You’re in The Listening Room, a podcast series by The FLARE Substack which is premiering the serial fiction story “Ithaka”. I’m Chevanne, your host.
We begin hundreds of years in the future just outside the town of Ithaka. We meet our protagonist at the beginning of a developing mystery.
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Anaella marched slowly through the tall silver green grass, her knees rising high. Off in the distance, the crescent moons of Janus, Tophi, and Herod shimmered against a bright pink cotton candy sky. A gentle breeze laid against the grass as she drew closer. In a small clearing was a man caked in thick, brown earth, more concealed by the grass than the mounds of ground partially covering him. His arms were tucked beneath him and his legs were oddly bent. He looked like he’d drowned in the mud.
Anaella rounded the clearing like a panther, peering and sniffing. In her tread across the field to the scene, the grass beat like hairs across the plain with their strands unbroken and no traces of anyone else, save those already present. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a pair of forceps along with a small paper bag. Then lowering herself at the edge of the clearing, she picked up a single yellow sliver of what looked like straw.
“What is that?” Kane asked.
“Maybe nothing. But you never know,” Anaella said.
Kane nodded and scanned the gristly and nearly bloodless scene with an uneasy scowl.
“He’s only been here about 30 minutes. The only tracks here are from Mr. Lane. He passed by this spot and swore nothing was here. When he came back around, he found… him.”
Anaella was silent, lowering her brows and idly pawing at her thumb ring with her index finger. She snapped off a piece of nearby grass, sniffed it, then placed it on her tongue.
“What? I’m letting the scene speak to me.” She chewed with her mouth open, occasionally sucking in bits of air.
“Someone dragged a body through this field and you’re gnawing on potential evidence?”
“Do you really think they dragged him out here?”
“How else did he get here?”
Anaella looked up. A swirl of wispy clouds danced around bright stars as gloaming approached. They would find nothing here. Not now.
“Let the field dry out. We’ll come back. Tell the guys they can move the body.”
She marched back the way she came, looking among the thick blades of grass and running her hand atop them. She got back in the car and waited for Kane to join her. He finally stepped out from the field and entered the driver’s side.
“Why were you chewing on that grass?”
“Wanted to see if I could taste fuel.”
“Yeah. You never tasted it?”
Kane shook his head in astonishment.
“They started building those hovercrafts ages ago for fun, just to get around town. Eventually, it was used industrially to do compost collection. Practical, right? No trucks clogging up the roads on pick up day. Well, the problem was when they lowered down then pushed off, they would leave this fine coating of vaporized fuel. After a while, you could tell where they’d been. Even if you didn’t know when they came, you could smell it. I ran under one just to feel the rush of air on my head and got that exhaust on my clothes, in my hair… the taste is pretty distinct.”
“Okay…?” Kane said, imploring her to continue.
“The grass tasted like fuel. I think a truck came through on the short side of the field near the road and dropped him off.”
“But he was caked in mud.”
“Yeah, I thought about that. But then I remembered that old story about someone hitching a ride in a compost craft and not making it out. So now there’s sensors and the craft won’t even turn on if someone’s in there. But if he’s stuck in between inches and inches of mud…”
“Then the sensors might not pick him up.”
Kane paused, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel.
“Who do you think he is?”
“We’ll find out soon enough, but I want to look at some other things first. Let’s get the autopsy done, then go from there.”
“We should get his DNA in first thing when they open. We need to find his family.”
Anaella looked out onto the road and nodded as the engine whirred alive. “Yeah. We will.”
The morning came quickly after a fitful night plagued with visions of a stifled death where she sunk deeper and deeper with mud filling her mouth until she snapped awake in horror. She sat up early taking notes and mulling over the scene until the pathologist called that afternoon to say he was starting the autopsy.
Anaella’s boots clopped against the linoleum as she neared the autopsy suite. She stretched out her hand to a thin black screen on the wall then drew it back. The hallway on either side of her was quiet, empty, and starkly dull white. She pressed her hand against the screen which lit up and pulsed blue. The lock clicked open and she swung open the door.
To her left just beyond the entrance was an unkempt office littered with an eclectic collection half-filled mugs, scattered paper, and books piled against the side of the desk. She continued down the hall to the intake room through another set of sturdy doors with thick gaskets around the edges. A large and imposing stainless steel, industrial fridge door stood like a sentinel. Across from it was the body face up on the autopsy table with the mud cleaned from him arms, face, and feet.
“Morning, Felix,”she said quietly.
Felix turned from his cutting board where excised organs lay and smiled from behind a foggy face shield. Dabbing his bloody gloves on a paper towel, he walked over and nodding his greetings.
“Good to see you,” he said.
“You too. Are you wrapping up?”
“No, not yet, but I can show you what I have so far.”
“Did you take soil samples?” she asked.
“Yeah. You were right. Some of it isn’t soil from that immediate area or really any other place in the field.”
Felix picked up a small glass vial from atop an instrument tray. He held it up to the light and moved in closer for Anaella to see. There were friable bits of red-brown dirt mixed with the more dense and dark native soil.
“Where is it from?” Anaella asked, staring as Felix rolled the vial between his fingers.
“You won’t believe this. I think it’s from Helios.”
“That’s a wild guess.”
“Not really. My nephew has this old soil sample from Helios that a family friend got on an expedition. It’s got that same clay and high metal composition. Luckily there was some undisturbed dirt in the waist of his pants and in his belly button. I have some other testing I just sent out. We’ll see what else is in the sample.”
Anaella looked over the body, a fairly young and tall man with a toned, slender build. His brown hair lay slick with dripping water.
“Look at his hands. What do you notice?” Felix said.
“They’re big. Like a farmer’s.”
They were tough and calloused with swollen joints and nails cut short. The back of his hands once pulsed with large vessels that now laid flat.
“Any idea who he is?”
“We have no record of this man. Dental records, DNA, fingerprints… nothing.”
“Maybe he’s one of the valley dwellers.”
“We get vital statistics on them. It’s a different form but the same info. Who knows, he might have lived on Helios,” Felix joked.
Anaella pointed her bottom lip out, still thinking. The planet ahead of Minos’s orbit was desolate and volatile. It was the site of the first settlers’ crash on the way to their habitable planet. As far an anyone knew, nothing had ever been there.
“How do you figure?”
“Let’s look at the organs.” Felix searched for a clean spot on his gloved wrist to push up his glasses and led Anaella to the long table.
“His lungs are weird. It looks like he has chronic damage, but I can’t tell what it’s from, yet. He’s very young to have that type of damage. I mean, it could be genetic or from smoking, but it doesn’t exactly look like that. I have to wait for the slides. Otherwise, pretty normal organ weights and appearance,” Felix continued. “No real stomach contents, mild fatty liver, heart’s in good shape—“
“And you’re sure he’s not from here?”
“Look, I’m just throwing it out there. The man was powder-coated with dust from a planet that’s a dangerous tourist attraction and unless he spent his whole life hidden in a cave somewhere, we’d know who he is. Add to that, he looks like he’s done hard labor.”
“Hard labor on an uninhabited planet. Interesting,” she mused. “Cause of death?”
“Blow to the head. He has a skull fracture and an underlying brain bleed.” He pointed to a shaved area at the side of the head with a jagged laceration. Anaella’s eyes suddenly went wide as she searched her pockets.
“Yes! I have to give you this.” She placed a small paper bag on the instrument tray.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. See what you think. Alright, gotta go.”
“Sure thing. I’ll see you.”
Anaella walked briskly out the building doors, met by crisp early evening air that tickled her nose and a beaming sun just barely warming her face. She got into the car where Kane was reading a magazine.
“What did we find out? Give me the quick version without the guts,” he said.“Something very interesting,” she teased.
“Oh yeah?” He looked up from the glossy pages.
“Felix says he’s from Helios.”
“Ha! That’s gotta be bullshit. Nothing is over there but wind storms and rocks.”
Kane tossed his magazine in the back seat and shot a side eye of playful disbelief.
“He’s a mystery man with no records here and a lot of lung disease,” Anaella said.“Well, we still have to go back over to the field and Felix doesn’t have the final results. My bet is this will be wrapped up by the end of the week.”
“You love to lose, don’t you?”
“Losers buy dinner and since you can never decide—-“
“Shit,” she groaned. “I have a roommate interview tonight. He’s some guy who just got in from Waystation.”
“Oh boy. Is he going to end up like the last one?”
“No!” Anaella protested.
“That got messy,” Kane said with a wide grin.
She fell into an exaggerated pout with her arms crossed. They slyly glanced at each other before breaking into riotous laughter.
“Okay, so let me explain.”
Hushed murmurs filled the oak walls of the Senate chambers as four suited men walked down the aisle to be seated in front of the oversight committee.
They sat noiselessly and mechanically sorted through large binders and stuffed folders, scarcely looking at either the buzzing crowd behind them or the stern officials in front of them. They whispered to each other, shaking their heads, and pointing out passages on laid out documents.
“Are you ready to begin?” Senator Leland asked.
“Just a moment, please,” Don said sternly. He was one of the company’s lead attorneys who had an impeccable sharpness about him that commanded compliance. His jaw clenched as he seemed to scold a junior member of the group, sending him scurrying out of the room.
Another man quickly emerged at the door with a faint sense of panic in his eyes. He bounded down the aisle carrying a pristine leather briefcase. All eyes were on it. He slipped into the seat next to Don and tapped on the briefcase with the tips of his fingers. He spoke hurriedly and Don seemed satisfied with whatever synopsis he had been given.
Don looked across the table to his left, then slowly to his right, gathering assured nods as he went.
“Senator, we’re ready to begin,” Don said.
Whether an elaborate act or earnest preparation, no one could be sure. It was a pivotal moment in history. The oversight committee would be evaluating the possibility of a private company colonizing the nearest Goldilocks planet.
This concludes chapter one of “Ithaka”. Stay tuned for the next episode next week.
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