This story takes place after year 20. It is in the future for the great majority of the other Swarm Cycle stories.
Boring. Boring was good. Excitement? No thank you. Excitement could get people killed. Boring meant returning to base safely after completing the mission. Excitement was for heroes, dead heroes. Take this current system; boring as hell. So boring that it didn't even have a name, just a catalogue reference: Wa37. Three gas giants, two smallish and one very large. Four rocky inner planets. One with water and life, even mildly exciting if you fancied talking to trees or centipedes. You want to talk to frogs? Sorry, no frogs; much too exciting. The Sa'arm might find it exciting, with plenty of multi-legged bugs to eat, but there was no sign of them at the moment. Finding the Swarm in residence would have been far too much excitement. A scout ship didn't fight. It sneaked around and went back to base to report. There were old scouts and there were bold scouts, but ... Captain Martti Lipponen definitely intended to be an old scout.
Currently they were in orbit round the life-bearing planet, scanning the surface to check for anything that shouldn't be there. There wasn't, and the AI even assessed it as suitable for human colonisation, except ... Except that this system was too close to the Sa'arm and was probably on their list for colonisation as well. Any human colony here would likely have a short, but exciting, life.
"Stealth Mode! Stealth Mode! No Drill! No Drill!" The AI repeated everything twice to make sure the crew got the message. The main engines were already offline and the AI had immediately shut down the active scan. It had been pointed towards the planet beneath them, so hopefully whatever was coming their way wouldn't have detected it. Their best chance for the moment was to try to look like a small rock orbiting the planet.
"Sensors, what do we have?" Captain Lipponen asked.
"A hyperspace emergence out beyond the orbit of the third gas giant, sir. Swarm characteristics. It's a big one, but so far only one. No sign of any other emergences."
"Keep passive scan going. Remain in stealth mode. Inform me immediately if any more ships appear."
Over the next ninety minutes they learned a little more. It was a medium-size Hive Sphere, Virtus type, on its own, without any escorting fleet. Presumably the Swarm had already scouted this system and decided that they didn't need to send any more warships. The Sphere's own weapons, and the fighters it carried, would be more than enough to deal with the centipedes. After ninety minutes, the curve of the planet hid the Sa'arm vessel, eliciting sighs of relief from the crew as it disappeared. The aliens hadn't shown any sign of noticing them, and with the Sphere still out beyond the gas giants, they had a very good chance of escaping before it could do anything to intercept them.
"Ensign James, we need to talk," Martti told his second-in-command.
"Yes, sir." She followed him to the scout's tiny meeting room.
"What do you make of it, Avril?" In private they were on first name terms.
"I'm not sure, Martti. They seemed to emerge normally, but they haven't done anything since. I'd have expected them to reorient and make an intra-system jump to get closer to their destination. They're far enough out that even a Swarm hyperdrive will work. It's a bit of a mystery."
"I had two thoughts. First, this system isn't their final target, they're just passing through to have a look at it and will then reorient to their next destination."
"And your second thought?" Martti asked.
"They had an engineering failure while in transit. They've emerged in one piece, but some ship's systems are down so they aren't able to manoeuvre. They're stuck on their present course until they can fix whatever's wrong.
"Which is more likely do you think?"
"The Swarm mainly use scouts for scouting," Avril pointed out. "If they were going to use a Sphere to scout, then they'd use a smaller Volumna Reconnaissance Sphere – something that can land and take off again. The Virtus type can't take off again after it's landed. It's not like them to do something that doesn't fit one of their standard patterns. I'd say it's more likely an equipment malfunction."
"That was basically my thought as well," Martti confirmed. "There's no sign of them doing any active scanning either, so the failure may have affected more than one ship's system. It's probably not battle damage, since we don't have any fleets in the direction they came from. According to the AI, their likely system of origin is months away in hyper. I'll go with your equipment failure hypothesis."
"It could have been one of our deep penetration raiders; they do a lot of sneaking around in enemy systems. One could have hit the Sphere as it left."
"True. We won't know until we've had a closer look, and I don't want to do that in a hurry."
"We could do another quiet orbit of the planet and check them out some more," Avril suggested.
"No," Martti decided. "I don't think that will do much good. It will give them more time to repair their ship and we won't gain any more information. We've got pretty much all we can from this distance. We only have auxiliary power, since we're in stealth mode."
"So, what will we do?"
"We'll make a fast powered run for the hyper boundary, directly away from the Sphere. From where they are, we're behind the planet, so we can use that to cover us initially. With the main engines on, we can do an FTL scan as well. After they see us, we can gauge their reaction. We're too close to the primary for them to hyper directly to us, and we'll be able to hyper out of the system long before they can reach us in normal space."
"We run?" Avril confirmed.
"Yes. We're a scout. We observe and report. The observation is no good if we don't report what we've seen."
They ran, accelerating directly away from the Hive Sphere and jumping as soon as they could. With the main engines running, they could use the FTL scanner; it needed a lot of juice, and the auxiliary power supply wasn't strong enough on its own. Unfortunately the extra scan didn't show anything new. The sphere was continuing on its course with no deviation and no acceleration.
Sitting safely hidden in the system's Oort cloud, back in stealth mode, Captain Lipponen fired off a message drone with the initial observations and considered his next move. "AI, assuming that the Sphere continues on its course unchanged, when will the first light from our dash away from the inner planet reach them?"
"The light will reach them in twelve minutes, sir."
Martti wasn't sure if the Sa'arm had detected his ship when they first arrived. There wasn't any doubt that they'd notice his high-speed run for the hyper boundary. He wasn't being at all stealthy for that part. How would the enemy react to his presence?
"Ensign, prepare a passive scan drone for launch."
"Navigation, I want a short jump to fifteen light minutes from the Sphere, no closer. Put us further away from the primary, so we can get a look at its other side. Five minutes for quick scans of the target and to let Ensign James launch the drone, then jump back out before the Sphere can see us. Put two doglegs into the jump out, ending in a new position. Departure in twenty-five minutes." That would give the Sa'arm more than ten minutes to react before they went in for a quick look.
"Sensors, you'll have five minutes to do closer scans of the Sphere, both passive and FTL. No point in using normal active scan as we won't hang around long enough to get the returns."
"What about recovering the drone, sir?"
"We'll go back in and pick it up after an hour or so, if it's still there that is."
"Ensign, set the drone to start pinging its IFF fifty-five minutes after launch, so we can recover it easily."
"Will do, sir."
Two hours later the tiny meeting room was crowded. Everyone not on watch wanted to hear the news.
"Corporal, what do we have?" Martti asked.
"We've got a damaged Hive Sphere, sir. There appears to have been an explosion in the forward, port, nadir section of the ship. According to the AI, there is normally one of the ship's magazines in that area. That part of the vessel is badly damaged and open to space. Indications are that the explosion was internal, not caused by an external attack. We'd have to board to be certain though."
"No, we're not boarding," Martti emphasised. "What about the rest of the Sphere?"
"It appears undamaged, sir. Engines, bridge and the weapons in the unaffected areas all seem intact. The ship is mostly cold, but that probably doesn't mean much. A lot of the cargo is likely Swarmtroopers in cryo-stasis, and with no threats expected in this system, most of them will still be frozen. There's more heat around the bridge and the engines, where you'd expect live crew."
"But there's no sign of the crew actually doing anything?"
"No sign at all, sir. No acceleration. No course change. No active sensor scanning. No targeting systems or weapons activated."
"Could the magazine explosion have killed them all?"
"Very unlikely, sir. It would have killed any in the damaged section of course, but the bridge and engineering are unaffected. Some crew would have survived."
"And still no sign of any more Swarm ships arriving?"
"No, sir. We've kept the passive scan going and there's nothing so far."
"Thank you, Corporal."
Martti let his people talk about what to do next. He didn't join in much, apart from quashing any idea of boarding the Sphere. Too much intervention from their Captain would have constrained discussion, even on a ship as informal as this.
Once the discussion died down, Martti summarised. "Thank you all for your contributions. First we are going to do a single pass with an active scanning drone. We'll repeat our earlier plan, hyper close, drop the drone, do another FTL scan and hyper out quickly. We're still going to treat the Sphere as potentially dangerous. Unless the scans show something significant, then we'll call in the Marines to board it. We'll update the admiral at the same time, and suggest that he sends a science team to follow on, once the Marines have given the all clear.
"Two longer term suggestions are: first, do we have a hyper-capable tug that can move the Sphere to a different system? The scientists won't want the Swarm interrupting their work while they take a look at it. Second an ambush in this system to hit any follow-up the Swarm might send here." His summary generated general agreement round the table. "Ensign, get an active scan drone ready."
"Navigation, plot us a similar course to before. Five minutes near the Sphere, but use a different relative emergence point, fifteen light-minutes to their nadir. That will give us a better view of the damaged section. Again, two doglegs out to a new location."
Marine Sergeant Liam Quinlivan was bored. Boarding a mostly intact Hive Sphere, and he was bored. No enemy, nothing to shoot at, nothing to blow up. Boring.
Getting into the Sphere had been more interesting, three nice explosions at different points round the Sphere for three squads to gain entry. Then ... nothing. The major had made it clear that they were to do the minimum necessary damage to the Sphere, since the scientists wanted it as intact as possible. That was reasonable, but it did take a lot of the fun out of the job.
One of the three entry holes had been in the damaged section of the Sphere. That part was already badly smashed up, so blasting through an airtight bulkhead wasn't going to smash things up too much more than they already were. The other two entries had been on the unaffected sections of the hull. The AI had selected places where it judged the explosions would cause the least extra damage, but still allow easy entry.
His squad was all geared up for a horde of Swarmtroopers to come pouring out to defend the hull breach, but nothing. It was the same at the other two entry points: no enemy reaction at all. All they found was empty corridors and lots of bays with frozen Swarmtroopers, 243 in each bay. The scientists got excited at that; the biologists liked the prospect of lots of intact specimens, while the computer guys latched onto the number 243. Weird. Apparently 243 looked like 100000 in base 3, which they seemed to think was significant. Maybe it was? The Swarm did a lot of things in threes.
After the initial break-in, they didn't even need to blow through the internal hatches. The AI had hacked into the Sphere's computers and opened the doors for them. No need to scout ahead either, they had drones doing that. What a job! None of the excitement and all of the tedium.
They did find a few unfrozen Swarmtroopers, but still no excitement since they were already dead. They had no obvious injuries, and the biologists said they'd likely died of starvation, not disease. There weren't many of them either, certainly not enough to crew a big ship like this one. At least the scientists could get some excitement trying to work out what had happened here.
Dr. Louise Tench watched the five monitoring displays on the wall in front of her desk. Officially she was a Marine Colonel, but her scientific studies took precedence in her mind over all the military fuss and nonsense. One screen showed the breeding colony, while the others showed the four research asteroids. Currently this cluster was looking at temperature. How hot did it have to be to kill a Swarm unit? How long did they take to die at different temperatures? A different research cluster was looking at killing them with cold. So many ways to kill, and they all needed testing.
Bored with the displays, and a little troubled, her thoughts drifted back to her interview with Admiral Richard Deane...
"You want to do what!", the admiral shouted. "You have a hundred thousand frozen Swarmtroopers and you want to defrost them!"
"Not all at once and not here, Admiral. In a convenient nearby uninhabited system."
"Why, doctor? For God's sake why?"
"Research, sir," Louise told him. "We need to look at different ways to kill them, and we need to test those ways before we try them in the field. For example, the biologists assure us that chlorine gas will disrupt Sa'arm biochemistry. The problem is that we don't know how long they will take to die at different concentrations of chlorine. If the Marines know the right times and dosages, they will be able to walk into a tunnel full of dead Swarm, and not a tunnel full of angry live Swarm."
"Yes, doctor, I can see that the research would be useful."
"We've brainstormed some ideas, but we do need to test them. As well as gases, we could try heat, cold, sound resonance, viruses, rats..."
"Rats?" the admiral asked, puzzled.
"As a disease vector, sir. Infect the rats with something that kills Sa'arm and let the Sa'arm catch and eat them. Mosquitoes are no good, they can't penetrate their thick skin, so we came up with something edible: rats. It's a long shot, but it's worth a try to see if it goes anywhere."
"Rats!" the admiral laughed. "Whatever, you will need some very strong security measures. A hundred thousand Swarm will be very difficult to handle. And they breed worse than your rats will."
"We won't ever have any large groups, sir. We're planning a lot of little research clusters scattered through the asteroid belt, with at least fifteen million miles between clusters – well beyond the range of Sa'arm communication."
"We can probably deal with small separate hives. I assume they won't have access to armaments."
"No, of course not, sir," Louise reassured him. "They will live in tunnels in rocky asteroids, with minimal iron content. And we'll monitor them constantly."
"How will the clusters be organised?"
"Each cluster will be a group of asteroids. One for humans, one for breeding Sa'arm, with about twenty Sa'arm units, and up to five for testing ways to kill Sa'arm. The Sa'arm asteroids will be at least five million miles apart, to block their communications, and will have lasers, a limited food supply and a way to blow off the internal atmosphere if we need to sterilise the whole asteroid. We only anticipate holding up to a dozen or so units on the test asteroids. We will be keeping them in small isolated groups, and killing enough of them that the numbers in each group never get too large."
"Will the lasers have self-destruct mechanisms to prevent tampering?" the admiral asked.
"Naturally, sir. As well as destroying the laser, any interference will trigger the sterilisation process. We don't want to take chances."
"Good." Richard nodded. "Asteroids aren't fixed in space, they will move in their orbits," he pointed out.
"We plan on keeping the breeding colonies on larger asteroids, sir. The smaller testing asteroids can be abandoned if they move too close or too far away. We'll open them to space before abandoning them of course."
"I'll need to set up an inspection regime to make sure your scientists don't get careless."
"Of course, sir," Louise agreed. "Some of my people seem to live in a different universe sometimes."