Tock... tock... tock... tock...
The strokes of the timekeeping pendulum echoed in the cave. Ruihi studied the mechanical arm, carefully counting the ticks and dutifully marking each swing on the marker cylinder. The process was eventually going to be automated, he had been assured, but for now, Ruihi had no choice but to mark time by hand.
Then there was a rush of displaced water and the Matoran looked out over the underground lake. The inflated red bubble breached the surface of the water, hissing air like a whale. Ruihi pushed the stop plunger on his timer and grabbed the retrieval pole.
The floaters were designed to measure the depth of the underground lakes. They went in deflated, with a small amount of some sort of powder and a blasting cap on the bottom. Then, when they sunk to the bottom of the lake, the cap was activated and some sort of reaction took place (Ruihi had no idea what really happened), and the now-inflated balloon rose to the surface. Just measure how long it takes, Nuparu’s minions had promised, and you’ll know how deep the water is.
Ruihi grumbled to himself as he hoisted the balloon, now pathetically half-inflated, back onto shore. It was all well and good, but did they really have to be so heavy?
The floaters were supposed to be faster and more reliable than just using a measuring cable, but Ruihi didn’t think much of it. Gone were the days when mining relied on determination and willpower. These days, now that Nuparu’s shop had driven ore prices down and volume up, things just weren’t the same.
After haphazardly folding the balloon, stabilization ribbons trailing behind like tentacles on a jellyfish, at the edge of the lake, Ruihi went back to the record cylinder and carefully transferred the readings onto paper. As much as he disliked the new process, the initial reconnaissance of a lake was critical so as to not make any mistakes later.
Ruihi whistled as he reread the numbers. This lake was deep.
“Third SHIFT, reporting IN!”
Ruihi’s head snapped up. The bellicose call came from the passageway back to the Great Mine. Ruihi turned to look. Another Tohunga was approaching; Ari was his name.
“Arayy! My friend!” Ruihi called. The silhouette slumped out of attention and into a more natural posture. “How does the stone fall, my brother?”
“As the Earth wills it!” Ari replied, skipping into the light of the cavern. “I didn’t know you were on this shift!”
“Just reassigned, friend,” Ruihi said. “Just taking some baseline measurements, here at the lake. Using these floaters.”
The sympathetic pair shared a few words on how dreadful this new technology was and how it was all the more inconvenient to use than than good old cables and elbow grease.
“So the whole system’s going down to the realm of ’zahni, am I right?” Ruihi said. “Anyway, listen, brother, you don’t need to take the shift tonight. I’ve got it.”
“You mean it?”
“I know you’ve got family at home. I was just getting into it. Besides, I like doing recon. Nothing like exploring new territory.”
“Yeah, man, I know what you mean. But really,” Ari stood, “I owe you one.”
“I’ll see you around, brother. Go well!”
“Go well!” Ari hurried off back into the tunnel. Ruihi sighed. Yes, he was perfectly willing to do it. But it would be a long night.
He waddled back over to the machines. After the initial depth measurement, he had to measure the width. Then, with the help of an air bladder, he could start a grid-cell survey of the entire area of the shaft. He would probably only get part of the way through, though. He double checked the depth measurement. This lake was deep.
The Tohunga pulled out his measuring string and air bladder, hooking them to his belt. He activated the timer again, this time attaching it to a loaded weight that would last until he walked all the way around, again to measure the distance using his walking speed. Tock, tock, tock. The pendulum echoed loudly in the cavern. He stepped over to the edge of the lake, over the pile of deflated floater.
And then he slipped on the wet rocks. He grunted in pain as his head slammed against the rock behind him.
As he scrambled to right himself, he grabbed onto the streaming stabilizers of the floater. Bad idea. The deflated balloon, and its ballast, slipped into the water alongside him. Ruihi grabbed for the shore, but suddenly his arms were tangled in the ribbons and his legs were under the balloon and he was falling and sinking, sinking into the lake below.
Sudden darkness. Water rushed by the floundering Tohunga as the floater dragged him down.
After the cold shock, his Onu-Matoran survival instincts kicked in. He struggled to get his left arm free, but the streamers were somehow tied in knots too tight for him to slip out of. With his right hand, he wrestled his lightstone out of his belt and held it in his mouth. It only shined for a short distance in the murky cave water. The ballast on the floater kept pulling down.
As spots started to form in front of his eyes, Ruihi grabbed the air bladder in his belt and took a breath. He would have enough air for two, maybe three breaths before it ran out. Better make it count.
One breath. He pulled at the streamers, slowly loosening them. Another part of his mind was tracking his descent. He was sinking quickly and still nowhere near the bottom.
Another breath. One knot came undone; Ruihi moved onto the second one. It was looser, so he made short work of it.
And then the floater was free, and Ruihi twisted in the water to begin his ascent to the surface. He would have sworn at the situation if he had the breath. But he just had air left in the bladder for one more deep breath, which he took.
The lightstone went back in his belt, and Ruihi started pulling himself out of the water, his lungs straining at the exertion. One stroke. Two strokes.
And then Ruihi hit his head, for the second time in as many minutes. Surprised, he coughed out the air and choked in water. He thrashed, deep underwater, as he inhaled water. Pull up, pull up. Nothing else mattered now.
And then he broke the surface of the water, spewing water. He grabbed forward, onto a rocky ledge, gasping and choking.
It took him five full minutes to catch his breath and empty his lungs, and it was only then that he noticed two things: First, he was not at the surface of the water in the main cave. The cave above him was only a few bios high. Second, the room throbbed with a dull humming sound, a sound that Ruihi recognized only too well.
He looked around for the source of the sound, and found it a few bios to his left: A cylindrical machine with a glowing heart-light, vibrating and coughing and spluttering into the water. A surface-air pump. Evidently this lake had already been discovered but forgotten before Ruihi was assigned to it. Careless record-keepers.
Ruihi pulled himself out of the water and looked around. He was in a pocket, a small hole in the side of the limestone caves, that was being maintained by the surface pump in the corner. A few lightstones dotted the walls of the cave, evidently the reason why it had been cleared in the first place. As he breathed, his breath crystallized. It was cold, too.
These chambers were kept vacated of water only by the grace of the surface pumps. If the power were to be shut off, the pump would stop and the water, eager to replace the void so deep underground, would slosh back into place instantly.
Ruihi took a shaky breath. His options were limited. He was down very deep; unaided he could not swim back up. If he just had... The air bladder!
He grabbed at his belt for the pouch, but there was nothing there. In the rush underwater, it must have fallen out of his mouth. He halfheartedly peered through the murky water, hoping desperately that it was down there somewhere where he could see it, but with no luck.
Now Ruihi cursed, loudly, but the small cave muted his voice. He took another look around in the hopes of finding a passage to the surface, but there were none. This cave was just a preliminary, exploratory cavity. Save a few lightstones, the pump machine, and, of course, himself, there was nothing in here.
The Matoran crawled the corner, his lightstone the only source of heat. He took a few more unsteady, deep breaths. The pump was going, but barely. Whatever power source it had been running on was now unduly stressed by the presence of a new pair of lungs. The machine’s heart-light was flickering. It obviously had not been stressed in years.
Maybe it would last until the morning and the next shift would notice his absence. The system was supposed to protect against problems like this, and he had no doubt that if his disappearance was noted, the rescue team would shortly find him with their SCUBA gear.
Or perhaps the pump would fail before that happened.
It was just a matter of time.
“Doctor, I see a flicker!”
“Administer the protodermis booster!”
“Double the dose!”
“We’re getting something here!”
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Ruihi took a sudden, sharp breath. The insides of his lungs felt like they were lined with needles. Where was he?
“He’s opening his eyes!”
Ruihi rolled onto his side. Blurry, white shapes slowly came into focus. Tohunga in clean blue linens.
“Ruihi, I need you to focus on me,” a doctor said. A mask appeared in Ruihi’s field of vision. He coughed.
“Respiration’s normal,” the doctor said to one of his assistants. “All systems are returning to normal.”
Ruihi tried to lift himself up, but the doctor gently pushed him back onto the bed. “You should stay reclining,” he said. “But here, I can prop you up a little. You’re still in some shock.”
The doctor propped up Ruihi and shined a focused lightstone into his eyes. “No sign of vision damage,” he said. “Now, can you tell me your name?”
“Ruihi,” the Tohunga said weakly. The doctor nodded.
“Good. Now, do you remember what happened?”
For a moment, Ruihi couldn’t remember anything and started to panic. Then it all came back. “The lake...” he said. “And I was trapped in the pocket. But...” His memory was hazy after this. “The pump failed?”
“Cognitive functions appear to be normal,” the doctor said. “He’s a bit hazy, but that’s to be expected. You’re done.” The assistant who had been standing behind him noted the record and handed it to the doctor before leaving the room. Then the doctor turned back to Ruihi.
“You had a pretty bad accident,” he said. “We thought we almost lost you there. But it looks like everything is going to be OK. A rescue team found you floating in the lake you were assigned to. It was actually your clock that tipped us off. One of the miners noticed that it had been running for too long. I guess that loud ticking is useful for something, eh?”
Ruihi smiled weakly. The doctor continued.
“If we had gotten to you any later... well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “It will be a day or two before you’ll be back on your feet. So rest up, and I’ll check up on you in a few hours.”
In the bleary moments before Ruihi fell back into sleep, he puzzled that the technology that he so disliked ended up actually saving him in the end. Well, he owed Nuparu an apology.
But that didn’t mean he had to start liking the blasted machines. Ruihi turned over and went to sleep.