Several minutes into Kistia's conversation, a bright alarm chirped from Gale's pocket. Mouthing apologies to the affini, she fished around for her comm unit and disabled it. As the alarm screen cleared, two things became immediately apparent.
One: It was just past midday, meaning she had spent over an hour asleep in Kistia's grasp.
Two: She had a lot of missed messages.
Swearing under her breath, she switched to the messaging software to find that dozens of her coworkers had been trying desperately to contact her. The messages grew increasingly frantic over time, asking where she was, warning her about the affini, telling her to stay away from work and hide, asking if she had been captured and killed and/or eaten...
Gale was torn. She understood how such a situation could be terrifying to people, but her colleagues had seen the same thing she had, surely? If the affini were inclined to either kill or eat anyone, they wouldn't have made it out of the auditorium. Did they not see how clearly superior affini physical capabilities were? Though, Gale supposed, that was likely part of the reason they were scared, even though she personally found it comforting.
She didn't respond, not right away. Though she did not want to continue perpetuating their obvious distress, she did not want to take any actions or confirm her status before consulting with Ms. Kistia. She may request Gale keep her status secret for now, or have some specific message for her to send in order to help mitigate the volatile situation in the settlement.
As she leaned back in the chair, she noticed just how comfortable it was, which made her belatedly realize that she didn't even know exactly where she was. She had been so captivated by her conversation with Ms. Kistia, she never even bothered to take more than a cursory look around. Thankfully, it didn't take long to determine. Executives were notoriously egotistical, and this one was no exception, with diplomas and awards hanging all over the walls. She was, it appeared, in the office of the Colonial Security Officer.
Setting her phone and notebook down on the desk, she decided to take advantage of the opportunity at her disposal. Nobody would be coming to punish her for snooping while all of the Linden executives were being taken off to be imprisoned and 'domesticated' by the Affini, which she assumed constituted some form of forced re-education program. Nobody would stop her from making use of her stolen credentials on the CSO's computer, and so she did.
Pulling up the CSO's correspondence, she was mildly surprised to find all of it conspicuously absent. Clearly, once the Affini Compact's arrival was inevitable, the executive had started covering things up. Gale was not at all surprised to find that the CSO was utterly incompetent at doing so, as all of his correspondence was sitting intact in the Trash buffer. Clearly nobody had managed to impress upon him that you needed to properly digitally shred any data to effectively dispose of it. In seconds, Gale had it all restored.
Properly sifting through the absurd quantity of correspondence would take far longer than she had, so she trusted her instincts and jumped several months back in his correspondence history. She wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes when they announced the cover story about the damaged satellite relay.
Minutes of petrified scrolling later, Gale pushed the chair back and rose unsteadily to her feet. Kistia was still engaged in her animated conversation, and she was loath to disrupt her, but it was clear she had stumbled on something far larger than she could deal with alone.
"Ms. Ki-" Gale's voice cracked and she winced, clearing her throat to try again. "Ms. Kistia?"
Kistia flashed Gale an initial glance, which quickly evolved into an outright stare. Gale realized she must be visibly shaken, due to the intensity of the Affini's reaction. She made a few final comments towards her comm unit before ending the conversation and giving Gale her full attention. "Ms. Gale? What is the matter?"
"If. I presume that you have people who can, who are trained to deal with, technology? Human technology? Computer forensics? That sort of thing?"
"Yes, of course," Kistia confirmed, reaching out her hand facsimile to rest it comfortingly on Gale's shoulder. "What did you find?"
"Linden has been. Um. Working with various military contractors. I don't know for how long, but they were discussing war with the Affini, shipments of weapons, fortified bunkers... the final messages before they severed outbound communications were orders to go dark. They wanted to use Xenia as some sort of secret refuge from the Affini. Selling safety from you to the highest bidder. I don't know... I don't know how to interpret all of it, I'm just... I just try to keep people safe and healthy and I don't know how to deal with any of this. I'm sorry, Ms. Kistia."
The affini woman pulled her close as tears began to flow down Gale's cheeks. "It's alright, thank you for bringing this to my attention. We will take care of it."
Gale sniffed into Kistia's foliage, allowing herself to be held. "I... I can... I have the... the credentials... to access all... everything... every system in the building. Surveillance. Archives. You can have them."
"Thank you, Ms. Gale, that would be lovely. You've been doing so very well. Out of curiosity, how exactly did you obtain that access?"
"Promise I won't go to jail?"
"Carceral systems are abhorrent and no longer exist under the Affini Compact, but I promise you will not be punished unless you seriously harmed another person."
Gale giggled at that, slightly hysterically. "Ha, no... just stole 'em. Had the IT manager install something for me... swiped his info..."
"How resourceful you are. Why don't you write those credentials down for our specialists, then come with me to get you some water and food?"
"Yes, Ms. Kistia," she acquiesced, and pulled gently away from her grasp in order to tear a page free from her notebook on the desk and write down the credentials as neatly as her shaking hands would allow. "Though... I... I can't afford anything fancy... my paycheck would have been coming at the end of the week but I don't think I'll be getting it..."
"Don't be absurd," Kistia objected. "You won't be paying for anything, ever again. You can have whatever you would like to eat, and as much as you need. The Affini Compact has more than enough resources to provide for everyone, with no need for any barbaric obsolete economic systems."
"Are... are you serious?" Gale nearly snapped her pencil lead as she tried to process the unexpected news. "Do you mean you just... give everything away? Food? Water? Even shelter?"
"Why would we ever deprive the dear sophonts in our care of anything, if we could make them happy and comfortable? Your needs, and the needs of every other human on this world, will be provided for to the very best of our ability."
"Why the hell didn't you lead with that in your speech?" Gale blurted, before her discretion could catch up. As soon as she parsed what she had said she dropped her pencil and covered her mouth with both hands, looking at the Affini woman with horror. "I'm so so sorry, Ms. Kistia, I..."
"Shh, it's alright." In a swift rustle of leaves, Gale was right back engulfed in the comforting mass of the affini's body, being gently held and reassured. Normally, unexpected physical contact was a cause of significant distress for Gale, but somehow Kistia managed to have a soothing effect on her instead. "Please, don't hesitate to speak your mind with me. I would never, ever, hurt you for being honest with me. You are right, I would have had far more success with such an approach. Unfortunately, by the time I realized you all knew nothing about the Affini and our ways, panic had already set in and no one was in a state to listen. No one but you, that is, dear Ms. Gale."
"Everyone else... they think I'm missing, or dead and unceremoniously disposed of..."
"Would you like to go see them? Would that help you feel better?"
Gale thought about it for a moment, reflecting. "No... no, I... I'm not ready for that. But I want them to know that things are going to be okay... that I'm safe, and so are they..."
"Hmm... based on your reaction, perhaps a show of our goodwill might help remedy the situation? If you are low on food supplies, we can provide as much as you need."
"There's plenty of food... Warehouses full, giant walk-in freezers... just not for us... Would you like the addresses, Ms. Kistia? I can retrieve them for you."
"That would be lovely, dear. I know we have many Affini on our ship who are trained in human cuisine for their florets who can assist with preparation and distribution."
"Not sure they'll trust it... I wouldn't be surprised if they thought you were just... trying to fatten them up to eat them, or something ridiculous like that."
"I defer to your expertise in human irrationalities," Kistia replied, and Gale could feel the gentle laughter humming through her vines. Despite having only met her that morning, somehow the Affini woman's presence and touch was doing wonders to soothe her nerves. "Do you have any recommendations?"
"They... um... they might trust it, coming from me? At least, my acquaintances from the administrative staff know me fairly well, and they know absolutely everyone..."
"Delightful. Is there anything that you can't do, Ms. Gale?"
"Function as a mentally healthy human being?" she replied, with no excess emotional energy to care in the slightest about oversharing.
"Don't you worry about that, dear. I will make sure you receive all the assistance you need."
Gale wasn't used to being able to take a moment to rest, and have things actually get done without being the one to actually do them. It was fortunate, then, that the affini were astonishingly competent, as Kistia was adamant in not letting Gale lift a single finger in organizing the buffet for all the Xenian residents. At least she readily accepted the human's suggestions on minimizing the risk of scaring the other humans further.
Gale tried to help more, of course, which invariably resulted in one of Kistia's vines ensnaring her in their inescapable grip whenever she drifted too far from her side. Begrudgingly, Gale acquiesced to being escorted around and simply overseeing the preparations, and regularly sampled from the variety of food and drinks they discovered at Kistia's insistence.
It only took a few interactions with other affini to realize how greatly the aliens' physiology varied between organisms. Though the core morphology was congruous, with various extensions of biological matter spreading outwards from a dense central mass, the details varied drastically. Leaves, needles, thorns, myriad varieties of flowers of every shape and size and colour... She was honestly ashamed at how woefully insufficient her botanical knowledge and vocabulary were to describe how unique each affini was.
Notably, Kistia's particular foliage with its red-beaded filaments were completely unique amongst all the affini she encountered. The little red orbs themselves seemed to be secretions of some adhesive substance with incredible tensile strength, one which the alien woman could produce and withdraw at will without a trace of residue behind. The red spots they left behind on her skin weren't a dye as she briefly assumed, but rather appeared to be a result of the strength of the electrostatic suction of the adhesive. Scientifically fascinating. Practically infuriating as well, as it was perfectly effective at preventing Gale from assisting in any physical way with even a single leaf curled around one of her arms.
Once Ms. Kistia informed her that preparations had progressed sufficiently that invitations could be tendered, Gale began reaching out to her acquaintances on the informal secretary break room group chat. They were skeptical at first of her story, initially suspecting that Gale may have been killed and the Affini were simply using her identity to lure them out of hiding. Gale replied with the simple observation that it was a poor tactical move to express their doubt in her identity openly before they squeezed more information out of the alien who allegedly replaced her, which for some reason managed to instantly convince all of them that Gale was telling the truth about who she was.
With that matter unexpectedly settled, Gale proceeded to the next step of the plan: trying to dissolve the distrust of the affini which had developed. This was the part Gale had anticipated to be the easiest, though admittedly she had thought it would have been far more onerous to prove her identity. She wouldn't have accepted such flimsy proof at any rate.
Her plan for this, with Kistia's approval, involved a bit of subtle wordplay. Not a lie, of course - she didn't dare outright lie in any matter to do with the Affini due to the pervasive superstitious association she couldn't shake - but being intentionally vague on some of the details to hopefully lead them to reach her desired conclusion. She explained that she had actually collaborated with the Affini to take down Linden by providing them with incriminating proof of all the company's wrongdoings. She explained that she had independently discovered that the satellite relay outage was a lie, and had subsequently been able to get in touch with the Affini Compact to request assistance in saving all of the workers of Xenia.
Now of course, all of that had taken place earlier that day, but her careful wording allowed for the interpretation that she had been working with the Affini for much longer. It had the desired effect, as she was soon inundated with demands to know why she hadn't said anything sooner. She stated in response that the Linden executives would have been able to destroy incriminating evidence if they had known in advance the Affini were coming. A true statement, but one that was completely irrelevant to the true reason for her lack of disclosure: that she had no advanced knowledge of the Affini either.
Seemingly satisfied, the group chat was subsequently filled with a flurry of celebration, commendations, and incorrect assumptions. One noted Gale's absence in the auditorium and attributed it to her role in the affair, another pointed out her constant note-taking and recontextualized it as her gathering information for the aliens. She volunteered a description of the horrified looks on the executives' faces when she walked into the boardroom and pulled out her dossier of evidence, which had them all both delighted and devastated to have missed it.
Eventually they got around to asking what she was currently doing. Gale, pretending the answer to that question hadn't been the primary purpose of the conversation, nonchalantly explained that she was in the process of helping the Affini liberate the Linden food supplies to distribute freely to all the workers. As though it were entirely their own idea, they quickly offered to help in any way they could, eager to stick it to the company and, of course, eat some decent food for the first time in a long while. Gale indicated that the Affini were numerous and strong enough to handle all of the labour, but she would appreciate any and all assistance in spreading the word that the aliens were friendly and were going to be serving food. They eagerly accepted the opportunity, and Gale provided them the location in a local park where the Affini were already setting up tables.
Gale reached over towards the affini administrator, who had never strayed more than an arm's length away from her since they had departed Linden headquarters, and tapped the back of a leaf to draw her attention. "Ms. Kistia, I have successfully enlisted the assistance from my acquaintances, and appear to have resolved their surface level anxieties towards the Affini Compact."
"Excellent work, Ms. Gale," Kistia replied, gently pulling Gale up by the arm. Gale didn't resist, and allowed herself to be led to the affini's side. "Would you allow me to see what exactly you told them?"
"Yes, Ms. Kistia, if you would like." Unlocking her comm unit once more, she offered it to Kistia for review.
Kistia scrolled back and forth through the conversation log, making small noises of satisfaction, before returning the device. "Impressive work, Ms. Gale. You did indeed correctly predict the paranoid nature of their initial reactions, and you defused them quite well." She made a soft chuckling sound, one which had faint undertones not unlike the rustling of grass, and ran a leaf tip down Gale's back. "I have to say, I am quite glad not to have eaten you, given just how useful you are proving."
Gale shivered, both from the affini's words and her touch, but pushed it down to fix Kistia with a skeptical stare. "You shouldn't joke like that around any other humans, Ms. Kistia, or they'll likely believe you."
"Whatever joke do you mean?" Kistia said. She smiled that adrenaline-spiking serrated smile as she seized Gale's wrists with her leaves, holding her in place as she twisted to loom in front of her. Her humanoid form frayed, foliage spreading and stalks fanning to utterly consume her field of view.
Despite her pounding heart, Gale held firm and suppressed the urge to flinch. This was the same entity who held her as she panicked, who expressed such dismay at their horrible living conditions, and who had vowed to never hurt her for her honesty. Her animal instincts were terrified of the ferocious predator, but her rational brain was stronger, and it wasn't taking the bait. "I'm not so gullible. If you were at all inclined to devour me, you could easily have done so while I was unconscious."
"That does not prove that I am not inclined to devour you, but simply that I was not inclined to devour you under those conditions."
Gale smiled slightly, affirmed in her interpretation. Kistia wasn't making any positive statements about her desire or intentions to do so, simply alluding to them like she had done previously. "Conditions which you could presumably arrange without much difficulty or delay, were you truly inclined."
Kistia's droplet coat rippled dazzlingly as the affini made a low, creaking noise. "Perhaps the delay is the condition. Perhaps I simply enjoy taking my time and savouring my meals."
"You're implying I'm already a meal," Gale said, looking herself up and down theatrically, "yet I still seem to be rather unscathed."
"Quite so, my dear Ms. Gale," Kistia rumbled, letting her wrists go before straightening up and coalescing herself once more, seemingly satisfied. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, she leaned down and hummed a final comment next to the human's ear. "You haven't asked me nicely, yet."
Kistia nonchalantly turned back to tapping away on her comm unit as Gale's expression froze in a smiling mask. What was she doing? She knew the Affini were dangerous. She knew Ms. Kistia was dangerous, in particular. She was making no show of hiding it, with displays like that, yet Gale kept letting her guard down over and over again.
Moreover, she wasn't being particularly subtle, though her approach was nuanced enough Gale was certain she didn't have the full picture. If nothing else, Gale was certain that Kistia was going out of her way to let Gale know she was dangerous, and that she was intently studying how Gale responded. Was it simply a test of loyalty, verifying that Gale wouldn't turn on the Affini as she had Linden, or was it something deeper? Some sort of rhetorical aposematism, perhaps?
Worst of all, Gale didn't know what feedback Kistia was trying to elicit. Did she want Gale to prove she was cautious and sensible enough to avoid the obvious peril, or testing her nerves to see if she would falter under the pressure? The way those deliberate displays contrasted against Ms. Kistia's empathetic and conscientious approach to helping the people of Xenia left her too uncertain to commit to either approach. Without anything conclusive to work from, there was nothing she could do but stay aware and handle each new feint to the best of her ability. It was becoming ever clearer to Gale why the humans never seemed to come out ahead in those faerie stories.
A gentle brush of a leaf against her wrist jolted Gale out of her reverie. Ms. Kistia was moving, presumably off to their next objective, and Gale hastened to catch up and fall in beside her.