by Walt Staples -
A shiver ran down Reichter’s spine. The great ship was too quiet. With his visor open, the investigating peacekeeper not only heard his own breathing but that of his enforcers, Cooper and Takai. He considered telling Cooper to stop the whistling; he’d been driving the theme to “For a Few More Credits” into the deck since they boarded the liner. Before he could form the words, Takai spoke up, “Coop? Will you stop whistling that? Or at least change the tune.” The outburst was uncharacteristic of the blond giant. Reichter suspected the silence was giving him the creeps too.
“Sorry, Yoshi.” He fell silent. It was rare that the small, dark man didn’t argue.
Reichter came to a decision. “Coop, Yoshi, if you want to, go ahead and turn your internal channels to some music, but keep it low. Turn up the gain on your external mikes; that should let you hear any faint sounds over the music.”
Both nodded and made the adjustments. The notes of the first movement of Raif Von’s “In the Fens” quietly purred in his ear as he followed his own order.
He mentally ticked off what they had. One--lights, atmosphere, gravity, but no ship’s A.I. Two--Avenir Control’s last sailing for the liner was fifteen standard years ago. Three--no cargo manifest or passenger list because it was recertified as a private yacht. Four--the owner and a large number of friends had not been heard from in at least twelve standard years. And five—the biggie—no bodies so far.
They stepped out on a balcony over the promenade deck with its huge pool. Takai remarked, “That’s odd.”
Cooper looked at him. “What’s odd?”
The big man gestured at the pool below. “Most people paint their pools some shade of blue, not purple.”
The other enforcer shrugged. “Maybe it went better with his complexion.” He turned to their superior. “What now, sir?”
Reichter glanced around the balcony, then at the deck below. “Coop, you go down and start checking the promenade. Yoshi and I’ll check these couple of staterooms,” he nodded toward the doors lining the balcony, “then we come down and help you.”
“Yes, sir.” He turned to the grand stairway. As usual, Cooper ran his mouth. “Pretty impressive. I wonder how many credits the guy was pulling down and whose grandmother’s secret he was keeping.” Reichter listened with half an ear as he pressed buttons to dilate the doors, occasionally needing to use the pass-pad built into his gloves’ index fingers. “Whu-wee! Stinks down here and I ain’t even at the bottom yet.”
Takai’s voice sounded in Reichter’s earphones, “What’s it smell like, Coop?”
“Like our compartment the morning after you had tacos. Like an egg gone evil. I—“ There followed a rattling crash.
Reichter called out, “Cooper! Cooper! Report!” He grabbed Takai’s tool belt as the enforcer rushed by. “No! Yoshi, stop!” The peacekeeper’s use of his command voice halted Takai. He stood impatiently as his superior hooked a safety line from the peacekeeper’s belt reel to his belt’s carabiner. “Okay, you lead.” Reichter drew his sidearm. “I’ll cover you.”
They began to descend the stairway. Cooper lay in a heap at the bottom. A red light on the back of his helmet blinked. “Dead light’s on,” Takai observed matter-of-factly. Reichter knew it was taking all of the big man’s willpower to stay professional. He knew from his own experience, the tears would come later.
Takai coughed about the time the stink hit Reichter’s nose. The peacekeeper grabbed the banister with his free hand and yelled as he hung on, “Yoshi! Up, up! Come back up the stairs!”
The enforcer’s voice was slurred as he spoke between coughs, “It’s okay. The smell’s gone. I…I smell sweet—“
Reichter dropped the side arm and caught hold of the safety line. He pulled mightily and surged up the steps dragging the bigger man. “Get up the stairs, Yoshi! That’s an order!” Takai stumbled along behind. At the top of the stairs, he sat heavily, coughing as tears and mucus ran down his face.
Reichter breathed in and out swiftly, hyperventilating slightly as he flushed his lungs. He leaned over Takai and checked his readouts. “Blood Oxygen,” “Heart Rate,” and “Blood Pressure” were at the lower end of the green, but rising. “Oxygen Intake” went from yellow to green as he asked, “You feeling better, son?”
The younger man wiped at his blond handlebar mustache as he asked, “What happened?”
The peacekeeper’s face was grim. “Something hiding in plain sight and I didn’t think of it.” He put a hand on the enforcer’s shoulder. “Are you okay, now?”
Takai nodded. “I…I think so, sir.”
Reichter unclipped the safety line from his reel from the enforcer’s rig. He then took a line from Takai’s belt reel and hooked it to his own carabiner. “Okay, Yoshi, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to go down and get Coop. When I’ve got him secured to my line, you’ll pull me up while I pull his up. Understand?”
Takai nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The peacekeeper smiled at him. “Good. Okay, now you just sit there and rest until I get him hooked up. Then I’ll give you the high-sign.”
Reichter berated himself as he turned and did what he should have done in the first place—he closed his visor and went on internal atmosphere. He set his sniffer so as to confirm the element he knew he would find below.
Takai broke the silence on the cruiser’s bridge as they headed back to Avenir, “Sir, it wasn’t your fault.”
Reichter smiled sourly. “I doubt, Yoshi, the council will agree with that opinion when we get back to the Cop-Shop. But, thank you all the same.”
The enforcer shook his head. “Hydrogen sulfide. Where did it come from, sir?”
“That fancy fish pond on the promenade deck. It was a swimming pool when the liner was in service. Apparently, the new owner decided to turn it into a huge koi pond. After the circulation stopped when the A.I. packed up, things died in it and it turned stagnant. Eventually, anaerobic bacteria had a field day and the hydrogen sulfide was the result. That purple color of the pool was the little critters themselves.”
“So the gas killed the people?”
The peacekeeper tilted his head and squinted an eye as he considered. “No, probably not. Water recycling shut down with the A.I. The only food left I found was dry stores. I suppose they tried drinking from the pool; that probably did a number in. It must have been very bad for the last ones--there’s all that water sitting there in plain sight, but they know it’ll poison them. That’s probably why they were huddled in the promenade staterooms.” He fingered his beard as he gazed into space. “Yep, in plain sight.”