Vacuum Riders


Fred "Pistoff" Kerns

With artwork by Zath

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Gargoyles is the property of Disney and is being used without their permission, yadda, yadda, yadda. The characters of Jerusha and Arianna belong to the TGS staff…but the ones appearing in the following story are quite different from what the TGS staff had in mind, I’m sure. Read on, and you’ll see what I mean, soon enough…. J

This story is the first in a series set in the year 2169. No others will be posted until after Season 3 or 4 of Gargoyles 2K, due to certain plot points that would be revealed prematurely, but a general story arc has been worked out. The following story will give you a sneak peak at what’s coming.


"Hello, old friends." Demona gave two of the new arrivals a warm smile and a hug. "Been a while, Jonny."

"Sorry about that, but you know how it is."

"I do, indeed."

Jon Canmore, Jr., smiled at her. "When I heard that my son had just signed on with you, I wanted to drop by and see him before you ship out. Hope I’m not getting in the way of anything?"

"Not at all. You’re always welcome on my ship." Demona turned to the old gargoyle standing next to Jonny, leaning on a cane. "Welcome aboard, General Brooks." She saluted and the general waved her off.

"No, don’t salute or call me ‘General.’ I retired years ago. I have a real job now." He adjusted his wire-frame glasses, ran his talons through his thinning white hair, glanced around at the muted grays of the docking bay and sighed. "I wanted to see my daughter before you leave, and take a look at your new ship, as well as visit for a while. What little we’ve seen so far is very impressive."

"Thank you, Jeff. We had the best people in Nightstone and the UNAF working on the Kozlowski." She looked at Jonny to include him in the conversation, since he was the only one of the group who didn’t know the details. "The Koz is a third-generation Rusalka-class destroyer disguised as a freighter. It’s smaller and faster than previous models, and heavily armored and armed to the teeth. All gunports are hidden, of course, to pass unnoticed until they’re needed."

The third member of the party cleared his throat and Jonny and Jeff shared a knowing, slightly annoyed glance.

"Ah, my apologies, Senator Nathans." Demona held her hand out to the man, who was dressed in a crisp new suit with obnoxious creases in the pants. "I haven’t seen my friends in a long time, and got caught up in the moment. Welcome aboard the DSC Kozlowski."

"The name of this ship is the UNS Atlantis, Captain." Nathans frowned as he shook her hand, breaking the contact as soon as possible and clasping his hands behind his back. He looked down his nose at her and added, "To name a ship after yourself…"

Behind him, Jeff and Jonny chuckled and glanced at the ceiling, shaking their heads, then just stood and watched, waiting for Senator Nathans to get reamed.

"I didn’t." Demona’s tone was soft enough, but there was no mistaking the razor edge beneath it. "I named this ship after my beloved husband…as you should know, since you voted against building the Koz before it was more than just a set of blueprints on your desk."

Jeff leaned over and placed his beak next to the senator’s ear, and muttered, "Better stop now, Al, or they’ll have to scrape you off the walls with a spatula."

Demona didn’t give Nathans a chance to reply. "I know the UNAF co-funded the construction of the Kozlowski, but I reimbursed them in full. I own this ship now, and I decide what its name will be. My decisions regarding every detail and operation of this ship are final. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to begin your tour, because we have a schedule to follow." Without another word, she turned and headed for the door, her talons clicking on the metal deck plates.

Jeff Brooks sighed and shook his head. "Al, I think you stuck your foot in your mouth when you were born, then got lockjaw." He and Jonny followed Captain Kozlowski into the corridor, leaving Senator Nathans standing there with a scowl on his face. He clenched his fists and took deep breaths, bringing himself back under control. The clacking of the general’s cane on the floor had almost faded into the distance by the time he had recovered enough of his composure to catch up with them.

Jeff caught up with the captain and put a hand on her shoulder. "I heard about Vince. I’m sorry, Demona. Has his condition changed yet?"

"No." Her fists clenched so tightly that her talons pierced her palms, and her lower lip trembled. "I don’t know if I can handle this, Jeff. Vince has been my mate for a hundred and seventy years. He’s been taking rejuvenation treatments to keep himself young, he’s survived things that would kill any normal human, he even survived the Arcadia’s destruction, and now…to be almost done in by a stupid shuttle crash…!"

"Hey, he’s a tough guy, Demmie. He’ll be okay."

"Jeff, his body was damaged beyond repair. He’ll have to be placed in a cyborg body…we just don’t know if they’ll have one prepared in time." She sobbed. "Oh, Jeff, I can’t go on without Vince! If he doesn’t survive…" She wiped tears from her eyes. Macbeth…. If I lose Vince, I’ll talk to Macbeth. If he’s tired enough of living…all he has to do is shoot me, or stab me, or whatever…and it’ll finally be over.

Jeff seemed to know what she was thinking. Maybe he read it in her expression. He looked alarmed, and shook his head.

"Don’t even go there, Demona. Vince will be fine. Lex and Corny are the best cyberneticists in the business. They’ll make sure he’s better than ever. By the time we get back to Earth, he’ll have his new body, and you’ll have until the ship’s next launch to, uh…test his newfound stamina."

Demona laughed despite herself. "I hope so. Thanks, Jeff, I needed a good laugh."

"My pleasure. I love seeing that smile as much as Koz does."

She grinned…then glanced over her shoulder and sighed. "It’s just that…this inspection couldn’t have come at a worse time. I mean, I should be with Vince!"

"Well, there’s no way out of something like this. When a government official visits, you gotta put on the usual show for him. Same old crap I dealt with for decades, when I was in Omega Section." He patted her shoulder. "Just try to throw yourself into it, focus on your job, and you’ll be able to get through it." He winked at her. "Hey, if you need another laugh, you can have a little fun at the senator’s expense."

Demona quirked a brow ridge. Jeff snickered.

"Don’t worry, he’s used to being messed with. He doesn’t have brains enough to realize when somebody’s putting one over on him, but it happens often enough."

She chuckled. "I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you, Jeff." She gave him a quick peck on the beak, then led her guests on a brief tour, showing them the engineering and medical sections and the bays that held the shuttles, EVA pods and fighters. The Koz held a small crew, compared to the much larger Medusa and older Rusalka class ships, but at the moment there was just a skeleton crew of about two dozen, rather than the full complement of one hundred and fifty-two. Demona gave them a quick description of the various ship’s systems as they walked.

"The hull is a hybrid product of Earth and Gra’athi technology, and is able to absorb as much as seventy-five percent of conventional firepower…."

"That remaining twenty-five percent can add up fast in a major fight," Jeff commented. "Especially if somebody’s using nukes."

"True. But it’s doubtful that such a battle would last very long. The Kozlowski’s defense grid is state of the art. Interceptors, railguns, pulse cannons and two main guns that can rip apart an asteroid the size of Manhattan. And the jump engines are more advanced than anything currently in space, and the conventional engines are almost forty percent faster than those of any other ship."

"They’d better be," Nathans grumbled as he stepped in front of Jeff and scowled at Demona. Jeff dropped back to walk beside Jonny, and both exchanged another look as the senator said, "It sure cost the taxpayers plenty."

"All of which has been repaid in full, as I mentioned a few minutes ago." Demona shook her head. This guy must have earwax, or something.

Jonny and Jeff, walking behind the other two, shared another glance and sighed. Jonny raised his hand and flipped the senator off, and Jeff clamped a hand around his beak to keep from laughing. Then he took his cane and jabbed it forward, moving as if to stick it up the senator’s butt. Jonny burst out laughing, and Jeff whipped his cane back to its original position and pasted an innocent look on his face a split second before Nathans glared over his shoulder. The senator watched them for a moment, then returned his attention to Demona.

"Captain," he grumbled as they headed for the command deck, passing through the crew section, "why aren’t any of your crew wearing proper uniforms? Why aren’t you, for that matter?"

Once again, Demona sighed and shook her head. No, not earwax. More likely, he’s just plain stupid, as well as a jerk.

"My crew aren’t members of the United Nations Armed Forces, or any other military group. The Guardian Guild is a separate organization." She tapped a talon against the Guardian insignia, Vacuum Riders clan emblem, and Kozlowski mission patch on her denim vest. Other than those symbols, there was nothing else, certainly no military markings of any kind. "We have no connection with the military or any of the other Guilds. Our job is to patrol shipping routes, protect civilians from raiders and other threats, and rescue anybody who needs to be rescued. And my crew can perform all those functions quite well without uniforms of any kind."

Nathans opened his mouth, but Jonny stopped in front of a door marked "C. CANMORE" and pressed the buzzer. He cleared his throat and spoke before the senator could say anything.

"If you don’t mind, guys, I’ll catch up with you later. I’d like to see my boy for a while, before you have to leave."

"Of course, Jonny. Just remember that his and Ari’s shift starts in twenty minutes."

Jonny nodded…then raised his eyebrows. "Ari?"

The door opened and there stood a gargoyle who looked like a female version of Brooklyn—Jeff Brooks—with darker red skin and black hair in the style Demona had worn for a thousand years, and a muscular yet curvy figure. She was wearing only a towel.

"Hi, guys! How’s it going, Uncle Jonny?"

"Same as usual." Jonny glanced at the senator, then held his fist in front of him and pumped it up and down. Ari giggled and nodded. Then she spotted the retired general and rushed into his arms.


"Hiya, kiddo!" Jeff hugged her, then turned to his companions. "Senator, this is Arianna Brooks, the best pilot in the Alliance and beyond."

"Awww, Dad!" Arianna turned even darker red and covered her beak with her hands. She glanced over her shoulder and said, "Honey, your dad’s here." She turned back to her father. "How’s Mom? It’s been a while since the last time I heard from her."

"Beth is doing well. Still on Avalon, leading the Guardians and making sure the Fae don’t get out of line. Especially Coyote. Y’know how he is." He chuckled.

"Well, she told me that he calmed down a lot after Jack Hammer beat the crap out of him."

"Ah, they’re still talking about that, eh?"

"Yeah, it’s sorta become a legend."

"Did you say Dad’s here, babe?" A human, around twenty or so, with long blond hair, walked into sight. Like Ari, he was wearing nothing but a towel.

Jonny blinked and glanced back and forth between them while Jeff and Demona tried not to laugh. Jonny worked his mouth for a few moments before any sounds came out. And then all he could get out was, "Uh…Clyde?"

"Hi, Dad."

Senator Nathans turned his gaze away, his face almost livid.

"Are we interrupting something?" Jonny finally managed to say.

"Oh, no, not at all." Ari wrapped her arms and wings around Clyde. "We just finished."

Demona laughed for only the second time in days. She desperately needed every laugh she could get, now.

Senator Nathans, however, wasn’t amused. "Put some clothes on, for god’s sake!"

"Whatsa matter?" Ari frowned at him. "Dontcha think I’m pretty?"

"Uh-oh." Clyde shook his head. "Don’t even get Ari started on that. She has a bit of a complex about her looks."

"She should," Nathans snapped.

Arianna gasped and her eyes filled with tears. Everybody else stared at Nathans. After a moment, Clyde recovered and walked up to the senator, getting right in his face. Nathans stepped back, and Clyde advanced again, until he’d backed the senator up against the wall.

"You wanna get your ass kicked, pal?"

"Clyde," Jonny said, "that’s Senator Nathans."

"I don’t care who he is! Somebody insults my sweetheart, I’m gonna rip him a new orifice!"

"Lay one hand on me," Nathans said, "and I’ll have you shot."

Everyone froze solid. Ari’s eyes glowed and her tears dried, then she gathered herself, preparing to launch at him.

"You hurt my mate and I’ll tear you apart!"

"At ease, Ari!" Demona stepped between them, made sure neither Ari nor Clyde was about to do something that would end their careers, then grabbed the lapel of Senator Nathans’ jacket and dragged him down the hall. "Get over here!"

"Get your hands off me!"

"Shut up!" Once they were away from the others, Demona pushed him against the wall and ripped into him. "I think of this crew as my own children. We’re all from the same clan, and we watch out for one another. And we don’t tolerate the kind of crap you just pulled! You don’t come onto my ship and insult one of my kids, Senator. And you absolutely don’t threaten one of them. You harm one member of my crew and you’ll end up fighting all of them. They’ll rip you into little pieces, and I won’t lift a finger to stop them. Is that clear?"

Nathans just glared at her.

"Is that clear?" Her eyes glowed and Nathans began to tremble. He nodded.

"Good. You step outta line again, and I’ll put you on a shuttle and send you back to Earth. And if a single member of my crew is so much as bruised because of your actions, I’ll blow you out the nearest airlock and watch you suck hard vacuum until your lungs rupture. Got that?"

"Crystal clear," Nathans stammered.

"Good. Now, stay away from Clyde and Ari from now on, for your own good as well as their peace of mind." Without waiting for a response, Demona turned and went back to the others. Clyde was holding Ari and rubbing her back, whispering in her ear and smiling at her. After a moment, he cupped his hands around her beak and gave her a long, thorough kiss.

"Who cares what that guy says, honey? He’s a politician. He wouldn’t be able to find his own butt with both hands and a metal detector."

Ari managed a chuckle at that.

Clyde kissed her again and said, "You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Never forget that. Never doubt it."

"Thank you, Clyde," she whispered, sighing and wiping the last of her tears away. "I love you."

"I love you, too, sweetie."

"Awww," Jeff said softly. "They’re adorable!"

Demona chuckled. "Okay, you two, remember to be on the command deck soon. We’re jumping in less than half an hour."

Clyde gave her an innocent look and said, "But I already jumped Ari three times in the past couple of hours."

All of them burst out laughing. Ari gave her mate a playful swat on the shoulder.

"Oh, you’re so bad!"

Demona glanced at her friends and grinned. "Kids, today…."

She led the others on up to the command deck. The doors parted and she stepped into a circular room and walked over to the console in the center. The navigation and weapons consoles were in front of her, before a large viewscreen. The walls were lined with monitors and control panels and other large viewscreens, and other work stations—sensors, communications, and so on. At the moment, the command deck was empty, except for a couple of technicians and a truly enormous gargoyle lying on the floor, propped on one elbow and reaching into the innards of an open panel.

Demona smiled. Standing, Boiler was nearly eight feet tall. She was the same "type" of gargoyle as Goliath, and had just as much muscle mass, yet she had a slender figure with curves in all the right places. A lovely woman, though her size and almost constant, boiling anger made her seem quite intimidating. Roughly half the crew fantasized about her, and the other half were scared to death of her.

Demona couldn’t wait for the senator to meet her.

She took a breath and waved a hand around, beginning the next stage of Senator Nathans’ inspection.

"The command center has a pretty standard layout, with a couple of minor alterations. Up front is navigation and weapons control, which is where Arianna and Jerusha usually sit…."

At this moment, another gargoyle came through the door, wearing a denim vest and shorts and an arm band like the one Demona used to wear. The captain smiled and waved at the new arrival.

"Ah, Jerusha, this is Senator Allen Nathans. He’s here for the inspection, along with Jeff, here, and Jonny, who’s visiting with Clyde. Senator, this is Jerusha McFarlane, our chief weapons officer."

"Hi, Jeff. Hi ya doin’, Senator?" Jerusha offered her hand, and Nathans shook it reluctantly and briefly. She looked at him for a moment, then shrugged and turned to Demona. "I just thought I’d run one more systems check before we leave."

Demona nodded. "Go right ahead. We’ve got a few minutes left, before we have to go." She gave Nathans a sweet smile and began steering him toward Boiler. "And this young woman here is our chief techie, Lucretia Hammer. Most of us call her Boiler."

The huge purple gargoyle looked up at the sound of her name, then stood and brushed her hands on her denim Vacuum Riders vest.

"Oh, my god," Nathans muttered.

Boiler looked down at Nathans, scowling as usual, then thrust her right hand out. Nathans turned pale and flinched.

"Charmed," Boiler grunted, taking his hand and completely enveloping it with her own, and pumping it hard enough to shake him around like a rag doll. She released him and said, "’Scuse me, I wanna get this console running properly before we jump." She stretched out on the floor and went back to work.

Jeff snickered, and Demona just smiled.

Senator Nathans trembled and flexed his fingers, as if afraid Boiler had fractured something.

The door opened and Ari and Clyde walked in, holding hands. Ari had her tail coiled tightly around his left leg. Both were fully clothed, this time, in jeans and T-shirts. Both of them said hi to everybody, and Ari took the pilot’s seat. Clyde stood behind her, with his hands resting on her shoulders and her tail still around his leg.

Boiler closed the panel and stood. "Done."

"Okay," Demona said, taking her own seat. "Looks like we’re about ready to go."

"What’s Canmore’s job?" Nathans said, his voice still quivering a bit. "He’s just standing there."

"He’s one of our technicians," Demona told him, resisting the urge to shake her head again. "He doesn’t have any specific duty at the moment, so he’s here. He and Ari spend every possible moment together. They’re so cute, aren’t they?"

Clyde and Ari blushed. Nathans just grunted and leaned against one of the unoccupied control panels, scowling at the viewscreen and waiting for the ship to get under way.

A few minutes later, Arianna’s console beeped. She studied a readout on one of her monitors, then glanced over her shoulder and said, "Antarctica Traffic Control has just given us the green light. No other ships in our path. The dock crew is ready to cut us loose. We can leave on your command."

"Thanks, Ari. Tell ‘em to release the docking clamps." Demona smiled, settled back in her chair and fastened the seat restraints.

Arianna nodded…then suddenly looked worried and glanced at Jerusha. "You do know how to fly this thing, don’t you?"

Jerusha snapped her head around to give Ari a panicked look. "But…I thought you knew how!"

Trying not to laugh, Demona glanced at Senator Nathans. The sorry S.O.B. was white as Jeff’s hair, trembling and sweating, and his eyes were about to pop right out of his skull.

"Captain," he muttered, "where’s the nearest EEV?"

"Oh," Demona deadpanned, "we haven’t had time to install them yet."


"Putting in the emergency escape vehicles and testing their systems and everything would’ve taken a week, minimum—and you’re the one who wanted to do your inspection today." She shrugged. "You wanted to do it today, so that’s what we’re doing."

"But…you can’t take a ship out without lifepods!"

"Watch me. Ari, are the docking clamps released?"


"Maneuvering thrusters. Ease us away from the station."

Ari swallowed with difficulty and tapped controls with trembling hands. Demona glanced at Nathans and saw him throw himself into the nearest seat and fasten the restraints.

"Okay," Ari muttered. "Hold on to your butts." She pressed another set of controls…and Demona felt the barest sensation of motion, pressed back against her seat ever so slightly. Ari tapped another control, and the brief burn stopped. Momentum carried the Kozlowski forward. Once free from Gateway Station’s rotation, the ship was in freefall, and Demona felt her stomach lurch and for a moment she couldn’t tell which way was up.

Uggh. I’ll never get used to that.

She glanced at Jeff and saw him floating there, eyes closed, smiling as much as his beak would allow, clearly enjoying the feeling of zero-g. Demona chuckled. Always the daredevil, even now that he’s physically in his seventies.

She glanced at Nathans and almost laughed. The poor sot was turning green and moaning.

"There’s a barf bag under the control panel next to you. Open it and hold it over your mouth. Now, damn it! If you blow chunks on my ship, you get to clean it up."

Nathans grabbed the bag and held it to his mouth, then violently hurled into it. When he was done, Demona grinned.

"Now, tie it up. There’s a twisty-tie attached to the side. Yeah, there. Tie it up and…"

Nathans managed to tie the bag shut—then he released it. The bag floated across the room. Demona sighed.

"I’ll get it," Jeff said, flipping himself around and pushing off with one foot. He drifted over and caught the bag. "Where’s the nearest trash receptacle?"

"Over there." Demona pointed at a circular opening in the wall, near the door. Jeff grabbed a console and pulled himself across the room, stuck the bag into the opening and pushed a button. There was a whoosh as the bag was sucked into the ship’s garbage-disposal system.

The door opened and Jonny floated through, looking a bit pale, himself. Jeff took his arm and pulled him to a chair and strapped him in, then buckled himself into the adjacent chair. He nodded at Demona.

"Okay," she said, "Ari, are we clear of the station?"

"Yeah, just now."

"Good. Clyde, wanna activate the centrifuge?"

"Sure." He floated over to another control panel and flipped switches. "Centrifuge running. Full rotation in thirty seconds."

Those on the command deck felt nothing, because this part of the ship wasn’t in the centrifuge. All they would feel in here would be a slight force that pushed them into their chairs whenever the engines burned, and an occasional lurch or twitch as the ship changed course.

She smiled. No relief in sight for Senator Nathans. She couldn’t wait to see his reaction when he found out that Ari and Jerusha were just kidding around when they were talking about not knowing how to fly the Koz.

"Okay," she said a moment later. "Ari, bring the jump engines online." She glanced at Nathans and said, "Don’t worry, this’ll be just a quick trip around the block. We’ll be going as far as the transfer point at Sirius 6B, then we’ll test-fire the weapons and check out a few other things, and then head back to Earth."

"Jump engines ready," Ari said.

Demona nodded. "Let’s get this show on the road, then."

Ari’s talons danced over the control panel and a moment later a distortion appeared on the main viewscreen. Space rippled, swirled, and then opened. A vortex stretched toward the ship, almost like a partially visible funnel, most of it radiating in the infrared with occasional streaks and flashes of visible light. Ari manipulated more controls, and the Koz sailed into the vortex, passing through the hole that had been punched through space without so much as a bump. Ari leaned back and laced her talons together behind her head.

"Piece of cake, as usual."

Clyde gave her a round of applause, then leaned over to kiss her.

Chuckling, Demona glanced at Nathans. He had apparently realized that Ari and Jerusha had been putting him on. He was glaring at Ari with such intensity that Demona wouldn’t have been surprised if plasma jets squirted from his eyes and vaporized the poor girl.

But nothing happened, and things proceeded uneventfully…until the Kozlowski reached Sirius 6B, almost three hours later. The communications panel beeped, and Clyde drifted over and tapped buttons. He looked at his readouts for a moment, then glanced over his shoulder.

"Demona, we’re picking up a distress signal. It’s a freighter, the Mary Jane. They’re taking food and supplies to the mines in the asteroid belt, and were attacked before they even got halfway there."

"Pirates?" Demona sat up straight and took a deep breath, trying to suppress her fear. The last time she’d taken a ship into battle—the Arcadia—it had been destroyed and half a dozen crew members lost…including Boiler’s and Jerusha’s mates.

She shut off that line of thought and concentrated on the immediate situation. Clyde transferred information to her console and she studied the graphics and text on her screen. There was a single mothership in the distance, and several dozen fighters surrounding the Mary Jane, buzzing around and firing at strategic parts of the freighter. The engines had already been disabled, and the hull was breached in several spots.

"Their life support will last only ten or fifteen minutes longer," Clyde said, gripping the arms of his chair. He had just signed on after meeting Ari a few days ago, and had never been in combat before. Demona looked into his eyes and knew he was terrified, though he did a pretty good job of hiding it.

"Clyde, transfer communications over to my panel, please." She looked at him and nodded at Ari, her meaning clear. Clyde nodded, switched comm functions to Demona’s console, then went across the room to Ari’s station. He put his hands on her shoulders and she coiled her tail around his waist. Both of them relaxed a bit.

"Well," Demona sighed, "I guess it’s a good thing we’ve got some extra room, because we’ll be taking on some passengers."

"This ship isn’t ready for combat, Kozlowski," Senator Nathans snapped.

Demona swung her chair around and pinned him to his seat with her glowing red glare. "Our job is to protect civilians. That’s our entire purpose. We can’t ignore a distress signal just because you don’t want to risk your precious little butt." She turned back to Arianna before he could say anything. "Jump to normal space! We’re riding in!"

"You got it." Ari’s talon was already on the button. She pressed it and growled softly as the Kozlowski burst out of the jump point.

"Jerusha, activate the defense grid and prime the main guns."

"Already on it." She flipped switches and checked readouts. "Gunports open. Railguns online, ready to fire. Pulse cannons hot and ready to fire. Main guns standing by."

Demona pressed a switch on her panel, activating the comm system. "This is the DSC Kozlowski. Cease fire and surrender at once!"

A squadron of the fighters broke off and headed straight for the Koz. Demona shook her head.

"I guess they’ll never learn."

Jeff unfastened his restraints. "Those ships are too small and fast for us to handle. How many fighter pilots do you have on board?"

"Every crew member is trained to fly the Wraiths, but all we have aboard at the moment are technicians." Demona sighed and reached for the intercom. This had to be done. Everyone on board had known what they were signing on for. She just prayed that all of them would come back in one piece.

"Demona, let me lead the squadron," Jeff said softly.

She twisted her head around. "What? But you’re…"

"I have the experience."

"Not in a Wraith. You haven’t flown a fighter in ten years, and ours are brand new."

"I can handle it. I can keep your people alive." He lowered his voice a little more and leaned forward. "Demona, please. Let me be useful again."

She stared at him, lower lip trembling…then she sighed and nodded. "Okay. Be careful, Jeff."

He nodded, spun around and pushed off, floating through the door and down the corridor. Demona swallowed with difficulty and turned back to Ari and Jerusha.

"Distance from the enemy fighters?"

"Four thousand kilometers and closing. Three thousand…" Jerusha glanced up at the main screen, then focused on her controls. "Two thousand. Our fighters are launching. All we could spare is a dozen."

"It’ll have to do."

Jerusha shook her head. "The rest of the enemy fighters are breaking off and heading for us." She frowned. "They’re ignoring the Mary Jane."

Clyde shrugged. "Why not? The engines are down. They’re not going anywhere."

"Let the defense grid take care of them," Demona said. "Our guys can mop up what the railguns don’t hit. Just go after that mothership before it launches anything else at us."

"I’m on ‘em." Ari pushed the engines to maximum burn, closing in on the raiders’ mothership. It filled the screen in a matter of seconds.

"I recognize that configuration," Jerusha muttered. "It’s the StarJammers."

"Filthy animals," Boiler snarled.

Demona nodded. A StarJammer ship had destroyed the Arcadia and killed Boiler’s mate. And Jerusha’s.

"Let’s just blow ‘em away," Boiler growled, her eyes glowing red hot.

"I’d like to," Demona sighed. "But we have to give them a chance to surrender. If we just slaughtered them, we’d be no better than they are."

"I can live with that."

"I have lived with it. For a thousand years. Believe me, Lucy, you don’t want to go there."

"Fighters are locking on and firing," Jerusha said. "Hull’s absorbing it. No damage so far." She glanced at another readout. "Defense grid has scratched four of ‘em, and Jeff’s squadron just cooked off three more. Mothership is in firing range."

Demona hailed the other ship again. "Stand down and prepare to be boarded! I won’t ask you again."

There was a beep from Ari’s console and she gasped. "Oh, my god!"


Then she saw them on the screen—jump points opening. Four of them. Five…six…

"We’ve got more of ‘em opening all around us. We’re surrounded!" Ari stared at her instruments with bulging eyes. "More Jammer ships…launching fighters…" She began to tremble, and reached out with one hand. "Clyde…!"

He took her hand in both of his and held on tight. "I’m here, baby."

Demona gripped the arms of her chair. She had never faced this many ships before…nor had anyone in her crew. The Koz’s armor could take a lot of punishment…. But if those ships keep pounding on us long enough, we’re roadkill.

"It’s an ambush," Clyde whispered. "They were waiting for us."

"The attack on the freighter was just bait…" Ari squeezed her mate’s hand even tighter. "But how did they know…?"

Demona suddenly felt as if liquid nitrogen had just been squirted into her colon. She knew how the Jammers knew the Koz was coming. She knew. It had been under her nose all along, and she hadn’t seen it, hadn’t suspected…but now…

She began to turn slowly…toward Senator Nathans. "You…"

She found him floating before her, holding a pistol in a trembling hand.

Demona glared at him, trying not to let her nervousness show. I hope he isn’t so stupid that he’d use hard ammo in here. She hoped that gun was loaded with bullets that would shatter on impact with anything harder than flesh, to prevent the hull from being breached.

"I think you’re the one who’d better surrender," he said.

"You son of a…" Boiler unbuckled her seat restraint.

"Stay right there! Or I blow your captain’s head off!"

"Go right ahead," Demona told him. "I’m immortal. I can grow another one. I’m guessing you can’t."

Boiler cracked her knuckles and grinned. Her eyes were still glowing.

"Let me just take a wild guess," Demona said, removing her own restraints and floating free. "The Jammers financed your election, right? So they could have a government official in their pocket? And in return, they wanted this ship, because they knew it was a threat to them, and it would give them a major advantage if they possessed it. Does that pretty much sum it up?"

"More or less." Nathans shrugged. "They made me a very good offer."

Demona glared at him and spoke to Jerusha without taking her gaze off Nathans. "Status?"

"We’ve taken some good hits, but the armor is holding." Jerusha winced. "Three of our fighters have been splashed."

Demona felt the inner coldness reaching farther into her, climbing toward her heart. Three of our pilots, dead! Three of my children…!

Well, they would soon have company. She would make sure of that.

"Jerusha, lock the main guns onto the nearest Jammer ship and open fire."

Nathans swung his gun around to point at Ari. "You do that, and Beak Lady gets it!"

Ari gasped and looked over her shoulder, and Clyde spun around and braced his foot against her control panel, getting ready to launch himself at Nathans. The senator twitched, startled, and his finger squeezed the trigger. There was a muzzle flash and Ari twisted to the side, moving with shocking speed, and the bullet zipped past her and shattered against the wall.

Demona was on him before anybody else could move, swatting the gun out of his hand and locking her talons around his throat. She briefly considered squeezing until his head popped like a zit…then shook her head and tossed him to Boiler, who caught him easily and put him in a headlock. Demona turned back to Jerusha.

"I’ve had enough of this. Recall the fighters, get ‘em clear of the motherships."

Jerusha issued the recall order, then nodded.

"Fire those mothers!"

Jerusha jabbed at the controls and the lights dimmed as the power was drained by the main cannons. The guns discharged, punching through the nearest mothership’s hull and splitting it open from stem to stern, leaving nothing but glowing chunks of partially vaporized metal. The lights came back up again as the power drain ended.

"Twenty-five seconds till we can fire the mains again," Jerusha reported.

"Other ships are closing in," Ari said, her voice trembling more and more. Clyde, now a nervous wreck, himself, was holding onto her shoulders to keep his hands from shaking.

"Lock the warheads into firing position," Demona commanded.

Jerusha nodded and went to work. "Missiles ready to fire."

Demona hesitated. Then she thought of the three dead pilots, and who knew how many casualties on the Mary Jane. She sighed. I can’t let this go on. We have civilians to protect. And I won’t lose any more of my crew.

"Are our fighters clear?"

"Yes, they’re nowhere near those ships."

"Knock ‘em down," she snarled.

Jerusha pushed the button, and one missile after another streaked out and hurtled toward the Jammer ships. The nearest one became a sun, and the Koz’s radiation sensors dimmed the viewscreen to keep the crew from being blinded.

In the next few seconds, the sky lit up with more new stars that burned for a few moments, then faded.

"Main guns back online," Jerusha reported.

"Jump points forming," Ari said, almost speaking at the same moment. "They’re running!"

"No, you don’t," Demona whispered, and activated the comm again. "Stand down! Do not attempt to escape! This is your final warning!"

"They’re not listening," Ari said, shaking her head.

"Jerusha, lock on and fire." If she couldn’t arrest the pirates, Demona vowed to screw them up so severely that it would take months or even years for them to pull themselves back together.

The lights dimmed and the main guns tore another Jammer ship apart.

"The rest are jumping," Ari said. "Shall we pursue?"

Demona sighed. "No. We’ve got to take the Mary Jane’s survivors on board and treat their injuries. Are any of the Jammer fighters still around?"

"Scanners show nineteen of them. The motherships just stranded them here."

"Good. We’ve got a few prisoners, at least."

"Yeah." Ari glanced at her console. "Daddy just reported in. Our guys have disabled their ships."

"Send a shuttle to the Mary Jane, and another to pick up the Jammer pilots." Demona looked at Clyde and nodded at the communications panel. "The Arlington is the nearest of our ships. Alert them, tell ‘em what happened and ask ‘em to pick up the prisoners. They’re more equipped to handle ‘em, anyway."

Clyde nodded, kissed Arianna on the beak, then went to the comm station.

Demona glared at Nathans, who had completely gone to pieces, whimpering and sobbing like a terrified child. He knows what’s in store for him, when we take him back home. He’ll be lucky if he isn’t executed. Hell, he’ll be lucky if my crew doesn’t kill him first. She looked at Boiler and nodded at the door.

"Get that bureaucrat off my command deck!"

"With pleasure, boss." Boiler dragged the senator out the door and vanished.

Demona sighed. "As soon as the Jammer pilots are secure, reel our fighters in." She rubbed her hands over her face. "I’ll be in my office. There are…some letters I need to compose." Sighing again, she drifted off the command deck and headed for her office.

Since her office was in the centrifuge, she found herself under full gravity again. She barely noticed; her soul felt heavier than anything else. She sat at her desk and sighed…and then continued to just sit there, unable to think of anything except the children she had lost today. She didn’t know how long she remained there, but it felt like a long time. Finally, she took a deep breath and decided to get it over with.

You did good today, she reminded herself as she prepared to write the first letter to one of the dead pilots’ families. You saved many lives. You’ve washed a little of the blood from your hands.

"And I added fresh blood," she sighed. She leaned forward and tapped the record button, and started to compose the first message. "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Spencer…I regret to inform you that your daughter…Rebecca…d…died in the line of duty, today. Her actions saved dozens of lives. Her sacrifice was not an empty one…she made a difference, and you should be very…proud of her…."

She couldn’t go on. She sobbed and ran her hands through her hair. So many letters…so many like this…she’d had to tell so many husbands and wives and parents and children that their loved ones would never come home again.

I can’t do this. Not again. She wiped her tears away and stood. "I’ll tell them in person, when we’re back on Earth." The Koz would head straight back there, as soon as the Jammers were transferred to the Arlington. She would be able to visit the families tomorrow, after going to see Vince and make sure he was okay. For now, she headed for her cabin.

She was hungry, but didn’t feel like eating. It was late…where had the time gone…? She shrugged and undressed and slipped into bed. The bed seemed so empty…so huge and empty without her mate beside her, holding her. As she reached out to turn off the light, she saw the old, old photograph she kept on the table beside her bed. The picture had been taken the night her beloved Vince had asked her to marry him.

Her eyes stung and tears rolled down her cheeks. Their bond hadn’t been severed; she could feel his presence, weak and distant as it was. She was desperate to get back home, to be by his side…and yet she was afraid that she’d get there only to find that he’d…

No! Don’t even think it!

Sobbing, she turned off the light, clutched the photo to her chest, curled up and cried herself to sleep.

The End