The woman let out a thoughtful, “Mmmm,” and then a moment later, “Military then, huh?” and the comment, mixed with the flood of daylight as the ship picked up speed and soared out into the open air, made him wince. “So this is how Carthis funds its misguided war. Interesting.”
Part of him wanted to argue. No, he had nothing to do with Carthis’ war. Nor was this how that war operated. In fact, some of his best friends were part of that war and — but he stopped himself. Why should he defend himself to some half-rate day-hire pilot?
“Well whatever you’re trained on, Carthy, see those people over there?” She pointed towards the grandstands. “They still think I’m flying this ship so try not to embarrass me with your sloppy sailing alright?”
Finn let out a sharp laugh. “Sloppy? Excuse me?”
Suddenly, she was no longer in the back of the room, but at his side looking out the window. “Hey,” he snapped, letting go of the controls for just a moment to reach for his gun, but she didn’t make any aggressive motions.
“As far as they’re concerned, I missed my first cue, and…” She waited a beat and added, “Now I missed my second. You’re screwing up the Pykas, clearly.” She pointed upwards where Finn could see two smaller ships wavering awkwardly, unsure. “This thing was choreographed to every detail and now here you are, here I am just plowing across the field like an amateur.”
“Look, lady, I ain’t really concerned with your image right now,” Finn grumbled, picking up speed a little. “Now get back to–”
“Not concerned about your image either I guess,” she muttered indignantly. “You Carthy’s are all the damn same. All talk, no flair.”
“I’m not a–” Finn began, but shut his mouth, clenching his jaw. He narrowed his eyes and gripped the controls tighter.
Cai didn’t want to pick up a serving tray and start handing out tiny sandwiches to the Ellegian elite, but when he’d approached the back of the event and an older ally had shoved it into his hands, he didn’t really have much of a choice. There was a time when this had come terribly naturally to him. There was work to be done, he would do it, without even a second thought. But five years into his freedom, that was no longer the case and his urge to drop the thing and walk away in a huff was strong.
Still, he had a job to do. Even if it was a shitty job. A shitty job exploiting his somewhat painful history. At least this time he was behind the cause. Helping Corra wasn’t the worst reason to assume an identity he’d rather not be associated with any longer. No, stealing a crate of what turned out to be protein bars. That was the worst. The very memory made his spine tingle with unspoken resentment. He didn’t offer Alyx a sandwich when he passed her in the crowd.
Only when he’d done a full pass through the thoroughfare did he get the chance he was looking for. He hadn’t spotted Corra herself. Who knew if she was even here? But if someone had any idea, it would be Ranson Lars’ help and one particular young woman with a cropped ear and plain brown-grey dress was just the kind of source he needed.
Casually, he strolled up to where she stood by the far wall and leaned against it. She was watching the crowd dutifully, a little nervous he could tell. She seemed new to all this, fresh-faced and scared that any moment something terrible might happen. Which was why he kept his tone cheerful when he said, “Fun party, huh?”
She cast him a sideways glance, confused. When he smiled back at her knowingly, she let out a short-lived chuckle. “Yeah. Fun.”
“You working for Lars?” he asked as though simply curious. The terminology wasn’t right, he knew. She knew it too, by the look on her face, but Cai refused to use phrases like ‘belong to’ and ‘owned by’ anymore.
“Yeah,” she answered, the weight of what that meant heavy in her voice. “You’re one of the guests’?”
Cai let out a short bitter grunt. “You could say that.” And then, he decided to take his chance. He tilted his head at her and asked, “Hey, do you know about the Conduit?”
At once, he saw her tense and too quickly, she blurted out, “The what?”
“You know, the Conduit,” he said again, quieter. “I heard they sent an agent to help Lars’ people.”
Now, she looked downright terrified. “I have no idea what you’re talking a–”
Cai turned against the wall to face her. “Listen, I need to talk to her. The agent. It’s really important,” he insisted, but she was starting to move away.
“I’m sorry, sir, I really don’t know what you–”
Before she could slip back into the crowd, Cai reached out and grasped her wrist. “Please,” he begged, giving her his most desperate expression. “Please, I need her help. I need your help. You have to tell me where she is if you know. I’m begging you.”
The woman looked conflicted. Almost as conflicted as Cai felt for lying to this poor woman about his situation. But his guilt was something he’d have to face later as finally, thank god, her expression changed from scared to questioning to pitying.
“Okay, okay,” she relented, stepping closer to him and lowering her voice to a whisper. “She’s here. She usually hangs around Mr. Lars though, does the bigger tasks, she doesn’t wait tables or anything like the rest of us.” Her eyes darted behind her for a moment before she added, ever lower, “She has a plan. She’s gonna get us out and to the Conduit. Soon, she says. Very soon. I–I don’t know if she can help you, but–” She looked him up and down and frowned, apologetic, “Good luck.”
As if he didn’t already feel terrible about his fabrication, she seized his arm and squeezed it in solidarity before she slipped away. Cai was left standing with his empty tray, feeling awful. Why had he agreed to do this again?
Right, because Corra was here and she was in danger and he was going to find her. He drew a deep breath, tossed the gold-plated tray into the nearest garbage bin and marched back into the crowd, but not before glancing out at the arena where a compact transport ship was pulling elaborate flips through the air.
Wisps of white cloud flew past the window as the ship careened into the bright blue sky. Below, the crowd in the grandstands looked like miniscule, colorful dots. Really, it was a fantastic day for flying, and under normal circumstances, Finn would have really enjoyed the chance to show off before he flew away with this fancy prototype.
But he could barely enjoy himself. He had something of a nag barking orders behind him.
“Now pull her back and give ‘em a good roll,” said the pilot, leaned over him, her arm on the back of his chair.
Finn grumbled his annoyance at her, but it wasn’t a bad idea so he did as he was told, yanking the controls back and holding on tight as the ship hurtled itself through the air. But just to prove his point, immediately after, he pushed the controls the opposite direction and flipped her around in a dramatic turn to add some flair.
Beside him, his flying companion let out a raucous laugh, clapping her hand on his shoulder. “You’re better than I thought, Carthy! Got some skills after all.”
“I already said,” Finn muttered as he tilted the ship once more, “I’m not a–”