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.”
“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.”
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.