Sentinel’s Lock: Chapter One and Two


“How can you be sure?” the hybrid bird mocked, its wings tucked tightly around its body, the serpentine tail swishing through the air in agitation.

From the edge of an evergreen tree it watched us, bright eyes glimmering as brightly as the necklace that swung from its beak.

Amina’s voice was nearly drowned by the rushing in my ears.


“Surrounded by pod creatures! Can you trust her?” The bird crowed, as shock ran through me.


Of course I trusted her.

I hadn’t been in the room when Amina had escaped from the identity-stealing tangle leech, true.

But it had to be her.

“You can’t be sure!” the bird said.

“Kael, don’t listen to it,” Amina pleaded, but I shifted, just slightly, uncomfortable with her dark gaze.

“I know you’re you,” I said. She had to be.

I couldn’t do this again.

Amina grabbed my arm. “Kael! Tell me you know who I am!”

The brilliant, beautiful scientist who had been sent here to seek out gravity anomalies on Mount Hood. But while she was here she had seen far too much.

My duty was to make certain no human possessed knowledge of my mission.

I’d failed that. Had I failed her as well?

Had I left Amina behind in that cold basement, brought one of the pod-born here to my base?

Kissed her, tasted her skin, lost myself in her embrace.

Declared my love for her…

My eyes closed as memories triggered.


Red tholin snow brushed the black and white canyonlands of Planetoid W674. Even the smart suits could not keep in heat. Starlight cooked the opposite side. We only had an hour before a deadly daylight dawned.

“If this rock keeps rolling toward the star, we’ll be buried alive,” Balen said. “Then boiled.”

I could make out a sheltered path toward the pirates’ foxhole. Snow fell harder, a blinding red fog. “Keep me covered long enough to get over this ridge. Then I can come at them from behind.”

“I have a better plan,” Balen said.

Then I saw the knife in his hand. In freefall, he pushed off the surface toward me.

“What are you—”

My boots were locked to the surface. As he collided with me, I wrested the blade away, cutting his smart suit, gasses frosting as they blew out from the gap. Through his faceplate, I saw Balen turn blue before the suit resealed itself.

But he kept coming.


A genetic copy of Balen, with a few extra genes thrown in. How long had he been compromised? Enough to know the mission, the soldiers. Who had planted him in the unit?

Momentum made me crash against the surface, and slowly bounce toward the pirates. Visible energy-fire ensued, beams crossing in front of me.

I managed to turn and fire. But not before a bolt caught my helmet.

Everything went white.


I roughly shook myself, making the memory vanish.

I’d trusted Balen. Had I learned any better?


The horrible bird made a sound like laughter.

She stared. “What happened to you?”

“It was a long time ago,” I said. “Not important now.”

“It’s important if it means you can’t trust me,” Amina argued. “I can see it on your face. The doubt. Suspicion. Why can’t you tell it’s me?”

“I know it’s you. I do,” I said.

I did, didn’t I?

The bird squawked in evil laughter. Where had it come from? How did it know us?

Angrily, I bent down and grabbed a rock, but the pod-bird flapped its wings and feathered legs long before my throw.

Amina stared after it for long moments before she turned back to me, grim determinations in her eyes.

It was her, wasn’t it?


Kael wasn’t sure. The doubt on his face tore at me, ripped the breath from my lungs.

How could he not be sure? He said he loved me…

“How can I prove it to you?” I asked.

“You don’t need to.”

“Then why are you backing away from me?” I demanded, fists on my hips. Sure, my hair was gone, the pod had eaten it, sprouted it on its own globby shape.

But that was all. I had gotten away before it could subsume me.

But Kael had come to the rescue after I freed myself. It was possible, just possible, that they’d been able to grow a new me in the time I’d been taken.

I mean, I knew I was me. But he didn’t. Couldn’t.

Was that what a war against the pod creatures was like? Never being entirely sure who you could trust?

“You were betrayed,” I said slowly, trying to understand.

He nodded. “Yes.”

“By a lover?” I asked, my eyes locked on his expression. Did I want to know that?

“No. But someone close enough to nearly end my life,” he said.

“Yet you won’t tell me,” I said.

“It’s an old war story. I don’t want to dwell on it,” he said.

“Soldiers love to tell old war stories,” I said, moving closer to him. To his credit, Kael didn’t back up. But he didn’t say anything, either.

My hand stole to his broad chest. “It’s okay. It’s me.”

He didn’t look convinced.

Drastic action was called for. Keeping my eyes locked with his, I reached out.

“I’ll just have to prove it to you.”

Freeing the knife from his belt, I jumped back.

“Amina,” he grabbed for me, but I danced away.

I held the edge to my palm. “Let me prove it to you.” The pod-born, the hybrids, whatever they were all bled black.

There was only one way to shake the doubt from Kael’s face.

“That’s not a normal knife—”

Teeth gritted, I slashed my palm, let the red blood show.

“Amina, no,” he shouted.

I held it out to him. “See? Now do you believe me?”

In front of my eyes, my hand went floppy. Blood rushed down my arm, raining on the ground. How did I cut myself that deep?

Kael ripped the blade from my hand and tossed it. It stuck in the bark of the tree below where the bird had sat, burying it to the hilt, vibrating.

He scooped me into his arms the moment my legs went wobbly. With long strides, he returned me to the cabin.

When I was placed on the low-g bed, the medical machine came alive. It scooted around the bed on the left. A beam detached from the toaster-looking machine. It became an arm, wrapping around my wrist just as the pain hit, like a fire through my arm.

“Amina,” Kael’s voice threatened to break as he stared down at me. “How could you do that?”

I gripped his hand with my good one. “How could I not? We don’t have the luxury of doubt, not anymore. You have to know who’s fighting with you.”

But it was like he didn’t even hear me. “The blade isn’t metal. The edge is a weak-nuclear force energy field holding crystal alloy to one angstrom wide,” Kael continued. “You’re lucky you didn’t cut your hand off.”

Well, hell. That was a little further than I meant to go.

In silence I watched Emmet, the medical device work. The toaster part on top opened, emitting a floating sphere, tubes tethering it to the main body of the machine, then a foamy substance sprayed on the bleeding wound.

The light around my wrist pulsed and I shuddered, not so much from the pain, but the feeling of thousands of ants crawling around under my skin.

Nanobots or some other advanced healing. Whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant.

But losing my hand would be worse.

“Kael,” I started to ask for details of the process, but stopped cold at the haunted look in his eyes.

After a brief tingle, the foam vanished. My skin had reformed, not a mark on my palm.

“Thanks, Emmet,” I told the med machine as it rolled back to its place on the other side of the bed. “Procedure. Complete,” it said in its buzzy monotone.

A spherical robot, Kael’s Companion Beta, rolled its iris toward me as it spun in its cage of chargers while it finished its repairs. Despite it looking like a steel bowling ball, I thought I could detect concern in its blue lens.

Kael sat at the edge of the bed and took my mended hand. “I believed you,” he said softly. “I did.”

“Too late now. I proved it,” I said.

“You almost proved your hand right off. That blade is dangerous,” he said.

“What else was I supposed to do? You won’t tell me what happened. Why? It bugs me that you won’t. Makes me suspicious. Don’t you get that?”

“Do you not get that recalling the incident makes me…” Kael sighed.

Afraid, I thought.

As an extraterrestrial soldier sent here alone to guard a spacetime portal buried beneath Mount Hood, doubt was both his enemy and his key to survival.

Another, smaller portal had appeared. Just a crack in the mountainside, but a crack that connected to another world. And from there, some unknown enemy had been sending freaky little pods that harvested DNA from the local wildlife, producing monsters that attacked us. Monsters much larger and more dangerous than the oversized crow.

Well, physically dangerous.

What the spider-headed crow had done was more dangerous than all the tentacles, fangs and claws of the monsters before.

The words had pushed Kael and me apart.

He took my hand, kissed the open, unscarred palm, but I could feel a tremor in his usually sure grip.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I had to do it.”

“I know you are you,” he said. “Please don’t hurt yourself like that again.”

“It hurts more that you won’t reveal your past to me,” I blurted, then bit my lip.

Where had that come from?

Kael looked up from my hand. “Once we end this, once this planet is cleared of genetically unorganized pods, I might be able to speak about it. For now, I need to keep my nerve. Keep us safe. I feel like I’m failing at that.”

It must have struck a nerve, the crow’s words. Deeply. I could only guess what happened to Kael. Whatever that was, he’d been scarred.

“You’re not failing. And keeping safe is both of our jobs now,” I said.

He nodded. “Agreed.”

“Do you still trust me to watch your back?” I asked.

Kael leaned closer. I felt his breath against my ear. “Always.”

His visage changed. When we’d left the cabin, a device on his belt automatically turned on, camouflaging him as a human man with tanned skin and brown hair.

Handsome enough, but a lie.

He knew I preferred his natural self. The smooth silver skin, the mane of spiky black hair, the swooping, pointed ears.

We kissed, and I felt the points of his fangs just enough to arouse me.

His massive, muscular body pushed me down in the bobbing field, a hand on my chin as his kisses deepened.

I gave in to him, wanting him despite the issue between us. My hands slid over the muscular planes of his back. I only wore one of his shirts, and in a single motion, he whipped it over my head.

Smiling into his kiss, I pulled his shirt loose from his pants, trying to squeeze my hands in to work the buttons.


We froze.

 CB made that sound when something approached.

Dozens of images appeared, split across the screens that lined that wall. One showed the oversized crow monster flying back to the cabin.

Kael pulled away from me to grab a needler from a chest near the monitors.

“I’m going to cut that little instigator in half,” he snarled.

I scurried around the cabin, finding my own clothes. Dressing quickly, I hurried outside. Hopping on one foot to get the other shoe on, I stopped behind Kael on the porch.

“Are you sure you want to end me?” the crow cawed. “I have things to show you.”

Kael raised the gun, aiming down the lit-up fin on top of the barrel. “I don’t want to see anything related to you.”

“You don’t want to know who has breached your mountain? Who wants control over the portal?” the bird asked.

I hated the bird. Hated its sideways head, spider-like mandibles and eyes. Its mocking voice.

But it had done its work.

We needed information.

There was no choice but to follow where it led.

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