Blue Plate Special

*There's a tradition I started over at my conference, in the baen's bar at baen.com and which I've lately let fall into disuse, which is that of posting Blue Plate Specials.  My conference is Sarah's Diner, so... you see the theme here, right?  Anyway, the BPSs are full short stories.  Of course, I still have copyright and you are not allowed to copy/distribute/claim it's yours or change it BUT otoh you do get to read it and share the link as far and wide as you wish.  I think I can do that here too, because -- frankly -- I have a lot of published short stories I can share.  I won't promise one a week, but if it's more than a week and you want one, feel free to poke me -- I'm very forgetful when I'm writing, which is practically always. 

So, below find Ariadne's Skein, set in the world of Darkship Thieves, a few centuries earlier.  [when I find and integrate my Future History, I'll blog that, too.])

 

 

 

Ariadne's Skein

by

Sarah A. Hoyt

 

 

 

 

 The Minotaur - Frederic Watts - 1877-86

We clambered onto the white deck of a Blue Gryphon 56 sea-to-air and sat on deck chairs disposed in two rows. There were fourteen of us, jet-lagged tourists from pan America and the guide who'd show us the manufactured wonders of Mythos.

Sunlight showed as no more than a hint of silver on the deep blue waves of the Mediterranean.

The man across from me reclined on his chair, stretched his long legs, threw his head back and half-closed his eyes. He wore only a scrap of shorts and looked no more than twenty. Tanned and sporting fashionably long black curls, he showed better defined muscles that any one man should have been born with.

Instinctively, I glanced at the middle-finger of his right hand.

In the place where an artifact had to display the red ring of his slavery or the black ring of his freedom -- either permanently embedded in the flesh -- this man wore a thin gold band. Matching ones adorned every finger of his right hand, even his thumb.

So, this exquisite creature had been naturally born, not test-tube assembled. Would wonders never cease?

He looked at me from beneath his artfully lowered eyelids. The corners of his lips lifted in a tentative smile.

"Living, breathing things to see at last." The fidgety older blonde who sat next to him dug a skinny elbow into his supple muscles. She wore a long yellow silk party dress, singularly out of place. "It will be a relief, after all those dried-up stones at Knossos and all the dreadful bits of pottery in museums."

He opened startling green-blue eyes and looked at her with the bewilderment of an innocent.

"But Nary, if you wanted an amusement park peopled with fantastic characters, why didn't we stay in Sea York? They do have those, you know?" His voice would serve a university professor better than a gigolo.

Which proved nothing, except that natural humans seldom lived up to their archetypes. I wasn't about to believe the demi-god had paired with this woman out of love.

His girlfriend blushed and primmed thin accordion-creased lips. She glanced at me, lifted her eyebrows at my too-regular features. Her gaze found the black ring of a freed artifact on my right hand and she relaxed.

I was not really human. Didn't count. Not to people like her, I didn't. After all, freed artifacts, though nominal citizens, could neither marry nor vote.

"Don't be tart, Pol," she said. "Mythos is not an amusement park. It recreates scenes from mythology. It is... cultural."

Pol's perfect lips curled disdainfully. "Ah," he said. "I see. Amusement park for adults."

"Pol, you are not irreplaceable."

I looked away. I didn't want to empathize with his reluctantly subservient position. True, I'd been subservient most of my life, but I hadn't chosen it as the quickest course to an easy life. I'd been born an artifact. I'd been born owned, one of a few thousand people worldwide who had been created because the unique attributes they could be given outweighed the cost of making and training them.

Willfully abstracting my mind and gaze from the couple and stared ahead where the dark shape of an island rose out of the glimmering sea ahead of the boat.

"Ladies and gentleman, if you please," the guide said. "Could I have your attention?"

We swivelled our chairs to face him.

Dapper and cool in a white linen suit, the guide graced us with a practiced smile. In Pan-America, his position would have been filled by an artifact. But not here. Though he looked just like any of the figures on a thousand classical vases, he lacked the artifact ring. "Welcome," he said.

The self-piloted ship thumped against the shore, mooring on the white sands of the artificial isle.

The guide gestured towards land. "Welcome to the fabulous island of Mythos, where you will see marvels to dazzle your eyes." His perfect, white teeth flashed briefly between red lips. "Our first stop is the palace of the Minotaur... the fabled labyrinth. For those of you not familiar with the legend, let me tell you how Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos, gave birth to a monster, half-man, half-bull. This monster was confined in a labyrinth built by Daedalus. Because he ate human flesh, the city of Athens was forced to send a yearly tribute of seven maidens and seven youths. The Minotaur devoured them all, year after year, until Theseus was chosen. Theseus killed the monster with the help of Ariadne, daughter of king Minos. She gave him a sword to slay the Minotaur and a skein of magic thread with which to find his way out of the labyrinth, once he'd killed the beast. Ariadne and Theseus left together, but later Dionysus fell in love with her and compelled Theseus to abandon her while she slept."

He cleared his throat. "Our engineers have recreated the labyrinth and the Minotaur in all particulars," he went on. "Of course, the Minotaur does not eat meat and has the mind and manners of a well-behaved seven-year-old. As for the labyrinth, do not be afraid of getting lost. If you become disoriented, just remain still. Sensors on the walls will allow rescuers to find you anywhere. Now, follow me to the country of myth."

We rose. Pol helped his companion stand, offered her his arm.

She gave no sign of being charmed.

Perhaps familiarity truly bred contempt.

His muscled chest glimmered with suntan lotion. I wouldn't mind getting familiar with him. But I would have no chance. He was the wages of fortune and -- no doubt -- of natural birth.

Reserved for nats only. No artifacts need apply.

The guide led us down the automatically-lowered gangplank to the shore.

If I hadn't known Mythos had been built by an international conglomerate less than twenty years ago, I would have thought it was just another Greek isle. It looked ancient and weathered -- another volcanic islet. The only difference was that this one didn't show any signs of ever having been inhabited, much less of the creeping overpopulation that crowded every other isle with massed houses and unsightly high rises.

In Mythos, the white shore rose slowly to a plateau where no building glimmered. Up the white shore, we tourists went scrambling.

The first to reach the summit, I removed my light wrap and stowed it in my ever-present belt-pouch while I waited for the others. Under it I wore a sleeveless short dress, adequate after walking. Even the guide had been left behind by my trot -- not surprising, considering what I'd been created to do.

The sun showed itself now, pale but warm. A heated breeze blew. The day would be a scorcher.

On the other side of the beach, at my back, green countryside stretched inland, cut here and there by groves of gnarled, twisted olive trees.

Another party of tourists walked through the middle of a field, stopping to take their tiny cameras to their eyes and snap holos of the view.

The rest of our group finally joined me, one by one and two by two. The guide came first, and accosted me with a buoyant, "You're a fast walker."

Then he looked at the ring on my finger and looked away, towards the approaching party. It took some people that way. As the other tourists arrived, he talked to them, instead, discussing the sea and the heat, the sand and re-created myths. But I'd ceased existing.

Pol brought up the rear, supporting his less decorative companion.

She leaned heavily on him, and no wonder, since she wore five inch stiletto heels in shiny, rock-hard dimatough. Not the most adequate shoes for walking on sand, and what could have possessed her to wear them?

I wondered how money, or even social prestige, could keep a thinking man in thrall to such a fool. Then, of course, I was assuming that Pol was a thinking man -- a stretch of the imagination.

Turning away from him, I concentrated on following the guide and not overtaking him as he led us on the same route the other group had followed, up a convincingly weathered narrow path and through a grove of trees.

Flawlessly sensuous nymphs danced with faultlessly goat-legged satyrs for the amusement of yet another group of tourists.

I looked away, counting my blessings. Other than exceptional strength and agility and the eidetic memory and sense of direction necessary for my erstwhile job as a courier, I had no modifications that distinguished me from natural humans.

Oh, my features might be a little too perfect, as designers would make them if they got the chance. And I wore the black ring of a freed artifact. But those didn't matter. It could have been worse. Much worse.

A hundred steps past the grove, a seven-foot-tall stone wall rose. A panel of dimatough, inexpertly made to look like wood, covered a narrow doorway.

Our guide touched a button. The panel slid away.

"Ladies and gentlemen, let us enter the fabulous labyrinth of the Minotaur."

We followed him into a tunnel. Its walls were molded of smooth black dimatough, and the blackness swallowed what light shone from the diminutive lamps on the wall sconces.

The uncertain lighting changed my companions into shapes and shadows. The dank air reeked of manure. It felt like a cheap ride in a second class carnival.

"It smells like a stable," Pol's girlfriend said. "I'm not going in."

The guide turned around. A light affixed at the base of his throat lit his face partially and from below, obscenely emphasizing his mouth. "It's perfectly clean," he said his mouth opening and closing, white teeth shining and making him look like a snarling beast. "But the Minotaur... You see, he's an animal. He smells."

In the doorway, square-shouldered Pol bowed meekly to whisper something to his companion.

She giggled. "Oh, don't be silly. No, I wouldn't want to deprive you... I know you want to go in."

Another bout of whispering, and a muffled giggle. "No, I won't stay here alone, either. I guess I'm being a silly old woman. We'll go in, Pol. Come along."

They joined the party, her high heels clicking as we walked along the ever-narrowing corridor. We stopped in front of a fresco-adorned wall that depicted, in gruesome color and lurid detail, the Minotaur feasting on the corpses of ancient Greek maidens and youths.

The guide turned to face us, winked. "Follow me," he said.

Flattening himself against the fresco, he slithered sideways, seemingly disappearing into the stone wall. Pol followed, eagerly, smiling like a child at a party.

I tried it next.

There was an opening, of course, to the left side of the panel -- an opening so narrow that it required our sliding sideways, squeezing between stony surfaces.

On the other side, Pol smiled at me, and the guide looked away.

"Look what it's done to my dress," Nary said as she emerged. "I don't think anything will get it clean."

Her bright yellow silk dress showed dust and something like a verdigris stain.

The guide looked abashed. "Replacements will be provided, of course," he said, and bowed and turned to lead us down the wider, curving corridor into which we'd emerged.

We walked a long time, between black walls and my sense of direction, built into me for my job as a courier, told me that we actually described a full circle before we took an abrupt left turn.

The purpose of the circle would be to make the way seem longer. However -- disadvantages of being a human homing pigeon -- my being forced to take a circuitous route countered my carefully designed instincts for always choosing the quickest way. My mind knew where the turns we took were silly and useless and, trudging along the dark, dank, smelly hallways, I literally ached to take a streamlined path.

The ceiling of the next compartment hung so low that we had to duck our heads. Because of his height, Pol had to bend almost double. His dark hair brushed my shoulder.

No one spoke. At the end of the tunnel, the head of the Minotaur, carved in stone, glared at us. We turned right, suddenly able to stand up. The high ceiling, on which the guide helpfully shone his light, displayed another fresco, this one of the Minotaur standing astride a pile of human corpses, while Theseus pierced the beast's chest with his borrowed sword.

The smell of manure got worse. My hair attempted to stand on end.

"It's too long," Pol's girlfriend said. "And it smells. Can't we take a short cut? Can't you call the beast to us?"

"Ah, my dear, but the Minotaur hides in the labyrinth and ambushes us," the guide said.

Nary murmured something from which the word, "nonsense," emerged.

To my disgust, I agreed with her. She might be an idiot, but even idiots were right sometimes.

The place did smell like a stable, a musty animal-waste smell. The dark, cold corridors didn't disturb me any less for my knowing that they were supposed to disturb me.

Most attractions didn't try this hard to put tourists off.

We turned left, then right, then left again. Two of the frescos repeated themselves. The carved head of the Minotaur protruded from the tunnel at regular intervals and if it were not for my sense of direction, I'd assume we were going in circles and passing the same carving again and again.

Couldn't make it too easy to find our way out, could they?

I huffed under my breath, doubting that my complaints would be met with such gentle rejoinders as natural-born Nary's.

Mostly, I was mad at myself. Why hadn't I begged off this particular attraction? For that matter, why had I signed up for this tour of Mythos at all?

But I knew why. Greek mythology, with its capricious gods, its heroic mortals, drew me like a half-healed lip sore, to which your tongue strays irresistibly. Hard to read the myths and not to think of our present world, of capricious humans playing god and long-suffering artifacts enduring their whimsy. Hard not to identify with the situations created.

"Imagine Theseus making his way through these dark corridors," the guide said. "Knowing that at the end he will have to fight a supernatural beast for his life and the lives of his companions."

I shook my head. Not while discreet electrical lights shone on me, not when I knew the Minotaur was vegetarian and had the intelligence of a seven-year-old.

A high pitched, tremulous scream echoed through the chamber. It ended in a gurgle.

Ahead of us, the corridor bifurcated via doorways opening to the right and left of another horrendous fresco.

I froze in place, all my instincts alert. My heart raced.

Scene-setting, my mind said. But my senses protested it had been too realistic. Too real. The scream had sounded too present, too anguished to be part of the scene-setting.

My nostrils flared.

I caught the smell of the charnel house, the metallic tang of blood mixed with animal waste: the smell of sudden death.

"What-- What is that?" Nary asked. "What-- I want out."

"Hey, take us out of here," Pol said. "My friend is--" He stopped. "Where did he go?"

I looked around for the guide, as did other tour members. But we saw only each other's frightened expressions. Our guide had vanished.

"Where did he go?" A young teenage girl clutched at my arm with her hot, moist hand. "Where did he go?"

"He ran," Pol said.

"Out?" I asked. My voice sounded alien, disembodied. My heart beat too fast, up by my throat.

"I don't know." Pol shuffled back a step, opened his eyes wide. He looked restless and skittish as if he too could smell better than natural humans. As if he knew that somewhere close by people had died violently. "But he has to have run. He was here, and then not."

The teenager giggled. "It's probably a trick to scare us." She started ahead.

"We should go out, Nary," Pol said, his voice hoarse and low. "Something is wrong. We should--"

"I'm not going anywhere." Nary stomped her dimatough heel. "The guide said if we got lost we should just stay where we are and the rescuers would find us."

""But that was if we got lost alone." The girl stared at Nary wide-eyed. "I'm sure it's different as a group. Come on. This is just supposed to make it more exciting. Why else would the guide leave?"

A couple of other people stepped forward.

I backed up against the wall. If this was a simulation, its creators had raided an abattoir for parts to make it smell right.

Then again, Mythos had a very good reputation. Perhaps it came from stage-setting like this. Maybe the girl was right.

I took a step forward. A scream sounded, high, insane, ending in a gurgle. Another, then another reverberated off the tunnel walls. The first one had been female, the last two male.

Pol grabbed his girlfriend and pulled her back, against the wall, away from the noise and the smell.

In the doorway on the right, something large and square-shouldered appeared. Two large horns crowned its bovine head.

I took a step back.

"Run," someone screamed. "Oh, dammit, run."

"No," Pol yelled. "No. Be still, make no sound. Maybe it can't see."

They ignored him. His efforts at holding Nary failed. They ran in a group -- stumbling and whimpering, missing the left corridor.

The creature lumbered after them, past us, moving fast, much too fast for its gait. Under the bubble lights, I saw it clearly: recurved horns, blood-stained as was the muzzle, wide green eyes -- eyes more like a cat's than like a bull's.

Our screaming companions ran straight back, to huddle by the wall that blocked their path. Still within full view of us, they pushed against the wall and screamed and kicked in a writhing pile. In their panic, each prevented the other from getting through the doors on either side.

The Minotaur trotted towards them, head down, and charged bull fashion. It speared a balding man through the chest of his tie-dyed T-shirt. The man whimpered and fell like a deflated balloon. Blood gushed. His cry ended in a sort of gurgle.

The Minotaur charged the group again.

It all seemed to take place in slow motion and yet I knew it was very fast, taking no more than a few breaths. There was nothing I could do, no time to intervene.

My stomach churned. I didn't want to think, to smell, to see, or to hear. But neither could I close my eyes. If I were to die I wanted to know it was going to happen. I wanted to know it was all over, even if only for a few seconds.

Sweat running down my back, I concentrated on standing still, on breathing quietly.

Pol, two steps to the right and in front of me, looked like a statue, only the slight rise of his broad chest betraying life.

The Minotaur lowered its head again. A sharp cry sounded and a dark red stain bloomed on Nary's yellow dress.

Pol swallowed audibly and shifted his weight to the foot closer to his girlfriend.

The Minotaur lifted her, threw her. She landed in a heap close to us. Drops of her blood sprinkled my ankles.

I closed my eyes, biting my lips together as acid bile rose from my stomach.

Pol made a low, keening sound and the Minotaur turned an enquiring head. Pol bit his lips and, though his face glimmered white with shock and his eyes were wide and expressionless, he made no more sound.

I concentrated on remaining still, on not moving to either help or run away. I could do nothing, except, if I were lucky, save my own life.

I knew quite well, from my creche days, that artifacts with the Minotaur's cat-eyes were not good at perceiving shapes and outlines. But they could always pick out movement, no matter how dark the surroundings.

If I moved, he'd see me.

I'd bet that the Minotaur could also hear better than natural people. It would have to if it had been designed to hunt in these corridors, to follow people by sound, to seek them out by stealth.

Could its sense of smell also be improved? If it was, could it discern Pol's and my smells amid the stench of the labyrinth?

Who was this beast? No, what was it? It couldn't be the good, vegetarian, mentally slow Minotaur we'd been promised, could it?

Perhaps this was all an illusion, aided by great special effects. Perhaps. I opened one eye. The Minotaur, having made mince-meat of my companions, had squatted down to feasting. Its muzzle opened and closed. Blood dripped down its neck. Sharp carnivorous teeth gleamed, crunching their way through bones.

I looked across at Pol.

He wasn't there.

I looked down.

Pol had knelt on the ground.

He stretched his hand to his girlfriend's corpse.

With infinite, cautious slowness, he got hold of the woman's ridiculously thin stiletto high-heel and pulled the shoe loose.

Engrossed in his meal, the Minotaur paid no attention.

Pol straightened, clutching his prize. His feet worked against each other, stealthily getting rid of his own flopping sandals.

The Minotaur grunted its satisfaction as it crunched into the mass of mangled corpses.

Pol held the shoe with the heel sticking out like a fantastic dagger. Wearing only tiny shorts, he looked like a mythological hero, himself, as he leapt forward and, with the grace of an athlete, launched himself through the air at the Minotaur's back.

Before Pol reached him, the beast turned.

Pol jumped sideways, fell awkwardly just in front of the beast, who bellowed, outraged. Its sharp teeth clamped onto Pol's left arm. Pol screamed, but shoved the shoe's heel into the Minotaur's eye with his right hand, pushing hard, madly.

The Minotaur bayed. It shook the arm it had clamped onto.

Pol screamed higher, a high, insane screech, as the creature lifted him off his feet, and Pol's body arched back in pain.

Sweat flowed down my back. It would kill Pol. And then I'd be left alone in a labyrinth with a rampaging beast. Sooner or later I'd scream, or sneeze. And be killed.

I bent to pick up the other one of the dead woman's shoes.

As I stood up, the Minotaur's strange cat eyes fixed on me, its gaze betraying only madness and hatred.

It opened its mouth to bellow, dropping Pol to the floor.

I jumped with artifact speed and strength -- using it to compensate for the lack of a running start.

It stepped on Pol as it lowered his head and charged me.

The Minotaur's horn, aimed at my chest, caught me in the thigh. Pain burst through my body like a succession of electrical shocks. Everything spun around me. I screamed.

The Minotaur lifted me, in preparation to throwing me.

But I had a moment. Long enough. I grabbed onto its ear with all my strength, as I lay half-across the Minotaur's massive head, steadied between its horns, my leg impaled by the right horn. With my free hand, I pushed the heel of the shoe into the back of the creature's neck.

It bellowed and grunted, and it tried to bite me, but it couldn't because I lay astride its head.

It shook its head, crushing my bone. A red veil filmed my vision.

I knew I was going to die, yet something in me refused to give up. I'd survived the creche and my harsh training as a courier.

Humans were born to coddling and family, but artifacts were ejected from their creches like objects in an assembly line. No one had ever cared if I lived or died, and yet I'd lived. I'd survived years of being treated like a machine I wouldn't -- damn it -- die now. I wouldn't let another artifact, some bio-engineered beast destroy what not all the spite and indifference of natural borns had managed.

My hand, as though of its own accord, kept on digging the heel into the monster's neck, as my vision grew dim and dark.

Pol muttered obscenities, whimpered. I heard him move. His harsh, panting breath rasped from behind me.

My hand on the broad shoulders of the beast, I turned my head to yell at him to go back. Nats couldn't survive what we artifacts could. And, gigolo though he might be, he'd shown courage enough to be an artifact himself. He shouldn't just be killed now.

But I couldn't find the strength to talk and warn him off. My mouth was too dry.

Pol, his left arm hanging like a limp rag at his side, lurched up behind me and -- evading the creature's teeth with speed and reflexes worthy of the best artifacts, stuck the shoe heel into the human chest beneath the bull's head.

The beast bellowed and shuddered. Its great head snapped up and back.

My thigh ripped. I flew up and then down again, landing against the wall. Darkness closed in.

#

"Wake up, please. Wake up." Pol's raspy voice sounded like he'd cried himself to exhaustion.

I tried to open my eyes and saw his eyes -- sea green and full of tears -- floating as if in a sea of darkness.

The Minotaur... A dream?

Sudden stabbing pain from my thigh brought me to full consciousness.

The pain came from a tourniquet which Pol was tying on my leg. He held an end of the cloth in his good hand and the other between his teeth.

He tied the frayed, bloodstained piece of cloth into a tight, tight noose around my mangled limb, and looked apologetically up at me. "I know it hurts, but the blood--."

I nodded. "Your arm?" My voice was a bare growl, but my vision improved slowly. I blinked drops of sweat away from my eyes.

Pol had tied a tourniquet on himself, clumsily but effectively enough.

He glanced at it, shrugged as if the ruin of the pretty body that was his fortune meant nothing. "Repairable," he said. "If we get out of here in time." He gave me a mirthless teeth-only grin and sniffled back tears. "Only I don't think rescuers are coming. I think someone sabotaged the whole site. Unless you believe that was vegetarian." He gestured towards the corpse of the Minotaur.

"No," I said. Faint and nauseated, I felt bile burn my throat. No one else moved, nothing else made a sound. Pol and I were the only living beings. Smells of spilt blood and torn flesh stung my nostrils.

"No."

Pol's companion hadn't wanted to enter the labyrinth. "I'm sorry about your friend," I said, as I dragged myself up on my elbows.

He flashed me another of his quick, joyless smiles. "Nary? Yes, I'll miss her." He glanced at her corpse. Tears shone in his eyes. "I don't even know..." He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. We're going to die anyway. I have no idea how to get out of here. We can't rely on rescuers finding us. Not after this. So we're going to die here. Lost."

I almost laughed. For the first time since my freedom, my carrier-pigeon sense of direction would come in handy.

Of course, I'd have to tell Pol about it. I sighed. Weak and tired, I needed sympathy and human comfort, both things he wasn't likely to expend on a bio-engineered creature like me. Of course, I hadn't made a secret of my identity. My ring was there, for all to see. However, judging from the way he'd played up to me, his accomplice looks, his smiles, I couldn't believe he'd seen it.

Once he saw it, he was likely to demand I guide him and never mind if I died in the process, dragging myself down the dark, smelly hallways. Freed artifacts were protected from murder by law. But causing their death from neglect probably would bring no penalty. Judges were natural-born.

No matter. We had to get out. We had to. And I had no time for pride, no patience to wheedle sympathy form this pretty, spoiled nat. Even if I had to crawl out of here, I refused to die. I'd survive. I always survived.

Sunken dark rings surrounded Pol's aqua-marine eyes and he had gone so pale that his lips looked grey. Nats were fragile. He needed a doctor.

I would have to tell him of my nature and of my talent. "We can get out," I said. "I was created with a sense of direction. For my work."

He nodded. His eyes widened slightly. His generous lips tightened into a line. "All right, then," he said. "I help you out and you guide us, right?" He bent and offered me his good hand, to help me stand.

Either he hadn't heard what I'd said, or he was unusual indeed. He would help me out? He was still willing to touch me after knowing I'd been created?

I gave him a sidelong glance and sighed. Maybe he was just a practical man. He knew I'd take much too long to crawl out of here.

I sighed. Think of mythology enough, and you might find yourself living it. Just like my mythical namesake, I'd get to guide handsome Theseus out. And at the islet of Zeus, or some other convenient purlieu, he could leave me asleep and go on to his glorious destiny.

His companion had looked rich. He'd inherit. She would have made provisions. And, if not, there would be some other natural human hungry for beauty and company who would take him in a heartbeat, and provide him with all his heart's desire.

Something I could never do, on my professor's salary.

He helped me up.

"We turn left here," I told him. "And the next one is right, but I'll have to get there before I sense exactly which doorway it is."

My leg hurt like the blazes. I had to lean against him and put my arms around his neck. My face pressed against his broad, golden chest. His heart thumped rhythmically. He smelled of sweat with faint traces of sun lotion.

He put his arm underneath mine, supporting me.

It was the only way I was likely to be embraced by a natural male, much less one this beautiful.

We progressed slowly. I held onto the walls. He held me up.

"What is your name?" His voice echoed distorted, through his chest.

"Ariadne. Ariadne Knossos." If he didn't know what I was before he would know now. Artifacts were always given mythological or pseudo-classical names. It was another way to make us different.

"Ariadne? Really? How appropriate."

Ah. Two minds that thought like one. My throat closed.

I didn't want him to despise me. Not him. Even though I was in pain, I could feel his attraction. He was beautiful and brave and even if he'd allowed himself to be bought, he'd had the decency of crying for the woman who'd paid him -- annoying though she'd seemed.

I wanted his attention, his admiration. Long denied hormones surged to the surface or my being.

I'd been taken out of the creche just at the onset of puberty and my work hadn't required me to come in contact with men. For the company who'd created and employed me, I had been little more than an animated message system. The body and the gender had come as part of a package they didn't find it worth to break up. From the moment of my official activation, on leaving the creche, constant traveling had kept me from relationships with my kind. As for male nats, I shied away from them. Too many female artifacts were created as pleasure toys and anyone I approached would only think of me like that. I'd rather be celibate and keep my dignity.

But now, free and almost thirty, here I was with my face pressed up against the most handsome nat I'd ever met and my libido -- or something -- surged. In my present state I couldn't seduce him. But oh, I wished I could. Even if he thought of me as a toy. Even if it were for only one night.

"What was your... job?" He gasped for breath and his chest muscles moved, beneath my face.

It must be hard for him to bear my weight when he was, himself, weakened by blood loss.

I tried to hold myself up. I tried not to burden him. I wanted him to like me, and I wanted to cry at the foolish hopelessness of such a wish.

"Courier," I said. "For a corporation." Thinking of how glamorously my profession had been depicted in movies and books, I added, "Nothing romantic. Just a secure courier. No fighting, no dodging. Definitely no killing. Just a lot of driving and boring office work and occasionally finding people who didn't want to be found." I hissed at the pain in my leg and held on tighter. "This is the first time I saw death." I took a deep breath. "Turn right."

We staggered around the corner -- like a strange three-legged animal. I put my arm out to the wall to help balance us.

"You're free?" he asked.

I nodded. As though that would make any difference with someone like him.

"May I ask why... I mean... usually it's for some great service... was it?"

I shrugged. "A lucky break. They wanted to replace me, but I was an outdated model and they couldn't find a buyer. So they freed me and wrote me off on their taxes. Cheaper than continuing to feed me and less of a public relations blunder than having me put to death. There was a stink, twenty years ago when a company put a whole bunch of artifacts to death. Legal, but it looked bad."

"Oh," he said. "But you must have a... pension? The cruise is expensive, isn't...?"

"I found a job with a university as an archeological recorder, went on some digs and..." I took a deep breath, willed my vision to clear. It didn't. "I have eidetic memory... to memorize messages. I got my doctorate and I teach... at a lower salary than anyone else in the same position... but I get enough to live on and for little pleasures like this tour of Greece."

"Oh," he said, again.

It took us hours to find the entrance. It felt like days. I dragged my one good leg forward while Pol supported my weight.

Our talk stopped. It took too much effort, too much breath.

Pain and ooziness clutched at my stomach. I swam in nausea and tried not to drown.

"Don't faint, please. Don't. Without you, we'll both die here." Pol dragged me forward, stopping only to ask me directions.

At last, the ugly dimatough door stood straight ahead of us.

Pol let go of me, leaned me against the wall.

Now, he'd leave me here, in this dark tunnel and pretend we'd never met. I'd be lucky if he told the people outside that I was still alive, wounded, in here. I would be lucky to get treatment and live.

I was so sure of what would happen that it took me a while to realize that he hadn't opened the door, that he was talking.

"You're not listening," he said. "You must listen." His voice had a high, whining sound -- like a child begging something of a reluctant adult. "I'm going to tell them I belong to you. In the state I'm in, Nary's daughter, her heir, will just have me put down. She doesn't like me. But if they don't check registration and I say I'm yours, they will just go ahead and regen my arm. And then she'll be more likely to sell me than to kill me."

He looked earnest and pleading.

"What? My what?"

He brought his right hand close to my face. The golden ring was gone from his middle finger. The red ring of an owned artifact shone in its place. "I had to remove the gold ring," he said. "Otherwise, if I passed out and they found us..." He made a gurgling sound -- a suppressed sob, a scream of fear and pain. "I don't want to die."

This had to be a bizarre dream. Were he an artifact, he wouldn't have been stupid enough to conceal it with that gold ring. Not when the penalty for hiding the ring of servitude was death, swiftly administered. And no owner would allow her artifact to conceal his ring. Artifacts were too expensive to squander and the civil penalties befalling the owner of a disguised artifact would have been prohibitive. Even our dear departed Nary couldn't have been that dumb or that heartless.

"Please," he said. His eyes overflowed with tears and I smelled the sharp tang of terror in his sweat. "Please let me tell them I belong to you. Even if they find out afterwards, at most they'll rebuke me before shipping me to my legal owner. They won't do anything to you, because you aren't even fully conscious. I just don't want you to unmask me too soon. It's not like hiding the artifact ring."

Which brought us to why he'd hidden the ring before. I wondered what would happen if the authorities checked the tour records. His legal owner couldn't mean to have Pol killed, could she? Healed, he'd be worth a lot.

My leg hurt and my head felt stuffed with cotton wool. I couldn't articulate any questions.

We must get out. We must get help.

Pol had to open the damn door.

He stared into my eyes. He waited.

"Yes," I managed to say. "Yes. Whatever."

While I sank into semi-consciousness, Pol carried me outside, stumbled onto blinding sunlight, straggled across the narrow path to the nymph clearing.

People surrounded us, swimming in and out of my field of vision, like faces in a nightmare. People screamed.

Through a fog, I heard Pol say, "This is Doctor Ariadne Knossos. She's a free citizen and you must get her help."

I wanted to tell these people I'd buy him. I wanted to yell that no one should kill him, that he had saved my life, that he was a person, too, artifact or not, citizen or not.

I'd never even asked his full name.

Shadows closed in all around and I let myself fall into oblivion.

#

I woke up to a woman's heavily accented voice, "...terrorists. Their religion forbids artifacts. Or, at least, that's how they interpret the rule against graven images. Your tour guide and the one of the tour before yours were members. They thought that if they replaced the Minotaur with a dangerous beast and it killed a few tourists, it would create fear that other artifacts might have been tampered with, cause a fall in tourism and a backlash against artifacts. Funny, though, how you two were the only ones who survived."

A touch of edginess grated through Pol's voice. "I assure you he showed us no favoritism."

Pol was alive. Fast on the heels of relief, I remembered what he had said in the tunnel. Pol an artifact? It couldn't be true. Hallucination, surely.

I managed to force my eyes open.

My leg didn't hurt. I felt no worse than someone with a hangover.

Pol sat at the end of my bed, his arm encased in the pink bulk of a medsleeve. My

leg was encased in one too. I lay in what looked like a hotel bed in a bland but pleasant bedroom with two beds, dresser, wardrobe, all of it white. Framed seascapes hung on the walls.

"The tourism administration will pay for your treatment." The medical technician was young and female and better suited to a travel poster than to the blue uniform of a med. She sniffed, as if she resented having to treat us like people. "And for your lodging, of course. Both of you should be able to travel on within twenty four hours."

She smiled -- a tight smile -- mumbled something about our getting better, and left me alone with Pol.

I pulled myself up to a sitting position. "I had the strangest dream--"

I realized the significance of the two beds; of his being in my room.

He'd told them he belonged to me.

I looked down at his hand. The red ring of slavery shone on his long, square finger.

He took a deep breath. "My name is Apollo Doris."

"Oh," I said. He'd concealed the ring. No one concealed the ring. Had he done it of his own accord?

Sitting on my bed, wearing an institutional white robe, he looked beautiful still, but also more naked than he'd been in his tiny shorts. It was as if a layer had been stripped off his skin, leaving him flushed and hesitant, tongue-tied and vulnerable, like a child who wakes in the night amid strangers.

He took a deep breath. "Nary made me wear the gold ring. She'd rather be thought an old fool with a young lover, than someone desperate enough to take an artifact on a tour halfway across the world." He spoke with almost regret. "And she didn't mind the fines, should we be caught."

And she wouldn't mind his dying? I looked at his golden skin, his dark curls, his oceanic eyes and I felt a great anger against the dead Nary. If she were alive, I'd kill her.

Words I'd heard from his companion-- Owner? Now took on a different meaning. You are not irreplaceable sounded chilling enough when said to a lover, but brutally threatening when said to an artifact. She hadn't cared. If he had got killed, she could have bought another.

Nausea made me dizzy.

He shrugged. "I was hers." His eyes lost all expression as though invisible shutters had fallen over them. "I was not created for such a reputable job as courier. Mind and body, I was designed as a companion, a lover... a pleasure toy for humans. And for a time I was owned by a brothel. It was... not pleasant. Too many of us, too little room, nothing of my own, no one... no one to belong to. It's part of my make-up that I need to belong. When Nary bought me, she gave me what I needed most. She also gave me the chance to play human for a time. She could risk my life if she wished. It wasn't much of a life before her. Now, I'm masterless again... Listen, I wish..." He looked intent, desperate. "I don't suppose you could buy me? Her daughter has no use for artifacts."

My heart beat fast. I could sense his pain and his fear. He'd thought quickly thinking in the labyrinth. He had feelings, emotions, even wit. But to his new owner, he'd be an object; an unwanted possession.

To me, he was still a demi-god, only now attainable.

He was so beautiful. And he had a need to belong.

From the expression in his green eyes, he wanted to belong to me; perhaps belonged to me already through some mysterious imprinting mechanism.

Warm breezes blew through the open window, filling the curtains like a ship's sails.

He looked vulnerable and lost and scared. An intelligent, self-sufficient man, and yet as dependent, as open as a child.

I touched his finger, where the red ring glowed. I'd been bereft of my own kind for much too long.

We made love through the night, with the smell of the sea wafting in on the warm breezes. And despite the injuries to my leg and to his arm, it was all the poets have sung about. Perhaps more.

In the morning, while he slept, I limped out of bed, got on my private lynk and called up the price of the Doris line of artifacts.

There had been only a hundred made and each of them had sold for ten million narcs only two years ago. Young as they still were, they would only have appreciated. He'd cost much more than I could afford on my ten thousand a year salary. No bank would finance him for me. He was not an appreciable asset, nor a necessity. And if I stole him, I could never go back to my life, my comfortable life. We'd be fugitives. He'd starve along with me.

Not for me.

Artifacts are born alone, without families, and they must learn early to survive alone. I must survive.

I'd once read that no good comes of an artifact loving another artifact. Sage advice, if you could take it.

I left him sleeping and, like a despicable feminine version of Theseus, deserted him to be claimed by the gods for whatever fate pleased them.

I don't know where Pol is -- alive or dead, contented or in unbearable servitude. I don't want to think of what he might have become.

I remember him in that hotel bed, his hair black against the white pillow, his face serene, trustingly asleep, not yet knowing himself abandoned.

(yes, I do know this is a story from my antho in baen's free library.  There will be others that aren't. Stay tuned.)

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*

posted by Sarah on 01.24.11 at 10:29 AM










Comments

Glad you added that last line. But it was a nice re-read. ;-)

Kathy Kinsley   ·  January 24, 2011 7:57 PM

Sarah, that is great!

Except... I am concerned about anti-hippie hate speech and eliminationist rhetoric:

***QUOTE***
The Minotaur trotted towards them, head down, and charged bull fashion. It speared a balding man through the chest of his tie-dyed T-shirt. The man whimpered and fell like a deflated balloon. Blood gushed. His cry ended in a sort of gurgle.
***END QUOTE***

What if a schizophrenic hippie read that, and decided that the time had come to stop the minotaurs?

Eric Scheie   ·  January 24, 2011 11:15 PM

Someone in a tye-died t-shirt MUST have annoyed me that day.
And if hippies go to war against Minotaurs on the basis of this story, I say, er... the minotaurs have it coming. I mean, what do they want to go around all horny for. I mean... er... Uh. Sigh

Sarah   ·  January 24, 2011 11:23 PM

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