When there was something wrong in the Ananke, Althea knew.
The Ananke was a special ship. The Ananke was a miracle—-a miracle of engineering, a miracle of physics, a miracle of computing. The Ananke was beautiful, its gravity–producing mass nestled in its center, contained by a cage of sparking magnets, with the rest of the ship curling out over that core, the lights of windows studding its black spiral like bioluminescence. When it drifted through black space, it looked like an extinct creature of Terran ocean depths, a creature out of time and into space. The Ananke was Althea’s in heart if not in law, and Althea knew her every inch.
For that reason, when there was something wrong in the Ananke, Althea knew.
“Scan of the filtration system reports no abnormalities,” Domitian said from behind her. The crew of the Ananke was so small that even the captain had to aid with System–mandated tasks. He sat on the opposite side of the control room, running scans on the other end of the U–shaped control panel. The room was narrow enough that Althea could have turned around, stretched out her arm, casting its shadow on the dull metal tiles, and touched his broad shoulder with the tips of her fingers.
“Right,” Althea muttered, her eyes tripping from line to line on the code scrolling up the screen.
“Did you finish the atmospheric check?” Domitian asked, his voice a low rumble.
“I’m running it again.”
Domitian said, steady, solid, “Is there something wrong?”
Althea didn’t answer him, only continued to scan the results displayed before her. “I’m okay,” said the scans in the language of math and code, but they were wrong; she knew it.
Althea became aware of movement behind her, the scraping of a chair against the metal of the floor, the sound of Domitian’s boots against the deck. She felt him lean over, hand braced against the wall. The underlighting from the display made his craggy cheeks covered with gray stubble look rough like old stone.
“Show me what you’re seeing when you see it,” he said. “The System wants a report of anything that might be wrong.”
Althea knew. That was why she was running this scan again—-for the third time, not that she would tell Domitian—-on the faintest feeling of something being off. The System kept order, kept peace, and something that great could not be afraid—-yet the System had sent down a mandate for increased security, and if there was enough cause for the System to enforce these kinds of countermeasures, Althea was worried enough about her ship to run the scans a third time on a distant suspicion.
“Do you think it’s that terrorist?” Althea asked as the scan scrolled on.
She felt rather than saw Domitian glance up at the ever–present surveillance camera in the corner of the room. The Ananke would record everything that camera saw and then send a copy to the System. All ships did, System or not; all locations on planet or off, public or private, did the same.
“It’s not for us to speculate,” Domitian said. “Just make sure the Ananke is fine.”
The orders to increase security had come on the heels of a Systemwide raise of the terrorism threat level. Althea didn’t think it was too great a leap to connect the two, but Domitian was right. They probably were not supposed to know.
Althea saw the error before she consciously recognized it. “There,” she said, and paused the scan. It was small, and so it had passed by too fast for her to notice twice before, but now that she saw it, it was glaringly off, glaringly wrong, clearly stitched together with two disparate pieces, as if someone had sewn the head of a man to the body of a dog. Someone else’s code had been inserted into her own. Whoever had done it had been skillful. Anyone else wouldn’t have noticed; Althea almost had not.
She read it through.
“It’s the docking bay,” she said, and then rose, knocking into Domitian’s chest in her sudden urgency. “Someone’s boarded.”
Domitian was moving before Althea had finished the last word, checking his sidearm, any signs of paternal patience vanished from his face.
“Go to the armory,” he said tersely. “Arm yourself and take the spares as well. Then join me in the docking bay. Lock the control room after yourself and be on your guard.”
“Should I wake Gagnon?” Althea had to half chase him; he was already out the door.
“No time,” said Domitian, and then he was stalking down the hall with his gun out, one hand ready to fire, the palm of the other beneath to brace it.
Althea took a breath; adrenaline was making her hands tremble.
Then she did as she was ordered and let training take over. She locked the door to the control room, sent an advisement to the System of their situation, went to the armory, and took the three guns inside to prevent the intruders from gaining any extra weaponry, clipping two to her belt and taking just a single magazine of ammunition, which she thrust into the frame of the gun she’d chosen for herself with only the faintest tremor still in her fingers.
Then she headed back up the Ananke’s single long, winding hallway, the spine of the ship, feeling the pull of gravity lessen the farther she got away from the ship’s lightless core. It was because she knew the Ananke so well that instead of going directly to join Domitian in the docking bay, she paused in front of the door leading to the physical location of the Ananke’s mission data banks.
If someone wanted access to the most highly classified System information that the Ananke knew, this was where they would go.
Althea took a breath, flexed her hand around her gun—-brought up her other hand to brace it—-and then pushed the door inward, bursting into the data repository, a steely dark room filled with computer towers flashing dim blue lights.
On the opposite end of the room, bent over the room’s one direct computer interface, stood the figure of a man.
“Don’t move!” Althea said, and he raised his hands in the air.
He was slender, on the short side but taller than Althea, with pale blond hair cropped close. He was wearing cat–burgling clothes, a tight black turtleneck and fitted black pants with black boots so well worn that they didn’t creak as he slowly straightened up, black–gloved hands upraised. Althea stepped carefully into the room, eyeing the corners for accomplices. It would be difficult for anyone to hide among the densely packed wires and data towers, the neurons of the ship that covered the steely gray of the walls and even stretched to the gridded ceiling, but Althea would take no chances.
The man started to turn around. Althea snapped, “I said don’t move!”
The man completed the turn, and Althea was briefly struck silent. The most brilliant blue Althea had ever seen had been in the sky of the equatorial region on Earth, where she had gone for a brief vacation from her studies. That did not compare to the brilliant color of the man’s eyes. His appearance in the Ananke’s data banks was as unsettling as if the one who had been the most beautiful of God’s angels had stepped out of the ether onto the Ananke and started to fiddle with the computer.
“It’s always a pleasure,” said the stranger, and his accent was strange and shifting, Terran now, Martian then, a trace of icy Miranda in the vowels, “to be held at gunpoint by a beautiful woman.”
He smiled at her. He had a smile like a wolf.
The sight of that smile loosened Althea’s tongue. “Who are you?” she said.
“A passing traveler.”
“What do you want with my ship?”
“Your ship?” said the stranger, with keen interest, but before Althea could respond, her name was barked down the winding hall of the ship.
“Althea!” It was Domitian.
She heard not one but two sets of footsteps and saw Domitian shoving another man in front of him. There were only three crew members on the Ananke; this man was not one of them, and with a sinking heart Althea realized that he was a second intruder. The new stranger was taller and darker than the blue–eyed man, with a fringe of brown hair hanging into his eyes. He had one arm tucked up against his chest, his other arm holding it in place, and Althea’s eyes lingered on the swollen portion of his forearm, oddly bent, that indicated a violent and recent break. It was nothing a session in a System medical brace would not heal in a matter of days, but it had to be painful.
At the sight of him, the blue–eyed stranger’s jaw grew tighter, then grew tighter still when Domitian shoved him ungently forward to join the blue–eyed man at the back of the room. Seeing them together, the familiar way they traded glances, Althea realized that they knew each other. They must have boarded together.
“Empty your pockets,” Domitian said with his gun trained on both men. “Turn them out.”
The man with the broken arm scowled and seemed about to protest, but the blue–eyed man, with his expression inscrutable, immediately turned out his pockets, letting a knife, a few small tools, and a variety of data storage chips clatter onto the floor like flakes of steely snow. The man with the broken arm followed suit, with similar items appearing but slender twisted bars following. For a moment Althea could not think what they might be and wondered why he was carrying twisted bits of wire. Then she realized that breaking into the Ananke would require more than picking electronic locks; it would require opening physical doors as well. The bits of wire and metal must be lock picks. She lifted her gun back up.
“I want them in separate rooms,” Domitian said to Althea in his calm, even voice. The two men watched him closely like dogs sizing one another up. Althea was faintly relieved to have been excused from the blue–eyed man’s attention. “One in the ship’s brig, one in the storeroom nearby.”
“And what if we don’t go?” the blue–eyed man asked.
“Your friend tried to resist me,” said Domitian. “I snapped his arm. What do you want me to do to you?”
The blue–eyed man smiled, white teeth showing.
“I mean if we think getting shot would be better than going into your brig,” he said, clarifying with a show of false politeness that perfectly matched his Terran accent.
Althea’s hand twitched around her gun. For a moment she was afraid Domitian really would shoot him or order her to fire.
She was not the only one; the man with the broken arm was very tense, as if he were getting ready to move suddenly. Domitian didn’t do anything for a breath of time, his face as cold and set as stone, but then his gun twitched very slightly, the angle of its trajectory changing from the blue–eyed man to the chest of the man with the broken arm.
The blue–eyed man scrutinized him for a moment longer, then glanced at his friend and nodded very slightly. Domitian led the way out of the room, the two strangers following and Althea keeping to the rear, her finger slipping from the trigger guard to the trigger and back again.
There was no trouble putting the strangers in their cells. Domitian must have judged the blue–eyed man to be the more dangerous of the two, and so he ended up in the Ananke’s one genuine cell, and the injured man in an empty metal room with the door locked from the outside. Both rooms were near the very lowest part of the ship, in the very last part of the Ananke’s spiraled hallway, where the gravity and the tidal forces were at their strongest. It made even Althea, accustomed to the Ananke, dizzy to stay too long down there.
As soon as the door had shut behind the blue–eyed man, blocking his disquieting gaze, Domitian turned to Althea and said shortly, “Wake Gagnon; send him to join me. There may be more intruders. You go back to the control room. Lock yourself inside, update the System on our status, monitor the computer and the cameras. Find out their identity. We’ll communicate via the intercom, but keep chatter to a minimum. Clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Althea said, and left.
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.
C.A. HIGGINS or Caitlin Higgins, is a debut author who writes novels and short stories. She was a runner up in the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing and has a B. A. in physics from Cornell University. Lightless is her first novel, written during her time as an undergrad at Cornell.