STRATAGEM Chapter 14
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
THIRTEEN DAYS EARLIER…
ICOMM PERSONNEL HOUSING
Vanderberg Air Force Base
THE POUNDING WOULDN’T RELENT. It began as a muffled rhythm of thumps, then came into focus as incessant knocking on the front door. Sabine struggled to open her eyes. Only the left one succeeded.
Darkness surrounded her. Was it morning or night?
She groped around the bed until her fingers hit the edge of the nightstand where her phone rested on its wireless charging pad.
She picked it up and tapped the screen to see what time it was.
Pretty sure I saw it charging before I went to sleep.
More frantic knocking.
So it hadn’t been a dream.
“Sabine?” the man outside’s voice called out, distant and muted. “Are you in there, Sabine?”
Her head felt like a cinderblock. Though both eyes were now open, she still couldn’t see anything except for the thin golden outline of the drawn window blinds. It was still light outside.
The knocking increased in intensity. “Sabine!”
Shaking the stupor off, she found the light switch, threw on her sweats, and walked out to the front door. She took a quick look through the side window and saw who it was that kept knocking on her door.
Quick check in the mirror—messy hair, puffy eyes. Oof. Oh well, it is what it is. She opened the door.
“Oh my God, Sabine,” he said. Eyes wide, his jaw hung slightly ajar. “You really are alive.”
“I’m afraid so.” A blast of sunlight hit her square in the face making her eyelids flutter and squeeze shut. She backed into the apartment out of the glare. “What time is it?”
“No, seriously Sabine, can we talk?”
“Yeah, of course.” She stepped aside to let him in. “Come in.”
“I didn’t really have a chance to freshen up,” she said, gesturing to the barstool at the counter.
“At first they said you were…” he sat down and turned around to look at her again. “They said you had all died.”
“Feels like it.” She went to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and found what she expected. A whole lot of not much. “Water?”
She grabbed the last bottle, cracked the cap off, and chugged. “Don’t know why, but I’m parched.”
“So what the hell happened out there?” Connor said.
“Honestly? I have no idea. I just blacked out and found myself on the coroner’s exam table when I woke up.” She took another sip. “Seriously, what time is it?”
He glanced at his watch. “4:08. For some reason, the initial reports from the medical examiner got misfiled, so I can’t even tell what they observed. I only found out this morning when Blake contacted me.”
“Wait, what day is it?”
She pulled the phone out of her pocket, but the screen was blank and power gone—no other way to check for her own point of reference. “Feels like I’ve slept for a week.”
Connor tilted his head slightly. “So this morning they just sent you home, no tests or questions?”
“I guess. What did Blake say?”
“He was feeling a bit tired,” Connor said. “But that was about it. Didn’t want to talk until tomorrow after getting some rest.”
Sabine rubbed her sleepy eyes. “Can’t say I blame him.”
“Oh, yeah. I tried calling ahead but you didn’t answer.”
She held up her phone. “Forgot to charge it, sorry.”
“I tried calling Dr. Marcus, the M.E. But for some reason, he’s not picking up or returning my calls. His office said he hadn’t checked in either.”
“So aren’t we at least getting a physical?” She continued holding her phone’s power button down hoping it would boot up—in case she hadn’t actually forgotten to charge it. “I mean, it’s one thing if one of us blacked out during reentry, but all four of us?”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. You’re all to report to the medical facility ASAP. I don’t think it was right for Marcus to just discharge you like that.” He shook his head. “Dunno, maybe he’s just getting senile.”
Just then, the lights in the kitchen flickered. In her periphery, her phone screen flashed. A tingling sensation rushed up her hand, through her arm and up her neck—not really painful, but jolting, a feeling she had only experienced once as a child when Derek convinced her to put a hairpin into the wall outlet, claiming it would curl her hair.
“Ow!” She dropped the phone onto the carpet.
“Not sure.” Sabine reached down and picked it up. Surprise, the screen had come back to life and its battery level read 100%. She showed it to Connor.
“I thought you said—”
“I guess it just had to reboot. But I got this really strong static shock just now.”
“That’s odd.” He got up, came over, and reached for her hand. “May I?”
She put the phone in her other hand and turned her palm over for him to see. “I’m ok. It didn’t hurt—too much.”
He took her hand and examined it. “No burns, no sign of any trauma.”
A different kind of tingling went through here. Her face felt hot and she probably looked flushed. “Connor, you’re not a doctor.”
“I just wanted to make sure.” Eyes filled with emotion, he held her gaze. “You know, Sabine. When they said you had died…”
She’d always suspected it, but now it was clear. He had feelings for her, how could she have missed it all this time? All those texts bordering on the verge of personal, the unnecessary protectiveness he displayed when they all went home after a team dinner, insisting on giving her a ride home?
Connor was good-looking, successful, responsible, and unafraid of commitment. So what was the problem?
I like him, I just don’t feel that way about him.
She took her hand back gently and put it on his shoulder. “Connor, that’s really sweet of you, but—”
He held up a hand. “Crap. I’m so obvious, aren’t I?”
“Look, you’re a great guy and all.”
“Before you say another word, I just ask that you give me a chance to change your mind.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “I’m just not at a place in my life where I can have a relationship. Especially a cross-continental relationship.”
He smiled. “Don’t you want to move to Cali?”
“One day,” she said.
“Whatever you do, don’t friendzone me. Not just yet.”
Gosh, he was so charming and that smile? Maybe she should just give him a chance now. “I had a near-death experience, and you almost lost a friend. Might I suggest that neither of us is in a good position to start something this important?”
“On the contrary,” he said, slowly getting closer and closer. “Life is too short to risk living with regret.”
He was going to kiss her.
She could just tell.
And she wouldn’t really mind it, would she?
“Connor…” Her eyes shut. His warm breath caressed her lips.
And then he sighed and stepped back.
Heart beating like helicopter rotors, Sabine opened her eyes, exhaled. “What?”
“You’re not sure about this,” he said. “I can’t just push myself on you. I respect you too much to exploit a moment of emotional vulnerability.”
Gathering herself, she realized that he was right. She wasn’t ready, but almost got lost in the moment. Part of her just wanted to feel connected to him because of all that had happened, but in her right mind, she might very well regret it if it turned out to be a mistake.
“I’m sorry,” he said and smiled with sincerity. “That was selfish of me.”
“No, no. I wasn’t clear with myself, even. But thanks, I know you were thinking of my best interest. I appreciate that.”
“Right, well…I’d better get going.” He started for the door, then turned back to say, “Sabine, before you go back to Maryland, would you be open to having dinner with me? No strings attached, just as friends.”
“You planning on changing my mind?”
“Maybe. I was just hoping we could get to know each other better. After that, you can make a more…informed decision about us.”
What she already knew about him was that there wasn’t an ounce of deceit in him. If he said that it was just to get to know each other better, that was all there was to it. He would not pressure her.
She thought about it for a couple of seconds.
“Okay!” An inevitable grin stretched across his face. “That’s great.”
“No strings attached,” she said, but secretly enjoyed the pace at which he was taking this. “I’ll let you know when I’m flying back to the East Coast, and you can pick the venue.”
He took a fanciful bow. “As you wish.” He went to the door.
Sabine opened it for him. “It was nice of you to stop by to check on me.”
“Of course. Oh, and don’t forget to report to the medical center at 0800 tomorrow.” He took a step outside.
She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”
Brow raised, he touched the spot where she’d just kissed him. “See you tomorrow?”
The sun haloed his head and made a silhouette of his entire frame. As he walked off, a flash of light once again blinded her. She shut the door and felt a strange palpitation in her chest.
You’re in love, you fool.
Blinking the glare out of her eyes, the spectral impression of Connor’s halo remained every time her eyelids shut. But the light surrounding him was not golden, it was blue.
And since the spacewalk, Sabine had been seeing a lot of flashes of blue light.
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.
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