Crumble

Sequel to Stolen. Rose learns more than she ever wanted to know.

...

It weighs on her like a stone around her neck.

In public, she is bright and breezy and as magnanimous as the gem population have come to expect from her. She laughs and flirts and is compassionate when the common gems bring their worries to lay at her feet. Nobody suspects that she is anything less than she always has been.

But every now and then, she catches a glimpse of some gems' attending pearl and her mind is taken back to the pearl from the barracks, and she hears her flat voice declaring her wish to die. The fact that she couldn't find the other pearl haunts her, even as she reasons that finding one broken, black market pearl out of hundreds is nigh impossible. The search dug at her like a splinter as she came across more destroyed pearls, blithely explaining to the confused gems she came across that she was looking for stolen property for a friend. She looked over pearls impounded in seized goods stalls, sitting for eons on shelves waiting for death, mass decreased to the bare minimum, blank and near insane (if indeed, a pearl has enough of a mind to lose it.)

It's bad enough when she has to stifle her feelings in public, but her own pearl at home is so sweet and obliging that it makes her feel sick. She watches her pearl carefully to try and catch her acting out of turn; surely if it was all an act she'd slip up some time, wouldn't she? But she never does. Everything she does is perfect, even small domestic tasks are performed with the utmost grace and poise.

Rose can't help it, she has to ask questions. She disguises it as well as she can, laughing at her friends' puzzlement.

"It would be curious, though, wouldn't it? Who knows what they'd say about us?" she giggles inanely to a rather annoyed Emerald.

"They wouldn't say anything, they're not made to think," Emerald huffs, rolling her eyes. Her pearl does not move. Emerald orders her to stay still in company and she doesn't flinch even as Rose watches her carefully under hooded eyes.

"But if they could..." Rose giggles again, scanning the pearl's face.

"Ugh, I wouldn't want to know," Emerald shudders. The pearl's face remains still. "Why are you even asking? Has your pearl been glitching?"

"No, no, it's fine," Rose waves away the question, switching easily from 'she' to 'it' as an experienced politician.

"You haven't brought it out much since you got it," Emerald observes. "What's the point of having a pearl if you don't use it?"

"Have you heard how many get stolen? It's brand new, I don't want to risk it," Rose says, hoping she'll drop the subject. Even bringing up her own pearl makes her stomach lurch.

"As if anyone would dare to steal from a Diamond," Emerald sniffs, taking a deep pinch of gallium.

Not three cycles after this exchange, a nervous Zoicite approaches Rose in the street, takes her hand to kiss it and presses a holographic notelet into her palm. She murmurs that she was paid to deliver the message to her and is away as fast as a bullet, disappearing into the crowd. Rose hurries home, locks the door securely and opens the message.

You've been asking about the pearls. If you want to know more, go to the co-ordinates below at third circuit. Make sure you're not followed. Bring your pearl with you.

...

This is a mistake, this is a mistake, this is a mistake.

Like a mantra, the words repeat themselves unwillingly throughout her mind. Before they took that dip down the first alley, Rose insisted that the pearl walk in front of her, and now she tries to focus on her light, almost silent, footsteps just ahead.

They are following a Jade to begin with, then beckoned by another Jade further down to another side street, then a Spinel leads them into a building with thin, winding corridors and many empty rooms. The Spinel bids them wait inside one of these rooms and disappears.

A moment later, the door to the next room opens and in walks two gems, and Rose cannot help but gape.

She has seen Sodalites before, and though this one is a particularly excellent specimen, all gleaming blue tones shot through with threads of black, that's not what has her full attention. To see a lone Sapphire, miniscule next to the imposing patrician gem in her company, is like seeing a statue suddenly sprout multiple legs and begin dancing. The Sapphire meets her gaze under her long fringe, serene and inscrutable.

"You made it here safely then," Sodalite begins, her voice deep and warm. "I assume you weren't followed?"

"No, I wasn't," Rose replies.

"I'm sure you understand we need to be cautious. We're taking a very large risk trusting you."

To hear her say that, Rose feels uncomfortable. There's no doubt that she's earned her title but how to these gems know that she won't lead to their destruction? Then, as if she heard her, Sodalite gestures to Sapphire.

"Sapphire is convinced that you are what we need. We heard you were asking about the pearls. I can tell you what you want to know, but it won't be pleasant to hear. You might prefer to turn back now."

Rose takes stock for a moment, and considers it, but there's nothing to consider really. She needs to know more.

"How did you know I wanted to know about the pearls?" she asks.

It feels odd to talk so with her own pearl standing right beside her, passively looking at nothing in particular.

"I trade information with a number of gems. Some overheard you asking questions. Now, if you please, follow me."

They move through to another corridor, and stop outside a darkened room with a locked door. An odd sound can be heard coming from inside, a sort of soft whine.

"I'd like to borrow your pearl for an experiment, if I may," Sodalite begins, and notes Rose's alarm. "It will help me explain. There's no risk, nothing will happen to her."

"I have your word on that?" Rose snaps, uneasy. The pearl, of course, looks blank as paper.

"You do," Sodalite agrees, and as soon as Rose nods she unlocks the door and ushers them in.

The gem making the noise is suddenly, sickeningly familiar. A pearl, minus most of her lustre and half of one leg, is curled up in the corner, covering her head and rocking back and forth. Her figure shudders with every breath. Rose barely contains herself, slapping her hand over her mouth.

But Sodalite is not watching her. She is watching Rose's pearl. Rose's pearl is staring right at the fallen pearl, and to anyone observing she looks completely indifferent. Sodalite gestures to Rose's pearl.

"Tell her to help her. If she can," she tells Rose.

Confused and heartsick, Rose bends a little at the waist to issue the order.

"If you know how to help her, please do it."

The words are barely out of her mouth before her pearl has marched with intense purpose across the room, grabbed a tarpaulin from a nearby table and draped it over the distressed pearl. She crawls under the tarp to sit beside her and wraps her arms around her quivering shoulders, rests her head against her straining back.

Gradually, the noises quiet and the rocking stops. Rose, shaken to her core, turns to Sodalite, who is wearing a bright grin.

"How did you know she would do that?" Rose demands, trying and failing to keep the quiver out of her voice.

"I didn't," Sodalite replies. "I had a theory. Your pearl proved it. We can leave them like this for a while. Come with me, we'll talk inside."

The next room is considerably homier, with a low table and two long couches. There are shelves everywhere, mismatched, covered with papers and holonotes and machinery and endless, endless boxes. Sodalite places a compound mix in front of her and asks her to sit.

...

They talk around the subject before they get to the point, wary of each other and employing little tests in their conversation. After a while, Sapphire takes her leave. Rose asks about her and is told bluntly that Sapphire has her own reasons for being there and that she'll share those reasons in her own time. Gradually, they open up to each other and Rose tells her the story of the pearl in the barracks.

"That's not uncommon," Sodalite tells her when she is finished. "That one out there is a barracks pearl. Most black market pearls end up in barracks, they go through them so fast."

Rose swallows, hard.

"But I don't understand how she could act like that," she wondered. "Is it possible for a pearl to get so badly damaged that they start acting like real gems? How does that even work?"

Sodalite scoffs, and sips her compound mix with annoyance.

"Real gems? Pearls are real gems, Rose."

Deep down, Rose probably knew she would hear something like that. It didn't stop her heart sinking to hear it out loud.

"How can that be true? No true gem would choose to live like that, would they?"

"No, they wouldn't. No more than Sapphires choose their cloisters or Peridots their assembly lines. But there's something pearls have that other gems don't."

Sodalite rises to dig through some boxes on the shelf behind her, and Rose lets her words echo through her mind. Sapphires and Peridots are different, she tells herself. They have their roles, but they refuse things on a regular basis, they can come and go as they please (the Sapphires in their groups, but still). It's not the same. It couldn't possibly be.

Sodalite comes back with a set of tongs holding a tiny silver object. It's about 2 millimetres long, thin as a wire but solid. Sodalite holds it out to Rose.

"I could tell you what this is, but I think you won't understand unless you touch it."

Hesitantly, Rose reaches out her finger and grazes the very tip of the object. A tearing sensation races through her mass, bringing a wave of intense pain that robs her of breath. As soon as it's over, she is bent double, gasping and clutching at her chest.

"What is that?" she asks shakily as her senses slowly realign themselves.

"I don't know what the technical term is. We call it the spike," Sodalite tells her. "Every pearl ever created has this imbedded in her gem."

Even though the pain has passed, the memory of it is vivid, torn right across Rose's being. Every pearl ever created.

"That's..." she sputters, unable to find the words. "That's not..."

"It's magnetic, and it gets power from the pearl's movement. The charge is erratic, it gives bursts of energy ranging from every 30 parsecs to 10 fulsecs," Sodalite continues. "Pretty genius, really. It couldn't be put in any other gem."

"Why?" Rose asks, on the verge of tears. Sodalite shrugs.

"Why not? Socializing gems in isolation only gets you so far. Even the most demure Sapphires would be able to refuse the stuff they get pearls to do. Keeping them in a constant state of shock, though, that gives you more control. Look at your recovery time from just touching the spike; how would you cope getting that all the time right at the core of your gem?"

It doesn't bear thinking about. Tears blur Rose's vision, and Sodalite looks away.

"All pearls have that thing? My pearl too?" she asks.

Sodalite nods. "All of them."

A sob tears out of Rose before she can stop it. Her own pearl, who sang her to rest on her worst nights, who welcomed her home with a bright smile, who obeyed her every stupid frivolous request without complaint.

"The shocks keep them from forming coherent thought," Sodalite continues, even as Rose wipes savagely at her tears. "If you want to say no to something, you have to have an argument to back up your refusal. They can't think without being shocked, so they can't think long enough to make an argument. They say yes to everything, no matter what it is. That's all they know how to do."

"How did this happen?" Rose asks as her tears subside, leaving her feeling hollowed out.

Sodalite shrugs again. "I can't tell you who came up with the idea, I can just tell you what I know. This procedure can't be done on other gems, there's no way to put a spike in a fully formed gem. But pearls are built up of layers of carbonite over a 40-cycle period, once the spike is implanted into the core the rest of the gem is built around it."

Sodalite places the tongs down carefully on the table and fixes Rose with a hard stare.

"It's not a perfect system. If a pearl's gem is sufficiently damaged, the spike can be damaged too, and they start acting 'erratically'. I think that's why your barracks pearl was able to draw attention to herself. And it can be removed."

Finally, some hope after so much misery. Rose swells with it.

"How do you remove it?"

"Very carefully," Sodalite tells her. "You have to bore a hole into the gem in the exact place the spike is located and pull it out without damaging the core. If my boring tools slip, the gem can shatter. And even when it's been removed safely, there's what comes after."

She gestures towards the room where the two pearls are sitting in companiable silence.

"I've operated on forty-two pearls and all of them have been destroyed. Most of them had their spikes removed with no problems but couldn't cope with what they knew when they could think clearly. They begged me to kill them. And could you blame them? Almost all of them were barracks pearls, who'd want to carry on living after that? And that's where you come in."

Rose straightens, suddenly on edge.

"You have a pearl. Almost brand new, in good condition, and I assume you've treated her well. If I operated on her..."

Rose stands, nearly knocking over the table.

"No! No, my pearl is not some experiment..."

Sodalite stands too, raising her hands to placate the suddenly furious Diamond.

"Please, just hear me out," she begs, and Rose stills, shaking with anger.

"The other pearls couldn't live after their spikes were removed, their memories were too much for them to handle. Your pearl has nothing but good memories, I'm sure of it. Without her spike, she could think for herself and you could see her properly. As a real gem. And I would operate with the utmost care."

"And what if she wants to die after? What if you're wrong about this?"

"I have so many theories about pearls that I've never been able to prove. Your pearl walked in here today and proved three of them in parsecs," Sodalite presses her gently but firmly. "She could do amazing things, I'm sure of it. And you can facilitate that. We could change everything. But she can't do anything with that torture device in her gem."

Rose falters, looks to the door and pulls at her hair. It's a convincing argument, to be sure. But the thought of this gem, who she has just met, holding a boring tool to her pearl's smooth,delicate gem...she baulks visibly.

"Think on it some more and come back to me," Sodalite says finally. "And ask yourself what your pearl would choose, if she could."

Without another word, Rose collects her pearl and goes home, and does her best to put the image of the broken pearl clinging to her pearl as she pulled her away out of her mind.

...

After much deliberating, Rose realizes she can't truly make this decision. She calls her pearl in to speak with her.

"I need you to think carefully about this," Rose tells her with trepidation.

"Of course," the pearl says agreeably.

Rose smiles then, because her pearl is always soothing company to a troubled mind. That's what the operation may take away, though.

"The gem we met yesterday has offered to perform a procedure on you, to alter the way you think and act. To give you some freedom, really. But it's risky, and you could break during the operation. Afterwards, you may not like the way you feel."

The pearl nods but shows no real expression. Rose poses the question, bracing herself.

"Would you like to have this procedure?"

Rose watches her pearl carefully, but again there is no expression.

"Do you want me to have the procedure?" the pearl asks, and Rose realizes that this will be their stumbling block.

"It's not for me to say," Rose tells her. "I want you to decide."

Suddenly, watching her pearl's face as she grapples with having to think about something instead of blindly agreeing, Rose sees the shock. It's a bare flinch, almost imperceptible unless you're looking very, very closely. Her pearl does not frown, or show distress as another gem would.

"I want what you want," the pearl says.

"Please," Rose begs. "Make this decision. I know it's hard, but try to think of what you want to do."

The pearl stays rooted to the spot for a long moment, perfectly still except for the telltale minute flinching that betrays how much turmoil is going on inside. Finally, she asks Rose for help.

"Would it please you if I decide for myself?"

Rose sighs deeply with relief.

"Nothing would please me more."

The pearl glances around her, as though looking for someone to stop her. Then, she makes her decision.

"I would like to have this procedure."