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."
.... There is more of this story ...