A fight with the Crystal Gems has left Peridot cracked within an inch of her life. Trapped on Earth, with no one and no way to get home, Peridot's all but given up hope. But she doesn't know the lengths Steven is willing to go to in order to keep her alive.


22. 22

Howlite carved out a rut in the beach. She paced with high, cautious steps. The sand was cool in this section, the sky blotchy and pink with the impending sunset. It was quiet here, calm, with a salty dry wind rolling over the sand dunes. The steady lap of the ocean should have been soothing, but Howlite’s mind wouldn’t let her relax.

Her movements grew faster and more agitated as she glanced down at her boots. They bore lightning-shaped streaks of sand, filling up cracked seams which hadn’t been there before. They climbed upward, toward her, and for the moment she could imagine them consuming her entirely, breaking her down to tiny mineral shards. She clamped her hand to her chest and resumed pacing.

“Ma’am,” she said to the empty air. It earned no response; the ship was too far away for any of the hustling noise it generated to carry over. It smoldered, seemingly in silence, a few hundred yards off. The Crystal System Gems’ base sat an equal distance away, but in the other direction. It was silent too, unmoving, and dark. Howlite had all but removed herself from the world. “Ma’am,” Howlite ventured again, “I have a favor to ask you.”

She paused, quieted. A cold whistling of wind blew loose strands of hair across her face. She didn’t open her mouth again while the wind churned. She fixed her eyes instead on the System’s sun, which dropped lower in the sky.

The wind stopped, and Howlite brushed her hair away.

“Ma’am, as I’m sure you’re aware, Homeworld Standards of Conduct require that all cracked Gems be reported…and, and that…they—“ She faltered. Her toes dug furrows in the sand. “I have the Refinery Request form filled out for Peridot; I’ve taken the liberty of filling out a second one for…uh…f-for me…and it just requires your signature if you…could…”

Howlite shook her head. She let her chin drop against her collar bone and pressed her hands to either side of her head. “Ma’am, I’ve looked into it. Yellow Diamond recently ordered a batch of 40 new Howlites from the Beta-Phi System—top notch polishing tactics on those Gems, guaranteed for 7,000 years of active duty. I’m sure Yellow Diamond would…be kind enough to provide you with one…”

Howlite dropped down into the sand then. She pooled her hands in her lap, surveying the thin fissure on her gem. It cracked through more than halfway in depth, building an opaque wall when viewed from the side. It exhausted Howlite; it sent shivers of numbness over her body.

“It would be a mission hazard, quite simply, if I were kept on active duty! It’s in the Handbook Ma’am—no cracked Gem should pilot any craft unless in a state of emergency. It’s on…page…” Howlite ran her gem-less hand through her hair, huffing. She let out a small laugh. “Ma’am, now I think we can all agree that the crash was no one’s fault. I am very glad we will all be returning to Homeworld safely. However, I will be taking myself to the Refinery along with Peridot when we dock. I just need you to sign…the release.”

Howlite quieted then. The cool sand felt good; it abated the hot flashes of static that roamed over her body when she put pressure on her gem. Howlite invested herself in it then; she studied the zigzagging splinters along its surface. Her left thumb pressed down on the crack, as though it were only a bodily bruise, and braced herself against the hot sting it sent raking through her core. “Oh…oh gosh…”

Howlite released her gem. She plunged both hands into the cool, malleable sand. She swept them together, building up a mound, a castle. She stared at it as she drew her hands back. “I…I’m sorry Ma’am, but I’ve failed my mission. Whoever replaces me will do an upstanding job, I promise. Please just…sign the release…Ma’am.”

Carefully, Howlite lowered herself backwards into the sand. She spread her arms and feet wide, and scrunched up her nose, which was still black and sooty. She didn’t know if she should clean it—Did the Refinery have cleanliness regulations? Would it gum up the gears if she walked herself into it without cleaning off her gem? How long would her body exist once she was inside—long enough to matter whether there was soot on her face and sand in her hair? Howlite didn’t know. She’d only ever seen dead-eyed Gems enter. The only Gems who’d seen the inside of the Refinery never came out.

“Commander Cinnabar will be fine without me,” Howlite told herself. She held her hand up in the sky, eyes set to the cracked gem embedded on its back. “I’ll be used to power something…important.”

Crack, some noise small and sharp shot out from Howlite’s left. Howlite spun and rolled then, startled back into reality. She scrambled into a sitting position as her eyes swept back and forth for the source of the noise. Another breath of wind shot out, and dustings of sand rolled down from the dunes in thin blankets. Howlite listened intently, but only the wind answered.

“I heard…whatever that was! Present yourself! I’m here in the name of Crystal System Commander Cinnabar!” Howlite shouted, though she didn’t bother standing. She remained sitting and rubbed self-consciously at her arms and uniform. Her whole body was coated in a layer of cool sand.

Her eyes flickered to the left. A row of tall, grassy plants trembled in response. They built up bushes with long stringy blades, which slumped under their own weight. After a moment of hesitation, two patches of grass split from each other. They produced a creature, which used its hands to brush the plants aside. It moved slowly, and carefully.

The thing was just a touch shorter than Howlite, and wore of uniform of white and gray stripes. Its hair was bushy and black, its body stocky. It bore skin the same color as the sand that surrounded it. This creature was soft, by the looks of it, and rather weak.

“Oh, hello,” Howlite said to it. She pushed herself to her knees, cocked her head, and held her gemless hand out. It drew back just a touch. “Oh you’re cute. What sort of alien are you?”

The thing blinked in response. Its eyes were lined with puffy, dark bags underneath, and its whites were tainted with a touch of red. It took a moment to process the words.

“No, you’re the alien,” it said.

Howlite sat back on her haunches and considered this. “Huh, yeah I suppose I am. I’m an alien to you…how weird.” She moved her gem-laden hand behind her back, removing it from sight. “Oh but you understand words! What are you? What’s your name?”

“I’m…I’m a dog. Earth has dogs.” The dog rubbed its hands against its soft sleeves. “I’m—this is what a dog looks like.”

Howlite nodded at this. “I’ve only ever heard of humans. We were looking for one before—a half-human, half-Gem actually. Never found it.”

The dog puckered its lips at this. “That doesn’t sound like it makes any sense. It’s probably fake.”

Howlite responded with another nod. She pushed herself to her feet and approached the dog, left hand out in offering. When the dog didn’t back away, she flipped her hand and patted the dog’s fluffy hair. “Yup, it was fake. We triple-checked the ship’s gem detector, and everything’s accounted for. We’re actually going home now. It was nice meeting you though!”

The dog’s wary eyes looked Howlite up and down. It opened its mouth wide and yawned, but not intentionally it seemed. The dog quickly covered its mouth with a hand and fixed Howlite with a wide purposeful stare. “Hey uh, what are you guys gonna do with that Gem? That one that just got back to your ship?”

“Who, Peridot?” Howlite glanced instinctively to the ship. It was a dark, skeletal thing in the background. Tiny Gems moved around its exterior like worker ants. “Do you know her?”

“I…um…I’m a pet?” the dog answered. It spoke with a sudden spark of anxiety in its voice. “Of the Crystal Gems? Do you know…what a pet is?”

Howlite placed her hand low and horizontal to the ground. “Oh yeah, some cute little creature you keep around for fun. I knew a lot of them before I was assigned to the Crystal System. They always liked me…” Howlite looked up to the sky before dropping her attention back to the dog. “Do you do tricks? What did they name you?”

“I—uh—I’m Lion,” the pet answered, hands twisting in its shirt. “And tricks—maybe later. Can you tell me? What’s gonna happen to Peridot?”

Howlite stared hard into Lion’s eyes. The gears in her head turned, before she snapped her fingers in revelation. “Oh! They kept Peridot in your crate. The Amethyst said she was in a dog crate. And you’re the dog!”

“What’s gonna happen to Peridot? Please!” Lion took a step forward. Its feet were bare, and the soles were coated in sand, turning blue. Lion shivered with a fresh burst of wind, and Howlite felt a certain stab of wrongness in her chest.

“She uh—She’ll be sent to the Refinery, where all cracked Gems go. It’s normal. Don’t worry.”

“What’s that mean, though?” Lion persisted. It took another step forward. “What happens to her there?”

Howlite wrung her hands. She avoided looking at the pet. It suddenly…wasn’t so cute. “I, uh…I-I dunno. Her gem gets…ground up? Oh dear. Uh, no—I mean I don’t think it’s painful. I don’t…I don’t know that for certain, actually. No one does. Gems don’t…come out of the Refinery.” Howlite clasped her left hand over her right; they buzzed with numbing static. She twisted on her heels. “I’ve got to get back to the ship. Cinnabar needs—“

“Wait!” the dog protested. It threw a frantic hand out, before taking to stuttering. “No…No I need. I uh…No, no no no no no…” It looked over its shoulder, back to the brush it’d popped out of. “Hang on please.”

It kicked up sand as it ran. Lion dunked its arms back among the reeds, brushing them back until something scratched, dented, and heavy appeared. Two somethings. Lion took the things in its arms and moved with hobbling steps back to Howlite.

Peridot’s arms, Howlite at least guessed. She knew the prisoner was missing arms, and these seemed…close.

“Would you…I-I mean if nothing else—please, these are Peridot’s! She needs them. Maybe—I mean. I can’t—can I go see her?” Lion asked, and its voice broke as it asked. There were tears now in its eyes. Those wide, shiny things. They possessed Howlite to move forward.

“I uh…I don’t think I should. Take you there, I-I mean. I’m not supposed to be out here. I was just practicing—“ Howlite swallowed her words. Pangs of guilt shot through her stomach as she looked at the frantic pet. “I uh, I can bring the…arms on board. I mean, they probably should be recycled anyway?”

The words seemed to terrify the little dog. Its eyes went wide, and its face went whiter. It shook its head.

“No, no please give them to her. She at least…deserves…” the dog faltered. It dropped its eyes to the sand. “You really—I can’t see her? Not even for a little?”

Howlite took to methodical shakes of her head. She stepped forward, and eased the arms out of the dog’s grip. “S-sorry. I mean, I’ll give her the arms. If you want. They—well I dunno how she’s gonna carry them when she’s got no arms. But uh—do they…reattach?”

The dog ignored Howlite’s question.

“A-and when you give them back to her, would you please…tell her I’m sorry? Tell her the arms are from me. It’s all I could do.” the dog had turned to the ship. Howlite twisted to follow the line of sight. The tall Gem which had brought Peridot out to the beach still stood there—obvious with her height. But now the other two uncracked Gems flanked her, the Pearl and the Amethyst. Howlite did a once-over for Tourmaline, but the Gem wasn’t there. She hadn’t expected anything different; Cinnabar said Tourmaline had been cracked beyond saving.

Howlite hoisted the arms higher in her grip. They were heavier than they looked, and the crawling numbness in her body threw off any sense she had of how tightly she was holding them. “Sure thing, doggy.” She moved forward, and twisted her body around. She freed her left hand from the arm stack and used it to pat Lion on the head. “And don’t you worry, Commander Cinnabar always knows the best thing to do.” Howlite twisted back to the ship. Her eyes lingered on the three Crystal Gems who’d gathered to watch the rebuilding. It filled her with unease. “Do you…maybe want to go see your owners?” she asked.

The dog didn’t answer. When Howlite twisted back around, the dog had vanished.

Check the tank pressure gauge—third dial from the left. Make sure it’s between 50-100 psi… Well then pull the hatch for “N2 inflation” until it is between 50-100… No that doesn’t—just make it 50 okay?!…

No, ignore the scratches. We don’t build these ships out of garbage. Just seal the cracks that go through the hull. I’d be dead long before you finished if you got every little scratch…

Did you run the Systems check?… Run it again. Yes, again. I don’t care how long it took the first time—Are you gonna trust your life to one reading? God, Yellow Diamond would have ground you up ages ago if you were me. …Yes I know you’re not a technician Gem. That’s why you’re listening to me. Now do it…

Peridot watched the last in a long stream of tiny Gems hobble off, arms full of equipment she clearly didn’t know how to use. Years of active duty prompted Peridot to stand and go investigate every piece of machinery herself, but it took every bit of strength she had left to even remain sitting. The apathy it had brought on was welcome, but the physical handicaps were an inconvenience to say the least. She could only trust the blueprints in her mind when the Gems came to her with problems.

Peridot’s attention shifted as a distinct hum rang out from the ship; it grew into a full, shuddering, thrashing rumble. The harsh grate of the engines roared at full volume for a solid five seconds, before cutting to a near silent purr. The air vibrated with new gusts of heat. A green Gem this time appeared at the open hatch, grinning ear to ear. She swung her arms about in the air and hopped from foot to foot.

Cinnabar moved with a forced calm, hands locked behind her back. She’d broken off mid-sentence with another underling to go meet the green Gem by the hatch. A short, near silent conversation followed, and Cinnabar spun to address the rest of the shore.

“The ship is operational! Jade is running one final System Check, we’ll be off-planet within half an hour. Be ready.” Her sharp eyes flickered to Peridot. “Peridot, are there any other issues we should be aware of?”

Peridot stared back at the Gem Commander—a mere hazy red blur now. Peridot shrugged as best she could. “If we blow up mid-flight, we’ll know.”

Cinnabar held her composure, but Peridot indulged herself in imaging what string of curses had just fired through the Commander’s mind. If she were still fused, she’d be able to know exactly.

The thought caused a rolling sense of dread to move through her stomach, and so she blocked it down. She focused instead on the cool sand beneath her, a nice contrast to the hot stinging bursts that shot through her gem at odd intervals.

A new movement caught her attention. Garnet had finally shifted—Pearl and Amethyst too, since they’d joined. She didn’t know what they’d been doing at the shore; she wished she didn’t care. Peridot had spent the last half hour internally hoping they’d leave. But of course they wouldn’t be the Crystal Clods if they ever left her alone—even to die.

She gritted her teeth now as it became clear that Garnet was moving in her direction. The two other Gems followed in tow, Pearl sweeping behind with hardly a mark on the beach and Amethyst plodding with deep furrows left in the sand. Peridot averted her eyes from them, but she didn’t have the balance nor the strength to twist herself away entirely.

“We uh…we hope you have a safe trip,” It was Pearl spoke, and it was with an irriating uncertainty. Peridot gave a fast guffaw, and she reveled in the discomfort that radiated from Pearl. “It was…a figure of speech, sorry.”

“I think what Pearl meant is uh…thanks for being such a sport? You know? I mean you definitely did try to kill us like…more than once. But this is pretty cool of you. We respect that.” Amethyst eased herself behind Pearl’s leg, sheltering herself.

“Steven is…very upset, with the turn of events.” Pearl clasped her hands together. She kicked back slightly against Amethyst. “It is remarkable that you, as a Homeworld Gem… Well that sounds bad–I mean to say… I uh…hmm.” Pearl’s head twitched then, her eyes trained on Garnet.

“You’re going to die, Peridot.” Garnet moved forward. She blocked out the other two Gems. “Die proud of yourself, for Steven’s sake.”

Peridot felt her lip twitch. Hot anger hit her then, but she didn’t have the energy to maintain it. “Yeah okay, now get out of here. Your breath stinks,” she muttered back, staring forward at the ship.

Garnet responded with a slight, near-silent laugh, and she turned away. Pearl and Amethyst watched her for cues. Peridot held her breath as they all turned away, moving farther, becoming smaller. She found her mouth opening of its own accord before the Gems were more than a few yards away.

“A-and tell Steven—“ Peridot cut herself off. The Crystal Gems turned to look at her, though they didn’t say anything. Peridot only stared down into the sand. She drew her legs in, but they pushed back out with the unstable sand. Annoyance pulsed through her veins “—tell him whatever you want. Tell him I lived or something. Who cares.”

“Steven is smarter than that,” Garnet answered.

Peridot laughed. “Well he was dumb enough to care about me.”

Peridot fell silent as footsteps approached. She didn’t need to look up to know it was Cinnabar—she was the only invading Gem big enough to make a sound as she moved across the beach. The Crystal Gems all cleared a space for her. Her shadow moved over Peridot, blanketing her and blotting out what bit of the sun peeked past the ship. When Cinnabar spoke, her words were directed to the Crystal Gems.

“We’re leaving now. We won’t be back. Thank you for returning Homeworld property.” Cinnabar glanced over her shoulder to Peridot, and her face was a mask of pure disdain when Peridot glanced up to meet the address. “Yellow Diamond will be pleased.”

She placed one hand out, which Garnet met. For the thousandth time, Peridot counted her blessings that she was at least rid of Tourmaline’s intuition. The tension may have cracked her gem straight through, then and there.

Ma’am! Ma’am Ma’am are we leaving?”

Peridot couldn’t turn, but she knew it was Howlite approaching from the other end of the beach. A clunking beat came with the Gem’s steps.

“Yes, get on board.” There was a pause in Cinnabar’s words. She twisted to look down at Peridot, then back to Howlite. “Are those—“

“Peridot’s…arms, Ma’am. Yes.”

Peridot’s head snapped up at this. She dug her one stumped arm into the beach to twist as much as possible. The little black-and-white Gem tilted backwards to support the two clunky, dented pieces of machinery. The two made eye contact, and Peridot watched Howlite survey her body, as if searching for a way to hand them off.

Peridot forced down a yelp when Cinnabar’s left arm wrapped around her midsection. Cinnabar lifted her into the air, as though weightless, and sent new thrumming pulses of agony through her cracked gem. Peridot clenched her teeth, shut her eyes, and forgot for the moment about everything but her own gem.

“You three can leave now. My condolences to Tourmaline.”

The world shifted—Cinnabar had turned, moving now in what Peridot assumed was the direction of the ship. Peridot cracked her eyes open, but the world remained dim. Only dark, faint shapes now passed under her eyes. The moving beach, Cinnabar’s sharp-toed shoes.

“Ma’am?” a shaky voice spoke from behind. The steady clunk clunk clunk suggested it was still Howlite, huffing forward with Peridot’s arms in her grip. “Ma’am, there’s something important I need to tell you.”

Cinnabar hoisted Peridot higher as she started to slip. It spun the world around Peridot, who gritted her teeth harder. “What, Howlite?”

“It—I… I um…s-something happened, on this mission…that you should know about.” Howlite’s voice wobbled, volume dying. Peridot could sense Cinnabar’s arm tighten around her.

What, Howlite?”

“U-u-uhhmm.” Howlite fell silent. Darkness filled Peridot’s vision as they climbed inside the hull of the ship. The interior was cold, and the Gems’ footsteps took to sharp, echoing clacks. “I…I um…I met a very friendly dog, Ma’am. It’s an Earth creature. It was very cute.”

The sharp clatter of a metal door sliding along its tracks filled Peridot’s ears. The breath escaped her lungs as she was thrust forward. Cinnabar released her, and she landed in a tangle on the cold metal floor. The same sliding met her ears—the door shutting now, composed of metal bars in vertical alignment. “Fascinating.”

Howlite lingered when Cinnabar turned away. Through bleary, fading eyes, Peridot could see the way the smaller Gem hesitated by the door.

“Uh, Ma’am? I-I was going to give Peridot her…arms back.”

“What’s she going to do with those? Get to the Control Room.”

“Y-yes’m,” Howlite answered with a clumsy attempt at a salute. She turned entirely away from Peridot, silent as her Commander receded down the hallway. “I’ll um…h-hang on to these, for now, Ma’am.”

Howlite gave one last terrified glance to Peridot over her shoulder. Peridot couldn’t read the expression, but for her own gratification she pretended it was apologetic. Her mind conjured up the devastated expression on Steven’s face the moment she was dragged out the door. Peridot shut her eyes, shut out her surroundings, as she pressed herself against the back wall.

“We’ll uh…we’ll come get you if there are any technical difficulties during the flight,” Howlite said. Peridot pretended not to hear. “Y-you’re still important. …Cracked Gems are still important.”

Peridot buried herself deep in her own mind. She dismissed the image of the black and white Gem, and mentally transplanted Steven in the vacant place.Cracked Gems are still important. It seemed like something he’d say. She reimagined it in his voice, and felt some of the tension ease out of her chest.

The little Gem’s footsteps receded. It was a cold silence that followed, broken thirty seconds later by the sound of the engine firing up.

Within the minute, the stuttering, jagged upwards acceleration marked the ship’s lift-off. The pressure in the ship mounted, artificial, and a battery of trembles and shudders rocked the ship. Harsh white noise assaulted her ears.

Peridot cracked her eyes open. She watched the metal grated floor as it shook beneath her; she looked to the bars containing her—a holding cell. They hadn’t even activated the Gem shield.

Her eyes drifted shut again. It took too much energy to keep them open.

And it took too much effort to care.

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