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STRATAGEM Chapter 29

“HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM,” one of the two armed men in security uniforms said.

Blake complied without resistance.

“If this is your idea of cashing in on a favor,” Sabine said to Blake, putting her hands up and behind her head, “Don’t do me any.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, his voice strangely calm. “Everything will be okay.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Quiet!” the second guard said. He pointed his shotgun toward the path ahead. “Now walk. Not another word.”

They followed a trail through the woods for about seven or eight minutes and came to a wide-open space. From the paved runway and the small tower with a 360-degree panoramic view at the top, Sabine could instantly tell.

“An airfield?”

“Exactly where we’re supposed to be,” Blake whispered. “I’ll do the talking, okay?”

She nodded.

A rude nudge between her shoulder blades alerted her.

“Keep moving,” the guard said, urging her and Blake toward the control tower and adjoining building in the distance.

She remained silent for the rest of the way. Not so bad compared to the stiffness in her shoulders from keeping her hands on her head. Blake seemed to know what he was doing, but it took more to trust him now than when he was guiding a shuttle through atmospheric re-entry and nailing the landing.

After about five minutes, they arrived at the edge of the tarmac, then walked about fifty meters to the control tower entrance. One of the guards opened the door, held it open with his foot, and kept his weapon trained.

“Go,” the other guard said.

Inside, the dark corridor concealed the figure of the person who stepped out of the shadows and into the dimly lit foyer. His grizzled mug and oily hair testified to his hygiene—or lack thereof. Sabine had sensed presence well before he’d come in view.

The man lowered his glasses and peered over its rim at Blake.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 28

BLAKE STRUCK AN ADJACENT PARKED CAR as he pulled out of the carport. He spun the steering wheel, let out a pained grunt.

That was when Sabine saw the blood. “You’ve been hit!”

“It just grazed me,” Blake said and raced out of the parking lot, wheels screeching.

The Camry lurched, throwing her shoulder into the passenger side window.

Another set of gunshots rang out behind them.

A loud metallic pop rapped against the trunk.

Sabine winced and ducked.

Once Blake turned the car onto the open street, he sped off pushing the speedometer past 60 MPH. “Are they following us?”

Sabine looked back.

Nothing but the empty street, overhead lamps casting an amber mist over the entire area. “I don’t see anyone. We’ve got a  decent lead.”

Blake’s window opened. “Pass me my laptop bag?”
 

“What?” She reached over the put its carrying strap in his free hand, which also held his phone.

Without hesitation, he took it and tossed it and the phone out the window.

“Wait—what are you doing?” Sabine said, turning her head to watch the bag and phone fall flat on the asphalt like roadkill.

He held out his hand. “Phone, electronics?”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t expecting a prison break.”

“Good. Can’t have anything electronic on us. They’ll use it to track us.”

“I can’t believe they’d shoot at us—they’re just base security.”

“Not necessarily.”

Sabine gave him an incredulous look. “Them too?”

“We have to assume they’re like Lucy and Jon.”

“At the very least, they’re under their orders.” Blake turned away from the freeway ramp and drove toward a residential neighborhood.

Sabine pointed back. “You missed the freeway entrance.”

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STRATAGEM Chapter 17

TWELVE DAYS EARLIER

“AM I UNDER HOUSE ARREST?” Sabine said, glaring at Connor’s little square on her laptop screen. He was the only one present for the Zoom meeting with the Athena crew so far. He seemed distracted, or maybe uncomfortable. Could it be because he’d expressed his feelings for her last night and now felt awkward? For him, it might be even more difficult balancing between personal and professional, especially since the others hadn’t yet joined the meeting.
“I’ll explain to everyone when they join in,” he said, eyes elsewhere on his screen and working his mouse and keyboard. “I’m sorry they handled it like this.”
“Oh you mean the Vanderberg Gestapo? Yeah, that was a bit much.”
“It was out of my hands.”
Lucy and Blake joined in, and within seconds, Jon did as well. They all said hello, but when Jon waved to everyone, no sound came out.
“Jon, hit ‘unmute,” Lucy said.
“—kay…Sorry about that.” Jon shrugged.
Connor started without any introductory words. “All right, kids. First off, I heard about what happened after your medical exams this morning.”
Jon jumped right at it. “Yeah, Connor. What the hell, man?”
“I know, I know. ICOMM decided and contacted the base before telling me. They’re putting us all under quarantine for ten days.”

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STRATAGEM Chapter 16

HOWARD COUNTY, MARYLAND
THE AFTERNOON SUN cast a golden veil over the trees framing the home of Derek’s childhood. The pines and maples had grown so much taller and denser since he left for college. He pulled up into the driveway and shut the engine. Paige and Hulk had fallen asleep. Good. They all could use a few extra minutes of rest.
Derek leaned back in his seat and for the first time today closed his eyes and let the breath seep out of his lungs. His mind could not find the words to describe what had happened since he woke up until now.
A crow perched atop the roof of the house cawed three times. Standing right above the window of Derek’s old room, it cocked its head and stared down at him. The old brick façade and white shutters evoked memories of days he’d sit in his room typing stories on his Windows 7 computer with that little fifteen-inch monitor that took up half his desk to share on MySpace, while Sabine hung out with her “popular-crowd” friends after school. He had always been the nerd. Ironically, she had become the closest thing to a rocket scientist the Storm family had ever produced.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 11

Washington Heights, New York
THE MAN WHO RESEMBLED PAIGE’S FATHER lunged at Derek and started choking him with both hands. The sudden inability to breathe caused Derek to panic. He tried prying the cold fingers off but to no avail.
The crazed man squeezed harder.
Derek flailed about, punching his assailant in the arm, shoulder, wrist…didn’t work. The guys’ arms were fully extended, putting his face out of striking distance.  He swung Derek around, slamming his back against the car’s open door frame. Tiny flecks of light danced about Derek’s eyes and the pain from his spine spread to his neck.

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