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Desert Hospitality

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Erika sees them first, though only seconds before Erika and Erika. Erika has been spending time focusing on the horizon, trying to see a little further every day. Today is the first day Erika has any proof that this has been a productive pursuit; most of the Erikas agree that Erika is going to ruin Erika’s eyesight straining for the horizon.

But today, Erika is vindicated and victorious. For on the horizon, Erika sees four figures shimmering into being at the very edge of the desert otherworld after a flash of light as short and compelling as the green ray.

“Who are they?” Erika asks the others, squinting to see if there are any new details. One is very tall, two are very short, and the other is in-between. All of them shimmer like mirages, almost as if they might disappear as suddenly as they appeared.

“Strangers,” Erika replies, putting a hand over Erika’s eyes to keep the sun from skewing the view. “They smell different. They are not angels. I am not sure they are humans, either.”

Erika worries. “Are they other?” Erika asks, which is how angels attempt to discuss demons without using the word, which is considered petty and somewhat racist after centuries of human misuse.

“Not precisely,” another Erika decides, leaning forward to catch the scent of the strangers. “They are strangers. Not human, not angel, not other. They are strangers and we owe them hospitality.”

“What if they have violent intentions?” Erika says. No, not that Erika. The Erika who saw the strangers first, whose ears are pricked up with hope of an adventure and whose heart is beating faster at the potential danger of strangers who appear out of nowhere into the desert otherworld. “What if our hospitality is misused?”

“It is still owed,” Erika decides with a solid nod. “We should greet them now and assess their intentions. If they continue to be strangers and not guests, perhaps our hospitality will be rescinded. This is our desert, and thus our rules must be respect if not followed to the letter.”

All of the angels bob their heads in agreement and fly toward the strangers, the sun reflecting off their wings, which are not feathery like bird wings, nor leathery like bat wings. Angel wings have the iridescence of insect wings, but a shape that is so beautiful and aerodynamic to bring a raptor to tears. Indeed, Erika raced a falcon last week and it had fallen to the ground in exhausted death throes, weeping not from frustration or envy or rage at being beaten, but in awe at the beauty and perfection of Erika’s wings.

They reach the strangers in a small amount of time, probably no more than an hour. Time and distance work differently in the desert. The sun moves according to its whim, not according to the orbit it has been assigned to. Shadows are not always shadows. Strangers may be guests or may be enemies. Nothing is quite what it seems.

“Hello,” Erika says together, waving to the strangers, who are not other, but are very strange indeed.

There are three women and one boy. At least, it appears they are three women and one boy. Erika realizes immediately that the women are not women, but they are not not women.

The tall one is made of coiled power, her black hair a square around her face, a pair of glasses reflecting the faces of the Erikas at themselves. Her legs are strong and graceful, her stance that of a warrior. There is no expression on her face, simply an air of patient, silent waiting.

“Hello,” she says in a voice made of velvet, menace, and quiet.

Next to her is a flute of a woman with the body of a ballerina, pale and twitchy with huge blue eyes that dart between the Erikas, her emotions evident to everyone. She does not trust them. Like the Erikas, she knows that strangers might be guests, but can also be enemies. The ballerina wants to demand names, places, information, but she is correct and proper. Guests do not have the right to demand names, places, ranks, or other information. They must wait and be polite.

“We are angels. Our name is Erika,” Erika says in an attempt to mollify the ballerina. It is the job of the host to be polite and to offer hospitality and openness to potential guests and Erika has decided to be the host, after all. “Who are you?”

“We’re the Crystal Gems,” the third woman says with a roll of her eyes. She is the least and most like a human woman. There is no air of inhuman calm or intelligence about her. She is short and plump and energetic in her carriage. The human illusion is marred by her purple skin. And yet she has an almost-human sense of humor neither of the other stranger women does. “Nice desert you got here. Lots of nothing for miles and miles.”

“Amethyst!” the ballerina snaps at the purple woman.

“What? This place is a big sandy dump,” Amethyst says with an exaggerated, human-style shrug, as if she is a young woman. “No offense.”

None of them are young. None of them are new to the rules of hospitality or guests who might be enemies.

“None taken,” Erika says with a cheery smile. “Hello, Crystal Gems. What are your names?”

“Well, I’m Amethyst,” the purple one says, continuing to play the odd game all of the beings have silently agreed to play to prevent any hostility. “This is Pearl-“ she points at the pale ballerina, whose mouth was knitted with perturbation and rage, “And that’s Garnet.”

“Howdy,” Garnet says, deadpan.

“Good afternoon, Crystal Gems,” Erika replies politely. “Why have you come to our desert?”

Erika takes a closer look at the boy, who is clearly dear to them, and just as clearly not quite like them.

The boy is unremarkable except that he is wholly unique. Erika can feel how unique the boy is to the bone. He has a pudgy, tanned face that is smudged with dirt, a mop of curly black hair, and a t-shirt with a star on it. He also radiates power as pure as water from a mountain spring and as strong as a river swollen by spring rains. It is surprising how non-threatening he seems to Erika nonetheless.

“We’re on a mission,” Pearl says, fidgeting. “We have reason to believe that a corrupted Gem…a monster…has found its way here and we need to find it and neutralize it.”

She gazes at the boy for a split-second and the Erikas understand. These women are ancient warriors, like the giants, but the boy is truly a boy. He is not ready for a full understanding of their duty and mission yet. He is being trained, but these not-human women do not wish to break his heart with the cruelty of their true work.

They relentlessly hunt down their own like dogs. Why, Erika is unsure, but these Gems believe it is necessary and they will go to the ends of the earth to find their prey.

“We have sensed no other strangers like you here,” Erika says. “The desert is vast, but we are familiar with it.”

Erika shrugs. “We can ask the giants if they’ve encountered any strangers,” Erika says.

The boy perks up, his eyes sparkling. “There are giants AND angels here? This place is SO COOL!” he cries.

“Steven,” the pale ballerina - Pearl - says. “Don’t get any ideas.”

“I don’t have any ideas. But giants are cool! Do they fight? Do they have wings like yours?” the boy asks Erika, gazing at their wings with delight. The purity of his delight unnerves Erika. Humans are generally overawed by angels and the local humans all declare that angels do not exist. Angels usually bring fear, awe, and envy. But this boy’s gaze is full of wonder and delight, as though angels were not particularly unusual for him to encounter.

“They fight fiercely,” Erika says, “But they do not have wings. They like sandwiches.”

“I love sandwiches!” the boy says, bouncing happily. “Can we meet them? Please, please, please?”

His pleas are aimed at the silent warrior, Garnet, who has been sizing up Erika and Erika and Erika like a predator.

“Sure,” she says flatly. “Erika will take us there. Won’t you, Erika?”

It is not a request.

Erika shivers slightly, but gracefully bow their heads in acquiescence. The strangers intend no harm to Erika. They merely seek to continue their hunt and if the Gem they seek is in the desert, it is dangerous. The warriors here are best-suited to the task and Erika would prefer not to learn how to fight Gems.

“Follow us,” the angel says. “Keep your eyes on us or the desert may take you in strange directions.”

“My goodness, that’s not dramatic or anything,” Pearl says with a sniff.

“Be nice to the locals,” Garnet replies. “Come on, let’s go.”

Erika leaps into the sky, wings flaring to their full span. The boy squeals in delight.

“Do you think they’re safe?” Erika asks as they begin to lead the four deeper into the desert where the giants live.

“No,” Erika says. “But they are guests and if their monster is here, they will take care of it.”

“And if their monster has gone into the town?” Erika asks.

Erika laughs. “Well, then Cecil will have something to talk about next week!”

The wind swirls as they flew on, untroubled by the implications of a Gem-monster in the town or these strangers emerging from the forbidden dog park to interact with all that lay beyond. There was nothing to be done, so Erika resolved not to worry and wait to see what came next.

Sometimes calamity cannot be avoided even when it is foreseen.