This is How You Remember
by Phong Quan
I see the crowds before I see you, before I see even the flickering white of your flame. Your culture’s everywhere now—your music, your art, your words—but not your people, and not you, not in this tiny airport in this little place between San Diego and LA. So I hear the whispers—A Torch! A Speaker’s on the flight. Why here? There’s nothing here—and prepare myself to see you for the first time since the War.
Your eyes—those bright, almost-human orbs—seem to find me instantly from across the terminal and I freeze, hand half-raised in a hesitant wave. For a moment, I don’t see the cool white flames rising in clear waves from your face, flowing and flickering from your alien skin, and instead remember those same eyes from the last night I saw you. Were they this bright back then? Or had your flames shown me something else? We all see Speakers a little differently, everything from your appearance to your words flickering in our minds with your flames—signals, frequencies, lightning and beauty bound in bioluminescence.
You walk straight towards me, the crowds melting away before you. Are you smiling? Torches mostly show emotions through their words and their flames, but weren’t you one of the ones that learned to use human expressions to better communicate with us when you first found us lost on New Earth? It’s something I should know, but it was so long ago…
“Lieutenant Jonathan Lee,” you say when you’re finally in front of me. You speak in American-English but I don’t really hear your words. The True Speak lacing them instead flows into my mind as something much more familiar. I feel warmth, friendship and more; I sense the trust of bonds forged in battle; I smell cool ocean breezes, feel the heat of burning deserts, and hear the roar of warship engines falling through slipspace. My mind, filled with the Truth of your words, feels your meaning as something like friend/comrade and hears: Jon.
I feel a faint ache in my chest and smile. “Welcome to Earth, El-Lysia Knife-Anan.” But it should be El. We always just called you El, except for Amin who called you Knife.
I see now that you’re smiling, but instead of replying you step forward and wrap your arms around me. I hear a murmur from the crowds and freeze at your sudden touch, tensing tight like I’m in a firefight. It’s a Torch’s embrace, loose and light, but your flame wraps around me like a blanket and I feel the full swell of your emotions: relief, happiness, the sense of reunion tinged with the ache of regret. “It’s good to see you, Jon.”
Slowly, hesitantly—like I’ve forgotten how—I hug you back. “You too, El.”
The entire way to my car people look at us. “What’s a Torch doing with him?”, I see in their glances, like it’s wrong for me to be with you. Earth’s people have been courting yours since the end of the War, but they still can’t understand why you continue favoring a scattered diaspora of humanity over its homeworld. They crave the cold things—the shiny towers and starships—you gave the diaspora on New Earth, and think they can buy Old Beijing’s new strength.
They don’t understand that our price was paid in blood.
It’s that jealousy I see around us and I do my best to ignore it and talk to you. But I struggle with what to say. I want to ask you about the battles beyond Earth, the hunt for the remnants of the Reaver fleet, and the rebuilding of your homeworld. I want to ask if you found what you were looking for; but I can’t find the words. There’s a distance between me and the you I knew—the one I fought with across countless alien worlds—and I don’t know how to close it.
“I came through the portal in New Beijing,” you say, and all at once I feel the change in you. Your flame reaches out to me, a dark blue now, and I tingle with its sadness.
I freeze. There’s something painfully tight in my chest and it’s hard to breathe. The flash of coldfire beams, screams that linger after death, her blood all over my battle suit.
“Jon.” I feel your hand on my shoulder and through it your sorrow and your regret flows into me. “I’m sorry Jon.”
I quickly shrug your arm off and walk away, only noticing then that my fists are clenched so tight the knuckles are white. “We don’t have to talk about it,” I say.
You’re quiet and feel further away from me than ever, maybe even further than when you were falling through slipspace away from me. We’re at my car now and we don’t talk about it.
I give you the space you think you need, Jon, as you drive us to your home. Your people are often so strange with emotions, and you especially: no matter how real, you’ll do everything to deny them if they’re painful. There are times I’ve pitied and times I’ve envied you this trait, because Speakers are different: we cannot deny our emotions, and when they rise from the spark inside us, we can only live them.
“Welcome to suburban California,” you say. “This is where I grew up. Boring, right?”
Outside, I see we’re passing low blocks of commercial buildings centered around lots of crude vehicles like yours. There’s nothing remarkable about them, except perhaps their endlessness, and yet…. I think of the places I’ve seen: the plant-draped towers that stretch into the clouds of my homeworld; the sweeping, rotating forests of the Garden, where we met; the endless, ruined megacities of the gateworlds we explored together; and even the ancient courtyards and winding alleyways of Old Beijing, where you watched over me the night of the sandstorm. Their grandeur all overshadow this little Earth town, but… there is something warm and familiar about it. This is the place you were born, that made and shaped you, and that alone makes it special to me.
I look back at you and, silhouetted against the light of your Earth star, it almost looks like you’re in your battle suit and we’re with your platoon again, traveling together across some desolate, Reaver-devastated world. I smile the way humans smile—the way you taught me to smile—and reach out with my flame. “Your home is beautiful, Jon.” A Speaker never lies.
My family’s waiting for you at home—Má had insisted on welcoming you, the Speaker who rescued me from the Garden and guided me through the gateworlds. To her, I died in the battle for Old Beijing during the first Reaver invasion, when the city was torn from Earth after we destroyed the first portal; and it’s you who brought me back to life and let her take my picture down from the family shrine, where it had stood lit by incense with the fading photos of three generations of Lees. It’s not exactly true, but it’s the story everyone’s told about those who vanished with Old Beijing, and one of the reasons why after so many years of searching for a way home, most of us decided not to return.
Everything starts out just fine. You call her cô like I taught you, and she welcomes you like family. You then meet pretty much my entire family in California, because that’s what Vietnamese gatherings are like. Má introduces you to my uncles, aunts, cousins and their children and her aunt and her cousins and their children. You don’t meet my brother, who’s in New York, or my father, who died a long time ago; but we don’t talk about that because my family never talks about what we’ve lost.
You surprise them with your warmth and humor. The only Torches they’ve seen are on the vids of Earth’s liberation, and they don’t remember like I’m beginning to that you’re one of the kindest and funniest people I’ve known. It’s never occurred to them that a Torch could be human too. They’re delighted when you use True Speak and it feels like you’re speaking Vietnamese. They laugh when you tell them the only two words you actually know, the ones I now remember teaching you and Hope by a campfire under a blanket of alien stars: Bánh mì! Phở! Má scolds me for not telling her and promises she’ll make both, telling you to never try the terrible ones at that restaurant in San José—as if you could somehow get lost and wander three hundred miles up there. It’s probably long-closed, but she still remembers how they stole her wages and wouldn’t let her go until she used a gold-plated Buddha statue to crack the owner’s skull. This was years ago, when she first arrived here fleeing another war, and she doesn’t say most of it; but I see it in her eyes, and I remember now it’s the kind of thing you always wanted me to tell you but that I never did.
Dinner is a feast of dishes from my childhood, from plates of freshly-fried chả giò to steaming bowls of canh chua, all held together by the pungent fragrance of nước mắm, our ubiquitous fish sauce. We eat together, and it’s here that tensions first appear. It starts off innocuously, with a pleasantry from an uncle: “Thank you for what your people did, for stopping the Reavers and bringing our people home.” It’s the kind of banality traded like glances in my family, but your flame flares red and I feel your anger wash over us.
And when you speak, I’m with you on the flagship of the Battle Fleet on the other side of the galaxy again. I’m leaning against you, my side still burning from the coldfire beam you saved me from, and we’re standing before the War Council, surrounded by Speaker commanders and bathed in the swirling colors of a hundred flames. They wash over us in a kaleidoscope of emotions: curiosity, respect, caution, hope, fear, disbelief—disgust. Only Speakers have been allowed into this chamber before, but our escape from the Garden is already legendary and you refused to answer the Council’s call without me. Your flame flares up, dancing defiantly against theirs, and your words to my family now echo the ones I remember you spitting like coldfire back then: “None of us would be here if not for the humans! They defended us when we were weak, fought for us when we could not, and died so that we can stand here deciding their fate. You know we owe them a debt—one we can only begin repaying by helping them find their home. Feel my flame and hear the Truth in my words—a Speaker never lies!”
My family sits in stunned silence. This kind of outburst is taboo in gatherings like this, where everyone must pretend to be perfect or risk shame and losing face—anger and emotion things to be exchanged privately and out of sight. The silence coils around us with the fragrance of the fish sauce, but nobody dares a word. I smile because this is what happened at the War Council too; I’d nearly forgotten what you were like. I wonder if you even notice—Torches can be oblivious to emotions outside a flame.
Má quietly asks me if you’re tired—her code word when she encounters anything she doesn’t know how to deal with—and want to rest. I say you’re fine and continue eating. Others quietly follow until soon the room is filled with the sound of chopsticks clinking nervously.
“How’s your bánh mì?” I ask with a wink after awhile.
“I thought this was phở,” you say, flame flickering mischievously. Everybody laughs, and just like that everything’s normal again. Dinner continues and nobody mentions what just happened because that’s both a human and a Vietnamese thing to do, and because my family’s particularly good at sweeping things away and hiding them; and I remember now how you always hated that I’m the same way too.
Your family is beautiful Jon, and I know I said something wrong and you think I can’t tell; but I can see it in your eyes and read it in the lines in your face—I remember now how I knew you so well. I wish I could touch you with my flame and show you I’m sorry, but I can’t be sorry for speaking the Truth. A Speaker never lies. But dinner continues and whatever tension I caused must have passed because you seem relaxed again—the signs as clear to me as a flame.
Soon, your nephews and nieces are showering me with questions about us. So we sit together on the beautiful red rug in your living room and I tell them about our travels across the galaxy through the gateworlds, searching for a portal to Earth. With the flickering of my flame and the Truth in my voice, I tell them of how we stood together on the edge of endless deserts on desolate worlds, and under the shadow of sentient forests the size of cities; how we found worlds just like Earth under attack by the Reavers and tried to help. I tell them of your platoon, of the comrades we entrusted our lives to and their names: Faith, Hope, Amin, Jai, Saniya, Garcia and all the others.
It both surprises me and doesn’t that you’ve told them so little of this yourself. Why do you keep from your family, who thought you dead for so long, what you discovered amongst the stars? It saddens me because it’s my story too and I want it to live on—I want us to live on—beyond our memories. And so when I’m done telling the stories of our adventures, I tell them one more: of our beginning in the Garden, that cruelly beautiful, lovely and sadistic colony/capital/prison where the Reaver Prince tried to turn her prisoners—especially Speakers. The story of how we first found each other and, together, escaped the Garden of the Beast.
I’m crouched next to you Jon, above the hanger dock for the Garden’s main security spire. We’re both wearing full battle suits the color of the void between stars. Mine was made specially for me, war-forged for battle against the Reavers, and though I haven’t worn it since I was captured and brought to this beautiful prison, it still fits me like a second flame. Yours is a salvaged suit, patched together from mostly charred scrap, and where I look sleek and dangerous you look more like some mismatched toy soldier.
But there is no one else I’d rather be here with, on the verge of trying the most foolhardy thing either of us have ever done. You’re not a Speaker, and you have no flame, but across the void of worlds I trust no one more to be by my side today.
“Are you ready Sergeant Jonathan Lee?” I speak with the words you taught me, but the Truth in them conveys something more.
You turn and shake your head in what I’ve learned is disbelief. “Ready? Hell no! This is an insanely stupid plan and I’m definitely not ready!”
A message appears on my face display and I smile in the Earth way—your way. “It’s too late, Faith and Amin have set the charges. You’ll either be ready to do this or to die with me—those aren’t such bad outcomes, are they?”
You sigh and I remind myself to ask you later what it means. Together we stare into the distance, to where the forests of the Garden beyond the central city begin sloping upwards along the curve of the colony’s rotating walls.
And then, with a deafening roar it explodes! A massive fireball engulfs the section of the forest we are looking at and suddenly I see there only the blackness of space. Alarms wail and I feel the rumble of the hanger doors opening. Not much time now—the response ships will appear soon. I take your hand and shout: “Jump!”
You don’t hesitate, and together we jump; together, we escape the Garden of the Beast. And from that day forward, together, we walked the same path.
It’s late now. I’m standing on the balcony that connects our two rooms—mine, and my brother’s. Má’s gone to sleep downstairs and the rest of my family’s already gone home, some as far away as Bakersfield. I hear you coming and turn to see you walk up next to me in a dark Cal shirt—mine—that flutters gently in the breeze. You’re quiet and your flame seems dark and somber, clinging close to you against the wind. Under the dim moonlight, if I turn my head just right, it almost looks like you’re standing next to me in your battle suit again, and we’re staring up into an alien sky together, wondering which of the countless stars we saw led to Earth.
“I thought you might return to Beijing,” you say after a while. “Governor Zhang called for the diaspora to return to New Earth, and… we talked about it. You said it had started to feel like home.”
The Forbidden City glistening like a jewel under an alien sun as we wait for the final Reaver assault; Ghost Street sizzling with the smell of spices and echoing with laughter in a dozen languages after the protein plants are restarted; the roar of sand whipping around us as we return from our last expedition across the gateworlds, the distant lights of the towers in Guomao just cutting through in fleeting moments, flickering like a lighthouse in a storm calling us…
But always us, always with my platoon, and always with…
“It didn’t anymore,” I finally say.
“I see.” Your flame sways lightly but still doesn’t touch me, and I wonder if you really do.
We stand quietly next to each other for a long while. I want to say something more and words half-form in my mouth before sinking down again, dragged into that empty part inside of me. I feel a dull, familiar ache in my chest and start to turn away—I can’t see the stars from here anyway.
“I want you to know,” you say, and your words slip into my mind and pull me back. “That I came as quickly as I could.”
And you tell me then of your battles beyond Earth in the time after us: how after it stalked, ambushed and shattered the fleet of the Beast, the entire Battle Fleet turned and fell towards Earth; how you pushed your own ship ahead of the others and beyond all its limits, falling through slipspace for a hundred cycles to get back to me; and how when the engines finally began to fail, and still half-a-galaxy away from me, you found a planet with a portal and traveled through the gateworlds like we used to until finally—far too late but finally—you walked through the final portal into New Beijing.
“I’m sorry Jon,” you say, your flame finally engulfing me in all its black grief. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you needed me.” I stagger under the weight of your sorrow, feeling the air squeeze out of my chest. You reach towards me, but I stumble back until I’m free from your flame and turn away.
My eyes are wet and I wipe them angrily.
“Did you find what you were looking for out there?” I ask, staring without seeing into the inky darkness.
“No…” you say quietly. “Not yet. The Beast escaped.”
“So you’re going to go back.”
“Yes… You know I have to.”
The flash of coldfire beams, screams that linger after death, her blood all over my battle suit.
I straighten up and take a deep breath. “It’s okay, El. You weren’t supposed to be here.”
I turn around and walk away from you then, leaving you alone in the darkness, just like you left me.
Tonight, I will dream of the night I left you. I’m actually not sure if it was night, because we were in space, in orbit around a dying, Reaver-devastated world. Was it day or was it night? Or perhaps it is always just twilight in the space between stars, perhaps we are always just dangling on the precipice of change when we travel through the void between worlds.
You will come to me then, in the midst of twilight, on our ship’s observation deck, tired but determined. After what has felt like a lifetime of wandering the gateways between worlds, we have finally found a way back to your home: to Earth. Using the maps of the gateworlds we charted together, Speaker navigators were able to extrapolate a route through slipspace. Scouts were sent and returned, and our worst fears are confirmed: yes, this was your way home, but a new portal had opened on Earth and it was again under siege by the Reavers.
You will be eager to leave, to rejoin the human diaspora in Old Beijing on New Earth—the dying world where a great capital from your world had been swapped with a dead one and you had first been thrown across the stars to me—and to finally return to defend your homeworld. You have been fighting towards this moment for longer than you can remember, often without hope, and it will feel like everything you’ve dreamed of is now just within your reach.
You will look sleek and beautiful in your war-forged battle suit, and I will let you talk, laying out to me your plans, your hopes and your fears, because I want to etch this moment into my memory and remember you like this for just awhile longer. It’s a mistake, because it will only make the next part harder.
But when I have finally gathered my courage, I will stop you and say, “Jon, I have to go.”
At first you will be confused, but we both know you can’t be, because I spoke to you with the Truth in my voice and touched you with the flame from my spark, and we both know each other so well that in just those few words you will have understood everything I needed to tell.
You will stagger back now, and I will want to reach out to you, but I will resist because I know it may break me.
“El… my people are dying. Earth… Earth is burning! How can you leave—” you will hesitate here and I will know from the lines in your mouth the word you want to say, but I’ve hurt you so you won’t say it. “How can you leave us now?”
That unspoken word will hurt me too, and I will harden myself, steady my flame and pierce you with my eyes that you love. “We are doing this for your people, Jonathan. We are doing this for Earth. The fleet of the Beast grows and falls towards your homeworld even as we speak. If we don’t stop it first, nothing you do on Earth now will matter.”
“But why you?”
“Jonathan… You know what the Beast did to me in the Garden—how she tore my mind apart. I have to face her again.”
My words will twist deep into you, squeezing you with its Truth, but you will hesitate for only a few moments more, and then you will say: “Okay.” A pause. The beat of your heart, a flicker from my spark. “I’ll go with you then.”
Your voice will be soft, and in that softness my resistance crumbles and I will reach out and take your hand. In that moment, as you are ready to throw away your dreams for me, I will love you more than I have ever loved you before. You will feel my love, and my sadness and my aching regret flow from me into you; and this is the moment, this is the moment poised between night and day, caught in the twilight of the stars, where everything slows down and you and I are hanging in the balance, held together by only a thread; because this is the last moment we have together before I will decide whether or not to break your heart.
I will hold onto you for an instant, or an eternity, and then I will let you go and say: “Jon, my Jon… I am the only Speaker who ever came back from the Garden, and for a long time I was only able to hold myself together because of you. I will always be grateful for that, but… I need to leave you now. I need to follow my own path, to face the Beast and try to find myself again. When this is done, I will come to defend Earth with you, I promise. A Speaker never lies.”
You will look at me quietly, your eyes trapped in a moment that’s lost, and suddenly I will remember that day in the Garden when you looked at me the same way you’re looking at me now: with the kindest, most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen, that see straight into my spark though you don’t have a flame. And then for the second time in my life, even though it’s not possible, I will feel what it’s like to be human and cry.
I will turn around and walk away from you then, and from that moment on we will walk separate paths.
This is the dream I will have tonight: it is the same dream I have every night after I left you. I will relive it endlessly, forever searching for the strength to break your heart again and again. But every night I will also think of all the things we left unsaid, and wonder if perhaps, in another world, I could have found the strength to stay with you instead. Because a Speaker never lies—except to herself.
I’m in New Beijing again and you aren’t here, but your presence lingers like a ghost. It’s in our steps, in our battle formation and the way we shoulder our coldfire rifles just so. It’s in little things: the beads on Hope’s wrist, the knife strapped to Amin’s chest, and the silly pictures you drew on half our battle suits. And it’s in the way I keep expecting to see you instead of Faith every time I turn, because before it was always you by my side.
They say everything in New Beijing is new—from the gleaming alien towers to the Chinese shops spreading along their sides—but that’s only because they haven’t seen what we’ve seen. Do you remember when you first saw New Earth, full of dead cities just like this? And in Old Beijing, where my world and the dead people’s world had started to mingle, do you remember that street we walked down the night after the sandstorm? The old Beijingers called it Xin de Xin Dong Lu, which you told me meant something like New New East Road and thought was so funny. Well, that’s what they call this empty street too, and I can’t help but laugh because it’s kinda funny here too. Everything old is now new.
“Contact! Zero three zero degrees!”
When the battle begins, at first it’s almost like you’re still here with me. Coldfire beams pierce the air and you’re pushing me forward, urging us to counter-attack. I jump and a Reaver roars, like sheets of starship metal tearing, as my resonance blade hums into its neck. I’m clinging to its back and I can almost feel your hands on mine, helping me twist my blade and bury it deeper and deeper until the Reaver collapses with me onto the ground.
“Shit LT, you’re fucking crazy you know that?” I hear Faith’s voice and see that it’s not you pulling me to my feet.
She pauses, hearing something on the net that should’ve come to me. “Raider Actual, this is Raider 1-7, you’re breaking up. Say again—”
A deep roar, like warships groaning in slipspace, rolls over us and Reavers pour out of the buildings all around us—it’s a trap. The air sizzles with coldfire and we’re falling back, pushed back down New New East Road; and for a few long moments it feels like time is rewinding. We’re in Old Beijing, walking backwards down New New East Road, further away from the end of us. We’re on our ship in orbit around the dying world and you’re turning back to me now, you’re taking my hand again, and we’re hanging in the balance, caught in the twilight between stars, and I’m thinking as you look at me with those eyes that I love that maybe… maybe this time you won’t let go. You hold onto me for an instant, or an eternity, and then—
—Hope screams and everything speeds forward again. Your hand is ripped from mine, we’re hurtling up New New East Road to our ending, and I’m in New Beijing and Faith is screaming for a corpsman, and you’re not here again.
Hope dies in Faith’s arms.
We’re falling back again, but this time I’m only moving further away from you. Everything’s falling apart and I’m desperately looking for you, but you’re not here. I’m dragging Amin to cover, coldfire beams flashing all around us, yelling at him to stay with me. When he stops screaming I look down and see a hole in his chest the size of my heart. Hot tears burn my eyes and I feel the hole inside of me where you used to be grow that much bigger.
“C’mon devil dogs, get your asses in here—you wanna die out there?!”
We retreat into one of the alien buildings and there’s nowhere left to go. Jai is dead, Garcia is dead, Saniya is dead—everybody who escaped with us from the Garden is dead except Faith. And you, but I can’t find you.
We seal the entrances, set the Gauss cannons by the windows and fire desperately into a sea of Reavers.
“Chinese armor column’s been destroyed—we’re on our own!”
Somebody screams a death cry that stays with me long after it’s ended.
“Second and third platoons are being overrun and the Captain’s not responding! What’re your orders LT?!”
Something explodes violently and the force of the blast slams me into a wall. I push myself up, my body aching and blood-smeared static filling my vision. I reach up and painfully pull off my helmet, tossing it aside. “El…” I gasp, searching for you.
“LT!” I look up and see Faith kneeling in front of me, a ragged crack splitting the face of her helmet. “Battalion net’s down and we’re up shit fucking Reaver creek—what are your orders?!”
“El… Where are you El?”
“Dammit Jon, get your shit together! El isn’t here anymore, what do we do?!”
My head is spinning and I reach for your hands, but you’re not here, and it feels like half of me is missing.
Your scream pierces the night and into me, tearing me awake. For a moment, I forget where I am and reach over for you, but of course you aren’t here. You scream again and my spark flares as I remember: you’re not here, but finally, after so long, you’re just over there. I jump out of my bed and run into the hallway, stopping when I see a small figure crumpled in front of your door.
Under the dim light of my flame, I see your mother looking up at me, tears streaking her face. “Please,” she whispers. “Help Jon. Like in the Garden. He’s just so tired….”
I’m quiet for a moment, and then reach down and help her up. “Go back to sleep, cô. I’ll do everything I can.” She nods and stumbles away.
I open your door and enter your room. It’s dark inside, but under the pale moonlight and flickering yellow of my flame, I find you laying on the ground murmuring and turning frantically. “Jon?” I ask, reaching out with my True Speak.
You jerk awake, but crumple back down when you see me. “They’re all dead El…” You’re sobbing and it shocks me to see you so vulnerable. My flame begins shaking with the rhythm of your pain and I finally cross the chasm between us.
I take you gently into my arms and whisper, “It’s okay Jon, stop holding it in. You’re always holding everything in. Let it out, I’m here now—I hear you.”
You give one more breathless shudder and then finally tell me what you’ve been hiding inside. “Faith… was the last one to die. I can’t stop seeing it. I’m holding her and she keeps saying she just wants to go home and I don’t know what to do. I’m telling her it’s okay we’re going home soon, but everything’s spilling out of her, she’s spilling all over me, and I don’t—I don’t know what to do!” Your last words are a strangled cry that cuts into me.
“I didn’t know what to do, El. I looked for you but you weren’t there and I just didn’t know what else to do. Everyone’s dead now, everyone. Faith was the last one. I should’ve died with her.”
My flame trembles with your grief and I pull you closer, as much for myself as for you. “I’m sorry Jon. You can blame me, it’s okay. I should have been there.”
“No!” you shout, tensing suddenly. “I gave the order: Broken arrow! U.S. Marines being overrun, fire on my position!” Your body is shaking with sobs again. “I said it, El. I said the words and I killed everyone because I didn’t know how to do anything anymore without you.”
I’m clinging desperately to you now, shaking my head. “No, no, Jon… you did the only thing you could and you saved everyone else!”
“I should’ve died, El. I’m no good without you, I’m just lost without you…”
The shaking of your voice, the tremor in your body, and the way your hands cling so desperately to me, as if you’re afraid I might disappear—all of it reaches deep into a part of me that Speakers are not supposed to have. My body shivers though it’s not supposed to and I run my hands through your hair and press your face into my neck; I brush my lips across your cheek and whisper in a shaking voice, “Oh Jon, my Jon. My beautiful Jon.” And then for the third time in my life, I feel myself cry, tears sliding down my face in flickering drops of light onto yours. Both my flame and my body are shuddering with pain and I’m holding you so tightly, trying to pull us closer and closer together, wishing we could disappear into each other.
We stay like that for a long time, wrapped desperately around each other, and eventually our tears subside, though you don’t let go of me and I wouldn’t let you go if you did.
Your people don’t feel emotions like we do, Jon. You feel it in your bones and your flesh, with all their imperfections. Some of my people think this is a messier, lower form of feeling, but I think it is the most beautiful thing in all the stars. I’ve watched you take off your helmet and smile as you felt the rain on your face. I’ve held you close and felt your heart beat faster as I traced my fingers down your back. You have no flame and I cannot hear the Truth in your words, but even as it tears you apart, the depths of your power to feel are so beautiful it touches parts of me I never knew I had.
Still softly stroking your hair, I ask you quietly: “Do you remember how we met, Jon? In the heart of the enemy fleet, trapped in the Garden of the Beast and surrounded by fools. There, you found me. And when my mind had been broken and my flame had gone out, you held me close, just like this, and I felt the Truth of your feelings pour into me then: through your skin and your bones, filling me until it sparked in me the memory of what it was like to feel, and I remembered then how to love and learned how to cry like a human. You are the only one to ever touch me like that Jon. It was you who saved me in the Garden; it’s me who would be lost without you.”
Still not letting go, I pour all of my spark and my flame into you, every bit of it I can muster, all the love I ever held for you or anyone or anything amongst all of the stars, and I say to you: “Now let me help you, let me show you what you showed me. This is how you remember.”
About the Author
Phong is Californian at heart but has also called Saigon, San Francisco, New York, Beijing, and Singapore, where he currently resides, home. He enjoys spending his time in Singapore catching no ball and trying to write postcolonial science fiction, and you can find his work on Metaphorosis and here. You can also find him at phongquan.com or on Instagram and Twitter as @pqwrites.
About the Narrators
Rasheedah Prioleau is an award winning southern writer with an eclectic range of screenwriting and ghostwriting credits. She graduated from Georgia College & State University with a BS in Art & Marketing and went on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. Her self-published novels include the southern dark fantasy series, American Specter and the Gullah horror novel, Everlasting: Da Eb’bulastin. They can be found in paperback on Amazon and downloaded on Kindle. She currently resides in Sumter County, South Carolina.
Andrew K. Hoe practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and is now a college professor. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, Highlights for Children, and elsewhere. Follow him online or on Twitter.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.