133 Chamomile Tea
Ves took a seat at table in an upscale teahouse. The urban noise of downtown Freslin made its way through the open window by his side. Lucky lazily sat down on the windowsill, staring out at the harmless birds and critters darting about between the neatly planted trees.
Minutes later, Calsie climbed the stairs of the oriental establishment. This time she brought a guest with her. The older gentlemen by her side looked like a bureaucrat that never transitioned into the upper ranks. He also appeared to be rather frazzled.
"Mr. Larkinson, it's good to finally meet you." The old man greeted Ves while offering his hand. "The name's Linden Royce. I'm the Deputy Director of Stakeholder Relations of the Initiative for Pioneering."
Mr. Royce basically schmoozed with every businessman or official who expressed interest in the Pioneers. Though Ves preferred to speak with his boss, beggars couldn't be choosers.
"You can call me Ves."
"That's fine, just call me Linden."
"Before we get to business, let's order some tea, shall we?"
Ves ordered a pot of fragrant chamomile tea. It was his mother's favorite tea. The smell of it brought happy memories of a simpler time to his mind. A fleeting smile appeared on his face before a bump from Lucky brought him back to the present.
"That's a remarkable looking cat you've got there. Did you obtain it from the Carnegie Group?"
"No, I had him for a while. Lucky here is an exclusive creation from an inventor from the New Rubarth Empire.."
In truth, Ves had no idea where the gem cat originally emerged. The young man merely name-dropped the notorious first-rate superstate in order to impress the deputy director. While Linden possessed enough self-control to keep his expression polite, a discrete bump from Lucky surreptitiously informed Ves of the man's excitement.
After a minute of enjoying their tea, they finally decided to talk shop.
"I've been hearing a lot about you from Calsie lately." Linden gestured at the young woman sitting next to Ves. "She informed me that you have expressed interest in forging a closer relationship with the Initiative for Pioneering. While we welcome each and every citizen from Cloudy Curtain, I'd like to hear your own motivations for seeking us out."
Ves already prepared an answer. "My mech business is about to enter a rapid growth trajectory. The amount of credits and publicity that my business is about to generate can lead to an irrational response. I recently realized the importance of paying attention to politics. Compared to the hostile attitudes of the White Doves and the Greens, the Pioneers are the only people in town that doesn't treat businessmen like scum."
"I understand where you are coming from, Ves. While Cloudy Curtain might appear to be a sleepy planet where nothing happens, the truth is that the Greens and White Doves are waging a daily war against the people. They are constantly advancing their heartless agendas in the Planetary Assembly."
"They have made their opinions of me very clear. While they have laid low for now, I don't doubt they are cooking something up to make it impossible for me to run my business in my home planet."
Linden nodded and poured another cup of chamomile tea from the pot. "There are signs that the their coalition is about to advance a tax reform bill in the Assembly in order to address the persistent budget deficits. From what we've heard, the bill is proposing to raise taxes on arms manufacturing and heavy industry to up to 50%."
"What?!" Ves almost spilled his tea. "Fifty percent is even higher than Bentheim's rate! The tax hikes won't fill up the holes in the annual budget at all. Instead, it will drive away every entrepreneur with a working brain. Without a healthy presence of business and commerce, Cloudy Curtain will slide further into backwardness."
"For a political neophyte, you are very astute in your predictions."
Ves couldn't help that his increased intelligence dredged up what he learned in business class. "Anyone can figure out the situation if they followed the news. Even if our planet's development doesn't matter to me, the tax rates still affect my business directly. It's impossible for me to make a living with such a murderous tax rate hanging over my head!"
Linden expressed his sympathies for Ves and elaborated on his own thoughts. "Our planet has been settled for several hundred years, but what have we done since then? Our population has remained stagnant at only twenty million while vast swathes of land remain unused."
"I'm familiar with the facts. Our population growth has remained stagnant because our best and brightest always emigrate to better pastures."
After a brief discussion about the backwardness of their home planet, Linden finally cut to the chase.
"It is great to hear your thoughts. We truly think alike." The old man complimented before adopting a stern face. "Unfortunately, due to political concerns, it is not convenient for us to accept you into our fold."
The refusal surprised Ves. After all, they had much in common. "Is there a problem?"
"There is. We've recently came across evidence that you have been keeping company with a rather unsavory element in our society."
"Exactly." This time, Linden's expression changed into a frown. "Perhaps you are not aware of the customs. That can be forgiven. Nevertheless, you should know that interacting with such gangs will only bring you momentary benefits. The Whalers will inevitably fall and be displaced by another gang. Your fate as a collaborator might also not be good."
"It is not your business to judge my relationship with the Whalers. They are the only power on this planet besides the MTA with a substantial mech force. As a mech designer and mech manufacturer, it is a given that we enter a mutually beneficial relationship."
Walter's Whalers might be uncouth bastards, but they treated Ves with respect.
"Mr. Larkinson, I believe you are severely underestimating the risks involved with associating with the Whalers. Your opponents are aware of your relations and are afraid that you will take advantage of it. In fact, the Greens and the White Doves have already made some preparations if the situation devolves into open conflict."
"That is quite a warning you gave me." Ves replied as he tried to figure out the deputy director's goal. "It is a pity that my bond with the Whalers is solid. It's impossible for me to break my relations with them, especially since they are the only friends I have who I can trust to lend a hand if my workshop is in danger."
The worth of a mech workshop on their home planet trumped all other considerations. A genuine mech designer offered a lot of possible services to the Whalers, such as customizing their mechs or designing custom ones that fit their personal needs.
Eventually, Linden backed down from his insistence and instead retrieved a secure data pad from his suit. He turned it on and placed it on the table next to the tea pot.
"What's this?" Ves asked as he grabbed the pad and scrolled through the contents. From what he saw, the pad contained a lot of documents and survey data of a couple of remote farms situated near the equator of the planet.
Linden clasped his hands and smirked. "Did you know that the Greens and the White Doves are the inheritors of the original pacifists who colonized our planet? They used to own the majority shares of the colony back when it was still a private business venture. They chose to settle on this planet because it offers the ideal environment to cultivate their own brand of luxury crops."
"So they're the ones behind the massive cloud rice farms? No wonder the Planetary Assembly favors agriculture so much. The Greens and the Doves are only interested in lining their own pockets."
One of the most famous products Cloudy Curtain developed was a genetically modified type of highly nutritious rice. The seeds originated from the New Rubarth Empire, and ever since the founders of the Bright Republic settled in the Komodo Star Sector, they tried and failed to cultivate this notoriously sensitive crop.
Only after another round of modification could the crops be tentatively grown in Cloudy Curtain's temperate and stable climate. The two consortiums that grew and sold the puffy, delicious and nutritious rice branded it as cloud rice. It was the planet's number one export, eclipsing many other specialty crops.
When Ves stumbled upon a giant hole in the survey data, he stopped. "Is there something special in the Colmes region?"
"The Raleigh Consortium and the Luvon Consortium are the sole farming concerns with the rights to cultivate cloud rice. The Raleighs favor the Greens while the Luvons are funding the White Doves. They used to be one big family before they suddenly split a mere decade after settling the planet."
"You're not answering my question." Ves complained. "What does this have to do with the survey data and the Colmes region?"
"I am trying to provide you with some essential context, my friend, but very well, let's skip the history lesson. All you need to know is that despite their common roots, the Raleighs and Luvons are also rivals who are locked in a subtle struggle for dominance."
"So you could say that the Consortiums and the groups that they are backing are frenemies."
"That is quite an apt description." Linden nodded. "Thus, you can imagine our surprise when we found out that the company that operates in the restricted Colmes region is actually a joint venture between the two Consortiums."
That raised an eyebrow from Ves. For the two political and economic rivals to cooperate on a farming venture of all things indicated that the region hid something important.
Ves looked at the earliest historical survey maps and noted that the Colmes region centered around a dormant volcano. The area around this volcano must be an exceptionally fertile plot of land.
"So what are you getting at?"
"Don't you see? The Colmes region is of vital importance to the two Consortiums. It might very well be the reason why their ancestors colonized this planet in the first place."
The news that the original pacifists might have settled on a barren planet like Cloudy Curtain due to a single fertile plot roused his interest. The farming Consortiums must be cultivating something much more valuable than cloud rice.
"This is interesting and all, but why are you telling me this? I am merely a mech designer. The farming sector has nothing to do with me."
"Perhaps you are correct, but consider the situation. Walter's Whalers routinely extort the local businesses. They even claim a cut from the incredible profitable export cloud rice. What do you suppose might happen if some of their mechs decided to stroll into the Colmes region?"
Lucky stopped the swish of his tail and stared at Linden with a focused intensity. Ves quickly stroked his back in order to forestall any aggression.
"Mr. Royce, you've given me a very dangerous suggestion. Is there some reason why you've mentioned it to me instead of acting on your own intelligence?"
The deputy director shrugged. "What can I say? The Pioneers are not an armed gang of thugs. We don't have the habit of acting like a bunch of hooligans with mechs. More importantly, the Whalers are a remarkably cohesive group. Say what you will about Mr. Walter, but he has a natural talent for leadership. It is impossible for any of us to engage in a dialog with their cadre due to their disdain for politicians."
"You could leave an anonymous tip."
"They might not act on the information if it comes from a suspicious source."
Ves rapped his fingers against the table and considered the situation. The Pioneers refused to let him join their little club due to his undeniable connections to a mercenary gang. Then they passed him a request to leverage those same connections to deliver a punch to the most important supporters of their political rivals.
Ves didn't need Lucky to tell him that the deputy director reeked of hypocrisy. "I'm certain an incident will benefit the Pioneers."
Linden gave him a smile. "What's good for the Pioneers will also be shared to allies such as you. When the Greens and the White Doves are thrown in disarray, we can forestall the pending tax reform bill that's currently under consideration."
"What if nothing happens at the Colmes region? Will you let the bill go through?"
"We can delay the procedures, but we can't prevent them from passing the bill. If the Greens and the White Doves retain their political momentum, then our Assemblymen have no choice but to compromise with the ruling coalition. I imagine they will bargain their support for the bill if they can obtain an exemption for our key businesses."
Naturally, the Pioneers would obviously leave out his mech workshop in that list. "Let me think about it. A delicate matter like this should not be decided over a cup of tea. Can I keep this data pad?"
"Feel free to keep it or show it around to your friends." Linden waved his hand and stood up. "I'm certain that it will make for interesting reading to anyone with an interest in farming."
The deputy director chuckled as he left the teahouse.