Arthur checked himself into a small motel on the outskirts of town, and sat glumly on the bed, which was damp, and flipped through the little information brochure, which was also damp. It said that the planet of NowWhat had been named after the opening words of the first settlers to arrive there after struggling across light years of space to reach the furthest unexplored outreaches of the Galaxy. The main town was called OhWell. There weren't any other towns to speak of. Settlement on NowWhat had not been a success and the sort of people who actually wanted to live on NowWhat were not the sort of people you would want to spend time with.
Trading was mentioned in the brochure. The main trade that was carried out was in the skins of the NowWhattian boghog but it wasn't a very successful one because no one in their right minds would want to buy a NowWhattian boghog skin. The trade only hung on by its fingernails because there was always a significant number of people in the Galaxy who were not in their right minds. Arthur had felt very uncomfortable looking around at some of the other occupants of the small passenger compartment of the ship.
The brochure described some of the history of the planet. Whoever had written it had obviously started out trying to drum up a little enthusiasm for the place by stressing that it wasn't actually cold and wet all the time, but could find little positive to add to this so the tone of the piece quickly degenerated into savage irony.
It talked about the early years of settlement. It said that the major activities pursued on NowWhat were those of catching, skinning and eating NowWhattian boghogs, which were the only extant form of animal life on NowWhat, all other having long ago died of despair. The boghogs were tiny, vicious creatures, and the small margin by which they fell short of being completely inedible was the margin by which life on the planet subsisted. So what were the rewards, however small, that made life on NowWhat worth living? Well, there weren't any. Not a one. Even making yourself some protective clothing out of boghog skins was an exercise in disappointment and futility, since the skins were unaccountably thin and leaky. This caused a lot of puzzled conjecture amongst the settlers. What was the boghog's secret of keeping warm? If anyone had ever learnt the language the boghogs spoke to each other they would have discovered that there was no trick. The boghogs were as cold and wet as anyone else on the planet. No one had had the slightest desire to learn the language of the boghogs for the simple reason that these creatures communicated by biting each other very hard on the thigh. Life on NowWhat being what it was, most of what a boghog might have to say about it could easily be signified by these means.
Arthur flipped through the brochure till he found what he was looking for. At the back there were a few maps of the planet. They were fairly rough and ready because they weren't likely to be of much interest to anyone, but they told him what he wanted to know.
He didn't recognise it at first because the maps were the other way up from the way he would have expected and looked, therefore thoroughly unfamiliar. Of course, up and down, north and south, are absolutely arbitrary designations, but we are used to seeing things the way we are used to seeing them, and Arthur had to turn the maps upside-down to make sense of them.
There was one huge landmass off on the upper left-hand side of the page which tapered down to a tiny waist and then ballooned out again like a large comma. On the right-hand side was a collection of large shapes jumbled familiarly together. The outlines were not exactly the same, and Arthur didn't know if this was because the map was so rough, or because the sea-level was higher or because, well, things were just different here. But the evidence was inarguable.
This was definitely the Earth.
Or rather, it most definitely was not.
It merely looked a lot like the Earth and occupied the same co-ordinates in space/time. What co-ordinates it occupied in Probability was anybody's guess.
This, he realised, was about as close to home as he was likely to get. Which meant that he was about as far from home as he could possibly be. Glumly he slapped the brochure shut and wondered what on earth he was going to do next.
He allowed himself a hollow laugh at what he had just thought. He looked at his old watch, and shook it a bit to wind it. It had taken him, according to his own time-scale, a year of hard travelling to get here. A year since the accident in hyperspace in which Fenchurch had completely vanished. One minute she had been sitting there next to him in the SlumpJet; the next minute the ship had done a perfectly normal hyperspace hop and when he had next looked she was not there. The seat wasn't even warm. Her name wasn't even on the passenger list.
The spaceline had been wary of him when he had complained. A lot of awkward things happen in space travel, and a lot of them make a lot of money for lawyers. But when they had asked him what Galactic Sector he and Fenchurch had been from and he had said ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha they had relaxed completely in a way that Arthur wasn't at all sure he liked. They even laughed a little, though sympathetically, of course. They pointed to the clause in the ticket contract which said that the entities whose lifespans had originated in any of the Plural zones were advised not to travel in hyperspace and did so at their own risk. Everybody, they said, knew that. They tittered slightly and shook their heads.
As Arthur had left their offices he found he was trembling slightly. Not only had he lost Fenchurch in the most complete and utter way possible, but he felt that the more time he spent away out in the Galaxy the more it seemed that the number of things he didn't know anything about actually increased.
Just as he was lost for a moment in these numb memories a knock came on the door of his motel room, which then opened immediately. A fat and dishevelled man came in carrying Arthur's one small case.
He got as far as, `Where shall I put ---' when there was a sudden violent flurry and he collapsed heavily against the door, trying to beat off a small and mangy creature that had leapt snarling out of the wet night and buried its teeth in his thigh, even through the thick layers of leather padding he wore there. There was a brief, ugly confusion of jabbering and thrashing. The man shouted frantically and pointed. Arthur grabbed a hefty stick that stood next to the door expressly for this purpose and beat at the boghog with it.
The boghog suddenly disengaged and limped backwards, dazed and forlorn. It turned anxiously in the corner of the room, its tail tucked up right under its back legs, and stood looking nervously up at Arthur, jerking its head awkwardly and repeatedly to one side. Its jaw seemed to be dislocated. It cried a little and scraped its damp tail across the floor. By the door, the fat man with Arthur's suitcase was sitting and cursing, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his thigh. His clothes were already wet from the rain.
Arthur stared at the boghog, not knowing what to do. The boghog looked at him questioningly. It tried to approach him, waking mournful little whimpering noises. It moved its jaw painfully. It made a sudden leap for Arthur's thigh, but its dislocated jaw was too weak to get a grip and it sank, whining sadly, down to the floor. The fat man jumped to his feet, grabbed the stick, beat the boghog's brains into a sticky, pulpy mess on the thin carpet, and then stood there breathing heavily as if daring the animal to move again, just once.
A single boghog eyeball sat looking reproachfully at Arthur from out of the mashed ruins of its head.
`What do you think it was trying to say?' asked Arthur in a small voice.
`Ah, nothing much,' said the man `Just its way of trying to be friendly. This is just our way of being friendly back,' he added, gripping the stick.
`When's the next flight out?' asked Arthur.
`Thought you'd only just arrived,' said the man.
`Yes,' said Arthur. `It was only going to be a brief visit. I just wanted to see if this was the right place or not. Sorry.'
`You mean you're on the wrong planet?' said the man lugubriously. `Funny how many people say that. Specially the people who live here.' He eyed the remains of the boghog with a deep, ancestral resentment.
`Oh no,' said Arthur, 'it's the right planet all right.' He picked up the damp brochure lying on the bed and put it in his pocket. `It's OK, thanks, I'll take that,' he said, taking his case from the man. He went to the door and looked out into the cold, wet night.
`Yes, it's the right planet, all right,' he said again. `Right planet, wrong universe.'
A single bird wheeled in the sky above him as he set off back for the spaceport.