(This story uses
characters from Adventures in the
Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment, which you
should probably play to get the full backstory)
the disappearance of the Defender of the
Universe, the galactic authority collapsed. The
known universe was divided into three Zones
the Protected Zone, where the Galactic
Police law enforcement agency keep things rigidly
ordered, the Free Zone, an anarchic collective of
planets and pirate families, and dividing them,
the Lifeless Zone, largely abandoned by sentient
stifling order and perilous chaos, many choose to
make a living as privateers, travelling between
the Zones performing any odd jobs if the price is
right. The good ship Elaborate Gesture is crewed
by four such mercenaries; Bromide, the cheerless
and workshy captain; Eric, pilot and sentient
hairpiece; Hole, a (mostly) invisible cynic; and
Daniel Gordon, a refugee from Earth, gradually
finding his place in a big and scary
crowbar fell from Dan Gordons hands and
clattered noisily to the floor. He took two
dreamy steps back and allowed the side of the
crate to fall open, vomiting a wave of packing
came the testy voice of Bromide from the
communicator on Dans belt. Are we
eating or what?
double-checked the invoice taped to the side of
the box. He stared at the preposterous alien
writing until the translator nanites in the
ships internal atmosphere realised what he
was trying to do and overlaid it with plain,
understandable English. Instant Baconbeast
Crackers x 500 serves. Hearty dining for hungry
mercenaries on a budget!
inspected the contents of the crate again. The
invoice was about as wrong as it is possible for
an invoice to be wrong.
tell me theyve gone off, said
repeated Dan. I dunno.
not hard, interjected Hole patiently. Dan
could very clearly hear the sound of cutlery
being drummed impatiently against a metal
conference table. If youre not
crawling on the floor trying to vomit and hold
your nose shut at the same time, bring them the
hell up and lets chow down.
took a deep breath to queue up some words in his
throat. I think you should all come and
look at this.
five minutes of undernourished grumbling, Dan was
joined in the cargo bay by the three other
crewmembers of the Elaborate Gesture. Bromide and
Hole watched with arms folded as he carefully
removed a foot-wide glass cylinder from the
packaging. He felt a ticklish weight on his
shoulder as Eric, the pilot, hopped up for a
in the centre of the cylinder, curled up with
head resting on shoulder, was a single, pale,
newborn baby of the Itegen race.
at least its better quality meat,
three more in there, said Dan. He pointed
to several other opened crates nearby.
Another four in all of those.
calling Whistler, said Bromide, turning on
her heel and grumbling her way back to the
bridge. Should have known to stop trading
supplies with him after the verminoths...
watched her go as her muttering faded into
unintelligibility. He frowned in disgust.
Did you hear that? Shes talking like
these kids are
are a computer malfunction
or a mouldy load of baconburgers or
what these kids are is lunch, said Hole,
rubbing the ends of his empty sleeves together.
serious, said Eric.
totally serious. I did two terms with the
Galactic Police Offworld Legion on Quorn 8. We
got lost once and had to eat babies.
folded his arms. Could have been.
Eric did one of his disarmingly cute stares.
so we found some eggs. Could have been sentient.
They were more alive than these things
have to get them back to their parents,
like anyonell want a dead baby back.
not dead. He held up one of the cylinders,
indicating the text at the bottom. See?
Self-powered suspended animation unit.
did that rocking-on-his-heels thing he always did
when his train of thought was derailed.
Better tell Bromide.
scowled, then made his way back to the bridge,
Eric still perched on his shoulder. Hole glanced
between the boxes, wagging his head back and
forth and patting his empty stomach, then sighed
was just switching off the communication screen
when her crewmates came in. Whistler says
he got them off a trader out in the Free Zone a
few days back, she said. That trader
said he got them off some other trader and you
know the drill. Virtually all the
mercenaries and pirates that made a living flying
from spaceport to spaceport traded supplies with
each other, raising and lowering the price where
appropriate; no-one kept records and a crate
could pass through twenty or thirty pairs of
hands before it was finally opened.
what do we do with them? said Dan.
Whistler going to come and take them back?
did suggest it, said Bromide. His
exact words were sure, Ill get right
good, so problem solved.
didnt have pupils, but if she did, they
would probably have rolled inwards. I
dont think he
sorry to interrupt, said Hole, who was back
in the communication officers chair with
one earphone on. But I suddenly have the
opportunity to make this situation about a
million times worse and by God Im going to
flicked the visual output switch.
to promise swift and terrible punishment for the
perpetrators, went the warble of the
on-screen news reporter. If youre
just joining us, our top story again: Galactic
Police are conducting a galaxy-wide search for
twenty-four newborns stolen from St.
Garumbas Neo-Natal Clinic in the Protected
worried glances circulated around the bridge.
Six crates. Four cylinders each.
to see those correspondence courses are paying
off, Dan, droned Hole.
newsreader had been replaced by a worried-looking
Reman female in a lab coat, standing on a shuttle
platform with what was presumably St.
Garumbas in the background. A caption
beneath her identified her as Caia Mesura, the
head doctor. Someone made a hole in the
back of long-term storage and took them out that
way, she said, her voice warbling with
emotion. If it was mercenaries or
pirates I dont know what will become of
them, they might have eaten them already
her voice descended into unintelligible
of the babies were the children of wealthy or
well-known parents, and consequently a ransom
demand is anticipated, said the
newsreader, returning tactfully to the screen.
One of the mothers was Bexgrgg Dahnnrrn,
president of the Galactic Womens Institute,
who have promised full co-operation between the
GWI and the Galactic Police in the pursuit of
these desperate kidnappers
did she mean, mercenaries or pirates? said
Eric suddenly, who had spent the last paragraph
lost in thought. What did she mean by eaten
traffic sentient meat sometimes, said Dan
casually, who had been making a point of watching
the news feeds a lot.
why did she say mercenaries? We wouldnt do
that. Why would she group us with
with permanent homes tend to have this prejudice
about people who travel around, said Dan,
who had once lived near a gypsy encampment in
we dont eat babies, said Eric,
emotion building wetly in his eyes.
coughed Hole. Here comes the best
coalition of the victimised parents has raised a
reward of 100,000 credits for anyone who can
provide intelligence on the current location of
the children, went the newsreader.
A spokesperson for the Protected Zone
Mercenarys Guild described the incentive as
dipshit scavenger from here to Warhol 3 is going
to be after that reward, realised Bromide
anyone know weve got the babies? said
drummed his invisible fingers on his knees, which
was his sitting-down equivalent of rocking his
heels. Bromide, when you called Whistler
just now, did you tell him exactly what we found
in the crates? A long pause. Oh
Whistler wouldnt tell on us, insisted
Eric. Hes a mercenary just like us!
Hed never sell us out for the cash!
time the pause was a lot shorter. Jettison
the cargo, said Bromide.
went Dan and Eric in unison.
the cargo? tried Hole.
already told you theyre alive!
but Im only getting hungrier.
to popular belief, the interior of a space vessel
does not jostle every time the vessels
exterior is fired upon (unless the artificial
gravity is damaged but that takes a pretty
accurate shot on most ships), nor do showers of
sparks explode from random consoles. There
isnt even a distant rumbling sound. The
only way the crew would know that, say, a photon
missile had disabled the hydrogen ram scoop, was
by reading some flashing words on Dans
photon missile just disabled the hydrogen ram
scoop! yelled Dan.
ships out there with weapons armed,
reported Eric, as the crew slipped into the
fragile professionalism that usually resulted
from mutual peril.
scooted his chair forward. Oh yes.
Right. He uncertainly fingered the touch
pads, trying to recall under pressure the fine
details of his science operations correspondence
hang on, just
one Leviathan-class battleship,
two Walrus-class infantry ships, all fully armed,
except for the Leviathan, obviously, it shot that
one missile at us. Its got lots more,
Leviathan wants to talk to us, reported
Hole, communications officer. Probably want
to know if weve thought of some clever last
them through, said Bromide, amplifying the
usual measure of reluctance in her tone.
moment later, the viewscreen burst into life
again, first with static as Hole twiddled knobs
on his console, then clearing into an image of
the Leviathans bridge, decorated tastefully
with chintzy flower-pattern wallpaper and
matching curtains. The captain was a female
Itegen of middle age, who blinked amiably at the
camera through large circular glasses.
kidnappers, she said, sipping once from a
dainty cup on a saucer. You are surrounded
on three sides so lets please not have any
Womens Institute, hissed Hole,
clutching the armrests of his chair.
take the damn things, said Bromide.
Come aboard and take them with our
were going to be doing that, said the
GWI woman. Were also going to shoot
you, if thats alright.
kind of not alright, said Bromide.
woman pursed her lips and winced, as if working a
difficult piece of biscuit from a tooth.
Well, Im afraid were going to
have to impose upon you, because we really do
want someone to die for all this silliness.
didnt know what they were! wailed
womans voice never became any less cordial
or apologetic. Well, frankly, dear, even
the thought that those precious loves have spent
one second in a filthy mercenary hold makes me
want to puke blood. So well be over in two
ticks, and well have a nice cup of tea and
a natter, and then well put a nice quick
photon round in the backs of your heads. Whatever
we can get for your ship will go towards the
upkeep of St. Garumbas, youll be
reassured to know.
losing your signal, said Hole suddenly,
mashing the end call button.
do they hate us? whimpered Eric to himself.
Were not Culthorpe
said Bromide, with the slow deliberation that Dan
now knew meant she was out of ideas. Huddle
around and lets debate the next move.
Elaborate Gestures bridge wasnt the
most spacious in the universe, so huddle
around basically meant turn your
chairs to face me.
totally outgunned, but theyre set up for
strength, not speed, said Dan. We
could definitely outrun them if we could get into
issue there with being surrounded on three
sides, added Hole. We could try to
break through. We could also theoretically live
with all our bones removed.
if we ran, where would we go, muttered
Bromide, more to herself than anyone else.
could jettison the cargo, then run,
said Eric flatly.
not? asked Bromide.
were not Culthorpe.
attention was on Eric, then. There was something
blazing in his eyes that the others had never
seen before. He puffed himself up into a sort of
upside-down pear shape and didnt speak
again until he had out-stared all three of his
are ordinary decent people just trying to make a
living, he said, his high-pitched voice
somehow filled with dignity. Were not
pirates and were going to show everyone
broke the stunned silence. And how do you
propose we do this? Spontaneously develop mind
going to return the babies to the clinic,
said Eric. Theyll stop caring about
us after theyve got them back. And
were going to leave them a nice letter
met Erics eyes, then Dans, then the
approximate position of Holes. Then she
sighed. Youll take full
responsibility for this if everything goes wrong,
youll write the letter?
never going to get my lunch today, am I,
muttered Hole. I remind you we still have
to shake off these Protected Zone losers.
plot these co-ordinates, and when I say go, head
for them at maximum impulse speed, said
Bromide, before reading off a list of numbers
which meant precisely nothing to Dan.
a boarding shuttle from the Leviathan had hovered
in close to the Elaborate Gestures hull.
From one of its torpedo tubes the vicious claws
of a docking clamp emerged.
Gesture lurched into full acceleration, following
Bromides preset path.
docking clamp whizzed harmlessly through the
space that had once been occupied by the
Gestures starboard nacelle. Startled by the
sudden motion, one of the gunners on the
Leviathan fired a single blast, which then
provoked a volley of laser fire that totally
disabled the boarding shuttle and seriously put
the wind up one of the Walruses.
the GWI were trying to sort themselves out and
think of ways to assign the blame for all this,
the Gesture had already built up the acceleration
needed to enter warp space, and folded itself
into the blackness with a triumphant flash of
said Hole matter-of-factly.
far-fetched, I admit, replied Dan, talking
to him over the crate they were carrying
together. But its like Bromide said,
planet-based people tend to have trouble thinking
in three dimensions
I meant this whole plan, its
the hole in the back of St. Garumbas
storage facility hadnt yet been filled in,
and the Galactic Police task force had abandoned
the crime scene while the kidnappers were
pursued. Bromide had estimated that they had a
few Galactic Standard hours to return the crates
of babies before the thought of getting back to
work would cross the minds of any GP hunters.
this about your lunch again?
over the lunch. This is bullshit, firstly because
after this were going to have to lie low in
the other Zones for months like a couple of
prawns under a rock, and secondly because
were basically admitting guilt and the boys
at the Bloody Towel are going to be waving baby
rattles under our noses for the rest of our
you could think of a better idea you were welcome
to tell us, said Eric, emerging from the
umbilical and hopping onto Holes shoulder.
idea that didnt involve eating them.
and Hole gently put the crate down where they had
put the others, beside the rather glaringly empty
and recently-disturbed shelves in the dusty,
the letter, said Eric, laying down a couple
of sheets covered in brightly-coloured crayon
went Hole, heading for the entrance to the
umbilical. Lets get out of here and
into our new lives as laughing stocks.
drummed his fingers on the top of the last crate.
Dyou think we should unpack
slammed his palm against the wall and sighed.
You know what? I knew youd say that.
Just when I think its safe to turn my back
on and forget about something, fate conspires to
waste my time for as long as it possibly
just thinking it might leave a better
impression, said Dan. More so than
just dumping them and running, I guess.
a good idea. Hole, youve got
got the prybar, yes, said Hole resignedly,
producing one from his dimensional toolbelt and
dragging himself back. Someone want to find
a torch? Light spilled onto the crates.
and Eric exchanged a look. We didnt
slowly, with the first, cold, tingling dread that
marks the mutual realisation that something has
gone horribly wrong, Eric, Hole and Dan turned to
look at the main entrance door.
silhouetted against the watery electric light of
the corridor was a figure the Gestures crew
recognised. They had last seen it on the news
feed, standing in tears before this very
neo-natal facility. It was Caia Mesura, the head
doctor, wearing a dressing gown and obviously
very, very long pause followed with everyone
frozen in place, Mesuras eyes flicking
between the three mercenaries.
she broke the silence at full volume.
Youve got to take them away
terrified silence became a confused one.
mercenaries, arent you? That figures.
Mesura marched closer and planted her hands on
her hips. You have to take these children
away, you idiots! It hasnt been long
mercenaries mutual silence continued for a
few baffled moments until Hole spoke up.
How would you feel about us eating
all this about? asked Dan, ever the
made an infuriated noise. Okay, you want me
to put it in words you can understand? Fine. You
see this place? She indicated the rows of
occupied shelves around them. Do you know
what its like to work in a place like this?
A suspended animation baby storage facility! I
voted against building this damn place every step
of the way!
mercenaries could only glance at each other and
shuffle their feet, like schoolchildren fielding
a telling-off from the headmistress.
remember a time, she continued quietly,
adopting the quavering tone of the still angry
but less shouty, when having a child was
the joy of a females life. These days?
Oh, Im too young, Ive got my
career to think of, Ill just put them in
stasis for a few years until I know Im
ready. And they never are!" She waved
a hand at the crates and her anger suddenly left
her in a rush. Tears began to form. "These
kids had all been here for decades! I just
I just thought I could make those
mothers remember how important their children
should be to them
and now youve
she knelt down, weeping,
trying to hug the nearest crate.
this was all just about
youre going to sell me out for the bounty,
now, went Mesura between sobs.
Thats what you mercenaries are like,
wisely spoke up before Hole could. Not
I wont pay you off
dont have to pay us off. Were going
to let you go.
sniffed thickly. Why would you do that? I
thought you were mercenaries!
are mercenaries, said Eric. But that
doesnt mean were not people.
stared at him open-mouthed. Behind her back, Hole
made a curious gesture that Dan assumed had
something to do with mock vomiting.
you cant leave the children here,
insisted Mesura, getting to her feet. The
parents are never going to claim them,
theyre going to rot here forever!
dont you just leave? said Eric.
you hate it here so much, leave. Take them with
you. Raise them the way you think they should be
raised. Lose yourselves in some other zone, where
no-one will ever find you.
you do know were sort of condoning
kidnapping here? said Dan, before noticing
that Mesura was paying rapt attention to Eric
alone. Okay, Ill fade back into the
the Lifeless Zone? said Mesura. The
Free Zone? She spoke the words the
free zone the same way most people would
say the interior of a septic tank.
Theyre full of
wormhole that bridged the Protected and Lifeless
Zones, nicknamed ProtLife, didn't see much
traffic. FreeLife was the one that usually saw
the most action as pirates and mercenaries went
back and forth between Sparkle Crab poaching and
selling off the meat at Free Zone trading
a particularly slow period of the Galactic
Standard day, two ships crossed ProtLife and were
spat out into the silent wastes of the Lifeless
Zone. One was a battered all-purpose mercenary
vessel. The other would probably have been
identified as an emergency St. Garumba medical
transport if all the serial numbers hadnt
been scratched off.
5 is good, said Eric from the Elaborate
Gestures pilot seat. Most of the
planets abandoned but its peaceful
and close to the major spaceports in this zone.
Or the Necronox Asteroid Belt has some
interesting ruins if thats your thing, just
try to stay on the outskirts.
never even been outside the Protected Zone
before, said Mesura from the cockpit of the
medical transport, gazing at the stars in wonder.
Im not as frightened as I thought I
you could continue onto the Free Zone,
added Eric eagerly. Stick to commercial
worlds like Bergman Prime and the Culthorpe
probably wont hassle you too much.
dont think were ready for that.
Ill look into that asteroid belt.
hurry, said Bromide, propping her head up
disinterestedly. Wouldnt want anyone
to see you associating with people like us, would
be like that. Before today I thought mercenaries
were untrustworthy savages, like the Police
always told us. Id never have gone outside
the Protected Zone in a million years. An
uncharacteristic smile flickered across her
businesslike lips. The galaxy seems so
crew of the Elaborate Gesture watched as
Mesuras ship warped into nothingness, and
none of them moved an inch until the last few
sparkling vapour trails had shimmered away. When
they did, Eric released an audible sigh, and
turned in his seat to reveal that his furry
cheeks were puffed up with satisfaction.
So, he said. How does it feel
to do something for the karma, not just for
think you know damn well wed never admit to
that, said Hole.
well, we should probably eat, said Dan,
getting up. Eric? Help me pick out
something for dinner?
made a cheerful noise and hopped onto Dans
shoulder, in doing so, failing to notice the
conspiratorial nod he exchanged with Hole.
the footsteps had faded away down the corridor,
Hole flicked a single switch on his console and
donned his headset.
Galactic Police? he said brightly.
Id like to report the location of the
missing babies, theyre being held by their
kidnapper in the Necronox Asteroid Belt. Oh,
theres a reward? Goodness me what a
pleasant surprise heres our account
leaned back and steepled her fingers.
Karmas alright, but it doesnt
pay for dinner.
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