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Sanctuary

The micro-scape was a watercolor blur of blue, green, and amber. There was no up or down. Joni closed her eyes, shutting off the dizzying vista and the vertigo that threatened to make her puke. She felt James’ arm pull her close, his right hand held firmly around her waist. She was spent, both physically and emotionally. He was now the only thing anchoring Joni, albeit tenuously, to time and space. Kaya was gone, her sweet soul and living brilliance extinguished in a moment of confusion and violence, and with them, Joni’s will to continue with the mission – with even the most rudimentary tasks of survival.

But survive they must, somehow…and do so without ship or crew, or the most basic shelter. Jas moved them forward, away from the aftermath of the battle, away from that unthinkable disaster that had pitted them against the strange indigenous sentients. The micro thrusters in his suit harnessed the water’s Brownian motion, directed excited molecules of H2O to move them deeper into the strange land of micro space.

Joni opened her eyes. Her pupils adjusted to the gloom. Ahead, in the distance she could see twinkling lights…and they came from inside a familiar shape, far away yet unimaginably huge. It was a bottle.

And then they where no longer alone. Figures appeared out of the micro haze…

First one, then a second, and finally a third of the aquatic seraphim materialized out of the watery gloom directly ahead. Each had wing-like membranes bound to gently waving cilia trailing from their pseudopodia, and down the ventral surface of head, neck, and torso. Joni wasn’t sure which was the greater revelation: that angels were real, or that angels were microorganisms.

Cytoplasm Will be Spilled This Day

Micro-nized humans find themselves in a Microsian war. Illustration by Eric R Russell

“Joni, stop!  Don’t do it!  They don’t understand!  No, Joni… NO!!!”

Before his eyes the disaster unfolded in slow-motion.  Jas Ford was too distant to stop her, too far away to intercept the sweeping arc of Joni’s scimitar.  Time crawled.  Jas watched in horror, unable to look away as Joni Janders pulled the blade along a deadly radius.

At the last instant the Scylex warrior spun to face the enraged human and met her scythe with a look of anger-turned-surprise.  The point easily separated membrane and cytoskeleton.  Ichor-like cytoplasm billowed from the horrible torso-length gash in amber clouds of liberated organelles.  The Microsian’s bisected nucleus spilled its milky trove of genetic code into the cold, dark water.

A microorganism is dead, but using those words didn’t diminish the moment – Jas Ford knew that he and his crew had just done what they had sworn not to do; they had taken a life for a life, and in doing so, brought calamity and horror to paradise.


Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

The Generals Strategize

A Meeting of Microscopic Minds
Created with Adobe Creative Suite by Eric R Russell
Copyright 2019 Eric R Russell

Helmets came off.  Cilia relaxed.  Pseudopods morphed into arms and legs.  Joni Janders knew the Microsian… knew her well.  The paramecium-ride over from the colony had bonded them.  But the man in front of her, this James Ford… he was a mystery.  Suddenly her osmotic diving suit felt uncomfortably revealing.

Once More Unto the Breach

Water rushed passed her. Cilia thrashed around her legs. She could feel Cobb’s chest pressing into her back as they jointly gripped the reins with all their strength. Their Microsian escort was doing the real work, the work of steering the huge paramecium through the battle. A nearby explosion made Joni wince. The enemy was getting closer.

Illuminating an Ancient Secret

The ship rocked beneath her feet.  A near-yet-muffled report of something striking the hull accompanied ship-wide alarms.

“What the hell is going out there?!” barked Captain Dylan Cobb from the command deck.

At his elbow, Joni Janders felt her jaw slacken… but it wasn’t the size of the paramecium that evoked dismay.  No, it was something else – someone else.  There, in the light of the ship’s nose lamp, a humanoid figure was clearly visible astride the whale-scaled protozoan, gripping some kind of riding tack with pseudopod hands.  At the end of a long curved neck, a bulbous head swiveled left, then right, and the Microsian’s single red photosensitive eyespot pulled apart into two eyes, then gazed for an instant across half millimeter of aquatic micro-space at Joni.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 22: Microsia Aquatica Symbiotica

“Stay with the ship,” I tell Barron Wolfe as Lyra, Gyro, Rand and I hop from Cyclops’ deck onto the lowest platform of the Microsian colony, the nearest thing to a dock that I have seen since our departure from Duckweed Base. I tighten the strap of my satchel, feeling the weight of its contents resting against my hip. I signal to Rand, indicating for him to lead the way.

To my right, there is no partition or seawall to prevent an accidental misstep and tumble into the enclosed sea, or to prevent waves from flooding into the city – an obvious contrast to seaside communities from our world. But of course, there are no waves on this sea, and no tides. Other than Cyclops the waterfront is devoid of other boats or vessels. I reckon that if the Microsians make use of watercraft, such vessels would be submarine in nature, and are harbored below us, in some manner of underwater harbor.

The multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen. Have they become suddenly timid? Or now that we are closer, do they prefer to observe us from the shadows? Perhaps their curiosity has already been satiated and they no longer find us of interest. Although questions bombard my thoughts, it is the myriad of possible answers that now flood my mind.

I draw a calming breath, confronting the perils of amateur anthropology: projecting human behavior onto these decidedly un-human creatures is not the way of the scientific process. That mistake will lead to incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings, and very likely disaster. The dark legacy of explorers-that-came-before serves as a reminder to remain clearheaded, objective, and above all… observant.

We enter the first city without fanfare or hoopla. The micro metropolis appears to be abandoned, yet we know that we are being watched from what appear to be windows carved in the face of the many multi-story earthen-formed edifices. With Rand in the lead, our landing party strolls along the sea-edge. I take up the end of our procession and scan the spartan streets, the shadows between the odd structures ahead of us, for any sign of the Microsians. There are none.

Overhead, spanning the enormous bottle interior is a progression of six buttressed platforms, a vertical array of enormous bridges that each serve as the foundation for its own Microsian city. The highest level is barely visible above a ceiling of cloud. The uppermost city, Rand tells me, is where we are headed.

Randy explains that each of the seven levels is a city unto itself, complete with towering buildings built upon it, and inverted domiciles hanging like stalagmites from the underside. And yet, it is eerily quiet. There is no movement.

“The Microsians,” I whisper, “have made themselves scarce, I daresay.”

“Where did they all go?” questions Gyro anxiously.

“No need to be nervous… or insulted,” answers Rand. “The Unity shared the momentous occasion of your arrival, witnessed it through the eyes of every individual, then created a memory of it in its own fashion. Now it has returned to its normal routine. Life goes on!” A stray thought makes him laugh. “Just because a little ship full of micro-sized humans – that its scouts have been watching for weeks – finally shows up, hardly warrants walking off the job and calling for a holiday. This isn’t Washington D.C., after all!”

“They all have tasks then? asks Lyra. “Like the division of labor in the social orders of honeybees, termites, and naked mole rats?”

“More complex than those. The Microsia Aquatica symbiotica have a rigid caste system, and species-wide social equality. There is no hierarchy – no leader, no president, king, queen, or emperor. Just three castes: warriors, growers, and crafters – and all have equal importance and influence.”

“Efficient, but limiting I would think,” comments Lyra.

“Three jobs! That’s not enough,” remarks Gyro. “A society needs more than defense, agriculture, and construction. What about a constabulary?”

Lyra: “And educators!”

Myself: “And explorers.”

“Irrelevant human institutions, all based on human nature,” says Rand, adopting his Academy guest professor of social anthropology tone. “And therefore meaningless here. Among Microsians, at least with this symbiotica subspecies, the three castes cooperate in various combinations to fill non-essential niches. You’ll find that most of the vocational callings of our world have no equivalent in this one. Best to abandon those preconceptions.”

“It’s remarkable!” says Lyra. “A civilization without leaders, or even family groups.”

“How then do they deal with visitors?” I inquire.

“Seems that the arrival of visitors is extremely rare, and from what I’ve learned, so rare that there is no formalized procedure for greeting, welcoming, or meeting newcomers.”

Lyra: “When you arrived, out of thin air, it must’ve changed their world.”

“You would think so,” muses Rand thoughtfully, “and yet, it was almost as if I had been expected. When I materialized, I was escorted to an empty chamber where three Microsians met with me: a warrior, a grower, and a crafter. Of course I didn’t understand those differentiations at the time. Each of them attempted communication with me, in their own way, with various combinations of ciliary waves and crystal resonance – and a lot of gazing into my eyes. Two of the three were unable to understand me, and I failed to decode their strange non verbal communication. But the Microsian of the warrior caste succeeded – and she did so spectacularly. Alontyn was able to decipher spoken English very quickly. And even though I sensed some rudiments of her communication immediately, it took me a bit longer to become fluent in her microsian vibro-tongue.”

“Her?” asks Lyra. “The warrior caste includes females?”

“As do all the castes. In a strictly biological sense, all Microsians are female. The exchange of DNA is not necessary for them to reproduce.”

How will these revelations play out over the coming minutes? I am more curious than ever: “Then with whom will we be meeting?”

“As was the case when I arrived, it was decided that a representative from each caste would meet with each of you. You’ll be bonded to a single Microsian, who will become the conduit of your voice to the Unity. The representatives are waiting for you.” Rand pointed skyward, toward the uppermost platform. “Up there.”

“That’s going to be quite a climb,” says Gyro with a tired sigh.

Rand smiles. “There will be no climbing today. The Microsians have a much better way to move between cities. Over here…”

Rand leads us away from the water’s edge, to a cylindrical structure made of transparent material. It disappears overhead into the second platform, and I assume continues upward to the cities above.

“This is a capillary conveyer.   It’s how they move from one city, up or down, to another. You’re going to enjoy this.” Rand steps through the outer wall of the cylinder and is now inside, standing on a film of transparency. He beckons us to join him with a hand gesture. I lean into the wall of the cylinder. Though it appears solid, the material offers a slight resistance – then quite effortlessly, with a gentle pop, I am inside this microsian elevator tube. The circular space easily accommodates we four, and could hold twice our number.

Rand, who has kept one hand extended through the transparency, assesses the group, then announces: “Do not touch the wall. When I pull my hand inside, enzymes in the cylinder membrane will denature the proteins in the floor under our feet and we will be suspended on the water itself, via surface tension. The water beneath will instantly carry us up via capillary action.”

I cannot help marveling at the simplicity and genius of the Microsian elevator.

Rand withdraws his hand from the wall of the tube – and in the next instant we are propelled upward at what is for us, an astonishing speed. The foundation level of the Primo Gradu drops away as we ascend through the space between buildings, then a moment of darkness as the tube carries us through the second platform. In the space of a single breath we burst back into the light of the second city as the conveyer carries us higher and higher, through the third, then the fourth.

“Enjoy the view, but don’t press against the cylinder wall,” insists my always thorough first officer.

We break into the light of the fifth city. The grand vista of the captured sea is breathtaking. At this altitude the curved walls of the bottle are drawing closer, curving inward to meet us as we rocket skyward. This vantage point reveals the arrays of algae farms clinging to the inside of the bottle. A shimmer of movement among those vast gravity-defying fields betrays presence of the shy Microsians – the grower caste is hard at work, tending the simple crops that provide the colony with energy and oxygen.

The darkness of the sixth level swallows us momentarily, and when we emerge from shadow, the light of the sixth city is the brightest yet. We have ascended above the atmospheric vapor that drifts about the upper levels of the bottle-space, cloaking the seventh city from the others below.

Rand slowly pushes two fingers through the inner cylinder wall. At once our ascent slows. As we enter the darkness of the seventh and uppermost platform, our speed drops to the scale equivalent of a Manhattan Otis elevator.

We rise into the light of the uppermost city – the terminus of our vertical transit. Rand steps through the cylinder’s inner membrane. The rest of us follow him onto the clean plain of the Semptimo Gradu, the city of the seventh level.

“Remember,” says Rand, “stay as calm and relaxed as you can muster. And only touch them if invited to. Ah, here they come.”

From the base of a massive spheroidal structure, a contingent of Microsians moves in our direction. There are many more than the four that I was expecting.   One is in the lead: that would be Rand’s Alontyn. Behind her I count nine others. Of course… one from each caste for myself, Lyra, and Gyro – for the pairing test.

I am captivated by the approaching entourage.

My first impression is one of translucent membrane, exaggerated slender neck and limbs, a head crest of membrane-bound cilia that follows a longitudinal line from forehead, over the head, down the neck and back, ending where the legs part from the lower torso. The same cilia-bound membrane adorns the backside of the arms.

The essential two-legged, two-armed, head, neck, and torso construction of the Microsians belie their exotic nature. Everything about them reveals how un-human they are – but how perfectly microsian, like every organism we have encountered, adapted to living in a micro-verse. They appear to glide over the ground. Microsian stride is a flowing movement in which the human approximations of hip, leg, knee, and foot form and reform from one moment to the next from pairs of amoeba-like pseudopodia. If a greater stride is required, mass for a larger leg is drawn from the torso, which in turn becomes slighter. And if arms need to stretch further, the same thing occurs, with cytoplasm flowing from the torso and legs into the arms to supply the required mass. Suspended throughout the microsian bodies are globules and spheres of all sizes, evidently serving as the individual’s vital organs – exactly as we have seen with the organelles of protozoa throughout our travels.

Not until they are mere steps away do I notice the most un-human aspect of our hosts.

The Microsians have a single red eyespot. Though disconcerting at first, this should come as no surprise, for we have seen the same simple adaptation for light response many times, especially with the green algal protists whose single photosensitive red eyespots serve to detect safe or desirable levels of solar radiation. With the Microsia aquatica the red eyespot is located in the center of a bulb-shaped head, which like all their appendages, extends from the torso on an extremely long, slender stalk-like neck.   Not until the Microsian appears intent on careful observation, does its large single red eyespot pull apart, forming two smaller eyes that take up positions in the face similar to where our own eyes are located. I theorize that this is a response to situations when binocular observation is required.

I find myself surrounded by an earnest Microsian trio: a grower, a crafter, and a warrior. They encircle me, their faces almost, but not quite, touching my own, their eyes piercing mine. They take turns performing an almost avian-type display with waves of raised cilia accompanied by subsonic reverberations from the excretory crystals in their cytoplasm. The vibrations washing over and through me are not unpleasant, and I am reminded of the deep reverberation I have experienced while riding in the engine cab of a steam locomotive, a sensation that could easily lull me to sleep.

But there is no cognitive impression. As a sense of disappointment begins to intrude on the experience I am slammed by a wave of intense feeling.

When she of the crafting caste locks her gaze onto mine and performs her dance/song I am suddenly filled with an explosion of euphoric contentment. The initial overwhelming moment quickly resolves into more definable feelings of inclusiveness, completeness, safety, wholeness… unity. So powerful are the unbidden emotions that I forget to breath, grow lightheaded, then gasp for lungs-full of the enriched algae-made oxygen. After a minute the emotions temper, supplanted by more grounded images/thoughts/ideas. I regain control of my breathing, lower my resistance, and let the connection happen.

Oxhya, her name exists as normally as it didn’t a moment earlier, is painting a fresco in my mind – a picture story that says we are compatible, have always been, will always be. She and I have become what the Microsia Aquatica value above all else: symbiotic.

Oxhya is more content than happy, feeling the same sense of completeness as I.

I speak the words: “How is this possible?”
Her answer arrives as threads of a million thoughts, weaving into a new tapestry. At their foundations, matter and energy are simply fields of energy, attracting and repelling. One very pure form of that energy is consciousness, capable of interacting in more dynamic ways than most other kinds. The consciousness generated by living things is unique to each individual, and has a forceful nature of attraction. That elemental attraction is particularly powerful between Microsians and humans, making symbiotic links of interspecies consciousness possible.

It is clear to me now, finding ourselves in this amazing place, meeting this never-seen-before species, is no accident. We have been led here, to this moment.   Our voyage of discovery through the micro habitats of the pond universe, though seemingly one of exploration, driven by curiosity and a need to understand the fundamentals of life, was much, much more. We have been steered and redirected at every turn, onto paths that would bring us here, for this meeting, for this joining. And yet, I cannot deny that the wonders we have observed in our travels seem to have perfectly prepared us for this moment.

“Why have you brought us here?”

We have failed to understand why humans do not seek symbiosis with life. This has caused us pain. The People have sought enlightenment, but cannot find it. You were brought here to make the People understand why your kind does not seek symbiosis with life. Humans benefit most from all worlds, so why are humans not stewards of all worlds? Why do humans destroy worlds? Why do humans waste? Why do humans put material into the People’s world that ends life? Why do humans…

My involuntary response to Oxhya’s questions exposes her to an emotion wholly new to the Microsia Aquatica symbiotica.

Shame.

As my arms drop to my sides, my left hand falls upon the satchel, and feels the weight contained within. Now is the time to deliver that which was sent to my world, a package that I was given strict orders to hand over “when the time was right.” I haven’t a doubt in my mind that this is that time.

Without breaking my gaze with Oxhya, my fingers fumble with the satchel’s leather closure. I reach inside and wrap my hand around the cloth-enclosed parcel, then gently withdraw the bundle.

Oxhya extends her right arm. The fin-like hand spreads wide to receive the cloth-enclosed parcel. I set it gently onto her hand, which wraps tenderly to secure it. Small pseudopods form fingers that deftly unwrap the bundle. Cotton cloth falls away from a pile of perfect teardrop-shaped black crystals, each the size of my thumb. A wave of knowledge: I feel and know instantly that these are the mineral remains of a microsian eye.

Oxhya lifts the black shards to her face, and I see what she sees – feel what she feels. This was Elaryn, also of the crafting caste, who gave her life to send the information to the outer world, to the humans. From her crystalline essence came the instructions for building the amazing quantum restructuring micronizer.

Recalling my own hubris I am embarrassed. It was no grand accomplishment of human genius! It was a gift from the very people our world endangers – a brilliant conveyance for getting us to come to them.

No – it was for getting me to come to her.

End of Book 1

Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

Microscopic Monsters–The Age of Discovery, Chapter 21: City in a Bottle

Cyclops discovers a microscopic city built inside a submerged bottle

Day 16: 1230 hours

They are watching us!

Lyra, Gyro, and Barron have joined me topside, but nobody has yet found words to adequately express any emotion, let alone a vague analysis of the moment. We, my crew and I, stand side-by-side, silently transfixed on a scene that I can barely put into thought, let alone language. Could this be how British explorer James Cook felt, after Europeans had been crisscrossing the Pacific for a century, when he then discovered a thriving society, hundreds of thousands strong, on an isolated archipelago in the middle of that ocean?

Not only watching, but evaluating us!

The nearest platform of this incongruous micro metropolis, one built at the same level as the captured sea, is approximately two centimeters away. The waterfront is lined with the bipedal forms, each seemingly identical to the next, an observation that I attribute to the effect of distance.

Below the glimmering surface of the miniature sea, ciliated organisms cruise the waters around us, bipedal beings astride paramecia, driving them like frontiersmen on horseback.

Irrefutable, the visual evidence penetrates my mind, collides with my sluggish comprehension. The wisdom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drifts like welcome salvation into my thoughts: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

“Skipper, what should we do?” whispers Gyro, his voice tremulous. I can hear disbelief fermenting into fear. His almost-terror-stricken gaze shoots from the parapets above to the waters surrounding us. “There are hundreds of them! We should…”

“Arm ourselves is what we should do,” interjects Barron Wolfe. “I have a harpoon gun that would serve as a…”

“Stay right where you are, mister,” I tell the engine master. “All of you, in fact. Nobody move. They are watching, assessing us for whatever imperatives guide their behavior. Let’s not give them a reason to act hastily or against us.” I pitch my voice to project confidence and control. “We are explorers. Our first task is to observe. Any notions you may have about what this place is, or who these creatures are, are idle guesses. Am I understood?”

All heads nod. Good!

Lyra’s eyes widen. She points across the water toward the city. “Jonathan, someone is coming.”

The figure, a distant speck at first, grows in size and resolution with every step, and emerges slowly from the intervening mists that hover at various layers in this enclosed world. Though I do not know how, the figure is oddly familiar. Its stride, a steady gate upon the water’s surface, is incomprehensibly recognizable.

It is a man, his dark hair visible above a blue-gray uniform eerily similar to my own. Half a centimeter from Cyclops he stops, then incongruously raises his left arm and waves in a decidedly friendly manner, as if greeting us on Pennsylvania Avenue on a summer Saturday evening en route to Ford’s Theater. Even before I hear his shouted greeting, I know who it is.

“Jonathan Adler! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!”

It cannot be Rand Emerson, but that is exactly who it is, my executive officer, right-hand man, companion from my academy days – alive?   In my mind, playing like a nickelodeon picture show, I recall the final moments before he evaporated into the ether of quantum space. There we were, the original five of us, the crew of the MS Cyclops, standing on the reaction stage of the machine – before those incredible energies bore down upon us, before Rand had glitched.

As Rand resumes his approach – as his grinning face becomes identifiable, my mind is already racing to understand, to explain how this can be, and something more – a powerful desire to repair the damage of his disappearance. I cannot wait to greet him, the medicine of seeing him whisked safely into the grateful arms of his crew mates. I feel an intense need to heal the tragedy of losing my first officer even before the voyage had begun.   Then I remember my responsibility to the others, to the safety of the ship and her crew.

“Stand where you are, Sergeant!” I call to him. The crew’s welcoming shouts fade to silence and all heads spin toward me with quizzical expressions. On the water, Randall Emerson comes to a military halt, with chin up, heels together, and arms straight at his sides. “Hello, Rand! Sorry about the formality, but you might say that the situation is extraordinary – wouldn’t you agree?”

“I could not agree more, Captain Adler, sir,” he answers with diction crisp enough to cast a flint spark. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”

“You can hold station right where you are, Mr. Emerson,” I tell him. I have no doubt that this is the bona fide Randall Emerson, but I will persist with a line of query that will erase any suspicion that might otherwise linger in the minds of the crew. “Just a couple of questions before I crack open my last bottle of Old Kentucky to welcome you back into the fold.”

“That sounds about, Captain. You loath Old Kentucky,” interjects Rand with a cheerful cadence. “And you always have. You once remarked that it ‘tastes like skunk spray and leaves an aftertaste like a stagnant Potomac backwater in August,’ if I’m not mistaken.”

Muted laughter erupts from the crew.

The quote is accurate, and mimicked precisely, right down to my rural Chesapeake inflection. The man is definitely Randall Emerson. “Your recollection is accurate, nevertheless, that is the swill we have, therefore it will have to suffice,” I tell him. With a friendly gesture, I beckon the would-be crew mate closer.

Rand closes the remaining gap and stops three paces from the gunwale. “The old girl looks like she’s seen her share of rough passage. Gyro, she still yar and nimble as she was in her sea trials?”

Without turning, I stifle Gyro from responding with a raised finger.   “Yes, sea trials. Quite a memorable day. Remind me, Rand, how we ended up at McMurphy’s pub that last afternoon, after that final shakedown?”

Rand Emerson smiles a generous toothy grin. “McMurphy’s hadn’t yet reopened from the fire that took out half the block. We ended up at Old Toad’s, but only after that French steamer crew turned us away from Foggy Bay.   You had four Martinez cocktails and sang ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Baily’ until the barkeeper cut you off and showed us the door.”

Lyra plants a hand on her hip and wags the other one at me. “I knew you could sing,” she declares.

“Your skipper is a nightingale,” says Rand with mock sincerity.

“All right, enough of that,” I admonish. “Mr. Emerson, permission to come aboard is granted. We have a lot to talk about and I have a lot of questions.”

Before we go below, Rand enjoys a moment of unfettered affection from his crew mates. They embrace him as they would a long lost brother, and he, as demonstrative with emotion as I remember, returns the fondness. I watch from nearby with a sense of gladness, that a misdirection of fate has been repaired.

1500 hours…

I now sit across a small table from Rand, having just heard his unbelievable story. I shall, to the best of my ability, attempt to retell it as accurately and earnestly as he told it to me.

The thought had never occurred to any of us that when Rand failed to appear with us at Dragonfly Sky-base, that he had actually been redirected to different arrival coordinates. In the short history of transmicronization, nothing like that had ever happened. Rand theorized that a micro fluctuation in the magnetic field, or a stray cosmic ray, skewed the quantum field lensing just as the machine transferred us from the subterranean chambers in Washington DC to the aquatic pond micro verse.

“But however it happened, I awoke in this place, surrounded by the people. Their word, idea really, for themselves defies pronouncing or even conceptualizing. The closest word in English is Unity. You can call them what I call them: the Microsia Aquatica. These Microsians are single cellular organisms. They are protozoa. Each one is an individual eukaryotic cell with all the usual trimmings: nucleus, mitochondria, golgi structures, even cilia. They seem to have characteristics of several classes of protista, including pseudopodia, like an Amoeba, and cilia, like Paramecium. As you’ve seen, they use other microorganisms like we use beasts of burden.”

Visible through the porthole behind him, a Microsian rode swiftly by on paramecium-back.

“So they are not confined to this bottle?” I asked.

“Wait… you mean to tell me… this is a bottle?” Rand laughed. “I wondered, but never knew. Anyway…. They come and go all the time… well, not all the time – it isn’t always safe for them to go out there. Microsians are the prey in more than a couple predator-and-prey ecological relationships. But the bottle, funny that I couldn’t figure that out, makes an impregnable shelter at this scale. As long as they are inside, nothing can touch them. And even though they are thoroughly at home in the water, they are not confined to it. The air pocket in here is the perfect micro habitat for their… colony, again they use a different word. I finally came to understand that their word represents an idea for a cohesive formation built by the progenitors of the Unity for the protection and prosperity of the Unity and its descendants.”

“This is amazing,” I whispered, trying to comprehend the picture Rand was painting of this secret and hidden civilization. “So there are baby Microsians.”

Rand shook his head. “Descendants, Jon, but not children. They are single-celled organisms. They don’t do things… the way we do.”

My mind was reeling, yet relishing the information. “Are you telling me that they reproduce asexually… that they divide?”

My old friend lifted his glass of mediocre sour mash. “I see that Lyra has made a good start at turning you into a cell biologist. Yes, they reproduce by fission. I’ve seen it a few times. It’s a fascinating process.”

“Maybe I will have that opportunity,” I said excitedly. “But tell me more about them. What about culture? What about their history? Have you learned to speak Microsian?”

“Whoa there, Skip,” he chided me. “They don’t speak exactly. Microsian communication uses several of their organelles and structures, but none are auditory. An idea is expressed partially through vibration of their cilia in concert with reverberations from excretory crystals, like a silent resonating symphony. It took me quite some time to work out a basic vocabulary, but now I have the hang of it. But they can do something that you and I have never dreamed of… if they coordinate their reverberation, the Unity becomes a living computing machine. I’ve only seen it happen once, but it was impressive. That seems to be how they develop complex ideas and make major decisions. The Unity is very much a unified society.”

“I would like to see that as well. Can they understand you?”

“Easily… child’s play to them, if they had children – especially if there are two or more nearby. They seem to perceive the sound waves frequencies of my voice, and then compute a translation into basic concepts, rearranging the parts into ideas they are more familiar with. The more Microsians in the adjacent Unity, the faster they compute.”

“Rand, this discovery of yours…”

“Completely by accident. I take no credit,” he said, tipping back his glass and exhaling. “I’ve had smoother.”

“The luckiest accident in human history. We have to get into that city and learn more about the Microsians. Do you have their trust? I mean, can you get us in there?”

“I doubt they have such concepts as trust or distrust,” said Rand. “They are curious about you though. They sent me out to greet you, and invite you into the colony. They’ve been watching you for weeks.”

“That would explain a few things,” I tell him. “What are they curious about?”

Rand paused, lost in quiet contemplation. He was thinking hard, evidently trying to find the right words for microsian ideas. When he spoke, it was carefully. “They believe that our world is trying to destroy theirs, and they cannot understand why. “

1530 hours…

We stand on the observation deck of the Cyclops pilothouse, Captain and First Officer, side by side for the first time in the microscopic world. Across a short stretch of glassy still water, the city of the Microsians fills our view.

“Take us in, Mr. Emerson,” I tell Rand. He nods.

“Helm, turn to forty degrees left rudder, ahead one quarter,” says Randall Emerson.

“Aye, sir,” responds Gyro.

The engine order telegraph rings the one-quarter speed signal and the deck slips forward under my feet as MS Cyclops creeps toward her first port of call since leaving Duckweed Base.

My crew is reunited! My friend is alive! I am struck by a feeling of wholeness and well-being. “Look sharp everyone,” I tell them. It no surprise that everyone is smiling.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 19: Faces in the Glass

Day 16: 0800 hours…

“It was your reflection in the glass,” Barron Wolfe states with a dismissive certainty that I envy.

“I wish that it had been,” I respond. “Not only did it not look anything like me, it was clearly outside the ship.”

“But how can you be sure?” asks Lyra. “Maybe your reflection combined with the dim light in the cabin…”

“Whatever, or whomever it was swatted a flagellating bacterium out of its way before it vanished back into the dark. It was clearly outside. But before it disappeared, it looked straight at me – into me.  And its eyes…” I cannot find the words to finish my thought.

“What about its eyes,” pressed Lyra.

“They were curious and intelligent,” I tell her. “But…” And again, words fail me.

“Some microorganism then,” theorizes Barron. “Without a helmet and suit it couldn’t have been human.”

“Exactly, Barron,” I add in agreement. “Eyes with intelligence behind them. But not human eyes.”

“Ridiculous,” scoffs Lyra. “I’m sorry, but there are no microorganisms with eyes. Some have photo-sensitive eyespots, but none have actual eyes that can look around and see things. Microorganisms haven’t the nerve complexity to…”

“And yet,” I say softly, my mind tumbling down a trail of possibilities, “I know what I saw.”

And in the silence that follows I suspect that my crew now considers their skipper utterly mad.

 

0815 hours…

“All hands,” came the voice Gyro over the voice pipe, “I’m getting turbulence on the rudder. Captain to the pilothouse, please.”

Turbulence on the rudder… something big and moving nearby.

“Looks like, for now, we have bigger fish to fry,” I declare.

The panes of the observation dome show a smoky green light coming down from the surface. Outside, the pond bottom drifts eerily past our windows. Surrounding the Cyclops is a dim world made up of rotting pond plants and microorganisms. This is the graveyard of the pond – where all pond organisms fall to rest when life ends. And yet, this is where life begins again! All thanks to bacteria. They are everywhere! Some are short rods – others long ones. Some are even spring-shaped spirals. Or chains of small round beads. Or hair-like strands! We cannot count or classify the many species that thrive here on the pond bottom, breaking down dead organisms and absorbing the all-important chemicals needed for life.

Through the darkness we see larger shapes in the gloom. Predators? Scavengers?

“Gyro, turn up the driving lamps…” I tell my helmsman. “Perhaps we can catch a glimpse of whatever is worrying your rudder.”

“Aye, skipper. Lamps to full.”

As our lights penetrate the gloom, a writhing wall materializes out of the shadow. Paramecium has arrived, and by the score. Many of these large single-celled organisms are feasting on the bottom-dwelling bacteria, gorging on them as fast as they can – and there are plenty of bacteria to go around! One after another the paramecia arrive, establish feeding stations, and begin drawing bacteria into their oral grooves by the gullet-full.

1040 hours…

Directly ahead, a throng of paramecia has anchored itself against a mound of bacteria-rich detritus. The ciliated protists use their cilia rather ingeniously to hold relatively still to feed on the bacteria, a situation that affords us an excellent opportunity to observe the large single-celled organisms up close. Their internal organelles are easily visible. I reach for my observation journal and scratch out a short list of first impressions.

Paramecium

  • Slipper-shaped overall.

  • Outer surface covered with a thick coat of waving cilia.

  • Behavior note: A paramecium uses its cilia in several ways – to move about its environment both forward and backward, to create a feeding current of water that draws in food, to hold itself in a “feeding station” where it can easily suck in large amounts of food organisms.

  • A slot-shaped oral groove that turns into digestive sacs or vacuoles, filled with captured bacteria. But some parts of bacteria, such as their cell walls, are not digestible. They must be expelled, but how?

  • A bluish central nucleus. Paramecia appear to have two nucleoli within the nucleus, differentiating them from most other nucleated cells, which only have a single nucleolus.

  • A pulsing star-shaped water pump at each end. These contractile vacuoles work constantly, ridding the cell of excess water entering the paramecium through osmosis. If it were not for these pumps, the cell would swell up and burst.

“Skipper,” Gyro says with the now familiar note of concern, “the parameciums…”

Paramecia,” corrects Lyra.

“…are closing in around us. “

To underscore Gyro’s concern, the ship is jostled lightly, then more forcefully, as individual paramecia brush against the hull.

“Individually there isn’t much damage they can do to the ship,” says Lyra, then adding, “but they are the size of orca whales – to us anyway. A large number of them might cause some damage. Maybe it would be a prudent idea to move on.”

I can scarcely believe that these words of caution are coming from my usually reckless naturalist.

“A prudent suggestion,” I agree. “Gyro, watch for a gap in the paramecia. When one appears, take us through it.”

We find ourselves beneath a dome of writhing, contorting oblong shapes, fluidly pushing their way deeper into the detritus mound, competing for the richest bacterial mines.

After several moments of observation, Lyra turns her back on the external view. “Jonathan, some of these bacteria may be light sensitive,” she announces. “I believe they are drawn to the ship’s lamps. And that, in turn, is attracting more of the paramecia.”

“That would explain why there seems to be more and more of these… paramecia,” says Gyro with razor-sharp diction, and a wink in my direction.

I give the order to douse the driving lamps, and to reduce the Edison current to half illumination. Darkness fills the observation panes.

“That’s doing it,” reports Lyra after a short time. “Bacteria activity is slowing down a bit. Less activity should equate to less bacterial metabolism. Emphasis on should…”

“It’s working,” announces Gyro, visibly straining to see through the dim murk. “I think there’s a gap opening up at one o’clock.”

“Finally,” I say softly. “Make for it, Gyro – double slow.”

“Answering double slow,” says Gyro as he rings the engine order telegraph.

Cyclops inches forward, her bow aimed for an irregular void in the otherwise impenetrable wall of paramecia. The gap reveals nothing on the other side but blackness. We steam ever so slowly toward that opening. The perimeter of the opening shifts constantly as paramecia jockey for the best feeding stations, but I am encouraged to see that with each passing moment the gap remains large enough to accommodate Cyclops.

“When we enter the gap,” I tell Gyro, “turn the driving lamps back up. I want to see where we are going.”

“Aye, Skipper,” answers Gyro. “Heading into the gap… now.”

The edges of the opening, alive with feeding, contorting, whale-sized protozoa, move slowly past the observation panes. We are tiptoeing through the lion’s den, shielded by our science – the sightless organisms do not detect CO2-free Cyclops.

“We are almost through the gap,” reports Gyro.

“Good,” I respond. “Then let’s crank up the lamps.”

As we leave the living threshold, Gyro turns the control and sends more Edison current to the driving lamps.

“What in the name of Neptune…” shouts Lyra, staring straight ahead, shielding her eyes.

I cannot make sense of what I am seeing. Brilliant lights are shining back at us, filling the pilothouse with warm illumination. But how?

“It’s glass,” says Gyro, laughing. “And those are our own lamps being reflected back at us!”

To illustrate his conclusion, Gyro fades the lamps down, then up again. The lights shining back at us are indeed our own. But as I look at the reflection I see something else set behind that glass, and words catch in my throat. I take a few steps forward, to the front of the pilothouse. I reach out and touch the glass of our own observation dome, now less than a quarter millimeter from the mysterious reflective surface beyond. There, behind that larger wall of glass are faces. Many faces.

“Do… do you see them?” I stammer to whomever is listening.

Barron arrives in the pilothouse, but is moved to silence. There is a long moment of timelessness, an eternity thunderous with the sound of nothing. Then finally, Lyra steps up to my side and places her hand on my shoulder.

“Yes, Jonathan.” Her voice is hushed, both convinced and disbelieving at the same time. “We all see them, too.

Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 18: The Bottom Ooze

Day 14: 1100 hours…

Crisis!

I am loath to report that we are stranded, now mired to the gunwales in the bottom ooze – and I have only myself to blame.

The accident occurred in the middle of a strategizing meeting with naturalist Lyra Saunders and engine master Barron Wolfe. They were elucidating me on their well-reasoned plan to modify Cyclops’ fuel production by utilizing the product and by-product of photosynthesis (starches and oxygen) to fashion a fuel supply that would be emission-free, resulting in no carbon excess, making us undetectable to the predators of the pond micro verse.

As proposed, our menagerie of green algae cells, which has provided the bulwark of our oxygen production, could also be utilized as a starch farm. The starch would be processed to make a clean fuel for the boiler. Combustion would provide heat to drive the turbine, and the carbon gas waste product channeled back to the algae cells, which with the addition of sunlight, would continue the cycle. The idea was nearly perfect… the single stumbling block being that we had yet to discover how to easily convert the starch, which was itself combustible, to a higher energy-yielding fuel.

We were, in fact, discussing this very issue when there came a loud report, a metallic ‘BANG’ from aft.   The interruption hung for a moment in the cabin air as we looked at each other with a range of expressions, puzzled to concerned.

“Skipper, better get up here…” came Gyro’s stern declaration over the voice pipe.

Barron was bound for the engine room without a word. I raced for the wheelhouse, Lyra at my heels. In that moment I knew I had been remiss: following our run-in with the planarian, and more recently with the hydra – both of which were taxing to the ship’s constitution – I should have ordered a stem-to-stern inspection. But I neglected to do so, caught up in the excitement of new discoveries, and now some important piece of equipment had failed.

We charged into the pilothouse, found Gyro clutching the ship’s varnished oaken wheel with his left hand, his right pulling futilely on the elevator control lever.

“Control cable snapped,” he shouted in a matter-of-fact greeting. “She won’t pull up!”

Yes, I thought with alarm and self-recrimination, something that likely would have appeared plain as day in a cursory inspection… if only I had ordered one.

The following moments are a blur… of alarm bells… of desperation to regain control… of the pond bottom rising up from the shadowy depths as Cyclops plummeted deeper and deeper.

“Hang on!” shouted Lyra, but her warning was unnecessary. My knuckles, bone white, were locked around the safety railing in an iron grip. Around us, water roared past the observation panes with the sound of a hurricane. Ahead, the terminus of our steeply sloped path loomed with ever-increasing detail.

And then we met with the bottom. Iron howled, steel screamed, wood trembled. Cyclops’ downward motion was turned into forward motion in an instant, and momentum threw me over the railing and into a forward pylon separating two glass panels. I lay on the deck, looking up at the glass panes through which a dense cloud of bottom detritus was roiling around the ship – but to my surprise, no collision came then or ever.

The bottom, it turned out, was soft as goose down. Cyclops came to rest on a vast pillow of spongy ooze – the term given to the bottom micro habitat: a layer made up of dead plants and animals that rained down from the upper levels of the pond, home to the tireless decomposer organisms that constantly converted organic matter back into basic molecules for re-entry into the food chain.

As the cloudy water cleared from around the stranded ship, our immediate surroundings became perceptible in the murky light. The motionless silhouettes of hulking dead micro crustaceans littered the bottom-scape to the edge of visibility, like monstrous prehistoric invertebrates transformed into mountains. Periodically the body of a daphnia, or copepod, would drift down from above, land amongst the carcass-littered bottom with a small puff of cloudy detritus.

1330 hours…

“Jonathan, this is interesting,” says Lyra from where she tends the environmental sampling station in our laboratory. “The water down here is much lower in oxygen than near the surface. And the carbon dioxide levels much higher.”

“That is indeed curious,” I say in agreement. “I hope that we have an opportunity to discover what might account for such conditions.”

Lyra begrudgingly accepts my clumsy change-of-subject, and turns to greet Gyro and Barron.

The crew and I have gathered in the lower deck laboratory to assess our situation. We are in one piece, thankfully – more a tribute to Cyclops’ stalwart construction, than any clever action taken by her skipper. We have survived our ungraceful landing with only minor structural damage. To avoid another oversight like the one that now finds us stranded on the pond bottom, I have ordered ship-wide inspections of all mechanical systems.

Engine master Barron has already begun repairs on the damaged elevator control cable that put us here, and as he enters the lab reports that repairs will be complete in half a day. But a larger problem looms. A storage tank was ruptured in the crash and the last of our fuel oil is all but gone.

“And in summation, we have just enough fuel to spin the dynamo and keep the lights on,” explains Barron, adding, “for a little while.”

“And then what?!” inquires Gyro. “We won’t survive down here for long… there’s got to be a meter and a half of water between us and breathable air!”

“And not much sunlight getting through that water to energize our photosynthetic algae herd,” adds Lyra. “Which means oxygen will soon be in dwindling supply.”

“What about the starch bodies they’ve been producing all this time?” I ask. “What will it take to convert it to useable fuel?”

Barron grumbles. “There’s plenty of starch – the little critters keep cranking it out, but it will have to be desiccated. It’s going to be difficult to remove all the water without a dehydration chamber for focusing low steady heat and dry air. And I’m not sure we have enough fuel remaining to run such a thing…”

Lyra interjects: “Sorry, Barron, I don’t mean to interrupt… “ she looks around the lab, as if searching for something undefined. “But… well… does anyone else hear that?”

For a moment there is silence, then, as our hearing adjusts to the quietness, a rustling, brushing sound can be heard coming through the hull.

“Open the crash shutter,” I suggest, “and let’s have a peek.”

Barron inserts a handle into the shuttering mechanism and slowly cranks the shutters open.

The porthole reveals the source of the strange scraping and sliding sounds we are hearing: a microbe, about the size and shape of a large watermelon, is pressed against the glass. Beyond the cell, to the limits of sight, tens of thousands, no, millions, of other similar microbes litter the pond bottom. Some twist and writhe, moving by way of flagella or finger-like projections, others lie still in layer upon layer of identical microbes. The world of the pond bottom is a world swarming with a fantastic diversity of bacteria!

“Well that explains the CO2 levels! “ A glimmer comes to Lyra’s eye. “Jonathan, “ she begins, but I stop her.

“You most certainly are not going out there,” I announce firmly. The others cease their duties and direct their attention to us to see if Lyra is going to press me with one of her entertaining justifications for going out for a dip.

“Why in heaven’s name would I want to do that,” she chides. “Especially when it’s much easier to bring a bacterium on board for study!”

1410 hours…

With the use of a manipulator claw, capturing one of the plentiful cells was not difficult.

The cell’s shape is oblong, and has a lazily whipping flagellum at each end. It is now bathing in our examination tray, a large raised rectangular tub about the size of a large dining table. The bath is filled with pond water and the bacterium is idling near one end, its flagella occasionally disturbing the surface with a gentle rippling sound.

Initial observations: The cell appears much simpler than previously studied microorganisms, such as the ones we have been tending for oxygen production. Unlike the more complex single cells the bacterium has no nucleus, and very few internal organ-elles, just a few fuzzy bundles inside a gelatin-like cloud.

“But make no mistake,” cautions Lyra, “there is a lot of chemistry going on in there.”

Another difference from other single cells is the presence of a semi rigid wall surrounding the bacterium’s cell membrane: a cell wall, which we theorize serves as a protective shield from harsh environmental conditions.

“Such protection might allow bacteria to thrive in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth,” I conclude.

“Jonathan, look!” cries Lyra. “The examination tray is dissolving!”

To our astonishment the bacterium appears to have a destructive effect on our examination pool!

“Curious… what is the tray made of?” I ask.

Lyra considers for a moment, then: “Plant cell walls, easy to come by and perfect for this application, or so I thought.”

“We need a closer look,” I say as I swing a magnifying view lens over the affected area of the try.

“Would you look at that,” whispers Lyra, peering down through the lens. “Large molecules appear to be leaving the bacterium through those pores in the cell wall. Digestive enzymes, I should think. And look! The enzymes have a caustic effect on the tray, breaking it down into smaller subunits – which are absorbed by the cell.   Those digestive enzymes react with dead plants and animals everywhere down here, reducing them into molecules that the bacterium can use to build more enzymes and other molecules of life.”

A harsh scent suddenly stings my nostrils. “Do you smell that?”

Lyra sniffs at the cabin air. “Jonathan… I’ll bet my grandmother’s mule that that’s alcohol!”

1500 hours…

Using a low flame of diatom oil, a coil of copper tubing, and a beaker filled with sample water from around the bacterium, Lyra has fashioned an effective still. She is about to test the product, a clear fluid in a glass phial. She inserts a cotton wick into the phial and sets a burning match to the end. It flares brightly with a clean blue flame… the tell tale sign of alcohol.

Lyra looks up excitedly. “Well Jonathan, I do believe you are the luckiest skipper ever commissioned. Our fuel problem is solved!”

2300 Hours…

Working tirelessly into the night, Barron has been modifying the boiler to burn alcohol, which will allow steam to generate faster, while requiring substantially less fuel than before. Meanwhile, Lyra, with my assistance, has collected two-dozen of the fermentation bacteria, and has moved them into culture tanks where they will convert starch from our green algae cells into alcohol. We are expending the last of our now obsolete oil reserves to fuel lamps set around the algae pens, so that photosynthesis can kick-start the process. By morning we should have enough pure distillate to fire up the boiler, work up a head of steam, and resume our voyage.

At the approach of eight bells, I retire to my small, corner study and set about organizing the various logs and journals of the past few days. As I stow an etching of the captured bacterium and an accompanying diagram of the chemical process by which we now power the Cyclops, I reflect on how our new system, a renewable system, so perfectly echoes the cycles of matter and energy in the living world.

I have come to the inescapable conclusion that bacteria provide perhaps the most important role in life’s grand saga. They are the never-ending recyclers of nutrients – tireless, ubiquitous. These simplest of living things break down dead organisms, then become food themselves for larger single cells. And those become food for larger organisms yet.   Down here in the shadowy murk of the bottom ooze, we have discovered the beginning of a food chain.

As I gaze out my small porthole into blackness, lost in the elegance of Earth’s living cycle, a shape momentarily appears in that encircled frame – but my mind cannot comprehend it, its form or its very presence, until the shape, a moment later, vanishes from sight.

It was… though I can scarcely pen the words… a face.