With the contract signed, Operation Taloned Freedom was instantly underway. Though Klim would have preferred to stop and rename it, there was no real choice in the matter, and for once, he didn’t fight the authorities above him. After all, with the fate of a whole planetary system on the line, it was better to just get to work and deal with stupid names later.
That said, it was going to be a bit more complicated than just rushing in and putting on disguises.
“Ailsa, how’s the course looking?”
“Almost there, Captain,” the stingray said, her translator tool garbling slightly.
“ETA, five minutes.”
“Commodore,” he reminded her.
He nodded, turning his attention to the rest of the bridge. Lorkos and Ryker were both on the guns, their seats swiveling back and forth around the edge of the bridge, already at the ready for anything that might prove a problem. Doubtful, considering what the Feathered Federation reports had indicated, but it never hurt to be on one’s guard.
The velociraptor’s quartermaster turned to him, looking up from a data pad in the process. He nodded at her work.
“How are we looking for spare parts?”
“Honestly? Not great. We’re down to about minimal for repairs, which probably aren’t going to be enough to join up all the things we’re looking to loot. That, plus the difficulties of matching our parts with Hierarchy parts, plus the problems that come with anyone that knows the ships that well looking at them and thinking that’s something is off -”
“I didn’t ask about all that. I asked about the parts. Are there enough, or not?”
“If you don’t care how it looks, yeah, there’s enough.”
“Then we’ll be fine. Thank you.”
“Stupid captain not even caring if it’s authentic looking…”
Klim put it out of his mind. He knew that it wasn’t the best situation, but as long as they looked like they were a Hierarchy ship when they were arriving at the station, they shouldn’t have a problem. Particularly with this one.
He tabbed up the report that the Federation had sent out to them, looking over the details. The Thousand Claws was a small warship, though still bigger than the Breakaway by a decent chunk. It had been reassigned from border patrol to working around the Purple Talon system, and Starwing Station in particular. From what the Federation intelligence said, the Thousand Claws had been ambushed by another group of pirates, delaying their progress towards the station.
The perfect thing about the situation was the fact that the Thousand Claws had already called in, saying that they would be delayed while they made some basic repairs to get underway again, and the reports had been verified at the upper levels of intelligence on the other side. The Hierarchy knew that there would be a delay, and that their new reinforcements would have a harder time limping into the system. As long as they were quick about it, they could take the ship, and turn it into a perfect disguise.
“Dresnath, what do we have on scopes?”
“Something, sir,” the blue dragon muttered from a nearby console pit. “Not much, a couple of drones around a hulk.”
“Sounds like they’re not really expecting any more resistance,” Ryker said.
“Or they’ve lost most of their fighter complement,” Klim said. “Keep an eye out for me. If there’s a patrol we missed, I want to know about it before they know about us.”
The dragon nodded, his eyes back on the screen a moment later.
They continued their approach for another couple of minutes before Ailsa brought the engines forward once more. The clickety-clacks of the little engine balls rustling around the hull always caught his attention, and he swore he could hear each one moving about. A collection pushed to the front, firing quickly and on a low burn, slowing them down as they approached the hulk.
It was just visible against the gas giant behind it, floating just outside the gravitational field that it put off. The Thousand Claws was a more attack-based ship than the Breakaway, and one could see it in the design. Klim admired the sleek curved-wing designs on either side, looking like the sweeping forelegs of a flying dragon reaching out to seize its prey. Various weapon emplacements along the wings promised a great deal of pain for anyone caught between them.
The main body of the ship bristled with shield generators along the lower hull, and the back was covered in missile batteries. The central part of the ship, consisting of the hold and engines and living quarters, formed a large rounded oval that held the rest of the ship, with a great engine sink in the back for blasting the warship forward.
“Heh, now that should be just about perfect to hide the Breakaway in.”
“Gonna be tough getting it in there, captain,” Maggie pointed out. “We’ll have to cut it open and slide in.”
“I know, but it’s better than trying to fly that whole thing with just the few of us.”
Ailsa was already slackening off speed further, keeping them just outside of scanner range with the darkness of space behind them. They were far enough away that, unless the ship had a very good spotter for a gunner, they weren’t going to be seen.
Glancing down at Dresnath and getting confirmation that there were no fighters in the area, he looked up at Ryker.
“Think you can handle a small team on the ship, Security Officer?”
“Heh, I think that you can trust me with that.”
“Alright. Take Dresnath and Lorkos. Keep it expeditionary until you have a decisive advantage. Understand?”
“You got it, boss.”
The folf jumped off his seat, waving his hand. Gunnery and Communications officers leaped up, following him off the bridge. Klim shook his head, knowing that they were going to be arming up heavier than they needed, but he wasn’t going to stop them. They were ready for some fun, he was sure.
A few minutes later, the jettisoning feeling of an escape pod being launched hit him. A few panels slipped off the side of the ship, and he slowly turned his head towards Maggie. The mare blushed a bit, rubbing the back of her head.
“Uh...extra spare parts?”
“They better be…”
He stood up, moving down to the readouts on the Communications console. The scans showed that the escape pod was moving quickly, just about reaching the other ship as he took a look at it. Whoever was piloting it had it swerve upwards, sliding between the wings and up towards the ‘snout’ of the ship. They were risking getting shot by the most powerful weapons that the warship had, but considering its damaged state, it was a safe enough move.
The escape pod jammed itself just behind the bridge, along the upper half of the ‘neck’ of the warship. He opened the channel to his officer's communicators, and instantly it spat out echoes of blaster fire.
“Ryker, talk to me.”
“Heh, they were ready for someone to come slamming through. Gotta hand it to them, they respond fast.”
“Yes, they’re trained for that. How many?”
“Just a squad now. Lorkos, bring up the heavy.”
The individual shots went on for a few seconds, only to be extinguished by a sudden barrage of faster lasers. He rolled his eyes.
“Should have figured he’d grab the minigun…”
The sounds of fighting tapered off, and he gathered that the assault team had broken down the initial resistance. Letting them continue without interruption, he leaned over the console and pressed a couple of buttons.
A second later, the window facing the ship was taken up with a filtered display. The downloads of the Thousand Claws blueprints blinked into view, and three red dots were running through it, making their way down from the entry point towards the middle of the ship. Klim watched for a few seconds, making a guess towards their plan.
If it were me, I’d be headed down to the center to disable life support, he thought. Their helmets will keep them from losing too much oxygen, but the crew won’t be ready for it. A quick, simple way to end it.
Ryker, however, seemed to have different plans. While two of the red dots continued moving down to the center of the ship, one broke off and started making its way to the bridge, just behind the heavy weapon in the snout.
Going for an officer seize, hmm? Interesting tactic.
He waved the other members of the crew over, and they gathered in front of the window, watching the show. With the commentary coming from the communications console, it was a pretty good bit of entertainment.
“Shoot him! Shoot him, not me!”
“Fucking hell, where did he come from? I thought you were lizards, not xenomorphs!”
“Yeah, stay down! Or I’ll have more than my boot up your ass!”
The commentary continued, and Klim shook his head. From the little bits that he could hear from the enemies on the other side, he guessed that Ryker and Dresnath had made their way down to the bottom of the ship, not that far from the engines, storage, and life support systems. Not much resistance down there, either, as he imagined that most of the crew were either on repair duty or controlling the drones that were executing the more precise repairs.
That left Lorkos at the bridge. He reached down to the console, slipping over to Lorkos’s channel, and spoke.
“What’s the situation, Gunnery Officer?”
“Not much. Got a couple of officers of my own here.”
“Nah. They don’t want to talk with a minigun in their faces.”
“I wouldn’t, either. They say anything about the captain?”
“...Damn. Alright, keep them alive, we’re going to need to interrogate them later.”
It was going to be a bit of a problem, alright. He’d hoped to find the captain alive, find a way to either convince him to shift sides or find a way to imitate him. However, with a dead commanding officer, they had a few different options to work with. None of them as good as keeping the captain around - they’d have to find a way to explain that when they got to Starwing Station - but not as bad as it could be.
The rest of the take-over didn’t take long. Once Ryker and Dresnath seized the engines, they had access to the main power, and shut it down. The rest of the ship’s systems, outside of the emergency things that had their own power sources, like life support, went down. Considering the choice of hydraulic doors in a number of ships in the Hierarchy, it meant that anyone that was inside a room already wasn’t getting out without help.
“Looks like the ship is ours. Bring us in, Ailsa.”
They arrived at the belly of the ship, and - apart from Ailsa - all disembarked in space suits. They leaped from one ship to the other and wiggled their way along the hull until they got to an airlock. Power briefly came back on, just long enough for him and Maggie to get through, and then it was off again. They pulled off their helmets as Dresnath and Ryker greeted them. The folf chuckled.
“Welcome aboard the Thousand Claws, big guy. What do you think?”
“She’s a fucking wreck.”
And that was being generous. Klim had expected to see a decent amount of damage to the ship after seeing the reports, but there were holes in the belly that were barely patched by the emergency systems, and he doubted that it was going to be easy to fly through the rest of the system. Just looking around, he could see the power supply looked like it had been rattled loose from the fight, and that it would probably rattle further if it had to run the ship for long.
He shook his head.
“If it wasn’t for the fact that we needed a disguise, I’d say we scuttle this thing and sell the parts.”
“Still could, after this is all over,” Ryker pointed out.
“Not really. I guarantee you that this will be shredded slag by the time we’re done.”
“...Considering the way that this usually goes? Yeah, probably.”
Klim nodded, pressing a button on his communicator.
“Lorkos, everything still good at the bridge?”
“Pretty good. They’re not too happy about being held prisoner by a mammal, though.”
“Tell them to suck it up. I’ll be there in a bit.”
Shutting it off, Klim gestured for Ryker to show him the worst of the damage. He was expecting something bad, and he got it.
The ship was mostly being held together by the various shields that it had generated around it. There was no protection from laser blasts, as all power was being directed towards keeping the holes patched and the air inside the ship. Maggie got more and more dour as she saw the various bits of damage, and he couldn’t blame her. All the spare parts that they had were likely going to go into fixing up the holes more than anything else.
That said, it would probably sell the story even better. With this much damage, a ship couldn’t be blamed for looking different than normal, so they had a better cover story. Still, he knew she didn’t like giving up so many of the parts all at once.
The living quarters were moderately better, less damaged, if a bit filthy. He shook his head, walking to each door in the barracks. Each time he tapped on one, he listened for the return tap of someone trapped on the other side. Out of the twenty rooms - each of which could hold six - he heard about fifteen taps back. More than he wanted to fight, but not so bad as prisoners. They’d have to do something about that, though.
Just about the only undamaged systems on the ship were life support and the engines, which was something. The ship would have a hard enough time hauling its new cargo, and he really didn’t want to make that worse.
“Alright. Dresnath, you and Ryker start working on shucking off the belly of the ship. I want a hole for the Breakaway to slide through in three hours. Maggie, start taking inventory. I guarantee you that the drones have some spare stock in the storage holds but see how much it is. If there’s enough, start using them to get the worst holes in our area patched up.”
With his crew nodding and getting to work, he made his way up the ship’s neck to the bridge. The hole that the escape pod had made was plugged by the pod itself, thankfully, or it probably would have been a space hazard. He edged around it, and then up to the bridge itself.
Unlike the bridge of the Breakaway, the Thousand Claws was designed more like a proper snout. It pushed forward and down, with the captain’s chair in the very back at the highest point, and the rest of the room on a 45-degree slant downwards, ending in a weapons bay that attached to the heavy weapon at the end.
Held under gunpoint just in front of the captain’s chair were three lizards and, surprisingly, a bipedal dragon. They were all on their knees, their hands behind their back, and their ranks told him that there were three petty officers and a commander among them. He nodded to himself, walking up with his arms clasped behind his back, and his big claws clicking on the ground. The sound immediately drew their attention to him, and all the scalies stared at him.
“Alright, Gunnery Officer, you’re relieved.”
“You want me to stick around, captain?”
“Commodore. No, I want you to go and relieve the others down in the belly. They’re going to be bringing everything over, soon.”
“You got it.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The wolf saluted him, leaving him alone with the other four officers. They were glaring at him with pure rage, and he couldn’t blame them. They had been rather humiliated, considering three people had taken control of their ship with such ease. The velociraptor sat down on the captain’s chair, lifting one foot off the ground and twitching his toes and claws as he looked down at them.
“So, I think we should have a talk, officers.”
“Hmmph,” the dragon grunted. “So...the traitor has come back to roost.”
“Ah. You recognize me.”
Klim shook his head a few times.
“Unfortunate? Unfortunate is the fact that you’re still alive. Someone should have killed you years ago, back when you turned your back on the fleet. How the hell are you still alive?”
“Mostly by being faster, better, and smarter than your superiors.”
Klim reached down to his belt, pulling a blaster away and laying it across his lap. The three lizards looked at it, while the dragon continued to stare at him. The velociraptor shook his head a few times.
“Cards on the table. The commander is unlikely to die, because I need information on the previous captain, information that only the crew would know, and isn’t just a file in some sort of manifest of the crew. Considering that the commander would have had some of the most contact with the captain, he’s safe. You three.”
He lifted the blaster, gesturing at the three lizards. They stared back, their eyes on the muzzle of the blaster.
“You three are going to play a little game. The one that gives me information, lives. The one that refuses takes a shot. The one that stays quiet gets shot next, if he stays quiet two rounds running. Understand?”
They turned to look at each other, then turned to look back at him. None of them said anything. Klim shook his head.
“I know that this isn’t a language barrier. You’re thinking that, if you show unity, that you will not all be punished.”
Pew. Pew. Pew.
Three shots, three knees hit with a high-power blast of light. The three lizards crumpled to the sides, screaming, and the dragon’s eyes went wide at Klim’s action. The velociraptor shook his head, still holding the weapon in front of him.
“I didn’t say I would kill you. I said that the person that stays quiet takes a shot. Heh. You know, there’s a lot of places I can shoot before you take a fatal wound. Now, let’s try that again. Do you understand?”
They all shouted at the same time, and he smiled to himself. That was a reaction that might save them, and it was one that he could use. He lowered the blaster, turning his attention back to the commander. The yellow dragon glared at him, shaking his head a few times.
“Only a true traitor would level that sort of threat against his own kind.”
“Or a pirate. Or a mercenary. Or a man on hard times. Really, you can pick up a blaster and shoot someone for a lot of reasons,” Klim said. “You really have to buy into the whole group-think thing that you need to be a traitor to think you won't hurt someone just because they're the same species.”
“It’s what makes us strong against outsiders.”
“It’s what makes you so easy to rule from inside.”
Klim shook his head. He hadn’t come here to talk about the past, nor had he come here to debate the reasons that he’d left the Hierarchy and the Fleet in the first place. All he wanted was information on the captain, and that was what he was going to get. He leaned back on the chair, resting his head on one hand and waving his gun around with the other.
“So, second question. What was the captain’s name?”
It took an hour, but he managed to get enough information to put together a good profile of the previous captain. Klim knew what the captain’s favorite foods had been, his preference in music, and the general strategies that he was known for. He had the military history, the way that he treated his men, the overall respect the ship had had for him...and a perfect reason for him to have been removed.
The lack of respect that the crew had had for the previous captain meant that a mutiny would have been possible in other cultures. In this case, it would have been much harder to justify, save for the fact that Hierarchy military doctrine said that a commanding officer of a ship could be deposed by the crew in favor of a new officer of equal rank that put themselves forward for the position. If he could pose that way…
Then he would only need to prove how he had come to be here. And…
Well, they recognized me. It wouldn’t be that hard to pose as an officer again…
Klim didn’t like the idea, but it was a lot better than nothing. He’d try a few other thoughts first, but he had a bad feeling that this one would end up being the plan that they went with.
Returning to a catwalk overlooking the storage area, he saw that the belly of the ship had been cut away, the emptiness of space just a micron away on the other end of the energy shield. It was a hole just big enough for the Breakaway to slip inside, and once it was in, they could hook their ship up to the controls for the Thousand Claws, and Ailsa could fly it from their bridge.
It wasn’t perfect, but it would get them into the station, and Hierarchy ships were personal enough that crews didn’t tend to go back and forth between them. They could keep it under wraps while the ‘slaves’ got it repaired.
Tapping a key, he brought his communicator up.
“...Okay, one, change your translator, I think it’s dying. Two, we got a possibility for a good captain ruse. Do you remember that cache we put out on the rim of the Purple Talon system?”
“Good. We’re headed there next. I need to pick up a few things.”
“Thanks. And it’s Commodore.”
If they ever picked it up, he would be amazed.
“And get Sollon to start looking up the protocol rules for the Hierarchy. I want a refresher for myself, and a data pad of the slave regulations for everyone else.”
“Already on it, sir,” the rat burst in.
“...Somehow, I should have guessed that. Carry on.”
With information on a damaged Hierarchy ship, Klim and the crew go to pick it up and convert it into something more useful: a disguise to get them in close. However, after taking it over, a few complications rear their head.