Diatoms, Lyra informed me, are a very common and successful single-celled alga, and I was glad to hear it. The sooner we began harvesting them for their oil, the sooner we would be out of danger. Lyra continued her diatomaceous diatribe, revealing that this family of algae had been on Earth approximately two hundred million years. It had adapted to fresh and saltwater environments, and was most noted for the houses of glass that enclosed each single-celled individual. Diatoms thrived in the sunlit water just beneath the surface, where conditions ideal for photosynthesis and nutrient absorption. Lyra suggested that we would likely find all the diatoms we need clinging to the stems of aquatic reeds and grasses.
“Sounds like we have a classic paradox,” announced Barron. “The oil we need to break the surface tension is with the diatoms… below the surface that we can’t penetrate without the oil.”
“I have a thought about that,” said Lyra. “One of those pond rushes could be the solution to our way down. If we cut a hole through the epidermal cell layer, then crawl through, we should have access to any number of vallecular canals – vertical shafts if you will – giving us an unimpeded descent down through the stalk. We descend about a centimeter, cut another hole back out through the epidermis, and start pulling in as many diatoms as we need.”
“A sound plan,” I added. “But if possible, let’s try to extract the oil without mortally wounding the organisms.”
“But skipper,” said Barron, “that will slow us down. These are just diatoms. Wouldn’t it more efficient to bring them up and, well…process them on the surface?”
I appreciated Barron’s use of polite vocabulary. He was correct. It would be faster and more efficient to leverage open the cells’ glass cases, tear open their cell membranes, and collect the oil globules within. These microscopic organisms were plentiful… ubiquitous even. They were no more complex than a single cell in a blade of grass. Sacrificing a dozen wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the local micro-habitat. But it was a waste, and I had to admit that my own microscopic condition might have altered my perspective. Were my crew and I any more important, or more valuable, than these denizens at the bottom of the food chain? I had decided.
“While we don’t know what happened with the algal protist in our lab, I’m not going to risk another incident. We will carefully extract the oil from the diatoms without seriously harming them.”
“So be it,” added Barron compliantly. “I’ll set up a rope and pulley. It will make dropping down through the stalk and getting back up much easier. And on the return trip we will have the oil to carry as well.”
I watched with pride as my crew dove into the task. A short hike from the stranded Cyclops Lyra found a suitable rush protruding up from the glassy surface. She circled it quickly and returned to us with a look of surprise. “Follow me,” she said.
Lyra led us around the huge green trunk of the rush stalk. It rose up into the sky, vanishing indistinctly where its tip became lost in the blue dome of celestial blur. The stalk’s skin was rough with a waxen cuticle that covered thousands of brick-work like plant cells about the size of microscopic barrels. I ran my fingers over the cuticle layer as we circumnavigated it. Spines the length of arm protruded out from the fibrous covering at random intervals, which likely served to make it unpleasant as a food source for small pond arthropods. As we rounded the backside of the stalk Lyra came to a stop, indicating a section of the green wall with her outstretched hand. “Have a look at this.”
It was a doorway.
A rectangular opening had been cut into the stalk, just about knee height above the smooth water surface. In shape and proportion, the opening was uncannily ideal for micro-scale humans.
“The cuts that made this entrance look fresh,” reported Barron as he inspected the doorway. “And you may not like hearing this, but the work is too precise to have occurred naturally.”
Lyra ran a hand along the deep incision. “A hole this small would normally heal over in minutes, but the opening has been treated with a metabolic retarding agent to keep it from closing back up, probably a hormonal growth inhibitor.”
“But left open for what reason,” asked Barron. Then voicing what Lyra and I were thinking, he continued. “Whoever made this opening wanted it to stay open. Did they do it for us? Or do they have their own reasons for going inside a pond rush?”
Time was short, and my skipper’s intuition sensed no peril. Barron and Lyra were looking at me, awaiting a risk assessment and a decision. “We are facing a matter of survival. We have to retrieve the oil from the diatoms and get the ship back in the water. Whether this opening is natural, or made for some other purpose seems irrelevant at the moment. We have an easy way inside and we’re going to use it.”
Over the opening Barron assembled a block-and-tackle rigged with hemp lines dangling down into the greenish dark of the rush’s inner shaft. He fashioned a pair of flat horizontal seats for Lyra and I, then lowered us down that vertical tube, slow and steady. A third seat conveyed cutting tools, dive suits, and a small quantity of olive oil. Saw and chisels would allow us to cut our way through the outer wall of the rush, and the dive suits and olive oil would let us to slip through the air/water interface to collect diatoms for rapid oil extraction.
Lyra and Barron had invented a solution for collecting the oil from the algal cells both simple and inspired. Without harming the organisms the plan was to insert an arm-length section of microtubule through a pore in the cell’s glass case and exploit the physics of capillary action, wicking the oil out. The oil globules would then rise to the surface on their own, where Barron would collect them for transport back to the stranded Cyclops.
The descent through the interior of the enormous pond plant was an almost serene experience. I was in a huge cathedral, illuminated from all sides by endless stained glass columns of repeating geometry. Such precise orderliness could only be found in the exacting replications of biological processes. Cell after identical cell, without end, formed a breathtaking biochemical latticework. Occasionally a shadow would rise past the cellular tapestry – cast by a midge pupa rising up from the bottom – a sober reminder that our ship and our mission were still in peril.
The luminous green hues of filtered sunlight from the surrounding plant tissue became incrementally dimmer as we were lowered further and further down the vallecular canal. When roughly ten minutes had elapsed, we arrived at our destination. I could not have been less surprised that our arrival had been anticipated.
Our feet touched a solid surface. We came to rest on a platform made of cellulose planks of meticulous craftsmanship. The floor filled the shaft from wall to wall. A doorway, similar to the one on the surface, was cut into the outer wall of the rush, but unlike the one above, this one had already healed over, leaving only a door-shaped patch of scarring and fresh cuticle. But we wouldn’t be needing the door for recovering diatoms this day, for the work had already been done: glass cylinders, three-dozen in total, each filled with amber tinted diatom oil. They were stacked with precision beside the healed-over doorway.
Lyra whispered. “This isn’t possible. Am I imagining this?”
“Oh it’s real, but I am at loss to explain it,” I mused. “And while every possible explanation is mind boggling, one thing is clear… this cannot be a natural phenomenon.”
I could hear Lyra forcing back laughter. “Oh, you think? The only thing missing is a red ribbon on top.”
“And that is precisely the question: is this a gift, or an invitation to be gone,” I countered.
Lyra lifted the fitted glass lid from one of the cylinders. She dipped a finger into the oil inside, rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger, worked it into the skin of her knuckles with a pleasurable sigh. “It’s pure. It’s perfect. Jonathan… who did this?”
“Who, or what?”
“Skipper,” Lyra began carefully, “do you suppose whoever did this – or whatever, is the same thing that came aboard the ship and removed the remains of that algal protist?”
Of course I had considered this very possibility, a likelihood that had been foremost on my mind since discovering the doorway into the rush. If I accepted as truth that something had come aboard my ship and taken away the dead protist for reasons as yet unimagined, it was no leap at all to believe that the same intelligence was at work here as well. Had this mysterious party foreseen our need for a surfactant, and made it available? But why? Did they reason that helping us was a way to spare the lives of the diatoms it believed we would slaughter? Based on our prior handling of pond life, it would not have known that our intention was to extract the oil without harming the organisms. Were I to invoke the rigors of the scientific process I would conclude that my imagination was getting the better of me.
“That is a tempting deduction …” I mused, “but there is insufficient evidence to connect the two events. Scientific discipline holds that we acquire more data before we embrace such a conspiratorial idea.”
“I think the most powerful evidence is sitting right in front of us. This diatom oil… it’s the exact quantity, down to the last canister, that we need to get the Cyclops back in the water. Whomever did this had to make a precise calculation…”
“Or has comparable insight or behavior.” I was reflecting on the animal world, on how a salmon knows the very stream where it emerged from the egg, then stores just the right amount of fat to fuel a one-time upstream swim in that very stream for its final act of life. Or Monarch butterflies, that migrate thousands of miles every year to the same groves in California and Mexico, to escape the deadly chill of winter. Or herds that follow the east African monsoons….”
I was interrupted by an unannounced sideways lurch of the chamber. The rush was swaying.
“It’s a wave!” announced Lyra.
“Probably just a ripple,” I mused. “A frog probably jumped in. Hang on!”
We leaned into the tilt of the room, grabbing onto the loose ends of microfibers that formed a furry covering on the inner wall of the plant’s shaft.
Lyra lifted a concerned face. “Hope they’re okay up there.”
As the wave passed and the floor became level and solid once again, my thoughts went to our fellow shipmates. I knew that Barron and Gyro were well-trained, and that each man had the skills to survive in this world, even if, perish the thought, the Cyclops were scuttled.
My ruminations were interrupted when shadow swallowed the gentle filtered light that we had enjoyed in this verdant sanctuary. The wave had awakened something. An ear-splitting scraping sound accompanied the silhouette of some monstrous arthropod crawling up the outside of the rush. Three body sections were unmistakable through the green walls of the plant’s inner shaft – an insect! Its many legs moved in slow, mechanical fashion, as it scratched and clawed its way toward the surface. Then the light returned and the insect gone.
Lyra and I quickly loaded as many of the oil containers onto Barron’s elevator sling, about half the total number. Getting them all to the surface would take two trips up the vallecular canal. To signal Barron we were ready, I gave the line three short tugs. There was no response, no slow ascension of the sling, no counter-tug of acknowledgment. I tried again, with greater force. And still, no sign from above that Barron had received the signal. We were stranded.