Lauren sat behind her big mahogany desk and let her hand linger over her mouse. Everything was ready. A simple three-sentence message sat on her screen. She was tempted to just press the button, but she'd been working toward this moment for the last twelve years. She wanted to savor her inevitable triumph just a moment longer.
The whole improbable thing had started one lovely spring day. She'd been skipping work. Twenty-seven years old, VP of Operations for one of the world's largest research and development firms, and she'd been bored. It had been eight months since she'd taken over, and already she had things running well enough that the job didn't need her personal direction for more than ten hours a week. Put the right people in the right places and let them do what you hired them to do. How simple could it be?
Okay. It was simple for her, which had been her ticket to success. She'd worked her way through a number of smaller companies until she reached the one she thought she'd wanted.
The problem was, she made it look easy, too. Coombs and Haggerty, CEO and President of Transvent LLC respectively, were starting to think they could replace her with one of those old fashioned, seat-in-chair, hold-lots-of-meetings types. She'd been out of the office too much lately. Any more and they were hinting they'd be forced to take notice.
But that spring she didn't care. She was curled up in the big plush armchair in her living room, tea cooling on the table next to her and a tiny gray cat sleeping peacefully in her lap. She was deep into the latest biography of Stalin. It was much more compelling than a job that didn't need her because she'd done it right the first time.
Finally, she finished and closed the book she'd bought the afternoon before. She stretched, displacing Meep, who grumbled and disappeared in search of whatever cats prowl for in the middle of the day. Probably a sunbeam. Lauren turned the book over and looked at Stalin's picture on the cover.
"Fruit bat," she said to the unsmiling face staring back at her.
She got up and put the book on the shelf with the other histories and biographies she collected. Mao, Attilla, Selim the Grim, Chandragupta, Genghis, Ahuitzotl, Hitler and so many more. She'd always been fascinated by these would-be world leaders, but she had to admit, as she looked at the shelf, that they were all fruit bats. Not a single sane one in the bunch.
Neurotics and paranoiacs, full of superstition and mystical thinking. At the very least, every person profiled on that shelf was arguably a megalomaniac, which probably explained why none of them had ever succeeded in their common goal of conquering the world. Imagine what the world would be like, she thought, if any one of them had been reasonably rational. Imagine....
Four hours later, Lauren discovered she was starving. It was seven thirty and she hadn't eaten yet. There were papers all over her floor, her hand and neck hurt, and she had an ink stain on her middle finger where the pen had leaked. The plan needed some refinements, but it was essentially complete. She laughed at it and went to make dinner.
She went into work early the next day. There still wasn't much needing her attention, and as she sat idle in her office, the plan drifted back into her mind. She dismissed it as soon as she realized she was thinking about it again. She thought of it as the imaginative equivalent of a hangover. The Stalin book really had been good. But with nothing else to keep her busy, the plan kept coming back.
When she got home, she went straight to the notepad, hoping she'd see a hopeless mess of confused ramblings. Instead, she read the plan through and added a couple of notes. "Oh, dear. This just might work."
After that, Lauren was busier at work, although not necessarily with Transvent business. If Haggerty knew how many of her meetings and calls were with prospective investors, employees and clients, she'd have been out of a job. As it was, he was happy to see her working hard again. Her world ran smoothly, so he let it run with the minimum of attention from him. Between his lack of oversight and her control of Transvent's shipping contracts, Transvent became one of Go Shipping's first clients.
Lauren knew she needed some way to extend her influence to every part of the world, something that wouldn't attract the wrong kind of attention. It had to give her an excuse to interact with the power structure of any country or region. She decided on a shipping company, but she wanted it to be more than just any shipping company. The competition was too fierce and the payoff too small.
Go Shipping was her answer. It would cater to clients who wanted to ship internationally, and it would be expensive. The expense would be justified by Go's speed--and their willingness to guarantee they would ship anything safely anywhere.
It was a lot to promise, but it was necessary. Lauren had hired the people who could figure out how to deliver.
While she spent quite a bit of time on hooking investors and clients into her new business, and setting up the layers that hid her conflict of interest, the majority of her time in setting up Go was devoted to finding the right people to operate the business. She hired shipping experts first, and they told her what she really needed to know--who else she needed on her payroll.
Then she started interviewing in earnest. Former (and a few current) government officials, relatives close to seats of power, former intelligence and espionage agents, adventurers, rebels and criminals--she spoke to all of them personally.
This was her specialty, her edge. She could weed out the braggarts, looking to go back to glory days they'd never had, claiming influence that wasn't theirs. She could cull the sadists, sometimes by passing them over and sometimes, if she felt they were too dangerous, by giving them tasks that set them against each other on an otherwise clear field. With persistence, she could also find the few who needed the challenges and rewards that she could offer like a junkie needed drugs.
In six months, Lauren quit Transvent. Go was already turning a profit, and the unadvertised portion of Go's services needed her. Go was more than an excuse to extend her influence and attention globally. It let her people look at the things people considered important. If something was worth paying a high premium to guarantee it would get to its destination and nowhere else, she wanted to know about it. Intelligence, intellectual property, groundbreaking research all passed through her figurative hands on their journeys.
More important than what her people moved was the knowledge of who had shipped it. Within three years of starting up, Go's customer list contained almost half the people and organizations that made big things happen. Patterns started to emerge in who sent what where. Lauren had a map of the world's current hot spots.
Go Shipping was no longer her only venture, although it was her only public one. Even there, her only official title was the same one she'd held at Transvent. Knowing when and where to invest, through those layers of carefully chosen fronts, more than happy to trade her anonymity for their certain profit, was lucrative. Knowing who had something they didn't want known was priceless. She hired very good accountants to keep it all from being connected with her.
Lauren's plan was moving forward, but she couldn't repress a feeling of uneasiness. The possibility of outside interference, of losing the game, didn't bother her nearly as much as that shelf of books. She tested herself frequently to make sure she was still rational--no dreams of grateful populations showering her with flowers, no new twitches, no delusions that humanity needed her or owed her.
It got harder to be sure the farther in she got, especially as she started gathering the pieces that would put her in power. She tried to keep the pain she caused other people to a minimum, but she knew people would get hurt. She tried to at least make sure they weren't the good ones--when she felt she could tell the difference.
She couldn't hide the fact that the work she was doing didn't always stay on the right side of the law of every country she operated in. But she could and did make sure that every step she took had an apparent motive in addition to the place it played in her grander scheme. That motive was usually monetary, and she made a policy of always having enough reward built into any of her ventures that any official scrutiny could be met with offers to share that reward.
In most places this meant sharing directly with the officials involved, but Lauren was pleased to discover that in many countries, she could buy her way through by digging deeper into the local economy. This gave her more people interested in her well-being, a larger base from which to conduct her operations, and fewer things on her conscience.
Still, she kept her connection to even these operations as secret as she had her earlier investments. Very few people knew who she was, and none of them knew the extent of her influence. When she became the world's richest person, the occasion passed without fanfare. She didn't make a single list. But every day, more people in more parts of the world moved to her wishes.
Not all of Lauren's life flowed as smoothly as her business plans, however. For example, her work was hell on her love life, although the rest her social life was better than ever. Meeting some of the highest caliber minds and most competent individuals alive was terribly stimulating. The least expected bonus of her global venture was meeting more challenging, exciting men than she would have dreamed possible.
Lauren met Jack at an embassy dance in Peru. She'd gone for business, of course, but that had been easily settled before the music began. She thought about leaving, but she recognized a couple of important faces in the crowd, people she really ought to meet.
Jack was the new assistant ambassador from Australia and one of the people on her list. A tall man, he was thin to a point just shy of being gaunt. Time in the sun had added golden brown highlights to his black hair. They caught the light distractingly as she paid him subtle attention until he asked her to dance.
He danced with enough confidence that she knew he enjoyed it, rather than considering it just a useful social skill, as most of the men at these functions did. His clasp on her waist was firm, stopping just short of being proprietary, and she'd never seen blue eyes look as warm as his did as the two of them eased from introductions into small talk.
She knew enough about him to be flattered by his attention, which excluded the rest of the room. He wasn't ambassador, because he didn't want the attention and uncertainty that comes with political appointment, but he was widely regarded as the power behind the throne in the embassy. Suddenly the appeal of idle chatter evaporated. Lauren wanted to know this man better.
"So," she asked, stepping into a pause in the conversation and smiling up at him, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Jack laughed, and Lauren was happy she'd asked, even if she didn't get an answer. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then leaned forward. "Promise you won't tell?"
She playfully widened her eyes and put a finger to her lips.
He leaned closer still, and Lauren's heart raced. He murmured just loud enough for her to hear him over the music. "I've always dreamed of running a small bed and breakfast. Nothing grand, just a little place where people could relax and spend some happy time." He stood back up. His smile seemed to mock itself. "Silly, isn't it?"
"Not at all!" Lauren's wanted to smooth the scorn off his face. It hurt to see. "It sounds like a lovely idea."
"Well, I think so, sometimes at least." He sighed. "And how about you?"
Lauren opened her mouth, then closed it again immediately. She'd almost told him.
Suddenly, she felt like Cinderella must have felt at the ball, trapped, with the clock striking midnight. She couldn't afford to be unmasked, and she wanted nothing more than to run.
She remembered what the prince had done when Cinderella fled. She stayed.
And she simpered. "Oh, I guess I'm doing what I really want to do. International business is so fascinating, don't you think? Why, just yesterday, I...." She blathered breathlessly about the most mundane details of her day-to-day business activities for the next three numbers.
When Jack politely excused himself, Lauren was sure he'd forget about her in all of fifteen minutes. It was the first time she regretted embarking on her plan.
She promised herself she was done with fascinating men. It might be different if she weren't attracted to men like Jack, decent and altogether too competent, the kind of men who would be thoroughly motivated to stop her plan and who were likely to be successful. It was time to stop dating until she was done.
It wouldn't be that much longer. Strings were starting to find their way into her hands from all over the world. Understanding what people wanted and feared was paying off. Her people were in a position to deliver a third of the world's leaders to her through a combination of blackmail, extortion, and bribery--very little of it monetary. Difficult countries saw more suitable leaders put in place--by election, appointment, or revolution--with her help. Countries fell under the influence of their neighbors, who were already hers.
She had a moment of worry when she discovered that Jack was investigating her. She wondered whether her performance had been unconvincing or whether he had as much trouble forgetting about their encounter as she did. Fair enough; she'd investigated him. Apparently, she hadn't left anything she didn't want found, because nothing came of the investigation.
Eventually, all the strings she needed were hers, just waiting to be pulled. She didn't kid herself that all her tactics were flawless, but she'd put contingency plans in place anywhere important or unstable enough that she felt she needed firm control right away. She expected a year or two would be needed to consolidate her position, even if almost everything went as anticipated. But it was ready.
Now, as she sat in front of her computer, waiting to push the button that would deliver the world into her hands, Lauren gave her mental health a final check. As far as she could tell, everything was still good. She still liked cats, but she didn't demand that everyone else do the same. She still hired good people who could do what she needed. She still wanted to keep this as bloodless as possible. She hadn't developed an evil laugh. She hadn't confused herself with any gods lately. She still had no intent to make her status as world ruler known.
The last two were the ones she thought were most important. She was still terribly wary of megalomania, afraid that even the attempt to take over the world meant she was nuts. But she didn't think she was invincible. She still didn't want strewn flowers and adoring crowds. She didn't want to be recognized as the leader of the world, she just wanted to be the leader.
Heck, when it came down to it, who even wanted that? Maintaining all that power, the endless competition, responsibility for all the world's problems? She didn't....
Lauren pulled her hand away from the mouse. This was a mess, wasn't it? Twelve years of work, all for something she'd never thought to ask herself whether she'd wanted. She was just lucky she'd never pressed Send.
She wanted to cry, wanted to laugh, wanted to hide under her desk. Instead, she deleted her message and started another. She had a lot to undo and plenty of people to keep in the dark while she did it. This could take years.
Fortunately, she liked complicated problems. And for this one, Lauren thought she'd have help. This was right up Jack's alley. She hoped he'd still be happy to get her message, brief and oblique as it was. If he didn't respond to this, well, she was sure she could get his attention somehow.
This time Lauren didn't hesitate before pushing Send.