Neelar Drayge had been fond of the Dark Star. It had been like his child; he had taken great care of it, spoiled it rotten (with upgrades and routine maintenance), and made sure it was safe in the shuttlebay before he went to bed each night. Consequently, the young Bolian was more than a little upset when the vessel met its fiery end in the rugged Farhelian Mountains on Ka’Tula Prime.
For several nights, he had strange dreams about the tiny ship. For several days, he found his mind would often wander in the midst of some boring staff meeting—and when he finally came to his senses, Neelar realized the Dark Star had again pervaded his thoughts. At times, it seemed like a fixation of sorts, but then Neelar realized that those times were so few and far between that he had little to worry about—besides, it was only a shuttlecraft.
But then, she entered his life, and everything changed. She was a beautiful sight to behold—bold and curvy, almost seductive in her appearance… And her power… oh… she had power… The very thought of her often sent a chill down Neelar’s spine.
She was christened the Aztec, and served as the Dark Star’s replacement aboard the Starlight. According to the specs—which Neelar memorized—it was a Warrior-class vessel, registry NX-88592. It was armed with phasers and over 600 micro-torpedoes, as well as twelve quantum torpedoes. It had a transwarp drive, temporal sensors, and a prototype temporal shield grid that was so complex it made Neelar Drayge’s head spin.
Consequently, the Bolian did his best to ignore the shields—it wasn’t his area of expertise in the first place. For Drayge, it was the helm that concerned him most, and the Aztec certainly kept his interest. He sat next to Ensign Rivers at the cockpit in the front of the vessel and simply stared at the vast array of buttons to touch…
At its core, the Aztec provided the same, simple layout as any other Starfleet shuttle. But underneath that streamlined interface was a vast array of new and improved functions that were just waiting to be accessed—and Neelar couldn’t wait to do it.
Suddenly, the stern voice of Lucas Tompkins brought the Bolian’s thoughts out of the clouds, and back to business. “We have six days to take this bad boy on a shakedown cruise,” he said, his hands resting on the back of Drayge’s chair.
Neelar glanced over the astrometric data before him and quickly came up with their route. “I’m plotting a course to the Delta Zeridar System,” he said evenly. “That should give us plenty of time to test out all the new features… and then some.”
Tompkins tapped his hands on the chair for a moment. “Cool,” he said. “Do it.”
Neelar smiled, and stared at the sleek controls for a moment before placing his hands upon them and finishing off the deed. Within moments, the starfield went from utterly still to magical blur of light before an intense flash of white light enveloped the view. Moments later, the calm, verdant hues of a transwarp conduit streaked by at high speed.
But instead of experiencing overwhelming joy, Neelar frowned. “The ship seems a little sluggish, Commander,” he said, staring at the controls.
Within moments, the chief engineer was at his side, reading over the data for himself. He sighed and grumbled, then tapped a few controls on the helm before stepping back and grumbling some more. “Just need to regulate the flow of plasma to the nacelles, that’s all.”
“Would you like some help, sir?”
It was Rivers that had spoken. He was an Ensign that had recently transferred to the Starlight from Starbase 241, most likely to escape the stupidity of Admiral Alexis O’Connor. He had short-cropped dark hair, a strong build, and from what Drayge could tell, a fairly good sense of humor.
Tompkins, who was already halfway to the Aztec’s aft compartment, stopped dead in his tracks and came about to face the Ensign. “Sure,” he said in response to Rivers’ request. “I’ll take all the help I can get.”
Brimming with newfound enthusiasm, Rivers quickly scrambled to his feet and started heading for Tompkins. He got no further than a few meters before falling flat on his face.
Without warning, the ship had suddenly jolted. Drayge’s eyes darted down to the sensors, expecting to see a report indicating they had passed through some turbulence or a similar phenomenon. What he saw was practically beyond comprehension. “Ensign,” he called out, “what is this?”
Slowly, Rivers picked himself up and wandered back to his seat beside Drayge at the helm. He quietly tapped the computer controls for a moment before the sensor data popped up on his side of the workstation. Within seconds, the look on his face went from confident to confused. “I have no idea,” he said after an additional moment’s thought.
The statement summarily brought Lucas Tompkins between the two of them. “Damn kids don’t know anything,” he quipped before accessing the computer for himself—but much like those “damn kids,” Tompkins was quickly befuddled by the mysterious sensor readings.
In retrospect, Neelar decided the sensors weren’t so much incomprehensible, as they were just plain odd. Under normal circumstances, transwarp conduits were straight, or slightly curved tunnels that existed within a layer of subspace. With that in mind, Neelar was able to deduce that these were not normal circumstances.
This transwarp conduit seemed to be bent and self-intersecting, winding through subspace like a pretzel. Tompkins cringed upon seeing it. “What the hell is that?”
“I have no idea,” said Drayge.
Tompkins shrugged. “Drop out of transwarp,” he decided after a moment.
It made sense—if the conduit was their problem, leaving it seemed to be a viable solution. Drayge summarily tapped to appropriate controls on the console before him, calling forth a massive swirling nether before them, pivoting around a gaping void like a hurricane. It was hardly the traditional exit from transwarp, but it appeared to be the only one they were getting.
Within moments, the gravitational forces generated by the swirling vortex began to pull at the Aztec, coercing it to make a journey into its ominous depths. Neelar looked to Tompkins for guidance. “Should we fight it?” he asked.
Tompkins shook his head. “Let’s see where it takes us,” he said. “We haven’t been in the conduit very long… so we couldn’t have traveled very far. We’ll just jump back to warp and try to figure out what the hell happened to the conduit.”
“Then hold on,” said Neelar as the ship started to shudder…
The massive green hurricane loomed closer, steadily pulling them closer and closer to its gaping eye. Beyond it, Drayge could see nothing but darkness. No stars… no nebulae… nothing…
The lights began to flicker as thin tendrils of energy started to crawl along the control panels. Neelar carefully backed away, not wanting to be taken out by a renegade blast…
The rumbling grew more violent. Bulkheads creaked and clamored, seats swayed, and Neelar’s stomach grew week as they drew nearer and nearer to the mysterious void. For a moment, he suspected his lunch was about to make a return appearance, but the Bolian willed it down, and simply watched in pure, detached horror as they went inside.
There were explosions… And a flash of light. And the next thing Neelar knew, he was staring up at the twinkling starfield once more.
“Where are we?” asked Rivers, who was also laying uncomfortably on the floor, practically underneath the helm.
Neelar helped him back into his chair before turning to access the computer—but it was no use. The interface was pitch back.
“We’ve lost main power,” Tompkins said. He was standing at the threshold to the aft compartment, covered in dirt and grime. “I’m having a hell of a time restoring it.”
“So,” said Neelar amidst a nervous sigh, “it looks like we’re dead in space…”