Deep space was cold and unfeeling. It had neither heat, nor light, nor love. It was a place where you wouldn’t wish anyone to be. Yet, Andrea Firestone found herself mired in the thick of it.
After graduating from the Academy, Andrea had enlisted into the naval fleet of the Hyrax Consortium. Her hope and dreams were to be part of something bigger than herself, full of excitement and adventure. However, the Consortium had other plans. Right after boot camp, they handed her a single-occupancy scout fighter and shipped her off to the deepest, darkest depths of the Outer Reaches “for reconnaissance” (which she thought was ridiculous, as there were plenty of other lesser-qualified persons that could be out gathering space dust in her stead.)
Every day, she would go out, check readings, inspect the local satellites for damage, and then literally stare blankly into space until making the warp-jump back home. Perhaps, if predictable life had had its way, she would have continued that pattern of futile living until she was sick of it, died of boredom, or simply retired. But Captain Nymph had other plans.
The day of their meeting began like any other. She woke up, made the warp-jump over to her inspection quadrant, and started her usual rounds. Then, from ‘round the dark side of an adjacent moon, Nymph’s ship, Lavender Rose, appeared. At first, she thought it a trick of the senses, or sensors, but soon it became that the image was not only not going away, by getting closer. Before she could raise shields or run away, the Rose had her ship locked in a tractor beam.
The enemy craft drug her little ship into itself. There was no escape. It seemed to take forever for the ship to draw her in, yet eventually she was swallowed up in full and hit the floor of the Rose’s docking bay with a sonorous thud.
That was when Nymph appeared, along with his boarding crew.
The man was a head taller than the others, with a full, ruddy beard and a chiseled physique. His clothing was eccentric to say the least: strips of frayed, neon fabric layered on top of one another to form an uncanny visage. Everything fit snugly, almost too snugly for modesty’s sake, but he seemed quite comfortable with it all.
Nymph waited a moment, cupped his hands over his mouth, and shouted.
“You can come out now,” he said, “or we can blast you out. It’s all the same for salvage.”
He waited, then waved to an unseen crew member.
“Suit yourself,” he added.
The whirring of gears and the screeching of sirens echoed through the grav-locked docking bay. Andrea held out until she could see straight down the barrel of the ion blasters, then impetuously hit the manual release on the cockpit door. With a hiss, it popped open.
“There we go,” he said. “Now be a dear and step out so we can all see you. We do hate surprises.”
She hesitated, then complied. Soon, she stood erect with all due military pride before them.
“What’s your name, soldier?” he said.
“Lieutenant Andrea Firestone,” she said.
He clapped his hands together and looked to his crew.
“Welcome aboard, Ms. Firestone,” he said, gesturing towards the floor, “why don’t you come down and join us?”
“If it’s all the same to you, Captain, I’d prefer to stay here.”
“That wasn’t a request, Lieutenant,” he said.
Red-faced, she stepped out of the ship and deftly marched towards him.”
“Welcome to the Lavender Rose, Ms. Firestone,” he said. “My name is Captain Nymph Lander. Feel free to consider yourself our honored guest while you’re in our esteemed company.”
“And will that be a guest taken hostage or prisoner?” she spat.
His brow furrowed and then began to laugh, deeply and heartily. He shoot his head.
“Neither, my dear. After all, we are not barbarians, just bandits,” he said, “once we’ve found a safe port to drop you off on, we’ll send you on your way.”
“And my ship?” she spat back.
“Surely, a pirate must make money somehow!”
Andrea was livid. Sure, she hated her job, but she’d be damned to ever have failed at it.
“What do you suppose I should do until then? Sit around and entertain your every whim?” she said.
Nymph glared at her, stonily, unamused.
“Well, dinner will be served at eight. Perhaps consider joining us then,” he said, “until then, my first mat will show you to your quarters.”
Andrea shot a roundhouse kick towards Nymph’s face. He caught her ankle and batted it aside. She fell to the floor.
“There’s a change of clothes in the closet of your room,” he said, “but it’s up to you to find a change in attitude.”
He stormed off, leaving her alone with the first mate. Andrea wanted to cry, but she dared not. She learned long ago not to show weakness before men.
“C’mon dearie. Let’s get you cleaned up,” said the first mate.
A hand reached out to her. A nimble hand. A callused hand. A woman’s hand. Surprised, Andrea lifted her gaze. The kindest, golden eyes she had ever seen looked right back at her. Andrea brushed back her raven hair and seized the woman’s hand. The mate, still strong in her matured age, lifted her up with ease, then patted her off and led her on.
“Name’s Lydia,” she said, as they went.
“Andrea,” said Andrea.
“Very nice to meet you.”
Andrea did not respond.
The “guest quarters” was a small, window-less room with a cot, a bedside table, a lamp, and a closet. Still, it was warm and it was hers. No sign of hidden camera or trap doors. That would be enough for now.
Lydia gestured her forward. Andrea entered.
“It’s not much, I know, but we don’t know you yet,” said Lydia. “Precautions must be taken.”
“You say it as if I’m the danger,” Andrea said while looking around.
“It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had trouble from the Consortium, miss,” she said. “Betrayed, in spite of our best hospitality.”
Lydia stopped to look at her.
“But you,” Lydia continued, “you have kind eyes. I believe you will fit in well here, if you are strong enough that is.”
Strong?! I am plenty strong, thought Andrea. If you only knew.
“Captain Nymph is a good man,” Lydia finished.
“For a scoundrel?” Andrea said.
Lydia shook her head, her eyes burning with heated tears.
“For a liberator, rather,” she said.
The old woman rolled up the sleeves of her robes: a barcode marked the inside of her wrist.
Andrea had no response, so Lydia stepped aside to allow her to ponder.
The dining hall of the Lavender Rose was full of a raucous chaos. Men and women alike fought over the food, which was canned, bottled, dried, salted, de-hydrated, or any other option that lasted the length of a length space voyage.
Andrea entered wearing a simple, burlap dress. It hung a little loose on her, but that only meant that she fit right in: everyone in the mess hall seemed a little on the thinner side, and not by choice either. Andrea hugged her frigid form as she cautiously surveyed the tumult.
Thought she tried to blend in, Nymph spotted her outright.
“Lieutenant, so nice of you to drop in,” he said. “Please, feel free to pull up a.…er, whatever.”
Indeed, “chair” was a very loosely defined term in the mess hall. Some sat on benches or stools, some on carts and tool boxes. Some didn’t sit at all, but rather loomed over the dinner table and scooped up their rations like pelicans snatching at fish.
As if on cue, Lydia stood up and handed Andrea her stool.
“Here, have mine,” she said.
“O no, I-” Andrea replied, but Lydia had already begun making her way out.
So, Andrea sat, simply watching at first.
“You were a single child, weren’t you?” interjected Nymph.
She parted her raven hair.
“Why do you say that?” she said, denying nothing.
Nymph picked up his stool and brought it over to hers, plopping it down with lackadaisical ease.
“I grew up on a small farm with six brothers. If we didn’t fight for our share at the table, we never got fed at all,” he said and impulsively beat his chest.“And even then mum had to slip me a few crumbs…”
She tilted her head towards the leaving Lydia.
“And she… Lydia… is that your mom?” Andrea said.
He turned his head in the same direction.
“Lydia? No. Just a friend. We’re all friends here. Brethren in arms. Can’t afford to be anything but,” he said. “She is a sweetheart, though. Couldn’t tie my shoes without her.”
He showed her his boots. They were a tangle of dirt and strings.
“But enough chatter,” he added, “Please. Eat.”
She scooped up some unidentifiable gruel and started to eat. The food was bland, but she’d had worse, especially in the Consortium’s rationing seasons.
“Lydia… She said… she called you a liberator,” Andrea said. “Apparently she thinks very highly of you.”
Nymph’s gaze turned distant for an instance, his eyes turned soft and kind.
“I offered her only what she wanted and could not take for herself.”
“And what was that” she asked.
A wild fire blazed in his eyes.
She felt her toes curl at the mention of it.
“Allow me to explain to you later, if you’ll let me.”
She leaned forward, never one to back away from a challenge.
“Bring it on.”
An hour later, the rest of the crew had vacated the mess hall, leaving Andrea and Nymph alone.
“There are three different kinds of slavery,” said Nymph, “that of the mind, body, and spirit. I make it a point to liberate whatever part needs service.”
She leaned forward.
“I’m sure the body would be of special interest, eh?” she said.
He took a hearty swallow of his grog and matched her pose.
“Naturally,” he said.
Just then, Lavender Rose’s emergency sirens roared.
Nymph bolted up. She raised her head.
“What is it?” she said.
“We’ve got visitors.”
On the bridge of the Rose, they- Andrea, Nymph, and his crew- looked out upon the starry expanse, at their uninvited guest. It was a Consortium Warbird. Never before had such bittersweet emotions surged up within her. It was her rescue, but did she truly want that? She didn’t know.
“I take it you activated your distress beacon before coming aboard?” said Nymph.
“Yes,” she muttered.
“It worked,” said Nymph, wryly.
“They’re hailing us,” said a crew-mate.
“Patch it through,” said Nymph.
Soon, the image of a cocky, clean-shaven commander appeared on the ship’s viewscreen.
“Captain, we know you have our property. Surrender it now and we just may spare your lives,” said the young commander.
Property? Me?! thought Andrea. Typical. Just like the Consortium.
Nymph leaned in and whispered to her.
“What do you say, shall we give ‘em a run or bend over and take it?” he said, with a wink. “Commander, my crew and I thoroughly appreciate your offer. Allow me the first to roll out the red carpet.”
He nodded to his gunner, who, with a quick press of the button, engaged the ion blasters.
Two beads of light shot through the sky. The enemy vessel engaged their shields just in time. The ion pulsars splashed harmlessly against the shields, emitting rainbow energy upon impact.
“You’ll regret that,” said the young commander. “Consider your actions an act of war.”
The commander switched off his end of the communication.
“Game on,” said Nymph, under his breath. “Everyone, you heard the man: battle stations!”
The Lavender Rose burst into action as the enemy Warbird launched volley after volley at them. The Rose was fast as it was strong, but Andrea was right: the Warbird was stronger. After a lengthy volley, a clash of bulls, the Warbird managed to strike the Rose’s main battery, disengaging the thrusters.
“Oh well. It was fun while it lasted,” he said, mysterious yet unrepentantly nonchalant in the face of certain doom.
The young commander appeared again.
“All hope is lost,” said the commander, “Prepare to be boarded.”
Nymph turned to Andrea.
“Now’s your chance if you want to skip town if you want, dear,” he said. “I certainly won’t hold it against you.”
She didn’t respond. She didn’t know how. She just watched the Consortium ship close in.
In short order, the Rose was inside the Warbird, creating a Russian doll effect between the Warbird, the Rose, and Andrea’s scout ship. The Consortium locked the Rose down inside their bay, boarded the vessel, forced all of Nymph’s crew into the docking bay. Everyone except Nymph. He had gone missing in the mix of things. Rumor has it that he had disappeared into the ventilation ducts with a pair of infrared glasses.
Soon she stood side by side with Nymph’s men before the armed Consortium armada. The commander paced arrogantly before them.
“Where is he? Where is your captain?” he said. No one said a work. “I can make you talk, you know? I can kill you one by one.” He walked up Andrea. “How about you, Lieutenant? Surely you can tell me the location of that slime.”
“I-“ she said.
“Well, spit it out,” he said.
“I don’t know,” she said.
He turned his nose up at her.
“Sad,” he said, “I would have expected more from a member of the Consortium. Very well then, you’ll die a traitor’s death, along with the rest of the rabble.”
How betrayed she felt. She wanted to scream, “I’m not one of them! I’m one of you.” But a little voice inside her stopped her mouth, prohibiting from speaking, even as the Consortium troops raised their guns.
“You may fire when ready,” the commander said to his men.
Nymph’s men stood their ground.
Andrea could see the ion charges begin surging within the guns when- BAM!- a wave of blue lightning surged out from Lavender Rose. The force of the wave knocked everyone back, and as they all struggled to regain their wits, as the florescent lights overhead flickered in and out, then went entirely.
“An EMP,” the commander spat, in the darkness.
Then the game was truly on. One by one, Andrea began hearing the crack of bones as Nymph went to town on his enemies. By the time the backup generators surged back on, Nymph stood beside a pile of stunned forms with the commander’s face set firmly underfoot.
He turned to Andrea.
“Sorry to be late, had to take care of a couple things,” he said. “Do you like what I did with the place.”
“Very classy,” she said.
“I’m glad you approve,” he said, and tipped his head to the young commander. “What should we do with him?”
“Drop him off in the nearest docking bay, take his ship; I hear that’s something pirates do,” she said.
“Quite right, quite right,” he said
The commander squirmed underfoot.
“You’ll hang for this,” said the commander.
Nymph laughed heartily again.
“Not today,” he said, “besides, I’m already quite well-hung, wouldn’t you agree.”
Nymph gyrated at his foe. When the commander kicked, Nymph knocked him unconscious.
“Good night. Sweet dreams,” he said and looked around. “You know, this really is a nice ship.”
Nymph stood at the bridge of the Warbird with Andrea, now bedecked in her own chic neon attire, at his side.
“Where to, Lieutenant?” he said.
“Wherever the Cosmos will take us,” she replied, “It’s a free Universe, after all.”
“That it is. That it is,” he said, and pointed out towards the stars. “Onward and upward, helmsman. We’ve got galaxies to explore.”
“Aye aye,” said the helmsman.
Onward they went, to explore whole new worlds of possibility.