Inch by Inch
Anforth inched his way along the fat, human-made tunnel, deep underwater and in complete darkness. He was wearing the latest version of Professor Panjandrum's Pelagic Perambulator, which was a suit and helmet designed to allow raccoons like him to walk under the sea.
Unfortunately, it didn't come equipped with a lighting system. That meant he had to feel his way slowly through the darkness, which was full of obstacles. Parts of the concrete ceiling had fallen away, and rusty, ragged, iron bars stuck out of the walls in places. Cables and ropes dangled down from above, so he had to grope his way forward slowly. He shuffled his weighted feet and waved his gloved hands in front of him.
The air hose dragged behind him, and was increasingly difficult to pull along. He hoped it wasn't caught on anything. Beside it ran a safety line, although he wasn't sure it would do him much good now that he was underground as well as underwater.
Air puffed into his helmet from the hose as his friends pumped the bellows on board Lucky, the human-built sailboat that they had discovered the previous spring. Now it was almost autumn, and their summer of adventures was drawing to a close. This would be their last chance to explore this old human base before the winter storms made it too dangerous to come this far north, even with Lucky's strong hull and tough sails.
He stopped and twisted around to pull more of the hose after him. He kept his feet planted with his toes pointed in the direction he wanted to go. He had very quickly found on his first attempt at this, yesterday, that if he wasn't careful about keeping his feet pointed in the same direction he would walk in circles, all the time feeling like he was going in a straight line. It was very peculiar, which summed up his life quite nicely right now.
On the surface, Flutesam the otter worked the bellows while Ru-Shi the raccoon managed the air hose and safety line. Both the hose and the line were paying out in jerks, as if Anforth was pulling some slack into them, walking forward a ways, and then pulling on them again.
Their friend Crow was circling over the island, trying to see if there was any way into the base from the land, although even her keen eyes had trouble seeing anything through the tall fir trees.
Ru-Shi was worried. Even Flutesam, who was normally the most optimistic of creatures, was concerned.
"I wish I knew what it was he thought he was going to find," Ru-Shi said.
"Human things," said Flutesam. "If we knew what they were, we wouldn't have to go looking for them."
They were directly above the entrance of the underwater tunnel, which was a large concrete half-circle whose flat floor gave on to the sandy bottom of the bay. When they had first explored here, more than a full moon past, there was a human underwater boat almost completely stuck in the mouth of the tunnel, but they had managed to pump enough air into it with the bellows that it had shifted and drifted and beached itself nearby. They'd tried to look inside, but that hadn't gone well, and they had not yet tried to explore it again.
Not that exploring the base itself seemed any safer to Ru-Shi.
"We can't just pretend it isn't there!" Anforth had said. "Who knows what we might find. We might find another boat, or one of their flying sky-sausages!"
"I'm not suggesting we pretend it isn't there. I'm suggesting we stop pretending it isn't dangerous!" she had replied.
They'd had quite a tiff about it, which wasn't really resolved to anyone's satisfaction. Flutesam had come on board with a fish he'd caught for their dinner, and they took that as an excuse to stop fighting without ever coming up with a better plan than "Anforth goes into the tunnel wearing Professor Panjandrum's diving apparatus, and Ru-Shi hates it."
Anforth stopped in the darkness. He had been trapped underground and explored underwater. He had wandered the Wild Woods on moonless, starless nights. But he had never experienced darkness like this. It didn't feel like the absence of light, but the presence of dark.
He decided he'd come far enough. The water around him was cold, and even within the rubberized canvas of the diving suit he was starting to feel chilled. His forepaws were painfully cold in their gloves. He reached behind him for the safety line, and felt nothing.
Anforth was a raccoon with very steady nerves. He knew that's how the other creatures thought of him. Not the most clever, nor the most playful, nor the most creative, but a good, steady fellow who wasn't easily discouraged when things got difficult, or easily flapped when things got flappish.
Being under ground, under water, in the dark, and without a safety line definitely counts as flappish, he thought.
He felt for where the safety line should have been tied around his waist, and found it right where he expected. He slid his hand behind his back and found the knot. Then he tried to follow the line from there, but all that remained was a short end that was cut off. It must have caught on some sharp piece of metal while he was walking through the dark, and parted without Anforth even realizing it.
He briefly imagined what would have happened if his air hose had been caught the same way. Something sharp enough to cut the safety line without him even noticing would have split the air hose easily, leaving him stranded here without anything to breathe. In that moment he vowed to return to Lucky as carefully as possible and apologize to Ru-Shi for being so pig-headed about coming down here. She had been right: it was far more dangerous than he had believed.
It was frustrating, though, because the only reason he knew he'd been wrong was because he had dared to enter the tunnel in the first place. Flutesam had poked his nose into the entrance, and swum a little way in, but he hadn't been able to see anything either, so he couldn't tell if there were dangers. Which, Anforth supposed, was a kind of danger itself. But if you treated ignorance as danger you'd never discover anything new, and would stay ignorant forever, which didn't sound like much fun.
Flutesam had been optimistic about Anforth's chances of finding something interesting and coming back safely, but there wasn't much you could read into that. Flute was optimistic about everything, which got him into no end of trouble, although he always seemed to find his way out again.
Anforth put one gloved paw on the air hose where it entered his helmet and turned around very carefully. He used the other hand to feel along the hose so he could tell what direction it was going in, and then he started to shuffle back the way he had come, easing the hose past him so he left a loop of it behind. It would drag on the flat floor of the tunnel, but there was nothing he could do about that.
After a time he started to see light ahead and knew he must be getting close to the tunnel's entrance. The water was a murky dark green, and full of brown flakes that swirled in front of his faceplate. He looked down through the chin-window and could see his feet were stirring up the sludge that lay in a thin layer over the hard bottom.
The shadow of the tunnel wall loomed very near his right side. How a shadow could loom he wasn't sure, but he was sure he could feel it. He took another step and stumbled over something. He reached out a hand to steady himself against the wall. Something moved as he grabbed at it. Some kind of lever.
An unexpected line of light rapidly became a circle of brightness as a hatch opened up in the wall. A vertical shaft lay beyond, with hand-holds formed into its surface for climbing. It had sunlight filtering down from above, making grey-green rays though the water. He had found an entrance!