By: A. Elizabeth Herting
Scott Travis took an enormous sip of his double gin and tonic before raising the glass out to the flight attendant, shaking it in the timehonored tradition of obnoxious, drunken travelers. He was not usually much of a drinker, but extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures.
The man in the gray suit sat in the opposite aisle, holding a crisp newspaper out in front of him in practiced interest. Even from a distance, Travis could see his beady little eyes, shifting back and forth across the page. He was one of them, Scott was certain of it.
A sudden piercing assailed his ears as he clutched his plastic cup in anguish. Scott stole another look at the Gray Man, trying to detect the source of the noise attack as the sound filled every corner of his shattered mind. No change. Not even a hint of movement, but Travis wasn't expecting anything different. They were the masters of mind manipulation and torture, able to wrap themselves in the utmost normalcy. They'd wormed their way into the highest echelons of society, government and finance. The man in gray may have fooled the harried gate agents and incurious security personnel, but he would never pull the wool over Scott's eyes. The man was clearly of the Highbinder Order and woe to the passengers on this flight that Travis was the only one to see it.
The convention in Vegas came up pretty quickly, forcing Scott to fly when he would rather do almost anything else in the world including going to the dentist or in for his yearly colonoscopy. He'd always accommodated his fear of flying by taking long road trips, the captain of his own destiny where no one could watch or report on his whereabouts.
Travis suffered from Acute Anxiety Disorder and Depression, endless cocktails of medications causing his senses to dull when he was convinced that events in the world were about to turn deadly. He finally decided to take charge of his life, flushing his latest prescriptions down the drain in rebellion. The fuzzy corners of his awareness came into sharp focus after that, years of tamped down visions suddenly making complete sense.
Scott knew what his purpose in life was after that, he would no longer only be a dull cog wasting his life away in a cubicle. He would help to flush out the Highbinder and all of their kind who wanted to snatch the earth away and turn human beings into slaves.
He learned about the Highbinder years ago through an old girlfriend in college, an ancient story about mysterious creatures who walk among mankind. Scott fervently believed they were the reason for much of the world's misery. He knew the Highbinder tapped into the darker side of human nature, leaving death and devastation in their wake. Evidence of their dark work could be found throughout history from wars, massacres and human sacrifice all the way up to modern day acts of mayhem and terror. Travis was convinced that Hitler was Highbinder, the bodies of the innocent stacking up on his blooddrenched soul.
Travis researched hours into the night when he should have been studying for his accounting final, somehow managing to get through school and get a semidecent accounting job that paid the bills while he spent every moment of spare time hunting the wily creatures. He could only imagine what terrible things the Gray Man was up to on this flight, knew without a shadow of a doubt that their lives were all in peril. He finished his drink and leaned back as far as the uncomfortable seat would allow, trying to tamp down his fear.
In his dream, Scott was six years old, flying with his parents across country to a family reunion. The plane was shaking and rocking, stuck in a bad pocket of turbulence as Scott gripped his mother's hand, hurting her. The plane appeared to right itself, giving them a brief moment of respite before dropping straight down into a sickening, stomachchurning rush. The passengers in the seats ahead of them actually smacked their heads hard on the roof of the plane as his parents frantically checked his seat belt, hovering over him in a protective clump. Scott had never seen them so scared before, it terrified him. He grew up years in mere seconds, understanding in one awful moment that his parents were not infallible. His place was no longer secure in the world.
He could see in his child's eyes, the woman sitting three rows ahead of them turn completely around and look deliberately at him. She was calm as chaos reigned, locking eyes with Scott, a chilling smile spreading over her face. Scott could actually feel the hairs rise on the back of his sixyearold neck, instinctively knowing even then that evil existed in the world. They managed to land safely but he was terrified of flying from that day forward.
All of his life's many troubles went back to that awful flight and the moment he came across the Highbinder woman, for he had no doubt that is what she was. He didn't know if the Highbinder were from another planet or demons from the very gates of hell, but Scott was determined they would never win. Goodness would finally triumph over evil.
Scott jumped awake as the plane hit a fresh pocket of turbulence, the memory fading away in a mist. He downed the new drink and leaned his head back against the seat, closing his eyes to get his bearings. Keep it in control, Travisyou can do this. He tried to picture his trainer at the gym, always pushing him to be his best, calling up snippets of motivational speakers that he admired, trying to garner strength from their words of wisdom. At least he was alone in his row of seats, able to spread out a little on the cramped flight.
Every few minutes he would check on the Gray Man who appeared to have finished with his newspaper and was gazing wistfully out of the tiny window. He took in a deep breath and counted the seconds as he exhaled, letting his mind relax and drift. There was no confronting the Gray Man, not yet. Travis' internal radar was spinning like a top, but he had to be absolutely sure before he made his move.
A sudden, loud pop jolted him out of his reverie. What was that? Dear God! Was this the Highbinder attack? The couple in the adjacent row lifted their champagne glasses high in a celebratory toast. They were young and carefree, newlyweds. The Gray Man turned and smiled at them, the corners of his eyes crinkling in amusement.
Scott washed down two aspirin with the dregs of his gin and tonic and tried to settle back in for the duration. A sudden flash of light in his peripheral vision turned his attention back to the window. It was dark outside, the lines of the clouds appearing feint and dreamlike. He saw movement, like a flapping of birds' wings and took a moment to focus his vision. He closed his eyes hard and shook his head. I must be cracking up. Travis looked out again only to confirm his worst fears. What he was seeing was simply not possible for a sane, rational mind. He swiveled around to the Gray Man, finding the seat empty and began to panic. He turned back to the window to confront his worst nightmare, rubbing his eyes frantically with hysteria.
Out along the wing of the plane was a giant flying man. He was keeping time with the aircraft by way of enormous feathered wings, like the biggest bird Scott had ever seen. He flew with purpose, his angry bloodred wings flattened against his back and a pair of thick, knotted horns on his oversized head. Scott gaped through the thick pane as the man turned in his direction and glared at him. He grinned maliciously, revealing a mouthful of jagged, sharp teeth as he pulled and scratched at the plane's wing. His long, black talons caused sparks to shoot up as the creature attempted to dismantle the engine. This was the Highbinder in its true form, a "Twilight Zone" episode vividly coming to life.
Travis barely had time to gather his thoughts before a loud explosion filled the silence. The wing engine burst into flames, the fire causing the sky to light up like a Christmas tree with the outline of the greatwinged man clearly formed in the background, laughing maniacally. Scott watched in disbelief as a large chunk of the wing hurtled off into the darkness and the plane began a sickening spiral dive.
The cabin erupted into complete pandemonium with people screaming, drink carts hurtling down the aisle. Scott sat strangely calm, completely transfixed on the creature flying outside of his window. He barely heard the noise around him as the flight attendants desperately tried to calm their terrified passengers. His oxygen mask dropped from the ceiling as a second loud boom filled the air, the lights flickering on and off chaotically. Both engines had apparently gone out, the plane plunging at an incredible speed straight down to the earth. Scott knew that none of them could possibly survive. He felt a detached sort of peace as the passengers all around him cried and prayed, making desperate lastminute phone calls to home.
He turned and looked to the aisle for an escape route, finding the Gray Man there blocking him in his seat. Red light shot through the Gray Man's eyes and pierced Scott in the chest, its mouth opening in a grotesque, blood curdling scream. A heinous ripping sound added to the cacophony all around them as the Gray Man's crimson wings exploded through the back of his expensive suit, splattering Scott with bits of bloody muscle and gore. The man extended his wings to their full length, terrified passengers running past without even looking at him.
Scott felt the last vestiges of his sanity slip away as he realized that he alone, was witness to the foul creature. His horrific mission completed, the Highbinder outside smacked up hard against the plane in response to the Gray Man's call. Travis heard a sickening crack as the creature battered itself over and over, attempting to get to his master. A final look out of his besieged window confirmed all Scott's fears as a dozen more Highbinder suddenly swooped in, hammering away at the entire length of the doomed aircraft.
Scott knew that his time was short, his heart was almost bursting through his chest under the Gray Man's deadly light. In a final burst of strength or sheer foolishness, Travis leaped from his seat and tackled the Gray Man head on, both of them tumbling out into the aisle. Travis pummeled the Highbinder, bashing its face into a bloody pulp as the Gray Man screamed and laughed at his efforts. He heard the final, deadly crack of the Highbinder breaking through as the plane reached the end of its harrowing journey, cratering into the ground at an astonishing, demolishing speed.
Scott leaped up out of his seat and fell clumsily to the floor, smacking the side of his face on its smooth, hard surface. His fellow passengers in the airport terminal waiting room were looking at him with a mixture of wariness and concern.
Alive? I'm alive? Scott began to touch his chest, arms and face, checking himself for injury. He took shallow, gulping breaths, panic threatening to overwhelm him. As if in response to his frantic question, a measured female voice came on over the loudspeaker.
"We are now ready to begin boarding Flight 571 with nonstop service to Las Vegas. We will begin with Zone 1, passengers that need assistance or who are traveling with children under 4years old."
Scott looked all around him at the people getting up to head to the gate. A mother with two small children in tow, an older gentleman with a cane, the newlyweds from his dream. Wait, was it a dream? People from all walks of life gathered to board the plane, people with busy lives, hopes and dreams. Things to accomplish. People with families that loved them. People, Scott was convinced, that would not live to see another sunrise if they stepped aboard that aircraft.
He jumped up and searched for the Gray Man, terrified that he would still be in demonic angel form, ropes of red saliva running down his razorsharp teeth as his Highbinder minions murdered them all. The Gray Man turned the corner holding a styrofoam cup of airport coffee, his newspaper tucked crisply under his arm. Travis knew he had only moments to act as the first of the doomed passengers began to load onto the plane.
Travis looked around in a frenzy, he'd already been through security, had nothing to use as a weapon. He would need to act quickly. The Gray Man sauntered through the waiting room, looking for an open chair as Travis sprang into action. Grabbing a pen out of the hand of a shocked woman working on a crossword puzzle, Scott bellowed out in a rage and plunged the pen deep into the startled man's neck. Blood shot out in a great, red arc as the Highbinder staggered backwards, weakly trying to ward him off as Travis extricated the pen and stabbed the Gray Man again and again.
"Die, Highbinder, Die!" Travis could hear himself yelling from somewhere far away as he went about his gruesome work, stabbing the creature violently in the eye before the security guards hauled him away. The Gray Man flopped around on the floor in his death throes, the pen protruding from his left eye socket as the passengers of Flight 571 screamed and ran in a panicked herd. Scott had a moment of regret that they would never know about his sacrifice, how he'd given up his life to save them, but in the end he didn't care.
Scott Travis was triumphant, the scared sixyearold boy turned warrior at long last. The Highbinder might yet succeed in their nefarious plans, but not on Scott's watch. It was his last, euphoric thought as they strapped him down, eventually shipping him off to the Ward for the Criminally Insane where he would never see the light of day again.
Needless to say, Flight 571 was canceled that day. The victim, a fiftyfive year old traveling salesman from Dubuque, Iowa, left behind a wife of thirty years, three kids and several grandchildren. The brutal murder ensured that a full sweep of the plane was conducted, the bomb squad called in and the terminal cleared for safety. In such a heightened state of security, those were sensible precautions, since no one had yet determined the man's motives.
Travis was taken in and interrogated thoroughly, insisting that Flight 571 was destined to crash. He saw it all in a dream. They'd found traces of alcohol in his system, the man telling them that he'd consumed three gin and tonics on a flight he'd never actually taken. He was clearly delusional, incoherently ranting about something he called "The Highbinder" and crazy conspiracy theories. They brought him in to do a complete psychological work up, the man insisting that winged demons would cause the plane to crash. The authorities kept him in total lock down until his mental state could be determined and terrorism completely ruled out.
As the aircraft was being moved away from the terminal to where it would be overhauled, an errant series of sparks ignited the wing engine, blowing it up along with a good part of the wing itself. It was determined to be some sort of freak accident; no bomb or outside device was ever detected. Luckily, the plane was grounded, and the crew escaped injury.
Midair, it would have been catastrophic.
When the crew was finally able to secure the plane and check the ruined engine, they found something very strange. A single, massive bloodred feather was discovered intact inside of the engine. It was larger than any of them had ever seen, unburnt and actually glowing. The astonished crew placed it carefully inside of a vacuumsealed bag and whisked it away to the warehouse, where it was never to be seen again.
At least not in this life anyway.