The elevator shuddered slightly as it came to a halt on the top floor. Gale didn't move right away, as she was giving the camera feeds a final scan. The Vice President and the affini speaker had arrived first, of course, as they hadn't needed to delve down into the basement to retrieve the freight elevator key. All of the signs of motion in the building were confined to the executive offices and the first floor. It seemed her excursion to her office hadn't been noticed, to her relief. Her mission would be rather complicated were she to need to evade pursuers.
Switching over to the cameras in the executive offices, she found several views obfuscated by the towering forms of affini who were occupying most of the available space in what she could only assume was the board room. Finally, she found a camera view relatively free from obstruction, located at the very front of the room. The company's senior executives were all there as far as she could tell, though they were all crammed together at the front end of the table around the Vice President. The entire rest of the room was occupied by a crowd of active affini, conversing animatedly with the executives and amongst themselves and operating what she presumed were alien comm devices.
She didn't know if the security feed had audio or how to enable it, nor could she see the faces of the executives to interpret the mood of the room for certain. However, she could easily make out the affini speaker from the conference hall at the opposite end of the table. What she assumed were its eyes were focused across the table, its stalks gesticulated rapidly as the leaves curled and uncurled, and the lower part of its body had unknit itself from its bipedal facsimile to partially engulf its end of the table. She was no xenobotanopsychologist, or whatever one would call a person who studies the behaviour and body language of alien plants, but Gale couldn't help but get the impression it was rather irate. All of the executives were alive and unmaimed, at least.
As a final afterthought, she pulled up the weather app on her comm. There was rain forecast for the settlement overnight, and the UV threat level was minimal. No alien invasion warning, of course. She couldn't help but smile to herself as she contemplated one final abuse of her admin credentials to send an air quality advisory due to high levels of pollen, but there was more important work to do.
Gale reached out, hand only trembling slightly, and pressed the button to open the freight elevator doors. She left the elevator key where it was in the console. She almost even convinced herself that it was to leave her escape route open if her plan failed. Almost being the operant word; she had clearly seen how swiftly the aliens moved and how effortlessly they lifted fully grown men. It was easy to imagine how the Terran Navy might have been defeated by such creatures, even without accounting for whatever it was their flowers did. And Gale had no training, no armor, no backup. She knew very well that escape was out of the realm of possibility.
She'd only briefly been up to the top floor before while running errands for her manager, but it was enough to know the general layout. Enough to be able to find her way towards the board room from the freight elevator. She moved slowly, cautiously, checking around corners for marauding aliens ready to seize her. But there was no sign of anyone or anything, all the way up to the board room door.
The blinds were drawn, but the voice of the affini speaker came through clearly through the crack under the door. Or, at least, Gale assumed it was the same speaker as before. She clearly recognized the voice. That voice still echoed inside her mind, the way it murmured as it subdued that man on the stage. She supposed that all affini might sound the same, although that was an intimidating thought.
"-even appreciate the precarity of the situation? We could have an outright panic on our hands within hours." Gale shivered. Her assessment of the affini's demeanor from its bristling silhouette was supported by the frenetic energy in its voice.
"A message could be distributed to all the employees using the emergency warning system?" an obsequious executive spoke up. She had no idea which one, and had no real care to know.
The affini speaker laughed, melodic and staccato and unsettling. "Yes, of course," it replied sardonically, dripping venom that, for all Gale knew, might be literal as well as metaphorical. "Sending an emergency warning to tell people to calm down. What an absolutely lovely idea. We could eliminate the possibility of a riot by making it a certainty."
Another man's voice chimed in. "We understand and share your concerns. However, we had so little time to prepare for your arrival. The satellite-"
"Yes, yes, you've made that clear." Gale could feel the force of the eye roll - or the alien equivalent - through the wall. "That doesn't explain why you've done nothing in the past cycles to rectify the situation."
Gale knocked on the door.
All at once, the executive's voice cut off, and the ongoing alien murmurs in the room died down. There were a few furtive alien language exchanges, presumably deciding on a course of action. Gale stayed frozen in place while every primitive instinct within her urged her to flee in terror. Her right hand rested on her bag, already fidgeting with the edge of the pocket with anticipation.
Just as her last nerves were about to fail, the door opened, so she put on her best presentation ready smile.
"Sorry for the interruption, and for being late. May I come in?"
The affini who opened the door was not the speaker from before, it possessed wide variegated foliage and clusters of violet tetramerous flowers. Its face bore an expression so clearly perplexed that it left no room for uncertainty in Gale's mind. Either the aliens had coincidentally convergently evolved similar body language or, more likely, they had studied human physiology and behaviour and had learned to affect it for the benefit of humans. This supported the conclusions Gale had already drawn about the affini, while raising yet further questions. When Gale didn't flinch at the alien's appearance, its confusion visibly deepened.
"I... pardon me, little human, but you should have been informed that you do not need to perform any work for the rest of the week. You are free to return to your domiciles at your convenience." Her voice was not the same as the speaker's, much smoother and brighter. Gale smiled at that, being able to rely on differences in voices would be much easier to remember than appearances with her sporadic visual memory. The alien opened the door slightly wider, peering more closely at her. "...is there, perhaps, something that you require help with?"
"Actually," she corrected, "I was hoping that I might be able to provide assistance to you and yours. May I come in?"
The affini in the doorway turned to discuss with the other aliens, and though Gale couldn't understand a single word of it (if their language even used words, there were other units of language even amongst human languages) she could easily infer exactly what they were talking about. Her arrival and behaviour was so unexpected that they didn't know what to do with her. Just as she hoped.
Eventually, they seemed to reach a consensus. "Yes, that should be alright," it said. Stepping aside and opening the doorway to allow her ingress.
Immediately, she was the center of attention in the room, and she could feel the gazes of everyone, both human and affini, boring into her. She pretended to pay them no mind, though she was utterly terrified. Instead, she looked ahead to where, from her surreptitious surveillance operation, she knew the affini speaker would be.
The distance glances through the projection room window and security camera completely failed to do it justice. The strange way its body caught the stage lights was no trick of her weary eyes, but rather the result of a fine layer of tiny, glistening orbs covering its leaves and stems which glittered like rubies as it turned to face Gale. As it moved away from the table, the stalks supporting its body merged seamlessly together into legs, upon which it casually loomed over her.
Gale was proud that there was only a slight tremor in her voice as she continued. "Good morning. Do I have the pleasure of speaking with a person or persons authorized to speak on behalf of the Affini Compact?"
This prompted quite a stir of alien murmuring. The speaker seemed somewhat bemused and cocked an approximation of an eyebrow at her. "That would be correct. And who might you be?"
"You may call me Ms. Gale Rossings, if you'd like." Her phrasing was careful, though logically she knew it was unnecessary. She had grown up on ancient faerie stories, where enchanting beings from strange woods both familiar and uncanny meddled in the affairs of humans in incomprehensible ways, and while her rational brain knew they were simply an incredibly advanced alien race her subconscious demanded she pay heed to the rules. "Formerly employed by Linden as a technical consultant in colonial administration and management, though I am certain that my employment with the company will have ended by the end of this conversation one way or another."
"I see. And how, Ms. Gale Rossings, did you come by information regarding the Affini Compact? Your other co-workers" - the affini put a scornful emphasis on the word - "seemed to have no knowledge of our existence."
"Nor did I, until this morning," Gale acknowledged. "I was in attendance at your introduction in the conference hall, and though I was unable to stay for the whole time, I appreciated the care you took to ensure nobody was injured as a result."
The speaker seemed to be genuinely taken aback at this statement. Both she and Gale were aware that the affini were quite thorough in ensuring that nobody was able to flee the auditorium during the initial panic, and that no human in the auditorium should have been capable of standing here in front of her now. Hence Gale's careful choice of words, to imply that she was down below in the auditorium without outright stating such. One didn't speak falsehoods to one of the fair folk, even if they weren't really such.
Unfortunately, she may have taken her word games a touch too far. The speaker's expression darkened and some of its tendril-like leaves bristled free from the rest of its mass. Gale couldn't help but cower slightly when faced by such a clear display of its ire. It had seen what the speaker was capable of. "I see. Have you been in contact with any rebel cells, then?"
"No? What?" Gale denied, both honest and genuinely confused. "My apologies, I... I don't understand. Rebel whats? Like... Do you mean unionization? I may have been making overtures to some of the other administrative staff about negotiating a collective bargaining strategy, but..."
She found herself cut off by the sudden outburst of a vocalization reminiscent of laughter from the speaker, but not acerbic and bitter like the last time. It was light and pleasant, and soon picked up by the rest of the aliens. All at once the tension seemed to evaporate, something Gale wasn't entirely sure how to deal with. "Oh, roots, no. Nothing like that, Gale. If you don't know, then you needn't worry about such things."
"I see..." she replied, forcing herself to take deep breaths to drive away the shadows encroaching on the edge of her vision. The emotional whiplash had thrown off her planned speech, and she struggled to reorient. "I apologize for the confusion, then?"
"No need, the misunderstanding was my own," the speaker asserted. "In any case, would you care to tell us why you are here, then?"
"Primarily, for the wellbeing of the inhabitants of this planet, whose welfare has been systematically neglected for over a decade." She reached into her bag as she looked across the table at the executives, who blanched at her remarks. They were scared of the affini, every one of them, just as she had deduced from the footage of the Vice President in the elevator. Perfect. "But also, more selfishly, for revenge."
Without hesitating, she drew her secret weapon out of her bag with a flourish.
The executives jumped back with cries of fear, one actually falling backwards in his chair in haste.
The speaker's tendrils grabbed hold of her wrist quickly, but not before she was able to set it down on the table. Their touch was firm, unyielding, but not at all painful. However, after a few moments, they slackened and let her go. Gale raised her wrist, curiously examining the remarkable pattern of perfectly circular red marks left behind on her skin where the tendril had touched. Her skin even still tingled slightly.
"What, exactly, is all this?" The speaker finally asked.
"A catalogue of evidence, documenting all of the various ethical failures, regulatory non-compliance and outright criminal activity which Linden has committed during the past seven years of my employment here on Xenia." She looked up at the speaker and smiled brightly. "I have been putting this together in anticipation that eventually, some day, I would be able to make contact with a third-party auditor and reveal their wrongdoings. I didn't expect the auditors would be aliens, admittedly, but that means I can be absolutely certain you don't report to the company." She relished the expressions of horror on the executives' faces for just a moment, before she turned to take in the speaker's reaction.
The look she received stole her breath away. The smile that came over the affini speaker's face in that moment was equal parts childish glee and predatory zeal, and did absolutely nothing to disentangle her mental association of the affini as some sort of space fae. It was beautiful and terrific, in the original sense of the word signifying causing terror. Without changing her expression, she bent down and began examining the dossier Gale had furnished more closely, allowing Gale to finally resume basic functions once freed from its piercing gaze.
"That, um, that bound folder there serves as an index for the rest of the material, the other folders and such. There are also a large number of video and audio recordings, as well as electronic files, emails, and scans of all the paper documents from the other folders with additional metadata for context, which can be found on the data chips in that ECM-hardened case." Gale was rambling, she knew she was rambling, but she couldn't help herself. Her oxygen deprived brain was running on autopilot. "The notebook should explain the material significance of each piece of evidence, though I would be glad to help interpret them. The other notebook is more of a collection of, um, ongoing issues with the colony? Well, the incident tallies are quarterly but the lists are cumulative. It's, um, it's in a personal shorthand. And enciphered, though it's just a simple substitution cipher so it shouldn't be too difficult to crack. I can translate it though, fairly easily, at your convenience?"
"Yes, Ms. Gale Rossings, I believe I can make use of your assistance," it replied, nodding very slowly.
"Oh! Also, er, sorry for interrupting. If I interrupted. But, I may have overheard that they were trying to pass off the line about the satellite relay failure?" Gale pulled out her comm unit and unlocked it, where it was still open to the weather app. She flicked her finger to the side, scrolling back several months. "I'm sure you'd find all the physical evidence you need by examining the satellite and have figured it out for certain then, but everything about that story is almost certainly an outright lie. The weather stations regularly publish stellar radiation warnings for harmful levels of ultraviolet light. These warnings have flagged previous coronal mass ejection events, but no such warning has been sent for more than the past half-Terran year, long before the purported satellite damage. I didn't put it together until this morning, until I saw you, but they must have been covering up your takeover of Terran space by shutting down all news from the outside. That's the only way they could have been communicating with you before you arrived in orbit."
"I see. Well, gentleman, care to explain?" It spoke, then interrupted them as they all rushed to speak up at once. "Don't. That was a rhetorical question." Just as quickly, they fell back into shocked silence. "I don't have any more time to waste on your obstruction and abdication of responsibility. Even without reading through all the evidence the lovely Ms. Gale here has provided, she has been more candid and useful in the past ten minutes alone than the rest of you combined. Consider yourselves not only dismissed, but also at the front of the line for domestication depending on the severity of your failures in caring for these poor people."
The speaker made a few quick remarks in its language towards the other affini, and several stepped in to begin escorting the former Linden executives out of the room. Most looked at Gale as they filed past through the boardroom doors, each falling somewhere different on the scale between abject terror and murderous loathing. Gale watched impassively, unable and unwilling to make direct eye contact. These people had the power to utterly destroy her life with a stroke of a pen only the day before. And now, surrounded by these alien conquerors, they seemed so very, very small.
As the youngest looking, whom she vaguely recalled was either head of marketing or security, passed her by, his choleric red face twisted in monstrous rage. He abruptly lunged towards her, spitting on her face as he screamed something incoherent. Gale leapt back with a cry of terror, stumbling into the affini speaker. The escorting affini following behind the executives had him ensnared before he could get in striking range, covering his face with a large flower bursting with clouds of pollen. He fell limp soon afterwards, and was carried the rest of the way out like a ragdoll.
Gale reached up, slowly, wiping the spit off of her face with her sleeve. Spit, and tears. She was crying. She hadn't noticed that. Stupid Gale, embarassing herself in front of the fair aliens. Belatedly, she realized someone was calling her name. Had been calling her name. Multiple times, maybe? She turned her head to where she knew the affini speaker was, though she couldn't quite make out any details. The shadows had crept in from the corners of her vision without her conscious awareness, and almost all of her vision was consumed by the pulsating eigengrau.
"I apologize. I think. I think I... need... a moment... breath... of air... I..."
Gale gave it a friendly smile and tried to stumble her way towards the vague direction of the doorway. She didn't make it two steps before she fainted outright.