A Ticket to Anywhere
The airport was a madhouse. Christmas day was looming and the weather wasn't eager to cooperate. Everyone had somewhere else to be for the holiday and no time left to get there. Delays, delays, delays... everything was behind even as more people filed into the doors of the terminal. I was among those desperate fools trying to get home for pumpkin pie and political arguments with the crazy side of the family.
I dragged my baggage behind as I got into line at the ticket station. The line was horrifyingly long, the zig-zagging ropes corralling hundreds of people into neat rows of luggage and stressed would-be passengers. I scanned the amount of people in front of me and calculated that I was going to be standing there for somewhere between an hour and when time should end. I sighed and settled in for the long wait.
The going was slow. Every couple of minutes we all got a chance to gather up our belongings and make one step closer to the end of the line as even more piled in behind. Word made it back through the line that they were having issues with the computer system, because of course they were. The family in front of me had two small children who were already getting fussy and agitated. One of them eventually throws herself onto the floor in a fit of boredom. She was screaming as if trying to test the octave limits of her vocal cords. Her parents did their best to ignore both her and the accusatory glares.
Just as I was about to accept that I had actually died on the way to the airport and this was some level of hell that I was assigned to, I noticed a new ticket station being opened. The woman behind the counter prepared her station for work and straightened her uniform. To my amazement as she folded her hands in front of her in a comely manner to signal that she was ready nobody in the line moved toward the station. I craned my neck to see the front of the line. The person in the front appeared ready, eagerly glancing back and forth for an opening but somehow missing the woman obviously available.
When I looked back at the woman she appeared to be waving in my general direction. I glanced around and saw nobody else looking at her. When I returned my attention back to her she waved again. I dumbly pointed to myself and she nodded, motioning me to come to her despite all the other people in line ahead of me. I hesitantly ducked under the rope, feeling like I was cheating the other people in line. None of them seemed to notice or care that I was getting preferential treatment. I dragged my luggage up to the counter the entire time expecting someone to shout a protest, but none did.
"Good evening, sir." She greeted me as I approached. "What can I do for you today?"
"I just need to pick up my ticket that I ordered." I told her. Now that I was closer I couldn't help but notice that she was a striking looking woman. She was taller than what was average. She had a long, well-defined face with sharp features, high cheekbones, narrow nose and jawline. Her skin was pale and unblemished. Her long, flowing hair was as dark as ebony.
"Not a problem, I just need your confirmation number, credit card, and I.D." She said as she leaned forward. The woman was particularly busty and I couldn't keep my eyes from glancing down. I tried to hide my wandering gaze as I searched my pockets for the items she requested.
"Yes, they're real." She answered an unspoken question that popped into my mind.
"Sorry." I said as I finally averted my eyes. She grinned at me. A strange, overly toothy grin. Her teeth seemed too sharp and too long. Maybe it was poor dental work. Having just been caught gawking I didn't want to do it a second time. I finally managed to produce the requested items.
"Mr. Jack Landers." She read my name as she turned to her computer and busied herself with looking my information up. As she was working she brushed her hair behind an ear. An ear that was strangely misshapen. It was pointed. Just like the character Leonard Nimoy used to play on that sci-fi show. Just what was this woman? Something behind the counter moved and I looked down.
She had a tail!
Right above her skirt poked out a long tail with an arrowhead shaped tip slowly swaying behind her. Perhaps I actually was in hell.
"Ooh... Chicago." She said sounding disappointed. "There's a big snow storm there. It's delayed indefinitely."
I shook myself back to reality. She's not a demon and this wasn't the underworld. She's one of those people who go to comic conventions and get dressed up. What do they call them? Cosplayers? She was just wearing make up and a prosthesis. She probably has a servo hidden under her skirt to make the tail move. The airline industry must have a very lenient dress code. I was just going to pretend I didn't notice, just like I pretend I don't notice a transvestite.
"So what are my options?" I asked.
"Well, you could wait it out, you could get a refund, or I could get you a ticket going somewhere else."
"You have anything close to Chicago?" I asked. Maybe I could rent a car and drive the rest of the way.
She turned back to the computer with her tail swishing behind her. "I have a seat going to St. Louis at nine P.M in three days." She told me. I groaned. St. Louis is at least a six hour drive to Chicago in the winter, and three days was Christmas Eve. By the time I made it there I'd be exhausted and spend the entire holiday sleeping.
She leaned in toward me again, apparently inviting my eyes. "You didn't really want to go to Chicago, did you?" She said slyly.
"Did you really want to put up with another year of your mother asking: why aren't you married yet and where are my grandchildren?" She asked. "Haven't you had enough of your grandfather's appallingly racist jokes? Or your sister complaining about yet another failed relationship? How about Uncle Fred's fun stories about the war that you've heard every year for your entire adult life? Like that one where he took shrapnel to the knee that he tells in excruciating, gory details?" She made a mock gag gesture, revealing her cloven tongue.
"How would you--" I started, but she leaned even closer in. The strain on the top button of her blouse was too much. It disappeared suddenly, flying off to who knows where, and the top of her cleavage was exposed.
"I can get you a ticket to anywhere." She said, giving my curiosity about her specific knowledge about my life little mind. "Why would you want to go home? You could go to Paris, or Moscow, or even Sydney. You know it's summertime right now in Australia, right? Anyplace you want to go, just name it."
"Chicago?" I suggested.
She looked like she was about to start pouting. "And here I thought you were the adventurous type. I'm offering you a chance to go anywhere you want to and you choose to go where you don't."
"Fine," I said, wondering exactly what this woman's deal was, "you want to know where I want to go? I'll show you." At this point it felt like she was wasting my time. If she was going to be ridiculous I could too. I reached into my jacket and pulled out a book. It was a cheap, generic fantasy paperback that I had bought anticipating the long flight. It was called Sovereign of Xog. I wasn't even sure what it was about, buying it purely on the schlock cover art and hoping for some poorly written brain candy.
"I wanna go here." I said jokingly. "Can you do that?"
The woman took the paperback from me, glancing at the poorly rendered image of an idealistically proportioned, nearly naked man with a sword, being swooned over by an equally perfect and lightly dressed blond woman on the cover. She turned it over in her hand, looking unfamiliar with the work. That didn't come as a surprise at all. She bent the book, using her thumb to flip through the pages. As the paper buzzed before her eyes a smile played on her lips.
"I know this place!" She said. "Some of the details are a little off, but most of it is right. The author must have taken some liberties. This would be a really fun trip."
Sure. Like I was going to believe that she read the entire thing in five seconds. This crazy chick was starting to get on my nerves.
"Look," I said, "can I just get my ticket?" I didn't care how long I had to wait for the flight to Chicago. It couldn't snow forever. Eventually I'll be able to board a plane if I could just get into the terminal.
"Certainly, sir." She said going back to her computer. After a moment the printer spit out a silver ticket and she handed it to me. "Any luggage?"
"Very well." She said with a smile. "Do enjoy your flight."
"Thank you." I replied as I turned to find my way through security.
Security was relatively pain-free with only mild groping by the TSA agents. Once through I found my gate and readied myself for a long wait with the crowds of other people. To my surprise, no sooner had I opened my trashy fantasy novel when the announcement was made that my flight was boarding. The good fortune pleased me so much that I hardly noticed that the flight attendant who saw me aboard had similar characteristics to the woman behind the ticket counter. I also failed to notice that I was the first one to board the plane, and nobody came on after. I was so tired and relieved to be on a plane that I had scarcely settled into my seat before I had dozed off.
** ** **
Someone poked me on the arm and I woke up with a start. I looked up to see the flight attendant looming over me.
"I'm sorry, sir, but we've arrived." The strange, pointy-eared woman said.
I groaned and blinked away the weariness in my eyes. "I slept for the entire flight?" I asked groggily.
"You sure did." She told me as she opened the overhead to pull down my rolling bag. "You looked so peaceful I didn't want to bother you."
I glanced around. "Everyone else is already off?” I noticed.
"You were the only one on this flight." She informed me.
"I'm the only one on a flight to Chicago?" I asked suspiciously.
The flight attendant looked momentarily confused. "Uhm... we're not – I mean, yes, this is Chicago. It was a, uh... private flight." For some reason my sleep muddled brain accepted that explanation. I stood up and grabbed my luggage. As I turned to walk up the aisle the flight attendant stopped me.
"Wait, sir!" She called out. "You forgot this on the seat." She handed me the pulp novel. "You might need it."
"Thanks." I said as I stuffed it into my pocket. She followed me to the exit, and down the boarding bridge, her spade-tipped tail trailing behind her. When we reached the doorway to the terminal she lightly grabbed me by the arm.
"Yes?" I turned back to her. To my surprise, she handed me an item wrapped in cloth and tied with a ribbon.
"A traditional gift for all new arrivals." She explained.
"Oh, um, thank you." I said. What a strange thing to do. I had never heard of airlines giving a gift for people arriving at O'Hare. I tugged at the ribbon and unwrapped it as the woman opened the door to the terminal. I revealed a bronze hilt attached to a large knife in a wooden sheath. Puzzled, I looked at the woman. I know Chicago has a reputation, but this seemed a bit excessive.
She grinned at me and smoke wafted between her fangs. "Thank you for flying with us today, sir." She hissed. “Good-bye.” The flight attendant put a clawed hand on my chest and shoved me through the doorway. With a laugh, she slammed the door, which made a heavy, stony thud as it closed and I found myself in complete darkness.
It was obsessively hot and humid, my feet were in something that was wet. There was a constant noise of dripping water. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone and switched it on. The weak illumination of the screen provided enough light that I could see my surroundings. There were stalagmites and stalactites all around me. Where the door had just been there was nothing but a bumpy rock surface.
I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn't at O'Hare.
Somewhere nearby there was a roar of some huge, unseen creature.
Definitely not O'Hare.
It was a trick.
It had to be, there was no other explanation. I waved my phone around, trying to acclimate my eyes to the poor lighting. I sloshed through ankle deep water as I approached where the door had been. It must be fiberglass walls shaped to look like stone. The same goes for those stalagmites, they had to be fake. Airplanes don’t just drop you off inside a cave, that’s ridiculous.
I put my hand on the wall. The surface of it was slimy and wet. It sure as hell felt like stone. Try as I might I could find no sign of the doorway that had been there only moments before. I attempted to beat the pommel of the knife against it but it was unyielding. All I succeeded in doing was making loud clanging noises.
“Hey! Let me out!” I shouted.
The only answer was a roar from something in the cave with me. I quickly turned the phone in the direction that I thought it came from, but that was difficult to tell from all the echoing. I couldn’t see anything, but the light barely seemed to go past a few yards. Whatever that was it was getting closer.
I turned my phone around to look at the screen. At the top it was showing zero bars with an indicator that meant it was searching for service. Next to that was the charge indicator that read fifty-eight percent. Tucking the big knife under my arm, I began poking at the settings. It should have a flashlight option on it somewhere, but I couldn’t remember how to turn it on. To my right there was the sound of splashing water that was quickly getting louder. My heart started to hammer away as the reality of the situation – no matter how unlikely it was – was starting to settle in. I was in a cave somewhere underground, in complete darkness, and something unseen and possibly dangerous was closing in on me.
The sloshing footsteps were almost on top of me, accompanied by the sound of a hiss. The footsteps approached with zeal and the sound of thrashing water. It has seen me and was charging! Unable to find the flashlight on my phone I quickly switched to the camera, raised the phone and touched the button.
The phone flashed brightly as it took a picture and briefly illuminated the cave. Something huge and white reared up and let out a horrific shriek. Unable to completely make out what it was I took another picture. It was something slimy and monstrous. The creature screamed again and splashed down into the water, drenching me with the foul-smelling, warm fluid up to my chest and nearly dousing my phone. A third picture and I caught a glimpse of a long, white tail with pink spots as the beast fled.
I stood for a moment, completely frozen in place with stark terror at what I had just seen. Even if the monster hadn’t drenched me the front of my pants would have been warm and wet anyway. My only reaction was to keep pressing the camera even though the threat had fled.
I finally shook myself back to my senses. I looked down at my phone to flip through the pictures I had just taken. Empty cave, empty cave, empty cave, empty cave… tail…
The monster was massive, but I had no real reference for its size. Somewhere between bigger than a horse and smaller than an elephant. It was long and serpentine with at least six sets of legs. White as a sheet with light pink polka dots on smooth, amphibian skin. A huge, wide head with an equally gigantic mouth. Inside its mouth were thousands of sharp teeth. Even its tongue and upper palate were lined with them. On the sides of its head were exposed gills, like an axolotl or a mudpuppy. It had tiny, beady eyes. Not just two of them, I counted four pair.
I had to get out of the cave.
Now that the looming danger had gone it was easy to find the flashlight on my phone. I swept the light around me. I was in a large chamber with a ceiling so high that the light didn’t reach it. I only knew there was a ceiling at all because of the long, slender stalactites that protruded out of the dark, some reaching to the floor. Everywhere I turned the light I had a sense that something was moving away just beyond where it could reach. I didn’t like that I couldn’t see the dangers around me, but there was some comfort in the fact that they were afraid of the light. Judging from the pictures I had taken I probably didn’t want to see them anyway.
I made one final attempt to find the doorway. Even with the bright flashlight I could find nothing. However, I did find my luggage bobbing in the water.
“Great.” I muttered. Everything in it was going to be soaked with vile cave water. I picked it up, it was heavy and dripping.
At least it had wheels. I started walking, dragging the bag behind through the muck. I had no clue which way to go, but away from the direction the white and pink mutant salamander monster had gone was good enough for the moment. If I ran into another one of them that wasn’t afraid of the light I don’t know what I would do.
It was at that point when I remembered that I had a weapon on me. The big knife was still under my arm, but I had my phone in one hand and my luggage in the other. How was I supposed to use it if I needed to? I contemplated my dilemma. I found a high spot in the cave that wasn’t wet and I set the knife down. I opened my luggage. There was an extra belt in it that I fastened it around my head and tucked the phone into it. That made me a proper spelunker with a headlamp that lit where I was looking. The added benefit was it kept my phone from falling into the water as they’re want to do. The manufacturer promised it was waterproof, but I didn’t feel like testing that claim. I took off my jacket, it was fine for the snowy winter, but the cave was hot and I was sweating. I thought about taking off my long sleeved shirt too, but I felt better having something between me and whatever was dripping down from the ceiling of the cave.
I briefly considered tossing the jacket away, it wasn’t going to do me much good anyway, but I didn’t have the heart. I tied it snugly around my waist before I stuffed the knife sheath under it. I stood up and drew the weapon smoothly out of the scabbard, holding the blade aloft like some idiot pretending to be a knight. I turned the weapon in my hand and the light glinted off the steel. At least I think it was steel. It was an odd purpleish metal blade with a single, sweeping edge. Maybe a foot and a half in length. It had a dainty, but elegant look to it and fit in my hand nicely, feeling like it had almost no weight at all.
“Hi!” The knife vibrated in my hand as it spoke. “How are you doing?”
“What the–” I spit out in surprise as I dropped the weapon. It clattered on the stone floor and slid down into the water.
“Blub… blub… blub…” The water bubbled where the knife had fallen in. I approached it cautiously. Did that really just happen? I reached in and pulled the knife out.
“Oh, wow!” The weapon said. It had a woman’s voice. “I thought I was going to drown! But then I remembered that I don’t breathe. Ha ha! Oh, wait, that water stinks. Why can I smell that? Gross!”
“You can talk?” I noted the obvious with astonishment.
“I can?” It said. “Neat! Hey, so can you! We have something in common!”
I turned the knife over, looking for some type of microphone or something. There was still some part of me that was still convinced all of this was a trick.
“Hey, don’t look up a lady's pommel without her permission!” The knife admonished with a giggle. “What kind of girl do you think I am?”
“Sorry.” I said, not realizing there was etiquette to this.
“Well…” the knife vibrated pleasantly in my hand, feeling a little warmer, “...I suppose it’s okay. You are kinda cute, in a meaty, fleshy, kind of way.”
“Thank you... I guess.” I said. Being called “cute” by an inanimate object was a new one for me. “It’s just that I’ve never seen a knife that could talk before.”
“KNIFE?” The blade vibrated irritably. “I’ll have you know I identify as a sword, thank you very much! I mean, I’m a short sword, but still totally swordy and not knifey at all.”
“Okay, I’m sorry.” I apologized again. “It must have been the light. I can see how “swordy” you are now.”
“Really?” The sword said. “I mean… uh... yes, of course you can. Erm… thank you. So… um… you’re my new master, huh? Do you have a name?”
“Jack.” I told it.
“Master Jack.” It said. “I guess that’s okay.”
I shook my head. Seems I am now the proud owner of a ditzy knife with self-image issues. I finally accepted that this wasn't a trick. What's really happening is that I'm dreaming. That's why nothing really makes any sense. It was a very vivid dream, to be sure, but I'm definitely asleep. Probably still on the airplane, snoring away with a pool of drool on my shoulder. Hopefully not sitting in a pool of piss as well.
“What’s your name?” I asked, playing along with this odd subconscious conversation.
“I’ve had a lot of names given to me by lots of masters.” The sword said. “The Nightbane, The Singing Edge, Purple Vorpal, Saf Crusher, Shut-the-Hell-Up, and Zoe, just to name a few.”
I grinned. “I like Zoe.” I told her.
The sword made a sound like a huff. “Poo, I sorta like Nightbane,” it grumbled, “but Zoe is fine.” There was a moment of silence. I didn’t know what else to say and I guess Zoe didn’t either. Though I got the impression there was a lot she didn’t know.
“So, uh…” the sword said hesitantly, “...we gonna kill that ugly thing sneaking up behind you or what?”