take a deep breath and let’s get through today, we’ll worry about social injustice tomorrow, okay?” Samuel placed a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder, “And you’re wrong about my dad, he did some off-book fabrication for the forge steward at Assemblage 23 last month.”
“Seriously? What kind of credits did he pull?” asked Ben with an astonished, even if slightly admonishing, expression on his face.
“No money, just favors. Dad got him to set me up with a Tier 3 position on the line. It would have taken me something like five years to get a gig like that on my own.” He and Ben both saw that the person in front of them was finished and it was now Ben’s turn, “I promise you, buddy,” Samuel said, “if I ever get a chance to pay it forward, you know I’ve got your back. Like I said, let’s just get through today.”
Ben set his jaw and nodded grimly, then stepped into the booth of the graduation administrator. Samuel couldn’t hear what was being said on the other side of the sliding booth door, so he looked around the building to see how the rest of the lines were doing.
The domed building had been temporarily re-purposed for the graduation ceremony of Academy 427 and already nearly two thousand graduates had been processed.
Something slamming into the sliding door of the booth in front of him drew Samuel’s attention back to the line just before he was shouldered aside by a large man wearing riot armor.
The man was one of the proctors, the guards who maintained crowd control during graduation ceremonies and on the streets of Baen in general. Samuel had heard that sometimes graduation day was rough. There was something profoundly upsetting about the actuality of having the life-bond presented to you that weighed heavier on young people than the mere concept of it.
As the door opened, Samuel could see that Ben had bloodied the administrator’s nose and was screaming at him. In short order the proctor jabbed Ben with an electrified baton and the youth collapsed in a heap.
Samuel cursed under his breath, knowing that several nights in the youth detention center was only going to put a negative mark on Ben’s life-bond, which would make him even more undesirable to the various labor chiefs.
Inside, the administrator dabbed at his nose while another proctor arrived and the two men hauled out Ben’s unconscious body.
Samuel swallowed with nervousness and stepped inside as the administrator impatiently waved him in. Samuel followed the administrator’s silent invitation to sit down, and then the sliding door closed behind him.
“Samuel Hyst, son of Saul and Marion Hyst,” said the administrator, more to himself than Samuel it seemed, as he thumbed through the files on a handheld data-pad. “Let’s see what we have on you.” He murmured to himself as he read. “No inherited debts, as of yet. Both parents still living, median test scores. Ah yes, here we are, aptitude assessment scores.”
Samuel blinked in surprise. “I’m sorry sir, when did we take aptitude tests? I don’t remember that exam.” He leaned forward in a half-attempt to read the administrator’s screen.
“Oh, it’s not a single exam, young man. Data for the assessment is gathered from your first day in academy onwards, with additional data points coming from your family history, hab-block of birth, and medical record ...