Cowboy reached into his saddle bag and took out four small, white stone
cubes along with a white sphere, holding the stone cubes in one gloved
hand and the stone sphere in the other such was their sizes. Each
of the stones was smooth, almost polished, being inlaid in intricate
carved designs done in black and gold high contrast. The Cowboy
used the campfire as a center point and paced off sixty steps in each
direction. There, at sixty steps exactly from the campfire, was
where he carefully set down each of the white cubes, one for each point
of the compass that he had walked off. It was a ritual the Cowboy
did every time that they made camp for more than a few hours and no
matter how many times the Astronaut had witnessed the Cowboy do this
particular ritual she never really got used to it … The stones and
sphere were some kind of eldritch Atlantisian technology that bordered
on science so advanced that it seemed like magic … at least that was
what the Cowboy had explained to her when she had finally asked him
about the sphere and the square stones. Any more explanation than
that on how the sphere and the square stones worked or where the Cowboy
had gotten the sphere and the square stones he didn’t say.
Once the four cubes were set in place on the ground, the Cowboy went back to stand beside the campfire, held his arm out straight with the white sphere resting in palm of his gloved hand. There was a small, almost imperceptible flash of blue light between the bottom of the sphere and the leather of the Cowboy’s glove and the sphere gently left his hand, slowly floating up overhead in a gradual arc until it reached a height of about sixty feet where it stopped at the exact center of the four stones arrayed below it. The Astronaut watched again in fascination as another almost imperceptible pale blue flash from the sphere resulted in a blue incandescent dome of energy that formed over their heads, falling gently until it touched the ground three feet in front of each white stone cube that had been placed. The generated field flashed once and each of the stones on the ground glowed light blue on top, almost pulsing in time with the occasional flickering of the generated field.
The Cowboy called it the “blue blanket” … the Astronaut just accepted that for what it was.
Satisfied that the campsite was secure, the Cowboy went back to his saddle and bed roll and sat down, staring into the flickering flames of the fire, lost in thought … maybe lost in mind as well. The Cowboy was that way … a man of few words and a hardened countenance. The Astronaut straightened her own bedroll as the Cowboy took out the makings for a cigarette, rolled his own and then lit his cigarette with a stick taken from the fire, returning the stick to the fire once he was satisfied that his smoke was lit. When the Cowboy exhaled the smoke was light green in color … the smoke itself almost luminescent … and she thought she saw shapes in the exhaled smoke … but if she did she didn’t recognize them. Maybe they were images from the Cowboy’s mind … or his heart … or his soul … images played out before him with each breath that he let out. Another Atlantisian gift she surmised, but from whom the Cowboy never said.
The curious, even distinct smell of the tobacco in his pouch was ancient and the smoke it produced reminded her of very old and forgotten places, of deep woods where the sunlight filtered through canopies of leaves and the smell of flowers that grew bright and strong in shadow would have filled the air. The Astronaut sat with her own thoughts, chewing on one of the last few flavored caffeine sticks she had left to her name and thinking of the events of the past few weeks. Maybe it wasn’t the Cowboy that was lost in mind … maybe it was her.
They ate from their trail provisions before settling for the night. After getting as comfortable as she could, she lay on her bedroll, staring up at the stars still visible through the pale blue shimmer of the generated field. She belonged up there … out there … somewhere … even though she couldn’t identify one single familiar constellation and she never saw any of the orbiting installations she was familiar with … not the dedicated research centers in geosynchronous orbit… not the gigantic mostly automated manufactories … not the high orbit colonial stacks or the military stations; everything she once knew was gone now … like the sky itself had been swept clean.
Her sadness wasn’t just that everything in orbit was all gone … but that she had no way back up there … at least no way that she could see given her circumstances. Her transport shuttle was cold, twisted and burnt wreckage scattered over three klicks of a desert plain seven weeks ride behind them. Like the Cowboy she shared the camp with, she, too, had become lost in time and space on a world that was as familiar as it was strange.
The Astronaut closed her eyes but even that hurt and her eyes burned behind her eyelids for a long time before finally easing. Tension stretched across her forehead like a taut spring. Sleep didn’t come to the Astronaut, tired as she was, and it was for no reason that she could determine. It had been a hard day of travel, long hours in the saddle and she should have gone to sleep as soon as she closed her eyes but sleep, like the answers to so many of her questions, evaded her just as easily. She tossed, turned, tried to get comfortable and finally gave up, cursing and profaning silently which made her feel somewhat better. Her eyes opened, once, twice then stayed that way and she knew that she was awake for a while if not the rest of the night. The only sound was the crackle and hiss of the campfire, the dull throb of the generated field which was more felt than heard and occasionally the small crisp electric snap as some insect flew into the generated field and was instantly disintegrated in a quick flash that was over before her eyes could even register.
She closed her eyes again and heard the Cowboy begin to brew coffee, she could smell the fresh roast grounds, hear the splash of water from his canteen, the grind of the metal of the coffee pot as it slid against the cooking grill set over the fire pit.
“You can’t sleep.” The Cowboy said flatly before taking a long sip from his coffee.
It was a equally an observation as well as a statement on his part rather than a simple question and she wondered how long he had been watching her fight for what eluded her. She sighed and shook her head in answer. If the Cowboy saw her gestured reply he didn’t say.
“I could really use a cup of that if you’ve got some to spare.” She whispered, hoping that the Cowboy had heard her and she wouldn’t have to waste the energy to repeat herself.
The Astronaut rolled over on her blanket, supported her head with her hand and looked at the Cowboy sitting there across the campfire from her. The flickering flames cast dark dancing shadows in the long lines of his face and he returned her stare from under the rim of his hat. Cold, hard, knowing eyes … eyes that almost glowed a pale luminescent blue there in the dark; eyes that had seen far too much for far too long. Sometimes she wondered if the Cowboy was a human being slowly turning into something else … or something else slowly turning into a human being. She could see the argument going either way at this point and even she wasn’t quite sure which probable outcome was the case.
She pulled herself up to sit on her bedding, moving her gun belt with its still holstered Texas Arms Mark III laser pistol out of her way, leaning the belt across her saddle and pack, leaving the safety strap undone and the whole rig still in easy reach if she had to draw her weapon right out of sleep. She turned back to face the campfire and only then did she notice that the Cowboy was holding a tin cup, offering her some of the fresh brewed coffee. She leaned forward and took the cup, whispering her thanks and nodding.
The smell was worth every bit of the effort that she had made to sit up.
She took a sip and the coffee was good … some local brand that the Cowboy had gotten in their supplies that he had traded gold coins for in the last settlement that they had passed through. The Cowboy made really good coffee on the trail, black and strong, with just a hint of sugar and spice that made for the most unique aftertaste.
Not bitter … not sweet … just … unique.
She held the tin cup in both hands and only after her third sip of coffee did she notice that the Cowboy was holding out a small battered flask.
Yes, that would do nicely; maybe sleep just needed a little help to find her tonight.
She smiled and reached over to take the flask, dropping two generous splashes into her coffee before capping the flask and handing it back. The Cowboy accepted the flask silently and returned it to his vest pocket, no emotion as she gently swirled the whiskey and her coffee in her cup using a lightscribe from her flight tunic pocket. She wiped the lightscribe on her pants material and stuck it back in her shoulder pocket, looking at the Cowboy over the rim of her cup as she slowly drank.
The Cowboy was a man of few words.
In another life, the Astronaut might have been attracted to the kind of man that the Cowboy was … hard, strong, quiet … simple in a self-depending, wholly independent and strong willed kind of way … but here and now he was as big of an enigma as everything else in her life had become. She took another sip of her coffee … the whiskey worked well with the semi-sweet spice to the point where the unique aftertaste left a pleasant glow deep down inside … almost a pulse she could feel move through her being from the inside out like some soul deep ethereal wave.
The Astronaut didn’t know how long she sat there, sipping her coffee, lost in her own ruminations but when she swam up out of her thoughts and looked around the camp fire was noticeably dimmer and the Cowboy had settled down, putting his hat over his eyes and his breathing had become the deep and regular rhythm of sleep. The Astronaut bedded down but lay there awake, still, watching the Cowboy sleep. She listened closely so that she could hear his well-worn steel-frame Model 1851 .44 Colt Navy revolver singing softly in its holster on his gun belt, the gun belt which he had placed coiled beside his head within easy reach even in the dark. She guessed old habits die hard, looking to her own holstered weapon there beside her head, a habit that she herself had picked up from the Cowboy several weeks back.
The well-worn Colt sang tirelessly in a softly undulating, ethereal voice that was as unfamiliar to her as the voice was ancient. The words the Colt sang she couldn’t understand but the song soothed her even on the other side of the campfire, behind her now closed eyes. As sleep slowly crept up on her she imagined tall white spires set amid cloudless warm blue ocean waters. She envisioned ancient merchants plying even more ancient ships on even more ancient trade routes and with those visions dancing in her head sleep finally found the Astronaut and wrapped her in its warm, dark, all-encompassing whiskey rich embrace.