"Bloody hell." Admiral Beatty thumped a fist against the observation window on the King Edward VII. He watched a red glow form over Mars, growing brighter by the second. It was the wreckage of the dreadnaught USSS Robert Morris, burning up in the atmosphere.

Four ships. He'd lost four ships in the last hour from Martian planetary defense batteries. Just when he thought they'd rooted out the last of them, others popped up. The same with those damned armed shuttles. Beatty wondered if the squids had an endless supply of those craft.

Little by little, they're whittling us down.

ASEF still had a large fleet, but if these attacks continued, it would soon be a not-so-large fleet. He'd sent repeated messages to the Supreme Council, asking for more ships. Trouble was, the majority of Earth's space forces were already here at Mars. As French President Maginot rebutted, "We cannot snap our fingers and instantly create spaceships for you."

"No, but you can put pressure on the Russians and Japanese to commit more of their forces to Mars," he had countered.

Last he heard, ASEF representatives were still negotiating with Stalin and Emperor Taisho. But Stalin remained paranoid that enemies, real and imagined, would try to overthrow him. As for Taisho, well, the Japanese were so mysterious and isolationist, who knew what went on inside their heads?

Beatty continued to hover near the observation window. He slowly gazed back and forth. To his left, heat rays spat from several ASEF ships, directed at enemy targets on the Martian surface. To his right, missiles flew from the tiny moon of Phobos, which had been seized by his forces early in the invasion.

Heat rays shot up from the surface. A blazing miniature sun appeared and faded. Another ASEF ship destroyed.

Beatty scowled and clenched a fist. His mind flashed back to his meeting with the ASEF Supreme Council on Moon Base Alpha nearly two months ago, when he mentioned the impact of Stalin's near-withdrawal from Operation: Overlord. Prime Minister Lloyd George had told him, "I'm sure you can find a way to make it work."

That could be hard to do if the Martians keep blowing up our ships and killing our soldiers.

He rubbed his hands over his face and drew a slow breath. His attention returned to the space around Mars. ASEF heat rays and missiles continued to rain down on the red planet. The Martians on the surface responded in kind. Another ASEF ship exploded.

Beatty folded his arms and stared at the deck. If Earth sent reinforcements, he doubted it would be anything significant. Deep down, he knew if he was going to make it work, it would have to be with the men and ships he had here and now.

He turned away from the battle and floated through the corridors. Men saluted him as they passed. He propelled himself up three decks before reaching a hatch that read COMMAND STAFF COMPARTMENT. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. The marine on guard saluted Beatty, then opened the hatch for him. He grabbed the frame and propelled himself inside.

The entire ASEF command staff floated around a finely polished oak table. They came to attention as Beatty maneuvered himself toward the head of the table.

"Right then." He looked to the chubby, balding man to his right. "What's the latest news from the Arcadia Plains?"

French General Gaston Ducreux, the head of ASEF intelligence, answered, "The Martians have deployed two more tripod regiments to the region. That brings the estimated number there to two thousand."

"What about Martian infantry?"

"Aerial reconnaissance spotted more troops to the west. At least a division's worth. We believe they moved underground. No one saw them until they appeared in their trenches. The Martians now have at least five army groups in the Arcadia Plains."

"We're getting reports that the Martians are pulling tripods and troops out of several other fronts," explained a gray-haired, distinguished-looking American. General Charles Summerall, commander of ASEF ground forces. "I think it's obvious those forces are being sent to the Arcadia Plains."

"This is only further proof that the Martians have something important there," pointed out a stocky German with a bushy white mustache. General Hans von Seeckt, the Deputy Supreme Allied Space Commander.

"Yeah, but we still don't know what it is." Summerall gave Ducreux an accusatory look.

"We are still trying to determine that," Ducreux snapped, glaring at Summerall. "We have intercepted several communiqu├ęs to and from the Arcadia Plains. Some of our codebreakers have not been able to decipher, and others are merely routine messages."

"Do you at least have any theories what the Martians could be hiding there?" asked Beatty.

"They could be building new weapons there. It could also be the new headquarters for their Guiding Council. The Martians would go to any length to protect them."

Beatty pressed his palms down on the table and gazed at the map of Mars before him. He took in all the symbols around the Arcadia Plains that denoted Martian units. Good Lord, there were a lot of them.

What is so important to you blighters?

He then looked at other areas of the red planet. British and American forces were close to securing the Isadis Plains and Aeolis Region respectively. Other ASEF forces had made significant breakthroughs in the Thyle Region, Hellas Plains, Sinus Meridiani and Cassini Land. Beatty figured a lot of it had to do with the Martians siphoning off forces from those theaters to aid in the defense of the Arcadia Plains.

His eyes came back to that spot on the map. Ideas took form in his head. Many of them caused his stomach to tighten.

What choice do you have, David?

"There's only one way to know what the Martians are up to in the Arcadia Plains. We have to take it."

The veins in General Summerall's neck stuck out. "That's going to take a lot of troops and battlewalkers. We still have a lot of other regions of Mars we need to secure before we can launch an offensive there."

"No." Beatty shook his head. "I don't believe we can wait for the action to wrap up in the other theaters. What if the Martians are building new weapons there? Weapons we can't begin to conceive of. They could defeat ASEF, force us to head back to Earth. It will take years to rebuild our forces and launch another invasion. By that time, the Martians could use those weapons on Earth itself. No. We need to take the Arcadia Plains as soon as possible."

"Admiral," Summerall began. "There are over a million-and-a-half Martians there. We don't have sufficient forces in the region to take them on."

"Then we'll have to do what the Martians are doing. Pull units from other theaters and send them to the Arcadia Plains."

Shock flashed over Summerall's face. "That will mean giving up most of our gains on Mars. What's to keep the squids from retaking them?"

"They may not have the numbers to do that," said Beatty. "We've already degraded their military capability. The bulk of what they have left is being concentrated in the Arcadia Plains. We could be looking at the decisive battle of Operation: Overlord right here." He thrust his hand out toward the map.

"An offensive of such size requires a lot of munitions." General von Seeckt turned to a tall, brown-haired American. "Admiral Thurman, do we have sufficient stores?"

The head of ASEF logistics let out a slow breath. "I don't know if I can say yes to that. We have been going through ammunition and a faster rate than I expected. We're also getting low on ship-launched ballistic missiles, as well as replacement batteries for our heat rays."

"How long will it take to get more munitions from Earth?" asked Beatty.

"Loading operations for the replenishment fleet should take two more days to complete. Then another six days to travel to Mars, and three to four days to transfer munitions and supplies to our ships."

Beatty thumped both fists on the table. His face scrunched in frustration. That was nearly two weeks! Who the hell knew what would happen in two weeks? The Martians could spring whatever new weapon they had on them.

He closed his eyes for a second, composing himself. After taking a slow breath, he looked up at the command staff. "Begin drawing up plans for an offensive against the Arcadia Plains. Any and all ASEF units are at your disposal. In the meantime, General Summerall, I want you to call a halt to all ground operations."

Summerall's jaw fell open in astonishment. "A halt, Sir? You want us to stop fighting the Martians?"

"In effect. I want all ground forces to hold their positions until further notice."

"If we do that, we're inviting the Martians to attack us. We have the advantage on several fronts. We need to keep pushing forward and gain more territory."

"Which will cost us more lives, battlewalkers, artillery and jets," said Beatty. "We can't count on significant reinforcements from Earth, so we must conserve what we have here on Mars. And we certainly can't mount an attack on this scale without sufficient stocks of munitions. Therefore, we have to restrict ASEF to defensive operations only until the replenishment fleet from Earth arrives."

"And that gives the Martians two weeks to recover and build up their defenses," said Summerall. "Or launch an offensive of their own. How many of our forces will we lose then?"

Beatty narrowed his eyes at the American general. He had allowed the man some leeway to make his point, but now he risked crossing the line.

He was about to address the matter when von Seeckt spoke up. "Admiral, I do think General Summerall has a point."

Beatty whipped his head around to his number two man. Anger billowed inside him. He started to open his mouth when the German general continued.

"I agree, we must wait until we have more munitions before we begin this offensive. But we should not, um, what is the term, 'let up' on the Martians. We should try to disrupt them in some way. Raids, probes, harassment fire."

Beatty mulled it over. Such attacks meant using valuable ammunition. Still, he didn't like the idea of giving the Martians a complete respite.

He nodded. "Very well. You have permission to conduct small-scale operations against the Martians until the Arcadia Plains offensive. We must let them know we haven't forgotten about them."

A few soft, brief chuckles went up from the command staff. General Summerall gave a half-smile and a slight nod. It seemed this order satisfied him, to some degree.

"Once we're resupplied," Beatty said, "we'll begin moving our forces into position."

"We're risking a lot here, Admiral," said Summerall.

"True, General, but in war, one must take risks."

"Of course, Sir. But if we fail to take the Arcadia Plains, it's going to be very costly in terms of men and material. It may not be the battle we lose, but the entire war."

Beatty locked eyes with Summerall, feeling his face go rigid with determination. "Well then, General, we'd best not fail."

XXXXX

We should not be doing this.

Supreme Guardian Hashzh's concerns grew the longer he stared at the screens in his chamber. Computer generated images of tripods, automated batteries, armed shuttles and land guardians stretched across the northern part of Shoh. So many of them.

All visible to the Brohv'ii.

His tentacles trembled. He had warned the Guiding Council of this. He had told them putting large numbers of guardians around The Final Project would alert the Brohv'ii that something of great importance was happening here. They were sure to attack.

But once again, panic had usurped reason. The Council ordered much of the Guard Force to The Final Project. Even with their network of tunnels, they could not keep such a large force hidden from the Brohv'ii. They would come, with as many soldiers and fighting machines as they could gather. He only hoped he had sufficient numbers of Shoh'hau to defeat them.

We must. The consequences are unthinkable.

A deep hum filled his chamber. Words flashed across the wall screen. He read the message, his annoyance growing.

The Guiding Council wanted to meet with him.

Hashzh crawled through the corridors, wondering what other foolish orders they could give him. When he entered the Council's chamber, he halted and lifted his tentacles above his body.

"The honor is mine to be in the presence of the Guiding Council."

"Greetings, Supreme Guardian Hashzh," answered Supreme Councilor Frtun. "You are welcome in our presence."

He slid closer to the leaders of the Shoh'hau race. "You wish to see me, Councilors?"

"Indeed," said Frtun. "It has been decided that, given the current situation, we will act on your numerous requests for more weaponry to fight the Brohv'ii."

Surprise took hold of Hashzh. The feeling didn't last long, not when he thought of all the territory and cities the Brohv'ii had captured and destroyed.

If you had initially approved my requests, the Brohv'ii would not be on our planet.

But dwelling on what could have been was a waste of thought.

"Thank you, Councilors. How many new weapons can I expect and when?"

Councilor Yrvul answered, "Within fourteen rotations, you will have fifty new tripods, twenty new armed shuttles, and five new planetary defense batteries."

"That is all?"

"Several of our factories have been destroyed or captured by the Brohv'ii, and the majority of our resources must be directed toward completion of The Final Project. We have spared as much as we could for the building of new weapons."

"We will need far more new tripods, shuttles and planetary defense batteries to deter the Brohv'ii," Hashzh explained.

"I find your comments surprising, Supreme Guardian," Rezdv noted. "You have requested more weaponry on numerous occasions. Now that we give them to you, you complain."

"I am not complaining, Councilor Rezdv. I am merely stating fact. Our losses have been high. These new weapons will hardly make up for the ones the Brohv'ii have destroyed."

"Enough of your worry, Supreme Guardian," Ehjah said in a harsh tone. "We have seen your reports. The Brohv'ii are no longer advancing. They have realized we are superior to them, and they cannot possibly defeat us. They will soon leave Shoh."

Hashzh stared at Ehjah in disbelief. Why would the Brohv'ii leave when they had taken over several regions of the planet? They likely halted their forces to save them for an all-out assault on The Final Project.

All the other councilors looked at Ehjah. Hashzh could sense their concern. Perhaps they now believed what he had felt for so many rotations. Ehjah brain had malfunctioned.

A part of Hashzh felt pleased by this. Ehjah would be put to death. He knew he shouldn't think such thoughts about a member of the Guiding Council, but his malfunctioning brain was a detriment to them. They couldn't afford that in a time of war.

Supreme Councilor Frtun finally returned his gaze to Hashzh. "That is all the new weaponry we can provide to you. If you cannot defeat the Brohv'ii with the forces you have here, then you must delay them until The Final Project is completed."

"Yes, Supreme Councilor."

Hashzh considered Frtun's words. Given all the losses the Guard Force had suffered, that might be the only strategy he could employ. Concentrate his forces here, strengthen their defensive positions and let the Brohv'ii come to them. There could be no retreat. They had to hold to the last Shoh'hau. He recalled some of the Brohv'ii's military records he had studied. Hundreds of cycles ago, when they fought with swords and arrows, they would lay siege to strongholds. Sometimes it took them many, many rotations, even half-a-cycle, before the defenders succumb, either from too many deaths or too little food, or a combination of both.

Hashzh and his Guard Force did not have to hold out that long. Perhaps twenty-five rotations at the most. By then the first part of Guiding Council's Final Project should be ready.

Also, his final project should be ready by that time. Then the Brohv'ii would never threaten his race again.

TO BE CONTINUED