Sung Ao sat across the fire and laughed occasionally at the two Venetians. Niccolo and Maffeo, two brothers, argued about everything from maps to lunch. The hand gestures made it especially entertaining. Chin Li, Sung Ao’s captain of the escort tried to ignore the two. He usually ate fast and excused himself saying that he had to check on the men. To be honest, he did not speak much Italian other than a few words like go, stop, and get down, so he couldn’t catch the humor. Maffeo mastered comparing apples and oranges, and often made no sense whatsoever. Niccolo mastered sarcasm as his standard response.
Sung Ao looked to the third man of the party. Marco, sometimes called Il Milione, as his father, Niccolo sometimes got called Emilio. Marco just turned twenty. He had the good sense to let the older men argue without him. He had the habit of reading and rereading the same three books they brought on the journey. More importantly, he often wrote in his diary, what Sung Ao knew would one day be transformed into a book about his travels. Sadly, Sung Ao had to avoid the young man to stay out of the book as much as possible. He tended to talk to the older men and let Chin Li ride with Marco. Both young men somehow had passable conversations in some combination of Turkic, Arabic, and Persian. They both knew some of each language.
Sung Ao knew enough Italian to communicate with the brothers. He figured Alice of Avalon filled his mind with the language, and because of that, he also figured these three Venetians had to be important to history in some sense. He got the word that he had to wait in Kashgar for Marco to arrive and escort him to the court of the Great Khan. Kublai Khan sent him with the ambassadors to the court of Chagatai in Samarkand, but he had to let that mission go. He had to wait and kept only the young commander Chin Li and his thirty men.
“Time to go,” Chin Li said as he finished his lunch and stood. Marco also stood and put his book in his pouch. This time, Niccolo got in the last word, and it was a doozy. Sung Ao stood and laughed as men came to put out the fire.
The Polos and their hired men rode on horses, mostly Arabians. The twenty men of mixed middle eastern heritage with them also brought a dozen pack animals to carry their supplies. Chin Li’s men mostly rode on camels, which did not mix well with the horses. But Li had seven on horseback as well, so they moved out in what was becoming a standard formation. Two men rode out front to watch the road. Sung Ao rode beside a third man, an old friend named Jia who claimed to be Mongolian, and who acted something like a sergeant to the men. He also kindly spoke very little. Niccolo and Maffeo came next, followed by Marco and Chin Li, and the four additional men of Chin Li on horseback. Behind them were the men contracted by the Polos with their pack animals. Twenty-two poor excuses for soldiers on camels brought up the rear dragging another ten camels that served as additional pack animals for Sung Ao and his men.
They hardly got started after lunch and Chin Li pushed up to talk to Sung Ao. “I’m seeing men up in the rocks watching. This is the second day I have seen them. They appear to be marking our progress.”
“Yes,” Sung Ao said calmly. “The bandits are watching and reporting back to their leader and his men.”
“This is not good,” Chin Li said. “I have only thirty and the Polos have but twenty more. If there are a hundred or more bandits in the mountains, we will be in big trouble.”
“Have you mentioned it to the men?”
“I don’t want to frighten them.”
Sung Ao shook his head. “Your men are not cowards. Better they be prepared if the bandits decide to try us. Better they are not caught off-guard.”
Chin Li dropped back. He would have to think about that.
About an hour later, Marco shouted. He was the kind of man who noticed everything, and he looked around at the scenery all the time, though the desert and mountains never really changed. “Up. Overhead. What is that?”
Sung Ao knew right away what it was. A scout craft, and he heard from Alice that it was a craft of super soldiers. When he hoped that there were no cyborgs around, Lady Alice promptly told him that they were, and the travelers were just over a day away right in the middle of them. “Damn,” he said, probably in English.
“You know what it is?” Niccolo asked. Maffeo, Chin Li, and Marco all wanted to know as well. Jia, his Mongolian sergeant laughed.
“I hope not enemies,” Sung Ao said, and he began to look for a defensive position where they could camp for the night, even though it was still too early to stop.
The travelers found an oasis in the desert where they could stop for the night. Lockhart went to Elder Stow and asked about the cyborgs. Elder Stow anticipated the questions.
“Yes. They are easy to trace carrying so much metal. There are twenty that have moved out from their ship carrying what I would guess is a weapon of some sort on a gravity bubble. They appear to have stopped, possibly for the night, but when we get back to the road in the morning, they will be ahead of us. We will be between them and their ship. Not generally a good position to be in, I would say. I can set the screens for the night, and the scanner alarm in case they should be tempted to come and check us out. After that, we will not know until morning what is what.”
Lockhart nodded as Katie came to fetch the two of them. Supper was ready, and Boston was talking. That was generally a good sign. Boston had been quiet since the last time zone when all that business came up about Roland being in the future and her being stuck in the past, assuming Roland had not died.
“I bet those helmets are to protect the cyborgs from some mind-numbing thing, like the Vr energy,” Boston said.
“The Apes wore helmets against the Vr energy,” Sukki said in support of her sister.
“The super soldiers showed some signs of telepathic ability,” Decker said.
“Oh, yeah,” Tony remembered. “They tried to get inside my head and gave me a headache.”
“We are hedged by the ancient gods against that,” Alexis said. “To keep people from reading about the future in our minds.”
“Your father Mingus used his mind magic to totally confuse you,” Lincoln said.
“Just my memories,” Alexis said. “I knew who I was, and I knew my father, but I did not remember much. I had no choice but to believe what he told me. But eventually it came back to me.”
“I think the gods later corrected that part,” Katie said. “With your memory suppressed, you might have been fooled into revealing all sorts of things about the future that ears don’t need to hear.”
“We started with ghouls making us see and hear things that were not even there,” Decker said.
“I know for fact that got corrected,” Boston said. “Tien himself helped to fix that one.” she explained for Nanette and Tony who were not there at the time.
“Then there was the genie,” Alexis said. “The big bad genie got down deep in our personalities and messed with our self-perceptions.” She explained like Boston because Tony and Nanette were not there, and Sukki. “He had us all thinking we were Amazons and put us all in a position where we had to defend ourselves, and without our guns.”
“Zoe started the correction on that one,” Katie said.
“I am sure plenty of others contributed,” Lockhart added.
“I’ve thought about this a lot,” Lincoln said. No one looked surprised. Alexis smiled and said he worries about these sorts of things. Lincoln returned Alexis’ smile and continued. “I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine any other way someone can get into our heads. We have memories, personalities, and illusions all covered.”
“Projected illusions,” Boston corrected. “I can still put a glamour on myself, like now to appear Asian, and you see it too. Plus, invisible. You can’t see invisible.”
“Thanks,” Lincoln grumped.
“Even so,” Alexis said. “I don’t see how those things could help someone get inside our heads.”
“I do,” Nanette said. “Someone could disguise themselves as Boston and get me and Sukki to talk about things without realizing it.”
Sukki grasped the idea. “Any one of us could be a pretend person and not the real person at all.” People looked around the circle.
“Like the Were—shape shifters taking on the appearance of one of us,” Boston said. “I could be back in Khotan under a spell and some alien may have taken my place.”
“No,” Katie said. “I asked about that early on, and Danna herself explained it to me, and to Lincoln.”
Lincoln agreed. “According to the database, the Were could become animals, like wolves or bears, but the gods made them unable to transform into other people for that very reason.”
Katie nodded. “Danna said the hedge of the gods covered all that, knowing how sneaky some of the gods could be. No squirrel, or someone invisible, or someone wearing a glamour will hear anything. She said we were covered against hypnosis, or drugs, or anything like that. All they will hear is garbled noise, so it won’t do them any good.”
“Good to know,” Lockhart said, and Decker nodded.
“Anyway…” Elder Stow interrupted and looked up from his scanner. “The cyborgs will certainly never fool anyone. They have definitely stopped for the night. I don’t know their sleep pattern, but maybe they are not inclined to move at night. They might need light or some way of moving in the dark, and that might give them away.”
Lockhart stood. “Standard watch,” he said, and he and Katie went into their tent. The old man Gan Ao finished eating and said nothing.