When her feet had returned to solid ground and the pillar of light had dissipated, Rose stepped off the warp pad. She found herself in a spacious lobby, well lit by the hidden lights that had been strategically placed around the room. To her right was a huge window that went from the floor to the ceiling in a gentle, backwards curve — one of many that made up the transparent arc that served as a wall.
The water outside was so clear that she could see for miles: she saw coral of a million different colours, fish going about their business and large, rocky structures that made obstacle courses and hiding places for them. Light filtered through the ocean’s surface, creating patterns and shapes that danced across the white sand. ‘I could do with a view like this from my window…’ she thought to herself. Below — extending from a lower floor across the seabed — she could see the Ocean Walk, the public path to and from the Nacrarium (’not that Nacrarium customers would ever be seen here in person’, she thought disapprovingly).
For all its size, the lobby was practically empty: aside from the central counter and two long, cushioned seats following the curve of the windows, there was nothing but a single large ornament. In front of Rose was a near perfect recreation of the building she currently stood in, somebody – or somebodies – had captured all nine floors of the shell shaped edifice with incredible accuracy, either carving the whole thing out of some truly monstrous pearl, or somehow giving the model that same pearlescent sheen. Either way, she imagined that whoever made it was most pleased with themself.
When she had finished appreciating the artwork she walked up to the circular counter, ready to do what she had come for. There were two Gems stationed behind it and given their location, snow-white skin and big, expressive eyes, Rose immediately suggested that they were pearls. There was one with a sharp chin, high-cheekbones and dark, iridescent eyes; her shiny black hair was drawn up into a smart looking crown braid, with barely a stand out of place. Her co-worker was surprisingly wide (for a pearl) and as if to make a contrast, the edges of her round face were very soft, and framed by a multitude of thick, blonde corkscrew curls. In addition to their pencil dresses, they both wore warm, welcoming smiles.
“Hello,” they said in unison.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. My name is Ink.” said the dark haired one cheerfully, “How may I be of service?”
“I’m supposed to be getting a pearl and I’d like to select one in person.”
“Oh, wonderful!” the pair exclaimed excitedly, “That’s really nice, it’s very rare to see a client down here. I hope that you’ll find all of our units meet your personal standards.” said the blonde.
“Uh… I’m sure I will. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” they said. Their smiles were so sweet and their manner so cheery that Rose had to smile, even though she still didn’t really want to be there.
“Ma’am, may I have your name please?” said Ink. The blonde sat down at a nearby screen.
“Rose Quartz of Pentagonal Facet, of the House of Quartz, of the Town in the Cove Favoured by the Third Moon, Planetary Spotter, First Class.” She was proud of her name; it wasn’t anywhere near as extravagant as a lot of other Gems, but it got the job done.
The blonde typed on her keyboard for a few moments before gesturing for Ink to take a look. She turned back to Rose:
“Okay so we’ve received the Empress’s notification and added you to the database. Congratulations on becoming our newest collector!” she beamed at her.
“Yes, ma’am. It started as a joke amongst those who exchanged for a unit, but at some point they made it the official title.”
“Oh.” Rose wasn’t pleased about her new title, its unfortunate implications had either gone unnoticed, or weren’t a concern to those who used it.
“So, if you’ll kindly come with me please, ma’am, I’ll escort you to one of the upper floors where the units are being held. Is there any particular series you’re interested in?”
“I was told that there were some being prepared for ‘exchange’?” she inquired.
Rose saw it like this: if the Authority was going to interfere with people’s lives (even more than usual) and strong-arm her into getting a pearl, then she’d make them pay for it. Blue Diamond seemed only too happy to suggest that she get one of the newest series, but if she secretly held the notion that Rose would try to spend as little of their money as possible… well, she was going to receive a lovely surprise, wasn’t she?
“Oh yes, the seven series. Excellent choice, ma’am.”
“Mmm. Thank you.”
“They’ve been very successful with the series sevens; it’s the first series to introduce new unit colours. You could potentially be the first with a pink one!” Ink explained happily, looking up at her pink mane with a smile.
Behind the counter was a wall, an actual wall, obscuring the view of the centre of the room. After saying goodbye to the other Gem (whose name Rose learned was Moll), Ink led her along the curve of the inner wall to a part of the room that she hadn’t seen before. In reality, this part of the room was exactly the same as the part that they’d just left, with the exception of a wide spiral slope, leading up to the Nacrarium’s higher floors. As they ascended, Rose decided to find out more about her guide.
“Are you a pearl?”
“Yes, ma’am, indeed I am.” she replied proudly.
“Then how does it make you feel, what you’re doing here; helping me find a pearl?”
She looked at Rose with a bemused expression, which changed to a big smile before she responded. “I feel very lucky, ma’am; it makes me so happy to know that I’m helping others like myself find a home on the surface.”
“Doesn’t it bother you that you get… bought?” she asked with a concerned look on her face.
“Not at all, ma’am. That people are willing to exchange such huge sums for one of us can only be a good thing. Forgive me if this sounds conceited, but pearls bring something to the surface that no other Gems can, we do things in a way that other Gems can’t. It’s an honour to be selected to go to the surface, and it makes us proud to live up to, and then exceed the high standards they expect from us.”
Rose was horrified at the revelation, ‘How could she believe that?’ she asked herself. Was that genuinely how pearls saw things? ‘Probably’, she thought, feeling a little sick.
No, that just wouldn’t do… wouldn’t do at all. Surely there would be at least one pearl that was different in the building. Unless… Very quickly the Nacrarium seemed a lot more sinister than its attractive exterior suggested — she knew that there was something wrong about the treatment of the pearls, but now she realised that the source of the problem might be more closely related to this place than it was to the Gems back on land.
A chilling thought struck her: what if the only pearls that ever got a chance to be sold were the most easily manipulated ones? If that was the case then what happened to the ones with a different outlook on life? Slowly, sickness turned to anger, ‘How can Gems allow this to happen to other Gems?’ she wondered. The pearls could be so much more than they were currently allowing themselves to be, all they needed was to be shown the way.
Suddenly it became clear what she was going to do with her pearl: even if it took her a thousand years she would show them that they could aspire to more, through her they would become an example to the other pearls of what life could be like if they thought about it differently. But she’d still have to pick one first…
“…took us hours to find them. But a few years from now they should hopefully calm down a lot.”
Rose had no doubt that whatever Ink was saying was absolutely fascinating, but what she said earlier begged another question:
“So you’re saying that all the pearls here hope to be selected to go to the surface?”
“That’s right ma’am.”
“Then why are you and Moll still here?”
Ink smiled broadly and clapped her hands, “I must thank you for taking such an interest in me, ma’am. As to your question: as pearls, we form very deep attachments to those around us, given long enough. Normally our desire to go to the surface outweighs our desire to stay here with any of the others, but very occasionally that doesn’t happen and the unit concerned is shattered,” she explained nonchalantly. “Moll was chosen to go to the surface, and she wanted me to come too, but that client had chosen a single, specific unit. They explained to the client what had happened and took us for shattering, but in the end they decided that it would be a better use of resources if we both stayed to deal with the clients, and help to mentor those that came after us.”
“Ohhhhh, that’s beautiful, Ink. I wish you both every happiness.”
It was awful to think that they could be shattered for something as something as natural as that, but she was glad that at least these two had managed to survive the process, even if it had done nothing to change Ink’s way of thinking. It strengthened her resolve though: liberating her pearl was going to be very rewarding, and potentially world changing. She smiled at the thought.
“Thank you, ma’am.” she said, blushing a vivid, sky blue. Rose had never seen a pearl do that before and she chuckled at her reaction.
“Are there any other pearls that work here?”
“Actually, everyone that works here is a pearl. When the two series was ready for exchange they slowly phased out the other types of Gem: once they taught us how to do everything, there was no need for them,” she said with that same pride she showed earlier. “Now we get minimal instruction from outside. Perfect timing!” she exclaimed cheerily.
As Ink had finished illuminating her they had arrived on the seventh floor. The second floor — the one that she had warped onto — was mostly empty space, this one was mostly hidden space: she could see two heavy looking stone doors, one close in front and one to the right; entrances to whatever room or rooms took up most of this floors space.
“Are you excited about seeing the units?” Ink asked her, clearly excited herself.
“There’s anticipation, Ink, but I can’t decide if it’s positive or negative. But I came here to select a pearl so please, after you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” she grinned, pushing open the door to the front.
Rose had never seen so many pearls in one place. On the surface, if their business took them in to the same area then they’d talk in pairs, threes or fours at a maximum — here there were eight. As soon as she entered the room they’d turned to stare at her, as though controlled by the same unseen force. With the same unsmiling expressions, eight pairs of big, pastel coloured eyes, brimming with curiosity watched her intently. She found it a little unsettling.
Of the eight there were five white ones, two pink ones and a single green one; but all of them shared the same slender, long-limbed build, hair the same colour as their skin, and the same ethereal beauty. Their obvious similarity to each other and Ink made Rose feel like the odd one out, but she smiled — everyone couldn’t be the same, and that made the world more interesting. Considering that they’d never been to the surface she was surprised how well dressed they were, the pearls had clearly been studying current Gem fashions (she wondered if they gave them literal lessons in that down here). At the same time it had to be said that their clothes were the same colour as their skin, something that gave the group the appearance of uniformity.
Ink spoke to them:
“Series seven, this is Rose Quartz. She’s a planetary spotter and a new collector. One of you will be going to the surface with her today, so please give her a good impression of us.”
When she’d started to speak the pearls had all turned to face Ink just as mechanically as they had turned to face Rose when she’d entered the room, but after Rose’s job was mentioned one of them took a second glance at the pink-haired Gem out of the corners of her eyes. It was something so slight as to be imperceptible under normal circumstances, but her deviation from the perfect stillness of the others was what made it noticeable. This one had her gem — a white button pearl — in the middle of her forehead, captivating light-blue eyes and a pointed, cone-like nose. Dressed in a kimono with a shimmering, floaty skirt, Rose thought she looked very elegant — standing out even from her well styled familiars.Like some switch had been flicked in their minds, the series sevens each came to greet Rose with a ‘good afternoon’ and a respectful curtsey (something which she found entirely unnecessary). They seemed to get the measure of Rose very quickly, because before long they were talking to her animatedly about her visit, the weather before she arrived and what she’d seen from the second floor window; all with a minimum of the formality that she had often seen pearls dealt with.
She’d never spoken to a pearl at length before today, but from spending time with them she learned that they were incredibly talkative — given the opportunity — and knowledgeable in a wide range of topics. What she found odd was how their ideas were very fact based: considering something beyond what exactly had happened was not something that pearls appeared to do much of. They were extremely polite and very likeable, but Rose felt there was something missing — a depth to them that just wasn’t there. As she talked to them she started to question whether her plan would work; she could treat them as well as any other Gem but if there wasn’t much thought dedicated to how or why something happened, then how could she start to change those thoughts?
She sighed, considering whether she might have more luck with one of the older series, which caused the pearl currently speaking to pause.
“I’m sorry, don’t mind that. What were you saying?” The pearl smiled sweetly and continued speaking.
Apart from the one that was speaking they all looked at Rose with contented looks on their faces, as though it was her telling them a story and not the other way round. All of them except one (again)… It was the same one as last time, the one with the sharp nose, looking at Rose with an analytical look on her face. As soon she saw Rose looking at her the pearl altered her expression to one more like that of the others, but the look didn’t quite suit her: it was as though she had to make an effort to craft the appearance that the others had managed naturally. She smiled at the pearl, who smiled nervously in response. Nervousness was not something she’d associated with pearls before…
The more Rose noticed her, the more the pearl seemed to try and blend in with the others, which wasn’t working very well because it only made her stand out more. She laughed quietly to herself — it was a little mean, the pearl was obviously distressed by what was being done to her (or alternatively, not being done to all of the others), but if she thought that she meant her any harm then she couldn’t have been more wrong. Then it occurred to her that maybe this pearl didn’t want — as Ink had said — to go to the surface, but if that was true then she must have a different view of what went on up there, which made it even more important for her to be liberated from the Nacrarium today. If anyone else noticed what she was seeing then the poor Gem would probably end up being shattered. She couldn’t let that happen.
Her mind was practically made up, but Rose’s inner scientist wouldn’t allow her to take her chosen pearl without some form of test. She wanted to be absolutely sure that she was making the right choice, but just in case she wasn’t then she didn’t want to give anyone reason to shatter any of these Gems. If she wanted to test them then she was going to have to get rid of Ink for a few minutes…
Rose stood up from the floor and the pearls rose with her. She walked purposefully over to Ink’s position in the corner (from which she’d been overseeing their interaction) and made a request:
“Ink, I’d like to take a closer look at them if you don’t mind. In private.”
“Ermm... I’m not sure if that’s allowed, ma’am... You might be a saboteur… or something.” she said worriedly.
“Really, do I look like a saboteur to you? Do I sound like a saboteur to you?”
Rose’s response made her blush for the second time that day
“I’ve never seen a saboteur before... I don’t think... But really, unauthorised persons aren’t usually allowed unsupervised contact with the units before they’ve been exchanged.”
‘Fair enough,’ Rose thought, but she had always been good at making people see her way of thinking, Ink was going to be no exception. ‘Besides,’ she said to herself, ‘I’m only going to give them a little test, and that’s nothing compared to whatever goes on down here.’
“I’ve been sent here by Blue Diamond herself to get a pearl, and I’ve been most impressed by you and the ‘units’ so far… Don’t you want to make sure I’ll be totally satisfied with my choice?”
“Oh… Ummm… Yes, of course. Sorry, ma’am.” she said, plainly flattered and possibly a little scared.
“Thank you.” Rose replied. “I’ll come and call you when I’ve made my choice. This shouldn’t take too long; you have nothing to worry about.” she said warmly, trying to reassure Ink. The black-haired Gem took a last look at the other pearls and then at Rose; seemingly satisfied that nothing negative would come out of her decision, she smiled.
“I’ll be just outside, ma’am.” she said. And with that, she departed.