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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.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 16: Pursued by Planaria

 

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.”

“But, sir…”

“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.”

 

1600 hours…

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.

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 13: The Grass of the Serengeti

Day 9: 0530 hours…

Dawn is breaking. Last night we anchored the ship to a decaying aquatic weed stem, about two hundred twenty centimeters depth – all hands glad for the respite after our adventure on the surface. I am pleased to report that the night passed uneventfully.

As I enjoy my mug of coffee on the observation level of the pilothouse the faceted dome reveals the first sunrays piercing the pond’s depths. Through the heavy leaded glass warm watery light strikes green algal protista, which illuminate into iridescent emeralds.   And there are thousands upon thousands of them all around us, creating an ever-changing green waterscape that extends in all directions to the furthest distance. The harmless multitude is to other single-celled pond organisms what grass is to the herding beasts of the African Serengeti – food in abundance. I am admittedly curious about the organisms that rely on this plentitude.

“Good morning, Skipper,” says Gyro cheerily as he enters the pilothouse.

I return his bright salutation, adding, “How about we get the ol’ girl ready for departure?”

“Aye, skipper!” my steersman answers. He picks up the voice pipe: “All hands – prepare for departure! Make free fast all mooring lines and retract! “ He turns to me with eyebrows raised. “Speed and heading, Captain?”

The green algae cells cavorting hither and yon were a clue that we were in the midst of an active food chain. I was eager to unfold its secrets as the sun rose higher.

“Ahead one quarter,” I say. “Nice and slow. Two degrees left rudder, and elevators minus five.   Let’s try to learn what dines on these little green beasties.”

Gyro sends two bells on the engine telegraph to Barron back in the engine room. Through the deck I can feel the vibration of our steam turbine increasing, then a slight surge as the screw begins to spin, the almost-imperceptible shudder through metal and glass as the steam engine gains speed. Through the glass of the observation dome I can see our overnight anchorage sliding astern. We are underway.

0800 hours…

We are entering a transitional pond microhabitat, not yet definable as shallows, and yet not as fathomless as the open water.

Cruising at slow speed near the surface, the Cyclops encounters a large single-celled organism common throughout the pond – Paramecium. This particular species is different than the others we have seen, it’s color being the most obvious differentiating attribute – it is green!

A closer inspection reveals that the green coloring comes from smaller green bodies inside. And these smaller green bodies are organisms themselves – algae cells – not dissimilar from the free-swimming algae cells that are so plentiful in this region. The green cells inside do not appear to be the paramecium’s breakfast. We wonder what function they serve, or if their home inside Chez Paramecia is simply a safe place to live, out of harm’s way.  And if so, how might the paramecium benefit from this curious living arrangement?

 

0830 hours…

Now this is curious – when we pass over the green paramecium, the Cyclops’ shadow blocks the light from hitting the organism – and to our astonishment, the organism immediately moves back into the sunlight! Could the paramecium be moving back into the light for the benefit of its little green guests? We have observed that green microorganisms gather in sunny patches throughout the pond. Further observation is needed to learn the connection between green organisms and sunlight.

1215 hours…

As has been the case all morning, single-celled algal protista abound, now perhaps more than ever! Without warning Gyro sounds the bubbles above alert, and for good reason! Oxygen bubbles, found wherever there is a large algae population, are a particular nuisance. “Bubbles above! Bubbles above!” shouts the steersman.

In much the same way Cyclops was recently stranded on the surface of the pond, we could easily become ensnared by air bubble surface tension and find ourselves unable to escape. We must avoid these oxygen bubble rafts at all costs, but at the moment, as the bubble raft expands down from the surface, we are in peril of becoming trapped!

“Jonathan,” advises Lyra, “that bubble mass is expanding very quickly, and we are getting awfully close to it. We need to stop rising, or we’re going to get trapped.”

“Skipper,” calls Gyro from the wheel, “ I suggest we flood the surplus oxygen storage tanks. The added weight will trim us, and prevent us from rising into the bubble raft.”

I spin to the voice pipe, tapping it twice to alert all hands of an impending announcement. “Barron, flood the reserve O2 tanks. Repeat: flood the oxygen reserve tanks with water – now!”

I glance at the oxygen tank indicators while watching the looming bubble raft now less than a ship’s length above us. The gages show a full store of oxygen. Hurry, Barron! No sooner do I impatiently think of my engine master, than do we hear the sound of metal pipes creaking as water rushes into the holding tanks. Oxygen streams out the stern release ports. The O2 level indicators drop from ninety percent to less than ten. The floor sinks beneath my feet as Cyclops drops safely away from the treacherous bubble raft.

“That was close!” exclaims Lyra.

“Skipper, I’m afraid escaping that bubble trap cost us our oxygen reserves,” Barron grumbles, as he enters the wheelhouse. “Now our oxygen supply is dangerously low.”

“A hefty price to avoid an even heftier problem,” I respond. “And while it worked, I’d like to know why our control surfaces weren’t able to turn us away from that bubble raft.”

“Rudder isn’t responding to the helm either,” adds Gyro. “The elevator system and the rudder are connected to the same cable cluster. Something must be jammed in there. “

“I’ll go,” says Lyra, never one to shy away from extra vehicular adventures.”

“Then go below and suit up,” I tell her. “But no side trips!”

“Side trips?” she mutters just loudly enough for me to hear. “I really do not know what you’re talking about.”

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 11: Run!

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.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Eight: Stranded on the Surface

Day 8: 1115 hours…

Barron, Lyra, and myself found ourselves standing on the water, assessing our predicament. The Cyclops lay at rest on a mirror-gloss plane, canted several degrees to starboard where she had come to rest after being throw clear of the surfacing pupa. Barron had checked over the exterior with his engineer’s eye, and reported no damage. He credited the slightly gelatin-like springiness of the surface, which likely eased the impact of the crash. Looking at our stranded ship-protection-homein this state I could not help but feel a sense of urgency to get her back in the water where she belonged. The unearthly sounds of another insect emerging nearby served to underscore my anxiety.

“Skipper,” Lyra announced with uncommon veracity, “the sooner we get back below the surface, the better.”

Ten millimeters away the glassy plane of the water bulged upward, then burst. Spear -like projections, hairs actually, stabbed skyward then blossomed outward over the water, creating an aperture in the surface tension – a break in the featureless plane from which emerged a winged monster.

With what appeared to be considerable effort the enormous insect pulled itself out of the pupa exoskeleton, dragging itself into the world with its six articulated legs, an aquatic creature reborn into the terrestrial realm. Its antennae and wings were still crumpled but immediately began to unfurl. As its wings dried in the morning sun, giant compound eyes surveyed the surrounding plane. It picked a half-millimeter speck off the water, a mite, then crunched it in powerful jaws, and swallowed it. The Cyclops was not much bigger than the doomed mite, and not much further away from the insect.

“Just what I thought,” said Lyra. “These are Chironomidae, also known as blind mosquitos. We must’ve gotten entangled with the pupa as it was surfacing, and were thrown clear. That one will fly off in search of a mate, but another one could hatch right beneath us and make the Cyclops its first meal.”

“Not what I signed up for,” commented Gyro.

“So,” I asked, beginning the question on everyone’s mind, “how do we break through the surface tension and get back in the water?”

“What we need,” announced Barron, appearing in the companionway, “is a surfactant – a compound that we can apply to the hull – something that will nullify the water’s cohesive nature. At launch the ship was painted with a micelle coating, but that beasty must’ve secreted phospholipids to help it break through the surface tension…”

“Which stripped off our own anti-cohesive coating,” finished Lyra, “leaving us stranded. But any kind of oil will break the surface tension.”

“We keep a supply of olive oil on board for greasing the gears, and for covering the diving suits,” explained Barron, “but there isn’t enough to glaze the hull. “

“Then I have good news” added Lyra reassuringly. “Oil occurs naturally in a common family of planktonic algae, in species that thrive in this region.”

“It appears,” I said feeling encouraged, “that we are going fishing for algae. But what kind are we looking for?”

Lyra’s eyes flickered with excitement. “Diatoms!”

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Seven: The Hatch

Day 4: 0030 hours…

Before we unfurled our drift anchor and set the ship ready for the night I ordered the crew to make all hatches and other points of ingress doubly secure. This did little to ease my anxiety. At four bells on the first watch I distributed a jigger of whiskey to every man to help settle nerves. This was hailed as my best command decision to date.

Day 4: 0700 hours

The crew is on edge this morning, less congenial than normal, and I am fairly certain of the reason. Like them, the incident with the mysterious intruder shook me to the very core of my scientific convictions. There simply is no explanation for the disappearance of the remains of the algal protist – no answer to this mystery. But I feel compelled to take action, to do something to preserve the mission and make my ship and crew safe. I will therefore acquiesce to my urge to put some distance between the Cyclops and this region of the pond universe.   I acknowledge that to do so makes little sense – for the culprit is a mystery, therefore a solution to it is a mystery as well. It is my hope that distance will lighten our hearts and help to reenergize our intrepid spirit.

Day 8: 0540 hours…

It has been three days since I last penned an entry into my exploration log, but in this realm three days may as well be three weeks. I know not whether this is due to an anomalous time dilation created by our micro scale existence, or a sense that we are more removed than ever from the macro world. But it is a certainty that as our mission takes us further and deeper into the unknown, the world of hearth and table takes on an ethereal and distant quality, as if the micro verse is now and has always been our true home, and we are only now realizing it.

Last night at five bells we completed our first crossing of the pond’s northern arm, making an average speed of seventeen meters per day for three and a half days. Engine master Barron has been bragging about the feat to anyone in earshot, and the rest of crew is happy to allow him this conceit. He is normally a reserved man, and we are all delighted to see him in this rare mood. If I allowed myself the luxury of superstition, I would hope that this accomplishment portends good fortune for the Cyclops and her crew.

After our recent mystery it was unnerving to cross that fathomless expanse, a black void below us day and night. On the crossing we observed a diversity of phytoplankton, including species undoubtedly related to the old friends that are by now quite familiar. None of these organisms were struck or wounded by the ship, and no specimen was brought aboard. During the passage the Cyclops came to the surface twice. The first time was to transmit a wireless update of our position and status to the receiving post back at Dragonfly Sky-base. The second visit occurred with considerably less intention.

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

At two bells on the dog watch, we had just put away the evening mess. I was on the observation deck of the pilothouse when Barron called up from the engine room to report a feedback vibration in the propeller shaft. I heard the engine order telegraph ring 4-times, indicating that Jonathan had ordered all-stop. Within seconds a vertical displacement wake off the portside sent us tumbling abeam. As the ship righted itself, another wake even stronger, threw the Cyclops end over end. I was able to gain purchase against the ladder with a clear view through the starboard porthole. Outside, giant objects were rising up from the depths all around us. There was something familiar about this phenomenon, something I had seen on still water many times in the late spring, on country lakes and ponds in southern Vermont, when I was a girl. I knew immediately what was happening.

As soon as the ship steadied herself I hurried down to the observation deck to report.   I found Jonathan helping Gyro with the wheel, meaning that the ship’s rudder was being slammed by the turbulence. Through his clenched jaw Jonathan asked if I had any idea what was going on outside. I explained that we were caught in the middle of an insect hatch, a warm season occurrence in temperate wetlands when an entire population of insects emerges from its aquatic pupa stage, rises to the surface en mass, and takes to the air as flying adults of the species. The huge columns of turbulence outside were insect pupae, rising to the surface!

                                                                                 As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

No sooner had Lyra delivered her report, than the deck began to tremble, each small vibration building upon the previous one, a crescendo that could only culminate in catastrophe. I barely had time to give the order to makefast all steering surfaces. As the crash shutters were closing over the windows of the observation deck we were thrown to the floor as upward acceleration pressed us into the floor. It was as if a huge elevator were lifting the entire ship rapidly upward, but more powerfully than any I had ever experienced, even in the modern lifts in the towering twenty-story skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. And then…

I was floating above that same deck in a state of freefall. Gravity was no more.   Gyro, clutching the ship’s wheel, stared over his shoulder at me with dismay in his saucer eyes. I’m sure my expression of one of equal consternation.

“Skipper!” shouted Lyra. But before she could complete her sentence we were slammed back to the deck, and our ears assaulted with the sound of metal complaining.

Then all was still. The deck was canted several degrees to starboard. The Edison lamps flickered, then went dark. Rays of golden daylight stabbed into the darkened pilothouse through watch-holes in the crash shutters.

“Where are we?” asked Gyro.

I pressed my face to the watch-hole. We were surrounded by sunshine, unfiltered by water. I gave the orders to open the crash shutters.

The Cyclops was resting on the impenetrable surface of the endless pond – a featureless plane that extended to a hazy indefinite horizon. And we were stranded upon that unbreakable expanse, as solid as stone to us. Unless we found the means to break through the water’s surface tension, we were stuck, with no way to resume our journey.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Six: The Water Flea

Day 3: 1430 hours…

Emerging from the region of shadow, sunlit water filled the forward view with the now familiar close-yet-distant blur of watery blues, greens, and soft yellows. I posted Barron to the crow’s nest to keep watch, and was about to order Gyro to take us up a hundred centimeters when the engine master’s rumble bellowed over the voice pipe.

“Collision! Close the shutters! Repeat: collision!”

Gyro threw the release for the crash doors. The steel plates slammed down over the glass panes of the pilothouse an instant before we heard a thunderous crunching sound and were thrown forward against controls and railings. The noise of the impact reverberated through the ship like an out-of-tune timpani. The screech of metal against something of similar hardness provided an upper register to this chaotic chord. Then all became eerily quiet.

“I think we hit something,” offered Lyra pulling herself up from the deck, her wry conclusion left hanging in the air.

“Or it hit us,” countered Gyro.

“Either way,” I said, “Let’s make sure we didn’t spring any leaks. You know the protocol – I want eyes on every seam, every rivet, bow to stern. On the double!”

When it was determined that our ship had suffered no breech, I ordered the crash doors unshuttered. As the corrugated leaves of iron folded away we finally saw the object that had collided with Cyclops.

It was Daphnia pulex, known commonly as the water flea. And we were seeing it like Daphnia had never been seen before. To the macro scale world naked eye water fleas are visible as tiny swimming specks. They are common in temperate freshwater ponds and wetlands throughout north America, Europe and Australia. I recalled seeing my first Daphnia in a basic biology class at the Naval Academy. That one was under a low-powered microscope, its eye and internal organs just barely visible. That was in another world.

This monstrous free Daphnia stared directionless with its single lidless black eye. Its clear shell-like carapace revealed every organ, every muscle and nerve fiber… and filling its abdominal cavity, a number of twitching, kicking, spinning daphnia embryos.

“I think we stunned it,” diagnosed Lyra. “Jonathan, do you know what this means?”

“I do, indeed,” I said, knowing full well at what Lyra was hinting. “But this time you won’t be going alone!”

Barron helped us into our suits and helmets. The equipment is coated with a thin film of oil that we rendered from fatty bodies harvested from the algal protist recently brought aboard. The oil negates the cohesive nature of water that occurs when air and water meet. This will permit us to slip effortlessly through the otherwise impenetrable surface tension.

“Skipper, if you’ll allow me,” said Barron as he placed the brass diving helmet over my head, “I’d like to go outside myself and hammer out the starboard manipulator. Looks like the extender arm was bent when we collided with the beasty.”

I gave Barron permission to make the repair dive, but with the understanding that he must stay in line-of-sight with Gyro in the pilothouse.

1500 hours…

Lyra and I drop through the diving portal on the Cyclops’ underside. We swim toward the stunned animal, then turn to circumnavigate it. I glance back over my shoulder at the ship. Barron is outside now, affecting repairs on the starboard manipulator arm assembly. I can see Gyro through the pilothouse windows, his interest trained on Barron. I am confident that both men are observing safety protocols. I turn my attention back to the subject.

Daphnia has a range of normal sizes. This one is about four times the size of Cyclops. The first impression is as if looking at a complex animal with the benefit of fluoroscopic vision. We peer easily through her clear shell, and can survey all of the internal organs.

The Daphnia’s eye, upon closer examination, is not a single black structure as I originally believed; it is instead a cluster of light receptors connected to the creature’s brain by a visible bundle of nerves, and controlled by a network of muscles, very much like a human eye.

Even stunned, the animal’s jaws are constantly grinding, ready to crush and swallow the small food organisms it prefers. Her digestive system is an elongated S-shape that fills the center of the main body, and is packed with green organisms in various stages of digestion. These are the same algal protists that make up the usual diet of most freshwater planktonic crustaceans.

The daphnia’s heart is beating quickly, pumping a clear fluid through the animal’s body, presumably delivering oxygen to muscles and organs. And in the lower abdominal chamber a brood of wee daphnia is plainly visible, babies! It looks crowded in there. Birth time can’t be far off. I am struck by the impression that the embryos are looking out through their mother’s transparent exoskeleton at us.

We continue our swim around the creature for perhaps three quarters of an hour before Lyra signals that our air tanks are below 25% volume, giving us about fiftenn minutes to leisurely complete one more circle before heading back to the ship. At that moment a flashing light comes from the direction of the Cyclops. I turn toward my ship to see the forward lamps powering on and off in rapid succession, the signal that we should return as fast as we can swim.

We swim with a steady, controlled rhythm. I cannot help trying to imagine why Gyro has recalled us early from the dive. Perhaps he has reason to suspect a predator is nearby, or other nature peril. We kick our way closer and closer to the ship, one micron at a time. Finally, we are under the command section and the welcome warm light of the diving room is stabbing down through the open portal. Lyra ascends first. As I wait, alone here in aquatic micro space, I imagine this would be moment we come under attack by some enormous predator. I would be flung away from the ship with only a few minutes of air remaining. But my imagination is proven wrong. Barron’s arm appears through the aperture. I grab his forearm and let him lift me up into the safety of the ship.

1600 hours…

“Skipper, I can’t explain it,” Gyro said as we stowed our diving gear.

“Please try,” I responded. I was irritated about having to cut our dive short, and hadn’t yet received anything that approached a coherent excuse or explanation.

Gyro shrugged. “I don’t think we are alone.” The words bounced around the diving room with a metallic timbre. “I can’t think of any other explanation.”

“Explanation for what, Mr. Gyro?”

“For what happened. See, I was in the pilothouse, like you ordered. Keeping at eye outside on Barron, like you told me. He was almost done with the repairs when I felt something in my ears, in my head, like a pressure change. It was very fast, so I ignored it. There were no alarms, so I didn’t think any more about it…until…”

“Until what?”

“I saw that Barron was finished. He gave me the okay sign, so I started down here to help him through the aperture. As I was passing the lab I thought I saw something in there, like a shadow that shouldn’t be there. At first I thought maybe it was the light coming through the porthole playing tricks on me. Then I stuck my head through the door. And it was gone.”

“Gyro, what was gone?”

“That damaged algae cell we brought on board. We ate the chloroplast from it for breakfast, and boiled down the fat-bodies for oil.   I think Lyra wanted to save it for a couple more days to study.”

“That’s right,” confirmed Lyra. “I want to examine the other organelles before discarding it overboard.”

“Well, you won’t have the chance,” explained Gyro, “because the whole thing, except for what we used, is gone.”

“What do you mean, ‘gone?’” Lyra asked.

“Every bit of it, including the parts you’d set aside… are gone. Something took them, or they walked out of here on their own. There isn’t a drop of cytoplasm in the examination tray.”

“That’s when you signaled us?” I asked.

“No, Skipper. While Barron was getting out of his gear I took a look around. I found something up on the main deck. The aft hatch had been opened and then closed again. There was a puddle on the deck just inside the airlock. That’s when I signaled you.”

“Let’s have a look,” I said.

We found the aft hatch just as Gyro had described, secured with the pressure seals in their locked position, but it had clearly been opened recently. At the base of the hatch the deck was wet with a large puddle and several smaller puddles. Though it defies logic, someone, or something had used this exit to enter the ship, collect the remains of the dead algal protist, and then leave. Since all crewmembers had been accounted for, something unknown had been aboard the Cyclops.

Lyra spent several moments bent over the small puddles, then stood and whispered into my ear: “I’m pretty sure those are footprints. But…

“But what?”

“They’re not human.”

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Five: A Gathering of Green Globes

Day 2: Supplementary entry…

We recovered a damaged algal cell from the copepod’s feeding station and moved it into our lab. The cell was no longer alive having lost most of its gel-like fluid and organelles from a rupture in its cell membrane. Still intact was a green organelle with a horseshoe-like shape. Lyra tells me this structure is common in nearly all organisms requiring sunlight to carry out the processes of life, and is called a chloroplast.

Day 3: 0600 hours

At four bells I am pleased to report another uneventful night after holding station at a depth of three hundred centimeters. Although no one else heard it, I was pulled twice from my slumber by a series of strange clicking sounds. This morning when I queried Lyra about the sounds she theorized that they may be produced by yet another crustacean relative, noting that this behavior is similar to several tropical shrimp species. The first light of day revealed no such animal near the Cyclops.

We enjoyed a breakfast of robust Venezuelan-grown coffee, toast with jam, and a delicious salad made of the chloroplast gleaned from the damaged algal protist we collected the previous day. Lyra informed us that the disc-like structures filling the chloroplast are composed largely of chlorophyll molecules. They have a flavor akin to that of sweet peas. With this culinary success we look forward to more micro world delicacies!

While I sipped a second cup of coffee, the crew cleared the table of dishes and utensils and unfurled the charts of the open water. All were excited to set about planning our exploration for the day.

1030 hours…

Diving to a depth of 750cm we found ourselves drifting amongst a large population of beautiful green spheres. With their gentle rotation and slow, almost dance-like movement through the open water, these organisms are enchanting to behold. The scene before us would only have been more mesmerizing had it been accompanied by the accomplished strains of a Bach string concerto.

Lyra, using her shipboard reference library, has identified these organisms as Volvox, first seen two hundred years ago by the pioneer of microscopy Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, and named a half century later by Carl Linnaeus – Volvox globator.

“Skipper,” Lyra said with her usual enthusiasm, “let me go out there! We need to learn how they rotate like that, and deduce the function of the smaller spheres inside. Please, Jonathan…”

“Capital idea, “ I responded – to Lyra’s surprise, I think. “But if there are any signs of predators, you will return immediately.”

She nodded and smiled as if she would be the last person in the entire microverse to take any chances.

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

“What a thrill and honor to be the first person to ever swim through aquatic micro space! The weight of the oxygen tank and helmet, though quite substantial aboard the Cyclops, are negated in the water, leaving me feeling quite unencumbered. It took slightly longer to become accustomed to the Brownian Motion, a sensation that the water is vibrating over every part of me. How envious Robert Brown would be! He could never have known that humans would be experiencing pedesis for themselves a mere seventy-five years after his original observation of the phenomenon – that of rapidly moving water molecules colliding with micro-sized pollen granules.

“My first observation as I approached a Volvox was that it is not a single organism, but many living in concert. The outer skin of the sphere is made up of thousands of small green cells, and each of these has a pair of whipping flagella, which flail outward from the sphere in a synchronized fashion. The cells somehow coordinate the movement of their flagella. Such activity must be how the spherical colony spins and moves about. But how do the small single cells coordinate their efforts?

“A closer look at the surface of the sphere reveals that the cells are actually interconnected by lines! Might these lines carry chemical signals between every cell in the colony, instructing them how to direct their flailing flagella? I find myself wondering what environmental stimuli causes the colony to trigger such signals and redirect its course. The greenish nature of the cells hints that as with green plants sunlight might play a role.

“A most remarkable feature of these colonies lies inside them. The translucent outer sphere surrounds a number of other smaller bundles of cells. In some colonies these smaller spheres are quite compact, and in others they appear nearly identical, except for size, to the large colonies.

“A sudden surprise draws my attention! Overhead, one of the large spheres splits open, and the smaller daughter colonies inside escape, already rotating into the sunlight, leaving the now lifeless mother colony behind! This must be how Volvox gives birth to new colonies. Before I can swim away, the new daughter colonies pass dangerously close by. The current from their flagellated outer cells sends me tumbling further away from the Cyclops. I am caught in their eddy. As I am pulled by the current I reach out, grasping for anything. Something touches my hand. It is the tattered membrane of the mortally wounded mother colony. I grab on to it and hold on for dear life as the daughter colonies move off. I have been saved by their doomed mother.”

                                                As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

Day 3: 1115 hours…

Never again! Lyra, by a stroke of uncanny luck, is now safely back aboard ship. Her encounter with the Volvox daughter colonies has forced me to make new rules for extra vehicular activities. I informed our adventurous young naturalist that she will heretofore not be allowed on a diving assignment without escort.

We have left the Volvox group and entered a shadowy region. Gyro theorizes that somewhere above us, on the pond’s surface, a lily pad or other floating object is preventing sunlight from penetrating down this far.

I ordered the driving lamps illuminated – and the timing could not have been more fortuitous. The electrical radiance of our Edison’s light revealed a huge translucent insect larva not three ship-lengths dead ahead! Gyro reflexively spun the wheel and gave the monster a wide berth. We spent several minutes observing the creature. This phantom larva was virtually invisible, a factor that benefits the insect when it comes to snatching up smaller unwary larvae for a quick snack.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Four: Full Reverse!

1755 hours…

I awoke to a throbbing head and Lyra’s concerned face shifting into focus. The bell from the engine order telegraph signaled that were in emergency full reverse. I inquired about our condition. Gyro reported that we had been pulled off course.

Once the ship righted itself and the turbulence outside dissipated, we saw the source of the strange powerful current – it was the feeding vortex of a monstrous copepod, the same species as the one we had seen from a distance. This one had evaded our efforts to spot such navigational hazards.

The monstrous crustacean filled the forward windows, drawing everything around it into its mouth. The only silver lining to being trapped in its feeding vortex was the opportunity to observe the copepod’s fan-like mouth parts terrifyingly close up. These fan-like appendages, beating furiously, created a current in the surrounding water that drew in a variety of single-celled organisms, such as algae cells.   Countless green protozoa tumbled past our windows in a steady stream, disappearing into the copepod’s mouth. Due to the monster’s translucent exoskeleton we had a fascinating view of its well-packed gullet and the microorganisms digesting slowly in its stomach. We were safe for the moment, holding fast against the feeding current, and felt fortunate to not find ourselves in the same predicament as the tragic phytoplankton.

I glanced at the engine temperature gauges, and found it troublesome that the levels were quickly rising. Back in the engine room Barron was coaxing extra power from his engine to hold our position against the current, but the strain on the engine was beginning to show. A moment later came the call from the engine room I had been dreading.

“Skipper,” came the voice of our Engine Master over the voice pipe. “The combustion chamber is overheating. I can’t pump water through it fast enough to lower the temperature. We need to break out of this current and let the engine cool down, or it’s going to seize.”

Lyra looked up from her field journal, her face was animated: “Remember our observations from earlier, and what happens when something larger than the animal’s normal food gets caught in the its vortex fans? The animal stops to remove the object.”

From his station at the ship’s wheel an excited Gyro offered a suggestion. “Skipper, we can use hydro cohesion! At this scale, the surface of an air bubble is just a ball of surface tension. It might as well be a solid object.   If we can make a nice big air bubble it might make that beast pause for a few seconds.

“Barron,” I called through the voice pipe, “execute an emergency purge of our CO2 holding tank! “

“Aye, skipper,” he called back.

The deck lurched slightly as the gas emptied from the ship, momentarily throwing off her trim. Through the windows an undulating bubble emerged from beneath the Cyclops and was caught in the vortex, whirling away. It fell toward the copepod’s mouth. We didn’t wait long to see if our plan had succeeded. Our CO2 bubble lodged like a boulder in the copepod’s fan-parts. The appendages halted.

I shouted into the voice pipe: “Engine master, full ahead! Pilot, get us out of here!”

A few seconds later, the copepod reversed its fan-parts, dislodging the bubble. As if nothing had happened it resumed its feeding current – but by then we were on our way, and safely out of range of its deadly vortex.