He pressed himself into a corner and reloaded his pistol. It was a small weapon and not as powerful as he would prefer, but better than nothing. There were only two hostiles, and he knew exactly where one of them was.
Paolo crept along the wall, his breathing slow and quiet. Despite having no access to his hearing enhancement implants, he could still hear the uneven footsteps echoing on the other side. They were heading in the same direction. Good. He could see an outline of a door ahead, all he had to do was be faster than the other person.
He widened his steps, sure that extra noise would not matter now, kicked the door open and jumped into the room. The hostile was exactly where Paolo predicted them to be. They didn’t even have the time to raise their weapon (rookie mistake, keeping it low). Two shots right into the forehead. The scream was cut short as their helmet powered down.
Paolo caught the movement in the corner of his eye and jumped forward into a roll. A burst of shots left scorching marks on the wall. The last hostile cursed and started running away.
Reloading on the go, Paolo launched himself up and followed the noise. He was faster than her. Unlike her, he could also shoot on the run. But she wasn’t stupid either: when he turned the corner, he found all the doors open and no sign of the hostile.
He stopped and held his breath, straining his senses. Part of his brain tried to reach for the implants, it was rooted so deeply inside him. But the implants had been deactivated fifteen years ago. And they wouldn’t even work in this situation. And yet he listened and watched and felt the flow of air against his face.
A rustle of a jacket to his right. Gotcha.
He stepped through the right door. As expected, she was pressed to the wall just next to it. Unlike the other one, she didn’t lower her rifle down and was ready to shoot. Unfortunately for her, she was too slow. Paolo pushed the barrel of the rifle up, startling her, and pressed his gun to the glass of her helmet. He saw her eyes go wide, and his lips stretched into a wide grin. His gun fired.
Her head exploded and pixelated, then the whole body blinked out of existence. A voice inside his helmet announced: “Double Kill!” Then his visor glazed over and filled his vision with a stats table and ‘Defenders Win’.
As he raised his VR headset, Paolo could finally hear Ha-neul cussing next to him, while struggling to get out of her recoil jacket. Miguel was moaning somewhere behind them.
With the jacket off, Ha-neul took off her VR helmet, releasing a wave of black hair. “Paolo, you are such a bastard! You could aim anywhere but choose the most painful points! How am I supposed to work tomorrow with this headache?!”
“I second that.” Miguel muttered, finally getting up. They put their VR helmet into a slot on the wall, then did the same with the jacket and pants.
Paolo holstered the controller, still grinning. “I only found a pistol. If I aimed anywhere else, it would give you time to shoot me.”
Ha-neul rolled her eyes. “Oh, how horrible it would be to let someone else win even once!”
“You won the second round last week.”
“Yeah, because you only found a knife. And then next round, you got your hands on the pulse rifle, and it was a massacre.”
Miguel let out an unhappy moan. “Shit, I was trying to suppress that memory. I had nightmares for two days afterwards.”
Paolo laughed at this, so Ha-neul elbowed him with a huff. As they left the VR room, a sleepy steward slid past them to clean. He was cute, but clearly too scared of the three of them to be any fun to interact with.
Once out of his ear shot, Ha-neul grumbled: “Don’t even think about that. The boy deserves a life.”
Paolo rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t thinking about anything. I hate the grovelling type.”
She snorted. “And yet you keep trying to dominate each sex partner and we have to listen to the gossip about how horrible you are.”
Being the Chief Pilot meant the rest of the pilots never gossiped in his earshot. Whatever they discussed the rest of the time, Paolo couldn’t give a single fuck about. Well, until he did give quite a big fuck. Then intoxicants helped. Or shooting people in VR. Or cheating at cards and not being caught.
Miguel must have noticed his frown and offered: “Cocktails before bed then?”
“Ugh, please.” Ha-neul groaned and rubbed her temples.
“Nah, I should actually be heading to my cabin now.” Paolo said as neutrally as he could. This didn’t work because both of them stared at him immediately.
Ha-neul raised her eyebrow. “Excuse me, the horniest man on Hopestar got himself plans to get laid and hasn’t informed us? Who are you?!”
He didn’t try to fight the wave of annoyance. Ha-neul and Miguel were used to that. They often spilled their own explosive emotions at him (well, Ha-neul did. Miguel tended to weave their words with acid while staying outwardly calm). “Seriously, fuck off. I promised to keep it a secret.”
“We’ll find out tomorrow anyways. The stewards see everything.” Miguel smirked.
“It won’t be my fault then, will it?”
And so they parted ways: Ha-neul and Miguel stayed on the Fourth deck, while Paolo took the lift pod to the Second. The two engineers were the closest thing to friends he had on Hopestar. The thing that drew them together was rank. Ha-neul had a fancy title of the Chief Normal Space Engines Engineer and Miguel was the Chief Cargo Engineer. They didn’t work in the same room but regularly interacted during take offs and landings. Another thing in common - they didn’t have that much to do once in subspace. Which meant they didn’t stay overtime after their shifts and were as bored as Paolo.
Tonight was their weekly hangout. Probably, the last one in the VR playground for some time. Hopefully, they’ll agree on a card game next week. Though, he doubted Ha-neul had forgiven him about that time last month when he left her with single digits on her account. She suspected he was cheating but she couldn’t prove it. If somebody catches him cheating one day, he would surely fall in love.
Yeah, what a silly thought.
Paolo stepped into his cabin and pulled his shirt off. He pondered taking a shower but decided to wait; he wasn’t sure if she would like him clean or not. He was used to people having different preferences and respected kinks. He expected the same respect in turn. But every new person brought a bit of anxiety at first, until they could learn from each other. This was worse when it was someone he had known for a long time. And someone he would have to deal with after.
The perks of being a chief was having a bigger cabin and no cabinmate to deal with. You could invite somebody (or somebodies) over, and Paolo used this regularly. Of course, those with no such luxury still had ways to find privacy but that required planning ahead. He hated planning ahead.
He stepped to the media screen and switched it to a mirror mode. Ugh, naturally, the VR helmet messed up his hair. He grabbed a hairbrush and started fixing it. That’s when a request to enter flashed up in the corner of the interface. He checked the ID, made two hurried brushes and put a fresh t-shirt on. Then he opened the door.
Petra Seidel was on the other side.
Her hair was down, a brown steward jacket was thrown over her bare shoulders, her black dress shimmering in the corridor lights. She held a capsule from one of the Hopestar bar storages - a perk of being the Chief Steward. Anyone who saw her in the corridor would not think she came here for business.
Oh, and she looked 40 years younger than just a few months ago. Paolo still struggled to see her as that same person who was sitting opposite of him during operational meetings. The eye colour was the same, so was the smirk. But the renovation rid her of wrinkles and smoothed her chin and cleared the skin on her arms from spots. She looked younger than him. And it was deeply weird.
“Sorry, I’m a bit late.” Petra murmured and tilted her head a little. She was slightly taller than him but tried to look smaller. “May I come in?” This one was a probing question. He could say no and they would forget about this. Or reschedule.
But Paolo didn’t want to say no. The anxiety and the contrast between his memory and the present were things that he found exhilarating. And arousing. “Well, of course. I wouldn’t want us to start in the corridor.”
Petra chuckled and stepped inside, more at ease than a second ago. She didn’t pay much attention to the room itself: her cabin had the same configuration but probably different decor. She sat on the edge of his bed and let her jacket roll off her shoulders.
When she raised the capsule in her hand, Paolo pursed his lips. “You really don’t want me drunk for this.” He knew his limits and the tolerance for intoxicants. He got knocked out several times a week and it didn’t interfere with his work. Well, unless some assholes pissed him off when he was already high.
But Petra only snorted at this. “This one’s not for you, silly.” She flicked the cap off and raised it to make a tug. A shiver ran up Paolo’s neck. Her lips curled around the smooth surface… Yeah, any doubts he had earlier were completely gone. She saw this (she was very good at reading people) and licked her lips, then leaned back, invitingly.
Well, he was more than eager to take that invitation.
“You could stay for the rest period if you wanted.” Paolo offered later when Petra sat up to start dressing up. He didn’t really want her to stay (or anyone to stay), and she knew that but didn’t call him out.
“I know but I should return to my cabin and reapply the med patch.” His eyes trailed to the small of her back where a small square of an implant was prominent against her light skin. “Seriously, I feel like a teenager going through puberty again.”
He blinked slowly and frowned. “Because of renovation?”
She looked over with a small smile. “It is about DNA, right? Good for looking young and ridding you of knee pain. But it really messed up all the HRT progress of the past decades. That’s why I had to take a longer break than others would.”
“Ah.” Paolo didn’t think about it. He wasn’t trans and he was only 38, far away from even thinking about a renovation. He wasn’t even sure it was possible with all the implants wired through his brain. He chose not to think about that. “You look great despite that.”
This caused Petra to chuckle. She leaned over to plant a small kiss on his forehead, got up and picked up her dress. “That’s sweet, thank you. And for this evening. Perhaps, I’ll be able to use my brain for actual work now.”
“You don’t have anyone else to go to.” It wasn’t a question.
Petra sighed and stared at the blank interface on the wall for a couple of seconds before looking down at him. “Isn’t it the same for you? I am a chief. Everyone on the ship is technically my subordinate. They may not feel like they can say ‘no’ to my requests.”
Paolo sat up, feeling the frown setting deep on his face. He already hated this conversation. “Why not? Everyone thinks you are nice.”
She smirked. “Exactly. So they are only trying to be nice back.” Then she shook her head. “Perhaps, it’s not the same for you then.”
“Because I’m an asshole.”
“Because you are honest and blunt. That’s why I asked you for this.” Petra reached over to caress his cheek but pulled away almost immediately, seeing the drop of his mood. Her eyes turned sad. “I will be going now. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.”
He didn’t say anything until she left. He took a shower but it didn’t help. He had 9 hours before his shift started. He needed to sleep, but the idea itself was sickening. He had an urge to grab something and squeeze it hard, tear it to pieces, destroy, beat into a pulp. He wanted to yell. He wanted to activate his implants and let them fry his brain.
Why did he start that conversation? He didn’t care about how she felt. He didn’t care about how he felt. Less he thought about all the shit in his life, the better it was. When he was busy with work, when he played games, when he had sex - his thoughts were gone and it felt great. He wasn’t doing any of these things now.
9 hours. 9 hours was enough. He opened one of the storage boxes and pulled out a pack of tabs. One would last for two hours so he took two. He put them under his tongue and returned to the bed waiting for the effect to kick in.