Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Science Fiction, .

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Prologue - A riveting story that takes place on Mars, a corporate planet controlled by powerful firms on Earth. Although humans, citizens of Mars are treated as a lower class race. The wind of change brings a new Governor, Laura Whiting, who will lead the Martian revolution. What will happen next to this fascinating society? Will they succeed to live in a world free of corporate puppeteers?

June 30, 2131
Eden, Mars

Laura Whiting was a politician and she was doing what politicians were expected to do at times such as these. She was "touring" the area of devastation. Whenever something was devastated — be it by war, by industrial accident, or by acts of divinity — an elected official was expected to tour it, to see the damage firsthand. As to why they needed to perform this tour, as to what possible good was being accomplished with their presence, the answer to that depended upon whom you talked to. Most politicians would answer that they needed an "eyes-on" assessment of the damage in order to help calculate the cost of replacing it. That sounded good on the surface, the sort of thing that played good on Internet, but of course it was not really the reason. There were engineers and insurance claims settlement specialists and hundreds of other people who were much more qualified than a politician to assess damage and calculate cost. Laura — who had the unusual political trait of brutal self-honesty — knew that the real reason was so the politician in question could give the impression that he or she cared about their constituents and their neighborhoods. Such affairs were always rife with Internet cameras. The politician was expected to look properly solemn while viewing the destruction and then give an appropriately moving speech promising aid or an end to the cause or some other such thing.

Laura, though she was only a city council member, was expert in the art and science of politics. She should be. Her father, now retired and living the life of luxury on Earth, had had a long and distinguished elected career that had climaxed with two terms as the Governor of Mars. She had begun to learn politics about the time she had begun to learn to walk. Conventional wisdom among the Martian movers and shakers was that Laura herself would follow in his footsteps by the time she was fifty. Laura was a little more optimistic than that. She hoped to take the oath of high Martian office in ten years; by the time she was forty. But she did not wish this for exactly the same reason everyone thought.

"As you can see," intoned Assistant Chief Henderson of the Eden Department of Public Health and Safety, "the blast doors that were designed into the basic structure of the city did their job very well. They activated within two seconds of the laser strike and sealed off the damaged section, preventing further loss of life and property. Without those blast doors, we would not be able to stand right here at this moment. This entire building would have been reduced to the outside atmospheric pressure."

Laura and the other two city council members who had gone on the tour with her were standing on the sixty-eighth floor of the MarsTrans building looking downward through the thick plexiglass windows. Around them rose countless other high-rise buildings, stretching upward into the red Martian sky. The high rise was the staple of life on Mars. People lived in them, worked in them, did business in them. A Martian city was nothing more than a compact collection of tall buildings that were located in a grid pattern of streets. The street level was where people moved from one building to another. All streets were enclosed by a steel and plexiglass roof thirty meters above the ground, and by plexiglass walls on the sides. This kept the air pressure inside, where it belonged, and the thin Martian atmosphere outside, where it belonged. The buildings did not actually touch each other but they were all connected to the street level complex making Eden, in effect, one giant, interconnected, airtight structure that was home to more than twelve million people. Then entire city was kept at standard Earth sea-level air pressure by means of a system of huge fusion powered machines that extracted the traces of oxygen and nitrogen from the thin Martian atmosphere and pumped it inside. This system of pressurization and air supply was what made human life on Mars possible, but it was a system that depended upon the airtight integrity of the city remaining intact.

The MarsTrans building stood across the street from the Red Towers housing complex — an upper end luxury apartment building. From their vantage point they could clearly see the large hole that had been burned through the steel of the building from the fortieth floor all the way to street level and below. Several floors of the building had collapsed from the force of the blast, burying the victims beneath tons of rubble. Many other sections had remained intact but had decompressed, smothering those inside of them. The street outside the building had also lost pressure, killing all who happened to have been walking about at that moment. The death toll from this one blast had been confirmed at more than nine hundred so far and was expected to rise even higher as more rubble was cleared away. Eden Public Health and Safety workers, commonly known as dip-hoes because of the acronym of their department, could be seen patiently digging through the debris or moving about within the building. All of them were outfitted in protective bio-suits that covered the body from head to toe. The bio-suits were the only way people could exist outside of the pressurization.

"Those blast doors and the other safety features were indeed a godsend," proclaimed Councilman Dan Steeling, a senior member and, according to the movers and shakers, the man slated to be the next mayor of Eden. He was pretending to address Assistant Chief Henderson but was in actuality talking to the group of Internet reporters who were standing clustered behind them, just in front of the group of uniformed Eden police officers providing security. The reporters all had digital image recorders with microphones attached to them and they were all pointing them at Dan. "It is fortunate indeed that, even in the midst of this horrible tragedy we are viewing, we are able to at least receive reassured proof that the safety systems in place in this great city work as they were designed. While it is true that the loss of life and property from this strike, and from the others that took place on other parts of Mars, was horrific, it could have been much, much worse."

Laura, who knew she was partially in the frame of some of the cameras, kept the proper expression of saddened, though elated agreement on her face. She nodded a few times during his statement, just slightly, just enough to relate to anyone taking notice of her on the Internet screens that she was just as torn up about all of this as everyone else. In truth, had her natural expression been allowed to come through, it would have been one of horror. As she looked at the twisted steel and exposed apartments of the Red Towers, she had to clench her fists in anger at what had happened. Eden, her city, the city she had been born and raised in, had been attacked by EastHem atmospheric craft. Attacked! They had blown holes in it, decompressing entire sections like a child popping a balloon, killing thousands so far. And it was not just Eden either. Though Eden was the largest city on the Western Hemispheric Alliance's federal colony of Mars, it was just one of twelve large cities on the surface. So far, with the war only one week old, six of them had been hit, two quite badly. Triad, the orbiting space-platform that was home to more than six hundred thousand, had been attacked particularly fiercely, with more than six thousand citizens dead up there. And what was it for? Why were all of these Martians dying?

Because of greed. Simple greed.

They were calling it the Jupiter War, although the point in dispute was actually one of Jupiter's moons: Callisto. The atmospheric gas of Jupiter, which was composed primarily of hydrogen, was used as propellant for fusion-powered spacecraft and as conventional fuel for tanks, aircraft, and surface to orbit craft. It was a substance that was vital for continuation of the space-faring society and particularly for military operations. WestHem, of which Mars was a part, currently held the monopoly on the supply of this gas. Nearly sixty years before, WestHem corporations, most notably Standard Fuel Supply and Jovian Gases Inc. constructed a large space station in orbit around Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon. From the space station, which was actually an orbiting city, collection ships made the short trip to the gas giant and dove into the atmosphere, collecting a hold full of the hydrogen concoction before clawing their way back out and returning. The raw gas would then be refined into liquid hydrogen and stored in huge orbiting pressure tanks. Tanker ships, the largest moving objects ever constructed, would then fill up and transport the gas across the solar system either to Mars or Earth.

Nearly half of this gas was sold to EastHem who, although they were bitter enemies of WestHem and had been since the end of World War III, needed a fuel supply as well. Since EastHem did not have a secure supply of its own it was forced to buy it from the two WestHem corporations at top dollar. Not only was this expensive and not only did it take EastHem currency out of the hemisphere, it also meant that their fuel supply was subject to being cut off during times of crisis, which was usually when they needed it most from a military standpoint. It also meant that WestHem held an advantage in the complex relationship between the two halves of the Earth.

Three years before, tensions between the two powers began to grow as it became apparent that EastHem was constructing the components of an orbiting fuel refining and shipment platform in lunar orbit using mined steel from beneath the surface of the moon. These components, which were loaded into cargo ships nearly as large as a fuel tanker, could only be destined for one of the moons of Jupiter. Though Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were all gas giant planets with atmospheres very similar to Jupiter's, colonizing one of the outer gas giants was clearly impractical due to the distance involved and because such a supply line would be impossible to defend during a conflict. WestHem, realizing this, insisted in the sternest manner that the entire Jupiter system belonged to them, not just the single moon of Ganymede. EastHem, not bothering to deny its intentions, countered with the argument that WestHem had no right to claim an entire planetary system when they had no settlements on the planet in question.

This war of words went on and on as the construction process neared conclusion and the cargo ships, with an escort of heavy battle cruisers and stealth attack ships, began to prepare for departure. As the armada left lunar orbit heading for Jupiter, WestHem issued an ultimatum. It warned EastHem that if any of its ships entered the Jovian system, they would be attacked. EastHem ignored this threat and continued, probably figuring that WestHem would back down. WestHem didn't. When the first of the ships crossed the invisible line that had been drawn, the WestHem Marines attacked with short-range space fighters based at Standard City. The cold war that had been the status quo for the past one hundred and twenty years suddenly became very hot.

Mars, as a strategically placed point located between the orbits of Jupiter and Earth, was immediately bombed once hostilities commenced. The WestHem navy had a large base in orbit around the red planet with many of their ships stationed there. Aside from that, Triad, the orbiting space station in geosynchronous orbit, was home to the three major shipbuilding companies that supplied warships for the navy and for cargo transportation. EastHem forces, as they passed, had dropped off three battle cruiser groups complete with attack craft, assault landing ships, and support vessels. They were on station just outside of laser range of the WestHem battle groups, which had been forced to stay in position to counter them. It was ironic indeed that the Martian cities, which were hundreds of millions of kilometers from both the moon in dispute and from the planet that had spawned the combatants, were the most heavily damaged during the fighting. Even on Earth itself, where the two powers were separated by a mere twenty kilometers at the Bering Straight, not so much as an artillery shell or a bomb was detonated.

Laura Whiting, as she looked at the devastation that a single laser blast from a single EastHem attack craft had caused, felt an angry hatred she had never experienced before. It was not EastHem she directed this anger towards however. It was directed towards WestHem, towards the so-called government that supposedly represented and protected the interests of the Martian people, and towards the powerful untenable corporations that controlled that government.

The official WestHem reason for attacking EastHem and trying to prevent their colonization of Callisto was that they, WestHem, needed to protect their deep space defensive positions and not allow those godless fascists of EastHem a toehold in the same planetary system. They told their citizens and their soldiers that to allow EastHem to establish themselves on one of the moons of Jupiter would be as good as signing the death warrant for the glorious WestHem way of life. Within a decade, it was suggested, EastHem would have enough forces and enough equipment on Callisto to evict us from Jupiter and to strangle our fuel supply. A few years after that, EastHem tanks would come rolling into the western hemisphere itself, bent on the final takeover. The rhetoric was unwavering from its course. No EastHem ships will enter the Jovian system. No EastHem installations will be established on Callisto or any other moon. Jupiter and all that orbited it were WestHem property.

Of course it was apparent to any thinking person, and Laura White, like most Martians, certainly fit that category, what the real reason for the war was. If EastHem began gathering and refining their own fuel from Jupiter's atmosphere, Standard Fuel and Jovian Gasses and the other industries that relied upon gas refining and shipping would lose more than half of their business. The WestHem government, which imposed export taxes upon those sales, would lose all of that income from its yearly budget. In addition to the loss of revenue, WestHem would lose one of its trump cards in any future conflict. It would never again be able to threaten EastHem with a fuel embargo. That could simply not be allowed. And so, even though there was enough hydrogen in the atmosphere of Jupiter to supply both halves of the Earth and all of their colonies for thousands of generations, a vicious war erupted over the issue.

But Laura, above all, was a politician. She could not show, could not say how she really felt about the subject. She could not even say what the people she served wanted her to say or feel. She said and felt, in public anyway, what her sponsors — those who had contributed to her campaigns, who had bankrolled her election — wanted her to say and feel. That was how you stayed in the game. There had been a time when she had not wanted to stay in the game anymore, when she had not wanted to be a part of the perverse and sickening process that was modern government. That time had not been so long before. But now that Martian cities were having holes blasted in them, that Martian citizens were being killed because those corporate sponsors didn't want to lose their profit margins, she had decided it was her duty to stay in the game. She did not like the game but she would play it and she would play it well. She would kiss every ass, would spout every company line, would do whatever she needed to do to advance her political career. And hopefully one day, years from now, when she was in a position much higher than a mere Eden city council member, she would change the game.

She turned her face from the window before her, putting the view of the destroyed housing building out of her sight. The reporters approached her, fishing for a statement. Laura had a gift for public speaking, an ability to turn even the most benign utterance into a passionate narrative. She cleared her throat and began to spout about devastation and the evils of fascist EastHem and how the great people of WestHem were going to defeat the tyranny that was trying to destroy all they held dear and sacred. The reporters loved it, as they always did statements from her. All except for one.

"Ms. Whiting," said a short, Asian descended reporter from MarsGroup Information Services. "There has been much worry about the landing ships EastHem has stationed near our planet just outside of orbital range. In the event of an EastHem invasion of Mars, I was curious how you would rate our city's defenses?"

That was a loaded question and it was not surprising that Mindy Ming, the MarsGroup reporter, was the only one to ask it. All of the other reporters represented either InfoServe Internet Communications stations or SpacialNet Communications stations. Those were the two major providers of Internet media and literature in WestHem and though they pretended to be antagonistic to government and corporate motivations and elected officials, they were actually little more than the propaganda arm. Again, anyone with any thinking capacity knew this. But MarsGroup was a Mars based, independent Internet media corporation. It's owners and investors were all Martian-born who had no financial ties to any Earth-based corporations. They were often derided in the popular press and had been sued for libel so many times it would be years before all of the cases came to court. They were a constant thorn in the side of many a politician or corporation. Laura, though publicly she denounced MarsGroup like everyone else, secretly admired them greatly. MarsGroup news services, in her mind, was what news reporting should be like. They strove to find the truth instead of simply repeating what their masters told them to repeat.

"Well," Laura said lightly, as if the question were a ridiculous annoyance, "I don't think we really have much to worry about in terms of an EastHem invasion. My understanding is that our space forces in orbit and at Triad are more than sufficient to keep them from attempting such a feat."

"Really?" Mindy said, raising her eyebrows in disbelief. "Is it not true that a good portion of our space-based attack craft were destroyed attempting to repel this battle group?"

Laura feigned a sigh, as if she were dealing with a complete paranoid. Again this was just for appearances. Mindy's military source, whomever he or she was, was obviously very highly placed. Though the general public did not know it yet, both sides in the conflict had recently discovered the fallacy of trying to attack heavily defended space cruisers or stations with small attack craft. The anti-spacecraft lasers could pick them off like ducks in a skeet range. Well over three quarters of the front-line defense craft based at Triad had been blown to pieces in three separate attacks without putting a single EastHem ship out of commission. Well over half of the crews of those ships had been killed or captured.

"I am not the one to ask about military matters," Laura said shortly. "I'm just a councilwoman. I have every confidence however, that our armed forces have the situation above our planet well in hand. And as for city defenses, as you are aware by the itinerary we supplied you with, we will be visiting the staging area for the WestHem marine forces that have been assigned to Eden next."

The two strong-willed women locked eyes for a moment. Laura could see the contempt Mindy held for her reflected in those brown orbs. Sell-out, those eyes said to her. You're nothing but a corporate, WestHem sell-out. She ignored the look. She had seen it many times before and would see it many times again. Though it still hurt a little, though it still bothered her to be seen as a traitor to her people, to their ideals, to be considered a tool of oppression, she was getting used to it.

The staging area for the 103rd WestHem Marine Battalion, the battalion responsible for defending the city of Eden in the event of an EastHem invasion, was a city park located just on the edge of the city perimeter. The park was the showpiece of the business district and was nearly five square kilometers in size. It was surrounded on all four sides by towering high rises, the biggest on the planet. The Agricorp building itself stood across the street from the eastern entrance to the park grounds. It was the tallest building in the solar system at 325 stories. The park itself was mostly grassy fields, groves of trees, and winding walkways that snaked in all directions. There was a zoo and a golf course as well as football and baseball fields and a large duck pond. The roof of the city, which was usually ten meters above the ground over the streets, rose to more than a hundred meters above the park grounds. In addition the roof here was mostly plexiglass instead of a mixture of glass windows and steel support beams. This allowed the pale Martian sun to shine brightly in the park during the daylight hours instead of being broken up into shadow.

Usually the park was filled with a mixture of business types taking lunch hour walks through the nature areas, daycare providers walking groups of children to the play equipment, and unemployed lower-class thugs and gang-members. But that had been during peacetime. Now the marines had occupied the sports fields, the golf course, and every other piece of open land in the park. They had set up inflatable tents in geometric clusters near the west side. Near the south side were a collection of mobile command posts and latrines. In between, a calisthenics and jogging area had been fashioned. Near the north side entrance, the closest entrance to the actual edge of the city, was a storage depot for weapons and bio-suits. Off duty marines could be seen walking everywhere through the park, most dressed in the blue shorts and white T-shirts they wore inside of a protected area. Most were between the ages of twenty and thirty years old and, since they were combat troops, all were men. They gathered in clusters of two, four, six, sometimes more. They walked to and from the mess hall. They exercised in the calisthenics area. To the uneducated eye their numbers appeared generous indeed, more than a match for any EastHem invasion force, particularly when you considered that nearly a third of them were on-duty outside of the safety of the city, out in the Martian wastelands.

Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ron Herald, greeted the tour of Eden city council members personally. He was dressed the same as his men, in a pair of blue shorts with the marine emblem upon the leg and a white T-shirt with his name and rank on the breast. His hair was short, as were all marines' hair, and his body was trim and fit. He looked like that kind of man that you would like to have in charge of your city's defenses. He practically oozed confidence.

He greeted each council member personally, addressing him or her by name and offering whispered reassurances that their city was perfectly safe in the hands of his men. "Landing here and attacking this city," he told Laura, "would be the worst mistake those EastHem fascists ever made. My battalion would eat them for breakfast."

"That's good to know, Colonel," Laura beamed right back, putting the reassured expression upon her face.

Herald gave them a tour of the staging area, leading them around from place to place and pointing out every cluster of tents. Of course the entourage of reporters followed along behind, Mindy Ming included. They saw the inside of a typical tent, in which squads of marines were housed on small inflatable mattresses. They were shown the primitive latrine facilities where the marines took care of their bodily functions. They walked through the mess hall, which was full of empty tables and filled with the smell of dinner being constructed. Finally they were led to the staging area itself.

A large guarded reinforced tent housed the marine equipment. Herald led them past two armed guards out front and into the interior, which was mostly a huge locker room. Rows of gray plastic storage cabinets sat before rows of plastic benches. The smell was that of locker rooms solar system wide; of stale sweat and dirty clothing.

"It is in here," Herald explained, "where the marines under my command change into the biosuits which allow them to operate outside of the pressurization of the city. The biosuits are completely self-contained and supply oxygen, food paste, water, and even excretory containers for the soldiers wearing them. With the supply carried within the suit the soldier can stay outside the safety of this artificial environment for twelve hours at a time. The suits are somewhat bulky of course but modern WestHem engineering and manufacturing have managed to keep the fully loaded weight down to less than forty kilograms. That is five kilograms less, I might add, than the standard EastHem biosuit. This weight advantage, which translates into increased mobility in the field and the ability to carry more equipment, is but one advantage that my soldiers have over their EastHem counterparts."

He then led them to the other side of the room, towards another guarded opening to the tent. This one led to the park's exit and the wide, heavily traveled 3rd Street, a major downtown movement corridor.

"From here," the Colonel continued, "each company of soldiers, after donning their suits and gathering their personal weapons, will march down 3rd Street to the airlock complex in the city corporation yard. Just outside of those airlocks is the staging area for our tanks, armored personnel carriers, and hovers. Upon deployment most of the soldiers will enter the armored vehicles and proceed to their defensive positions near the approaches to the city. Others will climb into the hovers and be transported to the artillery emplacements or antiaircraft bunkers. Of course I cannot give you the exact locations of these defensive positions for security reasons, but rest assured that they are formidable."

The tour wrapped up a few minutes later with Laura and Dan Steeling both giving inspirational speeches to the Internet cameras about how safe they felt in the presence of Colonel Herald and his marines. Steeling even managed to throw in a pitch about buying war bonds. There were only two pointed questions from Mindy Ming and Herald, though new to such blatant inquiries, handled them very well. Everybody thanked the Colonel for his time and for the steadfast watch he was providing. The Internet reporters, with nothing left to report on, quickly left the scene.

Herald, his work done, excused himself and asked his aide, a young lieutenant, to lead his "honored guests" back to the entrance of the park and their police department security detail. Halfway there, as they were passing a group of marines doing push-ups on the trampled grass, a voice hailed Laura.

"Ms. Whiting?" it called, it's owner trotting over from his position near the physical training leader. He was an African-American descended man of about thirty and Laura had already placed him as a Martian born person based on his accent. A better look revealed his identity. Though she had not seen him in well over ten years, she had once known this man very well.

"Kevin Jackson," she said, putting her politician's smile upon her face. She stepped towards him, holding out her hand for a shake. "Or should I say, Captain Jackson," she corrected, reading the insignia upon his shirt.

Jackson had been a college classmate of hers at the University of Mars at Eden. She had been going for the required degree in political theory prior to law school and he had been working on his military science degree. The very fact that he had been admitted to an institute of higher learning had spoken volumes about his family connections and intelligence. In modern WestHem society less than two percent of those who graduated high school were admitted to college. Most young men and women of the working class were doomed to self-funded technical schools that taught them the specific job skills they were striving for. She had shared several general education and history classes with Jackson over the years and they had developed a very close friendship that eventually led to a brief love affair. They had parted amicably enough after both had been advised by betters of the potential career damage their relationship might cause. Though interracial love affairs carried no stigma in Martian culture, they were still considered an anomaly in WestHem culture and those who participated in them were deemed to be somewhat less than normal. Though the physical aspects of their affair ended, their friendship had continued until graduation. From there they had parted. Jackson had gone on with his career in the corps. Whiting had gone on to law school and her political career.

"Captain as of five days ago," he told her, grasping her small hand in his large one and shaking vigorously. "Easy promotions are the one fortunate aspect of wartime."

Laura, ever the lady, made the required introductions to her colleagues. Hands were shaken and kind comments were passed between Jackson and Steeling and the others. Laura saw that despite their jovial expressions her fellow councilmen were impatiently awaiting the end of her conversation. She put an accommodating look upon her face and told them to go on without her, that she would find her own way back to city hall.

"But, Laura," Dan Steeling said worriedly. "What about security? Surely you're not thinking about walking back to city hall alone, through downtown?"

This was a legitimate concern, and not just because she was an easily recognized person. With Martian unemployment at approximately twenty-two percent, the crime rate was frighteningly high. Large, well-organized street gangs roamed about with near impunity in certain parts of the downtown Eden area. "Have one of the police wait for me," she told him. "Tell him I won't be long. Captain Jackson is an old friend from school and I'd like to talk to him for a few minutes."

Steeling reluctantly agreed to this plan and took his leave, heading across the park towards the entrance.

"So," Jackson said, his smile warmer once he had gone, "you're making quite a name for yourself in the political arena, aren't you? I've heard stories even down in Argentina about the charismatic Eden city council member."

Laura smiled. "I have a gift for making myself known to the right people," she told him.

"You always did, Laura, you always did."

"And yourself?" she asked. "You say you were in Argentina. I hear it's pretty nasty over there."

He shrugged a little. "Poorly armed fanatical nationalists who have never accepted WestHem rule. They love to hide in the mountains and shoot at us with old World War III era weapons. It's not that dangerous as long as you have a little common sense and don't venture far from the base. The worst part is being in that hellish environment. For someone who grew up on Mars where the temperature is always the same and it never rains, it takes a little getting used to, I'll tell you."

"I'll bet," said Laura, who had never been to Earth before and had therefore never experienced anything but the constant 22 degrees Celsius of the artificial environment.

"Do you have a few minutes?" Jackson asked her. "Maybe we can go over to the mess hall and scrounge up a cup of coffee or something."

Laura sensed that his offer entailed a little bit more than simply catching up on old times. However, it did not seem that renewing their romance seemed to be his goal. That could only mean that he had news for her; news that she might not otherwise hear. Never one to shun a potential source of information, she agreed to join him.

They talked of inconsequential things as they wandered through the calisthenics area and to the large mess tent Herald had shown her earlier. It was still empty of soldiers and still filled with the aroma of cooking meat spiced with onions. Jackson led her to a mess table in the center of the room, within easy sight of the entrances, and bade her to sit. She did so and he disappeared behind the serving counter, reemerging a few minutes later with two steaming metal cups. He rejoined her and they sipped the strong brew as they appraised each other.

"So how do you find the political life, Laura?" Jackson asked her, seemingly lightly but obviously very interested in her answer.

Laura hesitated before answering him. During their past friendship they had been as close as two people could be. They had spent many a night sharing their views of the solar system over coffee or beer or marijuana. Jackson was one of the few people in existence she had discussed her peculiar ideas about an ideal government with. Was that what he was thinking about now? Was he trying to equate Laura Whiting, the idealistic realist, with Laura Whiting the politician? "I find it," she told him carefully, "pretty much as I always expected it would be back in college."

He gave her a pointed look. "You used to say that politics was the most corrupt, soulless profession in existence; that it was worse than working for a law company or a corporate management team."

She returned his look. "Yes," she said. "I did say that."

"So that's how you've found the life to be?"

She took a deep breath. This could be a set-up of course. In the world of politics you could never discount that possibility. But her instincts, which had always served her well, told her it wasn't. Jackson was just trying to see if his old friend and lover was still the same person she had once been before he talked about whatever was on his mind. Finally, she nodded. "That's how it is," she told him. "And I hate every minute of it. I've almost quit in disgust a few times."

"So why do you stay if you hate it so much?"

"I believe you remember our past conversations," she replied slyly. "The ones about why I needed to go into politics." She smiled a little in fondness, remembering the closeness that accompanied those talks. "You used to think I was crazy, remember?"

"I remember," he said warmly, remembering the same thing. Yes, this woman before him was the same person he had once loved. "But I also remember being impressed by the complexity of your ambitions. I wish you the best of luck in them."

"I appreciate that, Kevin," she told him.

"But in the meantime," he said, turning to business, "there's this war going on."

"So I've noticed," she answered. "I toured the blast site in the Calvetta district today. It's rather frightening to see what one blast of an EastHem laser can do. One tenth of a second of energy release from eighty kilometers away and more than nine hundred people are dead. And that wasn't even one of the bad ones. Those are up on Triad."

"Triad is getting the shit beat out of it, that's for sure," he agreed. "But the laser blasts are not the concern here."

"The invasion fleet?" she asked softly.

"Yes," he answered. "I saw the briefing by Admiral Graves of the navy on an Internet terminal earlier. He did a good job of blowing smoke up the asses of all the citizens here."

"And the citizens believe him about as much as they do anyone else in such a position," Laura put in. "That's the biggest failing of Earth natives when they deal with Martians. They assume we're just as easily cowed by reassurances as people in Denver or Buenos Aires."

"Underestimation," Jackson said with a nod. "You always said that that was the key to your plans."

"And it still is," she assured him. "If we can survive this war, that will still be the key. So tell me. How much at risk are we? I know we're in danger of invasion from that fleet up there, but I don't know how bad it is. You do, don't you?"

He leaned back a little bit, taking a quick glance around the room, searching for eavesdroppers. Seeing none, he leaned forward a bit and lowered his voice. "They have three divisions of combat troops up there," he said. "Those landing ships are loaded with heavy equipment and troop carrying landers that can be down on the surface in less than an hour with every last one of those men as well as their tanks, their APCs, their artillery, and enough hovers to guarantee air superiority over an advance. If they left the landing ships right now, they could be in occupation of all the Martian cities except Triad in three days."

"Three days?" she asked, feeling fear coursing through her body. She had known it was bad, but that bad? "What about your marines? You won't be able to hold them off at all?"

"Our presence here is nothing more than a public relations tour," he scoffed bitterly. "We make the public feel better and we look good parading around the park in our shorts. See, Mr. and Mrs. Greenie? You're nice and safe on your planet. The marines are here to protect you from those evil EastHem fascists."

"But surely you can hold them back for a little bit?" Laura asked nervously.

"We're a goddamned battalion, Laura," he said, letting a little of his own fear show now. "A battalion! That's four companies of soldiers. Twenty platoons! We have thirty tanks, forty APCs and a few artillery guns we managed to scrounge up. We have six anti-tank platoons and one anti-air squad. If the EastHems land here they're going to throw at least a division at Eden, complete with hover support. The battalion we have as a defense here would be nothing more than a warm-up exercise for them. It's even worse in New Pittsburgh and Proctor. We weren't even able to spare complete battalions to defend those cities. They have no artillery at all and only a few tanks. This planet is virtually defenseless."

"Christ," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "It's much worse than I thought. And I'm a realist. How did this happen, Kevin? How is it that the most valuable planet in the solar system, the planet that grows more than half of the food for WestHem, that supplies ninety percent of the steel, that generates trillions in profits for all of those corporations, was left wide-open to capture? How?"

"I think you know the answer to that," Jackson replied.

"Money," she spat.

"You got it," he said, nodding. "The WestHem government did not want to spend the money to station a defense force here. Why should they? It's never been invaded before, has it? The only soldiers that are ever on the planet are the ones who occasionally come to train at the extraterrestrial proving grounds. And even then there's usually only a few battalions and they only have outdated equipment because the armed forces do not want to spend the money to transport front-line tanks and APCs here. They always figured they could transport troops here from Earth if EastHem ever made a move. After all, the EastHem troops have to come from Earth as well, don't they? But they never figured on a two front war. The possibility that those troops might be needed on one of the Jupiter moons apparently never occurred to them. And now that EastHem has made landings on Callisto, the forces that were slated to prevent an invasion of Mars have been sent there and they only left a token holding force here."

"That doesn't make any sense," Laura said. "Callisto is of no real strategic value to them. It's only worth is as a staging body for a fuel refining operation."

"That's true," he agreed. "But that's what you get when you have politicians on Earth, acting on behalf of Standard Fuel and Jovian Gasses, making the military decisions. The executive council ordered all available troops to the Jupiter system to eject the EastHem marines from Callisto. General Kensington, who's in command of this particular clusterfuck, practically begged them to reconsider and allow him to reinforce Mars first and foremost. But they wouldn't listen to reason. Standard Fuel and Jovian Gas want that EastHem refining operation destroyed and those EastHem marines off of Callisto. They don't give a damn about Mars. All they're concerned with is preventing EastHem from becoming self-sufficient in fuel."

"But if EastHem invades Mars," Laura said, unable to keep the exasperation out of her voice, "WestHem loses their food supply, their steel supply, and most of their shipbuilding and armament industries. The entire economy of WestHem could very well collapse if those things are lost. At the very least EastHem would be the one with the power. They would be able to strangle us."

"And do you want to know the real irony of all this?" Jackson asked, sipping from his coffee.

"What's that?"

"That battle group that has been sent to Callisto, the one that was supposed to defend Mars, it's going to be slaughtered when it tries to eject that landing force. There's no way in hell it's going to be able to retake that moon if the commander of the EastHem forces is even halfway competent at his job."

"What do you mean?" she asked him. "You said that they would have been able to keep EastHem from invading Mars. Why won't they be able to take back a moon? What's the difference?"

"The difference," he explained, "is that here on Mars that battle group would have been the defenders. They would have dug in and set up their forces and just waited for the EastHems to try and make a move against them. But on Callisto, the situation is reversed. The EastHem forces were able to make the landings. It is now they who will be dug in, their tanks and artillery all set and pre-positioned in the optimum places. In any battle the advantage goes to the defender. A military rule of thumb is that it takes three times as many troops and equipment to dislodge a position than it does to hold it. The EastHem forces on Callisto are roughly equal to the forces that will be trying to retake it. They're going to be massacred."

"Christ, Kevin," Laura said. "Do you have a lot of friends among that group?"

He nodded. "Hundreds of men I've trained with and served with everywhere from Ganymede to Cuba. Most will probably be killed during the assault phase. Others will be captured and sent to an EastHem POW camp. The lucky ones will be those who are just wounded and pulled from the battle area. They might just live through the war. Not that we have it much easier here. If EastHem makes landings here we'll fight them as hard as we can but we'll all be killed or captured within a day." He snorted a little. "They'll probably write songs about us and make Internet shows and erect monuments to us, just like the Snoqualmie defenders back in World War III. That'll make my mother real proud, won't it?"

"Is there a solution?" Laura asked, knowing that Kevin had to have a reason for telling her all of this.

"Not for the current crisis," he said. "Like I told you, if EastHem wants to take this planet, then it's theirs. But there is a chance they won't do that."

"Why wouldn't they?" she asked eagerly.

"EastHem doesn't really want this war," he explained. "At least that is my impression as a military historian. I know that all the Internet channels and the news services are telling us that EastHem is the aggressor and that they are bent upon ruling the entire solar system, but I don't really think that's the case. They just want Callisto and they felt they had a right to colonize it. Whether they are right or wrong is not the issue here. The fact is that they just want to become self sufficient in fuel so they don't have to pay WestHem corporations for it. All they were trying to do was set up a fueling operation on Callisto and we attacked them for it."

"But why wouldn't they invade Mars though?" she asked. "I'm not a military expert or anything, but I know that in an all out war like this, doctrine is to press any advantage you have. Invading Mars and cutting WestHem off from their food and their steel, as well as denying them a strategic staging area between Earth and the Jupiter system, would certainly seem advantageous to me."

"It is," he agreed. "And I'm not sure they will be able to resist the temptation now that those idiots have left us wide open, but I'm quite sure that occupying Mars was not one of their original goals. They positioned that invasion force here only as a diversionary tactic, figuring, as any sane commander would, that WestHem would then have to reinforce Mars which would draw troops away from Callisto and therefore give them more time to dig in there. To tell you the truth, I'm pretty impressed by the way EastHem has fought this war so far."

"We should have such leadership," Laura observed sourly.

Jackson dismissed this thought. The situation was what the situation was. "In any case," he went on, "EastHem has Callisto now and we're not going to be able to take it back from them any time soon. With any luck they will be satisfied that their war goals are met and try to push for an armistice instead of drawing out the fighting by landing troops here. If that is the case, then that invasion force will stay where it is for now."

"Will WestHem consider an armistice with them though?" she asked him. "This is edging into my area of expertise now. If politicians are controlling this war on behalf of their corporate sponsors, then they won't give a damn how many marines die trying to take Callisto back. They'll keep sending wave after wave of troops there to try again."

"I have no doubt about that," he told her. "And that's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about."


"If WestHem does not sign an armistice soon, if they keep trying to retake that moon from EastHem, then EastHem is eventually going to have to invade this planet in response. Whether they want to or not, they will have no choice. I think you can help prevent that from happening though."

"Me?" she asked. "What can I do? I'm just a city council member."

"You're a politician, Laura," he reminded her. "And as a prominent, upward moving lawmaker, I'm sure you have established certain connections with certain powerful people in the Martian corporate world."

"Sponsors," she said. "Of course. You can't get elected to the PTA board in this life without a corporate sponsor to donate money and tell you how to vote. But I don't have any sponsors from Jovian Gas or Standard Fuel. I only have connections with corporations that operate on Mars."

"That's my point," he said. "Would Agricorp be one of those sponsors?" Agricorp was the owner of the majority of the Martian agricultural industry, which was considerable. Martian crops, which grew in huge greenhouse complexes that surrounded the equatorial cities like Eden, made up the bulk of the exports from the planet. It was an industry worth trillions and Agricorp was easily the most powerful of all of the WestHem corporations.

"Yes they would," she said. "One would not get very far in one's political life, either here or on Earth, without Agricorp's consent." She started to gleam a little of what he was getting at. "So you think that they'll be able to... influence things?"

"If they understand the seriousness of the situation," he replied. "Agricorp wields a whole lot of political clout, as I'm sure you're aware. Especially with the executive council. If someone could impress upon them just how serious this threat of EastHem invasion is, how easily their entire industry and holdings could suddenly be in EastHem hands without any sort of compensation, then I'm sure they'll see to it that defensive troops are sent here to prevent that invasion. Agricorp has more pull with the council then the gas refining industry, don't they?"

"Yes," she said. "Nobody has more pull with the council than Agricorp. They have their fingers in everyone's pocket. The question is whether or not they will listen to me. Remember, I'm just a city council member right now. I have a reputation as a future force to be reckoned with, that's true, but right now the lobbyists I deal with are pretty low level."

"I think you need to try, Laura," he said. "If they don't listen to you then they don't listen to you. But you have to try. Be persuasive."

She smiled a little. "Now that," she said, "I know how to do. I'll get online with my contact as soon as I get back to my office. Can I mention your name?"

"You can," he said, "but I don't know how much good it will do. I'm just a greenie like you, remember? Corporate haunchos probably won't have a lot of respect for what a greenie has to say. Remember, we're all the descendants of welfare sucking losers who were chased off of Earth. I think you'll do better mentioning the name of Colonel Herald."

"Colonel Herald?" she asked. "Does he know you're talking to me?"

"He gave me his permission to have this talk with you," Jackson confirmed. "Herald is a halfway decent guy for an Earthling and he's just as worried about the strategic situation here as a non-Martian can be. He'll tell your people what I've told you as long as he's assured that it remains in confidence."

She nodded slowly. "So he'll face to face with them?"

"He will," he confirmed. "If they are brought here and if they are of high enough level to make a difference. Don't bring your low level lobbyist down here, bring the guy who can whisper in the ears back on Earth. Herald will be taking a pretty significant risk by talking. It doesn't take much in the armed forces to completely derail a career, believe me. So make sure the risk is worthwhile for him."

"Right," she agreed. "I'll get right to work on it."

They sat in silence for a moment, each contemplating the conversation that had just taken place. Finally, Laura said: "It's kind of ironic in a way, isn't it, Kevin?"

"What's that?" he asked.

"That I have to enlist the aid of the most powerful corporation in existence, that I have to utilize the very power of corruption I hate so much in order to save the planet they are desecrating."

He gave her a meaningful look. "The solar system is full of ironies," he told her. "The best you can do is use them to your advantage. Look at me. I'm utilizing the same process of manipulation of the military that has left us in this mess in the first place. Does that make it wrong?"

"No," she said. "Sometimes the ends really do justify the means."

"Sometimes they do."

April 2, 2132

Eden, Mars

The view from Riggington's Restaurant was impressive. The four-star facility sat atop the 230 story Emmington Group building in the heart of downtown Eden, right at the very edge of the city. From the picture windows near their table, Kevin Jackson and Laura Whiting could see the rolling red plains of equatorial Mars stretching off into the setting sun. The landscape was framed by the towering Sierra Madres foothills to the south and by the geometric squares of the greenhouse complexes stretching to the north. On the other side of the room, out the far windows, the other high-rises of Eden, including the Agricorp building, crowded the sky around them, their lights just beginning to shine. It was truly a commanding view and one that Jackson was sure to enjoy, Laura figured. That was why she had chosen this particular location for their discussion.

Martians, as a culture, did not stand too much on glittery displays of status. For that reason the dress code in Riggington's, as in most Martian facilities, was quite casual. The majority of the diners were dressed only in shorts and light cotton short-sleeve shirts of varying colors. This was the favored casual wear in a world where the temperature never changed and where weather conditions were never a concern. This was how Laura was dressed, though as a politician she usually pained herself to wear Earth-style business attire when out in public. It was expected of such a station in life. But today she did not wish to call much attention to herself; an endeavor she seemed to have been successful in.

The two friends had just come from the Eden Spaceport where they had been a part of the crowd greeting the returning POW's from the Jupiter War. The armistice had been signed nearly two months before and the first group of those naval and marine personnel who had been taken prisoner during the Callisto battles or the space battles had finally made it back to WestHem soil. They had emerged from the C-10 surface to orbit craft onto the tarmac of the spaceport's airlock where the Martian governor and two members of the executive council had greeted each one with handshakes and warm words of meaningless thanks for their sacrifice. The ceremony itself had actually been quite moving, even for a hardened politician like Laura or a hardened military commander like Jackson. After so much death and destruction during the bloody course of the war, seeing survivors, seeing those that had been thought lost returned was enough to trigger powerful emotions. There had been hardly a dry eye among the assembled crowds as wives, parents and children greeted their loved ones after all of those long months away. The ceremony was capped with patriotic speeches and flag-waving and horns blowing and a mass singing of the WestHem federal anthem. To see the portrayal, to feel the emotion of it, one could almost forget that the entire war had been for nothing.

More than twenty thousand WestHem marines had been killed in three separate attacks on Callisto. Twice that number had been wounded. More than ten thousand naval personnel had been killed and more than thirty front-line ships had been destroyed by enemy torpedoes. Though Mars itself had escaped invasion, thanks in part to the efforts of Laura and Jackson back at the beginning of the conflict, all of its cities had been bombed without let-up and more than thirty thousand citizens ultimately lost their lives. And despite all of this fighting and bombing and death, the EastHem fuel refining operation on Callisto was still there and was producing at high capacity. EastHem was now self-sufficient in fuel and the two major WestHem gas production corporations were in the midst of laying off tens of thousands of workers and mothballing dozens of their tankers.

Of course the WestHem government's position was not that it had lost the war. WestHem, the greatest democracy in the solar system, was incapable of losing a war. No, what WestHem had done was "negotiate a settlement" to the dispute. They claimed that the settlement reached was consistent with their original war goals. They had been misunderstood back at the beginning of the conflict when they stated those goals as being the unconditional withdrawal of all EastHem forces and civilians from the Jupiter system. All they wanted was to keep EastHem from attempting to expand their holdings in Jupiter and from attempting to impede WestHem fuel production. EastHem had agreed to this in writing so the war was over. The goals were met. Everyone was happy, right?

Laura had never been to Earth and did not know the extent of the Earthling's stupidity in such manners. Did they really believe all of the bullshit their government was laying upon them? She thought it entirely possible they did. But on Mars even the most common citizen knew the truth. WestHem had gotten its ass kicked and kicked royally. And Mars had been damn lucky to avoid a brutal enemy occupation.

"So what's the occasion, Laura?" Jackson asked her as they sipped from glasses of white wine imported from Earth (Mars had very little wine or alcohol production). "You didn't bring me up here to get me drunk did you? You seem too serious for that."

"I'm concerned about the pull-back of the marines from Mars," she said, nibbling on a piece of bread. "I understand the withdrawal will start next week."

"That's correct," he said. "The mechanized units will start loading up their equipment onto the landing ships for return to orbit. The troops will all be sent back to their bases on Earth after that."

"And we'll be defenseless once again," she said.

"Not completely," he corrected. "It's been decided by the powers-that-be that a division of marines will be permanently stationed at the training base outside Eden. Their heavy equipment will be stored in a group of heavy landing ships which will be kept at anchor at Triad Naval Base."

"So they're going to kick loose a little bit of funding for us huh?" she said cynically. "How rankin' of them. Will a division be enough?"

"It could potentially be enough if it was used correctly, but you have to understand that this division, though it will be stationed here, is not specifically intended for the defense of Mars."

She raised her eyebrows a little. "It's not?"

"No," he told her. "It will be a fast reaction force that is capable of being moved away from here in less than twenty-four hours. Its primary function will be to respond if there are any other problems in the Jupiter system. It has been suggested that the reason we were forced to 'negotiate a settlement' in the war was because we were unable to respond quick enough with enough troops and equipment to prevent the occupation of Callisto."

"That's a bunch of bullshit," Laura said. "We had all of the troops that were supposed to protect Mars in orbit around Ganymede when the war started. They were there long before the EastHem marines occupied Callisto."

"Right," Jackson agreed. "That was because WestHem didn't believe that EastHem was really going to try to forcibly install troops on Callisto. They thought it was all a big bluff. Since they thought EastHem was bluffing, it was decided that our marines shouldn't be landed there in advance. Another stupid political decision made against the advice of the commanders. That one was probably the worst one of all. If we had had those troops down there, the entire momentum of the war would have been on our side instead of theirs." He shrugged lightly, as lightly as one could when one was talking about a flawed decision that had cost twenty thousand men their lives. "What can you do?"

"What indeed," Laura agreed sadly.

"But in any case," he went on, "that is the excuse our political leaders have settled on for why we could not evict those EastHem forces from Callisto. So, in response to that, they've kicked loose enough funding to form this fast reaction division. It will be stationed here because it's too expensive to station it on Ganymede. They would have to build an entire base on the surface in order to do that. God forbid they spend a couple of billion of the budget for that."

"So will these troops be of any value to Mars whatsoever?" Laura wanted to know.

Jackson offered another shrug. "They could theoretically help defend us in the event of an attempted invasion but they would only be able to hold for a little while before reinforcement became necessary. Reinforcement from Earth, as I'm sure you're aware, takes anywhere from four to twelve weeks depending on planetary alignment. Worst case scenario is that EastHem hits us with a surprise invasion when Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun."

"A surprise invasion?" she asked. "I thought that was impossible. Wouldn't we see the ships coming from the moment they left Earth?"

"Not anymore. Now that EastHem has a supply line stretching from Earth to the Jupiter system, it would be relatively easy to launch a surprise attack upon us during certain times of the year."

"What do you mean?" she wanted to know.

"Well," he told her, pouring each of them a little more wine, "they could hide their invasion force in specially modified fuel tankers. When Jupiter and Mars are approaching alignment we would be accustomed to seeing groups of EastHem tankers passing within a few hundred thousand kilometers of us. We wouldn't think anything about it. But suppose a few of those tankers contained not fuel but a dozen assault landing ships apiece. They're easily big enough for that. The EastHems, if they did it at the right time, could have two or three divisions of troops secure in their beachheads before our marines even had a chance to get their own heavy equipment on the surface."

"Unbelievable," Laura said, shaking her head. "If you want to hear a doomsday scenario, just ask a marine commander."

"And ask you did," he said. "And that's just one surprise attack scheme. I can think of five or six others just off the top of my head."

"Has any of this been brought up to the executive council or congress?" she asked.

"It's been suggested that a permanent force of soldiers dedicated completely to Martian defense would be a good idea," he explained. "But the suggestions have only come from the command level. Once the suggestion moves into the offices of those idiots in Denver, it gets shot right down as being unnecessary and too expensive."

Laura sighed in disgust. "Money," she said sourly. "That's what it always comes down to. We don't want to spend the money right now to prevent a crisis later."

"It's the way of the solar system," Jackson agreed.

Though Laura was morally upset with the situation her planet was being left in, she was also elated. Though Mars would be left nearly defenseless in the short term, it did open up an entire new aspect to her long-range plans. The idea she had been mulling over ever since she heard of the impending pullback of the marines began to click more firmly into place.

"Tell me something, Kevin," she said, lowering her voice just a little. "What if there was a Martian planetary guard? A force made up of volunteers from Mars itself and equipped with modern weapons. Could such a force be trained efficiently enough to repel an invasion?"

He mulled that over for a second. "A planetary guard huh? I suppose such a force could be drilled and trained enough to cause EastHem quite a headache. I would even venture to say that a good number of Martian citizens would participate in such a program if you had one. But where would the funding come from? You have the same basic problem as stationing professional marines here. Nobody wants to pay for it."

"The Martian citizens could pay for it," she suggested.

Jackson blinked. "Come again?"

"A voluntary income and sales tax increase," she explained. "Say an extra two percent on sales and maybe an extra three percent on income. I haven't done the exact math but that would generate in excess of two billion every year. With two billion a year allocated for equipment and training expenses, you could buy a lot of tanks and artillery and guns, couldn't you?"

"Yes, you could," he said. "But you don't really think the people would volunteer to tax themselves that much do you? We already have ten percent sales tax in effect and we already pay more than forty-five percent in income taxes to the feds, not to mention an additional six percent to the planetary government."

"On the contrary," Laura retorted. "I believe the citizens would vote overwhelmingly for such a thing as long as it was for planetary defense. Remember, we were hit very hard during the war and most of our citizens know it was because we were largely undefended. Trust me on this. If there's one thing I know how to do, it's read the mindset of our citizens. They would vote this in."

"I'll have to take your word for it," he said doubtfully. "But that's not the only factor involved in such a thing."

"No," she said, "it's not. It would also require the approval of congress and the executive council. But if the funding was available, what possible objection could they have to it? Their prize moneymaker will be protected from invasion at no cost to them. It would also require the approval of the various corporations that control this planet. They would be concerned about an additional income tax affecting their Martian sales. Granted, with only seventy million people on the planet, Martians amount to only one percent of any WestHem corporation's paying customers, but you know corporations. If they think they'll lose ten cents a year, they'll kill the measure and they'll spend billions killing it."

"Do you think they would approve of such a plan?" Jackson asked.

"If it was presented to them in the right way. That would be my job and I think I can do it. Now that I'm a member of the planetary legislature and not just a council member, my contacts have become more powerful — a little higher up the ladder. You have to remember that the corporations were particularly nervous during the war. After all, us citizens only had our lives to lose, they had their very holdings put in jeopardy."

"You seem to have this all figured out," he observed. "What do you need from me?"

"I need a military expert to draw up plans for such a force," she told him. "I need minimum staffing recommendations, minimum supply recommendations, and minimum deployment recommendations. I need facts, figures, and presentations to show just how such a force would be used and to explain to those complete idiots of the corporate boards and congress just how it would be an effective deterrent."

"I see," he said slowly.

"I would put you in touch with various auditors, accountants, and lawyers from the various corporations that supply the equipment so you could develop estimations for both initial start-up costs and yearly operational costs. Most of the military hardware manufacturers are based here on Mars. That should make things a little easier. We wouldn't have to deal with shipping costs."

"No," he said, his head spinning with the request. "I don't suppose we would."

She took a deep breath. "And most of all," she continued, "if such a project were approved, I would need someone to lead it."

There was silence as he digested her words and tried to grapple with all of the ramifications of it. "You would want me to lead it?"

"I cannot think of a better person," she replied. "Of course, unlike the bulk of the members, you would be paid a salary for your position and you would be expected to devote your full-time energies to it. You would be allocated a command staff and a training staff, the composition of which would be your discretion. The governor would have to appoint you to the position and the legislature would have to confirm you, but I'm pretty sure that if I can get things that far it will not be a problem. A few whispered words to the right people would be all that was required. For instance, I could assure Alexander Industries that you would buy your tanks from them if they pressured the politicians they own to vote for you."

This was all moving too fast for Jackson. "I would have to resign from the marines in order to accept your offer," he said. "I would have to give up my rank, my pension, and everything I've worked for over the years."

"Yes," she said, not pulling her punches. "You would. As I said, you would be paid for your position and given all of the perks you would expect from it. Comparable salary, medical and lawyer insurance, and travel expenses would all be covered. But you would have to leave the marines behind."

He took another sip from his wine, swallowing it slowly. "You're asking a lot of me, Laura."

"I know," she said, wondering if she should tell him the rest of her plans for this force. To do so would be a horrible risk. If her instincts about his planetary loyalty were the least bit wrong... But on the other hand, he would have to be told eventually, would have to agree. And there was no one else that she could even begin to trust with what she had in mind. There were undoubtedly others who would do it, but she had no way of picking them out. Though her political connections were many, her military ones were almost completely limited to this one man.

"Look, Laura," he said, intruding upon her train of thought. "I'll be happy to draw up your plans for you and provide any manner of expertise that I can offer. I'll even take an unpaid leave of absence to help you get it up and running. But as for giving up my commission... well, I'm not sure that I can..."

"Kevin," she said softly, making her decision. "Why don't I explain a few other things to you?"

"Other things?"

She nodded, feeling her hands wanting to tremble as she laid her proverbial cards on the table. "I'm going to be governor of this planet someday," she said. "Probably within twelve years."

"I'm sure you're right," he said. "But..."

"Listen to me for a minute," she interrupted. "Listen to me very carefully. I want to be absolutely sure that you do not misunderstand anything I'm about to say."

That got his attention. He snapped his mouth shut.

With that, she began to talk.

Jackson listened to her, his eyes widening as the story developed. When she was done he only sat there, stunned.

"So what do you think?" she said at last. "It's certainly a risk, I'll be the first to agree. But it's a risk worth taking and I think that together we can pull it off."

"My God, Laura," he finally intoned. "What you're suggesting is... is..."

"I know what it is," she told him. "The question is, will you help me?"

He scratched his head a little and took a few breaths. Would he help her? Would he risk not just his career but his very life? He could easily imagine the consequences of failure. But at the same time he could imagine the rewards of success. They would be the greatest rewards a people could imagine. "I'll help you," he said at last. "You get me a planetary guard established and I'll lead it."

She smiled, holding her hand across the table. "Welcome aboard," she said as he shook with her. "Someday they're going to name cities after you."

"Yes," he said, feeling both elation and fear at what he had agreed to. "They do that after you're dead, don't they?"

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