Paul Stamets stepped through the automatic doors and into the dimly lit Corridor Seven, a bar with a reputation of being raucous, free-wheeling, and loud enough to allow for a nice, private conversation in a public place. He dodged to one side as a young Starfleet ensign, complete with casually undone collar, stumbled toward the exit. Of all the Academy-adjacent bars in San Francisco, his new friend had chosen to meet in this one.
Paul nervously adjusted the mobile emitter on his shoulder and searched the room for the man he’d come to see. He found the atmosphere, the clothing, the people in this place distracting. In his time, things were… different. His world was more low key and practical. Uniforms came in shades of bronze, silver, and gold. Klingons wouldn’t be caught dead celebrating with Tellarites in a shady bar on Earth. It was a lot to process, and he was still working through the “easy” stuff.
Paul found the man he was looking for in the back of the bar sitting with his head down, hands cradling a full pint of clear, bubbling liquid. He headed over and sat down at the table. “Doctor?” he asked, maybe eighty percent certain that the man across the table would be willing to take the time to help him. He folded his hands on front of him and waited for a response.
The response came after a dramatic pause for effect: “Please state the nature of your medical emergency.”
Stamets lifted an eyebrow and sat back in his chair, thinking through how to respond. A moment later, the man looked up and gave Paul a thin-lipped smile. “Joking, joking. I guess they invented the sense of humor in the 24th century.”
Stamets narrowed his eyes and watched the Doctor for a moment, then visibly relaxed. “I suppose I needed that,” he said. “They told me you were… quirky. I haven’t really allowed myself to laugh much, lately.”
“Quirky? Interesting. I was working on ‘disarming,’” said the Doctor. “Drink?”
Paul glanced at the Doctor’s own drink, but before he could respond, the Doctor had ordered him something. “It doesn’t matter what you order. Just have a beverage. People will tend to let you be if you’re holding a drink.” Moments later, a server placed a small glass of water in front of Stamets. The Doctor grinned. "You’re young, yet. Alcohol is for grown-ups.”
Stamets looked at the glass of water and then back to his companion. “Technically, I’m older than you by centuries,” he said, pushing the water toward the Doctor. “Respect your elders.”
The Doctor took the water and cocked an eyebrow. “Fine, fine. I understand you had some questions about your… condition?”
Paul leaned forward a bit and lowered his voice. “I have all of the questions. Who am I? What should I be doing? How do I live in this century? Do I even exist?”
The Doctor reached across the table and slapped him across the face. Stamets recoiled, touched his face, and looked back at the Doctor, angry and surprised.
The Doctor nodded and shrugged. “You definitely exist. As for the rest? That’s up to you to decide.”
A server stopped by to ask if they needed anything. The Doctor shook his head and looked back to Paul. “I looked you up. You are an officially recognized sentient life form. You can do whatever you want. Starfleet would prefer you continue your research, but you could drop it all today and flit about the Alpha Quadrant if you wanted. Though, to be honest, flitting about in space is overrated.”
Stamets inhaled, thought for a moment, and tilted his head. “Why did you want to meet here, of all places?”
“Because when I was first… summoned, I was simply a collection of medical knowledge and surgical techniques. Being around people led me to adapt and to search for ways to be… better.” The Doctor’s eyes scanned Stamets’ face. “I wanted you to get out and see that there’s no reason you can’t be part of all this.” He waved his hands, indicating the room.
“I understand that,” Paul said, “but it’s difficult to accept. I am an engineer. I know what’s in these emitters.” He tapped his shoulder. “I know exactly how holograms work. I understand the science that went into me being here.”
The Doctor leaned forward. “Do you? Really? I have met a number of photonic beings over the years, and not one of them is precisely like you. It took me months of ‘Please state the nature of your medical emergency’ before I could even think to ask the questions you’re asking now. I don’t know what happened to bring you to this point, but as a man of science, I can conclusively say that there’s more than science at work here.”
Paul looked down into his glass and cradled it idly in his fingers. “I feel like an android. Or a simulation.” He thought for a moment. “I have a purpose, and I was made for that purpose, and doing anything else is a betrayal of the reason I was made.”
The Doctor nodded. “You’re not the first photonic lifeform to feel that. You are a sentient being. No one can dictate your purpose. Access those memories you mysteriously received. Those are yours. Actually, they’re you. Think about what you love. Think about what makes you human.”
Stamets closed his eyes for a moment, then pushed the glass away. “Hugh. Hugh is who I loved. Hugh made me human. Without him, I’m just… light, and energy, and knowledge. There’s no reason for me to be anything more than that.”
“Hogwash,” said the Doctor, taking the glass from in front of Paul and setting it aside. “You were a sentient lifeform before you met Hugh, and you’ll be a sentient lifeform long after this moment. There’s every possibility that we’re immortal, you know. So I suggest you take a few more moments to mourn your old relationships and carry on to make new ones. Or the life ahead of you will be a long one, indeed.”
Paul stared at the Doctor, wanting for all the world to grab that glass and throw it at—or through—his smug, incorporeal face. The moment passed, however, and he lowered his forehead into his hands.
“And here I thought my bedside manner had improved over the years,” said the Doctor, his lips curling into a slight grin.
Stamets looked up at his companion and shook his head. “No, you’re right. It’s just… difficult.”
The Doctor nodded in response. “No one said sentience would be easy.”
The two of them sat for a while longer, first discussing the logistics of navigating the world as a photonic being, then arguing about the relative importance of engineering and medicine, and finally, swapping stories of adventure and danger in the far reaches of space. Each man reacted with amazement at the other’s accomplishments and some level of humility at their own. Their drinks remained conspicuously full as they wiled away the hours in what would eventually become very pleasant conversation.
Stamets sat back against his chair and smiled at the Doctor. “Thank you for meeting with me. It has been great speaking with someone who understands.”
The Doctor scooted his chair back and stood up from the table. “You don’t need me, Paul. The only difference between you and everyone else in this place is the little piece of future technology on your shoulder.” He gave Stamets a thin-lipped smile. “Well, that, and sheer processing power. Or haven’t you noticed you have a computer for a brain?”
Stamets laughed and stood alongside his companion. He offered his hand for a handshake. “Still, I’d love to talk with you again.”
The Doctor scrunched up his face as he looked at Stamets’ hand, then took it and gave it a shake. “You don’t have to do that sort of thing anymore,” he said. “You can ignore the grabby little habits humans have when they greet each other.”
Stamets smiled. “I think I’ll hang on to those for a little while,” he said, and he watched the Doctor walk toward the exit and leave. He looked down at the two full glasses on the table and started making his own way toward the door.
As he left, an Andorian dock worker stepped aside to let him pass through the exit. Paul Stamets smiled at the man, nodded, and stepped out into the city.