Slowly, Hugh regained consciousness.
It was dark. Completely, pitch black dark.
A few moments might, or might not, have passed, until he realized that he felt no awareness of his own body.
He also seemed to have no sense of time.
Where was he?
Hugh might have closed his eyes, if he felt any indication of having eyes, and tried hard to think, to remember.
What was his last memory?
His youngest sister’s wedding.
Stepping into his quarters on the USS Discovery for the first time, in his perfectly white Starfleet uniform, the bag with his personal things over his shoulder, alone.
Paul walking up to him and kissing him and promising him opera.
Think, Hugh …
Paul on the floor in his lab, eyes milky, mumbling incoherently. Confronting Lorca about sending them into this dark parallel universe on purpose. Paul being awoken by his kiss for a tiny moment and warning him that the enemy is here. Tyler coming to him about memory loss, and getting angry at him, and—
Hugh should be dead. Having your neck snapped was a pretty guaranteed way to end up dead. Hugh noticed that he wasn’t feeling any pain, in his neck or elsewhere. He still didn’t feel any neck, either.
Was this death?
The idea of an afterlife was a peculiar concept. Hugh wouldn’t be one to call himself particularly spiritual. He was a man of science, after all, a doctor. But the curious thing about being a doctor, at least in Hugh’s experience, was that while you couldn’t work in the realm of science without being rational and driven by facts and logic, at the same time it was also impossible to do your job without believing in some sort of higher power, a driving force that put some meaning behind all the suffering and the tragedies and the miracles you would see every day.
But when trying to imagine if there was some sort of afterlife, any kind of existence beyond death, Hugh had never been able to find an answer within himself.
Maybe he was about to find out.
The absolute lack of sensory input sparked an increasing feeling of unease in the back of his mind. He tried to concentrate, to grasp at anything within his mental reach. It was hard to make out anything in the endless sea of nothingness, and when he believed he finally did, some unknown force kept constantly pulling him away from it, back into the darkness. Still, eventually he somehow managed to latch on.
The first sensation was … feeling. Warmth. Uneven, but still somehow all around him. Slowly, his other senses caught on.
A scent, distinct and familiar. The unmistakeable scent of a person, and Hugh knew, knew him before the name even formed in his mind.
A voice. He wasn’t able to make out any words yet, but he recognized this voice that he loved so much, that he had been delighted to listen to as often as he could for the last two years, over long distances and in person and in recorded messages he had played over and over again because it was the voice that made him happier than anything else in the world. It was quiet and soft now and meant for nobody else but Hugh.
A taste in his mouth, hard to categorize, a taste like blood and bile and rotting death, screaming at him from somewhere underneath his tongue that something was wrong wrong wrong and his body couldn’t make sense of it. He tried to shove the taste away but it remained, subdued, looming in the back of his mind.
At last, vague shapes started to form around him. Walls and floors and ceilings that might be metal and glass. Cold lights flickering irregularly between darkness.
The sensation, Hugh found, wasn’t so different from a dream, when you are somehow being yourself and observing everything like a bystander at the same time. He didn’t know much about out-of-body experiences but wondered if this was what they felt like. He wished it could all just be a dream. But the thought of this moment slipping away from him frightened him to the core, so he forced himself to focus and cling on to it.
He was in one of the more remote rooms of deck 12 on the Discovery. He had only been there before once, passing through it on his way to a medical emergency during a regular maintenance routine. With his back leaning against the wall was Paul, sitting on the floor and still dressed in his sickbay gown. He was holding Hugh’s body, his arms wrapped tightly around Hugh’s chest, rocking back and forth slightly as if to help him fall asleep. His eyes were staring into the distance; haunted, but still milky white, and he was mumbling incoherently again like he had back in sickbay. Hugh’s heart was breaking all over again at seeing him like this, as it had done for all those hours ever since Paul had fallen into a coma. He wanted desperately to speak, to hug, to kiss, to let Paul know that he was here, whatever that meant now, that he would take care of him and stay by his side forever. But his body didn’t move.
And yet … he could still feel. Paul’s embrace was warm and strong and reassuring, just like it had been so many times before, and Hugh felt safe, and calm, and so infinitely sad.
“The forest is dark, but I can see him through the trees … the trees … the trees …”
It was like a mantra that he kept repeating, over and over again, occasionally throwing in something else—fragments about a palace, about enemies, about networks and beauty. And Hugh did the only thing he could, staying there forever and listening to him, feeling Paul’s slightly erratic heartbeat against his own lifeless ribcage, and wishing that life wouldn’t be so cruel.
Despite a trace of his senses being back, Hugh still had no concept of time. It had felt like ages and yet never long enough that they had been sitting there, when inevitably, Harrington found them and alarmed security. When they arrived and dragged both of their bodies apart, Hugh realized in shock that they believed that Paul had killed him. Again, he made an effort to move, to speak, to make them aware of his presence, but it was to no avail. He wanted to cry tears that he didn’t have, because he was a mind separated from his body, and all he could do was observe helplessly as Paul was being constrained and hauled off, still mumbling to himself and seemingly unaware of anything happening around him. And Hugh’s heart was breaking, again.
Unable to leave and to follow Paul, he was distantly aware of his dead body being carried away. He had no desire to observe that.
Slowly, the warmth of Paul’s embrace was seeping away. Hugh refused to let it. He would cling on to it, for as long as his mind was still there, as if his existence depended on it, because he knew, deep down inside, that it did. So he let himself drift away from the scene and focused only on that.
After an eternity had passed, or the blink of an eye, Hugh eventually tried to strain his senses to find something else in the never-ending darkness that had encapsulated him once again. Was he doomed to stay like this forever, floating in nonexistence, no hell or heaven for his soul to go, only waiting, worrying, wondering?
Slowly and subtly, he became aware of a hint of something, a tendril of existence, reaching out to him, and he followed it, let the current carry him out of the darkness of the void and explore the realm beyond it.
With a sensation like breaking through the water surface from below the waves and out into the open air, Hugh awoke and opened his eyes, to find himself in a place he had never been before.