The Children of Earth are merchants first and foremost, traveling in fleets of anywhere from three to fifty ships between human-settled star systems.
Why manned trade ships, when artificial intelligence and automated cargo can make the journey just fine? The problem is that it can take decades for a ship to travel between settlements. Despite generations of research and experimentation, no one has solved the problem of faster-than-light travel, and so the only way to get from star system to star system is at relativistic speed. There are indeed unmanned cargo ships that travel between systems, but it’s a massive risk. Who will buy your goods at the other end, if the ship even makes it? How can you trust that your buyer isn’t lying when they said the goods never arrived, or arrived damaged? Are you willing to wait decades to see a return on your investment?
Trade instead with the Children of Earth. They’ll buy your goods outright, and then choose themselves where and how to sell them. They take on the risk instead, and if you want to make sure something gets to another settlement, well, the Children are rigidly honorable about trade. Everyone knows that. Even if the Children of Earth are very strange.
After all, they live in a different time-stream from the system-bound. They alone of all the people in the universe visit every settled world in their lifetime. When traveling at relativistic speed, time dilates; fifty years may pass for someone on a planet while for the Children in their ship, only thirty years have passed. If you leave your star system and travel at relativistic speed to another system and return, you may return to a completely unfamiliar world, as if the ship were a time machine that took you to the far future.
As such, less time has passed since the departure from Earth for the Children than it has for the rest of humankind, and the merchants have preserved the traditions of old Earth as closely as possible. All the Children (with the exception of systembound people who have been adopted into the Children of Earth after at least a full trade-circuit on board the ship) can trace their lineage back to Earth, with names, births and deaths, and DNA prints stored in the ancestor shrine in every household. Honoring elders and ancestors is an integral part of the traditions, and the beliefs and practices around their ancestors and the family unit is part and parcel of the fabric of every Child’s life. They don’t have a word for their beliefs; it’s just following the traditions of Earth, it’s just part of being a Child of Earth. The system-bound, though, call the beliefs of the Children “Earthism”.
The Children of Earth value long-lasting, quality, heirloom possessions, and own fewer of them due to space constraints. Rich colors and textures are preferred over plain elegance, because the vastness of space is stark and silent enough as it is. Food is flavorfully spiced, because spices keep well and they have access to a huge variety of spices from a diversity of star systems. Tea keeps well, too, and is often a meditative and social bonding ritual. Dance, music, storytelling, and theater are deeply valued, and everyone participates in one of these to some extent or another. You’ve got to make your own entertainment on long trade-routes, after all. Which also means that social harmony is vital, because you’re stuck with these people for a long time with nowhere to go, so you have to get along well enough. Disputes can be often settled over a competition, with both or all parties agreeing to abide by the outcome, but the dispute is never settled through violence.
A Brief History: The Four Waves
While most of humanity settled in one star system or another, seeking planetary resources and a semblance of the Earth they’d left behind, others noted an opportunity in trade between the stars. Large wealthy corporations and rich entrepreneurs established merchant fleets, predicting that the automated, unmanned cargo ships moving at relativistic speed between the colonies would be untrusted and insufficiently secure. Their gamble paid off, and their fleets prospered.
This was the first wave of the Children of Earth, the Great Fleets who founded and enforced mercantile law, and who even today think that they should be in charge. Yet their numbers have dwindled, and their former advantage of being the most organized, structured fleets has come to work against them in the face of the adaptability of the younger Children.
The second wave were smaller, scrappier groups, less wealthy than the Great Fleets but resourceful nonetheless. These were entire communities, extended families, coalitions of smaller companies, religious groups, and villages with enough foresight and cooperation to gather together enough resources to purchase a ship or two, band together in caravans for safety and resources, and begin merchanting. Over time, these Elder Caravans have grown in power and influence, forcing the Great Fleets to cooperate with them for government of the Children of Earth.
As the situation on Earth got more desperate, the Fleets and Caravans “graciously” sponsored the many remnants of humanity on Earth to ships or the colonies, with an expectation (of course) of being paid back. The Fleets were able to sponsor more than the Caravans at the time, though the balance of power and influence has shifted more equal now (and some would argue that it’s shifted more in favor of the Caravans). The Sponsored were essentially indentured servants, and it could take multiple generations to earn their freedom, by which point many were integrated into the Fleets and Caravans that sponsored them, but some managed to maintain most of their individual cultural identity until they could work off their debt and get their own ship. Generations later, there are now small ragtag caravans, and some brave souls who fly solo or in groups of 2-5 ships. The rest of the Children call these minor fleets and minor caravans the Sponsored, but the Sponsored prefer to identify within their specific fleet or caravan rather than a homogenous group.
In time, old Earth passed from living memory into distant fable and its location was lost to time. Many of the younger Children no longer felt connected to the idea of Earth itself. They became disillusioned with the old Earth cultural divide, intergroup and intragroup politics, and wanted a unified Children of Earth cultural identity. They felt alienated from the system-bound and felt they had more in common with one another. Enough of these younger Children had connection and influence to pull together enough ships for some small fleets, which have grown over time in success… but also developed their own pride, clannishness, and cultural divides with the older fleets. They call themselves the United Fleets.