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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY BUZZFEED AND KIRKUS REVIEWS • With deeply moving human drama, nail-biting suspense—and bold speculation informed by a degree in physics—C. A. Higgins spins a riveting science fiction debut guaranteed to catapult readers beyond their expectations.
Serving aboard the Ananke, an experimental military spacecraft launched by the ruthless organization that rules Earth and its solar system, computer scientist Althea has established an intense emotional bond—not with any of her crewmates, but with the ship’s electronic systems, which speak more deeply to her analytical mind than human feelings do. But when a pair of fugitive terrorists gain access to the Ananke, Althea must draw upon her heart and soul for the strength to defend her beloved ship.
While one of the saboteurs remains at large somewhere on board, his captured partner—the enigmatic Ivan—may prove to be more dangerous. The perversely fascinating criminal whose silver tongue is his most effective weapon has long evaded the authorities’ most relentless surveillance—and kept the truth about his methods and motives well hidden.
As the ship’s systems begin to malfunction and the claustrophobic atmosphere is increasingly poisoned by distrust and suspicion, it falls to Althea to penetrate the prisoner’s layers of intrigue and deception before all is lost. But when the true nature of Ivan’s mission is exposed, it will change Althea forever—if it doesn’t kill her first.
Praise for Lightless
“Gripping . . . sci-fi flavored with a hint of thriller.”—New York Daily News
“[A] measured, lovely science-fiction debut [that is] more psychological thriller . . . contained, disciplined, tense . . . The plot is compulsive. . . . Lightless is the first of a planned series, and you can’t help looking forward to learning what’s next.”—The New York Times
“Lightless is full of suspense and fun as hell to read.”—BuzzFeed
“Absolutely brilliant . . . This is science fiction as it is meant to be done: scientific concepts wedded to and built upon human ideals.”—Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author of the October Daye series
“The stakes in this story are high—life and death, rebellion and betrayal—and debut novelist Higgins continually ratchets up the tension. . . . A suspenseful, emotional story that asks plenty of big questions about identity and freedom, this is a debut not to be missed.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A taut, suspenseful read.”—Tech Times
“Lightless is an exercise in lighting a very slow fuse and building the tension to an unbearable pitch while making us guess just how apocalyptic the ultimate explosion will be. . . . It is a high-wire act, a wonderment, and a fine accomplishment from a name we’ll be seeing again.”—Sci Fi
About the Author
C. A. Higgins 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. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
Read an Excerpt
The Zeroeth Law of Thermodynamics
If two systems are in thermal equilibrium with a third system, they are also in thermal equilibrium with each other.
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.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In the distant future humans have branched to terraform and inhabit various planets and moons throughout the solar system. Everything is controlled and watched by “The System,” which is this author’s version of Big Brother. The System has sent a very armed, scientific vessel named Ananke on a secretive mission to the far reaches of the solar system. When the story opens, the ship is breached by two intruders who are quickly apprehended by the ship’s crew. The two are identified as Matthew Gale and Leonid Ivanov, both wanted criminals with possible ties to a terrorist organization (The Mallt-N-Nos). The System hopes to learn the identity of The Mallt-N-Nos leader and want the two held for interrogation. Gale manages to escape his captivity but apparently dies during the escape. That leaves Ivanov. The System sends one of their top people, Ida Stays to do the interrogation. Meanwhile various malfunctions seem to happen to the ship’s computer and the ship’s mechanic, Althea, suspects that either Gale or Ivanov had planted a virus in the computer. The story then becomes a cat and mouse game with Stays trying to gleam information out of Ivanov while Althea tries to solve whatever was done to the ship’s computer. The part of the story seemed to drag out about 200 pages in until anything of note occurs. The author could have made this a much better book but this part made it very difficult to continue and I suspect several readers would have lost patience long before I did. The last 80 pages or so have some very tense moments and are really what allowed me to give the book four stars. However this story pales in comparison to some of the better science fiction thriller authors such as Robert J. Sawyer.
Great sci-fi . Very compelling characters and story that keeps you reading well past your bed time .
I'd like to thank the author for a copy of the book and the chance to review it through the NetGalley First Reads program. I really liked it! Interesting characters. Engaging plot. I flip-flopped on who's side I was on several times. Every time I thought I had it all figured out, something would change. It has a good ending. (There are no real winners or losers. The whole "Great Good" thing.) It definitely left the door open for a book 2. I would be interested to read it to see what happens to them next. I would hope to see a little more backstory on the characters. Bits and pieces were revealed, but I'm nosy - I want to know more.
Higgins uses her scientific knowledge and an amazing storytelling voice to produce an addicting fast paced sci-fi thriller series debut. Her futuristic dystopian world filled with enigmatic engaging characters both sentient and cyber showcases her vivid, imaginative narrative. Her unforgettable world building features an autocratic big brother-ish interplanetary society on the verge of a revolution. Her inhabitant’s struggles and achievements are informatively seen through the eyes of her extraordinary star players that will intimate her fans to her brave new world. And the cliff-hanging ending will have readers salivating until the next installment. Brava Ms. Higgins for a fantastic debut! There’s unrest in the Solar System! In deep space a highly advanced militarized ship for The System, the Ananke is on a super secret mission with a crew of three, the captain, Willhem Domitian, a scientist, Rufus Gagnon and software engineer, Dr. Althea Bastet, caretaker of the über-intelligent on board computer. Who’s at this moment trying without success to rid the computer of a nasty virus that's causing mass malfunctions, planted by the two saboteurs they captured aboard ship. Now while trying to repair the computer they’re also awaiting a visit from a System Intelligence officer sent to interrogate the prisoners and they have bad news for her. Upon arriving to question the captives, Ida Stays has learned that one has escaped, but the man still in custody is no other than Leontious (Ivan) Ivanov, estranged son of a successful scientist mother and the infamous father who destroyed Saturn. He’s a thief but also rumored to be in cahoots with the System’s most notorious terrorist Mallt-y-Nos who may be the head of the rebellion that’s trying to overthrow the government. She just needs proof and she'll use any means to get it.
This was an excellent debut! I LOVE a well written sci-fi mystery and this one definitely hit that sweet spot between the genres. She really used the interrogation method to it's fullest, and the pacing of the story kept me interested and not wanting to put the book down. As far as the publisher blurb about Gravity meets Alien... Well, I can see some small aspects from each of those in this story, the suspense from Gravity, a touch of the claustrophobic horror that you get from Alien, but really this book isn't like either of those. If you go in expecting one of those, then you will be disappointed. Also, you will be doing this book and it's author an injustice. This book is a beautifully written sci-fi story that stands on it's own. I hope to read more by her soon! Very minor complaint: so many "A" names! Highly recommended for fans of science fiction, specifically if you enjoy ones that have a mystery aspect to them. Closed-ship mystery is a great phrase for it. I really got a Alastair Reynolds vibe from this book, so if you are a fan of his, I think you would feel right at home in this story. Oh, the author seems to have included some space opera easter egg shout-outs that I really appriciated, so be on the lookout for those while you journey aboard the Ananke!
Lightless, the compelling science fiction debut of C. A. Higgins, will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. The story begins when a huge ship manned by a 3-person crew is invaded by terrorists. One of the storylines follows Ida Stays, a government interrogator, who uses psychological tactics to try to extract information from a captured terrorist. The other storyline focuses on Althea, the ship’s mechanic, who tries to solve one problem after another caused by a virus the terrorists introduced into the ship’s computer. Althea and Ida often find themselves at cross purposes, but young and naive Althea does a remarkable job of holding her own against the seasoned, high-ranking government official. I found myself reading at top speed, unable to put the book down, especially during the second half of the book where I simply had to know how it all turns out. There are many twists and turns, but the author doesn’t give away her ending until the final two pages. Science fiction readers may find that this book starts a little slow, but it soon picks up and ends with a bang.