The Secret of Secrets
Be A Dark Horse!
A Ministry of Ignorance
T. Van Santana
The stars unfolded before me and there it was: Meezed-Zedbee II, the Jungle, where I grew up. It’s alive and well, spinning elliptically, thriving and teeming in green life.
I let Clara autopilot me down to the landing site. There’s no orbital defense, no skymarkers or check grids. It’s just wide open sky miles above the lush surface. Next to me, I saw Knot, sitting there in the robes they wore the night we met a year ago in my kitchen in the middle of the fucking night.
“We’re here,” I said.
“I can see that, darling,” Knot said.
“Well you seemed like you might be sleeping.”
I let the air flow out of me and took it back in slowly, watching the clouds rush around Clara and the ground widening to receive us.
She set us down gently enough, and said: “We’re here, Miss. Adjusting atmosphere.”
Knot pointed their hooded head at me, just slightly. “Why do you talk with your car, darling?”
I shrugged. “I like her.”
“Adjustment complete. Open hatch?” Clara asked.
The cabin hissed as Clara executed my request and the Jungle air commingled with the interior atmosphere.
The moisture’s intense … overwhelming, really. And the heat—god, the fucking heat. I’d forgotten.
My eyes slid to the console.
Knot smiled and opened it.
Therein laid my hissing blade, my weapon of choice for over twenty years.
“You want this, don’t you darling?”
“No,” I said, and pulled my backpack up and over my shoulder. “Leave it.”
“Are you certain?” Knot asked. “We didn’t come here to make friends, dear.”
I was sure. “Leave it.”
“Very well, darling.”
Knot closed the compartment.
I turned and then dropped to my center when I heard the moaning wail of Knot’s blade extending.
“I suppose we always have mine.”
I glared over my shoulder. “Put it away.”
They did. Then said, “You’re so sensitive today, Teresa.”
It’s true. I didn’t like being back here, relieved though I was that the world still breathed.
“Then why are we here?” Knot asked.
“And no mind reading,” I said. “I’m in no fucking mood.”
Knot cleared the car and came alongside me.
“Close it, Clare. And cloak, too, please.”
Clara did what I asked.
Knot took in the air. It’s rare I’d seen them breathe so obviously. They usually seemed more like a statue than a living person to me.
“So this is the Jungle, darling?”
I frowned. “Don’t act like you haven’t been here before.” ‘Cause I knew they fucking well had.
“Well it’s all new for me, dear, this terrestrial sense of things. I’ve been out of time so long, you see.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I know.”
I took a few steps, the ground plants already reaching for me. Knot came alongside, but the plants didn’t reach for them, instead they lay flat, like a rug rolling out. I tried to hide my contempt, but …
“Don’t take it so badly, dear. You’re still young, no matter how you feel.”
“Shut it,” I said. My birthday would hit while we’re here. I didn’t love being away from my wife and son. But there wasn’t enough time.
“Oh but there’s nothing but time, Teresa.”
“Knot, I’m serious. Stop scanning me. I’ll tell you what I want you to know.”
“We really should work on that while we’re here, darling. You should be able to block me by now.”
“I don’t do blocks.”
“Well that’s just foolish.”
“Not the first time you’ve thought so.”
Beyond the low plants surrounding the wild landing dock was the tree line. I stopped and appraised it.
“We’re to go in there?” Knot asked.
I looked at the sky and nodded. “Plenty of light. We should make it through before the sun’s down.”
“And this dreadful place, this Palace of Religience Worship is on the other side?”
“That’s what their brochures say. And I doubt they’d lie about that. Hard to sucker people into your religion if they can’t find you.”
Knot looked around with some disdain. “I would say so. Why aren’t there valets?”
“You’re stating to sound like me,” I said because, you know, ordinarily I would be feeling pretty fucking prissy about all this. But this was my home once. I knew its grasp. “But it’s not a big deal. This is how things are here. We’ll be fine.”
“Well, I have to say I don’t remember this. And I don’t much care for it.”
We reached the trees, and I felt Knot’s ancient hand on me.
“Is he here, darling?”
Knot didn’t say so I knew that’s who they meant.
I looked for Dwizaal. I could feel him all around me, laughing at me in the trees. But he’s sitting and sulking, too. Hard to explain it.
“But I can read you, you see,” Knot said. “It does have some advantages.”
I sighed and pulled my arm from their hand. “Come on.”
We went into the dark of the daytime jungle, its life shouting at us in whirs and chirps and growls and hisses.
“You really grew up here, dear?”
“What is with you?” I asked. “You know I did. You’ve been here in my memories. And you’ve told me you were actually here when I was young and didn’t know it.”
“Right,” Knot said. “Of course. I don’t know what’s come over me, darling.”
That worried me.
“No worries,” Knot said. “I’ll be right as rain.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
But they said no more.
It surprised me some how facile movement in the Jungle was for me still—quick and easy, despite my healing injuries. The past few months had been especially hard on my body, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get back the full health I had before.
“Do you think we’ll find them?” Knot asked.
“Yes and … oh what are we calling the others, dear?”
It’s a good question. They were fast grown clones of Wendy and Mickie who thought they were Wendy and Mickie. But Wendy’s dead and buried halfway around the planet. And Mickie was on the neighboring planet, burning people’s skin with designs of light and raising two kids alone.
“I guess we’ll just call them Wendy and Mickie,” I said. “At least until we can explain it to them.”
“What?” I asked.
“How do you plan on doing that, my dear?”
I didn’t know. “I’ll just be direct about it.”
“Yeah. That’s what I would want. I think.”
“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know what it’s like to be a vat grown duplicate of another living human fucking being, so there’s some guess work here, okay?”
“But there is that one of you, isn’t there, darling?”
There was. Maybe.
“Roxy never confirmed the inception order had been processed. So maybe, maybe not.”
“Yes,” Knot said. “Maybe not.”
I ignored that, whatever that was.
Walking the jungle trails barely visible to my trained eyes made me feel the motions of my youth, each movement in my limb like a song that I’d not heard in years, each step like somehow going back in time. But we can never go back. I knew that. Somehow this place was real and still here, its destruction a hoax by the CoDex Corporation, as best I could tell. Malvina had not been able to confirm that indisputably, but her best hunch was that it was so, and her mother’s guarded and hostile responses had confirmed it for her.
I remembered—and marveled as I did that it was still possible for me to forget—that I could in fact turn back time, though not longer than a few minutes and at great exhaustion. Slowing the passage of real time was much easier. Traveling mentally through time was easier still. Knot’d shown me these secrets, but I had yet to master them to my satisfaction despite what my title of Master Secretist might’ve suggested to the uninitiated.
Some metacognition kicked on and I realized that of which I was aware, that I was thinking about all these things I knew, about my secret skills, about Knot, about Malvina and Barbaras and CoDex, about my childhood here. And I saw that I used to do this with each foray into the woods, and that it was, in fact, much of the draw, of the call to me. A place to be in my thoughts and alone.
But I was not alone. Not by a fucking mile.
I watched as Jorge licked along Princeton’s face, finding every curve delicious and worthy of attention. He found her ear and traced it with his tongue, then left for the shorn hair on the side of her head.
Princeton watched me with eyes blank and hot. She took a puff of smoke and let it crawl out and over Jorge, who smiled and nipped at it in the air. He pulled her shirt down from her shoulders and kissed her chest, putting circles around each side, making her wet from it and glistening by the firelight.
I wanted my hand to go down, but I was scared. Instead, I watched with bated breath, wanting a smoke myself but too hesitant to move, too uncertain any action might break the spell of the moment I’d happened onto.
Princeton stretched one arm up, and Jorge brought his tongue from one side of her chest across her body to the other and up into her opened armpit. He spent a moment kissing it deeply, then continued up along her arm and over to her neck and face again. She took a drag with one hand, undid her cutoffs with the other.
Her eyes held mine, still blank, still hot.
Jorge felt her movements and helped her get her shorts down. She kicked them off toward me, like she’s trying to get them over to me but thoroughly unconcerned when they did not make it.
Princeton held me with her eyes and pressed her palm against the top of Jorge’s head. His head obeyed, leaving a trail of fingertips behind, each grabbing and caressing small plots on their way down.
Her smoke was getting short, and she pulled on it one long time as Jorge’s head arrived and he kissed her deeply between her legs. Princeton flicked the smoke away and scratched the back of Jorge’s head—almost like a cat or a dog—her face still blank but her throat constricted and her chest swelling faster with each breath.
Princeton put a leg over Jorge’s shoulder, which he supported with willing hand as he continued to lick and kiss.
I felt the heat of the campfire on me and the swelling in my blood to make myself bare and join them however I could. But I couldn’t. I sat and watched, feeling on the outside—which I was—and feeling like I couldn’t take whatever was being offered to me. I couldn’t see it well enough to accept.
Princeton made some sounds—not words really or sweet nothings, not even moans, but light sounds that escaped from rapid and rushing breath as her body spasmed and she pushed at Jorge’s head, as her thighs gripped the sides of his face moving at hurried and persistent angles of pleasure.
She relaxed in a single breath and reached for another cigarette.
I sat up somewhat straight and reached for mine.
Bathed in the orange glow from the campfire and glistening with sweat and kisses she asked, “Got a light?”