A Crystalline Herbal and Bestiary:
A Journey To An Alien World
Part VII - The Bromonian Microscopy Institutes
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
Visit the Micscape Library to read other parts in the series.
The extent of the campus of the institutes was immense. Consul Zettel led me to a complex of buildings dedicated to research on both Bronomian and alien protozoa, algae, and other protists.
“I thought we’d start here with some of the more interesting forms that are not pathogenic nor parasitic. If you want to see some of those later, we certainly have them in abundance. Also I should explain that we have other laboratories that are investigating the cytology and physiology of macro-invertebrates and vertebrates; investigations for example, into the nature of the blood changes of the Gelvang when it turns it into a caustic.
However, now let me show you something which is most intriguing. It is a protist which one of our space capsules captured in a probe over the planet Prokost which has an environment which you and I would find very inhospitable. These organisms thrive in a near vacuum. We can show it to you in three different stages of development. We call it simply Eos1. It is clearly what you would call an extremophile. Here is the adult stage–we think.”
Zettel continued, “From the blueish fan-like tubes, it ejects space spores which are spherical and have axiopods or needle-like pseudopodia which it uses for food capture. Until recently, we would never have thought of the high space around a planet as being rich in food micro-organisms, but we have learned that that is indeed the case.”
“As this microsphere feeds, it also begins to develop spines and ejection tubes as you can see here.”
I was observing these organisms through the most amazing microscope one could imagine. It could produce images in brightfield, darkfield, differential interference contrast, phase, Hoffman modulation, fluorescence, oblique, a series of Rheinberg contrasts, laser confocal, and other techniques I was completely unfamiliar with–all in 3 dimensions!
When we entered the laboratory, Zettel had offered me the option of viewing organisms through this marvelous instrument–for which I would sell my obnoxious teenaged niece into slavery-or in a conference hall with a screen the size of an IMAX. I opted for the former because of my love of the hands-on experience which I have always thought of as crucial to good microscopy. The field of view was astounding and the depth of field was equally mind-boggling. I looked up from the microscope and said to Zettel, “This violates the laws of optics.”
Zettel smiled. “Well, not quite. Our imaging technologies have developed over a very long period of time and even in the relatively simple unit which you are using, we have combined a host of features which involve considerable computer processing. So, strictly speaking, this instrument is not merely an optical microscope.”
“Now, when my wife asks me what I want for Christmas, I know what to tell her.”
Zettel laughed and “handed” me a slide by way of an energy beam. “Here is something a bit more conventional and rather like some of your colonial algae. The white areas are bioluminescent. On your planet, almost all bioluminescence is a consequence of symbiotic bacteria. This organism, however, has created tiny structures like batteries and we are trying to discover how this process works.”
Another slide appeared as if by magic. “Here’s a tasty puzzle for you.”
I was struck by its wonderful geometric form.
“Now watch it carefully,” Zettel advised. “It is about ready to ‘reproduce’, ‘transmogrify’–we don’t know how to describe this phenomenon, but the results are always the same and occur after 7 hours and 8 to 22 minutes. So, be patient and you will observe something quite extraordinary.
As I was looking, the entire view shifted radically.
“Yes, incredible isn’t it? And there are always exactly 10 pieces, varying greatly in size, which separate off, reaggregate, fuse together, and produce what you will see in a few moments.”
“Incredible! It looks like an old Earth-style 1950s television set that has been converted into an oversized clock.”
“Surprisingly, it is a sort of biological chronometer. When the ‘hand’ that is now horizontal moves through 270 degrees to simulate what you would call 6 o’clock, it is transformed back to what you saw in the first image.”
I waited and sure enough the first image reappeared.
“This one rather reminds me of a miniature Piet Mondrian painting,” I told Zettel. “What a remarkable life cycle.”
Zettel commented, “You seem attracted to the geometry of this organism. Let me show you a different one which shows how nature loves to play little tricks on us.”
As I looked at this new slide, Zettel said, “This is a cyst of an organism which feeds exclusively on copper. The cyst as you can see consists of a colorful cube encased in a sphere.”
“When it detects copper in its immediate environment, then it excysts and begins to feed. It takes on a bizarrely angular amoeboid form.”
Suddenly I was overcome by envy. I wanted to stay here the rest of my life and work in a laboratory like this one and work on extraordinary organisms. Then I realized that there was a treasure trove of extraordinary organisms in the soil, ponds, and especially the oceans on Earth which had only barely been explored. What we humans needed to do was radically alter our priorities from conflict to cooperation.
“Permit me to show you, as a sample, 427 more geometrical protist forms,” he chuckled. “Yes, I know. Sadly, we don’t have time. However, there is one more which I think you will find to be of special interest. It is a thermophile supreme.”
“You will notice that it has 3 ‘eyespots’–2 in the upper portion and one at the lower left of the central red mass. These orient it toward the sun. The central mass then begins to generate heat at a remarkable rate for such a tiny organism. A mere dozen of these organisms can bring a gallon of water to a boil in 27 seconds. As long as we have a sun and these creatures, we have virtually limitless energy. We abandoned the terrible risk of nuclear power millennia ago. This tiny organism could prove to be the salvation of your planet.
Now, let’s go over to the protozoology laboratory. Understand that these are not quite protozoa in your sense, but it’s the closest we can come in your language.”
This building was even larger than the previous one, for as Zettel explained, the upper floors housed some types of parasites and pathogens, whereas the lower floors were devoted to research on free-living species. Our first stop was a series of laboratories which specialized in amoeboid organisms, but the colors alone radically distinguished them from any Earth amoebae.
The primary technique I used for observation was a combination of darkfield and polarization. Some of these organisms absolutely scintillated with this type of illumination. An excellent example was the Amasc.
Zettel told me that when this organism reached a certain size, it would divide into three–not two, not four, always three. As it moved, the crystals in the protoplasm shone.
The next amoeba we observed was a Narot. It was roughly spherical and possessed a network of orange fibers which radiated out to the edges of the gelatinous sphere.
Zettel told me that the sphere could expand to about 10 times what can be seen in the image and do so so rapidly that one can just barely follow the movement. This is its method of capturing organisms for food and it then uses the orange fibers, which are in fact small tubes, to suck up the protoplasm of its prey through these miniature “straws”.
The next organism we looked at was equally strange.
“The black areas are macronuclei,” he said. “Once a year, when we have solar eclipse, all of these organisms fuse together into a single large mass and the macronuclei fuse as well. When the process is complete in the new super-macronucleus, a vortex appears and the grey-green protoplasmic masses are swirled into it and absorbed. Later, they gradually re-emerge and we have good reasons to believe that this is a form of genetic regeneration. Quite a feat for such a small creature.
Perhaps one more amoeboid form and then we’ll look at a ciliate or two.”
“Gladly,” I responded.
Another slide appeared and I put it on the microscope stage.
“This is a Floric with some surprising abilities.”
“The small black fibrils in the central part are like tiny generators producing electricity from light. Just to the left of center running from the outer membrane into the central mass is a relatively thick black fibril which can direct a lethal electrical charge at its prey. Even more amazing is that it possesses sensors along the outer membrane that allow it to determine the size, distance, and vulnerability of the prey organism and correspondingly adjust the strength of the electrical discharge required to kill it. The dark-brown areas then begin to flap, creating currents to draw its dead victim to the membrane where it is absorbed and digested. Remarkable behavior for a micro-organism!”
One item that Zettel had neglected to mention was the fact that colors in the oval area surrounding the central mass would pulse when the organism became active.
“Now, let’s look at a couple of ciliates,” he said and led the way up to a laboratory two floors higher.
“The Aksana is one the most visually spectacular ciliates on Bromonia. As you can see, its cilia have evolved in an extraordinary way into these elaborate, feathery structures. At first we thought it might be a colonial organism, but it isn’t.”
“Its popular name is Krida Sasc which means ‘whirling dervish’. As is evident, its cilia are wonderfully designed to make it whirl. One might expect that as it rotates it would emit changing colors of light, but that’s not the case. It rotates rapidly enough that the cilia blur, giving us the visual impression that we are observing a flat disk. However, what is totally unexpected is that during rotation each cilium can emit a tone and create a kind of microscopic music. In a way, this marvelous little creature embodies two of your ancient Greek myths. As it whirls, it produces a siren song which lures its prey to their death. Furthermore, your ancient Pythagoreans had a notion about the heavenly bodies each producing a tone as it moved through space thus creating a cosmic auditory background which they called the Harmony of the Spheres. This little creature, however, because it has several dozen major cilia and thousands of secondary ones, can produce a symphonic display which in depth, complexity, and grandeur surpasses anything which your Bruckner or Mahler created. Somehow it ‘knows’ how to tailor specific composition to different prey. As one of your holy books asks: ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ Enough. Here’s another ciliate for you to observe, a Mativ.”
“You will notice that it looks rather like a circular saw blade and that’s not a bad way to think of it. Around the edge are many short, fine cilia and at the base of each one is a small, sharp rod which can make the cilium rigid when extended. The Mativ is patient and waits until it finds a large swarm of prey and then it starts spinning and when it is in the midst of them, it extends the rods and chops the prey into small fragments. At the center is a small disk and this rotates to create a strong current which draws the fragments into the organism to be digested.
It’s getting late and we should leave soon. Also I understand that you are departing Bromonia for Earth tomorrow morning. But, before we go, let me show you one very interesting parasite and one very troublesome virus.”
We went up to the top floors and entered a parasitology laboratory.
“The Nentov is a large parasitic worm which played a significant role in the history of our planet. The specimen you are going to see is only about a foot long, but when they are fully mature they can exceed 60 feet in length.”
“It derives its rich purple color from feeding on the blood of its host, a Mintgen which is a very large, stupid, lumbering herbivore.”
“However the interesting thing about the Nentovs is that when dried and ground up, they produce a splendid dye for fabrics. Here’s where an entertaining bit of our history is involved. Long, long ago the royal family decreed exclusive access to this dye called Nentovine. It was a color no one else dared to wear, quite like the imperial purple or Tyrian purple of your ancients. It also had an animal origin coming as it did from a mollusk, Murex brandaris.”
“I noticed earlier that the gardens were called the Royal Botanical and Royal Zoological gardens. Does the royal family still have much influence?”
“Zettel laughed. “No. Fortunately, they died off several thousand years ago from disease, retardation, excess, and a penchant for dueling, all of which was brought on by the family’s fanatical desire to retain exclusive power and to achieve that through obsessive inbreeding. Good riddance! They were a terrible drain on the economy as are all those who have a lust for power and wealth. Just look at your own politicians and the billions of dollars spent on vacuous ceremonies and on providing security for them.
Fortunately, we have evolved toward a society in which moderate reward is based on genuine merit. We are not yet fully there, but we have made extraordinary progress since the demise of the royal family.
Enough of that! Nentovine is a lovely color and now more widely available. It is still rather expensive and we don’t yet fully understand how the Nentovs produce it. This laboratory his been working to understand the process so that it can be synthesized and made less expensive and even more widely available. Now, let’s go up to the very top floor and I will show you a very disturbing viral pathogen. We will have to take some precautions, but there is no real cause for concern. That laboratory has multiple protective backup systems.”
We took the elevator to the top floor and were stopped five times for security checks before we entered an antechamber. As we entered, a gas sprayed down on us from jets in the ceiling. It had a pleasant odor rather like that of cloves. Zettel explained to me that what we were breathing was a potent anti-viral agent.
“With this organism, we take absolutely no chances.”
“It is pleasing to look at, but incredibly deadly. As you have no doubt realized by now, we Bronomians and the organisms which inhabit this planet are mostly complex mixtures of crystals and organic materials. This virus is astonishing in that it is purely crystalline but ‘feeds’ exclusively on organic matter. Each of these ‘petals’ adds two more and they preserve the present shape by then ‘dividing’, breaking off at the center of the virus which you are viewing. The result is three distinct, apparently identical, organisms. This process occurs at an unbelievable rate when organic material is available.
For example, if you were to become infected, in 10 minutes you would be reduced to a pile of bones and mineral rubble!”
Zettel was right. The virus in its present inactive state was visually quite appealing, but the thought of what it could do was highly unnerving. I was glad that we weren’t going to be observing any more pathogens.
As we were leaving the laboratories to return to my room, I was able to ask the Consul some questions that had been lingering at the back of my mind ever since I arrived. As I had flown over the southern part of Bromonia, I had been puzzled by the lack of development and the absence of any truly large cities. Antimonia was the only sizeable city and it seemed very small compared to Promonia. The southern hemisphere was mostly small towns and villages and there had been very little suggestion of sophisticated technologies.
When asked about this, Zettel replied at some length.
“I knew you would be curious about that. It’s a very interesting dimension of our culture. On your planet, I suppose you would call them Luddites or compare them to the Amish. We simply refer to them as Southers. They do not like technology and largely reject it; they are highly independent and rugged; they like the mountains and canyons; they thrive on hard physical labor and grow enormous quantities of food, breed livestock, and produce all kinds of handmade furniture and craft items. I quite admire them and, at times, I envy them.
We buy most of their surplus food and it is of very high quality. Their ambassador comes to Promonia twice a year to negotiate trade contracts and he is always intensely uncomfortable here. Urban life is anathema to him, poor chap. A great irony is that only he and a few other Southers fully realize that their survival is dependent upon our technologies. Without our weather control satellites, our subsidies, and our ‘top secret’ grants, they would be unable to survive. There is no animosity between us and the Southers. I suppose the best way to describe the relationship is a largely unwarranted suspicion of our motives and intentions on their side and a rather smug paternalism on our side, which certainly is not to our credit.”
I began to wish more than ever that I didn’t have to leave for Earth the next morning, for I would have enjoyed an opportunity to explore the southern hemisphere and meet some of the Southers. I would just have to hope that I would be able to make a second visit to Bronomia.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
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