Nihlus almost rolled down the narrow spiral staircase, his boots clanging in inglorious bursts. When he finally touched the bottom floor, he glanced up and saw the figure of his mentor, three stories above, struggling with the punctured pipe at the back of his suit. Saren’s motions were uncomfortably reminiscent of panic. Nihlus shook the fascination off and hurried to close the valve. He had to lean in with all his strength. Thank the Spirits (and the generosity of said mentor) that he had the kinetic exoskeleton built into his suit, otherwise it would’ve been impossible.
But now that the sickly greenish gas had ceased puffing out of the grate on the ceiling and the air seemed to clear, he climbed back up, cursing the idiotic interior design. Who in their right mind would plant a spiral staircase into an engine room?
He found Saren leaning against the railing with both his arms, and apparently coughing, though Nihlus could catch no sounds through both his helmet and Saren’s, and the intercom was off. He flicked on his omni and checked the hazard level. Tolerable. He took the helmet off, sniffed. The air smelled of burnt oil and machinery and filthy recycling pipes, but it was breathable. Saren remained motionless in his oddly slouched position. Shaking. Nihlus took a careful step closer and put an arm on Saren’s shoulder, only to have it brushed away with typical irritability.
“You can take the helmet off,” he said.
Saren either coughed or nodded. Probably the later, for presently he straightened up and removed his helmet too. Nihlus searched his face for signs of discomfort, but it looked exactly the same as always. The eyes didn’t, though. They were bulging out in a most disconcerting way, as if Saren was still trying to hold his breath in, or keep the foul air out.
Instead of answering, Saren let out a stifled chuckle through his nose, then became his serious self again faster than Nihlus could say sex. He took a step back in surprise. He had known Saren for how long now? Close to a year? And yet he had never, ever, seen him laugh. For a moment he wasn’t sure that was really what he saw; it happened so quickly, he could have been wrong, perhaps it was just another cough and—
It happened again! Saren shook with laughter, holding in the sound, but his mandibles flared out wide and he covered his mouth, his stare perplexed. Some strange instinct made Nihlus mimic the movement and he too covered his mouth, which was probably gaping anyway. Saren attempted to censure the reaction with a frown, but it dissolved as another fit of silent laughter shook his wide frame.
“What is it?” Nihlus said. He couldn’t stop himself for smiling along. “What’s funny?”
Saren barely managed to shake his head for, nothing; nothing at all, before a new wave hit him. At first, he looked like he’d burst, holding it all back behind the firmly clutched jaw, but then the spasms won and he started laughing in earnest. It was a hissy sort of hee-hee-hee-hee, short and violent outbursts on a voiceless breath, and before long, Saren cradled his waist with his right arm, the left still clutching the railing. Nihlus laughed a bit too, uncertainly. Something was clearly wrong.
“Saren? Talk to me. What is it?”
The spasms let up a bit, and Saren was panting. “Can’t…” he squeezed through his teeth, but couldn’t finish because another wave came over him and he doubled over, laughing out loud now, a deep, rich ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha. It was such a strange thing to hear, such a disturbing thing to witness, and Nihlus was no longer smiling. He turned about, looking for something, anything. Was it the gas? Must have been. Fatal when inhaled, but perhaps when sufficiently diluted… some must’ve gotten into Saren’s suit through the punctured pipe.
Laughing turned into coughing, and Saren lifted up a bit, supporting his weight with arms on his knees. “Can’t… stop… laughing,” he wheezed, coughed, then the laughter bore down on him once more. Each time the spasms seemed more violent and soon he fell on his knees, desperate inhales and ragged exhales sounding more and more like weeping. Nihlus knelt by his side and placed a hand on his shoulder again, hoping to steady him. Their glances met. Saren’s eyes had become bloodshot and unfocused.
“What do I do?” Nihlus said. Useless ideas passed through his head, childish things from boot camp involving cold water, pinching, biting tongue and thinking about loved ones long lost. “Should I give you some medigel?”
The laughter turned into painful hissing and more coughing, but somewhere in the midst of it, Saren shook his head and gasped out a word. Stims.
“You want me to give you a shot of stims?”
This triggered another episode. Laughter and coughing mixed into what looked like suffocating, and Saren rolled over to the side, squirming on the metal floor and clutching his stomach in a desperate embrace. Nihlus started to panic. “Stims? Is that what you said? I don’t dare do it if you don’t confirm. What the fuck could the stims do, of all things?”
“Do it!” Saren hissed, then slipped into a violent seizure.
“Shit,” Nihlus said. “Shit, shit, shit.” He brought up his omni and set up remote control of Saren’s through their emergency channel, then configured the dosage in a series of all too familiar motions. He confirmed the command.
He sat back then, to watch for a reaction and pray. A tired aftershock of laughter went through Saren’s body, his silver features trembling under the sheen of sweat and tears. Then another. He looked like he was dying. But then the third shock inspired his exhausted body into motion and he scrambled up on all fours in order to vomit.
“Shit!” Nihlus scrambled closer and held Saren’s slippery forehead. A fountain of yellow liquid came out and seeped through the gaps in the grated floor, leaving little but the smell of acid behind. There were next to no solid pieces and Nihlus thanked the Spirits for small favors. If not for the gruesomeness of the entire situation, the weight of Saren’s head in his hand could have almost been pleasant. A small, stolen, token of intimacy.
“Water,” Saren said and sat back on his heels.
Nihlus handed him the flask from a slot on his belt. He started to warn Saren not to take too much, but Saren only took a sip, gurgled and spat out. Then swallowed another. His shoulders heaved with labored breathing.
“Why stims?” Nihlus asked after a while.
Saren sighed. His face had never seemed quite so devoid of color. “Pathological laughter results from a chemical imbalance in the brain… similar to what causes depression.” He took another sip. “Stims act like antidepressants.”
“Wouldn’t think of that in a million years.”
“Just an educated guess.”
“Yeah. ‘Educated’ being the keyword missing from my personal description.”
Saren snorted and drank some more, than poured a bit of water in his gloved hand and splashed his face.
“It was sort of nice to see you laugh, though.”
A sideways glance told him just how not funny that was.
“What? At first I thought you were just laughing, you know? As in, at something I said or did… I thought maybe I was missing a piece of armor or had an alien penis stuck to my boot.” Caught in the midst of taking another sip, Saren choked and sprayed water all over. “Idiot,” he said, wiping his mouth, but not before Nihlus had seen his mandibles spread out with humor that had nothing to do with poisonous gas. Of course Saren was perfectly capable of laughing; only Nihlus hadn’t found the right kind of jokes. There was still so much to learn.