PROJECT CHANGELING: Chapter 2

The serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A Serena Keilor Novel by Michael J. McCann continues now with Chapter 2. We hope you’re enjoying the story so far!


2

Peter Visquel led the way around the offices and down another long row of raised beds to a set of crash doors at the back. He leaned his shoulder against one of the doors, smiled at Serena, and preceded her into the washing room.

Robots loaded fully grown roots from the washing tubs into large carts, supervised by a small boy whose name Serena didn’t know. The produce would be taken into the drying room next door and then on to yet another room for packing and shipment.

A young female stuck her head through a door at the back, saw who was in the room, and disappeared again.

Peter sat down on a bench next to a washing tub that was in the middle of a load. Serena sat down next to him. Cleaning gel hissed from rows of nozzles, creating a white noise that would mask their conversation from the listening devices that were inevitable in most buildings in the domed city.

“Thank you for coming. I hope you’re well.” His eyes followed the kid herding the robots as they pushed their heavy carts into the drying room.

It had been two weeks since she’d last been here. Nominally she was an employee of Peter’s company and drew a salary from him, but in fact it had been four years since she’d moved out of her tiny room upstairs to work various detached assignments, as Peter liked to call them.

“Beginning tomorrow morning,” he said, “you’ll start a new job. You’ve been staffed as an administrative assistant in the artificial human project at Stellarize Marté. A new unit has been created with oversight functions, and your assignment will be to surveil the unit manager, Gabriel Morales. We believe he’s a spy passing information to Earth Intelligence.”

Serena raised an eyebrow. Another of the five corporations that ruled Mars with an iron fist, Stellarize Marté built and ran the shuttlecraft and interplanetary spaceships that kept Mars connected to the rest of the solar system. They also ran the dirtside tram lines in each city. They were a very powerful and highly secure organization. Working undercover inside their research and development campus would be problematic, at best.

Reading her mind, Peter nodded. “Do what you can. We can’t get electronics in there, so human eyes and ears will have to do. Your eyes and ears, my dear.”

“All right.”

Serena had come from the domed city of Hephesto to live with Peter when she was approximately eight, a crèche kid with no parents and no future. For ten years she’d worked for Peter, doing odd jobs at first before moving up to quality control checks on the vegetables and supervising the robots like the kid in the next room. She’d also been forced to sit impatiently through Peter’s classroom sessions. She’d loved the math but hated the language lessons. Nevertheless, she now spoke six and could read and write in several computer languages as well. Not to mention sign language, semaphore, Morse code, and other less obvious forms of communication.

Peter was a believer in redundancy. Having alternate channels of functionality available in case of interference or systems failure helped him sleep better at night.

On what they’d decided was her eighteenth birthday, Peter handed her a ring that would open the door of a living unit in the southwest quarter. He told her that she now worked for MIS, the Martian Intelligence Service. Her training (is that what it had been?) would enable her to work as an undercover operative. Peter would be her handler.

The assignments had been simple to start with, but over the last four years they’d become progressively more challenging.

“What’s my cover?” she asked, folding her hands in her lap.

“You’ll use your current name and address. It works, so we’ll stay with it.”

“Is there a team?”

“As far as you’re concerned, you’re on your own. We believe Gabriel Morales has been working for Earth Intelligence for some time now. We think he’s been put in place to steal data from the interstellar spacecraft and artificial human projects. We think he may be about to make a major delivery before being removed to Earth. His last big score. Stellarize Marté is vulnerable, and we need to stop him now, before it’s too late.”

“All right.”

Peter fingered a pendant that hung around his neck. Strung on a length of twine, it was a cabochon stone cut from blue lace agate. It was one of his few personal possessions, and during the time that Serena had lived here, the kids speculated that Peter’s late wife had given it to him before her death. No one knew for certain.

“Because it’s Stellarize Marté,” Peter said, “you’ll be thoroughly scanned entering and leaving. Since no electronic devices are allowed into the workplace, you yourself will be our recording apparatus. Memorize everything you see and hear, and report to me on a regular basis once you’re clear of their surveillance.”

Serena nodded. She had an excellent memory and had handled similar tasks for him in the past.

She watched the boy come back in from the drying room, followed by two of the robots. He was tiny and thin, as Serena had been at that age, and his hair was as red as hers.

Peter’s eyes followed him across the room. “Pablo has been doing well in training, and he’s ready for some simple assignments. We’ll start with the laundromat you once asked me about. Do you remember?”

“Yes. I wondered why it was always closed, even though the blinds were sometimes open. You told me it was a call stack. You were laughing when you said it.”

“I was, yes.”

“It took me a while to understand what you meant. An information drop.”

Peter nodded. “Pablo will set the signal and service it: a piece of green plastic in the doorway at the back of the building when the drop is clean and ready. Leave the ring in an empty food container next to the dumpster, and move the green plastic to the corner of the building to tell him that it’s ready to be picked up.”

“All right.”

Peter tucked the pendant back inside the bib of his coveralls. “This will be our last face-to-face for the foreseeable future. Understood?”

“Yes.”

“Take no unnecessary chances, Serena. I’ve grown much too fond of you to lose you now.”

She stood up. “You say that to all the kids.”

“Just the best ones,” he replied.


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: BUMIPUTRA/Pixabay

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

Project Changeling: Prologue

As promised, we now begin a serialization of PROJECT CHANGELING: A Serena Keilor Novel by Michael J. McCann. For your holiday weekend reading, here’s the Prologue!


PROLOGUE

Elysium Planitia — 6.04° N Latitude, 77.2° E Longitude

How many hours had he been walking? He had no idea.

He turned to look back at the way he’d come and saw a long, serpentine trail of dust particles still hanging in the air, disturbed by his passage, slowly falling back down to the surface of the never-ending plain. Could he not even walk in a straight line?

He sipped water and ran his tongue over his lips. The breath collection cup near his chin on the inside of his helmet still worked, taking in carbon dioxide and water vapor from his breath so that his suit’s life-support system could vent the CO2 and recycle the water, but the air entering his helmet through the valve behind his head was getting dangerously low on oxygen.

He wasn’t sure how much time he had left until he asphyxiated.

They thought they were being humorous when they allowed him to put on the lifesuit before dumping him out of the shuttle and taking off, leaving him alone in the middle of the Elysian desert. The suit’s battery had shown about a 40 percent charge left in it, but that had waned to 19 percent as he’d walked, and it wouldn’t last much longer. The internal temperature was already dropping, and very soon he’d begin to experience symptoms of hypothermia.

They’d caught him surveilling a dead drop being used by one of their spies, a man believed to be working inside Stellarize Marté to steal corporate secrets and sell them to Earth Intelligence. He thought he’d found a perfect observation point behind a row of dumpsters in the mouth of the alley across the street from the drop. The best he could figure was that they’d spotted him from above, either with a drone or from a window in the building behind him.

He should have told his father what he was doing. He knew that now. A fatal mistake. The old man would be very, very disappointed.

His mind began to wander, and after a long while he realized he was on his knees, slowly rocking from side to side.

It was very cold. He couldn’t breathe.

He thought about his girlfriend, Marissa. He loved her so much. The future with her had looked so incredibly bright.

He thought about his parents, how sad his mother would be and how guilty his father would feel for having allowed him to join the Service in the first place.

He closed his eyes and listened to music inside his head, a song he’d never particularly liked but that seemed to insist on dominating his mindspace right now.

He opened his eyes and saw dirt pressed up hard against his helmet visor.

He’d fallen forward, apparently.

He closed his eyes again.

Before long, he fell into a deep sleep from which there would be no awakening.

Elysium City — NW Quarter, 86B Street, Block 17

He watched from the shadows with his only eye, unbothered by the passage of time. He’d been here for hours, perfectly still, scanning the wicast bands, listening to faint sounds around him, watching for movement.

The only significant activity had occurred ten hours ago, when a squad had surrounded a young man hiding behind the dumpsters at the other end of the alley. After a brief scuffle, they’d pulled out their captive and marched him away, unaware that they were being observed.

He’d waited all this time for something else to happen, but nothing of significance occurred.

The colour of the dome above the rooftops began to deepen toward charcoal as darkness fell.

Communications flowed across the bands but remained routine and not related to his location.

He wondered why the young man had been hiding. The back-channel chatter of the men who’d captured him had indicated that his discovery was an unpleasant surprise, but there was no information to suggest what he’d been doing there and why they’d been so upset about it.

He filed it away for future analysis.

A tricycle turned into the alley, ridden by an old man in a soiled white dhoti and a sleeveless undershirt. The basket on the back of the trike was filled with odds and ends the man had picked from the trash. His long white ponytail swished across his back as he slowly pedalled up the alley and out the other end.

An hour later, with nothing else happening, he left his observation post and followed the shadows back to his warehouse.


PROJECT CHANGELING

a serena keilor novel

Michael J. McCann

A Solar Salamander Book

The Plaid Raccoon Press

© 2021

Project Changeling is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

PROJECT CHANGELING

Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann

Solar Salamander © is an imprint of The Plaid Raccoon Press

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

paperback ISBN: 978-1-927884-21-8

Illustration credit: Cmst May/Unsplash (salamander).

Cover image: alexaldo/Thinkstock

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

PROJECT CHANGELING: Back Cover Blurb

With PROJECT CHANGELING, the first Serena Keilor novel, about to go to press, it’s time to see what it’s all about. Here’s what readers will see on the back cover of the paperback and at the e-book point of sale:


In the Martian domed city of Elysium, Serena Keilor is a young social outcast, discriminated against because of her red hair, her smallness, and her mottled complexion. Unknown to those who revile her as a worthless dirt eater, however, she’s a highly effective undercover operative for Martian Intelligence who’s just been handed her most difficult assignment yet.

Someone is selling Martian corporate secrets to Earth Intelligence at a time when the cold war between Mars and the motherworld is reaching a crisis point. The race is on to build an interstellar spacecraft to find the source of mysterious alien transmissions that could bring fabulous technological advancements to the winner. The fate of Mars as an independent world hangs in the balance.

Serena’s job is to confirm the identity of the spy and his Earth handler before they betray Martian secrets and destroy everything that the five corporations controlling the red planet have worked for generations to build.

Aided only by an artificial human who is a discarded prototype from the interstellar project, Serena risks her life to discover the identity of the spy while also uncovering an astonishing secret about herself and her unexpected role in the future of Mars!


Coming next: we begin serializing PROJECT CHANGELING. Are you ready for a Prologue? Stay tuned!

Illustration credits: Mohamed Chirmitia/Pixabay (Serena Keilor closeup); alexaldo/Thinkstock (banner image and book cover image).

SOLAR SALAMANDER: a new imprint from The Plaid Raccoon Press

Here at The Plaid Raccoon Press we’re pleased to announce the arrival of a new imprint, Solar Salamander, to carry our upcoming speculative and supernatural fiction titles. As with all Plaid Raccoon publications, Solar Salamander Books will be published in paperback and e-book formats.

“We’re excited by this opportunity to expand into a new genre,” said Lynn L. Clark, partner and editor at the Plaid Raccoon, “and to bring a new, fresh approach to our book design not only for upcoming science fiction titles but also our supernatural fiction.”

At the same time, Ms. Clark said the approach to marketing will be somewhat different than it has been with recent crime fiction titles by Michael J. McCann in the March and Walker Crime Novel series.

“Our first publication under the Solar Salamander banner,” she said, “will be Mike’s latest novel, PROJECT CHANGELING, and we intend to post the first few chapters right here on this blog. We’d like readers to have a chance to get into the story and see if it’s something that appeals to them.”

The full novel will be available through the usual e-book and paperback points of sale. “We don’t have much control over the price of our paperbacks,” Ms. Clark said, “given the state of the book publishing industry today, but we do have control over our e-book prices, and PROJECT CHANGELING will be sold at $0.99 USD right from Day 1. Price won’t be a barrier for this book.”

Follow this blog for more news and the first appearance of PROJECT CHANGELING, coming up very soon!