Chapter 1: The Matador's Cloak

Copyright© 2015 by Zipper D Dude

"Battle stations! Battle stations! No drill. No drill. Prepare for hyperspace emergence in fifteen minutes," Flag Captain Müller ordered. When arriving in a Sa'arm occupied system, being at battle stations before emergence was essential. If you were unlucky, it might be too late afterwards.

The fleet emerged from hyperspace exactly on the tick. "Sensors. Anything close?"

"No, sir. The nearest enemy are at the first objective, as expected."

"Navigation, how are we doing?" Captain Müller asked.

"On the nail, sir. First objective dead ahead."

"Emergence on time and on target, sir," the flag captain messaged the admiral. Not strictly needed since the admiral had repeater screens in his separate Command Centre, and the ship's AI was keeping him current with events on the ship's bridge.

The fleet had spread out for the journey; arriving from hyperspace at the same point in normal space as another ship could ruin everyone's day. Once all ships had emerged, the fleet closed up into cruising formation and headed inwards towards the primary.

This system didn't have a name, just a number. It was the nineteenth previously unnamed system in the Waller sector, so it started as Wa19. Because the Sa'arm occupied it, the required prefix meant it appeared on the charts as Sa'Wa19. The Sa'arm had been here long enough to have a small production line going. There were three large Voluptas Hive Spheres under construction in orbit round the second planet: one almost complete, one part-finished and one barely started. Those three Spheres were the major target of today's attack. However, they weren't the fleet's initial objective. Two of the system's gas giants had fuel collection facilities, and the outermost of the two was in the fleet's immediate sights.

"Sensors, how many enemy vessels at the outer fuel processing station?" Rear Admiral Bob Blake asked.

"Seven, sir. Three Vacuna scouts, two Vagitanus corvettes and a Venti destroyer are powering up. I have no power signature yet from the seventh, sir, but from its size, it is probably a Volturnus freighter."

Bob could see the information from the scan repeated on his own display. Seven ships was within expectations. Scouting had shown between five and ten vessels normally present. These seven could easily be dealt with by the twenty ships in his fleet.

"Fleet, proceed with phase one of the plan," he ordered.

The three Sa'arm scouts ran for the inner system – it was nice when the enemy did exactly what you expected. Their three warships came out to meet the fleet and were duly destroyed in a brief and brutal one-sided action, a small hors d'oeuvre for what was to come. The freighter, for such it was, managed to disconnect itself from the station, but was too slow to escape the pair of corvettes sent to chase it down. By the time they had caught and destroyed it, the fuel facility itself was a cloud of shattered debris in a decaying orbit round the gas giant.

In his mind's eye Bob could see the enemy reaction to his attack. Light speed delay meant that he couldn't actually see it yet, but he could make a reasonable prediction. The escaping scouts would have spread the alarm. A large force would be moving towards him from the inner system. At least forty vessels, better to assume that many anyway, including some Vervactor cruisers, heavier than almost all the ships in his fleet. He only had one light cruiser, his Flagship CL025 Ljubljana. Everything else with him was lighter: destroyers and corvettes. There was no way he would be able to meet the likely reaction force on equal terms, so he wasn't even going to try. The Sa'arm were generally keen to overwhelm any opposition, and their three scouts would have told them the size of his force. The only question was whether they would arrive where he'd just been or where he was going next. Better to assume the worst. Either way, there was some time before the enemy would become a problem.

"Fleet, secure from battle stations. We will carry on as planned to the second objective. Make any immediate repairs and take a natural break. We will have more excitement soon enough."

The rear admiral spent some time with the AI and Navigation, confirming the timings of his planned moves. So far, the Sa'arm had reacted as anticipated. That was good, but he didn't expect it to last. He worried that they might have something unexpected waiting at the second target.

Once the fleet was far enough away from the outer gas giant it did a short intra-system micro-jump to the next objective – the Swarm's remaining fuel facility at the inner gas giant. This time, the fleet's approach was far more circumspect. Sensors showed that the Sa'arm had already gathered a dozen warships here, and there was the expected reaction force from the inner system to think about as well. They would likely hyper in soon.

Some scouts and a Volturnus freighter were already fleeing towards the inner system. They had too much of a head start, and Bob wasn't going to split his force trying to catch them. The enemy here was alert, so he didn't want to give them any chance to catch him with his ships scattered. His fleet would stay together to meet the dozen warships accelerating towards them. The Swarm were playing things simply, staying together and heading directly towards him. He did the same, though he did tell two slightly damaged corvettes, the Rhuddlan Castle and the Karlstein Castle, to stay at the rear of the formation and keep their active scans going to pinpoint the Sa'arm counter-attack as soon as it arrived.

«Decision point Alpha, » the AI notified him via his internal link. The Swarm reaction force would be accelerating towards the edge of the inner-system gravity well so they could hyper in to join their forces here. They knew he was here because their scouts would have told them. They couldn't know exactly where he was because of light speed delays – the Swarm's telepathic communication, if that's what it was, didn't reach from here to the inner system. By the time the light from his fleet reached the inner system, the Swarm reaction force would already have left. That gave him time to move somewhere unexpected before they arrived.

He marked the new fleet vector on his display. «AI, pass this vector to all ships.»

«Done, sir.»

"All ships," Admiral Blake ordered. "Steer new course indicated, in ten seconds from my mark ... Mark." If the Swarm tried the obvious tactic, making his ships the meat in their sandwich, they would find that the filling was slipping out to one side and escaping. The fleet would pass close enough to the smaller, local, group of the enemy to damage them, but would be better positioned to evade when the larger reaction force arrived. Slugging it out against superior enemy forces would only result in heavy losses, and that was not the point of this operation.

Bob thought that the battle had become boring. No, boring wasn't quite the right word, but it was close. Predictable, maybe. They were leading the combined Sa'arm fleet, using their superior acceleration to maintain a long enough range that the Swarm's missiles were essentially ineffective, while the Confederacy's missiles, fired back at the oncoming Swarm ships, could still hit. So far they had done more damage to the Swarm, but neither side had scored any significant hits. There was always some danger, any engine problems could deliver the affected vessel straight into the middle of the pursuit. The risk was acceptable. Their job now was to keep the bulk of the Sa'arm forces distracted until the other part of this operation was complete. The major danger was more Swarm vessels hypering in ahead of them, and everyone was keeping a good lookout forward for any sign of that. A small group of five ships had joined the enemy's main fleet shortly after the start of this phase of the battle, but there hadn't been any further enemy reinforcements. That was probably a good sign.

The clock showed eighteen minutes to go until they absolutely had to break off. That was good. If the anticipated signal arrived too early, that would probably mean that the other part of this mission had only partly succeeded. Waiting the full eighteen minutes might be bad as well, that might mean the destruction of the second force. Bob waited to see what would happen.

A single small hyper footprint off to one side had everyone jumping, fingers poised on the 'get me out of here' button. The tension relaxed when it turned out to be a Confederacy drone, transmitting a short coded message. At this point it didn't matter what the message actually said, the mere presence of the drone was enough – the other part of the operation was complete.

"All ships, hyper out to rendezvous point three," the admiral ordered. There were audible sighs of relief round the bridge as the Swarm fleet was left behind. Soon they would be back at their mobile base in Sa'Wa19's Oort cloud.

Reviewing events so far, Bob thought his plan had worked out well, the parts he could see at any rate. That was a pleasant surprise, since overall it was more elaborate than he was really comfortable with. Relying on the enemy to do exactly what you expected him to do was usually a recipe for failure. That advice assumed a human opponent, and the old rules didn't always apply to the Sa'arm. It was not too difficult to predict their reactions in many cases. The problems came later when the hive decided that its standard reaction was not working and pulled a different, non-standard, idea from its collective memory. He hadn't used this attack plan before, so in this case their standard reaction had been reasonably easy to predict.

Rear Admiral Blake surveyed his ships' Captains gathered round the table. "We will shortly be carrying out our normal thorough After Action Review of yesterday's engagement. However I want to start by introducing Lieutenant Nemeth, Captain of PC-067 Scamp, one of the two Archerfish boats involved in the attack." The lieutenant smiled and nodded generally to the other Captains. She was the stranger here today and would not be staying for long. The admiral continued, "Captain Nemeth has completed her patrol and will shortly be returning to base. I will ask her to cover her part in the recent action first, so as not to unnecessarily delay her departure. Captain Nemeth..."

Zsuzsa Nemeth thanked the Admiral and began her narrative. "As well as Scamp, there was a second Archerfish boat involved in yesterday's action, PC-010 Corvina with Lieutenant Zheng Yao-ting in command. They were just starting their patrol while we were finishing ours, which is why I'm here presenting this report...

Zsuzsa waited for her cue. She'd met up with the Corvina, and Lieutenant Zheng, two days ago. That had been well away from Sa'arm shipping lanes, and they had spent those two days stealthily moving to their starting point, ready for the action to begin. She'd conferred with Yao-ting and they'd agreed their roles in the forthcoming attack, together with a few tweaks required by the situation. She only had five missiles left this late in her patrol, so she wouldn't need to reload; with six tubes available, one was starting empty. Yao-ting had his crew practising reloading. His magazine held its full complement of missiles, and fast reloading was essential to their plan.

"Two small hyper footprints appearing, sir," the concubine on the forward sensors reported. "They have Swarm characteristics ... Confirmed as two Vacuna scouts."

Only two? They usually appeared in threes. Perhaps the admiral had managed to kill one before they fled the outer gas giant?

"Release the probe and set course for jumping-off point. Ahead slow." The arrival of the Sa'arm scouts was their signal to move in closer. They were still moving slowly to allow the Swarm time to gather their counter-attacking force and send it on its way. Their assault would only start after the bulk of the Swarm warships had left to chase the admiral, leaving the field clear. They would use the interval to move in closer, from undetectable range to almost undetectable range. They knew they needed to get as close as possible to have the maximum effect on their targets for today.

She could see Yao-ting's boat moving as well, not that she'd expected his crew to miss the arrival of the two scouts. This operation was timed to respond to the Swarm's reactions, so both crews were keeping a close eye on their sensors.

When they were two-thirds of the way to the jumping-off point the mystery of the third scout was solved; it arrived on its own. Perhaps it had diverted to warn some other group of Sa'arm? Ideally she would like to pass a message to Rear Admiral Blake to let him know, but stealth and the slow speed of light prevented her. Whatever was coming the admiral's way would arrive at trans-light speed, long before any light-speed message of hers could reach him. She put her worry behind her; she couldn't do anything about it so there was no point in wasting time thinking about it. How much easier things would be if all ships had FTL communicators, like in some pre-Swarm Sci-Fi film.

The plan allowed for a short delay at the jumping-off point to give the Sa'arm reaction force time to get well away. It wasn't needed. The aliens could be frighteningly fast organising their response to a perceived threat. Even before the two Archerfish boats got into position, there were forty-five Swarm ships moving out. A large group of forty were heading towards the inner gas giant, and a smaller group of five to the outer gas giant. The size of their reaction was within expected limits, even if the short time taken wasn't. So far the plan was holding up reasonably well. She formally confirmed with Yao-ting, "Captain Zheng, are you ready to proceed?" They had decision points before each phase of their attack in case the Swarm's reaction was not as anticipated. Both captains needed to agree before proceeding.

"Affirmative, Captain Nemeth. Confirm ready to proceed."

"Start attack run in five seconds from my mark ... Mark!"

The two Archerfish boats accelerated to attack speed, closing in on their first objective, target Alpha, the most complete of the three Voluptas Hive Spheres orbiting the second planet. Currently it was drifting passively in space: no active scan, engines down, not even any shields. The admiral's attacks on the fuel stations had drawn away the bulk of its protecting warships so it was sitting there dumb, immobile and almost undefended. Paradoxically, being powered down made it a more difficult target to hit. Their missiles were designed to home on enemy emissions: engine exhausts, active scanning and the like. This target wasn't doing any of that, so the missiles were going in half-blind. Zsuzsa had discussed the problem with Yao-ting beforehand and they'd agreed to move in to close range and fire their missiles unguided. From that distance, the big Hive Sphere was easy enough to hit without any guidance. With its engines off-line it couldn't dodge, so it was just a matter of steering directly at the target, getting close and firing their missiles straight ahead.

With only five missiles remaining, Zsuzsa had allocated two of them for this first target. Yao-ting had four aimed at it, with his last two tubes reserved for either any remaining defending warship that interfered, or the construction tenders gathered round the massive Sphere. The warships and many of the tenders were under power, so were easier targets for his missiles to seek out.

The first attack went smoothly. The two stealthy attackers weren't noticed until after their missiles struck, six hitting the Sphere, with the first of Yao-ting's last two damaging a Vagitanus corvette and the second destroying a big construction tender that had the misfortune to be under way when the attack began.

At the second Sphere, target Bravo, the Swarm were obviously alert, but had not pinpointed the two attacking boats. The few warships were actively searching and the unarmed construction tenders were all trying to escape the threat by moving away from the Hive Sphere. The decision to proceed was easy to make.

This Sphere was further from completion. Zsuzsa could see big openings left in the outer hull for installing large components. The largest void was around the engines, so they obviously hadn't all been fitted yet. She had planned two more missiles for this target, while Yao-ting had allocated three. Expecting the Swarm defences to be alert, he kept back the other three of his six tubes to prevent any interference from Sa'arm defensive forces.

This second attack didn't go quite so well. Only four of the planned five missiles hit the Sphere, counter-missile fire from the defenders knocked one out. The disadvantage of an unguided missile was that its course was very easy to predict. There wasn't much they could do about that, a guided missile would have chased after one of the active ships and ignored the passive Hive Sphere, which was the real target. Yao-ting's other three missiles destroyed one enemy warship, with a nice engine hit that set off a huge secondary explosion, and damaged two more.

Zsuzsa could imagine the Corvina's crew scrambling to reload their six tubes again, ready for the third target. Her crew didn't have that problem. With an empty magazine and four of her last five missiles fired, she only had one loaded tube left.

Target Charlie was the least complete of the three Spheres, which was why they attacked it last. If they'd been forced to abort the mission early, then they would have attacked the more nearly completed targets. She saw from the passive sensors that the Sa'arm were aware of their attack, but they still hadn't pinpointed its source. Their two boats were very stealthy, almost invisible to Sa'arm sensors, and were moving away from the area of their earlier attacks. The defenders were alert and searching, but had not locked onto their attackers. Captain Zheng agreed to proceed and they embarked on the last phase of their mission.

Approaching the third Sphere, it was obvious that construction had barely started. Only about a quarter of the outer hull plating was in place, another quarter was just open framework – struts and girders. The last half of what would be the Hive Sphere wasn't even there yet, it was still empty space. She targeted her one remaining missile on the completed section of the Sphere, along with two of Yao-ting's six. He reserved his other four for the defenders. Given the state of this target, they would only be damaging easily repaired metalwork, not any of the more complex systems that would be added later in the construction cycle.

Again, the Swarm managed to intercept one of the unguided missiles. Not Zsuzsa's, which hit very satisfactorily. Yao-ting's other missiles destroyed one Swarm warship and damaged two others.

As she watched the fading explosion of the destroyed Vagitanus, Zsuzsa ordered the AI, "Load a trans-light message drone with the message 'Success three', encrypt with today's key, and send it to the inner gas giant."

"Confirmed, Captain."

Slowing from attack speed to stealth speed, and with a couple of course changes to throw any trackers off the scent, the pair of Archerfish recovered their probes and headed towards the edge of the gravity well.

"Thank you, Captain," Rear Admiral Blake said. "That covered what happened very thoroughly." Zsuzsa smiled in acknowledgement. "What parts of the plan worked well from your point of view?"

"The distraction attacks worked perfectly, sir. We were sitting there waiting and most of the Swarm fleet took off for the outer system, leaving the three Hive Spheres almost undefended. That made the attack itself a lot easier."

"It's good to know that part of the plan worked as expected," Bob said. "What about the parts that didn't work so well? There is obviously an issue with targeting passive targets like ships under construction. Your solution of a close stealthy approach worked for you, but I doubt if it would work for most of my ships. It is very difficult to make a whole fleet as stealthy as your boat."

Zsuzsa nodded her agreement. That point had already occurred to her. The solution they had used wasn't practical for everyone, though it had worked well for Captain Zheng and herself. Archerfish boats were a lot stealthier than the average Navy ship. "We did have an alternative, sir. If the first Sphere had been testing either its engines or its active scan, then we could have used our missiles in normal active seeker mode. That wouldn't need such a close approach."

The admiral nodded. "A good point, and something else for our scouts to look for." He continued, "That is one problem we will have to work on. Were there any other issues that you or Captain Zheng saw?"

Zsuzsa leant forward, "Yes, sir, there was something we both noticed. When we recovered our probes and saw what had happened behind us, we found that we hadn't done as much damage as we'd expected with that number of hits on the targets. We thought that was probably because of the lack of secondary explosions. You can't set off a reactor or a magazine if the reactor hasn't been installed or if the magazine is empty. On an active ship, there is a good chance of a secondary explosion – as happened with the two warships Captain Zheng destroyed. On an empty hull with no engines, there is zero chance of an engine explosion. Target Charlie especially suffered from that problem. It was just a metal framework in space, with absolutely no potential for any secondary explosions."

"Do you have any thoughts on how to solve that problem, Captain?" Bob asked.

"Not immediately, sir. Perhaps it is something to pass to the weapons research people on Azahar. I'm sure they would find it interesting."

Rear Admiral Blake mounted the podium in front of his assembled ships' officers as the first slide appeared behind him: a large silverback gorilla. "This is our problem," he started. "We have to fight an eight-hundred-pound gorilla. If we assemble all the ships we have here and charge straight in, we'll be defeated. We will certainly do a lot of damage to the Sa'arm in the process of losing the battle, but lose we will. They have enough forces here to win any such straight stand-up fight. So, the first step is a simple one; we don't just charge in, all guns blazing. That's why they sent the Navy here, not the Marines." That got the expected laugh from his audience of Naval officers. The admiral continued, "The second step needs a little more thought."

Bob paused for the second slide to appear behind him: Vietcong guerillas hiding in a jungle. The visual pun got a small laugh from the audience in front of him. He smiled and continued, "We cannot defeat the Sa'arm forces here in a short conventional campaign; they are too strong for that strategy to succeed. So instead, we will be fighting a long unconventional campaign – a guerilla campaign. Instead of studying Clausewitz, Jomini and Mahan, you will need to study Mao Zedong, T. E. Lawrence and Vo Nguyen Giap. We will have to be sneaky and underhand. When the enemy advances, we will retreat. When he retreats, we will advance. When the enemy disperses, we will concentrate. When he concentrates, we will disperse. We will attack where and when he does not expect us to. We will avoid him where he is strong and attack him where he is weak. Hit and run is the name of the game here. We don't want heroics because dead heroes are less use to us than live guerillas. If the Swarm are locally stronger, then we'll forget the hitting and just run so we can return later and hit them somewhere else. As guerillas we need to preserve our forces so we can come back and hit them again and again and again.

"Are we equipped for a guerilla war? Yes we are. Our ships have better sensors, so we can know where the Swarm are without them knowing where we are. Our ships are faster, so we can go in, hit them hard and get away quickly, before their response can reach us. We can see further and we can run faster. That will make it very difficult for them to catch us, unless we get careless.

"The Swarm were building three Voluptas Hive Spheres here. Our job is to prevent those Spheres ever leaving this system. At the very least we need to delay their departure and make the Swarm use up their resources to defend their existing Spheres rather than building even more new ones. Every day's delay is a small victory for us. Every day the Swarm are eating up more of the resources of this system. If we can delay their expansion to a new system for long enough, then they won't have the resources left to build any more Hive Spheres here.

"How does this campaign fit into our long-term strategy? When the Swarm arrive in a system, they quickly make it uninhabitable for anything except themselves. As time passes the place become uninhabitable even for them. If they want to survive they have to find a new system with new planets. Like the Red Queen in Alice, the Sa'arm have to run very fast just to stand still. The strategy behind the current phase of our overall campaign is to slow them down so they can't run fast enough to stand still, but start going backwards. They will wreck their own planets faster than they can replace them.

"During last week's fleet action we obliterated one fuel processing facility and destroyed or damaged a number of enemy vessels. We did not lose any ships, though some did suffer minor damage. The damaged enemy vessels included the three Hive Spheres under construction. Two Archerfish PC boats sneaked in and hit them while we were distracting the Swarm with our attack on their fuel processing depots. There are even some early indications that the Swarm have abandoned construction of the third Sphere, and are cannibalizing it for parts to repair the other two. That is a definite success for us.

"We will be working on two fronts, firstly to deny resources to the Swarm, and secondly to force them to divert what resources they do have into constructing small ships to defend their installations here. Our destruction of one of their fuel processing stations was part of the work to deny them access to the resources in this system. By our presence here, we will force them to divert resources away from their Hive Spheres and into local defences.

"So, what does all this waffle from me mean for you? You need to be sneaky. Don't try to be heroes, you need to return safely so you can go out again and do yet more damage to the enemy. The standard Swarm tactic is to use twenty ships against ten. By not being there when the twenty ships arrive, you deprive them of their most effective tactic. That leaves your comrades free to attack somewhere those twenty enemy ships aren't. In short, you need to think like guerillas, in order to defeat the gorilla."

"The two scientists are here, sir," Major Ibarguren announced.

"Send them in, Bittor," the admiral replied.

"Dr. Wallace and Dr. Strong, sir."

"Come in please," Bob welcomed his two guests. "Can I offer you tea or coffee?"

While his aide was arranging the drinks, Dr. Wallace, the elder of the two scientists, asked, "Is Major Ibarguren Hungarian? He looks European, but his name doesn't sound Indo-European."

"Not Hungarian, but Basque. You were right about the non-Indo-European name."

Dr. Wallace nodded.

Once the major's concubine had served everyone, Admiral Blake began the meeting. "We are here to discuss progress on mines and minelaying. Who would like to start?"

Dr. Wallace spoke, "I'll do the introduction and cover minelaying while Dr. Strong will cover what we've developed for the mines themselves." Bob nodded and signalled for Dr. Wallace to continue.

"Our biggest problem is that minelaying in space has never been done before. We are mostly working in the dark, trying to adapt what we know from mine warfare on Earth to mine warfare in space. That is very constraining. We don't want to commit to large production runs until we have something that we know will work. Of course we can't know if something works in practice unless we have actually tried it out. That means that almost everything currently in this program is either experimental or an early prototype. We will need a lot of feedback from the initial users so we can improve designs and develop something robust enough to commit to a longer production run."

"I have a similar problem," Bob commented. "I have some ideas for the tactical deployment of mines in space, but undoubtedly I'll have to adjust things once we have seen them in action. So, what do you have for us?"

"We have developed a modified Patrician class Corvette, sir, the Patrician(M). We've removed all the offensive armament except for a single rail-gun, and halved the defensive armament. We have added two mine launchers and used the freed magazine space to store mines. That will give us something with which to gain real experience, and so let us design a better replacement for the future."

"Is the new minelayer stealthed at all?" Bob asked. "My initial ideas assume that the enemy doesn't know where the mines have been laid."

"We've done some basic work, sir. It's stealth coated and we smoothed off a few corners where we removed some of the armament, but nothing much beyond that."

"What about converting an Archerfish boat to minelaying? They're already stealthy."

"We are in the process of doing that, sir," Dr. Wallace replied. "However we see the Archerfish(M) in a different role. We designed the Patrician(M) for use in co-operation with a fleet. The Archerfish(M) is more for solo long-range penetration – laying mines in Sa'arm occupied systems well behind the front line; targeting systems where we have no other naval presence. If we sow mines in a distant system every few months, then the Sa'arm are going to have to divert resources to clearing them and protecting against them. There is also the fact that your local fleet base is already set up to crew, provision and repair Patrician class ships, but you do not have that capability for Archerfish boats."

"A good point," Bob confirmed. "Logistics can be a real nightmare. So, we will have a few of these Patrician(M) ships to play with. What about the mines themselves?"

Dr. Wallace sat back, while Dr. Strong arranged her notes. "Admiral. We had the same problem with the mines as Dr. Wallace had with the ships, not knowing exactly what would be needed. We have come up with a similar temporary solution, adapting an existing anti-ship missile so we can gain experience. What we have is, fundamentally, a standard homing missile that will sit quietly in space until it detects enemy ships. When the Swarm get close enough, the mine will activate and home in on its target.

"There are enough differences from a standard missile that we've had to make a slight change. Rather than fitting the warhead directly onto the missile body we have inserted a collar between the two, which carries all the additional power and electronics needed: basically enhanced long-life passive sensors, two timers and a counter. The sensors are to spot targets. The first timer is to activate the mine, allowing the minelayer to get clear."

"Surely the mines can tell a Swarm ship from one of ours?" Bob asked.

"Yes they can, sir, but this is a failsafe. We thought it might also give a little more tactical flexibility, allowing the mine to penetrate past the first wave of enemy vessels and only activate against a second or subsequent wave. The second timer is the auto-destruct to set the warhead off if it hasn't found a target within a predetermined time."

"Good," Bob interjected, "we don't want the Swarm capturing too many of them."

"We're working on the assumption that they will eventually get hold of some," Dr. Strong pointed out. "For that reason we have limited ourselves to technology we know that the Sa'arm already have. They won't learn anything new if they capture one." Bob nodded his agreement. "That also limits the types of warheads we supply – we don't want the Sa'arm getting their claws on an unexploded copy of some of the stuff we are using. A further limitation is that there are some types of warhead we're not happy leaving sitting in cold space, instead of in a heated magazine, for weeks or months before activation. We need them to explode, rather than fizzle, when the time comes."

Bob commented, "And of course it will take you a year to test if a warhead is likely to last a year in space and still work."

Dr. Strong nodded, "Indeed, sir. We're running those tests now, so it may well be that we can increase the variety of warheads available in future."

"What else is in this mine-collar of yours?"

"Just a counter, sir. We don't want all the mines within range attacking the first enemy ship that comes along. Some can be set to attack the first ship, some the second, some the third and so on, up to sixteen. Historically, the first ship in a convoy was sometimes a decoy, and we wanted to counter that tactic if the Swarm know it."

"Seems reasonable. That was one of the questions I had on my list." Bob paused, "Something that you said raises another question, Dr. Strong."

She looked at Bob alertly.

"You say that these new mines are using Swarm technology for a target-tracking system?"

"Essentially correct, sir."

"Won't the Swarm already have countermeasures to their own target-tracking system?"

"So far, sir, we have no indications that they do," she replied. "This almost certainly isn't the Swarm's own system. From what we know of them, they probably acquired it from some other race, maybe thousands of years ago, and have blindly copied it ever since. We think that we are the first space-going opposition they have seen for generations. If they ever did have the countermeasures, then it is quite possible that they have forgotten them in the interim as being useless.

"However, your point is a valid one, sir. We have a second target-tracking system, based on pre-Confederacy Earth technology, in development now. Should the Swarm come up with a counter to the first, then we can introduce the second. Does that answer your question, sir?"

"Yes it does. Thank you, Doctor."

The AI silently alerted Bernice through her internal link, «Lieutenant Lambert, you are to report to the colonel's office at 18:25 hours today.»

Bernice slumped in her chair. Suddenly the lecture on the characteristics of the turret-mounted particle beams on Africa class Destroyers wasn't so interesting. She was failing this command course and she knew it. Undoubtedly the Colonel was going to tell her that she had washed out, and would not be eligible to captain a warship. She managed not to cry, though it was a close thing. She'd pretty much expected this to happen, but even the expected was a shock when it arrived unexpectedly.

She arrived outside the colonel's office exactly on time; that much she had learned. She'd calmed down and had resigned herself to being given the push. She just wanted to get it over quickly. She knocked, and entered when he called.

The colonel didn't look angry. If anything, he looked interested. Strange, Bernice thought. Why would he look interested?

"Why do you think I've asked you here, Lieutenant Lambert?" he asked.

"To tell me I've failed the course, sir." There, she'd said it, and without her voice trembling.

He nodded. "That was only the first thing I had to tell you. There is more."

"More, sir?" Bernice was puzzled. What did he mean by that?

"First, tell me why you think you are failing this course."

"Lack of aggression, sir. I'm getting good marks on the other parts of the course, but my marks for aggression are below the level required for the captain of a warship."

"What about being a captain of a transport? You could ask for a transfer to the Fleet Auxiliary. You have the experience and qualifications for that. Aggression is not so important in the Fleet Auxiliary."

"I could do it, sir, but I'd rather not. My marks for aggression are low, but not zero. I would like to help more directly in the fight against the Swarm than that. If I can't be a ship's captain, then I'd prefer to remain as a subordinate officer on a warship, sir."

"Good. That brings me to the 'more' I mentioned earlier. I have had a request for officers who match a certain pattern; a pattern that you fit, Lieutenant. Competent, but lacking that last touch of aggression. The request is from a Naval command, not the Fleet Auxiliary, but beyond that I don't have many details. As far as I can tell it is for ships' captains, but detached, not working directly with a main fleet. Are you interested?"

Bernice took a few seconds to think. This was an unknown, but it was potentially better than going back to what she'd been doing before. There didn't seem to be a downside, especially if she could be captain of a Navy ship. "I'll do it, sir."

Two days later, Bernice was in a different lecture theatre awaiting the arrival of the instructor. Seeing her fellow students on this new course was interesting. She was Navy, but there were Fleet Auxiliary officers here as well, their blue uniforms in contrast to the Navy's black. Some of the students were higher ranking than her. They were probably already captaining a ship. Why were they here on this course?

Everyone went silent as the lecturer arrived on the podium. Tall, dark-haired and with a definite Roman nose, he looked every inch the Lieutenant Colonel his rank badges indicated. "Welcome all of you. I am Lieutenant Colonel MacDonald. This is a new course, and a bit of an experiment. We intend to overthrow many years of military tradition dating back to well before humanity left Earth. Up to now the military has specialised in fitting square pegs into round holes. On this course, we are trying to fit round pegs into round holes. I can tell you that the med-tubes were very busy once word of what we were doing got out."

Bernice laughed, along with the rest of the audience. When a senior officer told a joke, laughing was obligatory.

"All of you here are, or can become, competent ships' captains. Those of you from the Fleet Auxiliary want to do more. The work you do is useful, and you know that, but it is not completely satisfying. You would like a more direct engagement with the Sa'arm. Those of you from the Navy want to do something different. Charging at a Sa'arm fleet, all guns blazing, is not quite your thing. You are looking for something else, something useful. A posting where you would be more suited to the task."

Bernice could feel herself nodding agreement, and she saw others around her doing the same. She wasn't suited to captaining a warship, and she didn't want to captain a transport. This course seemed to be aiming at something between the two.

Patrician(M): An experimental minelaying adaptation of the Patrician Class Corvette. (q.v.) The four missile launchers and the port rail-gun are removed. Point defence systems are halved. Two mine-launching tubes are added, one forward, replacing the port rail-gun, and one aft. The vessel is stealth-coated to reduce the risk of detection. It carries thirty mines, together with eight rounds for the rail-gun.

Source: Jane's Spaceships.

Bernice waited for Lieutenant Colonel MacDonald to begin his lecture. For this last part of her course, she'd been offered the choice of a minelayer or a scout. She'd chosen a minelayer, so here she was for Introduction to Minelayers 101.

The Lieutenant Colonel began, "Minelayers. Here, I'm afraid I have some bad news. We don't have any real minelayers in our fleet, so we've had to cobble something together that can do the job. What we have is a modified Patrician Class corvette: the Patrician(M). The 'M' stands for 'minelayer', as I'm sure you guessed. It is probably far from ideal, but it will allow us to gain knowledge. We have no experience of minelaying in space, so we are unsure of what we actually need. Rather than committing to a full production run of Ford Edsels, we are going to use these experimental ships to gain the practical experience we need to design better replacements. We have included everything we think you'll need, and it will be up to you to tell us what we've left out, and what things aren't actually needed. That means there will be lots of evaluation forms for you to fill in I'm afraid.

"Minelayers are not for direct attacks. We've removed the four missile launchers and one of the rail guns, leaving just a single rail gun as offensive armament. We've added two mine-launch tubes, one forward and one aft. To save more weight, we've also halved the point defence systems. Ideally you'll never need to use them anyway – you will be working in areas with no known enemy presence. The magazines will hold mostly mines, so you have a strictly limited number of shots with the remaining rail gun. It is there for emergency use only.

"A mine is not a missile, so you can't use its own engine to place it. Its own engine is for when it activates and chases after its target. Instead, any initial velocity on the mine will come from your ship and the mine-launch tube. The tubes have hydraulic rams to push the mine out. The strength of the push is adjustable to allow you to set the final velocity of the mine. Forward tubes add the tube velocity to the ship's velocity; aft tubes subtract. That gives you more options for the mine's final velocity.

"Minelayers are stealthy, so they're painted black to reduce the effectiveness of the Swarm's detectors. There are also big red warning notices on the active scan, 'Do not press this button'. It's there if you need it but, like in a scout, only use it if you really have to. If the Swarm know where you've laid your mines, then you've probably wasted them."

Bernice surveyed her bridge. Her bridge and her crew. That never got old. She was captain of her own ship! It didn't have a name, just a number: PMX-07 for Patrician(M) Experimental. She could have done without the "Experimental". That doubled the amount of reporting she had to do. What worked and what didn't? What extra systems were needed? What things were redundant? Were there any improvements that she could suggest? All very useful, and necessary, but still a pain in the behind.

As with most of her trips so far, this one involved a lot of sneaking around followed by a quiet return to base. Being spotted by a Swarm ship would be a failure, since it would tell the enemy something about where her mines had been laid – not the point at all. This mission was to the inner gas giant, where the Sa'arm had a fuel processing plant, and part of their fleet stationed to protect it.

Space was far too big to lay mines at random, you had to lay them where you knew the enemy was going to pass nearby. The other problem was that there wasn't anything to anchor your mines to. They would sweep through a volume of space, in free-fall under gravity. They would be noticed as soon as they fired their engines, so they reserved their engines for the final dash onto the target. Using their engines for station-keeping would waste fuel and give away their position, making the exercise pointless. For this mission, she would insert her mines into an orbit around the gas giant, an orbit that would eventually intersect with the orbit of the fuel plant and its guard ships. She was operating on the far side of the gas giant from the enemy station and would be well away before the Swarm noticed her mines.

Even the mine launchers were stealthy. They used hydraulic rams to push the mines out, nothing that would cause the enemy to notice any unusual release of energy. The bulk of the mines' initial momentum came from her ship, drifting with its engines off. The ram gave the mine just enough extra boost to separate it from her ship and inject it into the correct orbit. That was one of the changes she'd suggested. The forward facing tube was a lot more use than the rearward one. Better to have two tubes forward and remove the rearward one. Let someone else solve the problem of what to do with the rail-gun. So far she'd not had to use it – the point was to avoid enemy ships, not attack them. Even so, its presence reassured her crew that PMX-07 wasn't entirely helpless.

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