His eyes opened slowly, his mind aware of so much and so little at once. But one thought dominated all others: I should be dead.
He looked at both his hands, stunned that his flesh wasn't burned, that he wasn't in agony. He seemed fine, physically anyway. He sat up slowly, the position change causing his stomach to flip, but it was completely empty.
"Good afternoon." He turned to his right to see a man, his skin dark, dressed simply in civilian clothes. The man's brown eyes were looking at him intently. "Welcome back."
"Back?" he said quietly, his voice stronger than he thought it would be. He rubbed his throat, careful to note all the sensations and all the feelings. This didn't feel fake, but it could be.
She could make anything feel real.
The man smirked. "It's not a trick, Henry."
Henry Harrison stared at him, becoming more convinced by the second that it was. "That's what she'd say."
"Would she? Would she bother being someone else?" The man shrugged his shoulders. "She seemed uniquely obsessed with making sure her victims knew it was her. Pretending to be this," he said, pointing at himself, "would be below her." He patted his stomach. "She would hate my lack of definition." The man pointed behind him. "I don't recall her liking flowers, either."
Henry turned around and saw a vase full of white tulips. He picked one up, inhaling deeply. It smelt real. "How?" he found himself asking. "I should be dead. I should be vaporized into oblivion."
"You weren't easy to put back together."
Henry faced him, mind grinding to a halt. "You mean ... I died?"
A singular nod. "Briefly."
"Briefly?" Henry felt a tightness in his chest as his heart thudded in his ears. "I ... there was nothing." The idea of an afterlife wasn't exactly a strong one for him, but he had always believed people went somewhere. But he had gone nowhere. He had been alive, then felt the heat, then woke up here. Seamless.
And nothing was between his death and his awakening, not even a blank space.
"My name is Phillip," the man began, his tone calm. "You've been brought back to life from death."
"How?" Henry asked again, fury rising within him. He threw the sheets off him and stood from his bed, hands clenched into fists. A trick - it had to be a trick. "You've explained nothing, you sit there and tell me things that can't be true."
Phillip remained seated, unperturbed. "You're alive. You set the phaser to overload and you put it between the two of you. You can't survive that ... and she didn't."
He jutted a finger at him. "She could of survived! She could be running this whole show now!"
Phillip shook his head slowly. "No, she can't be. Because she's not here and you are. I brought you back for a reason."
Henry glared at him darkly, preparing himself for anything. "To fuck with me some more?"
Phillip smirked. "To join a team of others, like yourself, plucked from the grasp of death centuries ago."
"Centuries?" Henry dropped his hand to the side, mind reeling. Something in him told him this was the truth. Something in him told him that all of this was exactly as it seemed. "The 33rd century?"
Phillip smiled. "Seems the download of information worked, albeit not quite as proficiently as I was promised. Probably something to do with your nanoprobes and his being so different."
Henry fell back to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, eyes aching to cry but his pride refusing. "I ... but ..."
"Any questions you have you can answer yourself. I'm not going to quiz you."
He shook his head, none of it making sense. A flood of information and no context, no reference points ... not yet, at least. "You want to stop the universes from colliding with one another?"
"From bleeding into one another. Realities - multiple realties, more than we can count - are at risk. Entire groups of species, of powers, are hopping into other realities to take advantage of them: whether that's through resource mining, cheap slave labor, espionage, or trying to make that reality their own by altering events in its past." Phillip cracked his knuckles. "It's a real mess out there and we've been put together to stop it." He stood, gently putting his hand on Henry's shoulder. "But that can wait."
"What is this?"
Phillip grinned. "The last line of defense for realities everywhere. Welcome to Project Paradigm."