And then the faces recede from the light and vanish. Only a solitary silhouette remains, standing at the center of where the multitude had been only moments before. It is beyond slender, with unusually long limbs, and at the end of an extremely tall neck, an oblong head with enormous eyes. Its right arm, for lack of a better vocabulary, lifts up from its side, extends ninety degrees from its body. At the end of the limb membranous pseudopodia become finger-like appendages, coalescing into a pointing hand.
“I think,” says Gyro softly, “is it trying to tell us where to go?”
In an act so unhuman, yet so understandable, the shape thrust its fluid-like right arm further from its body, as if to emphasize its instruction to us.
“No doubt about it,” I say. “Gyro, turn us ninety degrees port rudder and follow the glass wall. One quarter speed.”
“Turning to two-seventy degrees,” adds Gyro.
“Answering one quarter, as soon as I get down to my engine,“ says Barron, ducking out of the pilothouse.
As our headlamps play over the glass surface, the figure beyond the transparent wall turns the same direction as the Cyclops, and walks in a decidedly fluid manner, as if escorting us.
“I can’t believe I’m starting with this question, but where do you suppose it’s leading us?” asks Lyra.
Both intriguing and menacing in its implication, her inquiry hangs in the pilothouse air unanswered.
“We are holding a course parallel to the glass… wall, or whatever it is,” reports Gyro.
On our right, our guide is visible, a striding shadow on the other side of the barrier, easily keeping pace with Cyclops. I watch its movements with the same veracity as I would a hunting Didinium or a foraging Amoeba. Its movements are similar to the latter, limbs forming and reforming constantly, like amoeba’s pseudopodia. And yet its human-like form is most disconcerting, especially when the appendage serving as its head pivots to gaze back at me from a millimeter away. Its eyes, so curious and penetrating, do not inspire dread, however.
After a minute of slow progress the figure stops its forward movement, but points with arm extended ahead of its track. We are clearly meant to continue in this direction. “Steady as she goes, Mr. Gyro,” I say to the steersman.
Ahead, the massive paramecia horde gives way to scattered clusters of feeding groups, feasting on the ubiquitous decomposer bacteria.
“Skipper,” announces Gyro, “the bottom is beginning to slope down. Maintaining our course will require a ten degree descent.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gyro,” I reply. “Follow the bottom contour while holding a parallel course to that wall, as we were instructed.” Then… “Lyra, keep an eagle eye on that glass wall and shout out if you see any change.”
Gyro: “Skipper, the glass wall is angling away from us. At first I thought it was us drifting off course, but I double checked, and our heading has remained steady.”
Lyra: “It’s because what we have been calling a wall, isn’t that at all. And I think I know what it is. If I’m right, we will know very shortly.”
Following the contour of the bottom, we stay close to the vertical glass substance to starboard. Then out of the gloominess, an interruption in the wall, protruding outward five or six ship-lengths, partially blocks our path. It is molded from the same material as the featureless wall.
“Not a problem. I can steer around it,” says Gyro.
A slight course correction to port, then back, brings us around the obstacle, but to everyone’s surprise the new view forward is devoid of our glass wall companion.
“Where did it go?” asks Gyro.
“If we swing around to starboard,” suggests Lyra, “and turn up the lights, I think you’ll see.”
I nod to Gyro, who executes the suggested maneuver. As the nose of our ship pans across the murky bottom, the lights carve twin cones of illumination over the bottom ooze, and light up what at first appears to be a vast lunar-like crescent. As our lights play over it, the object takes on form and the crescent grows and becomes a circle – all made of the same familiar glass material.
“Of course,” whispers Gyro. “It’s a bottle! All this time… laying on its side. And this… this is the mouth!”
As the words are spoken, like Venus on a summer evening, a distant pin-point of light appears in the black circular void, straight ahead.
Gyro gasps: “Look!”
Lyra asks the very question I am thinking. “Is it…an invitation?”
“We are in new territory,” I think aloud. My mind is reeling too fast to filter thought from spoken word. “Our orders do not encompass protocol for encounters with indigene.”
The distant flare persists, then in very human fashion, begins arcing side to side, as if its holder is waving a torch to garner our attention.
“Very well then! Ahead, one quarter speed. Take us into the bottle, Mr. Gyro.”
The circular lip of the bottle, on the furthest limit of visibility, slides astern as we plunge into the dark interior. Our lamps reveal that the inner surface of the lip is alive with movement – stalked vorticellids, similar to the species we photographed in the weedy shallows. Here they are arranged evenly around the opening, and I am struck with the impression that they serve a purpose in this place – perhaps an early warning system against large micro-predators.
The mysterious guiding light stays ahead of us, moving as we move, leading us deeper and deeper.
Barron’s voice rumbles over the voice pipe: “Skipper, I’ve been monitoring the dissolved oxygen levels outside – and although I can’t explain it, they are rising. It makes no sense down here on the bottom, but the levels are climbing as we go deeper into the bottle.”
Gyro interrupts. “That’s not all. We’re also getting reflection from overhead – surface reflection. Remember how we had to descend before we discovered the mouth? That’s because the bottle is lying on a slope, which means there’s a strong possibility that it contains…”
Lyra spins toward me, her face animated with excitement. “An air pocket! The back half of this bottle is a protected harbor!”
“All hands, prepare to surface,” I announce. “Barron, will the surface tension be a problem for us?”
“We should be fine,” answers the Engine Master over the voice pipe. “That last coating will be sufficient for a few more interfacings.”
“Then take us up, helmsman,” I tell Gyro. “Let’s see what we’ve gotten ourselves into this time.”
Cyclops breaks the surface effortlessly. Water slips down the glass panes of the observation dome, revealing a scene I never would have imagined. There is clean, light. We are floating in a sea of still water. Overhead, the curve of a translucent sky, made of glass so thick than no force in the microscopic world could possibly break it. And at the back of the bottle, built on many levels that jut out from the sides and upended bottom – something that I can scarcely comprehend.
“I’m going out on deck,” I tell the crew.
I push open the hatch, take a breath of cool, clean air, step onto the deck and turn to face the vista with clear eyes. The platforms and terraces adhering to the bottle’s interior are crowded with a multitude of structures – they are actual buildings! The construction is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in life or photographs, but is reminiscent of the conical shaped hives of socially ordered insects. There are hundreds of them, with significant variations in form and size.
There is no doubt: this is a city. And even from this distance I can see motion. Distant figures, like our mysterious guide earlier, are emerging from the buildings, walking/flowing to the edge of terraces and platforms, to look out onto their protected sea – at the visitors from another world.
Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs