Andromeda opened her eyes, their blood-red ambience glowing through the vastness of space like a beacon to all who needed her. She spun slowly in the darkness, not even her translucent wings moving as she scanned the all-encompassing horizon around her.
At last, she stopped and stared into the depths of space, deeper into the universe than she had ever peered before. This was where the pain had emanated from. This was where she had heard the call come from. This was where she was needed.
And this was how it had been for years, ever since she had defeated Dr. Sloth eight years ago. Then, the pain she felt when pets were in danger had been crippling and debilitating. But now, now all the Space Faerie felt was a subtle throb in the back of her neck.
But no matter the absence of her self-suffering inclination to assist, she felt just as compelled to aid those in need now as she had years ago when she had first been called from the darkness to save a planet she had seen little beforehand.
And ergo, without hesitation, she flapped her wings and flew off, flashing through the expanse of space as if a comet, merely a sphere of purple-blue light blurred upon the blackness of the horizon.
It hadn’t been too long ago when she had been the abandoned one. It hadn’t been too long ago when her arch-foe had been her only friend.
* * *
The origin of existence is a debatable topic. For some, such as those following the mindset of Dr. Sloth and other leading scientists in the world, the universe was created through a series of chemical reactions in which the subatomic makeup of the world was decided forever when, for any number of inexplicable reasons, the forces of matter overcame the forces of anti-matter and the world was born.
For others, such as the common Neopian, the ideas of our origins are distant and lofty thoughts not worth their time in pondering. Those who do ponder, however, attribute the world to the magic of the Faeries or to the work of the enigmatic deities of Mystery Island, among them the revered and oft-feared ruler of all, Tien’ti. Mostly, however, the simple folk simply don’t ponder such things.
But none of these theories—whether known at the time or not—could explain to her how she had appeared here, how she had come into existence. As far back as she could recall, she had always been here. As far back as she could recall, she had always been the way she was. As far back as she could recall, she had always been alone. Desperately alone. Desperately alone in an expanse of blackness broken only by pinpricks of light that shone down upon her from all sides. Often she would reach out for these lights, but no matter how far ahead of her her fingers could reach, she could never seem to touch them.
Years passed. Andromeda watched as, one by one, all the pinpricks of light turned red and died out only to be replaced by bluer specks of light that, in time, turned red and died out. Millions of them she had named, and all of them had left her in time. Soon enough, she grew tired and bored with these things she had called stars and shut her eyes forever.
But forever could not last long enough. Andromeda woke crying, tears running down her dark-skinned face. These tears, though, they were not her own. She had cried enough to recognize her own tears, and quite simply, these were not hers. And the crying, the faint and distant sobs echoing around her, did not emanate from inside her. All this, she knew.
Andromeda slowly stood and looked around, determined to find from whence this sound came. It did not take her long, for as soon as she had turned to face the world, she saw ahead of her a great sphere of rock and earth, blue light and red. She had seen nothing like this in all of her years; she had seen a million stars and then a million more, but this—this was the first planet she had ever laid eyes upon.
Andromeda flew towards it. She knew not how she did it, not even that she could, but she was flying, and this, she knew. A great heat surrounded her as she neared the planet and she was shrinking, growing smaller and smaller. Or else, the planet was merely growing larger and larger around her. Or perhaps, it had always been so large, and she had always been so small, but she merely had never noticed it before.
Fire and smoke filled the air where she landed. The ground was hot and parched, charred everywhere she stepped, but she knew this was where the crying had come from; she could hear it now louder than she could ever hear it before.
Andromeda stepped forward slowly, her wings folded behind her back, and turned her eyes in every direction until they fell upon a small boy, a sickly-green creature the likes of which she had never seen before, never even known to have existed beforehand.
“Are... are you alright?” The very sound of her own voice surprised her.
The boy sniffled and looked up at her. Tears streamed down his face, but he wiped them away as his sadness turned to horror.
“Who are you? G-go away!”
Andromeda shook her head and fell to her knees. “No, no, it’s alright—I won’t hurt you.” She offered him her hand.
The boy hesitated, but he reached out and took her hand in his nonetheless. Andromeda smiled, and although the boy did not smile, for a moment he appeared a little less devastated than he had appeared but a moment before.
* * *
“So they killed them, they killed all of them?”
“I think so.”
Andromeda felt sick, but a glimmer of hope sparkled in the pit of her stomach. “But they might still be alive?”
She heard the dirt and ash grind over itself as Frankie shrugged beside her.
“Maybe,” he said, but she could tell it was a very weak maybe.
Andromeda closed her eyes; the sky was starry and dark and she had tired of seeing it. They had been lying here, in the wreckage of the ruined town, for days upon days, or at least, Frankie had said it felt like days upon days had passed since the attack. She herself was still uncertain how long a day felt.
“Why did they attack?” she asked. Her eyes remained shut.
There was a pause, some silence as a sooty wind passed over them. “Papa said resources. He told Mama and me the Imperials wanted resources to build their bases. He said we should flee and find safety, that he’d protect the house till they left, but Mama said we all would stay. Then they came. They had shiny wands that shot magic that burned and glowed and killed. They tossed fruit that exploded if you tried to gather them. They planted spores that suffocated those who breathed them in.”
Andromeda felt even sicker. “H-how did you survive?”
For Andromeda, this was enough.
* * *
“Doing this won’t bring them back,” she said.
“I know.” Frankie didn’t turn to her. Andromeda figured he couldn’t. “But I... I need to go now. You—you know what to do.”
She nodded and lifted her hand from Frankie’s shoulder. About a month prior, they had broken into one of the Imperial stations that watched over the planet. They’d taken care to choose a small one, one that wouldn’t be missed when it stopped contacting its home base. When they’d found it, they’d swept inside, tied up the couple technicians there, and threw them into a closet. Over the coming days, they had coerced the men into teaching them about the strange magic they wielded in exchange for food and water, shelter from the storms when they struck and were thrown outside to survive. They called their magic technology, and Frankie soon found himself a natural genius.
Shortly thereafter, their elaborate plan had evolved from his scheming. They were going to overturn the Empire. The Empire had dominated the planet for too long, had ruined too many lives, and now it would be stopped.
“One day,” Frankie had said while they were watching the stars but a few nights prior, “one day, I will rule this planet and I will rule it rightfully. No one will ever have to suffer like I’ve had to suffer. No one will ever have to be alone.”
Andromeda smiled. They were doing the right thing. She was doing the right thing as right now she held her magic to the Emperor and stunned him long enough for Frankie to execute the global shut-down of the Imperial forces. Within minutes, their technology had been crippled and the Emperor, alongside his defeated generals, had been launched into space forever, never to be heard from again.
Frankie beamed as he climbed into the throne and proudly declared himself Emperor of his own world. Andromeda smiled alongside him and shared in his joyousness.
“We’ll always be friends, won’t we?” he asked.
Andromeda nodded. “We’ll always be friends.”
* * *
“No, you mustn’t!”
“But, Andromeda, I must.” Frank turned to face her. He’d grown taller, much taller, and wiser, much wiser, since they had met many years ago, since he had been but a young boy. Now, now he was a grown man.
“But why, Frankie, why must you do this?”
He frowned, or smiled; sometimes, it was hard to tell. “It’s been a long time since you’ve called me Frankie, Andromeda.”
She felt a pang of pain in her chest and felt more tears flow down her face. “And even longer yet since you have dared to call me Andy again.”
Frank’s face fell, and he turned to gaze through the window, down upon his planet. People bustled from here to there, all happy and prosperous. He had taken the wretched remains of the Empire and turned them into a haven for his people, a paradise for all those who had been left behind. All this, she knew.
And yet, she could not support him now.
“You said we would always be friends, Andy.”
“Which is why I plead that you stop this.” Warm tears cascaded down her cheeks. “Please, Frankie, please do not do this. It is exactly what the Empire did—they came here to conquer your planet and look where it ended! Please, Frankie, you must reconsider!”
“I have considered it plenty, Andromeda. The Imperials came seeking destruction. But I leave in search of healing; I leave seeking the betterment of everyone in the universe.”
Andromeda shook her head, stepping forward and brandishing a clenched fist. “They must stand on their own, Frankie—how can they hope to survive if they cannot stand on their own?”
Frank shook his head but refused to turn around. “Have you forgotten, Andromeda, how I could not stand on my own? How I needed your hand to be given to stand once again, how only then were we able to rise above the Empire and save our people?”
Her lip quivered and she found she could say nothing more.
“I shall seek out those persecuted, Andy; I shall be their savior and save them as you have saved me. Why, why can you not support me in this?”
She shook her head. “I cannot support you in this for I fear you shall become the very thing you have fought to overcome. I cannot help you in this for I cannot bear to watch you undo everything we have fought to be done.”
“Then you are weak,” he said. “You showed great strength and bravery when together we fought the Empire and won. Have you grown lax and fearful that you should neglect those in need in favor of your own wellbeing?”
“But what, Andromeda? What is the difference between me and all of those who still suffer, all of those who are still too weak to stand on their own and fight?”
Andromeda frowned, fresh tears filling her eyes. “You were my friend, Frankie. I did it for you.”
“So if you do not know them, they do not deserve to exist?” He shook his head, scowling at her. “Simply because you cannot see them does not mean that they do not exist, Andromeda. Simply because they are worlds away does not mean they are not a part of our world as well. Why can you not see this, Andromeda? Why can you not see that we must assist them to salvage our world as well?”
But it was too late. Frank had walked up to her, taken her hands in his, had peered so deeply into her eyes that she feared she might break beneath his gaze.
“We are still friends, aren’t we? Tell me, Andy, tell me that we are still friends.”
She whimpered and held back her tears. “Of course, Frankie, of course we’re still friends. No matter what, no matter how much we disagree, we will always be friends.”
* * *
Andromeda landed upon the planet from which she had heard the call and looked around: It was barren and empty, hardly suitable for life anymore. And yet, it had been from here that she had heard the call. There was no way around it. There was no way to doubt it.
She whirled around—and saw Sloth. His image flickered, and she realized it was merely a hologram. She tilted her head to the side and stepped towards it, wary for a trap.
The image laughed, not a bitter, maniacal laugh, but a gentle and friendly laugh. “There are no traps here for your today, Andromeda. You need not worry of me now.”
She blinked. Could he actually see her? Was that actually possible?
“No,” it said. “I can neither see nor hear you. But we have been friends long enough for me to know how you will act when you find this. I can only hope that you are, in fact, the first one to find this.”
Andromeda nodded. Yes, he would be the one to know her so well.
“Neopia shall be mine, Andromeda.”
She looked up at the hologram, then down at the projector beneath it. It appeared sleek and new, as if it hadn’t been here too long. This... this could not be the remains of his last attempt to conquer the planet, could it be? She hoped, she prayed, that it was.
“You defeated me last time, but as I told you years ago, I must safeguard the universe.”
Her stomach sank within her. He was indeed invading again, planning upon taking the planet once again.
“Andy, you must understand, the world is a dangerous place. There are too many villains and too few who are noble and just anymore. Neopia’s only hope is that I may rescue them from their own undoing.”
Andromeda shook her head. It was the same as always: Their only hope was him. No—their only hope was standing on their own! Why couldn’t he see this? Why was he still so blind? She looked up again as the hologram continued speaking.
“I liberated the Grundos, Andromeda, and I saved the Moehogs from extinction. You have seen all the good that I have done in the world. Why do you still doubt me?
“Please, Andromeda, do not interrupt my mission once again.”
The transmission ended and Andromeda stood there in a stupor. A couple minutes passed silently and she walked up to the transmitter and knelt down; she still could not tell how he had used it to call her, but if he had known her so well, which he had, she had little doubt he would have been able to figure something out. Perhaps even, whoever had set it there had staged the call; that, too, would explain how its source was now absent as well.
She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling sickened and sad for but a moment longer. In a few seconds, a few hours as she flew back to Neopia, her pain would fade away and the slow sting of betrayal would transform into the wry smile of war. But, for now, for now she would allow herself a few moments of sadness to seep up from the past.
She opened her eyes and went to turn away, but a folded slip of paper caught her eye. It sat squarely in the center of the projector and she reached out to touch it. It was light and warm after the transmission, felt like a pinprick of fire between her fingers. She unfolded the paper and smoothed it out with her thumbs. It read, “still friends.” She smiled.
Then she lifted her thumbs and read it again.
“We are still friends, aren’t we?”