"Captain, this is Special Team #1. Unknown One is transmitting something to us on a tight subspace Phi-band modulation; decoding is working on it. They are not apparently using any known communication protocol; it appears to be some kind of combined digital and analogue signal. Shuttle launching now. My boarding teams are armored up and standing by the transporters. Be advised the vortex has exhibited some radical changes from the norm again. We are now observing events that may be consistent with the entire cloud inverting. It is also theoretically possible that we have been transported instead of Unknown One."
Transported? So Thr'Uule couldn't tell if he was still in his home space or the intruder was, or if both of them are now orphaned strangers in a trackless universe. If the police ship returned, he probably could count on still being on his home ground, but there was too much uncertainty about his mission to become decisively engaged before more data was in hand.
"Helm, continue to keep us between Unknown One and the vortex. Try to maintain a standoff distance outside of weapons overload range from Unknown One and far enough out from the vortex that it doesn't grab us unexpectedly.
"Guns, fire a half-salvo between Unknown One and the vortex, but make sure you miss them by a good margin. We need to get the situation calmed down until we are sure we understand what is going on.
"Science team, launch two probes at Unknown One when we close to sixty thousand kilometers. Make sure the probes don't look like weapons fire. I want a good view of their ship from all sides. Priority to weapons, scanners, and engine emissions analysis. We should not get any closer than ninety thousand kilometers except to fire probes, so plan accordingly."
"Auxiliary Control to Bridge. Unknown One is not exhibiting signs of aegis-type scanners or sensors. Their shields appear to be similar to military grade shields, although somewhat weaker than we would expect on a small cruiser or a large destroyer. They have a total warp signature of .625. We classify them as either a large class four or more likely a small class three vessel. Their scanning and targeting systems appear radically different than any we have seen before."
"Special team to Bridge. Their shielding frequency and systems appear to be somewhat different than ours; they are not coded for warp synchronization as we would assume normal, there appears to be a compound resonant effect in operation. Weapons fire analysis does not match up to any known signature; we read it as some kind of warp-accelerated delta selenium atomic maser in the W band. The output of each of these delta masers should be somewhat comparable to our primary phasers. It looks like this guy is from far, far away. Or we are."
"Science teams, we need two things: information about the other ship, and to determine whether we have been transported. If we are no longer in Lyran space, I will have to execute operations somewhat differently. So get working and send me all data as you get it."
"Captain," said the weapons officer, "Unknown One is launching some kind of drone. We are designating this as Vampire Two. It is approaching at warp 2.8. It is generating level one ECM and level one ECCM. Unknown One appears to be maintaining three duplex subspace data links with the drone."
"Can I switch the labs to study Vampire Two?" Grnn'ita asked.
"Negative," Thr'Uule snapped. "I need constant data on the vortex.
"Guns, activate one ESG at 40% power, radius twenty thousand kilometers. Reserve one offensive phaser and a defensive phaser unless specifically ordered otherwise. I want to know how tough these things are, so we will engage with phasers sequentially and accept less than optimum performance if it penetrates the ESG. Bump up ECCM to get a good firing solution as needed."
"Aye aye, Captain. Sphere at 40% forming now."
"Captain, our plot shows us closing at a rate that will limit our engagement envelope with Vampire Two. I request permission to maneuver around our base course for optimum firing solution." This was from the tiny helmswoman, Senior Lieutenant Murri'Tra, from the Kzinti border. She was always thinking about maneuver versus drones. And she was usually right.
"Approved, but make any maneuvers after ESG impact if possible, to keep our warp field as stable as possible."
"Captain. Vampire Two approaching. It appears to not be on a course directly for us. On its current course, Vampire Two appears to be staying four thousand kilometers from the sphere. Vampire Two has maneuvered in a way that is not consistent with ballistic or homing targeting. Its data link with Unknown One is exhibiting increased bandwidth. We are tentatively identifying this as some kind of probe drone under remote control. Its course is consistent with a close pass on us before going into tight orbit of the vortex or to closing with our shuttle."
"Keep up the ESG and maneuver sharply so Vampire Two hits it. I don't want Unknown One to get too much information, and we need to know how tough these things are."
"Vampire Two is striking the ESG. ESG strength has been reduced as if hit by an unarmored type-IV heavy drone or an armored type-I drone."
"Coming to starboard to maintain position relative to the vortex."
"Weapons, recharge the ESG capacitor; steal the power from the shield reinforcement. We'll leave it up until it reaches the end of its normal cycle. We need to preserve our options."
"Astrophysics lab reports spectrographic analysis of the destruction of Vampire Two does not appear to show fissionable warhead traces."
"Very well. Navigation, what is the projected return time of Thiefbreaker?"
"Sir, project ten more minutes, if they receive a prompt acknowledgement of the report. Also, the special shuttle has just been sucked into the vortex."
"We're playing for time now. Science team, when we get within fifty thousand kilometers of Unknown One, launch another probe with the same parameters as before timed to coincide with the ESG recharge cycle, and then take the probe launcher offline to reload."
"Probe launcher reports understood. Firing anticipated in six chrons if we continue our turn."
"Captain, Unknown One has increased speed up to warp 3.1. They appear to be trying to get around our port side at a range of one hundred and fifty thousand kilometers."
"Very well, helm. You have discretion on power and can draw down reserves as needed to keep between them and the vortex. Keep inside them. Weapons; reduce our shield reinforcement as needed to keep us in position. We need to keep our power reserves at maximum. You can charge up disruptors with any spare power, as long as no shots at Unknown One are made until I order it. Priority is maneuvering, batteries, shield reinforcement against ablative damage, ESG, phasers, and then disruptors."
Minutes passed with the two ships dancing around the vortex; each trying to get or stay between the other and the vortex without coming too close to the vortex or the other ship. Doomward held the advantage here as they could cut inside Unknown One's track and maintain a slower speed while still staying in the preferential position.