The World Crashing Down
It was a sight that would burn into her memories and never leave.
The sight of her planet crumbling in on itself.
The sight of everything she knew, falling apart to ash and molten rocks.
There was no sound, but she could easily imagine the devastating ricochet of soundwaves tearing through space. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. Her tiny oxygenated pod was filled with her own screams, desperate and sobbing and terrified- her family was gone, her friends were gone, her entire world was gone.
She couldn’t stop staring unblinkingly at the wreckage slowly tumbling through the endless depths of space as her pod shuttled her further and further away. She screamed until she could go on no longer, her voice breaking completely. And then a new gas hissed into the pod’s chamber- a sedative that would keep her asleep until her pod landed. At least, that was what her uncle D’nari had told her when he shunted her desperately into the pod, yelling at her to keep herself safe and to remember Valka.
She remembered her vision blurring, her breathing become steady despite her continued urge to scream, and then she fell into darkness.
When she woke up, she was surrounded by white. She could tell it was cold- her breath fogged up the interior of her glass, and it seemed to be snowing.
Terror filled her as her memories flooded back. And then her heart calmed, wondering if this was all just some particularly real and brutal simulation.
Surely she was still on Valka.
Surely her uncle D’nari was still here, taking her through her tests to assess her suitability for the Technology Academy. He couldn’t have just left her like that.
She sensed figures moving above her, and as her ears adjusted, she made out voices in some strange language. She went very still, waiting as hands fumbled and pawed at her pod- and then they found a button and the glass shield eased smoothly away, followed by a blast of freezing cold air. Gloved hands reached out to her; she raised a trembling arm, weak from disuse after however long she’d been asleep for, and grasped at the nearest hand.
Two people carried her out, and they were definitely not Valkans. They spoke a strange language, wore strange clothes and had strange pale skin, and they smelled cold and distant. But she was terrified and scared but at least they meant she wasn’t alone, so she clung onto the one carrying her and buried her face in his chest until she was sobbing again.
Twelve years later.
‘Come on, Zoe, show us again!’
Four children, none older than eight, swarmed around her. Most kids loved her. Most adults were terrified of her.
So, despite all appearances and her general demeanour, she had actually become quite fond of children. She obliged their demands and turned back into a giant lioness, stretching out her muscles and letting the children shriek delightedly and clamber all over her. She didn’t mind them tugging at her ears and dinner-plate sized paws, or their fascination with her tail. Zoe projected an aura of cold stand-offishness, but these kids saw right through that. They sensed her need for positive attention, and though she always managed to keep her façade, she was secretly bathing in all the affection. The past few weeks in New York had been a sweet reprieve; her adoptive parents had been arrested, her brother had fled to somewhere in Africa, and she took a flight to New York and bought an apartment with the money she’d automatically inherited from the Graces.
For the first time in twelve years, she was free.
She was free, and she was completely ret-conning the Grace legacy. Zoe had watched as the new headquarters for GraceTech, the family company, was being built on the northern end of Lexington Avenue. Today, as the only heir to the Graces who wasn’t in prison, she was to attend the building’s opening ceremony and address the issues of the Grace family. Honestly, she was the last person she would have picked for the job, but she was literally the only one who could do it, so she had to remain cool and begin the arduous journey of reclaiming some dignity for the company. The fact that she was an adopted alien wasn’t lost on everyone. Some people, that was a positive thing; after all, she wasn’t biologically related to the Graces, so she mustn’t have inherited their corrupt genes (a ridiculous concept, but whatever). To others, her heritage was a bad thing. You don’t know what an alien can do, after all, especially a shape-shifter like Zoe. Would she plunge GraceTech even further into darkness? Was she secretly planning some kind of world domination, as some of them thought? Zoe didn’t know why she’d dominate the world anyway. She was a recluse by nature. She was quite happy to work quietly on her projects in the background, thanks, and figure out how to live life without the Graces. Maybe she’d take advantage of the science degree she’d recently earned, and work in the GraceTech labs. Maybe she’d get into bartending. Maybe she’d try for a traineeship at Central Park Zoo. She’d always liked animals. They were often better company than people.
But she knew what would happen. The mantle of CEO would be forced upon her, and she’d have to run the company herself. Maybe not immediately- she’d insist on some time to herself first- but she would become CEO as naturally as a caterpillar would become a butterfly.
So the wind blows, she thought, rising to her paws and shaking out her pelt and the four children still clinging to it. They screeched with joy, and Zoe resumed her normal form.
‘I must leave now,’ she informed them.
‘Okay. Are you staying around?’
Zoe nodded. She had no intentions of leaving New York City any time soon.
‘Okay! Have a good day, lion!’
Zoe tried to ignore the lump in her throat as she approached the newly established GraceTech building. People were already beginning to gather there, and she could see the flash of cameras as reporters squeezed through the crush of citizens. Zoe had always had a respect for good reporters. They sought the truth, cold and hard, and brought it into public view. A dangerous and noble profession, but not one she could handle herself; though she was excellent at weaselling secrets out of people, the thought of initiating interviews for a job was vaguely horrifying.
She adjusted her blazer and ran a hand through her hair as she neared the crowd. One person noticed her, and then another, and another, and soon all eyes were upon her. A few police were there to keep the citizens at bay and let the news crews have prime access.
Zoe steeled herself and faced the reporters with as much poise as possible.
‘Miss Grace, you are in line to be CEO of GraceTech. What are your plans for the company?’
Zoe barely flinched when the reporter proffered his microphone. ‘To change it from the route it was going before. GraceTech will be cleansed of all corruption; all information regarding biological experiments will be fully transparent to the public, and GraceTech will be held accountable for any future crimes.’
‘Can you confirm that Anna Grace was charged with the murder of Xavier Osborne, the intern who leaked videos of the illicit experiments?’
‘I can confirm that is correct,’ Zoe said in a monotone. ‘Xavier’s family has been financially compensated for their loss, and I will name a new laboratory wing in his honour.’ The reporter kept following her as she wound her way through the crowd and toward the stage where she was supposed to give her speech.
‘There are rumours that you have plans to make GraceTech go international. How do you intend to do that?’
‘They’re just initial ideas at the moment, but most of the GraceTech board do want to build headquarters overseas. We have no finalised plans as of yet, but keep looking at our website for updates.’
‘Right. And is it true that you bought a fleet of helicopters?’
Zoe blinked. ‘Excuse me?’
The reporter pulled out an iPad and brought up the relevant article. ‘NYC Times claims that you bought a fleet of helicopters for your personal use.’
‘I do not have a fleet of helicopters,’ Zoe said, shaking her head at the ridiculousness of the claim. ‘Why on earth would I need helicopters?’
‘Right. Last question before you go onstage. How many New Yorkers will GraceTech employ here?’
‘We have an initial estimate of five hundred regular employees required for the building, and so far we have four hundred and thirty-two ready to work when GraceTech opens. Other employees will be added as we progress, and we have plans for new internship and work experience programs.’
‘Thank you, Miss Grace.’
Zoe bowed her head and strode through the rest of the crowd, astutely ignoring the hundreds of eyes upon her. She counted to three, and mounted the stage.
A hush fell over the crowd. She could pick out the sounds of cameras clicking, and a sea of wide eyes was hooked on her. Zoe stood behind the podium and adjusted the microphone to her height.
‘People of New York City. I am Zoe Grace, and I am here representing GraceTech as we open our new headquarters. First, I must put to rest any concerns you may have over GraceTech’s continued existence. We have finalised the issues with the company’s previous CEO, my adoptive mother Anna Grace, and all of her crimes have been accounted for. She is currently doing time in a non-disclosed prison, and was stripped of her position as CEO as soon as she left the courtroom. With all offending members of the Grace family currently seeing justice, I am the only one left to reroute GraceTech’s legacy and once again make it into a symbol of hope for bio-tech advances. All reforms to GraceTech policies are now available for public view on our website, and we will address any further concerns as they come. However, I won’t be CEO immediately; that role will be assumed by respected business manager Jared Kowl until I decide to take up the mantle myself.’
A rumble of whispering ran through the crowd at this. It was hard to judge the general feeling at the news. Most people seemed to have expected her to immediately take charge of the company, while others thought she was far too young to do so. She was only twenty-two, after all. It was reasonable to not expect a twenty-two year old to be a CEO, even if she did happen to be an alien.
So Zoe resumed her speech. ‘I will, however, oversee the opening of GraceTech and see that operations begin smoothly. I’ll be watching over the company from the sidelines to ensure that our new policies are complied to, and that all employees are background-checked. Thank you.’
And with that, Zoe happily went into her usual seclusion. She was eternally thankful for the Grace fortune she’d inherited, and had bought an entire apartment complex next to Central Park. She took a room on the very top floor, and gave the rest of the complex to previously homeless people free of charge- provided they kept the place clean. For hours, Zoe would spend her days in her room contentedly reading and drawing and generally exploring the creative side she’d been forced to stifle under the Graces. When she grew tired of being in the same room, she’d wander out into Central Park and walk for as long as she pleased. Zoe spent hours exploring the park; even after three weeks, she still felt half-stunned at the fact that she could just walk wherever she pleased, wearing whatever she pleased, and know that she wouldn’t face Anna afterwards. But even so, there was still the familiar guilt in her system when she returned to her apartment- like Anna would be there, and Zoe would face her wrath again. But she never was there. She’d meet the people she’d taken in, sure, and would chat with them every now and then, but Anna was safely in prison, and Zoe was trying to adjust to this new sense of freedom. Even in uni, she’d been constantly monitored through her phone by Anna. Zoe wouldn’t have put it past Anna to microchip her, and she wanted to get an X-ray soon just to check.
Would X-rays even work on a Valkan like her? She wasn’t sure. She’d never needed one before.
As promised, Zoe kept a close eye on GraceTech’s progress. She checked supplies being brought into the building, greeted the new employees (the ones from the original Chicago headquarters had been laid off), and carefully surveyed the lab chemicals as the bio-chemists gingerly unpacked them in the labs. She took the time to explore her building, checking the offices and bullpens and conference rooms, all interspersed with cafes to keep the workers well-fed. It smelt all new and freshly painted in here, and her sharp eye caught the care and detail the architects had when erecting the building.
Eventually she came to the fifth of its ten floors and found the designated CEO office. It was a wide, spacious room with an inbuilt desk and minibar. One entire wall was a window and glass door looking out into the city; she could see a balcony jutting out from it, accessible through the glass door. Outside, the sky was grey and dreary and full of unkempt pigeons. Zoe opened the door and walked out onto the balcony. There was already a table and two chairs there, ready for any outdoor conversations the CEO might want to have with a visitor.
She heard the office door open, and the heavy footfalls on the soft padded carpet that followed. Judging from the footfalls, the person was roughly seventy kilos and had a limp.
‘Mr Kowl,’ she said. The balcony door was still open, so she knew her voice would carry back into the room behind her.
‘Miss Grace,’ a cool voice replied. ‘What a surprise to see you.’
Kowl stepped beside her, and they surveyed Lexington Avenue together.
‘Well, this is my building. I ought to see how it’s doing,’ Zoe replied easily.
‘Not getting territorial already, are we?’
‘I’m always territorial.’
‘We might have a problem there, because so am I.’
Zoe finally turned to look at him. Kowl was in his early forties, with a trimmed greying beard and thick rimmed glasses. ‘Good thing I own the company, then. Makes it clear who’s the boss.’
Kowl narrowed his eyes. ‘Watch your words, Grace. You might be cocky now, but I have experience and resources you don’t.’
By resources, he meant friends in high places. People who he could call upon to rain hell on Zoe’s world. And by friends, he meant resources, because that’s what people were to him. Zoe hadn’t gotten to choose her stand-in CEO; the company board had decided that without acknowledging her input. Not that it would ever stop her from reminding Kowl that she was the alpha here.
‘And I can break your spine with a single blow and make it look like an accident, so I suggest you don’t try anything like my mother did.’
‘Was that a threat?’
‘You threatened me first.’ She turned to fix Kowl with a long look. She’d found that her eyes had always unnerved humans, and she used that to her advantage whenever she needed to intimidate someone. ‘Keep in line and treat the employees with respect, and we won’t have a problem.’
Zoe whisked out of the balcony and into the office, before returning to the hall and continuing her exploration.
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