Helmets came off. Cilia relaxed. Pseudopods morphed into arms and legs. Joni Janders knew the Microsian… knew her well. The paramecium-ride over from the colony had bonded them. But the man in front of her, this James Ford… he was a mystery. Suddenly her osmotic diving suit felt uncomfortably revealing.
The ship rocked beneath her feet. A near-yet-muffled report of something striking the hull accompanied ship-wide alarms.
“What the hell is going out there?!” barked Captain Dylan Cobb from the command deck.
At his elbow, Joni Janders felt her jaw slacken… but it wasn’t the size of the paramecium that evoked dismay. No, it was something else – someone else. There, in the light of the ship’s nose lamp, a humanoid figure was clearly visible astride the whale-scaled protozoan, gripping some kind of riding tack with pseudopod hands. At the end of a long curved neck, a bulbous head swiveled left, then right, and the Microsian’s single red photosensitive eyespot pulled apart into two eyes, then gazed for an instant across half millimeter of aquatic micro-space at Joni.
“Stay with the ship,” I tell Barron Wolfe as Lyra, Gyro, Rand and I hop from Cyclops’ deck onto the lowest platform of the Microsian colony, the nearest thing to a dock that I have seen since our departure from Duckweed Base. I tighten the strap of my satchel, feeling the weight of its contents resting against my hip. I signal to Rand, indicating for him to lead the way.
To my right, there is no partition or seawall to prevent an accidental misstep and tumble into the enclosed sea, or to prevent waves from flooding into the city – an obvious contrast to seaside communities from our world. But of course, there are no waves on this sea, and no tides. Other than Cyclops the waterfront is devoid of other boats or vessels. I reckon that if the Microsians make use of watercraft, such vessels would be submarine in nature, and are harbored below us, in some manner of underwater harbor.
The multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen. Have they become suddenly timid? Or now that we are closer, do they prefer to observe us from the shadows? Perhaps their curiosity has already been satiated and they no longer find us of interest. Although questions bombard my thoughts, it is the myriad of possible answers that now flood my mind.
I draw a calming breath, confronting the perils of amateur anthropology: projecting human behavior onto these decidedly un-human creatures is not the way of the scientific process. That mistake will lead to incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings, and very likely disaster. The dark legacy of explorers-that-came-before serves as a reminder to remain clearheaded, objective, and above all… observant.
We enter the first city without fanfare or hoopla. The micro metropolis appears to be abandoned, yet we know that we are being watched from what appear to be windows carved in the face of the many multi-story earthen-formed edifices. With Rand in the lead, our landing party strolls along the sea-edge. I take up the end of our procession and scan the spartan streets, the shadows between the odd structures ahead of us, for any sign of the Microsians. There are none.
Overhead, spanning the enormous bottle interior is a progression of six buttressed platforms, a vertical array of enormous bridges that each serve as the foundation for its own Microsian city. The highest level is barely visible above a ceiling of cloud. The uppermost city, Rand tells me, is where we are headed.
Randy explains that each of the seven levels is a city unto itself, complete with towering buildings built upon it, and inverted domiciles hanging like stalagmites from the underside. And yet, it is eerily quiet. There is no movement.
“The Microsians,” I whisper, “have made themselves scarce, I daresay.”
“Where did they all go?” questions Gyro anxiously.
“No need to be nervous… or insulted,” answers Rand. “The Unity shared the momentous occasion of your arrival, witnessed it through the eyes of every individual, then created a memory of it in its own fashion. Now it has returned to its normal routine. Life goes on!” A stray thought makes him laugh. “Just because a little ship full of micro-sized humans – that its scouts have been watching for weeks – finally shows up, hardly warrants walking off the job and calling for a holiday. This isn’t Washington D.C., after all!”
“They all have tasks then? asks Lyra. “Like the division of labor in the social orders of honeybees, termites, and naked mole rats?”
“More complex than those. The Microsia Aquatica symbiotica have a rigid caste system, and species-wide social equality. There is no hierarchy – no leader, no president, king, queen, or emperor. Just three castes: warriors, growers, and crafters – and all have equal importance and influence.”
“Efficient, but limiting I would think,” comments Lyra.
“Three jobs! That’s not enough,” remarks Gyro. “A society needs more than defense, agriculture, and construction. What about a constabulary?”
Lyra: “And educators!”
Myself: “And explorers.”
“Irrelevant human institutions, all based on human nature,” says Rand, adopting his Academy guest professor of social anthropology tone. “And therefore meaningless here. Among Microsians, at least with this symbiotica subspecies, the three castes cooperate in various combinations to fill non-essential niches. You’ll find that most of the vocational callings of our world have no equivalent in this one. Best to abandon those preconceptions.”
“It’s remarkable!” says Lyra. “A civilization without leaders, or even family groups.”
“How then do they deal with visitors?” I inquire.
“Seems that the arrival of visitors is extremely rare, and from what I’ve learned, so rare that there is no formalized procedure for greeting, welcoming, or meeting newcomers.”
Lyra: “When you arrived, out of thin air, it must’ve changed their world.”
“You would think so,” muses Rand thoughtfully, “and yet, it was almost as if I had been expected. When I materialized, I was escorted to an empty chamber where three Microsians met with me: a warrior, a grower, and a crafter. Of course I didn’t understand those differentiations at the time. Each of them attempted communication with me, in their own way, with various combinations of ciliary waves and crystal resonance – and a lot of gazing into my eyes. Two of the three were unable to understand me, and I failed to decode their strange non verbal communication. But the Microsian of the warrior caste succeeded – and she did so spectacularly. Alontyn was able to decipher spoken English very quickly. And even though I sensed some rudiments of her communication immediately, it took me a bit longer to become fluent in her microsian vibro-tongue.”
“Her?” asks Lyra. “The warrior caste includes females?”
“As do all the castes. In a strictly biological sense, all Microsians are female. The exchange of DNA is not necessary for them to reproduce.”
How will these revelations play out over the coming minutes? I am more curious than ever: “Then with whom will we be meeting?”
“As was the case when I arrived, it was decided that a representative from each caste would meet with each of you. You’ll be bonded to a single Microsian, who will become the conduit of your voice to the Unity. The representatives are waiting for you.” Rand pointed skyward, toward the uppermost platform. “Up there.”
“That’s going to be quite a climb,” says Gyro with a tired sigh.
Rand smiles. “There will be no climbing today. The Microsians have a much better way to move between cities. Over here…”
Rand leads us away from the water’s edge, to a cylindrical structure made of transparent material. It disappears overhead into the second platform, and I assume continues upward to the cities above.
“This is a capillary conveyer. It’s how they move from one city, up or down, to another. You’re going to enjoy this.” Rand steps through the outer wall of the cylinder and is now inside, standing on a film of transparency. He beckons us to join him with a hand gesture. I lean into the wall of the cylinder. Though it appears solid, the material offers a slight resistance – then quite effortlessly, with a gentle pop, I am inside this microsian elevator tube. The circular space easily accommodates we four, and could hold twice our number.
Rand, who has kept one hand extended through the transparency, assesses the group, then announces: “Do not touch the wall. When I pull my hand inside, enzymes in the cylinder membrane will denature the proteins in the floor under our feet and we will be suspended on the water itself, via surface tension. The water beneath will instantly carry us up via capillary action.”
I cannot help marveling at the simplicity and genius of the Microsian elevator.
Rand withdraws his hand from the wall of the tube – and in the next instant we are propelled upward at what is for us, an astonishing speed. The foundation level of the Primo Gradu drops away as we ascend through the space between buildings, then a moment of darkness as the tube carries us through the second platform. In the space of a single breath we burst back into the light of the second city as the conveyer carries us higher and higher, through the third, then the fourth.
“Enjoy the view, but don’t press against the cylinder wall,” insists my always thorough first officer.
We break into the light of the fifth city. The grand vista of the captured sea is breathtaking. At this altitude the curved walls of the bottle are drawing closer, curving inward to meet us as we rocket skyward. This vantage point reveals the arrays of algae farms clinging to the inside of the bottle. A shimmer of movement among those vast gravity-defying fields betrays presence of the shy Microsians – the grower caste is hard at work, tending the simple crops that provide the colony with energy and oxygen.
The darkness of the sixth level swallows us momentarily, and when we emerge from shadow, the light of the sixth city is the brightest yet. We have ascended above the atmospheric vapor that drifts about the upper levels of the bottle-space, cloaking the seventh city from the others below.
Rand slowly pushes two fingers through the inner cylinder wall. At once our ascent slows. As we enter the darkness of the seventh and uppermost platform, our speed drops to the scale equivalent of a Manhattan Otis elevator.
We rise into the light of the uppermost city – the terminus of our vertical transit. Rand steps through the cylinder’s inner membrane. The rest of us follow him onto the clean plain of the Semptimo Gradu, the city of the seventh level.
“Remember,” says Rand, “stay as calm and relaxed as you can muster. And only touch them if invited to. Ah, here they come.”
From the base of a massive spheroidal structure, a contingent of Microsians moves in our direction. There are many more than the four that I was expecting. One is in the lead: that would be Rand’s Alontyn. Behind her I count nine others. Of course… one from each caste for myself, Lyra, and Gyro – for the pairing test.
I am captivated by the approaching entourage.
My first impression is one of translucent membrane, exaggerated slender neck and limbs, a head crest of membrane-bound cilia that follows a longitudinal line from forehead, over the head, down the neck and back, ending where the legs part from the lower torso. The same cilia-bound membrane adorns the backside of the arms.
The essential two-legged, two-armed, head, neck, and torso construction of the Microsians belie their exotic nature. Everything about them reveals how un-human they are – but how perfectly microsian, like every organism we have encountered, adapted to living in a micro-verse. They appear to glide over the ground. Microsian stride is a flowing movement in which the human approximations of hip, leg, knee, and foot form and reform from one moment to the next from pairs of amoeba-like pseudopodia. If a greater stride is required, mass for a larger leg is drawn from the torso, which in turn becomes slighter. And if arms need to stretch further, the same thing occurs, with cytoplasm flowing from the torso and legs into the arms to supply the required mass. Suspended throughout the microsian bodies are globules and spheres of all sizes, evidently serving as the individual’s vital organs – exactly as we have seen with the organelles of protozoa throughout our travels.
Not until they are mere steps away do I notice the most un-human aspect of our hosts.
The Microsians have a single red eyespot. Though disconcerting at first, this should come as no surprise, for we have seen the same simple adaptation for light response many times, especially with the green algal protists whose single photosensitive red eyespots serve to detect safe or desirable levels of solar radiation. With the Microsia aquatica the red eyespot is located in the center of a bulb-shaped head, which like all their appendages, extends from the torso on an extremely long, slender stalk-like neck. Not until the Microsian appears intent on careful observation, does its large single red eyespot pull apart, forming two smaller eyes that take up positions in the face similar to where our own eyes are located. I theorize that this is a response to situations when binocular observation is required.
I find myself surrounded by an earnest Microsian trio: a grower, a crafter, and a warrior. They encircle me, their faces almost, but not quite, touching my own, their eyes piercing mine. They take turns performing an almost avian-type display with waves of raised cilia accompanied by subsonic reverberations from the excretory crystals in their cytoplasm. The vibrations washing over and through me are not unpleasant, and I am reminded of the deep reverberation I have experienced while riding in the engine cab of a steam locomotive, a sensation that could easily lull me to sleep.
But there is no cognitive impression. As a sense of disappointment begins to intrude on the experience I am slammed by a wave of intense feeling.
When she of the crafting caste locks her gaze onto mine and performs her dance/song I am suddenly filled with an explosion of euphoric contentment. The initial overwhelming moment quickly resolves into more definable feelings of inclusiveness, completeness, safety, wholeness… unity. So powerful are the unbidden emotions that I forget to breath, grow lightheaded, then gasp for lungs-full of the enriched algae-made oxygen. After a minute the emotions temper, supplanted by more grounded images/thoughts/ideas. I regain control of my breathing, lower my resistance, and let the connection happen.
Oxhya, her name exists as normally as it didn’t a moment earlier, is painting a fresco in my mind – a picture story that says we are compatible, have always been, will always be. She and I have become what the Microsia Aquatica value above all else: symbiotic.
Oxhya is more content than happy, feeling the same sense of completeness as I.
I speak the words: “How is this possible?”
Her answer arrives as threads of a million thoughts, weaving into a new tapestry. At their foundations, matter and energy are simply fields of energy, attracting and repelling. One very pure form of that energy is consciousness, capable of interacting in more dynamic ways than most other kinds. The consciousness generated by living things is unique to each individual, and has a forceful nature of attraction. That elemental attraction is particularly powerful between Microsians and humans, making symbiotic links of interspecies consciousness possible.
It is clear to me now, finding ourselves in this amazing place, meeting this never-seen-before species, is no accident. We have been led here, to this moment. Our voyage of discovery through the micro habitats of the pond universe, though seemingly one of exploration, driven by curiosity and a need to understand the fundamentals of life, was much, much more. We have been steered and redirected at every turn, onto paths that would bring us here, for this meeting, for this joining. And yet, I cannot deny that the wonders we have observed in our travels seem to have perfectly prepared us for this moment.
“Why have you brought us here?”
We have failed to understand why humans do not seek symbiosis with life. This has caused us pain. The People have sought enlightenment, but cannot find it. You were brought here to make the People understand why your kind does not seek symbiosis with life. Humans benefit most from all worlds, so why are humans not stewards of all worlds? Why do humans destroy worlds? Why do humans waste? Why do humans put material into the People’s world that ends life? Why do humans…
My involuntary response to Oxhya’s questions exposes her to an emotion wholly new to the Microsia Aquatica symbiotica.
As my arms drop to my sides, my left hand falls upon the satchel, and feels the weight contained within. Now is the time to deliver that which was sent to my world, a package that I was given strict orders to hand over “when the time was right.” I haven’t a doubt in my mind that this is that time.
Without breaking my gaze with Oxhya, my fingers fumble with the satchel’s leather closure. I reach inside and wrap my hand around the cloth-enclosed parcel, then gently withdraw the bundle.
Oxhya extends her right arm. The fin-like hand spreads wide to receive the cloth-enclosed parcel. I set it gently onto her hand, which wraps tenderly to secure it. Small pseudopods form fingers that deftly unwrap the bundle. Cotton cloth falls away from a pile of perfect teardrop-shaped black crystals, each the size of my thumb. A wave of knowledge: I feel and know instantly that these are the mineral remains of a microsian eye.
Oxhya lifts the black shards to her face, and I see what she sees – feel what she feels. This was Elaryn, also of the crafting caste, who gave her life to send the information to the outer world, to the humans. From her crystalline essence came the instructions for building the amazing quantum restructuring micronizer.
Recalling my own hubris I am embarrassed. It was no grand accomplishment of human genius! It was a gift from the very people our world endangers – a brilliant conveyance for getting us to come to them.
No – it was for getting me to come to her.
End of Book 1
Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs
Day 16: 1230 hours
They are watching us!
Lyra, Gyro, and Barron have joined me topside, but nobody has yet found words to adequately express any emotion, let alone a vague analysis of the moment. We, my crew and I, stand side-by-side, silently transfixed on a scene that I can barely put into thought, let alone language. Could this be how British explorer James Cook felt, after Europeans had been crisscrossing the Pacific for a century, when he then discovered a thriving society, hundreds of thousands strong, on an isolated archipelago in the middle of that ocean?
Not only watching, but evaluating us!
The nearest platform of this incongruous micro metropolis, one built at the same level as the captured sea, is approximately two centimeters away. The waterfront is lined with the bipedal forms, each seemingly identical to the next, an observation that I attribute to the effect of distance.
Below the glimmering surface of the miniature sea, ciliated organisms cruise the waters around us, bipedal beings astride paramecia, driving them like frontiersmen on horseback.
Irrefutable, the visual evidence penetrates my mind, collides with my sluggish comprehension. The wisdom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drifts like welcome salvation into my thoughts: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
“Skipper, what should we do?” whispers Gyro, his voice tremulous. I can hear disbelief fermenting into fear. His almost-terror-stricken gaze shoots from the parapets above to the waters surrounding us. “There are hundreds of them! We should…”
“Arm ourselves is what we should do,” interjects Barron Wolfe. “I have a harpoon gun that would serve as a…”
“Stay right where you are, mister,” I tell the engine master. “All of you, in fact. Nobody move. They are watching, assessing us for whatever imperatives guide their behavior. Let’s not give them a reason to act hastily or against us.” I pitch my voice to project confidence and control. “We are explorers. Our first task is to observe. Any notions you may have about what this place is, or who these creatures are, are idle guesses. Am I understood?”
All heads nod. Good!
Lyra’s eyes widen. She points across the water toward the city. “Jonathan, someone is coming.”
The figure, a distant speck at first, grows in size and resolution with every step, and emerges slowly from the intervening mists that hover at various layers in this enclosed world. Though I do not know how, the figure is oddly familiar. Its stride, a steady gate upon the water’s surface, is incomprehensibly recognizable.
It is a man, his dark hair visible above a blue-gray uniform eerily similar to my own. Half a centimeter from Cyclops he stops, then incongruously raises his left arm and waves in a decidedly friendly manner, as if greeting us on Pennsylvania Avenue on a summer Saturday evening en route to Ford’s Theater. Even before I hear his shouted greeting, I know who it is.
“Jonathan Adler! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!”
It cannot be Rand Emerson, but that is exactly who it is, my executive officer, right-hand man, companion from my academy days – alive? In my mind, playing like a nickelodeon picture show, I recall the final moments before he evaporated into the ether of quantum space. There we were, the original five of us, the crew of the MS Cyclops, standing on the reaction stage of the machine – before those incredible energies bore down upon us, before Rand had glitched.
As Rand resumes his approach – as his grinning face becomes identifiable, my mind is already racing to understand, to explain how this can be, and something more – a powerful desire to repair the damage of his disappearance. I cannot wait to greet him, the medicine of seeing him whisked safely into the grateful arms of his crew mates. I feel an intense need to heal the tragedy of losing my first officer even before the voyage had begun. Then I remember my responsibility to the others, to the safety of the ship and her crew.
“Stand where you are, Sergeant!” I call to him. The crew’s welcoming shouts fade to silence and all heads spin toward me with quizzical expressions. On the water, Randall Emerson comes to a military halt, with chin up, heels together, and arms straight at his sides. “Hello, Rand! Sorry about the formality, but you might say that the situation is extraordinary – wouldn’t you agree?”
“I could not agree more, Captain Adler, sir,” he answers with diction crisp enough to cast a flint spark. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”
“You can hold station right where you are, Mr. Emerson,” I tell him. I have no doubt that this is the bona fide Randall Emerson, but I will persist with a line of query that will erase any suspicion that might otherwise linger in the minds of the crew. “Just a couple of questions before I crack open my last bottle of Old Kentucky to welcome you back into the fold.”
“That sounds about, Captain. You loath Old Kentucky,” interjects Rand with a cheerful cadence. “And you always have. You once remarked that it ‘tastes like skunk spray and leaves an aftertaste like a stagnant Potomac backwater in August,’ if I’m not mistaken.”
Muted laughter erupts from the crew.
The quote is accurate, and mimicked precisely, right down to my rural Chesapeake inflection. The man is definitely Randall Emerson. “Your recollection is accurate, nevertheless, that is the swill we have, therefore it will have to suffice,” I tell him. With a friendly gesture, I beckon the would-be crew mate closer.
Rand closes the remaining gap and stops three paces from the gunwale. “The old girl looks like she’s seen her share of rough passage. Gyro, she still yar and nimble as she was in her sea trials?”
Without turning, I stifle Gyro from responding with a raised finger. “Yes, sea trials. Quite a memorable day. Remind me, Rand, how we ended up at McMurphy’s pub that last afternoon, after that final shakedown?”
Rand Emerson smiles a generous toothy grin. “McMurphy’s hadn’t yet reopened from the fire that took out half the block. We ended up at Old Toad’s, but only after that French steamer crew turned us away from Foggy Bay. You had four Martinez cocktails and sang ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Baily’ until the barkeeper cut you off and showed us the door.”
Lyra plants a hand on her hip and wags the other one at me. “I knew you could sing,” she declares.
“Your skipper is a nightingale,” says Rand with mock sincerity.
“All right, enough of that,” I admonish. “Mr. Emerson, permission to come aboard is granted. We have a lot to talk about and I have a lot of questions.”
Before we go below, Rand enjoys a moment of unfettered affection from his crew mates. They embrace him as they would a long lost brother, and he, as demonstrative with emotion as I remember, returns the fondness. I watch from nearby with a sense of gladness, that a misdirection of fate has been repaired.
I now sit across a small table from Rand, having just heard his unbelievable story. I shall, to the best of my ability, attempt to retell it as accurately and earnestly as he told it to me.
The thought had never occurred to any of us that when Rand failed to appear with us at Dragonfly Sky-base, that he had actually been redirected to different arrival coordinates. In the short history of transmicronization, nothing like that had ever happened. Rand theorized that a micro fluctuation in the magnetic field, or a stray cosmic ray, skewed the quantum field lensing just as the machine transferred us from the subterranean chambers in Washington DC to the aquatic pond micro verse.
“But however it happened, I awoke in this place, surrounded by the people. Their word, idea really, for themselves defies pronouncing or even conceptualizing. The closest word in English is Unity. You can call them what I call them: the Microsia Aquatica. These Microsians are single cellular organisms. They are protozoa. Each one is an individual eukaryotic cell with all the usual trimmings: nucleus, mitochondria, golgi structures, even cilia. They seem to have characteristics of several classes of protista, including pseudopodia, like an Amoeba, and cilia, like Paramecium. As you’ve seen, they use other microorganisms like we use beasts of burden.”
Visible through the porthole behind him, a Microsian rode swiftly by on paramecium-back.
“So they are not confined to this bottle?” I asked.
“Wait… you mean to tell me… this is a bottle?” Rand laughed. “I wondered, but never knew. Anyway…. They come and go all the time… well, not all the time – it isn’t always safe for them to go out there. Microsians are the prey in more than a couple predator-and-prey ecological relationships. But the bottle, funny that I couldn’t figure that out, makes an impregnable shelter at this scale. As long as they are inside, nothing can touch them. And even though they are thoroughly at home in the water, they are not confined to it. The air pocket in here is the perfect micro habitat for their… colony, again they use a different word. I finally came to understand that their word represents an idea for a cohesive formation built by the progenitors of the Unity for the protection and prosperity of the Unity and its descendants.”
“This is amazing,” I whispered, trying to comprehend the picture Rand was painting of this secret and hidden civilization. “So there are baby Microsians.”
Rand shook his head. “Descendants, Jon, but not children. They are single-celled organisms. They don’t do things… the way we do.”
My mind was reeling, yet relishing the information. “Are you telling me that they reproduce asexually… that they divide?”
My old friend lifted his glass of mediocre sour mash. “I see that Lyra has made a good start at turning you into a cell biologist. Yes, they reproduce by fission. I’ve seen it a few times. It’s a fascinating process.”
“Maybe I will have that opportunity,” I said excitedly. “But tell me more about them. What about culture? What about their history? Have you learned to speak Microsian?”
“Whoa there, Skip,” he chided me. “They don’t speak exactly. Microsian communication uses several of their organelles and structures, but none are auditory. An idea is expressed partially through vibration of their cilia in concert with reverberations from excretory crystals, like a silent resonating symphony. It took me quite some time to work out a basic vocabulary, but now I have the hang of it. But they can do something that you and I have never dreamed of… if they coordinate their reverberation, the Unity becomes a living computing machine. I’ve only seen it happen once, but it was impressive. That seems to be how they develop complex ideas and make major decisions. The Unity is very much a unified society.”
“I would like to see that as well. Can they understand you?”
“Easily… child’s play to them, if they had children – especially if there are two or more nearby. They seem to perceive the sound waves frequencies of my voice, and then compute a translation into basic concepts, rearranging the parts into ideas they are more familiar with. The more Microsians in the adjacent Unity, the faster they compute.”
“Rand, this discovery of yours…”
“Completely by accident. I take no credit,” he said, tipping back his glass and exhaling. “I’ve had smoother.”
“The luckiest accident in human history. We have to get into that city and learn more about the Microsians. Do you have their trust? I mean, can you get us in there?”
“I doubt they have such concepts as trust or distrust,” said Rand. “They are curious about you though. They sent me out to greet you, and invite you into the colony. They’ve been watching you for weeks.”
“That would explain a few things,” I tell him. “What are they curious about?”
Rand paused, lost in quiet contemplation. He was thinking hard, evidently trying to find the right words for microsian ideas. When he spoke, it was carefully. “They believe that our world is trying to destroy theirs, and they cannot understand why. “
We stand on the observation deck of the Cyclops pilothouse, Captain and First Officer, side by side for the first time in the microscopic world. Across a short stretch of glassy still water, the city of the Microsians fills our view.
“Take us in, Mr. Emerson,” I tell Rand. He nods.
“Helm, turn to forty degrees left rudder, ahead one quarter,” says Randall Emerson.
“Aye, sir,” responds Gyro.
The engine order telegraph rings the one-quarter speed signal and the deck slips forward under my feet as MS Cyclops creeps toward her first port of call since leaving Duckweed Base.
My crew is reunited! My friend is alive! I am struck by a feeling of wholeness and well-being. “Look sharp everyone,” I tell them. It no surprise that everyone is smiling.
“It was your reflection in the glass,” Barron Wolfe states with a dismissive certainty that I envy.
“I wish that it had been,” I respond. “Not only did it not look anything like me, it was clearly outside the ship.”
“But how can you be sure?” asks Lyra. “Maybe your reflection combined with the dim light in the cabin…”
“Whatever, or whomever it was swatted a flagellating bacterium out of its way before it vanished back into the dark. It was clearly outside. But before it disappeared, it looked straight at me – into me. And its eyes…” I cannot find the words to finish my thought.
“What about its eyes,” pressed Lyra.
“They were curious and intelligent,” I tell her. “But…” And again, words fail me.
“Some microorganism then,” theorizes Barron. “Without a helmet and suit it couldn’t have been human.”
“Exactly, Barron,” I add in agreement. “Eyes with intelligence behind them. But not human eyes.”
“Ridiculous,” scoffs Lyra. “I’m sorry, but there are no microorganisms with eyes. Some have photo-sensitive eyespots, but none have actual eyes that can look around and see things. Microorganisms haven’t the nerve complexity to…”
“And yet,” I say softly, my mind tumbling down a trail of possibilities, “I know what I saw.”
And in the silence that follows I suspect that my crew now considers their skipper utterly mad.
“All hands,” came the voice Gyro over the voice pipe, “I’m getting turbulence on the rudder. Captain to the pilothouse, please.”
Turbulence on the rudder… something big and moving nearby.
“Looks like, for now, we have bigger fish to fry,” I declare.
The panes of the observation dome show a smoky green light coming down from the surface. Outside, the pond bottom drifts eerily past our windows. Surrounding the Cyclops is a dim world made up of rotting pond plants and microorganisms. This is the graveyard of the pond – where all pond organisms fall to rest when life ends. And yet, this is where life begins again! All thanks to bacteria. They are everywhere! Some are short rods – others long ones. Some are even spring-shaped spirals. Or chains of small round beads. Or hair-like strands! We cannot count or classify the many species that thrive here on the pond bottom, breaking down dead organisms and absorbing the all-important chemicals needed for life.
Through the darkness we see larger shapes in the gloom. Predators? Scavengers?
“Gyro, turn up the driving lamps…” I tell my helmsman. “Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of whatever is worrying your rudder.”
“Aye, skipper. Lamps to full.”
As our lights penetrate the gloom, a writhing wall materializes out of the shadow. Paramecium has arrived, and by the score. Many of these large single-celled organisms are feasting on the bottom-dwelling bacteria, gorging on them as fast as they can – and there are plenty of bacteria to go around! One after another the paramecia arrive, establish feeding stations, and begin drawing bacteria into their oral grooves by the gullet-full.
Directly ahead, a throng of paramecia has anchored itself against a mound of bacteria-rich detritus. The ciliated protists use their cilia rather ingeniously to hold relatively still to feed on the bacteria, a situation that affords us an excellent opportunity to observe the large single-celled organisms up close. Their internal organelles are easily visible. I reach for my observation journal and scratch out a short list of first impressions.
Outer surface covered with a thick coat of waving cilia.
Behavior note: A paramecium uses its cilia in several ways – to move about its environment both forward and backward, to create a feeding current of water that draws in food, to hold itself in a “feeding station” where it can easily suck in large amounts of food organisms.
A slot-shaped oral groove that turns into digestive sacs or vacuoles, filled with captured bacteria. But some parts of bacteria, such as their cell walls, are not digestible. They must be expelled, but how?
A bluish central nucleus. Paramecia appear to have two nucleoli within the nucleus, differentiating them from most other nucleated cells, which only have a single nucleolus.
A pulsing star-shaped water pump at each end. These contractile vacuoles work constantly, ridding the cell of excess water entering the paramecium through osmosis. If it were not for these pumps, the cell would swell up and burst.
“Skipper,” Gyro says with the now familiar note of concern, “the parameciums…”
“Paramecia,” corrects Lyra.
“…are closing in around us. “
To underscore Gyro’s concern, the ship is jostled lightly, then more forcefully, as individual paramecia brush against the hull.
“Individually there isn’t much damage they can do to the ship,” says Lyra, then adding, “but they are the size of orca whales – to us anyway. A large number of them might cause some damage. Maybe it would be a prudent idea to move on.”
I can scarcely believe that these words of caution are coming from my usually reckless naturalist.
“A prudent suggestion,” I agree. “Gyro, watch for a gap in the paramecia. When one appears, take us through it.”
We find ourselves beneath a dome of writhing, contorting oblong shapes, fluidly pushing their way deeper into the detritus mound, competing for the richest bacterial mines.
After several moments of observation, Lyra turns her back on the external view. “Jonathan, some of these bacteria may be light sensitive,” she announces. “I believe they are drawn to the ship’s lamps. And that, in turn, is attracting more of the paramecia.”
“That would explain why there seems to be more and more of these… paramecia,” says Gyro with razor-sharp diction, and a wink in my direction.
I give the order to douse the driving lamps, and to reduce the Edison current to half illumination. Darkness fills the observation panes.
“That’s doing it,” reports Lyra after a short time. “Bacteria activity is slowing down a bit. Less activity should equate to less bacterial metabolism. Emphasis on should…”
“It’s working,” announces Gyro, visibly straining to see through the dim murk. “I think there’s a gap opening up at one o’clock.”
“Finally,” I say softly. “Make for it, Gyro – double slow.”
“Answering double slow,” says Gyro as he rings the engine order telegraph.
Cyclops inches forward, her bow aimed for an irregular void in the otherwise impenetrable wall of paramecia. The gap reveals nothing on the other side but blackness. We steam ever so slowly toward that opening. The perimeter of the opening shifts constantly as paramecia jockey for the best feeding stations, but I am encouraged to see that with each passing moment the gap remains large enough to accommodate Cyclops.
“When we enter the gap,” I tell Gyro, “turn the driving lamps back up. I want to see where we are going.”
“Aye, Skipper,” answers Gyro. “Heading into the gap… now.”
The edges of the opening, alive with feeding, contorting, whale-sized protozoa, move slowly past the observation panes. We are tiptoeing through the lion’s den, shielded by our science – the sightless organisms do not detect CO2-free Cyclops.
“We are almost through the gap,” reports Gyro.
“Good,” I respond. “Then let’s crank up the lamps.”
As we leave the living threshold, Gyro turns the control and sends more Edison current to the driving lamps.
“What in the name of Neptune…” shouts Lyra, staring straight ahead, shielding her eyes.
I cannot make sense of what I am seeing. Brilliant lights are shining back at us, filling the pilothouse with warm illumination. But how?
“It’s glass,” says Gyro, laughing. “And those are our own lamps being reflected back at us!”
To illustrate his conclusion, Gyro fades the lamps down, then up again. The lights shining back at us are indeed our own. But as I look at the reflection I see something else set behind that glass, and words catch in my throat. I take a few steps forward, to the front of the pilothouse. I reach out and touch the glass of our own observation dome, now less than a quarter millimeter from the mysterious reflective surface beyond. There, behind that larger wall of glass are faces. Many faces.
“Do… do you see them?” I stammer to whomever is listening.
Barron arrives in the pilothouse, but is moved to silence. There is a long moment of timelessness, an eternity thunderous with the sound of nothing. Then finally, Lyra steps up to my side and places her hand on my shoulder.
“Yes, Jonathan.” Her voice is hushed, both convinced and disbelieving at the same time. “We all see them, too.
Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs
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!
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.
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.
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!”
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?
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.
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.
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.
Day 1: 0915 hours…
Gentle heat touches my face and hands, the kind that one instantly senses is the warmth of sunlight. I loosen my grip on the trestle and lift up the goggles, slowly opening my eyes. Is this the same day?
In another moment hands are guiding me, helping me recline onto a warm, soft surface – a bed maybe, or a couch, the padded surface warm from sunlight. My vision, though improving, is still blurred. I can hear a voice telling me to relax, that the process is complete, urging me to breath normally and sleep if that is my need. I ask about the crew, and my voice sounds strange in my ears. The other voice hesitates, speaking to someone other than myself. “Don’t tell him,” says the other voice. “He’s not ready.” Then my head settles onto a down pillow and sleep takes me.
Later, but no idea how much so…
I awake with a clear mind. Sitting up I begin to take in my surroundings. I am outdoors. There is sky overhead and for an instant I imagine that the adventure below the streets of Washington was nothing but phantasm. In our nation’s capital it had been past noon. Here, the sun still lingers in the morning sky, but it seems – somehow – both larger and more distant, a brilliant radiant round cloud. Beside me the others stir on beds of their own. Three of the beds are occupied, and one is empty. I assume that someone had awakened early and stepped away, perhaps to stretch his legs.
The beds are arrayed upon a balcony enclosed by a well-fortified railing. The platform appears constructed of wood, and anchored to what at first appears to be an organically-fashioned structure of resin or amber glass. As my vision adjusts to the physical properties of visible light at nano scale my mind begins to comprehend. Though impossible, it also fact: The balcony is protruding from the molted exoskeleton of an enormous insect larva.
Dragonfly Sky-Base! Now I understand the significance of that name, and find myself reflecting on the common insect, whose life cycle we exploit: In the spring, dragonfly larvae emerge from the pond, crawling up the stalks of reeds, aquatic grasses, and cattails, attaching themselves to plants or sticks with barbed appendages, several inches above the surface. The insect then pupates inside the larval exoskeleton, hatching in late summer as an adult dragonfly. Dragonfly Base has been constructed inside one such abandoned husk. The platform where I stand at that moment was built out from what had been the larva’s right eye.
Suddenly the sky is filled with a multi-winged leviathan. My mind rejects what my eyes clearly identify as an adult dragonfly. It hovers at eye level with the platform, just out of throwing distance. My best estimate of its relative size – the creature is easily a half-mile long! The gales from its wing-beats force me to grab the railing with one hand while helping the nurse corpsman from blowing away. My eyes focus on the environment that lies beyond the unfathomable insect, beyond this open-air recovery bay, forcing my mind to accept the unalterable. Where I had only minutes ago stood six feet, three inches, I am presently no taller than a rather small microorganism. I was almost, dare I say, nothing!
The monstrous head of the dragonfly pivots left, then right, and in a blink, the unbelievably monstrous animal is gone in a hurricane of its own making.
“Captain Adler!” A corpsman shouts my name as she appeared from a door onto the platform. She waves and hurried to meet me. “Captain Adler, I wasn’t aware that any of you had awakened.”
“Yes, just a few minutes ago,” I respond, “but I wasn’t the first. It looks as if Randy woke up before me. Where did that rascal get off to anyway?”
The corpsman looked lost for words, and I instantly sense why. Her explanation only confirms what was becoming clear. “I’m so sorry, Captain. I should’ve been here when you came out of the fugue. You see… something happened. Commander Emerson didn’t rematerialize. I mean, he didn’t come through with the rest of you.”
“What? What are you saying – that he glitched?” I invoke the slang term that the physicists had adopted to label the rare phenomenon when objects mysteriously vanished during the subatomic reduction process. Using it in reference to the tragic loss of a crewman is crass, and I instantly regret it.
“We telegraphed back, and their counter message confirmed it. I am so sorry.” She shakes her head while meeting my vacant stare.
How is this happening? I feel empty. How could he be gone… just like that? Randall had been a good man, a fine officer, and the best friend I had ever had. It will not be easy to rally the crew – not easy to get past the loss. But we must, or more accurately, I must. “I’ll inform the crew,” I tell the corpsman, then thank her.
Minutes later, the crew awakens. I gathered them and break the news about Randy. To a man, they are professional, expressing shock and sorrow, each in his and her own way. We craft a wreath of star-shaped pollen granules, and dedicating our forthcoming journey to the late Commander Randall Emerson, we cast the wreath over the railing and onto the gentle breeze of the morning convection current.
Day 1: 1045 hours…
Our transit from Dragonfly Sky-base to Duckweed Base promises to be thrilling!
Sky-base is equipped with a number of aerial vehicles designed for reconnaissance of the above-surface pond world, a fleet that includes hydrogen-assisted dirigibles, and a half dozen small mechanical flyer-craft. A quartet of remarkable steam-powered ornithopters will be used to ferry myself, and the crew, to Duckweed Base.
Each flyer-craft carries a pilot and a single passenger, one behind the other. My pilot is a strikingly tall woman who introduces herself as Tarah. She explains that before joining the President’s Micro Expeditionary Corp she had been a sailor in Trinidad, from where her family hails. Her experience with the idiosyncrasies of Eastern Caribbean trade winds had forced her develop expert knowledge of air currents, and the skill to harness them – a set of skills perfectly suited to her most recent vocation. Tarah helps me into the aft seat of her flyer, makes sure I am securely buckled in, and instructs me what to do should we have to “bail out” – a prospect I do not care to entertain – even in my imagination.
Four flyers are in a cue for take-off from Sky-base. Tarah and I will be the last. As we wait our turn, Tarah reads the morning alerts for any news of flying insects, air currents, fungal spore clouds, or other hazards to microscopic aviation. I watch my crew, one by one, lift almost effortlessly onto the convection breeze and vanish into the blurry distance. When it is our turn Tarah gives a squeeze to the Indian rubber bulb horn – AH-OOO-GAH! She pulls back on a lever to engage the steam turbine to the drive mechanism. Gears engage, and the wings whoosh downward. The craft lifts off the launch platform with a lurch. With a thrill of acceleration I realize that we are airborne!
As we clear the edge of the base Tarah puts the flyer into a gentle descent. This serves to move air faster over the fabric-covered wings, making the ornithopter’s mechanical wing-beats more efficient. I have never flown before, and I find my first few moments in a flying machine to be exhilarating, the experience perhaps enhanced by doing it at nano scale. There is no horizon on which to focus, no detail of distant mountains to decipher, just a haze of greens, blues, and browns.
Far below us, the pond’s surface is a glassy plane speckled with rafts of bright green duckweed and towering water fern, like colossal aquatic redwood trees. The cattails at the pond’s periphery rise like an impossibly forbidding green wall, taller than any imagined Tower of Babylon, barely visible in the blurred distance. My mind knows that the cattails are only a few yards away, but at micro scale that might as well be a million miles.
Scale was a formidable concept. We were flying at what seemed like thousands feet of altitude, but I knew it to be scant inches. I wondered if I would ever overcome the habit of converting micro scale distances to macro scale measurements.
Tarah pulls the levers and pulleys to set the wing foils and trim the ailerons. I feel a lightness in the pit of my stomach as we slow and began a circular descent. She levels off close to the pond’s surface, just over the tops of the water fern.
“It’s not far now,” she calls back to me.
An instant later… chaos.
A presence, at first felt more than seen, collides with my awareness. The sensation comes from everywhere, but is strongest from above us. Tarah senses it, too. We glanced skyward at the same time. Wings, legs, eyes, a body the size of a mountain range are all coming straight at us.
Tarah engages the drive gears and turns hard to the left. The craft banks onto its side. I grip the holds of the open-air cockpit. The creature roars past our flyer, nearly colliding with us. The turbulence of its passing sends us dancing on the current like gossamer in a typhoon. The monster turns and circles to make another lunge.
It is a damselfly, easier to identify now that it is further away – fitting better into my field of vision. In the macro scale world, a delicate, beautiful flying insect, but to us, and to other tiny flying prey, the damselfly is a terrifying airborne monster. Its mandibles snap hungrily. It will be on us in seconds. If I jump out, which I briefly consider, I will never survive smashing into the pond’s impenetrable surface.
How can we escape this monster? Where can we go? I look over the sides of the craft. An ephemeral orb, shifting in both shape and density, catches my eye, a shadow hovering in mid air, its form constantly shifting. That is our salvation.
“Tarah, down there! Look!”
Tarah responds with action. She banks the flyer toward the amorphous cloud… a shape whose nature becomes visible as we draw closer to it. The cloud is made of hundreds of individual animals, in this case… gnats.
The damselfly pursues us. It is going to be close.
We plunge into the gnat cloud. The ear-splitting dissonance of so many giant sets of wings isn’t something I am prepared for. Tarah swerves the flyer on a zig-zag course using all of her many skills to avoid colliding with the tiny flies, which are each ten-times the size of our fragile flyer. With increasing hope I observe that they are plump and well-fed, and will make a much more appealing meal than us.
I hear the report of our success before I turn to see the damselfly devouring a fat gnat, the victim’s clear fluids squirting over us like a sticky mist.
“That was close,” comments Tarah. “Remind me to have a word with the sky sentry. There was no mention of damselflies,” she says indignantly, shaking the morning alert report in her closed fist.