***I wrote this short story in 1994. I am breaking this into three parts for readability purposes–hope you enjoy. Oddly enough, I named the protagonist’s husband Tom. Odd, the paths life takes us down!
Ariadne waits in the showroom, permanent laptop and stylus fixed to the small table in front of her. She twines the thin chain that attaches stylus to laptop through her fingers. The showing was supposed to start fifteen minutes ago. The loudspeaker chimes and a rich, well-modulated male voice announces the show will start in twenty minutes, apologizes for the delay.
No one complains. The presentations always start late on
purpose. This allows a half-hour of ads to flash temptingly on the
laptop screens. Market researchers discovered that bored people
pay more attention to advertisements . Internet ad agencies offer
lower rates to banks and companies like this one if they agree to
use fixedchannels in their waiting rooms.
Ariadne idly pages-down through info-transmits. She wants to
access the news, but it is hidden among hundreds of advertisements.
Several times she reads what she thinks is a news story only to
discover halfway down the screen that it is a public service
announcement or an ad.
A woman seated behind Ariadne broadcasts her side of a
conversation loudly. “I tell you, my last model malfunctioned.
The damned thing shorted out. I’m lucky I didn’t get killed!
D’you hear me?” The woman she’s talking to snickers. “I thought
the model could tolerate hot water.”
We can certainly all hear her, Ariadne thinks. A surrogate is
reasonably moisture-proof and should function for at least five
years. She shakes her head in disgust. The woman should have
thought longer before she took her surrogate into a hot tub, no
matter how well it was designed.
A woman sitting to Ariadne’s right grins and inclines her
head. Ariadne catches the gesture and turns. She closes her eyes
and leans closer to facilitate the whisper. “She must have had one
of the cheap Chinese models.” Ariadne steals a sidelong glimpse at
her neighbor. Smooth curve of cheek and sleek hair of
indeterminate color loose to her shoulders. It is impolite to look
The shows promote the privacy of the buyers, but Ariadne is
curious. She drops her stylus on purpose, studies the woman who’s
speaking while she picks it up. Ariadne scans stylish thinness,
razored hair and three nose rings. Too-dark hair from a bottle job
and fine lines creasing the corners of glittered eyes betray the
speaker’s age. Ariadne reels the strategically dropped pen in like
a fish on a line. “Too old to procreate,” she murmurs to her
neighbor. “She’ll be stuck with a safedate unless she can find an
already-married looking for a little fun.”
“Typical chronic user,” Ariadne’s neighbor concludes. “Three-person
contracts are a drag. Did you ever try one?” Ariadne’s
neighbor stares straight ahead as she speaks, fiddles with her
“No. I was married for five years.” Her neighbor clears her
“You were married before the act took effect?” Her voice
rises with shock instead of a question mark.
Ariadne sighs. “Yes, I was.”
“So you’re quarantined.” The woman shifts as far away from
Ariadne as her chair allows, begins to browse her screen. Ariadne
closes her eyes, tries to remember how this insanity began.
The Department of Health waiting room is too hot, Ariadne
thinks, eases out of her thermal wrap. Waves of warmth emanate
from her body, combine with the air hissing through the vents. No
one speaks, except for civil servants chatting among themselves or
snarling at people on monitors. The citizens waiting for
appointments don’t talk. All Ariadne hears is the dull click of
keys as people access the net, the occasional cough, and a whine
now and then from a boy propped on his father’s knee on the bench
The boy makes faces at anyone who looks at him. He has not
learned the art of graceful waiting. Children behave the way the
rest of us want to, Ariadne thinks. This one, no older than four,
has large green eyes and a mop of dusty brown hair. He shifts his
attention to Ariadne. She beats him to the gesture; sticks out her
tongue. The boy stares back, round-eyed, before he responds by
crossing his eyes.
She pretends not to notice, immerses herself in the intricacies of
false data she’s designing for her company, Infocom. It is a security
front planned to confuse hackers. The boy sighs. She feels his
eyes, a prickle of skin on her shoulders. She closes her laptop and
resumes the game.
Not enough room to work comfortably anyway, she thinks.
Ariadne’s ribs jam the armrest. She’s sandwiched between it and
woman who wears too much floral perfume. Ariadne drowns under the
purple waves. She’s glad for the material of her one-piece, a pale
blue garment designed to let skin breathe. A pearl of sweat traces
the line of her spine to the deep V of cloth at its base.
Tired of her game with the boy, Ariadne consults the clock
implant in her right wrist. Fifteen minutes past the last time she
checked. At nine hundred she’d taken a number. The clock on her
wrist now inches slowly toward thirteen hundred. “Forty-three!”
The secretary bellows behind her desk. Ariadne stands, collects
her laptop and wrap. Before she can wind through the maze of
chairs, legs, and children’s toys, the woman shouts again, staring
directly at her. “Come on, 43! We haven’t got all day!”
This is Ariadne’s first visit to the Department of Health.
She snaps open her flexcase to show Tom’s death certificate. “You
transed me a letter,” she tells the secretary. The woman’s eyes
become disinterested pebbles below pierced brows. She snatches the
certificate and printed letter.
“I did not personally post this e-mail,” she begins crisply,
taps the sheet with a tapered claw. “You received this
communication from the department, not me.” She seems pleased by
her cleverness, waits for Ariadne’s sheepish smile before she continues.
“When Vital Statistics notified us, had to find you, since you are
currently in violation of the Health Act of 2027.”
She stamps the death certificate and places it in a thin manila
folder. “You’ll get this back after I scan it. Go to the room at
the end of the hall, and one of the doctors will examine you.”
“But I just had a physical two months ago.” The secretary
rolls purple-lined eyes at Ariadne. “It’s not that kind of test.
God, I can’t stand new licensees. Just take this form and go to
the door at the end of the hall. You can fill it out while you
The walls press in on Ariadne as she moves down the long hall.
The speckled linoleum squeaks under her shoes. The door knob is
slippery, as if too many sweaty palms have used it today. She
touches it as briefly as possible.
Another secretary waits ensconced behind a work-station. She
is a carbon of the first woman Ariadne encountered, except her hair
is dyed red. She has the same muddy skin and callous stare.
Ariadne places her thumbprint against the reader. The computer
chimes softly as Ariadne’s file flashes on the screen. “Oh, yes.
Married before the act and now widowed.” She rotates
the seat of her chair to face Ariadne. “Why did you wait for us to
contact you?” The question is a cold accusation.
“My husband died last week. I wasn’t aware I had to file with
you before his ashes cooled.” Anger sharpens Ariadne’s voice.
“I’m here now.”
The secretary keys something into the computer. “Fill out the
forms they gave you up front.” Ariadne decides the secretary is
probably an attractive woman when not under fluorescent light. But
in this office, she becomes a human machine, utilitarian and plain,
an extension of the dingy yellow walls and gun-metal gray filing
cabinets. Despite the computer filing system, the Health
Department likes to keep hard copies of every form that enters its
door. “You don’t have a long wait, so do it quickly.”
Only one other person sits at the slick synthetic table. A
hand screens his face as he fills out the thick questionnaire.
Ariadne flips through the form. The questions are specific and
require thought before responding. She is halfway through her
packet when the man is summoned. The secretary glares when she
looks up. “Hurry with that form, will you?”
Ariadne is on the last question when her name is called. The
secretary looms over her, taps her shoe on the hideous linoleum,
waits for her to finish. When Ariadne rests her pen on the table,
the secretary wrenches the booklet away from her. She turns back
to the desk so rapidly her jewelry tinkles like wind-chimes.
“You’ll be seeing Dr. Janison. She’s in the second office
on the right.” The secretary scans Ariadne’s forms into the data
base. “Well, go on! I’ll have these processed before you go in.
No need to wait.”
To call the cubicle an office is gross exaggeration. A desk
with built-in keyboard and monitor dominates the eight-by-four
space. A gray carpet mercifully covers the speckled linoleum. A
slim black chair, dwarfed by the desk, is the only other furniture.
Unlike the other civil servants Ariadne’s met today, Dr. Janison
smiles cordially when Ariadne walks into the room. “Hello,
Ariadne. This should only take a few minutes. All I have to do is
review your information and determine the length of your
quarantine.” She moves her hands toward the fragile and uncomfortable chair.
“Take a seat, and place your thumb on the pad.”
Ariadne complies and her file flashes on the screen. “I don’t
understand,” she begins. “Tom didn’t have it, and neither do I.”
It is HIV2, a mutated form of HIV, the virus that plagued the
late twentieth century. HIV2 is a more insidious infection,
impossible to detect for at least five years after exposure. Like
HIV, one of the ways HIV2 is transmitted sexually.
In 2027, a year after its discovery, congress passed an act to
protect citizens not infected with either strain of HIV. Persons
suspected of carrying either virus must submit to stringent
quarantine procedures. This involves sexual abstinence for a
minimum of five years after an unprotected sexual encounter or
exposure to blood and other body fluids.
“Your records indicate that you both tested negative for HIV
when you married in 2026. That’s encouraging.” The doctor scrolls
past screens of data. “However, according to your records you were
sexually active prior to your marriage. I’m going to have to
quarantine you for the full five years, Ariadne.”
“We were monogamous during our marriage,” Ariadne protests.
“Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“I have only your word to guarantee that,” Dr. Janison asserts
calmly. “Do you know for certain that your husband was faithful?”
“I can’t believe you’d ask me that!” Ariadne kicks the
carpet, looks out the window at a wall. “You have a great view,”
“That’s why I have a landscape hanging wall behind you.” The
doctor sighs, exits Ariadne’s file. “Your husband died in a float
crash. He was identified by dental records. I hate to say this,
but we didn’t have enough of his body to examine for symptoms of
HIV2.” She taps her stylus on her chin. “You have to remember
that as a surgeon your husband was in a high-risk occupation.”
“All right. I can’t argue with the Health Department. What
do I have to do?” Ariadne leans closer to Dr. Janison’s desk. We
are about the same age, she thinks, 27. The doctor activates the
printer, hands her some pages.
“You have to abstain from sex for five years. At least, sex
with other people. Have you used surrogates?” Surrogates were
designed ten years ago, and gained instant popularity with single
men and women. They eagerly purchased the surrogates instead of
risking sex with a partner who could give them a disease.
Geesh…5 years w/o sex…sounds like she’s still married to me. Where’s the rest sister? You need a secretary, preferably one w/o purple eyes. will blue do?
Now, now–I was advised to piece things out, a bit at a time, so as not to overstuff any of you 🙂
lol, you will see the solution in the next segment…tune in next week…..
If you are offering your services as secretary, I would be glad to send some stuff to you, where you can delete bizarre characters and send back to me without them, if you want to read the rest before anyone else does….
I’m free (really I’m free)….:)
LOL, we’ll talk–and that way you’ll see it long before anyone else does!
Chilling, and all too plausible with some of the legislation I’ve seen filed or enacted over the past year. These are 17 year old treasures, Susan!
Nelle–thank you so much! Blushing here…Had to split this one up into 3 parts. Forgot how wordy my prose is…
Do you read SCI-Fi ? I have read a lot of Phillip K Dick and Cory Doctorow. Really like the story
Yes, I do–Well, I read everything, really, but I love Sci-Fi–am a huge Robert Heinlein fan. I enjoy the wide-open, speculative freedom one gets while writing it, too. The possibilities are limitless with it 🙂
Thanks for liking the story–tune in next week for segment 2, after I have (or Rhonda has) painstakingly removed more bizarre characters to make more of it readable.
ah I have read but one of his books Stranger in a Strange Land, now lost 😦
bummer. Try Friday, or any of Methuselah’s Children….great reads…
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This is an interesting beginning to the story. My one observation is that you could -if you feel it is the right change to make- add more atmospherics. I am someone who likes to have the mood set for me through description of the environment. Of course, this is a very personal aesthetic preference, but you write dialogue well. . . do you think more description of place would harm the narrative?
Not at all–I will have to see if I can do that!