“Follow the music, Paul. Look for the clearing in the forest. Open your eyes!”
And with a swirl of glowing spores, Paul was gone, and Hugh was alone.
“Good luck, Paul,” he whispered, fully aware of the tears trickling down his face and completely not caring because there was no-one left to see them. Both Pauls had left the network and returned to the world of the living. Suddenly the place felt lonely and bleak.
Hugh slowly let himself sink back down on their bed, rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands, his body shaking slightly with quiet sobs. While his brain knew that he had done the only thing that was right in guiding Paul back home, the crushing weight on his heart at never seeing him or any of his other loved ones again was more than he could bear.
After what seemed like an eternity that drained him of all the tears he had in him to shed, Hugh finally calmed down. Desperate hopes started forming in his head. The next time Paul connected with the network, would he be able to return here? Would he come looking for Hugh? No, he remembered, this wasn’t the place Paul saw during the jumps. Besides, he wouldn’t jump any more after the Discovery returned home. It had been hurting him, he had chosen to give it up, no matter how much he loved the network. Starfleet would probably put an end to the spore drive project after their journey into a parallel universe anyway.
And Paul had promised, to Hugh. So he would be okay. So they could have a future together. All that was lost now.
Hugh knew Paul. He would break his promise and try to find a way to bring Hugh back to life. He would probably get himself hurt in the process. But in here, Hugh had no means of keeping him from doing that.
And to be honest, it would be so nice to come back.
A trace of the warmth of Paul’s embrace was still left, and Hugh decided to hold on. He would stay here. He would not fade away. He had faith in Paul.
He took a deep breath to shake off the trace of raw fragility the crying had left him with, raised his head and straightened up. As he looked around, he noticed that on the bed next to him was still the imprint that Paul’s weight had left where he had been sitting. Out of some sentimental impulse, Hugh reached out a hand and touched it, as if it was a way to reach out to Paul himself. After pondering his situation for another moment, he looked up and spoke softly, addressing the room.
“Now that he is gone and I’m the only one who’s left … Will you be kind to me?” he asked the network. “Will you keep me safe until he takes me back?”
He didn’t know if he was seriously expecting any kind of answer, and for a while, nothing happened.
Then something shifted again, like an earthquake coursing through every atom around him and within him alike, and Hugh jumped up in surprise. A searing pain in his right arm drew his attention and when he pulled back his sleeve, he could see the infestation shrinking back and eventually disappearing, leaving his skin in its original, soft brown color, and then the pain was gone.
When everything was over, the air suddenly tasted cleaner and fresher, like a rain shower had passed and purified the land. The light in the room felt softer and a hue warmer. Everything seemed clearer, too, as if a veil had lifted that Hugh hadn’t even noticed had been there and clouded everything.
“The contamination …” Hugh began, “it’s gone.” A proud smile bloomed on his face. “They did it!”
He looked back up and around at the network. “Now … will you help me get back?”
As his gaze wandered across the room, he noticed something lying on Paul’s nightstand and walked over to look at it.
Hugh was just stowing away his empty bag.
“You’ve finished unpacking already?” Paul said, sounding surprised.
“I’ve done this a few times now,” Hugh responded with a smile, “it’s routine.”
Paul was still rummaging in his bag and digging out the personal clothes he had brought with him. Although it was certainly entertaining to watch, Hugh started wandering across their new quarters and looking around in an attempt to make himself familiar with their new home.
“Why did you even pack all this stuff? You know you don’t really need to bring any civilian clothes, let alone this many.”
“Because,” Paul retorted, while pulling a crumpled lump of fabric out of the bag, “if I don’t get to get out of that fu—damn uniform every once in a while and put on normal people clothes, I’m going to go crazy in this floating tin can.” After a moment he added, “No offense.”
“None taken,” Hugh replied. “But even so, you could just replicate something.”
Paul seemed hesitant with his answer, and there was a defiant undertone to it. “I’d rather have my clothes.”
“Is this …” Hugh suddenly asked, “… a book?” He picked it up from Paul’s nightstand and looked at it curiously. “An actual, physical, paper-and-ink book?”
“Yes, it’s …” Paul hesitated, trying to find the right words, “it’s a little old.”
“You could say that,” Hugh said with amusement in his voice, his fingers gently tracing over the tattered cover and spine. Then he noticed the author and title. “Wait … ‘by Paul Stamets’?” He shot Paul a questioning look.
“Not me,” Paul said, rolling his eyes.
“I figured that much,” Hugh replied. “Paperbacks went out of fashion in the early twenty-second century, and this edition was printed 130 years before you were born.”
“He’s my ancestor,” Paul explained, walking over to Hugh. “Paul Stamets, twenty-first century mycologist from Earth. My family still lives in western Washington where he’s from.”
Hugh’s eyes suddenly went wide. “Oh. Ohh! Now I remember! He discovered many remedial properties of mushrooms that revolutionized the treatment of cancer and HIV! I knew your name sounded familiar back when I saw the schedule on Alpha Centauri … I feel a little stupid now,” he finished with an embarrassed grin in Paul’s direction. Paul smiled back at him.
“Don’t be. You’re still a genius.”
He was standing behind Hugh now and had rested his chin on Hugh’s shoulder to peek over it at the book. “He’s pretty obscure.” He gently took the book out of Hugh’s hands and started thumbing through it, without looking for anything in particular. “This was one of the first books I read as soon as I’d learned how to read. My grandparents had a lot of old paper books in their house in Shelton, and one year when I spent my summer with them, I found one on the shelf with my name on it. And that’s what sparked my interest in mushrooms,” he recounted calmly. “I’ve read it so many times I could recite it in my sleep. But I take it with me every time I move. It … helps to calm down, sometimes. To feel grounded, when everything gets too much.”
Hugh couldn’t help smiling at him. The bundle of clothes made sense now, too. Paul was more sentimental than he let on most of the time.
“So you were named after your famous mycologist ancestor?”
Paul slammed the book shut.
“No, I was named after Paul McCartney.”
“What is it with your family and the Beatles?”
“Don’t ask. Mom and her brother are obsessed.”
Hugh smiled down at the book.
Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. By Paul Stamets.
“Of course,” he said.
He picked up the book, sat down on the bed, and opened the first page.
“Let’s get to work.”