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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

The Machine

Jonathan-Adler-Orders

Exploration Log

Captain Jonathan Adler, MS Cyclops

Day 1: 0630 hours… A measure of time. But I as yet do not know how the passage of time will affect us in this altered condition. Will we sense time as we did before? Will it turn faster to our senses, or slower? We are the first to undergo this change, and the first to enter the Hidden World. It is the beginning! It is the ultimate exploration. I can barely contain my excitement! What a grand privilege it is to take command of our first comprehensive survey of life in the living micro universe.

For the benefit of those who may be curious I will give a brief description of myself. I stand just a hair over two meters – a measuring reference that will soon become handy. I am of slender build and have hair and moustaches the color of bright pewter. I am 57 years of age, and enjoy writing and etching – of which I am proud to boast some expertise, particularly with pencil and charcoals.

Although my memory of the actual transformation is muddled and befogged, I will forever remember the thrilling moment I shook hands with President Roosevelt and received his encouraging invocation – a similar speech I imagine to the one President Jefferson imparted to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark before their historic quest of discovery. After a toast of (excellent) champagne a Navy commander ushered me and my crew away from the festivities. We descended many stairs, and dropped deep into the earth by way of a mechanized lift. Eventually we found ourselves in secret catacombs far beneath the streets of Washington. Our escort team of Naval riflemen guided us through a maze of dim but tidy stone tunnels that opened onto a very large chamber hewn from bedrock. We paused to gather on a balcony that looked over an elaborate subterranean facility. Beyond an iron handrail was a view of the most intricate assemblage of machinery I have ever seen.

Cyclops in the Machine

The complexity of the Q-73 Implosive Devoluminator was lost in the shadows of that enormous chamber, which I suspect lay a quarter-mile directly beneath the Washington Monument itself (and I theorize may actually serve as a dissipation rod for excess electricity from the Q-73 machine). Though much of the apparatus was hidden in darkness, sporadic illumination came from many incandescent globes of Edison’s direct current. Visible in that light was a stage, or platform. This dais was a hundred feet in diameter, and was elevated above the cavern floor on marble pillars. From the surrounding darkness reached giant metal arms of copper coil muscle and platinum bone toward the platform, embracing it. Veins of quartz, like the arteries of some Olympian god, transferred pulsing energy through the technological appendages into massive polished crystalline capacitors designed to unleash cosmic forces upon the stage. But it wasn’t the Q-73 Implosive Devoluminator that captured my attention.

“Is that the ship?” whispered the young man beside me, like a visitor in a chapel. Hamilton Geronimo O’Shaughnessy, Gyro his apt nickname, was our pilot and navigator. He nodded toward an intrepid shape bathed in Edison’s light at the center of the stage. Supported in a cradle made of timbers and angled iron, was the Micro Submersible (M.S.) Cyclops.

My heart raced to finally see her. My ship, at last! Oh, let me hasten to add that I had familiarized myself with the drawings and shipwright’s schematics, but that was ink and paper. Until this moment I had yet to see her made manifest. Her construction had been in total secrecy, or so I had been told. To see her made real was stirring in a way that I had not often experienced in life.   Cyclops was a true marvel of Yankee shipbuilding, and yet more. Never had glass, iron, and brass been rendered into a more impressive fusion of submarine seaworthiness, but I sensed in her an almost living spirit. Having penned these words, I am now laughing at the folly of them, but I will not discount them, for I sensed it the instant I laid eyes on the M.S. Cyclops – she was creature of discovery waiting to be awakened.

A series of alarms and bells echoed through the huge space. Below us, on the floor of the chamber, there was a flurry of activity around the giant machine. A crescendo of whirling dynamos accompanied the increase in illumination all around us. The Navy Commander distributed seemingly opaque eye-goggles to myself, the crew, and the entourage. “First we will perform the operation on the ship,” he explained. “If you choose to watch, your eyes must be protected. You may feel a bit of momentary vertigo, so steady yourself against the railing. Goggles, please.”

We obeyed. Like the shade of a welder’s mask, the lenses were so blackened that I could barely see the brightest of Edison’s globes. A louder alarm announced that the procedure was imminent.

It began! Titanic bolts of Planck energy arced from the glowing capacitors of the mighty machine’s quartz-veined arms onto the Cyclops. The ship glowed as bright as I imagine an exploding sun. Then came a thunder that I felt in every bone. I leaned into the handrail and clasped my hands over my ears. My eyes involuntarily winced shut. When I reopened them, the Cyclops had vanished. A thin vapor, rapidly dissipating, was all that remained on the platform. The energies of the great machine dimmed again.

“You may remove your goggles now,” came the voice of the commander. “But hold onto them. You will need them again. You are next.” The commander gestured toward a flight of stairs. It was time for the Cyclops’ crew to undergo the same incredible manipulations of cosmic energy that the ship herself had only recently endured, and presumably survived.

I led my crew down the flight of metal stairs from the observation balcony to the floor of the chamber. The excitement of the moment made for heightened senses. There was a lingering sizzle sound emanating from the stage, from the place where Cyclops had vanished, and in the air the harsh scent of ozone.

Two flights of stairs rose from the ground to the level of the stage. I stood at the base and shook the hand of each crewmember as they began the short ascent. First was Gyro, his handshake was strong and eager. He bounced up the stairs two steps at a time. Second came engine master Barron Wolf, an edifice of a man with shoulders too wide to pass through most doorways without sidestepping. His hand swallowed my own, and he smiled confidently as he followed Gyro up the stairs. Third in the cue was my executive officer, Army Sergeant Randall Emerson, a man whom I had known as a friend since my Annapolis days and Eastport nights, despite hailing from different branches of the service. In addition to being my first officer and sergeant at arms, he would also be tasked with the cartography of our voyage. His maps would someday become the charts by which researchers would reference ecology, biome, and habitat of every species we encountered. We shook hands briefly, and as he went up the stairs Rand flashed his infectious and reassuring smile. I was grateful that he would be there, especially when we found ourselves in difficult moments.

Fourth and last in line was my young naturalist Lyra Saunders, a graduate in Biological Science from Cornell University, the auspicious class of 1900. I offered my hand and she shook it enthusiastically, but I saw a shadow of concern in her blue eyes. “You are about to be the very first biologist to survey the biodiversity of the freshwater micro verse. I’ll wager that Cornell will make your research logs required reading. “

Lyra’s concerned look deepened. “Oh no, skipper! I mean, would they really?! I don’t think I can take all those expectations.”

I laughed. “I think you may surprise yourself. If it’s inspiration your seeking, the micro world will not disappoint. And just wait until the Institute gets a look at the motion pictures you’ll be taking.”

Lyra’s smile brightened. She quickly nodded. “I’m very excited about that, sir. We will be bringing back images of living things never seen before! I’m just a bit nervous, well you know, about the process.” She said the word process with significance. The odor of ozone was still hanging in the air.

“Well,” I said, lowering my voice to impart a sense of confidentiality, “I have a similar nervousness. But it isn’t as if we are the first to go through the machine. The team at Duckweed Base has been there for weeks. And by now the Cyclops has been delivered and they are preparing her for us.   It’s going to be fine.”

“Thanks, skipper,” Lyra said gratefully, then sprang up the steps behind her crewmates.

I waited at the bottom of the stairs another moment thinking about what Lyra had said: “We will be bringing back images…” What else would we be bringing back? – I wondered to myself.

Moments later I joined my crew at the center of the stage. We gathered inside the innermost of a target-like pattern of concentric circles etched into the floor. There were scratches indicating where the Cyclops and her support scaffold had been sitting earlier. The vapor of her dematerialization had dissipated. She was waiting for us now in the micro verse.

The Navy commander and his team arrived, carrying with them two sets of waist-high trestles, which they swiftly assembled beside us. “To lean against,” explained the commander, “when it…happens. And don’t worry. Those will go with you. That’s when the vertigo will hit, and you’ll need them.” The sound of the monstrous dynamos began. It built from a bass to a shrill dissonance. “Don’t forget to put on your goggles,” the Commander reminded. “And best of luck to all of you.”

He was about to depart when a woman called to him from the stairs. She held a slip of paper. She met the Navy commander half-way across the platform. He looked at the paper, then stuffed it into his pocket, spun on his heel and returned to us.

“Is there a problem?” I inquired.

“Just a minor adjustment to your arrival coordinates,” he said dismissively. “No reason for concern. We’re going to set you down two feet, four inches to the south-southwest of Duckweed Base. We have an observation blind in the cattails. Code named Dragonfly Sky-base.”

“Two feet four inches,” exclaimed Gyro. “That is almost one hundred miles at micro-scale.”

“Ninety three miles, actually. You’ll transfer to the Duckweed facility by flyercraft,” explained the commander.

“What’s the reason for the relocation,” Randall Emerson pressed. He wasn’t going to let the commander off the hook without a damn good explanation for changing our destination.

“I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but it’s a frog,” answered the commander. “Seems it decided, or will decide, to stalk damselflies next to Duckweed Base. Don’t worry, Cyclops is safe, or it will be. Sorry, the time dilation between here and there can be a synthaxic challenge. The harbor master just wants to make sure you don’t arrive in the middle of a calamity.”

The Q-73 Implosive Devoluminator cleared its throat and prepared for its solo. The dynamos were approaching a high-pitched hum now. “Goggles,” reminded the commander, then departed. Human activity around the huge machine ceased as the machinists withdrew to a safe distance.

Overhead, the huge capacitors began to glow. We donned our eyewear, gripped the wooden rail and waited. We didn’t have to wait for long.

Without warning there was a lightning-like flash as the pent up energies of the Device were brought to bear on us. The Implosive Devoluminator bellowed its crackling Olympian basso. I was struck with a profound sense of displacement and dizziness. In that instant, my crew and I became citizens of a new world.