Stellar Nursery
by Frank Smith

Twelve lives would end if she kept spinning in a chaotic orbit around the Madeira instead of finishing her job.

Zadie watched the cosmos blur into spinning streaks of light as she twirled away from her starship. Pulling her body into a ball, her star-belly spacesuit retracted its starfish nubbin arms and legs into its torso. Like a seed, she was soon enclosed at the center of a round, protective shell. She was breathing in quick gasps of jiangtek. No idea of her surroundings. Space just space.

The voice of the Madeira’s commander boomed through the signal static: “What happened?”

She pictured Vega on the bridge. The stout little man, hunched over a stack of roots like a beaver controlling the flow of water from atop his dam.

“Are you there?” Vega continued. “The ship’s not responding. There’s no way we can send help in time. We need you. Are you there?”

As chief engineer of the Madeira, twelve lives inside the ship were counting on Zadie to figure out what had gone wrong.

One month ago they’d set off from the domes of the Titan colony to meet with the Science Council on Mars—the Madeira’s longest run yet. They’d made it as far as Europa, and her quiet seas, when they hit trouble. The ship’s computer had alerted engineering of some damage to the hull, so Zadie had gone on a spacewalk to patch things up.

She hated spacewalks. Like many who grew up on the domed colonies, Zadie was agoraphobic. Being in space was like an overload—there was almost too much to process for her to be afraid. All this was in her psych profile, and yet she still had clearance to do a spacewalk. So—can’t be that bad, right?

“Can’t be that bad,” Zadie said. What a personal mantra.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

She began to feel herself inside the suit. Keeping her eyes on her feet, Zadie took small steps forward. Soon, Zadie was bounding over the hull of the ship.

“Not that bad at all!”

That’s when something struck her hard from behind.

All at once, her confidence was gone. Zadie lost sight of the ship and her feet as she rolled away. Fear shut her down. My fault, she thought, my fault for having confidence.

Vega’s voice cut through the comm static: “Did you hear me? I said we need you.”

“Commander,” Zadie coughed into the microphone set inside her respirator, “I don’t know. Something hit me. I’m not sure if I can get back.”

“No one else can help you right now. You need to figure it out.”

No matter how small the action, it is an action—a step to be completed. That is how she will survive. Break the problem into its smallest components and solve them one at a time. The solution will eventually glom itself together.

Still wrapped up like a ball, Zadie wiggled out a command with her fingers. Her gauntlets were slaved to the star-belly suit’s central intelligence. As she signed out commands, the star-belly began to release its spherical shape. When she felt comfortable, Zadie stretched out her arms and legs. The suit conformed to her movements. In time, Zadie became a starfish again, a child dressed in a puffy snowsuit. With each movement, she began to lose her fear.

Next step, breathe. Then, stop spinning.

To correct her trajectory, she commanded the star-belly to poot a blast of propellant from the rear of its shell. The abruptness of this sudden change in movement snapped Zadie’s jaw closed.

She blasted more propellant. Her head lolled forward, heavy like a sandbag.

One more. She was taking control of the spin.

After a final blast, Zadie righted herself in a way that she could determine up from down.

Fighting the alkaline taste of motion sickness, she moved inside the star-belly as if she were swimming. The interior of the suit was filled with jiangtek, an amniotic goop that sustained the suit’s power systems and generated fresh oxygen that Zadie could breathe through her respirator mask. The jiangtek also helped buffer out solar radiation.

Zadie tucked her legs up and waved her arms, casting about in search of her ship. The Madeira came into view. Through her adjustable-focus goggles the starship was a fuzzy sort of shaggy—a dandelion seed floating through an interstellar wind.

Now she had a fixed point—a polestar.

Grown in the Natto space station orbiting Titan, the Madeira was a second-generation organic starship. The corvette cruiser was the shape of a walnut with a wooden hull the texture of a brown seed coat, carried through space by silver Mylar sails that extended around the ship. The sails caught the solar photons that pushed it along. Contained inside a dense organic material that protected the ship from the vacuum of space was an internal biomatter system that sustained the crew with oxygen.

Zadie opened a signal to Vega.

“I’m alive,” she said, migraine blurring her vision.

“Knew you could do it,” Vega said.

“I didn’t. I feel like I’m going to barf up my skull. How are you back there?”

“We’re grafting things together,” Vega said. “If we push it, we should make it to Galilea in one piece. That’s if we can repair the hull and get the root-ball back online. What happened to you out there?”

“I was patching up the hull when something smacked into me and, uh…” Zadie lost track of what she was saying. To fight off the migraine and her nausea, the jiangtek had expressed an aerosolized cocktail of nausea reducers through her respirator. As Zadie breathed in, the drugs did their work—mellowing her out. All she wanted was to hit the racks. Maybe put on a fracto-chord mapping waveform and chill out to some tones and shapes.

“You there?” Vega said.

“Sorry,” Zadie said, shaking her head. “Got a migraine-sized case of the spins. Meds are kicking in, and I’m a bit… floaty.”

“Take a minute, if you need it,” Vega said. “One minute isn’t going to matter now. Once that minute’s over, fix the ship. We need you.”

“Roger that, commander,” Zadie said.

Using short, controlled bursts of the propellant, Zadie steered her star-belly towards the Madeira. Along the way she retrieved a bundle of wood strips she’d been using to patch up the hull. Her toolkit, which was tethered to the bundle, drifting over her shoulder, followed behind like a curious puppy.

As she came up on the ship, Zadie’s star-belly adjusted its shape to her movements. She pressed her hands and arms closer to the shell—directing the jiangtek to make space for her body and bubble outwards against the dorsal section of the suit’s shell. Basically, she created a skinsuit and a backpack filled with goop. Moving around in the star-belly was getting easier, which was not an altogether great thing.

Much of the star-belly’s mass had been depleted as a result of using the off-gas of the jiangtek to return to the ship. Thinking she’d be outside the ship for only a quick survey of the damage, she’d only fueled up the star-belly for only a few hours work. As Zadie consumed more of the goop just to breathe, the star-belly would conform closer and closer to her body—until all that remained was the suit’s nigh-impervious shell wrapped around her corpse.

Now that only a thin layer of goop stood between Zadie’s body and the front of the star-belly shell, she could pump her hands into gloved fists with full dexterity. Zadie grabbed onto the knotted hull of the Madeira. She was secure.

The surface of the ship was hot.

Zadie was reminded of the heart of the Madeira: a root-ball wrapped inside a canopy of dense leaves, green vines, and heavy moss—powering the ship’s life-support system. The temperature inside the heart of the Madeira was subtropical, yet in the depths of space that heat dissipated as it flowed through the ship, transforming into a cool draft that rose through the engineering room’s floorboards.

A chunk of bark drifted past. Wood shavings dusted against her faceplate. She wiped the shavings away.

With the bundle of wood under one arm, Zadie crawled closer to the cloud of dust. She could see something moving.

“What the what?” Zadie said.

An organic creature was burrowing into the bark of the Madeira’s hull.

Zadie watched the creature tearing at the ship’s hull, ripping and biting and destroying.

This saboteur was inhuman—an insect, bulbous and white, just shy of one meter long, with extruded fibers pointing away from its body, twitching as if caught in a breeze. The mite had six legs scratching at the hull, with pincers set near its head. Two antennae protruding from its eyeless face scratched at the ship’s knotty bark to guide its direction. It was a ship-mite. The largest ship-mite she’d ever seen.

Beyond the mite were dozens of milky-white eggs embedded in the hull of the Madeira. Their curved egg-heads broke through the surface of the ship. The eggs had been there for some time—growing, infesting.

“Vega?” she said over the comm, stomach lurching.

The commander of the Maderia’s voice boomed through the receiver, “What is it?”

“We have a very serious problem.”

“Yeah, we have five, maybe, yeah, five very serious problems already,” Vega said. “What’s the new thing?”

“Ship-mites,” Zadie said.


“The hull of the Madeira is infested with ship-mites,” Zadie said.

“No, no, no,” said Vega. “That’s impossible.”

“I’m telling you it’s possible—and it’s, ugh, so many ughs. What do I do?”

Comm static absorbed their silence.

Ship-mites were a distant cousin of the microscopic tardigrade. By reducing their tough little bodies into a dehydrated state, the one-millimeter-big creatures could survive in space. A byproduct of the organic starship program, ship-mites had evolved to survive in a similar manner, while a starship made its voyage through space. The largest ship-mite on record was no bigger than a beetle. This creature was something else—it’s growth accelerated to where it was the size of a dog.

Vega said, “How many are there?”

“There’s only one—and it’s huge, Vega, the size of a baby elephant, and it’s laid eggs in the Madeira.”

“All right. And what’s it doing now?” he said.

“Chewing through the hull.”

“OK. So. All right. First things first: Why don’t you make it stop doing that?”

“There are eggs. So. Many. Eggs. What am I supposed to do here?”

“Don’t let them inside, goddammit,” Vega trailed off. Zadie could hear him barking out commands to the crew.

“I can’t kill these things,” she said. “They’re babies. They’re impossible.”

The ship-mite used its pincers to peel away sections of bark from the ship’s hull. Its destruction was precise.

“Life or death, Zadie,” Vega said. “Kill or be killed.”

“Commander, haven’t you thought about what this means? I’m looking at a lifeform that can exist in the vacuum of space, and you’re telling me to exterminate it and its babies? What if we need them to prove that what we’re doing is right? Plants need bugs. The mites already go dormant during spaceflight. Maybe this is some by-product related to the energy being generated by our engines. They’re feeding and metabolizing the energy at an accelerated rate—that could account for the mite’s size and durability. There’s a lot we could learn here.”

“I don’t want to die today, Zadie. We can debate philosophies when we’re safe. Clear out the bugs and finish your job. That’s an order.”

Zadie killed her radio. “Idiot,” she said.

The mite tore at the ship, stripping away a section of bark and letting it float away. The creature’s senselessness was startling—if it was going to destroy the ship, at least it could eat it. Shaking her head, Zadie ran through a mental diagnostic of the Madeira. The root-ball was acting strange, and the root-ball powered the ship, and the mite was chewing through the hull, so there was that to consider.

Kicking away from the ship, she pooted over the ship-mite to get a better look at its nest. Where the hull of the Madeira had been shredded to make room for the eggs, the bark had gained the texture of a shaggy coconut shell. Meanwhile, the eggs were as milky white as the mite’s exoskeleton, with dark shadows rummaging around inside. Inside the eggs, the creatures’ tiny movements were vulnerable, hypnotic. A poof of steam curled along the shell of one of the eggs, dissipating in the vacuum of space. Inside her star-belly, where Zadie touched down against the hull—the bark was fiery hot near the eggs.

She groaned.

Not only was this section of the ship infested with eggs, there was a very hungry mama bug tearing her way through energy insulation.

The nest was built into the thick wood shell that held the root-ball in place—the hottest part of the ship. All that wasted heat, which they needed to run many of the ship’s life-support systems was being redirected towards keeping the mite’s eggs warm.

No wonder the Madeira’s life support had gone offline—it was being taxed by the loss in so much energy. This could support her theory about the mite’s growth and durability. Strange stuff out here.

With its antennas twitching, the mite reared back its eyeless head, so its pincers could shove more wood bits into its expanded mouth. The mite had eaten through the bark to the green, cambium layer beneath. Any deeper and it would get into the wood—break through the hull. The mite was burrowing deeper into the ship’s hull to create more room for her babies.

Twelve lives were inside the ship. Twelve lives depended on Zadie.

Live or die.

The jiangtek expressed a mix of aerosolized amphetamines through Zadie’s respirator.

She breathed in deep.

Zadie swung the bundle of wood. The mite’s pincers snipped at the sticks. Zadie swung again. The mite grabbed hold of the bundle and wrenched it from her hands. Zadie turned to catch the tether that held her toolkit and swing the whole thing towards the ship, hoping she could find it again later.

While Zadie was distracted with her toolkit, the mite lifted onto its back legs and used its front legs to reach for her.

Acting to defend its babies, the mite attacked. A pincer ripped across the shell of Zadie’s star-belly, leaving a white mark on the suit’s skin. The mite curled its legs around Zadie and squeezed. She kicked backwards, igniting a blast of propellant to fire out from the front of her suit.

The mite peeled away from her, slapping against the hull of the Madeira.

Zadie rocketed away, breathing hard, unsure how she’d escaped. Warmed by the sun, the jiangtek pressed through the fibers of the body-sleeve jumpsuit Zadie wore—irritating her skin. Her heart rate was up, the amphetamines had her focused on action. She was ready for the next match.

The mite, meanwhile, had already forgotten her and was chewing at the bark, munching away, section by section.

As she abandoned her starfish shape, Zadie pulled her arms and legs close to her body, directing the suit to take on the form of a ball. She’d lost a lot of the gloop, forcing the star-belly to take on a shape that was less like a sphere and more like a sarcophagus.

No matter.

The mite had crawled back to its burrow and was re-arranging the bark to create a better nest. Stray slivers clouded its head.

Using a blast of propellant, Zadie rolled forward. Her orbit was chaotic as she struck the mite.

She bounced away.

Again—Zadie struck the mite under its head, this time hard enough to get the creature’s attention.

The mite snapped at her face, teeth dragging marks across the surface of the suit. Zadie pushed against the mite, rolled under it—her arms extended from the star-belly so she could hold the creature in a hug. The mite’s legs wrapped around her; its pincers bit into the suit. After a fresh snort of amphetamine spray, Zadie pulled the bug away from the Madeira.

Locked together, they rolled through space. Zadie allowed the creature to squeeze its legs around her until the suit had thinned out to just the shell covering her body, squishing the jiangtek into the space beyond her head and below her feet so she looked like a dumbbell.

With a single-minded focus, the bug’s pincers closed around her head. Zadie pressed her eyes shut and let go—

The star-belly inflated like a balloon around her body.

Surprised, the mite lost its hold. Zadie blasted propellant to create some distance between them. The creature reached for her, antenna twitching, legs crawling out, searching for a hold. The force of its movements carried it farther away, twisting, spinning into the void.

The star-belly was tight. Not much goop left. Zadie blasted just enough propellant to send her floating towards the Madeira. She kept her arms out wide as if they were wings, controlling her trajectory.

The mite was a fat thing, orbiting away—all twitchy legs and antennas. The pincers surrounded its mouth opened and closed in a silent scream.

Zadie pinched her hands into diamond shapes and extended her fingers to the skin of the star-belly. Trusting the star-belly’s strength, she used her hands like chisels to attack the nest.

She was systematic about clearing away the eggs, engineer-like—her larger problem could be solved if she approached one tedious, repetitive task with total focus.

The job absorbed her, took her out of the moment, made her stop worrying if the mite was screaming for her lost babies. It was only when she was nearly done—down to the last three eggs—that Zadie realized Vega was hailing her and had been for some time.

“Sorry, commander,” she said. “Cleaning up. How’s it going in there?”

“Better,” Vega said, “Life-support systems are back online. Hopefully we didn’t make too much of a mess for you in here.”

“Can’t be as bad as out here. I’m going to patch the hull as best I can and be on my way.”

Zadie stepped away from her task to let her mind settle. She was vulnerable outside the ship, more vulnerable than she’d ever realized. Unlike the ship-mites, she wasn’t meant to be outside of the ship like this. The role of humanity in this new iteration of space travel was uncertain. If they were meant to be here, shouldn’t they be able to thrive? Zadie considered the remaining eggs.

Life was a fragile thing that fought against incredible circumstances.

This life had evolved far from Earth. Unlike the humans who experience depleted bone mass, deteriorating eyesight, agoraphobia, and other problems that result from living in space, the ship-mites were strong. Zadie was so cranked-up on drugs just to survive out here that in a way she was barely surviving at all. Human expansion throughout the solar system was a cheat. No one fully understood why, but they could only go so long in microgravity or in the colonized environments outside of their home system before needing to return to home, to Earth, to recharge their gut bacteria; breathe in their home world’s air; let their muscles experience a natural pull of gravity.

Beyond the Madeira, Jupiter hung suspended in space, its orbit crowded with moons. A new satellite joined their revolutions. Inside the planet’s ghostly atmosphere, pale-yellow and luminous orange gasses appeared to be moving without moving. As it turned, Jupiter pulled a small, pale, white dot closer and closer.

The star-belly was contoured around her body now.

Not much time left.

Retrieving her toolkit, Zadie finished the job. She patched up the chunk the ship-mite had ripped out of the hull—quick and dirty. With her fixes completed, the Madeira could regenerate new layers of shell and repair itself properly.

Now done, star-belly slick and close to her skin, Zadie pounded at the airlock, impatient for the door to dilate open and let her through to safety.

Twelve lives waited inside the Madeira for her.

And three more impossible creatures were kept safe in her arms.