"Well, I'll be! . . . What gives, partner? I didn't even know they'd let you back on the planet."
Mahom Alazahad was six-foot-three at least, a coal-black Sudanese with the shoulders of a bull, chest of a gorilla, and handshake like a power vise. He greeted Kieran in a loose purple robe embroidered with flourishes of silver thread, a bright red fez sitting in a nest of fuzzy hair, and a grin like an organ keyboard splitting his ample, fleshy features. On a previous visit, Kieran had denied having anything to do with a series of strange misfortunes that befell a security company that had been getting over-zealous in persuading Alazahad of his need for business protection.
"Good to see you too, Mahom. How's the machinery moving?"
"Oh, you know how it is. Just trundlin' along. How about you? Still seeing that gorgeous woman you got-lives out on Nineveh, by the lake?"
"And how are you doing, guy?" Mahom leaned down to administer Guinness a couple of powerful pats on the shoulder. "Hey, lookin' good, boy! Lookin' good. Is this man still causing all kinds of trouble?"
"Actually, I'm here for purely domestic and respectable reasons this time," Kieran said, letting his gaze wander around the vehicles lined up on the lot, and the collection of miscellaneous machinery in the yard by the office building behind.
"Yeah, right. That's how it always starts."
"I do believe I detect skepticism." Kieran looked pained.
"Who from? Me? What are you talking about? . . . Okay, so, what's going on?"
Kieran led the way over toward a selection of pricey but better equipped, high-performance models that he had spotted, grouped to the side for the more discerning. "It's time I found myself somewhere a bit more permanent here, Mahom-Mars is the center of a lot that's going on. That means I'll need to be able to get around. What have you got?"
"You name it. If I haven't got it I can get it-and for you, Knight, a better deal than you're gonna find anyplace else. What did you have in mind? I've got a hot contact in personal flymos right now."
"Leave the flymobile for later. Let's stick to wheels for the moment."
"I hear you."
"Fast but maneuverable. A good looker is always nice, but no fake cosmetics. Something tough that'll handle well off the road and deal with the soft patches. Full satellite com and nav, emergency backup on all essential systems. Probably gas or hydrazide turbine-electric. Military-spec shocks and suspension; pivot axle; individual wheel drives are a must. Forget induction pickup, optimizing overrides, and any smart automatics."
They stopped in front of a Euromco Brigadier: gold sheen with dark strip inlays, sleek but with rugged foundations, tan upholstery. Kieran looked it over, then at Mahom inquiringly. Mahom shook his head. "Rich kid's toy. Okay for picnics and day trips around the domes. But the forced-flow oxidizer will kill your range out on the surface." He put a hand on Kieran's shoulder to draw him to the dark blue Kodiak next to it." Guinness stiffened and growled a warning note.
"It's okay. Just say hello for a second," Kieran said. Mahom stretched down a ham-like hand for Guinness to check over with his nose. "Friend," Kieran told Guinness. "Remember? Keep it in your filing system this time. "Friend, okay?" Guinness wagged his tail, evidently happy.
"Degenerate hydrogen reactor driving a closed-cycle turbine," Mahom said. "That's the way things are going to go. One recharge will last a year. Take you around the planet."
"When they get it right. I heard this is practically a prototype." It was a new technology being pushed by one of the Martian home manufacturers running on a stretched budget and high hopes-but allegedly they knew their stuff.
"It's solid enough," Mahom said. "But the competition is making them cut back too much on costs for the home-grown models here. They've put the know-how into a new, de-luxe production design that'll be coming out of the lunar factories." He winked knowingly. "Loaded. Got double-sealed shells. Terran government subsidies picking up the tab. The word isn't generally out yet, but I got an advance order in for a few. What I'll do is rent you this until the first ones show up. You can get the feel of how it works, make up your mind then. Should be around a month. Does that sound good?"
Kieran walked slowly around the Kodiak, taking in the light yet robust frame, generous ground clearance, splayed wheelbase for stability at speed. A chrome logo affixed to the trunk carried the proud message: Supplied by ALAZAHAD MACHINE. The dynamics of gravity wells made it actually cheaper to ship loads from the lunar surface to Mars than from Earth to Luna. And if governments back on Earth were trying to extend political influence to the Moon by making their taxpayers help him buy a car, why should he turn it down?
"The new one'll have a version with collapsible rear seats that'll turn the back end into practically a hatch-top truck," Mahom said, following him with his eyes. "You won't beat that for versatility. CO-two compressor-reservoir boosted cooling, specially developed for Mars. For you, fifteen percent off the regular price. Flat four hundred a month on the rental in the meantime. That's a steal all by itself."
Kieran opened the two doors on the side nearest him and leaned in to look and poke around. The interior was finished in soft black with gray trim, comfortable and spacious, though with minimal extras as Mahom had said. Guinness bounded in and took possession of the passenger seat, panting, tongue lolling, and looking back at Kieran as if to ask what they were waiting for. He seemed to have made his mind up, at least.
"I have to go out to Stony Flats this afternoon," Kieran said, straightening back up. "Let me take it out there for a test drive, and I'll let you know tomorrow after I get back. How's that?"
"Sounds like we've got a deal, Knight. I just need to take a swipe of your license in the office, and we'll pick up the key. Then you're on your way."
They crossed the rear yard through a mix of commercial vehicles and various wheeled, tracked, and balloon-tired, earthmoving, digging, and drilling contraptions-even one on legs. There was a Chinese army personnel carrier that had found its way to Mars through God-alone-knew-what machinations, and numerous partly dismantled bodies and frames that would never, of their own accord, move again. Just before they reached the office door, Mahom beckoned Kieran over to a door in a square concrete building behind the office shack, which he unlocked. He flipped on the light inside to reveal racks and shelves packed with handguns, shotguns, assault rifles, submachine weapons, several plasma cannon, a row of machine guns, and seemingly every form of ammunition conceived by man, ranging from twelve-clips for automatics to hand-launched anti-armor projectiles and grenades. "I wondered if you needed to do any shopping in the accessories department too, while you're at it," he explained, beaming.
"Mahom, I'm just driving out to see a geologist, not starting a war. But if I ever decide to, I promise I'll let you know."
"Okay. Just checking." Mahom turned out the light and locked the door again. "But in the meantime I'll be looking into getting a good flymo for you. I haven't forgotten about it."
"I'm sure you haven't, Mahom," Kieran agreed with a sigh.