PROJECT CHANGELING: Chapter 1

As promised, we continue the serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A Serena Keilor Novel by Michael J. McCann. For your holiday Monday reading, here’s Chapter 1!


1

Serena Keilor quietly let herself out of Bruno’s living unit and sealed the door behind her. He would sleep for at least another hour before awakening to find her gone. After that, he’d head off to work and forget about her until the next time he told himself he needed her.

She walked down the corridor past other doors, her flat-soled shoes silent on the filthy tile floor. The smells and sounds of claustrophobic human living filled her nose and ears. Stale perspiration, rotting garbage, cooked food, and jackweed smoke. Loud voices from a vid program. A baby crying behind a door marked with colourful graffiti.

She reached the stairs and headed down. Bruno’s living unit was on the fourth level. Six floors was the limit for housing structures in Elysium City, and she was just as glad he didn’t rate a unit at the top. The sex wasn’t good enough to justify walking up and down the two extra flights to get it.

At ground level she let herself out onto the street and glanced both ways before turning left. Above her, the pale light of another Martian dawn filtered through the dome. In this part of the southeast quarter, most of the streetlights were out, broken by vandals and never repaired. She kept to the shadows, moving confidently along the street in a northerly direction.

Giant air vents rumbled overhead, out of sight above the buildings. It was a sound she no longer heard. Her ears were tuned instead to the skittering of vermin foraging in the garbage, distant voices rising and falling, and footsteps that scraped and faded away.

After twenty minutes she reached a neighbourhood that was less residential and more retail. The buildings were two storeys, three at the most, and included storefronts for food, clothing, entertainment, and various services.

An empty public rick sat outside a gambling café. She touched her ring to its lock and the door opened. It was a two-seater, front and back, a little more expensive to use than a singleton, but she got in anyway and sealed the door.

“Gateway Station.”

“Sixteen credits, please,” the rick said.

She touched her ring to the payment reader. The engine started, and the rick pulled away from the curb.

At this time of the day, traffic was still light so she made it to the station in only a few minutes. She followed a small group of people through the front entrance. On her left was a ramp that led up to departures, and on her right was another that led down to arrivals. She took the narrow passage between them and walked into the food court. About a third of the tables were occupied. Seeing nothing suspicious, she headed toward a row of washrooms along the far side.

She picked a door and walked in. A woman stood at a wash basin, considering her reflection in the mirror. Two stalls were occupied, and the others appeared to be empty. She stood still for a count of ten and then abruptly turned and pushed back out into the food court.

No one was nearby. No one appeared startled by her sudden reappearance or quickly turned around or looked the other way.

Somewhat reassured, she walked through the food court and out the other side of the building.

Gateway Station was like a large blister on the dome wall where the southwest and northwest quarters met. Shuttles flew every hour to and from the other domed cities on the planet, and a special line operated between Elysium, the capital city, and Marsport, the original settlement that now served as the spaceport for interplanetary traffic.

Gateway Station was a fairly busy place at any time of the day or night, and it was useful when trying to lose surveillance. Outside, on the north side of the station, Serena leaned against the wall, watching people come and go. As she stood there, a tram arrived from the inner city. It stopped, hissed, and released a flood of passengers from its many doors.

She waited until the flood had passed and a second wave had entered the tram for its return run into the central core. She watched it slowly pull away from the station. Then she took the overhead walkway to the north side of the tracks.

If she had a tail, they were damned good about it.

She trekked through the northwest quarter, following a long and indirect route until she stood outside a two-storey building with a sign over the front entrance:

PV Root Production Inc.

Everything looked normal. She walked around to the back of the building and used her ring to gain access through a door marked for the use of employees only.

She followed a short hallway down to a set of plastic-and-metal double doors. She slipped through them into a large space configured for factory work.

PV Root Production was a grow op for edible roots, some original to Earth and others genetically engineered to flourish under Martian gravitational conditions. They were one of many second-wave businesses licensed by Ares Inc., one of the five corporations controlling everything that happened on Mars, to act as local producers in the domed cities. Ares had decided it would be an effective business strategy to spread out the wealth a little to small-fry entrepreneurs covering specific sub-sectors like edible roots, rice, fruit, or other such food commodities. It reduced transportation costs from Isidium City, where Ares was headquartered, and it established a decentralized network of subsidiaries under innocuous neighbourhood banners.

Despite what the socialists said, The Five were continually working around the edges of their public image to maintain an appearance of benign paternalism.

She walked down long rows of raised beds containing plants in various stages of growth. Random insects circulated, intent on their pollination responsibilities. She reached a central area with glassed-in offices and stopped.

An old man in one of the offices looked up from his desk and saw her standing there. He removed his spectacles, stood up, and shuffled out to meet her.

He was short and stooped. His long white hair was tied back with a colourful bandanna. His coveralls were stained and tattered, but his hands and sandals were immaculate. He walked with a limp, favouring feet that were cursed with nasty bunions and corns.

“Serena,” he said, his nasal Isidian accent heavy and familiar, “how nice to see you again.”


Want the complete e-book now? You can find it here:


PROJECT CHANGELING

Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann

The Plaid Raccoon Press supports copyright, which protects creativity and the right of authors to profit from the fruits of their labour. Please enjoy this free sample and please consider buying an authorized edition of the complete e-book on Amazon. Thank you.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-927884-22-5

Illustration credit: Joshua Sortino/Unsplash

Visit the author’s website at http://www.mjmccann.com

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