STRATAGEM Chapter 34
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
COLD METAL PRESSED INTO HIS TEMPLE. Derek tried to shout, but Blake put him in a chokehold with his left arm with such force it might break his neck if he struggled.
Sabine bolted to her feet. “Blake, no!”
He pointed the gun at her.
Then at Mom, whose eyes remained trained on him like a bird of prey’s.
Right away, he put the muzzle back into Derek’s temple.
“Stop it, Blake!” Sabine said. “That’s my brother…and she’s my mother”
“You sure?” His words came out like sandpaper scraping against concrete. He coughed, then cleared his throat. “They’re not like…like them?”
Derek could barely suck in a breath.
He was going to black out.
Sabine held out her hand. “Give me the gun, Blake. Please.”
“Have you observed them? Any blue light?”
“No, no, no…They’re ok. Please, trust me.”
The grip around Derek’s neck relented. He gasped and drew a long breath as Blake released him and put the gun in Sabine’s hand.
Thoroughly pissed, Derek spun around to confront him. “What the hell, Man?”
As though he couldn’t be bothered, Blake stepped back and held up his hands. “My mistake.”
Mom stood and got between them and put a hand on Derek’s shoulder. “Blake Hendricks, right? Leader of Team Athena?”
“Yes,” he murmured, massaging the back of his neck. “Sorry about all this, Mrs. Storm.”
“Please, call me Lynda.”
Catching his breath, Derek took a seat again without letting Blake out of his sight. What was with this bozo, was he on drugs? He certainly looked like it. Derek rested his hands on the table not failing to notice they were shaking. “I didn’t think this day could get any more bizarre,” he said, glaring at Blake. “But here we are.”
Sabine handed the gun to Mom, who popped out the cartridge and slipped them both into her coat pocket. “We still don’t know much, but whatever this is we’re dealing with, it’s not from Earth.”
Derek crossed his arms. “That explains it all then, doesn’t it?”
“It might have come back with us after my spacewalk when I tore my glove. Maybe it got inside my suit…I don’t know.”
“Great!” Derek leaned back and shook his head. “So we’re dealing with the E.T. virus.”
“Possibly,” Blake said. “We can’t see it, but its effects are real—memory loss, personality changes, loss of autonomy.”
Mom scowled. “They quarantined you, though, right?”
“Yeah,” Sabine said. “But something odd started happening to the other half of our team. And Blake’s been having some unexplained memory lapses.”
“I recorded some videos of myself when I was unconscious,” Blake said. “It shed some light.”
“But your laptop…” Sabine said.
Blake pointed at the computer. “Secure connection?”
Sabine got up and offered her seat.
When Blake sat, he winced and held his head in his hands.
“What’s wrong?” Mom said, coming to his side.
Blake held up a hand. “I’m all right. Just a migraine.”
“I’ll get you some Advil.”
“Thanks.” He typed on the keyboard and brought up what appeared to be a black screen with a solitary, blinking cursor. “Derek, Lynda. You need to see this footage. This happened during one of my lapses.”
Sabine pointed to the screen. “You backed it up to the cloud.”
Mom brought over a water bottle, a couple of Advils and handed them to Blake. He nodded his appreciation, opened both, and downed them.
“Is this what you showed me before?” Sabine asked Blake.
“Yes.” He typed a few characters and a video feed appeared.
Dread coursed through Derek’s veins like ice.
Blake freezes in place, two people who enter his apartment resembling the “zombies” that had been chasing Derek and Paige this entire day—their voices, mannerisms, and conversation strangely disembodied.
“By cases,” Derek said, referring to the conversation on the footage, “I take it they mean bodies.”
Sabine let out a fatigued breath. “That would explain all the freakish behavior. Those are Jon and Lucy’s bodies, completely co-opted.”
“Unbelievable,” Mom whispered.
“Apparently, they’re having trouble taking over Sabine’s…and my ‘case’,” Blake said. “I’ve had a few memory lapses like this one on the video, nothing else.”
“Well, those hostile takeovers were happening all over New York today,” Derek said.
On the other side of the room, Paige let out a sigh. She’d fallen asleep and Hulk lay on the floor at the foot of the sofa with his head down on the rug. He rolled his eyes up in reaction to the sound of her breathing, then shut them with a groan and turned onto his side.
It had been an exhausting day.
Hopefully, Paige wouldn’t be traumatized. At least she could sleep for now.
Blake let out a pained grunt and squeezed his eyes shut.
“What’s happening?” Sabine said.
“These stabbing jolts in my head…they’re getting worse.”
“Is he infected?” Derek said to Sabine.
Blake squinted at him. “If I were, I wouldn’t be running from them now, would I?” Before Derek could answer Blake winced again and held his head with both hands.
“Take a break,” Mom said. “The Ibuprofen takes a while to start working, and you need to rest.”
“I’ll be all right,” Blake said, regaining his composure. “We have to stay alert and figure out what to do.” He went back to the keyboard and typed some more. A few seconds went by and he stopped.
“There’s an encrypted message here.” Blake turned to Sabine. “It’s for you.”
She went over to the monitor. “What?”
Blake stood and offered her the chair. “It’s in the subject line.” He stepped away and went to the kitchenette and rested both hands on the countertop. Rubbing his temples, he gritted his teeth. Suddenly, he lost his grip and his hand slipped, knocking over a jar and cutlery set.
“Sorry.” He set everything back in place.
Mom turned to him, but he waved her off.
“I’m just dehydrated,” Blake said.
“You sure?” Mom said. “Well, there’s more bottled water in the refrigerator.”
He nodded and said to Sabine, “What about that message?”
She took a seat, opened the message, and gasped. “How—?”
“He’s one of the few people that knows about this server.”
Sabine nodded, but her eyes were fixed to the screen. “It’s a video recording.” She clicked the mouse and a window opened.
Connor Walken’s face appeared before the camera, his hair disheveled, eyes bloodshot, and face aglow with perspiration. His entire body shuddered and streaks of blood stretched across his hand. Then he grabbed his wrist in an apparent struggle with his own body.
“Oh no,” Sabine said. “Not Connor.”
He spoke on the screen. “Sabine…listen carefully…There isn’t much time. When you and the Athena crew returned, you brought back an extraterrestrial pathogen. They’re sentient and have completely taken over Lucy and Jon. Some of them have gotten out into the rest of the world. Even President Mercer, some of his staff, and the director of the World Health Organization have been infiltrated with it.
“They’re an alien race…subatomic…they spread through electrical currents…any kind of electronic device or connection to inhabit—take control of the host’s body through their electro-encephalitic systems.
“They’re going to infect the entire global population over the next couple of weeks and—”
One of his hands drove straight at his neck with a glass shard. He stopped it with his other hand and struggled to keep it from slashing his throat.
Sabine gripped the armrests of her chair and gasped.
“Initial infiltration with the crew was…inconsistent!” Connor said. “You’re resistant…but Blake…two of—”
The hand with the glass shard shot up with such speed, Connor could not stop it. He let out a shout as it sliced his neck. Blood sprayed forth sprinkling the camera with crimson droplets. He put his hand over the wound, fell forward with eyes wide, and stared into the screen.
“You have to…stop them…”
The screen went black.
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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