The Chaldean Legacy
Book Two of The Disciples of Cassini Trilogy
By Penny de Byl
“Seriously, I don’t know how you made it through the training,” Special Agent-in-Charge Zoe Moore sighed, watching her colleague vomiting into a purpose-made plastic bag.
Green was the only way to describe Supervisory Special Agent Nick Davis’s skin color. The blood had abandoned his face as extreme nausea had set in. He would have opened a window in the vehicle if it didn’t mean they’d all be sucked into the vacuum of space.
“Oh my god!” exclaimed Special Agent Holly Johnston, kneeling on her seat, peering out the window. “Look at the Earth. It’s so small.”
She was bouncing on the seat like an excited toddler.
“Ms. Johnston, sit down and put your belt back on please,” instructed Zoe.
“Why? We are not likely to hit anything, are we?”
“Special agent!” barked Zoe, making her request clearer as a direct order.
Unhappily, Holly sat down properly and did up her belt.
The low and artificial gravity environment training at Everjein had not prepared Zoe for the feeling of her recent meal floating around irregularly and sloshing against the sides of her stomach lining. She was certain she didn’t feel as sick as Nick, but wasn’t far from it.
Over her lifetime, the special-agent-in-charge had watched the commercial space tourism program take off but never in her life dreamed she’d be on such a flight. Such adventures were only available to the extremely wealthy and astronauts. The very idea that there was no breathable atmosphere outside their private space shuttle made her feel extremely claustrophobic. This fear had been the primary reason, unlike many of her school friends, she’d never dreamed of life in outer space. She vaguely remembered sitting on her dad’s knee watching the live broadcast news on the first privately owned space taxis commissioned by NASA in the mid-2010s. The vision of her big brother with his eyes glued to the television screen was so clear in her mind it could have happened yesterday. At the time, he’d sworn he’d become one of these new age taxi drivers. She smiled to herself. His current job as a private nurse in a retirement village couldn’t be further removed from his boyhood dreams. He was happy, though, with his four kids and wife, living in rural Tasmania.
From the comfort of the tanned leather seats, she glanced out the window at the obsidian sky adorned with diamanté stars. She caught a glimpse of her reflection, noticing how her velvety Jamaican skin had become tired and glossy from the traveling. Thankfully, it took a lot more to mess up her short tight curled hair. If anything, it was flat on one side where she leaned against the bulkhead while trying to get some sleep.
Nick was grateful their private shuttle was one of the new Penning class space vehicles with antimatter rockets. This was reducing the team’s travel time to the station from three months down to twenty- four hours traveling at 1 percent the speed of light. Their destination orbited the terrestrial sun halfway between Mars and Jupiter, just beyond the asteroid belt. Unfortunately for him, there wouldn’t be any earth for him to kneel down and kiss when he got there. All he dreamed about in his nauseated state was solid ground. Any planet, meteor, or comet would do. He wasn’t fussy.
The young, vivacious blonde who was Holly Johnston couldn’t wipe the smile from her face. She couldn’t believe she was going into space, and on assignment. There was no other way she’d be able to live this dream, as her job didn’t pay nearly enough. She couldn’t believe the company even gave her a salary loading of 30 percent to make the trip. They called it danger money. Holly was just disappointed that with the extra cash there wouldn’t be an alien shopping mall where she was going.
Zoe really knew Nick was sick when he rejected the coffee she’d brought back for him from the dispenser. With her own hot drink in hand, Zoe pulled her flexEComTM out of her briefcase. It was an electronic communications device with all the functionality of a smartphone. The device was paper-thin and fifteen by twenty centimeters. It could be folded into any configuration like a piece of paper with the digital display visible on both sides. When folded up entirely, it was no bigger than the palm of her hand. The interface was via touches and swipes on the surface, but she could also write on it with a stylus. Sipping her coffee, she reviewed the objectives of the team’s mission.
The baby elephant plodded at top speed along the gangway, Marcela Barret in hot pursuit. Loud Klaxons reverberated in her ears, and red lights flashed in epileptic inducing spasms in her eyes. “For god’s sake, Constans, block him!” she shouted at her friend and colleague at the other end of the walkway.
With the elephant refusing to stop, the tall slim-built woman, who stood in its path, was in two minds about standing her ground and getting the hell out of the way. She was a psychiatrist for goodness sakes, not a zookeeper. In her indecision about moving, Constans hopped from one foot to the other. She held her arms out wide, appearing to look bigger than she was. This must have amused the baby elephant, as it stopped dead in its tracks.
Reaching out with its truck, it poked Constans in the belly as if trying to determine what she was. Constans jumped back with surprise. This spooked the elephant, and it turned around heading back toward Marcela.
Marcela knelt down on one knee and outstretched her arms, receiving the baby elephant into a hug. “Oh, my poor baby. Did the skinny woman frighten you?”
Constans stood, one hip out and hands on both, a none too impressed look on her face. Marcela laughed at her.
“What on earth is going on?” bellowed an angry voice from behind Marcela.
Lloyd Merrick stood gob smacked, inspecting the busted airlock. It looked like a small explosive charge had been used to blow the doors open.
“I’m so sorry,” Marcela said. “He won’t do it again.”
“That’s what you said last time,” Lloyd reminded her.
Constans hurried over and assisted Marcela to take the baby elephant back to its enclosure.
“Bloody elephants on a space station. I said it wouldn’t work,” Lloyd said, validating himself.
The airlock had ruptured under the force of the charging animal when it had decided to bolt from Marcela’s care. Lloyd had designed each of the five spherical sections of the space station to be separated by air locks. The hermitically sealed spheres were self-contained with four smaller compartments arranged evenly around a central hub. If air compression were lost in one section, the others wouldn’t be affected.
The central sphere had been designed to house the animals. It was partially funded by a million-dollar grant from Earth Preserve, a not-for-profit organization whose goal was to catalog and obtain DNA samples of all life on Earth. They currently have a billion-dollar facility buried several kilometers underground in a once-abandoned Mexican silver mine. This climate-controlled bunker in the Mexican desert houses the largest cryogenics chamber in the world and stores a living record of life.
The animal house contained four biomes based on the Bailey bio-geographical classification system: Polar, Humid Temperate, Dry, and Humid Tropical. They were organized in the same order, from top to bottom within the sphere, fondly known as the Zoo.
This was the third time in as many weeks that the baby elephant had made a run for it, each time wrecking the same airlock. Lloyd sighed as he entered a code into the panel by the door that turned off the alerts. He then set about assessing the damage and devising a repair plan.
Nick was first to the exit hatch, pawing it like a puppy wanting to get through, as the private shuttle docked. The door made swooshing and sucking noises as the air from inside equalized with that in the air lock of the station. He grabbed the woman who greeted him with a huge bear hug. “Thank you. Thank you,” he implored, then pushed past her to get onto the solid ground of the station. The woman, dressed in a neat dark blue and green uniform with Everjein stitched in small type, stood in silence, a shocked, perplexed smile on her face.
“Welcome to Akkadia, Special Agent,” she said, offering her hand to Zoe, with Nick having disappeared through the next door. She pronounced the space station’s name as Ar-cah-dia.
“Hi.” Zoe shook her hand.
Holly was so excited she ignored the welcoming party and pushed through the hatch in search of Nick.
“You’ll have to excuse my colleagues,” Zoe said. “It’s been a long flight and it’s our first time in space.”
“That’s understandable. I see it all the time. I’m Jenny Dean by the way. Station concierge. Can you believe I came out here in some old bucket? It took us three months. You don’t know how spoiled you have been.” She smiled.
Zoe had heard that Akkadia had a concierge to cater to the space tourists’ every whim, but she had imagined that it was just a part-time position for one of the scientists. Jenny was in fact fully qualified with a degree in space hospitality, she informed Zoe as they made their way into the reception area. She’d been working on the station for a year and loved it.
Jenny opened the entry doors for Zoe. The special agent stepped through into what could only be described as the lobby of a five-star hotel. It was a palatial dome with a transparent skin giving a full 180-degree view of the starry sky. From where she stood, Zoe assumed the lobby was in the top third of one of the smaller outside spheres. Large chandeliers hung from the supporting beams of the ceiling. They were shaped as small copies of the entire station.
Zoe found Nick and Holly agape at the entire infrastructure. It certainly was something to behold.
“Oh wow. It’s the restaurant at the end of the universe,” Nick shouted gleefully, racing over to a plush seating area: tables with white tablecloths, silverware, and a central black marble bar. Ironically, the idea of food made him forget about his space sickness.
Before she could stop them, Holly and Nick had ordered a bottle of champagne and were calling her over.
“Come on, ma’am, a toast to our first adventure in space,” Holly giggled. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
Jenny, although she was on duty, joined them for a small celebratory glass and when finished suggested she show them to the sleeping quarters. As she was explaining, their luggage would be delivered promptly, the airlock door automatically whooshed open in front of them. As soon as it closed, the paired door opened, letting them out into a short narrow tunnel. Unlike the lobby, this corridor had no views of any kind. No windows at all. It was lit by a thin strip of green lights on both sides of the passageway much like the emergency lighting along the aisle of the old Earth airplanes. When they reached the other end of the tunnel, they went through the airlock door opening ceremony again.
“Oh. That can’t get tiresome,” Zoe said sarcastically.
Jenny agreed. “You certainly don’t want to be in a hurry to get from one sphere to another here.” She smiled.
The accommodation sphere was divided into five levels and crisscrossed with gangways that made Nick feel like he was in a submarine. As they continued, he looked into the rooms with open doors. Some had a single bed and others two single bunks, one on top of the other. There was barely room to stand in the space that remained next to a small corner desk and chair.
Jenny pointed out their sleeping quarters. She explained that there were currently no tourists visiting the station and that they had the entire deck to themselves. The station scientists, workers, and officials occupied the three levels beneath them. The level above was comprised of larger penthouse suites for those visitors who wished to pay for extra comfort, and a glass ceiling with a view.
Each team member had a separate single room. The concierge suggested they take some time to rest and wait for their luggage. She would be waiting for them in the lobby when they were refreshed. Nick nodded as Jenny asked if they would remember how to get back.
Zoe felt as though she had to squeeze through the door to enter her room. It wasn’t a door in the traditional sense, as she had to step over the bulkhead to get through it. It was more like a hatch. She pressed down on the mattress. It was the firm memory foam type. Just as she liked. Putting her briefcase on the small desk, she noticed the monitor recessed into the wall. She was surprised it was so big. It had to be at least half the length of the bed, as the other half of the same wall had the door to the bathroom. Zoe peeked inside. It was extremely modest with a toilet and shower cubicle jammed into a space that couldn’t be bigger than 1 x 2 meters. Seeing the loo reminded Zoe she desperately needed to use it.
After finishing in the bathroom, Zoe returned to examine the monitor. She touched it and it came to life with a simple menu.
Above the menu was a black and green logo that looked like a fern leaf wrapped around the Earth with three little people smiling and holding hands over it. Above the logo it read, Welcome to Akkadia.
There were several menu options Zoe could choose from, including movie watching, a calendar of extra curricula activities, making a video call to another guest and room service. Room service. She laughed, wondering where on earth she’d fit a plate of food in the tiny space. I guess that would be for the penthouse patrons, she thought.
Suddenly, her monitor started to blink. Incoming call from Nick Davis, it read. Zoe touched the Accept button. The top of Nick’s balding head filled the screen.
“Can you see me?” he shouted.
“No, but I can hear you,” Zoe called back as she could hear Nick’s voice through the monitor but also across the corridor.
“Is that better?” Nick asked, moving back from the camera in his room. “Ooh. I can see you.” Nick waved.
Zoe waved back. She felt pathetic.
Holly appeared in her open doorway. “Did you see that the monitor shows 3D pictures of Earth scenes? You can shut your door and imagine you are anywhere. Even under the ocean.”
Even in space? Zoe thought of asking sarcastically but thought better of it. “That’s great,” she replied instead. “Now, if you two don’t mind, I’m going to wash up and rest for a while.” She pressed the Hang Up button on her monitor and shut her room hatch.
Constans stood covered in elephant dung, staring at Marcela. Marcela had insisted she stand inside the enclosure and coax Murphy, the baby elephant, inside with a handful of old bananas. The elephant was so overjoyed by the sweet gift he was being offered that he knocked Constans over into the straw and other unmentionables on the floor.
Andre Carlyle, the station’s veterinarian, was beside himself trying to contain his laughter. He didn’t know what was funnier: the elephant poo down the front of Constans’s shirt or the elephant poo that she had unfortunately wiped through her hair before realizing what it was. Marcela was equally amused.
“That’s it. Get your own elephant next time,” Constans asserted, stomping out of the cage and over to the showers. “You’d better have a spare uniform I can put on. I’m not going to walk back to my room in a towel.”
This made Marcela and Andre laugh all the harder, and Marcela had to steady herself by holding on to Andre’s shoulder. Constans had to clean up before leaving the Zoo, as animal contaminants were not allowed to breach the airlocks. This was the reason for a shower and change room located near the exit on the dry biome level. The corridor leading out from this particular airlock was the quickest way back to the living quarters.
As Marcela was rifling through her locker looking for something Constans could wear, her communicator cuff vibrated. She pressed a button on the flat silver bracelet she wore and spoke into it. “Yes.”
“The Everjein Security Team have arrived, Doctor,” came Jenny’s voice over the device.
“Thanks, Jenny,” Marcela acknowledged, pressing another button on the cuff to close the line. She continued searching through her locker then pulled out a man’s blue business shirt. Considering it longingly, she held to her face and breathed in its scent.
“Hello! Marcela? Don’t make me do a nudey run.” It was Constans in the shower cubicle. Marcela was snapped back into the moment and shoved the man’s shirt back into her locker. She found a spare pair of pants and tossed it into the cubicle. “Here. You’ll just have to wear these and your bra. I don’t have a top.”
The blinding darkness in her sleeping quarters made it easy to lose track of time and dose off. Unfortunately, Zoe’s sleep was cut short by curt knocking on her door. From the rhythm, she could tell there were more than two people outside. She got up from the comfortable bunk and was met by the awake, grinning faces of Nick and Holly as she opened the door.
As they walked back to the lobby, Nick asked, “Why aren’t you more excited, boss?”
“I’m excited . . . on the inside,” she replied sluggishly. Zoe had never liked long trips anywhere, let alone to a three one hundredths of the way across the solar system. It didn’t sound far when phrased like that, but it was more than five hundred million kilometers. Thinking about it in these terms made Zoe even more claustrophobic. This was the distance she was from fresh air. Luckily, Jenny greeted them just in time to take her mind off it, though Zoe was breathing deep and slow in an attempt to calm her anxiety.
In the restaurant, Jenny had prepared a meal for the security team. She offered them a seat and announced that Dr. Barret and Dr. Rijners would be with them momentarily. In the center of the table was a mixed platter of cheeses, breads, dipping sauces, sliced meats, fruit, potato crisps, sweet chocolates, and slices. The bartender took drink orders for cappuccinos all around. Nick hungrily launched into the platter starting with a ham, avocado, Camembert, and potato crisps bagel.
“Are you serious?” asked Holly, munching on a piece of pineapple. Nick answered with a thumbs-up from the hand not holding the bagel, his mouth full of food.
Zoe picked at the cheese and sipped from her coffee when it arrived.
“Agents?” A voice came from over Zoe’s shoulder.
Zoe stood up to offer her hand to Marcela and then to Constans. “Doctors, nice to meet you.”
“Oh, please. Agent Moore, we don’t stand on formality around here. Call me Marcela.”
Constans also insisted she be called by her first name, as Zoe introduced Nick and Holly. Zoe had never met Marcela in person before and she couldn’t ever remember speaking with her. Dr. Barret, head of Everjein’s Astro-Horticulture Division, had rarely been at the Everjein Enterprises offices in Sydney. The first time Zoe had even heard about her was before Zoe had joined Everjein and was investigating a series of suspicious deaths linked to research involving Marcela and her ex-husband Kian Barret. At the time Zoe had been seconded to a special taskforce for the Australian Federal Police from the Victorian Police after discovering the first victim in Melbourne.
Zoe had envisaged Marcela to be taller and bigger. This might have been because in her imagination, Marcela had a physique that could offset Kian Barret’s personality. The CEO of Everjein was arrogant, self-opinionated, and too confident for Zoe’s liking. In contrast, Marcela was an English rose. She had beautiful milky white skin, big brown eyes, and pink blushed cheeks. Her short brown hair cut into a bob elegantly framed her high cheekbones.
“Can you believe this food?” asked Constans, taking a seat and helping herself to the cheeses and crackers.
“What do you mean?” asked Nick, who’d assumed it was the norm.
“Well, it was only just recently we started getting fresh food shipments from Earth each week. Before, when they were flying those old clunkers, we only got food every three months. Lots of dried and vacuumed sealed stuff. And then there’s Marcela’s concoctions . . . Run for the nearest airlock if she comes at you bearing dried leaves.”
Much to Marcela’s objections, Constans told the others about Marcela’s herbal experiments, the most famous of which was Ilex Vomitoria, a leaf that packed a hefty punch of caffeine and tasted like spew. The members of the security team cringed.
Zoe noticed Constans wore a small gold cross necklace. Constans rolled it in her fingers as she spoke. The station counselor had luxurious long blonde hair that tumbled over her shoulders and spoke with a Dutch accent.
“Enough about us,” Marcela suggested, kicking Constans under the table. “The agents are here to help set up the station’s security protocols. Where would you like to start?”
Zoe was about to speak when Nick interrupted, “How about a tour?” Zoe thought it was a good idea. There was no need to get to work straight away, and she could tell Nick and Holly wouldn’t be able to concentrate on their jobs until they’d got their Star Trek dreams out of their systems.
“Let’s start with the section I think Nick will find the most fascinating,” Marcela suggested. Constans gave her a perplexed look, and Marcela pointed to the deck below where they were sitting. Nick stood up ready to go.
Marcela ushered her guests over to a spiral staircase behind the lobby reception area. Proceeding down them to the next level, Zoe understood why Marcela thought Nick would find it interesting. They came out of the stairwell into the station kitchen.
“This entire deck is food storage and preparation. We’ve fridges, freezers, and a large pantry as well as long-term and emergency rations storage. As you already know, we get fresh food delivered every week. I can’t tell you what a blessing this is. During my previous research project, we only had dehydrated food unless we grew our own. I became so used to soymilk and corn I must admit I sneak down here sometimes to midnight snack on them.”
Constans playfully slapped her on the shoulder as if to say, You never told me that. Though I’m not surprised.
The next deck down was the emergency medical center. Marcela referred to it as EMC. She explained that they didn’t have a full-time medical doctor anymore. As they were now twenty-four hours from Earth, the medical expertise of the station’s scientists had proven sufficient.
“We are all trained in medical field care, and with Constans having recently completed her psychiatric qualifications, we are well covered.”
Constans had met Marcela during their last research mission for Everjein to a hermetically sealed biome in the Antarctic. Constans was the project’s psychologist. On returning from that project, she had attended medical school and extended her qualifications, which now allowed her to act as a general practitioner and dispense drugs. This made her a valuable member of the Biojein team, as she could counsel members of the station’s workforce and visitors, as well as tend to any medical needs.
The next deck down was potable drinking storage. Marcela elucidated how all the water in the station was recycled and occasionally topped up by shipments from Earth. In addition, they employed ISRU or in-situ resource utilization, a process by which ice from the asteroid belt and passing comets was mined and used to provide water.
They made their way back up and over to the Zoo. Before entering the airlock, Constans bid the group farewell, informing them she had several appointments with the crew and would catch up with them later.
Marcela took the agents up to the topmost biome first. For climate stability, each biome was closed off from the four connecting stairwells by airlocks. The stairs ran the vertical height of the Zoo with one each at 0 degrees, 90 degrees, 180 degrees, and 270 degrees.
Holly had her breath taken away as the freezing air of the Polar biome hit her in the face. Zoe hugged herself for warmth. It was indeed cold. The floor was extremely slippery solid ice, as Nick discovered when trying to take a step, instead landing on his backside.
They quickly moved down to the Humid Temperate biome that felt pleasantly warm after the artic temperature on the previous level. It was quite humid, and once she’d warmed up, Zoe could feel sweat beading on her forehead. Marcela explained that in this habitat, they would find Mediterranean and prairie animals as well as saltwater tanks with reef fish.
The air in the next level down was far more comfortable. It was dry and hot. Marcela told them that this level was representative of desert and surrounding sub-tropical climates.
At the very bottom of the Zoo was the Humid Tropical biome. It contained a rainforest so thick Holly couldn’t see more than three meters in front. Although there were none visible, Zoe imagined snakes and other nasties slithering and crawling among the vegetation.
“This is my favorite biome,” Marcela declared. “It’s so warm and green. Quite the opposite of cold gray England where I grew up.”
After their whirlwind tour of the Zoo, they moved to another dome. Exiting the airlock, they found themselves in an artificial glasshouse environment.
“This is where I spend most of my time,” Marcela told them, holding her arms out wide and gesturing to all the hanging planter boxes. They went up five stacks high. Zoe was surprised to find herself walking on grass.
“We are doing a lot of work with genetically modified crops and examining how Earth’s vegetation could adapt to life on other planets. I must admit I sometimes find myself in here sitting on the grass and meditating. If that’s your kind of thing, feel free to come by anytime. I can’t stress enough, this is a far better place to chill out than in the Zoo. You never know what might creep up and grab or bite you if you’re sitting on the sand in the Humid Temperate biome.” Marcela laughed. “I’m joking of course.” Zoe, Nick, and Holly were not impressed.
“On the deck below us,” Marcela continued, “is my least favorite, bio waste reclamation. It’s all automated and no one goes down there unless absolutely necessary . . . But because you are new and this is a tour . . .”
Oh. Don’t bother. Not on our account, Nick thought.
But Marcela couldn’t read his mind and thought it was fun to take them down to the least pleasant part of the station. Waste was a fact of human existence and one that humans had failed at managing for thousands of years. She ushered them down another spiral staircase.
The smell as the airlock opened made them all gag. Marcela pulled the collar of her shirt up and placed it over her nose and mouth. The others followed suit.
“You weren’t kidding. Least favorite place,” Zoe gasped for breath.
“It shouldn’t smell like this,” Marcela announced with concern. “There must be a busted pipe. Stay here.”
They watched Marcela disappear into the semidarkness of the large room. Only yellow florescent lights illuminated it, and it made the shiny stainless steel surfaces and vats look as though they were covered in slime. The silence they waited in was suddenly broken by a scream. Nick took point as they rushed in to find Marcela.
“Over here,” shouted Holly, steering them down a gangway.
They soon understood Marcela’s cries when they came upon her struggling to pull a body from one of the large vats. Even though the smell was horrendous, they all assisted. Nick and Zoe attempted to hold the lid of the vat open while Holly and Marcela dragged the body out. It landed heavily on the floor, spattering them all with effluent. It was all too much for Holly. She bent behind another vat and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the floor. What Nick was feeling in his gut now far outweighed the previous twenty-four hours of space sickness.
To their continued disgust, Marcela used her hand to wipe the sewage from the face of the body.
“Who is he?” asked Zoe, holding her shirt over her nose. “I don’t know,” said Marcela. “I’ve never seen him before.”