STRATAGEM Chapter 33
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
“SOMEONE NEEDS TO TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON, RIGHT NOW.” Derek only realized he was shouting because of Hulk and Paige’s reaction. “Sorry,” he said to her. “I’m just surprised.”
“Beenie!” Mom ran over to hug Sabine. “What are you doing here?”
Before could say another word, the man behind her gasped and collapsed to the floor. Sabine went over and knelt by him. “Blake!”
Without missing a beat, Mom found the light switch, flipped it on, and went over to check on them. Paige let out a frightened whimper and wrapped her arms around Derek’s leg. Hulk curled around her legs empathetically.
“It’s going to be all right, Paige. You stay here with Hulk, I’m going to be right there helping out.
She nodded, and sat in the chair next to her, stroking Hulk’s back.
“Inside that cabinet,” Mom said, pointing to the kitchenette. “Red duffle bag. Get the first aid kit.”
The man—Blake—started convulsing on the floor. Derek went over and pulled out the red duffle bag. From within, he found a rectangular bag with the First Aid symbol and brought it over to Mom.
“What’s wrong with him?” Mom said.
“He’s been shot,” Sabine answered and pointed to the tourniquet on his arm.
Mom examined it, turned him over on his side. “Looks like the bleeding’s under control.”
Blake’s shivering subsided. The interval between his breaths lengthened and his entire body relaxed.
“Let’s get him onto the sofa,” Mom said, nodding over to the one on the right of the room. Derek and Sabine helped him up and walked him over.
“You okay?” Sabine said to Blake, pulling the dusty white sheet off the sofa.
He tried to answer but only a groan came out as he dropped across the cushions like a tree felled by a lumberjack.
“He needs to rest,” Sabine said straightening up and stepping aside, “it’s been rough.”
Derek went over and gave her a hug. “Sorry,Sis. It’s good to see you and all, but I’m confused as hell.”
Hulk came running over, panting with excitement.
“Hulk!” Sabine knelt down to meet him. “Come here, you little stinker!”
Tail flailing, he bathed her face in kisses and she welcomed it.
“Gross,” Derek said. “All right, I still need an explanation. Mom, Sabine? Who wants to go first?”
“What are you doing here?” Sabine said to Derek, incredulity painted on her face. “And why did you bring Hulk?”
Mom brushed aside a lock of Sabine’s hair and examined her face. “If you’re here, you…and Blake must be in trouble.”
Derek gave the man a once over, then turned to Sabine. “Not judging, but isn’t he a bit old for you?”
“He’s a coworker,” Sabine said. Then to Mom: “I have to assume you’re in trouble too.”
“Hold on,” Derek said. “Am I the only person who didn’t know about this place? What else have you been hiding?” A quick glance to the opposite side of the room revealed little Paige fast asleep on another sofa.
“Who’s the kid?” Sabine said.
“All right,” Mom said, gesturing for them all to take seats around the table in the kitchenette, at which Derek sat last. She set her gun down on the counter next to the table and spoke. “Before the suspense kills us all, we should tell our stories. Derek, why don’t you begin?”
“But I need to know how—why…all these secrets.”
“I’ll explain, I promise. But first, fill in your sister on what’s been going on.”
“Fine,” Derek said. “I’ll be concise so you can get on with telling me what I need to know.”
He started with all the uncanny events from the moment he woke up this morning, to the bodies all over Manhattan, the explosions, and the “zombies” who pursued them in a high-speed car chase, which ‘Secret Agent Mom’ expertly evaded.
By the time he finished, he found himself winded.
Which meant he’d been long-winded with all the colorful details
“So much for concise,” Sabine said.
“He is the writer.” Mom patted the back of his head. “And a very good one at that.”
Derek shook his head. “Aw, Mom. Come on.”
“All right, then. Sabine,” Mom said. “Tell us what happened with you…and Blake.”
Sabine’s thoughts appeared to coalesce into realizations, understanding. “I’m seeing some connections.”
Her story began last week after returning from the Athena mission. As she told of the uncanny resurrection to the quarantine and odd behavior of her crewmates—all of which had been strictly classified and hidden from the public, the hairs on the back of Derek’s neck began to prickle. If it had been any other day, he would have laughed at the sheer absurdity, and told her to stop pulling his leg. But it all made sense. Today’s events must have been connected to all she and Blake had been through and it had been happening before the insanity of this eternal day—which technically was not yet over.
Derek sat there looking at Sabine who stared back in wonder.
“There’s more,” Sabine said. “Something’s taken over members of the crew.”
There was a sense of inevitability around her words. He could tell what she was about to say and didn’t want her to confirm it.
“I don’t know if I can take any more.”
He didn’t realize how much of a pause had occurred until Mom said, “My turn.”
Sabine and Derek regarded her.
“I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here tonight.”
Derek huffed. “Shouldn’t we take this more seriously?”
“Lighten up,” she said, her expression turning severe. “You both need to take a breath.”
“Why aren’t you more—I don’t know—shocked?” Sabine said.
“I’ll admit, this is way out there and nothing I would have ever expected. But the truth is, your father and I had prepared us for a day like this.”
“What do you mean us?” Derek said. “He didn’t prepare me at all.” He turned to Sabine. “When?”
“He started training me in firearms when I was twelve.”
“No way,” Derek said. “Mom?”
“Remember all those Sunday afternoons when Dad and I went to the farmer’s market?”
“Yeah,” Derek nodded to his sister. “I had to babysit.”
“We were working on this very bunker,” Mom said. “Didn’t you ever wonder why we never brought you two along?”
“But why the cloak and dagger? I mean Dad was just…Dad was Dad, an economics professor!”
Sabine and Mom gave each other a knowing look.
“He wasn’t just a professor,” Mom said.
“So that was like what—his cover?”
“And I wasn’t just a homemaker and piano teacher.” Regret in her tone, Mom met his gaze. “We both worked for the CIA.”
Though he would just about believe anything today, Derek couldn’t find the words. He turned to Sabine, who nodded with a hint of guilt in her eyes.
“And this safe house or bunker—whatever,” Derek said. “Why was I never told about it—about any of this?”
Mom took his hands into hers. “You were in no way open-minded enough.”
“And Sabine was?”
His sister sighed and shook her head. “Do you even remember what you were like throughout high school until—jeez, until last Thanksgiving?”
Silence fell over them like a sheet of ice.
They were dishonoring Dad’s memory with the same kind of bickering that led to his heart attack.
“Derick,” Sabine said, her voice softened. “He wanted so much to tell you. So many times he tried to start a conversation but you were always so irritable and cynical.”
“I had no idea. I was a stupid teenager.”
“He understood,” Mom said. “Said you’d come around—and recently, you were starting to.”
But then he died.
His reply snagged inside his throat. Regret bore down upon his chest, crowding out his breath. All those years, the disrespect, the condescending remarks. Derek wanted to punch himself. What an awful son he’d been. “He always said there would be some great disaster one day. I thought it was just crazy doomsday prepper talk.”
“I was about thirteen when I started. At first I went along with the training just to spend time with him,” Sabine said. “You were his favorite so—”
“Are you kidding? You were the golden child.”
“Listen, you two,” Mom said. “He loved you both completely and uniquely. More than you’ll ever know.
Sabine wiped a tear from her eye and turned to Derek.
“Time to put their petty disputes in the past and deal with the world turned on its head right now,” he said. “Assuming we survive all this, there’ll be time to reconcile later.
“Now, about this safe house,” Mom said. “We’d considered a host of scenarios—nuclear fallout, EMP, civil war, cyberattacks, you name it. But I don’t think your father could ever have imagined this.”
Derek spread out his arms. “Whatever this is.”
“He told me to come here in case of a major catastrophe,” Sabine said.
“I was supposed to come and get you,” Mom said. “But you did what you were trained to do and got here on your own.”
“Good thing we trusted our instincts because what we’re facing is off the charts.”
“We need to figure out what’s happening, who’s coming after us, and why,” Derek said. “How long can we stay down here?”
Mom looked around and at a large door at the back of the underground disaster condo. “We stocked about two months’ worth of food and supplies.”
“Dad knew what he was talking about,” Derek said quietly. “I was such an idiot.”
Mom came over to kiss the top of his head. “You’re here now, and he’d be happy that you’re safe.”
“For now, anyway.” Sabine went to a desk on which sat a computer monitor and powered it up.
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Derek said.
“We’re connected to a practically invisible VPN,” she said, typing in her login. “There isn’t a more secure place for us on the planet right now.”
“Don’t be too sure of—”
Blake let out a groan, got up, and squinted in their direction. His vacant eyes were disturbingly bloodshot and his complexion pale.
“You okay there?” Derek said.
The wild-eyed man blinked, shook his head, and staggered toward them.
Derek stood, prepared to catch him if he stumbled.
But in a sudden burst of alertness, Blake rushed over, grabbed the gun on the counter, and pointed it at Derek. “Back off and don’t move!”
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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