Nick felt a rush in his stomach, like his morning eggs had suddenly been re-scrambled, as the hovercraft flew over the bend and dipped down across the cracked arroyo bed. Funny to think that water once flowed in rivers here, he thought. Now they had to dig thousands of feet to get it. His body pressed against the seat as they shot up out of the dry gulch and launched back across the plains. He glanced at the dashboard, saw the display linger momentarily at ninety before it started to climb again.
Behind the controls, Lauren’s father pointed a gnarled finger toward the horizon. He wagged it back and forth. “Look around you,” he said. “This is the Valley, as far as you can see. A land so rugged and harsh, yet so eternally optimistic. In fact, some say this was the place God decided to let go unfinished when day seven came around.” He chuckled and glanced over at Nick. “Of course, they ain’t never been to southern Arizona, I suspect.”
Nick gave a smile and a nod, trying to act interested, but was more concerned about the speedometer, the numbers now topping a hundred and still going. He wasn’t excited about the trip; he’d seen this side of the Red Planet before and didn’t think much of it. And the truth was he could have picked any number of things he would have rather done today instead of riding around in beat-up Tritan, the crazy old man not even watching the road. Like standing in the aisle outside the lingerie department while Lauren thumbed through racks of bras and panties, old women giving him their best disgusted look as they passed by with their grandchildren in tow. God knows, that ranked about as low as anything as he could imagine.
And there was no doubt about Lauren’s father being crazy, either. The first day he met her parents, the old man, Luther, shook his hand and quickly gave him a tour of their massive six-thousand square-foot complex. Under the dome in the backyard, Nick noticed a row of crosses; when he asked about them, Luther said, “They’s loved ones, Nick.” He smiled. “A man can’t live a good life without keeping his loved ones close by.”
The way the man looked at him then, like he meant every word, sent a current of bad energy through Nick’s skin. It was another good reason to be someplace else. But then, Lauren had insisted, said it would do them both some good, and so here he was.
Looking over, hearing the whine of the engine, Nick noticed that the display had finally leveled off around a hundred and ten. Behind them, a cloud of red dust trailed in their slipstream. God help me, he thought. One flick of the wrist, and they could forget the part about being full of grace; there wouldn’t even be time to say, “Hail, Mary.”
Luther thrust his arm across Nick’s chest and pointed. “Looky there, off that way about a half-kilometer.”
In the distance modular homes, like silver Airstreams back on Earth, congregated together. More like tin-can coffins, Nick thought. Hitch up and roll 'em away to the burying grounds when the time came.
“Now that,” Luther said, a proud smile on his face, “was my very first development. About twenty years ago. Right after Lauren was born.”
No nodding this time. Cluttered with trash and lean-to solar panels, the placed looked like images of shanty towns that Nick had seen in some of his history books.
“Carried the note on every one of them,” Luther added. “Some of them six times over, all of them at least eighteen percent. Even got lucky enough to sell a few for a hundred-thousand Kronos, you believe that. Folks are still paying.”
Nick frowned. Eighteen percent?
“Now I know what you’re thinking,” Luther said. “How can I sell a piece of crap for such exorbitant rates and prices? But look again, and see it through their eyes. Think where they came from, what they had to deal with before they crossed over on the shuttle. To them, this is the land of promise; and if they have to pay a little extra to live in a better place, so be it. And besides…” He shrugged. “If not me, somebody else would be selling the space.”
Nick closed his eyes, raked a hand through his hair.
“This why you brought me out here? You wanted me to know how you really made your money?”
Luther looked at him for beat, then shook his head. “You never quit making money, son. One guy can’t pay, you find somebody else to take his place. And if he does pay, you take the profits, buy more land and develop it, too.” The craft started slowing down. “No, I brought you out to see if you’re the man you claim to be. A self-motivator, who can tackle any challenge.”
Luther turned the craft down another road. Ahead, Nick saw a worn-out station. It's yard was littered with pieces of broken-down machines and equipment.
Luther gave him a hard look. “’Cause I gotta say, ain't just anyone who can have my daughter. I want someone who's got a killer instinct. Someone strong enough to run the family business.”
Nick squinted. “The family business.”
Luther reached down under the seat and pulled out a gun. “Just so happens, today’s foreclosure Tuesday. Time to evict some non-payers.”
“And then what? They'll become a burden to the rest of us.”
“No free-loaders after I'm done.”
Nick looked at the gun and didn’t like the feel in his gut. “Don’t they have a magistrate for this?”
Luther shook his head. “Out here, I’m the law.”
“And if I refuse?”
Luther looked at him for a moment. “Only loved ones get crosses in the backyard, Nick.”