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STRATAGEM Chapter 23

HOW MUCH MORE OF THIS could she endure? It had been two days since she spoke with Blake, and one entire day of not speaking or texting with anyone at all. Sabine’s margin of sanity wore thinner with each passing moment.
Endless hours of Netflix binging, surfing the web and watching the news did absolutely nothing for the mounting tension and monotony. Mindlessly clicking to the next episode of “The Good Place”, she picked up her phone to send Blake a text.
Come on, it’s already been an entire day of radio silence.
But Blake had been clear. With all the suspicious things going on around them, she had to assume they were all being surveilled. They had to act “normal”, whatever that looked like under a post-return-from-the-dead quarantine.
And her one reasonable text to Mom and Derek would have to suffice for now. Orders from the ICOMM brass were not flexible. Breaching those protocols would only put her further under scrutiny.

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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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STRATAGEM Chapter 15

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?”

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