STRATAGEM Chapter 36
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! This day needed to come to an end. For all Derek cared, he could die right here, right now, satisfied that he’d done all he could.
Except stop Blake from hurting anyone else.
Without thinking, Derek rushed the madman, grabbed his wrist, and fought to pry the knife from his hand. But Blake would not relent. From the look in his eyes, though, he seemed more confused than aggressive.
“Come on, man,” Derek grunted, even as Mom and Sabine got up to help, “Just drop it.”
“Can’t…” A tiny red mark formed under the tip of the blade pressed into his neck. For a split-second, his eyes flashed blue. But then the glow shifted to bright gold and then disappeared. With a sudden surge of strength, Blake shoved Derek.
Derek flew back and landed on the sofa. This was the part when the superhuman strength would take over. Alien-infiltrated-Blake would be virtually unstoppable now.
Blake staggered over to Sabine who backed up into a wall.
Mom scrambled to pop the cartridge back into her gun.
Before Derek could stand up, Blake lifted the knife.
Sabine held up her arms to block him.
Then, with hands quivering, Blake lowered the blade…
…turned the point toward himself…
…and presented the handle to Sabine.
“Quick,” he said in a strangely calm voice. “Take it before it’s too late.” He stepped back as he held the handle out to her.
Focused and still as a monument, Mom pointed her gun at him.
Sabine slid away while he remained in place, still holding out the handle of the knife. But for a few shaky breaths, she didn’t make a sound.
Derek stood and, after taking a few cautious steps over to him, took the knife without any resistance from Blake. “It’s okay…” He backed away, put the knife back in the cutlery block, and grabbed the entire set to keep it out of Blake’s reach.
“You are safe for now,” Blake said, in a stiff manner. “We are in control.”
“We?” Derek said.
Blake turned to Sabine, who kept a safe distance. “Do you remember what Connor Walken said in his message about there being two?”
“He never got to finish what he was saying,” Sabine said, coming out of the shadows. “Just that there were two of…something?”
“There are two entities inhabiting this case,” Blake pointed to his head. “And I have remained dormant and undetected by the other one that has been trying to take over Blake completely.”
Sabine blinked. “A second alien…inside his brain?”
Derek huffed. “This day just keeps getting better.”
“You’re the reason Blake hasn’t gone over?” Sabine said.
“Until now, the other entity has not realized it, but I am inhibiting it from taking control of Blake’s case and communicating with the collective. That is why it tried to terminate this case when it saw the opportunity to escape through the network-connected computer.”
With an incredulous look, Mom said, “Blake? Are you still there?”
He craned his neck slightly. “Yes…cooperating now…it saved my life.”
“But why?” Derek said. “Why are you doing this?”
His posture relaxing, Blake held up his hands. “Take a seat and we’ll explain. But first—in case the other entity manages to resurface—keep anything it can use as a weapon out of our reach.”
“Don’t worry, Sméagol,” Derek cradled the knife block tighter, “you’re not getting the precious.”
“Derek,” Mom scolded.
“At least I didn’t call him Gollum,” Derek said. “We all know well that ended.”
Eyes trained on Blake, Sabine went back to the table. “What’s the other entity’s status?”
“Dormant for now,” Blake said. “I should be able to keep 0835 in stasis for the remainder of the term.”
Derek shut the knife set inside a cabinet behind him. “What do you mean, like an expiration date?”
Blake stood by the refrigerator as Mom took a seat. He must’ve sensed the caution in her body language and kept his distance to avoid escalating any sense of a threat. “The primary issue for my entire race revolves around the finite timeframe in which we can survive.”
“All right, let me get this straight,” Sabine said. “You’re stopping this alien entity called 08…3—”
“I’ll just call him Bob. You’re stopping Bob the subatomic alien parasite from taking over Blake, like all the others did?”
“I’m one of only a few.”
“What is this collective?” Derek said.
“We made a narrow escape when our ship ran into an asteroid storm. Traveling on the vehicle’s debris and meteorite shards, we landed on the satellite Sabine and Blake went to repair.”
“You all entered through that tear in my glove,” Sabine said.
“That made it more convenient,” Blake said. “We would have entered your ship on static electrical charges on the surface of your suits, or in their electronic components.”
Mom re-engaged the gun’s safety but kept it in her hand. “Why is the collective trying to take over the entire planet?”
“It’s what we do,” Blake said. “For thousands of your solar orbits, we have traveled to star systems seeking out advanced civilizations to infiltrate. By the time we have exhausted their population’s cases we either appropriate or build means of interstellar travel to the next planet. By this process, we have acquired and developed the most advanced technology in the Galaxy. We have also assimilated each planet’s culture and scientific knowledge.”
“What happens to the inhabitants of those worlds?” Derek asked.
“As I said, the timeframe is finite. The biological host cases expire rather quickly. And because unlike a virus, we don’t replicate, we keep jumping from expired to living hosts until the entire population has been depleted. Then we move on to the next planet.”
“Leaving behind a world filled with corpses,” Derek said, blunt nausea digging a hole in his gut.
Blake stared straight ahead. “Over the past hundred and fifty years, a small minority of us have tried without success to urge our leadership to discontinue this practice and return to a peaceful, non-parasitic means of existence. But they were silenced and terminated, forcing us to mount a clandestine operation to stop them.”
“What will become of your species, if you succeed?”
“It was only this militant imperialist tribe that broke away to form the collective. When they had discovered corporeal existence, they became obsessed,” Blake replied. “As for the remainder of our kind, they will go on peacefully as they have since the beginning in the homeworld—a protoplanetary nebula far from the reach of any of Earth’s telescopes,”
“And what about you, and your…rebellion?”
“We will perish, of course.” Blake looked down at the floor. “Nothing can atone for what we have done. But if my faction can stop the collective once a for all, perhaps we can prevent them from pillaging this, and future planets.”
Unreal… yet, now that Derek heard the explanations, it all made sense. And the one piece of good news through all of it was that the aliens were not all united in purpose. Blake’s parasite was on the side of the humans.
“That guy Conner…” Derek suddenly recalled that Sabine had had feelings for him. “He mentioned Sabine was resistant.”
“In my last communications with the collective, they stated that our agents were unable to infiltrate her…case.” With a golden glow in his eyes, Blake looked into Derek’s. “You are particularly resistant.”
Derek let out a relieved breath. “So that’s why they weren’t able to infect me.”
Scanning the bunker, Blake’s demeanor seemed almost robotic.
“You still in there, Blake?” Derek said.
Blake’s eyes returned to normal for a moment. Just long enough to reply, “Yes. The entity is speaking and acting through me with my full cooperation…it’s amazing.” Then the glow returned along with the robotic stare which fell on Paige. “The child…she too appears resistant.”
Paige was still lying there asleep near Hulk.
Derek narrowed his gaze. “She didn’t get infected either, though there were more than enough opportunities.”
“But her immunity is not like yours,” Blake said. “It is minimal, but growing in strength.”
“How do can you tell?” Sabine said.
“It’s detectable in the way electrical fields behave around the human body.”
“That’s how they targeted me,” Derek said.
Blake took another scan of Paige. “Her electro-immune signatures match yours, Derek. Are you genetically related?”
“Never met her before today.”
Sabine narrowed her gaze at Derek. “Then how—?”
“Wait.” A chill ran through him. “At the hospital. The broken glass…both of our hands got cut and some of my blood must have gotten into her wound.” Until now, Derek hadn’t even thought about the fact that he and Paige had probably needed stitches. He looked down at his hand and gasped. “No way!”
Though a faint, pink scar remained, the cut had closed.
On its own?
“I had a pretty deep gash in my hand right there,” Derek said, pointing to his palm. “It’s pretty much gone now.”
Expressionless, Blake came over to examine his hand. “Perhaps due to the interaction between the host enzymes produced during the attempted infiltration and the genetic patterns found in your blood. It makes sense that it would accelerate the healing process.”
“Part of my—” he glanced over to Paige—“our immunity?”
“What about me?” Sabine asked. “Why am I only resistant and not immune?”
Blake looked her over, then scanned Mom. “You both have trace signatures consistent with Derek’s. But you not enough to make you completely immune. If an entity tried hard enough to infiltrate, it would succeed.” He turned to Derek and in Blake’s voice said, “Looks like you’re the chosen one, buddy.”
“Great,” Derek said, “but we need to find a way to stop them.”
Blake nodded. “Agreed. I can discreetly remain connected to the collective as long as I keep 0835 in stasis. Once I know the collective’s plan, we will devise a plan.”
“How long can you keep it in stasis?” Mom asked.
“Barring any sudden trauma to this case,” Blake said, pointing to himself, “indefinitely. However, it requires that I remain awake for the entire time.”
Concern etched across her features, Sabine said, “How are you going to do that?”
“The entity controlling 0835 will provide a continual stream of adrenaline and send neurotransmitters to the cerebral cortex. I will remain perpetually conscious.”
“I was going to suggest coffee,” Derek said.
“Blake, you haven’t had a chance to rest since…” Sabine pressed her lips together, then exhaled. “What kind of toll will that take?”
He stared ahead with a blank expression for a couple of seconds. Then something like resignation appeared in his eyes. “I don’t have much time. We’ll have to act within the next four days.”
“Four–?” Sabine said, not even trying to conceal her dismay. “You can’t let them destroy your body like that.”
“That won’t matter if we fail to stop the collective,” Blake said. “I have to do whatever it takes.”
“But you’ll die.”
Blake shrugged. “In the meantime, keep all weapons or objects 0835 can use away from me.”
“Count on it,” Derek said.
Sabine went over to Blake and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Can you at least have them give you some time to rest, without them inside of you?”
He shook his head. “In fact, if 0835 manages to regain control, it will try to warn the collective. I’ll need your help to stop it by whatever means possible. Can I count on you all?”
“You’re asking us to kill you?” Sabine said, taken aback.
“If it comes to that,” Blake said, warmth returning to his gaze as he spoke to her. “You mustn’t let me be used that way.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “Blake, no.”
“I’m a dead man either way,” he said. “So we have to use whatever time I have left to stop the collective.” He turned to Derek. “And you may very well be the key.”
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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