To say simply that I knew Telan would be disingenuous, at least when taking the normal connotations of that statement under full consideration. I came to know a great many humans, and other sapient beings, once I began to walk among them in my guise. I didn’t know Telan as one might a friend, or even an acquaintance. Though I hold some nostalgia regarding him now, I had yet to develop the full range of emotions to which most sapient beings are beholden. I saw him only as a vessel by which I might learn more about the creatures I desired to imitate. I ended up learning more about him, as an individual, than I had intended; to do so was unavoidable, considering the amount of time we spent together.
My present knowledge of Sahalan culture is what has allowed me to determine Telan’s origins. At the time, the name “Sahala” meant nothing to me. Indeed, it was Telan who introduced me to language. Before I began to learn from him, I could only wonder at the bizarre, patterned vibrations humans bounced between each other. I know that he was of Sahala because he carried with him Sahalan memory crystals, whose importance I will touch upon later.
When I caught him, I knew immediately that I had made a fortuitous discovery. He moved with an ease and assuredness through the forest. He sensed that something was amiss as I created a perimeter, ensuring that he would not escape or bring harm to himself in the attempt, though he didn’t react quickly enough to make a difference. As I tightened the circle and he spotted me, he did not seem to panic. In any case, he did not scream or flee wildly. I felt him turn. I recognized the moment he realized he was surrounded. With an ease that nearly equaled that of some of the Roamers I had encountered over the years, he ascended a tree I had not yet encompassed. Against a slower, less intelligent member of my species, this might have proven to be a successful strategy. Against me, it meant nothing.
Once I had Telan in my care I began to study him. I transported him to a more remote location, where I could be sure we wouldn’t be interrupted. A squad of voyaging Roamers, while presenting no true personal threat, could result in the accidental loss, injury, or death of my experimental subject.
I began my study by forcing Telan to walk back and forth across a clearing, which I surrounded with the majority of my mass in order to ensure that he could go no further. When I first expelled him into the clearing, he fell to his knees, shaking. He must have been unsure of what to do, and terrified to do anything. Had he met with another member of my species, he would have been dead already.
I kept a thin coating on his skin, connecting to me by even thinner wisps, so that I could sense every movement he made. When he had remained motionless long enough to render me impatient, I thickened these wisps into tendrils and forced him to his feet.
Telan must have been utterly confused by my actions. As I have said, I am an anomaly; an aberration. He could never have predicted that an ooze would behave in such a manner. All of his knowledge would have been fighting against his new reality, telling him it couldn’t possibly be the case. Yet, despite the novelty of the situation, Telan adapted. He quickly figured out what it was that I wanted and began to act upon that realization.
In most creatures I would label Telan’s actions as self-preservation. They could have easily been interpreted as the behavior of a creature which believed that if it acted in accordance to the will of its captor, it might go free. This, in my opinion, was not Telan’s goal. I think he gave up that hope quickly, losing all investment in whether he lived or died. He instead began to study me, just as I studied him. Perhaps he hoped that whatever knowledge he might glean might benefit those who found his memory crystals after his death. Perhaps he was someone who valued knowledge, regardless of the cost.
Whatever the true meaning behind Telan’s actions, he began to test the limits of my intelligence. At first, he followed my basic instructions. He walked back and forth, and in a circle. When I felt I could gain no further information from observing his movements, I created a simulacrum to test what I had learned. Telan was shocked and bemused. He dropped to the ground, scrambling backward away from my creation. By that time I knew well the chemicals of human fear. They rolled off of him in waves. My creation must have been terrifying: a coating of translucent slime, layered over bare human bones.
To his credit, Telan adjusted. The clumsy movements of my simulacrum, though improved from my first attempt, were likely more amusing to him than threatening. He began attempting to communicate. I don’t mean to say he hadn’t spoken or gestured previously, but he did so as one might gesture to a dog, or speak when one is alone. Short, simple movements of the hands; single words or exclamations directed more at oneself than the outside world. Now, he began attempting to teach me.
My ability to sense vibrations was already quite attuned, but in order to try to make sense of these complex patterns emanating from my prisoner, I had to devise a way to make it more sensitive. I knew a great deal about the structure of the human body, but I had given little thought to the purpose of most of its components. Those that mattered to me were the ones I had attempted to imitate with my simulacrum: the muscles, the tendons, the general shape. The ones that allowed movement. The brain, of course, was my favorite part to feed upon.
As Telan spoke, I sent the finest threads of myself into his orifices. He gagged as they slid down his throat. His hands scratched compulsively as I invaded his ears. I discovered the source of the vibrations, and his means of interpreting them. His ears proved easier to imitate than his larynx, at least in a very rough fashion. By forming paper-thin membranes backed by pockets of air in various places across my true body, and in the places analogous to the ear’s location on my simulacrum, I was able to tune my senses enough to begin to analyze his patterns.
It took me what I now consider to be an embarrassing amount of time to start beginning to process his attempts at communication. At first, all of the vibrations he was sending at me sounded the same, even with my increased sensitivity. I recognize that I had perfectly valid excuses for my difficulty. I was the first of my entire species to attempt to process spoken language, or indeed, to attempt any sort of meaningful intercourse with another creature. My research tells me that even members of a species that has developed a language have difficulty learning it if deprived of it in their first years of life.
When Telan began to weaken and fade from lack of nutrition, I distilled globules of nutrient-rich liquid from my own body and forced them down his throat. I kept him fed and hydrated. At first, I attempted to keep him awake, but after the initial week I realized that sleep was a necessary biological process for him. Without it he grew unable to continue his lessons. Losing his function meant he lost his usefulness, and I wasn’t ready to give him up yet. I formed a pocket inside of myself to keep his sleeping body.
Once I was able to understand some of his basic vocabulary, I began devising a way to imitate the way he produced vibrations. I could, of course, imitate the form and texture of his sound-producing organs. That is how I produce sounds now, when I’ve created a humanoid avatar. At the time, however, the delicate motions required of my body were too complex for me to process. I didn’t have the inborn, natural movements of a creature born with those organs. Instead, I drew bubbles of air into my main body, then expressed them through taut membranes to produce the initial vibrations of the sound waves. I manipulated the shape of a second opening to imitate the movements of Telan’s mouth.
The first time I did this, Telan shuddered. I sensed his fear and disgust, yet he continued to teach me. He didn’t have a choice. I had become all he knew of life. I was his only source of interaction and nutrition, his only comfort when he was tired, and his only home.
I can tell you the first word that I spoke to him, because he recorded the event in his memory crystals. He intended them to be accessed by other Sahalans, no doubt, but they remain within my keeping. They are the reason I am able to speak with such clarity and authority regarding the time I spent with Telan.
Yes, it was his name. That was the word he repeated the most often. It’s interesting that he chose that one, because a name has such layers of meaning. A name isn’t like most nouns, which are most often simple declarations describing the form taken by a chunk of matter. A name gives rise to a concept of self. It bespeaks of the idea that the self can be different from others, that the self is, by definition, separate and unique.
Perhaps he was trying to humanize himself for me, which I now understand is a common tactic in hostage situations. Perhaps he thought that, if I could understand that he was a “person,” and I could come to realize exactly what being a “person” meant, I would spare him once I had learned all that I could from him.
If that was his goal, he was incorrect. I lacked any sort of empathy in that stage of my development. I cared even less for the lives of other beings than I do now, outside of their use to me.
I cannot discount that he first taught me his name for other reasons. Beings are inherently selfish, after all. They go out into the world expecting that world, and the other beings in it, to care about them. Every being believes itself to be a unique individual whose experiences and life should matter to those around them. Religions are formulated on the idea that what one individual cares about matters. It doesn’t, unless that individual has some sort of power to impose their will on the universe. However, this theory does explain why humans so often introduce themselves by their names, even to unfathomable entities such as myself.
Ponderings aside, the first time I spoke Telan’s name, he cried. I admit, my pronunciation was not perfect. The “t” sound was particularly difficult for me to enunciate. I doubt that is why he was overcome with emotion, however. At times I still I have difficulty theorizing about why humans feel the things that they feel.
With practice, I became able to say his name with a greater level of clarity, as well as other words that he taught me. I learned how to use my simulacrum’s mouth like that of a real human. I didn’t have a name, so he referred to me as Ooze. I learned what to call the hard pieces that made up my world: ground, trees, grass, rocks. He tried to teach me about the sky, but of course, I had no concept of what that was. I could only experience what I could see and hear. I learned the word, but until I figured out how to see I could only understand it as referring to the vast sense of openness that extended above the forests that I had forever called my home.
Words were one thing, and pronouncing them, another, but putting them together to form meaningful phrases forestalled my learning the most. No member of my species had ever learned to speak. An ooze has no concept of language whatsoever. One of the base examples of my species can’t even be taught to follow simple commands as one might a dog or other domestic animal.
Luckily, I am superior to all other oozes. With mental capacity granted to me by years of absorbing mental energy from other beings, and with the vague impressions of language imparted to me by the hundreds of sapient beings I have consumed, I eventually came to speak and to understand.
It took Telan time to teach me. I kept him with me for, I believe, well over a year. It’s difficult to say, because Telan himself lost track of the passage of time during his imprisonment. It maybe have been longer. Time had no meaning to me then, and I had little concept of it or why it mattered.
Toward the end of our time together, Telan recorded his memory of a conversation between us in one of his memory crystals.
“Telan,” I said. My artificial humanoid body crouched next to him. My voice roused him from his slumber.
“Yes, Ooze,” Telan said. He responded immediately. When he did not, I made my displeasure clear.
“You have taught me much,” I stated.
“I have,” Telan said. His memory crystal tells me he was wary of where I might lead the conversation. I rarely made statements. More often, I asked him questions about language and, more rarely, about the world.
“I feel that I am close to learning all that I need to know from you,” I said.
Telan shivered, having long dreaded what might happen when I had reached that decision. “There is so much more I could teach you, Ooze. We have spoken little of the world itself. Teverin is full of wonders and dangers —”
“I can learn of them without you,” I said. “Nothing is dangerous to me.” Obviously, I was confident in my own power at that time. Now I realize that, however strong I might become, there will always be potential threats to the existence of any being.
“What about math?” Telan said desperately. “We have spoken of it in concept, but I could teach you much about how it works.”
“I don’t need it,” I proclaimed. “Telan, I grow bored of you.” He had taught me the words for emotions. I couldn’t use them genuinely, but I did know how to use them to cause Telan to react. Boredom, though, I came close to understanding. It meant I had a drive to move on from him and continue my learning elsewhere.
“No, no,” Telan said. “Magic. What about magic? I don’t know much about it, but surely you could use that knowledge.”
“You admit that you have little to teach me,” I said. “I would rather gather knowledge from someone more learned.” I paused, waiting for him to respond, but he did not. He had run out of things to say, perhaps, or he had given in to the knowledge that his life was mine regardless of what he said. “I have another use for you, regardless. It is not learning. It is becoming.”
“What?” Telan said.
“I wish to see, Telan,” I explained. “You helped me learn to listen, and to speak. I think you can help with this as well.”
“I… I don’t know how,” Telan said. “You have no eyes. You would have to, I don’t know, make them? Like you did with a voice? I don’t know enough about anatomy to tell you how to do that. You’ve never even explained how it is you speak.”
“You have no need to understand,” I told him. “You only have to give.” I reached out with my hand to caress his face. He resisted the urge to pull away. “You taught me that the ears are for hearing, and the larynx is for speaking. You taught me that eyes are for seeing.” I brought my hand up next to his eye. With a quick, merciless motion, my finger lost its solidity and flowed forward. The fluid that made up my body wrapped around his eye, reaching back back until it encompassed his optic nerve. I pulled it free.
Telan screamed, wept, pleaded, asked me “Why? Why would you do that?” I owed him no explanation. I pulled him inside my true body, tucking him into his pocket, where I could dampen his irritating sounds and focus on learning how to make use of the eye I had taken from him.