Some managers, Lucy thought, need to have their meeting privileges revoked.
She fidgeted and looked at the clock in the corner of her screen: 5:34 PM. The Tuesday afternoon meeting had been scheduled to start at two and run for three hours, as always, and it had run over, as always. There were twelve items on this afternoon's agenda, and they were still only on item eight. She should step out, call home, and let her family know she would be late for dinner – again – but she'd taken a bathroom break forty minutes ago. If she left the room again Steve, her manager, would ask questions.
She fidgeted again, still trying to make herself more comfortable. The pain in her stomach – half hunger, half indigestion – only worsened. She glared at Steve.
You don't need to drag all ten developers into this room when only one of them is going to work on each thing. We're going to miss the deadline as it is, do we really have to make it worse?
It was an unusually warm day for November, and Lucy wished she could go for a walk. Her legs were stiff and sore from being stuck under the table. She'd tried to take daily walks when she first started this job, and on the second week Steve had asked her where she kept disappearing to during her lunch hour. He hadn't been pleased.
Apparently, the "lunch hour" in her contract wasn't meant to be an actual hour, and not sitting in your seat for nine hours straight was a sign that you didn't want your job.
Thunder grumbled off in the distance. Lucy slumped in her seat. No chance for a walk today, even in the dark.
Someone knocked on the glass door, and let herself in without waiting for permission: Hannah, vice president of something-or-other, known to Lucy as Little Miss Narcissism Disorder. At least sixteen hours of the work week was dedicated to meetings, and four of those hours existed for no reason other than to give Hannah an audience.
Hannah motioned for the developer closest to Steve – Alex - to get out of his seat. He obeyed, and Hannah dropped into the now-empty chair, leaving Alex squashed against the wall. Hannah leaned close to Steve and started to discuss her plans for the office Thanksgiving party.
Lucy resisted the urge to scream. She had work to do, they all did. It wasn't going to get done while the eleven of them – now twelve - sat in a hot, stuffy room that was designed to seat eight, day after day, staring out the window and watching the sun die.
Lightning flashed over the bare treetops. The sky rumbled like a septuagenarian too tired to leave his armchair, but perfectly able to complain.
Lucy slid her chair back and got to her feet, wincing. The pain in her legs seemed to get worse with each meeting. She hobbled over to the door, let herself out, and made her way to the bathroom.
The bathroom was a dingy, brown-tiled room with three toilets (one, out of order for two months, was covered by a black garbage bag). The soap dispensers had stood empty for over a month. Instead a single bottle of hand soap, its top smeared with something that was either dried poop or dried snot, sat beside the center sink.
Despite the grime, Lucy was grateful for the quiet and solitude. She shut her eyes and forced herself to take several deep breaths.
She needed to get out.
It wasn't just that the company had more red flags than a miniature-golf course. Lucy couldn't live her life anymore, not with the overtime, the stress, and the pain.
The job wasn't going to last much longer. Lucy had posted her resume online two weeks ago, after she realized that Hannah hadn't announced the company's weekly earnings for three weeks. Hannah only announced good news, and each week she had less and less to announce. Instead she filled both hours of what was supposed to be a one-hour meeting with pointless fluff.
Out of the corner of Lucy's eye, something moved. She turned. A gray rat the size of her foot was sniffing a soggy paper towel on the floor.
Lucy sighed. There was no point in reporting the rat. Steve would just shrug and do nothing. Unless the rat decided to creep into the office and bite his leg, it wasn't his problem.
The rat looked up at her. It stood up on its hind legs, like a dog begging for a treat, and sniffed in her direction.
Lucy blinked. For a moment she could have sworn there was something gold and shiny around one of the rat's forelegs, like a bracelet. But that was impossible. It was just a trick of the light, or the stress and lack of sleep.
There was a crash-BOOM! outside, and the lights went out.
Lucy heard a commotion on the other side of the bathroom door. It sounded like someone had tripped over a chair in the darkness. There should have been lights that switched on when the power went out, but her employer was either too cheap to pay for them or too arrogant to think a disaster would ever happen on his watch.
Lucy waved a hand in front of her face and saw nothing. The only way she would find the door was by feeling her way along the walls-
There was another crash of thunder, followed by another crash of furniture. There was a howl of pain and several panicky shouts.
It was probably safest to just stay here, Lucy thought. The lights would probably come back on in a few minutes. No need to head back out into the office and risk getting run over.
Something about that seemed wrong to Lucy, something that made her scalp prickle. She'd missed something, but what?
In the corner, the rat squeaked. Lucy hoped it didn't have rabies or some other disease. Rat bites were supposed to be nasty.
More thunder, low and angry. There was more shouting from the office. Everyone was stumbling around in the dark and-
She realized what was wrong: all forty-seven of them had laptops. Even with the power out the whole open office should be lit by the glow from their screens. But there was no light coming from under the door. None at all.
They can't all be fried. They weren't even all plugged in!
Now there was a light, a faint blue one. And it was coming from behind her.
The rat squeaked, louder this time.
Lucy turned. The rat was now wearing a pointed blue hat and matching cape in addition to the gold bracelet. The blue light was coming from a rat-sized hole beside the garbage can, and it was getting brighter and brighter by the second.
The thunder growled again. To Lucy it sounded almost like the voice of an angry lunatic.
The rat squeaked again and looked up at Lucy, as if to say Well? Are you just going to stand there all day?
"I don't know what you want me to do." It was a perfectly reasonable thing to say, because this wasn't real. It was either a stress-induced hallucination or an extremely vivid dream. Lucy hoped it was the latter. She needed the sleep.
The rat produced a tiny wand from the folds of its cape. It looked like a blue pebble glued to the end of a toothpick.
He jabbed the wand in Lucy's direction. The pebble glowed purple for a moment, and Lucy's head swam. When she opened her eyes again the rat was still there.
The rat squeaked again, but what Lucy heard wasn't a squeak. "The Great Exterminator is coming. You must flee."
"The Great- what?"
The building shivered. Lucy grabbed a sink for support. Is this a thunderstorm or an earthquake?
The blue glow intensified. Lucy could see things she hadn't earlier: a column of ants, most clutching larvae or food in their jaws, marching towards the glowing rat-hole. Mice and smaller rats, scurrying under the stall doors and disappearing into the hole. A swarm of cockroaches, shepherded by a frightened, squeaking rat, scuttling after the mice.
Evacuating. They're evacuating. But what does that have to do with me?
The building shuddered, as though it had just been dropped into a shallow hole. She heard the thuds of falling ceiling tiles, the crash of shattered electronics. But nothing from her co-workers. Nothing but silence.
Lucy remembered being a child of five, hiding under her bed and shivering until the scary noises stopped. And now, the old fear came rushing back. You couldn't fight a storm. You could only run and hide.
The rat-mage spoke again. "Come with us."
Lucy looked back towards the door – could she get her co-workers to safety? Or was it already too late? The rat-mage shook his head. "No time."
Thunder boomed again. Somewhere in the building a window shattered. There was definitely a voice in the thunder this time, but it wasn't speaking any language Lucy recognized. She had a feeling that language had never been heard on Earth.
"But I can't fit-"
The rat-mage waved his wand at the glowing rat-hole. The wall crumbled outward, until the rat-hole was just large enough for Lucy to duck through. She didn't know why the rat was offering to help. Maybe she just walked into the bathroom at the right time. Or maybe the vermin saw her as one of their own: something small and overlooked, struggling to get by and not get trodden on by those above her.
The building shuddered again, nearly knocking Lucy down. A crack shot across the tiled wall like a bolt of black lightning. It didn't matter what was through the rat hole- a tiny wizard's tower, a sanctuary for vermin, a mad hatter and a bottle labeled "Drink me" – she had to get out, and now.
A gust of wind tore at her hair as something with enormous claws peeled back a section of the roof. She ducked through the glowing portal-
Lucy tried to lift her head but her neck felt stiff and sore. "Nng?"
The screen in front of her face (she'd passed out on the keyboard, how much damage had that done?) displayed the time: 6:02 PM. Over the top of the screen she could see Hannah's face.
Behind her, poor Alex was still squashed against the wall, a look of despair on his face.
"You fell asleep." Hannah's tone and Hannah's face both said How dare you. There will be consequences for this, that expression said, I don't pay you to sleep, I pay you to pay attention to me...
"I quit." The words were out before Lucy could think things through. A tiny voice at the back of her mind shrieked at her to stop and apologize, she didn't have a new job lined up yet and she needed to get references first-
She silenced the voice and smiled. Hannah and Steve were both staring at her like startled owls. They had had their way for too long. They had already destroyed the company, the signs were all there. It was time for her to leave, like a rat deserting a sinking... bathroom.
Still smiling, she closed her laptop (the text editor open on her screen now contained a long string of Ws), set down her ID badge, and walked out, humming to herself.
Lucy heard distant thunder as she stepped outside. She loved the way the air smelled after a thunderstorm, so fresh and clean. She was still humming as she made her way across the parking lot.
Something scurried past her. In the glare of a streetlight Lucy could make out the shape of a large gray rat, hurrying along with something clenched between its teeth.
Maybe just was just fatigue, but for a moment Lucy could have sworn that she saw a flash of blue and gold.
"Thank you," she whispered. There was no one around to hear, and it wouldn't be the craziest thing she'd done today.
The rat stopped, sniffed in her direction, and hurried on.