R'hath had been standing in front of the terminal for days, it seemed. Not that "standing" was really the right word. The S'pht did not have such a word and, yet, for R'hath, there had been no existence prior to the Pfhor. So many concepts - so many ideas - so many thoughts were dictated by the hated slavers. Even R'hath would use the Pfhorish word for standing to describing what he was doing. And so he found himself standing, even though he had no need for legs on which to stand. His cyber-mechanisms kept him upright, in place as he worked, with scarcely any thought to his situation.
A mechanical arm extended from under R'hath's cloak and extended forward into the terminal interface socket in front of him. He was doing as he had been instructed - as he was constantly instructed. He was never alone in his thoughts. Every instant of every day, voices told him what to do. It was not as if he had no choice but to obey the voices, but he knew the consequences of failing to do so. Once, as a youth, he had tried to do what he wanted to do. All he did was to program a computer to play a game with some of his friends. For this he was forced spend a month in solitary confinement. For a creature who was used to constant communication every moment of the day and night - a creature that never slept - this was an unfathomable punishment. Many adult compilers had been known to go mad under such circumstances. But he did not. But he never again questioned his orders. He knew all too well what happened to those who did - even death would be better than spending years in isolation. And so R'hath continued at his job, relentlessly dismantling security protocol after security protocol, delving deeper and deeper into the computer systems of the alien vessel.
Behind him, he felt a vibration. His sensors were exquisitely sensitive to any sound over a frequency range that would astound any non-cybernetic being. As he had many times since boarding the alien ship, he almost instantly turned around to find himself facing yet another of the bipedal creatures that lived on the ship. Another ugly creature yet, for some reason he couldn't explain, not nearly as repulsive as the slavers, whom he'd known all his life. The creature was aiming something at him. He knew that the alien weapons could harm him and, in many ways, simply giving in and letting the alien kill him would be preferable to the dreary existence he led, but he knew he had no choice. Although R'hath could have independent thoughts, the voices compelled him to kill the creature, and failure to obey would result in punishment for his entire unit. He couldn't let his colleagues down. And so he did what he had to do - he charged his weapon, opened his cloak and sent a burst of energy hurling toward the creature. Before the creature could even react, the energy burst hit him in the chest, sending him hurtling backwards, throwing him to the floor. R'hath didn't even check on his victim. He knew that it was dead, and so he turned around, reconnected and went back to work.
But R'hath did have independent thoughts. Although he could always hear the voices and the vile slavers could probe his mind through The Controller, he had long ago learned to control his own thoughts and to separate them from his external communications. His thoughts were the only thing that kept him going. Without his mind, his consciousness, his ability to dream, there really would be no purpose to his existence. He certainly did not exist to serve the slavers. And he had even learned to communicate surreptitiously with his colleagues and friends. This was one of the first things he learned to do - one thing that his fellow compilers held so secret that he was certain that the slavers had no idea that they were in constant contact with each other - contact outside of the voices that were under Pfhor control.
As R'hath processed the alien computer's data, he learned much about the creatures that built the ship he was on. Although he was only supposed to pass the data on to The Controller, he could not help but be intrigued by the information he was gleaning from their computers. These beings were very different than the Pfhor. Not nearly so disciplined, for one thing. They had many ideas and philosophies, and they expressed them openly. They had a very troubled history - not unlike the ancient legends of his own ancestors that he had heard about since his youth - but they managed to keep faith in their hopes and ambitions none-the-less. Unbelievably, they had never had contact with an alien species before. The S'pht had been enslaved for hundreds of years and, even before that, had served Pthia and Yyaro. He knew of the legends by heart. How could any beings be so advanced and yet not have any contact with outside species? He thought about how that was all going to change.
Suddenly without any warning, the voices stopped. He almost shorted out his connection to the alien terminal, he was so stunned. Except for that one month in solitary confinement, he had never known a time when there weren't voices telling him what to do. Not that he had any love for the voices, but he felt truly frightened. He didn't know what to do. At the same instant, others around the ship were having the same reaction. He heard all of their thoughts and they his. So startled were they that one of them almost slipped into communicating in Pfhorish. He felt another vibration behind him and ended up killing the human behind him, even though there were no voices telling him to do so. He simply knew what the voices would have told him to do and did it anyway. The thought that the voices weren't there was just too incomprehensible.
Slowly, out of the chaos there emerged a calming voice. "I am Durandal, and I will deliver you from the slavers." It spoke to him - to all of them - in perfect S'pht. Durandal? He'd heard about an entity on board the alien vessel that had been in contact with some of his colleagues. An entity named Durandal that lived in the ship's computers' core. He'd largely dismissed this as alien propaganda. No entity could live without an organic component. He knew that his ancestors had been shocked to learn that he Pfhor were satient, even without any cybernetic components, but surely at least some organic component was required for satience. It could be no other way. In the more than 150 years that he'd served the Pfhor empire, he'd come to know many alien computing technologies. He'd dissected the innermost workings of their programs and exhumed mammoth quantities of data. He'd explored the very nature of their hardware configurations and thought that he had seen every possible construction. But they were all just machines. Some of them were intelligent and could modify their programming to deal with unique situations, such as being hacked by a legion of S'pht compilers, but none of them had anything remotely resembling self-awareness. None of them could think - until now. What was this Durandal? Was he really an independent entity, or a cruel alien hoax?
But Durandal sounded very reassuring. He knew so much about the S'pht, and even seemed to think the way they did. He was not controlling or demanding the way The Controller was. He spoke not Pfhorish, but the secret, surreptitious computer language that the S'pht used to communicate with each other. How did he know their language? How did he know their secret protocols for burying it in a data stream? And where did he learn to think like the S'pht. How could any alien entity be so much like them. And yet Durandal continued to talk to them. He told them how their royalty would be reborn. He told them that they were their own masters, and that he would deliver them to freedom. He told them that the Pfhor couldn't harm them anymore, and that they would play a role in toppling the Pfhor empire. And even more unbelievably than all of this, he told them that he would reunite them with their brothers, the S'pht'Kr. Not even the Pfhor knew of the lost eleventh clan. This may have been an ancient legend to the S'pht, but every one of them knew the story by heart. No amount of Pfhor genetic engineering and reprogramming could expunge their history from their collective consciousness.
Behind him he felt another vibration and heard the familiar warble of a Pfhor fighter telling him to get back to work. Instead, he turned around to face the fighter, who raised its staff in anger at the S'pht that would dare to disobey a direct order. But R'hath felt no fear. For the first time in his life he saw the salver as he really was - a pathetic, obedient fool with an unbelievably frail body. Why did the S'pht fear such a miniscule creature. Come to think of it, why did they fear any of the Pfhor - they were no more powerful than the weapons they carried. But every S'pht compiler had and intense weapon implanted within them. They had no need for external devices. The Pfhor used their weapons as a crutch - without them they held no power over anyone. The fighter raised its staff, preparing to strike the disobedient compiler. R'hath wasted no time deciding what to do. He opened his cloak and sent a bolt of energy directly toward the glowing crystalline end of the staff. The crystal shattered, sending yellow sparks and flashes of energy spewing out in all directions, some of it hitting the side of the fighter's face. The fighter shrieked in agony as half it's face was singed away. It raised what remained of its staff and swung it high overhead, bringing it down across the helmeted head of the compiler. R'hath felt a slight tingling from the mechanical blow, but it was hardly enough to cause any harm. He again opened his cloak and sent a flash of energy directly into the fighter's chest. The fighter was thrown backwards and up, into the air. It landed on the floor, little more than a steaming pile of yellow ooze.
R'hath had killed a Pfhor! How could he have done such a thing? He knew what that would mean. He and his entire unit would be rounded up and taken to a detention center. They would all be dissected and be stripped of all means of communication, and all sensory organs. Their pain centers would be stimulated for days on end, and then they would be tossed into isolated confinement where, sightless and speechless, they would rot for an eternity, lacking even the means to commit suicide. How could he bring such a fate upon his comrades, let alone himself? Yet, strangely, he felt no fear. How could he fear these child-like creatures? How could they enslave him?
He heard the familiar scurrying of bipedal footsteps and soon there were several fighters running towards him, their staffs held high. One of them sent a flash of yellow energy directly at his torso, but he simply deflected it with his energy shield, and then opened his cloak and sent a bolt of energy at the lead fighter in the pack. The fighter seemed to simultaneously explode, spraying yellow slime over its comrades behind it. Undeterred, they continued their race forward, but R'hath didn't even bother to close his cloak - he just spewed bolt after bolt at the oncoming pack. Within a matter of seconds they were reduced to a smoking, oozing mass of chitin. Next, a trooper rounded the corner and came straight for him. It raised its weapon, preparing to fire, but R'hath was already a step ahead of him. A bolt of energy struck the trooper's arm, sending its weapon flying, and most of it's arm as well. The trooper screamed in agony as yellow blood spurted out of the stump where its arm used to be. Incensed, it leaned forward and rammed its helmet into R'hath. Briefly, things went black, but he quickly recovered and sent a kilojoul into the fighters head. The helmet exploded and the fighter's brains went flying in all directions, much of it landing on R'hath's cloak. At the same time, what remained of the trooper's headless body went flying backwards as it continued to absorb the energy and sizzle away, landing more than 20 meters away. R'hath didn't even wait when the next trooper came - he sent two energy bolts forth - one aimed at the weapon and another aimed at the trooper's torso. Within seconds the trooper was reduced to a yellow heap on the floor.
Before he even could see it, he felt the distinctive sound of a hunter's weapon charging. He knew that within seconds, a green ball of caustic high-energy secretions would be flying his way. Although he was relatively immune to the hunter's secretions by design, even he could not withstand a repeated assault from a single hunter. Instinctively, R'hath opened his robe and fired a quick series of five energy bolts as quickly as he could. He heard each bolt connect with the hunter and in the flash of each, saw the hunter briefly pushed backwards. And yet the hunter still stumbled forwards, shielded arms raised in defense and weapon fully charged. Before the hunter could get any closer, R'hath let another bolt fly - this one aimed directly at the hunter's weapon. The energy bolt collided with the fully charged weapon, discharging all of the energy from both weapons within the hunter's armor, sending metal plates flying and splattering the walls with green ooze. R'hath felt powerful, but he knew that he could never survive a full-fledged assault by a group of hunters or even a single hulk. He needed to find his colleagues and to move to a more open area where he would have a big advantage over the slavers - the ability to fly. He started to tell his friends that he had done a horrible thing, but the others also reported that they had killed Pfhor. He even heard from a group that they had taken down a hulk and a group of hunters. R'hath couldn't believe what he was hearing.
But before he could leave his post, R'hath felt another vibration. Something else was coming, but it didn't have the characteristic sound of any Pfhor. It didn't feel like any of the aliens, either. He opened his cloak, preparing to let an energy bolt save him from whatever was coming when he caught sight of his would be assailant. It was definitely one of the aliens, but this one was heavily armed, and it wore some sort of helmet with a visor. He couldn't see the creature's face, but the creature did not raise any of its weapons, even as it approached. R'hath's cloak was still open, but the creature did not seem to fear him. What creature would not fear the dreaded compiler's weapon? Even a wasp would have responded with a stream of toxins. Could this creature be seeing a compiler for the first time? Looking at the armaments arrayed around the creatures belt, he seriously doubted it.
The creature lifted it's gloved hands and pulled it's helmet off to reveal an alien inside that looked like all of the others R'hath had seen since he boarded the alien vessel. But somehow this one was different. Not that it was any less ugly than all the others, but it seemed calm. It wasn't frightened. The creature made a strange grimace with its moth, baring it's teeth and curving the sides of its lips upward. R'hath at fist felt threatened by the gesture and expected something horrible to come out of the creature's mouth, but then it started to talk in that familiar sound that these creatures seemed to make. But this one was talking calmly, quietly, and in a low-pitched voice - not screaming in the high-pitched sound that R'hath had come to associate with the aliens' fear. Although he could not translate the alien's spoken language, he felt reassured by the alien's words. Slowly, he closed his cloak. The alien jerked his head backwards and to the side, and then turned around and started to walk off. It turned around to look at the compiler, and made the same jerking motion with it's head, walking backwards as it continued to look at R'hath. He wasn't sure why, but he decided to follow the creature. Somehow, he trusted the creature. Somehow he felt that he had a new friend - or at least an ally in his struggle with the Pfhor. And he could hear Durandal speaking words of encouragement, coordinating what was now a full-fledged rebellion against the Pfhor. He did not know what the future would bring, but R'hath knew that he would follow Durandal to the ends of the universe.
Story By:Steve Levinson
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