"I'm starting to get the picture," Nickolai sighed as he looked out the window of the AMV. "This place has what for a surface area? How many times greater than that of Pendor?" He looked around, scanning the 'interior' surface with his sensors carefully. "I'm not at all surprised that we know absolutely nothing about this place."
Jofuran nodded, patiently watching a different array of sensors from Nickolai's, feeling just as frustrated as he was. They had joined the current archeological team on Hyzen and what had in the beginning seemed to be a great experience had instead become boring and dull. Every blip on the map created by the automated mapping probes Maha Oren had brought to Hyzen had turned out to be just another sensor glitch. That, or once in an eclipse, a piece of their own equipment torn loose by the hurricane force winds.
Someone had once built this place, this double-Dyson sphere, only seventy light years from Pendor, millions of years ago. Of that, there was no doubt. The Entrances themselves were evidence of massive construction and incredible technological skill, but there was not a single symbol of what the makers of Hyzen had once looked like or that they had even existed. The inside of the sphere was a riot of vegetation, animal life, and environment, swept constantly by storms and seas. There was no gravitation on Hyzen, none at all. That alone was one of her greatest mysteries; given that there was a sun at the center of the system, gravity should have at least existed in that direction, but even that failed to stand up under close examination.
Jofuran reached up and touched him on the shoulder softly. "I'm sorry, Nickolai. I didn't know it would be like this."
He touched her furred hand softly with his. "That's okay, Furry. Wherever in the universe I am with you is fine. We knew it would be like this, time to 'pay our dues.'" He turned and flashed her a smile. "The Forest is up ahead."
"Really?" She grinned. 'Forests' were among the most fascinating of all life forms on Hyzen. Rooted to the apparently deliberately pitted and scarred 'ground' of Hyzen, monstrous trees grew for several kilometers sunwards, towards the unbearably hot inner shell of the Hyzen system, where only superhot mosses and bacteria grew if at all and where the weather of Hyzen inherited its often relentless violence. Forests grew in enormous domes that covered dozens if not hundreds of square kilometers. At the top of them, familiar green leaves extended for a depth of up to six hundred meters; the trees on the outer rings were usually shorter, thus providing complete leafy protection for the thinly barked shafts.
Inside the dark protection of the Forest canopy many creatures lived an eternal, nocturnal existence. The leaves collected moisture from the atmosphere and from the passing oceans of water while forming a protective hemisphere for the insides. Most planetologists referred to them as the 'Hyzen Rainforest Equivalent.'
"It's big," Nickolai said. "Gorm? Would you say that one's near its theoretical limit?"
"Beyond," the AI opined calmly. "I do not detect a core fault, however."
Nickolai scratched at a day's growth of scruff on his chin. A forest this large was supposed to be unable to get airborne nutrients and fluids down to the ancient center, where rot was supposed to take hold. That didn't seem to be happening. "Furry, take over for a minute, will you?"
"Sure." They exchanged seats, Nickolai fumbling for a moment with the datahelm until he was down at the primary sensor array. He spent several minutes examining the data carefully, then said, "Gorm, you're right."
"This thing is much larger than any previously seen HRE, but it's as healthy as it could be." He grinned at Furry. "We get an anomalous sensor sweep, and what do we find? An anomalous HRE." He turned towards the front of the AMV and said "Furry, take us over the center, would you?"
"Okay!" she grinned, shaking her head and smiling at him. "By the way..."
"I love you."
"I love you, too," he grinned, rising from his chair long enough to kiss her furred cheek.
"Chaven on the line, Nickolai," Gorm reported.
"Nickolai!" the screen above his head blared at him. The face on the screen was that of a rather heavyset Mephit with an eternal grin on his face that often seemed more forced than real.
"Professor Chaven. How do you do?"
"What's this I hear about an anomalous HRE?"
Nickolai laid out his findings to the head of the archeology division of Hyzen Station. "Two days ago MOAS reported a moving metallic reading. Jofuran and I are approaching the place where that reading was taken, and if these reading are right, the HRE in which it was detected has a biomass nearly eleven times larger than 2182, which according to Gorm is the largest currently recorded. I think there's something very strange going on here, professor."
"Agreed. But you are not biologist! You are archaeologist, Nickolai. Data is valuable to all research teams. Perform examination of the site and report, but be careful!"
"Yes, sir," Nickolai sighed.
His discussion with Professor Chaven was interrupted by Jofuran. "What the?"
"I'm getting metallic readings!" She pointed at the screen excitedly. "Look!"
Nickolai programmed his console quickly to get what he could from the datastream; it wasn't as comprehensive a report as from a regular sensor station, but it was far better than just looking out the window. "My God, you're right. What do you think it is?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I... hey!"
"Dammit, it was right there. Gorm, confirm my playback, please!"
"Confirmed, Jofuran. You had a metallic object tracking at moderately high speed for eleven seconds somewhere within the body of the forest. Track then disappeared without trace or explanation."
"Just like the MOAS track."
"Nickolai!" Professor Chaven was talking to him again. "There could be danger at something moves that fast. Would you like wait for backup?"
He looked back at Jofuran, who vigorously shook her head. "No, Professor. Jofuran and I would like to investigate as soon as possible."
"Very well. I await the results of investigation. Jofuran, as senior, there are Dig Rules. Understand?"
Furry's fingers were flying over the console. "Hang on. I'm putting her on full." The AMV's ducted fan engines roared to life as she poured on the speed, heading out over the forest. "I'm going to where that thing was last spotted."
Several hours later, Jofuran 'parked' the AMV slightly over a hundred meters from the canopy of the rainforest. Although scientists and spherologists talked of things being 'inward' and 'outward,' most people on Hyzen still thought of the sun being overhead, 'upwards,' and the 'ground,' such that it was, being 'downwards'. It was not at all hard to get in the habit of thinking that way, a fact that had been known since Terrans had tossed Skylab into orbit and established residence in space.
A quick check of the local 'weather' revealed that the local winds weren't bad at all, barely above a dozen KPH, and no real storms of any kind were expected for the next fifteen hours. "Shirtsleeves," Furry shrugged.
"Packs," Nickolai said, handing her one of the standard expedition packs. Nickolai helped her strap it over and under her shoulders, and then between her legs, giving her a very suggestive kiss in a very suggestive place as he did so. She blushed. "Lecher."
He smiled. "I can't help it. You're so beautiful."
She hugged him as he stood up. "I'm so glad you think so."
They left out the main door. Nickolai grabbed the mooring line and hooked it onto his belt, pulling himself down until he reached the canopy of the trees. Furry just jumped, enjoying the slow float through the atmosphere until she reached the leaves, grabbing a branch. Nickolai floated to her, easily finding her through the waving branches and leaves. Together, they descended into the forest until they reached the bottom of the canopy. The 'descent' was easy, simple hand-over-hand through the sometimes scratching branches, deeper and deeper into the darkened underside of the canopy until they reached bottom where the branches became increasingly rare, had a tendency to be rotten, and then finally ceased altogether. So had the light; the descent through the thick canopy had finally blotted out all penetrating sunlight, leaving them in darkness but for the lamps mounted on their shoulder harnesses. Nickolai wandered around the trunk of a tree, dragging the line with him until he reached Furry again, where he clipped it to itself and let it loose. "Okay, Gorm, we're on our way in."
"Be careful," the AI admonished.
"We will," Jofuran replied. She turned to Nickolai. "Umbrellas or claws?" she asked.
"Which is faster?"
"Claws," she replied. "But I like umbrellas better."
"I agree." Floating in the lack of gravity, each reached into their backpack and took out two small pairs of clamps for their boots. The boots they wore were, like much of Pendorian clothing, tunable; they reduced the rigidity of the boots until they were extremely supple and easy to move in, then fixed the clamps to the sole of the boot, fixing an extending shaft to the clamp. Nickolai pressed a button and from his foot extended a cloth webbing like a diver's flipper, but much larger and lighter. The trees, anywhere between six and fourteen meters apart from their nearest neighbor, provided more than adequate room for the two of them, even when the combined radius of two flippers was over two meters. Swimming downwards slowly through the warm, moist atmosphere, swallowed in the darkness illuminated only by their headlights, Nickolai felt completely lost and bewildered. He was grateful for the constant awareness of Furry's location, both from the sounds of her breathing, the only sounds there were, and from the curious, telepathic effect from the rings Ken had given them at their "wedding."
They descended, klick after klick. "We are eleven kilometers from the surface," Jofuran announced quietly, "and about a klick from the last known location of the object." She panned around with a sensor. "This way."
They swam on further in the dark, dodging trees slowly, easing their way through the quiet dark. As he listened, though, the sounds of the living forest started to become more and more obvious to Nickolai's ears. The squeals of the leaping and flying creatures habituated to life in zero-gravity started to reach his ears, and as they swam insects and small animals attracted to their lights started to collect around them. "Damn bugs," Nickolai swore as he brushed one away from his face.
"They're what keep this place going," Furry replied. "Without them, these Forests wouldn't even exist."
"Doesn't mean I like having them explore my nose!" He replied.
She laughed softly. "This is it."
"This is where we lost the trace." She held up the sensor array. "I'm floating right in its path."
"Nothing," she responded. "Not a sign of metal anywhere. Nothing living but the trees, bugs, and birds." She sighed. "I don't know. Maybe it was just a malfunction in the sensor array again. Some large animal or something."
"No way," Nickolai replied. "That sensor array is clean. Even Gorm agrees with me."
"As much as can be possible," the AI agreed. "I cannot confirm that it is completely accurate without a local test. The anomaly reported, however, is unlikely under even the wildest hardware failure."
"So what do we do now?" Furry asked.
"Eat?" Nickolai suggested. "I'm hungry." He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small bag with a sandwich in it and a literjohn of water. "Here."
"Thanks," she replied, taking the water from him and drinking deeply. "It's hot in here."
"Yeah. And it makes everything here feel sticky." He took a bite out of his sandwich as she propelled herself towards him slowly, coming to a stop against him and kissing his neck. "Careful!"
"If I push you against a tree, it'll just help keep you in place for me," she sighed.
He laughed and retrieved the water from her grasp, taking a drink for himself. "True. How long have we been in here?"
"Nearly five hours," she replied. "Tired?"
"Not really. We have overnights, you know. We could stay in here, catch some sleep, and head out tomorrow."
She nodded. "Do you want to do that?"
"I don't know," he said. "I mean, we could."
"Then lets head down to the bedrock."
"We could reach it by fifteen. I want to see what's at the bottom of this forest. You said it was 'weird.' We're pretty close to the center of the forest anyway, and I want to see what it looks like down where the roots grow."
Nickolai cast his light about; the massive brown shafts of these trees, most over five meters in diameter and some reaching beyond ten, only indicated which directions were 'up' and 'down,' but they gave no hint to tell him which was which. He could see neither the ceiling, eleven kilometers up, nor the ground, another eight kilometers down.
His breathing suddenly grew short with fear. He dropped his visor and requested a three-dimensional compass, making sure he knew which direction was 'sunward.'
Furry noticed. "Kolya?"
"Sorry," he said. "I... just got lost suddenly. Being told that I'm halfway between heaven and earth and not knowing which way was which scared me a little."
She nodded, touching his face. "You okay now?"
"Yeah," he replied, taking a bite and chewing quickly. He swallowed it after not chewing it enough. "I think so."
"Take deep breaths, beloved," she said. He envied her; she was clearly more used to this element than he was. They packed up their lunch and headed towards the root system.
They descended further into the forest, Jofuran leading. They separated by a good distance; Furry's stronger legs pushed her ahead of him. As he looked around, he again got the distinct sensation of size; each tree was a colossal pillar of wood, the gaps between them were a vast abyssal of darkness. He panned his light around, the beam defined in the glints and passages of flying insects. Jofuran's light arced away from her a giant white cone, but she herself was nothing more than a small grey spot at the end of his light. "Furry!" he shouted. "Wait up!" She stopped and he swam down to reach her. "Thanks for waiting."
"I'll give you a second to catch your breath," she said. "It sure is peaceful."
Nickolai nodded. "Furry?"
"I... I... " He stopped. "I'm trying to think of a good way of saying this." He took a deep breath and continued. "I wanted to thank you for being someone I could trust so much I could be afraid near you."
"Oh, Nickolai," she said, turning her head to look at him. "You could always do that near me."
"No," he shook his head, "I couldn't. Not really. I had so much, I don't know, I guess you'd call it bravado."
She shifted her flight a little until her enormous fans began to interfere with his. They came together and drifted, holding one another. "I love you, Nickolai. Completely."
"I still don't understand all of what my loving you means, Furry. But more and more I'm starting to, and I'm enjoying it when I do."
She smiled. "Good. Come on; we have a world to explore."
After another two hours passed, Furry said "Look!"
"I see it," Nickolai replied. Because they had been heading 'headwards,' as Nickolai thought of it, and because they couldn't see the sun, Nickolai had grown used to thinking that they were headed 'upwards,' or perhaps, 'outwards,' towards the outer shell of Hyzen. And as the ground of Hyzen approached, he had the indisputable feeling that he was about to bump his head on someone else's ceiling.
Not that that ceiling was anything familiar. It was officially known as "the ground." This side of the opposite shell was known as "the ceiling"; being inside that shell was known as "in the sun zone." Outside the outer shell was being "Outside Hyzen." And then there was just "Off Hyzen." Unless you were "in the pole," the coronal release point for all of Hyzen's material solar output, two small (on a solar scale) holes, one at each solar pole, on the double-sphere construction.
The ground was shaped differently in different places, although it was always made of the same material, an unbelievably strong combination of intertwined polymer chains that some physicists believed used the solar power coursing throughout Hyzen to strengthen the inter-atomic bonds. Pendorians had a variety of materials that utilized similar techniques, but none of them approached the Hyzen Ground Material for strength. In some places, it was smooth and slick, in others it was sharp and jagged. Forests, stable waters, and enormous plains of Hyzen Grass made their homes in 'sponge ground,' where the ground had been shaped into enormous, chaotic, interconnecting caves, rings, loops, and other topologically bewildering tangles, and where the root systems had a chance to wrap around smooth spans of material and fix themselves in defiance of wind and water. The ground was, like all of Hyzen, always 'built' on a grand scale, often extending for thousands of kilometers in many directions and up to several kilometers deep.
"What now?" Nickolai asked.
"I don't know," Furry sighed softly, then she stopped. "Do you hear that?"
"Sounds a little like water," Nickolai replied. "And some animal noises."
"No, the other sound. Listen. It's like a soft churring noise, like a machine. Listen!"
Nickolai wondered what she was asking for; her ears were much larger than his, after all, but he did listen. And after a few seconds of searching, he thought he heard what she was talking about. "Yeah," he said. "I do hear something. It sounds like it's coming from that direction."
"Let's go," she said. They paddled the way he had pointed. As they floated towards the source of the noise, it changed in pitch, dropping and raising seemingly at random.
Ahead of Nickolai, Furry gasped suddenly. "Nickolai! Come here!"
He swam up to where she floated, her flashlight pointed forward. "What?" he asked.
"Look!" she said. At the other end of her flashlight he saw a tall, greenish-brown cylinder. From where they floated it didn't look very big, but a glance through his binoculars told him differently; it was at least eight meters in diameter and approximately sixteen meters long. It was obviously not a living tree; the color was different, but more importantly, it was wedged between two tree trunks at a drastic angle. "What is it?"
Looks like a home," Jofuran guessed. "Or at least a building of some sort."
Nickolai began floating towards it, but stopped. "Do you hear that?"
"That's just it. The whirring sound is gone." He panned his flashlight around. "I wonder what's going on."
She shook her head. "I don't show anything on my local sensor pack." They swam slowly towards the cylinder, their lights panning back and forth among the tree branches. Nickolai noticed her shortness of breath. "Are you okay?"
She nodded. "I think so. Hope so," she smiled. They brushed up against the cylinder. "Feels like wood."
"You suppose they hollowed out a tree for this?"
"Probably," Nickolai agreed. "Although for such a technologically advanced culture, that kind of construction would be unbelievably crude, don't you think?"
"Maybe they reverted to barbarism. Or Romanticism, as Pendorians sometimes do," she offered.
"Let's find out," Nickolai said. "If it's a container or shelter of some kind, it's got to have an opening, doesn't it?"
"That sort of follows," Furry agreed. "You go that way."
They circled the cylinder slowly, swimming with their long, billowing fans waving behind them. Nickolai swam towards the ground, looking for the method by which this huge cylinder had been fixed in place. He found what looked like cleats, and guessed that some organic anchors had once held it in placed. As he panned his lights over the flattened surface of the end, he saw something else. A ring of wood, set dead center. He swam over to it.
"I found the opening, I think!" Furry came around the corner quickly upon hearing that. So fast that Nickolai was sure she was out of control, but she had mastered the technique of airbraking well, because she managed to come to a halt directly next to him.
"I think you're right," she gasped, catching her breath. "Take pictures!"
"Gorm?" Nickolai asked, wielding his camera. "Are you getting this?"
"Yes I am," the AI replied. "I take it from the current schedule you two intend on spending the night?"
"Apparently," Nickolai said. "Sorry we didn't check in sooner."
"Quite all right," the AI said. "I saw your telemetry and assumed you were still alive. Yes, that is fascinating." Furry panned her sensors over the doorway, upon which were carved complex, curvilinear symbols. "I shall send this to translation as fast as possible," the AI continued.
"Tell us what it says when you can." Furry said. "If you can," she amended.
"Probably 'No girls allowed,'" Nickolai joked.
"Look at this," Nickolai said, pointing to the doorway. She drifted closer. "Wooden construction, with some powerful preservative paint applied. The doors, the latches. The cleats over there, buried into the wood, with something like rope to hold this in place. I can only think of this as the alien equivalent of a treehouse. I've seen some pretty spectacular treehouses on Pendor, thanks to the AIs."
"That's a fascinating proposition, Nickolai," Gorm said.
"We'll see," Furry said, grinning. "But I like it. It's romantic. Come on, try the latch."
Nickolai reached down and turned the simple, wooden handle that stuck out of the door. "At least they had some kind of manipulator we can relate to," Nickolai observed. A satisfying click sounded, and the left half of the doorway slowly opened towards Nickolai. It stuck slightly, then came all the way open.
"Simple extending clamshell hinge," Furry said, panning her flashlight inside. The door was about a meter and a half wide. "It's pretty big for a treehouse."
"They have big trees," Nickolai pointed out. "This is probably one of the biggest, but it's still just the shell of a tree with something eternal painted out."
Furry nodded. "Let's go in."
"Photographs all the way," Nickolai agreed. They slowly swam inside, and once in closed up the fans on their boots. "Remove packs?" Nickolai asked. "Those passageways are pretty big, but they'll slow us down."
Furry nodded. "Tie them there, to the back of the latch."
After securing her pack, Furry glanced around the inside of the first room they had entered. "I think they were a smaller species than us," Furry said. "Well, than humans, at any rate. Everything's built to a scale I can relate to." She grinned. "Well, Kolya, you want the left or the right?"
"I'll take that one. You take left. If anything happens, give a shout. I'll hear. And Gorm is with you all the way."
"Indeed," the AI's voice hummed from the commlink.
The texture of the walls was smooth enough to be sticky when dry, and Nickolai used that stickiness to maneuver slowly up the passageway he had taken. The passageway seemed to go all the way to the top of the 'treehouse,' then turned inwards. He followed it down again and into a small, room with a circular floor. He floated into the center of it, panning the flashlight around. It was just high enough that he could touch both floor and ceiling at the same time, but it was apparently almost the same diameter as the treehouse itself.
The walls, though, immediately attracted his attention. He pulled a camera out and began snapping pictures like crazy before he remembered Furry. "Furry," he said aloud as he took pictures, hoping Gorm would transmit his words automatically.
"I've found a roomful of bas reliefs covering the walls. You've got to come see this!"
"Nickolai," she replied, "I've found something just as important. A doll."
"I mean it. I think it's a doll. It's humanoid, but it's strange, too."
Nickolai peered at the pictures before him. "Let me guess. The spine is apparently center-buried in the body. The legs appear to be as supple as the arms. And the head is double-domed."
"No," she replied. "Not like that at all. The double-dome is right, but the legs are conjoined, like one giant flipper. Like a mermaid."
"Gengineered," Nickolai replied.
"I betcha," she replied. "But I think you're right, on one thing. This is a child's place, made by great power for a child's amusement. I don't think they were a blind species. Too much color in everything."
"Then where is all the technological stuff?" Nickolai mused, panning the camera around as he circled the room. "Where are all the gadgets?"
"Maybe they were beyond gadgets," she replied. "May... NICKOLAI!"
Her scream echoed through the hallway, reaching his ears a second after it came over the radio. "Furry?" Nickolai replied. "Furry!"
"It's... It's in here, Nickolai. It's in the room with me."
"What? What is?"
"The metal anomaly. It's glowing, with a bluish-white light. It doesn't appear hostile."
"Should I come there?"
"No, no," she replied. "I don't think it's dangerous. It looks like it's examining me. It has a bright spot in the centerline that's like a sensor, scanning. It's coming closer... It's...." A sound Nickolai had never heard before came over the radio, and it took him nearly two seconds to recognize static. Then the digital circuits took over and chopped out the erroneous data, and the radio went silent. "Furry? Gorm? Answer me!"
Silence answered his plea. Growling, he threw the camera and the radio back into his pockets and started making his way down the tunnelway again. "Furry? Furry?"
"Nickolai?" Her voice came from up the other tube. "Are you there?"
"Yeah, I'm here! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. I just don't have any light. Are your lights working?"
"My lights are fine! What happened?" He reached the entrance room, then began making his way up the tube Furry had taken. The fit was tighter and he was having trouble navigating his way.
"It... It just looked like it was looking me over for a moment, and then it glowed a little brighter, and then everything I had on me went dead. My flashlight, the light on my watch, the radio, the binocs. I don't know what it did after that."
"Well, I still have light, and power on the camera and radio even if I can't seem to raise Gorm. You suppose it attacked him?" He reached a bend in the tunnel, and saw light ahead of him.
"I hope not," Furry replied.
Nickolai reached the source of light-- her flashlight, in her hand. "Furry..."
"Nickolai? Is that you? Why don't you have your light on?"
"I do," he said softly. "So do you. Jofuran... you're..."
She turned in the direction of his voice. "I can think for myself, Nickolai. I'm blind."
Nickolai nodded, then realized that the gesture was useless. "Are you hurt otherwise?" He pulled himself into the room.
"I don't feel hurt at all!" She flailed about helplessly and Nickolai pushed off the wall to grab her by the shoulders. She gasped, her hands closing on his arms. "Nickolai! What am I going to do?"
"You're not going to panic. You don't have permission to."
"You heard me, Jofuran Dittrich. You do not have my permission to panic. Not yet. We're nineteen kilometers, at least, from the nearest transportation that can take us home. Even now, Hyzen Station is realizing you and I are in deep trouble and is probably sending someone to our aid. There's a machine out there that, intentionally or not, blinded you and it might do the same to me. And we're both as tired as dead dogs. You can panic later."
Her mouth opened, then closed. Even if they weren't working, her eyes were still expressive. "I'm scared."
"So am I," he admitted. "I'm really scared. I'm also the only here who can see. I can't afford to panic either."
"What do we do?"
"We get some rest. We keep trying to raise Gorm. In the anteroom, the one with the latch. And we leave it open, although I'll probably throw some mosquito netting over it so we have air."
Furry nodded, once, then settled into his arms. "I love you."
"I love you too. When we get home, we'll have the docs put you back together good as new. But for now, I'll have to guide you. Come on, let's get everything back together." It was only after they has separated and Nickolai turned to pick up the rest of her equipment that had floated off did he realize just how badly he was shaking; his hands were trembling as he collected her camera and tried to put it away.
Realizing just how afraid he was only seemed to make it worse. He grasped his hands to control them from shaking. "Kolya?"
"I'm okay, Furry. Just trying to keep myself under control."
"I heard you gasp. I was worried."
"Just... getting the shakes." He tried to keep the fear out of his voice, as well, and realized that he probably wasn't succeeding. "I'll be okay."
She pushed off the wall slowly, her hands in front of her to keep from bouncing into walls. "I'm not convinced," she said, singing gently, as he caught her hands and pulled her close.
"You act... so unafraid."
"I've never been afraid of the dark, Nickolai. Before you told me I was blinded, I thought my light had just gone out. So I was doing what I normally do in the dark, cursing and wishing I had a candle." She grinned. "Do candles burn normally without gravity?"
"I don't know," Nickolai admitted. "I didn't bring any either to find out." They both chuckled softly. "We're in a real bind, Furry."
"No, it's just temporary. Either we survive or we don't, but the Pendorians will probably find us and save us. You know how they are about protecting their own."
Nickolai nodded. "You say that as if you weren't one of them."
"Sometimes I wonder if I still am. All I know is, I'm yours, Nickolai. Anything else is sort of superficial." She smiled at him, knowing he could see it. "Come on, we have to get back to the big room by the door and set up for sleep." She let him go slowly, drifting towards the edge of the room. "That exit hole is here, somewhere."
"Aren't you forgetting your gear?"
"Oh," she said, turning around slowly. "Almost forgot. Where is it?"
Nickolai shook his head, feeling a little guilty at his gratitude that she couldn't see it, then recovered her pack. "Here. Do you want it?"
"Sure," she replied. "I don't see why I still can't be a good pack animal." She reached out with one hand and found the strap floating in her direction. After a second or two of fumbling to identify the orientation of the pack, she pulled it onto her back and said, "So, now where was that exit?"
"This way," Nickolai said, taking her hand and leading her. "You first."
"Why me first?"
"Because if I left you behind, you'd have to reach for my feet by feel. This way, I can at least watch you where you're going."
"Oh. Makes sense." She grabbed the lip of the tunnel and pulled herself down the long passageway towards the 'bottom' of the structure. "I'm at the end," she announced a minute later.
"Okay, comin' through," Nickolai replied. He stepped out a moment later and floated free. "Now, we need to net the door, set up bedding, eat rations, and get some sleep. The net first." He reached for her hand a placed the radio into it. "You keep trying to raise Gorm, but I think the gradios are dead." With one hand, he pulled the door open and jammed a small piton, normally used to secure gear to the trees, into the mechanism. The door stayed open when he released the handle. He spread netting across the opening and tacked it into place; after many months of zero-g living, with only short medical breaks in the gravity rooms, he had long ago gotten used to the necessities of tacked-down webbing. He also did the same with some very loose netting, setting up a square in the center of the room; this was to keep them from bumping their heads against the walls in case they floated out of their sleeping bags in the night. Most people didn't use the sleeping bags at all, but floated in a sleeping net naked.
Furry, meanwhile, had managed to scatter a goodly amount of her pack across the room while undoing her bedroll. "Furry," Nickolai sighed, "please stop. You don't need to prove to me how capable you are, and I love you enough as it is. You've managed to throw your equipment everywhere because you can't see it floating away. Let me."
"I don't want to be helpless!" she cried. "I don't want to..."
"That's what I'm here for, Furry, to help you in case you get hurt. Please don't fight that."
"But, but... Nickolai..."
"We need to get some sleep, Furry. That's first. Then, in about eight hours, we need to head back to Gorm, on tether. Do you follow me?" He looked into her eyes; they looked completely undamaged. Except that they had a disconcerting tendency not to go exactly in the same direction, as if, without the self-correcting information of vision, they were now moving independently. He shook his head and took her hand. "Here's your sleeping bag."
"Nickolai? Can we put our bags together?"
Nickolai scratched at his chin again; he hadn't shaved since leaving the station yesterday and already his face was beginning to itch. "I actually don't know if they do go together."
"I can't imagine my people not building combinable sleeping bags," Furry laughed. "Go take a look."
Nickolai confirmed her opinion of Pendorians, discovering that the sleeping bags did indeed go together. He fumbled with the simple, mechanical zippers for a few moments and the bags were together. She took off her clothing, accepting his help in stowing it away in their gear bag. "Should we make watches?" she asked.
"Do you think it'll help?"
"Probably not," she sighed. "I just trying to make us as safe as possible."
"There's nothing we can do but wait until tomorrow, and get out of here." He slid into the bag next to her. "It's so weird, so dark out there." She shivered, and he pulled her close; not having gravity, that was easy. "I'm sorry."
"I want my vision back," she whispered against his chest. Her warm breath, familiar against his skin, felt wonderful.
"And I want you to have it back. You will, when we get home."
She nodded. They held each other; in the heat of the Hyzen Forest, though, they couldn't hold one another for long before the temperature between them grew too high, and they separated.
Nickolai tried to sleep. His eyes felt heavy, his legs like lead, but unconsciousness seemed to be just slightly out of reach. He felt exhausted, but he couldn't fall asleep. Part of what was keeping his awake, he thought, was Jofuran's tossing. But then, her tossing was a symptom of her inability to fall asleep, too. "Furry?" he asked, sliding a hand around her waist.
He felt her move, and wondered if she had shaken her head or not. "I just can't seem to. It's... I don't know. Nervousness." She sighed.
He slid he hand along her chest and cupped one of her small breasts in his hand, finding the tiny nipple and tickling it with a fingernail. He had discovered that she liked that, and he got the soft moan he had hoped for. "Nickolai, don't do that."
"It'll take your mind off your problem. And it'll make you feel more tired."
"Nickolai!" she replied. "How could you think of making love when I'm... I'm..."
"Blind? So am I at the moment. There's no light in here, Furry. You can see as well as I can." His hand caressed her body gently, the other one coming around her other side to touch her belly. With his front pressed to her back, their favorite sleeping position when in gravity and one they adopted even without it, he could feel his cock growing in size and pressing between her thighs. He found it strange that his erections stuck straight out even without gravity; he had assumed that it would float up against his belly like other men's.
Furry gasped softly. "You're so... convincing." Her body shivered gently against his arms. He took her shoulders and slowly turned her around, finding her face in the dark and kissing her soft muzzle. She opened her mouth and accepted his tongue into her mouth, sliding her own against his, tasking him. She giggled. "You taste like granola."
"It's all I've been eating all day. You taste like it, too."
She moaned her reply as his hands slid up between her thighs, finding her cunt and cupping it with his hand. Then she found words. "I love you, Nickolai."
He slid down into the sleeping bag, then realized he wasn't going to be able to breathe. He slowly pushed her out of the bag until they hung within the sleeping net, floating gently. He had no idea what direction they were pointed or where the door was or even where the sleeping bag had floated off to, and he didn't care. "Furry?"
"I'm here, Nickolai," she giggled. "It's not as if I've vanished and left my cunt behind in your grasp."
He kissed her shoulder softly, then floated downwards until his mouth was a few cents from the hand cupping her mons. He slid the hand away, one finger caressing down into the trough of her vagina, dipping into the wetness oozing from her. He smiled; she was soaking. He pulled his hand to his mouth, licking his fingers clean before pulling her close and pressing his mouth against the top of her furry mound. She moaned loudly as his tongue slid deeper into that furrow. He felt her leg muscles tense up at the same time he felt a familiar fold of her flesh slid under her tongue, and he knew he had found the hood of her clitoris. "Not bad for being blind," he said.
"What's that?" she gasped gently as he did it again.
"I found your clit in the dark," he replied. "I know guys who can't find it with klieg lamps and a magnifying glass. And you don't taste like granola here."
She giggled, then moaned again as he interrupted her with another lick. "Oh, Nickolai, you're so silly."
"I'm trying," he said, then opened his mouth to cover as much of her cunt as he could.
"You're very trying. Now lick me!"
Nickolai grinned. To keep her from floating away, he grasped the base of her tail. "Does it hurt when I do that?"
"No!" she moaned. "Feels good."
"Then I'll do it some more." He tightened his grip slightly as he licked the sweet flesh of her cunt. Furry spread her legs wide, adding slight tension to them. The musky flavor of her juices flowed over his tongue with every downstoke that ended within her opening. He slid first one, then two fingers into her, and her whole torso twisted as she came.
Nickolai took that to be a good sign and slowly moved away from her cunt. "Feel better?" he asked.
"Much," she sighed, her voice echoing slightly. "How about you?"
"What about me?"
"I think you need something to sleep, too." She flexed her legs slightly, closing them about his torso until her hands found his shoulders, something she could hold onto. She kissed his belly, which tickled him enough that he moaned in gentle complaint, then slid down further until he felt the breath from her nostrils streaming over his balls. "It's got to be here somewhere," she said as her hands found the root of his cock and she guided it to her mouth. Nickolai felt her wondrous wet mouth surround the head of his cock, her tongue going around it in slow, lazy circles, before she had taken the entire length of it into her mouth. "Yff, mfff btttf," she mumbled. Nickolai didn't even try to interpret what she had said; he was too busy enjoying the solid, wonderful feeling of her mouth sucking on his cock.
She slid her head back and forth, creating suction on his cock with every pull away from it, pulling along the skin with her surprisingly strong lips. He moaned gently as he reached closer and closer to his climax, holding his legs slightly apart and pulling the muscles in his thighs tighter, just as she had, upping the tension in his body.
Furry increased the tempo only slightly, sucking with strong, steady rhythm, and he could feel the waves of pleasure cresting over him, one after another, each one almost an orgasm, until finally one reached up into his head and he exploded, crying out as his cock throbbed and jetted come into her mouth. She sucked on his cock until he finally stopped coming, her tongue giving it one last, intense pass to clean up the last traces of semen that might have spilled, until she finally let go. "Are you tired now?"
"Very," Nickolai agreed.
"Then let's get some sleep."
Nickolai heard something, but through the haze of sleep he couldn't really make it out. It sounded extremely familiar, but his mind just did not want to process it right at that moment.
The noise would not be ignored and grew louder. Finally he opened his eyes and listened. "...gokai come in. Nickolai or Jofuran Shigokai, please answer. Do you read me? I know you're still alive; I'm getting vital signs from your implants. Can you hear me?"
Nickolai scrambled for the radio. "Gorm! Right here, Gorm. God, I'm glad to your voice!"
"Good to hear yours, too. Nickolai, there's a monstrous storm heading your way. Appeared out of nowhere. It's damn near right on top of you. Take cover; I repeat, take cover. The Forest you're in is about to turn into toothpicks."
"You're serious?" He snapped on a flashlight. Furry raised her head as if to see, then cursed.
"Deadly serious!" There was a pause, and another voice took over. "Nickolai and Jofuran, this is Kurtisan Brawer. Do you hear me?"
Nickolai recognized the overall commander of Hyzen Station. "Commander Brawer? Yeah, we hear you! We have a serious problem."
"Other than the storm?"
"Yes, sir. Jofuran's been blinded by an alien machine."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "I see. What happened to the machine?"
"I don't know, sir. We were in different rooms of an alien residence when it approached her. It took no apparently hostile action, but after it left Jofuran found herself unable to see. At first she assumed the machine had broken her light sources, but, well, she can't see my flashlight either."
"That is serious," Brawer replied. "We sent out a rescue mission to catch up to you, but they can't go much faster then the current mach seven they're doing now, and they're still several hours away. In less than an hour, however, that whole region is going to be ground into powder. Do you have a disintegration pommel with you?"
"Yes sir," Nickolai replied. "We do."
"Find the biggest, thickest tree you can find. Make a hole in it just barely big enough for you two to fit into, and then inside drill out a cave..."
"Sir, some of the passageways in this building would be perfect for that if we stuffed them with sleeping bags."
"Then do that," Brawer replied. "If you can stay with the artifact, more the better. Take whatever precautions you can. It's up to you, Nickolai, regarding Jofuran's condition."
"How long do we have?"
"As I said, less than an hour. Get to work."
"Yes, sir." He closed the radio. "Furry?"
"I don't hear anything," she said. "If there's a storm out there..."
"It's coming very fast," Nickolai agreed. He disassembled the sleeping net rapidly, rebuilding it into the hallway Furry had first taken. He stuffed their miscellaneous gear into that room. "If it comes down that tunnel and the net doesn't stop it, it could be dangerous. But that's unlikely; the tunnel has two twists. I want to put it there so our equipment doesn't damage the bas reliefs in the other room. We're going to gather up in the other tunnel; it's wide enough for both of us side-by-side. I'm going to nail our sleeping bags down, separately, and we're going to ride out the storm in that."
He worked quickly. Jofuran talked on the radio to Gorm, who reported that he was getting a long way away from the oncoming hurricane. She gave as much of a debriefing as she could of their current situation, including everything that she knew had happened so far. Since she hadn't seen the bas reliefs, she couldn't tell Gorm much other than that Nickolai had seen them.
"Come on, Furry," he said. "Time to climb in."
"Wait..." she said. "I hear it."
Nickolai paused to listen. Outside the open hatchway the wind began to whisper by; in comparison the to earlier stillness of the forest, the presence of wind sent shivers coursing down Nickolai's spine. "Eerie," he said. In the abyssal darkness of this Forest, no wind had existed for centuries. Out of place in the stillness, it heralded an end.
Nickolai helped her into her sleeping bag, then returned to close the wooden "treehouse" door. If the storm held much water, and it likely did, the chances of them drowning in a haze of airborne water particles was great; it was better if the door was shut, although they would have to be concerned with air later on. The wind outside was growing, almost instantly reaching a howling, storming roar even as Nickolai pulled his piton free. The door slammed shut and Nickolai raced back to the sleeping bag, pulling the drawstring shut even as the "treehouse" started to shake. "Whoa!"
The growling storm outside their cover grew louder. Other than the roaring of the wind and the jerking and shuddering of their shelter there was nothing to indicate what was happening outside, and Nickolai suddenly appreciated just how much he missed gravity.
The tunnel was just tight enough for the two of them to lay side-by-side, and she reached out and gripped him tightly. "I'm scared."
"So am I," Nickolai agreed. "I hope they hurry up and get here."
"Me too. Gorm?"
"Still here, Nickolai. I am watching you. S-and-R is still in transit and is unlikely to brave the storm."
The treehouse shuddered wildly, then began to spin end-over- end. They felt hard acceleration and realized that the treehouse was no longer wedged amongst the trees; everything had torn loose and they were now airborne. Nickolai silently prayed that the storm didn't smash them against another tree or the ground and dash them and their shelter into a million tiny splinters.
"Hold on!" Furry advised. "This can't last forever!"
It felt like forever. Dull thuds of impact struck the walls of the treehouse, each one causing them spin in a new direction. Nickolai felt ill to his stomach, and the look on Furry's face told him that she was doing no better.
Eventually, the sound of the wind diminished into silence, the impacts ceased, and finally the tree's spinning slowed in the wind resistance. It stopped. "Thank God," Nickolai gasped. "I'm bruised."
"Me, too," Furry moaned. "Fah, that hurt."
"Where are we?"
Furry shook her head. "Probably a hundred klicks from wherever this thing started from." She slid out of her sleeping bag. "I'm going outside to see what's up."
"You can't see, remember?"
She turned her head towards him, her jaw open, her face held in insufferable pain. "Damn," she swore, striking the wall of the narrow tunnel with her small fist. "Dammit! I... I forgot. I... I want this to be over!"
"It will be," he said, grabbing her shoulders and holding her. "Very soon. Gorm and the S-and-R team are on their way."
She nodded. "You go, then. Tell me what you see."
He released the drawstring on his sleeping bag and slid down the tunnel. His body felt like a mass of bruises, but a quick assessment told him that nothing was broken. At least, nothing apparent was broken. He moved to the door and turned the latch. It stuck slightly, but a swift kick and it opened outwards. Cool, outside air rushed at him, and he inhaled deeply. "Air!" he sighed. "Oh, that's good."
"Do you have a tether?" Furry asked. "Do you have your fans?"
"Fans yes, Tether no," Nickolai said. "You want me to get you a tether, too?"
"Please," she said. "Even if I can't see, I want to be outside of this... thing."
"This 'thing' is probably going to turn out to be one of the greatest archeological finds of this century. But I know what you mean." Nickolai retrieved their hardware from the room where he had stowed it, returning with their packs. He mounted four pitons to the wall and strung rope through one and then secured it to another with a toothed cleat. He attached one coil of tether to his belt, then the other to Furry's. "There," he said. "You're all ready to go out."
They both eased themselves through the wide opening, Furry inhaling in deep breaths much the same way Nickolai had when he had first opened the door. "I can feel the sun on my face," she sighed. "At least I know which way is up. What's the day like?"
"It's beautifully clear," he said, looking at her. "Furry, put your sunglasses on. And set them to full active. If you can't see, you won't know when to blink and you could end up doing worse damage to your eyes by staring into the sun." Nickolai helped her put them on, then dug out his binoculars. "There are a lot of trees around us, you know. Are we safe from them?"
"I don't know," Furry admitted. "I guess we are, but I really don't know."
Nickolai noticed he was still orienting himself in the same direction she was, but he supposed that was just part of their nature. "Anyway, it looks like were at least a dozen klicks from the surface. That storm really shot us up, although I can't see it anywhere. And I think we're still ascending. I'm never going to get used to this place." He dug out his communicator. "Gorm? How long before someone finds us?"
"I'm your nearest vehicle, although this AMV is slower than anything search and rescue is flying. I'm afraid rescue is approximately eight hours away."
Nickolai sighed and looked at his watch. "We got all of three hours sleep. After that, I'm exhausted."
"Me, too," Furry admitted. "Should we get some sleep?"
"Inside," Nickolai said.
"But leave the door part way open, so we get some air," Furry said. She sighed and spread her arms wide, stretching. "It feels good to be alive."
A loud "THUNK" awoke Nickolai several hours later. He looked across to see Furry awake as well. "What was that?"
"I don't know," she replied. "Go take a look."
He nodded and made his way down the tunnel. "It's another tree," he sighed. "Not the rescue team." He looked at his watch. "We're still two hours from rescue."
She nodded. "Well, I'm awake now."
"Me, too." He said. "I'll be back in a minute." He made his way out to the other side of the tree and relieved his screaming bladder.
As he zipped himself up, Furry joined him. She grinned sheepishly. "I have to relieve myself, too, you know."
"Sorry," he blushed, turning his head after telling her she was aimed in the right direction. "That must be really embarrassing in zero-g."
"More than you can imagine."
"It gave me a great view, though."
Furry blushed. "Lecher." After she wiped herself clean, she reached to pull her zipper shut, but with an easy flick of his fans Nickolai floated towards her and grabbed her wrists. "Wait," he said.
He pushed her legs apart, exposing her lovely pink cunt to his eyes, and licked at her playfully. "Ohhh, Kolya. You're impossible."
He played with her inner labia gently, kissing and licking at them with his agile tongue, probing between her lips, kissing at her. The tangy taste of her urine still gripped her pubic hair in hints, but that didn't bother him. He could taste her excitement. The sunlight was part of it, too, for Furry loved to make love in the sun. He wished she could see it.
In that bright light, he could see her flesh glistening when he pulled away far enough to see at all. Her clit was still hiding beneath its hood, but he knew her well enough to recognize its cycle of excitement. It would come out. He flicked his tongue over it playfully and she moaned louder, her hands grabbing him by the head and holding him in place. "If you're going to do that, Nickolai, don't tease me!"
He pressed his mouth against her cunny and flicked his tongue across her clit. She gasped as he tasted her, made love to her cunt with his mouth, pressed his teeth to her flesh gently to pull her clitoral hood up and present her small white nub of flesh to his tongue. He flicked his tongue over her clit rapidly, and she twisted and groaned under his touch. "Kolya...ahhh!"
He smiled, reaching down with a free hand to open his own shorts and pull out his painfully hard erection, then grasped her by the harness and pulled her towards him, his cock aimed at her cunt. "Yes," she gasped. "Please, Kolya."
He smiled as he pressed into her, looking down at the purple head of his cock pressing into her, watching as her lips grasped his cock and pulled him inwards. Slowly he moved into her until they were joined together.
Her hands reached up and grasped his harness as he held hers. Even blind, she knew the layout of his body better, perhaps, than she knew her own. "You know how difficult this is," she whispered.
"I bet we could make these harnesses a necessity." He pulled out slightly, then slid back in. "They seem to help a lot."
"Yeah," she grinned as she shoved back, thrusting him deeper into her.
They made love slowly, hovering there in the gravity-less mid-air between heaven and earth, attached to their shelter by long strands of thin nylon rope. Neither had much strength; both were weakened from the previous day's exertion and lack of sleep. But they still found time to touch one another; Nickolai caressed Furry's chest and she explored his face with her fingertips. "I never really appreciated the shapes, the valleys of your eyes and the curves of your soft, human cheeks, until I lost my sight. Kolya, I love you," she whispered.
Nickolai closed his hands on her hips. "I love you too." He pushed a little more forcefully. "I think I'm close."
"Come inside me, then?" she smiled. "I'd like that."
He nodded as they made love, slowly reaching out for that last little moment as he finally climaxed within her.
She pulled him close and held him. "We should have slept outside."
"Too bright," he sighed. "I prefer the darkness for sleeping, but the light for love."
She nodded. "The warmth is what I wanted."
"That's what I'm for," Nickolai replied brightly.
They hovered like that for a while, holding each other. "Ahem."
The sound came from somewhere behind Nickolai. Furry gasped. Nickolai turned around. "It's the AMV!"
"And your trusty AI, Gorm," the AMV replied. "You would have to leave my remote inside the artifact."
"It's in my jacket, isn't it?" Nickolai asked.
"Yes," the AI replied. "Now, the S-and-R team is only an hour away, and if you don't want them to find you both in flagrant delicious-o, I recommend you get dressed and ready to go."
Separating reluctantly, they both took hold of their tethers and pulled themselves back into the treehouse and gathered their gear. Nickolai left his communicator inside the room of bas- reliefs as a transponder to find later, and then he led Furry back to the AMV.
Once inside with their cameras and equipment, Nickolai took the pilot's seat, consulted the data charts for the way back to the S- and-R team, and gunned the engine to full strength. He looked back; Furry was clutching her newfound doll close to her chest. "You found something," he said to her.
"You found something," he repeated. "You're the first, Furry. We went through a Hyzen Hurricane and came out the other side. And you'll get your sight back soon enough. That's something to be proud of, sweetheart."
"I'm just... tired right now." A tear stained the fur beneath her eyes. "I love you, Kolya."
He didn't know what to say to that, so he said nothing. Instead, he put the AMV on autopilot, sat down beside her, and held her close.