In 2037 the British government has pushed through a controversial new tax, the UMT – compulsory to all and collected automatically via internet bank accounts. However, one address has somehow evaded paying, and the Revenue Bureau takes the unusual step of sending an officer to investigate in person…
James Horwell pushed another couple of buttons, and waited for the car to slow down and manoeuvre itself into a parked position. With a faint hydraulic hiss, the door opened and the driver’s seat rotated and tilted for easy departure. What an age we live in, Horwell pondered to himself as he slid to his feet and waved the device wrapped around his forearm across the door to lock it. I remember when they didn’t do that. He felt for the teddy-bear clip on his tie, in case it had fallen off during his exit from the vehicle. Thankfully, on this occasion, it had not.
His fingers flitted down to the device’s touchscreen. To whom did he owe the pleasure of a visit? He glanced down the profile page of Mr R Thackeray. Age bracket 35-44. Female spouse and two children… The last entry struck him. He looked closer. Last updated in May 2036? Over a year since the last data sample of any kind had come through from this household – no wonder the Bureau was concerned.
Something unusual – a garden path. He sighed and stretched down to rub his legs, as if encouraging them for the walk. He didn’t do walking; he seldom even travelled in the company car. He didn’t have to, not when his workplace was downstairs in the corner of the sitting room. It was a cliché but everything really was all done online these days. A few clicks and whoosh – tax money whizzing through the air to his employer’s coffers. A few more and whoosh – movies, music, games whizzing from MediaCloud back the other way. Even on the occasions he did travel to the office it was a case of stepping out the door, swiping your arm against the ticket barrier and whoosh – you were on the Maglev train across London to work in seconds, if they weren’t late again.
As he traversed the path he observed the large garden unfolding around him. It was well past the end of his working hours by the time he had arrived at this isolated address, and the evening sunshine lit up petals and the undersides of trees like a thousand light-emitting diodes. He wished he could at least name some of the flowers. Of course there were still tree farms around, but an ordinary, citizen-owned garden? And one so well tended at that? None of the colleagues he knew of had one of those.
Abruptly his foot caught something with a loud clunk and he stumbled, clutching at his tie clip; the computer clattered to a stop just in front, its screen an ugly web of cracks. This is getting a bit much, Horwell thought. I can’t be done with this soon enough. He stepped cautiously over the broken monitor and hurried along the remainder of the path to the door. He dabbed the sweat from his brow, straightened his tie, taking care not to knock the clip from its place this time, and waited for the door to buzz in recognition at his presence.
He had expected some kind of rebellious, colourful creature with a straggly beard to answer, but this might have been the face of any other drone in the tax office. “Good evening, Mr Thackeray. My name is James Horwell; I am a representative for the Revenue Bureau, and-”
“Ah, yes,” the man interjected. “I’d rather been expecting this.” He proffered a small smile to Horwell; Horwell resolved not to return it. “Please, come in. And call me Rodger.”
“Rodger,” he repeated dully, still glancing the man up and down and hoping not to appear indiscreet. Actually, perhaps he wasn’t like any official – he was better groomed than most of the ones he’d seen. The suit was immaculate, fingernails clean, facial hair neatly trimmed. For a figure of rebellion he certainly carried an air of authority.
“I’ll just be a moment,” the man continued, opening a door to the sounds of gleeful chatter and scraping dishes, and the lingering smell of a meal that surely must have been a veritable feast to all of the senses. “Would you care for a tea?”
“Ah… yes, please.” Horwell replied, welcoming the chance for both polite acceptance and quenching his thirst. Vaguely he heard them in the room – “cherry pie with my two cherry pies”; the clatter of chairs moving; two loud kissing noises; more clattering; “Don’t worry – I’ll be back in a bit”; a female voice giving a non-committal grunt in response. Horwell felt a pang of something that wasn’t hunger. In any case, this clearly was not a household associating itself with criminal activity.
Mr Thackeray led him through to the sitting room, showed him to his seat, and placed the cups carefully upon the table between them; an image flashed through Horwell’s mind of pieces assembling on a chessboard. He cleared his throat, and waited for his host to be seated before beginning.
“Now, erm… I am a representative for the Revenue Bureau, and I am here to enquire regarding your non-payment of two thousand, six hundred and ninety-eight point seven pounds in Universal Media Tax. If there has been an error of some kind in your online application then you may be able to resubmit within-”
“There is no error,” interrupted Thackeray, pausing for a breath. “I chose not to pay.”
A brief, resonant silence passed between them.
“You chose not to?”
“Yes…” Horwell tapped the event into the screen keyboard with no enthusiasm. He could see where the next several minutes of conversation were to go.
“You are aware that UMT is a compulsory payment, Mr Thackeray?”
“I am, Mr Horwell.”
“One that, if unpaid, may lead to criminal proceedings resulting in loss of media access, a fine or a jail sentence?”
Thackeray’s brow furrowed. “Mmm. The jail sentence doesn’t sound appealing, I’ll admit. But I can pay the fine, and I don’t have any media access to lose.”
“I have no media to lose. I don’t watch movies, play games, read news websites. I can’t, literally.”
“We installed modem boxes for those who couldn’t set up-”
“Or wouldn’t? Yes, I’m familiar with that box. I think it’s somewhere over in the vegetable patch.”
“But don’t you find it a wonderful service?” Horwell asked with barely-suppressed exasperation. “It’s all the music and books and news you could ever want for one fixed price! You can take as much as you like!”
“Exactly! How much of it is what I like? If everyone pays the same for all art then all art is worth the same, in other words worthless. What’s the point of promoting an artist if the revenue is the same whether they’re a success or not? The more dross I saw out there the less I felt it worth spending any of my earnings, and this new bit of legalised theft was the last straw.”
“Come on! You expect me to believe you live without any sort of entertainment?”
“Any passive form, yes. Watching films, listening to music, reading crap. All activities that give without taking, all allowing the mind to atrophy. We write, sing, draw, paint, play instruments, the kids play games…”
“Just do as you’re told!” Horwell shouted. “Why should you be so different to everyone else?”
A loud clatter of cutlery came from the dining room, and the relative silence became absolute. Mr Thackeray leant forward until his face was mere centimetres from Horwell’s, and spoke in a hot whisper.
“Do you know how hard it was to convince the wife and kids to give up the majority of the things that made them happy? I’ll tell you, bloody hard. This isn’t the cheap, dishonest option I’m going for here. I’m still paying for this tax. I’m paying in my kids being bullied for not having any gadgets, let alone the latest ones. I’m paying in Marie spending hours bored out of her mind at home and bitching about it when I get back every night. I’m paying in not knowing the latest news until hours, even days after it’s occurred.
“Don’t get me wrong, they’re behind me on doing this after a lot of talk, but it’s still not roses and rainbows all the way. It means spending on real things, corporeal things. Food, clothes, writing and painting materials, any books I can get my hands on these days since there’s no such thing as a bookshop anymore. I make my own way in entertaining myself, thank you, I don’t need force-fed media against my will.
“So why should I be different? The same reason you wear a child’s homemade tie pin over a cheap nasty uniform. You’re part of a company but you still stand out with your beliefs and values. I’m equal to others but I am still an individual, and as an individual, I protest at this ridiculous law and demand to see your superior.”
The man’s eyes, open and unyielding, burned holes through Horwell’s. “I agree… uh, I mean, I’ll call my superintendent,” he wavered. He tapped the request onto his wrist without another word, while Rodger Thackeray returned to his dining room for a slice of cherry pie.
"Little bug, little bug... I might mistake you for a grain and put you in my cereal..."
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