Most rare earths—and you have no idea how tired chemists are of saying this!—are not particularly rare. Lutetium is a good example of this. On Earth, it is seven times more common than silver. Nevertheless, because it occurs naturally only in trace amounts in forms which are extremely difficult to extract, it is many times costlier than platinum or gold.
Which is why, when ten thousand tons of the stuff, conveniently formed into sheets, were unearthed by an archaeological dig on an obscure planet of the runaway star Mu Columbae, Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting sent their chief diplomat-metallurgist, Adrienne Wong-Heppworth, to negotiate a price. She was highly respected in the home office. Nobody there dared call her the Dragon Lady to her face.
"We won't sell," the head archaeologist told her, over a bottle of extremely good company-provided wine. "Are you nuts? These sheets contain the entire written history of an extinct race. Who can say what we might learn from them?"
The Dragon Lady named a sum.
The archaeologist turned pale. "Not even for that."
She touched his wrist. "Well, then, what will it take?"
Now the man turned red. "Nothing you could pay that would be enough," he insisted.
"Hmm." Wong-Heppworth tapped her long black nails thoughtfully. "I think I'll hang around for a while anyway. I might come up with a good argument."
But though many of her arguments were very good indeed, nothing the Dragon Lady came up with over the ensuing months brought her any closer to closing the deal. Until, that is, one night she rolled over in bed, transluced the ceiling, and commented, "How bright the moons are tonight!"
The archaeologist sat bolt upright. "Omigod," he gasped, "it's Mu Columbae—it's gone nova!"
"Don't be ridiculous," the Dragon Lady snapped. "I would have been told if—" She called upon her ship's navigational banks. "My apologies. It's not a nova, of course, but it turns out that Mu Columbae is a flare star. My ship didn't inform me of the irruption because it knows how I dislike being interrupted while I'm … preoccupied."
"But my crew! The dig! The relief ship isn't scheduled to pick us up for weeks!"
"I'll take you all off, of course. But the dig is a total loss. And I won't be able to take any artifacts."
"We have to take the Lutetium Archive!"
"It could be done, I supoose. If I dumped an equal weight of assaying and refining equipment. Are you prepared to recompense Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting for their loss?"
Silently, the archaeologist shook his head.
The Dragon Lady smiled. "Then we have something to negotiate after all, don't we?"
Back at corporate headquarters, Adrienne Wong-Heppworth's report was received with enormous approval by the senior partners "When can we accept delivery of the lutetium?" one of them asked her.
"In another day. They're still photographing the archives."
"Was it difficult arranging the flare?" the senior partner asked.
"Not really," the Dragon Lady said. "Though it did cost significantly more than we'll realize from the lutetium."
"What?" The senior partner turned pale. "Then why—?"
"I still get my fee. More fool you for not offering me a cut of the profits instead."