The Seattle headquarters of Messina Corporation was a tall, black-glass tower that stood flanked by its pair of dull gray corporate neighbors like an elegantly beautiful woman between her two dumpy sisters. In the darkness of a cloudy, moonless night, it was barely visible against the sky, rising like some malevolent giant from amid a sea of concrete and steel.

Messina had been a respected old player in the game of corp politics for many years, firmly entrenched in the ranks of the second-tier organizations—those that did not attempt to compete with the juggernauts like Ares, Aztechnology, Saeder-Krupp, Fuchi, and the other so-called "Big 8" multinationals, but who nonetheless managed to successfully carve out their empires around the fringes of those titans. Based in Boston, Messina had branch offices in most of the larger cities in the eastern UCAS, as well as several in Europe, and had enjoyed a healthy but moderate period of growth over the previous ten years.

Two years ago, all of this had begun to change.

The employees of Messina Corporation, from the vice presidents down to the cleaning personnel, heard nothing. There were no rumors. There were no rumblings. There were no articles in the financial journals. In fact, the first indication that the controlling interest in Messina had been covertly purchased by a consortium of unnamed investors was when the overwhelming majority of high-ranking company officials had received cryptic messages informing them that their services were no longer required. By the time the bloodless coup was done, a good 90% of Messina's former officers, board members, and executives had been given their walking papers, and the mysterious consortium had managed to purchase enough of their holdings to secure its position fully. Those who resisted initially (and there were many, especially those who held some of the larger blocks of stock) began, after a short time, to experience inexplicable changes of heart. The longest of them held out for a month, but his resistance was cut short by the unexpected suicide of his wife, a woman who had previously showed no signs of depression. No investigation was launched; no charges were filed. It was a takeover, some said at the time, worthy of Lofwyr the Great Dragon; some speculated that he might be involved. Lofwyr denied any involvement, stating that had he been behind the takeover, it would have occurred much more smoothly than it had.

When the takeover was complete, life went on without much change for the average Messina employee, with a few notable exceptions. The first was the subtle change in the corporate culture. As an old-line Eastern conglomerate, Messina's culture had always been rather rigid and hierarchical, but with the coming of the new personnel, it became positively military. Strict chains of command were implemented, defining which decisions were permitted at which level, which specific functions were permitted to make them, and to whom and under what circumstances those functions were to move the decision up the ladder. The employees (at least those at the middle management level and below) found the new policies to be stifling and dehumanizing, but the corporation still paid them well enough that they were reluctant to move on without giving it a fair chance. The turnover among professional and managerial personnel was surprisingly low, given the circumstances.

The second exception was the occasional disappearance. By unspoken agreement among the employees, these were never referred to or otherwise mentioned. If you got to work one day and discovered that your office-mate was missing, his desk and workstation stripped clean of personal belongings, his name removed from the company telecomm directory, you simply did not ask. You went about your business and you waited for the suits to assign you a new office-mate. If you thought about it at all, you convinced yourself that Bob or Mary or Juan had committed some unforgivable sin against the Corporation, and therefore he or she deserved whatever had happened. And you prayed that you would not be next.

The third, and most unnerving, of the exceptions was the way in which the suits who acted as proxies for the mysterious consortium (who were never seen) always seemed to know exactly what was going on in the halls of the company. Eventually, after a couple of employees had been made examples of—before making their own disappearances—for what was deemed "conversation unhealthy to the spirit of corporate teamwork," everyone began to keep their mouths tightly shut even when they thought there was no way that they could be observed. Although everyone quickly picked up the habit of looking for cameras and listening devices, none were ever found.

Despite its frightening downsides, however, the employees of Messina Corporation mostly remained with the company for the one reason that allowed them to rationalize their decisions: the company was making money hand over fist. Something about the new ownership and the new policies must have been working, because for the first time in ten years, Messina's healthy but uninspiring financials had begun to take a decided upswing. If they could stand the stifling atmosphere, the workers stood to make handsome incomes both in salary and in bonuses given for exceptional service and loyalty. As the company grew, the unseen powers at the top began opening more branch offices, including the most recent one in Seattle.

On this cloudy, moonless night in Seattle, the entire membership of the mysterious consortium stood near the window in a vast office on the top floor of the black tower and smiled slightly to himself.

It would not be long now.

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