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!
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.”
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.”
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.”
Peter tucked the pendant back inside the bib of his coveralls. “This will be our last face-to-face for the foreseeable future. Understood?”
“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.
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Copyright © 2021 by Michael J. McCann
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-927884-22-5
Illustration credit: BUMIPUTRA/Pixabay
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