The concept floated, perpetually drowning in an endless sea of ideas. It was nearly being crushed under the constantly shifting, constantly changing, and constantly growing space where all thought was kept. The concept had no face, no body, no voice, and no identifier of any kind. It didn't even have a mind to ponder its own situation. It was only a disembodied consciousness living inside of only the concept of what it used to be.
It had no understanding of time. The only thing it knew was the vaguest hint of a memory that suggested it had not always been in this place. However, it didn't have the mental proficiency to reflect on this, so it was forced to ignore this thought. It could only muster any kind of focus on the considerably more solid and palpable ideas that surrounded him, and only the ones around it in the here and now.
Now (or was it yesterday? Or maybe tomorrow? Maybe it never happened until it unconsciously willed it into being), there was a single idea that existed near the concept that was behaving differently. It was not floating, it was not moving, and it was much more intense and solid. It was so strong, the concept felt it could interact with it. When it moved closer to the idea, it found that it could use it. It was an idea that it recognized in some small, isolated area of its consciousness and one that it somehow knew how to use.
This idea was that of a door.
The concept was instantly manifested into matter. It plunged in one direction, now being subject to gravity, until it hit the ground. It gasped and breathed air for the first time in what felt like years as instinctual and biological memory flooded into its mind. Its heart began beating, its pupils dilated, and its mouth secreted saliva. It remembered that it was male and had two legs and two arms with five digits on the end of each.
He wretched as his newly-created stomach suddenly started producing digestive materials. It was a sublime feeling, intense and powerful. He shakily stuck a finger down his throat and gagged again, his whole body convulsing.
Wonderful. He thought. A thought. An abstract thought. He had forgotten that he could make them himself. Good. Bad. Yes. No. He curled his lips into what he remembered as a smile. Satisfying.
He took a few minutest to flex his muscles. They were strong and tight, with no sign of atrophy. It was as if he had been completely suspended in time. He slowly put his hands against the ground and pushed himself onto his feet. He took a couple, shaky steps before instinct took over and he was able to stand still and tall.
"Brilliant." He said. His voice was deep and booming, the sounds issuing smoothly from his throat. It was at this point he noticed that he was nude. The man pondered this for a moment, then shrugged. He had other things to worry about. Besides, he seemed to be alone.
No... He thought, for whatever reason. That's not true. He looked up and around, examining his surroundings for the first time. He was in an endless, open expanse; completely flat, the ground was lit from beneath by a vague white light. Everything was tinted a soft gray, as if overcast by clouds. Everything, except for a single spot in the distance. What seemed like miles away, there was a near-blinding light that projected a beam into the air that went on into infinity. Recalling a memory from a half-remembered dream, the man began briskly walking, whilst taking in the exquisite feeling of being alive and composed of physical matter, toward this light.
He padded calmly across the warm floor, the sounds of his feet making the only noise. After a long enough time to put a pleasant strain on his new muscles, the man reached the threshold of the light. It was a large, perfect circle, brightly lit from underneath. In the axis of this circle, about thirty feet from the edges, was a small table with two chairs. On the table was a silver platter with a full tea set and a covered plate.
In one of these chairs sat a blue-gray, bipedal creature. Sitting down, it was a good deal taller than the man standing, and had its legs crossed. Its arms, and there were a lot of them, were coming from its back. They were longest and largest near its equivalent of a torso and got progressively smaller the higher they were on the spine. By the middle of the neck up, they appeared to be completely vestigial. The creature also sported a thick, webbed tail that laid on the ground behind the chair, the tip idly tapping the ground. It was wearing loose-fitting, blue-green robes and looking out a window suspended four feet from the ground. The window showed, instead of a blank landscape, a sunny and pleasant scene on a hill surrounded by flowers. The chattering of birds could be heard from it and a light breeze would sway the tips of the trees.
The man walked up to the table, remembering more and more with each step. When he was within five feet, the creature turned and looked over its shoulder. Its face was familiarly proportioned; two eyebrows, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth with, albeit thin, lips. The only thing that seemed out of place were its eyes. It had mismatched pupils that were in the shape of a crude square as if drawn by a child with his opposite hand and what should have been the whites of its eyes were instead a shifting rainbow of colors. Otherwise, its face was pleasant and gentle.
"You," said the man, the thought presenting itself suddenly, "are a Maulgout."
The creatures face lit up with a smile.
"You're getting faster," it said. "It used to take you at least an hour to get that far." Its English was quick and bold; obviously a naturally-learned language. It gestured one of its smaller arms toward the chair, where a similar, smaller robe was lying on it. The man put it on, taking a moment to admire the material, before sitting. He shifted his chair to the side so he was facing the window himself. "What else do you remember?" The creature said.
"Bits and pieces." The man said. "I'm human, I'm male, I once had a dog, my favorite vacation was to Earth, and that I'm here for a very specific reason. Of course, it's all coming back very quickly."
"I'm glad. It leaves more time for actual conversation." The creature said. "You're not the only one who gets lonely."
"Believe me," the man said, laughing, "you don't even know the meaning of the word." The man leaned over the table and reached for the platter. "May I have-" He paused, then pulled it toward him. "Oh, that's right. This is for me." He lifted the covering on the plate to find a thick piece of meat, cooked mostly brown, but with vibrant streaks of red running through it. It had two sides, one a serving of transparent peas, the other a simple baked potato.
"This is a bilogate steak!" He exclaimed. "I've only had one of these before. They're delicious. This is...exactly what I wanted..."
"You asked for it last time." The Maulgout explained. "I've tried one before. As a species, we're more partial to seafood, so you could imagine how good one of those would have to be for me to enjoy it."
"I do remember you saying that." The man said. He reached across the table for the fork and steak knife. He sawed of a meaty chunk of the steak and took a bite. He sighed in ecstasy. "Someone sure knows how to make a good steak."
"I'm glad." The alien said. It paused for the man to swallow his steak before saying, "Do you remember your name yet?"
The man paused, running through his memories.
"Do you remember why you're here?"
"I thought so. That always comes last, for some reason. I'm not sure why."
"It'll come to me eventually." He said, biting a forkfull of peas with his second piece of steak. Relaxing in the chair, he gazed out the window. "This is new." He remarked.
"Your resistance has been few and far between. We can't let you go, but a reward isn't out of the question."
"It's definitely appreciated." He said. He kicked his feet up on the table and imagined the breeze running through his hair. "It's good to be able to think clearly, again."
"Hang on..." The man said. He set the plate on the table and approached the window. He peered out over the beautiful landscape at the shape framed in the sky. Past the blue was an enormous shape on the horizon. It was a huge planet with an oval-shaped spot, slowly moving across the sky.
"This is Io!" He exclaimed, spinning around to face the smiling Maulgout. "This is...this is home!"
"Like I said," it said, "it's a reward for good behavior."
"For whatever reason you're keeping me here," the man said, "I can never say you were inhumane. Thank you for this."
He kept looking through the window. Even though there was a barrier in the way, it wasn't a screening or recording. It was an actual, three-dimensional window onto the landscape of Io. He turned to the side and saw the profile of a mountain in the distance, cut off by the window frame.
"That's Tohil Mons. All the details are there. You really did your homework."
"I'm glad you like it."
"Memories of home have been flooding in faster than ever because of this." The man said, sitting down. "Though everything after I left is spotty, at best."
"It'll come back. To tell the truth, this is as much a treat for me as it is for you." The alien said. "Io is bar-none my favorite place in your solar system."
"I love it. You know the story behind its terraforming?"
"No, I don't."
"Apparently, there were chemicals in the atmosphere that we didn't know about at the time. I think they were too thin to be accurately picked up. Anyway, these chemicals basically exploded in potency when exposed to the atmosphere introduced by the teraforming. Now, all vegetation grows three times as fast and almost ten times as large when compared to Earth."
"So it was basically a botanists' paradise?"
"Pretty much. We even had schools dedicated to it."
"I'd heard somewhere that roses were considered weeds there. Is that true?"
"Yeah, it was. They were pretty flowers, but they'd grow everywhere. Spring was a nightmare. They'd grow all over the house and my sisters and I would...oh..."
"I...just remembered that I had sisters." The man said, growing solemn. "And what happened to them."
"You've told me before." The Maulgout said, gently. "Just try to keep it out-"
"No, no..." The man interrupted, holding up a hand. "I don't want to forget. The memory is painful, but it reminds me that they existed at all. It gives their lives meaning for me." He paused, looking out the window. "It's when I start to remember my home," he said, "that I'm truly thankful to have an identity of my own. In...there...you're crushed smaller than an atom, your simple ability to think being taken from you. There's not a single part of your...you left." He sighed, then looked at the Maulgout. "Why are you keeping me there?"
"Do you remember your name, yet?" It said. Despite its alien eyes, the man was thankful for its face, showing an identifiable expression of sadness at the man's suffering.
"...No." He said. "Not yet."
"Once you do," the alien said, "I'll tell you."
"I'm talking about identity, but I don't even remember my own name." The man said, laughing. "Maybe I just need to shut up."
"It always comes to you. Trust me."
"Yeah..." The man sat silently for a moment. He then said, "Why is it you like Io so much?", changing the subject.
"It's such a gorgeous planet. Moon, I mean. Mostly, I don't get to see flowers very often. You about Maulgouts, but do you know anything about Epigoros?"
"I know it's your mother planet, but that's it."
"Well, to put it bluntly, we didn't have any air."
"There weren't any landmasses on Epigoros, so we lived underwater. Ok...not so much 'water.' It's like water, but has a lot more chemicals and nutrients."
"I didn't know 'a lot of chemicals' was a makeup recognized by science." The man joked.
"I'm a psychologist, dammit, not a chemist." The Maulgout said, laughing. "Anyway, we breathed by absorbing the nutrients in the water into a pair of organs that were remarkably similar to human lungs. Once we made first contact and attempted to leave our planet, we learned that these organs could be used similarly to lungs. It only took a century of evolution before we could breathe both equally well."
"That sounds similar to human infants in the womb." The man said. "We do the same thing before we're born to amniotic fluid."
"Produced by the female carrying the infant, right?"
"The whole...incubating thing humans do. It's really bizarre."
"Just a matter of perspective."
"Well obviously. But to me, the idea of growing the young inside the body is just...eugghh..." the Maulgout shook.
The man laughed at this. "You still haven't told me why you like Io so much."
"Oh, right. Obviously, Epigoros didn't have any air for flowers to grow, so they always seemed exotic and...magical, I guess. We had coral reefs, instead. The nutrients in the water helped make some absolutely breathtaking scenery, don't get me wrong, but I'd grown up with it. It became old hat, after a while."
"I'm sure. I'd love to see that someday." The man said.
"That...might be difficult."
"Not long ago, Epigoros was destroyed by our solar system's star going supernova."
"Oh no...I'm sorry."
"...Right..." The Maulgout said quietly, looking away as it spoke. It was using one of its smaller arms to finger a necklace that hung around its long neck. "I still have a piece of coral that was made into a necklace from when I was a kid." It took off the necklace and set it on the table.
The man took it and examined the small stone on the end. It was a shiny, vibrant fragment that reflected the light in a rainbow pattern. The colors shifted with every movement, like the scales of a fish.
"This is beautiful," the man said, handing it back. "I can't imagine ever getting sick of that."
"Believe me, it was possible." The Maulgout said, putting the necklace back on. "I like how solid flowers are. The colors never change, making them more vibrant and powerful. Different flowers can mean different things because of their color and that meaning will never change. They're much more interesting. I actually considered becoming a botanist before I discovered psychology."
"If you're a psychologist," the man said, "maybe I'm just a mental patient and imagining all this and you're my shrink. Maybe you're not even an alien."
"You said that last time," the creature said, laughing.
"Doesn't make it any less valid a guess. The world is subject to our senses. What happens to the world when our senses fail?"
"You've become quite the philosopher recently."
"It used to be a habit of mine early in college, but I grew out of it. This place has a knack for breaking you down to brass tacks, though. I'm not surprised it's resurfaced." The man paused. "Incidentally, I forgot to ask for your name. I guess it hasn't resurfaced, yet."
"You don't remember the game, yet?" The Maulgout asked.
"...Game?" The man responded, puzzled. He then furrowed his eyebrows and started tapping his head. "I do...remember something about a game. It came up as soon as I asked about your name. Refresh my memory."
"When you first got here, I devised a game to play on the occasions you were released for a short period of time. You can ask any question you want and, using that information, try to guess what my name is."
"You and I made it even more so. If you can guess my name correctly, you are set free. If you guess wrong, you are put back in until the next time you're released. You only get one guess each time, so use it wisely. However, you get as much time as you need to make that guess."
"Hmm...Sounds like a fair challenge to me. I can ask any question?"
"Alright. What is your name?"
The Maulgout rolled his eyes and sighed.
"You ask that every single time. I'm not going to tell you."
"It was worth a shot."
"You say that every time, too."
"Okay, fill me in. What have I already asked? What do I know?"
"To start, I am male. I am a Maulgout that was hatched on Epigoros about twenty-nine years ago, my time. Specifically, in the city of Yishnaal. I have two sisters, one of whom was hatched in the same city as me and is two years my junior, and one who is seven years younger than me and hatched on a Humanity Coalition flotilla."
"What are your sisters' names?" The man asked, his finger tapping his chin thoughtfully.
"The youngest is named Aelbeyna and the oldest is named Cassillia. "
"Hmm...Quick thought: In what language do I need to speak your name in?"
"That's another rule; my name can be translated into most languages, so you're allowed to answer in most languages."
"I'll stick to english, if you don't mind."
"Fine with me."
"Ok...When's your birthday?"
"No, in your language."
"...Oh...uh..." The Maulgout swished his tail along the ground, nervously. "Well...there's not really a very good translation for it. I can only say it through...liquid."
The man reached for the platter and poured a cup of what seemed to be tea. He slid it across the table. "Will this do?"
"Eh...Probably not." The Maulgout grasped the cup and passed it to the arms closest to his mouth. He tilted his head back and downed the cup of liquid. He spent a few seconds gulping and swallowing, trying to get the liquid in the right spot in his lungs. He suddenly made a half-gurgle, half-coughing sound as he expelled the liquid from his mouth onto the table in an inaudible attempt at speaking.
The man paused for a moment.
"Was that a word?" He asked, bluntly.
"I told you it wouldn't work..." The Maulgout said as he wiped his mouth with one hand and cleaned up the mess with two more.
"Alright...for now, we'll just ignore anything you can't translate."
"I'd really appreciate that." said the Maulgout as it finished wiping off the table. He coughed once and nonchalantly wiped his mouth.
"Unless...can I ask if the date was important in your naming?"
"Yes, you can and no, it wasn't."
"Okay. Good." The man crossed his legs and gazed out the window, taking in the landscape as he thought deeply.
"Were your parents religious?"
"They were members of the Church of the Marine Christ, but they never practiced heavily. In fact, our family wasn't religious to begin with."
"The Church of the Marine Christ?" The man asked. "I haven't heard of that."
"It's a denomination of Pan-Christianity. The belief that Christ, in different forms, visited and passed his teachings to various planets, with Earth being the first."
"Huh. Interesting. Did Epigoros not have religions of its own?"
"We did, but it was diluted a fair bit once it was made a colony of the Humanity Coalition. Some of it was absorbed into the teachings of the Marintheists."
"Alright, so religious names are unlikely." The man frowned and stared absentmindedly at the platter on the table. "Hmm...What were your sisters' names again?"
"Aelbayna, the younger, and Cassillia, the older."
"Are those common female names?"
"Cassillia is, but Aelbayna is fairly archaic. Our parents wanted something different."
The man snapped his fingers and pointed.
"Ha! If they wanted something different and you're the oldest, would that mean your name is common for male Maulgouts?"
The Maulgout smiled. "Yes, it is."
"Out of curiosity, what were my guesses in the past?"
"First it was Bob, then Balk, then-"
"You got frustrated and blurted out the first name you thought of."
"You guessed Bob, Balk, Mielziq, Ahmned, and Yllnistad."
"I've only been released six times?"
"We haven't been playing the game for very long."
The man leaned forward, his chin in his hand, and thought out loud.
"The problem, I think, is that none of those are Maulgout names. Bob is obviously human, Balk is andolian, Mielziq is mandalinian, and both Ahmned and Yllnistad are yzitch names."
"Hmm..." The Maulgout remarked. "The more often you're let out, the stronger the grasp you have over your own thoughts. Your imprisonment is supposed to rob you of your ability to think in nonlinear ways."
"While I'm inside, it does."
"You shouldn't be able to think as clearly as it seems like you are. Do you remember your name, yet?"
"I...no. Not yet. But I'm getting shades of memory. It's catching up with me, I can feel it." The man broke off for a second. He jerked himself back to reality and said "Alright. Let's keep going."
"Sure thing." The Maulgout gestured the three largest limbs on its right side. "You have the floor."
"Ok, so I haven't been guessing the kind of names common to Maulgouts. What are some characteristics?"
"Be a little more specific."
"Alright...Do your names have any special meaning or symbolism?"
"Not really. They used to, a long time ago, but that's a habit that our culture has gradually evolved out of."
"Hmm...Can you list some common male names for Maulgouts?"
The Maulgout raised his eyebrow and flicked his tail.
"C'mon. Really? It can't be that easy."
"Well," the man said "with my freedom on the line, I'll take any hint I can get."
"It'll make it too easy if I have to answer questions like that. No fun for me, is it?"
"It's not about fun, is it?" The man was becoming irritated. "Why do you think I'm working so hard at this? I may be it well, but I want to get out of here! Except for obvious questions like your name, you should be obligated to answer every question I ask."
"My game, my rules."
"No. Our game, our rules. I haven't forgotten everything, friend."
"Oh really?" The Maulgout had lost his pleasant demeanor. "What's your name?"
"Walter." The man said, without thinking. He paused, then a smile bloomed on his face. "Walter! Walt! I remember! Ha! Walt Westland!"
"Yes..." The Maulgout sighed. "You are Walter Westland."
"Alright, tell me." The man leaned forward I his chair, more eager than hostile. "Why am I here? What is this place?"
"This," the Maulgout said, "is a conceptual dimension created to house the most dangerous criminals in the known universe."
The man paused.
"This...is a prison?"
"...I don't remember..."
"General Walter Westland, commander of the 1st Armada of the Humanity Coalition." The Maulgout's voice was cold and robotic, absent of all the geniality he previously had. "You and your ships were sent to quell and uprising among the colonies in solar systems AND-22 through AND-38. After an early campaign against the rebels' ships, but your flagship broke off. You fired an atomic bomb into the system's star, causing it to go supernova while your ships escaped. Every planet, along with trillions of lives, was destroyed. You then used this tactic on every single solar system between AND-23 and AND-38. You destroyed and unprecedented number of lives and thousands of planets.
"With Epigoros among them.
"Your war crimes were severe enough to change the entire tactics of the Humanity Coalition, now called the Milky Way Federation. You were dishonorably discharged and sentenced to death, but we had other plans.
"In this prison, you are stripped down to your very basic levels of identity. You have effectively been purged from reality. Everything about you has been erased from the minds and history of your universe. The only thing that exists of you, now, is a concept. The reason you are here, now, is because I remember you and it is that memory that manifests you here. No one outside my organization remembers you, however, so it is impossible for you to escape."
The man paused for a long time, staring out the window.
"...Who...is your organization?" He finally asked. "Who do you represent?"
"Peacekeepers." The Maulgout said with a sense of finality.
"Then...how long have I been here?"
"In Earth time, about ten thousand years."
"Ten-" the man reeled from the number, but quickly righted himself in his chair. "If I can't escape, why give me a chance with this quiz?"
"You had no chance. Even if you guessed my name, you wouldn't be let free. It was a means of manipulating you."
"But...why let me out at all, then? And why tell me all this?"
"I'm telling you this because, once you are put back into your "cell," all memory of this meeting will be erased. The reason we let you out at all is for information purposes. Your actions speak much louder than your words. I was stationed as your warden in order to find out why you destroyed all those planets. No one alive knows exactly why you killed all those creatures, sentient and not. Because one of those planets was my races' mother planet. I could establish in you a position of guilt to possibly entice you even more into telling us the truth."
The man looked away, idly twiddling his fingers.
"I...destroyed planets?..." He mumbled. "I...killed..."
A look of realization dawned on his face as every memory he had lost flooded into his brain as if a dam had been destroyed.
"Heh." Walt laughed. "Oh. I remember, now." His voice was deep and menacing, but somehow wise. He had never told anyone in his life, but the Maulgout felt a chill go down his spine every time he heard that voice.
"Why did you destroy those solar systems?" The Maulgout demanded, asking the questions he had asked more than a thousand times before.
"That...is for me to know." Walt smiled at the Maulgout. "Maybe you'll find out one day."
"If that's how it is." The Maulgout stood. He was easily eight feet tall. He stepped toward the window and moved to shut it.
"Wait." Walt said. "Leave it open."
"It doesn't matter. You're to be sent back to your prison immediately after our session has concluded. It has concluded."
"Don't I still get a guess? Your name?"
"It means nothing for you. You won't be released if you guess it."
"Maybe you'll change your mind...Aaurnivokt."
"That's wrong." The Maulgout said.
Walt shrugged and took a sip of the cold tea from the platter.
"Worth a shot."
He stood and looked the massive alien in the eye. After staring for a moment, the Maulgout sighed. His expression smoothed and relaxed into one of sorrow.
"For what it's worth," he said, resting his longest arm on Walt's shoulder, "I believe that we could have been friends."
"Who says we can't be? "
With a single, pulsing light, Walt was gone, his robes falling to the floor in a heap. The Maulgout sighed and picked up the clothes. He slung them over his smaller arms and walked over to the window. He closed it, where it shortly evaporated. He waved a hand and the table, chairs, and tea set vanished as well. All that was left within the circle of light was himself, the robes he was wearing, and the matching human robes he had brought from home for this occasion. He fingered one of the button holes idly, then sighed.
He vanished, taking the light with him.
The concept floated, perpetually drowning in an endless sea of ideas.