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Into the Forest I Went

Chapter Text

Hugh leaned against the door, taking deep breaths, until his heart rate started normalizing. As the adrenaline rush subsided, exhaustion set in, and he felt his shaking legs give way and slowly slid down the door and to the floor. The pain in his arm was also coming back now. He looked around.

The room that his instincts had led hin toward was the spore drive lab—Paul’s workplace on the Discovery. It was completely deserted, but aside from that it looked exactly as Hugh remembered it. A stinging pain in his heart joined the one in his arm as he imagined the door to the forest opening and his Paul walking in, a smile lighting up his face as he noticed Hugh was there.

His vision started getting blurry, so he closed his eyes for a few seconds. After he opened them again he started to inspect his arm. The cut was not pretty, but also not that deep. What was more troubling were the dark, slightly luminescent filaments that had started branching out from it where the tendrils of the hostile network contamination had gotten him.

Shit.

Hugh picked the regenerator up from the floor by his side which he had taken with him from sickbay with incredible presence of mind. He already knew that there was nothing he could do to reverse the infection, at least not without cutting off his own arm … maybe. Either way, Hugh had no desire to do that. So he just did what he could right now and started working on the cut. When he was done, the skin on his forearm was still covered in blood but it was smooth and free from physical trauma. Only the lines of the infection and the blackened patches of skin in between them were shining through the smudges of red. He slowly got to his feet and walked through the door that led to the smaller labs and the forest of Prototaxites stellaviatori. There was a niche with a sink there, a cupboard with various equipment, and a small replicator. Hugh took off his uniform jacket and washed off his blood, then replicated a new jacket for himself. He stood uncertainly in the middle of the room for a while, but something drew him towards the forest, so he walked into the Discovery’s cultivation bay.

The bay looked different from what he had expected, and it startled him for a moment. The lights were low, allowing the Prototaxites stellaviatori to display their beautiful, otherworldly bioluminescence; magical trees glowing pink and purple and blue, with tiny spores silently floating through the air between the branches. The low light made the forest look bigger, Hugh thought; he couldn’t actually see the edges of the room in the darkness—in fact, the fungi themselves seemed to go on forever in the distance, and Hugh wondered if this was another quirk of the network, a blend of the familiar scenery he knew from home and a place entirely of its own.

Hugh just stood there at the edge of the forest, closed his eyes and took deep breaths, inhaling the familiar earthy, humid scent of the cultivation bay, charged with this mysterious energy that tickled all of his senses just the tiniest bit. A scent that reminded him so much of Paul, he felt a painful tugging in his chest from how much he missed him.

For the first time since he’d arrived in this strange place, Hugh was feeling tired. He blamed the stress and exhaustion from recent events and his injury, although he wasn’t sure if the infestation that had gotten a hold of his right arm wasn’t partially responsible for it as well. He sat down at the edge of the forest, leaning back against the wall, the first place since he got here where he felt genuinely safe, and closed his eyes.

 

***

 

“Hey, best brother! What’s wrong? You’ve been sitting around and moping all day. It’s my wedding, I thought you’d be happy for me today.”

Hugh leaned into the surprise hug from behind with a smile.

“Of course I’m happy for you, bean. I’m happy for you both, even if your husband has no idea what he’s gotten himself into with marrying you.”

“Oh, shush!” Dany playfully poked his left side in mock offense. “Then what is it? Trouble at work? Space anxiety? Maybe you should take a few more days off after all. Mom would be happy, too, if she could keep you for a bit longer this time.”

“No, work is fine.” Hugh sighed. “It’s nothing. Sorry if I’m ruining the mood.”

His sister let go and sat down on the chair next to him with furrowed perfect brows.

“Come on, Hugh, talk to me.”

Involuntarily his glance shot over to a table at the other end of the room. Dany followed it and the frown on her face grew.

“It’s because your ex is here.” It wasn’t a question.

Hugh stared into his drink.

“You can’t hang on to this forever, Hugh. I thought you said it’s over for good.”

“It is,” he insisted. “It … didn’t work out, we both agreed on that, and moved on. Well, one of us did.” He shot another glance across the room, at the laughing faces enjoying a nice evening in company.

“I thought you had, too,” Dany said, reaching out to rub his shoulder comfortingly. “Listen, I’m sorry for you that we invited him, but he’s part of the extended family and you knew that going in and you’ll have to live with it.”

“Yeah, it’s … it’s definitely over. It’s not about him.”

She just raised an eyebrow at him, in that perfect Oscar-worthy motion like she always did.

“Look, I’m a workaholic. And I work halfway across the galaxy most of the time. And I have to move to the other far end of the galaxy every few years. And I love it. I can’t be with someone who can’t handle that. But—” He started twirling the champagne glass in his hand, searching for the courage to admit his insecurities. “But what if I want someone who can? And what if I never find anyone like that? What if I can never be happy like you two are?”

She regarded him sadly, and placed her other hand on top of his on the table.

“I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s just the perfect match for you, Hugh. You just haven’t met that person yet.” A grin as bright as the sunrise spread across her face. “Who knows? You’re about to go travelling—maybe they’re just around the corner.”

“Thanks, bean,” Hugh said, unable to keep the small smile from tugging up the corners of his own mouth. “But it’s just a scientific conference, not a dating convention. And I think I’ll call it a night.”

“No!” Dany exclaimed as he stood up. “C’mon, Hugh, you can’t leave yet! The party’s just getting started!”

“The party is doing fine without me. But my shuttle for Alpha Centauri leaves in 8 hours and I haven’t even started packing.” He gave her his warmest and fondest smile. “You should go and pick up your husband so you two can enjoy your first night as husband and wife together.”

She pulled him in for a long, full-body hug.

“I’m going to miss you. Don’t forget to say bye to mom.”

“I’m going to miss all of you, too.”

 

***

 

Slowly, Hugh’s eyes blinked open. He realized he had been dreaming of the past when he became aware of the glowing Prototaxites stellaviatori around him and the cold, hard wall of the cultivation bay against his back. After rubbing the sleepiness from his face and stretching his limbs out of their uncomfortable position, he got to his feet. No sounds from the infestation anywhere, nor from the other Stamets. Hugh decided to stay away from him from now on.

While trying to sort his thoughts, he started a slow walk among the mushrooms, always keeping the exit to the bay within reach. Just to be safe. He didn’t know yet what prompted the network to change its layout.

The Terran Stamets was responsible for all this. If he really tried to reach Paul again, Hugh needed to stop him. He would also need to find out more about him, and about this place.

And maybe, just maybe, he could also find a way for himself to come back.

Shame welled up in his throat at the thought. He was dead. Ash Tyler, or whoever it was that had been in control of Tyler’s body, had killed him, neatly snapped his neck. He was definitely dead, and there was nothing abnormal about it. Such was life, and his time was over, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that just the inevitable way of life? That everyone’s time was limited, and it was not only—usually—impossible to cheat death, but also ethically wrong? Hugh thought of so many people who were dead and who deserved to be alive, much more than him, and he felt guilty for being so selfish. Since when was Hugh Culber afraid of dying?

He shook his head to shake off the thought. Right now, he had things to do. He needed to help Paul wake up so the Discovery could return home. He wondered if he, too, could find a way to see what was going on outside, the way the other Stamets had.

He remembered Paul talking to his mushrooms. Maybe the network would listen to him, too.

“Um, hello,” he started awkwardly, looking vaguely up at the ceiling as if he was addressing some cosmic deity. “I don’t know if—if you can hear me or anything, if—if you can understand what I’m saying.” He struggled to think of what to say. “But you seemed to respond to my request for the sickbay so I guess you do. Um—”

This was ridiculous, and Hugh knew it. He lowered his head and looked at the glowing spores that settled on the ground and the mushroom trunks in front of him. He took a few slow steps toward the fungi and reached out a hand to brush his fingers through the glowing branches, whirling up more spores. He decided that it would be more appropriate to address them instead.

“I don’t know if you know Paul—the one who mixed his DNA with the tardigrade’s, the one who’s—who’s been travelling your network recently. Maybe you noticed him. Um.” Hugh felt incredibly silly, but at the same time there was an odd sense of comfort to this, like how a confessional had felt when he was a child, decades ago before he’d started doubting his faith. “I think he’s in trouble, he might be lost, and I want to help him. But I don’t know how. So—I don’t know—maybe if you can—if there’s any—something like a sign or—or if you could get him to—I don’t know—” He noticed himself rambling and cleared his throat, then took a moment to sort out his thoughts before he spoke again. “Sorry, I—I don’t mean to ask you to do all the work, or to do anything really, just—if there’s anything you can—any guidance maybe, so that I—so that we can—I mean, that would be a lot of help. Please.”

Hugh remained silent and unmoving for several moments, not sure himself if he was actually waiting for anything to happen, before he let his hand fall to his side again and stepped back from the mushrooms. No, he couldn’t hope to rely on anything or anyone else in here. The network had to fight its own battles, with the contamination spreading and destroying everything in its wake.

Stamets had repeatedly mentioned his lab and trying to find a solution for his problem there. Maybe Hugh could do the same. He turned around and walked back to the spore drive lab.

 

The room greeted him exactly as he had left it. Still silent except for the faint humming of the starship’s engines. Still completely deserted.

He sat down at Paul’s station and brought the screen panels to life. The silence was pressing down on his mood, so after a moment of consideration he said, “Computer? Can you play music? Kasseelian opera, La Bohème?”

After only a brief silent moment, the familiar tune started filling the room, and Hugh let out a nervous breath that had caught in his throat, and started to relax. He tried not to think about Paul’s promise of an opera date right before their last jump went wrong, about the sound of this music in the opera house near Starbase 46 back at home in their world.

Hugh considered himself a pretty smart person, but as he flicked through Paul’s files on his workstation he felt amazingly stupid again. His love’s work was so complex, so far down the branches of his specific field, that Hugh was completely out of his depth here. Something that, nevertheless, had never stopped him from enjoying the calming sound of Paul’s voice as he explained with barely contained excitement how it all worked.

As he tried, and failed, to make sense of the formulas and algorithms and calculations on the screens, a thought occurred to him. If their minds were in here, and, apparently, their memories of places, maybe their knowledge was now part of the network as well. And indeed—with a few tricks he had picked up from good friends who worked in IT, and maybe a few from his boyfriend who wasn’t supposed to be this skilled at so many technical things on top of his vast biological knowledge—Hugh managed to access the other Stamets’ file database.

He shot a nervous glance at the door, as if worried that someone might come barging in any second and drag this amateur hacker off into a cell. But no. They were now playing by the rules of the mycelial network, and the network obviously liked Hugh better than Stamets.

As he read through the files and reports on his research and started putting the pieces together, his eyes gradually widened in horror. This was bad. Really bad. Worse than he had expected.

Among more “mundane” research, like creating horrifying bioweapons for the Terran Emperor that dissolved their victim’s bodies inside and out, Stamets had developed a power core that was strong enough to supply a giant spaceship the size of a major city. Unlike the spore drive that Paul and Straal had designed, however, the mycelial reactor tapped into the network and directly drained its energy flows. Hugh remembered Paul mentioning how, despite its vastness spanning all across the universe—multiple universes, in fact, as Hugh had now learned—it was a fragile organism that, like every ecosystem, needed to maintain a balance of matter and energy to sustain itself. Hugh wasn’t sure how well the Terrans were aware of this, or how much they cared, but apparently Stamets had gotten to the same conclusion that Hugh had suspected within mere seconds of reading about his invention: That it was putting too much strain on the network and damaging it beyond its capacity to heal itself.

So this was the power core that Stamets had mentioned. The way he beat around the bush about it and about what they had done to the forests of Prototaxites stellaviatori they had harvested made sense now, too.

In an attempt to fix the damage he had done, Stamets had tried to find a way to … connect himself to the network? Hugh frowned. So he had done similar experiments to his Paul, though his approach had obviously been different: He had apparently tried to create a kind of artificial DNA connection by combining his own with the genetic code of the Prototaxites stellaviatori. If Hugh was interpreting his proposal correctly, he had tried to link his mind to the network in order to control the flow and transfer of energy himself and redirect it as he pleased, but something had gone wrong. That explained how his mind got pulled into the network. And since it had recognized Stamets’ DNA, that must have been the connection he had hinted at.

What if …

Hugh jumped up from his seat and grabbed the nearest first aid kit. He took out the medical tricorder, rolled up his right sleeve, and started scanning the infestation on his arm for DNA.

Scan complete. Three sets of DNA found.

Results:

1 – Culber, Hugh. Core Tissue.

2 – Prototaxites stellaviatori – incomplete sequence. Traces.

3 – Stamets, Paul / archived – incomplete sequence. Traces.

That was it. The combined DNA that Stamets had created had started spreading inside the network like a virus, contaminating everything in its path. The network’s apparent aversion to him made a lot more sense now as well.

Now that piece of information was a start. Maybe if the network had access to its full resources again, it could fight the infection and heal itself. They would need to disconnect the ISS Charon’s reactor from the network to stop the energy drain, but Hugh doubted that he could do anything about that from this place of the mind he was trapped in right now. He tried to have faith in his fellow crew members that they would figure out a way to do this. They had never let him down so far.

Hugh tried to focus on the task at hand. What else did he need to do?

Paul had to wake up from his coma. Not only because Hugh desperately wanted him to get better, but also because he was the only option the Discovery had to return home. He would probably have to make one more jump. All Hugh could do was hope that he would be okay, that at least part of the strain the jumps had put on his brain had been due to Stamets’ meddling, and that if they all prepared for the jump back through realities, he would be safe. Hugh didn’t know how to reach Paul, but he knew that it was essential for his mind to reconnect with his body back on the Discovery. His brain and his body should be fine. He just needed to return to it.

If he did wake up, they would have to find their way back. Hugh’s suspicion that Captain Lorca had manipulated the coordinates of their last jump had solidified when he looked through Paul’s data earlier. In case they couldn’t count on Lorca to guide them back, however he might be able to do that, Paul would have to figure out the right path by himself. If only Hugh could help him with that …

Around him, his favourite aria reached its dramatic and elating finale. Maybe …

Hugh still had no idea how this place of the mind inside the network actually worked, or if it even had any physical connection to the outside realm at all, but he just couldn’t leave anything unattempted to help Paul, as long as there was even the tiniest chance that it might work. He took one of the spore containers down from the wall and inserted it into the drive’s console.

“Computer, I want to try something,” Hugh addressed the room, still unsure if the computer in here was even real or if it was just the network humoring him. And even then, he wasn’t convinced that the computer was equipped to comply with the wacky science he was about to try. He still kept talking as he started typing into the console, maybe to convince himself that his plan might actually work. “If I open a path here now that connects to the coordinates of Starbase 46 in our universe from inside the spore chamber, can you keep that connection open? And—” He hesitated. “Can you play the music inside the chamber, please?”

There was no response, as always.

Hugh put his commands into the console, too, just to be safe.

“Let’s go.”

Within seconds, glowing spores filled the reaction cube with their familiar pale blue flickering. The connection seemed to be open for now, and a faint echo had crept into the music that indicated that the sound was playing behind the glass of the chamber as well. Now all Hugh could do was hope that this connection would remain stable long enough for Paul to follow the music down the star paths of the mycelial network. And wait.

He walked around the workstation and stepped in front of the chamber. The chair inside was empty now, even though the scenes from their last jump and the 133 before it kept playing over and over inside his head. When he took a step back and was about to turn around, he noticed something funny about the reflection in the glass. It was hard to see because of the bright lights inside, but there was the reflected image of Tilly, looking like she had cried, might still be crying, regarding the chamber sadly. He wished he could reach out to her and comfort her. Was she crying about Paul? What …

He tilted his head a little and took another step to the side, and suddenly, he saw something else, a refracted image of the inside of the chamber: Paul.

His heart made a leap. There he was, in the world outside the network, leaned against that familiar seat. His eyes were still milky and someone had attached various electrodes to his head, but he was—not moving. At all.

“No.”

Hugh stumbled backwards, panic constricting his windpipe as he tried to choke out the only words that spilled from his mind.

“No. No no no no. No—”

This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be real. His brain refused to process what he had seen, even though as a doctor, he should be used to it, he should know this, he should—

Of course Tilly had been crying. Hugh was crying, covering his mouth with his hand to keep the sobs and the screams inside his body as he fled the room, unable to look at the chamber anymore, unable to stand ever seeing that image again, and stumbled back into the cultivation bay, the only place in here that could provide him any hint of comfort. Once he was inside and the door had closed behind him, he dropped to his knees between the mushrooms, his fingers dug into the soft soil, trying to hold on, grasping for support, while all his pain and grief now started spilling out of him.

 

He didn’t know how long he had been crouching there on the ground and cried his heart out among the spores, but eventually he had drained himself of all the emotions his body could produce, and his mind was blank. Slowly and shakily he got up, automatically went through the motion of brushing the dirt off of himself, and staggered back towards the lab. He wasn’t sure why, because everything had lost its meaning. But somewhere in the back of his mind he remembered that the Discovery still needed to get back home. His crew—his friends—still needed him. So he would have to find a new way to help them. Somehow.

Everything felt like slow motion, even moving a single muscle required almost more strength than he could bring up, as if his body had been submerged in cement that was drying around him. He tried to force his sluggish brain into action. There had to be a way to contact them, to guide them home somehow, maybe at least to share with them what he knew. They were smart people, some of the brightest minds Hugh had ever met. They would figure something out.

Too bad Paul wasn’t here, Hugh thought. He would be able to find a way to make this work, through mushroom science or mushroom magic or both.

Think, Hugh! Try to think like Paul!

Maybe they could get the spore drive to work without a navigator somehow. Or maybe someone else would be crazy enough to inject themselves with tardigrade DNA and—

No. Hugh shook his head. Stamets even said that was too dangerous. Not to mention illegal, he remembered.

Even though he dreaded what he might see, Hugh found himself standing up again and walking over to the reaction cube to get another glimpse of Tilly. Maybe she was still there. Or maybe they had found out something new, something that might help them.

From what he could see in the pale reflection, she had cleaned up her face, but her eyes were still rimmed red. She, too, must have returned to this place. It was a heartbreaking sight, even more so as he remembered how much she had come to mean to Paul, almost like a daughter he’d never had (and insisted on not wanting because he was convinced that he wasn’t cut out to be a father).

Then, suddenly, something seemed to grab her attention, because she looked up in surprise, then down at the data on her console which Hugh couldn’t make out, then back up, confusion and bewilderment clear on her face.

She was staring at the chamber.

Hugh hurried to find the right angle again to look inside, despite how terrified he was of what he would see. There was Paul, lying motionless as he had been the last time Hugh had seen him, and Hugh’s composure started falling apart again—until he saw Paul jerk his head reflexively, and Hugh could have sworn he also saw Paul’s chest start rising and sinking again as his breathing resumed.

“Paul,” he whispered, leaning forward and placing a hand on the glass, but as he moved and his view angle shifted, the image of the man he loved vanished before his eyes.

Then, all of a sudden, he sensed something. It was fleeting and hard to grasp, but at the same time felt like a jolt through his body, like a shift in the atmosphere, like a prickle in the air around him. Something, or someone, had arrived—someone new, someone powerful, someone who could see and touch and feel the network, who could truly understand it, interact with it, someone who might have the power one day to rock this whole mycelial world to its core and change everything forever, and the network knew, and it reacted with excitement and anticipation.

“He’s here.”