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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 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 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.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 11: Run!

Day 8: 1730 hours…

Seeing Barron Wolf’s hulking silhouette standing before us back on the upper level was a welcome sight. The big man wrapped his huge arms around Lyra and I simultaneously.

We eagerly exchanged tales: Lyra and I, the remarkable story of our trip down through the plant, of the amazing discovery of the already-harvested diatom oil, all that we would need, packaged and ready for us to transport. Barron regaled us with his thrilling account of the tidal wave, and that of the rush-climbing aquatic insect, which continued to cover the doorway.

“The wave probably disturbed that insect,” explained Lyra. “So it came looking for a new resting place.”

“And found one right in front of our door!” bellowed a frustrated Barron. “How are we supposed to get out of this stem?”

“I don’t think she will be here much longer,” mused Lyra confidently. “This is a nymph stage of Ceratopogonidae Leptoconops, known commonly as no-see-ums. I’m sure it will be moving on as soon it warms itself in the sunlight.”

“That thing is a no-see-um?” asked an incredulous Barron. “They used to drive me nuts when I was growing up in Minnesota. Darn things would get in my ears and nose whenever we went fishing. But those were too small to see.”

Barron’s recollection was a sobering reminder that the warming day would bring other aquatic insects to the surface, and they would be hungry. “Well let’s just hope Lyra is right, and this one will soon be moving along. In the mean time, let’s get that diatom oil moved up here!”

In the end, the process of hoisting the diatom oil canisters up the vallecular canal to the upper platform took three trips using Barron’s hemp rope elevator system. Lyra, Barron, and I worked quickly, buoyed by a warm afternoon light that filled the chamber with a reassuring glow.

We were transferring the final load from the lift when the door-blocking insect began respiring rapidly. Heat radiated from its body. Through its translucent abdominal wall, lit from behind by the sun, we could see an arterial network swelling with circulatory fluid. With a sudden rasping of its barbed legs, the insect was gone.

Our door to the outside was no longer blocked. Unfiltered light streamed in. Visible through that rectangular portal, Cyclops was resting on her keel across a short expanse of glassy impenetrable water – and what a joy it was to see her undamaged.

Lyra contemplated aloud what I was already thinking: “We need an easy way to get the oil over to the ship.”

“I’ve already worked out a solution for that,” declared Barron. “You see, while you were down inside that plant I was actually getting something done.”

From the chiseled–out hallway Barron revealed a plank-like sledge, evidently made from a cellulose lath he’d scavenged from the upper platform. “Now if we only had a microscopic mule team,” he added.

“Our own strong backs will have to suffice,” I said, and began fashioning a simple harness and towline. “Besides, the exercise will be good for us.” Neither Lyra nor Barron offered any response.

With ourselves as beasts-o-burden, we began dragging the oil across the solid plain from the rush to the ship. Glide runners fashioned from Barron’s ingenious use of two S-shaped micro fibers provided near frictionless contact between the sledge and the aquatic interface. Once set in motion, the loaded sledge slid easily, as if on ice.

As we approached Cyclops, Gyro ran out to greet us and assist with the labor. The young steersman was evidently eager to reunite with the crew. He gave his own colorful account of his exciting ride on the tidal wave. With his help we were soon alongside our sturdy ship, unloading the oil canisters from the sledge.

“The oil will serve perfectly as a surfactant,” explained Barron, “That is, it will break the surface tension between the water and the air, or in this case, the water and the ship.”

“I just have one question,” said Gyro. “To get the ship back beneath the surface do we apply the oil to the water around the ship, or do we pour it over the hull?”

“Neither,” Barron answered confidently. “To insure the best coverage and most effective use of the oil, we will atomize it – turn it into an aerosol.”

“Barron, do we have the equipment for that?” I asked, already guessing the answer.

“The main propeller will serve as a distributor. With the engine in reverse, the prop will throw the oil into a mist, effectively coating both the ship and the water beneath it with a fine coating. That’s all it will take. Cyclops will slip beneath the surface and we will back in business.”

From the glassy surface around us, pupae continued to surface and hungry adult insects emerged. I was relieved to hear that Barron had worked out a fast way to distribute the oil and that we would soon be underway.

Then there was chaos.

“Run!” shouted someone, although now I’m unable to recall who it was. A shadow passed over the sun, shading the stranded Cyclops and an area several millimeters around it. Looking back over my shoulder the sky had disappeared, replaced by the massive compound eyes, mandibles, and the slathering mouth of a monster.

It was our friend the no-see-um, and she was hungry.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 10: Tidal Wave

Day 8: 1600 hours…

Excerpt from Engine Master’s Log

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Nine: A Gift of Diatoms

Day 8: 1415 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a doorway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who, or what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a wave!” announced Lyra.

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

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

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

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

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

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