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.