By 2197, the skirmishes between the Underground and UN/IDC forces had finally bubbled over into outright war. The initial conflict in the Outback was inherently asymmetric: the corporate arcologies were clearly well-defined military targets, but the rebels operated out of thousands of habitats that were at least partly civilian. To the corporate militaries the entire Outback looked like a seething mass of political and social revolution. Rebel strike teams assembled out of nowhere, made unexpected attacks against corporate forces, and dissolved just as quickly into the general population. The constellations of low-orbit spy satellites simply could not keep track of the separatist partisans. With Intercorporate Security's position slowly but inexorably deteriorating, the coporate target selection groups began to quietly move habitats onto the approved targets list on flimsy or non-existent evidence of rebel sentiments. The conflict escalated into total war with terrifying speed.
The rebels scored a highly-visible victory on 22 April. Somehow a Krasnaya Volia cell in Sirenum Terra had built a high energy free-electron laser under the noses of the orbital surveillance network. The recent attacks on non-aligned habitats convinced them that the time had come to reveal themselves. The laser's first pulse disabled a Nexant torchship in areosynchronous orbit. An interplanetary troop transport docked to an orbital terminal and then the terminal itself were destroyed before an early-warning satellite detected the thermal output of the laser's fusion reactor. Two orbital forts were disabled and another torchship damaged in the five minutes it took for the IDC to authorize use of nuclear weapons. Seven further orbital facilities were damaged before the station's antimissile defences were overwhelmed and fusion bombs vapourised the laser and associated habitats.
The thermonuclear destruction of the Sirenum Terra laser station was the first use of nuclear weapons in combat for over a century and established a precedent that significantly changed the nature of the conflict. Over the next three days, five further rebel strongholds were destroyed by orbital bombardment; one of the targets was Zubrin, a town of fifty thousand people. The megacorporate newsnets characterised these attacks as the only alternative to incurring heavy corporate casualties by storming the habitats with ground troops. Soon, though, it became clear that the targets were being selected not on the basis of the local tactical situation, but purely to break the will of the resistance. The IDC was no longer fighting to restore order in the rebellious regions, but simply to preserve the corporate control of the economically important North by whatever means appeared necessary.
Whatever the proximate cause, a kind a Final Solution order was made, and all visible underground targets were attacked. A million non-combatants, people who could have lived hundreds of years, were killed in a single hour as the colony domes were shattered by orbital bombardment. The date was 28 April 2197.
The will of the Martian Resistance was decimated. Most of its fighters and war materiel were, however, unscathed, the vulnerability of the colony domes having been recognised decades before.
The scale of the deaths on Mars were suppressed as far as possible, especially in the rest of the solar system. The resistance had other plans, and carefully assembled emotive 30 second up to 3 hour programmes, mainly without voiceover, of the devastation.
Also, the reaction was severe; all war plans against Earth authority, however bizarre or horrendous, were put into motion. Once the resistance had regained its composure, knee-jerk reactions ceased in July. By August almost all Mars Transnat platforms had been disabled; the orbital infrastructure was devastated. The transnats began a crash programme to rebuild their presence in Mars orbit, beginning with hardened weapons platforms.
Then the war dug in. Earth forces learned to use only Earth born personnel landed for less than a few years in key locations. Full spatial security perimeters were established, and sabotage became impossible. Any local population was effectively held hostage as a shield. Towards the end of the year the transnats began to use autonomous combat drones, psychoactive nanoweapons and old-fashioned nukes against rebel habitats.
The future of Ad Astra