STRATAGEM Chapter 6
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
TWO WEEKS EARLIER…
Vanderberg Air Force Base
ONE BY ONE, the EMTs rolled the members of the Athena crew into the medical facility. Connor Walken stood in the waiting area as they passed by, each with paramedics and doctors performing chest compressions and bag-mask CPR. For the brief moments when he saw them, however, he could tell. They were completely unresponsive. Who knew how long they’d been this way, how long had Sabine?
He must keep his composure, though. Anything else would appear unprofessional and could expose his feelings for her. He’d admired her from the day she started working with ICOMM. They’d enjoyed a certain rapport both at work and outside. Of course, he knew better than to presume that her kindness toward him was in any way unique. She was kind to everyone. But it didn’t necessarily mean she didn’t have feelings for him too.
He made a mental note of which room the medical team brought her into. But for some reason, they’d all been taken to the same room.
Come on, Sabine. You have to pull through.
Of course, he wished the same for the entire crew, with whom he’d partaken of both dinners and drinks. But the truth was, after this last mission, Connor had finally planned to ask Sabine out. Now, he kicked himself for all those times he’d shied away from the opportunity.
The door slammed shut behind the last gurney. Its sound resounded in his mind, drowned out every noise, every thought. Oblivious of the paramedics coming back out of the room and passing him on their way out of the building, he stood there gazing into the dim hallway for an unknown amount of time.
Time stood still as he tried to comprehend what could have happened before Athena landed. Could it have had anything to do with the damage to Sabine’s glove while out there?
He shook his head and blew out a breath.
You’ve watched too many sci-fi movies.
Still, it was the only unusual thing that had happened.
Also, the damage the AMS had sustained wasn’t really serious enough to warrant a spacewalk repair. But its function had been marginally affected since those meteorites crossed paths with the satellite. Correlation or causation? If the latter, could there have been any connection to the crew’s current condition?
Connor didn’t realize he’d been walking toward the exam room until his toes bumped up against the kickplate of its door. Without considering whether or not he had the authority to go inside, he pushed the door open and entered.
When he opened the door, three doctors stepped out from behind the curtain that divided the entrance from the exam room. They acknowledged him with somber eyes and walked outside. This was the first time he’d ever come to this part of Vanderberg, so he had no idea what to expect.
After a quiet twenty seconds or so, he went over to the curtain and slid it open.
Before him stood a thick glass wall, and airlock-type set of doors, and intercom mounted to the wall. Beyond the glass lay four bodies completely enshrouded, and a person—doctor presumably—in a hazmat suit with her back turned. She was reading something on the computer screen at the far side of the exam room.
He tapped on the window.
The glass was so thick it barely made enough noise to get the doctor’s attention.
He tried again but to no effect.
The intercom, of course. Connor pressed the only button and held it down. “Hello? I’m Director Connor Walken.”
The doctor stopped, turned around and spoke through the mic in her helmet. “How long have you been standing there?”
“I just got here. What…what happened to them?”
“It’s going to take a lot more time to answer that question.” She glanced over to them and shook her head. “I’m not even going to speculate.”
He knew better, but he had to ask. “Are they all…?”
“I’m afraid so,” the doctor said. “We’ll need to wait for the medical examiner to perform an autopsy to explain, but the evidence indicates they’ve been dead for about eight hours.”
“Eight! That’s not possible. I just spoke with them three hours ago. That makes no sense.”
“That’s why I’m going to defer to the coroner’s report.”
“Is there any clue as to cause of—?”
“Again, I’ll defer to the coroner.”
“Come on, doc. Not even a guess?”
Through the plastic panel of her helmet, she glared at him. “If you don’t mind, Director Walken, I have a report to file.” She turned her back on him and continued pecking away at the keyboard.
Ordinarily, he’d be giving her a piece of his mind right about now. Who did this doctor think she was? But a sinking sensation bore a hole in his chest, weakened his resolve. He didn’t have the will to do anything but go to a corner and dissolve into a puddle of grief.
Sabine was gone.
ABOUT TEN MINUTES after the doctor finished her report, shut the lights, and left the exam room, a tiny spark of blue light flashed under the sheet covering one of the astronaut’s bodies.
It flashed a second time, its radius twice the size.
And then, from beneath the fabric…
…a hand reached up.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.
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