a sample chapter from Iota Cycle

by Russell Lutz

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  S I L V E R T H O U G H T





January 1, 1                                         (May 4, 2258)


The sky above Europe was a light tan color, a pale mirror of the dusty landscape. Without much of an atmosphere, there were no clouds to block the faint light of the stars, the ruddy glow of Asia, the harsh rays of Iota.

        It started as a barely perceptible dot low in the morning sky. An observer on the plateau would have had difficulty determining what the thing was. It didn't appear to be a meteor, because even in the thin methane air, a meteor would have been burning by now.

        As the dot grew larger, details appeared.

        The lander design—officially known as a Boeing 4344—had been nicknamed a "raven" because of its black-metal construction, its forward-pointed cockpit and its swept-back wings. Hermione had carried two ravens strapped to the outside of her hull across fifty-three light years of space to Iota Horologii.

        As the first captain of this raven, Eliot Burke had the honor of naming her. He had dubbed her Icarus.


        Just before waking from his long sleep, Eliot had dreamed of bison. In the irrefutable inner logic of the dream, he found it quite normal that he was driving a herd of bison across the hills of Wyoming. Of course, Eliot had never been to Wyoming, and had never ridden a horse, and hadn't come within five hundred kilometers of a bison in his life. He'd always lived in cities—Tucson, Orlando, Hong Kong. One of the reasons he relished the opportunity to travel to a new solar system was the chance to live in a real place, a place with human dimensions, where you know your neighbors and you can raise a family, where you are close to the land.

        The insistent thud of hooves on fertile ground slowly transformed to the persistent beat of Eliot's own heartbeat in his ears. He was immersed in half-frozen gel, lying on his back in a coffin-like freezing chamber. He waited patiently for someone to open his bed and pull him out of the artificial womb he'd been living in for more than seven decades.

        Finally a seal broke and Eliot heard a far-away whistle of air slicing into his little space. The lid tipped up and strong arms dipped into the blue slush to pull Eliot's head up into warm air. They removed his face mask and allowed him three unsteady breaths before asking:

        "What's your name?"

        The man helping Eliot into a seated position had a dark complexion and frizzy black hair. He looked at Eliot closely, as if searching for some deep truth.

        "Eliot Burke."

        The man turned his head and yelled across the freezing bay: "Eliot Burke!"

        The focus of Eliot's eyes grew sharper, and he saw fifty people milling about the room, some dressed in casual clothes, others draped in blankets, recently awakened. All of them looked at Eliot expectantly. He felt a shiver of nervousness. He was only one of a hundred thousand colonists. Why did they care so much about him? And why didn't they already know his name? Something was wrong.

        He recognized the man at the far side of the bay: Clark, one of Hermione's android pilots. He typed Eliot's name into a screen on the wall.

        "Well?" the strong man asked.

        "I… I think he's a 'maybe'," Clark said.


        The working theory was that some unseen solar flare from a passing star had scrambled the index files for the colonists. Since the system containing all their personal information was in the freezing bays, away from the heavily shielded main Hermione computer, that was a plausible explanation. The androids would never have known. The colonists were protected from the flare by the freezing gel; the computer wasn't.

        The mission parameters, carefully constructed by the Ministry of Extrasolar Affairs nearly a century ago, laid out a specific sequence in which the colonists would be awakened. Among the first were the construction specialists who would build the initial pressurized structures on the surface of Europe. Those with skills in low-oxygen botany were next; they were needed to start up a rudimentary agriculture on the planet. Communications specialists would calibrate the beam assembly in its polar orbit of the star for the link to Earth. Doctors would care for the sick. Cooks would prepare food. A dozen different skill sets were required in the early stages of an extra-solar colony.

        But first, they needed a pilot.


        Another pocket of turbulence rocked Icarus. The pilot and navigator kept silent while the passengers gave a collective yelp of fear.

        "You'd think at 0.02 atmospheres of pressure there wouldn't be this much…" John, the navigator, didn't finish the thought.

        "You'd think," Eliot answered. His hands were cramping on the flight yoke. He didn't dare raise a hand to wipe the sweat from his face. He watched the altimeter wind down. With a largely unmapped countryside below them, he wasn't sure how much value the device provided. It couldn't warn him about every little mountain that might lie in their path. That's what John was for, after all. His eagle eyes continued to scan the horizon ahead.

        Eighteen other colonists sat belted into the seats behind the cockpit of the raven. Behind them, in the broad belly of the ship, lay the construction materials for a temporary shelter. Eliot was flying them toward one of the equipment drops that Hermione had sent to the surface during the past several weeks. In a reinforced orbital container lying on the European surface was everything needed to start a colony on an Earth-like planet: construction materials, radiation-hardened electronic equipment, water, food, clothing. The supplies in the back of the raven were a backup, in case they landed too far afield. When Icarus landed, they were going to put down roots, one way or another.

        Eliot had been a pilot back on Earth—in his spare time. It was little more than a hobby for him. There were two women and one man on Hermione who had logged several hundred hours of flight time in ravens. Unfortunately, the one pilot who had been thawed out was experiencing severe hibernation sickness, and the other two pilots hadn't been found yet.

        The colonization was weeks behind schedule. Europe was approaching conjunction with Asia, and the android pilots didn't think it was wise to do drops from Hermione during such a close pass to the gas giant. The landing had to be now. Otherwise, they would have to wait for fifty days or so for Asia to retreat to a safe distance.

        The population of conscious people on the ship had started taxing Hermione's design. There weren't places for all of them to eat, sleep, bathe. They needed to get the colony started as soon as possible.

        When asked, Eliot agreed to pilot the first landing to the surface of Europe.


        The turbulence didn't really bother him. The raven was basically a flying tank. It was their speed that had him very concerned. He hadn't understood fully until now the importance of drag in flying a fixed-wing aircraft. Eliot had extended Icarus's wings to their limit; they provided the raven with enough lift to keep her from slamming into the ground like a stone. He was still going entirely too fast from his orbital insertion to make a safe landing. Their proposed site for the initial camp was coming up, and Eliot wasn't sure what to do. He thought for half a second of calling back up to Hermione and asking them to put Elaine Karpaski—the sick raven pilot—on the line to talk him down. Unfortunately, by the time they brought her to the bridge, Icarus would already have crashed.

        "There's the plateau," John said.

        On the horizon, Eliot saw their landing site. It was a fairly level parcel of land next to a dry ocean bed. They were flying over the ancient ocean now, but soon enough the plateau would be beneath them… and not too many kilometers beyond that was a craggy mountain range with several active volcanoes.

        Eliot wasn't sure who picked this landing site. He'd have a talk with them later… if there was a later.

        Icarus didn't have the fuel for a return to orbit to try for the landing again. He had two choices: turn tail and run back up to Hermione on his afterburners, or find a way to bleed off some speed.

        "Is everyone buckled in tight?" Eliot asked.

        John looked back into the cabin, then said, "Yeah. Why?"

        Eliot pulled hard on the yoke, putting the raven into a steep climb. He figured they had to be pulling three, maybe four gees. He held tight to the controls, allowing the ship to do a loop, up and over, sending hundreds of little bits of paper and wrappers from protein bars falling to the ceiling. The passengers screamed. Eliot ignored them.

        He pulled Icarus through the loop and leveled her off again. Unfortunately, they were still going too fast.

        "Hang on!"

        One person in the back shouted, "No!"

        Europe tilted away from them again and they looped high into the sky once more. Eliot made sure this was a bigger, taller loop. They'd have to fly upside down a little longer, but they'd definitely slow down more this time. At the tail end, he pulled them out of the loop a little early, describing a "9" in the sky, rather than a "0"; they were at a much higher altitude than before. The plateau was laid out like a map below them.

        "We're almost there, folks," Eliot said. He put the raven into a series of leisurely figure eights, making full use of the thin air to slow them even further as they gently descended to the surface of the planet. The landing itself was, if anything, an anticlimax.

        No one applauded.


        After a heated discussion about the proper way to execute a planetary landing, the other nineteen colonists agreed to let Eliot be the first to exit the raven. He slid on his pressure suit and moved into the tiny airlock. It took a couple of minutes to equalize to the pressure outside the ship.

        Eliot had realized as soon as he agreed to pilot Icarus that he might end up being the first person to step onto the planet Europe. With only hours to prepare, he had looked to history to see what brave words others had left behind in similar situations.

        Neil Armstrong stepping onto the Moon: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." That was the gold standard, as far as Eliot was concerned.

        G. August Robinson stepping onto Mars: "Today, humanity makes a statement: we will not be confined to the surface of our small world; we will make our presence known throughout the universe." A little blustery, but not bad.

        Sadie Verona stepping onto Titan: "Yeee-haw!" What she lacked in gravitas, she sure made up for in enthusiasm.

        He suspected there were a couple more of those kinds of quotes that had been recorded on other worlds, back home and elsewhere, during their seventy-five year journey to Iota. He hadn't had time to request they be sent down the beam from Earth. He doubted they'd be helpful, anyway.

        The pressurization cycle ended and the door of the ship opened.

        There it was: the surface of Europe. Drier than the Sahara, colder than the Russian steppe, rock and dust in equal measure. Eliot knew that the other colonists would see this as a barren, inhospitable world… or as a scientific opportunity… or as a historical stepping-stone on their way to the center of the galaxy. Eliot didn't see any of that. As clear as day he saw lush, green fields of wheat blowing in a leisurely breeze. He saw rolling plains darkened by the passage of thundering bison. In the distance, over the gleaming, blue ocean he saw thunderheads approaching with much needed rain for his crops. He saw what Earth used to be, and what Europe would become.

        As he stepped off the ladder and crushed wind-carved pebbles under his boot, Eliot Burke decided that he would build his farm on this very spot.

        "We're home."




Copyright © 2006 Russell Lutz

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Russell Lutz makes his novel publishing debut with Iota Cycle. Holding two degrees in mathematics and after a decade of experience in retail supply chain management, he is uniquely qualified to write speculative fiction. His short stories have previously appeared in several webzines and magazines, including Byzarium, The SiNK, scifantastic, and anotherealm. He won the 2005 SFFWorld First Place prize for short fiction for the Iota Cycle story Fall. His story Athens 3004 appeared in the short fiction anthology Silverthought: Ignition. His current projects include a follow up to Iota Cycle. He lives, works, reads, writes, watches movies and ponders the imponderable in Seattle.

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