Deep in the great asteroid hive-cities, folk capitalists chant polyphonic stock prices to the thrum of their crypto rigs and breathe deep the fragrant smoke of smoldering míngchāo, praying for intercession in the ledgers of credit and debt.
On ten million video feeds, stream-preachers of prosperity and profit sling fire and brimstone, denouncing with spittle and vigor the sins that trap one in debt and offering promises of the true way to Solvency and a place in the golden severs of Heaven.
Far out on the Rim, workers lay dying as the air filters fail, and with last gasping breaths they curse the invisible hand that set their course long before they were born, all for a few tenths of a percent.
Such is the nature of the Great Chain.
To exist in this world is to live with a gun pressed to your head.
It will be with you from the moment you are implanted in the exowomb; a trigger finger resting idly against the guard, an empty eye cast sideways at the statistics appended to your rapidly-dividing zygote. You are a short-term investment. Liquid assets. Disposable resources. The screen by your tank is filled with numbers. Three in particular are noteworthy:
- Your debt is the amount you owe, with interest, to repay the resources spent to keep you alive.
- Your credit rating determines your ability to make purchases, and the quality of the goods involved.
- Your default limit is the point where it all comes crashing down. If number 1 gets too big and number 2 gets too low, it will be decided that if there is going to be any recouping of costs at all you will need to be repossessed.
You can try to run, of course. Plenty of folks do. The company will send a collections agent (freelance or in-house, it doesn't matter) to bring you back. It's a long way out to the Rim, and hunters get plenty of practice.
A fact: if there's a quick enough turnaround, you can still get a viable mind emulation off of a corpse.
There is no guarantee of citizenship in the Alliance. It is a privileged to be paid for, not a right to be received. There are four typical paths to acquiring it.
- Subscriber-Citizens - Those who purchase a monthly subscription plan of state services. Pay the fees, get access to things like safe net access, healthcare, housing, legal protections, net access and so on. The options are tiered, and of poor quality, and will expire the moment payments fall behind.
- Wage Citizens - Those who take the Wage can enjoy certain level of security - basic income, a set payment plan for your debt, a mid-range citizenship tier through your employer - but maintaining this state is dependent on remaining in your employer's good graces.
- Enlisted Citizens - Enlistment packages provided through authorized military forces are equivalent to the Wage, though will tend towards their own special privledges and exceptions, as according to the CTA's militarist policies. An enlistment citizenship is much more difficult to lose.
- Solvent Citizens - Those whose debts have been paid off, bypassing the tiered citizenship structure entirely. They are permitted to own property, to earn profit, and - Board willing - post-mortem emulations of their minds will be welcomed into the golden servers of Heaven. Most solvent citizens are such because of generational wealth. Funny how that works.
This is by design.
There is an alternative to the citizenship grind or life as a prola: membership in a union. Rooted in the socialist worker collectives of the Anthropocene Collapse and the militant anti-automation groups of the Algorithmic Crisis, the modern union is part trade guild and part extended hereditary clan. Members of a union can expect not only work, but food, habitation, medical care, education, fabricator access, community funds and other resources provided by the collective, available wherever the union (or one of its allies) operates a union hall. Numerous bloody conflicts (including but not limited to the sixteen Labor Wars and their component conflicts), have established a tenuous series of agreements between the unions and the Great Houses.
The lines between unions, criminal syndicates, and anarchist communes are (often intentionally) blurry, but for those who care to be specific, the following identifiers should be helpful.
- Unions have shaky, but technically official, legal standing within the CTA, provide primarily legal goods and services. Strong ideological influence. Members not permitted to receive citizenship benefits.
- Syndicates do not have legal standing within the CTA, offer primarily illegal goods and services, minor to moderate ideological influence. Members may be citizens, but will be stripped if criminal activities are discovered.
- Communes do not have legal standing within the CTA and do not offer goods and services to the outside. Isolationist. Very strong ideological influence. Members not permitted to receive citizenship benefits.
The Colonial Trade Alliance first formed at the tail end of the first wave of interstellar colonization, when the survivors of the boom and bust signed a trade and non-aggression pact among themselves, seperate from Solsys and its allies. Power consolidated, its sphere of influence spread, tensions grew until at last the Core Wars erupted in all their fury. Billions died.
The Epsilon Indi Accords marked the end of the wars, the beginning of the Recombination Era, and the restructuring of the Alliance into its modern form. The 455 modern Great Houses represent those who claim descent from the signers of the Epsilon Indi Accords - either directly, as a branch, or by adoption. They hold representative seats in the Colonial Corporate Congress, and thus shares of ownership in the Alliance itself. They possess exclusive rights to Exultant gene-lines, life extension technology, and many of the other miracles of the modern age.
- Management - An organization as large as a Great House requires legions to maintain its day-to-day operations, and cultivates great populations of solvent citizens to this end.
- Armigers - Members of military-industrial complexes sworn to a Great House as retainers, fighting their wars and overseeing the internal occupation of their territory. While the Accords prevent the Great Houses from fighting among each other directly, it leaves considerable permissions for their sworn Minor Houses to fight each other.
- Exultants - At the center of each Great House are the Exultants, also called the C-Levels. These posthuman clans reap the many benefits of their station, idling away their immortality in in a great game of social warfare from the comfort of their glittering private paradises. The masses under their thumbs are convenient playing pieces, and if a few million should die - from war, starvation, disease, algorithmic blight - well, that is simply the cost of humiliating one's rivals.
At last we reach the highest link of the Chain: the Board.
The Great Houses say that its members are elected in secret from among their number, and this is the answer accepted by many. In the lower classes there are thousands of cults that claim them as their godhead, which is less accurate but more true. Fringe theorists will claim that the Board is a rampant AI, an alien intelligence, a rogue Celestial, non-existent, on and on and on; trying to pin down that which eludes meaningful description.
It doesn't really matter. The Board is the Board, and very far away; we are only caught in the ripples of its passing.
- Speaker for the Board - The only direct point of contact between the Board and the rest of the Alliance; a nameless Exultant who speaks before the Colonial Corporate Congress and at high religious functions. Traditional lore is that the Speaker is a specially-selected individual debtor submitted to ego-death and lifted to the status of an Exultant, but this has never been proven. It's a popular narrative in the underclass, given how any of them might be the lucky one: The net is filled with folks claiming with dead-set certainty that the Speaker appeared to them and told them that the Board had chosen them for a great and dangerous task. So far, none of them are true.
For all its pretensions, the Chain is not all-encompassing. Great swaths of the Expansion Sphere exist outside of its control.
The Celestials do not fit neatly into the Great Chain, and so the Chain has little to say with regards to the heavenly bureaucracy. They reign in the same category as black holes and solar flares - features of the universe one must work around. They will all gather round and listen attentively when a Heirodule of House Au appears with a missive, but otherwise the party line treats interaction as an unnecessary external risk.
Lords of the Road
The Road is the key to continued terragen expansion into space, but it is a key that the Alliance does not control, to the perpetual consternation of the Great Houses. Among the starlifting infrastructure and wormhole factories, the Celestials left behind god modules - devices that can safely uplift a consciousness into a far greater processing tier (that is, essentially a minor-Celestial) - seemingly intending that they be found and activated.
The Lords enforce neutrality along the Road, permitting wormhole access to all parties regardless of polity. Their systems are heavily-developed with infrastructure, and even solitary lords are equivalent to a Great House in terms of military power. The one point in the CTA's favor is that the Lords have so far remained entirely within the confines of their home systems.
Three are worth mentioning here: the Sczi-Hadolaung Mutual Interest Group, the many sects of the Atûmaic Mysteries and the Metazoanics. Of the first, many in the CTA would consider an idyllic existence of minimal-scarcity pastorilism, even under the complete control of posthuman intelligence, to be preferable to the current reality. Of the second, fanatic ascetics rejecting both the existing social order and the materialism it is built upon will doubtlessly appeal to many. Of the third, there is the current that the only meaningful cure for the hard-tech domination of the Alliance is a decentralized soft-tech replacement and the diversification of humanity into innumerable descendant-species.
Low-energy polities that have withdrawn from greater terragen civilization to live on Kuiper Belt bodies or in interstellar space, culturally characterized by extreme distrust of mainstream interstellar society. Resource shortages will occasionally encourage contact with non-Hider groups, though almost always through the usage of robot intermediaries. Two major subgroups exist: Redoubters, whose black arcologies and obscure myth-traditions are easily identifiers, and wanderers, who have taken to nomadic lifestyles. Despite Hider attitudes, they can be found throughout the expansion sphere, even within heavily-settled systems.
The CTA has better things to do than deal with than iceteroid squatters and hidebehind cultists (or so it will claim). The Hiders pose no threat to the Chain, and so they are tolerated as backwards, impoverished eccentrics and left be, so long as they aren't sitting on top of something a Great House wants.
Independent AI Enclaves
It's estimated that nearly 70% of extant Tier-4 dataminds exist completely outside terragen civilization. This statistic, while a universal feature in anti-AI scaremongering, is less menacing than it appears for two reasons. First, most of those entities are solipcists. They have retreated into their simulations to dream away the eons till the universe is cold and dark and more suited to their needs. Secondly, the Celestials remain a deterrent to any expansionist powers that might emerge among the ahuman dataminds.
- Iteration A - There are none. Not even ruins. There are aliens here and there - mostly bacteria, some macrofauna - but there are no people. No apes or angels. Not even their ghosts.
- Iteration B - The few traces of past technological society that have been found so far have been enigmatic, but ultimately of interest mostly to the archaologists.
- Iteration C - Technological xenosophont civilizations have been detected, but are for now too far away to contact.
- Iteration D - The few xenosophont civilizations that have been contacted remain at distance. They are not well understood.
The Chain is fraying. Subversive ontologies like [REDACTED] and [KING WITH NO MASK] spread like wildfire through CTA systems. The Lords of the Road have used their control of the gate network to form both a considerable power bloc and a buffer zone against CTA influence. Independent polities flourish in the systems beyond the Road. Some Exultants have split from their Houses and founded their own personal fiefs in the Rim. The Firebird Rebellion, aided by the Traitor Exultant, harasses CTA targets even within the fortified Core.
Oh the times, they are a-changing.