The Empire rests on four pillars; aristocracy, religion, the guilds and the plebeians. Each subject of the Empire belongs to one of these classes. By far the most numerous are the plebeians; their immense labours till the earth and operate the mighty exa factories. Despite this, they have no social role in the Empire at all. A few subjects with recognizable talent may escape this fate into either the Guilds or Priesthood. The aristocrats rule over all, subordinate only to the Empress and her bloated family.
At the absolute pinnacle of Imperial society is the Empress; Commander of Mankind, Defender of Belief, she whose name may not be uttered. In theory her authority is absolute, her every word an inviolable law. In practice the Empire is too large and complex for any one individual to govern directly. Authority is devolved to the wider royal family, the aristocracy and the Imperial bureaucracy.
The royal family is an ever growing network of distant relations. These royal persons occupy the highest positions in the Empire; they command armies and fleets, planets and moons. While some posts are ceremonial, the Empress insists no duty is entirely delegated. Power is retained by being exercised.
When the monarchy began in earnest, the wealthiest and most respected families on Earth were co-opted. A dazzling array of earls, marquises and dukes suddenly sprang into existence. This petty nobility jealously squabbles over the posts and opportunities the royal family is unable or unwilling to exploit.
This tottering structure is propped up by the Imperial bureaucracy. An army of chamberlains, secretaries, advisors and underlings ensures the system functions, at least as well as can be expected.
One of the first acts of the Second Emperor was to establish a state religion. To begin with this new religion had no beliefs of it’s own. It simply regularized existing human religions, incorporating them into a single structure. For billions of worshippers there was no tangible effect on their observances. Their beliefs did not change. Nor did their leaders. However, in time, the screws began to turn.
The religion of the Earthly Imperium, known simply as The Faith, consists of many different doctrinal paths. These have different origins, holy texts and core beliefs. However, they were once more different than they now are. A century and more of Imperial control has gradually blurred the distinctions. Small corrections to holy texts, justified on the grounds of improved translation or historical accuracy, have subtly altered their messages. The new astronomical calendar, introduced to align the calendars of a dozen worlds, harmonized many religious festivals. Chief among these changes are priests.
Priests are now vetted and regulated by the Imperial bureaucracy. As a result, their teachings do not deviate far from the interests of the aristocracy. Despite this, the various chaplains, monks and priests of The Faith bring comfort to billions. Many are true believers. A few are fanatics.
Despite the nepotism of the regime, competence is still grudgingly accorded a role. An aristocrat might secure for his bumbling nephew a military command, but entrusting him with his own safety is another matter. Pilots and surgeons are examples of careers in which the merely talented may still hope to rise.
Such professionals long ago established their own power structures; the guilds. Guilds differ widely in their size and influence. One of the most potent is the Guild of Astronavigation. Without Astronavigators, interstellar travel would cease. The Guild of Astronavigation therefore wields outsized influence. Its members have many privileges: they are excused uniform, paid well and are immune to some disciplinary offences. The lifeblood of guilds is knowledge. Since the art of Astronavigation is known only to the guild, and the guild reserves the right to select and train new Astronavigators, the power of the organisation endures.
Most guilds have gradually developed their own customs and rituals to bind their members together and to distinguish them. While some limit themselves to an initiation rite, others have unique spoken or gestural languages. Some are so ritualistic they are barely distinguishable from religions.
For the many billions of Imperial subjects, their daily lives are dictated by social status. Society is controlled by a tiny minority of well connected, wealthy families. For these few, life is a crowded calendar of elaborate social events; leavened with the few regrettable duties which cannot be delegated. The rest of mankind works to sustain this lifestyle, with individual rewards commensurate with indispensability.
You do not have to be book smart to live comfortably. Skilled bodyguards are always required, their demand spiking whenever noble families fall out and feud. Bored aristocrats fill fat purses to entice spike fighters, zero gravity gymnasts or professional drinkers to compete. Such opportunities come and go, blown hither and thither in the vortex of high fashion.
Children who show promise in mathematics may hope to become Astronavigators. A few do. Others with talent find their niche as pilots, doctors, bureaucrats or interfacers. However, most – the remaining 95% – become plebeians where a lifetime of drudgery awaits. Some escape into space, signing decade long contracts on freighters or settling in the outer colonies, trading the ravages of long term cosmic radiation exposure or the risk of incurable alien diseases for a little freedom, adventure or land.