City in a Bottle


Soda Bottle Interior Oblique

Day 16: 1230 hours

They are watching us!

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

Not only watching, but evaluating us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

All heads nod. Good!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Muted laughter erupts from the crew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1500 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rand, this discovery of yours…”

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

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

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

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

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

1530 hours…

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

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

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

“Aye, sir,” responds Gyro.

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

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

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


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

A Protected Harbor

Cyclops enters Bottle1115 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did it go?” asks Gyro.

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

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

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

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

Gyro gasps: “Look!”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Soda Bottle Colony


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

Faces in the Glass

Cyclops and Paramecia inundationDay 16: 0800 hours…

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

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

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

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

“What about its eyes,” pressed Lyra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

0815 hours…

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

Turbulence on the rudder… something big and moving nearby.

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

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

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

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

“Aye, skipper. Lamps to full.”

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

 

1040 hours…

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

Paramecium

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

 

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

Paramecia,” corrects Lyra.

“…are closing in around us. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

••••

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

The Bottom Ooze

Day 14: 1100 hours…

Crisis!

I am loath to report that we are stranded, now mired to the gunwales in the bottom ooze – and I have only myself to blame.

Cyclops Stranded on the Bottom

The accident occurred in the middle of a strategizing meeting with naturalist Lyra Saunders and engine master Barron Wolfe. They were elucidating me on their well-reasoned plan to modify Cyclops’ fuel production by utilizing the product and by-product of photosynthesis (starches and oxygen) to fashion a fuel supply that would be emission-free, resulting in no carbon excess, making us undetectable to the predators of the pond micro verse.

As proposed, our menagerie of green algae cells, which has provided the bulwark of our oxygen production, could also be utilized as a starch farm. The starch would be processed to make a clean fuel for the boiler. Combustion would provide heat to drive the turbine, and the carbon gas waste product channeled back to the algae cells, which with the addition of sunlight, would continue the cycle. The idea was nearly perfect… the single stumbling block being that we had yet to discover how to easily convert the starch, which was itself combustible, to a higher energy-yielding fuel.

We were, in fact, discussing this very issue when there came a loud report, a metallic ‘BANG’ from aft.   The interruption hung for a moment in the cabin air as we looked at each other with a range of expressions, puzzled to concerned.

“Skipper, better get up here…” came Gyro’s stern declaration over the voice pipe.

Barron was bound for the engine room without a word. I raced for the wheelhouse, Lyra at my heels. In that moment I knew I had been remiss: following our run-in with the planarian, and more recently with the hydra – both of which were taxing to the ship’s constitution – I should have ordered a stem-to-stern inspection. But I neglected to do so, caught up in the excitement of new discoveries, and now some important piece of equipment had failed.

We charged into the pilothouse, found Gyro clutching the ship’s varnished oaken wheel with his left hand, his right pulling futilely on the elevator control lever.

“Control cable snapped,” he shouted in a matter-of-fact greeting. “She won’t pull up!”

Yes, I thought with alarm and self-recrimination, something that likely would have appeared plain as day in a cursory inspection… if only I had ordered one.

The following moments are a blur… of alarm bells… of desperation to regain control… of the pond bottom rising up from the shadowy depths as Cyclops plummeted deeper and deeper.

“Hang on!” shouted Lyra, but her warning was unnecessary. My knuckles, bone white, were locked around the safety railing in an iron grip. Around us, water roared past the observation panes with the sound of a hurricane. Ahead, the terminus of our steeply sloped path loomed with ever-increasing detail.

And then we met with the bottom. Iron howled, steel screamed, wood trembled. Cyclops’ downward motion was turned into forward motion in an instant, and momentum threw me over the railing and into a forward pylon separating two glass panels. I lay on the deck, looking up at the glass panes through which a dense cloud of bottom detritus was roiling around the ship – but to my surprise, no collision came then or ever.

The bottom, it turned out, was soft as goose down. Cyclops came to rest on a vast pillow of spongy ooze – the term given to the bottom micro habitat: a layer made up of dead plants and animals that rained down from the upper levels of the pond, home to the tireless decomposer organisms that constantly converted organic matter back into basic molecules for re-entry into the food chain.

As the cloudy water cleared from around the stranded ship, our immediate surroundings became perceptible in the murky light. The motionless silhouettes of hulking dead micro crustaceans littered the bottom-scape to the edge of visibility, like monstrous prehistoric invertebrates transformed into mountains. Periodically the body of a daphnia, or copepod, would drift down from above, land amongst the carcass-littered bottom with a small puff of cloudy detritus.

1330 hours…

“Jonathan, this is interesting,” says Lyra from where she tends the environmental sampling station in our laboratory. “The water down here is much lower in oxygen than near the surface. And the carbon dioxide levels much higher.”

“That is indeed curious,” I say in agreement. “I hope that we have an opportunity to discover what might account for such conditions.”

Lyra begrudgingly accepts my clumsy change-of-subject, and turns to greet Gyro and Barron.

The crew and I have gathered in the lower deck laboratory to assess our situation. We are in one piece, thankfully – more a tribute to Cyclops’ stalwart construction, than any clever action taken by her skipper. We have survived our ungraceful landing with only minor structural damage. To avoid another oversight like the one that now finds us stranded on the pond bottom, I have ordered ship-wide inspections of all mechanical systems.

Engine master Barron has already begun repairs on the damaged elevator control cable that put us here, and as he enters the lab reports that repairs will be complete in half a day. But a larger problem looms. A storage tank was ruptured in the crash and the last of our fuel oil is all but gone.

“And in summation, we have just enough fuel to spin the dynamo and keep the lights on,” explains Barron, adding, “for a little while.”

“And then what?!” inquires Gyro. “We won’t survive down here for long… there’s got to be a meter and a half of water between us and breathable air!”

“And not much sunlight getting through that water to energize our photosynthetic algae herd,” adds Lyra. “Which means oxygen will soon be in dwindling supply.”

“What about the starch bodies they’ve been producing all this time?” I ask. “What will it take to convert it to useable fuel?”

Barron grumbles. “There’s plenty of starch – the little critters keep cranking it out, but it will have to be desiccated. It’s going to be difficult to remove all the water without a dehydration chamber for focusing low steady heat and dry air. And I’m not sure we have enough fuel remaining to run such a thing…”

Lyra interjects: “Sorry, Barron, I don’t mean to interrupt… “ she looks around the lab, as if searching for something undefined. “But… well… does anyone else hear that?”

For a moment there is silence, then, as our hearing adjusts to the quietness, a rustling, brushing sound can be heard coming through the hull.

“Open the crash shutter,” I suggest, “and let’s have a peek.”

Barron inserts a handle into the shuttering mechanism and slowly cranks the shutters open.

The porthole reveals the source of the strange scraping and sliding sounds we are hearing: a microbe, about the size and shape of a large watermelon, is pressed against the glass. Beyond the cell, to the limits of sight, tens of thousands, no, millions, of other similar microbes litter the pond bottom. Some twist and writhe, moving by way of flagella or finger-like projections, others lie still in layer upon layer of identical microbes. The world of the pond bottom is a world swarming with a fantastic diversity of bacteria!

“Well that explains the CO2 levels! “ A glimmer comes to Lyra’s eye. “Jonathan, “ she begins, but I stop her.

“You most certainly are not going out there,” I announce firmly. The others cease their duties and direct their attention to us to see if Lyra is going to press me with one of her entertaining justifications for going out for a dip.

“Why in heaven’s name would I want to do that,” she chides. “Especially when it’s much easier to bring a bacterium on board for study!”

1410 hours…

With the use of a manipulator claw, capturing one of the plentiful cells was not difficult.

The cell’s shape is oblong, and has a lazily whipping flagellum at each end. It is now bathing in our examination tray, a large raised rectangular tub about the size of a large dining table. The bath is filled with pond water and the bacterium is idling near one end, its flagella occasionally disturbing the surface with a gentle rippling sound.

Initial observations: The cell appears much simpler than previously studied microorganisms, such as the ones we have been tending for oxygen production. Unlike the more complex single cells the bacterium has no nucleus, and very few internal organ-elles, just a few fuzzy bundles inside a gelatin-like cloud.

“But make no mistake,” cautions Lyra, “there is a lot of chemistry going on in there.”

Another difference from other single cells is the presence of a semi rigid wall surrounding the bacterium’s cell membrane: a cell wall, which we theorize serves as a protective shield from harsh environmental conditions.

“Such protection might allow bacteria to thrive in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth,” I conclude.

“Jonathan, look!” cries Lyra. “The examination tray is dissolving!”

To our astonishment the bacterium appears to have a destructive effect on our examination pool!

“Curious… what is the tray made of?” I ask.

Lyra considers for a moment, then: “Plant cell walls, easy to come by and perfect for this application, or so I thought.”

“We need a closer look,” I say as I swing a magnifying view lens over the affected area of the try.

“Would you look at that,” whispers Lyra, peering down through the lens. “Large molecules appear to be leaving the bacterium through those pores in the cell wall. Digestive enzymes, I should think. And look! The enzymes have a caustic effect on the tray, breaking it down into smaller subunits – which are absorbed by the cell.   Those digestive enzymes react with dead plants and animals everywhere down here, reducing them into molecules that the bacterium can use to build more enzymes and other molecules of life.”

A harsh scent suddenly stings my nostrils. “Do you smell that?”

Lyra sniffs at the cabin air. “Jonathan… I’ll bet my grandmother’s mule that that’s alcohol!”

Decomposer Bacteria Nomenclatura

1500 hours…

Using a low flame of diatom oil, a coil of copper tubing, and a beaker filled with sample water from around the bacterium, Lyra has fashioned an effective still. She is about to test the product, a clear fluid in a glass phial. She inserts a cotton wick into the phial and sets a burning match to the end. It flares brightly with a clean blue flame… the tell tale sign of alcohol.

Lyra looks up excitedly. “Well Jonathan, I do believe you are the luckiest skipper ever commissioned. Our fuel problem is solved!”

Renewable Energy Cycle.jpg

2300 Hours…

Working tirelessly into the night, Barron has been modifying the boiler to burn alcohol, which will allow steam to generate faster, while requiring substantially less fuel than before. Meanwhile, Lyra, with my assistance, has collected two-dozen of the fermentation bacteria, and has moved them into culture tanks where they will convert starch from our green algae cells into alcohol. We are expending the last of our now obsolete oil reserves to fuel lamps set around the algae pens, so that photosynthesis can kick-start the process. By morning we should have enough pure distillate to fire up the boiler, work up a head of steam, and resume our voyage.

At the approach of eight bells, I retire to my small, corner study and set about organizing the various logs and journals of the past few days. As I stow an etching of the captured bacterium and an accompanying diagram of the chemical process by which we now power the Cyclops, I reflect on how our new system, a renewable system, so perfectly echoes the cycles of matter and energy in the living world.

I have come to the inescapable conclusion that bacteria provide perhaps the most important role in life’s grand saga. They are the never-ending recyclers of nutrients – tireless, ubiquitous. These simplest of living things break down dead organisms, then become food themselves for larger single cells. And those become food for larger organisms yet.   Down here in the shadowy murk of the bottom ooze, we have discovered the beginning of a food chain.

As I gaze out my small porthole into blackness, lost in the elegance of Earth’s living cycle, a shape momentarily appears in that encircled frame – but my mind cannot comprehend it, its form or its very presence, until the shape, a moment later, vanishes from sight.

It was… though I can scarcely pen the words… a face.

Microscopic Monsters Portfolio

Microscopic Monsters Website

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