“Then you’d better check on objects that are not new!” He turned aside, and his voice came more faintly as he spoke into another microphone. “Mr. Taine! Arm all rockets and have your tube crews stand by in combat readiness! Engine room! Prepare drive for emergency maneuvers! Damage-control parties, put on pressure suits and take combat posts with equipment!” His voice rose again in volume. “Mr. Baird! How about observed objects?”
Diane murmured. Baird said briefly:
“Only one suspicious object, sir—and that shouldn’t be suspicious. We are sending an information-beam at something we’d classed as a burned-out comet. Pulse going out now, sir.”
Diane had the distant-information transmitter aimed at what she’d said might be a dead comet. Baird pressed the button. An extraordinary complex of information-seeking frequencies and forms sprang into being and leaped across emptiness. There were microwaves of strictly standard amplitude, for measurement-standards. There were frequencies of other values, which would be selectively absorbed by this material and that. There were laterally and circularly polarized beams. When they bounced back, they would bring a surprising amount of information.
They returned. They did bring back news. The thing that had registered as a larger lump in a meteor-swarm was not a meteor at all. It returned four different frequencies with a relative-intensity pattern which said that they’d been reflected by bronze—probably silicon bronze. The polarized beams came back depolarized, of course, but with phase-changes which said the reflector had a rounded, regular form. There was a smooth hull of silicon bronze out yonder. There was other data.
“It will be a Plumie ship, sir,” said Baird very steadily. “At a guess, they picked up our mapping beam and shot a single pulse at us to find out who and what we were. For another guess, by now they’ve picked up and analyzed our information-beam and know what we’ve found out about them.”
The skipper scowled.
“How many of them?” he demanded. “Have we run into a fleet?”
“I’ll check, sir,” said Baird. “We picked up no tuned radiation from outer space, sir, but it could be that they picked us up when we came out of overdrive and stopped all their transmissions until they had us in a trap.”
“Find out how many there are!” barked the skipper. “Make it quick! Report additional data instantly!”
His screen clicked off. Diane, more than a little pale, worked swiftly to plug the radar-room equipment into a highly specialized pattern. The Niccola was very well equipped, radar-wise. She’d been a type G8 Survey ship, and on her last stay in port she’d been rebuilt especially to hunt for and make contact with Plumies. Since the discovery of their existence, that was the most urgent business of the Space Survey. It might well be the most important business of the human race—on which its survival or destruction would depend. Other remodeled ships had gone out before the Niccola, and others would follow until the problem was solved. Meanwhile the Niccola’s twenty-four rocket tubes and stepped-up drive and computer-type radar system equipped her for Plumie-hunting as well as any human ship could be. Still, if she’d been lured deep into the home system of the Plumies, the prospects were not good.