Saturday, October 3, 2009

43. Technetium


Claimjumper and Ting

Arnold Ting was a bit of an amateur astronomer. So when Summergarden Specialty Ores laid him off, he slung his prospecting equipment in the back of Claimjumper, his one-man ship, and lit out for the territories.

A quick search of the Backyard Astronomer's Event Atlas revealed that a rogue planet was slated to shoot through the Lagrange point of a red dwarf/white dwarf binary. Ting figured he could place Claimjumper in a tight orbit around the rogue and catch a hell of a fast ride between the two stars, making observations all the while. So that's where he went.

He was midway through the run, on the white dwarf side of the planet, when its atmosphere incandesced and caught fire.

"Oh, my God, it's a nova!" Claimjumper wailed. "I should never have let you talk me into this."

"Hang on, old gal!" Ting shouted. The red dwarf was spewing radioactive matter into space and down onto the white dwarf at a furious rate. The only reason they weren't dead yet was because the planet's bulk lay between them and it.

He put Claimjumper's nose down, and hit the jets.

The atmospheric drag slowed them down just enough to bank away from the wall of fire marking the terminator and soar back into the sheltered side of the planet. At which point it was a simple enough matter to have Claimjumper fly around and around in thousand mile loops, while the planet passed under them, and massive amounts of stellar matter fell from the one star to the other. Within their tiny bubble of security (there was enough turbulence for a Situation 19 storm, but Claimjumper was rated for that), Ting recorded the unbelievable volumes of radioactives that had smashed into the hot side of the planet and rotated around beneath them.

"Look at that baby!" Ting pointed to a mountainous splay of star-stuff. "There must be a thousand kilotons of pure technetium down there."

"Are you out of your mind?" Claimjumper asked. "How can you talk about your wretched minerals when we're in constant danger of overflying the horizon and dying?"

"Technetium," Ting said pedantically, "was the first artificial element ever made, and before this it's never been found on the surface of any planet. Anyway, I have faith in you." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "There's a wonderfully efficient star-drive that never got to market because technetium is so hard to come by. I wonder…"

The gravitational stresses of passing between stars shot the rogue planet out into interstellar nothingness in no time at all. Two weeks later, Ting was back in Earth orbit.

But when he filed for mineral rights, he found himself red-flagged by a prior claim.

"What the hell? There wasn't anybody else out there—I'd swear it. There was only me and …"

"Technically," Claimjumper said, "I have as much right to that planet as you."

"It was you? You betrayed me?"

"Now, don't be like that. In a couple of years, that technetium-based star-drive of yours is going to make me obsolete. A girl needs security."

One long, hot argument and three days of cooling off later, a compromise was finally reached. The claim was split straight down the middle. Ting became the third richest man and Claimjumper the single richest artificial entity in civilized space.

They never saw each other again. But though she had plenty of offers, Claimjumper never took on another pilot. She hung a hologram of Ting in her cockpit, which she kept just as he'd left it, as a kind of shrine.

She was, and remained to her dying day, a one-man ship.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

No comments:

Post a Comment