Sentinel’s Gate: Chapter One and Two


Since nearing Portland, Oregon, Mount Hood filled the windshield of the archaic Land Cruiser. The snow-capped, eleven thousand foot high peak was one of the most popular mountaineering sites in the country. My interest lie in the fact that, like the rest of the Cascade Range, Hood was a volcano. Sleeping, but, as Mount St. Helens had proved decades before, not soundly.

The contract from the US Geological Survey haunted me. They wanted my firm to investigate anomalies in the data coming from the Blackwater Research Outpost.

The agency gave me little else to go on. I had seen the data. Yes, there were odd spikes in gravimetric and lava flow monitors. Nothing alarming.

Calling in a private consultation usually meant one thing—the USGS didn’t trust this private research firm stationed on the mountain.

That would almost certainly mean the researchers wouldn’t trust me. I had to anticipate a certain level of hostility. A me-against-them attitude.

Par for the course, as far as I was concerned.

Blackwater was in Camp Meriwether, too tiny to be called a town. Café, diner, a few motels. Most businesses catered to hikers, fishermen, climbers and outdoorsy tourists. It was a stop on the way to the Timberline Lodge, or a few ski resorts. Few residential buildings were set back from the main drag. Dominant was a modern facility just outside the town.

BRO, the sign outside the parking lot read. No unauthorized personnel, of course. But there was no guard house or gate. There were maybe eight parking spaces in the shadow of towering hemlock and fir.

I paused. What I was expecting was a few tents, a shack at best. The facility was pre-fab, but a pricy build at this altitude. It seemed a lot for a privately funded research project.

My equipment was all portable, proprietary, and stealable. I grabbed the duffle rucksack out of the back before heading in.

A harried looking young woman, honey blonde hair escaping from a bun, gazed up through thick cat’s eye specs from a receptionist’s desk. “Hello?” She gaped, seemingly surprised at a visitor. “Who are you?”

“Dr. Rahman?” A male voice carried through a door standing a jar.

“Dr. T—” the receptionist said.

He was older, hairline receding, but the roughness of his skin and sturdiness of his frame belied a life of fieldwork. Following an outstretched hand, he smiled. “I’m John Thompson, project leader. We were expecting people from VAC-Tech—but not the chief researcher.”

Well, there wasn’t any other way, really. While I didn’t advertise it, Volcanic Ash Cloud Technologies was a consulting and equipment design firm that employed one person. Me.

His handshake was firm. Eyes level. “Good to meet you,” I said. “Call me Amina.”

“Thanks,” he said. “But I must say, I’m still not sure why USGS found it necessary to send outside researchers. I assure you our findings are accurate.”

A young woman with straight black hair pulled in a ponytail and wide, dark eyes, followed Thompson into the lobby. “You must be from VAC-Tech. Is your team unloading your equipment?”

“My assistant, Misha Kelly.”

“I am my team,” I hiked the bag on her shoulder. “This is my equipment.”

“Right,” Misha said. “You’re the queen of high tech, right? As far as geology goes.”

Not a moniker I was familiar with. People really called me that? “Sure.”

“I’d really love to see some of your portable gear in action. We’re still stuck with the—well, you’ll see. Let me get you set up. C’mon back.” She smiled.

“Thanks, Misha. Nice meeting you.” With that, Dr. Thompson walked off.

A vestibule behind the door was gated with sliding steel beams. The left wall was an instrument panel. I saw an interesting binocular attachment at head height.

“Iris mapper,” Misha said. “Updated from our old retinal scanner. We’re a secure facility. I’ll program you a pass card as well.”

Seriously? This was high tech security stuff. Expensive. Why was the research here protected so carefully?

She flipped a switch, thumbed a pad, prompting a keyboard on a retracting arm to slide out. After typing, another door slid open. An angled device emerged, lighting up.

“A thumbprint as well, please. I suppose I should check your ID, but I saw you in National Geographic and Geological Magazine after you predicted Mauna Loa,” Misha bubbled.

I felt a flush. “I eighty-eight percent predicted Mauna Loa.” I pressed my thumb against the light.

“Yeah, but after forty years?” When the machine beeped, Misha typed. “Pretty impressive. Okay, do you prefer one eye over the other?”

Once the security protocol was complete, the bars slid into the doorframe. After we passed, I turned to see them slide heavily back into place.

The small lab was modern, typical. Large seismographs dominated the space with their blocky bulk. Gas chromatograph, ventilation hoods, and a rock crusher took up one side. Units receiving remote data on ground deformation and tilt, gas emissions, various cameras and satellite imaging took up another.

Impressive as it was, it was standard. Hardly worth an eyeball scanner.

“And you have all of this,” Misha pointed around, and then at her rucksack, “in there.”

“Pretty much,” I shrugged.

Misha shook her head. “That’s just so amazing. You design and build all of these portable instruments. I don’t know anything about electronics.”

“I didn’t either,” I said. “Mostly, I taught myself. Took some classes. But I’m not comfortable…” Working with people? That didn’t seem to be the right thing to say. Not to someone you just met. “…working indoors. So I take the indoors with me.”

“Wow, that’s—”

A loud sneeze, followed by swearing and nose-blowing, followed.

“Sorry,” Misha lowered her voice. “Dr. T’s got really bad allergies. He hates the spring.”

I looked down the hall. Thompson sat at his desk, staring at a computer screen.

Time to get down to it. “Okay, USGS has issues with some of your gravimetric data not lining up with your EDMs, and your seismometers don’t seem to be in sync with theirs.”

Electronic Distance Measurements were stable laser measurements of the ground surface. A change in gravity usually indicated a subterranean shift. And, of course, the US Geological Survey kept their own tabs on the mountain.

“Could be that our seismometer is just more sensitive. I calibrated it myself,” Misha said. “And, I don’t know, maybe our lasers are getting nudged? There are a lot of animals up here.”

Both could be true. Misha seemed competent. Still, I had to look for myself.

“Let me get out there. Can I have the coordinates?”

Misha paused. “Um, let me get your phone synched up with our remote data collection for comparison—”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”

I jumped a little. Dr. T moved quietly for an older guy. He stood right behind me.

“Why not?”


“Are you going to tell me a spooky story?” I asked.

Dr. T chuckled. “I guess not. But you know how volcanism affects EMF. You could lose your phone signal, even a compass bearing. It’s no secret that experienced climbers vanish from the mountain every twenty years or so.”

“I’ve been on lots of mountains. All of them have legends, missing people. Sheer cliffs, sudden weather—I know the dangers.”

Misha smiled. “From what I can tell, you haven’t disappeared, Amina.”

“Maybe I should go with you,” Dr. T. said.

“I’d prefer to go myself. Besides, do you really want to aggravate your allergies?”

I always preferred to go alone. Being around people was not my jam. But something about Dr. T’s intense gaze was… Well, I hadn’t put her finger on it yet. And hopefully, I wouldn’t be around long enough to figure it out.

He returned to his office. This time, he closed the door.

“Sorry. Maybe it’s the allergy meds,” Misha said.

I eyed her.

“Dr. T.—he’s not himself these days. Maybe he’s just groggy,” she said.

Office gossip—I didn’t want to be included.

Misha went to her computer. She typed for a while. “I’m synching our remote data with your phone. It will be easier to do comparisons that way.”

I heard the tablet alert come from my rucksack.

“Thanks. Coordinates, too?”

“Yep. Our… weirder signals have come from here.” Misha stood up. A huge map featuring the mountain covered most of a wall. She pointed.

I stepped closer, noting the access, the trails, the areas without trails. Nothing out of the ordinary.

“I e-mailed several points to you,” Misha said.

“Let me get up there while there’s still daylight.”

Misha frowned. “There’s one thing.”

I didn’t like the serious cast of her face. “What is it?”

“Spooky stories aside, you don’t want to spend too much time alone on Mount Hood,” she said.


Misha looked down the hall at Dr. T.’s closed door. “I’m not precisely sure. But Dr. Thompson’s behavior started changing after a few solo trips up the mountain.”

“Changed how?”

Misha shrugged. “He’s never been exactly cuddly. But now—it’s hard to say. He’s impatient, easily irritated. There have been times when I’ve found him staring, completely spaced out.”

“Like you said, allergy meds.”

“Except it started in the winter.” Misha faced away. “Just watch yourself out there.”


I emerged from the cabin to intercept the intruder. Most humans, even the stupidest of the stupid, avoided this area. Partly because there were no paths save game trails. Mostly because I kept them away.

But my seekers had alerted me to an interloper.

I double blinked, bringing up the display from the computer implanted in my brain. Summoning Companion Beta, I watched the spherical defense robot swoop between the trees. As it followed behind me, scanning, I started off on another insignificant mission against an unworthy opponent.

I was an expertly trained and decorated commando. My current duty was guarding a cave housing a spacetime portal. A portal on a polluted mudball of a planet. A planet peopled by greedy creatures barely out of the stone age.

Duty? Punishment was more like it. Exile? Definitely. But they would have to think up some better penance.

This was fine with me.

Aelarans, despite being more advanced than these human creatures, were no more dependable. I didn’t need people, either those of my own race, or an alien one.

But apparently today one of those creatures had gotten far too close to the portal. I set out to misdirect, or kill, the intruder.

I had no compunctions about either—these people were so out of contact with their own wilderness that they went missing all the time. Very little of that was my doing.


Companion Beta hovered to eye-level. A pattern of lights blinked. My computer implant deciphered the message—the creature nears, coming down the slope.

Eyeing the sclera controls, I guided Companion Beta behind me and moved silently through snow and around trees.

My fatigues auto-mirrored the environment making me practically invisible.

Through a gap in the trees, I saw the intruder. Obviously female, I thought. For a moment, my eyes lingered on her pleasing shape, though I was unsure why.

She carefully tread a game trail, holding a boxy device. Then, to my shock, she turned quickly in my direction.

Gravity scan detected, Beta relayed.



With the heads-up controls, I set the Companion on the ground, deactivating its motivator.

The female made a breathy sound. She tapped her hand against her device. Aimed its antenna array around.

It was true, then. She was looking for gravitational anomalies.

Gravitational anomalies like the kind generated by the portal?

My heart rate increased. Kill her? Smooth her brain?

I studied her. A magnificent foam of brown and gold curls framed a heart-shaped face, dark eyes, a full mouth that fascinated me beyond reckoning…

I shook my head as she moved off the game trail, directly toward my position. Ducking behind a tree, I blinked on Beta’s motivator.

The device in her hand beeped.


Blinking Beta’s controls in place, I sent the companion machine swerving through the trees. To my amazement, the woman followed its progress with her device. She whipped the antenna back and forth.

“What is wrong with this thing?”

I heard her, soft voice, gentle despite frustration. Something stirred within me—

She chased after Beta. That was fine. This human was different. I needed to understand her better. I couldn’t abduct her if she was dead.

From concealment, I watched her descend the slope. Her motions were graceful, determined.

She passed, almost within reach.

Should I grab her? Force her to reveal why she was so near the portal? My hands reached for her…

I let her go, watching her from behind, her shape, her flowing movements.

Below, a Seeker caught sight of her as she passed. I brought the organic camera’s image fully in my left eye, then closed the right. The lens focused, and I squinted, remotely zooming in on her.

The hue of her skin, smooth and mesmerizing, the motion of muscles beneath the softness held me spellbound.

Zooming out again, I took in the surroundings. Vehicles parked on the overgrown road below.

I guided Companion Beta, sending it to those parked machines downhill. In return, it sent images. No one lurked near the vehicles. Beta would lead the female back to where she started her invasion.

I watched her, denying my fascination, making certain she went where I wanted her to. Yet humans were as unpredictable as Aelaran.

Once I felt certain she would return to her vehicle, I sent Companion Beta soaring above the tops of the trees. In a moment, it dropped back to my side. The circular blue lens hovered before me, gazing as if in admonishment.

Sending it to heel, we moved back to the cabin. My brain couldn’t handle more than one Seeker at a time. I didn’t have enough eyes.

I needed to check her progress from the monitors. If she showed any sign of returning, I would have to act. Part of me hoped she would.

The cabin was an old structure, constructed by humans. Modifications had been made.

Once inside, my aura projector automatically switched off to charge. Bricks of a fireplace smoothed to chrome, the dark interior now a bank of monitors. Black, rough cooking stove shifted to the analytic station. Rustic bed became comfortable low-g chamber, emergency medical machine forming from a crude night table.

She appeared on the monitors. I had seeded the Seekers well. And yes, she was nearing the trail that led to the road below.

I switched channels. The Seekers around the portal face detected nothing but squirrels. Companion Alpha, my offensive engine, remained on guard at the site.

Status quo. No fear of the portal being discovered. Yet my mind wandered back to the human female. Tapping into the Seekers downhill, I hoped for another look at her.

She moved beyond my organic monitors into deeper woods. While it would be good to have eyes everywhere, it was hardly practical.

Why had I let her go?

The last intruder I dealt with was left wandering the glaciers near the peak. The human didn’t know his name, let alone where he had been.

I intercepted the media stories regarding his condition. It was reported that he was lucky to be alive.

Human media didn’t know the half of it.

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