Project Changeling: An Excerpt


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.

© 2021, 2023 Michael J. McCann