Gale was frozen in shock and terror watching the scene unfold below. The skeptical part of her brain tried desperately to rationalize the scene below away, to little avail. Even if it could have been part of some absurd viral marketing promotion for some new movie, Linden simply didn't have the kind of creativity to imagine something like this. The plant-like alien creatures towered over the humans in the room bearing vaguely humanoid shapes, but the way they had moved as they entered, flowing into the room on creeping tendrils, made it abundantly clear to Gale that such shapes were no more than an arbitrary decision on their parts.
However, rather than leaping upon her flat-footed coworkers in their folding theatre seats and liberating their gastrointestinal tracts from their abdomens, they just simply remained standing at the entrances. Imposing certainly, their considerable height advantage by around a meter made sure of that, but nowhere near as aggressive as she had anticipated. Some even appeared to be waving or making similar uncannily humanlike gestures.
They were on the stage as well, she realized. Coming from stage left, yet another of the aliens moved with astonishing quickness to seize the microphone from the Vice President at the podium. The latter eagerly relinquished it to the alien, nearly tripping over himself as he leapt away from its rippling vines and exited stage right.
"Good morning Terrans. Please remain calm, everything is alright." the creature spoke. Its voice was not at all what Gale anticipated, and not simply because it was speaking intelligibly. It spoke softly in a pitch that fell just on the feminine side of androgyny, but with a distinctly inhuman timbre that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. "You are safe. We do not wish for you to cause yourselves any harm." Gale shivered, processing the implicit message behind that particular phrasing: that the aliens didn't consider harm to themselves a potential outcome. "No matter what you may have heard, the safety and well-being of the species under our care is the highest priority to the Affini Compact."
What did it mean by "What they may have heard"? It took her a moment for the picture formed by those words to resolve, and Gale barely stifled a gasp as she put it all together. The satellite relay. If Terra capitulated to the invaders weeks ago, this Affini Compact must have been busy taking over all of humanity for months. And the whole time, the inhabitants of Xenia were unaware of the fate befalling the rest of their species due to a damaged satellite network. Unless, of course, there was never any stellar flare. She felt like someone was pouring ice water down her back, staring at the edge of the stage where the Vice President had escaped. It would be typical for the Linden Corporation to try and cover up the fall of the human race to avoid compromising their productivity.
The aliens seemed to be fairly quick on the uptake as well, perhaps realizing that the crowd's reaction wasn't quite what they had been anticipating. "Our intentions are no more or less than what we have stated since we made our presence known to your people. No matter what rumours you may have heard, we Affini only wish to ensure the happiness and health of your species." The crowd's uproar only grew at this, and the alien's puzzlement was palpable as it seemed to listen to the crowd. "What do you mean? How could you have no knowledge of us? Your planetary government was fully aware of our presence and intentions."
Somehow, this statement was the match that lit the powder keg of anxious energy building in the room. The widespread realization of what Gale had surmised about the company seemed to finally render the situation tangible to those in the auditorium who had been immobilized by shock. All at once, the dull roar of the crowd reached a crescendo as the crowd burst into movement, streaming for the exits and even storming the stage. Perhaps some of these were intending on tracking down the Vice President and extracting an explanation out of him, an impulse which she fully understood.
The alien - affini? - at the microphone reacted swiftly to the commotion without hesitating. "Oh, roots, please remain calm," it pleaded with the mass of frightened humans to no avail, before speaking to its fellows in what Gale presumed was its native language. The affini at the hall exits moved into action, preventing egress while reaching out with vine-like tendrils and ensnaring those who came too close. They also, she noted, relocated those who risked being trampled by the surging crowd.
At the front of the hall, an individual in a grey suit managed to climb up onto the stage, only to have the speaker lunge frighteningly quickly upon him. Gale watched in fascination as it produced an array of brightly coloured flowers from within its biomass, pressing one to the man's face and several more against various points on his body. Although it was surely inaudible over the din in the room below, the alien still held the microphone, and the projection room's audio system allowed Gale to hear the affini's gentle whispering voice as though it was speaking directly into her own ear. "Shhh, little one, just rest for me. No harm will come to you. I promise." All at once, the man went completely limp, like a puppet with its strings cut. Ever so gently, it cradled his curled up form in its vines and placed him down at the back of the stage. Then, the moment its previous victim was deposited, it burst once more into frenetic movement to address the next fleeing human.
Gale had seen enough, and had heard far more than enough. Rising onto unsteady legs, she pushed herself out of the chair and made her way down the stairs, ignoring the soothing whispers from above as the alien speaker subdued yet another of her coworkers. Reaching the bottom, she pressed her ear against the artificial wood door, listening for any signs of conflict. Nothing. Wasting no time in case the affini called in reinforcements to quell the crowd, she burst out of the door at a full sprint towards the stairwell.
Her coworkers had arrived from the upper floors to the conference hall without screaming and panicking, meaning the building must not be totally filled with aliens. At least, not yet. She had a brief window of opportunity, and she absolutely intended to make the most of it. Gale wasn't exactly the most fit person, to be honest with herself, but she was in shape enough at least to take the stairs two at a time up to the third floor where her office was located. Her heart was pounding loudly in her ears as she followed the familiar twist and turns to her office.
Her badge was ready in her hand as she reached the office door, unlocking the room with a quick swipe. She didn't know if the affini were monitoring the security logs, but she hoped that they would at least be busy for long enough for her to get what she needed. Fumbling around in her bag by touch, she retrieved an old-fashioned key ring and unlocked the off-grey filing cabinet in the corner of her room. She slid the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and, with complete disregard for the useless files, turned it over to pry away the false bottom she had secretly installed. If nothing else, she wouldn't be going into this situation unarmed.
Gale was a bit of a daydreamer. It was hard for her to stay in the moment with such a loose grasp on time, leaving her mind to float free and wander through endless theoretical possibilities. What she would do in a fire. What she would do if a zombie pandemic broke out like in the movies. What she would do if there was a disaster at the nanofabrication plant, unleashing a swarm of all consuming nanomachines, despite knowing just enough to know that wasn't how it worked. Occasionally she would mention her plans for one of these ridiculous scenarios over tea in the break room to entertain her coworkers, to their amusement and gentle ribbing.
If they all survived this, she would be able to gloat about being prepared for this scenario for years. Perhaps not with the exact details, but close enough for her.
Tucking her secret weapon away into her bag, she leapt into her computer chair and roused it from its sleep. What she was about to do would not only be just cause for termination, it would be a criminal offense. On the bright side, she was pretty certain they were past the point of such things mattering.
In a company like Linden, just about everything imaginable was subject to mountains of red tape and bureaucracy. Following all of the rules for requisitions, software versioning, and everything else would leave no time to actually do her job. As a result, if one wanted to get anything done at all, one learned to work around the system. Just a few months after being hired, she had surreptitiously keylogged an administrator password from an IT worker who came by her office to install a new version of her drafting software. She had been using it to update her own software ever since. Today, she would use her access to the fullest extent.
Opening up a session on her computer under the administrator credentials, it didn't take long for her to open up the remote support software used by the support team. The terminals in the security room were clearly labelled on the asset list, and with a few clicks she was in, with all of the various security systems and CCTV feeds throughout the building at her disposal.
Gale flicked through the feeds, starting with the main conference hall. In just the short time since her flight, it seemed the affini had successfully managed to suppress the angry fearful crowd. Those who were still on their feet were being guided out of the auditorium in orderly lines. Those against whom the affini had employed those strange flowers had been tucked into the auditorium seats, looking for all the world like they had simply fallen asleep in another monotonous corporate presentation.
Notably absent from the room were the Vice President and the affini speaker. Flicking through the cameras backstage yielded no signs of them either. Switching over to the motion sensors, the feeds revealed activity on the first floor, in one of the elevators, as well as in the executive offices on the top floor. She clicked on the icon representing the elevator, and was rewarded by the sight of the affini speaker filling the elevator with its expansive foliage, with the Vice President cowering in the corner against the control panel. She leaned in and squinted at the illuminated controls behind his balding head, barely able to make out the illuminated icon which confirmed their destination as the topmost floor.
There, she had her destination. Now it was a matter of getting there. She was certain that she would be caught in an instant if she simply waltzed up and called the elevator, and climbing the staircase would be exhausting and leave her far too exposed to being overheard if anyone entered the stairwell. Thankfully, Gale had already come up with a workaround, one she had used plenty of times for legitimate reasons in the past.
So as not to be totally blind as she made her way up to the executive offices, she started up the presentation software on her computer. She had lost track of how many hours she had spent drafting up the most basic, easily digestible graphics and slides to try and simplify down basic concepts like "Why the health of your employees is important" for various levels of management, but today the presentation was for her alone. Her comm unit was already configured as the controller for the presentation, as usual. Pulling it out of her bag, she synced her device up to the network and accepted the pairing request from her computer. As she hoped, a miniature version of the security camera controls popped up on her comm unit for her convenient use.
Grabbing her bag and leaving her office behind, possibly for the last time, she made her way back to the stairwell. This time, she moved far more cautiously. The affini were busy herding the other employees out of the building, and may not stay in one place for long. She didn't know how long they could sustain the kind of speeds she had seen the affini speaker employ, but it was abundantly clear that they were far faster than any human. The moment they became aware of her presence, it was over for her.
Stepping carefully down the stairs one at a time, she flicked through various angles of the front lobby and the conference hall. All the affini seemed to be present and moving relatively predictably. That was good. They didn't seem to be aware of her presence. Thankfully, for all their swiftness, strength and esoteric capabilities, they weren't omniscient. Powerful, certainly, and sinuous, intimidating...
Gale nearly screamed as her alarm went off on her comm on the second floor landing. Biting her lip, she fumbled with her comm and managed to silence it. It was the time scheduled for her weekly one on one performance review with her manager. Ducking through the door onto the second floor and pressing her back against it, she flicked back to the lobby camera views, counting the towering figures. Once she was satisfied that they were all present and seemingly none the wiser, she exhaled a few ragged gasps of relief before putting her comm onto silent mode. What a ridiculous mistake to make.
On the bright side, it didn't look like there would be any more performance reviews for the foreseeable future. She deleted the alarm for good measure with a touch of spiteful satisfaction.
Once the sound of her heartbeat finally faded from her ears and she wiped away the tears streaming down her face, she slipped off her shoes before continuing her descent. She ducked low to the ground as she passed the door to the first floor. Technically, she wasn't sure if the aliens were even capable of sight, but Gale felt it was best to assume that they could do anything until proven otherwise.
She didn't start breathing again until she safely passed through the door into the basement level. Putting her shoes back on, she picked up the pace and made her way to the loading bay. On a regular day, the employees down here would be busy unloading packages of supplies and correspondence from trucks, loading them up onto trolleys and sending them up the building to their destinations. Today, of course, the room was deserted. And because nobody was working, the key to the freight elevator was hanging there undisturbed on its hook.
The freight elevator was located at the back of the building, couldn't be called or operated without a key, and most importantly, it didn't announce its status constantly with indicator lights and beeps as it moved through the building. The fact that the key was sitting here meant that the aliens hadn't seized control over the freight elevator yet, giving her a clandestine route all the way to the top right under their noses. If they had noses. Under their leaves?
Slipping the key off of the hook overhead with a little hop, she stepped up to the freight elevator and twisted it in the latch. The elevator car was ready and waiting for her. She slipped the key into the control panel to enable the interface and, after a few deep breaths to steady her nerves, closed the doors and pressed the button for the top floor.
As the elevator rumbled upwards, she spent her possible final moments fidgeting with her bag, burdened by the physical and metaphorical weight of its contents. It occurred to Gale that this was normally the moment in stories where one would send a tentative farewell message to her friends and loved ones, and that she didn't have a single person that she felt the need to try and reach out to. Perhaps she might consider a brief message to her more affable coworkers if they were reachable without sacrificing her element of surprise, but even so, she wouldn't have much to say.
No last words then. Nothing to do but watch the floor counter tick inevitably upwards.