After 1245 A.D. between Kashgar and Aksu
Kairos 109: Sung-Ao, slave of Kublai Kahn
They met the old man Gan Ao at the inn in Khotan on the Silk Road. Gan Ao said he was waiting for them. “You are headed for Osh, are you not?” The people nodded and looked at each other.
“Maybe further,” Lincoln said. Their examination of Boston’s amulet and the map in the database was not clear. The Kairos appeared to be headed in their direction, though where the time gate might end up was a question.
“He left Kashgar and is headed south along the edge of the desert toward us,” Boston said, but hesitated to say more.
“I am an expert wagon driver,” Gan Ao said, and smiled. Several of the travelers figured he could not be that old. He still had his teeth. “Besides, I know the road well and can guide you safely.”
“Looks like we have another passenger,” Katie said.
“We have had mixed luck with that so far,” Decker said, and patted Nanette’s hand. She had her arm intwined around his arm and smiled for him.
“Don’t tell me,” Gan Ao said. “Newly married. He smiled for the couple and so did the rest of the travelers. Curiously, none of the travelers questioned the man closely, and much later, looking back on it, they realized that should have felt very odd.
The next morning, the Mongol officials in the gate went through all the things the travelers carried. The travelers had no choice. They entered the Chagatai Khanate from Yuan land. Though they came through the time gate on the far western edge of Yuan lands and traveled five long days to get to Khotan, it made them suspect. Their disguise as peaceful merchants did not sound convincing.
The Mongols were not impressed with the western saddles and skipped right over the stirrups, not knowing what they were or what they were used for. They did not know what to make of the horseshoes, and no one was going to show them the bottom of their horse’s feet. They did like the nails, however, but they could not imagine such small nails would be of much use. The foodstuffs were no big deal and beginning to turn in the heat. The tarps were interesting, but they left them alone. They did not find the last two big bags of coins because Elder Stow and Sukki held the bags and Elder Stow managed to make them invisible just in time.
The chief stared at the travelers again and shook his head. “Your leather is good, but I doubt you will sell any saddles in Samarkand. They look awkward. Your metal work is good, but I do not understand why you form it into such an odd shape.”
“To show the ability of our craftsmen. We would challenge the local metalsmiths to make the same and of the same quality,” Lockhart said.
“Uh,” the chief nodded before he shook his head. “Your guns look interesting. I have seen real guns. But yours are so thin. I would fear they will explode in your hands. Besides, you have no powder or shot for them.”
“We had some,” Lockhart said. “But the road is not free of bandits and not safe for peaceful travelers.”
The chief nodded to that one and stopped the hand of his soldiers. “No. Leave their mule alone. A fine beast, but they do not breed, and it will be old soon enough. These wretched people have far to go to get to Kashgar. Here.” He returned the few coins he found, the ones the travelers deliberately left in the wagon to be found. “It is not my way to beggar the wretched souls. Good luck.”
The travelers quickly moved out from the town, but Boston, with her good elf ears, heard what the chief said. “We will likely find their bodies somewhere between here and Kashgar.”
Lincoln said one thing. “I’m surprised they did not take anything, or everything.” Alexis nodded.
Katie looked back and responded. “Trade is the lifeblood of towns like that. They would probably all starve if they got a reputation for stealing from traveling merchants.”
Gan Ao smiled at the brief exchange. He snaped the reins and Ghost responded remarkably well for the stranger.
Two days later, late in the morning, the travelers halted beside the mountains. The road edged closer and closer to the Pamir Mountains all morning, and they at last came to a stretch where they had a choice of scrambling though the rocks or crossing the desert’s edge. Of course, they did not risk the horses on the rocks. They rode on the sand, but they roasted from doing that.
Elder Stow came in from the wing. Lockhart imagined it was because he had no safe way to travel out among the rocks, but in fact Elder Stow picked up something on his scanner that he found troubling. He looked to the sky as soon as he arrived. Everyone followed his eyes and saw a large ship of some kind shoot across the sky and land somewhere ahead of them.
“Something to look forward to,” Lincoln got to say it.
“Decker,” Lockhart called on his wristwatch communicator.
“I saw it,” the answer came right back.
“Very fast,” Gan Ao said. “A big bird?”
“No,” Tony answered. “But we always hope they may be friendly.”
Elder Stow spoke up. “Judging from the energy traces used, my guess is super soldiers, unless they are cyborgs. They may still be around in this age.”
Sukki came riding back but slowed when she saw the rest had stopped. “You saw,” she said. “Boston is riding ahead to see if she can spy on them. They came down in a gully beside the road.”
“Boston,” Katie yelled into her wristwatch, but then quieted, thinking Boston might be close and she did not want to be responsible for giving her away. She saw Alexis put her wrist down, like she was about to yell the same thing.
“Arm up,” Lockhart said, and they began to move again.
After a short way, Decker came in from the desert side. Elder Stow stayed with the group. He rode to the rear and tied off his horse so he could ride in the wagon and work on his screen device. Decker came in behind, in the very rear, where he could protect them from whatever might come up behind them. Attacking from the rear is a tactic all people use, human or otherwise.
It did not take long to catch up to Boston. She had started heading back to the group at a good clip, and she appeared to be excited. She also appeared to have lost a bit off the end of her hair on one side. Everything she said came out fast and loud.
“Cyborgs. I thought they were Cybermen, but they are more like Borgs with big metal helmets that cover their whole head, face and all. I saw some flesh in their hands and arms. I bet they picked up traces of my horse and fired at us, but I got Strawberry out of there as quick as I could, and they did not bother to follow. They look like they are unloading equipment. I don’t know what they are here for, but I bet there are super soldiers around, or some other enemy. That is one fight I would not want to get into the middle of, but I checked the amulet, and it looks like the Kairos is continuing to move in our direction from Kashgar. He is about two days away. If his group keeps moving, we should run into him in the morning, tomorrow.”
Katie looked up at Lockhart. “We could stay here and maybe avoid the cyborgs. We could wait for the Kairos to get to us.”
Lockhart shook his head, and most agreed with him. “For all we know, the cyborgs may move in this direction. The enemy they are after may be behind us, around Khotan.”
“I figure they are going our way, toward the Kairos,” Boston said. “I bet the Kairos will get in the middle of it, like always. But we can help,” Boston said, and looked back and forth between Lockhart and Katie with pleading in her eyes. Lockhart and Katie looked eye to eye, and Lincoln offered a suggestion.
“Maybe the cyborgs and their enemy behind us will get in a stand-off until the Kairos arrives.”
Gan Ao spoke up. “If it helps, I know a way around the gully where young Boston found the aliens.”
People looked at him. They generally forgot he was there. They did not ask how he knew Boston found the cyborgs in a gully, or Boston did not think to ask. And no one questioned his use of the term, aliens, which as far as the travelers knew, no one had mentioned to him. Tony thought it odd. He knew he never mentioned the word to the man, but he shrugged it off, thinking someone must have said it earlier.
Lockhart and Katie both seemed to nod. “We go around,” Lockhart said, and that settled it.