Lightless is the debut novel of C.A. Higgins, a fast-paced, gripping read inspired in part by the author’s college thermodynamics class. io9 is proud to feature the excerpt below. You can also read our Q&A with Higgins here.
“We know who you are,” Domitian said, his low rumbling voice poorly picked up by the cameras, so that Althea had to lean forward to listen. “We know who your companion was.”
Ivanov cocked his head to the side. The camera in his cell was positioned above where Domitian now stood, and so Althea could not see Domitian’s face clearly but Ivanov’s face was nearly head-on.
He was smiling, insolent, amused.
“What we want to know,” said Domitian, “is why you are on board.”
Ivanov took a beat longer to reply than was normal. Althea’s fingers were tight around the edge of the control panel.
“Simple curiosity,” Ivanov said. His accent had changed. No longer sharply, purely Terran or broadened by the traces of an adopted Mirandan drawl, it had something of Jupiter in it, faintly similar to Domitian’s accent. “We were flying past, and by pure chance we saw your strange ship.”
Ivanov’s eyes flickered up and straight into the camera. Althea knew he couldn’t see her, but she was made uneasy nonetheless and was relieved when a moment later he looked away.
“You don’t expect me to believe that,” said Domitian.
“I don’t expect you to believe anything I say,” Ivanov said, “but I’m telling you the truth. Mattie and I were on our ship, headed for Mars, when our path intersected with yours. We wouldn’t have even found the Ananke if we hadn’t nearly run into her. Now, men like us, when we see a ship this magnificent—”
Domitian interrupted. “If you’re hoping for rescue, none is coming. Gale was killed trying to escape.”
Althea supposed Domitian was telling the truth in a way; Gale would be dead soon from asphyxiation or starvation unless he was picked up by another ship, and with no one looking for him, his escape pod probably would never be found.
Ivanov went very still in exactly the position he had been in, his head cocked slightly to the side. His face showed nothing at all.
Then his face relaxed back into the insolent amusement he had adopted against Domitian.
“You know, the first rule of interrogation is to get the subject’s trust,” Ivanov said. “You just lost it.”
“I killed Gale, and I can kill you, too,” said Domitian.
“Then why don’t you kill me?” Ivanov asked. “You could shoot me in the docking bay. Fire that gun there”—he nodded at Domitian’s hip and the weapon resting on it beneath Domitian’s heavy hand—“right into my chest. And I fall. And then you leave and open the air lock. My body, my blood, all the mess goes flying out into the solar wind. Maybe I’m already dead, or maybe you’re a bad shot and I’m not dead yet, so I get to drown in my own blood and suffocate in a vacuum both.”
Ivanov seemed to be watching Domitian very closely. What he was looking for, Althea didn’t know. But his manner unsettled her.
“So then why don’t you kill me?” Ivanov asked. “Oh,” he said, feigning coming to a realization, one finger lifting to point toward the ceiling. “That’s right. You’ve just told me. You can’t kill me unless I tell you what you want to know.” He smirked at Domitian. “You’re not very good at this.”
“I don’t need to find out anything from you,” Domitian said. “Gale is dead. Once you are, too, the threat will be neutralized. But if you tell me what I want to know, I’ll reconsider killing you.”
“Thanks.” Ivanov had a deft sense for sarcasm.
“Answer me. Why did you and Gale board this ship?”
“I already told you,” Ivanov said. “Curiosity. Nothing more. What answer are you expecting?”
“I want the truth,” Domitian warned.
“And I’m giving you it,” said Ivanov. “We’d never seen a ship like the Ananke before. It’s something different. It’s almost an organism instead of a machine, the computer is so powerful. Mattie and I both have a professional interest in computers, and in any case, we figured there would be something valuable on board.”
“Did you come on board,” said Domitian, “on orders of the Mallt-y-Nos?”
Althea thought she saw Ivanov flinch. “I’m a thief, not a terrorist.”
“Then you know her.”
“Not personally.” He was wary.
“You know of her.”
“Tell me what you know about her,” Domitian said.
“Just that she’s a terrorist.” He paused, then lowered his tone as if telling a ghost story, with only a fine edge of sarcasm to spoil the effect. “I know enough about her to avoid her and her hounds. Do you know what her name means?”
“It means ‘Matilda of the Night,’ ” Ivanov said. “In mythology, the Mallt-y-Nos was a noblewoman who loved so much to hunt that she said to God, ‘If there is no hunting in heaven, I will not go.’ And so God damned her to hunt forever as part of the fairy host. The sound of her shrieks and howls drive her fairy hounds to hunt the souls damned to hell, hunt them down and drag them there.”
His voice had lowered, hushed, and Althea strained to hear.
“They say that the louder the sound of her hounds’ barking, the farther away they are,” said Ivanov. “And so, when the howling is the quietest, only a whisper, that’s when the hounds are right beside you.”
The beep of the Ananke’s computer, indicating that its scan was done, was so loud and sudden after Ivanov’s soft story that Althea jumped and swore.
“I don’t care about fairy tales, Ivanov,” she heard Domitian say as she leaned away, and she kept half an ear on the interrogation while she dealt with her injured machine.
Domitian said, “Tell me what Gale did to this computer before he escaped.”
“I don’t know,” Ivanov said, politely acidic in a way that was very Terran. “I was locked up in a cell.”
“You must have some idea,” said Domitian. “The two of you must have contingency plans for situations like this.”
“Contingency plans for being unexpectedly captured on a secret military vessel with a superpowered computer of a kind neither of us have seen before?” said Ivanov. “Shockingly, no.”
“Enough,” said Domitian, and, to Althea’s frustration, moved on. “I want you to explain what Gale meant when he said, ‘This is for Europa, Scheherazade.’ ”
“Ivanov,” Domitian said when the silence stretched for too long.
“Which would you like first?” Ivanov asked. “The Europa part or the Scheherazade?”
“I don’t care,” said Domitian, “so long as you answer the question.”
“Scheherazade,” Ivanov said, “is an easy answer.” He smiled, brief and charming. “When Mattie and I are traveling between moons and planets, that’s a lot of space and not a lot of things to do. So sometimes I tell stories. One time I told Mattie the story of Scheherazade and her thousand and one nights, and Mattie thought it was funny how she told stories for so long and I did the same thing. So sometimes he calls me Scheherazade.”
“A nickname,” said Domitian.
Something flickered over Ivanov’s face, like an impulse to laugh, suppressed. “That’s what I said.”
Ivanov shrugged. “It’s just a nickname.”
“And Europa?” Domitian asked.
“You’ve already checked up on times Mattie and I were on Europa, of course,” Ivanov said, and Althea winced, because with the computer in the state it was in and with securing the ship, Domitian certainly had not had the time. She started trying to bring up the file; Domitian would want to look at it when he came back up. He also would know, once he saw the file open, that she had been listening to the interrogation, but Althea knew that his annoyance with her wouldn’t last.
“And so you know,” said Ivanov, “that a con went wrong on Europa last time Mattie and I were there. We were robbing a ship called the Jason—a System ship, but the crew were pirates and extortionists in their spare time. The System doesn’t care what their ships do as long as they keep the System’s people quiet and under control.”
He had the rhetoric of a terrorist for all that he claimed not to be one.
“Mattie was caught by the crew of the Jason,” said Ivanov, his measured tone growing more and more distant with every word, “and I left him.”
“You came here together,” Domitian said.
Ivanov very nearly rolled his eyes. “Obviously, he escaped. The point is that I left him there. We kept working together because we make a good team, but that established something: each man for himself. I left Mattie on Europa, and so Mattie left me here.”
The file on Europa finally had opened. Domitian queried something else, but Althea didn’t hear. She was too busy reading and rereading the first few lines of the report.
Eight years ago—longer than she would have guessed—eight years ago, the report said, the Jason had been found drifting in orbit around Europa, unmanned, its computers wiped.
All the System could determine was that Matthew Gale and Leontios Ivanov, under alias, had been recorded in interactions with the ship’s crew some days before.
The ship was unmanned, the report said, because the entire crew had been murdered.
And all Ivanov had said was, “Mattie escaped.”
Domitian was done with their prisoner when Althea looked back over at the feed, leaving the tiny cell and locking the door, while Ivanov sat in the same place with his back against the wall and his slender pale feet crossed at the ankles.
What kind of man are you? Althea wondered, looking at Ivanov with his handsome face and his Terran accent and his murderer for a partner, and it wasn’t until Domitian was halfway back up the hallway, leaving Gagnon to guard Ivanov’s cell door, that her attention was drawn away from the video by the sound of an incoming message.
It was from the System: high security clearance. Althea opened it.
Ida Stays was ready to board.
Excerpted from LIGHTLESS by C.A. Higgins Copyright © 2015 by C.A. Higgins. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.