March 2012



     We had worked out the plan ahead of time. The scout and the cargo boat would stand off from the main asteroid belt by three kilikams and scan for anything suspicious. My boat and the 715 boat would fly through and around the asteroid clusters blasting the vacuum with our own active scanners. We didn't have to scan the entire asteroid belt, which would have taken days, only three selected points where a passing cruiser had reported unresolved scanner signatures.
     We approached the first cluster and turned up nothing on our active scanners. While the scanners could be detected at 70 kilikams, the communicators could be picked up from several times that far away. I was ready to move on, but Slish-tak, the Hilidarian who commanded 715, signaled that he wanted to take a closer look at something. "I don't like the shadows I am seeing on that rock," he explained. I watched as he landed 715 on a 400-meter asteroid and debarked his Marine khad in their battle armor. A few minutes later, he radioed his report.
     "Definite workings of a mine," he reported. "We have found cavities, tool marks, mine tailings, and assorted trash. Tigermen, by the look of the empty ration packs. Scanners say that they had a bubble shelter over the deepest shaft less than a week ago. The atmosphere traces on the rocks are their standard air with a touch of argon."
     "Good work," I responded. "Was it Tigermen, or just some pirates who stole their rations?"
     "Hard to tell," he said, "but my nose says it was Tigermen. Didn't look like a government or military operation, though, more like a commercial miner. It does not smell like a pirate, although it may be an unsanctioned civilian operation."
This was most curious. Vellish was inside the pre-war Klingon border, and while the Tigermen had pushed us back from their capital, this was still behind the current front lines. I directed the flotilla to move to the next suspected cluster of asteroids.
     The hair on my back was itching before we got there. I could already feel the Tigermen, and I knew just how to make them help us in our search. I directed both search boats to begin firing phasers into the asteroids, trying to flush the enemy into revealing himself. If they were military, the trick wasn't likely to work, but commercial asteroid miners just trying to make a quick profit on the vanadium and rhodinium deposits in this belt would panic if they thought they were being fired on.
     And to be certain, it was only my fourth volley of phaser fire that flushed a pair of shuttlecraft from the shadow side of a large asteroid. I sent a drone after one of them and tracked the other one as I pushed the throttles forward. The first one exploded, proving in my mind we were dealing with miners, not soldiers, and the second one ran in a straight line. I didn't even have to tell the 431 Boat to scan the area ahead of him, and Korl had already picked up a lot of Tigerman subspace traffic between a number of stations. I continued to move forward at about the speed of the shuttle I was following. Slish-tak spread out our formation to the other side and continued blasting asteroids with his phasers. Soon enough, he flushed another shuttlecraft and sent a drone to kill it. This was like shooting jorish birds in a cage. Amusing in its own way, worth doing if you want dead birds, but not a subject to dwell on.
     My intention by traveling forward, blasting rocks with my phasers and using drones on any shuttles that appeared, was to find the mothership. Shuttles couldn't come this far, so something bigger had to be here. If it turned out to be a warship we might have to run, but if it was what I suspected, we would have the glory of a worthwhile kill.
     Minutes wore on. The shuttle I let run was still heading in a straight line, and the pilot apparently hadn't figured out that I could have taken his life at any time. Two more shuttles appeared from the shadows, one of them so close we hit it with a counter-drone. The 431 boat and the cargo boat were moving in closer. The only question was whether I would flush out the mothership before the scout boat found it. That question was answered.
     "Lead, this is scout," came the voice of Kalinda, the female commander of the scout boat. "You've got a Trader hiding in the rocks at seven kilikams. That shuttle just sailed right over him and kept going. The Trader is not showing any active scans, but he does have a phaser armed in his bow and the top hatch is open. I guess it's all he can do if he decided not to run. Transmitting precise coordinates. I can lock him up. Can you?"
     "Negative," I replied. With only two combat boats, I didn't need to get into an eyeball-to-eyeball gunfight with a ship that, despite being only a civilian prospector, had nearly the firepower of a gunboat. Nobody said we had to give him a fair fight. I told Kalinda to take the shot, and she launched a drone, and moments later a second one. She guided them toward the belt and then into the target. I had maneuvered to the right and got my own lock, launching a pair of drones. One of them hit a rock but the other hit the prospector.
     Slamming my throttles forward and then to a crash stop, I brought my gunboat to point-blank range with the prospector.
     "Stand down!" I commanded on the channel he had been using, relying on the limited capabilities of my on-board translator to convey my meaning. The translator only had a few Tigerman phrases and I had to remember to use them. "Disarm weapons or die. Drop shields. We will board." The prospector ship dropped its shields and visibly disarmed its only remaining weapon. I could see from the blast marks that the ship was badly crippled. I called the cargo boat.
     "Ensign, take your boat in, dock with the prospector, and board him. I want his logs. Take any refined metals you find, and anything else interesting." I didn't have to tell him to take the ESS man along; he would probably go on his own initiative and if not, no one could order him to. "Slish-tak, continue to search the asteroids and kill any shuttle that tries to run. If any surrender, order them back here. Be on guard for another ship, there are too many shuttles here. Kalinda, keep your scans working to detect anyone entering the system. This will take some time."
     I watched as the cargo boat moved in to dock with the prospector, confident that the khad leaders would keep the ensign and the ESS lieutenant out of trouble. The naval ensign reported that he had boarded the ship and had disarmed the survivors of the crew. Most of the crew were apparently killed by the explosion of the drones and the loss of atmosphere in the rear part of the prospector. The ESS lieutenant reported that he had downloaded the logs, and the ensign reported that there were many tons of refined metal. Slish-tak and the 715 boat returned, herding two shuttles back with them. I told the shuttles to stand aside and wait for instructions.
     "Ensign, can the prospector be made operational?"
     "Negative," he reported. "The engines are slagged, and the hull would come apart anyway. Shall we execute the crew?" he asked.
     "I presume none of their crew can hear you," I asked, grinning at Karihn. Several tense moments passed.
     "None of them speak Klingon," he responded.
     "You are positive of this?" I inquired in the kindest manner I could. More tense moments went by.
     "My error," the ensign responded. "I will learn from this. What are your orders?"
     This required thought, but there was not much time to make a decision and nothing to base it on. I could either load up whatever I could and head home, blowing up the prospector and either killing or stranding the prisoners, or wait here for the sector commander to send another ship to pick up the loot and prisoners. I decided to buy time and keep options open.
     "Herd the prisoners into one compartment and lock them in. Load the refined metals into the cargo holds of your boat. Make certain that the prospector cannot make warp. Advise when these tasks are accomplished."
     Contacting Kalinda, I had her send a subspace message to the nearest ships and to the battle station advising that we had more refined metal than we could carry and a dozen prisoners and ask if they wanted to send a ship here to pick them up. If they did, I might be told to wait for them to arrive, or to leave the prisoners and remaining cargo adrift, or to kill the prisoners and hide the cargo.
     "Lead, wing. What of the third cluster?" Slish-tak asked over the communicator. This was a tougher decision. We had work to finish here, no matter what sector command ordered, but would then have to decide to search the third cluster or to leave the system. We had accomplished enough of our mission to rate a success, and I had no right to risk the flotilla seeking glory. On the other side, we were told to search the system and eliminate the problem, and this was not done yet. The third cluster might have nothing, or it might have a Tigerman warship. For that matter, another day or two of searching could not have guaranteed that the first cluster was completely clear. I decided to send Slish-tak and the scout to search it, but warned them to avoid getting into a fight they couldn't win. "At the first sign of an enemy warship, return here and regroup," I warned him. Slish-tak accepted the order.
     The message came in from Kalinda that sector command wanted us to hold position here while the local police ship, and a priority transport, could be vectored to us. I told the ensign to keep control of the prisoners and have the metal ready to move. I considered leaving the cargo boat and following Slish-tak to Cluster Three, but that would leave the cargo boat docked, unable to maneuver, and vulnerable. We knew there were Tigermen here, and for all we knew there could be a warship still hiding in the rocks nearby. I told the ensign to keep in touch with my communications technician, and moved my boat to circle the wrecked prospector in a widening spiral. We came across a couple of places where miners had obviously been at work, but scanners found nobody present at that moment. I found a shelter set up on one rock that, by the sensor readings, had a dozen Tigermen in it. I marked it on my navigation chart but ignored it for now. If we were packing up to leave I would have wrecked it with a disruptor shot, but with more forces coming, I would leave them to be taken prisoner later. After another moment of thought, I transferred the coordinates of the shelter to the drone control board in case I wanted to nuke the shelter on my way out of the system.
     "Lead, Scout, enemy contact," crackled in my ear. "Two shuttles trying to run. Now tracking a freighter of some kind. Slish-tak is ordering them to surrender. They've stopped and dropped shields. We've got a problem now. Too many prisoners, not enough Marines."
     "Scout, Lead," I instructed. "Order the freighter to move to my location. You and 715 will escort them."
     "What about the rest of the third cluster?" Kalinda asked.
     "We have enough on our hands at this time," I said. "Don't look for more trouble. Once reinforcements get here, we can give the whole system another look. While you are on the way, run a wide scan for other ships approaching the system."
     "Not likely to be a rescue," she said. "Any enemy warship would have to penetrate the front line patrols."
     "Unless he's already in our space," I said. "A warship could be laying still, or there might be a cloaked pirate. In any case, I don't want any more surprises."
     "Be advised," she said, "that the Support Flotilla is en route to the system. Another cargo boat, the minehunter, and the commando boat with extra marines."
     "Estimated time of arrival?"
     "Our group should join you in five minutes. The police ship will be here in an hour, the transport in two, the support flotilla in four. They're also vectoring a cruiser closer to us in case we need backup. That cruiser is six hours away at this point."
     "Very well," I said. "Carry on."
     The rest of the mission was just one boot following the other. The police ship arrived and assumed command. I took my boats on another sweep of the system and found three more shelters, a few shuttles, and a small cargo ship. The Tigermen had, indeed, had a working business mining asteroids here, one that had been going on for a year or more and had gradually expanded to the point it was finally noticed. More ships arrived, including the support flotilla, two of our freighters to take away the loot, and an armed transport loaded with Marines. The battle station's fighters made a sweep, mostly to warn the enemy to stay away. A frigate circled the system and found another Tigerman freighter approaching with empty cargo holds. We remained in the system for twelve hours, by which time we were running low on fuel and other stores and out of drones from killing shuttles. A cruiser had arrived at the same time as the sector police flagship, and the two officers argued over who had command of the scene.