Her mother had died on this day last year.
Thelsea stood in her designated spot, more out of apathy than decorum, slouching behind the single row of school seats. Many remained unoccupied, to the chagrin of the impatient man trying to photograph the class. The other teenagers tended to be too excited or agitated to remain in place for long.
Upon examination later, the photo titled “Clifton Beach Year Eleven Special Needs Unit” would reveal an eclectic mix: two children in wheelchairs, others sitting in various postures, the rest on their feet. Thelsea would number amongst the latter, located furthest to one side at the back, looking so normal that she would be mistaken for a youthful substitute teacher or assistant.
One of few indigenous people in the picture, she had an oblong face that framed disinterested brown eyes beneath brows that slanted downwards. A small nose and an average, narrow mouth did little to fill out the rest of her face in a flattering way, though a sturdy, prominent chin did underline it. The strands of her flat, earthy hair tended to knot and curl slightly at the end. Lean to the point of gaunt, she might have faded into the dusty tan wall of the building in the background if not for her bright and tidy school uniform and even white teeth, bared to show something between a grimace and a smile.
The photographer assisted Mrs Dobson in rounding up the rest of the class, hindering more than helping. Trying to manhandle Brett, the short boy who was autistic, was a bad idea. Brett never allowed anyone other than his mother or a teacher to touch him. Thelsea wondered, not for the first time, whether that was because the contact had to be of a certain kind or method. Mrs Dobson, remonstrating with another boy chewing on the collar of his shirt, gave up in order to assist the photographer. Meanwhile, one of the girls shook a large stick against the palings of the nearby fence.
Perhaps the scene sounded as chaotic as it looked. Thelsea recalled the phrase of being too loud to hear oneself think. That hadn’t been a problem for her—ever. Her disturbance wasn’t within her ears, but between them.
Her departure was mercifully quick.
Thelsea’s mind whispered to her, an unwanted confidant, forcing her to listen. It repeated the rehearsed mantras that naive people had spoken to her in ignorance, believing they would comfort.
At least there was no pain.
What of Thelsea’s own? Another useless balm shoved down her mind’s gullet, to be regurgitated when the occasion warranted, such as the anniversary of her mother’s death.
Once Brett had been calmed down and gently coaxed to his seat, Mrs Dobson frowned at the girl with the stick, then signed to Thelsea, “Ask Michael to join us.”
A student transferred from who knew where only two weeks ago, Michael would be photographed with the rest of the class today, lending the impression forever after that he had in fact been with them the entire year. Like Mrs Dobson and Thelsea, he knew Auslan, Australian Sign Language. Thelsea wondered whether he was deaf too, or hard of hearing. She hadn’t seen him wearing hearing aids or speaking. Segregating himself away from the chaos, he sat under the shade of a large tree some distance away, lost in the paperback novel he held in one hand.
Thelsea rubbed suddenly sweaty hands against her pants. An unexpected opportunity. What was he reading? She tried to glimpse the book as she approached. If she recognised it, therein lay another topic of conversation. Its spine showed a long, shining sword with a short word she couldn’t make out etched upon its handle.
What was it with boys and swords? Hmm. Mention the book anyway? She could see the engraved word now. What did a sword have to do with—?
Michael looked up at her from his book. Strands of his golden-blonde hair ruffled in the breeze. Her hand twitched, wanting to reach out to touch it.
“What is it?” Michael signed. “Are they ready to take our picture yet?”
“Yes,” Thelsea signed back without thinking, then stopped. Was that why Mrs Dobson had sent her? Flustered, Thelsea tried to remember. She didn’t realise he’d signed “Okay” until he was past her, hurrying back to the action. Teeth grinding, she stepped lively to reach him.
Slow down, she scolded herself. Don’t come across as too eager. Then he was striding ahead of her again, so she had to hurry anyway. She stretched out her hands to sign, “Are you going to the fete?” She didn’t plan on going to the bright and childish end-of-year spectacle the Special Needs Unit put on … unless he did. Looking ahead, he didn’t acknowledge the question—hadn’t seen? Or didn’t want to see? Had she been too bold by asking straight out? Perhaps she should have referenced it first, built her way up to it.
If he ever looked at her!
Meanwhile, Mrs Dobson and the photographer had managed to more or less corral the others into their places, one directing a group of boys, while the other pointed Thelsea and Michael to opposite sides of the assembled group. Of course.
The photographer, given the all-clear, decided to mess around with the camera instead. A few of her classmates fidgeted.
She’s in a better place now.
Yes, because life with her loving husband and doting daughter must’ve been terrible. Argh, would the guy just take the picture already! To keep her monkey-mind at bay, Thelsea tried thinking about exactly what she should say to Michael after the shoot.
She never had the opportunity. After the photos were finally taken, class was dismissed—or rather, many of the ambulatory students scattered in every direction, some resuming merry mayhem, others meeting their parents to be picked up. Michael was one of the latter, vanishing into a waiting SUV before a bemused Thelsea could sign “boo”.
Well, no point in hanging around any longer. Instead of waiting for the bus, Thelsea decided to walk. Stern storm clouds were gathering at the horizon. It would rain soon. Mum used to meet her after school on the cloudy days, enjoying the overcast conditions. They would walk home together, discussing their respective days.
You’ll be reunited someday.
Thelsea set out, leaving the school behind. If only she could leave her mind behind as well.
She walked on autopilot, existing in her own bubble of reality, not seeing the cars cruising by, not smelling their fumes, not feeling the whoosh of their wake, and definitely not hearing the steady drone of tyres rolling along the bitumen.
Her eyes focused: a children’s playground; the frosted windows of the building beside it, some covered with promotional posters of gigantic, juicy burgers; shapes milling about inside. The Prime Fooder. They were having some kind of promotion or celebration. On one of the windows, a different poster was spread out. Thelsea stepped closer. “Misc Motley!” it proclaimed, whatever that was. Below that was a picture of a group of eclectic characters—a girl whose eyes were entirely white, a trembling old man dressed in a black robe and, most interesting, a grinning boy without ears, using one hand to sign the letter Z. A stylistic Z had also been drawn in the background. The bottom of the poster specified a date—today’s. Had it been put up today? Or had it been there before and she hadn’t noticed?
This Misc Motley had attracted a crowd, aside from the usual handful of teenagers. What were they doing here? Some were wearing a school uniform, some not. There were several older people as well, in their early twenties maybe, all talking, laughing, hanging around in small groups. Many were looking at smartphones or tablets. Three used laptops.
Whenever Thelsea stopped in for a burger, she usually sat in a corner, or on one of the single seats off to the side. The few that weren’t occupied were situated uncomfortably close to the others. She would sit outside today. No one except smokers or parents sat there....(Top) (Introduction to Siren) (Home)
Outside the restaurant, she could see a boy adjacent to one of the window seats within. He had his laptop angled towards the glass, facing out, to stop another boy sitting at the same table from looking. This afforded Thelsea a decent view. He was playing a game of some sort. He hovered his cursor over something on the bottom of the screen, enlarging it—a card.
It didn’t look like any card Thelsea had ever seen. Prominently displayed was a picture of a girl wearing a red blindfold, sitting cross-legged in mid-air. The block of text beneath was too small to read. Numbers were laid out in the corners. Elaborate flowing lines separated the card’s elements.
The cursor moved away and the card shrank, coming to rest beside three similar-looking cards resting at the bottom of the screen—his current hand, it seemed. The cursor returned to rest upon a card beside the first.
This card showed a picture of a man with his hands clapped over his ears, his eyes squeezed shut, face twisted with anguish. The cursor moved away; the second card returned to its former place. For a while the cursor remained in place. One of the boy’s hands remained on the laptop’s touchpad, the other cupping his chin as he stared at the screen.
At last he selected the first card again, the one with the blindfolded woman. After dragging it towards the centre of the screen, he released it. This began an animated sequence where the card’s decorative borders shimmered away and the woman gently floated down to some sort of green field, uncrossing her legs and extending them to stand in a ready stance.
Meanwhile, the boy had flicked the cursor to the far side of the screen, to a graphic of an old-fashioned pocket watch. Its open face showed a green arrow pointing down. Its second hand flashed red for every tick past eleven, towards twelve. Atop the watch, an incongruous button looped a pressing animation, flashing orange in tandem with the second hand.
The boy clicked on the button, which stopped it flashing. At the same time, the green arrow flipped around the face upwards, changing its colour to red, and the second hand reset to twelve and started flicking towards one.
The boy leaned back in his chair and sipped on his soft drink. Who was he playing against? The game AI? Someone online? The design upon the back of his opponent’s cards was of a lidded eye exuding white light.
The other boy sitting at the table frowned at the phone he held, tapped at it, then smirked and said something to the first boy. On the laptop, the red upwards-facing arrow spun back downwards and reverted to green once more. Apparently, it was the first boy’s turn again. Wait, did that mean the second boy was playing the same game? Using his phone? Well, well. If this new card game could be played that way …
...The boy’s laptop distracted her, showing something different: a vista of sunlight breaking through clouds with an overarching rainbow, and text flashing “You did it!” The other boy was scowling at his phone.
Thelsea tried searching “online card game victory screen you did it” … and waited.
At last some results. Here was something—a game named Zeperno. Was that it? The search engine started loading pictures as well as text results, slowly. Yes, this was it. “Zeperno,” stated the website, “a digital card-collectable game for the Abled, by Anaptyxsoft.” Further down, a tagline: “Nobody’s Imperfect.”
Really? Did that mean it was targeted towards people with disabilities? Fancy that. Everyone playing inside seemed normal.
She tapped on the result to load its web page. Apparently, the game could be played on a phone. She couldn’t use hers, unfortunately. It was older than the minimum-spec models specified.
Disappointing. On the plus side, her old desktop computer at home might match the PC minimum specs. She could try it out later.
Nearly everyone inside was doing the same thing as the two boys—playing Zeperno on various devices. Was that what the Misc Motley was all about? Some kind of event where fans of the game could come and play?...
...At home, Thelsea shrugged off her backpack beside the door and trudged to her room. Switching on “the Dinosaur”, she wondered what to do while she waited for it to load Windows. Might as well turn on the air conditioning as well. After that, she stopped, remembering that she was going to try out that new online card game—Zeperno, that was it.
Thelsea found its website, featuring a promo trailer with animated characters using the one-handed Z sign, same as the poster.
After downloading and installing it, Thelsea loaded it up. As the title screen appeared, a pop-up informed her there were many accessibility options, listing accommodations for users who were blind or had low vision, deaf or hard of hearing, or had physical or motor impairments. Zeperno’s accessibility submenu sported an impressive array of options. How many games did that? Thelsea selected the “closed captions” option and exited.
After starting the game, she was assigned a hero—or Able, as the game referred to it—ailed with the Blind condition, reducing the chance to hit for all characters. An animated portrait of this Able, a fairly normal-looking girl in a school uniform, except for her totally white eyes, transitioned onto the middle of the screen, then drifted down to the very bottom to be portrayed as a static image. The entire background remained blurred, out of focus.
An introduction sequence started, explaining how to play. Five cards materialised onto the screen and floated down to rest above the Able’s portrait.
Another animated portrait appeared and rose to the top of the screen. This one—the opponent, Thelsea presumed—was a boy with a mischievous grin, his head framed by his forearms and hands, his short hair cresting over where his ears should have been but weren’t, the line emphasising their non-existence. A pop-up explained that he was ailed with the Silence condition, stopping all characters from casting spells. A hand of cards, face down, appeared beneath his portrait. The back of the cards showed a symbol of an ear with a diagonal slash running through it.
Interesting. She controlled an apparently blind Able, and her opponent seemed to be a deaf Able. She hoped she could choose the deaf one later. How many other Ables were in the game? What did they do?
A pop-up expounded on conditions. Each Able had a different condition that affected not only any opponent character but any allied character as well. Therefore, any and all characters for the upcoming match would be affected by both Blind and Silence, those being the conditions of the competing Ables.
The background between the two Ables and their respective hands came into focus, revealing an oblong-shaped green sports field with the stylistic Z mown into its grass, all shown in a tilted, or isometric, view. That covered the central area of the screen between the two players. The edges of the screen revealed multiple rows of stadium seating, filled with vaguely defined humanoid shapes, implying an audience. Thelsea imagined an unseen crowd talking or cheering. Another pop-up explained this would be where all cards would be played and thereby interact with everything else. Each and every card in Zeperno cost a certain number of summon points to play, depleting a player’s available pool for that turn, limiting the number of cards that could be played at any one time. In general, the higher the summon point cost of a card, the more powerful it was. A player’s pool of summon points would refresh at the beginning of their turn.
The cards themselves consisted of two types: doers and spells. Each player took turns using these, deploying doers, casting spells, or both, attacking or defending until the health of the opposing Able had been reduced to zero. At that point, the game would end, victory being awarded to the player of the surviving Able. Should a player hover their cursor over any doer on the battlefield, a pop-up of its card would appear, in case the player wasn’t familiar with it.
Thelsea won the first tutorial match easily enough. For the second, she had to continue using the blind Able, though her opponent changed to a twisted, wizened man dressed in dark, tattered robes. He had the Seize condition, whereby each character had a chance to damage itself every turn.
Thelsea was made to play against two more Ables, each designed to showcase a particular aspect of the game. After defeating the fourth one, the tutorial was over. Then the game really opened up....(Top) (Introduction to Thelsea) (Home)
Siren reclined her aeroplane seat, relaxing for the first time in days. The aisle seat. Taking it easy was one thing. No quick access to an exit was quite another.
The VIP Relocation Program had lived up to its reputation. She’d blipped onto their radar after her previous mission had gone sideways. They’d dropped everything to accommodate her. Ralph Patterginson could wait. What harm could one more rabid fan do, anyway? Siren’s need was far more pressing, and everyone at the program knew it.
Patterginson’s chagrin with being leapfrogged for relocation had changed into excitement when he’d realised whom it was for, asking her for an autograph.
She’d obliged. Why not? Nothing else to do while waiting for the right calls to be made. It had also made sense from a tactical standpoint.
While few knew her by sight, her reputation preceded her. Certain illicit organisations worldwide hunted her from the shadows. Hardly surprising. She’d been around the block a few times already. She rarely left any trace.
The Paris job had been the exception. How was she to have known the target would bring the sample of the X2 compound with him for the trade? She’d expected him to use a dead drop, like any other halfway-decent professional.
The original plan had involved acquiring him there, then following him back to his source. Tracking down and stopping whoever was producing X2 had been Siren’s highest priority. She would relegate the task of picking up the sample to someone she could trust—in this context, anyway.
Instead, the target had demanded a meet, then surprised her by bringing the X2 sample. That necessitated a plan change: make a trade first, then follow. Aside from the presence of the sample, her meeting with the target at his nominated cafe had proceeded as expected.
Until a waitress ruined everything.
Maybe she’d seen something odd. Maybe she’d remembered some business that needed to be taken care of. Maybe she’d needed to hear the voice of a loved one.
Whatever that waitress had intended, as soon as she’d glanced at the target while speaking into her phone, she had doomed herself, her boss and three of their customers. The target had panicked, smashing the small bottle he’d held to cover his escape. If not for Siren’s quick thinking, five deaths could easily have been five hundred … thousand.
Prior to that, CIA, MI6 and DGSE had been more or less content to leave her be, so long as she kept them in the loop. Now they believed she had gone rogue after five innocents had died. She needed to lay some false trails, including one with a famous actor.
That might compromise Patterginson’s ability to remain anonymous when the intelligence agencies of the free world descended upon him, but hey, he had asked for it.
He did have a nice smile. She might take him to dinner after the dust had settled—if she had an evening to spare, and they happened to be in the same country.
Something jolted Siren from behind, bringing her back to the aeroplane. Twisting in her seat, she had the misfortune to lay eyes upon one of the ugliest men she had ever seen. Oh, his slender build, brooding face and dark eyes might draw a glance. Unfortunately, so did all of his tattoos and body piercings. Eek. Dirty white singlet and board shorts. He looked like a jungle native.
At first sight of her, his thin lips twisted into a smirk. “Hey, babe. Here I was thinkin’ I didn’t care if I bumped into whoever sat in front. Turns out—” his gaze locked on to her cleavage “—we might be good to bump after all.” He chuckled, pleased with his lewd sense of humour.
Siren sprang from her seat, bounded off the aisle and landed on his lap, her knees pushing into the seat on either side of his body. The old woman in the window seat beside him gasped at the sudden movement, echoing a couple across the aisle. Jungle Boy jumped in surprise as well, belatedly trying to hide it by wriggling his hips.
“Ready when you are,” he said, trying to act casual, as though he didn’t mind the idea of others watching. His darting eyes proved otherwise.
“Little boys should be seen, not heard.” She appraised him. “Though in your case, neither. Damn, you hurt my eyes. What experimental facility did you escape from?” She glanced at his crotch. “Were they testing cures for impotence?”
That wiped the grin off his face. Scowling, he reached for her.
Took him long enough.
She whipped an arm up in a blocking move, thrusting it against one of his, and pushed hard to the side, sweeping both his arms off to one side with enough force to twist his body in the seat. Using her upper body to press harder, keeping him pinned, she produced a small vial with her other arm, bringing it up to his panting face. His eyes crossed, trying to track it.
“This is meant for my next target,” she said. His eyes widened at the last word. “The entire amount is overkill though. I can spare some.”
“It can function as an airborne agent.” As he clamped his mouth shut, she grimaced. “Same as your breath.” She drew out the moment, enjoying the sight of his face turning red. “In its airborne state, the agent is no longer lethal.” She cocked an ear. “What’s that you ask? What happens if it’s inhaled?”
He gasped, then immediately sealed his mouth again.
“I’m not sure, to be honest.” She pretended to frown in thought. “Though the paper on this agent did mention … chemical castration.”
“Oh, wait, I remember what it does now.” She plucked the stopper with her teeth and removed it, waving it under his nose. He uttered a muffled strangling noise. “Absolutely nothing.” She upended the solution, downed it in one gulp, then patted his cheek. “Relax, Casanova.”
Scattered laughter and applause broke out as she stood up. She bowed, then returned to her seat. Trembling, Jungle Boy stumbled from his seat, careening down the aisle to the restroom.
Siren resumed her reclined position. No, that wasn’t quite it. She pushed her seat back a few more inches. There.
Eyes closed, she heard him shuffle to his seat. He didn’t disturb her again.
Tied down against a metal chair welded to the floor, Siren struggled as her captor leaned over her. Never give in! She kept working at her bonds, trying to loosen them. A bright light bulb hung from its fixture, blinding her, obscuring her captor’s face. A heavy, callused hand rested on her bare shoulder. After a familiar squeeze, he caressed her flesh with his fingers.
“Tell us what you know,” he whispered, draping his fingers down one side of her squirming body, then up the other, “and your death will be quick. Truly, I do not wish to throw you to the men. They have certain—” he pinched a sensitive spot “—appetites, you understand. You are an honourable adversary, deserving of mercy. Between us, I can admit this.”
Siren wouldn’t speak. Words of denial served no purpose. She would need her strength for the ordeal to come. He would glean information about her training, her state of mind, from whatever she spoke and how. He would learn nothing!
He shook her shoulder. “Excuse me,” he demanded. “Excuse me. Excuse me …”
“Ma’am, excuse me, please …”
Siren awoke with a start, gasping, her training kicking in as she moved to attack … the flight attendant? The girl drew back, alarmed.
A flashback. That was all. A dream. Siren felt a fine sheen of sweat on her forehead despite the pleasant conditions inside the plane. She’d barely escaped that man alive. She took a calming breath. That had been then.
And this was now.
The hesitant attendant remained where she was, presumably thinking she was safely out of range. “Ma’am, do you, by chance, know how to—” swallowing, she lowered her voice “—fly?”
Uh-oh. “Yes, I do.” Siren moved closer and the flight attendant jumped back. “For goodness’ sake, I won’t hurt you. What’s the situation?” she asked quietly.
The petite attendant slumped against her, relieved that someone else might take responsibility. “Our pilot has passed out,” she whispered. “We’re not sure why.”
“What are his symptoms?”
“Besides being unconscious?”
“Never mind. What else is the problem?” There was always something else.
“Um, we’re due to land in five minutes, and—”
“Say no more. Follow me.” Siren noticed the other attendants trailing along the other aisles, presumably doing the same as hers had been. Passengers were looking alarmed, muttering amongst themselves. Panic, the worst contagion of all, was spreading.
“You and the other two calm the passengers,” Siren commanded. “When that’s done, one of you come back to the cockpit. The others remain here. Understood?”
Inside the cockpit, the co-pilot glanced at her and did a double take. He doffed his headphones. “Miss, you’re not allowed—”
“I’m a pilot.”
“Oh.” He remained dubious. “This aeroplane isn’t exactly a Cessna. It’s a—”
“767, the Extended Range variant. I noticed.” She crouched over the sprawled pilot. “What’s our ETA?”
“Three and a half minutes.”
She placed the back of her hand above the pilot’s mouth, checking his chest. “Really? Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a challenge.” He was breathing. “Having said that, couldn’t we have started taking measures before we’re all about to crash?” There were no issues with his spine, so she started placing him into the recovery position.
“He collapsed only seconds ago, ma’am.”
“I guessed as much.” She checked his airway. No problems. “So much for defusing the tension with humour.” He should be okay until the attendant returned. “Radio the tower,” Siren said, donning the pilot’s headphones. “Let them know what’s happening.”
“Miss, if you really can fly, you need to—”
“Keep your tie on and do as I say.”
“Roger.” He donned his headphones and flicked a switch. “This is Charlie-Kilo-One-Niner …”
The cockpit door opened to admit a flight attendant, the same one Siren had spoken with earlier. “The passengers are calm,” she reported.
“Good,” Siren replied, not looking up, getting reacquainted with the instruments around her. “Has the pilot awoken?”
“I don’t think so,” the attendant replied straightaway—too quick for anything except a brief glance.
Siren allowed herself a brief sigh. The pilot may have stopped breathing. Ideally, she should check on him properly, except there was no time to spare. She had to shift her priorities from preserving one life to many.
“Being unconscious for this long isn’t a good sign,” Siren said. “Keep him warm and don’t give him anything to eat or drink, even if he wakes up. After we’re on the ground, direct emergency services to the pilot first.” Assuming he was breathing.
“Me?” The girl’s tone rose with confusion. “Why me? Why can’t you?”
“I’m expected at an important engagement. Can’t stick around, sorry.”
“An important engagement?” the girl shrieked. “Who do you think you are? The Queen?” A breathless laugh. “It’ll be hard to attend your engagement if we all crash and die!”
Siren decided not to mention her backup plan involving the parachute.
“Charlie-Kilo-One-Niner, this is Heathrow tower. Do you read?”
“I read,” Siren replied, adjusting her headphones. “This is Charlie-Kilo-One-Niner requesting permission to land.”
“Roger, One-Niner. Runway two is clear.” A pause, then, “This isn’t Trevor. Are you—?”
“Your pilot for today? You bet.”
“Uh, we’re not much for gambling here, Miss …?”
“Pilot. You may call me Ms Pilot.” Into the radio silence, she said, “Relax, boys. I’m doing this for free, unlike the guy next to me, or the one lying on the floor.” She let that sink in, then continued. “Now, it’s been a while since I’ve taken a spin with a 767. Not much for gambling, you say? Well, it’s still your lucky day—you get to take me home.”
“Does that mean you want me to talk you down?”
“Assistance would be nice. If we should all happen to be extinguished in a horrific, public fireball, the authorities will appreciate having a living person to blame.” She double-checked their speed and heading.
“Uh, miss, you do know what you’re doing, right?”(Top) (Introduction to Thelsea) (Introduction to Zeperno) (Home)
Excerpts from Siren Plays Zeperno by Geoff O'Brien. Copyright (c) 2018.
Note: Above values are loose estimates.