Chapter 1: The Alien Hunters
Space is big, I guess.
Actually, that's something of a fact depending on where you sit. With the right chair, anything can look small from a seated position. For instance, if you were to take the perspective of a blockhead bounty hunter and his pinhead robot sidekick/partner/slave/sponsor who were lazily whittling away the minutes in a clunky, but inexplicably functional, space ship, then Space was quite large indeed. The two and their vessel were little more than infinitesimal specks aimlessly roaming the infinite. And they knew it.
What they gleaned from this daunting bit of knowledge was that it took them a while to get anywhere.
Thankfully, that meant that there wasn't much room for many surprises. Destitute as they were, they owned tools that made it seem like the gears of the celestial engine moved at a decrepit and observable pace along with its flecks of paint and rust. Barring the abrupt occurrence of a cataclysmic space wedgie where all of existence would simply decide to call it quits, there was no menace that wasn't easy to circumvent, no dying sun they couldn't gingerly back away from, no piece of projectile junk they couldn't dodge. If they wanted to get somewhere or get away from somewhere, they could, lightyears be damned. As far as they were concerned, while space was indeed large, its enormity was less intimidating as it was mildly inconvenient. Provided everything worked as it should and didn't explode in their faces of course.
Where they were at the moment perfectly exemplified the miniscule, but adept position of any interstellar traveller worth his or her salt; travelling through a wide open stretch of pure distance, far from any planet, sun, or space station. It was one of the ever-expanding gulfs of in-between, a void's void. On the downside, it was very much like the high-concept equivalent of standing in a moderately long and cold queue where you were 5 persons away from what you were after. On the upside, they didn't have to worry about being blasted out of the blue by pirates trying to board their ship or twitchy planetary defenses misfiring in their direction. They'd be able to spot them coming miles upon miles away and flee accordingly. The only threat they could face here, besides the aforementioned wedgie that would kill everyone too quickly for them to care, was if something were to warp where they were. This was ludicrously unlikely. There were in the middle of nowhere; no one would have anything to gain from making this their destination.
That didn't stop 20 tons of twisted, gnashing implausibility from doing so regardless.
An enormous pink flash preceded its abrupt arrival, and it was only through the twosome's quick thinking that a collision was avoided. It streaked past them, causing their ship to be sent tumbling by the force of this near-miss. The cockpit was transformed into a dizzying, twirling jumble of sleazy magazines, half-eaten snacks, and rusty power tools with its two occupants thrown in the mix. Luckily, robots don't actually get dizzy in so much as they enjoy making "whoah-whoah-whoah" sounds when the opportunity presents itself and soon the controls were in a chubby, metal grip that managed to make just the right yanking motions to get everything to stop spinning.
"Owww…took your time, didn't you?"
The robot snorted, a gesture of spite made all the more calculated given that it did not have a nose. "You're welcome, Dandy."
"Cut the sass, QT." Dandy groaned, fighting off nausea as he tried to get back on his feet. "What the hell was that thing?"
As if in answer, there was a brief flicker of pink on the left side of the solar windshield.
"Gone apparently." QT shrugged with his hands. "It just warped somewhere else."
Dandy groaned, still unable to get vertical with everything still swaying back and forth in his eyes. "Did you at least get a good look at it with those fancy cameras of yours? Maybe a license plate so we can track him down and sue?"
QT's digital pinprick eyes contorted into twin hourglasses as he searched his memory for images of the object that had sent them spiraling out of control, "Oh yeah, it did have a license plate, several in fact. Along with a bunch of wires, burnt-out lightbulbs, rusty cans, half a bulldozer, what I think might be the chassis of a luxury sedan, and that's only what I could make out." He fought back the base programming that told him to hunt down that mobile mess of a meteor and make it clean. Sometimes, a robot had to pick its battles.
"So we nearly got run over by a flying junkyard? The nerve of some dumps." Dandy had given up on trying to stand and had opted to crawl back into his chair instead. Once seated, things started to stabilize ever so slightly, and he tentatively brought a hand to his hair to see if everything was still in place. To his irritation, the regent pompadour he usually sported had been awkwardly squashed to the side. Thankfully his comb had managed to stay in his pocket during the tumble. With practiced care, he took it out and went about restoring his pomp to its former glory.
Having performed this act of cosmetic maintenance countless times, he required no mirror or too much concentration to do his 'do properly. He decided to take a look around as he did so to pass the time and hopefully chase away his remaining disorientation. QT was running diagnostics, no doubt fearing that something vital that prevented the Aloha-Oe from exploding had been jostled; The bridge was a mess and he didn't even want to imagine what all that spinning had done to the pantry and his collectibles, but he could always get QT to clean that up later; Then he looked out the window and saw that the stars had remained largely the same, proving that they hadn't been knocked too far off course.
"How much longer until we get to the buffet?" Dandy asked.
"It'll probably take another hour or so. But just give me a minute to make sure that everything's in working order." QT replied.
"All right, but I'm counting down the seconds." Dandy replied as he put the finishing touches on his hair. "And don't even think about suggesting we war-hello, what is that?"
Dandy didn't answer. Instead he put his comb aside and grabbed a small, rectangular box from under the control panel. He began to manipulate the twin joysticks protruding from its surface, causing a long telescopic metal claw to slither into the cockpit's view.
"What are you using the claw for?" QT asked as the tube-like appendage stretched further into what appeared to be star-specked nothingness.
"Keep your wheels on…almost got it." The plate-tipped pincers gently clamped down. A few careful tugs of the control pad later, and the claw withdrew just enough so that the ship's two occupants could see what it had retrieved.
QT didn't believe it. Between the steel hold of the claw was a large, pale, oval-shaped gemstone. "Wow. How did you manage to spot that from so far away?"
Dandy clicked his tongue disapprovingly. "You know me, QT. I'm an old pro at spotting booty of all kinds."
His robot companion fumed at having given him yet another chance to congratulate himself. It's not like he was incapable of finding grounds to do so every other hour. Still, QT had to admit that it was a mildly impressive feat. The stone was pretty small as far as space rocks went and probably wouldn't have shown up on their radar. Even if it had managed to reflect some light amongst all this darkness, it could easily have been mistaken for just another faraway star or planet to the untrained or uncaring eye.
He'd snap his own motherboard in half before ever saying such to him though.
"Yeah, you sure are." QT conceded lamely.
"Damn straight." Dandy smiled. "Now let's bring this puppy in. I think we might be able to sell it for a pretty penny."
The robot tilted slightly forward on his wheels as a kind of nod and made preparations to open the airlock. "Maybe we can buy back those seatbelts we pawned off!" he offered excitedly.
"Why would we waste our money on something like that?" Dandy scoffed as he had the claw deposit the gem into the open hatch.
QT quickly glanced at a new tear on one of Dandy's sleeves and a small dent on his own curvy frame that wasn't there 15 minutes ago. "You're right. What was I thinking?"
After Dandy had safely deposited the stone into the ship, the two quickly got it out of the airlock and brought it with them to the ship's lounge, feeling immensely pleased with themselves all the way.
Dandy gave it a quick, sloppy kiss, all ready imagining the hypothetical riches it would get him. "Cute, little thing, ain't it?" he observed as he held the gem up to the light.
"My scanners say that it's a giant pearl." QT said. "I wonder how it ended up way out here in space."
"Maybe there's a giant clam out there that we can get registered." Dandy mused, turning the pearl in his hands as he did so. "Or if it's not rare, we could always have it for dinner."
"Oysters, Dandy. Oysters are the ones that make pearls." QT corrected. "And quit shaking it. You might drop the gem and lower its market value!"
"I-I'm not doing this!" Dandy cried. The stone kept shaking, more violently than before, and Dandy tried to keep a hold of it by bringing his other hand to bear. "Hold still, you little-," was about as far as he got when it finally shot out of his grip.
QT's arms stretched out to catch the stone as it sailed past, but its vibrating thwarted any attempt to grab it. Now, unimpeded by man and robot alike, the pearl did as physics decreed and clattered to the ground.
Its would-be owners quickly rushed to the fallen gem, questions about why it had wrenched itself from Dandy's grip were pushed aside by far more important inquiries like, 'Did it get scratched?', 'Was it cracked?', and 'Can we still sucker someone into paying top dollar for it if yes was the answer to one or both of the previous questions?' To their relief, they saw no visible fractures of any sort on the pearl's surface. It seemed that this gem wasn't as fragile as either of them feared.
"Hah!" Dandy smirked, turning to face QT. "And you were worried about me dropping i-."
The pearl erupted in a brilliant and enormous blaze of light.
But since Dandy and QT were looking at one another at the time, they were only half-blinded.
"Are you sure this will work?" Steven asked Pearl as she made another practice swing with her spear.
Pearl grumbled something about how her thumb slipped before replying, "Oh you don't have to worry about that, Steven. I've all ready crunched the numbers and everything's set up, so all I need to do now is get my stance right and we should be good to go."
"HEY!" Amethyst shouted from higher up the cliff. "IS SHE DONE YET? TELL HER TO GET DONE FASTER!"
Steven nodded, though he wasn't sure if Amethyst could see him do so. It was a pretty dark night after all. "She's asking if you're done."
"No need for that, I heard it too." Pearl said absentmindedly. "Just need to get the left shoulder a twinge higher and straighten the knees a little. Hmmm, Steven, please tell Amethyst that you can't rush these things."
"WHAT DID SHE SAY?!" Amethyst asked.
"She said that you're doing a great job and that she's almost done!" Steven replied.
"OH, OKAY!" Amethyst said, believing the quasi-lie. "IT'S JUST THAT MY ARMS ARE GETTING KINDA SORE! ASK GARNET IF SHE WANTS TO TRADE PLACES WITH ME!"
"Absolutely not." Pearl said. "I'd have to recalculate this entire maneuver if she did."
"Plus," Garnet said from her position. "I kind of want to be the projectile this time."
At that, Steven decided to take another glance at what the Gems had been building for the last five minutes. Amethyst had created an extremely long elastic whip, the end of which had been tied around the town lighthouse. After making sure that Amethyst was dug in enough so that she wouldn't fall off the hill (again), Garnet had leaned against the length of it, before leaping off of the edge and then planting her feet firmly into the cliff wall just a foot shy from the ground itself. It was a weirdly practical set-up as far as the Gems were concerned; using their environment to form an enormous faux slingshot. Steven thought it looked like getting launched out of it would be fun if Amethyst's whip wasn't still loaded with thorns, Pearl needing to smack the loaded individual to give them the added boost needed to fire themselves high in the sky instead of being grounded to paste by a stone wall, and how the person send up there would have to fight a monster rapidly descending from space that (according to Garnet) 'totally wants to smash into Beach City' and eat everyone there.
From behind him, there was a sharp, swift sound of air being sliced, followed by a vibrant cry of triumph. "Yes!" Pearl sauntered past Steven and was so relaxed and confident, that you'd swear she didn't know about the alien menace about to crash into them all within the next few minutes.
As she got behind Garnet and began to adjust her posture, Steven couldn't help but wonder if Pearl using her weapon for this was the best idea. "Are you sure that using your spear won't hurt Garnet when you hit her with it? I could get some golf clubs from my dad's shed!" he suggested.
Garnet, whose gaze had been sternly fixed at her distant target, turned her head toward Steven. "Can you do that in less than three minutes?"
"No." Steven said sadly.
"It's all right, Steven." Pearl assured him as she rotated her torso and arms into a finely practiced back-swing, the grip on her weapon firm and expertly placed. "I'm just using the back of the blade for this." And then she swung.
It was almost too fast for Steven to register. One moment Pearl had positioned herself to deliver the coveted blow and the next she was poised in a perfect follow-through whose subtleties were lost on Steven due to his limited experiences with actual golf. Fortunately, the results were much easier to appreciate: the whip and Garnet snapped upward in a near instant, kicking up a swath of mineral detritus from the cliff face in their wake. In little more than a second, the bands fell away from her and she was over the cliff and the lighthouse like a red-and-black blur of a missile fired into the starlit sky, becoming little more than a barely recognizable speck the further she went.
Steven, Amethyst, and Pearl looked up after their friend, wondering if this daring, but calculated, gambit would work out. A bright crimson flash, an explosion of dust, and the thunderous booming of a massive collision overhead did little to ease these fears; Pearl suddenly realized that she hadn't factored in the unwelcome, if unlikely possibility that Garnet might crash through an airplane or two on her way to dealing with the threat. Mercifully, a titanic pained roar of something most definitely not of this world temporarily overpowered the tranquil night sounds of Beach City. The soothing notes of the tide gently rolling across the shore and the simple sporadic melodies of nocturnal insects gave way to an immense agonized shriek that would have the unsuspecting townsfolk still awake reeling in terrified confusion.
For Steven and the Gems, it was music to their ears; indicative of a crisis averted made all the sweeter by their spotting what had to be the defeated opponent hurdling far away from where they were to sink into the ocean. Garnet would never allow herself to fall in such a wild and clumsy way after all, and to their added relief, something solid and whole fell from the sky a moment later in a controlled arc. They saw it hit the waters across the Temple's gaze with such precision and purpose that it barely made a splash. Amethyst, who had the best view of the event and its aftermath from her spot on the hill, yelled to her companions below that she could see someone swimming towards them from where the object had landed.
Pearl grinned. Everything had worked out after all. Why wouldn't it? Having known what was coming and given time to plan, success was the only reasonable outcome. Garnet had even come out of it in one piece and near the Temple so she wouldn't have to travel so far after it was over. Again, just as calculated. She called out to Amethyst that it was time to leave, getting a loud tired grunt in response. Recalling her spear with one hand, she beckoned Steven to follow her as she began to walk home.
Steven started to follow her along the coast, but stopped to spare a glance at the stars above. Whatever had been trying to reach Beach City had definitely not been friendly, and neither had the last thing to come down from there. Finding out what the Gems were and how they weren't really from Earth may have proved that they weren't alone in the universe, but everything out there just seemed to be so angry and hostile. As he made his way toward the temple steps, he wondered if outer space was as great as Pearl made it out to be; if there was anything remotely friendly beyond their world that could come and visit for once.
"I'm still a little sore from last night, what about you?" Amethyst asked, giving her left bicep a slight rub to see if there was any pain left in it.
"A tiny bit." Garnet lied. "You should see the other guy."
Amethyst had to giggle at that. Cramped as her arms were from having to carry her whip, Garnet, and pretty much the entirety of Pearl's crazy scheme, they were probably faring a lot better than the face of that freak of nature the Amazing Flying Garnet had smashed. "No kidding. I couldn't see most of what went down, but it sounded like you really gave that creep a pounding."
Her taller friend nodded in response. "So where do you think Steven ran off to?" she asked, slowing her gait to give the passing buildings and streets some brief, but intense scrutiny.
"I dunno." Amethyst casually answered, simply glad that Garnet's slower pace meant that she had to take less steps to keep up with her. "I lost track of him an hour ago. Why?"
Garnet shrugged. "We did tell Pearl that we were going to watch over him."
"And we did," Amethyst said. "For about five minutes." She caught Garnet giving her what was probably a mildly disapproving glance behind her sunglasses. "Oh don't look at me like that! He'll be fine, he always is. Besides, it was the only way she'd let us out of the temple without nagging at us."
"True." Garnet admitted. Despite how well they had done against whatever it was she pulverized the previous night, Pearl had insisted they put in a few dozen hours into preparing for the next time something like it tried to slam into their home. "But we are going to have to do it eventually. Why not now?"
Amethyst stroked her chin as if she was giving the matter some serious thought. "Hmmm, let me think, beautiful day or stare at a hologram of some butt-ugly beast until Pearl gets sick of it? Tough choice." She threw up her arms in mock frustration. "If it's going to happen anyway, I'd much rather it did when it's raining or when that mayor guy throws one of his dumb parades."
Relieved that Garnet wasn't going to change her mind, fetch Steven, and drag them all back home, Amethyst realized there was something that she had meant to ask all morning. "Was it really that ugly?"
"Exactly that ugly." Garnet replied. "I kind of liked it."
"Ewwww." Amethyst half-wretched, half-laughed.
"Not like that." Garnet corrected. "It was just a nice change of pace." Her voice suddenly became quiet. "Considering that it wasn't even a Gem."
"That's what I'm talking about." Amethyst pumped her fists in the air. "We need some variety in the things we beat up!" She had expected Garnet to make a curt sound of agreement or no auditory reply at all. What she hadn't expected, was the slobbering.
She quickly turned to face Garnet who shook her head. It hadn't been her. The taller Gem then pointed ahead towards an intersection and wagged her finger toward the right. They quickly made their way around the bend to see what was causing such a loud and disgusting noise. That's when they saw the giant cat.
Perhaps calling it a giant cat was a bit of an oversimplification. It had the whiskers, the white fur, the slinky tail, and the grey paws that you'd find on any normal feline, but everything else about it looked wrong. Cats, however large they were, didn't have pear shaped forms and long necks that ended with heads too small for their bodies that had eyes too large for their heads. These peculiarities were so distracting that they only noticed that it was wearing a pair of orange crocs, a pistachio vest, a gold bracelet, and a red hat with a small, yellow smiley face logo at its center after it had taken out its cellphone.
"Oh man, they weren't kidding when they said the Salmon-Anchovie was the best thing on the menu." It said in between scarfing down pizza slices with a voice that was weaselly, but distinctly male. "melp dot com rules! I gotta chweet about this place."
Well it could talk, and in English no less, but despite it now being very clear to them that they could communicate with it, the Gems were unsure as to how to engage this unknown entity. If it had been hostile, perhaps attacking the Fish Stew Pizza restaurant behind him in a feral rage, then what they'd need to do would be all too clear. However, with it just sitting on the curb as it slurped up cheese and played with its phone, this was a variety of first contact they hadn't encountered in a while. Finally, after about a minute of watching (and hearing) him chweet and eat, it was Amethyst who broke the dribble-tinged stalemate.
"Uh." She said uncertainly.
"Hm?" The cat thing's ears-Amethyst just noticed that there seemed to be four of them around the sides of his face-perked up and it turned to face the two of them. "Yeah?"
"What are you?" Garnet asked tersely.
"Oh this?" the cat thing pointed to the folded pizza in the claw not holding the smart phone. "Oh this used to be a pizza, but I folded it, so now it's kind of like a calzone." He licked his lips, all ready anticipating his next bite. "And a pretty dang good one, too. Thanks again, Mr. Fish!" he shouted towards the store behind him.
"Stop loitering outside my store, cat!" Koffi Pizza yelled from inside his restaurant, apparently uncaring that his most recent customer hadn't been human.
Said bestial patron gave the shop and its owner a mild glare that went unnoticed by Koffi since he was quite occupied with cleaning up a large trail of dander that seemed to start at the register and end at the door. The creature briefly wondered if some shedding stray had wandered in when he hadn't been looking. "Oh that's gonna cost him a star." He grumbled as he gobbled up another mouthful of pizza. Despite his best efforts to maintain his frown, the sublime flavors of the morsel quickly lifted his spirits. "Okay….maybe just half a star." He said in a manner he thought magnanimous, but to the Gems, appeared to be more conceited than anything else. Then he turned his long neck to face them once more. "So does that answer your question?"
"She meant what are you, dude? You're a giant cat! What's up with that?" Amethyst demanded, having wrested her tongue away from the metaphorical cat to direct it at the material one.
"I'm not a cat!" the cat-like being snapped. "I'm a Betelgeusian! And you're one to talk with your purple skin and that gem in your cleav-GEM?!" the Betelgeusian recoiled in horror, finally noticing the violet crystal lodged in Amethyst chest. It cocked its frightened head to the side to see that yes, Garnet had crystals of her own as well. "Ahehe, you-you guys wouldn't happen to be Garnet and Amethyst, would you?"
"How do you know our names?" Amethyst asked.
The Betelgeusian gave a nervous chuckle. "Ah, there's no need to get creeped out, Garnet."
"I'm Garnet." Garnet corrected.
"Whoops." The Betelgeusian gulped. "Sorry about that. Dandy was pretty vague about which was which."
Amethyst was pretty sure she couldn't remember anyone called Dandy, and with a name as strange as that she certainly would have. "Dandy?"
"F-forget I said anything. It's nothing-nothing!" The Betelgeusian waved a greasy paw as if to swat away the name. "Certainly not something you'd need to tell…which one of you is the worrywart of the bunch?"
"Pearl." Garnet and Amethyst answered simultaneously.
"Right, that one. My friends and I, who have zero history with any of you, are just a bunch of alien hunters who came here chasing a Slammerhead. Seen one of those by the way? Big, angry, winged, teal thing with a giant slab for a skull?" he brought the pizza box up to his face to give a rough approximation of what he was talking about. "Might've tried to kamikaze your town."
"I punched it." Garnet stated.
This caused the Betelgeusian to back away slightly. "Is it dead?"
Amethyst shrugged. "It sank into the ocean. So I'm guessing yeah."
"Dang, more work for us I guess." The alien hunter cursed. "At least we know it's probably nearby."
"I'm telling you guys, it doesn't matter." He tried to assure them to no effect. "Besides, I'm sure you're all super busy with your Gem stuff. So I'll be going now. But before I leave…" the Betelgeusian put down the pizza box and gingerly pushed it in their direction. When he didn't get a reaction from either Gem, he gave it an additional, less subtle push.
"Are you trying to bribe us with this?" Amethyst winced.
"What? Bribe?! No-no-no, you've got it all wrong. I'm just implying-." He had his tail clumsily push it even closer to the pair. "-That if you're eating this awesome pizza, then you'll be too preoccupied to go to the Beach or tell Pearl anything about this little encounter. So you should probably do that. There's even a complimentary packet of chilli flakes in there!" the Betelgeusian gave a very cat-like smile, before standing up from the sidewalk, picking up a second box of pizza with him as he did so, this one unopened. "Well it was nice meeting you guys. Bye!" he waved to them briefly before running the other direction on his hind, shoed legs.
The Gems watched his strange, inexplicable retreat until he vanished around a corner.
"So…should we tell Pearl?" Garnet asked, only to be answered by a sound of absolute disgust from Amethyst.
"There are 2 and a half slices left in this thing and they're all covered in cat hair!" Amethyst gagged as she surveyed the contents of the box.
"Whatever. This bribe stinks. We're telling Pearl." Amethyst said as she tossed the drool-soaked gratuity into a nearby garbage can.
"Fair enough." Garnet said. "Makes you wonder though."
"How we're going to tell her, while still managing to get to the beach in time to see whatever that space cat was afraid would happen." Garnet explained.
"Good point." Amethyst mulled over this dilemma. If Pearl was going to react as badly as the Betelgeusian feared, the whole incident might end by the time either she or Garnet caught up to their neurotic teammate. It'd be a waste to tell her and not bear witness to the consequences. Luckily, centuries of bugging Pearl had imbued in her a very specific brand of cleverness that lay solely in that department and in a few moments, she was confident enough to tell Garnet, "Head over to the beach to make sure the cat and this Dandy guy don't go anywhere. I'll catch up to you in a bit."
"You have a plan?"
"It's more of an outline." Amethyst grinned. "That's usually more than enough."
60 feet of smooth, taut flesh from top to tip with a clubbed tail taking up about half of that length,
20 meters of leathery wingspan with digits arranged not unlike those of a bat,
Powerful, backwards jointed legs that ended in viciously sharp talons,
And a disproportionally large "face" 6 meters wide and 14 high; little more than a rectangular slab of skin and bone with two beady eyes jutting out of its side.
Shame she couldn't do anything about the color, but it was probably a mostly faithful holographic reproduction of the monster from the previous night.
After Garnet had gotten back to shore, she had asked her for images of their vanquished enemy. The crimson Gem was nothing if not incredibly perceptive, and while partially incomplete, the recordings she provided had been incredibly crisp and detailed in spite of how brief and fast her encounter with it had been. Pearl barely had to fill out any gaps when she cobbled this simulation together.
Pearl walked around the image for what felt like the hundredth time. At first, she had decided to study it so they could better handle encounters with similar creatures in the future. Now she was coming to the disquieting realization that it was incredible they had beaten it the way they did at all. While she couldn't fathom how its wings managed to maneuver it through the depths of space, what wasn't difficult to understand was that this alien was designed for crashing into things at high speeds. Its curved block of a visage was two meters thick with an undoubtedly sturdy spinal structure to support it and she had arranged for Garnet to uppercut what was probably the hardest chin in the solar system.
Well that wasn't entirely accurate as she had elected to simply punch it square in the face, but that didn't change the fact that Garnet could very well have bounced off the beast or worse when they collided. If only she'd known this was what was coming down at them from the stars, she could've planned for it differently. Garnet's powers of perception had given her an approximate weight and size of what to expect, but for all the planning and calculations she had done, she had still been too rash and everyone had almost paid for it.
She sighed, trying to reign in all these dismal scenarios and concentrate on the task at hand. The gambit she had committed everyone to might have been a near-farce, but she could still learn from this stroke of luck. A quick burst of concentration caused the hologram to shift into the shape Garnet had seen the creature take as it streaked through the atmosphere. Wings and legs folded to reduce air resistance, head angled to presumable steer it towards Beach City with the tail set to achieve the same effect. In hindsight, attacking it head-on was practically suicidal, even if its horrid face made for an appetizing target. That must've been the point though, a natural defense system to distract potential attackers from its vulnerabilities. But where would those be located? Hitting it hard from the side might work, but it was clear that the creatures was nothing, if not durable if it could survive using itself for kinetic bombardment before presumably flying back up to do it all over again.
Pearl shook her head at that. The power to visit far-off planets and travel the great void, and this cretin used it purely for destruction. It was a dreadful waste. She looked at the grotesque bullet of tendons and teeth again. Nature might've seen fit to equip it well, but lifeforms forged from chance always had some sort of flaw you could exploit, a weakspot that greater minds could identify. The tail was another appealing target, though the bony club at the end of it hinted that it was as much a distraction as the head on the other end of the creature was. The rest of its body wasn't any more appetizing as it was a powerfully built affair; you might change its course a smidgen, but it was still going to cause some damage. No, she needed to find a place that would completely shatter the beast's momentum when hit, reducing it to little more than a screaming, directionless mess. Of course, its face was completely out of the question. And yet, it was the lynchpin tying the entire attack together. If the assault could be undone in an instant, it would definitely involve this tumorous edifice. In this shape, everything seemed to burst out of the head like bristles from a brush's ferrule. But on closer inspection, she saw that this wasn't entirely the case. There was one feature that broke the illusion of it being a living missile from space. Could it be? Could it really be that simple?
Pearl was so startled by the shrill alarm that she could barely stop herself from sinking hip-deep into the fountain she was standing on, dispelling her object of study. She shivered at the sudden wetness, but quickly set herself back up and began to search her room for the source of the disruption.
The alarm clock was crudely taped to the side of a dingy inner tube that was floating on one of the lower fountains; the one that acted as a kind of passage between her room and Amethyst's…room. Her mischievous teammate must have dug it out of the detritus that littered the caverns of the temple. She groaned before gracefully leaping onto the watery platform, trying to ignore the mechanical shrieking that was now echoing all around her abode.
Pearl made quick work of the device, even taking a moment to expertly tinker with its inner workings so as to make it useless for future skulduggery. Miffed as she was, she couldn't help but wonder how long the clock had been floating here; she had been so wrapped up in studying the recordings that it could've been snuck in at any time during the last hour or so. And then there was the fact that she felt that the other shoe was still to drop, so to speak. Amethyst was a terribly blunt Gem. If her sole aim had been to startle her, then she'd have done it herself just to see the look on her face. There had to be another layer to this or she wouldn't have used something as complex (as far as she could bother to manage) as a timer for one of her pranks.
It was almost a relief when she noticed the bottle floating nearby. Picking it up, she noticed that there was a rolled up piece of paper contained within. How charmingly archaic, Pearl thought as she uncorked the bottle to get at the note. Despite knowing full well that it probably had an insulting message or exceptionally vulgar picture scribbled on it, she decided that it was probably for the best that she got it over with.
"You're dnady ex is at the beach." Pearl read. "Seriously, 'you're'? A little basic grammar wouldn't kill you, Amethyst." And what on earth was a dnady supposed to be? "Probably another spelling error." She thought. "Honestly, if she's only going to bother learning one language, she might as well use it properly. And how many words could there be that had all those letters? Why, the only word I can think of right now is 'dandy', but-." Her mental critique suddenly skidded to a halt. She quickly read the note again.
At the beach?
"Well I'm stumped." Greg's brow furrowed in frustration. "I've tried washing it, sanding it, and I even brought out my old buffer."
Jenny Pizza was standing off to the side, trying to look like she didn't care about what Greg had to say, but casting uneasy glances at the side of the Cabriole 1985 he was working on. "So…you can't fix it."
"I'm not saying that." Greg clarified as he put his tools away. "The scratch is way too deep for me to smooth out. Look, you can even see the original paint-job now." He pointed to the streak of silver marring half a slice of pepperoni and a noticeable portion of cheese on the side of the vehicle.
"I used to think it had always been like this." Koffi said.
"Yeah, me too." Greg tried to laugh, perhaps soften the blow of what he'd have to say next. Though with how Jenny was looking up and down the street for what he assumed was her dad, he doubted it would help all that much. "I'm sorry, Jenny. Even if I did know the kind of paint Koffi used on the car, it would still take a while to make it look like nothing happened."
"Oh. That's a shame" Jenny tried to say nonchalantly, but it came out as a kind of half-mumble instead.
"I think you might have to tell your dad about this after all." Greg said.
"No she doesn't!" Steven piped in.
"Hey buddy!" Greg smiled at his son's sudden reappearance. "I was wondering where you ran off to."
"I just had to look around the van for a bit to find THIS!" Steven explained, holding up his spoils for Jenny and his dad to see.
"That's a pretty big sticker." Jenny observed. Then something exceptional about the adhesive label caught her eye. "Wait. Why does it say 'Fish Stew Pizza' on it?"
"Because I got it from you guys." Steven replied. "For every 4 Family-sized pizzas purchased, you receive a free complimentary jumbo sticker! Don't you remember?"
"Oh, I guess I must've been working in the back while that was going on." Jenny said.
Steven's brow furrowed in confusion. "For the entire month of 'Sticker-tember'?"
"Errr, I might've also been using up some sick days at the time." Jenny muttered. "Anyway, how's that supposed to help?"
The boy didn't answer, instead opting to peel the sticker from its contact paper. He then walked over to the car and placed the decal where the door had been damaged. It was a perfect fit. "There you go. Now your scratch mark is just additional advertising for your family's shop!"
Jenny brought a hand to her mouth, only pulling it away once she got the big goofy smile behind it down to a practiced smirk. "Nice one, Steven." She said coolly.
"And the best part is that your dad will never want to remove it!"
Greg nodded. "Taking stickers out is really messy after all. Leaves a lot of residue."
The teen's tightly fixed smile grew a little bigger. "Thanks." She took out her wallet from the back of her shorts. "Here." She handed Steven a crisp five dollar bill. "Use this to buy yourself a photo with the space guy."
"The Space Guy?" Steven asked.
"Yeah. Some loudmouth parked his spaceship down by the beach." Jenny casually said, as if this was a thing that happened every other day. "He's offering people a chance to get their picture taken with it for 5 bucks a selfie."
"How did I not notice that?! Does it actually work?!"
"A bunch of us asked him the same question. He decided to prove it by having it take off in front of everybody." She gave her jacket a little shake, causing a few dozen granules of earthen powder to fall from its crevices. "Kicked up a lot of sand."
"That's so cool!" Steven looked to his father, eyes alight with excitement. "Can I check it out, dad?! Please, please, please?!"
"Well I don't see why not." Greg gave his mullet a scratch as he tried to think of a reason. "Just don't go flying off in it, okay?"
"AWESOME!" Steven whooped as he made a mad dash towards the beach.
It was just as Jenny had said. There, snugly resting on the sandy slopes of Beach City, its front to the town and its back to the sea, was the coolest spaceship that Steven had ever seen and it only seemed to get more and more awesome the closer he got. The small crowd of people gathered near it did little to impede Steven's view of the domed window that lay atop the ship's middle that probably allowed for stupendous views of the stars as the shuttle traveled through outer space or the large orange outrigger bolted to the side that reminded Steven of an enormous version of those retro laser guns with its ballpoint tip and fancy fins. He could see that it would have dwarfed the one Pearl had made and almost gotten them killed in. But more than its size and the bright yellow paint job that seemed to glow in the late-morning sun, its most prominent feature was undoubtedly its towering crescent nose nestled between twin torpedo-shaped hulls.
It kind of made it look like a giant, metal banana boat.
This just made it seem doubly incredible to Steven, who was hoping the line to take pictures with it wasn't too long. The craft looked amazing from afar, but would probably be even more spectacular up close. Surprisingly, the crowd of onlookers were keeping their distance from the ship itself and were instead impatiently focused on something portly and of a similar shade of yellow that was a few yards away from it. As Steven slipped through his fellow townsfolk to get a closer look, he saw that it was a small robot about his height with two wheels instead of legs and long tube-like arms attached to its pod-shaped body. In place of a face was a small glass screen that displayed two beady black eyes creased in exasperation.
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to take your picture or move along." It said in an autotuned voice that Steven couldn't help but find adorable. "There are other people waiting in the queue." Aggravated as it looked, the robot was at least trying to be civil. Which was more than could be said for the large, blonde, dreadlocked blogger who Steven was all too familiar with.
"What is your function, space robot?!" Ronaldo demanded.
"Again, it's QT. My name is QT." the robot said. "And I'm the ship's custodian. Satisfied?"
Ronaldo clearly wasn't. "What are your offensive capabilities?!"
There was a soft clanging of metal as QT tapped the side of his head in thought. "My…uh…sharp and sardonic artificial wit?" he offered, hoping this would be enough to get the heavyset weirdo to go bother someone else.
Steven winced a little as Ronaldo chose to continue interrogating the all ready agitated machine. "You could be programmed with the ability to lie…are you lying?!"
"Nah, I'm actually standing." QT's reply managed to get a small chuckle from the assembled onlookers. "See? Wit. Please go."
His polite pleas continued to fall on deaf ears. "Are you a cyborg? Do you actually have some tragically horrific biological components inside of you like guts and eyeballs?!"
"That's disgusting! No!"
"Do you steal them from people so you can feel more…" Ronaldo paused, thinking that it would give what he had to say next a greater sense of weight and severity. "…human?"
"I don't steal organs!" The stainless steel sausages QT had for fingers flexed in frustration; their owner suddenly finding Ronaldo's neck very interesting to look at. "And I don't think living beings have it all that great either." He added.
"Oh, so you have contempt for us organics then?" Ronaldo accused, thinking he had found the copper wire thread needed to unravel this whole synthetic conspiracy. "Is the robot revolution upon us? Are you a scout for the machine menace?"
At this, QT paused, and Steven thought he could see a hint of pain cross over his limited features. "I…I don't…I don't do that kind of stuff. It's not something I'd participate in."
Oblivious to the robot's discomfort, the excitable teen pressed on. "Ah, but do you subscribe to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?"
QT's uneasy expression shifted into one of puzzlement. "Asimov's Three Laws?" Steven and the crowd murmured in wonder as the automaton's facial display transformed into a fast-paced video collage featuring hundreds if not thousands of images before two furious eyes returned to the forefront. "Where does a professor of BIOCHEMISTRY get off telling me what I can or can't do?!" QT yelled indignantly.
This was it! Ronaldo thought. He'd finally cornered the bionic infiltrator. "So you admit that there's nothing stopping you from going crazy and killing us all!"
"I'm certainly starting to warm up to the idea." QT answered coldly.
Steven thought that this might be the opportune moment to step in. Overbearing as he might be, Ronaldo was still a pretty good frycoock and him dying could have an adverse effect on Beach Citywalk Fries' bits production. "Hey Ronaldo! What are you doing over there?!" he cheerfully asked as if he had just arrived.
Ronaldo smiled at what he believed to be his reinforcements. "Steven! Check it out! I think this robot over here's the herald for a mechanical invasion from beyond our solar system. One that will stop at nothing to assimilate us into its eldritch fold."
"A mechanical invasion? You don't say."
"Uh huh." Ronaldo nodded. "Luckily we can still cut it off at the pass. Call on the Crystal Gems to smash this robo-creep before he can signal the armada." For someone so in love with the supernatural, Ronaldo was disturbingly focused on eradicating it.
"HEY!" QT chirped.
"Oh sure, Ronaldo. I'll get right on that." Steven gave QT a conspiratorial wink. "But are you sure this is all of them?
"He's the only one here." Ronaldo gasped. "Or maybe he's hiding his shock troop assassins in the ship!"
"Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. I gotta say that I'm just a little bit disappointed in you." Steven gestured for Ronaldo to come close. As the self-styled robot fighter leaned in, Steven whispered, "Don't you think that this all seems a little too obvious? Awesome bright yellow spaceship? Adorable bright yellow robot?"
Ronaldo's face paled in horror. "You think it might be a distraction?!"
"That's exactly what I think, young Fryman. The real invaders might be watching us from the ocean." He pointed to the sea, eliciting a gasp Ronaldo. "Underground." He pointed to the beach; another gasp. "They might even be invisible or hiding among the crowd as replicant androids!" And that elicited the biggest gasp of all. "So before we go in guns, well not guns, more like fists, whips, and spears blazing, we need to know what we're up against. Think you could do that for me, Lochness Blogster?"
There was a yell of victory as Ronaldo broke away from Steven. "You can count on me, Universe!" he assured as he started to rummage through his backpack. "None of these tin soldiers can hide from…METAL MUTT DELUXE!" he cried, pulling out a metal detector that had two more sensor coils than Steven's own Metal Mutt, each with a constipated Rottweiler face painted on it. Ronaldo gave Steven a thumbs up before he started moving about the beach, scanning the ground and any people he passed by, simultaneously dreading and anticipating the triple-bark that signaled the presence of a mobile engine of devastation.
"Make sure to give me any spare quarters you find!" Steven yelled after him. Once Ronaldo was out of earshot, Steven turned to an appreciative-looking QT. "Sorry about that. Ronaldo can get a little gung-ho when it comes to the paranormal."
"Well whatever you want to call it, he was driving me nuts." QT offered one of his hands to Steven. "Thanks for helping me out. I was just seconds away from running him over with my tires."
Steven took the hand in his own and shook, the artificial appendage was warm and the grip gentle. "No problem. Hope the rest of your visit to Beach City is a little less intense."
QT gave a nervous chuckle. "I doubt it, but that's still nice of you to say." He said as he withdrew his arm. "I'm sorry that I can't bump you further up the line, but a lot of these people have been waiting awhile." He indicated towards those assembled behind Steven. "But you could always take some pictures with Dandy. He's over there by the Aloha-Oe counting our profits."
The boy turned to where QT was pointing to see a tall man in a light-grey and white jacket and dark blue jeans leafing through a wad of bills next to the spaceship. "Is he your captain?"
There was a significant delay between Steven asking this and QT responding to it. "I guess if you're feeling generous, you could call him that."
"Neat! See ya, QT." Steven gave a light wave to his new bionic acquaintance.
"Bye Steven. It was nice meeting you." QT returned the gesture, thankful that there was at least one courteous young man on this planet. There was however, this nagging sense of familiarity that he couldn't quite shake. Not with Steven himself, as he was rather sure he had never met the boy before, but his name, common as it was, stirred something in QT's worn databanks; Specifically, the impulse to grab Dandy (optional) and Meow (optional) and leave the system as quickly as possible. Money proved to be a wonderful anesthesia for such worries, and as he accepted another five dollars from a long-faced youth with spiky-white hair, the question of 'Where in the cosmos had he heard that name before?' ceased to be a concern.
Dandy was still flipping through his cash when Steven finally reached him, but the lad noticed that the stack of dollar notes wasn't very big and the man seemed to spend more time casting disapproving glares at his robotic crewmate than counting his money. This left Steven largely ignored, which was fine by him as it gave him a few moments to size up this audacious newcomer without feeling like a total creep for staring. Despite his leaning on the side of the ship, Steven could tell that Dandy was a rather tall fellow of about 30 or more years, lean in body and long in face, but with enough muscle on him that he avoided looking gangly. He was clothed in the jacket and jeans that Steven had spotted from afar, but while his attire wasn't particularly colorful, there were a few flourishes to it that nonetheless added a bit of flair to an otherwise subdued ensemble. Chief among them were his shoes. Most of it looked to be a run-of-the-mill brown leather boot with zippers on the side, but the outsole had either been shoved into or completely replaced by, well, Steven wanted to say big metal clogs that peaked into a steely, grinning mouth at the toe. These, combined with his shiny bracelet, jagged sideburns, golden triangle belt buckle, red shirt, stylized 'D' emblem on the left part of his jacket, and the outrageously trendy regent pompadour on his head reminded Steven of a nouveau-rockabilly. Never mind that he hadn't the foggiest idea what a nouveau-rockabilly was, he was just sure that the term fit this man like mittens and sweaters on kittens.
When it became apparent that Dandy wasn't about to stop scowling at QT anytime soon, Steven made a polite cough to get his attention with an "eh-hexcusme," thrown in for good measure. Naturally, Dandy's first reaction to being snapped out of his one-sided staring contest was to look left, then right, and most surprisingly, up, to locate the source of the disturbance. It took another "eh-hexcuseme," to finally get him to look down.
"Hi." Steven greeted with a smile on his face.
Dandy eyed the boy suspiciously. "Yo." He said, stuffing the cash into his jacket in case the sneaky child in front of him tried any funny business. "Can I help you with something?"
"I was hoping I could get a picture with you and your spaceship." Steven replied, pulling out a five dollar bill that was slightly more crumpled than when Jenny had given it to him.
Now it was Dandy's turn to smile. "Finally. Someone in this town with style and taste. Someone who can appreciate a real space stud of the stars instead of that banana peel-plated hunk of tin over there." Dandy thrust his finger in an oblivious QT's direction.
"QT? What's wrong with people liking him?"
Dandy crossed his arm over his chest and frowned. "What? Just because he's a robot? That's not that impressive. They're a dime-a-dozen if you know where to look. What's he got that I don't?"
Whoops of joy and excitement rang through the beach as QT began juggling Sour Cream and Buck into the air with his deceptively stringy arms.
"Can you do that?" Steven asked.
"Well the dude in the shades looks kind of hefty. Maybe if there was less gravity here and all things being equal…" Dandy trailed off. "…nah."
"There's no need to feel bad. I still think you look pretty cool." Steven assured.
This got him another grin from Dandy. "Do you now?" he asked, though his tone didn't make it seem like much of a question.
Steven nodded. "Yup. Especially your hair. That's a pretty impressive pomp."
"That it is. That it is." Dandy gave the side of his coveted, but seldom praised hairstyle a loving stroke. "And I think your shirt's pretty cool too."
"Sure." Dandy turned around, revealing that there was a bright yellow star, not unlike the one on Steven's rose-colored t-shirt, printed on the back of his jacket. "Like I said, you've got a sense of style."
Steven beamed at the compliment.
"Now." Dandy spun to face Steven again. "To business. Where would you like to immortalize the moment you met me and the Aloha-Oe here?" he asked, tapping the side of his ship.
"Hmm." Steven had to be careful about this. He only had five dollars on hand and if Ronaldo was as good at finding quarters as he was at finding non-Gem related paranormal activity, it was probably all the cash he'd get that day. "What are my options?"
"Well you could always take your picture with the mocha-skinned, ray gun-totting Mona Lisa over there." Dandy pointed to the upturned nose of the ship where a painted image of a scantily clad hula dancer with a silver, conical laser pistol alluringly seated next to teal letters that spelt out 'Aloha-Oe' could be seen. "Then there's the engine at the back." He thrust his thumb an immense black ball at the end of the vehicle that Steven hadn't noticed before due to it being cradled by a circular metal frame lined with four bullet-shaped thrusters. "The red glass rings around it light up hot pink when it's turned on. I could fire it up for a few minutes to give you a good shot of it."
"I'll keep that in mind." Steven said seriously.
"Straddling the Aloha Beam Cannon is a popular choice." Dandy gestured toward the orange outrigger.
"That's a gun?" Steven asked, simultaneously awed and nervous at this revelation.
"A BEAM gun and a pretty big one at that." Dandy proudly stated. "So you can sit on it, maybe get yourself a cowboy hat and pretend you're riding that hair-trigger howitzer all the way to Annihilationville, USA."
Even though Steven didn't own a cowboy hat, the offer did have its appeal. However, the word 'hair-trigger' and how the front of the Aloha Beam was pointed towards Beach City begged a very uncomfortable question. "What are the chances of it going off if I do?"
Despite his lack of formal education, even Steven knew that 'low' was, by definition, not the same as 'none'.
The young Universe gulped. "What else you got?"
Dandy scratched the side of his head, bemused. "Man, you are picky. All I've got left to offer is the cockpit."
Steven's response to what Dandy considered to be the most mundane part of his otherwise exceptional ship was as quick as it was unexpectedly enthusiastic.
"It's got a giant pompadour!" Steven exclaimed gleefully.
"The pointy fin prow thing!" Steven put his hands to his forehead, fingers pointed forward. "It's like a big metal pomp for the cockpit."
Dumbfounded, Dandy took a step back to gaze at his vessel of many years with new eyes. From a certain point of view, the kid was absolutely right. It did kind of look like the Aloha-Oe was sporting a bladed coif of house-sized proportions. He couldn't have designed it better himself. Not that he intended to let the boy know that. "G-good eye, baby. Not a lot of people pick up on this little design flourish. Isn't that just the way? Make something large and obvious enough, and folks will ignore it. Now come on." He said as he began to walk towards the cockpit. "You've got five whole big ones just itching to buy you an out-of-this-world selfie. And as my wittiest customer of the day, I might even let you take another."
"REALLY?!" Steven squealed with glee. The chance to take a second photo opened up a whole host of new and hilarious possibilities. He could take one of himself and then he could call up Connie and the Gems to join him in the second. Maybe if one of them had a few extra dollars on hand, they could go dutch and have Dandy fly them around in his ship. Pearl would probably like that most of all. "Give me a sec, I wanna make sure we do this right."
"Since our clothes kind of match, it's only natural that we have matching-." Steven took a small plastic comb out of his pocket and swept it through his hair, causing a large portion of it to bunch up at the front like a long black loaf. "-haircuts!"
Dandy blinked. Then he laughed. It was rich, deep, and tinged with mischief; the kind of laugh that could stand on its own regardless if anyone else found the source of its amusement funny. "Well when you're right, you're right." Dandy conceded. "You know something? I just realized that I haven't formally introduced myself." He raised his right hand in a two-finger salute and flashed a dazzling smile. "The name's Dandy, but you can call me Space Dandy."
"Your first name's Space?"
"In the way that matters." Dandy grinned.
This non-answer, purposely designed to elicit intrigue and mystique, was usually met with the rolling of eyes and the diverting of heads whenever it was made. Such was not the case with Steven. "That's crazy! My last name is Universe!"
"No fooling? That's a pretty badass surname."
"Yup." Steven mimicked Dandy's introductory gesture with his left index and middle fingers. "The name's Universe, Ste-."
"WHOAH!" Dandy suddenly grabbed Steven by the shoulder and forced the both of them into a crouching position. "Hold that thought, Mr. Universe." Dandy's bombastic voice had shrunk into a loud whisper. "I just spied two fine looking ladies giving me the eye at 3'o clock. Wait, no. Don't look. I don't want to scare them off."
"Do you think they want their picture taken with the ship, too?" Steven whispered.
"Nah, I think they're trying to see if I'm bad with kids. That's a major dealbreaker for some. Especially single mothers."
"Are you bad with kids?"
The smile Dandy had plastered on his face to keep his voyeurs at ease sagged a little. "Let's just say that I'm working on it. Although…I think you can help me make it look like I'm great with them." Hesitance immediately arrested the Steven's features. No doubt the lad had reservations when it came to deceiving people. "I'll show you around the inside of the Aloha-Oe if you do."
And just like that, those reservations were called off and asked to reschedule on account of management being offered a guided tour of the most awesome spaceship it had ever seen. "What's the plan?"
"Well in my experience, ladies love a guy who can bring joy and whimsy to children." Dandy explained. "Except if he's a clown."
"You've all ready given me plenty of both of those things." Steven assured.
A warm, fuzzy feeling filled Dandy's gut as he heard those words. He wondered if he was suffering from indigestion. "True, but I'm gonna need you to blatantly express that so those two smokin' hot mamas can see I did. So here's what we're gonna do. I'm going to tell you a joke, then you'll laugh at it, and I'll handle the rest."
"Sounds good. Joke away, Dandy!" Steven quietly exclaimed, ready to produce some manufactured glee. However, despite his accomplice's agreement to it, Dandy himself seemed hesitant to enact his scheme. "Any time you're ready."
"Huh. Now that I'm on the spot, nothing comes to mind. Um…" Unbeknownst to Dandy, a lot came to mind. It was just that his last few vestiges of common decency were holding back an odorous tide of some of the vilest gags in the galaxy to spare Steven a repertoire straight from an unwritten jokebook whose phantom pages had long since stuck together.
"I could laugh anyway!" Steven offered eagerly.
"Nice." Dandy clapped his hands together in brief applause. "Let 'er rip, kid."
"Hahahahahahahaha!" Steven laughed, trying to make it as loud and genuine as he could.
"That should do it." Dandy managed to say through a smile that was becoming more sincere by the second. "Now it's my turn. Keep your eyes on me, Mr. Universe. You might just learn something." He playfully ruffled Steven's hair to complete the illusion before standing up to face his oglers.
As Steven worked to repair his improvised pompadour, he wondered which of Beach City's outstanding bachelorettes had found themselves enamored with Dandy. Nanafuna was a widow, wasn't she? Perhaps Jenny had come back after returning the family car to the shop. He hoped it wasn't Sadie or Connie's mom. That might make things awkward. With his hair finally fixed, he turned to get a glimpse of his new friend's admirers. His surprise at who they were was swiftly transformed into curiosity as he wondered how things would play out once Dandy reached them.
Though the Slammerhead had made itself scarce, Dandy was having a pretty good day. QT was making them a tidy sum with his robotic antics, he had met a child that wasn't completely irritating, and he had even managed to get Meow out of the way for a little peace of mind. And now, there were two 8-9/10s that were looking right at him and didn't show signs of stopping as he approached. At this rate, he might make it out of this town completely undiscovered.
They were a rather colorful duo. The one on the right was a tall, red-skinned woman garbed in a very flattering black and crimson leotard that puffed at the shoulders and accentuated her robust hips and thick legs. Her eyes were covered by a pair of peach-pink full shield sunglasses with jagged edges where the lenses dipped and her stoic face was framed by a thick, formidable square afro. Her companion couldn't have been any more different, but she had her own distinct charms. She was a little on the short side, barely a head taller than QT, possessing light purple skin and a long, shaggy mane of white hair that made his eyes take in the entirety of her curvaceous stocky build. Her clothing was less exotic than her friend's; black leggings with star-shaped cut outs at the knee, a pair of white boots, but the off-shoulder tunic with the exposed sports bra-clad shoulder was always a winning combination no matter how you sliced it.
"You know it's kind of rude to stare." He playfully chastised as he reached them. "As a visitor to your fair city, it's my sacred right to be the one taking a gander at everything, not the other way around." He brought a hand to his chest as if to comfort his wounded heart after this grievous breach of tourism taboo. "But I'd be more than willing to forgive you two Technicolor damsels if you'd show me around town. And in exchange, I'd be more than happy to give you a very, very personal tour of your local solar system in my personal spaceship." He snapped his fingers and pointed them at the dusky damsel in the shades. "How does that sound?"
She winced in response, then turned away to rub at the area beneath her glasses, mouth settling into a frown.
"Uh…you all right?" Dandy asked, wondering if he had put too much charisma in the gesture.
"You're…" the tall one began. "…hard to look at." She finished, refusing to face Dandy as she did so.
"Ouch." It hadn't been the first time Dandy had heard that said to him and to his chagrin, he knew it probably wouldn't be the last. "That hurts, baby." He might've wondered why she had been staring at him during his conversation with the kid if it hadn't been for a squeal of barely restrained excitement coming from his left. "Well at least someone's happy to see me." He said, lowering his head to lock gazes with the alarmingly enthusiastic eyes of the smiling, violet half of the lasses. "How about you, gorgeous? Taking me up on my offer just means you don't have to share me with anyone else late-."
His offer was brought to an abrupt halt by a very loud, very annoying, and very familiar voice. "DANDY!"
He hung his head as his body shuddered in frustration, trying to keep his anger at being interrupted from showing. "Meow." Dandy said through gritted teeth, unwilling to look at his feline crewmate lest he give in to the temptation to trounce him. "Can't you see that I'm a little busy here?"
"You should be busy running! Look at the short one's chest!" Meow ordered from a considerable distance.
"Shame on you, Meow. I'm far too much of a gentleman to do something like that." Though Dandy had to admit, he had spent a little too much time studying their hips to the detriment of admiring their upper torso regions. Nothing he couldn't fix with the raising of his head and the opening of one eye. "But if you insist." He conceded, not even bothering to keep his voice down. "I don't think one little peek could hurrrrrrAUGH!" the sight of the gem partially concealed by Amethyst's top caused Dandy to fall backwards in shock. The sand made for an excellent cushion though, so much so that he felt completely comfortable scurrying backwards on it; his frightened gaze never shaking from the two Crystal Gems, even as he got himself upright a few yards away from them. He finally managed to tear his eyes away to cast a furious glance at where Meow's voice had come from.
The Betelgeusian couldn't have been more than two meters from where Dandy had chosen to stand; pizza box in his paws and a shaky smile on his face. "I got the pizza."
Now Dandy knew that getting angry at Meow wasn't going to help matters, but it felt rather appropriate and it would distract him from thinking about how utterly screwed they all were. "What the heck, Meow?! Why didn't you tell me that these two were out of their temple?"
"Yeah!" he heard Amethyst yell. "And how did you get here after we did? We've been standing here for like half an hour!"
"I might've…stopped for donuts on the way here." Meow confessed.
"Meow…" Dandy seethed, recognizing that the space cat's tone implied that there was more to his incompetence than that.
"And there might've been a slight detour at this french fry place. Then there was that retro arcade I ducked into…" The pizza box was shaking now. "But that was all to get them off our trail."
"You told us where he was." Amethyst reminded.
"Seriously? And why didn't you just call me on your communicator so we could get the hell out of dodge?!" Dandy tapped the gold band on his left wrist for emphasis.
"Th-that's beside the point!" Meow said, his crocs inching little by little in the Aloha-Oe's direction.
"That is the absolute largest point right now, you walking mountain of dandruff!" Dandy yelled. "Because you couldn't keep your big mouth shut, I've fallen into this massive honey trap. She's probably on her way right now with spears and swords and god knows what else!"
"Why would she do that?" Amethyst asked, the mention of pointy weaponry making it quite clear who Dandy was talking about, if not her motivations for assaulting him with said implements.
His rage having muted his fear, Dandy moved to face what he thought to be one of the agents of his destruction. "You know exactly wh-wait." It was confusion's turn to take the wheel. "What did you say?"
"I said why would she do that?"
"You guys don't know?" Dandy asked, feeling very much like a lamb who didn't know whether to be relieved or wary when if found out that the wolf chasing it was actually something in a wolf costume. On one hand, it probably wasn't a wolf, but something deranged enough to dress and act like one might be just as deadly. "She never told you about me?"
Amethyst shook her head. Garnet was too busy rubbing her temples to reply, but Dandy was going to consider that a negative.
"Huh. I'm a little insulted that she didn't." Dandy muttered. "But it's not something you two should worry about." He let out a strained laugh that failed to elicit so much as a chortle from anyone else. "But out of curiosity, she didn't see me and my ship come in did she?"
Dandy let out a sight of relief. "Great."
"But I did tell her someone dandy was at the beach."
"WHAT?!" He cringed, but noticed that there was still a small glimmer of hope in this scenario, a hole in her statement that he might still be able to crawl through to safety. "That can't be right! She'd be here by now if you did!"
Amethyst crossed her arms over her chest as her face became the very picture of smug triumph. "It was a bit of a delayed message."
At that, something big, fast, and pink shot right past Dandy and slammed into Meow, causing it and him to tumble across the sand in a whirl of earth and fur. To the Betelgeusian's relief, when the tumult finally came to a halt, he found that he had managed to keep a hold on his pizza. To the immediate cessation of that relief, he soon realized that he was being pinned to the ground by what could only be described as a big, pink lion.
"AUGH!" Ronaldo yelled from somewhere. "The robot horde is attacking us with lions!"
"MEOW!" an alarmed autotuned voice yelled as QT speeded towards his fallen companion. "Don't worry. J-just stay still and I'll think of some way to-" The lion roared in the charging robot's direction, sending out a bright pink shockwave of sound and light that blew the automaton away. "Ahhhhh!"
"Sonuva-!" Dandy whipped something out from behind him. It resembled a white, red, and blue version of the ray gun the mascot of his ship wielded. He pointed the laser pistol at the beast, his finger on its trigger. "Get your paws off of the cat, cat! And keep those sonic jaws of yours shut! Because I'm pretty sure I charged this thing today!" he threatened, trying to sound confident.
Meow held no such reservations about how tree-climbingly terrified he actually was. "SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT! SHOOT IT!"
"I don't think that's such a good idea." QT groggily warned, having gotten himself back on his wheels. "Given his usual level of accuracy, Dandy would probably end up killing you too."
"I DON'T CARE!" Meow wretched as a sliver of drool from the lion's open jaws fell into his shrieking mouth. "I'D RATHER GET VAPORIZED THAN EATEN!"
"Last chance, fuzzball!" Dandy cried, but the lion refused to budge and the gradual opening of its maw over Meow's hysterical face made its intentions unmistakable. "Fine," his finger tightened. "Have it your way, you cotton candied creep."
Dire as the situation was, Dandy took a moment to appreciate that this was one of the clearest shots he'd ever been presented with in his many years of spotty marksmanship. At this range and with a target that big, there was probably a 60% chance that Meow would come out of this completely unscathed. So it was only natural that as he was about to fire, the kid came between him and the lion.
"Stop!" Steven pleaded, raising his arms to his sides as if to act as even more of a human shield to the enormous carnivore behind him. "Don't shoot!"
"What the-? Universe?! Get out of the way! I'm about to teach this yarn-chasing nimrod a lesson about bullying smaller and dumber members of his kind!"
Meow howled in despair. "IF THERE'S ANYONE LISTENING UP THERE, PLEASE DON'T LET ME DIE WHILE EVERYONE STILL THINKS I'M A CAT!"
"Try to calm down, Mr. Space Cat!" Steven recommended. "He really hates it when his meals scream at him!"
The Betelgeusian's reaction to being called a meal was as predictable as it was cacophonic.
"How do you even know that?" Dandy asked as he wondered if he could shoot over Steven's head somehow.
"That's because he's kind of my lion?" Steven reluctantly admitted. "So believe me when I say that I'm sure this is all a huge misunderstanding. And if you could put down your pointy space gun, that might make things better."
"Kind of? Might?! Kid, I don't know what you're trying to pull, but you can either get your 'pet' off of Meow or get out of the way. Because nothing, except maybe my arms getting tired, is going to make me lower this blaster!"
Suddenly, Dandy felt something fly past the back of his head, followed by the hair there being tugged sideways and his ears popping from the sharp crack of the sound barrier being broken. Then there was another sonic boom, this one to the left of him, and carried with it a lesser clamor that he immediately recognized: the din of something colliding with the Aloha-Oe.
"Awwwwwwww yes!" Amethyst exclaimed. "IT'S HAPPENING!"
When Dandy looked to his ship to see what had occurred, he wasn't sure what 'it' was supposed to be apart from that it was 'happening'. Was 'it' the Aloha-Oe being lifted off of the ground by the force of the phantom blow? Perhaps 'it' was how the attack caused the ship to tilt so much that it ended up balancing on the pointed posterior that was its engine. Or maybe 'it' was how, to the horror of its crew, the Aloha-Oe fell backwards onto the sand, leaving the craft upside-down and its immense horned bow buried in the surf.
The object that fell spinning from the sky and imbedded itself into the ground in front of him was a major clue. The ivory shaft caught his attention first, but the ornate turquoise end of it that fed into the ground was what ultimately made him realize what 'it' was.
He looked back where the spear had been thrown to see 'it' leap over her companions. His blaster hung lamely at his side as 'it' skidded to a halt in front of him and spun. There was little he could do when 'It' lashed out with a deceptively lithe leg whose foot stopped just inches from his throat in the middle of the roundhouse kick. 'It' was also very, very unhappy to see him.
Dandy gulped, his Adam's Apple lightly grazing the sole of a ballet slipper.
"Let go of it, dummy!" Amethyst yelled.
"Pearl! Get out of there! Let go!" Garnet demanded.
"No! I've found its weak spot! I can do this! I can take it down!" Was what she had said.
She should have listened to them.
If she had, then she wouldn't have been dragged into the sky amidst a living storm of scrap metal and compost. There was little she remembered from that point onward apart from how its roars died as they escaped the atmosphere and how her attempts to drive her spear deeper into its back turned into a desperate effort to hold onto the weapon for dear life. There was a tremendous pink flash, followed by one last devastating buffet of force that completely drained her of strength. Her body broke under the assault and her last thoughts before slipping into the darkness were of the Temple and the hope that her gem would survive the fall back to Earth. The others would give her such a talking to if she made it home.
She almost dreaded coming out of stasis, even though it was a clear indication that she hadn't been ground into gem dust from the impact of her landing. Because now it was time to plan for the long trek home. Or the long voyage home. Or maybe she could stow away on a transport flight of some kind. Regardless, the chore ahead needed to be done, however unpleasant its finish. She was alive. She could move. And most importantly, she could think. There was no excuse for her not to make her way back to Beach City. Upon opening her eyes to take in her surroundings, she realized that, once again, she was wrong. For there was a very sizable excuse as to why she couldn't just walk or sail back to the Temple.
Looking up had been her first instinct as she could perhaps use the position of the sun or stars to help determine where she was. There was an abundance of both beyond the domed window above her, but all of them told her the same thing. She couldn't possibly be on Earth anymore. And though she knew that the prospect should have distressed and horrified her, she couldn't bring herself to really care. All that she could feel at the moment was awe.
How long had it been since she had seen the titanic and sublime body of a nebula with her naked eye? When was the last time the colors of the stars were anything other than a dull white or blue? Human poets and philosophers bemoaned the blackness of night and the empty void above, but being trapped on Earth robbed them of the ability to see how gorgeous and full they were. Space had layers and tones, shape and scale. The reds, blues, greens, and purples of the infinite horizon, cast from the reflections of countless celestial embers bouncing off one another and massive clouds of elemental matter. A cluster of blazing heavenly bodies, some gold, some orange, some blue, all beautiful, lay before her and she could, for the first time in years, easily tell which ones were closer and which ones were farther from her.
If she felt so inclined, she could study their placement and hash out a vague idea of where in the galaxy the Shatterlite had taken her. But that part of Pearl was silent. Logic and propriety sat alongside wonder and melancholy as they took in this familiar sight and drank in the almost forgotten feeling of being liberated by the largeness of the universe instead of trapped by it. Peaceful. That was it. Far from a land of decay and conflict, distant from those she bickered with and loved, she felt peaceful. Had it really been so long since she experienced such absolute tranquility? Would she need to strand herself on a destitute world for centuries, for millennia until she escaped so she could feel like this again?
Then she noticed the palm tree.
Then came the string.
Had she been paying attention, she might've avoided it, but she was far too bewildered by how a tree from the world she had been wrested from had apparently chased her here. It snapped around her in an instant. Thin, but surprisingly strong, as it resisted her instinctive attempts to break out of it. Her legs bound together and her arms tied to her chest, there was nothing she could do as her struggles sent her tumbling to the ground.
In a single dizzying instant, the gentle, ethereal stars in her vision were replaced with a hard, metal floor.
"Oh yeah! Two for two, QT!"
To be continued…
Author Note: Sorry that this chapter was so long. With everything set up, future installments should only be a third or a half of this one in length. Hopefully.
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