Sung Ao had his people camp up against a cliff face where it rose from a sparse grassland on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert. Boulders sat here and there around the field, stones that fell from above at some time in the distant past, or perhaps got planted by glaciers long ago. He made the men dig trenches between the boulders before dark. They piled the dirt and added what fallen trees, branches, and rocks they could lift to make about a one- or two-foot wall. It would give his men something to lay behind in case of bandit arrows. And while horses could probably leap over the wall, any bandits on foot would have to pause and crawl over, making themselves targets for arrow fire in return
Sung Ao and the Polos camped in the corner beside where the cliff collapsed making the field full of stones and big rocks where no horses could go. Sung Ao noticed a big and wide dark spot up that side of the hill, but he did not imagine anything would be there worse than a bear, and any bear would avoid such a large number of men.
They had a pleasant night. The Polos argued. Marco read and conversed haltingly with Chin Li after dark. Jai the Mongol laughed with Sung Ao now and then. The stars came out that night and the moon appeared nearly full. Sung Ao expected no trouble in the night. It was the morning he was worried about.
At dawn, Elder Stow’s alarm went off. Lockhart, Elder Stow, with Katie and Decker who carried their rifles went to the edge of the screens Elder Stow set up. It did not take long for three cyborgs to show up and face them. One cyborg reached out to touch the screen. He appeared to try several different energy pulses, but the screens barely registered that they had been touched. The cyborgs had no way of getting through.
“You don’t belong here,” Lockhart said right away. “This planet is off limits to space travelers.”
“We understand,” one cyborg responded in a relatively normal sounding voice. At least Lockhart was surprised that it did not make a scratchy-metallic sound. “We will not be here long. The enemy has come here. We will destroy the enemy and be gone. Stay here until we have finished. You will be safe.”
Elder Stow spoke. “You know, there are limits on what a species can do with cybernetics. You will not live forever, and the collective mind destroys things like creativity and initiative.”
“So we have discovered. Our kind will not last, but first we must end the abomination.”
“The enemy. They abused themselves in unnatural ways making horrors as evil as the Acca that we drove from our world. They created the great abomination that ruled our world with its thoughts. The poor souls have become no more, but our collective being found a way to block the thoughts of the evil one. We destroyed it, and the lesser abominations it made, but one escaped. It came here. When we destroy it now, our work will be done.”
The three cyborgs turned and lifting slightly from the ground, they flew away.
The others turned back toward the camp but looked at Elder Stow for an explanation. He had his own database out to read before he spoke. “The Acca are Flesh Eaters. The Flesh Eaters invaded their world and they drove them off by making super soldiers in one place and cyborgs in another. The cyborgs have learned that there are limits on their ability to adapt and grow. They will cease soon enough. The super soldiers, however, continued to experiment until they altered their genetic code to create a massive world-mind that took over the planet. The normal, original people on that planet got wiped out. The super soldiers became its slaves, but the cyborgs, with their collective mind, resisted, maybe because some of them were off world using space technology made by the Flesh Eaters. They discovered a way to better block the mind of the abomination, and the weapon to kill it. The cyborgs then invaded their own planet and, at great loss, killed the super soldiers, the abomination, and the lesser abominations the first one made.”
“Thank God for that,” Katie said. “Telepathic control?” she asked.
“Essentially,” Elder Stow nodded. “It can project itself into the mind, memories, feelings, everything, and take complete control so the person is no more than a puppet. Complete possession, though it is unclear in my record when the person dies. One theory suggests they die instantly when possessed in that way, but most believe the consciousness continues for a time.”
“That must be horrible,” Decker said.
“Indeed,” Elder Stow agreed. “Fortunately, this lesser abomination can only take over and control an area of several hundred miles radius. It can’t take over the whole world.”
“I wouldn’t call several hundred miles fortunate,” Lockhart said.
Katie asked. “When you say control, you are talking about possessing people?”
“People. Animals. Plants. As far as I can tell from my record, the whole landscape and environment can be reshaped.”
“Wait.” Decker stopped shy of the campfire, and everyone waited for him to speak. “We have to be within the radius, unless Elder Stow’s screens are keeping the abomination out.”
“My guess is it is hiding from the cyborgs,” Lockhart said.
“Bandits,” one man shouted, and soon there were many shouts. The bandits appeared on horseback, about two hundred, but a few rode in front of the others and got down. They waited, like they expected the merchants to come out and talk. Sung Ao, Chin Li and Jai were willing. They took the time to set the men in the best positions they could to fend off an attack, and they came dragging the two that normally rode on the point. Sung Ao made sure the three Polos stayed in the camp and kept the fire going.
Sung Ao hardly had to get close before he recognized two of the bandits. He shouted ahead. “Lord Bozarius and Hakim the Berber. Sorry you had to be killed, several times I imagine. You must be about out of lives by now.”
The men growled at Sung Ao, and one even said, “Kairos,” but they let a third man do the talking. He was a big and ugly one that appeared to enjoy looking down on his opponents. Sung Ao heard from the Princess. She said he appeared very Xitides-like, and she wondered if he was actually mean or if it was all bluff and bully like Xitides.
“I am Timur,” the big man said. “You cannot cross my territory without tribute. Bring out your gold and the three foreign men you have, and I may let you go unharmed.”
“You mean Niccolo, Maffeo and Marco?” He saw that was exactly who Bozo and Hakim wanted. Timur stood and thought about it. It looked painful.
“I guess so,” Timur said.
“But what do the Masters have to say?” Sung Ao turned to stare at the two men he knew were repeats. Lord Bozo spoke.
“The Polos will not finish their journey. The gifts from the Pope will never reach the Great Khan. Europe will remain in darkness for ages to come.”
“Yes,” Sung Ao understood. “The Travels of Marco Polo is one of a dozen books that impacted the history of the whole world. Sorry. No Venetians. But I do have three strangers for you to meet. Slymer, Dragos, and Cruncher,” he called. Slymer was an imp from the Taklimakan Desert. Dragos was a dwarf and Cruncher was and ogre from the Kunlun Mountains. Timur stood shocked by the imp and dwarf, but he screamed when he looked up at the eight-foot ogre. He turned and ran screaming, ignoring his horse who backed away from the smell. His men grabbed their horses and rode after him. Lord Bozarius and Hakim were the last to leave, and not without another growl.
“Thank you,” Sung Ao said, and waved his hand. The three little ones vanished and went back to where they came from. He looked at Chin Li and his men and pointed at the big man running away. “We should change his name from Timur to Timid.”
Sung Ao and his crew went back to the camp and adjusted the defensive position a little according to what they saw among the bandits. The bandits would argue, perhaps for hours before they did anything. The Polos all asked but got told they had to wait. “Stand off for now,” Sung Ao told them.
In less than an hour, laser-like weapons got fired in the direction of the rock pile beside the cliff face and the long cave in the side of that hill. Jai moved the Polos to the other side of the camp in case a stray shot came in their direction. Sung Ao watched closely.
The showdown. Don’t miss it. Happy Reading