As the senior officers filed out of the observation lounge, Forrester and Mitchell remained seated. It wasn’t until the last person had left the room that the pregnant silence was finally broken by Mitchell. “You’re worried about them.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I can’t help but think that we’ll get there to discover they’ve been hit by an ion storm and the atmosphere’s on fire or…” Forrester trailed off. His mind had been reaching for the worst case scenarios ever since his conversation with Commodore Vega.
There was little Mitchell could do but to offer a reassuring smile. “I guess it’s no good telling you that everything’ll be fine? That it’s just interference from the Century Storm?”
“I’d like to believe that but until I see it for myself, I don’t think I can relax.” Forrester replied. He let out a sigh and glanced down at his hands, his leg bouncing nervously under the table. “I just need to know they’re okay.”
Mitchell studied the captain silently for a moment. “Are you going to visit them while we’re there? Assuming, of course, that I’m right and that it’s just interference.”
“Dad made it clear that if I left for the Academy, I wouldn’t be welcome on the farm ever again.” Forrester could remember clearly the last time he saw his father. Trying to say goodbye before leaving, not wanting to leave on a sour note, only to be rewarded with stony silence. It still stung, twenty six years later. “I don’t intend to put that threat to the test.”
Letting out a sigh, Mitchell leaned forward and placed his palms flat on the table. “You can’t come all this way and not try to speak to him.”
“He made his position clear.” Forrester shot back, a little more heatedly than he’d intended.
The frustration that Mitchell was feeling was becoming increasingly visible on his face. “Tom, you haven’t seen your mom or your brother in more than a quarter of a century. You have a sister-in-law, a niece and a nephew that you’ve never met. You have to see them while we’re in orbit.” Mitchell held Forrester’s gaze for a few seconds before asking, “When was the last time you tried reaching out to him?”
“Why would I do that?” Forrester asked, his head tilting to one side and brow furrowing. “He left me in no doubt that if I left for the Academy, I would no longer be welcome on his farm. I made my decision, fully aware of the consequences, and I’ve made peace with it.”
Sitting back in his chair, Mitchell scoffed. “You might be able to fool others with that bullshit but this is me you’re talking to. You’ve always struggled with that decision. Hell, you probably struggle with it more now that you’ve achieved your goal of commanding a starship.”
“He’s had twenty six years to reach out to me if he wanted to. He hasn’t. He clearly feels the same now as he did then.” Sometimes Forrester hated just how well his best friend knew him but he wasn’t about to admit that.
Mitchell shrugged. “Maybe he wants to reach out but is afraid, given how you both left things, that you don’t want him to. Maybe he’s just a stubborn jackhole. I mean you must’ve gotten that delightful personality trait from somewhere.” He sat forward and lowered his voice. “Tom, your dad’s not getting any younger. If you don’t take this chance to try and mend your relationship now, you’re gonna wake up someday and find it’s too late. Don’t let that happen.”
With every passing day, Forrester was becoming more and more aware of his parents’ mortality and that time was running out. Did he really want to lose the few years he might have left with them, especially when so much time had already been lost?
“Any other pearls of wisdom for me?” Forrester asked with a lopsided smile pulling at the corner of his lips.
Pushing himself to his feet, Mitchell met his friend’s eyes. “Yeah. Tell Matt you miss him, beg his forgiveness for being a dick, get over your aversion to long distance relationships and promise him you’ll do whatever it takes to make things work.” With everything said that he wanted to, Mitchell walked wordlessly around the head of the table and out the port door.
“I had to ask.” Forrester muttered regretfully as the door closed with a soft hiss and he was left alone to chew over his best friend’s advice.
On the edge of the Coltar system, the mighty starship Challenger slowed to sublight speed and began the final phase of her journey, pushed forward by her main impulse engine. It had been thirteen hours since the crew received their new orders and in a matter of minutes, as they neared the fourth planet of the system, they would finally start to get some answers.
“Any response to our hails?” Forrester asked. He’d taken to pacing back and forth across the bridge some five minutes before the Challenger arrived in system. The action had drawn glares from Kailir but he was too full of nervous energy to sit still in his chair.
Despite this being the third time the captain had asked in as many minutes, Lieutenant Commander Zarbrun managed to keep any hint of annoyance out of her voice. “No, sir.”
“Anything on sensors?” By this time he was standing on the starboard side of the command area, holding his hands behind his back.
Bennett didn’t answer right away. She continued studying the sensor data, typing commands into her console. “There’s a lot of subspace interference around the planet.” She eventually replied. “I can’t pinpoint the source of it yet.”
“Not an ion storm?” Forrester asked.
The chief science officer shook her head. “No,” she fell silent for a moment, swiping away one sensor feed and bringing up another, “but there is one out there and it’s heading this way.”
“Shit.” Forrester muttered under his breath. “How far out?”
Bennett studied the data again. “It’ll make planetfall in about thirty hours.”
“Bridge to engineering. There’s an ion storm headed this way. It’ll reach us in about thirty hours. I need you to come up with a plan for protecting the planet.” Forrester instructed.
The voice of Lieutenant Commander Jackson returned through the comm. “That’s not a lot of time,” that was an understatement, “but we’ll put our heads together down here and see what we can come up with.”
“Prepare to brief me on what you have in an hour.” He would’ve liked to be able to give the engineering team more time to come up with a plan but time was of the essence. “Forrester out.”
The captain turned his attention back to Commander Bennet in time for her to announce, “I’ve located the source of the subspace interference.” She swiped the holographic display in the direction of the viewscreen, transferring her display. It showed a representation of the planet with what looked like a misshapen O above it. “A subspace rift has opened above the planet.” She explained. “It’s flooding the atmosphere with tachyons.”
“Tachyons.” Forrester repeated. He knew little of tachyons, except that they could be used to detect cloaked ships and were often involved in temporal events. “What effect is that having on the planet?” Bennett’s brow was furrowed in concentration as she worked her console, studying the sensor data before furiously typing again. Forrester allowed her to work for what felt like minutes, but he was sure wasn’t anything close, before he prodded for an answer. “Commander?”
A few more seconds ticked by before the chief science officer spoke. “It looks like the planet is experiencing time at an accelerated rate compared to the rest of the galaxy.”
“How much faster?” Forrester’s heart leapt into his throat as panic surged through his body. Had the people on Coltar experienced days in the hours it had taken the Challenger to arrive? Months? Years? His mind immediately returned to his conversation with Mitchell.
All eyes on the bridge were on Bennett, waiting to see what her answer would be. “Based on my observations, I believe that they’re experiencing an hour and a half for every minute the rest of us experience.”
“So from our perspective, we lost contact with them sixteen hours ago,” Forrester did some quick mental arithmetic, “from theirs it’s been two months?”
Bennett nodded. “I’ll need more time to examine the data but based on my initial observations, yes.”
The panic seeped from Forrester’s body but tension remained in his neck and shoulders. There was still plenty for him to be worried about. “Be ready to give me a full briefing in an hour.”