The airlock cycle had never taken this long before. Both of them stank so horribly that even the violent torrent of repressurization wasn’t able to blow it off and away from Saren’s nostrils. Disgusting damp swamp.
He hated dampness with a passion. He hated wet clothes, wet skin, wet planets. He hated sweating, sinking knee-deep in opaque green puddles of suspicious appearance, he hated being sprayed with mud while pushing the back of the lander (it was a damn lander how the hell did a lander manage to get stuck it was the driver wasn’t it it’s his fault it’s all his damn fault).
But most of all, he hated when people didn’t listen to him. When people were trying to sound smart instead of trying to be smart. When people failed to recognize the signs even when he intentionally broadcasted them on all the damn frequencies. When people who knew him pretended they didn’t. When people thought that because he wasn’t in a talkative mood it meant that he was immune to the muck they had both been wading through for hours. Gah!
The door finally hissed open and he watched in silent horror as Nihlus stomped inside making two dozen sticky, black footsteps on the pristinely polished floor in a matter of seconds. He then kicked his boots off and Saren was perfectly, mercilessly able to trace the fat droplets of liquid shit as they landed with surgical precision on top of the kitchen counter. As if that wasn’t enough, Nihlus then stepped into the mess he’d made and smeared it with the socks of his thermal. He slipped and cursed.
Presumptuous little bastard. Acting like it was his damn ship, his damn house, with never a single word or any sign of awareness, let alone appreciation for the fact that Saren had been cleaning after him.
He took a deep breath. He’d already lost patience once today. Let go. Don’t think about it. Later.
Clenching his jaw, he tore his gaze from Nihlus. Had he been alone, he’d have taken off the entire armor in the airlock and come back to clean it later. But with the floor befouled already, he’d get even dirtier that way. A low growl escaped him as he stepped in.
Nihlus turned, following his stare. “Whoops.”
“Take your armor off in here,” Saren said, his voice strictly schooled.
“But I have to use the toilet.”
“Take it off quickly, then.”
For a second, Nihlus looked like he’d try to argue, but then seemed to realize obeying would be quicker, and started unfastening his armor. “Everything?”
“The thermal as well.”
Saren started undoing his armor too. The headache pounded in his ears when he leaned. It was the new amplifiers. Acting up again. He wanted to take them out, but not in front of Nihlus. If there was anything more annoying than his disrespect, ingratitude, filthy habits, and lazy ignorance, it was his pity. One word in that anxious, flimsy tone that Saren associated with sweaty palms and trembling arms, would be enough to push him over the edge now and make him do something he’d hate himself for later.
He was aware of the absurdity of the situation. Initially, it had been necessary to make Nihlus fear him, because it was the only way to establish authority. But now, he hated when Nihlus feared him. Now, he wanted something else. Understanding. Yes. Was that so much to ask for?
Distracted, he undid the final fastener of the chest-piece before securing it. It fell with an awful clang that spiked into his brain like a glowing needle, and worse still, it landed on Nihlus’s unprotected toe.
“Shit! Shit-shit-shit!” Nihlus wheezed, hopping in place on his other leg and squeezing the injured foot with his hands. Saren started to warn him of the slippery floor, but he wasn’t fast enough and all he could do was watch helplessly as Nihlus lost footing and dropped hard on his naked bottom. “Aww, fuck!”
Saren sighed and started piling the discarded pieces of armor in the corner by the door of the airlock, careful not to step in the stains on the floor. Every time he’d lean, the pain in his skull would bloat a bit, growing like some loathsome bubble. The need to take out the offending amplifiers became acute. Why the hell was Nihlus still rolling on the dirty floor? Neither the injury nor the fall could have been that bad.
“I like it here. Hey. Can I take a blanket and sleep here? It beats that awful little cot.”
Saren tightened his mandibles till they hurt. Ungrateful little… “Then I’ll go shower first,” he said aloud.
“No, no, no. See? I’m up. I’ll be done in a sec.”
“Take your time.”
Take more time. A few hours of solitude might do the trick. Was that too much to ask for? Of course, Saren could always shut himself in the cabin and pretend to work – that was about the only way to keep Nihlus from speaking to him for any significant length of time. But it was his ship, damn it, and if he wanted to be alone, he shouldn’t be required to hide.
The chafing of mandibles didn’t help the headache, and as soon as he heard Nihlus go down the stairs, he popped the amplifiers from the slots behind his jaw. He knew not to expect the headache to disappear all at once, but he was still disappointed when there was no immediate relief. Sliding the amplifiers into a pocket of his thermal, he entered the little kitchen and sat on the stool. The black droplets on the counter looked at him with spite and spoke to him in Nihlus’s defiant voice: why’d you make a kitchen on the ship anyway? What a waste of space. I’d put a couch in there instead. And a big projector.
“Hey,” Nihlus said. Saren hadn’t heard him coming up. “Are there any leftovers from that thing you cooked yesterday?” He opened the cryo-storage unit and started sniffing and roaming. Saren closed his eyes. Let go. Don’t think… He caught the smell of the swamp and his eyes shot open.
“Please tell me you at least washed your hands.”
Nihlus closed the storage and looked at him. “You angry with me?”
“You are. You’re still angry with me.”
“I am not angry.”
“How can you be angry with me? You threw the lamp in the water, not me. You said, drive through the pond, not me. It was…”
Nihlus nodded. Good.
But then he spoke up again. Not good. “Do you want me to clean this up?”
The notion was so preposterous that Saren laughed. He could just picture Nihlus fumbling with a cleaning cloth, smearing the alien grime over the entire ship until it was thin enough to pass as his idea of clean. Once, Saren had allowed him to wash up after a meal and observed in disgust and fascination: Nihlus seemed to think that it was perfectly fine to wash the dishes from the inside only, and didn’t even let the water run over the outer walls of glasses, matted with greasy fingertips. Saren had had to redo it after he’d made sure Nihlus was asleep; normally he didn’t mind eating from hand-washed dishes, but on that occasion, he’d sterilized them just in case.
Sometimes, he wondered if perhaps Nihlus was doing it on purpose. If he was being sloppy and stupid on purpose, so as to make it preferable for Saren to do all such things on his own. The rage bubbled up In him, shooting another bolt of pain into the back of his head. He wanted to say: go away, go away now, read my damn mind go away before I say something I’ll regret. But all he said was, “No.”
“C’mon. Don’t be like that. Go and take a shower, and I’ll clean up. I’ll clean the armor too. I can even make us something to eat if you’d like—”
Again, Nihlus nodded, and this time, it looked like the message got through to him. He turned to leave and Saren felt some of the weight ease off his chest. But Nihlus changed his mind and stopped in the middle of the room. “Do you want me to bring you something for the headache?”
And there it was, the voice of pity. It set the volatile mixture of anger and resentment on fire. Saren showed his teeth. I don’t want you to clean and I don’t want you to cook and I sure as hell don’t want you to nurse me. “No.”
“What do you want then? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”
A moment ago, Saren had wanted simply to be left alone. Now, he wanted to annihilate the transgressing presence. He could no longer hold back. He stood up with a growl and stepped forward, towering above Nihlus, who took a step back and put a hand on Saren’s chest. Hah! As if that could stop him!
“What do I want? This is what I want. I want you out of my damn sight. Is that simple enough for you? Do you understand? I want you to get the hell out of my sight!”
He’d pushed Nihlus as far back as the little room allowed and now he held him pinned against the wall, Nihlus’s taut arm the only thing between them. Saren felt great. The weight was gone, it had exploded and was no more, and the headache went away with it. He was excited, exhilarated! Surprised to discover he was also extremely aroused.
He growled at Nihlus once more for good measure, then disengaged. A cold shower. Yes. That was what he wanted. That was where he could be alone.
He took his time. Shower was a good kind of wet. There were, admittedly, a few other good kinds of wet.
He cranked the water all the way to completely cold.
Finally clean, finally calm, he dried himself as he went upstairs. He wasn’t entirely sure what he’d say to Nihlus. Some sort of apology was probably in order, though he had no idea how he’d frame it. These things had the unpleasant custom of sounding good in his mind and coming out disfigured. Or maybe he shouldn’t say anything and just… just…
The first thing he noticed was that the floor in the commons was clean. Not Nihlus-clean. Clean. He looked at the counter, searched for traces of the droplets. There were none. Not even an imprint from the texture of the cleaning cloth. Next his gaze went to the corner by the airlock. And indeed, the pile of armor was gone. He opened the inner door and saw a suit hanging in perfect order, cleaned and shined. One suit. His.
Only then did he realize that the Virial was strangely quiet. After a moment of listening, Saren swallowed a knot. Would Nihlus leave without saying a word?
He went through the ship and found nothing. No Nihlus, no message. He sat down on the stool in the kitchen again and scratched his head. Apparently, Nihlus could still surprise him. He hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. But then again, he’d never displayed such extreme behavior.
After a moment’s deliberation, he retraced the steps across the room to the far wall and leaned against it on one arm with his eyes shut. The scents of the swamp and Nihlus’s unwashed body were still discernible. Saren pressed against the wall. Pressed his forehead against it. Pressed his hips against it. Perhaps it was for the best, to take a break. Do a few missions alone and then pick Nihlus up again when this silliness passes. Perhaps it would be even better to file that evaluation report he’d written some time ago. Kill the silliness before it takes root.
But of course, it had already taken root.
He went back to the kitchen to fix himself something to eat. It was rather pleasant, being alone. Perhaps he would eventually start missing Nihlus, but for now it was perfectly fine, the loneliness.
Solitude, he corrected himself.
In the cryo-storage, there was a bowl of his favorite Hjalti salad, with a sticky note on the cover.
Enjoy the salad.
Hope you choke on it.
Saren smiled. He read the message again, then pocketed it. The salad smelled fantastic. For a moment, he considered the idea that Nihlus might have poisoned it, and pictured himself choking to death in loneliness. Solitude, damn it. It certainly wasn’t impossible. Obviously he didn’t know Nihlus as well as he had thought.
He started eating. It was the best Hjalti salad he’d ever had.