Bridge, Lyran CW Doomward, four hours later
        Captain Thr'Uule looked across the Bridge at the view screen image of the team his ship was loading from the docked fast transport Shadow of the Hunter. The special team was being transferred, along with some supplies and fuel he had taken from the other ship because he had a Critical Mission Priority voucher. For once, he didn't have to beg and trade for all the extras available. Thirty "scientists" with more baggage than usual had trooped through the boarding hatch from the docked transport. He had stripped the transport of all its probes, excess fuel, eleven head of tunni on the hoof, and some spare parts. The captain of Shadow of the Hunter did not mind, as the Critical Mission Priority voucher would allow him to replace everything he gave up at the nearest base. Such vouchers were an archaic remnant of the old times when each ship was the personal property of one of the nobles and legions of accountants settled scores in cash every month. Even now, when ships belonged to the Navy but were crewed by each county, supplies ultimately were provided - or at least paid for - by the county, not the Navy. All captains knew that a Critical Mission Priority voucher was a free pass for anything they could get, with the bill sent to some accountant light years away, and took advantage of these rare and wondrous things.

        The scientists had refused transporter transfer due to the supposed sensitivity of some of their equipment. In Thr'Uule's opinion, they looked more like Marines than scientists. He noted several of the team had the blue-tinted fur you get from being decontaminated for the Rux Mites found on many Kzinti planets, were burly and scarred, and they all seemed to be carrying powered boarding cutlasses slung over their shoulders. An inordinate amount of heavy body armor, armored sensors, ruggedized computer gear, and disruptor rifles all seemed out of place for a regular Naval Science and Exploration team.
With a sigh, he sharpened his claws on the side of his chair and looked around the Bridge. Senior Astrophysicist Senior Lieutenant Z'orn was engrossed with Chief Warrant Officer Krr'al over the scanner station (presumably optimizing the network for the new mission), while Engineer Junior Lieutenant K'unn was working with a team of technicians on the famously balky main communications console. The Klingon, Environmental Technical Officer Kurq, was rebalancing the recycler systems to accommodate the metabolic load of an additional 31 crew and 11 big food beasts.

        The first of the new war cruisers, including Doomward, had gone to regular Navy officers selected for merit. Doomward was due for a major overhaul in a few months, adding refits and upgrades that experience showed should have been part of the original design. Thr'Uule would move on, probably to an admiral's staff for a year or two before he even had a chance for his next command. Regular Navy officers without noble connections would have trouble getting command of a major warship unless the fleet greatly expanded, which would happen sooner or later when another war with the Kzintis erupted. Thr'Uule would be perfectly positioned to gain such a command.

Mess Hall, Lyran CW Doomward, four hours later

        The Special Investigation Team leader, Lieutenant Commmander Gra'Laaki, stood before Thr'Uule and his primary command staff at attention, with his team lined up neatly behind him in three ranks. They were all combat veterans, judging by the honors on their armor breast plates. Every one of them had at least one modifier pin on their branch device, mostly for engineering or science, but all apparently had something besides combat skills to get on this team. Thr'Uule had never seen Marines with quite so heavy a load of equipment or so many certifications. The smallest of them, a slight female with a notched ear, scarred cheek, and black-mottled gray fur, had a disruptor carbine, two hand phasers in cross-draw holsters, several knives, a grenade pouch, a powered boarding cutlass, and a bandolier of reloads, and she wasn't even a combat troop, although she looked ferocious. Her branch insignia was "naval field intelligence translator" with modifier pins for Imperial Staff, Psychology, and some kind of science badge he didn't immediately recognize. She had no rank insignia, so she had to be some kind of special contractor. The rest were worse. Several of them were grizzled senior warrant engineers with multiple science and intelligence specialty pins and plenty of valor and service devices.

        "Captain, my team and I are here to aid you in studying the spatial anomaly and anything coming from it. Your engineering and science departments have been very accommodating in getting our special equipment hooked up and interfaced with yours. We have equipment to turn one of your shuttlecraft into a remotely-controlled vehicle. It won't have more sensor capability than a regular shuttle, but no pilot has to die flying it through that radiation."

        "Thank you, Lieutenant Commander. My crew and I are curious why you look more like a Marine boarding team than a bunch of soft and pampered Navy scientists."

        "Aah, that. We get that often. We specialize in science and engineering missions that are part of opposed-boarding actions, alien technical intelligence gathering, and similar missions. So we are more likely to be sneaking around some jungle or ripping modules out of a ship during combat than to be sitting in a lab somewhere, not that we don't like the occasional stint of research. What we do best is procure strange things to study, and then study them. We get to miss out on all the boring parts of a routine cruise and just enjoy the highlights. But don't you worry. Every member of my team is a qualified engineer or has some other specialty that is useful. Little Zhr'Unne here," gesturing to the tiny female, "is fluent in 35 languages and several hundred dialects. Some of us are Marine veterans who transferred to the Navy after our initial tours, and then found out we missed the action a Marine gets to see. So we ended up here. We can do lab work in our fields and then, to break the monotony, we get a chance to fight in the field. I have a feeling that we will all be having an exciting time aboard your ship. Besides, I've heard you are having a water polo tournament!"

        Later, Thr'Uule learned from his XO that this strange team of scientist-engineer-Marines reported to the Emperor alone. Marshals were allowed to propose missions, but the team's deployments were only approved by the Emperor. The good news was that they didn't seem to care that they were shoehorned into quarters that would usually hold only ten enlisted crew. They seemed to think that if they weren't lying in the mud, they had it pretty good. The bad news was that they were even better than the engineering team at water polo. Most intriguing of all, that unknown insignia modifier pin turned out to be from the imperial science academy.

Bridge, Lyran CW Doomward, three hours later

        "Well, I don't see the Thiefbreaker, but the ion cloud is right there. Make a detailed survey circumnavigation, keeping at least one hundred thousand kilometers out from the fringe to see if we can find them. Plot the cloud in case we cannot find the police ship and have to go in after it. Bring the crew to yellow alert status. Warm the phaser capacitors and start cycling warp power through the batteries. I want the extra probes we took from Shadow of the Hunter ready for reloading as we expend our initial load out."

        "Aye aye, Captain. We will be coming around to 43.10 mark 8 initially. Warp 4."

        "Excellent. Execute."