City in a Bottle


Soda Bottle Interior Oblique

Day 16: 1230 hours

They are watching us!

Lyra, Gyro, and Barron have joined me topside, but nobody has yet found words to adequately express any emotion, let alone a vague analysis of the moment. We, my crew and I, stand side-by-side, silently transfixed on a scene that I can barely put into thought, let alone language. Could this be how British explorer James Cook felt, after Europeans had been crisscrossing the Pacific for a century, when he then discovered a thriving society, hundreds of thousands strong, on an isolated archipelago in the middle of that ocean?

Not only watching, but evaluating us!

The nearest platform of this incongruous micro metropolis, one built at the same level as the captured sea, is approximately two centimeters away. The waterfront is lined with the bipedal forms, each seemingly identical to the next, an observation that I attribute to the effect of distance.

Below the glimmering surface of the miniature sea, ciliated organisms cruise the waters around us, bipedal beings astride paramecia, driving them like frontiersmen on horseback.

Irrefutable, the visual evidence penetrates my mind, collides with my sluggish comprehension. The wisdom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drifts like welcome salvation into my thoughts: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

“Skipper, what should we do?” whispers Gyro, his voice tremulous. I can hear disbelief fermenting into fear. His almost-terror-stricken gaze shoots from the parapets above to the waters surrounding us. “There are hundreds of them! We should…”

“Arm ourselves is what we should do,” interjects Barron Wolfe. “I have a harpoon gun that would serve as a…”

“Stay right where you are, mister,” I tell the engine master. “All of you, in fact. Nobody move. They are watching, assessing us for whatever imperatives guide their behavior. Let’s not give them a reason to act hastily or against us.” I pitch my voice to project confidence and control. “We are explorers. Our first task is to observe. Any notions you may have about what this place is, or who these creatures are, are idle guesses. Am I understood?”

All heads nod. Good!

Lyra’s eyes widen. She points across the water toward the city. “Jonathan, someone is coming.”

The figure, a distant speck at first, grows in size and resolution with every step, and emerges slowly from the intervening mists that hover at various layers in this enclosed world. Though I do not know how, the figure is oddly familiar. Its stride, a steady gate upon the water’s surface, is incomprehensibly recognizable.

It is a man, his dark hair visible above a blue-gray uniform eerily similar to my own. Half a centimeter from Cyclops he stops, then incongruously raises his left arm and waves in a decidedly friendly manner, as if greeting us on Pennsylvania Avenue on a summer Saturday evening en route to Ford’s Theater. Even before I hear his shouted greeting, I know who it is.

“Jonathan Adler! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!”

It cannot be Rand Emerson, but that is exactly who it is, my executive officer, right-hand man, companion from my academy days – alive?   In my mind, playing like a nickelodeon picture show, I recall the final moments before he evaporated into the ether of quantum space. There we were, the original five of us, the crew of the MS Cyclops, standing on the reaction stage of the machine – before those incredible energies bore down upon us, before Rand had glitched.

As Rand resumes his approach – as his grinning face becomes identifiable, my mind is already racing to understand, to explain how this can be, and something more – a powerful desire to repair the damage of his disappearance. I cannot wait to greet him, the medicine of seeing him whisked safely into the grateful arms of his crewmates. I feel an intense need to heal the tragedy of losing my first officer even before the voyage had begun.   Then I remember my responsibility to the others, to the safety of the ship and her crew.

“Stand where you are, Sergeant!” I call to him. The crew’s welcoming shouts fade to silence and all heads spin toward me with quizzical expressions. On the water, Randall Emerson comes to a military halt, with chin up, heels together, and arms straight at his sides. “Hello, Rand! Sorry about the formality, but you might say that the situation is extraordinary – wouldn’t you agree?”

“I could not agree more, Captain Adler, sir,” he answers with diction crisp enough to cast a flint spark. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”

“You can hold station right where you are, Mr. Emerson,” I tell him. I have no doubt that this is the bona fide Randall Emerson, but I will persist with a line of query that will erase any suspicion that might otherwise linger in the minds of the crew. “Just a couple of questions before I crack open my last bottle of Old Kentucky to welcome you back into the fold.”

“That sounds about, Captain. You loath Old Kentucky,” interjects Rand with a cheerful cadence. “And you always have. You once remarked that it ‘tastes like skunk spray and leaves an aftertaste like a stagnant Potomac backwater in August,’ if I’m not mistaken.”

Muted laughter erupts from the crew.

The quote is accurate, and mimicked precisely, right down to my rural Chesapeake inflection. The man is definitely Randall Emerson. “Your recollection is accurate, nevertheless, that is the swill we have, therefore it will have to suffice,” I tell him. With a friendly gesture, I beckon the would-be crewmate closer.

Rand closes the remaining gap and stops three paces from the gunwale. “The old girl looks like she’s seen her share of rough passage. Gyro, she still yar and nimble as she was in her sea trials?”

Without turning, I stifle Gyro from responding with a raised finger.   “Yes, sea trials. Quite a memorable day. Remind me, Rand, how we ended up at McMurphy’s pub that last afternoon, after that final shakedown?”

Rand Emerson smiles a generous toothy grin. “McMurphy’s hadn’t yet reopened from the fire that took out half the block. We ended up at Old Toad’s, but only after that French steamer crew turned us away from Foggy Bay.   You had four Martinez cocktails and sang ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Baily’ until the barkeeper cut you off and showed us the door.”

Lyra plants a hand on her hip and wags the other one at me. “I knew you could sing,” she declares.

“The skipper is a nightingale,” says Rand with mock sincerity.

“All right, enough of that,” I admonish. “Mr. Emerson, permission to come aboard is granted. We have a lot to talk about and I have a lot of questions.”

Before we go below, Rand enjoys a moment of unfettered affection from his crewmates. They embrace him as they would a long lost brother, and he, as demonstrative with emotion as I remember, returns the fondness. I watch from nearby with a sense of gladness, that a misdirection of fate has been repaired.

1500 hours…

I now sit across a small table from Rand, having just heard his unbelievable story. I shall, to the best of my ability, attempt to retell it as accurately and earnestly as he told it to me.

The thought had never occurred to any of us that when Rand failed to appear with us at Dragonfly Sky-base, that he had actually been redirected to different arrival coordinates. In the short history of transmicronization, nothing like that had ever happened. Rand theorized that a micro fluctuation in the magnetic field, or a stray cosmic ray, skewed the quantum field lensing just as the machine transferred us from the subterranean chambers in Washington DC to the aquatic pond micro verse.

“But however it happened, I awoke in this place, surrounded by the people. Their word, idea really, for themselves defies pronouncing or even conceptualizing. The closest word in English is Unity. You can call them what I call them: the Microsia Aquatica. These Microsians are single cellular organisms. They are protozoa. Each one is an individual eukaryotic cell with all the usual trimmings: nucleus, mitochondria, golgi structures, even cilia. They seem to have characteristics of several classes of protista, including pseudopodia, like an Amoeba, and cilia, like Paramecium. As you’ve seen, they use other microorganisms like we use beasts of burden.”

Visible through the porthole behind him, a Microsian rode swiftly by on paramecium-back.

“So they are not confined to this bottle?” I asked.

“Wait… you mean to tell me… this is a bottle?” Rand laughed. “I wondered, but never knew. Anyway…. They come and go all the time… well, not all the time – it isn’t always safe for them to go out there. Microsians are the prey in more than a couple predator-and-prey ecological relationships. But the bottle, funny that I couldn’t figure that out, makes an impregnable shelter at this scale. As long as they are inside, nothing can touch them. And even though they are thoroughly at home in the water, they are not confined to it. The air pocket in here is the perfect micro habitat for their… colony, again they use a different word. I finally came to understand that their word represents an idea for a cohesive formation built by the progenitors of the Unity for the protection and prosperity of the Unity and its descendents.”

“This is amazing,” I whispered, trying to comprehend the picture Rand was painting of this secret and hidden civilization. “So there are baby Microsians.”

Rand shook his head. “Descendents, Jon, but not children. They are single-celled organisms. They don’t do things… the way we do.”

My mind was reeling, yet relishing the information. “Are you telling me that they reproduce asexually… that they divide?”

My old friend lifted his glass of mediocre sour mash. “I see that Lyra has made a good start at turning you into a cell biologist. Yes, they reproduce by fission. I’ve seen it a few times. It’s a fascinating process.”

“Maybe I will have that opportunity,” I said excitedly. “But tell me more about them. What about culture? What about their history? Have you learned to speak Microsian?”

“Whoa there, Skip,” he chided. “They don’t speak exactly. Microsian communication uses several of their organelles and structures, but none are auditory. An idea is expressed partially through vibration of their cilia in concert with reverberations from excretory crystals, like a silent resonating symphony. It took me quite some time to work out a basic vocabulary, but now I have the hang of it. But they can do something that you and I have never dreamed of… if they coordinate their reverberation, the Unity becomes a living computing machine. I’ve only seen it happen once, but it was impressive. That seems to be how they develop complex ideas and make major decisions. The Unity is very much a unified society.”

“I would like to see that as well. Can they understand you?”

“Easily… child’s play to them, if they had children – especially if there are two or more nearby. They seem to perceive the sound waves of my voice, and then compute a translation into basic concepts, rearranging the parts into ideas they are more familiar with. The more Microsians in the adjacent Unity, the faster they compute.”

“Rand, this discovery of yours…”

“I take no credit. And it was completely by accident, if it was an accident,” he said, tipping back his glass and exhaling. “I’ve had smoother.”

“The luckiest accident in human history. We have to get into that city and learn more about the Microsians. Do you have their trust? And can you get us in there?”

“I doubt they have such concepts as trust or distrust,” answered Rand. “They are curious about you though. They sent me out to greet you, and invite you into the colony. They’ve been watching you for weeks.”

“That would explain a few things,” I tell him. “Are they naturally a curious people, or is it something about us in particular?”

“That’s just it,” he said with a puzzled expression. “As a rule they are not a curious or inquisitive people.” Rand paused, lost in quiet contemplation. He was thinking hard, evidently trying to find the right words for microsian ideas. When he spoke, it was carefully. “They believe that our world is trying to destroy theirs, and they cannot understand why.”

1530 hours…

We stand on the observation deck of the Cyclops pilothouse, Captain and First Officer, side by side for the first time in the microscopic world. Across a short stretch of glassy still water, the vast multi-leveled metropolis of the Microsians fills our view.

“Take us in, Mr. Emerson,” I tell Rand. He nods.

“Helm, turn to forty degrees left rudder, ahead one quarter,” says Randall Emerson.

“Aye, sir,” responds Gyro.

The engine order telegraph rings the one-quarter speed signal and the deck slips forward under my feet as MS Cyclops creeps toward her first port of call since leaving Duckweed Base.

My crew is reunited! My friend is alive! I am struck by a feeling of wholeness and well-being.

“Look sharp everyone,” I tell them. It no surprise that everyone is smiling.


Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

A Protected Harbor

Cyclops enters Bottle1115 hours…

And then the faces recede from the light and vanish. Only a solitary silhouette remains, standing at the center of where the multitude had been only moments before. It is beyond slender, with unusually long limbs, and at the end of an extremely tall neck, an oblong head with enormous eyes. Its right arm, for lack of a better vocabulary, lifts up from its side, extends ninety degrees from its body. At the end of the limb membranous pseudopodia become finger-like appendages, coalescing into a pointing hand.

“I think,” says Gyro softly, “is it trying to tell us where to go?”

In an act so unhuman, yet so understandable, the shape thrust its fluid-like right arm further from its body, as if to emphasize its instruction to us.

“No doubt about it,” I say. “Gyro, turn us ninety degrees port rudder and follow the glass wall.   One quarter speed.”

“Turning to two-seventy degrees,” adds Gyro.

“Answering one quarter, as soon as I get down to my engine,“ says Barron, ducking out of the pilothouse.

As our headlamps play over the glass surface, the figure beyond the transparent wall turns the same direction as the Cyclops, and walks in a decidedly fluid manner, as if escorting us.

“I can’t believe I’m starting with this question, but where do you suppose it’s leading us?” asks Lyra.

Both intriguing and menacing in its implication, her inquiry hangs in the pilothouse air unanswered.

“We are holding a course parallel to the glass… wall, or whatever it is,” reports Gyro.

On our right, our guide is visible, a striding shadow on the other side of the barrier, easily keeping pace with Cyclops. I watch its movements with the same veracity as I would a hunting Didinium or a foraging Amoeba. Its movements are similar to the latter, limbs forming and reforming constantly, like amoeba’s pseudopodia. And yet its human-like form is most disconcerting, especially when the appendage serving as its head pivots to gaze back at me from a millimeter away. Its eyes, so curious and penetrating, do not inspire dread, however.

After a minute of slow progress the figure stops its forward movement, but points with arm extended ahead of its track. We are clearly meant to continue in this direction. “Steady as she goes, Mr. Gyro,” I say to the steersman.

Ahead, the massive paramecia horde gives way to scattered clusters of feeding groups, feasting on the ubiquitous decomposer bacteria.

“Skipper,” announces Gyro, “the bottom is beginning to slope down. Maintaining our course will require a ten degree descent.”

“Thank you, Mr. Gyro,” I reply. “Follow the bottom contour while holding a parallel course to that wall, as we were instructed.” Then… “Lyra, keep an eagle eye on that glass wall and shout out if you see any change.”

Gyro: “Skipper, the glass wall is angling away from us. At first I thought it was us drifting off course, but I double checked, and our heading has remained steady.”

Lyra: “It’s because what we have been calling a wall, isn’t that at all. And I think I know what it is. If I’m right, we will know very shortly.”

Following the contour of the bottom, we stay close to the vertical glass substance to starboard. Then out of the gloominess, an interruption in the wall, protruding outward five or six ship-lengths, partially blocks our path. It is molded from the same material as the featureless wall.

“Not a problem. I can steer around it,” says Gyro.

A slight course correction to port, then back, brings us around the obstacle, but to everyone’s surprise the new view forward is devoid of our glass wall companion.

“Where did it go?” asks Gyro.

“If we swing around to starboard,” suggests Lyra, “and turn up the lights, I think you’ll see.”

I nod to Gyro, who executes the suggested maneuver. As the nose of our ship pans across the murky bottom, the lights carve twin cones of illumination over the bottom ooze, and light up what at first appears to be a vast lunar-like crescent. As our lights play over it, the object takes on form and the crescent grows and becomes a circle – all made of the same familiar glass material.

“Of course,” whispers Gyro. “It’s a bottle! All this time… laying on its side. And this… this is the mouth!”

As the words are spoken, like Venus on a summer evening, a distant pin-point of light appears in the black circular void, straight ahead.

Gyro gasps: “Look!”

Lyra asks the very question I am thinking. “Is it…an invitation?”

“We are in new territory,” I think aloud. My mind is reeling too fast to filter thought from spoken word. “Our orders do not encompass protocol for encounters with indigene.”

The distant flare persists, then in very human fashion, begins arcing side to side, as if its holder is waving a torch to garner our attention.

“Very well then! Ahead, one quarter speed. Take us into the bottle, Mr. Gyro.”

 

The circular lip of the bottle, on the furthest limit of visibility, slides astern as we plunge into the dark interior. Our lamps reveal that the inner surface of the lip is alive with movement – stalked vorticellids, similar to the species we photographed in the weedy shallows. Here they are arranged evenly around the opening, and I am struck with the impression that they serve a purpose in this place – perhaps an early warning system against large micro-predators.

The mysterious guiding light stays ahead of us, moving as we move, leading us deeper and deeper.

Barron’s voice rumbles over the voice pipe: “Skipper, I’ve been monitoring the dissolved oxygen levels outside – and although I can’t explain it, they are rising. It makes no sense down here on the bottom, but the levels are climbing as we go deeper into the bottle.”

Gyro interrupts. “That’s not all. We’re also getting reflection from overhead – surface reflection. Remember how we had to descend before we discovered the mouth? That’s because the bottle is lying on a slope, which means there’s a strong possibility that it contains…”

Lyra spins toward me, her face animated with excitement. “An air pocket! The back half of this bottle is a protected harbor!”

“All hands, prepare to surface,” I announce. “Barron, will the surface tension be a problem for us?”

“We should be fine,” answers the Engine Master over the voice pipe. “That last coating will be sufficient for a few more interfacings.”

“Then take us up, helmsman,” I tell Gyro. “Let’s see what we’ve gotten ourselves into this time.”

 

Cyclops breaks the surface effortlessly. Water slips down the glass panes of the observation dome, revealing a scene I never would have imagined. There is clean, light. We are floating in a sea of still water. Overhead, the curve of a translucent sky, made of glass so thick than no force in the microscopic world could possibly break it. And at the back of the bottle, built on many levels that jut out from the sides and upended bottom – something that I can scarcely comprehend.

“I’m going out on deck,” I tell the crew.

I push open the hatch, take a breath of cool, clean air, step onto the deck and turn to face the vista with clear eyes. The platforms and terraces adhering to the bottle’s interior are crowded with a multitude of structures – they are actual buildings! The construction is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in life or photographs, but is reminiscent of the conical shaped hives of socially ordered insects. There are hundreds of them, with significant variations in form and size.

There is no doubt: this is a city. And even from this distance I can see motion. Distant figures, like our mysterious guide earlier, are emerging from the buildings, walking/flowing to the edge of terraces and platforms, to look out onto their protected sea – at the visitors from another world.

Soda Bottle Colony


Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

Faces in the Glass

Cyclops and Paramecia inundationDay 16: 0800 hours…

“It was your reflection in the glass,” Barron Wolfe states with a dismissive certainty that I envy.

“I wish that it had been,” I respond. “Not only did it not look anything like me, it was clearly outside the ship.”

“But how can you be sure?” asks Lyra. “Maybe your reflection combined with the dim light in the cabin…”

“Whatever, or whomever it was swatted a flagellating bacterium out of its way before it vanished back into the dark. It was clearly outside. But before it disappeared, it looked straight at me – into me.  And its eyes…” I cannot find the words to finish my thought.

“What about its eyes,” pressed Lyra.

“They were curious and intelligent,” I tell her. “But…” And again, words fail me.

“Some microorganism then,” theorizes Barron. “Without a helmet and suit it couldn’t have been human.”

“Exactly, Barron,” I add in agreement. “Eyes with intelligence behind them. But not human eyes.”

“Ridiculous,” scoffs Lyra. “I’m sorry, but there are no microorganisms with eyes. Some have photo-sensitive eyespots, but none have actual eyes that can look around and see things. Microorganisms haven’t the nerve complexity to…”

“And yet,” I say softly, my mind tumbling down a trail of possibilities, “I know what I saw.”

And in the silence that follows I suspect that my crew now considers their skipper utterly mad.

 

0815 hours…

“All hands,” came the voice Gyro over the voice pipe, “I’m getting turbulence on the rudder. Captain to the pilothouse, please.”

Turbulence on the rudder… something big and moving nearby.

“Looks like, for now, we have bigger fish to fry,” I declare.

The panes of the observation dome show a smoky green light coming down from the surface. Outside, the pond bottom drifts eerily past our windows. Surrounding the Cyclops is a dim world made up of rotting pond plants and microorganisms. This is the graveyard of the pond – where all pond organisms fall to rest when life ends. And yet, this is where life begins again! All thanks to bacteria. They are everywhere! Some are short rods – others long ones. Some are even spring-shaped spirals. Or chains of small round beads. Or hair-like strands! We cannot count or classify the many species that thrive here on the pond bottom, breaking down dead organisms and absorbing the all-important chemicals needed for life.

Through the darkness we see larger shapes in the gloom. Predators? Scavengers?

“Gyro, turn up the driving lamps…” I tell my helmsman. “Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of whatever is worrying your rudder.”

“Aye, skipper. Lamps to full.”

As our lights penetrate the gloom, a writhing wall materializes out of the shadow. Paramecium has arrived, and by the score. Many of these large single-celled organisms are feasting on the bottom-dwelling bacteria, gorging on them as fast as they can – and there are plenty of bacteria to go around! One after another the paramecia arrive, establish feeding stations, and begin drawing bacteria into their oral grooves by the gullet-full.

 

1040 hours…

Directly ahead, a throng of paramecia has anchored itself against a mound of bacteria-rich detritus. The ciliated protists use their cilia rather ingeniously to hold relatively still to feed on the bacteria, a situation that affords us an excellent opportunity to observe the large single-celled organisms up close. Their internal organelles are easily visible. I reach for my observation journal and scratch out a short list of first impressions.

Paramecium

  • Slipper-shaped overall.
  • Outer surface covered with a thick coat of waving cilia.
  • Behavior note: A paramecium uses its cilia in several ways – to move about its environment both forward and backward, to create a feeding current of water that draws in food, to hold itself in a “feeding station” where it can easily suck in large amounts of food organisms.  
  • A slot-shaped oral groove that turns into digestive sacs or vacuoles, filled with captured bacteria. But some parts of bacteria, such as their cell walls, are not digestible. They must be expelled, but how?
  • A bluish central nucleus. Paramecia appear to have two nucleoli within the nucleus, differentiating them from most other nucleated cells, which only have a single nucleolus.
  • A pulsing star-shaped water pump at each end. These contractile vacuoles work constantly, ridding the cell of excess water entering the paramecium through osmosis. If it were not for these pumps, the cell would swell up and burst.

 

“Skipper,” Gyro says with the now familiar note of concern, “the parameciums…”

Paramecia,” corrects Lyra.

“…are closing in around us. “

To underscore Gyro’s concern, the ship is jostled lightly, then more forcefully, as individual paramecia brush against the hull.

“Individually there isn’t much damage they can do to the ship,” says Lyra, then adding, “but they are the size of orca whales – to us anyway. A large number of them might cause some damage. Maybe it would be a prudent idea to move on.”

I can scarcely believe that these words of caution are coming from my usually reckless naturalist.

“A prudent suggestion,” I agree. “Gyro, watch for a gap in the paramecia. When one appears, take us through it.”

We find ourselves beneath a dome of writhing, contorting oblong shapes, fluidly pushing their way deeper into the detritus mound, competing for the richest bacterial mines.

After several moments of observation, Lyra turns her back on the external view. “Jonathan, some of these bacteria may be light sensitive,” she announces. “I believe they are drawn to the ship’s lamps. And that, in turn, is attracting more of the paramecia.”

“That would explain why there seems to be more and more of these… paramecia,” says Gyro with razor-sharp diction, and a wink in my direction.

I give the order to douse the driving lamps, and to reduce the Edison current to half illumination. Darkness fills the observation panes.

“That’s doing it,” reports Lyra after a short time. “Bacteria activity is slowing down a bit. Less activity should equate to less bacterial metabolism. Emphasis on should…”

“It’s working,” announces Gyro, visibly straining to see through the dim murk. “I think there’s a gap opening up at one o’clock.”

“Finally,” I say softly. “Make for it, Gyro – double slow.”

“Answering double slow,” says Gyro as he rings the engine order telegraph.

Cyclops inches forward, her bow aimed for an irregular void in the otherwise impenetrable wall of paramecia. The gap reveals nothing on the other side but blackness. We steam ever so slowly toward that opening. The perimeter of the opening shifts constantly as paramecia jockey for the best feeding stations, but I am encouraged to see that with each passing moment the gap remains large enough to accommodate Cyclops.

“When we enter the gap,” I tell Gyro, “turn the driving lamps back up. I want to see where we are going.”

“Aye, Skipper,” answers Gyro. “Heading into the gap… now.”

The edges of the opening, alive with feeding, contorting, whale-sized protozoa, move slowly past the observation panes. We are tiptoeing through the lion’s den, shielded by our science – the sightless organisms do not detect CO2-free Cyclops.

“We are almost through the gap,” reports Gyro.

“Good,” I respond. “Then let’s crank up the lamps.”

As we leave the living threshold, Gyro turns the control and sends more Edison current to the driving lamps.

“What in the name of Neptune…” shouts Lyra, staring straight ahead, shielding her eyes.

I cannot make sense of what I am seeing. Brilliant lights are shining back at us, filling the pilothouse with warm illumination. But how?

“It’s glass,” says Gyro, laughing. “And those are our own lamps being reflected back at us!”

To illustrate his conclusion, Gyro fades the lamps down, then up again. The lights shining back at us are indeed our own. But as I look at the reflection I see something else set behind that glass, and words catch in my throat. I take a few steps forward, to the front of the pilothouse. I reach out and touch the glass of our own observation dome, now less than a quarter millimeter from the mysterious reflective surface beyond. There, behind that larger wall of glass are faces. Many faces.

“Do… do you see them?” I stammer to whomever is listening.

Barron arrives in the pilothouse, but is moved to silence. There is a long moment of timelessness, an eternity thunderous with the sound of nothing. Then finally, Lyra steps up to my side and places her hand on my shoulder.

“Yes, Jonathan.” Her voice is hushed, both convinced and disbelieving at the same time. “We all see them, too.”

••••

Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

The Immortal Monster

Cyclops with Hydra, flipped

Day 13: 0900 hours…

Last night passed, at least for myself, with little sleep. Slumber was kept at bay by a mind overly occupied, pondering the dilemma we now face of generating steam to drive our engine, but doing so without emitting carbon gasses. We’ve learned from our observation of single-celled pond life and from our recent run-in with the flatworm, that most aquatic microorganisms have the ability to detect the presence of CO2 – the universal product of aerobic respiration. These organisms are adept at locating prey by following a trail of carbon dioxide – an ingenious evolutionary adaption. Our own engine, which burns oil to generate heat, to in-turn boil water for steam, has the same effect on predators. I am amazed that we aren’t now digesting in some micro beastie’s belly!

I am faced with the inescapable conclusion that it is only by luck and fast-thinking that we have avoided such a fate. Surviving these encounters has given us invaluable observational data, and I now feel that we better understand how organisms locate prey, and how carbon dioxide plays a role in photosynthesis and respiration. Therefore it is imperative that we find an alternative source of fuel that when burned, won’t smell to the lions, tigers, and bears of the microcosm like the sound of a dinner bell!

0940 hours…

I have just announced my new directive to the crew, and I am pleased to report that they are wasting no time seeking a solution. There is a general consensus that the only way to produce heat without a carbon waste product is to fashion a closed system requiring little more than sunlight.

“Barron,” says Lyra to our engine master, “we are already raising several of those green photosynthetic algae for oxygen. There must be a way to convert the starch bodies they produce into a clean fuel.”

“And starch, like sugar, is made up of carbon molecule chains. You might be onto something there,” rumbles Barron. “Not bad for a biologist,” he adds with a wink.

Deep in thought Lyra ignores the jest. “Carbohydrates,” she says with precision, as if to one of her students back at Cornell. “But how to convert it to a more efficient, high-energy fuel?”

“That’s the question,” I insert. “Sounds like we have promising start. Please have plans and proposals on my desk for review by first bell tomorrow.”

With affirmations from each, Barron and Lyra disappear through the companionway.

I turn to Gyro and instruct him to find us a way free of the aquatic weed forest and the perils therein. “And keep us out of the shadows,” I add. Those flatworms don’t like sunlight, and may be hiding on the underside of these elodea leaves. Best speed, helmsman.”

“Aye sir,” answers Gyro, then relays the message for all hands to take their stations.

1015 hours…

The ship rocks gently to port, then to starboard, as Gyro weaves a path through the monstrous plant stems, ever closer to the deeper pond region where the aquatic jungle gives way to the open water. My awareness is keen and my apprehension remains high as long there is danger of encountering another predator of the weedy shallows, but outside, the forest is beginning to thin, and my concerns along with it.

At our current cruising depth, about twenty centimeters, sunlight from the surface is increasing. Green microorganisms streak past the ship. Through the panes of the observation dome I watch the enormous trunks and branches of the aquatic weeds pass astern, every verdant surface abuzz with microbial life. Larger organisms, so distant as to be discernible only as blurry shadows, dart in and out of awareness.

We are almost clear of the forest, almost free from the worry over monsters, when the hand railing slams backwards into my mid section. The panes of the observation dome skew suddenly to starboard as the outside world tilts on its ear. Cyclops comes to an unceremonious stop.

Iron groans. A complaint of our engine vibrates up from below decks. Gripping the rail to keep myself from tumbling across the pilothouse, I scan our surroundings to fathom some inkling as to what has interrupted our escape from the weed forest. It is as the aquatic jungle refuses to let us go.

Before I am able to cast a whispered curse at these perilous weedy shallows, a fleeting shadow of a tendril passes over the watery light above us.

Lyra stumbles from the companionway looking like her trip up from the lower deck laboratory was unusually difficult. “What happened?” she shouts over the protest of iron and wood.

“I haven’t a clue, but it’s like we ran into a wall, or a net,” announces Gyro. “And now we’re stuck.”

“Let’s try to break free,” I tell Gyro. “Ahead, half speed.”

“Answering ahead, half speed,” acknowledges Gyro, then pulls the lever on the engine telegraph.

The deck slips beneath my feet as the ship lurches forward for a breath – then stops.

“It’s like we’re trapped,” declares a frustrated Gyro.

“That’s exactly what it is,” states Lyra from the aft window of the observation dome. “And now I know exactly what has us trapped. Look!”

I turn my gaze to the aft panes. Beyond Cyclops’ tail assembly, a mouth surrounded by six tentacles looms far too close for comfort. Four of those limbs are now wrapped tight around the hull of our ship, and are pulling it closer and closer toward that ring-shaped mouth.

“What is it?” I ask.

“That,” explains Lyra, pointing, “is Hydra, first identified by Carl Linnaeus, father of modern scientific taxonomy, in 1758. And we are in serious trouble.”

As if to emphasize her warning, the hydra’s tentacles tug decisively on the ship. All hands braced themselves as Cyclops lurches half a ship’s length toward the animal’s sphincter-like maw.

“Let’s try again,” I announce, then into the voice pipe I call down to the engine room: “Barron, we are going to try pulling free of the hydra’s grip. We will need as much power as your boiler can muster, mister.”

“All ready down here,” came the engine master’s voice. We are at full steam pressure.”

“Ahead, full!” I announce.

For a moment I can feel momentum pressing me backwards as the sturdy ship drives forward, then a sudden braking as the hydra’s arms reach full extension and responds by pulling us back towards the animal’s mouth, now closer than ever.

“Barron, more power!” – I bark into the voice pipe. But I know that our engine is already laboring as hard as it is able.

Barron’s basso booms back. “The boiler is at critical, skipper. Any more of this and boiler will blow and take the back half of the ship with it.”

I reluctantly turn to Gyro, nod, and watch him ease the engine telegraph level back to half speed. The hydra’s tentacles pull us a full ship’s-length closer to its mouth.

“Jonathan,” offers Lyra, “the hydra is a very simple animal. No muscles, just a network of nerves giving it the ability to retract its tentacles to pull prey into its mouth. Maybe a simple jolt of electricity would confuse its nerve net and make it release us.”

“Get below and help Barron wire the dynamo to the outer hull,” I answer. “Hurry!”

“Skipper,” says Gyro, “if this doesn’t work…”

“If this doesn’t work,” I say, “then we are going to get an amazing view of the inside of a hydra’s gut.” As I speak these words, I have no idea of how prophetic they will turn out to be.

Cyclops in Hydra's Tentacles

1030 hours…

The animal has rotated the Cyclops so that we are now being pulled headfirst toward its mouth. We stare helplessly down the gullet of the hydra, namesake of the many-headed serpent of ancient Greek mythology, a fictional beast that is no more frightening that the real one we currently face. With its next contraction, the monster will pull us into its craw, which even now, is stretching wide to accommodate Cyclops and her crew.

Lyra appears in the pilothouse entranceway, is stunned by the looming nearness of the monster, shakes herself from the momentary shock, then shouts: “It’s ready! Throw the switch!”

“Now, Barron, now!” I boom into the voice pipe. “Contact!”

With the zap of electrical current, the lights of the pilothouse dim. Ozone stings my nostrils. Outside, strings of wavy lightning do a worm-like dance across the hull. The hydra’s tentacles maintain their coiling grip for a count of one, two, three…and just when I start to accept that our plan has failed, the tendrils loosen, jerk back from the ship, leaving Cyclops drifting freely.

“It worked!” celebrates Lyra.

“Full reverse,” I tell Gyro, “and keep us clear of those tentacles!”

1130 hours…

Hiding beneath a aquatic plant leaf we observe the hydra, now safely beyond the reach of its tentacles. There is so much we do not know about this monster. We may not have another opportunity like this one for detailed observation. Closer magnification through my telescope reveals some unusual movement on the creature’s skin.

Then we see them – single-celled organisms cover the hydra! These disc-shaped single-celled organisms are ciliates, adapted for living on the hydra’s skin. They use their cilia to create feeding currents for pulling in bits of food, and for walking and hanging onto the hydra.

Lyra postulates that these single-celled partners scavenge bits of food captured by the simple animal. “This helps to keep the hydra free of pesky bacteria. Quite a beneficial arrangement if you think about it. In exchange, the hydra provides its tiny guests a home safe from other predators.”

How, we wonder, does a baby hydra become home to these partners? Which begs the question: where do baby hydras come from?

1215 hours…

What luck! We have just seen a nearby hydra capture a red copepod. The crustacean’s battle to escape hydra’s tentacles is short-lived. The unfortunate copepod struggles for a moment, then becomes still.

“Watch carefully,” says Lyra. “Hydra’s tentacles have a stunning effect on the copepod. They are lined with stinging cells! Like other animals in this family, like the jellyfish and sea anemone, those stinging cells inject the captured animal with a paralyzing agent. Luckily the iron hull protected us during our close call.“

We gaze upon the drama with open-mouthed fascination as the utterly immobile copepod is drawn into the hydra’s mouth…alive.

“Jonathan,” shouts Lyra, spinning away from the observation glass. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for! We have a chance to observe the digestive process from the inside!”

“What are you suggesting,” I inquire with no small degree of apprehension.

Lyra suggests a daring mission, bold even by her usual standards of recklessness, but I listen with interest. “I’ll take the diving bell, and anchor it to the copepod’s carapace, and get a free ride right down into the hydra’s gut!” she explains with unbridled glee.

“Oh, nothing crazy about that idea,” mutters Gyro.

“It’ll be perfectly safe,” Lyra quickly adds after seeing the scowl forming on my face. “The diving bell will stay tethered to Cyclops. If there is any trouble, just pull me out!”

I have to admit: this was an unprecedented opportunity to observe how the hydra digests its copepod dinner. I know that the diving bell is a sturdy vessel, so I grant permission for this bold venture.

1330 hours…

It took Barron the better part of an hour to equip the diving bell with the necessary equipment for Lyra to effectively monitor conditions inside the hydra’s gut.

Now we watch with with no small measure of uneasiness as the hydra completes its devouring of the live copepod – and anchored to it, our diving bell with Lyra tucked inside.

Hydra with diving bell

Day 13: 1345 hours…

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log…

What an incredible opportunity! Surrounded by the safety of the diving bell, I am now inside the hydra’s gut! Following the complete engulfment of the copepod into the hydra’s gullet, I have released the anchor hooks so that the diving bell is now drifting freely within the predator’s stomach. Through the portholes I can clearly see cells lining the hydra’s stomach produce a caustic soup of digestive chemicals and enzymes. The crustacean is beginning to dissolve.

My litmus-o-meter is reading a rapid rise in hydrogen ions outside, indicating that acid is building up quickly in the hydra’s stomach. I believe that the stomach lining excretes acid, which digests the meal. As the crustacean’s soft tissue breaks down, its basic molecular nutrients are absorbed into the gut lining, completing the process of digestion.

But there is a problem for the hydra: the copepod’s protective shell is not digestible. How does hydra manage the indigestible exoskeleton?

Further observation into this digestive dilemma is cut short when the diving bell’s chemical alarm rings! The hydra’s stomach acid is beginning to dissolve the bell’s hatch seals (made of frog slime) – and if it does, it will digest me as well!

Day 13: 1430 hours…

“She is signaling!” calls out Gyro.

Just a moment earlier we were observing Lyra’s progress from the Cyclops. The diving bell was clearly visible through the thin dermal layers of the hydra, the copepod dissolving before our very eyes, and then Lyra’s semaphoric flash signaling an emergency of some kind.

I restrain from announcing that “I knew this was going to happen.”

“Pull her out of there – but gently,” I instruct Gyro.

Cyclops inches forward, slowly taking up the slack in the tethering cable. In a moment the cable becomes taut, but fails to pull the diving bell out of the beast’s throat.

“It won’t let her go!” exclaims Gyro. “We have to get her out of there. We need more power!”

“If we pull harder,” I reason aloud, “the cable will snap and Lyra will be digested along with the copepod. No Gyro, I think the hydra itself will come to our aid.”

Gyro shoots me a puzzled expression.

“I don’t know why I didn’t see it before,” I muse. “The hydra’s entire digestive system is quite simply a mouth connected to a sack. And, to put it delicately, there are no other openings – it is, so to speak, a sack, instead of a tube. Therefore, it is safe to assume that whatever goes in, and cannot be digested, must come back out…”

“…the same way!” shouts my exuberant steersman.

“Precisely,” I tell him with a friendly clap on the shoulder. “I will make an anatomist of you yet!”

“And here she comes!” heralds Gyro.

Before our eyes, the hydra disgorges the now chemically scoured shell of the digested copepod, and the diving bell with it.

1500 hours…

Minutes later, Lyra is safely aboard the Cyclops. She comes to call in my small study where I am rendering the hydra’s capture of the copepod in pen and ink.

“Well, Jonathan,” she says with a sobriety not normally heard in my young naturalist’s usually chipper enthusiasm, “I was storing the observation logs from the diving bell and realized that we have now completed nearly every imperative on our mission check list.”

“And is that not cause for celebration? I believe we still have a couple bottles of that very smooth Kentucky sour mash.”

“I’ll tell the men,” she said, her eyes distant.

“Is everything all right?” I ask softly.

“I wasn’t ready… didn’t expect to feel… I guess I am saying that I’m going to miss this,” she says, forcing a brief smile. I know what she means. The micro world, despite all its perils, has become our world – and the Cyclops our traveling home within it. Leaving behind so much beauty and life is difficult to accept. “I’ll fetch the bourbon,” she adds, leaves me alone in my study, closing the door behind her.

I turn to the porthole above my tiny writing desk. I press my nose to the thick cool glass. The deep infinite of immeasurable liquid blue-green-amber stretches to an impossible horizon… and I feel like leaving it will shred my heart to tatters.

Hydra Fact-Sheet

Pursued by Planaria

Pursued by PlanariaDay 12: 1515 hours…

Vorticella never lie… will be etched upon my grave – if this day plays out the way the last hour has been going.

We quickly learn what alarmed the stalked ciliates… a planarian! This predatory flatworm has caught our scent – probably sensing the carbon dioxide from Cyclops’ engine boiler exhaust.

“As a wise man once said: you can’t outrun a planarian,” warns Lyra in an analytical tone that defies the peril we were in.

“Watch me!” snaps Gyro, then shouts into the voice pipe: “Barron, give me everything you’ve got!”

We have been trying to evade this denizen of the aquatic weed forest for the better part of an hour, but to no avail. We can neither outrun it, nor out-maneuver it through a maze of water plants and bottom detritus. At every turn the flatworm sways its enormous head from side to side, using its ear-like chemical detectors to track our every move with uncanny precision. I fear that unless we find a way to distract the monster – and soon – we shall become this planarian’s afternoon snack!

“Class Turbellaria, genus Dugesia,” muses Lyra with ironic calm as she peers astern at the looming monster. “Make no mistake, a predator from head to tail. The problem, my dear Gyro, is that the harder you drive our engine, the more carbon dioxide we emit, which is to that flatworm what the smell of frying bacon is to you.”

The helmsman stomps his foot. “But if we shut down the boiler, we come to a stop, and that thing eats us whole!” argues Gyro vehemently.

I am moments from making a fateful decision – the command to abandon ship. I am reasoning that when the planarian captures the Cyclops, we will have a moment or two to escape in diving suits, or alternatively crowd the lot of us into the diving bell, which is hopefully too small to interest the predator. But such an escape comes with harsh consequences, for without Cyclops we will be without protection, oxygen, or food, and our survival in this life-rich micro habitat most uncertain.

“Skipper,” bellows the earnest voice of Barron from the voice pipe. I fully expect him to report that our fuel is gone, that we will soon be dead in the water…our fate sealed as flatworm fodder. But instead the engine master’s thunderous basso announces that he has sighted something nearby: “Off the port side, about two centimeters away, looks like a clutch of aquatic snail eggs!”

Lyra spins to the port frames of the observation dome, training her German-fashioned binocular glasses on the massive green plant stems and branches of the surrounding weed forest. “Barron’s right,” she confirms excitedly. “Jonathan, those snail embryos are probably emitting even more CO2 than we are. Maybe we can use them as a…”

“…a distraction!” I shout, completing Lyra’s thought. “A keen stratagem, but alacrity is of the essence if we hope to effectively trick our pursuer. Gyro, if you can steer us close to those snail eggs – near, but not so near as to get caught in the surrounding gelatinous membrane, then at the closest quarter pull away at full steam…”

“Aye, Skipper!” answers the steersman. “To make this work we will be pushing the ship past the structurally safe limits. Everyone best find something to hold onto.”

I shift my gaze to the aft panes of the observation dome. The monster is nearly upon us. We can delay no longer. I bark into the voice pipe. “All hands, brace for sudden course change!” I turn to my steersman, in whose skills I’ve now placed all of our lives. “Mr. Gyro, please adjust rudder to take us within three millimeters of those snail eggs.”

“Changing course,” acknowledges Gyro as he turns the ship’s wheel gently, moving the Cyclops onto an arc-like path that will bring us to a point three millimeters away from the snail embryo mass in less than ten seconds.

“The planarian is following, just as we hoped,” reports Lyra.

“So far so good,” I tell her, then lean toward Gyro and pitch my voice for his ear only. “Take the propeller out of gear.”

“But, sir…”

“I want to make sure our friend gets a good whiff of those baby snails.”

Gyro moves the engine telegraph lever to neutral. The ship slows. Momentum shoves all hands forward.

“Jonathan, why are we slowing down? It’s almost on us!” shouts Lyra.

The snail embryos, writhing and squirming in their clear egg sacs, loom close off the port bow. I’m not sure how I feel about sacrificing these small molluscs to the planarian so that we can escape, but I know that escaping is preferable to being devoured.

Less than a stone’s throw astern the worm wags its enormous head, seeking the strongest signal that indicates an easy meal. Will it be us, or the baby snails?

“Here we go!” announces Gyro as he shifts the engine telegraph to full forward and throws his entire body into spinning the ship’s wheel to starboard, using all of his strength to hold it into a hairpin turn, fighting the resistance of the rudder. The momentum of the sudden course change pulls on everything aboard the Cyclops, and every micron of her iron hull. I can hear the complaint of metal from all parts of the sturdy ship, and a groan from Gyro whose whitened grip cannot hold the wheel through a turn this tight for very long.

I jump to his side and grasp the wheel, my hands beside his. The resistance from the helm is unbelievable. The wheel threatens to throw the both of us across the pilothouse. The control cables surely cannot take this for much longer. The deck under our feet trembles and a shudder of protest shakes the Cyclops from bow to stern.

“You can do it,” I whisper to the ship.

Suddenly, there is a hand on my shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. It is Lyra. She is smiling.

“We made it!” she shouts above the sound of the grumbling wood, steel, and glass. “The planarian went for the snail babies. We’re safe.”

1600 hours…

We withdraw to a safe distance to observe the fascinating yet gruesome epilog of our adventure with the flatworm.

From the planarian’s underside emerges a muscular feeding tube, which methodically begins devouring the baby snails, one after the other, as if they are some irresistible escargot bonbon. The feeding tube has a mouth-like opening that swallows the baby snails shell and all, then takes them into its body where they digest in a tri-branched intestine that runs the length of the beast.

With somber relief I make notes and sketch my observations of this savage feeding process, grateful for our sakes that human ingenuity prevailed again. And as the flatworm feeds, and the baby snails digest within it, I am reminded of the truism that where the choice is to eat or be eaten, nature doesn’t give a tinker’s damn.

Flatworm Physiology

Escape Plan

CyclopsCrew Back in ActionDay 8: Continued…

“Get inside!” roared Barron. “Fast as you can, get inside!”

The monster’s enormous head hung over us, wavering from left to right, as if its rudimentary brain was processing visual information from those huge compound eyes and chemical signals from those curious antennae, while primordial decision algorithms tried to deduce if Cyclops registered as food.

I turned a quick 360° to locate each member of the crew. Barron was on the ship’s hull, reaching out to help Lyra onto the port claw extender. In another three seconds she would be inside. Gyro was furthest away, sprinting toward the ship, slipping on the near frictionless pond surface, half-falling and catching his balance, then running again. If the no-see-um decided to strike, Gyro would never make it to safety. But then… would any of us?

“Barron,” I shouted across the aquatic interface, “fire the flare!”

On the canted deck of the Cyclops, Lyra clambered to the aft hatch, swung it open. She reached inside and pulled out a flare launcher. She and Barron braced the launcher on the angled deck and fired it into the sky.

A tiny red comet hissed upward into the airspace directly in front of the no-see-um. The flare ignited ten millimeters off the water like a momentary micro-scale nova. The blue-hot magnesium radiated like Independence Day fireworks over the Potomac, reflecting in the insect’s giant orb-like eyes. The monster twitched, focused on the momentary starburst, as if mesmerized.

The flare had bought us perhaps nine or ten badly needed seconds.

I ran with short strides and a light step that seemed effective for avoiding a fall. In three seconds I reached the ship in, but instead of climbing aboard I waited for Gyro.

“Don’t wait for me, skipper,” the steersman shouted as he ran. “Get on the ship!”

“Right after you,” I countered. In four more seconds Gyro had arrived. Using my bent knee as a step, he grabbed a handrail, then Barron’s outstretched hand. In another moment he was on the deck and through the hatch. I glanced over my shoulder to see if the no-see-um continued to be distracted by the fading flare. The last spark of fiery magnesium failed. We were out of time.

“Jump!” bellowed Barron, and a sound suggestion it was. I jumped as high as I could. Barron’s large hand locked around my forearm and hoisted me onto the deck. We were inside the airlock in another two seconds and Barron was sealing the hatch behind us.

I barked into the voice pipe: “Full reverse! Barron, drop the oil!”

The sound of the engine vibrated reassuringly through the deck and bulkheads. Through the small porthole in the aft hatch I could see the Cyclops’ propeller begin rotating – backwards, as we had planned – then faster and faster. With a clunk, the cable to the oil-bearing scaffolding went taut, pulled the holding pin free. The scaffolding tipped… but the cable, now slack and flying about in loose coils, became stuck around the corner of the scaffold. The platform of oil containers tilted no further. The diatom oil shifted, but did not achieve enough angle to topple as planned. Unless we could quickly loosen the cable we were doomed.

I unbolted the hatch and jumped out the airlock. In three strides I was at the scaffold. I grabbed the steel cable, pulled it toward the tangle to create slack in the line. The steel fibers cut into my fingers and palms.

High overhead, yet far too close for comfort, the no-see-um froze, staring down on Cyclops, the training its strange alien-gaze on the ship, on me. Everything about its posture said it was about to strike.

With a whipping motion I threw a sine wave up the slackened portion of the cable. The wave hit the tangle and the offending loop flew free from the scaffold. It teetered, then more…

The no-see-um lunged.

I dove for the air lock, tumbled inside, reached back to close the hatch.

With the silvery sound of breaking glass, the wall of oil containers fell into the spinning prop, which projected diatom oil over and around the ship in a cloud. I felt a lurch as the surface tension holding Cyclops on the surface surrendered. I braced myself against the bulkhead as the ship slipped beneath the aquatic interface. We were free!

“Ahead, full steam!” I shouted into the voice pipe. From somewhere in the ship I heard the engine telegraph answer with five rapid bells. A moment later, momentum pressed me to the aft hatch. Through the small porthole I watch the surface rise away – then a cloud of blue-green turbulence as the no-see-um’s head broke through the water, mandibles snapping, but she would only taste the trails of our cavitation streams. We had escaped the monster.

The Hatch

Day 4: 0030 hours…

Before we unfurled our drift anchor and set the ship ready for the night I ordered the crew to make all hatches and other points of ingress doubly secure. This did little to ease my anxiety. At four bells on the first watch I distributed a jigger of whiskey to every man to help settle nerves. This was hailed as my best command decision to date.

Day 4: 0700 hours

The crew is on edge this morning, less congenial than normal, and I am fairly certain of the reason. Like them, the incident with the mysterious intruder shook me to the very core of my scientific convictions. There simply is no explanation for the disappearance of the remains of the algal protist – no answer to this mystery. But I feel compelled to take action, to do something to preserve the mission and make my ship and crew safe. I will therefore acquiesce to my urge to put some distance between the Cyclops and this region of the pond universe.   I acknowledge that to do so makes little sense – for the culprit is a mystery, therefore a solution to it is a mystery as well. It is my hope that distance will lighten our hearts and help to reenergize our intrepid spirit.

Day 8: 0540 hours…

It has been three days since I last penned an entry into my exploration log, but in this realm three days may as well be three weeks. I know not whether this is due to an anomalous time dilation created by our micro scale existence, or a sense that we are more removed than ever from the macro world. But it is a certainty that as our mission takes us further and deeper into the unknown, the world of hearth and table takes on an ethereal and distant quality, as if the micro verse is now and has always been our true home, and we are only now realizing it.

Last night at five bells we completed our first crossing of the pond’s northern arm, making an average speed of seventeen meters per day for three and a half days. Engine master Barron has been bragging about the feat to anyone in earshot, and the rest of crew is happy to allow him this conceit. He is normally a reserved man, and we are all delighted to see him in this rare mood. If I allowed myself the luxury of superstition, I would hope that this accomplishment portends good fortune for the Cyclops and her crew.

After our recent mystery it was unnerving to cross that fathomless expanse, a black void below us day and night. On the crossing we observed a diversity of phytoplankton, including species undoubtedly related to the old friends that are by now quite familiar. None of these organisms were struck or wounded by the ship, and no specimen was brought aboard. During the passage the Cyclops came to the surface twice. The first time was to transmit a wireless update of our position and status to the receiving post back at Dragonfly Sky-base. The second visit occurred with considerably less intention.

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

At two bells on the dog watch, we had just put away the evening mess. I was on the observation deck of the pilothouse when Barron called up from the engine room to report a feedback vibration in the propeller shaft. I heard the engine order telegraph ring 4-times, indicating that Jonathan had ordered all-stop. Within seconds a vertical displacement wake off the portside sent us tumbling abeam. As the ship righted itself, another wake even stronger, threw the Cyclops end over end. I was able to gain purchase against the ladder with a clear view through the starboard porthole. Outside, giant objects were rising up from the depths all around us. There was something familiar about this phenomenon, something I had seen on still water many times in the late spring, on country lakes and ponds in southern Vermont, when I was a girl. I knew immediately what was happening.

As soon as the ship steadied herself I hurried down to the observation deck to report.   I found Jonathan helping Gyro with the wheel, meaning that the ship’s rudder was being slammed by the turbulence. Through his clenched jaw Jonathan asked if I had any idea what was going on outside. I explained that we were caught in the middle of an insect hatch, a warm season occurrence in temperate wetlands when an entire population of insects emerges from its aquatic pupa stage, rises to the surface en mass, and takes to the air as flying adults of the species. The huge columns of turbulence outside were insect pupae, rising to the surface!

                                                                                 As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

No sooner had Lyra delivered her report, than the deck began to tremble, each small vibration building upon the previous one, a crescendo that could only culminate in catastrophe. I barely had time to give the order to makefast all steering surfaces. As the crash shutters were closing over the windows of the observation deck we were thrown to the floor as upward acceleration pressed us into the floor. It was as if a huge elevator were lifting the entire ship rapidly upward, but more powerfully than any I had ever experienced, even in the modern lifts in the towering twenty-story skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. And then…

I was floating above that same deck in a state of freefall. Gravity was no more.   Gyro, clutching the ship’s wheel, stared over his shoulder at me with dismay in his saucer eyes. I’m sure my expression of one of equal consternation.

“Skipper!” shouted Lyra. But before she could complete her sentence we were slammed back to the deck, and our ears assaulted with the sound of metal complaining.

Then all was still. The deck was canted several degrees to starboard. The Edison lamps flickered, then went dark. Rays of golden daylight stabbed into the darkened pilothouse through watch-holes in the crash shutters.

“Where are we?” asked Gyro.

I pressed my face to the watch-hole. We were surrounded by sunshine, unfiltered by water. I gave the orders to open the crash shutters.

The Cyclops was resting on the impenetrable surface of the endless pond – a featureless plane that extended to a hazy indefinite horizon. And we were stranded upon that unbreakable expanse, as solid as stone to us. Unless we found the means to break through the water’s surface tension, we were stuck, with no way to resume our journey.

The Water Flea

Day 3: 1430 hours…

Emerging from the region of shadow, sunlit water filled the forward view with the now familiar close-yet-distant blur of watery blues, greens, and soft yellows. I posted Barron to the crow’s nest to keep watch, and was about to order Gyro to take us up a hundred centimeters when the engine master’s rumble bellowed over the voice pipe.

“Collision! Close the shutters! Repeat: collision!”

Gyro threw the release for the crash doors. The steel plates slammed down over the glass panes of the pilothouse an instant before we heard a thunderous crunching sound and were thrown forward against controls and railings. The noise of the impact reverberated through the ship like an out-of-tune timpani. The screech of metal against something of similar hardness provided an upper register to this chaotic chord. Then all became eerily quiet.

“I think we hit something,” offered Lyra pulling herself up from the deck, her wry conclusion left hanging in the air.

“Or it hit us,” countered Gyro.

“Either way,” I said, “Let’s make sure we didn’t spring any leaks. You know the protocol – I want eyes on every seam, every rivet, bow to stern. On the double!”

When it was determined that our ship had suffered no breech, I ordered the crash doors unshuttered. As the corrugated leaves of iron folded away we finally saw the object that had collided with Cyclops.

It was Daphnia pulex, known commonly as the water flea. And we were seeing it like Daphnia had never been seen before. To the macro scale world naked eye water fleas are visible as tiny swimming specks. They are common in temperate freshwater ponds and wetlands throughout north America, Europe and Australia. I recalled seeing my first Daphnia in a basic biology class at the Naval Academy. That one was under a low-powered microscope, its eye and internal organs just barely visible. That was in another world.

This monstrous free Daphnia stared directionless with its single lidless black eye. Its clear shell-like carapace revealed every organ, every muscle and nerve fiber… and filling its abdominal cavity, a number of twitching, kicking, spinning daphnia embryos.

“I think we stunned it,” diagnosed Lyra. “Jonathan, do you know what this means?”

“I do, indeed,” I said, knowing full well at what Lyra was hinting. “But this time you won’t be going alone!”

Barron helped us into our suits and helmets. The equipment is coated with a thin film of oil that we rendered from fatty bodies harvested from the algal protist recently brought aboard. The oil negates the cohesive nature of water that occurs when air and water meet. This will permit us to slip effortlessly through the otherwise impenetrable surface tension.

“Skipper, if you’ll allow me,” said Barron as he placed the brass diving helmet over my head, “I’d like to go outside myself and hammer out the starboard manipulator. Looks like the extender arm was bent when we collided with the beasty.”

I gave Barron permission to make the repair dive, but with the understanding that he must stay in line-of-sight with Gyro in the pilothouse.

1500 hours…

Lyra and I drop through the diving portal on the Cyclops’ underside. We swim toward the stunned animal, then turn to circumnavigate it. I glance back over my shoulder at the ship. Barron is outside now, affecting repairs on the starboard manipulator arm assembly. I can see Gyro through the pilothouse windows, his interest trained on Barron. I am confident that both men are observing safety protocols. I turn my attention back to the subject.

Daphnia has a range of normal sizes. This one is about four times the size of Cyclops. The first impression is as if looking at a complex animal with the benefit of fluoroscopic vision. We peer easily through her clear shell, and can survey all of the internal organs.

The Daphnia’s eye, upon closer examination, is not a single black structure as I originally believed; it is instead a cluster of light receptors connected to the creature’s brain by a visible bundle of nerves, and controlled by a network of muscles, very much like a human eye.

Even stunned, the animal’s jaws are constantly grinding, ready to crush and swallow the small food organisms it prefers. Her digestive system is an elongated S-shape that fills the center of the main body, and is packed with green organisms in various stages of digestion. These are the same algal protists that make up the usual diet of most freshwater planktonic crustaceans.

The daphnia’s heart is beating quickly, pumping a clear fluid through the animal’s body, presumably delivering oxygen to muscles and organs. And in the lower abdominal chamber a brood of wee daphnia is plainly visible, babies! It looks crowded in there. Birth time can’t be far off. I am struck by the impression that the embryos are looking out through their mother’s transparent exoskeleton at us.

We continue our swim around the creature for perhaps three quarters of an hour before Lyra signals that our air tanks are below 25% volume, giving us about fiftenn minutes to leisurely complete one more circle before heading back to the ship. At that moment a flashing light comes from the direction of the Cyclops. I turn toward my ship to see the forward lamps powering on and off in rapid succession, the signal that we should return as fast as we can swim.

We swim with a steady, controlled rhythm. I cannot help trying to imagine why Gyro has recalled us early from the dive. Perhaps he has reason to suspect a predator is nearby, or other nature peril. We kick our way closer and closer to the ship, one micron at a time. Finally, we are under the command section and the welcome warm light of the diving room is stabbing down through the open portal. Lyra ascends first. As I wait, alone here in aquatic micro space, I imagine this would be moment we come under attack by some enormous predator. I would be flung away from the ship with only a few minutes of air remaining. But my imagination is proven wrong. Barron’s arm appears through the aperture. I grab his forearm and let him lift me up into the safety of the ship.

1600 hours…

“Skipper, I can’t explain it,” Gyro said as we stowed our diving gear.

“Please try,” I responded. I was irritated about having to cut our dive short, and hadn’t yet received anything that approached a coherent excuse or explanation.

Gyro shrugged. “I don’t think we are alone.” The words bounced around the diving room with a metallic timbre. “I can’t think of any other explanation.”

“Explanation for what, Mr. Gyro?”

“For what happened. See, I was in the pilothouse, like you ordered. Keeping at eye outside on Barron, like you told me. He was almost done with the repairs when I felt something in my ears, in my head, like a pressure change. It was very fast, so I ignored it. There were no alarms, so I didn’t think any more about it…until…”

“Until what?”

“I saw that Barron was finished. He gave me the okay sign, so I started down here to help him through the aperture. As I was passing the lab I thought I saw something in there, like a shadow that shouldn’t be there. At first I thought maybe it was the light coming through the porthole playing tricks on me. Then I stuck my head through the door. And it was gone.”

“Gyro, what was gone?”

“That damaged algae cell we brought on board. We ate the chloroplast from it for breakfast, and boiled down the fat-bodies for oil.   I think Lyra wanted to save it for a couple more days to study.”

“That’s right,” confirmed Lyra. “I want to examine the other organelles before discarding it overboard.”

“Well, you won’t have the chance,” explained Gyro, “because the whole thing, except for what we used, is gone.”

“What do you mean, ‘gone?’” Lyra asked.

“Every bit of it, including the parts you’d set aside… are gone. Something took them, or they walked out of here on their own. There isn’t a drop of cytoplasm in the examination tray.”

“That’s when you signaled us?” I asked.

“No, Skipper. While Barron was getting out of his gear I took a look around. I found something up on the main deck. The aft hatch had been opened and then closed again. There was a puddle on the deck just inside the airlock. That’s when I signaled you.”

“Let’s have a look,” I said.

We found the aft hatch just as Gyro had described, secured with the pressure seals in their locked position, but it had clearly been opened recently. At the base of the hatch the deck was wet with a large puddle and several smaller puddles. Though it defies logic, someone, or something had used this exit to enter the ship, collect the remains of the dead algal protist, and then leave. Since all crewmembers had been accounted for, something unknown had been aboard the Cyclops.

Lyra spent several moments bent over the small puddles, then stood and whispered into my ear: “I’m pretty sure those are footprints. But…

“But what?”

“They’re not human.”

A Gathering of Green Globes

Volvox encounterDay 2: Supplementary entry…

We recovered a damaged algal cell from the copepod’s feeding station and moved it into our lab. The cell was no longer alive having lost most of its gel-like fluid and organelles from a rupture in its cell membrane. Still intact was a green organelle with a horseshoe-like shape. Lyra tells me this structure is common in nearly all organisms requiring sunlight to carry out the processes of life, and is called a chloroplast.

Day 3: 0600 hours

At four bells I am pleased to report another uneventful night after holding station at a depth of three hundred centimeters. Although no one else heard it, I was pulled twice from my slumber by a series of strange clicking sounds. This morning when I queried Lyra about the sounds she theorized that they may be produced by yet another crustacean relative, noting that this behavior is similar to several tropical shrimp species. The first light of day revealed no such animal near the Cyclops.

We enjoyed a breakfast of robust Venezuelan-grown coffee, toast with jam, and a delicious salad made of the chloroplast gleaned from the damaged algal protist we collected the previous day. Lyra informed us that the disc-like structures filling the chloroplast are composed largely of chlorophyll molecules. They have a flavor akin to that of sweet peas. With this culinary success we look forward to more micro world delicacies!

While I sipped a second cup of coffee, the crew cleared the table of dishes and utensils and unfurled the charts of the open water. All were excited to set about planning our exploration for the day.

1030 hours…

Diving to a depth of 750cm we found ourselves drifting amongst a large population of beautiful green spheres. With their gentle rotation and slow, almost dance-like movement through the open water, these organisms are enchanting to behold. The scene before us would only have been more mesmerizing had it been accompanied by the accomplished strains of a Bach string concerto.

Lyra, using her shipboard reference library, has identified these organisms as Volvox, first seen two hundred years ago by the pioneer of microscopy Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and named a half century later by Carl Linnaeus – Volvox globator.

“Skipper,” Lyra said with her usual enthusiasm, “let me go out there! We need to learn how they rotate like that, and deduce the function of the smaller spheres inside. Please, Jonathan…”

“Capital idea, “ I responded – to Lyra’s surprise, I think. “But if there are any signs of predators, you will return immediately.”

She nodded and smiled as if she would be the last person in the entire microverse to take any chances.

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

“What a thrill and honor to be the first person to ever swim through aquatic micro space! The weight of the oxygen tank and helmet, though quite substantial aboard the Cyclops, are negated in the water, leaving me feeling quite unencumbered. It took slightly longer to become accustomed to the Brownian Motion, a sensation that the water is vibrating over every part of me. How envious Robert Brown would be! He could never have known that humans would be experiencing pedesis for themselves a mere seventy-five years after his original observation of the phenomenon – that of rapidly moving water molecules colliding with micro-sized pollen granules.

“My first observation as I approached a Volvox was that it is not a single organism, but many living in concert. The outer skin of the sphere is made up of thousands of small green cells, and each of these has a pair of whipping flagella, which flail outward from the sphere in a synchronized fashion. The cells somehow coordinate the movement of their flagella. Such activity must be how the spherical colony spins and moves about. But how do the small single cells coordinate their efforts?

“A closer look at the surface of the sphere reveals that the cells are actually interconnected by lines! Might these lines carry chemical signals between every cell in the colony, instructing them how to direct their flailing flagella? I find myself wondering what environmental stimuli causes the colony to trigger such signals and redirect its course. The greenish nature of the cells hints that as with green plants sunlight might play a role.

“A most remarkable feature of these colonies lies inside them. The translucent outer sphere surrounds a number of other smaller bundles of cells. In some colonies these smaller spheres are quite compact, and in others they appear nearly identical, except for size, to the large colonies.

“A sudden surprise draws my attention! Overhead, one of the large spheres splits open, and the smaller daughter colonies inside escape, already rotating into the sunlight, leaving the now lifeless mother colony behind! This must be how Volvox gives birth to new colonies. Before I can swim away, the new daughter colonies pass dangerously close by. The current from their flagellated outer cells sends me tumbling further away from the Cyclops. I am caught in their eddy. As I am pulled by the current I reach out, grasping for anything. Something touches my hand. It is the tattered membrane of the mortally wounded mother colony. I grab on to it and hold on for dear life as the daughter colonies move off. I have been saved by their doomed mother.”

                                                As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

Day 3: 1115 hours…

Never again! Lyra, by a stroke of uncanny luck, is now safely back aboard ship. Her encounter with the Volvox daughter colonies has forced me to make new rules for extra vehicular activities. I informed our adventurous young naturalist that she will heretofore not be allowed on a diving assignment without escort.

We have left the Volvox group and entered a shadowy region. Gyro theorizes that somewhere above us, on the pond’s surface, a lily pad or other floating object is preventing sunlight from penetrating down this far.

I ordered the driving lamps illuminated – and the timing could not have been more fortuitous. The electrical radiance of our Edison’s light revealed a huge translucent insect larva not three ship-lengths dead ahead! Gyro reflexively spun the wheel and gave the monster a wide berth. We spent several minutes observing the creature. This phantom larva was virtually invisible, a factor that benefits the insect when it comes to snatching up smaller unwary larvae for a quick snack.

Duckweed Base

Departing Duckweed BaseDay 1: 1130 hours…

We came into sight of Duckweed Base without further incident. How many times had I looked over a small pond, or eddy along the Potomac and seen the brilliant green of duckweed rafts mottling the still water? These tiny aquatic plants, were it not for scale, looked quite similar to the more familiar lily pads – yet a trio of duckweed leaves would fit easily on the tip of your finger.

The Micro Expeditionary Corps had constructed Duckweed Base upon just such a trio of leaves. The base comprised a watchtower the height of five men, a cluster of several huts, and an arrival stage identical to the one at Dragonfly Sky-base. Tarah banked the flyer and circled low as she set the wings for landing.

I could barely feel when the skids touched the stage, so expert was Tarah’s landing. I thanked the pilot for her skilled services, invoked the wish that we meet again, shook her hand and joined the crew who were already gathered below the stage.

“Skipper!” Lyra called out. “Am I glad to see you! For a minute there it looked like you were going to be a snack for that Odonata Zygoptera!

“I am delighted to report that the rumor of my demise by insect ingestion is premature,” I responded with a smile. Now, where is our ship?”

“The dock hands moved her into the water before we arrived,” reported Gyro. “It’s this way.”

Barron made a disapproving grumble.

“Something wrong, Mr. Barron?” I inquired of the engine master.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said the huge man in his rumbling voice, sneering slightly. “At least, it better be.”

Lyra patted Barron on the arm and explained as if interpreting from another language. “He wanted to be here for the launch, to make sure they didn’t break anything.”

“I should’ve been here,” muttered Barron. “She’s a complex vessel, with a lot of sensitive systems. If any part of her was compromised during the move I will wring the neck of…”

Gyro laughed. “Easy, there big guy. They moved her from here to the water, what’s that… twenty millimeters? What could happen?”

Barron answered subsonically. “Nothing…if I had been here to make sure of it.”

“Mr. Barron, “ I reassured, “you may inspect the Cyclops bow to stern before we shove off. I will not ring the bell before you are satisfied that she is in good repair. Now let’s get aboard and make ready.”

“I appreciate that, Skipper,” said Barron. “Thank you.”

With duffles slung over our shoulders, we crossed the duckweed leaf and made for the pier where the Cyclops awaited. A wooden walkway had been constructed, giving us solid footing over the rough leaf surface. The duckweed leaf, despite appearing smooth to macro scale eyes, was surprisingly rough-textured with many dips and folds, but the raised path made for an easy stroll. As we walked the crew chatted excitedly about things they would miss on our expedition, and in low tones about the amazing meals Randy Emerson would have prepared.

Were it not for the lack of a distinct horizon or visible geography, we could’ve been walking on most any boardwalk along the Chesapeake on an early summer morning. The air smelled intensely fresh, and despite this being the season for allergies, I enjoyed a total respite from my usual hay fever. Of course… at micro scale pollen grains were much too big to be inhaled.

We arrived at the edge of the duckweed leaf. The mirror-like surface of the pond extended to infinity before us. Beneath that mirror, darkness and a universe of mystery. Moored at the end of the dock was the Cyclops. She was resting in still water, a meniscus encircling her plated iron hull just below the main deck. Through the glass panes of her steel reinforced pilothouse I could see the outfitting crew within, stowing provisions and removing the stays and ropes that had been used to lock down the helm and engine controls while the ship was being moved.

The main hatch opened, an eager deckhand stepped into the sunlight, produced a boatswain’s whistle and piped us aboard. “Welcome to Duckweed Base,” he hailed, “Please find your way below and stow your things. The Cyclops is ready to depart!”

“Oh really? We will see about that,” bellowed Barron as he tossed his duffle into the arms of the young sailor.

Day 1: 1155 hours…

As it turns out, Barron could find no fault with the Cyclops. He reported her mechanical condition to be “shipshape,” although I suspect he was disappointed that he would have no further justification to disparage the outfitting team.

I, too, inspected every compartment, passageway, and cabin. It was, after all, my first time on board since her completion.  My first visit to see her was when she was under construction in a secret Maryland shipyard, an iron skeleton with unfinished decks, no glass where her portholes and windows would eventually be, her brass fittings yet to be installed. Even though I had studied the plans judiciously, and knew the ship quite well from a theoretical perspective, it was something else to actually touch her hatches and bulkheads, smell the oil of her freshly varnished decks, hear the groaning of her iron hull warming in the midday sun like a contented sigh, and admire her gleaming bright-work.

Back on the command deck I drew out my watch and checked the time. It was three minutes to noon. I thanked the harbor chief and shook his hand. When the last of the dock team had disembarked, I called all hands to the pilothouse.

“Fellow explorers,” I began, “today we set forth on an enterprise of scientific discovery. Do we fear the unknown? In some measure, perhaps. But we seek truth, and truth is our ally. Facts are powerful tools for overcoming any apprehension we may have. This ship and our commitment to her mission will allow us to enter a world that until now has lain hidden under humanity’s very nose. We do not do this to lay claim to new lands, or plant our flag on untouched shores, for the micro universe belongs to no nation. What we discover will challenge ideas once held as doctrine. The mechanics of life will no longer be subject to guessing. We will be the first humans to actually see life’s fundamental processes, to gain new understanding of how those processes are carried out by all of Earth’s organisms, not just the simplest. We will discover forms of life that we cannot yet imagine, be it animal, plant, or neither. We enter this new world knowing that the record of our observations will fundamentally change how humankind looks at the world, and how it views itself in both the eternal, and the infinitesimal.   May the wind be at our backs, the currents in our favor, and may the Cyclops keep us safe, and bring us home. Now… all hands to stations.”

Day 1: Noon…

With a cheerful ringing of the ship’s bell we departed Duckweed Base. Through the encircling glass of the pilothouse observation dome I watched the dock hands cast off mooring lines. I gave Gyro the command to take us sub-surface. The interface of air and water rose up and over us effortlessly. Water closed over the ship without the slightest turbulence, its normal adhesive properties neutralized by a hull-coating of thinned oil, without which the surface tension of air-meets-water would be an inescapable trap.

Hopefully we are too small to be of any interest to the large vertebrates (fish and frogs) that inhabit the shal­lows near Duckweed Base. We drifted forward and down. The crew stared silently outward, captivated by the upper most veneer of this new world, a layer of visible motion caused by a great multitude of microorganisms. I resisted the urge to give orders, or to point out objects d’ intérêt.

The underside of the duckweed raft was a hanging jungle of hair-like rootlets, to us the size of tree trunks. The rootlets were home to a teeming and diverse throng of microbes. Most visible was a species that extended itself out into the water by means of cord-like stalks. At the end of their stalks, the organisms circulated water into mouth-like openings, filtering out the edible specks, which were themselves even smaller, simpler organisms.

Lyra was pressed to the glass of the observation dome, her German-fashioned binoculars trained on the nearby organisms. At random intervals she lowered the glasses to scribe a brief note. My desire to linger here and document this first encounter with single-celled organisms was great, but the open water of the pond universe beckoned, and the field survey schedule rigid.

“They are amazing,” I commented, breaking the silence. “Lyra, you will no doubt be pleased to learn that I intend to dedicate more observation time to this species later, but we must move on. Gyro, please set a coarse for the open water, and signal the engine master full steam.”

From his station at the magnificent brass and wooden wheel Gyro informed me that it would be early tomorrow before we reached our first survey site. At his right, the sound of the engine order telegraph acknowledged full speed.

As we left the duckweed rootlet micro habitat in our wake, Lyra cried out. “Skipper! This is fascinating! Those stalked cells reacted en mass! Their stalks are spring-loaded! “

I looked astern at the curious microorganisms. They had indeed withdrawn, their stalks now coiled tight so that the organisms were pulled into a tight bundle. “A defense mechanism?” I pondered.

“Very likely,” said Lyra. “But I’m wondering what triggered it. The organisms may have sensed our wake.”

“Maybe,” chimed in Gyro, “but it has me concerned. It might be a good idea for Lyra to take a look around the ship with those fancy binocular specs of hers, and make sure we’re not alone out here.”

Several minutes later Lyra returned to the pilothouse and reported that she had visually searched the waters surrounding Cyclops, and had found no cause for alarm.

We steamed on for several more hours. Twice in that time Gyro reported a momentary vibration at the wheel, as if something large had passed astern, sending a pressure wake over the ship’s rudder. But nothing further came of it. As the waters around us grew dark, I ordered all stop for the night. Barron deployed our sea anchor and we took turns on watch.

Pond Cutaway w-Course

Day 2: 0530 hours…

After a welcome night’s rest, we greeted the sun’s first rays with hot coffee and high hopes for a productive day. Lyra observed a vertical migration of nearby algal plankton, green single-celled organisms, moving toward the surface.  She theorized that like plants, the green cells would require sunlight to power their life processes. They obviously had the means to move closer to the light that they required. This was our first encounter with plant-like organisms that had the power of locomotion.

730 hours…

We have arrived at the region of the pond designated on our charts as the open water. This region is by far the largest of the pond habitats, and is home to a huge diversity of micro animals and single-celled organisms. All together they are called plankton. Some of these organisms are predators, but most are prey for the predators. As with the ecosystems of the macro scale world, prey out-number predators many times over.

As the morning light increased we have seen untold thousands of the green single cells of many different species congregating near the surface. As the day progressed and the light intensity increased the green plankton reversed its vertical migration, moving downward away from the surface and away from the light. Lyra theorizes that this behavior serves to protect the organisms from becoming overheated, and from other possible sun-related hazards.

Shortly before eight bells Gyro summoned us to the pilothouse. In the near distance, eighty millimeters perhaps, a much larger creature had arrived. It was red and distinctly lobsteresque. Referencing one of her field manuals, Lyra identified the animal as a member of the crustacean family – most likely a species of copepod – very tiny relatives of shrimp and crabs. This copepod had placed itself in the middle of a green cell migration. With excellent opportunity to observe a predator-and-prey relationship we held position and watched with fascination as the crustacean, five millimeters long at least, enjoyed a boundless feast. The copepod created a maelstrom with an assemblage of swirling hairs, and drew the helpless single-celled green organisms into its grinding jaws.

“That feeding vortex is powerful,” observed Lyra. “It’s pulling in food organisms of all sizes.”

“And munching every one of them,” commented Gyro. “The glutton!”

“I don’t think so,” said Barron. “It’s actually rather picky. If you look closely, the copepod only swallows small stuff like those green algae cells, of which there are thousands. But look what it does when a larger object gets caught in the vortex. There, see! It pauses its vortex-makers. The current stops for a moment and it rejects anything that’s too big too eat.”

“A picky glutton,” added Gyro.

That’s when the deck canted suddenly under my feet and the railing surrounding the command deck met abruptly with the right side of my head. For a moment everything went black and alarm bells echoed in my ears.