Bryce, Melbourne, and the young man, Melbourne's son Syd, did most of the talking. As they negotiated, gurg servants cleared plates and bowls, brought out dessert, and generally kept the party going.
Eddie sat next to Kai, who prodded at her meal and played with her silverware. Next to her sat the cyborg woman, Phyllis. Eddie leaned toward her and asked, "Who are these little men?"
"You don't have gurgs where you come from?"
"They're familiar," he said. "But my memory is spotty."
"They're just the gurgs. They're not all men. That one there is a woman."
"How can you tell?"
"Her comb is shorter."
"Ah. And they just... do what you tell them to?"
"That's how it is. They show up and do whatever you say."
"So they're slaves?"
"Not at all. They come and go as they please. If you try forcing them to a place they don't want to go, they'll leave. If you tell them to do something they don't want to do, they won't do it, and no amount of coercion can force them to act. But they'll do a lot, and they seem to like it."
Meanwhile, Melbourne, Sid and Bryce discussed arrangements for getting out of the turnpike. "I'd like to get a little sleep before we go," Bryce said.
"No time," Syd said. "We've taken too long discussing this already. As we speak, Barlow's getting his network ready for you. They'll be guarding every pass. We need to act before they shut down the whole turnpike."
The meal ended soon after, and Bryce continued discussing arrangements with Melbourne and Syd as they headed outside. Eddie led Kai out, who rubbed her face groggily with the back of her hand.
Her face lit up when she spotted a mope grazing a few feet from their car. Kai drew her hand out of Eddies and ran to the beast. The mope watched her and didn't flinch away when she wrapped her arms around its neck. It made a low cow-like noise. Kai laughed out loud and mimicked the creature. This drew the attention of other mopes, who converged on the spot, watching the little girl as she danced and 'moo'ed and pulled mushrooms from the ground to feed them.
"That kid's got a way with animals," Phyllis said as she carried a crate of provisions to the dune buggy.
"I guess she does," Eddie said.
"I've never seen mopes approach a human before. The best you can hope for is indifference."
At the dune buggy, Melbourne explained the plan. "Syd will be my representative," he said. "He and Phyllis will guide you, along with Pip." He nodded at a lanky toad man who loaded supplies on the dune buggy. "Pip's got a sharp eye and is handy in a fight. You'll have a couple gurgs along for the ride in case you need extra hands. They'll take you by a secret road. There's a hidden pass up the cavern a way, and if you get through it, you'll come out on the turnpike within a hundred yards of an off-ramp."
"Thanks for all your help, sir," Bryce said.
Melbourne tapped the side of Bryce's door. "I'll be thanking you when we start business with the outside. If things go well, we could be rich."
"I like the sound of that," Bryce said.
"You should. Now stay close to Phyllis. She's a one-woman army. If you get lost, come back here. And don't lose the road. There are worse things than Barlow in the caverns. Much worse."
"Like what?" Eddie asked.
"Like 'Her Infernal Majesty'," Syd said as he carried an ammo box to the dune buggy.
Melbourne shook his head. "Don't worry about it. As long as you stay with Phyllis, you'll be fine."
Melbourne waved as the two vehicles left his drive and cut across the grazing land. Phyllis drove the dune buggy, weaving through a labyrinth of mopes and tree-sized mushrooms.
in the convertible, a gurg sat atop the drink cooler, its hands clasped together in its lap, staring out at the passing landscape. Eddie turned to it. "So, what's your name?"
The gurg turned and stared at him, its face frozen in its permanent bemused expression. It said nothing.
"Can you talk?"
It blinked, its eyelids making a wet squelching sound as they moved.
When their staring contest became uncomfortable, Eddie turned to Kai. "How you doing? Okay?"
Kai had been staring out at the glowing mushroom forest. She gave him an absent thumbs up. Then a few giant bats fluttering high above caught her attention. "Dog birds," she exclaimed.
The gurg noticed them too. It jumped off the cooler onto the car floor and ducked, its hands over its head.
"Don't like the bats, eh?" Eddie said.
As the bats disappeared in the distance, the gurg jumped back onto the cooler and stared ahead as if nothing had happened.
When they reached the mushroom forest, Phyllis took a sharp turn around a boulder. A narrow road lay beyond it, the mushrooms curved inward over it to form a glowing tunnel. Bryce followed her in. The mushrooms lay so thick around them, they couldn't see more than a few feet into the tangled glowing vegetation.
They traveled within the tunnel for more than an hour. Eddie slept much of that time, and when they stopped in a clearing to stretch their legs, Eddie took over the driving.
Before leaving, Phyllis strolled back to them. "We'll be coming up on a gurg shrine in the next mile. You want to stay close to the shrooms there. Don't go driving out into the open. They won't like it."
"What will they do if I get too close?"
Phyllis glanced at the gurg in the back seat. "Just keep close."
They entered the outskirts of the gurg shrine a few minutes later. It was a wide area that hugged the edge of the cavern. The rock walls featured a series of elaborate jagged relief carvings. Huge glowing mushrooms stretched up and curved over the shrine, creating a dome of light. Gurgs holding spears stood at attention in groups around a statue at the shrine's center. The statue was a tall, robed human figure. A hood obscured the man's face. In one hand, he held a sphere that resembled the earth. In the other hand, he held a rat.
Bryce dozed in the front seat. Eddie nudged him. "Bryce, you've got to see this."
Bryce turned sleepily towards the shrine. He sat up straight. "Holy shit. That's..."
"I know," said Eddie.
The armed gurgs watched as the vehicles passed, their faces expressionless but their postures tensed. Eddie hunched over the wheel, keeping the car inches from the back of the dune buggy.
They followed the path as it edged around the outside of the shrine, then plunged back into the tunnel of mushrooms.
"What do you think it means?" Eddie asked. "I mean, that statue—"
Bryce slumped back into his seat and closed his eyes. "I'm sure we'll figure it out later. Let me sleep on it."
The tunnel wound on for miles. Eventually the forest of mushrooms grew sparser, and the gap widened as it climbed a steep rocky incline. Ahead, a row of natural columns separated one cavern from to the next. Pip, the toad man, leaped from the back of the dune buggy and landed lightly on Bryce's front hood. Eddie stared up at him, eyes wide.
"The pass is ahead," Pip said in a hush, leaning over the windshield. "Turn your headlights off. Stay close and be ready for trouble. If they're going to ambush us, this would be the place." He didn't wait for a reply, leaping up and soaring back to the buggy.
Bryce's eyes flickered open. "What?"
"Um," Eddie said. "There might be trouble ahead."
Their path led through a narrow gap between two columns. Pip stood on top of the rollbar of the buggy, his head swiveling, looking for threats. Phyllis pulled the jeep to the crest of the hill between the columns and stopped. They waited. The only sound was the idle chug of engines and the ghostly whisper of the chasm.
After a minute, Pip said, "All clear." They inched forward into the darkness of the far cavern. They had proceeded only a few feet when a shape descended from the distant ceiling, caught Pip under the arms and hoisted him into the darkness above. Phyllis spun around in her seat as another figure snatched Syd and lifted him away.
"No!" Phyllis screamed. She pulled a pistol and a flashlight and searched the darkness above.
"We've got your little prince," said a menacing voice from the darkness.
Phyllis shouted back at Eddie. "Get out of here, now!"
Eddie threw the car in reverse. He turned his head to retreat in time to see a spindly figure catch Kai by the arms and hoist her up into the darkness above. She screamed as she disappeared. "Eddie!"
"Kai," he shouted back. He threw the car in park and jumped up on his seat to catch her, much too late.
An explosion of brilliant light blinded him—spotlights suspended from the columns. He sensed movement all around. They were in a small cavern with a high ceiling lost in shadows. Tunnels wound in every direction, and when Eddie could see again, he found the two vehicles surrounded by spidery man-creatures and an army of gurgs bearing pistols.
Phyllis leapt from her seat, her right hand turning and extending, blades extending from each finger. Her hand spun like a buzzsaw blade. She cut down one of the spider creatures while shooting another with her left hand. She kicked an armed gurg down, then screamed and lunged into a crowd of foes.
"Stop!" a voice ordered. A man stood in the tunnel, his eyes and nose obscured by a wicked looking mask. He held Syd by the neck, a pistol pressed at the young man's temple. "Stop or I kill your precious prince."
Phyllis glared up at him. "I could kill you before your finger so much as twitches, Barlow."
Barlow smiled. "Perhaps, but if I don't kill this boy, there are five other guns aimed at him. You can't stop us all."
"You hurt him, and you'll have the Rancher's Guild to answer to. They won't stand for you killing their leader's son."
"If no one leaves here alive, no one will know."
Phyllis lowered her pistol. "What do you want?"
Barlow's grin grew wicked. "What I always want, cyborg. I want respect. And I want to know what your new friends know."
"You can't have them."
Barlow pressed the gun into Syd's neck. "I can have anything I want, because I'm smarter and craftier than you. Now, introduce me to your friends."