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Into the Forest I Went

Chapter Text

Hugh blinked a couple more times, slowly adjusting to the dim, golden lighting of the room.

He had eyes again. That was new.

He noticed that he also had the rest of his body back, or whatever this existence was that felt like his body. He was lying on the floor, which was cold and uncomfortable. In an attempt to test if this body would obey his orders and move, he was able to sit up. That was a good start. So he tried to assess the rest of his situation. All his limbs were there and seemed to be functional, he was feeling fine and all of his internal organs seemed to be doing their job as well. Instinctively, he raised a hand to his neck. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Everything was moving normally and aligned the way it was supposed to. That was interesting.

Looking down on himself he noticed that he was wearing his Starfleet uniform, and it was in immaculate, white condition. Hugh remembered something. He checked the hem of his left sleeve—there should have been a tiny blood stain he got on it earlier during his shift on the day he died, from one of the ensigns who had cut his hand in an accident while repairing the ship’s hull. No blood. Also interesting.

Carefully, Hugh got up and looked around.

He was alone. Metallic walls surrounded him, bathed in a low, artificial light coming from spots in the walls and the ceiling. The place looked like a corridor, bending at an angle in both directions so Hugh couldn’t see where it led to on either end. Behind him, there was a small window in the wall that showed outer space, stars and asteroids and nebulae in unfamiliar constellations, against the backdrop of a mysterious, wobbly glow encompassing everything, like the refracted light shining through flowing water. The view was partly obscured by angular ornaments on the window that vaguely resembled some old Earth design epoch … Art Deco? Art and architecture had never been Hugh’s area of expertise.

The faint humming of a gigantic engine confirmed his suspicion that he was on some kind of spaceship, but the interior looked unlike any Starfleet or civilian vessel he had ever seen. After another quick assessment of himself, he asserted that he had no gear with him, no phaser, communicator, or tricorder. He remembered the hostile universe they had jumped into shortly before his death, where the ruthless Terran Empire ruled the galaxy and humans were loathed and feared by every other known species. Calling out to see if anyone was there didn’t seem like a smart thing to do. But he didn’t enjoy the idea of just staying here, either. So he took a deep breath and started walking, quietly and carefully, down one of the corridors.

Everything seemed to be deserted. Not a soul was to be seen, not a single sound from any living source to be heard. Doors led away from the corridor to the left and the right, most of them unlabelled, which presumably meant that behind them were more passages or possibly turbolifts … until one of them appeared that had a black plate with silver letters on it: MEDICAL SUPPLY STORAGE 03, and below that: LONG LIVE THE EMPIRE. Hugh shivered. Terran, then, after all. As he turned the next corner a large door in front of him slid open and he suddenly found himself in a wide, open room that made him gasp in surprise.

It resembled the standard medbay layout that most Federation-run ships and starbases and hospitals possessed and that Hugh was familiar with from his many years of service. There were the beds, with their bio monitors and their little tables and various equipment, but the atmosphere felt completely different. Where his sickbay on the Discovery was brightly illuminated with cool, white lighting that was designed to give a clean, safe feel to the place, this was almost as dim as the corridor, the gold from outside was mostly replaced by red, and instead of the blue-ish screens that most of the Federation used, the schematics on the monitors were deep red as well, giving the entire place a menacing aura. Between the beds lining the walls on either side, Hugh noticed two open passages to smaller rooms that connected to the main sickbay. When he glanced inside, he saw on the right-hand side several glass cylinders, tall enough for a human to stand in, also flooded with gloomy red light, while the room on the left resembled a storage space with shelves of … medical equipment? No, something wasn’t right here, these items looked nothing like any equipment Hugh had ever seen. Their designs appeared to be modeled with the intention of causing the subject as much pain and suffering as possible.

So the tubes must be …, Hugh thought. Oh—oh no …

He suddenly started feeling violently sick. Covering his mouth with his hand, he stumbled backwards out of the room; then, as he reached the corridor again, turned around and started sprinting in the opposite direction.

He finally slowed down when he reached the place where he had woken up earlier, stopping for a moment to catch his breath. It hadn’t been a long run, but panic was accelerating his pulse and shrinking the capacity of his lungs.

There was something wrong about this place, something deeply unsettling. Carefully, Hugh glanced over his shoulder, back in the direction he had just come from. There was nothing to see but the corridor, but he strongly sensed something behind him. A trace of it had already loomed back there beyond the sickbay, but the uneasy feeling kept growing closer, even now, although Hugh couldn’t have said which of his senses was telling him that something was there. Pulling his composure back together, he straightened up and started more calmly walking down the other end of the corridor.

 

The path went on forever, or so it seemed. Hugh’s sense of time still hadn’t returned and he hated it. More doors with signs popped up left and right, mostly operations and labs. After his latest experience in sickbay, Hugh had no interest in the horrors they might hold. There still wasn’t a soul anywhere to be seen, or heard, and it was starting to make him nervous. Aimlessly, he passed various junctions where corridors met, unsure what it was he was supposed to be searching for, but still trying to map and remember his path inside his head. Occasionally, he would freeze for a moment at one of these crossroads, strain his senses to the ominous feeling he had already encountered earlier, of something being out there, down a certain path, and then continue his journey in the opposite direction. He still wasn’t sure if company in this place would be a good thing or not.

As he stopped at another one of these junctions, pondering which way to choose, a large door nearby slid open on its own without any prompting from him. Carefully, he stepped closer. BIOENGINEERING-01 MAIN LAB, its plate spelled, LONG LIVE THE EMPIRE. Cautiously peeking in to the left and right, Hugh stepped inside.

It was a large room, though still smaller than the ominous sickbay, and the light was pale blue and golden. A few consoles and tables populated it, and shelves and cabinets lined the walls to the left and the right, while the wall opposite the door held wide windows through which the same mysterious, wobbly background glow of the universe as earlier was shining in, with stars and galaxies scattered in between. On one of the tables in front of him lay an open container, a large glass tube similar to the ones the Discovery used to store their harvested Prototaxites spores. It contained a dust-like, dead, gray substance that was partly scattered on the table between lab equipment as if whoever worked here had been carefully studying it before leaving in a hurry. None of the screens were active, however, and Hugh didn’t see a label on the tube.

“Why are you here? I thought I saw you die.”

Hugh spun around. Walking up to him out of a corner of the room he hadn’t seen up until now was—Paul. Looking fine, looking normal. No milky white pupils, no disoriented twitching and muttering, no sickbay gown—his eyes were normal and blue, appearing dark like the starry night sky back on Earth in this low light, perfectly matching the blue of his Starfleet uniform as always. His eyebrows were drawn together in a frown as he took a few slow steps towards Hugh.

“Paul!”

Hugh couldn’t stop himself. He rushed over and threw his arms around Paul, hugging him tightly as if holding on for dear life. Paul didn’t say anything and didn’t move, and after a few seconds, Hugh noticed how odd his behavior was. Everything he remembered about him and his body language was different. Paul tensed up the moment Hugh hugged him, there seemed to be no warmth or recognition from him. Slowly, Hugh let go and took a step back.

“Paul …?”

With the fraction of a second’s delay, Paul smiled at him, but it was an odd smile, distant and cold, and didn’t reach beyond his mouth.

“Hi Hugh,” he said.

Hugh wasn’t sure what to make of this. “Paul, honey,” he said carefully as he reached out to touch Paul’s arms, “are you okay?”

“Of course, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?” he responded with a little head tilt that seemed familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Deflecting. Okay then.

“You were in a coma,” Hugh said. He would play along for now. “On the Discovery, after our last jump went wrong. But now you’re here and you seem to be fine. Where is ‘here,’ anyway?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Paul responded. Hugh didn’t like the slight, cocky condescension in his grin.

“And what did you mean, ‘you saw me die?’”

The grin on his face froze, just a fraction. Hugh could practically see his brain working. Calculating. Something was off about him that Hugh couldn’t pinpoint. It was like looking at someone else’s reflection in a mirror. He let go of Paul’s arms and took another step back.

Who are you?

“What do you mean?” The smile on his face looked forced, and it was now accompanied by a frown. “It’s me, Hugh.”

This expression at last looked familiar. It was Paul’s lying face, and Paul had always sucked at lying. Hugh saw through it immediately every time, and Paul knew that. But in this context, him lying to Hugh was simply wrong in every way.

“You’re not Paul Stamets,” he said with confidence. “Not the Paul Stamets I know.”

At this, Paul dropped all pretense immediately. “Am I now?” Hugh liked the cold and distant grin that settled on his face now even less. “And I thought my acting was finally getting better. It’s harder than you’d think, to pretend to be some naïve, good-natured fool.”

Instinctively, Hugh took another step back from him. “Who are you really?”

The guy who looked like Paul started slowly pacing through the lab, keeping his eyes fixed on Hugh while he spoke. “I’ve been watching you for a while. Both of you.” His movements, body language, speech patterns—everything felt so much like Paul’s. And yet. Something was off, just a tiny bit. Like what Paul might have been like if his experiences in life had been completely different. His staring made Hugh increasingly uncomfortable. There was an odd fascination in it, like a scientist observing his specimen. A scientist without a shred of empathy. “And let me tell you: You’re boring as fuck.”

“Watching …?” Hugh slowly repeated. Something about that look on Stamets’ face seemed eerily familiar, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.

“Your entire universe is pathetic. That you humans even made it into outer space is a miracle. Still,” he continued, with another one of those curious little head tilts he seemed to do sometimes, “it’s fascinating to observe, from a scientific point of view.”

Hugh tried to make sense of his words and figure out who or what he was and where they were. He also tried to shove the fact that he shouldn’t even be alive aside for now so he could focus on the situation at hand. Your universe? You Humans?

“If you’re not Paul,” Hugh began, “then who are you really?”

“Oh, but I am,” was his response, and an odd, business-like smile replaced the twisted scientifically curious one from before. The man held out his hand to Hugh, and after a moment of hesitation, Hugh took it. “I’m Paul Stamets, nice to meet you.”