(This story uses characters from Adventures in the Galaxy of Fantabulous Wonderment, which you should probably play to get the full backstory)

After 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 life.

Between 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 universe…


A crowbar fell from Dan Gordon’s 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 peanuts.


“Well?” came the testy voice of Bromide from the communicator on Dan’s belt. “Are we eating or what?”

Dan double-checked the invoice taped to the side of the box. He stared at the preposterous alien writing until the translator nanites in the ship’s 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!

He inspected the contents of the crate again. The invoice was about as wrong as it is possible for an invoice to be wrong.

“Don’t tell me they’ve gone off,” said Bromide.

“Uh,” repeated Dan. “I dunno.”

“It’s not hard,” interjected Hole patiently. Dan could very clearly hear the sound of cutlery being drummed impatiently against a metal conference table. “If you’re not crawling on the floor trying to vomit and hold your nose shut at the same time, bring them the hell up and let’s chow down.”

Dan took a deep breath to queue up some words in his throat. “I think you should all come and look at this.”


Within 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 closer look.

Floating in the centre of the cylinder, curled up with head resting on shoulder, was a single, pale, newborn baby of the Itegen race.

“Oh,” went Eric.

“Huh,” went Bromide.

“Well, at least it’s better quality meat,” said Hole.

“There’s three more in there,” said Dan. He pointed to several other opened crates nearby. “Another four in all of those.”

“I’m 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...”

Dan watched her go as her muttering faded into unintelligibility. He frowned in disgust. “Did you hear that? She’s talking like these kids are… are a computer malfunction or a mouldy load of baconburgers or something!”

“No, what these kids are is lunch,” said Hole, rubbing the ends of his empty sleeves together.

“Be serious,” said Eric.

“I’m totally serious. I did two terms with the Galactic Police Offworld Legion on Quorn 8. We got lost once and had to eat babies.”

“Sentient babies?”

Hole folded his arms. “Could have been.”

“Hole?” Eric did one of his disarmingly cute stares.

“Alright, so we found some eggs. Could have been sentient. They were more alive than these things were.”

“We have to get them back to their parents,” insisted Dan.

“Oh, like anyone’ll want a dead baby back.”

“They’re not dead.” He held up one of the cylinders, indicating the text at the bottom. “See? Self-powered suspended animation unit.”

Hole did that rocking-on-his-heels thing he always did when his train of thought was derailed. “Better tell Bromide.”

Dan 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 and followed.

Bromide 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.

“So what do we do with them?” said Dan.

“Is Whistler going to come and take them back?” asked Eric.

“I did suggest it,” said Bromide. “His exact words were ‘sure, I’ll get right on that.’”

“Oh, good, so problem solved.”

Bromide didn’t have pupils, but if she did, they would probably have rolled inwards. “I don’t think he…”

“Er, sorry to interrupt,” said Hole, who was back in the communication officer’s chair with one earphone on. “But I suddenly have the opportunity to make this situation about a million times worse and by God I’m going to take it.”

He flicked the visual output switch.

“-continuing to promise swift and terrible punishment for the perpetrators,” went the warble of the on-screen news reporter. “If you’re just joining us, our top story again: Galactic Police are conducting a galaxy-wide search for twenty-four newborns stolen from St. Garumba’s Neo-Natal Clinic in the Protected Zone.

Four worried glances circulated around the bridge. “Six crates. Four cylinders each. That’s twenty-four.”

“Glad to see those correspondence courses are paying off, Dan,” droned Hole.

“Shh,” shhed Eric.

The newsreader had been replaced by a worried-looking Reman female in a lab coat, standing on a shuttle platform with what was presumably St. Garumba’s 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 don’t know what will become of them, they might have eaten them already…” her voice descended into unintelligible blubbering.

“Many 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 Women’s Institute, who have promised full co-operation between the GWI and the Galactic Police in the pursuit of these desperate kidnappers…

“What did she mean, mercenaries or pirates?” said Eric suddenly, who had spent the last paragraph lost in thought. “What did she mean by eaten them already?”

“Culthorpe traffic sentient meat sometimes,” said Dan casually, who had been making a point of watching the news feeds a lot.

“But why did she say mercenaries? We wouldn’t do that. Why would she group us with Culthorpe?”

“People with permanent homes tend to have this prejudice about people who travel around,” said Dan, who had once lived near a gypsy encampment in Essex.

“But we don’t eat babies,” said Eric, emotion building wetly in his eyes.

“Ahem,” coughed Hole. “Here comes the best bit.”

A 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 Mercenary’s Guild described the incentive as ‘fricking sweet’.

“Every dipshit scavenger from here to Warhol 3 is going to be after that reward,” realised Bromide aloud.

“Would anyone know we’ve got the babies?” said Dan.

Hole 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 god.”

“But Whistler wouldn’t tell on us,” insisted Eric. “He’s a mercenary just like us! He’d never sell us out for the cash!”

This time the pause was a lot shorter. “Jettison the cargo,” said Bromide.

“No!” went Dan and Eric in unison.

“Eat the cargo?” tried Hole.

“I already told you they’re alive!”

“Yeah, but I’m only getting hungrier.”

Contrary to popular belief, the interior of a space vessel does not jostle every time the vessel’s 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 isn’t 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 Dan’s console.

“A photon missile just disabled the hydrogen ram scoop!” yelled Dan.

“Three ships out there with weapons armed,” reported Eric, as the crew slipped into the fragile professionalism that usually resulted from mutual peril.


Dan 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 course. “Er… hang on, just scanning… one Leviathan-class battleship, two Walrus-class infantry ships, all fully armed, except for the Leviathan, obviously, it shot that one missile at us. It’s got lots more, though.”

“The Leviathan wants to talk to us,” reported Hole, communications officer. “Probably want to know if we’ve thought of some clever last words.”

“Put them through,” said Bromide, amplifying the usual measure of reluctance in her tone.

A 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 Leviathan’s 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.

“Hello kidnappers,” she said, sipping once from a dainty cup on a saucer. “You are surrounded on three sides so let’s please not have any tantrums.”

“Galactic Women’s Institute,” hissed Hole, clutching the armrests of his chair.

“Just take the damn things,” said Bromide. “Come aboard and take them with our blessings.”

“Yes, we’re going to be doing that,” said the GWI woman. “We’re also going to shoot you, if that’s alright.”

“It’s kind of not alright,” said Bromide.

The woman pursed her lips and winced, as if working a difficult piece of biscuit from a tooth. “Well, I’m afraid we’re going to have to impose upon you, because we really do want someone to die for all this silliness.”

“We didn’t know what they were!” wailed Eric.

The woman’s 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 we’ll be over in two ticks, and we’ll have a nice cup of tea and a natter, and then we’ll 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. Garumba’s, you’ll be reassured to know.”

“Whoops, losing your signal,” said Hole suddenly, mashing the ‘end call’ button.

“Why do they hate us?” whimpered Eric to himself. “We’re not Culthorpe…”

“Okay,” said Bromide, with the slow deliberation that Dan now knew meant she was out of ideas. “Huddle around and let’s debate the next move.”

The Elaborate Gesture’s bridge wasn’t the most spacious in the universe, so ‘huddle around’ basically meant ‘turn your chairs to face me’.

“We’re totally outgunned, but they’re set up for strength, not speed,” said Dan. “We could definitely outrun them if we could get into warp.”

“Slight 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.”

“And if we ran, where would we go,” muttered Bromide, more to herself than anyone else.

“We could jettison the cargo, then run,” suggested Dan.

“No,” said Eric flatly.

“Why not?” asked Bromide.

“Because we’re not Culthorpe.”

All 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 didn’t speak again until he had out-stared all three of his crewmates.

“Mercenaries are ordinary decent people just trying to make a living,” he said, his high-pitched voice somehow filled with dignity. “We’re not pirates and we’re going to show everyone that.”

Hole broke the stunned silence. “And how do you propose we do this? Spontaneously develop mind control powers?”

“We’re going to return the babies to the clinic,” said Eric. “They’ll stop caring about us after they’ve got them back. And we’re going to leave them a nice letter explaining everything.”

Bromide met Eric’s eyes, then Dan’s, then the approximate position of Hole’s. Then she sighed. “You’ll take full responsibility for this if everything goes wrong, right?”


“And you’ll write the letter?”


“I’m never going to get my lunch today, am I,” muttered Hole. “I remind you we still have to shake off these Protected Zone losers.”

“Eric, 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.


Outside, a boarding shuttle from the Leviathan had hovered in close to the Elaborate Gesture’s hull. From one of its torpedo tubes the vicious claws of a docking clamp emerged.


The Gesture lurched into full acceleration, following Bromide’s preset path.

Straight down.

The docking clamp whizzed harmlessly through the space that had once been occupied by the Gesture’s 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.

While 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 cosmic brilliance.


“Bullshit,” said Hole matter-of-factly.

“Bit far-fetched, I admit,” replied Dan, talking to him over the crate they were carrying together. “But it’s like Bromide said, planet-based people tend to have trouble thinking in three dimensions…”

“No, I meant this whole plan, it’s bullshit.”

Luckily, the hole in the back of St. Garumba’s storage facility hadn’t 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.

“Is this about your lunch again?”

“I’m over the lunch. This is bullshit, firstly because after this we’re going to have to lie low in the other Zones for months like a couple of prawns under a rock, and secondly because we’re 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 frigging lives…”

“If you could think of a better idea you were welcome to tell us,” said Eric, emerging from the umbilical and hopping onto Hole’s shoulder.

“I -”

“An idea that didn’t involve eating them.”

Dan 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, twilit warehouse.

“Here’s the letter,” said Eric, laying down a couple of sheets covered in brightly-coloured crayon scrawl.

“Great,” went Hole, heading for the entrance to the umbilical. “Let’s get out of here and into our new lives as laughing stocks.”

Dan drummed his fingers on the top of the last crate. “D’you think we should unpack them?”

Hole slammed his palm against the wall and sighed. “You know what? I knew you’d say that. Just when I think it’s safe to turn my back on and forget about something, fate conspires to waste my time for as long as it possibly can.”

“I’m just thinking it might leave a better impression,” said Dan. “More so than just dumping them and running, I guess.”

“That’s a good idea. Hole, you’ve got the…”

“…I’ve 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. “Thank you.”

Dan and Eric exchanged a look. “We didn’t do anything.”

Very 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.

Standing silhouetted against the watery electric light of the corridor was a figure the Gesture’s 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 recently woken.

A very, very long pause followed with everyone frozen in place, Mesura’s eyes flicking between the three mercenaries.

Eventually she broke the silence at full volume. “You’ve got to take them away again!”

The terrified silence became a confused one.

“You’re mercenaries, aren’t you? That figures.” Mesura marched closer and planted her hands on her hips. “You have to take these children away, you idiots! It hasn’t been long enough!”

The mercenaries’ mutual silence continued for a few baffled moments until Hole spoke up. “How would you feel about us eating them?”

“What’s all this about?” asked Dan, ever the everyman.

Mesura 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 it’s 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!”

The mercenaries could only glance at each other and shuffle their feet, like schoolchildren fielding a telling-off from the headmistress.

“I 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 female’s life. These days? ‘Oh, I’m too young, I’ve got my career to think of, I’ll just put them in stasis for a few years until I know I’m 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 thought… I just thought I could make those mothers remember how important their children should be to them… and now you’ve ruined it…” she knelt down, weeping, trying to hug the nearest crate.

“So this was all just about… a message?” said Eric.

“Suppose you’re going to sell me out for the bounty, now,” went Mesura between sobs. “That’s what you mercenaries are like, isn’t it!”

Eric wisely spoke up before Hole could. “Not necessarily.”

“Well I won’t pay you off…”

“You don’t have to pay us off. We’re going to let you go.”

Mesura sniffed thickly. “Why would you do that? I thought you were mercenaries!”

“We are mercenaries,” said Eric. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not people.”

Mesura stared at him open-mouthed. Behind her back, Hole made a curious gesture that Dan assumed had something to do with mock vomiting.

“But you can’t leave the children here,” insisted Mesura, getting to her feet. “The parents are never going to claim them, they’re going to rot here forever!”

“Why don’t you just leave?” said Eric.


“If 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.”

“Er, you do know we’re sort of condoning kidnapping here?” said Dan, before noticing that Mesura was paying rapt attention to Eric alone. “Okay, I’ll fade back into the background, then.”

“But… 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’. “They’re full of…”

“…mercenaries?” finished Eric.


The 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 centres.

During 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 hadn’t been scratched off.

“Itegen 5 is good,” said Eric from the Elaborate Gesture’s pilot seat. “Most of the planet’s abandoned but it’s peaceful and close to the major spaceports in this zone. Or the Necronox Asteroid Belt has some interesting ruins if that’s your thing, just try to stay on the outskirts.”

“I’ve never even been outside the Protected Zone before,” said Mesura from the cockpit of the medical transport, gazing at the stars in wonder. “I’m not as frightened as I thought I would be.”

“Or you could continue onto the Free Zone,” added Eric eagerly. “Stick to commercial worlds like Bergman Prime and the Culthorpe probably won’t hassle you too much.”

“I don’t think we’re ready for that. I’ll look into that asteroid belt.”

“Better hurry,” said Bromide, propping her head up disinterestedly. “Wouldn’t want anyone to see you associating with people like us, would you.”

“Don’t be like that. Before today I thought mercenaries were untrustworthy savages, like the Police always told us. I’d never have gone outside the Protected Zone in a million years.” An uncharacteristic smile flickered across her businesslike lips. “The galaxy seems so much… bigger, now.”

The crew of the Elaborate Gesture watched as Mesura’s 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 money? Good?”

“I think you know damn well we’d never admit to that,” said Hole.

“Yeah, well, we should probably eat,” said Dan, getting up. “Eric? Help me pick out something for dinner?”

Eric made a cheerful noise and hopped onto Dan’s shoulder, in doing so, failing to notice the conspiratorial nod he exchanged with Hole.

When the footsteps had faded away down the corridor, Hole flicked a single switch on his console and donned his headset.

“Hello, Galactic Police?” he said brightly. “I’d like to report the location of the missing babies, they’re being held by their kidnapper in the Necronox Asteroid Belt. Oh, there’s a reward? Goodness me what a pleasant surprise here’s our account number.”

Bromide leaned back and steepled her fingers. “Karma’s alright, but it doesn’t pay for dinner.”

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