Jensen knew that when he signed on for the Quenten plan for Student Loans, there were risks involved. Everyone knew the risks. But it was still the cheapest and easiest way to get a loan. Not to mention, the only way to go to college now that most scholarships were limited to only the rarest of cases. You practically had to be a child genius and head to college at twelve to be considered good enough to get one.
They said it was to keep the colleges from getting overcrowded, that people were getting too dependent on hand outs, that people should earn their entry instead of having it handed to them. Except, of course, for those who had the money to pay their own way.
The Quenten plan looked so good on paper. All it demanded was that the student steadily pay their bills on a monthly basis. As long as you didn’t miss a single payment, as long as you didn’t default, there wasn’t any problem. The interest rates were generally low and with his parents’ help, it shouldn’t be too impossible to pay off a steady sum of $800 a month, especially once he started working. As a doctor he should have had no problem paying off his debts and returning his parents’ money in no time.
He was young and fit, so going through the medical had been easy as pie, and up until a month ago, he’d thought he was home free. He’d graduated cum laude in his pre-med class and he was a shoo-in for medical school. His parents had taken him to dinner along with Josh and Mac and they’d celebrated the occasion in one of Houston’s finest restaurants.
They’d been on their way back home when the accident happened. His father had died on the scene; his mother had lingered a few weeks more. Josh had spent two weeks at the hospital and the costs for his surgery just to keep his kidneys working was adding up. Not to mention the cost of the dialysis he’d have to go through for the rest of his life. There was a chance of him getting a transplant, maybe, in a few years, but even if they waited for that, there was no way they could use their parents’ life insurance for anything beyond Josh’s medical expenses. Jensen had come home to look after Mac, got her back to school, back to her own life. But the house seemed empty without his mother’s voice as she stood cooking over the stove, or his father’s cursing at whatever was screwing up his garden. Now the three of them lived there, side by side, none of them really daring to break the silence to talk to one another, all of them too scared to admit that they might have to sell the home their parents had been so proud of.
Jensen knew they’d been lucky that Josh’s girlfriend had been willing to help out, especially with Mac, but with the state of Josh’s health, could they really ask her for anything more than that? Anna said she would, but for how long? How long would her love for Josh mean more than the burden he’d bring upon her?
Jensen hadn’t even thought about signing up for fall classes. Hell, even if he had, there was no way his new loan would be granted, not without his parents to co-sign with him. Not without anything new to put up as collateral. He was 22 years old, and all he had was a college degree in pre-med, which was pretty much useless for anything but getting into medical school. Even if he found a job tomorrow, there was no way he’d get enough money together to start paying his loan before they’d send the first bill. He could drag it out, sure, sell everything he owned for a few months, get into what little was left of their inheritance, which should be going to Josh’s care, and all it would do was keep him safe for at most a year before the debt collectors were sent after him. Most of all, it would mean that Mac and Josh would have even less. That they’d have to sell the house for sure, put Josh in some small damp apartment that would only make his lungs worse. It wasn’t like Josh didn’t have his own student debts to worry about. And then the collectors would come for both of them, and Mac as well, because she was their dependent now.
Jensen stared at the payment form, at the promise it should have held. And tore it up.
He packed his stuff carefully, knowing it might be years before he saw any of it again. He’d already arranged for Anna to look after Mac, until Josh was capable of doing so. Anna had cried when he asked her. She would have been his sister in law, she still might be, if Josh survived, if… God.
What was left of his stuff, after selling anything that might make a profit, was going to a storage facility that Jensen had paid off for the next twenty years. It was the only money he’d dared to spend on himself; Mac had promised she’d take care of his things if he wasn’t free by then. He wasn’t going to hold her to it.
His car was sold and the money put aside for Mac, and she got his computer as well. It felt as if he were committing suicide, and in a way, he was. Twenty years was a minimum, but there was no guarantee that he’d get free that soon, if ever. He tried not to think of that option either.
Anna dropped him off at the home office, waiting for him outside in the unlikely case they gave him an extension. They rarely did. He didn’t expect to come out. Not as Jensen Ackles at least, and definitely not as a free man.
The receptionist smiled at him; he’d noticed her collar before, had wondered if it was meant to be a warning. But back then he hadn’t taken the risk serious enough. He should have.
“Can I help you.”
He looked down, ashamed. “I’m going to have to default my debt.” He whispered the words. The woman looked up for a second, and then gave him a kind smile.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Do you have grounds for an extension? The Quenten agency does offer delays as long as you are still a full-time student.”
“I can’t afford it.” He knew he sounded defeated.
She nodded her head. “Please take your place in the waiting area.”
He stared back at the gray plastic seats and walked up to them. Five minutes later two security guards, not all that inconspicuously, entered the lobby. Their eyes never left Jensen. As if he were going to make a run for it now, when he’d already admitted to failing his payment plan before it had even began.
It’s not like the thought of running hadn’t entered his mind. Several of his friends had even offered to help him out. He hadn’t taken them up on it. The agency would come after him, hunt him down until he was backed in a corner and drag him off for auction anyway. Then they would recoup the cost of hunting him down from what little family he had left, adding the bills for the hunt to the rest of his debts. And he didn’t even want to think where he’d end up if he did that. Technically, debtors had rights, they weren’t criminals, there were supposed to be protections. But really, some of the things you could be sold for, you might as well write your last will before going in. If it had to happen, if he had to be sold, he’d rather stay on their good side and retain as much of his dignity as he could manage.
“Mister Ackles?” He looked up, staring at the man who’d been his caseworker from the start. “Would you please follow me.”
Jensen followed the man to his office, and sat down in the chair as ordered.
“I just took a look at your file. A true tragedy what happened to your family.”
Of course they already had everything on file; these days, it would have been a bigger surprise if they hadn’t.
“I’m afraid though that at this time it would be impossible to offer your family another loan for your further education.”
Jensen kept his head down and nodded.
“Nor would the head office allow a further extension. I assume that there is no chance that you will be able to start your payment plan next month?”
Jensen shook his head. “We need the money.”
“Yes, I can see that, your brother’s bills are quite extensive. “
“Mister Ackles, do you understand what will happen if you default on your payment?”
“I become collateral on my debt and my debt will be sold on the market,” Jensen whispered.
“Quite correct.” The file was pushed back in a folder and Jensen suddenly felt a hand on his. “We are not inhuman, Mister Ackles. And we do appreciate those debtors who are intelligent enough to come in themselves rather than make it harder on both parties. We will of course make an effort to find you a compatible purpose that will make best use of your … skills as it were, to ensure that your service is over as quickly as possible.”
“Yes, sir.” Jensen couldn’t help but think that he’d probably spend the rest of his life working in some factory, or worse; at best he’d end up working from morning to evening at some office, doing all the jobs nobody else wanted to do.
“Are your affairs in order or do you require a few more weeks to settle your situation?”
Oh right, get a few more weeks on the outside, only to grow more and more scared as the deadline approached.
“No. I … settled everything before I came here. I just need to call my … friend, she was waiting just in case…”
The man smiled even larger at that.
“Good, you can call her now, and I will get everything ready so we can have you processed before dinner time.”
Jensen hated the way the guy looked at him; he took the opportunity given, got up and called Anna, intentionally trying not to look at the man that was determining his fate for the rest of his life..
When he turned back he was just in time to catch the man staring at him.
“Now Mister Ackles. Let’s start looking at some papers, shall we?”
Jensen turned back to him. “Is it fine for me to keep standing?” he asked, too nervous to sit down again.
“Of course, whatever makes you more comfortable, Jensen. You don’t mind if I call you Jensen, do you?”
Jensen shook his head. “No, sir,” he whispered.
“Now I already have most of the information that you gave us when you signed up for your loan. Your full name is Jensen Ross Ackles, you are 22 years old, your birthday is March 1st. You graduated as valedictorian of your class in high school, and cum laude at the University of Texas. You are bisexual, came out to your parents in high school and have been a member of various gay rights groups over the years. Is that correct?”
“Your last medical checkup was a month ago, when you went in as a bone marrow donor for your brother. I have already arranged a meeting with our in-house medical team for a further investigation, but so far everything seems to be in order. You are considered above average in regards to looks.” Jensen startled a bit at the way the man said that as if it were a matter of fact. “But you lack the arrogance that usually comes with such same. You are athletic, a member of your school’s track team and during the school year you played volleyball on campus at least once a week. You have had two girlfriends and one boyfriend up until now, and have had sexual intercourse with only two of them.”
Jensen sputtered in shock at the words.
“Unless you lied on the files you signed when you donated blood?”
Jensen shook his head.
“Would you say you are sexually adventurous, Jensen?”
He didn’t like the way this was going. Jensen knew about the kinds of ‘service’ that people bought debts over. Heavy labor, factories, medical experimentation, servants, white collar service, all of them with their own downsides. But the one most people tried to avoid talking about was the sexual service. Someone could buy your debt, and turn you into a sex slave and there’d be nothing you could do to stop them, not once you signed on the dotted line.
“I can’t, I won’t. I’ve got…”
“Jensen, most people who are in debt hope for white service labor, it’s probably the most desired form of service. It’s also why we have started to limit it to people with actual skills and experience as personal assistants, accountants, people who know several language or other such skills.
The only job experience you have is handling the register in that bookstore you’ve been working at for the past four years, and a few more years at McDonalds as a teenager.”
“I could work in a factory, at farms, I’m sure I can learn to clean, to….”
“I’m afraid most of those jobs have a similar requirement. There are millions of debtors in this country, Jensen, and a lot of them are not just older but more experienced than you.”
He wasn’t going to cry.
“Now of course you could sign up for medical experimentation. They do pay higher amounts than a regular form of service, and you might even be free in far less than ten years if you did that.”
Jensen giggled almost hysterically at that. “And come out how, half blind, with half my organs ruined?”
“There are indeed risks involved.”
The man didn’t say a word.
“Can I… can I state things I won’t do?”
“You can, but I’d suggest you don’t add too many items on that list. The more things you forbid, the harder it will be to place you, and the longer your service will last, of course.”
Jensen knew he was falling into a panic attack, and the harder he tried to fight it off, the worse the feeling became. He wrote down a refusal to be involved in scat, watersports , bestiality and necrophilia. They were the four worst things he could think of at first thought. By the time he signed the contract, his vision tunneled on the caseworker’s desk as he finally sank back down in the chair, his eyes focusing on the name plaque in front of him for the first time since he came in.
It didn’t matter.
There were more questions, about his family’s health history, emotional entanglements, his criminal record. By the time they were through, it seemed like they knew everything there was to know about him and even some things that Jensen himself hadn’t even been aware of.
Then came the tests. The medical exam was as expected—thoroughly humiliating and utterly degrading. Where Kripke had at least treated him as a person, the doctor acted like he was just a piece of merchandise to be examined for its value.
And yet, regardless of how bad all that had been, Jensen would have gone through it a million times if it had meant avoiding what came next. The mental tests were exhausting, several hours of unrelenting, ongoing, repetitive questions. By the third hour, Jensen had stopped even trying to think about what his answers would say about him, and just responded on instinct and truth.
Which was probably the intention all along.
When it was finally over he was sent to a cafeteria, where Mister Kripke told the lunch ladies to give him something to eat. Jensen had cringed when the man patted him on the shoulder all patronizing, and told him, “You’re property of the Quenten Agency now, Jensen. Best to keep you in tip top shape.” The woman behind the counter looked at Jensen in pity before giving him an extra spoonful on his plate. He didn’t dare tell her he wasn’t hungry, too wrecked with nerves to eat.
Instead he sat down at a table and pushed his food around on his plate. There were some free men and women spread around the room, but most of the people here wore collars. Jensen’s would be measured after lunch, or so Mister Kripke had told him. “Isn’t it exciting?” the man had asked. Jensen had been seconds away from punching him in the face.
“So what are you in for?” Jensen stared up at the girl who’d dropped down on the seat in front of him. She was wearing a white outfit similar to the one Jensen had been given.
“My parents couldn’t pay off the loan on the new house. Guess they figured it was safer to put me up as collateral instead of themselves.” The girl grabbed some fries off Jensen’s plate and Jensen was too slow to manage to slap her hand away from them. Besides, it’s not like he had an appetite, he ended up pushing his plate towards her. She grinned. “I’m Gen.”
“Jensen,” he answered, figuring that maybe he did want one of his fries; she pushed the plate back in between them.
“I didn’t think they could do that,” he said.
“Well not technically, but as long as you’re underage your parents can sign stuff in your name. Since I’m 17, the Agency can’t really sell me for at least a few more months, but they have every right to start my training early, so they can get more money out of me when they do sell me.”
“Riiight, when they sell my contract, but really, what’s the diff.”
Jensen nodded and took another fry.
“So what about you, pretty boy?”
“Student loans.” He nibbled on the fry, pulled it back out, dipped it in ketchup and sucked it up before pushing it back in between his lips. She was quiet and he looked up, she was staring at him in something resembling fascination, it took her a moment of him staring back before she turned away her eyes.
“Those suck,” she said, grabbing another one of his fries.
“So why sign up for them if you can’t pay them?” She seemed almost wistful, and he couldn’t blame her. If her parents sold her, she probably hadn’t even finished high school before she ended up here.
He pushed the plate away again, cringing at the thought of feeling sorry for himself. At least he’d had a choice; she never did.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to hit a sore spot.”
“It’s ok, things just… changed.” He could see she wouldn’t want his pity. He reached for his drink, only to realize it was already gone.
“They do that sometimes.” Gen sipped Jensen’s drink. “Hey, chin up, Quenten’s a high-class agency. They wouldn’t sell us to utter lowlifes.” But Quenten rarely if ever sold to individuals, so who knows where they’d end up.
“Because becoming a sex slave is such high class.” Jensen shivered at the very thought, remembering the way they’d acted when Tom’s father had bought that twink that he kept around the office as an “employee of the week” award. The guy, Mike, was treated well, Jensen had to admit that, but the way he was kept naked for the most part, ready to spread his legs and be bent over a desk at a moment’s notice, Jensen couldn’t even imagine living like that.
Jensen was almost happy that Gen couldn’t pick up his thoughts as she continued. “It can be. Hell, from the lessons I’ve had, it can even be fun.”
Jensen blushed, thinking about how Mike had leered at him that one time Tom and he had done some intern work for Tom’s dad. He didn’t have a problem with it, as far as Mike was concerned, at least he wasn’t a pet. Jensen couldn’t fault him on that.
“I mean, they won’t actually do anything because I’m too young, but there’s times when I want to, you know what I mean?”
“And as long as you make it clear what you don’t want to do in advance, well… you’re going to spend the next few years doing what they want you to anyway, so what’s wrong with enjoying your job?”
Jensen wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince him or herself. Anything to cope with the life forced on her. He wondered which of them was right; he had to admit she was probably the smarter of the two.
He let them guide him back to medical after dinner. Kripke handed him the final contract and Jensen read it through, looking for the fine print. More to delay things than for any other reason. It wasn’t like his signature was anything more than a formality at this point.
When the collar locked around his throat, it felt like he died.