Up to the very last minute, I can’t imagine that Moklin is going to be the first planet that humans get off of, moving fast, breathing hard, and sweating awful copious. There ain’t any reason for it. Humans have been on Moklin for more than forty years, and nobody ever figures there is anything the least bit wrong until Brooks works it out. When he does, nobody can believe it. But it turns out bad. Plenty bad. But maybe things are working out all right now.
Maybe! I hope so.
At first, even after he’s sent off long reports by six ships in a row, I don’t see the picture beginning to turn sour. I don’t get it until after the old Palmyra comes and squats down on the next to the last trip a Company ship is ever going to make to Moklin.
Up to that very morning everything is serene, and that morning I am sitting on the trading post porch, not doing a thing but sitting there and breathing happy. I’m looking at a Moklin kid. She’s about the size of a human six-year-old and she is playing in a mud puddle while her folks are trading in the post. She is a cute kid--mighty human-looking. She has long whiskers like Old Man Bland, who’s the first human to open a trading post and learn to talk to Moklins.
Moklins think a lot of Old Man Bland. They build him a big tomb, Moklin-style, when he dies, and there is more Moklin kids born with long whiskers than you can shake a stick at. And everything looks okay. Everything!
Sitting there on the porch, I hear a Moklin talking inside the trade room. Talking English just as good as anybody. He says to Deeth, our Moklin trade-clerk, “But Deeth, I can buy this cheaper over at the other trading post! Why should I pay more here?”
Deeth says, in English too, “I can’t help that. That’s the price here. You pay it or you don’t. That’s all.”
I just sit there breathing complacent, thinking how good things are. Here I’m Joe Brinkley, and me and Brooks are the Company on Moklin--only humans rate as Company employees and get pensions, of course--and I’m thinking sentimental about how much humaner Moklins are getting every day and how swell everything is.
The six-year-old kid gets up out of the mud puddle, and wrings out her whiskers--they are exactly like the ones on the picture of Old Man Bland in the trade room--and she goes trotting off down the road after her folks. She is mighty human-looking, that one.
The wild ones don’t look near so human. Those that live in the forest are greenish, and have saucer eyes, and their noses can wiggle like an Earth rabbit. You wouldn’t think they’re the same breed as the trading post Moklins at all, but they are. They crossbreed with each other, only the kids look humaner than their parents and are mighty near the same skin color as Earthmen, which is plenty natural when you think about it, but nobody does. Not up to then.
I don’t think about that then, or anything else. Not even about the reports Brooks keeps sweating over and sending off with every Company ship. I am just sitting there contented when I notice that Sally, the tree that shades the trading post porch, starts pulling up her roots. She gets them coiled careful and starts marching off. I see the other trees are moving off, too, clearing the landing field. They’re waddling away to leave a free space, and they’re pushing and shoving, trying to crowd each other, and the little ones sneak under the big ones and they all act peevish. Somehow they know a ship is coming in. That’s what their walking off means, anyhow. But there ain’t a ship due in for a month, yet.
They’re clearing the landing field, though, so I start listening for a ship’s drive, even if I don’t believe it. At first I don’t hear a thing. It must be ten minutes before I hear a thin whistle, and right after it the heavy drone that’s the ground-repulsor units pushing against bedrock underground. Lucky they don’t push on wet stuff, or a ship would sure mess up the local countryside!
I get off my chair and go out to look. Sure enough, the old Palmyra comes bulging down out of the sky, a month ahead of schedule, and the trees over at the edge of the field shove each other all round to make room. The ship drops, hangs anxious ten feet up, and then kind of sighs and lets down. Then there’s Moklins running out of everywhere, waving cordial.
They sure do like humans, these Moklins! Humans are their idea of what people should be like! Moklins will wrestle the freight over to the trading post while others are climbing over everything that’s waiting to go off, all set to pass it up to the ship and hoping to spot friends they’ve made in the crew. If they can get a human to go home with them and visit while the ship is down, they brag about it for weeks. And do they treat their guests swell!
They got fancy Moklin clothes for them to wear--soft, silky guest garments--and they got Moklin fruits and Moklin drinks--you ought to taste them! And when the humans have to go back to the ship at takeoff time, the Moklins bring them back with flower wreaths all over them.
Humans is tops on Moklin. And Moklins get humaner every day. There’s Deeth, our clerk. You couldn’t hardly tell him from human, anyways. He looks like a human named Casey that used to be at the trading post, and he’s got a flock of brothers and sisters as human-looking as he is. You’d swear--
But this is the last time but one that a Earth ship is going to land on Moklin, though nobody knows it yet. Her passenger port opens up and Captain Haney gets out. The Moklins yell cheerful when they see him. He waves a hand and helps a human girl out. She has red hair and a sort of businesslike air about her. The Moklins wave and holler and grin. The girl looks at them funny, and Cap Haney explains something, but she sets her lips. Then the Moklins run out a freight-truck, and Haney and the girl get on it, and they come racing over to the post, the Moklins pushing and pulling them and making a big fuss of laughing and hollering--all so friendly, it would make anybody feel good inside. Moklins like humans! They admire them tremendous! They do everything they can think of to be human, and they’re smart, but sometimes I get cold shivers when I think how close a thing it turns out to be.
Cap Haney steps off the freight-truck and helps the girl down. Her eyes are blazing. She is the maddest-looking female I ever see, but pretty as they make them, with that red hair and those blue eyes staring at me hostile.
“Hiya, Joe,” says Cap Haney. “Where’s Brooks?”
I tell him. Brooks is poking around in the mountains up back of the post. He is jumpy and worried and peevish, and he acts like he’s trying to find something that ain’t there, but he’s bound he’s going to find it regardless.
“Too bad he’s not here,” says Haney. He turns to the girl. “This is Joe Brinkley,” he says. “He’s Brooks’ assistant. And, Joe, this is Inspector Caldwell--Miss Caldwell.”
“Inspector will do,” says the girl, curt. She looks at me accusing. “I’m here to check into this matter of a competitive trading post on Moklin.”
“Oh,” I says. “That’s bad business. But it ain’t cut into our trade much. In fact, I don’t think it’s cut our trade at all.”
“Get my baggage ashore, Captain,” says Inspector Caldwell, imperious. “Then you can go about your business. I’ll stay here until you stop on your return trip.”
I call, “Hey, Deeth!” But he’s right behind me. He looks respectful and admiring at the girl. You’d swear he’s human! He’s the spit and image of Casey, who used to be on Moklin until six years back.
“Yes, sir,” says Deeth. He says to the girl, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll show you your quarters, ma’am, and your baggage will get there right away. This way, ma’am.”
He leads her off, but he don’t have to send for her baggage. A pack of Moklins come along, dragging it, hopeful of having her say “Thank you” to them for it. There hasn’t ever been a human woman on Moklin before, and they are all excited. I bet if there had been women around before, there’d have been hell loose before, too. But now the Moklins just hang around, admiring.
There are kids with whiskers like Old Man Bland, and other kids with mustaches--male and female both--and all that sort of stuff. I’m pointing out to Cap Haney some kids that bear a remarkable resemblance to him and he’s saying, “Well, what do you know!” when Inspector Caldwell comes back.
“What are you waiting for, Captain?” she asks, frosty.
“The ship usually grounds a few hours,” I explain. “These Moklins are such friendly critters, we figure it makes good will for the trading post for the crew to be friendly with ‘em.”
“I doubt,” says Inspector Caldwell, her voice dripping icicles, “that I shall advise that that custom be continued.”
Cap Haney shrugs his shoulders and goes off, so I know Inspector Caldwell is high up in the Company. She ain’t old, maybe in her middle twenties, I’d say, but the Caldwell family practically owns the Company, and all the nephews and cousins and so on get put into a special school so they can go to work in the family firm. They get taught pretty good, and most of them really rate the good jobs they get. Anyhow, there’s plenty of good jobs. The Company runs twenty or thirty solar systems and it’s run pretty tight. Being a Caldwell means you get breaks, but you got to live up to them.
Cap Haney almost has to fight his way through the Moklins who want to give him flowers and fruits and such. Moklins are sure crazy about humans! He gets to the entry port and goes in, and the door closes and the Moklins pull back. Then the Palmyra booms. The ground-repulsor unit is on. She heaves up, like she is grunting, and goes bulging up into the air, and the humming gets deeper and deeper, and fainter and fainter--and suddenly there’s a keen whistling and she’s gone. It’s all very normal. Nobody would guess that this is the last time but one a Earth ship will ever lift off Moklin!
Inspector Caldwell taps her foot, icy. “When will you send for Mr. Brooks?” she demands.
“Right away,” I says to her. “Deeth--”
“I sent a runner for him, ma’am,” says Deeth. “If he was in hearing of the ship’s landing, he may be on the way here now.”
He bows and goes in the trade room. There are Moklins that came to see the ship land, and now have tramped over to do some trading. Inspector Caldwell jumps.
“Wh-what’s that?” she asks, tense.
The trees that crowded off the field to make room for the Palmyra are waddling back. I realize for the first time that it might look funny to somebody just landed on Moklin. They are regular-looking trees, in a way. They got bark and branches and so on. Only they can put their roots down into holes they make in the ground, and that’s the way they stay, mostly. But they can move. Wild ones, when there’s a water shortage or they get too crowded or mad with each other, they pull up their roots and go waddling around looking for a better place to take root in.
The trees on our landing field have learned that every so often a ship is going to land and they’ve got to make room for it. But now the ship is gone, and they’re lurching back to their places. The younger ones are waddling faster than the big ones, though, and taking the best places, and the old grunting trees are waving their branches indignant and puffing after them mad as hell.
I explain what is happening. Inspector Caldwell just stares. Then Sally comes lumbering up. I got a friendly feeling for Sally. She’s pretty old--her trunk is all of three feet thick--but she always puts out a branch to shade my window in the morning, and I never let any other tree take her place. She comes groaning up, and uncoils her roots, and sticks them down one by one into the holes she’d left, and sort of scrunches into place and looks peaceful.
“Aren’t they--dangerous?” asks Inspector Caldwell, pretty uneasy.
“Not a bit,” I says. “Things can change on Moklin. They don’t have to fight. Things fight in other places because they can’t change and they get crowded, and that’s the only way they can meet competition. But there’s a special kind of evolution on Moklin. Cooperative, you might call it. It’s a nice place to live. Only thing is everything matures so fast. Four years and a Moklin is grown up, for instance.”
She sniffs. “What about that other trading post?” she says, sharp. “Who’s back of it? The Company is supposed to have exclusive trading rights here. Who’s trespassing?”
“Brooks is trying to find out,” I says. “They got a good complete line of trade goods, but the Moklins always say the humans running the place have gone off somewhere, hunting and such. We ain’t seen any of them.”
“No?” says the girl, short. “I’ll see them! We can’t have competition in our exclusive territory! The rest of Mr. Brooks’ reports--” She stops. Then she says, “That clerk of yours reminds me of someone I know.”
“He’s a Moklin,” I explain, “but he looks like a Company man named Casey. Casey’s Area Director over on Khatim Two now, but he used to be here, and Deeth is the spit and image of him.”
“Outrageous!” says Inspector Caldwell, looking disgusted.
There’s a couple of trees pushing hard at each other. They are fighting, tree-fashion, for a specially good place. And there’s others waddling around, mad as hell, because somebody else beat them to the spots they liked. I watch them. Then I grin, because a couple of young trees duck under the fighting big ones and set their roots down in the place the big trees was fighting over.
“I don’t like your attitude!” says Inspector Caldwell, furious.
She goes stamping into the post, leaving me puzzled. What’s wrong with me smiling at those kid trees getting the best of their betters?
That afternoon Brooks comes back, marching ahead of a pack of woods-Moklins with greenish skins and saucer eyes that’ve been guiding him around. He’s a good-looking kind of fellow, Brooks is, with a good build and a solid jaw.
When he comes out of the woods on the landing field--the trees are all settled down by then--he’s striding impatient and loose-jointed. With the woods-Moklins trailing him, he looks plenty dramatic, like a visi-reel picture of a explorer on some unknown planet, coming back from the dark and perilous forests, followed by the strange natives who do not yet know whether this visitor from outer space is a god or what. You know the stuff.
I see Inspector Caldwell take a good look at him, and I see her eyes widen. She looks like he is a shock, and not a painful one.
He blinks when he sees her. He grunts. “What’s this? A she-Moklin?”
Inspector Caldwell draws herself up to her full five-foot-three. She bristles.
I say quick, “This here is Inspector Caldwell that the Palmyra dumped off here today. Uh--Inspector, this is Brooks, the Head Trader.”
They shake hands. He looks at her and says, “I’d lost hope my reports would ever get any attention paid to them. You’ve come to check my report that the trading post on Moklin has to be abandoned?”
“I have not!” says Inspector Caldwell, sharp. “That’s absurd! This planet has great potentialities, this post is profitable and the natives are friendly, and the trade should continue to increase. The Board is even considering the introduction of special crops.”
That strikes me as a bright idea. I’d like to see what would happen if Moklins started cultivating new kinds of plants! It would be a thing to watch--with regular Moklin plants seeing strangers getting good growing places and special attention! I can’t even guess what’ll happen, but I want to watch!
“What I want to ask right off,” says Inspector Caldwell, fierce, “is why you have allowed a competitive trading post to be established, why you did not report it sooner, and why you haven’t identified the company back of it?”
Brooks stares at her. He gets mad.
“Hell!” he says. “My reports cover all that! Haven’t you read them?”
“Of course not,” says Inspector Caldwell. “I was given an outline of the situation here and told to investigate and correct it.”
“Oh!” says Brooks. “That’s it!”
Then he looks like he’s swallowing naughty words. It is funny to see them glare at each other, both of them looking like they are seeing something that interests them plenty, but throwing off angry sparks just the same.
“If you’ll show me samples of their trade goods,” says Inspector Caldwell, arrogant, “and I hope you can do that much, I’ll identify the trading company handling them!”
He grins at her without amusement and leads the way to the inside of the trading post. We bring out the stuff we’ve had some of our Moklins go over and buy for us. Brooks dumps the goods on a table and stands back to see what she’ll make of them, grinning with the same lack of mirth. She picks up a visi-reel projector.
“Hmm,” she says, scornful. “Not very good quality. It’s...” Then she stops. She picks up a forest knife. “This,” she says, “is a product of--” Then she stops again. She picks up some cloth and fingers it. She really steams. “I see!” she says, angry. “Because we have been on this planet so long and the Moklins are used to our goods, the people of the other trading post duplicate them! Do they cut prices?”
“Fifty per cent,” says Brooks.
I chime in, “But we ain’t lost much trade. Lots of Moklins still trade with us, out of friendship. Friendly folks, these Moklins.”
Just then Deeth comes in, looking just like Casey that used to be here on Moklin. He grins at me.
“A girl just brought you a compliment,” he lets me know.
“Shucks!” I says, embarrassed and pleased. “Send her in and get a present for her.”
Deeth goes out. Inspector Caldwell hasn’t noticed. She’s seething over that other trading company copying our trade goods and underselling us on a planet we’re supposed to have exclusive. Brooks looks at her grim.
“I shall look over their post,” she announces, fierce, “and if they want a trade war, they’ll get one! We can cut prices if we need to--we have all the resources of the Company behind us!”
Brooks seems to be steaming on his own, maybe because she hasn’t read his reports. But just then a Moklin girl comes in. Not bad-looking, either. You can see she is a Moklin--she ain’t as convincing human as Deeth is, say--but she looks pretty human, at that. She giggles at me.
“Compliment,” she says, and shows me what she’s carrying.
I look. It’s a Moklin kid, a boy, just about brand-new. And it has my shape ears, and its nose looks like somebody had stepped on it--my nose is that way--and it looks like a very small-sized working model of me. I chuck it under the chin and say, “Kitchy-coo!” It gurgles at me.
“What’s your name?” I ask the girl.
She tells me. I don’t remember it, and I don’t remember ever seeing her before, but she’s paid me a compliment, all right--Moklin-style.
“Mighty nice,” I say. “Cute as all get-out. I hope he grows up to have more sense than I got, though.” Then Deeth comes in with a armload of trade stuff like Old Man Bland gave to the first Moklin kid that was born with long whiskers like his, and I say, “Thanks for the compliment. I am greatly honored.”
She takes the stuff and giggles again, and goes out. The kid beams at me over her shoulder and waves its fist. Mighty humanlike. A right cute kid, any way you look at it.
Then I hear a noise. Inspector Caldwell is regarding me with loathing in her eyes.
“Did you say they were friendly creatures?” she asks, bitter. “I think affectionate would be a better word!” Her voice shakes. “You are going to be transferred out of here the instant the Palmyra gets back!”
“What’s the matter?” I ask, surprised. “She paid me a compliment and I gave her a present. It’s a custom. She’s satisfied. I never see her before that I remember.”
“You don’t?” she says. “The--the callousness! You’re revolting!”
Brooks begins to sputter, then he snickers, and all of a sudden he’s howling with laughter. He is laughing at Inspector Caldwell. Then I get it, and I snort. Then I hoot and holler. It gets funnier when she gets madder still. She near blows up from being mad!
We must look crazy, the two of us there in the post, just hollering with laughter while she gets furiouser and furiouser. Finally I have to lay down on the floor to laugh more comfortable. You see, she doesn’t get a bit of what I’ve told her about there being a special kind of evolution on Moklin. The more disgusted and furious she looks at me, the harder I have to laugh. I can’t help it.
When we set out for the other trading post next day, the atmosphere ain’t what you’d call exactly cordial. There is just the Inspector and me, with Deeth and a couple of other Moklins for the look of things. She has on a green forest suit, and with her red hair she sure looks good! But she looks at me cold when Brooks says I’ll take her over to the other post, and she doesn’t say a word the first mile or two.
We trudge on, and presently Deeth and the others get ahead so they can’t hear what she says. And she remarks indignant, “I must say Mr. Brooks isn’t very cooperative. Why didn’t he come with me? Is he afraid of the men at the other post?”
“Not him,” I says. “He’s a good guy. But you got authority over him and you ain’t read his reports.”
“If I have authority,” she says, sharp, “I assure you it’s because I’m competent!”
“I don’t doubt it,” I says. “If you wasn’t cute, he wouldn’t care. But a man don’t want a good-looking girl giving him orders. He wants to give them to her. A homely woman, it don’t matter.”
She tosses her head, but it don’t displease her. Then she says, “What’s in the reports that I should have read?”
“I don’t know,” I admit. “But he’s been sweating over them. It makes him mad that nobody bothered to read ‘em.”
“Maybe,” she guesses, “it was what I need to know about this other trading post. What do you know about it, Mr. Brinkley?”
I tell her what Deeth has told Brooks. Brooks found out about it because one day some Moklins come in to trade and ask friendly why we charge so much for this and that. Deeth told them we’d always charged that, and they say the other trading post sells things cheaper, and Deeth says what trading post? So they up and tell him there’s another post that sells the same kind of things we do, only cheaper. But that’s all they’ll say.
So Brooks tells Deeth to find out, and he scouts around and comes back. There is another trading post only fifteen miles away, and it is selling stuff just like ours. And it charges only half price. Deeth didn’t see the men--just the Moklin clerks. We ain’t been able to see the men either.