‘My esteemed colleagues,’ the Director’s tone held all of the stilted pomposity, promising a dull time indeed, that much of Ossyrian formal conversation was famous for. His opening remark, however, told a very different story, ‘the hugely expensive mission to Earth, assiduously prepared for over several circumnavigations of the inner sun, was…a dismal failure.’ The assembled party of formerly grinning astronauts greeted the statement with stony silence. No one, of course, was fearful of any personal criticism; a social taboo of immense strength, to single out another in Ossyrian society in order to voice anything crude or unpleasant was simply unthinkable. But there was more than one way to make the point.
Without mentioning any names, either corporate or personal, the Director continued, ‘The inhabitants of the planet called Earth – as noted from intercepted radio and video broadcasts – had seemed to possess a quality of vitality, of humour, of irrepressible energy and a boundless measure of what the philosophers mysteriously define as hope that was deemed essential for further study.’ The silence grew ever more uncomfortable. ‘This mandate – to discover hope’s source and catalogue its manifestations – seems to have been side-tracked by other considerations.’ No one needed to be told what those ‘other considerations’ had been and, even if they had, words like ‘patronising’, ‘arrogant’, and even ‘cowardly’ had long ago vanished from the Ossyrian language and only existed in dusty volumes of literature often recorded in an archaic digital script that only a few could read.
‘Sir,’ Droghmirrxz timidly spoke up, ‘I…I would like to volunteer for a return mission, one that will not fail!’ ‘So would I, sir,’ Bogmerlg added and, as the Director nodded assent, even indicating that he would also personally accompany them on the new outreach to Earth, the two old friends broke into broad smiles, restoring the harmonious balance of the Xgi in the hitherto tense conference room, to everyone’s evident relief.
The location selected for the new mission was a sleazy East Kentish beach town in the grip of an endless economic recession, not far from the original site at Canterbury, called Margate. The place had definitely known better days and a splash of crumbling grandeur bore eloquent, if melancholic, testimony to happier, more prosperous times. The Council was dominated by a racist/isolationist party called UKIP, though the great mass of (non-voting) inhabitants of the medium sized municipality seemed to possess every shade of skin colour and speak half of the languages known to the human race. Vitality was clearly had in abundance; the kind celebrated throughout human history, though all too often in retrospect – of hard scrabble, elbow rubbing diversity and an irrepressible hope that things could only get better. A perfect place for the newly launched Ossyrian study!
The Director and his two subordinates were safely beamed into a pre-rented flat directly across the street from the sea that would serve as field HDQ for the duration of the mission. The boss had cleverly assumed human form and passed as a tall male with scruffy beard, salt and pepper hair, and glasses, known simply as ‘T’. His cover was as an academic at some nameless school several miles away. Bogmerlg and Droghmirrxz reassumed canine disguises, this time as a frisky pair of Chihuahuas; Droghmirrxz, as team captain, became the dominant male; a black, white and russet tricolour with adorable ‘racoon’ mask called Alfie, while Bogmerlg, as second, became the beta male – white with brown spots called Ajax. When all was organised to ‘T’s satisfaction, some possible courses of initial action (and encounter!) were explored.
+ + +
The animal shelter had, at first, seemed an odd choice as the locale of the initial foray into human society. It was, after all, an animal shelter…but as Alfie had wisely pointed out, the place was run by and for humans and the fact that it was filled with abandoned and often abused former pets and half-feral strays made it a sure-fire litmus against which the virtue of hope might be tested (and possibly discredited). ‘T’ had arranged for the two Chihuahuas to accompany him inside the shelter in order, as he put it, ‘to see if they would get along with a possible new addition to the pack.’
‘This places sure stinks!’ Ajax crinkled his nose, reacting to the potent mix of caustic disinfectant, musky fur, urine and excrement, processed animal food…and fear. The three Ossyrian agents, appearing as a human male accompanied by two Chihuahuas, were, of course, able to communicate telepathically, thus preserving the integrity of their respective disguises. ‘And it’s kind of scary and…depressing,’ Ajax’s tail dipped to half-mast as his courage wavered. ‘Oh, stop being…’ Alfie’s pert rebuke (unthinkable if they had been back on the home world) was interrupted by a roar of canine rage as a huge Mastiff, reddened eyes glinting with only a shred of sanity, threw itself against the mesh of its enclosure in an attempt to maul the tiny Chihuahua. Alfie, with hackles raised, threw it all back at the bucking Mastiff (safe in the knowledge that the enclosure was sturdily built) and returned the abuse bark for bark. ‘So much for the practice of virtue,’ ‘T’ communicated with disgust. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’ ‘Wait!!!’ Ajax was humming with barely repressed excitement, ‘Look over there!’
(to be continued)