Bringing you this next instalment a bit earlier than I'd thought I would be able to, because I am going mad due to IRL circumstances and I'd like to indulge in the closest thing to sanity I have at the mo. Enjoy!
The emergency response team dug Rose out and sped her away to the maintenance centre so fast it made her dizzy. Or perhaps she was dizzy anyway; the old scrape in her gem from the war felt like it was deeper, and her vision was blurred. The Peridot in charge took one look at the scrape and started patching immediately.
"It's not that deep, your grace," she told her nervously. "We'll have you back on your feet in no time!"
The other casualties of the blast started trickling in as her vision cleared; a half-dozen stony-faced Jaspers and two sobbing Larimars. She craned her neck around to see if she could spot a pearl...
There was a pearl. I saw her!
But the pearl had been at the very centre of the blast. There was no way she could have survived. And her owner...
What owner? There was no owner...
The Peridot chattered nervously as she secured the patches, but Rose tuned her out. Her memory was returning, and she clearly remembered that the pearl had been unaccompanied. She remembered thinking it was odd before the blast.
There was something moving in her eyes...
She looked up just as Emerald barged past the tool table and pushed the Peridot away to take her seat.
"What the hell happened? Are you okay?" she demanded breathlessly.
"I'm...fine," Rose muttered hoarsely. Of all the gems to turn up...but...
"How did you know I was here?" she asked.
"It's all over the holo-casts," Emerald told her. "Here, I'll show you."
Only now did she see that Emerald had brought her pearl along; it had been standing just behind her. At Emerald's command it brought up a projection of a news report. Dominating the news was a picture of Rose being pulled from the rubble.
"Oh, by the grace of Diamond Core," she groaned. "This is going to be so much hassle..."
"Well, at least you're okay," Emerald shrugged. "No real harm done. What were you doing there, anyway?"
"Official Diamond business at the barracks," Rose fobbed her off.
She was tempted to run her suspicions by Emerald, as just about the foremost authority on zoatoxes, but she held her tongue. Something about how quickly Emerald had rushed to her side sat oddly with her, and there was the knowledge of how she treated her pearls. Speaking of...
"Is that another new pearl?" she asked incredulously.
"What? Oh, yeah," Emerald laughed. "That other one vanished on me when I was on the tracer, probably lifted when I wasn't paying attention. I won't be so careless with this one!"
"No, you shouldn't," Rose mumbled, as a cold feeling of dread spread throughout her mass.
She was barely in the door of her apartment when Pearl threw herself at her. Her gem whirred as she scanned Rose for damage, her mouth was moving but nothing but garbled rubbish was coming out. Rose thought for one awful moment that she was glitching, but realized she was just panicking.
"Pearl, Pearl," she soothed. "It's okay, I'm fine. I got a small patch..."
"You were damaged?" she gasped.
"Not as badly as I could have been," Rose told her, tugging her into her rest chamber. "I was in the blast site. I managed to bring up my shield, I don't even remember doing it. And then Emerald turned up at the maintenance centre..."
As she flopped down across the rest pod and Pearl perched gingerly beside her, still scanning her for damage, a thought occurred to Rose.
"What do you know about zoatoxes?" she asked.
Pearl frowned down at her, Rose graced her with her sunniest grin.
"Humour me," Rose asked. "Tell me what you know. Anything."
"I only know what's on public record," Pearl told her. "Basic bio stats, I've seen some old recordings, nothing much."
"There were rumours going around during the war that pearls had some sort of symbiotic relationship with the zoatoxes. There weren't many pearls around back then, but the ones that were had a higher survival rate than other gems. Nobody could understand why. I'd like to hear your theory."
Pearl stretched out beside her, relaxing a little as she finally seemed to confirm that Rose was indeed okay.
"Zoatoxes feed on substrate," she began. "That's why gems always came into conflict with them, but they also feed on the base minerals that make up most gems. Pearls are mostly organic, they have nothing to feed on, and unless we're ordered to attack we're not seen as a threat."
"That seems a bit too easy," Rose groaned.
"There's also the subspace," Pearl offered.
"The subspace. The gateway contained in our gems. We can use it to store objects."
"Since when have you had that?" Rose asked incredulously, sitting up.
"It's in the manual," Pearl shrugged. "Most gems don't use it, it's easy to lose things inside it. But theoretically it would be a perfect place to hatch zoatox larva."
But Rose's mind was now pulled far away from her original theory. How could she have gone so long without knowing pearls could store objects in their gems? And at the behest of an owner, if it happened to store an explosive...it was looking more and more likely that the blasts were an insider attack of terrorism. To what end, she couldn't understand.
"I have my suspicions," she sighed. "It's probably nothing to do with zoatoxes, I jumped to conclusions. I should have had more faith in Diamond Core."
Perhaps because she looked so melancholy, Pearl reached out and stroked her cheek.
"You talk about her sometimes, but not much," Pearl prodded. "What was she like?"
Diamond Core had been long gone before Pearl's string had gone into production.
"I wouldn't do her justice, I'm afraid, but I'll try," Rose began, closing her eyes and conjuring up the image of her magnificent progenitor.
"All gems are special, Rose, in their own way. You must remember that."
"Her gem was clear as crystal, it caught every speck of light and refracted it back even brighter," Rose whispered. "And her mass, solid as it was, it glimmered from the inside. She was like a living star. But she wasn't just beautiful, she was kind and gracious. I never heard her say a bad word about anyone or anything..."
In Rose's mind, she was standing on the edge of her palace balcony. Her shining robes floated as if contained by their own atmosphere. Her hair trailed along the ground like a shimmering cloak. She was smiling.
"It hurt to look at her sometimes," Rose sighed, opening her eyes.
"Did you love her?"
The question caught her off guard, and she looked at Pearl with surprise. Pearl was fidgeting, but she didn't look angry or upset at the idea that Rose might have loved someone before her. Just resigned.
"We all loved her," Rose said. "The same way we love our suns or moons or the stars. From far away. And she loved us the same way. Nothing like the way I love you."
Rose pulled Pearl into her arms then, tucking her head under her own, admittedly more for her own sake than Pearl's.
"You remind me of her sometimes," Rose told her.
Pearl spluttered a little by way of answering. Rose could feel the blush rising hotly on her face.
"I mean it," Rose told her with a little laugh. "You are so brave, and so patient and nothing makes me happier than you do. But I love you because you're here and I can hold you in my arms."
Pearl squirmed out of her grip and scooted to the other end of the rest pod. She was blushing furiously, but she fixed Rose with her most serious look.
"How did Diamond Core die? It's not on the records."
Rose was tempted to scold her for ruining the mood, but she supposed curiosity was a good thing.
"We had just about fought the zoatoxes to a standstill using the 'Gem Wall' strategy... that means every gem bred and raised for its specific purpose to create a society-wide shield ... but they were getting ready for another swarm and there was a chance they could overrun us."
"I wouldn't do this if there were any other option. I know you would do the same, that's why I chose you four..."
"She took all of our remaining substrate and infused herself with it to increase her mass. She grew to one thousand times her previous size until she achieved a gravitational pull. Then she waited there for the zoatox to flock to her."
Recalling it now, Rose remembered watching her from Homeworld, bright and beautiful as any star.
"Every zoatox in the galaxy flocked to her, they burrowed into her mass to feed and breed. They ate her alive from the inside."
Rose had watched that too. Her core mass had turned black with heaving bodies, and the smell of decaying matter even reached as far as Homeworld.
"Then she hardened her mass to trap them inside. We flooded her mass with barium oil and set it alight to finish them off."
But it had worked. They had searched for eons, clean sweeping every planet and there was no sign of the zoatox at all. They were gone.
"I was one of her generals. We took the title of Diamond in her honour. Alabaster, Iolite, Orthoclase and I. And we gave her the title of Diamond Core to remember her."
Story finished and now thoroughly depressed, Rose flopped back down and groaned.
"I suppose with no actual enemies gems would turn on each other," she grumbled. "We've had relative peace for a long time, it was too good to last. I'm going to see Sodalite tomorrow, I want you to stay here."
"But why?" Pearl asked. Rose supposed she would have liked to see her fellow pearls.
"It's getting risky out on the streets, I don't want anything to happen to you," Rose told her, tugging her close again."
"What could happen to me? I'm just a pearl," Pearl shrugged.
The image of that lone pearl sitting on the bench unattended tugged itself forward in her memory, and she shuddered.
"The subspace gate," Sodalite shrugged. "It's kind of a neat trick, not many gems use it. Not many know how. It's kind of a mystery as to how it got there in the first place, really."
"What could you store in there?" Rose asked her.
"Anything. Weapons, apparel, tools...it takes up a chunk of their memory but they have lots to spare. That's why they always come out so skinny. Hidden depths, kind of."
"So... if you were to plant something explosive..."
"You'd need to be very intelligent to do it," Sodalite told her, flipping her short black hair away from her face. "You'd have to set it to blow remotely and keep it near the surface of the gem. It's not something your average gem could pull off."
"A Peridot, then? Or a Sodalite?"
"You overestimate me," Sodalite laughed. "What would I know about explosives? I was a grunt in the processing plant. Explosives are a military concern."
That awful creeping dread returned. If it was just an average gem with a grudge she could handle it but an old friend...this could get messy.
"If you have your suspicions, we could check them out," Sodalite offered. "My contacts have a lot of hidden recorders. We could hack into one, see what pops up."
"I don't know..." Rose mumbled.
"Rose," Sodalite prodded. "Someone was poking around in your home, and you nearly got blown up. They made the first move."
Slowly, Rose nodded.
Sodalite typed a few commands into her old holo-screen and flipped through recorded data at speed.
"Stop me when you see something," she told Rose.
For a long time, there was nothing. Lots of gems going about their day-to-day lives. It seemed pointless, until a vibrant green flash and a familiar stance caught her attention.
"Wait! Go back..."
Her mass tingled, that awful dread crawled all over her, worse than any zoatox larva ever had.
There was Emerald, frowning, chin tucked in her hand thoughtfully. Blue Diamond sat with her, hands fluttering, talking earnestly about something. Her mouth shaped some words distinctively, though nothing else could be understood.
"Oh no," Rose barely heard herself mumble.
Sodalite turned off the screen with a snap, pulled Rose to her feet and pushed her towards the door.
"We're compromised," she hissed. "I'm going to move. I'll be in touch. Don't tell anyone anything!"
Rose climbed into a luger and instructed the driver to move as fast as possible. She needed to be home, right now. Her mass flushed hot and cold all the way.
Even before she saw that her door had been ripped from its hinges, and the contents of her apartment broken and scattered, her rest pod snapped in half and all of her holo-screens missing, she knew that Pearl would be gone when she got there.
Knowing didn't make it any easier when she saw that Pearl was gone for herself.