In the silences of Margaret Dunlap’s “What Sleeps at the Heart of Aurora Station,” you can almost feel the press of steel and darkness. This interstellar fairy tale sweeps readers into the core of a collapsing station, on a mission of utmost importance.
~ Julian Yap, May 22
What Sleeps at the Heart of Aurora Station
Dinah slid her chit into the reader slot. She was deep in the station ring’s innermost utility level, at the access hatch to the umbilical that tethered them to the station’s core. Dinah had traded the last of her food to one of the old-timers to get that chit. The calories would buy him a few more days aboard a dying station. Dinah was betting the access chit would buy her a way out.
If it didn’t, the trade had bought her a slightly quicker end.
Seven agonizing seconds later, the light beside the slot blinked green, and the hatch unlocked. Dinah exhaled.
Didn’t trade the cow for beans after all.
She checked her suit seals and pushed through.
* * *
It is dark.
Because it is dark, I sleep, encased by the circular walls of my tower bedroom in a castle surrounded by thick hedges and thorny vines.
No. That’s not right. I’m dreaming, but my dreams are disturbed by a half-remembered smell: bread . . . or blood.
Before I can decide which, the sound of harping bears me off, back to the deep and dreamless place where foreign smells cannot reach me.
The dark returns.
* * *
Dinah inched through the steel umbilical toward the core. Lucky for her, ship-jacks always worked low grav/low ox in the cold, so the pounding in her skull brought on by hunger and her suit’s decrepit CO2 scrubbers was nothing new.
She made slow and painful progress. Rushed building crews had left the path full of rough edges and untrimmed fasteners. Steel thorns threatened to tear her suit with every move.
She tried not to think about asphyxiation and frozen sleep as the chill penetrated, settled into her joints, made her fingers stiff and reluctant.
Aurora Station had been built out of need, not planning, from a dozen barges tethered like wheel spokes around a derelict ship, itself detritus from humanity’s first wave of extrasolar expansion. Those had been giddy times, when trillionaire prophets packed up their followers on ships with experimental FTL drives and vanished into the void. A few found the fresh start on a new world they had been promised. More ended up somewhere like the Aurora System: rich in asteroid resources and gas giants, poor in rocky planets with enough gravity to hold an atmosphere. Most were never heard from again.
The ship that became the heart of Aurora Station had been found, cold and unresponsive, in a convenient orbit to become the nucleus of a stopover for the newer, more reliable, second-wave ships that followed and needed a place to make repairs and refuel on their way to the outer settlements. During the boom years, traffic had come fast, with urgent needs, so no one had time to regulate construction. But eventually newer, faster drives came along, and the station became redundant.
It had been ninety-six solar days since the last ship docked at Aurora Station, and as those days piled up, Dinah realized the workers who were dependent on those ships for food, water, and eventual escape had been forgotten.
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