Dead Silence by S.A. Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The blurbs on this book's covers tout it as a "haunted house ghost story in space" and liken it to the classic sci-fi/horror movie Alien. Both those are true.....to an extent. The ultimate reveal of what is going on ends up not being either one, but for most of the way through, the spooky atmosphere, creeping sense of dread and rising tension definitely fits both categories.
What sets this book apart, I think, is the main character, Claire Kovalik. As the story starts, Claire and her four-person crew are in the midst of servicing the commweb, the network of beacons that boosts intrasystem communications. After two years of maintenance on the furthest-out commweb sector, Claire and her crew are coming to the end of their tour. But for Claire, it will be her final tour ever, as maintenance robots from her corporate employer, Verux, will now take over her position, and she will be confined to a desk-jockey job on Earth. It's a thought she can hardly stand, as she does not like being on a planet and around people. This is due to her complicated backstory: as a child, a plague ripped through the Mars hab where Claire and her mother were living and killed everyone except Claire. She had to spend a month alone with decaying bodies before she was rescued. This gave her severe PTSD and made her corporate employer distrust her, to the point where she had to fight to get any off-planet posting at all. She is frantic to remain in space, even to the point of considering suicide as the story opens rather than return to Earth.
But the crew of the LINA abruptly receives a distress call that Claire insists they check out, though a couple of the other crew members are against it. When they arrive at the signal's point of origin, they realize they have stumbled upon a fabulous find: the ship broadcasting the call is the luxury liner Aurora, which vanished with all hands and passengers twenty years before. Claire's crew wants to claim a finder's reward for the vessel, as the shares thereof, even split five ways, would make all of them independently wealthy. Claire agrees, and they park their small ship in the Aurora's cargo bay and board the seemingly lifeless ship, looking for something to bring back to prove that they have indeed found it.
The eerieness starts right away, as Claire sees the ghost of her dead mother in the cargo bay. As they work their way up to the bridge, they find signs that something terrible has happened here: the bottom cabins are barricaded shut, and there are various messages ("I see you," "Leave me alone") scrawled on the walls in what looks like blood. In a skin-crawling reveal about halfway through, the team discovers where the majority of the missing bodies ended up: floating in the ceiling of the ship's atrium, with signs of the passengers turning on and killing one another.
Meanwhile, Claire's crew is also starting to hear and see things that aren't there. This is nothing new for Claire: she has seen ghosts and visions ever since her childhood incident (and as we learn, even before; her mother took the job in the Mars hab because a five-year-old Claire kept saying she was seeing her dead father). The crew becomes increasingly unhinged, and in the last thing Claire remembers before apparently fleeing the ship in a lifepod, one of the crew tries to stop the voices in his head by piercing it with a plasma drill.
This is structured as a told tale for the first half of the book, with Claire recounting what happened to two investigators for the corporation in the Verux Peace and Rehabilitation Tower on Earth. She was brought there after being discovered in the lifepod by a ship seeking out why the LINA missed its scheduled rendezvous. The investigators are convinced Claire killed the other members of the crew, but they also want to use her to recover the Aurora. And so, over Claire's objections, a team is put together to return to the Aurora and bring it, or at least some of the bodies, home.
Things go even further to hell, of course. About two-thirds of the way through the book, we discover what is going on: what happened aboard the Aurora has neither a supernatural or an alien cause, but rather a technological one stemming from the eeeevvillll corporation. In fairness, this has been seeded throughout, with fair clues and red herrings. The last third of the book is a tense race against time for Claire and the final surviving member of her crew, Kane, to escape the Aurora before it is blown up to hide the evidence of the corporation's malfeasance. Claire and Kane manage to do so, and break the story wide open. At the end, Claire has enough money from her finder's fee to buy her own ship and start her own hauling business, and she invites Kane to join her.
Claire has a nice character arc throughout this book as she learns to stop isolating herself and to be vulnerable, to let go. Some readers might find the reveal of what's actually happening to be a bit disappointing. For my part, I was rather relieved to see there were no ghosts or alien monsters (even though there's at least a slight sideways glint towards the supernatural as Claire is still seeing ghosts of her new ship's crew at the end). Sometimes mundane things like greedy corporations are scary enough. But the first part of this book is dripping with atmosphere and rising dread, quite enough to merit the comparisons. The pacing is also very good. All in all, this is a satisfying story and worth the read.
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