Harper walked across the stage, one of a line of black robe and mortarboard wearing students. He was finally graduating school after twenty three years. For all of those years he’d been in classes seven hours a day, six days a week, with two weeks off each January and July. It had been the same from kindergarten through college, although none of those distinctions were made anymore. It was just school. When his turn came, he accepted the leather bound portfolio case from the Dean of Study and moved off stage. There was no shaking of hands or words of congratulatory encouragement. He was handed his folder and moved along. The portfolio did not contain a diploma, it contained the bill for his health and education accrued in the twenty seven years of his life so far. Standing off to the side of the corridor, he opened his case and read the bottom line, just the same as virtually everyone else had done. He owed the government, actually the contractor known as the Consortium of Life Corporation, the tidy sum of two million three hundred and forty six thousand dollars and eleven cents. He looked at the decimal point and its eleven cent value and mumbled you gotta be fuggin kidding me! He had graduated 99th in a class of three thousand, not a lowly accomplishment but neither was it stunning. This meant that he could deduct one-third of his class placement in percentage from the total bill which translated into a deduction of 33 percent, leaving him the debt of a mere one million, five hundred and forty six thousand dollars and 7 cents. Seven cents, gotta be down to the penny with the corporate mentality so prevalent in society. When things were run by the government in the old days, it rounded up or down, always coming to a bottom line to the dollar. None of this baloney about pennies. Harper thought it was kind of funny, the term ‘pennies.’ There was no such thing as cash anymore anyway, just credits –positive and negative. Yeah, things in government had changed a lot.
The old concepts of the Magna Carta, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights had all been nullified in the year 2046 with the election of the highly conservative Marcus Buffet. His family had, for some generations now, been in the elite top tier of financial security. To put it in more common terms, he was rich, and rich in the way of old money. It was the new leader’s heartfelt belief that taxes and society should not be forced to bear the costs of education and health care, and when an equally conservative minded planetary congress was elected, an entirely new system of economics was born. It would be each individual’s responsibility to pay for their own lives, freeing government to deal with global trading tariffs and import-export treaties and planetary protection. Thus it fell incumbent on everyone to excel in school, their only salvation from ending up in perpetual indenture. Of course, like the sharecroppers of early America, the indentured never were able to pay off their debts, even when the “payment” for labor was in high numbers. They were charged for literally everything during their employment, from their home, to food, to working materials and clothing, all necessarily purchased from the Corporate Store, and at usury grade prices tagged with corporate taxes and high interest rates. Even the air they breathed had charges associated with it, along with fees for the removal of the gasses they exhaled as a part of the breathing process. Humanity and philanthropy de damned, when those emotions were in play they clogged the flow of business and the powers that be had no time for that crap.
Three quarters of the planet’s population was in perpetual indenture, and any debt they owed at the time of their deaths was automatically transferred to the surviving spouse, or to the children of the debtor. Along with fees and interest payments on the transfer of course. There were some who bristled at the idea of literally being a slave to a caste system based solely on wealth and mildly bolstered by education. But the wealthy got the kind of education that permitted high grades from the testing process that would, on educational completion, determine the course of the rest of their lives. The wealthy remained wealthy, and in fact were able to increase their wealth because where taxes had one time been gauged against income and paid out to society, now society was taxed to pay the wealthy. Those who fared badly in the system and who made the mistake of expressing their umbrage found themselves sentenced to prison-like planets where the level of exertion and dangerous working conditions resulted in death in a fairly short period of time. This, of course, ended up loading their hapless heirs with the costs of recycling the corpse and the fees to process the death records.
Slavery was no longer defined by violence and chains, instead it was meted out economically, a situation that perpetuated an endless vicious circle that continued to saddle successive family generations with crippling debt. The only way out of the seeming black hole of financial servitude was enlistment in the military. The off planet wars raged between the various breakout colonies established in an attempt to create more humanized societies, and the life span of the average space marine was a mere ten months. Of course, if they perished in the line of duty, all debts were erased, freeing the youthful offspring of the crippling debts otherwise added to their already insurmountable total. It never really freed anyone from being in debt, only 1.3 percent of the world population enjoyed a debt free life.
Policing departments were another fatality of the new society. Private security and private security forces were all that stood between the preening rich and the unwashed masses. But to qualify for security work required that you come from the high echelons of the plutocratic top tier of society. In short, the game of life was rigged, and that caused the private security forces to earn their high wages by waging an effective war on the less fortunate. Prisons had given way to the right of private security to ‘fine’ those who transgressed their employers rules, this often resulting in the offender being hustled off to an indenture colony –slave camps. Harper was considering this as he stared in shock at the amount of debt he accrued and mentally calculated that while he was not among the hopeless, it would, nonetheless, take him a full decade to pay off his bills if he joined the military and turned back three fifths of his wages to the Debt Adjustment Corporation, the oversight organization for debt.
His reasonably high scores did qualify him to enter the military as an officer, should he choose to take the courses (which,oddly enough, were free to those who graduated with a passing grade). As an officer, one could choose what type of duty they might be assigned, and in that way could choose research divisions and avoid the deadly fighting which claimed so many lives each year. He sighed deeply and closed the portfolio and stood there looking depressed. After a few moments, a friend wandered by, a friend who was one of the few with their own personal vehicle, and he wangled himself a ride to the head recruiting offices of the Planetary Navy. A branch of military service which only five years ago eschewed their last sea going ships in favor of even larger and more populated space-faring battleships, cruisers and tenders.
After a ten day evaluation period in which his physical and mental condition was assayed from every imaginable perspective, he was finally granted status as an Associate Major, meaning that on completion of his studies, successfully of course, he would assume the full rank of major and be sent off to take charge of a contractor company in the employ of the Planetary Navy. If he was successful in his studies, on leaving his debt would be somewhere under one hundred thousand dollars, and he’d have an opportunity to pay that off in the first two years of actual service. Continuing his service then by doubling his enlistment contract, he could leave the contract military not only debt free, but with credits in the bank. A tidy sum to defray his costs as he sought out a civilian position that would virtually assure him a minor role in the Plutocracy.
He considered his graduation day and the commission it had guided him into and he decided that life wasn’t really all that bad. He felt somewhat aloof as, on leaving the recruitment building, he paused a moment as those students who scored lowly on their studies were rounded up for shipment to one of the new space bodies being readied and terraformed for human growth and exploitation. Better them than me, he though to himself.