Alzon Itar could hardly believe his senses. But there was his name on the duty roster, right next to the word 'Earth'.
He could barely contain his excitement while making preparations for the trip. It was to be his final gathering for the World Data Corps before retiring, after just over 100 years of service. Earth had been his first mission, as a junior agent all those years ago. Despite the admonishments of his senior at the time to take the mission more seriously, he had fallen in love with the planet.
In the ninety-nine years since that first mission ended, he had never again drawn duty on Earth, much to his disappointment. He always studied the reports of other agents' gatherings on Earth, but they were usually very formal; just the pertinent data, none of the fun stuff. He longed to return to Earth himself, and now that dream was about to come true.
"What an exquisite way to go out," he said to himself. "Perhaps this assignment is the Corps' retirement gift to me."
On board ship, he greeted his junior. "Agent Dal, I presume?"
"Yes, sir. Krizon Dal. I've studied your recent reports. You have an... interesting style."
Itar laughed. "Many a reviewer has used stronger words than that to describe my reports, son. In fact, I've only met one who'll openly admit to liking them. Most refuse to deal with me. They don't seem to know the meaning of the word 'casual'. Or if they do, they surely wish I didn't. Luckily, that one reviewer I mentioned agreed to work with me permanently-and to clean up my reports before passing them on to the filing department. Izik Taloomid, his name is."
"That is a most fortunate arrangement indeed, sir. I don't believe I've ever heard of a permanent pairing of gatherer and reviewer."
"You sound awfully formal yourself. First gathering?"
"Yup, I knew you must have graduated within the past few years. WDC Academy certainly tends to drill formality into a person. Even I was capable of talking like you for my first couple of missions. Not that I did it much, mind you, but I could when I had to.
"Anyway, I do hope I'll be able to cure you of it over the next year. Well, best get to the bridge and set the autonav."
The trip to Earth took nearly a week, during which time Itar did what he could to give Dal a better idea of what he could expect than the reports give. He also tried to get his junior to loosen up. The upcoming mission had Itar so excited, he felt as young as Dal was. He hoped they could be friends.
"Who was your senior on your first mission, anyway?"
"Tagmond Ekrits, sir."
Alzon Itar could hardly believe his senses. "Ekrits, eh?" He paused a moment, then chuckled. "Someone's idea of a joke, I imagine."
"What's that, sir?"
"I keep asking you not to call me 'sir,' don't I?"
"Well, that's a start, I suppose. Maybe after a couple of months I'll get you to call me Alzon. Anyway, about that joke. My first senior was Caliron Ekrits. Tagmond's grandfather."
"That's quite a coincidence, Itar."
Itar smiled. "I doubt it. As I say, someone's probably playing a little joke on us. Well... fairly strict, was he?"
"Senior Ekrits? Yes... I suppose so."
"After serving under an Ekrits, it may take me more time than I thought to corrupt you."
"Corrupt me, sir? ...I mean, Itar?"
"I'm retiring after this mission, you know. The Corps is going to need a replacement loose cannon. Come to think of it, Izik's son could use a permanent gatherer, as his old man is retiring along with me. What do you think?"
"About... oh... you want me to.... That might take more than a year, sir. I'm sorry, but, I..." and for the first time since Itar had met him, Dal flashed a quick grin. "I think the Academy did an exemplary job of programming me."
Itar laughed. "That sounds like a joke to me, son. There's hope for you yet."
"So then, Itar. Tell me about Earth, will you?"
"Certainly, my boy. Well. The year I spent there, they called '2000'. It was their millennial year, a really big deal. They liked to think of it as representing the start of a new era, the future just around the corner. The world was waking up, coming together. Everything and anything seemed possible. In fact, knowing them, I'd say anything was possible. According to some of the reports I've read since I was there, it seems most of their dreams have been becoming realities. I can hardly wait to see it all for myself. Yes, a very exciting place, it was, and a very exciting time."
"If it's half as good as you say, it may not be so hard to corrupt me, after all."
The ship's computer announced, "Entering Sol System. Warning: Terran space station ahead. Going into cloaking mode now."
Alzon Itar could hardly believe his senses. "The reports said they'd gotten this far, but I couldn't quite believe it. I mean, a hundred years ago, they were still worrying about delays and cost overruns on one of their earliest space stations, and they still hadn't even come close to starting colonies even on the moon or Mars. Now the entire system is filled with stations and colonies. At this rate, they'll go interstellar within a few decades, maybe less. They develop so much faster than any race we've studied. Hell, maybe they'll be ready to join us in my lifetime. Wouldn't that be incredible? I could take vacations here..."
"Is such development even possible? Even we didn't develop this quickly, and we're the most advanced race in the galaxy."
"Just you wait until you meet some of them. Human beings... they're simply amazing."
They quickly established identities for themselves and acquired a pre-furnished apartment in Boston. "It may have changed a bit cosmetically," said Itar, "but it's sure enough the same old city. I love this place."
The first night in the apartment, Dal asked, "What should we do now, Itar? Already in the few hours we've been here, I begin to realize how much data there is to gather. A year hardly seems enough. Where should we start?"
"Settle down, let's relax for now. We'll watch a little TV."
Itar picked up the remote, which had more buttons than he remembered, but he soon figured it out. He flipped on the power to the television. He could hardly believe his senses.
"Wow! When I was here, these things only had sound and picture, and they were just getting a start on making those three-dimensional. This has... everything. It's like that 'virtual reality' everyone was looking forward to. Fully immersive VR, and they're broadcasting it on TV! Cool!"
"Oh, a slang Earth term, means 'very good'."
"Ah. So, what's on this TV?"
"Well, let's see..." He surfed until he found a Prevue Channel, which he watched for several minutes. "Ah-ha! News. So we can sit back and let some data come to us."
Itar could hardly believe his senses. It seemed the world had much improved since he'd been here. The reports said as much, but it could be hard to believe sometimes. He kept waiting for some bad news, but there was none.
Itar and Dal got up the next morning slightly before ten. They had slept late. Itar told Dal not to worry; following a looser than usual schedule was just one of many ways this mission would be less formal than most. They watched some daytime TV, mostly talk shows and game shows. "Some things certainly haven't changed," Itar said.
Then they saw an ad for a soap opera. Itar could hardly believe his senses. "That's still on? Cool. I actually got rather addicted to that show when I was here; it's one of many things I've missed. I haven't seen it for 99 years. Funny, I would have expected it to have been cancelled long ago. I can hardly wait to see it again."
They watched it when it came on later that day. Alzon Itar could not believe his senses. A few minutes into the show he shouted, "They're still on that storyline?!?"