Prologue

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He stood a moment on the curb, observing the building on the opposite side of the square, and those who entered and left it, who gathered around it. The sprawling and turreted structure rose before him in all its awe-inspiring and decadent glory. Stained on the one side from years of exposure to New London's smog-choked air and chemical-laden weather, perfectly preserved on the other by the cliff face that jutted up from the earth behind it, casting a permanent shadow over the greater part of the city. The Absinthe Moon was imposing in its size and elegant even in its suggestion of imminent decrepitude. It was a façade meant to impress. With the tourmaline face of Mt. Icarus looming behind it, it was also meant to intimidate, and in this it succeeded. Mayhew had been waiting a long time for this day. Much longer than most were willing to do. But self-restraint was a virtue few understood in this city these days.

Behind the Absinthe Moon, embedded into the face of Mt. Icarus, and towering high above its tallest peak, rose the glowing glass and iron tower that was the city's capital building. The Tower, built within the shadowy recesses of a mountain that had not existed prior to the blast that, two centuries ago, had destroyed civilization as the world had known it, was both home and office to the officials who ran this city-state, and to the Icarus Project, the government-imposed program that was meant to support and assist each of its citizens toward achieving humanity's greatest potential. Or to drowning them alive. It all depended on what you believed about the mysterious organization that ruled over the city. Or what you knew. But there was no room today for conspiracy theories. If Mayhew hoped to accomplish his mission he must be on the side of the Icarus Project. He must, at the very least, appear as if he fit in. Fortunately, at least to the eye, he did look the part. He had made sure of that, as had his father before him, for this day had been a generation in the planning.

Mayhew waited for a break in the traffic and crossed the street. Dozens crossed with him, but he did not wish to appear as one amidst the common fray, as one amidst the crowd who pushed and fought their way to the Absinthe Moon's doors, desperate to satiate the unquenchable desire that had been stirred within them. But by what? Was it merely the predictability of human nature? Perhaps it was merely the trickery of clever marketing. Or, just possibly, it was something else entirely. A design, so thoroughly imprinted into the fabric of the environment, that one did not realize that they gave away a little freedom every time they ate or drank or breathed.

But he was allowing his thoughts to distract him once again. He slowed his pace and hung back, allowing the more desperate around him to push on ahead. He followed behind quite casually, intentional in every step, and perhaps even with an air of exaggerated patience. As the crowd cleared around him, he observed that he was being watched. It had been his intention, but drawing attention to himself came with certain risks as well. It was the common thing, but not exactly universal, that those who saw him were impressed. Not everyone wished him good will. He had seen these hooded figures before, appearing, disappearing, following him. What they wanted of him—good or ill—he had not yet determined.

"Watch where you're going, dammit!"

His attention distracted, he had run into the gentleman before him, who turned now to give him a warning look. His manner changed immediately.

"I beg your pardon," the stranger said instead, having taken in the height and breadth of the man behind him, the paleness of the flesh he chose to show—his face and nothing else—but it was enough. "Go on ahead of me," the man said now, and with a gesture ushered Mayhew forward.

It was an opportunity, at any rate, to escape the view of the watchers. Were these the eagle-eyed Huntsmen of the Icarus Project, they who chose from among the population those who were to be favored—or disfavored—and helped them to their allotted ends? Perhaps they were the Tribesmen, the scouts of the Absinthe Moon, Madame's henchmen, who protected her and all who fell within her scope of interest—or that of the Moon's. Was there any difference?

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