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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 27

TWO DAYS EARLIER

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 grim, just white wall, smooth surfaces and white 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.

“Dammit!”

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.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 26

DEREK’S BACK SLAMMED AGAINST THE SEAT. The Accord made a startling leap when Mom downshifted and the tachometer’s needle reached the red zone. Instantly, a flash of high beams flooded through the rear window.

He looked back.

Within the cabin of the car chasing the two people from back at the gas station sat, their features obscured by the dark of night except for the intermittent flicker of blue light from their eyes.

Who are these people? ‘What’ they were was the more appropriate question, but no answer would make sense.

“Mom?”

“Hold on,” she kept her eyes on the road.

Paige sat up, rubbed her eyes with one hand while cradling Hulk with the other. “Huh?”

“It’s all right, sweetie,” Mom said. “Make sure you’ve got your seatbelt on.”

“Okay.”

The engine of the car behind them roared as it raced right up to the Accord’s rear bumpers.

Mom swung the Accord abruptly to the left.

“Holy—!” Derek nearly choked on his breath.

The black car sped ahead.

Before Derek realized what had happened, Mom had already driven the Accord at full speed back into the lane behind the black car.

She kicked the gas pedal, thrusting the Accord on a diagonal collision course with the black car’s tail.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 23

HOW MUCH MORE OF THIS could she endure? It had been two days since she spoke with Blake, and one entire day of not speaking or texting with anyone at all. Sabine’s margin of sanity wore thinner with each passing moment.
Endless hours of Netflix binging, surfing the web and watching the news did absolutely nothing for the mounting tension and monotony. Mindlessly clicking to the next episode of “The Good Place”, she picked up her phone to send Blake a text.
Come on, it’s already been an entire day of radio silence.
But Blake had been clear. With all the suspicious things going on around them, she had to assume they were all being surveilled. They had to act “normal”, whatever that looked like under a post-return-from-the-dead quarantine.
And her one reasonable text to Mom and Derek would have to suffice for now. Orders from the ICOMM brass were not flexible. Breaching those protocols would only put her further under scrutiny.

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STRATAGEM Chapter 18

IT FELT LIKE BEING A TEENAGER at summer camp, sneaking out of the cabin in the middle of the night after curfew to just hang out. Sabine stood by the door inside the communal laundry room down in the basement. A dryer thumped in a steady beat, filling the room with a warm vapor and did nothing to help ease her tension. With each click and clack from jeans buttons rattling inside the dryer, her heart pounded, lungs struggled to fully inflate.
She wiped her clammy hands on her pant legs.
This was crazy. What were they going to do, arrest her, put her in prison?
Why had Blake insisted on breaking quarantine just to talk in person?
12:00 AM, where was he? He’s thirty seconds late, she muttered under her breath. One more minute and she was out of there. She shut her eyes, leaned back against the wall, and counted to ten.
Never made it past six.

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