The planet Bestie was a gas giant in the middle regions of the I-Sector. Its core, which was quite invisible, had been calculated as being a dense mass of liquid metal, and above this whirled decreasingly dense layers of gas topped off by an oxygen rich layer just a 100 kilometres thick in which air-borne organic life-forms were able to flourish. These, some of considerable size, were borne aloft by the constantly rising thermals given off by the hot planet beneath them.
In this zone and the largest entity floating on these thermals, lay the human-created colony of Cirrus City, a vast floating platform with pipes leading down to the gas fields below. It began life as a mining operation, tapping into and extracting the rich gas layers thousands of kilometres beneath it, but the kaleidoscopic vistas of the swirling gases made it into a sought-after if rather exclusive holiday destination.
Casinos, restaurants, theatres and pleasures of a more physical nature developed in the city's upper levels, high above the mundane gas mining operations of its lower levels, and here the galaxy's super-rich liked to gather, to relax, to discuss business and to gamble with their millions.
"Now, Cirrus City is one cool joint," explained Dan. "I would not even consider going there 'cept of being a buddy of ol' Dandini, unless it was on business, of course. You have to be one real upper crust dude to visit its pleasure zone."
"We are royalty," Mark reminded him, casually.
"Yes, but you ain't going there as royalty, are you?"
"No. We'll be ordinary visitors from Corelfornia treating ourselves with a few days of the high-life."
The Jubilee Endeavour docked in the cargo area, away from the sleek, luxurious starships of Cirrus City's more ostentatious visitors.
Dan contacted his ol' buddy and the party was invited to supper later that ‘evening'. In the meantime, they promenaded the City's exquisitely designed walkways, where the vistas of the swirling planet beneath them were a source of continuous fascination. Then they dined in one of the middle-ranking restaurants, which was expensive enough for Tamara's still rather homely ideas of good personal economic management. Then, like the daring tourists that they portrayed, they ventured into one of the more down-market casinos.
On Cirrus City, down-market is a relative term. Even here, the people around them, mostly human but with a few other humanoid species represented, were clearly well-to-do, gambling away their Credit Notes by the hundred.
"I could never see the point of gambling," mused Tamara. "Don't people realise the odds are against them?"
"Yes," agreed Mark. "But if you can afford it, it is just another way of spending money to get a thrill."
"Adrenaline," agreed Dan. "That's what it is. That's what they're after. Now me, I only play games of skill, where knowledge and calculation tips the odds in a good player's favour. You don't mind if I find me a game?"
"No, sure thing, Dan. You go ahead. Just don't lose the Endeavour!"
Dan and Hewie bought themselves some chips and settled in to a table playing their favourite game, indeed the very game and very table where they had won the Endeavour years before. It was probably still the same game, just with a new set of players involved at this moment in time.
Mark and Tamara watched for a while, but, unable to follow the intricacies of the betting, they drifted away and found themselves studying people rather than cards.
It was clear that certain areas in the pleasure zone were much more upmarket than the one where Dan was comfortable. These others were places where a pot that included a battered old star-freighter would have been regarded as small change. Lacking the necessary membership cards, and not prepared to part with the necessary money, Mark and Tamara were politely but firmly refused entrance to certain areas, but this bothered neither of them.
One entrance was quite different in that not only was it barred by the usual well-dressed functionaries, but it also possessed a door to prevent even an enticing glimpse of the inside from being seen. It was used by several elegantly but modestly-dressed individuals. One of these was clearly escorted by some large and muscular types, who appeared to be bulging out of their suits. Cirrus City had a policy of allowing no weapons to be carried within its domain, but such a proscription did not apply to fists and shaven heads. Mark spoke casually to a passer-by.
"What's that place?"
The man smiled.
"Don't even think of trying to get in there. Not unless you own a bank, of course."
"It's a million on account just to step through that doorway."
"Right. So what do they do?"
"Who knows? Maybe a quiet hand or two of whist, or maybe they bet on the financial affairs of the galaxy."
With that quip, the man left the ignorant yokel with the air of one who knows, but is not telling. Mark returned to Tamara.
"What do you know about the Credit Masters?" he asked his sister. "Other than father and Barcla the Hoard, of course."
"Not much, just what they do to create money. Why'd you ask?"
"I think we might be in the midst of them. Come on, let's find a library terminal."
They made their way to a Computer Cafe and settled down to a research session. They checked the library files for information about all the major finance houses, including Western Credit and Barcla & Hoard. The information was either non-existent or was so fantastically dense and obtuse that gleaning anything useful would have been next to impossible, but in each case the registered address came up as Cirrus City.
They checked this fact again. This address was not just the local address, that might have been expected, but no, Cirrus City was the registered galactic address of all the major financiers. Their own father had an office here somewhere. That was Western Credit's registered galactic address.
"Imperial taxes are based on a planet's population size, aren't they?" Mark checked with his sister.
"That's right, the bigger the population the more it has to pay."
"So Bestie would have a very small tax liability?"
"Shared out between all the galactic finance houses, as well as the genuine residents, the tax liability for each would be minute."
Later that ‘evening', the four visitors visited the headquarters of Cirrus City's, and hence the planet Bestie's, Sovereign Administrator.
Dandini Charisma was a tall but elegantly proportioned man with raven black, curly hair, clear brown skin, a carefully trimmed moustache and a flashing smile which revealed a perfect set of white teeth. He and Dan embraced warmly.
"Dan, it's good to see you, you're a breath of fresh air. A reminder of old times. You haven't changed."
"Hey, I change at least once a week! But look at you, you're the grand one now. A Sovereign Administrator no less."
"I'm comfortable, but I miss the freedom of the old times. So how did an old rogue like you wind up with such a charming young lady?"
Dandini kissed Tamara's hand, before welcoming his guests to sit and partake of the supper laid before them.
"Abasil and Soo are a couple of business friends from Corelfornia," explained Dan gesturing towards the royal pair.
"You're from Corelfornia? A charming planet for a republic. Personally, I prefer the style of the old monarchies. What do you make of this new Queen of Aldershott? I hear she holed up on Corelfornia for a while," asked Charisma.
"I did not see much of her," replied Tamara, carefully.
"But she's the real thing?"
"As far as we know," said Mark.
"Spreading her good works around the galaxy?"
"With her fiat money?"
"It leaves no debts."
"That's right. We use fiat money here on Cirrus City. I create it."
"Uh-huh. It runs our internal economy."
"So taxes are low."
"Almost non-existent. We have full employment, a healthy and relaxed population. Crime is almost unheard of, and never financially motivated."
"But you have a number of very wealthy residents, as well as much less well-off workers? Is there no friction?"
"No. Our very wealthy residents are largely just registered here. They are not permanent, mostly they just have their representatives here. And they are not ostentatious, except maybe with their starships. We don't have room for ostentation."
"But they are resident for tax purposes?" Mark dared.
"You ask a lot of questions for tourists, Abasil."
"I am interested," said Mark as casually as possible.
"We all have our own interests at heart. Now, I happen to know that some of my wealthier residents are worried about this Queen of Aldershott. She is undermining their business. I have heard that there's a bounty on her head - alive and unharmed, of course, but I wonder what they or their people would do if ever she were to visit Cirrus City?"
"You think she's likely to?"
"Very unlikely. We've certainly sent no one to her offering her our goods and services or a slice of real-estate in exchange for some of her money. We don't have any real-estate, and she doesn't sound like a gambler, or tourist."
"And you, Dandini, what's your take on the Queen?"
"Me? I hear that her plan is to reduce the taxes and debts of the entire galaxy. That should reduce the likelihood of wars and rebellions, and that suits me fine. Here in Cirrus City, we're a tiny population sitting on a great resource of gas. We could not defend ourselves. So, yes, her plans suit me very well indeed."
"You are not worried about your wealthier residents?"
"No. They pay very little into the Cirrus City economy. That's why they're based here! Their presence gives us some protection in times of difficulty, but if the difficult times don't come around, we've really very little use for them, apart from adding a lustre to our social scene. Yes, I'd genuinely welcome the Queen here, but I can't protect her, certainly not from the Empire and not even from some of my more ‘self-interested' residents."
He looked significantly at his guests.
Short of the gambling, socialising, theatre-going and dining-out that was the standard itinerary for visitors to Cirrus City, and one that suited most of them quite adequately, there was little to interest Mark and Tamara and soon they both itched to get inside the mysterious inner-sanctum of the ‘millionaires club'. They could easily afford the apparent ‘membership fee', but that was the least of their difficulties. They discussed it with Dan.
"You will be walking into a lion's den," Dan warned them. "Maybe I shouldn't have brought you here."
"No, Dan. You did the right thing. So what can they do, to us?"
"What they will want to do to you, Your Grace, is get you out of the way, kill you even. It don't matter to some of them about you being your daddy's daughter. They ain't interested in the bounty, that's peanuts to them, and there's lots of ways a person could have a fatal accident, so they'd be free from suspicion. Iffin they just suspected that you are who you are... Don't reckon even I could rescue you."
That admission sobered them, and they respected Dan's advice, but still the itch persisted.
Two days later they paid twenty-five million Aldershott shillings into an account with the unnamed ‘place', they received their ‘membership' documents and were cordially received by the functionary on the door when next they presented themselves.
The room was but dimly lit. All around, covering the walls, where huge screens showing lists of numbers. Against these numbers on one wall, Mark and Tamara recognised the names of planets, on others the names of the larger galactic corporations, on a third were lists of commodities, whilst the fourth list consisted of nothing but obscure initials. In the centre of the room, dozens of grey-suited young human and humanoid males studied computer terminals, glancing up occasionally at the numbers around them. Occasionally a couple of them would turn around on their stools and high-five each other. They ignored Mark and Tamara utterly.
A gallery ran around the room. It was above the young computer workers and below the winking number screens. Mark and Tamara made their way up here. They discovered that off the gallery were a number of modestly-sized but luxuriously furnished offices. Most were in use, but some seemed quite empty. One of these bore a number that appeared on their ‘membership' cards. Mark placed his card in the door entry system, and the door opened quietly.
"Our own office," he said, gesturing Tamara inside.
Inside Tamara turned to her brother.
"Here we are. What now?"
"We watch. We study. What else? It certainly does not feel like a lions' den."
They arrival, however, had not gone unnoticed. A trio of men on the far gallery, all significantly older than those in the pit below, had watched the brother and sister make their uncertain way around the room. They had studied the rather hesitant opening of the office door and they were intrigued.
Tamara had first attracted them, she was attractive enough to turn any man's head, and women were a rarity in that testosterone charged atmosphere. Then there was their age. Old enough to be serving in the pit below, but far too young to be opening up a new office.
The trio put their heads together. The young woman's face was familiar. The young man was physically alike and possibly related to her. They were very young, but had money. They had gone nowhere near the Western Credit office, but that meant nothing. West was still chasing his children, so they had heard. If they were the Wests, they were either recklessly brave or entirely ignorant.
So, wondered the trio, were they who they might be, and if so, why were they here? Minions and aides were quickly summoned and set the task of discovering these facts.
Mark and Tamara stood inside their office and gazed down through the window to the activity below.
"So what exactly are they doing?" asked Tamara.
"Gambling," replied Mark.
"Gambling? Surely not."
"Pretty much. I've read snippets about it, thought about it all, put two and two together, but to see it all in the flesh so to speak..."
"But look at those lists, those planets, commodities, companies and... whatever those things are. Surely it's an important part of running the galactic economy?"
"No, not really, except in as much as the economy has grown to depend upon it. Like a pet dog that is fed tit-bits from its master's table. But the purpose of the master eating is not to ensure that his pet is fed, that is just incidental. You know how much we have spent to revive some planetary economies?"
"Yes, but look at those figures up there. They are not millions, they are billions, thousands of millions."
"The wealth of the economy?"
"No, not the wealth, the money. There is a difference."
"But there's billions of Credits shown on there. What's it for?"
"It's the accumulated profits of years of money creation and debt-collecting, and this is where it ends up, being used to gamble against the accumulated billions of other members of the super-rich. It serves no useful purpose for ordinary people. The easiest way to earn more money when you have large amounts of it is not to make things or provide services. That costs large amounts of money and the risk of failure is high. No, the easiest way to earn money is to buy and sell with the money you have - government stock, corporations, commodities, anything - to gamble that your information is more accurate that the other guy's. Okay, you might lose now and then, but it's a far quicker way of making money than building factories or investing in some new idea that will soon be replaced by another new idea. And the more money you have, the more you can control the market to your own ends, so every penny profit that financiers make in the real world by creating money out of thin air is invested into these games to gain a bigger slice of the cake."
"To what ultimate end?"
"There is no ultimate end. Its not a process designed with an end in view. It is just the latest manifestation of the Source."
"I thought you said that the Source was the capacity to create money."
"The Source is what happens to be, at any one moment in time, the most powerful influence in shaping life. At the present time, we cultural beings are the greatest influence upon life. Before us it was those factors amongst pre-cultural creatures that gave an individual the greatest breeding capacity within his species, and I do mean ‘he' - a shaggy mane, a large physical size, tusks or antlers. Nowadays the Source lies within our culture, our ideas, our customs, our patterns of behaviour, even in the songs we sing. We shape the universe to suit ourselves. We breed new species of plant and animals. We terra-form planets for our purposes. We build. We destroy. All to follow those cultural forces that influence us, and the greatest influence over us is money. So yes, those with the capacity to create money have that power. They control, or perhaps they are, the Source."
"Like I have that power, I am the Source."
"You have... maybe you are a source of power, Tamara, but you are not the Source. You are different. You have the power because of what you are, not what you have done. That gives you the potential of having a unique combination of power and benevolence, as you are not hidebound by ambition, but it also makes you very vulnerable. Hell, we shouldn't be here! This is crazy!"
"Calm down, Mark. Tell me more."
"You have the authority to create money, but your capacity came by accident of birth, not through ambition. You have not sought the Source, so it has not become your life's focus, your obsession. Your life is not governed by the need to control or be the Source, so you are not controlled by it, so in that that sense you are not... you have not become a tool of the Source.
"Those others who understand and seek to control the Source, who do control it in some sense, the Credit Masters of old who became today's bankers and financiers, have become so focused on their narrow ambition, that in a sense their ambition now runs their lives. They have lost control of themselves and now they themselves are little more than tools of the Source.
"The one thing that now drives them is just to know that amongst the select few of the most powerful men in the galaxy, they are the most powerful, but in a real sense, they no longer have any power. It's like if you became obsessed with conquering a mountain, so much so that you could think about nothing else, the mountain has, in fact, conquered you. The mountain, or the idea of conquering the mountain, is the controlling force in the relationship. Does that make sense?"
"Yes, I see. I think I see."
"So in a sense, all that goes on in here bears no more relevance to the lives of real people than some mountaineers climbing a lonely mountain. Except that here, the lives of ordinary people are the crampons and ropes and other things that these mountaineers use and discard in their climb to the top."
"So what is the dark side of the Source?"
"The dark side is that narrow focus on personal ambition to the exclusion of the well-being of everyone else. It affects all creatures who have no sense of self-awareness, as well as those who do have such a sense, but who choose to abandon themselves to blind ambition. When they have surrendered all sense of morality or ethics, pointless, destructive ambition is in control. It is not evil, it is just a state of unenlightenment, but its effects can be much the same as what we call evil."
"And this is it?"
"This is it, manifested all around us."
"And do you think that our plans will undermine all this?" asked Tamara.
"Yes, most of it. That part which does not directly relate to the trade in real goods and services, which is most of it."
"But if all this collapses Mark, won't that cause a whole load of problems?"
"No, Tamara. This money market and what it represents is the problem. It is the central cause of pretty much all of the galaxy's problems. Do you know what is the biggest thing that is traded here?"
"No, what? Kryptonite? Platitudinum? Tibannium? Grain? Oil? Droids? Starships?"
"No, none of those things. It's debt. Look at those numbers. They represent the amount of debt owed by the Imperial government, by planetary governments, by corporations and by individuals in their millions. You understand the need to eradicate debt, leastways debt of this magnitude?"
"Sure I do, I've been working on it too, remember!"
"Right. So when we do eradicate it, what need will there be for a trade in it?"
"Well, when you put it like that... But I still can't see that all this... this money market business serves no purpose other than... aggrandisement."
"That's because you're a woman, Tamara. Women have no idea that for many men, perhaps most men, the whole purpose in life is to be the biggest swinging dick in the universe. For those with the greatest ambition and ability, and the nous to understand it, the greatest prize of all is to be top of this pile of parasites, but this is nothing more than the showy mane or the cumbersome antlers of galactic civilisation, and it serves no more purpose to the well-being of their fellows than such manes or antlers."
Mark and Tamara closed up their office and left the ‘place' just as the trio of older watchers began receiving reports to the effect that the young woman in question could well be, or almost certainly was, the new Queen Tamara of Aldershott. The instructions given back to certain well-built aides, needed no elaboration or explanation. Even in a well run place like Cirrus City, accidents could happen.
"I think we need to leave this place," said Tamara.
"Yes," agreed her brother. "Let's find Dan and say our good-byes to Dandini."
As it was, Dandini found them. He greeted them warmly enough, then added in a guarded undertone.
"You need to leave."
"We were planning to," agreed Tamara. "How did you know?"
"There's an Imperial Star-cruiser in orbit. I can't think who else they're looking for."
"I'm sorry, I've tried to delay their arrival, but I can't say no to a Star-cruiser. Go! Quickly!"
Mark and Tamara walked as fast they could, whilst appearing relaxed and unconcerned, to an elevator which would take them to the docking area. The door opened and from it stepped the huge black form of Lord Bader, backed up by a squad of Stormtroopers.
"Your Grace," rumbled the big man. "What a pleasant surprise."