STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham




Vanderberg Air Force Base

AT THIS UNGODLY HOUR? Marcus Crowley grumbled at the text message calling him in for an urgent matter. He happened to be the only medical examiner in the area with sufficient clearance to even set foot in Vanderberg. But come on, at 12:48 AM? Really?

The message came from ICOMM rather than NASA. Better not be late, could very well be a matter of national security. Odd, he’d never had to perform an autopsy at a space shuttle launch facility.

Muttering each step of the way, Marcus threw some clothes on, grabbed his briefcase, keys, and phone, then left the house.

Thirty-eight minutes, three security check-points, and countless expletives later, he arrived at the medical facility. Walking alone inside a dark building in the wee hours of the night wasn’t so bad. Nor was having to spend the night with a bunch of corpses. Having to do it all unscheduled? That was the worst. Didn’t anyone honor the sanctity of the calendar anymore?

At last, he arrived, entered the exam room, and prepped himself for the autopsies. It took a bit longer than usual to get inside the hazmat suit—such a nuisance! When he finally finished he went through the safety doors and switched on the lights.

Only the front section of the room lit up, leaving half of the subjects in the dark.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” Marcus said to his captive audience. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve asked you all to come here tonight.”

Cue rimshot and laugh track.

He gave the four departed astronauts a once over.


“Hmm. Tough crowd.” Though irreverent to an outside observer, this routine always helped him remain clinical and professional during these examinations. Otherwise, he might become distracted by emotion—empathy, disgust, fear, sadness, or in some cases, anger at the injustice perpetrated against the deceased.

According to ICOMM, all four astronauts had died before returning to Earth with no visible signs of trauma. “First time for everything, eh?” Marcus went over to the first subject, read the clipboard, then turned around to activate the voice recorder.


“Subject One: Commander Blake Hendricks, Caucasian male, age fifty-six, a hundred and—”

The red record light and digital timer went out.

“What?” He pressed the button to start it again.

No response.

For a brief moment, the lights flickered…then remained steady again.

You’d think NASA would have better surge protection.

“Okay…let’s try this again: Subject One: Commander Blake Hendricks, Caucasian male—”

Behind him, something fell against the hard linoleum. While it would make most people alone in a room full of cadavers leap out of their skin, sudden noises didn’t faze him. Especially since it was just a clipboard falling to the floor.

He turned around.

The clipboard he’d just looked at sat exactly where he left it—on Subject One’s exam table next to the body.

The next sound sucked the air out of his lungs.

A swift rustling sound drew his eyes to the left side of the room, the dark side. Something slapped against the floor. He pulled the lamp suspended above Subject One’s table and pointed in the direction of the sound.

“Holy—!” Marcus lost his grip on the lamp, stumbled back, and caught hold of Subject One’s tibia, or fibula and nearly choked on own breath.

Over by Subject Three’s empty table stood a pair of bare feet. He barely discerned the rest of the body to which they belonged, but enough to see its figure emerging from the shadows.





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.

Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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