Whether the space-station that they found in front of them when the Western Leader emerged into sub-light speed was anything like the infamous Debt Star, Mark did not know, but their destination was shaped like a wheel, with the diameter of a small moon.
Near its hub were many docking bays and ports. Many of them, he could see, contained the outlines of Star-cruisers and other vessels, large and small, that were under construction. Several seemingly complete and operational Star-cruisers hung in lazy geo-stationary orbit over the Station, to which they were connected by various long cables. The Constructor Station itself turned slowly to give itself a natural gravity in its outer wheel rim. Fleets of freighters headed to and from ports near the Station's hub in an unending stream, whilst smaller personnel transporters and patrol craft buzzed about, and squadrons of fighters were seen far off practising their dog-fight techniques.
Years ago, he would have been enthralled by the spectacle, but now, although he could identity many of the craft, knew their histories and capabilities, he looked upon it all as just so much metal.
"Craft in Sector GFR 1576, identify yourself," came over the intercom.
"Hello, patrol, this is Western Leader, code 145893, seeking clearance for landing on Constructor Station Resolution."
There was a moment's pause.
"Clearance granted! Sir! We shall provide an escort, sir!"
A squadron of the squat Bow-fighters peeled away from the mock dog-fight, reassembled itself into formation and fell in behind and around the Western Leader.
"Western Leader, this is the commander of 452 Squadron. Make your way to the near Hub and we will see you safely there."
"Thank you, but is that really necessary?"
With the escort around them, every other vessel around the Station stayed well clear of the Western Leader as it came in to dock with one of the hub ports.
The door of the Wests' craft opened and there before them were a number of Imperial officials. The chief amongst them stepped forward.
"Welcome to Constructor Station Resolution, Mr West, sir. The Emperor is ready to see you now, sir," he announced in clipped tones, for all the world as if Nathan West had been kicking his heels in some ante-room.
"I and my four aides," he motioned towards Mark, Tamara and his two bodyguards, "will see the Emperor. I have other staff who are due time off ship."
He gestured towards Kerry and Jerry and a couple of other crew-members.
"You have a recreation area?"
"Yes sir. That will be arranged."
The official summoned a pair of pretty young women and gave them their instructions. Then he led Nathan's party to an elevator which would drop them down one of the spokes of the Station to its living quarters in the rim.
Down in the rim, they stepped from the elevator and looked about them. The surroundings in this part of the Station were much more comfortable than the docking area. They had left a functional industrial area and come down to an elegant five-star hotel.
Also, whereas the docking area had contained white-suited technicians and low-ranking military personnel in plain grey-green Imperial uniforms with few markings, such personnel that inhabited this region were obviously higher ranking, with more red and blue dots on their rank badges.
They halted in front of a pair of elegant wooden doors. The official punched a code into the control panel at the side of the doors. The doors slid open and they all walked through.
"Mr Nathan West and party," announced the official.
The man did it for effect only, but it was a grand gesture.
A high backed leather chair was situated on a dais, the back was towards them. Above was a large window, through which could be seen the two nearest spokes leading up towards the hub and all the activity that that part of the Station contained. At one side of chamber, stood a desk with a discreet huddle of officials sitting behind it, each making sure that he looked busy. All around the chamber stood red-cloaked and helmeted members of the Imperial Bodyguard.
The chair swung around to reveal a figure in a dark voluminous cloak which concealed his face. Dark mysterious cloaks are obviously this year's thing, thought Tamara, who was beginning to try to understand the mysteries of fashion.
The figure stood up and made its way slowly down the steps of the dais. At the side of the room, the officials at the desk also stood up, consciously at attention.
"Welcome to Constructor Station Resolution, Mr West," said the Emperor.
"Thank you, My Master," replied Nathan.
My Master' was the correct address for the Emperor. Most of his followers said it with deep unction in their tones. West pronounced it as if it was just a name.
"You have more followers in your train, I see," continued the Emperor, and then a joke occurred to him. "Are you breeding them, Mr West?"
"Yes, My Master. Here are my son and daughter."
"Ah, oh, I see."
The Emperor was momentarily taken aback so he pursued another channel.
"There is something quite magnificent about an empire girding its loins for war. Do you not agree, Mr West?"
"War is not my business, My Master."
The Emperor raised a quizzical eyebrow. Unfortunately due to his enveloping cloak, it could not be seen and the subtle irony that he had hoped to convey was quite lost.
"Business, yes. To business, then."
The Emperor turned way from his visitors and walked towards a side room that was laid out with a large oval-shaped table. The chief official gestured to the West party to follow, and various other officials scurried after them into the room.
The Emperor seated himself on one side of the table. Sombre suited officials placed themselves at his right and left hands, others stood behind him. Nathan sat opposite him, Mark and Tamara on either hand, his bodyguards behind.
"The Empire needs money for the military. Rumours abound of impending rebellion," began the Emperor, without preamble.
"How much did you have in mind?" answered West.
"My officials consider that fifteen billion will be required this year to enable us to execute our military expenditure plans."
Nathan nodded as if this was entirely appropriate. He steepled his fingers and gazed into the distance in a studied look of consideration.
"You will be able to raise that sum or should I seek further sums elsewhere?" asked the Emperor.
"I have both the money that you need to borrow and a military hardware manufacturing capability, My Master. If you secure money from elsewhere, you will also need to negotiate for your hardware needs. I can supply both."
"Indeed, Mr West?"
"In short, My Master, I can give you more bangs for your buck than anyone else."
"I see. Most convenient. You could, then, I presume, build a new Destructor Station?"
A muscle twitched in Nathaniel's cheek.
"A new Debt Star?"
"Yes. Since that is what the popular press chooses to call it." sneered the Emperor.
"Why not requisition the old one?" asked West
"Because it is now owned by the Wimsey Corporation and they own half of the popular press. Its main neutron-laser channel is now the ultimate thrill-ride, so I am told. It's called ‘Wipe-out', or some such stupid name. Can you imagine the head-lines? ‘Emperor Snatches Children's Playground to Wage War!'."
"Very well, I can build you another one. Do you want the same specifications as before?"
"No. Technology has advanced these twenty years. It must be bigger and better."
"With more knobs on?"
"Yes. Lots more detail. The old model was too plain by half."
"It shall be so, My Master, but it will take years to complete. Would not conventional forces be more suitable?"
"We will have more conventional forces as well, Mr West. Our first Star-cruiser battle fleet is preparing for commission as we speak."
"Please, My Master, how many planets are in open rebellion, as yet?"
"None as yet, Mr West."
"So the battle fleets will not be intending to attack anyone yet?"
"Not yet. Their purpose at the moment is to look good for the HoloNet cameras. I shall review them Myself. I was thinking of maybe one Saturday night?"
"Tuesday gets the best viewing figures, My Master.`
"Tuesday it shall be."
"So the existence of the battle-fleets is to make some planets think twice about this rumoured rebellion, My Master?"
"Yes, some, but by no means all. This rebellion will serve a useful purpose. It will remind everyone in the galaxy..." He paused to look meaningfully at West. "... that I am the ultimate power in this Empire. We want the rebellion, but just a small one. One that is easily crushed."
"Yes, and We need some more wounded war heroes about the place. It helps make people feel good about the Empire and makes them work harder in their miserably dull routines."
"Very well. I shall, of course, require to know the destinations of any expeditions by the battle-fleets, My Master."
"You will require...?! You get above yourself, Mr West. That will be highly confidential information."
"But if you attack my investments, I shall not be able to finance the Empire's war effort, My Master."
"Ah yes, I see."
Just then one of the officials behind the Emperor leaned forward and whispered into his ear.
"Here? Yes. Bid him enter," bid the Emperor.
A large Imperial soldier entered the room. He was pushing a wheel-chair. In the wheel-chair sat an even larger man. His head was encased in a shiny black helmet with a grim breath-mask covering his face. A long black cloak draped down behind the chair, but it could not disguise the fact that the man lacked arms below the elbows and legs below the knees.
"So Lord Bader, you have a situation report?"
"Yes, My Master."
The wounded war-hero paused and his mask turned to look at the financier.
"It would seem," murmured the Emperor without pleasure, "that We must share this information with Our banker, Lord Bader."
"Yes, My Master. As You wish. I have a report that Macarooine has denied entry to one of our troop transports."
"Macarooine," mused the Emperor. "Is that not the site of the new ground-troop training ground."
"Yes, My Master," confirmed the wounded hero of the Drone Wars. "The Macarooine Central Council say that the agreement for use of their planet for troop training has not been finalised."
"That sounds a bit rebellious to Me, Lord Bader. Macarooine must be secured immediately!"
"Yes, My Master."
"Ahem. If I might just say," said Nathan, "I have substantial holdings in the Macarooine Real-Estate Corporation. If I threatened to sell, unless they continue to permit the troop training, the fall in share values would effect the Corporation and the planet's economy. I'll have a word with the Chief Executive."
"Right, thank you, Mr West. Suspend operations on Macarooine for the moment. Lord Bader."
"So you don't want me to launch a full-scale ground assault on Macarooine, My Master?" asked a disappointed Lord Bader.
"Only as part of a pre-arranged training schedule, Lord Bader, in consultation with the Macarooine Real-Estate Corporation."
"Yes, My Master."
"What else, have you for Us, Lord Bader?"
"Our Patrol Ships have reported the construction of Star-cruisers instead of freighters in the Constructor Station orbiting the planet Harlooff, My Master. These Star-cruisers have not been authorised by ourselves..."
"Ah, that's why they wanted to expand their facilities," smiled West.
"So they must be for the rebels!" decided the Emperor. "Yes, then that must be Our first target, Lord Bader."
"Ahem. Supposing I just threaten to withdraw my credit facilities from them, My Master?" suggested West.
"Mmm. What, and not attack them?"
"If they stop building these Star-cruisers, My Master, there would not be any point."
"Oh, very well, Mr West!"
"I was hoping to use my specially adapted Bow-fighter, My Master," moaned a peeved Lord Bader.
"That will have to wait, Lord Bader. Have you anything else for Us?"
"Yes, My Master, there's a report from a Patrol in the Outer Rim of the Z-Sector."
"The Z-Sector! I did not think there were any civilisations that far out."
"It is a Restricted Planet, My Master, the planet Bacchanalia."
"And what are they doing?"
"Drinking beer and surfing, My Master."
"So? Apart from a twinge of jealousy, Lord Bader, I cannot see the problem."
"They have been spotted using Imperial Credit notes, which are, of course, forbidden..."
"Ahem," coughed Nathaniel politely. "I know this planet, My Master, and I know the extent of the problem. They only have some twelve hundred Credits in total. They are no threat."
"No, indeed, only twelve hundred... Have you been trading with this Restricted Planet, Mr West?"
"No, not I, My Master, but I was aware that trading had occurred, so I have taken steps to remove the Imperial Credits..."
"But they have broken the rules, they must be punished!"
"It won't look good on the HoloNet, My Master."
"It is a tiny population."
"So we just send in one troop transport. Just a couple of those all-terrain walkers, the ones that look like elephants, and just one battalion of Stormtroopers...?"
"Against a hundred unarmed settlers?"
"Mm. No, you're right. Very well, Mr West. What's next, Lord Bader?"
"That's it, My Master. Three reports of violations. Three opportunities to display the military might of the Empire!"
"Your diligence does you credit, Lord Bader. There will be other opportunities, I am sure," the Emperor said soothingly, then looked across the table at his banker. "Mr West, thank you for the loan, but please stop butting in when we are trying to get a decent little war going! Anyone would think that it is you who runs this Empire, instead of Me!"
Nathan West shrugged.
"If you don't want war, Mr West, I am surprised that you are so keen to lend Us money for the military."
"Assisting the Empire is my duty, My Master."
"Yes, and looking good in front of Imperial battle fleets is My duty, Mr West. How else do I get to look glorious and imperious?"
"You could try changing Your wardrobe, My Master," suggested Tamara.
"When I want your opinion, young lady, I'll ask for it! Thank you for trying, Lord Bader. Oh, by the way, how are your allergies these days?"
"Better, now that I have this mask, My Master."
"But I see your prostheses are still causing problems."
"I am having another fitting this afternoon, My Master."
"So, what was wrong with the last ones?"
"The arms chafed my stumps and the legs made me walk like a duck. Could I suggest, My Master, that we increase the Health Service budget?"
"You can suggest it, Lord Bader, but I can't do it. I'm not made of money, you know. We need every penny for the military."
"Even so, My Master, I need good quality prostheses..."
"Lord Bader, there is a war on, you know! Or at least there would be if West here didn't keep sticking his oar in!"