Author Archives: Eric

Microscopic Monsters–The Age of Discovery, Chapter 21: City in a Bottle

Cyclops discovers a microscopic city built inside a submerged bottle

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 crew mates. 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 crew mate 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.

“Your 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 crew mates. 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 descendants.”

“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. “Descendants, 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 me. “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 frequencies 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…”

“Completely by accident. I take no credit,” 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? I mean, can you get us in there?”

“I doubt they have such concepts as trust or distrust,” said 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. “What are they curious about?”

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 city 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.

Microscopic Monster – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 20: A Protected Harbor

1115 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.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 19: Faces in the Glass

Day 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.

Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 18: 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.

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!”

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!”

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 – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 17: The Immortal Monster

Day 13: 0900 hours…

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

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

0940 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1015 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

“Ahead, full!” I announce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1030 hours…

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

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

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

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

“It worked!” celebrates Lyra.

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

1130 hours…

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

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

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

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

1215 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1330 hours…

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

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

Day 13: 1345 hours…

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log…

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

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

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

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

Day 13: 1430 hours…

“She is signaling!” calls out Gyro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gyro gives me a puzzled expression.

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

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

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

“And here she comes!” heralds Gyro.

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

1500 hours…

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

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

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

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

“Is everything all right?” I ask softly.

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

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

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 16: Pursued by Planaria

 

Day 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.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 15: Lights, Camera, Action!

Day 12: 1015 hours…

Lights, camera, action!

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.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 14: A Nantucket Sleigh Ride

1430 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1515 hours…

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

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

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

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 13: The Grass of the Serengeti

Day 9: 0530 hours…

Dawn is breaking. Last night we anchored the ship to a decaying aquatic weed stem, about two hundred twenty centimeters depth – all hands glad for the respite after our adventure on the surface. I am pleased to report that the night passed uneventfully.

As I enjoy my mug of coffee on the observation level of the pilothouse the faceted dome reveals the first sunrays piercing the pond’s depths. Through the heavy leaded glass warm watery light strikes green algal protista, which illuminate into iridescent emeralds.   And there are thousands upon thousands of them all around us, creating an ever-changing green waterscape that extends in all directions to the furthest distance. The harmless multitude is to other single-celled pond organisms what grass is to the herding beasts of the African Serengeti – food in abundance. I am admittedly curious about the organisms that rely on this plentitude.

“Good morning, Skipper,” says Gyro cheerily as he enters the pilothouse.

I return his bright salutation, adding, “How about we get the ol’ girl ready for departure?”

“Aye, skipper!” my steersman answers. He picks up the voice pipe: “All hands – prepare for departure! Make free fast all mooring lines and retract! “ He turns to me with eyebrows raised. “Speed and heading, Captain?”

The green algae cells cavorting hither and yon were a clue that we were in the midst of an active food chain. I was eager to unfold its secrets as the sun rose higher.

“Ahead one quarter,” I say. “Nice and slow. Two degrees left rudder, and elevators minus five.   Let’s try to learn what dines on these little green beasties.”

Gyro sends two bells on the engine telegraph to Barron back in the engine room. Through the deck I can feel the vibration of our steam turbine increasing, then a slight surge as the screw begins to spin, the almost-imperceptible shudder through metal and glass as the steam engine gains speed. Through the glass of the observation dome I can see our overnight anchorage sliding astern. We are underway.

0800 hours…

We are entering a transitional pond microhabitat, not yet definable as shallows, and yet not as fathomless as the open water.

Cruising at slow speed near the surface, the Cyclops encounters a large single-celled organism common throughout the pond – Paramecium. This particular species is different than the others we have seen, it’s color being the most obvious differentiating attribute – it is green!

A closer inspection reveals that the green coloring comes from smaller green bodies inside. And these smaller green bodies are organisms themselves – algae cells – not dissimilar from the free-swimming algae cells that are so plentiful in this region. The green cells inside do not appear to be the paramecium’s breakfast. We wonder what function they serve, or if their home inside Chez Paramecia is simply a safe place to live, out of harm’s way.  And if so, how might the paramecium benefit from this curious living arrangement?

 

0830 hours…

Now this is curious – when we pass over the green paramecium, the Cyclops’ shadow blocks the light from hitting the organism – and to our astonishment, the organism immediately moves back into the sunlight! Could the paramecium be moving back into the light for the benefit of its little green guests? We have observed that green microorganisms gather in sunny patches throughout the pond. Further observation is needed to learn the connection between green organisms and sunlight.

1215 hours…

As has been the case all morning, single-celled algal protista abound, now perhaps more than ever! Without warning Gyro sounds the bubbles above alert, and for good reason! Oxygen bubbles, found wherever there is a large algae population, are a particular nuisance. “Bubbles above! Bubbles above!” shouts the steersman.

In much the same way Cyclops was recently stranded on the surface of the pond, we could easily become ensnared by air bubble surface tension and find ourselves unable to escape. We must avoid these oxygen bubble rafts at all costs, but at the moment, as the bubble raft expands down from the surface, we are in peril of becoming trapped!

“Jonathan,” advises Lyra, “that bubble mass is expanding very quickly, and we are getting awfully close to it. We need to stop rising, or we’re going to get trapped.”

“Skipper,” calls Gyro from the wheel, “ I suggest we flood the surplus oxygen storage tanks. The added weight will trim us, and prevent us from rising into the bubble raft.”

I spin to the voice pipe, tapping it twice to alert all hands of an impending announcement. “Barron, flood the reserve O2 tanks. Repeat: flood the oxygen reserve tanks with water – now!”

I glance at the oxygen tank indicators while watching the looming bubble raft now less than a ship’s length above us. The gages show a full store of oxygen. Hurry, Barron! No sooner do I impatiently think of my engine master, than do we hear the sound of metal pipes creaking as water rushes into the holding tanks. Oxygen streams out the stern release ports. The O2 level indicators drop from ninety percent to less than ten. The floor sinks beneath my feet as Cyclops drops safely away from the treacherous bubble raft.

“That was close!” exclaims Lyra.

“Skipper, I’m afraid escaping that bubble trap cost us our oxygen reserves,” Barron grumbles, as he enters the wheelhouse. “Now our oxygen supply is dangerously low.”

“A hefty price to avoid an even heftier problem,” I respond. “And while it worked, I’d like to know why our control surfaces weren’t able to turn us away from that bubble raft.”

“Rudder isn’t responding to the helm either,” adds Gyro. “The elevator system and the rudder are connected to the same cable cluster. Something must be jammed in there. “

“I’ll go,” says Lyra, never one to shy away from extra vehicular adventures.”

“Then go below and suit up,” I tell her. “But no side trips!”

“Side trips?” she mutters just loudly enough for me to hear. “I really do not know what you’re talking about.”

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 12: Escape!

Day 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.