|The worst part is the waiting.|
by Louis Shalako
It was D plus Three of the invasion of Vega-Prime. The first and second waves were on the ground and holding their bridgehead.
Major J. Birney of the Fourth Division, Royal Marines, stood beside Lieutenant D. Edwards of H.M.S. Agincourt, flag of her squadron. The dark and compact Scot, with his beefy shoulders and forty some-odd years and the lanky, red haired youth, seemingly too young to be a commissioned officer, got along like a house on fire, which was a relief to Major Birney after a previous experience on another vessel. They were going over the proposed fire-plan.
The vessel was part of the Thirteenth Heavy Bombardment Flotilla, three squadrons plus one reserve squadron, firing in support of Eighth Combat Infantry Brigade, just one small component of the First Fleet. They were conducting offensive operations in the sector of space surrounding the rebel conglomerate’s home world, based on the Vega system and only twenty-five light years from Earth.
After six years of war, the Empire had established strategic and economic superiority, defeating the rebels in campaign after campaign. In the early days it had been a very close-run thing, and politically, with acknowledged war-weariness growing at home, it was time to end the war with one crushing, final victory.
Hence the high priority set on the invasion of Vega-Prime. It could well be decisive, and with a bridgehead already established, the stakes were very high. The senior officers would be fresh after a good night’s sleep for the operation, but more junior officers had a harder time of it. With Vega-Prime heavily populated and expected to be occupied for many years into the future, tactical and strategic nukes had been ruled out. It was a pretty challenge for the artillery, both ground and space-based.
“Aw…ah.” Birney yawned definitively. “Oh, God, I thought it was bad enough groundside.”
The Major rocked back and forth on his feet. The nature of combined operations made inter-service cooperation vital to the success of the mission. He was aboard Agincourt coordinating fire missions with the Support Force, who had all the really big guns until the Marines’ own heavy batteries were fully unloaded and deployed.
The monitor was a very special kind of ship. Major Birney had never been on one before. Even so, the boredom of a long night watch had been punctuated only by the intense planning of their fairly-complex fire mission. Monitors and their specialized mission were predicated on the carrying of one or two very big recoilless launchers. The ships had limited storage capacity in all things, including re-loads for the tubes. They were armed with only minimal anti-ship defense systems, light automated weapons for close-in defense. Safety lay in numbers as well as the heavier Fleet units nearby guarding the troop convoys. Lethality relied on vast numbers of replenishment ships, perhaps the Empire’s best-kept secret before the war. Edwards was a whiz and the Admiral of the Fleet trusted his judgment. Birney had been impressed at the Fleet’s communications, with all Gunnery Officers contributing in the finer details regarding their adopted units and the unique objectives set out for them. Tomorrow’s attack would secure a more effective starting line for an offensive set for the coming weeks. Troops on the ground, comprising a surprising tally of different units and detachments, Army, Marines, Air Forces, would attempt to break out of the LZ and establish themselves in the jungle-clad hills where the enemy capital lay open and resplendent in a vast emerald river basin as seen from the Agincourt’s observation cupolas.
“What?” Edwards, a fresh-faced twenty-three years old, looked up from the plan, overlaid on the latest Intelligence map display, stylus hovering over some minor detail. “I’m sorry?”
The fellow was never satisfied.
The speakers broke into Birney’s thoughts in typical style, laconic and emotionless.
“Roxy Three. On it. Fire three for effect.”
The response from their sister ship was crisp and succinct.
A screen with an external link displayed the launch of three salvos from Pomfret.
The radio speakers crackled again but the handle wasn’t theirs. That’s not to say that they didn’t hear it. Technicians sat, listening through headphones, and watching their tactical screens, as bored as anybody, but the possibility of surprise attack was unsettling enough to keep them alert.
All defensive weapons were warmed up and on high alert here in CC.
Birney yawned again. He looked around at the technical people. They were a good bunch, and he was oddly enjoying the duty.
“I’m going for more coffee.” Edwards nodded, with a bleak expression and his eyes faraway.
Birney headed for the alcove at the back of the room, an oasis of sanity in an otherwise sterile and very technical environment. The Fleet could be surprisingly civilized sometimes.
They’d worked all the night to get the fire plan ready, with targets listed for each battery, each ship, and each section. It would take very little time for the plan to be sent in code to all units.
Getting divisional approval, which of course involved regimental and battalion approval down on the ground…there were bound to be additions, perhaps some wishful thinking, and maybe a few questions, but Birney was fairly confident. That would all come soon enough. He could see them down there in his mind’s eye. He’d fought alongside many of them for the last three years, although there were inevitable losses. He could almost see them waiting with bated breath for the fire-plan to be thrust into their hands. Their lives might depend on it.
The whole thing looked as good as they could make it with the available resources.
“Yeah. Can you grab me one too?” Edwards couldn’t tear himself away.
It was a thing of beauty, when done right. The attack on the ground must quickly overwhelm the dug-in enemy troops concentrated in strength, all heavily armed and well supplied according to Intelligence, and break out of the defensive perimeter. Once through the siege lines around it, open country lay ahead. Armored spearheads and motorized infantry, supported by strong air contingents would exploit any success, with initial breakthroughs expected to the north and then hopefully to the north-east.
Behind the closed doors of the control centre, the movements of large numbers of crew as they manned the guns, light batteries, the loading rooms, taking stations all over the vessel, could only be sensed, not heard.
Separate from the bridge, where more normal tones were used by all concerned, the quiet in the CC was ensured by thick insulation and a calm demeanour on the part of those initiates most privy to her secrets. A glance at the bridge screen showed the Captain had not arrived yet. They still had time to get a bite to eat…but Birney thought better of suggesting it.
Interestingly, thought Birney, the CC had the best air on the ship, with all the computers operating under optimum climate control according to his briefing.
Edwards printed off a large-scale copy of what he had on screen. Taking up his red pencil, he moved to a wide plotting table, sitting down and then asking a crewmember to adjust the lights so he could see better. It wasn’t red-light conditions yet, that would come later. The crewmember complied and then went back to monitoring the communications more directly than her superiors, making occasional notes as she did for the log. There was a fair amount of signals traffic, as both sides raided and patrolled and probed each other’s defenses on the ground. Fire support came from other units as traffic was light.
The Agincourt had fired her weapons early in the shift, ten rounds of HE on a strongpoint in prep for tomorrow. It was just one of a long list over the last few days, but she hadn’t been called upon since.
Birney came back and carefully set the cups down well away from the edges of the map.
Hopefully he had gotten the Lieutenant’s right, as the lad liked a lot of cream and sugar by his standards.
He looked over Edwards’ shoulder, and then at his watch. The ship’s chronometer and his own time-piece were in perfect agreement.
“All right. Let’s have one more look.”
Fire Plan Tango.
H-5 to H-0 engage targets at map reference points 240, 241, 242 HE two batteries each slow.
Light batteries within range will fire anti-personnel at normal rate. Third battery reserve, on call for FOOs.
H to plus 10, map reference point 247 Smoke one troop, rate very slow, adjusting on call for wind and drift in target zone.
Plus 10 to plus 20, target map references 250, 253, 256 HE one battery (D-Section) rate normal.
Light batteries rate slow, anti-personnel. Other batteries in reserve.
Plus 30 All Batteries Defensive Fire, if called on, and Harassing Fire on targets of opportunity on call from FOOs. Otherwise firing by target list as provided, firing by priority or as opportunity presents, rate of fire extra-slow except emergency calls, where fire will be directly as per FOOs’ instructions.
Plus-1 Thirteenth Heavy Bombardment group moves to Point B and replenishes. Mission calls will be handled for one hour by the Seventeenth Heavy Bombardment group who must replenish at Plus-2 hours in order to relieve the Ninth Heavy Bombardment group on schedule by Plus-3 hours.
Plus-2 hours Thirteenth Heavy Bombardment group back on Station for Phase Two.
Phase Two consists of on-call fire support, as well as concs* and stonks* on Mike and Uncle targets. Individual batteries and individual vessels will be on call with adopted units and for other units as needed as ammunition and time allows. All fire must be coordinated and observed by FOOs.
Phase Two will be in place until otherwise notified or the offensive is concluded. Ammunition stocks are presently seven days supply at Normal Combat Rate A and replenishment will be provided from Fleet level at Priority One.
The Major sipped his coffee.
“Looks good.” The file was already sent anyway.
In fifteen minutes or so they would know.
Edwards nodded. Inexorably, his eyes went down to the heavy time-piece on his left wrist and his thoughts turned to the waves of troops, those already on the ground and those now loading into the landing craft from the transports. So far, the enemy’s light attack ships had caused some losses, and they were no doubt planning more attacks. They were rumoured to still have considerable Fleet units remaining, but if they were about no one in higher command was saying.
Edwards sat up and took a deep breath. He heaved a long sigh.
The plan looked good. Most likely it would be approved.
It was still three hours until dawn in the target area.
The worst part was the waiting.
*concs—‘conks,’ firing on concentrations of enemy troops as called by FOOs.
*stonks—old mortar-men’s term, to bring the maximum fire on a small area in the shortest possible time, called in by FOOs.
*FOOs—forward observation officers; fleet officers operating with ground troops to observe targets and order fire missions.
*Mike targets are called in from regimental level.
*Uncle targets are called in from divisional level.