Red Dust and Dancing Horses
by Beth Cato
No horses existed on Mars. Nara could change that.She stared out the thick-paned window. Tinted dirt sprawled to a horizon, mesas and rock-lipped craters cutting the mottled sky. It almost looked like a scene from somewhere out of the Old West on Earth, like in the two-dimensional movies she studied on her tablet. Mama thought that 20th-century films were the ultimate brain-rotting waste of time, so Nara made sure to see at least two a week. Silver, Trigger, Buttermilk, Rex, Champion—she knew them all. She had spent months picturing just how their hooves would sink into that soft dirt, how their manes would lash in the wind. How her feet needed to rest in the stirrups, heels down, and how the hot curve of a muzzle would fit between her cupped hands.The terraforming process had come a long way in the two hundred years since mechs established the Martian colonies. Nara didn’t need a pressure suit to walk outside, but in her lifetime she’d never breathe on her own outside of her house or the Corcoran Dome. There would never be real horses here, not for hundreds of years, if ever. But a mechanical horse could find its way home in a dust storm, or handle the boggy sand without breaking a leg. She could ride it. Explore. It would be better than nothing. Her forehead bumped against the glass. But to have a real horse with hot skin and silky mane…
“Nara, you’re moping again.” Mama held a monitor to each window, following the seal along the glass. “No matter how long you stare out the window and sulk, we can’t afford to fly you back to Earth just to see horses. They’re hard to find as it is. Besides, you know what happened when that simulator came through last year.”
Yeah. Each Martian-borne eleven-year-old child had sat in a booth strung with wires and sensors so that they could feel the patter of rain and touch the flaking dryness of eucalyptus bark. Nara smelled the dankness of fertile earth for the very first time. She threw up. The administrators listed her as a category five Martian, needing the longest quarantine time to acclimate to Earth, if she ever made the trip.
“Blast it, another inner seal is weakening,” Mama muttered, moving to the next window.
The dull clang of metal echoed down the hall, followed by the soft whir of Papa’s mechs. Papa would understand. He would listen.
Her feet tapped down the long tunnel to his workshop. Nara rubbed the rounded edge of the tablet tucked at her waist. Sand pattered against the walls as the wind whistled a familiar melody.
The workshop stood twice as big as the rest of the household, echoing with constantly-clicking gears. The grey dome bowed overhead, the skylight windows showing only red. Papa’s legs stuck out from beneath the belly of a mining cart, his server mechs humming as they dismantled the plating on a small trolley alongside him. The workshop was half empty. The basalt mine had received a new load of equipment just two weeks before, and as Papa described it, he’d have a lull before everything decided to break again. Judging by the lack of dents on this cart, the lull was already over.
“Hey, girly. Hand me the tenner,” Papa said, a hand thrusting through a gap in the chassis. Nara passed him the tool. “What’re you up to?”
“Nothing.” Nara slipped open the tablet, expanding the screen with a tug of her fingers. After a few taps, she accessed the data she wanted: the anatomy of the horse. Her fingers flicked up, removing the layer of skin, then the muscles, leaving the bones. One of the nearby mechs bowed, his knees fluid and graceful as he picked up a tire and conveyed it to a stack on the far side. Nara squinted, looking between the mech and the screen.
“You’re never up to nothing,” Papa said. “Did Mama kick you out of the house?”
“Not yet. I was wondering something, actually. Think I could use the extra space you have in here to make a project?”
Wheels whined as Papa pushed himself out. “What sort of project?” Grey and red smudges framed the skin around his goggles.
Nara held up the tablet, projecting the images out six inches. Papa chuckled low. “Why am I not surprised?” he asked. “You want to build a horse?”
“I think I can,” she said.
“Oh, I know you can, I just didn’t think you’d settle for that. Let me see.” He held it directly overhead, then grunted as he passed it back. “The leg structure’s not that different than the diggers you helped me with last month. Your main issues will be balancing the mass and nailing the AI.”
She nodded, her mind already filtering through the possibilities. She had to think of horse breeds, no—she would think of specific horses. Trigger, her favorite. He was tough and fast, with all the grace of a dancer. Oh, how he could dance. His hooves shuffled, his gold skin shimmering and muscles coiling. Nara would watch him, holding her breath. Nothing on Mars could move like that.
“You’ll have to use the scrap pile,” Papa continued, snapping her out of a reverie. “But if you need anything fresh, you need to order through me, and you’ll have to work for it. This isn’t going to be cheap.”
“Cheaper than a trip to Earth,” Mother said from the doorway. “And speaking of expenses, we’re going to need inner sealants replaced on three windows as soon as this storm is over. One gap was so big a fiend beetle could almost squeeze through from inside the walls, and God knows what it would cost if one of those got in.”
“As if it’s ever just one,” Papa said, shaking his head. “Well, we’re due for a full sealant inspection anyway.”
Nara closed the equine anatomy charts, her eyes already taking in the nearest scrap pile and a stout piece of pipe ideal for a femur. Mama and Papa’s chatter faded. She tapped her fingers along the tablet, already picturing a horse of her own, programmed to nuzzle her shoulder and whicker in greeting.
Papa was wrong. Balancing the mass would be easy. The artificial intelligence could be adapted from existing programs. Realism was the issue. A glossy hair coat, a trailing mane and tail, the musty smell described in the old books she’d read.
Worst of all, she might never know if she got it right.
Nara’s boots thudded along the elevated boardwalk, her breaths rasping through her mask. She couldn’t be late for her one day of physical attendance in school for the week. Papa had already threatened to dismantle the horse if her grades dropped again. A fiend beetle crunched underfoot in a muddle of juiciness and grit.
So far, beetles were one of the few things that could survive unaided on the Martian surface. Scientists hailed it as a landmark of the terraforming process. Nara crushed the bugs as a hobby.
Six months of work, and the skeleton was complete, and most of the nerve structure as well. She had stayed up late working on the wiring in the neck and reins and connecting them to the processors in the makeshift brain. The skin would be next on the agenda. Papa had suggested she use a thin alloy, the sort used for biometric floors. That way it could be programmed to respond to heel touches and shifts in weight.
She shoved through several sets of doors to enter the dome. A dozen beetles tried to follow, the floor vents sending them rolling like tumbleweeds in an old movie. The next two doors repeated the process and secured behind her. Nara disengaged the breathing apparatus from her mask and took in a deep inhalation of recycled air. For all the inconvenience of living beyond the dome, she preferred it to the tight confines of the city with its block-stacks of buildings and stale stink.
She slid into her cubicle just as the bell rang. Her friend Chu nodded from the adjoining side. Nara set her tablet in its cradle, and grimaced. Another day wasted in school when she could be working on her horse instead.
Throughout mathematics and mineral sciences, she let her fingers busy themselves while she pondered the wiring system for her horse. It’s not as though the school work was difficult. Quiz results came back instantly; she missed two equations. Nara grunted. Perhaps she should focus more.
“As Heritage Month comes to a close, all sixth year students study the contributions of the head financier of the Corcoran Colony, the late Mrs. Florence Corcoran,” said the professor from the head of the room. A hologram of Mrs. Corcoran flickered overhead, her face smiling as she posed with an old-fashioned pick-axe over her shoulder.
“As you all know, Mrs. Corcoran believed that Earth’s cultural heritage deserved a place on Mars. Your tablets have just received a list of the artifacts of the Corcoran household.” The file appeared on Nara’s small screen. “During next year’s Pioneer Heritage Month, the Corcoran Museum will open. Your task is to choose an object from her archive and write a thousand-word essay on the object’s history both on Mars and Earth.”
A low groan filled the room.
Nara pursed her lips. She could throw together a thousand-word essay in fifteen minutes. It wouldn’t eat up too much of her project time. She opened the file, skimming the list. It dragged on, page after page. The fanciest objects were listed first—the paintings, the jewelry, the clothing. Florence Corcoran had been an obsessive collector of old Earth, especially items pertaining to Texas. All of it dull. Well, the leather belt collection might work as a report subject, especially if Nara could touch or smell the stuff. Importing genuine leather for a saddle and bridle would cost more than all the metal parts of her horse combined. She was going to make do with synthetics.
She scrolled down for an eternity. Early space shuttle detritus, bull horns, an oil derrick, a preserved horse skin. Nara stopped cold. A horse? She clicked for more information.
Trigger, a rearing palomino horse dating from the mid-20th century, his skin preserved and mounted on a plaster body. Nara’s heart threatened to escape her chest. Trigger, her Trigger, was here on Mars? Not only a horse, but one of the most beautiful horses of all time.
“We have passes available so you can all visit the Corcoran household and see the items in person,” her teacher continued.
“This is it,” Nara murmured.
“What?” Chu whispered.
She ignored him, her mind already analyzing the possibilities. Her prototype horse would take another six months at least. If there was some way to get this skin, maybe she could use it. Mount it on top of the metal frame—well, no, it probably couldn’t withstand the sand. But if she could study the texture, it would be easier to mimic. Would the museum sell such an old artifact? Nara fidgeted with the edge of her tablet. Could she steal it?
Maybe a way could be found. Adrenaline zinged through her fingertips. She could see and touch a real horse, and not just any horse—Trigger. Hot tears burned her eyes and pattered against her desk.
This was meant to be.
As Nara entered the grounds of the Corcoran Mansion, she was keenly aware of every security measure scrutinizing her. The cameras on high, glassy lenses glaring. The slight give of the cushioned tile underfoot, implying a biometric measure to contrast her weight coming and going. The slits in the walls that memorized her irises.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course there would be excellent security here. She was day-dreaming to think otherwise. Still, maybe there was a loophole in the system. Trigger’s skin had been a low-priority item stuck far back on the list. Centuries old, an archaic artifact that meant nothing to anyone else. It wasn’t even scheduled for a berth in the museum.
“Ah. You. Chu’s little friend.” Her friend’s grandfather edged close, his small body straight as a support pillar.
“I didn’t know you were working inside the mansion now, Grandfather,” Nara said, handing over her tablet with her student pass loaded.
He grunted, the sound a husky echo of Chu. “I have been since the Museum was announced, taking inventory of her treasure trove. You’re the first student to take advantage of the pass, you know? No one else seems interested in seeing the works in person. Probably will be the same when the place opens, I’m afraid.” He pressed the tablet back into her hands.
“Well, I care.” Nara stood a bit straighter.
She had spent the past week re-watching every available movie showing Trigger. Nara knew the sway of his mane, how his hindquarters bunched as he reared, how his muscles flexed beneath shimmering gold skin. He could kiss girls with his lips flared, rear on command, walk on his hind legs, and perform dozens of other tricks; even if Nara heightened the resolution on the picture, it was difficult to detect Roy Rogers’s cues. Trigger wasn’t a mere horse—he had to be the smartest horse that ever was.
Trigger’s presence on Mars had to be destiny. She was meant to know him in real life, centuries after the fact, long after civilization had forgotten him. Trigger would teach her how to make her horse even more real.
“What artifact do you want to see? Most of the good stuff is here in the house.” Chu’s grandfather motioned behind him. Down the hall, a large painting of two naked people in a jungle filled the wall, the woman holding an apple outstretched in a pudgy hand.
She tried not to look too disgusted. “No. I want artifact 3046.”
“Three-thousand range?” His eyes narrowed. “That will be in the old warehouse. All came in the second colony drop. You sure you want to go there?”
She couldn’t help but notice his sour expression on their long walk out behind the mansion. The warehouse stretched along the back wall of the dome, the clay brick walls red-tinted and pecked by sandblasts. It had to be a mech-built storage house, dating from before the completion of the dome and human arrival.
Grandfather stood as the iris security scanned him in, grunting for Nara to follow. The floor beneath her feet seemed shiny and new, each step sinking in by millimeters. More security, but not as much as the household.
“Forty-six, forty-six.” He muttered as he walked. Metal scaffolding stretched to the high ceiling, the rafters filled with wooden boxes. Nara stroked a box in passing, not even gasping when a splinter snagged her flesh. Mrs. Corcoran had been very wealthy indeed to have so much wood, and for it to be used for mere storage.
“Here.” Grandfather stopped. A pink tarp filled the bin space ahead. A device at his waistband beeped. “Damn it all. Another guest and Rorie’s not in. Can you behave yourself?”
Her heartbeat raced in hopefulness. He was leaving her here, alone? “Yes.”
“It’s all junk here, anyway. Just wait and I’ll be back to escort you out.” He marched away, his steps brisk.
Nara stood there for a moment, taking in the fading echo of his footsteps. That pink tarp… She bit her lip and lifted up the sheet.
Trigger’s pale orange coat looked soft to the touch, his ears back. His entire body seemed coiled, ready to strike. An ornate bridle dangled from his face. Oh, his white blaze! Even tinted pink, it was beautiful to behold. Despite the glare of security, Nara couldn’t resist reaching up on tiptoe to stroke his muzzle. The prickliness surprised her. It was like she had imagined, and so much more. But Trigger, beautiful, graceful Trigger…
A sob choked in her throat as she stepped back. Trigger had succumbed to death at last.
The pink dust on the tarp had been the first hint. The lower half of his body had been chewed away clear to the blackened plaster below. The old building hadn’t sealed out fiend beetles. His saddle had slipped sideways, the girth almost eaten clear through. Only a nub remained of the flared plume of tail. Tatters of skin dangled against the plaster, fragments littering the floor like a poor haircut. Of his powerful dancing legs, nothing remained at all.
Nara lowered herself to the floor, the grey stone chilled beneath her. Trigger was dead. Dead. His skin would crumble if it moved at all. His legs would never waltz again, never leap over cars, never lower in a handsome curtsy.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Nara whispered. “You were so beautiful. You still are.” She stood, standing close enough to breathe him in. He stank of Martian dust and degradation, no more. The creamy mane shifted between her fingertips, a tuft coming away in her hand. She curled her fingers into a fist.
Horses didn’t belong on Mars. She knew it, but she hadn’t wanted to accept it. This horse had survived centuries on Earth: wars, fires, owner after owner, the long journey here, only to be eaten away by ever-hungry bugs brought along for the ride. Trigger deserved better. He deserved to be timeless.
“I still love you, Trigger,” she whispered. In her mind, she could see the intelligent gleam in his eyes; hear the rhythmic clatter of his hooves.
Footsteps thudded behind her. Nara swiped an arm against her cheeks and took a steadying breath.
“Oh. You found our half-eaten creature.” Chu’s grandfather stepped alongside her. Nara clutched her fists tighter. “It’s a shame. Some of these crates hold old masters–Rodan, Picasso. The fiend beetles had a feast. As it is now, the leather around this thing’s belly is the only thing worth keeping, and that’s just scrap. If someone broke in here, they’d want to steal the security system.”
Chu’s grandfather didn’t even know the proper name for a saddle. Nara swallowed, choking as if on a handful of sand. “Is he really going to be thrown out?”
He scratched at his smooth chin. “Eventually. They plan on tearing this structure down before the museum opens. Things like that won’t survive the move.” He motioned to the floor and the scattered bits of hair and skin and degrading plaster.
“If that happens… can you let me know? I mean…”
Grandfather shook his head, chuckling. “Ah yes. Chu told me you have a thing for horses. That’s what this is, right? Smaller than I expected. But yes, I can tell you when this row comes up for disposal. I hate to think what your mother would say.”
Nara looked away. “I know what she’ll say.”
Trigger was only a thing to him. No one here knew about horses. No one cared. Trigger had been more than a horse. He’d been loved in his lifetime, adored by thousands and thousands.
Maybe he could be loved again, and not just by her.
They headed out of the warehouse. Nara released her breath before she stepped across the biometric steps, expelling every bit of air in her lungs. No alarms rang. The presence of a few useless hairs hadn’t even registered. She sucked in a breath of refreshing stale air, the strands of mane a moist web in her palm.
Papa had guided her work on the forge. Nara pounded and shaped her own horseshoes, and then nailed them to her horse’s hooves. The first hoof prints marring Martian soil looked as they should on Earth: deep and almost circular crescents, a spray of dirt disturbed with each ambling step.
Trigger’s alloy skin glowed in glossy gold, a version of palomino for a new world. A white blaze filled the length of his face and curved around into wide nostrils. He snorted, the sound tinny. It could be adjusted later. This was a test run, no more.
“You ready?” Papa asked, the words thick in his mask.
Nara nodded. Papa’s broad, gloved hand gave her a boost up into the makeshift saddle woven of rags and polyvinyl chloride belts. She sat high, taking in the jagged red terrain and marbled sky from a new vantage point. The brim of her hardhat cut the afternoon glare. Angling her heels down, she tapped Trigger’s ribcage and then engaged the reins. He snorted and moved forward. Gears cranked, soft and whirring, but his gait was lolling and smooth, ears attentive.
Just above his withers, a knot of long, white hairs dangled down and brushed the backs of her gloves. Nara closed her eyes for an instant, imagining an intact mane, a green horizon, the warmth of pumping blood beneath her and not an engine. Trigger couldn’t come to life again, not truly, but she could grant him a different sort of immortality.
“The whole colony will learn all about horses, and you,” she whispered within her mask, guiding him towards the nearest ridge. “I’ll start programming your tricks in the next few weeks. Everyone will laugh and cheer when you blow kisses and dance. You’ll be loved again, Trigger. Remembered.” She laid a hand against his chilled neck.
The sun glowed fierce yellow overhead. Nara glanced over her shoulder and smiled at the deep cut of hoof prints leading back towards home.
About the Author
Nebula-nominated Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the new Blood of Earth trilogy from Harper Voyager. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cats.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.