“Are you sure about this, Kat?” Her mother, Penelope Debs, asked as she fidgeted. “I don’t want to ask where you got it, but this is a lot of money we’re talking about.”
“Yes, Mom,” Kat replied, glancing around the building. Her sister, Michelle, was slouched in the chair next to her, watching the latest episode of Chrome Cowboy on her smartpanel, an omnipresent square of smartglass that almost all company employees wore about their right eyes that gave them constant and unfettered access to their e-mail as well as entertainment and information channels.
The rest of the room was much bleaker. Dozens of nervous, low-level corporate employees occupied the remaining seats, each waiting for their turn at one of debt counseling and consolidation booths. The walls were little more than bare concrete, with only a clock and a display indicating the ticket number and counseling booth of the next ‘lucky employee.’
“I didn’t even know that you were allowed to pay off your corporate ledger,” Penelope continued breathily. “I mean, do I stop being a corporate employee afterwards? I don’t want to lose my job or anything Kat.”
“Of course you can pay off your ledger, Mom,” Kat closed her eyes, wishing that her mother would lose herself in a stupid soap opera like Michelle. It would make the eternal wait that much easier. “Corporate arbitration is pretty fast and loose about many things, but it’s ironclad on the questions of debt, interest, and payment of debt. It’s literally easier to get away with murder than it is to default on or change the terms of a loan.”
“It still just doesn’t seem right,” her Mom fidgeted uncomfortably. “I don’t think I know anyone on our entire floor that has a positive ledger. It isn’t natural.”
“Calling A-89,” a monotone voice cut in over the waiting room’s public address system. “A-89, please report to counseling and consolidation booth A. If you do not arrive within two minutes, your appointment will be canceled and you will be billed for your counselor’s time.”
“Wish me luck,” a man in a bright teal sweatshirt stood up, smiling nervously. “I think I have a good case to raise my weekly spending limit. My wife just had her second child and I’ve been working in the factory for ten years. They have to raise the limit, right?”
“Good luck,” Kat said the words almost in time with her mother. After speaking, she bit her tongue. The company didn’t ‘have’ to do anything.
Kat would wager her last credit that every employee in the building with her was heavily in debt to the company. The polite term was “hereditary employees,” individuals indebted to the company from the moment they were charged with their birth expenses as infants. Each day after that only compounded the problem. The company provided all employees with food and housing, quietly deducting the costs from their employees paychecks.
It was unheard of for someone in the lower levels of the arcology to actually earn more in a week than they owed for their upkeep. Instead, they had to rely on their weekly spending limit, a revolving line of credit offered by the company so that employees could purchase necessities. More specifically, the little comforts that kept workers in-line and not hammering at their employer’s door with torches and pitchforks.
As far as she could tell, the only real factors that went into an employees spending limit was their debt-to-income ratio. Without changing those cold, hard facts, the hopeful man’s request was denied even before he articulated it.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom,” Kat spoke up as the employee walked away. “If I have anything to say about it, Michelle and you will be moving to a better floor before long anyway. You can keep working your job if you want, but I’d prefer that you move on to something safer. After all, once your debt is paid down you can actually apply for a new job on your own without the company vetoing it. Hell, you could probably work here at the counseling and consolidation office if you wanted.”
“About that,” Penelope frowned slightly. “I’m still confused about how you got into the corporate college. I know that the top two children in your class got involved with that awful mess, having an executive killed and all that, but I don’t understand how that ended up with you taking their spot at the college.”
Kat grimaced. Every time she'd brought up her… other job, her Mother became deeply uncomfortable. Even when Kat was only running files from one secure location to another, it had been a bit much for Penelope. Kat didn’t know how her Mother would react to the knowledge that she’d graduated from a courier into a full-blown infiltrator.
She knew that her Mother would not react well to the actual story behind the corporate college scholarship. That her precious daughter had killed and watched her companions die in front of her in order to prevent the spoiled heir of an executive from crushing her like a bug. That ultimately, the credits she was using to pay off her family’s debt were stained with the blood of the street samurai Kat had killed to get where she was at. That the executive in question had tied Kat to her with a scholarship to the corporate college for reasons that Kat couldn’t entirely decipher, and certainly didn’t trust.
“I just think Belle Donnst didn’t want her daughter’s deposit at the college to go to waste,” Kat smiled thinly, hoping that her Mother would believe the bald-faced lie. “I was third in my class, and with the first two places… indisposed, I was the logical next choice. I’ve already talked with Belle a couple of times, and the offer appears to be completely genuine.”
“To think,” Penelope giggled, “my daughter talking with an executive.”
“Yes,” Kat rolled her eyes, shuddering slightly as she remembered Belle Donnst’s calculating gaze. “I’ve talked with an executive.”
“D-94, calling D-94,” the same monotone announcement cut through their conversation. “D-94, please report to counseling and consolidation booth D. If you do not arrive within two minutes, your appointment will be canceled and you will be billed for your counselor’s time.”
“That’s us,” Kat stood up, tapping Michelle on her shoulder. The much younger girl blinked at Kat, her vision blurry as she dismissed the entertainment channel. “It’s time, Michelle.”
“I still don’t see why you need me for this,” her sister grumbled as she sat up. “Couldn’t you have just done your money stuff without dragging Mom and I out here?’
Kat didn’t even answer, walking across the scuffed, earth-tone carpet of the office and past the clusters of cheap chairs toward a booth marked with the letter D. Even the green paint that made up the letter was chipped and faded.
She pushed the plastic sliding door aside, struggling slightly as it caught in the poorly-maintained groove in the floor, before stepping into the booth. Inside, a slightly overweight man with a receding hairline sat at a card table, a stack of paperwork before him. His eyes glazed slightly as he looked at something on his smartpanel.
“Katherine Debs here with Penelope Debs and Michelle Debs,” his voice had the rasp of a frequent smoker. “The billing for your consultation has already begun. Please begin filling out form 207-1m and hand it to me once you’re done.”
He thrust a sheaf of papers and a pen into Kat’s hands as she took her seat, bewildered. Page after page of dense wording inquired about Kat’s financial history, current earnings, and her projected advancement.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to let us fill this out in the waiting room?” Kat frowned as she thumbed through the document. A fast and prepared individual might be able to fill it out in twenty minutes. “Making us wait until now to even see the forms seems like a huge waste of the company’s time.”
“Katherine,” the man frowned slightly, his ragged voice stern. “I know that you’ve just graduated from school and think that you have all the answers, but you must understand. This is the way that we’ve always done things.”
“But what if it’s possible to improve the way you’ve been doing things?” Kat asked, narrowing her eyes as she scanned over the various invasive provisions of the document that he’d handed her. “Don’t you owe it to the company to try and upgrade the process?”
“Miss Debs,” the man shook his head slightly at her as Kat’s Mother and Sister sat down in the booth next to her. “The company only does things in a certain way if there is some logic to it. Neither of us are at a level where we can or should be questioning that logic. Even if something seems inefficient, I am not going to risk my neck arguing with an executive over some procedure that they implemented. Right or wrong, I would bring unwanted attention to myself.”
“It’s simpler to just fill out the forms,” he patted the stack of papers next to him with a grunt. “Then I can run them through the electronic rubric and inform you of the results of your application.”
“Honesty,” Kat set the paperwork down in front of her before reaching into the messenger bag she’d brought with her. “That all sounds like something that could just be an e-mail. Someone sends the form to me at my apartment, I fill it out and return it. The company saves money by replacing counselors with algorithms and there isn’t even any need for this office space to exist.”
“Ma’am,” the counselor crossed his arms, unamused. “If you could return to filling out the form without insulting my work, I would appreciate it.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Kat replied, placing three cylinders of tightly packed credit chips on the table. “That form is for an expansion of our family’s weekly spending limit, but that isn’t why we’re here. I would like to make a deposit against each of our ledgers.”
The man’s eyes went wide as he looked at the stacks of credits in front of him, his mouth moving silently as he counted the chips.
“Miss Debs,” he croaked, tapping the side of his smartpanel to activate some function. “That is almost ninety thousand credits. More than enough to pay off all three of your ledgers and put you well into the positive.”
“Yes,” Kat replied, doing her best to keep a smirk off of her face. The credits in front of her represented a substantial portion of her wealth, but it wasn’t all of it.
Two months ago, the ChromeDogs, the street samurai crew that Kat had joined collected one of the biggest bounties of the year. Between the credits she’d earned from that bounty, and her share of the salvage they’d collected from Steel and Blood, a major mercenary group that tried to stop them, Kat had more credits stashed in the cubby under her Mother’s sink than she’d expected to earn in her entire life.
As for the bounty, they’d managed to procure information that definitively identified Anna Donnst, a former classmate of Kat’s, along with Gregory Daniels as the ringleaders behind the successful assasaination of Christopher Haupt, an executive for GroCorp, the company that owned Ike Holdings, the corporation that Kat worked for.
Kat and her superior in the ChromeDogs, Xander, both strongly suspected Anna’s Mother, Belle Donnst, of being the driving force behind the murder. Mostly because the evidence was suspiciously complete and cleanly identified Anna, Gregory, and a classmate of Kat’s, Arnold, as co-conspirators.
Somehow, despite enough evidence to convict the conspirators ten times over, there wasn’t even a single mention of Belle’s name. That was more than enough for both Xander and Kat to be wary of the woman. Unfortunately, Belle took their interference with her plans as a sign of competence and had more or less strong-armed them into working with her.
Even after she paid down her entire family’s debt she would have enough to set herself up comfortably at the corporate college in the Chiwaukee Megalopolis, right next to GroCorp’s corporate headquarters.
“Where did you get this much money?” The counselor licked his lips, eyes glazed and twitching as his smartpanel read their micromovements. “You apparently used to be a lab tech third class before you quit your job in order to attend college.”
“Actually,” he frowned. “Are you even allowed to quit your job when your ledger is in the red? Hereditary employees generally aren’t allowed to decline work-”
“My contract with the lab was bought out as part of the scholarship that is sending me to college,” Kat responded. “I would like to note that I have presented you with the credits needed to pay down my families’ ledgers. I will report any attempt to bill me further as theft.”
“But how did you get this money?” His voice became shriller. The counselor clutched his hands together, wringing them as if he were afraid to touch the credits. “Did you spread your legs for some executive? I can’t think of-”
“Ninety thousand credits for sex?” Kat snorted. “I’ll choose to take your accusation as a compliment regarding my appearance. Any executive that wants a night of fun could probably find it on the lower levels for a couple hundred credits. Hell, you could probably get someone selling themselves for a month or so for that much in the Shell.”
“As much as I’d like to think that I’m beautiful enough to justify that kind of price tag,” she rolled her eyes at him. “I’m well aware that even a fairly ordinary girl with a couple thousand credits in body mods could look like an entertainment channel star of her buyer’s choice.”
“Kat,” her Mom hissed unsuccessfully trying to clap her hands over Michelle’s ears.
“Do you mean I could look like Jenny Silverarm from Chrome Cowboys?” the young girl interjected excitedly, dodging Penelope’s grasp. “That would be soooooo cool.”
“No you can’t, Michelle,” Kat didn’t even look at the girl, her glare fixed on the debt counselor. “My sponsor is Belle Donnst. If you would like to call her and ask how I earned this money, she may even give you an answer. I would not advise calling her.”
“Donnst…” his voice trailed off as the portly man paled. “I don’t suppose I. Uh. I think I’m fine without verifying the source of the funds.”
“Great,” Kat smiled thinly. “Now would you mind processing the payment so we can all get on with our days?”
The man’s eyes glazed over as he consulted something in his smartpanel. A second later, he winced, his expression souring.
“Good news,” he replied mechanically. “Given the demonstrated increase in your income, I have been authorized to offer you a drastic increase in your weekly spending-”
“Not interested,” Kat cut him off. “Please process the payment.”
“The company cares for you,” he continued bitterly, “and it wants you to keep your hard-earned credits. Rather than paying down your debt, wouldn’t you prefer to be upgraded to a condominium on the tenth floor. You can be assured that it will have actual outward facing windows and-”
“Please process the payment,” Kat crossed her arms, leaning back in the cheap chair.
“In order to handle a transaction of this magnitude,” the man was sweating bullets now. “I will need to call a supervisor. Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to maintain your debt with the company and instead receive a complimentary upgrade to your spending limit and housing?”
“I understand that the interest on my debt accrues at twenty-four percent annually?” Kat raised an eyebrow. “Is that what this is all about? Either take my money or I will file a report.”
The man groaned, reaching across the table and collecting the credits. He quickly popped open a safe and placed them inside before turning back to Kat and her family.
“Here at the debt counseling and consolidation department of Ike Holdings, a wholly-owned subsidiary of GroCorp,” the counselor forced the words out through clenched teeth, “your opinions are valuable to us. Each of you has been sent a customer satisfaction survey.”
“Thank you,” Kat smiled sweetly at the squirming counselor. “I look forward to filling it out.”
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night