Category Archives: Novel Blog

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 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 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 Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Eight: Stranded on the Surface

Day 8: 1115 hours…

Barron, Lyra, and myself found ourselves standing on the water, assessing our predicament. The Cyclops lay at rest on a mirror-gloss plane, canted several degrees to starboard where she had come to rest after being throw clear of the surfacing pupa. Barron had checked over the exterior with his engineer’s eye, and reported no damage. He credited the slightly gelatin-like springiness of the surface, which likely eased the impact of the crash. Looking at our stranded ship-protection-homein this state I could not help but feel a sense of urgency to get her back in the water where she belonged. The unearthly sounds of another insect emerging nearby served to underscore my anxiety.

“Skipper,” Lyra announced with uncommon veracity, “the sooner we get back below the surface, the better.”

Ten millimeters away the glassy plane of the water bulged upward, then burst. Spear -like projections, hairs actually, stabbed skyward then blossomed outward over the water, creating an aperture in the surface tension – a break in the featureless plane from which emerged a winged monster.

With what appeared to be considerable effort the enormous insect pulled itself out of the pupa exoskeleton, dragging itself into the world with its six articulated legs, an aquatic creature reborn into the terrestrial realm. Its antennae and wings were still crumpled but immediately began to unfurl. As its wings dried in the morning sun, giant compound eyes surveyed the surrounding plane. It picked a half-millimeter speck off the water, a mite, then crunched it in powerful jaws, and swallowed it. The Cyclops was not much bigger than the doomed mite, and not much further away from the insect.

“Just what I thought,” said Lyra. “These are Chironomidae, also known as blind mosquitos. We must’ve gotten entangled with the pupa as it was surfacing, and were thrown clear. That one will fly off in search of a mate, but another one could hatch right beneath us and make the Cyclops its first meal.”

“Not what I signed up for,” commented Gyro.

“So,” I asked, beginning the question on everyone’s mind, “how do we break through the surface tension and get back in the water?”

“What we need,” announced Barron, appearing in the companionway, “is a surfactant – a compound that we can apply to the hull – something that will nullify the water’s cohesive nature. At launch the ship was painted with a micelle coating, but that beasty must’ve secreted phospholipids to help it break through the surface tension…”

“Which stripped off our own anti-cohesive coating,” finished Lyra, “leaving us stranded. But any kind of oil will break the surface tension.”

“We keep a supply of olive oil on board for greasing the gears, and for covering the diving suits,” explained Barron, “but there isn’t enough to glaze the hull. “

“Then I have good news” added Lyra reassuringly. “Oil occurs naturally in a common family of planktonic algae, in species that thrive in this region.”

“It appears,” I said feeling encouraged, “that we are going fishing for algae. But what kind are we looking for?”

Lyra’s eyes flickered with excitement. “Diatoms!”

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Seven: The Hatch

Day 4: 0030 hours…

Before we unfurled our drift anchor and set the ship ready for the night I ordered the crew to make all hatches and other points of ingress doubly secure. This did little to ease my anxiety. At four bells on the first watch I distributed a jigger of whiskey to every man to help settle nerves. This was hailed as my best command decision to date.

Day 4: 0700 hours

The crew is on edge this morning, less congenial than normal, and I am fairly certain of the reason. Like them, the incident with the mysterious intruder shook me to the very core of my scientific convictions. There simply is no explanation for the disappearance of the remains of the algal protist – no answer to this mystery. But I feel compelled to take action, to do something to preserve the mission and make my ship and crew safe. I will therefore acquiesce to my urge to put some distance between the Cyclops and this region of the pond universe.   I acknowledge that to do so makes little sense – for the culprit is a mystery, therefore a solution to it is a mystery as well. It is my hope that distance will lighten our hearts and help to reenergize our intrepid spirit.

Day 8: 0540 hours…

It has been three days since I last penned an entry into my exploration log, but in this realm three days may as well be three weeks. I know not whether this is due to an anomalous time dilation created by our micro scale existence, or a sense that we are more removed than ever from the macro world. But it is a certainty that as our mission takes us further and deeper into the unknown, the world of hearth and table takes on an ethereal and distant quality, as if the micro verse is now and has always been our true home, and we are only now realizing it.

Last night at five bells we completed our first crossing of the pond’s northern arm, making an average speed of seventeen meters per day for three and a half days. Engine master Barron has been bragging about the feat to anyone in earshot, and the rest of crew is happy to allow him this conceit. He is normally a reserved man, and we are all delighted to see him in this rare mood. If I allowed myself the luxury of superstition, I would hope that this accomplishment portends good fortune for the Cyclops and her crew.

After our recent mystery it was unnerving to cross that fathomless expanse, a black void below us day and night. On the crossing we observed a diversity of phytoplankton, including species undoubtedly related to the old friends that are by now quite familiar. None of these organisms were struck or wounded by the ship, and no specimen was brought aboard. During the passage the Cyclops came to the surface twice. The first time was to transmit a wireless update of our position and status to the receiving post back at Dragonfly Sky-base. The second visit occurred with considerably less intention.

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

At two bells on the dog watch, we had just put away the evening mess. I was on the observation deck of the pilothouse when Barron called up from the engine room to report a feedback vibration in the propeller shaft. I heard the engine order telegraph ring 4-times, indicating that Jonathan had ordered all-stop. Within seconds a vertical displacement wake off the portside sent us tumbling abeam. As the ship righted itself, another wake even stronger, threw the Cyclops end over end. I was able to gain purchase against the ladder with a clear view through the starboard porthole. Outside, giant objects were rising up from the depths all around us. There was something familiar about this phenomenon, something I had seen on still water many times in the late spring, on country lakes and ponds in southern Vermont, when I was a girl. I knew immediately what was happening.

As soon as the ship steadied herself I hurried down to the observation deck to report.   I found Jonathan helping Gyro with the wheel, meaning that the ship’s rudder was being slammed by the turbulence. Through his clenched jaw Jonathan asked if I had any idea what was going on outside. I explained that we were caught in the middle of an insect hatch, a warm season occurrence in temperate wetlands when an entire population of insects emerges from its aquatic pupa stage, rises to the surface en mass, and takes to the air as flying adults of the species. The huge columns of turbulence outside were insect pupae, rising to the surface!

                                                                                 As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

No sooner had Lyra delivered her report, than the deck began to tremble, each small vibration building upon the previous one, a crescendo that could only culminate in catastrophe. I barely had time to give the order to makefast all steering surfaces. As the crash shutters were closing over the windows of the observation deck we were thrown to the floor as upward acceleration pressed us into the floor. It was as if a huge elevator were lifting the entire ship rapidly upward, but more powerfully than any I had ever experienced, even in the modern lifts in the towering twenty-story skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. And then…

I was floating above that same deck in a state of freefall. Gravity was no more.   Gyro, clutching the ship’s wheel, stared over his shoulder at me with dismay in his saucer eyes. I’m sure my expression of one of equal consternation.

“Skipper!” shouted Lyra. But before she could complete her sentence we were slammed back to the deck, and our ears assaulted with the sound of metal complaining.

Then all was still. The deck was canted several degrees to starboard. The Edison lamps flickered, then went dark. Rays of golden daylight stabbed into the darkened pilothouse through watch-holes in the crash shutters.

“Where are we?” asked Gyro.

I pressed my face to the watch-hole. We were surrounded by sunshine, unfiltered by water. I gave the orders to open the crash shutters.

The Cyclops was resting on the impenetrable surface of the endless pond – a featureless plane that extended to a hazy indefinite horizon. And we were stranded upon that unbreakable expanse, as solid as stone to us. Unless we found the means to break through the water’s surface tension, we were stuck, with no way to resume our journey.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Six: The Water Flea

Day 3: 1430 hours…

Emerging from the region of shadow, sunlit water filled the forward view with the now familiar close-yet-distant blur of watery blues, greens, and soft yellows. I posted Barron to the crow’s nest to keep watch, and was about to order Gyro to take us up a hundred centimeters when the engine master’s rumble bellowed over the voice pipe.

“Collision! Close the shutters! Repeat: collision!”

Gyro threw the release for the crash doors. The steel plates slammed down over the glass panes of the pilothouse an instant before we heard a thunderous crunching sound and were thrown forward against controls and railings. The noise of the impact reverberated through the ship like an out-of-tune timpani. The screech of metal against something of similar hardness provided an upper register to this chaotic chord. Then all became eerily quiet.

“I think we hit something,” offered Lyra pulling herself up from the deck, her wry conclusion left hanging in the air.

“Or it hit us,” countered Gyro.

“Either way,” I said, “Let’s make sure we didn’t spring any leaks. You know the protocol – I want eyes on every seam, every rivet, bow to stern. On the double!”

When it was determined that our ship had suffered no breech, I ordered the crash doors unshuttered. As the corrugated leaves of iron folded away we finally saw the object that had collided with Cyclops.

It was Daphnia pulex, known commonly as the water flea. And we were seeing it like Daphnia had never been seen before. To the macro scale world naked eye water fleas are visible as tiny swimming specks. They are common in temperate freshwater ponds and wetlands throughout north America, Europe and Australia. I recalled seeing my first Daphnia in a basic biology class at the Naval Academy. That one was under a low-powered microscope, its eye and internal organs just barely visible. That was in another world.

This monstrous free Daphnia stared directionless with its single lidless black eye. Its clear shell-like carapace revealed every organ, every muscle and nerve fiber… and filling its abdominal cavity, a number of twitching, kicking, spinning daphnia embryos.

“I think we stunned it,” diagnosed Lyra. “Jonathan, do you know what this means?”

“I do, indeed,” I said, knowing full well at what Lyra was hinting. “But this time you won’t be going alone!”

Barron helped us into our suits and helmets. The equipment is coated with a thin film of oil that we rendered from fatty bodies harvested from the algal protist recently brought aboard. The oil negates the cohesive nature of water that occurs when air and water meet. This will permit us to slip effortlessly through the otherwise impenetrable surface tension.

“Skipper, if you’ll allow me,” said Barron as he placed the brass diving helmet over my head, “I’d like to go outside myself and hammer out the starboard manipulator. Looks like the extender arm was bent when we collided with the beasty.”

I gave Barron permission to make the repair dive, but with the understanding that he must stay in line-of-sight with Gyro in the pilothouse.

1500 hours…

Lyra and I drop through the diving portal on the Cyclops’ underside. We swim toward the stunned animal, then turn to circumnavigate it. I glance back over my shoulder at the ship. Barron is outside now, affecting repairs on the starboard manipulator arm assembly. I can see Gyro through the pilothouse windows, his interest trained on Barron. I am confident that both men are observing safety protocols. I turn my attention back to the subject.

Daphnia has a range of normal sizes. This one is about four times the size of Cyclops. The first impression is as if looking at a complex animal with the benefit of fluoroscopic vision. We peer easily through her clear shell, and can survey all of the internal organs.

The Daphnia’s eye, upon closer examination, is not a single black structure as I originally believed; it is instead a cluster of light receptors connected to the creature’s brain by a visible bundle of nerves, and controlled by a network of muscles, very much like a human eye.

Even stunned, the animal’s jaws are constantly grinding, ready to crush and swallow the small food organisms it prefers. Her digestive system is an elongated S-shape that fills the center of the main body, and is packed with green organisms in various stages of digestion. These are the same algal protists that make up the usual diet of most freshwater planktonic crustaceans.

The daphnia’s heart is beating quickly, pumping a clear fluid through the animal’s body, presumably delivering oxygen to muscles and organs. And in the lower abdominal chamber a brood of wee daphnia is plainly visible, babies! It looks crowded in there. Birth time can’t be far off. I am struck by the impression that the embryos are looking out through their mother’s transparent exoskeleton at us.

We continue our swim around the creature for perhaps three quarters of an hour before Lyra signals that our air tanks are below 25% volume, giving us about fiftenn minutes to leisurely complete one more circle before heading back to the ship. At that moment a flashing light comes from the direction of the Cyclops. I turn toward my ship to see the forward lamps powering on and off in rapid succession, the signal that we should return as fast as we can swim.

We swim with a steady, controlled rhythm. I cannot help trying to imagine why Gyro has recalled us early from the dive. Perhaps he has reason to suspect a predator is nearby, or other nature peril. We kick our way closer and closer to the ship, one micron at a time. Finally, we are under the command section and the welcome warm light of the diving room is stabbing down through the open portal. Lyra ascends first. As I wait, alone here in aquatic micro space, I imagine this would be moment we come under attack by some enormous predator. I would be flung away from the ship with only a few minutes of air remaining. But my imagination is proven wrong. Barron’s arm appears through the aperture. I grab his forearm and let him lift me up into the safety of the ship.

1600 hours…

“Skipper, I can’t explain it,” Gyro said as we stowed our diving gear.

“Please try,” I responded. I was irritated about having to cut our dive short, and hadn’t yet received anything that approached a coherent excuse or explanation.

Gyro shrugged. “I don’t think we are alone.” The words bounced around the diving room with a metallic timbre. “I can’t think of any other explanation.”

“Explanation for what, Mr. Gyro?”

“For what happened. See, I was in the pilothouse, like you ordered. Keeping at eye outside on Barron, like you told me. He was almost done with the repairs when I felt something in my ears, in my head, like a pressure change. It was very fast, so I ignored it. There were no alarms, so I didn’t think any more about it…until…”

“Until what?”

“I saw that Barron was finished. He gave me the okay sign, so I started down here to help him through the aperture. As I was passing the lab I thought I saw something in there, like a shadow that shouldn’t be there. At first I thought maybe it was the light coming through the porthole playing tricks on me. Then I stuck my head through the door. And it was gone.”

“Gyro, what was gone?”

“That damaged algae cell we brought on board. We ate the chloroplast from it for breakfast, and boiled down the fat-bodies for oil.   I think Lyra wanted to save it for a couple more days to study.”

“That’s right,” confirmed Lyra. “I want to examine the other organelles before discarding it overboard.”

“Well, you won’t have the chance,” explained Gyro, “because the whole thing, except for what we used, is gone.”

“What do you mean, ‘gone?’” Lyra asked.

“Every bit of it, including the parts you’d set aside… are gone. Something took them, or they walked out of here on their own. There isn’t a drop of cytoplasm in the examination tray.”

“That’s when you signaled us?” I asked.

“No, Skipper. While Barron was getting out of his gear I took a look around. I found something up on the main deck. The aft hatch had been opened and then closed again. There was a puddle on the deck just inside the airlock. That’s when I signaled you.”

“Let’s have a look,” I said.

We found the aft hatch just as Gyro had described, secured with the pressure seals in their locked position, but it had clearly been opened recently. At the base of the hatch the deck was wet with a large puddle and several smaller puddles. Though it defies logic, someone, or something had used this exit to enter the ship, collect the remains of the dead algal protist, and then leave. Since all crewmembers had been accounted for, something unknown had been aboard the Cyclops.

Lyra spent several moments bent over the small puddles, then stood and whispered into my ear: “I’m pretty sure those are footprints. But…

“But what?”

“They’re not human.”

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Five: A Gathering of Green Globes

Day 2: Supplementary entry…

We recovered a damaged algal cell from the copepod’s feeding station and moved it into our lab. The cell was no longer alive having lost most of its gel-like fluid and organelles from a rupture in its cell membrane. Still intact was a green organelle with a horseshoe-like shape. Lyra tells me this structure is common in nearly all organisms requiring sunlight to carry out the processes of life, and is called a chloroplast.

Day 3: 0600 hours

At four bells I am pleased to report another uneventful night after holding station at a depth of three hundred centimeters. Although no one else heard it, I was pulled twice from my slumber by a series of strange clicking sounds. This morning when I queried Lyra about the sounds she theorized that they may be produced by yet another crustacean relative, noting that this behavior is similar to several tropical shrimp species. The first light of day revealed no such animal near the Cyclops.

We enjoyed a breakfast of robust Venezuelan-grown coffee, toast with jam, and a delicious salad made of the chloroplast gleaned from the damaged algal protist we collected the previous day. Lyra informed us that the disc-like structures filling the chloroplast are composed largely of chlorophyll molecules. They have a flavor akin to that of sweet peas. With this culinary success we look forward to more micro world delicacies!

While I sipped a second cup of coffee, the crew cleared the table of dishes and utensils and unfurled the charts of the open water. All were excited to set about planning our exploration for the day.

1030 hours…

Diving to a depth of 750cm we found ourselves drifting amongst a large population of beautiful green spheres. With their gentle rotation and slow, almost dance-like movement through the open water, these organisms are enchanting to behold. The scene before us would only have been more mesmerizing had it been accompanied by the accomplished strains of a Bach string concerto.

Lyra, using her shipboard reference library, has identified these organisms as Volvox, first seen two hundred years ago by the pioneer of microscopy Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and named a half century later by Carl Linnaeus – Volvox globator.

“Skipper,” Lyra said with her usual enthusiasm, “let me go out there! We need to learn how they rotate like that, and deduce the function of the smaller spheres inside. Please, Jonathan…”

“Capital idea, “ I responded – to Lyra’s surprise, I think. “But if there are any signs of predators, you will return immediately.”

She nodded and smiled as if she would be the last person in the entire microverse to take any chances.

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

“What a thrill and honor to be the first person to ever swim through aquatic micro space! The weight of the oxygen tank and helmet, though quite substantial aboard the Cyclops, are negated in the water, leaving me feeling quite unencumbered. It took slightly longer to become accustomed to the Brownian Motion, a sensation that the water is vibrating over every part of me. How envious Robert Brown would be! He could never have known that humans would be experiencing pedesis for themselves a mere seventy-five years after his original observation of the phenomenon – that of rapidly moving water molecules colliding with micro-sized pollen granules.

“My first observation as I approached a Volvox was that it is not a single organism, but many living in concert. The outer skin of the sphere is made up of thousands of small green cells, and each of these has a pair of whipping flagella, which flail outward from the sphere in a synchronized fashion. The cells somehow coordinate the movement of their flagella. Such activity must be how the spherical colony spins and moves about. But how do the small single cells coordinate their efforts?

“A closer look at the surface of the sphere reveals that the cells are actually interconnected by lines! Might these lines carry chemical signals between every cell in the colony, instructing them how to direct their flailing flagella? I find myself wondering what environmental stimuli causes the colony to trigger such signals and redirect its course. The greenish nature of the cells hints that as with green plants sunlight might play a role.

“A most remarkable feature of these colonies lies inside them. The translucent outer sphere surrounds a number of other smaller bundles of cells. In some colonies these smaller spheres are quite compact, and in others they appear nearly identical, except for size, to the large colonies.

“A sudden surprise draws my attention! Overhead, one of the large spheres splits open, and the smaller daughter colonies inside escape, already rotating into the sunlight, leaving the now lifeless mother colony behind! This must be how Volvox gives birth to new colonies. Before I can swim away, the new daughter colonies pass dangerously close by. The current from their flagellated outer cells sends me tumbling further away from the Cyclops. I am caught in their eddy. As I am pulled by the current I reach out, grasping for anything. Something touches my hand. It is the tattered membrane of the mortally wounded mother colony. I grab on to it and hold on for dear life as the daughter colonies move off. I have been saved by their doomed mother.”

                                                As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

Day 3: 1115 hours…

Never again! Lyra, by a stroke of uncanny luck, is now safely back aboard ship. Her encounter with the Volvox daughter colonies has forced me to make new rules for extra vehicular activities. I informed our adventurous young naturalist that she will heretofore not be allowed on a diving assignment without escort.

We have left the Volvox group and entered a shadowy region. Gyro theorizes that somewhere above us, on the pond’s surface, a lily pad or other floating object is preventing sunlight from penetrating down this far.

I ordered the driving lamps illuminated – and the timing could not have been more fortuitous. The electrical radiance of our Edison’s light revealed a huge translucent insect larva not three ship-lengths dead ahead! Gyro reflexively spun the wheel and gave the monster a wide berth. We spent several minutes observing the creature. This phantom larva was virtually invisible, a factor that benefits the insect when it comes to snatching up smaller unwary larvae for a quick snack.