“Two and a half days behind.” Mitchell mused. “Even with that delay, we’ll still have about six or seven weeks between project completion and the ion storm hitting.” The Challenger’s engineers had been on Coltar for just over a week. While one team worked on construction of the fusion reactor, a second was working on upgrading the planetary power grid, while a third smaller team was fabricating the shield generators.
Forrester nodded as he chewed his salmon pasta. The two friends were sitting at the small mess area that had been set up in one corner of the gymnasium that was doubling up as their home away from home. Most of the crew preferred to avail themselves of the capital’s many restaurants and cafes so the mess was quiet this evening. “One benefit of this whole temporal craziness is that it gives us plenty of time to do what we need to.”
“Excuse me, Captain.” A voice to his left said. “This woman says she’s your-”
Forrester shot out of his chair when he noticed the person standing over Ensign Mazz’s shoulder. “Mom. What are you doing here?” He brushed past the Bolian ensign and hugged his mother.
“Well since you haven’t been home since,” she trailed off and skipped over any mention of what had happened during his visit, “I thought I’d come to visit you instead.”
Ushering his mother into a chair opposite Mitchell, Forrester thanked the ensign and dismissed him before turning to his mother. “Mom, this is AJ.”
“The famous Alexander Mitchell.” Mrs Forrester beamed with delight. “I finally get to meet my son’s boyfriend.”
While Mitchell choked on the water he’d been sipping, Forrester groaned. “Oh my god.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “AJ’s not my boyfriend, mom.”
“Oh.” Mrs Forrester’s confusion was written on her face. “The way you talk about him, I’ve always assumed that you boys were together.”
Forrester and Mitchell both shook their heads vigorously. “We’re just friends. Best friends.”
“I see.” Mrs Forrester was guided into the chair opposite Mitchell by her son. “Well if you two aren’t a couple, is there someone special? Because you seemed so much happier in your last letter.” Mrs Forrester asked, referring to a letter her son wrote shortly after taking command of the Challenger.
Before Mitchell could jump in, Forrester asked, “Can I get you something to eat or drink?” His mother opened her mouth to speak but stopped herself when she spied the replicator behind him.
“I’ll just have a cup of tea. Milk and two sugars.” She told him. Once her son was out of earshot, Mrs Forrester spun towards Mitchell. “Is he happy?” She asked conspiratorially.
Caught off by the question, Mitchell stumbled over himself in answering. “Um…he…I guess so?
“I guess so.” Mrs Forrester repeated with disappointment in her voice. “That’s not particularly reassuring.”
Forrester returned at that moment and placed a cup of tea in front of his mother. She eyed it warily for a moment before lifting it and bringing it to her lips. The way her nose wrinkled as soon as the hot liquid touched her tongue brought a smile to Mitchell’s lips. Her dislike for replicated food and drink was apparently unchanged by this latest experience.
“So,” Mrs Forrester began as she set the cup back down and pushed it away, “you were just about to tell me if there was someone special.”
Forrester answered ‘no’ at the same time that Mitchell answered ‘yes’. “His name’s Matthias Bentley.” Mitchell ploughed ahead before Tom had a chance to object. “He’s a former Starfleet Officer turned college professor at Kings College, London.”
“AJ.” Forrester whined in a manner that Mitchell thought wasn’t becoming a Starfleet Captain. “Enough.”
Bringing his palm down on the surface of the table, Mitchell could see Mrs Forrester’s shock out of the corner of his eye but his gaze was firmly locked on his friend. “No, I’m gonna keep banging on about this as long as I need to.” Mrs Forrester watched him intently but remained silent. She seemed eager to hear what Mitchell had to say. “What the hell’s wrong with you? There’s a great guy out there who likes you and wants to be with you and who you want to be with and you’re not even considering trying.”
“It’s not as easy as that, AJ.” Forrester complained. “It’s complicated.”
Mitchell leaned forward. “Bullshit.” He looked straight in his friend’s hazel eyes. They were guarded, they always were. “Bull. Shit. You spent twenty years chasing a dream, not letting anything stand in your way. And you achieved that dream. And now there’s something else out there that you want.” He quickly corrected himself. “Someone. And instead of going after him in that same single minded way you pursued command of a starship, you’re making bullshit excuses.”
“Thomas.” Mrs Forrester’s gentle tone stood in stark contrast to Mitchell’s harsher, combative tone. She took her son’s hand in hers as their eyes met. “Do you like him?” Forrester’s reaction wasn’t immediate. Eventually he nodded. “Then you should go after him.” He opened his mouth but was cut off by his mother. “And you may be right, it may be complicated. But you can find a way to make it work.” She smiled softly. “Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us so make sure the people you care about know how much.”
A screeching from his PADD tore everyone’s attention away. Forrester reached for the device and activated it, his eyes moving back and forth along the lines of text. As they did, his brow slowly furrowed deeper and deeper. “Shit.”
“What is it?” Mitchell asked, concern etched on his features.
Forrester looked up from the PADD. “Message from the Challenger. The ion storm’s accelerating. We only have a month until it gets here.”
“You and your big mouth.” Mitchell muttered as he pushed his chair back.
Turning to his mother with an apologetic look, he opened his mouth to apologise but she spoke first. “It’s okay. I understand. Go.”
“Thanks.” He leaned in and planted a kiss on her cheek. “I love you.” After instructing a nearby ensign to escort his mother to the transport hub, Forrester and Mitchell left the mess area behind. They had a lot of work ahead of them and not nearly as much time as they thought they did.
The next four weeks were a rush of 18-20 hour days as the Challenger’s engineers raced to complete their work before the ion storm reached Coltar. Jackson led the reactor construction, Forrester commanded the power grid upgrades and Mitchell was placed in charge of the shield generator construction and installation project. With only two days to spare, the fusion reactor was installed and ready to be activated, the power grid had been upgraded and the new shield generators installed.
Captain Forrester stood at a large window in the power facility’s control room and watched as the drizzle fell from grey clouds. This was just the beginning of the ion stom’s effect on the planet’s weather. In the next few hours the wind would begin to pick up and the rain would grow steadily heavier. By tomorrow there would be hurricanes lashing the coastal towns, tornados sweeping through the inland region, accompanied by torrential rain, thunderstorms and howling winds.
Even though free time had been scarce, Forrester had managed to spend a little time with his mother, meet his sister in law and meet her and George’s children, who asked when they would get to see the Challenger every time he saw them. The memory brought a small smile to his face as he continued watching the drizzle fall. “The calm before the storm.” Forrester muttered.
“Sir?” Forrester turned to find Jackson looking at him expectantly.
The captain hadn’t realised that he’d spoken out loud. “Never mind.” He said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Where are we?”
“We’re almost ready to activate the new reactor, sir. Just running a few final diagnostics.” Jackson reported as his fingers moved rapidly across the console in front of him.
Forrester’s PADD chirped, drawing his attention. Carrying the device around had become second nature while on Coltar since it was the only way they could communicate with the Challenger. A few taps brought up the message that Commander Kailir had just sent. He could sense Mitchell sidle up next to him while he read the message.
“More bad news?” Mitchell asked, craning his neck to try and get a look at the message.
Deactivating the PADD’s display before Mitchell could get a good look at it, Forrester lowered it to his side again. “Just the opposite. The Challenger’s getting ready to activate their anti-graviton beam. They should have the rift closed soon.”
“And the flow of time on the planet will slow and sync with the rest of the galaxy?” Mitchell asked.
Miller, who’d been standing nearby and overheard their conversation, joined them. “It’ll take a little while for the tachyons in the atmosphere to disperse but gradually, yeah.”
“There were reports of headaches and nausea around the time the rift opened, probably a result of the widening temporal differential.” Miller reported. “We should be prepared for more of the same as the temporal differential shrinks.
Forrester nodded in agreement. “Make sure our people are protected from the effects and work with the health authorities down here to prepare as best you can.”
“Captain, we’re ready to bring the new reactor online.” Jackson announced.
Stepping up beside the engineer, Forrester gave the order, “Proceed.”
Jackson’s fingers danced nimbly across the surface of the console. “Bringing the reactor online at five percent of full capacity.” A new hum reverberated through the facility as the generator came to life and began creating power for the planet. After a few seconds Jackson announced, “Everything looks good. Increasing to ten percent….fifteen…twenty. Holding steady as twenty percent.”
“Commander,” Valentina, one of the facilities engineers, shouted urgently as an alarm started blaring, “there’s feedback building in one of the power converters. It’s going to-” The console Valentina was working at exploded, catching her in the face.
Miller immediately rushed to the wounded woman’s side and Mitchell grabbed a nearby handheld fire suppressor pointing it at the flames flicking out from the console. Jackson’s nimble fingers turned frantic as he worked to shut the reactor down. The new hum ceased as quickly as it started. “What happened?” Forrester asked.
“A feedback pulse.” Jackson replied, the shock he felt evident in his voice. “It built up in the converter and fed back to the console.” He continued working his console as he searched for an answer to the only question on anyone’s mind; why?
Giving his chief engineer a few moments to collect himself and gather information, Forrester moved to where Miller was treating Valentina. “How is she?”
“Stable.” Miller replied. “But I need to get her to a medical facility now.”
Forrester motioned to Mitchell. “Help him get her to a hospital.” With Miller and Mitchell lifting Valentina out of the control room, Forrester turned his attention back to Jackson. “Report, Commander.”
“I still don’t know why there was feedback.” Jackson replied, still working his console. “There shouldn’t have been.”
That wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear. “How long until you can try again?” He asked impatiently.
“I don’t know.” Jackson snapped back, taking the captain by surprise. The regret was immediately visible on Jackson’s face. “I’ll need to figure out why it happened first before we even think about trying again.” He said, a tone of contrition in his voice. “That could take an hour, or a day.”
Forrester let out a sigh. “Alright, let me know when you have something.”
There was little point in standing over Jackson’s shoulder. His impatience would be on display for all to see and that would only set everyone on edge. Instead he found out from the facility’s administrator where Valentina had been taken and followed Miller and Mitchel there.