Note: This fic is coming later than I would have liked, unfortunately my health has been very poor lately so I'm on extended bed rest for a while. I find it hard to write on bed rest but I'll try to keep consistently updating.
Also, here is my usual plugging of my novel on Kindle, so that if I do end up going off grid for a while you'll still have something to read.
US link: dp/B07BGSPPBY
UK link: . /dp/B07BGSPPBY
"Oh, for the love of Core!"
Orthoclase growled down at the latest pearl to be dropped in on her workshop. Pearl looked up curiously from where she was scanning the mainframe.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"The client told me she'd only modified her pearl twice," Orthoclase explained, rubbing her gem setting irritably. "She must think I'm pretty damn stupid, it's been remodeled at least ten times. And badly at that."
The job pearl blinked passively on the operating table as Orthoclase ranted about how shoddy it was.
"This should be an advertisement for why, if you have to get a pearl remodeled, you don't go with the cheapest option," she finished, kicking a barrel of sulfide over.
"What kind of modifications does the client want?" Pearl asked. She was doing that weird finger thing again, Orthoclase noted distantly.
"Complete exo-flesh transplant," Orthoclase groaned. "Says the skin feels gritty...which of course it does because someone used a whole lot of mica to stick the finish...and she wants the eyes recentred closer together."
"That's a lot," Pearl said, blank-faced as ever.
"Don't worry, I'm going to disable its pain receptors. Seriously, just ask!"
The transplant was a rare procedure, one that Orthoclase happened to be really good at. Only a few remodelers had ever mastered it. It was immensely difficult to replace the skin without letting all the nacre bleed out, and to stop it from rejecting the donor flesh. Even as a concept it was all but unthinkable, for it meant changing so much of the pearl's mass it was almost like building a new pearl from scratch.
As she began the first incision, Orthoclase watched Pearl carefully for any signs that this procedure was distressing for her. She had managed to glean a few things from close observation, one of those things being that pearls had a culture of their own, and tampering with the pearls at this level was considered downright evil. It stripped them of the one thing they did have some measure of control over.
So why does she do it? She can say no, she knows that.
Perhaps the instinct to obey an owner superseded pearl's ethical standards. Who knew?
At the first incision, Pearl winced. It was a minute thing, unseen by any other gem but another pearl.
It doesn't hurt, the client pearl assured her, moving a single finger. It will be better this way.
I am sorry, Pearl gesture-spoke back in the client pearl's eyeline. I am helping her because she can make things better. Please forgive me.
There is nothing to forgive, the pearl signed. We understand.
They had to stop, because now the pearl's face had been removed and her eyes were being pried out, and Pearl was charged with stemming the flow of nacre. If her pain receptors hadn't been blocked, this would have been agony. The pearl would only experience a mild pressure.
The mica-blasted skin was carved off, section by section. It took nearly two cycles to complete and by the end the client pearl looked nothing like the pearl that had been delivered to them. It was awful, even though she knew the pearl would be more comfortable in her new skin. To lose an identity like this, it was one of the worst indignities a pearl could suffer and Pearl had a hand in it.
The client pearl was packed up and sent away to its owner. As Pearl approached the operating table to begin cleanup, Orthoclase leaned in and swept a finger under her eye.
"You're springing a leak," she said, and although she was ostensibly joking her face and voice were serious.
Pearl raised her hands to her face and wiped her tears away.
The temptation to crack Pearl's head open and take a peek inside was overwhelming sometimes. Whatever little shred of information she could glean was a triumph, but it was a long process. Pearl was so incredibly closed off that the tears of the other day, a mild sniffle by most gems' standards, was practically a mental breakdown.
Why do you even care? Pearls are for remodeling.
Remodeling was a job that could only be done with someone you trusted above all other gems. Orthoclase could say without a doubt that she trusted Pearl more than she had ever trusted any other gem, but she wondered if how Pearl felt about her was even remotely close. Even after all this time, Pearl wouldn't ask for a favour she knew Orthoclase would grant. Was it pearl instinct not to expect anything from an owner, or something else?
What was going on in that head of hers?
In between dwelling on the mysteries of Pearl's mind, jobs kept coming in. Some of them were routine, nothing spectacular. Refits and patches and mass shaving.
Then they got asked to make a house call.
The Hematite that met them at the door was oddly nervous-looking. Her hands shook as she brought them inside.
"You promised half now," Orthoclase reminded her. "We don't normally do house calls..."
"I know what I promised," Hematite snapped back. "It's being transferred as we speak, I set it to transfer just as you arrived. I heard you're the best."
"You heard right," Orthoclase said with a casual shrug. "So what's so important that we couldn't do it in the workshop?"
"You'll see," Hematite muttered.
She lead them to a small dark room. There were no windows, and no furniture save for a small table that was more like a pedestal. Sitting daintily on the table was a pearl. It smiled politely at them.
Both Pearl and the other pearls' fingers were gently moving.
"What's wrong with it?" Orthoclase asked, examining the pearl.
"I don't know," Hematite said with a barking laugh. "Maybe nothing. I'm hoping you can tell me. Is there anything weird about it?"
"Looks pretty standard to me," Orthoclase shrugged. "It's been given a new colour and gloss but besides that it looks in good shape. It would help if I knew what I was looking for."
Hematite sighed, rubbed her gem setting and took a step back.
"Possible zoatox infection."
She didn't warn us. She should have warned us.
Orthoclase was within spitting distance if it decided to attack. She'd be infested in parsecs. She tried to quell the panic while reaching for her scalpel...
"There's no zoatox," Pearl said.
The relief was so strong on hearing her voice that Orthoclase nearly fainted.
"Are you sure?" she asked, though she already knew the answer.
"Absolutely," Pearl confirmed.
"Thank blessed Core for that."
She turned to the cringing Hematite.
"I'm charging you extra for not warning us," Orthoclase said grimly. "So there's no zoatox, what made you think there was?"
"How can you be sure?" Hematite asked. "How does your pearl know there's not one in there?"
"She just does," Orthoclase answered. "She's never lied before and I trust her. Did you ask your pearl if she was infected?"
"I am not infected," the pearl on the pedestal piped up.
"Okay then," Orthoclase said, turning back to the pearl. "Since your owner is keeping the facts to herself, maybe you can tell me what's going on here. What is your designation?"
"I am a fighting unit."
Orthoclase snorted. She hadn;t met a pearl capable of making jokes.
"She's telling the truth," Pearl chimed in. "She is a fighting unit. Undefeated."
What? Undefeated? What?
Hematite nodded sullenly.
Orthoclase was aghast. What kind of maniac put a spindly little puff of air in a fighting arena? What kind of spindly puff of air had an apparently undefeated record?
"Okay," she groaned, slinking towards the door. "Tell me how this happened, please."
"It was a joke," Hematite explained, staring at the ground. "The fights were getting boring so we thought it would be a good one-off event. We didn't expect it to win."
"What was it up against?"
"Amethysts, mainly. Some Jaspers. One Emerald, maybe two. It killed them all."
It killed them?
"Okay," Orthoclase said, gulping. "So what do you want me to do?"
"Look, my partner moved out," Hematite growled. "Says she can't stay here while I have it, she's too worried it's going to turn on us. I can't sell it, and I can't turn it loose because it keeps coming back. I heard pearls can get infected..."
"That's mostly a load of slag," Orthoclase told her curtly. "They can get infected with larva but it doesn't change their behavior. The renegade being infected was just a rumour."
"Whatever. I just want to know if you can make it so it's not a threat to me. I still need it to fight, I just need to know I'm safe."
"Yeah, I don't think..." Orthoclase began, but was stopped by Pearl tapping gently on her hand.
Pearl gave her a look that to anyone else was indecipherable, but Orthoclase understood perfectly.
"All right," she agreed. "I'll get my pearl to do an overhaul. Shouldn't take long. Go on Pearl, do your stuff."
All Pearl did was stand in front of the fighting pearl for about thirty parsecs, neither of them moving much. Then she turned around and declared the job done.
"The pearl is not a threat to you," she told Hematite. "Although it will instinctively protect itself from harm if you raise your hand to it. That cannot be disabled as it is a fighting unit."
Hematite looked sulky at the prospect of not being able to raise a hand to the pearl, and Orthoclase was glad they had basically ripped her off.
"Understood," Hematite sighed.
"So what did the pearl say?" Orthoclase asked as they arrived back at the workshop.
"She didn't say anything," Pearl answered.
"I know, I didn't hear anything," Orthoclase pressed. "But what did she say to you?"
Pearl stopped in her tracks and looked back at Orthoclase. The little flicker of her pupils said she was at war with herself over whether or not to answer. If she'd still had her spike it would have knocked her out.
"Okay, don't tell me," Orthoclase shrugged. "I was just curious..."
"She said she likes killing," Pearl blurted out.
A pearl that likes killing. Blessed Core, save us all.
"How is that possible though?" she asked. "Pearls aren't made for fighting..."
"Pearls are made for fighting at speed," Pearl explained. "Our low mass and sharp reflexes make us an excellent ambush attacker."
"Good to know," Orthoclase said faintly.
"She did promise that she wouldn't hurt her owner, though. She wants to keep fighting."
Pearl stood still, and Orthoclase stood still just a few decemetres away. An unspoken question hung in the air.
How did you talk to her? Did you read her thoughts? Was it something else? How do you speak to pearls?
But, in the end, Orthoclase decided not to ask.
"We have a boring job next," she said, noting the tension in Pearl's stance disappearing as she changed the subject. "Standard gem reshaping. Might as well start it now."