Star Dragon by Mike Brotherton
The book is available as a free download from the author's site at:
Considering this is a book about interstellar flight, alien life and the like, I was surprised that the book began by plunging me into an Earth of super-advanced biotech. Buildings that are living organisms with a central intelligence that can coordinate mobile parts - with furniture that are carefully engineered life-forms... It’s an indication of the breadth of the scientific disciplines and future tech that is presented here.
One huge biotech firm has received images from an interstellar probe that suggests an extraordinary kind of life may exist in the accretion material in a binary star system. Seeing it as a long-term investment on what might be an extremely profitable discovery, a crewed spaceship is sent to investigate.
Even traveling very close to light speed, the round trip will take about 500 years Earth time (and a year or two experienced by the crew). Most people wouldn't be willing to leave everyone they know for so long - even though with 27th century tech, those left behind may still be alive when the crew returns. As a result, the five crew members tend to be unusual or obsessive or something.
In addition to the five humans, the ship has an AI with an Ernest Hemingway persona, which makes it a sixth character. The AI has both elements based on Hemingway’s personality, and the structure and restrictions programmed for action on behalf of the mission. The mixture gives it depth and complexity. This is explored even further when events deprive it of parts of Hemingway and parts of the computer system.
The book follows the dynamics of the crew members during the trip out. Upon arriving at the star system, they discover that the "dragons" are too far into the accretion disk for their ship to safely go. This leads to a conflict. The captain wants to use nuclear missiles to create shockwaves that will prod dragons to move towards the ship. The exo-biologist strongly opposes this approach, especially as the first thing they try. When he can't convince the captain, he tries to secretly prevent the missile launch.
The captain manages to launch the missiles which are "much too successful". A huge number of dragons stampede towards the ship, leaving the ship damaged. The crew members are faced with reassessing how to safely get a dragon.
The dynamics among the crew shift. Crises are dealt with. Discoveries are made.
Star Dragon has a wealth of character material, science material, an unfolding story, as well as other aspects that give it additional dimensions. It’s not just a book for readers whose interests emphasize one or the other of these areas.
The book does leave the reader with some tantalizing speculations that may leave you wishing for a sequel. Unfortunately, a sequel does not seem to exist.