Handful of Empty
By Holly Schofield
At first, I wasn’t sure who he was searching for. People stepped back as he wove between tables, his eyes wild beneath fierce brows.
I watched him blearily, then started in on my lentil soup. I’d been running a harvester right through lunch and both breaks and now even my spoon felt heavy. I couldn’t keep up this pace. No one in the colony could. We’d been fooling ourselves for three generations.
Murmurs grew louder and I realized the stranger had stopped next to me. He slid into the chair across and placed his large work-scarred hands on the table. His coverall sleeves were filthy with white fertilizer dust. “You the private investigator?”
“Yes, I’m Talia. You’re not eating?” Five decades of meals in the dining hall and this was the first time I’d seen anyone come in and not immediately grab a tray.
With a sour exhale, he said, “I’m Stolly Kern,” using a deliberate emphasis as if I should recognize the name.
I put down my spoon as a recent news report filtered through my mind. This was Mayor Britta Douran’s husband. “Ah…I’m sorry for your loss.” It came out stilted and insincere. I hadn’t known his teenaged daughter and I couldn’t imagine his pain. Despite all the challenges here on Jervais 3, deaths like that were rare.
“Yeah.” He stared off to one side. I waited. Sometimes clients had to search for the right words. Above us, sunlight relentlessly challenged the large glass skylights and the communications tower’s slender cone appeared to shimmer in the brutal heat.
Finally he said, “My daughter didn’t jump off the cliff. She was pushed. I want to hire you.”
I hunched forward. “I don’t understand. There was an official inquiry, right?”
He scrubbed a hand over his ear, then up and around his brushcut. “Yeah. Britta put the police chief on it.” His voice broke and he drew out a slate. He began to flick through photos. “Emalee was a bright, staunch girl. Lots of opportunity.”
Opportunity? I wasn’t going to argue colony economics with a grieving father. Especially not with the spouse of the person who kept all of us going through sheer force of will. On the wallscreen, the communal food security index refreshed itself. Seventy-eight point six two. When—if—it ever hit one hundred, the community could take a breather. We all knew that, right to the core of our malnourished bones.
I took the slate from him. A photo, a blurry head-cam picture of a very slender black-haired male
in a skin-tight suit, arms upraised, silvery fabric stretching between wrists and heels. An indistinct brown-haired girl at his side, in a similar suit, leaning against his arm in an intimate sort of way.
I pointed my spoon at the expanse of fabric and struts. “What is it the kids call those? Sprawls?”
Stolly nodded. “The flimsyass wasters steal the microfiber and make the suits. They float without flapping, like those owls or flying squirrels or whatever they were back on Earth. The updraft on the ridge catches the breeze just right, and the kids float for klicks.”
Now it was my turn to nod. The steep slope of Sonter Ridge—where Emalee’s broken body had been found on the talus—generated an anabatic wind. Coupled with Jervais 3’s heavy atmospheric pressure, the updraft was perfect for that sort of flying—that is, if flying served any point. Kids had no work ethic anymore, content to pull only ten-hour shifts and idle away the rest of the day.
Holly Schofield talks “A Handful of Empty” from THE WAY OF THE LASER
Management: In our continuing series of little interviews, we talk with authors about their work from WAY OF THE LASER: FUTURE CRIME STORIES. Today, we sit down with Holly Schofield, who reimagines hardboiled detective stories on a difficult colony world, far into the future.
Can you tell our readers a little about your story and where you got the idea for it?
Holly Schofield: I live in a rural community that relies, in part, on food supplies from elsewhere. The concept of “food security” is frequently discussed among locals. I wanted to write a story which incorporated that fear (little did I know that Covid-19 was around the corner and would increase the world’s vulnerability in that regard). I also wanted to include the element of climate change (which underpins a lot of my stories) and to examine the psychological toll taken by living with a constant feeling of unease. Setting “Handful of Empty” on a weird exoplanet and incorporating a murder hopefully just makes it all the more entertaining.
Management: Do you have any upcoming or newly released titles that you would like to share with our readers?
Holly Schofield: My short stories have appeared in over 150 publications to date. My latest is in Magic Pens, an anthology about…well, you guessed it, the magic of pens and pen-analogs. “Writ Large” examines how people communicate and how potentially harmful technology can be used for the power of good.
Management: What’s one new book that you have read recently and loved, or that you are looking forward to reading?<
Holly Schofield: Ted Chiang’s Exhalation: Stories is everything I want in an author collection. The stories are varied, brilliant, and all have an underlying thread of hope. I strongly believe that optimism is the only way through the current world crises.