The moment they shook hands something shifted all around them, and suddenly the familiar stranger in front of Hugh was no longer wearing his blue Starfleet uniform but a different, black one.
Hugh recognized the design. He had seen uniforms like that in the briefing after their mysterious jump across realities into a parallel universe: Terran. It had silver threads, so apparently this “Paul Stamets” was science division as well. As he glanced down on himself, Hugh noticed he was still wearing his usual white Starfleet uniform. He had been relieved that the medical staff didn’t have to go undercover as Terrans as well. The stolen data they had obtained from the enemies of the Terran Empire had not included any details on the medical uniforms, obviously, since none of the rebels had probably run into any of them. And lived to tell the tale …, Hugh thought grimly. He wasn’t unhappy about it; he didn’t enjoy the murder gladiator aesthetic.
“You’re Paul Stamets?” Hugh let go of his hand.
“Obviously,” the Terran Paul responded.
“So how did you get here, then?” Hugh asked. “Are you dead, too? Because I’m pretty sure I died before I woke up here. Or am I still alive? Is this some kind of afterlife?”
The other Paul chuckled. “No, this isn’t the afterlife—or, well, maybe it is for you. And no, I’m not dead. My physical presence is in a catatonic state on my ship, in my universe.”
“So the universe that we jumped over into … the one that the Discovery is in right now I mean … that is your universe?”
“Yup. Took you long enough to get here. But that made it a lot easier to make contact with my counterpart from your world, until it all went wrong.”
“Does everyone from our universe have a counterpart in yours?”
“There are a few parallels, from what I’ve seen.”
Hugh looked at him, trying to figure out what kind of environment could turn the Paul he knew into the person in front of him. What kind of people made him like that.
“Do I exist here, too? Do we … do we know each other here?” Hugh asked carefully.
He shrugged. “You do. But we're not like that. We fucked once, that's all. It didn't mean anything. Feelings are useless, they make you weak.”
The frontal lobe is overrated. It only contains memory and emotional expression. It’s completely unnecessary. Hugh remembered those words from his Paul a long time ago in sickbay, and how much they had stung. It was nothing compared to the pain he was experiencing now, witnessing Paul so genuinely not care about him.
“Well then, Terran Paul Stamets,” Hugh said, keeping his tone more distant now, “can you please tell me where we are?”
“Aw, no longer calling me ‘Paul’?”
“You’re not him,” Hugh said coldly. “It doesn’t feel right to say it. I don’t know you.”
“Well, what will you call me, then?”
“I don’t know … other Paul. Terran-Paul? Mirror-Paul?”
The other Paul Stamets stared at him, insult and indignation clear on his face. It was the first time his expression genuinely looked identical to “his” Paul, and Hugh felt a pang of guilt at his own words.
“That’s not fair. I’m still Paul Stamets, you know,” he said, and there actually was a hint of poorly disguised hurt in his voice. “Just because you know a different version of me doesn’t invalidate who I am.”
Hugh looked down to his feet.
When he looked back up, he saw a cold smile spread across the other Paul’s lips. He seemed to be enjoying the effect his words had on Hugh, and Hugh wasn’t comfortable with that at all.
The surname felt odd in his mouth, wrong. But still, not as wrong as calling him “Paul” would have felt. This wasn’t Paul Stamets; not the Paul Stamets he knew to be real, anyway, the only Paul Stamets that mattered. Hugh didn’t want to call him “Paul”. His tongue refused to. They weren’t lovers. They weren’t on friendly terms. They most certainly weren’t on a first-name basis.
The other Stamets’s smile grew even icier.
“If you say so, Doctor Culber.”
“Well?” Hugh repeated impatiently. “What is this place? If I’m dead, and you’re in a coma on your own ship out there somewhere, how come we are both walking around in a Terran lab?”
“This lab isn’t real,” Stamets explained. He started pacing again as he talked, absent-mindedly scratching his left arm while doing so. “We—or at least our minds—are trapped inside the mycelial network.”
“The network?” Hugh’s eyes went wide. “How?”
“Long story,” was all the answer he got.
“So this is the place that Pau—that my Paul saw when we jumped?”
“No, it’s not, it’s somewhere else.” Stamets struggled for a moment, trying to find the right words. “The network is incredibly deep and complex. We’re on another layer—though it would have made everything a lot easier for me, trust me. Our minds came into contact with the network and then we got lost, and we somehow ended up in here.” Hugh noticed the way he gestured with his hands while speaking, just like the Paul he knew did when excitedly talking about his science. “I got here four months ago. The place looks like my lab because the network adjusted to me.”
“You’ve been stuck in here for four months?” Hugh asked, sympathetic despite himself.
Judging by the look on his face, Stamets didn’t appreciate it. He started scratching his arm again while he said, “Yes, and I can’t find the way out on my own. That’s why I’ve been trying to reach out to the other me.”
Hope suddenly sparked up inside of Hugh. “He fell into a coma while we jumped! Shouldn’t he be here then, too?”
“No, he’s …” Stamets hesitated. “He’s not here. Something went wrong with his last jump, his mind is kinda jumbled right now. He’s somewhere else at the moment, where I can’t reach him. On a different layer, somewhere in … mycelial limbo.” His face looked pained, and Hugh wondered whether it was out of compassion for his other self’s fate or only for himself.
“But then why—”
“Shush!” Stamets suddenly interrupted him. He had grabbed his left arm, as if in pain, and was now frantically looking around. The lights had started flickering. “Did you hear that?”
“Fuck, it’s here!”
Hugh felt a panic creeping up his spine but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It was the same sensation he’d felt earlier in the corridor, only getting stronger with each passing second.
“We have to get out of here or we’ll be trapped!”
Stamets rushed out the door and Hugh followed him, confused. With a glance back over his shoulder he saw filaments growing through the walls of the room and spreading across the lab, angry burning red, making haunting noises like a tree growing in time lapse.
After running down nondescript corridors for several minutes, or hours, they finally came to a halt. Stamets leaned against the wall to catch his breath, his eyes closed.
“Fuck.” He took deep breaths and slowly opened his eyes to stare into the distance, thinking. “That’s it. I’m finished. It took over the lab. And I can’t reach the other Stamets. I’m never getting out of here now. Fuck. Shit.”
“What was that?” Hugh slowly asked.
“Something is spreading across the network. Something has infected it, corrupted it. It messes with the space, attacks you. It’s dangerous. It—” he started scratching his arm again. “I got caught in it once and was lost for days. Everything was upside down, inside out, like an Eldritch location. I thought I’d never find my way out of it. I don’t know if it can also kill you.” His eyes flickered down to his left forearm for a second. “Haven’t been able to test that yet. But I’ve tried to steer clear of it since then.”
Hugh watched him, thinking. Everything Paul had told him about the network had sounded magical and beautiful. Even before his first trip along the mycelial pathways he had always spoken with awe and wonder of the incredible features of this intergalactic network, and after seeing it for himself his eyes filled with adoration at the miracles of nature as he described them to Hugh. Could this really be the same place?
Instead of expressing his confusion he asked, “Something wrong with your arm?”
Stamets quickly dropped his hands and avoided Hugh’s eyes.
Hugh raised an eyebrow.
“You know I can always tell when you’re lying, right?”
“It’s none of your business, Culber.”
“Let me help you. I’m a doctor.”
“I hate doctors.”
“Funny. Pau—my Paul used to say something along those lines, too, shortly after we met.”
Now Stamets’ eyebrows went up.
“Well, where I’m from, doctors do things a little differently from your cute little Starfleet medicine, Doctor Culber.”
Hugh felt his stomach lurch. He remembered the sickbay he saw, and the little torture chambers attached to it.
“Yeah, I figured,” he said through the lump in his throat. “But you know I don’t work like that. Let me take a look.”
Reluctantly, Stamets unzipped his left sleeve and held out his arm to him. Hugh noticed the tiny birthmark in the bend of his elbow that was identical to his Paul’s, before he forced himself to focus his attention on the inside of his forearm.
It wasn’t pretty. Spread almost across the full length of the forearm was a large patch of inflamed, reddish skin crossed by a branched network of … veins? No, the pattern didn’t correspond to human blood vessels at all. They were a deep, dark blue-ish black and seemed to emit a faint glow in the shadows. The skin showing between the tiny strands had dark patches as if decaying. Hugh couldn’t remember ever seeing anything like it, but the closest approximation were infestations by some obscure xeno-parasites he’d heard of once over a decade ago and whose name he was unable to remember.
“How did this happen?” he asked.
Stamets still seemed reluctant to accept his help.
“It’s—it’s the contamination. It got me that one time, and it—I don’t know, it infected me.” With a more uneasy undertone, he added, “It feels like it’s spreading under—underneath the surface …”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Hugh said, “but I can’t help you out here in the hallway. Is there some kind of infirmary the network can provide us with, or—”
Stamets motioned down the hallway to their right. “Sickbay is this way, if it hasn’t been eaten up by the contamination yet.”
Hugh was reluctant to follow him.
“No thanks, I’ve seen what your sickbays look like, I’m not setting foot in one of those chambers of horror again.”
Stamets pointedly raised an eyebrow at him.
“You said that the place took this form when you got here. Can’t it do that again? Change?”
“It—it doesn’t do that anymore,” he mumbled as he continued on his way down the corridor, avoiding to look at Hugh who caught up to him. “It’s become much more hostile since I got here, and it no longer changes.”
As Hugh opened his mouth to speak, another shift around them happened, and the corridor suddenly looked different. He immediately felt a lot more at home: cool, white lighting that imitated the positive effects of natural sunlight back on earth; slick, modern, metallic interior—and a door only a few feet in front of them that slid open to reveal a sickbay which looked exactly like the one on the USS Discovery.
“Well,” Hugh said with a little shrug, “that settles this.” He glanced over at Stamets, who was squinting—glaring, practically—at his new surroundings, looking genuinely angry for some reason, and with a small nod toward the door invited him to follow Hugh inside.
He walked up to one of the bio beds and inspected the station. Everything looked familiar, like home. He allowed himself a few deep breaths, then turned around to see Stamets slowly walking up to him, still squinting and shielding his eyes with his hand.
“This is awful, can’t you dim the lights in here a bit?”
“Computer, lights to fifty percent?” Hugh tried. There was no response, but the lighting adjusted within a second. “Better?” he asked. Stamets glared at him without responding and sat down.
As he started further inspecting the patch on his patient’s skin, Hugh wondered why the network had changed all of a sudden when previously it hadn’t done that in months. And why was Stamets so mad about that? Was it that the network had listened to Hugh, but not to him? He decided not to press the matter for now.
Interestingly, Hugh noticed, this Stamets looked most like his Paul when he was frowning. None of his joy felt innocent or genuine, and his anger was menacing.
In a weak attempt at small talk, Hugh pointed at the pin on his chest.
“It’s a badge I’ve been awarded,” Stamets replied, puffing up his chest with pride, “as a Master of Poisons.”
Oh. Hugh’s face fell. Involuntarily he heard himself ask, “Who did you kill?”
“Competition,” was the simple answer he received. The nonchalance of it sent a cold shiver down his spine. He regretted bringing up the matter.
“Right. Um. Sorry I asked.”
And they fell back into awkward silence.
After a while, Stamets cleared his throat. “Finally having company again is actually better than expected,” he remarked.
“I can imagine,” Hugh mumbled cautiously. “I would go crazy after four months without seeing another human being.”
“I don’t—actually mind being alone. I hate people and socializing. But,” he didn’t meet Hugh’s eyes while talking, “when you’re all alone with yourself for this long, the voices whispering in your head become so loud that at some point you can no longer tell if they’re on the inside or outside, and it slowly drives you insane.”
Hugh paused in his movements and looked at him with concern. He was staring into the distance, lost in thoughts. After a moment he seemed to catch himself, and with a small shrug he shook off the vulnerability that had been showing through his façade and put his mask back on.
“Plus,” he said with his cocky grin back in place, “there are other things you miss after a while.”
Hugh raised one eyebrow at him.
“You’re pretty cute, you know,” Stamets remarked. “Cuter than the other version of you.”
“No,” Hugh pointedly replied.
“Sex with doctors is actually kinda fun, you know, because they know a lot about the human body. But they’re also into some fucked up shit in my experience …”
Hugh interrupted him coldly. “I really don’t want to be having this conversation with you right now.” He remembered the glimpse he had seen of what this universe’s medbay looked like and his stomach twisted again as he tried not to imagine what Stamets meant by “fucked up”.
And with this, the awkward silence returned.
After a few more minutes, Stamets spoke again.
“Um, you know, all that aside, though, this is probably the nicest consultation I’ve ever had.”
There was a hint of a blush on his cheeks. Hugh frowned at him.
“That doesn’t speak for your universe.”
“It’s my home.”
They fell silent again, but it was slightly less uncomfortable now.
“Can I ask you something?” Hugh said after some time.
Stamets nodded silently, eyeing him closely with that calculating look that made him feel so uneasy.
“Why … why do you think we’re here? Why is there no-one else? I didn’t think normal humans could … interact with the mycelial network like that.”
“I have a theory,” Stamets responded slowly, “that you do need a certain, strong connection to the network in order to end up here. Normal exposure to the spores like the crew on your ship got won’t do anything. Your Stamets is able to interact with the network thanks to the little cocktail he injected himself with. Which was a pretty fucking stupid move, by the way. He’s lucky it didn’t kill him.”
“You didn’t do that, then?”
“No. I also didn’t build a spore drive, so there was no need for that. I research other uses for the network.”
“Like what?” Hugh asked.
“Like none of your business.”
Hugh glared at him, but said nothing.
“I tried to establish a connection with the network, but my experiment went wrong. My body ended up in a coma-like state in my lab and my mind ended up here.”
“You’ve also been experimenting with the Prototaxites stellaviatori on yourself,” Hugh said.
Stamets didn’t respond. Fine then.
“But then explain how I ended up here. I don’t have a connection to the mycelium. You said yourself that mere exposure to the spores on the Discovery wasn’t enough. I simply died. How did that get me in here?”
Stamets snorted derisively. “Really? You’ve got traces of your freak boyfriend’s hybrid DNA all over you. That must have been enough for the mycelial strands to latch on to your mind and lead it here.”
Hugh felt his cheeks heating up. He also noticed a funny warm feeling spreading comfortably inside his chest at the thought that Paul might be the reason why he wasn’t gone yet … not completely.
“Does …” He swallowed, anxious about the question he was about to ask. “Does that mean there might be a way for me to come back?”
“I really don’t care.”
Wow. Ouch. Hugh knew, rationally, that this person was a stranger, of course. And yet nothing could have prepared him for how much hearing Paul Stamets say these words to him could break his heart.
He fixed his eyes back on Stamets’ arm as he kept working.
“I don’t know how being dead works or why you’re still here. I just know that as long as I’m still alive and there’s any chance for me to get out of this place, I’m gonna take it.” With a bitter and joyless laugh, he added, “Although I have no fucking clue how to do that now that Stamets is out of reach.”
“How do you think he’s going to help? And what makes you believe that he would do it?”
Hugh couldn’t read the expression on Stamets face as he eyed him up, but he didn’t like it.
“I’ll deal with how to motivate him when I get there. But he’s navigated the network before and has the means to interact with it in ways that I don’t. He’s the best chance I’ve got. My only chance, probably.”
Hugh finally sighed and put his tricorder away.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you. The readings are all over the place, it doesn’t seem to be Prototaxites stellaviatori that’s taking over your body, but I also can’t identify what other organism it might be,” he explained. “I’ve tried everything I can think of, but nothing seems to be working. I don’t know if anything in this place follows the laws of nature, but no science known to us can get that infestation out of your body for good—at least not if you still want to be alive by the end of it.”
Stamets withdrew his arm and pulled his sleeve back down.
“Great. Fucking fantastic.”
Hugh furrowed his brows. But he had no desire to lecture a grown man to say, “thanks for trying anyway”.
“What do we do now?” he asked instead.
“I don’t know. Wait? There’s not much we can do in here now.” He looked around. “There are beds here. We could sleep.”
“I’m not tired,” Hugh responded. He had no idea how long he had been in here for, or how long it had been since he died. It could have been hours, or weeks.
Stamets shrugged. “Me neither. But it can’t hurt, right?”
“Okay, fine.” Hugh stood up and held out his hand. “Give me your knife, please.”
Stamets’ hand shot to the blade on his belt protectively.
“Because I don’t trust you with a weapon while we’re sleeping in the same room.”
“You seriously think I couldn’t kill you with my bare hands?”
Hugh snorted. “No offense to your body type, but even if I’m dead now I could still take you out without much effort.”
Stamets glared at him.
“You’re Federation. You’re too soft.”
“I’m a trained soldier,” Hugh retorted. “Are you?”
The glare intensified, but he got no response. Instead, Stamets stalked off to the bed on the other side of the room and let himself slump down on it gracelessly. Hugh sat down on the bed next to his station, before eventually lying down on his back with his hands as a makeshift pillow and staring up at the ceiling. He had no intention to actually go to sleep.
“So … what’s next?” he asked after a while.
“No idea. If I still had access to my lab I could try to figure out some other way to get out of here. But I’m afraid we’re going to rot in this place.”
Hugh thought back to the large room where they had met.
“Those containers full of gray dust in your lab … what were they?”
“Spores. They’re dead. The contamination destroyed my entire stock, at least in here. But it’s only a matter of time until it spreads out into reality, and into every universe, if it hasn’t already.”
“The Discovery has a forest on board,” Hugh commented. “Don’t you have that?”
There was a beat of silence.
“No. I have a few specimens in my lab at home, but they wouldn’t let me keep a whole room full. It’s all just spore containers. Operating the power core is a—” He seemed to catch himself and cleared his throat. “I mean, I’ve got a large supply, but maintaining a whole, living forest takes up too many resources for a spaceship of this size.” There was another moment of silence before he spoke again, and when he did, his voice was little more than a whisper. “I remember the forest where we harvested them, though. It was … beautiful, up until then.”
“Did you destroy it?”
Stamets didn’t answer.
“Maybe if I still had some of the spores I could access the pathways of the network, try to find my trapped counterpart down there, get him to lead me out of here.”
“You’ve been trying to contact him before, haven’t you? And you said you were watching us?”
“At first I was completely alone and isolated in here. Then he took the DNA compound and started interacting with the network. That’s how I learned of his existence, and of your universe, in the first place. I could see tiny glimpses of it, connected to him, like through a mirror and things like that.”
And then Hugh suddenly remembered something. It had felt like a faint déjà vu. He had seen that strange expression before, that look on Paul’s face that made him so uncomfortable when this other Stamets looked at him, but he had brushed it aside because he thought he had imagined it. One evening, some time after Paul had injected himself with the tardigrade DNA, while they stood side by side brushing their teeth … Hugh had been talking, something inconsequential, work stuff, and while he was talking, his gaze had wandered over to Paul’s reflection in their bathroom mirror. There it was. Something was wrong with Paul’s mirror image, with that look on his face, his eyes so cold, staring at him; calculating, but curious. Like he was the subject of a scientific study. There was something uncanny in Paul’s eyes in that moment that Hugh had never seen before. He had realized that the sudden impression had derailed his train of thought and stopped his talking when next to him, Paul said his name, and Hugh’s head snapped around to look at the real, physical, flesh-and-blood Paul. He was eyeing Hugh curiously, toothbrush still stuck in the corner of his mouth, and looking as cute as ever, nothing about his appearance out of the ordinary. For a few seconds, Hugh had wondered about the expression he had seen on Paul’s face in the mirror, and how it had changed back so quickly in the fraction of a second that it had taken Hugh to look over at him—before he concluded that he must have imagined the whole thing. Thinking about it again now, a sudden, sneaking suspicion crept up in the back of his mind that it hadn’t been so imagined at all. When Paul had said his name and snapped him out of it, had his reflection’s lips even moved?
“I kept trying to reach out to his mind, to talk to him or—or show him glimpses of this place, of my universe—to make him see that there was more, other realities—to establish some kind of communication. I don’t know if it worked, I don’t think he knew what to do with those glimpses, I don’t think his mind responded to them the way I hoped it would.”
What? Hugh’s brows furrowed. Did this mean—
“Then your ship made that jump through the mycelial network and over into my universe. And since you went in so deep down the pathways I saw my chance to finally reach him and pull him to me. But—something went wrong. It didn’t work as planned, and he ended up somewhere else, somewhere in limbo in between.”
“So it was you!” Hugh yelled, jumping up from the bed. He was furious. “You did this! It’s your fault that he fell into a coma and that his mind is trapped ‘in limbo’ now!”
Stamets struggled to his feet and tried to back off, but Hugh grabbed him by the collar and slammed him into the wall.
“You’re a selfish, spineless little creep who risked Paul’s life to save your own with no regards for the damage you cause in your wake.”
“Let me go,” Stamets choked, struggling against Hugh’s grip, who only tightened it.
“Why has the network become hostile towards you?” he asked quietly and dangerously, his own pulse drumming in his ears and his breath shaking despite his attempts to keep it under control. “Is it because it recognizes you as its enemy? You’re responsible for the corruption, too, aren’t you?”
“Let—me—go—” Stamets repeated breathlessly, trying to wriggle free. Then suddenly his head whipped up in a panic.
Hugh heard it, too: The rushing, cracking noises of the infestation creeping closer.
A sudden stinging pain in his right arm pulled him back into the here and now as Stamets’ blade slashed through his flesh and warm blood stained his crisp white uniform sleeve. While Stamets seized the opportunity to flee the sickbay, Hugh looked back around and saw the glowing, burning veins snaking into the room again, creeping closer to him within seconds. He grabbed a portable regenerator from the station next to him and ran towards the door, the adrenaline rush accelerating his steps—but still, as he was about to turn the corner, the tendrils of the infestation got a hold of his arm, boring into the open wound and setting his nerve ends on fire with burning pain.
After he managed to pull himself free from its grasp, he started sprinting down the winding corridors of this place that looked so much like the Discovery he was familiar with, the mix of pain and panic putting him into some form of autopilot mode, unable to focus on where exactly he was going. He didn’t stop until a large, massive door finally closed behind him and blocked out any threatening sounds from the other side.