Microsia Aquatica Symbiotica

“Stay with the ship,” I tell Barron Wolfe as Lyra, Gyro, Rand and I hop from Cyclops’ deck onto the lowest platform of the Microsian colony, the nearest thing to a dock that I have seen since our departure from Duckweed Base.  I tighten the strap of my satchel, feeling the weight of its contents resting against my hip.  I signal to Rand, indicating for him to lead the way. 

To my right, there is no partition or seawall to prevent an accidental misstep and tumble into the enclosed sea, or to prevent waves from flooding into the city – an obvious contrast to seaside communities from our world. But of course, there are no waves on this sea, and no tides.  Other than Cyclops the waterfront is devoid of other boats or vessels.  I reckon that if the Microsians make use of watercraft, such vessels would be submarine in nature, and are harbored below us, in some manner of underwater harbor.  

The multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen.  Have they become suddenly timid?  Or now that we are closer, do they prefer to observe us from the shadows?  Perhaps their curiosity has already been satiated and they no longer find us of interest.  Although questions bombard my thoughts, it is the myriad of possible answers that now flood my mind. 

I draw a calming breath, confronting the perils of amateur anthropology: projecting human behavior onto these decidedly un-human creatures is not the way of the scientific process.  That mistake will lead to incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings, and very likely disaster.  The dark legacy of explorers-that-came-before serves as a reminder to remain clearheaded, objective, and above all…observant.

We enter the first city without fanfare or hoopla. The micro metropolis appears to be abandoned, yet we know that we are being watched from what appear to be windows carved in the face of the many multi-story earthen-formed edifices. With Rand in the lead, our landing party strolls along the sea-edge.  I take up the end of our procession and scan the spartan streets, the shadows between the odd structures ahead of us, for any sign of the Microsians. There are none.  

Overhead, spanning the enormous bottle interior is a progression of six buttressed platforms, a vertical array of enormous bridges that each serve as the foundation for its own Microsian city.  The highest level is barely visible above a ceiling of cloud.  The uppermost city, Rand tells me, is where we are headed.

Randy explains that each of the seven levels is a city unto itself, complete with towering buildings built upon it, and inverted domiciles hanging like stalagmites from the underside.  And yet, it is eerily quiet.  There is no movement. 

“The Microsians,” I whisper, “have made themselves scarce, I daresay.”

“Where did they all go?” questions Gyro anxiously.

“No need to be nervous… or insulted,” answers Rand.  “The Unity shared the momentous occasion of your arrival, witnessed it through the eyes of every individual, then created a memory of it in its own fashion.  Now it has returned to its normal routine.  Life goes on!” A stray thought makes him laugh.  “Just because a little ship full of micro-sized humans – that its scouts have been watching for weeks – finally shows up, hardly warrants walking off the job and calling for a holiday.  This isn’t Washington D.C., after all!”

“They all have tasks then? asksLyra.  “Like the division of labor in the social orders of honeybees, termites, and naked mole rats?”

“More complex than those.  The Microsia Aquatica symbiotica have a rigid caste system, and species-wide social equality.  There is no hierarchy –no leader, no president, king, queen, or emperor.  Just three castes: warriors, growers, and crafters – and all have equal importance and influence.”

“Efficient, but limiting I would think,” comments Lyra.

“Three jobs!  That’s not enough,” remarks Gyro.  “A society needs more than defense, agriculture, and construction. What about a constabulary?”

Lyra: “And educators!”

Myself: “And explorers.”

“Irrelevant human institutions, all based on human nature,” says Rand, adopting his Academy guest professor of social anthropology tone. “And therefore meaningless here.  Among Microsians, at least with this symbiotica subspecies, the three castes cooperate in various combinations to fill non-essential niches.  You’ll find that most of the vocational callings of our world have no equivalent in this one. Best to abandon those preconceptions.”

“It’s remarkable!” says Lyra.  “A civilization without leaders, or even family groups.”

“How then do they deal with visitors?” I inquire.

“Seems that the arrival of visitors is extremely rare, and from what I’ve learned, so rare that there is no formalized procedure for greeting, welcoming, or meeting newcomers.”

Lyra: “When you arrived, out of thin air, it must’ve changed their world.”

“You would think so,” muses Rand thoughtfully, “and yet, it was almost as if I had been expected.  When I materialized, I was escorted to an empty chamber where three Microsians met with me: a warrior, a grower, and a crafter.  Of course I didn’t understand those differentiations at the time.  Each of them attempted communication with me, in their own way, with various combinations of ciliary waves and crystal resonance – and a lot of gazing into my eyes.  Two of the three were unable to understand me, and I failed to decode their strange nonverbal communication.  But the Microsian of the warrior caste succeeded – and she did so spectacularly.  Alontyn was able to decipher spoken English very quickly.  And even though I sensed some rudiments of her communication immediately, it took me a bit longer to become fluent in her microsian vibre-tongue.”

“Her?” asks Lyra.  “The warrior caste includes females?”

“As do all the castes.  In a strictly biological sense, all Microsians are female.  The exchange of DNA is not necessary for them to reproduce.”

How will these revelations play out over the coming minutes?  I am more curious than ever: “Then with whom will we be meeting?”

“As was the case when I arrived, it was decided that a representative from each caste would meet with each of you.  You’ll be bonded to a single Microsian, who will become the conduit of your voice to the Unity.  The representatives are waiting for you.”  Rand pointed skyward, toward the uppermost platform. “Up there.”

“That’s going to be quite a climb,” says Gyro with a tired sigh.

Rand smiles.  “There will be no climbing today.  The Microsians have a much better way to move between cities.  Over here…”

Rand leads us away from the water’s edge, to a cylindrical structure made of transparent material.  It disappears overhead into the second platform, and I assume continues upward to the cities above. 

“This is a capillary conveyer.   It’s how they move from one city, up or down, to another.  You’re going to enjoy this.”  Rand steps through the outer wall of the cylinder and is now inside, standing on a film of transparency.  He beckons us to join him with a hand gesture.  I lean into the wall of the cylinder. Though it appears solid, the material offers a slight resistance – then quite effortlessly, with a gentle pop,I am inside this microsian elevator tube. The circular space easily accommodates we four, and could hold twice our number. 

Rand, who has kept one hand extended through the transparency, assesses the group, then announces: “Do not touch the wall.  When I pull my hand inside, enzymes in the cylinder membrane will denature the proteins in the floor under our feet and we will be suspended on the water itself, via surface tension.  The water beneath will instantly carry us up via capillary action.”

I cannot help marveling at the simplicity and genius of the Microsian elevator.

Rand withdraws his hand from the wall of the tube – and in the next instant we are propelled upward at what is for us, an astonishing speed.  The foundation level of the Primo Gradu drops away as we ascend through the space between buildings, then a moment of darkness as the tube carries us through the second platform.  In the space of a single breath we burst back into the light of the second city as the conveyer carries us higher and higher, through the third, then the fourth.

“Enjoy the view, but don’t press against the cylinder wall,” insists my always thorough first officer.

We break into the light of the fifth city.  The grand vista of the captured sea is breathtaking.  At this altitude the curved walls of the bottle are drawing closer, curving inward to meet us as we rocket skyward.  This vantage point reveals the arrays of algae farms clinging to the inside of the bottle.  A shimmer of movement among those vast gravity-defying fields betrays presence of the shy Microsians– the grower caste is hard at work, tending the simple crops that provide the colony with energy and oxygen. 

The darkness of the sixth level swallows us momentarily, and when we emerge from shadow, the light of the sixth city is the brightest yet.  We have ascended above the atmospheric vapor that drifts about the upper levels of the bottle-space, cloaking the seventh city from the others below. 

Rand slowly pushes two fingers through the inner cylinder wall. At once our ascent slows. As we enter the darkness of the seventh and uppermost platform, our speed drops to the scale equivalent of a Manhattan Otis elevator.

We rise into the light of the uppermost city – the terminus of our vertical transit.  Rand steps through the cylinder’s inner membrane.  The rest of us follow him onto the clean plain of the Semptimo Gradu, the city of the seventh level.

“Remember,” says Rand, “stay as calm and relaxed as you can muster.  And only touch them if invited to.  Ah, here they come.”

From the base of a massive spheroidal structure, a contingent of Microsians moves in our direction. There are many more than the four that I was expecting.   One is in the lead: that would be Rand’s Alontyn.  Behind her I count nine others.  Of course… one from each caste for myself, Lyra, and Gyro – for the pairing test.

I am captivated by the approaching entourage.  My first impression is one of translucent membrane, exaggerated slender neck and limbs, a head crest of membrane-bound cilia that follows a longitudinal line from forehead, over the head, down the neck and back, ending where the legs part from the lower torso.  The same cilia-bound membrane adorns the backside of the arms.

The essential two-legged, two-armed, head, neck, and torso construction of the Microsians belie their exotic nature.  Everything about them reveals how un-human they are – but how perfectly microsian, like every organism we have encountered, adapted to living in a micro-verse.  They appear to glide over the ground.  Microsian stride is a flowing movement in which the human approximations of hip, leg, knee, and foot form and reform from one moment to the next from pairs of amoeba-like pseudopodia.  If a greater stride is required, mass for a larger leg is drawn from the torso, which in turn becomes slighter. And if arms need to stretch further, the same thing occurs, with cytoplasm flowing from the torso and legs into the arms to supply the required mass.  Suspended throughout the microsian bodies are globules and spheres of all sizes, evidently serving as the individual’s vital organs – exactly as we have seen with the organelles of protozoa throughout our travels. 

Not until they are mere steps away do I notice the most un-human aspect of our hosts. 

 The Microsians have a single red eyespot.  Though disconcerting at first, this should come as no surprise, for we have seen the same simple adaptation for light response many times, especially with the green algal protists whose single photosensitive red eyespots serve to detect safe or desirable levels of solar radiation.  With the  Microsia aquatica the red eyespot is located in the center of a bulb-shaped head, which like all their appendages, extends from the torso on an extremely long, slender stalk-like neck.   Not until the Microsian appears intent on careful observation, does its large single red eyespot pull apart, forming two smaller eyes that take up positions in the face similar to where our own eyes are located.  I theorize that this is a response to situations when binocular observation is required.

I find myself surrounded by an earnest Microsian trio: a grower, a crafter, and a warrior.  They encircle me, their faces almost, but not quite, touching my own, their eyes piercing mine.  They take turns performing an almost avian-type display with waves of raised cilia accompanied by subsonic reverberations from the excretory crystals in their cytoplasm.  The vibrations washing over and through me are not unpleasant, and I am reminded of the deep reverberation I have experienced while riding in the engine cab of a steam locomotive, a sensation that could easily lull me to sleep. 

But there is no cognitive impression.  As a sense of disappointment begins to intrude on the experience I am slammed by a wave of intense feeling.

When she of the crafting caste locks her gaze onto mine and performs her dance/song I am suddenly filled with an explosion of euphoric contentment. The initial overwhelming moment quickly resolves into more definable feelings of inclusiveness, completeness, safety, wholeness… unity.   So powerful are the unbidden emotions that I forget to breath, grow lightheaded, then gasp for lungs-full of the enriched algae-made oxygen.  After a minute the emotions temper, supplanted by more grounded images/thoughts/ideas.  I regain control of my breathing, lower my resistance, and let the connection happen.

Oxhya, her name exists as normally as it didn’t a moment earlier, is painting a fresco in my mind – a picture story that says we are compatible, have always been, will always be.  She and I have become what the Microsia Aquatica value above all else: symbiotic.

Oxhya is more content than happy, feeling the same sense of completeness as I.

I speak the words: “How is this possible?”
Her answer arrives as threads of a million thoughts, weaving into a new tapestry.  At their foundations, matter and energy are simply fields of energy, attracting and repelling.  One very pure form of that energy is consciousness, capable of interacting in more dynamic ways than most other kinds.  The consciousness generated by living things is unique to each individual, and has a forceful nature of attraction.  That elemental attraction is particularly powerful between Microsians and humans, making symbiotic links of interspecies consciousness possible.

It is clear to me now, finding ourselves in this amazing place, meeting this never-seen-before species, is no accident.  We have been led here, to this moment.   Our voyage of discovery through the micro habitats of the pond universe, though seemingly one of exploration, driven by curiosity and a need to understand the fundamentals of life, was much, much more.  We have been steered and redirected at every turn, onto paths that would bring us here, for this meeting, for this joining. And yet, I cannot deny that the wonders we have observed in our travels seem to have perfectly prepared us for this moment.

“Why have you brought us here?”

We have failed to understand why humans do not seek symbiosis with life.  This has caused us pain.  The People have sought enlightenment, but cannot find it.  You were brought here to make the People understand why your kind does not seek symbiosis with life.  Humans benefit most from all worlds, so why are humans not stewards of all worlds?  Why do humans destroy worlds?  Why do humans waste? Why do humans put material into the People’s world that ends life?  Why do humans…

My involuntary response to Oxhya’s questions exposes her to an emotion wholly new to the Microsia Aquatica symbiotica.

Shame.

As my arms drop to my sides, my lefthand falls upon the satchel, and feels the weight contained within.  Now is the time to deliver that which was sent to my world, a package that I was given strict orders to hand over“when the time was right.”  I haven’t a doubt in my mind that thisis that time.

Without breaking my gaze with Oxhya, my fingers fumble with the satchel’s leather closure.  I reach inside and wrap my hand around the cloth-enclosed parcel, then gently withdraw the bundle.

Oxhya extends her right arm.  The fin-like hand spreads wide to receive the cloth-enclosed parcel. I set it gently onto her hand, which wraps tenderly to secure it.  Small pseudopods form fingers that deftly unwrap the bundle.  Cotton cloth falls away from a pile of perfect teardrop-shaped black crystals, each the sizeof my thumb.  A wave of knowledge: I feel and know instantly that these are the mineral remains of a microsian eye. 

Oxhya lifts the black shards to her face, and I see what she sees – feel what she feels.  This was Elaryn, also of the crafting caste, who gave her life to send the information to the outer world, to the humans.  From her crystalline essence came the instructions for building the amazing quantum restructuring micronizer. 

Recalling my own hubris I am embarrassed.  It was no grand accomplishment of human genius!  It was a gift from the very people our world endangers – a brilliant conveyance for getting us to come to them. 

No – it was for getting me to come to her.

End of Book 1

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

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

Lights, Camera… Action!

Cyclops meets VorticellaDay 12: 1015 hours…

The celluloid is rolling! We are now several days into the production of a moving picture documentary. When complete, our film will feature the numerous kinds of microscopic organisms found throughout the pond.

The recent acquisition of several oxygen-producing algal protists has extended how long we can remain submerged, allowing for lengthier observations… and more time to “get the shot,” as they say.

We are currently navigating our way through the dense and occasionally treacherous weedy shallows – treacherous because navigation is more difficult, and one never knows what micro-denizens may lurk in the shadows of this aquatic jungle.

Because of the abundant aquatic plant life and plentiful sunlight, this region offers safe haven for a rich diversity of microorganisms. Again and again we see, whilst filming, the relationship between hunter organisms – and organisms that graze. The hunters, or predators, capture and devour the grazers, in much the way the lion feeds on the wildebeest. The grazers, or prey, do not hunt. Most are green photosynthesizers that make their living harvesting energy from sunlight. And those that do not use photosynthesis as their mainstay glean decomposer bacteria from rotting leaves and decaying micro animals. The compelling study of the relationships between predators, prey, and the environment that supports both is the discipline of Ecology.

Day 13: 0730 hours…

We are deep into the weedy shallows now. Lyra has enthusiastically embraced the photographic survey of our voyage, and these past few days can often be found behind the camera. As the ship steams at meager docking speed, the jungle moves slowly by. All hands are quiet, content to observe the richness of life streaming past the ship, with something akin to awe, or even reverence. The only sound for several minutes is the whir of film moving past the shutter of the prototype British Aeroscope motion picture camera.

“I can’t wait to begin editing,” whispers Lyra, her eye pressed to the eyepiece of our motion picture camera. “This documentary, which I’m thinking of titling ‘Life in a Freshwater Pond: As Seen Through the Eye of the Cyclops’ will change the world, or at least how people see it! It will reveal that the micro world is a living dance of predators and prey, of survival at any cost.”

Gyro cleared his throat, and intoned what I had already been thinking. “Let us hope that we finish it before becoming prey ourselves!”

1030 hours…

We are encountering so many new organisms that the camera is rolling constantly! We spy a type of algae made up of cells that connect to each other end-to-end, creating extremely long strands, like hair. The green chloroplast in these cells is spiral shaped, which likely allows it to receive sunlight for photosynthesis no matter where the strand is drifting in relation to the sun.

Nearby we photograph a busy cluster of spherical green colonies. The individual green cells have two flagella each, similar to the species that we now tend aboard ship for oxygen production. These spheres are able to keep their small colony of sixteen cells facing the sun for efficient photosynthesis.

And then a big surprise – a ciliated microorganism that walks! This beasty patrols stems and branches of pond plants, hunting algae. Its legs appear to be specialized cilia that are fused into limbs, and more cilia that create a feeding vortex.

1215 hours…

Diatoms surround us! It’s hard to believe that just a few days ago we had to move heaven and earth to get enough oil from these glass-encased algae cells to resume our voyage.

Diatom glass, like all glass, is made of silica. I cannot help but wonder where might the diatoms extract silica for making their glass houses? Equally as fascinating as its glass enclosure is how a diatom buoys itself to hold position at the best depth for photosynthesis; it does so by producing those lighter-than-water oil droplets. And oil, we know, is very high in carbon. From where, we wonder, do they get the carbon – and how might they synthesize oil from it?

Some time back we discovered many uses for diatom products. Aboard the Cyclops we repair windows and portholes with glass harvested from diatoms. We use the oil droplets for fuel and machinery… and as a surfactant when necessary to negate surface tension. In the weedy aquatic jungle there is a thriving variety of the class diatomatae, some green, and some yellow – but I must tell you that the chloroplasts from all varieties of diatoms make a delicious salad!

1330 hours…

It is fortunate that we are filming this abundance of Kingdom Protista, because memory alone could never serve as adequate record of our observations. Life, and movement, is everywhere we direct the camera. But how do these free-living single-cell organisms move about? Our film has revealed that all independently living cells fall into one of three groups, generally based on how they get about.

The Amoeboids: Amoebas and their relatives move by extending blob-like appendages that flow like living putty.

The Flagellates: A long whip-like strand, or bundle of strands, wave rapidly, pulling the cell through the water like a propeller.

The Ciliates: These cells are usually covered in a coat of small hairs that move wave-like, in any direction, to move the cell. Ciliatea is the most diverse Class of Kingdom Protista. Some have cilia adapted for walking, others for feeding.

Ciliates are the speedsters of the microscopic world, and most are much faster than the Cyclops at full-steam!

1420 hours…

SPROING!

We’ve just now observed a most amazing ciliate that tethers itself by way of a spring-loaded stalk!  This is the very same protozoan we observed thriving among the aquatic rootlets beneath Duckweed Base, at the beginning of our historic voyage. I have been eager for the opportunity to study this fascinating genus more closely, and my chance has finally arrived.

When a disruption, such as a predator comes near, the cell instantly retracts the stalk, affectively jerking itself quite suddenly out of harm’s way. After a time the stalk relaxes and extends. With danger no longer present, the cell resumes feeding – a process of drawing in small algae and bacteria that become caught in its whirlpool-like feeding vortex.

“It is the Bell Animalcule,” proclaimed my young naturalist from behind the camera, “but today they are known as Vorticella.” From the safety of the observation deck, she has been filming a colony of these stalked protozoa for several minutes. “They were first observed by the inventor of the light microscope, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, in 1676,” Lyra proudly recites, “and were later named by…” but before she can grace us with more fact-filled biology history she gasps and focuses her lens on a new development outside – we have been blessed by fortune to catch one of the vorticellids in the act of reproducing!

“You say it’s doing wha…what?” asks a blushing Gyro.

“I can’t believe our luck!” proclaims Lyra. “They reproduce by fission,” she continues to wax while filming. “And just like most protozoa we’ve encountered, prior to cell-division the organism divvies up its internal organelles, then pulls itself into two new individuals!”

“Is that what they do instead of…?” ponders Gyro aloud, stopping himself mid-thought.

“Instead of sex?” asks Lyra, completing the steersman’s inquiring thought. “Actually, yes it is. All protists are genderless. The exchange of genetic material is not required. After fission each new cell is identical in every way – and look, they are about to separate! One of the new vorticellids keeps the spring-loaded stalk. The other one swims away, using its feeding cilia for locomotion. Presumably it finds an anchoring site and grows a new stalk of its own.”

All hands are intently observing the newly anchored daughter cell and the crowded cluster of adjacent vorticella, when without warning every individual retracts lightning-fast on its stalk.

“What happened?” shouts a startled Gyro.

“Something triggered their danger-avoidance response,” answers Lyra, as a shadow passes over the brightly lit vorticella colony.

And suddenly, I am struck with a foreboding sense that our own demise may be at hand.

Vorticella Physiology Observations

A Nantucket Sleigh Ride

Chlamydomonas Encounter.jpg1430 hours…

To our great delight, Lyra discovers a single greenish cell wedged firmly in the ship’s rudder assembly – the strange malfunction of our steering and elevator systems now demystified. When she attempts to free the organism with a length of hemp line the protist takes her on a merry jaunt as she grasps the tether with all her strength.

“There she goes!” reports Gyro as Lyra and the green beastie streak past the windows of the wheelhouse, looking for all the world like a micro-scaled reenactment of a nineteenth century Nantucket sleigh ride. “Let go, for heaven’s sake!” he shouts in vain at the drama beyond the glass. “Why doesn’t she just let go?”

“Because that simple and elegant solution,” I mutter, “would be far too convenient! I suspect that our young biologist has reckoned that the organism is worthy of closer study – and once she sets her mind to such a task…”

“All well and good,” raged the concerned and exasperated pilot, “but it’s carrying her farther and farther away!”

So as not to lose my prize naturalist, I know we will need a quick plan to lure the green cell back to the Cyclops, get it close enough for capture.

As if reading my mind, Gyro offers a timely recollection: “Skipper, remember the green paramecium, how it would move out of our shadow to bask in the sunlight.”

“By Jove, ensign,” I proclaim, “we will yet make a naturalist out of you!”

My mind was racing. Perhaps this energetic green organism is driven by the same chemical responses as the green paramecium.

I turn to the ship’s controls and power up the external lamps. Sure enough, as I had hoped, the organism changes its mad course and heads toward the light, towards the ship, and safety for Lyra!

1515 hours…

Lyra is now safely aboard the Cyclops again and our new mascot – the green algae cell – is being observed in a glass enclosure. It has the usual characteristics of a single cell: a roundish clear body filled with cytoplasm. This one has two flagella, which it uses like propellers for moving about. Each flagellum joins the body where we observe a cluster of red granules. We suspect this red “eye spot” is sensitive to the presence of light, and steers the cell by sending chemical signals to the flagella. Also inside the cell is a nucleus, a number of whitish starch bodies, and a horseshoe-shaped green structure – the organism’s chloroplast.

The chloroplast seems to be the center of a great deal of biochemical activity within this organism. When light is shined upon the chloroplast the oxygen levels in the tank begin to rise and starch bodies are produced. Lyra believes we are watching the process of photosynthesis as it occurs. She also suggests that a small menagerie of these organisms might serve us by producing all the oxygen we could ever need! It appears that a happy accident has provided us with a solution to our oxygen problem.

As we continue our mission I am in awe. We have observed that every green cell in this life-rich world is a living factory, producing oxygen and the molecules for life. It is here in the micro world, I humbly realize, that the foundations of the living world begin!

Chlamydomonas Physiology.jpg

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.

Tidal Wave and Monster

Insect on RushDay 8: 1600 hours…

Excerpt from Engine Master’s Log

With each arm’s length of hemp line released I watched Captain Adler and Lyra slowly descend and disappear down the dim interior of the plant’s hollow shaft.   I had let out about one and a half centimeters of the rope when the resistance suddenly ceased. Attached to the block, the fishing bell alarm made no sound. I could only assume that the skipper and Lyra came to rest somewhere down there, hopefully at a depth where they might easily collect and harvest the diatom oil that we need to get back to our mission.

Had I been granted more time to prepare for this excursion it would not have been overly difficult to rig a telegraph or a simple voice pipe to allow for basic communication between myself and the descent team. But as I am reminded constantly by gigantic insects emerging all around us, time was short. The fishing bell would have to suffice.

I secured the line to a pike anchored deep into the plant tissue, and withdrew from the cathedral-like interior. Green illumination gave way to daylight as I passed through the carved entrance hall and stepped back onto the impenetrable liquid of the pond, a consequence of physics at this micro scale to which I shall not ever become accustomed.

I glanced momentarily across the water to Cyclops, still resting awkwardly at an angle, her weight causing a slight dent in the otherwise featureless surface. Our ship, our home, looked both clumsy and vulnerable, imparting a sense of urgency – getting her below the surface and under steam again was critical not only for the mission, but for our survival.

In the pond-scape beyond the ship I could see nothing more than a meter distant, at which point the world blurred into a green blue haze – the fringes of the visible micro verse.

In a heartbeat my senses became heightened. Something set my awareness afire – a momentary darkening of the sky, like a passing shadow. This was followed by a sound, or a sensation… the report of a collision of some kind, an impact event for certain.

Then I saw the wave, a thickening line materializing on the blurry pond horizon beyond Cyclops. It crawled up the sky, millimeter by millimeter. It was easily ten times the height of the ship when I turned and sprinted for the rush portal. I glanced over my shoulder just once and saw the wave lift Cyclops higher and higher, up and over its smooth summit. In the next instant the water beneath my feet was rising, sloping upward behind me. I reached the door through the outer skin of the rush and dove inside.

The wave struck. The rush bent. I braced myself against the carven inner corridor. The wave rose up and over the portal as it swept past the plant. Instinct told me that water would come pouring into the carved entrance, but it did no such thing. The water bulged inwardly like a hand reaching for me, but the same physics that had stranded us, now prevented the water from entering that microscopic space. In the next moment the water withdrew and the rush steadied. I hoped that my colleagues down below were safe as well.

I moved quickly to the outer portal to see how Cyclops had faired. She had come to rest several millimeters from her earlier resting place, but seemed undamaged. Gyro was outside the ship, apparently performing a post-wave inspection. He waved. I returned the gesture, but did not immediately notice that he continued waving, and somewhat enthusiastically.

A rasping sound, like wood against stone – scratching and grating, resonated through the walls of the plant, becoming louder – closer! When the sound reached an almost deafening volume, a monstrous insect easily ten times the size of the Cyclops, burst from the water in front of me as it clambered up the rush. I staggered back into the entrance hall, felt a warm wind from the animal’s fluttering gills as it clambered up the plant.

The monster came to a stop, completely blocking the exit portal. A section of its pulsing abdomen filled that rectangular incision. I had a perfect view of its geographic network of veins, arteries, and lymph, all visible through the translucent exoskeleton of its belly. But now my only path of egress was blocked.

Ting-a-ling, reported the fishing bell – finally! Excitedly, I returned to the vertical shaft. The hemp line was being yanked repeatedly from below. Here was the signal I had hoped for. I unfastened the anchor knot and began the arduous hand-over-hand retrieval of the explorers.

A Gift of Diatoms

Pond Rush Schematic

Day 8: 1415 hours…

Diatoms, Lyra informed me, are a very common and successful single-celled alga, and I was glad to hear it. The sooner we began harvesting them for their oil, the sooner we would be out of danger. Lyra continued her diatomaceous diatribe, revealing that this family of algae had been on Earth approximately two hundred million years. It had adapted to fresh and saltwater environments, and was most noted for the houses of glass that enclosed each single-celled individual. Diatoms thrived in the sunlit water just beneath the surface, where conditions ideal for photosynthesis and nutrient absorption. Lyra suggested that we would likely find all the diatoms we need clinging to the stems of aquatic reeds and grasses.

“Sounds like we have a classic paradox,” announced Barron. “The oil we need to break the surface tension is with the diatoms… below the surface that we can’t penetrate without the oil.”

“I have a thought about that,” said Lyra. “One of those pond rushes could be the solution to our way down. If we cut a hole through the epidermal cell layer, then crawl through, we should have access to any number of vallecular canals – vertical shafts if you will – giving us an unimpeded descent down through the stalk. We descend about a centimeter, cut another hole back out through the epidermis, and start pulling in as many diatoms as we need.”

“A sound plan,” I added. “But if possible, let’s try to extract the oil without mortally wounding the organisms.”

“But skipper,” said Barron, “that will slow us down. These are just diatoms. Wouldn’t it more efficient to bring them up and, well…process them on the surface?”

I appreciated Barron’s use of polite vocabulary. He was correct. It would be faster and more efficient to leverage open the cells’ glass cases, tear open their cell membranes, and collect the oil globules within. These microscopic organisms were plentiful… ubiquitous even. They were no more complex than a single cell in a blade of grass. Sacrificing a dozen wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the local micro-habitat. But it was a waste, and I had to admit that my own microscopic condition might have altered my perspective. Were my crew and I any more important, or more valuable, than these denizens at the bottom of the food chain? I had decided.

“While we don’t know what happened with the algal protist in our lab, I’m not going to risk another incident. We will carefully extract the oil from the diatoms without seriously harming them.”

“So be it,” added Barron compliantly. “I’ll set up a rope and pulley. It will make dropping down through the stalk and getting back up much easier. And on the return trip we will have the oil to carry as well.”

I watched with pride as my crew dove into the task. A short hike from the stranded Cyclops Lyra found a suitable rush protruding up from the glassy surface. She circled it quickly and returned to us with a look of surprise. “Follow me,” she said.

Lyra led us around the huge green trunk of the rush stalk. It rose up into the sky, vanishing indistinctly where its tip became lost in the blue dome of celestial blur. The stalk’s skin was rough with a waxen cuticle that covered thousands of brick-work like plant cells about the size of microscopic barrels. I ran my fingers over the cuticle layer as we circumnavigated it. Spines the length of arm protruded out from the fibrous covering at random intervals, which likely served to make it unpleasant as a food source for small pond arthropods. As we rounded the backside of the stalk Lyra came to a stop, indicating a section of the green wall with her outstretched hand. “Have a look at this.”

It was a doorway.

A rectangular opening had been cut into the stalk, just about knee height above the smooth water surface. In shape and proportion, the opening was uncannily ideal for micro-scale humans.

“The cuts that made this entrance look fresh,” reported Barron as he inspected the doorway. “And you may not like hearing this, but the work is too precise to have occurred naturally.”

Lyra ran a hand along the deep incision. “A hole this small would normally heal over in minutes, but the opening has been treated with a metabolic retarding agent to keep it from closing back up, probably a hormonal growth inhibitor.”

“But left open for what reason,” asked Barron. Then voicing what Lyra and I were thinking, he continued. “Whoever made this opening wanted it to stay open. Did they do it for us? Or do they have their own reasons for going inside a pond rush?”

Time was short, and my skipper’s intuition sensed no peril. Barron and Lyra were looking at me, awaiting a risk assessment and a decision. “We are facing a matter of survival. We have to retrieve the oil from the diatoms and get the ship back in the water. Whether this opening is natural, or made for some other purpose seems irrelevant at the moment. We have an easy way inside and we’re going to use it.”

Over the opening Barron assembled a block-and-tackle rigged with hemp lines dangling down into the greenish dark of the rush’s inner shaft. He fashioned a pair of flat horizontal seats for Lyra and I, then lowered us down that vertical tube, slow and steady. A third seat conveyed cutting tools, dive suits, and a small quantity of olive oil. Saw and chisels would allow us to cut our way through the outer wall of the rush, and the dive suits and olive oil would let us to slip through the air/water interface to collect diatoms for rapid oil extraction.

Lyra and Barron had invented a solution for collecting the oil from the algal cells both simple and inspired. Without harming the organisms the plan was to insert an arm-length section of microtubule through a pore in the cell’s glass case and exploit the physics of capillary action, wicking the oil out. The oil globules would then rise to the surface on their own, where Barron would collect them for transport back to the stranded Cyclops.

The descent through the interior of the enormous pond plant was an almost serene experience. I was in a huge cathedral, illuminated from all sides by endless stained glass columns of repeating geometry. Such precise orderliness could only be found in the exacting replications of biological processes. Cell after identical cell, without end, formed a breathtaking biochemical latticework. Occasionally a shadow would rise past the cellular tapestry – cast by a midge pupa rising up from the bottom – a sober reminder that our ship and our mission were still in peril.

The luminous green hues of filtered sunlight from the surrounding plant tissue became incrementally dimmer as we were lowered further and further down the vallecular canal. When roughly ten minutes had elapsed, we arrived at our destination. I could not have been less surprised that our arrival had been anticipated.

Our feet touched a solid surface. We came to rest on a platform made of cellulose planks of meticulous craftsmanship. The floor filled the shaft from wall to wall. A doorway, similar to the one on the surface, was cut into the outer wall of the rush, but unlike the one above, this one had already healed over, leaving only a door-shaped patch of scarring and fresh cuticle. But we wouldn’t be needing the door for recovering diatoms this day, for the work had already been done: glass cylinders, three-dozen in total, each filled with amber tinted diatom oil. They were stacked with precision beside the healed-over doorway.

diatoms

Lyra whispered. “This isn’t possible. Am I imagining this?”

“Oh it’s real, but I am at loss to explain it,” I mused. “And while every possible explanation is mind boggling, one thing is clear… this cannot be a natural phenomenon.”

I could hear Lyra forcing back laughter. “Oh, you think? The only thing missing is a red ribbon on top.”

“And that is precisely the question: is this a gift, or an invitation to be gone,” I countered.

Lyra lifted the fitted glass lid from one of the cylinders. She dipped a finger into the oil inside, rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger, worked it into the skin of her knuckles with a pleasurable sigh. “It’s pure. It’s perfect. Jonathan… who did this?”

“Who, or what.”

“Skipper,” Lyra began carefully, “do you suppose whoever did this – or whatever, is the same thing that came aboard the ship and removed the remains of that algal protist?”

Of course I had considered this very possibility, a likelihood that had been foremost on my mind since discovering the doorway into the rush. If I accepted as truth that something had come aboard my ship and taken away the dead protist for reasons as yet unimagined, it was no leap at all to believe that the same intelligence was at work here as well. Had this mysterious party foreseen our need for a surfactant, and made it available? But why? Did they reason that helping us was a way to spare the lives of the diatoms it believed we would slaughter? Based on our prior handling of pond life, it would not have known that our intention was to extract the oil without harming the organisms. Were I to invoke the rigors of the scientific process I would conclude that my imagination was getting the better of me.

“That is a tempting deduction …” I mused, “but there is insufficient evidence to connect the two events.   Scientific discipline holds that we acquire more data before we embrace such a conspiratorial idea.”

“I think the most powerful evidence is sitting right in front of us. This diatom oil… it’s the exact quantity, down to the last canister, that we need to get the Cyclops back in the water. Whomever did this had to make a precise calculation…”

“Or has comparable insight or behavior.” I was reflecting on the animal world, on how a salmon knows the very stream where it emerged from the egg, then stores just the right amount of fat to fuel a one-time upstream swim in that very stream for its final act of life. Or Monarch butterflies, that migrate thousands of miles every year to the same groves in California and Mexico, to escape the deadly chill of winter. Or herds that follow the east African monsoons….”

I was interrupted by an unannounced sideways lurch of the chamber. The rush was swaying.

“It’s a wave!” announced Lyra.

“Probably just a ripple,” I mused. “A frog probably jumped in. Hang on!”

We leaned into the tilt of the room, grabbing onto the loose ends of microfibers that formed a furry covering on the inner wall of the plant’s shaft.

Lyra lifted a concerned face. “Hope they’re okay up there.”

As the wave passed and the floor became level and solid once again, my thoughts went to our fellow shipmates. I knew that Barron and Gyro were well-trained, and that each man had the skills to survive in this world, even if, perish the thought, the Cyclops were scuttled.

My ruminations were interrupted when shadow swallowed the gentle filtered light that we had enjoyed in this verdant sanctuary. The wave had awakened something. An ear-splitting scraping sound accompanied the silhouette of some monstrous arthropod crawling up the outside of the rush. Three body sections were unmistakable through the green walls of the plant’s inner shaft – an insect! Its many legs moved in slow, mechanical fashion, as it scratched and clawed its way toward the surface. Then the light returned and the insect gone.

Lyra and I quickly loaded as many of the oil containers onto Barron’s elevator sling, about half the total number. Getting them all to the surface would take two trips up the vallecular canal. To signal Barron we were ready, I gave the line three short tugs. There was no response, no slow ascension of the sling, no counter-tug of acknowledgment. I tried again, with greater force. And still, no sign from above that Barron had received the signal. We were stranded.

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.