Helmets came off. Cilia relaxed. Pseudopods morphed into arms and legs. Joni Janders knew the Microsian… knew her well. The paramecium-ride over from the colony had bonded them. But the man in front of her, this James Ford… he was a mystery. Suddenly her osmotic diving suit felt uncomfortably revealing.
The ship rocked beneath her feet. A near-yet-muffled report of something striking the hull accompanied ship-wide alarms.
“What the hell is going out there?!” barked Captain Dylan Cobb from the command deck.
At his elbow, Joni Janders felt her jaw slacken… but it wasn’t the size of the paramecium that evoked dismay. No, it was something else – someone else. There, in the light of the ship’s nose lamp, a humanoid figure was clearly visible astride the whale-scaled protozoan, gripping some kind of riding tack with pseudopod hands. At the end of a long curved neck, a bulbous head swiveled left, then right, and the Microsian’s single red photosensitive eyespot pulled apart into two eyes, then gazed for an instant across half millimeter of aquatic micro-space at Joni.
“Stay with the ship,” I tell Barron Wolfe as Lyra, Gyro, Rand and I hop from Cyclops’ deck onto the lowest platform of the Microsian colony, the nearest thing to a dock that I have seen since our departure from Duckweed Base. I tighten the strap of my satchel, feeling the weight of its contents resting against my hip. I signal to Rand, indicating for him to lead the way.
To my right, there is no partition or seawall to prevent an accidental misstep and tumble into the enclosed sea, or to prevent waves from flooding into the city – an obvious contrast to seaside communities from our world. But of course, there are no waves on this sea, and no tides. Other than Cyclops the waterfront is devoid of other boats or vessels. I reckon that if the Microsians make use of watercraft, such vessels would be submarine in nature, and are harbored below us, in some manner of underwater harbor.
The multitude of Microsians observed previously all along the waterfront on every level of the micro mega-metropolis, has withdrawn and is no longer anywhere to be seen. Have they become suddenly timid? Or now that we are closer, do they prefer to observe us from the shadows? Perhaps their curiosity has already been satiated and they no longer find us of interest. Although questions bombard my thoughts, it is the myriad of possible answers that now flood my mind.
I draw a calming breath, confronting the perils of amateur anthropology: projecting human behavior onto these decidedly un-human creatures is not the way of the scientific process. That mistake will lead to incorrect assumptions, misunderstandings, and very likely disaster. The dark legacy of explorers-that-came-before serves as a reminder to remain clearheaded, objective, and above all… observant.
We enter the first city without fanfare or hoopla. The micro metropolis appears to be abandoned, yet we know that we are being watched from what appear to be windows carved in the face of the many multi-story earthen-formed edifices. With Rand in the lead, our landing party strolls along the sea-edge. I take up the end of our procession and scan the spartan streets, the shadows between the odd structures ahead of us, for any sign of the Microsians. There are none.
Overhead, spanning the enormous bottle interior is a progression of six buttressed platforms, a vertical array of enormous bridges that each serve as the foundation for its own Microsian city. The highest level is barely visible above a ceiling of cloud. The uppermost city, Rand tells me, is where we are headed.
Randy explains that each of the seven levels is a city unto itself, complete with towering buildings built upon it, and inverted domiciles hanging like stalagmites from the underside. And yet, it is eerily quiet. There is no movement.
“The Microsians,” I whisper, “have made themselves scarce, I daresay.”
“Where did they all go?” questions Gyro anxiously.
“No need to be nervous… or insulted,” answers Rand. “The Unity shared the momentous occasion of your arrival, witnessed it through the eyes of every individual, then created a memory of it in its own fashion. Now it has returned to its normal routine. Life goes on!” A stray thought makes him laugh. “Just because a little ship full of micro-sized humans – that its scouts have been watching for weeks – finally shows up, hardly warrants walking off the job and calling for a holiday. This isn’t Washington D.C., after all!”
“They all have tasks then? asks Lyra. “Like the division of labor in the social orders of honeybees, termites, and naked mole rats?”
“More complex than those. The Microsia Aquatica symbiotica have a rigid caste system, and species-wide social equality. There is no hierarchy – no leader, no president, king, queen, or emperor. Just three castes: warriors, growers, and crafters – and all have equal importance and influence.”
“Efficient, but limiting I would think,” comments Lyra.
“Three jobs! That’s not enough,” remarks Gyro. “A society needs more than defense, agriculture, and construction. What about a constabulary?”
Lyra: “And educators!”
Myself: “And explorers.”
“Irrelevant human institutions, all based on human nature,” says Rand, adopting his Academy guest professor of social anthropology tone. “And therefore meaningless here. Among Microsians, at least with this symbiotica subspecies, the three castes cooperate in various combinations to fill non-essential niches. You’ll find that most of the vocational callings of our world have no equivalent in this one. Best to abandon those preconceptions.”
“It’s remarkable!” says Lyra. “A civilization without leaders, or even family groups.”
“How then do they deal with visitors?” I inquire.
“Seems that the arrival of visitors is extremely rare, and from what I’ve learned, so rare that there is no formalized procedure for greeting, welcoming, or meeting newcomers.”
Lyra: “When you arrived, out of thin air, it must’ve changed their world.”
“You would think so,” muses Rand thoughtfully, “and yet, it was almost as if I had been expected. When I materialized, I was escorted to an empty chamber where three Microsians met with me: a warrior, a grower, and a crafter. Of course I didn’t understand those differentiations at the time. Each of them attempted communication with me, in their own way, with various combinations of ciliary waves and crystal resonance – and a lot of gazing into my eyes. Two of the three were unable to understand me, and I failed to decode their strange non verbal communication. But the Microsian of the warrior caste succeeded – and she did so spectacularly. Alontyn was able to decipher spoken English very quickly. And even though I sensed some rudiments of her communication immediately, it took me a bit longer to become fluent in her microsian vibro-tongue.”
“Her?” asks Lyra. “The warrior caste includes females?”
“As do all the castes. In a strictly biological sense, all Microsians are female. The exchange of DNA is not necessary for them to reproduce.”
How will these revelations play out over the coming minutes? I am more curious than ever: “Then with whom will we be meeting?”
“As was the case when I arrived, it was decided that a representative from each caste would meet with each of you. You’ll be bonded to a single Microsian, who will become the conduit of your voice to the Unity. The representatives are waiting for you.” Rand pointed skyward, toward the uppermost platform. “Up there.”
“That’s going to be quite a climb,” says Gyro with a tired sigh.
Rand smiles. “There will be no climbing today. The Microsians have a much better way to move between cities. Over here…”
Rand leads us away from the water’s edge, to a cylindrical structure made of transparent material. It disappears overhead into the second platform, and I assume continues upward to the cities above.
“This is a capillary conveyer. It’s how they move from one city, up or down, to another. You’re going to enjoy this.” Rand steps through the outer wall of the cylinder and is now inside, standing on a film of transparency. He beckons us to join him with a hand gesture. I lean into the wall of the cylinder. Though it appears solid, the material offers a slight resistance – then quite effortlessly, with a gentle pop, I am inside this microsian elevator tube. The circular space easily accommodates we four, and could hold twice our number.
Rand, who has kept one hand extended through the transparency, assesses the group, then announces: “Do not touch the wall. When I pull my hand inside, enzymes in the cylinder membrane will denature the proteins in the floor under our feet and we will be suspended on the water itself, via surface tension. The water beneath will instantly carry us up via capillary action.”
I cannot help marveling at the simplicity and genius of the Microsian elevator.
Rand withdraws his hand from the wall of the tube – and in the next instant we are propelled upward at what is for us, an astonishing speed. The foundation level of the Primo Gradu drops away as we ascend through the space between buildings, then a moment of darkness as the tube carries us through the second platform. In the space of a single breath we burst back into the light of the second city as the conveyer carries us higher and higher, through the third, then the fourth.
“Enjoy the view, but don’t press against the cylinder wall,” insists my always thorough first officer.
We break into the light of the fifth city. The grand vista of the captured sea is breathtaking. At this altitude the curved walls of the bottle are drawing closer, curving inward to meet us as we rocket skyward. This vantage point reveals the arrays of algae farms clinging to the inside of the bottle. A shimmer of movement among those vast gravity-defying fields betrays presence of the shy Microsians – the grower caste is hard at work, tending the simple crops that provide the colony with energy and oxygen.
The darkness of the sixth level swallows us momentarily, and when we emerge from shadow, the light of the sixth city is the brightest yet. We have ascended above the atmospheric vapor that drifts about the upper levels of the bottle-space, cloaking the seventh city from the others below.
Rand slowly pushes two fingers through the inner cylinder wall. At once our ascent slows. As we enter the darkness of the seventh and uppermost platform, our speed drops to the scale equivalent of a Manhattan Otis elevator.
We rise into the light of the uppermost city – the terminus of our vertical transit. Rand steps through the cylinder’s inner membrane. The rest of us follow him onto the clean plain of the Semptimo Gradu, the city of the seventh level.
“Remember,” says Rand, “stay as calm and relaxed as you can muster. And only touch them if invited to. Ah, here they come.”
From the base of a massive spheroidal structure, a contingent of Microsians moves in our direction. There are many more than the four that I was expecting. One is in the lead: that would be Rand’s Alontyn. Behind her I count nine others. Of course… one from each caste for myself, Lyra, and Gyro – for the pairing test.
I am captivated by the approaching entourage.
My first impression is one of translucent membrane, exaggerated slender neck and limbs, a head crest of membrane-bound cilia that follows a longitudinal line from forehead, over the head, down the neck and back, ending where the legs part from the lower torso. The same cilia-bound membrane adorns the backside of the arms.
The essential two-legged, two-armed, head, neck, and torso construction of the Microsians belie their exotic nature. Everything about them reveals how un-human they are – but how perfectly microsian, like every organism we have encountered, adapted to living in a micro-verse. They appear to glide over the ground. Microsian stride is a flowing movement in which the human approximations of hip, leg, knee, and foot form and reform from one moment to the next from pairs of amoeba-like pseudopodia. If a greater stride is required, mass for a larger leg is drawn from the torso, which in turn becomes slighter. And if arms need to stretch further, the same thing occurs, with cytoplasm flowing from the torso and legs into the arms to supply the required mass. Suspended throughout the microsian bodies are globules and spheres of all sizes, evidently serving as the individual’s vital organs – exactly as we have seen with the organelles of protozoa throughout our travels.
Not until they are mere steps away do I notice the most un-human aspect of our hosts.
The Microsians have a single red eyespot. Though disconcerting at first, this should come as no surprise, for we have seen the same simple adaptation for light response many times, especially with the green algal protists whose single photosensitive red eyespots serve to detect safe or desirable levels of solar radiation. With the Microsia aquatica the red eyespot is located in the center of a bulb-shaped head, which like all their appendages, extends from the torso on an extremely long, slender stalk-like neck. Not until the Microsian appears intent on careful observation, does its large single red eyespot pull apart, forming two smaller eyes that take up positions in the face similar to where our own eyes are located. I theorize that this is a response to situations when binocular observation is required.
I find myself surrounded by an earnest Microsian trio: a grower, a crafter, and a warrior. They encircle me, their faces almost, but not quite, touching my own, their eyes piercing mine. They take turns performing an almost avian-type display with waves of raised cilia accompanied by subsonic reverberations from the excretory crystals in their cytoplasm. The vibrations washing over and through me are not unpleasant, and I am reminded of the deep reverberation I have experienced while riding in the engine cab of a steam locomotive, a sensation that could easily lull me to sleep.
But there is no cognitive impression. As a sense of disappointment begins to intrude on the experience I am slammed by a wave of intense feeling.
When she of the crafting caste locks her gaze onto mine and performs her dance/song I am suddenly filled with an explosion of euphoric contentment. The initial overwhelming moment quickly resolves into more definable feelings of inclusiveness, completeness, safety, wholeness… unity. So powerful are the unbidden emotions that I forget to breath, grow lightheaded, then gasp for lungs-full of the enriched algae-made oxygen. After a minute the emotions temper, supplanted by more grounded images/thoughts/ideas. I regain control of my breathing, lower my resistance, and let the connection happen.
Oxhya, her name exists as normally as it didn’t a moment earlier, is painting a fresco in my mind – a picture story that says we are compatible, have always been, will always be. She and I have become what the Microsia Aquatica value above all else: symbiotic.
Oxhya is more content than happy, feeling the same sense of completeness as I.
I speak the words: “How is this possible?”
Her answer arrives as threads of a million thoughts, weaving into a new tapestry. At their foundations, matter and energy are simply fields of energy, attracting and repelling. One very pure form of that energy is consciousness, capable of interacting in more dynamic ways than most other kinds. The consciousness generated by living things is unique to each individual, and has a forceful nature of attraction. That elemental attraction is particularly powerful between Microsians and humans, making symbiotic links of interspecies consciousness possible.
It is clear to me now, finding ourselves in this amazing place, meeting this never-seen-before species, is no accident. We have been led here, to this moment. Our voyage of discovery through the micro habitats of the pond universe, though seemingly one of exploration, driven by curiosity and a need to understand the fundamentals of life, was much, much more. We have been steered and redirected at every turn, onto paths that would bring us here, for this meeting, for this joining. And yet, I cannot deny that the wonders we have observed in our travels seem to have perfectly prepared us for this moment.
“Why have you brought us here?”
We have failed to understand why humans do not seek symbiosis with life. This has caused us pain. The People have sought enlightenment, but cannot find it. You were brought here to make the People understand why your kind does not seek symbiosis with life. Humans benefit most from all worlds, so why are humans not stewards of all worlds? Why do humans destroy worlds? Why do humans waste? Why do humans put material into the People’s world that ends life? Why do humans…
My involuntary response to Oxhya’s questions exposes her to an emotion wholly new to the Microsia Aquatica symbiotica.
As my arms drop to my sides, my left hand falls upon the satchel, and feels the weight contained within. Now is the time to deliver that which was sent to my world, a package that I was given strict orders to hand over “when the time was right.” I haven’t a doubt in my mind that this is that time.
Without breaking my gaze with Oxhya, my fingers fumble with the satchel’s leather closure. I reach inside and wrap my hand around the cloth-enclosed parcel, then gently withdraw the bundle.
Oxhya extends her right arm. The fin-like hand spreads wide to receive the cloth-enclosed parcel. I set it gently onto her hand, which wraps tenderly to secure it. Small pseudopods form fingers that deftly unwrap the bundle. Cotton cloth falls away from a pile of perfect teardrop-shaped black crystals, each the size of my thumb. A wave of knowledge: I feel and know instantly that these are the mineral remains of a microsian eye.
Oxhya lifts the black shards to her face, and I see what she sees – feel what she feels. This was Elaryn, also of the crafting caste, who gave her life to send the information to the outer world, to the humans. From her crystalline essence came the instructions for building the amazing quantum restructuring micronizer.
Recalling my own hubris I am embarrassed. It was no grand accomplishment of human genius! It was a gift from the very people our world endangers – a brilliant conveyance for getting us to come to them.
No – it was for getting me to come to her.
End of Book 1
Author’s note: Microscopic Monsters is now being featured on Best Science Fiction Blogs
Day 16: 1230 hours
They are watching us!
Lyra, Gyro, and Barron have joined me topside, but nobody has yet found words to adequately express any emotion, let alone a vague analysis of the moment. We, my crew and I, stand side-by-side, silently transfixed on a scene that I can barely put into thought, let alone language. Could this be how British explorer James Cook felt, after Europeans had been crisscrossing the Pacific for a century, when he then discovered a thriving society, hundreds of thousands strong, on an isolated archipelago in the middle of that ocean?
Not only watching, but evaluating us!
The nearest platform of this incongruous micro metropolis, one built at the same level as the captured sea, is approximately two centimeters away. The waterfront is lined with the bipedal forms, each seemingly identical to the next, an observation that I attribute to the effect of distance.
Below the glimmering surface of the miniature sea, ciliated organisms cruise the waters around us, bipedal beings astride paramecia, driving them like frontiersmen on horseback.
Irrefutable, the visual evidence penetrates my mind, collides with my sluggish comprehension. The wisdom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drifts like welcome salvation into my thoughts: It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
“Skipper, what should we do?” whispers Gyro, his voice tremulous. I can hear disbelief fermenting into fear. His almost-terror-stricken gaze shoots from the parapets above to the waters surrounding us. “There are hundreds of them! We should…”
“Arm ourselves is what we should do,” interjects Barron Wolfe. “I have a harpoon gun that would serve as a…”
“Stay right where you are, mister,” I tell the engine master. “All of you, in fact. Nobody move. They are watching, assessing us for whatever imperatives guide their behavior. Let’s not give them a reason to act hastily or against us.” I pitch my voice to project confidence and control. “We are explorers. Our first task is to observe. Any notions you may have about what this place is, or who these creatures are, are idle guesses. Am I understood?”
All heads nod. Good!
Lyra’s eyes widen. She points across the water toward the city. “Jonathan, someone is coming.”
The figure, a distant speck at first, grows in size and resolution with every step, and emerges slowly from the intervening mists that hover at various layers in this enclosed world. Though I do not know how, the figure is oddly familiar. Its stride, a steady gate upon the water’s surface, is incomprehensibly recognizable.
It is a man, his dark hair visible above a blue-gray uniform eerily similar to my own. Half a centimeter from Cyclops he stops, then incongruously raises his left arm and waves in a decidedly friendly manner, as if greeting us on Pennsylvania Avenue on a summer Saturday evening en route to Ford’s Theater. Even before I hear his shouted greeting, I know who it is.
“Jonathan Adler! Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!”
It cannot be Rand Emerson, but that is exactly who it is, my executive officer, right-hand man, companion from my academy days – alive? In my mind, playing like a nickelodeon picture show, I recall the final moments before he evaporated into the ether of quantum space. There we were, the original five of us, the crew of the MS Cyclops, standing on the reaction stage of the machine – before those incredible energies bore down upon us, before Rand had glitched.
As Rand resumes his approach – as his grinning face becomes identifiable, my mind is already racing to understand, to explain how this can be, and something more – a powerful desire to repair the damage of his disappearance. I cannot wait to greet him, the medicine of seeing him whisked safely into the grateful arms of his crew mates. I feel an intense need to heal the tragedy of losing my first officer even before the voyage had begun. Then I remember my responsibility to the others, to the safety of the ship and her crew.
“Stand where you are, Sergeant!” I call to him. The crew’s welcoming shouts fade to silence and all heads spin toward me with quizzical expressions. On the water, Randall Emerson comes to a military halt, with chin up, heels together, and arms straight at his sides. “Hello, Rand! Sorry about the formality, but you might say that the situation is extraordinary – wouldn’t you agree?”
“I could not agree more, Captain Adler, sir,” he answers with diction crisp enough to cast a flint spark. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”
“You can hold station right where you are, Mr. Emerson,” I tell him. I have no doubt that this is the bona fide Randall Emerson, but I will persist with a line of query that will erase any suspicion that might otherwise linger in the minds of the crew. “Just a couple of questions before I crack open my last bottle of Old Kentucky to welcome you back into the fold.”
“That sounds about, Captain. You loath Old Kentucky,” interjects Rand with a cheerful cadence. “And you always have. You once remarked that it ‘tastes like skunk spray and leaves an aftertaste like a stagnant Potomac backwater in August,’ if I’m not mistaken.”
Muted laughter erupts from the crew.
The quote is accurate, and mimicked precisely, right down to my rural Chesapeake inflection. The man is definitely Randall Emerson. “Your recollection is accurate, nevertheless, that is the swill we have, therefore it will have to suffice,” I tell him. With a friendly gesture, I beckon the would-be crew mate closer.
Rand closes the remaining gap and stops three paces from the gunwale. “The old girl looks like she’s seen her share of rough passage. Gyro, she still yar and nimble as she was in her sea trials?”
Without turning, I stifle Gyro from responding with a raised finger. “Yes, sea trials. Quite a memorable day. Remind me, Rand, how we ended up at McMurphy’s pub that last afternoon, after that final shakedown?”
Rand Emerson smiles a generous toothy grin. “McMurphy’s hadn’t yet reopened from the fire that took out half the block. We ended up at Old Toad’s, but only after that French steamer crew turned us away from Foggy Bay. You had four Martinez cocktails and sang ‘Won’t You Come Home, Bill Baily’ until the barkeeper cut you off and showed us the door.”
Lyra plants a hand on her hip and wags the other one at me. “I knew you could sing,” she declares.
“Your skipper is a nightingale,” says Rand with mock sincerity.
“All right, enough of that,” I admonish. “Mr. Emerson, permission to come aboard is granted. We have a lot to talk about and I have a lot of questions.”
Before we go below, Rand enjoys a moment of unfettered affection from his crew mates. They embrace him as they would a long lost brother, and he, as demonstrative with emotion as I remember, returns the fondness. I watch from nearby with a sense of gladness, that a misdirection of fate has been repaired.
I now sit across a small table from Rand, having just heard his unbelievable story. I shall, to the best of my ability, attempt to retell it as accurately and earnestly as he told it to me.
The thought had never occurred to any of us that when Rand failed to appear with us at Dragonfly Sky-base, that he had actually been redirected to different arrival coordinates. In the short history of transmicronization, nothing like that had ever happened. Rand theorized that a micro fluctuation in the magnetic field, or a stray cosmic ray, skewed the quantum field lensing just as the machine transferred us from the subterranean chambers in Washington DC to the aquatic pond micro verse.
“But however it happened, I awoke in this place, surrounded by the people. Their word, idea really, for themselves defies pronouncing or even conceptualizing. The closest word in English is Unity. You can call them what I call them: the Microsia Aquatica. These Microsians are single cellular organisms. They are protozoa. Each one is an individual eukaryotic cell with all the usual trimmings: nucleus, mitochondria, golgi structures, even cilia. They seem to have characteristics of several classes of protista, including pseudopodia, like an Amoeba, and cilia, like Paramecium. As you’ve seen, they use other microorganisms like we use beasts of burden.”
Visible through the porthole behind him, a Microsian rode swiftly by on paramecium-back.
“So they are not confined to this bottle?” I asked.
“Wait… you mean to tell me… this is a bottle?” Rand laughed. “I wondered, but never knew. Anyway…. They come and go all the time… well, not all the time – it isn’t always safe for them to go out there. Microsians are the prey in more than a couple predator-and-prey ecological relationships. But the bottle, funny that I couldn’t figure that out, makes an impregnable shelter at this scale. As long as they are inside, nothing can touch them. And even though they are thoroughly at home in the water, they are not confined to it. The air pocket in here is the perfect micro habitat for their… colony, again they use a different word. I finally came to understand that their word represents an idea for a cohesive formation built by the progenitors of the Unity for the protection and prosperity of the Unity and its descendants.”
“This is amazing,” I whispered, trying to comprehend the picture Rand was painting of this secret and hidden civilization. “So there are baby Microsians.”
Rand shook his head. “Descendants, Jon, but not children. They are single-celled organisms. They don’t do things… the way we do.”
My mind was reeling, yet relishing the information. “Are you telling me that they reproduce asexually… that they divide?”
My old friend lifted his glass of mediocre sour mash. “I see that Lyra has made a good start at turning you into a cell biologist. Yes, they reproduce by fission. I’ve seen it a few times. It’s a fascinating process.”
“Maybe I will have that opportunity,” I said excitedly. “But tell me more about them. What about culture? What about their history? Have you learned to speak Microsian?”
“Whoa there, Skip,” he chided me. “They don’t speak exactly. Microsian communication uses several of their organelles and structures, but none are auditory. An idea is expressed partially through vibration of their cilia in concert with reverberations from excretory crystals, like a silent resonating symphony. It took me quite some time to work out a basic vocabulary, but now I have the hang of it. But they can do something that you and I have never dreamed of… if they coordinate their reverberation, the Unity becomes a living computing machine. I’ve only seen it happen once, but it was impressive. That seems to be how they develop complex ideas and make major decisions. The Unity is very much a unified society.”
“I would like to see that as well. Can they understand you?”
“Easily… child’s play to them, if they had children – especially if there are two or more nearby. They seem to perceive the sound waves frequencies of my voice, and then compute a translation into basic concepts, rearranging the parts into ideas they are more familiar with. The more Microsians in the adjacent Unity, the faster they compute.”
“Rand, this discovery of yours…”
“Completely by accident. I take no credit,” he said, tipping back his glass and exhaling. “I’ve had smoother.”
“The luckiest accident in human history. We have to get into that city and learn more about the Microsians. Do you have their trust? I mean, can you get us in there?”
“I doubt they have such concepts as trust or distrust,” said Rand. “They are curious about you though. They sent me out to greet you, and invite you into the colony. They’ve been watching you for weeks.”
“That would explain a few things,” I tell him. “What are they curious about?”
Rand paused, lost in quiet contemplation. He was thinking hard, evidently trying to find the right words for microsian ideas. When he spoke, it was carefully. “They believe that our world is trying to destroy theirs, and they cannot understand why. “
We stand on the observation deck of the Cyclops pilothouse, Captain and First Officer, side by side for the first time in the microscopic world. Across a short stretch of glassy still water, the city of the Microsians fills our view.
“Take us in, Mr. Emerson,” I tell Rand. He nods.
“Helm, turn to forty degrees left rudder, ahead one quarter,” says Randall Emerson.
“Aye, sir,” responds Gyro.
The engine order telegraph rings the one-quarter speed signal and the deck slips forward under my feet as MS Cyclops creeps toward her first port of call since leaving Duckweed Base.
My crew is reunited! My friend is alive! I am struck by a feeling of wholeness and well-being. “Look sharp everyone,” I tell them. It no surprise that everyone is smiling.
“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.
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Day 12: 1515 hours…
Vorticella never lie… will be etched upon my grave – if this day plays out the way the last hour has been going.
We quickly learn what alarmed the stalked ciliates… a planarian! This predatory flatworm has caught our scent – probably sensing the carbon dioxide from Cyclops’ engine boiler exhaust.
“As a wise man once said: you can’t outrun a planarian,” warns Lyra in an analytical tone that defies the peril we were in.
“Watch me!” snaps Gyro, then shouts into the voice pipe: “Barron, give me everything you’ve got!”
We have been trying to evade this denizen of the aquatic weed forest for the better part of an hour, but to no avail. We can neither outrun it, nor out-maneuver it through a maze of water plants and bottom detritus. At every turn the flatworm sways its enormous head from side to side, using its ear-like chemical detectors to track our every move with uncanny precision. I fear that unless we find a way to distract the monster – and soon – we shall become this planarian’s afternoon snack!
“Class Turbellaria, genus Dugesia,” muses Lyra with ironic calm as she peers astern at the looming monster. “Make no mistake, a predator from head to tail. The problem, my dear Gyro, is that the harder you drive our engine, the more carbon dioxide we emit, which is to that flatworm what the smell of frying bacon is to you.”
The helmsman stomps his foot. “But if we shut down the boiler, we come to a stop, and that thing eats us whole!” argues Gyro vehemently.
I am moments from making a fateful decision – the command to abandon ship. I am reasoning that when the planarian captures the Cyclops, we will have a moment or two to escape in diving suits, or alternatively crowd the lot of us into the diving bell, which is hopefully too small to interest the predator. But such an escape comes with harsh consequences, for without Cyclops we will be without protection, oxygen, or food, and our survival in this life-rich micro habitat most uncertain.
“Skipper,” bellows the earnest voice of Barron from the voice pipe. I fully expect him to report that our fuel is gone, that we will soon be dead in the water…our fate sealed as flatworm fodder. But instead the engine master’s thunderous basso announces that he has sighted something nearby: “Off the port side, about two centimeters away, looks like a clutch of aquatic snail eggs!”
Lyra spins to the port frames of the observation dome, training her German-fashioned binocular glasses on the massive green plant stems and branches of the surrounding weed forest. “Barron’s right,” she confirms excitedly. “Jonathan, those snail embryos are probably emitting even more CO2 than we are. Maybe we can use them as a…”
“…a distraction!” I shout, completing Lyra’s thought. “A keen stratagem, but alacrity is of the essence if we hope to effectively trick our pursuer. Gyro, if you can steer us close to those snail eggs – near, but not so near as to get caught in the surrounding gelatinous membrane, then at the closest quarter pull away at full steam…”
“Aye, Skipper!” answers the steersman. “To make this work we will be pushing the ship past the structurally safe limits. Everyone best find something to hold onto.”
I shift my gaze to the aft panes of the observation dome. The monster is nearly upon us. We can delay no longer. I bark into the voice pipe. “All hands, brace for sudden course change!” I turn to my steersman, in whose skills I’ve now placed all of our lives. “Mr. Gyro, please adjust rudder to take us within three millimeters of those snail eggs.”
“Changing course,” acknowledges Gyro as he turns the ship’s wheel gently, moving the Cyclops onto an arc-like path that will bring us to a point three millimeters away from the snail embryo mass in less than ten seconds.
“The planarian is following, just as we hoped,” reports Lyra.
“So far so good,” I tell her, then lean toward Gyro and pitch my voice for his ear only. “Take the propeller out of gear.”
“I want to make sure our friend gets a good whiff of those baby snails.”
Gyro moves the engine telegraph lever to neutral. The ship slows. Momentum shoves all hands forward.
“Jonathan, why are we slowing down? It’s almost on us!” shouts Lyra.
The snail embryos, writhing and squirming in their clear egg sacs, loom close off the port bow. I’m not sure how I feel about sacrificing these small molluscs to the planarian so that we can escape, but I know that escaping is preferable to being devoured.
Less than a stone’s throw astern the worm wags its enormous head, seeking the strongest signal that indicates an easy meal. Will it be us, or the baby snails?
“Here we go!” announces Gyro as he shifts the engine telegraph to full forward and throws his entire body into spinning the ship’s wheel to starboard, using all of his strength to hold it into a hairpin turn, fighting the resistance of the rudder. The momentum of the sudden course change pulls on everything aboard the Cyclops, and every micron of her iron hull. I can hear the complaint of metal from all parts of the sturdy ship, and a groan from Gyro whose whitened grip cannot hold the wheel through a turn this tight for very long.
I jump to his side and grasp the wheel, my hands beside his. The resistance from the helm is unbelievable. The wheel threatens to throw the both of us across the pilothouse. The control cables surely cannot take this for much longer. The deck under our feet trembles and a shudder of protest shakes the Cyclops from bow to stern.
“You can do it,” I whisper to the ship.
Suddenly, there is a hand on my shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. It is Lyra. She is smiling.
“We made it!” she shouts above the sound of the grumbling wood, steel, and glass. “The planarian went for the snail babies. We’re safe.”
We withdraw to a safe distance to observe the fascinating yet gruesome epilog of our adventure with the flatworm.
From the planarian’s underside emerges a muscular feeding tube, which methodically begins devouring the baby snails, one after the other, as if they are some irresistible escargot bonbon. The feeding tube has a mouth-like opening that swallows the baby snails shell and all, then takes them into its body where they digest in a tri-branched intestine that runs the length of the beast.
With somber relief I make notes and sketch my observations of this savage feeding process, grateful for our sakes that human ingenuity prevailed again. And as the flatworm feeds, and the baby snails digest within it, I am reminded of the truism that where the choice is to eat or be eaten, nature doesn’t give a tinker’s damn.
To our great delight, Lyra discovers a single greenish cell wedged firmly in the ship’s rudder assembly – the strange malfunction of our steering and elevator systems now demystified. When she attempts to free the organism with a length of hemp line the protist takes her on a merry jaunt as she grasps the tether with all her strength.
“There she goes!” reports Gyro as Lyra and the green beastie streak past the windows of the wheelhouse, looking for all the world like a micro-scaled reenactment of a nineteenth century Nantucket sleigh ride. “Let go, for heaven’s sake!” he shouts in vain at the drama beyond the glass. “Why doesn’t she just let go?”
“Because that simple and elegant solution,” I mutter, “would be far too convenient! I suspect that our young biologist has reckoned that the organism is worthy of closer study – and once she sets her mind to such a task…”
“All well and good,” raged the concerned and exasperated pilot, “but it’s carrying her farther and farther away!”
So as not to lose my prize naturalist, I know we will need a quick plan to lure the green cell back to the Cyclops, get it close enough for capture.
As if reading my mind, Gyro offers a timely recollection: “Skipper, remember the green paramecium, how it would move out of our shadow to bask in the sunlight.”
“By Jove, ensign,” I proclaim, “we will yet make a naturalist out of you!”
My mind was racing. Perhaps this energetic green organism is driven by the same chemical responses as the green paramecium.
I turn to the ship’s controls and power up the external lamps. Sure enough, as I had hoped, the organism changes its mad course and heads toward the light, towards the ship, and safety for Lyra!
Lyra is now safely aboard the Cyclops again and our new mascot – the green algae cell – is being observed in a glass enclosure. It has the usual characteristics of a single cell: a roundish clear body filled with cytoplasm. This one has two flagella, which it uses like propellers for moving about. Each flagellum joins the body where we observe a cluster of red granules. We suspect this red “eye spot” is sensitive to the presence of light, and steers the cell by sending chemical signals to the flagella. Also inside the cell is a nucleus, a number of whitish starch bodies, and a horseshoe-shaped green structure – the organism’s chloroplast.
The chloroplast seems to be the center of a great deal of biochemical activity within this organism. When light is shined upon the chloroplast the oxygen levels in the tank begin to rise and starch bodies are produced. Lyra believes we are watching the process of photosynthesis as it occurs. She also suggests that a small menagerie of these organisms might serve us by producing all the oxygen we could ever need! It appears that a happy accident has provided us with a solution to our oxygen problem.
As we continue our mission I am in awe. We have observed that every green cell in this life-rich world is a living factory, producing oxygen and the molecules for life. It is here in the micro world, I humbly realize, that the foundations of the living world begin!
Day 9: 0530 hours…
Dawn is breaking. Last night we anchored the ship to a decaying aquatic weed stem, about two hundred twenty centimeters depth – all hands glad for the respite after our adventure on the surface. I am pleased to report that the night passed uneventfully.
As I enjoy my mug of coffee on the observation level of the pilothouse the faceted dome reveals the first sunrays piercing the pond’s depths. Through the heavy leaded glass warm watery light strikes green algal protista, which illuminate into iridescent emeralds. And there are thousands upon thousands of them all around us, creating an ever-changing green waterscape that extends in all directions to the furthest distance. The harmless multitude is to other single-celled pond organisms what grass is to the herding beasts of the African Serengeti – food in abundance. I am admittedly curious about the organisms that rely on this plentitude.
“Good morning, Skipper,” says Gyro cheerily as he enters the pilothouse.
I return his bright salutation, adding, “How about we get the ol’ girl ready for departure?”
“Aye, skipper!” my steersman answers. He picks up the voice pipe: “All hands – prepare for departure! Make free fast all mooring lines and retract! “ He turns to me with eyebrows raised. “Speed and heading, Captain?”
The green algae cells cavorting hither and yon were a clue that we were in the midst of an active food chain. I was eager to unfold its secrets as the sun rose higher.
“Ahead one quarter,” I say. “Nice and slow. Two degrees left rudder, and elevators minus five. Let’s try to learn what dines on these little green beasties.”
Gyro sends two bells on the engine telegraph to Barron back in the engine room. Through the deck I can feel the vibration of our steam turbine increasing, then a slight surge as the screw begins to spin, the almost-imperceptible shudder through metal and glass as the steam engine gains speed. Through the glass of the observation dome I can see our overnight anchorage sliding astern. We are underway.
We are entering a transitional pond microhabitat, not yet definable as shallows, and yet not as fathomless as the open water.
Cruising at slow speed near the surface, the Cyclops encounters a large single-celled organism common throughout the pond – Paramecium. This particular species is different than the others we have seen, it’s color being the most obvious differentiating attribute – it is green!
A closer inspection reveals that the green coloring comes from smaller green bodies inside. And these smaller green bodies are organisms themselves – algae cells – not dissimilar from the free-swimming algae cells that are so plentiful in this region. The green cells inside do not appear to be the paramecium’s breakfast. We wonder what function they serve, or if their home inside Chez Paramecia is simply a safe place to live, out of harm’s way. And if so, how might the paramecium benefit from this curious living arrangement?
Now this is curious – when we pass over the green paramecium, the Cyclops’ shadow blocks the light from hitting the organism – and to our astonishment, the organism immediately moves back into the sunlight! Could the paramecium be moving back into the light for the benefit of its little green guests? We have observed that green microorganisms gather in sunny patches throughout the pond. Further observation is needed to learn the connection between green organisms and sunlight.
As has been the case all morning, single-celled algal protista abound, now perhaps more than ever! Without warning Gyro sounds the bubbles above alert, and for good reason! Oxygen bubbles, found wherever there is a large algae population, are a particular nuisance. “Bubbles above! Bubbles above!” shouts the steersman.
In much the same way Cyclops was recently stranded on the surface of the pond, we could easily become ensnared by air bubble surface tension and find ourselves unable to escape. We must avoid these oxygen bubble rafts at all costs, but at the moment, as the bubble raft expands down from the surface, we are in peril of becoming trapped!
“Jonathan,” advises Lyra, “that bubble mass is expanding very quickly, and we are getting awfully close to it. We need to stop rising, or we’re going to get trapped.”
“Skipper,” calls Gyro from the wheel, “ I suggest we flood the surplus oxygen storage tanks. The added weight will trim us, and prevent us from rising into the bubble raft.”
I spin to the voice pipe, tapping it twice to alert all hands of an impending announcement. “Barron, flood the reserve O2 tanks. Repeat: flood the oxygen reserve tanks with water – now!”
I glance at the oxygen tank indicators while watching the looming bubble raft now less than a ship’s length above us. The gages show a full store of oxygen. Hurry, Barron! No sooner do I impatiently think of my engine master, than do we hear the sound of metal pipes creaking as water rushes into the holding tanks. Oxygen streams out the stern release ports. The O2 level indicators drop from ninety percent to less than ten. The floor sinks beneath my feet as Cyclops drops safely away from the treacherous bubble raft.
“That was close!” exclaims Lyra.
“Skipper, I’m afraid escaping that bubble trap cost us our oxygen reserves,” Barron grumbles, as he enters the wheelhouse. “Now our oxygen supply is dangerously low.”
“A hefty price to avoid an even heftier problem,” I respond. “And while it worked, I’d like to know why our control surfaces weren’t able to turn us away from that bubble raft.”
“Rudder isn’t responding to the helm either,” adds Gyro. “The elevator system and the rudder are connected to the same cable cluster. Something must be jammed in there. “
“I’ll go,” says Lyra, never one to shy away from extra vehicular adventures.”
“Then go below and suit up,” I tell her. “But no side trips!”
“Side trips?” she mutters just loudly enough for me to hear. “I really do not know what you’re talking about.”