Prologue

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Robert Mayhew fingered the latch of his walking stick, the latch that turned the inconspicuous perambulatory aid into a sword. He pulled the sheath free an inch or two, and examined the gleaming blade in the reflection of a street lamp. He replaced the sheath with a click and approached the building.

Those for whom the Absinthe Moon's doors would not open lingered on the pavement outside. These were they who had failed to meet the establishment's strict standards of admission. These were New London's wretched unworthies, former patrons now banished to the lower habitats, having lost their positions and the privileges that came with them. To lose the Moon's favor was to lose the favor of the Icarus Project, the city's ruling entity, and such meant that one's advancement through the rigidly structured social and economic hierarchy had reached its apex. Such marked the beginning of a rapid and tortured end. There was no having 'made it' in New London. One was either scrambling the social ladder or freefalling to the lower castes.

Though the prison district was miles away, the column of smoke that poured up from the towering and ever-smoldering waste heaps could easily be seen as it rose behind the Asylum walls. The faint glow of firelight flickered on the horizon. It was like having a glimpse of Hell. Here, in the 4th, the labor district, where the refineries and manufacturing plants spewed their smoke into the smog-laden sky, luxury was hard to find. Save for those fortunate enough to be admitted to the Absinthe Moon. Inside those doors, or so he had heard, luxury awaited, a paradise of its own invention. That it was placed here was at once happenstance and strategy, for the 4th habitat was that of the working class, and those who lived and worked in the Absinthe Moon were perhaps the most hard-working of all New London's citizens.

The clap of a gunshot could be heard in the near distance. It was a sound so frequently heard that few took much notice of it. But the clamor and violence, the chaos and mayhem that was the calling card of lower New London still unnerved Mayhew at times. Eager for shelter, and to get on with his purpose, he pushed through the crowd, but stopped again upon arriving within the Moon's sumptuously decorated foyer. He took a minute to adjust to the comparative luxury of the place. The Absinthe Moon guarded a carefully manufactured ambience with its gas-lit chandeliers that cast a warm, flickering glow over the velvet upholstery and thick oriental rugs. It was quiet in here. Quiet, warm, and comfortable. With more pleasures yet the further into its labyrinth he dared—or was allowed—to go. But he had one mission here today, and it was not win for himself any idle amusement. He had business. But then if pleasure and business were so easily divided, the Absinthe Moon would not be the necessity that it was. He approached the reception desk, where a screen of heavily copper mesh protected a half-dozen receptionists from the hopeful patrons who stood in line. Between each screened window stood a Praefector, identified by his black uniform and the gold emblem of winged Icarus he wore on the sleeve of his shoulder.

The screening system was that which both supported and protected the interests of the Absinthe Moon, and of the city at large. These screenings detected what the Praefector could not, and there was no avoiding the procedure. At least it was quick, if not painless. There was no avoiding the bordello, either. Not, at least, for those deemed worthy to enter its doors. Human nature sought to fill a necessary end. And where the means to meet a need were amply supplied, the screenings became a small price to pay. They were necessary though. Necessary to measuring the spread of illness—and mitigating it where possible—and necessary to the Icarus Project, who must have some more accurate means than mere physical observation alone to keep track of the health and wellness—and therefor worthiness—of those of the city's populace who were yet struggling to rise further through the social and economic ranks. Which, as it so happened, was everyone. Well, nearly everyone.

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