STRATAGEM Chapter 27

STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham






HOW LONG HAD IT BEEN? Connor sat dazed on the edge of his cot. The cell in which he’d been detained felt antisceptic—no discernible scents, not a hint of dust or grime, just white walls, smooth surfaces and pale LED lights above him. Nothing remarkable. So why did his head ache as though gripped in a vice, the hollow sound of his breathing bouncing inside his ears?

A painful mental fog.

Somewhere between a dream and a hangover.

Thoughts, memories…of speaking to people over Zoom—jetsam and flotsam floating about his torpedoed mind. He blinked, swallowed, nearly choked on the dry itch.

An empty glass stood on the small table. Felt like days since he’d had anything to drink.

At the edge of his cot…the laptop.

The one from the conference call dreams…or memories?

Memories, yes!

So many conference calls, faint images of which fought their way to the forefront.

Screens with increasing numbers of participants: ICOMM brass, the Secretary of Defense, President Mercer?

A sharp pain pierced Connor’s eyes directly into the center of his skull.

He winced.

Reached for the laptop.

Another agonizing internal blow to the head stopped him.

Gasping, he steadied himself and looked away from the laptop. Somewhere in the recesses of his brain, he understood what was happening. He just couldn’t articulate it.

More images burrowed through the razor wire of his mind. But each time they came close to materializing that same cranial assault forced them away.


The pain backed off, as though startled.

Made no difference, no one around to hear him shout. But it did feel good to get aggressive and fight whatever it was that didn’t want him to remember.

Quick! Think!

With all his might he squeezed his eyes shut and grasped for any shred of memory he could find since his abduction and imprisonment. He gripped the laptop and powered it up.

Without warning, his right hand pulled away and fell to his side.

It wouldn’t move!

Straining, he typed in his login passcode with his left index finger—one key at a time.

Each keystroke brought another stabbing pain into his head.

Beads of cold sweat rolled down his face, his neck, his spine.

Or was it blood?

He hit the enter key and logged in.

With his left hand, he grabbed his right wrist. Maybe he could just lift it.

Not only could he not move it, it resisted!

Connor let out a grunt as he pulled on it. His right hand being his dominant one, it had a mind of its own. It pulled free from his left hand.

“Are you kidding me?”

The Zoom application was still open on his laptop screen, though no meeting ran. But the very sight brought back a torrent of memories.

They hadn’t been dreams at all.

It was all coming back. The current situation, the explanations, the plan, the uncanny reality, the catastrophic end game, and most shocking of all, what had been happening and continued to happen to him.

Oh my God…It’s going to be everyone.

Cognizance flailed about, a slick herring struggling to escape his grip. For tiny fragments of time, he remembered everything that had happened, understood all that was to come. But he could only grasp his immediate thoughts and imperative:

Tell her before it’s too late!

Before his internal demon could stop him, Connor hit the record button that controlled his laptop’s webcam and put himself in the frame.

It turned his face away and forced him to move away.

“No!” Connor’s voice fell flat in the cold confines of his cell. He grabbed the edge of the bolted-down cot and pulled himself back to face the webcam.

The overhead LEDs went dead.

Blue light flooded the room.

Connor’s entire body trembled as he fought the entity forbidding him to record the message.

His eyeballs bulged from pressure—the same pressure that pushed a spiderweb of veins to bulge out from under the skin of his neck, face, and hands.

The thin mattress shook in his grip, the cot’s metal frame rattled.

Must get the message to her!

Blue tendrils flashed about the walls.

A warm drop of blood trickled out of his nostril and splattered on the keyboard.

His right hand stretched out for the glass on the table.


He tried stopping it, but his right hand shot out and grabbed the glass, smashed it into the edge of the table, and grasped the largest, sharpest shard like a knife.

Straining against it with all that remained of his control, Connor willed it to stay far from his throat. The right hand grasped the broken glass even harder, slicing the skin. Blood flowed down onto the floor.

He would not prevail. That part of him understood. This was his only chance.

With every last sliver of his physical and mental faculties, Connor faced the webcam and began.

“Sabine…listen carefully…”



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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