New Ceres Nights extract – “Fair Trade” by Stephen Dedman


Extract from “Fair Trade” by Stephen Dedman

Deakin sat behind a broad desk cluttered with papers, in front of a large hand-drawn map of his plantation. He was better dressed than his overseer, in a tailored linen shirt and an embroidered waistcoat, though his jabot was crooked and he wore neither wig nor gloves. “Well, Mr Barrington,” he asked, returning his pen to the inkwell. “What can I do for you? Please, take a seat. Would you like some coffee? It’s my personal blend.”

Barrington wondered whether the coffee might be considered a bribe by his superiors; deciding to err on the side of caution, he shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said, sitting rather gingerly in a wicker-seated wooden chair on his side of the desk, then cleared his throat. “This is just a routine visit.”

“The window tax again? I’ve lodged all the paperwork for any new buildings on the property, but you’re free to look around, of course.”

“Thank you. No, this visit is intended to determine how much businesses such as your own expect to import over the next few years.”

Deakin sipped at his coffee, then placed the cup on the desk, his smile becoming a little less genial. “For the purpose of raising import duties, I presume?”

“The spaceport is a major expense,” Barrington replied stiffly. “It’s only fair that if we need to expand it, that the expense should be met by those who benefit from it, proportionally. You’re free, of course, to pass any extra cost on to your customers.”

The coffee grower swiveled his chair around until he could see the linen map. “A lot of the expense comes from your customs inspectors and other bureaucrats, not from maintenance.”

“Don’t forget security,” Barrington countered. The Homefires had long been threatening to sabotage any starships landing on New Ceres, and even to destroy the spaceport completely. While few New Ceresians supported their methods, there were many on the planet who supported their luddite and isolationist views — either out of a dislike for the ships’ anachronistic presence among the reconstructed Eighteenth Century ambience of the world, or because of a distrust of refugees and immigrants. While the spaceport and ships were protected by high-tech automated systems that had so far kept saboteurs at bay, there had been a few assaults on starship crews and off-duty port personnel. These had, of course, driven the price of imports even higher.

“I know that’s a problem,” Deakin conceded. “But we’re already struggling to meet demand. Growing good coffee in this climate and soil isn’t easy, even in greenhouses — and your window tax only adds to the cost.”

“That will be taken into consideration, of course,” said Barrington. The window tax was intended as one of the many consumption taxes on luxury goods, along with the wallpaper tax, hat tax, glove tax, perfume tax, and wig powder tax. All of these created work for the Bureau of Trade, but the Government considered them less unpopular than introducing an income tax.

Barrington’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness by this time, allowing him a better look at Deakin. His skin was not as dark as that of most of his workers, refugees from war-torn San Benedicto, or of some of the women at the Hotel Utopia (where Madame Genevieve, herself possessed of a rich café au lait complexion, prided herself on being able to cater to a wide variety of tastes), and he was slender rather than muscular, but he could have played Othello convincingly without any need for greasepaint. Barrington found it difficult to judge the age of offworlders, but he guessed that the coffee grower was in his late forties. “But who else do you think should pay? Due in large part to the food problem, the Government is unable to increase the tax burden on the poor … and as I’m sure you know, there are many who wish to make the planet completely self-sufficient. As the bulk of imports are luxury goods… I mean no disrespect to the coffee you import, Mr Deakin, but the locally grown product, including your own, of course, is good enough for most people.”

Deakin looked Barrington up and down as though trying to judge the age and cost of his tricorne, grey frock coat and slightly shabby second-best wig. “Have you ever tried any of my prime blend coffees, Mr Barrington?”

“No. My superior brings your coffee into the office on occasions — but I’m not a connoisseur, and I doubt I would be able to taste the difference.”

“Your boss is Mr Marly?”

“He is.”

Deakin nodded. “He buys one of our exclusive Kona blends. Quite a large order.” His tone was bland.

Barrington didn’t respond immediately. Elias Marly liked his luxuries, but he was also a strong supporter of the Isolationist Faction — whereas Deakin, he knew, sponsored many immigrants from San Benedicto, saying that no-one knew more about growing coffee. Judging from the aroma filling the room, Barrington was prepared to concede that Deakin might have been right, at least about that. “I will need to see your books, if you would be so kind.”

“My … oh. You mean my accounts: I thought for a minute that you were referring to my library. Don’t you already have records of every pound of cargo that goes through the spaceport — and everyone who comes from San Benedicto to work for me?”

“Of course, but…”

“But you need to know how much tax I can afford to pay?”

Barrington’s normally pale cheeks flushed, but Deakin only smiled. “I understand. I have the most recent month’s paperwork here, but anything older than that is in the house.”

He stood. “Shall we go?”

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