The narrow cleft in the cliff faces was not inviting. Benning cleared his throat in nervousness.
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"Are we going through there, Boss?" Raul asked.
"This pass will widen in a narrow valley that leads up to a mountain range that will lead us to that red-headed incubus." Samson answered quietly.
"I feel like I've been here before. Have we been here before, Boss? 'Cause I seem to remember, I was a kid and there were monsters." Benning's horse whinnied and shied back from the opening.
Benning reached over and patted his son’s leg. “Don’t worry - we have survived worse.”
"Yeah, we have been through here.” Samson turned in his saddle and smiled at the two men. “If we go, we go in the daylight. The dark is a bad thing in there. A rookery of some very ugly, bloodthirsty, bird thingies roost in here. We have to travel, at a run, for about six hours, without rest." Samson pulled his horse back away from the opening.
"What kind of bird thingies and what will happen if we don't make it in six hours?" Raul backed up with the captured horses.
"When night falls slap two horses through the cleft. Fire your handgun to scare them through." Samson ordered. "Maybe they will get enough to eat - we might have an edge."
"Uncle, that answers one question - what are they?"
Samson was walking up against the cliff face. When Raul started forward, it dawned on him that the face was artificial. Samson stopped and sang a haunting note, loud and opera-clear. A grinding sound, and the fall of small stones, revealed an ever-enlarging door, large enough for the horses to walk in. They walked into a large, brightly lit, concrete chamber. The light source was not apparent. Samson slapped the wall and the door closed. He pulled down his saddle and carried it toward the back of the hall. A glass walled room lit up as Samson walked toward it. Samson touched the glass and a section opened into a spotlessly clean kitchen, furnished with a large table, chairs, and beds.
"Keep the horses here - let them wander - they’ll be fine. There is a feed chute, Ebony will activate it, and water at the back of the chamber. Come on boys."
The Bennings entered nervously. “I don’t remember this.” Raul jumped as the glass door slid back and air conditioning came on.
Samson sat at the table. “Mind wipe. I couldn’t have you two burdened with this old stuff in your memories.”
“You erased our memories? That sucks. Why? It’s just an old – what? An army base?” Raul started looking around at the clean surfaces, buttons, and small lights.
"At the time I didn’t want folks to know certain things.”
The old man sat and took off his hat and looked at it. “So, you gonna wipe our memories when we leave - we gonna get a brain tumor or something – might go a long way explaining how dumb ass I’ve become of late.”
“No, times are different and I need some real partners I can trust – that would be you two. Now, that’s enough questions. Raul? You used to make a dish out of fried corn meal flats and seasoned pig. It had peppers and onions if I remember. Would you be kind enough to fix some of that up for us? Man, I loved that stuff - beans too huh?" Samson was rubbing his hands in anticipation.
"You got all the makings here?" Benning asked. "Sure sounds good."
"Freezer over there and micro and burners to the right. Never used them myself." Samson grinned. He stood laughing and rose to walk to the freezer. He pulled out three bundles. He put the bundles in an oven. He punched in some numbers then sat down. "When it bongs it will be done."
Music came out of the walls, music that the Bennings had never heard. Their awed faces looked up at the ceiling listening.
"Sarah Brighton - pretty huh?"
Raul rose at prepared the meals and set them on the table. They ate in happy silence.
Samson finished and leaned back patting his stomach. "That was just as good as I remembered. You will make someone a good wife.”
“That’s bullshit Uncle. You taught me to cook. I remember that you paid me to cook this – though I don’t remember actually cooking it.” Raul went to the counter and spooned some more food on his plate.
Samson smiled and sat forward leaning on his elbows. “Old sound system - still works. I don't know much about the singer."
"Sounds like an Angel singing - are there women who sound like that alive now? Raul asked almost in tears, forgetting how upset he was.
"Women don't sing unless they are safe from men and that can only happen when men are not afraid of other men."
That silenced the Bennings.
They listened, ate some more, and marveled at the music and the sweet iced tea.
"Raul, this is your food. You made it for me when you were sixteen.”
"I told you I remembered that – forget it, you had your reasons - what about the birds?"
Samson smiled. "This is all Elder gear. Nuke power source - deep - I cleaned out the place a while back and use the place now and then."
Benning sat up. “You mean this place has been here since the change? – still working? Damn.”
"Boss?" Raul slurped in some beans, chewed and asked. "Let's go back to the bird thingies."
Samson patted his belly and yawned.
"Not so much birds as flying gators. They got big leathery wings and long beaks full of teeth. But don't worry. They are big and don't maneuver too well in tight places."
Raul palled. "How big?"
"Easy targets - seven- eight foot wing spans - maybe bigger." Samson grinned. "Fun!"
"Good point. Better pick two more of those nags - I'll set them into the rift ahead of us. They are normally active at night - the bird things. If we can get them occupied, we may gain some advantage."
Raul stood and looked at Samson.
"Unc, these bird thingies don't sound good."
"Relax, we have the advantage. Guns make them swerve - silent arrows could be good." Samson put his boots up on the table.
"Seems to me that the last time we were here – I still have nightmares - there's hundreds of those ugly beasts." Benning sipped on his tea.
“Probably thousands now.” That was a while ago.” Samson poured himself some more tea.
Raul slammed the table. "Thousands? Are we nuts?"
"You and I…" Samson ignored Raul, "… survived the last time old bud. I was kidding. I have reason to believe there are less than when we last encountered them. I don't know how they came to be, but this area has changed and for some reason these beasts do not take to the higher skies to escape this canyon. I don't think they can manage the winds. At some point there would be more of them than the things they eat." Samson mused.
"Even odds again, huh Boss? Benning rose and started cleaning up. Over his shoulder he noted. "I've noticed that things are changing fast. Weather is wrong, earth moving, different plants in the wrong places, new critters popping up - I never seen before - it's all weird. God must be pissed or confused."
"Frenchy toast in the morning - I even got some sugar syrup frozen away."
“What do the birdthingies eat?” Raul chirped.
Samson ignored the question, stood, and disappeared around a concrete corner.
"Boss, what's back there?"
"Something you have never seen my good friend - a bathroom - indoor facility - with a shower - hot water and soap. Little remodel project of mine."
Benning whooped and ran around the corner and whistled at the tiled walls and plumbing fixtures. "I heard about these - never seen one. Last time we were here this wasn’t here. How much hot water it got?"
Raul walked in and walked up behind his father, looked over his shoulder, and patted his Dad’s back.
Samson walked into a glass door-ed stall and soon walked out naked and smiling, with a towel over his shoulder. "Unless you find looking at a naked man enjoyable, finish cleaning up out there, and you both can use the shower, when I'm done. There is a lot of water so enjoy it. Leave me your clothes, I'm going clean them. Maybe with a little less scent we will have a better chance tomorrow.”
Samson pointed to a set of doors. Raul opened it and pulled out two robes. The men stripped down and put on the robes. Their clothes were tossed in a pile. Samson gestured them out.
Raul turned around as he was leaving. “What do the bird thingies eat?”
Samson turned on the shower and stuck his head under the stream of steaming hot water. “Anything that won’t eat them.”
Raul didn’t like the answer.
Why is doing what you love the hardest thing to do? Is it because failing what you thought defined you would be too devastating a thing from which to recover? If so, we stay where mere accident has left us.