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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.