JOURNEY IN THE KINGDOM
OF THE PROTISTS
by Giorgio Carboni, March 2000
Translation edited by Giselle Walker
If we told you that beside the world we know there exists a parallel dimension, you would probably not take us seriously. Nevertheless a world unknown to the great majority of people truly exists. It is the world of protists, microscopical living beings, formed by a single cell. Because of their minute dimensions, these curious and likeable organisms live hidden to the eyes of men, busy as they are in their matters. Nevertheless, the protists' is a fascinating world indeed and should be better known.
In order to introduce you to this amazing world, we have prepared a short story illustrated by some authentic movies on alien shapes of life, as never it has happened in reports of travels to other worlds. If this story succeeds in initiating more people into the world of protistologists, or making people enjoy looking at protists, our aim will have been achieved. We hope initiates will forgive us.
Besides protists, in this story there will be some human characters and a robot. The conversations with them are a way of adding information about protists, but also to remind the reader that their lifestyle is only one of the many possible ones. In this way we hope to present a kind of generalized anthropology, in which protists, humans and robots represent many different manifestations of life, each demonstrating its own shapes and ways of being.
Reading this story on the monitor of the computer will be rather laborious. We
advise you to read the printed text and to use the computer to look at the movies.
This story should be read contextually with the movies, but it has been written so as to
have some autonomy, allowing it to be read in isolation.
It was August. It was hellishly hot. All the neighbors were on holiday. The sun roasted
everything it saw. The air did not dare to move. I was in the garden, lying down on a
folding bed in the shade of a tree. I did not know what to do and I was very bored. 'I
need to do something stimulating, truly stimulating. Not the usual holiday', I thought. '
For example... Well, for example a journey on a planet of another solar system,
discovering alien populations. It would be interesting just to observe the appearance and
the habits of populations very different from us. Anthropology has always fascinated me
and alien anthropology should be fantastic
But it's pointless thinking about it, it will be centuries before we can make journeys like these... after all, what cost is daydreaming, with all this tedium around and the balm-crickets that squeak directly into my ears? Anyway, it wouldn't even be necessary to go to some distant planet in order to see strange living beings, it would be enough to make a trip among the protists of the small pond of the garden.' In my garden I have dug a 2 metre-square pool in order to house the frogs and the newts living around there. Every now and then, I take water samples from this small pond and I amuse myself by observing the microbes which live in it. It is a true wonder to observe these strange organisms! It is indeed a relaxing pastime. Sometimes, when I return strained from the office, I get out the microscope and relax watching these magnificent living beings with such curious habits and shapes.
'It would be beautiful to be miniaturized, so I could visit that fantastic world
directly.' During an exhibition of microscopes I had visited some years ago, I remember
there was a little girl who was watching small freshwater crustaceans down the microscope.
With that instrument these little animals appeared enormous, like monsters. She was
frightened and looking at me, she said:
"Oh, they are just fearful!"
"Then", I told her, "hold on the table strongly, because if you fall into the microscope, then you will have to fight with those monsters!"
Even though she was laughing, the child seized the edge of the table at once. Children are always ready to follow you. With an adult, instead, you'd have to work hard to explain what a miniaturization device is, how it works, and then he would come out with a lot of objections.
'How hot it is! I can't sleep. That fly obviously enjoys landing on me just as I'm falling asleep.'
'It shouldn't be too hard to build a miniaturization device, or dimensional shifter: it would be enough to modify a microscope so that rather than magnifying (or reducing) the images of things, it was able to magnify (or reduce) the things themselves. If you think about it, such a device would be also simpler to build than a microscope. In fact, while a microscope must first extract the image of an object and then magnify it, to a dimensional shifter it would be enough to magnify the object directly, without having to extract its image!'
'That's how such an instrument used in a sense could magnify a microorganism to the dimensions of a football, while used in the other sense it would be able to miniaturize the observer, transferring him on a reduced scale to the focal plane of the objective.'
'In practice, what should one do in order to be miniaturized? Well, first you should
approach the eyepieces of the microscope or dimensional shifter. At this point, it would
be enough you get near to the eyepieces a little more than it is necessary to observe the
images in order to be sucked in the optical tunnel and to find yourself miniaturized under
the objective in just a few moments. In order to recover your own natural dimensions, you
should simply to the reverse, that is jump towards the objective and you would be sucked
up the optical tunnel which would bring you back on this side of the eyepieces, just where
you were before being miniaturized.'
While I was reflecting on the miniaturizating microscope and on travelling in the pond,
suddenly a multicolored group of tourists materialized in front of me. Their tourist
guide, a guy as big as a bear, told me that they came from the future and their travel
agency had sent them to me for a safari among protists.
"Well!", I said getting up from the folding bed, "this is a great idea! Please just wait a few of minutes while I make some small modifications to the microscope and then we will be able to leave. But, first of all we should introduce each other."
"Sure!", said the companion coming ahead with his hand outstretched. "My name is Shup!", and he crushed my hand.
"I'm George", I said blowing on my fingers.
"We know It. We know all of you."
"Ah, yes? And how you know it? ... and then what do you know?"
"These are Mr and Mrs Gresz and these are their children Tenny and Blik."
Mr. Gresz, who was a little lean, dressed in Africa Corps fatigues, and whose eyes were hidden under thick eyebrows, came forward hesitating, pushed by his wife in pants and blouse with geometric designs.
"My name is Reena, and this is Zoolt", she said, laughing.
Tenny was a fourteen year old girl who watched me with an inclined head and an intense look. She had on a short skirt, ankle boots and a pretty bicolored T-shirt with transverse cuts.
Blik, about ten years old, was shooting my cats with a strange gun, so for the moment I did not succeed in seeing his face.
"This is Lelki." A pretty girl in her early thirties stepped forward. She was dressed of an adherent coveralls and to see me she had to push her fringe out of her eyes.
"This is Splek", said the companion, pulling by the sleeve a boy in his twenties, dressed in black. He wore on his head a large pair of opaque glasses dipped in a bush of blond curls spotted with violet, which waved with a unique rhythm. A likeable dark angel.
"And this is Julius, a domestic robot assigned to service duties." The robot remained rigid, without giving signs of particular vitality. I hadn't noticed this robot. Its humanoid profile had confused it among the visitors. I was pleasantly surprised by its presence. I had always wanted to know a robot.
While the tourists got used to the situation, I took aside the guide to discuss the details of the operation. He was not coming with us, instead remaining in the normal dimension, at our disposition to help us in all eventualities. We were to communicate by means of a couple of transceivers. While we spoke, I transformed the microscope into a dimensional shifter, so that it was able, as I mentioned before, to reduce our size on departure and to regain it on our return.
I called Cristina, my wife, who was hanging clothes out to dry and I introduced her to the visitors. I explained to her we were going to do a trip in a water drop. She laughed and said that we could do what we wanted. I said that Shup would remain at home to wait for us, and to tell Silvia, our daughter, about all this. Cristina returned to her housework laughing and we to our voyage. She had not even noticed the robot.
"So, why are we waiting to leave? The spaceship is ready." I said to the small group of tourists. "Unfortunately, due to some negligible technical reasons, we will not go to a far planet. We will remain on the Earth, but don't be disconcerted, in fact we will meet aliens all the same. We will go to visit populations that live in water. Now, come with me, we will embark on this transdimensional microscope. It is a special model, equipped by a miniaturizator and which will allow us to pass from our dimension to another, that of the microscopic world. Here, the transdim microscope is ready! It is a very good model with five objectives and two eyepieces. It also has the phase contrast system, but we'll only use that sometimes."
"Has it been tested?", Shup whispered in one ear.
"Not yet, unfortunately! Anyway I will leave first", I whispered. Instead of appearing concerned, Shup elbowed me in the ribs to show he understood, which left me gasping.
"In any case, they have already paid!", he said in a low voice, "... and moreover this year I have not still lost not even a group!"
I watched him perplexed, massaging my ribs.
"The best thing would have been to make this travel in the pond of the garden, but it is too much dangerous. If you agree, we will go into a water drop captured from the pond, but placed on a microscope slide", I said.
"Mum, I don't want to go in there!", Blik whined.
"Come on! Don't be like that! I can't leave you here... It will be interesting, you'll see...", said his mother in an attempt to persuade him.
"But I won't go in that drop. There's nothing in there and I'll be bored. I want to stay here, with the cats."
"Don't worry, you won't get bored!", I said.
"I hate visits, I hate museums!", whimpered the child.
"This is not a museum. The drop where we are going is full of strange living organisms. I'm sure neither in a zoo you have never seen animals like these. I assure you that you'll amuse yourself!" The child looked at me.
"Mmmkay...", said Blik, but he did not seemed very convinced.
TRIP IN A WATER DROP
I begged Shup to remain listening to the transceiver. I took a microscope slide and with a dropper I deposited on it a few drops of pond water. As it is usually done in microscopy, I covered the liquid with a coverglass and I put the slide on the stage of the microscope, under the objective. I glanced at the specimen in order to verify if there were interesting protists and to remove potentially dangerous organisms.
"Here, it is all ready, we can leave!" The group also was ready and impatient.
"Now, come here one at a time. Approach the microscope, look in the eyepieces and
continue ahead like I do, the rest will happen by itself. I'll leave first and will return
last. Ah, I forgot to tell you, we are in entering in the kingdom of the protists.
Protists are typically unicellular beings, but there are some of them which live in
colonies. In this realm we will also meet microscopical organisms belonging to other
realms of nature, like those of monera (bacteria), fungi, plantae and animalia. In fact,
we'll meet also multicellular beings with dimensions comparable to those of protists. To
defend us from an assault by protists... which sometimes are rather voracious," I
said lowering my voice, "each of us will have an electrodischarge stick."
We checked the functioning of the transceivers, then Shup distributed the electrodischarge sticks. I recommended that Zoolt attend to the robot during its miniaturization and leave last.
"So, are you all ready?... Good, let's leave!" I approached the microscope and...
During a long moment, I was falling down a very deep pit, with my heart in my mouth. As I had imagined, falling onto the slide wasn't painful because of the tiny dimensions I had now. My weight was negligible and I was nearly floating in the air. An ant can likewise fall from great heights without hurting itself. What were my dimensions? ...I was seventy two thousandths of millimetre tall, like an average protist. At those dimensions, a ladybird of 8 mm would appear 200 metres long.
I got to my feet and prepared to receive the others, arriving one at a time. Very soon
the group was complete.
"Are we all there?"
"Yes", Zoolt answered.
"Well, then follow me!"
We headed towards the edge of the coverslip. We had to walk a few minutes to get there. Under our feet we could already see strange shapes swimming.
"Now we have reached the edge of the coverslip, we have to dive into the water
under our feet, before we get to the microscope slide."
This watery interstice was a dozen metres deep. I dived in and found myself swimming in the water, quickly followed by the other visitors. We saw swimming around us globes of the dimension of a tennis ball, and helices like corkscrews which moved forward by rotating around their axis. From time to time, something larger, which we didn't succeed in identifying, passed close to us. We watched for a while, astonished by the swarm of life which encircled us. The organisms we were seeing were all transparent, so you could easily see their inner organelles.
"Why haven't we drowned? Why can we breathe under water?", Tenny asked.
"Ehm... This is because our bodies are very small now and the oxygen diffuses directly into us from the water", Zoolt answered, anticipating me. Clearly he had a good scientific preparation.
"And why doesn't the water get in our mouth or nose?"
"This is due to the surface tension of the water and to the small dimension of those orifices. You'll understand better if you try to blow air from your mouth."
Tenny and also others tried to emit air, but a polished and slightly convex surface formed in front of their mouth: only the beginning of a bubble.
"... and I don't have... orifices!", Tenny exclaimed.
We all began to laugh.
In the meantime, Shup watched us down the microscope. We waved to him, signaling that
it was all right. He continued to observe us for a while, then he became tired and
wandered off. As we'd agreed, before he left us, he turned off the illuminator of the
microscope and inserted a small mirror under the condenser, orienting it so as to convey
to us a little light. This way, the light would be cooler than that of the microscope
lamp, and make the water evaporate less quickly.
"Well! We have arrived inside the drop of pond water. As you see, this water is very rich in life. These small spheres, corkscrews and rods, which move around us are bacteria: cocci, spirilla, bacilli. You will often see bacteria move around protists. But the first protists are over there. Do you see how they move over that detritus, searching for food? Look how they are all covered in cilia. In fact they are Ciliates. It is using these cilia that they swim and get food. These organisms, like all protists, are unicellular. They are made of a single cell, while we ourselves are composed of thousand of billions of cells and are therefore multicellular."
"The cells of protists are very complex. In fact they must carry out all the
functions necessary to life. It has a rudimentary nervous system which moves the cilia
either together or singly; it has an oral opening or cytostome, digestive vacuoles
and excretory vacuoles which have the same functions of stomach, intestines and kidneys.
Inside these cells, you can observe other organelles such as the macronucleus,
micronucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria, lysosomes, chloroplasts, pyrenoids, and
Looking at the robot, I was unable to determine if it was observing the ciliates or
not. It did not have any particular reaction and its look was rather fixed. Up to now the
robot had a little disappointed me. As far as I knew, it understood and it answered, but
all in all it was no much more than a computer with legs. However, I wanted know more
"What that machine exactly is? Is it a robot, an android, a cyborg or what?", I asked Zoolt.
"He is a simple anthropomorphic robot. He has a brain of molecular neurons. His performances can attain those of a man."
"Do you build androids and cyborgs also?"
"We have many parts composed by artificial living tissues to compose an android, but we are still away from be able to completely build it. The cyborgs don't concern us."
"Are the robots widespread in your society?"
"There is at least one of them in every house. They are useful domestic assistants indeed. We couldn't do without them."
We were arrived near a bell-shaped protist attached to the ground by means of a long
"Do you see that bell with the opening covered in quickly-vibrating cilia? It is a Vorticella. This one is unicellular. Some species of vorticella forms colonies of tens or hundreds of individuals. This one is accompanied by another vorticella which is half hidden. See how many objects are whirling around it? They are dragged by the vortex created in the water by the fast beating of its cilia. In this way objects are attracted towards the cytostome (the cell mouth) of the organism and, if they are the right size, they get eaten."
Suddenly, the vorticella sprang back, pulled by its long stalk which now was
spring-shaped. The body of the cell had contracted into a sphere. It had been hit by an
object too large to swallow, and defended itself by contracting. But once more it was
stretching out. It reopened its crown of cilia, or peristome, restarted its vibration.
"It looks like it has an engine", I said. "Do you see those little green and pink bodies inside the vorticella? They are unicellular algae which it has ingested and which it is digesting."
I was just warning the group to pay attention not to get sucked in, when we saw Splek
rotating at the center of the vortex, arms and legs wide opened. Frightened, Lelki seized
me by an arm. Fortunately a short electrospark was enough to get the vorticella to
retreat. The vortex stopped and we caught Spleck who, behind his sunglasses, hadn't
understood very well what was going on. We moved a bit further away from the protist. I
removed the boy's glasses and he looked overwhelmed at the vorticella which had stretched
itself and was beating its cilia.
I moved away from Lelki, who had grabbed me. I took little Blik by the hand; he was amusing himself by acting cruelly to the vorticella with its electrodischarge stick. Meanwhile, Mr and Mrs Gresz watched the vorticella and were exchanging amazed comments.
"Here is another vorticella. It is attached to a spirogyra. Strangely, it always maintains its stalk contracted", I said looking at Blik with suspicion.
Finally we met a colony of vorticella. "Unlike the vorticella we have seen, these are green. This is a species of vorticella which houses little unicellular algae and exchanges nutrients with them. Do you see how frequently they contract? Vorticella often disturb each other."
While the group was observing the colony, I took the opportunity to satisfy some of my
"In how many years will you arrive? Sorry, from which year did you come? ... how can I say this?", I asked Zoolt.
"Do you want to know which year we come from?", he asked, looking at me through his eyebrows.
"Yes, this is just what I wanted to know."
"We are from 2260."
"And what of import has happened in the meantime?"
"Well, lots of things... But I can't tell you anything", he anticipated me. "I'm sorry, but we are not authorized to tell you any news on the future, indeed, they have just prohibited it!"
"What?! You come from the future, I have always dreamed of the future, and now
that you are here you won't tell me anything?"
"I'm sorry, but really we can't. Space-time anomalies or short circuits could happen", he said penitentially."...We can tell you some things, but it can't be anything important. Anyway, try asking me, I'll see what I can tell you."
I realized Zoolt was right. What he said was perfectly logical. I wondered inwardly why all the more interesting things are always prohibited.
While we were observing the colony of vorticella, Tenny gave a cry. She was stuck in a
"What have you crushed?", asked Reena, stifling a laugh.
Without saying a word, Zoolt approached and, planting both feet firmly on the ground, he started to tug Tenny out with all his might.
"It is an Amoeba", I said, moving away from Lelki,
who always seemed to be next to me. "It's not all that dangerous for us because we
are big enough. It's too little to be able to phagocytize us, even if it tried."
"But it's disgusting!", Tenny said. "But doesn't it have a shape? It looks like an... an... an enormous spit!"
With an electric discharge the amoeba finally let go and started to flow away.
"That is its shape... no shape. However, even if it sounds a bit weird, every species of amoeba it has its own shape, different from all the others."
"And how does it know where it's going, with everything rolling around inside like that?", asked the little boy, chasing the amoeba , which was doing its best to get away.
"Heaven knows! I don't!", I said. "And you, Lelki, don't be so afraid, everything will be all right."
Lelki signalled assent and apologized.
With the corner of my eye I saw Blik phagocytosed, and struggling with only his feet outside the amoeba. [Amoeba during a phagocytosis].
After a while, Blik walked by.
"What did you do to get out of the amoeba?"
"It's my friend."
"And how are you friends?"
"It likes playing round, it didn't want eat me."
"Ah,... what a pity!"
By now the amoeba was following Blik like a dog. It was amusing to see it to assume the shape of the little boy, and then that of Splek, but with hair even more ruffled and even more springy. It seemed that in imitating them, it was being ironic.
I couldn't resist talking to the robot.
"Hi Julius, my name is George. I'm happy to have a robot in the group. Can I chat with you?" It listened me with attention.
"I am a BIOMET Domestic Unit, model C28. My number of series is KH025324. My name is Julius. I am in service in the community of Ework." Its voice was metallic and without inflexions, just as you'd imagine a robot's voice to be. In its eyes there was no sign of life, but at least it had understood me and it had answered to the point.
"Have you ever seen protists before?"
I was wondering how to continue this difficult conversation, when I saw a flagellate arrive.
"Here's a euglenid flagellate! It is an Anisonema."
I was the first to see the approaching protist.
"But it has the flagellum in front of it!", marveled Tenny, seeing that the protist advanced with a long mobile flagellum which seemed to explore the ground in front of it.
"Yes", I said, "I imagine you were expecting a flagellate to have the flagellum behind, pushing it forward like a motorboat. In effect there are some flagellates like this, but as you might realize by now, protists are eccentric- they often fall outside our expectations and categories. It seems that they have a good time catching us out... moreover, even if it doesn't have chloroplasts, it's very closely related to things that do. Not only that, but rather than exploiting photosynthesis to feed like its close relatives, it lives on substances absorbed from the environment and on the bacteria which it ingests, like an animal would. Now that we can see the anisonema from behind, you will notice that this protist doesn't have only a flagellum beating anteriorly, but it also has a trailing flagellum behind. Both originate from the same point situated anteriorly to the cell, but then they take opposite directions. Strangely, this organism doesn't use the backward flagellum to swim, it just trails behind."
"It is funny", Tenny said, "that even having two flagella it doesn't use
either of them to swim."
"It uses the anterior one a little bit... if only Blik weren't doing that!" The obnoxious little boy had grabbed the trailing flagellum and was happily being pulled along.
"Who knows what your teacher says about you!", I reprimanded Blik.
"We don't go to school..."
"But what are you saying?"
"I just told you!"
"But you're joking!"
"Don't you believe me?"
"So do they just give you mathematics and history pills?", I said in an attempt to extort some information.
"Go on, how funny are you!"
"Then how do you learn..." Blik, who had been running around me, attached to the trailing flagellum of the anisonema, ran off to chase a small rotating ciliate.
We went towards a pile of spirogyra and oedogonium, two filamentous algae, and climbed up into that strange aquatic forest. From a distance I saw an Euplotes.
"Attention, soon you will see an unicellular organism which has legs. In reality
they are not legs, but cilia. More precisely they are cirri, resulting from the
fusion of several cilia. What's interesting about this microorganism is that it succeeds in
moving the ventral cirri one at a time, individually, to walk, just as animals might, with
the difference that it is unicellular. Think about the complexity of the organization of
the cell of which it is composed!" We still scrambled up a little, until we arrived
next to the euplotes. In seeing nearby this microorganism, everybody was surprised by its
"This protist walks all over the the algal filaments. It will probably find some bacterium or other things to eat."
While all the visitors marveled at the euplotes, I asked Lelki:
"This time you're not afraid, aren't you?"
"No, euplotes is very nice, I didn't believe animals like that existed."
"They are not animals, but protists... What is your job?"
"Job? We don't exactly work... I deal with environmental recoveries."
"Yes! Highways, buildings, monuments that aren't used anymore... we demolish them, then we often return the spaces to nature. I 'm involved with the design of the freed spaces."
"Why do you demolish roads? Don't you use cars?"
"Cars! Hahahhahaha, how funny are you! Really funny!" She laughed behind her hand.
"Why is that so funny? You and all your secrets! Won't you tell me?"
"We can't... Zoolt already told you."
"Why, why... how many questions can you ask!", she said, making a fool of me. I thought for a while.
"...Have you a boyfriend? Are you allowed to tell me that, at least... or not?"
"No, yes, kind of. That is: I don't have a man, you can ask me, but even if I had one it would be different from your society... it is another thing."
"Ok, I understood, let's leave it... it seems to me you're all stranger than the protists!"
"Look, down there on that alga, there is a Rotifer."
"Is it unicellular or multicellular?"
"It is multicellular, dear Tenny."
"Even if it is multicellular, it's the same size as most of the other unicellular things."
"Yes, that's right. It is strange, isn't it? Think how small its cells are. It has thousands."
"How long does it live?"
"About a week. Look at the front end of the animal. Do you see those cilia? Their synchronized beating, similar to that of the vorticella, gives the impression of wheels. That's why it's called a rotifer. There are many species of rotifer, they are often so different from each other that you would hardly recognize them all as rotifers. Another characteristic is the foot, usually made of two short appendages. Also typical of rotifers it is that chewing apparatus, called a mastax, that you can see in the position we could call the throat. With their quick movement, the front cilia attract particles of food. Hold on to the algae because if the rotifer turns towards us, it could suck someone in."
I had not even finished talking when Splek, abstracted as usual, was already rotating in an eddy. He was oblivious, he was in danger of receiving quite a bite from the jaws of the monster.
"Hurry up, help me with the electrodischarges!... And you let go of me!"
Attacked by some of us, the rotifer contracted, but Splek was still captured among the cilia. Zoolt and I scrambled up on the body of the rotifer and ran towards his head. But the animal was twisting and we had to struggle to remain on his rump without falling off. Sometimes we had to stop to hang on to some spines. When we arrived next to Splek, we cut some cilia off the rotifer, pulled the boy out and ran away into the forest of algae to protect ourselves from the rotifer.
"Could you tell me what is so interesting about these glasses?", I asked
Splek, losing my patience and forking his glasses. "If protists don't really interest
you, you could also.... But what there is inside here? Oh, my God!... Take these infernal
contraptions off! My head's spinning."
"Of course! It's a hexadimensional programme", said Splek laughing.
"From now on, however, don't wear them any more. We have already saved you twice."
"Listen me, Zoolt, a few ago I exchanged some words with your robot."
"Ah, yes? And how did he seem to you?"
"It was just about that I was wanting to speak to you. To tell you the truth, I am a little bit disappointed in it. Perhaps this is due to the fact I have always been rather optimistic about the performances that robots might have, but I expected something more of a robot built in 260 years ...compared to my time."
"His characteristics can be regulated. At the moment, they are not particularly elevated."
I didn't take enough notice of what Zoolt had just said.
'It's probably harder to make a really intelligent robot than I imaged', I thought and I dropped the conversation.
We had arrived in a bright glade. The ground was clear of debris. From a long way off
we were able to see some protists.
"What do you say if I take a photo for posterity?", I asked, pulling out my camera. Mr and Mrs Gresz were looking at each other. Lelki and Tenny could hardly restrain themselves from laughing.
"Mummy, what's a photo? Mother, what's a photo? Mother, what's a photo?", asked Blik in a loud voice.
Zoolt came over: "Can I look at it? I haven't seen anything this old in ages."
Splek was also curious: "What is it? Is it a lithographic camera?"
"It's not a stone inside it, but a film, we're not that primitive", I addressed Splek.
I invited everybody to line up take sides and Reena helped me. I called the amoeba to take the picture, but we didn't succeed in understanding each other, mainly because the protist wanted to phagocytose the camera. So I put the self-timer on and we took the protist with us. For its part, the robot seemed rather disoriented. It was often in my way and I had to turn it toward the camera.
"Now I'm also going to take one of it!", Splek said drawing out of a pocket a
"What is it?", I asked.
"An orthomorphic hexadimensional camera. Your one is an ancient twodimensional one, if I'm not mistaken."
"Oh, I understand!", I said a little depressed and I posed for the photo, while all other people kept on walking.
"You can stop posing, it's already taken!", Splek said after few seconds, delivering a white plastic strip to everybody. While I was looking perplexedly at either side of the strip, Splek gave me a lens.
"Hold it, you need this to see the picture. The others don't need it."
"What is it?"
"Nothing special, just a hexadimensional lens."
"If you put it on the hexagram, it reconstructs the scene."
"Ah, how nice!" I put the lens on the plastic strip and unexpectedly the scene shot by Splek reappeared, but with the people in person.
"But what are you doing? Don't reconstruct it now! Can't you see we'll bump into each other?"
"Why, does this whatsit recreate material objects?"
"Of course! What did you think? And also movement. Not only that, but you can also talk to the people, and embrace them. You are in six dimensions, don't forget."
"To embrace them? Did you say embrace them???"
"Yes, embrace them... what's strange about that?"
"You mean if I put it over a fashion magazine, just as an example, I get the models in person?" '...the wonders of modern optics!'
"Yes, but it has to be one of our magazines... at least I believe so."
"Unbelievable!", I said, looking at Zoolt, who was following the conversation.
"Indeed, you can interact with the people you have photographed. Though, if you try speaking to them, you will find them pretty much dormant. The ones returned by the lens are not the originals, but a space-time interval of them only... it's hard to explain", Zoolt said.
"... and if I apply this lens to a picture in a magazine of mine, what happens?", I asked.
"Probably won't work in the same way. Yours are two-dimensional pictures, remember."
I put the lens and the plastic strip in my pocket.
During this trip in the water pond comprised between the microscope glass slide and
coverslip, we saw a lot of blue-green algae, green algae and colonial algae which I
described to the visitors.
"The blue-green algae are eubacteria, able to perform photosynthesis. They are also called Cyanophyceae or Cyanobacteria. They were probably the first organisms on Earth able to produce nutrients by themselves. They orginated over 3.8 billion years ago. The other algae are protists. The term green alga has taxonomic value, it doesn't just mean the colour. In fact, not every green alga is green, but some of them are yellow or bluish, in certain cases even red.
"Conjugate green algae are very beautiful.. Some of them are formed by two symmetrical half-cells placed side by side, and are called desmids. The sickle of Closterium is very beautiful, it is a conjugate alga formed by two symmetrical parts." The alga we were seeing looked like the sickle of the Moon in the blue sky of twilight. "Pediastrum is a delicious green alga with a geometrical appearance and pointed peripheral cells."
Some agitated voices reached my ears. Splek, Tenny and Reena were holding a discussion
behind the robot. It was motionless and it had a little door opened in its back. The robot
looked rather alarmed. Sometimes, someone fumbled around inside the little door. Evidently
they didn't agree on the result they were trying to get. I looked questioningly at Zoolt.
"They are resetting the robot", he said.
"Why are they quarrelling?"
"Robots all come out of the factory exactly the same."
"Then everyone wants the robot to conform to their own necessities and... tastes." He sounded disapproving.
"Ehm, I think I understand, but can you explain a bit more?" I wanted to know more about robots.
"Well, at the back of every robot there is a control panel, where you can set his characteristics. That way, you can adjust the intellectual quotient for the abstract thought, and those for other functions....which might commonly be called abilities. So you might establish that he is good at repetitive factory jobs or household duties or assisting patients or something."
"Sounds good to me. But I still don't understand why they have to argue."
Zoolt reflected for a while. He was probably wondering how much to say.
"You have to understand that you can also define the personality of the robot in the control panel. So his character can be calm or emotional, taciturn or loquacious; the mood optimistic or pessimistic; you can even define even the gender: masculine, feminine, straight or gay and so on. They're probably arguing about how to regulate these bits of the robot."
I was amazed. I hadn't thought things would come to such a pass.
"What you're telling me is stupefying... but apart the divergent opinions of our three friends on how to personalize the robot, I really don't understand what purpose the IQ regulation serves. It seems silly. Wouldn't it be better for the robot to be really clever? That way it could do repetitive jobs as well as creative ones, it could deal with mechanical things, and with people, and it would do everything excellently."
"Are you really sure about that?", Zoolt asked, laughing. "Consciousness and conscience increase in proportion to intelligence."
"What's consciousness got to do it? Would you say this tin can has consciousness too?"
"Yes! ...Just as humans do, exactly like us." I realized I had my mouth open. "...And a very intelligent robot wouldn't accept doing repetitive jobs for a long time: he rebels, he tells you to go to hell. If you set him something very creative, he doesn't respect rules anymore and you don't ever get him working on an assembly line. To work in a factory, he doesn't need to be affectionate, but he has to be if he minds children or if he assists patients. However if he becomes too sensitive, he could become too involved with the people, with all the possible consequences that you can well imagine. Now do you understand the purpose regulating his abilities serves?"
"Wait a moment, do you mean a robot also gets up someone's nose, is undisciplined, falls in love?"
"Of course!... You have to regulate him according to what he has to do, otherwise he would would make trouble. Not only that, but the abilities in different functions have to be harmonized. You can't have them all running at once, you would get a personality full of internal conflicts, to say the least."
"You sound like you're talking about a person, not a machine."
" ...I really shouldn't tell you, but you should know that when they built the first really intelligent robot, he wanted to be turned into a man. He wanted to live like we do and have a good time. He was appalled by the robotic condition."
"Did he suffer?"
"Yes, exactly. He had existential crises, he couldn't accept being a robot."
"That's a good one!..."
"Not only that, but very clever robots would take away men's opportunities for jobs and creativeness. So do you see why they have fixed limits on the intelligence of robots in civil use? ...It's not just for these reasons the IQ of a robot is limited. It's also a matter of preferences. If you want a friend to talk with, do you want a superior intelligence that could put you down all the time?"
I started laughing: "That wouldn't really be a problem. I'm always ready to admit the existence of cleverer people than me!".
"Why? It happens", he answered.
As we started walking again, I thought that I had at least enough material to reflect on for a couple of months. I saw Julius walking lankily next to Splek. Intermittently they exchanged martial arts gestures. Evidently the discussion was being led by the boy.
'And we human, who adjusts us?', I wondered. 'We have to be men for all seasons..., but then we get neuroses, we fall in love, with all the consequences mentioned above...'
In the meantime Blik came towards us, sitting on a sort of small boat.
"Look what I found!", he said radiantly. "And there are others down there." We set out in that direction. The child's arrival had the merit of interrupting the course of my thoughts, which were becoming more and more entangled.
"They are Diatoms, unicellular algae encased by a
siliceous box with two thecae, the superior of which is larger and covers the inferior
one, like the cover of a box. Inside this box there is the cell. These cases are covered
in minuscule holes, incisions and reliefs arranged so they form beautiful patterns.
Diatoms possess such beautiful structures in such a variety of forms that there are
enthusiasts devoted to just looking at these algae", I told them.
"But, how do diatoms move, since they're enclosed in a box? Tenny asked.
"Good question... it's not easy to understand. The lower half of these algae is covered in holes, and above all a longitudinal slit named a raphe. Some of the cytoplasm escapes through this slit and produces a sticky secretion that flows along the raphe, allowing the diatom to move a bit like if it was on tracks."
Everybody was astonished by this strange system of locomotion. Some diatoms slid around
us. One of them which was passing near us stopped, it remained motionless for a few
instants and then, with a small swerve, it went back the way it had come. Through the
transparent and richly pierced hull it was possible to see two orange chloroplasts and
some drip of yellow reserve lipids.
"I didn't believe protists could be so beautiful", Splek said to Tenny. Spellbound, Lelki also looked at these strange algae contained in a decorated hull like a precious casket, that moved as though they were... tanks. We picked up some empty diatom hulls to observe their structure more closely.
Further ahead there were the empty hulls of a big dead diatom which looked like a sea
shell. I took Lelki by the hand got her to climb on a hull. While I moved away to observe
her, she looked me quizzically, but I knew what I was doing and I asked Splek to take a
hexagram of the girl, making sure to also take the hulls.
"What are you doing?", Lelki asked.
"A Renaissance picture", I answered. "To do it properly you should strip, but, considering your hair isn't long enough to cover you, we leave it." I said, moving the fringe out of her eyes.
"What on earth??", Lelki asked laughing. Something of the eternal shone in her smile.
While we were leaving the diatoms, a cell which was wheeling above us skimmed over our
"That's a Coleps, a ciliate. Do you see how it's strewn with cilia? The cell has longitudinal and horizontal ribbings which make it look like like a barrel", I said, while the group looked up at a dozen coleps whirling around their heads.
"Look at the posterior end of this ciliate- there are some short spikes which are typical of them."
I took advantage of Lelki being close to me to satisfy my curiosity:
"How did you decide to do a trip among the protists?"
"The travel agency of Shup made a bit of a mess. There was no more seats on the space..., sorry, on the plane. We had to wait several hours before the situation would be clarified. They can't refund our tickets, so we found ourselves with some free days while we wait to leave, which had to be filled in somehow. So rather than stay in the airport departure lounge, we decided to do something else."
"Fair enough, but who decided to see the protists?"
"It was Zoolt, it was an old curiosity of his, which he'd always neglected."
"And why did you come to me specifically?"
Embarrassed, Lelki looked around. She lowered her voice and said: "On a previous trip with the temporal spheroid, he saw you collecting samples of water from your little pond and observing them down the microscope. He looked in on you on some other occasions and he told us you were building scientific instruments."
"Ah, so that's how it happened! So you were bored you didn't know where to go. What a consolation! I thought it was pretty strange that a group of tourists would be interested in a trip among protists! So it's an unintentional visit. Hope you are not getting too bored!" I was really depressed.
"But what are you saying? What you're showing us is very beautiful. It's a true discovery for everybody. I really adore the kingdom of the protists!" These last words encouraged me a bit.
"Look how restless this sort of iron wire is!"
What we were seeing wasn't a very large organism, but it was a bit strange. It was a thin filament, probably a Flexibacter, which was twisting and shaking frenetically next to another similar filament, which was immobile. This filament was less than a micron and it was 40 µm long. To us it was about 2 cm thick and a metre long. A small diatom passed by it. How such a thin organism had so much energy to move in that way surprised everybody. We all wondered what it was doing, but we didn't succeed in understanding it.
I saw Tenny fumble behind the back of Julius. Looking serious and absorbed attitude,
the robot now recited poetries to the girl. A little before, instead, it had been watching
Blik, probably instructed by Reena. Evidently, Tenny, Reena and Splek had reached an
agreement on using the robot in turn.
Further on, after having gone around an air bubble so big that it was touching the two
glass edges of our environment, we met a flat, heart-shaped alga, with an oblique spike on
its posterior end, which twirled quietly as it swam.
"This is a Phacus, a flagellated alga. It too has an anterior flagellum. Like a lot of other flagellated algae, it has an light-sensitive organelle. This is called a stigma; you can see it as a reddish speck near insertion of the flagellum." The phacus kept on circling above our heads. After a while we took to the road again.
"Have you ever thought about the fact we are the descendants of organisms like
these?", I asked.
"In what way?", Splek asked.
"According to scientists, we derive from the evolution of unicellular organisms, particularly flagellate algae", I answered.
"But didn't we come from monkeys?"
"Of course, but that is an intermediary step. We were monkeys ten-fifteen million years ago, we were amphibians about 400 million years ago, but if you go up again to nearly 800 million years ago we were protists. As I told before, it seems that our more direct ancestor was just a flagellate alga."
Splek was thoughtful.
"Were you wearing those glasses at school?", I asked him.
"What a variety of shapes these protists have!", Tenny exclaimed, holding
Splek by hand.
"You see, but they don't just differing shape. If you examine them at molecular level, you will find such great differences that the difference among two protists can be greater of that among the protist our ancestor and ourselves. In fact, protists have appeared approximately two billion years ago and since then they never stopped evolving and forming new species."
"Then the phacus is our ancestor?", asked still Tenny.
"Probably not a phacus, but a flagellate alga. I don't know what."
Surprise followed surprise. We were all looking up admiringly at a transparent sphere,
with a bright yellow-green pear-shaped mass in the centre, which was whirling with a
"This is a Haematococcus. It belongs to the green algae. It possesses two flagella of the same length, but endowed with different movement and which induce this sort of trembling walk of the cell. The cellular body is placed inside a rigid transparent and colorless theca to which it is attached by strands of cytoplasm."
"How beautiful! It looks like it has a hidden light", Lelki said.
"That's the fluorescent pigments that the cell has, which it uses in photosynthesis. These algae are cultivated, to get carotenoids which are used in medicine. A lot of unicellular algae are farmed to extract useful substances, for example fluorescent pigments used in medicine and in biological research to stain histological specimens."
"Where does this alga live?", Reena asked.
"It lives in fresh water. You can find it both in very clean waters like springs and in shallow puddles of rain water. Usually these algae are green, but when they lack nutrients, they become fixed to the ground and immovable, and they take on a red colour because of the abundance of carotenoids. You can see them because they stain the bottom of the puddle red. Their name comes being blood red (in Greek haima) and spherical (in Greek kňkkos, grain)."
"Does one of you have an electric torch?", I asked.
Zoolt handed me a cylinder and showed me how to use it. A beautiful bundle of light came out of the torch.
"Look!", I said pointing the bundle of light at the haematococcus. Immediately a suffused but intense bluish light sprang from the cell . It was spectacular!
"Some years ago, I cultured these cells. If I illuminated a test-tube of culture with a light, it became fluorescent."
"I want to do that!", Blik said.
"It's easy! From the bottom of a red puddle, pick up some cells. Using a microscope and a pipette, take out some haematococcus, avoiding picking up any other protists, and put them in a container with clean water. If necessary repeat the operation with the cells you've just harvested. Put them in a test-tube, or better in a transparent pot with water rich in mineral salts. You can enrich tap water by adding some earth and boiling it for a few minutes. Then you have to leave it to cool and decant it. Finally, you have to filter it. This type of water is also all right for raising other unicellular algae." Blik was more attentive than I had ever seen him. I was sure that he would try to make a culture of microscopic algae.
We felt water vibrating, a sweet, non-threatening vibration. A group of eight
flagellated green algae swam towards us. They were arranged in a pattern, forming a small
"This is Gonium. It's a colonial alga. We can see a group of eight cells, but normally they are in the number of sixteen. Every cell has two long flagella. Sometimes, the colony stops for a while, then it moves off again."
"It's unbelievable that cells so small can be so complex. How do they move their
cilia?" Zoolt asked.
"There's a hidden world in there. Cilia, for example, are formed by bundles of microtubules, which slide along each other and make the cilia bend. Did you know that some bacteria move their flagellum using an actual electric motor?"
"An electric motor???" Zoolt asked, stopping himself.
"Yes, exactly. Seen down the microscope, their flagellum seems to beat like a cilium, but in reality it's rigid and shaped in a helix. Where it inserts in the membrane, it gets turned by special proteins which produce a rotating flow of ions." Everyone looked slightly dazed. "The molecular mechanisms that manage the chromosomes during cell division are fantastic too. But to observe these mechanisms, it would be necessary to go down to an inferior dimension. We would have to miniaturize even more than we already have."
An alarming change in the water pressure took us by surprise. Ears laboured to get used to the new situation. Quickly, some spirogyra approached us, pushing us forward several metres. I tried to look over at the spirogyra, and realized they were being pushed along by a large air bubble. I looked up and saw that the coverslip ceiling was noticeably lower than before.
"The water's drying up", I told Zoolt. "We have to tell Shup to get us
out of here."
"Are we in danger?"
"We sure don't want to be here when there's no water left at all. We'll get crushed by the coverslip", I said quietly.
Zoolt called back to base, but Shup didn't answer.
From its dimensions, it looked like a carpet, or maybe a large hairy mattress. It
dipped low to the ground and slid towards us, whirling the cilia around its mouth.
"This is Oxytricha, a flattened ciliate. As with euplotes, on the abdominal side, some of their cilia are melted into cirri, which can be moved either with the other cirri or individually, letting it either swim or walk. As you see, this protist ingests a lot of water. To avoid bursting it uses a contractile vacuole, which takes up water inside the cell and expels it outside the membrane", I told them.
Blik couldn't believe his eyes: in front of him was a real flying carpet! Before anyone realized what he was doing, he threw himself on the oxytricha, grabbing it by the cilia. The protist departed in reverse, then forwards at breakneck speed. Blik shouted with joy, but after some swerves and sudden u-turns, the oxytricha managed to buck him off its back, and stopped racing around. Blik tried climb back on, but the protist shifted cleverly around him, sniffing him, and then left. Blik called folornly after it.
"So, has Shup answered?
"No, I don't understand... the transceiver's still working. But... look at that!", Zoolt said.
Through the slide under us, in the mirror of the microscope, we could see Shup laughing with Christina and Silvia.
Meanwhile, the air bubbles widened and the coverslip descended dangerously. By now we
couldn't stand without bending over.
"What's the idiot doing?"
"He's dancing!", Zoolt said.
"But the roof's collapsing on our heads!"
I scrutinized the situation through the bottom of the microscope. Shup seemed to be having the time of his life. His shirt was open and he was dancing in front of my wife, swaying so that she was laughing too hard to join in.
"When I get out of here I'm going to strangle all of them!", I exclaimed.
"Let's try and get out of the water. If we manage, we can get through the
microscope without his help", I suggested.
At the edge of the coverslip, we tried to push through the meniscus of water. At first, the surface seemed to be giving way, but after a while offered more and more resistance. Even the robot helped us push, but the surface tension of the water was too strong. After several unsuccessful attempts, we were forced to give in.
"We've got to get through to Shup before it's too late", I said to Zoolt.
While we were casting around for a solution, another strong shock wave signalled that
the air bubbles were widening. Many protists were encysting. We were all worried, even
Blik wasn't fooling around any more.
"Why is everything stopping?", Blik asked me.
"They're forming cysts."
"They do it to survive when there's no water. When the water comes back, or the wind blows the cyst to a puddle of water, they ex-cyst, that is they come out of their protective shell and start swimming round again. A cyst is like a little space ship which helps them find a new world where they can live. They go all over the world that way, and maybe even into space."
"How cool! Can we do that?"
"Of course not, Blik. We're too big. They're cleverer than we are."
"He answered! Shup answered!", Splek shouted.
I rushed over to Zoolt, to the transmitting station.
"Tell him to give us some water immediately and then to get us out of here." Zoolt forwarded our requests and a few minutes later we saw the tip of a pipette come trembling down to the slide.
"Hold each other by the hand, quick!" A tide of water bowled us over and dumped us hundreds of metres away from where we'd been, as the coverslip quickly lifted. Once we'd stopped, we saw some protists swell up like balloons.
"What's happening?", Lelki asked.
A protist exploded. Its cytoplasm dispersed in the water. We saw the cilia from around its mouth waving like they were still attached to the whole organism.
"Distilled water!", I exclaimed, "he's given us distilled water! Where did you get this guy?"
"The protists are all bursting because they're absorbing too much water, from the osmotic pressure. It's hypotonic shock", Zoolt said, but nobody listened to him: we were too worried about the rate at which we were blowing up. Our arms and heads looked like watermelons. We had to struggle to see through our slits of eyes. Fortunately, the dried-up salts already present on the slide began to dissolve. The shock of the distilled water was quickly damped and we slowly started to deflate.
SHUP FALLS IN THE MICROSCOPE
Meanwhile, Shup was bustling around, trying to bring us back to base. In his attempt to
help us, he looked too closely into the eyepieces, and ended up being sucked down the
microscope. He fell heavily onto the coverslip and got up looking dazed. After a few
minutes he understood that he too had been miniaturized. We tried to attract his attention
by banging on the coverslip, under his feet. He didn't have the transceiver, so we had to
communicate with him using gestures. We signalled him to go back up, but he thought we
meant him to come down under the coverslip. He plunged into the water. Zoolt and I looked
"Now we are really done for!", I said while Zoolt held his hands up in despair.
WHAT TO DO?
Shup didn't really get a hero's welcome. When he realized the situation he was dismayed, but as helpless as the rest of us. None of us could leave, the surface tension of the water was so strong.
"All we can do now is try to get Silvia's attention" I said, but she was
watching TV. The only way to alert her was by using a little laser pointer, but she had
her back turned. After a while, she turned the TV off.
"Now she's even painting her nails!" Zoolt said disconsolately."
Cristina arrived with a tray of cups, tea and biscuits.
"Where's Shup?", she asked.
"I don't know, he was here a little while ago. Wasn't he in the kitchen with you?"
"How odd, perhaps he is in the bathroom..." Silvia started calling Shup. Finally, she looked toward us and saw a red light coming from the microscope. She came over to examine the instrument, suspicious. As she looked down at us we signalled wildly to pick up the transceiver.
"Hallo, expedition to base, are you receiving?" Zoolt had finally got through successfully.
"Yes, receiving, but what are you doing down there? And where's Shup gone?", asked Silvia, astonished.
"Forget him, he's here too, we'll explain later. Get us out of here", I told her.
"What do I have to do?"
I explained to her the procedure and we raced toward the edge of the coverslip.
As agreed, looking in the microscope and taking care not to fall inside herself, Silvia bathed the end of a thread of white sewing cotton in the water, just near where we were standing. A strong flow of water sucked us towards it and and we found ourselves among the fibres of a rope of 10 metres in diameter and several kilometres long. With a pair of tweezers, Silvia picked up the cable and gently deposited it on the coverslip. The cotton having absorbed the water, we were practically dry. We helped disentangle Reena from the fibres, then jumped on the coverslip and ran underneath the objective.
"Here, now we're ready to return to our own dimension", I turned to the
assembled group. "Do a jump toward the objective and you'll go through to the other
side of the microscope." ... 'I hope!', I thought.
Zoolt and I took Blik and launched him aloft. With great relief I saw the little boy was sucked by the optical tunnel of the miniaturizing microscope. With a jump, we followed one at a time, reaching our normal dimension.
We cheered up, pleased with the trip's success.
"I'm so tired! We must have been away eight hours at least", Reena said.
"You've been down two hours", Shup corrected her.
"Two hours? How on earth?"
"With the reduction in dimension, you get a temporal expansion", Zoolt explained.
When Cristina saw the robot she started shouting.
"Be quiet, after all it's just a heap of scrap metal", I tried to calm her.
"God, it's beautiful!", my daughter reacted conversely, spellbound. She wasn't keen on science fiction and horror movies for nothing.
The robot was beautiful in mechanical structure, but it had a special beauty of his own. However, it was in movement where the robot showed its limitations. Seeing it walking next to Lelki, the contrast could not have been greater. The delicacy, the harmony, the wealth of the repertory of movements of the girl contrasted with the rigidity and the poverty of those of the machine. Every movement of the girl was unconsciously perfect: pure art. The mechanical and physical walk of the robot instead had something of the grotesque about it. I had always dreamt about robots, but seeing one, I was disappointed. But for all that it was likeable, it was a nice chap and I felt sorry for it seeing it in that situation. Yet it made me feel restless. The thought that armies of robots would one day replace humans dismayed me. I decided that progress had to be human or it was not progress.
We were tired and hungry. I asked Cristina if she could prepare some food. Zoolt and Reena offered to help her. While the group dispersed, some going to the kitchen, others to the bath or relaxing, I started to tell my incredulous daughter how we had been able to make that trip and some of the things we had seen. After half an hour, Lelki and Tenny arrived and I left Silvia in their company. The girls looked at each other with an evident interest and then they started to ask a lot of questions about their respective clothes and societies.
"Lunch is ready!", my wife shouted.
We took our places around the table in the garden, under the shade of a tree. I noticed that Tenny, seated beside Splek, was looking uncertainly at her dish. Blik was already eating the tagliatelle, even though he didn't know how, using fork, knife, and spoon all at once, and sometimes his mouth directly as well.
"You don't know about tagliatelle?", I asked Lelki, who sat beside me.
"No, we don't know anything about this cooking anymore."
"What do you eat?... can you tell me?"
"It's simple: we have big factories which produce basic alimentary substances. Other components get added to them to make them denser, more fibrous, to enrich with vitamins, to change the colour, smell and taste. So we get things that resemble beef, sweets, or whatever. At least, this is what happens in most advanced societies."
"My God!... but are they worth eating?"
"Not really! But it does save a lot of work in the kitchen. And above all we don't have to kill animals for food.."
"I suppose that really is a sign of civilization. But can you always get it down?"
"Well, sometimes I try to prepare my meal by myself. It is still possible to buy many ingredients. And then there are also amateur agriculturists who sell their products."
"You don't like... futuristic comforts?"
"Yes, but... I also like to eat more natural foods, and cooking for myself."
"So the culture of the traditional cooking is lost?"
"Just so, unfortunately."
There was merriment at the table. The tourists drank toasts to their guide, that is to
me, and then to the cook. They became more and more happy. Splek made us pose for one of
his strange photos. Towards the end, Reena stood up to make a speech in the name of the
group. She said they had all had a great time, but, if possible, they would like to
continue it. However not in a drop of water but, this time, in the pond. Blik started
shouting saying yes, he wanted to go back to the protists.
'How strange! I was convinced they had had enough of it', I thought.
"For me that's all right, anyhow. I'm on vacation and I don't know what else to do", I said. "And I have to confess that I had a lot of fun down there. After all, this was the first time I was really able to share my interest in protists with someone. However..."
"When do we leave again?", Blik interrupted me.
"Hang on ... However, I was saying, going into the pond is not like visiting a drop of water. In the pond there are many other large organisms. In short, it is dangerous."
"So we'll have an even better time!", Splek exclaimed enthusiastically but the women were not quite so convinced.
"Zoolt made a proposal: "We could just stay in a quiet area of the
"You've given me an idea!" I said. 'We could just get into a Petri dish and put some pond water in it. In there we should be safe enough."
The proposal was welcomed by a murmur of assent, even if it wasn't what Splek and Blik had hoped.
"All right, let's do the Petri dish", I said.
"Yahoo! When are we off?", Blik asked again.
"It's a bit late now. We'll stay here for the evening and go tomorrow morning", I said.
Blik whinged that he wanted to go now, but the cats diverted him. He pulled the tail of Joelle, a beautiful black cat, and got scratched. Mélodie managed to escape and played with him from under a bush.
After we finished eating, the guests wanted to see how we lived. So, while some went to the kitchen to examine the furniture and the appliances, others stayed in the loungeroom to examine the television set, the videorecorder, the stereo, the computer, the microscopes and other optical instruments. My modern house felt like a dusty museum. The computer that was the most advanced device I possessed, seemed an incredible antique to them. Splek tried to tell it to do something, then started laughing when he realized the apparatus didn't respond to his voice..
"Do you really not have school any more?", I asked Lelki, who was the best
disposed to answer my questions.
"To some extent!"
"Blik is such a brat, he told me you didn't."
"It's hard; they're there all day. That's why he's having such a good time here."
"What's your society like overall? Do you fit in?"
"Uhm... it's difficult to live. We have made great technical progress. In some ways we live better than you, but we haven't resolved a lot of things. I wonder if we ever will. Other things are probably worse that in the past."
I was going to ask other questions, but I was fearful of the answers. I realized that I preferred not to know. I confined myself to more harmless questions.
"Are the others friends of yours?"
"Yes, we belong to the same community."
"What Mr and Mrs Gresz are doing?"
"He is a researcher, a geophysicist. He works on climatology. She is a nurse."
"I was afraid there might be a biologist here... do you know, I don't know protists all that weel. I'm just an amateur."
"And you, do you feel comfortable in your time?", she asked me.
I realized how all-encompassing the question was. I also had to think about it for a while.
"We are too preoccupied with our jobs, then in the evening everybody hides at home. I miss having a social life of any sort, not just among colleagues."
"Something will change... for the better. I can't tell you what... but we're still dissatisfied."
"Dissatisfaction's a curse!"
At night, after several hours of conversations and of trips round the neighbourhood, we
went to sleep. At that point I realized we hadn't enough beds.
"Don't worry", Zoolt said, "we can get by, you'll see!"
"You aren't going to sleep on the floor, are you?!", I asked.
"Look!", he said to me. He pressed the button of a strange device which he put on the floor, then he lay down in the air, on an invisible bed, wound in a luminescent blue mist. "It's a confinate system of spatial coordinates, a kind of a gravitational bubble".
By then nothing surprised me any more. "Ok, ok, see you tomorrow at 9. Goodnight everybody!", I said.
Having washed and changed, distributed themselves among the rooms of the house,
floating in the air. Before I fell asleep I tried to imagine their world but I couldn't.
Tiredness got to me and I fell asleep.
TRIP IN THE POND
Too quickly, the morning after, Blik was jumping on my bed because he wanted to leave
"So you're not sick of the protists?"
"I want to go back on the slide. I don't want to go into the pond. That green water is disgusting."
"But are you really sure? The pond is a jungle", I told him in an ear.
"I saw a Stentor in there once, a protist with a a huge mouth bigger than its body."
"What? That can't be!", Blik said, amazed.
"... stentors are funnel-shaped, and swim with their mouths wide open. They are so ravenous that, if they don't find food, they eat themselves!"
"What are you saying???", Blik said, incredulous, but with wide open eyes.
"... But you are right, the pond is too dangerous a place for a small child like you."
"I'm coming there!"
"No, you're too little, we have to leave you at home!"
"Mummyyyyy!" Blik was about to cry.
"Come on, can't you see I'm joking? We'll take you with us."
When we had finished breakfast, we prepared for the next journey. This time, before we
left, I described to their tourguide the methods for departure and above all for our
"I beg you, Shup! This time, listen to us all the time, always be ready to help us."
"Of course, don't worry! Where do you think I'd go?"
The group was complete and ready to begin the second part of its journey among protists, but this time in deeper water. Everybody was lined up and ready for the miniaturization. In front of everyone Splek and Blik were quarrelling over the first place after me. Zoolt was to go last.
As with the previous time, I started out first. I leaned over the oculars and after a distressing instant, fell in the Petri dish sitting below the objective. A Petri dish is a glass container with a diameter of around 8 cm and an edge about 1 cm tall. We were using this one uncovered. After having touching the bottom of the dish, I started gathering the other travellers around me as they arrived. The fall didn't hurt since the water seemed metres thick to us.
"Now that we are all here, hold each other by the hand, because Shup will put us
in the pond and, when the water enters the dish, there will be whirlpools which scatter us
As agreed, Shup carried the dish to the pond and gently immersed it next to the shore, near a heap of greenish algae that were filled with air bubbles and looked positively revolting to the uninitiated. Water slowly entered the container, trailing a few filamentous algae. Shup left the capsule there as the meeting place for our return. For a while we were dragged by an impetuous tide of lukewarm water, but we succeeded in staying together, holding each other's hands, like in a ring-a-ring-a-rosy. As the tide dissipated, we were once more surrounded by hundreds of magnificent microorganisms swimming in all directions. The sun created marvellous interference patterns and refractive dispersions through their membranes.
"Here we are under the surface of the water of this unknown planet: the garden
pond." Pond is an exaggeration, in reality it was a miserable puddle about two metre
square, but now that we were a few microns tall, it seemed as large as an ocean.
Tenny asked: "Why can I feel this strange tingling? It's like being hit repeatedly on all sides. I felt it yesterday too."
"It's Brownian motion", Zoolt answered, "as the temperature increases, water molecules move more quickly, and they bump each other and everything else. Under the microscope you can often see small objects moving chaotically without being animated. This happens because of Brownian motion."
A cry. I felt Lelki seize me.
'Here we go again!', I thought.
I tried to detach her but didn't succeed. As we struggled, I saw some enormous green tentacles graze us. I turned to the others.
"It's a hydra, watch out, it's dangerous. Let's escape!" The hydra was a little polyp of a few millimetres, but it appeared be a monster hundreds of metres long.
"Run this way!", I cried. "Shelter in the forest of spirogyra
The forest of algae was calm, the tentacles of the hydra were out of reach and we were
out of danger, so I could resume my description of what we saw.
"Even though it looks disgusting to you lot, Spirogyra is an attractive filamentous alga. It looks like a pipe of around half a metre in diameter, but in reality it is very thin: about a fifth of the diameter of a hair. It is divided in sections, so it looks like a reed. Each sector corresponds to a cell, but this alga has to be considered unicellular because its cells are not differentiated or organized. Every sector, or better cell, of this alga, has one or more chloroplasts. They have a helical form and they are adherent to the inside wall of the cell. You can find the nucleus at the centre of the cell, but it is difficult to see because it is very transparent. In sexual reproduction, two filaments of spirogyra are placed side by side, the cells have a connection between them, so that the two filaments look like a ladder, and the cells of one filament transfer nuclear material to those of the other filament."
"Can they do asexual reproduction too?", Splek asked, joking.
"Of course. It's the most frequent type of reproduction among protists. For example, fission is one form of asexual reproduction, where the cell of a protist duplicates all its main internal organs, including the nucleus. It pushes each copy of them to opposite sides of the cell, which then divides in two daughter cells, identical to the first one."
"What's the difference with sexual reproduction?", Splek persisted.
"In sexual reproduction, the genes originate from two different cells, both belonging to the same species. Then in each daughter cell, there are genes coming from each parent. In asexual reproduction the genes originate from only one parent cell. So, in sexual reproduction you can get new combinations of genes in daughter cells, but in asexual you only have one combination." Splek didn't say anything. Maybe he was trying to remember what he was doing at school during the biology classes.
While we shielded behind the spirogyra, some of us caressed the glossy walls of these big transparent reeds, watching the interior, admiring the structure and organelles.
I noticed Julius was nearby and took advantage of this to talk to it.
"Dear iron heart, how are you? I noticed that everyone seems to be interested in the little door you have behind your shoulders!"
"Oh Sir, if you only knew how I would like them to leave it alone!"
The robot's voice struck me. Apart from its timbre, which was still a little bit metallic, its voice wasn't completely lacking in inflection as it had been previously. It sounded normal rather than synthesized, letting emotion shine through.
"Lock it!", I suggested.
"I can't, physically, but anyway it's the humans' right to regulate me."
"In a certain sense I envy you. I'd quite like to have a control panel like yours! That way, when I was feeling depressed, I could turn a knob and be happy again."
"You don't know how unpleasant that is."
"Why?", I asked surprised.
"The humans have no regard for how I feel, they treat me like a heap of scrap metal. What's the point of having emotions if they're tied to knobs? And why bother trying to suit the humans if every time they come by they reset me anyway?"
I was astonished. Robots really did have consciousness. I felt useless in front of his lucidity and depth.
'Maybe what Zoolt told me is true', I thought. 'If this robot had a lower IQ, most of these problems go away.'
"Cheer up, Julius! That's life! And I don't believe we humans are any better off than you."
"At least you have a point to your life. And your emotions have a complex sense. You have million of years of biological and cultural evolution on your shoulders. We robots are nothing but a game of electrical potentials summarily defined by a factory!"
I didn't know what to say. With an excuse I took my leave of Julius and searched out Zoolt.
"Zoolt, listen to me, this robot is a bit strange. The problem is not that he
embarrasses me, anything but, but he gives such depressing speeches! ...What about a
little adjustment in his control panel?"
"Do you mean if we lowered his IQ, he would feel better?"
"Well, a small retouch would hardly hurt him... I'm saying it for his own good!"
Zoolt could not avoid smiling.
"Do you see now?", he told me. "There is a natural limit to intelligence too!"
"Now I'm starting to understand some things..."
"You see? Even if we aren't always genius material, we are better off than we think."
The spirogyra's walls were transparent, so we could clearly see the wriggling hydra on
the other side. A pair of tentacles skimmed the outside of our shelter.
"The Hydra you can see outside there, is a microscopic polyp...", Blik said, aping me.
"It's not microscopic at all, it's gigantic!", Lelki said.
"Undoubtely!", Reena added.
"It's horrible!", whispered Tenny with narrowed eyes.
"Unfortunately, it is also dangerous, because in its tentacles there are cells able to shoot out siliceous needles which inject a paralyzing and narcotizing substance in the body of the victim. In this way hydra captures small prey and swallows them whole. The body of the hydra has a bag structure, so the leftovers from what it eats are expelled from its mouth."
"It seems to have a child with it", Tenny observed.
"That's right! In effect, the smaller one is a hydra daughter, born by gemmation."
"Asexual reproduction", Splek said.
"Just so! Normally, hydra are fixed to the ground by a foot, but they can also walk with compass movements, or turning somersaults. The diameter of this hydra's is really 0.2 millimetres, even though it looks like 5 metres to us", I told them.
"Damn...", Blik said, "and why it so green?"
"Good observation! In any case not all hydra are green. This species is green because among its tissues there are unicellular symbiotic algae. It seems that this species of hydra sometimes feeds directly on these algae, digesting some of them."
"However a hydra is not unicellular, is it?", Reena asked.
"No indeed! Hydra is one of those multicellular organisms of microscopic dimensions."
I was happy with the group. Everybody was attentive to what they saw and to what I told them. Splek had even put away his glasses. Blik always seemed distracted and ready to play up, but in reality he was listening and watching hard out of the corner of his eye. Fortunately the hydra was not fixed to the bottom, so it moved off, slowly.
"What are those strange suckers moving on the hydra?", Reena asked, next to
"They are Trichodine, sucker-shaped ciliates which live on the body of small aquatic animals. They move on their epidermis, and sometimes they look like they're quarrelling with each other, perhaps about space."
"Hey, that's funky, look how they are running after each other!", excited Blik exclaimed. "One has fallen off, and it's swimming in the water and it's climbing back on the hydra, just above another one, how cool!"
Meanwhile the hydra was displaying its body in front of us, expanding and contracting its arms as it moved further away.
The robot fascinated me: I tried to talk to him at every opportunity.
"Tell me Julius, how do you usually spend your day?"
"In the morning I take the children to school, Sir. Then I tidy up the house and I get lunch ready. In the afternoon I instruct robots..."
"You instruct robots? Why?"
"They are newly made ones. They need to be instructed."
"That's funny! Are they your children?"
"In a certain sense, yes. They still have provisional names, they are called X2 and X4."
"But don't robots come programmed from the factory?"
"No, automatons are programmed. Robots, instead, must be educated like children and then trained for the jobs they have to do."
"So, you have a family of your own. I bet you have a wife too!", I said, joking.
"I live in the community. I have a human companion... she is here in the group."
I nearly fell over in surprise.
"Um... one moment, Julius, thanks!", Zoolt interrupted him. "Excuse me, George, but he doesn't know there is some information we can't give you. If you'll allow me, I'll instruct him and then you can continue your conversation."
I didn't know what to do or think any more, I was so confused.
'So, who's his companion, and how could any woman live with a robot? So how did they produce those robot children?' My head was bursting, so I decided not to think about it all for a while.
"Hey, the hydra is gone, we can go out!", I said.
A piercing cry right next to my ear nearly gave me a heart attack. Something was
passing over our heads, producing a strong vibration. It was kind of river boat with
antennae and paddles which were jerkily beating the water like an incompetent rower.
"It's a Fillipod", I said, "commonly known as water flea or Daphnia." I struggled with Lelki to pull my arm free and point out the daphnia. "It's a small water crustacean. It's some tenths of millimetre long, but for us that looks like at least 20 metres. Its body is sandwiched between two hemispherical carapaces with only the legs emerging. Look the hexagonal plots covering the shells: each hexagon corresponds to a cell. It uses its antennae to swim and its legs as filters to capture food particles."
The crustacean swam off rapidly just as I managed to free myself from Lelki.
Although I tried not to think about it, I couldn't help it. The words of the robot
reverberated in my head:
'She is here with us... his woman is here among us! Who can it be? Tenny is much too young and interested in Splek. Reena is married to Zoolt. It has to be Lelki!!! But it's not possible! Where is that girl now? She was attached to me up to an instant ago...'
As I looked around for Lelki, I was furious. Jealousy? Impossible! I didn't have an y right to be jealous, but if it wasn't jealousy, I had to confess that it was something pretty similar. But I couldn't be jealous of her: I was married. Within few hours she would have left and I would have suffered pointlessly. I found Lelki and walked beside her. I had to calm down. I didn't know how to start. She looked at me, waiting. I smiled dumbly at her while I tried to work out what to say.
"It seems that your robot has a family", I said finally.
"Oh yes, he instructs young robots", she answered.
"Not only, what?"
"He told me that he also has a girl friend...", Lelki began to feel uneasy.
"What do you mean by that?"
"As far as I know your partner is a robot."
"I don't live with any robot. He's my domestic robot."
"That's not true, he is the community's robot."
"So what? In our community there are many robots."
"Why do you live with a robot and not with a man?"
"Robots are better than you think, better than many men..."
"Did you have a bad experience?"
"Everybody has had negative experiences... what do you believe?"
"... I'm not really living with a robot, I'm just waiting to find the right man"
A very long moment passed.
"Forget what I said, Lelki. But, when I learnt that you were living with that robot, I lost my head. I understand that I have no right to you, but I don't know what has happened to me. I don't know if this is just jealousy. I was quite happy with the idea of you having a human partner, just not a robot. I think I lost my head when I realized that I've even been beaten to you by a robot."
"Ah, but then you had it in for the robot, not for me!"
"No, it's not the robot's fault, or yours. I just don't know what I'm saying any more."
My brain was in turmoil. I couldn't work out whether I had it in for the robot or Lelki or just women in general, since I hadn't ever understood them. I think I had it in for everyone.
"Once I find someone who suits me..." she said, smiling. But I wondered whether she was attracted to me simply because of the impossibility of a relationship.
"You know that we can't... perhaps in another life...", I said looking at her, sounding as depressed as I felt. Lelki watched me with compassion.
LARVA OF MOSQUITO
An intense whirling of the water warned us that something new was coming our way.. This
time Lelki seized me by the head.
"Let go, I can't see anything! Let me go, damn you!." I became aware we were rotating in a vortex. Also that the others were yelling, but I couldn't do anything. Reeling blindly, I found something to hold on to and clung as hard as I could. I felt the water eddying violently around me. Suddenly I lost my grip and we ended up among some moving bristles which were swallowing us. Blindly, I set off the electrodischarge stick. I noticed that the bristles had somehow spat us out. The whirling went away and we floated gently to the bottom. Lelki let go and I could finally look around.
"What happened?" I asked Splek, who had his glasses on again and was chewing
"I don't know anything."
"I can't imagine what you must have seen behind those glasses!"
"We want to know what it was too", said Reena.
"Is everyone here?", I asked apprehensively.
After a short check, the group appeared to be whole.
"It had a kind of large head turned downward, with two shaking fans which were
whirling the water all over the place", Zoolt told. "It had a tapered body
sprinkled with tufts of hairs, and at the end it had a kind of pipe going up to the
surface of the water... kind of like an ancient trolleycar."
"Sounds like a mosquito, the larva of a mosquito, of a Culex probably", I said. "It could have sucked us up- we were lucky!... Maybe we should leave. Let's get out of here!"
"No!" "No!" "No!" "No!" "No!" "No!", they chorused. I thought that they would have been well out of there.
"Well, if you really don't want to return to the base, we can continue the
exploration, but let's rest for a while", I said, sitting on the filament of an
unknown alga that looked like a necklace of pearls. The others sat down too.
"Take a seat! There are other algae like this one around here."
After a while we had changed position relative to each other. We realized that the
algae we were sitting on had the slight drawback of slowly moving off, so we had to change
algae to keep together. They were Anabaena, blue-green algae,
photosynthetic bacteria. They were like necklaces of spheroidal cells. Every cell was tied
to another, forming a small train which advanced slowly. There are a lot of species of
filamentous blue algae.
"By the way, where is Lelki?" I wanted to scold her because she had stopped
me seeing the mosquito, making the dangerous situation worse.
'If I find Lelki I'll bite her head off!', I thought, but she was hiding herself among the others. I was about to scold her, when she preceded me, saying:
"The point is I am frightened... I don't know why, but all these beasts... I will try to control myself, maybe it'll work if I take a tranquilizer."
"With all the medicine you must have in the future, how can you be frightened of anything?"
"I don't like drugs. I don't take pills if I don't have to. If you take pills, you don't face up to your problems any more... I prefer to feel pain or fear and still be myself."
"You really are courageous! I thought you wouldn't have any of those problems in the future."
"Not half!... but anyway, I'll get a tranquilizer."
"Don't worry about it!", I said. "If you are frightened, keep close to me, but don't hinder my movements and don't blind me."
"I'll try not to!"
"Good!... But tell me, have you had enough of all these dangers? Shall we leave?"
"If you're here, I'm not afraid."
"If you're hungry, we could eat a spirogyra chloroplast or maybe its pyrenoids,
unless you prefer the cytoplasm of an amoeba", I told the group.
"Forget it!", "No, thanks!", "We're not hungry!", Tenny, Lelki, Reena answered together.
Zoolt, went over to a spirogyra, opened a cell using his knife and took out a greenish mass which distributed to the willing.
"It's sweet- it tastes good!", Splek was enthusiastic. Blik liked the chloroplast too, so even Tenny tried it.
"It doesn't taste like meat", I said. "More like carrot."
"Do you mean you still eat meat?", Tenny asked, horrified.
"Well, yes... sometimes... I don't see anything wrong with that."
"How disgusting! You really are savages, cannibals!", and she ran behind a sand grain to throw up. Splek rushed to her assistance.
"What's up?, I asked Lelki.
"We don't eat meat any more", she answered.
"And when we go back outside the pond and get bigger again, what will happen to
what we've eaten?", Blik asked.
"Heaven knows!" I answered. "But, do you like being here, at least?... What about protists, do you like them?"
"Great holiday, big chief!", Blik answered, running toward an amoeba to give it a bit of chloroplast to eat. The amoebae which we met here looked different from the ones the day before. Those appeared flattened against the slide, but these were in three dimensions and their pseudopodia were outstretched in all directions.
"Zoolt, we should try the radio link with base", I said.
"Yes, of course!", he answered unloading the transceiver on the ground. The other members of the group took again the opportunity to sit down.
"Hallo Shup, explorers to base, are you receiving?"
"Hallo Shup, explorers to base, are you receiving?"
"One, two, three, four, hallo, hallo...... nothing!"
"What is the dolt up to?", I asked Zoolt who shrugged his shoulders. Lelki changed her expression.
"Calm! Don't be agitated, you'll see he'll answer!"
"Keep on with calling him!", I said Zoolt. "And you, come on, let's start again!"
We were walking along the bottom of the dish, which sloped faintly. After a while, we
had reached the border of the dish. So I proposed going back to base. My proposal wasn't
greeted with enthusiasm.
"I don't want to go back home. I like staying here!", said Blik to his mother. The others agreed.
"But we're at the end of the dish. Where you want to go now? Back the way we came?", I asked.
"We only left a short time ago, why don't we go a bit further on the other side of the dish border?", Splek proposed.
"It could be dangerous", I objected. "...What do you think?", I asked Zoolt.
"Well, if we run into danger, we can always come back this side of the dish", he answered.
So we decided to cross the border of the Petri dish and to venture a little further into the pond. The group's enthusiasm was fired once more. I looked through the glass of the dish to make sure there were no immediate risks. At this point the dish border was under the surface of the water. After climbing over the edge, we headed for the bottom, which seemed to be partly covered with filamentous algae and partly clear.
The bottom of the pond was really surprising! While we were walking on the microscope
slide and even in the Petri dish, the bottom was a smooth and almost empty glass surface.
In contrast, the bottom of the pond was swarming with life. It seemed like some a
boundless open-air market on an alien planet. A crowd of highly diverse microorganisms was
moving everywhere. Among them, the diatoms which slid in all directions were most
numerous. Ciliates of many species crawled over the bottom and swam at every height above
it. The flagellated algae were highly abundant. We often met amoebae and we had to pay
attention to avoid them. All these mobile microorganisms forced their way through a myriad
of immovable algae, organic debris and empty diatom hulls. By their dimensions and the way
they moved, the rotifers looked like sea lions and emerged through the other
microorganisms. Oxytricha crossed the crowd like racing cars, scattering everything in
A little after we started exploring the pond floor, we came upon a dense pile of
detritus, inside which, judging by the movements of the material, there had to be
something rather large. We were looking for the cause of these movements when we saw a
long and hairy proboscis stretch out of the detritus, and come creeping along the legs of
some of us.
"Aaaaah!", Lelki leapt back. Even the others backed off.
"Don't be afraid, it is a Lionotus, all you have to do is keep away from it and it won't harm you. It's just a really large ciliate." It had two probosces, one anterior and one posterior, which constantly hoovered the surrounding environment in search of bacteria and organic detritus.
"It looks a bit like a swan... with two necks", I said.
Not far from us, an air bubble dragged a large heap of detritus upward.
"Look at that bubble! It works like an elevator, carrying that material up to the water surface. The surface of the water is an interesting place. It collects the objects which come up from the bottom because they are lighter than water, but from the other side it collects those heavier than the air. Let's take advantage of the bubbles to go up and see what's happening at that level!"
Someone started to climb the spirogyra.
"Wait!", I said, "Let's exploit the elevators. Do you see that other
bubble caught on those blue-green algae over there? If we cut the filaments which anchor
that to the bottom, it will pull everything upwards."
"Good idea" said Reena, happily. "This way we can rest a bit!"
We headed for the elevator, climbed on and clung to the algae. Zoolt cut the
last filament which anchored the elevator to the bottom and we began to rise. Blik climbed
onto the air bubble and began jumping on it, making it resonate. Meanwhile we were going up
quite fast. While we were waiting to get to the surface, I explained that usually these
bubbles are yielded by the algae. These bubbles were rich in oxygen, a waste product
of photosynthesis. Observing the pond, I had often noticed elevators like these.
Sometimes, when they arrived at the surface, one or more bubbles burst and the elevator
fell back down. But the algae continued to produce bubbles, so after an hour or so the
elevator rose again, and so on. We looked at the water surface approaching us and the
light became more intense. When we touched the surface of the water, the elevator shifted
around in order to become settled.
"What's going on?"
A water snail was passing us. Nothing special, you would say, but to us it was a couple of hundred metres long, even if in reality it measured less than a centimetre. However, what astonished us was less its dimensions, than the fact it slid on the underside of the surface of the water. We watched bewitched as the little snail slid slowly. That it could be using the surface of the water as a solid surface left us all open-mouthed.
"It is a little water snail, a Physa", I told them. "Usually, these
molluscs crawl on the walls and the bottom of the pond, or on pebbles, aquatic plants,
leaves fallen in water, to search for the microscopical algae and detritus on which they
feed. For this animal, the surface of the water is a good place to find food, since a lot
of debris collects there."
"Stop, don't do that!" That little pest Blik was piercing the bubble with his electrodischarge stick. Paffffff! An explosion followed by a violent shock wave and strong vibrations made everybody fall over. The air bubble of our elevator had burst, releasing all its gas into the atmosphere. The bubble didn't actually explode, just connected with the atmosphere, but the surface tension forces made it feel like a bomb to us, microorganism-sized as we were. As the bubble closed, several water drops were projected upwards, and in one of these was Blik, who rotated happily like he was at a funfair. When the sphere holding the boy fell onto the water, it spun like a top on the surface before fusing with the rest of the pond. Blik was falling to the bottom, but our elevator too had begun to descend. We were one on top of the other and Lelki's eyes were wide open, beautiful eyes between grey and green.
As soon as we reached the bottom, without saying a word, Zoolt and I took Blik and tied him up like a sausage with thin filaments of algae. Zoolt hooked him to the transmitter that he held over his shoulder, deaf to the boy's protests.
Crack! Tenny went stomping furiously away from Splek, who was bending down to collect
the pieces of his wonderful glasses.
"What, are you completely stupid? I paid a fortune for them!", he said.
"What's going on?", Reena asked her daughter.
"He's a complete moron!!!", she answered furiously. "He's always behind those damned glasses!"
"But he isn't harming anyone", Reena said. Tenny shrugged her shoulders and left.
'The more life goes on, the more it stays the same', I thought.
WATER SNAIL BROOD
To keep ourselves a little distant from the dangers, we moved towards a vertical leaf which touched the bottom on one edge. It was so large that it got lost in the distance. Passing behind the leaf, another "Oooooohhhhh!" came from the group. The show we had in front was truly exceptional: a gelatinous and transparent heap adhered to the leaf. Inside it there were dozens of water snail embryos. Each of them was inside an ovoid fluid sac, in which the young gastropod slowly rotated. Although the ovoidal fluid spaces appeared rather large to us, it was only about 0.8 millimetres long enclosed in two membranes. The snail embryo, whose dark spots of eyes were already visible, already had a shell, but it was transparent and we could clearly see the heart throbbing while the animal was incessantly sliding around the egg wall.
"How sweet they are!", Lelki said to Reena, who agreed, bewitched.
"Can I catch one of them?", Blik asked.
"You can't, you're tied up."
"I can do it!", Splek said climbing onto the brood.
"Sure!", I answered, envisaging the outcome. The boy began to cut the gelatinous heap with a knife, but soon he was so entangled in the mucilage that couldn't advance or withdraw. We had to help him out pulling him with all our might.
"You should know that gelatin defends the embryos from the predators and... from pests like you", I said.
For a while Splek watched the brood sulkily.
LARVA OF DRAGONFLY
While we were observing the snail eggs and Splek was taking a hexagram, we saw a shadow draw near.One second it was hardly perceptible, the next it loomed darkly over us, getting bigger and bigger. We looked at it apprehensively. "Hold on to each other!"
An enormous beast, a monster of unimaginable ugliness was approaching. To us it looked at least 500 metres long (about 2 cm). It was covered in enormous thorns, hairs as big as telephone poles. Detritus fell from all sides, as it emerged from its hiding place in the mud. It had six legs ending in big double hooks, two compound eyes like a mosaic of hexagonal and transparent tiles, a muzzle with indented jaws, and two short antennae. Enormous worms searched for food on its muddy body, which hosted colonies of vorticella and filamentous algae.
"It is a young dragonfly larva. Keep a good hold on the bottom. It can't see us
and fortunately we are much too small to be prey." I said this hoping to encourage
the group, but I knew we could quite easily be swallowed. Meanwhile, Lelki trembled at my
Through black tiles, the yellow eyes of the monster seemed to look at us. The jaws snapped out forwards and captured a water shellfish as large as a house (about one millimetre), which was immediately ground up and swallowed. After walking above us, the larva threatened to overcome us.
Perhaps because Splek wanted to show his courage to Tenny, he left the group without a word and started swimming towards the monster, brandishing his electrodischarge stick. When he reached the animal, he struck it at the end of its abdomen. The discharge probably stimulated a nervous fiber because the larva jumped. The siphon at the rear of its abdomen sucked up a great deal of water and then projected it backwards with violence. The larva came off the bottom of the pond and leaped forward like a fighter jet. The violent jet of water made some of us let go. Unfortunately I also saw Splek being sucked up by the siphon, but I couldn't see whether he emerged again as the jet threw me away and lifted all the surrounding detritus. When I stopped moving, I realized that Lelki had disappeared. I was really alarmed. Scruples assailed me. I should never have accepted the venture into the pond. I knew it was a dangerous place and I reproached myself for having been so easily led.
When what remained of the team was assembled, three people were missing: Splek, Lelki and Blik. Worried for the fate of her favourite, Tenny cried hopelessly. We immediately started looking for them. The meeting point was the snail brood. We found Blik not far off, still tied up like a sausage. He was in the forest of spirogyra to one side, which had interrupted his flight in the turbulence.
"Here you are Blik, how are you?", I asked him.
"I don't want to be tied up. Release me!"
"I wouldn't dream of it!"
"I want to play."
"That would be the limit!"
"I promise you that I will be more careful."
"That doesn't matter!"
"I promise you I will obey you."
"If you free me, I'll tell you all you want to know."
"...", I look at him in the eyes, "Everything?"
"All right, I'll untie you. However we will have to talk later, because we need to find the others first."
With the knife I cut the filaments that tied Blik. I felt compelled to do it since he would not have been able to defend himself from danger , tied up.
"There you go, but don't wander off from the group!" Blik was started racing in all the directions like a pup just off the chain.
"I heard Lelki shout!", Reena said looking further ahead.
"Let's start by looking for Lelki, she should be here on the outskirts of the pond!", Zoolt added.
Following the direction of the cries, we found the girl some hundred metres ahead. She was entangled at the base of a cloth which formed a kind of dome. In reality it was a cobweb. It was the den of an underwater spider, Argyroneta aquatica, up to about 16 millimetres long, which passes practically all its life underwater. Luckily the owner of that cobweb hadn't noticed anything and was sitting calmly in his air bubble which supported the dome. In any case he would hardly have been interested in such small prey. The girl had not noticed anything either. We cut the thin fibres of silk which held her. Lelki appeared highly relieved and embraced everybody.
"Come and look, you too, Lelki", I said, guiding the group under the spider's
web. The bead of air formed a room around 400m in diameter.
"Help!" Some members of the group were frightened by the spider under there. A lot of people don't like spiders, so seeing one 180 metres long had to be pretty terrorizing. I tried to explain to them that the spider created the den-supporting bubble by taking lots of trips to the surface, where it picked up air with the down on its abdomen which became silvery with the air attached, but they all left in a hurry. Nobody wanted stay to see the spider go leave its den, not even if it had a silvery abdomen or even if it was gold-plated and studded with precious stones. So we went back to the meeting point next to the snail brood.
"Zoolt, I'm worried about Splek. Who knows where he is. Let's start looking for
him. He should be over that way", I said pointing in the direction of the water jet
produced by the larva. "And you, Reena, keep the team together and wait for us here
next to the snail eggs. Keep the robot with you, he could be useful."
Zoolt and I set off looking for Splek. We had to force our way through the detritus and the crowd of microorganisms which populated the pond bed. We had been for about walking ten minutes, when we were unexpectedly investigated by a kind of train with a dozen wagons, an enormous segmented worm. It was the larva of a chironomid. His head, along with half the body, was lifted and oscillated broadly from the right to the left. Sometimes it stopped to bite whatever it found within its range. We tried to run away as fast as possible so as not to be overwhelmed or torn to pieces.
The situation was dangerous. We could not keep on walking for very long on the bottom of the pond, it was too covered in dangerous organisms. We climbed onto a leaf which formed a deck over the ground. Its surface was much cleaner than the the pond bed and it allowed us to avoid the animals hidden in the mud. We walked down its central vein for a while, above some big transparent quartz boulders, which were actually just sand grains. The boulders often moved under us, hiding animals that squirmed beneath them. We left this valley to walk up the slope on one side of the leaf. Here, the microorganisms were scarce, especially the diatoms. This was a calm enough area and we walked quickly. The shadows of microorganisms which swam above us often crossed our feet. As we were approaching the end of the leaf I thought we would have to return to the pond bed, but we found another leaf, partly covered by the first one. This second leaf was in an advanced stage of decomposition. By now microorganisms had removed most of its parenchyma. What remained was mainly the skeleton of the vein systems of the leaf. This architecture was very beautiful. Among the principal ribs was stretched a network of polygonal cells, each 10 - 20 metres (0,4 - 0,8 mms) in diameter. We jumped across this network to continue. This leaf was also relatively free from microorganisms, so we could advance unhindered and avoid rotifers because we saw them in time. Less easy was avoiding the speedy oxytricha, which often emerged unexpectedly from the underside of the leaf, through a cell missing its parenchyma. Nevertheless these ciliates were not dangerous for us, and neither were the spherical ciliates about the size of a ball, which rotated around us. We felt some vibrations. The parenchyma under our feet lifted, and through its semitransparency we glimpsed the outline of a chironomid. While I was stepping backwards, I had the time to notice two brown hook-shaped upper jaws, which converged on an inferior jaw with every bite. The action of these jaws was very effective, so that in few bites the worm had pierced the parenchyma. I was observing it calmly as it emptied the cell, when it started passing through it. Zoolt pulled me away with a sharp tug and we rushed in a different direction. The chironomid emerged from the hole and oscillated toward us. To avoid the monster, we threw ouselves through another cell and grabbed on to its edge so as not to fall to the dark bottom of the pond. The worm passed above us, biting randomly at the leaf. once it was far enough away, we ascended to the bony surface of the leaf once more. We saw the worm detach itself from a zone coverered in veins, and swim towards the surface, loping and contorting itself in figures of eight.
We had been walking at least an hour, when we finally saw Splek in the distance. He was examining a large circular hole in the muddy floor. Unexpectedly an enormous red worm emerged from the hole. It was a Tubifex; the hole was the exit of its den. The worm started to wave vigorously, but it wasn't interested in Splek. It bent down and started to dredge mud and swallow it. The boy was terrorized by this sudden apparition and by the rasp of the animal just next to him. We raced towards him, despite the strong tides produced by the worm, and reached the boy as he was hiding behind to a rock. At first, he believed himself captured by an animal, but he was enthusiastic when he realized it was us. We got away from the worm as fast as possible and set out toward the rest of the group, near the snail brood.
I asked what on earth got into him, deciding to climb the dragonfly larva. He said that he didn't know the larva had a back siphon and that he wouldn't have done it with a better knowledge of anatomy. While we were going back, a big amoeba attacked, trying to phagocytize us. It was the size of a mammoth. We realized just in time for Splek and me to be grabbed by it. Stuck in the jelly and crushed to the ground, we couldn't handle the electrodischarge sticks any more, and Zoolt had lost his as he fell. It was a dangerous situation. With a long knife, Zoolt started to slash at the membrane of the amoeba, but the wounds closed over immediately, the membrane being extremely mobile. By now the amoeba had completely phagocytized us, but fortunately we were rather indigestible for it. In fact we felt our eyes burn and our skin tingle, but the lysosomes produced by the amoeba didn't dissolve us. Unlike protists, we didn't have a membrane directly exposed to the gastric juices of the amoeba, but were saved by our strong epidermis formed by layers of hardened cells. Zoolt didn't know how to save us. Fortunately, he managed to recover his stick, but he noticed how little effect it had on the amoeba. He unscrewed the handle and extracted the battery from it. With his knife, he opened the wrapping, releasing a bluish liquid. Quickly he plunged it in the cytoplasm of the amoeba, just under its membrane. The amoeba had a rather sudden reaction and contracted itself into a sphere. A hole had formed in the membrane where the blue liquid was most concentrated and plenty of cytoplasm was leaking from it. Through this hole, Zoolt inserted an arm in the cytoplasm to grab our hands, starting to pull us out. He eventually freed us, using electrodischarges to keep the amoeba contracted. We were drenched in cytoplasm. It took us some time to clean ourselves up. For its part the amoeba had lost a good third of its cytoplasm, but it didn't seem to have suffered much from this. The hole on its membrane had closed again and it started to flow away.
"Where did you get the idea of using the electrolyte of that battery?", I
"Acids are very harmful to biological membranes, and the amoeba has a very thin membrane... and I didn't have any other solution. I just tried it!"
"And it worked! Thanks, Zoolt."
"Who knows how strong that acid was!", Splek exclaimed.
"Not too strong, it was more or less like orangeade... at least I believe", Zoolt told.
"Then why doesn't orangeade make a hole in our stomachs when we drink it?", Splek asked.
"Because the stomach is protected by gastric mucus. The amoeba didn't have anything to defend its membrane. Remember that its membrane is just two thin layers of molecules", I answered, while Zoolt assented.
We set off again for the little group waiting for us. We took a slightly different
route, but managed to find the leaves we'd seen before. Sometimes, we had to pass around
nematodes, thin worms which were often shaking and undulating frantically. After a while,
we ended up in a heap of paired spherical green algae. Each pair was surrounded by
mucilage, and two long thin flagella emerged from each cell. Both mucilage and flagella
were transparent and hardly visible, so that they noticeably hindered our walk. A bit
beyond that population, we started walking balanced on filamentous algae which advanced
like mobile carpets, choosing the ones going in our direction. We even grabbed a rotifer
which was swimming above us and hitched a ride until the animal changed direction. From
this height we could see a lot of spheres sliding along filaments of spirogyra, like the
carriages of an elevated monorail. They were fillipods, looking for food. When the rotifer
went the wrong way we dropped onto a leaf and continued to walk towards the petri dish. By
now this was emerging from the forest of spirogyra, a long way off.
LARVA OF DYTISCUS
As the meeting point came into view, we realized there was nobody there. Seeing that the dragonfly larva nearby had engaged a larva of a Dytiscus in a fight, I panicked. The second larva was even less appealing than the dragonfly. Its body tapered and it held its back in contact with the surface of the water in order to breathe. Under the body there were six thin legs. From its flattened head, two dreadful and enormously wide scythes stuck out. With a jump it attacked its adversary, piercing it through with these terrible weapons. The dragonfly larva wriggled free and bit its opponent with its own jaws projected forward. The water was shaken by strong tides and vortexes around the scene of the fight. The dytiscus larva is so fierce that it not only kills tadpoles and small fish, but also kills and it devours its siblings, so that a single individual is often the only survivor of a nestful. But this was hardly the time to tell the others about its habits.
We were worried at the group's absence.
"They must be hiding somewhere around here". Zoolt nodded.
"Let's go looking for them!", he said.
We stood up and began to explore the surrounding territory. We came up against a wide colony of vorticella. We could not go around it because we would have wasted too much time. We decided to cross it, despite the very dense forest of stalks. As soon as we grazed one of them, it withdrew and the body of the vorticella blocked our path. Zoolt slipped his knife from his boot and started to cut the stalks, opening a passage. As its anchor to the ground was cut, each cell departed upward, dragged by its crown of cilia. This way, easily we could cross the forest of vorticella. Finally, after a good half hour's search, we found the group hidden in a heap of algae. Terrorized, they were watching the fight between the larvae, which had by that point reached a standoff. The group's spirits lifted at being reunited. In tears, Tenny raced over to embrace Splek, but then she slapped his face and turned away. With a hand on his cheek, Splek was stunned.
"Crazy cow! Do you want to tell me what's going on in your head?", he said racing behind her.
While the teenagers sorted out their problems, Lelki drew near to me.
"Why didn't you grab me this time?", I asked her.
"I did try, but I lost my hold. The jet was too strong."
"Have you seen those monsters?"
"Awful! When I was alone and entangled in the cloth, I thought I'd die of fear. Now be near me!"
"Let's go back to the dish, I don't want to get into any more dangerous situations", I said.
This time, everybody agreed.
A we set off, I saw that Splek had a strange hat. It was a trichodina.
"Look at Splek!", Blik shouted.
"You are so cute with that hat on!", Tenny said laughing. Meanwhile the protist slowly rotated on the the boy's head.
"Be careful, they suck your brains out" I told Splek, but before he had the time to react, the trichodina was gone.
"Why did it leave?", Splek asked.
"Perhaps it couldn't find anything to suck!", Tenny said, and everybody couldn't help laughing.
By now we saw the capsule a few hundred metres away. After a while, we climbed over the edge and moved towards the meeting point.
"Please, Zoolt, call back to base. We have to leave, this place is too much
"All right, straight away!... Hello, hello, explorers to base, are you receiving?... Hello, hello..."
"Lelki, stay here with Zoolt. I'll be back soon", I told her.
While Zoolt called base, I took advantage of a few minutes alone with the child.
"Hello Blik, you promised me you'd answer my questions. Let's see if you keep your
"Yes, I do!"
"What does your father say to you? Doesn't he ever tell you off?"
"Zoolt isn't my father."
"Well, who is then?
"An adult of the community."
"So Reena isn't your mother either?"
"Yes, she is, but we children are raised in common."
"Wouldn't you like to have a father?"
"I already have so many of them..."
"Excuse me, there's something that I can't quite work out... why did they introduce you as a family?"
"So as not to upset your ideas."
"How old are you?"
"But you look no more than ten!"
"Then, how old is Lelki, 90?... No, I don't want to know that, keep quiet! ... Where do you live, in cities?"
"Yes, but they are not like those you know. We live next to spaceports, in villages which look like holey cheese. There are a few great cities, others are orbiting."
"... Cheese with holes. My goodness! All right, that's enough! Don't tell me any more: I 've had enough!"
"I'm ten years old! I'm ten years old!... Hahahhahaha! Holey cheese...gruyere.... Hahhahahaha!", Blik cried escaping.
"Grrrrrrr, if lay my hands on you!..." 'I don't understand anything with these people. Heaven knows how many lies that little brat told me', I thought.
We were still all a little agitated, when we perceived a faint vibration. It was not
alarming, and was accompanied by a delicate sound. A large green sphere came into view,
"It is a Volvox, a colonial green alga, formed by hundreds of little flagellated cells. These cells are separated from each other, though cytoplasmic bridges maintain contact between every cell and its neighbours. Those smaller spheres inside the volvox are oospheres: pratically daughter spheres."
Everybody watched spellbound as this marvellous protist rotated slowly in front of us, moved by the tiny pair of flagella on each cell, which was turned to the outside of the sphere.
"How magnificent!", Tenny said.
"It looks like a celestial sphere", Lelki added.
"It looks like a Skycity!..." Splek said, then gasped as an elbow hit his stomach.
Blik climbed on a pile of debris and succeeded in grazing the Volvox with his hands. He
tried to scramble up it, but the sphere moved off with a harmonious vibration and soon we
lost sight of it.
"At this point", I said, gathering my thoughts, "we should move off too."
The others were tired too, and apart from an unconvincing whine from Blik, they agreed to return to base.
RETURN TO THE BASE
Splek arrived running: "Zoolt has radioed base!"
"And what has he been told?"
"You have to speak to Shup, as soon as possible!"
I went over to Zoolt, who passed me the microphone. "Hello Shup, can you hear me?"
"Yes, strong and clear."
"Shup, you need to come and get us, because there are dangerous animals all over the pond. We are on the bottom of the Petri dish, near a rock, sorry, near a grain of sand a couple of millimetres in diameter, do you see it?"
From the bottom of the capsule, we saw a gigantic Shup approaching. His face looked like a mountain, his eyes like hot-air balloons. While this gigantic face scrutinized the bottom of the dish, the body attached to it appeared ridiculously small and far off.
I reminded Shup how to pick us up. He introduced a pipette into the dish and we directed him over the transceiver until the mouth of the pipette hovered above us. We had to tell him to wave it around less, as it shook dangerously near our heads. At our signal, Shup sucked us into the pipette and took us inside. Water quickly flowed first one way and then the other along the capillary of the pipette. Because of these tides, Lelki lost her grasp, and started to scream as she oscillated near the opening of the pipette. I left myself go into the stream in an attempt to recover the girl before it was too late, but we both ended up in the drop of water hanging from the pipette, which was going to fall off any minute. We swam inside the drop like fish in an aquarium without walls. We stretched out our arms to catch each other, but vortexes kept us in separate circular trajectories. The fact this drop had a diameter of 50 metres didn't reassure me at all. Bilk ended up in there too, shouting for joy. His joy abruptly ended as he saw sucked up again. When Shup arrived inside, he placed a piece of absorbent paper under the microscope and squeezed some drops from the pipette onto it. We stood under the objective dry, since the paper had absorbed all the water.
"Hey! What's happening?", Zoolt exclaimed.
"Help!", we shouted.
The objective zoomed up and down, nearly squashing us onto the stage.
"What is Shup doing? He should have focussed before! Why is he using the coarse focus knob anyway?", I shouted.
Finally the ceiling lifted and stayed aloft a few dozen metres above us. Shup radioed that he could see everybody sharply and that he was ready for us to come through.
One at a time, we jumped toward the objective and crossed the optical tunnel of the
microscope. Finally we had reached our habitual dimensions and world.
"Here we are again!" We were all happy.
I realized that Blik had a big gelatinous heap in his arms.
"Hey! Where are you going with that amoeba???", I asked him.
"It's mine. It's my friend! I'm taking it home!", he answered.
"I think I've got to tie you up again!", I exclaimed, as I raced behind the child who dropped the amoeba and escaped laughing.
It was eleven a.m. We took an hour or two to tidy ourselves up. At about one o'clock Cristina called us to the table.
"Well, tell us what you saw!", Cristina said.
"What did you meet this time?", Silvia asked.
"We have met a sphere a kilometre in diameter which gave out a divine music", Reena started to exaggerate.
"And that big hairy monster which nearly swallowed us, don't you remember?, Tenny continued.
Meanwhile the amoeba was wound around Lelki, who was getting frustrated. I helped the girl to free herself from the protist, while Cristina and Silvia looked astonished.
"I liked it when Splek was whirling round next to the vorticella!", Blik said provocatively.
"And I liked seeing you flying when that bubble burst!", Splek retaliated.
"That was cool fun!", Blik answered back, and we couldn't doubt his sincerity!
Seeing Tenny look at Splek, Seeing Tenny look at Splek, there was no doubt who was the most beautiful organism in the world.
Splek, Blik, and Tenny were happy with their trip among the protists, and they wanted stay in this time. Splek left me a secret gift: a packet of hexadim pictures of models of the future. I had to keep it quiet: they were pictures without the normal restrictions applied to the hexadim products: hot stuff!
"And you, did you have a good time?", I asked Lelki, who sat silently in
front of me.
"It was exciting, but beautiful as well. Those were fascinating organisms."
"Which did you like the most?"
"I liked the diatoms a lot, they're so perfect. I would liked to bring home a theca as a souvenir. And then I liked the snail brood, the embryos were so sweet! The volvox was beautiful, but I'll never forget those monstrous dragonfly and dytiscus larvae!"
"I can believe that! We ran a pretty big risk!", I said. "Can you also do trips in the future?", I asked trying to draw out some last information.
"No, it's impossible". She answered laughing. "The future doesn't exist for us: it has yet to be done."
"Who knows how beautiful the past can be!"
"Of course, it's very interesting indeed! Anyway, we can't interact with the past. Usually, we stay in a spheroid which makes us invisible and which prevents any interaction with the past."
"But you have interacted with me."
"Yes, but soon you'll forget it all."
"Shup will give you a pill", she bit her lip, realizing her slip.
"But I don't want one!... And I don't want you to leave. I know you can't stay here, and I know that I can't come with you, but I don't want to forget you. Leave me at least your memory!"
"I don't want to leave either, but I promise that I'll come back!" Secretly, Lelki gave me a hexadim picture of her own. "That turned out well, being next to you", she said.
"Is it restricted viewing?", I asked laughing.
"Yes, of course! ... Next time, we'll see", she answered suggestively.
"Yesssss", cried Blik, eavesdropping, "let's come back next year!"
The others agreed and promised to return for another vacation.
"Will you really come back?"
"Promise!", she said with a smile.
"Hey, iron heart, did you like the protists?", I asked, clapping Julius on
"Extraordinary, really extraordinary! But can I ask some questions of you, Sir?"
"Go ahead!" 'Who knows what this lump of itinerant iron has to ask me', I wondered, amazed at its initiative.
"Are molecules alive?"
"Of course not!", I answered laughing.
"What is a cell made of?"
"It is made of molecules..."
"But a cell is alive."
"Yes, actually it is alive..." 'He's off again!' I thought.
"A neuron is a cell, true?"
"Yes, certainly." I looked around, looking for an excuse to get away.
"Does a neuron think?"
"Not at all! It doesn't think. It's limited to receiving and transmitting electric impulses."
"What's the brain made of?"
"But the brain thinks."
"Yes, The brain thinks." Julius was right! I had never thought about thought being the product of neurons, which don't think, and which in their turn are composed of molecules, which are not alive. Now I felt embarrassed and intimidated in front of the robot. I saw Zoolt, and escaped.
"Zoolt, are you sure that robot is ok? What if we gave him a little adjustment?", I asked in his ear.
Zoolt suppressed a laugh. He put a hand in front of his broad grin.
"Do you know, Giorgio? I have to confess something", Zoolt told me.
"What is it?"
"It's all my fault... You have to forgive me, but I have played a joke on you."
"When? I haven't noticed anything."
"When we arrived, the robot had his IQ regulated at 30."
"Well, after you asked me why we didn't keep his IQ at the highest level, I turned it up to the highest level specified by the manufacturer, 140."
"Ah, that's why his voice was so much better! That's why he was ruminating on all those complicated subjects!... But it was a good idea in the end, Zoolt. The joke taught me all sorts of things."
"I'll take Julius' IQ back to the lower value soon."
"But how it is possible for a robot to be so intelligent? What programs do you use?"
"What? But that's not possible!"
"We use billion of minuscule and simple processors that work like neurons. As I told you yesterday, our robots have a neuronal brain. It has an associative architecture, just like ours. Natural or artificial neurons aren't substantially different when it comes to thinking..."
Julius didn't have cells, yet he thought. So how do you characterize life? Thought and consciousness are not necessarily the product of live cells, but of the particular organization of the elementary constituents of the brain. On this trip we had seen some unicellular living beings, others colonial ones, and some more or less complex multicellular organisms, including ourselves. Julius occupied his place on this map as an acellular being. But then what purpose does cellular organization serve if it's not the only way we can think? It allowed us to evolve a high level of complexity, and to produce thought and consciousness with biological methods. Though we are the product of a long process of natural selection, the robot was instead a product of our complex thought, and would never have been able to exist without us. In no way could he have been a product of evolution... and a soul? Did he have one either?
While I was absorbed in these reflections, out of the corner of my eye I saw Shup put
something in my glass. As soon as he turned to pick up a dish, I took advantage of his
back being turned to exchange my glass with his. Lelki saw me and made a sign of
agreement. The robot also saw me, but before he could say anything I turned him around and
I lowered his IQ below 10. By now I was cynical about robots. Julius drawed near Shup to
report him what he had seen, but instead of speaking he knitted his brows and stopped. All
he succeeded in doing was to gaze at his interlocutor with an idiotic expression, pointing
at the glass. Shup had an intuition, he removed the robot and said turned to everybody:
"I propose a toast of thanks to our hosts!". So we drank to the cook, to the expedition in the world of protists and to Silvia, who had saved us the day before. Inviting me to drink toasts repeatedly, and drinking in front of me to show me how, Shup made sure I drained my glass completely. I had no difficulties fulfilling his expectations. Observing us, Lelki laughed until tears ran down her cheeks.
Everybody got to their feet, preparing to leave. Goodbyes and kisses took at least half an hour. Zoolt was very grateful to me, and said that the trip among protists had far exceeded his expectations. Reena assured me that she had never had such a stimulating holiday. Blik asked me to come with them as he hugged me. As I gently embraced Lelki, I told her that I would remember her forever. At last, unfortunately, the group reached the point in the garden where it had first appeared. Shup looked around lost, while Lelki tugged his sleeve. The robot was still trying to tell him something, but for some reason the two friends couldn't communicate. As the visitors started to fade, I picked up the amoeba and tried to insert it in an eyepiece on the microscope, but it phagocytized me. Waving to the visitors, immersed in an enormous pudding of gelatin, I thought I heard them laughing.
When I managed to fight my way out, the amoeba escaped into a far corner of the garden. I missed my friends, as I ran after the amoeba with a broom, but it escaped and was refusing to let me approach. When it was far away enough, it began to mimic our shapes, first Blik, then me. When it posed as Lelki I was not so sure about wanting to catch it any more. I realized that it had also phagocytosed the lens and the hexadim photos. After a furious battle with the marauding lob of cytoplasm, I succeeded in recovering the lens and some pictures. A few hours later, the amoeba slowly approached me again. It was rather dehydrated. I placed it in a Petri dish with a few of water, by the microscope, and told it I was going to put it back. I don't know if it understood me, however it allowed itself to be miniaturized. Some minutes later, verifying the hexadim pictures I'd retrieved, I realized that the one Lelki had given me was missing. Luckily I had not put the amoeba in the pond yet. I plunged through the eyepiece to recover the picture from the amoeba. I could not bear to lose the image of Lelki, I would rather become a protist!
Pictures and movies on organisms which live in ponds.
http://www.arn.org/behe/mb_mm_index.htm The Molecular Machines Museum. Examples of movements of cilia, flagella, etc.
http://www.elender.hu/~stefanc/Evolucio/Cells.html Bacterial motor
http://www.bio.utexas.edu/research/utex/ Information on algae and culture media (choose: "List of media" and "Media recipes")
http://gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~biodl/technique/techniques.html Techniques Used in Studying Ciliates
I would like to thank Giselle Walker,
Protistologist, for checking the text from a biological and grammatical point of view.
COLLECTION OF THE MOVIES CITED IN THE TEXT
Trichodina (low power)
Trichodina (high power)
Larva of Dytiscus
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