Melbourne drove an ancient truck, rusted through and held together in places with bailing wire and twine. Bryce followed close behind him, and the cyborg and young man tailed them in a makeshift contraption of pipes and cogs that resembled a DIY dune buggy. They followed the turnpike for half a mile, then cut into the huge cavern with its forest of glowing mushrooms. The road through the forest was bumpy and narrow, and they made slow progress.
"What if this guy is worse than the goons at the restaurant?" Eddie said.
Bryce shrugged. "I don't know. He's got an honest face. That's something."
"He's also big enough to squash us both with his fists if he wants to. And that cyborg lady... it looked like Sefoni was afraid of her."
"Then let's be glad she's on our side."
"What side? Why should we take anyone's side down here? We should get out of here."
Bryce glanced at him. "Something tells me we won't be going anywhere if we don't have friends."
The mushroom forest opened into a wide open space in a corner of the cavern. Along the craggy cave wall sat a house and a huge barn. Lanterns lined the perimeter of the grounds, and a herd of mopes stood grazing on mushrooms in the pale light.
Their procession stopped in front of the house. Melbourne stood on the front steps, and Bryce, Eddie and Kai got out and stood below him.
"I'm guessing you didn't get a proper meal at Sefoni's. Come inside."
They sat at a long table in the dining room. Gurg servants laid the table with plates and silverware. They brought out platters loaded with leafy purple salad, meat, and other less familiar delicacies.
"You're the first outsiders to come into the turnpike in close to a hundred years," Melbourne said as he buttered a roll.
"So we keep hearing," Bryce said. "The world up there has changed."
"It would have had to. I went topside about twenty years ago—part of a scouting mission. We all wore hazmat suits of course. We took a weasel outside in a cage. It was dead in ten minutes. There were no plants, no animals. Only decaying cities and a scorched sky. I can't believe how bright the sun was up there. It was like a fiery dry hell."
"What happened to everything?" Bryce asked.
"You mean you don't know?"
Eddie swallowed his mouthful and said, "Have you noticed any changes around three weeks ago?"
The young man who'd been part of their rescue party said, "Of course we did. There's a whole new cavern down by the south pasture. We haven't explored it all yet, but it looks like we've got enough grazing land to feed thousands of mopes for generations. There's that, and we got internet. We'd had our own net running through the turnpike, but now we're reaching places we've never heard of."
"That change is what we call the Mishmash Event," Bryce said. "Everything is different now. It's like whole different worlds have come together into one. We've traveled more than a thousand miles on the surface, and we haven't been poisoned in all this time."
"We got the muskrat pox," Eddie chimed in.
"Yeah, that. But that wasn't fatal." He turned to Melbourne. "What happened to the surface in your... history?"
Melbourne frowned, his eyes growing distant. "The wars happened. One war after another. Biological weapons, nuclear weapons, toxic weapons. Everything that kills. No one remembers who started it or why. We only know that there's nothing left out there. Or at least that's how it was before."
They were all silent.
"Can you reach Graden over the internet?" Eddie asked.
"I've seen the name," the young man said. "But I don't know their language."
"Do you?" Melbourne asked Eddie.
"I've heard it and understood it. I could speak to them."
"And you say they're near here?"
Eddie shrugged. "They were east of us when we entered the turnpike. I don't know if we've passed it or not. We haven't found a way out of the turnpike since we got in here."
"That was about a hundred and fifty miles back," Bryce added.
Melbourne nodded. "We can show you a way out. There's an off ramp not far from here, but it's hidden. Most of them are."
"To keep folks down here safe. The off ramps have been our greatest danger. Young folks want to go out and explore. It's hard for them to accept that there's a whole world out there that they can't ever see. Except, now they can."
Bryce shook his head. "No, I mean, why would you help us? It sounds like you're putting yourselves in danger. I don't know who this Barlow guy is, but he sounds like one bad dude."
"Barlow is dangerous, but he can't touch me here. My lands are well protected. And as I'm the local head of the Rancher's Guild, he'd be making a lot of enemies if he attacked me. They need us here in the turnpike. We don't need him."
Melbourne pressed his hands together and stared at his fingertips. "But once you leave this ranch, he'll have no trouble ambushing you. He's got eyes everywhere, and he will be watching carefully, now he knows there's outsiders here."
"Why would he want us?" Eddie asked.
Melbourn turned to him. "Because you represent a whole world he doesn't understand. Barlow has an insatiable hunger to know everything, to understand how it all fits together, how it works. He's gathered a legion of the scavengers and scum of the turnpike so he can keep eyes and ears on everything that happens down here."
"So he wants to interrogate us?"
The young man laughed. "He'll interrogate you, all right. First he'll ask questions. Then he'll torture you and ask more questions in case you weren't being honest the first time. Then, when he's convinced you have nothing more to say, he'll take tissue samples. If he's feeling generous, he might kill you before he does it."
"Syd's right," Melbourne said. "Barlow won't let you leave alive, no matter what."
"You never answered my question," Bryce said. "Why are you helping us?"
Melbourne leaned forward. "I need contact with people outside. You're going to Graden? Good. You speak their language? Even better. I need someone to help me negotiate."
"Business, of course. I'm a rancher. I've got more mopes than I need. I could feed a city with the meat we produce. And now, it seems there's a city out there who might need it. The world's changed, you say? That means new connections need to be made, new arrangements. Now that there are new caverns to expand into, I could be the biggest supplier of meat for hundreds of miles. But I need to take the first steps, and that's where you can help me."