“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multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen.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
“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.
“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.
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.
Outer surface covered with a thick coat of waving cilia.
Behavior note: A paramecium uses its cilia in several ways – to move about its environment both forward and backward, to create a feeding current of water that draws in food, to hold itself in a “feeding station” where it can easily suck in large amounts of food organisms.
A slot-shaped oral groove that turns into digestive sacs or vacuoles, filled with captured bacteria. But some parts of bacteria, such as their cell walls, are not digestible. They must be expelled, but how?
A bluish central nucleus. Paramecia appear to have two nucleoli within the nucleus, differentiating them from most other nucleated cells, which only have a single nucleolus.
A pulsing star-shaped water pump at each end. These contractile vacuoles work constantly, ridding the cell of excess water entering the paramecium through osmosis. If it were not for these pumps, the cell would swell up and burst.
“Skipper,” Gyro says with the now familiar note of concern, “the parameciums…”
“Paramecia,” corrects Lyra.
“…are closing in around us. “
To underscore Gyro’s concern, the ship is jostled lightly, then more forcefully, as individual paramecia brush against the hull.
“Individually there isn’t much damage they can do to the ship,” says Lyra, then adding, “but they are the size of orca whales – to us anyway. A large number of them might cause some damage. Maybe it would be a prudent idea to move on.”
I can scarcely believe that these words of caution are coming from my usually reckless naturalist.
“A prudent suggestion,” I agree. “Gyro, watch for a gap in the paramecia. When one appears, take us through it.”
We find ourselves beneath a dome of writhing, contorting oblong shapes, fluidly pushing their way deeper into the detritus mound, competing for the richest bacterial mines.
After several moments of observation, Lyra turns her back on the external view. “Jonathan, some of these bacteria may be light sensitive,” she announces. “I believe they are drawn to the ship’s lamps. And that, in turn, is attracting more of the paramecia.”
“That would explain why there seems to be more and more of these… paramecia,” says Gyro with razor-sharp diction, and a wink in my direction.
I give the order to douse the driving lamps, and to reduce the Edison current to half illumination. Darkness fills the observation panes.
“That’s doing it,” reports Lyra after a short time. “Bacteria activity is slowing down a bit. Less activity should equate to less bacterial metabolism. Emphasis on should…”
“It’s working,” announces Gyro, visibly straining to see through the dim murk. “I think there’s a gap opening up at one o’clock.”
“Finally,” I say softly. “Make for it, Gyro – double slow.”
“Answering double slow,” says Gyro as he rings the engine order telegraph.
Cyclops inches forward, her bow aimed for an irregular void in the otherwise impenetrable wall of paramecia. The gap reveals nothing on the other side but blackness. We steam ever so slowly toward that opening. The perimeter of the opening shifts constantly as paramecia jockey for the best feeding stations, but I am encouraged to see that with each passing moment the gap remains large enough to accommodate Cyclops.
“When we enter the gap,” I tell Gyro, “turn the driving lamps back up. I want to see where we are going.”
“Aye, Skipper,” answers Gyro. “Heading into the gap… now.”
The edges of the opening, alive with feeding, contorting, whale-sized protozoa, move slowly past the observation panes. We are tiptoeing through the lion’s den, shielded by our science – the sightless organisms do not detect CO2-free Cyclops.
“We are almost through the gap,” reports Gyro.
“Good,” I respond. “Then let’s crank up the lamps.”
As we leave the living threshold, Gyro turns the control and sends more Edison current to the driving lamps.
“What in the name of Neptune…” shouts Lyra, staring straight ahead, shielding her eyes.
I cannot make sense of what I am seeing. Brilliant lights are shining back at us, filling the pilothouse with warm illumination. But how?
“It’s glass,” says Gyro, laughing. “And those are our own lamps being reflected back at us!”
To illustrate his conclusion, Gyro fades the lamps down, then up again. The lights shining back at us are indeed our own. But as I look at the reflection I see something else set behind that glass, and words catch in my throat. I take a few steps forward, to the front of the pilothouse. I reach out and touch the glass of our own observation dome, now less than a quarter millimeter from the mysterious reflective surface beyond. There, behind that larger wall of glass are faces. Many faces.
“Do… do you see them?” I stammer to whomever is listening.
Barron arrives in the pilothouse, but is moved to silence. There is a long moment of timelessness, an eternity thunderous with the sound of nothing. Then finally, Lyra steps up to my side and places her hand on my shoulder.
“Yes, Jonathan.” Her voice is hushed, both convinced and disbelieving at the same time. “We all see them, too.
Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs
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.