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Learning to Breathe Underwater

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“Steven, I’m not sure I understand this…pool party…thing.”

Steven looked up from where he and Connie were taking turns jumping on the kiddie-pool pump with intense concentration. 

Pearl had crossed one arm over her chest and had the look on her face where she wasn’t 100% sure what was going on and didn’t like it.  Steven gave her his best everything is so totally okay, it’s more than okay, it’s rad smile.  Because it was rad, and Pearl just hadn’t had a chance to get introduced to the wonders of the traditional human pool party.  “It’s really easy, Pearl, you just blow up the pool, fill it with water, grill the hot dogs and hamburgers, eat the hot dogs and hamburgers…”

“The water miiiiight be a problem, even if the pool is pretty tiny,” Connie said as she hopped up and down on the pump cushion with all her might.  “We’re a long way from a hose.”

“No problem, Connie, I just totally jacked the hose from the washing machine,” came Amethyst’s distant cry from the Temple’s hand.

Amethyst, you leave that alone, it took me months to…”  Pearl took a deep breath, pinched the bridge of her nose, and said in a very serious, very level voice, “I didn’t make myself clear, Steven.  We live next to a beach.  There’s an entire ocean to swim in right over there,” she added, sounding a little hopeful.

Steven looked at her for a moment, a little wibbly.  “You don’t like the party pool?”

“No, Steven, no, I, uh, love the party pool.  It’s so…contrasting.”  Pearl looked at the eye-searing kiddie pool covered in neon pink squids and hospital-green starfish, and visibly suppressed a shudder.  “But couldn’t we just take this down to the beach?”

“You mean where all the monsters usually come out of, right next to where all those Watermelon Stevens are chilling, and Malachite’s down there somewhere going stirrrr crazy?” Amethyst asked, appearing over the lip of the lighthouse hill and dragging a long black hose with her.  “Super-relaxing, P.”

Pearl looked around, saw Garnet approaching, and made a last-ditch appeal to authority.  “We don’t have to go in the water, do we, Garnet?  I mean, I know it’s unsafe…”

“Right,” Garnet said.  “This is going to be the safest of pool parties.  Pearl…”  There was a flash of light, and a moment later, Garnet was in full snorkeling gear with flippers and a bulky life jacket.  “Time to get your water wings on.”

Pearl sagged, defeated, and mumbled about eye-searing aesthetics and the smell of scorched mammal flesh being a terrible tradition for a party, then twitched upright.  “Oh!  Steven!  Connie!  Sunscreen, you need sunscreen, I was doing some research the other day and humans are horrifyingly prone to carcinogenic melanomas due to mismanagement of ozone-depleting chemicals.”

“Way ahead of you, ma’am,” Connie said, leaving the pump to go fish in her enormous bag.  “My dad packed a sun hat, epi-pen, insect repellant, extra towels, annnd…sunscreen!”

Garnet crouched down, testing the firmness of the inflatable pool.  When it made a satisfying squeak, she nodded to herself and rose.  “Amethyst, it’s hose time.”

“Booyeah!” Amethyst fed the laundry hose into the pool and turned on the tap, then stared as the pool slowly began to fill up.  “Man, I thought this would be faster.  Bo-ring.  I’m gonna find us some good tunes.”  She wandered over to the picnic table where assorted bowls of unhealthy fried things and an elderly boom-box were set up, and started fiddling with the dials.  Pearl noted the insufficient water pressure and went to check out the length of the hose.

Garnet went and sat down next to Steven, who had gone quiet and was poking listlessly at one of the neon octopi.  “Steven?”

“I’m okay.”

“No, you’re not.  Was it the water wings?”

Steven nodded miserably.

Garnet raised her scuba mask, which didn’t help much as she was still wearing her visor under it.  “We’re going to find her, Steven.  Thanks to you, we have a lot better idea of what we’re dealing with, and if Lapis Lazuli reached out to you in a dream, no matter what she said, she is asking for help.  We’ll find a way to get to her and free her.”  Garnet sat in silence with Steven for a moment, and then added, “And we’ll punch Jasper into the stratosphere if we need to.”

Steven wiped his eyes and beamed up at Garnet, then turned, distracted by Connie’s giggle.  “Hey, what’s up, Dog-Copter?”

“Uh, this…this sun hat is my mom’s, but it doesn’t fit me, do you want to try it on, Steven?”

Steven hurried over and perched the offending hat on his head.  The cap was ringed with garishly coloured ceramic fruit, and he cocked it at a jaunty angle.  “Very fashionable.  I look nutritious and delicious!”

Connie nodded seriously.  “Now I can tell her we ate a balanced meal at this pool party, not just burgers.  All hail the plastic hat fruit.”  She and Steven gave each other a complicated high-five, missing Garnet’s grin.

Pearl and Amethyst were arguing over what kind of music to choose (“Come on, Pearl-snickety, you can’t play Chopin at a pool party!”  “I’ll have you know Chopin was quite the party animal when Rose and I met him, and what did you just call me?”) when Greg Universe came panting up the lighthouse hill, more red-faced than usual, with a portable barbeque under one arm and his phone outstretched in the other.

Steven hurried up to him, losing a few of his hat’s fake grapes.  Garnet followed him closely, managing a dignified stride despite her flippers.  “Dad, what’s wrong?”

“Uh…you guys might need to deflate the party pool, I think we’ve got a problem.”  Greg held his phone up to Garnet, who took it and read it, her pool party accoutrements disappearing one by one.

By now, Connie had come over with Amethyst and Pearl in tow, all of them watching apprehensively as Garnet’s expression darkened.  She looked up finally.  “There’s been an attack on the Marie Cousteau Marine Research Facility about six miles up the coast.  The perpetrator is described as “unknown, dubiously humanoid, and green”.”

Pearl’s hands closed into fists.  “Malachite!”

“Gems,” Garnet said, “to the warp pad.  There’s no time to lose…”  She paused when Amethyst tugged on her wrist.

“Garn, I hate to pee on the parade, but, uh, do we even have a warp pad anywhere near the whatever-it’s-called marine research thingy?”

The Crystal Gems looked at each other, and then at Greg, who took his phone back and set down the barbeque.  “I’ll give you guys a lift.  No music, I promise.”

“Serious van trip?” Steven asked his dad.

“Serious van trip, with serious dad driving.”  They shared a smile.  “I mean, musical theatre sing-alongs are still okay, just gotta tone down that bass a little.”

“Can we fit the pool in the back of the van?  Then we could have a road trip and a pool party all at once!”

“Uh…maybe save that for later, Steven.”

“Aw,” Amethyst muttered as all of them hurried down the hill, “van pool party pooper.”

“Connie,” Pearl said as Connie hurried to catch up with them, carrying her pool party bag.  “I’m not sure you should…”

“I brought my sword,” Connie said, breathless, and showed the handle poking out of the bag as evidence.

Pearl stared.  “Your parents packed your sword for the pool party?”

Connie went a little red.  “They don’t…I told them it was a novelty umbrella.”

Amethyst elbowed her lightly, almost knocking her off her feet.  “Hey, whatever works, right?  You’re getting pretty good at lying to those squares!”

“Amethyst!  Well.  I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but quick thinking and improvisation is the mark of an excellent sword fighter,” Pearl said.  “Full marks for preparedness, Connie.”

Connie perked up immediately, and they all headed for the van at the bottom of the hill.


 

“Pearl,” Garnet said, once they were all safely loaded into Greg’s van and headed for the research facility, “we may be facing a fight, but if that news report is right, the damage is already done and Malachite could be well away by now…”

“Yes?”

“That means we’re going to be dealing with human scientists.”

There was a charged silence in the car.

“That means you’ve got to be at least a little bit polite to them.”

“I’m always polite!” Pearl burst out.

“You laughed at Isaac Newton for a solid half hour.  Then you patted him on his wig and said his ignorance was charming.”

“That was one time.”

“You also really demoralized that guy Einstein when he made a pilgrimage to the temple that one time.”

“Well, his relativity work was painfully flawed, and he did take my suggestions into consideration…”

“You made some unkind remarks about his hair in the process.”

Pearl sulked in the back seat for a bit as Steven and Connie stared at her round-eyed, and then snapped her fingers and pointed at Garnet.  “Rosalind Franklin.”

“That’s true.  I forgot about her.”

I remember her,” Amethyst put in.  “That was, like, the day after Rose asked me to do some chores or whatever, and then Pearl did them and Rose gave me a hug and told me how great it was that I was contributing, and Pearl just about blew her stack…”

“I just don’t think it’s right for people to take credit for other people’s hard work,” Pearl ground out, bright blue spots appearing high on her cheeks.  With a visible effort, she composed herself.  “Besides, those people she was working with were shady and honestly quite sub-par. If humans are going to get anywhere, they need proper scientists, however misguided, not…scam artists.”

“You met Rosalind Franklin?” Connie demanded, eyes sparkling.

Pearl looked back at her, blinking.  “Yes, Connie, I…did?”

“How about Lise Meitner?  Wu Chien-Shiung?  Asima Chatterjee?”

As Connie and Pearl became more animated, Greg checked in the back carefully.  Squeezed in between Amethyst and Connie, Steven was staring straight ahead, arms crossed and hands tucked into his armpits, jiggling one leg nervously.


 

The head researcher at the facility brought a flock of nervous graduate students, junior researchers, and interns with her, all of whom were very happy to see the Crystal Gems come to deal with their “monster problem”, but no Malachite.

“I don’t see any rampaging fusions or smoking fires around here,” Amethyst said, as she examined the clean, gleaming walls of the facility, and the expansive underwater viewing window encircling the center’s small cafeteria and visitor’s lounge, with a critical eye.  Shoals of bright fish darted by as Steven and Connie ran to it, entranced.  “Seriously?  You can’t just call us out for big green monsters and then fall down on delivery!”

“Oh, it didn’t destroy anything, at least nothing obvious,” the head researcher said quickly.  “Half of our operations are sea floor and water toxicity focused, to say nothing of the migration and reproduction tracking we do.  A crack or hole in the wrong place would have spelled disaster for our whole facility and years of hard work!  No, the break-in was very neat, we didn’t notice anything wrong until we checked the cameras and found some of our supplies missing.”

That doesn’t sound much like Malachite…” Pearl put her chin in her hand and looked around carefully.

“But you still have a ‘monster problem’,” Garnet said.

“Maybe it would be easier if I just showed you…”


 

“You guys have security cameras for a fish research center?”  Greg asked, peering over Garnet and Pearl’s shoulder.  “Really?  Huh.  Maybe I should get some for It’s A Wash.”

“We have a lot of propriety research here, Mr. Universe.” Dr. Jeong, the head researcher, was rewinding a VHS tape.  “Plus, we managed to annoy some people at Albion Petroleum by blowing the whistle on a leak they’d caused trying to tap an underwater reserve not too far from Ocean Town.  There have been threats.”  She paused the video.  “Nothing quite like this, though.  Here’s footage from 4:35 this morning.  Some of us work late, and some work early, but never quite that late or that early, so the facility was empty.”

“It looks like a…dark green…blur,” Greg said, as Pearl and Garnet studied the tape.  “Oh, hey, that’s the cafeteria upstairs.  Wow, and that’s a lot of static.”

“That’s the other thing,” Dr. Jeong said, getting up.  “All our digital cameras, anything hooked up to an extranet connection, glitched out, but the older cameras running straight to tapes only went static-y and fuzzy for about two hours.”  She took out a stack of tapes and handed them to Pearl, who stared at them as if she’d just been handed a pile of rocks.  “These tapes are from some of the less important areas of the facility: staff kitchen, senior and group staff offices, collection and treatment center, and the algae room.  All of them show our mystery green invader, but there’s usually a glitch for about fifteen minutes or so before the cameras start recording normally again.”

Steven, who had pulled himself together by now, was crowded into the security station doorway with Connie and Amethyst.  He turned to Connie and pulled a clownish face.  “This is serious business.  It’s exactly the kind of mystery that needs a rugged, yet sensitive and flawed, head detective, and his faithful and upright right-hand woman who doesn’t actually have a right hand but secretly knows kung-fu…”

Connie’s eyes sparkled.  “CSI: Boise!  It’s a good thing this didn’t happen in a corn field,” she added more soberly.

“I know!  So many people get killed in corn fields on CSI: Boise.”  Steven’s lower lip trembled dramatically for a moment.  “Alas for all those people who died amidst ears that could not hear.”

“CSI what now?” Amethyst demanded, trotting into the security room to help Pearl before she dropped the tape stack.  The kids developed guilty looks under Greg, Garnet, and Pearl’s combined stares.

“It’s a very scientifically accurate show about crime scene investigators in the big city,” Connie said carefully. 

“Except Connie’s not allowed to watch it at home.”

Amethyst grinned.  “Oh yeah, I love that show!  Best part is when they zoom the camera through the victims’ eye sockets and like, their bullet holes to show the organ damage.  Pretty classic!  Ahh, intestines, always good for a laugh.”

Greg raised his eyebrows.  “I’m not actually sure Steven’s allowed to watch that at home either.”

“But Dad,” protested Steven, “the brave investigators of CSI: Boise are super-dedicated to the cause of justice and finding out who the real bad guys are!  And the coroner has this great friendship with the head detective because of their shared troubled and tragic history!”

“Their husbands were both abducted by the Man in the Purple Suit,” Connie added, “never to be seen again.  Except my theory is that the coroner’s husband actually is the Man in the Purple Suit, because we’ve seen a lot of thematic elements in flashbacks suggesting that…sorry I’ll stop talking.”

“Connie, it’s okay!  It’s a really good theory!  But, yeah,” Steven said, “we have a bona fide mysteryon our and that’s going to take determination, human and Gem ingenuity, and a lot of fingerprint dust to solve.”

Connie scratched her chin thoughtfully.  “And maybe a deerskin hat and a pipe.  That always works for Certainsecure Domicile.  Oh, and there’s a few things I could pick up from home, too.”

“Oh yeah!  Do we have a deerskin hat anywhere, Dad?”

“Well, maybe…I’d have to check the back office at the carwash, that’s where I usually keep your old Halloween stuff.  As long as you guys promise not to watch the…zooming eyeball camera segments anymore, okay?  Sheesh.  I should show you two some Little Butler.  Now there’s a quality show.  Good clean fun.”

“Steven, Gems don’t have fingerprints,” Pearl protested, reaching out as the two kids raced off, and squeaked as she dropped a tape.  Garnet caught it before it hit the ground, and nodded at Steven and Greg.

“Alright.  This isn’t what we normally deal with, and we can definitely use Connie and Greg’s help with this.  Gems, time to buckle down.  Let’s see just what Malachite was after.”


 

Half an hour later, Greg was back with the promised deerskin hat and a set of scuba gear (“Just in case!”), and Connie came with him, still toting her beach bag and wearing a very serious expression.  She met Steven in the main underwater lab as Greg made a detour to the security room, and together they unpacked her bag.

“Okay, it’s not exactly CSI: Boise but it’s the best I could do.  Dad has a few days off so I borrowed his flashlight, his old handcuffs, and a couple of shower caps so we don’t contaminate any evidence.  I told my parents it was for a school project.  And my magnifying glass, a microscope…”

“Connie, you are 110% ready for everything!”  Steven donned his deerstalker cap.  “And now, so am I.  Numbers!  Floating in the air!  Mysterious deductions about strangers in the form of text messages!  I feel smarter already,” he confided to Connie.

Connie put down the flashlight and looked up at Steven.  “Are you sure you’re okay?  If it was Malachite…it’s weird for her to sneak into someplace and steal things.  Not exactly characteristic behaviour, from what you’ve told me.”

Steven’s smile got a little fixed, and then faded.  He looked away.  “I know.   I’m…kinda scared.  If Malachite’s not acting like Lapis or Jasper, then that means…what Garnet said might have already happened.  And maybe I’m too late to save her.”

“You won’t have to save her alone, and if that’s what happened, we’ll figure something out.”  Connie gestured firmly.  “You’ve got the Crystal Gems on your side, they’re like, masters of fusion.  Heck, we know a thing or two about it ourselves!  And then there’s Garnet.  If anybody can figure out how to help Malachite separate, it’s us.”

Steven looked at the hand she was offering him, took it, and squeezed it, his expression brightening.  “Yeah!”

“Yeah!”

“So let’s go find out what she was looking for and why.  Uh…” Steven paused and peered over Connie’s shoulder into the octopus tank.

A very purple octopus made its way up the side of the tank and waved a tentacle at them.  “’Sup, guys?  Just interviewing some witnesses.  And by interviewing I mean chilling with the coolest crew in this lab.”

“The octopuses?”

“Or…octopi?  It should probably be octopi,” Connie said.

Octo-methyst shrugged.  “Why not?  They’re probably smarter than the grad students.  Didn’t see anything interesting, though.”  Amethyst clambered out of the tank, plopped to the floor, and shape-shifted back into humanoid form.  “Except, if you’re in the cafeteria, they said to skip the fish and chips, the researchers sneak ‘em pieces and the fish is gluey and nasty.”


 

In the visitor’s lounge, Garnet was sorting through a pile of interns’ reports on their lab contents, looking increasingly sour, while Pearl paced back and forth, throwing up images and texts as holograms from her gem.

“…could possibly have learned to phase through solid matter—no, no, that wouldn’t work even with the hydromancy.  Would she have the know-how to damage the computerized cameras?  Neither of those two know anything about human tech, so why would Malachite, unless she’s a much faster learner than we’d theorized.  The door was broken into using a very delicate probing technique with only minimal damage to the lock.  The areas that she spent the most time in seem to be the ones where the digital cameras went out, where most of the expensive research equipment was kept—Q-drives, oscillators, computerized everything…Garnet, I’m not sure if we haven’t drawn the wrong conclusions here!  Can’t you just use future vision to find out what’s going on?”

“You know it doesn’t work like that, Pearl,” Garnet said, with a hint of a growl.  Pearl flinched, and Garnet inclined her head in brief apology.  “If it had been me I’d just have punched the lock on their front door.  Or just punched the door.  I can tell you from personal experience, most fusions aren’t interested in taking the indirect approach.  It’s a feature, not a bug,” she added.

“But…Sardonyx…oh, I suppose you’re right.”  Pearl’s holograms disappeared and she turned to Garnet and the stack of reports.  “Why don’t you let me have a look at those?”

“Don’t want you to overwork yourself.”

Pearl’s eyes gleamed with barely-contained desperation.  “But those are lists.”

Garnet cocked her head, then nodded and moved over, patting the couch where she’d been.  Pearl settled in next to her, seiza style, and began methodically plowing through the reports, her body language relaxing.

Eventually, Greg wandered in to join them, as did a bored dispirited Amethyst, with nothing to show; Greg got the two of them veggie dogs from the cafeteria, and two more for Connie and Steven when they lugged in Connie’s CSI: Beach City bag.

“We did find a dent on the wall in the server room that looks like somebody punched it,” Steven told his dad between bites.  “Connie took a picture of it with her phone.  Intern Laura says it wasn’t there yesterday.”

“This makes no sense at all,” Pearl muttered.  “Why would Malachite…the researchers are just missing weird little human gew-gaws, nothing that would be of use to a Gem!  Dr. Jeong even says she can’t find her executive clicky-ball thing from her desk.  Who wants one of those?”

“You mean the ones that have five balls and only the ones at the end do the clicky thing?  Newton’s cradles,” Garnet said, causing Pearl to blush.  “I would.” 

Pearl stared at her.  “You would?”

“A really big one.”

Pearl looked momentarily derailed.  “Where would you put it, though?  And what would you do with it.”

“I’d get a really big desk and watch it doing the clicky thing.”

Connie, who’d been chewing thoughtfully on her veggie dog, suddenly stopped and stared fixedly over Greg’s shoulder.  Steven looked up from his own food, looked at Connie’s expression, and followed her gaze.

“…dunno, P, I mean, we use human tech all the time…”

“Well, yes, but for things that are practical, like…microwaves and washing machines.  And ovens.  What would Malachite want with an oven?  None of this stuff goes in things like ovens anyway, it’s all high tech, and we know of a rogue Gem who works with high tech…”  Pearl trailed off.  “Steven, are you alright?”

Silently, Steven stood up and walked towards the viewing window.  The research station was at a shallow enough point on the coastline that, even this close to the bottom, light lanced down from above, giving a remarkably clear 180 degree view of the ocean around it.  A couple of nurse sharks were gliding past, and a shoal of tiny silver fish swam and darted like a cloud of shiny needles.  Crabs trotted crabwise over the rocks and sand, not disturbing much with their progress.

Something was drifting towards them through the water, the only still thing in a scene of movement and life.

“Is that a dead body?”  Amethyst shoved the rest of her hot-dog into her mouth and glued herself to the viewing window next to Steven, whose breath was fogging the glass.  “Gross!  Hey guys, come check it out!”

Connie stood up to follow them, but Greg gestured her back quickly.  “Hang on a second, kiddo, please.  Steven,” he said, his voice rising, “you don’t want to see that, come with me and Connie, we’re gonna go upstairs to reception and call the police…”

“You know, I’ve seen humans in water,” Pearl said, a little distantly, moving towards the window herself.  Steven remained where he was, as if he’d gone deaf to Greg and the world around him.  “They don’t…move like that.  They sink, or they float, they don’t just sort of hang in between and…drift…”  She trailed off into stunned silence as a ray of light fell on the strangely floating figure, illuminating the soft lines of a flowing skirt and messy hair tangled with seaweed.

Garnet was at their side immediately.  “Gems, move back and get ready.”  Pearl and Amethyst obeyed immediately.  Garnet equipped her enormous fists looked down at Steven, hands now pressed to the glass, and her voice softened.  “That means you too, Steven.”

“Garnet,” Steven choked out, “I think it’s…”

As Greg and the Gems watched in growing horror, the blue figure bonked gently against the viewing window glass.  It didn’t respond to the impact, but the physics and the motion of the water turned her enough that they could see her face.

Pearl started to lower her spear.  “The current…of course, it flows this way, that’s why the research station is situated in this location.  It must have carried her here.”

“Whoa,” Amethyst said, her voice unusually soft.  “She looks like she got in a fight with, like, three sharks and a grizzly bear.”

Amethyst’s words seemed to snap Steven out of his shocked trance, and he began to bang on the glass furiously with both fists.  Garnet tried to stop him and he shook her off, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Lapis!  Lapis Lazuli, wake up!  You’ve got to wake up!  Can you hear me?”

Lapis’ eyes opened.

Garnet snatched Steven up and withdrew five feet from the glass, holding him one-armed in an iron grip as Pearl and Amethyst took a defensive formation in front of her.

One of Lapis’ eyes was swollen almost shut, but she fixed the other on Steven, and there was no expression in it or in her battered face.  Her lips formed the words, “Steven…I…failed…”

The current bumped her a second time against the glass, and there was a sudden burst cloud of white bubbles, rushing upwards.  They cleared in time for the Crystal Gems to watch a teardrop-shaped blue gem sink slowly towards the ocean floor.

Greg, looking pale, said, “I left my scuba gear upstairs, how about I just…”

“Nah, I got this,” Amethyst said quickly.  “Sharkmethyst to the rescue, G-man, I’ll go grab her in the flick of a fin.”  She dissolved her whip and bolted upstairs.

Connie went over to stand by Steven, who was motionless in Garnet’s arms, and said, “What did she mean, ‘I failed’?”

“She means, Jasper’s gotten loose,” Garnet said.  “And Malachite is no longer our biggest problem.”