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

Day 16: 0800 hours…

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

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

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

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

“What about its eyes,” pressed Lyra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

0815 hours…

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

Turbulence on the rudder… something big and moving nearby.

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

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

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

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

“Aye, skipper. Lamps to full.”

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

1040 hours…

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

Paramecium

  • Slipper-shaped overall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paramecia,” corrects Lyra.

“…are closing in around us. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 4: 0030 hours…

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

Day 4: 0700 hours

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

Day 8: 0540 hours…

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

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

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

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

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

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

                                                                                 As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

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

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

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

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

“Where are we?” asked Gyro.

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

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

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

Day 3: 1430 hours…

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

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

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

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

“Or it hit us,” countered Gyro.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1500 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1600 hours…

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

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

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

“Explanation for what, Mr. Gyro?”

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

“Until what?”

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

“Gyro, what was gone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s have a look,” I said.

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

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

“But what?”

“They’re not human.”

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

Day 2: Supplementary entry…

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

Day 3: 0600 hours

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

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

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

1030 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from Naturalist’s Log:

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

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

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

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

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

                                                As entered by Lyra Saunders, MS Cyclops

Day 3: 1115 hours…

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

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

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

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

1755 hours…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aye, skipper,” he called back.

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

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

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