We came into sight of Duckweed Base without further incident. How many times had I looked over a small pond, or eddy along the Potomac and seen the brilliant green of duckweed rafts mottling the still water? These tiny aquatic plants, were it not for scale, looked quite similar to the more familiar lily pads – yet a trio of duckweed leaves would fit easily on the tip of your finger.
The Micro Expeditionary Corps had constructed Duckweed Base upon just such a trio of leaves. The base comprised a watchtower the height of five men, a cluster of several huts, and an arrival stage identical to the one at Dragonfly Sky-base. Tarah banked the flyer and circled low as she set the wings for landing.
I could barely feel when the skids touched the stage, so expert was Tarah’s landing. I thanked the pilot for her skilled services, invoked the wish that we meet again, shook her hand and joined the crew who were already gathered below the stage.
“Skipper!” Lyra called out. “Am I glad to see you! For a minute there it looked like you were going to be a snack for that Odonata Zygoptera! “
“I am delighted to report that the rumor of my demise by insect ingestion is premature,” I responded with a smile. Now, where is our ship?”
“The dock hands moved her into the water before we arrived,” reported Gyro. “It’s this way.”
Barron made a disapproving grumble.
“Something wrong, Mr. Barron?” I inquired of the engine master.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” said the huge man in his rumbling voice, sneering slightly. “At least, it better be.”
Lyra patted Barron on the arm and explained as if interpreting from another language. “He wanted to be here for the launch, to make sure they didn’t break anything.”
“I should’ve been here,” muttered Barron. “She’s a complex vessel, with a lot of sensitive systems. If any part of her was compromised during the move I will wring the neck of…”
Gyro laughed. “Easy, there big guy. They moved her from here to the water, what’s that… twenty millimeters? What could happen?”
Barron answered subsonically. “Nothing…if I had been here to make sure of it.”
“Mr. Barron, “ I reassured, “you may inspect the Cyclops bow to stern before we shove off. I will not ring the bell before you are satisfied that she is in good repair. Now let’s get aboard and make ready.”
“I appreciate that, Skipper,” said Barron. “Thank you.”
With duffles slung over our shoulders, we crossed the duckweed leaf and made for the pier where the Cyclops awaited. A wooden walkway had been constructed, giving us solid footing over the rough leaf surface. The duckweed leaf, despite appearing smooth to macro scale eyes, was surprisingly rough-textured with many dips and folds, but the raised path made for an easy stroll. As we walked the crew chatted excitedly about things they would miss on our expedition, and in low tones about the amazing meals Randy Emerson would have prepared.
Were it not for the lack of a distinct horizon or visible geography, we could’ve been walking on most any boardwalk along the Chesapeake on an early summer morning. The air smelled intensely fresh, and despite this being the season for allergies, I enjoyed a total respite from my usual hay fever. Of course… at micro scale pollen grains were much too big to be inhaled.
We arrived at the edge of the duckweed leaf. The mirror-like surface of the pond extended to infinity before us. Beneath that mirror, darkness and a universe of mystery. Moored at the end of the dock was the Cyclops. She was resting in still water, a meniscus encircling her plated iron hull just below the main deck. Through the glass panes of her steel reinforced pilothouse I could see the outfitting crew within, stowing provisions and removing the stays and ropes that had been used to lock down the helm and engine controls while the ship was being moved.
The main hatch opened, an eager deckhand stepped into the sunlight, produced a boatswain’s whistle and piped us aboard. “Welcome to Duckweed Base,” he hailed, “Please find your way below and stow your things. The Cyclops is ready to depart!”
“Oh really? We will see about that,” bellowed Barron as he tossed his duffle into the arms of the young sailor.
Day 1: 1155 hours…
As it turns out, Barron could find no fault with the Cyclops. He reported her mechanical condition to be “shipshape,” although I suspect he was disappointed that he would have no further justification to disparage the outfitting team.
I, too, inspected every compartment, passageway, and cabin. It was, after all, my first time on board since her completion. My first visit to see her was when she was under construction in a secret Maryland shipyard, an iron skeleton with unfinished decks, no glass where her portholes and windows would eventually be, her brass fittings yet to be installed. Even though I had studied the plans judiciously, and knew the ship quite well from a theoretical perspective, it was something else to actually touch her hatches and bulkheads, smell the oil of her freshly varnished decks, hear the groaning of her iron hull warming in the midday sun like a contented sigh, and admire her gleaming bright-work.
Back on the command deck I drew out my watch and checked the time. It was three minutes to noon. I thanked the harbor chief and shook his hand. When the last of the dock team had disembarked, I called all hands to the pilothouse.
“Fellow explorers,” I began, “today we set forth on an enterprise of scientific discovery. Do we fear the unknown? In some measure, perhaps. But we seek truth, and truth is our ally. Facts are powerful tools for overcoming any apprehension we may have. This ship and our commitment to her mission will allow us to enter a world that until now has lain hidden under humanity’s very nose. We do not do this to lay claim to new lands, or plant our flag on untouched shores, for the micro universe belongs to no nation. What we discover will challenge ideas once held as doctrine. The mechanics of life will no longer be subject to guessing. We will be the first humans to actually see life’s fundamental processes, to gain new understanding of how those processes are carried out by all of Earth’s organisms, not just the simplest. We will discover forms of life that we cannot yet imagine, be it animal, plant, or neither. We enter this new world knowing that the record of our observations will fundamentally change how humankind looks at the world, and how it views itself in both the eternal, and the infinitesimal. May the wind be at our backs, the currents in our favor, and may the Cyclops keep us safe, and bring us home. Now… all hands to stations.”
Day 1: Noon…
With a cheerful ringing of the ship’s bell we departed Duckweed Base. Through the encircling glass of the pilothouse observation dome I watched the dock hands cast off mooring lines. I gave Gyro the command to take us sub-surface. The interface of air and water rose up and over us effortlessly. Water closed over the ship without the slightest turbulence, its normal adhesive properties neutralized by a hull-coating of thinned oil, without which the surface tension of air-meets-water would be an inescapable trap.
Hopefully we are too small to be of any interest to the large vertebrates (fish and frogs) that inhabit the shallows near Duckweed Base. We drifted forward and down. The crew stared silently outward, captivated by the upper most veneer of this new world, a layer of visible motion caused by a great multitude of microorganisms. I resisted the urge to give orders, or to point out objects d’ intérêt.
The underside of the duckweed raft was a hanging jungle of hair-like rootlets, to us the size of tree trunks. The rootlets were home to a teeming and diverse throng of microbes. Most visible was a species that extended itself out into the water by means of cord-like stalks. At the end of their stalks, the organisms circulated water into mouth-like openings, filtering out the edible specks, which were themselves even smaller, simpler organisms.
Lyra was pressed to the glass of the observation dome, her German-fashioned binoculars trained on the nearby organisms. At random intervals she lowered the glasses to scribe a brief note. My desire to linger here and document this first encounter with single-celled organisms was great, but the open water of the pond universe beckoned, and the field survey schedule rigid.
“They are amazing,” I commented, breaking the silence. “Lyra, you will no doubt be pleased to learn that I intend to dedicate more observation time to this species later, but we must move on. Gyro, please set a coarse for the open water, and signal the engine master full steam.”
From his station at the magnificent brass and wooden wheel Gyro informed me that it would be early tomorrow before we reached our first survey site. At his right, the sound of the engine order telegraph acknowledged full speed.
As we left the duckweed rootlet micro habitat in our wake, Lyra cried out. “Skipper! This is fascinating! Those stalked cells reacted en mass! Their stalks are spring-loaded! “
I looked astern at the curious microorganisms. They had indeed withdrawn, their stalks now coiled tight so that the organisms were pulled into a tight bundle. “A defense mechanism?” I pondered.
“Very likely,” said Lyra. “But I’m wondering what triggered it. The organisms may have sensed our wake.”
“Maybe,” chimed in Gyro, “but it has me concerned. It might be a good idea for Lyra to take a look around the ship with those fancy binocular specs of hers, and make sure we’re not alone out here.”
Several minutes later Lyra returned to the pilothouse and reported that she had visually searched the waters surrounding Cyclops, and had found no cause for alarm.
We steamed on for several more hours. Twice in that time Gyro reported a momentary vibration at the wheel, as if something large had passed astern, sending a pressure wake over the ship’s rudder. But nothing further came of it. As the waters around us grew dark, I ordered all stop for the night. Barron deployed our sea anchor and we took turns on watch.
Day 2: 0530 hours…
After a welcome night’s rest, we greeted the sun’s first rays with hot coffee and high hopes for a productive day. Lyra observed a vertical migration of nearby algal plankton, green single-celled organisms, moving toward the surface. She theorized that like plants, the green cells would require sunlight to power their life processes. They obviously had the means to move closer to the light that they required. This was our first encounter with plant-like organisms that had the power of locomotion.
We have arrived at the region of the pond designated on our charts as the open water. This region is by far the largest of the pond habitats, and is home to a huge diversity of micro animals and single-celled organisms. All together they are called plankton. Some of these organisms are predators, but most are prey for the predators. As with the ecosystems of the macro scale world, prey out-number predators many times over.
As the morning light increased we have seen untold thousands of the green single cells of many different species congregating near the surface. As the day progressed and the light intensity increased the green plankton reversed its vertical migration, moving downward away from the surface and away from the light. Lyra theorizes that this behavior serves to protect the organisms from becoming overheated, and from other possible sun-related hazards.
Shortly before eight bells Gyro summoned us to the pilothouse. In the near distance, eighty millimeters perhaps, a much larger creature had arrived. It was red and distinctly lobsteresque. Referencing one of her field manuals, Lyra identified the animal as a member of the crustacean family – most likely a species of copepod – very tiny relatives of shrimp and crabs. This copepod had placed itself in the middle of a green cell migration. With excellent opportunity to observe a predator-and-prey relationship we held position and watched with fascination as the crustacean, five millimeters long at least, enjoyed a boundless feast. The copepod created a maelstrom with an assemblage of swirling hairs, and drew the helpless single-celled green organisms into its grinding jaws.
“That feeding vortex is powerful,” observed Lyra. “It’s pulling in food organisms of all sizes.”
“And munching every one of them,” commented Gyro. “The glutton!”
“I don’t think so,” said Barron. “It’s actually rather picky. If you look closely, the copepod only swallows small stuff like those green algae cells, of which there are thousands. But look what it does when a larger object gets caught in the vortex. There, see! It pauses its vortex-makers. The current stops for a moment and it rejects anything that’s too big too eat.”
“A picky glutton,” added Gyro.
That’s when the deck canted suddenly under my feet and the railing surrounding the command deck met abruptly with the right side of my head. For a moment everything went black and alarm bells echoed in my ears.