The Red Raven was a sleek trading ship that plied the unofficial trading lanes out between Sectors Five and Six. She was beautiful and built for speed. It was the most manoeuvrable craft Jenna had handled since the Justice
and the Liberator
"Let's see how good you are, Jen." Captain Tern Atton was as sleek as his ship. He was a man who exuded confidence and success. His clothes were functional but richly made, and leaned towards various grey tones. His crew were hardened free traders; all experienced in the art that was smuggling.
At first, Jenna had been apprehensive about the interest Atton had shown in her. She didn't know why a successful man like this, would look at a pilot that only had a reputation on an old trading ship; a pilot that insisted on having no history.
Redden had come through for her though. He explained that Atton had been his protégé at one time. The man considered him a mentor. On the strength of their relationship, Atton had been willing to give Jenna a try. The rest was up to her.
Jenna was sitting in the co-pilot's seat. The pilot next to her was a dark complexioned man named, Kotar Prex. The way Prex had been eyeing her since their introduction, Jenna knew that she would have to do something spectacular to prove herself to his satisfaction.
Jenna asked Captain Atton, "What did you have in mind?"
"We have an important shipment to deliver and we're tight on time. I want to go through the debris field in quadrant 15." Atton gestured to the navigator, a red-haired woman named Edina. The woman touched several controls on her navigation panel and brought up a grid view of Sector 6. She zoomed in on a large cloud of irregular shaped meteors that spanned almost the entire quadrant.
Jenna studied the objects on the screen, and then she turned to look at the captain and said, "That debris field is a death trap." She wondered what kind of people she had gotten herself involved with. Redden had said that Atton was successful and very wealthy, that was what Jenna had wanted. He hadn’t said anything about Atton being slightly crazy.
"Only if you don't know what you're doing," said Atton. "Redden said that you did."
This was her test. It would determine whether they would accept her or not. Jenna nodded and said, "Give me the coordinates." Jenna wondered what they were carrying that justified this amount of risk.
It made her uncomfortable for having to take this step. She had always considered herself a free trader, despite Vila’s constantly irritating assertions that she was a smuggler. Smugglers were only in it for the profit, they didn’t care who could be hurt by the cargo they traded in or helped ferry for others.
Then what does that make me now? She hated Avon for making her do this but at least she could console herself that it was for a good cause.
With grim resolve, Jenna took over the controls and moved the Raven towards the debris field.
A satisfyingly tired Argus and Reya had fallen asleep in each other's arms. Reya woke up first but didn't try to get up. She didn't want to disturb him and she loved watching him as he slept. Reya regarded her sleeping soldier with fondness as she ran her fingers through his mussed hair. She couldn't imagine loving anyone else as much as she loved him. They were both strong-willed and provided constant challenges for each other, but neither one could survive without the other, not anymore.
This situation with Sester was causing great stress between them. Reya knew the man was dangerous. She had no illusions about that. The others on the ship considered him a deceptive and manipulative enemy. She knew this also and recognized the truth of it, but Reya always had good instincts about people. It was what had made her an exceptional security officer for her brother. She had saved his life numerous times; several times being the only one who recognized danger from people others had deemed harmless. Her instincts told her that Sester was not all bad, that he could be saved from himself.
Even though she wished it wasn't true, Reya knew that Sester's feelings for her were genuine. It made everything more complicated and confusing.
Are Argus and the others right? Am I being a fool? Reya knew that she had lost her objectivity in matters concerning Sester but she couldn't believe that she had also lost her professional instincts. Her feelings towards this man were conflicting. On the one hand, she wanted to believe him. On the other hand, she still maintained a natural scepticism about everything he did.
For Sester, manipulation was a way of life; it was the way psychostrategists related to the human puppets they saw as their life's work. But Reya believed that Sester was changing; she could see it in him. Would I still be thinking this way if we hadn't shared that time together as prisoners?
She and Argus had to resolve this somehow.
Argus stirred. When he opened his eyes and saw her, his face brightened. "Good morning. How long have you been up?"
"Not long. I didn't want to disturb you."
"You always disturb me," he said with an impish smile. "But in a good way." He hugged her.
Reya said, "Argus, I know that you would prefer torture to talking about Sester, but I think we need to."
Argus's smile turned upside down into a frown. "You're right. I would prefer to be tortured."
"I don't want him to keep coming between us," said Reya.
Argus sighed. He knew she was right. "I don't want that either, but if you want to tell me to give Sester a chance, you can save your breath. You've already said it."
"But you haven't listened," said Reya.
"No. You're the one not listening, Reya. I keep telling you that he's dangerous and you keep thinking that he's harmless."
"I never said that he was harmless," said Reya.
"You believe it."
"I know what he is, Argus and I know who he works for."
"Do you?" asked Argus with a note of disbelief.
"I know we should be wary of him in most things, but I also think that he is capable of some good."
"That's what you want to believe," said Argus.
"You don't know him like I do." The moment she said it, Reya realized it was a mistake.
"Yes, I don't know him like you do." The anger flared within Argus. The energy and tension from the day before was building up again along with the anguish as he remembered what he had promised Servalan.
Reya put her hand on his chest, "Please, Argus. Don't be like this."
"Why do you always take his side?"
"You came in here yesterday, accusing me of doing something to Sester."
Reya felt guilty. "Yes, I jumped to conclusions, and for that I'm sorry, but I couldn't think who else would have hurt him."
"I didn't." Argus had a twinge of guilt. He may not be to blame right now, but he knew what he was about to do.
Reya said, "I know. I'm sorry for accusing you of lying before. It was wrong of me to do that. I do believe you. I know you would never lie to me." Her words made Argus feel even guiltier. He hated that he had to keep what he was doing with Servalan from her and the others.
Argus said, "You never told me what happened with Sester. Why did you think that I had hurt him?"
"Well, I came across him in the corridor…"
"A corridor?" Argus asked suspiciously, remembering Sester's other corridor encounters with Reya.
"It wasn't like that this time."
Argus was still suspicious but he kept listening.
Reya continued, "I came upon him in the corridor, someone had hurt him badly. He could barely walk."
"So you automatically thought of me?" Argus asked.
Reya said apologetically, "Yes. I'm sorry. He wouldn't tell me what happened and I couldn't think of someone who would hurt him like that. And it's not as if you haven't hurt him before. You did in the gym."
"He had full padding on," said Argus defensively.
"But only because I insisted that he wear it," said Reya.
"There are many people on this ship who might have confronted Sester. Avon and Cally for instance," said Argus.
"Yes, but I can't imagine Cally hurting an unarmed man. And Avon is too weak physically at the moment to do that kind of damage."
Argus asked, "Are you sure that Sester was even hurt? For all you know, he could just be playing for sympathy, trying to manipulate you. He's very good at that. Just ask Cally."
Reya looked troubled. "I know he is capable of doing it."
"But you don't want to believe it."
She said unhappily, "I…I know you think I'm a fool for wanting to believe that he can change."
Argus hugged her. "I will never think you're a fool. You're a good woman, Reya, but I think that Sester has proved how dangerous he is. He has been able to get past your guard somehow. Normally you're so careful."
She held him tightly. "I'm sorry for letting you down."
"No, Reya. Don't say that. You could never let me down by being you. I will try to find out what happened with Sester."
"Be careful. I don't want you to fall into the same trap that I did."
Argus doubted if that would ever be possible. As they talked, Argus hated Servalan even more. It was because of her that Sester was in their lives at all. One day he would have to thank her personally.
Sester was in the process of putting on a navy-coloured shirt when his cabin door slid open suddenly. The smile he directed at the door turned to surprise as Argus entered.
He said wryly, "I don't suppose it would do any good to put a lock on that door myself?"
Argus snarled, "You could try. I'm sure Vila would find it amusing."
Sester had an amused look on his face. The other man's hostility was almost comfortingly predictable but there was something else this time. It instantly put Sester on the alert. His normally active brain sharpened in attention.
The intensity with which Argus was staring at him made Sester apprehensive. Argus was normally a physically quiet man, but now he was clearly agitated and there was dark violence in his eyes. Sester’s voice still contained a light charm but he was also wary. "What do you want, Argus? I can’t imagine that you're here to inquire after my health?"
Argus's voice had the quality of sharpened steel. "I'm here to give you a warning." With that declaration, Argus grabbed Sester by the collar of the shirt he had barely put on and shoved him hard against the wall.
Oomph. It knocked the wind out of Sester. He was panting for breath as Argus held him there, nearly lifting him off his feet. Sester grabbed onto Argus arms. He had no expectations of freeing himself; he was just trying to hold on.
Argus's voice contained a controlled anger. " If you use Reya again, the way you used her against Vanora, it will be the last thing you do on this ship." His eyes were like deadly lasers that would bore holes through his enemy.
Sester said in a strained voice, "I was wondering when this would happen." First Avon and now you.
"Don't try to be clever, psychostrategist. It won't help," Argus said in a harsh voice.
“I don’t have to be smart to know that my admission of guilt in the Vanora incident would come back to haunt me.”
Every time that Sester spoke, it fuelled the rage in Argus. He formed his right hand into a fist and delivered two punches in quick succession to Sester's mid-section, causing him to double over. Sester was straining to breathe again. The only thing keeping him standing was Argus's continued hold on his collar, now twisted like the look on Argus's face. Argus yanked Sester back up. "Anything to say?" he growled.
Sester wheezed as he tried to speak. A psychostrategist, who no longer had the ability to communicate, was at a severe disadvantage.
When Sester could not manage to say anything, Argus said, "Nothing to say, psychostrategist? You usually have so many words to share. Especially to Reya." Argus punched him again. Every blow was like being hit by a heavy metallic object. "I forgot to thank you for that, by the way." Argus was relentless; punctuating each sentence with another blow.. Sester’s knees buckled; he was in severe pain.
Argus pulled him back up again so that he could continue hitting him. “You’re not very smart for a psychostrategist. You should never have tried to take something that’s not yours. That will never be yours.” He stopped hitting him and put his face close to Sester’s and said, “If you do that to her again, it will no longer just be a friendly warning.” Argus's tone would have frozen anyone's blood with fear, but Sester was no ordinary man. He was a psychostrategist; he knew when he needed to be afraid, and when not.
Sester looked straight into Argus’s eyes without flinching. He knew that this man was capable of killing him without much effort, but Sester could see that he had no intention to; at least not this time. This was simply a warning; an Alpha male marking out his territory. Sester was very familiar with this kind of dynamic. He straightened up as best he could, trying not to wince at the pain.
In a voice that would have been more effective if the act of speaking wasn’t a struggle, Sester said in challenge, “You should stick with making promises you can keep, Commander. You know that it’s not up to you to get rid of me.” It was not the wisest thing to say if he wanted to avoid a further beating but Sester knew that nothing he could say would stop Argus from delivering his 'message'. The look in the other man's eyes told him that. With an Alpha, one could never be seen to back down. Sester knew that only too well, being one himself; but for Reya's sake, he would not push Argus too far.
He said, "I do not take orders from you, Argus, but I assure you, neither one of us wants to see Reya hurt. I do not regret killing Vanora. I expect that being a military man, you would also have seen the necessity of what I did. The one thing I do regret is my method. I should never have used Reya in that way. It was wrong of me. That is why I'm willing to accept what you are doing to me now. But make no mistake about this, Argus. This is my choice, not yours. And it is for Reya's sake, not yours."
“You’re very good at acting,” said Argus with a sneer of cynicism. “You almost sound like you meant that. Is that what you did yesterday with Reya? When you pretended that you were hurt? Out in the corridor?”
Sester thought, Of course she told you. Reya must have been angry and confronted you about it. That would explain what you’re doing now. Despite his pain, Sester was filled with happiness. It meant that Reya cared about him. At least enough that she would not let anyone get away with hurting him, not even Argus.
Sester said in a stronger voice, “You can believe whatever you like, Argus.” The only one I want to believe me is Reya. He smiled to himself. And she does.
The unprovoked smile on his antagonist’s face made Argus even more irritated. He said, “Then you admit that you were just playing for sympathy?”
Sester said, “I admit to nothing.”
“Or you’re afraid to admit it,” said Argus.
Sester said with a sneer of his own, “As I said, you can believe whatever you like, Argus. There is only one person I’m interested in, and she already believes me, doesn’t she?”
Argus tightened his grip on Sester’s collar and pulled him forward, preparing to slam him angrily against the wall again. He stopped.
Servalan’s message had already been delivered and no matter how much he hated this man, he would not hurt him further. Since beating up Sester, the tension inside Argus had disappeared. The anger no longer clouded his instincts and his ability to think. He was starting to feel ill at what he had done. Argus let go of Sester suddenly, as if releasing something that was burning his fingers.
Sester sank to the ground and groaned. Argus stared at him, as if he was in shock. One would have thought that someone had just done something terrible to him too.
Argus thought in denial, this isn’t me. I don’t do this. I don’t beat up unarmed people. Avon would have a good reason to do this, I don’t. This makes me no better than the Federation torturers. A familiar self-loathing filled his guts and threatened to make him sick. This is me. It was the part of himself that he hated; the violent part he was too weak to control. Argus bolted from the cabin, as if some nameless horror were chasing him.
An hour after Argus had delivered his punishment; Sester was lying flat on the ground, trying not to move. He had tried to crawl to the bunk but had not been able to manage it. All he could do was collapse on the ground.
He was still in considerable pain and every breath hurt from the pain in his chest and ribs. Even though Argus had confined the damage to his torso, Sester felt as if his whole body was one big bruise.
The buzzer of his cabin announced a visitor trying to gain entrance. It had to be one of the few people on this ship who didn't want to see him dead. This person actually used the buzzer rather than overriding the door controls and barging in. It had to be Reya or Vila
Sester didn't want Reya to see him like this. It wasn't just a matter of pride. He knew that Reya would be angry if she found out what Argus had done to him. Sester was surprised at himself, but he didn't want her to be angry with Argus. Argus had just been trying to protect Reya and Sester respected that. He would have done the same in his place, and perhaps even worse.
The buzzer sounded again. Sester gritted his teeth and with a gargantuan effort, rolled over and crawled to the bed.
Vila stood waiting outside Sester's guest quarters. There had been no answer to his first buzzer. Vila had checked with Zen before coming here, Sester should have been in his cabin. He activated the buzzer again. "Sester, are you in there? It's Vila."
When there was again no response, Vila went to the comm panel embedded into the corridor wall. "Zen, locate Sester."
Zen immediately answered, "Sester is located in his cabin."
"Then why isn't he answering his buzzer?" wondered Vila aloud.
Zen responded, "There is no information."
"Great lot of help you are," said Vila. You're either in there, or not, Sester. There was only one way to find out for certain. Vila removed a tool from his pocket and set to work on the door panel. It didn't take long before the door slid open. Vila stepped inside hesitantly.
When he saw Sester lying on the bunk, Vila asked, "Don't tell me you're still sleeping. Do you know what time it is?"
Sester only moved his head to face Vila. He could barely keep his face from contorting with pain. Crawling into bed had already been difficult enough. He felt exhausted. Sester said in a tight voice. "I like keeping irregular hours."
Vila could see that Sester was trying to hide something and not doing it very well; which was so unlike him. There was also no friendly and easy manner about him. This was highly unusual. Vila also noticed that other than for his head, Sester had not moved. He had a suspicion and said, "Avon wants to see you and he said not to take no for an answer."
Sester grimaced. A summons by Avon was something he didn't want to ignore, but he couldn't try to get out of bed without revealing to Vila that he was hurting. Besides which, he doubted if he could. He said, "I'm not feeling well, Vila. Tell Avon that I can't come right now." Sester knew that this sounded inadequate but the pain was hampering his efforts to think.
Vila wondered what game Sester was playing now. "Then we should have Cally take a look at you. There are drugs in the medical bay that can cure almost anything." He took Sester by the arm and shoulder and tried to encourage the man to get up.
Sester couldn't help himself from groaning at the pain this movement cause. At this sound, Vila dropped him in shock, causing Sester to groan again.
Vila said apologetically, "I'm sorry." There was instant concern on his face. Sester may be the enemy, but Vila didn't like seeing people suffering. "You're not just sick, are you?"
Sester admitted hoarsely, "No." He grabbed Vila's forearm. "Don't tell anyone, Vila."
"Why? Who did this to you?" It was clear to Vila that someone had roughed Sester up. Vila wasn't happy that neither Avon nor Argus had said anything about any plans to beat up Sester.
Vila thought, It has to be Argus who did this to you. Avon can't.
Sester kept his grip on Vila's arm, "I can't tell you. Please don't tell anyone. Especially not Reya."
It has to be Argus then, thought Vila. He said, "Alright. I won't. But I can't leave you like this. I know! I'll get some supplies from the medical bay. I'll be right back." He headed out.