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STRATAGEM Chapter 20

“WE’VE GOT TO GO,” Derek said to Paige. As soon as Mom’s friend drove away, he went back to the living room.
“It’s all right, Derek,” Mom said, “That was just—”
“Is Dad’s car still in the garage?”
“It’s not registered. Derek, what’s going on?”
“There’s something about your friend Maggie. Something in her eyes I think I saw back in New York with all the bizarre events. Can’t explain right now, please just trust me. Is there room to park the Ford I drove here in the third garage space?”
“Yes.”
“Ok, can you open it so I can park it inside?”
“Why?”
“I’m pretty sure all the toll both cameras and facial recognition software will have connected me to that car. We have to keep it out of sight.”
“Paige,” Mom said, already heading for the garage, “You stay here with Hulk. I’ll be right back, okay?”
She nodded and sat on the couch.
“Hurry,” Derek said as he and Mom both went their respective ways. He stepped outside and looked around to make sure no one was watching. The garage door went up just as he got into the Fusion and powered it up.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 19

‘TERRORIST’ WAS ONLY THE FIRST WORD in the CNN list of suspected crimes under Derek’s name on the television. He blinked in disbelief as the scrolling marquis spewed out the terms biological agent, murder, Federal Authorities, abduction…
“Derek,” Mom said, her jaw fallen open. “That’s not your driver’s license on TV, is it?”
“It is. But I swear, I didn’t do anything like that.”
Next came the picture of the kidnapping victim.
“That’s me!” Paige said, pointing to a photo provided by the NYPD. “I’m on TV!”
Everything Mom and Paige said from that point faded into the background as he tried his best to take in what the reporter said about him. They were connecting him to the plane crash, the deaths and infection of hundreds in Manhattan by use of a biological agent, the abduction of Paige, and the murder of police officers and hospital staff.
“…even listening to me, Derek?” Mom said, her voice uncharacteristically intense.
“What? Oh, sorry. I just—I can’t believe what they’re accusing me of.”
“How could any of that be possible?” She said, trying to keep Paige busy with the puzzle they were working on by handing her another piece and pointing to the place it belonged.
“I wish I knew why they’re blaming me. All I know is that I woke up, a plane crashed in Central Park, I found Paige barely alive and brought her to the hospital where everyone was dead—”
“Dead? Everyone?”

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STRATAGEM Chapter 18

IT FELT LIKE BEING A TEENAGER at summer camp, sneaking out of the cabin in the middle of the night after curfew to just hang out. Sabine stood by the door inside the communal laundry room down in the basement. A dryer thumped in a steady beat, filling the room with a warm vapor and did nothing to help ease her tension. With each click and clack from jeans buttons rattling inside the dryer, her heart pounded, lungs struggled to fully inflate.
She wiped her clammy hands on her pant legs.
This was crazy. What were they going to do, arrest her, put her in prison?
Why had Blake insisted on breaking quarantine just to talk in person?
12:00 AM, where was he? He’s thirty seconds late, she muttered under her breath. One more minute and she was out of there. She shut her eyes, leaned back against the wall, and counted to ten.
Never made it past six.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 17

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.”

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STRATAGEM Chapter 16

HOWARD COUNTY, MARYLAND
THE AFTERNOON SUN cast a golden veil over the trees framing the home of Derek’s childhood. The pines and maples had grown so much taller and denser since he left for college. He pulled up into the driveway and shut the engine. Paige and Hulk had fallen asleep. Good. They all could use a few extra minutes of rest.
Derek leaned back in his seat and for the first time today closed his eyes and let the breath seep out of his lungs. His mind could not find the words to describe what had happened since he woke up until now.
A crow perched atop the roof of the house cawed three times. Standing right above the window of Derek’s old room, it cocked its head and stared down at him. The old brick façade and white shutters evoked memories of days he’d sit in his room typing stories on his Windows 7 computer with that little fifteen-inch monitor that took up half his desk to share on MySpace, while Sabine hung out with her “popular-crowd” friends after school. He had always been the nerd. Ironically, she had become the closest thing to a rocket scientist the Storm family had ever produced.

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