At first glance, the system appeared to be full of comets. Rooster-tails of light flared everywhere and in every direction, as if the inner worlds were under cosmic bombardment from all sides. But spectrophotometer readings revealed the "comets" to be pure ionized rubidium. "Which means what?" the War Captain asked.
"Ion drives, ma'am," I said. "Rubidium can be a liquid at room temperature, and it's easily ionized. This system's occupied. By primitives."
She swore. "My orders are to disassemble the planets, build a ring of exotic matter around the sun, and convert this system to an Entelechy Gun."
"The natives aren't going to like that, ma'am."
"Damn it, my career's on the line here! Open negotiations with them, find out what they want for their system, and then give it to them!"
So I did. The locals were a handsome young octopedal race with twin brains and the ability to perceive across three-quarters of the electromagnetic spectrum. I made contact, explained what we wanted, and sat down to haggle. Three thousand years later, it was done.
"What did you have to pay them?" the War Captain asked when I returned.
"Star travel, immortality, a cultural upgrade to Class Three civilization, the meaning of life, and their choice of any three galaxies within a five billion light-year radius."
The War Captain stared at me for a long, unblinking moment. Then she snorted and turned away.
"Well, at least you didn't give them anything valuable!"
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.