The skimmers had been a self-altering and space-faring race for so many ages that not even they knew what their original bodies had looked like. Their current forms were as large as any human spacecraft, and performed the same functions. So the human delegate was actually standing inside the skimmer's body, and the approximately humanoid form that rose to meet her was a mere proxy.
"The answer is no," it said without preamble. "Admittedly our propulsion system is vastly superior to your own. But for that very reason, it is in our best interests to retain exclusivity."
"I don't want it," Adrienne Wong-Heppworth said. She was confined to an exo-support suit these days, but she was still very much in charge of Dragon Lady Enterprises. "Certain other corporations may choose to dilute their mission by diversifying into physics, starship drives, industrial espionage, and all that. But it's a mug's game. Not for me."
"Then why are you here?"
"Out there …" The Dragon Lady gestured out the window that the skimmer had incorporated into its body as a courtesy for visitors. A red giant—one of the skimmers' forge stars—floated there. Loop prominences marched along its equator at regular intervals. Near the north pole, a spike prominence taller than anything that could possibly occur on an unaltered sun slowly moved southward. When it crossed the equator, intersecting one of those loops, vast amounts of radically altered material would be flung free of the star's gravitational field. "May I ask you how much protactinium you're manufacturing?"
"Not much. Perhaps fifteen gigatons at a time."
The Dragon Lady drew in her breath. "And the largest stock of protactinium in human space is three ounces. I believe I have information worth … let's say a half-ton. You can easily spare that much."
"What do you have to offer?"
"Humanity has a related series of technologies that can render a ship undetectable. Light is warped around it in a three-dimensional loop. Waste heat is captured in an artificial black hole— "
Scornfully, the skimmer said, "We alter stars to our liking, and you think to tempt us with such primitive flint-knapping?"
"No, of course not," the Dragon Lady snapped. "What kind of fool do you take me to be? The information I offer is that Summergarden, Claimjumper, & Ting has exactly such a ship closing in upon you right now, which if you don't act quickly will lobotomize you with a well-placed neutron bomb and cut the propulsion system from your dying body."
The skimmer's humanoid puppet went stiff as it shifted all its awesome resources to its defense.
Specialize, the Dragon Lady used to tell her subordinates, and don't let yourself be distracted from what you do best. The governing board of Summergarden, Claimjumper, & Ting had forgotten that, to their cost. When they were done defending themselves from the skimmers' vengeful assaults, both physical and legal, Dragon Lady Enterprises was able to pick up the remains for a song.
© 2003 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.