When you are sitting in an airport concourse, as Richard Craven was, and have been waiting for your plane for over an hour, like Richard Craven, then you get tired after a while of looking at the departure screens for the announcement of your flight (Barcelona, British Airways) and you start looking at where other people are going.
"Uffiello ... Skagholm," Richard half-muttered to himself. "Where on earth is that? Le Pelousier ? Never heard of it. Reteribo.... Reteribo ... Where in hell is Reteribo?"
"Nice place," said the man sitting next to him."
Which surprised Richard Craven, because he didn't think he had said it audibly.
"Where is it?" he said.
"Not as far as you might think."
Richard turned and looked at the man. He had dark glasses on, bright red eyebrows and a freckled nose. Also a hat.
"How far?" said Richard.
"I'll show you," said the man.
Which meaningless statement was followed by a strange lurching feeling, causing Richard to grip on to his seat and close his eyes. He thought he was going to black out for a moment, and then felt better. When he opened his eyes, he was sitting in a chair under some trees, in the sun. Well, under two suns, actually.
"Feeling all right?" said the man with bright red eyebrows. He had taken off his sunglasses and hat now, revealing that he also had purple hair and a third ear on top of his head.
"This is another silly question, but where am I?" said Richard Craven.
"Reteribo," said the alien. "This is where I live. I have brought you here by trasportation."
"Trasportation ? What's that?"
"It would take too long to explain. All you need to know is that it works and you have come to our world."
"Why?" said Richard Craven.
"Because you are an experienced water engineer, and we are having terrible trouble on our world with water supplies, and we need your help, and we haven't got time to train water engineers of our own, so we are asking for your help."
"You mean, you've kidnapped me."
"Well, we've certainly made you an offer you can't refuse," said the alien. " Now I'll show you to your office."
Richard was as it happens a first class water engineer and he soon found that things were in quite a bad way on Reteribo, but nothing that couldn't be cured by putting desalination plants in the vast brackish Sea of Despondency in the south of the planet. Richard and the other engineers worked a 28-hour day (it's a long day on worlds where you've got two suns) and fairly soon had the project on course.
"We're immensely grateful to you and the other exgals," said the alien, whose name was Putty.
"Exgals?" said Richard.
"Well," said Putty, "If an 'expat' is someone who is in exile from his country, or 'patria', an 'exgal' is temporarily away from his galaxy."
It was certainly true that many of the other engineers were not from Earth. Richard made friends with some of them, especially the jovial bunch from Prion III, a small planet which was mostly underwater, and fizzy water at that. "You should try swimming in fizzy water, Richard," said one of the Prionese to him, a heavy man with two beards. "It's very sexy!"
They swapped stories of disasters, as engineers like to do, and Richard taught them about Burns Night, and tried to create haggis out of local ingredients, and the Prionese invited him in turn to their Independence Day celebrations, although Richard didn't really enjoy theit national drink, amporia, which made them extremely merry but only made Richard sprout more hair.
And suddenly, after a long time, the project was finished, and everyone was due to go home (except an engineer from the planet Glunt, who had insulted the local religion and had received a life sentence, which wasn't actually too bad in his case, as he was reincarnated every two years).
"I never did get to Barcelona, then," said Richard to Putty, as he was strapped in for the return journey.
"Oh, but you still can," said Putty. "We may not know much about water, but we are very good on time travel. Your time on Reteribo took only a second of Earth time. When you go back, it will be exactly the same time as when you left. Goodbye."
A second later, Richard Craven sat waiting for his Barcelona flight, and out of boredom started looking down the list of other destinations. "Skagholm ... Le Pelousier... where are all these places?" he grumbled.
He had the odd feeling that there should be another unknown place after Le Pelousier, but then they called his flight to Barcelona and he never gave it another thought.
The Independent Wed Aug 14 02