Red leaves, red bark, red soil. A red jungle beneath a red sky. The pure red sunlight above.
Zenn was gray.
It was a trick of the light; everything that wasn’t red appeared in grayscale to the human eye beneath this unusual sun. No one called Mars the red planet anymore; Rosenhold had taken the title.
Zenn walked out of the foliage near a small bridge leading to the city—or away from it, depending on your inclination. Three gray men stood waiting in the shadows. Zenn approached them calmly while they fidgeted, looking over their shoulders and eyeballing him like the last pour in the bottle. He was still ten meters away when the big guy—the one who looked like an overstuffed sausage—called out.
“Hey, are you Garland’s guy?”
Zenn ignored him and maintained his unhurried swagger until he filled the gap in their little huddle.
“I said, ‘Are you Garland’s guy?'” the sausage-man tried again.
“I don’t know any Garland.”
“Lanky guy; quiet. Customs officer down at the port—”
“Fuck, man.” Zenn struggled to check his annoyance. “I don’t need to know him. It’s a relay system.”
The gray hulk breathed heavily. His mouth smelled like he’d been licking armpits. “How do we know we can trust you then?” he demanded.
Zenn looked up into his pinched little eyes with disgust. “Look, Big Nasty, I’m gonna do this deal with your boys Chuckles and Madcap—” the other two men both looked like clowns to Zenn—”and I need you to wait quietly over there or I’m taking my moondust home.”
The greasy man exchanged a glance with his partners who nodded for him to walk away, and he sulked over to the other side of the underpass.
“I’m sorry,” said one of the clowns, “we got off to a bad start. I’m Jayden, and this is—”
Zenn threw his arms up. “What the fuck, Chuckles?! What did I just say?”
“Oh, I thought I was Madcap.”
“Stop. I’ve got a half-ounce of moondust and it ain’t free.” Zenn took a small formed aluminum canister from his pocket and shook it like a comically small maraca.
“Can we try a sample first? We’ve got to know it’s good before we take off.”
Zenn rubbed his chin for a moment. “Sure. How about we let Big Nasty take a hit. He looks big enough, he’ll probably live long enough to shit his pants before the shakes sever his brain stem. No, you can’t fucking try it; it’s pure moondust. You’ll OD so hard it’ll kill your whole family tree back to Cain. Do you even know how to process this shit? You’re asking for a lot of product.”
Madcap finally piped up. “We can do it. Dissolve one part-per-billion in water, freeze it, and then boil it and collect the vapor.”
“No. Not water; deionized water. You can’t just freeze it; you have to flash freeze it. And then don’t boil it—you’re not making tea—you have to sublimate it. You guys are amateurs. Tell Garland he’s a broken mirror.” Zenn started to back away, returning the canister to his pocket.
“Wait,” called Chuckles. Zenn stopped and turned. The clown was holding a clear bag full of black glassy rectangles. “Let’s all walk away happy.”
Zenn eyed the bag greedily. “How many?”
“Twenty, as promised.”
Chuckles smiled a goofy, wide-eyed smile. “That’s right. Every book in every language ever printed on Earth up to the day we took off.”
Zenn’s voice got very low. “Philip K. Dick?”
Chuckles shook the bag enticingly. “That’s right. God knows why.”
“Give it here,” said Zenn, and the clown chucked over the bag. He grabbed it and tossed back the moondust like it wasn’t worth a fortune offworld. “Don’t hurt yourselves,” he said, and slipped quickly back into the red jungle.
“Yeah,” said Chuckles, “you either.”
Zenn laughed once from within the dense growth and disappeared.