Three to Five Sacrifices, Depending How You Count

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an alternate history

Meredith is dressed in flowing gray when she is sacrificed to the Labyrinth at Crete.

Seven men and seven women are fed to the Labyrinth and its minotaur each year. This year both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have sent their top assassins and all fourteen sacrifices are deadly. But there is poison gas in the outer reaches, spread from the minotaur’s emplacements, and twelve of the fourteen die there before this story truly begins. They are not counted in the title and pass from our memory herewith. There are two who survive: Meredith and Claire. Claire survives because of her jetpack, which takes her briefly to the upper reaches and clean air. Meredith appears to have simply held her breath.

The poison gas is behind them now, and Claire salutes Meredith with the edge of her gun.

Meredith coughs.

“It is not clear to me,” says Claire, “that this mission we have is wise. What if it is only the immortal Minos’ finger on the scales that keeps our countries from nuclear war?”

“Then we shall have to learn,” says Meredith, “to forsake war for its own sake, without the balancing factor.”

“Ah,” Claire says, who is somewhat disturbed. Meredith is not an American agent, but she lacks the Russian accent that Claire had therefore expected.

Long ago, constructing his second line of defense, the minotaur had exceeded himself in cunning and in guile. The arts of the web he had learned from the spiders, and he’d put them to fell practice here. Now shining silver wire stretches in complex patterns all through the air in the spaces through which Claire and Meredith seek to travel. The wire web glistens with the beads of sensors and supports hundreds of mechanical spider-guns. In this region it is Meredith who makes the first mistake; Claire who shoves her to the ground as the arachnids fire; and Meredith who holds them both terribly still as the red dots of spidery malice track across the floor.

“Now,” says Meredith.

They move like they were born to work together. Claire fires like the driving rain. Each shot drops one of the spider-guns. Meredith is unarmed, but the sleeves of her gray dress are like flexible razors: she sweeps them about like a dancer and the web splits apart and dead spider-drones fall. They are still grazed twice by spider-shot before the threat passes, and deep in the Labyrinth they can hear the somber ringing of bells.

“Phew,” says Claire, when it is clear the threat is over.

“These are potent defenses,” says Meredith. “The minotaur does not want to die.”

The third layer of the defenses is a cloud of white dust.

This is the art that the minotaur learned from the bones of those he has devoured: to make a citadel of calcification. At first Claire and Meredith think that they are walking in a place that no visitor has traveled before; and this much is so. But there is more to the dust than that. It is drawn to them, as if they were magnets. It collects on them. It is the white of death. It is called grave-snow. It is thickening on them now. It is in their lungs, though Meredith holds her silken sleeve over her mouth and Claire unrolls her turtleneck. It is binding to itself, catalyzed by their body heat, and it is sealing them in white. Claire goes blind, her eyelids crusted over. She risks a word: “Good bye.”

There is silence.

Then there is a rushing sound like water. There is the sound of distant horses. And Claire finds herself blinking off the white paste that coats her. It is damp now, and does not adhere; and the room is full of a swiftly draining water smelling of the sea.

“That is not a Russian trick,” says Claire.

“No,” Meredith agrees.


“No,” Meredith says.

Claire frowns. Then she shakes her head. “Well,” she says. “I’m glad.”

The fourth layer of defense is a thing the minotaur learned from rats. There are red eyes in the darkness. They are gathered all around Meredith and Claire. They stare. They are hungry. And they wait.

Meredith takes a step.

There is a snapping sound like great and terrible teeth. Then darts fly out from the walls all around. The air is thick and black with them. But Claire has pressed herself and Meredith into a still-safe alcove, and afterwards they are unharmed.

“Strange,” says Meredith.


“He built his defenses outwards in,” says Meredith, “growing as he went more cunning, more deadly, and more skilled. This place should be the most terrible region yet; but it is not.”

Claire looks at one of the darts. She pokes it with a gloved finger.

“Perhaps they are moral victory darts,” she says. “You know. Darts that don’t actually kill you, but rather talk, afterwards, about how close they came.”

Meredith laughs.

The fifth defense lives in darkness. Claire turns on her flashlight; it is swarmed by moths. She shakes the light, but they only swirl more closely around it, driven by a genetically-enhanced need that borders much on madness. She clicks a Bic lighter open; the moths douse it with their bodies and a corpse-stench rises.

“There is a chasm and a narrow bridge,” says Claire. “Hidden in the dark.”

“We will walk carefully,” says Meredith.

They are slow and careful.

They inch their way across.

“That was not so bad,” says Claire, when she sees light again.

Meredith nods, and leans against the wall.

“Perhaps,” she muses, “it is not his cunning that fails, but his desire.”


“He may be ready,” Meredith says. “He may be growing ready for his death.”

The sixth defense is a sign. It reads, “Keep Out.”

Claire prods the sign. “Uh huh,” she says.

“It has a hypnotic spiral on it,” Meredith points out.

“Maybe if we spin it,” Claire says dryly, “we’ll be hypnotized, and we’ll have no choice but to keep out.”

“Hm,” Meredith concurs.

“Let’s not do that,” Claire says, “but instead, move on.”

They open a crude wooden door beyond the sign, and the minotaur is there.

Claire has her gun in her hand. She is pointing it. She is ready to fire. But Meredith is behind Claire now, seizing her, bending her back with tension on her jetpack, neck, and spine.

“Hello,” Meredith says.

The minotaur does not look up. “The sign said ‘Keep Out,'” he says. “It is a thing I learned from the humans.”

“Requests for courtesy?” Meredith asks.


“I am sent with a message to you,” says Meredith, “from the gods; so I am not bound by these forms. Similarly, I believe this person has a license to be rude.”

Claire cannot speak easily in this position. But she says, “Pocket.”

The minotaur advances. He reaches into the breast pocket of Claire’s coat. He takes out her government-issued license. He looks at it.

It does, in fact, allow her to be rude.

“Huh,” the minotaur says.

So Meredith releases Claire, in an elegant motion that also involves seizing Claire’s gun. And Claire glares at her, with I saved your life, you know subtext, but does not protest. She awaits developments.

“What do you want?” the minotaur says. “If you are in a hurry to be first lost and then eaten, I am afraid I cannot oblige. I have learned patience from the stone of Crete and the distant sea. I do not hunger.”

“Minos was to sacrifice the Cretan Bull,” says Meredith. “But he did not. He felt it was too strategically useful to have a bull that could walk on water.”

Massaging her throat, Claire admits, “It is certainly why the U.S. and U.S.S.R. tread carefully around the island of Crete.”

“The Bull was given unto him to sacrifice,” says Meredith. “And the act of that sacrifice matters. Thus it was that when he refused, the gods moved Pasiphae to intimacy with the Bull. In siring you, the Bull created a proxy for the sacrifice; your genes contain the same wild power as its own. You are a vehicle for the restoration of lost balance. Yet a second time Minos refused, choosing to keep his power and his immortality rather than make due sacrifice to the sea. He mired you here and here you languished. But you have surely learned the secrets of the Labyrinth by now. So the gods would ask of you: what of the sacrifice? What of the gift that was given to Crete, when the Bull walked up from the sea, that Crete must now return?”

“I do not want to make that sacrifice,” says the minotaur. “That is the hint my defenses are intended to convey.”

“Is that so?” Meredith asks.

“That is why I built the poison vents and the terrible web,” says the minotaur. “And then the dust that kills. And then, also, the darts. The dark bridge. Then the sign. I put a hypnotic spiral on the sign, so that if you spin it, it leaves you no choice but to stay away. I would have set it up to spin automatically, but—”

The minotaur shrugs. It is a shrug full of ennui.

“That seems rather half-hearted,” says Claire. “At the end.”

“Perhaps I deemed further effort unnecessary,” says the minotaur.

Meredith sighs.

“Remaining is your option,” says Meredith. “Of course.”

She turns. She leaves.

Claire eyes the minotaur. The minotaur eyes Claire. It is an uncomfortable moment.

“I don’t have a spare gun,” says Claire, mentally reviewing her equipment. “I know we were both wondering.”

“It would not work,” says the minotaur.


“I am the vehicle of the power granted to Minos, meant for sacrifice those many centuries ago. I am not for ordinary men and women to shoot; rather, ordinary men and women are made for my repast. If I chose, I would grind you up like the rocks and the reefs grind up their prey. I would devour you like a stormy sea. You would never see your home again. As it is I think I will release you, to wander in Daedalus’ labyrinth until at last you die or earn your wings.”

“You are not as vital as I had expected,” says Claire.

The minotaur gives her that smile that only barely laughs at pain.

“What the gods do not understand,” he says, “is that Minos will not let me leave.”

And Claire is silent for a while. She is thinking. She is calculating. She is considering her duties and her loyalties.

“Then you have lied?” she says. “You do want death?”

“I want to live,” says the minotaur. “I have always wanted to live. It is simply that that desire flags, as these long years pass and my purpose languishes. It is hard to carry the guilt of a necessary sacrifice unmade.”

“I have a jetpack,” Claire says.

Something in the minotaur’s eyes grows sharper.

“It is strong enough,” Claire says, “for you.”

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