Chapter 1: Prologue: Edge of the Woods
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.
Chapter 2: Forest Maze
Chapter-specific content warnings: only for very vague mentions of torture.
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.
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.
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.”
Chapter 3: Infestation
Content warnings: very vague mentions of torture (again), mild sexual references, physical injury. (I hope these are helpful, by the way. If not, please let me know.)
We're moving into wild mass guessing territory here about how the mycelial network actually works. I hope it makes sense.
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.
Chapter 4: Undergrowth
Content warning: non-permanent character death.
Also in this chapter: More weird mushroom science speculation!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chapter 5: Epilogue: Clearing
No content warnings this time. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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.”
I'm not endorsing the book or anything, by the way. Just to be safe. (But maybe read it if you want to speculate about Hugh's return and need hints.)
If you've stayed with this story all the way until now: Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed the ride!