Hugh Culber sat down at the starbase’s bar in the section frequented by men like himself. It was dark even by the standards of their universe, and noisy - full of boisterous people. Hugh didn’t plan to stay long. He just needed to find someone who was looking for exactly what he sought: a man to sleep with, someone to help relieve a physical need.
You couldn’t hope for anything else, not in this world. Hugh’s mother, sister, best friend, and the doctor who had been his mentor had all been executed for treason. Two of them had been granted the gift of death only after months in the agonizer booth. Hugh didn’t have too many options for keeping his sanity, nor did he have many reasons to get up in the mornings. There was the satisfaction of treating the sick and the wounded, whose numbers ever increased. And there was the experience he had a few nights each week of bedding a man, having an anonymous encounter, experiencing momentary pleasure before each man headed his own way. No need to even remember names. He did have a few regulars, but they had all either been executed, died in battle, or had shipped out.
Hugh was about to order his second drink when a blond man strode up to him and sat down at the stool next to his. “You’re Hugh Culber, aren’t you?” he asked, sounding almost breathless.
Hugh’s shoulders tensed and eyes widened. He had been so careful to avoid the dreadful fates of those he loved; what had he let slip? But the pale man smiled and leaned forward. “I’m Paul Stamets. I’m a scientist who studies fungi, and I was traveling the mycelial network. I met my counterpart from a parallel universe, and he said that you and I are a couple in his world and that we’re madly in love. It took me a while to track you down and I’m glad I found you!”
Hugh’s mouth dropped open and he stared at the man for a moment. He continued to stare before he finally remarked, “Worst pick-up line ever.”
Hugh wished he had that second drink in hand. But then he looked at this Paul Stamets again. He was too pale and not at all hot, but he was cute enough and seemed to be in decent shape. He would do for tonight. He would do fine.
“But why don’t you buy me a drink and tell me a bit more?” Hugh continued.
Paul smiled again and let out a breath.
Their drinks arrived and Paul told his story, full of details. Hugh decided that Paul didn’t seem insane, but of course the nonsense that he spewed couldn’t be accurate. Perhaps Paul was just more creative than most when it came to pick-up lines. Maybe he thought this was funny.
“That’s very interesting,” Hugh commented, when Paul was finished. His posture made it clear to Paul that he felt otherwise with the wry expression on his face and his arms crossed. “Shall we fuck at my place or at yours?”
Afterwards, they lay in bed together. Hugh normally would be putting his clothes back on and walking out the door at this point, but his mind was still processing the strange encounter he had just had. Sex had never before been like this. He was a bit stunned.
So he was inclined to let Paul resume what he had started at the bar, telling him more about this other world and the lives that their counterparts led in it. Paul had stars in his eyes as he eagerly described it. “Our favorite time of day,” he added, concluding one segment of the tale, “was when our shifts were over and we’d have a glass of wine and then brush our teeth before bed.”
Hugh gathered his bearings and sighed. “I’m trying to decide if you being good in bed and somewhat easy on the eyes is worth hearing you go on like a madman.”
Paul smiled. Again! ‘No one smiles this this much,’ Hugh told himself. Even his eyes seemed to smile.
“So I’m good in bed, eh?” Paul replied, genuinely pleased.
“Well, to an extent you are,” Hugh said frowning. “But what was with all that kissing? And I’ve never had someone who wanted to…..to touch so much before just getting down to business.” He took a breath. “That was the longest sexual encounter I’ve ever had!”
“That’s how the other Paul told me it’s supposed to be done!” Paul insisted eagerly. “With lots of kissing and – and….caressing.”
Hugh shook his head. “I can’t decide if I should vomit or just roll my eyes.”
“Except you liked it,” Paul said quietly. “You liked it a lot.” One of Paul’s hands began to leisurely stroke Hugh’s chest. Just like before. Could this man be telling the truth? No one whom Hugh had bedded – and there had been plenty – took the time to do it with such gentleness, such caring. Rarely did anyone bother to kiss, and certainly not with such passion and tenderness.
“May I play you something?” Paul asked.
Hugh nodded, unable to speak for a second. He told himself it would be good if Paul took his hands off of him and reached for his device instead.
Paul pressed a few buttons, and a sound filled the room. It was the sound of magic and beauty and wonder.
“What is this?” Hugh breathed. His ears were taking in what could only be described as ecstasy.
“It’s called Kasselian opera,” Paul said quietly. “The Hugh in the other universe loves it. The other Paul doesn’t, but he found a way to get it to me so you could hear it.”
Hugh bolted up. This had to stop right this second. Whatever Paul was doing was subversive, was frightening, and it was only going to end in heartache for both of them.
He reached for his discarded clothing which had been flung over a chair. “It’s been fun, Stamets,” Hugh said, pulling on his clothes. “But you’re crazy. Contact me if you ever want to fuck again but I don’t want to hear another word of your nonsense. And I don’t ever want to hear another note of….” he waved a hand around, “this music.”
“Don’t go,” Paul pleaded, sitting up. “This is all new for me too. But maybe we can find a way – “
Hugh was already out the door.
They had a medical procedure which could make you forget. Hugh thought about it obsessively during the next few days. It would be difficult to perform on oneself but not impossible. He could use it to forget about Paul Stamets, forget about that man’s hands on him, that alternative universe which worshipped freedom and equality, that haunting music which made him shiver. Because wouldn’t it be far, far better to cease dreaming of a better world when you knew it was unattainable?
As his shift finished up, he promised himself that tonight he would stay far away from the bar and instead devote his evening to studying the memory erasure procedure. It would be the best gift he could give himself.
His doorbell chimed. The sound startled Hugh as he had few visitors; if his boss needed him, she’d simply ping his communicator. Hugh had a strict no-friends policy ever since his best friend had spent seven months in an agonizer booth before being killed. He and his father spoke once every other week, a predictably stilted conversation in which the elder Culber would ask the younger about his work. Hugh had no other personal attachments.
It was Paul Stamets. Hugh wordlessly stepped aside to let the other man enter. He looked different than he had three nights ago. He was unkempt, his hair askew and dark circles under his eyes.
“I’ve been back on the network and I spoke to the other Paul again,” he began, his eyes now full of energy.
Hugh remained motionless and quiet, instantly deciding to see where Paul went with this.
“We’ve been working on it for the past three days and we’ve found a way for us to go through, to get to his universe!” he waved his hands with excitement. “We – we have no way to test it but we think it will work. But it can only be a one-way, one-time thing. They can’t risk having our empire come through and wreak havoc on them. It has to be just you and me.” Paul stopped, as if taking a moment to listen to himself. He tilted his head to one side. “There’s probably no way that you don’t think I’m insane, and no way you’d want to come with me, is there?”
Hugh swallowed and remained gazing impassively at Paul. He spoke quietly. “I have nothing and no one here. And this – this other world cannot possibly be any worse than ours.” He took a step towards Paul and placed his hands on either side of the man’s face. “And I haven’t been able to stop thinking of you.”
“Nor I you,” Paul admitted, his voice soft. He accepted Hugh’s kiss and returned it. It was a slow kiss which both men savored.
“When can we go?” Hugh asked.
“Now. We just need to get to my lab, which is inside one of the ships docked here.” Paul glanced around Hugh’s quarters. They were as sparse as his. “Is there anything you want to bring with?”
It took Hugh just a moment to decide. “A few pictures. My family and friends who have passed on. In case our technology doesn’t work there, I have print outs.” He opened the nightstand next to his bed, reached for the images, and placed them inside his uniform.
Hugh then reached for Paul’s hand and the men walked hand in hand towards Paul’s lab.