Chapter One

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The guards stood at the door—Praefectors, they were called—hulking and massive and clad in black uniforms that bore the gold-threaded insignia of winged Icarus. The men looked the next applicant over, and in an instant dismissed him. Had he once looked as Mayhew himself now appeared—tall, rosy-fleshed, and virile? The man was far from that now, though the pale, bloodless face, the dark shadows beneath the eyes, and the ubiquitous blue staining of the fingers was hardly beyond the norm. It was the trademark of those whose bodies had absorbed too much of this smog-choked and polluted city. He knew that lost and lifeless look too well. It was what they all looked like in the outer annexes—where he had come from today, where he had lived...until today. He had been an exception there. He would prove to be an exception here as well.

Mayhew stepped forward. It was his turn to present himself to the entrance guards. They gave him a quick once over and nodded their admittance to the doorman who opened the double doors for him as if he were royalty. One look. It was as simple as that. For him, yes. For the man before him as well—though with a different result, of course. It was not so easy for everyone. Thus the necessity of the screenings, of which the Absinthe Moon had become a chief purveyor, and for obvious—and necessary—reasons.

Arriving in the foyer, Mayhew took a moment to appreciate the sumptuous luxury of the place: the high ceilings with guilt details, embossed wallpapers, and richly upholstered furniture. Every appointment was thoughtfully and intentionally rendered. It was like a palace, and provided a taste—just a sampling—of what life was like on the inside, amidst the Elite of the city's populace. Was it possible to get used to this? He certainly intended to. But first he must pass the scrutiny of the receptionists, with their screenings and their databases.

Collecting himself, he entered the reception area. Here, a long counter divided the receptionists from the customers. Before each of the receptionists—several dozen of them—were lined those hopeful patrons who wished to avail themselves of the Moon's services. Mayhew chose the shortest queue and joined its impatient ranks, watching as each receptionist greeted the next in line, performed the simple procedure, and waited for the impending results. Between each receptionist and her customer was a protective copper screen, and, for further protection, these were flanked by more Praefectors. The Absinthe Moon was a place of leisure and luxury, yes, but it was also a place of order, a place of decorum, and it kept protective watch over these, and over its carefully selected staff, with jealous ferocity.

Mayhew, without much delay, soon found himself next but one in line. His confidence was unassailable—or so he had thought until this moment. The gentleman before him, it seemed, had received some disappointing news.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Jones," the receptionist said in a silken voice that betrayed just how accustomed she was to making such pronouncements. "I'm afraid you no longer qualify for the Moon's services."

"It can't be right!" he objected. "My results were acceptable last week. It's true I've felt a little under the weather, but it was nothing but a passing cold, I'm sure! If I were to rest for a few days, I could come back next week and—"

"Yes, you do that, Mr. Jones," she said in a sympathetic manner that was kind yet firm. "Come back when you think your condition has improved."

He nodded hopefully, but they both knew the truth. Despite the promises made by the Icarus Project, once one's screenings disqualified a person from certain benefits, they were not likely to get those benefits back. To gain rank for good work while maintaining one's health and physical condition was one thing. But to regain rank after a decline in wellbeing was quite another. In theory it was possible. The people of New Phoenix counted on it being so. But it rarely happened—if ever.

The receptionist signaled to the Praefectors who stepped forward to assist the man out. He moved back to avoid them and bumped into Mayhew. Prepared to offer one last plea, to anyone who would listen, he opened his mouth and looked up at Mayhew.

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