This is How The Revolution Begins
By Aaron Emmel
IGAP, the starship’s AI, monitors me while I brush my teeth. It tells me that Jon, a friend and fellow officer, is in the shower. It times me while I eat breakfast. It announces my tasks for the day. When I take too long to leave the officers’ quarters, a beeping starts to follow me from every alarm node I pass. It grows louder and more insistent until I enter the passageway down to the command center.
I’m surrounded by ribs of metal, a cage straining against the void that surrounds us. I breathe in the scents of antiseptics and other volatile organic compounds, the occasional whiff of ozone.
The Pilgrim, our colony ship, is 80 years into its 125-year voyage, three non-consecutive years of which my 34 fellow officers and I have actually experienced. The 100-plus paying passengers have been in cryogenic stasis since launch. The indentured crew, the original crew and the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who survived them and are fulfilling their contracts, have been awake for all of them.
“Caleb Greene: Today, you will review the ship’s stores for deviations from the Plan,” IGAP tells me.
I walk down the ramp toward the command center. Today, I destroy IGAP.
I’m on the ship because I needed a job, and I thought Kendra Salvador could give me one.
She’s long dead by now. She would have passed sometime while I slept in cryostasis as the Pilgrim hurtled between stars at nearly 10 percent the speed of light. I met her about a month after I dropped out of MIT. One of her assistants contacted me out of the blue, and although he said he didn’t know exactly why she wanted to meet me, when I looked her up I saw that she’d founded and owned a successful manufacturer of 2-D transistors. Their Careers page indicated they were looking for programmers. I borrowed a friend’s suit and took a rideshare over.
Her house in Potomac was the size you get when you no longer have to make tradeoffs and can just opt for everything. I presume. Someone—a butler? another assistant?—led me past well-appointed rooms and two spacious atriums. Kendra was in a study at a mahogany desk that looked like it cost more than the ancient car I’d sold the previous year.
She swiveled to face me. It was late afternoon, and she was dressed for some type of elite event I had no context for imagining in a long gown that shimmered around her like an autonomously rearranging liquid. “I know you.”
I didn’t think we’d ever met, but I didn’t want to correct her. I glanced toward the butler/assistant, but he was gone. Kendra gestured, and I sat on the chaise lounge.
“Don’t let this house fool you,” she said. “I am hungry, like you are. I want to change things, like you do.” She rose, her dress spilling down around her but never falling.
“You’ve always been an outsider. I’ve also been the smartest kid in a small town, the only Black girl. I’ve been blocked from the things I was supposed to do. You’ve had to spend your entire life reading the room. That’s the reason people like you and I can fit in anywhere.”
“I think I am good with people. I’m also experienced with all the leading AI programming languages and compilers.”
“Have you heard of the Pilgrim?”
The question caught me off-guard. “The colony ship? To Gliese 273b. One of my sister’s friends signed up.”
“I want you on it.”
I stared at her. “I don’t have any money. My sister’s friend signed on as an indentured servant. I’m not going to do that.”
“Not as an indentured servant. An officer.”
This was not at all what I had been expecting. I shifted my feet. Was this the job offer? “How?”
She crossed the room and placed her hand on my arm. Her nails gleamed, her skin was darker than mine. “My firm supplied microprocessors and now we’re working with the Pilgrim’s Designer on the drivers. I can make an introduction.”
I shook my head. “Even if I wanted to go, I can’t. I have—there are things I need to do.”
She removed her hand. “I know about your scholarship. I know you gave it up to care for your dad. But he needs a professional. I can hire a live-in aid.”
I held my breath and let it out slowly. “Why?”
“I’ll pay off your loans, introduce you to the Designer—that’s what he likes to be called.”
“You’re not—” I smoothed my borrowed trousers, sat up straighter. “I wouldn’t be working for you?”
“No.” She remained standing, looking down at me. “The Designer has developed a program that controls every aspect of life on the ship. The Intelligent Governance Active Protocol. When it arrives at its destination, it will help to guide the new colony. I want you to sabotage it. Corrupt it so it can’t be fixed.”
She didn’t know me. I was a college dropout. I had my dad to take care of. I’d never been connected to a space program. “Why me?”
“I’ve been searching for the right person. You’re smart. You’re a brilliant programmer. But you had to give up a ticket to their life. You could be on their side, but instead you’re on ours.”
“I’m not on anyone’s side.”
“What’s the name of your sister’s friend?”
“She’ll die on that ship. If she has children, they’ll die on it too. But their children, and their grandchildren, will labor in the new colony. They’ll labor for the paying passengers, until they pay off the debt of more than a century of travel. Simply because some of the passengers could pay for their own cryo-pods, and their great-grandmother couldn’t.”
My fingers pressed against the upholstery of the chaise lounge. Polished leather, crimson. “I’m sorry. I’m not who you think I am.” I stood up.
Kendra pursed her lips. I thought she was going to argue, but instead she led me back through the house. I hesitated at the front door. “Even if I wanted to sabotage the program. It wouldn’t work.”
“The paying passengers will be put in cryogenic sleep while the indentured maintain the ship, directed by IGAP. The officers will have pods of their own, but they’ll wake periodically to supervise and troubleshoot. An officer could access IGAP from the command center or the bridge, and I could destroy the backup here on Earth.”
I glanced down the long driveway. I hadn’t even called a rideshare yet. I’d do it while I walked. “Why are you doing this?”
“I can handle any pain, wait through any injustice, as long as I know it will end. But what he’s starting will outlast us all.” She looked at me. “The Designer planned a new world. It can be anything, and he wants to force it to be just like this one.”
I pass Jon in the passageway, giving instructions to an indentured. We’re on the same sleep/wake cycle, two weeks out of the pods for every Earth year of travel. We’re both scheduled for the command center today, so If I’m going to act, this is my chance, while he’s occupied.
I’ve always had reasons to put off attacking IGAP. I had to give Kendra enough time to destroy the backups; I had to make sure I understood the program’s architecture; I had to avoid getting caught by the other officers. Now, I’m worried I’m running out of time. I think of the one night I spent with the Designer back on Earth, the leashes he used to train his dogs. The indentured need time to learn how to behave without IGAP’s rules, or when we land and the paying passengers step out of their pods, they’ll still be second-class citizens.
Rena’s granddaughter, the real-life version of one of the descendants Kendra hypothesized, is tightening screws on the biometric sensors outside the command center. She’s nineteen or twenty, and her black hair is a crown around her head. I wave at her as I pass. Her eyes flash up and then back down, and her hands tighten on the screwdriver. Those are the only signs she hears me. She has no idea who I am, other than one of the officers who help IGAP control her life. I appear two weeks out of every year, and from her perspective I never age.
She’s smaller than I am, like all the youngest generation of indentured. Her parents’ generation has certainly passed some of its knowledge down to her, but she’s never had a formal education, because IGAP doesn’t schedule time for school. She moves slowly, as if her limbs are delicate. It’s very likely she thinks more slowly, too.
Food is limited, like all our cargo, and it’s rationed by IGAP. The indentured receive starches and sugars, but the preserved foods and, in lieu of those, fortifications of micronutrients necessary for optimal brain development and cognition, the omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12, the iodine, iron, folic acid and zinc, are reserved for the officers.
IGAP bends them, clips their potentials like bonsai trees, makes them twist to fit the shape it’s made for them, stretching for a light they can never reach.
The Designer wanted to meet all the officer candidates. He greeted me at his door with a Rottweiler at his side. The dog snapped at me.
“Apologies,” the Designer said unapologetically. “For some reason, Eddie always acts up around African Americans.”
We took seats across from each other at opposite ends of a vast living room. Eddie sat at his feet and alternately growled and bared his teeth at me while the Designer slowly pet his head.
The Designer was obviously not interested in me as an individual or a prospective officer, but very interested in me as an audience for stories about his genius and vision. That was the first time I heard Jon’s name mentioned, as a software engineer who had helped him turn IGAP into a reality.
A scale model of the Pilgrim sat on the coffee table between us. The Designer informed me that at 40 centimeters long, it had a 1:625 ratio to the actual craft. Its tubular body housed the cryochambers and the engines, orbited by a spinning ring containing the officers’ cabins and the primary command center. Thrusters were tucked beneath its fuselage and landing craft were harnessed to its sides. A solar sail was unfurled behind it, a broad, thin membrane to catch the light. A craft too fragile, too unwieldy to ever touch the ground or dive into an atmosphere, an engineering marvel that could only exist in the unrestricted frontier beyond our world.
“The Pilgrim made us push the limits of spacecraft design and materials science,” the Designer pontificated, “but it’s IGAP that makes the voyage possible. It ensures resources are balanced and the infrastructure is maintained over a period longer than a human lifetime, all in a closed environment.”
I could see I wasn’t getting the job, so I could be honest. “Do you think it’s unfair? To the indentured?”
He looked puzzled. Clearly, he did not. “I’m making it possible for people to go on this journey—this undertaking that is one of the most resource-intensive private endeavors in human history—whether or not they can afford it or even deserve it. Maybe you didn’t have the talents to succeed on this world. Maybe you made mistakes have kept you on the lower rungs of society. Now you can give your children a new start. A whole new world to try again. I can give that to people.”
“Don’t you think—”
The Designer stood up. “It’s time for Eddie’s walk.”
We were twenty stories up, but we stepped out the back door onto a lawn that was roughly one hundred meters square, bordered on the far side by a line of maples and elms. A youngish white man walked up with a Rottweiler puppy, a smaller version of Eddie, on a leash. The Designer took the leash and the other man left with Eddie.
I was done. “When do you think you’ll make a final decision on the officers?”
The Designer let out the lead and the puppy dashed across the grass. It was black with coffee-colored patches, muscles bunching and relaxing beneath its glossy coat. “Stop,” the Designer commanded. The puppy skidded to a halt like a cartoon dog. “Bullet, come here.” Bullet scrambled around and loped back.
The Designer knelt and scratched Bullet behind the ears. “Good girl.” He unhooked the leash from Bullet’s collar and stood up. The handle was still in his hand. “Go on,” he told Bullet. “Run.” The puppy scampered off in the same direction it had gone before. “Stop,” he called. This time the puppy, realizing she was no longer tethered, kept running. Then abruptly she jerked to a standstill, as if she had hit an invisible wall. The puppy glanced around, then looked back at the Designer quizzically.
“Fishing line,” the Designer explained. He called her back. “It’s easy for a dog to obey when it sees the leash. The hard part is letting it know you’re still in control even when the line is invisible.” He let Bullet run again, and the process repeated itself. The Designer glanced at me. “We already have a crew, and the ship’s ready. We ran through a Flight Readiness Firing yesterday. We’re just triple-testing IGAP. You’re here as a favor to a supplier.”
He sent Bullet off again. “Stop,” he called. This time she was free: no leash, no fishing line. She stopped. “Bullet,” he said, and she trotted back.
I watched the dog. “You can keep testing, but you’ll never test enough. IGAP’s problem is that it’s three different systems that all have to work together. You have a massively parallel system that learns and adapts to new situations you can’t anticipate here on Earth; you have a set of hierarchies to ensure the rules you’ve set for it will continue to be its priorities; and you have middleware that’s meant to provide a seamless user interface for the crew. And once you launch, there’s no turning back. But if your onboard programmers are good enough, they’ll figure it out. It was nice to meet you. Should I just head back the way I came in?”
The Designer turned and looked at me, and for the first time he seemed to actually notice me. That’s how I ended up in space.
Once I start tampering with IGAP’s code, there’s no turning back. The best-case scenario is that my fellow officers will freeze me for the rest of the trip, and I can only hope that I’ll have irreparably disabled the system by then. Otherwise, not just whatever punishment I receive but my entire presence here—the abandonment of my dad and my life on Earth—will have been for nothing.
In short, I have to get this done before Jon joins me in the command center.
I shut the door, sit down at my usual workstation and pull up IGAP’s visual interface.
“Access to control files is restricted,” IGAP informs me after I’ve passed through the first few levels of security.
I provide the access key I committed to memory eighty Earth years ago.
“Access approved. This session will be logged.”
The door opens and Jon walks in. “Hey, Caleb. Does it seem like the food is worse this cycle?”
I stiffen and hope he doesn’t notice. Jon is my opposite in every way. He’s white; his parents paid his way through life and college; he doesn’t listen to anything except early-century trance. He believes in IGAP. But he’s a solid software engineer, and funny in a self-deprecating kind of way, and his friendship has been one of the few things keeping me sane on this ship. “I hadn’t noticed.”
I mute the workstation’s audio and pick up the pace. I change the hierarchy of files, swipe entire modules into the trash and empty it. Warnings pop up around me, which I close; the access key has to be submitted and resubmitted multiple times. I watch Jon out of the corner of my eye; he seems occupied with whatever review he’s working on.
An alarm goes off. A beeping like the sound that forced me out of bed, a hammering light from the ceiling. I find the routine that triggered it and disable it.
Jon looks up. “What was that about?”
“I’m not sure.”
“It means either there’s a systems failure, which isn’t showing up in any of the indicators, or IGAP’s been compromised.”
I minimize the last window I was working on and pull up another one. “I think…oh, I see. I must have opened the wrong file. Sorry about that.” Opening the type of restricted file that could trigger an alarm, I had just validated for myself numerous times, was not possible without conscious intent and an access code that hadn’t been provided to most of the officers. Jon would know this.
Jon stands up and walks toward my workstation. “What are you working on?”
“I spent the past few days manually confirming our stocks. Now I’m checking the numbers against IGAP’s inventory trackers.”
In one of the windows still open in front of me, a row of modules starts to rearrange itself. IGAP is trying to self-repair.
Jon looks at the window and takes a step closer.
If I don’t finish this, IGAP is going to retake control and lock me out. Possibly forever.
I pull up the screen I minimized. I’m committed. Maybe Jon will trust me. Maybe he doesn’t trust me, but he’s not sure what I’m doing. Maybe he’ll understand why this is necessary, he could be sympathetic, he could have noticed on his own how everything is wrong—
“Caleb, stand up.”
I don’t answer. I send a chain of files into oblivion.
“If I stop now, IGAP will start issuing contradictory instructions and the ship’s systems will fail.”
Jon lunges to grab me. I catch the flash of movement and twist in my seat, throwing my arms up to block. We grapple. He hits my shoulder, my arm, aiming for my face. I’m up and over the back of the swiveling chair, on him. He pounds me again, pummels my side. I fall into the counter and swing with a bunched fist that catches his jaw. I feel my knuckles strike bone and hear the crack. He stumbles back, spitting blood. I shake my hand. He takes another step back, balances himself, and slams his palm down onto an alarm button, alerting all the officers to the emergency and signaling IGAP to start a ship-wide lockdown.
In the split-second that his eyes are on the button, I charge. I throw my whole body into the punch and connect with his temple. His body flies back, his head thwacks against a monitor suspended from the ceiling, and he drops to the floor.
I don’t have time to see how hurt he is or whether he’s getting up again. I’m back in my seat, toggling between IGAP’s self-repair attempts and the security subroutines. I pull up a map to track the other officers as they override lockdown measures and start to converge on the command center. I try to ensure the command center doors won’t open to those overrides.
The officers had been my only true companions in this tube of steel, and now I have to consider them my enemies, each one of them. I’ve known, all along, that their roles would have to change for my plan to work. They’d still have their responsibilities to the ship, but they’d no longer be groomed as lords to rule over the indentured vassals. I had never thought too deeply, though, about what that would mean. It means they have to stop me, and I have to stop them.
I prune, rearrange, delete permanently entire chunks of code, entire forests of subroutines.
Do I wake up the paying passengers? That would give everyone on the ship time to lay the foundations of a new society together, before they land, but there aren’t enough resources for them, and they’re already used to telling people what to do and the indentured are already used to listening. So, instead, I seal off the cryochambers, to prevent the indentured from using their newfound freedom to retaliate and kill the paying passengers while they sleep.
The indentured will have 45 years to decide what kind of society they want to be, and when they land, they’ll have to figure out how the paying passengers fit in.
The other officers are outside the command center, pounding on the doors. Doors I’ll eventually have to open.
I hear a grunt and a scrape along the floor where Jon fell.
I keep rearranging code. I cut here, rearrange there. And then I’m done. IGAP will focus on life support and ship maintenance. It has no broader capabilities.
I may not see the new world. But I can take whatever pain is about to come to me, because I know that it will end.
I stand up. I breathe deeply, close my eyes. Then I give a command to end the lockdown. I hear the doors slide open behind me.
The officers who enter haven’t been assigned to command center duty, but the alarm doesn’t sound. There is no light, no buzzer.
No leash, no fishing line.
We sail on through the night, finally on our own.
About the Author:
Aaron’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Thanks to the patience of his wonderful wife, and despite the impatience of his wonderful children, Aaron also writes essays, graphic novels and interactive fiction. He grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and on Central America’s Caribbean coast.
Copyright remains with Aaron Emmel