STRATAGEM Chapter 17
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
ICOMM PERSONNEL HOUSING
Vanderberg Air Force Base
TWELVE DAYS EARLIER
“AM I UNDER HOUSE ARREST?” Sabine said, glaring at Connor’s little square on her laptop screen. He was the only one present for the Zoom meeting with the Athena crew so far. He seemed distracted, or maybe uncomfortable. Could it be because he’d expressed his feelings for her last night and now felt awkward? For him, it might be even more difficult balancing between personal and professional, especially since the others hadn’t yet joined the meeting.
“I’ll explain to everyone when they join in,” he said, eyes elsewhere on his screen and working his mouse and keyboard. “I’m sorry they handled it like this.”
“Oh you mean the Vanderberg Gestapo? Yeah, that was a bit much.”
“It was out of my hands.”
Lucy and Blake joined in, and within seconds, Jon did as well. They all said hello, but when Jon waved to everyone, no sound came out.
“Jon, hit ‘unmute,” Lucy said.
“—kay…Sorry about that.” Jon shrugged.
Connor started without any introductory words. “All right, kids. First off, I heard about what happened after your medical exams this morning.”
Jon jumped right at it. “Yeah, Connor. What the hell, man?”
“I know, I know. ICOMM decided and contacted the base before telling me. They’re putting us all under quarantine for ten days.”
“So why the gorillas?” Blake said.
“As soon as management learned about the anomalies in the medical reports, they immediately enacted quarantine protocols, which involved base security enforcement. I didn’t even know about it until after the fact.”
A cacophonous chorus erupted. From annoyance to outrage and concern, the range of emotions ran the gamut for all except for Blake, who remained still with concern etched in his brow. He waited until everyone stopped talking over each other.
“Are we infected with something?” Blake said, his voice calm and severe.
Connor drew a breath, then said, “We’ll have your bloodwork back tomorrow, that’s when we’ll know better. Aside from that, your physicals came back good.”
“So why are they keeping us locked in our apartments on the base?” Lucy said.
“You know the deal.” Connor pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, “Out of an abundance of caution.”
Sabine just remembered. “You said they’re putting us all under quarantine. Does that mean you too, Connor?”
He nodded. “I, and everyone else who had contact.”
“This is crazy,” Jon said. “I feel fine. Bunch of paranoid bean-counters driving this.”
“Look, it’s only self-isolation for ten days, I’m fairly certain your labs will come back normal and we can just move on and let the scientists speculate. Can I count on you guys to self-enforce, or will you need some help?”
“Are you talking about armed guards outside our doors for the next ten days?” Lucy said.
Again, everyone spoke at the same time, the phrase “ten days” popping up several times.
While everyone else bristled at the announcement, Blake remained stoic. “We’ll self-isolate. No need for outside enforcement.
“Good,” Connor said. “I knew I could count on you all.”
“But some things are just not adding up,” Blake said. “The fact that all four of us were ready for the morgue…”
Connor held up a hand. “I’m just as mystified. Wish I had an explanation, but that’ll be coming along with the lab results, I hope. Meanwhile, I’m just glad you’re all doing well. You are doing all right, aren’t you?”
Sabine did as well, but more to be agreeable than honest.
“For the most part,” Blake said. “I’m having some trouble sleeping, but that’s typical for me after a mission.”
“I hear you,” Connor said. “I promise, as soon as I have any information, I’ll let you all know. In the meantime, please observe the quarantine strictly.”
“Can we contact friends, family?” Sabine said.
“Due to the classified nature of your work, you’ll need to keep that to a minimum. As always, do not discuss the mission or any peripheral matters. Let the few you contact know that you’ll need to be under quarantine for ten days, but let them know this is routine. Don’t even hint at what happened with when you returned.”
“It’s never taken ten days,” Sabine said.
“If they even ask about that, keep calm. We don’t need a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories going around the internet. Everyone clear about that?”
Groans and nods.
“All right. I’ll be in touch, and if you have any questions and concerns, you know how to reach me.”
They all said goodbye, and one by one left the call.
Lucy was the last one Sabine saw on the screen and was just about to leave.
“Hey, girl. What’s up?”
“Can you stay on a bit longer to talk?”
“Anything from you, my sister from another mother.” Lucy seemed back to her usual friendly self. Not like that brief moment outside Dr. Prabhu’s office where she started asking weird questions.
“I can’t believe we’re on lockdown,” Sabine said. “Are you going to be okay?”
She held up her coffee mug. “Got my coffee, got my Netflix…I’m chill.”
“Aren’t you going to be lonely?” Sabine said. “I hate being isolated.”
“He never said we can’t see each other, right?”
Luce wagged her eyebrows.
“You and Jon? I knew it!”
“I mean, it’s just Netflix and popcorn,” Lucy said.
“Shut up. I take things slow, all right?”
Sabine laughed. “You two are good together. And Jon’s funny, I can see how much he makes you laugh.”
“Better laughing than crying.”
“Got that right.” Should she say anything about Connor? Probably not. They weren’t a thing, and it wouldn’t be right to share such personal matters that could affect how the team saw him—even if all he’d done was express interest. “I was looking forward to going home, to seeing the love of my life.”
“Relax, I’m talking about Hulk.”
“Oh yeah, your Corgi? Who’s watching him, your mom?”
Sabine shook her head. “Derek. He’s going to be thrilled about having an extra week with him.”
“Good thing your brother likes dogs,” Lucy said.
“Actually, Hulk bit him last week when I dropped him off.”
“Yeah, broke the skin, a bit of blood….Derek did his best not to get upset. Hey Lucy, mind if I ask you something?”
“Go for it.”
“This morning, after I got out of the doctor’s office, you asked me some strange questions.”
“Yeah, something about encephalitic trauma, signs of rejection?”
“Seriously, you asked if I’d experienced anything like that, asked about my case.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. What the heck is encepha…licta—whatever—trauma anyway?”
“I don’t know, you’re the one who asked.”
“How could I ask that if I don’t even know what it is?”
“Okay, never mind. Maybe I misheard you.”
Luce nodded, giving her a bewildered look. “All I know is as soon as Jon and I left you, these security guards came and ‘escorted’ us back to our apartments…and here we are, quarantined.”
“Yeah, here we are.” Always mitigating to avoid further conflict. That’s what Sabine had always done, but she was certain of that conversation, whether or not Lucy recalled it. Best talk with Blake as see if he’d noticed anything unusual since returning. “Hey, I’m going to get going now. I’ll check with you later, okay?”
“Be safe, Beanie.”
She ended the Zoom call and shut her laptop. Ten days wasn’t that bad, all things considered. The worst of it would be seeing if Derek and Hulk could survive being together.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, she took out her phone and sent him a text.
SABINE: Hey, Derek. I’m back, but it looks like they’re keeping us in quarantine for another 10 days. You and Hulk good?
She waited for a few seconds, but there was no response.
After about thirty seconds, his reply came in:
Sabine: Sorry, I’m stuck in Cali until then.
Derek: It’s okay, I guess. But this dog is going to eat me in my sleep, I can feel it.
Sabine: LOL, no. Hulky loves you.
Derek: Like I love steak, with bbq sauce.
Sabine: It’s just ten more days, please?
Derek: Yeah, sure. He’s not so bad. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. You okay?
Sabine: It’s nothing, just routine stuff. Can you let mom know?
Derek: She’ll have a million questions, better tell her yourself.
Sabine: Ok, thanks. See you soon.
Derek: ☹ Hurry, he’s looking at me that way again…
Sabine: LOL, stop!
With all the irregularities since returning from the mission, she had to wonder if it was all in her head, or was this just the new normal? Sabine sat there staring out the window until her stomach audibly let her know it was time to eat.
She’d be Door Dashing it for the next week and a half, might as well get started now. At some point there would have to be some grocery deliveries as well.
After ordering breakfast, it would be best to start planning out the day. Even though she wasn’t going anywhere, nothing could be more depressing than sitting around the apartment alone and aimless.
First on the agenda…
Since Dad passed away, she seemed to be turning to Blake a lot whenever she needed perspective or guidance. He could never replace Dad, but he was one of the few people she could trust almost as much.
She launched Facetime and called him.
“Hi, Sabine.” Blake gave her a slight smile. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, no. It’s all good. I mean, it was a bit jarring getting arrested this morning, but other than that…”
“That was interesting,” he said. “A bit heavy-handed, if you ask me. So what’s on your mind?”
“Well, I’ve got tons of unanswered questions and no one to talk to.”
“The obvious, like what happened to us, why we’re being quarantined,” she said.
“I guess we’ll let the experts answer that.”
“And the not so obvious.”
Blake got closer to the camera. “Meaning?”
An alert chimed on her phone. “Hold on, ok?” She looked at the screen to find that her Door Dash order was being picked up. “Sorry, I just ordered breakfast and it’s coming soon.”
“Good idea,” Blake said. “I’ll have to give that a try. So what are your not so obvious questions?”
If there was anyone she could tell, it was him. “I’ve had some strange things happen since we got back.”
“Stranger than returning from the dead?”
“There’s nothing stranger than that,” she said. “But smaller, more niggling things that have happened and don’t make sense.”
“I’ve had some things too.”
His eyes darted away, then back. In a hushed tone, he said, “We need to talk. But not over the phone or email. In person.”
Blake was a principled man, a rule follower, and an enforcer. This was out of character for him. “We’re under quarantine orders,” Sabine said, her voice subdued. “How are supposed to do that?”
“I’ve got a plan.”
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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