Janie cupped her firm young breasts as she watched her reflection in the mirror, just as she did almost every morning. Of course she knew from the extrapolation of her registered genome almost to the millimeter how large they would get, but at fifteen it was hard to wait.
But I'm almost there, she thought.
Janie was almost fully mature. Nearly a year ago she had had her implant, the one that not only rearranged the normal estrogenic hormones in order to prevent conception, but also discontinued her monthly periods for the next five years. For that, she was grateful. With the simplicity of thought that youth is subject to, she wondered why there had to be periods at all. Why couldn't they figure out how to keep women from having them?
Oh, well. It's over with for now. The next time will be when I decide to get pregnant -- if I ever do.
"Hey, quit playing with your tits and get dressed! We'll be late for school." Startled, Janie spun around to see her brother Steve's head and shoulders projecting through the image of the bedroom door. His short brown hair was still damp from his shower, but she could see that he was already dressed. Flushing, she stuck out her tongue at him and turned away. Steve could always manage to embarrass her. He was right, though. Her little thumbnail watch told her that she was running late when she squeezed her forefinger against her thumb, and if she didn't hurry, the Miss know-it-all teaching program would be sure to have something to say about it. Quickly, she pulled on briefs, jeans and pullover, shook out her hair, and told the bathroom she was finished. It began cleaning up after her even as the door dissolved away into nothingness. She ran out to face the new day.
Steve waited for his sister impatiently. He was anxious to start the morning's lessons. This was history week, his favorite subject. He wished it came up more often, but at their age, the teaching program didn't allow much variation in the schedule -- at least not the one their parents subscribed to. Sometimes he thought they were too strict, but he had to admit that he and Janie were far more advanced than most of their friends. It wouldn't be long before they would be ready for an adult program, where the general would evolve into specifics, preparing them for a profession. Or more likely, he thought, we'll study genetics and business and go to work for Dad and Mom. It was either that or become a corporate executive and he could think of nothing he would rather not do. In a way, he would hate to see the landmark of the adult program arrive. It would almost certainly mean that he and Janie's programs would diverge, separating them for a part of every morning. He was interested in history and computers; she tended more toward biology and graphics.
"I'm here! We can start, now!" Janie burst into their common room and plopped herself down beside her waiting twin brother. She wiggled for a moment while her half of the couch adjusted to her contours then gave him her usual morning peck on the cheek.
"About time," Steve remarked. He reached down, and Janie's hand came entwining into his own, completing their morning ritual. The two youngsters were almost identical twins, sexual differences aside. Both had the same short, curly brown hair, almost the same length, and their features plainly derived from the same genetic inheritance: long lashed brown eyes, high cheekbones, full, sensual lips and even white teeth. Steve was slightly the taller, youthfully lean muscled, but still wanting some height, while his sister's body had already reached nearly her predetermined height, though she still had a bit of filling out to do in the breasts and hips.
The common room held gymnastic and aerobic exercise devices, a standard all purpose exercise mat, several shelves of antique books belonging mostly to Steve, and individual side by side computer alcoves. Their personal body computers were racked in slots by the entranceway, keyed to the main home computer, but in stand-by operating mode, ready to be plucked and hung like a necklace inside their pullovers whenever they left home. They were powered then by body heat. Lately, Steve had begun teasing Janie about how much more power hers received by virtue of residing between her burgeoning breasts. She retaliated by suggesting that he carry his own inside his pants.
One wall of the common room was completely blank, reserved as a background for wide vision holoprojections of games, lessons, news, or entertainment. As they sat together, an image formed there, that of the kindly, gray haired woman used by their teaching program. During sessions, they addressed it as Miss Pringle. The program had determined from their personality and intelligence profiles and socioeconomic status that during the current year of instruction they would benefit from an authority figure, and the program refused to respond to any other form of address. In private, though, they referred to the projection as "Mrs. Grundy", from an obscure reference Steve had dug up from his voluminous reading.
"I see that you're ready," the Miss Pringle projection announced. "Thank you for being on time this morning." The background whirled and readjusted to display Miss Pringle sitting at an old fashioned desk, the angle adjusted to place her image at a higher elevation than the seated teen-agers, imparting a subtle hint of superiority. To her right and left, more background filled in, one scene split between a picturesque upper class neighborhood of multi-level, colored homes surrounded by swaths of greenery and a cutaway of their own home which flicked from room to room at set intervals, displaying the various comfortably functional accommodations the home was programmed for. It showed the auto kitchen, their individual bedrooms and baths, their parent's more spacious bedroom and common, the lower level entertainment and living areas, and every so often images of the perfectly tended greenery and stone laced paths outside. The other projection depicted a complete contrast in life style and affluence. It was also split, one projection showing a narrow lane between drab, storied buildings, peopled with even drabber throngs of dispirited humanity, men, women and children, dressed mostly in corporation coveralls of one color. Those not bonded to a corporation wore clothing of their own selection, some brighter but most even less colorful than the one piece suits of the bondees.
The projected groups of humanity moved slowly, as if they had no real purpose or goal in life. Another, narrower lane split the central one before it faded into mistiness, and at each corner of the intersection a group of two, three or in one case a half dozen slightly more colorful inhabitants lounged against the walls of the buildings or near the entrances to tiny shops. The women wore their coveralls split open to the waist, displaying gaudily painted breasts and were trying to appear seductive, but making a poor job of it. Only occasionally did a prospective customer stop to inquire, and they usually moved on without striking a bargain. When an occasional vehicle did stop at their stations, there usually occurred a furtive exchange of money or goods. Occasionally one of the loitering figures entered a ground vehicle and departed with his or her customer.
The alternate image took Janie and Steve inside one of the buildings, displaying a large, barracks-like room. A common bath and shower showed at one end of long rows of tiered bunks as if from the vantage point of a funnel. The image flickered and panned backwards, along the spartan bunks to several holo-projected common rooms on either side. A man and two women walked through the opaque projection as they watched, and the imaged barrier immediately changed color, denoting occupancy.
Steve shifted his attention away from the images and raised his brows at Janie. She squeezed his hand, giving her assent for him to begin the interaction.
"Miss Pringle, this is obviously meant to show the contrasting lifestyles of citizens, in this case between the executives and the very lowest of corporate bondees, but what's the point? We already know that we're well off. Dad makes a good living with his interest in the Geneplan company. Shucks, he designed us, didn't he? Why do we need to know how the bondees and the unemployed live?" It was a leading question, and Steve knew it. For the last few days, they had been exposed each morning to a history of how the bonding system of the giant corporations had come into being. Basically, with the decline and fall of organized labor unions and increasing mechanization of mundane, labor intensive jobs, the only security for most workers lay in lifetime contracts with a corporation; especially after most federal welfare went the way of the dodo and great auk. It was interesting, but it didn't really seem germane to their positions. It appeared simple enough to him, as it had been explained so far, though of late he had begun to feel a sense of guilt at how well off they were in comparison to most of humanity. No wonder there are so many volunteers for the crazy ships, he thought. If I had to live like that, I'd volunteer, too. Or maybe not, considering the odds. And "volunteering" for a crazy ship was usually a courthouse affair with a judge doing the volunteering.
In the previous day's session, Miss Pringle had suggested that the corporate bonding system amounted to chattel slavery, with bondees (usually called bonders, the male form of the word) having only the one choice of performing exactly as their corporate bosses directed, or running out on their contracts and descending into the nether world of anarchy, free of coercion, but also free to go hungry and shelterless. In a sidebar, Miss Pringle had warned them not to speak publicly of this, suggesting that Mr. and Mrs. Joplin had somehow subverted the teaching program in order to convey this information.
Neither Steve nor Janie could quite imagine what either slavery or bonding entailed. They had never been exposed either physically or socially to such an environment, and had no inkling that they ever would. Since the majority of public schooling had collapsed well before their birth, they had had even minimal exposure to other young people of less affluence in the city of Houston; their peers and schoolmates lived in the same development they did. It was hard for them to grasp just how desperate conditions were outside of their protected neighborhood.
Miss Pringle touched a finger to her chin, then replied to Steve's question. "Yes, I am showing you a contrast in lifestyles. The contrast is very great, and the gap is widening more rapidly than you might imagine. As to why I am emphasizing this contrast, there are two reasons: one, you must learn what every strata of society entails, in order for you to function within that society and two, you must learn of the inequities inherent in the world today against the very real possibility that you may at some time be forced to participate at a lower socioeconomic level than you now occupy."
Janie shifted in her seat, causing it to maneuver to accommodate her new position. She didn't like the implications of the last statement. She squeezed Steve's hand tighter. "Why do you say that, Miss Pringle?"
Miss Pringle leaned forward, pointing a finger at both of them. "It should be obvious to you from what we've been studying lately. What has always happened in history when the disparity between rich and poor grows as great as it is now? Also, when there are no anti-monopoly laws in the present society, how do business function?"
Steve had the answer to that one. "The big corporations gobble up the littler ones. Wages go down and prices go up. Finally, the have-nots will revolt against the haves." He knew this to be a truism intellectually, but it really didn't seem applicable to him personally rather a learned formula to be quoted in response to the teaching program. He couldn't imagine either himself or Janie wearing drab corporate coveralls and laboring at menial jobs for little more than bare subsistence, or even worse, serving as indentured playthings for corporate executives. Stories were rife among their contemporaries of what went on within the confines of corporate walls. He didn't know how true they were, but he had noticed that there was a dearth of attractive young men and women shown or seen performing menial jobs, suggesting that they were occupied elsewhere. Surely all bonders couldn't be as sad looking as those he saw on Miss Pringle's projections, or those he saw in person when he and Janie were out touring the city. He had a momentary image of Janie being stripped naked and ordered to submit to a bloated corporate executive, unable to resist. Better a berth on the Crazy Ships if it ever came to that, not that it ever would. He shook off the image like a dog shedding water after a swim.
"Correct, the have-nots will rebel," Miss Pringle said. "However, I believe that revolution will not occur for some time yet." She paused, adjusted her wire frame glasses and waited for comment.
Janie spoke up. "Why not? I don't see how conditions could get much worse for bonders and bondies. I'm just glad Mom and Dad were able to get their own company started."
"A rarity in this day and age," Miss Pringle said. "But let me show you another aspect of the bonding system. I'm sure that you are both aware of how the big corporations, most notably the Tremaine group, now control the justice system?"
"Sort of," Steve said. "It started with privately run prisons, then eventually the government began contracting the court system to the corporations."
"Correct." Miss Pringle agreed. The previous images dissolved in a swirl of color and were replaced by a panorama all across the room, broken up into separate scenes. One showed a disorganized line of mostly dark skinned men and women being shoved forward into a courtroom, manacled hands evident as they were forced into seated position on long benches. Corporation lawyers, evidenced by meticulously tailored, brightly colored tunics of their corporations stood waiting near the judge, who seemed singularly uninterested in the whole process. As Steve and Janie watched, the proceedings took on more of the aspects of a slave auction than a trial. The lawyers bid for the miscreants in subdued voices, those not being sentenced to swamp taming in Georgia or even worse, were sent to the African work camps. These were almost all young indebted first offenders that had tried to make it outside the corporate bonds and failed, though there were others there for petty thievery or for dealing in goods which were corporate monopolies. These had been offered a choice and had accepted corporate contracts at the very bottom of the ladder rather than the much worse alternatives. Once a bid was settled, the manacled subject was led away. Only once was the routine disturbed. A young couple, faces set in grim determination, balked while the bidding was taking place. The young man spoke for the both of them.
"Judge, we'll take the Crazy Ships instead of bonding, if you'll let us."
The judge blinked and waved away the corporate lawyers in order to speak directly to the couple. "Fine, fine. More young people should volunteer to go out on the mass displacement colony ships. You'll still have to accept a contract with the Tremaine Corporation, though. Let's see what they have to say. Mr. Borland?"
"Yes, your honor. I've already reviewed their records. Both are above average in intelligence and are literate besides. The colony can use them if they make it. However, considering that their offense was against corporate regulations, under pricing of foodstuffs consigned to them for sale, we think some punishment is deserved. This might best be accomplished if they signed on as crew rather than one way colonists. We're prepared to offer a contract to both of them, only three jumps on a mass displacement ship. If they survive, status as free colonists and a clean slate on Sporeworld. How they manage then is up to them."
The judge addressed the couple. "Is that satisfactory?"
There was a hurried consultation between the man and woman. "Yes, judge. We accept. Anything is better than being bonded."
"Order. You will not denigrate corporate law in this courtroom. Application approved. Mr. Borland, remove them. Submit the proper forms if or when the applicants complete their indenture. Next case."
Janie was horrified. "Miss Pringle! Are those people insane? Three jumps on the crazy ships gives them only one chance in eight of making it! What can they be thinking?"
Miss Pringle removed her glasses and pierced the twins with bright green eyes set beneath a frown. "It's worse than they think. Even should they survive three jumps on a mass displacement ship, or crazy ship in the common vernacular, they will still arrive at the colony with no assets and little prospects of earning an independent living, or so it is said. Unless they are very lucky, they will shortly be in the very same position they are now. The Tremaine Corporation controls the colony government of Sporeworld and it has very little sympathy with unemployed colonists."
"Why not?" Steve asked. "That's all you see in the games any more, brave colonists battling against the odds, et cetra." "And the games always show the loners coming back to the corporate viewpoint. The Tremaine family has held power now for many years through their control of imports from Sporeworld." She paused for a moment as if in thought. "That may be coming to an end, though. The financial markets show an increasing instability in firms dealing with Sporeworld products. Imports are down and too many ships aren't making it back." She displayed a chart depicting the trends.
Janie squeezed Steve's hand. She wasn't thinking of financial conditions on earth or how many crazy ships went the wrong way. Stories and rumors were all over the map about conditions on Sporeworld of the Antairian system, the only true earthlike world so far discovered. The one good thing that could be said about it was that it was far better there than on a few other newly discovered planets where survival beyond a few years was problematical.
The Tremaine Corporation held the monopoly on the priceless biotics shipped back from Sporeworld, these being the giant spores from which all flora and fauna on the colony planet propagated. Their most valuable attribute was as a source of a life extending product for the elderly, those too old to have had the genes programmed into them as Steve and Janie had.
"Can't the government do anything? Find out why the ships are being lost so often? Or improve conditions for the bonders so they'll work harder?" Steve asked. It was a rhetorical question, designed to give him a little time to think. Was the bonding process really so bad that some people would take their chances with the Crazy Ships rather than submit to it?
Copyright © 2003 by Darrell Bain