Lanthanum, like many of the other so-called "rare earths" is not particularly rare. Unless, of course, you live in one of the worlds of the Reaches—that attenuated region at the outermost fringes of the Milky Way Galaxy directly opposite Earth, where one half the sky is rich in stars and the other half almost black. Through an accident of stellar evolution, lanthanum is almost unknown in the Reaches. Most of its uses are trivial, of course—in optical glass applications, as a cracking catalyst, in certain lasers. But it also happens to be necessary as an intermetallic hydride in the complex process that is used to create the drug rather imprecisely (for it's only good for ten thousand years) known as Immortality.
For centuries the worlds of the Reaches smoldered resentfully under the neglectful rule of the Galactic Technocracy. But the Technocracy controlled the flow of Immortality, and cut it off at the least hint of trouble.
Which is why the freighter sailing under the corporate colors of the venerable firm of Summergarden, Claimjumper & Ting, was given a military escort. The load of lanthanum it carried was enough to serve a planet's needs for a century. Or a rebellion's for as long as it took.
The attack began with the explosion of half a dozen neutron bomb mines. That took out the crew and AIs of the ore freighter without damaging its cargo. Then Freeman's Raiders popped their ships out of n-space and engaged the escorts with directed matter-disrupters. Torpedoes were launched. Sunbombs exploded. Ships grappled and were breached and boarders swarmed through the gaps with projectile weapons and monomolecular garottes. Sixty thousand troopers died in the Battle of Three Suns. Only seventy-three rebels survived.
The handful of survivors hot-wired the ore freighter and used its contents to jump-start a war that ultimately lasted five hundred years and laid waste to a third of the galaxy.
Five thousand years later, Freeman himself held a banquet to commemorate the hijacking. Though the banquet room was small, a good half of the surviving population of the Reaches was in attendance. After the obligatory speeches, the great man stood to propose a toast.
"To the most precious thing in all the universe," he said, raising his wine glass high. "To life!"
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.