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The Disruptors (The Gatherer Series)
by Colleen Winter

Published: 2021-07-03T00:0
Paperback : 284 pages
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Maria Kowalski made a promise to do what Storm Freeman, the inventor of the Gatherer, couldn’t. Destroy the device that brought an energy revolution to the world and stop it from spreading a plague across the globe.

But not everyone wants the Gatherer stopped. The military, and the ...

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Introduction

Maria Kowalski made a promise to do what Storm Freeman, the inventor of the Gatherer, couldn’t. Destroy the device that brought an energy revolution to the world and stop it from spreading a plague across the globe.

But not everyone wants the Gatherer stopped. The military, and the commander she once answered to, are experimenting on the Gatherer to turn it into something larger and more dangerous than it was ever intended.

In a race where she will have to choose who to trust and betray those she once stood beside, she sets out to destroy the Gatherer before it has a chance to destroy them all.

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Excerpt

ONE

The porch light was out, the space beneath the canopy dark, and the glow of the moon on the house turned the windows darker. Compared to the brightness of the streets and the blazing storefronts Maria had travelled past, it was a welcome haven. And yet she would have liked to be able to see further into its shadows. She crossed the road, her face tucked into her collar, grateful for the cover of the porch.

The rows of painted wood boards were neat and swept clean. A welcome mat lay at the door and Maria wondered if she had gotten the right place. She had been watching it for over an hour and there had been no signs of life from within the dark house. A window looked out onto the porch, double hung. She could have jimmied it, but the noise would attract unwanted attention inside and out.

She knocked three times, the door vibrating dully. It was metal that had been made to look like wood. Amanda could be watching her from inside the house even now. As kids she had always liked to play games, usually several steps ahead of Maria and everyone else. Maria turned her head to check for movement on the street. The pools from the streetlights rose up the fronts of the houses on either side.

She felt the door open, an awareness of space where there hadn’t been any before.

“Look who’s here.”

Amanda was thin and wiry, as she had always been, her black hair pushed back from her face like an afterthought. She was fully clothed in the middle of the night, as if she had been waiting.

“Can I come in?”

Amanda ignored the entirely inadequate greeting and tilted her head to the side in invitation. Maria stepped over the threshold.

A staircase led straight up against one wall, and a dim hallway ran beside it to the back of the house, the glow of a computer screen at its end. The tension in Maria’s shoulders eased as Amanda closed the door behind her, her chest loosening enough to allow a deeper breath.

She heard four deadbolts slide into place and spun back. She pulled at the handle, fear flooding into that brief release of tension, certain she had walked into a trap. It didn’t move.

“Relax. They aren’t for you.”

“Then who are they for?”

Maria heard the panic in her own voice, a knee-jerk reaction to her fear.

Amanda’s silhouette moved into the shadows of the living room.

“It will be getting light soon,” said Amanda, her voice cool and remote, as if they were teenagers again and Maria was overreacting. “You can’t be out on the street anyways.”

Maria turned her back to the door and leaned against it, forcing herself to breathe and take stock of what was really there.

Amanda sat on a high-backed couch and the red burn of a cigarette end glowed at her lips.

“You knew I was coming.”

There was the flick of her cigarette into an ash tray as Amanda leaned forward. In the spill off from the streetlight, she looked older than she should, with lines around the corner of her eyes and a mouth that aged her far beyond her thirty-something years.

“Actually, I thought this was the last place you would come.”

There was a ticking sound down the hall. Four taps and then it stopped.

“Is someone here?”

She could imagine her unit waiting at the back of the house, knowing she would come here. Yet how could they when she had never once mentioned Amanda’s name?

Amanda tilted her head. Exhaled smoke.

“It’s just me.”

There was a challenge in her answer. Defiant like she had always been but there was also something protective. New.

“Mind if I check?”

Amanda ground out her cigarette and gestured for Maria to go ahead of her.

“Be my guest.”

The carpet was thick and deep. The dimness hid the details but she got the feeling there was wealth here, a level of comfort and quality that came with money. The blue cast of a screen grew brighter, its glow defining the edges of a sheer, formal kitchen.

Amanda hung back, watching with amusement more than trepidation. Maria could feel her calculating the changes in her, assessing who she had become.

“Did you kill that guy on the train?”

Maria had the memory of dead weight on her shoulders, the metal of the handcuff digging into her wrist as she had dragged Coulter across the floor. She hadn’t killed him, but the media had made it look that way, his death providing an easy way to label her as a rogue soldier operating outside of the established command. She peered into the room with the source of the glow and faltered. The room was empty but for nine large screens mounted on one wall in front of a single desk and chair.

“What is this?”

Amanda moved past her and sat in the chair.

“I saw you on this one first.”

She pointed to a screen showing the view of a street.

With a single key tap, an image of Maria appeared, not doing a good job of staying out of sight two streets over. She looked ragged and peaked and more than a little paranoid as she cased the street.

“Why do you have all this?”

Amanda leaned back in her plush office chair, her gaze moving from screen to screen. She looked calm. This was a place of comfort for her, no longer the fearless rebel she had once been.

“I like to know who comes to the neighbourhood.”

One of the views showed aerial footage of the neighbourhood slowly lightening.

“Is that a drone?”

“I only run it at night. After the neighbours complained.”

Amanda ran her hands down her thighs, frowning up at the monitors before she switched the view to a close up of Maria’s face when she had stood on the porch. She smirked.

“I never expected to see that at my door.”

Maria looked worse up close. Gaunt, blonde hair in tangles, an agitation in every movement that Maria hadn’t been aware of but felt now in this quiet, controlled place. Every moment of the past weeks echoed in her. The journey to the Yukon to find Storm Freeman, the inventor of the Gatherer, their escape,…and the moment when she had been forced to leave her behind.

The feed next to it showed a live stream of a lone figure strolling down the back lane.

“That’s Marcus. Off to work. He lives three doors down.”

Marcus laid a finger against one nostril and leaned over to blow the mucus into the weeds at the side of the lane. On the next step he did the other side.

“Does that every morning too.”

Amanda sounded indifferent, as if she had watched this routine too many times.

A tall, broad shouldered man appeared on the screen showing the street in front of the house. Maria stiffened. Amanda looked up at her.

“You know him?

“He was a guard at the warehouse where they held Storm and I.” His energy had been unsettling, an intensity to it that felt broken. He strode casually down the centre of the street. A stocky figure she didn’t recognize showed on a different street, accessing the alley from the opposite end.

“What about him?”

Maria leaned in closer but shook her head.

“They think you’re still in the alley,” said Amanda.

“What?”

She struggled against the feeling of being trapped, too much of this place not making sense.

“I let them hack into my cameras, so I know when they’re looking. This morning I changed the recorded footage, so they think you’re still in there. I’m part of a network that the police can tap into.”

She felt for the door frame, needing something solid to hold onto against the screens, the bolts on the doors and the cameras that prevented her from leaving without being seen.

The two men spoke briefly into their shoulders and entered the alley at once.

“I need to leave.”

She walked into the cool, hardness of the kitchen, its sharp corners taking shape in the growing light. Patio doors led out onto a dim, well-tended back yard with the ghost of a Gatherer installed along the fence.

“I never should have come.”

The doors didn’t move. They were as solidly locked as if they had been sealed shut. Her panic rose at her own stupidity. How had she thought this place would be safe? She yanked on the handle.

Amanda sat down at a small breakfast table set next to the door and tapped a cigarette out of the pack. She lighted it from an electric lighter and spoke as she exhaled.

“Where are you going to go?”

Maria leaned closer to the door, trying to see an escape route, only noticing the distortion from the glass when she looked to the back of the yard.

“How thick is this glass?”

She pressed her hands against the coolness, as if she could test it.

Amanda reached out and gently touched it.

“Took me forever to find it.”

Amanda’s gaze followed the frame of the door, as if seeing the installation for the first time.

“Why do you have this?”

Maria’s voice had risen, the fortifications here speaking too much of fear and danger.

Amanda shrugged, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. The headlights of a car bounced down the lane, the light refracting oddly through the glass.

“Is it one way?”

Maria looked back towards the front door and the dead bolts that had slid into place, the awareness of her confinement a prickling on her skin.

Amanda stood, came to stand beside her.

“Yes. And you need to calm yourself.”

Her features were still delicate, her beauty always that of a fragile doll. She had used it many times to deflect blame, transforming into a wide-eyed innocent when it suited her, the oscillations between light and dark intoxicating.

And now she was telling Maria to get her shit together, like she had so many times before. Maria bristled at her presumption that she still had any right to do it.

Maria returned to the computer room. She watched the screens as the guard and the other man emerged from the alley. They checked up and down the street. They would only have to knock on a few doors before they found her. She moved back to the solid quiet of the kitchen where Amanda sat at the breakfast table.

“What is this place?”

There were no personal notes on the fridge, no discarded clothing, nothing giving the appearance that anyone lived there at all. It was only the artwork that showed any sign of the person Maria had known. A huge painting of a 17th century battlefield with all its blood, gore and suffering. A small framed painting of a spotlighted woman, her expression one of either fear, pain or ecstasy. Another showed a woman in a library, the sunlight that highlighted her only making the shadows in the corners darker as if they would consume her.

“This is my home.”

“Not for the Amanda I knew.”

Amanda leaned back in the chair, and rested her hands carefully on the table.

“I’m not that person anymore.”

“Then who are you?”

Amanda looked up at her and Maria saw the protectiveness again, only now recognizing it as fear.

“The security is for me. It’s to keep people out, not you in.”

“Then let me go.”

Amanda looked down at the table and nodded as if an argument she had been having with herself had been decided. She moved to face a panel set into the wall beside the door. The small display flashed on to the word ‘authenticating.’ When the word ‘verified’ appeared, she heard the smallest of thuds. Amanda slid the door open a crack and cold air flowed into the closed stagnant kitchen.

A ping sounded from the computer room. Amanda pulled the door shut and pushed a button on the panel, moving faster than she had since Maria arrived. Maria followed, stopping at the centre of the screens. More alarms sounded, the warnings turning into a blaring alert. Amanda silenced them with a single touch on the keyboard as a screen showed the first guard climbing the steps to the porch. His stride was cocky, knocking on people’s doors at this early hour without a care.

His face loomed in another camera. Amanda pressed keys, his frozen image with an empty box beside it as the computer accessed data to fill in the empty fields for name, organization, and defining characteristics. They heard the distant rap on the door as he knocked on the screen.

Amanda stood.

“Don’t answer it.”

“Why?” Amanda turned, frowning at her concern.

“He’s armed.”

Amanda touched a key once again and another screen turned on, showing the man’s torso and legs. The man’s elbows splayed out from his sides which could be weapons under his arms or too much upper body building. One elbow splayed out further.

“Under his right arm.”

Which would mean he was left-handed.

In the camera view, he leaned down, pulled up his pant leg and released a buckle that was holding a knife to his leg.

Amanda rose and flicked a switch on her way out of the room.

“Armed and stupid. My favourite kind.”

“I said don’t answer it.”

“He’s not going to just go away.”

She shook out her hair as she glanced back over her shoulder. The light in her eyes that had been missing since Maria’s arrival had returned, her mouth twisted in a playful smirk.

Maria caught her in one stride.

“Relax,” said Amanda. “He won’t know you’re here.”

“He has a weapon.”

There was the roll of her eyes again as she stepped towards the door.

“Go upstairs.”

Amanda lifted her chin towards the long steep staircase.

There was a second more insistent knock that echoed between the door and the computer room.

Maria paused. Looked to the light of the back door.

Choose.

She took the stairs two at a time, her steps soundless in the dense carpet. She had turned into the upper hallway when the dead bolts retracted in unison, a sound she hadn’t heard from the outside.

She forced herself to retreat as muted voices rose up to her, the tone and content muffled by the fortress. Half-way down the hall she stopped. The man’s voice was short and clipped. Amanda’s responses relaxed, friendly. Chill.

“…a photo of her?”

Amanda’s curious words rose above the low murmur. There was a snatch of conversation. A pause. The smell of damp, morning air flowed up the stairwell from the open door. Had she let him into the house? Maria’s body vibrated with the need to flee as her attention locked on the conversation below.

The outside air brought no movement or voices with it. She felt the draw and excitement of whatever it was Amanda was doing accompanied by a paralyzing fear. It was as it had always been with Amanda. Always wanting that next adventure, needing it until your life became nothing else. One thrill seeking day after the next.

“…my husband is still asleep. I wouldn’t want to wake him.”

Maria checked the hall behind her.

“Okay. I will.”

There was the sound of the door closing, that brief opening to the outside world gone.

Maria listened for the sounds of his boots retreating but nothing penetrated through. A beep sounded from the computer room. She moved towards the back of the house, past a painting of a woman sitting on a long tree branch, her toes dipped into the surface of a murky swamp, the painting leaving no question as to the woman’s fate.

A window looked out over the alleyway and the houses opposite, the scene one of a normal neighbourhood waking for a new day. Had they really passed her by?

She tried to see further down the row of backyards, her cheek touching the glass when she heard a floorboard creak.

Amanda stood at the top of the stairs, watching her with an unreadable calm that didn’t fit with the fortifications that surrounded them. What had she been through that would make the armed, unsettled man at the door an amusing game rather than a threat?

“What is it going to take for you to calm down?”

Amanda’s exasperation irritated Maria, the feeling familiar, if rusty.

“They won’t give up that easily.”

Amanda came to stand beside her, looking beyond the backyards to the split clouds on the horizon.

“Why would they?”

A darker band lay close to the horizon, the clouds dispersing higher up.

Maria was suddenly desperately tired. The enormity of what lay beyond the window was too much to take in. She rested her fingers on the sill, shifting some of the weight onto her hands.

“I can’t let them find me.”

She could still feel the others with her: her commander, Havernal, who had first sent her on this mission; Storm, who she had left behind in the hands of the rebel group, and Storm’s team that had created the Gatherer, who watched her from beyond the grave. How long could she keep carrying them?

Amanda was nodding, for once not arguing.

“Do you have a plan?”

The white outline of the Gatherers in the opposite yards were taking shape as the daylight grew. A carefully installed row of deadly abundance.

“I need to find Ari Chaudhary.”

Amanda seemed to pause, as surprised as Maria that she had spoken the truth about needing to find the only member of Storm’s team still alive. Yet why else would she have come here, after all this time?

Amanda watched the horizon as if she could see the clouds change shape and offer a different view.

“Okay.”

There was confidence in Amanda’s voice, despite what lay beyond the window, and what was trying to get in. She was grateful for it, allowing herself to think, for a least a moment, that this may have been the right place after all. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Storm decided to return to Rima and the corporate headquarters, to stop The Gatherer. Was there ever a time when you had to fix something that you had done wrong? And was there more damage at stake than just your ego?

2. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS) is an actual condition that has been acknowledged by the World Health Organization. They are currently coordinating a world-wide program of Electromagnetic Field (EMF) studies. Do you think the condition is real? Have you ever been aware of a field, for example when talking on your cell phone? As more sources of EMFs enter our lives, such as video display units, mobile phones and cell towers, should we be doing anything to protect ourselves?

3. As our technology and energy dependent society has developed, it has required us to make difficult choices between the harm we do to the environment and our growing need for energy. Is there any way that we as individuals can influence these decisions? What do you see as the solution? Can we rely on technology to save us from a finite supply of energy resources? Or does it require a complete re-thinking of our society and how we live on this planet.

4. Maria continues to try to help Storm stop the Gatherer at great personal risk and consequence. Can this be attributed to her being a soldier or is it just who she is? What would you do in the same situation?

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