The light blinded. It stung her snow-white skin. She retreated into the shadow of the turnpike tunnel and shaded her eyes.
"Why's it so bright, Miss Sefoni? Is it poisoned? It ain't supposed to be poison no more they said."
Sefoni lowered her hand. Her eyes would adjust in time. She was human after all, and humans came from the surface world.
"It's the sun, you fool," Sefoni said, scanning the endless barren terrain outside the tunnel. Twisted weeds grew in clumps in the dry earth. Hills rose and fell in the distance. It may not have been poison, but the outside world looked impossibly uninviting. How did humanity survive this hostile emptiness?
Skeez stood beside her, shivering in spite of the sweltering air. He reached out from the line of shadow and allowed the sunlight to kiss his fingertips. "It's so warm. Ain't natural, I says."
"It's the sun, Skeez. It's as natural as it gets. And it will be around for the rest of your life."
"I don't know, Miss Sef. Mayhaps we can get back down in the tunnel and find a district where the folks doesn't know abouts us."
"They'll find us eventually. Barlow isn't around to protect us anymore. The only place we can get a fresh start is out there."
Her squinted eyes landed on a cubical structure fifty yards away beside the road. She'd almost mistaken it for a shadow under the blistering sun.
"Where do we go, Miss Sef?"
Sefoni pointed. "We'll start by investigating that."
Despite her bold words, she was reluctant to step out into the surface world. She was glad for a target so close to the entrance to the turnpike. If things got dangerous, she could always retreat into the shadows. She took her first tentative steps into the world, the heat of the baked road radiating up over her ankles.
As they neared the boxy structure, a head emerged from an open window. His face shriveled and old, a black top hat on his head, he looked both amused and surprised.
Skeez yelped when he saw the man. Rather than retreating, he rushed forward and pulled the pistol from the back of his waistband.
"Skeez," Sefoni barked.
Skeez stopped in front of the little structure, squared his shoulders and aimed his pistol. "All right, you shriveled old prune! Give us your money."
The old man stared down, astonished. His eyes didn't leave the pistol. "I... I... ah..."
Sefoni placed her hand on Skeez's arm and eased it down. "No need for that, Skeez. We're here to make friends, not victims."
"But Miss Sef, I'm a-hungry."
"So why not ask politely for a morsel of food? If you take his money, where do you intend to spend it?"
She turned her gaze up to the man. She shaded her eyes and smiled. "Forgive my associate. He's been running for his life for days now. He sees an enemy in everyone."
"Enemy's what most folks end up bein'," Skeez muttered.
The old man stared down at the two fugitives. "Uh, yes, well..."
"And forgive me for meeting you under such circumstances. I am Sefoni, former resident of Turnpike District 676."
The man in the toll both appeared to be gathering his wits. "Yes, well, that's... all right then. I'm the toll man. I assume you're here for the duck?"
"Shouldn't be long now. Can I offer you two some water?"
Skeez gasped. He lunged forward and gripped the edge of the window. "Yes, water, now!"
"What he means to say," Sefoni said, gripping Skeez's shoulder and easing him back, "Is yes, please. That would be most kind."
The man disappeared into the shadow of his booth. Sefoni gripped the Deringer in the folds of her skirt, readying for the worst. The man returned to the window with two clear plastic bottles of water. They were cold, sweating with condensation. Sefoni gulped the water down, her facade of polite courtesy dropping momentarilly. When she finished, the toll man offered her a slice of buttered bread. She thanked him and took it.
"So, how's things down in the turnpike?" the toll man asked as she ate. "It's most peculiar, but I've had only one car come through in weeks, and no road crews have been by. It's unusual, given the season. I was beginning to think the world ended and no one bothered to tell me."
"Things are... changing in the turnpike," Sefoni said. Only weeks ago, she would have assumed this man could not survive on the surface. No one could. Now here he was, expecting that life above and below were the same as ever. How was that possible?
"Changing?" the toll man repeated.
"Yes. The balance of power has shifted. And there's talk of invaders from the surface—lizard men, and a possible war."
"War? Lizard men? Sounds like nonsense. Aren't the sheriff's keeping order down there?"
Skeez snorted. "Sheriff's! Hain't been a sheriff in the nethers in dozens a' years."
The toll man looked confused. "Years? But that makes no sense. Only two months ago..."
"Much has changed everywhere, it seems. You are out of touch. You say you've seen no one in weeks?"
"None but my customers. And the duck."
"What's a duck?" Skeez asked.
The toll man blinked, his mouth a scrunched frown.
"We've... been out of touch as well," Sefoni said. "At least pertaining to things on the surface. So we'll need your help. We need to get as far from the turnpike as we can, and quickly. Can you give us direction to the nearest surface district?"
At last the man pushed his confusion aside. "Well, there isn't a town around here for a hundred miles in any direction. And like I said, I haven't had visitors. I'm afraid the nearest civilization you'll find is underground."
Sefoni shook her head. "That's unacceptable. Where do you live?"
"Me?" He nodded back towards the hills. "Got a shack over yonder."
"And you have provisions?"
The man frowned. "A little. I'm expecting a resupply truck in... why do you ask?"
"We'll take anything you have. Do you own a car?"
The man frowned again. "Madam, you are not taking my food or my car."
"We takes what we wants," Skeez said, holding up his gun.
The man pressed a button beside the window. A sheet of clear plastic slammed shut from the side. The movement so surprised Skeez that he let off a shot. It hit the plastic and ricocheted back over Sefoni's head.
"You cannot harm me," the toll man said, his voice amplified through a speaker at the right of the window. "I'm calling the police."
Sefoni scowled. "I thought there were no towns within a hundred miles."
"It'll take a while for them to get here, but they'll get here. In the meantime, I'll be safe. This booth is bulletproof."
"And what if they don't come? What if there's no one out there anymore? What if you're all alone?" Sefoni raised an eyebrow. "How long can you stay in your little booth?"
The man looked concerned. "You should run away now. I've pressed the alarm. They'll come."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"They'll catch you."
"I doubt it. I know enough to know there's as much that's changed up here as has changed underground. No one is coming." She pulled out her Deringer and turned to Skeez. "Go find his shack. Get his food and whatever vehicle he's driving."
"No," the man in the booth entreated. "Please. It's all I've got."
"Can you think of an alternative for us?"
"Everyone that's still alive in the turnpike wants us dead," Sefoni said. "We're surface dwellers now."
"You could... you could..." The toll man raised his eyes to the horizon. He looked startled. Then he smiled. "You could take the duck."
Sefoni assumed it was a trick. "Skeez, keep your eye on this man." She turned towards the horizon behind her.
A pale dot shimmered in the distance. It grew at an alarming speed.
"What is that?" she asked.
"It's the duck. Been here several times over the past few weeks. Every ten days at 3:28 PM. I assumed that's what you'd come for."
"What is this duck?"
The toll man appeared relieved that all the attention wasn't directed at him any longer. "It's not an actual duck. Don't know why it's made to look that way. But if you want to get out of here, that's your ticket."
"It's a truck?" Sefoni asked. "It's too big."
"Not a truck. Not even close. It's more like an ocean liner, except it doesn't need an ocean. You'll see soon enough."
They waited. The object was more than a hundred feet high. Its body was bird-like with flowing lines that tapered around the sides, drawn up at the front like a neck and head, a broad beak at the front. Along its sides were dozens of portal windows aligned in a grid several stories high. At the distant top, two tiers of decks extended up, lined with white railings. Where the bird's eyes might go, a huge arched window glinted in the sunlight.
The massive structure slowed, a shuddering groan thrumming across the desert as it did. As it stopped, a high pitched squeal of hydraulic brakes deafened the observers. Then all was silent, except for the whisper of distant conversations coming from somewhere at the top. A few figures on the upper decks leaned over railings to observe the two travelers beside the toll booth. A huge sign painted across the side of the vehicle's hull read Circumnavigator Seven
From the base of the duck body, a door opened, and a slanted platform slid out, reaching the ground.
"What is this?" Sefoni asked.
"It does that every ten days. Stops here and waits. The gangway will be there for exactly two minutes. Then it will retract, the door will close, and the duck will move off again, not to return for another ten days."
"Where does it go?" Skeez asked.
"I've never known. Around the world I guess."
"And they'll take us away?" Sefoni asked.
"I assume so."
She turned back to face the toll man. "This is a trick. You want to get rid of us."
The toll man nodded. "I do want to get rid of you, but I've only told you the truth."
"I don't like it," said Skeez.
"Skeez, I don't think we have a choice."
"Better hurry," the toll man said. "You've got less than a minute before it's gone."
"Are we this desperate, Miss Sef," Skeez asked.
Sefoni hesitated only a moment longer. Then she hiked up her skirts and ran. Skeez followed.
She was gasping at the dry desert air by the time she reached the bottom of the gangway. She climbed on just as a hydraulic whirr caused the structure to shudder. They were both jerked backwards as the walkway withdrew up into the enormous duck ship.
The hatchway groaned and closed behind them. For a moment, they were in darkness. Then the passage ahead lit up with electric light.
"Welcome," a mechanical voice said.