Stardrifter: Cold Passage

Book review

settings scifi

In hacker culture, there's the adage that you should always "use the source". In programming, the source is code, like Java or Python. It's usually called, literally, the "source code". In other sciences, it's a series of steps you can repeat to achieve specific rezults (it's an algorithm). It's important for a lot of reasons, but one the most obvious reasons is that it establishes that what you think you know is actually correct. And when you pass on that knowledge to someone else, looking at the source helps the affirm that what you claim to be true is actually true.

For example, if I told you that I just transferred a million dollars to your (I'm talking to you, dear reader) bank account, then you might not believe me right away. After all, I don't know you, I presumably have no way of knowing your bank account number, and I have no reason to gift you a million dollars. But if I continue to insist that I've given you a million dollars, you might be compelled to go look at your bank account. Your bank account is the source of truth for the purposes of your personal finances, so when you check it to see whether I've deposited any money for you, you're going to the source (and finding nothing but disappointment).

In real life, you develop trust relationships to help you constrain how often you feel compelled to check the sources of information you receive, and you also make choices based on your own priorities about whether you care to check the source. You trusted your parent or guardian implicitly for at least some part of your childhood, so everything they told you was perceived as not just the truth but also the source of that truth.

If you believed in Santa Claus as a child, you probably believed because your parent or guardian told you Santa Claus existed. As an adult though, you've learned to be discerning about what people tell you. It takes time and repetition for anybody in your life to reach the trust level of unquestioning acceptance. When your partner tells you something, you probably accept most of it (but not everything) as true because you trust your partner. On the other hand, when your boss at work tells you something about work, you might accept it as true because you're not getting paid to investigate whether the company's assumptions or assertions are correct or not (unless you are, in which cas you probably do question it as part of your appointed duties).

As an adult, you understand that you can discover the truth about something that actually matters to you by going as far back to the source of the statement as possible. When someone tells you that a new herbal extract has hundreds of health benefits, you know you can either accept it or you can hunt down repeatable and reliable studies proving or disproving the claims. It's not always easy to find the source, and that's life. You make choices about what matters, you investigate the important stuff, you accept other things on faith. As long as you understand the difference, you're pretty well prepared to deal with whatever reality turns out to be.

That's what Cold Passage, the third story in the Stardrifter series by David Collins-Rivera, is about.

Cold passage

First, a quick run-down of the story, no spoilers. Ejoq is brought out of cryo sleep on a space ferry because he's a gunnery specialist. He's told by the ship's captain that the ship's gunner isn't available, and they need Ejoq to shoot at some oncoming vessels to scare them away. Ejoq promptly tethers his local network to the ship's systems to do what needs to be done. That's the story.

The question is, what exactly needs to be done? The captain seems to want to blow the ships to pieces, but Ejoq is a pragmatist with a normal human conscience. He thinks a few warning shots are sufficient. So who's right? Does Ejoq accept what the captain tells him about the oncoming vessels, or does Ejoq look for the source?

There's just one line in the story, and it feels like a throw-away line, but it sums up everything about hacker culture and of skepitcism. Ejoq says: "The captain said to stick to the gunnery systems, and he wouldn't have said that unless it was possible to not do so, so I checked the rest of the system." In just one critical moment, Ejoq decided to not accept the simplified worldview the captain described to him and instead picked up on the reverse logic of a warning the captain had issued him when connecting to the ship's system. He exploited the knowledge he gained from the inverse logic, investigated the claims being made by the captain, and ended up being true to his conscience.

That's hacking, perfectly and precisely explained in a short story about space pirates.

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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