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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multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen.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 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 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.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Three: Duckweed Base

Day 1: 1130 hours…

We came into sight of Duckweed Base without further incident. How many times had I looked over a small pond, or eddy along the Potomac and seen the brilliant green of duckweed rafts mottling the still water? These tiny aquatic plants, were it not for scale, looked quite similar to the more familiar lily pads – yet a trio of duckweed leaves would fit easily on the tip of your finger.

The Micro Expeditionary Corps had constructed Duckweed Base upon just such a trio of leaves. The base comprised a watchtower the height of five men, a cluster of several huts, and an arrival stage identical to the one at Dragonfly Sky-base. Tarah banked the flyer and circled low as she set the wings for landing.

I could barely feel when the skids touched the stage, so expert was Tarah’s landing. I thanked the pilot for her skilled services, invoked the wish that we meet again, shook her hand and joined the crew who were already gathered below the stage.

“Skipper!” Lyra called out. “Am I glad to see you! For a minute there it looked like you were going to be a snack for that Odonata Zygoptera! “

“I am delighted to report that the rumor of my demise by insect ingestion is premature,” I responded with a smile. Now, where is our ship?”

“The dock hands moved her into the water before we arrived,” reported Gyro. “It’s this way.”

Barron made a disapproving grumble.

“Something wrong, Mr. Barron?” I inquired of the engine master.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” said the huge man in his rumbling voice, sneering slightly. “At least, it better be.”

Lyra patted Barron on the arm and explained as if interpreting from another language. “He wanted to be here for the launch, to make sure they didn’t break anything.”

“I should’ve been here,” muttered Barron. “She’s a complex vessel, with a lot of sensitive systems. If any part of her was compromised during the move I will wring the neck of…”

Gyro laughed. “Easy, there big guy. They moved her from here to the water, what’s that… twenty millimeters? What could happen?”

Barron answered subsonically. “Nothing…if I had been here to make sure of it.”

“Mr. Barron, “ I reassured, “you may inspect the Cyclops bow to stern before we shove off. I will not ring the bell before you are satisfied that she is in good repair. Now let’s get aboard and make ready.”

“I appreciate that, Skipper,” said Barron. “Thank you.”

With duffles slung over our shoulders, we crossed the duckweed leaf and made for the pier where the Cyclops awaited. A wooden walkway had been constructed, giving us solid footing over the rough leaf surface. The duckweed leaf, despite appearing smooth to macro scale eyes, was surprisingly rough-textured with many dips and folds, but the raised path made for an easy stroll. As we walked the crew chatted excitedly about things they would miss on our expedition, and in low tones about the amazing meals Randy Emerson would have prepared.

Were it not for the lack of a distinct horizon or visible geography, we could’ve been walking on most any boardwalk along the Chesapeake on an early summer morning. The air smelled intensely fresh, and despite this being the season for allergies, I enjoyed a total respite from my usual hay fever. Of course… at micro scale pollen grains were much too big to be inhaled.

We arrived at the edge of the duckweed leaf. The mirror-like surface of the pond extended to infinity before us. Beneath that mirror, darkness and a universe of mystery. Moored at the end of the dock was the Cyclops. She was resting in still water, a meniscus encircling her plated iron hull just below the main deck. Through the glass panes of her steel reinforced pilothouse I could see the outfitting crew within, stowing provisions and removing the stays and ropes that had been used to lock down the helm and engine controls while the ship was being moved.

The main hatch opened, an eager deckhand stepped into the sunlight, produced a boatswain’s whistle and piped us aboard. “Welcome to Duckweed Base,” he hailed, “Please find your way below and stow your things. The Cyclops is ready to depart!”

“Oh really? We will see about that,” bellowed Barron as he tossed his duffle into the arms of the young sailor.

Day 1: 1155 hours…

As it turns out, Barron could find no fault with the Cyclops. He reported her mechanical condition to be “shipshape,” although I suspect he was disappointed that he would have no further justification to disparage the outfitting team.

I, too, inspected every compartment, passageway, and cabin. It was, after all, my first time on board since her completion.  My first visit to see her was when she was under construction in a secret Maryland shipyard, an iron skeleton with unfinished decks, no glass where her portholes and windows would eventually be, her brass fittings yet to be installed. Even though I had studied the plans judiciously, and knew the ship quite well from a theoretical perspective, it was something else to actually touch her hatches and bulkheads, smell the oil of her freshly varnished decks, hear the groaning of her iron hull warming in the midday sun like a contented sigh, and admire her gleaming bright-work.

Back on the command deck I drew out my watch and checked the time. It was three minutes to noon. I thanked the harbor chief and shook his hand. When the last of the dock team had disembarked, I called all hands to the pilothouse.

“Fellow explorers,” I began, “today we set forth on an enterprise of scientific discovery. Do we fear the unknown? In some measure, perhaps. But we seek truth, and truth is our ally. Facts are powerful tools for overcoming any apprehension we may have. This ship and our commitment to her mission will allow us to enter a world that until now has lain hidden under humanity’s very nose. We do not do this to lay claim to new lands, or plant our flag on untouched shores, for the micro universe belongs to no nation. What we discover will challenge ideas once held as doctrine. The mechanics of life will no longer be subject to guessing. We will be the first humans to actually see life’s fundamental processes, to gain new understanding of how those processes are carried out by all of Earth’s organisms, not just the simplest. We will discover forms of life that we cannot yet imagine, be it animal, plant, or neither. We enter this new world knowing that the record of our observations will fundamentally change how humankind looks at the world, and how it views itself in both the eternal, and the infinitesimal.   May the wind be at our backs, the currents in our favor, and may the Cyclops keep us safe, and bring us home. Now… all hands to stations.”

Day 1: Noon…

With a cheerful ringing of the ship’s bell we departed Duckweed Base. Through the encircling glass of the pilothouse observation dome I watched the dock hands cast off mooring lines. I gave Gyro the command to take us sub-surface. The interface of air and water rose up and over us effortlessly. Water closed over the ship without the slightest turbulence, its normal adhesive properties neutralized by a hull-coating of thinned oil, without which the surface tension of air-meets-water would be an inescapable trap.

Hopefully we are too small to be of any interest to the large vertebrates (fish and frogs) that inhabit the shal­lows near Duckweed Base. We drifted forward and down. The crew stared silently outward, captivated by the upper most veneer of this new world, a layer of visible motion caused by a great multitude of microorganisms. I resisted the urge to give orders, or to point out objects d’ intérêt.

The underside of the duckweed raft was a hanging jungle of hair-like rootlets, to us the size of tree trunks. The rootlets were home to a teeming and diverse throng of microbes. Most visible was a species that extended itself out into the water by means of cord-like stalks. At the end of their stalks, the organisms circulated water into mouth-like openings, filtering out the edible specks, which were themselves even smaller, simpler organisms.

Lyra was pressed to the glass of the observation dome, her German-fashioned binoculars trained on the nearby organisms. At random intervals she lowered the glasses to scribe a brief note. My desire to linger here and document this first encounter with single-celled organisms was great, but the open water of the pond universe beckoned, and the field survey schedule rigid.

“They are amazing,” I commented, breaking the silence. “Lyra, you will no doubt be pleased to learn that I intend to dedicate more observation time to this species later, but we must move on. Gyro, please set a coarse for the open water, and signal the engine master full steam.”

From his station at the magnificent brass and wooden wheel Gyro informed me that it would be early tomorrow before we reached our first survey site. At his right, the sound of the engine order telegraph acknowledged full speed.

As we left the duckweed rootlet micro habitat in our wake, Lyra cried out. “Skipper! This is fascinating! Those stalked cells reacted en mass! Their stalks are spring-loaded! “

I looked astern at the curious microorganisms. They had indeed withdrawn, their stalks now coiled tight so that the organisms were pulled into a tight bundle. “A defense mechanism?” I pondered.

“Very likely,” said Lyra. “But I’m wondering what triggered it. The organisms may have sensed our wake.”

“Maybe,” chimed in Gyro, “but it has me concerned. It might be a good idea for Lyra to take a look around the ship with those fancy binocular specs of hers, and make sure we’re not alone out here.”

Several minutes later Lyra returned to the pilothouse and reported that she had visually searched the waters surrounding Cyclops, and had found no cause for alarm.

We steamed on for several more hours. Twice in that time Gyro reported a momentary vibration at the wheel, as if something large had passed astern, sending a pressure wake over the ship’s rudder. But nothing further came of it. As the waters around us grew dark, I ordered all stop for the night. Barron deployed our sea anchor and we took turns on watch.

Pond Cutaway w-Course

Day 2: 0530 hours…

After a welcome night’s rest, we greeted the sun’s first rays with hot coffee and high hopes for a productive day. Lyra observed a vertical migration of nearby algal plankton, green single-celled organisms, moving toward the surface.  She theorized that like plants, the green cells would require sunlight to power their life processes. They obviously had the means to move closer to the light that they required. This was our first encounter with plant-like organisms that had the power of locomotion.

730 hours…

We have arrived at the region of the pond designated on our charts as the open water. This region is by far the largest of the pond habitats, and is home to a huge diversity of micro animals and single-celled organisms. All together they are called plankton. Some of these organisms are predators, but most are prey for the predators. As with the ecosystems of the macro scale world, prey out-number predators many times over.

As the morning light increased we have seen untold thousands of the green single cells of many different species congregating near the surface. As the day progressed and the light intensity increased the green plankton reversed its vertical migration, moving downward away from the surface and away from the light. Lyra theorizes that this behavior serves to protect the organisms from becoming overheated, and from other possible sun-related hazards.

Shortly before eight bells Gyro summoned us to the pilothouse. In the near distance, eighty millimeters perhaps, a much larger creature had arrived. It was red and distinctly lobsteresque. Referencing one of her field manuals, Lyra identified the animal as a member of the crustacean family – most likely a species of copepod – very tiny relatives of shrimp and crabs. This copepod had placed itself in the middle of a green cell migration. With excellent opportunity to observe a predator-and-prey relationship we held position and watched with fascination as the crustacean, five millimeters long at least, enjoyed a boundless feast. The copepod created a maelstrom with an assemblage of swirling hairs, and drew the helpless single-celled green organisms into its grinding jaws.

“That feeding vortex is powerful,” observed Lyra. “It’s pulling in food organisms of all sizes.”

“And munching every one of them,” commented Gyro. “The glutton!”

“I don’t think so,” said Barron. “It’s actually rather picky. If you look closely, the copepod only swallows small stuff like those green algae cells, of which there are thousands. But look what it does when a larger object gets caught in the vortex. There, see! It pauses its vortex-makers. The current stops for a moment and it rejects anything that’s too big too eat.”

“A picky glutton,” added Gyro.

That’s when the deck canted suddenly under my feet and the railing surrounding the command deck met abruptly with the right side of my head. For a moment everything went black and alarm bells echoed in my ears.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter Two: Dragons and Damsels

Day 1: 0915 hours…

Gentle heat touches my face and hands, the kind that one instantly senses is the warmth of sunlight. I loosen my grip on the trestle and lift up the goggles, slowly opening my eyes. Is this the same day?

In another moment hands are guiding me, helping me recline onto a warm, soft surface – a bed maybe, or a couch, the padded surface warm from sunlight. My vision, though improving, is still blurred. I can hear a voice telling me to relax, that the process is complete, urging me to breath normally and sleep if that is my need. I ask about the crew, and my voice sounds strange in my ears. The other voice hesitates, speaking to someone other than myself. “Don’t tell him,” says the other voice. “He’s not ready.” Then my head settles onto a down pillow and sleep takes me.

Later, but no idea how much so…

I awake with a clear mind. Sitting up I begin to take in my surroundings. I am outdoors. There is sky overhead and for an instant I imagine that the adventure below the streets of Washington was nothing but phantasm. In our nation’s capital it had been past noon. Here, the sun still lingers in the morning sky, but it seems – somehow – both larger and more distant, a brilliant radiant round cloud. Beside me the others stir on beds of their own. Three of the beds are occupied, and one is empty. I assume that someone had awakened early and stepped away, perhaps to stretch his legs.

The beds are arrayed upon a balcony enclosed by a well-fortified railing. The platform appears constructed of wood, and anchored to what at first appears to be an organically-fashioned structure of resin or amber glass. As my vision adjusts to the physical properties of visible light at nano scale my mind begins to comprehend. Though impossible, it also fact: The balcony is protruding from the molted exoskeleton of an enormous insect larva.

Dragonfly Sky-Base! Now I understand the significance of that name, and find myself reflecting on the common insect, whose life cycle we exploit: In the spring, dragonfly larvae emerge from the pond, crawling up the stalks of reeds, aquatic grasses, and cattails, attaching themselves to plants or sticks with barbed appendages, several inches above the surface. The insect then pupates inside the larval exoskeleton, hatching in late summer as an adult dragonfly. Dragonfly Base has been constructed inside one such abandoned husk. The platform where I stand at that moment was built out from what had been the larva’s right eye.

Suddenly the sky is filled with a multi-winged leviathan. My mind rejects what my eyes clearly identify as an adult dragonfly. It hovers at eye level with the platform, just out of throwing distance. My best estimate of its relative size – the creature is easily a half-mile long! The gales from its wing-beats force me to grab the railing with one hand while helping the nurse corpsman from blowing away.   My eyes focus on the environment that lies beyond the unfathomable insect, beyond this open-air recovery bay, forcing my mind to accept the unalterable. Where I had only minutes ago stood six feet, three inches, I am presently no taller than a rather small microorganism. I was almost, dare I say, nothing!

The monstrous head of the dragonfly pivots left, then right, and in a blink, the unbelievably monstrous animal is gone in a hurricane of its own making.

“Captain Adler!” A corpsman shouts my name as she appeared from a door onto the platform. She waves and hurried to meet me. “Captain Adler, I wasn’t aware that any of you had awakened.”

“Yes, just a few minutes ago,” I respond, “but I wasn’t the first. It looks as if Randy woke up before me. Where did that rascal get off to anyway?”

The corpsman looked lost for words, and I instantly sense why. Her explanation only confirms what was becoming clear. “I’m so sorry, Captain. I should’ve been here when you came out of the fugue. You see… something happened. Commander Emerson didn’t rematerialize. I mean, he didn’t come through with the rest of you.”

“What? What are you saying – that he glitched?” I invoke the slang term that the physicists had adopted to label the rare phenomenon when objects mysteriously vanished during the subatomic reduction process. Using it in reference to the tragic loss of a crewman is crass, and I instantly regret it.

“We telegraphed back, and their counter message confirmed it.   I am so sorry.” She shakes her head while meeting my vacant stare.

How is this happening? I feel empty. How could he be gone… just like that? Randall had been a good man, a fine officer, and the best friend I had ever had. It will not be easy to rally the crew – not easy to get past the loss. But we must, or more accurately, I must.   “I’ll inform the crew,” I tell the corpsman, then thank her.

Minutes later, the crew awakens. I gathered them and break the news about Randy. To a man, they are professional, expressing shock and sorrow, each in his and her own way. We craft a wreath of star-shaped pollen granules, and dedicating our forthcoming journey to the late Commander Randall Emerson, we cast the wreath over the railing and onto the gentle breeze of the morning convection current.

Day 1: 1045 hours…

Our transit from Dragonfly Sky-base to Duckweed Base promises to be thrilling!

Sky-base is equipped with a number of aerial vehicles designed for reconnaissance of the above-surface pond world, a fleet that includes hydrogen-assisted dirigibles, and a half dozen small mechanical flyer-craft. A quartet of remarkable steam-powered ornithopters will be used to ferry myself, and the crew, to Duckweed Base.

Each flyer-craft carries a pilot and a single passenger, one behind the other. My pilot is a strikingly tall woman who introduces herself as Tarah. She explains that before joining the President’s Micro Expeditionary Corp she had been a sailor in Trinidad, from where her family hails. Her experience with the idiosyncrasies of Eastern Caribbean trade winds had forced her develop expert knowledge of air currents, and the skill to harness them – a set of skills perfectly suited to her most recent vocation. Tarah helps me into the aft seat of her flyer, makes sure I am securely buckled in, and instructs me what to do should we have to “bail out” – a prospect I do not care to entertain – even in my imagination.

Four flyers are in a cue for take-off from Sky-base. Tarah and I will be the last. As we wait our turn, Tarah reads the morning alerts for any news of flying insects, air currents, fungal spore clouds, or other hazards to microscopic aviation. I watch my crew, one by one, lift almost effortlessly onto the convection breeze and vanish into the blurry distance. When it is our turn Tarah gives a squeeze to the Indian rubber bulb horn – AH-OOO-GAH! She pulls back on a lever to engage the steam turbine to the drive mechanism. Gears engage, and the wings whoosh downward. The craft lifts off the launch platform with a lurch. With a thrill of acceleration I realize that we are airborne!

As we clear the edge of the base Tarah puts the flyer into a gentle descent. This serves to move air faster over the fabric-covered wings, making the ornithopter’s mechanical wing-beats more efficient. I have never flown before, and I find my first few moments in a flying machine to be exhilarating, the experience perhaps enhanced by doing it at nano scale. There is no horizon on which to focus, no detail of distant mountains to decipher, just a haze of greens, blues, and browns.

Far below us, the pond’s surface is a glassy plane speckled with rafts of bright green duckweed and towering water fern, like colossal aquatic redwood trees.   The cattails at the pond’s periphery rise like an impossibly forbidding green wall, taller than any imagined Tower of Babylon, barely visible in the blurred distance. My mind knows that the cattails are only a few yards away, but at micro scale that might as well be a million miles.

Scale was a formidable concept. We were flying at what seemed like thousands feet of altitude, but I knew it to be scant inches. I wondered if I would ever overcome the habit of converting micro scale distances to macro scale measurements.

Tarah pulls the levers and pulleys to set the wing foils and trim the ailerons. I feel a lightness in the pit of my stomach as we slow and began a circular descent. She levels off close to the pond’s surface, just over the tops of the water fern.

“It’s not far now,” she calls back to me.

An instant later… chaos.

A presence, at first felt more than seen, collides with my awareness. The sensation comes from everywhere, but is strongest from above us. Tarah senses it, too. We glanced skyward at the same time. Wings, legs, eyes, a body the size of a mountain range are all coming straight at us.

Tarah engages the drive gears and turns hard to the left. The craft banks onto its side. I grip the holds of the open-air cockpit. The creature roars past our flyer, nearly colliding with us. The turbulence of its passing sends us dancing on the current like gossamer in a typhoon. The monster turns and circles to make another lunge.

It is a damselfly, easier to identify now that it is further away – fitting better into my field of vision. In the macro scale world, a delicate, beautiful flying insect, but to us, and to other tiny flying prey, the damselfly is a terrifying airborne monster. Its mandibles snap hungrily. It will be on us in seconds. If I jump out, which I briefly consider, I will never survive smashing into the pond’s impenetrable surface.

How can we escape this monster? Where can we go? I look over the sides of the craft. An ephemeral orb, shifting in both shape and density, catches my eye, a shadow hovering in mid air, its form constantly shifting. That is our salvation.

“Tarah, down there! Look!”

Tarah responds with action. She banks the flyer toward the amorphous cloud… a shape whose nature becomes visible as we draw closer to it. The cloud is made of hundreds of individual animals, in this case… gnats.

The damselfly pursues us. It is going to be close.

We plunge into the gnat cloud. The ear-splitting dissonance of so many giant sets of wings isn’t something I am prepared for.   Tarah swerves the flyer on a zig-zag course using all of her many skills to avoid colliding with the tiny flies, which are each ten-times the size of our fragile flyer. With increasing hope I observe that they are plump and well-fed, and will make a much more appealing meal than us.

I hear the report of our success before I turn to see the damselfly devouring a fat gnat, the victim’s clear fluids squirting over us like a sticky mist.

“That was close,” comments Tarah. “Remind me to have a word with the sky sentry. There was no mention of damselflies,” she says indignantly, shaking the morning alert report in her closed fist.

Microscopic Monsters Novel – The Age of Discovery, Chapter One: The Machine

Exploration Log

Captain Jonathan Adler, MS Cyclops

Day 1: 0630 hours… A measure of time. But I as yet do not know how the passage of time will affect us in this altered condition. Will we sense time as we did before? Will it turn faster to our senses, or slower? We are the first to undergo this change, and the first to enter the Hidden World. It is the beginning! It is the ultimate exploration. I can barely contain my excitement! What a grand privilege it is to take command of our first comprehensive survey of life in the living micro universe.

For the benefit of those who may be curious I will give a brief description of myself. I stand just a hair over two meters – a measuring reference that will soon become handy. I am of slender build and have hair and moustaches the color of bright pewter. I am 57 years of age, and enjoy writing and etching – of which I am proud to boast some expertise, particularly with pencil and charcoals.

Although my memory of the actual transformation is muddled and befogged, I will forever remember the thrilling moment I shook hands with President Roosevelt and received his encouraging invocation – a similar speech I imagine to the one President Jefferson imparted to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark before their historic quest of discovery. After a toast of (excellent) champagne a Navy commander ushered me and my crew away from the festivities. We descended many stairs, and dropped deep into the earth by way of a mechanized lift. Eventually we found ourselves in secret catacombs far beneath the streets of Washington. Our escort team of Naval riflemen guided us through a maze of dim but tidy stone tunnels that opened onto a very large chamber hewn from bedrock. We paused to gather on a balcony that looked over an elaborate subterranean facility. Beyond an iron handrail was a view of the most intricate assemblage of machinery I have ever seen.

The complexity of the Q-73 Implosive Devoluminator was lost in the shadows of that enormous chamber, which I suspect lay a quarter-mile directly beneath the Washington Monument itself (and I theorize may actually serve as a dissipation rod for excess electricity from the Q-73 machine). Though much of the apparatus was hidden in darkness, sporadic illumination came from many incandescent globes of Edison’s direct current. Visible in that light was a stage, or platform. This dais was a hundred feet in diameter, and was elevated above the cavern floor on marble pillars. From the surrounding darkness reached giant metal arms of copper coil muscle and platinum bone toward the platform, embracing it. Veins of quartz, like the arteries of some Olympian god, transferred pulsing energy through the technological appendages into massive polished crystalline capacitors designed to unleash cosmic forces upon the stage. But it wasn’t the Q-73 Implosive Devoluminator that captured my attention.

“Is that the ship?” whispered the young man beside me, like a visitor in a chapel. Hamilton Geronimo O’Shaughnessy, Gyro his apt nickname, was our pilot and navigator. He nodded toward an intrepid shape bathed in Edison’s light at the center of the stage. Supported in a cradle made of timbers and angled iron, was the Micro Submersible (M.S.) Cyclops.

My heart raced to finally see her. My ship, at last! Oh, let me hasten to add that I had familiarized myself with the drawings and shipwright’s schematics, but that was ink and paper. Until this moment I had yet to see her made manifest. Her construction had been in total secrecy, or so I had been told. To see her made real was stirring in a way that I had not often experienced in life.   Cyclops was a true marvel of Yankee shipbuilding, and yet more. Never had glass, iron, and brass been rendered into a more impressive fusion of submarine seaworthiness, but I sensed in her an almost living spirit. Having penned these words, I am now laughing at the folly of them, but I will not discount them, for I sensed it the instant I laid eyes on the M.S. Cyclops – she was creature of discovery waiting to be awakened.

A series of alarms and bells echoed through the huge space. Below us, on the floor of the chamber, there was a flurry of activity around the giant machine. A crescendo of whirling dynamos accompanied the increase in illumination all around us. The Navy Commander distributed seemingly opaque eye-goggles to myself, the crew, and the entourage. “First we will perform the operation on the ship,” he explained. “If you choose to watch, your eyes must be protected. You may feel a bit of momentary vertigo, so steady yourself against the railing. Goggles, please.”

We obeyed. Like the shade of a welder’s mask, the lenses were so blackened that I could barely see the brightest of Edison’s globes. A louder alarm announced that the procedure was imminent.

It began! Titanic bolts of Planck energy arced from the glowing capacitors of the mighty machine’s quartz-veined arms onto the Cyclops. The ship glowed as bright as I imagine an exploding sun. Then came a thunder that I felt in every bone. I leaned into the handrail and clasped my hands over my ears. My eyes involuntarily winced shut. When I reopened them, the Cyclops had vanished. A thin vapor, rapidly dissipating, was all that remained on the platform. The energies of the great machine dimmed again.

“You may remove your goggles now,” came the voice of the commander. “But hold onto them. You will need them again. You are next.” The commander gestured toward a flight of stairs. It was time for the Cyclops’ crew to undergo the same incredible manipulations of cosmic energy that the ship herself had only recently endured, and presumably survived.

I led my crew down the flight of metal stairs from the observation balcony to the floor of the chamber. The excitement of the moment made for heightened senses. There was a lingering sizzle sound emanating from the stage, from the place where Cyclops had vanished, and in the air the harsh scent of ozone.

Two flights of stairs rose from the ground to the level of the stage. I stood at the base and shook the hand of each crewmember as they began the short ascent. First was Gyro, his handshake was strong and eager. He bounced up the stairs two steps at a time. Second came engine master Barron Wolf, an edifice of a man with shoulders too wide to pass through most doorways without sidestepping. His hand swallowed my own, and he smiled confidently as he followed Gyro up the stairs. Third in the cue was my executive officer, Army Sergeant Randall Emerson, a man whom I had known as a friend since my Annapolis days and Eastport nights, despite hailing from different branches of the service. In addition to being my first officer and sergeant at arms, he would also be tasked with the cartography of our voyage. His maps would someday become the charts by which researchers would reference ecology, biome, and habitat of every species we encountered. We shook hands briefly, and as he went up the stairs Rand flashed his infectious and reassuring smile. I was grateful that he would be there, especially when we found ourselves in difficult moments.

Fourth and last in line was my young naturalist Lyra Saunders, a graduate in Biological Science from Cornell University, the auspicious class of 1900. I offered my hand and she shook it enthusiastically, but I saw a shadow of concern in her blue eyes. “You are about to be the very first biologist to survey the biodiversity of the freshwater micro verse. I’ll wager that Cornell will make your research logs required reading. “

Lyra’s concerned look deepened. “Oh no, skipper! I mean, would they really?! I don’t think I can take all those expectations.”

I laughed. “I think you may surprise yourself. If it’s inspiration your seeking, the micro world will not disappoint. And just wait until the Institute gets a look at the motion pictures you’ll be taking.”

Lyra’s smile brightened. She quickly nodded. “I’m very excited about that, sir. We will be bringing back images of living things never seen before! I’m just a bit nervous, well you know, about the process.” She said the word process with significance. The odor of ozone was still hanging in the air.

“Well,” I said, lowering my voice to impart a sense of confidentiality, “I have a similar nervousness. But it isn’t as if we are the first to go through the machine. The team at Duckweed Base has been there for weeks. And by now the Cyclops has been delivered and they are preparing her for us.   It’s going to be fine.”

“Thanks, skipper,” Lyra said gratefully, then sprang up the steps behind her crewmates.

I waited at the bottom of the stairs another moment thinking about what Lyra had said: “We will be bringing back images…” What else would we be bringing back? – I wondered to myself.

Moments later I joined my crew at the center of the stage. We gathered inside the innermost of a target-like pattern of concentric circles etched into the floor. There were scratches indicating where the Cyclops and her support scaffold had been sitting earlier. The vapor of her dematerialization had dissipated. She was waiting for us now in the micro verse.

The Navy commander and his team arrived, carrying with them two sets of waist-high trestles, which they swiftly assembled beside us. “To lean against,” explained the commander, “when it…happens. And don’t worry. Those will go with you. That’s when the vertigo will hit, and you’ll need them.” The sound of the monstrous dynamos began. It built from a bass to a shrill dissonance. “Don’t forget to put on your goggles,” the Commander reminded. “And best of luck to all of you.”

He was about to depart when a woman called to him from the stairs. She held a slip of paper. She met the Navy commander half-way across the platform. He looked at the paper, then stuffed it into his pocket, spun on his heel and returned to us.

“Is there a problem?” I inquired.

“Just a minor adjustment to your arrival coordinates,” he said dismissively. “No reason for concern. We’re going to set you down two feet, four inches to the south-southwest of Duckweed Base. We have an observation blind in the cattails. Code named Dragonfly Sky-base.”

“Two feet four inches,” exclaimed Gyro. “That is almost one hundred miles at micro-scale.”

“Ninety three miles, actually. You’ll transfer to the Duckweed facility by flyercraft,” explained the commander.

“What’s the reason for the relocation,” Randall Emerson pressed. He wasn’t going to let the commander off the hook without a damn good explanation for changing our destination.

“I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but it’s a frog,” answered the commander. “Seems it decided, or will decide, to stalk damselflies next to Duckweed Base. Don’t worry, Cyclops is safe, or it will be. Sorry, the time dilation between here and there can be a synthaxic challenge. The harbor master just wants to make sure you don’t arrive in the middle of a calamity.”

The Q-73 Implosive Devoluminator cleared its throat and prepared for its solo. The dynamos were approaching a high-pitched hum now. “Goggles,” reminded the commander, then departed. Human activity around the huge machine ceased as the machinists withdrew to a safe distance.

Overhead, the huge capacitors began to glow. We donned our eyewear, gripped the wooden rail and waited. We didn’t have to wait for long.

Without warning there was a lightning-like flash as the pent up energies of the Device were brought to bear on us. The Implosive Devoluminator bellowed its crackling Olympian basso. I was struck with a profound sense of displacement and dizziness. In that instant, my crew and I became citizens of a new world.