Information is vital to anyone wishing to know what is going on in the world, but too much information causes problems in sorting the dross from the interesting stuff. In Internal Security Central Control, the intelligence officers dealt with so much dross every hour of every day that the effect was mind-numbing, but this morning as one officer was coming to the end of his shift and looking forward to a nice meal, he found some reports that were rather more unusual than the norm.
He had read the report of a purchase of an unusual type of paper from central stores, the amount was quite small, but someone was doing something other than printing some letters, and he had picked up a report that a private printer down in the commercial sector was working through the ‘night'. This was probably some jerk getting his fanzine late to press, thought the officer.
He was rather more puzzled to read the amount of excited chatter over the station's internal communications network about the re-emergence of the Queen of Aldershott. The Princess Tamara had been found alive, it seemed, and accepted as Queen by a gathering of Aldershotti. The officer would not have been human had he not felt a twinge of sympathy and pleasure at the news. Good luck to the Aldershotti, he thought. Then there was this report of a gathering in Staff Canteen number 3 of the Aldershott Reunion Society.
"Sir," he called to his senior. "I have a report of a gathering. It's of the Aldershott Reunion Society, yet I have nothing on file to show of this society's existence... and sir, there's a lot of chatter about the fact that the Princess Tamara of Aldershott has been found alive."
"Really? Do we have a picture of her?"
"Yes sir. I'll do an identification scan, sir."
The two men watched and waited as the computer compared the picture of Tamara that had circulated amongst the excited Aldershotti through their internal communications links with those of various young human females that it had in its data banks.
"Nearest comparison, sir, is one Tamara West, sir, arrived on the Station yesterday with her father and brother. Her father is Nathan West, sir, head of Western Credit."
"Bring up the file of the Aldershott royal family," the senior man ordered.
They both read that the late Queen Heneria of Aldershott had married the financier Nathan West, a fact that not all Aldershotti would have known or remembered, still less other-worlders.
So there it was. Starring them in the face. Something odd was happening, but Nathan West was a big fish. The Security Commander felt out of his depth. He checked his official notifications about the arrival of the Queen Tamara, but there was nothing.
He considered the matter. Aldershott was not a threat. It no longer existed. The surviving Aldershotti were largely valued servants of the Empire. There was no cause for alarm, and yet...
He swallowed hard.
"Alert the Lord Bader," said the Commander quietly, but he sounded less sure of himself than he had intended.
Within the half hour, the massive black-cloaked and masked form of Lord Bader stalked into the Security Centre. He had all his new prosthetic limbs fitted, and he walked, the Security Commander was pleased to notice, much less like a duck than he had before.
"You called me, Commander?" rumbled Bader ominously.
"Yes, Lord Bader. It concerns Mr Nathan West, sir."
"What of him?"
"His daughter is with him, my Lord."
"I know that."
The Commander began to feel decidedly nervous.
"She is also the daughter of the late Queen Heneria of Aldershott, my Lord."
"I know that."
The Commander began to shake and his palms became sweaty.
"She has been acknowledged as Queen of Aldershott by many surviving Aldershotti, my Lord."
"That I did not know. Hmm. You did well to call me, Commander."
The man almost collapsed with relief.
"Give me what information you have," rumbled Bader.
The tall figure considered the information that was passed to him. His grim breath-mask allowed no emotion to show as he weighed up the factors in this curious new situation. He well knew the sympathies that existed throughout the Empire to the thousands of surviving Aldershotti. Their Queen, acknowledged as such, would be a great threat to the Empire, or indeed, a great asset. Finally, he decided his move.
"Have a Diplomatic Squad meet me at the West's ship at 10.00 hours. Do not permit the ship's departure until 10.15."
At ten o'clock that morning, Mark and Tamara were back in the mall, where at the colonel's urgent suggestion, Tamara was buying a wardrobe of clothes. She would need a smart business suit and something flowing and formal, he had told her. Tamara had neither the interest nor experience in buying smart clothes so they made hard work of it, whilst the colonel kept a weather eye on them as he went about his cleaning with mop and bucket.
At the same time, up in docking area a small delegation lead by Lord Bader stood in front of the Western Leader. The party was noticed by the crew and Nathan West stepped down the ramp.
"Lord Bader, and to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"A mere courtesy call, Mr West, I would have wished to have welcomed you yesterday, but I was not properly... dressed."
"Indeed, Lord Bader."
"And their Highnesses, Mr West. The Princess Tamara and the Prince Marco are well, I trust?"
"Highnesses, Lord Bader? Aldershott is in the past. Let it remain there."
"Even so, Mr West, I would be pleased to be formally introduced."
"My children are not aboard my ship, Lord Bader. They did not return last night."
"Are you concerned, Mr West?"
"Not unduly, Lord Bader, but I would be pleased to know of their whereabouts."
"Very well, Mr West, I shall initiate a Discreet Search."
Back down in the mall, purchases made, Mark and Tamara decided to go and collect Kerry and Jerry from the sick-bay. The colonel sidled up to them pushing his mop.
"Something is happening," he murmured. "There is more security about than normal, and they are checking more IDs."
"It is us?"
"I don't know, but assume that it is."
"We have to fetch Kerry and Jerry."
"Very well, I'll come with you."
With the ‘old cleaner' shambling along with his bucket of dirty water and his damp mop dangling precariously over one shoulder, the party found their two friends down in the sick-bay. Kerry and Jerry were themselves agitated and wanting to be gone. Kerry was formally discharged.
The colonel led them along a corridor to one of the elevators that would take them to the docking area.
"Excuse me, please, I need to see your IDs!"
The bark that came from the leader of the Internal Security squad was perhaps rather less polite than regulations dictated for a Discreet Search, but the man was prompted by habitual Imperial over-zealousness. His three colleagues watched impassively.
Ken bustled forward, mop dangling dangerously.
"You don't need to see our IDs, you know me."
"I don't need to see yours, Ken, but these others..."
"New recruits, just joined, here let me introduce you..."
"Out of the way, Ken. You four, your IDs! Please."
"Time to go," announced Ken to his companions. "Back the way we came, and just keep going!"
The four young people set off back down the corridor.
"Hi, stop! Stop or we'll shoot! Blasters to stun," the patrol commander ordered his men. "Out of the way, Ken!"
The colonel stood his ground.
Up came four blasters, and down came a dirty wet mop to knock them all flying. It swung again to knock the men senseless to the ground, and then the colonel was off after his charges.
Running past the end of a perpendicular corridor, the fugitives were spotted by another patrol who immediately gave chase. Running behind the four younger ones, Ken threw his bucket of soapy water down at the junction as he ran past. As the patrol hit it and attempted a sharp turn, they all skidded and crashed into the wall opposite.
The fugitives came to the next elevator spoke and Mark pressed the call-up button.
"No!" called the colonel. "Not that one, this one. They'll be less likely to stop this one."
A gaping door opened and the five piled in.
"Oh, it stinks in here," cried Kerry.
"Yes, agreed the colonel. "We use it for the rubbish."
Tamara and Kerry hugged their new purchases protectively.
"I suppose it had to happen," mused Tamara.
They did reach the docking area, for their pursuers were all still unconscious. They arrived at dock 6B just as a trolley was being wheeled aboard.
"Our delivery!" cried the colonel with relief.
He signed the consignment note, then hurried to find the ship's captain.
"Take off, immediately, Captain Polo!"
"Okay, old man."
Clearance was received and acted upon moments before Flight Control received the general alarm. The five fugitives barely found time to strap themselves in before lift-off was made.
Sitting in his command seat, the pilot scanned his readings as they found themselves out of the Station and surrounded by the bustle of incoming and departing traffic.
"Have you upset someone?" asked the captain looking around at the colonel.
"Why'd you ask?"
"Its just that they're scrambling a squadron, and there's another one forming up at two o'clock..."
"Two o'clock?, Oh, we've plenty of time, then."
"Two o'clock, up there," pointed the captain.
"Can you out run them?"
"Can I out run them? You are looking at the guy who did the Hassel Run in less than twelve standard timeparts!"
"Is that fast?" asked the colonel looking blank.
"Is that fast? Is that fast?! Yeah, faster than average, and there was a lot of heavy traffic about that day."
"Can't you jump to hyper-speed?" asked the colonel.
"Not just yet. Not with this traffic about, but, we'll make the traffic work for us. Say, you still want the place you asked for? It don't seem your kind of place, old man."
The colonel thought for a moment, then nodded.
"As well as anywhere for the moment, but I shall check with Her Grace when opportunity permits."
"Her Grace? Is she really the Queen?"
"She is, Captain."
As the two squadrons of Imperial Bow-fighters moved in to attack, Dan Polo hefted the fight controls and called back.
"Hang on to your hats, folks. Now you're gonna see what the old Jub can do!"
The craft, a small one by the standards of most galactic freighters, was put into a series of twists and turns that took it in and out the lines of larger ships that plodded their sedate way to and from the Constructor Station.
Unable to fire for fear of hitting the other craft, the Imperial fighters tracked them patiently until they ran out of cover as they soon would do. Dan leaned over to his co-pilot.
"You got them hyper-drive calculations all ready there, Hewie?"
The co-pilot, probably the hairiest co-pilot in the entire galaxy, amongst humans at least, squirted a stream of tobacco juice into a spittoon by way of affirmation.
"Good, and please, Hewie, don't do that in zero gravity. You never know where it'll end up."
The captain swung the vessel away from the line of traffic, jinked and twisted and then, with a final check of his screen, pressed the switch to hyper-drive. Through the vessel's front screen, the stars lengthened into bolts of light and then disappeared totally. The pilot swung around in his chair smiling broadly.
"Dandy piece of handiwork iffin I do say so myself!" he declared.
"Thank you, Captain Polo."
"Right, now you're Colonel Wannabee, that much I do know. Which one of you young folks is her Queenship?"
"Yeah, which one is her Grace, Colonel? I ain't never met no queen before. Were I come from, we've always been a republic and proud of it."
"Although the entire galaxy is now an Empire."
"Not for much longer from what I been hearing, colonel."
"Captain Polo. May I present Her Grace Queen Tamara of Aldershott, His Highness Prince Marco of Aldershott, and... er, Kerry and Jerry."
"Glad to know you, folks, I'm Captain Dan Polo of the Jubilee Endeavour, which is this here ship and this here's my co-pilot and pardner, Hewie. He don't say much."
"Pppt!" agreed Hewie with a stream of tobacco juice.
Mark spoke up for his party.
"Thank you, Captain. My sister and friends and I are very grateful for your agreeing to transport us. And you colonel, I must congratulate you on your short work with those guards. I would like to see you use a light-sabre."
"Highness. Any fool can use a light-sabre, but to defeat a squad of Imperial soldiers with a mop and bucket takes skill and training... I would be happy to teach you."
"One day perhaps. Now, where are we headed?"
"We are heading to the one place, Highness, your Grace, that can most aid us in our mission in the short term. The more planets that become aware of your existence, your Grace, the more valuable and useful will be our... cargo. Time is short, and so I have asked the good Captain to take us to the very heart of the Empire's greatest media outlet, but I must warn you that it will take all your steadfastness to see it through."
"Why?" asked Tamara.
"We are headed for the headquarters of the Wimsey Corporation at Wimseyland."
"Yes, the Empire's largest and most banal theme park."
"Oh well, if we must we must. I am sure that I will cope, colonel."
"Er, that's actually not the bit that requires your steadfastness, your Grace."
"No. The steadfastness comes from the fact that Wimseyland used to be the Debt Star!"
"Oh. Oh yes, I see. Oh good."
"Oh good, your Grace?"
"Yes, I won't have to pretend that I am enjoying myself. If I look thoroughly miserable, people will understand, and will not keep telling me to ‘cheer up, it may never happen'."
Hours later, they came out of supra-light speed and there before them, bedecked with neon lights and the most unlikely of fantasy castles, was Wimseyland.
"It is huge," remarked Mark. "More like a small moon."
"It had to be big enough to contain a neutron-laser," replied the colonel. "What amazes me is how your father had the money to fund the construction of that thing."
"But I thought he financed it?"
"He did, but he runs a bank."
"Which provided the money, I understood."
"Banks do not lend money when they lend money, they lend credit. Imagine you go along to your bank for a loan..."
"Me?" asked the colonel.
"It works all the same whether you are an individual, a company or a galactic empire... You go along and ask for a loan, all the bank wants to know is whether you can repay it the credit and the interest on the credit that it is supposedly lending you. Simply, whether your income is sufficient to meet the interest charges, and if it might not be, whether you have some assets, your home, your business, a planet or two, that they can legally seize if you default. So, imagine that you are the Emperor and you get your cheque for five billion Imperial Credits or whatever from Western Credit. You toddle along to the contractors who are going to build the thing and hand over the cheque... You with me?"
"Yes, I follow you," agreed the colonel.
"And the contractor then puts it into his bank, which may indeed be another branch of Western Credit itself. No actual money exists or needs to exist."
"But suppose the contractor's own bank is not Western Credit?"
"All the banks have accounts with each other. If the recipient bank is in debt to Western Credit, the cheque would simply be used to wipe out that debt, or if it does not have such a debt, the recipient bank uses it to build up credit with Western Credit against its own future lending of credits to clients."
"But the money does not actually exist?" checked the colonel.
"It does not need to. It is just numbers in computers. The process by which the banks create money is so simple the mind is repelled. Where something so important is involved a deeper mystery seems only decent."
"Who said that?"
"I just did."
"But the borrower still owes Western Credit the money that they borrowed, but which never actually existed?" asked the colonel.
"Yes, together with the interest, of course."
"So if a government borrows money, which does not actually exist, it still has to be paid for by the hard-working taxpayers?"
"But suppose the taxpayers cannot pay anymore?"
"If a government cannot meet its interest charges, it simply borrows more money to pay them, providing a bank is prepared to extend it more credit. And banks are more happy about extending credit if the government in question implements the policies that favour the bank. He who pays the piper calls the tune."
"Meanwhile the debt grows ever bigger? So who pays for it all in the end?"
"There is no end, colonel. The debt just grows, to be a liability for the next generation, and the next generation after that, to generations unborn, and the power of the creditors grows with it. The Galactic Debt is the combined government debt of all the galaxy's planets. Much of it came from the U-Sector Federation to pay for the Debt Star and other costs of the Drone Wars, but some of those debts are hundreds of years old."
The colonel sat down, or at least he would have done had they not all been suspended in zero gravity.
"It's like a financial black-hole," he gasped.
"That is a very good way of looking at it, colonel. It is a debt that will eventually consume all credit, even that which it has created."
"It's criminal," decided the colonel.
"No, it's all perfectly legal."
"Well, it should be criminal; it's immoral; it's unethical. It is the most venal sleight of hand that ever was conceived! And when you think what the Debt Star cost, and what it did... It crippled the U-Sector government financially. Their taxes were so high that they forced the creation of the Galactic Empire, at the point of the Debt Star's neutron-laser, to spread the cost of the debt over other planets and federations. But, you know, I never realised that the money that was borrowed to build it never existed in the first place!"
"You understand our mission now, colonel?"
The older man nodded.
"Yes, I do indeed."