THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
General Howe took several steps around the table, in a move meant to infuriate Secretary Benson. It was only three short steps, but all the while he was taking those steps, it was he who was the centre of attention, not Secretary Benson. For himself, Howe did not care, of course. He would have been perfectly content to spend the afternoon on his patio, with a book and a pot of coffee. But the gesture, small as it was—indeed, even as petty as it was—was a carefully calculated move intended to keep Secretary Benson off balance. And this flouting of protocol, however insignificant it may have been, was all that needed to throw Benson off balance for the rest of Howe’s presentation.
“Those Scroungers,” General Howe continued, “most of whom were not much more than children when they were driven out from the established bases, had already developed some rudimentary survival skills when they landed at some of the abandoned bases scattered through the Vastista Borealis region north of the Tharsis Montes.
“This decision, an attempt to avoid the outright slaughter of thousands of near-adults that no one had taken any interest in, proved to be disastrous. As I have already said, these near adults had learned many skills in the alleys of Schiaparelli City, Lowell City and other established bases.
“Left to their own resources, and what they could find in the abandoned bases where they had been—`exiled to’ is not too harsh an expression to use—the Scroungers established themselves very quickly. In very few short years, their numbers grew and their skills sharpened. They felt no loyalty to either the Martian colonists who abandoned them to the wastelands of Mars, or to the Earthian corporations that built these colonies.
“Embittered against the Martian colonists, the Scroungers took to raiding small colonies, first the smaller encampments, and then, as time went on and their confidence in their skills grew, they began attacking larger encampments. Over time, the Scroungers held control over huge swaths of Mars, mostly in the rugged southern regions. There, they were able to take advantage of the mountainous terrain to hide their bases.
“At first, it seems the Scroungers survived by scavenging earlier bases that had been abandoned by their investors. It was not too many years before they began raiding active bases.
“It is from this point on that we first begin developing any real information about the Scroungers. Their raids on the bases were all carefully documented.
“The Scroungers had organized themselves well. Their harassment of the established colonies caused sufficient problems that the Martian bases, with the support of the corporate interests on Earth the colonists were able to establish a campaign against them. This campaign lasted…hm, `indefinitely’ is the correct term to use in this case, as the campaign has never ended. But it did bring about two results. The first is that the Martian colonists developed their own military force, something that had never been necessary before, The second result was not so happy a one for us, for the campaign imposed a rugged, martial discipline upon them, which only made campaign that much more difficult—even impossible—for the colonists to prevail.
“The Scroungers seem to have understood that the campaign against them had come to a stalemate. No matter how hard, how long, or how intelligently the two sides fought, neither would ever overcome the other.
“The Scroungers had no particular loyalty to Mars, which provided them a rather easy solution to the dilemma. They moved their operations from attacking local Martian traffic to preying upon the shipping between Earth and Mars and the near asteroids. They seem to have learned to operate in small numbers, making it impossible for us to get any good, reliable information about their numbers. Were there hundreds of them? Thousands? Tens of thousands?
“Until the attack on Callisto, we had no way to know. But afterwards, we know that an attack of that magnitude could only have been planned and executed by no less than several tens of thousands. But it is far more likely that the numbers range from a hundred thousand or more, to even as many as a million.”
A barely stifled gasp went around the room.
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