Agent Belle Nguyen stared down the gun in the Spectrum droid’s hand unblinking. “Purple, really? Going to shoot me? Someone force feed you shit mood soup?” Her voice was a mix of posh English and French.
“What are you doing aboard my ship?” Detective Arthas Jacques asked, holding up his metal prosthetic hand towards the droid to keep it from acting on deadly impulses.
“Waiting for you,” she said.
“Put the gun away, Purple.” Arthas threw off his coat and fanned his shirt beneath. Sweat from running all day had soaked his clothes. “We’re not supposed to work together anymore. I was taken off the Deus ex Sapiens case. I thought you were as well.”
“You’re right about both. That doesn’t mean I’m going to let them poke me full of needles trying to work out what it is.”
“Control is what it is, Belle.” Arthas cut into her train of thought with a rebuke that caused her to frown.
“It’s not like you’ve stopped chasing it down anyway. That’s why I came to find you. I knew you’d keep chasing the answers. I knew you’d need the Morrigan for it so I broke into the ship and waited. Being a stowaway while it was remotely piloted was interesting.”
“It was locked and disabled. How did you bypass security?” Despite being a droid, Purple’s Newcastle accent was a growl as his amethyst glowing eyes looked at her.
“I’m a spy, tin man. It’s my job to get into places I’m not supposed to. To pretend to be people I’m not. To know things people want to keep secret.”
“And to lie,” said the droid in a Berlin accent as its eyes flashed from amethyst to gold.
“Naturally. I’m a professional liar. More than any actor, my life depends on it.” Casual as a statue with its middle finger raised, she stared down the deadly droid. “Come on, boys, you’re going my way. You know I’m good with a gun. You’re flying into danger. Why not take someone who can have your back.”
“Because you’re as likely to put a knife in it,” said Purple, eyes burning with an atypically strong glow.
“You know my intentions align with yours. It’s in my interest to work with you, not against you.” Her smile was a lioness’ with meat in her belly.
“If she twitches wrong, you can always shoot her,” Arthas offered the droid.
“I’ll remind you that you said that. I’m taking it as permission.” With that, Purple took the Morrigan into the upper orbit and away from Mars.
“You’re very casual talking about premeditated murder, droid. Aren’t there protocols or code to prevent that?” Belle considered the black hulk of metal with her head tilted.
“There are nineteen billion humans in the solar system. You’re far from going extinct.”
“Does that mean we’re worthless?”
“No, but it’s an old human adage that rarity increases value.”
“How many of them are Martians? Not enough. We’re still stuck in domes after centuries. Carving our homes out of the rock beneath the surface instead of living on it like they do on Earth. They’ll never know how lucky they are to have a sky above them, an atmosphere that doesn’t want them dead. They don’t need treatments for bone density if they eat enough.
If it wasn’t for droids, Mars would be a dead rock. Your kind,” she eyed Purple as she spoke, “outnumber us a hundred to one, fixing the domes, suplimenting our armed forces. Forgive me, but it’s sad that we need that. I want a Mars where I can stand beneath a welcoming sky. I want my children to have the option of farming fertile soil. I want to see trees to the horizon, producing our oxygen the natural way instead of splitting it from frozen water.
Not like you know,” she glowered at Jacques. “Rich boy like you, might as well have been Earth born.”
He shrugged. She wasn’t wrong.
“So we’re chasing Cain Ableman now. What’s next?”
“We?” Purple asked with unveiled animosity.
“Us, as a trio. We’ve worked well together up until now.” With a voice as light as a summer breeze, she was a queen of mystery.
“You had us working for you. That was after you pretended to be someone else to get information from Arthas. Then we got blown up and you were miraculously unharmed.”
“Are you implying that I had something to do with a bomb that almost killed me?” Fury turned her turn into a high pitched growl. The hint of another accent peeked from beneath the veneer of respectability for the first time. Arthas had heard something like it on a station orbiting Saturn many years before. Her arms folded across her bullet proof vest.
“I’m stating outright that you are a liar whose schemes have put Arthas in more danger than he usually manages to himself.” The droid looked back at his owner. Detective Jacques put his hand on his heart and mouthed a sarcastic thank you.
“This case is dangerous. The risks if we do nothing are greater. Deus ex Sapiens is a game changer. Not in a good way.”
“Are you by any chance about to develop a spontaneous case of selective mutism?” asked the droid, it eyes golden. The Berlin accent did nothing to soften the words.
“No,” said Belle.
“Pity,” said Yellow.
The agent rolled her eyes. “What do we do until we arrive on Earth?”
“Admire the sight of sweet fuck all as it rolls past the window in fifty thousand shades of black,” said Blue in its Glaswegian accent. “Cain Ableman is on the Zero Dawn, heading for Bleaklow, Derbyshire, England on Earth. Which I know, before you ask, because the ship is moving from Martian space to Earth’s territory so it had to declare its intended landing site.” There was a grandiose, long suffering base to Blue’s tones before the sapphire glowing eyes reverted to amethyst.
“Why do the programs in your droid talk more than you do?” she asked.
“So that I don’t have to waste my breath. Be good, Belle. Purple is itching to kill you.” Arthas pulled a cowboy hat over his eyes, feet up on his reclined chair.
“Is this flight going to take that long?” Nguyen asked.
The droid kept its peace. The detective kept snoring. The agent browsed his book collection. Picking Frank Herbert’s Dune from the crowded locker, she rose an eyebrow at the width of it, then shrugged.
Earth wasn’t the blue and brown orb with white poles that the agent and the detective had been expecting. “Where are the ice caps?” asked Arthas, looking what was a bluer planet than ever.
“Capping off the sea levels,” said Red in its Parisian accent. “Humanity’s greatest achievement, drowning an entire planet.” An open black metal hand gestured to the alien world beyond the Morrigan’s window.
The sleek wings of the ship emerged during the descent into the atmosphere. Heat warning lights flashed on the dashboard. The droid’s nimble fingers flicked switches and guided the Morrigan in for a smooth landing at James Prowse Space Port, England.
Dressed in regal garb taken from a drug dealer, Arthas stepped off his craft onto windswept tarmac. A harsh breeze flicked his brown hair around. To the west, the Irish Sea washed over what had been England longer than than man had named it so.
Heart pounding at the sight of sky above, of a horizon uncontained, be blinked back dizziness. Belle vomited behind him. Shaking, she sat down.
Gravity neither had ever known in anything but training dragged them down. Stepping over the puddle of the agent’s last meal, the droid hooked an arm under Arthas’ armpit.
“Are you fit to stand?” Ruby glowing eyes and the Parisian accent were soft. The onyx head inclined to assess the detective’s pupil dilation.
“I’m fine. Let’s go for a walk,” said Jacques, waving the droid away. He sought comfort in the solid ground beneath him. “What is that smell?”
“Fresh air, Arthas,” said Red. “The first truly fresh air you’ve ever known.” With none of the kindness it showed its owner, the droid told Belle, “keep your eyes down if you can’t stomach the sky.”
“Why am I getting an adrenaline spike?” Arthas asked. “Because there’s more oxygen in the air, it’s going to feel like you’re hyperventilating until you acclimate.”
“Is that why my fingers are shaking?” Belle asked.
Her question went unanswered. The Zero Dawn sat, empty, on a neighbouring landing pad.The Spectrum droid walked the detective to the arrival gate.
Welcome to Earth, Cradle of Humanity, read the sign above the door.
“That’s right, Earther’s, don’t wait to boast.” Arthas shook his head.
“Good afternoon, sir. I hope you had a pleasant journey.” The man greeting them with hot towels had two luminous green droids flanking him. The screens where faces might have been scrolled with welcoming phrases in dozens of languages. Security, written in black, adorned their chests in a threatening font. On their right legs were holstered guns that could have pierced Belle’s body armour from miles away. Strapped to their right legs were anti aircraft launchers.
“I never thought disembarking would be the difficult bit,” said Arthas, tasting vomit on his tongue.
“The transition from Mars to Earth is harder than it is the other way around, or so I’m told.” The Manchester accented man shrugged with a winning smile. All of the teeth sparkled with a whiteness that made it clear they had recently been replaced. A callus on his trigger finger caused Arthas to look at him again. The crease of the man’s ocean blue suit suggested there was a weapon holstered behind his back.
“We’re here as tourists, but hoping to strike up some friendships that might lead to business later.” Jacques held his chin high as he had been taught in etiquette classes.
“Anything to declare, sir,” asked the man. His brilliant teeth flashed.
“I have firearms, and licenses for them.”
“Very good sir. There’s some diligence to be done before I can let you past. It won’t take long. Seven oh eight and seven oh nine here will show you to the booth.”
Escorted to a soundproof glass room, Arthas read and ticked boxes about things he was and wasn’t bringing to Earth. Pressing his palm to the screen to sign it, he watched the customs symbol rotate.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION. ENJOY YOUR STAY. You are granted a thirty day visa for entry. Please leave or reapply if you wish to stay beyond that time.
Earth smelled an awful lot like seagull shit to anyone in the know. Arthas just wrinkled his nose. Belle clutched at a bag of bespoke James Prowse Space Port sick bags as Purple pushed her out of the port in a wheelchair.
“Where to?” asked the agent.
“The nearest bar,” said Arthas, spitting on the home world of his species.
The Baskerville Hound had a faux wooden painted sign swinging merrily above its heavy doors. The huge blocks of limestone that fronted the concrete beneath gave the towering buildings of Bleaklow a hint of castle. Solar panels everywhere else undermined that illusion.
Most productive of the energy generators that day were the windmills atop the buildings that looked set to take flight.
The doors slammed behind them on springs as the trio entered the pub. Thick, muddy carpet soaked up the dust from their feet. A fake fire flickered in the corner.
“What can I get you folks?” asked the barman in a Norfolk accent which made Jacques pause to process the words for meaning.
“I’m here to pay a bar tab for my friend,” Arthas said, sighing as he sat heavily on a stool.
“Wonderful. Who for?”
“Purple, if you please.”
A projection of Cain Ableman hovered over the droid’s hand. The barman squinted, looking from Cain to Arthas and back.
“No he paid for his drinks,” said the man dressed in the tartan jacket and shorts of a country Lord. “Didn’t ask for credit either. Scary guy. I might have given him his drinks if he’d looked at me funny. If you see him, recommend the Discworld Inn, more his kinda place I reckon.”
“I will. Sorry to bother you. Any idea which way he went? I need to catch up before he drinks the town dry and spends more of my money.”
“Went right when he was out the door. That’s all I know.” He doffed his cap as they turned to go. A flush of red relief spread over his face when they turned to head out as well.
“Thanks.” Arthas smiled. He pushed through the maroon paneled front door back into the street. Water dripped into his hair from a rooftop twelve storeys above. A seagull squawked as it made eye contact with the detective. Jacques was thankful it had only been water dripping on him.
A skinny black cat scurried past them in the gutter as they walked away from the space port. Locals dressed for rain watched them pass and whispered. They were often taller and broader than the average Martian.
“Are there cameras here?” Arthas saw none.
“Not many,” said Green in the Dublin accent, pushing Belle steadily along.
“Whatever you can do to find Cain, do it.”
“We’re outside your jurisdiction here,” Green warned his master.
“I know. Be subtle. I’ll argue my case if I must. Did you announce our arrival to the local police?”
“Aye,” said Blue.
“There’s a surveillance system at the bakery coming up. You might be as well asking,” said the droid, eyes glowing emerald.
“Not if Ableman has people watching out for him it might have been a mistake to even ask in the bar.”
“Let me do it,” said Belle.
“You?” Green asked.
“Me,” said the spy. She shook off the wooziness, pushed the droid’s hands off the wheelchair and stood. “Get rid of the wheelchair.”
“Yes, my queen,” said Green, rolling a hand with mocking ceremony.
“Absolutely, your majesty,” said Red, nodding.
“Right away, your highness,” said Blue. The eyes changed colour along with the accent every time.
“Fuck off. Do it yourself,” said Purple.
“Can you push it then, so that I can walk? Please.” Belle pressed her palms together.
“Well since you asked so nicely, no,” said the amethyst eyed droid. It pushed the wheelchair towards her and folded black arms across its scratched chest.
“You’re a charmer,” Nguyen told the droid.
“All the ladies say so,” said Blue, mirth in his Glaswegian voice.
“Shut up both of you,” Arthas barked at them. “Look at that, we’ve found the next milestone in Cain’s journey.” He nodded to a cordon of police droids standing around an outline marked on the granite cobbles of the street.
Belle pushed past the detective and the droid to talk to the officers at the scene. She was invited into a huddle.
“What’s she saying?” asked Arthas.
“I can’t tell. The droids around the scene are running jammers,” said Green. Its emerald eyes scanned the tarps around the blocked off street.
Minutes later, Belle emerged smiling. “Right. We know where to go next. Come on.” She waved a hand to invite them down the narrow passage between the cordoned crime scene and the southern wall of the street.
“Cain killed a local man with an air bubble in a needle. Pretty subtle for him. He left on a train to Edinburgh ten minutes later.”
“So we’re Scotland bound?” Blue asked. “That’s more like it.” The droid passed the wheelchair to a police droid. “Take this back to the space port will you, brother? Thanks.” The Spectrum droid patted the fellow on the shoulder, ignoring the shaking head of the navy blue and yellow robot.
“How do you do it all?” Belle asked the droid.
“Multitasking is the art of being confused by many things at once,” said Red. “Ah, trains. How quaint.” His wife flung arms encapsulated the bullet train hovering over the rails thanks to magnetic levitation.
“Sacred Slug,” read Blue. “Interesting name for a train. Hopefully it’s no indication of how fast we’ll be going.”
“How did you get them to tell you where Cain was going?” Arthas asked Belle, wincing at the cost of tickets to Edinburgh. His palm confined the purchase. A gate opened.
“I’m good at my job, Jacques. That’s all I’ll say.” Her voice had changed again. She sounded like the locals, a mix of Manchester and the broader local accents.
Purple caught Arthas’ eye and flashed the lights in its eyes as it did to mimic raised eyebrows.
Strapping himself into a front facing seat by the window, the detective knew what the droid was getting at. Purple needn’t worry that he trusted her. He knew very well that nothing about the Martian Security Agency operative was as it seemed.
Outside the window, towering homes clung to the hills that rose out of the water. Grey clouds gave up their bounty, though the sun peeked through in the distance. Next to him sat the mysterious Belle, crunching her way through the complementary crisps like a local.
“You look like deep fried shit,” said the droid of his pallor. Arthas’ only response was raising the middle finger of his right hand and rotating the prosthetic on the joint, round and round as he soaked up the view of a drowned world.