When Alyx had suggested stealing a ship, this wasn't what she'd had in mind. She'd pictured a clandestine deal in the black of night, in an alley, amongst whispers and hurried footsteps. That's usually how it went.
But this could not have been more different. Sweating beneath the summer heat of an Ellegian moon, she adjusted the skirt of her high-fashion dress. An elaborate hat that cost more than a small ship shaded her face. Ridiculous as she thought it looked, Cai, who had attended many of these events during his time as an Ellegian ally, had been correct in assuring her it was a necessity to blend in. They'd only been at the 1868 Lars Technologies Preview and Demonstration for ten minutes and already she'd seen an array of headwear that deserved far more fascination than the ships performing tricks out in the arena.
Cai himself was tagging along behind as she gradually lead the way through the throngs of mingling socialites in the grandstand. Unlike her and Daelen who strode by her side, he wasn't dressed in Ellegian finery, but the dull garb of those that flitted between the guests serving drinks, offering food, attending to the inevitable moments when one woman's hat got caught in another's and generally blending into the background. And he wasn't very happy about it.
"Do I always have to play the ally?" he grumbled under his breath, quiet enough that only they could hear.
Alyx glanced back at him and tilted her head. He'd expressed his dissatisfaction with that particular part of the plan from the get-go, asking if he could instead play the part of the husband or brother or even the estranged cousin. She couldn't blame him for finding the notion unappealing, but as bad as Alyx felt about it, the logic was infallible. Which he surely realized as she unintentionally stared at his cropped ear.
"Sorry, Cai, but-" she began but he cut her off with a sigh.
"Yeah, yeah, I know, need someone to check behind the scenes, I get it," he mumbled, clearly irritated.
Alyx shared a glance with Daelen who just grimaced and shrugged. "Hey," she said, cracking him an apologetic smirk. "Next time you can wear the hat, I promise." He eyed her for a moment and then returned a smirk of his own.
"I'm holding you to that," he mused. "But in the meantime, I'll go sniffing around out back."
"And we'll see if we can hunt down this Ranson Lars fellow," said Daelen.
"Stay safe," Alyx told Cai who just laughed off her worry and disappeared into the crowd with expert skill. Then she turned back to Daelen and took a deep breath. "Shall we, Mr. Orsada?"
"Of course, Ms. Orsada," Daelen replied, dutifully taking her arm and strolling onwards. As they walked, Alyx scanned the face of every dully-dressed serving girl they passed. She'd just wanted to steal a ship to pay for the Beacon's fuel. And yet here she was, dressed to the nines searching for Corra. She could only hope Finn was carrying out his end of the bargain.
Far from his companions in the grandstands, Finn slipped through the ship hangar toward his target. Excitement outside was mounting as ships zoomed through the air in spectacular feats of piloting, the crowd was roaring in the distance - no one was watching as he crested the metal ramp of a ship and boarded the vessel like he owned it.
Which, if this all went to plan, he soon would.
The ship was small, a convenient state-of-the-art transport vessel. It had no cargo bay to speak of, just seats lining every hallway, and it probably held twenty people total, compared to the Beacon's two-hundred. But it was a beautiful little bird, fitted with the highest tech on the market, fast, and all slick silver metal, which Finn admired as he strode down the hallway toward what would soon be his bridge. Alyx wanted him to steal a ship to sell off on the black market? This one would certainly fetch a high price.
In the bridge, the poor, unsuspecting pilot was readying for her performance. Seated in the captain's chair, she had one hand on the COMM button, and the other adjusting dials.
"Checking in, this is Allerion 2, ready for take off."
"Confirmed Allerion," said a voice on the other end of the line. "Cue coming in 30. Remember to stay in formation with Pyka's 3 and 4."
"Got it, boss, ready and-"
But before she could finish the message, Finn crossed through the room, hit the dial to silence the call, and pulled the gun off of his hip.
"Sorry, mate, but hand over the ship," he growled, resisting the urge to smirk - this hadn't lost his fun. "And I won't pull the trigger."
The end of his gun was centered at the woman's forehead. Her mouth fell open in shock.
"W - Who the hell are you?" she breathed, standing up to her feet.
"The man who'll be taking over this flight if that's alright by you," he answered simply. "And for your sake, I hope it is."
In a shaky voice she breathed, "Just - fuck - alright, take it. I don't get paid enough for this."
"I figured as much," Finn said agreeably. He jerked his head amicably toward the back of the cockpit, indicating she move away, though he didn't pull the gun from her forehead just yet. "Back off, alright? Nice and easy and I won't have to blow your head off - oh, and give me your jacket, would ya?" he added, as casually as if they were trading clothes for fun.
Wide-eyed, the woman shakily slipped the jet black pilot's jacket off of her shoulders. Holding up her palms in surrender, she backed away from the bridge just as Finn shrugged on the jacket and dropped into the chair. Now he really looked the part.
"Right," he said brightly, surveying the controls.
It wasn't the first ship Finn had ever stolen, but it was certainly the prettiest. And the newest. He hadn't seen a control panel like this - well, ever. He stared at it in silence for a few moments, his eyes searching over the controls for some semblance of familiarity. "Right…." he muttered again, scrunching his face in concentration.
After a moment, he felt his unfortunate guest's eyes on the back of his head, but when he spared her a glance over his shoulder, she was looking straight past him out the window at a green light that had flicked on above the open hangar door.
"That was your cue," she pointed out, sounding a little bitter. "You missed it."
Finn frowned at her. And frowned at the light. And then frowned back at the control panel.
Finally, she said, "It's the blue switch. There? On the left? That's what you're looking for."
It was, he realized, as he reached over and flipped the switch, causing the whole ship to hum as the engines began to rev up. "Thanks," he mumbled, not feeling very thankful as he took hold of the steering and lifted the ship off the ground with ease.
"You're welcome," she answered. And then a moment later, "You're not very good at this, are you?"
Finn scoffed. "I'm trained in Class-A's, specializing in the 750's. Little more intense than this overpriced luxury liner."
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-"
"Double-check the radiator settings," she interrupted suddenly. "Or you'll blow out the gas line. And then you'll need to - "
" - engage the thrusters, yeah, yeah, I know," Finn snapped. It was just like being back in school, he thought sourly as he stood up from his seat. He turned to hit to the proper dial on the wall, though before he could hit the button -
Slam. White-hot pain shot through his head and he staggered sideways, emitting a gruff "ergh!" as his hand jumped to the back of his neck. He sank against the wall, his vision swimming.
Blinking dully, he saw the pilot standing over the dashboard, holding a long silver pipe in hand - a decent weapon choice, judging by the throbbing in his head. She threw him a sideways glare and started to take over the dials on the dashboard.
"Hey!" he yelled in surprise, as if she'd said something foul and offensive and not just tried to knock him out. "What the hell? I thought you said you weren't getting paid enough for this."
"If I take the ship back from a thief, I'll get reimbursed plenty, don't you think?" Smirking, she leaned over the field of controls, taking back the main steering. With difficulty, Finn dragged himself up to his feet and then took advantage of the distraction: clumsily, with a groan of alarm, he lunged at her.
He'd never really learned how to fight cleanly.
But she wasn't giving up the helm without a fight. "Give me back - my - ship!" she growled, as they wrestled for control of the dashboard. She kept one hand on the navigation as she threw her fist sideways against his chest. Finn seized her thrashing wrist and pinned it behind her back. With his other hand, he fished his gun from its holster, but it was knocked away by her elbow to his chin.
Meanwhile, the ship was zig-zagging through the air, tilting the floor dangerously beneath their feet.
What the hell was he doing? Alyx had been watching the flight of the ship Finn was supposed to steal since the moment it flew out of the hangar. It had started out alright, making a clean swoop across the massive field, but then things had gotten funny. He was supposed to just fly right out of here and take the thing back to the Beacon, but when it hit the end of the field, it had flipped around and started pulling elaborate stunts.
The way the surrounding ships flew, it was clear this wasn't the intended show so Alyx was certain either the pilot they'd chosen was particularly bad or it was indeed her pilot at the helm. And he was ignoring the plan.
But just when she was about to write him off as the cocky show-off he was and swearing to herself that she'd give him a piece of her mind later, things took a turn for the worse. The stunts got a little...jagged. Something started to feel legitimately wrong. A chorus of confusion and wonder started to rise from the crowd around her. And then, all at once, it changed to panic as the transport changed direction midair and was suddenly headed straight at them.
Alyx unconsciously seized Daelen's arm as though she was going to escort him to safety, but she found she couldn't take her eyes off the ship as it barrelled towards the grandstand, seemingly gaining speed. Fortunately, her physician had a better reaction time. Just before the hull sliced its way through a support beam as though it were made of butter, Alyx felt a harsh tug on her arm and her whole body was yanked out of the way as the entire grandstand was swept up by a cloud of debris and an enormous crash.
Before Finn opened his eyes, he could hear the horrified gasps of the crowd, the pounding of feet, flooding his ears. Every part of him was aching dully. He forced his eyes open to mere slits and glimpsed white clouds and a slice of bright blue sky, blurry and wavering above his head.
A long, low groan rolled from his throat. From somewhere nearby he heard the pilot staggering to her feet. "Hey. You alive?"
"I think so," Finn mumbled. Then he muttered earnestly, "Hey, nice job pulling the emergency mechs," and she answered, "No, it was all you. We'd be goners if you hadn't adjusted the lift at the last second. That was pretty amazing."
Voice barely above a groan, he grunted, "That's true. I am amazing."
Wincing with pain, he sat up, feeling blood and debris across his face. The ship was crumbled in pieces all around him, emitting black smoke. Crowds of people were circled around the ship, staring in awe.
Coughing, and feeling that he better get out of here before the authorities realized what had happened, he started to stand up to his feet.
But then he saw her.
In the front line of the crowd stood someone he recognized at once. Her hair was shorter, her stance was weaker and she was wearing a dull grey dress that barely fit her, but she had the same wide puppy-dog brown eyes, currently gazing straight at him and looking thunderstruck. Finn would have recognized her anywhere.
" - Corra?"
He meant to call for her, but he barely choked out her name, hoarse as he was. He tried again, squinting his eyes at her, as if seeing a mirage - but somehow, he knew it wasn't.
"Corra!" he yelped.
Her expression suddenly folded into - sadness? Apology? And then she turned on her heel and fled, melting back into the crowd. Disappearing.
Finn started to climb out of the debris to follow after her, but then he felt a hand seize his shoulder.
"Finn! Finn, are you alright?" It was Alyx. She'd pushed her way through the crowd and took him by the arm. "You're okay? Here, don't try to stand - "
"No, no, I'm fine - Alyx, look - Corra's here! I just saw her, we have to go after - "
"Did you hit your head then?" Alyx asked worriedly, looking him over. "It's gonna be okay, Daelen's on his way."
"No, I'm fine! Alyx, Corra was just here! Go after her!"
Alyx looked stricken with confusion. She glanced over her shoulder and then back at him. "Finn, what are you- I'm not going to-"
Why was she not understanding this? "Alyx!" He seized both her arms and looked her straight in the eye, standing as still as he could. "If you don't go after her now, we'll lose her. This could be our only chance. You need to go find her."
Her eyes searched his face, but she didn't move. She wasn't even going to try? How could she not realize what she was doing? How important this was? Did she not even care?
But then her stare found something else. The woman, the pilot he'd flown with, was talking to someone on the other side of the crash. She was pointing over at Finn and stern expressions came over her audience. And then, Alyx was grasping his wrists. "No, Finn, I need to get you out of here," she said and started to pull.
Finn didn't have the strength to fight her. As she started to lead them out of the area, away from the crash and the crowds, he tried desperately to find that face again, to pick her out amongst the staring eyes, but there was nothing. She was gone. And as Alyx dragged him down the steps towards the docks where the Beacon's shuttle was waiting, he wondered if he would ever see her again.