Dave wiped his gloved hand across the visor of his helmet, a fine layer of maroon dust rubbing off and sticking to his space suit. He expected the Mars air to be laden with dirt, he expected the ground to be a near infinite sea of red, he expected to be generally uncomfortable and possibly dead. What he did not expect, however, was to be standing several feet away from what appeared to be a horse tied to some sort of wooden pole.
“Uhh, Houston,” Dave said, clicking the button to the right of his helmet, “I think we’ve got a problem here.”
“What kind of problem?” responded the same monotonous, robotic voice he’d heard for so many months now. He’d never met its owner, never seen his face, never so much as confirmed whether or not he was actually a “he”—or even a human. Regardless, Dave assumed that the voice belonged to a male, somewhere around the age of forty—like himself—but with a thick, black beard and dark, rimmed glasses.
“There’s a horse in front of me.”
The communication line went silent for a few seconds. “Come again? I think I misheard you.”
“A horse,” Dave said, taking a small step toward the equestrian-like being. “A brown horse,” he added.
“You’re on Mars,” Houston said, “there’s no horses on Mars.”
“There’s definitely a horse on Mars,” Dave said, staring at the outline of the horse. It had four legs, a mane, a tail, all the standard accoutrements of a typical horse. It also appeared to be tied to its wooden stake by a thin, leather rope wrapped around its obviously horse-like head.
“How long have you been out on the planet’s surface now?” Houston said, its monotonous voice almost giving way for the first time to what sounded like a tinge of concern. “We have you down at twenty-three minutes. It might be time to go back to the lander and get some oxygen.”
Dave stared at the horse. It was definitely, positively a horse—a horse is a horse, of course. Of course. Still, he knew that it was infinitely more possible that Houston was right. He realized the insanity of the situation, realized just how astronomically more likely it was that he’d simply been hallucinating the entire situation. Discovering a horse on Mars wasn’t exactly anything he or NASA had planned for.
“All right,” Dave said, sighing and staring at the horse for another moment. “I’ll head back for a bit.” He spun around back toward the lander, and then immediately froze. What appeared to be a small man in some sort of cowboy hat stood no more than three feet away from him, what appeared to be a clichéd Western pistol clutched in his tiny, leather-gloved hands.
“Well, what do we got here,” said the small man, tipping up the front of his cowboy hat and raising the pistol toward Dave’s helmet.
“What the fuck,” Dave said, taking a step backward. A horse was one thing, but a cowboy midget on the surface of Mars was an entirely different thing. At no point had NASA ever mentioned the possibility of running into such a scenario, and Dave absolutely hated them for not preparing him for the encounter.
“Looks like we got someone here thinkin’ bout stealin my horse,” the tiny cowboy said. “I don’t take too kindly to no space man stealin my Denise.” He took a step forward, pistol raising up slightly as he moved. He looked almost human, almost like a little person from back on Earth. His skin, though, it was not exactly the right shade. It had some sort of a greenish tint to it, almost like someone had ran a highlighter over his otherwise pale flesh. His face, as well, was slightly askew from the normal. Instead of having the typical vertical ordering of eyes, nose, mouth, the cowboy’s features were rather like that of a flounder: a horizontal arrangement of eyes, nose, and mouth that appeared to serve no evolutionary purpose.
Dave lifted his hand back to the button beside his helmet and pressed down. “Houston, we got another problem.”
“What now?” replied the monotonous voice. “If you forgot the keys to the lander, I swear to god.”
“I think I’m being held at gunpoint by a midget cowboy,” Dave said. He was also pretty sure he’d misplaced the keys to the lander, but that did not exactly take precedence at the current moment.
The communicator went silent for a moment. “You what?”
“Who you talkin’ to, space man?” the cowboy said, taking another step toward Dave. He was no more than a foot away, the sun now shining directly into Dave’s visor and causing him to squint. He could no longer make out the disturbingly familiar—yet uncomfortably different—features of the midget’s face due to the glare.
“I don’t want no trouble,” Dave said, removing his hand from the communicator. “I’m just here visiting.”
“Well you been visiting the wrong part of town,” the midget said, staring up at Dave. “They call me Sideways Face McCoy, and I run this here town.”
Dave glanced around the immediate area. There did not seem to be any town, just a particularly small cowboy and some sort of horse. “Now I don’t want no trouble,” Dave said, taking a step back and keeping his eyes locked on Sideways Face.
“You shoulda thought ‘bout that before you came to this here town and tried stealing that there horse,” Sideways Face said. He readjusting his arm, the pistol still pointed up at Dave.
“What’s going on there?” Houston said into Dave’s helmet. He lifted his hand and pushed back down on the button.
“I’m being held at gun point,” Dave said, then paused. “I think it’s a stickup.”
“What?” Houston said.
“Quit yer’ talkin, Spaceman,” Sideways Face said, waving the pistol in Dave’s direction. “We gon’ have us a duel.”
“A midget, a space midget, he wants to duel me,” Dave said into his helmet, voice cracking slightly. NASA had not trained him in the art of dueling, had not done anything of the sort. They’d trained him to do experiments, to study the effect of the Mars air on plant life. How was that supposed to help him? It wasn’t, not in the least. NASA had sent him on a suicide mission, failed to prepare him for the scenario he was now stuck in. He’d never so much as fired a pistol at anything that was actually alive. In fact, he didn’t even have a pistol.
“A space midget is trying to duel you?” Houston said, his voice trailing off slightly as if speaking to someone else. “Are you in the lander?”
“No, god dammit,” Dave said, staring down at the silver pistol, “I never made it back and I’m going to be shot.”
“We draw on three,” Sideways Face McCoy said, turning around and walking back ten paces. He counted them aloud as he moved, Dave watching his tiny, leather poncho bounce while he stepped.
“I don’t even have a pistol,” Dave shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. NASA was so prepared for asteroid attacks, so prepared of the notion of a hunk of metal smashing into the International Space Station. Yet the simple idea of a tiny space cowboy wanting to duel its most trained astronaut, they didn’t even consider that? Fuck NASA, fuck them and their lack of preparation. Dave couldn’t believe he’d put his faith in them.
“Shouldn’t have come to this here town without no gun,” Sideways Face said, turning around. He cleared his throat and then began counting aloud. “One,” he said. “Two.” He paused, lifting the gun up toward Dave. “Three.” He pulled the trigger, a thin beam of light exploding out of the pistol and piercing straight through Dave’s chest like a hot knife through butter.
Dave fell to the floor, a maroon plume of dust raising up around him. He rolled onto his back and began grabbing at the hole in the front of his space suit, the air in his helmet quickly escaping and instead being replaced with the feeling of asphyxiation. He was dying, he knew it. He was as good as dead. He glanced up at Sideways Face McCoy, eyes wide as he attempted to beg him for help, and watched with his last breath as the tiny cowboy made his way over to the horse. He couldn’t believe NASA hadn’t planned for such a scenario.