The Captain


Sophia Horton, Staff Writer

It started as it always did.

She was back in the game, the animated drones around her shooting enemies out of the sky.

She could feel the weight of the headset; she knew she wasn’t really here. She didn’t mind it very much.

Her drone ducked below the fight in the sky to hurl a bomb at the city itself. She grinned with excitement as she dodged between buildings and the ground behind her shook in an explosion. She vividly remembered this particular course, as she’d flown it multiple times; it was one of the better air-strike maps. 

An achievement bubble popped up in the corner of her screen, indicating a new high score. She paused to listen to her first lieutenant speak some hazy words into her ear about a group of enemies escaping the city through a hidden alleyway. She immediately knew the spot he was talking about, flipped around into an elaborate spin, and saw the group up ahead before he’d even finished saying the words. She made quick work of them; as captain, she had some of the best weapons on the team. 

VICTORY flashed across her screen and she was finally able to remove the headset, turning triumphantly towards the watching crowd. The stands erupted in cheers; they raised their fists and chanted her name, going wild when the general marched on stage and presented her with the trophy. She smiled as its familiar weight settled in her palm: it was her fourth consecutive win, making her the best captain the league games had ever seen. She shook his hand and raised her own fist to the sky, smiling happily with her fans.

Abruptly, the dream changed.

This time, she was sitting on her couch, watching the television. Her cartoon was interrupted by a flicker of static and then a blurry video of what looked like a war. She leaned forwards, interested, and froze when she heard what the cameraman was saying.

“You’ve been lied to! All of you! The game isn’t real. None of it is! You think you’re–” he was interrupted by an explosion, and to her horror she saw a craft that bore startling resemblance to her own in-game drone fly overhead, its guns smoking. “You think you’re playing a game. You’re killing people–real, living people! Monsters all of you! Look what you’re doing!” The camera flickered and turned towards the carnage, showing women and children screaming for cover, babies crying for their mothers, abandoned in the streets. The drone sailed into the same spin she’d used in her last game, then sailed on, ignorant–firing again and again and again.

She stood and clenched her hands in her hair. “No, no,” she muttered, pacing the room. Her heart sank. “This can’t be happening.”

“Please, pray for us. We need your help! Stop this act of mindless terrorism! End the war!” The man desperately pleaded into the camera, running for cover. “Please–” A boom sounded, followed by screaming. The screen fizzed and went dark.

“It was just a prank,” she assured herself. “A prank.”

The dream changed again.

“I am sad to report that after completing over three hundred missions, our beloved captain has retired. We are sad to see her go and are looking forward to the next great player to take her spot.” She slumped on the couch, the moments of the war replaying over and over again in her head. She was a monster. What she’d done to those poor people could never be forgiven. A week after the leaked news was addressed as fake, she’d retired. She knew it was real. That had been her drone, shooting innocent people. Killing women and children. She’d completed three hundred missions. How many people had that been? Hundreds? Thousands?


She woke in a cold sweat, scrambling for the bathroom and just making it to the trash can before the contents of her stomach emptied. She lay, panting, on the dirty floor. It had been years, and still the nightmares plagued her. She hugged herself and hopelessness once again invaded her mind. 

Eventually, she gained the strength to heave herself off the floor and up the stairs to her roof, where she plopped down in her usual lawn chair to watch the sunrise. Ivory sentry zeppelins with turquoise gondolas whispered lazily along the sky in lines, casting shadows on the concrete below. Their elaborate fins rippled across their sides, making them appear fish-like.

She tied her grimy hair into its usual knot at the back of her neck, grimacing as it fell limply on her skin. She hadn’t showered in days. Weeks, probably, if she was being honest. Her entire body was covered in a sheen of dirt and dust.

She glanced one more time at the sky, shading her eyes against the murky sun. A fleet of combat drones glinted distantly in the light. 

Soon her stomach began to rumble, so she reluctantly made her way down the makeshift stairs. As always, she hopped the last three: if stepped on, they would most likely crumble under her weight. She’d been meaning to fix them, but such small nuisances always escaped her mind in the end.

Someone was waiting for her.

She smelled him before she noticed him, an amazing feat considering how she smelled herself: the reek of cigar smoke hovered above his head in a dark cloud. He was way too clean to belong anywhere near here. She felt a flicker of fear–government. Probably looking for someone else to commit their mindless crimes.

He tapped his cigar ashes over her already ruined floor and waved a hand over the back of the chair. “Please, come sit. I took the liberty of moving your other chair here so we can talk.”

“You have some nerve, coming into my house and touching my things. What do you want?” She stalked around him and plopped herself down into the other chair, immediately slouching and throwing one arm over the back. He was a short, pudgy man, with an ugly mustache and wire spectacles. She frowned at the general’s badge shining on his vest.

“We have a mission for you.”

“Not interested.” She closed her eyes against the memory of death. “I don’t want anything to do with the government. I ended that part of my life a long time ago.”

“This mission could make you change your mind.”


“I’m serious. The public doesn’t know what you did. You can still have redemption.”

She hated the flicker of hope she felt. “What is it?”

“You know the war between ourselves and the neighboring city-state has been ongoing for years. We can end this war. One of our spies discovered a meeting being held in two weeks. Nearly all of their top government officials will be there, and if we had just one well-timed bomb…the city would have to surrender. We wouldn’t even have to send in a fleet of soldiers–just you. You’d be the one to lead everyone to victory. You would be recognized as a hero.”

She scoffed. “There’s no redemption for me. I made my mistake and I’m suffering because of it. Nothing can change that.”

He looked disapprovingly over his glasses. “You didn’t know.”

She waited a beat. “We’re talking about ending the war here?”

“No more death,” he said. “None after this mission.”

She exhaled. “What else can you tell me about it?”

“Welcome back,” he said, standing and extending his hand for her to shake it. “Captain.”


The helicopter ride was noisy, an older model from before the war. She could barely hear the sound of her own breathing inside the headphones. She sighed.

Below her, city slums slowly changed to regal-looking business buildings, made of glass and steel. They towered over the people, miles high and curving at the tops. The last time she’d been to the big city was to give up the game. She frowned at the tiny figures walking below. 

The helicopter slumped down on the top of one of the larger buildings, directed by officials in blue uniforms waving red batons. An official helped her out, and she stood blinking in the sun and fresh air.

She was led inside to her room, labeled with the gold number 22462. Upon opening the door, she discovered everything inside was white and pristine, almost to the point where it hurt to look at. After showering and getting dressed, she opened the door to a young man nervously clutching a file.

“Hello,” he said politely, running a hand through dark hair. “I’m here to help you with anything you might need, will be your assistant while you’re here. If you’ll follow me, we have some things we want to discuss with you about the mission.”

“Sure,” she said, closing the door behind her and following him to a circular office, where the general from earlier waited.

“Please, sit,” the general said. “While we know you specified as a drone pilot, you won’t be able to fight virtually. While you’ve been…away…our enemy has developed technology to jam our drone transmissions. This means you’ll have to directly fly the plane into the city. Don’t worry,” he added as she opened her mouth to protest. “The building you’ll be attacking is a military target, and the plane you’ll be flying has the same characteristics of your old drone. We just need to get you back into practice. Have you ever flown in person?”

“I’ve had some experience,” she admitted. “But I’m a little rusty and should practice again before the mission.”

“That can be arranged,” he said, nodding to the dark haired man. He wrote something down on a notepad.

The general spoke again. “We have a special program planned for you over the next few days that will prepare you for the mission. Since it’s a simulation, you can run it however many times you like to prepare for the actual thing. It uses the same drone and controls that you used before and will later use again during the actual mission. There is a headset in one of the drawers under your television that should be equipped with the program so you can practice any time you’d like.”

“Thank you, I’m sure it will come in handy,” she said.

“Before you go, one more thing: don’t go out in public. We don’t need people knowing you’re working with us again. You can go now,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said once more, inclining her head and turning from the office. The way back to her own room was fairly simple, and she found it easily. She hesitated by the door, wondering vaguely how she’d gotten roped into all this. Eventually her feet carried her to the television, where there was indeed a headset for her. It was surprisingly light and flexible, and her hands fumbled to get it over her head. 

The controls that paired with it were smooth and curved, and she searched with a finger for the power on button. When she did find it, the set turned on with a quiet whirr and the screen snapped to life. The welcome screen displayed the standard, simple controls, but she couldn’t help feeling a little nervous at the prospect of playing again. Abruptly, the screen changed and she settled herself onto the couch so she could pilot more easily. 

The graphics loaded into a cityscape, one she suspected was from their enemy across the sea. It was laid out surprisingly similar to her own city, with its tall, towering buildings that curved into points far above. She supposed it was a little different: subtle differences gave it an overall sinister look. Perhaps the sidewalks were more shadowed, the buildings themselves angular instead of rounded. Her little drone formed around her and she was startled by a wave of nostalgia, as it was very similar (if not the same) to her old drone. Her virtual hand clutched the control and she imagined being there in real life, her actual hand cramping on the remote she held.

It was as easy as she remembered, a small shift pushing the drone into flight and tipping off the building. For a moment she forgot to level out and her stomach rolled as she free-fell, exhaling in relief when muscle memory finally kicked in.

Once she got started, it was fun to fly the drone. She enjoyed swooping between and around the buildings, for a while just enjoying the scenery of the game. She blew up the government building more times than she could count, resetting the game each time and hitting her target spot-on. Soon she tired of the game, put the controller away, and went to sleep.


Practice took up a lot of her time. She played most of the days, trying new maps and angles and attacks. Slowly, she advanced up levels until the simulation matched what they expected her to encounter on the actual assault, including enemy drones, patrol zeppelins, and missiles. Her drone had one aspect she really enjoyed: the cloaking ability. It allowed her to go completely invisible to avoid detection, which was essential to make it to the target. If she was detected, it was considered a loss, and she regretted the fact that she couldn’t just knock the enemy drones out of the sky. Over and over, she hit the red switch that dropped the bomb onto the building, each time feeling a little more rewarded as the bomb hit its mark. Her assistant would often come and watch her play, the virtual reality projected onto the television so he could easily watch. 

One day, he decided virtual reality wasn’t good enough and took her to see the jet. It was inside a hangar just off a small runway, which was quite nice–although it had nothing on the jet itself.

He watched her admire it. It was a beautiful machine: it was painted dark blue, a deep royal color with yellow streaks running along the belly, up the tail, and across the wings. Her hands were sweaty, but once she climbed into the cockpit and touched the controls she began to feel a little more like herself. 

She took a deep breath and pulled the helmet over her head, trying to ignore the few people gathering to watch by the edge of the runway. He waved to her from below and shaded his eyes, watching as she carefully steered the plane onto the runway. By now something had sparked in her chest, her vision clearing. Goosebumps rose along her arms as she quickly thrust the plane into full throttle. It began racing down the runway, the drone of the engine far louder than the noise of the zeppelins she’d once known, and she felt the wheels bumping slightly over cracks, and then the end of the runway was only a few feet away, and she was rising, rising–

And she was free! Soaring into the sky. She saw someone wave at her from the corner of her eye and circled around to wave back. She felt weightless for a moment, used to the still skies of the game. 

Up here, everything was different. It was exactly like she’d remembered. Quiet, peaceful. Just her and openness, possibility. The clouds were lazy today, spiraling along the sky in great, fluffy chains that blocked the blueness of the sky but not the sun. She flew around for awhile, then attempted a flip. Her stomach somersaulted with the jet’s movements but she grinned when she righted herself. 

Her hands tightened on the familiar controls and she imagined herself inside the game once more. She could almost see the enemy drones soaring around her, the city laid out below. All of a sudden she missed the time before she retired; before she knew what she had done.

Her sadness vanished when she dipped below the clouds and once more saw a small crowd cheering. Her landing was bumpier than she would have wanted it to be, but otherwise she was surprised she wasn’t as rusty as she expected. 

He was waiting for her as she pried her sore hands away from the yoke, helping her out of her helmet. She gave the crowd a weak wave, smiling (like usual) back at them when they answered. She allowed him to escort her back to her room where she flopped onto the bed and let herself feel normal, at least for the moment.


“I’d like to visit my house,” she said the next morning. “It would be nice to see it before my mission tomorrow.”

To her surprise, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not authorized to take you. You’re supposed to stay on the base until after tomorrow, for safety reasons.”

She scoffed. “Please, I’m not going to get hurt in the hour it takes for you to fly me there and back. I’m not going to get injured in my own home.”

He narrowed his eyes and looked intently at her. “Okay,” he said reluctantly. “For one hour only.”

“Thanks!” she grinned, throwing her arms around him and squeezing tightly for a second. He looked startled but the corner of his mouth lifted up into a smile and he hugged her back.

“Let’s go,” he said, rolling his eyes and chuckling. This time they took a large silver quad, nothing like she’d ever ridden in before. It was much more enjoyable, the motors nearly silent compared to the helicopter. 

Her cheery mood faded when the house came into view. She knew it was her house, but it did not look like anything she remembered. It was clean. Unbroken. There was a garden in the front.

She stepped slowly out of the quad, made her way up the path, and cautiously approached the door. She turned the knob, expecting it to open–but she only rattled it.

She frowned and tried again. She could hear his footsteps behind her, and her confusion grew. She froze when she saw movement behind makeshift curtains and abruptly stepped back as the door opened.

“Hello, can I help you?” a woman wearing a pale lilac dress and concerned expression peered through the opening.


“Is something wrong?” The woman opened the door wider and she was able to look inside. It was completely redecorated. For a moment she wasn’t even sure it was her house, until she caught sight of her favorite armchair (cleaned and re-stuffed) and her heart formed a lump in her throat.

“I–I’m sorry,” she stammered. “When did you move in?”

She looked confused. “I’ve been living here for a couple weeks now. Do you need something?”

“No, I…” She took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I must have gotten the wrong address. Sorry to bother you.”

The woman gave her a last confused look and closed the door. She turned and immediately walked into his chest.

“Hey, hey,” he said, grabbing her arms. Confusion gleamed in his own eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll…be right back,” she muttered, turning and walking away. As soon as she was out of his sight she began running: one block, two–

Eventually she couldn’t run anymore, and she sank down in the middle of an empty park and let the world spin around her. Her unsteady breaths rocked her whole body, filling her ears and drowning out the sound of his footsteps running towards her. With each footfall she curled a little more inside herself. With each footfall she pressed her hands a little harder against her ears.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said, fumbling and unsure of what to do. Eventually he settled with wrapping his arms around her and nestling her head under his chin. “What happened back there?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, gaining control over her breathing again. “What did they do to it? Did they sell it? Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said doubtfully. “Are you sure you’re okay? I can ask when we get back.”

“This is exactly something the government would do. They’re such scheming liars.”

His eyes softened with hurt. “I’m not,” he said. “I had nothing to do with this, I swear.” He took a step forward, and she echoed it with a step back of her own. 

“How do I know? You could have been leading me on this entire time.” She narrowed her eyes, suspicious, still backing away.

“I haven’t. Please believe me,” he said, following her. He braced his hands on the tree and penned her between them. She stilled.

“You can trust me,” he whispered huskily. How sad his eyes looked, a blue-grey puddle. She hadn’t thought about them before–they looked like puppy eyes, wide and sad and innocent. She reached out a finger to brush his lashes and they fluttered closed. His hand shifted on the tree. His inhale was strained. She slowed her breathing to match his.

“We have to go,” she whispered back, equally soft. She ducked under his arm and made her way back towards the quad, letting his labored breathing fade behind her.


The next day was overcast.

When she woke, she was still tired. She climbed sluggishly into the shower and let the hot water run over her for what felt like an hour, closing her eyes and letting the steam fill the bathroom. When she emerged, she dressed slowly and brushed her hair. Standing in front of the mirror, she looked like she had every other day she’d lived there. Maybe the circles under her eyes were a little more prominent; maybe her hands shook a little more than they usually did. She smiled to herself in the mirror and tried to calm her increasingly jittery nerves. 

She walked out onto the runway but stopped when she saw the five other planes waiting there. Her eyes scanned the runway; there were no other pilots in sight. 

He was waiting by one of them. “They’re to help you,” he said. “You’ll fly the lead plane and the rest will follow you, controlled by infrared lasers that can’t be detected from the ground.”

She didn’t say anything, wishing they would have told her earlier. It wasn’t like her to be unprepared for things. She stretched out her hand for him to shake it. “Thanks.”

He grabbed it but pulled her into a hug instead. “You’re welcome,” he breathed into her hair. 

She began to pull away, then hesitated. “Can I get a kiss, just for good luck?”

His mouth twitched into a smile. “Just one, then.”

His lips were soft over hers. She smiled against them, letting herself forget about the mission for one endless second. Eventually, she drew away softly and leaned her forehead against his. “Bye,” she whispered.

“I’ll be talking to you through the comms,” he said. “Along with the rest of mission control. You won’t be alone.”

She gave him a smile and climbed up the steps into the jet, pulling her helmet over her head. The jet started easily, and soon she was racing down the runway and into the sky, flying towards the city. “You there?”

“Here,” his voice sounded into her ears, so clear it made her jump and look around, to see if he was actually in the plane with her. “You’re on a direct course for the city, and you’ve played the simulation enough times that you know where the building you’re looking for is. All you have to do is drop the bomb over it and the other planes will follow suit.”

“Got it,” she said, directing the plane under a flock of seabirds. She turned on stealth mode for her plane, becoming virtually invisible. Next to her, the other planes shimmered out of sight as well. The first hazy buildings of the city came into view and she shifted in her seat to sit up straighter. She took a deep breath and ducked silently under the first line of defense drones, eyeing them suspiciously as she passed by. They looked like stone, hovering motionless in the sky. She made it through two, three, four lines of defense, her heart stuttering with each drone she passed. Sentry zeppelins stood watch over the city, blissfully unaware of her presence among their ranks. She was weaving through maybe the seventh row when one of them suddenly hummed to life and she froze, bringing her jet to a standstill as the drone flew close enough that she could see the detail on its side. The rest of the drones followed suit and she held her breath as they zoomed past her, gently rocking the ship. She exhaled once it felt safe and thankfully they were gone, flown off to watch some other part of the city. 

She allowed herself a relieved smile and flew back on course, spotting the building out of the corner of her eye. It was large and swooping, made of something that looked like marble. It reminded her of an opera house, and her lips pursed as she imagined someone singing inside. She reached an arm out to flip the switch that would arm the bomb, but her hand collided with smooth metal instead.

“There’s no switch here,” she said into the mic. “How am I supposed to drop it without controls?”

“Okay, let me–what?” he broke off. Another voice, more distant, buzzed in the back of her head.

“What’s he saying?” she asked. 

“That can’t be right,” he said, ignoring her. “Tell me that’s not true!”


“They didn’t put the switch in because…” His voice broke.

“What?” She turned the plane around and circled around the city again.

“There never was one.”

“I don’t understand.”

You’re the weapon.”


“It’s a suicide mission, the whole plane is a bomb. That was the only way to be sure,” he said, voice wavering. “They sent you out to die.”

She leaned her head back against the seat and blew a long breath out through her mouth. She waited for the surprise and fear to dawn on her. It never did. Her mind quieted. She felt strangely calm.

“Okay,” she breathed, her senses kicking into overdrive. “Okay.”

“Tell me you’re not going to do it,” he said, his voice cracking. “Tell me you’re coming back.”

“How important is the mission?” she asked, her voice strong.

“Not that important,” he pleaded. The buzz of the other voice was loud in the back of her head.

“If I don’t do this, what will happen?”

“We’ll be fine,” he said desperately. “We can find some other way.” The comms crackled and the general’s gruff voice hit her ears.

“Remember your mission, Captain. This ends the war.”

“Right,” she said. “I made a mistake before. This is my chance to prove I’m worth it.”

She could hear him crying now. “Wait,” he said, “You don’t understand.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she said, ducking below the clouds. “I can end the war. It’ll all be over. I owe it to the people. Maybe I can’t bring those I killed back to life, but I can save the ones alive today.”

“No, no, please–”

She muted her comms. Angled the plane down. 

Her ears filled with the sound of the wind rushing over the canopy. She thought of her past life, her old missions. She was overcome with a wave of sadness. Perhaps what was the past should have stayed there–perhaps she should have tried to start another life far, far away from all this madness.

Her heart ached for him–for his life without her. If he knew, would he forgive her? She would never know. All she knew was that those people she killed: they wouldn’t forgive her. She did this for them. Were they worth it?

She supposed that in the end, it didn’t really matter.

She’d done it anyway .