The Penalty Clause


The offices, the cubicles, the little corners around the coffee machine where the employees would share gossip about their routine, daily lives, were all but empty now. Only a few cleaning bots remained finishing their final chores. But, it wasn’t just the office, the entire complex, which spanned the artificial planetoid, was now more or less abandoned, except for the one solitary man waiting in the departure lounge.

The lounge, usually full of travelers from across the galactic sector, now held the look of a shopping mall that had to close down due to a sudden downturn in the economy. The shelves, which once displayed luxuriously packaged, mediocre goods being sold at a premium, were now empty. A few products remained, looking out of their glass boxes expectantly, hoping someone might turn up to buy them, but those were nothing more than distant dreams.

The man sat at the far end of the lounge, near the windows overlooking the runways and loading bays. His flight had been delayed due to some technical fault in his spaceship, or maybe because the flight crew themselves had decided to run away. Either ways he had been assured by upper management that the flight would take off in a few hours, or once they managed to track down the absconding pilots and crew. With nothing else to do but wait, he had decided to take up temporary residence on a sofa in the departure lounge overlooking the loading bays. The vending machines still worked and the cooking bots were still online so food wasn’t a problem, and the view from the windows provided enough entertainment to avoid boredom.

His view was one of the huddled scared masses being gently corralled and made to board the awaiting Freight Ships. The massive boarding stations of the spaceships looked like the maw of some giant monster with shiny steel fangs, being fed a constant supply of fresh meat. Occasionally, one of the multitudes would try to escape. As to where exactly he or she was trying to escape to, was a bit of a mystery since the entire complex was under lockdown. But you had to give them credit for trying. However, they never got far. The electro shock collars around their necks, you know the kind they put around pets and live stocks, ensured that. Once the poor sap had crossed the collar threshold and collapsed from the shock, the security guards would pick up the escapee and dump him on the conveyer belt along with the rest of the luggage. The security guards were under strict instructions to use non-lethal force. These were employees after all, not slaves, and the corporation had no interest in spending on their medical expenses. The transport costs themselves were exorbitant enough.

The man in the lounge would chuckle every time it happened. They said there was a word for it “Schadenfreude”. It meant to gain joy from the misfortune of others. He wasn’t cruel person, but he was bored and he would take his entertainment any which way he got. Besides, he wasn’t the one who had told those idiots below to sign long term contracts with the corporations. He always signed short duration contracts. After living for fifteen hundred years, he had enough experience to know that breaking a long term contract with one of the galactic corporations was next to impossible.

The corporation was shifting its base of operations. It had lost its contract with the Neburian Empire recently. The Neburians had outsourced the administrative tasks of the entire empire to the Corporation. The contract was large enough for them to warrant the construction of a base the size of a small moon. The base had over a 150 million employees of all genders, races and species. Most on long term contracts ranging between 300 to 500 years. The entire project would have lasted for at least another millennium but that was before the Neburians encountered the Silvaxians.

Now, they no longer needed to outsource their administrative tasks, primarily for two reasons. They no longer had the resources to pay the corporation for its services and more importantly they were too busy trying to not become extinct.

This had been a great loss to the corporation, but upper management, if nothing else, could always smell alternate means of income. So, what if the Neburians were gone, the Silvaxians were a growing empire and they would also need similar services. The offer had been extended by the Corporation and the same had been accepted by the Silvaxians.

And that was the cause of the problem, because no one wanted to work for the Silvaxians, not even the Silvaxians. The Silvaxians were massive, brutish creatures. They were over nine feet tall, had eight legs, razor sharp claws and teeth, and a nasty temper to boot. So, basically a giant homicidal spider that was always in a foul mood.  They were known to have on occasion, quite literally, bitten the heads off their subordinates and employees if the work weren’t up to their satisfaction.

So, ever since the news had spread as to who the new clients were to be, there had been mass panic and attempted escapes by most of the corporation employees. Over a fifth of the employees had already managed to escape, before the Corporation could lock down the base. But, that wasn’t a problem. The Corporation had already deployed hunter tracker teams to retrieve its lost flock. They wouldn’t get very far. It was impossible to escape the Corporation,

 

Unless...

 

Your contract had expired.

 

The man in the lounge was one of the few lucky ones. His contract had expired.

 

He turned away from the window when he heard someone politely clear their throat behind him. She could have been standing there for a while, but he hadn’t really noticed. He had been quite engrossed with the drama unfolding below, at the loading bays. He knew her, he had seen her around the office, and maybe he had even spoken to her once or twice. But, right now he just couldn’t remember her name.

He had the look of a man desperately trying to locate an acquaintance's name so as not to seem rude and she realized that. So, she decided to give him a break and introduced herself.

“Hi, it’s Isabelle from the Analysis wing. We met at Arthur’s party a few months back.” saying that she helped him out of his mental hunt.

“Oh yeah, I remember, how are you? Haven’t seen you in a while?” he asked politely carrying forward the conversation.

“Been busy getting all my stuff packed. This was all a bit sudden. Just didn’t see it coming.” she replied sitting down at the other end of the sofa.

“Really, you didn’t? I had been expecting it ever since I heard of the invasion by the Silvaxians. Personally, I never expected the Neburians to survive as long as they did. I just got lucky that my contract ended when it did. That’s why I never sign those long term contracts.”

“So, you are leaving. Where are you headed?”

“To the fifteenth quadrant, the Kolar empire is building some new weapons base called the Death Star. They need designers to make it look more evil.” replied the man.

He then turned around and looked through the window, ”Look at those poor sobs down there. They look like they are marching to their executions. Come to think of it, they probably are.” he remarked with a little more glee than would have been expected from a former colleague. Maybe he had started to enjoy their misery after all.

“You see, it’s all got to do with our extended life spans. My father was around when the scientists figured out how to do it. He said it was a sight to see. The wonder drug. The first version could extend life spans by about 250 years. In less than three generations we had gotten that up to a thousand. Now you must be thinking that’s great and so did everyone else, but then the reality of the situation dawned on everyone. Now that you can live for a thousand years, it means that you must provide for yourself for a thousand years. The wonder drug just extends your lifespan; it doesn’t extend your bank balance.”

“I guess you’re right?” agreed Isabelle.

“Of course, I am right. So now instead of working for 40-50 years of your life, we now work for 500-800 years of our lives. That’s where the contracts came in. Everyone wanted job security and the companies wanted long term employees. It was a win-win situation for everyone. At least that’s what everyone thought.”

“But you can always break your contract, right?” Isabelle inquired.

“Have you ever tried breaking a contract with one of the giant Corporations? It’s a nightmare. You have no idea the kind of penalty clauses they have in there. They are quite an imaginative lot, the Corporation’s legal team. They manage to come with all sorts of interesting tortures while staying within the realm of the law. Besides, you don’t want to end up like Johnson.”

“Johnson? Who’s Johnson?”

“Johnson’s our photocopier.” explained the man with a small chuckle. ”You know the photocopying machine on the 120th Floor. That’s Johnson.”

“What do you mean, the photocopier is Johnson.” she asked in a slightly worried voice.

So, with nothing else to do but wait he told her Johnson’s story.

“You see, Johnson was one the best programmers with the corporation. But, he got a better job offer from another company which he wanted to pick up. However, he still had another 250 years left on his contract and The Corporation wasn’t ready to let go of their best programmer, so Johnson went to court.”

“Johnson was able to convince the courts to break his contract and courts agreed, but under the proviso that he would still have to serve out another 50 years. Which was fine, because the new contract was going to activate only after about 40 years or so. The other company was willing to wait. So Johnson was very happy.” The man shook his head and sighed as he remembered Johnson’s naivety.

“But the Corporations don't like to lose. They interpreted that since photocopiers also required some kind of machine coding in order to function; photocopying could be interpreted as a programmer’s job. So they shifted Johnson from his department to the Mailroom to be in charge of photocopying. But in today’s day and age, when you can transfer a person’s mind from one body to another, why can't you transfer it into a machine? I mean, it’s not unheard of. People routinely transfer their minds into Robots to work in hazardous environments and the corporation has a very wicked sense of humor.”

“So when they said Johnson would be in charge of photocopying…” the man paused mid-sentence as he waited for Isabelle to catch up.  

“They stuck his brain into the photocopying machine?”, in a horrified tone, Isabelle completed the man’s story.

“Exactly.”

“They can do that?” asked Isabelle.

“They can do anything. There are a million different ways to twist the rules without ever breaking them. But, enough about Johnson, how are things with you and your husband?” asked the man, remembering that Isabelle was married.

“That lying, freeloading, sack of shit, don’t get me started on him.” fumed Isabelle.

“What happened?” asked the man.

“He got fired, that's how incompetent he is, and on top of that he’s been screwing every girl he can find on the base. The other day I caught him in bed with twins. He is not even trying to hide it anymore. He knows I can’t divorce him and he’s taking full advantage of that fact.”

“Why not?” inquired the man.

“I make more money than him. If I divorce him, under the new marriage laws, I would have to feed him for 300 years. Earlier it was just a century, but then they increased that limit. So I’m stuck with him until he decides to give me a divorce, which is why I’m here, I was hoping you could help out. You’ve been around for so long, there must be some way out. How long have you been around?” Isabelle asked out of curiosity.

“I turned fifteen hundred last year.” said man as he started to scratch his day-old stubble.

“Really, wow.” exclaimed a really impressed Isabelle.

“What about you?”

“Eighty-five” replied Isabelle, suddenly feeling like a child.

The lounge fell silent as they both sat there trying to figure out a solution to Isabelle’s problem. The food bots started to bring in the food and plating the table. The man had instructed the bots get the same for the woman. They both started to eat in silence and the man once again got distracted watching the employees down by the loading bays.

“If you are desperate, we could just get rid of him.” said the man suddenly breaking the silence of the lounge.  

“What do you mean, get rid of him?” asked a suspicious Isabelle.

“You know exactly what I mean.” replied the man.

“No. I am desperate, but not that desperate. Come one” replied a shocked Isabelle.

“It was just a suggestion.”

“You can actually do that?” asked a curious Isabelle.

“After you’ve been around for as long as I have. You make friends in all sorts of places. It can be done if you are interested.”

“That’s generous of you but I think not.” replied Isabelle. “There must be another way. A legal way.”

“Well let’s see, there might be another way. What about your contract? How much time left on that?”

“Few more months, why?” replied the woman.

“Hmm, I was thinking that once your contract is over, you should pick up a job with Tribbid Research.” continued the man.

“What Research. I’ve never heard of them, where are they located?” asked Isabelle.

“They are located somewhere near the Crab Nebula. But, that’s not important. What’s important is their job contract.”

“OK, what’s so interesting about their contract?” asked Isabelle.

“Well, you see they have a lot of short term job contracts available, ranging between twenty to a hundred years. But what’s interesting is the penalty clause.” He said as he continued eating.

He saw that Isabelle had stopped eating and was waiting for him to finish his explanation. He smiled and continued.

“They have something pretty nasty called as a family forfeiture clause in their job contracts.”

“What’s that?”

“The clause states that if the employee wishes to break his or her contract before their stipulated time frame, they can walk away free if they forfeit their entire family to the company, for a period of no less than ten times the period specified in the contract.”

Isabelle looked slightly lost, trying to follow the man’s explanation. So he clarified it further.

“Basically, it means that if you take a fifty year contract and break it, then as a replacement for you, your entire family will work for the company for the next five hundred years. Ten times the duration of your contract.”

“But I don’t have any family. I’m an only child and my parents passed away nearly ten years ago.” Isabelle replied sadly.

“Yes, but, if you’ve been married for more than ten years then spouses can be treated as family.” replied the man with a wicked smile.

“And what do they do with them.” she asked, a smile forming at the corner of her lips.

“I think it’s mainly janitorial duties or mailroom. By that I mean they stick their brains into a sweeping bot for the stipulated time. So, how long have you been married?” asked the man even though he knew the answer.

Isabelle smiled and replied triumphantly. “Fifteen years, last spring.”

***