An Unusual Customer

A couple of years ago I was between contracts and was rather hopelessly browsing a site for freelancers trying to find a new job. Hopelessly because my fellow programmers from third-world planets were discounting prices to indecent levels. Each job had already had a few hundred bids, every new one offering a lower price, and even if I won the auction I would not be able to survive on that kind of pay, not on this planet. I was going through the list of jobs without even trying to open descriptions, just checking the number of bids: 311, 472, 308, and then suddenly, on the thirtieth or fortieth page I saw an ad with zero bids! For a while I looked at it in disbelief, thinking if I wanted to spend my time on some kind of sick joke, but then my natural curiosity got the best of me.

The job ad was totally genuine but utterly misplaced – someone wanted to reprogram a linearly coherent quantum (LCQ) controller. To give you an idea, development of a program for a general-purpose computer was as different from LCQ programming as solving a quadratic equation was from defending a doctoral thesis. Writing an LCQ program was more like proving a theorem than giving a set of instructions. Developers who were capable of writing such code were employed by trans-galactic corporations which paid them ridiculous amount of money,  more than enough to keep them away from moonlighting. On a website where most jobs were concerned with programming smart kitchen appliances, this customer had zero chance of finding a bidder. Or would have had, if I didn’t happen to come across his ad. The thing is, I had a Maths degree and used to be one of those high-flying LCQ developers. That was before I… well, that’s a story for another time.

Anyway, I made my bid and, somewhat unsurprisingly, five minutes later I got a call from the customer. After a five-minute interview I was instructed to take the fastest private shuttle which could deliver me to State Protectorate Logistic Support Station in Onnamon system, and take it now. I was taken aback by such quick turn of events, but business is business – if a customer wishes to pay I am not the one to refuse a luxury travel offer.

The guy’s name was Gerhardt. He was a gaunt middle-aged man dressed in a pilot’s jumpsuit. When I arrived at the station he was already waiting for me and immediately escorted me to his ship. Yes, his own ship. Before that I only saw spaceship owners on a TV screen, but I shouldn’t have been surprised given how easily he agreed to part with the monstrous sum of money I requested for the job. Now, about that job. While we were flying to our final destination, Gerhardt explained what he wanted. When a ship jumps through star gates and emerges in a destination system it remains invisible for about a minute – an effect known as gate cloak. In his line of business he needed to be invisible pretty much all the time. For that reason his ship was equipped with CovOps cloak – a device which made a spaceship invisible after the gate cloak dissipated. The problem was that there was an appreciable amount of time between the moment a pilot noticed disappearance of the gate cloak and manual activation of the CovOps cloak – big enough for a hostile party to start an attack and prevent the ship from becoming invisible again.

Gerhardt, having a degree in Physics, had invented a sensor which detected the disappearance of the gate cloak and sent a signal to an LCQ controller which activated the CovOps cloak. The controller had to be reprogrammed, so that in addition to existing functions it would trigger cloak activation when a signal from the sensor arrived. If Gerhardt’s calculations were correct, a radar beam which reflected from his ship at the moment of gate cloak expiry would return back to the hostile ship when CovOps cloak was already activated, thus leaving the attacker absolutely no time to react. According to the contract, I had two weeks to produce a first draft of LCQ code and then one more week to test and refine it. According to the same contract, I would be paid only if the tests were successful. Only then I noticed that there was no contract clause for a failure.

I was about to ask Gerhardt about this irregularity when he told me that we had arrived.

“Arrived where?” I asked. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s a safe pocket where no one will disturb you. Don’t worry, before I leave I will activate the cloak so that you can’t be detected by combat probes,” said Gerhardt.

“Hey, what do you mean you’ll leave? Are you going to take a walk in vacuum to the nearest station?”

“Kind of,” said Gerhardt and smiled for the first time since I had met him. “I need to pick up the ship we are going to upgrade from a repair shop.”

“I thought you wanted me to reprogram this one. Wait, have you just said you own another ship?”

“Oh, yes. You’ll love it when you see it – that ship is a real deal. This one is just a runabout.”

Having said that, Gerhardt started to undress. Not that I am averse to male nudity, but that was a most unexpected behaviour for a person who declared an intention to take a walk in vacuum, so I didn’t know how to react. While I was standing and trying to think of an appropriate remark, Gerhardt had finished his striptease, gave me a wink, then turned around and proceeded to his pilot chair. If before I was just speechless, I became dumbfounded when I saw that Gerhardt’s spine was punctuated with several interface slots. He sat in the chair, pressed some button, and snake-like cables wriggled out of the floor and with a click fixed themselves in the spine interfaces. A transparent cover descended from the ceiling and encompassed the pilot’s chair and the controls, sealing the space within. After that the pod was filled with transparent liquid which did not seem to interfere with Gerhardt’s ability to, errm, live. Then I noticed that the place where Gerhardt sat was not an integral part of the ship. With a cover on top it looked like a escape pod which was embedded into the ship’s body. My guess was confirmed when the pod started to sink through the floor and was squeezed out of the ship as a pit from a cherry, seemingly without any loss of air. The engines at the back of the pod lit up and it warped away, leaving me completely alone.

I was still staring through the window, in the direction in which Gerhardt’s pod had departed, when a thought struck me like a lightning. What I saw was not an escape pod, and Gerhardt was not its pilot. Gerhardt was a capsuleer!

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