Storm Freeman gave the world a miracle. She designed The Gatherer to draw electromagnetic energy from the air and disperse free and infinite electricity to rural and underprivileged communities. Her invention helped people but devalued power industries. Some revered Storm as a deity. Others saw her as an eco-terrorist.
Then the miracle became a curse. The Gatherer unleashed a plague that damaged the human electrical system, bringing pain, suffering—and eventual death—to anyone continually exposed to the technology. Stricken herself, Storm goes into exile, desperate to find a cure—and destroy her invention.
But there are people in the government and in the corporation that funded The Gatherer who refuse to publicly acknowledge the connection between the device and the spreading plague. And they will stop at nothing to find Storm and use her genius for military applications . . .
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Storm paddled easily downstream, the cabin falling behind her, the hills on either side casting large shadows across the fast flowing river. Blue sat in the bow of the canoe, their self-appointed navigator, his nose lifted to the wind and whatever scents the river delivered. They hadn't encountered a single boat since they'd started out, and the swirling vortexes of the current took on an ominous feel as they drew them relentlessly downstream.
She steered into an eddy at the final bend before Three Rocks and caught hold of a fallen log to hold her place against the current. Blue shifted and circled, rocking the canoe as he tried to leap ashore. She felt the same agitation, her concern growing the farther they had come downstream without seeing another boat.
Three Rocks acted as a supply post for the more remote communities further north. Float planes used the wide, flat river as a runway, landing and taking off in an incessant roar of outdated engines. She should have been part of a consistent flow of boat traffic, her canoe rocking in the waves from the boats' wakes.
Drops of water fell from the paddle she laid across her knees and she flexed her fingers against the cold. Any other year and the river would have been frozen, yet this year winter hovered out of sight, refusing to come.
She stepped carefully onto the slippery surface of a rock ledge, grabbing a tree branch for balance as Blue leapt from the canoe. He positioned himself at the top of a low rise, head up, tail high. She stashed her paddle and lifejacket under the canoe and slipped on her backpack. A few steps from the river's edge, she stopped and listened. Or rather, she called it listening, but it was more than hearing, her nerve ends tuned for the slightest trace of electromagnetic fields. A few small animals skittered along branches. A crow cawed in the distance. Underlying it all was an instability, as if something had shifted and left the woods off balance.
She followed the path along the curve of the river, staying close to its edge. She stopped every hundred metres to listen and to feel. It wasn't until the low warehouses were visible at the water's edge that the first traces of current rippled across her skin. Not strong, yet there was the rhythmic pulsing of a signal along her nerves where none had been before. Water lapped against the pilings from the old docks and a slack flag shifted in the breeze. She slipped off her backpack and signalled Blue to stop. He hadn't gone more than ten metres from her since they had left the canoe. She found her full suit of silver inside her pack, the material creased from being stored. It had not been worn in over a year since she'd first arrived in the Yukon. She removed her boots and coat, hunching her shoulders in the cold, and slid her feet into the fitted leggings, pulled the snug material up over her thighs, forced her hands out through the arms and flipped the hood over her head. She zipped it up and exhaled, feeling a brief pause in the tension that had grown since she had left the cabin.
The suit had protected her from the worst of the electromagnetic fields when she was still in Rima, but it hadn't stopped them from robbing her health, the muscle spasms so intense at times that she had collapsed to the ground. It would protect her from the relatively weak effects of any fields that were emanating from Three Rocks, yet it made her more uneasy since she couldn't gauge when their strength would overpower its thin protection. She pulled an opaque mesh over her face and the last tingling stopped. She slid her boots and coat over the suit. She looked like an alien. Blue whined.
He continued whining, his nose pointed at a thick stance of tamaracks. She lifted her veil to get a better view through the trunks, hoping for the smooth flank of an elk or deer and not the bristling fur of a grizzly. No movement. She threaded her arms into her backpack and had turned towards town when she saw the boy.
"Leave it," she warned Blue.
He stood further away from the river, half hidden by a poplar tree. He was thin, wearing the same scuffed, worn blue parka from last year. The zipper was undone and the sharp bone of his wrist was visible below the too-short cuff. Straight black hair hung in his eyes.
"It's Jacob, isn't it?"
He turned away from her, his shoulders pointed towards town, the turn of his head over his shoulder his only sign of interest.
"You saw me last spring. When I came to your dad's store."
There was a wariness to him that hadn't been there when she had come into town over a year ago. It had been at night, soon after she'd arrived in the territory, when the stores were closed for the night and the town quiet. Jacob had watched from the window while she had met with Mac on the street. The quiet, solid man, the only person she could trust.
"I need to talk to your dad. It's important."
Jacob retreated further behind the tree, yet the trunk wasn't wide enough and his shoulder and arm peeked out the other side. She stepped forward, afraid that he would run. It had been almost six weeks since Mac had shown up with supplies, the days growing colder and darker as she had watched for his truck at the entrance to her clearing.
"Has he stopped making deliveries? Is that why he didn't come?"
He tossed his head to clear the hair from his eyes, a movement she didn't think meant no. She held up her hands, appeasing, needing to know what made him so wary, realizing as his gaze followed her hands that the silver gloves only made things worse. She yanked off the gloves to show her bare hands, a slight sting rising on her skin. She pushed back her hood, feeling the cooler air. The skin on her scalp rose. She shouldn't be reacting this far from town. She had thought she was getting better.
Jacob held his head high, his chin lifted, with an air of self-reliance that hadn't been there last spring.
"Is your dad okay?"
Something in the way he moved his hand stopped her. A tremor, slight but present. She tried to get a closer look, but he moved his hand behind his back when he saw her watching. She strode forward, not wanting to believe what she saw and needing a closer look. She was almost close enough to touch him before he ran.
Blue leapt after him.
She ran even as she knew that chasing him would only make him run further. Blue matched her stride. The boy moved fast, flashing between the trees, disappearing and then appearing at disjointed intervals.
She was good at moving fast through the woods, but not as good as this kid. Already she was overheating, the silver suit creating a private sauna.
Blue shot ahead of her in beautiful long strides, effortlessly closing the distance. The boy looked over his shoulder, his eyes stricken with terror as Blue cut hard in front of him. The boy stumbled, almost falling, then redirected. Blue circled gleefully, head and tail high, nipping at the boy's heels. Jacob was panicked, frantically searching for an escape route. He kicked at Blue, who danced away from him. The boy found a stick and swung it. Blue herded the boy closer, strutting in circles, showing off.
"He won't hurt you."
She was winded from the short burst of running, her body unprepared for the exertion. Jacob spun to face her. He had made good distance towards town and she felt the tingling agitation on her face.
Blue trotted to her side and she rested her hand on his head. Jacob watched them carefully, assessing his chances of getting away. The shaking was more noticeable up close but she needed to get a better look. Already her brain was drawing conclusions, fitting the final pieces into a puzzle that she refused to believe until she had more evidence.
"This is Blue. I'm sorry for scaring you."
He didn't answer.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
A rush of energy, like electric drops of water hitting her cheeks. She lowered the mesh. Poor kid, no wonder he was freaked out. She could see him through the thin weave, but she probably appeared like a faceless android. She slid off her backpack and lowered it to the ground.
The Mariners baseball cap she kept on top was lined with silver. It kept the fields from reaching her head and had been one of her first projects when she'd started getting sick. She had worn it continuously before she left the city, but she carried it with her now the way an athlete wears a favourite pair of socks, more for the emotional reassurance than any improvement in performance.
She offered him the hat.
"This will help. With the headaches."
If he had them.
She wasn't certain what she had seen or how it was even possible. She examined the rough stitching and the frayed ends of fabric that stuck out below the rim. He stood as still as the trees around him, poised to resume flight.
"I used to wear it when they got really bad."
"I don't get headaches."
He spoke defensively, though he had lost some of his wariness.
She extended the hat towards him and stepped the final two strides that separated them. He backed up and Blue rose to his feet.
"Try it." She laid it on top of an exposed rock. "I don't use it anymore." She gestured towards the suit. "I have this."
She retreated far enough from the hat that she would not be able to lunge for him. The boy's gaze moved between her and Blue, an awareness perhaps that she could have Blue subdue him if she wanted. She forced herself to bide her time and moved further back.
He turned it slowly, noting the same imperfections that she had. She had a sudden flash of the relief of sliding it onto her head, her self-made protective helmet against the world. She longed for that kind of simple solution now. Already the needling pain penetrated the suit, another reason not to go into town.
She stopped herself from telling him to try it on. She would know for sure if he was being affected once she saw his relief when he put it on, like cool water running over your head on a hot day. She signalled to Blue that he was released and, tail wagging, he sniffed a trail along the ground, peed against a tree, then sniffed his way to the boy where he sat and lifted his head. Jacob turned his shoulder towards him.
"Will he bite?"
His voice cracked when he spoke. He was older than he looked.
"He wants you to pet him."
He reached out a tentative hand and Blue lifted his head to meet it. A breeze shifted the remaining leaves on the trees like a tiny fanfare of applause. What she wouldn't do to have Blue's ability to engage people.
A slow ache spread over her body. She walked a few paces. At the movement, Blue returned to her side. The ache eased, washed away by the flow of blood to her muscles and Blue's presence at her side.
Jacob examined the hat for several seconds before he lifted it to his head. It was too large and sat low on his forehead, yet the tightness around his eyes eased and his shoulders relaxed. He tilted his head to look up at her from under the brim.
"How does it do that?"
He looked younger with the hat on, and she wanted to snatch it back, flee back to the isolation of the cabin, and pretend she hadn't seen this.
"It blocks electromagnetic fields."
She didn't tell him that the hat would only help for so long. A salve on a growing wound. It didn't make sense he would have these symptoms here.
"I need to see your dad."
The boy swallowed and she had a momentary glimpse into his fear and concern.
"Is he sick?"
He shrugged, pressing his lips together. This wasn't about a single missed delivery. She knelt in front of him, grabbing his hand before he could bolt. Up close the circles under his eyes were black.
"Has he seen a doctor?"
Water seeped into her knees from the earth, a gust of wind delivering a colder, sharper bite. His thinness shocked her, the bones of his wrists too small and fragile.
"They don't know what it is."
He pulled his hand from her and for a second she thought he would run. Instead he took the hat off his head and offered it back to her. A crease appeared between his eyes and his shoulders rose as if needles of rain fell on his head. When her first tremors had appeared, she had seen countless doctors who had provided her with suggestions on how to reduce her stress, sleep more, and take endless runs of antidepressants. She had questioned her own judgement, worried the shaking and fatigue was something she had created in her own head. She had finally made the connection to the electromagnetic fields on her own, after months of fatigue, aches, and sudden sensations of burning. She pushed the hat back towards him.
"Why don't we go see him."
She should turn around. Go straight back to the cabin.
"He could try the hat."
Jacob's hands weren't shaking where he held the hat and she wondered again if she had seen it at all. When he finally lifted his gaze to hers, his cheek twitched unmistakeably. The nerves in her cheek gathered to mimic it, the twitching ingrained from the months when she'd suffered the same reaction.
She cringed at the rise of hope in his voice. She had no right to offer him that, for after eighteen months of trying she still hadn't found a cure. What she didn't understand was what had caused his electrical system to get so out of balance. She had caused her own body's imbalance when she had been developing the Gatherer, but Jacob hadn't been involved in any testing and lived here in the Yukon.
Jacob turned and started towards town. When he wasn't running in terror he moved effortlessly through the low brush and spindly trees. Blue trotted beside him and occasionally. Jacob scratched the dog behind the ear.
They picked their way across a slick stretch of mud, holding branches and the tops of shrubs for support. As she followed the back of his heels, she wrestled with whether to turn around or keep going. Part of her grew increasingly frantic as they approached town and the ache in her muscles deepened. Another part grew stronger, overpowering the first, her need to understand what had caused Jacob's symptoms energizing her in a way she hadn't felt in months.
They followed a worn path through overgrown weeds along the wide, spacious back yards. Children's toys were strewn about without any sign of children and uncut grass twisted through the wheels of a boat trailer that hadn't moved in a long time. Even the well-kept yards had an air of neglect, as if the occupants hadn't returned from a vacation.
Jacob led her past all of them, his eyes on the trail. A few trace currents skittered across her cheeks and there was an increased agitation to the air that left her jumpy, waiting for a stronger attack. She ducked through a narrow opening between trees and raspberry bushes dragged against her leg. A thorn caught, opening up a small patch of itchiness on her shin.
She slapped her hand over the tear while slinging off her bag and searching through it with her free hand. After wrapping several layers of foil tape over the flap of fabric she sat back on her haunches, finally taking a full breath, her heart drumming in her ears. She needed to keep her anxiety in check. Deal with what was happening, not what she imagined.
When she started walking, Jacob stepped in front of her, maintaining his position as guide. They paused at a T-junction at the top of a road that led into downtown. She had never seen the town in daylight, the loose grid of streets dominated by the three rock cliffs that loomed on the opposite side of the river. The streets were empty at midday, absent of the cars and people that should have been collecting supplies for the winter. She should have been relieved, as it gave her less chance of being recognized, but the underlying instability was still there and she couldn't help but think that something was desperately wrong.
"My dad doesn't talk."
Jacob spoke so quietly it took Storm several seconds to register what he had said.
Mac was more of a man of action than words, bringing her something in her order she hadn't asked for, or shovelling out snow when she had been too weak. But there had been words, if not many, on his last delivery.
"How long has it been?"
They walked close together down the centre of the street. A sidewalk ran along the side, yet there was no reason to move off the road. The air of abandonment persisted in the blank windows, and the street was quiet but for the rush of the river's current running close beneath the surface at its end.
Twenty-six days that he had likely marked on his calendar, waiting for the time when his dad would return to him. An eternity for the person trapped inside their head; no reason, pattern or logic to the never-ending kaleidoscope of memories and sensations.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Gatherer"
Copyright © 2019 Colleen Winter.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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