STRATAGEM Chapter 15
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
TWELVE DAYS EARLIER…
Medical Facility, Vanderberg Air Force Base
8:56 AM PST
INCONCLUSIVE. That was all the doctor who examined Sabine could say after he completed her physical exam, took vitals and samples for analysis.
“Any idea what could’ve happened?” Sabine said, seated upon the exam table while the Doctor Prabhu typed into the computer.
“It is quite unusual, you know. All the reports show that your vital functions had ceased and had been in that state for several hours. Most unusual.” She adjusted her eyeglasses and continued to type. “And yet, here you are in perfect health, as far as I can see. We will await the lab results from your bloodwork, but I don’t expect to find anything unusual.”
“So I should be cleared to go home then, right?”
She turned to Sabine, lowered her glasses, and looked over their rims. “Barring any complications, and if the labs come back normal, I would say yes.”
“Great.” She couldn’t wait to get away from all this craziness and go home. With all that had been happening, thoughts of little Hulk emerged. Hopefully, he and Derek hadn’t killed each other yet. She really shouldn’t have asked him to look after him, but he insisted. With Dad’s passing last month, Mom didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for that feisty little beast. Anyway, Derek promised he’d bring him back by the time she returned—which couldn’t happen soon enough. Lucky guy. Being a writer gave him a flexible “work” schedule, if you could call making crap up and selling it work. Hey, it that was his joke not hers, and he always laughed when she repeated it. She let out a scoff.
“What?” Dr. Prabhu said.
“Oh, nothing. Are we done?”
She stood, gathered her things, and went to the door. “Please wait for a call from your supervisor for clearance before you make plans to leave the base. We should have results back by the end of the day.”
“Right. Thank you.”
“But of course.” She inclined her head and shut the door.
Sabine shed her hospital gown and put on her clothes. Imagine, by this time tomorrow she could actually be home, sweet (private) home. That is of course, as long as there was not anything about the Athena crew in the news. Hopefully, the classified nature of their last mission would shield her from any media attention. Nothing would make for better clickbait headlines than “Zombie Astronauts Return to Earth.”
When she finished getting dressed, she opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. To her surprise, Lucy and Jon were standing there.
“Hey guys,” Sabine said. “Did you get your physicals done?”
Lucy came close and took her arm. She spoke softly. “Hey girl, you experience anything—I dunno—weird since we got back?”
Jon joined them in a loose huddle. “Yeah, anything unexpected?”
“Well, the doc said I look perfectly healthy.” She wasn’t certain she should mention yesterday when her phone had acted strangely and given her a static shock. “Not really, just a bit disoriented with day and night. Nothing unusual.”
Footfalls echoed way down at the end of the hall. Without a word, Jon stepped back and turned toward the sound.
Lucy blinked repeatedly, as though a speck of dust had gotten in her eyes.
“You good, Luce?”
“I am fine,” Lucy said, rather stiff in her tone. “What we want to know is: Has there been any encephalitic trauma, any signs of rejection?”
“Uhmmm…Wow, I don’t know. Sounds like questions for the doc,” Sabine said. “Why? Did your doctor mention something like that?”
“We are fine,” Sabine said. “We are asking about you. Your case.”
Sabine looked to Jon for a possible clarification, or to see if he knew what the heck Lucy was talking about. But he continued to stare down the hallway the way Hulk always did when he heard someone walking outside on the sidewalk. “I really don’t know, Lucy. Maybe when the lab results come back, we can compare notes. Why the sudden interest in biology?”
Again Lucy blinked repeatedly, rubbed her eyes with both hands.
“Is it allergies?” Sabine asked.
Lucy stopped rubbing and opened her eyes. “What?”
“You keep rubbing them.”
“Just sleep-deprived. They always get irritated when I don’t sleep enough.”
“Okay…?” Sleep deprivation. That was it. Lucy was just being loopy from lack of sleep, and maybe going out drinking with Jon yesterday like they always did after a mission.
Jon returned. “Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. I’ve been feeling a bit strange since we got back—like I’m dreaming, or waking up only to find I’m still dreaming.”
Sabine put her hands on both of their shoulders and smiled. She put her forehead up to theirs and said, “Well there you have it. We’re all sleep-deprived.”
Lucy sniffed and grinned. “Is rocket-lag, like…a thing?”
“We’ll all feel better after a good long nap,” Sabine said.
“Sleep, perchance to dream!” Jon said through a yawn. He stretched, put his arm around Lucy’s shoulders and said, “I’m starving. Want to get some breakfast?”
Lucy turned to Sabine. “Yeah, come on Beany.”
Sabine always liked it when she called her that. It made her feel like she had a big sister. “Thanks, but I don’t think I could eat right now. Not hungry.”
Lucy grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Who are you, and what have you done with Sabine!”
“I know, right?”
“You’re no fun,” Jon said. “Come on, Luce. It’s just you and me again.”
Sabine laughed. “Sorry guys. Next time. Promise.”
Walking away, Jon waved a dismissive hand. “Yeah, yeah. It’s always after the next mission.”
“No, seriously.” They were all laughing now.
Jon and Lucy got the end of the corridor, turned the corner and started mimicking things Sabine would often say to them. Had to love those two, they always made her smile.
Sabine turned around.
Two security personnel wearing military fatigues came right up to her. One stood before, the other went around her. They blocked her way on either side of the corridor.
“What is this?”
“It’s all right,” the one on her left said. “We’re just here to ensure that you return to your apartment safely.”
“That’s not necessary,” she said and tried to sidestep them.
The one on her right moved in front of her. “I’m sorry, but we have to ensure that you get back to your apartment right now where you are to self-isolate until further notice.”
“What?” Clenched a fist on her hip and pointed at his face. “You can’t restrict my movement.”
“I absolutely can,” the guard on the left said, not so subtly resting his hand on the sidearm on his belt. “And if needed, I will.”
“This is a joke!”
His demeanor remained hard and Sphinxlike. “Do I look like I’m joking?”
“You look like you need some Metamucil.”
He stared down his nose, his eyes narrowing.
Sabine didn’t care. This was utterly ridiculous. “On whose authority?”
“I’m afraid that’s above all of our paygrades. Did you drive here?
She shook her head. “Uber.”
“We’ll drive you back. Director Walken says he will contact you at 0950, so we’d better get going.”
First Lucy and Jon acting weird, now this? It didn’t feel right. Connor had better have some answers because this was unacceptable. “And if I refuse?”
Both of the security guards walked up and towered over her. “Ms. Storm, we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.”
“That the best you got?” How cliché. She sighed and turned toward the exit. “Fine, let’s go.”
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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