Helmets came off. Cilia relaxed. Pseudopods morphed into arms and legs. Joni Janders knew the Microsian… knew her well. The paramecium-ride over from the colony had bonded them. But the man in front of her, this James Ford… he was a mystery. Suddenly her osmotic diving suit felt uncomfortably revealing.
The ship rocked beneath her feet. A near-yet-muffled report of something striking the hull accompanied ship-wide alarms.
“What the hell is going out there?!” barked Captain Dylan Cobb from the command deck.
At his elbow, Joni Janders felt her jaw slacken… but it wasn’t the size of the paramecium that evoked dismay. No, it was something else – someone else. There, in the light of the ship’s nose lamp, a humanoid figure was clearly visible astride the whale-scaled protozoan, gripping some kind of riding tack with pseudopod hands. At the end of a long curved neck, a bulbous head swiveled left, then right, and the Microsian’s single red photosensitive eyespot pulled apart into two eyes, then gazed for an instant across half millimeter of aquatic micro-space at Joni.
“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multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen.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.
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
Day 16: 1230 hours
They are watching us!
Lyra, Gyro, and Barron have joined me topside, but nobody has yet found words to adequately express any emotion, let alone a vague analysis of the moment. We, my crew and I, stand side-by-side, silently transfixed on a scene that I can barely put into thought, let alone language. Could this be how British explorer James Cook felt, after Europeans had been crisscrossing the Pacific for a century, when he then discovered a thriving society, hundreds of thousands strong, on an isolated archipelago in the middle of that ocean?
Not only watching, but evaluating us!
The nearest platform of this incongruous micro metropolis, one built at the same level as the captured sea, is approximately two centimeters away. The waterfront is lined with the bipedal forms, each seemingly identical to the next, an observation that I attribute to the effect of distance.
Below the glimmering surface of the miniature sea, ciliated organisms cruise the waters around us, bipedal beings astride paramecia, driving them like frontiersmen on horseback.
Irrefutable, the visual evidence penetrates my mind, collides with my sluggish comprehension. The wisdom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drifts like welcome salvation into my thoughts: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
“Skipper, what should we do?” whispers Gyro, his voice tremulous. I can hear disbelief fermenting into fear. His almost-terror-stricken gaze shoots from the parapets above to the waters surrounding us. “There are hundreds of them! We should…”
“Arm ourselves is what we should do,” interjects Barron Wolfe. “I have a harpoon gun that would serve as a…”
“Stay right where you are, mister,” I tell the engine master. “All of you, in fact. Nobody move. They are watching, assessing us for whatever imperatives guide their behavior. Let’s not give them a reason to act hastily or against us.” I pitch my voice to project confidence and control. “We are explorers. Our first task is to observe. Any notions you may have about what this place is, or who these creatures are, are idle guesses. Am I understood?”
All heads nod. Good!
Lyra’s eyes widen. She points across the water toward the city. “Jonathan, someone is coming.”
The figure, a distant speck at first, grows in size and resolution with every step, and emerges slowly from the intervening mists that hover at various layers in this enclosed world. Though I do not know how, the figure is oddly familiar. Its stride, a steady gate upon the water’s surface, is incomprehensibly recognizable.
It is a man, his dark hair visible above a blue-gray uniform eerily similar to my own. Half a centimeter from Cyclops he stops, then incongruously raises his left arm and waves in a decidedly friendly manner, as if greeting us on Pennsylvania Avenue on a summer Saturday evening en route to Ford’s Theater. Even before I hear his shouted greeting, I know who it is.
“Jonathan Adler! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!”
It cannot be Rand Emerson, but that is exactly who it is, my executive officer, right-hand man, companion from my academy days – alive? In my mind, playing like a nickelodeon picture show, I recall the final moments before he evaporated into the ether of quantum space. There we were, the original five of us, the crew of the MS Cyclops, standing on the reaction stage of the machine – before those incredible energies bore down upon us, before Rand had glitched.
As Rand resumes his approach – as his grinning face becomes identifiable, my mind is already racing to understand, to explain how this can be, and something more – a powerful desire to repair the damage of his disappearance. I cannot wait to greet him, the medicine of seeing him whisked safely into the grateful arms of his crew mates. I feel an intense need to heal the tragedy of losing my first officer even before the voyage had begun. Then I remember my responsibility to the others, to the safety of the ship and her crew.
“Stand where you are, Sergeant!” I call to him. The crew’s welcoming shouts fade to silence and all heads spin toward me with quizzical expressions. On the water, Randall Emerson comes to a military halt, with chin up, heels together, and arms straight at his sides. “Hello, Rand! Sorry about the formality, but you might say that the situation is extraordinary – wouldn’t you agree?”
“I could not agree more, Captain Adler, sir,” he answers with diction crisp enough to cast a flint spark. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”
“You can hold station right where you are, Mr. Emerson,” I tell him. I have no doubt that this is the bona fide Randall Emerson, but I will persist with a line of query that will erase any suspicion that might otherwise linger in the minds of the crew. “Just a couple of questions before I crack open my last bottle of Old Kentucky to welcome you back into the fold.”
“That sounds about, Captain. You loath Old Kentucky,” interjects Rand with a cheerful cadence. “And you always have. You once remarked that it ‘tastes like skunk spray and leaves an aftertaste like a stagnant Potomac backwater in August,’ if I’m not mistaken.”
Muted laughter erupts from the crew.
The quote is accurate, and mimicked precisely, right down to my rural Chesapeake inflection. The man is definitely Randall Emerson. “Your recollection is accurate, nevertheless, that is the swill we have, therefore it will have to suffice,” I tell him. With a friendly gesture, I beckon the would-be crew mate closer.
Rand closes the remaining gap and stops three paces from the gunwale. “The old girl looks like she’s seen her share of rough passage. Gyro, she still yar and nimble as she was in her sea trials?”
Without turning, I stifle Gyro from responding with a raised finger. “Yes, sea trials. Quite a memorable day. Remind me, Rand, how we ended up at McMurphy’s pub that last afternoon, after that final shakedown?”
Rand Emerson smiles a generous toothy grin. “McMurphy’s hadn’t yet reopened from the fire that took out half the block. We ended up at Old Toad’s, but only after that French steamer crew turned us away from Foggy Bay. You had four Martinez cocktails and sang ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Baily’ until the barkeeper cut you off and showed us the door.”
Lyra plants a hand on her hip and wags the other one at me. “I knew you could sing,” she declares.
“Your skipper is a nightingale,” says Rand with mock sincerity.
“All right, enough of that,” I admonish. “Mr. Emerson, permission to come aboard is granted. We have a lot to talk about and I have a lot of questions.”
Before we go below, Rand enjoys a moment of unfettered affection from his crew mates. They embrace him as they would a long lost brother, and he, as demonstrative with emotion as I remember, returns the fondness. I watch from nearby with a sense of gladness, that a misdirection of fate has been repaired.
I now sit across a small table from Rand, having just heard his unbelievable story. I shall, to the best of my ability, attempt to retell it as accurately and earnestly as he told it to me.
The thought had never occurred to any of us that when Rand failed to appear with us at Dragonfly Sky-base, that he had actually been redirected to different arrival coordinates. In the short history of transmicronization, nothing like that had ever happened. Rand theorized that a micro fluctuation in the magnetic field, or a stray cosmic ray, skewed the quantum field lensing just as the machine transferred us from the subterranean chambers in Washington DC to the aquatic pond micro verse.
“But however it happened, I awoke in this place, surrounded by the people. Their word, idea really, for themselves defies pronouncing or even conceptualizing. The closest word in English is Unity. You can call them what I call them: the Microsia Aquatica. These Microsians are single cellular organisms. They are protozoa. Each one is an individual eukaryotic cell with all the usual trimmings: nucleus, mitochondria, golgi structures, even cilia. They seem to have characteristics of several classes of protista, including pseudopodia, like an Amoeba, and cilia, like Paramecium. As you’ve seen, they use other microorganisms like we use beasts of burden.”
Visible through the porthole behind him, a Microsian rode swiftly by on paramecium-back.
“So they are not confined to this bottle?” I asked.
“Wait… you mean to tell me… this is a bottle?” Rand laughed. “I wondered, but never knew. Anyway…. They come and go all the time… well, not all the time – it isn’t always safe for them to go out there. Microsians are the prey in more than a couple predator-and-prey ecological relationships. But the bottle, funny that I couldn’t figure that out, makes an impregnable shelter at this scale. As long as they are inside, nothing can touch them. And even though they are thoroughly at home in the water, they are not confined to it. The air pocket in here is the perfect micro habitat for their… colony, again they use a different word. I finally came to understand that their word represents an idea for a cohesive formation built by the progenitors of the Unity for the protection and prosperity of the Unity and its descendants.”
“This is amazing,” I whispered, trying to comprehend the picture Rand was painting of this secret and hidden civilization. “So there are baby Microsians.”
Rand shook his head. “Descendants, Jon, but not children. They are single-celled organisms. They don’t do things… the way we do.”
My mind was reeling, yet relishing the information. “Are you telling me that they reproduce asexually… that they divide?”
My old friend lifted his glass of mediocre sour mash. “I see that Lyra has made a good start at turning you into a cell biologist. Yes, they reproduce by fission. I’ve seen it a few times. It’s a fascinating process.”
“Maybe I will have that opportunity,” I said excitedly. “But tell me more about them. What about culture? What about their history? Have you learned to speak Microsian?”
“Whoa there, Skip,” he chided me. “They don’t speak exactly. Microsian communication uses several of their organelles and structures, but none are auditory. An idea is expressed partially through vibration of their cilia in concert with reverberations from excretory crystals, like a silent resonating symphony. It took me quite some time to work out a basic vocabulary, but now I have the hang of it. But they can do something that you and I have never dreamed of… if they coordinate their reverberation, the Unity becomes a living computing machine. I’ve only seen it happen once, but it was impressive. That seems to be how they develop complex ideas and make major decisions. The Unity is very much a unified society.”
“I would like to see that as well. Can they understand you?”
“Easily… child’s play to them, if they had children – especially if there are two or more nearby. They seem to perceive the sound waves frequencies of my voice, and then compute a translation into basic concepts, rearranging the parts into ideas they are more familiar with. The more Microsians in the adjacent Unity, the faster they compute.”
“Rand, this discovery of yours…”
“Completely by accident. I take no credit,” he said, tipping back his glass and exhaling. “I’ve had smoother.”
“The luckiest accident in human history. We have to get into that city and learn more about the Microsians. Do you have their trust? I mean, can you get us in there?”
“I doubt they have such concepts as trust or distrust,” said Rand. “They are curious about you though. They sent me out to greet you, and invite you into the colony. They’ve been watching you for weeks.”
“That would explain a few things,” I tell him. “What are they curious about?”
Rand paused, lost in quiet contemplation. He was thinking hard, evidently trying to find the right words for microsian ideas. When he spoke, it was carefully. “They believe that our world is trying to destroy theirs, and they cannot understand why. “
We stand on the observation deck of the Cyclops pilothouse, Captain and First Officer, side by side for the first time in the microscopic world. Across a short stretch of glassy still water, the city of the Microsians fills our view.
“Take us in, Mr. Emerson,” I tell Rand. He nods.
“Helm, turn to forty degrees left rudder, ahead one quarter,” says Randall Emerson.
“Aye, sir,” responds Gyro.
The engine order telegraph rings the one-quarter speed signal and the deck slips forward under my feet as MS Cyclops creeps toward her first port of call since leaving Duckweed Base.
My crew is reunited! My friend is alive! I am struck by a feeling of wholeness and well-being. “Look sharp everyone,” I tell them. It no surprise that everyone is smiling.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
“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…”
“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…
“They’re not human.”
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.
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.
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.