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PROLOGUE
Some of the equipment deployed by the larger defense and security contractors thriving off the ongoing strife as the world reached the middle of the twenty-first century would have been worthy of many national governments in times gone by. Marduk was the newest addition to the arsenal of Milicorp Transnational, based in San Jose, at the southern end of Occidena, one of the regions that had seceded from the former United States. An orbiting bombardment platform carrying beam weapons, missiles, and guided bombs, Marduk was capable of shifting its orbit to target any place on the Earth's surface within three hours.

The Indonesian breakaway state of Tiwa Jaku had been established following takeover of the island by a military junta bankrolled and equipped by foreign commercial interests keen to secure access to the considerable tropical hardwoods reserves and recently confirmed deposits of rich nickel and tin ores. When the actions of a growing popular reactionary movement threatened to destabilize the regime, President Suwarko, who had liaised with Milicorp as a general under the former government and taken out his own contract with the corporation upon coming to power, called in their services to suppress the rebellion. For the directors and technical staff of Milicorp, the event provided a welcome opportunity to test Marduk's capabilities.

* * *

Flanked by staff officers in gray Milicorp tunics bearing the gold-lightning-flash-on-red shoulder insignia designating Tactical Orbital Command, Myles Callen stood in the center of the Opcon Room on Marduk's Control Deck, staring down into the display "tank" presenting a composite 3-D image reconstructed from direct observation and data from lower altitude surveillance drones, of a magnified portion of the terrain below. Callen's executive status as corporate "Facilitator" in charge of the operation placed him above the hierarchy of uniformed ranks. He wore a plain dark suit with traditional narrow tie and was addressed as "Mister."

The view being held in the tank showed an area of broken, rocky hills rising above scattered forest and plantations to the west of the capital on the island that was now called Tiwa Jaku. Colored icons and data superposed on the image indicated the dispositions and strengths of the rebel units that had pulled back to take up a defensive stand there. The plan devised with Milicorp's cooperation had been simple enough. A feinted retreat by the government forces and false reports spread by infiltrators of a general uprising had drawn the rebels out onto the plain, believing that they had an open road through to the city. When they had converged into columns, they were annihilated by remote-piloted ground-attack drones unloaded secretly by Milicorp personnel and deployed in the previous few days. Falling back to the hills, the survivors found themselves penned in by government troops who had moved in surreptitiously from the rear through the surrounding forests. The classical move would then be for government reserves to advance from the city and seal the trap, followed by a bloody and protracted operation of assault, reduction of the defenses, and mopping up. But Marduk offered a swifter and more economical option.

The Ordnance Director spoke from his console to one side of the tank. His voice sounded also in earpieces of the active optic spectacles that Callen was wearing. "Pilot laser registered on Hill three-two-seven. Main beam armed and primed to fifty percent."

"Frame synched and locked. Opportunity window one minute, twenty-seven seconds," another voice announced over the circuit. That was the time they had before Marduk's progression along its orbit would take it out of effective range.

Callen murmured a command that was picked up by a sensor that doubled as a tie pin. A zoom field opened up in the spectacles to show a close-up of the part of the display that his gaze was directed at. Hill 327 was a natural amphitheater of rocky scarps and shrub, formed in what could have been the remains of an ancient volcano, that the rebels were turning into a strong point overlooking their defensive positions. He could make out groups of figures digging slit tenches and filling sandbags for gun emplacements, and below them lines of others hauling packs and equipment up the slopes. The ravine at the reverse foot of the prominence--in the direction that Marduk's firing window was moving--had been identified on the previous pass as a staging area for materials and munitions. Beyond that, in the forested valley slightly to the north, were the camouflaged hideouts housing the families, support base, and supply caches.

Callen called up a countdown check and nodded to the Ordnance Director. "Fire sequence pattern. Take out the full list."

For an instant, a thin finger of radiance illuminated the ground zero point shown on the target designator screens as a reddened circle, ionizing a conducting path from the orbiting platform and perceptible on the ground as a faint column of violet coming down through the thin veil of cloud. Then a bolt of high-energy electrons flashed to the surface to hit the target area with the force of a mini-nuclear bomb, vaporizing everything inside a radius of a thousand feet. Callen had a brief impression of the blast wave sweeping outward from the fireball in a turmoil of rocks, debris, shattered trees, and bodies before the frame stepped to the next indexed target zone. Even after observing the test firings in Nevada, he was still impressed.

In all, six bursts of devastation were delivered before Marduk stood down from active operations on that pass of its orbit.

But by then, the battle was already over.

* * *

The following day, Callen put a call through to Colonel Guadalez, commander of the Milicorp ground force. Shots had been coming through all morning of government soldiers bringing in trucks full of bewildered survivors, many still in shock or suffering from flash burns, to wire detention cages erected outside the city. "What are the latest numbers?" he inquired.

"It's looking like around twenty-eight hundred to three thousand. Could be up to three quarters rear echelon." Guadalez's swarthy face with its thick mustache broke into a grin showing strong white teeth against the background of the trailer that he was using as a local command post. "That means we really hit their fighting edge hard. They shouldn't be much of a problem for a long time now. You guys up there got it right on."

Callen acknowledged with a noncommital nod. "I just do my job."

"Do we have word on what to do with them yet?"

"San Jose have been talking to Suwarko. He's decided that he needs to teach a lesson to discourage other would-be troublemakers. Our contractual commitment is fulfilled. Stand down your mission and turn them over to Suwarko's people. They'll deal with it. We'll be airlifting you out the day after tomorrow."

Guadalez returned a matter-of-fact nod. It was to be expected as part of the business. Being seen to be involved in the liquidating of prisoners was not good for corporate public relations. "That gives us two nights here to celebrate," he said. "Much appreciated. I've heard wild things about this city. I guess you guys don't get to party much up there, eh?"

"I wouldn't have the time anyway," Callen told him.

"Still working?"

"Always working."

"It, ah . . . doesn't exactly sound like what I'd call a life," Guadalez commented, picking at a tooth with a thumbnail.

"I just do my job," Callen told him.

* * *

Callen took a lander down to the surface on Marduk's next pass over the West Coast. The summons from Milicorp headquarters had said simply that he was required back urgently to be briefed on his next assignment. Rath Borland, the Operations Vice President in San Jose, had not gone into detail when Callen called to inquire further, on the grounds that the matter was sensitive. He had confided, however, that the job would be of a long-range nature, far from Earth.

 
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