STRATAGEM Chapter 22
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
FOUR DAYS EARLIER
BLURRED VISION, nausea, extreme fatigue…if Connor Walken had ever experienced a hangover like this, he couldn’t remember. Indistinct voices murmured in the background somewhere in the vicinity of the fuzzy circle of light before him. Was it a dream? Was he even awake?
He blinked several times, trying to get his eyesight to cooperate. Only after squeezing them shut for several seconds did things finally start to come into focus.
“…you finally awake?” a callous-sounding male voice said.
“Can you sit up?”
Which way was up? Was he lying down? The moment he tried to sit up, the entire world started to swing around. He had to shut his eyes again just to keep from seeing it. He’d never experienced vertigo before but from what he’d read, this had to be it.
“Whoa.” He put his hand down to steady himself. “Spinning.”
Someone grabbed his arm.
A quick jab—felt like a needle—pricked his shoulder.
Within seconds, the spinning stopped.
“Mr. Walken,” the voice said. “You need to answer a few questions.”
Finally able to open his eyes, Connor’s brain fog cleared. The last thing he remembered was Secret Service agents approaching him outside of his apartment at Vanderberg Staff Housing.
The room he now sat in contained the bed on which he sat, concrete walls about six by six feet, a sink and toilet. “Where am I? What happened?”
A woman holding the needle that had just injected him put it in a disposal box, turned around, opened the door and left, leaving a man in the black suit in the room.
Special Agent Michael Pierce approached, still wearing dark sunglasses despite the room being so dimly lit. “The disorientation will subside shortly. At this time, you are to appear before a Federal Government panel to answer some questions regarding the recent Athena mission.”
“So you drug me to take me to an undisclosed location? That’s a violation of my Constitutional and human rights.”
“You came here on your own volition, Walken. You just don’t remember.”
“Look, I only came with you because—” he started to cough. His throat felt like sandpaper, each cough a gritty scrape. “Water…I need water.”
Holding his wrists before him, Pierce nodded to the bottle on the bed next to Connor.
Connor grabbed it, cracked the cap off, and took a long pull, some of it rolling down his face onto his neck. After finishing and taking a deep breath, he said, “Let me out of here.”
“You’ll be free to go, as soon as this conference call is done.”
“Conference—what are you talking about?”
Pierce reached for the laptop sitting on the chair next to him. Attached to it was a biometric scanner. “Place your index finger here,” he said.
A slight vibration buzzed under his fingertip and sent a small tingling sensation up his arm.
The laptop chimed.
Next, Pierce opened it and set it before Connor so he could see the screen. A remote meeting was about to start. “All you need to do is answer the questions honestly and accurately.”
“Who’s going to be in this meeting?”
The different participant windows came to view. The first person he recognized was Richard “Rick” Eicher, the President and CEO of ICOMM.
“Rick! Thank God. They’ve got me locked up here and—”
Rick held up a hand. He frowned, shook his head, and put a finger before his lips.
The other participants’ windows activated.
Two more whose faces looked familiar appeared.
Rick began the meeting. “Mister Secretary, Madam Advisor, we have ICOMM Director and NASA liaison Connor Walken on the line with us. He spearheaded the recent Athena mission to repair the damaged Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer on the Hermes Array.”
They nodded curt greetings.
“Mister Walken,” Rick continued, formal and distant, “Due to the highly classified nature of this meeting with General William Grant, Secretary of Defense and Natalie Rivera, National Security Advisor, you will conduct yourself accordingly before and after. Is that understood?”
“Yes.” All he knew was that he had to be professional. Whatever was happening, it would have to be explained later. This must be a matter of national security. Rick had to have a good reason for all this cloak and dagger nonsense. But his cold demeanor did nothing to reassure Connor.
“Let’s begin,” Rick said. “Mr. Walken, I’ve briefed the Secretary and Advisor on the anomalous events surrounding the Athena crew’s mission and return. Have you reviewed the lab results from the crew members’ medical reports?”
“Only superficially,” Connor said.
“Have they been quarantined?” Rivera asked.
“Yes, Ma’am. We took immediate measures after receiving the order.”
Grant cleared his throat. “Are you aware of the pathogens found in the crew members’ blood?”
“Pathogens?” Connor leaned forward. “The report had several highly technical pages, I must have missed that. Is it contagious?”
“Too soon to tell,” Rick said.
“Have you posted armed security around their quarters?” Grant said.
“That was only a recommendation at the time.” Connor tried his best not to sound defensive but was not succeeding. He looked to Rick, who should have given the order if it had been necessary. But of course, Rick couldn’t tell whom he was looking at over the camera. “If I had known…”
“Mr. Walken had no way of knowing,” Rick said. “The supplemental report just came out this morning. Mister Secretary, I’ve gone ahead and assigned armed guards to enforce the crew’s quarantine.”
Grant looked unimpressed. “What about contact tracing?”
“We’ve pulled logs and have been monitoring their communications and location,” Rivera said.
Though it should come as no surprise, Connor couldn’t help but feel dismayed at how callous they were about this flagrant violation of privacy rights. However, seeing as he was under arrest, he was in no position to complain.
“Mr. Walken,” who else besides yourself and the medical staff has come into contact with the Athena crew?”
“We’ve already reached out to them and they are self-isolating,” Connor replied.
“They’ve been taken into custody,” Rick said, reassuring the Secretary.
Connor straightened up in his bed. “Isn’t that a bit drastic?”
“This pathogen is unlike any we’ve ever encountered before. Until we fully understand its nature,” Rivera said, “We must treat it as we would a biowarfare threat. Now, is there anyone else unaccounted for?”
Connor massaged the knot in this neck. The stress had to be showing, but at this point, he didn’t care. What were they going to do, lock him up? “Dr. Marcus, the Medical Examiner who was to perform the autopsies…we haven’t been able to get in touch with him.”
Grant took a look at his iPad, then tossed it to his desk. “Scratch him from the list. He died in a car accident on the day he examined your crew.”
“Dead?” Connor had never met the M.E., but it somehow didn’t surprise him that he just happened to have died. For the past few days since Athena’s return, too many strange events had taken place. The armchair conspiracy theorist in him had been screaming for attention but Connor had always been able to silence it…until now. How you like me now, eh?
The three on the other end of the call continued to talk, their words melding into a stew of oblivion. The Secret Service had arrested, drugged, and detained Connor in a tiny cell. He was on a conference call with his boss who acted more like a cool automaton than good old Rick. And on this call, the United States Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor?
What the Hell is going on?
“Care to weigh in on that, Connor?” Rick said, snapping him out of his thoughts.
“What? Sorry, could you repeat the question?”
“It wasn’t a question. We were talking about the crew members and thought you might be able to tell us if you’ve observed anything unusual about them.”
“Well, they’re understandably unhappy about the quarantine and now that you’re going to post armed guards outside their doors, I’m fairly certain they’ll feel worse. But no, nothing unusual.” He didn’t want to mention his own strange symptoms and the unexplained deterioration of his mental health.
“Nevertheless,” Rivera said, “We can’t wait until we experience the full manifestation of this pathogen. If we’re all in agreement here, I’m going to brief the President with my recommendations.”
“What recommendations?” Connor said.
With a deadpan voice and face to match, the General said, “That’s above your clearance, Walken.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Connor said, not holding back his irritation, “Why did you all put me through this just to ask me a few questions which could have easily been done from my apartment at Vanderberg?”
“Mister Secretary, Madam Advisor, thank you for your time,” Rick said. “I will be providing any information or data you might require.”
Rick ignored him.
Anger flared up within Connor’s mind and body.
But before he could say another word, Special Agent Pierce grabbed Connor’s wrist and placed his index finger on the biometric scanner again. A surge of warmth ran down throughout Connor’s entire body, draining his energy and consciousness through that fingertip.
Everything around him faded into a dark cloud. Just before everything went black, the last thing he saw was the faces of Rick, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor, their eyes glowing blue.
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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