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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Needs of Hollow Men

K.A. Rundell is a speculative fiction author born and raised in Seattle, WA (as evidenced by her love of PCs, airplane noise, and all things Starbucks). She lives in the shadow of Mt. Rainier with an odd collection of bird carvings and books on the Russian Revolution. You can find her online at karundell.com. This is her first appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

Dmitri's exists in the cracks between the city, in the red zone, where the officials are too busy with the girls to see anything else. It's the only place Kane can go without someone watching him. He sits at the end of the bar, the amber whiskey in his glass trembling in time with the thumping bass of the music overhead.
"You want a dance?"
Kane shakes his head as the voice purrs in his ear. An arm slides across his shoulder. He brushes it off.
"Hey now." She's one of Dmitri's girls, all dark hair and kohl-lined eyes. Tight, glittering garments that barely contain her curves. Mostly natural. Kane notes the thin scar running along her wrist, the soft glow of a flickering green light beneath her skin--an implant chip to process account cards. Much safer than carrying old-time paper money. She props herself against the bar, twirls her dark hair in her fingers. "I just thought we could spend some time together," she murmurs.
She leans closer. Kane can see the faint lines cracking through her makeup, smell the mouthwash and stale tobacco that lingers on her breath. She reaches out to caress his chest. "Come on, mister…" Her voice trails off; her hand brushes the ID badge stitched to his shirt.
"Oh," she says. "You're one of them."
Detective Special Class 4-E, he thinks. Empath. Come on, you can say it. On the streets they call him Hollow Man, able to read the emotional residue, the remembrances left behind on physical objects. To the law he is an invaluable tool, and they provide the drugs that leave him empty, void of his own feelings so that he can re-live the moments of others.
Already he can feel the memories rolling off the dancing girl's skin. Earlier customers, cheap men who've left her short of money for the overdue electric bill. A night, some years earlier, when the law busted her for tricking without a license in the 7th street blockade. She is an unending tide of greed, of jealousy. The sweat on her body shimmers with her desperation.
"Yes," he says. "I'm one of them."
She backs away from him, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "We don't get paid if you just sit around, you know," she says. Her eyes travel over him again. "We've got one like you, if you want." She's already waving over another girl before he can protest. "Chantal!"
Chantal's a honey-blond slip of a thing; red dress, golden skin. She ducks through the gyrating crowd, glances at his badge before nodding. "Come on," she says. "I've got a back room." She doesn't touch him. They walk through a doorway into the private area of the club. Here the music beats out a muffled thumping rhythm, punctuated by sounds of laughter, of pleasure.
"This one," Chantal says, pushing aside a velvet curtain. Kane steps into the room after her, takes a breath of the stale, warm air. He shrugs out of his coat.
"I don't really want anything," he says. Chantal nods, points to a worn-down chair in the corner.
"I know what you need," she says, pulling the curtain shut behind her. "Tell me about your day."
Morning: his hands shake so badly that when he holds his cup of coffee, the hot liquid spills down the side in tiny rivulets. He tells the waitress he isn't interested in a slice of pie. She processes his order--a tiny whir and click, a light in her eyes that changes as the implanted machines do their calculations--and proceeds to the next table full of rowdy guests. Hello may I help you?
He glances over the sugar packets wrapped in nauseating pastels, the bowl of creamer that's chipped and dingy grey like the rest of the diner. The table and leatherette seats are sticky. Kane wonders how often they are cleaned, if ever.
He tries to ignore the dead boy sitting across the booth from him.
The boy watches Kane with an empty, impatient stare, pleading. He holds a stuffed rabbit in his arms. No one else can see him. Kane reaches for his coffee cup and closes his eyes, knowing it won't make a difference. The boy's still there, expecting Kane to read the memories, to find him. Kane's eyelids sting like they've been scrubbed with sandpaper. Two days' worth of stubble clings to his cheeks, a clear sign that the emotion-suppressants aren't working. His fingers rasp over his jaw line. He'll need to shave soon or the questions will start.
He's taken two pills a day for the last three days, and it makes no difference to the shaking hands, the night sweats, the people that he can't help. An unregulated empath is the department's worst nightmare. He tells himself he works for the money, for the security. Trivial assurances that mean nothing while the dead stalk his thoughts. Sitting in the sticky booth with the dead boy staring at him, Kane wonders if it's true--if all empaths are destined to slowly lose their minds.
In the club, the song changes and the back-room lights spin their colors over the walls. "It's supposed to make it stop," he tells Chantal. "The Doratin. It's supposed to make it easier."
"It doesn't get easier," she says. She pulls a small velvet ottoman from the corner and sits across from him, her red dress sliding up a few inches to reveal the bronzed, soft skin of her thighs. Her hair shimmers in the dancing lights. How long has he been sitting here? The repeating thump of the club's music pounds through Kane's chest, measures out his breath. He can't remember. Chantal's hands hover over his, close enough to touch--but not yet, not yet.
"Tell me more," she says.
Afternoon: He doesn't know how long he stands in the alley, waiting, hands splayed against cold, rough brick. He hears the soft breathing of his handler, Agent Dyer. The rhythmic exchange of oxygen and carbon in the lungs.
He can see--a man and woman robbed, the thief tearing the woman's pearls from around her neck before shoving her against the wall. A child kicks a ball that ricochets a few inches from Kane's left hand. A dog relieves himself. Countless members of the homeless nation sleep under flimsy shelters of cardboard. A dumpster sits in this place for years; Kane catches the faint traces of rot, the sweet stench of decay. He pushes these away, reaches for a more recent moment…
I shouldn't have walked alone. They have curfews for a reason. These thoughts belong to the pretty brown-haired girl. The one who walked home after a mediocre first date, the one whose body the law will find four days after this memory is created. Kane feels the ghost rivulets of rain that sluice through his hair, down the collar of his shirt. He hears the footsteps behind him, just as the girl did, and his pulse--her pulse--quickens in response. There's a tidal wave of emotion, the residue of terror that washes through him. The sucking maw of helplessness and the pleading, retreating sense of hope. Kane hears the knife as it whispers through the night, relives the burst of pain that shocks the girl's senses.
She slides down the wall. Kane follows her memory, kneeling, drowning in the emotion that emanates from this place. The girl turns. Her life bleeds out around her as she catches the glimpse of an upturned collar, the profile of a face lined in shadows.
"Do you have it, Detective?" Dyer asks.
Kane pulls himself back to the present, his heart racing in his chest. He forces his breath in and out in measured beats. Behind him, Dyer clears his throat. "Will you be able to identify the assailant?"
Kane straightens, looks at his handler. "Yes," he says. "I can find them in the databank."
Dyer nods and snaps shut the notebook in his hand. He has a thing for old-world technology, nostalgia for pen and paper that Kane doesn't quite understand. "Good," Dyer says "I'll file the report. Nice work today, Detective."
Nice work. Dyer's footsteps echo off the alley walls as he makes his way back to the squad car, leaving Kane behind. He stands in front of the brick wall and stares at his hands, wishing he could wash the memory of filth from his skin.
"Tough day," says Chantal.
Kane nods. "Seems like more and more of them lately," he says.
"Here." Chantal's fingers brush over his hands, tracing delicate circles against his skin. "Let me help you relax."
Kane stiffens as she grasps his hands with her own. "I don't…" He trails off. This thing they're doing--this sharing--is illegal in ten districts. Even here in the red zone, the repercussions of an unregulated emotion bond will cost his license if they're caught.
"It's all right," Chantal says. "No cameras in the private rooms. Just you and me."
The memories pour into him as she runs her fingers along his skin. They're small things at first: a warm breeze, sunshine washing over the city, the smell of roses in spring. Chantal massages her thumbs over the veins in Kane's wrists. The memories grow--once, when she was young, her parents brought home a puppy. Kane breathes in the simple pleasure, the warmth of her emotions.
"Do you like that?" she says.
Her fingers twine though his; she holds his hands loosely in her own. The memories come faster, filling him. A birthday party with real chocolate cake, the ingredients hoarded for months from the pantry lines, flickering candles and the gift of an old, rusted bicycle that her father taught her to ride. A hug from her mother. Kane breathes, flushing with the memory of a first kiss that isn't his but still tastes sweet. More--a trip to the ocean, before the city borders closed, the cool waves washing over bare feet. A white house on a quiet suburban street, nestled under the shade of an oak tree. Sweet lemonade to chase away hot summers.
"It's good," Kane murmurs, lost in the emotions. Chantal's eyes close, a smile plays over her lips. "It's very good."
Something builds within him, something secret that teases at his senses. He breathes faster, his pulse racing. Chantal's grip tightens on his hands, and he catches the small glimpse of a child, looking up at him--at her--laughing, laughing…
It's overwhelming, the feeling that rushes from Chantal's body into Kane's mind, and he utters a soft cry at the golden warmth that fills his senses. Chantal releases his hands. Kane drops back in the chair, at once empty and satisfied.
"Who was that?" he says.
Chantal's eyes are bright, her cheeks flushed. "My son," she says. "I don't share him, but you…" She shrugs. "It seemed like you needed it."
It's the nature of her profession to lie. Kane chooses not to remark on it. He shifts in the chair, pulls his account card from his wallet.
"How much?" he says.
Chantal shakes her head, honey-blond tresses creating a halo around her face. "First time is on the house," she says. "Besides, I don't take accounts. Paper money only."
The taste of chocolate cake, made from black market goods purchased with a currency that the law makes no effort to track, dances again across Kane's tongue. "Are you sure?" he asks.
Chantal walks to the doorway, pulls back the heavy curtain. The wild beat of the club's music fills the room once more.
"Of course," she says. "Besides, Detective, you'll be back."
Kane thinks of the regulation codes and of jail time, of losing his license, the suppressants, and his mind in the small box of a cell. "What makes you think that?" he says.
Chantal smiles and looks at her nails, running her fingers over her manicure. All business now that the pleasure is done. "This city is full of dirty little secrets. You're filled to the brim with most of them." She glances at him once more. "Can't we keep some of yours?"
Outside, the night hums with the noise of passing traffic. Drunken shouts echo across the grimy sidewalk as Kane savors the golden warmth that still emanates through his mind. It won't be enough, not against the hunger of the city. Already he can see the ghosts gathering under the streetlights, watching him with dead eyes that beg for absolution.
"Yes," Kane says as he tucks his hands in his pockets. He starts down the street, into the waiting maw of darkness. "I'll be back."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Author Comments

"Hollow Men" is a Frankenstein story, cobbled together over the course of four years from 100-word drabbles and random story prompts. It’s the story I’ve always been wrong about--I thought it would be longer, I thought it would be some sort of dystopic detective thriller, I thought it would have a serial killer. Needless to say, when the pieces all finally fit together the end product was much different than I thought it would be. Ah, well. I’m more than happy to be wrong as long as it comes out right.

- K.A. Rundell
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