Gale nearly burst into tears when her wake-up alarm went off. She'd been fading in and out of consciousness all night, like a stone skipping across the surface of true sleep, never actually coming to rest. Every muscle in her body cried out in protest as she sat up to silence the alarm. She staggered around her one room apartment in a daze, running through the rote steps: turn on the kettle, find a shirt, brush her teeth, take her drugs... These latter were running low, so she quickly made a new alarm on her comm to remind her to go to the pharmacy for a refill after work. The kettle was already whistling by the time she finished her washroom routine, with just enough water to brew a cup of synthetic tea and rehydrate her breakfast. Enough sweetener could make anything go down.
As she choked down the fortified algae, she flicked through her comm by muscle memory. Of course there wasn't anything new to read, beyond the typical corporate propaganda stories and local message board postings. The satellite relay was still down due to CME damage with no clear timeline on repairs, leaving them cut off from their homeworld and the rest of the Terran colonial diaspora. That didn't stop her from opening her news feed, closing it, then reopening it by ingrained habit for want of any sort of stimulation.
Her alarm went off, so she shoveled the remaining food into her mouth and washed it down with the last of her tea. Five minutes remaining to leave to catch the shuttle. Employee accommodations were located well away from the planetary headquarters, burrowed into the leeward side of a mountain ridge so as not to disrupt the scenic view from the executive suites. The future residents of the upcoming luxury resort and vacation community wouldn't want to have their privileged lives infringed upon by the knowledge of the peasantry toiling to sustain their standards of living, of course.
Pulling from the acceptably dirty floor pile, she cobbled together an outfit for the day: almost matching socks, a bra, wrinkled black slacks and a cute blue blouse. It was nothing special, but working in a technical role meant she could get away with it. The dress code for anyone who had to interact with executives or, stars forbid, customers, was far more restrictive: makeup requirements, both minimums and maximums for skirt length, even an approved list of hairstyles. She quickly combed her hair through with her fingers until the worst of the tangles were out, just in time for her departure alarm.
Gale threw her work bag over her shoulder and set off for the shuttle stop, though not before double and triple checking the apartment door to make sure it was securely locked behind her. Sure, property crime wasn't common on Xenia, but losing any of her few sentimental personal belongings would be crushing. That wasn't the reason for her rigorousness in securing her apartment, of course. Far more concerning were those employees whose devotion to the company bordered on the fanatical, who would eagerly report any deviations from policy to advance their own careers. She didn't need any sycophants rummaging around in her underwear drawer trying to find any unlicensed movies or other contraband. How dare anyone try and break up the monotony of their servitude, right?
She was about to pull on her respirator as she reached the lobby doors, only to be pleasantly surprised by the visibility. There was a light morning mist, but the habitually thick clouds of black dust and sand thrown up by the ongoing terraforming operations were absent. One of her poor coworkers would probably be spending the day running around trying to locate replacement parts for the excavators after yet another completely avoidable equipment failure, but she would gladly enjoy the fresh air while she could.
It was still dark and somewhat chilly this early in the morning, exacerbated by the thick black cloud cover typical for the season, but the recessed lights along the edge of the path provided more than enough light to make her way to the shuttle stop. The clear visibility meant the shuttle should be on time. During intense dust storms, the shuttle's arrival could be delayed by as much as an hour. Being late to work regardless of the reason would mean accruing penalty points and possible pay deductions, of course, so employees generally had to be out at the shuttle terminal at least two hours before the start of their shifts to be safe.
The shuttle delays would be trivially avoidable by using the rail solution she repeatedly brought up in every relevant meeting, eliminating the need to slow down to adjust for poor conditions. She was, of course, shot down at every turn because there wasn't enough room in the budget. There was enough room in the budget. She had run the numbers until she went cross-eyed. It would save them money in operation expenses within three financial years due to reduced fuel costs. What the managers really meant is that capital expenditures and operational costs came out of different budgets, and they didn't want to cut into their performance bonus metrics when they lived in the primary settlement and weren't affected by the horrible shuttle service. Bastards.
She was glad for the cold as she settled onto the hard metal bench, which had a very slight incline and claustrophobic separator bars for their users' inconvenience. Even though she was in continual danger of falling asleep whenever she stopped moving, the cold kept her uncomfortable enough to remain at least partially alert.
At least she could crush some caffeine pills into her second and third morning teas once she got to the office. The administrative secretaries liked her because she didn't harass or leer at them, unlike many of her male counterparts. And so, by doing the bare minimum to be a decent human being, she had managed to secure the highly coveted access code to their break room and, with it, actual bonafide tea and the best gossip on the planet. In exchange, she was more than happy to expedite their requests to the facilities team whenever any of their office supplies broke down or ran out.
The shuttle arrived almost exactly on time that day as well, continuing the string of unexpected good fortune. After swiping her transit card and taking her seat, she pulled out her most recent notebook and flipped to the shuttle section. A quick flick of the ballpoint pen placed a tally mark down on the "0-10 Minutes" line, only the fourth in that category for that financial quarter. Although her efforts to improve the colony's mass transit system had thus far been in vain, the only way she would ever have a chance to get any traction was with a preponderance of evidence in her favour. A mentor early in her career had given her the advice to "document, document, document, make sure your ass is covered no matter what", and she had taken it to heart. Her notebooks and archives were her life, especially with her memory and sense of time being so unreliable.
The air from the overhead vents was slightly too warm for her, and so she found herself halfway dozing off as she stared out the window. Other employees filed past her to their own seats, and Gale absentmindedly clutched her bag closer for security. At last, the shuttle rumbled to life, rolling out along the unpaved road towards the city. At least the employee shuttles were the same as those intended for use by resort customers, so the seats were comfortable and the shock absorbers adequate for the rough terrain. As a precaution against the gentle rocking, she set a wake-up alarm on her comm in case she nodded off.
Gale didn't quite manage a nap on the trip either, but it certainly felt as though it passed shorter than usual. Her alarm went off as they crested the hill into the main portion of the settlement, jolting her out of her reverie. Despite still being very much under construction, the touch of the marketing and compliance teams practically radiated from every surface. The streets were arrayed in geometrically perfect arcs and lines, flanked by rows of unnaturally uniform trees and lamp posts bearing banners depicting colourful copyrighted characters.
The Linden Corporation had made itself a household name by cornering the market on procedurally generated media. They had developed and perfected algorithms capable of generating endless quantities of bland, generic, and above all, easily marketable music and video content. They used to develop works of their own many years ago, ones which had employed real human animators and actors and artists, but now those works were simply just another piece of data fed into the corpus used to train the system.
The shuttle stopped periodically to let workers off at a number of different stops along its route, inching ever closer towards the gleaming corundum glass spire of the colony headquarters adorned with the Linden Company logo. Although iteratively redesigned over many years to complete abstraction without any true material significance, Gale had come to project onto that odious symbol all of the negative feelings she felt towards the company and her employment since her misfortune of being assigned to Xenia. She couldn't decide if it more closely resembled a sickle blade, reaping all of the hopes and dreams of the company's employees, or a sinister ever-watchful eye gazing down balefully upon its domain.
The shuttle passed along the waterfront of the artificial lake, and she watched absentmindedly as they passed by rows of totally empty luxury condos and five-star resorts flanked by under construction casinos, sports bars, nightclubs, and other such entertainment. Even though the company meticulously cultivated a kid-friendly image, it was clearly willing to suspend its moralizing for the sake of diversifying its revenue stream. All of these were reserved for future customers, all totally off-limits to employees.
The final stretch of the road was flanked by manicured topiary up to the very foot of the complex, where it looped around an ostentatious water fountain. In marble, of all things. Xenia was nowhere near seismically active enough for metamorphic rock, meaning it was either nanofabricated or quarried and flown in from another system. The acquisition was made through the entertainment division rather than operations, so she hadn't seen the actual expense sheets, but either way, the fountain would have cost more than she'd make in a hundred years.
Gathering her bag and her wits, Gale stepped off of the bus at the stop with a mask of vague non-specific enthusiasm, accompanied by a stream of others from the same complex with the same expression. From various conversations in confidence she was sure that the majority of them, true believers in the company excepted, felt as gross and miserable as she did. But one didn't want to get written up for an 'unprofessional attitude' and put on a performance improvement plan by being open with one's feelings. When one was asked "how's it going", the socially required response was always good or better, or else things would become difficult.
Every day she fantasized about quitting, but the company wouldn't pay for the interstellar transport costs to move back home. She had heard through the grapevine that the viewing deck of the Linden Centennial Convention Center overlooking the water was an affordable alternative though.
That would be a problem for another time though. For the time being, she had a job to do.
She knew something was off the moment she stepped into the building, though she wasn't aware if her other coworkers filing in even noticed. Heather wasn't there at the front desk. Nor did she have a replacement there filling in, as would have been expected in the event she had called in sick. No explanatory sign stating when she would return, nothing. The front desk was simply empty.
Hoping that she was simply in the break room with the secretaries for the breakfast gossip, Gale stepped into the line to wait for the elevator, longing for the promise of tea on the fourth floor. The building had been constructed with enough space for all the staff to manage the operations of the resort after opening, meaning that most of the space was empty while construction was ongoing. While the empty floors with rows of identical unoccupied cubicles and conference rooms were somewhat eerie, it gave employees the opportunity for peace and quiet if they were able to annex a quiet corner of their own. The secretary break room was one such scavenged space.
Unfortunately, just as she was reaching the front of the line, the intercom overhead crackled to life. Gale bit her lip to stifle a groan at the impending pre-recorded motivational message. It came as quite a shock when, instead of some synthetic bland voice telling them to put their best foot forward, the regional company Vice-President spoke up sounding oddly strained. "All employees are required to immediately report to the Main Conference Hall for a..." He trailed off momentarily, as though searching for the right word. "An important meeting. Attendance is mandatory." He finished, blandly. Then, just before the intercom clicked off, she could make out a few syllables of another strangely accented voice in the background.
Gale's brow furrowed despite herself as anxiety began churning in her gut. Nothing about "strategic direction" or "consolidating opportunities" or any other buzzwords. Gale despised all the corporate speak to the very core of her being, but much like the silence before the onset of a storm, their absence spoke to the seriousness of the situation. Though perhaps it might be the kind of thing that a powerful executive might find dreadful but she would revel in, such as additional regulatory requirements or legislation requiring Linden pay a decent wage.
Either way, Gale had learned a trick for such meetings that would allow her to, if nothing else, be open about her reactions to whatever news there was. As a member of the colony's operational support staff, her security clearance allowed access to most technical spaces within the settlement in order to assess needs or perform basic repairs. One such room was set just behind the rear wall of the conference hall, intended by some off-world executive to allow for the use of ancient projection technology in presentations. Of course, the holo-displays on the stage rendered such a thing totally obsolete and the room had never been used for its intended purpose, meaning Gale could simply slip inside and watch the proceedings comfortably from behind a one-way window.
A swipe of her badge on the sensor next to the unmarked door unlocked it with a pleasing click, and she slipped inside before the flood of employees from the upper floors arrived. As she climbed the flight of stairs, she noted once again how many of the working spaces within the colony were completely inaccessible for those with mobility challenges. She would make another note in her notebook, but she was well aware this was a fight she wouldn't win. She had barely managed to make sure that their employee eating spaces had ramps.
Gale stepped into the room and settled into the comfortable office chair with a groan, pulling out her notebook to make a note under the accessibility section before sliding it up to the window. Down below, employees were filing in down the aisles - one of which did have a ramp at least - and into their seats, milling about and talking animatedly with one another. The speakers in the projection room would allow her to hear the presentation clearly, probably better than most of the people in the room below. Unfortunately, they weren't quite sensitive enough to make out the details of any individual conversations, leaving Gale to stew in her thoughts as she waited.
After about 15 minutes, soon after the last few employees trickled their way in, the VP finally made his appearance on the stage, stepping up to the microphone at the speaker's platform. Another unusual sign. These kinds of meetings always had an assistant announcing their arrival and the meeting agenda, even when there was only a single speaker. In the privacy of the room, she didn't need to suppress her anxious fidgeting, and her foot bounced anxiously as she waited for him to begin. Her colleagues in the room below seemed to be feeling the same way, as the room fell to a hush the moment they noticed his arrival.
Even from her distant vantage, Gale could tell just how tense he was as he cleared his throat, and she couldn't help but pick up the anxiety sympathetically. He gripped the piece of paper in his hands like a life preserver, and his face was red and flushed. "Effective as of two weeks ago," he spoke haltingly, "The Linden Corporation's Xenia Administrative Region was officially dissolved. Xenia, and all colonies and stations within human space..." He paused, taking a gulping breath as confused murmurs began in the audience. "...have been ceded to the Affini Compact according to terms of the... the Human D-Domestication Treaty."
The room immediately burst into an uproar, employees demanding answers as to what the Vice-President could possibly be talking about.
The screaming didn't start until the alien creatures flooded into the room from every entrance, monstrous shapes of twisting vines and leaves and thorns.