Despite the debris, the tunnel appeared to be a legitimate roadway. Unlike the pothole mess they'd left outside, the pavement here was black and undamaged. As they made their way down the curving tunnel, they found florescent lights illuminating at least part of their way. Most of them were out, but there were enough still glowing to show that this was at least once a well maintained road.
The curved tunnel continued downward for at least half a mile, leading into a much broader chasm.
"Holy crap," Eddie said.
The main tunnel was at least thirty feet high and wide enough to accommodate six lanes of traffic, along with a generous shoulder on each side. Halogen lamps hung from the ceiling, about half of them shining. The ceiling itself had a phosphorous glow.
"I'm thinking this was a good idea," Bryce said.
He stopped on the eastbound on-ramp, and they peered down the tunnels in both directions. To the west, the tunnel was straight, the lights fading down to a point that could have been twenty miles away. From that direction, the tunnel hummed with the ghost of a thousand miles of reverberated silence. Not a single pair of headlights marred the infinite emptiness. To the east, the tunnel curved out of sight, a hint of natural light mingling with the artificial. Bryce eased the car onto the main thoroughfare.
They reached the bridge across the gap a minute later. Bryce slowed as they neared it. They emerged into the stifling narrow gorge, a slanted line of sunlight hitting the iron red cliff wall far above them on the opposite side.
"There's the broken bridge," Eddie said, pointing up to the top of the gorge behind them. The distant twist of metal beams gleaming in the sunlight.
"Hoooah," Kai said.
"What's that mean?" Bryce asked.
"It means 'Wow'," Eddie translated.
Bryce glanced back at Kai and grinned. "Hooah is right."
The tunnel on the far side of the chasm was clear. Bryce gunned the engine on the perfect straightaway, hitting ninety miles an hour. The thrum of the engine echoed in the tunnel, creating a hypnotic hum. They drove that way for an hour, the tunnel never veering from its perfect eastward course.
"Do you think there will be a sign for Graden?" Eddie asked.
"Because I haven't seen a single sign since we got into this tunnel."
"Must be a whole lot of nothing out there."
"And not a single off-ramp."
"How many miles have we been in here?"
"'Bout a hundred."
"And there's been no way out. What if we needed gas?"
"Huh! We'll never need gas."
"That's not the point," Eddie said, now growing concerned. "This isn't normal. You can't have a hundred miles of road without somewhere to get off it."
"Don't worry so much."
"But what if we pass Graden? What if this road goes on another thousand miles without a way out? What if it never ends?"
Bryce frowned. "Hmm. That could be a problem. But you're missing the bright side of all this."
"We're making good time."
Another half hour passed with no change to the monotony of the tunnel. Kai leaned forward and whispered in Eddie's ear.
"What'd she say?" asked Bryce.
"We need a bathroom break."
Bryce nodded. "I agree. We'll stop at the next rest area."
"There haven't been any."
"So what do we do?"
"Looks like there's something up ahead. Wait a minute."
All Eddie could see was a curve in the road, somewhat sharper than those they'd encountered so far. Bryce slowed the car. It was much darker here, most of the lights either burned out or blinking a chaotic arrhythmia. A chunk of concrete had fallen from the ceiling here, and Bryce swerved, narrowly missing it. More debris peppered the road as they continued around the bend, and Bryce slowed to a crawl. "What a mess," he complained.
"Looks like the road crew hasn't been to this area in a while," Eddie said.
The tunnel ahead was much darker, peppered with rocks and chunks of concrete. "So much for making good time," Bryce said. He swerved around a large rock. "I'll complain to the highway department when I get into—"
A figure stepped out from behind the rock. Bryce slammed on the brakes, the tires skidding on the pavement. Kai thumped forward against the back of Eddie's seat.
In the relative silence of the idling engine, Eddie and Bryce stared at the creature that now stood before them. It was short, about three feet tall with iridescent blue skin, huge saucer eyes and an upper lip of fleshy stalactites that hung over its wide mouth. It looked like a chubby fish man. It wore ragged pants and a bronze medallion secured across its chest with chains.
The fish man held a chunk of the concrete debris. It stared up at the car, blinked, then walked off to the shoulder of the road, depositing the chunk into a wheelbarrow.
"So, is he part of the road crew?" Eddie asked.
"Looks like. You want to go ask him how far Graden is?"
"I'll check on our prisoner." Bryce jumped out of the car.
"Wait," Eddie called.
"It's dark here. He may try to attack you."
Bryce considered this. He reached between the front seats and pulled out the shock batton. "Let him try," he said.
Eddie stepped out of the car and approached the little man. The fish man paid no attention to Eddie. He fetched another chunk of concrete and hauled it to his wheelbarrow.
"Excuse me," Eddie said. "Can you tell me how far to the nearest exit?"
The little man dropped the chunk of concrete in the wheelbarrow and returned to fetch more. Eddie followed.
"It would be easier for me to speak to you if I knew your language. Usually if someone says a few words, I'll recognize what they're saying. You've got to give me something to work with."
The little man ignored him. As he picked up the next chunk of rock. Eddie picked up his own chunk of concrete and followed, dropping it into the wheelbarrow right after the little man. Eddie tried Kai's language. "Do you understand me?"
The little man went on loading the wheelbarrow. "How about now," Eddie asked in the language he'd heard on the radio from Graden. He tried the dragon rider's language "How about now?"
The little man stopped and looked up at Eddie. His face bore no expression, but perhaps he had no facial expressions.
"You understand? Good. Tell me how to get out of this tunnel. Or at least where's the nearest..."
The little man walked away, continuing to toil with his cleanup.
Meanwhile, back at the car, Bryce had begun a multi-lingual altercation with Kardhoom.
"I'll kill you," the dragon rider spat. "I'll kill you and your whole family."
"Yeah, I love you too. Now do you want to stretch your legs, or shall I keep you in that trunk for another day."
"Your mother is a whore. I'll let her watch you die. I'll cut off your head and make her drink your blood."
"Does that mean you want to stay in the trunk? I think that's what it means."
Eddie reached them in time to see Kardhoom spit in Bryce's face. He was an excellent shot, a wad of phlegm hitting right under Bryce's left eye. Bryce scowled, wiped his cheek, then jabbed Kardhoom in the chest with the shock wand. The man screamed.
"Bryce, don't," Eddie cried. He ran forward and tugged at Bryce's arm. Bryce turned to him, his face rigid with rage.
Kardhoom groaned, his arms curled around his chest.
"My friend here wants to give you a chance to get out of the trunk and walk around," Eddie explained in the Ord's language.
Eddie envisioned Kardhoom blasting Tim in the chest, sending him sailing into the fire. "No way," Eddie replied.
Kardhoom scowled, preparing to speak again. Before he could utter anything, Eddie slammed the trunk closed.
"Screw him," Eddie said. "Let's keep going."
The tunnel grew narrow and darker as they proceeded, winding around progressively sharper corners. There was less debris here than where the little man had been cleaning, but they had to proceed cautiously, never knowing what might lay in the road beyond the next corner.
Around the next bend, the tunnel opened into a huge cavern. Veins of phosphorous glow stretched over them a hundred feet up or more, casting a pale illumination over the road. The cavern extended out to their left for at least a mile before it disappeared in darkness. A forests of bioluminescent mushrooms covered the span, glowing in wild tangles, most of them as tall as trees.
"Hooah." Bryce said.
" Hooah, aye ," responded Kai.
"I think we're beginning to speak the same language, little sister." He pointed. "What are those?"
In the dim light, a line of squat beasts wandered along the side of the forest. It was difficult to see more than their rough shapes, but they looked like cow-sized moles with tiny eyes and bloated bodies.
"I think they're mopes."
"Mopes. I never heard of mopes."
Eddie shrugged. "Just one of those things. I don't know how I know, but that's what they are. They're usually domesticated, good for meat and milk, like an underground cow."
"If you say so."
The road hugged the cavern wall on the right, winding around rocky ridges. A mile into the cavern, A lit sign hung in the darkness.
Service Plaza. Fuel, vending, restrooms. Pets welcome.
An old wooden sign of hand-painted letters hung beneath the official one.
Sefoni's tavern - Good booze, good eats