Saturday, October 3, 2009

21. Scandium


Bingham's Folly

In the early twenty-first century, scandium had almost no commercial uses, and yet because of its extreme scarcity, cost several thousand dollars a pound. In 2098 the Keely Harmonic Engine was invented and prices hit the roof. Hit the roof, smashed a hole in it, and kept going! A hundred thousand back-yard inventors fixed Keely engines to their makeshift craft and blasted into the sky to seek their fortunes in the asteroid belt.

Kate Summergarden took a more measured approach. She bought a second-hand spacecraft (one of those few that made it back) and a flock of cheap-as-dirt claims, and founded Summergarden Specialty Ores. Oftentimes those busted mines contained significant traces of platinum, manganese, gold … Kate was a contrarian. She went looking for everything butscandium.

Which was how she found herself standing almost weightless in a mineshaft in Bingham's Folly, a nothing-at-all asteroid she'd just bought for five thousand dollars and the promise of a ride home for Bingham himself. "I thought I'd hit it big," Bingham said sadly. "But the spectrophotometer said this seam was nothing but lead."

"Lead? This doesn't look like lead to me." Kate ran her own spectrophotometer over its surface. "Your device must be faulty. This is pure scandium."


"A ton of it. Enough to run all of North America for three months." Kate smiled. "Not quite enough to bring the market price down significantly, though."

Bingham drew a gun. It was a crude device. It looked to be his great-grandfather's Saturday night special. It was enough. "I'm gonna have to kill you now."

"Don't!" Kate cried. "There's enough here to make us both rich! I'll tear up the old contract."

"No," Bingham said slowly, "I think I'll keep it all for myself."

He fired.

Many people think it's impossible to fire a handgun in a vacuum. Not so. The oxidant is sealed within the shell of the bullet. An atmosphere is totally unnecessary.

Most people think it's fairly easy to shoot someone standing twenty feet away. For a skilled marksman, no problem. For somebody with little or no training, dressed in a vacuum suit, operating under stress in a low-gravity environment? Not gonna happen.

The bullet missed.

The laws of physics, however, are implacable. For every action, there's an equal but opposite reaction. Firing a handgun was like lighting a small booster rocket.

Bingham shot backwards out the mineshaft, and into eternal night.

Kate Summergarden stared after him. Bingham's Folly was small. He'd achieved escape velocity several times over. Bingham's suit held about an hour's worth of air, and they'd been on the surface for forty minutes. She could reach her ship in five minutes, but at the speed he was going, it would take at least half an hour to find him, match speeds with him, and bring him in.

"Well, damn," Kate said. "I guess it's all mine."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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