The Unicellular Detective

Digital drawing. Cartoon depictions of anthropomorphized unicellular organisms in a line. From left to right, three filaments of cyanobacteria, a Stentor, a paramecium with flagella who’s wearing a fedora, a slime mold, and a dinoflagellate with glasses.

There’s something you should know about me, and it’s not that I’m a plankton.

I mean, aren’t we all?  Plankton, floating around in the great pond.  Except, I don’t just float. 

See, I was born with some pretty powerful flagella.  What is that, you ask?  Flagella, they’re like…like long limbs, protruding from all over my body—hey, don’t make that face, they’re not gross.  At least, my parent told me they’re not.  Some days, I show ‘em.  Most days I don’t.  But they’re not just for show.  See, I’m a paramecium.  We’re only supposed to have cilia, short little hairs that let us kind of get around.  We’re not supposed to have flagella.  They let me do what most plankton can’t do.  They let me decide where I want to go.  Instead of letting the Drift decide for me.

What is the Drift, you ask?  Boy, you multicellular organisms sure are curious.

I guess we have that in common.  Maybe you’re doing something nice with your curiosity.


I’m a homicide detective.

The name’s Harry.  Harry Plankton.

Let me know when you’re done laughing, so I can tell you about the time I met someone special, named Stella, and how she taught me about a thing I’d never heard of before.

She said it was called “love.”


“It’s not what you think.”

“What do I think?” Harry asked, as he swum up to the dinoflagellate who was examining the body, what was left of it.

“It’s not an accident,” Dina said.  She spun out a flagellum to wave to him.

Harry sighed.  “I wouldn’t be here if it was.”

He glanced over at the couple of uniformed diatoms who were keeping any floaters-by from getting too close a look at the crime scene.  He glided toward Dina.

“How’s your day so far, Doc?” he asked.

“Same as yours, I imagine.  But much, much better than his.”

Dina moved out of the way, giving Harry a better view of the victim.

“Whoa, that’s a big fella,” Harry said.  “How did somebody get the drop on him?”

“They’d have to be bigger.  Or, just stronger.”

The victim was a euglena.  That was obvious from his shape, the glowing green chloroplasts visible through his membrane, and the prominent single flagellum currently wafting in the waters.  But Harry noted something that would make it impossible to know who exactly the victim was.  There was a tear along the victim’s membrane through which some of the organelles were drifting out.  But one significant organelle was missing.

“Did you remove the nucleus?” Harry asked.

“I most certainly did not.”  She sounded insulted, as she should have been.

“Of course not,” Harry said.

“You’re a universal detective, Harry,” Dina said, as she set up a net to contain the victim’s organelles.  “You could be investigating that theft at that new phyto bar that opened last week.  I heard the owner is offering a healthy reward to any detectives that solve the crime.  Why do you always drift your way to a gruesome and untimely death?”

“Just wanna make sure the investigation is done properly.”

“Are you sure you don’t have some unnatural affinity toward morbidity?”

“Says the lady who became a medical examiner.”

“Point taken.  Here, I want to show you something,” she said, leading him a short way from the victim’s body.  She pointed, seemingly to nothing, but then Harry saw it.

“What is it?”

“I’ll have to analyze it to be sure.  All I’m comfortable saying for now is that it’s some kind of glue.”

“But you are comfortable saying that the euglena’s death was not an accident?”

“I’ve found evidence of some kind of implement being used to cut him, and of course there’s the missing nucleus.”

“Those things could have happened after he died.  Some prokaryotic punk stealing a nucleus to show off to his cluster.”

“Except that I’m certain he was alive when he was cut.  I’ve found indications there was a struggle.”

“Wait a minute.  You keep saying ‘he.’  How can you tell without the nucleus?”

“Well, if you’d stop talking for a few seconds, I would have showed you that next.”

She indicated the gluey material again.  Clear as water, but thicker, pluming out, and even hardening at the edges.  Harry couldn’t see it, but Dina claimed that there was genetic material trapped in that gluey stuff, enough for her to identity several characteristics of the victim, including his name.

Harry frowned.  “Glen.  How original.”

“He’s dead, Detective.  Murdered.  Try and have some respect.”

“I do.  That’s why I’m gonna find out who did this to good ole Glen, and get him some justice.”


The first place Harry visited was the last place he expected to find any suspects or clues.  But he had to be thorough.  And he had to start somewhere.  And Glen did not have a profession.  So there were no colleagues or other known cells that he had contact with on a regular basis. 

Harry visited the euglena’s parent cell, and the few dozen siblings he could manage to track down.  None of them had much contact with Glen, or each other.  They were all surprised to hear about Glen’s death, and all asked Harry the one question that he didn’t have an answer to. 


But he was glad they asked “why?” instead of asking “how.”

One of the siblings expressed regret as well as surprise.  She mentioned that she and Glen sometimes spent time together when they drifted in the same direction.  She said that the last few times they’d gathered, he’d mentioned something about proto-multicellular groups.  He was approached, or maybe he was thinking about joining.  She thought he was just trying to get a rise out of her.

“I’m not against it,” she said.  “I just wouldn’t want to try it myself.  It may be old-fashioned, but then again, I’m a single cell.  Just a single cell trying to make it in the world.”  She laughed nervously.

“Aren’t we all?” Harry said.

“But that wouldn’t have gotten him killed, would it?  I mean…if they wanted him to join and he said ‘no’?”


So Harry followed his next lead, and one of the potentials on his list. 

Proto-multicellularity.  It wasn’t a new thing, though every generation thought they had invented it.  The concept was like trying to copy how a true multicellular organism worked.  Each cell, instead of being self-sufficient, would perform just a few specialized tasks, and perform it for the whole group.  So a few cells were responsible for getting food, a few cells digested that food, other cells cleaned up, and a few cells would move the whole group around.  That last one was intriguing to a lot of plankton who couldn’t move around much if at all, outside of where they were born, unless they happened to get caught up in a major flow, by grace of the Drift, the unknowable force that carried all plankton through their lives.

So a lot of young single cells got caught up in trying to join a group.  If it was just kids experimenting, the experiment would fall apart pretty quickly. 

But then there were the organized groups.  They went around regularly, recruiting single cells to replace members who’d died or left, or sometimes to increase their complexity.  Some groups were even big enough to call themselves colonies.

After some digging, Harry found the particular proto-multicellular group that had approached Glen to recruit him.  They claimed that they let him go when he said he wasn’t interested.  Harry also found several other protozoans who’d joined and then left that group without issues. 

They were a little creepy.  But they didn’t seem to be criminals.


“This again?”

“You’re always blaming us for crimes against eukaryotes.”

Harry sighed as he stared down the filament of prokaryotes.  They were next on his list of possible suspects. 

“The victim’s nucleus was missing,” Harry said, glancing over at the young cyanobacterium who seemed to be their leader.

The young prokaryote bristled, but then she calmed.  “Having a nucleus doesn’t make you superior.”

Harry shrugged.  “Cells sometimes envy others for what they don’t have.” 

The young prokaryote glanced down at her filament before looking back at Harry.  She smirked as she displayed her glowing green chlorophyll.

“I can photosynthesize,” she said, “can you?”

“No, but…”  Harry waved his flagella.  “We were all born with our particular talents.”

“Yeah, and isn’t that a beautiful thing, Detective?  I mean, it would be boring if we were all the same, wouldn’t it?”

“There is another detail that leads me to question you.”

“What?  You mean after you got dead ends with his kin and that multi-cult?”

A chuckle brimming with sarcastic glee rippled through the bacterial filament.

Harry grinned at her.  “Are you admitting that I should have suspected you first?”

The prokaryote frowned.  “Go on with it, then.  What’s this shocking detail?”

“There was a gluey substance found at the crime scene. We’re still analyzing, but it made me think of something.  A group of bacteria binding themselves together using a sticky substance.”  Harry indicated the slime that covered the bacteria.

“Decent try, Detective.  Come back when you’ve actually identified your substance as ‘biofilm.’  But I guarantee you it’s something else.  We didn’t have anything to do with that fancy euglena’s killing.”

She was right.  Harry didn’t have enough evidence yet.  And Dina had already ruled out prokaryotes in her preliminary report.  That report might change after she was done with her complete analysis, but probably not on that point.  She’d been convinced Glen had been attacked by a single assailant.    

Harry had yet to find a specific lead.


“You’re looking pale, paramecium.  Lemme get you some lunch.”

Harry smiled, even as he internally sighed. 

Recently, whenever he needed a real lead, he’d come to rely—maybe a little too much—on a single source.  She’d started out as an informant, an unassuming slime mold who seemed to have her pseudopods in every nook and crook of the pond.  Actually, if he went back further, she actually started out as what she still was, the proprietor of his favorite eatery.

Sly Molly oozed toward him.

“I know why you’re here,” she said.

“Of course you do.  Dina?”

“I might have drifted by the crime scene earlier, spoken to her.  Terrifying case.”  She shuddered and Harry felt the ripples she triggered wash over him. “So who’ve you talked to already?”

Harry told her over lunch.  He had been famished. 

“You wouldn’t know anything about any gluey substance, would you, Mol?”

“Are you implying a slime mold killed that poor euglena?”

“I’m implying that I have no idea yet.  I have a hunch that it’s not any of the people I’ve talked to already, but then again, I can’t officially rule any of them out yet.”

“Well, lucky for you, I already knew about that substance from dearest Dina, and while you’ve been chasing your flagella, I’ve been asking around.”

“About what?”

“Have you ever heard of a ‘bicellular bond,’ Harry?”

“Can’t say I have.  Sounds like two cells?”


“So…a multi-cell?”

“No, no…three or more and you have a multicellular construct.  But two, only two, that’s something special, unique.”  The slime mold’s surface fluttered softly.

Harry grinned at her.  “You sound as if you’re speaking from experience, Mol.”

“I might have been in such a bond, once.”

“Oh yeah?  What happened?”

Molly was silent for a moment.  Harry glanced at her and saw conflicting expressions in her surface. 

“We broke apart,” she finally said.  “It was…painful.”

“You’re implying the victim was in this kind of bond?  With just one other?”

“That could be the source of the residue that you found, assuming it’s not bacterial biofilm.  Or…maybe someone tried to go tricellular, and someone else got upset, enough to kill.”

Harry waved a flagellum at her.  “I don’t need your salacious speculation, Mol.  I need evidence, observation, reliable information—objective information.”

“Harry, my dear detective, if we’re dealing with a bicellular bond, it’s maybe the furthest thing from objective that you can get.” 

Molly stretched a pseudopod behind the counter and pulled out what looked like folded up pieces of hardened slime.  She shoved it at Harry.  “Stow it in one of your vacuoles.  Just in case.”

Harry held up the strange gift.  “What is it?”

“Slime net.  Stow it.  Just in case.”

Harry peered at her.  “You know something else.”

Molly shrugged.  “I might have located the cell who was in this bond with the dearly departed Glen, may the Drift carry him to the light.”

“Molly…what will it take to receive this information from you.”

“Painless payment, Detective.  I just want to come with you when you interview her.”

“Outta the question.”

“I understand that she’s awfully antsy after hearing about Glen.  She might flee the area any minute.”


“I won’t say anything.  I just want to go with you.”


“I live in this pond too.  I want to look after it, same as you do.”

“Then get your detective’s license.”

“Working on it.”

 “What?” Harry hesitated.  “Really?”

“In the meantime, some real-world training would be appreciated.”

Harry sighed.  “Fine. You can come along.  And when this all goes to silt, you can take my job.”

“No thanks, paramecium.  I don’t want to work the job instead of you.  I’d prefer to work the job with you.”

“Come with me, then.  If you think you can keep up.”

“I probably can’t.  Little help?”

Harry sighed and wrapped a few of his flagella around a few of her pseudopods before swimming out according to her directions.


“You didn’t mention she’s a Stentor,” Harry whispered to Molly as they approached the rather lavish residence.

Molly shrugged slyly.

Phytoplankton gardens anchored together at their roots floated along a path that led to a structure made of massive blades of waterweed. 

As it turned out, the protozoan that Glen had been in a so-called “bicellular bond” with was Stella Stentor.  A distant, distant cousin to the prosperous Stentor lineage, Stella was still privy to some portion of their wealth, it seemed.

Harry and Molly were welcomed into the residence by Stella herself.

“I’m impressed, and grateful that you found me,” she said, her vibrations carrying through the water with force.

Stentors were typically larger than other protozoans.

Stella was certainly large enough to have overpowered the euglena.

She led them into her home, offered them refreshments, made a little small talk about the buoyancy of the water that day.

Then, she said, “I didn’t kill Glen, Detectives.”

Startled by her bluntness, Harry focused on the least provocative part of her statement.  “Molly is not a detective.”

“I’m his associate, an expert consultant.”

Harry tried not to let his cilia bristle.  But the sly slime mold said no more.

Stella smiled.  “Either way, you’re working together.  It’s…nice to see.”

Harry asked her the typical questions on his list, about where she had been around the time of Glen’s death, about the last time she saw him, and whether they had experienced any friction in their interactions.  She answered his questions, revealing nothing that either raised or lowered his suspicions of her.

“Were you in a bond with Glen?  A bicellular bond?”  Strangely, Harry felt nervous asking.

“I was.”

“Had he mentioned wanting to break away from that bond?  I’ve heard that can be most painful.”

Stella tilted her elegant neck back.  “We were happily bonded, Detective.  And even if he had said he wanted to break away, I wouldn’t have harmed him.  That wouldn’t make sense.”

“It would if you didn’t want him to bind with anyone else.”

Stella peered at him, and nodded.  “We discussed that, you know.  It’s a risk we both took.”

“It’s one thing to discuss a hypothetical situation, but to actually live through it…you never really know how you’ll behave until you’re faced with the reality.”

“That’s true.  And I don’t object to your suspecting me.  I want you to be thorough, Detective.  So I’m giving you a new piece of information to investigate.”

“I’m listening.”

“Some protozoans believe that being unicellular means being solitary.  But think about it.  Do we hunt our food as we once did?  Do we do all of our own work?  Or do we share those tasks—not the way a multicellular being would do, but our own way?  We can retain our unicellularity and still be bound together.”

“Sure, I buy that.”

You may, but there are those who don’t.  There are those who believe so…zealously that they would object to even your arrangement, working together as you two do, or as you do with your other colleagues.  Much less would they tolerate the kind of bond that Glen and I had.”

Harry exchanged a quick glance with Molly.  “Tell me about this bond, then,” he said.  “I’ve never been in one myself.” 

Stella smiled, and the edges of her fluted collar seemed to shiver and expand slightly.  “It’s a drive,” she said.  “An overwhelming sensation.  Multicellular organisms know it—the lucky ones.  They call it ‘love.’  And it’s one of their most cherished qualities.”

Harry nodded.  “Is that it, then?  Someone objected to your experiencing this…’love’?  Why?  Because it threatens unicellularity?  How does that lead to someone wanting to hurt Glen?  It would make more sense that they would try to convince him—and you—to just break it off.”

“Oh, Detective.  I knew this question was coming.  And I knew I’d have to find a way to answer it without answering it.  You see, there is an opposite to ‘love.’  They call it ‘hate.’  I don’t even want to taint your nucleus with the knowledge of this…this quality.”

“I’ve swum in pretty tainted waters, lady.  Try me.”

“No, Detective. I’d sooner die myself than do that to another protozoan.  And I very much wish to live.”

“I very much wish for you to live too.  That’s why I need for you to tell me everything you know.”

But Stella wouldn’t speak.

At least, she wouldn’t speak any further on the subjects of ‘love’ or ‘hate.’  She only gave Harry a fairly generic description of a suspicious character that she’d seen hanging around Glen’s residence. 

As he and Molly were leaving, Harry turned around.

“One more thing,” he said.  “Would you be willing to come and identify the body?  His kin hadn’t seen him in a while.  And we want to be thorough.”

Stella expressed that it would be difficult for her, but she ultimately agreed.  


“Smart move,” Molly said when they were far enough away.  “If she was directly involved, she would have known the nucleus was missing, and she would have been surprised by your request.”

Without the nucleus, it was impossible to identify an individual protozoan.  If it hadn’t been for the trace amounts of genetic material left at the scene, Dina would not have been able to identify the victim. 

Harry nodded.  “Yeah, she’s either very good at faking innocence, or she actually is innocent.”

“Come on,” Molly said.  “I’ll get you dinner at that new phyto bar that opened last week.  Where the only thing you need to be suspicious of is the outrageous prices.”


When he got home, Harry was surprised to find Stella waiting for him. 

“How did you drift over here?” he asked, hoping he didn’t sound as shaken as he felt.

“I may not have the same methods you do, but I too have the means to get where I want to go, even against the Drift.”

Harry gathered himself.  “What can I do for you, Miss Stentor?”

“You didn’t accuse me of blasphemy.”  She tilted her long neck toward him.  “I looked into you, when I found you were assigned to Glen’s case.  I wanted to talk to you alone.”

“You could have just asked.  Molly would have stepped outside.”

“I’m not just talking about your friend.”

“My what?” Harry was fairly familiar with the ways protozoans of various walks of life talked, but this Stentor seemed to use a lot of new words, words he suspected she’d learned from the multicellular world.  And that was a world with which he was mostly unfamiliar.

“You changed your name from Paramecium to Plankton,” she said.  “Why not just call yourself Harry Flagella?  Are you ashamed of your ability to decide your own direction?”

“I just don’t want to rub it in.  So, did you come here just to talk to me about me?  No offense, but I find that subject boring.”

Stella laughed. “I don’t.”

“Once again, Miss Stentor, what can I do for you?”

“I need for you to protect me.  The protozoan who came after—who killed Glen, will come after me next.”

Harry frowned.  He moved closer to her.  “You know who it is.”

“If I tell you, it will endanger you too.  Detective, I just want you to get me away, as far away as you can drag me.  I…I may not be able to trust my own resources.  But I feel I can trust you.” 

“Why?  You only just met me.” 

“I have a gut feeling about you.  That’s all.”

As she spoke the last two words, something whipped past between them.  Something long and sharp.  Another whipped through, slashing Harry’s side.  He fluttered his flagella and dodged the next thing, glancing down at himself to note some superficial damage to his pellicle.  He reached for Stella, grabbing hold of her and pulling her toward him, as tiny darts shot through the space where she’d been floating. 

Harry started swimming, his flagella knowing which way to head before his nucleus did. 


Sly Molly was still up.  Her place was closed and locked up for the night, but she let Harry and Stella in without comment.

“Let me get something for that,” she said as she spotted Harry’s wound.

Harry shook his head.  “I have to go back and hunt down whoever just attacked us before the trail drifts away.” 

Stella bent her neck toward him.  “No, please, Detective.  It’s not safe.” 

Molly flexed her pseudopods.  “If you’re going out there, I’m going with you.” 

Of the two options presented to him, Harry chose the latter.  He and Molly returned to his place.

The darts were still there. 

“These look like they belong to a multicellular plankton,” Molly said.  “One of the stinging jellies.”

“We’ll get Dina to take a look—“  Harry stopped.  He himself had just taken a closer look at the darts, and he realized that they were similar—identical actually—to an appendage that he was intimately familiar with.  Because he himself had some.

“Trichocysts,” he whispered.

Molly pulled herself closer to him. 

“It’s a paramecium thing,” he explained.  “They emerge from the pellicle when you’re being threatened or damaged.  It’s reflex.  But these…these look like they’ve been broken off and launched.” 

“That’s not all, Harry.  Look at this.”  Molly pointed out something that was harder for Harry to see.  More of that gluey material.

Molly shook her head, the nucleus within spinning with thoughts.  “The attacker is a paramecium?” She glanced at Harry.  “That’s why she didn’t wanna tell you.”

“But then why did she trust me?”

“Maybe she didn’t.  Maybe she was testing you?”

Harry sighed with force, sending ripples through the water.  “The attacker.  Glen’s killer.  It’s a paramecium.  Well, at least I know where I need to go next.”

“Harry, they’re not gonna wanna give up their own.  Especially not to you.  Maybe I should be the one—“ 

I’ll go.  If there’s a reckoning to be had, it’s got nothing to do with you, Mol.” 

Molly stretched out a pseudopod and touched his side.  She retracted, leaving some slime to cover and seal his wound. 

“All right,” she said.  “I’ll send for Dina and stay here to secure the scene.  But fetch me, if you need me, Plankton.  You know I’ve got your membrane…always.” 

Harry couldn’t help but to smile.  “You’re a sentimental slime, Molly.” 

He headed out, turning around as he swum backwards.  “Thanks.”


Harry only went back to where he grew up every now and then.  On holidays.  To see his parent.  And maybe a dozen or so siblings, whoever showed up.  It was a predominantly paramecium neighborhood. 

He remembered the talk, when he was young, about unicellularity, about how sacred it was, not just as a tradition, but as an identity.  His parent was pretty faithful in the Drift.  That talk was all good and fine.  It’s where most protozoans—paramecium or otherwise—seemed to leave it. 

But Harry also remembered hearing talk from some of his older kin, about keeping “every cell single,” meaning no association whatsoever with another cell.  No kin.  No colleagues.  No passing greetings.  No names.  There was no need for a name if you exited alone. 

Some of those guys thought that protozoan plankton born with flagella were special and chosen, that protozoans like dinoflagellates and euglenas were superior to because they’d been granted flagella by birth.  That meant they could swim away from everyone, and be truly alone.  Harry fell in with these guys in his youth.  They didn’t just accept him.  They told him he was special, but in a good way, a better way.  Because he’d been born with flagella.  While others questioned his parentage, these guys that took him in, they told him to ignore those envious ciliates and be proud that he was blessed with flagella.

It took him getting out into the rest of the pond, learning how other protozoans really lived, to help him realize that a little cooperation, a little society, wasn’t a bad thing.

That insight came with consequences.  Harry broke from most of the guys from his old neighborhood.  When they came down on him for his associations in his “new life,” and his betrayal of the unicellular way, he pointed out that they themselves gathered in a group.  They didn’t live according to the strict “every cell single” rule.  That was it for most of them.

There was one that he hoped would still talk to him.

Harry found him just where he expected, hunting for food along the borders of the neighborhood.  Unable to wander any farther.

Harry swam up to him.  “Perry.”

The paramecium turned.  “What are you doing here?”

Harry had brought some of the leftovers from that phyto bar.  The prices had indeed been extravagant, but so had the portions.  He offered them to the pale-looking paramecium.

Perry looked at the food.  “What do you want for this?”


“I’m not a snitch.”  Perry’s cilia flickered, and he started drifting away from Harry.

“Do you know anything about this?” Harry asked, bringing forth another flagellum.  This one was holding one of those trichocyst darts that someone had shot at him and Stella.

Perry flinched.  His cilia flickered more frantically.  “Where did you get that?” he asked, as he tried to move away.

But he couldn’t move fast enough to get away from Harry.  No paramecium could.

“My place.  Someone shot them at me.  Got me too.”  Harry turned to his side, where Molly’s slime was still hold his wound together.

Suddenly, Perry’s cilia stopped flickering.  “Yeah, I know about it.  I know about it the same as you do.”  His cilia flickered again and he turned around to show Harry the scars of damage on his own pellicle.

“Someone did that to you?  With one of these?”

Perry turned back around.  “I’m not a snitch, Harry.  But if you’re hunting the guy I think you’re hunting, he’s gone too far.”  He gestured to the food, and Harry released it.  Perry ate as he explained.

Perry had been attacked as a warning.  He kept to himself mostly.  But he still got together with a small group of ciliates every now and then, just to drink and gossip.  Harmless stuff.

“But not to this guy,” Perry said.  “You wanna know what three words he said to me as I drifted away, scared that all the cytoplasm was draining outta me?”

Harry could guess, but he let Perry speak.

“He said, ‘every cell single.’  And then you know what he did?  He swam away, Harry.  Just like you.”

Harry tried to hide his gasp.  But the vibration rippled from him.  Harry had never heard of another paramecium who could swim.  He recovered himself.  “Then he won’t be hard to find.”

“He’s got no name, Harry.  But people who know about him, or had a run-in with him, call him Drop.  Like a drop of water, he seems to be able to just vanish into the Drift.  But he’s been seen by the docks.”

“Thanks, Perry.”

“If you find him, take him away from here, Harry.  Don’t let him come back.  Or he’ll finish the job he started with me.”  Perry huffed out a joyless laugh.  “And who’ll you swim to for information then, huh?  No one else around here will talk to you.”

Harry started swimming away.  “Keep your nucleus down, Perry.  I’ll take care of it.”

“Hey, next time you come back, bring more of this chloro-cake stuff.  It’s amazing.”

Harry smiled and turned around.

His smile faded as he headed to the docks.


Harry maneuvered between blades of waterweed, keeping his senses peeled for any little vibration.

But he still felt nothing before he found himself wrapped in coils of flagella that tightened around him.  The guy had gotten the drop on him. 

Maybe that’s the real reason they call him “Drop,” Harry thought.  He tried to shake loose.  He was being squeezed too hard.  His organelles shifted.  He felt the cytoplasmic pressure inside him building. 

Funny how the nucleus works, he thought.  I’m about to die and all I can think about is how my killer got his nickname.

“You’re like me.” 

The voice vibrated through the water almost as forcefully as a Stentor’s.

Harry winced he slipped a few of his flagella free. 

And there he was, floating at a distance.  Another flagellated paramecium.

Harry broke free and pushed away just as spikes burst out of Drop’s pellicle ready to stab Harry. 

That didn’t look like reflex.  Is this guy able to control his trichocysts?

Drop detached some of the trichocysts and launched them at Harry.  Harry dodged them.  He tried to get some distance between them.  But Drop spun his flagella around his body to propel himself toward Harry at astonishing speed.

When he’d closed the distance, he stopped and launched more trichocysts darts at Harry.

“Just full of tricks, aren’t you?” Harry quipped, swimming erratically to make himself harder to target.

Drop propelled himself toward Harry again.

“Hey, stop for a sec,” Harry said, struggling to keep away.  “Let’s have a conversation first.  We can go for a swim later.” 

Harry wanted to try that propelling trick with his own flagella, but he couldn’t risk being caught if he didn’t get it right.

“I thought you were into cells staying away from each other,” he said.  “So how about you stay away from me, guy?”

Drop suddenly stopped.  He floated in the water, facing Harry.  “I’m not trying to be close to you.”

“Coulda fooled me.”

Harry coiled some of his flagella, preparing to sweep to either side.  For the first time, he got a got a good look at the other paramecium. 

Harry was startled by his attacker’s expression.

Drop looked calm and lucid.

“Say, how’d you do that thing with your trichocysts?” Harry asked, floating forward a bit.  He noticed that Drop floated backwards in response.

Harry paused.  If he was going to successfully deploy the slime net that Molly had given him, the one she’d made him stow in his vacuole, just in case, he would have to get much closer.  And he’d have to make sure that Drop wasn’t moving around too much.

“There was a time I would have showed you,” Drop said.  “But I see it’s too late for you…Detective.”

Spikes began to form from his pellicle.

Harry started swimming forth, hoping Drop couldn’t swim backwards as fast he could swim forwards.  But Drop didn’t move. 

Harry deployed the slime net just as Drop launched a volley of trichocyst darts.  The net caught most of the darts.  The rest passed by Harry, out of sheer luck.  One and only one of them hit him, sticking in a flagellum.  Harry continued on, side-swimming the net and reaching out to grab Drop with his other flagella.  He pulled himself close.

Drop cried out.  The vibrations shook loose a few of Harry’s flagella, but he held on, and wrapped more and more around Drop.

This is how I’m going to die, Harry thought.  And a second terrifying thought.  I have to take him with me.

They were too close for Drop to launch his trichocysts.  He tried to stab Harry with one instead.  Harry dodged and pulled himself closer, trying to pin all of Drop’s flagella down. 

Harry felt the sensation just before it happened. 

He couldn’t have done anything to stop it.

They were face to face.  Nucleus to nucleus.

Harry’s own pellicle began to prickle.

Spikes of trichocysts burst from his entire body.

Several of them pierced Drop’s pellicle.

They were so close together, the stabs went deep.

Harry felt the other paramecium’s flagella go limp.  He let go with all but one flagellum.  He reached for the slime net with the other and wrapped it around Drop.

“Don’t move,” Harry said.  “I’m taking you to a healer.”

But Harry knew he didn’t have time.

Even if a healer had been right there with all the right equipment.

Drop’s cytoplasm was streaming out, joining the Drift.  He raised a single flagellum and wrapped it around Harry, and tried to squeeze.

“Don’t move!”

He didn’t have the strength to hurt Harry.  His action only tore open his own wounds. 

Harry started dragging him away from the docks, crying out for a healer.

But none came forth.

By the time Harry ended up at the nearest hospital, Drop was dead.


“You were right, Doc.  I should be investigating the food at phyto bars.”

Harry and Dina were in the examination room, where Dina had just finished her examination of the paramecium called “Drop.”

“I wasn’t trying to kill him.  But I was trying to hurt him.”  Harry glanced down at the still form under the sheet.  “Once you go down that road…”

“Well, it was either him or you.  And the pond is better off with you being the one who lived.”

“I can’t help but thinking, Dina.  What if I hadn’t been alone?” Harry swam around to the other side of the table.  “What if I hadn’t been…a single cell?”

“What are you getting at?”

“Might have taken him alive.  And brought him to justice, instead of to death.”

Dina peered at him.  “Harry, if you really think you did something wrong, then let it guide your conscience.  Don’t let it weigh your conscience down.  Because a protozoan that’s weighed down can’t float or swim.  All he can do is…”

“Sink.”  Harry smiled.  “You’re a wise one, Doc.  I’m glad to be associated with you.”

Dina squinted in confusion, then laughed.  “Well, I’m glad to be associated with you too, Detective.”


When Harry told Stella that her life was no longer in danger, she disagreed.

“Glen’s killer may be gone,” she said.  “But he’s not the only one.”

If Harry was willing, she still wanted him to take her as far away as he could.  He was willing, and they spoke while he pulled her away from the life she had known.

“You think you can find a place in this pond where there aren’t any protozoans like Drop?” he asked.

She tilted her neck to the side. “I can try.”

Harry sighed.

“I can feel the vibrations of reluctance, Detective.  You’re disappointed in me.  For not being brave enough to stay.”

“Not at all.  Everyone deserves to be safe.”

Stella smiled broadly.  She gave a stentorian laugh that rippled the waters and tickled Harry’s cilia in a way he’d never felt before.

Steady, he thought to himself.

“My partner may be gone.  But thanks to you, Detective, I’m still here.  Thanks to you, love has survived.”


“It’s the word for the other in a bicellular bond.”

They were both silent for a moment or two.

“I think I know why you didn’t want to tell me what that other quality was,” Harry said.  “The question that you were struggling to answer without answering.  I think I know the answer.  Or at least a good part of it.  I think I may know what ‘hate’ is.”

Stella looked over at him.  “I’m sorry for that, Detective.”

“And I can’t help but worry though that where love goes, hate will follow.”

Stella’s worried expression softened into a smile.  “That’s not how love works.”

“No?  How can you be sure?”

“I can’t.  But I believe it’s the other way around.  Where hate goes, love follows.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“They’re like hurt and healing.  You wouldn’t need healing if you weren’t hurt first.  Though, love is more than just healing.”

“I’ve identified at least one flaw in that system.  Better not to get hurt in the first place.  Can love do that?  Can it prevent hurt?  Because you seem hurt, and your hurt seems to have been caused by love.”

“No, Detective.  My hurt was caused by the loss of love.”

“Then it doesn’t seem worth it, does it?”

“It is worth it.” 

“How do you know, Stella, that love won’t destroy our society, our unicellularity?”

“I don’t know.  But I do know that love already exists in more places in the pond than we might think.  And we’re still here.  We’re still single cells.  No matter who I might bond with, if ever I bond with another, I will always be me.”

When Harry had swum as far as he could, he stopped and let Stella go.

A gentle wave flowed past them.  Harry fluttered his flagella to steady himself. 

Stella Stentor floated away.  Harry watched her go, and then turned around and headed back home.


So I guess I still don’t quite get it.  This ‘love’ thing.  But I did get some of what Stella told me.

I value my unicellularity as much as the next protozoan.  Nothing can take that away from me.  But what’s wrong with having a drink with an acquaintance every now and then?  What’s wrong with having some help with my investigations from ‘zoans I can count on? 

I doubt I’d ever be interested in getting tangled up in this thing called ‘love,’ but…it makes me wonder if there’s a word for a looser kind of bond.  It makes me wonder if there is just one kind of thing called ‘love.’  The kind that Glen and Stella had.  Or if there are other kinds.

Of all the things that Stella had said on our trip, one word had stuck in my nucleus, a word, a concept that intrigued me.  A word I thought of as pictured getting home and having something to eat at my favorite place.  A word I thought of as I pictured going in to work the next morning.  A word I thought of when I considered how to keep my conscience from getting weighed down.


Copyright © 2021  Nila L. Patel

2 thoughts on “The Unicellular Detective

  1. I’ve read a few books in the hard-boiled detective style, including Raymond Chandler’s books about Philip Marlowe (a man Chandler described as able to walk down mean streets without becoming mean himself)…
    This story was as engaging as any of them. More so, for me…
    and deeply imaginative.
    The most engaging story I have read in a long while.


    1. Your comment and compliment stunned me! I’m honored and grateful to receive it, especially for this story. It’s one of my favorites, but it is a bit…different. I’m happy you found it engaging. That’s so wonderful to me. Thank you so much!

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