The door to Craig's sleeping chambers, now his cell, slid open.
Charlene stood there, quiet, and subdued.
"Can we talk, Craig?"
"Not without an adjudicator present" he said, reaching for the alarm panel.
"Stop! Stop, Craig. Listen. I've dropped the enquiry. You said there was footage. I watched it."
"And you were right. Nothing happened, and.... you're alright, I guess. Your Andarian friend has a few screws loose, even for an Andarian, but you were right, you were right all along. I've explained everything, everyone's cool. They don't know how to apologize to you. And.... frankly neither do I."
Craig sighed. "Is that all?"
Charlene came in and sat down. "You must think I'm a real bitch, right?"
Craig put his book down. "I don't think anything. I didn't ask for you to come on board this ship, which you now finally believe. I wasn't trying to get inside your pants, which you now believe. I wasn't the one showering us both with pornography, hectoring you to sleep with me, or doing anything other than trying to heal my broken leg and get on with my life, which hopefully you finally believe."
"You're wrong about me, Craig."
"In what way? I don't recall saying word one about you."
"Your very first words when I came inside this room, looking for an access port to a protonic line, was about how I was obviously a lesbian. Though you may not have engineered me coming on board in the first place and weren't the one trying to get me to spread my legs for you, your very first comment was basically "Charlene's vagina, Craig's probable availability of." For the record, I am NOT a lesbian."
"Well, I mean, with that haircut, you can obviously..."
"Obviously what? You do realize that I'm a technician on board an alien vessel in which I literally never see another human being, let alone a human male? So to what end do I need to keep up all the ridiculous rituals for? Like I really enjoyed being expected to shave my legs all the time and spend obscene amounts of money on makeup, and being judged all the time about how pretty I was trying to be at all times? The first interaction with another human being in three years, and his first comment is "huh, she doesn't look like a magazine model. Clearly she bumps cunts." Maybe not in so many words, but that's what it is."
Craig nodded somberly.
"In fact,that's why I wanted on this vessel. You can see how plain I am, but I'm also brilliant. There's almost no human being who can do the five dimensional vector calculus in their heads necessary to do the simplest of technical jobs on this ship, but hey, what did that matter on Earth. I just simply got tired of being told to smile all the time. That I wasn't that pretty, but "I'll do", usually when some drunken asshole was leaning out of his car catcalling me on my way back from college. Do you know what it's like to be sexually harassed?"
Craig said "With this body? No. I'm invisible. I've never been even remotely seen as sexual, or attractive, or even.... as anyone other than the guy who'd do your homework, or change your tire in the rain. Frankly it sounds kind of nice to have that happen just once."
Charlene looked at him. "When my vessel gets here, come on board with us. I can help you with that project."
Craig laughed: "Why, do you have a nymphomaniac co-worker with a penchant for balding fat little gnomes?"
Charlene's eyes narrowed. "No, we're heading past Karanda. I can drop you off at one of their bath-houses. We'll have all your orifices swapped, cleaned and re-sleeved for you if and when you ever get out."
Craig sighed. "I get it. I'm sorry. I really am. I didn't want any of this, but you're right - I shouldn't have jumped to any conclusions."
Charlene looked at him, her eyes softening.
"The hardest part was giving up my cat. I found him starving, as a kitten, trying to steal some discarded Chinese food from a dumpster. I took him home and loved him very much. I told my brother I was going on a 2 year test jaunt, to look after my cat for me, and I'd be back. He had her euthanized the moment we hit orbit."
Craig stayed stock still.
"So you know, forgive me if I don't take kindly to near constant sexual harassment, followed by waking up from a drug-induced stupor with vague impressions of pornography and the two of you pressuring me for sex. I was scared, Craig. I have lived in constant fear of this kind of thing, and here, in space, when I least expected it, I'm sharing a cramped room with two men, and then bam, I wake up drugged and with a spotty memory. You have no idea what it's like to feel like that."
"I don't, you're right."
"I understand you tried to kill yourself."
"Officially, I was sleepwalking and just didn't know what I was doing, because of stress. They bought it, Luckily for me."
Charlene looked over at him.
"Look, you're not a bad guy. As I said, I just.... "
"I know, it's fine. There was footage, you know the truth, no harm, no foul, it's all over."
"I've talked to the crew. I've talked to Porbxmel. I don't think it did much good, I had to talk him down from the ledge. Apparently his researches led to the works of Germaine Greer and Andrea Dworkin, and I had to contextualize it for him somewhat."
"That explains a few things."
"It does indeed. I'm not evil, Craig."
"I know, Charlene."
"Anyway, my vessel is alongside the Fantasia, and.... well, I gotta go. I'm sorry we're leaving like this, or that we met like this. But... hey. This vessel now has two sets of Terran sleeping quarters, right?"
Craig nodded. "Sure. See you 'round."
Charlene sighed. "Yeah. I gotta go. Look after yourself. Oh, and, Porbxmel. He's weird, and he's off. But he does care about you. I hope you guys can patch things up. I tried talking to him, but it wasn't that easy."
"Well, you know about his constant morbid curiosity to see my "reproductive canal"?
"Oh God, I'm sorry."
"Well, I found out from you that he has a screaming phobia of blood, and...."
"Yeah, I started two days ago. So I finally dropped it all, pulled out my tampon, and..."
"How long was he out for?"
"About three hours."
"That was mean."
"Hey, he finally stopped. But... yeah. That WAS mean." She grinned. "Anyway, I did talk to him. I think you guys are good."
Craig looked at her gravely. "We'll see."
She walked out the door, and made eye contact with someone just outside. And sure enough, Porbxmel quietly and shyly drifted in as she phased out, onto her own craft.
"Human Charlene's presence was.... quite educational."
"Uh huh", said Craig "I did warn you not to try to touch any human's orifices. Many, many times"
"Yes. She was not as understanding of my error as you were", said Porbxmel somberly. "And... as for you being a very substandard representative of your species.... or a potential criminal....."
Craig looked at him side-eyed. "Go on...." he said.
"It's, it's perfectly acceptable. You perform your duties here satisfactorily..."
Craig turned back to his book "Well, thanks for the impromptu performance review."
Porbxmel looked at him and tried furiously to figure out the way to express his next question. Craig steeled himself, having seen the "tell" of Porbxmel foretentacles shaking nervously.
"Go ahead, just ask it."
"Human Craig, why are you here?"
"That's a question humanity has struggled with for hundreds of thousands of years. For the record, thanks to Andaria for explaining how the Universe really happened, it put an end to a major source of conflict on planet Earth." Humanity becoming 100% atheist in one fell swoop had solved a lot of humanity's problems.
"No, Human Craig. Why did you come on board a starship? Very, very few humans do. Is it because you have so much trouble interacting with other human beings?"
Craig closed his book and paused for a moment. "In some ways, Porbxmel, yes. I didn't have much of a future on Earth. I was, as you now know, living with my mother, and of course, now you know that being five foot six and balding means I wasn't going to get pair-bonded with a female any time soon...." as Porbxmel head started shaking quizzically he quickly added "which I'll explain later, but anyway.... yeah. There wasn't much of a future for me on Earth. I didn't have any friends and my life there wasn't going anywhere so yeah, here I am."
Porbxmel started quietly keening again.
"Porbxmel, buddy, it's okay."
Fluid started leaking from just below his right gill. Shaking, Porbxmel grabbed an opioid pack from his pocket and slapped it on to his own skin before Craig could stop him.
"That's not a good idea. We don't know what that will do to you."
Porbxmel started lilting again.
"Human... Human Craig" he said, his speech slowly being interjected with strange syllables from his own language, "I don't... I don't know how... how to say this. But. You know I personally worry about what happens to you. I didn't want anything out of this for you but happiness."
Craig looked at him. "Yeah, I know. It's okay."
Porbxmel shook his head fiercely "No, no, afsfkjvvlgvllrshreeeeeee no, no Human Craig, no. I..... care..... about you. I.... want. I want to be your..... friend?"
Craig shifted his weight so that he could face Porbxmel, now quivering, head-on.
"Porbxmel, man, you are. Really, you are."
Porbxmel rested his weight on the wall, starting to really flail his apprendages around now. "I.... don't. I don't really know how."
"Porbxmel, are you okay?"
He reached out to touch Porbxmel. Then held his hand back for a second.
"Porbxmel, I'm.... usually I'm the one telling you how to touch and not touch a human. But.... at times like this, this is what we do to show affection. Tell me if this is okay or inappropriate by your own species, yeah?"
And with that, Craig put his arms around Porbxmel, and hugged him tightly, oblivious to the green stream of sadness sliding oilily down his back.
"How do you Andarians do it?"
Porbxmel took Craig's right hand gently, and arranged his hand in a shape carefully. He then put his own foreappendage inside it, and it was almost, but not quite a fit. Greg felt a sudden connection and sudden peace not only to Porbxmel, but to Andaria as a whole. He let the acceptance flood through him.
"How do I return this, Porbxmel?"
"You already are, human Craig", he said, and indeed he could tell, he could really tell, that Porbxmel knew completely that despite everything, Human Craig loved him too.
With his free hand, he put it around Porbxmel and hugged him at the same time. Porbxmel did the same, and in a half-human, half-Andarian gesture of friendship,they stood there together a good long time.
Two weeks later, Craig approached Porbxmel at his desk.
"Okay, so, you remember that conversation we had when you grabbed my penis, thinking that I was somehow completely calcifying as a result of my broken-leg-healing going awry, and me telling you to stop trying to call the medic and that if there was anything we needed to worry about, I'd tell you?"
"Yes, human Craig."
"And the other conversation, after you walked around behind me for three days trying to capture my farts in a jar for analysis, concerned that my digestive system was rotting and that you were sure that I was dying, and I told you no, it's OK, and if there was anything we needed to worry about, I'd tell you?"
"Yes, human Craig."
Craig pulled his shirt to one side revealing a jewelled pustule growing just below his right nipple.
"I must have been exposed to radiation or some kind of alien virus, but this is not normal."
"On the contrary, human Craig, this is perfectly normal. Do not worry."
Craig walked away a few steps, his recently applied much lighter cast allowing for nearly full movement. He paused, turned and went back to Porbxmel.
"Porbxmel, buddy, no. This is not normal for human physiology. I look like something out of "The Fly". I'm worried that I'm turning into an insect of something."
"Oh no, human Craig. Frankly, if this was to happen, I was thinking it would happen on my own body because of our makeup.... but no. We're going to have another Andarian on this ship."