Van Taurus examined the planet below as he orbited, trying to determine the best place to land. He knew that through his planet’s research and his extensive personal surgical procedures he would be able to superficially mix with the inhabitants of the planet below – even speak a few rudimentary phrases of their languages. But he had to pick the proper place to land. He didn’t want to set down in a densely populated city – it would create too much attention – or even a panic that would overwhelm him and make his mission of study impossible. Likewise, he didn’t want to settle in an isolated spot – that would make his intention of personally interacting with the natives difficult or impossible.
He knew his predecessors had made a policy of seeking out tracts of small, portable rectangular identical dwellings clustered in rural areas – thinking that such simple folk would be more accepting and malleable – but their missions had all been abject failures, so he rejected that plan.
He noticed the layout of some cities of what looked like more modern construction – a spoke and wheel arrangement. The dense central urban area that had strips of some smooth material radiating out – most connecting with other population centers some distance away. He decided to land somewhere along one of these connections, thinking that would be a spot little noticed but one that would give him eventual access to the population of the planet.
Van Taurus selected a large – but not too huge – urban area, then a spoke radiating out, and finally he found a vacant area next to the smooth strip. During the dark period he maneuvered his ship through the atmosphere and set it down in the center of the vacant area, about five ship-widths from the transportation corridor.
He knew from the research on the planet’s electromagnetic communication that the people were very familiar with the shape of his ship – obviously learned from the many failed missions that had preceded him. The circular ship, oval in cross-section – and lined with viewing ports had become a symbol of his planet’s visits – yet the population didn’t seem to take it all that seriously. It was almost treated in their entertainment communications as a subject of strange humor, rather than the momentous discovery it really was.
This was another in a long string of curious mysteries that Van Taurus had intended to solve when he volunteered for the dangerous mission – one that no fellow explorer had ever returned.
So it was with trepidation that Van Taurus peered from his viewports as the planet’s single star rose above the horizon. He expected to see a large, agitated crowd of the planet’s population, possibly afraid, possibly hostile.
Instead, he saw no one. The only activity was a steady stream of transportation modules along the smooth strip of prepared surface. There were a wide variety of metal capsules moving at a high speed, most containing only a single individual. They sped along without any visible means of power or guidance, and Van Taurus used his remote spectrograph to discover that each was spewing a mixture of toxic gasses out the small pipe in their tail. Why? He couldn’t imagine.
After a few diurnal cycles without anyone paying any attention to his ship, Van Taurus felt confident and bored enough to venture forth, walking along the transportation strip in the direction he knew the distant city to be located.
He didn’t have to travel far before he came upon a small, colorful structure that seemed to offer for trade a selection of foodstuffs and other small items. He entered and moved in front of an individual that stood at the front of the room. He had carefully prepared his statement.
“My name is Van Taurus and I am an alien on your planet. I mean you no harm.”
“An alien? Well hell, what’s one more? Let me tell where the folks around here go for labor”
Van Taurus didn’t know exactly what the word “labor” meant, but the man seemed to understand that he was an alien and didn’t seem too disturbed about the fact. Perhaps this civilization had expected someone like him and prepared a location to communicate with aliens and he was being directed to it. He allowed himself a bit of praise in his choice of landing spot – so close to the alien gathering place.
When he reached the location described to him he found a group standing around. Metal capsules, larger than most, would arrive and the occupant would gesture at a small number of the group, and these individuals would climb into a large open box on the back of the capsule. They would then speed away.
He was confused by this, but one gestured at him from a capsule, and, almost reflexively, he climbed in with the others. He was transported to a spot where the group spent the day picking up blocks of artificial stone and carrying them from one location to another. At the end of the period, they each were handed a small bundle of flexible sheets.
On the return trip, his crude knowledge of at least three of the planet’s languages allowed him to learn from the others in the back of the capsule that these sheets could be exchanged for food and other goods from locations such as the one he had visited earlier.
He stopped on the walk back to the spaceship and the man seemed glad to see him, once he displayed his collection of sheets. He exchanged a few for various foodstuffs. Van Taurus found the food to be palatable though strange, and oddly unfulfilling.
He settled into a routine of walking to the gathering spot, going off to do some strange, meaningless task, often involving killing and removing harmless vegetation, and afterwards purchasing food at the small building.
Some days he would spend in the space around his ship, doing scientific research. He was fascinated by the small, long, wriggling eyeless creatures that lived in the soil where he had landed. He traded for a tool from the building and had dug out a pile of these animals when he was surprised by a capsule stopping and the occupants offering him a small stack of sheets for the creatures.
He asked his fellow laborers about that and they explained about “fishing” and helped him make a sign of cardboard that said, “Van Taurus Bait Shop.” It wasn’t long before he was collecting enough sheets in exchange for the creatures that he didn’t have to go on the trips with the laborers again, though he did miss the companionship.
Van Taurus was alarmed when he began to exhaust the supply of creatures around his ship. But the man in the colorful building explained that he had collected enough of the exchange sheets to move to a location a distance away that had a structure made of some sort of cut and assembled vegetative matter. It was at the intersection of two transportation paths and was thus, as the man explained “A Prime Location.” More importantly, the space behind it had a terrible odor and was always wet with excess water – Van Taurus suspected that is was used for the disposal of waste products from various creatures. However, it did contain the wriggling creatures in a tremendous, virtually endless, supply. They were larger and more vigorous also, and brought in more exchange sheets.
Van Taurus was able to trade these for another, larger flat communication display that said, “Van Taurus Baits – Best Wigglers West of the Mississippi!” The man from the building had recommended that – even though it confused Van Taurus, he was able to exchange more of the creatures than ever before.
Over time, he forgot about his mission and concentrated on activities that accumulated more and increasingly valuable exchange sheets. His spaceship was neglected and eventually vandalized by the younger local inhabitants. Finally, it was reduced to an ignored shell sitting along the transportation corridor.