Thompson read over the ship's vital statistics again. He was still two weeks from the rock. His rock, if he got there first. Unless he did something, he would not be getting there first.
The other ship was well behind him still, but it was a big corporate job, built for exactly this contingency -- to scoop the discoveries of hard-working prospectors right out from under their feet.
It was Thompson's probe that had located the rock, a fairly small asteroid, but with a remarkably high metal content, including some exotics. It was the sort of find that the independents dreamed of; it meant wealth to last generations; it meant his grandchildren and even their grandchildren would not find themselves working for a corporation.
The only catch: Thompson had to touch it first to make it his. It was no secret that the claims laws were written by the corporations. Despite his best efforts at encrypting the signals from his probes and doing his best not to attract attention as he set out, somehow one of the corporations had caught on and dispatched a ship almost simultaneously. Thompson had put his drive into the red, but his old bucket was no match for the vessel gobbling up the space between them.
His comm came to life. The other ship was hailing him. "SB-6875-20/J Zephyr hailing SB-0983-g7/W ... " there was a pause, "Name not registered, Earnest Thompson, captain of record."
"Go to hell," Thompson said. He had heard the name Zephyr before. Her captain was the most hated corporate man of all among the independent belters. The man was notorious for getting the jump on prospectors and miners, extending the power of the corporations yet further. He had taken great risks to steal finds much less significant than this one.
"Aww," came a new voice over the comm, deep and resonant, with a bit of the American good ol' boy twang left to it. Not too many of those out here. Thompson had never heard the voice before, but he knew who the owner must be. "There's no harm in having a little discussion, is there?"
"I have nothing to say to you, Burton."
"Well, I think you should. By our scans, your drive is way past tolerance right now, and we're still going to claim our rock before you can get there."
"It's my rock!"
"That's not what my computers tell me. Earnest, be reasonable. It's our rock now. You're risking your life for nothing, and you're forcing us to push harder than we would like. In the interest of safety for all, give up."
"Kiss my ass."
Burton sighed heavily. "Come, on, Pardner, it doesn't have to be this way. I'm retiring. Don't mar my last run with unnecessary loss of life."
"If you're so worried, why don't you slow down?"
"Now, now, what would my bosses say if I gave up in a race I had already won? Listen. My boss has approved a finder's fee for you. We can both retire at the same time. The corporation will take care of you for the rest of your days, including full medical. With that, the rest of your days could be a long time."
"What about my children? My Grandchildren?"
"Do you have grandchildren?"
"I ... don't know."
"You do not. Your daughter is still single and from the records I have access to, seems to have inherited your wandering instinct. Her picture is quite striking, however. I'm sure she'd love to hear from you."
That was one thing Burton didn't know, at least.
Thompson didn't respond, but instead turned to the console and started crunching some numbers. A few minutes later he was wrestling equipment to the air lock.
It was a day later when the comm came to life once more. "Well, Pardner, it looks like you've found some more g's. A gutsy move, my friend. My people have been going over the signatures of the items you ejected. It must be pretty empty in that old tub of yours now. But, my boys think you've thrown away your oxygen regenerator."
"Best we can figure, you can probably live about six days without it."
If he was lucky, Thompson figured, he could last long enough to reach the rock alive. And first. Burton had done the same calculations, Thompson was sure.
"Then what, Pardner? If I'm not going to win the race I'll just turn back now. I'm not going to waste company money running out there, and I won't be able to get there in time when you make your distress call. You will not live to enjoy your fortune. If you call for help now, you will have to stop to accept it."
Thompson didn't answer directly, but instead broadcast a message to the entire sector. It included the location and chemical composition of the rock, and offered a full partnership to any independent who could get there in time to save him. It was a long shot; there weren't likely to be any other boats close enough.
He had prepared a second message as well. His last will and testament. If he was going to die for the rock, he could still make sure his grandchildren had a good life.
He was well in to the deceleration burn when the comm crackled back to life. It was a voice he had not heard in a long time. "Daddy?"
"What the hell do you think you're doinng?"
"Looking out for my grandkids."
"You don't have any."
"Looking out for you, then."
"But the oxygen regenerator? Why?"
"It was heavy."
"Burton says if you agree not to claim the rock he'll keep following. He may be able to get there in time if he jettisons some of his own gear."
"Burton put you up to this, didn't he? That's why he's still following me."
"Daddy, it's just not worth it. I'm doing fine already. I'm an independent." They both knew it didn't take much to pull the rug out from under an independent. One mishap and his daughter could end up owing the corporations more than she could pay, and in a moment she could become little more than a slave, condemned to turning over the fruits of her labors to the corporation for the rest of her days. And when she could no longer work, the corporation would cast her aside to starve.
"I'm making sure you stay independent," he said.
"No rock is worth that much," she said.
"This one is. And like hell I'm going to let Burton have it."
"That's what this is about, isn't it? You're committing suicide to thumb your nose at him. They've agreed to take care of you. You can retire and live well for a long time."
"I'm claiming the rock."
"No, Daddy, please. Think about how I feel. I can't take something you bought with your life."
"There's nothing to do about it now. If Burton's such a great guy he can come save me."
"But he's going to turn back unless you turn over the rock to his people."
"That's his choice."
She tired to make her voice firm. "Daddy, if you don't give them the rock, I will, I promise."
"That won't bring me back to life."
"You damn stubborn fool."
"Talk to you later, sweetheart."
Another day and his pursuit was still gaining on him. "Why are you still following, Burton?"
"Well, you might die before you get there."
"Why are you burning in the red, then? You can take your time once I'm dead."
"True enough, true enough. I also jettisoned some non-essential equipment. Notably, however, I kept my O2 system. Replacing that stuff is going to cost me, but it's my ship, my crew."
"Why? I'm still going to get there first."
"I'll tell you tomorrow, if you're still alive."
"I'll be alive."
The air was deteriorating rapidly. Thompson was panting, a sign that the carbon dioxide was reaching dangerous levels. He looked at the readouts. In thirty minutes the rock would be his. In perhaps an hour Burton would arrive. Thompson might even be alive to gloat. The comm came to life.
"Howdy, pardner," came Burton's voice. "You should congratulate me."
"I'm going to win, Burton."
"Not about that. Something even better."
"Funny how things work out, sometimes, pardner. A strange convergence of events, you might say, for those nimble enough to take advantage. As of twenty minutes ago, I'm retired."
"Yep. Forty years of service, to the last damn second. I'm in-dee-pendant now; just lit up a big ol' cigar to celebrate. Now, if you can keep breathing a little longer, I'm going to have half of a very nice rock to supplement my retirement plan."
"See you soon, Partner."