Vessel by Lisa A, Nichols (SF Novel, May 2019).
This debut novel is another near-future space-adventure. A mysterious disaster has struck the NASA spaceship Sagittarius after it passed through a wormhole to study a distant planet as a possible site for colonization. Out of contact for years, it was long presumed lost.
But now it returns via the wormhole with a single survivor aboard.
Lt. Colonel Catherine Wells has no memory of the crew’s stay on planet Trappist-1f, of what happened to the rest of the crew, or how she alone survived. Equally troubling: most of the ship’s automatic records of the time have also been wiped clean (which should’ve been impossible).
Cal Morganson, a rising you NASA official with a penchant for making waves, suspects Wells could be lying. Even if she isn’t, he’s not okay with PR-concerned higher ups wanting to sweep the disaster under the rug while making the sole survivor into a hero. Cal is no astronaut, but he’s in charge of preparing a follow-up expedition to Trappist and becomes obsessed with safeguarding the new ship’s crew, which includes his best friend.
Cal’s constant pressure and Catherine’s genuine frustration with her inability to remember would be enough for her to bear. But she’s also dealing with family issues. The years she’d been away, much of it presumed dead, led her husband and young daughter to move on. Her husband has a new relationship, and her daughter almost considers the new woman as her true mother. Can she rebuild what was already a strained family situation she’d willingly left behind years back?
Flashes of memory (or are they merely guilt-driven dreams) begin to dog Catherine. Cal continues his investigation, even after his boss warns him to back off and Catherine begins losing more periods of time–making inexplicable actions and having no memory of them. It’s almost like she’s….possessed, being driven by some unknown force. But that couldn’t be it, could it?
Is she merely going crazy, as an earlier astronaut seemed to do after passing through the wormhole? Is there a common element between them, and does that mean that the next ship through faces the same unknown danger? Cal determines from obscure evidence that Catherine was not the only survivor of the initial disaster, but then who was and what happened to that other crewmember?
Is Catherine a tragic hero, a crazed murderer–or something else entirely? Could the odd life native to Trappist-1f be manipulating her, and to what purpose? Even she doesn’t know till she and Cal combine forces to uncover the full truth. And by that time, Sagittarius II is already out of contact range.
The two antagonists-turned-allies must follow in yet another ship to avert further disasters.
Overall, this is a well-done debut. The author’s characterization is well-handled, as is the NASA mindset. If Catherine had been more open in reporting her continuing memory gaps, the mystery might have been more easily solved–but then again, this fictional astronaut would not be the first to cover up a weakness in a desperate effort to avoid the disgrace of being grounded, or otherwise discarded by the space agency’s leadership.
I did notice one large lapse in science fact when Catherine’s ship returned to our system. Out past Mars there should’ve been lengthy delays in communication with Earth. This error was the only major gaffe I noticed, and did not ruin the book for me.
Vessel, is an interesting 1st effort and (at the risk of hinting at spoilers) is a title with more than one implied meaning.