When I open my eyes and look down, I see the compass rose on the ocean’s surface. It says north is to my left, so I’m flying from Madrid to Marseilles. I have two minutes before they start shooting at me. Until then, I watch the words in the sky that teach me how to fly the plane.
Up and down on the joystick to go faster and slower. The arrows flash up and down before my eyes. I dutifully push the stick up and down and watch the horizon scroll by faster, then slower. I can hear my engines rise and fall in pitch, but I can never see them out the windows.
Left and right on the joystick to bank left and right. The arrows flash side-to-side. I push the stick side-to-side and the blue horizon cants back and forth.
Watch for heat-seeking missiles! Tap the red button to drop flares. I tap the red button and hear a set of flares shoot from the tail of the plane, followed by the dull BOOM of the exploding missile.
Watch for radar-guided missiles! Tap the blue button to drop chaff. I tap the blue button and hear chaff drop from the plane’s belly. Another BOOM.
The clock shows the time to your destination. I glance at the clock in the sky. Three minutes. They start shooting in thirty seconds.
Watch your fuel! The mail must go through! My fuel gauge is in the sky next to the clock, which is next to the numbers that tally my ability to survive and succeed.
The first anti-aircraft fire comes from battleships, most of which I can only glimpse as the clouds slide between us. That means they don’t get a good look at me, either, so it’s easy to avoid them completely. Left and right, a little faster, a little slower. Sometimes I get nervous and start dropping chaff, even though the guns are just firing dumb shells. Those are the days I don’t expect to live long. Those are the days I don’t even make it to Marseilles. The days the dreams start again right away.
After the battleships, I see the aircraft carriers. Their planes slip up behind me, fire their missiles, and slide out ahead of me. I fly faster and slower, bank left and right. I launch flares at the red missiles, and drop chaff for the blue ones. I’ve dreamed this part, so I know when they’re coming, but sometimes they hit me anyway. The plane can take a few hits and still make it, but I don’t like getting hit so early.
I’m over land now, and more guns on the ground add shells to the missiles I’m still avoiding and evading. Finally, the shooting stops. I can see the runway.
I circle the airport, I hear the music, and I close my eyes.
When I open my eyes and look down, I see the compass rose on the surface of the ground. It says north is ahead of me. That means I’m flying from Marseilles to Amsterdam. I have one minute before they start shooting at me. Until then, I wait for the words in the sky, and my reward for my success so far.
Fly through red icons to pick up flares!
Fly through blue icons to pick up chaff!
Fly through white icons for repairs!
I veer left and right, aiming for the red, blue, and white crosses that hang below each sentence. I hit each one dead center and it shatters silently into flashing shards that disappear behind me. I watch my flare and chaff gauges in the sky refill, and see my plane made whole around me.
The missiles start again, thicker this time. Some of them split into multiples; some of them are faster. If it weren’t for the icons, I’d never make it. Sometimes I don’t, and I have to start over. I don’t mind starting over.
What I mind is the hours and hours of memories. Daydreams? Nightmares. I fly the same small part of the mission, over and over. I make the same maneuvers, hit the same icons, get hit by the same missiles, over and over and over.
Then I open my eyes, and I’m flying from Madrid to Marseilles again.
Today, though, I make it to Amsterdam. I circle the airport, I hear the music, and I close my eyes.
When I open my eyes and look down, I see the compass rose on the ocean’s surface. It says north is to my right. That means I’m flying from Amsterdam to London. They’re already shooting at me, and its night. My plane glows in the darkness, though, and so do the missiles. Well, most of them do. When they get close.
I’m watching the skies ahead of me, watching closely. Not just for the red, blue, and white icons, those are always there. But sometimes, sometimes there’s a gold cross. Today, I can tell, I need a gold cross. I won’t get to London without one.
My plane is failing me. I’m failing. I can see ocean through the holes in the fuselage. I’m waiting for one more missile to get past me. I can’t continue when it does; I have to start over. If I start over. If I don’t dream.
The gold icon appears, far to my right. I bank as hard as I can, leaning with the stick, hoping an unseen missile doesn’t find me as I reach for the only salvation I have coming. I make it, striking the gold cross with my wing as I pass it.
Shields unlocked! flashes in the sky above me. Air whooshes from me; I wasn’t even aware I’d been holding my breath, again. I curse my weakness and focus on catching the icons, avoiding the missiles, dropping chaff and flares, keeping my shields healthy.
I’m over land. The land is almost entirely dark, because of the blackouts. One light flickers: white-white-green; white-white-green. I aim for it, knowing it is the airstrip where I am to land. It’s in the same place it always is, but you never know.
I circle the light, I hear the music, and I close my eyes.
When I open my eyes and look down, the compass rose on the ground says north is behind me. That means I’m flying from London to Madrid. It’s still night. The shooting is constant. I don’t often make it back to Madrid, but tonight feels good; smooth, like I’ve done it a hundred times. Like I know where the next shots will come from.
There are more gold icons in the sky here, but today I barely need them. I take them anyway. The number in the sky that tallies my skill is large, much larger than most nights.
Explosions flash and spark around me and my plane, but they barely touch me. Tonight, I am the king of the skies. Tonight, I will not dream.
I cross over the sea, then back to land. A fortress in the sky floats into view, bristling with guns. Still my luck holds. Missiles flock through the skies, but I find the lane of clear air, mostly. One by one, the launchers on the fortress run out of missiles. My flares fool the missiles into turning on the fortress, and it takes more damage than my plane does.
Finally, as the sky grows light with dawn, in a series of flashing explosions and clouds of smoke, it drops from the sky. As it passes from view, I can see the runway.
I circle the airport, I hear the music, and I close my eyes. I do not dream.