Chapter One








Komali IV was a world of towers.  On the outskirts of the Capital City, the structures were, for the most part, unremarkable; many of them were old and decrepit, probably the result of countless Tholian attacks.  The few structures that remained were simple domed buildings that couldn’t have been more than a few stories high.  People still lived in and around the buildings, as was evidenced by the activity bustling in the narrow streets.


However, the further one traveled into the sprawling city, the more impressive the architecture.  The slender crystalline towers were newer, taller, and spiraled majestically into the purple skies, casting long shadows on the smaller domed buildings below.  But even these ethereal structures paled in comparison to the Violet Citadel—the massive tower at the heart of the Capital City.


Shimmering in the pale sunlight, the Violet Citadel dwarfed everything around it, towering so high into the sky that its peak was obscured by wisps of ashen clouds.  The work required to build and maintain such a structure was mind-boggling.  Neelar Drayge was tempted to inquire about the creation of the impressive structure, but suspected the explanation would be a lengthy one.  For now, was content to believe the Komali were simply good engineers, and leave it at that.  Besides, he had other things on his mind, like finding out about that piloting seminar…


“We are going in circles,” Neelar duly noted as they turned onto a narrow tree-lined street for what seemed like the tenth time.


Bator simply shrugged.  “You are the pilot,” he insisted.  “Navigate.”


If only it were that simple.  “Navigating a starship through the void of space is one thing,” Neelar explained as they strolled down the street.  The trees were tall, and littered with dozens of beautiful white blossoms—they almost reminded him of cherry blossoms from Earth.  “Navigating through a big city like this one… is another thing completely.”


Bator snorted.  “Then we should have beamed down closer to our destination,” he grumbled.  “Should I call the Starlight for transport?”


“And miss out on all of this?” Neelar asked, gesturing grandly toward the tall spiraled toward surrounding them.  “You don’t see elaborate architecture like this every day.  It’s almost comparable to the ancient Chodak ruins on Alinor.”


Bator raised a curious brow.  “I had no idea you had such an interest in architecture.”


Neelar smiled deviously as they treaded the bricked pathway.  “There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” he mused as they reached an intersection in the pathway.  But instead of turning left, as they had apparently done on their ten previous visits, Neelar decided to turn right.


The new pathway was similar to the old one—lined with a colorful assortment of native flora and fauna.  But there were also a few Komali wandering this particular boulevard.  And instead of wandering the streets of the Capital City for the rest of the day, Neelar quickly decided that one of them might be able to help.  He very quickly approached the lavender-skinned man sitting on a stone bench in the shade of a tall willow. 


“Excuse me,” Neelar politely said as he approached.


The man promptly snapped away from his distant thoughts, and turned his attention to the Bolian.  “Yes?”


Neelar hesitated for only a moment before gathering the courage to continue.  Speaking with strangers was certainly not his forte.  “My friend and I are visiting from the Federation…”


The Komali man glanced at the Starfleet uniforms.  “Obviously,” he said lightly.  “Is there something I can help you with?”


Neelar nodded.  “We were hoping to go to a seminar on the new tactical fighters being developed here,” he explained.  “They are used by the Federation to conduct short range—”


The man raised a dismissive hand.  “I know what they are,” he said with a smile.  “My name is Gaias.  I’m a lieutenant in the Elite Komali Guard.”


And now that he placed Gaias’ clothing under a bit more scrutiny, Neelar realized that the man was indeed wearing military garb—a simple gray jumpsuit with a pale green line across the shoulders.  He had a few decorations above his left breast, but with his limited knowledge of the Komali, they meant very little to Neelar.  “So… I guess you’re probably aware of the seminar, then?”


Gaias nodded agreeably.  “I’m a pilot,” he proudly responded.  “I’ve been doing cargo runs throughout this sector for two years.  It’s practically second nature to me now.”


Neelar knew the feeling.  “I’ve piloted the Starlight for almost four years,” he said.  And it was hard to believe that nearly four years had elapsed since young Ensign Drayge took the helm for the first time.  “I think I’m almost to the point where I can pilot the ship in my sleep.”


“I know the feeling,” said Gaias happily.  He rose from his stone bench and ushered Bator and Neelar down the street, closer to the heart of the massive city.  “At first, the Tholians gave me a considerable amount of trouble; I probably lost half of my cargo to the Tholians the first few months I was in service.  But now, I can run circles around them.”  He smiled at the memory.  “A part of me is almost going to miss them…”


“The Tholians are a formidable opponent,” Bator chimed in.  “The Starlight has not yet had to face them in battle.  However, if and when the day comes, I’m certain that we’ll crush them to a pulp.”


“Quite an imagination you have there, Bator,” Neelar quipped.  To the best of his knowledge, the Federation’s relationship with the Tholians had improved considerably in recent decades.  The chance of a confrontation was nominal, in his opinion.


The trio slowly walked toward an elaborate stone overpass that connected two of the city’s majestic spires.  As they passed beneath the bridge, they came upon a courtyard filled with trees and flowers.  A large brick pathway curved around the perimeter, interrupted at intervals by five smaller paths intersected that it like spokes on a wheel.  These myriad spokes all led to the large domed building at the center of the courtyard: the Komali Tactical Research and Development Lab.


There was little wonder why Gaias smiled at the sight.  “You’ll find the interior to be equally as impressive,” he mused as they followed one of the spokes toward the entrance.


“I don’t doubt it,” Neelar replied, his voice filled with awe.  “This is truly an impressive facility.  In fact, the whole city is impressive!  I could easily lose myself here.”


“You already have,” Bator wryly reminded.


The large circular doors on the front of the building promptly irised apart as the trio approached, revealing an incredibly massive corridor—at least four stories high.  It led straight back to the assembly hall, where a dozen or so Komali stood congregated at a computer terminal. The hall itself was, for the most part, empty, but Neelar suspected that would change soon enough, when the seminar commenced.


“Major Krimen,” called Gaias, his voice echoing wildly throughout the expansive chamber.


Neelar and Bator followed Gaias through a shaft of golden sunlight as they approached the Komali officer standing at the head of the computer terminal.  He was a tall man, with broad shoulders, thinning gray hair and a pair of sapphire blue eyes that seemed to twinkle in the sunlight.  His pale lavender skin was mottled in places, but for the most part, he appeared fit.  “Lieutenant,” he sternly greeted.  “Is there something I can do for you?”


“There is.”  Gaias motioned back to Neelar and Bator.  “Two of our Federation guests are interested in attending the seminar on the new tactical fighter.”


Krimen sighed, and promptly sized up the new arrivals with a mindful eye.  The Major’s face remained utterly neutral during the process, but something in the back of Neelar’s mind didn’t like what he saw.  He suspected that, beneath Krimen’s kind exterior was a hardened, by-the-book military officer.


“What is your name?” Krimen suddenly asked, his bright blue eyes fixed upon Neelar.


And it took Neelar a moment to find an answer.  Despite the simple question, the force behind it had caught Bolian off guard.  “Lieutenant Neelar Drayge,” he said as he collected his thoughts.  “I’m the helmsman aboard the Starlight.”


Krimen promptly tapped the information into his computer terminal before his eyes fell upon Bator.  “And you?”


“Lieutenant Bator.”  There was no hesitation in his voice—in fact, it was almost on par with Krimen’s rather stern tone.


The Major nodded as he added Bator’s data to the computer.  “That will be all,” he said simply.  “Dismissed.”




Rumors had a tendency to spread—and as Matthew Harrison strolled through the Starlight’s corridors, he quickly realized that one rumor in particular was spreading like wildfire.  But much to his chagrin, it was the “rumor” of his pending promotion that was spreading… which, in truth, was no rumor at all. 


It seemed that everyone on the Starlight knew of the promotion, despite Harrison’s attempts to keep it clandestine.  Of course, Commander Tompkins’ rather boisterous tone this morning did little to help the situation, but even before then, people clearly suspected something was amiss.  And now that those suspicions were somehow confirmed, every last person on the ship had made it a point to congratulate Harrison on sight…


By Harrison’s estimate, a no less than ten people would congratulate him as he strolled through the myriad corridors of deck seven.  And while he appreciated the kind gestures, they were the reason he wanted to keep the promotion clandestine in the first place.  Despite the kindred feelings behind the congratulatory offerings, after the fiftieth iteration, it began to grow tiresome…


Thus, Harrison took some very decisive evasive action when he saw a small group of officers emerging from the turbolift at the end of the corridor.  Without so much as a moment’s thought, he turned on his heel and retraced his steps to the narrow corridor he had passed moments ago—only to stumble over Talyere Rosat.


The Elorg sat quietly on the floor in the middle of the empty corridor, his eyes shut, his palms open.  Obviously, he was mediating, but for the life of him, Harrison could not figure out why.  “Traditionally, one meditates in his quarters.”


“And I usually do,” said Talyere without flinching.  “However, on my way to the bridge, a few intriguing thoughts crossed my mind.  I thought I would take a moment to explore them…”


“In the middle of the corridor?”


“Those fleeting thoughts were fragile,” Talyere insisted.  “It would have been most unfortunate if I were to lose them in the turbolift.”


Harrison nodded.  “Of course,” he said, as if Talyere’s explanation made perfect sense.


But Talyere was apparently satisfied with his explanation, and gave no further thought to the subject.  “I understand you are to be promoted.”


“Yes,” Harrison wearily grumbled, now regretting his decision to let the subject change.   “And please, there is no need to congratulate me.  I believe I have heard enough of those for one day…”


Talyere finally broke his meditative pose, and turned his vivid orange eyes upon Harrison.  “You do not appear overly ecstatic about your new assignment,” he candidly observed.


“That is odd, is it not?”  Harrison carefully propped himself up against the wall across from Talyere, and slowly slid down to the floor.  “For my entire life, I have aspired to become a starship captain—it was my childhood dream.  And now, the Columbia is mine to command, and I find myself having second thoughts about… everything.  I don’t know if I’m ready…”


Talyere frowned.  “You have commanded the Starlight on numerous occasions,” he said.  “And unless I’m mistaken, you are in command right now…”


“True,” Harrison conceded.  “But my tenure in the Starlight’s command chair has always been brief—and relatively uneventful.  This diplomatic mission to Komali IV is hardly going to prepare me for my own command.”


“That is what you think,” Talyere interjected,  “but there are trials and tribulations behind every unopened door.  Thus, every mission is a learning experience, no matter how inconsequential.”


At the very least, Harrison knew his diplomatic skills would get a little sharpening. If that had some sort of cumulative effect, then he would certainly make an excellent diplomat some day.


“If it is any consolation,” Talyere continued, “I believe you are a capable commander.  In your heart, you know this as well.  You’re probably just worried about the new responsibility that comes with your new command.


“On the Starlight, you delegate.  You give orders to your subordinates, reports and suggestions to the Captain—but ultimately, every major decision is Captain Christopher’s to make.  Your suggestions are just that.  But on the Columbia, you will be the one making the decisions.”


“A definite change of pace,” said Harrison agreeably.


“But one you will adapt to,” Talyere replied as he rose to his feet.  “Now, I believe I was headed for the bridge…”




There was a spring of excitement in Neelar Drayge’s step as he entered the Starlight’s shuttle bay.  The seminar was less than sixteen hours away, and Neelar could hardly wait to get back to the surface and see what the Federation and Komali scientists had come up with.  Whatever it was, he was certain it would be a worthy successor to the Peregrine—and with any luck, he would be able to take it for a test drive.


Despite the fact there were countless high-ranking Federation and Komali officials on the surface, Neelar was confident his experience at the Starlight’s helm would give him some sort of preferential status.  And even if he wasn’t able to personally fly the prototype, he knew that he would likely be chosen to man the Aztec in the scheduled combat simulation.  The coming days were bound to yield some excitement, one way or another.  But first, Neelar had to make certain the Aztec was in perfect working order; if he was going to participate in the combat simulation, he wanted to win…


However, as he stepped inside the shuttle bay, Neelar realized that somebody had beaten him to the punch.  The hatch was wide open, and loud noise that almost constituted music blared from within the cockpit.  “Hello?” he called as he approached the Aztec.


No response.


Neelar thought about calling again, but he suspected his words wouldn’t penetrate the wall of noise emanating from the ship.  Thus, he climbed aboard the tiny craft, made his way through the aft sections of the ship, and into the cockpit—where Lucas Tompkins sat pecking away at the helm controls.  “Commander!”






There was still no response.  Unwilling to waste his vocal chords shouting at the engineer, Neelar simply approached the nearest workstation and turned the music off.  And that managed to get Tompkins’ attention.


“Neelar!” he exclaimed, swiftly coming swiveling around in his chair.  “I didn’t even hear you come in!”


The Bolian rolled his eyes.  “Your… ‘music’ was a little loud.  If you can call that music.”


“Heh…” Tompkins grinned, and slowly turned back to his work.  “Heavy metal—some Klingon group Justin Reinbold recommended.  The qul mI’wI, I guess. I’ll loan it to you if you’d like.  It starts to grow on you after the third or fourth listen…”


“I’ll pass,” said Neelar without hesitation.  Though his knowledge of Klingon language was limited, as far as he knew qul mI’wI roughly translated to “Fire Dancers.”  And he had long ago (well, five seconds ago, anyway) made it a point in life to avoid anything bearing the name Fire Dancers.  “Give me a simple Bolian Nocturne any day.”


Tompkins chuckled.  “Suit yourself,” he said lightly as he tapped at the helm controls.  “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m giving this baby a little tune up.”


“No, not at all,” Neelar replied.  “In fact, that’s why I was coming down here.  I wanted the ship to be in perfect working order for the combat simulation.”


“And it will be,” Tompkins readily assured him.  “You’re going to kick some serious ass.”


“Good,” said Neelar agreeably.  “Make sure you pay special attention to the maneuvering thrusters.  They seemed a little sluggish the last time I was at the controls.”


Tompkins glanced down at his workstation.  “They seem to be working fine,” he gleaned from the readout.  “But I’ll see what I can do.”


Neelar flashed a faint smile.  “Thanks.”




Proceed to Chapter Two

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