Timeline: A few days after the Enterprise-C was destroyed, the events of the "Vulcan's Heart", my story "Term of Honor", and immediately after “Assignment”. It’s standalone though.
Ajeya came into the office as ordered and took a quick glance around. A wall of computer screens on her right displayed news broadcasts on the revolution that defeated the late Praetor Dralath. Other monitors showed Fleet information which was why she was here.
"Commander." Charvanek, the new head of the Imperial Fleet, looked across her antique desk. It was most likely an historic item from the family's House. The lightning shaped blade of a Nobility Saber hung on the right along the back wall. On the left hung an Imperial flag in a protective case, tattered from battle and blood on the hoist and pole. Its design marked it as old, centuries old, and that it once hung proudly in the then Emperor's flag ship. One of Charvanek's ancestors most likely marked it with his or her blood as they saved it before it was destroyed or fell into enemy hands. It was then given as a gift for the House's honor.
I remember when my House had such favor.
"You sent for me," Ajeya said respectfully. She'd get nowhere whining about the past; a harsh lesson she'd learned decades ago.
"I'm sure you know why. We're rebuilding - the Empire, the Fleet, from Ki Baratan out to the colonies." Charvanek sat back in her chair and gestured for Ajeya to take one of the ones in front of the desk. "A good part of it is moving out people who don't deserve their ships and moving up people who do."
The news feeds ran like unnatural bird call in the background, but Ajeya used them to help herself out. "I only wish my ships and I were closer to the home worlds or Narendra III when all this broke. We could have made a difference."
Charvanek eyeballed her, probably weighing if Ajeya was sincere or if she would have sided with Dralath if the battle looked like it swung his way. She must have passed because the other woman pushed over a padd. It showed a schedule for upgrading and replacing older ships to the new class. Something that would take finances which the Empire had little of now.
Something on a couple screens shot Ajeya to her feet. Vids of someone called Lady Evaste, but Ajeya knew. The braids couldn't fool her.
" Are you all right?" Charvanek watched her.
"Yes, Commander. It was just a surprise." She jerked her chin at the screen showing the late Dralath talking to a woman, a provincial healer, with warrior braids. "I thought that she - I could be wrong but she's…"
Ajeya let out a long exhale. "Yes, ma'am."
Charvanek gave small nods in answer. "I was just as surprised. I found out too late to do anything about her. She was gone, but she didn't do any damage. She must have realized people were on to her. How did you recognize her so fast?"
"From her file, the one sent to all ship commanders. To warn us."
But Charvanek was too sharp, too smart. "I feel like you're holding something back. Do me a favor, Ajeya. Don't make me go find it."
Damn it. Ajeya swallowed and carefully sat back down. "I don't know how you're going to take this. I'm hoping – I'm betting my life – that you will understand."
Charvanek's eyes narrowed.
"Some years ago, I was assigned to the team that they sent to breakdown… Hellguard. Assigned to the team is actually inaccurate. My Commander and the ship I served on were given the orders and she put together teams and we went to the surface. My job was data records, cleaning everything out, leaving no trace."
"What about the Vulcans and the children?"
"That was another team. …They weren't called children." Because they weren't!
"So, you never saw them or the Vulcans?"
In one video, cocked her head to her side, her brows drawn together as she listened. In the next second, her head snapped up, and then leaned back. Both were gestures she inherited from Ajeya; according Spock, she also made a third gesture: banging a fist on her thigh when less controlled and provoked.
Ajeya made certain she made none of them now in front of the Fleet Commander.
"No, I didn't see them. …Well, not as part of my official duties. I saw the… children twice."
Charvanek leaned over the desk. "What did you think of them? What were they like?"
"Honestly?" And it was one of the few times Ajeya spoke honestly about Hellguard. "I saw one boy and he reminded me… of my son at that age. All gangly limbs and knobby wrists and ankles poking out of clothes that weren't long enough anymore." Her chest constricted but she pushed on. "The second time, I saw a… girl. She was hurt, so she was in the hospital. And Thair, who was the lead scientist, thought it'd be funny to show she knew how to salute."
Charvanek cursed the scientist under her breath.
Ajeya kept on. She had to. "I saw the Vulcans once. That was it." Including… His… betrothed, I think.
"So, when your ship left Hellguard, Ajeya, you-"
"This is all on record, Commander. Everyone's reports were filed, so it might be better to read those."
"I will. However, I want to hear you tell what you can. When your ship left, what was done with the Vulcans and the children?"
Ajeya took another deep breath. "They had extermination orders." Which was odd because throwing away all those resources made no sense. But she had wanted her own half-blood creation dead, so she didn't fight it. "It hadn't been done when we left, but it's what we were told. More orders to erase…. everything, I guess, so there was no evidence in the unlikely event the Federation or Vulcan heard about what was done. Plus the people in the Empire who-"
Charvanek interrupted. "Who didn't want anyone finding out they fathered or gave birth to one of those children."
Because we didn't!
People had parents. Pets, animals, they all had parents. Saavik – Saavik was a failed scientific project.
(Ajeya flashbacked: Her son, Ehiil, picking up his pet set'leth and showing him how she came through the door. "Look! Mommy's here!")
Ajeya dropped her eyes. "Yes."
"Or that they supported the colony in another way."
"Yes, exactly. So, it was a surprise when I saw – her." She pointed shakily at Saavik's image. "The rest is just rumors. How the weapon used to attack Starfleet Command was built on Hellguard and that's what happened to the Vulcans and all. They were used for experimenting."
Charvanek lowered her gaze with disgust. "Anything else? Something you thought?"
"…You'd be surprised how many there were. Of the…" She held her hand down towards the floor to indicate the children. "…I was."
The other woman cursed again. "What happened to the Empire that we created such a place?"
Ajeya inhaled deeply. "That's all I can tell you, Commander. As I said, I hope you understand. I hated being part of it, but I thought I was backed into a corner. You know from my record how I fell out of favor with a Praetor. It cost my House and more."
You have no idea how much.
"Of course I do, Ajeya. You followed orders, your Commander, and your Empire. You had nothing to do with what the place was and you only dealt with data."
And now that you think I revealed the thing I was hiding, you won't go looking for anything else. She'd escaped, again.
She risked a glance at the screen to find Saavik in front of thunderous applause. Unbelievable! Ajeya thought of what she had done and would still do for her family. Too many battles, losing her husband's love, and her House. She began to quote. "Like stars, she survives in the darkest places. She's been broken. She's been defeated. She felt pain that most couldn't handle, but she always finds a way to get back to her feet."
She didn't expect Charvanek to speak the rest, "She's the type of woman who you go to war besides. One of those not lost in fire, but built from it. Make no mistake. The fire inside is smoldering, not extinguished. She has been through Hell, so enemies fear her when she looks into the nightmare's flames and smiles. The Fates whisper to her, 'You cannot withstand the storm,' and she whispers back, 'I am the storm. I wasn't looking for a hero. I was looking for my sword. I needed a champion, so that's what I became. Throw me to the eagles and I'll return leading their convocation.' She's unbreakable. She's a warrior. She survives."
Charvanek finished, her gaze still on the screen, and Ajeya remembered the other woman had destroyed her Honor Blade in a pact with her crew.
What is she thinking?
Ajeya hoped it wasn't any of the dangerous things in her mind's own shadows, like where did Saavik come from. But it looked like it might.
"The Ballad of Jiceen," the higher Commander identified. "You think this one," tipping her head to Saavik, "is worthy of it?"
Ajeya forced an easy smile. "I thought we were talking about ourselves."
"I like that better too." Charvanek smiled as she shook her head. "Although, it explains a few things. No wonder the Klingons love her."
What?! "They do?"
"Some of the news following all this fallout. One other thing. The little girl who saluted. What do you think the odds are?"
"That she was this Saavik? …It was her. Thair introduced her." He had a twisted sense of humor. "I can only go by her name, not from a physical description. Her face was swollen from a beating." Or I would have recognized she looked like – the Vulcan. She still does.
Charvanek lunged across her desk. "From another child or one of the adults?!"
Tread carefully. "I don't know, Commander, but my guess is that it was Centurions in the complex under Thair's orders." As Charvanek's curses grew more heated, Ajeya kept the fact off her face that she had made the young Saavik squirm in pain too by nearly crushing her hand.
Ajeya let it sit before saying what she'd wanted since seeing the hated face on the screen. "Ma'am, allow me to track her down. We can't risk her attempting to enter the Empire again. If she failed her mission because she was found out, she'll try again!"
The other woman came around and sat on the edge of her desk. "I understand exactly what you're thinking. In fact, I practically had this same talk with someone else. But killing her? I can't order it now. We need to give the Federation time to cool their anger over the Narendra III attack and I just brought up the Klingons attachment to Commander Saavik. We also have the personal war from Ambassadors Sarek and Spock if Saavik were to be killed. She's part of their House now. She's also linked to Kirk's crew which is another layer of Starfleet Command behind her. Of course, that's if you kill her."
"I can kill her," Ajeya insisted. "And if I go after her myself, then the Empire has no fallout from me doing it."
The other woman frowned lightly. "Is there a special reason for your interest, Commander? Because even I am not so interested in catching this Saavik."
"I only thought-" She suddenly met Charvanek eye to eye. "Yes, I have a special reason. I feel responsible. We were to end the Hellguard problem and we didn't." She needed to be wary, she could see it in the way the other Commander watched her again. "I'm not saying I wanted a call for infanticide, but this woman has become a threat to the Empire. You've seen her record, you know. Somehow, I do feel responsible."
Charvanek said nothing for a long moment. "As I said, we can't do anything at the moment. Our resources are needed with other priorities. We will revisit this in time. Until then, you are not to feel responsible for this Saavik, understood?"
An alarm sounded on the computer, saving Ajeya. Charvanek bent over it and her face set into a fierce mask. "I have a smuggler who went where he shouldn't have."
"Do you want me to escort you?"
"No need. He's already been arrested. I can take care of him." Charvanek was halfway out the door. "He told the guards his name is Achernar."
It took only three seconds for the Fleet's Commander to be gone and Ajeya's whole body sagged in relief. Charvanek should follow typical behavior and take this scandal of Ajeya being on Hellguard's shutdown team as being the only thing she was hiding. That meant she wouldn't go digging further and find out Ajeya was part of the colony, that Saavik was her… mistake. Or that she had gone after the half-breed before, years ago, something that would have meant being banned from the Empire since she'd crossed the Zone.
Ajeya looked at Saavik in the news report. "You." She curled her hands to strike. "I need to kill you."
Her fingers bit into her palms as she imagined Saavik's response.