STRATAGEM Chapter 18
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
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 doing 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.
The door opened, sending a startling jolt through her entire body. Sabine stood straight and drew a sharp breath.
“There you are,” Blake said, his voice softer than usual.
“You’re in the wrong laundry room.”
“Wait, there’s more than one?”
“The one right under your apartment,” he smiled and shook his head. “That’s the one I meant.”
“I’ve never stayed long enough to have to do any laundry.” A bit more relaxed, Sabine grabbed a chair and sat at the table. Someone had left a T-shirt that read: A long time ago, someone traveled to a galaxy far away…and all I got was this lousy T-shirt. She smirked at it and pushed it aside.
Blake took the other chair and sat at the table with her. “How’re you doing?”
“Okay, I guess—all things considered.”
Blake gave her a terse nod. “Let’s start with the strange things you’ve been experiencing.”
What if it had all just been in her head—a residual effect of that near-death incident? With anyone else, Sabine would never openly speak of these things. But right now, Blake was the only person she could trust.
“You’ll think I’m crazy,” she said.
“I’m starting to think I’m crazy, don’t worry.”
“Good to know, I guess.” She leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “I’m not making this up, so you know.”
“Okay.” Sabine took a breath. “Strange things since we returned…”
“From space, or the dead?”
“First, there’s my phone,” Sabine said. “It did this weird thing where it wouldn’t power on, then when it did I got this jolt—like a big static shock.”
He didn’t say anything, just kept eye contact and nodded.
“Then there’s Lucy and Jon. They were acting weird for a moment just before Security rounded us up.”
“Weird? How so?”
“After my physical and blood work, she met me outside the doctor’s office and asked me if I’d experienced any kind of encephalitic trauma or rejection, something about my case. The thing is, for the moment she asked, she looked like she was in some kind of trance. But when I didn’t have an answer, she went back to normal. Later, I asked her about it and she had no recollection of any such conversation. She doesn’t even know the word “encephalitic.”
Rubbing the stubble on his chin, Blake narrowed his eyes. “Hm.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Well…” Should she? It was kind of personal and maybe a non-issue. “It’s Connor.” Her face flushed and tingled. Great.
“Our Connor? Walken?”
She nodded. “He had expressed some personal feelings for me, and…while I told him I wasn’t ready for a relationship, it didn’t make things awkward or anything. I think we got closer—as friends. But before this morning’s Zoom call he was all—I don’t know—cold? Professional?”
“He was about to hold a conference call in which he had to tell us we were all going to be under quarantine. I’d say being professional could be expected.”
“He hasn’t tried to contact me since, though.”
Blake shrugged. “You friend-zoned him.”
“True.” Sabine tapped Blake’s arm. “What about you? You wanted to talk to me about the weird things you’ve experienced.”
“Yes. And after hearing what you said, I’m more certain something’s not right.”
A loud thumping sound interrupted, repeated unceasingly.
Blake stood, went to the dryer, opened the door, and rummaged through the laundry.
“What are you doing?” Sabine said.
“Stopping these.” He straightened up, held out an old pair of sneakers, then set them down on the washing machine.
“Who would put dirty running shoes in the laundry?” Sabine said, and immediately regretted it.
Sabine pointed at him. “Don’t.”
“Who puts dirty running shoes in the laundry?” he asked, rhetorically.
Sabine glared at him. “Blake, no…”
“Someone who wants to make a clean getaway.”
She groaned, glowered, and held his gaze…
…then burst out laughing. “At least I know nothing’s happened to you. Your dad jokes are lame as ever.”
“I had to authenticate myself if you’re going to believe what I have to tell you.”
“Oh, I’d believe you no matter what.”
“Take nothing for granted,” he said. “And don’t automatically trust anyone, not even me.”
“What exactly have you experienced?”
He came back to the table, slid his chair closer to her, and sat. “Have you been having any strange dreams?”
She had to think about that. “I can’t remember the last time I even had a dream.”
“I never dream,” he said. “At least not that I can remember. But since we got back, every time I wake up, I have these memories—like things I’ve experienced or at least impressions of them—only, these have nothing to do with me or my life.”
“What are they like?” Sabine said, filled with intrigue.
“They’re impressions of extreme fear, hunger, thirst, panic, the desperate need to devise a means of escape.”
“Escape?” Sabine said. “From what?”
“No idea, just the need. And there’s also this clear sense of disconnection, as though I’m not me, like my body and consciousness are slowly separating and the wider the divide, the less I can sense my existence.”
“That is strange.”
“And I too have had some odd things happen with my phone, iPad, and…” he searched the ceiling for a second or two. “…and with Jon and Lucy too.”
Sabine tilted her head back in surprise. “Seriously?”
“I have these faint memories or dreams of them talking with me, but then I wake up and like all the other impressions, dreams, or memories, they’re gone.”
For the next few seconds, they sat there without speaking, no doubt mirroring each other’s bewildered expression.
“Do you think Jon and Lucy have had experiences like ours?” Sabine said.
“We could ask,” Blake said. “But my gut tells me—”
“Mine too. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not sure why I know this to be the case.”
“Feels more like knowledge and awareness.”
“Same,” Blake said.
Just then, the door flew open and slammed against the wall. Blake stood up, ready to fight.
From behind the door, a lanky young man with sandy blond hair draping over his eyes plodded in, and opened his eyes wide for a brief moment. “Oh shoot, my bad. I didn’t mean to push it that hard.” He stepped over to the laundry machine, picked up the sneakers, and sniffed inside. “Whoa…Dude, that’s rancid.” Without questioning, he tossed them back in the dryer, turned and hopped up on the washing machine, and sat on top of it. He pulled out a nail clipper and started trimming his toenails. One of the clipping flew past Sabine’s face.
“Do you mind?” Sabine said, not even bothering to conceal her annoyance.
“Oh hey, it’s all good. I don’t mind. You guys keep talking, I’m just waiting for my laundry to finish.”
Blake motioned for Sabine to come to the door.
She did and leaned in to listen to him whisper.
“We need to be careful, Sabine. If we’re actually on to something, we have to act like we haven’t a clue about it.”
“What do you think is going on?”
“Nothing makes sense right now,” Blake said. “We’ll probably know more with time, so we have to keep our eyes open. I’ll let you know if anything new happens.”
“And don’t discuss any of this over Zoom, the phone, email or text.”
“This is safer?” Sabine said.
“Not completely, but better. We’ll need a code word to meet.”
“How about, ‘Have you had your coffee today?’, which means meet here at midnight?”
“Perfect.” Blake opened the door for Sabine. “Get a good night’s sleep.”
“I’d say sweet dreams,” she said, “but in your case I’ll say, no dreams.”
They took turns leaving the laundry room with a few minutes between them.
Five minutes later, Sabine sat in her bed watching TV and trying to fall asleep. It was already 12:38 AM and sleep not only eluded, it mocked and taunted her.
James Corden was too funny to fall asleep to, so she switched the channel to World News Now.
It wasn’t working.
The more news she watched the more stressed she felt.
She picked up her phone from the nightstand.
A yawn brewed within.
She stretched and released the yawn.
But she still didn’t feel sleepy. She opened her eyes, and the television was now on an infomercial. Why would an infomercial interrupt World News Now?
She found the answer when she looked at the clock on her phone.
A cold bead of sweat rolled down her spine when she saw the time:
CONNOR WALKEN sits at the desk in his home office staring blankly at the video on his monitor. The live footage streams in showing Sabine Storm sitting in bed, watching a news show on the television. She reaches for her phone.
“Now,” a voice behind Connor says.
Connor clicks the button on an app and connects with Sabine’s phone.
A blue light flashes in Sabine’s room.
After three seconds, another voice behind him speaks. “What’s wrong, didn’t you connect?”
“It’s connected,” Connor says, his voice devoid of sentience.
“But it didn’t work.”
“The same with Hendricks,” the first voice said. “We are not getting full access.”
“Try again,” the second voice said.
Again, a flash of blue in Sabine’s room.
Again, no response.
The second voice speaks. “For now, just upload the beacon. We must proceed.”
“She’s not responding. She will notice.”
“We must proceed,” the second voice says, more firmly.
A hand alights upon Connor’s neck.
He starts to compose and email to ICOMM CEO Richard Eicher, and William Grant, the United States Secretary of Defense, and Natalie Rivera, the National Security Advisor.
The impulse to type stops monetarily.
His fingers fly across the keyboard at an inhuman speed. Within seconds, he finds the contact information of Leo Botha, Director General of the World Health Organization.
After two minutes, the lengthy email is completed and sent.
The first voice speaks. “What about Storm and Hendricks?”
“Merely anomalies,” the second voice says. “They should not hinder our progress.”
“I would caution you not to be overconfident.”
“And I would caution you not to be overly cautious,” the second voice says, “or we may miss our only opportunity. With every new species, there are bound to be inconsistencies. We will overcome the challenges as we always have.”
The first voice says, “This species is so primitive it is hardly worth the effort.”
“It will have to do for now. We will be ready for the next migration well before expending all the resources here.”
“I have grave misgivings,” the first voice says. “But I defer to your authority.”
“Very well. Prepare to reset.”
The same hand as before touches Connor’s forehead.
He deletes all his browser history and tabs, shuts the computer, and closes his eyes. Then he is placed in such a manner that he appears to have fallen asleep in front of his computer.
The picture window’s glass before him reflects his unconscious frame, head cradled on his hands over his desk, and behind him the forms of the first voice, Jonathan Kimura, and the second, Lucille Washington.
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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