Bridge, Lyran CW Doomward, thirty minutes later
"Captain, no sign of the Thiefbreaker, and we have completed our circumnavigation of the entire sphere. We are preparing to enter the cloud."
"Make warp 2.4, charge up the phasers and ESGs, and reinforce the front shields with all spare power until I say otherwise. Deploy the ESGs sequentially at 20% power, minimum radius, until we have a good idea of how much material is in this cloud. I want to sweep inwards on a curve until we have a better idea of what we have here and I want ESG coverage at all times."
"Aye, aye, Captain. Our suggested course is on your screen."
"Implement," Thr'Uule commanded.
Doomward slipped into the cloud. The crew watched the scanners intensely for fifteen minutes until tactical intelligence found what it was looking for.
"Ship ahead, Captain. Recognition signal is positive for the Thiefbreaker."
The science officer also reported. "We have the vortex located. It is presently moving at warp 1.5 on a heading of 81.08 mark 3. Range, 280,000 kilometers. Thr'Uule thanked the spirits for his scanner crew. They were operating at better than the reports said they should be able to.
"Excellent. Hail the police ship and bring us to three thousand kilometers off their port side. I will want all data cross-loaded to our labs and made available to our honored guests." The scanner ensign snorted at the mention of the "honored guests". The new Marines seemed to work, compete, and exercise with an unusual intensity, and they weren't all that friendly it seemed, at least as far as water polo was concerned. A few of them had participated in a short "practice" game while the rest of the "scientists" were getting their equipment running.
The view screen showed a young Lyran who had a distinct Enemy's Blood accent. "Thiefbreaker here. I am Police Inspector second grade Fru'Uul, transferring command of this station to you. We are transmitting all our collected data. Be advised that the vortex is moving on a multidimensional curved course and our best current estimate of the equation involved is also included."
Seeing on his communications repeater evidence of a huge download, Thr'Uule hesitated. "Outstanding. I am Captain Thr'Uule, and I am assuming command. Being here all alone must have been a strain without any backup or communications. I know your accomplishments will make our task easier. I'd like to keep you on station with us as a relay ship for the immediate term, at least a few days before we make a decision as to your redeployment. As soon as my crew has gotten the routine down, I will send you out of the sphere for a couple watches so you can rest. Is there anything we can do for you?"
"Doomward, your plan appears to be identical to what I would have suggested. I have adequate stores for two more weeks, and with your permission will take station 200,000 kilometers out from your position. That should be about the limit of transmissions, but I will adjust station to maintain a good data link and will record everything you can send via subspace. I'd suggest continuous transmissions with a four-hour schedule for real-time conferences unless something strange happens. We can start the relays in a few hours. Once you have the course algorithm worked out your navigator can keep station fairly readily. Honestly, the hardest part of maneuvering inside this cloud is finding the vortex. Once you have it locked in, you can keep your relative position fixed."
"Your words echo my thoughts. I salute you and your crew. Do you have any additional advice or information?"
"Sir, we have seen this vortex invert twice in the last few days and it seems unusually active. There is a lot happening in this vortex that the files we reviewed didn't cover. I'd advise caution. We have expended three probes and are holding the rest as a reserve should something unexpected happen."
"Thank you, Inspector. You have done well. Doomward out."
Bridge, Lyran CW Doomward, five days later
Captain Thr'Uule was running on a treadmill with his chief engineer when the call came that the vortex was showing signs of something new. "I'll be right there. Come to yellow alert and have the phaser capacitors warmed up. Also, put a full charge into the ESGs."
The crew was bustling to station as Thr'Uule trotted up the passageway to the Bridge. The primary crew was getting settled into their posts as Thr'Uule relieved his junior watch stander to go to the Emergency Bridge.
"I have the conn," Thr'Uule said. "Report."
"Captain. We are monitoring a massive buildup of potential energy in the vortex. The whole cloud is getting hot. Thiefbreaker has closed up to a hundred and fifty thousand kilometers to maintain its communication link. The vortex has also exhibited radical course changes outside of the parameters of our algorithm. We have gone to manual helm control and disengaged the station-keeping autopilot from the course predictor algorithm until we have more data. We are seventy thousand kilometers out from the center of the vortex now, and maintaining position."
"Understood. Captain to Special Team 1, report."
"Lieutenant Commander Gra'Laaki here. We advise a close approach pass with the launch of a probe to within ten thousand kilometers of the vortex terminus. We are ready with the special mission shuttle. We have observed at least three inversions in the last five minutes, with continuing signs of changes in the energy matrix. We don't yet understand exactly what is happening. Advise extreme caution."
"Understood. Helm, give us a course to circumnavigate the vortex keeping at least seventy thousand kilometers from the centrum; dip in to sixty thousand kilometers to fire the probe and then immediately return to seventy thousand kilometers."
"Captain, the vortex is inverting with a new signature!"
The ship shook as the ion cloud outside pulsed and flared.
"Contact! New target is a light cruiser or destroyer. It is on a skew heading 43.08 mark 8 at warp 2.4. Range one hundred sixty thousand kilometers. Designate this ship as Unknown One. It has operating shields and an unstable warp field ... hold ... Unknown One warp field stabilizing."
"Red Alert. Open a channel to the Thiefbreaker. Tell them to take the data they have and get out of the cloud now, and relay everything immediately to sector command. Have them request reinforcements as soon as possible. I want them to return and link up with us as soon as they get acknowledgement of their report. After Thiefbreaker acknowledges, we will try to communicate with Unknown One." Thr'Uule thought for a second. "Weapons and engineering, charge ESG and phaser capacitors immediately to maximum. All extra power to shield facing Unknown One. Start cycling reserve warp power through the batteries. I want the probe launcher ready to launch a science probe at all times."
"Transmitting now. Thiefbreaker is coming about and accelerating on a course away from the unknown ship. They transmitted "Acknowledged, good hunting" just before leaving communications range. All stations report closed up at action stations."
"Engineering reports coming to 100% military power now."
"Captain, Unknown One is maneuvering to its starboard. It is currently one hundred sixty thousand kilometers from the vortex. I am tracking it."
"Helm, interpose us between Unknown One and the vortex. Keep us at least seventy thousand kilometers out from the vortex, but dip in to let us launch another probe. Science, launch another probe at the vortex and launch the special mission shuttle as planned with the designated course programming. Prepare a second probe to scan the intruder when we get to sixty thousand kilometers. What was that flash?"
"Captain, Unknown One has fired a salvo of unknown energy weapons between us and the vortex. We judge it was designed to miss us and may have been in the nature of a warning shot. Unknown One is also continuing to maneuver closer to the vortex. Unknown One's maneuvering is being plotted by Auxiliary Control. Current data seems to show maneuvering rate approximately equal to ours. Weapons salvo is not congruent with known signatures. We show this ship has two engines that have a total power output approximately equal to our three."