Category Archives: Fiction

Programmer at Large: How do you do?

(This is the latest chapter in my serial novel, Programmer at Large. You can read previous chapters most easily at the Archive of Our Own mirror).

The gym has a number of main rooms branching off a central corridor for the different exercise areas – resistance machines, a pool, a couple sports rooms for various games, etc.

I normally prefer to just swim, with a little bit of resistance for strength, but the big thing that everyone has to do, and almost nobody likes, are the rings – two counter-rotating sections we can spin up or down to get almost any level of fake gravity we desire.

Sure, Crew don’t need gravity to be healthy – even most grounders don’t these days – but it definitely helps, and it’s essential if you ever want to make it to the surface of a planet – so all exercise regimes mandate a certain amount of time in gravity no matter how much we hate it.

When I arrived they had already been set for 15 meters per second squared, which is on the high side – records suggested our destination planet was only 12, and I normally exercise at 9, but the analysis said that was perfectly safe for me and probably even beneficial, and I didn’t care enough to put in a bid to change it.

I strapped in to an available chair and transited to the ring, grunting slightly under the acceleration. It’s not that I can’t handle this level of gravity, it’s just that gravity always comes as a shock when you first enter it.

Still, nothing for it. I got up and started to warm up for some more serious exercise, and after a few hundred seconds it was time to get started properly. I broke into a run.

About a third of the way around the ring I saw someone doing callisthenics by the side of the track. I waved to them in greeting but didn’t stop running.

The ship’s computer is not an AI. You can tell this from subtle signs like the erratic conversational interface, the way it sometimes fails to make simple inferences when you ask it questions, and the lack of crew with cutting torches swarming all over the ship looking for where it keeps it core.

I mention this because although it’s obviously good that the ship is not an AI, it causes a number of problems. In particular it’s much less satisfying to call it an underhanded waste of space grounder when it pulls something like this.

The other person on the track was Kimiko, the one who had filed the bug report that I was working on. I’d expressed a vague interest in socialising with them when I thought they were safely asleep for the foreseeable future, and the ship decided to throw us together.

While also getting in my mandatory exercise. I’m sure some algorithm thought that this was very efficient.

It’s a bit rude to ignore someone while you’re at the gym. Not unconscionably so, but slightly churlish. Obviously we’re not going to socialise while we’re actually exercising, but the expectation is that rest breaks between exercises are a time to socialise. Given that Kimiko is someone it would be good for me to talk to on top of that, I probably couldn’t get away with avoiding them.

On the plus side, that was good incentive to keep running, so I made it a full five circuits of the ring (nearly 8k!) in a bit under 2 ksec. Not a personal best by any stretch, but I also don’t usually run in this stupid high gravity.

Kimiko was also taking a rest when I finally stopped, so I flopped down next to them.

They were… a bit funny looking. There’s a pretty wide range of body plans among the Crew, but there’s a certain Crew look that you get used to and they didn’t have much of it. They were on the tall side – about 1.63m – with weirdly pale skin and some sort of… I guess it must be hair on their face.

We sat in what I assured myself was entirely non-awkward companionable silence for a few tens of seconds while I caught my breath, but I eventually I’d recovered enough and broke the silence.

“I thought you were asleep.”

They gave me a quizzical look.

“Uh, OK?”

“Sorry. That didn’t come out right at all. Let me start again. I’m working on a bug you reported – the one with the weird sound in the walls – so I’d checked if you were awake to ask about it and you weren’t, so I was surprised when I saw you here.”

“Oh! Right! Thanks for looking at that. I wasn’t sure if anyone would bother, but you know what they say – an unreported bug is always critical.”

I nodded. A much better attitude than certain dead crew members I could mention.

“Well, nobody over in plumbing proper is going to look at it I expect but I mostly get to work on whatever I like, and i like tracking down weird ghosts in the machine and am good at plumbing, so here I am.”

“So what did you want to ask me?”

I waved a hand to cut off that line of conversation.

“I’ll have to do that later, sorry. I’m not allowed to work right now.”

“Ah, mandatory downtime. Sorry, I should have noticed.”

“No problem.”

Naturally enforced downtime is part of your primary information. It’s important for other people to be able to see you’re being naughty and overworking. Sometimes I hate all this nosy software.

“Anyway, to answer your question, I was asleep, but they woke me to deal with this yeast contamination problem. I was one of the primary engineers when we brought in this strain. They’ve been having a bunch of problems with it, and wanted some help getting to the bottom of it. It’d be a shame to ditch it – it’s nearly 1% more efficient than the strain it replaces! – but if it’s going to keep doing this…”

“Right. Makes sense. So how’s it going?”

“Beats me. I’ve only been properly awake for about 10 ksec. I’ll get to work after I’ve recovered from the gym and had a short nap. We’re replacing it with a more stable strain for the next batch from that vat, so there’s no rush.”

I nodded. I’d be keen to get started, personally, but this sort of relaxed attitude was much more sensible for interstellar work – there would be plenty of urgent things when we got in system, and there might be before then, but if there wasn’t any actual urgency then why stress yourself by creating a false one?

We lapsed into silence again. Eventually I broke it.

“So, um. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s with the…?”

I gestured vaguely around my face.

“What? The beard? I had it grown in a planet side mission a while back, and I decided I liked it, so I kept it.”

“OK but why?”

“I dunno. It just… felt right.”

“No, sorry, I mean why did you need to grow it for a mission?”

“Oh, huh. You mean you’ve never even encountered beards?”

“Not really. I mean I guess I might have seen them before in pictures, but I don’t have the concept.”

“So you haven’t watched Lesbian Space Pirates?”

“A bit? I’m not very into it.”

“But Lesbian Space Pirates is hilarious!”

I shrugged helplessly. I’ve yet to find a non-awkward way to explain that misunderstandings of your culture are only funny if you actually fit comfortably into that culture in the first place.

They took a deep breath.

“OK. Have you heard about gender?”

Next chapter: How did people come up with this?

If you liked this and want to read more like it, support my writing on Patreon! Patreon supporters get access to early drafts of upcoming chapters. This chapter is also mirrored at archive of our own. Also, entirely unrelated, but I have a book out now! It has absolutely nothing to do with programmers or space ships and very little to do with gender, but is instead about voting systems.

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Programmer at Large: Are you serious?

Note: The previous chapter had a rather critical misplaced decimal point. Ship launch was 9.7 gigaseconds ago (about 300 years), not 0.97 gigaseconds ago (about 30 years).

Once the initial problem had been tracked down and verified as trivial I had to time to think about it some more.

Which is when I started to get angry.

There’s a lesson we all learn at early age: What do you do when you find something that’s wrong? You make sure it gets fixed. Then, once it is fixed, you make sure the thing that allowed it to previously go unnoticed also gets fixed.

I couldn’t entirely blame Tulela. Launching a ship is a gruelling and unforgiving task, adapting the trade operating system for a new set of hardware and trying to get everything stabilised enough for thousands of people to live in for hundreds of gigaseconds. I hope I’m dead long before the Eschaton Arbitrage forks, because I do not want to have to be a part of that.

But it was still gross negligence, and we were very lucky this hadn’t lead to a more serious problem.

“The relevant systems all seem to be working fine”. Are you serious? Who even does that? Do you know what happens when plumbing crashes on an interstellar voyage? Drainage backs up, heat regulation destabilises, cooling systems fail, and if the problem cascades then the cryostasis systems hard abort and anyone who is too deeply asleep undergoes an emergency thaw and if they’re really lucky they get away from it with little more than minor brain damage.

When you leave problems to go unfixed until they become serious people die.

Of course that doesn’t happen often. It’s happened twice in the recorded history of our lineage, one time after heavy battle damage. But do you know why it doesn’t happen often? It’s because the plumbing system has hundreds of interlocking and mutually supporting checks and balances that actively work to keep the system in a stable state. And those keep working and making sure that nobody gets brain damage because when you find problems you make sure they get fixed.

My HUD was making increasingly insistent notifications that my heart rate up was up and my stress levels were elevated. It recommended that I stop what I was doing and meditate for a kilosecond until I calmed down. I dismissed it and settled for a few calming breaths.

I knew I was being a bit unfair. Zombies are among the most harmless of problems, and every system is full of its weird little eccentricities. Ship launch is where you look hard at those eccentricities, but it can’t be the place where you fix all of them or you’d still be trying to get that ship launched when the local civilisation finally went the way of all grounders and nuked itself back into the stone age.

But but but argh.

I stopped, took a few more calming breaths and resolved to just fix things instead of getting angry about them.

So, there was a problem. I had fixed the problem. Step one was complete.

Which meant it was time to fix the thing that let the problem to escape detection.

“Ide, what fraction of process categories have not received any human attention since, say, 10 megaseconds after ship launch?”

“About 63%”

“Well, waste that idea.”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind”.

I shouldn’t really have been surprised. There is a lot of software running aboard a ship, most of which has been heavily debugged over a period of hundreds of gigaseconds. Most of it should just work, and if it’s working you probably won’t notice it given how much there is of it.

“Of those, how many were last touched by Tulela?”


“What? How is that possible?”

“Tulela was not born until after the time period in question”

I sighed.

“Of those, how many were last touched by nod-sid 1?”

“A hundred and three”

“OK. Put those on the medium priority review queue with a note that nod-sid 1 may have been an unreliable maintainer.”

One of the nice things about dead crew is that you don’t have to mince words – something that would have been a political bombshell with a live crew member was just a simple administrative note.

Now to the rest of it.

“Ide, how many processes use this buffer style of logging?”

“I don’t know how to answer that.”

I hadn’t really expected that to work. If it had worked then the answer should have been zero. But you’ve got to try these things – it’s almost impossible to know the capabilities of the ship systems until you’ve tested them experimentally.

Or unless you’d written those capabilities yourself. It was time to get to work.

And emerged seven kiloseconds later with my work alarm going off. My wake time utilization for the last megasecond had hit 25%. No more work allowed for me until it dropped back down.

Which was annoying. I like work. It’s interesting, fun, and I’m good at it. Recreation is hard in comparison.

But the sociology was clear: All work and no play makes the Eschaton Arbitrage a dysfunctional crew, regardless of individual preferences.

I quickly reviewed what I’d done and made notes for when I resumed later.

The logging problem had been relatively easy to solve: You watch for processes which crash when they’d tried to write past the end of some on-disk buffer and capture the trace of what they were doing when they crashed. You run the trace through a bunch of clever translation heuristics that I’m very happy I didn’t have to write myself, and if a word meaning ‘log’ appears in the crash site you stick the process on a review queue marked “Possible Archaic Logging Practices”.

The statsd thing was harder. You can’t just look for processes trying to create connections they’re not allowed to because you’d be swamped. Of course processes are trying to create connections they’re not allowed to. That’s why we have a permissions system. If you’re running this much software from this many origins then a lot of is has weird assumptions about what it’s allowed to do, or even is actively malicious.

In the end I’d ended up trying to write some additional heuristics for one of the existing zombie hunters. It should have caught this process already but it didn’t because its access to the thermal monitoring hardware meant that it looked useful. So I tried to get it to figure out when some hardware access was read only and if a process only had read-only hardware access it would see if anything useful was escaping it and, if not, flag it for zombie review with a helpful explanation.

I wasn’t very convinced it was going to work, but that was a problem for next time. I shut down my workspace.

Too early to sleep, so I queried the ship to ask it to recommend something for me. I was sure it was going to suggest some socialisation. Instead, to my delight, it reminded me that as well as being overworked I was also behind on my exercise. Flywheel 3 was currently configured for high gravity exercise, which was recommended under my current regime, so it suggested making use of it while the opportunity was available.

I was all too happy to comply.

I exited the pod and made my way to the gym.

The halls were quiet, which I always like. Not for social reasons for once, but because it meant I could go fast. There’s something really satisfying about kicking off the wall and shooting down a couple hundred meters of corridor. I rarely get the aim exactly right, but you can correct by pushing off the sides or grabbing onto one of the various handholds as you pass.

It’s childish, but fun, and the ship will tell you if anyone is nearby so there’s no real danger.

The gym is near the base of the ship with all the other heavy equipment, so it took me about a kilosecond to make my way there.

The entrance area is pretty wide, so as to give you space for multiple people to change. It was completely empty when I arrived – not surprising given we were on mid-voyage levels of crew – but there are hooks around the walls for nearly 20 people to attach while they change, and you could fit another 20 waiting hanging off the central shaft if they cuddled up.

But for now, it was just for me.

I grabbed onto one of the wall hooks, stripped down, and took some shorts and a sports bra out of the locker to change into. Normal clothing went into the refresher, kit went on, and it was time to hit the gym.

Next chapter: How do you do?

If you liked this and want to read more like it, support my writing on Patreon! Patreon supporters get access to early drafts of upcoming chapters. This chapter is also mirrored at archive of our own.

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Programmer at Large: What’s that noise?

After Sam and I had chatted for a while I returned to a pod to resume work. I settled in and brought up my work space and began to review where I was.

My particular troubles of the moment had all started with a bug report:

Reported-By: jad-nic [上子/Kamiko]
Title: What's that noise??
Bounty: 400 millivote.
Body: Every now and then there's a weird noise coming from behind the interior wall
in Pod 11. It's a sort of WHOOSH followed by a flushing noise and a gurgle. I've heard
it three times now, about a megasecond apart each time [timestamps attached].

It's not a big deal but I keep worrying about it. Could someone check it out and
figure out what it is? Fix it if it's easy or important, but I really just want to
know what's going on.

The bounty wasn’t huge, but it was a pretty decent amount. It was nice to encounter people who actually cared about plumbing.

While reviewing I made a note that I should say hi when we were both awake at the same time. It would get ship off my back a bit, and they worked in hydroponics so we’d have plenty of things I was actually good at to talk about.

Anyway, nobody from the official plumbing team was ever going to look at this – the ship is full of strange noises, and they’ve got much higher priority things to worry about. I don’t know offhand what but it’s basically guaranteed that if you work in plumbing you have high priority things to worry about.

But it sounded interesting (to me) and weird, which makes it exactly the sort of problem I get to work on. I love being a programmer at large, and not just because I have to talk to fewer people this way.

So before I last went to sleep I’d set up some monitoring on the microphones in the wall near the pod to listen for the noise then sample and bucket all the semi-relevant data before and after it. After a fifty megasecond nap I woke up to sift through what it had gathered.

During this time about 70 gigaprocesses in the plumbing system had crashed. A bit on the high side, but well within normal variation.

I’d picked the most plausible candidate – a process category with about ten thousand members, all of which crashed shortly before the noise and which normally didn’t crash in quite such a correlated way – and was now digging in to why it was failing.

Which was easy enough: It was appending data to some buffer on its local disk. The buffer was capped at quite a reasonable size – 512MiB – but the process just tried to grow the buffer past that and crashed when it couldn’t rather than doing anything sensible. Nothing very surprising so far, and the system handled it automatically by restarting the process from a fresh state with an empty buffer, at which point the whole cycle began again.

Unfortunately that left me none the wiser about what this process did, which is why I was now having to learn enough C++ to figure that out.

Subject: C++
Category: Programming language, text based.
Lineage: Pre-diaspora, began as a dialect of C in 1983.
Common Tags: Archaic, Esoteric, Low Complexity, Annoying.
Normalised Rating: Best not if you can avoid it.

The wiki entry on it was less than encouraging. Hopefully I wasn’t going to have to learn very much of it.

The relevant line where the process crashed was the following:

client->sock = socket(AF_INET, SOCK_DGRAM, IPPROTO_UDP);
if(-1 == client->sock) {
    LOG_ERROR << "failed to connect to StatsD";

“Wiki, what’s statsd?”

“Historical records suggest that it was a centralised service for metrics aggregation popular in pre-diaspora software. The term subsequently became generic and many cultures use it or a derived word for the general concept.”

OK. So we have two questions now:

Firstly, why can’t it connect to statsd?

Secondly, what does logging an error have to do with appending to a buffer on disk?

Let’s focus on the proximate cause for now and start with the second.

“Ide, show me what this line with LOG_ERROR on it does.”

It expanded the results of the call. Ah. It wasn’t really a log at all.

“Ide, translation note: LOG_ERROR in this context may actually mean that it appends error data to a disk buffer and may not result in any logging occurring.”


“Wiki, what’s a file?”

“In the traditional software practices of pre-diaspora cultures, it was common to arrange a system’s data in a single named hierarchy of disk buffers. The term ‘file’ was used interchangeably for names in this hierarchy and the buffers themselves.”

“What? Why did they organise data that way? Didn’t it get confusing?”

“Historical consensus is that it probably seemed like a good idea at the time and that yes it did.”

“OK. So why is this logging call adding data to a file?”

“Many traditional software practices consider this to be how logging is performed. When problems occurred a human would inspect the contents manually to determine what had happened.”

“Did that work?”


“Ugh. Is there a policy on what we do about this sort of archaic logging?”

“Either a separate process converts the buffer into log events periodically or we intercept the calls to write to the buffer and log them directly instead of writing them. Recent consensus is that the latter is preferable.”

The buffer was getting written to, so if we were doing anything about it at all then it had to be the first one.

“OK. Ide, do we have any other processes inspecting this buffer?”

“No, the buffer only grants access rights to the current process.”

I was starting to suspect I was fighting a zombie – a process that had no useful purpose any more but was still shambling around getting in people’s way and occasionally eating their brains.

“Ide, when was the last time someone looked at this process?”

“About 9.7 gigaseconds ago”

9.7 gigaseconds ago… oh no.

“You mean ship launch?

“No, about 5 megaseconds before ship launch.”

“Show me any annotation they left.”

From: nod-sid 1 [Tulela]
Subject: What is this?
Body: I don't know what this is doing. It looks like a zombie? Whatever,
the relevant systems all seem to be working fine and there's like a billion
things still to do for launch. Add figuring this out to the backlog.

Did you just tell me to go waste myself, Tulela? I believe I did, Arthur.

“OK, give me a snapshot of the buffer contents at point of crash.”

As I’d been starting to suspect, the contents looked like the following:

failed to connect to StatsD
failed to connect to StatsD

fail indeed.

“Ide, can you automatically convert this code to do actual logging?”


“OK, do so.”


I sighed. OK, back to the first question. Why can’t it connect to statsd?”

A socket was apparently another word for a network connection. So it was trying to create an outgoing network connection. The most likely explanation was obvious.

“Ide, does this process have rights to create network connections?”



“Ide, show me what’s left if you remove all code that has no effect other than writing to a private disk buffer or can’t run without the process creating a network connection.”

#include <iostream>

int main(){
    std::cout << "Starting up event monitoring system!" << std::endl;
    return 0;

Right. Good. It was definitely a zombie and I was going to get to shoot it in the head. That was always satisfying.

So that left just one question: Why was this zombie self-destructing right before the actual event I was interested in?

“Ide, show me the most unusual function on the call stack at point of crash.”

void logAnomalousTemperatureEvent(double t_delta, double time_delta){

So the process crashing was never a cause of the problem at all. It was a symptom.

“Is there a corresponding set of interesting temperature events in our log roughly at the same time as these calls?”


OK. So, in conclusion I had learned two things:

The first was that this was definitely a zombie and was not giving us a useful signal we didn’t otherwise have here, but at least I could kill it.

The second was that this whole thing was otherwise a complete waste of time.

From: vic-taf [Arthur]
Subject: Zombie monitoring service in the plumbing system
Priority: Low
Proposed action: Staged shutdown of service '077a58e24e34b6543da8100c8541a8dd'
Body: This service doesn't do anything and and as far as I can tell has
never done anything except create noise. Development log attached as evidence.

Next chapter: Are you serious?

This chapter is also mirrored at Archive of Our Own. If you liked this and want to read more like it, support my writing on Patreon! Patreon supporters get access to early drafts of upcoming chapters. Although honesty compels me to admit that right at this minute there are no drafts of upcoming chapters available. I’ll probably write more this weekend)

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Programmer at Large: What’s your name?

(Previously. Also, this chapter is mirrored at AO3)

I kicked off down the corridor, caught myself at the entrance and hooked my way into the common area, pausing briefly on the central cable near the entrance to have a look around.

Near me some programmers at arms were having an animated conversation – something about Nash equilibria – while further down there was a larger group hanging off each other in an amiably silent cluster. On the other side of the shaft from them,  two pairs were deep in conversation. I recognised most of the faces, but nobody I was that close to.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to interact with any of them just yet. I was here for a meal, which gave me a solid excuse: I like to eat alone. It’s a registered eccentricity. Sure, it makes people think I’m weird, but having it registered means they don’t think I’m being anti-social.

I pulled my way along the cable to the end of the room, grabbed a pouch from the dispenser,  and bounced back to hook myself on about halfway down – not far enough from people to seem standoffish, not close enough that I might have had to interact with them.

Yes, I know I have a problem. I’m working on it, OK?

The meal had a bit of an odd flavour. The yeast was… well not exactly bad, but there was a musty flavour to it that definitely wasn’t good. I made a note about it and my HUD informed me there was a vote on the subject.

Apparently there had been a harmless contamination of this batch. The vote was whether to dump it and cycle in a new one, or just eat our way through it until it was finished.

I spent some time looking through the predictive models – it wouldn’t really strain us. The reduced resources would mean we’d probably have a couple people go to sleep until they were back up to standard, but we’ve got about 400 megaseconds to destination so there’s plenty of time to go around.

So, why not? We might as well ditch it. I expressed my intended vote and preference strength, my tactical assistant suggested a figure, and I approved it. Done.

As was my meal. Which, sadly, meant that I was going to have to talk to people. I called up the matchmaker and started to ask for suggestions but, thank the Plan, I was saved from having to deal with it by … ugh, let’s go with “Zod-Bim”, sailing in through the doorway.

I sighed slightly and waved at them anyway.

Their response was more enthusiastic. They grinned broadly and practically launched themselves across the room at me. They arrested their momentum by grabbing onto my shirt, hooked in next to me, and then cuddled up close. We cheek-kissed hello.

My HUD made an approving notification at the social contact.

“Arthur! It’s good to see you! It’s been megaseconds!”

(HUD flashed the correction that it had in fact been four hundred kiloseconds. We both ignored it).

“Good to see you too, Zod-Bim”

“Zod-Bim? I have a registered use-name you know.”

“I am not going to call you Ghost Walker 5000.”

“Oh come on. How would you like it if I called you Vic-Taf? I thought we were friends!”

“Arthur is an entirely respectable use name. Ghost Walker 5000 is a terrible cartoon character from an inappropriately antisocial grounder culture.”

“Ghost Walker 5000 is a timeless classic with a lot to teach us!”

I sighed dramatically and buried my head in their shoulder.

“Ghost Walker 5000 is a shallow drama about a hapless individualist who bounces from problem to problem, flails around for a few kiloseconds and then ultimately solves things with violence.”

I solve things with violence.”

“You solve things with tactics. Ghost Walker 5000 hits people with their fists.”

“I hit people with my fists too!”

“Krav Maga practice isn’t the same!”

Zod-Bim sighed dramatically.

“Fine, be like that. You can have a boring person use name for me. Go ahead, pick one. I don’t care.”

That was not an answer I was expecting. Even with the casual attitude Zod-Bim has on the subject, picking someone else’s use name is a big deal.  I hadn’t thought we were that close friends. I didn’t even know where to start, so I asked the system to suggest a couple names and had a quick look over them to get some ideas.

“I’m waiting…”

“Wait you want it now?

“Well you can’t very well keep calling me Zod-Bim until you’ve picked the perfect name, can you?”

“Ugh. Fine.”

I asked for a couple good suggestions with an affinity to my use name – if I didn’t have time to do it properly I was at least going to make it a bit personal – and picked the third one because I thought it would amuse them.

“How about Sam?”

“Wait, I can be Sam?”

I checked with wiki.

“System thinks so. You couldn’t be sam-sam, but with just one byte there’s no ambiguity.”

“Amazing! I’m Sam now!”

My HUD flashed up a notification that Zod-Bim had added a new use name, along with congratulations on the positive social interaction and a cautionary note about the dangers of pairing. I dismissed it.

“So, Sam, what have you been up to?”

“Oh I have had the worst time of it recently. That lot over there” – they waved to the group near the door – “have been hogging all the war simulator time, so I’m mostly just teaching Krav Maga classes at the moment.”

“Why is that bad? Didn’t you just say you liked hitting people?”

“Yes but these students are terrible. It’s like they learned to fight by watching Lesbian Space Pirates.”

“Didn’t you learn to fight by watching Lesbian Space Pirates?”

“Hey! That’s slander!”

I seized up. They were right, it was totally untrue, and now they were going to hate me and I was going to get voted off the ship at the next destination and-

“You’re right, I’m sorry, I, uh, I’ll go I”

I started to pull away towards the door but Sam grabbed me. At about the same time I finally noticed my HUD was flashing a giant “THAT WAS A JOKE STOP PANICKING THEY AREN’T OFFENDED” symbol in my face.

“Waste it, Arthur, I’m sorry. That was stupid.”

I tried to brush it off, but allowed myself to be pulled back into their embrace.

“No, no, it’s fine. I should have realised that was a joke. I’m the one being stupid.”

I breathed deeply, trying to will my heart rate back down below two beats per second and repeatedly telling myself it was fine, just a false alarm, and trying to relax.

“You’re right. You are being stupid.”

I froze again.


“I didn’t learn to fight from watching Lesbian Space Pirates. I learned from bod-qof 11, one of the greatest Krav Maga experts in the crew’s history!”

And relaxed again. I could tell I was being deliberately distracted of course, but I went along with it. They meant well, and if they were trying to help me I probably really hadn’t bothered them and they weren’t going to hate me.

“OK, fine. You didn’t learn to fight from a grounder TV show. I was wrong. I get it.”

They learned to fight from watching Lesbian Space Pirates.”


“Oh, sure, they had a bit of help from the existing self-defence classes and a few millenia worth of VR martial arts training programs… But they started with Lesbian Space Pirates.”

Voice stress analysis on HUD didn’t give any indicators that they were joking.

“You are joking, right?”

“No! You mean you don’t know about the grand martial history of the Eschaton Arbitrage and how it was all started by the Lesbian Space Pirates?”

“I, uh. Let’s assume that I don’t.”

“Right, that’s it. You’re coming to the next movie night, and we’re showing you the documentary.”

I tensed a bit and they backpedalled slightly.

“Uh, if that’s OK of course.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I’d like that.”

Movie nights aren’t too bad. They count as a group social activity but I mostly don’t have to talk to anyone. The system knows about the loophole of course but as long as I don’t use it too often it’s fine with it.

“Right, good. It’s decided.”

A calendar invite flashed up and I accepted it.

“Anyway, let me tell you about what these useless trainees did…”

Next chapter, “What’s that noise?”

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Programmer at Large: What is this?

Version 9, 21 January 2089

Copyright (C) 2089 Free Software Foundation, Inc. <>
Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies
of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

I stared at the words on my HUD. It wasn’t the point. I knew it wasn’t the point. But still… I had to ask.

“Wiki, what is this?”

“It’s the software license that the code is provided under. The GNU General Public License, or GPL, was a series of licenses widely used in pre-diaspora civilisations on Earth.”

“Elaborate. What’s a software license?”

“In large contiguous civilisations with strong contract law it is common that rather than selling software you sell licenses, which grant the buyer the rights to use the software in a particular way.”

“I don’t understand. Why would you ever buy that instead of the software?”

“Typically the software is not made available for purchase.”


“Because the sellers feel that that would limit their ability to sell licenses – the purchasers could simply turn around and undercut them.”

“No but why were they able to do that at all? Why didn’t they immediately get out-competed by people who were selling software?”

“I don’t have a short answer to that question. There is currently a 650 millivote bounty on this question, and I can provide you with several detailed ethnographic studies on the subject if you wish to attempt one?”

“No, never mind”

“OK. Would you like to leave a bounty?”

“Sure. Add, say, 5 millivotes to the bounty.”


“What does the license require?”

“It requires that if you provide the software to anyone then you must provide the source code.”

“Sorry, what?”

“I don’t understand. What are you confused by?”

“How were people providing the software without providing the source code? Isn’t the software the same as the source code?”

“At the time that this license was popular it was common that the version of the software that would be provided with a license was in a purely binary form that allowed the software to be executed but not easily modified.”

“You mean they were just providing people with build artifacts?

“That’s correct.”

My skin crawled. You can’t crew an interstellar trader without some exposure to local cultures, and the nature of software archaeology is that you often have to understand the historical context in which things were written, but it’s rare to run into such direct evidence of outright perversion.

“Do people still do that?”

“Approximately 30% of planetary civilizations we visit engage in this practice, but it is commonly understood that it does not make sense for interstellar trade so we rarely encounter the practice directly.”


The wiki is silent. It’s programmed not to respond to simple exclamations like that.

“Are we compliant with the terms of the license?”

“As far as we can be. Many of the terms of the license refer to concepts that no longer exist or apply to us, and the rest are automatically satisfied by modern software practices. It is generally felt that the creators of the license would be very happy with how we use the software.”

“But we wouldn’t be compliant if we deleted the license header?”

“That is correct.”

“Would it matter if we did it anyway?”

“No entity who could enforce the license still exists. However, the last experiment at removing it globally caused 4,197 build steps to fail, and a 11253CE vote in our inherited constitution declared them to be important cultural heritage which should be preserved.”

“OK, fine, but what if-“

At this point my distraction alarm pinged. I’d passed some threshold of deviance from my intended task and it was making sure I was aware of that.

I could override it – this was a lot more interesting than the mess I was supposed to be looking in to, and I didn’t really feel like spending the time it would take to learn whatever ancient grounder language this C++ was right now – but it was right, I was way off track.

Which probably meant my mind was wandering and it was time to take a break. I waved my HUD into casual mode and exited my pod to head for the common area.

Next Chapter, “What’s your name?”.

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