Posted on Wednesday Aug 25, 2021 at 06:00pm in Fiction
What did any of us really know about our taciturn, black clad client? Not more than we ever needed to know. If they could pay a portion of the fee up front, I was generally satisfied. Sometimes the jobs were complicated, or of questionable legality. The fewer the questions asked, often the better.
The Boscile job had seemed simple enough. It might not be wise to go against the flow of the evacuation effort, going back to a world that had already been cleared out, but it certainly wasn't forbidden. If Garran Boscile was into some sort of extralegal activity – something akin to looting, maybe – then nothing about his demeanour fitted that picture. In the few conversations I'd had with him, I'd formed the idea that our client was closer to a scholar than a criminal. There was an obsessive, driven look in his eyes – the mad glint of a man looking for the final part in a puzzle that had consumed a lifetime, or a large part of it.
If the man wanted answers, and could pay, who was I to say no?
I stood up. I'd had enough of following progress on a screen, not after we'd come all this way. I worked my way back through the ship, bumping into one or two other members of the crew, until I was standing at the top of the ramp, one hand on a hydraulic ram.
Boscile was already at the base of the ramp, ready to step off. One hand was empty. The other clutched the handle of a large metal case, one that almost seemed too bulky – and presumably heavy – for the ease with which it was carried.
'I hope this is worth it,' I called down to him.
'You've done very well, Captain. In a little while you'll understand how vital this contract has been. You'll have assisted me in righting a great wrong.'
'Thing is, I'm not really in the wrong righting business.'
'You are now,' he answered.
Boscile moved to the edge of the deck. A short descending flight of steps connected it to the main part of the building. The roof of the main structure was a square, perfectly flat except for a low service building set in the middle. There was an open doorway in the side of that building, and a stairwell leading down into unlit darkness. There were no walls anywhere around the outside, so it had presumably been uncommon for visitors to come up here, unless they were using the landing deck.
Boscile walked to the edge of the building. He knelt down with the case on the ground, flipped its lid and took out a stubby cylinder. He did something to the end of the cylinder and it began to flare a bright pink, giving off billowing wafts of thick, chemically dyed smoke. Boscile waved the object over the side of the building, then set it down on the very edge, so that the flare's brightness would have been visible from the ground. He then took a second cylinder from the case, locked the case, and carried it and the cylinder back to the central stairwell. He activated the second flare and threw it into the stairwell.
Pink light flickered away down into unseen depths.
Boscile walked back to the base of the boarding ramp. 'I have summoned them,' he said. 'They will be here before too long.'
'Them?' I asked, barely having to raise my voice since the air was so still.
'Remainers. Groups of people who chose not to be evacuated. They have their reasons; ours is not to argue with them.'
'Karist crackpots, you mean.'
'Not all, Captain. Some remain out of a deep personal attachment to the soil they were born on. They would rather die here, than live somewhere else. You cannot blame them for that. Others remain purely as a point of principle: if the evacuation program forbids them from remaining, then they will do their utmost to disobey it. Near the end, on this world as on many others, it was not too difficult. It was hard enough coordinating the effort to evacuate the willing, let alone those who would rather stay behind.' 'No one stayed behind.'
'No one was officially left behind. That's not entirely the same thing. By my reckoning around a million souls remain on Calexis, organised into a dozen or so semi-independent communities. We would say that they were regressing to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, except there'll never be time for that.'
'Fine,' I said, only slightly rattled by this information. 'If they've chosen to stay here, that's their stupid choice. What the hell do they want with you?'
'The basic human necessities, Captain.' He knelt down and opened another layer of the case. It folded out to reveal ranks of small glass vials, with colour-coded stoppers. 'Medical supplies have become scarce since the hospitals were abandoned. You'd think it would be the opposite, but the authorities were very careful to make sure the major stocks were destroyed or contaminated. Given that the drugs had already been paid for, it was an act of pure spite. They gained nothing by doing that, except to make life more difficult for those who stayed behind.'
'If life's difficult now, wait until the Maelstrom arrives.'
'The Remainers know that,' Boscile said curtly. 'Do you think them fools? To see out the Maelstrom is their choice. But they need not suffer needlessly until then.' He patted the case. 'It isn't much, not given how many people stayed behind. They will need to be sparing with their usage. But it was all I could afford on the open market, and if I had tried to bring in more, questions would have been asked.'
'You paid for the drugs yourself?'
He looked up sharply. 'Of course. Who else was going to do it?'
v Against my instincts, I stepped off the ship and walked across the short connecting stairs between the pad and the main part of the building. The air was still breezeless, and the yellow sky made it feel oppressively still and lifeless. I stood next to Boscile and his case, hands on my hips as I looked down. 'What do they need with medicines, anyway? They're going to die!'
'Months or years from now. You know as well as I do that the advancement of the Maelstrom isn't predictable on a short timescale. It surges, slows … sometimes almost stops advancing completely. They may have decades … and you're saying they shouldn't be spared from the worst consequences of illness, age, pregnancy?' Boscile closed one layer of the case and opened another, containing just as many colour-coded vials 'It won't do much – I know that. But a tiny reduction in human misery is still a reduction. You see that, don't you?'
'Money would be useless to these people,' Boscile said. 'Which is just as well, as I have little enough to offer. My quest has made me a poor man, not a rich one. Between these drugs, the cost of your services, the expense of reaching the station where you were docked … well, never mind. I will soon have something that makes all such considerations moot.'
'This little trip is going to make you rich?'
'Far from it. In fact I expect it to make me deeply unpopular. But the truth must out, and there will be those willing to pay for it. If I can ensure the truth reaches the right hands, then I will consider that ample repayment for my efforts.' He closed the case, and stood up until he was level with me, his eyes swimming behind his spectacles. 'Terrible crimes have happened, Captain – worse than the abandonment of these people. Those misdeeds would not only go unpunished, all evidence of them would be lost.
But we are here now.'
'What crimes?' I asked.
I turned around. It was Drago, calling down from the top of the boarding ramp.
I had a good view of the Grey Ghost now, since she was level with the surface of the landing pad. The deck was a delicate projection, and the ship squatting down on it, straining low on its own undercarriage, looked much too heavy for such a thing, like a fat book buckling a thin shelf.
'You'd better come see.'
I nodded at Boscile. 'Give me a moment. I guess you're not going anywhere.'
'No,' he answered, reasonably enough. 'I do not suppose I am.'
Excerpt from the short story 'Remainers', by Alastair Reynolds.
Find the rest in 'Tales from the Edge: Escalation', available in paperback from the Maelstrom's Edge Webstore, or grab the digital version on Amazon.